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Thursday, April 25, 2013 1:03 PM
The crisis in journalism today shouldn't obscure mainstream media's long history of masking the truth and acquiescing to power. From the Vietnam War to credit default swaps to climate change, in many ways American journalism brought crisis on itself.
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Everyone knows this story, though fewer and fewer read it
on paper. There are barely enough pages left to wrap fish. The second paper in
town has shut down. Sometimes the daily delivers only three days a week.
Advertising long ago started fleeing to Craigslist and Internet points south.
Subscriptions are dwindling. Online versions don’t bring in much ad revenue.
Who can avoid the obvious, if little covered question: Is the press too big to
fail? Or was it failing long before it began to falter financially?
In the previous century, there was a brief Golden
Age of American journalism, though what glittered like gold leaf sometimes
turned out to be tinsel. Then came regression to the mean. Since 2000, we have
seen the titans of the news presuming that Bush was the victor over Gore, hustling us into war with Iraq, obscuring climate change, and
turning blind eyes to derivatives, mortgage-based securities, collateralized
debt obligations, and the other flimsy creations with which a vast, showy,
ramshackle international financial house of cards was built. When you think
about the crisis of journalism, including the loss of advertising and the shriveled newsrooms -- there were fewer newsroom employees in 2010 than in 1978, when records
were first kept -- also think of anesthetized watchdogs snoring on Wall Street
while the Arctic ice cap melts.
Deserting readers mean broken business models. Per
household circulation of daily American newspapers has been declining steadily for 60 years, since long before the
Internet arrived. It’s gone from 1.24 papers per household in 1950 to 0.37 per
household in 2010. To get the sports scores, your horoscope, or the crossword
puzzle, the casual reader no longer needs even to glance at a whole paper, and
so is less likely to brush up against actual -- even superficial -- news. Never
mind that the small-r republican model on which the United States was founded
presupposed that some critical mass of citizens would spend a critical mass of
their time figuring out what’s what and forming judgments accordingly.
Don’t be fooled, though, by any inflated
talk about the early days of American journalism. In the beginning, there was
no Golden Age. To be sure, a remark Thomas Jefferson made in 1787 is often
quoted admiringly (especially in newspapers): "If it were left to decide
whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a
government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."
Protected by the First Amendment, however, the press of
the early republic was unbridled, scurrilous, vicious, and flagrantly partisan.
In 1807, then-President Jefferson, with much more experience under his belt,
wrote, "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than
he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he
whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”
Two Golden Decades
If there was a Golden Age for the American press, it came
in a two-decade period during the Cold War, when total per capita daily
newspaper circulation kept rising, even as television scooped up eyeballs and
eardrums. Admittedly, most of the time, even then, elites in Washington or elsewhere enjoyed the
journalistic glad hand. Still, from 1954 to 1974, some watchdogs did bark.
Civil rights coverage, for example, did help bring down white supremacy, while Vietnam and
Watergate reportage helped topple two sitting presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and
Of course, press watchdogs also licked the hands of the
perpetrators when Washington overthrew
democratic governments in Iran
in 1953, Guatemala in 1954,
and when it helped out in Chile
in 1973. As for Vietnam,
it wasn’t as simple a tale of journalistic triumph as we now imagine. For
years, in manifold ways, reporters deferred to official positions on the war’s
“progress,” so much so that today their reports read like sheaves of Pentagon
press releases. Typically, all but one source quoted in New York Times
coverage of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incidents, which precipitated a major U.S. escalation
of the war, were White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials (and
they were lying). In the war’s early years, at least one network, NBC, even
asked the Pentagon to institute censorship.
Nonetheless, the sense that the war was an unjustifiable
grind grew, especially after the Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive of
January-February 1968, startling the U.S.
officials, and journalists alike. When, in 1969, Seymour Hersh reported for the tiny Dispatch News Service that a unit from
the Americal Divisionhad slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians
in a village named My Lai, his story went
Still, the long bombing campaign that President Nixon
ordered in Cambodia and Laos did not
feature on television, and barely made the newspapers. And even when, in a
remarkable feat of reporting, it finally did in a major way, there was no
journalistic sequel. The “secret” bombing of Cambodia -- secret from Americans,
that is -- was reported on page one of the New York Times on May 9,
1969, and 37 years later, the reporter, William Beecher, said this about his story: “We're not talking
of some small covert operation here, but a massive saturation bombing campaign,
with a false set of coordinates to mislead the Congress and the public… You
would have thought that such a story would have caused a firestorm. It did
After Watergate, whatever hard-won, truth-bound
independence the mainstream press had wrested from its own history failed to
hold. In the run-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq,
for example, most Washington
journalism once again collapsed into deference, and so, too, did the financial press
on its own front. Washington’s
war-making might and Wall Street’s financial maneuvers were both deemed too
mighty, too smart, too hypermodern to fail.
Although the New York Timesand theWashington Postlater acknowledged flaws in their Iraq
reporting, neither paper nor other major outlets have owned up to the negligence
that led up to the great global economic meltdown of 2007-2008. We are far from
grasping how fully business journalism played cheerleader and pedestal-builder
for the titans of finance as they erected a fantastical Tower of Derivatives,
which grew way too tall to fail without wrecking the global economy.
Start to finish, financial journalism was breathless
about the market thrills that led to the 2007-2008 crash: the financialization
of the global economy, the metastasis of derivatives, and especially the
deregulation underway since the late 1970s that culminated in the 1999
congressional repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (with President Bill
Clinton blithely signing off on it). That repeal paved the way for commercial
and investment banks, as well as insurance companies, to merge into
“too-big-to-fail” corporations, unleashed with low capital requirements and
soon enough piled high with the potential for collapse.
A Proquest database search of all American newspapers
during the calendar year 1999 reveals a grand total of two pieces
warning that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a mistake. The first appeared in
the Bangor Daily News of Maine, the
second in the St. Petersburg Times of Florida. Count ‘em: two.
On February 24, 2002, as the scandal of the
derivative-soaked Enron Corporation unfolded, the New York Times’s Daniel Altman did distinguish himself with a page-one business
section report headlined “Contracts So Complex They Imperil The System.” He
wrote: “The veil of complexity, whose weave is tightening as sophisticated
derivatives evolve and proliferate, poses subtle risks to the financial system
-- risks that are impossible to quantify, sometimes even to identify.” He stood
almost alone in those years in such coverage. Most financial journalists
preferred then to cite the grand Yoda of American quotables, Federal Reserve
Chairman Alan Greenspan. And he was just the first and foremost among a range
of giddy authorities on whom those reporters repeatedly relied for reassurance
that derivatives were the great stabilizers of the economy.
On March 23, 2008, as the bubble was finally bursting, Times
reporters Nelson Schwartz and Julie Creswell noted that “during the late 1990s, Wall Street fought bitterly
against any attempt to regulate the emerging derivatives market.” They went on:
“A milestone in the deregulation effort came in the fall
of 2000, when a lame-duck session of Congress passed a little-noticed piece of
legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. The bill
effectively kept much of the market for derivatives and other exotic
instruments off-limits to agencies that regulate more conventional assets like
stocks, bonds and futures contracts.”
“Little-noticed” indeed. According to Lexis-Nexis,not
a single substantive mention of this law appeared in the Times that year.
On October 1, 2000, Washington Post writer Jerry Knight did note ruefully,
“What's fascinating about the policy debate is the agreement on the guiding
principle: The government should not stand in the way of financial innovation.”
In a syndicated column on Christmas Eve,
way-out-of-the-mainstream columnist Molly Ivins was not so poker-faced. She called the new law “a little horror.” And in that she stood
alone. That was it outside of financial journals like the American Banker
and HedgeWorld Daily News, which, of course, were thrilled by the act.
That magic word “modernization” in its title evidently froze the collective
Or in those years consider how the New York Times
covered the exotic derivatives called “collateralized debt obligations,” among
the principal cards of which the era's entire international financial house was
built. These tricky arcana, marketed as little miracles of risk management, multiplied from an estimated $20 billion in 2004 to more than
$180 billion by 2007. The Times’sFloyd Norris
drily mentioned them in a 2001 front-page business section article about
American Express headlined “They Sold the Derivative, but They Didn't
Understand It.” He quoted the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank this way: "There are
all kinds of transactions going on out there where one party doesn't understand
it." From then on, no substantial Times front-page business section
article so much as mentioned collateralized debt obligations for almost four
In 2009, in an enlightening
article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Dean Starkman, a
former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, looked at the nine most
influential business press outlets from January 1, 2000, through June 30, 2007
-- that is, for the entire period of the housing bubble. A total of 730
articles contained what Starkman judged to be significant warnings that the
bubble could burst. That’s 730 out of more than one million articles these
The formula was simple and straightforward: the business
pressserved the market movers and shakers. It was a
reputation-making machine, a publicity apparatus for the industry. In other
words, the job of financial reporters in those years was to remain fast asleep
as the most flagrantly abusive part of the mortgage industry, subprime
mortgages, was integrated into routine banking.
Meanwhile, thanks to that same financial press, a culture
of celebrity enveloped the big names of finance: CEOs of major banks, Wall
Street investors, operators of hedge funds. They were repeatedly portrayed not
just as fabulously successful tycoons doing their best for the society, but as
fabulously giving philanthropists, their names engraved into the walls of
university buildings, museums, symphony halls, and opera houses. They weren’t
just bringers of liquidity to markets, but wise men, too. In an all-enveloping
media atmosphere in which the press indulged without a blink, they were held to
be not only creators of wealth but moral exemplars. Indeed, the two were
essentially interchangeable: they were moral exemplars because they were
creators of wealth.
The Desertification of the News
Oh, and in case you think that the coverage from hell of
the events leading up to the financial meltdown was uniquely poor, think again.
On an even greater meltdown that lies ahead, the press is barely, finally,
still haphazardly coming around to addressing convulsive climate change with
the seriousness it deserves. At least it is now an intermittent story, though
rarely linked to endemic drought and starvation. Still, as Wen Stephenson,
formerly editor of the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section and TheAtlantic.com
and senior producer of National Public Radio’s “On Point,” summed up the situation in a striking online piece in the
alternative Boston Phoenix: the subject is seldom treated as urgent and
is frequently covered as a topic for special interests, a “problem,” not an
“existential threat.” (Another note on vanishing news: Since publishing
Stephenson’s article, the Phoenixhas ceased to exist.)
Even now, when it comes to climate change, our gasping
journalism does not “flood the zone.” It also has a remarkable record of
bending over backward to prove its “objectivity” by turning piece after piece
into a debate between a vast majority of scientists knowledgeable on the
subject and a fringe of climate-change deniers and doubters.
When it came to our financial titans, in all those years
the press rarely felt the need for a dissenting voice. Now, on the great
subject of our moment, the press repeatedly clutches for the rituals of
detachment. Two British scholars studying climate coverage surveyed 636
articles from four top United
States newspapers between 1988 and 2002 and
found that most of them gave as much attention to the tiny group of
climate-change doubters as to the consensus of scientists.
And if the press has, until very recently, largely failed
us on the subject, the TV news is a disgrace. Despite the record temperatures of 2012, the intensifying storms, droughts, wildfires and other wild weather events, the disappearing Arctic ice cap, and the greatest meltdown of the Greenland ice shield in recorded history,
their news divisions went dumb and mute. The Sunday talk shows, which
supposedly offer long chews and not just sound bites -- those high-minded
talking-head episodes that set a lot of the agenda in Washington and for the attuned public --
were otherwise occupied.
All last year, according to the liberal research group Media Matters,
“The Sunday shows spent less than 8 minutes on climate
change... ABC's This Week covered it the most, at just over 5 minutes…
NBC's Meet the Press covered it the least, in just one 6 second mention…
Most of the politicians quoted were Republican presidential candidates,
including Rick Santorum, who went unchallenged when he called global warming
‘junk science’ on ABC's This Week. More than half of climate mentions on
the Sunday shows were Republicans criticizing those who support efforts to
address climate change… In four years, Sunday shows have not quoted a single
scientist on climate change.”
The mounting financial troubles of journalism only
tighten the muzzle on a somnolent watchdog. It’s unlikely that serious business
coverage will be beefed up by media companies counting their pennies on their
way down the slippery circulation slope. Why invest in scrutiny of government
regulators when the cost is lower for celebrity-spotting and the circulation
benefits so much greater? Meanwhile, the nation’s best daily environmental
coverage takes a big hit. In January, the New York Times's management decided to close down its environmental desk, scratching two
environmental editor positions and reassigning five reporters. How could such a
move not discourage young journalists from aiming to make careers on the
The rolling default in climate-change coverage cries out
for the most serious professional self-scrutiny. Will it do for journalists and
editors to remain thoroughly tangled up in their own remarkably unquestioned
assumptions about what constitutes news? It’s long past time to reconsider some
journalistic conventions: that to be newsworthy, events must be singular and
dramatic (melting glaciers are held to be boring), must feature newsworthy
figures (Al Gore is old news), and must be treated with balance (as in:
some say the earth is spherical, others say it’s flat).
But don’t let anyone off the hook. Norms can be bent.
Consider this apt headline on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek after
Hurricane Sandy drowned large sections of New
York City and the surrounding area: “It’s Global
Warming, Stupid.” Come on, people: Can you really find no way to dramatize the
extinction of species, the spread of starvation, the accelerating droughts,
desertification, floods, and violent storms? With all the dots you already
report, even with shrunken staffs, can you really find no way to connect them?
If it is held unfair, or naïve, or both, to ask faltering
news organizations to take up the slack left by our corrupt, self-dealing,
shortsighted institutions, then it remains for start-up efforts to embarrass
the established journals.
Online efforts matter. It’s a good sign that the
dot-connecting site InsideClimateNews.org was just honored with a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
But tens of millions of readers still rely on the old
media, either directly or via the snippets that stream through Google, Yahoo,
and other aggregator sites. Given the stakes, we dare not settle for nostalgia
or restoration, or pray that the remedy is new technology. Polishing up the old
medals will not avail. Reruns of His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men, and
Broadcast News may be entertaining, but it’s more important to keep in
mind that the good old days were not so good after all. The press was
never too great to fail. Missing the story is a tradition. So now the question
is: Who is going to bring us the news of all the institutions, from City Hall
to Congress, from Wall Street to the White House, that fail us?
Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism and communications at
Columbia University, is the author of The Whole World Is Watching, Media Unlimited, and many other
books including, most recently, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall
Copyright 2013 Todd Gitlin
Image by Jarapet, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 08, 2013 4:23 PM
Since the beginning of the gay rights movement, it
took Democratic leaders four decades to “evolve” on marriage equality. But the
climate movement, and the planet, don’t have the kind of time.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will
bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the
U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.
Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and
bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers
of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for
the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the
“environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility
and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put
pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous
round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for
TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.
Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took
place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide
if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement
takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The
section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this
winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac
River out of downtown DC.)
It was certainly joyful to see marriage
equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the
most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide
that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings.
In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri,
Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay
Rockefeller of West Virginia
figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the
greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had
signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate
John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too,
had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe
Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest
part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to
do about the Democrats.
Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole,
they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney
declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if
necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said). Every
Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the
pipeline -- every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to
the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you
know exactly what you’re getting from them.
With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their
Senate caucus -- about a third -- joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone
XL. As the Washington
insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate:
Which actually may have been generous to the president.
It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he
has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for
that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change.
His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental
impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists
and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.
Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough,
that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite
his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist
on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientistJames
Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week,
simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.
All these men and women have excuses for their climate
conservatism. To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and
they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic
and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can’t get re-elected, you can’t do
even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they
also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of
voting records than party affiliation.
Anyway, aren’t all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic
sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad
enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights.
Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given
long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At
least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: if the
Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able
Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human
justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain
point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will
prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so
the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more
fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for
their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need,
desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public
opinion and public policy.
Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the
edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for
Action, for instance -- an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into
a kind of quasi-official MoveOn.org -- has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of
joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to
other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more
energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great,
but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of
climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly
the kind that makes the administration and Congressional “moderates” nervous.
Last Century’s Worry
So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to
face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of
concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is
now badly weakened: plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have
disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House
finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways,
including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could
start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).
Recently, I had a long talk with an administration
insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our
energies on “killing coal.” Why? Because it was politically feasible.
And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it
clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into
killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic -- from Greenland to its
seas -- essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic
is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your
left arm was missing. You’d panic.
There is, however, no panic in Washington. Instead, the administration and
Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North
Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia,
even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into
more decades of fossil fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting
nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last
century’s worry. It dates back to the crises
set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early
1970s, not long after… Stonewall.
So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that
physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough
answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly
offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been
decisivein nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments.
But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have
been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an
enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s
Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont). It’s not clear to me how that will
effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with
carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism. It makes it harder to
follow one’s heart.
Along with some way to make a third party truly viable,
we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform -- not just a
change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end
to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on
revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see
broad new campaigns
underway around them. It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what
needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their
most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the
scientists tell usthat we have no hope of holding the rise in the
planetary temperature below two degrees unless global emissions peak by 2015.
Of course, climate-change activists can and should
continue to work to make the Democrats better. At the moment, for instance, the
350.org action fund is organizing
college students for the Massachusetts
primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to
build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not okay. Maybe electing his opponent,
Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got
considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund
manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but
any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal
here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said,
demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might
actually start to shake things up.
It will take a while, though. According to press reports,
Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer
hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still
underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your number one concern.”
By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage. At
this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase
actually mean “underwater.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that
perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he
said, is “going to take people in Washington
who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks
politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve -- not two
miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”
That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit
ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.
And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head,
I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the
time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a
movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the
trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At
which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe
even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is
what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the
The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics
is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time.
He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the
same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.
A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global
warming summit he convened in Vermont’s
state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think
of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A
movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”
“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he
And so, down to work.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign
, and the author, most
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
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Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
Image of November 2011
climate march at the White House by TarSandsAction.
Image of a 2012 Barack Obama speech by Matt Wansley. Both
are licensed under Creative
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 12:23 PM
From climate science to grassroots organizing, for 350.org founder Bill McKibben, it's all about the numbers.
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
You can’t build a movement without
numbers. If anyone understands that, it’s 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben.
Standing in front of an estimated crowd
of 50,000 people gathered for the Forward on Climate rally yesterday on the
National Mall in Washington,
D.C. he said, “All I ever wanted
to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I’ve seen it.”
Billed as “the largest climate rally in U.S. history,”
the event was intended as one final push to convince President Obama that his
environmental legacy hinges on whether he rejects the Keystone XL pipeline — a
conduit to what has been called by NASA scientist James Hansen “the world’s
largest carbon bomb.” To underscore this point, 350.org has consistently made
an effort to quantify its achievements into superlatives, ready-made for
Yet, had they not put so much effort into
creating the perception of a powerful movement, they might not have ever built
one. According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth, co-author of Why
Civil Resistance Works, “There is power in numbers, and the more people
participate, the more likely the movement is to effect real change.
Interestingly, this may lead more people to participate because they want to
join a movement that will ultimately be successful.”
Patrick Reinsborough of the Center for Story-Based Strategy (formerly smartMeme),
which trains activists to use narrative as a tool, agrees. “The most important
thing to communicate is that this movement is growing, and that everyday
citizens are willing to step out of their comfort zone in order to be seen and
heard,” he said.
For more than six years, McKibben has
been at the forefront of efforts to create a broad-based movement that can
create the pressure for policies that would bring carbon emissions to a safe
upper limit. According to James Hansen, that limit, which was long ago
surpassed, is 350 parts per million — a number so important to McKibben, he
named his group after it.
While this decision has led some to
criticize 350.org for having a name that’s too ambiguous or scientific for the
average person, McKibben
has long argued, “Arabic numerals are the one thing that cross globally.”
