Posts Tagged ‘Tom Engelhardt’
A collection of essays and ideas that unite in a common theme.
Back in those times before dogs became the domesticated friends of man, the leader of the pack, the alpha female, had two key pack roles. One of them was having first pick of the males, for mating purposes, and the other was knowing when their territory was no longer conducive to her pack’s interests. When that happened the ‘boss lady’ was the one to signal that the pack had to find another, more beneficial, homestead.
While mankind is in desperate need of learning so many of the qualities of dogs the one example that is beyond us is finding a new homestead. This planet is the only homestead we have.
This basic and fundamental concept seems to be missing from the minds of leaders and power-brokers. Missing big time!
Coincidentally, over recent days there have been three essays from three different authors that scream out the madness, to put it nicely, of the way of our world just now. Let me dip into those three essays.
First, to a recent essay from Tom Engelhardt over at TomDispatch.
American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt
In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system. You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy. There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life. These days, I suspect, not so many.
Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins. Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list. Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced. In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing. It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.
The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition. In the wake of the Edward Snowdenrevelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort. The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous. The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.
If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson. After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment. At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet. They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries – but not of shaking our way of life. And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.
It’s a long, deeply thoughtful essay that deserves your full read. This is how it closes:
After 12 long years in Afghanistan and an Obama era surge in that country, the latest grim National Intelligence Estimate from the U.S. intelligence community suggests that no matter what Washington now does, the likelihood is that things there will only go from bad enough to far worse. Years of a drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula hasstrengthened that organization; an air intervention in Libya led to chaos, a dead ambassador, and a growing al-Qaeda movement in northern Africa — and so it repetitively goes.
Similarly, intelligence officials brag of terrorist plots – 54 of them! — that have been broken up thanks in whole or in part to the National Security Agency’s metadata sweeps of U.S. phone calls; it also claims that, given the need of secrecy, only four of them can be made public. (The claims of success on even those four, when examined by journalists, have proved less than impressive.) Meanwhile, the presidential task force charged with reviewing the NSA revelations, which had access to a far wider range of insider information, came to aneven more startling conclusion: not one instance could be found in which that metadata the NSA was storing in bulk had thwarted a terrorist plot. “Our review,” the panel wrote, “suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks.” (And keep in mind that, based on what we do know about such terror plots, a surprising number of them were planned or sparked or made possible by FBI-inspired plants.)
In fact, claims of success against such plots couldn’t be more faith-based, relying as they generally do on the word of intelligence officials who have proven themselves untrustworthy or on the impossible-to-prove-or-disprove claim that if such a system didn’t exist, far worse would have happened. That version of a success story is well summarized in the claim that “we didn’t have another 9/11.”
In other words, in bang-for-the-buck practical terms, Washington’s national security state should be viewed as a remarkable failure. And yet, in faith-based terms, it couldn’t be a greater success. Its false gods are largely accepted by acclamation and regularly worshiped in Washington and beyond. As the funding continues to pour in, the NSS has transformed itself into something like a shadow government in that city, while precluding from all serious discussion the possibility of its own future dismantlement or of what could replace it. It has made other options ephemeral and more immediate dangers than terrorism to the health and wellbeing of Americans seem, at best, secondary. It has pumped fear into the American soul. It is a religion of state power.
No Martian could mistake it for anything else.
Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.
Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt
Now let’s move from the USA to the UK. George Monbiot penned an essay on the 6th January about the growing loss of freedoms in my old home country. He opens:
January 6, 2014
A shocking new bill threatens to make this country feel like a giant shopping mall.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 7th January 2014
Until the late 19th Century, much of our city space was owned by private landlords. Squares were gated, streets were controlled by turnpikes. The great unwashed, many of whom had been expelled from the countryside by acts of enclosure, were also excluded from desirable parts of town.
Social reformers and democratic movements tore down the barriers, and public space became a right, not a privilege. But social exclusion follows inequality as night follows day, and now, with little public debate, our city centres are again being privatised or semi-privatised. They are being turned by the companies that run them into soulless, cheerless, pasteurised piazzas, in which plastic policemen harry anyone loitering without intent to shop.
Streetlife in these places is reduced to a trance-world of consumerism, of conformity and atomisation, in which nothing unpredictable or disconcerting happens, a world made safe for selling mountains of pointless junk to tranquilised shoppers. Spontaneous gatherings of any other kind – unruly, exuberant, open-ended, oppositional – are banned. Young, homeless and eccentric people are, in the eyes of those upholding this dead-eyed, sanitised version of public order, guilty until proven innocent.
Then a few paragraphs later, the essay continues:
The existing rules are bad enough. Introduced by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, anti-social behavour orders (Asbos) have criminalised an apparently endless range of activities, subjecting thousands – mostly young and poor – to bespoke laws. They have been used to enforce a kind of caste prohibition: personalised rules which prevent the untouchables from intruding into the lives of others.
You get an Asbo for behaving in a manner deemed by a magistrate as likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to other people. Under this injunction, the proscribed behaviour becomes a criminal offence. Asbos have been granted which forbid the carrying of condoms by a prostitute, homeless alcoholics from possessing alcohol in a public place, a soup kitchen from giving food to the poor, a young man from walking down any road other than his own, children from playing football in the street. They were used to ban peaceful protests against the Olympic clearances.
Inevitably, over half the people subject to Asbos break them. As Liberty says, these injunctions “set the young, vulnerable or mentally ill up to fail”, and fast-track them into the criminal justice system. They allow the courts to imprison people for offences which are not otherwise imprisonable. One homeless young man was sentenced to five years in jail for begging: an offence for which no custodial sentence exists. Asbos permit the police and courts to create their own laws and their own penal codes.
All this is about to get much worse. Tomorrow the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill reaches its report stage (close to the end of the process) in the House of Lords. It is remarkable how little fuss has been made about it, and how little we know of what is about to hit us.
The bill would permit injunctions against anyone of 10 or above who “has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person.” It would replace Asbos with Ipnas (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance), which would not only forbid certain forms of behaviour, but also force the recipient to discharge positive obligations. In other words, they can impose a kind of community service on people who have committed no crime, which could, the law proposes, remain in force for the rest of their lives.
The bill also introduces Public Space Protection Orders, which can prevent either everybody or particular kinds of people from doing certain things in certain places. It creates new dispersal powers, which can be used by the police to exclude people from an area (there is no size limit), whether or not they have done anything wrong.
Please read the original essay in full as well as refer to background links that were included in that original. I will offer the closing paragraphs.
The Home Office minister, Norman Baker, once a defender of civil liberties, now the architect of the most oppressive bill pushed through any recent parliament, claims that the amendments he offered in December will “reassure people that basic liberties will not be affected”(11). But Liberty describes them as “a little bit of window-dressing: nothing substantial has changed.”(12)
The new injunctions and the new dispersal orders create a system in which the authorities can prevent anyone from doing more or less anything. But they won’t be deployed against anyone. Advertisers, who cause plenty of nuisance and annoyance, have nothing to fear; nor do opera lovers hogging the pavements of Covent Garden. Annoyance and nuisance are what young people cause; they are inflicted by oddballs, the underclass, those who dispute the claims of power.
These laws will be used to stamp out plurality and difference, to douse the exuberance of youth, to pursue children for the crime of being young and together in a public place, to help turn this nation into a money-making monoculture, controlled, homogenised, lifeless, strifeless and bland. For a government which represents the old and the rich, that must sound like paradise.
The last of the three essays was about Europe, being an essay on Naked Capitalism two days ago.
Death By A Thousand Cuts: The Silent Assassination Of European Democracy
As is gradually dawning on more and more people across the old continent, the European Union is riddled with fatal flaws and defects. Chief among them is the single currency which, rather than serving as the Union’s springboard to global dominance, could well be its ultimate undoing.
Another huge problem with the EU is its acute lack of transparency. Staggering as it may seem, in the last 20 years the Union has not passed a single audit. Indeed, so opaque is the state of its finances that in 2002 Marta Andreasen, the first ever professional accountant to serve as the Commission’s Chief Accountant, refused to sign off the organization’s 2001 accounts, citing concerns that the EU’s accounting system was “open to fraud.” After taking her concerns public, Andreasen was suspended and then later sacked by the Commission.
However, by far the EU’s greatest — and certainly most dangerous — structural flaw is its gaping democratic deficit. To paraphrase Nigel Farage, the stridently anti-EU British MEP, not only is the EU undemocratic, it is fundamentally anti-democratic.
Yet again, the essay must be read in full. As with the others, I will include the closing paragraphs:
Of course none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the abject failure of modern nation-state democracy — not only in Europe, but across the globe. As Mair wrote in the first paragraph of his book, although the political parties themselves remain, “they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”
The European elites have masterfully exploited this crisis of representative democracy and the resultant voter disaffection and apathy to enshrine a new system of rule by bureaucrats, bankers, technocrats and lobbyists (as I reported in Full Steam Ahead For the EU Gravy Train, Brussels is home to the second biggest lobby industry in the world, just behind Washington). If anything, we can expect this trend to accelerate in 2014 as the Eurocrats seek to consolidate their power grab through the imposition of EU-wide banking and fiscal union. Once that’s done, the quest for the holy grail of full-blown political union will begin in earnest.
Whether the EU is able to pull of this ultimate coup de grace in its decades-long coup d’état will depend on two vital factors: its ability to continue preventing economic reality from impacting the financial markets; and the willingness of hundreds of millions of European people to be herded and corralled into a new age of technocracy.
“the abject failure of modern nation-state democracy — not only in Europe, but across the globe.“
Don Quijones wrote that with a focus on Europe. But also a recognition that right across the world the rights and safeguards of everyday citizens are being dangerously undermined. I will return tomorrow with Part Two and an insight into the growing power of those everyday citizens.
It’s really terribly easy - we just have to leave the oil in the ground!
The current issue of The Economist has an article on page 43, under The Americas section, headed Cheap at the price.
It’s a review of the biggest oil auction this year.
A single bid for a vast field shows the weakness of Brazil’s state-led approach to developing its oil reserves
SIX years after discovering giant offshore“pré-sal” oil deposits, so called because they lie beneath a thick layer of salt under the ocean bed, Brazil has finally auctioned the rights to develop some of its deeply buried wealth. On October 21st the Libra field, off Rio de Janeiro’s coast (see map), was sold to a consortium led by Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil firm, and including France’s Total, Anglo-Dutch Shell and China’s state-owned CNOOC and CNPC. Libra’s estimated 8 billion-12 billion barrels of recoverable oil make it the biggest oil prospect in the world to be auctioned this year. Once it reaches peak production, sometime in the next decade, it should increase Brazil’s output from 2.1m to about 3.5m barrels per day.
The article was critical of the way Brazil managed the auction resulting in just one consortium bidding, against the expectation there would be strong competition for the oil from possibly 40 companies despite the huge costs in extracting it from over 6,000 metres (nearly 20,000 feet) below sea-level. The article didn’t even hint at the madness of even thinking it should be extracted but I guess that’s The Economist for you.
So with that in mind, let me turn to a recent essay from TomDispatch by world-renown climate-change activist Bill McKibben. As regular readers will be aware Tom Engelhardt of the TomDispatch blog has given blanket permission for TD essays to be republished here on Learning from Dogs.
Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Can Obama Ever Stand Up to the Oil Industry?
Recently, “good” news about energy has been gushing out of North America, where a cheering crowd of pundits, energy experts, and government officials has been plugging the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century. You know, all that fracking and those luscious deposits of oil shale and gas shale just waiting to be pounded into shape to fill global gas tanks for an energy-rich future. And then, of course, just to the north there are those fabulous Canadian tar sands deposits whose extraction is reportedly turning parts of Alberta into an environmental desert. And that isn’t all.
From the melting Arctic, where the Russians and others are staking out energy claims, to the southernmost tip of South America, the dream of new energy wealth is being pursued with a fervor and avidity that is hard to take in. In distant Patagonia, an Argentinean government not previously known for its friendliness to foreign investment has just buddied up with Chevron to drill “around the clock in pursuit of a vast shale oil reservoir that might be the world’s next great oil field.” Huzzah and olé!
And can you even blame the Argentinean president for her choice? After all, who wants to be the country left out of the global rush for new energy wealth? Who wants to consider the common good of the planet, when your country’s finances may be at stake? (As with the Keystone XL pipeline protest movement here, so in Argentina, there actually are environmentalists and others who are thinking of the common good, but they’re up against the state, the police, and Chevron — no small thing.) All of this would, of course, be a wondrous story — a planet filled with energy reserves beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — were it not for the fact that such fossil fuel wealth, such good news, is also the nightmarish bad news of our lives, of perhaps the lifetime of humanity.
There is an obvious disconnect between what is widely known about climate change and the recent rush to extract “tough energy” from difficult environments; between the fires — and potential “mega-fire” — burning wildly across parts of overheated Australia and its newly elected government run by a conservative prime minister, essentially a climate denier, intent on getting rid of that country’s carbon tax. There is a disconnect between hailing the U.S. as the new Saudi Arabia and the recent report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground – or else. There is a disconnect between what our president says about climate change and the basic energy policies of his administration. There is a disconnect between what the burning of fossil fuels will do to our environment and the urge of just about every country on this planet to exploit whatever energy reserves are potentially available to it, no matter how “dirty,” no matter how environmentally destructive to extract.
Somewhere in that disconnect, the remarkable Bill McKibben, whose new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, is at the top of my personal reading list, has burrowed in and helped to create a global climate change movement. In this country, it’s significantly focused on the Keystone XL pipeline slated, if built, to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. For the last several years at TomDispatch, McKibben has kept us abreast of the most recent developments in that movement. Here is his latest report from the tar sands front. Tom
X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency
Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending?
By Bill McKibben
As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.
Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.
The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south. The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.
