From an environmental standpoint, plastic is a huge problem. In America we use 2.5 million plastic bottles each hour and recycle only 27 percent of them. Discarded packaging and other plastic products are huge contributors to things like oceanic trash islands, garbage patches, plastic eating microbes and other dystopian-sounding environmental phenomena. Though there have been continued efforts to estimate just how much plastic ends up in places outside of our disposal infrastructure, like the ocean, we still don't really know how it is breaking down or where the pieces are all ending up. Even when plastic is recycled (and it often isn't) it can’t be completely re-purposed like other materials, so the process is more accurately called down-cycling. The outlook seems bleak, yet production of plastic is actually on the rise, further evidence that we are acting as though plastics aren’t suffocating our earth or infiltrating the global food chain.
The quest for a durable, biodegradable, easily-molded, environmentally-friendly bioplastic seems like a quixotic one, but a team at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University has developed a bioplastic fabrication process that uses a form of chitin, an abundant and underutilized material found in shrimp shells.
“Most bioplastics are made from cellulose, a plant-based polysaccharide material. The Wyss Institute team developed its bioplastic from chitosan, a form of chitin, which is a powerful player in the world of natural polymers and the second most abundant organic material on Earth. Chitin is a long-chain polysaccharide that is responsible for the hardy shells of shrimps and other crustaceans, armor-like insect cuticles, tough fungal cell walls — and flexible butterfly wings. The majority of available chitin in the world comes from discarded shrimp shells, and is either thrown away or used in fertilizers, cosmetics, or dietary supplements, for example.” -The Wyss Institute
Chitin itself is not a new discovery. What the team at the Wyss Institute accomplished was developing a process for the production of what they call “Shrilk” (shrimp chitin combined with a protein from silk) that can be molded into complex 3d shapes without breaking or shrinking. The resulting bioplastic degrades in about two weeks, actually adding nutrients to soil and allowing plant life to grow, like the black-eyed pea grown by the Wyss team in chitosan-enriched soil.
Laboratory development of bioplastics like Shrilk is encouraging, but the product still faces the daunting transition to large-scale manufacturing. So, although burying discarded yogurt containers in our gardens might not be an immediate possibility, it's nice to know someone is working on it.
Images provided by The Wyss Institute at Harvard University.
Big Energy presents a glowing dreamscape of a glorious future with carbon-based fuels, but it would be more like a nightmare with flooded coastlines and a devastatingly hot planet.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
Around the world, carbon-based fuels are under attack. Increasingly grim economic pressures, growing popular resistance, and the efforts of government regulators have all shocked the energy industry. Oil prices are falling, colleges and universities are divesting from their carbon stocks, voters are instituting curbs on hydro-fracking, and delegates at the U.N. climate conference in Peru have agreed to impose substantial restrictions on global carbon emissions at a conference in Paris later in the year. All this has been accompanied by what might be viewed as a moral assault on the very act of extracting carbon-based fuels from the earth, in which the major oil, gas, and coal companies find themselves portrayed as the enemies of humankind.
Under such pressures, you might assume that Big Energy would react defensively, perhaps apologizing for its role in spurring climate change while assuming a leadership position in planning for the transition to a post-carbon economy. But you would be wrong: instead of retreating, the major companies have gone on the offensive, extolling their contributions to human progress and minimizing the potential for renewables to replace fossil fuels in just about any imaginable future.
That the big carbon outfits would seek to perpetuate their privileged market position in the global economy is, of course, hardly surprising. After all, oil is the most valuable commodity in international commerce and major producing firms like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell regularly top lists of the world’s most profitable enterprises. Still, these companies are not just employing conventional legal and corporate tactics to protect their position, they’re mounting a moral assault of their own, claiming that fossil fuels are an essential factor in eradicating poverty and achieving a decent life on this planet.
Improbable as such claims may seem, they are being echoed by powerful officials around the world — typically, the leaders of carbon-producing nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia or the representatives of American energy-producing states like Texas and Kentucky. Count on one thing: this crew of fossil fuel enthusiasts is intent on ensuring that any path to a carbon-free future will, at best, be long and arduous. While you’re at it, add top Congressional leaders to this crew, since many of the Republican victors in the 2014 midterm election are from oil and coal-producing states and regularly laud carbon production for its contribution to local prosperity, while pocketing contributions by Big Oil and other energy firms.
Unless directly challenged, this pro-carbon offensive — backed by copious Big Energy advertising — is likely to attract at least as much favor as the claims of anti-carbon activists. At this point, of course, the moral arguments against carbon consumption are — or at least should be — well known. The oil, gas, and coal companies, it is claimed, are selfishly pursuing mega-profits at the expense of the climate, the environment, our children and grandchildren, and even possibly a future of any reasonable sort for humanity as a whole. “Basically [the big energy companies have] said, we’re going to wreck the planet, we don’t care what you say, we think we can, and we dare you to stop us,” observed climate activist and 350.org cofounder Bill McKibben in a recent interview. This outlook was reflected in many of the signs carried by the estimated 400,000 demonstrators who participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City last September.
The fossil fuel industry is often also portrayed as the nucleus of a global system of wealth and power that drags down democracy and perpetuates grotesque planetary inequalities. “Fossil fuels really do create a hyper-stratified economy,” explained Naomi Klein, author of the bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. “It’s the nature of the resources that they are concentrated, and you need a huge amount of infrastructure to get them out and to transport them. And that lends itself to huge profits and they're big enough that you can buy off politicians.”
Views like these animate the struggles against “fracking” in the United States, against the transport of tar-sands oil via the Keystone XL pipeline, and against the shipment of coal to ports in the Pacific Northwest. They also undergird the drive to rid college and university endowments and other institutions of their fossil fuel stocks, which gained momentum in recent months, thanks to the decisions of both the Stanford University board of trustees to divest from coal company stocks and of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to eventually rid itself of its fossil fuel stocks and invest in alternative energy.
Once upon a time, the giant carbon companies like Exxon sought to deflect these attacks by denying the very existence of climate change or the role of humans in causing it — or at least by raising the banner of “uncertainty” about the science behind it. They also financed the efforts of rogue scientists to throw doubt on global warming. While denialism still figures in the propaganda of some carbon companies, they have now largely chosen to embrace another strategy: extolling the benefits of fossil fuels and highlighting their contributions to human wellbeing and progress.
At the moment, this carbon counterattack is most clearly and fully articulated in the speeches of top industry officials and in various corporate publications. Of these, the most recent and authoritative, ExxonMobil’s The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040, was released in December. Described as a planning guide for future corporate investment and decision-making, the Outlook combines an analysis of global energy trends with a summary of the company’s pro-carbon ethos — and so offers us a vivid look at where Big Energy is heading in its counterattack on the climate movement.
