5/7/2013 3:04:03 PM
After a modified, anti-fracking Smokey
the Bear went viral, the U.S.
Forest Service threatened legal action against
the activist who created it. The case now revolves around fair use, culture
jamming, and just whose side the Forest
Service is really on.
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
Smokey the Bear thought he smelled a fire in the woods. But as he approached
the clearing and saw a giant derrick jutting out into the sky, he realized that
what his nose had picked up was the scent of hydrocarbons. It was another piece
of evidence that the increasingly widespread method of oil and gas extraction
known as fracking was poisoning the environment that he and his human friends
depend on. He decided something must be done.
At least that’s the way that artist, Occupy Wall Street veteran and
environmental activist Lopi LaRoe
sees it. But last week she received a letter threatening her with jail time and
thousands of dollars in fines for enlisting Smokey to the anti-fracking cause.
In the fall, LaRoe created an image of Smokey that altered his famous
invective “Only you can prevent forest fires” to “Only you can prevent faucet
fires” — a reference to the phenomenon of flaming taps
that occasionally occur near where fracking takes place. The adjustment seemed
to her in line with the message of conservation Smokey has come to embody.
“This is the radicalization of Smokey the Bear,” said LaRoe. “This is Smokey
waking up and saying, ‘Oh you didn’t do that to my environment.’ Smokey wants
to fight the corporations and protect the air and the water and the plants and
the animals and the people.”
Her parody went viral. She began printing T-shirts at the insistence of
friends on Facebook, but demand quickly surpassed those in her immediate circle
of contacts. Soon she was packing Smokey in FedEx envelopes and sending him off
and other far-flung terrains. There are also tote bags and patches with the
Smokey meme available at LaRoe’s website.
(The tote bags, she advertises, are “great for dumpster diving.”) LaRoe says
she’s not out to become rich and the money she charges customers goes toward
covering her costs so that she can keep spreading the message of faucet-fire
prevention far and wide.
“It spread like wildfire,” she said, grinning ear to ear.
Not everyone is amused. LaRoe received a cease-and-desist letter from the
Metis Group, which serves as legal counsel for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Forest Service division. The letter informs LaRoe that Smokey,
his character and his slogan are property of the U.S. government and warns that she
has until May 2 to halt the use of Smokey on her “products” and to stop
distributing electronic copies of the meme. Otherwise, she faces up to six
months in prison and a penalty as high as $150,000.
“Any time anybody uses Smokey’s image for anything other than wildfire
prevention,” said Helene Cleveland, fire prevention program manager for the
Forest Service, “it confuses the public. What we’re trying to do is keep Smokey
on message.” Cleveland
added that the 1952 Smokey
the Bear Act takes the character out of the public domain and “any change
in that would have to go through Congress.”
Two other entities besides the Forest Service claim joint rights to Smokey.
The National Association of State Foresters — a non-profit organization
consisting of directors of U.S.
forestry agencies — and the Ad Council.
Remember “This is your brain on drugs”? Or the Indian
weeping over pollution? They were the Ad Council’s handiwork. A non-profit,
it describes itself as a promoter of “public service campaigns on behalf of
non-profit organizations and government agencies” with a focus on “improving
the quality of life for children, preventive health, education, community well
being and strengthening families.” Smokey the Bear was born at the Ad Council,
on the desk of abstract
expressionist and Marx-influenced art critic Harold Rosenberg, who had a
part time job there in the mid-1940s.
Council’s board of directors is a conflagration of representatives of the
world’s wealthiest corporations, including representatives of such companies as
General Electric, which announced
plans last month to spend $110 million on a research lab devoted to the
study of fracking, and finance giants such as Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. On
Citibank advertises an “extensive array of deposit, cash management and credit
products” for oil and gas drillers, while
a JPMorgan Chase subsidiary boasts its “Oil & Gas Investment Banking
group covers the complete oil and gas value chain, which includes exploration
and production, natural gas processing and transmission, refining and
marketing, and oilfield services.”
LaRoe believes that those who claim to own Smokey “don’t care that I’m
selling a few T-shirts. They’re out to crush the meme.”
Both the Ad Council and the Metis Group declined to comment for this story.
Despite the warnings in the cease-and-desist letter she received, the May 2
deadline to shut down her site and retire her anti-fracking Smokey came and
went; LaRoe has not ceased or desisted. Instead, she enlisted the help of her
own legal counsel, who fired back with a letter to the Metis Group on Friday.
In it, attorney Evan Sarzin argues that LaRoe ‘s culture-jam
appropriation of Smokey is permissible under the fair-use exemption to
exclusive copyright ownership and chides the the Forest Service for attempting
to infringe on LaRoe’s First Amendment rights.
Sarzin also points out that this is not the first time the Forest Service
has sought to silence environmentalists for appropriating Smokey’s image. In
the early 1990s, the Forest Service demanded reparations from the Sante
Fe-based conservation group LightHawk after it used Smokey’s likeness in ads
critical of the agency’s practice of auctioning off land to timber companies.
