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
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 pipelinefrom 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
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com
Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania
More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.
Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging industry pushes the next wonder technology — in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”
The process of “fracking” starts by drilling a mile or more vertically, then outward laterally into 500-million-year-old shale formations, the remains of oceans that once flowed over parts of North America. Millions of gallons of chemical and sand-laced water are then propelled into the ground at high pressures, fracturing the shale and forcing the methane it contains out. With the release of that gas come thousands of gallons of contaminated water. This “flowback” fluid contains the original fracking chemicals, plus heavy metals and radioactive material that also lay safely buried in the shale.
The industry that uses this technology calls its product “natural gas,” but there’s nothing natural about up-ending half a billion years of safe storage of methane and everything that surrounds it. It is, in fact, an act of ecological violence around which alien infrastructures — compressor stations that compact the gas for pipeline transport, ponds of contaminated flowback, flare stacks that burn off gas impurities, diesel trucks in quantity, thousands of miles of pipelines, and more — have metastasized across rural America, pumping carcinogens and toxins into water, air, and soil.
Sixty percent of Pennsylvania lies over a huge shale sprawl called the Marcellus, and that has been in the fracking industry’s sights since 2008. The corporations that are exploiting the shale come to the state with lavish federal entitlements: exemptions from the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Clean Drinking Water Acts, as well as the Superfund Act, which requires cleanup of hazardous substances. The industry doesn’t have to call its trillions of gallons of annual waste “hazardous.” Instead, it uses euphemisms like “residual waste.” In addition, fracking companies are allowed to keep secret many of the chemicals they use.
Pennsylvania, in turn, adds its own privileges. A revolving door shuttles former legislators, governors, and officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into gas industry positions. The DEP itself is now the object of a lawsuit that charges the agency with producing deceptive lab reports, and then using them to dismiss homeowners’ complaints that shale gas corporations have contaminated their water, making them sick. The people I interviewed have their own nickname for the DEP: “Don’t Expect Protection.”
Randy Moyer is a pleasant-faced, bearded 49-year-old whose drawl reminds you that Portage, his hardscrabble hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, is part of Appalachia. He worked 18 years — until gasoline prices got too steep — driving his own rigs to haul waste in New York and New Jersey. Then what looked like a great opportunity presented itself: $25 an hour working for a hydraulic-fracturing subcontractor in northeastern Pennsylvania.
In addition to hauling fracking liquid, water, and waste, Randy also did what’s called, with no irony, “environmental.” He climbed into large vats to squeegee out the remains of fracking fluid. He also cleaned the huge mats laid down around the wells to even the ground out for truck traffic. Those mats get saturated with “drilling mud,” a viscous, chemical-laden fluid that eases the passage of the drills into the shale. What his employer never told him was that the drilling mud, as well as the wastewater from fracking, is not only highly toxic, but radioactive.
In the wee hours of a very cold day in November 2011, he stood in a huge basin at a well site, washing 1,000 mats with high-pressure hoses, taking breaks every so often to warm his feet in his truck. “I took off my shoes and my feet were as red as a tomato,” he told me. When the air from the heater hit them, he “nearly went through the roof.”
Once at home, he scrubbed his feet, but the excruciating pain didn’t abate. A “rash” that covered his feet soon spread up to his torso. A year and a half later, the skin inflammation still recurs. His upper lip repeatedly swells. A couple of times his tongue swelled so large that he had press it down with a spoon to be able to breathe. “I’ve been fried for over 13 months with this stuff,” he told me in late January. “I can just imagine what hell is like. It feels like I’m absolutely on fire.”
Family and friends have taken Moyer to emergency rooms at least four times. He has consulted more than 40 doctors. No one can say what caused the rashes, or his headaches, migraines, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat, or the shooting pains down his back and legs, his blurred vision, vertigo, memory loss, the constant white noise in his ears, and the breathing troubles that require him to stash inhalers throughout his small apartment.
In an earlier era, workers’ illnesses fell into the realm of “industrial medicine.” But these days, when it comes to the U.S. fracking industry, the canaries aren’t restricted to the coalmines. People like Randy seem to be the harbingers of what happens when a toxic environment is no longer buried miles beneath the earth. The gas fields that evidently poisoned him are located near thriving communities. “For just about every other industry I can imagine,” says Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, coauthor of a landmark study that established fracking’s colossal greenhouse-gas footprint, “from making paint, building a toaster, building an automobile, those traditional kinds of industry occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools.” By contrast, natural gas corporations, he says, “are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals and schools inside their industrial space.”
The Death and Life of Little Rose
Little Rose was Angel Smith’s favorite horse. When the vet shod her, Angel told me proudly, she obligingly lifted the next hoof as soon as the previous one was done. “Wanna eat, Rosie?” Angel would ask, and Rosie would nod her head. “Are you sure?” Angel would tease, and Rosie would raise one foreleg, clicking her teeth together. In Clearville, just south of Portage, Angel rode Little Rose in parades, carrying the family’s American flag.In 2002, a “landman” knocked on the door and asked Angel and her husband Wayne to lease the gas rights of their 115-acre farm to the San Francisco-based energy corporation PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric.) At first, he was polite, but then he started bullying. “All your neighbors have signed. If you don’t, we’ll just suck the gas from under your land.” Perhaps from weariness and a lack of information (almost no one outside the industry then knew anything about high-volume hydraulic fracturing), they agreed. Drilling began in 2002 on neighbors’ land and in 2005 on the Smith’s.
On January 30, 2007, Little Rose staggered, fell, and couldn’t get up. Her legs moved spasmodically. When Wayne and Angel dragged her to a sitting position, she’d just collapse again. “I called every vet in the phone book,” says Angel. “They all said, ‘Shoot her.’” The couple couldn’t bear to do it. After two days, a neighbor shot her. “It was our choice,” says Angel, her voice breaking. “She was my best friend.”
Soon, the Smiths’ cows began showing similar symptoms. Those that didn’t die began aborting or giving birth to dead calves. All the chickens died, too. So did the barn cats. And so did three beloved dogs, none of them old, all previously healthy. A 2012 study by Michelle Bamberger and Cornell University pharmacology professor Robert Oswald indicates that, in the gas fields, these are typical symptoms in animals and often serve as early warning signs for their owners’ subsequent illnesses.
The Smiths asked the DEP to test their water. The agency told them that it was safe to drink, but Angel Smith says that subsequent testing by Pennsylvania State University investigators revealed high levels of arsenic.
Meanwhile, the couple began suffering from headaches, nosebleeds, fatigue, throat and eye irritation, and shortness of breath. Wayne’s belly began swelling oddly, even though, says Angel, he isn’t heavy. X-rays of his lungs showed scarring and calcium deposits. A blood analysis revealed cirrhosis of the liver. “Get him to stop drinking,” said the doctor who drew Angel aside after the results came in. “Wayne doesn’t drink,” she replied. Neither does Angel, who at 42 now has liver disease.
By the time the animals began dying, five high-volume wells had been drilled on neighbors’ land. Soon, water started bubbling up under their barn floor and an oily sheen and foam appeared on their pond. In 2008, a compressor station was built half a mile away. These facilities, which compress natural gas for pipeline transport, emit known carcinogens and toxins like benzene and toluene.
The Smiths say people they know elsewhere in Clearville have had similar health problems, as have their animals. For a while they thought their own animals’ troubles were over, but just this past February several cows aborted. The couple would like to move away, but can’t. No one will buy their land.
The Museum of Fracking
Unlike the Smiths, David and Linda Headley didn’t lease their land. In 2005, when they bought their farm in Smithfield, they opted not to pay for the gas rights under their land. The shallow gas drilling their parents had known seemed part of a bygone era and the expense hardly seemed worth the bother.
With its hills and valleys, the creek running through their land, and a spring that supplied them with water, the land seemed perfect for hiking, swimming, and raising their son Grant. Adam was born after all the trouble started.
Just as the couple had completed the purchase, the bulldozers moved in. The previous owner had leased the gas rights without telling them. And so they found themselves, as they would later put it, mere “caretakers” on a corporate estate.
Today, the Headleys’ property is a kind of museum of fracking. There are five wells, all with attendant tanks that separate liquids from the gas, and a brine tank where flowback is stored. Four of the wells are low-volume vertical ones, which use a fracking technology that predates today’s high-volume method. A couple minutes’ walk from the Headleys’ front door stands a high-volume well. A pipeline was drilled under their creek.
“Accidents” have been a constant. When the well closest to the house was fracked, their spring, which had abounded in vegetation, crawfish, and insects, went bad. The DEP told the Headleys, as it did the Smiths, that the water was still safe to drink. But, says David, “everything in the spring died and turned white.” Adam had just been born. “No way was I exposing my kids to that.” For two years he hauled water to the house from the homes of family and friends and then he had it connected to a city water line.
All the brine tanks have leaked toxic waste onto the Headley’s land. Contaminated soil from around the high-volume tank has been alternately stored in dumpsters and in an open pit next to the well. The Headleys begged the DEP to have it removed. David says an agency representative told them the waste would have to be tested for radioactivity first. Eventually, some of it was hauled away; the rest was buried under the Headleys’ land. The test for radioactivity is still pending, though David has his own Geiger counter which has measured high levels at the site of the well.
An independent environmental organization, Earthworks, included the Headleys among 55 households it surveyed in a recent study of health problems near gas facilities. Testing showed high levels of contaminants in the Headleys’ air, including chloromethane, a neurotoxin, and trichloroethene, a known carcinogen.
Perhaps more telling is the simple fact that everyone in the family is sick. Seventeen-year-old Grant has rashes that, like Randy Moyer’s, periodically appear on different parts of his body. Four-year-old Adam suffers from stomach cramps that make him scream. David says he and Linda have both had “terrible joint pain. It’s weird stuff, your left elbow, your right hip, then you’ll feel good for three days, and it’ll be your back.” At 42, with no previous family history of either arthritis or asthma, Linda has been diagnosed with both. Everyone has had nosebleeds — including the horses.
Five years into the Marcellus gas rush in this part of Pennsylvania, symptoms like Randy Moyer’s, the Smiths’, and the Headleys’ are increasingly common. Children are experiencing problems the young almost never have, like joint pain and forgetfulness. Animal disorders and deaths are widespread. The Earthworks study suggests that living closer to gas-field infrastructure increases the severity of 25 common symptoms, including skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and nausea.
Don’t Expect Protection
DEP whistleblowers have disclosed that the agency purposely restricts its chemical testing so as to reduce evidence of harm to landowners. A resident in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Washington County is suing the agency for failing fully to investigate the drilling-related air and water contamination that she says has made her sick. In connection with the lawsuit, Democratic state representative Jesse White has demanded that state and federal agencies investigate the DEP for “alleged misconduct and fraud.”
In the absence of any genuine state protection, independent scientists have been left to fill the gap. But as the industry careens forward, matching symptoms with potential causes is a constant catch-up effort. A 2011 study by Theo Colborn, founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange and recipient the National Council for Science and Environment’s Lifetime Achievement Award, identified 353 industry chemicals that could damage the skin, the brain, the respiratory, gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine (hormone production) systems. Twenty-five percent of the chemicals found by the study could cause cancers.
David Brown is a veteran toxicologist and consultant for an independent environmental health organization, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. According to him, there are four routes of exposure to gas-field chemicals: water, air, soil, and food. In other words, virtually everything that surrounds us.
Exposure to water comes from drinking, but showering and bathing makes possible water exposure through the skin and inhaling water vapor. “Air exposure is even more complicated,” says Brown. The impacts of contaminated air, for example, are greater during heavy activity. “Children running around,” he says, “are more apt to be exposed than older people.” What further complicates the emerging toxicology is that chemicals act not as single agents but synergistically. “The presence of one agent,” says Brown, “can increase the toxicity of another by several-fold.”
Brown deplores the government’s failures to heed citizens’ cries for help. “No one is asking, ‘What happened to you? Are there other people who have been affected in your area?’ I teach ethics. There’s a level of moral responsibility that we should have nationally. We seem to have decided that we need energy so badly… that we have in almost a passive sense identified individuals and areas to sacrifice.”
Circles of Trust
No one I interviewed in communities impacted by fracking in southwestern Pennsylvania drinks their water anymore. In fact, I came to think of a case of Poland Spring as a better house gift than any wine (and I wasn’t alone in that). Breathing the air is in a different universe of risk. You can’t bottle clean air, but you can donate air purifiers, as one interviewee, who prefers to be unnamed, has been doing.
Think of her as a creator of what a new Pennsylvania friend of mine calls “circles of trust.” The energy industry splits communities and families into warring factions. Such hostilities are easy to find, but in the midst of catastrophe I also found mutual assistance and a resurgence of the human drive for connection.
Ron Gulla, a John Deere heavy equipment salesman, is driven by fury at the corporation that ruined his soil — his was the second farm in Pennsylvania to be fracked — but also by deep feeling for the land: “A farm is just like raising a child. You take care of it, you nurture it, and you know when there are problems.”
Gulla credits Barbara Arindell, founder of the country’s first anti-fracking organization, Pennsylvania’s Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, with teaching him about the dangers of the industry’s efforts. Now, he is a central figure in an ever-widening network of people who are becoming their own documentarians. Everyone I interviewed brought out files of evidence to show me: photographs, videos, news reports, and their own written records of events.
Moreover, in the midst of ongoing stress, many have become activists. Linda Headley and Ron Gulla, for instance, traveled with other Pennsylvanians to Albany this past February to warn New York State officials not to endorse fracking. “A lot of people have said, ‘Why don’t you just walk away from this?’” says Gulla. “[But] I was raised to think that if there was something wrong, you would bring it to people’s attention.’”
“You have to believe things happen for a reason,” says David Headley. “It’s drawn so many people together we didn’t know before. You have these meetings, and you’re fighting [for] a common cause and you feel so close to the people you’re working with. Including you guys, the reporters. It’s made us like a big family. Really. You think you’re all alone, and somebody pops up. God always sends angels.”
Still, make no mistake: this is an alarming and growing public health emergency. “Short of relocating entire communities or banning fracking, ending airborne exposures cannot be done,” David Brown said in a recent address in New York State. “Our only option in Washington County… has been to try to find ways for residents to reduce their exposures and warn them when the air is especially dangerous to breathe.”
In the vacuum left by the state’s failure to offer protection to those living in fracking zones, volunteers, experts like Brown, and fledgling organizations like the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project have become the new protectors of citizens’ health. Growing numbers of fracking victims, including Angel and Wayne Smith, are also suing gas corporations. “If I could go back to 2000, I’d show them the end of the road and say, ‘Don’t come back,’” Angel told me. “But we’re in the situation now. Fight and go forward.”
Ellen Cantarow first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. A TomDispatch regular, her writing has been published in the Village Voice,Grand Street, Mother Jones, Alternet, Counterpunch, and ZNet, and anthologized by the South End Press. She is also lead author and general editor of an oral history trilogy, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change.
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Copyright 2013 Ellen Cantarow
This is a fascinating article, and huge.
The idea is that — worldwide — stocks based on carbon reserves are essentially a multi-trillion dollar bubble, because they cannot actually ever be burned (if they are burned it’s — as James Hansen has said — “game over for Planet Earth”).
The bubble is real only if carbon reserves are “unburnable,” and the argument for why they are unburnable is essentially the argument being made by the carbon divestment (“Do The Math”) campaign led by Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and millions of climate activists.
It comes down to this: EITHER the carbon reserves (and thus stocks) of energy companies have full value OR civilization on Earth has a viable future. Up until reading this article, I was betting on the energy companies and not holding much hope for the Earth (which is absurd, of course).
I find this a very hopeful development (for the planet, but not for the markets).
This is a grim development for financial markets.
Hold on to your hats, a disturbance in the force may be coming soon to a planet near you.
By Damian Carrington, The Guardian
Thursday, April 18, 2013 20:11 EDT
The world could be heading for a major economic crisis as stock markets inflate an investment bubble in fossil fuels to the tune of trillions of dollars, according to leading economists.
“The financial crisis has shown what happens when risks accumulate unnoticed,” said Lord (Nicholas) Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics. He said the risk was “very big indeed” and that almost all investors and regulators were failing to address it.
The so-called “carbon bubble” is the result of an over-valuation of oil, coal and gas reserves held by fossil fuel companies. According to a report published on Friday, at least two-thirds of these reserves will have to remain underground if the world is to meet existing internationally agreed targets to avoid the threshold for “dangerous” climate change. If the agreements hold, these reserves will be in effect unburnable and so worthless – leading to massive market losses. But the stock markets are betting on countries’ inaction on climate change.
Read the full article here.
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com
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 restof 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 haboobsof 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 haboobshave 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.
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Copyright 2013 William deBuys
I caught this song on the tail-end of a segment on Democracy Now a day or so ago, and I was thrilled by the inspiring imagery — both musical and visual — of the rise of woman power.
The song — an anthem, really — is a collaboration between the Eurythmics (Annie Lennox) and the great Aretha.
I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve heard this.
Arizona Professor Emeritus Guy McPherson gave up his comfortable tenured position in his late forties and “went back to the land, where he raises goats and gardens and works with his neighbors.” Why would he do that? Here’s a clue:
MacPherson, who makes Bill McKibben sound like Dr. Pangloss, continues to travel and lecture in his area of expertise, which is climate change and what he sees as the likely destruction of most of the Earth’s oxygen and the extinction of the human race sometime between 2050 and 2100.
This probably sounds like a sick joke, right? It isn’t. See his latest talk below, and decide for yourself:
MacPherson mentions that the methane “torches” (vents) discovered in Siberia in 2010 (see video below) had by 2011 expanded from 1 foot in diameter to 1 kilometer in diameter.
Change is happening fast … MacPherson calls such phenomena “positive feedback loops” … and here “positive” is bad, very bad.
Acccording to MacPherson, referring to a graph from the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, “Arctic warming went exponential in 2010:”
Reprinted from High Country News
By Sarah Gilman
A few weeks ago, a Texas oilman cornered me at a brewery in the high-mountain town of Ouray, in western Colorado. Some young women from Moab had just taken the table next to my friend and myself, when the fellow wandered over to buy us a round.
Eventually, he revealed that he worked for ConocoPhillips. This didn’t go over well with the Utah ladies, and Mr. ConocoPhillips grew defensive: Did they think the vehicle they had driven here ran on rainbows? When he found out I covered the industry as a reporter, he leaned in tipsily and asked, “Can we have a conversation? A real conversation?”
The answer was apparently no, since what ensued felt like an energy-focused version of writer Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men explain things to me.”
But if he had gotten past his assumption that I was an airy naïf, he would have realized that I mostly agreed with him: As drilling impinges on more communities, those communities need to have “real,” critical conversations about energy development, conversations in which the locals recognize their role as consumers.
Paonia, Colo., where I live and work, recently became such a town. Last December, nearly 30,000 acres in the surrounding North Fork Valley were nominated for oil and gas leasing. Though the proposal was deferred this summer for further study, in November, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to auction about 20,000 of those acres Feb. 14.
Given the habitat fragmentation and pollution that energy development can bring, many here have fought the proposal. Some of the earlier leases sprawled across mountain biking areas or sat next to schools. Others encompassed springs that feed the town water system or surrounded irrigation ditches for ranches, organic farms and vineyards. As Peter Heller reported in an essay for Bloomberg BusinessWeek this July, the North Fork Valley “is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the Rocky Mountains. … The valley produces 77 percent of the state’s apples, 71 percent of its peaches.” The BLM received nearly 3,000 comments on the proposal, mostly in opposition.
“None of (those) issues … are incompatible with oil and gas development,” Steven Hall, BLM’s Colorado communications director, told Heller. Even so, in its latest proposal, the agency removed a couple of the more controversial parcels, including the one closest to Paonia’s water supply and another containing a popular trail network.
Most of the parcels remain, though. Worse, the sale would occur under the terms of the outdated Resource Management Plan, a 23-year-old document which governs development on hundred of thousands of acres. If the agency waited, it could re-examine the proposal under the updated version — due in draft this spring — which, in theory, would allow it to account for advances in drilling technology and changes to the area’s economy, demographics and environment. That might help the agency strike a clearer balance between energy development and other interests.
At an environmental film festival in Paonia soon after the BLM’s decision, the audience booed throughout a Google Earth tour of the parcels still up for lease. When a staffer from the conservation group who hosted the event noted that the mountain biking parcel had been withdrawn, discontent only grew. Many refused to accept any leasing whatsoever.
Opponents believe, as do their counterparts in many communities facing oil and gas development, that some places are too special to drill. It’s a valid view; I often share it. But that raises an uncomfortable question: Are there any places so unspecial that they should be drilled? Mr. ConocoPhillips knows well that few of us in Paonia or elsewhere can say we don’t rely on these fuels — for heat, for transport, for electricity, for the fertilization of food. Every place matters to somebody. And what patch of Earth isn’t habitat for at least a few wonderful somethings?
As Bobby Reedy, who runs a local auto shop in Paonia, told Heller: “I wanna flick the light switch and know the lights are gonna come on. If it’s not in my backyard, whose is it gonna be in?”
If we continue to insist on living as we do now, maybe we need to see drill rigs from our kitchen windows and hiking trails, even our school playgrounds.
How else can we truly understand the costs of something we use unless we’re confronted with them daily? This isn’t just the machinery of corporate greed; it’s the machinery of our vast collective energy appetite. And if we can’t look directly at it, and can’t accept what it does to our water and air, then it’s time to do more than just fight drilling. It’s time to go on an energy diet.
Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where she is the magazine’s associate editor
Reprinted from High Country News
By Tim Lydon
Once again, we were all New Yorkers. Watching the heartbreak that continues in Staten Island, parts of Queens and along the pummeled Jersey Shore, our sympathies turned eastward toward the victims of this unusual “Super Storm.” But just how unusual was it?
Sandy’s devastation gives us the opportunity to remember another giant storm that barreled into the Bering coast of western Alaska last year. The two storms are strikingly similar, and both point to a climate destabilized by fossil fuel emissions.
The parallels between Sandy and Alaska’s storm begin with the language used to describe them. On Nov. 8, 2011, in a headline similar to those that would precede Sandy, the Alaska Dispatch newspaper warned, “North Pacific ‘Super Storm’ Bears Down on Western Alaska.” The National Weather Service in Alaska ominously spoke of “a life-threatening storm of a magnitude rarely experienced.” A year later, as Sandy approached the Northeast, the same agency warned of a “historic storm” capable of widespread damage and possible loss of life.
The size of the storms, each stretching over 1,000 miles, awed meteorologists. Their intensity was similarly unique, with the barometric pressure plunging to 943 millibars for Alaska’s storm and 940 for Sandy. The readings, more indicative of a Category Three hurricane, were rare in the Northern latitudes where they occurred.
The storms’ huge size and fierce winds kicked up deadly seas and drove surges that devastated low-lying coastal areas. Along the Bering Coast, waves towered between 30 and 40 feet, similar to the record setting 32-footer that charged across New York Harbor during Sandy’s peak.
In another similarity, both storms were quickly followed by “normally” powerful storms that brought added suffering to an already stricken area.
But you’ve probably never even heard of Alaska’s Super Storm. There’s an obvious reason for that: population. The Bering Coast supports one of the nation’s sparsest populations, with its largest community, Nome, inhabited by just 3,600 people. Point Hope, Kivalina and Savoonga are among a few dozen other settlements, mostly Alaska Native villages with populations in the hundreds.
In Alaska, there were no headline-making evacuations. After all, people can only evacuate so far when there’s no road out of the village and aircraft flights are halted during bad weather (let alone during Super Storms). So, as gusts approaching 100 mph drove blizzard conditions, ripped away roofs and knocked out power, residents hunkered down in schools and community centers, where the wind’s roar nearly drowned out their voices. After a punishing two days, they emerged to find roads and property ruined by wind and coastal flooding. Damages were in the mere millions, compared to Sandy’s billions, only because there was much less infrastructure to damage.
But the cost to individual people was equally painful. And, just as important, the storm’s connection to climate change was just as plain. For instance, the absence of sea ice, which used to limit big waves and storm surges this time of year, fueled the destructiveness of Alaska’s Super Storm. In recent years, the Bering Sea’s rough weather, combined with the rapidly dwindling ice, has caused massive coastal erosion, forcing villages such as Kivalina to plan for the permanent abandonment of their long-held homes. Here, climate change is a daily reality.
Similarly, Sandy was strengthened by warmer-than-usual ocean water, something that is quickly becoming the norm in the Atlantic. And Sandy’s destruction was worsened by sea-level rise. Research shows that sea-level rise is not uniform around the globe, and that ocean currents and other factors are making it more profound in the Northeast. That’s why we saw water pouring into the Ground Zero construction site and flooding New York’s tunnels and subways. Now, city planners in the Northeast are having the same discussions that occurred in Kivalina a few years ago, before they decided that moving the village was inevitable.
Of course, it’s still true that no single weather event can be directly blamed on human-caused climate change. But disappearing sea ice, warming oceans and rising sea levels are observable phenomena driven by the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases.
We can be assured that these are not the last Super Storms. More likely, they’re among the first, and the records they set will be dwarfed by the storms to come. Like the recent fires in the West — 2012 was another record-breaking year for Western wildfires — they will be back. That’s what climatologists predict. Meanwhile, our political leaders sidestep even the mention of climate change and mostly dismiss energy conservation. It’s a strange legacy — along with weird weather — we’re leaving today’s young people.
Reprinted from Alternet
By Tara Lohan
Osha Gray Davidson discusses his new book “Clean Break,” about the keys to Germany’s success with renewables and why the U.S. is getting its butt kicked.
When you think of places with great potential for solar energy, what comes to mind? Maybe the American Southwest, perhaps the Middle East. What probably doesn’t come to mind is Germany — and yet Germany is leading a global revolution in renewable energy, with solar playing a key part.
In the U.S., we now get 6 percent of our energy from renewables, which is exactly where Germany was in 2000. And then it passed the Renewable Energy Act and jumpstarted a movement known as Energiewende. Twelve years later, Germany gets over 25 percent of its energy from renewables and it is surpassing all of its benchmarks to be 80 percent renewable-powered by 2050.
In his new book, Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn From It, Osha Gray Davidson explains how Germany made such a significant leap. Here are some shocking numbers he breaks down in the book:
25 percent of Germany’s electricity now comes from solar, wind and biomass. A third of the world’s installed solar capacity is found in Germany, a nation that gets roughly the same amount of sunlight as Alaska. A whopping 65 percent of the country’s total renewable power capacity is now owned by individuals, cooperatives and communities, leaving Germany’s once all-powerful utilities with just a sliver (6.5 percent) of this burgeoning sector.
AlterNet interviewed Davidson about his new book, and got his take on whether or not the U.S. can catch up to the green energy revolution.
Tara Lohan: You went to Germany interested in its clean energy revolution. Despite the research you’d done, were you surprised by what you found there?
Osha Gray Davidson: No matter how much I read about it beforehand, it couldn’t prepare me for what I saw. I write in the book about traveling by train from Hamburg in the north down to Freiburg in the very south. It was something like a five-hour train ride but there wasn’t more than 15 minutes that went by without seeing either wind turbines on the hills or farm fields or solar panels on roofs of houses, barns, anything that had a south-facing roof. Even knowing how much energy they get — now it is 26 percent — from renewables, it doesn’t prepare you for what’s it’s like to live or visit a society that is moving in a big way to renewable energy.
TL: Does hitting their goal of 80 percent renewable power by 2050 seem realistic?
OGD: The reason it does seem realistic to me is they started out in the year 2000 with 6 percent renewable power and they’ve had a series of targets and so far they’ve been surpassing the targets. In the year 2020 their target was 30 percent, they are so far along now that they’ve moved that target to 35 percent. Everyone I’ve talked to there across the political spectrum says that 35 percent renewable energy by 2030 is completely doable.
When you look at how much money they’re putting into this and how it’s designed, and it’s not universal support, but there is overwhelming support for this transformation throughout Germany. Knowing all that, yes, I can see them getting to 80 percent by 2050.
TL: What has been the key to their success so far?
OGD: A couple of things. One, they made a decision to do this and I think when a government and a population make a decision to do something and it’s widespread that changes a whole lot because it’s always a matter of political will, not technological will, that makes the difference. The support is key and the way that they got that support is they designed policies that would give everybody — all residents of Germany — a way to have skin in the game. Sixty-five percent of all renewable energy in Germany is owned by individuals and cooperatives and groups of small investors.
Germany gets unfairly tarred as doing this as a command-and-control program — the energy transformation — according to its critics, mostly in the United States, say it’s a socialist program, and nothing could be further from the truth. It is incredibly market-based, far more than our energy policies, to the extent that we actually have any.
Everybody in Germany has a chance to participate; they can become a utility essentially. If you want to put solar panels on your roof, or if you’re a renter and want to get together with a group of friends and invest in solar panels or a windmill or a windfarm or chuches … I saw many churches in Germany covered in solar panels and found out they’ve lowered their electricity bills by a huge extent by taking part in this. Giving everyone the financial incentive in making this work is really key.
TL: It seems like such a big transformation in 12 years to go from big power corporations to so much smaller, more distributed, community-run energy sources.
OGD: Yeah and that is key, that it’s distributed rather than centralized. It’s disappointing in the United States that we don’t really have that conversation at all. It’s just assumed here that energy, whether it’s fossil fuel, nuclear or renewable, is going to be produced by a large utility.
In Germany, the large utilities — the Big Four, they’re called — they have about 6 percent renewable energy capacity. But that is by design. When the Renewable Energy Act was written and then passed in 2000, one of the keys was understanding that you have to give everybody an incentive. Even though Germans, to a greater extent than Americans, know that global warming is a huge problem and that it needs to be solved, that isn’t enough to make an energy transformation.
A lot of people here who understand it and know that climate change is a problem can’t really do much about it because even if they put solar panels up — what is that going to do — it’s one tiny piece of something. In Germany they know that they’re plugging into a much larger movement that is going to have an effect and beside from that, you do get a financial benefit; you earn money by putting solar panels on the roof.
To install a similar sized array on a rooftop in Germany costs half as much as it does in the States even though the hardware costs are all the same. It’s the process of putting it up that’s much cheaper — the soft costs. And then you earn money. As opposed to here, where the best you can do with net metering is lower your utility bill to zero. But there, beyond that, you can actually make some coin off of it. Anybody can.
TL: It must help if you’re making investments of tens of thousands of dollars that the overall political will is there and it’s not going to shift every time there is an election.
OGD: Exactly. And that’s another part of the policy design from the Renewable Energy Act that you’re guaranteed a certain price for the power you produce for 20 years. So businesses, including individuals, know exactly how long it will take them to recoup the costs and start earning money on it — and how much they’ll make for the next 20 years. A lot of small businesses are doing this because there is policy certainty. In the U.S. we’ve just seen here with the Wind Production Tax Credit, the fact that it’s going to expire here on December 31st unless Congress extends it, wind manufacturers have already laid off several hundred people in the United States because of that policy uncertainty.
TL: Do you think it’s possible in the United States, considering the strength of our energy lobby, to move toward more sources of distributed power?
OGD: I do, and it’s because when you talk to people in Germany and read about the history of this you realize the problems were not the same but were equivalent — people said “you’re crazy, you’re not going to achieve any of these goals.” But this was really a bottom-up movement that forced politicians to get behind it, politicians from across the spectrum. So the center-right governing party now, Angel Merkel’s party, they are for the Energiewende. They are not doing it very effectively, they’re mismanaging it. But it’s fascinating, I just got used to in the United States if you see someone who has solar or wind you generally know politically where they’re going to be on the spectrum in the United States. In Germany you have absolutely no idea from someone’s involvement in renewable energy, where they are on the political spectrum.
TL: And they are making all these leaps with renewable energy while at the same time shutting down their nuclear facilities.
OGD: The whole anti-nuclear aspect is a big one in Germany because like Japan, they lived through a nuclear crisis with Chernobyl in 1986. In Germany there are still parts where you can’t harvest mushrooms because of the radioactive contamination from Chernobyl.
It was a big deal in Germany. The kids had to stay inside for days at a time and they didn’t know what was going to happen. As it turned out, the radioactivity was less in Germany than it was in some of the Scandinavian countries because of the wind patterns. And German farmers remember having to destroy a lot of crops because of contamination. So for them, moving to renewables made sense just as farmers wanting to protect their land and their crops and their way of life.
TL: What was the pushback in Germany when decisions were made to shut down the nuclear plants?
OGD: A little after 2000 there was an amendment to the Renewable Energy Act that was worked out in agreement with the nuclear power plant owners to phase out nuclear. It was going to be done in an orderly way that they could count on as these plants aged they would have to shut them down anyway. They were part of that — they weren’t just forced out until the Merkel government came in. This is what I mean by the mismanagement of it.
Her government extended the licenses of nuclear plants and there were huge demonstrations throughout Germany against that and then six months or so later was when Fukushima happened and lo and behold Angela Merkel turned anti-nuclear. So she went from extending the licenses and abrogating that plan they had with nuclear power companies to then all of a sudden essentially closing them down.
That’s caused a lot of problems in Germany and I think the critics of closing them down immediately have a really good point that she took offline low-carbon energy producers that were going to be phased out anyway.
TL: I’m wondering about the kinds of infrastructure that needs to be built or upgraded when you’re talking about generating energy from renewables. You wrote in the book about how they need $25 billion more for new power lines — where does that money come from? Who’s footing the bill?
OGD: Well, that’s the question. They’re still debating that and there is no easy answer. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that this transition is an easy one and a cost-free one — it’s just that not doing anything is far costlier. As several people there have pointed out, everyone is going to move to a renewable energy economy eventually, because they’re dependent on non-renewable fuels. Germany has a headstart by doing it early, but there are costs related to doing it early. Germans were paying more to install solar panels at the very beginning before the price got cut by mass production.
But Germany is way ahead in other ways including their export economy, and not just the solar panels which have been a problem in trying to keep up with China on that now. China’s manufacturing plants that make solar panels — those were bought from Germany — the plants themselves, all of that technology came from Germany. So they’re still reaping rewards.
And the extra cost that they’re paying, you have to look at where it is going and mostly it is to citizens of Germany — it’s creating jobs, over 300,000 jobs in renewable energy there. So the costs were higher but the money stayed within Germany and stayed within small towns. It’s being spent wisely and it’s helping the German economy. It’s not just a cost, it’s also a benefit.
TL: What did you think of their use of biomass? I know that can be a mixed bag when it comes to environmental impacts.
OGD: Yes, and there is debate on it in Germany. It is like most other forms of energy in that you can do it wrong or you can do it right. One big objection is using corn — growing corn, a food crop, and then burning it, using it for energy production. It drives up food costs and it’s probably not a good use of land. So that’s one example of using biomass in an unsustainable fashion.
But I saw some biomass projects that were using sustainably harvested wood from woodlots and just trimmings. I watched them trimming trees on the side of the road and the wood chips would be taken by this farmer to a community heating unit in this tiny town in the Black Forest, St. Peter, where they have this community heating project using sustainably harvested wood chips to heat over 200 houses and businesses and they’re cutting back on C02 emissions because it’s replacing oil burning furnaces. And it’s a cooperative, so all of the people who live there — the 200 homes — not only is the heat cheaper but they get any financial returns.
So biomass can be done in a sustainable way or it can not be.
TL: Was it frustrating at all for you to see all this progress in Germany and to think about where the conversation is at right now in the U.S. — where we barely speak about climate change and if we do we still have people insisting that we debate its existence?
OGD: I went back and forth on this when I was in Germany. I’d see all of this stuff — in Hamburg, the public transportation system, the whole built environment, which is a big part of the energy change. Ninety-nine percent of residents in Hamburg live within 300 meters of public transport. Germans own cars to a far lesser extent because they have such a great transportation system. The built environment is created for mass transportation and bikes and walking.
And yes, I was alternately frustrated that we didn’t have that and hopeful because I saw what was possible. In the States a lot of the discussion is about theory — what can we get — but it doesn’t have to be a theoretical conversation and that was what I took away from Germany. They are actually doing it and I do think that if they can do that then yes, we can do that here.
The main driver in Germany was citizens’ groups who wanted out of nuclear power, that was one of the very first issues. Ursula Sladek was a school teacher and her husband was a village doctor when Chernobyl blew and all the radioactive fallout fell on their area, they were in one of the most heavily contaminated areas. Ursula didn’t want to be part of a nuclear society anymore and went to the utility which was a monopoly back then and said “we don’t want you to use nuclear anymore” — she had gotten a group of friends and neighbors together. And the utility said, “ha, we don’t care what you want.”
From that, Ursula and this group in town now run the largest green cooperative in Germany and they have 180,000 households and business members of their little company in this tiny town in the Black Forest.
I always ask “What lessons can Americans learn?” And the overwhelming theme was, “just start doing it, that’s what we did.” And Ursula is such a great example of that. It took them 10 years in this David and Goliath battle with their utility. As she’s pointed out, “we didn’t shut down a single nuke plant, and that was all we were trying to do. But we’ve helped start a renewable energy revolution.”
When I asked her about what we Americans could learn, she didn’t answer at first and she looked around at this office she was in, the headquarters with solar panels on the roof and she said, “This is something that is very American isn’t it? You Americans are people who say we can do it — we can do it ourselves.”
She in fact was inspired by Jimmy Carter, a lot of the people who started the Energiewende in Germany, including Hans-Josef Fell who was the main author of the Renewable Energy Act, he was inspired by Jimmy Carter and the renewable energy revolution that he tried to start here in the U.S. by putting solar panels on the roof of the White House and funding solar projects throughout the country and wind projects. Fell said he looked around and saw pictures of all of that and wondered why they couldn’t have that in Germany. And now the situation is simply reversed.
We did start down that road, and when Reagan came in a decision was made to scuttle that and to go back to dependence on fossil fuels.
I think that if Americans now take a look at Germany and see what they’ve done and start doing that now here, yes, I think we can get to where Germany is and in fact the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Colorado, the main government technology center for renewable energies, came out with a report this past year that said by the year 2050 the U.S. could be getting 80 percent of our power from renewables; by coincidence, that’s exactly what Germany’s goal is.
We obviously have the resources to do it. So I think it’s a matter of political will and also empowerment. A lot of Americans feel there is nothing they can do because of all these big companies — well, I don’t have much patience for that. The Germans could have said the same thing, but they rolled up their sleeves and started taking action at a local level and eventually that forced political leaders to respond.
So, we shouldn’t whine about it — we should get busy and do it.
Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
If you were disappointed by the defeat of Prop 37, the California Right to Know GMO labeling initiative, here’s your chance to give a little payback to some of the big corporations who defeated it (by boycotting the products of their organic food subsidiaries):
“Brands like Kashi. Honest Tea. Naked Juice. Muir Glen, Horizon, Silk, and Morningstar Farms … ” (oh man, we love their tofu sausage … oh well … bye!).
Read the full article here: “Payback Time: Boycott the Organic and ‘Natural’ Traitor Brands that Helped Kill Prop 37“