In June, President Obama said that the building of the full pipeline — on which he alone has the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down — would be approved only if “it doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” By that standard, it’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get.
These days, however, as no one will be surprised to hear, brainless things happen in Washington more often than not, and there’s the usual parade of the usual suspects demanding that Keystone get built. In mid-October, a coalition that included Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, not to mention the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, sent Obama a letter demanding that he approve Keystone in order to “maintain investor confidence,” a phrase almost guaranteed to accompany bad ideas. A report last week showed that the Koch brothers stood to earn as much as $100 billion in profits if the pipeline gets built (which would come in handy in helping fund their endless assault on unions, poor people, and democracy).
But don’t think it’s just Republican bigwigs and oil execs rushing to lend the pipeline a hand. Transcanada, the pipeline’s prospective builder, is at work as well, and Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn is now on the Transcanada dime, producing TV ads in support of the pipeline. It’s a classic example of the kind of influence peddling that knows no partisan bounds. As the activists at Credo put it: “It’s a betrayal of the commitments that so many of us worked so hard for, and that Dunn herself played a huge role in shaping as top strategist on the 2008 campaign and communications director in the White House.”
Credo’s Elijah Zarlin, who worked with Dunn back in 2008, wrote that attack on her. He was the guy who wrote all those emails that got so many of us coughing up money and volunteering time during Obama’s first run for the presidency, and he perfectly exemplifies those of us on the other side of this divide — the ones who actually believed Dunn in 2008, the ones who thought Obama was going to try to be a different kind of president.
On energy there’s been precious little sign of that. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency has put in place some new power plant regulations, and cars are getting better mileage. But the president has also boasted again and again about his “all of the above” energy policy for “increasing domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” It has, in fact, worked so well that the United States will overtake Russia this year as the biggest combined oil and natural gas producer on the planet and is expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer by 2017.
His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Arctic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking. Even though he boasts about marginal U.S. cuts in carbon emissions, his green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane – another dangerous greenhouse gas — than any man in history. And it’s not just the environment. At this point, given what we know about everything from drone warfare to NSA surveillance, the dream of a progressive Obama has, like so many dreams, faded away.
The president has a handy excuse, of course: a truly terrible Congress. And too often — with the noble exception of those who have been fighting for gay rights and immigration reform — he’s had little challenge from progressives. But in the case of Keystone, neither of those caveats apply: he gets to make the decision all by himself with no need to ask John Boehner for a thing, and people across the country have made a sustained din about it. Americans have sent record numbers of emails to senators and a record number of comments to the State Department officials who oversee a “review” of the pipeline’s environmental feasibility; more have gone to jail over this issue than any in decades. Yet month after month, there’s no presidential decision.
There are days, in fact, when it’s hard to muster much fire for the fight (though whenever I find my enthusiasm flagging, I think of the indigenous communities that have to live amid the Mordor that is now northern Alberta). The president, after all, has already allowed the construction of the southern half of the Keystone pipeline, letting Transcanada take land across Texas and Oklahoma for its project, and setting up the beleaguered communities of Port Arthur, Texas, for yet more fumes from refineries.
Stopping the northern half of that pipeline from being built certainly won’t halt global warming by itself. It will, however, slow the expansion of the extraction of tar sands, though the Koch brothers et al. are busy trying to find other pipeline routes and rail lines that would get the dirtiest of dirty energy out of Canada and into the U.S. via destinations from Michigan to Maine. These pipelines and rail corridors will need to be fought as well — indeed the fights are underway, though sometimes obscured by the focus on Keystone. And there are equally crucial battles over coal and gas from the Appalachians to the Pacific coast. You can argue that the president’s people have successfully diverted attention from their other environmental sins by keeping this argument alive long past the moment at which it should have been settled and a decision should have been made.
At this point, in fact, only the thought of those 900,000 extra barrels a day of especially nasty oil coming out of the ground and, via that pipeline, into refineries still makes the fight worthwhile. Oh, and the possibility that, in deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting.
If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 — the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.
But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of a new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.
Follow 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, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
President Obama turned 52-years-old on August 4th this year. Michelle, his wife, will be 50-years-old next January, 17th. Their children, Malia and Sasha, are aged 15 and 12 respectively.
Thus this family of four are all sufficiently young to be alive when the consequences of burning all this oil will be very painfully obvious, when all the power and money in the world will come to naught.
So it strikes me that young Malia and Sasha should be shown where Planet Earth’s master circuit-breaker is located. Would be such a shame to leave the lights on when there’s no-one at home.
Where hope and inspiration meets the cold world of reality!
Yesterday’s post Don’t frighten the horses was all about reminding me that fear is a very bad motivator. I promoted the Transition message, ”If we can’t imagine a positive future we won’t be able to create it.”
Easy to say, easy to write, less easy to put into practice in the face of really chilling predictions.
My way of introducing today’s guest post, a recent post from TomDispatch. This was an essay by Michael Klare that has been widely shared and commented upon. For good reason. It challenges to the core the terrible consequences of not changing, of not having that image of the positive future we all so badly need.
So with the gracious permission of Tom Engelhardt, here is that essay.
Tomgram: Michael T. Klare, 2040 or Bust
If you’re an oil exec, the world is a rosy place — and I’m not talking about the pink haze of heat that’s been rising from the burning American West all summer. I’m talking about energy consumption where the news just couldn’t be cheerier. Despite declines in North America and Europe, according to a new study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), world consumption of petroleum products in 2012 rose to record heights, a staggering 88.9 million barrels a day. Increases in Asia in particular were impressive, as a snazzy little animated graphic of soaring global oil use, 1980-2012, at the EIA’s website makes clear.
And speaking of upbeat news, there was another rosy record set in 2012 (at least, if you’re an oil exec who could care less about the fate of the planet): carbon dioxide emissions leaped into the atmosphere in record quantities, 31.6 billion tons of CO2, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped, in part because utilities were switching from coal to natural gas. Of course, significant amounts of the coal not used in this country get shipped off to places like China where it no longer counts as U.S. emissions when it heads skyward.
Anyway, put the two together and you can practically see the heat haze of an eternal summer rising on the eastern horizon. In fact, these days even the worst news for the rest of us can be good news for the energy industry. For example, the possibility of an American intervention in Syria, a spreading conflict in the region, and chaos in Middle Eastern oil markets has already helped raise the price of a barrel of crude oil above $115. An American air assault on Syrian military facilities in Damascus could send that price over $120 and cause pain at the pump in the U.S. as well. So you and I won’t be happy, but oil execs will be toasting their good fortune.
In the coming years, there’s likely to be no end to this sort of good news, as Michael Klare,TomDispatch energy expert and author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today. If you thought fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were at unbeatable levels, just wait until he introduces you to Earth 2040. If, by then, you’re the CEO of a big energy company, you’ll truly be in the pink. As for the rest of us, if you’ll excuse the expression, we’ll be in the red. Tom
Our Fossil-Fueled Future
World Energy in 2040
By Michael T. Klare
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 combined.
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.
These 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 available supplies.
To fully 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
Anyone 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.
The continuing 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”
At present, 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.
Until recently, 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”).
By definition, 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
By 2040, 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.
Carbon dioxide 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 decades; India, 11%.
New Geopolitical Tensions
Finally, the 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.
One 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.
China 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 to come.
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.”
The Department 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 come.
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 anticipates.
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.
Unfortunately, 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 http://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.]
Follow 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, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare
So how to return to a hopeful place?
Like this. Saw this a couple of days ago on Cat Skoor’s blog I Vary Widely. Seemed most appropriate.
Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch and the clarity of looking backwards.
A few weeks ago, I said that I was trying to move away from writing about the big issues in our lives and refocus on the meanings, both literal and figurative, on what we can learn from dogs. Not been entirely successful with that ambition!
For example, yesterday’s post that included the most incredible video illustrating the size of the universe didn’t mention the ‘dog’ word at all. However, what yesterday did do is to remind us that even the grandest aspect of mankind’s behaviours, of the rise and fall of empires, is a very long way from the the grandness of the universe.
So with that preamble, let me move on to Tom’s recent essay, again published with Tom’s permission. As so often with essays that are published on TomDispatch this one sets out a reality of the America of today that is surely unsustainable. Interesting times!
Tomgram: Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth
And Then There Was One - Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt
In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.
He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.
Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.
Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.
Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.
Why Orwell Was Wrong
Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.
At a moment when Americans were growing uncomfortably aware of the way their government was staring at them and storing what they had previously imagined as their private data, consider my soaring sense of my own originality a delusion of my later life. It lasted only until I read an essay by NSA expert James Bamford in which he mentioned that, “[w]ithin days of Snowden’s documents appearing in the Guardian and the Washington Post…, bookstores reported a sudden spike in the sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. On Amazon.com, the book made the ‘Movers & Shakers’ list and skyrocketed 6,021 percent in a single day.”
Nonetheless, amid a jostling crowd of worried Americans, I did keep reading that novel and found it at least as touching, disturbing, and riveting as I had when I first came across it sometime before Kennedy went on TV in 1962. Even today, it’s hard not to marvel at the vision of a man living at the beginning of the television age who sensed how a whole society could be viewed, tracked, controlled, and surveiled.
But for all his foresight, Orwell had no more power to peer into the future than the rest of us. So it’s no fault of his that, almost three decades after his year of choice, more than six decades after his death, the shape of our world has played havoc with his vision. Like so many others in his time and after, he couldn’t imagine the disappearance of the Soviet Union or at least of Soviet-like totalitarian states. More than anything else, he couldn’t imagine one fact of our world that, in 1948, wasn’t in the human playbook.
In 1984, Orwell imagined a future from what he knew of the Soviet and American (as well as Nazi, Japanese, and British) imperial systems. In imagining three equally powerful, equally baleful superpowers — Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia — balanced for an eternity in an unwinnable global struggle, he conjured up a logical extension of what had been developing on this planet for hundreds of years. His future was a version of the world humanity had lived with since the first European power mounted cannons on a wooden ship and set sail, like so many Mongols of the sea, to assault and conquer foreign realms, coastlines first.
From that moment on, the imperial powers of this planet — super, great, prospectively great, and near great — came in contending or warring pairs, if not triplets or quadruplets. Portugal, Spain, and Holland; England, France, and Imperial Russia; the United States, Germany, Japan, and Italy (as well as Great Britain and France), and after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union. Five centuries in which one thing had never occurred, the thing that even George Orwell, with his prodigious political imagination, couldn’t conceive of, the thing that makes 1984 a dated work and his future a past that never was: a one-superpower world. To give birth to such a creature on such a planet — as indeed occurred in 1991 — was to be at the end of history, at least as it had long been known.
The Decade of the Stunned Superpower
Only in Hollywood fantasies about evil super-enemies was “world domination” by a single power imaginable. No wonder that, more than two decades into our one-superpower present, we still find it hard to take in this new reality and what it means.
At least two aspects of such a world seem, however, to be coming into focus. The evidence of the last decades suggests that the ability of even the greatest of imperial powers to shape global events may always have been somewhat exaggerated. The reason: power itself may never have been as centrally located in imperial or national entities as was once imagined. Certainly, with all rivals removed, the frustration of Washington at its inability to control events in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere could hardly be more evident. Still, Washington has proven incapable of grasping the idea that there might be forms of power, and so of resistance to American desires, not embodied in competitive states.
Evidence also seems to indicate that the leaders of a superpower, when not countered by another major power, when lacking an arms race to run or territory and influence to contest, may be particularly susceptible to the growth of delusional thinking, and in particular to fantasies of omnipotence.
Though Great Britain far outstripped any competitor or potential enemy at the height of its imperial glory, as did the United States at the height of the Cold War (the Soviet Union was always a junior superpower), there were at least rivals around to keep the leading power “honest” in its thinking. From December 1991, when the Soviet Union declared itself no more, there were none and, despite the dubious assumption by many in Washington that a rising China will someday be a major competitor, there remain none. Even if economic power has become more “multipolar,” no actual state contests the American role on the planet in a serious way.
Just as still water is a breeding ground for mosquitos, so single-superpowerdom seems to be a breeding ground for delusion. This is a phenomenon about which we have to be cautious, since we know little enough about it and are, of course, in its midst. But so far, there seem to have been three stages to the development of whatever delusional process is underway.
Stage one stretched from December 1991 through September 10, 2001. Think of it as the decade of the stunned superpower. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union went unpredicted in Washington and when it happened, the George H. W. Bush administration seemed almost incapable of taking it in. In the years that followed, there was the equivalent of a stunned silence in the corridors of power.
After a brief flurry of debate about a post-Cold War “peace dividend,” that subject dropped into the void, while, for example, U.S. nuclear forces, lacking their major enemy of the previous several decades, remained more or less in place, strategically disoriented but ready for action. In those years, Washington launched modest and halting discussions of the dangers of “rogue states” (think “Axis of Evil” in the post-9/11 era), but the U.S. military had a hard time finding a suitable enemy other than its former ally in the Persian Gulf, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Its ventures into the world of war in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia were modest and not exactly greeted with rounds of patriotic fervor at home. Even the brief glow of popularity the elder Bush gained from his 1990-1991 war against Saddam evaporated so quickly that, by the time he geared up for his reelection campaign barely a year later, it was gone.
In the shadows, however, a government-to-be was forming under the guise of a think tank. It was filled with figures like future Vice President Dick Cheney, future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, future Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, future U.N. Ambassador John Bolten, and future ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, all of whom firmly believed that the United States, with its staggering military advantage and lack of enemies, now had an unparalleled opportunity to control and reorganize the planet. In January 2001, they came to power under the presidency of George W. Bush, anxious for the opportunity to turn the U.S. into the kind of global dominator that would put the British and even Roman empires to shame.
