The refuge’s creation helped support nearby ranchers.
Nancy Langston Feb. 2, 2016
Reprinted with permission from High Country News
National wildlife refuges such as the one at Malheur near Burns, Oregon, have importance far beyond the current furor over who manages our public lands. Such refuges are becoming increasingly critical habitat for migratory birds because 95 percent of the wetlands along the Pacific Flyway have already been lost to development.
In some years, 25 million birds visit Malheur, and if the refuge were drained and converted to intensive cattle grazing – which is something the “occupiers” threatened to do – entire populations of ducks, sandhill cranes, and shorebirds would suffer. With their long-distance flights and distinctive songs, the migratory birds visiting Malheur’s wetlands now help to tie the continent together.
This was not always the case. By the 1930s, three decades of drainage, reclamation, and drought had decimated high-desert wetlands and the birds that depended upon them. Out of the hundreds of thousands of egrets that once nested on Malheur Lake, only 121 remained. The American population of the birds had dropped by 95 percent. It took the federal government to restore Malheur’s wetlands and recover waterbird populations, bringing back healthy populations of egrets and many other species.
Yet despite the importance of wildlife refuges to America’s birds, not everyone appreciates them. At one recent news conference, Ammon Bundy called the creation of Malheur National Wildlife refuge “an unconstitutional act” that removed ranchers from their lands and plunged the county into an economic depression. This is not a new complaint. Since the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s, rural communities in the West have blamed their poverty on the 640 million acres of federal public lands, which make up 52 percent of the land in Western states.
Rural Western communities are indeed suffering, but the cause is not the wildlife refuge system. Conservation of bird habitat did not lead to economic devastation, nor were refuge lands “stolen” from ranchers. If any group has prior claims to Malheur refuge, it is the Paiute Indian Tribe.
For at least 6,000 years, Malheur was the Paiutes’ home. It took a brutal Army campaign to force the people from their reservation, marching them through the snow to the state of Washington in 1879. Homesteaders and cattle barons then moved onto Paiute lands, squeezing as much livestock as possible onto dwindling pastures, and warring with each other over whose land was whose. Scars from this era persist more than a century later.
In 1908, President Roosevelt established the Malheur Lake Bird Reservation on the lands of the former Malheur Indian Reservation. But the refuge included only the lake itself, not the rivers that fed into it. Deprived of water, the lake shrank during droughts, and squatters moved onto the drying lakebed. Conservationists, realizing they needed to protect the Blitzen River that fed the lake, began a campaign to expand the refuge.
But the federal government never forced the ranchers to sell, as the occupiers at Malheur claimed, and the sale did not impoverish the community. In fact, it was just the opposite: During the Depression years of the 1930s, the federal government paid the Swift Corp. $675,000 for ruined grazing lands. Impoverished homesteaders who had squatted on refuge lands eventually received payments substantial enough to set them up as cattle ranchers nearby.
John Scharff, Malheur’s manager from 1935 to 1971, sought to transform local suspicion into acceptance by allowing local ranchers to graze cattle on the refuge. Yet some tension persisted. In the 1970s, when concern about overgrazing reduced – but did not eliminate – refuge grazing, violence erupted again. Some environmentalists denounced ranchers as parasites who destroyed wildlife habitat. A few ranchers responded with death threats against environmentalists and federal employees.
But violence is not the basin’s most important historical legacy. Through the decades, community members have come together to negotiate a better future. In the 1920s, poor homesteaders worked with conservationists to save the refuge from irrigation drainage. In the 1990s, Paiute tribal members, ranchers, environmentalists and federal agencies collaborated on innovative grazing plans to restore bird habitat while also giving ranchers more flexibility. In 2013, such efforts resulted in a landmark collaborative conservation plan for the refuge, and it offers great hope for the local economy and for wildlife.
The poet Gary Snyder wrote, “We must learn to know, love, and join our place even more than we love our own ideas. People who can agree that they share a commitment to the landscape – even if they are otherwise locked in struggle with each other – have at least one deep thing to share.”
Collaborative processes are difficult and time-consuming. Yet they have proven that they have the potential to peacefully sustain both human and wildlife communities.
Nancy Langston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University, and the author of a history of Malheur Refuge, Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed.