This fact seems to be guiding his broader belief in the power of numbers as
“The hardest thing about climate change
is the sense that one is too small to make a difference,” McKibben told Waging
Nonviolence. “So we’ve helped people to understand that they’re part of
something large, maybe large enough to matter. That helps them feel engaged, I
think, and has the advantage of being the truth.” McKibben’s
feature article for Rolling Stone last summer — one of the most-read
in the magazine’s history — and his recent 21-city
sold-out speaking tour had the word “math” in the title.
Even before the debate over its name,
when 350.org was just six students and a professor at Middlebury
College in Vermont, the focus was on numbers — numbers
that set records, showed the scale of an action or quantified an achievement.
For instance, in 2006, the group
successfully pressured Middlebury to commit to carbon neutrality by 2015. Soon
after that, it organized a five-day march across Vermont to demand action on global warming.
Nearly a thousand people took part, and many newspapers called it the largest
climate change demonstration in America.
Then, in 2007, with a campaign called Step It Up, which sought to visually
depict the concept of an 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050, 350.org organized
a day of action that netted 1,400 demonstrations across all 50 states, calling
it, “the first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping
Since becoming 350.org a year later, the
group has had a string of even more impressive achievements. In 2009, it
organized 5,200 actions in 181 countries for “the most widespread day of
political action in the planet’s history.” The following year saw two other
landmark actions: the Global Work Party and 350 EARTH. The former generated
more than 7,000 climate solutions projects in 188 countries and has been called
the most widespread day of climate action in history. Meanwhile, 350 EARTH,
which took place a month later, managed to gather tens of thousands of people
for several of the biggest
art projects ever seen — so big they could only be seen from space.
If there was any criticism of 350.org at
this point, it was that that the organizers were having too much fun. During
those two years of dramatic actions, Congress and the United Nations failed to
pass binding climate legislation. Many activists were beginning to wonder
whether the impressive showing by 350.org was anything more than just a show.
Leading voices within the climate
movement, such as Tim DeChristopher — who famously disrupted an oil and gas
lease auction in 2008 and spent
the last two years in prison as a result — wanted to see the group leverage
the power of its growing base by engaging in civil disobedience. McKibben
eventually heeded the call and in August and September of 2011, 350.org — under
the guise of Tar Sands Action — held two weeks of sit-ins outside the White
House, calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite
some initial uncertainty about whether arrests would scare people away, the
campaign proved to be yet another historic moment for the climate movement.
Over 1,200 people were arrested and McKibben called it “the largest civil
disobedience action on any issue in 30 years.”
Since then, there has been a boom in
civil disobedience and nonviolent direct actions against the pipeline, from grassroots
activists in Texas and Oklahoma
to mainstream environmentalists like Sierra
Club executive director Michael Brune. McKibben has also recently hinted at
another mass civil disobedience, possibly this summer, telling a crowd of
students in New York City
a couple weeks ago to “keep an eye on 350.org and save up bail money.”
In order to get to this point, 350.org
has had to slowly build upon action after action, finding the right way to
frame its accomplishments for maximum effect. Other successful movements have
done the same, such as the Serbian student movement Otpor!, which started with
just 11 people and used graffiti and small, clever actions that never revealed
their numbers until they had grown enough to topple dictator Slobodan
More recently, in Egypt, says
Erica Chenoweth, “groups of activists would deliberately make their way down
small alleyways to give the impression that there were many more people
participating. It created something of an optical illusion — a small number in
a small space looks bigger than a small number in a big space.”
While the climate movement may be close
to toppling a pipeline, it’s far from toppling the dictatorship of the
fossil-fuels industry. Chenoweth has a number of her own for what major
systemic change requires. “If you buy the
5 percent rule — that if 5 percent of the population mobilizes, it’s
impossible for the government to ignore them — then in the U.S. context it
would mean mobilizing well over 15 million people in a sustained way,” she
When asked what he thought winning would
require, McKibben said, “I’ve got no idea. It will take more than any of us can
imagine.” That might be surprising coming from a man so concerned with numbers
and so good at making them compelling. But right now, the only math that seems
to matter to him is how long it has taken to get to this point. And for that
reason, he’s savoring the moment.
“I waited a quarter century since I wrote
the first book about all this stuff to see if we were going to fight,” McKibben
told yesterday’s crowd. “And today, I know we are going to fight. The most
fateful battle in human history is finally joined, and we will fight it
Image of Bill McKibben at Sunday's Forward on Climate rally in Washington, DC by Josh Lopez, 350.org.
Thursday, February 14, 2013 10:05 AM
How could the State of the Union message reflect deeper values
of equality and compassion for those in need? In a call to action, Starhawk demonstrates
how to make that message a reality.
During Obama’s State of the Union
message, I was scheduled to give a talk at Northern Arizona
University on “Women
Taking Action: Using the Insights of the Feminist Movement.” As part of it, I
decided to write the State of the Union as if
Obama were suddenly possessed by the spirit of the nurturing, caring,
life-sustaining values that women have often carried. Here it is—you can
compare his speech and see how well he measures up! I am indebted to astrologer
Caroline Casey, the brilliant host of the Pacifica
radio show Visionary Activist, with whom I spent much of the weekend at the
Conscious Life Expo in L.A.,
for the phrase “until now!” She uses it as a mantra when people get all caught
up in how bad it is and how wrong we all are and how doomed we are—she just
adds “until now!” Try it when you get caught in a downward vortex!
My sisters, brothers, frères and
The State of the Union
is not well. We have defined aggression as strength and poured our resources
into killing, starving everything that serves and supports life. We have served
the greedy at the expense of the needy, allowed children to go hungry, the poor
to lack shelter, the sick to lack care, the wounded from our wars to go
unhealed, the aged to be abandoned. And we have utterly failed to address the
greatest challenge of our age, the destruction of the earth’s climate and the
meltdown of our global life support systems.
For now we will work together to heal
We will siphon away money and
resources from war and death to life, to health care and education that
inspires and empowers, to arts and imagination and invention and research, to
the protection and regeneration of our wildlands and farmlands, to things that
enrich our lives and help us to thrive. No longer will we meet the dangers of
the world with brute force and firepower—but instead we will look at the causes
of violence and change the conditions that breed hate.
Now we will feed the hungry and house
the homeless, care for the sick and the wounded, assure the comfort and the
security of the elders, because that’s what decent people do. And if our
society can’t do this, it’s not worth protecting.
We will cease rewarding greed. Those
who benefit from the system will now pay their fair share to support it. We
will change the laws that in the past have allowed them to control it, and
return power to the people. And—here I’m speaking to the 1 percent—you know
what? Your lives will actually be better. You might have somewhat less stuff
but richer relationships, less control but more time, more sense of wonder,
more peace of mind. And if you really need it, we’ll name some bridges after
you and let you cut some ribbons and open some health care clinics and child
care centers, just like the Queen of England.
Most importantly, we’re going to
address the destruction of the living systems of the planet. No longer will we
allow practices that imperil our climate or our aquifers, or threaten to
release radioactive poison over the land. We know that we must make big
changes: in our energy systems, our technology, our economy, our food growing
systems, our ways of living. But we also know that together, we can do this! We
can work together and make the shift to a new world in balance with nature.
We already have the technologies we
need—solar, wind, renewables. We can make the transition wisely and swiftly.
And we will invest in the research that will bring a thousand new ideas into
production, using the resources we still have to create what we need for the
We will protect our forests and wild
lands, our arctic wastes and our desert refuges. This year we will plant
millions of trees, to suck up carbon and to provide shade and habitat, fruit
and nuts, wood and mulch, quiet and beauty.
We will nurture our soil, for
building healthy organic soil is the best and fastest way to broadly and safely
sequester carbon. That soil will grow healthy food close to where we live,
creating true abundance. We will support our farmers to make the transition to
humane, organic agriculture, and support our young people to connect to land,
to start urban farms and schoolyard gardens, to plant groves of fruit trees and
food forests, to grow true abundance for us all.
We will root our industries and
enterprises back into local communities. No longer will we subsidize, with
cheap fossil fuels and tax breaks, their flight to far-off places with the
cheapest labor and the most lax environmental and safety standards. Instead we
will demand that they provide for real needs in ways that assure lives of
dignity and security to those who do the work. We’re redesigning our cities so
that people can live and work, learn and enjoy their pleasures in true
We can do this—and more! Imagine how
it will be, next year and in years to come, when I can stand before you and
This is the State of our Union—we have fed the hungry, cared for the sick,
comforted the aged, restored the homeless to their homes, sent our young people
forth into life well-educated and debt-free, built thousands of acres of
healthy soil, planted a billion trees. We are still challenged by the results
of generations of degradation, but we have turned the corner. We’re well on
track to an energy-rich world of 100 percent renewables. We’re happier,
healthier, more creative, more inventive, safer and more secure. And most of
all, we have that wonderful feeling of unity and enthusiasm that comes when we
God—Goddess, Creator, Great
Spirit—whatever you want to call it, including our collective human power—bless
this great country, and blessed be you all!
Starhawk, committed global justice activist and organizer, is the author or
coauthor of twelve books, including
The Spiral Dance, The Fifth Sacred
The Earth Path. Her latest is
The Empowerment Manual:
A Guide for Collaborative Groups. She is a veteran of progressive movements,
from anti-war to anti-nukes, is a highly influential voice in the revival of
earth-based spirituality and Goddess religion, and has brought many innovative
techniques of spirituality and magic to her political work. Her web site is www.starhawk.org. Starhawk was recognized as an Utne Reader Visionary in 1995.
Editor's note: This post originally appeared at Dirt Worship, Starhawk's blog on earth-based spirituality, permaculture, magic, politics, activism, and Paganism.
Above image of Capitol Dome by Bob Jagendorf,
licensed under Creative
Commons. Slideshow image of Occupy Wall Street prayer by David Shankbone, also licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, January 07, 2013 12:46 PM
Bill McKibben is the author of a
dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989,
which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change.
He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which
has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Bill is a frequent
contributor to various magazines including The New York Times
The Atlantic Monthly
The New York Review of Books
. He is also a board
member and contributor to
Grist Magazine. He is also a Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He was named an Utne Visionary in 2010.
Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the
serious people have decided there’s a problem. That’s because, in a country as
big as the United States,
public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires
going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those
currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.
Take, for instance, “the problem of our schools.” Don’t
worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every
student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve
it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat
clearing, the Carnegie Commission published “A Nation at Risk,” insisting that
a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened our schools. The nation’s biggest
foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for
three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We’ve had
Race to the Top, and Teach for America,
and charters, and vouchers, and… we’re still in the midst of “fixing”
education, many generations of students later.
Even facing undeniably real problems -- say,
discrimination against gay people -- one can make the case that gradual change
has actually been the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court
declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash
might have been swift and severe. There’s certainly an argument to be made that
moving state by state (starting in nimbler, smaller states like Vermont) ultimately made
the happy outcome more solid as the culture changed and new generations came of
Which is not to say that there weren’t
millions of people who suffered as a result. There were. But our societies are
built to move slowly. Human institutions tend to work better when they have
years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out
the conflicts between people.
And that’s always been the difficulty with climate change
-- the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. It’s not a fight, like education
reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting
opinions. It couldn’t be more different at a fundamental level.
We’re talking about a fight between human beings and
physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics
couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal
industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon
slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less
Physics doesn’t understand that rapid action on climate
change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry.
It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into
heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And
unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you
soon have a nightmare on your hands.
We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the
cost would be terrible -- all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years.
But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With
climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by
physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.
Unless you understand these distinctions you don’t
understand climate change -- and it’s not at all clear that President Obama
That’s why his administration is sometimes peeved when they
don’t get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue in his
first term in office. The measure they point to most often is the increase in average mileage for automobiles, which will
slowly go into effect over the next decade.
It’s precisely the kind of gradual transformation that
people -- and politicians -- like. We should have adopted it long ago (and
would have, except that it challenged the power of Detroit and its unions, and so both
Republicans and Democrats kept it at bay). But here’s the terrible thing: it’s
no longer a measure that impresses physics. After all, physics isn’t kidding
around or negotiating. While we were discussing whether climate change was even
a permissible subject to bring up in the last presidential campaign, it was melting the Arctic. If
we’re to slow it down, we need to be cutting emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5% a year to make a
It’s not Obama’s fault that that’s not happening. He
can’t force it to happen. Consider the moment when the great president of the
last century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was confronted with an implacable
enemy, Adolf Hitler (the closest analog to physics we’re going to get, in that
he was insanely solipsistic, though in his case also evil). Even as the German
armies started to roll through Europe, however, FDR couldn’t muster America to get
off the couch and fight.
There were even the equivalent of climate deniers at that
time, happy to make the case that Hitler presented no threat to America.
Indeed, some of them were the same institutions. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, vociferously opposed Lend-Lease.
So Roosevelt did all he could on his own authority, and
then when Pearl Harbor offered him his moment,
he pushed as hard as he possibly could. Hard, in this case, meant, for
instance, telling the car companies that they were out of the car
business for a while and instead in the tank and fighter-plane business.
For Obama, faced with a Congress bought off by the fossil fuel industry, a realistic
approach would be to do absolutely everything he could on his own authority --
new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, for example; and of
course, he should refuse to grant the permit for the building of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, something that requires no
permission from John Boehner or the rest of Congress.
So far, however, he’s been half-hearted at best when it
comes to such measures. The White House, for instance, overruled the EPA on its proposed stronger ozone and smog
regulations in 2011, and last year opened up the Arctic for oil drilling, while selling off vast swaths of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin at
bargain-basement prices to coal miners. His State Department flubbed the global
climate-change negotiations. (It’s hard to remember a higher profile diplomatic
failure than the Copenhagen
summit.) And now Washington
rings with rumors that he’ll approve the Keystone
pipeline, which would deliver 900,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest crude
oil on Earth. Almost to the drop, that’s the amount his new auto mileage
regulations would save.
If he were serious, Obama would be doing more than just
the obvious and easy. He’d also be looking for that Pearl
Harbor moment. God knows he had his chances in 2012: the hottest year in the history of the continental United
States, the deepest drought of his lifetime, and a melt of the Arctic so severe that the
federal government’s premier climate scientist declared it a “planetary emergency.”
In fact, he didn’t even appear to notice those phenomena,
campaigning for a second term as if from an air-conditioned bubble, even as
people in the crowds greeting him were fainting en masse from the heat. Throughout campaign 2012,
he kept declaring his love for an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, where
apparently oil and natural gas were exactly as virtuous as sun and wind.
Only at the very end of the campaign, when Hurricane
Sandy seemed to present a political opening, did he even hint at seizing it --
his people letting reporters know on background that climate change would now
be one of his top three priorities (or maybe, post-Newtown, top four) for a second
term. That’s a start, I suppose, but it’s a long way from telling the car
companies they better retool to start churning out wind turbines.
And anyway, he took it back at the first opportunity. At his post-election
press conference, he announced that climate change was “real,” thus marking his
agreement with, say, President George H.W. Bush in 1988. In deference to
“future generations,” he also agreed that we should “do more.” But addressing
climate change, he added, would involve “tough political choices.” Indeed, too
tough, it seems, for here were his key lines:
“I think the American people right now have been so
focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth,
that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to
address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t
go for that.”
It’s as if World War II British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill had declared, “I have nothing to offer except blood, toil, tears, and
sweat. And God knows that polls badly, so just forget about it.”
The president must be pressed to do all he can -- and
more. That’s why thousands of us will descend on Washington
D.C. on President’s Day weekend,
in what will be the largest environmental demonstration in years. But there’s
another possibility we need to consider: that perhaps he’s simply not up to
this task, and that we’re going to have to do it for him, as best we can.
If he won’t take on the fossil fuel industry, we will.
That’s why on 192 campuses nationwide active divestment movements are now doing their best to
highlight the fact that the fossil fuel industry threatens their futures.
If he won’t use our position as a superpower to drive
international climate-change negotiations out of their rut, we’ll try. That’s
why young people from 190 nations are gathering
in Istanbul in
June in an effort to shame the U.N. into action. If he won’t listen to
scientists -- like the 20 top climatologists who told him that the Keystone pipeline was a mistake -- then
top scientists are increasingly clear that they’ll need to get arrested to make their point.
Those of us in the growing grassroots climate movement
are going as fast and hard as we know how (though not, I fear, as fast as
physics demands). Maybe if we go fast enough even this all-too-patient
president will get caught up in the draft. But we’re not waiting for him. We
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on
Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
Image of Arctic melting by
NASA Goddard Photo and
Video, licensed under Creative Commons.
Image of Bill McKibben by the University
of Michigan’s School of Natural
Resources and Environment, also under a Creative Commons
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 4:10 PM
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
As this wild year comes to an end, we return to the
season of gifts. Here’s the gift you’re not going to get soon: any conventional
version of Paradise. You know, the place where
nothing much happens and nothing is demanded of you. The gifts you’ve already
been given in 2012 include a struggle over the fate of the Earth. This is probably not exactly what you
asked for, and I wish it were otherwise -- but to do good work, to be
necessary, to have something to give: these are the true gifts. And at least
there’s still a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair.
Think of 2013 as the Year Zero in the
battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or
lose bigger. This is a terrible thing to say, but not as terrible as the
reality that you can see in footage of glaciers vanishing, images of the entire surface of the Greenland Ice Shield melting this summer, maps of Europe’s future in which just being in southern
Europe when the heat hits will be catastrophic, let alone in more equatorial
For millions of years, this world has been a great gift
to nearly everything living on it, a planet whose atmosphere, temperature, air,
water, seasons, and weather were precisely calibrated to allow us -- the big
us, including forests and oceans, species large and small -- to flourish. (Or
rather, it was we who were calibrated to its generous, even bounteous, terms.)
And that gift is now being destroyed for the benefit
of a few members of a single species.
The Earth we evolved to inhabit is turning into something
more turbulent and unreliable at a pace too fast for most living things to
adapt to. This means we are losing crucial aspects of our most irreplaceable,
sublime gift, and some of us are suffering the loss now -- from sea snails
whose shells are dissolving in acidified oceans to Hurricane Sandy survivors
facing black mold and bad bureaucracy to horses starving nationwide because a devastating drought has
pushed the cost of hay so high to Bolivian farmers failing because the glaciers that watered their valleys
have largely melted.
This is not just an issue for environmentalists who love
rare species and remote places: if you care about children, health, poverty,
the economy, you really have no choice but to care about
The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a
gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope,
your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of
victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole
new scale as the news worsens.
Unwrapping the Victories
“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo famously
says in Bertold Brecht’s play about that renegade scientist, but at least, the
hero has the possibility of doing something about that unhappiness, as, for
instance, the Sierra Club has. It’s led the fight against big coal,
helping prevent 168 coal-powered plants from opening and retiring 125 dirty
coal plants. The aim of its Beyond Coal campaign is to retire all 522 such
plants in the United States,
which would be a colossal triumph.
Its victories also capture what a lot of our greenest
gifts look like: nothing. The regions that weren’t fracked, the coal plants that didn’t open, the mountaintops that weren’t
blasted by mining corporations, the children who didn’t get asthma
or mercury poisoning from coal emissions, the carbon that stayed
in the Earth and never made it into the atmosphere. The Keystone XL tar sands
pipeline bringing the dirtiest of dirty energy from Canada to the Gulf Coast might have
already opened without the activists who ringed the White House and committed themselves across the continent.
In eastern Texas,
for instance, extraordinary acts of civil disobedience have been going on
continuously since August, including three blockaders who this month crawled inside
a length of the three-foot-in-diameter pipeline and refused to leave. People
have been using their bodies, getting in the way of heavy equipment, and going
to jail in an effort to prevent the pipeline from being built. A lot of them
are the same kind of robust young people who kept the Occupy encampments going
earlier in 2012, but great-grandmothers, old men, and middle-aged
people like me have been crucial players, too.
Meanwhile in British
Columbia, where pipeline profiteers were looking into
alternate routes to transport their climate-destroying products abroad, members of the Wet’suwet’en nation evicted surveyors and politely declared war on them. In Ohio and New
York, the fight against fracking is going strong.
