by Subhankar Banerjee, July 4, 2013
“Within a few years we are going to have more people off the surface of this planet more often, and we’ll have to determine value in that new environment.”
—Jill Tarter, chairwoman of the SETI Institute, CNN Money, June 27, 2013
Do we write words of mourning? Or, do we write words of resistance? Those two braids have joined and from now on will flow together—in our age of the Anthropocene.
On October 11, 2012 I participated as a panelist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in what was perhaps the first public symposium on the Anthropocene. “A consensus has been reached that the tremendous scope of transformations now occurring on the Earth, with profound effects on plants, animals, and natural habitats, is primarily the result of human activities. Geologists have proposed the term Anthropocene, or the ‘Age of Man,’ for this new period in the history of the planet, which follows the relatively stable Holocene period. On a geological scale the planet has entered a new era,” the Smithsonian press release stated. Climate change and ocean acidification—the evil twins—are the two most destructive forces of this geologic era.
Two recent disasters: one in Uttarakhand, India and the other in Arizona, US show us—that not only ecological devastation but also human casualty—arise from climate change. In both cases, those who tried to save lives—lost their lives. On June 25 an Indian air force helicopter crashed on a steep hillside in Uttarakhand “while on a mission to rescue people stranded in monsoon floods,” the Times of India reported. Twenty people died in that crash. And last Sunday nineteen firefighters died in Arizona “as they were overcome … by the swift, erratic Yarnell Hill Fire,” the USA Today reported.
According to one estimate the flood in Uttarakhand has claimed more than 10,000 lives. If that indeed were true, then it would be the largest human casualty in a single climate change event. Two recent scientific studies: here and here make the connection between climate change and—erratic monsoon and extreme floods in India. And if you have any doubt about the connection between climate change and—extreme drought and fires in the desert southwest of America, take a look at William deBuys’ remarkable book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford University Press).
I have a personal connection with both places: last November I visited Uttarakhand, and I lived on two separate occasions, a total of eleven years in the desert southwest, in New Mexico. I’m now mourning the deaths in Arizona and Uttarakhand.
For sometime now we have been using the word “extreme” when talking about climate change disasters. We’ve known what it means for ecological loss (see forest death from bark beetles infestation here and coral graveyards here). Now we know what “extreme” in climate changed extreme weather means for human loss also.
I know less about recent floods in India than I do about fires in the American southwest. So I’ll share a few words about the latter.
In 2011 the Las Conchas Fire burned 156,593 acres and became the largest fire in New Mexico history. As the fire started Iwrote an article “New Mexico is burning with potential for nuclear contamination.” I wrote:
I live inside a small old true adobe home. … since Sunday June 26 I’ve had to keep all windows closed to avoid toxic ash from wildfires from entering the breathing space inside the house. The result—I’m hot as hell inside my home and can’t sleep properly.
Large fires send a lot of toxic pollutants in the air. The previous year NASA reported that the “raging forest fires in central Russia, Siberia and western Canada have created an enormous cloud of pollutants covering the northern hemisphere.” Furthermore, many of us were concerned that the smoke from the Las Conchas Fire might contain nuclear material due to previous unregulated dumping of nuclear waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
But our main concern was—the entire southwest could have been nuked. There were some 20,000 55–gallon drums filled with plutonium–contaminated waste that sat on the surface underneath fabric tents in Area G at LANL. The fire was about 3 1/2 miles from Area G when I wrote the piece. Unsurprisingly the government lied: “Lab spokesman Steve Sandoval declined to confirm that there were any such drums now on the property,” the Associated Press reported on June 27. Three days later another lab spokesperson told the same AP writer that there were 10,000 drums stored on the property—belching out a half–truth. New Mexico and the neighboring states got saved from nuclear contamination not because of human ingenuity but Nature came to the rescue—wind started to blow in a north–south direction, away from Area G.