When our kids were little, we lived in an Eichler suburb in south Palo Alto. Every house on the block had a 6-to-7-foot fence around it. In the year that we lived there we rarely saw a neighbor. It was eery.
One day, while mowing our lawn, I had a revelation: Our market system has a vested interest in our individual isolation, because this way — rather than sharing, say, lawnmowers among all the neighbors — we each buy our own lawnmower. Consumption is maximized by the destruction of community. In some weird way our market system depends on our isolation from one another, from the weakness of community.
Notice that this is — maybe — starting to change a bit now with the “sharing economy” … Airbnb, Uber, the mesh, waste as food, access not ownership, etc. But does the “sharing economy” really increase community, or merely find a new way to profit from the lack of it?
Various personal and civic pathologies are associated with the breakdown of communities … crime, mental health, etc.
In the following article from Huffington Post, human isolation is now found to be at the root of addiction, and human connection — community — the key to healing it.
The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.
“Decades ago, the majority of the Arctic’s winter ice pack was made up of thick, perennial ice. Today, very old ice is extremely rare. This animation tracks the relative amount of ice of different ages from 1987 through early November 2014. Video produced by the Climate.gov team, based on data provided by Mark Tschudi.”
Carl Sagan’s beautiful riff on our “Pale Blue Dot” is an incredible amalgam of science, philosophy and some kind of word jazz, and has inspired more than one video treatment (just search for “pale blue dot” in YouTube and you’ll see what I mean).
Here’s the best treatment I’ve found. I particularly love the momentary image flashing by of Atticus Finch sitting with his daughter Scout on his lap on their front porch just as we hear Sagan’s voice saying “every teacher of morality.”
I still miss Sagan’s sane voice. We need it now more than ever.
Stanford research reaffirms that right-to-carry gun laws are connected with an increase in violent crime. This debunks – with the latest empirical evidence – earlier claims that more guns actually lead to less crime.
New Stanford research confirms that right-to-carry gun laws are linked to an increase in violent crime.
Right-to-carry or concealed-carry laws have generated much debate in the past two decades – do they make society safer or more dangerous?
While there is no federal law on concealed-carry permits, all 50 states have passed laws allowing citizens to carry certain concealed firearms in public, either without a permit or after obtaining a permit from local government or law enforcement.
Recently published scholarship updates the empirical evidence on this issue. Stanford law Professor John J. Donohue III, Stanford law student Abhay Aneja and doctoral student Alexandria Zhang from Johns Hopkins University were the co-authors of the study.
“Trying to estimate the impact of right-to-carry laws has been a vexing task over the last two decades,” said Donohue, the C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith Professor of Law, in an interview.
He explained that prior research based on data through 1992 indicated that the laws decreased violent crime. But in 2004, he noted, the National Research Council issued a report that found that even extending this data through 2000 revealed no credible statistical evidence these particular laws reduced crime.
‘Totality of the evidence’
Now, Donohue and his colleagues have shown that extending the data yet another decade (1999-2010) provides the most convincing evidence to date that right-to-carry laws are associated with an increase in violent crime.
“The totality of the evidence based on educated judgments about the best statistical models suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates” of aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder, said Donohue.
The strongest evidence was for aggravated assault, with data suggesting that right-to-carry (RTC) laws increase this crime by an estimated 8 percent – and this may actually be understated, according to the researchers.
“Our analysis of the year-by-year impact of RTC laws also suggests that RTC laws increase aggravated assaults,” they wrote.
The evidence is less strong on rape and robbery, Donohue noted. The data from 1979 to 2010 provide evidence that the laws are associated with an increase in rape and robbery.
The murder rate increased in the states with existing right-to-carry laws for the period 1999-2010 when the “confounding influence” of the crack cocaine epidemic is controlled for. The study found that homicides increased in eight states that adopted right-to-carry laws during 1999-2010.
Research obstacles, next step
“Different statistical models can yield different estimated effects, and our ability to ascertain the best model is imperfect,” Donohue said, describing this as the most surprising aspect of the study.
He said that many scholars struggle with the issue of methodology in researching the effects of right-to-carry laws. But overall, his study benefits from the recent data.
Donohue suggested it is worth exploring other methodological approaches as well. “Sensitive results and anomalies – such as the occasional estimates that right-to-carry laws lead to higher rates of property crime – have plagued this inquiry for over a decade,” he said.
