The ‘In Real Time’ Archive

It’s Time, a work-in-progress, pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

In 2022, Americans face two terrifying prospects: one, that accelerating climate chaos could render much of the Earth unlivable, and two, that the United States’ current political drift toward right-wing authoritarian rule could quickly become a steep slide, dashing our hopes for attaining a multiracial, pluralistic democracy. With “In Real Time”, Stan Cox and City Lights Books blog follow the climate, voting rights, and justice movements as they work toward a livable path for all, no matter who will be wielding the levers of federal power.

Listen to the “In Real Time” podcast for audio editions of all dispatches.

In conjunction with “In Real Time,” Priti Gulati Cox will be working on an artwork titled It’s Time, adding drawings that expand the work outward, in concentric ovals, tracking the pivotal events of the next three and a half years.

Below are links to the dispatches so far. Please click on the image to see detail of individual drawings for the month with captions:

Click on “part 1”, “part 2” etc., to hear conversation about the dispatches between Stan Cox and Justin Podur published monthly on Justin’s blog The Anti-Empire Project.

  • Part 11: Farm Bill Politics is Now Climate Politics
  • Part 9 & 10: The Far Right Assault; and Gas Stoves
  • Part 8: No Red Wave, but Plenty of Red Flags
  • Part 7: A Thousand Rebellious Communities
  • Part 6: Challenging the Pipelines to Nowhere
  • Part 5: A Better Brand of Pessimism
  • Part 4: Countering “Policy Murder”
  • Part 3: The People vs Petrocracy
  • Part 2: onslaught of the Oily Authoritarians
  • Part 1: T-Junction Ahead

Between a Yoga Mat and a Hard Place

The Violent Urge for Supremacy in the World’s Two Largest Democracies

By Priti Gulati Cox and Stan Cox


One year ago today, a teenage gunman entered Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School in Texas with an AR-15-style rifle and fatally shot 19 children and two teachers and injured 17 people .

Are you worried about the rising political power of violent white nationalists in America? Well, you’ve got plenty of company, including U.S. national security and counterterrorism officials. And we’re worried, too — worried enough, in fact, to feel that it’s time to take a look at the experience of India, where Hindu supremacist dogma has increasingly been enforced through violent means. While there are striking parallels between both countries, India appears to have ventured further down the road of far-right violence. Its experience could potentially offer Americans some valuable, if grim, lessons.

As a start, let’s look at two recent incidents, one in India and the other in the United States.

Laws passed in most Indian states against the killing of cattle have served as a common pretext for the violent enforcement of Hindu beliefs. Recently, for example, three men were arrested on charges of abducting and murdering Junaid and Nasir, two Muslim men transporting cattle through the northern state of Haryana. They first beat Junaid to death, then strangled Nasir. Both bodies were incinerated in a car left at the side of the road. That attack was linked to paramilitary gangs known as gao rakshaks (cow protectors) who, in these last years, have been on a rampage of violence in northern India, though similarhorrors have recently been recorded further south in Maharashtra, home to India’s largest city, Mumbai.

In the United States, too, violent hatred is both on the rise and being all too perversely celebrated on the right. Within three days of being charged with involuntary manslaughter, Daniel Penny, the U.S. Marine veteran who made national news by choking to death Jordan Neely, a homeless, mentally ill Black man on a New York City subway car, raised a whopping $2.7 million from the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo. Charged with manslaughter, he’s already been dubbed a “subway Superman” by Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, while his fellow Floridian, Governor Ron DeSantis, tweeted that to “stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda” we all must “stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny.”

Sadly enough, those episodes, occurring half a globe apart, are just two data points in surges of violent extremism sweeping both India and the United States. That trend first took off in India in 2014 with the election victory of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), making him prime minister. In the United States, it hit big time with the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president. But such mayhem — and the broad approval of political violence by Hindu supremacists there and white supremacists here — has only grown in the years since.

Those incidents also illustrate one crucial difference between far-right violence in India and the United States. Whereas the surge of Hindu-supremacist violence has become a nationally organized collective effort, most American white-supremacist violence is still being committed by individuals acting alone.

A Black Lives Matter protester being arrested in 2020.

In the U.S., we’ve experienced a growing outbreak of hate-shootings in which the victims simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time (and all too often of the wrong color), even as a longer-term trend of mass killings committed by racially motivated and ever better armed “lone wolves” rises. Notably, among those solo actors, Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020, and a host of others have reaped lavish praise from leading Trumpublican politicians, including that MAGA kingpin The Donald himself. (He, in fact, invited Rittenhouse to Mar-a-Lago in 2021.) And 2023 is already on track to set a record for mass shootings, while hate crimes in general rose to more than 200 per week in 2021, the last year for which the FBI has complete data. The vast majority of those crimes were committed by unaffiliated individuals.

In India, by contrast, hate violence is often highly organized. The cattle vigilantes recently arrested in Haryana, for example, were affiliated with Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of Vishnu Hindu Parishad (the World Hindu Council), which, in turn, is an offshoot of a vast Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The RSS movement was launched in 1925 with one mission: to make India (then still a British colony) a Hindu Rashtra — that is, a “Hindu Nation.” Its approach was inspired by the fascist movements of a century ago in Italy and Germany. Today, it still has a membership of five to six million and holds daily meetings in more than 36,000 different locations across India. Worse yet, the ruling BJP party, with Modi at its head, is an offshoot of RSS.

A modified flag of India featuring the hundreds of mosques and dargahs that were destroyed in the riots in Gujarat.

In 2002, Modi was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat when horrific communal violence took almost 2,000 lives, mostly Muslim, in a political and social earthquake that helped kick off the current wave of Hindu nationalism. In 2014, on the strength of the Hindu nationalist bona fides he’d earned 12 years earlier, he became prime minister and soon all hell broke loose.

Cows and Bulls**t

In a majority of India’s states today, cow slaughter is designated a crime and put in the same category with rape, murder, or sedition. As Harsh Mander, who has organized against communal and religiously-inspired violence, explains in his book Partitions of the Heart, “The campaign today that claims to defend [the cow] has nothing to do with love of any kind.” It is instead “another highly emotive symbol to beat down India’s minorities into submission and fear.”

Laws against cattle slaughter and beef consumption lay largely dormant until 2014. Now, they are being enforced ever more violently by Hindu supremacist vigilantes. Those laws, in fact, have provided a much-needed pretext for extreme violence. As Tej Parikh noted recently in the Asia-Pacific magazine The Diplomat, “Two Muslim women were raped in Mewat [in Haryana state] in early September [2022], after their attackers had accused them of eating beef.” And to put those acts in the context of this moment, he added that “the maximum sentence for a convicted rapist in Haryana is three years less than for a cow slaughtering offense.”

As Mander has pointed out, such beef bans are a tool for subjugating Muslims, Dalits (formerly referred to pejoratively as “untouchables”), Christians, and Adivasis (Indigenous peoples) to Hindu rule. Strange as it may sound, an American analogy could be the criminalization of abortion. In one country, cattle, in the other, human fetuses are being used as right-wing implements to oppress, socially control, and reassert supremacy over significant sections of our respective populations.

A modified flag of India featuring Manisha Valmiki, the 19-year-old Dalit girl tortured and gang-raped by Sandip, Ramu, Lavish and Ravi in the village of Hathras, Uttar Pradesh on September 14, 2020.

As in the U.S., violence against women is rampant in India and perpetrators are often treated with remarkable leniency. Consider Sandip, Ramu, Lavkush, and Ravi, four upper-caste Hindus who, in 2020, tortured, gang-raped, and killed a 19-year-old Dalit girl in the middle of a pearl millet field in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This March, a court found Sandip alone guilty — and only of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.” The other three men were acquitted.

In the Hindu supremacist context, the phrase ghar wapsi (which literally means “homecoming”) refers to forcibly reconverting ex-Hindus or others, whatever their wishes. In a recent typical case, a BJP politician, the state secretary of Chhattisgarh in northeastern India, home to many low-caste Hindus and tribal peoples, coerced more than 1,100 Christians into undergoing a ghar wapsi ceremony.

Hindu supremacists regularly use confinement and violence to secure such reconversions. For instance, two women have filed a complaint against priests at a yoga center in the state of Kerala where they were held captive in an effort to do so. “I was forced to do work as house maid including cleaning and preparing dishes for 65 inmates,” one of them swore in her affidavit. A priest, she wrote, “threatened that they would kill Isaac [her Muslim husband] if I went back to him.”  The other woman told the court, “People at the [yoga] center asked me to leave [her Muslim husband] Hameed. When I resisted, they slapped my face, kicked my lower abdomen and stuffed cloth in my mouth to prevent me from screaming.”

Hindu nationalists are also raising alarms over “love jihad,” a false conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are out to charm Hindu women into wedlock, conversion, and the production of Muslim babies. A recently released propaganda film, The Kerala Story, purports to show how 32,000 women from that state were converted to Islam and recruited by Islamic State terrorists. No matter that none of that ever happened, “love jihad” rhetoric, including the portrayal of Muslim men as “deceitful, sexual monsters,” is being embraced even by white supremacists in the United States, according to Zeinab Farokhi, a professor at Toronto University.

East Meets West, West Meets Caste

Washington and New Delhi recently announced that Prime Minister Modi will be making a state visit to the U.S. in June. During that visit, notes the Indian outlet The Wire, “Modi is likely to visit New York for Yoga Day on June 21.”

Indeed, he will, for that annual yoga event was Modi’s brainchild. In 2014, he proposed that an International Day of Yoga be celebrated at the summer solstice and the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution to that effect. An avid yoga practitioner, Modi then wrote, “Yoga embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action… a holistic approach [that] is valuable to our health and well-being.” These days, maybe Modi should take a little more time for yoga, which might allow him to gain a more holistic understanding of the hate and cruelty now rippling through Indian society. (Substitute Donald Trump for Modi doing Yoga, if you want a little grim humor right now.)

Today, there are an estimated 4.3 million South Asian-Americans living in the U.S., including people from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. A report released by a caste-abolitionist group, Equality Labs, entitled “Caste in the United States,” found that even in America, “many South Asians who identify as being from the ‘lower’ castes… tend to hide their caste,” because they fear that “they and their families could be rejected from South Asian cultural and religious spaces, lose professional and social networks, or even face bullying, abuse, and violence.”

Recently, however, a few rays of light have pierced the political gloom. In February, Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to prohibit caste discrimination and (joke, joke) yoga had nothing to do with it. The ban passed because of the hard work and solidarity of local activists, along with socialist Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant who proposed it. Then, on May 11th, casteism was banished from an entire state, the nation’s largest, when the California senate passed a bill to that effect.

To add another positive note, the very next day, Modi’s BJP was trounced by the Congress Party in elections to the legislative assembly of Karnataka, a crucial state in Indian politics. When the BJP won it five years ago, it was considered a key step in that party’s rise to national dominance. Now, those of us in favor of genuine democracy and not right-wing terror in both countries can only hope that the Karnataka defeat is a harbinger of BJP’s decline (just as we hope that neither Donald Trump nor Ron DeSantis can take the White House in 2024). 

A modified flag of India featuring Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd who was targeted by Hindu supremacists in 2017 for his controversial book, Samajika Smugglurlu Komatollu (Vysyas Are Social Smugglers).

 But even small victories don’t come without pushback from Hindu-nationalist expatriates and RSS/BJP “intellectuals” in India, as is true with Trumpists in America. Unsurprisingly enough, they condemned the new caste measures in the U.S., declaring them “Hinduphobic” (just as white right-wingers here chant “All Lives Matter” in the context of police violence and to mock the Black Lives Matter movement). But, asks the political theorist Kancha Ilailah Shepherd, “How can the practice of caste discrimination… be tackled without local laws or institutional rules?”

Too many upper-caste Indians and white Americans think of themselves as the only ones worthy of enjoying the spoils of the earth. They want it all and are ready to get it by exploiting, not to say violating, non-upper-caste bodies in India and non-white ones in the U.S., along with cows and fetuses, using religion as a tool in both cases. The bodies of Dalits, Muslims, Christians, the people of occupied Kashmir, liberals, journalists, historians, climate and human rights activists, educators, Blacks, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ people — all of them are fodder for the violent right-wing in both countries.

In April this year, Myles Cosgrove, “one of the Louisville Metro Police officers involved in the 2020 shooting of Breonna Taylor,” was hired by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office in Kentucky.

In the sludge of such destructive exceptionalism, there can be felt a sense of uncertainty, a potential for both of our societies to break down completely. Sadly, yoga and vegetarianism do not encapsulate life in India; upper-caste exceptionalism does. Similarly, “peace and love,” not to speak of democracy, hardly define life in America anymore for a growing set of Trumpublicans. For them, white exceptionalism does and, worse yet, these days it goes all too well armed with that best-selling weapon of this moment, the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Honestly, there needs to be a deeper discussion of all of this before it’s too late.

Atlanta’s “Cop City” and the Struggle for Climate Justice

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 12

It’s Time, a work-in-progress, pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

Along the South River, in the southwest corner of DeKalb County, Georgia, lies a forested area of about 300 acres that has been owned by the nearby City of Atlanta for over a century. It was once part of a vastly larger wooded landscape, home to the Muskogee (Creek) people. They gave the river and forest the name “Weelaunee.”

In 2021, Atlanta officials decided to split 85 acres off this remnant of the Weelaunee forest and lease it to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization, for construction of a $90 million tactical training center. If built, it will be one of the country’s largest such facilities and include an entire “mock village” in which cops can practice doing the kinds of things cops do. 

For the past two years, a broad, loose coalition comprising neighborhood associations, schools, environmental groups, justice activists, civic leaders, and forest defenders has been pushing back hard against what they call “Cop City”. Writing for Atlanta magazine in January, Timothy Pratt captured the sheer breadth of the coalition’s motives and goals: 

These disparate groups have in common opposition to the training center, with sometimes differing rationales. Some see the importance of preserving intact forests, as ecosystems, amid a climate crisis increasingly being felt in the Southeast—but may support building the training center elsewhere. Some worry about further contaminating a forest and river that are already contaminated. Others question the wisdom of investing tens of millions of public dollars in policing—particularly to build a training center in a majority-Black area that has seen decades of disinvestment. Yet others see a connection between environmental contamination and the neglect of majority-Black neighborhoods in the Atlanta metro, concerns exacerbated by a haphazard process for collecting public input on the proposed facility. At the center of it all is a piece of land that has already endured centuries of contesting visions for what people in Atlanta, particularly Black people, need and deserve.

