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
Photo by Fotolia/Dave
Glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, and the male population is dwindling as temperatures continue to increase—at least in Japan, a new study shows.
In the journal Fertility and Sterility, Japanese researchers found that in the hottest recorded summer, 2010, there was a dramatic increase in female births, whereas the coldest winter, 2011, produced more baby boys. This correlation in climate and gender fluctuations is still far too preliminary to construe as fact, but further studies have also shown that extreme outside stresses tend to favor girls: male fetuses are especially vulnerable when the mother experiences air pollution, chemical exposure, and extraordinary stresses, such as war or economic hardships.
Denmark also experienced a decline in male population from 1951 to 1995, presumably due to environmental hazards. Another study looked at the famine in China during the Great Leap Forward (1959-1961) and found that women were more likely to give birth to girls in those turbulent years. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that these connections could be arbitrary, with scientists potentially examining narrow windows in history that conveniently encourage this evidence. Still, a Swedish study provides more support that women thrive in natural selection, saying that mothers’ bodies are evolutionarily programmed to give birth to girls, in addition to affirming the link between girls and rising temperatures.
Data from Finland and New Zealand did not show consistent connections between climate change and the death of male fetuses, although neither country experiences extreme temperature shifts like Japan. Japan has also warmed at a greater rate than the global average throughout the last century. Still, anthropologists would like to see how this data would fare in developing countries, where amenities that affect temperature changes—shelter, air conditioning, central heating—aren’t as prevalent.
National Geographic explains the basic principles of global warming in this video:
Image by Anthony J, licensed under Creative Commons
Hope can be powerful in leaving behind the mess of the old order and taking action.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.
Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system. They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.
I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.
As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inches since 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels. The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know. In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.
The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.
But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It is working fine — in the short term and the most limited sense — for oil companies and the people who profit from them and for some of us in the particularly cushy parts of the world who haven’t been impacted yet by weather events like, say, the recent torrential floods in Japan or southern Nevada and Arizona, or the monsoon versions of the same that have devastated parts of India and Pakistan, or the drought that has mummified my beloved California, or the wildfires of Australia.
The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to — John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier — and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.
Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need, because a two-thirds majority in the Senate must consent to any international treaty the U.S. signs. Which is not to say much for the president, whose drill-baby-drill administration only looks good compared to the petroleum servants he faces, when he bothers to face them and isn’t just one of them. History will despise them all and much of the world does now, but as my mother would have said, they know which side their bread is buttered on.
As it happens, the butter is melting and the bread is getting more expensive. Global grain production is already down several percent thanks to climate change, says a terrifying new United Nations report. Declining crops cause food shortages and rising food prices, creating hunger and even famine for the poorest on Earth, and also sometimes cause massive unrest. Rising bread prices were one factor that helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011. Anyone who argues that doing something about global warming will be too expensive is dodging just how expensive unmitigated climate change is already proving to be.
It’s only a question of whether the very wealthy or the very poor will pay. Putting it that way, however, devalues all the nonmonetary things at stake, from the survival of myriad species to our confidence in the future. And yeah, climate change is here, now. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more, but there’s a difference between terrible and apocalyptic. We still have some control over how extreme it gets. That’s not a great choice, but it’s the choice we have. There’s still a window open for action, but it’s closing. As the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Society, Michel Jarraud, bluntly put it recently, "We are running out of time."
New and Renewable Energies
The future is not yet written. Look at the world we’re in at this very moment. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was supposed to be built years ago, but activists catalyzed by the rural and indigenous communities across whose land it would go have stopped it so far, and made what was supposed to be a done deal a contentious issue. Activists changed the outcome.
Fracking has been challenged on the state level, and banned in townships and counties from upstate New York to central California. (It has also been banned in two Canadian provinces, France, and Bulgaria.) The fossil-fuel divestment movement has achieved a number of remarkable victories in its few bare years of existence and more are on the way. The actual divestments and commitments to divest fossil fuel stocks by various institutions ranging from the city of Seattle to the British Medical Association are striking. But the real power of the movement lies in the way it has called into question the wisdom of investing in fossil fuel corporations. Even mainstream voices like the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and publications like Forbes are now beginning to question whether they are safe places to put money. That’s a sea of change.
Renewable energy has become more efficient, technologically sophisticated, and cheaper — the price of solar power in relation to the energy it generates has plummeted astonishingly over the past three decades and wind technology keeps getting better. While Americans overall are not yet curtailing their fossil-fuel habits, many individuals and communities are choosing other options, and those options are becoming increasingly viable. A Stanford University scientist has proposed a plan to allow each of the 50 states to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Since, according to the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuel reserves still in the ground are "at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level," it couldn’t be more important to reach global agreements to do things differently on a planetary scale. Notably, most of those carbon reserves must be left untapped and the modest steps already taken locally and ad hoc show that such changes are indeed possible and that an encouraging number of us want to pursue them.