(The Forest Service, as part of the Department of Agriculture, makes its land
available for commercial use.) Unlike LaRoe’s Smokey, LightHawk’s black bear
appeared angry and wielded a chainsaw. “Say it ain’t so, Smokey,” read the ads.
With legal funds provided by the Sierra Club, LightHawk sued
the Forest Service in 1992 for infringing on its freedom of speech. The court
eventually sided with the plaintiffs, noting that “the satirical use of Smokey
the Bear to criticize Forest Service management techniques is unlikely to cause
confusion or to dilute the value of Smokey the Bear to help prevent forest
fires. Thus the Forest Service cannot have a compelling interest in prohibiting
Sarzin also calls attention to the fact the Forest Service’s own research
points to environmental degradation caused by fracking. A 2011 study
published in the Journal of Environmental Quality by Forest Service
frack fluid to the death of 150 trees in West Virginia’s
Monongahela National Forest. Despite their findings,
the Forest Service is considering approving fracking leases in the nearby George Washington
National Forest. The
Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes the plan, says
it represents a threat to local wildlife — including the black bear.
released last month by the the National Parks Conservation Association warns
that fracking for oil is decimating the ecosystem surrounding Theodore
Roosevelt National Park, named after the Republican president who founded the
Forest Service. “Unless we take quick action,” the report warns “air, water and
wildlife will experience permanent harm in other national parks as well.” Thus,
Sarzin writes, LaRoe’s Smokey meme “is a message that the Forest Service should
LaRoe hopes that by gaining publicity she can force the Forest Service to
take a stand against fracking. In order to continue the fight, however, she
says she needs the support of groups whose mission it is to defend civil
liberties or protect the environment to provide legal defense funds — just as
the Sierra Club did for LightHawk.
“This about more than me as an artist,” LaRoe said. “This is about
everybody’s right to freedom of speech and a healthy environment.”
Her childhood memories of Smokey, she explains, are compelling her to keep
raising faucet-fire prevention awareness despite the threat of jail time. “When
we were little kids we were taught that there is this bear out there that wants
to protect our forests. Smokey is our bear. He belongs to the people.”
Images of Smokey the Bear meme and
T-shirt by Lopi LaRoe/WePay.
3/27/2013 2:56:35 PM
The idea of a protected commons was central to early Islam, and
to Muhammad’s vision of a just society. Today, Muslim environmentalists are reviving
this concept to protect threatened ecosystems throughout the Muslim world.
This article originally appeared at OntheCommons.org.
A glance at history turns
up the names of many heroes—from Robin Hood to Chief Joseph to Gandhi—who stood
up to protect the commons on behalf of future generations. One name from
history not likely to be associated with the commons is Muhammad. Yet the holy
prophet of the Islamic world sought to preserve special landscapes for
everyone. Today, Muslim environmentalists are trying to reinvigorate this
There was an ancient Middle
Eastern tradition of setting aside certain lands, called hima (“protected
place” in Arabic), for the enjoyment of local chieftains. Muhammad “transformed
the hima from a private enclave into a public asset in which all community
members had a share and a stake, in accordance with their duty as stewards
(khalifa) of God’s natural world,” according to Tom Verde, a scholar of Islamic
studies and Christian-Muslim relations.
In the seventh century,
Muhammad declared the region of Al-Madinah, now the holy city of Medina, “to be a
sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted.” Many
of the hima lasted well into the 20th century, when the tradition fell
victim to modern beliefs about land ownership.
Now Middle Eastern
environmentalists are invoking the idea of hima to protect the region’s
threatened woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, and rangelands. In 2004 the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon
helped local residents establish two of the first new hima in the hilltop town
es-Saqi. “The hima has had a very positive effect in the community,” said Kasim
Shoker, mayor of a nearby town. “Not only has it helped improve the economy
[through ecotourism], but it has made the local people recognize the value of
the land and have greater respect for its biodiversity.”
five himas have been established in Lebanon,
and a “workshop”
was held last in Istanbul to promote the ideas
throughout the Middle East.
Image of the ancient Aanjar Castle,
a World Heritage Site in Lebanon’s
Hima Aanjar by Arian
Zwegers, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/26/2013 3:36:17 PM
When it comes to bottled
water, cash-strapped parks have been putting Coca-Cola’s interests ahead of the
common good. Now, a growing coalition is demanding change.
The National Park Service (NPS), like
most Americans these days, is broke. Unlike the
rest of us, it has corporations like Coca-Cola whispering promises of money in
its ear—money that parks desperately need to staff, maintain, and protect the
grounds. But there’s one thing the public has learned about corporations: they
don’t give without asking for something in return.
For Coke, “donating” a
fraction of a percent of its revenue (roughly .0013%) keeps its Dasani bottled
water for sale in parks and buys the exclusive right to use park logos in advertisements.