Two months later, in The Guardian, Pratt reported on a media blitz by city officials scrambling to build support for the training center—an effort that ran head-on into a surge of resistance by community members and groups. Will Potter, the author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, was also in Atlanta to follow the struggle, and told Pratt, “You get the feeling everybody is talking about this; everybody knows it’s going on. It’s like the issue has saturated the public discourse; it’s permeated everywhere.”

Manuel Paez Terán

Meanwhile, forest defenders have camped and protested, both under and up in the trees, for more than a year, while enduring repeated police raids and the killing by police of one of their own: Manuel Paez Terán, a Venezuelan eco-activist known as Tortuguita (“Little Turtle”), in January. During protests prompted by the killing (in which of Tortuguita was riddled with 57 gunshot wounds), dozens of forest defenders have been arrested on state “domestic terrorism” charges, 23 of them during a concert.

A position statement by Defend the Atlanta Forest, a self-described “autonomous movement for the future of South Atlanta” captures the tangle of issues at the heart of the defenders’ struggle:

The fight[s] against ecological destruction and racialized violence in Atlanta, and beyond, are inextricably linked. Today, climate collapse disproportionately affects disadvantaged groups such as Atlanta’s Black communities. Rather than investing in solutions to the environmental crisis, governments are investing in heavier policing, especially of those disadvantaged groups. Atlanta’s tree canopy is one of its main sources of resiliency in the face of climate change. [But] rather than address the problems as they really present themselves, world and local leaders are hurling us into the fire. As we fight for a life worth living, the system seems prepared to prop up its petroleum-based economy with tear gas and lines of riot police.

Colonialism, then and now

Through the 18th and early 19th centuries, first the English and then US settlers encroached on millions of acres of Muskogee lands across a broad swath of Florida and Georgia that included the Weelaunee forest. Then, about 200 years ago, the federal government seized all of the Muskogee territory outright. The stolen forest was soon converted to a plantation worked first by enslaved labor and later through sharecropping. In 1922, the plantation owners sold the property to the City of Atlanta. On it, the city built a “prison farm” where inmates would grow food for their fellow incarcerated people. The farm, notorious for abuse of prisoners, especially Black prisoners, operated all the way up to 1990, when it was abandoned. The forest has since reclaimed the acreage, thanks to the Southeast’s favorable climate for lush plant growth. But now, if Cop City is built, the long, cruel, racist history of this plot of land will soon take up where it left off three decades ago.

East Palestine, Ohio

Plans for Cop City emerged from a corporate process, not a democratic one. Of its entire cost, two-thirds, $60 million, has been pledged by the Atlanta Police Foundation, whose board of directors is drawn from a who’s who of Atlanta-based corporations, including Delta Airlines, Waffle House, Home Depot, Georgia Pacific, Equifax, Accenture, Wells Fargo, and UPS. Morgan Simon, a senior contributor to Forbes, has compiled a list of some of the major Atlanta-area donors supporting the branch of the foundation that, it appears, will be funding Cop City. Among them are Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, UPS, Gas South (which sells fossil gas in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, and New Jersey), Georgia Pacific (which grinds up zillions of trees to make paper pulp), Rollins Inc. (which performs chemical pest control), and Norfolk Southern Railway (which delivered clouds of hydrogen chloride and phosgene to East Palestine, Ohio, with its catastrophic derailment in February). With eyebrows raised, Simon notes that four of the Cop City funders—Chick-fil-A, UPS, Coca-Cola, and Norfolk Southern— “all made prior racial equity commitments in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.”

If the project comes to fruition, this corporate investment in police militarization will have heavy ecological consequences. In 2021, the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club and 15 other environmental justice groups sent a letter to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council opposing construction of the facility. The letter charged that, among other impacts, it would release into the atmosphere large amounts of carbon that the forest ecosystem has been capturing from the air and storing for decades. It would also, they wrote, “leave the surrounding areas susceptible to stormwater flooding, which is Atlanta’s top natural disaster, continually increasing in intensity due to climate change.” And, the letter said, by bulldozing a significant portion of the forest and draining wetlands within it, the project would imperil “one of the last breeding grounds for many amphibians in the region, as well as an important site for migratory and wading birds.” As a further consequence, research shows, environmental injustice will reverberate far beyond the Cop City construction site.

Urban forests and climate justice

Atlanta, which has more tree cover than any other major US city, has been nicknamed “the city in a forest.” But today, its wooded areas are under constant pressure from development. Cutting down and paving over a chunk of Atlanta’s largest forest to build something akin to a movie set for ersatz urban conflict would deal a huge blow to the livability of the surrounding area. And that blow would land hardest on marginalized communities. A 2017 meta-analysis of 40 academic research reports on the relationship between urban forests and race found that predominantly Black residential areas had more tree cover on private property than other areas, suggesting that perhaps “minority residents have a stronger preference for vegetation than other groups.” However, Black neighborhoods tended to have much less tree cover on their public land, suggesting that decisions by municipal policymakers tend to produce “inequity in public service provision.” Through historical happenstance, the predominantly Black neighborhoods around the Weelaunee forest fragment, having an unusually large public urban forest close by, are a sharp exception to that trend. Now that prized local asset is under threat.

The neighborhoods are not so lucky in other respects. More than one-fourth of the residents live in poverty. In the vicinity are six landfills, five prisons, the ruins of now-demolished public housing, and a lot of dirty industry. Given that, the forest is all the more a local treasure; the last thing residents want is to see it partially destroyed to build Cop City. 

Weelaunee and other urban forests are crucial to environmental justice, and in the hot, humid Southeast, to climate justice in particular. In all but six of the 175 most populous cities of the United States, the average person of color endures more intense summer heat than the average non-Latino white person. Overall, Black residents are hit by more than twice the urban heat impact that white residents endure. And it’s getting worse. Dr. Brian Stone, an urban-planning professor at Georgia Tech, told Atlanta magazine models predict that with global climate change, by 2030 heat waves like the historic one that hit Atlanta in 1995 will be “fairly routine—we’ll probably see it every couple of years, instead of every 10 or 20 years.” 

Stone says that an electrical grid failure coinciding with an intense heat wave “is probably the deadliest climate-related event we can imagine in the United States.” He estimates that if a blackout hits during a heat wave as severe as the one endured in 1995, fully 70 percent of Atlanta’s population would experience life-threatening indoor temperatures. The paucity of facilities to provide relief for people with inadequate housing, or none at all, would further heighten the peril. There are only five public cooling centers in the entire city, the magazine noted, and they aren’t required to have backup power generators.

With those dangers looming, the last thing the people of southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb County need is local deforestation. Dr. Cassandra Johnson Gaither, who researches the relationship between social vulnerability and resource use for the US Forest Service in Georgia, says, “Cities are hotter than surrounding areas because of the urban heat island effect, so the more green tree canopy you have, the more cooling there is for homes and people.” In a 2021 report, scientists at Yale University and Imperial College London concluded, “Maintenance and expansion of urban forests rather than generic urban greening is . . . a key factor for mitigating” urban summer heat. Urban trees have been shown to dramatically reduce summer temperatures, cutting by 7 percent the amount of energy required to cool US homes. That saves households $7.8 billion annually while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. 

Johnson Gaither points out that “urban forests also act as a check on the constant stream of pollutants being emitted in the surrounding area, and studies have shown that has human health benefits.” More generally, she adds, “The more trees you have in the surrounding area, the better people’s physical and mental health is. Just being near trees, near urban green spaces, research shows, has calming effects.” Researchers at North Carolina State University have indeed found that spending time in places like urban forests improves mental health.

Can Cop City be stopped?

Before the Weelaunee forest was targeted by the police foundation, a coalition of southwest DeKalb County residents and environmental, civic, and community groups had begun urging the establishment of a conservation area 10 times larger, which they would call the South River Forest. The project, still aspirational, would expand and interconnect the forest, five existing public parks, and some well-wooded neighborhoods, all of them in that corner of the county. The coalition, of course, opposes having the police facility plopped down in the midst of the Weelaunee forest, which they envision as the biggest gem in an “emerald necklace of connected public greenspaces” bordering economically distressed southeast Atlanta.

The original plan for Cop City called for a 150-acre site, notes Atlanta’s Pratt, but community opposition early on managed to get the plan whittled down to the current 85 acres. The South River Forest Coalition, the forest defenders, and other groups are carrying on the struggle to push the acreage all the way down to zero and scuttle the Cop City idea entirely. But others see the project, with its heavy backing from City Hall and big business, as an inevitability that will just have to be reckoned with. The goals then would come down to limiting damage to the local environment and quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods. while carrying on the long struggle against systemic racism, rights abuses, and the culture of killing in the police department.    

I asked Johnson Gaither what the consequences would be, for both the forest and its human neighbors, if a fate that some now see as unavoidable does come to pass. With Cop City occupying almost 30 percent of the forest’s current acreage, won’t the ecological integrity of the entire area be undermined? 

“Yeah,” she said, “that’s sort of the 64-million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Given that uncertainty, she added, some in the local community are just trying to limit the damage, whatever it may be: “I understand that groups of residents have been organizing, requesting that buffers be added around the new training facility. They’ve been in constant dialogue with the police to say, ‘Well, if you want to expand this, and it’s on this 85 acres, and we have to live right next to it, this is what we want, so that the impacts are reduced.’” 

Meanwhile, the broader groundswell against Cop City appears more energized than ever, so maybe, when this is all over, the trees will live on and no buffers will be needed.

Climate Policy’s on Shaky Ground in the Farm Bill

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 11

It’s Time, a work-in-progress, pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

Members of Congress have begun drafting the 2023 “Farm Bill,” and they’ll be wrangling over it through most of the year. This legislation, passed into law anew every fifth year or so since the 1930s, has had far-reaching influence on food and farming in the United States. Each version of the bill is given its own name; the previous one, for example, was called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Given the nature of the early debate over this bill-in-the-making, it might end up deserving to be called the Food and Climate Bill of 2023. 

Over the next two years, any legislation explicitly aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. By default, the Farm Bill may now be the playing field for the only climate game in town, according to Washington-watchers such as Peter Lehner, who represents the group Earthjustice. He told Politico last month, “The farm bill is probably going to be the piece of legislation in the next two years with the biggest impact on the climate and the environment.”

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act beefed up several of the Farm Bill’s climate-related conservation programs to the tune of an additional $20 billion. And the Washington Post has reported that a task force of more than 80 “climate-conscious House Democrats” is working to further extend the bill’s green impact, with additional protection for existing forests; planting of new stands of trees; conservation of soil, water, and biodiversity; and research on protecting crops against climatic disasters, including drought.

Meanwhile, March 6–8, a coalition of 20 sustainable ag and farmworker groups under the banner Farmers for Climate Action held a “Rally for Resilience” in D.C. Their message: “The next Farm Bill needs to explicitly empower farmers to address climate change, by providing resources, assistance, and incentives that will allow them to lead the way in implementing proven climate solutions.”

Climate politics get dirtier

Because there are farmers and ag-related industries in every state, whether red, blue, or purple, Farm Bills routinely pass with broad bipartisan support. It’s typical, therefore, for Congress members representing rural red states to make common cause with those who represent populous blue states with big ag economies, such as California, Illinois, and Michigan. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) and the Women’s, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program also are parts of the Farm Bill, further extending its political base of support.

Controversy arises nonetheless, most often in debates over the bill’s conservation provisions. Agribusiness, for example, often sees protection of soil, air, water, and biodiversity in rural areas as detracting from or interfering with the Farm Bill’s focus on boosting production of the major commodity crops and keeping food prices low. And now that climate action is increasingly finding a home in the conservation section, pushback from the right has increased. 

The chair of the House Agriculture Committee, G. T. Thompson (R-PA) has vowed to minimize climate policy in this year’s Farm Bill, while cutting other conservation programs in favor of traditional industry-friendly spending. According to EENews, “Some Republicans are eyeing the farm bill as a chance to redirect climate money to other agriculture programs, such as crop subsidies, while other conservative lawmakers want across-the-board spending cuts.” The hardliners may even try to rescind the $20 billion for climate mitigation that the Inflation Reduction Act has directed toward the Farm Bill.

Climate denial is alive and well in Congress. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), who now chairs the conservation subcommittee of the ag committee, told Politico, somewhat fuzzily, that “CO2 is not responsible. Especially American-produced CO2, I mean we’re a tiny part of the whole thing.” Rep. John Boozman (R-AR) is trying to divert attention to just about any remotely ag-related issue that doesn’t involve climate protection. Pointing his colleagues toward a couple of favorite targets of right-wing hostility, he has called for investigations into the purchase of U.S. farmland by Chinese interests and for cuts in SNAP benefits to low-income families. Meanwhile, five House members led by Matt Gaetz (R-FL) got even meaner, with a letter to President Biden urging him to “enact work requirements” for SNAP recipients. 

Feed people, not steers and SUVs 

Farm Bill debates are often complex, technical, and littered with clumsy acronyms, commodity-market arcana, and bureaucratic jargon. Only the nerdiest Congress-watchers have the attention span and patience to go deep enough into the weeds (literally, in some parts of the bill) to understand what it’s all about. Even in Congress, only a minority of members and staff have solid familiarity with the issues. This year, nearly half the members of the House of Representatives have almost zero Farm Bill experience, as they were not in office during the last debate, five years ago. But with climate at the center of this year’s debate, members on both sides of the aisle, whether well-schooled in ag issues or not, are now wading into the fray.

Most of the policies that are needed to flip U.S. agriculture’s climate impact from deleterious to beneficial are good and necessary in their own right. Even if there were no climate emergency, the nation should be adopting agricultural policies that, along with cutting emissions, can improve soil health; prevent erosion and water pollution; curb the ongoing wipeout of biodiversity; and prevent agriculture from further disrupting the global nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. 