John J. Donohue III, Stanford Law School: (650) 721-6339, email@example.com
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, firstname.lastname@example.org
By Brian Bienkowski
A persistent chemical formerly used in Scotchgard still contaminates most fish in U.S. rivers and the Great Lakes despite a phase-out a dozen years ago, a new federal study shows.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers found perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) in all of the 157 fish sampled from nearshore waters in the five Great Lakes and in 73 percent from 162 rivers.
The study, the largest of its kind in freshwater fish, suggests that eating bass, trout, walleye and catfish could be a major source of exposure for anglers and their families. The chemical remains widespread in wildlife, people and water around the world.
“This just shows that PFOS still dominates. Even though production stopped more than a decade ago, it’s still the main perfluorinated acid in the environment,” said Craig Butt, a Duke University chemist who was not involved in the study.
PFOS and other perfluorinated compounds are used in oil and water resistant coatings for pots and pans, clothes, paper, carpet and flame retardant foams.
The 3M Company, the major manufacturer of PFOS, voluntarily stopped its production in 2002 after scientists discovered that it was building up in water, wildlife and people.
“This just shows that PFOS still dominates.” –Craig Butt, Duke UniversityNevertheless, “every single human being we test has levels of PFOS in them,” Butt said. The compound “doesn’t break down in light, it doesn’t oxidize. Once it’s in the environment it’s not going anywhere.”
Most health studies have focused on communities with drinking water contaminated by PFOS. But people are exposed in many ways, said Sarah Knox, a professor and epidemiologist at West Virginia University. “Routes of exposure are multiple – things like linings of food containers, stain resistance sprays, fire-proofing and non-stick cookware,” she said.
The EPA estimates that “contamination in food may account for more than 90 percent of human exposure to PFOS and PFOA” and that fish may be a major source of PFOS.
“It should be noted that the higher the fish is in the food chain, the greater the concentration of toxic compounds,” Knox said.
In the rivers 25 fish species were tested, with smallmouth and largemouth bass and channel catfish the most prevalent. In the Great Lakes, 18 species were tested, mostly lake trout, smallmouth bass and walleye. The study did not name the rivers but the sites were mostly east of the Mississippi River.
“It should be noted that the higher the fish in the food chain, the greater the concentration of toxic compounds.” –Sarah Knox, West Virginia UniversityPFOS, a suspected endocrine disruptor, has been linked to low birth weights, reduced immune system function in children and high blood pressure during pregnancy.
In addition, a study of about 47,000 people in West Virginia whose drinking water was contaminated by a DuPont plant linked PFOS to changes in liver function, early menopause in women and high cholesterol. Animal studies with rats and mice also have shown PFOS causes developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.
PFOA, another perfluorinated compound, was found in just 19 of the Great Lakes samples and none of the river samples. It has been linked to heart disease, suppressed immune systems in children and cancers.
Despite repeated requests, EPA officials would not allow the scientists who conducted the study to be available for an interview.
Of 13 compounds measured, PFOS was detected at the highest levels: In urban river fish it was measured at 4.8 to 127 parts per billion, and at 1.9 to 80 parts per billion in Great Lakes fish.
The EPA hasn’t established a “safe dose” of PFOS. However, Minnesota health officials recommend eating only one meal of fish per week if PFOS concentrations are 40 to 200 parts per billion, and only one meal per month if 200 to 800 parts per billion. About 11 percent of the fish samples from U.S. rivers and 9 percent of the Great Lakes samples exceeded 40 parts per billion.
Keri Hornbuckle, a professor at the University of Iowa who studies Great Lakes contaminants, said researchers suspect that wastewater treatment plants are an ongoing source of PFCs.
The compounds also travel on ocean and wind currents. “The animals with the highest levels of PFOS we know of are polar bears from the Arctic,” Butt said.
New compounds have emerged after 3M’s phase-out of PFOS and PFOA, which the company eliminated in 2008. 3M has touted perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) as a safe alternative, and the compound was not found in any of the river or Great Lakes samples. 3M did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Michael Murray, a scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, said that the key to addressing emerging contaminants in the Great Lakes is to look upstream now, before it’s too late.