Across the Atlantic, France
has banned fracking, while Germany has made astounding progress toward using carbon-neutral energy
sources. If solar works there, we have no excuse. And as Ellen Cantarow wrote at TomDispatch of the anti-fracking movement in New
York State, “Caroline, a small hamlet in Tompkins County (population 3,282), is
the second town in the state to get 100% of its electricity through wind power
and one of the most recent to pass a fracking ban.”
Everywhere people are at work to build a better world in
which we -- and some of the beauty of this world -- will be guaranteed to
survive. Everywhere they are at war with the forces threatening us and the
planet. I usually avoid war metaphors, but this time it’s barely a metaphor.
Our side isn’t violent, but it is engaged in a battle, and people are putting
their bodies on the line and their lives behind the cause. The other side is
intent on maximizing its profit at the cost of nearly everything.
My father, a high-school student during the Second World
War, followed the campaigns closely with pins on a wall map to represent troops
and battles. You could map North America that way now and see, when you added
up the struggles against drilling in the Arctic, fracking, mountaintop removal, and
the various other depredations of big coal and big oil, that remarkable things
are already being done. In this war, resistance has been going on for a long
time, so overlooked by the mainstream media it might as well be as underground
as the French Resistance back then.
A lot of it is on a small scale, but if you connect the
pieces you get a big picture of the possible, the hopeful, and the powerful.
Think of each of those small acts of defending the Earth as a gift to you. And
think of your own power, a gift always latent within you that demands you give
If you’re reading this, you’re already in the
conversation. No matter who you are, or where, there is something for you to
do: educate yourself and others, write letters, organize or join local groups,
participate in blockades and demonstrations, work on divestment from oil
corporations (if you’re connected to a university), and make this issue central
to the conversations and politics of our time.
I’ve started working directly on various projects with 350.org, whose global impact and
reinvention of activist tactics I’ve long admired. Its creator Bill McKibben has evolved from a merely great writer to a
pivotal climate organizer and a gift to all of us.
The world you live in is not a given; much of what is
best in it has been built through the struggles of passionate activists over
the last centuries. They won us many freedoms and protected many beauties.
Count those gifts among your growing heap.
Drawing the Line
Here’s another gift you’ve already received: the lines in
the battle to come are being ever more clearly drawn. Clarity is a huge asset.
It helps when you know where you stand, who stands with you -- and who against
We have returned to class war in conflicts around the
world -- including the Chicago Teacher’s Strike of 2012 and the Walmart protests in this country (which led to 1,197
actions nationwide in support of that company’s underpaid workers on Black Friday), as well as the great student uprisings in Quebec and Mexico City.
There has, of course, been a war against working people
and the poor for decades, only we didn’t call it “class war” when just the rich
were fighting hard. We called it corporate globalization, the race to the
bottom, tax cuts and social-service cuts, privatization, neoliberalism, and a
hundred other things. Now that the poor are fighting back, we can call it by
its old name. Perhaps what the conservatives have forgotten is that if you
return us to the grim divides and dire poverty of the nineteenth century, you
might also be returning us to the revolutionary spirit of that century.
This time, though, it’s not only about work and money.
The twenty-first century class war is engulfing the natural world on which
everything rests. We can see how clearly the great environmental battle of our
time is about money, about who benefits from climate destruction (the very few)
and who loses (everyone else for all time to come and nearly every living
thing). This year, Hurricane Sandy and a crop-destroying, Mississippi-River-withering drought that had more than 60% of the nation in its grip made it clear that
climate change is here and it’s now and it hurts.
In 2012, many have come to see that climate change is an
economic issue, and that economics is a moral and ecological issue. Why so
little has been done about the state of the climate in the past three decades
has everything to do with who profits. Not long ago, too many Americans were on
the fence, swayed by the oil companypropaganda war about whether climate change even exists.
However, this month, according to the Associated Press, “Four out of every five
Americans said climate change will be a serious problem for the United States
if nothing is done about it.” That widespread belief suggests that potentially
broad support now exists and may be growing for a movement that makes climate
change -- the broiling of the Earth -- central, urgent, and everybody’s
Ten years ago too, many people thought the issue could be
addressed, if at all, through renunciatory personal virtue in private life:
buying Priuses, compact fluorescents, and the like. Now most people who care at
all know that the necessary changes won’t happen through consumer choice alone.
What’s required are pitched battles against the most powerful (and profitable)
entities on Earth, the oil and energy companies and the politicians who serve
them instead of us.
That clarity matters and those conflicts are already
underway but need to grow. That’s our world right now, clear as a cold winter
day, sharp as broken glass.
Putting Aside Paradise
When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts
of it that were Paradise -- and I also see all
the little hells. I was a kid in California
when it had the best public education system in the world and universities
were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a
lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren’t thinking about it
changing any time before the next ice age.
That was, however, the same California where domestic
violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians
were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were
white men, where people hadn’t even learned to ask questions about exclusion
Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when
you look backward, it’s worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights
gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was
neglected -- including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation,
corporate power, and working hours -- slid into hell.
When you fight, you sometimes win; when you don’t, you
Here’s another gift we have right now: the young. There
are quite a lot of heroes among them, including the Dreamers or Dream Act
activists standing up for immigrants; the occupiers who challenged Wall Street in its home and
elsewhere around the country, became the unofficial first responders who aided the
victims of Hurricane Sandy, and have camped out on the doorstep
of Goldman Sachs’s CEO these last few months; the young who blockaded that
tar-sands pipeline, supplied the tremendous vitality of 350.org globally, and
have just begun to organize to pressure universities to divest from fossil fuel companies on 192 campuses across
In 2012, they rose up from Egypt
and Russia to Canada and Chile. They are fighting for
themselves and their future, but for us, too. They have remarkably few
delusions about how little our world is prepared to offer most of them. They
know that the only gifts they’ll get are the ones they can wrestle free from
the powers that be.
overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world
without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the
minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And
we are made to travel, not to sit still.
Take pleasure in the route. There is terrible suffering
of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about
it, not being miserable. In this heroic age, survival is also going to require
seeing what fragments of paradise are still around us, what still blooms,
what’s still unimaginably beautiful about rivers, oceans, and evening skies,
what exhilaration there is in witnessing the stubbornness of small children and
their discovery of a world we think we know. All these are gifts as well.
Ice Breaking Up
As you gear up for 2013, don’t forget that 2012 has been
an extraordinary year. Who ever thought we’d see Aung San Suu Kyi elected to
office in her native Burma
and free to travel after so many years of house arrest? Who expected that the
United Nations would suddenly vote to give Palestine observer state status? Who foresaw
that the silly misinterpretations of Mayan prophesy would be overtaken by the
Mayan Zapatistas, who rose once again last Friday? (Meanwhile, Canada's Native people started a dynamic movement
around indigenous rights and the environment that has led to everything from flash-mob dances in an Edmonton Mall to demonstrations in Ottawa.)
Who thought that Occupy Wall Street, roundly dismissed by
the mainstream on its one-year anniversary, would spawn two superhero projects,
Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt? (Who among the police officers clubbing and
tear-gassing the young Occupiers in 2011 thought that a year later these would
be the people with the power and the generosity to come to their aid when a
climate-fed storm wrecked their homes?) Keep it in mind: the future is not
predictable. Sometimes, the world changes suddenly and in profound ways.
Sometimes we make it do so.
Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a reminder about what it
means to fight for what matters most. Permanently freeing five million slaves
and abolishing slavery forever meant renouncing a cheap power source in use for
more than 200 years. Doing so was initially inconceivable and then a matter of
indifference except to the slaves themselves and small groups of abolitionists.
Next, it was daringly radical, then partisan, with the whole nation taking
sides, the fuel for a terrible war. Finally, it was the law of the land. Today,
we need to give up on, or at least radically reduce our reliance on, another
set of power sources: oil, coal, and natural gas.
This is, among other things, a war of the imagination:
the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the
dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or
grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to
our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice,
or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to
They are already at war against the wellbeing of our
Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight
back. You have the power. It’s one of your gifts.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on
Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by Nattu,
licensed under Creative
Thursday, December 13, 2012 1:15 PM
Editor's note: This interview was originally published at NUVO
, Indianapolis, Indiana's independent alternative news source.
Paul Douglas is running against the mainstream grain in two significant ways.
One, he is Republican and acknowledges the reality of human-caused climate change. Republicans tend not to agree with the science, despite the overwhelming—97 percent— consensus among climatologists that human-created emissions are warming the planet, causing climate change—and triggering extreme weather.
For example, a Bloomberg national poll, released in early October, said that while "78 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents believe humans are warming the earth ... almost two out of three Republicans don't."
The second way the Minneapolis-based Douglas is running against the grain is that he's a broadcast meteorologist (and founder of WeatherNationTV.com), and the majority of people in his profession don't necessarily acknowledge the level at which humans are causing climate change. According to a 2011 report by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only 53 percent of broadcast meteorologists said that human influence plays an important role in climate change—with 34 percent saying climate change is a result of human and natural causes, and only 19 percent saying it is mostly human-caused.
Douglas would place himself in the latter category, the 19 percent-ers, adding that he believes "human activities, the burning of fossil fuels and a 40 percent spike in greenhouse gases are having an impact on warming the atmosphere and the oceans—where 90 percent of the warming has gone in the last 4 decades."
Broadcast meteorologist Paul Douglas is trying to change the minds of fellow
Republicans on climate change.
Every day, we get better at connecting the dots of climate change and extreme weather. As NASA's James Hansen said in August: "The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change."
The 2012 drought that hit Indiana will very likely be connected to climate change as well, but scientists, who are conservative by nature, are still totaling up their data.
Who better than your local, trusted weathercaster to walk you through how climate change influences weather?
Lo and behold Paul Douglas. Early this year, I discovered a blog wherein he argued that Republicans were wrongheaded to ignore climate change. Here's a sample quote from this blog "... some in my party believe the EPA and all those silly 'global warming alarmists' are going to get in the way of drilling and mining our way to prosperity. Well, we have good reason to be alarmed."
Later in the year, he wrote a direct message to Mitt Romney via Huffington Post, exhorting the Republican presidential candidate to acknowledge the reality of climate change, and impress upon his party the severity of our current predicament. In it, Douglas said "If Mitt Romney is genuine about his promise to 'help you and your family,' he needs to acknowledge this, and work for a solution that will solve both the economic and the climate crisis."
--- --- ---
We began our recent phone conversation by me asking Douglas what got him interested in weather in the first place:
Paul Douglas:I've been fascinated with weather from a young age. Tropical Storm Agnes flooded out my house in Lancaster, Pa., back in '72. I was a wide-eyed, 14-year-old Boy Scout. I had just taken a weather merit badge, and I was just traumatized ... [by] the weather.
Many TV meteorologists were traumatized by something as kids—a tornado, a flood, a hurricane, lightning: Something put the fear of God in them. No one in their right mind, I think, sets out to be a television meteorologist. But I just fell in love with weather at the age of about 14, went to Penn State and got a degree in meteorology. ...
When did you begin to take note of climate change?
All of us have different thresholds for when you acknowledge the science. For me it was when James Hansen went before Congress in 1988. I thought he was jumping the gun. I didn't see it. But after living the weather ... and that's what any meteorologist does: you live the weather ... I just noticed in the mid and late '90s that something had changed.
It was no longer my grandfather's weather. The rain was falling with greater ferocity. We were seeing more extremes with greater frequency and greater intensity than I had ever witnessed in my career. So I started digging into the peer-reviewed science and basically came to the conclusion that climate scientists were probably right, that there's just too much evidence.
I come from a long line of foresters in Germany. My grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather were all state foresters in Germany. Maybe it's in my scouting career. I don't take the environment for granted. We are a part of nature. I don't see anywhere in the Bible where it says that we're supposed to dominate nature.
The book of Luke says, "We are stewards and we will be accountable for our stewardship." I take that seriously. When I talk to my friends on both sides of the aisle politically I say, "We're accountable. You should care about this. If you care about your kids and your grandkids, as our parents cared for us, this is not only a scientific issue, it's a moral issue and an ethical issue."
There is something fundamentally immoral about kicking the can down the road and saying, "Well, not enough data and maybe it's real but our kids and our grandkids can clean up our mess."
Our kids are going to be pissed and I want to be able to look my kids in the eye and say, "You know what? Your old man did everything that he could to beat the drum and to let others know that this is real."
We ignore the science at our long-term peril. People say, "Ah, you're an alarmist, you're a warmist." I say, "You know, the trends are alarming and I'm reporting on the trends. You either stick your head in the sand or you can acknowledge the science."
When did you begin to actually talk about climate change as part of your job as a broadcast meteorologist?
In the late '90s I began including it in my weather statements.
Was anybody else doing it at that time?
No, no. The pervasive feeling at the time was that ... if you even mention the term global warming or climate change you will instantly alienate 30 percent of your audience and they will tune out. So, you know, it's kryptonite. My news directors at WCCO [the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis where Douglas worked until 2008] said, "As long as you focus on the science and don't try to dig into policy implications. If you're reporting on the science, and it's peer-reviewed science that you can back up."
Every day I would get scores of emails like, "Flaming liberal. You crazy crackpot. Why are you buying into this Al Gore conspiracy? You're going to cripple our economy."
It is the equivalent of sticking your finger in the electrical socket. Most of us are conditioned to avoid pain, to avoid controversy. Everybody on television wants to be loved and your contract—whether you're renewed—really depends on your ability to attract an audience. Just by reporting on this you know that you're alienating people with a certain ideology.
This science, as strong as it is, is toxic to a lot of these people who just can't or won't accept peer-reviewed science because it does not fit in with their worldview. My entire life I've voted Republican and I'm a moderate Republican, which is kind of an oxymoron these days, but I've been very moderate in my beliefs. I'm fiscally conservative, socially liberal. It was amazing to me, the feedback.
Yet you persisted.
I persisted and I continue to persist because the subject is too important. I thought it was ludicrous that this was somehow a litmus test for conservatism. I remind my Republican friends that Teddy Roosevelt, staunch Republican, founded the National Parks Service. Richard Nixon, say what you will about Dick Nixon, and I'm not a huge Nixon fan, but he started the EPA. There is a history of environmental respect, respect for the environment.
"I'm proud of having been one of the first to recognize that state and national government have a duty to protect our natural resources from the damaging effects of pollution that can accompany industrial development." You know who said that?
Ronald Reagan. July 19, 1984. Somewhere along the way the Republican Party became totally beholden to fossil fuel interests.
I'm not saying we don't take advantage of our natural resources. The message I'm trying to get out is that by fixating exclusively on fossil fuels, not only are we endangering future generations, we are endangering our competitiveness down the road. Because there is no debate about climate change in Europe or China.
They are moving forward with clean alternatives to creating energy. If we totally focus on mining and drilling and extracting every last bit of carbon at the exclusion of solar and wind and geothermal and battery technology and everything else that's out there, we are going to be crippled as a country competitively.
We will look back 20 years from now and say, "We blew it. We had a chance. This was our energy moonshot and instead of innovating, instead of doing the right thing, we were lazy. We took the easy way and now we're paying a price for it in terms of more extreme weather—drier droughts, heat waves, public health issues, a detriment for our farmers."
People say, "Well if weather systems shift north we can grow our crops in Canada." Until somebody pointed out that there is no topsoil across much of Canada. People just aren't seeing the long-term implications.
The point I'm trying to make as a jobs creator is that this is a chance to reinvent and retool America, wean ourselves off foreign oil. Mitigating climate change is going to require a level of innovation and reinvention that will propel us to a new competitive paradigm. By focusing on carbon neutral ways of generating energy and growing our GDP, we will take American exceptionalism on the world stage to a new level.
I like to think we're at a turning point: the thirst for knowledge about what is happening to the climate is growing.
It's ironic that extreme weather has accomplished what the climate scientists up until now could not. And that is convince a majority of logical, God-fearing Americans that something has changed. [According to a Yale Project on Climate Change Communication poll], four out of five people last year were personally impacted by extreme weather. ... One out of three were physically injured by severe weather [in 2011].
This weather-on-steroids environment is getting people to wake up. I keep telling people that trillions of dollars are in play. Fossil fuel companies are scared to death that they're going to be regulated out of existence or that there will be regulations that they can't drill and mine, and that will affect their share price, their stock price, and their ultimate company value.
They've already made such an investment in those areas, coal and oil, so letting it lay there doesn't seem like a good business decision.
Exactly. Did you read Bill McKibben's article in Rolling Stone? If we burn all of the remaining carbon reserves it's going to be a brand new planet.
I give people a metaphor ... that Mother Nature has picked up the DVR and put our weather on fast forward and turned the volume of extreme weather up to 11. I mean of course the weather is extreme. The weather has always been extreme but it's coming with greater velocity and greater intensity. More noise, more fury and more trauma. This is what you get when you warm up the atmosphere even a couple of degrees. You load the dice in favor of more of these extreme rains.
Are Republicans listening to you?
No. No. Frankly, to some degree I've been, not ostracized, but I think ignored. I'm OK with that. I'm going to keep speaking out, because this is too important.
What I am finding is that younger people, younger conservatives, younger evangelicals are listening. They respond to data. That's one of the first things that I say when I go out and talk. I ask people, "Do you have an open mind? Or is your mind made up and you're going to cherry-pick data to support your ideological beliefs?"
I find that for most people under the age of 35, this is an issue that they really feel will impact their lives and their kids' lives. They are paying attention.
The essence of the word conservative is 'conserve.' We've gone off track in the Republican Party by ignoring that. We are a part of nature and this meme that we are here to dominate nature—I don't know where that comes from. I don't recognize that strain of conservatism. I mentioned this in my Huffington Post article. Bill O'Reilly has his "No Spin Zone" and yet many in my party have been spinning the science, denying the science. I just don't understand it. I don't get it.
What do you visualize the world being like, 20 years from now?
I think it's going to be a lot different than it is now. There's a significant amount of warming going on in the pipeline. Even if we could somehow magically bring our greenhouse emissions down to zero, I think there's little doubt that we're going to warm at least a degree, maybe a degree and a half. I see no evidence really that we're going to take the steps necessary to mitigate greenhouse gases. I think there's going to be a huge push toward adaption. How do we survive and thrive in this warmer, drier, stormier new world?
That means everything from new drought resistant crops that can weather the extremes that I know we're going to see. Climate scientists say that this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the beginning from what we're seeing. Everything from huge impacts on agriculture to trying to mitigate sea-level rise and levies and storm walls.
As a businessman it's a threat and it's an opportunity and this may be one way to reach some conservatives. If you tell them, "Hey, by being obstinate, by denying the science, you are leaving money on the table. You are overlooking an incredible investment opportunity." I tell my conservative friends that in the Pentagon, insurance circles, there is no debate about the science.
If you ignore this, it's going to show up in your portfolio. You will shoot yourself in the foot with your investments. You have to stay up on the science, you have to listen to new data, otherwise you're going to watch your portfolio shrink. Is that what you want? I'm trying a couple of different ways to appeal to people who have that conservative mindset.
It's OK to be conservative and still acknowledge the science and to recognize something that Jesus taught: Actions have consequences. You can't release 90 trillion tons of greenhouse gases in 50 years according to the Department of Energy, 90 trillion hot air balloons of man-made pollution, and pretend that that's not going to have any impact.
... Sometimes I wonder, you know, is our country ready for a third party? A green party or ... I don't know.
How about the common sense party?
I think you're right. I still think most Americans are somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. Most Americans are fairly moderate. And yet our system has been hijacked by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. It just makes me nuts that Washington does not reflect what's happening outside of the Beltway, scientifically or otherwise. The naïve optimist in me believes that this will be corrected over time.
Yet the amount of money in play right now is staggering and I do worry about what that means for representative democracy. It's too easy to listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio or to look at a blog post someone emailed you.
People need to educate themselves and not rely on what Uncle Joe says at the dinner table. There's so much information available online, but you need to be looking at peer-reviewed science. Not somebody's opinion in a blog post. Not what you heard on the local bloviating talk show in town. The data is the data and people need to be seeking out science. Not opinion.