The quantity of energy contained in the fossil fuels used to produce feed grains for cattle is ten times the amount of energy contained in the marketable beef that’s produced by those cattle.

The first step would be to stop doing things that not only generate greenhouse-gas emissions but also wreak ecological havoc of other sorts. If you don’t mind taking just a few steps into those weeds with me for a moment, I’d like to cite scientists at the University of Georgia and the University of New Mexico who have argued convincingly for deep cuts in the production of fuel ethanol and meat—especially grain-fed beef—actions that, they show, could achieve the greatest reductions of fossil energy use (and therefore of greenhouse gas emissions) in agriculture. The quantity of energy contained in the fossil fuels used to produce feed grains for cattle exceeds by an order of magnitude the amount of energy contained in the beef that’s produced by those cattle and sold. And the production and delivery of fuel ethanol, from the cornfield to the gas pump, requires as much or more energy (mostly from fossil fuels) as the ethanol will supply to a vehicle’s engine. 

Beef and ethanol also have a broad range of other disastrous environmental impacts.

Therefore, the most effective action Congress could take is to stop using the Farm Bill’s conservation funds to support these and other ecologically harmful, climate-busting agricultural practices. For example, the 2018 Farm Bill supported one such practice: confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), such as cattle feedlots and factory farms for swine and poultry. These super-polluting facilities have deeply negative impacts on both local environments and the global climate. The 2023 bill should end all support for CAFOs. And rather than pursue the expansion of ethanol production, as the Department of Agriculture is requesting, Congress should flush ethanol completely out of ag policy.  

We can’t get there with annual crops

Agriculture generates only 11 percent of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, so reducing emissions from the farm sector, important as it is, can go only so far toward driving total U.S. emissions toward zero quickly and steeply. However, unlike other sectors of the economy, farming also has the potential to help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through nature’s preferred method of carbon sequestration: photosynthesis. 

To use U.S. farmlands and forests as reservoirs for atmospheric carbon would help to reverse a massive loss of soil carbon that began long before the age of mechanized agriculture. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, native grasslands and forestlands across North America were plowed up to make way for corn, wheat, cotton, and other annual crops—replacing vast, biodiverse, perennial ecosystems with plantings of annual monocultures. Extensive root systems, alive year-round, were killed off across hundreds of millions of acres, to be replaced by the sparser, ephemeral root systems of crops that had to be resown with every growing season. For much of the year, there were now only spindly seedling roots or no living roots at all to support the soil ecosystems that had thrived before the arrival of the plow. Consequently, over subsequent decades, countless tons of carbon that had been captured by plants over millions of years went back up into the atmosphere. 

A little-discussed prize being fought over in Ukraine is the country’s deep, rich chernozem soils (similar to soils of the US prairie), which were built largely by the deep roots of perennial grasses over millions of years. Until this year, these soils supported Ukraine’s prodigious production of wheat (itself a grass species), and they have been depleted in the process. As we call for grassroots action in political and climate struggles, we need to emphasize the need for perennial grassroots movements that feed our political culture, not quick-hit annual grassroots, which tend to be parasitic on both soils and society.

Accumulating enough carbon in the soil to mitigate climate change effectively will require switching from annual to perennial crops across most of U.S. farm country, to get soils even part way back to their robust state. Fortunately, the necessity for perennial agriculture is being expressed more widely in this year’s Farm Bill discussion than in previous years, with both the scientific community and grassroots climate and sustainable-agriculture groups calling for more perennial farming systems. 

For example, a coalition called Farm Bill Law Enterprise, “a national partnership of law school programs working toward a farm bill that reflects the long-term needs of our society,” is arguing that perennial agriculture must be one of the highest priorities in the 2023 bill. In its report, titled simply, “Climate and Conservation,” the group pushes for perennial forage crops; interplanting of tree crops with annual crops; “forest farming and multi-story cropping”; perennial fruits and vegetables; and perennial cereals, grain legumes, and oilseeds. The group goes on to urge more funding for research and development of perennial agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself, especially on grain crops, and for “research on the economic and social conditions critical to development of perennial agriculture systems and markets.”

Needed: A fifty-year Farm Bill

Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture by ditching products such as fuel ethanol and grain-fed beef would mesh nicely with the use of perennial crops to capture more atmospheric carbon and store more of it in living roots deep in the soil. If U.S. farmers were to stop producing the bazillions of bushels of corn and soybeans that go into feeding cattle and biofuel plants, tens of millions of acres would be newly available for growing perennial range, hay, and pasture crops. From those, more modest quantities of grass-fed beef and dairy products could be produced. And each year, more and more of the lands liberated from annual feed grains could be sown to perennial food-grain crops. 

Wes Jackson and Fred Kirschenmann envisioned this sort of grand transition in their proposal for a “Fifty-Year Farm Bill” in 2009. But at the time, the breeding of perennial food-grain crops (which would be necessary to achieve that last step in the transition) was just getting started. That process is now well underway.  

Over the past two decades, efforts to domesticate and breed perennial grain-producing crops have progressed from their beginnings at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (where I work), to be taken up by research networks worldwide. These networks now include more than 50 researchers across North America and five other continents, and solid results are emerging. Development of perennial wheat is accelerating. A perennial cousin of wheat known as Kernza® is under pilot production in the U.S. Plains, the upper Midwest, and Europe. Highly productive perennial rice varieties are being grown on tens of thousands of acres in China and on a smaller scale in East Africa as well. Breeding and ecological work are continuing, with perennial food legumes and perennial grain sorghum under development, in addition to the wheat and rice.

*  *  *

The need to start a precipitous phase-out of oil, gas, and coal is more acute than ever, but federal legislation will remain out of reach as long as there’s a climate-hostile House majority. So, as the struggle against fossil fuels carries on in our states and communities, the quest for serious action in Washington on climate and ecological renewal will focus largely on the national push for a radically new kind of Farm Bill. 

It is essential both to purge fossil fuels and to perennialize agriculture. No two policies are more crucial to preventing ecological meltdown.

“Sometimes a Gas Stove Is Not Just a Gas Stove”

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 10

It’s Time, a work-in-progress, pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

A Fox News headline writer called it “Biden’s War on Your Kitchen.” Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel wrote, “The reason gas stoves are in the news is simple: There is a coordinated, calculated—and well-funded—strategy to kill them off. It’s the joint enterprise of extremely powerful climate groups, working with Biden administration officials.” (“Extremely powerful climate groups”? Where can I find them?)

The Great Gas Stove Freakout of 2023 was not a strictly right-wing or one-party phenomenon. Panic spread along the spectrum, from liberal chefs to Florida governor Ron DeSantis. In the Senate, Republican Ted Cruz teamed up with Democrat Joe Manchin to sponsor a bill that would bar the government from enforcing any rule that prohibits the sale of gas stoves or even makes them more expensive.

Gas ranges, though, are widely associated with the urban foodie culture that the right loathes, and two-thirds of them are installed in blue states. Similarly, for home heating, the Washington Post notes that “gas dominates in densely populated states with Democratic governors, including Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey [while] electricity reigns in more rural states with Republican leaders, including Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina,” but that state governments in New York, California, and Washington are moving to phase out gas heating.  

Despite the associations between blue politics and gas’s blue flame, the lion’s share of outrage over the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s warnings about the health hazards posed by gas stoves has come from MAGA world. And the stove affair quickly flared up into generalized appliance paranoia. Fox News, for one, warned that Uncle Sam is coming after your “water heaters, furnaces, clothes washers, dishwashers, ceiling fans, microwave ovens and shower heads” as well. (Ceiling fans? Huh?)

MAGA politics has also woven fossil-fueled rhetoric into much of its routine culture-war and hate messaging. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee Chair and notorious gasbag Jim Jordan tweeted, “First, they came for your guns. Then, your gas stoves. Then, your gas cars. What’s next?” It was a tasteless attempt to parody the poem First They Came, in which theologian Martin Niemöller lamented society’s early indifference toward Nazi genocide. Jordan augmented his tweet’s hate value by choosing to spit it out on January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

Gas pains

In ‘In Real Time’ Part 1, we used this metaphor for the need to end excessive resource extraction: “It will be equivalent to making a U-turn in a tanker truck hurtling down the freeway at 80 miles per hour.” There is no sign yet that America is going to make that turn.

As the nation kicked off 2023 by arguing over home appliances, carbon continued to waft skyward at a dangerous rate. Greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.3 percent in 2022. This means we’d need an abrupt U-turn to decrease emissions an average 5.3 percent per year between now and 2030, the Biden administration’s goal via the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA). 

Emissions reductions that rapid would be wholly unprecedented (with the exception of the pandemic year 2020), and the IRA contains no surefire mechanism for achieving such cuts. With the House of Representatives now under MAGA control, the chances that Congress will pass any laws in the next two years to quickly and directly slash emissions have slid from very poor to zero. 

GOP leaders insist nevertheless that they have plans to deal with climate in the 118th Congress. The energy and environment site E&E News reported in January, “In the coming months, Republicans intend to vote on a series of bills taking aim at existing federal regulations the GOP believes is stifling domestic clean energy production and innovation.” Sounds good, until it becomes clear that “clean energy” in this context translates as “fossil gas.” 

The core of the GOP’s “Let America Build” strategy for “clean energy” is to expedite permits for extracting, distributing, and exporting gas, while taking a wrecking ball to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (which is, in E&E’s words, “a bedrock environmental protection law sacrosanct to many Democrats”). 

“Let America Build” claims to “make it easier to produce energy and innovate in America,” and that, it says, should apply “just as equally to oil and gas as it does to renewables and other innovative technologies.” The fossil fuel industry and its representatives in Congress say they just want a level playing field—oh, and a little more imperialism as well. E&E reports, “House Republicans are also emphatic that the United States should focus on forcing other countries to use clean energy”—remember, that’s fossil gas—“and reduce their emissions rather than cutting off [US] domestic production.” Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia elaborated, telling E&E, “What we need to do is be addressing these Third World countries and developing countries and what they’re doing.” 

Such policy positions grow out of the tight bonds between MAGA politicians and the world of fossil fuels. Among the top GOP campaign donors are companies such as Koch Industries and Energy Transfer Inc. (of Dakota Access Pipeline infamy), according to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). The broader MAGA universe draws similar nourishment from oil and gas wells. IPS found that the Koch Charitable Foundation, for instance, supports a fund called Donors Trust that donates generously to climate denial, misinformation, and hate groups.  

Target proxy pollution

With Congress in a straitjacket on climate, the Biden administration reportedly aims to do as much as possible through executive action and sheer persuasion. A Supreme Court ruling last summer complicated things, however, by restricting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to directly limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Nevertheless, as the Washington Post reports, the Court’s decision made clear that the EPA 

still has the power under parts of the Clean Air Act to limit conventional pollutants from operations directly on-site at these plants. And environmental groups have pushed the agency to use a wave of updates under long-established rules that would reduce that pollution, but also likely lower greenhouse gas emissions as a by-product, in addition to creating a new rule that targets power-plant greenhouse-gas emissions directly. EPA Administrator Michael Regan signaled last year he planned to do just that.

So the administration plans to make use of environmental protection laws that were not written for the purpose of mitigating climate change but could achieve at least some greenhouse gas reduction as a side effect. For example, in January, the EPA proposed to strengthen rules for reducing soot emissions, which endanger public health. Such a move would probably have beneficial effects on climate as well. A Democratic lobbyist told the Post, “All these things are about carbon emissions. But [the EPA] will never say it’s about carbon emissions. This is the smart approach. The Supreme Court may not like it, but there’s nothing they’ll be able to do about it.” 

Such strategies may allow for end runs around the Supreme Court, but if the GOP takes the White House and/or both houses of Congress in next year’s elections, many executive actions will be reversed, and many IRA climate provisions will be attacked. That’s no reason not to take the actions, though. No one knows what 2024 will bring. And going after local pollution, whether or not it’s used as a proxy for climate damage, can advance environmental justice in marginalized communities. That brings us back to the administration’s push to phase out gas stoves. 

The stove campaign is aimed at improving indoor air quality and health, but if successful, it will also reduce emissions of methane, the powerful greenhouse gas that is the chief component of fossil gas. Rebates to low- and middle-income households for replacing gas appliances with electric ones, including stoves, are a welcome feature of the IRA; however, many low-income families, including those that rent their homes, are unlikely to benefit. More broadly, ensuring environmental justice and protecting human health while keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere cannot be accomplished one household at a time. That requires action at the community and state levels as well.

Liz Karosick, XRDC

For more than a year, Extinction Rebellion DC (XRDC) has run a campaign to thwart the plans of fossil gas provider Washington Gas to completely replace the city’s old, decrepit gas-piping infrastructure, at a cost of $5 billion. Instead, XRDC says, spending should go toward subsidizing the replacement of gas appliances with electric ones in the district’s many low-income homes, and ditching gas. Today—and far into the future, if the piping system is replaced—the city’s residents, 46 percent of them Black, are exposed to toxic methane and nitrogen dioxide fumes, with serious health consequences, especially for children. At the same time, the entire leaky Washington Gas system releases world-warming methane into the atmosphere.

XRDC activist Liz Karosick told me last year that some people had questioned the group’s choice of issues, asking questions like, “Hey, fossil fuels are a global problem, much bigger than a local gas campaign. Why this issue?” But building momentum behind local demands, Karosick believes, could “change the trajectory, electrify the city. . . . We’re finding leverage points where we can access the people who have decision-making power and move public opinion.” Then, she said, “we can go back to expanding upon broader demands.”  

The political landscape: still steep and rocky 

In its plans for emissions cuts, the Biden administration is primarily targeting the electric power sector, aiming to eliminate coal- and gas-fired power plants by 2035. That would be an impressive feat, but it cannot be achieved solely through executive action. And it wouldn’t address our energy system as a whole. Only 25 percent of US greenhouse gases are emitted by the power sector, and phasing out the remaining emissions from transportation, manufacturing, cargo hauling, farming, road and building construction, and other sources will be much, much harder.

Only Congress can effectively address fossil fuels throughout the economy, and passage of laws for doing so won’t be possible until 2025 at the earliest. But even if the GOP takes an electoral drubbing in 2024, passage of the kind of sweeping, ambitious legislation required to effect a rapid phaseout of oil, gas, and coal (see Larry Edwards’ and my Cap and Adapt policy framework) would face fierce resistance from powers that be in government and business. 