“We don’t want to be dealing with the next round of perfluorinated compounds in five years,” Murray said. “The key is pollution prevention, practices like green chemistry, to reduce the need for these chemicals in the first place.
“Because once they’re here, they don’t go away,” he said.
Follow Brian Bienkowski on Twitter.
For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Editor in Chief Marla Cone at email@example.com.
Reprinted from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
“We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development,” environmentalist warns
A major report released Thursday exposes a hidden hazard of fracking: the mining of the special sand—known as ‘frac sand,’ for short—that is essential to the practice.
Frac sand mining uses significant volumes of groundwater, contributes to air pollution, and has negative socio-economic impacts, according to “Communities At Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest” (pdf), produced by the the Civil Society Institute’s Boston Action Research project in cooperation with Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA).
Analysts estimate that fracking operations will use 95 billion pounds of sand this year, up 30 percent from last year and 50 percent higher than initial forecasts. The sand, which must be uniform in shape and the grains able to withstand enormous pressures at great depth underground, is currently mined most heavily in Wisconsin and Minnesota, though the report identifies sand deposits in 12 others states (including New York, North Carolina, Maine, and Virginia) that could be affected as fracking demand grows. Wisconsin alone is on track to extract 50 million tons of frac sand a year—the equivalent of 9,000 semi-truck loads a day.
“Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape.”
—Kimberlee Wright, Midwest Environmental Advocates
The mining process, which involves blasting off the soil, rock, and vegetation above a sand deposit, then washing, drying, and storing the excavated sand, uses between 420 thousand and 2 million gallons of water per day, according to the report, potentially drawing down groundwater supplies. In addition, the use of added chemicals when processing the sand could lead to contaminated run-off in nearby streams and wetlands.
Even more troubling is the release of fine particulate matter, such as silica dust, at mining sites and in the surrounding areas. Frac sand mining produces “very small and very dangerous dust particles,” the report reads, which have been linked to respiratory infections, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. While air samples have shown particle pollution around mining sites exceeds safe levels, there is little regulation of these emissions. “[M]onitoring of this rapidly expanding industry has been outpaced by the rate of development,” the authors note.
“None of the states at the center of the current frac sand mining boom have adopted air quality standards for silica that will adequately protect the tens of thousands of people living or working near the scores of recently opened or proposed mining sites,” said EWG’s executive director Heather White. “EWG’s mapping research found frac sand sites in close proximity to schools, hospitals and clinics, where children and patients may be exposed to airborne silica. Chronic exposure can lead to emphysema and lung disease. We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development.”
Other economic impacts are harder to measure but no less important to consider. The report raises questions about how frac sand mining operations affect property values, infrastructure costs, and demands on health care providers, cautioning towns and local communities to “exercise precaution” when evaluating potential sites in their region.
“Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape,” said MEA executive director Kimberlee Wright. “Elected officials and our states’ natural resources protection agency have largely dismissed local citizens’ concerns about their health, the health of their environment and their quality of life. Without a clearer view of the big picture of frac sand mining’s impact, laws that protect our communities’ air and water aren’t being developed or enforced.”
The other end of the shale gas extraction cycle is no less toxic. A separate peer-reviewed study, published earlier this week in the American Chemical Society journalEnvironmental Science and Technology, suggests fracking wastewater can endanger drinking water even after it has passed through treatment plants and been diluted.
According to UPI:
Most fracking operations store their wastewater in holding ponds. Eventually, that water is filtered through municipal or commercial treatment plants and emptied into rivers, lakes and ponds.
But new research suggests that wastewater contaminants, when subjected to traditional treatment methods like chlorination or ozonation, encourage toxic byproducts.
Researchers with the American Chemical Society found that even extremely diluted wastewater can still produce these byproducts during the treatment process. Scientists say their findings suggest regulators and energy officials should be more careful about which surface waters treated wastewater is emptied into.
The scientists and engineers from Duke and Stanford Universities used water samples from Pennsylvania and Arkansas frack sites.
“The drinking water facilities should be aware of this,” said Bill Mitch, a lead author on the study and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. “You need a lot of dilution to make these discharges no longer matter.”
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com
Editor’s Note: Rebecca Solnit, is one of the best writers in America because she’s one of the most original thinkers. Here she reminds us of the revolutionary power of hope, and how hope overturns old regimes from the bottom up.