We can do it. And we is the key word here. The world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue; it’s going to be saved, if it is to be saved, by collective acts of social and political change. That’s why I’m marching this Sunday with tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of others in New York City — to pressure the United Nations as it meets to address climate change. That’s why people who care about the future state of our planet will also be marching and demonstrating in New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, Kathmandu, Dublin, Manila, Seoul, Mumbai, Istanbul, and so many smaller places.
Mass movements work. Unarmed citizens have changed the course of history countless times in the modern era. When we come together as civil society, we have the capacity to transform policies, change old ways of doing things, and sometimes even topple regimes. And it is about governments. Like it or not, the global treaties, compacts, and agreements we need can only be made by governments, and governments will make those agreements when the pressure to do so is greater than the pressure not to. We can and must be that pressure.
The Long View from One Window
I lived in the same apartment for 25 years, moving into a poor but thriving black community in 1981 and out of the far more affluent, paler, and less neighborly place it had become in 2006. A lot of people moved in and out in that period, many of them staying only a year or two. Those transients always seemed to believe that the neighborhood they were passing through was a stable one. You had to be slower than change and stick around to see it. I saw it and it helped me learn how to take a historical view of things.
It’s crazy that anyone speaks as if our world is not undergoing rapid change, when the view from the window called history shows nothing but transformation, both incremental and dramatic. Exactly 25 years ago this month, Eastern Europe was astir. Remember that back then there was still a Soviet bloc, and a Soviet Union, and an Iron Curtain, and a Berlin Wall, and a Cold War. Most people thought those were permanent fixtures, but in the summer of 1989, Hungary decided to let East Germans (who were permitted to travel freely to that communist country) stream over to the West.
Thousands of people, tired of life in the totalitarian east, fled. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as East Germany, were already electrified by a resurgent civil society and activist communities that had dared to organize in the face of repression. At the time, politicians and pundits in the West were making careers out of explaining, among so many other things, why German reunification wasn’t going to happen in anyone’s lifetime. And they probably would have been proven right if people had stayed home and done nothing, if they hadn't begun to hope and acted on that hope.
The bureaucrats on both sides of the Berlin Wall were still talking about the possibility of demilitarizing it when citizens showed up en masse and the guards began abandoning their posts. On that epochal night of November 9, 1989, the people made whole what had been broken. The lesson: showing up is half the battle.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been so unnerved by developments in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European holdings that she went to Moscow, two months before the fall of the wall, to implore Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to prevent any such thing. That was early September 1989. "No dramatic change in the situation in Czechoslovakia can be expected," predicted a Czech official two months before a glorious popular uprising, remembered as the Velvet Revolution, erupted and abolished the government in which he was an official.
There are three things to note about those changes in 1989. First, most people in power dismissed the possibility that such extraordinary change could happen or deplored what it might bring. They were comfortable enough with things as they were, even though the status quo was several kinds of scary and awful. In other words, the status quo likes the status quo and dislikes change. Second, everything changed despite them, thanks to grassroots organizing and civil society, forces that — we are now regularly assured — are pointless and irrelevant. Third, the world that existed then has been largely swept away: the Soviet Union, the global alignments of that time, the idea of a binary world of communism and capitalism, and the policies that had kept us on the brink of nuclear annihilation for decades. We live in a very different world now (though nuclear weapons are still a terrible problem). Things do change.
Maybe, in fact, there’s a fourth point to note as well. That, important as they were, the front-page stories about the liberation of Eastern Europe weren’t what mattered most all those years ago. After all, hidden away deep inside the New York Times that autumn, you can find a dozen or so articles about global warming, as the newly recognized phenomenon was then called. And small as they were, anyone reading them now can see that so long ago the essential problem and peril to our world was already clear.
The thought of what might have been accomplished, had a people’s movement arisen then to face global warming, could break your heart. That, after all, was still a time when the Earth’s atmosphere held just above 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, the maximum safe level for a sustainable survivable planet, not the 400 parts per million of the present moment ("142% of the pre-industrial era" level of carbon, the World Meteorological Organization notes). In other words, we’ve been steadily filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and so imperiling the planet and humanity since we knew what we were doing.