As marketing schemes go, it’s brilliant. Coke greens its image, turns a profit
in the park, and writes it all off at tax time. Since August of 2011, the
National Park Service has been working on a
billion dollar corporate-financed endowment, and Coke has been in on the
plans since the initial fundraising summit.
But the deal might not stay this
sweet for long. Watchdog group Corporate
Accountability International is leading a coalition pushing national parks
like Yosemite, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Mt.
Rainier, and the Liberty Bell’s Independence Hall National
to nix bottled water. Instead, park-goers will use their own bottles to refill
and the bottled water industry are using one national treasure to profit from
another at the public’s expense,” says Kristin Urquiza, director of Corporate
Accountability International’s Think
Outside the Bottle campaign. She continues, “Water, like our parks, is not
Whether or not that sounds
like a battle cry, it might be. Back in 2011, Coke attempted to block a
ban on bottled water in Grand
Canyon National Park.
The park hesitated but followed through with the ban, reducing its waste stream
by 20 percent—500 tons a year. It also cut the cost of recycling removal by
30 percent, estimates the NPS Branch Chief of Sustainable Operations and Climate
This week, groups representing
more than 150 organizations and 40,000 park-goers are delivering petitions to
park superintendents across the country, asking that they stop selling water in
plastic bottles. In San Francisco,
the president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, David Chin—along with the
executive director of the Sierra Club’s Bay chapter and celebrity rock climbers
Alex Honnold and Hans Florine—will deliver that request in the form of a three-by-five-foot
public, not Coke executives, should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to
park policy,” said Florine, who holds the world record for speed climbing El
Capitan in Yosemite along with Alex Honnold.
“We know park employees across the country are eager to do the right thing
here. Today, we’re giving them the support they need to act in the public’s
Honnold, “Bottling and transporting water is a colossal waste of resources that
the parks should in no way help promote. If anything, the sales of bottled
water fosters a kind of disposable view of the world around us that is anathema
to the park's mission to ‘preserve unimpaired’ our wild places.”
least 14 of the nation’s 398 parks have already gotten rid of water sold in
plastic bottles. Find out more about Think Outside the Bottle: "10 Reasons Why National Parks Should Buck the Bottle."
3/12/2013 9:23:14 AM
Having mythologized, assimilated, and raged against the world of animals for thousands of years, we have yet to fully understand it. And despite our power to change climates and destroy species, our claim of mastery over life on this planet is a weak one.
This essay will appear in "Animals," the Spring 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version was originally posted at TomDispatch.
London housewife Barbara Carter won a “grant a wish” charity contest, and said she wanted to kiss and cuddle a lion. Wednesday night she was in a hospital in shock and with throat wounds. Mrs. Carter, forty-six, was taken to the lions’ compound of the Safari Park at Bewdley Wednesday. As she bent forward to stroke the lioness, Suki, it pounced and dragged her to the ground. Wardens later said, “We seem to have made a bad error of judgment.” —British news bulletin, 1976
Having once made a similar error of judgment with an Australian koala, I know it to be the one the textbooks define as the failure to grasp the distinction between an animal as an agent of nature and an animal as a symbol of culture. The koala was supposed to be affectionate, comforting, and cute. Of this I was certain because it was the creature of my own invention that for two weeks in the spring of 1959 I’d been presenting to readers of the San Francisco Examiner prior to its release by the Australian government into the custody of the Fleishacker Zoo.
The Examiner was a Hearst newspaper, the features editor not a man to ignore a chance for sure-fire sentiment, my task that of the reporter assigned to provide the advance billing. Knowing little or nothing about animals other than what I’d read in children’s books or seen in Walt Disney cartoons, I cribbed from the Encyclopedia Britannica (Phascolarctos cinereus, ash-colored fur, nocturnal, fond of eucalyptus leaves), but for the most part I relied on A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, the tales of Brer Rabbit, and archival images of President Teddy Roosevelt, the namesake for whom the teddy bear had been created and stuffed, in 1903 by a toy manufacturer in Brooklyn.
Stouthearted, benevolent, and wise, the koala incoming from the Antipodes was the little friend of all the world, and on the day of its arrival at the airport, I was carrying roses wrapped in a cone of newsprint. The features editor had learned his trade in Hollywood in the 1940s, and he had in mind a camera shot of my enfolding a teddy bear in a warm and welcoming embrace. “Lost child found in the wilderness,” he had said. “Lassie comes home.” The koala didn’t follow script. Annoyed by the flashbulbs, clawing furiously at my head and shoulders, it bloodied my shirt and tie, shredded the roses, urinated on my suit and shoes.
The unpleasantness didn’t make the paper. The photograph was taken before the trouble began, and so the next morning in print, there we were, the koala and I, man and beast glad to see one another, the San Francisco Examiner’s very own Christopher Robin framed in the glow of an A-list fairy tale with Brer Rabbit, Teddy Roosevelt, and Winnie-the-Pooh, all for one and one for all as once had been our common lot in Eden.