Finally, what about Sandy?
Although you can't prove direct causation with Sandy, in my humble opinion—and that of most of the climate scientists I know—it's a case of systematic causation. We've loaded the dice in favor of more extreme storms, heat waves and drought. We've super-sized our weather ... the timing, scale and scope of the storm were extraordinary—like nothing I've ever witnessed, a hybrid of hurricane and Nor'easter that is not very well understood.
Sandy was made worse by unusually warm ocean water in the Gulf Stream, and the record melting of polar ice in September may be creating a blocking pattern in the upper atmosphere that favors major storms, especially for the eastern third of the USA—a trend in recent winters. It would have been a major storm without a hurricane in the core, but the combination of Nor'easter—powered by temperature extremes—and a hurricane—powered by warm ocean water—created a meteorological bomb that impacted a huge swath of coastline. Again, fairly unprecedented, historically. And the fact that Sandy impacted a densely populated region of the USA meant more people affected, and brought additional media attention.
Weather has always been severe, but now a warmer climate is flavoring ALL weather. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is on the rise, and Sandy was just the most recent and visible manifestation of this trend across North America, which is home to the most weather extremes in the last 30 years, a quintupling of weather disasters, according to an October report from Munich Re.
Thursday, December 13, 2012 10:49 AM
This post originally appeared at On the Commons.
In the wake of superstorm Sandy and a presidential
election in which both candidates essentially ignored climate change, it’s time
that our schools began to play their part in creating climate literate
Hurricane Sandy, and the superstorms that will follow,
are not just acts of nature—they are products of a massive theft of the
atmospheric commons shared by all life on the planet. Every dollar of profit
made by fossil fuel companies relies on polluting our shared atmosphere with
harmful greenhouse gases, stealing what belongs to us all. But if we don’t
teach students the history of the commons, they’ll have a hard time recognizing
what—and who—is responsible for today’s climate crisis.
If the commons is taught at
all in history classes, it’s likely as a passing reference to English
enclosures—the process by which lands traditionally used in common by the poor
for growing food, grazing animals, collecting firewood, and hunting game were
fenced off and turned into private property. Some textbooks may mention the
peasant riots that were a frequent response to enclosures, or specific groups
like the Diggers that resisted enclosure by tearing down fences and
reestablishing common areas. But they are buried in chapters that champion
industrial capitalism’s “progress” and “innovation.”
Some texts, like McDougal
Littell’s widely used Modern World History, skip the peasants’ resistance
entirely, choosing instead to sing the praises of enterprising wealthy
landowners: “In 1700, small farms covered England’s landscape. Wealthy
landowners, however, began buying up much of the land that village farmers had
once worked. The large landowners dramatically improved farming methods. These
innovations amounted to an agricultural revolution.”
This is a disturbing
narrative, as much for what it leaves out as for what it gets wrong. Students
could fairly assume that enclosures involved a fair exchange between “wealthy
landowners” and “village farmers,” instead of the forced evictions that removed
peasants from land that their families had worked for generations. Take the
account of Betsy Mackay, 16, when the Duke of Sutherland evicted her family in
“Our family was very reluctant to leave and stayed for some time, but the
burning party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to
ashes whatever remained within the walls. The people had to escape for their
lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their
back. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did
not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away
The McDougal Littell
version of history silences the voices of the poor, who struggled for centuries
to maintain their traditional rights to subsist from common lands—rights
enshrined in 1217 in the Charter of the Forest,
the often-overlooked sister document to the Magna Carta.
Of course, this history is
not limited to land enclosures during the British agricultural revolution.
Around the world, European colonizers spent centuries violently “enclosing”
indigenous peoples’ land throughout the Americas,
India, Asia, and Africa. The Indian scholar and activist Vandana Shiva
explains why this process was a necessary aspect of colonialism:
The destruction of commons
was essential for the industrial revolution, to provide a supply of natural
resources for raw material to industry. A life-support system can be shared, it
cannot be owned as private property or exploited for private profit. The
commons, therefore, had to be privatized, and people’s sustenance base in these
commons had to be appropriated, to feed the engine of industrial progress and
The enclosure of the
commons has been called the revolution of the rich against the poor.
In the same way that world
history curriculum passes over the social and ecological consequences of land
enclosure, the current U.S.
history curriculum contributes to a larger ecological illiteracy by glossing
over the historical role of nature. When we’re not taught to understand the
intimate and fundamental connections between people and the environment in our
nation’s history, it should come as no surprise that we struggle to make these
same connections today.
One of the few places where
nature shows up in the U.S. History curriculum is with discussions of how
Native American and European concepts of landownership differed. Textbooks could
provide a valuable opportunity for students to analyze these differences.
Instead, they usually dismiss Native American notions of property as quaint and
in the end—just like the struggle of the Diggers—somewhat tragic in the grand
scheme of things.
Every textbook I’ve seen
presents the buying and selling of land as a normal—even inevitable—part of
human history. What’s missing from all accounts is the naked truth that land
inhabited and used in common by English peasants and Native Americans had to first
be stolen, before it could ever become the private property that can be bought
and sold today.
Instead, we have this
section of Prentice Hall’s America,
titled “Conflict with Native Americans”: “Although the Native Americans did
help the English through the difficult times, tensions persisted. Incidents of
violence occurred side by side with regular trade. Exchanges begun on both
sides with good intentions could become angry confrontations in a matter of
minutes through simple misunderstandings. Indeed, the failure of each group to
understand the culture of the other prevented any permanent cooperation between
the English and Native Americans.”
This is history of the
worst kind, in which a misguided attempt at “balance” results in a morally
ambiguous explanation for the dispossession and murder of millions of Native
In fact, the growth of
industrial capitalism has been predicated on the private enclosure of the
natural world. And these enclosures have always met with resistance. Students
need to learn this alternative narrative for at least two reasons. First, it
encourages critical conversation about how “economic growth” has been used to
justify the private seizure of the earth’s resources for the profits of a
few—while closing off those same resources, and decisions about how they should
be used, to the rest of us. Even more importantly, this conversation about
history can help us to see today’s environmental crises—from the loss of global
biodiversity to superstorm Sandy—for
what they really are: the culmination of hundreds of years of privatizing and
commodifying the natural world.
The private enclosure of
nature continues today; it’s just hard to see. Like the proverbial fish
surrounded by the water of the “free market,” it’s easy to assume that fossil
fuel companies have some god-given right to profit from polluting our
atmospheric commons. How are young people to recognize this atmospheric grab
when the school curriculum has erased all memory of our collective right to the
Reclaiming these commons
means fueling students’ knowledge about a past that has conveniently
disappeared. Educators did not create the climate crisis, but they have a key
role to play in alerting students to its causes—and potential solutions.
Image by audio-luci-store.it,
licensed under Creative
Wednesday, November 21, 2012 10:42 AM
Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is an Emmy
Award-winning composer, NY Times best-selling author and noted
philanthropist. Currently, he is releasing socially-conscious music and
touring his "Concert & Conversation" series in support of his book
Life Is What You Make It
As I thought about a Thanksgiving themed blog, I was sort of
overwhelmed with various places to start the conversation. Personally, I have
many things to be thankful for, but we all know that there are lives filled
with such pain and complexity that it’s hard to tick off all the things to be
thankful for without some sense of survivor’s guilt.
But is there one thing that we can all be thankful for? The obvious answer: the sun.
And then I started thinking about how hard it works every
day. Massive interchanges of energy without a single thought of how important
it is. It has no sense of whether we’re “entitled” to its output; no judgment
about how deserving we are of its hard work. Of course, it’s not hard work—it
just comes naturally.
It’s being perfectly the sun. It’s not trying to outdo other
stars, or wishing it could cool off so we would visit.
You may be thinking at this point that I’ve lost a little
bit of my mind. But I think if we could all remind ourselves—and be humbled
by—the significance of this event that is ongoing in the sky that allows us
to live our lives. And how this star is also a lesson in how we can become our
best selves. It might bring us all back down to earth a little and remind us
that the very best lessons are all around us in the natural world.
We will be reminded if we stray too
far off the path that keeps us connected to the natural world around us. And
the sun may just be the first in a series of these reminders. Yes, the climate
is changing. And there’s no reason to think that the fifth major ice age was
the last one. But the sun just has to burp a little to deliver the knock out
punch that brings us back to, say, a few hundred years ago—before electricity
So this Thanksgiving, when you’re listing off the things
you’re grateful for. Remember old reliable—the sun. And remember that just
like it, being fully you—fully present in your humanity and your connection
to the world around you—is all you really need to be.
And you might want to keep an eye on this website: http://spaceweather.com/
What do you think? Share your story at changeourstory.com
to learn more and Change Our Story to
join the conversation on how we all can become active participants in shaping
Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 4:16 PM
“We are not responsible for climate
change—it’s the big industries that are,” said Abelardo, a young man from the
Tseltal Mayan village of Amador Hernández in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas. “So why should
we be held responsible, and even punished for it?”
Abelardo was one of dozens of villagers
who had traveled to the city of San
Cristóbal de las Casas to protest an international
policy meeting on climate change and forest conservation. At a high-end
conference center, representatives from the state of California and from states and provinces
around the world were working out mechanisms intended to mitigate climate
change by protecting tropical forests. The group was called the Governor’s
Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF), and California’s
interest was in using forest preservation in Chiapas as a carbon offset—a means for
meeting climate change goals under the state’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions
Such an agreement among subnational
governments is unprecedented, and California
officials view it as an important way for the world’s eighth largest economy to
help the developing world. But judging from the reaction on the streets of San Cristóbal, Mexican
peasants see it differently. The lush, mountainous state of Chiapas has a long history of human rights
abuses, and the Mexican government has forcibly evicted indigenous families
from their lands in the name of environmental protection. To indigenous
peasants in the Lacandon jungle, the pending agreement has all the hallmarks of
a land grab.
And such culture clashes over land and
forests may become more common: As scientists, economists, and governments
worldwide struggle to find solutions to runaway climate change, they are
investing in one-size-fits-all financial strategies for emissions reductions in
developing countries. These policies tend to ignore local needs, land tenure
issues, small-scale economies, cultural practices, and histories. Communities
in developing countries are raising concerns that, in some instances, these
alleged cures may be worse than the disease.
The GCF was founded in 2009 when 16 states
and provinces, from California to Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, and from
Cross-River State, Nigeria, to Acre, Brazil, decided to explore ways to
implement a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest
Degradation (REDD). REDD is a program intended to fight climate change by
stopping deforestation. Under REDD, the industrialized North hopes to offset
carbon emissions by paying the global South to preserve forests (which store
carbon). Since its acceptance into U.N. climate negotiations in 2005, the
program has grown popular among international agencies and governments
interested in funding rural development—and has generated fierce resistance
among sectors of the rural poor and indigenous peoples.
When indigenous peasant farmers in Chiapas hear that
they’ll be paid to stop growing traditional crops and reforest with African
palm trees, they see signs of a familiar pattern. And when they’re told that
they may have to leave their jungle villages to allow the forest to recover,
they’re acutely aware of the ongoing theft of their lands. In Chiapas, both projects—the planting of
biofuel crops and the forced resettlement of forest communities—are linked to
the local implementation of REDD.
To indigenous peasants in
the Lacandon jungle, the pending agreement has all the hallmarks of a land grab.
Agencies and policy leaders acknowledge
the tension, but are sometimes dismissive of the depth of the problem. William
Boyd, senior advisor to the GCF and a professor of law at the University of Colorado,
said, “Any broad public policy is going to generate opposition. We understand
that, and we see the need to do a better job at communicating our objectives.”
But the problem is not merely communication. It is an issue of fundamentally
different ways of viewing the world. León Enrique Ávila, an agronomist and
professor of sustainable development at the Intercultural University of
Chiapas, sees REDD as “a continuation of the colonial project to do away with
the indigenous worldview.”
Ávila’s work is strongly rooted in the
indigenous concept of lekil kuxlejal, or el buen vivir—a complex worldview
involving harmony among people, the environment, and the ancestors. According
to this way of thinking, people are a part of—not apart from—nature. From this
perspective, even apparently benign Western notions of wealth, development,
conservation, and sustainability are as alien and as hostile as the more
recognized ills of consumerism, individualism, and war.
“REDD and projects of this type,” Ávila
said, ignore “that nature [has its own] rights, and treat it as a provider of
goods and services, a purely economic entity. This perspective is fundamentally
hostile to lekil kuxlejal.”
closely watched partnership
Of numerous REDD projects worldwide, the
agreement between California and Chiapas, expected to come online by 2015, is
the most advanced, and was the subject of great interest at the Chiapas GCF
meeting. “We are all watching the California-Chiapas project closely,” said
Iwan Wibisono of the Indonesian National REDD+ Task Force.
In 2006, California passed the Global Warming
Solutions Act, which mandates that the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions to
1990 levels by the year 2020. Under the act’s implementation plan, approved by
the California Air Resources Board in 2011, 15 to 20 percent of the state’s
mandated emission reductions will come from a cap-and-trade program that
regulates the state’s major industrial polluters. The program allows polluters
to meet part of their emissions-reduction targets by purchasing carbon credits.
Also known as offsets, these let a company pay someone else to reduce CO2
emissions instead of reducing pollution at the source. Currently, the state
only allows offsets in the United
States. But if the REDD plan goes through, California companies
could pay states in some of the world’s most forested regions not to cut down
As one of his last acts in office, former
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a memorandum of understanding
with Chiapas, opening the door for California industries to
buy offsets generated there. (Other states working on similar agreements with California include Acre, Brazil, Aceh, Indonesia, and Cross-River State, Nigeria).
Two years later, the protocols for this
agreement are still in development by a non-governmental body called the REDD
Offsets Working Group, which is expected to release its recommendations before
the end of 2012.
In preparing for the GCF meeting in San
Cristóbal, a number of Chiapas-based civil society groups formed a coalition
called REDDeldía (the English translation would be “REDD-ellion,” as in
“rebellion”), which held a parallel forum denouncing the GCF and REDD. The
group’s statement, issued in advance of the GCF meeting, called REDD “the new
face, painted green by the climate crisis, of an old and familiar form of
colonialism that advances the appropriation of lands and territories through
dispossession and forced displacement.” That sentiment was echoed by a similar
forum convened in San Cristóbal
the same week by La Vía Campesina, the world’s largest federation of peasant
For groups in Chiapas, these concerns are rooted in recent
local history. In 1971, the Mexican government issued a decree that gave about
1.5 million acres of the Lacandon jungle to the Lacandon Maya—one of several
ethnic groups that call the region their home—while retaining the rights to
exploit timber, minerals, and other resources. A second decree in 1976 made the
greater part of the jungle—the area with the richest biodiversity in Mexico—into a
UNESCO World Heritage site called the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.
Along with a few settlements from the
Tseltal and Ch’ol ethnic groups, who negotiated their way into the agreement,
the nominal owners of this territory were designated “the Lacandon Community.”
But the creation of the Lacandon Community came with a political cost: in order
to give the Lacandon Maya 1.5 million acres of forest, 26 villages of Tseltal
and Ch’ol people—over 2,000 families who had lived there for decades, if not
centuries—had to be moved.
After their expulsion, several peasant
farmer organizations demanded redress, and the resulting tension between the
Lacandon Community and its neighbors made it impossible, for decades, for the
Mexican government to successfully demarcate the territory. The demarcation
line became known as la brecha Lacandona—“brecha” meaning split, schism, or
gap. Some of the expelled communities later coalesced to form the Zapatista
Army of National Liberation, the indigenous rebel group that brought Chiapas to the world’s
attention with their 1994 uprising. Among the proto-Zapatistas and the other
peasant farmer groups in the region in the 1970s, one of the primary political
slogans was “No to la brecha Lacandona!”
With REDD, work is underway again to draw
la brecha Lacandona. In February, 2011, Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines began
distributing payments of 2,000 pesos a month to members of the Lacandon
Community as part of the state’s Climate Change Action Program, and the state
began expelling “illegal settlers” from the Montes Azules Reserve.
“The jungle was previously occupied by
over 900 communities,” Sabines told the GCF at the opening plenary. “Now we
have cleared them from the jungle. Today the Reserves are being conserved and
protected by their legitimate owners, who will soon have access to the carbon
Among the communities slated for removal
from the jungle is the village of Amador Hernández—1,500 Tseltal Mayan
subsistence farmers who escaped plantation servitude in the 1950s to make their
homes in bare wooden huts and cultivated scattered cornfields in the area that
is now the Montes Azules Reserve. On the first day of the three-day GCF
meeting, several campesinos from Amador Hernández and neighboring communities
entered the auditorium and requested a few minutes at the microphone. Chiapas
State Minister of the Environment and Natural History Fernando Rosas denied their
request, telling the community members that they should listen first to the
meeting’s proceedings. If they wanted to consider joining the REDD program, the
minister told them, he would meet with them at a later date.
Unsatisfied, the campesinos mounted a
protest. They handed out flyers declaring, “The government is lying to you—they
have neither informed us nor consulted us!” Eufemia Landa Sanchez, a woman from
a deforested region on the edge of the Montes Azules Reserve, then took the
microphone and read a message to the plenary.
“Transnational businesses have had plans
for the rural areas of Chiapas
for some time now,” Sanchez said. “The natural wealth of biodiversity and
water, of mines, of biofuels, and of course of petroleum, have led to the displacement
of people, the poisoning of the earth, and have made the peasant farmer into a
serf on his own land. And in every case they blame us and criminalize us. Our
supposed crime today is that we are responsible for global warming.
“Why do the wealthy want to impose their
will by force?” she continued. “The jungles are sacred, and they exist to serve
the people, as God gave them to us. We do not go to your countries and tell you
what to do with your lives and your lands. We ask that you respect our lives and
our lands, and go back where you came from!”
in the balance
Insiders in the GCF projected that, given
the complexities of linking an emerging market in California to forested lands
abroad, and the level of controversy in Chiapas, the Chiapas-California plan
has no better than a 50/50 chance of coming to fruition. Aside from the 2010
agreement, no formal protocols have been approved by the two states. And, aside
from a $1.5 million grant to the GCF from the U.S. State Department and hope
that a so-far hypothetical carbon market will provide some stable cash flow, little
funding is on the horizon.
“If we can’t build a $6 million fund to
make this happen, then we’ve got to think about other options,” said Boyd.
“Among these options, we’re looking at innovative models for leveraging private
Three weeks after the Chiapas GCF meeting,
the California Air Resources Board (ARB) received a visit at its Sacramento office from a group of environmental justice
advocates with ties to the Global South—including an anthropologist who works
closely with Amador Hernández, an indigenous leader from Brazil, and
representatives of Friends of the Earth U.S. They drew a picture of land grabs,
government repression, and related abuses, and urged state officials to drop
all consideration of international forest offsets in California climate policy.
Edie Chang, assistant division chief for the ARB, thanked the visitors for
raising the issues, and assured them, “We’ve told these governments that we’re
far from making a decision.”
Jason Gray, the ARB’s staff counsel,
acknowledged the concerns as well: “We really only want to work with
jurisdictions that engage in consultation and participatory processes. … We
understand the political risks. … We would only want to be involved if California can take a
What that leadership looks like remains to
be seen. But if land and culture are threatened by any policy advanced by the
GCF, indigenous peasant farmers in Chiapas
will not back down without a fight. “These campesinos don’t want a revolution
to change they way they live,” explained León Ávila, echoing the words of
Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. “They want a revolution because they
want to continue living as they always have.”
of San Cristóbal,
where the GCF meeting took place, by barenuckleyellow,
licensed under Creative
This post was originally published by
YES! Magazine, and is licensed under Creative Commons. To repost, follow these steps.