To understand the ecological impact of the fire, I sat down with New Mexico state land commissioner Ray Powell and his team of nearly a dozen staff that included many ecologists. I never wrote about what I learned from that meeting until now. They told me that the Las Conchas Fire was burning so hot and was moving so fast that the firefighters reported to them that they had “never seen a fire like this before.” The heat was so intense that it was burning all the way down to the roots of trees. The sub–surface desert dwellers—gophers, mice and reptiles—surely got burnt alive. And the speed of spread was astonishing—“averaging an acre of forest burned every 1.17 seconds for 14 straight hours.” To give you a linear perspective: say the acre is a square with four equal sides; then each side would be about 209 feet. No animal could ever move 209 feet in 1.17 seconds. I came to realize then what “extreme” means in extreme weather events.
Following year the Whitewater–Baldy Complex Fire that started in the Gila Wilderness burned 289,478 acres and became the largest fire in New Mexico history.
Last month the Black Forest Fire in Colorado destroyed more than 500 homes and was called, "the most destructive fire in Colorado history." Then the came the news: nineteen firefighters died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. The change of wind direction (that saved New Mexico in 2011) it seems might have been the cause that killed the Arizona firefighters. “The sole survivor of the blaze … warned his fellow firefighters … when he saw [from the lookout] the wildfire switch directions and head straight for them,” the Associated Press reported on July 3. As I write this, the Silver Fire in New Mexico has grown “to 137,326 acres with 59% containment” as of July 2.
So what are the Beltway politicians doing about climate change?
On June 25 President Obama gave a much–anticipated climate change speech. The day before, in an email Bill McKibben wrote: “Well, some good news: five years in, we’re starting to see at least the outlines of a strategy from President Obama to deal with climate change.”
Each time golden words arrive from Obama—supporters cheer, opponents sneer, apologists veer, while critics use spear—to expose his peace with terror. I’ll take a closer look, not at what he said, but just a few of the responses that resulted from the speech.
Elizabeth Kolbert is one of the most respected environmental journalists working today. She writes environmental articles and op–eds for The New Yorker and is author of the widely acclaimed book on climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006). So it is all the more troubling that she wrote what I’d call—a patla sorbot (roughly translates from Bengali to English—seriously diluted Kool–Aid) op–ed after Obama’s speech. She avoided the thorny issues (more on that soon) and instead focused on two things: a Democrat–Republican ping–pong match and regulating emissions from coal fired power plants.
What Obama’s “aides had billed as a major initiative to fight climate change,” Kolbert correctly observed “was not really news, since it had already been widely reported—was that the Administration will impose rules limiting carbon emissions from both new and existing power plants.” But if you take climate scientist Dr. James Hansen’s words literally: he says Washington is “coal–fired.” So the conundrum before us is: how could one coal–fired enterprise honestly regulate another coal–fired enterprise? It cannot. The issue here is not emission regulation but burning coal itself. A few days later Lauren McCauleypointed out on Common Dreams, “Energy Chief Confirms Critics’ Fears: Obama Still Loves Coal.”
In 2011 Obama sold the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to Big Coal. In a fantastic piece, Jeff Biggers had dug up the poopand released the stink: “President Obama needs to be called out for his less than transparent catering to his long–time billionaire and coal–profiteering friends.” Biggers wrote that Obama’s buddies on this lucrative affair were—Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Precisely because of this greedy decision two years ago, today the activists in the Pacific Northwest are fighting the coal–port through which (if built) Wyoming coal would go to Asia. In an Earth Day op–ed Seattle Post–Intelligencercolumnist Joel Connelly wrote: “[T]he anti–coal–port movement in the Northwest is growing in leaps and bounds. It’s a grassroots effort based in towns through which mile–and–a–half–long coal trains would pass. It has far outclassed an industry campaign consisting typically of TV commercials, an ‘astroturf’ front group and legions of flack–mercenaries.”
“But if the President deserves to be congratulated for finally taking action—and he does—then he also deserves to be admonished for having waited so long,” Kolbert continues. There are two serious problems with this statement. The use of “admonished” isn’t criticism but affectionate scolding that we do to a child (more on this below). The second issue is that it gives an impression that Obama indeed has finally taken action on climate change. That’s very misleading to put it politely.