The Pantomime of Brutes
Rumors and reports of human relations with animals are the world’s oldest news stories, headlined in the stars of the zodiac, posted on the walls of prehistoric caves, inscribed in the languages of Egyptian myth, Greek philosophy, Hindu religion, Christian art, our own DNA. Belonging within the circle of humankind’s intimate acquaintance until somewhere toward the end of the nineteenth century, animals appeared as both agents of nature and symbols of culture. Constant albeit speechless companions, they supplied energies fit to be harnessed or roasted, but they also were believed to possess qualities inherent in human beings, subject to the close observation of the ways in which man and beast both resembled and differed from one another.
Unable to deliver lectures, the lion and the elephant taught by example; so did the turtle, the wolf, and the ant. Aesop’s Fables, composed in the sixth century BC, accorded with the further researches of Aristotle, who, about 200 years later, in his History of Animals, set up the epistemological framework that for the next two millennia incorporated the presence of animals in the center ring of what became known as Western civilization:
“Just as we pointed out resemblances in the physical organs, so in a number of animals we observe gentleness or fierceness, mildness or cross temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning... Other qualities in man are represented by analogous and not identical qualities; for instance, just as in man we find knowledge, wisdom, and sagacity, so in certain animals there exists some other natural potentiality akin to these.”
Other peoples in other parts of the world developed different sets of relations with animals worshipped as gods, but in the European theaters of operation, they served as teachers of both natural and political science. The more that was learned about their “analogous and not identical qualities,” the more fabulous they became. Virgil’s keeping of bees on his country estate in 30 BC led him in book four of the Georgics to admire their work ethic— “At dawn they pour forth from the gates—no loitering”; to applaud their sense of a public and common good— “they share the housing of their city,/passing their lives under exalted laws”; to approve of their chastity— “They forebear to indulge/in copulation or to enervate/their bodies in Venus’ ways.”
The studies of Pliny the Elder in the first century demonstrated to his satisfaction that so exceptional were the wonders of the animal kingdom that man by comparison “is the only animal that knows nothing and can learn nothing without being taught. He can neither speak, nor walk, nor eat, nor do anything without the prompting of nature, but only weep.”
To the scientific way of looking at animals adapted by the Greco-Roman poets and philosophers, medieval Christianity added the dimension of science fiction -- any and all agents of nature not to be trusted until or unless they had been baptized in the font of a symbol or herded into the cage of an allegory. In the illuminated pages of tenth-century bibles and the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals, the bee became a sign of hope, the crow and the goat both references to Satan, the fly indicative of lust, the lamb and the dove variant embodiments of Christ. Instead of remarking upon the extraordinary talents of certain animals, the holy fathers produced mythical beings, among them the dragon (huge, batwinged, fire breathing, barbed tail) and the unicorn (white body, blue eyes, the single horn on its forehead colored red at the tip).
The resurrection of classical antiquity in fifteenth-century Italy restored the emphasis on the observable correlation between man and beast. The anatomical drawings in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks (of horses, swans, human cadavers) are works of art of a match with The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. He saw human beings as organisms among other organisms participant in the great chain of being, the various life forms merging into one another in their various compounds of air, earth, fire, and water. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1566 portrait of a man’s head anticipates the conclusion reached in 1605 by the English bishop Joseph Hall: “Mankind, therefore, hath within itself his goats, chameleons, salamanders, camels, wolves, dogs, swine, moles, and whatever sorts of beasts: there are but a few men amongst men.”
The eighteenth-century naturalists shared with Virgil the looking to the animal kingdom for signs of good government. The Count of Buffon, keeper of the royal botanical garden for King Louis XV, recognized in 1767 the beaver as a master architect capable of building important dams, but he was even more impressed by the engineering of the beaver’s civil society, by “some particular method of understanding one another, and of acting in concert… However numerous the republic of beavers may be, peace and good order are uniformly maintained in it.”
Buffon was accustomed, as were Virgil and Leonardo, not only to the company of horses and bees but also to the sight and sound of ducks, cows, chickens, pigs, turtles, goats, rabbits, hawks. They supplied the bacon, the soup, and the eggs, but they also invited the question asked by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836: “Who can guess… how much industry and providence and affection we have caught from the pantomime of brutes?”
How the Animal World Lost Its License to Teach
Not much if the brutes are nowhere to be found. Over the course of the last two centuries, animals have become all but invisible in the American scheme of things, drummed out of the society of their myth-making companions, gone from the rural as well as the urban landscape. John James Audubon in 1813 on the shore of the Ohio River marveled at the slaughter of many thousands of wild pigeons by men amassed in the hundreds, armed with guns, torches, and iron poles. In 1880, on a Sioux reservation in the Dakota Territory, Luther Standing Bear could not eat of “the vile-smelling cattle” substituted for “our own wild buffalo” that the white people had been killing “as fast as possible.”
