Connecting the dots between wildlife, fertile fields, and the Farm Bill
While walking a piece of North Dakota landscape under a withering August sun, one's thoughts turn to moisture—or rather, the lack of it. So when I and other participants in a farm tour kicked up signs of cool, shady places while traipsing across a hay field, it seemed like a mirage. Green-and-black leopard frogs were zigzagging out of our way, adding life to a field that had not gotten a decent rain in eight weeks. This part of south-central North Dakota is prairie pothole country, but no wetlands were in sight as wheat and corn stretched to the horizon.
"I've never seen so many frogs so far from a slough," said Douglas Miller of the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service. "What's going on there that would bring them so far from cattails?"
When we reached the edge of the field where the couple who farms this land, Todd McPeak and Penny Meeker, were standing, they made it clear we weren't imagining things. "I hope you didn't step on any of my leopard frogs," Meeker said, smiling. We smiled too, and were especially concerned that we hadn’t hurt any frogs after she related a childhood story of using a stripped horse weed to "whip the crap" out of her brother and a cousin when she caught them shooting birds on their family's dairy farm.
Meeker and McPeak enjoy seeing birds, mammals, and yes, frogs, on the acres they produce grass, hay, cover crops, and beef cattle on. But these critters are also barometers of how the sustainable farming methods the couple use are affecting their business enterprise. As McPeak explains it, more frogs in a field connotes a healthier landscape that retains moisture in the soil more efficiently, which in turn translates into better quality hay and grass that's drought tolerant. That's money in the bank when you're farming in a place that gets only 16 inches of precipitation a year.
Conventional production systems that cover the land with monocultures of corn and soybeans have been a disaster for everything from grassland birds and waterfowl to amphibians and pollinating bees. In Apocalyptic Planet, Craig Childs describes being hard put to find even a couple of spiders and a toad while "camping" in an Iowa cornfield.
But innovators like McPeak and Meeker are proving that productive agriculture and wildlife can occupy the same piece of ground, and in some cases aren't just tolerating each other, but are mutually beneficial. In this case, the farmers are part of the Burleigh County Soil Health Team, a collaboration of farmers, government conservationists and scientists. Using rotational grazing, diverse plantings of cover crops between the regular cash crop seasons, as well as tillage systems that disturb the soil little, this team is building soil's biological health. The result has been less erosion and more farm profitability. It turns out healthy soil is also good for wildlife.
"There is no comparison," said team member Darrell Oswald in reference to how much wildlife is present on his farm since he started building his soil's microbial universe.
An increasing number of environmentalists are seeing that working farmland can be an ecological positive. I've been on farms in northeast Iowa that had, to the delight of an ornithologist with the Audubon Society, developed grazing systems where bobolinks and other troubled grassland species were thriving. Just this summer, I visited a gorgeous stream in southeast Minnesota that was being managed using "flash grazing" of cattle to control invasive plants and establish the kind of deep-rooted grasses that stabilize riparian areas while filtering out contaminants.
"It's a great relationship—livestock and streams," said Jeff Hastings, a Trout Unlimited project manager. On cue, a bluebird swooped over the bubbling waterway while a trout grabbed some air. So much for the old saw that cattle and creeks never, ever are a good mix ecologically.
In 2012 researchers reported that bumblebees, which are key pollinators, preferred visiting cucumbers raised with compost as opposed to those fertilized with petroleum-based fertilizers, even though both soils contained the same amount of basic plant nutrients. The study concluded that non-nutritional factors such as microbial interactions might be making the composted cucumbers more bee-friendly.
Wildlife friendly farming practices are not the norm, and producers who strive to diversify their landscape—above and below the surface—don't get much support from the market or public policy. On the latter front, one bright spot has been the Conservation Stewardship Program, a federal initiative that rewards farmers for producing environmental benefits on working farmland. It has been extremely popular in states like Iowa and Minnesota the past few years. But as Congress begins finalizing a new five-year Farm Bill this fall, the program faces significant budget cuts: 21 percent and 14 percent in the House and Senate respectively.
If these cuts go though, it will be a shame. They would come at a time when innovative farmers are linking healthy soil, healthy land and healthy bottom lines, and CSP adds that extra nudge their neighbors need to make key agro-ecological transitions. Too bad Congress can’t connect the dots as well as Todd McPeak does.
"From bees to badgers to beef, I see it all working together," he said as herds of frogs swarmed across his land.
Brian DeVore works for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization fostering sustainable agriculture since 1982. DeVore writes for and edits the group's publication, The Land Stewardship Letter.
Image: Leopard frog by ImagesBYap, licensed under Creative Commons.
Why go hawkwatching? The most dedicated will try to tell you why they sweat through summer and brave the numbing winds of winter after often distant glimpses of migrating birds, but the explanations always seem perfunctory, rote, telling not the whole tale.
First published in the September 2006 issue of Virginia Wildlife magazine.
“I've got a bird coming in just above the ridge," says the Counter, binoculars held tight to her face, and in unison twenty magnified human eyeballs swing northward. From over the flame-colored crest of Afton Mountain in mid-November I see the silhouette of a hawk flapping and coasting across the glaring afternoon sky, slowly, or so it seems at this distance, heading in our direction.
Against the blinding blue the distant hawk is no more than an anonymous winged shadow, still too far off to distinguish features or colors. There are 922 avian species documented as occurring in North America but only fourteen raptors (birds of prey) typically encountered here on the back porch of the Inn at Afton, high above Rockfish Gap in Nelson County, Virginia.
This helps narrow things down a bit, but then comes the hard part. To the uninitiated, soaring hawks can look much the same, but the experts gathered here today have already trimmed the list down to only two possible contenders based simply on style of flight and a vague outline.
Hawkwatching like other forms of birding is largely a process of elimination, a mental stripping away of potentials based on shape, flight pattern, location and time of year until the viewer is left with only a single, or at most a few, possible candidates. It takes hours of field practice to quickly determine a migrating hawk’s identity, but when the recognition is made we become privy to the hawk’s probable life history, because in correctly identifying a particular animal we assign to it a conjectured background based upon what science has revealed about the species in general.
Thus while one hawk's personal history is as unique and varied as one person's from another’s, by learning how a hawk fits into its native ecosystem—its behavior, habitat and geographic range—we read into every observation an arbitrary but likely chronicle that makes each sighting much more than just another bird seen through binoculars.
Our hawk seems to struggle through the air as it advances: flap flap flap … glide … flap flap flap … glide. As it comes nearer, the veteran hawkwatchers note the elongated tail, the relatively short, almost rounded wings, and the "shoulders" pulled up nearly even with the tip of the bill. Even for beginners the bird's laborious flight behavior has already identified it as belonging to the genus Accipiter, one of five genera of diurnal raptor (not including turkey and black vultures, species more closely related to storks than hawks) that are annually funneled through Rockfish Gap on their great autumnal migration.