Kolbert points out that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the speech, even before it was delivered. McConnell wrote that Obama’s “climate change plan is a ‘war on coal’ and on jobs” (an example of ‘opponents sneer’). Referring to McConnell’s words, Kolbert wrote: “That reflexive political reaction goes a long way toward explaining why it took Obama so long.” This is what I’d call Democrat–Republican ping–pong while life on Earth races toward oblivion.
Kolbert’s op–ed is an example of—‘apologists veer’.
If you want to see an example of ‘supporters cheer’—take a look at 350.org executive director May Boeve’s response to Obama’s speech here.
The reason I focused on Kolbert’s op–ed is to show the rot in mainstream American environmental journalism. Few journalists can be courageous like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, but at a minimum a journalist’s job is to tell the truth and not become the mouthpiece of a particular political party.
Democrats are scared that if the Republicans take over the government all hope of climate change legislations would be doomed. Bill McKibben wrote earlier this year on TomDispatch: “The movement is what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the deal.” This too is hiding the truth and is an illusion (more below). A climate movement that is a mirror image of MoveOn.org is not honest and will not succeed.
What I just discussed is the political reason why ‘supporters cheer’ and ‘apologists veer,’ but there is a larger insidious reason, and it is—sociological.
It is easy to criticize the other. It is much more difficult to criticize one’s own. This is true at a macroscopic level (nation to nation) and also at a microscopic level (one family to another).
Take for example, domestic violence: it is easy to say that domestic violence “is going on in my neighbor’s house” than to acknowledge “is happening in my own home.” Similarly, it is easy for the US government to announce: “China is spying on the US” than to acknowledge “US is spying on its own citizens and everyone else.” This issue is particularly pronounced in the US.
In her concise yet immensely thought–provoking book, Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag wrote:
Americans prefer to picture the evil that was there, and from which the United States—a unique nation, one without any certifiably wicked leaders throughout its entire history—is exempt. That this country, like every other country, has its tragic past does not sit well with the founding, and still all–powerful, belief in American exceptionalism.
Climate change is not a Democrat or Republican issue and its solution (if there ever will be one) does not involve cheerleading of Democrats.
Now I’ll turn to critics’ spear.
To understand the true intent of Obama’s speech I begin with AlterNet senior environmental editor Tara Lohan’s article, “Obama Uses Major Climate Speech to Cheerlead for Natural Gas Industry; Keystone XL Fate Still Undecided.” She recognizes that “Obama’s speech will likely be met with cheers and jeers, even in the environmental community.” She first acknowledges the “cheer” part and then throws a solid 400–lb punch and points out the “hypocrisy of Obama’s allegiance to the gas industry and his pledge to fight climate change”:
It’s hard to imagine that Obama has ever visited with communities who are in the crosshairs of natural gas extraction—a process that has proven already to be anything but clean and safe. And yet Obama promised to “strengthen our position as a top natural gas producer” and even to use our private sector to help other countries “transition to natural gas.” This translates to exporting fracking worldwide—a process already underway in Poland, South Africa, Australia and other countries.
It’s all the more remarkable, because these words didn’t come from a writer/editor sitting in her ergonomically uncomfortable chair and throwing out some angry words. It came from someone who is reporting from the field now. Tara is traveling across North America documenting communities impacted by energy development for a new AlterNet project, Hitting Home. This is what I’d call—good environmental journalism that includes honest criticism.
Next, if you’re looking for an in–depth socio–ecological analysis of Obama’s speech, take a look at Professor Chris Williams’ essay “Mass Protest, Not A Speech, Is Needed To Address Climate Change” that I published on ClimateStoryTellers.org. About the Democrat–Republican ping–pong match, Williams wrote:
And on the ground, where people are forced to deal with the growing ramifications of climate change and the disruption and cost to their lives, the picture is very different. As reported in a recent survey of self–described Republicans and Republican–leaning independents, 62 percent said the U.S. should address climate change, and 77 percent said that the U.S. should use more renewable energy sources. This is all the more remarkable given that virtually no political representative from either party has been arguing for these things, and they have certainly not appeared on the TV screens or in the newspapers of the mainstream media.
And about relying on politicians to solve the climate crisis, Williams wrote:
The biosphere of which humans are a part cannot afford half measures or rely on dubious “friends” in high places. Nor can we set our sights any lower than the swift dismantling of the fossil–fuel infrastructure of death and its replacement with publicly owned and democratically controlled clean energy systems.
Lastly, if you’re looking for a good example of thoughtful criticism of the environmental policies being perpetuated by a head of state, look no further than Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk’s most biting critique of Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper’s devastating energy policy. In his essay, “Oh, Canada: How America’s Friendly Northern Neighbor Became a Rogue, Reckless Petrostate,” in the July/August issue of Foreign Policy Nikiforuk wrote:
More than a decade ago, American political scientist Terry Lynn Karl crudely summed up the dysfunction of petrostates: Countries that become too dependent on oil and gas riches behave like plantation economies that rely on "an unsustainable development trajectory fueled by an exhaustible resource" whose revenue streams form "an implacable barrier to change." And that’s what happened to Canada while you weren’t looking. Shackled to the hubris of a leader who dreams of building a new global energy superpower, the Boy Scout is now slave to his own greed.
I have repeatedly pointed out over the past three years (see my interview last year with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez onDemocracy Now! here) that Obama too is turning the US into a “rogue, reckless petrostate.” While Kolbert thinks that Obama “deserves to be admonished” (like you would do to a Boy Scout), Williams on the other hand thinks that a “swift dismantling of the fossil–fuel infrastructure of death” is what is needed.
As you can see environmental journalism is far from dead. On the contrary, it is vibrant like a gushing mountain stream about to flood climate change activism with new energy and ideas. We need it because climate change is here and a lot of people are beginning to die from its devastation.
Often people ask me: Aren’t the super–rich worried about climate change? I cannot provide a good answer. Instead all I can do is make a wild–ass guess that may sound to you like sci–fi—but it isn’t—like climate change it too is here.
Would the gassed–up “well–oiled” “coal–fired” (last two are Hansen’s words) rogue, petrostates (US, Canada, and add your favorites to the list) ravage the whole Earth to a point where it is useful only for extraction of natural resources—Earth as a coal mine? You might wonder where will the super–rich escape to then? To space.
On June 27 the Yahoo! Finance reported:
PayPal today announced the launch of PayPal Galactic, an initiative that addresses the issues to help make universal space payments a reality. PayPal Galactic brings together leaders in the scientific community, including the SETI Institute and Space Tourism Society, to prepare and support the future of space commerce.
Furthermore, Yahoo! Finance quotes John Spencer, founder and president of the Space Tourism Society: “Within five to ten years the earliest types of ‘space hotels’ and orbital and lunar commerce will be operational and in need of a payment system.” Leaders are now working “on the big questions”:
What will our standard currency look like in a truly cash–free interplanetary society?
How will the banking systems have to adapt?
How will risk and fraud management systems need to evolve?
What regulations will we have to conform with?
How will our customer support need to develop?
And CNN Money included a wise quote from PayPal president David Marcus:
“It’s easy to perceive this as kind of gee–whiz, even silly, if you just read the headline [“PayPal to launch inter–planetary payment system]. But these are real, difficult, important problems that need to be sorted out.”
Pack your bags and get ready for your new job—no longer on this Earth, but out there, working in a ‘space hotel’ finally getting paid $10.70 per hour that Ralph Nader has been advocating for.
We are screwed. The Earth is doomed.
Do you have any idea how we can find independence from the corporate–state terror?
Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, and activist. Over the past decade he has worked tirelessly for the conservation of ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human rights and climate change. He founded ClimateStoryTellers.org, and is editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press). He was recently Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham University in New York, received Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Mexico State University, and Cultural Freedom Award from Lannan Foundation.
Copyright 2013 Subhankar Banerjee