If a climate movement is going to challenge the energy powers of this planet effectively, it’s crucial to grasp the vision into which Big Energy is undoubtedly planning to sink incredible resources and which, across much of the planet, will become a living, breathing argument for ignoring the catastrophic warming of the planet. They present it, of course, as a glowing dreamscape of a glorious future — though a nightmare is what should come to mind.
Here, then, in a nutshell is the argument that Big Energy is going to seed into the planet for the foreseeable future. Prepare yourself.
No Growth Without Us
The cornerstone of the Exxon report is its claims that ever-increasing supplies of energy are needed to sustain economic growth and ensure human betterment, and that fossil fuels alone exist in sufficient quantity (and at affordable enough prices) to satisfy rising international demand. “Forecasting long-term energy trends begins with a simple fact: people need energy,” the report asserts. “Over the next few decades, population and income growth — and an unprecedented expansion of the global middle class — are expected to create new demands for energy.”
Some of this added energy, Exxon acknowledges, will come from nuclear and renewable energy. Most, however, will have to come from fossil fuels. All told, the Outlook estimates, the world will need 35 percent more energy in 2040 than it does today. That would mean adding an additional 191 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) to global supplies over and above the 526 quadrillion BTUs consumed in 2010. A small percentage of those added BTUs, about 12 percent, will come from renewables, but the vast majority — estimated by Exxon at 67 percent — will be provided by fossil fuels.
Without fossil fuels, this argument holds, there can be no economic growth. Here’s how Exxon CEO and Chairman Rex Tillerson puts it: “Energy is fundamental to economic growth, and oil is fundamental because to this point in time, we have not found, through technology or other means, another fuel that can substitute for the role that oil plays in transportation, not just passenger, individual transportation, but commercial transportation, jet fuel, marine, all the ways in which we use oil as a fuel to move people and things about this planet.”
Natural gas is equally essential, Tillerson argues, because it is the world’s fastest-growing source of energy and a key ingredient in electric power generation. Nor will coal be left out of the mix. It, too, will play an important role in promoting economic growth, largely by facilitating a rapid increase in global electricity supplies. Despite all the concern over coal’s contributions to both urban pollution and climate change, Exxon predicts that it will remain “the No. 1 fuel for power generation” in 2040.
Yes, other sources of energy will play a role in helping to satisfying global needs, but without carbon-based fuels, Exxon insists, economic growth will screech to a halt and the world’s poor and disadvantaged will stay immersed in poverty.
ExxonMobil argues in its Outlook for Energy report that without fossil fuels, including natural gas and coal, there will be no economic growth.
Propelling the New Global Middle Class
If there is one overarching theme to the new Exxon ethos, it is that we are witnessing the emergence of a new global middle class with glittering possibilities and that this expanding multitude, constituting perhaps one-half of the world’s population by 2040, will require ever greater quantities of oil, coal, and natural gas if it is to have any hope of achieving its true potential.
Citing data from the Brookings Institution, the company notes that the number of people who earn enough to be considered members of that global middle class will jump from approximately 1.9 billion in 2010 to 4.7 billion in 2030 — representing what it calls “the largest collective increase in living standards in history.” China and India will be the two countries adding most substantially to the global middle class, with each acquiring hundreds of millions of newly affluent citizens, but substantial gains will also be achieved by such “key growth” countries as Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, and Indonesia.
The emergence of a middle-class bulge on a planetary scale, representing a kind of consumerism gone wild, is something to be celebrated the company insists in its new report, echoing the words of the U.N. Development Programme: “When dozens of countries and billions of people move up the development ladder, as they are doing today, it has a direct impact on wealth creation and broader human progress in all countries and regions of the world.”
For all this to occur, however, that rising middle class will need staggering amounts of added energy — of course, we’re talking about new supplies of the same old carbon-based energy forms here — to build and power all the cars, homes, businesses, appliances, and resorts that such consumers would undoubtedly crave and demand. More income, Exxon explains, “means new demand for food, for travel, for electricity, for housing, schools, and hospitals” — and all of these benefits “depend on energy.”
By itself, an increase in world energy supplies could indeed be widely beneficial, if supplied largely by climate-friendly fuels. But such genuinely “alternative” sources of energy (into which, by the way, the giant energy companies have invested next to none of their profits) generally cost more than fossil fuels to produce, at least initially, and that, says Exxon, creates a problem once you consider where demand will be coming from in 2040.
According to the Outlook, virtually none of the expected increase in global energy demand will come from the older industrialized countries, which can afford more costly alternatives; rather, its source will be developing countries, which generally seek cheap energy quickly — that is, coal and natural gas for electricity generation and oil for transportation. Of the 201 quadrillion BTUs in added energy required by the developing world between now and 2040, predicts Exxon, 148 quadrillion, or 74%, will be provided by fossil fuels — a statistic that, if accurate, should chill us to the bone in climate change terms.
The role of fossil fuels in satisfying the aspirations of the world’s growing middle class is especially evident in the field of transportation. “Rising prosperity will drive increased demand for transportation,” the Outlook notes. “An expanding global middle class means millions of people will buy a car for the first time.” Between 2010 and 2040, the human population is expected to grow by 29%, from approximately seven billion to nine billion people; the global population of cars, SUVs, and other light-duty vehicles, however, is projected to grow by more than 100%, from 825 million to 1.7 billion. And while an increasing number of these vehicles will be powered by gas-electric hybrid engines, the majority will still be fueled by petroleum, pushing up the demand for petroleum and pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
A rising middle class seeking more consumer products, urban amenities, and travel opportunities will also require a commensurate fleet of trucks, buses, trains, ships, and planes. Reliance on trucks and container ships for moving goods around the world will, in turn, generate a huge demand for diesel and heavy oil, while all those low-cost air carriers (like ill-fated Air Asia) will only up the requirement for aviation fuel.
Finally, the new global middle class will want more computers, flat-screen TVs, air-conditioners, and other appliances, stoking a soaring demand for electricity. Among the advanced nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a growing share of the energy used in generating electricity will indeed come from renewables and natural gas, while coal use will decline sharply. In non-OECD countries, however, the drive for electrification will be accompanied by a significant increase in the consumption of coal — from 54 quadrillion BTUs in 2010 to 82 quadrillion in 2040. This means that the non-OECD’s contribution to global warming will continue to soar, although that’s not a point that Exxon is likely to emphasize.
Nor does the Exxon blueprint neglect the needs of the world’s poorer citizens. “The progress enabled by modern energy has not reached everyone,” the Outlook notes. “One out of every five people in the world still has no access to electricity. Even more lack modern cooking fuels.”