A year ago, academics, journalists, and political figures were raising alarms over the possibility that in the 2022 and 2024 elections, MAGA forces could either win or cheat their way into full control over both houses of Congress, plus the White House, and not let go. On climate and broader ecological emergencies, I feared (among myriad other horrors) that autocratic extremists would then be in a position to block and bury federal climate policy for at least the next decade or more, ensuring that world-altering emissions would continue being pumped into the atmosphere. 

Last fall’s elections made that outcome somewhat less likely but far from impossible. Now we are seeing how fanatics who have only the most tenuous control over a single chamber of the legislative branch can nonetheless hamstring an entire government—as long as they don’t care about lawmaking or governing, only about bringing down those who do. The apogee of this fanaticism will occur in a few months when the MAGA mob leverages the lifting of the debt ceiling to advance its interests and further increase its power.   

Whatever it is that closes off our paths toward phasing out fossil fuels—a collapse triggered by the debt-ceiling extortion, stepped-up sabotage of government functioning, or some fresh catastrophe—the arena for climate action will probably be shifting even further into the hands of grassroots groups and communities like those that have been featured in City Lights Books’ “In Real Time” series over the past year: Extinction Rebellion, Start:Empowerment, the Great Plains Action Society (and the broader campaign against fossil carbon pipelines), the Poor People’s Campaign, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and others.

In pursuing on-the-ground action, though, we must not ignore the threat that antidemocratic, power-hungry public officials in Washington and state capitals pose to our collective future.  On that, I’ll turn to journalist Annika Brockschmidt for the last word:

So while the urge to laugh is understandable when Ted Cruz proposes doomsday scenarios—“First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox” [in response to greater energy efficiency in gaming devices]—let’s not lose sight of what this latest outrage is meant to facilitate: to turn any cultural change, however small, into a story of victimization. This is the powerful driving force behind the Right’s grievances, and it provides them with permission to “hit back” as a form of “defense.” . . . By framing change or progress as an existential threat, the Right creates a siege mentality which is essential to the victimization narrative—no easy thing to do if your movement is experiencing a good deal of success (see the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives, despite the sizable disadvantage in popular support). It also galvanizes the anger of the base, which serves as a powerful motivator, and strengthens their own sense of having an imaginary target on their backs. All in all it’s fine to laugh about the Right’s unhinged crusade against gas stoves. Just don’t miss the strategy behind it—and the fact that sometimes a gas stove is not just a gas stove. 

A Tale of Two Mothers: Dying with Dignity and What Makes That Possible

By Priti Gulati Cox & Stan Cox

Published at TomDispatch

So many crises — from war to mass species die-offs to climate meltdown — afflict our world that we often don’t take time to draw insights from what generally passes for the small stuff, the things that happen all too close to home, including aging. Most of us don’t relish the prospect of getting old, much less watching our parents approach their deaths, something that’s even worse if you’re dying poor. 

Having a parent die, whatever the circumstances, is bound to be wrenching. The best we daughters and sons can hope for is that our parents finish out their lives on their own terms and where they want to be — with loved ones nearby and suffering as little as possible. In recent years, the deaths of our own mothers at opposite ends of the globe seemed to highlight, in some modest fashion, the experiences of women who suffer debilitating health problems late in life, as well as the deep humanity and kindness shown them by the people whose work it is to help them exit this world in comfort and with dignity.

Priti’s mother Santosh Gulati and Stan’s mother Brenda Cox were born just four months apart in 1932-1933 and died four years apart in 2018 and 2023. Both lived through an era in which most women’s existences were still bound by the decisions men made. Still, they achieved a great deal despite such constraints and enjoyed relatively good health, only to be hit hard by medical problems in their last years.

During her final decade, Santosh battled breast cancer while also suffering the physical and mental anguish of a rare neurological disease, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). She succumbed in 2018, at age 86. In her last decade, Brenda endured the ravages of severe osteoporosis, including chronic, ever-increasing pain from a cascade of excruciating fractures in her spine, along with a broken ankle and fractured hips. In her final five years, she was also stricken by rapidly advancing dementia. She died this February at 90.

Brenda Cox (L) and Santosh Gulati (R), both probably in their late teens

Brenda’s Story

In late 2018, Stan’s family began facing a conundrum experienced daily around the world: What will we do when Brenda can no longer take care of herself? Stan’s daughter Sheila answered that question admirably by quitting her job in Kansas and moving to Georgia to care for her then-85-year-old grandmother full-time. A year later, the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Had Sheila not been able and willing to give four years of her life to such work, Brenda might have ended up dying earlier in a care institution, isolated, with advancing dementia — and like so many less fortunate elderly people in those darkest pandemic days, having to say her final goodbyes by telephone. Instead, for almost three years, Brenda stayed out of Covid–19’s path and within reach of her far-flung family, even as her pain, physical disability, and dementia worsened. Then, one day in mid-December 2022, the pandemic finally came for her, carried most likely by a well-wishing visitor.

As her decline accelerated through January, she began losing her ability to swallow (partly because of her dementia), and the resulting aspiration of food and fluids worsened the pneumonia that had plagued her for months before she caught Covid. There was no way to reverse her decline. Before she was discharged from the hospital for the last time, her doctor asked us whether we wanted her problems to be treated “aggressively” with a feeding tube, intravenous fluids, and antibiotics, or whether we’d prefer to drop the losing battle with aspiration.

Brenda had been explicit in her advance directive: no artificial feeding. The whole family was in accord and committed to ensuring that she would feel as much happiness and comfort as possible in her home, with us, thanks to the indispensable support hospice nurses and aides provided us. In January 2023, she came home to the loving care of those hospice workers and her family.

With plenty of us there, someone (or ones) could always be holding Brenda’s hand, often both of them, every minute of her dwindling waking hours and for much of the time she slept as well. And we could do our best to remember the words she was whispering ever less frequently as the hours passed — almost all of them sweet or funny or both. We laughed through our tears. Two days before the end, she was using what little breath she had left to speak largely unintelligible words and phrases. Still, the last thing she whispered, on Valentine’s Day, was unmistakable: “I love all of you.”  

Santosh’s Story

When Santosh Gulati died of PSP in December 2018, we were in Mumbai with her, as was most of her family. PSP, often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease, is one of the cruelest illnesses. It eats away at the mind and the body all too slowly, until — the final symptom suffered by most — you can no longer swallow. The last meal she enjoyed before the hospital’s doctors put her on a feeding tube — against her family’s wishes — was her favorite: meetha (sweet) toast. (Consider it the Indian version of French toast.)

Specialists in the hospital were horrified when we insisted that she die naturally, that they not use artificial feeding to keep her physical body alive while only prolonging her agony. Her doctor warned us sternly, “That decision will come back to haunt you later in life.”

We are indeed haunted, but not about our decision to let Priti’s mother die with some dignity. That was the only loving, humane choice we felt we could make. We arehaunted by the fact that so many poor Adivasis (tribal people), Muslims, Dalits, Christians, and other minority groups are living and dying under Hindu supremacy,with no semblance of justice, equality, or dignity.

Consider Kalavati, a poor, lower-caste woman who was Santosh’s home caregiver. During one of her hospitalizations, Kalavati stayed in the room with her at night (because all patients were required to have a personal attendant present overnight) and only went home when daylight came and family members took over. One night in the hospital, Kalavati got a call notifying her that her oldest son, Arjun, who had been suffering from tuberculosis, was probably not going to make it to the morning. The first commuter train that could take her to her slum, however, wouldn’t depart until 4:00 a.m. Delayed for hours, she finally neared her house only to see her other two sons running toward her, shouting, “Ma, tu kahan thi? Bhaiya mar gaya!” (“Mama, where were you? Big brother has died!”)

Kalavati with a photo of her son Arjun

All along, Kalavati had been in an impossible position. She had to work outside her home so that her family could have food and shelter, which meant that, for much of the time, she couldn’t cook or otherwise care for them. She couldn’t even hold her son’s hand as he died (as we did with our mothers). Once the funeral and the mourning period were over, she returned to care lovingly for Priti’s mother until Santosh, too, died.

So, we were grieving for her even as Kalavati grieved for Arjun. His tuberculosis had only worsened when he started drinking heavily, despondent over the stress of growing up poor with a delinquent father while losing the girl he loved. Kalavati had spent all her extra money just to get him into the hospital for treatment. “But he wouldn’t eat,” she told us, “or take his medicines and I had to throw them away. ‘Arjun, take your medicine,’ I said. ‘You will die if you don’t.’” As she so vividly recalled, he then replied, “No, Ma, I don’t want to live and you have my two young brothers to take care of.” There was no hope, the doctors told her. “After I brought him home, I tried giving him a little water, some pineapple juice… Then, in the end, my child’s body completely took hold of the ground. Khalas [finished]. There was no strength left in him to get up,” she told Priti through her tears. “Then I came to work [for Santosh] and after a few days he died.”

Kalavati is one of so many Indian women born into poverty-stricken families who, once married, are abandoned by their husbands and left to care for children singlehandedly. (Her husband left her in 2013.) Many of them also work as maids or caregivers to children or elders in middle-class homes. Out of desperation, many are compelled to neglect their own sons, daughters, and elders to earn a living that isn’t faintly enough to lift them out of poverty. At best, it’s just enough to help them and their loved ones survive. That’s no accident. It’s what keeps capitalism going in India.

Our pain at losing Santosh, who had rarely been free to make her own decisions and ended up suffering from a horrific illness, proved deep and long-lasting. But at least we knew she had died serving her family, not someone else’s. Imagine instead being the son or daughter of a mother who believes her life has no meaning. That’s what Kalavati once told Priti through her tears: “Jeene ka koi matlab he nahi hai.” (“There is no reason to live.”) But live women must. Because women so often turn out to be caregivers to someone — only some of us are fortunate that the someone is our own.

We Know How Lucky We’ve Been

Disparities in the kind of care people receive as they die are widespread, not only between but also within societies. For instance, American hospice use is lower among Black patients in part because, when discussing the end of life with them, physicians tend to provide less information about their diagnosis, outlook, and treatment options, including hospice.

One of the registered nurses whose care Brenda received (and who also came to our aid moments after Brenda died) was Black. We were curious about her experience in hospice work, so we got in touch with her a couple of days later. By text, Donna (not her real name) told us how she and her autistic son had suffered the effects of systemic racism in the overall medical system. She added, more broadly, that, in her 30 years of nursing, she has seen striking disparities in the treatment of White patients versus Black or Latino ones. However, she wrote, having worked in pediatrics, geriatrics, oncology, and hospice, “I have seen the least disparity in hospice care. Our hospice department is very sensitive to cultural differences and they do their best to provide the best care possible for everyone.” So, the chief racial disparity is not necessarily in the quality of hospice care but in the reduced opportunities for Black patients to get into it in the first place.

We are deeply mindful of how fortunate both of our families were to have our mothers’ sad final journeys end at home surrounded by our collective love. We were, above all, fortunate indeed to have the kinds of flexible work schedules most people don’t have, as well as the ability to travel, and enough funds to make it all possible. Far too many Indian and American families won’t have the resources to care for their loved ones at home as they age and die.

In India, only a small minority of families have access to adequate medical care for their loved ones in the last weeks of their lives and even fewer have hospice care that allows them to die with comfort and dignity. For Santosh, there was no hospice available. Her family, like many there, had to improvise. Medical care and the services of home caregivers are, however, far more affordable in India than in the U.S., thanks largely to the low wages of so many healthcare workers. But even then, among India’s poor majority, including Kalavati’s family, the costs of most medical care and all home care remain out of reach. 

Most Indians do die at home with their families, but mainly without medical support. A recent study found that, of the 5.4 million people a year in India who need palliative care, only 1% receive it. Crucially, therefore, Santosh couldn’t benefit from the kinds of pain medications that kept Brenda comfortable during her last days. The experiences of our American and Indian families differed in other ways. Brenda’s doctors and nurses were open and frank about her prospects and didn’t urge extraordinary measures to keep her nominally alive; Santosh’s were not. Neither of our families is wealthy. Although we both did have the financial means necessary to care for our mothers, Brenda also benefited greatly from Medicare. India offered no such help for Santosh.

And one more factor: Brenda and all of us descended from her are White, so our efforts to make her last days good ones were not disrupted by systemic racism, as they are for so many in this country.

There’s a saying in India: jispe beet-tee hai woh he janata hai (only the one who’s going through it knows). Santosh used that with Priti once — speaking not of her own suffering but of someone else’s. In Santosh’s final weeks, old Bollywood songs would play each evening on the TV in her bedroom. Four years later, while we stood around Brenda’s bed at dusk as she breathed her last, a song Priti had heard in Santosh’s room the very evening she died played over and over in her head. It was from the 1971 film Anand, about a doctor who struggles to decide between keeping patients alive and accepting death when it’s inevitable:

Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye

Kahin dur jab din dhal jaye
Sanjh ki dulhan badan churaye
Chupke se aaye
Mere khayalon ke aangan mein
Koi sapnon ke deep jalaye

(Somewhere far away when the day sets
The bride of dusk steals the body
She comes quietly
In the courtyard of my thoughts
Someone lights up lamps of dreams)

Kabhi yoon he jab hui bhojal saansen
Bhar aye baithe baithe jab yoon he ankhen
Kabhi machal ke pyaar se chal ke
Chhue koi mujhe par nazar na aye
Nazar na aye
Kahin dur…

(Sometimes just like that the breath becomes heavy
When my eyes well up just sitting there
Then, fluttering, moving with love
Someone, touches me, but I cannot see her
I cannot see her
Somewhere far away…)

Rest in peace, Brenda, Santosh, and every other mother who gave so much and suffered so greatly.

“To Create Civil Disorder and Inspire Further Violence”: The Far Right Assault on our Future

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time Chronicle of a Fate unknown, Part 9

Lost in the rush of political and climate-related news in the closing weeks of 2022 was the small but intriguing story of a December 3 armed attack on two power substations in Moore County, North Carolina. The installations were severely damaged by gunfire, leaving 45,000 residents to suffer through the winter cold without power, many of them for several days. 