Accipiters are forest dwellers, hunting birds and small mammals by ambush and a lightning pursuit through branches and brush. The short, broad wings are ideal for sudden changes of direction and brief, powered charges while the long tail acts as a rudder and stabilizer, allowing these hawks to snake through tangled undergrowth with single-minded relentlessness.
As there are only three species of accipiter in occurring in the US, the bird we've been watching can only be a goshawk, Cooper's hawk or sharp-shinned hawk. Goshawks are big hawks, nearly the size of redtails, and hunt snowshoe hare, grouse and ptarmigan in the northern forests. They are extremely rare vagrants through Rockfish Gap.
Cooper's hawks are crow-sized bird and squirrel killers, and like the smaller sharp-shinned hawk the adults are slate blue above and peppered with rusty-red scales on a soft white breast; in juvenile birds of both species the breast is marked with thick chocolaty stripes. Cooper’s hawks are fairly common migrants in October and early November.
The jay-sized sharp-shinned hawk looks much like the Cooper's, and only close and learned observation can discern the square-tipped tail and forward-swept shoulders of the sharpie. To further complicate identification accipiters are sexually dimorphous, the male sometimes being a third smaller than the female. Differentiating a male Cooper's from a female sharp-shinned at 2,500 feet can stymie even the most experienced observers, which is why "Unidentified Accipiter" is a valid choice on the Counter's daily tally sheet.
The bird in my lenses has the sharp angular tail of Accipiter striatus, the sharp-shinned hawk, and as I watch it grows larger and larger until suddenly it is among us, skimming less than 50 feet above our heads in its determined race to the south. The crowd gasps and grins as the close range allows us to greedily take in details: straight barred tail alternating blue and black and terminating in a band of brilliant white; creamy breast densely speckled with orange; inky cap hooding bright and unforgiving red eyes. Grim determination is what is primarily evoked as the hawk cocks its head to give his audience an ephemeral glance before rushing by us and forever out of sight.
Birds of prey are not generally known for having much sense of humor … unlike, say, crows, though I have seen red-tailed hawks and ravens playing at aerial tag. But accipiters seem to me the most deadly earnest of all birds of prey, utterly focused on the hunt and so entirely creatures of their marvelous reflexes that any close association, even over the long term, can be dangerous. I once knew a falconer who said that while goshawks, especially juveniles, were sometimes capable of being semi-tamed enough to keep their killing fury turned toward targeted game instead of their handlers, sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, caught wild, were ordinarily beyond even rudimentary domestication, their hair-trigger instincts and electric nerve endings posing a constant danger the falconer's hands, face and eyes.
It looks to be a lot of work to be an accipiter. Built for brief, high-speed pursuits between tree trunks and through bushes, the sharp-shinned hawk and its kin appear ill suited to the high-altitude strains of migration. Better adapted are the members of genus Buteo, the long-winged, short-tailed wind masters whose expertise at finding and riding thermals is rivaled only by the eagles. As our sharpie disappears over the hotel roof someone has spotted another bird climbing over the ridge. "Buteo," intones the Counter, having observed the capacious wings spread at full soar as the bird rides the warm air rising over the mountainside in slowly ascending spirals, thick primary feathers rigidly extended like the fingers of a jazz pianist. We begin to mentally tick off the possibilities as the hawk swings nearer.
At the invisible peak of its spiraling tower of air the buteo banks, pulls its wings in slightly and, joined now by a couple of turkey vultures with raw red heads and gleaming ivory bills, commences a long, shallow glide along the mountain's shoulder, high over the clamorous flotsam of I-64, down the chute of Rockfish Gap and toward its assembled admirers.
By now we see the milky white throat and belly, the black-specked cummerbund, the flat brown back and head and, in stray glimpses as the bird pitches and turns, a rust-red tail tilting to maximize every whiff of updraft. A newcomer shouts "Redtail!" as the powerful hawk drifts past, passing at a low angle and honoring us with a brief, indifferent stare.
Red-tailed hawks are archetypal buteos with long, broad wings, stocky tails and an overall impression of stoic strength. As this one silently coasts by above our heads we take in the charcoal borders highlighting its pale wings, the ruddy tail now tightly closed, and the shoulders swung forward in an apparently effortless concentration on the annihilation of distance.
The "redtail" is the most populous buteo species in North America and generally migrates through Rockfish Gap in November, having been preceded weeks before by a tidal flood of broadwing hawks, smaller buteos that often form swirling "kettles" of sometimes hundreds or even thousands of birds, pulsing and spinning around thermal columns in a feathered cyclone. Broadwings are blunt-winged forest buteos, slightly larger than a crow, whose taste is for the cold-blooded: snakes, frogs, toads and insects. They come through in great swarms timed to maximize the last abundance of their warm weather prey, then are whirled off to Latin America in a few short weeks.
Many local redtails stay in Virginia all winter long, but most of the more northerly-based migrants take advantage of the opportunity to leave their summer homes before prey becomes scarce. An adaptable hawk, the redtail feasts on everything from spiders and earthworms to groundhogs and carrion. I’ve seen a single red-tailed hawk chase a dozen vultures, both turkey and black, from the carcass of a freshly butchered deer, and last summer witnessed a redtail struggling to take off with a bucking 5-foot corn snake in its talons.
Redtails are the most common late fall migrant at Rockfish Gap and at first I mistake the two buteos now circling overhead for members of the same species, but the bold banding on the longish tails and the narrow, sweeping wings with the curious opaque half-moons on the outer edges gives the newcomers away as something else entirely: red-shouldered hawks.
The red-shouldered is a swamp hawk, at home in streamside forests and marshlands, hunting snakes and frogs in the summer and small mammals in cooler months. A gorgeous raptor, Buteo lineatus has a black-and-white checkered back with ruddy shoulders and, in adults, a luminous coral breast and belly. Gliding high above, heading toward warmer climes, the two hawks give us a resplendent display during their momentary transit, chests glowing fiercely as they slip over the southeastern hills like twin sunsets.
All eyes being fixed on this spectacle we fail to notice two more sharpies until they're already overhead and then, at eye level and only a few dozen yards out, a burning dart of red, white and blue comes whickering past with sharp wings chopping the air and long pointed tail trailing like a comet's.
It is a male American kestrel, a vibrant foot-long falcon the size of a killdeer and the smallest falcon in North America; like the rest of its kin, it is wasting no time in getting to its destination. While they will use updrafts and thermals when convenient, falcons are not as dependent upon them as are buteos and accipiters, relying primarily on their untiring powered flight to slice through the wind.