The Great Smog and the Big Wind
In that fall a quarter of a century ago, the world changed profoundly right before our eyes. Then we settled back into the short-term, ahistorical view that things are really pretty stable, that ordinary people have no power, and that the world can’t be changed. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at Germany today. Maybe because Germans know better than us that things can change for the worse or the better fast, that the world is not a stable and settled place, and that we do shape it, they have been willing to change.
At one point last spring, cold, cloudy Germany managed to get almost 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Scotland — cold, gray, oil-rich Scotland! — is on track to achieve 100% renewable electrical generation by 2020 and has already hit the 40% mark. Spain now generates about half its electricity through clean and renewable sources. Other European countries have similar accomplishments. In fact, many of the changes that we in the United States will be marching for this Sunday have already begun happening, sometimes on a significant scale, elsewhere.
To remember how radical this new Europe is, recall that most of these places were burning coal not just in power plants or factories but in homes, too, not so many decades ago. Everyone deplores the horrific air of Beijing and other Chinese cities now, but few remember that many European cities were similarly foul with smoke and smog from the industrial revolution into the postwar era. In December 1952, for instance, the “Great Smog” of London reduced daytime visibility to a few yards and killed about 4,000 people in three days.
A decade before that, in response to the war Germany started, North Americans radically reduced their use of private vehicles and gasoline and planted more than 20 million victory gardens, producing vast quantities of food by non-industrial means. We have done that; we could (and must) do it again.
At least, we don’t burn coal in our homes any more, and in the U.S. we’ve retired 178 coal-fired power plants, phasing out many more, and prevented many new ones from being built. The renewable energy sources that were, people insisted, too minor or unreliable or expensive or new are now beginning to work well, and the price to produce energy in such a fashion is dropping rapidly. UBS, the European investment giant, recently counseled that power plants and centralized power generation are no longer good investments, since decentralized renewables are likely to replace them.
Of course, Germany and Britain are still burning coal, and Poland remains a giant coal mine. Europe is not a perfect renewable energy paradise, just a part of the world that demonstrates the viability of changing how we produce and consume energy. We are already changing, even if not fast enough, not by a long shot, at least not yet. The same goes for divesting from fossil-fuel investments, even though dozens of universities, cities, religious institutions, and foundations have already committed to doing so, and some have by now actually purged their portfolios. The excuse that change is impossible is no longer available, because many places and entities have already changed.
If you want to know how potentially powerful you are, ask your enemies. The misogynists who attack feminism and try to intimidate feminists into silence only demonstrate in a roundabout way that feminism really is changing the world; they are the furious backlash and so the proof that something meaningful is at stake. The climate movement is similarly upsetting a lot of powerful people and institutions; to grasp that, you just have to look at the tsunamis of money spent opposing specific measures and misinforming the public. The carbon barons are demonstrating that we could change the world and that they don’t want us to.
We are powerful and need to become more so in the next year as a major conference in Paris approaches in December 2015 where the climate agreements we need could be hammered out. Or not. This is, after all, a sequel to the Copenhagen conference of 2009, where representatives of many smaller and more vulnerable nations, as well as citizens’ groups, were eager for a treaty that took on climate change in significant ways, only to have their hopes crushed by the recalcitrant governments of the United States and China.
Right now, we are in a churning sea of change, of climate change, of subtle changes in everyday life, of powerful efforts by elites to serve themselves and damn the rest of us, and of increasingly powerful activist and social-movement campaigns to make a world that benefits more beings, human and otherwise, in the longer term. Every choice you make aligns you with one set of these forces or another. That includes doing nothing, which means aligning yourself with the worst of the status quo dragging us down in that ocean of carbon and consumption.
To make personal changes is to do too little. Only great movements, only collective action can save us now. Only is a scary word, but when the ship is sinking, it can be an encouraging one as well. It can hold out hope. The world has changed again and again in ways that, until they happened, would have been considered improbable by just about everyone on the planet. It is changing now and the direction is up to us.
There will be another story to be told about what we did a quarter century after civil society toppled the East Bloc regimes, what we did in the pivotal years of 2014 and 2015. All we know now is that it is not yet written, and that we who live at this very moment have the power to write it with our lives and acts.
A TomDispatch regular, Rebecca Solnit has 16 books out, the latest of which is the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me.
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Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit
Photo by Fotolia/Jaroslav Moravcik
The People's Climate March is designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.
Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch
On Sunday, September 21st, a huge crowd will march through the middle of Manhattan. It will almost certainly be the largest rally about climate change in human history, and one of the largest political protests in many years in New York. More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march—environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups—which means there’s no one policy ask. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.
As a few of the march’s organizers, though, we can give some sense of why we, at least, are marching, words we think represent many of those who will gather at Columbus Circle for the walk through midtown Manhattan.
We march because the world has left the Holocene behind: scientists tell us that we’ve already raised the planet’s temperature almost one degree Celsius, and are on track for four or five by century’s end. We march because Hurricane Sandy filled the New York City subway system with salt water, reminding us that even one of the most powerful cities in the world is already vulnerable to slowly rising ocean levels.
We march because we know that climate change affects everyone, but its impacts are not equally felt: those who have contributed the least to causing the crisis are hit hardest, here and around the world. Communities on the frontlines of global warming are already paying a heavy price, in some cases losing the very land on which they live. This isn’t just about polar bears any more.
But since polar bears can’t march, we march for them, too, and for the rest of creation now poised on the verge of what biologists say will be the planet’s sixth great extinction event, one unequalled since the last time a huge asteroid struck the Earth 66 million years ago.
And we march for generations yet to come, our children, grandchildren, and their children, whose lives will be systematically impoverished and degraded. It’s the first time one century has wrecked the prospects of the millennia to come, and it makes us mad enough to march.
We march with hope, too. We see a few great examples around the world of how quickly we could make the transition to renewable energy. We know that if there were days this summer when Germany generated nearly 75 percent of its power from renewable sources of energy, the rest of us could, too—especially in poorer nations around the equator that desperately need more energy. And we know that labor-intensive renewables would provide far more jobs than capital-intensive coal, gas, and oil.
And we march with some frustration: why haven’t our societies responded to 25 years of dire warnings from scientists? We’re not naïve; we know that the fossil fuel industry is the 1 percent of the 1 percent. But sometimes we think we shouldn’t have to march. If our system worked the way it should, the world would long ago have taken the obvious actions economists and policy gurus have recommended—from taxing carbon to reflect the damage it causes to funding a massive World War II-scale transition to clean energy.
Marching is not all, or even most, of what we do. We advocate; we work to install solar panels; we push for sustainable transit. We know, though, that history shows marching is usually required, that reason rarely prevails on its own. (And we know that sometimes even marching isn’t enough; we’ve been to jail and we’ll likely be back.)
We’re tired of winning the argument and losing the fight. And so we march. We march for the beaches and the barrios. We march for summers when the cool breeze still comes down in the evening. We march because Exxon spends $100 million every day looking for more hydrocarbons, even though scientists tell us we already have far more in our reserves than we can safely burn. We march for those too weak from dengue fever and malaria to make the journey. We march because California has lost 63 trillion gallons of groundwater to the fierce drought that won’t end, and because the glaciers at the roof of Asia are disappearing. We march because researchers told the world in April that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun to melt “irrevocably”; Greenland’s ice shield may soon follow suit; and the waters from those, as rising seas, will sooner or later drown the world’s coastlines and many of its great cities.
We don’t march because there’s any guarantee it will work. If you were a betting person, perhaps you’d say we have only modest hope of beating the financial might of the oil and gas barons and the governments in their thrall. It’s obviously too late to stop global warming entirely, but not too late to slow it down—and it’s not too late, either, to simply pay witness to what we’re losing, a world of great beauty and complexity and stability that has nurtured humanity for thousands of years.
There’s a world to march for—and a future, too. The only real question is why anyone wouldn’t march.
Eddie Bautista is executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. LaTonya Crisp-Sauray is the recording secretary for the Transport Workers Union Local 100. Bill McKibben is the founder of350.org and a TomDispatch regular.
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Copyright 2014 Eddie Bautista, La Tonya Crisp-Sauray, and Bill McKibben
Image courtesy bjaglin, licensed under Creative Commons
Issues like climate change and race are usually framed individually but they are part of a connected system.
The link between climate change and race may not be immediately apparent, but at least one organization is doing something to connect the dots. In light of the racial tensions stemming from the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, 350.org’s Executive Director May Boeve stated, “We believe unequivocally that working for racial justice is a crucial part of fighting climate change.”
The reasons behind such a statement are many and varied. For one, organizations advocating for racial justice, “could use some of environmentalists’ passion around conservation and the preservation of life” Brentin Mock writes for Bridge the Gulf.
Additionally, climate change has and is expected to disproportionately affect people of color both domestically and internationally. In cases like Hurricane Katrina, the disaster quickly became an issue of race and racism, ranging from accusations of “looting” to at least 11 shootings of African-American men by white men in the days following the storm. In at-risk countries like Bangladesh, the potential for climate change “acts as a threat multiplier” wherein people face food and housing insecurity, as well as social and political instability. At the center of these situations is an imbalance of power where those with the most resources (including money, weapons, and connections) usually win out.