Tuesday, November 06, 2012 1:57 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
horseman was named al-Qaeda in Manhattan, and it
came as a message on September 11, 2001: that our meddling in the Middle East had sown rage and funded madness. We had
meddled because of imperial ambition and because of oil, the black gold that
fueled most of our machines and our largest corporations and too many of our
politicians. The second horseman came not quite four years later. It was named
Katrina, and this one too delivered a warning.
message was that we needed to face the dangers we had turned our back on when
the country became obsessed with terrorism: failing infrastructure,
institutional rot, racial divides, and poverty. And larger than any of these
was the climate -- the heating oceans breeding stronger storms, melting the ice
and raising the sea level, breaking the patterns of the weather we had always had
into sharp shards: burning and dying forests, floods, droughts, heat waves in
January, freak blizzards, sudden oscillations, acidifying oceans.
The third horseman came in October of 2008: it was named Wall Street, and
when that horseman stumbled and collapsed, we were reminded that it had always
been a predator, and all that had changed was the scale -- of deregulation, of
greed, of recklessness, of amorality about homes and lives being casually
trashed to profit the already wealthy. And the fourth horseman has arrived on
We called it Sandy, and it came to
tell us we should have listened harder when the first, second, and third
disasters showed up. This storm’s name shouldn’t be Sandy -- though that means
we’ve run through the alphabet all the way up to S this hurricane season, way
past brutal Isaac in August -- it should be Climate Change. If each catastrophe
came with a message, then this one’s was that global warming’s here, that the
old rules don’t apply, and that not doing anything about it for the past 30
years is going to prove far, far more expensive than doing something would have
That is, expensive for us, for human beings, for life on Earth, if not for
the carbon profiteers, the ones who are, in a way, tied to all four of these
apocalyptic visitors. A reasonable estimate I heard of the cost of this
disaster was $30 billion, just a tiny bit more than Chevron’s profits last year (though it might go as high as $50 billion). Except that it’s coming out of the empty
wallets of single mothers in Hoboken,
New Jersey, and the pensions of
the elderly, and the taxes of the rest of us. Disasters cost most of us
terribly, in our hearts, in our hopes for the future, and in our ability to
lead a decent life. They cost some corporations as well, while leading to
ever-greater profits for others.
Are Born Political
It was in no
small part for the benefit of the weapons-makers and oil producers that we
propped up dictators and built military bases and earned the resentment of the
Muslim world. It was for the benefit of oil and other carbon producers that we
did nothing about climate change, and they actively toiled to prevent any such
If you wanted,
you could even add a fifth horseman, a fifth disaster to our list, the blowout
of the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010; cost-cutting on
equipment ended 11 lives and contaminated a region dense with wildlife and
fishing families and hundreds of thousands of others. It was as horrendous as
the other four, but it took fewer lives directly and it should have but didn't
produce political change.
Each of the
other catastrophes has redirected American politics and policy in profound
ways. 9/11 brought us close to dictatorship, until Katrina corrected course by
discrediting the Bush administration and putting poverty and racism, if not
climate change, back on the agenda. Wall Street's implosion was the 2008
October Surprise that made Americans leave Republican presidential candidate
John McCain's no-change campaign in the dust -- and that, three years later,
prompted the birth of Occupy Wall Street.
The Wall Street
collapse did a lot for Barack Obama, too, and just in time another October
surprise has made Romney look venal, clueless, and irrelevant. Disaster has been good to Obama
-- Katrina’s reminder about race may have laid the groundwork for his
presidential bid, and the financial implosion in the middle of the presidential
campaign, as well as John McCain’s disastrous response to it, may have won him
the last election.
The storm that
broke the media narrative of an ascending Romney gave Obama the nonpartisan
moment of solidarity he always longed for -- including the loving arms of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But it’s
not about the president; it’s about the other seven billion of us and the rest
of the Earth’s creatures, from plankton to pikas.
Sandy did what no activist could
have done adequately: put climate change back on the agenda, made the argument
for reasonably large government, and reminded us of the
colossal failures of the Bush administration seven years ago. (Michael “heckuva
job” Brown, FEMA's astonishingly incompetent director under George W. Bush,
even popped up to underscore just how far we've come.)
Maybe Sandy will also remind us
that terrorism was among the least common, if most dramatic, of the dangers we
faced then and face now. Though rollercoasters in the surf and cities under
water have their own drama -- and so does seawater rushing into the pit at Ground Zero.
game has changed. New York City’s
billionaire mayor, when not endorsing police brutality against Wall Street’s
Occupiers, has been a huge supporter of work on climate change. He gave the
Sierra Club $50 million to fight coal last year and late last week in Sandy’s wake came out
with a tepid endorsement of Obama as the candidate who might do
something on the climate. Last week as well, his magazine, Bloomberg
Businessweek, ran a cover that could’ve run anytime in the past few
decades (but didn’t) with the headline: “It’s global warming, stupid.”
There are two
things you can hope for after Sandy.
The first is that every person stranded without power, running water, open
grocery stores, access to transportation, an intact home, and maybe income (if
work isn’t reachable or a job has been suspended) is able to return to normal
as soon as possible. Or more than that in some cases, because the storm has
also brought to light how many people were barely getting by before. (After
all, we also use the word “underwater” for people drowning in debt and houses
worth less than what’s owed on their mortgages.) The second is that the fires
and the water and the wind this time put climate change where it belongs, in
the center of our most pressing issues.
Power! How Disasters Unfold
A stranger sent
me a widely circulated photograph of a front gate in Hoboken with a power
strip and extension cord and a little note that reads, “We have power! Please
feel free to charge your phone.” We have power, and volunteers are putting it
to work in ways that count. In many disasters, government and big bureaucratic
relief organizations take time to get it together or they allocate aid in less
than ideal ways. The most crucial early work is often done by those on the ground, by the neighbors, by
civil society -- and word, as last week ended, was that the government wasn’t
always doing it adequately.
Hurricane Sandy seems to be typical
in this regard. Occupy Wall Street and 350.org got together to create Occupy Sandy and
are already doing splendid relief work, including for those in the flooded
housing projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn. My friend Marina Sitrin, a scholar and
Occupy organizer, wrote late last week:
inspiring work by community and Occupy folks! Hot nutritious meals for many
hundreds. Supplies that people need, like diapers, baby wipes, flashlights
etc., all organized. Also saw the first (meaning first set up in NYC -- only
tonight) scary FEMA site a few blocks away. Militarized and policed entrance,
to an area fenced in with 15-foot fences, where one gets a sort of
military/astronaut ration with explanations of how to use in English that I did
not understand. Plus Skittles?”
declared dead by the mainstream media six weeks ago, is shining in this mess. Kindness, solidarity, mutual aid of
this kind can ameliorate a catastrophe, but it can’t prevent one, and this
isn’t the kind of power it takes to pump out drowned subway stations or rebuild
railroad lines or get the lights back on. There is a role for government in
disaster, and for mobilizing all available forces in forestalling our march
toward a planet that could look like the New
Jersey shore all the time.
first began, all those tents, medical clinics, and community kitchens in the
encampments reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake. The occupiers looked
like disaster survivors -- and in a sense they were, though the disaster they
had survived was called the economy and its impacts are usually remarkably
is also an economic disaster: unlimited release of carbon into the atmosphere
is very expensive and will get more so.
increasingly turbulent, disaster-prone planet we’re on is our beautiful old
Earth with the temperature raised almost one degree celsius. It’s going to get
hotter than that, though we can still make a difference in how hot it gets.
Right now, locally, in the soaked places, we need people to aid the stranded,
the homeless, and the hungry. Globally we need to uncouple government from the
Big Energy corporations, and ensure that most of the carbon
energy left on the planet stays where it belongs: underground.
the Status Quo
unfold a little like revolutions. They create a tremendous rupture with the
past. Today has nothing much in common with yesterday -- in how the system
works or doesn’t, in what people have in common, in how they see their
priorities and possibilities. The people in power are often most interested in
returning to yesterday, because the status quo was working for them -- though
Mayor Bloomberg is to be commended for taking the storm as a wake-up call to do
more about climate change. For the rest of us, after such a disaster, sometimes
the status quo doesn’t look so good.
produce real political change, not always for the better (and not always for
the worse). I called four of the last five big calamities in this country the
four horsemen of the apocalypse because directly or otherwise they caused so
much suffering, because they brought us closer to the brink, and because they
changed our national direction. Disaster has now become our national policy: we
invite it in and it directs us, for better and worse.
As the horsemen
trample over all the things we love most, it becomes impossible to distinguish
natural disaster from man-made calamity: maybe the point is that there is no
difference anymore. But there’s another point: that we can prevent the worst of
the impact in all sorts of ways, from evacuation plans to carbon emissions
reductions to economic justice, and that it’s all tied up together.
I wish Sandy hadn’t happened.
But it did, and there have been and will be more disasters like this. I hope
that radical change arises from it. The climate has already changed. May we
change to meet the challenges.
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, November 01, 2012 11:04 AM
This post first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Commons Magazine, a gateway to the latest thinking and action in the commons movement.
If this election is a referendum on the benefit of government then superstorm Sandy should be Exhibit A for the affirmative. The government weather service, using data from government weather satellites delivered a remarkably accurate and sobering long range forecast that both catalyzed action and gave communities sufficient time to prepare. Those visually stunning maps you saw on the web or TV were largely based on public data made publicly available from local, state and federal agencies.
As the storm neared, governors and mayors ordered the evacuation of low lying areas. Police and firefighters ensured these orders were carried out and helped those needing assistance. As the storm hit, mayors imposed curfews.
Government 911 and 311 telephone operators quickly and effectively responded to hundreds of thousands of individual calls for assistance and information. Indeed, the volume of those calls may lead us to propose a different answer to the question asked by those famous lines from the movie Ghostbusters. “If there’s something weird and it don’t look good who ya gonna call?” Government.
Public schools and other public buildings were quickly converted into temporary shelters. Transit systems and bridges were closed when public safety might be compromised.
Tens of thousands National Guard troops were mobilized to assist at evacuation shelters, route clearance, search and rescue and delivery of essential equipment and supplies. The military’s USNORTHCOM placed its forces on 24-hour alert to provide medium and heavy lift helicopters and rescue teams, and activated local military bases for possible use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Before the storm hit state agencies required emergency preparedness plans from publicly regulated utilities and after the storm hit monitored their responses.
The President quickly issued Major Disaster Declarations that allowed states and communities to access funding for recovery efforts. His ongoing hands-on role earned him the fulsome praise of New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie who told Good Morning America, “I have to say, the administration, the president himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far.”
Public agencies swung into action to protect bridges, and roads, and sewer plants and subways—and to plan for a cleanup that will require clearing debris, repairing infrastructure, and providing financial and other assistance to homeowners and businesses.
Seven years ago, Katrina showed the tragic consequences when government fails its duty to respond to natural disasters. But that was the exception that proves the rule. When disasters hit, the government is the only agent with the authority and capacity to marshal and mobilize resources sufficient to the undertaking. It can coordinate across jurisdictions and with both the public and private sectors. That’s because its mission is not to enhance its balance sheet but to preserve the well being of its citizens. And in October 2012 it has shown how effectively it can perform that task.
David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Minneapolis- and DC-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Public Good Initiative. His books include The New City-States and We Must Make Haste Slowly: The Process of Revolution in Chile.
Image courtesy of David_Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012 11:22 AM
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
In ancient China,
the arrival of a new dynasty was accompanied by “the rectification of names,” a
ceremony in which the sloppiness and erosion of meaning that had taken place
under the previous dynasty were cleared up and language and its subjects
correlated again. It was like a debt jubilee, only for meaning rather than
This was part of what made Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign so
electrifying: he seemed like a man who spoke our language and called many if
not all things by their true names. Whatever caused that season of clarity,
once elected, Obama promptly sank into the stale, muffled, parallel-universe
language wielded by most politicians, and has remained there ever since.
Meanwhile, the far right has gotten as far as it has by mislabeling just about
everything in our world -- a phenomenon which went supernova in this year of
“legitimate rape,” “the apology tour,” and “job creators.” Meanwhile,
their fantasy version of economics keeps getting more fantastic. (Maybe there
should be a rectification of numbers, too.)
Let’s rectify some names ourselves. We often speak as though the source of
so many of our problems is complex and even mysterious. I'm not sure it is. You
can blame it all on greed: the refusal to do anything about climate change, the
attempts by the .01% to destroy our democracy, the constant robbing of the poor,
the resultant starving children, the war against most of what is beautiful on
Calling lies "lies" and theft "theft"
and violence "violence," loudly, clearly, and consistently, until
truth becomes more than a bump in the road, is a powerful aspect of political
activism. Much of the work around human rights begins with accurately and
aggressively reframing the status quo as an outrage, whether it’s misogyny or
racism or poisoning the environment. What protects an outrage are disguises,
circumlocutions, and euphemisms -- “enhanced interrogation techniques” for
torture, “collateral damage” for killing civilians, “the war on terror” for the
war against you and me and our Bill of Rights.
Change the language and you’ve begun to change the reality or at least to
open the status quo to question. Here is Confucius on the rectification of
“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what
is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this
remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the
people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no
arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”
So let’s start calling manifestations of greed by their true name. By greed,
I mean the attempt of those who have plenty to get more, not the attempts of
the rest of us to survive or lead a decent life. Look at the Waltons of
Wal-Mart fame: the four main heirs are among the dozen richest people on the planet,
each holding about $24 billion. Their wealth is equivalent to that of the bottom 40% of Americans. The corporation Sam Walton
founded now employs 2.2 million workers, two-thirds of them in the U.S., and
the great majority are poorly paid, intimidated, often underemployed people who
routinely depend on government benefits to survive. You could call that Walton
Family welfare -- a taxpayers' subsidy to their system. Strikes launched against Wal-Mart this summer and fall protested
working conditions of astonishing barbarity -- warehouses that reach 120
degrees, a woman eight months pregnant forced to work at a brutal pace, commonplace exposure to
pollutants, and the intimidation of those who attempted to organize or
You would think that $24,000,000,000 apiece would be enough, but the Walton
family sits atop a machine intent upon brutalizing tens of millions of people
-- the suppliers of Wal-Mart notorious for their abysmal working conditions, as
well as the employees of the stores -- only to add to piles of wealth already
obscenely vast. Of course, what we call corporations are, in fact, perpetual motion
machines, set up to endlessly extract wealth (and leave slagheaps of poverty
behind) no matter what.
They are generally organized in such a way that the brutality that leads to
wealth extraction is committed by subcontractors at a distance or described in
euphemisms, so that the stockholders, board members, and senior executives
never really have to know what’s being done in their names. And yet it is their
job to know -- just as it is each of our jobs to know what systems feed us and
exploit or defend us, and the job of writers, historians, and journalists to
rectify the names for all these things.
The most terrifying passage in whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s gripping book
A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is not about his
time in Vietnam,
or his life as a fugitive after he released the Pentagon Papers. It’s about a
1969 dinnertime conversation with a co-worker in a swanky house in Pacific
Palisades, California. It took place right after Ellsberg and five of his
colleagues had written a letter to the New York Times arguing for
immediate withdrawal from the unwinnable, brutal war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg’s
host said, “If I were willing to give up all this... if I were willing to
renege on... my commitment to send my son to Groton... I would have signed the
In other words, his unnamed co-worker had weighed trying to
prevent the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people against the
upper-middle-class perk of having his kid in a fancy prep school, and chosen
the latter. The man who opted for Groton
was, at least, someone who worked for what he had and who could imagine having
painfully less. This is not true of the ultra-rich shaping the future of our
They could send tens of thousands to Groton,
buy more Renoirs and ranches, and still not exploit the poor or destroy the
environment, but they’re as insatiable as they are ruthless. They are often
celebrated in their aesthetic side effects: imposing mansions, cultural patronage, jewels, yachts. But in many, maybe most, cases they got rich
through something a lot uglier, and that ugliness is still ongoing. Rectifying
the names would mean revealing the ugliness of the sources of their fortunes
and the grotesque scale on which they contrive to amass them, rather than the
gaudiness of the trinkets they buy with them. It would mean seeing and naming
the destruction that is the corollary of most of this wealth creation.
A Storm Surge of Selfishness
Where this matters most is climate change. Why have we done almost nothing
over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present
catastrophe? Because it was bad for quarterly returns and fossil-fuel
portfolios. When posterity indicts our era, this will be the feeble answer for
why we did so little -- that the rich and powerful with ties to the
carbon-emitting industries have done everything in their power to prevent
action on, or even recognition of, the problem. In this country in particular,
they spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change and
punishing politicians who brought the subject up. In this way have we gone
through four “debates” and nearly a full election cycle with climate change
unmentioned and unmentionable.
These three decades of refusing to respond have wasted crucial time. It’s as
though you were prevented from putting out a fire until it was raging: now the
tundra is thawing and Greenland’s ice shield
is melting and nearly every natural system is disrupted, from
the acidifying oceans to the erratic seasons to droughts, floods, heat waves,
and wildfires, and the failure of crops. We can still respond, but the climate
is changed; the damage we all spoke of, only a few years ago, as being in the
future is here, now.
You can look at the chief executive officers of the oil corporations --
Chevron’s John Watson, for example, who received almost $25 million ($1.57 million in salary and the rest in
“compensation”) in 2011 -- or their major shareholders. They can want for
nothing. They’re so rich they could quit the game at any moment. When it comes
to climate change, some of the wealthiest people in the world have weighed the
fate of the Earth and every living thing on it for untold generations to come,
the seasons and the harvests, this whole exquisite planet we evolved on, and
they have come down on the side of more profit for themselves, the least needy
people the world has ever seen.
Take those billionaire energy tycoons Charles and David Koch, who are all
over American politics these days. They are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama, partly because
he offends their conservative sensibilities, but also because he is less likely
to be a completely devoted servant of their profit margins. He might, if we
shout loud enough, rectify a few names. Under pressure, he might even
listen to the public or environmental groups, while Romney poses no such
problem (and under a Romney administration they will probably make more back in
tax cuts than they are gambling on his election).
Two years ago, the Koch brothers spent $1 million on California’s
Proposition 23, an initiative written and put on the ballot by out-of-state oil
companies to overturn our 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. It lost by a
landslide, but the Koch brothers have also invested a small fortune in
spreading climate-change denial and sponsoring the Tea Party (which they can
count on to oppose climate change regulation as big government or interference
with free enterprise). This year they’re backing a California
initiative to silence unions. They want nothing to stand in the way of
corporate power and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Think of it as another
kind of war, and consider the early casualties.
As the Irish Timesput it in an editorial this summer:
"Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America,
hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the
last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa,
and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa
face starvation. Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the
Global Humanitarian Forum, headed up by former U.N. secretary general Kofi
Annan, climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affects 300
million people annually. By 2030, the annual death toll related to climate
change is expected to rise to 500,000 and the economic cost to rocket to $600
This coming year may see a dramatic increase in hunger due to rising food
prices from crop failures, including this summer’s in the U.S. Midwest after a
scorching drought in which the Mississippi River
nearly ran dry and crops withered.
We need to talk about climate change as a war against nature, against the
poor (especially the poor of Africa), and
against the rest of us. There are casualties, there are deaths, and there is
destruction, and it’s all mounting. Rectify the name, call it war. While we’re
at it, take back the term “pro-life” to talk about those who are trying to save
the lives of all the creatures suffering from the collapse of the complex
systems on which plant and animal as well as human lives depend. The other
The complex array of effects from climate change and their global
distribution, as well as their scale and the science behind them makes it
harder to talk about than almost anything else on Earth, but we should talk
about it all the more because of that. And yes, the rest of us should do more,
but what is the great obstacle those who have already tried to do so much
invariably come up against? The oil corporations, the coal companies, the
energy industry, its staggering financial clout, its swarms of lobbyists, and the politicians in its clutches. Those who
benefit most from the status quo, I learned in studying disasters, are always
the least willing to change.
The Doublespeak on Taxes
I’m a Californian so I faced the current version of American greed early.
Proposition 13, the initiative that froze property taxes and made it nearly
impossible to raise taxes in our state, went into effect in 1978, two years
former governor Ronald Reagan won the presidency, in part by catering to greed.