Pax Americana Dreams
Stage two in the march into single-superpower delusion began on September 11, 2001, only five hours after hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon. It was then that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already convinced that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, nonetheless began dreaming about completing the First Gulf War by taking out Saddam Hussein. Of Iraq, he instructed an aide to “go massive… Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
And go massive he and his colleagues did, beginning the process that led to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, itself considered only a precursor to transforming the Greater Middle East into an American protectorate. From the fertile soil of 9/11 — itself something of a phantasmagoric event in which Osama bin Laden and his relatively feeble organization spent a piddling $400,000-$500,000 to create the look of an apocalyptic moment — sprang full-blown a sense of American global omnipotence.
It had taken a decade to mature. Now, within days of the toppling of those towers in lower Manhattan, the Bush administration was already talking about launching a “war on terror,” soon to become the “Global War on Terror” (no exaggeration intended). The CIA would label it no less grandiosly a “Worldwide Attack Matrix.” And none of them were kidding. Finding “terror” groups of various sorts in up to 80 countries, they were planning, in the phrase of the moment, to “drain the swamp” – everywhere.
In the early Bush years, dreams of domination bred like rabbits in the hothouse of single-superpower Washington. Such grandiose thinking quickly invaded administration and Pentagon planning documents as the Bush administration prepared to prevent potentially oppositional powers or blocs of powers from arising in the foreseeable future. No one, as its top officials and their neocon supporters saw it, could stand in the way of their planetary Pax Americana.
Nor, as they invaded Afghanistan, did they have any doubt that they would soon take down Iraq. It was all going to be so easy. Such an invasion, as one supporter wrote in the Washington Post, would be a “cakewalk.” By the time American troops entered Iraq, the Pentagon already had plans on the drawing board to build a series of permanent bases — they preferred to call them “enduring camps” — and garrison that assumedly grateful country at the center of the planet’s oil lands for generations to come.
Nobody in Washington was thinking about the possibility that an American invasion might create chaos in Iraq and surrounding lands, sparking a set of Sunni-Shiite religious wars across the region. They assumed that Iran and Syria would be forced to bend their national knees to American power or that we would simply impose submission on them. (As a neoconservative quip of the moment had it, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) And that, of course would only be the beginning. Soon enough, no one would challenge American power. Nowhere. Never.
Such soaring dreams of — quite literally — world domination met no significant opposition in mainstream Washington. After all, how could they fail? Who on Earth could possibly oppose them or the U.S. military? The answer seemed too obvious to need to be stated — not until, at least, their all-conquering armies bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and the greatest power on the planet faced the possibility of defeat at the hands of… well, whom?
The Dark Matter of Global Power
Until things went sour in Iraq, theirs would be a vision of the Goliath tale in which David (or various ragtag Sunni, Shiite, and Pashtun versions of the same) didn’t even have a walk-on role. All other Goliaths were gone and the thought that a set of minor Davids might pose problems for the planet’s giant was beyond imagining, despite what the previous century’s history of decolonization and resistance might have taught them. Above all, the idea that, at this juncture in history, power might not be located overwhelmingly and decisively in the most obvious place — in, that is, “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” as American presidents of this era came to call it – seemed illogical in the extreme.
Who in the Washington of that moment could have imagined that other kinds of power might, like so much dark matter in the universe, be mysteriously distributed elsewhere on the planet? Such was their sense of American omnipotence, such was the level of delusional thinking inside the Washington bubble.
Despite two treasury-draining disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq that should have been sobering when it came to the hidden sources of global power, especially the power to resist American wishes, such thinking showed only minimal signs of diminishing even as the Bush administration pulled back from the Iraq War, and a few years later, after a set of misbegotten “surges,” the Obama administration decided to do the same in Afghanistan.
Instead, Washington entered stage three of delusional life in a single-superpower world. Its main symptom: the belief in the possibility of controlling the planet not just through staggering military might but also through informational and surveillance omniscience and omnipotence. In these years, the urge to declare a global war on communications, create a force capable of launching wars in cyberspace, and storm the e-beaches of the Internet and the global information system proved overwhelming. The idea was to make it impossible for anyone to write, say, or do anything to which Washington might not be privy.
For most Americans, the Edward Snowden revelations would pull back the curtain on the way the National Security Agency, in particular, has been building a global network for surveillance of a kind never before imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the previous century. From domestic phone calls to international emails, from the bugging of U.N. headquarters and the European Union to 80 embassies around the world, from enemies to frenemies to allies, the system by 2013 was already remarkably all-encompassing. It had, in fact, the same aura of grandiosity about it, of overblown self-regard, that went with the launching of the Global War on Terror — the feeling that if Washington did it or built it, they would come.
I’m 69 years old and, in technological terms, I’ve barely emerged from the twentieth century. In a conversation with NSA Director Keith Alexander, known somewhat derisively in the trade as “Alexander the Geek,” I have no doubt that I’d be lost. In truth, I can barely grasp the difference between what the NSA’s Prism and XKeyscore programs do. So call me technologically senseless, but I can still recognize a deeper senselessness when I see it. And I can see that Washington is building something conceptually quite monstrous that will change our country for the worse, and the world as well, and is — perhaps worst of all — essentially nonsensical.
So let me offer those in Washington a guarantee: I have no idea what the equivalents of the Afghan and Iraq wars will be in the surveillance world, but continue to build such a global system, ignoring the anger of allies and enemies alike, and “they” indeed will come. Such delusional grandiosity, such dreams of omnipotence and omniscience cannot help but generate resistance and blowback in a perfectly real world that, whatever Washington thinks, maintains a grasp on perfectly real power, even without another imperial state on any horizon.
Today, almost 12 years after 9/11, the U.S. position in the world seems even more singular. Militarily speaking, the Global War on Terror continues, however namelessly, in the Obama era in places as distant as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The U.S. military remains heavily deployed in the Greater Middle East, though it has pulled out of Iraq and is drawing down in Afghanistan. In recent years, U.S. power has, in an exceedingly public manner, been “pivoting” to Asia, where the building of new bases, as well as the deployment of new troops and weaponry, to “contain” that imagined future superpower China has been proceeding apace.
At the same time, the U.S. military has been ever-so-quietly pivoting to Africa where, as TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reports, its presence is spreading continent-wide. American military bases still dot the planet in remarkable profusion, numbering perhaps 1,000 at a moment when no other nation on Earth has more than a handful outside its territory.
The reach of Washington’s surveillance and intelligence networks is unique in the history of the planet. The ability of its drone air fleet to assassinate enemies almost anywhere is unparalleled. Europe and Japan remain so deeply integrated into the American global system as to be essentially a part of its power-projection capabilities.
This should be the dream formula for a world dominator and yet no one can look at Planet Earth today and not see that the single superpower, while capable of creating instability and chaos, is limited indeed in its ability to control developments. Its president can’t even form a “coalition of the willing” to launch a limited series of missile attacks on the military facilities of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. From Latin America to the Greater Middle East, the American system is visibly weakening, while at home, inequality and poverty are on the rise, infrastructure crumbles, and national politics is in a state of permanent “gridlock.”
Such a world should be fantastical enough for the wildest sort of dystopian fiction, for perhaps a novel titled 2014. What, after all, are we to make of a planet with a single superpower that lacks genuine enemies of any significance and that, to all appearances, has nonetheless been fighting a permanent global war with… well, itself — and appears to be losing?
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (recently published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
Follow 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, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt
But as my preamble reminded us, if Tom’s essay gets your emotions running, then turn back to yesterday’s post and put it all back into place!
More or less makes daily hassles irrelevant!
Now don’t misunderstand me. There are huge numbers of people on this planet who have challenges and issues that I can’t even imagine handling. But whatever we are dealing with, it is at a personal ‘size’ proportional to scale of our lives. For example, I have a guest post coming out tomorrow from Tom Engelhardt about the nature of the American Empire. Frankly, it’s more than disturbing. But, or should I write that as BUT, it is about matters that are trivial and inconsequential in the larger scheme of things.
All of which is a little introduction to a YouTube link that Suzann sent me; the video below. It’s just about 2 1/2 minutes long, yet is incredible. Plus it has already been watched over 9 million times!
Staying with the theme of rejuvenating our relationship with the natural world.
Rewilding the West
Here’s a nifty trick that’s been on my mind lately. In case you hadn’t noticed, the weather news this season has been pretty grim. Tornados so large and destructive that they would have given Dorothy pause, 500-year European floods, massive rainstorms rolling across the land, record heat in California and Alaska, late snowfalls that boggle the imagination, wildfires that dwarf past ones in the American West. I could go on, but why bother since anyone who has been watching primetime TV news can’t but notice that staggering weather has been the lead or second story much of the time all spring and into the summer.
You’re probably wondering right now: But what’s the trick? I’m surprised you haven’t noticed yourself. All of this weather has a new, made-for-TV label. It’s now regularly called “extreme weather” or “severe weather.” And that’s anything but inaccurate. The weather has been both “severe” and “extreme” this spring. The trick is that, as a label, “extreme weather” has managed (with rare exceptions) to obviate the need even to mention that any of this could have the slightest thing to do with climate change, with our overheating, over-greenhouse-gassed planet. Think of it as a fabulous form of recognition and denial wrapped in the same package.
The TV news gets all the benefits of night-after-night, eyeball-gluing drama in which the weather goes nuts, houses are destroyed, and people weep (or are stoic) about ruined lives. It gets to bring in the tornado watchers and the weather people in their raincoats and waders. (Have you noticed that the TV news can’t report a flood without putting some reporter with a mic knee-deep in water?) It gets to focus nightly on those daunting weather maps with their blazing red danger zones, and offer warnings about what potential disaster tomorrow might have to offer, all the while remaining in official, blissful denial about what’s happening on this planet of ours. Somehow, it has managed to incorporate the possible effects of climate change into the nightly news as a major story, while excluding just about all serious discussion of it. Tell me that isn’t a doubly nifty trick!
Of course, if there’s nothing but “extreme weather” happening and that weather has no extreme context, no extreme meaning, then none of us have to worry our little heads about what’s to be done. Those trying to remedy the degradation of conditions on this planet can also be ignored, which is why we couldn’t be more pleased that TomDispatch regular Chip Ward introduces us to such a person today. Tom
Trek West for the Big Picture
Saving the Land One Footfall at a Time
By Chip Ward
My home sits at the gateway to a national park in Utah, a source of envy among tourists who gather along Capitol Reef’s “scenic drive.” But after 40 years of living in one desert or another, I know firsthand that America’s iconic desert landscapes, places like Monument Valley and Arches National Park, are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that we dig up, dump on, dam, bomb, drill, over-graze, and otherwise abuse our deserts, most of them public lands owned by you, the taxpaying citizen. Generally, our management of the nation’s public lands is a disgrace and deserts are exhibit A.
But let’s skip the grim survey of how humans are overloading the carrying capacity of our original earthly Eden that usually opens a report like this. The intent of such a recitation of folly is to compel the reader’s attention by underlining the dire importance of the topic at hand. But I assume you understand by now that you woke up this morning on an overheated planet of slums threatened by ecological collapse.
So instead, let’s get right to the point: what do we do about it? How do we begin to heal the wounds?
The crises we face and that our children and grandchildren will endure long after we leave them invite a visionary response. On the other hand, the world is already awash in well-intentioned tinkerers. Yet dysfunction and destruction still reign. Maybe it’s time to leap to a new paradigm.
Enter John Davis and Trek West. At this very moment, Davis is walking, biking, paddling, and horseback riding 6,000 miles through a chain of mountain ranges that stretches like a spine across North America from the Sierra Madres of Mexico through the Rockies of the American West up into Canada. He started this winter in the Sonoran desert we share with our southern neighbor and has been heading northward for months. He will cross many of our most treasured national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, the ones that tourists love, but his trek is no sightseeing adventure.
Davis and his Trek West partners along the route are advocating for what they call “landscape connectivity” on a continental scale. Two years ago, Davis trekked from Key West to Quebec, 8,000 human-powered miles. Same theme: conserve and connect.
A Conservation Revolution
Gone are the days when conservation was all about bullets, hooks, and cameras. Fishermen and hunters are still an important constituency in the conservation community, but birdwatchers now outnumber them. Ecological criteria increasingly frame any debate about how to heal degraded habitat. What the nineteenth century naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir knew intuitively — that everything in the universe is “hitched to everything else” — has been confirmed beyond doubt by hard science.
Davis is one of the founders of a new school of thought called conservation biology. Its proponents argue that it is not faintly enough to preserve scenic rock and ice parks and isolated islands of wildlife. Wild creatures need room to roam so they can find the necessary water, food, and mates. In the long run, many of America’s wild creatures from salamanders to bears will survive only in Disney movies if we box out genetic diversity, block migration routes, destroy nesting grounds, and save only carefully preserved, isolated populations of a species. Connectivity is the keel of an emerging conservation ethic for helping to heal this country.
John Davis envisions an unbroken chain of wild lands spanning North America from Mexico to Canada. When completed, a necklace of “core” areas, including national parks, wildlife reserves, and protected wilderness areas will be linked together and buffered by national forests and private lands. Creatures now boxed into wild islands surrounded by a sea of development will have room to roam.
A connected landscape will be more resilient as climate change puts further stress on creatures and their habitats. Already species from birds to mammals are responding to warming temperatures by moving northward if they can, or to higher ground if they can’t migrate horizontally. The famed scientist and conservationist E.O. Wilson called the project to link together America’s wild lands the most important conservation initiative in the world today.
After trekking through the habitat of the last remaining jaguars on the continent, Davis ran into the new wall designed to keep illegal Mexican migrants out of the United States. It is, he pointed out, a far more effective barrier against wildlife migration than the human version of the same and so is lobotomizing the border ecosystem we share with Mexico. As for Davis, he easily climbed it in less than five minutes and was on his way.