Furthermore, in many ways, the two issues are related by economic priorities which tend to favor profit over everything else—the environmental, the ethical, the future of our communities. Oil companies profit despite disasters such as Deepwater Horizon (where Vietnamese communities in the Gulf who relied on the fishing industry took a particularly hard hit, not to mention the environmental and health effects), corporations like Halliburton contract out armed guards to protect their extraction sites abroad, weapons companies profit in the billions from police departments that acquire tanks and teargas (like the kind deployed in the Ferguson protests), and privatized prisons make money off of discriminatory drug laws.
Lastly, a threat of suppression or actual violence to one group is a signal to anyone else who may want to speak out. In the U.S., such acts can have a “chilling effect” which is intended to quiet the use of our First Amendment rights including the right to free speech and the right to assemble.
So what can be done to bridge the divides between movements? Deirdre Smith, 350.org’s Strategic Partnership Coordinator says it will take a deeper understanding of institutional injustices, a drive to develop stronger alliances, and an acknowledgment of privilege. And although she recognizes that, "we have a lot of learning to do about how to come together," in doing so, collectively, our voices will reach farther, be more resilient, and do more to tip the balance of power.
Photo by Rachel, licensed under Creative Commons.
California's severe drought prompts innovation.
California is in the midst of its third consecutive year of drought conditions while water usage remains relatively unchanged or has even increased. However homeowners are now under restrictions that prohibit hosing off driveways and lawn water runoff, with violations costing up to $500. With the introduction of an app called Dropcountr, readily available regulation of water use may help prevent those fines. The app monitors daily use so users can see long-term patterns (such as more use on weekends). It also warns users if it suspects there is a leak and it shows water usage in houses similar in size for comparison. Dropcountr CEO Robb Barnitt said, "The first response we get from folks is, 'Wow, I had no idea that I used that much water.' That's really the first piece we're trying to deliver—transparency and visibility. It's really tough to gain much insight from your water bill." The company is working to broaden the number of utility districts the app is available for and is also coordinating with property management companies in an effort to expand the app to renters.
Another solution is the slightly absurd idea of lawn painting which allows homeowners to save water while maintaining curb appeal. It’s a consideration that is quickly gaining popularity throughout California with new companies offering the service popping up, and established ones seeing sales increases of 60 percent. Each paint jobs lasts three to six months and costs about $175 for a 500 square foot lawn. The paint that is used is nontoxic and once it dries, it doesn’t run. One San Bernardino resident remarked, “It became a real eyesore…I heard about a service where people paint your lawn so it looks like the real thing and thought, why not? We've had lots of people stop over and say it looks good.”
Now that homeowners have some innovative options to utilize during the drought, it’s time to focus on controlling the wildfires that have resulted, regulating Nestle’s water bottling plant in Southern California, and finding ways to protect Napa Valley’s vineyards to avoid a wine shortage.
Photo by Robert V, licensed under Creative Commons.
The Nature Conservancy has come under fire for allowing drilling on its land.
The Nature Conservancy is the largest environmental organization in the U.S., operating in all 50 states and backed by over $6 billion in assets. Being such a big operation, it’s bound to face some controversies, whether it’s animal management methodology or the fact that its current president spent 24 years serving Goldman Sachs. However the latest revelation is particularly surprising. In Naomi Klein’s forthcoming book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate she reveals that The Nature Conservancy has made millions of dollars off of oil being drilled on a piece of land it manages in Texas, a fact acknowledged by the organization.
The primary contention for environmentalists is over the welfare of the Attwater prairie chicken, a critically endangered species, that was supposed to use part of the land as a refuge. However it has not been seen there since 2012 (it’s unknown if drilling played a part in this though internal documents from the organization suggested that drilling would disturb the birds). Many activists and environmental groups have been highly critical of The Nature Conservancy in light of the discovery. Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, asserts that The Nature Conservancy “has just lost its moral compass.”
In its defense, The Nature Conservancy contends that it doesn’t have a say in the drilling. The land was donated by Mobil Oil in 1995, in an effort to save the aforementioned chicken which suffered dramatically dwindling numbers due to hunting and habitat destruction. Under a 1999 contract, the organization allowed new drilling that came closer to the breeding grounds of the prairie chicken with profits to be used for conservation efforts. However The Nature Conservancy now says it regrets the decision. Klein argues that the organization could have fought the drilling requests by utilizing termination clauses in the contract. She adds, “We all need to get off fossil fuels. If the largest environmental organization in the world can’t figure out how to stop pumping oil and gas, how are they going to help the rest of us figure it out?”
Photo by Ray Bodden, licensed under Creative Commons.