There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.
Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system. They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.
I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.
The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.
But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It isworking fine — in the short term and the most limited sense — for oil companies and the people who profit from them and for some of us in the particularly cushy parts of the world who haven’t been impacted yet by weather events like, say, the recent torrential floods in Japan or southern Nevada and Arizona, or the monsoon versions of the same that have devastated parts of India and Pakistan, or the drought that has mummified my beloved California, or the wildfires of Australia.
The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to — John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier — and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.
Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need, because a two-thirds majority in the Senate must consent to any international treaty the U.S. signs. Which is not to say much for the president, whose drill-baby-drill administration only looks good compared to the petroleum servants he faces, when he bothers to face them and isn’t just one of them. History will despise them all and much of the world does now, but as my mother would have said, they know which side their bread is buttered on.
As it happens, the butter is melting and the bread is getting more expensive. Global grain production is already down several percent thanks to climate change, says a terrifying new United Nations report. Declining crops cause food shortages and rising food prices, creating hunger and even famine for the poorest on Earth, and also sometimes cause massive unrest. Rising bread prices were one factor that helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011. Anyone who argues that doing something about global warming will be too expensive is dodging just how expensive unmitigated climate change is already proving to be.
It’s only a question of whether the very wealthy or the very poor will pay. Putting it that way, however, devalues all the nonmonetary things at stake, from the survival of myriad species to our confidence in the future. And yeah, climate change is here, now. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more, but there’s a difference between terrible and apocalyptic. We still have some control over how extreme it gets. That’s not a great choice, but it’s the choice we have. There’s still a window open for action, but it’s closing. As the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Society, Michel Jarraud, bluntly put it recently, “We are running out of time.”
New and Renewable Energies
The future is not yet written. Look at the world we’re in at this very moment. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was supposed to be built years ago, but activists catalyzed by the rural and indigenous communities across whose land it would go have stopped it so far, and made what was supposed to be a done deal a contentious issue. Activists changed the outcome.
Fracking has been challenged on the state level, and banned in townships and counties from upstate New York to central California. (It has also been banned in two Canadian provinces, France, and Bulgaria.) The fossil-fuel divestment movement has achieved a number of remarkable victories in its few bare years of existence and more are on the way. The actual divestments and commitments to divest fossil fuel stocks by various institutions ranging from the city of Seattle to the British Medical Association are striking. But the real power of the movement lies in the way it has called into question the wisdom of investing in fossil fuel corporations. Even mainstream voices like the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and publications like Forbes are now beginning to question whether they are safe places to put money. That’s a sea change.
Renewable energy has become more efficient, technologically sophisticated, and cheaper — the price of solar power in relation to the energy it generates has plummeted astonishingly over the past three decades and wind technology keeps getting better. While Americans overall are not yet curtailing their fossil-fuel habits, many individuals and communities are choosing other options, and those options are becoming increasingly viable. A Stanford University scientist has proposed a plan to allow each of the 50 states to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Since, according to the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuel reserves still in the ground are “at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level,” it couldn’t be more important to reach global agreements to do things differently on a planetary scale. Notably, most of those carbon reserves must be left untapped and the modest steps already taken locally andad hoc show that such changes are indeed possible and that an encouraging number of us want to pursue them.
We can do it. And we is the key word here. The world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue; it’s going to be saved, if it is to be saved, by collective acts of social and political change. That’s why I’m marching this Sunday with tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of others in New York City — to pressure the United Nations as it meets to address climate change. That’s why people who care about the future state of our planet will also be marching and demonstrating in New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, Kathmandu, Dublin, Manila, Seoul, Mumbai, Istanbul, and so many smaller places.
Mass movements work. Unarmed citizens have changed the course of history countless times in the modern era. When we come together as civil society, we have the capacity to transform policies, change old ways of doing things, and sometimes even topple regimes. And it is about governments. Like it or not, the global treaties, compacts, and agreements we need can only be made by governments, and governments will make those agreements when the pressure to do so is greater than the pressure not to. We can and must be that pressure.
