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Tag: "environment"

Environmental Protection and Unions

[ 8 ] April 29, 2012 |

A couple of weeks ago, I slammed United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts for attacking the Environmental Protection Agency.

I have a piece up at Alternet exploring this issue in greater detail. An excerpt:

It makes little sense for Roberts to side with the coal companies on the EPA or anything else. The companies have little sympathy for the people of Appalachia. A century ago, they ruled the coal country like a fiefdom, murdering union organizers and forcing workers into generations of endemic poverty. It took organizers like Mother Jones and John L. Lewis to pull the companies out of the Middle Ages. In the 1880s and 1890s, coal companies in Tennessee used convicts as slave labor, leading to a major labor uprising in 1891. In 1921, West Virginia erupted into war after workers, tired of decades of oppression, took up arms when a sympathetic law enforcement was murdered by company thugs; over 100 union members were murdered in the weeks to follow. After decades of struggle, conditions for coal miners slowly improved, but the companies never stopped fighting against reforms. Thousands of miners died of black lung disease throughout the 20th century, but the companies refused to recognize the illness or grant compensation to victims until Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

The coal companies continue to treat workers’ lives as expendable. Coal mining remains one of the nation’s most dangerous professions. We rarely hear about the miner or two dying each month in accidents, but the death of 29 miners in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine grabbed Americans’ fickle attention. Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch, had a long history of labor violations and was openly contemptuous of safety regulations. Most of the coal industry reflects Massey’s indifference to worker health and safety.

Moreover, the mine companies have sought to reduce employment for decades. In 1920, 784,000 Americans were employed in the coal industry. By 2000, that number fell to 71,000 while coal production has increased. Not only have the companies looked to lay off as many workers as possible, but the certainly don’t care about the people of Appalachia at large. Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed forests and streambeds, remade the region’s geology, dumped toxic chemicals into waterways and rivers, and forced people off their land. Outside of climate change, mountaintop removal is the greatest ongoing environmental disaster in the United States.

Frankenstein Wildlife Management

[ 16 ] April 28, 2012 |

There’s a lot of weird wildlife management going on in the Pacific Northwest. First, you have the killing of barred owls in order to save spotted owls. The barred owls have naturally migrated to the Northwest where they alternatively mate with and/or kill their smaller cousins. But because the environmental movement sued the federal government to list the northern spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in order to stop old-growth logging on federal lands, there are a lot of vested interests in keeping the spotted owl a viable species (environmental organizations, government scientists) and an equal number of interests (logging companies, rural politicians) that would like to see the spotted owl go extinct. The temporary solution has been for the government to shoot barred owls, which is ridiculous and awful.

Another area of contention in Pacific Northwest wildlife management concerns the salmon population. For over a century, the Northwest has decimated its salmon populations through damming rivers, overfishing, industrial pollution, and effectively creating a new river ecology throughout the region. Yet people remain employed in catching the few salmon left in the region and they want to see their livelihoods protected against all threats–including sea lions and birds:

Oregon officials were successful in getting permission to kill sea lions that feed on protected salmon trying to swim upriver to spawn. Now they want federal approval to shoot a sea bird that eats millions of baby salmon trying to reach the ocean.

In an April 5 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service obtained by The Associated Press, Oregon Wildlife Chief Ron Anglin says harassment has “proved insufficient” in controlling double-crested cormorants, and officials want the option of killing some of the birds.

Oregon needs federal approval to start shooting double-breasted cormorants because the birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Once considered a nuisance bird, cormorants were added to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1972, the same year the pesticide DDT was banned.

Like eagles and other predatory birds, cormorant numbers started to climb. Current estimates are that about 70,000 cormorants live in the West between southern British Columbia, the Mexico border and the Continental Divide, said Dan Roby, a professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University who is studying the birds.

If only we legalized DDT, we wouldn’t have this problem!

I understand the needs of salmon fishers to survive, but like the region’s loggers in the 1980s, there comes a time when you have to prioritize the resource over employment in a dying industry. And that time comes when you start killing native species evolved to eat fish in order that you can catch those fish. This is a worldwide problem; in the United States, you have dying cultures of fish workers who can’t survive anymore because they’ve simply fished everything out. That’s a big issue right now in New England as Whole Foods is refusing to buy fish caught at unsustainable levels, which includes many of the fish New England fishing boats rely on to make a living. And that’s horrible for those workers, but it’s reaching a point where we can either keep fishing and have no fish left at all or stop fishing these species for 10 years, let the populations rebound, and then institute a more rational fishing regime.

And in both cases, there would have been plenty of trees and fish to harvest if technological advancement hadn’t rapidly upscaled the pace of production. Maybe there’s nothing that can be done to stop new technologies from transforming an industry, but they can have negative effects on long-term employment.

Cambodian Forest Activist Killed

[ 5 ] April 27, 2012 |

As we cut down our last tropical forests, decimating the lungs of the planet, at least a few people are bravely trying to stop it. In Brazil those activists are routinely killed. And now they are in Cambodia as well.

Although since I now understand that freedom means “letting loggers log,” I guess the illegal Cambodian loggers are the real heroes here.

I, For One, Want America to Fail

[ 109 ] April 27, 2012 |

This is how conservatives see environmentalists:

There is so much about this that is remarkable. On a personal level, I love that the spotted owl still drives conservatives nuts 20 years after the issue was settled. It also increases my concern that the killing of spotted owls by barred owls will become a real problem for environmentalists, as the use of the Endangered Species Act as the single tool to stop old-growth logging on federal lands makes the unintentional disappearance of the species a threat for the continued protection of those trees.

I also love how the video talks about Europe as if it were Zimbabwe, the anti-Chinese imagery (even as the companies behind this all send their own manufacturing jobs to China), and the pot shot at Al Gore.

Also, we need more shots of the Statue of Liberty from people who probably also oppose immigration.

This is pure conservative resentment, honed in on the hippies.

Ernest Callenbach, RIP

[ 18 ] April 27, 2012 |

Ernest Callenbach, author of Ecotopia, has died. One of the most influential books of the environmental movement, Ecotopia tells the story of a secessionist Northwest that has committed itself to living sustainability.

I must admit, I rather strongly dislike the book. Published in 1975, the book tells the story of William Weston, a mainstream reporter who goes to investigate the new nation of Ecotopia, consisting of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. It explores various ways of green living, but is really about the conversion of Weston to the cause, not only through the demonstration of sustainability, but though smoking a lot of pot, uninhibited sex, and absurd games of warfare meant to foster a particular kind of hippie manhood. While it’s interesting to imagine a sustainable America, there’s much to roll your eyes over. The sex scenes are laughably bad. The manhood exercises are totally ludicrous. And while it was written in 1975 and under the ethnic nationalist context of the times, the fact that not only is virtually everyone in the novel white but that the other secessionist black republic of Oakland is treated in a stereotypical way is deeply frustrating. Is environmentalism only for white people? In Ecotopia, it sure seems this way.

On the other hand, my students LOVE Ecotopia. I’ve only assigned it once actually and I thought they’d see through the ridiculous parts of it to find an interesting window into 70s environmentalism. I think they were sucked in by the drugs and sex, but in any case they clearly saw it as a model of living in 2010. And that’s fine I guess, there is a vision for them to follow in the book, though I hope they can combine with a vision of critical reading skills.

Certainly part of my issue with the book is growing up in Eugene around a counterculture heavily influenced by Callenbach. A hippie, I am not. But Callenbach’s heart was in the right place with the novel and his impact still resonates today.

Fort Ord

[ 10 ] April 25, 2012 |

I was very happy to see President Obama use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create Fort Ord National Monument in California, protecting some of the last wild land in the Monterey Bay area. It looks super cool and I would love to visit.

I don’t however see how using the Antiquities Act is a “bipartisan” move as the Sierra Club’s National Military Family and Veterans Representative Stacy Bare says (nevermind the obvious question of the oddness of such a title). Using the Antiquities Act is probably a good sign that, even though creating the monument was widely supported in California, that a bill creating it was unlikely to get through Republicans in Congress. Theodore Roosevelt pioneered the executive creation of national monuments precisely to bypass Congress and there’s no doubt Obama is doing that here.

Agriculture, Child Labor, and Monocultures

[ 26 ] April 23, 2012 |

Big agriculture is going to the mat for what really matters–exploiting child labor.

Last year, two teenagers handling a large grain auger had their legs severed while working at the Zaloudek Grain Co. in Oklahoma. The Department of Labor (DOL) proposed rules that might have prevented this tragedy. The rules, designed to curb dangerous child labor in agriculture, were finally unveiled last year after a long delay. The labor changes would preventchildren from working in harsh conditions, including operating heavy machinery.

But as Republic Report noted earlier this year, agricultural industry lobbyists have worked aggressively to cut the DOL’s ability to implement this regulation. We showed how Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), backed by campaign contributions and lobbying support from the farm lobby, circulated a letter to undercut the child labor rules. Now, Senator John Thune (R-SD) has a bill — euphemistically called the Preserving America’s Family Farm Act — that would revoke the DOL’s authority to prevent children from working on farms in dangerous conditions, including in manure pits.

Anytime Denny Rehberg and John Thune are behind a bill, you know it serves the interests of evil.

Speaking of agriculture, Dan Charles has an excellent story at NPR about how agriculture has tried to eliminate e coli outbreaks–by doubling down on the agriculture monoculture, seeking to kill animal in the fields and every plant that might provide the animals shelter. This classically high-modernist approach to agriculture has had major repercussions of its own, including a vast increase in erosion and declining wildlife habitat. It also suggests that the extreme management of the land for a single purpose, even food safety, might not be the best way to think about nature. It is highly unlikely problems with e coli and agribusiness stem from mice or owls; instead, while no one knows how the e coli got in the spinach, it probably comes from somewhere in the industrialized agriculture process. Eliminating the species that naturally occur in fields inherently makes little sense for a healthy nature. But of course, that’s not what agricapitalism has in mind. Any threat to the short-term profit motive must be eliminated, even if it undermines the long-term viability of the industry.

Book Review: Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow, The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden

[ 12 ] April 22, 2012 |

One of the nation’s wealthiest communities, Aspen, Colorado has a complex relationship with the environmental movement and social justice. While a community deeply self-conscious about its own liberal politics, Aspen hasn’t shown much tolerance for the poor. In fact, worried that immigrants might overrun the high mountain paradise, in 1999 the Aspen City Council passed an ordinance petitioning Congress and the president to restrict the number of immigrants, legal or illegal, who enter the United States. Citing concerns about overpopulation and the destruction of American environments, Aspen civic leaders became prominent voices of the anti-immigrant wing of the environmental movement. Meanwhile, these same Aspenites, who included some of the nation’s wealthiest and most famous people, showed their concern for the environment by building 10,000 square foot mansions with heated driveways on steep mountain slopes.

Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow use this incident as a jumping off point for their study of white privilege, immigrants, and the environment in Aspen, The Slums of Aspen. Focusing on the idea of “environmental privilege” as the flip side of environmental racism, Park and Pellow contrasts the elite lifestyle of the city’s residents with the people who make the city run: the cooks, shopworkers, and maids who work for cheap, live in substandard housing with long commutes into the uber-expensive city, and never get to enjoy the famous Rockies of Colorado. This environmental privilege means that only certain people can have access to the mountains because of the capital outlay necessary to access it. As the authors say, the Aspen lifestyle “requires the domination of the environment and of certain groups of people.”

Park and Pellow savage the green capitalism of Aspen, noting what they call “The Aspen Logic.” The Aspen Logic is the ultimate greenwashing. It’s living an elite mountain lifestyle, a lifestyle with huge negative impacts on the environment, while promoting a facade of environmentalism (recycling!) that does little to nothing to mitigate rich people’s impact on the planet. The Aspen Logic rejects any environmentalism that does not center capitalism and or that challenges white privilege.

Meanwhile, Park and Pellow spend a great deal of time with the largely Latino workforce in Aspen. They are feared and hated by the wealthy residents, forced into trailer parks far away from their jobs, and then attacked by Aspenites for despoiling nature through that housing. These workers don’t get to enjoy the mountains around them. They aren’t skiing or hiking. Instead, they are working two or three jobs to make ends meet, trying to save money to get through seasonal downturns in employment, and surviving without health insurance. The rich’s playground is their workplace, which might be OK on one level, except that their sheer presence is deeply resented and they are subject to racism by politicians, the police, and owners of the high-end stores in Aspen. Moreover, if exposure to the “environment,” as popularly conceived is supposed to regenerate us, do working-class people and non-whites have a right to access that regeneration? Or should we just tolerate (at best) their presence in order to facilitate our own time with the mountains?

All and all, this is an righteously angry book. And that’s fine, I agree with every point I’ve described so far. But I do have to take issue with their one-sided characterization of environmentalism. They treat environmentalism as a monolithic movement, with the residents of Aspen standing in for all environmentalists:

the mainstream environmental movement in the United States is most definitely not a movement concerned with racial justice. Nor has it shown much willingness to fight for even the broader–and less controversial–goal of social justice. This is not only because it has often traditionally been reserved for middle- and upper-class populations but also because it has always been haunted–indeed–fueled by a strong thread of white supremacy and nativism.

Whoa there. They are right that there is a strand of racism within environmentalism, pointing to such figures as Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey (both of whom clear racists), not to mention the roots of conservation in the early 20th century (which they don’t much talk about). But there’s also an equally long history of environmentalists working with other movements for the benefit of all. Not to mention the growing environmental justice movement that sparks great passion in the students I teach. Even if this statement had a measure of accuracy in 1999, this book came out last year and I just don’t buy it anymore.

With this exception, The Slums of Aspen is a pretty good and revealing book worth reading for those interested in environmental inequality or the state of Colorado. But constructing a monolithic environmentalism is a sizable demerit that puts a disappointing spin on an otherwise solid piece of activist scholarship.

What Have We Learned?

[ 7 ] April 22, 2012 |

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the landmark book connecting pesticide usage with species decline. Carson noted the very real threats of chemicals on humans as well as species and helped usher in the environmental movement that transformed the nation in important ways during the 1960s and 1970s. Elizabeth Kolbert wonders if, a half-century later, we have learned anything. It seems not. Kolbert cites several studies suggesting that colony collapse disorder in bees, a disease threatening the commercial viability of several fruits and vegetables we routinely eat, has happened because of a new type of pesticide. These neonicotinoids are neurotoxins that all these studies show completely decimates bee hives.

We may not have learned anything from Silent Spring, but Monsanto sure has. Unhappy with a research firm that produced a study critical of the Monsanto-produced neonicotinoids that are causing colony collapse, Monsanto simply bought the research firm. That’s some old-school Gilded Age action right there, like when Jay Gould used to buy newspapers who said bad things about him.

Unions and Environmentalists

[ 9 ] April 20, 2012 |

Jane McAlevey has a great piece on the problems unions and environmentalists have faced for the past thirty years bridging the gap between them to fight together for better work and cleaner nature. Using the union divide over whether to support the Keystone XL Pipeline as a jumping off point, McAlevey points out that while both labor and environmentalists sort of know that they have common enemies, neither can really overcome their political narrowness and cultural divides to create long-lasting alliances. Labor thinks its only job is to build unions, regardless of the cost while environmentalists are mostly middle and upper-class and aren’t comfortable talking to or about working-class people.

As I show in my theoretically forthcoming book, the International Woodworkers of America in fact did do a ton of work to create alliances with the Pacific Northwest’s environmental community, in part by sacrificing some logging and supporting wilderness areas and in part by centering on environmental justice at the workplace. In fact, it is on issues of environmental justice that labor and environmentalists have the most potential to create mutual change. These struggles are almost by definition extremely local so scaling up these alliances could be difficult, but it would be great to see both unions and environmentalists fight for vigorous enforcement and expansion of OSHA and EPA regulations.

Sustainable Meat and Localized Agriculture

[ 127 ] April 13, 2012 |

I don’t agree with all of James McWilliams’ attack on localized agriculture, but it is useful correction to the fawning deification of Michael Pollan, backyard chickens, grass-fed beef, etc. All of those things have their very important qualities, but if we are really serious about creating more environmentally-sustainable food without cutting back on meat consumption (and let’s be honest, as a society we are not serious about this), we should be aware that these are complex questions without easy answers.

“Virgin” Forests and the Sexist Language of Land Use

[ 238 ] April 5, 2012 |

Sharon Friedman makes a very good point about the language of environmentalism, particularly the use of the term “virgin forests.”

Calling anything involving forests “virgin” muddles the concepts of “old-growth,” “native forests” and “past practices,” promotes the notion of nature as female and humans as male, and slanders all the non-virgins in the world. It’s so sloppy a usage that it conveys a trifecta of trickiness: three bad ideas surreptitiously conveyed in one word.

Perhaps even worse than talking about “virgin forests” is describing some human activities in forests as “rape.” The key difference between the sacred act of union and the crime of rape is mutual consent. At this point in human and forest development, we cannot ask the forests permission and hear them say, “No.” Using the term inappropriately demeans the word itself, which should remain powerful and specific about a brutal violation.”

The gendering of forests has multiple problems, as Friedman points out. Not only does it reinforce sexism in society, equating sexual intercourse and the destruction of resources, but it also creates real problems in land management. While the Wilderness Act of 1964 doesn’t use the term “virgin,” it does say this:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.

This language avoids the sexist language of thinking about forests as women to despoil, but it assumes that changed land is like a sexually active woman–of less value and not worth preserving. In fact, the language of the Wilderness Act became an incentive for developers and agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to speed up development of certain areas, such as building random roads, just to exclude lands from wilderness consideration.

Like a sexually active woman, a forest changed by people is not ruined. Human activity should not change the status of land any more than sex should change how society treats women.

As Friedman points out, it would be nice if after forty or more years of an active environmental movement, we could use different language to describe the land. But then again, I’d argue that environmentalism has some major gender problems to overcome, as do scholars of the environment. I had a wonderful time at the American Society for Environmental History conference last weekend in Madison, but there wasn’t squat on the program about gender and nature. And that’s a big problem in its own right.

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