And as observers, they were not alone. Many others have noted the departure of animals from our human world and culture. Between 150,000 and 200,000 horses could, for example, be found in the streets of New York City in 1900, requiring the daily collection of five million pounds of manure. By 1912, their function as a means of transport had been outsourced to the automobile.
As with the carriage and dray horses, so also with the majority of mankind’s farmyard associates and nonhuman acquaintances. Out of sight and out of mind, the chicken, the pig, and the cow lost their licenses to teach. The modern industrial society emerging into the twentieth century transformed them into products and commodities, swept up in the tide of economic and scientific progress otherwise known as the conquest of nature.
Animals acquired the identities issued to them by man, became labels marketed by a frozen-food or meat-packing company, retaining only those portions of their value that fit the formula of research tool or cultural symbol—circus or zoo exhibit, corporate logo or Hollywood cartoon, active ingredient in farm-fresh salmon or genetically modified beef.
It was 10 years after my meeting with the Australian koala that I was first introduced to an animal in a state of nature—a gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus, golden fur, black face, fond of fruit and flowers). It was about two feet tall, very quick on its feet, one of 60 or 70 monkeys of various species wandering around the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the shore of the Ganges River, 128 miles north of New Delhi.
The Maharishi at the time (February 1968) was at the high-water mark of his fame as a guru, his science of Transcendental Meditation having captured the celebrity markets in Los Angeles, New York, and London, and that winter he was teaching the lesson of the yellow marigold to a select company of disciples, among them the four Beatles, who had made the journey from the decadent, materialist West in search of enlightened well-being in the spiritual East. The ashram was set in a forest of teak and sheesham trees at the base of the Himalayan escarpment, and again on assignment from the American press, I’d been advised by the editor of the Saturday Evening Post to listen for the voice of the cosmos under the roof of the world.
During my nearly three weeks on the ashram I learned nothing about the Beatles that wasn’t known to their fans, from the Maharishi little more than the fact that at the fifth level of realization, “Everything becomes hilarious.” But from the monkey I learned that it was somebody else -- not a pet or a little friend to all the world, not an allegory, a movie actor, or a laboratory experiment. Two days after my arrival I noticed it standing in a tree opposite the door to the small outbuilding (one room, whitewashed stone, no window) in which I’d been granted accommodation near the ashram’s lower gate. Another two days, and it was always there whenever I was coming or going, and it occurred to me that it was I who was being observed by the monkey, not the monkey who was being observed by me.
On the morning of the fifth day, I presented it with a slice of bread, late in the afternoon with half an orange. It accepted both offerings as a matter of course; no sign of acknowledgment, much less of appreciation or affection. My sense of its attitude was that I’d been slow to pick up on the custom of the country, and later that same evening one of the Maharishi’s principal subordinates, a saffron-robed monk by the name of Raghvendra, validated my impression as not wrong. In India, he said, the gray langur was sacred. Properly known as the Hanuman langur -- Hanuman being the name of the Hindu monkey god of healing and worship -- it was revered for its willingness to accompany sadhus on pilgrimages, and therefore enjoyed almost as many privileges as the cow, free to ransack food stalls, at liberty to plunder grain shops.
For whatever reason, its motives presumably mixed, the monkey for the next 10 days, attentively on post at the height of my right knee, accompanied me on the path to pure consciousness, a path on which I was careful to scatter crumbs of stale chocolate and shards of dry cheese. If I was listening to the Maharishi discuss Vishnu in the meeting hall, the monkey would be comfortably settled on the corrugated-tin roof; when meals were served on the terrace, where the disciples received their daily ration of rice, tea, and tasteless boiled vegetables, the monkey perched in the vine-trellised arbor behind the refectory table, on watch for the chance that I might send in its direction an overcooked carrot or a destabilized turnip.
When for the last time I walked out in the morning from the stone outbuilding at the bamboo gate, on the way to the ferry across the Ganges, the monkey wasn’t standing in its nearby tree. Possibly it understood that my time was up, that it had done all that could be done with a pilgrim who was slow to catch the drift and didn’t know the language. On the other hand, probably it didn’t. What was certain was that it didn’t care. It had moved on, gone somewhere else, grown bored by the sound of a voice clearly not the voice of the cosmos.
A Dearth of Animals, a Plague of Pets
The Renaissance scholar and essayist Michel de Montaigne toyed with a similar line of thought in 1576 by asking himself, “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime for her more than she is to me?” The question placed Montaigne’s customary pillow of doubt under the biblical teaching that man had been made in God’s image, and thereby granted “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and for every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
The claim to the throne of the universe on the part of what Montaigne called “the most vulnerable and frail of all creatures,” he regarded as vainglorious impudence, man dressing himself up in the robe of divinity, separating himself from “the horde of other creatures,” distributing to them “such portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit.” Amused by the presumption, Montaigne took the trouble to ask follow-up questions:
“How does he [man] know, by the force of his intelligence, the secret internal stirrings of animals? By what comparison between them and us does he infer the stupidity that he attributes to them?... It is a matter of guesswork whose fault it is that we do not understand one another; for we do not understand them any more than they do us. By this same reasoning they may consider us beasts, as we consider them.”
