Good on Harry Reid to push so hard against the Cliven Bundys of his state and make his legacy protecting huge swaths of land from development. And good on his political skills for pushing it to the top of Obama’s land agenda, to the point where 700,000 acres will soon be named Basin and Range National Monument. And in these days of intensely partisan land conservation struggles, it is remarkable for its size and for the president’s willingness to go around the complex politics that most recent national monuments have undergone to slowly build some kind of local consensus around designation. That’s all about Harry Reid’s political career and his political acumen.
When teaching about postwar America, I always tell my students that just about anything that happened in this nation during the Cold War has its roots in Cold War politics or fed back into Cold War issues. Jacob Hamblin’s 2013 book Arming Mother Nature demonstrates how this is true for what he calls “catastrophic environmentalism,” or the idea that human activities will transform the world in shocking and horrible ways. Hamblin shows how this thinking comes straight out of the military-industrial complex that was researching how total war of the quite possible World War III would also be an environmental war. By using biological weapons and detonating hydrogen bombs, the death of millions of people could bring a nation to its knees. But in planning for these future wars, the military also needed to understand just how turning the environment into a catastrophe would affect humans. Thus the same scientists that were developing these weapons were also providing early ecological understanding of how humans impacted the planet. The apocalyptic language of people like Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson makes a great deal of sense in this context, when much of our early environmentalism used Cold War language as a response to the threat of technological development to the planet. After all, those researching and promulgating Cold War doctrine used the exact same language to describe their own plans.
American scientists expected to arm nature in war against the USSR. World War II scientists had already explored this sort of warfare and the Japanese had gone forward with it. To briefly quote Hamblin “scientists in the decades after World War II worked on radiological contamination, biological weapons, weather control and several other projects that united scientific knowledge of the natural environment with the strategic goal of killing large numbers of people”(4). This could be everything from experiments with bull semen and seed storage to help Americans survive such an attack to destroying regional food supplies to starve nations into submission or launching disease bombs to spread deadly illness. In all of these plans, scientists wanted to deploy nature itself as a weapon.
But wouldn’t such warfare kill millions of Americans as well? Sure, but these scientists held two strong beliefs that made them optimistic about long-term recovery. First, they largely did not believe humans could really control nature in the long term. Thus, they might make short-term alternations that could win a war but in the long term nature held all the cards and the old natural balance would eventually be restored. Second, they believed Americans had a better capacity to rebuild their society than the Soviets because they felt the American free market economy would recover more quickly than socialist state planning. Pure ideology at play here.
The Soviets, North Koreans, and eastern Europeans did accuse the Americans of actually deploying these plans, such as the Czechs blaming the expansion of the Colorado potato bug across their nation on American biological warfare. But mercifully, actual deployment remained largely theoretical, even if Al Gore Sr. suggested dumping all of our nuclear waste on the border between North Korea and South Korea to stop any further communist incursions. But far too much of this program did become active in Vietnam where the U.S. engaged in significant environmental warfare through the use of napalm and other herbicides. Students at Penn discovered in 1966 that one of its chemistry professors was researching a government project to create diseases in rice that could be used in Vietnam. This not only led to campus protests in the country but a rethinking of ethical relationships between scientists and the government, leading to pressure for academic scientists to break ties with its military sponsors working on biological warfare.
Interestingly, the overwhelming public and international reaction to American environmental warfare led Richard Nixon to harness the growing popular movement of environmentalism to his own international agenda. Nixon decided to sacrifice the most far-fetched parts of the American environmental warfare program such as weather control and biological weapons through international treaties in order to save what mattered to him–the nuclear program. He tapped into not only the rhetoric of ecocide coming out of the anti-Vietnam movement but broader environmentalism to make him seem like a strong leader on the issue, but always within a Cold War context. First, he forced NATO to create a committee on environmental issues for collective security around the issue. Then he tried to make the U.S. the international leader on the environment, leading to the Stockholm conference of 1972 and the UN Environment Programme. Nixon had shed the U.S. of programs that now seemed more trouble than they were worth, made himself look like a global environmental leader, and ensured that the core mission of U.S. military research remain untouched. Smart politics if typically cynical.
My one critique of the book is that when discussing the rise of environmentalism, Hamblin does not really engage with how it was a truly a popular movement and how such catastrophic ideas affected the grassroots either before or after people like Barry Commoner, Carson, and Ehrlich wrote their famous books. Particularly frustrating is how he defines Nixon in this environmentalism, noting “many of the key pro-environment national developments came during his presidency, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.” (190) I have said many times on this blog, this says almost nothing about Nixon and much about the overwhelming congressional majorities responding to popular pressure that passed these bills. In the bigger picture of the book, this is pretty minor and I realize that Hamblin is not a bottom-up historian of the environmental movement, but I don’t see how reinforcing myths about Nixon the environmentalist is useful.
Finally, the question of whether catastrophic environmentalism is effective in dealing climate change remains a bit unclear. Hamblin does not come down strongly on this issue, but he’s a bit skeptical. He notes that the major problem with such claims is that they are fairly easily debunked and notes how Bjorn Lomberg has taken up that mantle on climate change. Yet it’s unclear to what extent Lomborg has really made much difference in these debates and I think far more effective is what Hamblin notes earlier–the embrace of free-market economics and use of patriotism to attack environmentalism as well as the belief that humans can’t really truly control the natural world that finds its way into right-wing talking points around the earth naturally warming or extinction or other parts of the “debate.” The end of the Cold War ended the threat of catastrophic warfare but not the language or culture that rose up around it, attitudes that still influence both environmentalism and those who oppose the environmental movement.
In truth, this complex and fascinating book has a lot more going on than I can say here. You should read it.
The sprawling Navajo Nation that covers northeast Arizona and parts of southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico is a huge chunk of land that is beautiful, unique, and fragile. This largely high desert area can certainly sustain life but it’s dryness means that climate change makes it highly prone to long-term changes that severely limit that ability to sustain life. There was a major report on the impact of climate change on Navajo lands prepared last year that certainly covers these issues in detail.
Yet we have to be careful about how we lump all environmental change in with climate change. This article talking about how sand dunes have made one-third of the Navajo Nation uninhabitable and blaming climate change is a case in point. There’s no question that climate change is making this problem worse. But at the end of the piece, someone mentions overgrazing. And in this case, that’s the real issue. Ever since the return of the Navajo from the Bosque Redondo to a piece of their native lands in 1868, enormous herds of sheep have roamed this fragile landscape, causing widespread erosion and most of the problems mentioned in this article. Part of this return meant the Navajo had to give up their raiding ways and although their reservation was large and became larger, was not nearly the extent of land where they had previously lived. This all meant more emphasis on the sheep economy. As early as the 1930s, the erosion was clearly visible on the land. This is when John Collier, as part of his Indian New Deal, intervened and forced the Navajo to cull their herds. This was a total disaster. While Collier was a welcome change from the usually corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs for most tribes and the Indian New Deal a step in the right direction, with the Navajo, Collier had no idea what he was doing. As Marsha Weisiger details in her excellent book Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country, Collier’s methods in dealing with the erosion problem undermined women’s status in Navajo society, increased class divisions by favoring wealthy herders, and probably most significantly, created long-term suspicion of conservation methods as anti-Dine in Navajo society. So sheep herding grew again and continued almost unabated.
That’s what is primarily creating this desertification on the Navajo Nation. I don’t doubt that climate change is a factor. But this is largely a socioeconomic/colonialist creation.
The potential for a strong labor-green coalition to fight for healthy workplaces and ecosystems clean enough for people to enjoy in their free time was a threat to corporations. Companies responded to environmentalism’s rise by taking advantage of a road the American government had already opened to them—moving their operations away from the people with the power to complain about pollution. They did this in two ways. Some industries scoured the nation, seeking the poorest communities to place the most toxic industries. They assumed those communities, usually dominated by people of color, would not or could not complain. The companies would work with corrupt local politicians to push through highly polluting projects before citizens knew what was entering their communities. Other industries went overseas, seeking to repeat their polluting ways in nations that lacked the ability or desire to enforce environmental legislation. Capital mobility moved toxicity from the middle class to the world’s poor.
In 1978, Chemical Waste Management, a company that specialized in handling toxic waste, chose the community of Emelle, in Sumter County, Alabama, as the site of its new toxic waste dump. Corporations contracted with Chem Waste to handle their toxic waste. Sumter County was over two-thirds African American and over one-third of the county’s residents lived in poverty, but whites made up the county political elite approving the decision. In Emelle, more than 90 percent of the residents were black. This is why Chem Waste chose Emelle. They worked with a local company led by the son-in-law of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace to acquire the site. No one told local residents what was to be built there. Local rumors suggested a brickmaking facility. The company dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxic materials at the site. Despite claiming it was safe, the company racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Such activities were common for Chem Waste. It always chose communities like this to site its dumps—Port Arthur, Texas, in a neighborhood that was 80 percent people of color; Chicago’s South Side in a neighborhood 79 percent people of color; and Saguet, Illinois, a 95 percent African American area.
The racist actions of companies like Chemical Waste Management led to the environmental justice movement. By fighting for the environments where we live, work, and play, environmental justice has redefined environmentalism and connected capital mobility with environmentalism by focusing on how corporations make decisions about where to locate toxic exposure. Through the environmental justice movement, people of color began adapting the language of environmentalism to their struggles with toxicity and pollution. Scholars usually date the movement to an incident in 1982 when the state of North Carolina wanted to dump six thousand truckloads of toxic soil contaminated with PCBs in a predominantly African American section of Warren County. More than five hundred protesters were arrested. Civil rights leaders and community members began tying racism to environmentalism, noting how the Environmental Protection Agency in the Southeast had targeted African American communities for toxic waste dumping. A new social movement was born. Alabamians for a Clean Environment formed to fight the Emelle toxic waste site.
Chemical Waste Management had built a toxic waste dump in Kettleman City, California, a 95 percent Latino town in a white majority county. When the company planned to add a toxic waste incinerator, residents fought back, forcing Chem Waste to withdraw its application in 1993. Residents and the company still battle over environmental justice there today. African Americans in Anniston, Alabama, won a lawsuit against the chemical company Monsanto, which paid $390 million in 2003 for contaminating their neighborhood with PCBs, while residents of Norco, Louisiana, defeated Shell Oil in court, forcing it to pay for them to move away from the neighborhood the oil giant contaminated.
The environmental legislation the Santa Barbara oil spill produced included the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, one of the most important pieces of environmental ever passed. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 372-15 in the House, showing the overwhelming bipartisan belief in the need to change how industry affected the natural world in the aftermath of Santa Barbara. NEPA required government agencies to create environmental impact statements for federal projects and mineral and timber sales. This gave environmentalists an opening to sue the government for not taking environmental concerns seriously, which would become a major part of green strategy by the 1980s.
But this time around we are more jaded and cynical. We’ve seen this story time and time again and environmental groups are worried that apathy has taken hold of the nation. Rather than build on that pioneering legislation and continue fighting to hold the oil industry responsible for its environmental damage, the industry has managed to largely avoid new regulations to prevent these spills. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the nation continued to tighten restrictions on oil, including spurring resistance to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the lack of meaningful change to oil drilling practices after the blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast in 2010 is telling. BP received hefty fines totally so far tens of billions of dollars, but ultimately very little has changed and similar drilling techniques are continuing today. It’s only a matter of time before another Deepwater again shows the environmental damage of our energy regime.
Of course, we all know that a bill which passes unanimously in the Senate means that Richard Nixon is a liberal who deserves all the credit for signing it.
The Times has a discussion of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, setting it up as so many do today–as being fundamentally wrong and tainting environmentalism as a whole with that wrongness. That’s pretty unfair. On some level of course, Ehrlich wasn’t correct in that he underestimated the technological ability to grow more crops and how higher consumption rates would lead to declining birth rates. But on the fundamental level–that the world is vastly overproducing in proportion to what the planet can handle–was not incorrect. It may be that consumption is the real threat the world faces as opposed to overpopulation. There is an upper limit of the world’s carrying capacity of humans, but the significantly greater threat in the short term is that overconsumption will lead to catastrophic climate change, as we are already seeing. It’s this latter issue why attacks on Ehrlich are problematic–because it assumes that apocalyptic environmental thinking is inherently wrong. Meanwhile, those who are seen as opposing Ehrlich’s line of thinking are portrayed as not only correct, but generally better people. But Stewart Brand, who made an entire career on optimistic environmental thinking, is horribly wrong about extinction in ways that are at least as damaging to the world as anything Ehrlich has written. Meanwhile, Green Revolution scientist Norman Bourlag was perfectly fine with the mass extinction of all the world’s animals if it meant selling more DDT.
There’s no question that focusing on population as the world’s greatest environmental problem has given cover to racists and rich world consumers blaming poor people instead of examining their own culpability. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need jeremiads about the state of the planet. With the realities of climate change just beginning to hit us, we need all the jeremiads we can get.
And as for the idea that apocalyptic environmentalism turns people away from doing anything, I hear this talked about as received wisdom all the time, but have never seen a single piece of empirical evidence supporting the claim.
In 1969, the beaches of Santa Barbara, California were inundated with oil from a nearby spill. This event galvanized environmentalists both locally and around the nation. I use the Santa Barbara oil spill to help set up Out of Sight, which is coming out officially in 13 days. So buy your copies now. Anyway, an excerpt:
Fifty-eight years later, in 1969, public outrage over corporate behavior again revolved around disturbing images that flashed before Americans’ eyes. Two events that year changed Americans’ views on how industry should treat the environment. First, on January 28, the largest oil spill to that point in American history took place off the coast of Santa Barbara, California when a well blew out on an oil platform owned by Union Oil. Up to 100,000 barrels spilled. People watching their evening news saw sea lions and birds covered in oil, dead fish and marine wildlife, and a paradise spoiled.
The oil industry had long played a controversial role in southern California. As the state became known for its beaches, tourists and developers protested the oil industry’s presence in that beautiful part of the country. Beachgoers in the 1920s found themselves between the picturesque Pacific and a sea of oil derricks. Local residents, led by oil workers’ unions, demanded the industry maintain the character of their towns and beaches. The oil workers unions held beach clean-ups, advocated for drilling limits, and wanted more their towns than the filth of oil pollution. By the 1960s, much of the production had moved offshore, but oil derricks and refineries remained a major feature of the southern California landscape.
When the spill took place, the people of Santa Barbara and southern California responded quickly. An organization named Get Oil Out (GOO) quickly developed. Led by Santa Barbara resident Bud Bottoms, GOO urged people to cut back on driving and boycott gas stations that received fuel from Union Oil. It lobbied to ban all oil drilling off of California and succeeded in enacting new regulations when drilling did resume. Thomas Storke, editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press wrote, “Never in my long lifetime have I ever seen such an aroused populace at the grassroots level. This oil pollution has done something I have never seen before in Santa Barbara – it has united citizens of all political persuasions in a truly nonpartisan cause.” Union Oil suffered greater repercussions for this environmental disaster than any corporation in U.S. history to that time. Company president Fred Hartley couldn’t understand, saying, “I am amazed at the publicity for a loss of a few birds.” The spill made people around the nation realize the importance of preserving the landscapes they loved from industrialists. In the two years after the oil spill, national membership in the Sierra Club doubled. The state banned new leases for drilling on offshore state lands, although existing leases continued to operate. Today, companies do still drill in California, but the visual impact to tourists is much lower than a half-century ago.
The oil spill helped lead to the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, shepherded through Congress by Scoop Jackson who is vilified by progressives today for his defense policy but was one of the most important environmentalists in Senate history.
It may not be as bad as 1969, but another oil spill is now polluting the Santa Barbara beaches:
After flowing from the pipeline, crude pooled in a culvert before spilling into the Pacific, where it created a four-mile-long sheen extending about 50 yards into the water. Officials said winds could send the oil another four miles south toward Isla Vista.
The pipeline, built in 1991 and designed to carry about 150,000 barrels of oil per day, is owned by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, which said in a statement that it shut down the pipe. The culvert was also blocked to prevent more oil from flowing into the ocean, the company said.
By late Tuesday, a thick layer of crude had begun to wash ashore, with black tar smearing the rocks as the brackish tides arrived.
“It is horrible,” said Brett Connors, 35, a producer from Santa Monica who said he spotted sea lions swimming in the oil slick. “You want to jump in there and save them.”
The reality is that the oil industry is far too lightly regulated as whether in Santa Barbara, Alaska, or off of the Louisiana coast, our energy infrastructure fails over and over to protect the nation’s fragile ecosystems. If the spills are bad enough, like the BP spill, public outrage can again arise, but ultimately very little has changed since that spill, unlike after the original Santa Barbara spill. The social movement to hold corporations accountable for environmental disasters is not what it was in 1969, in part because so many jobs are now outsourced that working people fear any kind of environmental protections will throw them on the street. This shift in attitude is just one of the many cascading effects of the global race to the bottom, a race that benefits corporations at each and every step.
In order to avoid dangerous climate change, scientists estimate that 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels need to remain in the ground. But coal, natural gas, and oil left in the ground means profits left on the table for fossil fuel companies. And under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), corporations will likely be able to sue governments that interfere with their business — even if it’s by enacting carbon reduction goals and passing environmental legislation.
“Creating a corporate bill of rights to protect investors is incredibly undermining to our ability to protect the environment,” Ben Schreiber, the climate and energy program director for Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress.
Previous trade deals have, in fact, led to lawsuits over fossil fuels. An American mining company, Lone Pine Resources, sued the Canadian province of Quebec in 2013 for passing a ban on fracking. The company says the ban cost them $250 million and that under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Quebec is liable for the lost revenue. That lawsuit is ongoing.
In another lawsuit, Chevron alleged that Ecuadorian activists had defrauded the company, after it was ordered to pay $18.2 billion in damages for environmental contamination.
Above: Obvious environmental extremists
It’s ridiculous that the FBI was violating agency protocol by going to rather extreme measures in monitoring those protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Calling the opponents “extremists” (because nothing screams extremist, near-terrorist activity like Bill McKibben…), the FBI cultivated informants and connected its monitoring of the protesters to anti-terrorism investigations. This is pretty bad. But it also suggests how law enforcement sees basically all protestors as enemies and essentially serves not as a neutral agent in society but rather as one defending power.
I am extremely disappointed that President Obama and Interior Secretary Jewell decided to open up Arctic oil drilling. Certain environmental conditions are supposed to be met, but as we all know too well, the oil industry is inherently dangerous and terrible accidents occur all the time (Exxon Valdez, BP disaster, Santa Barbara spill of 1969, etc., etc.). That the administration has granted these rights to Shell is even worse given that company’s awful record:
When the Obama administration announced on Monday that it would let Shell drill for oil off the Alaskan coast this year if it met certain conditions, environmentalists were outraged — not just by the administration’s decision to allow drilling, but by its decision to give Shell, in particular, the green light.
They said that the company’s track record in the Arctic should rule out another chance for it. Shell tried to drill in the Arctic in 2012, and the company’s multibillion-dollar drilling rig, the Kulluk, ran aground. The operator of a drill ship hired by Shell also pleaded guilty to eight felony offenses and agreed to pay $12.2 million over shoddy record-keeping that covered up hazardous conditions and jury-rigged equipment that discharged polluted water.
“Shell has already proven itself not up to the challenge of development in the Arctic Ocean,” said Franz Matzner, the director of the Beyond Oil Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But it’s not just Shell. The fact is, there’s no safe way to pursue oil exploration in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Ocean.”
He added, “This is an inexplicable decision to do something that is dirty, dangerous and unnecessary.”
Shell, Europe’s leading oil company, has spent about $7 billion in the Alaskan Arctic over the last decade, and drilled two shallow wells during the 2012 attempt.
But the federal government did not allow the company to reach the deeper oil-bearing formations because the containment dome designed to cap a runaway well had been destroyed in testing.
Shell executives said they had shaken up their Alaska team, putting in new management that would emphasize better management of contractors, readiness for any problems and contingency plans to care for any accidents.
Trust us, we know what we’re doing! Don’t pay attention to our long and terrible history!
Nothing motivates the LGM readership like the relationship between agriculture and riparian ecosystems so let’s start this Saturday morning with me recommending you read this report from the Chesapeake Bay Commission on the need to keep livestock out of waterways. Basically, most livestock are allowed to enter riparian ecosystems where they cause shocking damage. But it’s really not that hard to restore riparian ecosystems to reasonable health if the cattle are left out. You create cleaner water, greater biodiversity, and arguably more profitable farming. But it often doesn’t happen for complex reasons the report lays out for the reader quite effectively that revolve around distrust of government, tradition, and regulatory complexity. Given how an organization like the CBC needs to carefully tread very conservative institutions, it’s a pretty good report with a lot of useful suggestions that environmentalists should prioritize.
I will however say that whoever chose the color scheme in that report needs retraining as that pink screen is truly blinding.
I’m sure that plunging ahead with fracking will have no unintended consequences or deleterious effects on the environment. Going forward with the procedure without proper testing, oversight, or regulation is a brilliant idea.
A study released Monday on a rural Pennsylvania county’s drinking water found traces of toxic fluids used in the controversial oil and gas drilling technique, fracking. The study, published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles head on the fear that fracking could contaminate the water supply. “‘This is the first documented and published demonstration of toxic compounds escaping from uncased boreholes in shale gas wells and moving long distances’ into drinking water,” Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors, told the Associated Press.
The researchers collected drinking water samples in 2012 that contained traces of a chemical commonly used in fracking, as well as in paint, cosmetics, and cleaners. “The industry has long maintained that because fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers, the drilling chemicals that are injected to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there pose no risk,” according to the New York Times. “In this study, the researchers note that the contamination may have stemmed from a lack of integrity in the drill wells and not from the actual fracking process far below.”
Of course, defenders of fracking will cling to the uncertainty expressed by the researchers as to precisely how these chemicals got in the water supply. On one level, that’s fine because the question clearly calls for additional research. That’s what scientific research does. But on the other hand, the very people who might say that are also those absolutely don’t want to see any restrictions on fracking no matter what scientific research says, such as the overwhelming evidence that fracking causes earthquakes. Scientific research should not be a one-way street, but in a nation that both fetishizes technology and capitalists and in a nation that needs jobs and has not put nearly enough resources into non-fossil fuel energy, it’s hardly surprising.