The Long View from One Window
I lived in the same apartment for 25 years, moving into a poor but thriving black community in 1981 and out of the far more affluent, paler, and less neighborly place it had become in 2006. A lot of people moved in and out in that period, many of them staying only a year or two. Those transients always seemed to believe that the neighborhood they were passing through was a stable one. You had to be slower than change and stick around to see it. I saw it and it helped me learn how to take a historical view of things.
It’s crazy that anyone speaks as if our world is not undergoing rapid change, when the view from the window called history shows nothing but transformation, both incremental and dramatic. Exactly 25 years ago this month, Eastern Europe was astir. Remember that back then there was still a Soviet bloc, and a Soviet Union, and an Iron Curtain, and a Berlin Wall, and a Cold War. Most people thought those were permanent fixtures, but in the summer of 1989, Hungary decided to let East Germans (who were permitted to travel freely to that communist country) stream over to the West.
Thousands of people, tired of life in the totalitarian east, fled. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as East Germany, were already electrified by a resurgent civil society and activist communities that had dared to organize in the face of repression. At the time, politicians and pundits in the West were making careers out of explaining, among so many other things, why German reunification wasn’t going to happen in anyone’s lifetime. And they probably would have been proven right if people had stayed home and done nothing, if they hadn’t begun to hope and acted on that hope.
The bureaucrats on both sides of the Berlin Wall were still talking about the possibility of demilitarizing it when citizens showed up en masse and the guards began abandoning their posts. On that epochal night of November 9, 1989, the people made whole what had been broken. The lesson: showing up is half the battle.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been so unnerved by developments in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European holdings that she went to Moscow, two months before the fall of the wall, to implore Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to prevent any such thing. That was early September 1989. “No dramatic change in the situation in Czechoslovakia can be expected,” predicted a Czech official two months before a glorious popular uprising, remembered as the Velvet Revolution, erupted and abolished the government in which he was an official.
There are three things to note about those changes in 1989. First, most people in power dismissed the possibility that such extraordinary change could happen or deplored what it might bring. They were comfortable enough with things as they were, even though the status quo was several kinds of scary and awful. In other words, the status quo likes the status quo and dislikes change. Second, everything changed despite them, thanks to grassroots organizing and civil society, forces that — we are now regularly assured — are pointless and irrelevant. Third, the world that existed then has been largely swept away: the Soviet Union, the global alignments of that time, the idea of a binary world of communism and capitalism, and the policies that had kept us on the brink of nuclear annihilation for decades. We live in a very different world now (though nuclear weapons are still a terrible problem). Things do change.
Maybe, in fact, there’s a fourth point to note as well. That, important as they were, the front-page stories about the liberation of Eastern Europe weren’t what mattered most all those years ago. After all, hidden away deep inside theNew York Times that autumn, you can find a dozen or so articles about global warming, as the newly recognized phenomenon was then called. And small as they were, anyone reading them now can see that so long ago the essential problem and peril to our world was already clear.
The thought of what might have been accomplished, had a people’s movement arisen then to face global warming, could break your heart. That, after all, was still a time when the Earth’s atmosphere held just above 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, the maximum safe level for a sustainable survivable planet, not the 400 parts per million of the present moment (“142% of the pre-industrial era” level of carbon, the World Meteorological Organization notes). In other words, we’ve been steadily filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and so imperiling the planet and humanity since we knew what we were doing.
The Great Smog and the Big Wind
In that fall a quarter of a century ago, the world changed profoundly right before our eyes. Then we settled back into the short-term, ahistorical view that things are really pretty stable, that ordinary people have no power, and that the world can’t be changed. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at Germany today. Maybe because Germans know better than us that things can change for the worse or the better fast, that the world is not a stable and settled place, and that we do shape it, they have been willing to change.
At one point last spring, cold, cloudy Germany managed to get almost 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Scotland — cold, gray, oil-rich Scotland! — is on track to achieve 100% renewable electrical generation by 2020 and has already hit the 40% mark. Spain now generates about half its electricity through clean and renewable sources. Other European countries have similar accomplishments. In fact, many of the changes that we in the United States will be marching for this Sunday have already begun happening, sometimes on a significant scale, elsewhere.
To remember how radical this new Europe is, recall that most of these places were burning coal not just in power plants or factories but in homes, too, not so many decades ago. Everyone deplores the horrific air of Beijing and other Chinese cities now, but few remember that many European cities were similarly foul with smoke and smog from the industrial revolution into the postwar era. In December 1952, for instance, the “Great Smog” of London reduced daytime visibility to a few yards and killed about 4,000 people in three days.