Backpacks Meet Cowboy Hats
Although pushing 50, Davis has the trim, muscular build of a professional athlete — and he’ll need every toned muscle he has to complete his quest. The day before I met him in Escalante, Utah, he had been surprised by a lingering bout of spring weather and found himself pushing his bike through 10 miles of deep snow on top of Utah’s Aquarius Plateau. The next week, he planned to paddle through Desolation Canyon, one of the most spectacular river passages on the planet. But when I encountered him, he was taking a break and making a pitch for connectivity before a gathering of federal land managers, concerned local citizens, and ranchers who share the watershed of the Escalante River.
The Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) is the unwieldy name for a grassroots coalition whose aim is to restore the river’s degraded ecosystem. The rugged network of high desert canyons that drain into the remote Escalante River have been eroding for years thanks to overgrazing by cattle. They are also choked with tamarisk and Russian olive trees.
Tamarisks are an invasive species that suck up precious ground water, while filling in springs and seeps that are the only water sources for many bird and animal species. The tall, feathery plumes of the tamarisk have taken over hundreds of miles of riverbank in the West. “Tammies” also salt the surrounding soil when they shed their leaves, killing native plants that might otherwise compete. A beetle was imported from Eurasia to eat the tammies and was unbelievably successful. As a result, those thick hedges that still block riverbanks are now dead-dry and ready to ignite. If not cut back, they will burn or regrow. Russian olive trees also crowd stream banks and add needle-like thorns to the unpleasant mix.
The diverse stakeholders in the Escalante River Watershed Partnership may not share John Davis’s grand vision of an ecologically whole and “rewilded” continent, but they are intent on sewing together and rewilding their pieces of the torn fabric of American life. As any effective organizer knows, you start where there is common ground — or where there are common weeds.
Ranchers, rangers, biologists, hikers, and back-country guides are in many ways competing constituencies, but it turns out they all share the goal of clearing riparian (wet) canyons of those suffocating tammies. The scientists survey the ground and identify targets. Grants are written to bring in volunteers to do the fieldwork. Last week, a dozen Great Old Broads for Wilderness, mostly outspoken middle-aged women, spent a week clearing unwanted brush as a service project.
As biologists monitor progress and the group discusses issues that arise, inevitably the damage done by grazing cows comes up. It couldn’t be a more awkward topic. After all, ranchers are in the room. Cattle ranching in these desert landscapes is a marginal activity. Those ranchers depend on federal grants, tax breaks, and access to public land to make it work. But cows erode stream banks and silt the water, short-circuit forest succession by eating seedlings, and contaminate fresh water with their voluminous poop that also spreads cheatgrass and weeds.
The hope is that eventually the EWRP will become a platform for a public airing of difficult issues like where cattle should be allowed to graze on public land and how many and when.
A Roadkill Extravaganza
Those awaiting Davis’s Trek West presentation this particular day in this particular corner of Utah have already found a scale that seems to fit the desperate needs of our landscape, state, country, and planet. Most of us who believe in change are caught between the seeming futility of small-scale actions — like recycling our trash or using more energy-efficient light bulbs — and the impotence we experience when we push for large-scale change like climate legislation in Congress or international treaties to limit atmospheric greenhouse gases.
On the one hand, too little; on the other, too late. There does, however, turn out to be a middle scale between individual action and national or global campaigns that works well and makes sense: the community. That’s the place where people can best embrace their roles as citizens, face off, share, contend, cooperate, create, learn from, and empower one another.
Watershed partnerships harken back to an old ideal. John Wesley Powell, the one-armed general and Civil War hero who later explored the Colorado River and its tributaries, was the first person to grasp and publicize the aridity rather than fecundity of significant parts of the American West. He argued that practices and policies developed for wet Eastern lands were inappropriate for the drier West. He advocated for governance around watersheds where local stakeholders committed to living within the limits they knew firsthand could come together and plan. That’s what I’m observing this morning in Utah. In twenty-first-century terms, think of it as ecological citizenship.
Davis claims he is shy and a poor presenter, but it turns out that he is quietly charismatic. The case he makes for corridors is practical. His listeners know that he is trekking across a landscape that is not your grandfather’s Wild West. The wide-open spaces where the antelope once roamed are now fragmented by a zillion roads featuring SUVs with flattened animals on their bumpers. Davis says that, on his most recent journey, he’s already seen at least 1,000 crushed, dead creatures. It’s been a roadkill extravaganza.
So, what to do? He shows pictures of a landscaped underpass in nearby Kanab, Utah, constructed at a deer crossing where at least 100 deer a year were being hit by cars. Every year about 10% of the local herd was becoming roadkill along with foxes, turkeys, and the occasional bobcat. The underpass cost $2.6 million, which is hardly chump change in this neck of the woods, but each deer-car collision costs, on average, $6,600. Do the math, he tells them. Making the landscape permeable for animals seeking food, mates, and water keeps them healthy and pays for itself soon enough.
The Wolf at the Door
Ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers who serve them view John Davis skeptically. For one thing, he’s been frank about the need to reintroduce wolves across Western ecosystems, given the “keystone” role they play in shaping a healthy landscape. In case you’re not a Westerner, you should know that the subject of wolf reintroduction is a political third rail in much of our region. It’s an idea that would stun and appall our grandfathers, who killed wolves on their lands to leave more deer and elk for hunters and make meadows safe for cattle.
Ecologically, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has been an unqualified success. Since wolves were returned to that landscape, elk are no longer bunching up and munching down in stream-fed valleys until they are silted, eroded, and devoid of other wildlife. The wolves thin the elk herds and move them, which, in turn, allows willows, aspens, beavers, birds, and a more biodiverse landscape to thrive. Their success in Yellowstone has confirmed the insights of conservation biologists, giving them credibility and authority. Cowboys fear that, having pushed aside elk, conservationists will go after their cows next.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, elk hunters, cowboys, gun-nuts, and tea-hadi politicians have worked themselves into an anti-wolf frenzy. Western state legislators have introduced several bills designed to limit and control wolves even if they haven’t seen one in their area for 100 years. They want to trade the wolves’ endangered status under the law for licenses to hunt them. A few days after Davis met the watershed group, the Obama administration caved in to this eco-political hysteria and agreed to remove endangered species protections from wolves. This backlash against reintroduction has been painful for advocates like Davis.
A Greater Canyonlands National Monument Moment?
The decision to lift wolf protection is consistent with the Obama administration’s disappointing record on Western environmental issues. Nevertheless, conservation advocacy groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club are urging the president to take a cue from Bill Clinton’s example. Back in 1996, he created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument under the Antiquities Act that allows presidents to set aside natural and archaeological treasures. Now, the conservation groups want Obama to do something similar on an even grander scale and create a “Greater Canyonlands National Monument” from some of the healthiest wild lands in southern Utah.
A few days later, Davis addressed the need for such a monument at a forum in Moab, Utah. Our state has about nine million acres of quality wilderness land ready to be designated and protected as such. That’s a lot of core area for John Davis’s conservation vision, a lot of possibility for connectivity. But the public debate about wilderness designation has been stalemated for decades. Utah Republicans in particular resist more steps to formally protect wilderness areas even though the public overwhelmingly supports it.
They are wedded to traditional mining and grazing interests and like to portray themselves as victims of a bullying federal government that wants to jam national monuments and formally designated wilderness areas down their throats. But Clinton’s creation of the new monument has proven a boon for Escalante’s economy. In the 12 years since it came into being, the populations of surrounding Kane and Garfield counties have grown by 8%. Jobs rose in those years by 38% and per capita income by 30%. Adjoining counties whose economies are oriented towards gas and oil lagged far behind.
President Obama’s appointment of Sally Jewel, former CEO of REI, a chain of outdoor gear and clothing stores, may signal a shift away from ranching and mining as the dominant voices on the Western political stage. Jewel understands firsthand that recreation and tourism have become powerful economic engines here.
A presidential initiative alone will hardly begin to settle all the questions we face about how to make peace with the land that holds us in its embrace. But designating another monument here could be a catalyst for an ever-expanding idea of grassroots stewardship of America’s wild lands.
The Escalante watershed partnership was formed in the wake of Clinton’s catalytic act. At that time, the Clinton administration took another experimental step. It gave stewardship of Grand Staircase Escalante to the controversial Bureau of Land Management instead of the National Park Service. That was a first and undoubtedly a concession to Utah’s politicians who would rather deal with the traditionally compliant, pro-mining, pro-grazing BLM than the stricter National Park Service. Clinton gambled that the move might instill a missing environmental ethic in that bureau.
The results on that are not yet in, but there is no question about one thing: Clinton’s creation has been a catalyst for grassroots political activity. When monument status was a done deal, the river’s stakeholders decided the time had finally come to practice that awkward dance of mutuality among conservationists who want to save the land, ranchers who want to use it, and federal land managers charged with sorting out what exactly to do. John Davis is clearly on the side of conservation.
Making the Imaginary Real
The Trek West sponsors recognize that there may never be some grand national initiative to accomplish their vision, nothing like the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, or the other signature environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s. If our troubled public lands are rescued, it’s likely to happen in a piecemeal fashion, as local and regional groups work to improve their own backyards. The folks who gather in Escalante don’t claim to have all the answers. They are not here to spread the truth and save the world. They belong to no ideology or movement. They’re just working on their piece of the puzzle, experimenting and learning as they go. Rivers being the arteries of the land, it makes sense to start there.
An existing constituency almost always trumps an imaginary one. You can make a case, for example, that a change in land use practices and policies would benefit more people, boost the local economy, and be healthier for wildlife, too, but those imaginary winners can’t compete with cattlemen who are real, well organized, and have been active in the political arena for many years. They have established close relationships with local politicians who depend on their support. Because they were there first, they wrote most of the rules and those favor their uses of public land.
The trick for conservationists who want change is to make that imaginary constituency real, to bring a new set of stakeholders together and find ways to empower them. That may not be the intention of those who gathered in Escalante for the watershed partnership, but it’s what is happening nonetheless — and John Davis is a catalyst.
According to the prevailing belief, growth should always be the bottom line. Trek West expresses an alternate vision that aims instead to translate ecological principles and criteria into actual designs on the ground. That’s not simply a matter of making better maps. Those of us who live within the iconic Western landscapes so treasured by all Americans understand that maps, charts, and spreadsheets do not adequately measure or describe this inspiring and awesome place where we live.
We experience the land sensually. Perhaps that is the ultimate message John Davis is delivering as he treks across the continent’s wild spine. He is making sense of the land one footfall at a time, listening to it, watching it, and feeling it as he goes. So, reconnect landscapes, yes, but also connect head and heart.
Davis’s quest is heroic, but his testimony is simple: when we learn from the land we lean towards wholeness.
Chip Ward, a former librarian and grassroots organizer, is the author of Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon as well as a TomDispatch regular. He wrote this essay while living between a mountain on fire and a desert that is blowing away.
Copyright 2013 Chip Ward
Simply going to finish off today’s post with the two pictures included recently in, I cry for the wolves.
Rebecca Solnit, What Comes After Hope
Many of you will be aware that I follow Tom Engelhardt over at TomDispatch. Tom has been very generous in granting Learning from Dogs blanket permission to republish essays that appear on TomDispatch. From time to time I do just that; the last one being TomGram: William deBuys, Exodus from Phoenix just a couple of months ago.
Today is another republication of an incredibly powerful essay by Rebecca Solnit, with the usual introduction from Tom. When you read it you will easily see why it was a must for this week’s focus on love.
To offer a small inducement to read Rebecca’s essay, here is a taste of her words:
If you take the long view, you’ll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things change. Not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes, and sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end regardless. I’m just telling you that everything is in motion, and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.
“… the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops
that wear away stones and carve new landscapes …“
Read and be moved by the words that people write.
Rebecca Solnit, What Comes After Hope
I worked for years as an editor at Pantheon Books. Its publisher, maybe the most adventurous in the business, was André Schiffrin. Among his many accomplishments, he “discovered” Studs Terkel (already a well-known Chicago radio personality), published his first oral history (Division Street: America), and made him a bestseller. Sometime after I arrived at Pantheon in the mid-1970s, he asked me to take a last look at a new manuscript by Studs. It was the equivalent of sending the second team onto the field, but it began my own long relationship with the famed oral historian. He was an experience — a small man who, when he wasn’t listening professionally in a fashion beyond compare, never stopped talking. In doing so, he had an almost magical way of making those around him feel larger than life. Later, I would be the editor for two of his oral histories, one on death and the other on hope (in that splendid order and the second with the Studs-appropriate title Hope Dies Last).
Last October, Bill Moyers interviewed me about the dismal state of American politics. As our conversation was ending, he suddenly asked: “What keeps you going against all the evidence?” At that moment, Studs came to mind. I mentioned editing “one of the greats of our world” and responded this way: “It turned out that when he wrote his book about hope, it was all about activists and the basic point he made was: in good times you could just be hopeful about your life. You didn’t have to be an activist. You didn’t have to be an anything. In bad times, if you want to be hopeful, you have to take a step. You’ve got to take some step to do something in the world. And in that sense, TomDispatch is my medicine against despair. So what makes me hopeful is doing TomDispatch.”
All true. But I realize now that it wasn’t quite a full response. I had left out one crucial figure in my life: Rebecca Solnit, who taught me how to hope in a world that seemed dismal indeed. She was the one who — I’ve written about it before — slipped through the barely ajar door of my life in May 2003, at a moment as grim and dreary as any in my political experience. The largest antiwar movement ever to protest a war that had yet to happen had just packed its tents and gone home in despair, while Baghdad was occupied by American troops and George W. Bush and his top officials were in their “mission accomplished” triumphalist mode. Many activists then feared that they would remain so forever and would have dismissed out of hand someone who suggested that their Pax Americana dreams of domination would begin unraveling in mere weeks (as happened), not decades or centuries.
Ten years ago, exactly to the day, I published Rebecca’s miraculous piece “Acts of Hope,” which she would later expand into her book Hope in the Dark. It was written to welcome that “darkness” which seemed already to be enveloping us. It was written with a sense of how the expectable unravels, of how the future surprises us, often enough with offerings not of horror but of hope.
