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Tag: "environment"


[ 85 ] January 11, 2013 |

Alyssa Battistoni has an interesting and lengthy piece at Jacobin about natural disasters, what will cause us to do something about them, what lessons do we leawrn, and a lot of other things. I think it’s been out for a little while, but I just read it.

The reality is that we will learn nothing from Sandy just like we learned noting from Katrina or any other natural disaster. Climate change is far and away the greatest challenge we face as a nation and a planet. No other issue is even close. But even when bizarre disasters hit the U.S. (and world) again and again, even when New York City gets hit by 2 hurricanes in 2 years, even when an iconic American city is nearly wiped off the map, literally nothing of consequence is done. The upshot of climate change is that we will do absolutely nothing, 80% of the world’s plant and animal species will go extinct, our children and grandchildren will live worse lives than we do. We will still do nothing.

One nit to pick with Alyssa. Historians need to do a better job of pushing back on the myths around the Dust Bowl. She uses it as an example of when the U.S. did react to a natural disaster:

The Dust Bowl and the Depression offer the most obvious example of successful left politics in response to dual environmental and economic crises. Driven by radical organizing, the country essentially instituted basic income schemes that paid farmers not to farm and others to do public works. It was the obvious referent for the wave of enthusiasm for green jobs and a New New Deal in the early days of the Obama administration—perhaps too obvious, failing to take into account the differences of the current situation. But those hopes have faded in the face of austerity, and with it much of whatever tentative blue-green alliance there was, to say nothing of a red-green one. Both labor and environmentalists are becoming more confrontational in their tactics, but they’ve largely retreated to their own camps. In the vacuum that’s resulted, it’s not hard to imagine newfound bipartisan attention to climate change being used to advance proposals for blunt austerity measures instead of radical redistribution, capitalizing on the popular perception of environmentalism as asceticism to justify—or deflect blame for—a familiar neoliberal agenda.

This lesson from the Dust Bowl really isn’t true (I’ll leave the contemporary issues of labor and environmental movements for now). The New Deal and Dust Bowl were almost totally coincidental. New Deal policies exacerbated what we see as a major consequence of the Dust Bowl–migration out of the Plains. Tom Joad and clan were not pushed out by the Dust Bowl, it was centralization of agriculture and the eviction of tenant farmers due to AAA policies. Two major impacts of the Dust Bowl on federal policy was the Soil Conservation Service and the National Grassland system, but neither of these were major federal responses that changed the nation in particularly profound ways (important as the SCS is from some perspectives). The other was the beginning of the agricultural subsidy system, which although heavily mutated in the 70s always had the effect of centralizing agricultural control with big farmers. Dust Bowl policies really weren’t an example of successful left politics. By the 1950s, more native prairie was plowed up than ever and the agricultural capitalism that created the Dust Bowl was more powerful than it had ever been in 1932. As a society, we learned nothing at all from the Dust Bowl.

Climate Change

[ 84 ] January 9, 2013 |

Yeah, I’m sure the United States having its hottest recorded year in history in 2012 by a full degree and Australia’s Bureau of Meterology having to come up with new colors for its temperature maps because of the hottest temperatures in the history of the continent is just anecdotal evidence of climate change. Nothing to see here. After all, there’s 3 inches of snow on the ground in the northeast!

The Dark UN Conspiracy Takes Another Hero

[ 98 ] December 4, 2012 |

Thank God (thank HIM!!!!!!!) for Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, who is willing to stand up against Satan’s grand strategy to use his minions (the United Nations) to destroy this great nation through such horrors as urban planning. In October, Rogers led his peers to hear a speaker at the state capitol building railing against the dark conspiracy known as Agenda 21, a nonbinding, voluntary UN action plan in favor of sustainable development. I’ve never heard of such a threat to the United States and God’s plan for us to develop the nation’s resources to generate profits for wealthy white people who can then store their riches offshore in the Cayman Islands.

Satan takes his pound of flesh though (though given Satan’s nefarious agenda, he probably prefers organic, locally-produced flesh. Not to mention a kilogram of flesh instead of a pound) and Rogers is now “resigning” from the Georgia Senate to “spend more time with his family.” Can we Christians take a few minutes away from building more suburban developments in wetlands to rescue our hero? Don’t you know that “spending more time with his family” is a euphemism for “sustainable, walking cities?” My god, there might be black people in those places! And not every store would have a parking lot the size of Rhode Island! Can you imagine the horror? If we don’t save him now, will Satan take him to the never before known 20th Circle of Hell–making him an employee of an NGO working with indigenous people to save their lands from oil development?


[ 18 ] November 28, 2012 |

Do you like to dive?

Do you like cool colorful tropical fish?

Do you like coral reefs?

If you do, take advantage now because they are going away very, very fast.

In another 50 years, coral reefs will be a myth our grandchildren won’t believe, like unicorns and moderate Republicans.

The United Mine Workers and Environmentalists

[ 21 ] November 16, 2012 |

The Labor and Working-Class History Association has started a new blog called Labor Online. I was asked to be a contributing editor. Here’s my first post, on the United Mine Workers attacks on environmentalists and the Democratic Party and how workers allow companies to blind them to corporate malfeasance by buying into blaming environmentalists for job losses. In part:

As someone who grew up in the middle of the spotted owl crisis of the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s, I understand why the UMWA has sided with the bosses—its members are scared to death of losing their jobs. But climate change is also a labor issue. Natural disasters inordinately affect the poor. Studies have connected climate change and poverty to project higher rates of heat stroke, asthma, and other health problems among working-class people.

Many in labor support a vigorous fight against climate change. Perhaps they can serve as a bridge to environmental organizations. What must happen is more meaningful dialogue between the UMWA and environmentalists. The UMWA’s primary mission is to protect its members’ jobs. Without coal, what happens to thousands of families in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania? There’s no easy answer. But attacking the EPA is not going to bring union jobs back to Appalachia. Demonizing environmentalists only serves to alienate alliances with other progressives the UMWA and other unions need to fight for a better future


Climate Change and Coffee

[ 61 ] November 14, 2012 |

If this doesn’t get Americans interested in climate change, nothing will:

A cup of morning coffee could be much harder to find, and much more expensive, before the century is out thanks to climate change and the possible extinction of wild Arabica beans.

That’s the warning behind a new study by U.K. and Ethiopian researchers who say the beans that go into 70 per cent of the world’s coffee could be wiped out by 2080.

Researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia looked at how climate change might make some land unsuitable for Arabica plants, which are highly vulnerable to temperature change and other dangers including pests and disease.

They came up with a best-case scenario that predicts a 38 per cent reduction in land capable of yielding Arabica by 2080. The worst-case scenario puts the loss at between 90 per cent and 100 per cent.

There is a “high risk of extinction” says the study, which was published this week in the academic journal Plos One.

I personally think coffee is disgusting. But an old organizing mantra is that you have to meet people where they are at. And a lot of you really like coffee. Coffee is a very sensitive plant. I’ve seen hillsides in Central America where coffee will grow on part of it but not the other part. It needs a very particular climate. That could get much, much harder to find.

More on Wild Horses

[ 7 ] November 14, 2012 |

Building upon yesterday’s discussion, Jaymi Heimbuch provides a really good roundup of the complexities of wild horses on the western range.

For as legitimate as the reasons to want to control their population, I have to say that I saw a herd of wild horses running through the badlands of North Dakota when I was 11 years ago and that sight is burned into my brain to the present. It was amazingly cool.

Wild Horses

[ 21 ] November 13, 2012 |

The legacy of wild horses in the West is somewhat complicated. They are iconic, evoking images of a lost, wild and romantic West. On the other hand, they can be pretty damaging to fragile dry-land vegetation and cause a good bit of erosion. On the third hand (since this is extra-limbed creature day at LGM), they are related to a long-lost indigenous species of horse that populated the West until the Pleistocene era.

Even if you think wild horses aren’t a great thing, it’s hard to understand a “long-time advocate of horse slaughter” who is buying horses from the Bureau of Land Management and shipping them to Mexico for slaughter. Talk about a dirty (and illegal) way to make money.

Also, this:

America’s Industrial Food System: An Environmental Disaster

[ 21 ] November 13, 2012 |

Exhibit A: The rise of 8-legged frogs. These happen at the end of a long ecological chain that begins with farm runoff from our heavily fertilized agricultural landscapes.

Exhibit B: Farm towns in California that can’t drink the water because of agricultural run-off. Not surprisingly, these towns are poor and populated mostly by Latino farmworkers. Typically, those who have the least power and money are disproportionately affected by environmental problems. This story of environmental injustice means that already impoverished schools have to spend precious resources on bottled water instead of playgrounds or teachers or laptops. But hey, I’m sure if we just busted teacher unions that these schools would perform better…..

New York’s Future

[ 49 ] November 4, 2012 |

I found these proposals to re-reengineer New York City pretty interesting. Essentially there are 3–create marshlands on the edge of Manhattan to serve as a buffer against rising sea levels and big storms while also placing permeable roads that would allow storms to seep into the soil, create oyster beds which do the same and also help with water quality, and a storm barrier/drawbridge to protect Staten Island. Not sure about the last one, but the first two provide some very good ideas. Marshlands, managed retreat from the lowest lying areas, oysters, permeable streets–these are plans that make a lot of sense. Huge engineering projects like building barriers in the ocean are not only ungodly expensive but also are not likely to work over the long term–and it only takes one failure for a complete disaster to strike. Blending the big and small makes a lot of sense on a number–likelihood of success, aesthetics, ecology, and cost. Oyster beds and marshlands might not seem very New York what with its Empire State Building and Museum of Modern Art and hub of world modernity, but a move away from futuristic modernist thinking is in order to deal with climate change realistically.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of political will out there to pay for any reasonable kind of public works to protect our low-lying cities. If there were, we would first allow the Mississippi to flood naturally and rebuild the marshlands that protect New Orleans, but since Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, there’s been only the tiniest of progress on this while more of the swamps turn into open water, leaving New Orleans more vulnerable than ever.

Book Review: Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

[ 22 ] November 4, 2012 |

At the intersection of our hyperactive 24-hour news cycle media culture and the long-term effects of environmental inequality lies what the post-colonial literary scholar Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” Nixon argues that the long-term cumulative effects of climate change, toxic dumping, deforestation, and other environmental catastrophes both escape the developed world’s short attention span (the slow violence that the developed world doesn’t think of as violence) and eventually lead to what he calls “the environmentalism of the poor.” That is a very different style of environmentalism than the wilderness and biodiversity environmentalism of the wealthy United States; these movements are about the poor defending themselves from the corporate and state environmental exploitation they face that steals their water, poisons their soil, and makes them sick.

Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (usefully summarized in this Chronicle piece) has multiple audiences. Nixon creates a Venn diagram of influences in his preface, placing himself where Edward Said, Rachel Carson, and Ramachandra Guha meet. His choices have a point–scholar-activists who transcended discipline and audience to speak to the world. Nixon is frustrated with how postcolonial studies (and literary studies more broadly) have retreated into a jargon-heavy cocoon of the academy, dooming itself to growing irrelevancy. Nixon wants to use textual analysis to make a difference in the world and to bring environmental literary studies and postcolonial studies together. He rightfully notes that literary environmentalism has too often taken on an American cast with an American conception of environmental problems while postcolonial studies has repeated the beliefs of postcolonial states that environmentalism is a colonial movement with the nefarious goal of preventing Africa, Asia, and Latin America from rising to world power.

As an environmental historian and not a literary scholar, I can’t speak to the literary criticism or Nixon’s critique of his field with any great insight. He uses a broad range of texts, focusing heavily on writers of the developing world such as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jamaica Kincaid, and the towering Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif (reading about John Updike’s condescending critique of the book as not properly formal or within the Euro-American tradition was both amusing and eye-rolling at the same time). He also focuses on non-fictional texts, particularly from Wangari Maathai and Arundathi Roy, with the broader goal of elucidating the relationship between writers and social movements.

I can however offer my insights into the broader idea of slow violence, which I think is tremendously useful. Think about the Haiti earthquake in 2010. As Nixon wryly notes, slow violence doesn’t mesh with media and electoral cycles in the United States and Europe, so it drops out of sight quickly. Despite Anderson Cooper’s noble attempt to keep the story in the news cycle longer than such an event normal’s coverage, it has almost totally disappeared off our radar screens. Yet the people of Haiti still deal with the long-term implications of this every day. The Haiti earthquake isn’t a direct act of corporate or state violence, but like most natural disasters, the aftermath was created by social and economic inequalities developed over a long period of time. The long history of French slave colonialism, Euro-American isolation of the black republic after independence, and American interventions and support of dictators in the 20th century means that Haiti does not have the political, social, or economic resources to recover from catastrophic events.

Eventually, poor people often organize around the slow violence to their environments, health, and lives. Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement was a tremendous challenge to the Kenyan state of Daniel arap Moi. The Ogoni Rebellion that led to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution was a response to the Nigerian government-oil corporation alliance to exploit the Niger delta and allow the tribes who make that once fertile area home live with widespread pollution and violence every day. These are landscapes that Nixon notes are rendered disposable by capitalism; faraway and with no media attention paid to them, corporations can make alliances with corrupt local elites to trash a region and its people for short-term profits. If they do get called out in the United States or Europe, their public relations people can draw on talk about the resiliency of nature to undermine calls for regulations or to punish their behavior. Meanwhile, the slow violence continues, whether it is Indians in Bhopal still suffering from the aftermath of the Union Carbide disaster or Iraqis dying from depleted uranium exposure.

Nixon’s conception of slow violence has usefulness for our understanding of the past as well. Certainly capitalism viewed the forests of the Pacific Northwest as utterly disposable and wanted to leave local people to deal with the consequences, like it had done in Alabama and Maine and Minnesota. People like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot could respond to the very visible environmental damage done to the forests, but the lives of loggers were more hidden. Getting sick and dying from the industrialized landscape of the forests, loggers themselves were forgotten about, even by most regional reformers. The Pacific Northwest was a center of Progressive and socialist politics, yet it’s amazing how completely off the radar screen the region’s struggling itinerant labor force was to reformers, suffering from violence slow and distant enough even to fall out of the media cycle of a century ago. I am arguing in my book that loggers created their own environmentalism of the poor, to use Nixon’s term, between 1910 and 1950.

Nixon’s book is not only important reading within literary studies, but to anyone thinking about environmental justice and the relationship between the developed and developing world. Even leaving aside what I assume are quite valid critiques of his academic subdisciplines, Nixon helps to rethink both the role of the writer as activist and the relationship between the media cycle, violence over space and time, the corporate-state alliance, and environmental organizing among the world’s poor.

Can We Execute Those Who Miss Their Tornado Touch Down Predictions by One Mile?

[ 54 ] October 22, 2012 |

Nothing is more likely to guarantee good science than sentencing those who allegedly missed an earthquake prediction to six years in prison.

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