The American writer Henry Beston revisited the questions while walking on a beach at Cape Cod in the 1920s, watching constellations of shorebirds form and reform in “instant and synchronous obedience” to some sort of mysterious command. Astonished by the spiraling flight of what he likened to “living stars,” Beston understood that nonhuman creatures eluded the definitions made for them by man, that they could not be classified as mechanisms programmed by the master software designer in the sky to hop, growl, swim, glide, roar, nest, crawl, peep, mate.
“We need,” said Beston, “another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals... We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err... They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves within the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
At the turn of the twenty-first century, what remains of the once-upon-a-time fellowship incorporating man and beast has for the most part been reduced to the care and keeping of pets. Possibly to compensate for the rapid and permanent disappearance of global wilderness species, the numbers of pets in the United States have outpaced the entire human population south of the Potomac and west of the Mississippi -- 70 million dogs, 75 million cats, 5 million horses, God alone knows how many boxed reptiles and caged birds. That animals are still looked to for some form of instruction, believed to possess “analogous qualities” recognized by Aristotle as being “akin to sagacity,” is a proposition sustained by the large demand for documentaries exploring the jungles of Africa and by the fact that the Internet postings of unscripted cat videos draw bigger crowds than do the expensive mechanical dolls posed in the ritualized stagings of the Super Bowl.
For 2,500 years it has been known to the students of nature that the more one learns about animals, the more wonderful they become. The observation stands confirmed by the instruments of both science and art, but the animals are most instructively perceived when they are seen, as they were by Beston from the beach on Cape Cod, as other nations complete in themselves, “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
The environmental casualty reports filed from the four corners of the earth over the last two hundred years don’t leave much ground for argument on Montaigne’s question as to who is the beast and who is the man. Whether attempted by men armed with test tubes or bulldozers, the conquest of nature is a fool’s errand. However it so happens that the beasts manage to live not only at ease within the great chain of being but also in concert with the tides and the season and the presence of death, it is the great lesson they teach to humanity. Either we learn it, or we go the way of the great auk.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces "Animals," the Winter 2013 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released at that website.
10/17/2012 11:57:10 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
9/26/2012 10:09:33 AM
The phrase “radical ecologist” may have connotations but these words,
traced to their beginnings Latin and Greek, amount to a roots-based study of the
relationships between living things. There couldn’t be a more accurate summary
of Nance Klehm’s work, which ranges from landscape design and art experiments
to writing and leading urban weed-eating tours. Connect the dots between all of
these activities, and you have an outline for re-connecting city-dwellers to
Utne Reader assistant editor Suzanne Lindgren
interviewed Nance Klehm by phone in late August 2012. Here is the transcript.
Photo by Jason Creps.
Utne Reader: We’ve selected you as an Utne Visionary for 2012
mostly because of what we’ve read about your urban foraging and the
tours—sharing that knowledge with other people—but I know that you do a lot of
other things too.
Nance Klehm: I never know what aspect of my work people are
interested in because it is a matrix. It’s all part of the practice and also my
public offering. So I was like, ‘Huh, I wonder how they found me and through
what channel.’ OK, I’m ready to go.”
How did you become
involved in urban foraging?
I started doing it on my own maybe 15 years ago, mostly out
of a response to the—for lack of a better word—loneliness of a city. I’m not
from cities, I’m not an urban person, or maybe I’ve become one as an adult. I
came to the city because it’s a world of ideas, and I realized that the world
of ideas is a lonely one. So I started going for long walks along the train
tracks near my house that go out about 50 miles from Chicago, west. And started identifying
plants. I come from a horticultural background, so identifying plants is
something that I have a facility for. I had a starting point from growing up
rurally and having a horticulturalist for a father and being part of a very
large nursery operation. I decided I was going to share that with others
about—I’m not very good with time—but I’d say it was about 7 years ago I
started doing public walks and invited people to come with me.
And why was that an
important addition for you?
Well, my motivation isn’t food supply. I mean it is, but
And that’s fine, it’s
I feel like that’s a very human-centric approach to the
landscape, and mine was to connect with my environment. I wanted to help urban
people better appreciate their surroundings and to find their place within that
through a sense of wonder and a careful engagement. That’s kind of the
underpinnings of my urban forages, although I talk about edibles, medicinals,
plants that we can use for fiber, building materials, etc. But the underlying,
overall thing is about reengaging the city as habitat.
I’ve noticed that
there’s been a lot of press about you, especially in Chicago, some in LA. Have
you been able to see people wandering around with increased knowledge? Are
people telling each other and is it having kind of a ripple effect?