This is the basis for what can only be termed “carbon humanitarianism” — the claim that cheap carbon-based fuels are the best possible response to the energy-poor of the planet (despite everything we know about the devastation climate change will cause, above all in the lives of the poor). This vision of Big Energy as the Good Samaritan of our world was articulated by Rex Tillerson in a June 2013 address to the Asia Society Global Forum. “Approximately 1.3 billion people on our planet,” he said, “still do not have access to electricity for basic needs like clean water, cooking, sanitation, light, or for the safe storage of food and medicine... [which means that] the need to expand energy supplies has a humanitarian dimension that should inform and should guide our energy policy.”
Asked whether climate change didn’t pose a greater challenge to the world’s poor, Tillerson chose to demur. “I think here are much more pressing priorities that we... need to deal with,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2012. “There are still hundreds of millions, billions of people living in abject poverty around the world. They need electricity... They need fuel to cook their food on that’s not animal dung... They'd love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably. You'd save millions upon millions of lives by making fossil fuels more available to a lot of the part of the world that doesn't have it.”
In fact, Exxon predicts that reliance on fossil fuels will grow fastest in the poorest parts of the world — precisely the areas that are expected to suffer the most from climate change. Africa, for example, is expected to witness a 103 percent increase in net energy consumption between now and 2040, with 83 percent of that increase supplied by fossil fuels.
We Can Do It Better
The final part of the industry’s counterattack is the claim that, for all their purported benefits, renewable sources of energy like wind and solar power are just not up to the task of providing the necessary extra energy needed to sustain economic growth and propel billions of people into the middle class.
The problem, Exxon claims, is that wind and solar are more costly than the fossil fuel alternatives and so are not growing fast enough to meet rising world demand. Even though the energy provided by these renewables will expand by 315 percent between now and 2040, it still represents such a small share of the total global energy mix that, by the end of this period, it will only reach the 4 percent mark in its share of total world energy consumption (compared to 77 percent for carbon fuels). Renewables are also said to be problematic as they provide only intermittent sources of energy — failing at night and on windless days — and must be bolstered by other fuels to ensure uninterrupted energy output.
Big Oil's counterattack claims that fossil fuel alternatives aren't growing quickly enough to meet rising world demand even though renewable energy is projected to grow by 315 percent by 2040.
Facing the Challenge
Put together, this represents a dazzling vision of a future in which growing numbers of people enjoy the benefits of abundant energy and unlimited growth. You can already imagine the heartwarming TV commercials that will be generated on a massive scale to propagate such a message: pictures of hard-working individuals of all genders and hues enjoying the American Dream globally thanks to Exxon and its cohorts. Needless to say, in such imagery there will be nothing to mar the promise of unbridled prosperity for all — no horrific droughts, colossal superstorms, or mass migrations of desperate people seeking to flee devastated areas.
But this vision, like so much contemporary advertising, is based on a lie: in this case, on the increasingly bizarre idea that, in the 21st century, humanity can burn its way through significant parts of the planet’s reserves of fossil fuels to achieve a world in which everything is essentially the same — there’s just more of it for everyone. In the world portrayed by Exxon, it’s possible for a reassuring version of business-as-usual to proceed without environmental consequences. In that world, the unimpeded and accelerated release of carbon into the atmosphere has no significant impact on people’s lives. This is, of course, a modern fairy tale that, if believed, will have the most disastrous of results.
Someday, it will also be seen as one of the more striking lies on whatever’s left of the historical record. In fact, follow this vision to 2040, burning through whatever fossil fuels the energy companies and energy states can pull out of the earth and the ballooning carbon emissions produced will ensure planetary warming far beyond the two degrees Celsius deemed by scientists to be the maximum that the planet can safely absorb without catastrophic climate effects.
In fact, those dreamy landscapes in the new pro-carbon version of the planetary future will, in reality, be replaced by burning forests, flooded coastlines, and ever-expanding deserts. Forget the global rise of the middle class, forget all those cars and trucks and planes and resorts, forget the good life entirely. As climate conditions deteriorate, croplands will wither, coastal cities and farmlands will be eradicated, infrastructure will be devastated, the existing middle class will shrink, and the poor will face ever-increasing deprivation.
Preventing these catastrophes will involve sustained and dedicated effort by all those who truly care about the future of humanity. This will certainly require better educating people about the risks of climate change and the role played by fossil fuel combustion in producing it. But it will also require deconstructing and exposing the futuristic fantasies deployed by the fossil fuel companies to perpetuate their dominance. However fraudulent their arguments may be, they have the potential to blunt significant progress on climate change and so must be vigorously repudiated. Unless we do so, the apostles of carbon will continue to dominate the debate and bring us ever closer to a planetary inferno. This is the only way to thwart and discredit those who seek to perpetuate the Reign of Carbon.
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary film version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Links to his work can be found at michaelklare.com.
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Copyright 2015 Michael T. Klare
Top photo by Fotolia/claffra
Middle photo by Fotolia/eyeidea
Bottom photo by Fotolia/hallucion_7
The Earth's changing climate is forcing us to find ways to leave behind the age of fossil fuels.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
It was the most thrilling bureaucratic document I’ve ever seen for just one reason: it was dated the 21st day of the month of Thermidor in the Year Six. Written in sepia ink on heavy paper, it recorded an ordinary land auction in France in what we would call the late summer of 1798. But the extraordinary date signaled that it was created when the French Revolution was still the overarching reality of everyday life and such fundamentals as the distribution of power and the nature of government had been reborn in astonishing ways. The new calendar that renamed 1792 as Year One had, after all, been created to start society all over again.
In that little junk shop on a quiet street in San Francisco, I held a relic from one of the great upheavals of the last millennium. It made me think of a remarkable statement the great feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin had made only a few weeks earlier. In the course of a speech she gave while accepting a book award she noted, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
That document I held was written only a few years after the French had gotten over the idea that the divine right of kings was an inescapable reality. The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).
Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).
How to Topple a Giant
To use Le Guin’s language, physics is inevitable: if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet warms, and as the planet warms, various kinds of chaos and ruin are let loose. Politics, on the other hand, is not inevitable. For example, not so many years ago it would have seemed inevitable that Chevron, currently the third biggest corporation in the country, would run the refinery town of Richmond, California, as its own private fiefdom. You could say that the divine right of Chevron seemed like a given. Except that people in Richmond refused to accept it and so this town of 107,000 mostly poor nonwhites pushed back.
In recent years, a group of progressives won election to the city council and the mayor’s seat, despite huge expenditures by Chevron, the corporation that also brought you gigantic oil spills onshore in Ecuador and offshore in Brazil, massive contamination from half a century of oil extraction in Nigeria, and Canadian tar-sands bitumen sent by rail to the Richmond refinery. Mayor Gayle McLaughin and her cohorts organized a little revolution in a town that had mostly been famous for its crime rate and for Chevron’s toxic refinery emissions, which periodically create emergencies, sometimes requiring everyone to take shelter (and pretend that they are not being poisoned indoors), sometimes said — by Chevron — to be harmless, as with last Thursday's flames that lit up the sky, visible as far away as Oakland.
As McLaughin put it of her era as mayor:
“We’ve accomplished so much, including breathing better air, reducing the pollution, and building a cleaner environment and cleaner jobs, and reducing our crime rate. Our homicide number is the lowest in 33 years and we became a leading city in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita. We’re a sanctuary city. And we’re defending our homeowners to prevent foreclosures and evictions. And we also got Chevron to pay $114 million extra dollars in taxes.”
For this November’s election, the second-largest oil company on Earth officially spent $3.1 million to defeat McLaughin and other progressive candidates and install a mayor and council more to its liking. That sum worked out to about $180 per Richmond voter, but my brother David, who’s long been connected to Richmond politics, points out that, if you look at all the other ways the company spends to influence local politics, it might be roughly ten times that.
Nonetheless, Chevron lost. None of its candidates were elected and all the grassroots progressives it fought with billboards, mailers, television ads, websites, and everything else a lavishly funded smear campaign can come up with, won.
If a small coalition like that can win locally against a corporation that had revenues of $228.9 billion in 2013, imagine what a large global coalition could do against the fossil-fuel giants. It wasn’t easy in Richmond and it won’t be easy on the largest scale either, but it’s not impossible. The Richmond progressives won by imagining that the status quo was not inevitable, no less an eternal way of life. They showed up to do the work to dent that inevitability. The billionaires and fossil fuel corporations are intensely engaged in politics all the time, everywhere, and they count on us to stay on the sidelines. If you look at their response to various movements, you can see that they fear the moment we wake up, show up, and exercise our power to counter theirs.
That power operated on a larger scale last week, when local activists and public health professionals applied sufficient pressure to get New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign legislation banning fracking statewide. Until the news broke on December 17th, the outcome had seemed uncertain. It’s a landmark, a watershed decision: a state has decided that its considerable reserves of fossil fuel will not be extracted for the foreseeable future, that other things — the health of its people, the purity of its water — matter more. And once again, the power of citizens turned out to be greater than that of industry.
Just a few days before the huge victory in New York, the nations of the world ended their most recent talks in Lima, Peru, about a global climate treaty — and they actually reached a tentative deal, one that for the first time asks all nations, not just the developed ones, to reduce emissions. The agreement has to get better — to do more, demand more of every nation — by the global climate summit in Paris in December of 2015.
It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here, but easy to see that activists and citizens will have to push their nations hard. We need to end the age of fossil fuels the way the French ended the age of absolute monarchy. As New York State and the town of Richmond just demonstrated, what is possible has been changing rapidly.
Three Kinds of Hero
If you look at innovations in renewable energy technologies — and this may be an era in which engineers are our unsung heroes — the future seems tremendously exciting. Not long ago, the climate movement was only hoping against hope that technology could help save us from the depredations of climate change. Now, as one of the six great banners carried in the 400,000-strong September 21st climate march in New York City proclaimed, “We have the solutions.” Wind, solar, and other technologies are spreading rapidly with better designs, lower costs, and many extraordinary improvements that are undoubtedly but a taste of what’s still to come.
Clean energy technologies, such as solar panels, are solutions only if carbon-emitting energy sources are phased out or shut down.
In parts of the United States and the world, clean energy is actually becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. The price of oil has suddenly plunged, scrambling the situation for a while, but with one positive side benefit: it’s pushed some of the filthier carbon-intensive, cutting-edge energy extraction schemes below the cost-effective point for now.
The costs of clean energy technology have themselves been dropping significantly enough that sober financial advisers like the head of the Bank of England are beginning to suggest that fossil fuels and centralized conventional power plants may prove to be bad investments. They are also talking about “the carbon bubble” (a sign that the divestment movement has worked in calling attention to the practical as well as the moral problems of the industry). So the technology front is encouraging.
That’s the carrot for action; there’s also a stick.
If you look at the climate reports by the scientists — and scientists are another set of heroes for our time — the news only keeps getting scarier. You probably already know the highlights: chaotic weather, regular records set for warmth on land and at sea (and 2014 heading for an all-time heat high), 355 months in a row of above-average temperatures, more ice melting faster, more ocean acidification, the “sixth extinction,” the spread of tropical diseases, drops in food productivity with consequent famines.
So many people don’t understand what we’re up against, because they don’t think about the Earth and its systems much or they don’t grasp the delicate, intricate reciprocities and counterbalances that keep it all running as well as it has since the last ice age ended and an abundant, calm planet emerged. For most of us, none of that is real or vivid or visceral or even visible.
For a great many scientists whose fields have something to do with climate, it is. In many cases they’re scared, as well as sad and unnerved, and they’re clear about the urgency of taking action to limit how disastrously climate change impacts our species and the systems we depend upon.
Some non-scientists already assume that it’s too late to do anything, which — as premature despair always does — excuses us for doing nothing. Insiders, however, are generally convinced that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best- and worst-case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written.
After that huge climate march, I asked Jamie Henn, a cofounder of and communications director for 350.org, how he viewed this moment and he replied, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart,” a perfect summary of the way heartening news about alternative energy and the growth of climate activism exists in the shadow of those terrible scientific reports. This brings us to our third group of heroes, who fall into the one climate category that doesn’t require special qualifications: activists.
New technologies are only solutions if they’re implemented and the old carbon-emitting ones are phased out or shut down. It’s clear enough that the great majority of fossil fuel reserves must be kept just where they are — in the ground — as we move away from the Age of Petroleum. That became all too obvious thanks to a relatively recent calculation made by scientists and publicized and pushed by activists (and maybe made conceivable by engineers designing replacement systems). The goal of all this: to keep the warming of the planet to 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), a target established years ago that alarmed scientists are now questioning, given the harm that nearly 1 degree Celsius of warming is already doing.
Dismantling the fossil-fuel economy would undoubtedly have the side effect of breaking some of the warping power that oil has had in global and national politics. Of course, those wielding that power will not yield it without a ferocious battle — the very battle the climate movement is already engaged in on many fronts, from the divestment movement to the fight against fracking to the endeavor to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and others like it from delivering the products of the Alberta tar sands to the successful movement to shut down coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and prevent others from being built.
Climate Activism: Global and Local Movements
If everyone who’s passionate about climate change, who gets that we’re living in a moment in which the fate of the Earth and of humanity is actually being decided, found their place in the movement, amazing things could happen. What’s happening now is already remarkable enough, just not yet adequate to the crisis.
The divestment movement that arose a couple of years ago to get institutions to unload their stocks in fossil fuel corporations started modestly. It is now active on hundreds of college campuses and at other institutions around the world. While the intransigence or love of inertia of bureaucracies is a remarkable force, there have been notable victories. In late September, for instance, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — made fat upon the wealth of John D. Rockefeller’s founding role in the rise of the petroleum industry — pledged to divest its $860 million in assets from fossil fuels. It is just one of more than 800 institutions, including church denominations, universities, cities, pension funds, and foundations from Scotland to New Zealand to Seattle, that have already committed to doing so.
The Keystone pipeline could have been up and running years ago, delivering the dirtiest energy from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast with little fanfare, had activists not taken it on. It has become a profoundly public, hotly debated issue, the subject of demonstrations at dozens of presidential appearances in recent years — and in the course of this ruckus, a great many people (including me) were clued in to the existence of the giant suppurating sore of sludge, bitumen, and poison lakes that is the Alberta tar sands.
Canadian activists have done a similarly effective job of blocking other pipelines to keep this landlocked stuff from reaching any coast for export. One upshot of this: quite a lot of the stuff is now being put on trains (with disastrous results when they crash and, in the longer term, no less disastrous outcomes when they don't). This exceptionally dirty crude oil leaves behind extremely high levels of toxins in the mining as well as the refining process.
As the Wall Street Journal recently reported:
“The Keystone XL pipeline was touted as a model for energy independence and a source of jobs when TransCanada Corp. announced plans to build the 1,700-mile pipeline six years ago. But the crude-oil pipeline's political and regulatory snarls since then have emboldened resistance to at least 10 other pipeline projects across North America. As a result, six oil and natural-gas pipeline projects in North America costing a proposed $15 billion or more and stretching more than 3,400 miles have been delayed, a tally by the Wall Street Journal shows. At least four other projects with a total investment of $25 billion and more than 5,100 miles in length are facing opposition but haven't been delayed yet.”
The climate movement has proved to be bigger and more effective than it looks, because most people don’t see a single movement. If they look hard, what they usually see is a wildly diverse mix of groups facing global issues on the one hand and a host of local ones on the other. Domestically, that can mean Denton, Texas, banning fracking in the November election or the shutting down of coal-powered plants across the country, or the movement gearing up in California for an immense anti-fracking demonstration on February 7, 2015.
It can mean people working on college divestment campaigns or rewriting state laws to address climate change by implementing efficiency and clean energy. It can mean the British Columbian activists who, for now, have prevented a tunnel from being drilled for a tar-sands pipeline to the Pacific Coast thanks to a months-long encampment, civil disobedience, and many arrests at Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver. One of the arrested wrote in the Vancouver Observer:
“[S]itting in that jail cell, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. One that I was only partially aware that I have been carrying for years now. I am ashamed by Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty and our increasingly contemptible position on climate change. If these are the values of our society then I want to be an outlaw in that society.”
Six crude-oil pipeline and natural-gas pipeline projects across North America have been delayed, thanks to climate activists.
Making the Future
Just before that September climate march in New York, I began to contemplate how human beings a century from now will view those of us who lived in the era when climate change was recognized, and yet there was so much more that we could have done. They may feel utter contempt for us. They may regard us as the crew who squandered their inheritance, like drunkards gambling away a family fortune that, in this case, is everyone’s everywhere and everything. I’m talking, of course, about the natural world itself when it was in good working order. They will see us as people who fiddled while everything burned.
They will think we were insane to worry about celebrities and fleeting political scandals and whether we had nice bodies. They will think the newspapers should have had a gigantic black box above the fold of the front page every day saying “Here are some stories about other things, BUT CLIMATE IS STILL THE BIGGEST STORY OF ALL.”
They will think that we should have thrown our bodies in front of the engines of destruction everywhere, raised our voices to the heavens, halted everything until the devastation stopped. They will bless and praise the few and curse the many.
There have been heroic climate activists in nearly every country on the planet, and some remarkable things have already been achieved. The movement has grown in size, power, and sophistication, but it’s still nowhere near commensurate with what needs to be done. In the lead-up to the U.N.-sponsored conference to create a global climate treaty in Paris next December, this coming year will likely be decisive.
So this is the time to find your place in a growing movement, if you haven’t yet — as it is for climate organizers to do better at reaching out and offering everyone a part in the transformation, whether it’s the housebound person who writes letters or the 20-year-old who’s ready for direct action in remote places. This is the biggest of pictures, so there’s a role for everyone, and it should be everyone’s most important work right now, even though so many other important matters press on all of us. (As the Philippines’s charismatic former climate negotiator Yeb Sano notes, “Climate change impinges on almost all human rights. Human rights are at the core of this issue.”)
Many people believe that personal acts in private life are what matters in this crisis. They are good things, but not the key thing. It’s great to bicycle rather than drive, eat plants instead of animals, and put solar panels on your roof, but such gestures can also offer a false sense that you’re not part of the problem.
You are not just a consumer. You are a citizen of this Earth and your responsibility is not private but public, not individual but social. If you are a resident of a country that is a major carbon emitter, as is nearly everyone in the English-speaking world, you are part of the system, and nothing less than systemic change will save us.
The race is on. From an ecological standpoint, the scientists advise us that we still have a little bit of time in which it might be possible, by a swift, decisive move away from fossil fuels, to limit the damage we’re setting up for those who live in the future. From a political standpoint, we have a year until the Paris climate summit, at which, after endless foot-shuffling and evading and blocking and stalling and sighing, we could finally, decades in, get a meaningful climate deal between the world’s nations.
We actually have a chance, a friend who was at the Lima preliminary round earlier this month told me, if we all continue to push our governments ferociously. The real pressure for change globally comes more from within nations than from nations pressuring one another. Here in the United States, long the world’s biggest carbon-emitter (until China outstripped us, partly by becoming the manufacturer of a significant percentage of our products), we have a particular responsibility to push hard. Pressure works. The president is clearly feeling it, and it’s reflected in the recent U.S.-China agreement on curtailing emissions — far from perfect or adequate, but a huge step forward.
How will we get to where we need to be? No one knows, but we do know that we must keep moving in the direction of reduced carbon emissions, a transformed energy economy, an escape from the tyranny of fossil fuel, and a vision of a world in which everything is connected. The story of this coming year is ours to write and it could be a story of Year One in the climate revolution, of the watershed when popular resistance changed the fundamentals as much as the people of France changed their world (and ours) more than 200 ago.
Two hundred years hence, may someone somewhere hold in their hands a document from 2021, in wonder, because it was written during Year Six of the climate revolution, when all the old inevitabilities were finally being swept aside, when we seized hold of possibility and made it ours. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” says Ursula K. Le Guin. And she’s right, even if it’s the hardest work we could ever do. Now, everything depends on it.
Rebecca Solnit, who has ended TomDispatch’s year for years now, grew up reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s books. Her own most recent book is The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (Trinity University Press), and her 2014 indie bestseller, Men Explain Things to Me (Dispatch Books), released in May, is ending up on best of the year lists everywhere.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit
Top photo by Fotolia/artitcom
Middle photo by Fotolia/il-fede
Bottom photo by Fotolia/ALCE
Censorship in China has long posed a substantial obstacle for its documentarians, unable to depict the country’s controversial subjects without backlash from the government or societal harassment. But now that combating pollution has become a recent priority for China, which pledged to cap its carbon emissions by 2030, environmental issues have been freed from the film industry’s long list of taboos.
Due to lack of approval through the censorship process, independent films are typically not shown in theaters, leaving filmmakers to sell their work to TV stations and garnering a very narrow audience of students and film buffs. And when authorities closed down the Beijing Independent Film Festival in August due to President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on freedom of expression, distributors had an even harder time discovering new films.
“If you want to make a film about Tiananmen 1989, it will be impossible,” said La Frances Hui, film curator at the New York-based Asia Society, to the Associated Press. “If you want to make a film about the legal justice system, you will get into trouble. But for now I think the environment is relatively safe, but not too many people have dealt with this subject matter.”
One independent Chinese filmmaker has: Wang Jiuliang exposed the country’s shocking landfills in his first film Beijing Besieged by Waste after uploading it to online streaming sites for free. He began as a photographer, when in 2008 he followed a motorcycle that collected and transported waste around his neighborhood to illegal landfill sites. Jiuliang would capture these areas with his camera, and, over the course of three years, plot hundreds of these locations around the capitol on Google Earth. “My aim was to reveal the problem and then to solve the problem through making a film,” Jiuliang told AP.
In 2010, a few of his photos were displayed at an exhibit in Southern China before his film was even finished; once the official Xinhua news agency caught wind and asked Jiuliang to write an internal report, it wasn’t long before local officials started paying attention, too. “It got a lot of attention by mainstream media and the authorities, so it created an impact that is kind of unheard of,” Hui said.
Already discussing with main state-run broadcasters and media reporters about his upcoming film Plastic China, Jiuliang is making a notable breakthrough for the country’s industry, where independent filmmakers have trouble overcoming hierarchical criticism and persecution. He still deals with local harassment—being chased by dogs, threatened and punched—but, now that it aligns with the Communist Party’s mission, his work is generally welcomed by a national tolerance for his efforts against pollution.
Though he is still working with CCTV to “weed out sensitive content” from his new film, such as a scene where villagers are criticizing the government, he hopes Plastic China will air this month.
Watch the trailer for Beijing Besieged by Waste here:
A staggering 1 million animals are killed by traffic every day. But one woman found a way to turn these unsightly accidents into ethical accessories, revolutionizing the fur industry.
Pamela Paquin founded Petite Mort (French for “little death”), a business that recycles road kill and turns it into fashion with principles, an idea she’s had for years. “It’s so much a part of everyday life to see these animals,” she told Modern Farmer. The case for eating road kill has gained ground, but little has been said of utilizing its furs—an industry that claims 50 million animals a year. “You can’t possibly wrap your head around the suffering that went into those numbers.”
Paquin, a resident of Wayland, Mass., located a taxidermist in Vermont who taught her how to skin and scrape an animal pelt ahead of the tanning process; she then ships the fur to a tannery in Idaho (one of few in the country that works with partial pelts). With the remains of the bodies, she goes into the woods and places the animal in fetal position, giving a prayer of thanks—a call to her Native American heritage. Paquin’s customers have been steady, and all by word-of-mouth. From neck muffs to leg warmers to trapper hats, her products (made to measure) start at $1,000 and contain a sterling silver badge indicating it’s a one-of-a-kind, ethical item.
She recovers most of the animals herself, but collaborates with hunters, wildlife officers, highway patrolmen, and various contacts who spot salvageable animals. Last year her stock included bears, foxes, beavers, raccoons, otters, minks, fisher cats, baby fawns, and a coyote. All animals are registered with Massachusetts’ Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and Paquin sends her customers details about the animal’s recovery and clues as to the life it might have lived. “Each animal has a story,” she said.
Currently, Paquin is looking for investors to expand this enterprise, hoping that one day fur will be wearable material for those with ethical reservations.
“Fur is a very sensual and luxurious product that has been shamed and shameful for a very, very long time,” she said. “This is a shameless fur. This is champagne all night and no hangover.”
Image by Holly Kuchura, licensed under Creative Commons.
In his Transportationist blog, David Levinson asks which kills more: Deaths by vehicles from crashes (both cars and trucks) or deaths by vehicles from air pollution.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration counted approximately 43,500 fatalities caused by car crashes in 2005 in the United States. MIT research, led by Fabio Caiazzo, found that same year had roughly 52,800 deaths attributable to particle matter from road transportation (which accounts for a quarter of emission-related deaths)—a 19.7 percent increase from crashes nationwide. An additional 5,250 deaths are caused by road-related ozone concentrations.
Death, however, is only one form of measurement regarding the health impacts of both auto emissions and crashes. Levinson tries to adjust for age through the Global Burden of Disease database, which includes a measurement accounting for “Years of Life Lost." In 2010, about 1.87 million years were lost to road injuries, whereas 1.65 million years were lost to breathing particle matter. (While this may not seem like a mind-blowing difference, the gap is actually wider, as the latter includes all forms of air pollution. If a quarter of pollution-related deaths come from cars, then a more accurate number would be about 410,000 years.) Auto emissions, overall, cut lives 12 years short; crashes, which mainly affect younger people, cut about 35 years.
In short, while Americans appear more likely to die from auto emissions, car crashes pose a bigger danger when considering wasted life potential.
Image by Honou, licensed under Creative Commons.
North Dakota’s prairie towns are being reshaped by the domestic oil boom, for better or for worse.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
At 9 p.m. on that August night, when I arrived for my first shift as a cocktail waitress at Whispers, one of the two strip clubs in downtown Williston, I didn’t expect a 25-year-old man to get beaten to death outside the joint. Then again, I didn’t really expect most of the things I encountered reporting on the oil boom in western North Dakota this past summer.
“Can you cover the floor?” the other waitress yelled around 11 p.m. as she and her crop-top sweater sidled behind the bar to take over for the bouncers and bartenders. They had rushed outside to deal with a commotion. I resolved to shuttle Miller Lites and Fireball shots with extra vigor. I didn’t know who was fighting, but assumed it involved my least favorite customers of the night: two young brothers who had been jumping up and down in front of the stage, their hands cupping their crotches the way white boys, whose role models are Eminem, often do when they drink too much. One sported a buzz cut, the other had hair like soft lamb’s wool.
The rest of the night was a blur of beer bottles and customer commands to smile more. It was only later, after the clientele was herded out to Red Peters’s catchy “The Closing Song” — “get the fuck out of here, finish up that beer” — and the dancers had emerged from the dressing room in sweatshirts, that I realized everyone was on edge.
“What’s wrong?” I asked the scraggly bearded bouncer walking me to my dusty sedan, whose backseat would soon double as my motel room.
“The kid’s going to die,” he replied. Turned out one of the brothers had gotten his head bashed in by a man wielding a metal pipe. He’d been airlifted to the nearby city of Minot where he would pass away a few days later.
Catalysts for Instability
I hadn’t driven nearly 2,000 miles from Brooklyn to work as a cocktail waitress in a strip club. (That only happened after I ran out of money.) I had set off with the intention of reporting on the domestic oil boom that was reshaping North Dakota’s prairie towns as well as the balance of both global power and the earth’s atmosphere.
This spring, production in North Dakota surged past one million barrels of oil a day. The source of this liquid gold, as it is locally known, is the Bakken Shale: a layered, energy-rich rock formation that stretches across western North Dakota, the corner of Montana, and into Canada. It had been considered inaccessible until breakthroughs in drilling and hydraulic fracturing made the extraction of oil from it economically feasible. In 2008, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced that the Bakken Shale contained 25 times more recoverable oil than previously thought, sparking the biggest oil rush in state history.
Now, six years later, the region displays all the classic contemporary markers of hell: toxic flames that burn around the clock; ink-black smoke billowing from 18-wheelers; intermittent explosions caused by lightning striking the super-conductive wastewater tanks that hydraulic fracturing makes a necessity; a massive Walmart; an abundance of meth, crack, and liquor; freezing winters; rents higher than Manhattan; and far, far too many men. To oil companies, however, the field is hallowed ground, one of the few in history to break the million-barrel-a-day benchmark, earning it “a place in the small pantheon of truly elite oil fields,” as one Reuters market analyst wrote.
This summer, driven partially by North Dakota’s boom, the United States surpassed Saudi Arabia in total oil and gas production, making the nation not only the number one consumer of fossil fuels but also the number one producer. (China is currently leading when it comes to annual carbon emissions, although this country still has higher emissions per capita.) Around the same time, the Pentagon issued a warning that climate change, caused by unchecked fossil-fuel extraction, “will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” A subsequent report issued by the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board, a government-funded military research organization, went even further, stating that the effects of climate change — food insecurity and massive forced displacement, just to name two — “will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict.”
And so, when I arrived in Williston this summer, easing my sedan past the fiery flare offs and the welcome sign exclaiming “Boomtown U.S.A.!,” my plan was to report on some of the less discussed aspects of the domestic energy revival, such as farmland pollution and the oil industry’s increasing militarization. But I had also come to Williston just to be, to explore the existential question of what it’s like to live amid a frenzy of activities that, as scientists have assured us, are likely to threaten the very existence humanity has known for the last few thousand years.
Truths and Lies
On my first night in town, I landed in the unfinished, wood-walled cabin of a local bartender and his friend, a flat-faced, 230-pound hulk of a man who worked on an oil rig and reminded me of Fred Flintstone. As we prepared pork chops stewed in Campbell’s mushroom soup and sipped cherry-flavored Southern Comfort, the two traded stories about Williston — the kind, they said, that don’t make the newspapers.
There was the time a man threatened to kill the bartender, and when the cops arrived, they let him go, arguing, “Well, he’s driving a company truck...” Plenty of companies here issue their employees trucks, although by far the most common branded vehicles in Williston are white Ford Super Duty pick-ups with “Halliburton” stenciled on the front passenger door.
They recycled rumors about secret fights in rooms with padded walls and padded doors, where a winner can walk away with $50,000 to $60,000 in cash, and home poker games with buy-ins of more than $1,000. I quickly began learning the challenge of reporting from the oilfields: rumors are rampant — there is not, for example, a cache of weapons and explosives stashed in a bunker behind Scenic Sports and Liquor, despite claims that it’s so — yet the most insane-sounding things have actually happened.
To mention just three that turned out to be all too true: during the winter, a long-time resident rented out an ice house for $5 a night to newly arrived workers struggling to find lodging; members of the Black Hawk private security company (no relation to the mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater, although the founder enjoys the “intimidation factor” caused by the confusion) once set its men, armed with M-4 assault rifles, to guard 30,000 pounds of fracking-related explosives in the middle of the badlands; oil companies here have burned billions of dollars worth of natural gas straight into the atmosphere because it was less hassle than building pipelines to transport it.
Whether or not any of the stories those two men told that night were accurate, I was struck by their generosity and the kindness of others. That first day alone, I’d been lent a shirt by a woman working at the front desk of the Aspen Lodge & Suites, offered ideas for stories, and fed a home-cooked meal. Perhaps the deep social ties and steadfast humility of pre-boom North Dakota continued to permeate oilfield culture, as one lifelong resident optimistically suggested. Then again, sometimes generosity can shade over into other things entirely. That bartender, for example, would later try to lure me into the underground sex industry by promising no-participation-required journalistic access. I only had to pass one test, which involved being on my knees.
“I wish you could have followed through so i could of helped your story...” he texted me after I walked out.
The next time I saw Fred Flintstone, he was tired of his haphazard schedule with Key Energy, an oilfield service company, so we spent the afternoon cruising in his Ford Mercury, visiting the offices of its competitors as he looked for a new job. He wore baby blue surfboard shorts and his lower lip was embroidered with a line of black stitches from a recent bar brawl. He was a lover, not a fighter, he assured me, although he also mentioned that the other guy had a broken jaw and a few staples in his head.
According to residents and oilfield workers, including Fred, there are only two things to do in Williston: work and drink. The reasons are simple enough. Unlike in significant parts of the country, well-paying jobs are easy to acquire in the oil fields. As a result, North Dakota boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, an eye-popping 2.8%. To access these jobs, however, the majority of workers had to leave their families and relocate to this remote region, where you often end up living in company-provided housing in steel shipping containers and the number of men vastly, sometimes dangerously, exceeds that of women. Many of these men, in turn, experience feelings of loneliness and alienation, which is where the drinking comes in.
Fred was so confident he’d have a new employer by the end of the week that he suspended the day’s job-hunting when the remotest possibility of picking up a woman arose. (“I know this is crazy,” he asked the secretary at Nabors, a drilling contractor, “but are you all married up?... No?... Well, when do you get off?”) Soon enough, we parked at R. Rooster BBQ Co. to down some pulled pork, then stopped to check out a '98 Honda Accord. He swore that he’s bought and sold 68 cars over the years. To end our day, for reasons that passed me by, we stopped and checked out a butcher’s shop.
To my surprise, as we drove, he explained that he wasn’t a big fan of the whole oil extraction thing; he’d spent much time watching the National Geographic Channel and was concerned about the deforestation of the rainforest and the warming of the atmosphere. “When they say polar bears could be extinct in the next few years, you’re obviously doing something very, very wrong.”
He wasn’t the first oilfield worker I’d met who wondered just what he was involved in and exhibited concern about climate change. Many proved surprisingly aware of the way that flaring off the natural gas that surges out of the drilled wells contributes to global warming or how spilled wastewater from the hydro-fracking process can sterilize land. I’d even met one former river guide turned oilfield worker who texted me an entire Terry Tempest Williams poem upon my departure.
Despite such genuine concerns, most agreed with Fred’s assessment: “I, one man alone... I can’t do a fucking thing about it. So I’ll just get rich and I’ll move away, find my acreage back in Iowa or Nebraska or Kansas or whatever, and live my life accordingly.”
When I ran into him again about a week later at Williston’s recently opened $70 million recreation center, sure enough, he had a new gig.
Of course, there are a slew of sites in the United States where residents are mounting serious resistance to fossil fuel extraction. To name just three: in P.R. Springs, Utah, land defenders are attempting to stop the construction of the nation’s first commercial tar sands mine; on a reservation on the Black Mesa plateau in Arizona, the Diné (often called Navajo, the name imposed by Spanish conquistadors) are fighting to permanently shut down a coal mine; in Nebraska, indigenous leaders and local ranchers have joined forces to try to block the final leg of the Keystone XL pipeline slated to bring carbon-dirty tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. But Williston is not one of those places.
Lost in the Wild West
It’s hard to know whether Williston, for all its technological prowess in extracting fossil fuels from the earth, is a window into the nation’s future — or a last gasp from its past. Certainly, the sharply divergent opinions of what to make of the oil boom catch something of the country’s increasing polarization over what the coming years ought to hold. On one side, supporters of the boom see a domestic energy revival as exactly what America needs: more places where anyone who wants a job can work, where technological superiority carries the day, and where riches (never mind whose) are there for the taking — especially if you are a man, or white, or both. On the other side, opponents of the oil frenzy consider it the latest methane-gas-flaring incarnation of the worst American traditions: unbridled greed, resource plunder, and violent machismo. The latter is becoming an increasing problem as non-native oilfield workers flock to the local reservations of the Three Affiliated Tribes, where they are immune from prosecution by tribal governments. As one told the Atlantic, “You can do anything short of killing somebody.”
In Williston, a single term catches both views: workers here overwhelming call this place “the Wild West.”
Just beneath the sense of giddiness and possibility in this frontier outpost of America’s new energy empire lurks loneliness of an almost indescribable sort. Since the boom began, at least 15,000 workers — mostly men — have descended on Williston alone. When you meet them, it’s clear that most carry the residue of half-lives from someplace else: photographs of their children, memories of ex-wives, accents bred in Minnesota or Liberia. “You can almost see the lost-ness, the desperation in their faces,” Marc Laurent told me. He’s the manager of the Aspen Lodge & Suites where I first stayed, before the cost of housing got the best of me and, like almost all newcomers to Williston at one point or another, I resigned myself to living in my car.
Buck was one of Laurent’s guests and exactly the type of man he was describing. A house framer, I first met him wandering around the Aspen’s dirt courtyard looking hangover-haggard. He had once had a wife — “back home” — but it didn’t work out.
Within minutes of meeting, he invited me out to lunch — and then to be his roommate. Just to save money, he clarified. (I declined the offer.) We spoke on the unfurnished wooden walkway that connected a series of row-house motel rooms that had arrived pre-assembled on a tractor-trailer less than six months before. He explained that he’d been here about eight months, mostly framing the single-family houses that companies were putting up as fast as possible.
A jowly man of sagging posture, Buck said, “I’m just trying to rebuild myself.” His words conjured up for me an image of him attempting to frame himself, measuring the length of his arms, the angle of his shoulders until, finally, he hammered himself back into shape. There was something desperate about the way he and others like him had come here. So many, after all, flocked to this town because they needed the work, because their local economies had collapsed in 2008 and had never really come back. They weren’t, however, looking to pour themselves a new foundation in Williston. Instead, as so many reassured me, after a few years, after the money was made, they would leave.
A sense of rootlessness gripped me as the weeks stretched on. Sometimes what I was learning left me feeling dizzy — like the commonplace estimates I heard that the Bakken boom could easily last another 20 years. Or that energy companies were now developing plans for deepwater fracking in the Gulf of Mexico. Or that the county of Tulare, California, had run out of tap water in that state’s never-ending mega-drought. But most of time I just felt numb. When one of the bouncers at the strip joint where I worked later told me that the dead boy’s head had cracked open “like a cantaloupe,” I found myself not caring all that much because he hadn’t left me a tip.
“I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll just stay in North Dakota for a while,” I told my best friend’s answering machine before walking into a waitressing shift about a month into my trip. I was making good money at Whispers. I had made at least a few friends I knew were not pimps and I’d gotten the hang of living out of my car. I spoke to my parents less and less frequently and my memories of the East Coast seemed to be fading. I had, it seemed, become part of oil country — and it was becoming part of me.
My friend, however, was not impressed “No, don’t do that,” he said on the phone the next day. “You need to come home.”
So, about a week later, I stuffed my glove compartment with my Staples spiral notebooks and headed east, past orange flares licking the black night, past the tangled-metal refineries of Indiana and Ohio, past fracking-well pumps pecking at the fields of Pennsylvania, burning gasoline the whole way, the memory of Williston never quite receding.
Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist finally back on the East Coast, just in time for her brother’s wedding. The author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Guernica, Playboy, RollingStone.com and frequently at TomDispatch. She is currently working with Zuccotti Park Press on a book about climate change and displacement.
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Copyright 2014 Laura Gottesdiener
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