A decade before that, in response to the war Germany started, North Americans radically reduced their use of private vehicles and gasoline and planted more than 20 million victory gardens, producing vast quantities of food by non-industrial means. We have done that; we could (and must) do it again.
At least, we don’t burn coal in our homes any more, and in the U.S. we’ve retired 178 coal-fired power plants, phasing out many more, and prevented many new ones from being built. The renewable energy sources that were, people insisted, too minor or unreliable or expensive or new are now beginning to work well, and the price to produce energy in such a fashion is dropping rapidly. UBS, the European investment giant, recently counseled that power plants and centralized power generation are no longer good investments, since decentralized renewables are likely to replace them.
Of course, Germany and Britain are still burning coal, and Poland remains a giant coal mine. Europe is not a perfect renewable energy paradise, just a part of the world that demonstrates the viability of changing how we produce and consume energy. We are already changing, even if not fast enough, not by a long shot, at least not yet. The same goes for divesting from fossil-fuel investments, even though dozens of universities, cities, religious institutions, and foundations have already committed to doing so, and some have by now actually purged their portfolios. The excuse that change is impossible is no longer available, because many places and entities have already changed.
If you want to know how potentially powerful you are, ask your enemies. The misogynists who attack feminism and try to intimidate feminists into silence only demonstrate in a roundabout way that feminism really is changing the world; they are the furious backlash and so the proof that something meaningful is at stake. The climate movement is similarly upsetting a lot of powerful people and institutions; to grasp that, you just have to look at the tsunamis of money spent opposing specific measures and misinforming the public. The carbon barons are demonstrating that we could change the world and that they don’t want us to.
We are powerful and need to become more so in the next year as a major conference in Paris approaches in December 2015 where the climate agreements we need could be hammered out. Or not. This is, after all, a sequel to the Copenhagen conference of 2009, where representatives of many smaller and more vulnerable nations, as well as citizens’ groups, were eager for a treaty that took on climate change in significant ways, only to have their hopes crushed by the recalcitrant governments of the United States and China.
Right now, we are in a churning sea of change, of climate change, of subtle changes in everyday life, of powerful efforts by elites to serve themselves and damn the rest of us, and of increasingly powerful activist and social-movement campaigns to make a world that benefits more beings, human and otherwise, in the longer term. Every choice you make aligns you with one set of these forces or another. That includes doing nothing, which means aligning yourself with the worst of the status quo dragging us down in that ocean of carbon and consumption.
To make personal changes is to do too little. Only great movements, only collective action can save us now. Only is a scary word, but when the ship is sinking, it can be an encouraging one as well. It can hold out hope. The world has changed again and again in ways that, until they happened, would have been considered improbable by just about everyone on the planet. It is changing now and the direction is up to us.
There will be another story to be told about what we did a quarter century after civil society toppled the East Bloc regimes, what we did in the pivotal years of 2014 and 2015. All we know now is that it is not yet written, and that we who live at this very moment have the power to write it with our lives and acts.
Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit
Reprinted from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to state’s air and water, say opponents, and also highlights fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine extent of danger and future destruction
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has put the ecosystems, water resources, and residents of California at urgent risk, expert critics are warning, by accepting a failed scientific review of the dangers of fracking in the state as a basis to begin issuing permits for the controversial gas drilling technique as soon as next year.
The BLM-commissioned study was conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology and came in response to a lawsuit brought by two environmental groups—the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club—who objected to the leasing of public land in California to oil and gas companies for the drilling process also known as hydraulic fracturing—which injects water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth to release fossil fuel deposits trapped in shale formations. A federal judge ordered the study in 2013 after ruling that the BLM had violated state law by issuing oil leases in Monterey County, Calif., without considering fracking’s environmental risks.
The findings of the report, according to the BLM, conclude that no serious dangers were found and signaled that fracking licenses could be issued on federal lands for drilling in 2015. Jim Kenna, the BLM’s California state director, told reporters on a media call that the report would allow state regulators to authorized fracking while also monitoring for safety, environmental impacts, and health concerns.