With few people can you ever say, she (or he) changed my life, changed the very way I understand our world. For me, she’s one of the few — and she’s still doing it with her miraculous new book (out in June), The Faraway Nearby. She taught me how to look into that future darkness with hope. Like Studs, she taught me that acting, even while not knowing, is a powerful antidote to despair. So it means the world to me that she’s returned to the subject of hope to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her arrival in my life and at TomDispatch. Tom
Too Soon to Tell
The Case for Hope, Continued
By Rebecca Solnit
Ten years ago, my part of the world was full of valiant opposition to the new wars being launched far away and at home — and of despair. And like despairing people everywhere, whether in a personal depression or a political tailspin, these activists believed the future would look more or less like the present. If there was nothing else they were confident about, at least they were confident about that. Ten years ago, as a contrarian and a person who prefers not to see others suffer, I tried to undermine despair with the case for hope.
A decade later, the present is still contaminated by the crimes of that era, but so much has changed. Not necessarily for the better — a decade ago, most spoke of climate change as a distant problem, and then it caught up with us in 10,000 ways. But not entirely for the worse either — the vigorous climate movement we needed arose in that decade and is growing now. If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it’s that the unimaginable is ordinary, and the way forward is almost never a straight path you can glance down, but a labyrinth of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.
The despairing of May 2003 were convinced of one true thing, that we had not stopped the invasion of Iraq, but they extrapolated from that a series of false assumptions about our failures and our powerlessness across time and space. They assumed — like the neoconservatives themselves — that those neocons would be atop the world for a long time to come. Instead, the neocon and neoliberal ideologies have been widely reviled and renounced around the world; the Republicans’ demographic hemorrhage has weakened them in this country; the failures of their wars are evident to everyone; and though they still grasp fearsome power, everything has indeed changed. Everything changes: there lies most of our hope and some of our fear.
I’ve seen extraordinary change in my lifetime, some of it in the last decade. I was born in a country that had been galvanized and unsettled by the civil rights movement, but still lacked a meaningful environmental movement, women’s movement, or queer rights movement (beyond a couple of small organizations founded in California in the 1950s). Half a century ago, to be gay or lesbian was to live in hiding or be treated as mentally ill or criminal. That 12 states and several countries would legalize same-sex marriage was beyond imaginable then. It wasn’t even on the table in 2003. San Francisco’s spring run of same-sex weddings in 2004 flung open the doors through which so many have passed since.
If you take the long view, you’ll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things change. Not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes, and sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end regardless. I’m just telling you that everything is in motion, and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.
Hope and history are sisters: one looks forward and one looks back, and they make the world spacious enough to move through freely. Obliviousness to the past and to the mutability of all things imprisons you in a shrunken present. Hopelessness often comes out of that amnesia, out of forgetting that everything is in motion, everything changes. We have a great deal of history of defeat, suffering, cruelty, and loss, and everyone should know it. But that’s not all we have.
There’s the people’s history, the counterhistory that you didn’t necessarily get in school and don’t usually get on the news: the history of the battles we’ve won, of the rights we’ve gained, of the differences between then and now that those who live in forgetfulness lack. This is often the history of how individuals came together to produce that behemoth civil society, which stands astride nations and topples regimes — and mostly does it without weapons or armies. It’s a history that undermines most of what you’ve been told about authority and violence and your own powerlessness.
Civil society is our power, our joy, and our possibility, and it has written a lot of the history in the last few years, as well as the last half century. If you doubt our power, see how it terrifies those at the top, and remember that they fight it best by convincing us it doesn’t exist. It does exist, though, like lava beneath the earth, and when it erupts, the surface of the earth is remade.
Things change. And people sometimes have the power to make that happen, if and when they come together and act (and occasionally act alone, as did writers Rachel Carson and Harriet Beecher Stowe — or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose suicide triggered the Arab Spring).
If you fix your eye on where we started out, you’ll see that we’ve come a long way by those means. If you look forward, you’ll see that we have a long way to go — and that sometimes we go backward when we forget that we fought for the eight-hour workday or workplace safety or women’s rights or voting rights or affordable education, forget that we won them, that they’re precious, and that we can lose them again. There’s much to be proud of, there’s much to mourn, there’s much yet to do, and the job of doing it is ours, a heavy gift to carry. And it’s made to be carried, by people who are unstoppable, who are movements, who are change itself.
Too Soon to Tell
Ten years ago I began writing about hope and speaking about it. My online essay “Acts of Hope,” posted on May 19, 2003, was my first encounter with Tomdispatch.com, which would change my work and my life. It gave me room for another kind of voice and another kind of writing. It showed me how the Internet could give wings to words. What I wrote then and subsequently for the site spread around the world in remarkable ways, putting me in touch with people and movements, and deeper into conversations about the possible and the impossible (and into a cherished friendship with the site’s founder and editor, Tom Engelhardt).
For a few years, I spoke about hope around this country and in Europe. I repeatedly ran into comfortably situated people who were hostile to the idea of hope: they thought that hope somehow betrayed the desperate and downtrodden, as if the desperate wanted the solidarity of misery from the privileged, rather than action. Hopelessness for people in extreme situations means resignation to one’s own deprivation or destruction. Hope can be a survival strategy. For comfortably situated people, hopelessness means cynicism and letting oneself off the hook. If everything is doomed, then nothing is required (and vice versa).
Despair is often premature: it’s a form of impatience as well as certainty. My favorite comment about political change comes from Zhou En-Lai, the premier of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao. Asked in the early 1970s about his opinion of the French Revolution, he reportedly answered, “Too soon to tell.” Some say that he was talking about the revolutions of 1968, not 1789, but even then it provides a generous and expansive perspective. To hold onto uncertainty and possibility and a sense that even four years later, no less nearly two centuries after the fact, the verdict still isn’t in is more than most people I know are prepared to offer. A lot of them will hardly give an event a month to complete its effects, and many movements and endeavors are ruled failures well before they’re over.
Not long ago, I ran into a guy who’d been involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, that great upwelling in southern Manhattan in the fall of 2011 that catalyzed a global conversation and a series of actions and occupations nationwide and globally. He offered a tailspin of a description of how Occupy was over and had failed.
But I wonder: How could he possibly know? It really is too soon to tell. First of all, maybe the kid who will lead the movement that will save the world was catalyzed by what she lived through or stumbled upon in Occupy Fresno or Occupy Memphis, and we won’t reap what she sows until 2023 or 2043. Maybe the seeds of something more were sown, as they were in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968 and Charter 77, for the great and unforeseen harvest that was the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet totalitarian state in that country.
Second, Occupy began to say what needed to be said about greed and capitalism, exposing a brutality that had long been hushed up, revealing both the victims of debt and the rigged economy that created it. This country changed because those things were said out loud. I can’t say exactly how, but I know it mattered. So much that matters is immeasurable, unquantifiable, and beyond price. Laws around banking, foreclosure, and student loans are changing — not enough, not everywhere, but some people will benefit, and they matter. Occupy didn’t cause those changes directly, but it did much to make the voice of the people audible and the sheer wrongness of our debt system visible — and gave momentum to the ongoing endeavors to overturn Citizens United and abolish corporate personhood.
Third, I only know a little of what the thousands of local gatherings and networks we mean by “Occupy” are now doing, but I know that Occupy Sandy is still doing vital work in the destruction zone of that hurricane and was about the best grassroots disaster relief endeavor this nation has ever seen. I know that Strike Debt, a direct offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has relieved millions of dollars in medical debt, not with the sense that we can fix all debt this way, but that we can demonstrate the malleability, the artifice, and the immorality of the student, medical, and housing debt that is destroying so many lives. I know that the Occupy Homes foreclosure defenders have been doing amazing things, often one home at a time, from Atlanta to Minneapolis. (Last Friday, Occupy Our Homes organized a “showdown at the Department of Justice” in Washington, D.C.; that Saturday, Strike Debt Bay Area held their second Debtors’ Assembly: undead from coast to coast.)
Fourth, I know people personally whose lives were changed, and who are doing work they never imagined they would be involved in, and I’m friends with remarkable people who, but for Occupy, I would not know existed. People connected across class, racial, and cultural lines in the flowering of that movement. Like Freedom Summer, whose consequences were to be felt so far beyond Mississippi in 1964, this will have reach beyond the moment in which I write and you read.
Finally, there was great joy at the time , the joy of liberation and of solidarity, and joy is worth something in itself. In a sense, it’s worth everything, even if it’s always fleeting, though not always as scarce as we imagine.
Climates of Hope and Fear
I had lunch with Middle East and nonviolence scholar Stephen Zunes the other day and asked him what he would say about the Arab Spring now. He had, he told me, been in Egypt several months ago watching television with an activist. Formerly, the news was always about what the leaders did, decided, ordained, inflicted. But the news they were watching was surprisingly focused on civil society, on what ordinary people initiated or resisted, on how they responded, what they thought. He spoke of how so many in the Middle East had lost their fatalism and sense of powerlessness and awoken to their own collective power.
This civil society remains awake in Egypt and the other countries. What will it achieve? Maybe it’s too soon to tell. Syria is a turbulent version of hell now, but it could be leaving the dynasty of the Assads in the past; its future remains to be written. Perhaps its people will indeed write the next chapter in its story, and not only with explosives.
You can tell the arc of the past few years as, first, the Arab Spring, then extraordinary civil society actions in Chile, Quebec, Spain, and elsewhere, followed by Occupy. But don’t stop there.
After Occupy came Idle No More, the Canada-based explosion of indigenous power and resistance (to a Canadian government that has gone over to the far right and to environmental destruction on a grand scale). It was founded by four women in November of 2012 and it’s spread across North America, sparking new environmental actions and new coalitions around environmental and climate issues, with flash-mob-style powwows in shopping malls and other places, with a thousand-mile walk (and snowshoe) by seven Cree youth this winter. (There were 400 people with them by the time they arrived at Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa.)
Idle No More activists have vowed to block the construction of any pipeline that tries to transport the particularly dirty crude oil from the Alberta tar sands, whether it heads north, east, or west from northern Alberta. Each of those directions takes it over native land. This is part of the reason why tar sands supporters are pushing so hard to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Thankfully, the push back is also strong. Our fate may depend on it. As climate scientist James Hansen wrote a year ago, “Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas, and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.”
The news just came in that we reached 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the highest level in more than five million years. This is terrible news on a scale that eclipses everything else, because it encompasses everything else. We are wrecking our world, for everyone for all time, or at least the next several thousand years. But “we” is a tricky word here. Some of the people I most love and admire are doing extraordinary things to save the world, for you, for us, for generations unborn, for species yet to be named, for the oceans and sub-Saharan Africans and Arctic dwellers and everyone in-between, for the whole unbearably beautiful symphony of life on Earth that is imperiled.
Part of what sustains me in the face of this potential cataclysm is remembering that, in 2003, there hardly was a climate movement. It was small, polite, mostly believed the troubles were decades away, and was populated with people who thought that lifestyle changes could save the planet — rather than that you have to get out there and fight the power. And they were the good ones. Too many of us didn’t think about it at all.
Only a few years later, things have changed. There’s a vibrant climate movement in North America. If you haven’t quite taken that in, it might be because it’s working on so many disparate fronts that are often treated separately: mountaintop coal removal, coal-fired power plants (closing 145 existing ones to date and preventing more than 150 planned ones from opening), fracking, oil exploration in the Arctic, the Tar Sands pipeline, and 350.org’s juggernaut of a campus campaign to promote disinvestment from oil, gas, and coal companies. Only started in November 2012, there are already divestment movements underway on more than 380 college and university campuses, and now cities are getting on board. It has significant victories; it will have more.
Some countries — notably Germany, with Denmark not far behind — have done remarkable things when it comes to promoting non-fossil-fuel renewable energy. Copenhagen, for example, in the cold gray north, is on track to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025 (and in the meantime reduced its carbon emissions 25% between 2005 and 2011). The United States has a host of promising smaller projects. To offer just two examples, Los Angeles has committed to being coal-free by 2025, while San Francisco will offer its citizens electricity from 100% renewable and carbon-neutral sources and its supervisors just voted to divest the city’s fossil-fuel stocks.
There are so many pieces of the potential solution to this puzzle, and some of them are for you to put together. Whether they will multiply or ever add up to enough we don’t yet know. We need more: more people, more transformations, more ways to conquer and dismantle the oil companies, more of a vision of what is at stake, more of the great force that is civil society. Will we get it? I don’t know. Neither do you. Anything could happen.
But here’s what I’m saying: you should wake up amazed every day of your life, because if I had told you in 1988 that, within three years, the Soviet satellite states would liberate themselves nonviolently and the Soviet Union would cease to exist, you would have thought I was crazy. If I had told you in 1990 that South America was on its way to liberating itself and becoming a continent of progressive and democratic experiments, you would have considered me delusional. If, in November 2010, I had told you that, within months, the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had dominated Egypt since 1981, would be overthrown by 18 days of popular uprisings, or that the dictators of Tunisia and Libya would be ousted, all in the same year, you would have institutionalized me. If I told you on September 16, 2011, that a bunch of kids sitting in a park in lower Manhattan would rock the country, you’d say I was beyond delusional. You would have, if you believed as the despairing do, that the future is invariably going to look like the present, only more so. It won’t.
I still value hope, but I see it as only part of what’s required, a starting point. Think of it as the match but not the tinder or the blaze. To matter, to change the world, you also need devotion and will and you need to act. Hope is only where it begins, though I’ve also seen people toil on without regard to hope, to what they believe is possible. They live on principle and they gamble, and sometimes they even win, or sometimes the goal they were aiming for is reached long after their deaths. Still, it’s action that gets you there. When what was once hoped for is realized, it falls into the background, becomes the new normal; and we hope for or carp about something else.
The future is bigger than our imaginations. It’s unimaginable, and then it comes anyway. To meet it we need to keep going, to walk past what we can imagine. We need to be unstoppable. And here’s what it takes: you don’t stop walking to congratulate yourself; you don’t stop walking to wallow in despair; you don’t stop because your own life got too comfortable or too rough; you don’t stop because you won; you don’t stop because you lost. There’s more to win, more to lose, others who need you.
You don’t stop walking because there is no way forward. Of course there is no way. You walk the path into being, you make the way, and if you do it well, others can follow the route. You look backward to grasp the long history you’re moving forward from, the paths others have made, the road you came in on. You look forward to possibility. That’s what we mean by hope, and you look past it into the impossible and that doesn’t stop you either. But mostly you just walk, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. That’s what makes you unstoppable.
Rebecca Solnit’s first essay for Tomdispatch.com turned into the book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, since translated into eight languages. Portions of this essay began life as the keynote speech at the National Lawyers’ Guild gala in honor of attorney and human rights activist Walter Riley, whose own life is a beautiful example of unstoppability. Solnit’s latest book, The Faraway Nearby, will be published in June.
Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit
“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor Frankl.
Like many bloggers I enjoy using a quotation to set the theme for a post. Found this on the web; it seemed appropriate.
Over the next two days, I want to range across a number of ideas that, together, point to changes that are underway in every conceivable manner for the vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet.
My musings were prompted by a recent essay on Tom Dispatch. Regulars will know that Tom Engelhardt generously granted me permission to republish essays that appear on his very widely-read blogsite. This particular essay is about Phoenix in Arizona.
But first indulge me as I recount something rather personal, possibly silly but also mysteriously beautiful.
Many will know that Jean and I moved from San Carlos in Mexico to Payson, Arizona early on in 2010. (My long comment to yesterday’s post about poor Lupe explains the background.) Payson is 80 miles North-East of Phoenix and despite being up at 5,000 feet is very much in the same broad weather systems as Phoenix.
With our 14 dogs and 7 cats we quickly settled down and were made to feel very welcome by one and all. Jean and I were married in Payson in November of 2010. We were happy and contented.
One night in June last year, I had this vivid dream about going to the bathroom and finding that no water came from the tap. Where we were living was out of town and our water supplies came from our own well (borehole in English speak!). While the water level in the well was down by about 50 feet there was no question of the well failing; it was drilled to over 180 feet and flow tests were positive.
When I awoke the dream was still very much in the forefront of my mind. I talked about it over breakfast with Jeannie. By chance, we had a guest staying with us and when she heard the tale she said, “If you’re worried about water, you should go to Oregon.“
Again, by chance, a couple of weeks later we had someone offer to house-sit. With our menagerie of animals that was no casual offer!
We accepted, came up to Oregon and found this most beautiful home in Merlin, Southern Oregon complete with 13 acres and Bummer Creek running across the width of the property, a creek that flows for most of the year.
We quickly did the deal, sold the house in Payson and moved in on October 25th 2012, less than 5 months ago.
Keep all of that in mind as you read this TomDispatch essay.
Tomgram: William deBuys, Exodus from Phoenix
Posted by William deBuys at 7:58am, March 14, 2013.
We’re not the first people on the planet ever to experience climate stress. In the overheating, increasingly parched American Southwest, which has been experiencing rising temperatures, spreading drought conditions, and record wildfires, there is an ancient history of staggering mega-droughts, events far worse than the infamous “dust bowl” of the 1930s, the seven-year drought that devastated America’s prairie lands. That may have been “the worst prolonged environmental disaster recorded for the country,” but historically speaking it was a “mere dry spell” compared to some past mega-droughts that lasted “centuries to millennia.”
Such events even happened in human history, including an almost century-long southwestern dry spell in the second century AD and a drought that was at least decades long in the twelfth century. These were all events driven by natural climate variation. Climate change adds a human factor to the equation in a region already naturally dry and short on water. It ups the odds of bad events happening. In the coming century, how habitable will parts of the bustling desert Southwest turn out to be? Already, in the face of heat and drought, small numbers of people from small towns in the region are leaving. And this, too, has happened before. There are sobering previous examples of what it means when extreme climate stress hits this area.
Chaco Canyon was abandoned by its native population during that twelfth-century drought, and 150 years later, the Hohokam native culture of what is now central Arizona, whose waterworks in the dry lands of that area were major and impressive, also abandoned its lands, possibly due to drought, as TomDispatch regular William deBuys recounts in his recent book A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. “At some point,” he writes, “Hohokam society passed a threshold: the number of able-bodied workers it could muster was no longer sufficient to meet the challenge of rebuilding dams when they washed out and cleaning canals as they inevitably silted up. Eventually the hydraulic system collapsed, and the society that depended on it could no longer exist. The survivors turned their backs on their cities and scattered into the vastness of the land, doing what they could to survive.”
As you read deBuys’s latest post, it’s worth remembering that even the greatest hydraulic engineers have their limits when the water dries up. When the Anglo farmers of the Phoenix Basin first started using the local rivers, they found themselves “reopening the canals the Hohokam had left behind.” Who knows what monumental works we, too, might someday abandon? Phoenix, anyone? Tom
Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs
We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries
By William deBuys
If cities were stocks, you’d want to short Phoenix.
Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.
In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t?
And that’s the point, really. Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time — New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy — may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures — grids going down, levees failing, back-up systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.
Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the rest of the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. If you want a taste of the brutal new climate to come, the place to look is where that climate is already harsh, and growing more so — the aptly named Valley of the Sun.
In Phoenix, it’s the convergence of heat, drought, and violent winds, interacting and amplifying each other that you worry about. Generally speaking, in contemporary society, nothing that matters happens for just one reason, and in Phoenix there are all too many “reasons” primed to collaborate and produce big problems, with climate change foremost among them, juicing up the heat, the drought, and the wind to ever greater extremes, like so many sluggers on steroids. Notably, each of these nemeses, in its own way, has the potential to undermine the sine qua non of modern urban life, the electrical grid, which in Phoenix merits special attention.
If, in summer, the grid there fails on a large scale and for a significant period of time, the fallout will make the consequences of Superstorm Sandy look mild. Sure, people will hunt madly for power outlets to charge their cellphones and struggle to keep their milk fresh, but communications and food refrigeration will not top their list of priorities. Phoenix is an air-conditioned city. If the power goes out, people fry.
In the summer of 2003, a heat wave swept Europe and killed 70,000 people. The temperature in London touched 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time since records had been kept, and in portions of France the mercury climbed as high as 104°F. Those temperatures, however, are child’s play in Phoenix, where readings commonly exceed 100°F for more than 100 days a year. In 2011, the city set a new record for days over 110°F: there were 33 of them, more than a month of spectacularly superheated days ushering in a new era.
In Flight From the Sun
It goes without saying that Phoenix’s desert setting is hot by nature, but we’ve made it hotter. The city is a masonry world, with asphalt and concrete everywhere. The hard, heavy materials of its buildings and roads absorb heat efficiently and give it back more slowly than the naked land. In a sense, the whole city is really a thermal battery, soaking up energy by day and releasing it at night. The result is an “urban heat island,” which, in turn, prevents the cool of the desert night from providing much relief.
Sixty years ago, when Phoenix was just embarking on its career of manic growth, nighttime lows never crept above 90°F. Today such temperatures are a commonplace, and the vigil has begun for the first night that doesn’t dip below 100°F. Studies indicate that Phoenix’s urban-heat-island effect may boost nighttime temperatures by as much as 10°F. It’s as though the city has doubled down on climate change, finding a way to magnify its most unwanted effects even before it hits the rest of us full blast.
Predictably, the poor suffer most from the heat. They live in the hottest neighborhoods with the least greenery to mitigate the heat-island effect, and they possess the least resources for combatting high temperatures. For most Phoenicians, however, none of this is more than an inconvenience as long as the AC keeps humming and the utility bill gets paid. When the heat intensifies, they learn to scurry from building to car and into the next building, essentially holding their breaths. In those cars, the second thing they touch after the ignition is the fan control for the AC. The steering wheel comes later.
In the blazing brilliance of July and August, you venture out undefended to walk or run only in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The idea for residents of the Valley of the Sun is to learn to dodge the heat, not challenge it.
Heat, however, is a tricky adversary. It stresses everything, including electrical equipment. Transformers, when they get too hot, can fail. Likewise, thermoelectric generating stations, whether fired by coal, gas, or neutrons, become less efficient as the mercury soars. And the great hydroelectric dams of the Colorado River, including Glen Canyon, which serves greater Phoenix, won’t be able to supply the “peaking power” they do now if the reservoirs behind them are fatally shrunken by drought, as multiple studies forecast they will be. Much of this can be mitigated with upgraded equipment, smart grid technologies, and redundant systems. But then along comes the haboob.
A haboob is a dust/sand/windstorm, usually caused by the collapse of a thunderstorm cell. The plunging air hits the ground and roils outward, picking up debris across the open desert. As the Arabic name suggests, such storms are native to arid regions, but — although Phoenix is no stranger to storm-driven dust — the term haboob has only lately entered the local lexicon. It seems to have been imported to describe a new class of storms, spectacular in their vehemence, which bring visibility to zero and life to a standstill. They sandblast cars, close the airport, and occasionally cause the lights — and AC — to go out. Not to worry, say the two major utilities serving the Phoenix metroplex, Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project. And the outages have indeed been brief. So far.
Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers was similarly reassuring to the people of New Orleans. And until Superstorm Sandy landed, almost no one worried about storm surges filling the subway tunnels of New York.
Every system, like every city, has its vulnerabilities. Climate change, in almost every instance, will worsen them. The beefed-up, juiced-up, greenhouse-gassed, overheated weather of the future will give us haboobs of a sort we can’t yet imagine, packed with ever greater amounts of energy. In all likelihood, the emergence of such storms as a feature of Phoenix life results from an overheating environment, abetted by the loose sand and dust of abandoned farmland (which dried up when water was diverted to the city’s growing subdivisions).
Water, Water, Everywhere (But Not for Long)
In dystopic portraits of Phoenix’s unsustainable future, water — or rather the lack of it — is usually painted as the agent of collapse. Indeed, the metropolitan area, a jumble of jurisdictions that includes Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, Sun City, Chandler, and 15 other municipalities, long ago made full use of such local rivers as the Salt, Verde, and Gila. Next, people sank wells and mined enough groundwater to lower the water table by 400 feet.
Sometimes the land sank, too. Near some wells it subsided by 10 feet or more. All along, everyone knew that the furious extraction of groundwater couldn’t last, so they fixed their hopes on a new bonanza called the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a river-sized, open-air canal supported by an elaborate array of pumps, siphons, and tunnels that would bring Colorado River water across the breadth of Arizona to Phoenix and Tucson.
The CAP came on line in the early 1990s and today is the engine of Arizona’s growth. Unfortunately, in order to win authorization and funding to build it, state officials had to make a bargain with the devil, which in this case turned out to be California. Arizona’s delegation in the House of Representatives was tiny, California’s was huge, and its representatives jealously protected their longstanding stranglehold on the Colorado River. The concession California forced on Arizona was simple: it had to agree that its CAP water rights would take second place to California’s claims.
This means one thing: once the inevitable day comes when there isn’t enough water to go around, the CAP will absorb the shortage down to the last drop before California even begins to turn off its faucets.
A raw deal for Arizona? You bet, but not exactly the end of the line. Arizona has other “more senior” rights to the Colorado, and when the CAP begins to run dry, you may be sure that the masters of the CAP will pay whatever is necessary to lease those older rights and keep the 330-mile canal flowing. Among their targets will be water rights belonging to Indian tribes at the western edge of the state along the lower reaches of the river. The cost of buying tribal water will drive the rates consumers pay for water in Phoenix sky-high, but they’ll pay it because they’ll have to.
Longer term, the Colorado River poses issues that no amount of tribal water can resolve. Beset by climate change, overuse, and drought, the river and its reservoirs, according to various researchers, may decline to the point that water fails to pass Hoover Dam. In that case, the CAP would dry up, but so would the Colorado Aqueduct which serves greater Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as the All-American Canal, on which the factory farms of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys depend. Irrigators and municipalities downstream in Mexico would also go dry. If nothing changes in the current order of things, it is expected that the possibility of such a debacle could loom in little more than a decade.
The preferred solution to this crisis among the water mavens of the lower Colorado is augmentation, which means importing more water into the Colorado system to boost native supplies. A recently discussed grandiose scheme to bail out the Colorado’s users with a pipeline from the Mississippi River failed to pass the straight-face test and was shot down by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
Meanwhile, the obvious expedient of cutting back on water consumption finds little support in thirsty California, which will watch the CAP go dry before it gets serious about meaningful system-wide conservation.
Phoenicians who want to escape water worries, heat waves, and haboobs have traditionally sought refuge in the cool green forests of Arizona’s uplands, or at least they did until recently. In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire consumed 469,000 acres of pine and mixed conifer on the Mogollon Rim, not far from Phoenix. It was an ecological holocaust that no one expected to see surpassed. Only nine years later, in 2011, the Wallow fire picked up the torch, so to speak, and burned across the Rim all the way to the New Mexico border and beyond, topping out at 538,000 charred acres.
Now, nobody thinks such fires are one-off flukes. Diligent modeling of forest response to rising temperatures and increased moisture stress suggests, in fact, that these two fires were harbingers of worse to come. By mid-century, according to a paper by an A-team of Southwestern forest ecologists, the “normal” stress on trees will equal that of the worst megadroughts in the region’s distant paleo-history, when most of the trees in the area simply died.
Compared to Phoenix’s other heat and water woes, the demise of Arizona’s forests may seem like a side issue, whose effects would be noticeable mainly in the siltation of reservoirs and the destabilization of the watersheds on which the city depends. But it could well prove a regional disaster. Consider, then, heat, drought, windstorms, and fire as the four horsemen of Phoenix’s Apocalypse. As it happens, though, this potential apocalypse has a fifth horseman as well.
Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently of the way a sudden catastrophe — an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado — can dissolve social divisions and cause a community to cohere, bringing out the best in its citizenry. Drought and heat waves are different. You don’t know that they have taken hold until you are already in them, and you never know when they will end. The unpleasantness eats away at you. It corrodes your state of mind. You have lots of time to meditate on the deficiencies of your neighbors, which loom larger the longer the crisis goes on.
Drought divides people, and Phoenix is already a divided place — notoriously so, thanks to the brutal antics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, Andrew Ross offers a dismal portrait of contemporary Phoenix — of a city threatened by its particular brand of local politics and economic domination, shaped by more than the usual quotient of prejudice, greed, class insularity, and devotion to raw power.
It is a truism that communities that do not pull together fail to surmount their challenges. Phoenix’s are as daunting as any faced by an American city in the new age of climate change, but its winner-take-all politics (out of which has come Arizona’s flagrantly repressive anti-immigration law), combined with the fragmentation of the metro-area into nearly two dozen competing jurisdictions, essentially guarantee that, when the worst of times hit, common action and shared sacrifice will remain as insubstantial as a desert mirage. When one day the U-Haul vans all point away from town and the people of the Valley of the Sun clog the interstates heading for greener, wetter pastures, more than the brutal heat of a new climate paradigm will be driving them away. The breakdown of cooperation and connectedness will spur them along, too.
One day, some of them may look back and think of the real estate crash of 2007-2008 and the recession that followed with fond nostalgia. The city’s economy was in the tank, growth had stalled, and for a while business-as-usual had nothing usual about it. But there was a rare kind of potential. That recession might have been the last best chance for Phoenix and other go-go Sunbelt cities to reassess their lamentably unsustainable habits and re-organize themselves, politically and economically, to get ready for life on the front burner of climate change. Land use, transportation, water policies, building codes, growth management — you name it — might all have experienced a healthy overhaul. It was a chance no one took. Instead, one or several decades from now, people will bet on a surer thing: they’ll take the road out of town.
William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of seven books, most recently A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 William deBuys
Just to reinforce the magic of my dream and how Jean and I feel so blessed by our life changes, the photo below was taken on our property the day we arrived in Merlin.
Musings continued tomorrow. Hope you stayed with it so far.
A guest post from Tom Engelhardt.
As regular followers of this blog know, Tom Engelhardt of Tom Dispatch fame has very kindly given permission for essays on Tom Dispatch to be republished on Learning from Dogs. I try to be circumspect about which essays I do republish.
I’m away from my desk for the next two days which seemed like a great reason to republish this reflection from Tom on the Keystone XL protest event held in Washington D.C last February 17th.
Tomgram: Engelhardt, Climate Change as History’s Deal-Breaker
Where Is Everybody?
Why It’s So Tough to Get Your Head Around Climate Change
By Tom Engelhardt
Two Sundays ago, I traveled to the nation’s capital to attend what was billed as “the largest climate rally in history” and I haven’t been able to get the experience — or a question that haunted me — out of my mind. Where was everybody?
First, though, the obvious weather irony: climate change didn’t exactly come out in support of that rally. In the midst of the warmest years and some of the warmest winters on record, the demonstration, which focused on stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline — it will bring tar-sands oil, some of the “dirtiest,” carbon-richest energy available from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast — was the coldest I’ve ever attended. I thought I’d lose a few fingers and toes while listening to the hour-plus of speakers, including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, who were theoretically warming the crowd up for its march around the (other) White House.
And I also experienced a moment of deep disappointment. When I arrived early at the spot in front of the Washington Monument on the National Mall where we were to assemble, my heart sank. It looked like only a few thousand protestors were gathering for what had been billed as a monster event. I had taken it for granted that I would be adding one small, aging body (and voice) to a vast crowd at a propitious moment to pressure Barack Obama to become the climate-change president he hasn’t been. After all, he has a decision to make that’s his alone: whether or not to allow that pipeline to be built. Nixing it would help keep a potentially significant contributor to climate change, those Albertan tar sands, in the ground. In other words, I hoped to play my tiny part in preserving a half-decent future for this planet, my children, and my new grandson.
Sixty environmental and other organizations were backing the demonstration, including the Sierra Club with its hundreds of thousands of members. Given what was potentially at stake, it never crossed my mind that the turnout wouldn’t be substantial. In fact, on that frigid day, lots of demonstrators did turn up. Evidently, they knew the dirty little secret of such events: that much talk would precede a modest amount of walking and inventive slogan shouting. So they arrived — poured in actually — late, and in real numbers.
In the end, the organizers estimated attendance at somewhere in the 35,000-50,000 range. Media reports varied between the usual “thousands,” generically used to describe (or, if you’re in a conspiratorial frame of mind, minimize) any demonstration, and tens of thousands. I have no way of estimating myself, but certainly the crowd was, in the end, sizeable, as well as young, enthusiastic, and loud. It made itself heard passing the White House. Not that President Obama was there to hear anything. He was then on a golf course in the Florida warmth teeing up with “a pair of Texans who are key oil, gas, and pipeline players.” That seemed to catch another kind of climate-change reality of our moment and strongly hinted at the strength of the forces any such movement is up against. In the meantime, Keystone builder TransCanada was ominously completing the already green-lighted first half of the Texas-Oklahoma leg of its prospective future pipeline.
In the end, I felt genuine satisfaction at having been there, but given what was at stake, givenFrankenstorm Sandy, the devastating Midwestern drought and record southwestern fires of 2012, the Snowmageddon winter storm that had recently dropped 40 inches of the white stuff on Hamden, Connecticut, the blistering spring and summer of 2012, the fast-melting Arctic sea ice, and the fact that last year broke all heat records for the continental United States, given the build-up of billion-dollar weather disasters in recent years, and the growing emphasis on “extreme weather” events on the national TV news, shouldn’t hundreds of thousands have been there? After all, I’ve been inantiwar demonstrations in which at least that many marched and in 1982, I found myself in my hometown in a crowd of a million demonstrating against the possibility of a world-ending nuclear war. Is climate change a less important issue?
“There Is No Planet B”
While protesting that Sunday, I noted one slogan on a number of hand-made signs that struck me as the most pointed (and poignant) of the march: “There is no planet B.” It seemed to sum up what was potentially at stake: a planet to live reasonably comfortably on. You really can’t get much more basic than that, which is why hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, should have been out in the streets demanding that our leaders begin to attend to climate change before it’s quite literally too late.
After all, to my mind, climate change, global warming, extreme weather — call it what you will — is the obvious deal-breaker in human, if not planetary, history. Everything but nuclear catastrophe pales by comparison, no matter the disaster: 9/11, 70,000 dead in Syria, failed wars, the grimmest of dictatorships, movements of hope that don’t deliver — all of that’s familiar history. Those are the sorts of situations where you can try again, differently, or future generations can and maybe do far better. All of it involves human beings who need to be dealt with or human structures that need to be changed. While any of them may be the definition of “the worst of times,” they are also thedefinition of hope.
Nature and the weather are another matter (even if it’s humanity that, by burning of fossil fuels atincreasingly staggering rates, has created its own Frankenstein’s monster out of the natural world). Climate change is clearly something new in our experience. Even in its relatively early but visibly intensifying stages, it threatens to be the singular event in human history, because unlike every other disaster we can imagine (except a full-scale nuclear war or, as has happened in the planet’s past, a large meteorite or asteroid impact), it alone will alter the basis for life on this planet.
Raise the planet’s temperature by three to six degrees Celsius, as various well-respected scientific types and groups are now suggesting might happen by century’s end (and possibly throw in some more heat thanks to the melting of the permafrost in the north), and if you live in a city on a coastline, you’d better watch out. And that only begins to suggest the problems humanity will face.
The world, at best, will be a distinctly poorer, less comfortable place for us (and from there the scenarios only get uglier).
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m no scientist. I doubt I’d even be considered scientifically literate (though I try). But the scientific consensus on the subject of climate change seems striking enough to me, and what’s happening around us is no less striking as a confirmation that our world is changing — and remarkably quickly at that. Whether you read about melting glaciers, the melting Greenland ice shield, melting Arctic waters, melting permafrost, acidifying oceans, intensifying storms, greater desertification, wilder wild fires, or so many other allied subjects, doesn’t it always seem that the rates of bad news are on the rise and the word “record” is usually lurking somewhere in the vicinity?
So I continue to wonder, given our situation on this planet, given our future and that of our children and grandchildren, where is everybody?
Can You Organize Against the Apocalypse?
Don’t for a second think that I have some magic answer to that question. Still, as it’s been on my mind, here’s an attempt to lay out at least some of the possible factors, micro to macro, that might have limited the size of that crowd two Sundays ago and perhaps might tend to limit the size of any climate-change crowd, as well as the mobilizing possibilities that lie in the disaster awaiting us.
Outreach: Yes, there were at least 60 groups involved, but how much outreach was there really? Many people I know hadn’t heard a thing about the event. And while climate change has been on the human agenda for a while now, a real movement to deal with what’s happening to us is in its absolute infancy. There is so much outreach and so much education that still needs to be done.
The slowness of movements: It’s easy to forget how long it can take for movements of change to grow, for their messages to cohere, penetrate, and begin to make sense or seem meaningful to large numbers of people in terms of their everyday lives. Despite its obvious long-term destructive power, for many reasons (see below) climate change might prove a particularly difficult issue to link to our everyday lives in ways that mobilize rather than demobilize us. On a similarly difficult issue, the nuclear movement, it took literally decades to grow to that million-person march, and even early anti-Vietnam War protests were smaller than the recent Keystone demo.
Politics: Attitudes toward climate change have largely polarized along left-right lines, so that the issue seems politically ghettoized at the moment (though there was a time when Republicans of some stature were concerned about the subject). To my mind, it’s part of the insanity of our moment that the preservation of our planet as we have known it, which should be the great conservative issue of our era, is now pure poison on the right. Even American paleo-conservatives, who are willing to make common cause on American war policy with left anti-imperial types, won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. When this begins to change, you’ll know something of significance is happening.
Enemies: Here’s a factor it’s easy to ignore, but no one should. Giant energy companies and energy-connected right-wing billionaires have for years now been funneling staggering amounts of money into a network of right-wing think tanks and websites dedicated to creating doubts about climate change and promoting climate denial. In the latest revelation about the well-financed climate-denial movement, the British Guardian reports that between 2002 and 2010, $120 million dollars was shuttled, “using a secretive funding route,” into “more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.” It all came from conservative billionaires (and not just the Koch brothers) who were guaranteed total anonymity. And it “helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing ‘wedge issue’ for hardcore conservatives.” The funders of this “movement” and their minions should, of course, be disqualified on the spot. They are almost all identified with and profit from the very fossil fuels that climate-change scientists say are heating up the planet. But they — and a few outlier scientific types they’ve scrounged up — provide the “balance,” the “two sides,” that the mainstream media adores. And they play upon the arcane nature of Science itself to intimidate the rest of us.
Science: When you have a bad boss, or your country is ruled by a dictator, or your bank cheats you, it’s within your everyday experience. You have some body of personal knowledge to draw on to understand the situation. You are personally offended. But Science? For most of us, the very word is intimidating. It means what we didn’t understand in school and gave up understanding long ago. To grasp climate change means teaching yourself Science with no professors in sight. Filling the knowledge bank you don’t have on your own. It’s daunting. Oh yes, the Ice-Albedo feedback loop. Sure thing. If the boss, the bank, the dictator takes your home, you get it. If Superstorm Sandy turns your home into rubble, what you get is an argument. What you need is an education to know just what role “climate change” might have played in making that storm worse, or whether it played any role at all. Similarly, you need an education to grasp the dangers of those tar sands from Canada. It can be overwhelming. Doubts are continually raised (see “enemies”), the natural variability of the weather makes climate change easier to dismiss, and sometimes, when Science takes the lead, it’s easier just to duck.
Nature: Science is bad enough; now, throw in Nature. How many of us still live on farms? How many of us still live in “the wilderness”? Isn’t Nature what we catch on the Discovery Channel? Isn’t it what we pay a lot of money to drop in on briefly and ogle while on vacation? In our everyday lives, most of us are, in some way, no longer a part of this natural world of “ours” — not at least until drought strikes your region, or that “record wildfire” approaches your community, or that bear/coyote/skunk/puma stumbles into your (urban or suburban) neck of the woods. Connecting with Nature, no less imagining the changing natural state of a planet going haywire (along with the likelihood of mass, climate-changed induced extinctions) is again not exactly an easy thing to do; it’s not what comes “naturally” to us.
Blame: Any movement needs a target. But this isn’t the Arab Spring. Climate change is not Hosni Mubarak. This isn’t the Occupy moment. Climate change is not simply “Wall Street” or the 1%. It’s not simply the Obama administration, a polarized Congress filled with energy-company-supported climate ignorers and deniers, or the Chinese leadership that’s exploiting coal for all its worth, or the Canadian government that abandoned the Kyoto treaty and supports that tar-sands pipeline, or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has put its money where its mouth is in American electoral politics when it comes to climate change. Yes, the giant energy companies, which are making historic profits off our burning planet, couldn’t be worse news or more culpable. The oil billionaires are a disaster, and so on. Still, targets are almost too plentiful and confusing. There are indeed villains, but so many of them! And what, after all, about the rest of us who lend a hand in burning fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow? What about our consumer way of life to which all of us are, to one degree or another, addicted, and which has been a model for the rest of the world. Who then is the enemy? What exactly is to be done? In other words, there is anamorphousness to who’s aiding and abetting climate change that can make the targeting on which any movement thrives difficult.
The future: In the environmental movement, there is some serious discussion about why it’s so hard for climate change to gain traction among the public (and in the media). It’s sometimes said that the culprit is our brains, which weren’t set up, in an evolutionary sense, to deal with a problem that won’t deliver its full whammy for perhaps close to a century or more. Actually, I wonder about this. I would argue, based on the historical record, that our brains are well enough equipped to face distant futures and their problems. In fact, I think it’s a reasonable proposition that if you can’t imagine the future, if you can’t imagine building something not just for yourself but for your children or the children of others and of future generations, then you probably can’t build a movement at all. All movements, even those intent on preserving the past, are in some sense future-oriented.
The apocalypse: Here’s the thing, though. It’s difficult to organize for or even against a future that you can’t imagine yourself and those children and future generations in. The thought of world-ending events may simply close down our operative imaginations. The end of the world may be popular in fiction, but in everyday life, I suspect, the apocalypse is the version of the future that it’s hardest to mobilize around. If the prospect is that it’s already hopeless, that the suffering is going to be largely down the line, that we’re all going down anyway, and the planet will simply be destroyed, well, why bother? Why not focus on what matters to you now and forget the rest? This is wheredenial, the almost involuntary turning away from unpalatable futures that seem beyond our power or ability to alter, comes into play. If the future is essentially over before it begins, then better to ignore it and go about your still palatable enough daily life.
Putting Your Money on Climate Change
Add all these factors (and others I’ve probably ignored) together and perhaps it’s a miracle that so many people turned out in Washington two weekends ago. As we’ve already learned in this nuclear age of ours, it’s quite possible for a grid of exterminationism, a sense of hopelessness about the distant future, to descend upon us almost unnoticed. That grid in no way stops you from thinking about your own life in the present, or even about the immediate future, about, say, getting married, having a child, making a living, but it’s crippling when it comes to mobilizing for a different future.
I’ve always believed that some of the vaunted organizing power and energy of the famed Sixties came from the fact that, in 1963, the superpowers achieved an agreement on the testing of nuclear weapons that sent them underground and more or less out of consciousness. The last end-of-the-world films of that era appeared in 1964, just as bomb-shelter and civil defense programs were heading for the graveyard. By 1969, the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy had even eliminated “nuclear” from its own name. Without necessarily being aware of it, many (especially among the young), I suspect, felt their energies liberated from a paralyzing sense of doom. You no longer had to think about scenarios in which the two Cold War superpowers would destroy the planet. It made almost anything seem possible. For a brief period before the Reagan presidency raised such fears again, you could look to the future with a sense of hope, which was exhilarating.
Can there be any doubt that, to steal a phrase from that era, the personal is indeed political? On the other hand, the apocalypse, particularly an apocalypse that features Science and Nature in its starring roles, seems anything but personal or stoppable — unless you’re a farmer and a pipeline filled with a particularly nasty version of oil runs right through your nearest aquifer. The real issue here is how to make climate change personal in a way that doesn’t simply cause us to shut down.
One of the cleverer approaches to climate change has been that of Bill McKibben, the man who organized 350.org. In a determined fashion, he’s been breaking the overwhelming nature of climate change down into some of its component parts that can be grasped, focused on, and organized around. Stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and encouraging students to lobby to make their schools divest from big fossil fuel companies are examples of his approach.
More generally, climate change is, in fact, becoming more personal by the year. In the “extreme weather,” which so regularly leads the TV news, its effects are coming closer to us all. Increasing numbers of us know, in our hearts, that it’s the real deal. And no, it doesn’t have to be the apocalypse either. The planet itself, of course, will survive and, given a few hundred thousand or even a few million years, will recover and once again be a thriving place of some unknown sort. As for humanity, we’re a clever enough species. Sooner or later, we will undoubtedly figure out how to survive as well, but the questions are: How many of us? On what terms? In what kind of degraded state? And what can we do soon to mitigate climate change’s worst future effects?
Perhaps a modern, post-religious version of seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous bet is what’s needed. He argued that it was in the interest of those who remained in doubt about God to place a wager on His existence. As he pointed out, with such a bet, if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing.
Something somewhat analogous might be said of climate change. Perhaps it’s time to put your wager on the reality of climate change, on its paramount importance to us and our children and our children’s children, and to bet as well that your efforts (and those of others) will in the end make enough of a difference. Then, if you win, humanity wins everything; if you lose, well, there will be hell to pay.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”).
The final of three repostings from a year ago. To recap, I wrote on Monday, “… out of curiosity I wondered what I had published a year ago, in early February 2012. To my amazement what was published was as fresh and relevant as if it had been published today.“
So many vested opinions!
To me the arguments supporting the premise that mankind is engaged in the process of destroying our very being are powerful and convincing. But if there is any serious scientific doubt, then I am reminded of that saying in aviation circles about a risk to the safety of an aircraft, “If there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt!” Surely, that’s the stance the climate change skeptics should be taking! Because when the evidence of global warming, pollution, natural resource depletion, species extinctions, and habitat destruction is drawn together and there are no skeptics left, then will the last person left alive please switch the lights off!
Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Why the Energy-Industrial Elite Has It In for the Planet
Posted by Bill McKibben at 9:39am, February 7, 2012.
Two Saturdays ago, I was walking with a friend in a park here in New York City. It was late January, but I was dressed in a light sweater and a thin fall jacket, which I had just taken off and tied around my waist. We were passing a strip of bare ground when suddenly we both did a double-take. He looked at me and said, “Crocuses!” Dumbfounded, I replied, “Yes, I see them.” And there they were, a few clumps of telltale green shoots poking up from the all-brown ground as if it were spring. Such a common, comforting sight, but it sent a chill through me that noticeably wasn’t in the air. Even the flowers, I thought, are confused by our new version of weather.
Later that same week, as temperatures in the Big Apple crested 60 degrees, I was chatting on the phone with a friend in Northampton, Massachusetts. I was telling him about the crocuses, when he suddenly said, “I’m looking out my window right now and for the first time in my memory of January, there’s not a trace of snow!”
Of course, our tales couldn’t be more minor or anecdotal, even if the temperatures that week did feel like we were on another planet. Here’s the thing, though: after a while, even anecdotes add up — maybe we should start calling them “extreme anecdotes” — and right now there are so many of them being recounted across the planet. How could there not be in a winter, now sometimes referred to as “Junuary,” in which, in the United States, 2,890 daily high temperature records have either been broken or tied at last count, with the numbers still rising? Meanwhile, just to the south of us, in Mexico, extreme anecdotes abound, since parts of the country are experiencing “the worst drought on record.” Even cacti are reportedly wilting and some towns are running out of water (as they are across the border in drought-stricken Texas). And worst of all, the Mexican drought is expected to intensify in the months to come.
And who can doubt that in Europe, experiencing an extreme cold spell the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades — even Rome had a rare snowfall and Venice’s canals were reported to be freezing over – there are another set of all-too-extreme anecdotes. After all, in places like Ukraine, scores of the homeless are freezing to death, pipes are bursting, power cuts are growing, and maybe even an instant energy crisis is underway (at a moment when the European Union is getting ready to cut itself off from Iranian oil).
That’s just to begin a list. And yet here’s the strange thing. At least in this country, you can read the “freaky” weather reports or listen to the breathless TV accounts of unexpected tornadoes striking the South in January and rarely catch a mention of the phrase “climate change.” Given the circumstances, the relative silence on the subject is little short of eerie, even if worries about climate change lurk just below the surface. Which is why it’s good to have TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, take a clear-eyed look at American denialism and just what it is we prefer not to take in. Tom
The Great Carbon Bubble
Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Fights So Hard
By Bill McKibben
If we could see the world with a particularly illuminating set of spectacles, one of its most prominent features at the moment would be a giant carbon bubble, whose bursting someday will make the housing bubble of 2007 look like a lark. As yet — as we shall see — it’s unfortunately largely invisible to us.
In compensation, though, we have some truly beautiful images made possible by new technology. Last month, for instance, NASA updated the most iconic photograph in our civilization’s gallery: “Blue Marble,” originally taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. The spectacular new high-def image [see below, Ed] shows a picture of the Americas on January 4th, a good day for snapping photos because there weren’t many clouds.
It was also a good day because of the striking way it could demonstrate to us just how much the planet has changed in 40 years. As Jeff Masters, the web’s most widely read meteorologist, explains, “The U.S. and Canada are virtually snow-free and cloud-free, which is extremely rare for a January day. The lack of snow in the mountains of the Western U.S. is particularly unusual. I doubt one could find a January day this cloud-free with so little snow on the ground throughout the entire satellite record, going back to the early 1960s.”
In fact, it’s likely that the week that photo was taken will prove “the driest first week in recorded U.S. history.” Indeed, it followed on 2011, which showed the greatest weather extremes in our history – 56% of the country was either in drought or flood, which was no surprise since “climate change science predicts wet areas will tend to get wetter and dry areas will tend to get drier.” Indeed, the nation suffered 14 weather disasters each causing $1 billion or more in damage last year. (The old record was nine.) Masters again: “Watching the weather over the past two years has been like watching a famous baseball hitter on steroids.”
In the face of such data — statistics that you can duplicate for almost every region of the planet — you’d think we’d already be in an all-out effort to do something about climate change. Instead, we’re witnessing an all-out effort to… deny there’s a problem.
Our GOP presidential candidates are working hard to make sure no one thinks they’d appease chemistry and physics. At the last Republican debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted that he should be the nominee because he’d caught on earlier than Newt or Mitt to the global warming “hoax.”
Most of the media pays remarkably little attention to what’s happening. Coverage of global warming has dipped 40% over the last two years. When, say, there’s a rare outbreak of January tornadoes, TV anchors politely discuss “extreme weather,” but climate change is the disaster that dare not speak its name.
And when they do break their silence, some of our elite organs are happy to indulge in outright denial. Last month, for instance, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by “16 scientists and engineers” headlined “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” The article was easily debunked. It was nothing but a mash-up of long-since-disproved arguments by people who turned out mostly not to be climate scientists at all, quoting other scientists who immediately said their actual work showed just the opposite.
It’s no secret where this denialism comes from: the fossil fuel industry pays for it. (Of the 16 authors of the Journal article, for instance, five had had ties to Exxon.)Writers from Ross Gelbspan to Naomi Oreskes have made this case with such overwhelming power that no one even really tries denying it any more. The open question is why the industry persists in denial in the face of an endless body of fact showing climate change is the greatest danger we’ve ever faced.
Why doesn’t it fold the way the tobacco industry eventually did? Why doesn’t it invest its riches in things like solar panels and so profit handsomely from the next generation of energy? As it happens, the answer is more interesting than you might think.
Part of it’s simple enough: the giant energy companies are making so much money right now that they can’t stop gorging themselves. ExxonMobil, year after year, pulls in more money than any company in history. Chevron’s not far behind. Everyone in the business is swimming in money.
Still, they could theoretically invest all that cash in new clean technology or research and development for the same. As it happens, though, they’ve got a deeper problem, one that’s become clear only in the last few years. Put briefly: their value is largely based on fossil-fuel reserves that won’t be burned if we ever take global warming seriously.
When I talked about a carbon bubble at the beginning of this essay, this is what I meant. Here are some of the relevant numbers, courtesy of the Capital Institute: we’re already seeing widespread climate disruption, but if we want to avoid utter, civilization-shaking disaster, many scientists have pointed to a two-degree rise in global temperatures as the most we could possibly deal with.
If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground.
Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil (and people in places like Venezuela).
If you run an oil company, this sort of write-off is the disastrous future staring you in the face as soon as climate change is taken as seriously as it should be, and that’s far scarier than drought and flood. It’s why you’ll do anything — including fund an endless campaigns of lies — to avoid coming to terms with its reality. So instead, we simply charge ahead. To take just one example, last month the boss of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, called for burning all the country’s newly discovered coal, gas, and oil — believed to be 1,800 gigatons worth of carbon from our nation alone.
What he and the rest of the energy-industrial elite are denying, in other words, is that the business models at the center of our economy are in the deepest possible conflict with physics and chemistry. The carbon bubble that looms over our world needs to be deflated soon. As with our fiscal crisis, failure to do so will cause enormous pain — pain, in fact, almost beyond imagining. After all, if you think banks are too big to fail, consider the climate as a whole and imagine the nature of the bailout that would face us when that bubble finally bursts.
Unfortunately, it won’t burst by itself — not in time, anyway. The fossil-fuel companies, with their heavily funded denialism and their record campaign contributions, have been able to keep at bay even the tamest efforts at reining in carbon emissions. With each passing day, they’re leveraging us deeper into an unpayable carbon debt — and with each passing day, they’re raking in unimaginable returns. ExxonMobil last week reported its 2011 profits at $41 billion, the second highest of all time. Do you wonder who owns the record? That would be ExxonMobil in 2008 at $45 billion.
Telling the truth about climate change would require pulling away the biggest punchbowl in history, right when the party is in full swing. That’s why the fight is so pitched. That’s why those of us battling for the future need to raise our game. And it’s why that view from the satellites, however beautiful from a distance, is likely to become ever harder to recognize as our home planet.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben
Most Amazing High Definition Image of Earth – Blue Marble 2012
January 25, 2012
*Updated February 2, 2012: According to Flickr, “The western hemisphere Blue Marble 2012 image has rocketed up to over 3.1 million views making it one of the all time most viewed images on the site after only one week.”
A ‘Blue Marble’ image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite – Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012. The NPP satellite was renamed ‘Suomi NPP’ on January 24, 2012 to honor the late Verner E. Suomi of the University of Wisconsin.
Suomi NPP is NASA’s next Earth-observing research satellite. It is the first of a new generation of satellites that will observe many facets of our changing Earth.
Suomi NPP is carrying five instruments on board. The biggest and most important instrument is The Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite or VIIRS.
To read more about NASA’s Suomi NPP go to: www.nasa.gov/npp
Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring