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.
Reprinted from the New Economic Perspectives blog at the University of Missouri-Kansas City
Editor’s Note: William K. Black, author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One,” is Associate Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where — according to James Galbraith — “the best economics is now being done.”
In the latest example of the New York Times’ reporters’ inability to read Paul Krugman, we have an article claiming that the “Growing Imbalance Between Germany and France Strains Their Relationship.” The article begins with Merkel’s major myth accepted as if it were unquestionable reality.
“It was a clear illustration of the dysfunction of the French-German partnership, the axis that for decades kept Europe on a united and dynamic track.
In Berlin this month, Chancellor Angela Merkel, riding high after nine years in power, delivered a strident defense in Parliament of austerity, which she has been pushing on Europe ever since a debt crisis broke out in 2009.”
No, not true on multiple grounds. First, the so-called “debt crisis” was a symptom rather than a cause. The reader will note that the year 2008, when the Great Recession became terrifying, has somehow been removed from the narrative because it would expose the misapprehension in Merkel’s myth. Prior to 2008, only Greece had debt levels given its abandonment of a sovereign currency that posed a material risk. The EU nations had unusually low budgetary deficits leading into the Great Recession. Indeed, that along with the extremely low budgetary deficits of the Clinton administration (the budget went into surplus near the end of his term) is likely one of the triggers for the Great Recession.
The Great Recession caused sharp increases in deficits – as we have long known will happen as part of the “automatic stabilizers.” This is normal and speeds recovery. The eurozone and the U.S. began to come out of the Great Recession in 2009. The U.S. recovery accelerated with the addition of stimulus. In the eurozone, however, the abandonment of sovereign currencies and adoption of the euro exposed the periphery to recurrent attacks by the “bond vigilantes.” The ECB could have stopped these attacks at any time, but it was very late intervening – largely because of German resistance. Instead, Merkel used the leverage provided by the bond vigilantes and the refusal of the ECB to act to end their attacks to force increasing austerity upon the eurozone and demands for severe cuts in workers’ wages in the periphery.
Merkel’s actions in forcing austerity and efforts to force sharp drops in workers’ wages in the periphery were not required to stop any “debt crisis.” The ECB had the ability to end the bond vigilantes’ attacks and reestablish the ability of the periphery to borrow at low cost, as it demonstrated. Merkel’s austerity demands and demands that (largely) left governments in the periphery slash workers’ wages promptly threw the entire Eurozone back into a second Great Recession – and much of the periphery into a Second Great Depression. It had the desired purpose of discrediting the governing parties of the left, particularly in Spain, Portugal, and Greece; that gave in to Merkel’s mandates that they adopt masochistic macroeconomic policies.
It is also false that Merkel began demanding that eurozone inflict austerity only in 2009. Merkel wanted to inflict austerity and her war on the workers and the parties they primarily supported long before 2009. What changed in 2009 was that the ECB, the Great Recession, and the bond vigilantes gave her the leverage to successfully extort the members of the eurozone who opposed austerity and her war on workers and the parties of the left.
But it is what is left out of the quoted passage above that is most amazing. The fact that Merkel’s orders that the eurozone leaders bleed their economies through austerity and the war on workers’ wages led to a gratuitous Second Great Recession in the eurozone – and Great Depression levels of unemployment in much of the periphery disappears. The fact that inflicting austerity and wage cuts in response to a Great Recession is economically illiterate and cruel disappears. The fact that the overall eurozone – six years after the financial crisis of 2008 and eight years after the financial bubbles popped in 2006 – has stagnated and caused tens of trillions of dollars in lost GDP and well over 10 million lost jobs is treated by the NYT article as if it were unrelated to Merkel’s infliction of austerity.
“But the French economy has grown stagnant, with unemployment stubbornly stuck near 11 percent and an unpopular government pledging to cut tens of billions in taxes on business, which many French fear will unravel their prized welfare state.”
No, the eurozone economy “has grown stagnant” and produced a Second Great Depression in much of the periphery. If France had a sovereign currency or if the EU were to make the euro and into a true sovereign currency France could simultaneously “cut tens of billions in taxes on business” while preserving the social safety net and speeding the recovery. The same is true of the rest of the eurozone – including Germany where Merkel’s policies have made the wealthy far wealthier and deepened the economic crisis in other eurozone nations by cutting German worker’s wages. The NYT article is disingenuous about both aspects of the German economy, noting only that “the German economy has shown signs of slowing down.” German growth was actually negative in the last quarter and the treatment of its workers weakens the German and overall eurozone recovery.
It continues to be obvious that it is a condition of employment for NYT reporters covering the eurozone’s economic policies that they never read Paul Krugman (or most any other American economist). Consider this claim in the article:
“[Prime Minister Manuel Valls] and Mr. Hollande have alienated many members of the Socialist Party by taking a more centrist approach to economic policy, stoking suspicions that the government is favoring business at the expense of the welfare state.”
I will take this part very slow. By my count Krugman has written at least six columns in the NYT explaining that there actually is a powerful consensus among economists. The “centrist approach” is that austerity in response to a Great Recession is self-destructive. We have known this for at least 75 years. Modern Republicans, when they hold the presidency, always respond to a recession with a stimulus package. Valls and Hollande are moving away from a “centrist approach to economic policy.” They are doing so despite observing first-hand the self-destructive nature of austerity (and proclaiming that it is self-destructive). They do so despite the demonstrated success of stimulus in responding to the financial crisis. They do so despite the fact that the results of the faux left parties adopting these economically illiterate neo-liberal economic policies is the destruction of the parties that betray their principles and the workers. Valls and Hollande are spectacularly unpopular in France because of these betrayals. It is clear why Valls and Hollande wish to avoid reading Krugman’s critique of their betrayals, but theNYT reporters have no excuse.
The reporters do not simply ignore the insanity of austerity and the plight of the eurozone’s workers – they assert that it is obvious that Merkel is correct and that the French reluctance to slash workers’ wages is obviously economically illiterate.
“Just over a decade ago, as Ms. Merkel is fond of noting, Germany was Europe’s sick economy. It recovered partly because of changes to labor laws and social welfare. Mr. Hollande now faces a similar task in an era of low or no growth.”
No. These two sentences propound multiple Merkel myths and assume (1) that France’s (and the rest of the eurozone’s) problems are the same as Germany’s issues “just over a decade ago,” (2) that Germany “recovered” due to slashing workers’ wages and social programs, and (3) that the German “solutions” would work for the eurozone as a whole.
Germany’s “reforms,” which included increasing financial deregulation, have proven disastrous. German banks finished third in the regulatory “race to the bottom” (“behind” Wall Street and the worst of the worst – the City of London). The officers that controlled Deutsche Bank and various state-owned German banks were among the leading causes of the financial crisis. German workers had lost ground even before the financial crisis and have lost even more ground since the crisis began. Inequality has also become increasingly more extreme in Germany.
The current problem in the eurozone is a critical shortage of demand exacerbated by the insanity of austerity and Merkel’s war on workers’ wages. The word “demand” and the concept, the centerpiece of the macroeconomics of recession, never appear in the article. An individual nation in which the wealthy have the political power to lower workers’ wages can increase its exports and employ more of its citizens. This obviously does not prove that the workers were overpaid. Merkel and the NYT ignore the “fallacy of composition,” which is particularly embarrassing because they are neo-mercantilists pushing the universal goal of being a net exporter. As Adam Smith emphasized, we can’t all be net exporters. A strategy that can work (for the elites) of one nation cannot logically be assumed to work for large numbers of nations.
The last thing a society should want in a recession is rapidly falling wages and prices that can create deflation (another word expunged from the NYT article because it would refute their ode to Merkel, austerity, and her war on the worker). If France were to slash workers’ wages to try to take exports from Ireland while Ireland slashed workers’ wages to try to take exports from Spain, which did the same to take exports from Italy the result would be deflation, a massive increase in inequality, the political destruction of any (allegedly) progressive political party that joined in the war on the worker, and a “race to Bangladesh” dynamic.
Germany’s “success” in being a very large net exporter makes it far more difficult – not easier – for any other eurozone nation to copy its export strategy successfully. As a group, the strategy cannot work for the eurozone. The strategy has, of course, not simply “not succeeded.” It has failed catastrophically. Merkel’s eurozone policies have caused trillions of dollars in extra losses in productivity, the gratuitous loss of over 10 million jobs, increased inequality, and the loss through emigration of many of the best educated young citizens of the periphery.
Hollande does not face “a similar task” to Merkel. He faces different problems and Merkel’s “solutions” are the chief causes of France’s economic stagnation rather than the answers to France’s problems.
I repeat my twin suggestions to the NYT reporters that cover the eurozone’s economy. The paper’s management should host a seminar in which Krugman educates his colleagues. Alternatively, come to UMKC and we’ll provide that seminar without charge. None of us can afford the cost of the reporters’ continuing willful ignorance of economics and their indifference to the victims of austerity and Merkel’s war on workers.
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.
As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inches since 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels. The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know. In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.
The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.
But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It 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.
In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus describes how death comes to an ugly French port in Algeria.
Thanks to an infestation of rats and the fleas they carry, the bubonic plague descends upon the city in the spring and intensifies during the hot summer. After a short period of denial, the residents panic, then sink into despondency and alcoholism. The port is put under quarantine. Undeterred by the apathy of the population and the danger of exposure, a small number of courageous individuals mobilize to fight the epidemic and eventually beat back the invader.
Camus took great care to detail the symptoms of the disease. But for all his medical exactitude, the French writer was not primarily interested in epidemiology. His inspiration was a different kind of infection. The novel is set some time in the 1940s. The plague is Nazism, and those who fight the disease stand in for the heroes of the French Resistance. It is a supremely apt allegory, for did not the Nazis claim that their victims were vermin? Camus surely must have enjoyed reincarnating the German fascists as the lowest of the low: bloodsucking fleas and desperate rats.
The twin plagues of Nazism and bubonic plague, except for some isolated cases, are behind us. But now it seems that a different pair of plagues is in our midst.
Today’s headlines are filled with similar stories of the spread of death and destruction in the Middle East and Africa. American commentators worry that these plagues will burst their borders and somehow spread to these shores. And, as in Camus’s novel, these diseases point to something larger, not the imposition of a new malignant system but the breakdown of the existing order.
In West Africa, the plague is Ebola, a terrifying fever that ends in massive hemorrhaging. The mortality rate, if untreated, is as high as bubonic plague. But at least with the modern version of the Black Death, treatment brings the mortality rate down to 15 percent. Ebola, by contrast, resists treatment. There are no vaccines for this hemorrhagic fever—though there’s promising news out of Canada—and the few treatments that have been used remain highly experimental. Doctors and officials establish quarantines and hope the disease will burn itself out. With airlines shutting down service to the infected region, hampering efforts to deliver medical supplies, the disease continues to rage on.
Ebola has so far claimed around 1,500 lives. This is terrible, of course, but it pales in comparison to how many children succumb to diarrhea in Africa. According to a 2010 report, 2,000 African children die every day of a disease that can be prevented through relatively cheap methods: safe water and hygiene. But diarrhea is not a communicable disease in the same sense as the plague or Ebola. And no one in the United States worries that a summit of African leaders or the repatriation of infected patients will spread an epidemic of diarrhea stateside. Ebola monopolizes the headlines because what grabs attention is fear (along with the usual colonial images of Africans as dirty and irresponsible).
The panic is, of course, more acute in the areas hardest hit by Ebola. Consider the case of Kandeh Kamara, a brave 21-year-old who volunteered to help fight the disease in Sierra Leone. He was promptly drafted to become a “burial boy” responsible for dealing with the corpses of the infected. “In doing their jobs, the burial boys have been cast out of their communities because of fear that they will bring the virus home with them,” writes Adam Nossiter and Ben Solomon in apowerful piece in The New York Times. Talk about thankless tasks. Kandeh Kamara initially received no payment for his work and had to beg for food on the street. He now gets $6 a day and hopes to rent an apartment, though landlords often refuse to lease to the burial boys.
Ebola is bad news, but it hasn’t generated the same kind of fury as that other fast-spreading scourge, namely the Islamic State (IS). The recent beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley has ratcheted up the outrage of U.S. observers.
It’s certainly not the first beheading that IS has done. The group specializes inmeting out barbarous punishments—decapitation, crucifixion, amputations. But just as Ebola’s impact became real for Americans when it infected people “like us”—two U.S. missionaries in Liberia—the United States was prompted to act against IS when it began killing non-Muslims, first the stranded Yazidis and then the abducted journalist.
IS has spread quickly, and so has the panic that has accompanied its territorial acquisition. There have been the inevitable analogies to Nazism. But even those who don’t invoke Hitler are quick to use Manichean language to describe the IS challenge.
“We can see evil through the eye slits of the ski mask worn by Foley’s killer,” writes David Ignatius in a Washington Post commentary entitled The New Battle Against Evil. “But stopping that evil is a harder task.”
The IS killers are a nasty piece of work, and their ideology is thoroughly malign. But I hesitate to use the language of good and evil. Such moralistic terminology presumes that they, the beheaders, are a Satanic force that can only be exorcised with whatever version of holy water our angelic forces dispense—air strikes, boots on the ground, military aid to the Kurdish peshmerga, efforts in the community to dissuade angry young men from taking the next flight to Mosul.
We, on the other hand, are good. We would never behead anyone. Those we execute “deserve” their punishment (though the occasional innocent person might inadvertently fall through the cracks). And the civilian casualties from our military offensives, because we are by definition good, are simply mistakes. After all, we don’t publicly celebrate the deaths of Afghan civilians from our drone strikes (45 in 2013 alone) or the deaths of over 400 children in Gaza. But our protestations of innocence are little consolation to the families of the victims.
At what point do mistakes aggregate into something evil? At the very least, do they prevent us from claiming the mantle of good? And, of course, it’s not just the mistakes that are problematic but also the deliberate policies that, for instance, align Washington with dictators and other murderous actors. U.S. disgust with IS may already have prompted intelligence sharing with the regime in Damascus, though the Obama administration has denied such deals.
Camus had some choice words for those who are reluctant to call evil by its name. “Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences,” he wrote in The Plague. “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”
Humanists perhaps disbelieve in pestilences. “I used to not believe in evil,” confesses Richard Cohen this week in a Washington Post column declaring a “return of evil” with ISIS. Once a liberal humanist, Cohen long ago remade himself into a liberal hawk.
I still consider myself a humanist. But my brand of humanism sees pestilence everywhere. Indeed, I tend to see pestilence not only in the acts of individuals but in the structures within which the plague takes root and spreads. And this is where the two plagues intersect, Ebola and IS. They both prosper where the immune system is weak.
When it comes to medical infrastructure, Africa definitely has a compromised immune system. The continent has been hit hard by HIV/AIDS (70 percent of those living with HIV are in Africa), cholera (major outbreaks took place recently in Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone), and malaria (an African child dies every minute from this disease). Ebola has spread rapidly because of critical shortages in medical staff and supplies.
But the deeper reason is environmental: the clear-cutting of forests that have served as a traditional barrier to pathogens. West Africa has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, losing nearly a million hectares a year. The forests are Africa’s natural defenses, and Ebola is a sign that these defenses have been fatally weakened. What used to stay in remote villages now spreads quickly to urban areas.
The recent victories of IS in Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, suggest not a breakdown in the environmental system but in the political one. IS is not simply a band of serial killers. They have a distinct ideology and set of political motives. Nor does it matter whether they are operating in a formally dictatorial or democratic environment. IS thrives both where Assad rules with an iron fist and where Saddam is long gone.
The common denominator is chaos. IS has ruthlessly expanded in the grey areas beyond the reach of the rule of law. In Syria, it has prospered in regions that already broke loose from the country during the uprising. In Iraq, it took advantage of a paralyzing conflict between Shi’a and Sunni that left the northern reaches of the country tenuously connected to the central government.
Local governance, whether it’s democratic or authoritarian, serves the same function as the forests of West Africa. Such governance holds society together. When it deteriorates, the very cellular structure breaks down. In Ebola, the cell walls fray and the patient bleeds out. With a virus like IS, the fibers of the social fabric fray and large sections of the country bleed out.
There are, of course, many differences between a pestilence like Ebola and a movement like IS. But they are both the result of systemic breakdown. They are opportunistic infections.
In both cases there are no magic pills. Even if we come up with an antidote to this version of Ebola, as long as we continue to cut down the forests of Africa, more potent versions will continue to appear and spread. And if we attempt to obliterate IS only with bombs or boots on the ground, it will simply pop up somewhere else where the conditions favor such desperate efforts to create a totalitarian order. Instead we should focus on the conditions that give rise to these phenomena—and our role in helping to perpetuate these conditions.
Camus recommended vigilance. Pestilence, he concluded, “bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves and…perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” The current plagues have certainly been a bane. Whether they also help to enlighten us remains to be seen.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.
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.”
The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the “boomers” who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol’ boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the “nesters” or “stickers” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.
That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple. All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms,reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust.
The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature’s own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one. Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.
Dances with Beavers
The dance floor is my Utah backyard, which, like most backyards out here, is a watershed. At its top is the Aquarius Plateau, the horizon I see from my deck, a gracefully rolling forest of pines and aspens that stretches for 50 miles to the south, 20 miles wide at its midpoint, and reaches 11,300 feet at its highest ridge.
The forest on top of the plateau is unique, as trees rarely grow almost two miles above sea level. That high forest is heated by the deserts that fall away around the plateau’s shoulders, culminating in the amber, bone, and honey-toned canyons of Capitol Reef National Park on its eastern flank and on the west by Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
During a long career with the Bureau of Land Management, Sage Sorenson saw firsthand how beavers created rich green habitat out of overgrazed and burned-over land. Now retired, he calls himself a “beaver believer” and devotes his days to monitoring and protecting scattered “remnant” beaver colonies in our region. Quietly but persistently, he advocates for their reintroduction onto stressed landscapes that need their services.
Beavers are the original geo-engineers. It’s no exaggeration to credit them for their major role in building the North American landscape. In pre-colonial times, there were as many as 400 million of them. They used their big buckteeth and tough paddle-tails to build dams across every stream imaginable, spreading water to a Noah’s Ark-worth of creatures that thrive in the wet habitats they create. Now, of course, they are mostly long gone from the land, and conservationists want them back.
Sorenson recently trained and got certified to trap and transport beavers in anticipation of restocking the streams that tumble down the Aquarius Plateau. He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are reintroduced. After all, several of those streams have already been scientifically assessed and identified as prime candidates for such a reintroduction program. But when I talked to him at a café in the small hamlet of Boulder, Utah, he was feeling discouraged.
A remnant colony of beavers along North Creek, he told me, is just about gone. Over the last two years, at least 34 of them have been illegally shot or legally trapped by a local irrigation company. Although beaver reintroduction is getting rave reviews in places like Scotland where the last one had been trapped out hundreds of years ago and Oregon where they are healing land hammered by logging, in Utah the road back will be rough.
Flat-Tail Climate Hero
Beavers were once abundant across the Aquarius Plateau, but they have now retreated to its high headwaters where they do not compete with cattle or cowboys with guns. Visiting them requires strong lungs for steep hikes and sturdy boots to navigate flooded meadows. Up close, beavers look like especially large rodents that swim. Call them cute if you care to, but a wet mammal that smells like its mud hut is neither cuddly nor charismatic. They are not, in other words, like the penguins or polar bears that adorn fundraising appeals from wildlife advocates.
Nevertheless, as Sage patiently explains, they are key to the restoration of damaged watersheds. First, their dams create ponds and wetlands for diverse plants, amphibians, fish, and fowl. Eventually, those ponds fill with silt and become meadows, creating yet more habitat for another round of plants and animals.
Letting beavers do their work is one powerful way to make the land and its creatures resilient in a time of climatological stress. For example, across the planet a wide range of amphibians, including frogs and salamanders, are declining fast, becoming rare or extinct. Their sudden decline may be due to habitat loss, pollution, viruses enabled by a warming climate, or all of the above, but their disappearance is one more measure of the ecological catastrophe now underway. Beavers make wet habitat where amphibians can recover and thrive.
The aquatic insects that bloom in wetlands feed populations of stressed songbirds. Their ponds shelter fingerling fish — beavers are vegetarians — and baby ducks. Beavers are ecological servants par excellence who give life to the land. They are not only beneficial agents of biodiversity, however: humans benefit, too.
In Western forests, the beaver’s stick-in-the-mud architecture spreads, slows, and deepens the flow of water from spring runoff so that it recharges underground aquifers, springs, and seeps. Slowing that runoff means that the streams feeding reservoirs last longer, possibly all summer. That’s important for local agriculture, which depends on irrigation. Beaver dams improve water quality by trapping sediment that filters pollution. A lush-green landscape also inhibits landslides, floods, and fire. So beavers are not only good for the usual crew of endangered species, but also for millions of humans whose drinking water originates in heat-stressed watersheds that could be restored by the beaver’s hydrological habits.
Considering all the benefits beavers bring with them, why haven’t we rushed to return them to their keystone role in the Western landscape? The simple answer to a complicated question is one word: cows.
When beavers re-occupy their historic homelands, they compete with the human economy that once drove them deep into the wilds. Farmers and ranchers who irrigate their fields via ditches and culverts hate them. There are simple techniques to guard against beavers clogging irrigation systems but they are either unlearned or resisted as yet another example of unwanted government intrusion on Western life. Across the rural West, ranchers have power and influence way beyond their numbers or their contribution to the economy.
The Elephant in the Room Is a Cow
One man’s keystone species is another’s varmint. For conservationists like Sorenson who are devoted to bringing beavers back, seeing one with a bullet hole in it is not just sad, but taken as a very personal warning. Despite the popularity and success of beaver reintroduction elsewhere, in much of the American West it runs into an outsized obstacle — the iconic western cow. Not ol’ Bossy chewing a cud in Wisconsin, but the wild steer chased by a cowboy with a lasso yelling “yeeha!” That cow is sacred.
In reality, cattle ranching is a tough, marginal business in this part of America and grazing on public lands makes it possible. In other words, it’s heavily subsidized by distant taxpayers. Those grazing fees Cliven Bundy objects to cost less than a buck and a half per cow per month for all it can eat on federal land — food stamps for cows, indeed. Cattle ranchers, whose families have been on the land for generations, think of grazing allotments on federal land as an entitlement, even if that attitude contradicts the image of the independent cowboy they cherish. About 250 million acres — or more than half of the federal lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management — are open to cattle grazing, and that’s a large arena where cowboys and conservationists compete.
Moving cows out of sensitive riparian areas (streams and springs) or putting competitors like wolves and beavers onto the land with them is seen by ranchers as the start of a slippery slope that might lead to removing cows altogether. That is, however, unlikely. In the West, cows rule. The soundtrack of Manifest Destiny may once have been the sharp crack of gunfire aimed at Indians and wolves, but it was followed by a mellow moo. Cows graze over the bones of bison and the other creatures we eliminated to make room for them.
Our Dams, Not Theirs
Like the beavers they replaced, cows have reshaped the land — not, in their case, by creating habitat but by destroying it. The pioneers who first came upon southern Utah described the vast grasslands they found there. That grass is long gone. The soil blew away, too, and rusting fences now swing above gullies or are buried under dunes. When millions of cows and sheep were let loose on that fragile soil, massive erosion and the disappearance of that vast native grassland followed. It never came back. When Congress finally stepped in and passed grazing regulations in 1934, improvements followed.
Conservationists claim that cows are today contributing to the die-off of the West’s beloved aspen groves by eating tree seedlings and short-circuiting forest succession. They also spread highly flammable cheat grass in their voluminous poop. But whatever damage cows do directly to public lands pales in comparison to the way the infrastructure necessary for the cattle business has captured western water sources and de-watered western lands.
Stegner’s boomers dammed thousands of rivers and streams, while building pipelines through our national forests down to valley floors. Aqueducts, canals, and tunnels followed. The growth of many western towns is rooted in the building of a water infrastructure that has allowed us to suck the forests dry in order to irrigate the fields of alfalfa that feed those cows. And yet — hold onto your hats for this — only a miniscule 3% of the nation’s beef is raised in the West.
Yet at least 80% of the water out here goes to alfalfa and other cow-food crops. When you get those dire warnings about the Colorado River going dry and Phoenix and Vegas blowing away, remember this: because the cattlemen own the rights, cows get a lion’s share of whatever water is left after the western watersheds are baked and burned. We grow so much cow-food that we now essentially export our precious water to China in the form of alfalfa.
Beavers as Underdogs
Now maybe you’re beginning to see just whythe odds are so stacked against the lowly beaver. Americans have forgotten the formative nature of our relationship with that creature. Not only did European explorers encounter a landscape that had been thoroughly carved out and watered by them, but a robust trade in beaver pelts drove settlement. Pelts that were made into warm hats for wealthy people were a kind of rodent gold and trappers couldn’t get enough of them.
Under the grinding wheel of a voracious commerce in furs, beavers were so trapped-out that they seemed to be headed for the fate of the once plentiful but now extinct passenger pigeon. This precipitous decline was reversed by one of North America’s earliest conservation campaigns.
In the 1920s, through the new medium of film the public imagination was captured by a Canadian Indian named Grey Owl. He lived on a lake with his wife, Anahareo, and raised orphaned beaver kits, explaining their ecological importance and the consequences of their loss to a public unfamiliar with the beaver’s role in keeping forests healthy. As the original beaver-believers cuddled their kits, audiences ooohed and aaahed.
Eventually Grey Owl was exposed as Archie Belaney, an Englishman posing as an Indian, but by then the message he had delivered had been translated into governance. Beaver trapping was strictly regulated across most of the West and eventually many colonies recovered. Today, there are far more beavers in North America, perhaps 10 million, than at their near-extinction moment, but their distribution on the land remains thin and uneven. Once upon a time, hundreds of millions of them helped create the American landscape. It would be fitting if, in the era of global warming, the beaver’s influence came full circle, this time as a means of making heat-stressed landscapes more resilient.
Are Beavers a Plot Against Humanity?
Most of the land in the American West is federally owned and managed, despite recent schemes by local tea-hadis to take it over and sell it to the highest bidder (or closest crony). Because federal lands are a national treasure that we own together, there are rules for the sustainable use of it and sanctions for abuse. Those rules and policies are negotiated by stakeholders and change over time. That is happening now as our forests and grasslands are baked by prolonged drought.
In 2009, a Utah Beaver Advisory Committee composed of wildlife biologists, forest rangers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, and conservationists hammered out a plan to restore healthy beaver populations to their historic range across Utah “where appropriate.” The beaver’s ecological service was finally acknowledged, but with the proviso that it be balanced against “human needs.” Getting such an endorsement for restoration and protection, however qualified, was an important first step and a catalyst for a grassroots campaign to “leave it to beavers.”
An agreement had been reached among stakeholders traditionally at odds. It was a rare feat of consensus building in a political environment where acrimony generally reigns supreme and it could have been a model for resolving other conflicts over land use and regulation. Instead, local politicians, in a panic that beavers might “steal” water, have effectively resisted it.
Joe Wheaton, who teaches watershed hydrology and restoration at Utah State University, says the science on this is clear: there is no net water loss downstream from beaver dams. If anything, they only increase a watershed’s capacity by capturing water that would otherwise be lost to floods. But the cattlemen aren’t buying it. Science, you see, is just another liberal ideology. As a Kane County commissioner put it succinctly, “Beavers are an environmentalist plot.” Think of those dead beavers along North Creek that Sage Sorenson described to me as collateral damage in the ideological civil war now raging across the region.
You Can’t Drink an F-35
The Grand Canyon Trust and a local citizens group, Boulder Community Alliance, have tried to fill the gap between the advisory group’s clear intention and the state’s hesitance to overrule obstructionist county commissioners and actually implement the plan. The Trust recruited local volunteers and trained them to assess canyon drainages using the best scientific criteria and methods available. Several streams were identified as candidates for beaver reintroduction.
Volunteers monitor and report on the few existing beaver settlements like the one being decimated in North Creek. Through education and advocacy they are building a constituency for putting beavers back on the land to do their job. They have faith that the benefits of beaver reintroduction will become obvious as re-habitation happens. When the time comes to move beavers into new streams, they will be ready.
The kind of homegrown resilience practiced by Sage Sorenson and thousands of other backyard conservationists gets a paltry piece of the taxpayer pie compared, say, to homeland security. I used to say that in the long run we’d be wiser to invest in restoring watersheds than putting a camera on every corner. As it happens, given the tenacious drought now spreading across the West and Southwest, the long run seems to be here, sooner than expected. Even the Pentagon now acknowledges that ecological catastrophe sows human turmoil and suffering that eventually blows back our way. For the cost of just one of the 2,400 F-35 fighter jets we are committed to buying at historic prices, we could restore the stressed Aquarius watershed.
But the beavers don’t care what we do. They just do their own thing. They are like their human partners: persistent and oh so local.
Saving The World, Stick by Stick
Each ecosystem has its own particular dynamic. There are endless variables to understand. That’s why conservation work is ultimately local. It focuses on improvements in this river and that forest, specific habitats and watersheds with specific conditions and a set of specific inhabitants and users.
The world we aim to save is a planet of mundane dirt, air, and water that, when woven together, somehow becomes a transcendent whole. It’s a diverse universe of living plants and critters not well-suited for one big solution. Rather, it calls forth a million small solutions that add up, like the natural world itself, to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps there are no parts at all, just participants.
Will introducing beavers onto wounded watersheds save the world? The answer is: yes. That and all the other acts of restoration, protection, and restraint, small and large, individual and collective, taken together over time. Sure, it’s not the same as the U.S. taxing carbon or China abandoning coal. Restoring a watershed doesn’t curb the corporations that reduce communities to commodities. But in addition to the global goals we support, our responses to ecological crisis must be grounded in the places where we live, especially in the watersheds that nourish our bodies.
Rewilding tattered land is holistic because it sees and honors connectivity. It trades hubris for humility by acknowledging complexity and limitations. Its ultimate goal is landscape health and resilience, not the well-being of a small handful of stakeholders.
If we want to construct a healthy and resilient world for ourselves and our fellow creatures, we could do worse than look to the lowly beavers for hints on how it can be done. They build a vibrant world for themselves and so many others by weaving one small limb into another, stick by stick by stick.
First Paragraphs on Turning 70 in the American Century That Was
* Seventy-three years ago, on February 17, 1941, as a second devastating global war approached, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called on his countrymen to “create the first great American Century.” Luce died in 1967 at age 69. Life, the pictorial magazine no home would have been without in my 1950s childhood, ceased to exist as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000; Time, which launched his career as a media mogul, is still wobbling on, a shadow of its former self. No one today could claim that this is Time’s century, or the American Century, or perhaps anyone else’s. Even the greatest empires now seem to have shortened lifespans. The Soviet Century, after all, barely lasted seven decades. Of course, only the rarest among us live to be 100, which means that at 70, like Time, I’m undoubtedly beginning to wobble, too.
* The other day I sat down with an old friend, a law professor who started telling me about his students. What he said aged me instantly. They’re so young, he pointed out, that their parents didn’t even come of age during the Vietnam War. For them, he added, that war is what World War I was to us. He might as well have mentioned the Mongol conquests or the War of the Roses. We’re talking about the white-haired guys riding in the open cars in Veteran’s Day parades when I was a boy. And now, it seems, I’m them.
* In March 1976, accompanied by two friends, my wife and I got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and then adjourned to a Chinese restaurant for a dim sum lunch. If, while I was settling our bill of perhaps $30, you had told me that, almost half a century in the future, marriage would be an annual $40 billion dollar business, that official couplings would be preceded by elaborate bachelor and bachelorette parties, and that there would be such a thing as destination weddings, I would have assumed you were clueless about the future. On that score at least, the nature of the world to come was self-evident and elaborate weddings of any sort weren’t going to be part of it.
* From the time I was 20 until I was 65, I was always 40 years old. Now, I feel my age. Still, my life at 70 is a luxury. Across the planet, from Afghanistan to Central America, and in the poverty zones of this country, young people regularly stare death in the face at an age when, so many decades ago, I was wondering whether my life would ever begin. That’s a crime against humanity. So consider me lucky (and privileged) to be seven decades in and only now thinking about my death.
* Recently, I had the urge to tell my son something about my mother, who died before he was born. From my closet, I retrieved an attaché case of my father’s in which I keep various family mementos. Rummaging around in one of its pockets, I stumbled upon two letters my mother wrote him while he was at war. (We’re talking about World War II, that ancient conflict of the history books.) Almost four decades after her death, all I had to do was see my mother’s handwriting on the envelope — “Major C. L. Engelhardt, 1st Air Commando Force, A.P.O. 433, Postmaster, New York 17, N.Y.” — to experience such an upwelling of emotion I could barely contain my tears. So many years later, her handwriting and my father’s remain etched into my consciousness. I don’t doubt I could recognize them amid any other set of scribblings on Earth. What fingerprints were to law enforcement then, handwriting was to family memories. And that started me wondering: years from now, in an electronic world in which no one is likely to think about picking up a pen to write anyone else, what will those “fingerprints” be?
* There are so many futures and so few of them happen. On the night of October 22, 1962, a college freshman, I listened to John F. Kennedy address the American people and tell us that the Russians were building “a series of offensive missile sites” on the island of Cuba and that “the purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” In other words, the president of the United States was telling us that we might be at the edge of the sort of world-ending, monster-mutating nuclear war that, from Godzillato Them, had run riot in the popular culture (and the nightmares) of my childhood. At that moment, I looked directly into the future — and there was none. We were, I believed, toast. My family, my friends, all of us, from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Lima, Peru, as the president put it. Yet here I am 52 years later. As with so many futures we imagine, somehow it didn’t happen and so many years after I’m still wondering when I’ll be toast.
* If, on that same night, you had returned from the future to tell me (or other Americans) that, nearly half a century hence, the Soviet Union would barely be a memory, that there would be no other great power challenging the United States for supremacy, and that its only serious enemies would be scattered bands of Islamic extremists, largely in countries no American of that era had even heard of, my sense of wonder would have been indescribable. And I don’t doubt that the godlier among us would have fallen to their knees and given thanks for our deliverance. It would have gone without saying that, in such a future, the U.S. stood triumphant, the American Century guaranteed to stretch into endless centuries to come.
* If, on September 10, 2001, I had peered into the future (as I undoubtedly did not), whatever world I might have imagined would surely not have included: the 9/11 attacks; or those towerscollapsing apocalyptically; or that “generational” struggle launched almost instantly by the Bush administration that some neocons wanted to call “World War IV” (the Cold War being World War III), aka the Global War on Terror; or a “kill list” and drone assassination campaign run proudly out of the White House that would kill thousands in the tribal backlands of the planet; or the pouring of funds into the national security state at levels that would put the Cold War to shame; or thepromotion of torture as a necessary part of the American way of life; or the creation of an offshore prison system where anything went; or the launching of a global kidnapping campaign; or our second Afghan War, this time lasting at least 13 years; or a full-scale invasion, garrisoning, and occupation of Iraq lasting eight years; or the utterly improbable possibility that, from all of this, Washington would win nothing whatsoever. Nor, on that September day, still an editor in book publishing, barely online, and reading almost everything on the page, could I have imagined that, at age 70, I would be running a website called TomDispatch, 24/7, driven by the terrible news that would, before that day, have amazed me.
* Once upon a time, if you saw someone talking to himself or herself while walking down the street, you knew you were in the presence of mental illness. Now, you know that you’re catching a snippet of a mobile or smartphone conversation by someone connected eternally to everyone he or she knows and everything happening online every minute of the day. Not so long ago, this was material for some far-fetched sci-fi novel, not for life.
* If, on September 10, 2001, you had told me that the very way we are connected to each other electronically would encourage the evolution of an American surveillance state of breathtaking proportions and a corporate surveillance sphere of similar proportions, that both would have dreams of collecting, storing, and using the electronic communications of everybody on the planet, and that, in such a brief space of time, both would come remarkably close to succeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nor would I have been able to absorb the fact that, in doing so, the U.S. national security state would outpace the “bad guys” of the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the ambitiousness of its surveillance dreams. I would have thought such a development conceptually inconceivable for this country. And in that, touchingly, I would still be reflecting something of the America I grew up believing in.
* In my youth, I lived in the future. Riveted by the space operas of Isaac Asimov, among others, I grew up as a space nerd, dreaming of American glory and the colonization of distant planetary systems. At the same time, without any sense of contradiction, I inhabited future American worlds of wholesale destruction dotted with survivalist colonies in post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with mutants of every sort.
* I‘m no neuroscientist, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we, as a species, are hardwired for prediction. Preparing eternally for whatever danger might be just around the corner seems like such a useful trait, the sort of thing that keeps a species on its toes (once it has them). As far as I can tell, the brain just can’t help itself. The only problem is that we’re terrible at it. The famed fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of the future or, as I’ve often said, I’d be regularly riding myjetpack in traffic through the spired city of New York, as I was promised in my childhood. Our urge to predict the future is unsurpassed. Our ability to see it as it will be: next to nil.
Middle Paragraphs for a Missing American Century
* It’s been almost 13 years since the 9/11 attacks and there’s still no learning curve in Washington. Just about every step of the way in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s only gotten worse. Yet from that history, from repeated military interventions, surges, and Hail Marys in each of those countries, Washington has learned…? Yep, you guessed it: that, in a crisis, it’s up to us to plunge in again, as in Iraq today where the Obama administration is sending back troops, drones, and helicopters, plotting to support certain government figures, deep-six others, and somehow fragment various Sunni insurgent and extremist groups. And don’t forget the endless advice administration officials have on offer, the bureaucratic assessments of the situation they continue to generate, and theweaponry they are eager to dispatch to a thoroughly destabilized land — even as they rush to “broker” a destabilizing Afghan election, a situation in which the long-term results once again aren’t likely to be positive for Washington. Consider this curious conundrum: the future is largely a mystery, except when it comes to Washington’s actions and their predictably dismal outcomes.
* Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it? Fierce as the internal disagreements in that capital city may be, seldom has a ruling group collectively been quite so incapable of putting itself in the shoes of anyone else or so tone deaf when it comes to the effects of its own acts. Take Germany where, starting with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the public response to reports of massive American surveillance of the communications of ordinary Germans and their leaderswasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm. Now it turns out that the NSA wasn’t the only U.S. “intelligence” agency at work in that country. The CIA and possibly other agencies were recruiting spies inside German intelligence and its defense ministry. Polls show that public opinion there has been turning against the U.S. in striking ways, but Washington just can’t take it in. A little noted truth of this level of spying and surveillance is: it’s addictive. Washington can’t imagine not doing it, no matter the damage. If you keep an eye on this situation, you’ll see how the U.S. national security system has become a self-inflicted-wound machine.
* Here’s a question for our American moment: Why, in its foreign policy, can’t the Obama administration get a break? You’d think that, just by pure, dumb luck, there would be a few small victories somewhere for the greatest power on the planet, but no such thing. So for the post-American Century news jockeys among you, here’s a tip: to follow the waning fortunes of that century in real time, just keep an eye on Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless travels. He’s the Jonah of the Obama administration. Wherever he goes, disaster, large or small, trails behind him, even when, as in Afghanistan recently, his intervention is initially billed as some sort of modest triumph. Consider him the waning American Century personified.
* Think of the drone as a barometer of the American Century in decline. It’s the latest “perfect weapon” to arrive on the global scene with five-star reviews and promises of victory. Like the A-bomb before it, by the time its claims proved false advertising, it was already lodged deeply in our world and replicating. The drone is the John Kerry of advanced weaponry. Everywhere it goes, it brings a kind of robotic precision to killing, the problem being that its distant human trigger fingers rely on the usual improbable information about what’s actually on the ground to be killed. This means that the innocent are dying along with all those proclaimed “militants,” “high-value targets,” and al-Qaeda(-ish) leaders and “lieutenants.” Wherever the drone goes, it has been the equivalent of a recruiting poster for Islamic militants and terror groups. It brings instability and disaster in its wake. It constantly kills bad guys — and constantly creates more of them. And even as thenegative reports about it come in, an addicted Washington can’t stop using it.
Last Paragraphs on Turning 70 (a Requiem for the American Century)
* The true legacy of the foreshortened American Century, those years when Washington as top dog actually organized much of the world, may prove apocalyptic. Nuclear weapons ushered that century in with the news that humanity could now annihilate itself. Global warming is ushering it out with the news that nature may instead be the weapon of choice. In 1990, when the Soviet system collapsed and disappeared, along with its sclerotic state-run economy, capitalism and liberal democracy were hailed in a triumphalist fashion and the moment proclaimed “the end of history.” In the 1990s, that seemed like a flattering description. Now, with 1% elections,an unmitigated drive for profits amid growing inequality, and constant global temperature records, the end of history might turn out to have a grimmer meaning.
* Global warming (like nuclear war and nuclear winter) is history’s deal-breaker. Otherwise, the worst humanity can do, it’s done in some fashion before. Empires rise and fall. They always have. People are desperately oppressed. It’s an old story. Humans bravely protest the conditions of their lives. Rebellions and revolutions follow and the unexpected or disappointing is often the result. You know the tale. Hope and despair, the worst and the best — it’s us. But global warming, the potential destruction of the habitat that’s made everything possible for us, that’s something new under the sun. Yes, it’s happened before, thanks to natural causes ranging from vast volcanic eruptions to plummeting asteroids, but there’s something unique about us torpedoing our own environment. This, above all, looks to be the event the American Century has overseen and that thedrive for fossil-fuel profits has made a reality. Don’t fool yourself, though; we’re not destroying the planet. Give it 10 million years and it’ll regenerate just fine. But us? Honestly, who knows what we can pull out of a hat on this score.
* Let me put my cards on the table. I’m the guy who started two of his book titles with the phrases “the end of” and “the last days of,” so think of me as apocalyptic by nature. I don’t believe in God or gods, or for that matter an afterlife. In all these years, I’ve never discovered a spiritual bone in my body. Still, I do care in some way that I can’t begin to understand what happens to us after I’m dead, what in particular happens to my children and my grandson, and his children and theirs, too. Go figure.
* My father’s closest friend, the last person of his generation who knew him intimately, died recently at 99. To my regret, I was no longer in touch. It nonetheless felt like an archive closing. The fog of the past now envelops much of his life. There is nobody left to tell me what I don’t know about all those years before my birth. Not a soul. And yet I can at least recognize some of the people in his old photos and tell stories about them. My mother’s childhood album is another matter. Her brother aside, there’s no one I recognize, not a single soul, or a single story I can tell. It’s all fog. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way; we don’t like to imagine that we, in the present, will disappear into that fog with all our stories, all our experiences, all our memories.
* Here’s a question that, in a globally warming world, comes to mind: Are we a failed experiment? I know I’m not the first to ask, and to answer I’d have to be capable of peering into a future that I can’t see. So all I can say on turning 70 is: Who wouldn’t want to stick around and find out?
* Here’s the upbeat takeaway from this requiem for a foreshortened American Century: history is undoubtedly filled with seers, Cassandras, and gurus of every sort exactly because the future is such a mystery to us. Mystery, however, means surprise, which is an eternal part of every tomorrow. And surprise means, even under the worst conditions, a kind of hope. Who knows just what July 20, 2015, or 2025, or 2035 will usher on stage? And who knows when I won’t be there to find out. Not I.
* By the way, I have the urge to offer you five predictions about the world of 2050, but what’s the point? I’d just have to advise you to ignore them all.
Israel’s favorite metaphor for its periodic strikes on Gaza—”mowing the lawn”—suggests violence that is routine, indiscriminate, and risk-free. (Photo: United Nations Photo / Flickr)
The Palestinians of Gaza are guilty of that new post-Cold War misdemeanor: voting while Muslim. The punishment for this crime has been eight years of economic hardship, international isolation, and periodic Israeli bombardments.
Like the Algerians in 1990 and the Egyptians in 2012, Gazans went to the polls in 2006 and voted for the wrong party. Rather than supporting the secular choice, they cast their ballots for Hamas. Not all Palestinians are Muslim (6 percent or so are Christian). But by opting for the Islamic Resistance Movement—Hamas, for short—Gazans had effectively nullified their own ballots.
It didn’t matter that the EU and other institutions declared the elections free and fair. The results were what mattered, and Israel’s judgment carried the day. Even though the newly elected government extended an olive branch to both Israel and the United States, the Israeli government didn’t consider Hamas a legitimate political actor.
“Israel stated that Hamas were terrorists and Western leaders did not challenge this line,” writes Cata Charrett in an excellent piece at Mondoweiss. “On the contrary, they refused to meet diplomatically with Hamas leaders, they cut off all possible financing to the newly elected government, and they supported Israel’s complete sanction and seizure of Gazan territory.” A direct peace overture to President George W. Bush offering a long-term truce went unanswered.
Voting while Christian or voting while Jewish has not led to similar results. Christian Democrats have won elections in Europe without generating boycotts or warnings about an imminent descent into clerical autocracy. The ultra-religious Shas party has participated in ruling coalitions in Israel without incurring the wrath of the international community.
But Hamas, its critics insist, is different because it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Ditto the Muslim Brotherhood. Even Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and Tunisia’s Ennahda are suspect, according to those who hold to the dictum that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.
The fear of Islamic fundamentalism taking over the Middle East through the ballot box began in 1990 when the Islamic Salvation Front won 55 percent of the vote in local elections in Algeria. The following year, with the Front poised to win the national elections, the Algerian government banned the party and jailed its leaders, precipitating a civil war that left more than 100,000 people dead. At the time, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian declared that the U.S. government opposed what it called “one person, one vote, one time.” Washington worried about the possibility that Islamist parties would use democratic means to rise to power and then kick away the democratic ladder beneath them.
This prospective outcome prompted the United States to continue supporting its traditionally authoritarian allies in the region. The Arab Spring offered some hope that the United States had changed this policy, with the Obama administration withdrawing its support, albeit reluctantly, from Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak just before he stepped down in early 2011. But the older preference for status-quo strongmen has reasserted itself, as Washington has looked the other way at Nouri al-Maliki’s obvious faults in Iraq, continued to support the royal elite in Bahrain, and quickly moved to embrace coup leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Egypt.
Let me be clear: I wouldn’t vote for Hamas. And I would rather that the party clearly recognized the right of Israel to exist (just as I would prefer the Republican Party to recognize the right of gay marriage to exist).
But my preferences are beside the point. Hamas represents a large constituency. Many Gazans voted for the party because they were disgusted with the corruption of the secular Fatah movement and were impressed with the social service systemHamas had created. Like other resistance movements—the African National Congress, the Irish Republican Army—Hamas was on its way toward becoming a political party. If such a party takes power only to behave undemocratically—as the Muslim Brotherhood arguably did in Egypt—that’s a different question. But if you claim to respect democracy, you must recognize the results of free and fair elections. And if you want a party to change its position—and it’s willing to talk—you have to sit down at the table and negotiate with it.
But Israel—and by extension the United States—didn’t choose this option. As a result, a border conflict has raged ever since, with two particularly severe flare-ups in 2008-9 and 2012.
Last month, Hamas and Fatah set aside their own substantial grievances and forgeda unity agreement on administering both Gaza and the West Bank. Here was a perfect opportunity for Israel to move forward with a new deal. In reality, however, this was a signal for Israel to go on the offensive. It just needed an excuse. When Gazan militants linked to the Islamic State (formerly ISIS), but not Hamas, kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu had his excuse.
Israel’s latest bombing campaign has already left nearly 200 Palestinians dead. Roughly 70 percent are civilians; more than 30 of the victims are children. Israeli bombs have fallen on houses, apartment buildings, a disability center, a café. Foreigners have even volunteered to be human shields at a hospital that has already been struck twice. The Israeli Defense Forces maintain that they warn residents of a building beforehand of a strike, but this practice is inconsistent.
Some Israelis refer to their periodic shelling of the Palestinian territory as “mowing the lawn.” It is a disturbing metaphor because it is so indiscriminate. They don’t talk about “weeding the garden” or “pruning the trees.” A lawnmower cuts down everything in its path—grass, weeds, wildflowers. Also, a lawn needs constant mowing, suggesting that Israel plans to conduct bombing campaigns on a seasonal basis.
But Netanyahu may well see an opportunity to eliminate Hamas altogether. The organization no longer can count on support from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Syria’s Assad. Ties with Iran were also strained by the support Hamas provided to rebels fighting in Syria. Nor can the territory rely on supplies coming in through tunnels from the Sinai. Those to the right of Netanyahu—unbelievably, the Israeli political spectrum has such ultraviolent frequencies—are reportedly pressing the government to launch a ground offensive. Mowing the lawn would then quickly become a scorched earth policy.
It’s not a fair fight. The casualty rates are grotesquely asymmetrical. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has reduced the number of casualties on the Israeli side to a single death so far. Gazans have fled by the thousands to the southern part of the territory while Israelis have set up plastic chairs on a mountain overlook to watch the bombs explode in Gaza as if they were fireworks.
In this way, Israel has entered the same murky moral territory that the United States entered during the conflicts in Kosovo and Libya. It is currently waging effectively risk-free warfare. Governments that don’t have to deal with public response to the deaths of either soldiers or civilians are freed of the conventional political calculus involved in prosecuting a war. Such a government may also be less willing to compromise, for there is no significant counterweight to military action, at least when it comes to aerial attacks.
So far, however, it’s been Hamas that has rejected the latest ceasefire, brokered by Egypt. Hamas has its reasons. It wants the release of its members who were rearrested in June after being set free in a deal in 2011. And it wants an end to the blockade that has turned Gaza into a virtual prison for its inhabitants. But Egypt’s deal didn’t reflect any of these concerns.
The major players continue to violate the most fundamental rule of conflict resolution: taking into consideration the underlying interests of all parties to the conflict. The problem goes back at least to 2006, when Hamas won an election that Israel and the United States failed to recognize.
Netanyahu still believes that he can bomb Gazans into changing their underlying interests. The real question is: how long will the Obama administration persist in supporting this delusion?
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.
For America’s national security state, this is the age of impunity. Nothing it does — torture, kidnapping, assassination, illegal surveillance, you name it — will ever be brought to court. For none of its beyond-the-boundaries acts will anyone be held accountable. The only crimes that can now be committed in official Washington are by those foolish enough to believe that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth. I’m speaking of the various whistleblowers and leakers who have had an urge to let Americans know what deeds and misdeeds their government is committing in their name but without their knowledge. They continue to pay a price in accountability for their acts that should, by comparison, stun us all.
As June ended, the New York Times front-paged an account of an act of corporate impunity that may, however, be unique in the post-9/11 era (though potentially a harbinger of things to come). In 2007, as journalist James Risen tells it, Daniel Carroll, the top manager in Iraq for the rent-a-gun company Blackwater, one of the warrior corporationsthataccompanied the U.S. military to war in the twenty-first century, threatened Jean Richter, a government investigator sent to Baghdad to look into accounts of corporate wrongdoing.
Here, according to Risen, is Richter’s version of what happened when he, another government investigator, and Carroll met to discuss Blackwater’s potential misdeeds in that war zone:
“Mr. Carroll said ‘that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,’ Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit. ‘Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,’ Mr. Richter stated in his memo. ‘I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.’”
When officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, heard what had happened, they acted promptly. They sided with the Blackwater manager, ordering Richter and the investigator who witnessed the scene out of the country (with their inquiry incomplete). And though a death threat against an American official might, under other circumstances, have led a CIA team or a set of special ops guys to snatch the culprit off the streets of Baghdad, deposit him on a Navy ship for interrogation, and then leave him idling in Guantanamo or in jail in the United States awaiting trial, in this case no further action was taken.
Power Centers But No Power to Act
Think of the response of those embassy officials as a get-out-of-jail-free pass in honor of a new age. For the various rent-a-gun companies, construction and supply outfits, and weapons makers that have been the beneficiaries of the wholesale privatization of American war since 9/11, impunity has become the new reality. Pull back the lens further and the same might be said more generally about America’s corporate sector and its financial outfits. There was, after all, no accountability for the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Not a single significant figure went to jail for bringing the American economy to its knees. (And many such figures made out like proverbial bandits in the government bailout and revival of their businesses that followed.)
Meanwhile, in these years, the corporation itself was let loose to run riot. Long a “person” in the legal world, it became ever more person-like, benefitting from a series of Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unions and ordinary Americans even as it gave the corporation ever more of the rights and attributes of a citizen on the loose. Post-9/11, the corporate world gained freedom of expression, the freedom of the purse, as well as the various freedoms that staggering inequality and hoards of money offer. Corporate entities gained, among other things, the right to flood the political system with money, and most recently, at least in a modest way, freedom of religion.
In other words, two great power centers have been engorging themselves in twenty-first-century America: there was an ever-expanding national security state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by anyone, ever more deeply enveloped in secrecy, ever more able to see others and less transparent itself, ever more empowered by a secret court system and a body of secret law whose judgments no one else could be privy to; and there was an increasingly militarized corporate state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by outside forces, ever more sure that the law was its possession. These two power centers are now triumphant in our world. They command the landscape against what may be less effective opposition than at any moment in our history.
In both cases, no matter how you tote it up, it’s been an era of triumphalism. Measure it any way you want: by the rising Dow Jones Industrial Average or the expanding low-wage economy, by the power of “dark money” to determine American politics in 1% elections or the rising wages of CEOs and the stagnating wages of their workers, by the power of billionaires and the growth of poverty, by the penumbra of secrecy and classification spreading across government operations and the lessening ability of the citizen to know what’s going on, or by the growing power of both the national security state and the corporation to turn your life into an open book. Look anywhere and some version of the same story presents itself — of ascendant power in the boardrooms and the backrooms, and of a sense of impunity that accompanies it.
Whether you’re considering the power of the national security state or the corporate sector, their moment is now. And what a moment it is — for them. Their success seems almost complete. And yet that only begins to tell the strange tale of our American times, because if that power is ascendant, it seems incapable of being translated into classic American power. The more successful those two sectors become, the less the U.S. seems capable of wielding its power effectively in any traditional sense, domestically or abroad.
Anyone can feel it, hence the recent Pew Research Center poll indicating a striking diminution in recent years of Americans who think the U.S. is exceptional, the greatest of all nations. By 2011, only 38% of Americans thought that; today, the figure has dropped to 28%, and — a harbinger of future American attitudes — just 15% among 18-to-29-year-olds. And no wonder. By many measures the U.S. may remain the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the planet, but in recent years its ability to accomplish anything, no less achieve national or imperial success, has shrunk drastically.
The power centers remain, but in some still-hard-to-grasp way, the power to accomplish anything seems to be draining from a country that was once the great can-do nation on the planet. On this, the record is both dismal and clear. To say that the American political system is in a kind of gridlock or paralysis from which — given electoral prospects in 2014 and 2016 — there can be no escape is to say the obvious. It’s a commonplace of news reports to suggest, for example, that in this midterm election year Congress and the president will be capable of accomplishing nothing together (except perhaps avoiding another actual government shutdown). Nada, zip, zero.
The president acts in relatively minimalist ways by executive order, Congress threatens to sue over his use of those orders, and (as novelist Kurt Vonnegut would once have said) so it goes. In the meantime, Congress has proven itself unable to act even when it comes to what once would have been the no-brainers of American life. It has, for instance, been struggling simply to fund a highway bill that would allow for ordinary repair work on the nation’s system of roads, even though the fund for such work is running dry and jobs will be lost.
This sort of thing is but a symptom in a country of immense wealth whose infrastructure is crumbling and which lacks a single mile of high-speed rail. In all of this, in the rise of poverty and a minimum-wage economy, in a loss — particularly for minorities — of the wealth that went with home ownership, what can be seen is the untracked rise of a Third World country inside a First World one, a powerless America inside the putative global superpower.
An Exceptional Kind of Decline
And speaking of the “sole superpower,” it remains true that no combination of other militaries can compare with the U.S. military or the moneys the country continues to put into it and into the research and development of weaponry of the most futuristic sort. The U.S. national security budget remains a Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-style infusion of tax dollars into the national security state, something no other combination of major countries comes close to matching.
In addition, the U.S. still maintains hundreds of military bases and outposts across the planet (including, in recent years, ever more bases for our latest techno-wonder weapon, the drone). In 2014, it still garrisons the planet in a way that no other imperial power has ever done. In fact, it continues to sport all the trappings of a great empire, with an army impressive enough that our last two presidents have regularly resorted to one unembarrassed image to describe it: “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.”
And yet, recent history is clear: that military has proven incapable of winning its wars against minor (and minority) insurgencies globally, just as Washington, for all its firepower, military and economic, has had a remarkably difficult time imposing its desires just about anywhere on the planet. Though it may still look like a superpower and though the power of its national security state may still be growing, Washington seems to have lost the ability to translate that power into anything resembling success.
Today, the U.S. looks less like a functioning and effective empire than an imperial basket case, unable to bring its massive power to bear effectively from Germany to Syria, Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to the South China Sea, the Crimea to Africa. And stranger yet, this remains true even though it has no imperial competitors to challenge it. Russia is a rickety energy state, capable of achieving its version of imperial success only along its own borders, and China, clearly the rising economic power on the planet, though flexing its military muscles locally in disputed oil-rich waters, visibly has no wish to challenge the U.S. military anywhere far from home.
All in all, the situation is puzzling indeed. Despite much talk about the rise of a multi-polar world, this still remains in many ways a unipolar one, which perhaps means that the wounds Washington has suffered on numerous fronts in these last years are self-inflicted.
Just what kind of decline this represents remains to be seen. What does seem clearer today is that the rise of the national security state and the triumphalism of the corporate sector (along with the much publicized growth of great wealth and striking inequality in the country) has been accompanied by a decided diminution in the power of the government to function domestically and of the imperial state to impose its will anywhere on Earth.