Prop 13, as it came to be known, went into effect when California was still an
affluent state with the best educational system in the world, including some of
the top universities around, nearly free to in-staters all the way through
graduate school. Tax cuts have trashed the state and that education system, and they are now doing the same to
our country. The public sphere is to society what the biosphere is to life on
earth: the space we live in together, and the attacks on them have parallels.
What are taxes? They are that portion of your income that you contribute to
the common good. Most of us are unhappy with how they’re allocated -- though
few outside the left talk about the fact that more than half of federal discretionary expenditures go to our gargantuan military, more money than is spent on the next 14 militaries combined. Ever since Reagan, the right
has complained unceasingly about fantasy expenditures -- from that president’s “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird and
PBS (which consumes .001% of federal expenditures).
As part of its religion of greed, the right invented a series of myths about
where those taxes went, how paying them was the ultimate form of oppression,
and what boons tax cuts were to bring us. They then delivered the biggest
tax cuts of all to those who already had a superfluity of money and weren’t
going to pump the extra they got back into the economy. What they really were
saying was that they wanted to hang onto every nickel, no matter how the public
sphere was devastated, and that they really served the ultra-rich, over and
over again, not the suckers who voted them into office.
Despite decades of cutting to the bone, they continue to promote tax cuts as
if they had yet to happen. Their constant refrain is that we are too poor to
feed the poor or educate the young or heal the sick, but the poverty isn’t
monetary: it’s moral and emotional. Let’s rectify some more language: even at
this moment, the United States
remains the richest nation the world has ever seen, and California
-- with the richest agricultural regions on the planet and a colossal high-tech
boom still ongoing in Silicon Valley -- is
loaded, too. Whatever its problems, the U.S. is still swimming in
abundance, even if that abundance is divided up ever more unequally.
Really, there’s more than enough to feed every child well, to treat every
sick person, to educate everyone well without saddling them with hideous debt,
to support the arts, to protect the environment -- to produce, in short, a
glorious society. The obstacle is greed. We could still make the sorts of
changes climate change requires of us and become a very different nation
without overwhelming pain. We would then lead somewhat different lives -- richer, not poorer, for most of us (in meaning, community,
power, and hope). Because this culture of greed impoverishes all of us, it is,
to call it by its true name, destruction.
Occupy the Names
One of the great accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street was this
rectification of names. Those who came together under that rubric named the
greed, inequality, and injustice in our system; they made the brutality of debt
and the subjugation of the debtors visible; they called out Wall Street’s
crimes; they labeled the wealthiest among us the “1%,” those who have made a
profession out of pumping great sums of our wealth upwards (quite a different
kind of tax). It was a label that made instant sense across much of the
political spectrum. It was a good beginning. But there’s so much more to do.
Naming is only part of the work, but it’s a crucial first step. A doctor
initially diagnoses, then treats; an activist or citizen must begin by
describing what is wrong before acting. To do that well is to call things by
their true names. Merely calling out these names is a beam of light powerful
enough to send the destroyers it shines upon scurrying for cover like roaches.
After that, you still need to name your vision, your plan, your hope, your
dream of something better.
Names matter; language matters; truth matters. In this era when the
mainstream media serve obfuscation and evasion more than anything else (except
distraction), alternative media, social media, demonstrations in the streets,
and conversations between friends are the refuges of truth, the places where we
can begin to rectify the names. So start talking.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by David Shankbone,
licensed under Creative
Wednesday, October 24, 2012 12:24 PM
The article below is reprinted with permission from the author and was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of
No one would want a novelist to perform brain surgery with
his pen. No one would want zoologist to then write textbooks claiming those misadventures
as best medical practice. Society understands the architecture of academia and
knows there are specific rooms of neuroscientists, windowsills of botanists,
stories of epidemiologists, a turretful of astrophysicists. Most individuals have
enough sense to know when they reach the limits of their knowledge. The media
accepts the idea of specializations and accords greater respect to those with greater
expertise. With one exception: climate science.
When it comes to this academic discipline, it seems that if
you have a zoology doctorate on sexual selection in pheasants (this is true),
editors will seek your contrarian view more avidly than if you have
qualifications in climate science and a lifetime’s professional expertise. The press
is littered with climate “heretics” with academic backgrounds in history, the classics,
or literature. Not climate science.
I recently watched a debate between a climate scientist and
that pheasant-expert turned-journalist, who also had an unfortunate background in
banking. (He was chairman of the bank Northern Rock up to its ignominious
collapse in 2007, and was accused in Parliament of “harming the reputation” of
British banking. Whoops.) An audience member asked: “Please could you explain
how it is that you are ‘right’ while all climate scientists are wrong?” He
could not. I almost felt sorry for him.
I know he has lectured publicly on scientific heresy. I
think he wants to be Galileo. Contrary to the beliefs of some contrarians, academia
welcomes the galileos and encourages skepticism: It wants its hypotheses robustly
tested precisely because it wants to pass those tests. It has a stern system of
peer review; it is judicious and conscientious. For sure, it can be tedious, no
caveat too small, no qualification too painstaking, no reference too abstruse. (Herodotus,
we’ll be with you shortly). It may spend years debating the infinitesimal advantage
of crenelation over machicolation of its ivory towers until it is disturbed by
a terse demand from wider society to come down to earth.
This demand usually means asking academia to justify itself
in terms of business and money. But what if it were asked to justify itself in
the name of public knowledge? What if it were required to play a role right at
the heart of democracy? Society needs the integrity and expertise of academics
in the puzzling out of some of its biggest quandaries: issues of nuclear power,
health, genetics, social justice, and climate science above all. A democracy then needs that knowledge disseminated through the
press, but the media’s ambition to be entertaining and provocative too often
overrules its respect for intellectual rigor. Journalists cannot hold degrees
in every subject they report on, but their job is not to pretend they know the
science better than the experts.
The BBC and Britain’s
newspapers regularly print and broadcast opinions opposing climate science by a novelist who describes himself as the
author of “fantastically entertaining” books. Fantastical is the word.
Qualified he is not. But the media, wanting to be part of the celebrity culture
it stalks and skedaddling toward infotainment, is losing sight of the core purpose
of its activity: to be a truthful messenger, in this case between the world of
academia and the public.
Pseudojournalism has the upper hand on both sides of the Atlantic. Dazzle camouflage for battleships of propaganda, the garbled plethora of
junkformation, a blare of urgent nonsense that seems designed to have an effect
more physiological than intellectual: it makes its audience tense, on alert,
jittery, prey to misinformation.
When one climate scientist in the States became utterly
frustrated and despairing about the propagandist misinformation put out by an odious
fossil fuel–funded think tank, he went undercover to get them to reveal details
of their funding and their plans for introducing climate contrarianism into
schools. To some, his action was unethical, while to others he was a hero of democracy.
The greater question, though, is not whether he should have gone undercover but
why on earth no investigative journalist did so.
And now over to Herodotus, our man in Athens. Democracy in ancient Greece was
designed to increase the knowledge available to its citizens (as academia does)
and to aid discussion of that knowledge (as the media should), leading to good policy
decisions. The historian Herodotus reports an early debate over what to do with
a windfall from mining. The citizens had a choice. Either each individual could
benefit from some instant cash, or the wealth could be used for long-term
collective benefit. Well informed, and after long discussion, they chose the
latter, a decision whose wisdom history validated. This was a self-respecting
citizenry that wanted to be worthy of its own abstract nouns, democracy above
all, and that believed, as I do, that when people are given good information,
they usually make good decisions.
“A popular government without popular information or the
means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both,”
president James Madison. Farce has been provided by the likes of “Burlesque-only,”
the Italian primate who aped the part of politician and controlled a twisted
media so successfully that Italy has now lost its democracy altogether and is
ruled by unelected bankers. Tragedy comes in the form of climate change, and
the media’s repeated trumpeting of misinformation is not only a breach of the
social contract with the present but also with the future.
Miscount a handful of votes and a nation will rightly
protest. Repeatedly misinform that nation and the law will not care, ruling as it
infamously did that Fox News has the right to lie or distort news. Mislead a
world about climate change and the future is at stake. Being adequately informed
is a democratic duty just as the vote is a democratic right. A misinformed electorate,
voting without knowledge, is not a true democracy.
Cue the graphics. I’m proposing a system of certification
for media articles in which there is a clear issue of social responsibility. Certified
articles should bear a symbol or stamp of quality assurance, be awarded by
teams of academics, and be given to the article, not the journalist, recognizing
the facts, not the personality. It should be awarded when the article is
accurate and uses reliable sources and peer reviewed studies. There already
exists the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, which answers questions at
short notice to help journalists achieve accuracy. The formality of a
certification symbol is necessary, though, for the reader to know whether to trust
an article. Accuracy must not only be achieved but be seen to have been
The certification should be voluntary. I’m not against
entertainment: if someone wants to read fantastically entertaining stories about
a man giving birth to an eight-foot baby with flying saucers for toes, good
luck to them, but I resent the appearance of parity between two articles on an
issue as serious as climate change when one article is actually gibberish masked
in pseudoscience and the other is well informed and accurate.
When the pheasant expert proffered his climate-heretic views
in a hugely popular book, the journal New Scientist gave his work to a
handful of specialists. According to them, the author “completely ignores the
mainstream scientific literature” and “has a very poor understanding of the
core issues,” “compares apples and eggs,” and “introduces confusion.” He “missed
many of the important points and concepts” and “cherry-picked evidence to form
opinions which are unsupported by the bulk of scientific evidence.” His work
was an “unfortunate misrepresentation,” which was “misleading,” an “unbalanced
contribution,” and an “ideological account.”
So, no certification there, then. The author has, I think,
fallen victim to what I call the Galileo fallacy. Just because Galileo was a
heretic doesn’t make every heretic a Galileo.
Jay Griffiths is the author of A Love Letter from a Stray
Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681); public domain / acquired from Wikimedia Commons
Thursday, October 18, 2012 4:41 PM
I like it when a particular word gets stuck in my head, begging me to use it whenever I can. Past recipients of this distinction have been such words as “consequently” and “predilection.” I don’t know what it is exactly about those words, but I love using them.
Lately, I’ve been knocking around a new word: Anthropocene. I’m guessing many of you have heard this word here or there, but for those that haven’t, it’s an informal term being used by some scientists to describe the new geological epoch.
The general consensus among scientists is that for the last 12,000 years or so, we’ve been living in a period of Earth’s history dubbed the Holocene. On the geological timeline, the end of the last Ice Age ushered in the Holocene, which for most of the last several thousand years has been marked by a fairly stable climate.
But with the evolution and development of the human race over that same period of time, scientists have noticed some characteristics different from those traditionally used to describe the Holocene, specifically that the Earth is heating up. It’s heating up so much, that it seems necessary to mark the beginning of a new epoch. That new epoch has been dubbed the Anthropocene to signify that we’ve entered the Age of Man. It acknowledges the fact that humans are the likely culprits for the rapid warming of the Earth over the last few hundred years.
When environmentalist and Utne Visionary Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature in 1989, it served as an introduction to most people that the climate was changing, and that man-made global warming was responsible for it. As a child, my understanding of global warming was simply that the colder places on Earth might be getting warmer. Living near Chicago in January, that didn’t sound so bad to me.
Fortunately, I have a better understanding of global warming now, and recognize that warming the Earth’s atmosphere can drastically change the climate across the world in numerous and immeasurable ways. More importantly, I believe now that this concept isn’t hypothetical—it’s really happening, and faster than many of us expected it to. Depending on where you call home, most of us experienced a taste of it last summer with heat waves, drought, wild fires, and flooding. If my “Holocene” was that period of my life where I spoke of climate change in terms of “ifs” and “maybes,” I’m in the Anthropocene now. And believe it or not, I’m optimistic for the future because of it.
Humans are stubborn creatures, and usually only change when they’re forced to by circumstances outside of their control. We’re also resourceful and fully capable of adapting. The next 100 years will pose a lot of changes to the ways we live today on every level, from environmental to economic to political. My optimism stems from the notion that many of those changes will strip away our collective ego and allow us to reevaluate what’s really important to us as individuals and as members of the global community.
For all of the pain and suffering we cause ourselves and one another, I still believe in the inherent goodness of man. I lament that it usually takes disaster and tragedy to expose it, but find solace in the fact that when we need to, we step up to the plate. Perhaps then, we’ll finally be ready to listen to all of the brilliant minds of the past who not only warned us about the future, but also equipped us with amazing ideas and solutions to problems we weren’t ready to fix way back when.
It’s too late to save the world we live in today, but that’s OK: this world is unsustainable. Let’s consider the Anthropocene a clean slate, and look forward to making a world that benefits not only humanity, but the Earth, too.
Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams
Image by dsearls, licensed under Creative Commons
Wednesday, October 17, 2012 11:57 AM
Editor's note: The following is a companion piece to "Power of Nature" from the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Utne Reader (pages 48-50). In that article, futurists Gitte Larsen, Søren Steen Olsen and Steen Svendsen of House of Futures in Denmark paint a vision of the future where we realize that everything is nature and so are we; that we are one with the earth and share a common biology and collective consciousness. The following is an equally optimistic alternate vision of the future where humanity realizes that when it puts its collective mind toward something, it's capable of developing technologies, organizations, political institutions and business models that allow for prosperity without jeopardizing the planet.
In 2112, we live in a “man-made world.” If you look at that world from a 2012 perspective, you will be surprised by the responsibility that we, as humans, exhibit towards nature—the clean cities, the fertile landscape, the light-touch clean economy and the high prosperity. You will be fascinated by the new technology and new innovations, and you may be shocked by the changes in human physiology. But you will recognize general social patterns.
Let us give you the story of how this future unfolds, where it has its historic roots and what drives the transformation. Then let us describe to you the future perception of nature. Finally let us portray what politics, business, living, art, science and technology will look like in this world.
Drivers and Background
The mindset that drives “man-made world” is responsible determination. It is informed by the realization that human activity has created a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, where we have become the most important driving force for changing Earth’s geology, climate, and ecosystems. We are responsible and we have to assume this responsibility. “man-made world” is created by vigorous political initiative and rational science-based planning. And it arguably has its roots stretching back all the way to the Club of Rome with its message of “limits to growth” due to the finiteness of fossil energy and raw materials reserves. This gave rise to an increasing awareness of nature’s boundaries to human activities. Also, it led to a process of institutionalized global political consultation, negotiation and formulation of targets. The Brundtland commission and Kyoto protocols were some early milestones in a process with plenty of twists and bumps along the way to the Anthropocene breakthrough.
In the 1970s, the oil crisis that ended the three decades of historically unprecedented economic growth worked as a powerful demonstration of the exact vulnerabilities that “limits to growth” had pointed out. This run of events was a precursor for the early decades of the 21st century when increasing temperatures, hurricanes, floods and droughts put pressure on our resources and economies thereby demonstrating the message from the scientific community about planetary boundaries. The ideas driving "man-made world" were under ways for many decades, and often quite high on the agenda of public discourse and policy. They were picked up by media, by NGOs and grassroot movements, and by segments of consumers and producers. But the wholesale radical change that marks “man-made world” required a new generation of political leaders taking over as the old generation failed to inspire and weren’t up to tackling the challenges.
It became clear that global action on a massive scale was needed in order to reverse, mitigate and/or adapt to the challenges. Consequently we saw a refocusing and a revitalization of political processes on local, national, regional, and global levels. New generations of policy entrepreneurs were taking the lead in taking responsibility.
Perception of Nature
A strong and conscious perception of nature is absolutely central in the "man-made world." We see nature as a living system and a wonderful resource. We can rely on it to provide us with much of the material basis for our existence. But nature is a finite resource. Since the industrial revolution, humans have become the single most powerful force affecting nature’s development, changing physical landscapes, climate, material metabolisms and biodiversity, both globally and locally. We are living in a geological epoch of our own making. This was a call on us to be responsible and rational in how we use the world’s resources. We learned to be knowledgeable and conscious about how our activities effect the fragile balanced of nature.
Nature requires us to keep researching and studying nature, as well as ourselves and the interplay between human societies and nature. Nature inspires us to recognize the beauty and endless opportunities and scope for innovation that it presents us with, but also to be acutely aware and mindful of the boundaries that nature sets for our utilization.
We must assume responsibility. We must acquire the means to control and manage our own power and collective behavior in order to harness nature without damaging it. We need to take on the role of responsible and conscientious custodians, stewards or managers of nature—like any landowner would his property—all in order to be able to continue to be the biggest beneficiaries of nature.
Previously it was sometimes said that we knew what needed to be done, we just didn’t know how to do it politically. It was somewhat natural to take a cynical view given the previously disappointingly inadequate political action even in the face of a long-standing public awareness of the challenges. We were irresponsibly gambling with the future of the planet. Everybody was waiting for someone else to take the lead and do something.
The emergence of a new generation of political leaders changed the dynamics. It was a generation whose outlook was shaped by the ongoing debate on sustainability and by growing impatience and frustration with the inadequacy of political response. They entered the scene with an ambitious outlook, a firm belief that change is possible, and a deep sense of responsibility towards nature and future generations.
There was a new optimism and enthusiasm for what we can accomplish. A feeling that we actually can make a better world if we put our minds to it. “So let us be masters of our own fate and take responsibility for the destiny of our planet. We can do it!”as one political leader famously put it.
Growing public realization that old methods and politics simply couldn’t deliver urged a tectonic shift in the balance between old vested interests and forward-looking interests. The new political agenda was global in its worldview and resonated with people everywhere, especially younger generations. Beginning in northwestern Europe and the EU, governments all over the world devised and implemented strategic policies using a variety of instruments. The frontrunners were countries where there was a strong awareness of the importance of a new course; a culture which was influenced by a generally high level of economic development and public welfare, and above all by education; a culture based on co-creation.
The global process that unfolded was partly negotiated, cooperative, and coordinated, and partly an uneven process of pioneers and emulators, leaders and followers. International and global institutions gained renewed relevance and were quick to pick up on this agenda assuming their designated role as facilitators of global political dialogue and will.
Democracy and revitalized primarily due to the system’s ability to respond to the challenge, but also because of a new political culture based on a dynamic development in digital and local platforms creating a new responsiveness between people and politicians.
As for strategies, one key was to get prices right. Tax systems were used in various and often innovative ways to ensure that prices reflected true ecological costs. Another key was investing massively in sustainable infrastructure: energy, smart grids, transportation systems, welfare technology, recycling and waste disposal. A third key was support for open source technological development and sustainable innovation. The overall effect was to move the economy on to a new path of development.
Once the political direction was clear, business and consumers were remarkably quick to respond. Breakthroughs in solar, wind, smart grids, waste disposal and material technologies came in rapid succession and were speedily implemented. New patterns of consumption and production emerged that were radically more friendly to the environment. A light-touch, clean and prosperous economy emerged.
What was most surprising to many in the beginning of the transition was that the structural changes to the economic system went hand in hand with economic boom. The new ecologically sustainable economic system was highly competitive.
Frontrunners were those who not only responded to new pricing signals and market demands but who truly comprehended the new policy direction and based their vision and strategy on it. They were the ones who delivered the myriad of new products, services and business models that built the light-touch economy.
The transformation that was set in motion succeeded in completely replacing the fossil fuel based economy with one that was based on energy from clean, renewable sources. It saw a materials revolution driven by the development of new eco-friendly synthetic materials, and by the super-efficient recycling markets and waste disposal systems. And not only did it succeed, but success came much faster than anyone had predicted, or even thought possible. Once set in motion the process quickly gained momentum and became self-reinforcing as political initiative, political response and technological innovation combined in a powerful drive for sustainability and renewed prosperity.
In fact, a dynamic arose in which countries, economies and businesses that embraced sustainable strategies became economic powerhouses and front-runners. To be stuck in the age of gasoline and coal was the biggest structural danger to an economy. Some large companies, notably those rich in fossil fuels, and those poor in political effectiveness, struggled to make the transition but eventually followed suit. We have learned that responsible management of our relationship with nature is not only right. It is also highly rewarding in many regards.
Living and Art
Life in the light-touch society is high-prosperity, low-impact. Intelligent systems handled the metabolic exchange with nature, and secured the safe and efficient recycling of materials and disposal of waster. Our relationship with nature was respectful and sustainable. As people lived in clean and attractive built environments, nature was not top-of-mind all the time. Many people spend a lot of their time in digitized virtual reality rather than in nature. At the same time people very much appreciated nature, and it still had a powerful appeal. It offered great experiences whether you were an adventurer seeking extreme authenticity, or whether you would rather opt for themed nature resorts where people could experience sights and landscapes, some with carefully managed stocks of wild animals. Prehistoric theme parks complete with dinosaurs and swans were particularly popular.
Remarkably, art became big business and the single most dynamic sector in the economy. This was a result of prosperity and individualism that saw art as the ultimate form of self-actualization. The ability to create and appreciate artistic expressions was the ultimate human characteristic, one that was eagerly sought after and high in demand. New technologies and knowledge of the functioning of the human brain and body have opened up a variety of new artistic fields and art forms.
But the one parameter that came to dominate the field was authenticity. That is, the experience of a significant event which takes place at a particular place and time and therefore is unique and cannot be replicated. The development and careful staging of such events constituted a large and fast growing part of the economy and employment. New artistic megahalls and art stadiums sprang up in cities around the world in fierce competition for the most prestigious and creative public spaces for art activities.
The goal was to merge intellect and intuition in new ways, constantly experimenting with new forms of human consciousness, expression of language, story-telling, sound, music, imagery, and sensory stimulation. To many this kind of endeavor was the closest thing to having a meaning of life.
Science and Technology
Science was very visible and important driver in the transition to a sustainable "man-made world," and the string of technological breakthroughs that it spurned gave it a new-found prestige in society. Big science made a decisive comeback, not least when cheap and clean nuclear fusion energy came on stream by the latter half of the 21st century. Their cool and quiet gigantic domes were an aesthetically pleasing addition to the landscape.
Science pursued further advancement in a range of fields stretching from genetics to space. Sophisticated modeling was applied to complex systems such as ecosystems, climate and weather in order to optimize our management of them and in order to facilitate advances in the dynamic field of geo-engineering. There was a new focus on anticipation and prevention instead of problem fixing and symptom treatment.
The scientific study of nature kept offering exciting opportunities to learn from something that was not human-made. The extraction and storage of genetic information from all life forms was one project that promised to enable regeneration of any extinct species that might be deemed valuable or interesting. Given advanced knowledge of managing ecosystems, this would also make it possible to create new types of ecosystems.
Artificial intelligence, robotics, genetics, merging of man and machine, were some of the developments we saw. The re-engineering of humans and the possible prospect of immaturity began to raise a host of new practical and ethical questions.
Image courtesy of dullhunk, licensed under Creative Commons
Friday, September 28, 2012 1:25 PM
Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club. Reprinted from
(September/October 2012), the bimonthly magazine of the Sierra Club.
This spring I found myself at the White House Correspondents' Dinner—a slightly bizarre gathering of celebrities, reporters, politicos, and the occasional do-gooder like me. One of the more refreshing aspects of the event was a series of conversations I had with Republican leaders who talked (off the record) about their interest in tackling climate change—and the political constraints preventing them or their colleagues from speaking out about it.
"Mike, we may not agree on much," one prominent Republican said. "But on climate change, there's not really that much separating us." Then he added, "But there's no way I can say that publicly."
How did we get to this place? Instead of working together to solve problems, our two major political parties are engaged in a perpetual tug-of-war. That's a tough environment for the Sierra Club, which has a long history of alliances across the ideological spectrum based on shared values about conservation and public health. Even though the Club is usually labeled as a liberal organization, our mission to promote the "responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources" sounds downright conservative to me. Most people, regardless of their political leanings, agree that protecting the planet is the right thing to do, even if they don't always agree on how to do it.
I'm writing this at the height of the election season—the most partisan time in hyperpartisan America. But the Sierra Club's political program has just one objective: to help elect good people of any party who will work to keep our air and water clean, stabilize our climate, and protect the key ecological regions we treasure. No party has a monopoly on environmental values; after all, many of the landmark environmental laws that Republican legislators now attack were passed by large bipartisan majorities and signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
I'm optimistic that support for a clean environment can once again be bipartisan—not because of anything I've seen in Washington, D.C., but because I keep meeting people of every political stripe who share the values of justice and responsibility that are at the heart of the Club's work. When we can bring citizens together around these values, change will come from the ground up.
The Sierra Club has a head start here because, with 1.4 million members and supporters, we already represent a wide array of opinions and priorities. And as a (lowercase d) democratic, volunteer-run organization, we have 120 years of experience with reaching consensus. Here's one thing we've learned: Real dialogue starts with people, not parties.
I love the Living Room Conversations project started by MoveOn.org founder Joan Blades, in which one self-identified "conservative" and one self-identified "progressive" each invite two friends of similar political ideologies to join a structured conversation. Their goal is to learn about and from each other while discussing an issue of their choice. On one of the Sierra Club's issues—energy—participants agreed across party lines on solutions like conserving energy and growing our renewable-energy industries.
Those solutions are ready to be adopted. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, a national renewable-electricity standard that ensured that utilities obtained at least 25 percent of their power from wind, solar, and bioenergy by 2025 would create 297,000 new jobs, $13.5 billion in income to rural landowners, and $15.3 billion in new local tax revenues. It's a win-win-win solution, with nothing partisan about it.
So, candidates: The Sierra Club would love to be evaluating which of you would implement popular solutions like this the most quickly. You just need to come out and say so publicly.
You can e-mail Michael Brune at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Image courtesy of paul nine-o, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 03, 2012 4:36 PM
Our online guide to what you may have missed this
The new transpo bill may be disappointing for
cyclists, but that doesn’t stop more and more people from getting interested in
biking. And increasingly, that
means universities and think tanks, says Pacific Standard. Ideas like bikeability and how cycling figures
into class distinctions are gaining a big following on campuses throughout the
country. North Carolina’s Lees-McGrae College
even offers a cycling minor.
And Congress also looks pretty
powerless to stop a new push for national bike routes led by nonprofits like
the Adventure Cycling Association. Currently, six
national routes are in the works across the lower 48, including—get
this—Route 66, all the way from Chicago
to LA, says Grist. The Great
American Bike Trip, as its known, is still very much in the planning stage, but
a nod last year from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation
Officials—comprised mostly of state DOT big wigs—was a big step forward. If all
goes according to plan, the road trip of the 21st century could look
The Baffler’s Thomas Frank asks, how vibrant is your
city? And, more to the point, who cares?
Redlining and blockbusting
may be long gone, but segregation
isn’t going anywhere, says the Pew Research
Center. A new study
finds that segregation based on income level has increased dramatically since
1980, especially in the Sunbelt and the
Adrien Brody does a mean
Salvador Dali in Woody Allen’s recent Midnight
in Paris, but Dali himself is no stranger to the big screen. In the late
1960s, the surrealist master appeared on not one, but three
French TV commercials for chocolate, wine, and yes, even Alka-Seltzer. Open Culture posted this video medley,
along with some fascinating background.
Oh, and here’s an equally bizarre
Dali appearance on What’s My Line in
A little good news on
climate from Treehugger: despite the
heat wave, US
energy production is generating its lowest
carbon emission levels since 1992. Reportedly, this year’s first quarter saw
an 8 percent drop from 2011.
Finally, how much do you
spend on entertainment? Sociological
Images reposted an interesting graphic comparing household
budgets between classes. Among the biggest differences between rich and
poor are how much goes to health insurance, food, and especially retirement.
More surprising were the constants: most people tend to put about the same
share of their income toward things like clothes, going out to eat, and even
education, regardless of how much they make. And as a general rule, working
class families tend to spend a much bigger pie slice on immediate necessities
like utilities and groceries.
And those differences are
growing. A new interactive feature from Demos
charts the demographics of
poverty in America,
and how they’ve changed since 1970. Nearly 50 million Americans today are below
the poverty line, and people of color, women, and young people disproportionately
Image by Prayitno,
licensed under Creative
Thursday, August 02, 2012 9:49 AM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
When you go to
the mountains, you go to the mountains. When it’s the desert, it’s the desert.
When it’s the ocean, though, we generally say that we’re going “to the beach.”
Land is our element, not the waters of our world, and that is an unmistakable
advantage for any oil company that wants to drill in pristine waters.
Take Shell Oil.
Recently, the company’s drill ship, the fabulously named Noble Discoverer, went adrift and almost grounded in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
That should be considered an omen for a distinctly star-crossed venture to
come. Unfortunately, few of us are paying the slightest attention.
getting ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean,
an ecosystem staggeringly rich in life of every sort, and while it’s not yet
quite a done deal, the prospect should certainly focus our minds. But first,
it’s worth reminding ourselves of the mind-boggling richness of the life still
in our oceans.
Last month began with a once-in-a-lifetime sighting in Monterey Bay, California,
startlingly close to shore, of blue whales. Those gigantic mammals can measure
up to 100 feet, head-to-tail, and weigh nearly 200 tons—the largest animal by
weight ever to have lived on this planet. Yes, even heavier than dinosaurs. The
biggest of them, Amphicoelias fragillimus, is estimated to have
weighed 122 tons, while the largest blue whale came in at a whopping 195 tons.
The recent Monterey Bay sighting is being called “the most phenomenal showing of th[os]e endangered
mammals in recent history.” On July 5th alone, the Monterey Bay Whale Watch reported
sightings of “12 blue whales, 40 humpback whales, 400 Risso's dolphins, 300
northern right whale dolphins, 250 Pacific white-sided dolphins, and two minke
you go you just see blows"—that is, the blues spouting—Nancy Black, owner
of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. It seems that the
abundance of krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures that the whales feed on,
attracted about 100 of the blues. Until the beginning of the twentieth century,
they were abundant with an estimated population of more than 200,000 living in
theSouthern (or Antarctic) Ocean alone. Then they were hunted
nearly to extinction. Today, only about 10,000 of them are believed to exist.
Afternoon in the Arctic
If you follow
the pacific coastline from Monterey all the way
north, sooner or later you’ll arrive at Kivalina along the Chukchi Sea
coast in the Alaskan Arctic. Keep going along that coastline even further north
and you’ll pass by Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainright, and finally Barrow—the
northernmost town in the United States.
At Barrow, you’ll
be at the confluence of the Chukchi and Beaufort
Seas of the Arctic
Ocean. Now, head east along the Beaufort Sea
coast to Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik, both Iñupiat communities. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are remarkably rich in krill, and
home to the endangered bowhead whale. It may not be quite as large as the blue,
but head-to-tail it can still measure an impressive enough 66 feet and weigh up
to 75 tons, and it has one special attribute. It is believed to be the
longest-lived mammal on the planet.
bowheads were also abundant—an estimated population of 30,000 well into the
mid-nineteenth century. Then commercial whalers began hunting them big time,
driving them nearly extinct in less than 50 years. Today, about 10,000 bowhead
whales live in the Arctic Ocean. Blues and
bowheads could be considered the elders of the sea.
While the blues
were feeding in Monterey
Bay, Shell’s drill ships,
the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk, were migrating north, with the hope of
drilling for oil in those very waters this summer. Unlike the jubilant
tourists, scientists, and residents of the California coast, the Iñupiat people
of the Arctic coast are now living in fear of Shell’s impending arrival; and
little wonder, as that oil giant is about to engage in what may be the most
dangerous form of drilling anywhere on Earth. After all, no one actually knows
how to clean up an oil spill that happens under the ice in the harsh conditions
of the Arctic Ocean. Despite that, the Obama
administration has been fast-tracking Shell’s dangerous drilling plan, while paying
remarkably little attention to the ecological fears it raises and the potential
devastation a major spill or spills would cause to the native peoples of the
No need to
worry, though: Shell swears it’s dealing with the possibility of such a
disaster, even to the point of bringing in dogs “to detect oil spills beneath
snow and ice.” No joke. “When it comes to drilling for oil in the harsh and
unpredictable Arctic,” the Guardianreported in March, “Shell has gone to the dogs, it seems. A
dachshund and two border collies to be specific.”
administration has been no less reassuring. There will be a genuine federal inspector on board those drill ships 24/7. And
whether you’re listening to the oil company or our government, you should just
know that it’s all a beautiful dream, nothing more. When a spill happens, and
it’s minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind’s howling at 65 miles per hour,
and sea ice is all around you and moving, the idea that a highly trained
dachshund or federal inspector will be able to do a thing is pure fantasy.
Believe me, I’ve been there under those conditions and if the worst occurs,
this won’t be a repeat of BP in the Gulf of Mexico
(bad as that was). Help will not be available.
Hand Shell this
for honesty: the company has admitted that, if a spill were to happen late in the summer
drilling season (of course it won’t!), they will simply have to leave the
spilled oil “in place” for nine months to do its damnedest. The following
summer they will theoretically deal with what’s left of the spill, and—though
they don’t say this—the possibility of a dead or dying sea.
National Environmental Policy Act requires that the government must do an Environmental
Impact Statement (EIS) if there is reason to believe that a proposed activity
will significantly affect the quality of the human environment. The Department
of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement
avoided the time consuming EIS process, however, issuing instead what is called
a “Finding of No Significant Impact.”
In late June,
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, “I believe there will not be an oil spill” from
Shell’s Arctic drilling, and proceeded full
speed ahead. Know this: in 2011 alone in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, Shell reported 63 “operational spills” due to equipment failure.
That happened in a tropical environment.
must have an approved spill-response plan before drilling can proceed. But
Shell’s government-rubber-stamped plan turns out to be full of holes, including
the claim that, should a spill occur, they will be able to recover 90 percent of all spilled oil. (In the cases of both the Exxon
Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon disasters less than 10 percent was recovered.) In fact, it’s a claim
from which the company is already backtracking. On July 10th, 10 environmental
organizations, including the Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for
Biological Diversity, and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous
Lands (REDOIL), filed a lawsuit challenging Shell’s spill-response plans in
an attempt to stop this summer’s drilling.
Shell’s 37-year-old 294-foot barge, the Arctic Challenger, a necessity for its
clean-up plan, is still awaiting final certification from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Reporting on the failure to receive it so far, the Los Angeles Timespointed out that “[e]ngineers from the oil company say it's
no longer appropriate to require them to meet the rigorous weather standards
originally proposed.” Unfortunately, there couldn’t be anything more basic to
drilling in the Arctic than its fearsome
weather. If you can’t hack that -- and no oil company can—you shouldn’t be
sending your drill ships northward.
And a massive
spill or a series of smaller ones is hardly the only danger to one of the more
fragile environments left on the planet. The seismic testing that precedes any
drilling and the actual drilling operations bring “lots of noise” to the region. This could be very harmful to
the bowhead whales, which use sound to navigate through sea ice in darkness.
Seismic testing represents, as Peter Matthiessen wrote in 2007, following a trip we took together along the
Arctic coast of Alaska,
“the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment I can imagine short
of naval warfare.”
Shell’s drill ships will put significant amounts of toxic substances into the
Arctic air each year, including an estimated 336 tons of nitrogen oxides and up
to 28 tons of PM2.5—fine particles that include dust, dirt, soot,
smoke, and liquid droplets. These are harmful to human health and will degrade
the Arctic’s clean atmosphere.
opposition from indigenous Iñupiat communities, the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) nonetheless approved air quality permits for the ships in January.
On June 28th, however, Shell admitted that the Noble Discoverer “cannot meet the [EPA’s]
requirements for emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia” and asked the agency
to loosen air quality rules for Arctic drilling.
Add to this one
more thing: even before Shell’s drilling begins, or there can be any assessment
of it, the Obama administration is already planning to open up more Arctic waters to offshore drilling in the
years to come. Think of this—and of the possible large-scale, irremediable
pollution of the Arctic’s watery landscape—as
the canary in the coalmine when it comes to the oceans of the world. Especially
now, when global warming is melting northern ice and opening the way for energy
corporations backed by governments to train their sights on those waters and
their energy riches.
Just the Arctic
simplest fact: we are killing our oceans. Rapidly. Already, the massive
atmospheric accumulationof greenhouse gases from the burning
of non-Arctic fossil fuels has, scientists believe, caused a rise in sea surface temperature of 1 degree Centigrade over
the past 140 years. This may not seem impressive, but much of this increase has
occurred during the past few decades. As a result, scientists again believe,
there has been a potentially catastrophic 40 percent decline, largely since
1950, in the phytoplankton that support the whole marine food chain. Headlines
from media reports on this decline catch the grim possibilities in the
situation: “The Dead Sea,” “Are Our Oceans Dying?”
In addition, the oceans absorb about 25 percent of the
carbon dioxide (CO2) we put in the atmosphere and this has made
their waters abnormally acidic, transforming coral reefs into graveyards. Earlier this year, we learned
that “the current acidification is potentially unparalleled in at least the
last 300 million years of Earth history, and raises the possibility that we are
entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.” This July, Jane
Lubchenco, chief of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, referred to such ocean acidification as climate change's
"equally evil twin.”
rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is already proving catastrophic
for a host of species, including narwhals, polar bears, walruses, seals, and
sea birds. And you have undoubtedly heard about the massive
expanses of garbage, especially plastic, now clotting our oceans. Chris
Jordan’s powerful photographs of dead albatrosses at Midway Atoll,
their bellies full of plastic, catch what this can mean for marine life. And
then there’s the increasing industrial overfishing of all waters, which is
threatening to decimate fish populations globally.
And keep in
mind, that’s only so far. Drilling for what Michael Klare calls “tough oil” or “extreme energy” in a range of
perilous locations only ensures the further degradation of the oceans. In
addition to the possible opening up of the Arctic Ocean, there has been an
expansion of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling in “Iceberg Alley” near Newfoundland,
deep-offshore drilling in the Brazillian “pre-salt” fields of the Atlantic
Ocean, and an increase in offshore drilling in West Africa and Asia.
As Klare writes
in his new book, The Race for What’s Left, “Drilling for oil and
natural gas in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic,
and the Pacific is likely to accelerate in the years ahead… Even the ecological
damage wreaked by the Deepwater Horizon disaster of April 2010 is not
likely to slow this drive.” He adds that “the giant oil companies will spend an
estimated $387 billion on offshore drilling operations between 2010 and
In other words,
we’re in a drill, baby, drill world, even when it comes to the most perilous of
watery environments, and if the major energy companies have their way, there
will be no turning back until the oceans are, essentially, a garbage dump.
Standing on the Seashore to Interconnectedness
Of his epic
photographic series Seascapes, artist Hiroshi Sugimoto wrote, “Can
someone today view a scene just as primitive man might have? ... Although the
land is forever changing its form, the sea, I thought, is immutable.”
All his seascapes
are black-and-white with equal part sky and sea -- and in them the oceans do
indeed look pristine and immutable. If you stand on the shore of any ocean
today, the waters may still look that way to you. Unfortunately, we now know
that those waters are increasingly anything but.
whales breaching and feeding is indeed a thrill and does breed an urge for
protection and conservation, but what we see on the surface of the planet’s
oceans is only a miniscule fraction of all their life. It is possible that we
know more about outer space than we do about what actually lives in the depths
of those waters. And that catches something of the conundrum facing us as they
are exploited and polluted past some tipping point: How do we talk about
protecting what we can’t even see?
inadequacies, faults, and failures, the conservation movement to protect public
lands in the U.S.
has been something of a triumph, providing enjoyment for us and crucially
needed habitat for many species with whom we share this Earth. Any of us,
paying little or nothing, can enjoy public lands of various sizes, shapes, and
varieties: national parks, national forests, officially designated wilderness
areas, national wildlife refuges, state parks, city parks.
The success of
land conservation, I’d suggest, was founded on one simple idea—walking. Henry
David Thoreau’s famous essay “Walking” began as a lecture he gave at the Concord Lyceum
on April 23, 1851, and was published in 1862 after his death in the Atlantic
Monthly. Environmentalist John Muir made the connection between walking
and land conservation explicit through his unforgettably lyrical prose about
hiking the mountains of California.
Edward Abbey showed us how to walk in the desert, and also gave us a recipe for
wrenching” —forms of sabotage to protest environmental destruction and in
defense of conservation that is alive and well today. There have been so many others who
have written about walking on, and in, the land: Mary Austin, Margaret Murie,
David Abram, William deBuys, Rebecca Solnit, and Terry Tempest Williams, among
others. But this simplest of free and democratic ideas that helped make public
lands familiar and inspired their conservation against industrial destruction
falls away completely when we enter the oceanic realm.
We cannot walk
in the ocean, or hike there, or camp there, or from its depths sit and
contemplate our situation and nature’s. All we can do is stand on its shores
and watch, or swim or surf its edges, or boat and float across its surface. The
oceans are not us. We lack fins, we lack gills. We are not naturally invested
in our oceans and their riches, which are such potentially lucrative assets for
those who want to profit off them -- and destroy them in the process.
for their conservation, somehow we need to learn to walk those waters. It’s not
enough to have the necessary set of grim facts, figures, and information about
how they are being endangered. We need a philosophy, an “ocean ethics” akin to
the “land ethics” that environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote about in his seminal
book A Sand County Almanac. We don’t have it yet, but a good place to
start would be with the idea of “interconnectedness.”
It’s a very old
idea, as German poet-philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “The
truth was known already, long ago.” Rachel Carson, for instance, gave meaning
to interconnectedness on land in her famed book Silent Spring,
published in 1962, by linking the fate of bird species to the rise of
industrial toxins. She symbolically linked the potential extinction of species
like that national symbol the Bald Eagle, whose numbers had plummeted from an estimated 50,000 breeding pairs in the
lower 48 states to about 400 in the early 1960s, to our own sense of well- or
ill-being. The time has come to connect in a similar way the fate of marine
life with the rise of offshore drilling, climate change, ocean acidification,
plastic pollution, and industrial overfishing.
As I can attest
from my decade-long engagement with the far north, the Arctic
is no longer the remote place disconnected from our daily lives that we
imagine. In fact, I often think about it as the most connected place on Earth.
semipalmated sandpipers, a shorebird I can see along East Coast beaches any
fall, is the same species I saw nesting each summer along the Beaufort
Sea coast, near where Shell plans to drill. Hundreds of millions
of birds migrate to the Arctic from every
corner of the planet annually to rear their young—a celebration of
interconnectedness. But so do industrial toxins migrate to the Arctic from every region of the world, making humans and
animals in some parts of the far north among the most contaminated inhabitants of the planet—a tragedy of
there will also affect us in frightening ways. The rapid disintegration
and melting of Arctic icebergs, glaciers, and sea ice is
projected to raise global sea levels, threatening coastal cities across the
northern hemisphere. And the melting of the Arctic permafrost and of frozen areas of the seafloor is likely to release huge amounts of methane
(about 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas) that could
prove potentially catastrophic for the planet. This is why the time has come to
focus on oceanic interconnectedness—if we hope to save our oceans and the
planet as we have known it.
For more than a
century, environmental organizations have focused on lobbying Congress as a (if
not the) primary strategy for supporting land conservation against
industrial destruction. But in the age of Citizens United, Big Oil and
King Coal will certainly outspend the lobbying efforts of these organizations
by orders of magnitude. In addition, when it comes to the oceans, Congress
plays a minor role, at least so far. Most of the crucial decisions go through
the executive branch.
harshly criticizing Obama’s offshore drilling policy, green groups have generally
appealed to his good environmental sense and instincts—a strategy that has not
worked. This attitude is changing however. In May in a letter published in the
New York Times, David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society, wrote: “Imagine: a president who ignores the advice of his
own scientists on a key environmental issue, dredging for votes in an election
year. Sound familiar? The administration is ignoring warnings from the Coast
Guard, the United States Geological Survey, the Government Accountability
Office, and hundreds of scientists. All say the [oil] industry is not prepared
to drill safely in Arctic waters. Their nightmare scenario: a BP-like blowout
in an ice-locked sea.”
been the next best option. Iñupiat activists and green groups have, in recent
years, filed numerous lawsuits meant to impede or stop Shell’s drilling plans.
Some were won, others lost, but the plans to drill remain ongoing.
wrenching is the last resort. Greenpeace has been leading the charge on that
with creativity and passion in their Save the Arctic campaign. Above all, though, if we are to
protect our oceans, the public must be engaged. If our children and
grandchildren are to experience the excitement of seeing blue whales breach and
feed, we better get busy. After all, Shell is adrift in Arctic waters. It’s
time to bring them back to shore.
Banerjee is a writer, photographer, and activist. Over the past decade he has
worked tirelessly to conserve ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human
rights and climate change. He is the editor of a new book,
Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point
Stories Press) and won a 2012 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award. His
Arctic photos can be seen this summer in three exhibitions, All Our Relations at
the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Australia, True North at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, and Looking Back at Earth at the Hood Museum of Art at
Dartmouth College. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio
interview in which Banerjee discusses the importance of the Arctic,
click here or download it to your iPod here.
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and
check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
Image by Mike Baird,
licensed under Creative
Friday, July 06, 2012 4:46 PM
Environmentalism has a very
different meaning for indigenous farmers in Guatemala. Last year, hundreds of
Maya Q’eqchi families were evicted from their farms in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley
to make way for corn fields, says Treehugger’s
Brian Merchant. But instead of hungry people, that corn is destined to feed the
growing demand for ethanol and other biofuels, especially in Europe.
Evictions like this one have increased
dramatically since the EU announced a plan to get 10 percent of its transportation
energy from biofuels, reports John Vidal of The Guardian. The farmers’ struggle to reclaim land continues, but
the affair raises deeper questions about the direction we’re taking toward
sustainability, says Vidal.
And don’t miss…
Why a Filipino
freelancer may be behind your local news.
Forget Romney—why aren’t
more people talking about John
Roberts’ flip-flop on health care?
The people Obamacare won’t
cover, and why Bobby Jindal isn’t helping.
Why community-owned solar
gardens solve like 10 problems at once.
That time Indiana tried to legally change Pi to
The surprising community
potential of vacant
Video: a flash mob in Spain goes
philharmonic (and check out the
What a local
grain economy would look like, and why we need it.
Election graphic: why a
person from Wyoming is three times as powerful as
a person from California.
And why this probably isn’t gonna
The Midwestern heat wave
is bad, but is
it global warming?
Cyclists in Delaware score
big on project funding, but Congress lags
Video: some gorgeous
and diverse Algerian music, in honor of 50 years of independence.
Islamophobia in the U.S. has
ignited controversy recently, but its
roots go deeper than you might think. Washington has a long history of suspicion
toward Islam, especially political Islam, says Edward E. Curtis IV in Religion & Politics. That suspicion
reached a new level in the 1960s, when COINTELPRO mobilized the FBI against groups
like the Nation of Islam that sought to connect the civil rights struggle to a
larger Muslim identity. The pervasive fear of Arab Islamism is much more
recent, and demonstrates just how absent Muslims remain from the public arena. Recognizing
this, says Curtis, means recognizing that Islam—even political Islam—is a lot
less foreign to the U.S. than many people think.
Image by Jack Liefer,
licensed under Creative
Commons. Editor’s note: this image is of a Guatemalan farm, though not in the Polochic Valley.
Monday, June 04, 2012 11:58 AM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
It’s been a tough few weeks
for the forces of climate-change denial.
First came the giant
billboard with Unabomber Ted Kacynzki’s face plastered across it:
“I Still Believe in Global Warming. Do You?” Sponsored by the Heartland
Institute, the nerve-center of climate-change denial, it was supposed to draw
attention to the fact that “the most prominent advocates of global warming
aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” Instead it drew
attention to the fact that these guys had over-reached, and with predictable
hard-hitting campaign from a new group called Forecast
the Facts persuaded many of the corporations backing Heartland to
withdraw $825,000 in funding;
an entire wing of the Institute, devoted to helping the insurance industry,
calved off to form its own nonprofit. Normally friendly politicians like
Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner announced that they would
boycott the group’s annual conference unless the billboard campaign was ended.
Which it was, before the
billboards with Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden could be unveiled, but not
before the damage was done: Sensenbrenner spoke at last month’s conclave, but
attendance was way down at the annual gathering, and Heartland leaders
announced that there were no plans for another of the yearly fests. Heartland’s
head, Joe Bast, complained that his
side had been subjected to the most “uncivil name-calling and disparagement you
can possibly imagine from climate alarmists,” which was both a little rich --
after all, he was the guy with the mass-murderer billboards -- but also a
little pathetic. A whimper had replaced the characteristically confident snarl
of the American right.
That pugnaciousness may return: Mr. Bast said last week that
he was finding new corporate sponsors, that he was building a new small-donor
base that was “Greenpeace-proof,” and that in any event the billboard had been
a fine idea anyway because it had “generated more than $5 million in earned
media so far.” (That’s a bit like saying that for a successful White House bid
John Edwards should have had more mistresses and babies because look at all the
publicity!) Whatever the final outcome, it’s worth noting that, in a larger
sense, Bast is correct: this tiny collection of deniers has actually been
incredibly effective over the past years.
The best of them—and that
would be Marc Morano, proprietor of the website Climate Depot, and Anthony
Watts, of the website Watts Up With That—have fought with remarkable tenacity
to stall and delay the inevitable recognition that we’re in serious trouble.
They’ve never had much to work with. Only one even remotely serious scientist
remains in the denialist camp. That’s MIT’s Richard Lindzen, who has been
arguing for years that while global warming is real it won’t be as severe as
almost all his colleagues believe. But as a long article in the New
York Times detailed last month, the credibility of that sole dissenter is
basically shot. Even the peer reviewers he approved for his last paper told the National
Academy of Sciences that it didn’t merit publication. (It ended up in a
“little-known Korean journal.”)
Deprived of actual publishing
scientists to work with, they’ve relied on a small troupe of vaudeville
performers, featuring them endlessly on their websites. Lord Christopher
Monckton, for instance, an English peer (who has been officially warned by the House
of Lords to stop saying he’s a member) began his speech at
Heartland’s annual conference by boasting that he had “no scientific
qualification” to challenge the science of climate change.
He’s proved the truth of that
claim many times, beginning in his pre-climate-change career when he explained to readers of the American
Spectator that "there is only one way to stop AIDS. That is to screen
the entire population regularly and to quarantine all carriers of the disease
for life.” His personal contribution to the genre of climate-change
mass-murderer analogies has been to explain that a group of young
climate-change activists who tried to take over a stage where he was speaking
were “Hitler Youth.”
Or consider Lubos Motl, a
Czech theoretical physicist who has never published on climate change but
nonetheless keeps up a steady stream of web assaults on scientists he calls
“fringe kibitzers who want to become universal dictators” who should “be
thinking how to undo your inexcusable behavior so that you will spend as little
time in prison as possible.” On the crazed killer front, Motl said that, while
he supported many of Norwegian gunman Anders Breivik’s ideas, it was hard to
justify gunning down all those children—still, it did demonstrate that
“right-wing people... may even be more efficient while killing—and the probable
reason is that Breivik may have a higher IQ than your garden variety left-wing
or Islamic terrorist.”
If your urge is to laugh at
this kind of clown show, the joke’s on you—because it’s worked. I mean, James
Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has emerged victorious in every Senate
fight on climate change, cites Motl regularly; Monckton has testified four
times before the U.S. Congress.
Morano, one of the most
skilled political operatives of the age—he “broke the story” that became the Swiftboat
attack on John Kerry—plays rough: he regularly publishes the email addresses of
those he pillories, for instance, so his readers can pile on the abuse. But he
plays smart, too. He’s a favorite of Fox News and of Rush Limbaugh, and he and
his colleagues have used those platforms to make it anathema for any Republican
politician to publicly express a belief in the reality of climate change.
Take Newt Gingrich, for
instance. Only four years ago he was willing to sit on a love seat with Nancy
Pelosi and film a commercial for a campaign headed by
Al Gore. In it he explained that he agreed with the California Congresswoman and then-Speaker of
the House that the time had come for action on climate. This fall, hounded by
Morano, he was forced to recant again and again. His dalliance with the truth
about carbon dioxide hurt him more among the Republican faithful than any other
single “failing.” Even Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts actually took some action on
global warming, has now been reduced to claiming
that scientists may tell us “in 50 years” if we have anything to fear.
In other words, a small cadre
of fervent climate-change deniers took control of the Republican Party on the
issue. This, in turn, has meant control of Congress, and since the president
can’t sign a treaty by himself, it’s effectively meant stifling any significant
international progress on global warming. Put another way, the various right wing billionaires
and energy companies who have bankrolled this stuff have gotten their money’s
worth many times over.
One reason the denialists’
campaign has been so successful, of course, is that they’ve also managed to
intimidate the other side. There aren’t many senators who rise with the passion
or frequency of James Inhofe but to warn of the dangers of ignoring what’s
really happening on our embattled planet.
It’s a striking barometer of
intimidation that Barack Obama, who has a clear enough understanding of climate
change and its dangers, has barely mentioned the subject for four years. He did
show a little leg to his liberal base in Rolling Stoneearlier this spring
by hinting that climate change could become a campaign issue. Last week,
however, he passed on his best chance to make good on that promise when he gave
a long speech on energy at an Iowa
wind turbine factory without even mentioning
global warming. Because the GOP has been so unreasonable, the president clearly
feels he can take the environmental vote by staying silent, which means the
odds that he’ll do anything dramatic in the next four years grow steadily
On the brighter side, not
everyone has been intimidated. In fact, a spirited counter-movement has arisen
in recent years. The very same weekend that Heartland tried to put the
Unabomber’s face on global warming, 350.org conducted thousands
of rallies around the globe to show who climate change really affects. In a
year of mobilization, we also managed to block—at
least temporarily—the Keystone pipeline
that would have brought the dirtiest of dirty energy, tar-sands oil, from the
Canadian province of Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
In the meantime, our Canadian allies are fighting hard to block a similar
pipeline that would bring those tar sands to the Pacific for export.
Similarly, in just the last
few weeks, hundreds of thousands have signed on to demand
an end to fossil-fuel subsidies.
And new polling data already
show more Americans worried about our changing climate, because they’ve noticed
the freakish weather of the last few years and drawn the obvious conclusion.
But damn, it’s a hard fight,
up against a ton of money and a ton of inertia. Eventually, climate denial will
“lose,” because physics and chemistry are not intimidated even by Lord
Monckton. But timing is everything—if he and
his ilk, a crew of certified planet wreckers, delay action past the point where
it can do much good, they’ll be able to claim one of the epic victories in
political history—one that will last for
Bill McKibben is Schumann
Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate
a TomDispatch regular,
and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
@TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben
Image by Ansgar
Walk, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 02, 2011 2:49 PM
Mongolia has an outsized reputation for vast emptiness, but in fact there are plenty of creatures living there, including 2.7 million people and the 35 million horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels that they keep. All those pasturing animals leave a large ecological hoofprint, reports Ronnie Vernooy in Solutions Journal, and climate change is disrupting the weather patterns that sustain the country’s many nomadic herders.
A new program, though, is pointing the way toward a more sustainable future, using the concept of the commons as a way to share resources—in this case, those seemingly endless pasturelands. Writes Vernooy:
The government has begun to respond to the threat to herders and their way of life. In a number of regions across the country, herders, in collaboration with local governments and researchers, and supported by a number of new policy measures and laws, are practicing comanagement, a form of adaptive management that builds community resilience.
The concept has been popularized by the academic and activist H. Ykhanbai. … Ykhanbai was uniquely suited to the task: raised in a herder family in the far-away Altai Mountains, he attended the University of St. Petersburg, Russia, where he studied Garrett Hardin on the “tragedy of the commons” and Elinor Ostrom on collective action. Ykhanbai understood that pastures in Mongolia are a common pool resource shared by many users, while private ownership of livestock allows herders to become real managers of their own businesses. Sustainable management of herds therefore depends on the carrying capacity of pastures and on the interactions between neighboring herders who rely on the same resources.
The Mongolians herders’ tactics include reducing herd size to prevent pasture degradation and desertification caused by overgrazing; moving camps at different times to adapt to weather shifts; diversifying their income; and growing their own potatoes and vegetables. Comanagement pilot projects have been launched in several areas of the country with promising results, and boosters hope the practices may be adapted to neighboring Central Asian countries including Kyrgyzstanand Kazakhstan. And, Vernooy suggests, “China could learn a lesson or two.”
Source: Solutions Journal
, licensed under
Tuesday, March 18, 2008 2:28 PM
Pundits of all political stripes have pondered the effect that religion is currently having in the world, and what that means for the future of the planet. The rise of radical Islam has right-wing commentators up in arms, while the popularity of evangelical mega-churches in the United States has caused plenty of hand wringing on the left.
The fears of both sides are unfounded, according to Alan Wolfe, writing for the Atlantic. “Most of the religious revivals we are seeing throughout the world today complement, and ultimately reinforce, secular developments,” Wolfe writes. “They are more likely to encourage moderation than fanaticism.”
Taking a page from the playbooks of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Wolfe writes that material wealth makes people less religious. As countries get rich, their citizens will turn away from religion. The United States would seem to disprove that rule, since its citizens are both religious and wealthy, but Wolfe discounts that, calling American religiosity, “as shallow as it is broad.” Also, the current popularity of American evangelicalism, according to Wolfe, is owed in part to the religion’s embrace of secular values and lifestyles.
Throughout the world, Wolfe writes that “religious peace will be the single most important consequence of the secular underpinning of today’s religious growth.”
Not everyone, however, shares Wolfe’s optimistic vision of the future. Philip Jenkins writes for the New Republic (subscription required) that the looming crisis in climate change will exacerbate preexisting religious tensions throughout the world. In the future, as crops wither and icecaps melt, Jenkins warns that “ethnic cleansing in the name of resource protection” may become the norm.
On the other hand, climate change could lead to greater cooperation between people, Cynthia G. Wagner writes for the Futurist. Wagner acknowledges the probability that global warming could lead to conflicts, but also posits that the coming ecological crisis could lead to “economic change, trade, technological and social innovation, and peaceful resource distribution,” rather than simple religious strife and fighting. God willing.
Image by naughton, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007 11:41 AM
Male-dominated governments have been destroying the planet for too long, and now women need to clean up the mess. Women already control the majority of the shopping decisions, and now they just need to buy the right foods, shoes, and handbags to save the world from global warming.
A greener tomorrow will consist of “women driving the domestic agenda and men thinking they are doing the real work with dams and treaties,” Simon Fanshawe, writing for the UK-based eco-magazine Green Futures. This is good news for men like me (and Mr. Fanshawe) because that means women will do the work for us, while we can sit back watching football, drinking beer, and doing other stereotypical guy stuff.
The problem with this mode of thinking is that climate change is everyone’s problem. Fanshawe points out, “All the UK’s best-known eco campaigns are dominated by men.” This is a problem. But the solution shouldn’t be to make the environment a women’s issue. They should be equal partners, right?
It reminds me of a quote by Henry Kissinger:
“Nobody will ever win the Battle of the Sexes. There's just too much fraternizing with the enemy.”
Tuesday, October 23, 2007 2:02 PM
The struggle to stop global warming has suffered a major setback. Again. But this time it's the Brits' fault. The UK government, which had previously set ambitious plans to cut its reliance on nonrenewable energy, is already scheming to wriggle out of its commitment in the next couple of days. From the Guardian:
Leaked documents seen by the Guardian show that [prime minister] Gordon Brown will be advised today that the target Tony Blair signed up to this year for 20 percent of all European energy to come from renewable sources by 2020 is expensive and faces "severe practical difficulties."
The news doesn't bode well for the worldwide environmental movement. If a country whose people clearly support environmentally friendly policies can't get its act together to switch to renewable energy, then the United States, China, and other massive polluters with powerful contingents that don't even believe in global warming are just that much less likely to green up. —Brendan Mackie
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