There are three species of falcon that may be encountered at Rockfish Gap: the kestrel, the slightly larger merlin, and the celebrated peregrine, globetrotting exemplar of the falcon clan. Kestrels hunt rodents and large insects from trees and power lines, and will also take amphibians and catch small birds and bats on the wing.
The dusky merlin is the bane of migrating shorebirds, exacting a seasonal toll on small-to-medium plovers and sandpipers as they shadow flocks down the coasts like wolves trailing caribou herds. Powerful and deadly efficient hunters, merlins also hunt songbirds and small mammals and will attack human intruders on their nesting territory.
The world-wandering Falco peregrinus, sublime creature of myth and legend, deigns only to feed on medium to large birds it has knocked out of the sky with its dive-bombing attacks, striking ducks, pigeons, even geese and cranes with its oversized feet at speeds of up to and perhaps over 200 miles per hour. The rare occurrence of a peregrine at the hawkwatch, streaking serenely past on scythe-like wings, is an occasion for stunned silence among newcomers and veterans alike.
Our kestrel disappeared as suddenly as it came, and with approaching evening comes a lull in the flow of migrants. Watchers chat about recent sightings while novices query the vets for identification tips and tales of record high-number days.
Raptors are generally big birds and they depend on the lay of the land for long-distance travel. By following one another along ridges and mountainsides where the winds form warm, rising updrafts, hawks are able to save energy and reduce the need for hunting en route to their wintering grounds. In Virginia, at places like Rockfish Gap, Snicker’s Gap, and Harvey’s Knob, the natural contours of mountain chain and valley create topographic bottlenecks where birds from several migratory paths are channeled together as they seek the most obliging wind currents.
At these staging areas, in times mercifully past, restless killers calling themselves "sportsmen" would regularly gather for an afternoon's hawk-shooting, senselessly destroying thousands of migrating raptors at sites like Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, a location now dedicated to the preservation of wild hawks and a premier destination for hawkwatchers worldwide.
Rockfish Gap is hardly of the eminence of places like Hawk Mountain, Cape May Point in New Jersey or Ontario's Point Pelee, unrivaled sites where tens of thousands of hawks can breeze through in a few weeks, but its mountainous geography has made it an excellent destination for hawkwatchers in central Virginia, a fact recognized by the Commonwealth in its inclusion of Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch as part of the Thomas Jefferson Loop (Mountain Phase) of Virginia’s statewide Birding and Wildlife Trail.
At the top of the hour the Counter checks her electronic weather wizard and carefully enters the current wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, cloud cover and visibility. This information, along with an hourly tally of all hawks observed today, will be entered into the national database of the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) and used to extrapolate the overall population status of the fourteen raptor species regularly reported at Rockfish Gap.
I talk with some of the other watchers, who mostly live in Albemarle, Nelson and Augusta Counties. For dedicated regulars the season from late August to early December is a time to wrap the whole year around, a brief meshing of their own lives with those of some of nature’s most splendid creatures.
The small crowd gathered here this Saturday afternoon is of dissimilar backgrounds but united by a commonly held, largely indefinable, almost atavistic admiration for birds of prey. Insurance salesmen stand shoulder to shoulder with county employees, farmers share pointers with adjunct professors, and the timid novitiate is welcomed to the show by seasoned experts. A common love for these heraldic birds has drawn people from throughout the region to share in a magical moment that could even now be gathering strength behind yonder mountain ridge, some distant atmospheric event hurtling thousands of raptors southward in a strategic withdrawal from onrushing winter.
Why go hawkwatching? The most dedicated will try to tell you why they sweat through summer and brave the numbing winds of winter after often distant glimpses of migrating birds, but the explanations always seem perfunctory, rote, telling not the whole tale.
The birds' objective beauty and grace, certainly, is a recurrent factor—the elegant edging of chiseled wings against an oceanic sky, closer flashes of color, pattern, form, an overall impression of reserved majesty that trails the sky-crossing hawk like an angel's grace.
But something closer yet to the mute heart of the hawkwatcher drives those most deeply obsessed with this yearly pageant to come, again and again, and stand straining to see something that may not appear today, or tomorrow, or the next day. A kind of personal identification seems to be at hand, a yearning to be one with something as near to earthly transcendence as the human mind can be made to perceive.
The Counter here today, as on most every weekend of the season for the past eleven years, is Brenda Tekin of Charlottesville. Previously unfamiliar with hawks, Brenda had learned of nearby Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch from her local bird club, and she well remembers her first day.
“Call it beginner’s luck,” she says. “Just as I showed up on a sunny September afternoon a stream of hawks rolled in and began to kettle low in the sky, so close that at times I thought I could just reach out and touch them. I was mesmerized at this spectacular sight. The experienced hawkwatchers told me that the swirling mass of birds I was seeing were broad-winged hawks, a species I never even knew existed before that day. Then a second group flowed in next to the first and the sky was filled! It was at that unforgettable moment that I knew I had succumbed to hawkwatching.”
Since 1999 Brenda has been HMANA Coordinator for Rockfish Gap and is recognized as an authority on hawk identification, the person newcomers approach when making their first tentative guesses. Having been to the bigger hawkwatches I’ve seen some of the jaded regulars display a sort of gentile contempt for beginners, forgetting that they themselves had once been equally ignorant. Brenda and the other pros at Rockfish Gap—John Irvine, Jr., Bill Gallagher, and YuLee Larner (the celebrated “Bird Lady of Staunton”), among others—are unceasingly considerate toward those with even the most mundane questions (“Hey, what’s that big red-necked turkey-like buzzard out there?”).
“To those new to hawkwatching an established hawkwatch can be a great learning resource,” says Brenda. “During those first years at Rockfish Gap I was always appreciative of the more experienced individuals who were so patient in answering my countless questions. I think I speak for a lot of folks at the hawkwatch in saying that once your foot hits the parking lot pavement you’ve arrived at a place where you can leave all your troubles behind.”
The sun is dying in the west. We’ve had a good afternoon—four species of raptor have been encountered, enjoyed, and tabulated. No eagles this time, no harriers, ospreys or goshawks, but we know they’re out there, silently soaring in the fading air of autumn, following the same ridges and valleys their ancestors have traced for untold millennia.
Brenda claims to love raptors for their “wild boldness,” as sound a reason as any. Few can successfully sum up the reasons why they spend each fall pursuing birds they will never hold in the hand, birds usually seen through a considerable distance and the artificial intermediary of binoculars. There must be something exceptional about hawks, something in their controlled savagery and indomitable freedom which calls out to a part of us long buried in the wearying nullity of industrial civilization, something that speaks, perhaps, to our own unconquerable animal selves.
William H. Funk is a conservation writer in the Shenandoah Valley. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by A. Drauglis, licensed under Creative Commons.
This field of genetically-modified soy might look nice, but the Roundup
Ready system has turned out to be a Darwinian experiment on steroids.
When a cousin of mine planted his first field of Roundup Ready soybeans in southwest Iowa back in the 1990s, he told me, in a somewhat resigned way, "Well, it will take about five years for weeds to become resistant to this."
He was exaggerating, but not by much. These days, the farm press is full of reports from across the country, and indeed the world, of herbicide-resistant superweeds popping up in farmers' fields at an unprecedented rate. My cousin knew enough about evolutionary biology to figure out that if you use enough of one single chemical to kill weeds, it’s inevitable that some of those weeds will survive, reproducing offspring that resist being killed by subsequent sprayings.
And the Roundup Ready system has turned out to be a Darwinian experiment on steroids. Soon after Monsanto started marketing seeds that produced crops genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate (marketed under the brand name Roundup), farmers adapted the technology in droves. The advantages for farmers were evident early on: they could plant their crop and then spray it once it had started growing, reducing the expensive, and erosive, mechanical weed control methods of the past. And since they were spraying the crop rather than saturating the soil at planting, less of it was required. Finally, glyphosate is known as a less toxic chemical than older herbicides, and supposedly does not hang around as long in the environment to cause problems.
Today herbicide tolerant crops account for 93 percent of the soybeans and 85 percent of the corn grown in the U.S., according to the USDA. This technology is ubiquitous in Farm Country, and it's made many, many fortunes for its manufacturer, Monsanto.
But time is running out for this cash cow. Acreage with weeds that resist being killed by glyphosate almost doubled from 32.6 million in 2010 to 61.2 million 2012, according to a 31-state survey conducted by Stratus Agri-Marketing. Nearly half of all U.S. farmers Stratus surveyed said they had glyphosate resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, up from 34 percent of farmers in 2011.
And now another high-flying genetically engineered agricultural product—corn plants modified to resist being killed by insects—is succumbing to the cold hard facts of basic biology.
In late August there were reports out of Illinois that corn rootworm, a devastating pest, was showing serious signs of being resistant to "Bt corn"—corn genetically engineered to fend off these insects (76 percent of corn is of the Bt variety). More reports emerged over the summer from across the Midwest, prompting Environmental Protection Agency officials to visit problem fields themselves.
"Instead of making things easier, we've just made corn rootworm management harder and a heck of a lot more expensive," said University of Minnesota pest management specialist Bruce Potter on Minnesota Public Radio.
By mid-September farmers were reporting that the stalks of genetically engineered corn were being pushed over by winds -- a sign that ravenous rootworms were taking their toll in areas they weren't supposed to. To make things worse, the insect damages the plant's ability to absorb water -- a particularly thorny problem as parts of the Corn Belt suffer through a second year of major drought.
Bugs and weeds that are finding ways to fool Bt and Roundup technology are bad news for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it means farmers are being forced to return to using the same nasty chemicals GMOs were supposed to make irrelevant. The irony is that one way Monsanto, the USDA and other backers of GMOs sold the public on the safety of this technology in the early days was to argue that it would mean fewer pesticides would be used, and the ones that were used would be less of an environmental and human health threat.
There are now entire field days dedicated to how to deal with superweeds. Agronomists, many of whom work for seed and chemical companies, are recommending "diversifying" the chemical toolbox by returning to some old favorites like atrazine.
In a 2009 analysis of USDA statistics, researcher Charles Benbrook found that genetically modified crops have actually increased pesticide use by 318 million pounds since 1996, compared to what would have probably been used in the absence of GMO varieties. Herbicide use on crops genetically engineered to resist weed killers rose over 31 percent from 2007 to 2008 alone. That makes the overall chemical footprint of GMO crops "decidedly negative," concluded Benbrook.
In an extensive 2010 report on GMO crop technology, the National Research Council warned that although products like Roundup Ready seeds provide some benefits to farmers, superpests threaten to make such advantages moot.
One positive development has emerged from all this talk of superweeds and superbugs: university crop experts are getting desperate enough to recommend that farmers utilize diverse crop rotations and cover crops to disrupt pest cycles. Such sustainable methods are not only good for the environment, but Monsanto hasn't figured out how to patent them yet.
Brian DeVore works for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization fostering sustainable agriculture since 1982. DeVore writes for and edits the group's publication, The Land Stewardship Letter.
Image: "Sky Over Roundup Ready Soybean Field" by Daniel X. O'Neil, licensed under Creative Commons.
Desertification in China offers a warning to us all.
There are some places in the world where you don’t want to get a flat tire. The middle of China’s vast Taklamakan Desert—with no cell phone coverage and no hint of civilization—is one of them. So when we got our second flat tire on our trek, we started to worry a little. We were suddenly a wheel short and a long way from help.
Sitting in our now three-wheel four-wheel drive, our chances of reaching our destination were starting to look slim. I started to wish that I had a camel instead of a finicky car. Our driver managed to hitch a lift back into town while my guide and I sat in the silent desert. It wasn’t all bad though. After all, the desert was part of what I had come to see.
China is home to massive deserts, many of which are growing. Desertification, the process of turning arable land into desert, is arguably the most important environmental challenge for China today, affecting food security, transportation and even international relations, as sandstorms originating in China blow through neighboring countries and even across the Pacific to the U.S.
While it has only relatively recently been the cause of alarm, it is a problem with ancient roots: an estimated 40 cities in China have been abandoned due to desertification over the last 2,000 years. Looking back into these ancient cities and routes can help us learn from failed attempts at handling the sands.
Our destination was Yinpan, a ruined city that had been a thriving and diverse city of merchants and traders 2,000 years ago. A stop on the fabled Silk Road, it welcomed travelers from across Asia. Today, Yinpan is approximately 300 kilometers east of the modern city of Korla. Or if you put it another way, Yinpan is 300 kilometers from anywhere. It sits on the edge of China’s most formidable desert, the Germany-sized Taklamakan.
While we waited for help, my guide told me ghost stories about the town. “People hear strange noises around the city,” he said. “Objects move in the night.”
I started to worry that I would join the ghosts of Yinpan, but hours later, just as the light was dying, our driver returned in a borrowed car with a triumphant grin on his face. With an embrace, he exclaimed, “This is what traveling is all about!”
Two thousand years ago, Yinpan was situated in an oasis, with rivers flowing nearby. But 1,500 years ago, the once-prosperous city was mysteriously abandoned. Today, all that is left is mounds of sand almost undistinguishable from the surrounding desert.
Chinese archeologists hypothesize that two things happened. One was that the route of the Silk Road changed, reducing trade in the area. The other is that the oasis turned to desert as the river courses shifted and local water supplies were exhausted.
After thousands of years, nature is still assaulting the city. Spring sandstorms and summer flash floods batter what little structures remain, sometimes exposing the bones and belongings of former citizens.
While it’s been left alone for much of history, the Taklamakan region is suddenly in the limelight: oil has been found under the desert. And so new towns of oil rigs and oil workers are popping up along with a new global trade route to usher the precious black gold to market. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the desert, the ancient Silk Road and one of its large trade towns, Yinpan, wastes away.
The ominous question lingers in the desert air: What other cities and trade routes of today will end up like old Yinpan, wiped off the earth by sandstorms and floods?
Photos by Sean Gallagher, from Meltdown: China's Environmental Crisis, produced by the Pulitzer Center. Download a copy of the book free today at http://bit.ly/meltdownebook.
Top: A screenshot from Meltdown: China's Environment Crisis.
Center: The remains of a wooden coffin lie in the intense mid-day heat. Dating of different species of wood used in making coffins has allowed Chinese archaeologists to speculate on the age of the settlement.
Bottom: Ancient artifacts can be found lying around the city, as wind and water erosion has exposed both graves and buildings, releasing their contents. Here, at the bottom of the screenshot of "Meltdown", you can see a 1,500-year-old coin, a reminder of that the area was once wealthy.
Interactive map of Sean's route:
Washington planners predict an endless appetite for fossil fuels. Does that mean game over for the climate?
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
What sort of
fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040? Which fuels will
supply the bulk of our energy needs? And how will that change the global energy
equation, international politics, and the planet’s health? If the experts at
the U.S. Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will
be oil, coal, and natural gas -- and we will find ourselves on a baking,
painfully uncomfortable planet.
It’s true, of
course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from
now aren’t likely to be reliable. All sorts of unexpected upheavals and
disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult.
This has not, however, deterred the Department of Energy from producing a
comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system. Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment
incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption.
Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013
report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.
Many of us
would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path
toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels
providing the bulk of our energy supplies. The IEO assumes otherwise. It
anticipates a world in which coal -- the most carbon-intense of all major fuels
-- still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower
The world it
foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking
and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are
far more widely employed than today. Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger
role in 2040, but -- as the IEO sees it -- will still represent only a small
fraction of the global energy mix.
Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a
government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies. It
envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments. It is not
visionary. Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to
happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with,
or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or
depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation. Nonetheless, because
it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions,
like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas
extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy
crisis in our future.
Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:
* Global energy
use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from
524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820
quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%. (A BTU is the amount of energy
needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)
* An increasing
share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries,
especially those in Asia. Of the nearly 300
quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now
and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in
the developing world.
* China, which only recently overtook the United States
as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share --
40% -- of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.
projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the
consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and
well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering. To meet constantly
expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up
production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the
paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change. Meanwhile,
the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial
powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to
appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider
four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to
which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels,
the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and
significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.
The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels
searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable
sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook. Although
the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from
84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy.
In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by
each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will
exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).
Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category
despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies -- the
so-called shale gas revolution -- made possible by hydro-fracking. Oil’s
continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand
for cars, vans, and trucks in China,
India, and other rising
states in Asia. The prominence of coal,
however, is on the face of it less expectable. Given the degree to which
utilities in the United States
and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor
of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling. But for
each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a
huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable
electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions.
dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the
continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies -- both private and
state-owned -- in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout
when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy.
Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a
substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects
that come with it.
The Rise of the “Unconventionals”
most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources
-- deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of
transportation and processing facilities. But these reservoirs are being
depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 -- or so the Department of Energy’s report
tells us -- will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs.
Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character -- materials hard to refine
and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in
relatively inaccessible locations. These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan
extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.
unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy
supply, but that is changing fast. Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural
gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to
exceed 50%. Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan
extra-heavy crude, and U.S.
shale oil (also called “tight oil”).
unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than
conventional ones. In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in
their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more
carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced. As is especially the
case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of
competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies
that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.
Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions
humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion
BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010. The continued dominance of fossil
fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of
supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon
dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into
the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that
CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute
an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.
And here’s the
bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon
emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010
and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons. No more
ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be
experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.
In the IEO
projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute
to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit. Of the extra 14.3
billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30
years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal.
Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will
have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these
New Geopolitical Tensions
2013 edition of International Energy
Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions
generated by these developments. Of particular interest to its authors are the
international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional
sources of energy. While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources
is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale
gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear
economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which
possess these capabilities.
consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s
energy status. Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing
reliance of the United States
on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East,
with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict. Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other
unconventional resources, the U.S.
is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger
position to dominate the global energy marketplace.
In one of many
celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to
“increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of
horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it
possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a
near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource
estimates over the past decade.”
At the same
time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain
mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in
the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia
is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas
revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in
output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional
supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be
hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.
is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment.
Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an
immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and
the limits to China’s
domestic supplies. As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an
increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort
of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders. The
country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills
needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years
The IEO does
not discuss the political implications of all this. However, top U.S. leaders,
from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new
energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so
enhancing its overseas influence. “America’s
new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April
speech at Columbia
University. “Increasing U.S. energy
supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply
disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing
and implementing our international security goals.”
of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could
doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines. Indeed, the whole
report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians
who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for
the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate
change) -- an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive
U.S. stance abroad.
The World of 2040
The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us
a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts -- and
their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all. But make no
mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the
world will actually look like at that time.
Many of the
projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to
unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm.
Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and
unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a
significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come -- and this, in
turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming
are likely to be frustrated. Similarly, Washington’s
determination to maintain U.S.
dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with
the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in
this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to
If the trends
identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and
sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more
devastating droughts. Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes
to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages
humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks
to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy”
globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.
So just how
reliable is the IEO assessment? Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will
prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason. As the
severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in
our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the
world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the
power of the giant energy companies. This, in turn, will lead to a
substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative
energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO
Make no mistake
about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers -- the world’s giant oil,
gas, and coal corporations -- are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift
without a fight. Given their staggering profits and their determination to
perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ
every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables. Eventually,
however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and
inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will
undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.
none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a
shift will take place. But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before
2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at
Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left,
just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood
and Oil can be previewed and ordered at
www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
[Note to readers: As most of this
text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there
are fewer hyperlinks to source material than is usual in my pieces. The report
itself can be viewed by clicking here.]
TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the
newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones,
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Michael T. Klare
Image by Mark Rain, licensed
Many farmers are focused on rebuilding our soil—here's why you should be too. Part two of a two-part dispatch on the sorry state of our nation's soil and what we can do to fix it. Read part one here: "Too Sick to Function."
It's easy to overlook soil's ill
health because overall it still does what we want it to do: produce bumper
crops. But as organic matter levels drop, those yields are increasingly reliant
on fertilizers like nitrogen, and, as the Minnesota
Pollution Control Agency reported in June, so much of this nutrient is
escaping the land that 27 percent of lakes and rivers in the southern half of
the state are too polluted to be used for drinking water. Removing nitrates
from drinking water is costing the Des
Moines Water Works $7,000 a day. It's a vicious cycle: more chemicals
result in less of the kind of biological activity needed to maintain natural
fertility, which means even more chemicals are needed to prop up yields, which
sends more chemicals into our water.
But since soil organic matter
levels are tied to biological processes, we can have a relatively quick impact
on those processes. Creating a one-inch layer of soil can take centuries, if
not more. But I've been on farms where organic matter has been increased in a
matter of a few years through the use of crop plantings and rotational grazing
systems that diversify the landscape -- above and below the surface -- while
shielding soil from the elements beyond the standard corn-growing season. A USDA
survey released in July found that planting soil-friendly cover crops not
only protected the soil but actually boosted corn yields significantly in parts
of the Midwest most heavily hit by drought in 2012. Soil scientists are monitoring
this revitalized soil and finding it can not only cook up its own fertility and
make use of moisture better, but develop a kind of shielding system that keeps
it from being blown apart by heavy rains.
The other good news is that today's
science is providing fascinating glimpses at an ecosystem that most of us
probably consider dull as, well, dirt, but which is in fact the most diverse on
the planet. An awareness of what we are losing and a realization that
traditional conservation isn't enough has prompted natural resource agencies to
rethink erosion control strategies. One USDA Natural Resources Conservation
is that if all of our nation's cropland was managed using traditional
conservation measures, erosion would drop by 0.85 billion tons annually.
Increasing organic matter on our cropland would drop erosion by 1.29 billion
tons per year.
Creating healthier humus will
require farm policy reforms, as well as market-based incentives and land grant
university research/outreach initiatives that help farmers adopt innovative,
financially-viable production systems. All this requires support from the
non-farm public, a tall order for a society that's quite comfortable treating
soil like dirt. But this isn't just about maintaining crop yields, or even
cleaner water. Soil provides at least $1.5
trillion in services worldwide annually, including stockpiling more carbon than the Earth's
atmosphere and all the plants on the planet. That makes it a key player in
controlling greenhouse gases, among other things.
As the father of soil conservation, Hugh Hammond Bennett, wrote in 1928:
"Farmers have only temporary control over their land … The public's
interest, however, goes on and on, endlessly, if nations are to endure."
Brian DeVore works for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization fostering sustainable agriculture since 1982. DeVore writes for and edits the group's publication, The Land Stewardship Letter.
Image: "Healthy Soil" by USDA NRCS South Dakota, licensed under Creative Commons.
The climate fight is about all of us, not just a few personalities.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
The history we
grow up with shapes our sense of reality -- it’s hard to shake. If you were
young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous
animal than if you came of age during Vietnam. I was born in 1960, and so
the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I
had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic
one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I
think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They
had a leader, capital L.
As time went
on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more
than Dr. King. There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers
to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands
more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s
early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it;
Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for
Which is why
it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the
movements of the moment -- even highly successful ones like the fight for gay
marriage or immigrant’s rights -- don’t really have easily discernible leaders.
I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for
decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those
within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at
large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and
for the better.
It’s true, too,
in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate
change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a
charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the
rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots
movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for
another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading
climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their
disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world
(partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet),
but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished. In fact, it’s
never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of
dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of
American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and
challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for
natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the
movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some
despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.
A Movement for a New Planet
We live in a
different world from that of the civil rights movement. Save perhaps for the
spectacle of presidential elections, there’s no way for individual human beings
to draw the same kind of focused and sustained attention they did back then. At
the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time (not Newsweek, alas) and still not connect with most people.
Our focus is fragmented and segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but
mostly it’s just a fact. Our attention is dispersed.
When we started
350.org five years ago, we
dimly recognized this new planetary architecture. Instead of trying to draw
everyone to a central place -- the Mall in Washington, D.C.
-- for a protest, we staged 24 hours of rallies around the planet: 5,200
demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called “the most widespread of day of
political action in the planet’s history.” And we’ve gone on to do more of the
same -- about 20,000 demonstrations in every country but North Korea.
Part of me,
though, continued to imagine that a real movement looked like the ones I’d
grown up watching -- or maybe some part of me wanted the glory of being a
leader. In any event, I’ve spent the last few years in constant motion around
the country and the Earth. I’d come to think of myself as a “leader,” and
indeed my forthcoming book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist,
reflects on that growing sense of identity.
recent months -- and it’s the curse of an author that sometimes you change your
mind after your book is in type -- I’ve come to like the idea of capital L
leaders less and less. It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this
moment: that we could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways.
environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to
replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants
provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10
million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers
call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of
benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make
use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated
fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.
In the last few
weeks, for instance, 350.org helped support a nationwide series of rallies
called Summerheat. We
didn’t organize them ourselves. We knew great environmental justice groups all
over the country, and we knew we could highlight their work, while making links
between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery in Richmond, California,
and standing up to the challenge of climate change.
From the shores
of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia
River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where
the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been proposed,
to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of
rural Ohio -- Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and global reach of this
emerging fossil fuel resistance. I’ve had the pleasure of going to talk at all
these places and more besides, but I wasn’t crucial to any of them. I was, at
best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.
Or consider a slightly older fight. In 2012, the Boston Globe magazine put a picture of
me on its cover under the headline: “The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline.” I’ve
got an all-too-healthy ego, but even I knew that it was over the top. I’d
played a role in the fight, writing the letter that asked people to come to Washington to resist the
pipeline, but it was effective because I’d gotten a dozen friends to sign it
with me. And I’d been one of 1,253 people who went to jail in what was the largest civil disobedience
action in this country in years. It was their combined witness that got the
ball rolling. And once it was rolling, the Keystone campaign became the exact
model for the sort of loosely-linked well-distributed power system I’ve been
environmental groups played key roles, supplying lots of data and information,
while keeping track of straying members of Congress. Among them were the
Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the League of
Conservation Voters, and the National Wildlife Federation, none spending time
looking for credit, all pitching in. The Sierra Club played a crucial role in
pulling together the biggest climate rally yet, last February’s convergence on
the Mall in Washington.
and individuals on the ground were no less crucial: the indigenous groups in Alberta and elsewhere
that started the fight against the pipeline which was to bring Canadian tar
sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast graciously welcomed the rest of us, without
complaining about how late we were. Then there were the ranchers and farmers of
roused a whole stadium of football fans at a Cornhuskers game to boo a pipeline commercial; the scientists who wrote
letters, the religious leaders who conducted prayer vigils. And don’t forget
the bloggers who helped make sense of it all for us. One upstart website even won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the struggle.
quickly educated themselves on the subject, becoming specialists in the
corruption of the State Department process that was to okay the building of
that pipeline or in the chemical composition of the bitumen that would flow
through it. CREDO (half an activist organization, half a cell phone company),
as well as Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98%, signed up 75,000 people
to civil disobedience if the pipeline were to get presidential approval.
And then there
was the Hip Hop Caucus, whose head Lennox Yearwood has roused one big crowd
after another, and the labor unions -- nurses and transit workers, for instance
-- who have had the courage to stand up to the pipeline workers' union which
would benefit from the small number of jobs to be created if Keystone were
built. Then there are groups of Kids Against KXL, and even a recent
grandparents' march from Camp David to the
White House. Some of the most effective resistance has come from groups like Rising
Tide and the Tarsands Blockade in Texas,
which have organized
epic tree-sitting protests to slow construction of the southern portion of the
The Indigenous Environmental
Network has been every bit as effective in demonstrating to banks the folly
of investing in Albertan tar sands production. First Nations people and British
Columbians have even blocked a proposed pipeline that would take those same tar
sands to the Pacific Ocean for shipping to Asia,
just as inspired activists have kept the particularly carbon-dirty oil out of
the European Union.
We don’t know
if we’ll win the northern half of the Keystone fight or not, although President
Obama’s recent pledge to decide whether it should be built -- his is the
ultimate decision -- based on how much carbon dioxide it could put into the
atmosphere means that he has no good-faith way of approving it. However, it’s
already clear that this kind of full-spectrum resistance has the ability to
take on the huge bundles of cash that are the energy industry’s sole argument.
What the Elders Said
campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able to stand
up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever
known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off the worst future
depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger,
incorporating among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social
couldn’t be more compelling. There’s never been a clearer threat to survival,
or to justice, than the rapid rise in the planet’s temperature caused by and
for the profit of a microscopic percentage of its citizens. Conversely, there
can be no real answer to our climate woes that doesn’t address the insane
inequalities and concentrations of power that are helping to drive us toward
That’s why it’s
such good news when people like Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu join the climate
struggle. When they take part, it becomes ever clearer that what’s underway is
not, in the end, an environmental battle at all, but an all-encompassing fight
over power, hunger, and the future of humanity on this planet.
geography is similarly a must for this movement. Recently, in Istanbul, 350.org and its allies trained 500 young
people from 135 countries as climate-change organizers, and each of them is now
organizing conferences and campaigns in their home countries.
This sort of
planet-wide expansion suggests that the value of particular national leaders is
going to be limited at best. That doesn’t mean, of course, that some people
won’t have more purchase than others in such a movement. Sometimes such
standing comes from living in the communities most immediately and directly
affected by climate change or fossil fuel depredation. When, for instance, the
big climate rally finally did happen on the Mall this winter, the 50,000 in
attendance may have been most affected by the words of Crystal Lameman, a young
member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation whose traditional territory has been
poisoned by tar sands mining.
comes from charisma: Van Jones may be the most articulate and engaging
environmental advocate ever. Sometimes it comes from getting things right for a
long time: Jim Hansen, the greatest climate scientist, gets respect even from
those who disagree with him about, say, nuclear power. Sometimes it comes from
organizing ability: Jane Kleeb who did such work in the hard soil of Nebraska, or Clayton Thomas-Muller who has indefatigably
(though no one is beyond fatigue) organized native North
America. Sometimes it comes from sacrifice: Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for civil disobedience, and so
most of us are going to listen to what he might have to say.
comes from dogged work on solutions: Wahleah Johns and Billy Parish figured out
how to build solar farms on Navajo land and crowdfund solar panels on community centers.
Sometimes truly unlikely figures emerge: investor Jeremy Grantham, or Tom
Steyer, a Forbes 400 billionaire who quit his job running a giant hedge fund,
sold his fossil fuel stocks, and put his money and connections effectively to
work fighting Keystone and bedeviling climate-denying politicians (even
Democrats!). We have organizational leaders like Mike Brune of the Sierra Club
or Frances Beinecke of NRDC, or folks like Kenny Bruno or Tzeporah Berman who
have helped knit together large coalitions; religious leaders like Jim Antal,
who led the drive to convince the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil
fuels; regional leaders like Mike Tidwell in the Chesapeake or Cherri Foytlin
in the Gulf or K.C. Golden in Puget Sound.
like these aren’t exactly “leaders” in the way we’ve normally imagined. They
are not charting the path for
the movement to take. To use an analogy from the Internet age, it’s more as if
they were well-regarded critics on Amazon.com review pages; or to use a more
traditional image, as if they were elders, even if not in a strictly
chronological sense. Elders don’t tell you what you must do, they say what they
must say. A few of these elders are, like me, writers; many of them have a gift
for condensing and crystallizing the complex. When Jim Hansen calls the Alberta tar sands the
“biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” it resonates.
When you have
that standing, you don’t end up leading a movement, but you do end up with
people giving your ideas a special hearing, people who already assume that
you’re not going to waste their energy on a pointless task. So when Naomi Klein
and I hatched a plan for a fossil fuel divestment campaign last year, people
paid serious attention, especially when Desmond Tutu lent his sonorous voice to
elders-of-all-ages also play a sorting-out role in backing the ideas of others
or downplaying those that seem less useful. There are days when I feel like the
most useful work I’ve done is to spread a few good Kickstarter proposals via
Twitter or write a blurb for a fine new book. Conversely, I was speaking in Washington recently to a group of grandparents who had
just finished a seven-day climate march from Camp David.
A young man demanded to know why I wasn’t backing sabotage of oil company
equipment, which he insisted was the only way the industry could be damaged by
our movement. I explained that I believed in nonviolent action, that we were
doing genuine financial damage to the pipeline companies by slowing their
construction schedules and inflating their carrying costs, and that in my
estimation wrecking bulldozers would play into their hands.
But maybe he
was right. I don’t actually know, which is why it’s a good thing that no one,
myself included, is the boss of the movement. Remember those solar panels: the
power to change these days is remarkably well distributed, leaving plenty of
room for serendipity and revitalization. In fact, many movements had
breakthroughs when they decided their elders were simply wrong. Dr. King didn’t
like the idea of the Freedom Summer campaign at first, and yet it proved
The Coming of the Leaderless Movement
We may not need
capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of
thousands. You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a
leader-full one. We see such leaders regularly at 350.org. When I wrote earlier
that we “staged” 5,200
rallies around the globe, I wasn’t completely accurate. It was more like
throwing a potluck dinner. We set the date and the theme, but everywhere other people
figured out what dishes to bring.
that accumulated in the Flickr account of that day’s events were astonishing.
Most of the people doing the work didn’t look like environmentalists were
supposed to. They were largely poor, black, brown, Asian, and young, because
that’s what the world mostly is.
Often the best
insights are going to come from below: from people, that is, whose life
experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it
but because they are subjected to it. That’s why frontline communities in
places where global warming’s devastation is already increasingly obvious often
produce such powerful ideas and initiatives. We need to stop thinking of them
as on the margins, since they are quite literally on the cutting edge.
We live in an
age in which creative ideas can spring up just about anywhere and then, thanks
to new forms of communication, spread remarkably quickly. This is in itself
nothing new. In the civil rights era, for instance, largely spontaneous sit-in
campaigns by southern college students in 1960 reshuffled the deck locally and
nationally, spreading like wildfire in the course of days and opening up new
in the immigration rights campaign, it was four “Dreamers” walking
from Florida to Washington D.C.
who helped reopen a stale, deadlocked debate. When Lieutenant Dan Choi chained himself to the White House fence, that helped usher
the gay rights movement into a new phase.
But Dan Choi
doesn’t have to be Dan Choi forever, and Tim DeChristopher doesn’t have to keep
going to jail over government oil and gas leases. There are plenty of others
who will arise in new moments, which is a good thing, since the physics of climate change means that the movement has to
win some critical victories in the next few years but also last for
generations. Think of each of these “leaders” as the equivalent of a pace line
for a bike race: one moment someone is out front breaking the wind, only to
peel away to the back of the line to rest for a while. In movement terms, when
that happens you not only prevent burnout, you also get regular infusions of
The ultimate in
leaderlessness was, of course, the Occupy movement that swept the U.S. (and other
areas of the world) in 2011-2012. It, in turn, took cues from the Arab Spring,
which absorbed some of its tricks from the Serbian organizers at Otpor, who
exported many of the features of their campaign against Slobodan Milosevic in
the 1990s around the planet.
exciting, in part, because of its deep sense of democracy and democratic
practice. Those of us who are used to New England
town meetings recognized its Athenian flavor. But town meetings usually occur
one day a year. Not that many people had the stomach for the endless
discussions of the Occupy moment and, in many cases, the crowds began to
dwindle even without police repression -- only to surge back when there was a
clear and present task (Occupy Sandy, say, in the months after that superstorm
hit the East coast).
All around the
Occupy movement, smart people have been grappling with the problem of democracy
in action. As the occupations wore on, its many leaders were often engaged as
facilitators, trying to create a space that was both radically democratic and
dramatically effective. It proved a hard balancing act, even if a remarkably necessary
How to Save the Earth
(and a movement is a community) will probably always have some kind of
hierarchy, even if it’s an informal and shifting one. But the promise of this
moment is a radically flattened version of hierarchy, with far more room for
people to pop up and propose, encourage, support, drift for a while, then
plunge back into the flow. That kind of trajectory catches what we’ll need in a
time of increased climate stress -- communities that place a premium on
resiliency and adaptability, dramatically decentralized but deeply linked.
already happening. The Summerheat campaign ended in Richmond, California,
where Chevron runs a refinery with casual disregard for the local residents.
When a section of it exploded last year, authorities sent a text message
essentially requesting that people not breathe. As a result, a coalition of local
environmental justice activists has waged an increasingly spirited fight
against the plant.
Like the other
oil giants, Chevron shows the same casual disregard for people around the
world. The company is, typically enough, suing journalists in an attempt to continue to cover up the
horrors it’s responsible for in an oil patch of jungle in Ecuador. And of
course, Chevron and the other big oil companies have shown a similar
recklessness when it comes to our home planet. Their reserves of oil and gas
are already so large that, by themselves, they could take us several percent of
the way past the two-degree Celsius temperature rise that the world has pledged
to prevent, which would bring on the worst depredations of global warming -- and
yet they are now on the hunt in a major way for the next round of
“unconventional” fossil fuels to burn.
In addition, as
the 2012 election campaign was winding down, Chevron gave the largest corporate campaign donation in the post-Citizens United era. It came two weeks
before the last election, and was clearly meant to insure that the House of
Representatives would stay in the hands of climate deniers, and that nothing
would shake the status quo.
And so our
movement -- global, national, and most of all local. Released from a paddy wagon
after the Richmond
protest, standing in a long line of handcuffees waiting to be booked, I saw
lots of elders, doubtless focused on different parts of the Chevron equation.
Among them were Gopal Dayaneni, of the Movement Generation
Justice and Ecology Project, who dreams of frontline communities leading in
the construction of a just new world, and Bay Area native activist Pennie Opal
Plant, who has spent her whole life in Richmond and dreams, I suspect, of kids
who can breathe more easily in far less polluted air.
I continue to
hope for local, national, and global action, and for things like a carbon
tax-and-dividend scheme that would play a role in making just transitions
easier. Such differing, overlapping dreams are anything but at odds. They all
make up part of the same larger story, complementary and complimentary to it.
These are people I trust and follow; we have visions that point in the same
general direction; and we have exactly the same enemies who have no vision at
all, save profiting from the suffering of the planet.
I’m sure much
of this thinking is old news to people who have been building movements for
years. I haven’t. I found myself, or maybe stuck myself, at the front of a
movement almost by happenstance, and these thoughts reflect that experience.
What I do
sense, however, is that it’s our job to rally a movement in the coming years
big enough to stand up to all that money, to profits of a sort never before
seen on this planet. Such a movement will need to stretch from California to
Ecuador -- to, in fact, every place with a thermometer; it will need to engage
not just Chevron but every other fossil fuel company; it will need to prevent
pipelines from being built and encourage windmills to be built in their place;
it needs to remake the world in record time.
That won’t happen
thanks to a paramount leader, or even dozens of them. It can only happen with a
spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged
citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we’re aiming for a different world, one that
runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities
in small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new
world must run on that kind of power too.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder
of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. His next, to be published this September, is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.
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