A little over two weeks after the attack, a large, swastika-bedecked banner sporting the slogan “BRING IT ALL DOWN” was hung from an overpass on US Route 1, a few minutes’ drive from the substations. The banner included an internet address leading to a photo of an electrical substation under the same “BRING IT ALL DOWN” slogan. That photo had been posted following an earlier substation attack in Maysville, North Carolina, 170 miles away.

In the months leading up to these incidents, far-right elements had shown growing interest in sabotaging the nation’s electrical grid. The US Department of Energy reports “hundreds of physical attacks to electrical systems”—with “the most in the last decade” occurring in 2022. Intentional damage, sabotage, or vandalism accounted for more than one out of four power disruptions across the country during that period. Annual numbers of such attacks have doubled over the past 10 years.

Because the North Carolina strikes caused an especially serious disruption, they broke into the national news cycle. These kinds of stories are typically covered only on the local 11 o’clock news, but this year’s surge in such incidents is coincident with, and potentially connected to, the politicization of energy and climate throughout extremist circles, so it’s a story we should all be keeping an eye on.

Coming off its recent losing streak in the federal courts, in Congress, and finally, at the polls, will the MAGA cult increasingly turn to violent local actions, including sustained assaults on the power grid? If so, what would be the potential consequences for the nation’s electricity supply—something that’s as essential to the maintenance of a high-tech industrial society as food and water, but is also a crucial factor in the global ecological emergency? 

Lights out: A very American power struggle

The rise in attacks on electrical distribution systems has been striking. In September, intruders broke into and damaged six substations in Florida, triggering power outages. In early November, someone riddled two substations in Ohio’s Knox and Licking Counties with dozens of rounds from a .308 caliber rifle. The attack resulted in “a power outage giving students a three-day weekend,” according to local reports

November also saw attacks on at least a half-dozen substations in Oregon and western Washington. According to an FBI memo, the mayhem included “setting the control houses on fire, forced entry and sabotage of intricate electrical control systems, causing short circuits . . .  , and ballistic attack with small caliber firearms.” This Pacific Northwest spree resumed on Christmas Day, when vandals broke into and disabled four substations in the Tacoma, Washington, area, plunging 14,000 households into holiday darkness. Two men were arrested on New Year’s Eve and charged with the sabotage. 

Then, on January 4, a man allegedly drove a vehicle through the fence surrounding a solar power plant near Las Vegas, parked the vehicle next to a large transformer, and set it on fire. The solar farm—home to 300,000 panels with enough capacity to supply 27,000 U.S. homes—was knocked out of service for at least a week. The man was apprehended and charged with terrorism and arson.

Suspects have not been identified in any of the late 2022 substation attacks other than the Tacoma and Las Vegas incidents. In a November 22 bulletin sent to private industry and obtained by CNN, the FBI warned of a rise in such attacks and stressed that their purpose could well be “to create civil disorder and inspire further violence.” Citing the report, CNN noted that “anti-government groups in the past two years began using online forums to urge followers to attack critical infrastructure, including the power grid. They have posted documents and even instructions outlining vulnerabilities and suggesting the use of high-powered rifles.” 

Writing for Newsweek in late October 2022, Tom O’Connor and Naveed Jamali reported on a corporate intelligence security memo describing at least 15 incidents, going back more than a year, in which online extremists urged attacks on electrical substations, cell towers, and pipelines. O’Connor and Jamali examined documents that, they wrote, “could serve to help groups and individuals in carrying out such attacks, including maps, manuals, and instructions on the vulnerabilities of electricity infrastructure and readily accessible methods to disrupt their operation.”

Law enforcement officials are noting that the nation’s 55,000 substations—essentially huge transformers that reduce the voltage of electricity delivered by long-distance lines before it’s distributed to customers—make for juicy targets. Most substations are located in isolated spots that punctuate the nation’s 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines—places where saboteurs can break into the station or fire a few rounds at the equipment and then make a getaway without being seen. Indeed, it appears that none of this fall’s perpetrators has been identified yet. 

Domestic terrorists, officials told the news site Insider, may “feel that disrupting the electrical supply will disrupt the ability of government to operate. . . . And, secondly, by conducting attacks against the communications and electrical infrastructure, [that] it will actually accelerate the coming civil war that they anticipate, because it will disrupt the lives of so many people that they will lose faith in government.”

Writing less than two weeks before Election Day 2022, O’Connor and Jamali argued that these far-right terrorists’ focus on energy infrastructure was no coincidence: “Adding to the volatility of the situation, inflation and rising gas prices have proven top issues among voters, making energy sites an attractive target for groups and individuals seeking to cause mayhem at a politically sensitive time for the nation.”

Pro-white mixes with anti-green 

Without knowing who’s responsible for these attacks, we can’t know for certain if the perpetrators’ goals are connected to energy and climate or just general disruption and chaos. My guess is that most of the actions so far have been, like the North Carolina attacks, more pro-white than anti-green. But we have also seen how, in their reactionary fervor, far-right movements can be fluid when it comes to the specific causes they ally themselves with.

Think of the Proud Boys, who are currently on trial for seditious conspiracy in federal court. They came to prominence because of their associations with Trumpism and their central role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, but they’ve since piggybacked on a broad array of cultural battles over Covid lockdowns, masks and vaccines, critical race theory, trans hate, and QAnon fever dreams

Now, in ginning up their followers over the supposed loss of their “freedoms,” far-right leaders increasingly cite climate and energy issues alongside their usual appeals to white patriarchy. Speaking in September to the ultra-right student-led movement Turning Point USA, radio host and provocateur Alex Jones (who did more to assemble and mobilize the January 6 mob than just about anyone with a last name other than Trump) was asked by TPUSA’s Charlie Kirk how the Green New Deal and “environmental fascism” connect to what the far right has come to call the “Great Reset”: the claim that a global liberal elite is plotting to control humanity. Jones responded, “If energy was a chess piece for the globalist game plan, on the board, it’s the queen.” That, he said, means, “if you control energy, you control populations, you can bring them to their knees.”

Ted MacDonald of Media Matters writes

While conspiracy theories related to the Great Reset as a whole are not new, issues of climate denial associated with the Great Reset have been gaining momentum across right-wing media in recent months, fueled by the global energy crisis and a summer of climate-fueled weather disasters. . . . Notorious climate denier Marc Morano was pushing this idea as early as 2020, when he stated on the December 21 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight that the Biden administration will “go from COVID lockdowns to climate lockdowns.”

MacDonald quotes Carlson himself claiming, “Energy is civilization. . . . People don’t understand how threatening [Democrats’ climate policy] is and how close we are to being under the complete and total control of people who wish us ill.”

Rita Katz, the founder and executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, told the reporters O’Connor and Jamali, “Immediately after the reports about the [December 3] attacks, we at SITE saw such communities praise what happened in North Carolina and call for more, while sharing more directives about what to target and how to do so. Some have specifically suggested large cities,” where you-know-what kinds of communities live.

Simon Purdue, director of the Domestic Terrorism Threat Monitor, told O’Connor and Jamali, “The situation in Moore County offers only a glimpse into the chaos that attacks such as this can cause, and larger scale assaults could bring disruption on a statewide or even national level.” Purdue has seen “a steady slew of manifestos, social media posts, videos, and even instruction manuals on this kind of attack being produced by extremists over the past few years.”

Will a “green” electric grid be even more vulnerable?

Today’s electric grid is highly complex, aimed at rerouting power to fully align supply with demand at every location in the country, continuously. That mission includes instantaneously and precisely adjusting for every supply interruption, large or small. Coordinated attacks by people with a good understanding of how the grid works could potentially overwhelm the system, triggering cascades of blackouts over broad areas. 

CNN intelligence analyst John Miller believes that right-wing extremist groups’ ultimate aim is to take out large swaths of the national power supply: “Their theory is that if you identify the key nodes and you knock out one and they divert power to the next one, and you knock out the next one and the next one, a domino effect can actually start to topple the national grid and plunge the nation into darkness and chaos.”

To make matters worse, a future, much greener power grid may be even more vulnerable to widespread breakdowns. Eliminating fossil fuels from the nation’s power supply will require the buildout of a vastly larger energy-delivery system. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a fully “decarbonized” electric grid would need to have two to three times the capacity of our current grid. It would also have to be even more comprehensively fine-tunable than today’s grid, to make a gazillion adjustments a minute, rerouting power across vast areas, from solar or wind farms that are at that moment enjoying plenty of sun or wind to areas where renewable power stations are not producing enough. And, as Politico observes,  

the number of critical grid components vulnerable to attack will only grow as the U.S. expands the power grid over the coming decades and as more people and businesses buy electric vehicles. Wind and solarpower plantsin particular are often in remote areas where fewer grid protections may exist—and they offer more entry points for attack than a single power plant.

A less vulnerable power grid can be achieved, experts suggest, through fortification of power installations and armoring of all equipment that’s vulnerable to gunfire. Stepped-up surveillance is needed as well. But protecting 50,000 (or, in our more electrified future, perhaps 150,000) substations would be astronomically costly, and it still wouldn’t eliminate wider threats to the electrical system, much less our quests for ecological renewal and pluralistic democracy. Those carrying out such attacks, whoever they are, might simply move on to other targets in our technologically complex, increasingly fragile economy. 

Having suffered serious setbacks in the political arena throughout last year, the MAGA cult may be embracing even more warmly the idea that political violence can be a more effective means of achieving the sinister goal that they are failing to reach through legal and political means: an authoritarian takeover of US society. Disinformation and violence failed to get them what they wanted on January 6, 2021, and they must not be allowed to prevail in 2023.  

Paying for an Overheating Earth: Whose Planet Are We On?

By Stan Cox & Priti Gulati Cox

Published at TomDispatch

On October 29th, 75-year-old Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo Bay’s oldest detainee, was finally released by U.S. authorities and flown home to his family in Karachi, Pakistan. He had been incarcerated for nearly two decades without either charges or a trial. His plane touched down in a land still reeling from this year’s cataclysmic monsoon floods that, in July, had covered an unparalleled one-third of that country in July. Even his own family’s neighborhood, the well-heeled Defense Housing Authority complex, had been thoroughly inundated with, as a reporter wrote at the time, “water gushing into houses.” 

Saifullah Paracha, “formerly the oldest prisoner in Guantanamo Bay at 74yo, having a cup of tea in McDonalds in Karachi” after being finally released on October 29.

Having endured 19 years of suffering inflicted by the brute force of imperialism during America’s “Global War on Terror,” Paracha, along with all of Pakistan, will now suffer through the climatic devastation wrought by the invisible hand of economic imperialism. Indeed, even as his family members were embracing him for the first time since that fateful day in 2003 when he was seized in an FBI sting operation in Thailand, governments and corporations throughout the global North were sharpening their knives, preparing to reassert their dominance as they do at every year’s U.N. climate conference — this one being COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt. 

But delegates from climate-vulnerable, cash-poor countries like Pakistan and Egypt, along with members of climate-justice movements from across the planet, were also there. Tired of being pushed around, they had other plans.

A Breakthrough and an All-Too-Predictable Flop

At previous COPs, negotiations inside the hall were focused primarily on what’s come to be known as “climate mitigation” — that is, trying to keep future greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — along with adaptation to climate disruptions, past, present, and future. For the first time in official negotiations, COP27 would also feature the demands of low-income, vulnerable countries eager to be compensated for the devastating impacts they, like flooded Pakistan, have already suffered or will suffer thanks to climate change. After all, the global overheating of the present moment was caused by greenhouse gases emitted during the past two centuries, chiefly by the large industrial societies of the global North. In the shorthand of those negotiations, such polluter-pays compensation is known as “loss and damage.” 

At previous climate summits, the “haves” resisted the very idea of the have-nots demanding loss-and-damage compensation for two chief reasons: first, they preferred not to admit, even implicitly, that they had created the crisis now broiling and drowning communities across the Global South, and, second, they had no interest in shelling out the humongous sums that would then be required. 

This year, however, the shocking death and destruction inflicted by the inundation of Pakistan and, more recently of Nigeria, stoked an already surging movement to put loss and damage on COP’s agenda for the first time. And thanks to unrelenting pressure from that climate-justice groundswell, COP27 did end with the United States, the European Union, and the rest of the rich world approving an agreement to “establish a fund for responding to loss and damage.” Echoing the thoughts of many, climate justice leader Jean Su tweeted that the deal was “a testament to the incredible mobilization of vulnerable countries and civil society. Much work still to be done, but a dam has broken.”

The euphoria that followed over the creation of a loss-and-damage fund was well justified. But, as Su noted, the struggle is far from over. In a correction to its story reporting on that agreement, the Washington Post made clear that, although the batter had now been mixed, the cake was anything but in the oven. The paper informed readers, “An earlier version of this article incorrectly said wealthy nations agreed to pay billions of dollars into a loss and damage fund. While they agreed to create a fund, its size and financing mechanism have yet to be worked out.” Those two remaining how-much and how-to-do-it questions are anything but trivial. In the loss-and-damage debate, in fact, they’re the main issues countries have been arguing over for many years without resolution of any sort.

If the world does commit sufficient (or even insufficient) funds to pay out on loss and damage (and that’s a truly big if), vulnerable countries may finally have the means to begin recovering from the latest climate disasters. Tragically enough, however, there’s little question that, as ever greater amounts of carbon and methane continue to head for our atmosphere, whatever the affected populations may need now, it’s likely just a hint of the sort of compensation they’ll need in a future guaranteed to be full of ever-increasing numbers of disasters like the Pakistan floods. 

Modified COP27 logo

And the reason for that isn’t complicated: COP27 negotiators failed to match their loss-and-damage breakthrough with any significant progress on reining in greenhouse gas emissions. Efforts to come to agreement on phasing out the chief sources of those emissions — oil, gas, and coal — flopped, as they have at all previous COPs. The only thing the negotiators could manage was to repeat last year’s slippery pledge to pursue a “phase-down [not “-out”] of unabated [not “all”] coal [nor “coal, gas, and oil”] power.” 

On the one hand, civil-society movements prevailed in the debate over loss and damage. On the other, energy imperialism remained all too alive and well in Egypt, as corporate interests and the governments that serve them extended their 27-year winning streak of blocking efforts to drive emissions down at the urgently required rate. Yeb Saño, who led Greenpeace’s COP27 delegation, told, “It is scarcely credible that they have forgotten all about fossil fuels. Everywhere you look in Sharm el-Sheikh you can see and hear the influence of the fossil fuel industry. They have shown up in record numbers to try and decouple climate action from a fossil fuel phaseout.”

How to Pay?

The World Bank estimates that the floods in Pakistan caused more than $30 billion in damage, while rehabilitation and reconstruction will cost another $16 billion. And that, says the bank, doesn’t even include funds that will be needed “to support Pakistan’s adaptation to climate change and overall resilience of the country to future climate shocks.” The floods seriously harmed an estimated 33 million people, displaced 8 million from their homes, and left more than 1,700 dead. According to the World Bank’s report, “Loss of household incomes, assets, rising food prices, and disease outbreaks are impacting the most vulnerable groups. Women have suffered notable losses of their livelihoods, particularly those associated with agriculture and livestock.” The disaster starkly illustrated the indisputable moral and humanitarian grounds for compelling the governments of rich countries to pay for the devastation their decades of fossil-fuel burning has caused.

For Pakistan in particular, America’s lavishly funded war-making and national-security industries are joined at the hip with the global climate emergency. While those forces are directly responsible for depriving Paracha and countless others of their freedom or lives, the greenhouse-gas emissions they generate have also contributed to the kind of devastation that he came home to when finally released. Furthermore, these industries have wasted trillions of dollars that could have been spent on preventing, adapting to, and compensating for ecological breakdown.

So far this fall, Washington has pledged $97 million (with an “m”) in flood-relief aid to Pakistan. Sounds like a lot of money, but it amounts to just one five-hundredth of the World Bank’s loss-and-damage estimate. In bleak contrast, from 2002 to 2010 alone, at the height of that Global War on Terror, the U.S. government provided Pakistan with $13 billion (with a “b”) in military aid.  

Pakistan floods, August 2022

To dodge blame and minimize their costs, the rich countries have been proposing a range of alternatives to simply paying loss-and-damage money to low-income ones as they should. Instead, they’d far prefer to have disaster-plagued governments finance their own climate-change recovery and adaptation by borrowing from banks in the North. In effect, rather than obtain relief-and-recovery funds directly from the North, countries like Pakistan would be obligated to make interest payments to banks in the North. 

Fed up with having unbearable debt burdens thrust upon them time and time again, countries in the South are saying no thanks to the proposition that they go even deeper into debt. In response, the North has been tossing out other ideas. For instance, encouraging development banks like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund to release disaster-hit countries from their obligations to pay some portion of the money they already owe as interest on past debts and use it instead to support their own recovery and rebuilding. But countries in the South are saying, in effect, “Hey, for decades, you’ve used your power to saddle us with punishing, unjust debt. By all means, please do cancel that debt, but you’ve still got to pay us for the climate loss and damage you’ve caused.”

The rich countries have even floated the idea of taking a portion of the money they’ve previously earmarked for development aid and depositing it in a global fund that would pay damages to vulnerable countries suffering future climatic disasters. Note the key to all such “solutions”: no extra expense for the wealthy countries. What a sweet deal! It’s as if, domestically, the U.S. government started issuing smaller Social Security checks and used the money it “saved” that way to pay Medicare benefits. 

The new COP27 loss-and-damage fund is supposed to prohibit such shell games, while also pulling climate finance out of the realms of imperialism, debt servitude, and what Oxfam calls the “disaster begging bowl.” What’s needed, says Oxfam, an organization focused on alleviating global poverty, is “a fair and automatic mechanism for financial support — rooted in the principle that those who have contributed most to the climate crisis pay for the damage it causes in countries least responsible and hardest hit.”

How Much and Where to Get It?

When confronted with numbers ending in “-illion,” as Americans were during the debates over the Congressional spending bills of 2021 and 2022, it’s easy enough for your eyes to glaze over and miss the orders-of-magnitude of difference among such figures. In an American world where the Pentagon budget alone is headed for $1 trillion sometime in this decade, it’s easy enough to forget, for example, that a million of those dollars is just one-millionth of a trillion of them. In response, in discussing the staggering sums needed to deal with our already desperately overheating planet and the amounts available to pay for loss and damage, we’ll now put everything in terms of billions of U.S. dollars. 

High-emitting countries like ours have run up quite a climate tab. A June 2022 report from the V-20 group, which represents 55 of the world’s lowest-income, most climate-vulnerable economies, estimates that, from 2000 to 2019, their membership lost $525 billion thanks to climate disruption. That’s a huge blow to a staggeringly large set of countries whose gross domestic products add up to just $2,400 billion. But in the global North, such sums and even far larger ones, while more than pocket change, are still easily affordable, as that Pentagon budget suggests.

By Oxfam’s reckoning, hundreds of billions of dollars could be raised for paying loss-and-damage by taxing fossil-fuel extraction, international cargo shipping, frequent flying, and other significantly carbon-producing activities,. Progressive wealth taxes could net even more: $3,600 billion annually, according to the Climate Action Network (CAN), which also estimates that ending government subsidies to corporations (one-third of which go to fossil-fuel companies) could net $1,800 billion annually. Furthermore, cuts in military spending could free up a whopping $2,000 billion per year globally. The latter could be an especially juicy target. For instance, by CAN’s estimate, the United States’s fair share of payments owed to the Global South for climate mitigation and adaptation, plus loss-and-damage reparations, would come to roughly $1,600 billion over the next decade. And those 10 payments of $160 billion each could be covered if the Pentagon just ditched production of its most disastrously expensive jet fighter, the $1,700 billion F-35, and diverted the money toward climate assistance. 

It’s always the government’s job to spend big when America faces a dire emergency, wherever the money comes from. In 2020-2021, Congress passed more than $3,000 billion in Covid relief — enough to pay our international climate tab, as estimated by CAN, for 19 years

“Our Cause Is One”

Alaa Abdel-Fattah with Sanaa Seif, “speaks to the crowd after attending their father’s funeral in Cairo, Egypt.” — Ahram Online, October 28, 2014.

Shortly after Saifullah Paracha’s return to Karachi in October, another family, in Sharm el-Sheikh 2,340 miles away, had embarked on what reporter Jeff Shenker called “a desperate and possibly reckless mission” to save the life of one of their own: the British-Egyptian human-rights activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, possibly Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner. 

Abd El-Fattah, who has spent most of the last decade behind bars for speaking out against Egypt’s oppressive regime, had been on a partial hunger strike since April. After visiting him on November 18th, his family reported that he had broken his hunger strike “out of a desire to stay alive, but he would resume it if no progress was made regarding his freedom.” His sister Sanaa Seif told reporters inside the COP27 conference hall, 

“He’s not in prison for the Facebook post they charged him with. He’s in prison because he’s someone who makes people believe the world can be a better place. He’s someone trying to make the world a better place… There are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. There are more around the world. Climate activists get arrested, kidnapped in Latin America. We face the same kind of oppression, and our cause is one.” 

What is Guantánamo Bay but a place where the American empire has practiced its human-breaking tactics for 20 years without accountability offshore of any system of justice? What is the U.N. climate summit but a meeting place where the world’s elite have protected their power for 27 years and counting?

Living as a “forever prisoner” (as the Guardian dubbed Saifullah Paracha in 2018) was, he once said, “like being alive in your own grave.” Forever wars, forever prisoners, forever climate chaos, forever theft. That’s the world we live in, where governments like those of the United States and Egypt throw innocent Muslims like Saifullah Paracha and pro-democracy dissidents like Alaa Abd el-Fattah into prison for standing in the way of their forever-repressive interests.

Reporting on the struggle to free Abd el-Fattah, Shenker noted, “The phrase We Have Not Yet Been Defeated became the unofficial slogan of COP27, a reference to the title of a book by Abd el-Fattah published in 2021, ‘You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.’” Could the perseverance and courage of people like Paracha, Abd el-Fattah, and the activists for climate justice and human rights — both those who attended the conference at Sharm-el-Sheik and countless others around the world, make it possible someday to drop the “Yet” and say simply, “We Have Not Been Defeated”?

No Red Wave, but Plenty of Red Flags

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 8

This November, voters stood up and rejected a host of anti-democratic candidates all across America. Although the GOP eked out a victory in the House of Representatives, dimming prospects for further progress on climate and other issues for at least a couple of years, the nation managed to avoid a much worse fate.

In Part 1 of “In Real Time” last April, I included a quote from the historian Thomas Zimmer in which he described our precarious, knife-edge political situation: “America will either slide into authoritarianism or make the leap to multiracial, pluralistic democracy.” Since he wrote that, our political situation has been sliding, not leaping. Much remains to be done if we’re to manage a leap toward real democracy—nevertheless, we’ve kept alive our prospects for achieving an ecologically livable future while fending off a host of power grabs by would-be autocrats.

The stakes are higher than ever

In the other national crisis that’s coming to a head, the climate emergency, the good times definitely aren’t rolling. A couple of weeks before US elections ended and the COP27 global climate conference got underway in Egypt, two global climate-related agencies explained clearly that nations are making little or no headway on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and that time is running out. 

The World Meteorological Organization issued a report showing that from 2020 to 2021, the yearly increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration accelerated, exceeding the average annual increase during the 2010s. Scientists also observed that the concentration of methane, another greenhouse gas, experienced “the biggest year-on-year jump . . . since systematic measurements began almost 40 years ago.”

Meanwhile, the UN’s Emissions Gap Report for 2022, ominously titled “The Closing Window,” concluded that current plans by the world’s nations, taken together, will “make a negligible difference” in emissions by 2030. Even if all nations fulfill the pledges they made at last year’s global climate summit in Glasgow, says the report, the Earth will undergo a catastrophic 2.5°C temperature rise by the end of the century. And governments are not keeping up with even those weak pledges. If they continue following their current policies, says the UN, the temperature rise may reach 2.8°C or higher. 

These reports followed a September 2022 article in the journal Science that vividly described the bleak consequences of our failure to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. It showed that the Earth may have already undergone enough warming to reach several “tipping points”—changes that “lead to abrupt, irreversible, and dangerous impacts with serious implications for humanity”—and will cross several more such one-way bridges in coming decades, even if all emissions-reductions pledges under the Paris climate agreement are fulfilled. Tipping points include disasters such as melting of permafrost, collapse of ice sheets, and dieback of rain forests.  

Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and a co-author of the Science study, told The Guardian that the world is “very, very close to irreversible changes. . . . [T]ime is really running out very, very fast.” He added, “It’s a really bleak moment,” because “we’re not delivering on either the Paris or Glasgow climate agreements,” even as emissions keep rising. And there is no good reason to expect that the high-emitting nations will pledge adequately ambitious phaseouts of fossil fuels at COP27 and live up to them. Now there’s no time left to wait around for the rest of the world to start deeply cutting emissions; the United States needs to start phasing out oil, gas, and coal immediately. But can we?   

Consequences for climate policy

Writing for Scientific American the day after the midterms, while correctly assuming a GOP win in the House but not yet knowing the margin, Adam Aton and Scott Waldman listed several ways in which the results could impact US climate policy. The new House GOP caucus will include even more far-right extremists than the current one, but won’t be able to get climate-hostile bills passed into law, thanks to its narrow majority, a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, and President Biden’s veto power. These extremists can cause plenty of trouble, nonetheless. For example, Republican-controlled House committees might hold hearings to attack the Interior Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Forest Service, the Council on Environmental Quality, and other agencies that deal with environmental issues, while the chamber’s Select Committee on the Climate Crisis might be completely dissolved. 

The MAGA House contingent is determined to disrupt implementation of even loosely climate-related laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. However, the GOPers’ failure to gain an advantage of more than a few House seats, alongside their losses in critical governors’ races, will limit their ability to create havoc.

This election also removed or loosened the GOP grip on governments in a number of states, reducing the risk of chicanery in the next presidential election. Michigan and Minnesota will be under unified Democratic control in both legislative chambers plus the governor’s mansion—in Michigan’s case, for the first time in 38 years. Crucially, all of the election-denier liars running for secretary of state positions in swing states were defeated. As I write this, only one, Mark Finchem in Arizona, is contesting his defeat, and he will fail. Secretaries of state will play a central role in the presidential election in two years, so keeping those positions secure was crucial to preventing a rerun of the 2020 assault on the electoral system. 

Aton and Waldman cited six gubernatorial and congressional election results that could be especially consequential for climate policy. Democratic candidates won or are leading in all of those races, and if that holds, some modest progress could result. On the other hand, the victory of one Democrat, oil-and-gas-friendly Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas (who narrowly defeated a climate-friendly opponent in the party primary), did not help the climate cause.

I continue to worry that passage of the IRA in August has reduced pressure to pass much more ambitious climate legislation in coming years. Similarly, the evaporation of this year’s predicted “red wave” increases my concern that our society will again become complacent about the anti-democratic threats that hamper our ability to adequately address climate change, systemic racism, and a host of other issues. When the networks announced five days after the election ended that the Democrats had retained their majority in the Senate, majority leader Chuck Schumer proclaimed, “We were on the edge of autocracy, and thank God the American people pulled us back!” Let’s all be glad of that, while also realizing we’re still close enough to that edge that we can peer into the abyss.

There’s no shortage of red flags. Donald Trump has announced a third run for the White House, and the broader threats to the will of the majority and the rule of law have not gone away. In this election, more than 80 percent of victorious GOP House candidates, almost half of those who won Senate seats, and 25 candidates who won governor, secretary-of-state, or attorney general races out in the states have questioned or denied the 2020 election results. Writing for The Atlantic a week after the election, Elaine Godfrey warned, “Election denial is now a chronic wound in America’s body politic, only partially healed, and ready to reopen—red and raw—whenever circumstances permit.”

If we now sit back and relax, it’s still possible that a MAGA regime, with or without Trump, with or without cheating, could gain control of both Congress and the White House in 2024. Were that to happen, we’d see a mass repeal of environmental legislation, including the IRA. Congress would likely pass into law sweeping measures that increasingly normalize racist anti-woke laws, book bans, anti-trans repression, forced-birth laws, intolerance for immigration, and protections for the fossil fuel business. And to keep itself in power the MAGA right could be expected to gleefully take a sledgehammer to voting rights and election administration.

In an October 20 article titled “We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives,” John Daniel Davidson, a senior editor at the arch-far-right outlet The Federalist, made MAGA goals crystal clear. He wrote that conservatives “should stop thinking of themselves as conservatives (much less as Republicans) and start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries.” He continued,

Put bluntly, if conservatives want to save the country they are going to have to rebuild, and in a sense, re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. . . . conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about ‘small government.’ The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life — and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.  

This sort of language was casually mainstream in GOP circles before the election, and there’s no reason to expect far-right lawmakers and governors to be chastened by the November 8 results. Even if Team MAGA is prevented from taking long-term one-party control of the federal government, we face a rough road ahead. A nation having one of two major parties dominated by leaders hostile to democracy is at risk of experiencing lasting damage.  

We don’t know what we’ll be facing in 2025

Pro-democracy observers who had been bracing for an election-night horror show are of course delighted that the forces of authoritarianism have been thwarted, at least for now. Those results were consistent with research by Jason Brownlee, a professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, showing that affluent countries such as ours tend to oscillate up and down the political spectrum without plunging into long-term autocracy. Two weeks before the election, Brownlee told me he believed that the likelihood of an autocratic takeover of the US government “is very, very low,” and that even the kind of “competitive authoritarianism,” that we see in Hungary under strongman Viktor Orban (a MAGA hero) is unlikely to succeed in this country. 

Because the US has an entrenched two-party system and the federal government’s executive and legislative branches are separate—a division that doesn’t exist in Hungary— Brownlee says, “It’s much more difficult for one of the two parties in the US system to take complete control for any protracted period.” Even if that were to occur, he believes, “it will be exceedingly difficult to make radical changes to the Constitution,” as was done in Orban’s Hungary. His research has shown that over the past century, the majority of countries that went through a spell of democratic backsliding, as the US has been doing over the past decade or so, recovered without descending into autocracy. Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to remember (as investment brokers always warn) that past performance may not be indicative of future results. We’d better not assume that this year’s election has eradicated the threat for good.

Regarding the consequences for climate policy if a MAGA regime does manage to grab power in 2024, Brownlee said, 

In modern history, when responding to the climate crisis and other environmental challenges, authoritarian governments have, in some cases, outperformed democratically elected governments. But I wouldn’t bet on authoritarianism. I think what it comes down to—whether the government is authoritarian or democratically elected—is this: Are there organized movements that can compel a policy change? In authoritarian systems, it is generally harder to have that type of broad-based organizing and political movement building.

Like Brownlee, I can’t imagine betting on a far-right authoritarian regime to pursue climate mitigation in this country; in fact, such a regime would surely work to undo environmental legislation across the board, starting with repeal of the Inflation Reduction Act. And we have solid reporting that if re-elected, legitimately or not, Trump would pursue a wholesale purge of career federal officials and replace them with MAGA acolytes. I would expect any alternative MAGA president to do the same, transforming the EPA, the Interior Department, the Justice Department, and all other agencies that administer environmental laws and regulations into weapons of mass ecological destruction.

Organizing Against Autocracy

Kicking or keeping would-be autocrats out of office can have a big ecological payoff. Consider Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory over the authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s recent presidential election (solidified by the latter’s decision not to respond with a Trumpian-style insurrection attempt). One study predicted that an area of rain forest the size of the nation of Panama can be spared destruction in this decade if Lula keeps his pledge to end the rampant deforestation that the Bolsonaro administration allowed. That, accompanied by strong reforestation policies, would deeply reduce Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In an October 2022 working paper titled “Pro-democracy Organizing against Autocracy in the United States,” Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks of the Harvard Kennedy School propose a set of strategies that could form the basis of “a broad-based pro-democracy struggle” in the event that “the U.S. began to careen more precipitously toward authoritarianism at the national level.” What effective actions can communities and broader networks of people take if we find ourselves living under a regime in which elections occur on schedule, but, as they write, “rule of law, separation of powers, press freedom, and civil rights are weak or nonexistent”? They suggest four broad strategies.

Because “elections remain crucial focal points for mobilizing robust collective action in electoral autocracies,” Chenoweth and Marks write, a good first step is to establish a big, multiracial, cross-class united front that continues to vie for power at the ballot box, even if victory is highly unlikely. They have found that nonviolent protests against such regimes “are strongly associated with the defeat of authoritarian incumbents and the ushering in of democratic transitions.”

Secondly, they write, we should build nongovernmental institutions to serve community needs and keep the struggle for multiracial, pluralistic democracy alive: “The more opposition groups are able to establish and maintain political autonomy, prevent the local enforcement of unjust laws and policies, and provide services directly to their communities, the more obsolete authoritarian forces will become relative to pro-democratic ones.” They cite possibilities such as economic cooperatives, food and public health services, mutual aid, community safety, and strike funds.

Thirdly, we should work to divide and unravel the regime “by inducing defections within its pillars of support” through nonviolent tactics “that can build pressure without increasing risk, especially toward minority populations and targeted groups.”

Finally, agile adaptation is required: “Movements can be more resilient when they find ways to make repressive episodes backfire—that is, when they are able to exploit the moment to demonstrate the autocrat’s weakness or hypocrisy.” 

In looking through Chenoweth and Marks’s list, it occurred to me that these strategies could be just as effective in heading off autocracy as they would be in coping with it. They seem especially relevant in several southern and midwestern states that are sliding briskly toward authoritarian one-party control. With the midterm election now behind us, I’m hoping for a surge in what Brownlee called “organized movements that can compel a policy change,” a surge aimed at both building multiracial, pluralistic democracy and preventing climate meltdown.  

America: The Saudi Arabia of Green Greed

by Stan Cox & Priti Gulati Cox

Published at TomDispatch

The Yin’s Been Yanged Under the Garb of Green

Much of the excitement over the Inflation Reduction Act, which became law this summer, focused on the boost it should give to the sales of electric vehicles. Sadly, though, manufacturing and driving tens of millions of individual electric passenger cars won’t get us far enough down the road to ending greenhouse-gas emissions and stanching the overheating of this planet. Worse yet, the coming global race to electrify the personal vehicle is likely to exacerbate ecological degradation, geopolitical tensions, and military conflict.

The batteries that power electric vehicles are likely to be the source of much international competition and the heart of the problem lies in two of the metallic elements used to make their electrodes: cobalt and lithium. Most deposits of those metals lie outside the borders of the United States and will leave manufacturers here (and elsewhere) relying heavily on foreign supplies to electrify road travel on the scale now being envisioned.

Adventurers and Opportunists

In the battery business, the Democratic Republic of Congo is referred to as “the Saudi Arabia of cobalt.” For two decades, its cobalt — 80% of the world’s known reserves — has been highly prized for its role in mobile-phone manufacturing. Such cobalt mining has already taken a terrible human and ecological toll.

Now, the pressure to increase Congo’s cobalt output is intensifying on a staggering scale. Whereas a phone contains just thousandths of a gram of cobalt, an electric vehicle battery has pounds of the metal, and a quarter-billion such batteries will have to be manufactured to fully electrify the American passenger car fleet as it now exists.

Not surprisingly, the investment world is now converging on Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. In a remarkable series of articles late last year, the New York Times reported on how the cobalt rush in that country has been caught up “in a familiar cycle of exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship that often puts narrow national aspirations above all else.” The most intense rivalry is between China, which has, in recent years, been buying up cobalt-mining operations in Congo at a rapid clip, and the United States, now playing catch-up. Those two nations, wrote the Times, “have entered a new ‘Great Game’ of sorts,” a reference to the nineteenth-century confrontation between the Russian and British Empires over Afghanistan.

Fifteen of 19 cobalt mines in Congo are now under Chinese control. In and around those mines, the health and the safety of workers have been severely compromised, while local residents have been displaced from their homes. People sneaking into the area to collect leftover lumps of cobalt to sell are being shot at. The killing of one man by the Congolese military (at the urging of Chinese mine owners) spurred an uprising in his village, during which a protester was also shot and killed.

The Times further reported, “Troops with AK-47s were posted outside the mine this year, along with security guards hired from a company founded by Erik Prince.” Prince is notorious for having been the founder and boss of the mercenary contractor Blackwater, which committed atrocities during America’s “forever wars” of the 2000s. Among other mayhem, Blackwater mercenaries fired upon unarmed civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan and were convicted of the killings and woundings that resulted. From 2014 to 2021, he was the chair of a China-based company, Frontier Services Group, that provided Blackwater-style services to mining companies in Congo.

Prince has joined what the Times calls “a wave of adventurers and opportunists who have filled a vacuum created by the departure of major American mining companies, and by the reluctance of other traditional Western firms to do business in a country with a reputation for labor abuses and bribery.”


Forbes reported recently that 384 additional mines may be needed worldwide by 2035 to keep battery factories supplied with cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Even were there to be a rapid acceleration of the recycling of metals from old batteries, 336 new mines would still be needed. A battery-industry CEO told the magazine:

“If you just look at Tesla’s ambition to produce 20 million electric vehicles a year in 2030, that alone will require close to two times the present global annual supply [of those minerals] and that’s before you include VW, Ford, GM, and the Chinese.”

Currently, the bulk of the world’s lithium production occurs in Australia, Chile, and China, while there are vast unexploited reserves in the southern part of Bolivia where it joins Chile and Argentina in what’s come to be known as the “lithium triangle.” China owns lithium mines outright throughout that triangle and in Australia, and two-thirds of the world’s lithium processing is done in Chinese-owned facilities.

Lithium extraction and processing is not exactly a green business. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, for instance, where lithium mining requires vast evaporation ponds, a half million gallons of water are needed for every metric ton of lithium extracted. The process accounts for 65% of the total amount of water used in that region and causes extensive soil and water contamination, as well as air pollution.

While evidently uninterested in Mother Nature, Tesla’s electric car tycoon Elon Musk is intensely interested in vertically integrating lithium mining with electric battery and vehicle production on the Chinese model. Accordingly, he’s been trying for years to get his hands on Bolivia’s pristine lithium reserves. Until ousted in a 2020 coup, that country’s president Evo Morales stood in Musk’s way, pledging to “industrialize with dignity and sovereignty.”

When a Twitter user accused Musk of being complicit in the coup, the Tesla tycoon responded, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” (He later deleted the tweet.) As Vijay Prashad and Alejandro Bejarano observed at the time, “Musk’s admission, however intemperate, is at least honest… Earlier this year, Musk and his company revealed that they wanted to build a Tesla factory in Brazil, which would be supplied by lithium from Bolivia; when we wrote about that we called our report ‘Elon Musk Is Acting Like a Neo-Conquistador for South America’s Lithium.’”

Bolivia continues to seek to exploit its lithium resources while keeping them under national control. Without sufficient wealth and technical resources, however, its government has been obliged to solicit foreign capital, having narrowed the field of candidate companies to six — one American, one Russian, and four Chinese. By year’s end, it’s expected to select one or more of them to form a partnership with its state-owned firm, Yacimientos de Litios Bolivianos. No matter who gets the contract, friction among the three suitor nations could potentially kick off a Western Hemispheric version of the Great Game.

And whatever you do, don’t forget that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a lithium-rich land with centuries of bitter experience in hosting great powers, is another potential arena for rivalry and conflict. In fact, Soviet invaders first identified that country’s lithium resources four decades ago. During the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan in this century, geologists confirmed the existence of large deposits, and the Pentagon promptly labeled the country — you guessed it — a potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” According to the Asia-Pacific-based magazine The Diplomat, the lithium rush is now on there and “countries like China, Russia, and Iran have already revealed their intentions to develop ‘friendly relations’ with the Taliban,” as they compete for the chance to flaunt their generosity and “help” that country exploit its resources.

Don’t Look Down

The greatest potential for conflict over battery metals may not, in fact, be in Asia, Africa, or the Americas. It may not be on any continent at all. The most severe and potentially most destructive future battleground may lie far out in international waters, where polymetallic nodules — dense mineral lumps, often compared to potatoes in their size and shape — lie strewn in huge numbers across vast regions of the deep-ocean floor. They contain a host of metallic elements, including not only lithium and cobalt but also copper, another metal required in large amounts for battery manufacturing. According to a United Nations report, a single nodule field, the 1.7 million-square-mile Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean southeast of the Hawaiian Islands, contains more cobalt than all terrestrial resources combined.

A U.N. agency, the International Seabed Authority, issues exploration licenses to mining companies sponsored by national governments and intends to start authorizing nodule extraction in the CCZ as soon as next year. Mining methods for polymetallic nodules have not yet been fully developed or used on a large scale, but the metal hunters are advertising the process as being far less destructive than the terrestrial mining of cobalt and lithium. One can get the impression that it will be so gentle as not even to be mining as we’ve known it, but something more like running a vacuum cleaner along the seafloor.

Don’t believe it for a second. In just a small portion of the CCZ, scientists have identified more than 1,000 animal species and they suspect that at least another thousand are also living there, along with 100,000 microbial species. Virtually all of the creatures in the path of mining operations will, of course, be killed, and anything living on the surface of those nodules removed from the ecosystem. The nodule-harvesting machines, as large as wheat combines, will stir up towering clouds of sediment likely to drift for thousands of miles before finally settling onto, burying, and so killing yet more sea life.

To recap: In America, the Saudi Arabia of green greed, we now covet a couple of metals critically important to the electric-vehicle industry, cobalt and lithium, the reserves of which are concentrated in only a small number of nations. However, the ores can also be sucked straight off the seabed in humongous quantities in places far outside the jurisdiction of any nation. Environmentally, geopolitically, militarily, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, of course. Writing for the Center for International Maritime Security last year, U.S. Coast Guard Surface Warfare Officer Lieutenant Kyle Cregge argued that the Coast Guard and Navy should have a high-profile presence in seabed mining areas. He stressed that the 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resource Act “claimed the right of the U.S. to mine the seabed in international waters, and specifically identifies the Coast Guard as responsible for enforcement.”