Yeah, it is. It’s very much the fad now. There’s a foraging
restaurant opening in Chicago,
very high-end. It’s all the rage. There’s a great sense of wonder around
things. I recently was in Poland
working on some projects and I did public forages in both places. I find that
Americans are still having problems seeing their environment as something to consult.
And looking at eyes and faces is dollar signs, looking at it within the market
model. Americans, it will still take some time to connect them with their
environment in a way that’s not so conceptive or extractive.
I know you’ve done a
wealth of other projects from writing to composting to art. Do you want to talk
about some of those and fill in the blanks?
Again, to me it’s a web and if I think of myself as a spider
who has eight legs, I need to put down every leg to move forward. So I have all
these different pieces that I move forward slowly. They all have the same
passion and belief: that I want to connect people to nature and environment in
an experiential way. So I don’t use environmental terms, I don’t use political
language, I don’t use spiritual language. I don’t use any of those languages
because I’m trying to catch a really broad audience of socio-economic classes,
different formal disciplines and aspects of literacy, age from children to
elderly, and also to spiritual and political differences. I do pride myself
that I can talk to people with a low level of literacy and immigrants as well
as I can talk about evangelical Christians about the same things, and for them
to make sense and connect to them. And so, to summarize, it’s all about
re-engaging and re-envisioning our cities as habitat—for humans and every other
living creature, animals, plants, etc.—to look at our biological infrastructure
of air soil water. So all the work I do is within that.
What questions should
we, as people, be asking ourselves as we look around—to go along with what you
just said about reengaging and re-envisioning and imaging things as connected?
I think just asking yourself, where are you right now? How
do you feel about yourself? How do you feel about the world around you? Go
outside. Listen. Look, feel. A bigger question is, what systems are you
feeding? Not what systems do you feed on, which always seems to be the concern,
particularly around food policy and food debate. Like, “what are you eating?”
Who cares? What are you giving back to? What are feeding your energy into? What
economic systems, social systems, natural systems, political systems are you
contributing your life force to? So what systems do you feed? That’s the
deepest, most digging question I ask people, but I try to start with, ask
yourself where you are now.
I was blasting through European space and I was in so many
different places. I had to engage these things so fast. I kept having to tell
myself, “I am here right now. I am in the woods of … Finland, you know, for three days.”
And I have to engage that environment, the people who live there. And it’s a
huge translation, but always asking where are you now? Who are you now?
It sounds like people
all around the world are interested in this knowledge. You just go to Finland
and do a public forage? That’s pretty amazing.
I did that in Tampere, that’s
the second largest city in Finland.
I also did a forage in Warsaw,
Poland. I was
doing other stuff there, but that was on the side.
It’s interesting that
people around the world are interested in similar things. I don’t know why I’m
Well, I think it’s localized knowledge. There’s been a
couple times where I’ve had really large groupings of people—like 50 people—for
one of my forages. I ask them, “If you’ve come here for a culinary experience,
stand over here. If you’ve come here for a personal health experience, stand
over here. And if you’ve come to connect to your environment, stand over here.”
You could stand between those points too, so there’s three points in a triangle
and there’s kind of a physical scale. You could measure yourself and I could
visually see where people are coming from so I could swing the walk, with how I
talk about things.
And almost every place, it doesn’t matter what country I’m
in, or city, suburb, wherever, almost everybody is in the camp of connecting
with their own environment. I feel like that is a fundamental shift, and those
are the people, I think, that maybe I attract, because that’s the language I
use. It’s really heartening, you know? It just feels so great. They want to
care. They want to know about their environment and they want to care.
Well, you’re kind of
touching on it right now, but what keeps you inspired day to day, and over
Every morning I wake up, I’m really excited. [Laughing] I’m
always in a good mood in the morning and I just can’t wait to go outside and
see what’s happening with the day, with the plants, with my animals. I’m just
Alright … That’s
great. OK, so what’s important that I write about?
Well, I’m going to talk about two things. One is why a lot
of my work is based on soil. When I look at urban landscape, anywhere in the
world, I see evidence of disturbed ground, from all the things we like to do as
humans: build and rebuild and move around, etc., etc. Because some of this
disturbed ground is just disturbed and some of it’s contaminated, I’m really
interested in how plants will tell you the story. I can look at a landscape and
in general I can give you an estimate of when it was last disturbed—pretty
close—and I can also tell you the mineral composition of the soil, what plants
are in there. So many of the plants in the United States in urban areas are
Asian and European, what I call the Eurasian meadow. And they really tell that
story of migration.