But as the Los Angeles Times points out, even the independent research organization that conducted the survey on which the decision was based says the study had severe shortcomings and lacked key metrics.
[The report] authors noted that they had little time and scant information on which to base conclusions, citing widespread “data gaps” and inadequate scientific resources for a more thorough study.
For example, the report found no evidence of water contamination from fracking in California, but the scientist directing the research, Jane Long, said researchers also had no data on the quality of water near fracking sites.
“We can only tell you what the data we could get says,” said Long, a former director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “We can’t tell you what we don’t know.”
Environmental groups say the flaws of report are glaring—demonstrating a rushed process and an inadequate survey of data—and slammed the BLM for indicating that fracking leases would be approved based on such flimsy and inconclusive evidence.
“This report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to California’s air and water, but it also highlights the fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine the extent of the damage in our state,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “A few months of incomplete data simply can’t support a federal decision to resume selling off our public lands in California to oil companies. Using this report as a basis for continued fracking in California is illogical and illegal.”
The poverty of the report would not be so bad, according to Siegel, if the coming decisions based on its findings were not so profound.
“How can we count on a fair and unbiased process for evaluating the decision to resume leasing when the head of California BLM has predetermined the outcome?” she asked. “First we get the verdict, and then we get the trial.”
According to a review of the study by the San Francisco Chronicle, fracking in California may well, in fact, “endanger groundwater” in the state. The newspaper reports:
The report found that half of the oil wells fracked in the state lie within 2,000 feet of the surface, close to aquifers. Hydraulic fracturing uses a high-pressure blend of water, sand and chemicals to crack rocks containing oil or natural gas. Those cracks can sometimes extend as far up as 1,969 feet – not far from the surface.
Fracking chemicals, some of them toxic, could migrate along the cracks and leach into drinking water, according to the report. There are no recorded cases of that happening in California, the authors note, but it remains a possibility needing further study.
“In California, hydraulic fracturing is occurring at relatively shallow depths and presents an inherent risk for fractures to intersect nearby aquifers,” reads the report, from the California Council on Science and Technology.
Water wells in Kern County, where most of California’s fracking takes place, lie 600 feet to 800 feet below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In its analysis, the Center for Biological Diversity listed the federal review’s most disturbing conclusions:
- Fracking in California happens at much shallower levels than elsewhere, and the report notes that, “Hydraulic fracturing at shallow depths poses a greater potential risk to water resources because of its proximity to groundwater and the potential for fractures to intersect nearby aquifers.”
- The study notes that investigators “could not determine the groundwater quality near many hydraulic fracturing operations and found that existing data was insufficient to evaluate the extent to which contamination may have occurred.”
- Some fracking chemicals used in California are “acutely toxic to mammals,” the report says, while also noting that “No information could be found about the toxicity of about a third of the chemicals and few of the chemicals have been evaluated to see if animals or plants would be harmed by chronic exposure.”
- The report says that “Current practice and testing requirements do not necessarily protect against adding produced water contaminated with hydraulic fracturing fluid to water used in agriculture.”
Here are some tough words about the Obama presidency from Cornell West, who argues persuasively that the fetish for the middle ground in politics often makes for poor leadership.
In the interview Thomas Frank asks West, “What on earth ails the man? Why can’t he fight the Republicans? Why does he need to seek a grand bargain?”
“I think Obama, his modus operandi going all the way back to when he was head of the [Harvard] Law Review, first editor of the Law Review and didn’t have a piece in the Law Review. He was chosen because he always occupied the middle ground. He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground. They occupy higher ground or the moral ground or even sometimes the holy ground. But the middle ground is not the place to go if you’re going to show courage and vision. And I think that’s his modus operandi. He always moves to the middle ground. It turned out that historically, this was not a moment for a middle-ground politician. We needed a high-ground statesperson and it’s clear now he’s not the one.”
West also says:
“He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair. And that’s a very sad moment in the history of the nation because we are—we’re an empire in decline. Our culture is in increasing decay. Our school systems are in deep trouble. Our political system is dysfunctional. Our leaders are more and more bought off with legalized bribery and normalized corruption in Congress and too much of our civil life. You would think that we needed somebody—a Lincoln-like figure who could revive some democratic spirit and democratic possibility.”
Read the full interview here: