This story about the siphoning of water from the Sacramento River to the big corporate farms and cities of southern California says a lot about the future of water resources in the West, and the nation more broadly. Water is the #1 issue in western development. It’s a true axiom in American history that those who control water control power. With climate change, the West’s oversubscribed water supplies are more hotly contested than ever. It’s pretty clear to me that over time, the priorities for water are going to be a) cities, b) corporate farms, 3) slightly less corporate farms, 4) the environment. Meaning the environment will get as little as the will allow. And despite the very real power of agriculture, it doesn’t match the power of voters who are desperate for their own water.
For this week’s Forestry Friday post I want to follow up on last week’s discussion of drug cartels destroying the forests of Mexico by bringing this story into the forests of California. A team of scientists at UC-Davis conducted a study about recent deaths in the population of the rare Pacific fisher, a member of the weasel family. What they found was disturbing. Essentially, the Mexican drug cartels are using a huge amount of rat poison on their hidden plantations in the Sierra Nevada. The rodents eat the poison, but they don’t die immediately. As predators kill the still living rodents, they ingest the poison into their own system. It builds up and they die a horrible, painful death that turns their internal organs to mush. 79% of the fisher carcasses studied had rat poison in their system.
Of course, fishers aren’t the only animals to eat forest rodents. Like other poisons, it moves up the food chain. The study worries about the impact of poison on other predatory mammals. The effect of this poison upon birds has not been studied, at least to my knowledge, but we can probably make an educated guess about that. This rat poison, which the cartels use in huge amounts (I’ve seen the original report with DEA pictures from raided pot plantations), also washes into streams and affects fish and other aquatic creatures.
Effectively, this poison enters the food chain in ways not dissimilar from DDT and other famous poisons. Of course, this is not widespread enough to truly cause a Silent Spring-type scenario, but on a local level, this rat poison could have an enormous effect on the forest ecosystem.
There are two logical policy moves that would help eliminate this problem. In the short term, the DEA needs to put its resources toward eliminating these cartel operations and away from the easier to find operations on the west coast. Second, we need to decriminalize marijuana. California will eventually decriminalize, over the objections of the pot growers themselves who profit off criminalization, but it has to be nationwide. Otherwise, the cartels still have reason to go into our national forests and tear up the environment in order to provide Americans’ seemingly insatiable demand for the drug.
If you haven’t read Karla Zabludovsky’s piece today on locals in Michoacán organizing to fight illegal logging by criminal gangs that is robbing them of their livelihood and traditional ways of life, you really must do so. A few points on this:
1. While legalizing marijuana in the United States would rob the Mexican criminal gangs of a major source of income, the idea that it would somehow resolve the violence in Mexico is absurd. Maybe at one time such a thing might have made a major difference but not now. The gangs have moved into any number of other activities, including kidnapping, extortion, the illegal wildlife trade, and logging, as well as of course smuggling hard drugs. Of course, the U.S. could shut the flow of guns to Mexico but that would violate my rights to have a personal arsenal the size of the Honduran army or something.
2. That locals have to organize to fight these criminals says a lot about the failures of the Mexican government over the last 70 years or so to bring rural communities into state. Effectively, the government has given up any hope of paroling these areas. While the post-revolutionary state did take major steps forward under the Calles and Cardenas regimes, after 1940, it really stalled out. Although Mexico is a fairly well off country by developing world standards, resources never flowed into rural areas and neither did a state presence. The long-time rule of a single party state is the real culprit–the PRI made sure the leaders of these communities bought into the program and that was good enough. There was never much incentive for the state to deliver in these communities.
The “uses and customs,” or usos y costumbres, that some indigenous communities rule themselves under have positive benefits, but it is also deeply complex and fraught with intra-community tensions, as my wife Kathleen McIntyre shows in her dissertation on evangelicalism and religious conflict in indigenous Oaxacan villages.
But while usos y costumbres might give these indigenous communities some power to fight the criminal gangs, it’s absolutely pathetic that they have to rely on this instead of the Mexican police force. This just says so much about the problems Mexico faces. Why does everyone look the other way on all the drug smuggling, the killing of women in Juarez, the illegal logging, and so much else? Because the state refuses to pay cops enough to make it worth their while and because the state never bothered developing the infrastructure that would provide economic options to people. And while I may be a bit harsh on governance in a relatively poor country, the Mexican government deserves a lot of blame here.
3. This illegal logging is both a social and ecological disaster. Ecologically, among other things it severely threatens the future of the monarch butterfly, since even in this central tourist destination, the Mexican state is unable/unwilling to protect the forests the monarch relies upon to survive. Plus you have the survival of many other species placed in peril, from migratory birds to all too rare mammal populations to rare plants. The forests of Michoacán also contain mushrooms the local people rely on for their economy. With those disappearing, the future of these villages is very much in doubt.
On another note, I am starting a new series on the blog that I am calling Forestry Friday. I’ll have a forestry related post each week on some aspect of current or historical forest issues. Why? Because I care a lot about these issues and I hope you will too.
Bill McKibben lays it out for us–climate change is the greatest problem of the 21st century by enormous levels of magnitude.
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.
Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world’s nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn’t even attend. It was “a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago,” the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls “once thronged by multitudes.” Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.
When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.
McKibben names a clear enemy: the fossil fuel industry and the greed of their executives. I don’t disagree with this, but I think it is a bit more complicated–the person who wants a monster truck that gets 7 mpg is also kind of the enemy, as is the suburban family who wants to commute 50 miles each way to work with an 9 mpg SUV. Of course, this is also too simplistic since we can have conversations about how and why capitalists stoked those demands. But that’s fine, I guess I understand the need to make this argument. Plus there’s no question that early 21st century monopoly capitalism is a huge issue. If the government made a good faith effort to open the energy market to clean innovators, maybe we could make some progress, but as we’ve seen with the Solyndra non-scandal, even the slightest attempts to do so will spark fake outrage among oil’s bought politicians in Congress.
More problematic is the false hope McKibben provides at the end of the article, when he suggests that we should put pressure on the petroleum corporations like activists in the 80s did to the apartheid regime of South Africa:
The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you’d still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies. But the link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The same logic applies to the world’s largest investors, pension funds, which are also theoretically interested in the future – that’s when their members will “enjoy their retirement.”) “Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective,” says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk. “The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.”
Yeah, I don’t know. The environmental movement is really concerned that it doesn’t come across as too negative. The fear is that if they tell the unvarnished truth without providing hope that people will just shut off. So rather than give the full jeremiad, screaming from the rooftops about the horror about to change all of our lives if we don’t change our ways RIGHT NOW!!!!, McKibben suggest pressuring students pressuring college administrations to pressure corporations to change their ways. That’d be great if we were talking about social policy. But instead we are taking about the future of life on the planet. Given the very real nature of the crisis, something that during this horrible heat wave and drought most Americans are just beginning to feel (but nothing compared to what it will look like 10 or 20 years from now), the call for traditional types of campaigns that make liberals feel good just feel inadequate. Climate change writers shouldn’t pull their punches. The issue is too important.
No? It was scorching hot and dry, even if humid? Hard to imagine why, given that this week’s drought update shows the nation in officially the worst drought of the 21st century. An amazing 42% of the nation is in Severe Drought and 14% in Extreme Drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
As we see during most heat waves, the number of people who believe climate change is happening peaking. During cold spells in the winter, the number dives. This reminds me of one of the biggest problem in creating long-term environmental reform–everybody believes their personal experience in the norm. There’s a Facebook cartoon I’ve seen a couple of people put up recently that tells everyone to shut up because it’s the summer and it’s supposed to be hot. Well, no. Or at least not like this. 2012 is almost certainly going to go down as the hottest year in the history of the United States. Most of the other leading years are also in the very recent past. There has basically never been a heat wave in the history of this country like the current one plaguing the eastern half of the country for the last month.
But we very quickly internalize this as normal.
This isn’t just climate. I was talking to a environmental scientist friend of mine recently who recalled a conversation with the owner I think of a timber operation. The guy didn’t understand why he needed to comply with stormwater drainage regulations. He said the rivers turn brown anyway. And my friend was like, that’s not natural! It’s the result of logging and erosion and other issues. But if you see it for more than a short time, you can easily internalize it and assume that you are not responsible.
That’s hardly a recent phenomenon. Whites moved onto the western Great Plains in large numbers in the late 19th century. Places like western Nebraska and eastern New Mexico became exciting spots to start a farm. It seemed like a great idea at the time because there was enough rain. Everyone assumed there would always be enough rain. But the 1880s and 1890s were unusually wet decades and when the land dried up, it became impossible to live out there. That’s why you see so many abandoned buildings in these places–they are the homesteads of people from 50, 70, 100 years ago who finally gave up on the land. Plus the farming out there had major environmental impacts, particularly the plowing of the sod to plant grains. When the drought came, nothing grew and the soil blew away, leading to the Dust Bowl.
I’m not sure what you do about this. But it’s really really hard to create policies to fight climate change when we assume our own experiences are normal. Combine this with the right-wing propaganda machine telling everyone climate change is a liberal myth and you have a recipe for doing nothing.
The Times hosted a “Room for Debate” about forest fires. They address it in a silly way, asking “Does the Government Cause or Prevent Wildfires?” Um, both? Also, wrong question.
The fundamental problem is that wealthy people have moved to the forest edge, built large homes without proper vegetation clearance to protect those homes from the common fires in dry-land western forests, don’t want to pay taxes or serve in rural western volunteer fire departments, and demand full service from the government for every little problem they have. This latter point is getting to be a bigger deal every year–since it is mostly those past middle age with the money to buy land in the mountains outside of Denver, the need for medical services in remote places grows precipitously. But I’ll leave that aside for now. And then there’s climate change exacerbating the situation.
The government has played a role in making the problem worse through a century of fire prevention that was unnatural and created an overgrowth of vegetation that has allowed superfires to develop. But that’s not just the government–the timber industry lobbyed around this ideology that all fires must be suppressed. And today, with ecologists and botanists suggesting that foresters manage the forest in a more historically natural way, austerity-loving Republicans, often from the states where these fires take place, have decimated funding for both controlled burns and fire-fighting. For instance, the air fleet we use to fight fires is laughably old and many of the planes are quite dangerous and should not be flying. Of course, there’s no plans to replace them since there’s no money in the budget.
Briefly going through the contributors to the Times debate, H. Sterling Burnett is a timber industry hack and employee of the Heartland Institute who argues that more logging would solve our problems. Uh, no. Steven Pyne is an environmental historian of an older generation whose denigration of cultural history alienated me a long time ago; he calls for a middle ground between environmentalists and development makes more sense on a theoretical level than a practical one. In any case, saying more grazing is part of the answer raises a lot of red flags. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing on a certain level with libertarian Randal O’Toole for Christ’s sake (at least if you strip away all the anti-regulation howlers), who says that if you move to the edge of the forest, it’s your responsibility to save your own home. Obviously I don’t go that far, but he is right that these people who choose to live with national forests as their backyards have to understand that there could be consequences for that decision.
I am more comfortable with the arguments of the others. Carolyn Kousky points out that federal fire suppression efforts serve as a subsidy for rural development in high fire-risk zones, something that Mike Davis also pointed out in his seminal essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Molly Mowery correctly notes that urban (or exurban I guess) planners need to center fire prevention in building codes. And Kevin Boston rightly calls for better forestry policy, which would solve a lot of problems but is also very expensive to implement given the state of the forests, a point also noted by Marc Johnson.
I don’t imagine I write anything that get less comments here than my posts on land management and forestry policy, but this stuff is extremely important. As we’ve seen in Colorado this year and Texas last year and who knows where next year (or later this summer), out of control forest fires cause immense human tragedy, are hugely expensive to taxpayers who subsidize federally declared disaster areas, and devastate parts of our beautiful nation in ways that traditional fires rarely did. Thinking about fire policy in conjunction with urban planning is part and parcel in thinking about how to run our nation intelligently.
Despite the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which was groundbreaking workplace safety legislation, not only have coal miners been exposed to insane amounts of coal dust, but federal regulators and the coal industry have known about this for 20 years.
What has happened?
First, even though the total number of people employed by the coal industry has declined precipitiously, the average hours for coal miners still working has gone up by 11 hours a week over the last 30 years. That’s a terrible thing for many reasons, but, as the NPR story states, it exposes workers to 600 hours of additional coal dust exposure per year.
Second, new technology has vastly increased the amount of coal mined, putting more dust in the air and thus making workers’ lives more dangerous.
Probably the biggest issue is that the mine owners resist every move to test for black lung. Like industries around the country, the coal mining capitalists have attempted to take control of the regulatory process in order to roll back the protections miners have made. They are less successful during Democratic administrations, but quite successful when Republicans are president.
Ward also makes a big deal about labor rejection of black lung testing from Democratic administrations for being too weak, but I don’t see this as a big deal. Given how little Democrats listen to labor on every other issue, I don’t see much evidence that labor anger over lax testing systems would cause Democrats to abandon them. While Ward is usually quite good, his piece has a Both Sides Do It theme that is unwarranted here. The problem with black lung codes is not that the union cares about its members too much.
In any case, if the goal of industry is to return the United States to the Gilded Age, killing coal miners with black lung is a pretty good way to do it.
Science educator Bill Nye on Monday told CNN that they weren’t doing the public any favors by giving climate change deniers equal airtime because “the two sides aren’t equal.”
“There are a couple of things that you can’t really dispute,” Nye explained to CNN’s Carol Costello. “Sixteen of the last 17 years have been the hottest years on record. That’s just how it is.”
“I appreciate that we want to show two sides of the stories — there’s a tradition in journalism that goes back quite a ways, I guess — but the two sides aren’t equal here. You have tens of thousands of scientists who are very concerned and you have a few people who are in business of equating or drawing attention to the idea that uncertainty is the same as doubt. When you have a plus or minus percentage, that’s not the same thing as not believing the whole thing at all.”
But I thought both sides were responsible?
There’s no way to know whether the fires ravaging Colorado are caused by global warming per se. Similarly, there’s no way to know whether the all-time high temperatures expected to be set in cities in the Midwest and South over the next few days are caused by global warming. Or the all-time warm winter and spring many states experienced this year.
Scorching heat, high winds and bone-dry conditions are fueling catastrophic wildfires in the US west that offer a preview of the kind of disasters that human-caused climate change could bring, a trio of scientists said on Thursday.
“What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author for the UN’s climate science panel. “It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster … This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future.”