I’m interested in soil and water as a starting ground to
grow health. The weeds that we see that are from Europe and Asia
that make up most of our landscape are not invasive, but they’re still
non-natives, right? And they’re healing the soil. They’re the first ones to
have been able to deal with these compromised, pretty poor conditions of these
urban areas. They are kind of the most important medicines, basic medicines
that we have in our area, but they’re also healing the soil. When I think about
food systems—which I’ve been involved with for 20-some years as an adult but
also because I grew up on a farm—that people talk a lot about annual food
production and they don’t talk so much about water and soil. Those are the only
things that we have to make our food healthy. I decided to redesign what I did
as a landscape designer and as a food producer in this city. I redesigned it to
get people to a more rooted base of water and soil. My forages—and I talk about
habitat in my forages also—connect people to deeper trends of health and
unhealth in a city. And I try to do that in a really open ended way, so people
don’t feel like their world is crashing down, but I want them to be aware of
why the plants that they see in their environment are there. What they’re doing
underground for the soil.
I’m actually really surprised that foraging would be what
Utne would focus on for me. It’s a practice of mine. I feel like it’s lighter
work, particularly with this trendy-ism around it. So that’s how it connects
with my larger question around food supply: that all these weeds we’re looking
at or foraging, so many things in our landscape are actually healing our soils.
They come there because we’ve disturbed the landscape through agriculture,
through developing cities, etc.
My concern around foraging is that, as Americans, people
need to be told not to grab everything. I’m going to be in the Bioneers, and
I’m going to be talking about soil the whole time, urban soil. When people just
think about the next cool thing that they can eat, or charge $15 in a
salad—like all these restaurants that charge $15 for a salad that I can pick
out of the sidewalk cracks in 2 minutes—bothers me. I also am bothered by the
idea that people see things as extractive still, the idea that they’ll pick
something too hard. I’m very cautious in how I approach foraging. I don’t want
it to be a new food economy like some other foragers in the nation are talking
about. I don’t think that’s right.
I can absolutely
Yeah, especially about relationships, especially about
giving back. I’m not trying to promote new tastes. I’m not doing this because
it’s … People come up to me and they’re like, “yeah but it’s free,” and I’m
like, “that’s not the point.” I’m really cautious of that. It’s certainly not a
primary way that I make money, maybe between 30 and 60% of what I eat is
foraged. It’s not something I necessarily want to promote, because I don’t feel
like people have the right consciousness to approach their environment. I see
it again and again in all my walks, that I have to slow people down and help
unravel their thought tendencies, eagerness. That’s the only thing I’m a little
concerned about. For awhile in Finland
they were talking about doing a foraging network. They have the woodlands, they
have lingonberries, wild blueberries, and chanterelles that I was able to
forage. There’s all these things in the woods, but it’s a very delicate place,
right? I mean, you’re in Topeka, you’re in Kansas, you understand
you’re in a farmed area and I am too. But they were talking about how great it
would be to map everything. I said, “Mapping? I actually don’t think it’s great
to map because that just means who knows how people are going to take it.” I’ve
been on mushroom walks and everybody just kind of tramples through the woods
and grabs the chanterelle or the morel or the puffball or whatever they see.
It’s really disturbing, like they’re in this kind of elephant mode. So I said,
what stops people from doing that? What are the ethics involved in that? We had
a long, hard discussion about ethics and of course the Fins have a better ethic
toward environment than Americans do in general, but I still brought up those
questions and they were considered.
In terms of my other projects, Social Ecologies is my
business site and Spontaneous Vegetation is more my activist/artist/provocateur/public
educator site. You’ll see with a lot of my projects—especially the one around
human waste, which I have worked professionally on this too, working in Haiti,
etc.—when I’m working on it in that provocateur place, my whole point is not to
be scatological for people in an urban area to poop along with me, and I
collect all the waste and compost and bring it back to me. But I got a huge
amount of press for that—national press, Time magazine, etc., etc. Or my big
worm project. These things are not to be icky, but I’m trying to go with the
most base level of, what is our relationship to our own bodies. If we care
about our own bodies, how do we care about other beings and our immediate habitat?
It’s not just an environment, it’s a habitat. How do we treat the land that’s
around us? That’s still an underpinning of that project. People just thought I
was being funny or scatological or something, and I’m like, “No, this is
empowering and this is about reconnecting with our bodies and see the landscape
as well as our body is the same. I was trying to get that across, but I kind of
fell short for a lot of people. I did it with a lot of humor, because you can’t
avoid it, right? And I did it with a lot of artistic strategies to get people
to look at these things.
You could just pick out any other project and look at those
sites and if anything else pops out you can use it because I still feel like
it’s the same through line.
People think I do a lot of different things. I’m like,
“Yeah, but it’s all the same spider.”
Learn about Nance Klehm’s current and past projects on her
websites, Social Ecologies and Spontaneous Vegetation.
Read her archived musings and recipes for Arthur Magazine, “Weedeater.”
Read about Mythological Quarter’s visit with Nance
Klehm, an account
of a forage at LA Weekly, or Chicago Reader’s report on Humble Pile, Klehm’s
waste composting project.
Video: Urbanforaging with Weedeater Nance Klehm
8/2/2012 9:49:00 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
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