He did acknowledge that patrolling areas where deep-sea mining occurs could create some dicey situations. As he put it, “The Coast Guard will face the same problem the U.S. Navy does with its freedom of navigation operations in places like the South China Sea.” But by potentially putting their vessels in harm’s way, he wrote, “the services seek to reinforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as reflecting customary international law.” (Forget the fact that the U.S. has never signed onto the Law of the Sea treaty!) Cregge then predicted that, “[a]mong the most challenging in a future seabed competition would be China and Russia, states that have already used lawfare in the South China Sea and Arctic regions respectively to pursue their territorial gains.”

To make matters worse, seafloor mining might not only spark military conflict but also become an integral part of warfighting itself. Manabrata Guha, a researcher in war theory at the University of New South Wales, told Australia’s ABC television that data, including topographic or thermal maps of the seabed, obtained through exploration of the seafloor by mining operations projects, could be of great value to a nation’s armed forces. According to ABC,

“Just 9 percent of the ocean floor is mapped in high resolution, compared to about 99 percent of the surface of Mars — a blind spot that affects both deep sea miners and military planners. This is all worth keeping in mind, because while the Pacific Ocean is set to be the sea with the most mining potential, it is also home to this century’s most consequential geopolitical tension: the rise of China, and the U.S.’s response to it.”

The resource-rich South China Sea in particular, notes ABC, has long been a potential flashpoint between China and America. As Guha speculated, U.S. use of deep-sea data in the region “could be expanded beyond its battle-centric focus to also include attacks on civilian infrastructure, finance, and cultural systems.” He added, “The undersea domain provides another vector, another potential ‘hole’ that the Americans would look to penetrate,” thanks to the fact, as he pointed out, that the U.S. is 20 to 30 years ahead of China in undersea-mapping technology.

“You want to pick and choose where you hurt the adversary to such an extent that their whole system collapses,” he said. “That’s the idea of multi-domain warfare… the idea is to bring about systemic collapse.”

The Burden of the Big-Ass Truck

Systemic collapse? Really? Instead of devising technologies to take down other societies, in this increasingly heated moment, shouldn’t we be focusing on how to avoid our own systemic collapse?

A national fleet of battery-powered cars is unlikely to prove sustainable and could have catastrophic consequences globally. It’s time to consider an overhaul of the whole transportation system to move it away from a fixation on personal vehicles and toward walking, pedaling, and a truly effective nationwide public transportation system (as well as very local ones), which could indeed be run on electricity, while perhaps helping to avoid future disastrous resource wars.

Such a transformation, even were it to occur, would, of course, take a long time. During that period, electric vehicles will continue to be manufactured in quantity. So, for now, to reduce their impact on humanity and the Earth, America should aim to produce fewer and far smaller vehicles than are currently planned. After all, electrified versions of the big-ass trucks and SUVs of the present moment will also require bigger, heavier batteries (like the one in the F-150 Lightning pickup truck, which weighs 1,800 pounds and is the size of two mattresses). They will, of course, contain proportionally larger quantities of cobalt, lithium, and copper.

The true burden of a massive battery in an electric car or truck will be borne not just by the vehicle’s suspension system, but by the people and ecosystems unlucky enough to be in or near the global supply chain that will produce it. And those people may be among the first of millions to be imperiled by a new wave of geopolitical and military conflicts in what should be thought of as the world’s green sacrifice zones.

Real Climate Action’s Not at COP-27, but It Is in a Thousand Rebellious Communities

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 7

The Teck Mining Co. open-pit Elk River Valley coal mines, located in southern British Columbia along the Alberta border. Drawn from a photograph by Garth Lenz. Teck Resources were fined $60 million for polluting the rivers in March 2021.

Two high-profile events relevant to this series are going to coincide next month. One of them—the US midterm elections, which will conclude November 8—could provide the strongest indicator yet of which way our society will turn in the near future: toward an inclusive, pluralistic democracy or toward the anti-democratic “semi-fascism” of the MAGA right. It could go either way. In contrast, the other big event—the COP27 global climate conference November 6 to 18—is highly unlikely to bring any perceptible change in the trajectory of world greenhouse-gas emissions or anything else.

Indeed, the election results could have more profound consequences for the Earth’s climate than the climate conference will have. If, in November of 2022 and 2024, pro-democracy candidates prevail at the polls and the will of the voters is not overturned, passage of bold new climate legislation won’t be guaranteed, but the possibility will at least remain alive. If, however, by hook or by crook, MAGA politicians prevail in large enough numbers to seize control of both houses of Congress and the White House, any chance for effective national climate action will be lost for years to come. In either event, expansion of local struggles for climate action and environmental justice will be needed more than ever, as a foundation for a bigger, stronger national movement. This month, I spoke with two climate activists who are working tirelessly toward those goals. 

Taking Down the Fossil Gas Lines

Liz Karosick is a visual artist and climate activist with Extinction Rebellion in Washington, DC (XRDC). Karosick says that while protecting and extending the right to vote is important, it’s not sufficient: “The system’s not working. If voting was enough, the will of the people who go into the voting booths would be represented here in Washington, and it’s not.” That makes it even more important, she says, for more people to take part in grassroots movements, in order to “build those numbers before things progress even further into the scary future that we’re looking at.” 

That kind of organizing is, by its very nature, local. And what better place to energize national climate mitigation through local environmental-justice organizing than in the nation’s capital? That’s why, says Karosick, XRDC has kicked off a campaign against Washington Gas Light Company, the city’s sole supplier of fossil gas. Traditionally known by the euphemism “natural gas,” fossil gas consists mostly of methane, a compound with powerful global warming potential.

Washington Gas has some of the oldest distribution lines in the nation, and a 2014 survey found more than 6,000 leaks in the system—about four leaks per mile of pipe, largely in the city’s low-income and Black neighborhoods. Some of the leaks posed a serious explosion risk. The company responded by launching a 40-year, $5 billion program to replace the entire pipe system. 

Because installation of new gas infrastructure would throw the city’s climate-mitigation goals completely out of reach, XRDC is demanding that the DC Council stop the pipe replacement project (except for emergency repairs of hazardous leaks) and immediately launch a just transition away from gas that prioritizes DC’s most marginalized people and ends the city’s dependence on gas.

Fossil gas is a threat to humanity and the Earth at both the largest and smallest scales. A federation of state-based, citizen-funded public interest research groups, PIRG, reports that gas leaks across the US from 2010 through 2021 led to the release of 26.6 billion cubic feet of methane, with a global-warming impact equivalent to more than 2.4 million internal-combustion vehicles driven for a year. Meanwhile, open gas flames from stoves, furnaces, and water heaters also produce large quantities of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other indoor air pollutants. These gases can cause severe respiratory problems—affecting children, especially—and are found disproportionately in low-income and Black communities. 

An XRDC press release has more on the campaign to pressure the DC city council to phase out gas as quickly as possible. Karosick stresses that what she calls “hyper-local” actions such as the DC fossil gas campaign are necessary building blocks of global climate action:

Karosick stresses that what she calls “hyper-local” actions such as the DC fossil gas campaign are necessary building blocks of global climate action:

I get a sense that some people are confused, like, “Hey, fossil fuels are a global problem, much bigger than a local gas campaign. Why this issue?” But strategically, we’re mobilizing with an issue that’s local, that will build momentum behind local demands—like telling Washington Gas, “No, you cannot spend $5 billion on new pipes to lock us into 40 more years of burning fossil gas.” This is a way to change the trajectory, electrify the city. We feel like this is winnable. And then we can go back to expanding upon broader demands. We’re finding leverage points where we can access the people who have decision-making power and move public opinion.

Taking on Tesla

The way that young people have been taking the lead on climate in recent years has been especially heartening to Karosick, who says the climate movement is hoping for a massive influx of members in years to come. “The more young people who participate, the more change we can make,” she says. “It’s not a matter of explaining to them what the problem is—they’re very aware of that.” Still, groups like Extinction Rebellion can offer solidarity and additional opportunities for mobilizing. And, she says, “in our case, that includes nonviolent civil disobedience as the mechanism to get the government to pay attention and to make change.”

As it happens, I also had the opportunity recently to interview Alexia Leclercq, 22, a climate and environmental justice activist and a co-founder of the nonprofit Start:Empowerment. Our conversation took place onstage at The Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival. (See the video here. Leclercq’s and my conversation runs from about the 14-minute to the 59-minute mark.)

In 2019, Leclercq began working with the environmental justice group PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources) in Austin, Texas. Formed in 1991, PODER has an impressive track record, as she explained:   

Austin is highly segregated due to redlining. East Austin is a largely Black and Brown community, zoned industrial. A bunch of community members came together and started organizing to fight the dirty industries there. They started petitioning door to door, talking to the media, hosting toxic tours for politicians so they could see the conditions that community members are living in. PODER was incredibly successful. They kicked six major oil companies out of East Austin. 

At the time Leclercq began working with PODER, East Austin was still being plagued by a host of problems, including pollution from gravel-mining operations and lack of access to clean and affordable water. And then there’s Elon Musk’s electric vehicle company, Tesla. According to Leclercq, 

Tesla came in with zero plans for community engagement. We built out a coalition and started talking to the press to the point where they had to answer our emails and come talk to us. You could really tell from their company culture, that this wasn’t something that they necessarily cared about. They saw East Austin community members as a workforce to exploit, just as they were exploiting the land, air, and water. Loose regulations in Texas are one of the main reasons they’re there. 

Leclercq told the audience, “We’re trying to push Tesla to make commitments, such as ecological restoration, community education programs, hiring Spanish speakers, and having programs for Spanish speakers to learn some English.” But in dealing with any corporation, she said, “it’s always kind of like a back-and-forth dance: How much do you really want to collaborate with them? How much external pressure do you apply? It’s a fine line.” 

Taking a Stand Against Manchin’s Side Deal

“I work outside of the system, trying to build community and resilience and mutual aid, and I also do work that’s more like inside the system, both local and federal,” said Leclercq. At the time we spoke, her “inside” efforts were focused on a measure then before the US Senate to speed up the permitting of energy projects. The legislation would theoretically streamline all energy sources; however, its primary sponsor, Democratic senator Joe Manchin, valued it most dearly as a vehicle for expediting construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to carry fossil gas out of West Virginia, the state he represents. In August, he had insisted that this side deal for fast-tracking his pet pipeline be included in future legislation as the price of his vote for the ostensibly pro-climate Inflation Reduction Act. 

Leclercq joined a group of fellow activists in signing an open letter opposing the Manchin side deal. At last count, the letter had been signed by more than 600 grassroots groups and individuals as well as seven US senators and 70 House members. “We’ve been doing a lot of lobbying, a lot of phone calls, a lot of press as well,” she said. A few days after we spoke, she headed to DC with the Environment Justice Leadership Forum—a coalition of around fifty grassroots BIPOC-led environmental-justice organizations—to turn up the heat on Congress. And they won! Faced with fierce opposition from grassroots groups and anti-gas congressional Democrats (as well as many Republicans who, while favoring quicker permitting of pipelines, were furious at the often-inscrutable senator for voting yes on the IRA), Manchin withdrew his permitting measure from the Senate’s year-end funding bill.

Next month, Leclercq will travel to Sharm-al-Sheikh, Egypt for COP27. As with all past COPs, she says, 

Most of us in the grassroots groups don’t expect radical change to come out of it, because of who’s leading it and because the Paris climate agreement doesn’t have any teeth anyway. We can’t have a top-down revolution—it has to be bottom up. We’re attending COP-27 just to make sure that our voices are there, and we’re not being completely screwed over at the same time we’re building movements at home to create the change that needs to happen. And in trying to build those movements, we have to ask, “How can we create alternative systems that are not colonial, that are not capitalist?” And, of course, we need more people on board. 

“It’s Not Something to Be Glamorized”

Responding to a festival audience member—a climate activist who had observed firsthand what she called the “over-exploitation of the energy, passion, and labor of young people involved in this work, which can sometimes lead to burnout”—Leclercq was blunt:

I think every youth activist I know is burnt out, which is a problem. In organizing, there’s very much a culture of having to do more and more and more at the expense of ourselves, and we need to shift away from that. We need both self-care and collective care, because we’re looking to build a sustainable movement, and it doesn’t work to have people burn out and leave. We need to make sure that when we’re opposing systems like capitalism, we don’t perpetuate them in our own work. Making sure we have time off, we’re respecting boundaries, we’re distributing work fairly. The media like to kind of glamorize the youth movement, but it’s not something to be glamorized. I’m honored to be doing the work that I do, and so are all the incredible youth that I’ve met. But I don’t think that kids, especially young kids, should be responsible for doing all the hard work. I think it’s really important for us to encourage intergenerational organizing, and making sure that everyone of all ages gets involved and does their part to create a more sustainable movement.

A few years ago, Leclercq and her friend Kier Blake set out to help build that more sustainable movement by co-founding Start:Empowerment, which describes itself as “a BIPOC-led social and environmental justice education nonprofit working with youth, educators, activists, and community members.” Rather than emulate mainstream environmental education programs by focusing on the physical and biological sciences, Leclercq said, she and Blake wanted to emphasize “the political component, the justice component. These are things that are not usually taught in schools. Youth spend most of their time in those schools, for thirteen years, K through 12. That’s a long time to not be learning about the climate crisis, about environmental justice, about organizing, about politics.” 

Those gaps in learning, she said, “are a huge barrier to taking any kind of action. Before we can make any progress on climate and justice, there has to be mass education, and not necessarily in formal spaces.” The program is not just conveying knowledge, Leclerqc stressed; rather, “we’re building knowledge together. It was really cool to see students connect their lived experience with some of the ideas we were introducing to them, and have them share what their perspective is from growing up in their neighborhoods, and how they saw environmental justice and injustice play out.” 

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In the peril-filled decade ahead, local, collective struggles by people of all ages—as exemplified by Extinction Rebellion, PODER, and Start:Empowerment—will be essential to advancing multiracial, pluralistic democracy and climate justice nationwide. Democracy and justice are prerequisites for ending our transgression of ecological boundaries and ensuring a livable future for all.