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 (scroll down) 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 two years. These pen & ink drawings are hand-embroidered on canvas.
Below are links to the monthly dispatches so far. Please click on the image to see detail of individual drawings with captions; click on “Part 1”, “Part 2” etc., to read the monthly posts on the City Lights blog.
The Inflation Reduction Act is being hailed by the mainstream climate movement, Congress members, and the media as the most important climate bill in U.S. history. That’s a pretty low bar, and it says more about our government’s long record of failure on climate than it does about whether this law can prevent dangerous temperature increases in coming decades.
The lion’s share of spending in the IRA is directed toward producing new capacity for generating and distributing energy and for developing new technologies that consume energy. There is only small funding for environmental justice, affordable housing, and insulation. And it doesn’t mandate a reduction in use of fossil fuels. Indeed, rather than shutter gas- and coal-fired power plants, the government will reward them with subsidies or tax credits if they keep operating and capture the emissions. And rather than ban further drilling for oil and gas on federal lands, the bill guarantees that plenty of new oil and gas leases will be issued.
But wait! There’s more! In exchange for his essential “yes” vote on the IRA, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) extracted the promise of a second bill that would streamline the permitting of energy infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines and coal mines. Manchin’s chief aim in this new bill was ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Gas Pipeline through his state of West Virginia. Once in use, the pipeline will be responsible for 90 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, while imperiling hundreds of streams and wetlands.
IRA boosters claim that the emissions prevented by the IRA will far outweigh the emissions that its pro-fossil-fuel measures will engender. That assertion rests on economic modelers’ speculative assumption that the new law will work through market forces to steeply reduce the use of fossil fuels. In fact, the IRA contains no provisions for a direct, surefire phase-out of fossil fuels; therefore, no one can guarantee that it will reduce emissions by 40 percent. Yes, our society is better off with the IRA having passed than we would be without its passage. But if we don’t find a way to snuff out fossil fuels, directly, on a crash schedule, the climate emergency will only intensify.
Why Climate’s Off the Stovetop
General excitement over the IRA has not dispelled a heightening sense of dread and discombobulation throughout our society. The weather’s going haywire. Representative government and human rights are under increasingly violent threat from extremists, many of them public officials. States are stripping away women’s right to bodily autonomy. The economy of the 1970s has returned, and systemic racism never left.
Humans can pay close attention to only so many crises simultaneously, so we perhaps should not be surprised that several surveys show climate change falling lower on the list of public concerns. To make matters worse, passage of the IRA may engender a dangerous new sense of complacency on climate: “Oh, good! That’s one problem solved!”
All of this prompted me to speak with some perceptive climate writers and activists who continue to urge that movements unite across issues to confront all of these crises—including climate—all at once, however daunting that prospect may be.
Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She has written seven books, most recently Is Science Enough?: Forty Critical Questions about Climate Justice and Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, both from Beacon Press. When I asked her about the seemingly perverse, widespread apathy about climate, she said, “I think there’s still a strong sense that, oh, well, our institutions are going to take care of it. OK, maybe that’s the case with issues like abortion or gun violence that seem to have very clear and simple solutions that can be solved by our elected officials, if we just elect the right people.” But, she noted, greenhouse-gas emissions are deeply embedded in myriad ways throughout society and can’t be eliminated without a thoroughgoing transformation—and most politicians are allergic to that idea.
“To me, there’s no candidate who has an adequate platform on climate anywhere in the United States. So, as a voter, why should I rank climate as an important election issue? I’d be much more likely to vote for someone who’s going to protect abortion rights, because that’s something where I actually see there’s a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.” With that kind of calculus driving opinion-poll responses, Chomsky says, “I don’t think it necessarily means that people don’t care about climate.”
(This difference in tractability between climate and other issues was illuminated a few days after Chomsky and I spoke, when my adopted home state, deep red Kansas, voted in a landslide to defeat an amendment to the state constitution that would have stripped away the right to an abortion. Needless to say, the probability of such a sudden, dramatic victory on eradication of fossil fuels is microscopic.)
I also spoke with Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and the author of fourteen books, most recently Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (New Society, 2021). “Our ability to act at scale,” he said, “is being hampered by all this other stuff. Suddenly all these crises are coming at us from all these different directions. So doing something really big and long term [about climate and our transgression of ecological limits] gets pushed not just to the back burner, but off the stovetop altogether.”
Heinberg said that in the 1970s, when some environmentalists were arguing that industrialized societies cannot be sustained over the long term without deep transformation, the environmental establishment’s response was, in effect, “Oh, well, we can’t really do all of that.” Therefore, he recalls, “Legislative efforts to fix the unsustainability of industrial society devolved down into little projects to target this area of pollution, or clean up that toxic waste site or whatever. I think the general idea was that all these little efforts would eventually add up to something major, which they really haven’t done.” Now, a half-century later, the political establishment remains stuck in “little efforts” mode.
Liz Karosick, a visual artist and climate activist with the group Extinction Rebellion in Washington, D.C. (XRDC), agrees that the urgency of fending off an array of political and human-rights disasters has, at least temporarily, kept climate in the background. “It feels like all of this is splintering us further in a lot of ways, because you have all of these specific problems that are intersectional and all feed back into one another. It’s like they’re just trying to keep dividing us. And that’s the last thing we need right now.”
We Don’t Have to Accept This
There could be a twist, though. The fact that we are seeing so much of what we value being imperiled all at once can be energizing. Says Karosick, “All of these threats are under the umbrella of an unjust system. It fundamentally has to be changed. And that’s why, with Extinction Rebellion, we’re disrupting business as usual.”
Chomsky also believes, based on her experience as a historian of Latin America, that cascading crises shouldn’t inevitably trigger despair and apathy. “Our culture of acceptance of capitalism,” she says, “just doesn’t exist in the same way in the formerly colonized countries; they see very clearly how much exploitation occurs in the capitalist system, whether it’s exploitation of labor, of land, of peasants, or of the natural world.” She believes that “the kinds of comforting myths about how capitalism works” that permeate our society just don’t work as well in regions like Latin America. And that opens up other, better routes to the future in those regions.
“How,” for example, she asks, “have Latin Americans united and brought about fundamental social change, either through armed revolution, or through the ballot box, or through some combination thereof? And why does the left seem so much stronger, even when they’re in much more dangerous, difficult circumstances than the left in the United States?”
Chomsky offers one answer: “In Latin America we see the real strength of peasant movements, indigenous movements, African-descended movements, peasant struggles for land against a corporate dominated economic model. You know, every Latin American revolution has had strong peasant participation. And every Latin American government has confronted the peasant struggle for land, which is a class struggle. And it’s a global struggle, because they’re struggling against not only local elites but also global corporations. That’s something we don’t have here in the U.S.”
Karosick thinks she may see a ray of light through the gloom, even in the U.S.: “At this year’s Juneteenth celebration in D.C., one of the organizers was talking about how before Covid, there was so much momentum. So many people working across organizations, something really building, and then Covid really just took the wind out of the sails. But it’s interesting—there’s now a general sense that these relationships are coming back together, across organizations.”
That same weekend, at the June 18 Poor People’s March on Washington, Karosick says, “You had all of these hundreds of groups coming together. And across the climate movement, specifically in Extinction Rebellion, we are joining with local residents and marginalized people who are being affected disproportionately by the climate crisis. There are definite opportunities to unite, and we’re definitely starting to sense that this is happening.”
In his recent writing, Heinberg has argued that in the affluent world, the ecological crisis is in part a result of what he terms deadly optimism. He described it to me this way: “We’ve now had seventy years or so of extreme optimism. Our public discourse has been dominated by the idea that we’re always going to enjoy ‘more, bigger, and faster’ because that’s good for business. But now we’ve reached the point where we can’t continue down that road. And a lot of bills are coming due from that era of excessive optimism—climate change, but lots of other things, too. So suddenly, we have a kind of pervasive pessimism sweeping society.”
For decades, Heinberg has been warning of what he’s now calling a “Great Unraveling.” In his book Power, he writes that in recent years, in his private conversations with scientists and activists, a common theme is that an unraveling looms in our near future. “We understand that a lot of our institutions are going to fail,” he told me. “We’re going into a difficult time and we’re going to have to adapt. But we have to be determined to exclude the worst possible outcomes.”
If, instead, we were to “just give up on doing whatever they can to make things better, if we were to spend all our effort only looking out for ourselves, the result would be a dystopian nightmare.” The best alternative to either deadly optimism or fatalistic pessimism, he says, is “sort of like what psychologists call ‘defensive pessimism.’” Those folks chose an extraordinarily unappealing term, so Heinberg has suggested alternatives, including “useful pessimism.” But whatever we call this stance, he suggests, “the motivating ideal . . . might be stated as ‘respecting limits and living well within them.’”
Chomsky also advocates for channeling pessimism constructively, and that, she believes, will require even more on-the-ground organizing: “I almost feel like we don’t even have enough of a critical mass in this country to engage in serious protest. We should be focusing on building that critical mass. In Witness for Peace, which I worked with a lot in Colombia, every time we had a protest or other activity, the question was, what’s the ask? In Latin America, street protest has been criminalized, yet massive street protests occur nonetheless. And they generally have very clear and coherent asks. And they’ve often been successful. If we achieve the critical mass, and if we have a coherent ask, we can do it, too.”
“Even though it looks grim, and it is grim for many already,” says Karosick, “every degree of warming we can prevent matters. So we can’t let up.” Pointing to a Yale University survey finding that 28 percent of voters would support nonviolent civil disobedience by climate groups, Karosnik said, “That’s huge. There is a sense that people are starting to get really frustrated with the government’s inability to do anything with this crisis, and are willing to push them harder. I think people are very aware of what the problem is,” and, she says, they’re coming to realize that “nonviolent civil disobedience is a mechanism to get the government to pay attention and to make change.”
Regarding movements like the Poor Peoples’ Campaign and Extinction Rebellion that are striving for critical mass and do have very clear demands for systemic change—even against what could be the longest of odds—Chomsky was reflective: “Yeah, I think we have no choice but to push harder despite everything, on two grounds. One, because even if it seems impossible, we’re making it impossible if we don’t do anything. And two, because we just have to. Even if there’s no hope of success, we still have to, if we’re to live with ourselves.”
CODEPINK Sidewalk Gallery of Congress, August 1st, 2022
The “Vote Yes” side screamed at us that we wanted to kill babies. Their skillfully branded mother-and-child logo and cynical three-word slogan “Value Them Both” were everywhere here in Salina, Kansas. Always the same cozy white-on-purple image and soothing words on yard signs and banners, as if they were My Pillow or Hobby Lobby. On weekends, they would occupy street corners. Just a half-dozen or so actual humans accompanied by a much larger number of stars-and-stripes flags (almost certainly made in China) flying in the crazy Kansas winds (which are quickly going climate-change crazier).
To our forced-birth crusaders, a woman, a fetus, and a live child are commodities, like wheat or soybeans. The higher the yield, the higher their value.
But that’s not all we witnessed here in Kansas in the months since a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the banning of abortions was plopped onto the August 2 primary ballot. Diverting our eyes from the fields of purple and white ‘Vote Yes’ eye-candy, we could see lots of ‘Vote No’ messaging. It was bold and personal, visual and colorful, creative and diverse.
We had an outpouring of signs, banners, voices, stories, costumes, and slogans. Everywhere you looked, it was different, and original. Each ‘Vote No’ rally on the sidewalks and streets had its own energy. Here in Salina, we saw an array of brilliant homemade signs:
Abort the patriarchy
Not your incubator
Mind your own uterus
It won’t stop at women!
Separate cooch and state
Free vasectomy!!! for men who vote yes
This body is not a political battleground
Vote yes to destroy constitutional rights
Forced birth? Sounds like an alien invasion to me!
Not voting for women’s rights is small-dick energy
Vaginas brought you into the world, and vaginas will vote you out!
and my favorite one: We are not livestock!!
At one of our ‘Vote No’ rallies, I heard a women shout at us from her car that “Killin’ babies is irresponsible.” Agreed, but the premise of her statement was a delusion—a talking point that Republican operatives first ejaculated into America’s highly fertile evangelical movement in the 1980s.
Life does not begin at conception. But in the U.S., violence does. To treat a woman’s body like it’s a high-yielding 160 acres of Kansas farmland is irresponsible. And it’s violent. To not give a hoot about the health and well-being of a born human is violent. To criminalize miscarriage is violent; to make a woman feel so afraid that she would rather tie her tubes than bring a child into this unjust world is violent. To have a U.S. Senator as cruel and ruthless as Roger Marshall—Kansas’ mini-Trump, who likes to call himself “Doc” but believes in neither science nor democracy nor good health care for all—is violent.
But we showed ‘em, not with violence and Old Glory and branding, but with peace and color, and with our bodies and voices. We showed ‘em with two words, “Trust Women.” That was the motto of Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kansas abortion provider who was assassinated by a forced-birth extremist in 2009.
On another momentous August 2, thirty-two years ago, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States launched Operation Desert Storm. Activist friends Janice Norlin, David Norlin, and Stan Cox rose up against that war; this was back when I still lived in India. They have been organizing and protesting United States’ illegal wars and regime-change interventions since the 1980s. But from Central America to the Gulf War to the forever-wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to systemic racism to the latest assault on the rights of the half of our population who can be compelled to give birth, nothing much had changed for the better here in Kansas. Until now.
As we got closer to election day here in Salina, there were more frequent rallies, and the honks and solidarity shouts from passing cars got louder and longer. Not just thumbs-ups. People were hanging out of windows and leaping up through sun roofs. We thought to ourselves, “We might have a fighting chance to defeat this thing.” But we did not anticipate this. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined this landslide victory, not only in Kansas as a whole, but even here in little ol’ redder-than-red Saline County, where “Vote No” passed 55-45. Kansas voters sent out a clear message: We are not barnyard animals.
Stan and I, and Janice and David, have protested one goddamn unjust law and policy after another for decades, fighting the same fights over and over again, and losing. But no, not this time. Not on this August 2. We did it. We won, and won big.
Art matters, not so much on walls indoors, but on the streets and sidewalks, in full public view. With that in mind, in 2018, I established a peaceful space of community art-making and dissent called Sidewalk Museum of Congress, located in front of the office of Kansas’ then-1st District Congress member, Roger Marshall, in Salina, Kansas. Over time, it came to be a place for free expression and for the peace community to gather spontaneously and interact with the general public. Now, four years later, when so-called American democracy is being hollowed out, one U.S. policy victim and one climate-chaotic day at a time, CODEPINK, Kansas is replanting seeds of justice for the victims of US empire, greed, patriarchy and fanaticism, in a new location and under a new name Sidewalk Gallery of Congress. So, who says Kansas is flat? Come, join us on the sidewalk, and let’s continue to plant pink-seeds of justice together.
Confronting “Policy Murder” and the Rising Violence of the Right
On Juneteenth weekend, tens of thousands of people walked up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol as part of the epically titled Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. (Priti Gulati Cox and I traveled via Amtrak from Kansas to join in.) Although we were following the footsteps of a mob that had stormed the Capitol seventeen months earlier, this march embodied the polar opposite worldview. At the rally ending the march, Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Rev. William J. Barber II made that clear, saying that the event was not a violent insurrection but rather “a resurrection” of people power against violence.
Like its namesake led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign is working to end the violence being inflicted every day by a soulless economic-political system. The night before the march, at a somber, tearful vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial, marchers gathered to mourn the victims of the past two horrific years, including more than a million Americans dead of Covid-19, along with countless more deaths from poverty, systemic racism, militarism, and ecological degradation. Rev. Barber solemnly declared this tide of death, mostly preventable, to be a case of “policy murder” that must be stopped.
A day earlier, the campaign’s other co-chair, Rev. Liz Theoharis, also decried the violence being inflicted on Americans, telling members of Congress that
Any nation that chooses not to lift 140 million people out of poverty and low incomes, any nation that chooses to disenfranchise voters, to withstand the greatest attack on voting rights since right after the Civil War, any nation that allows the poor to be hurt first and worst by ecological devastation and the denial of healthcare . . . is issuing a declaration of war on the poor.
The decisions that tumbled out of the Supreme Court soon after Juneteenth also qualify as “policy murder.” By cramping the government’s ability to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, a six-justice majority set a precedent that will lead to countless more deaths from heat, fire, flood, and storms. By striking down firearms regulations in New York, they hamstrung efforts to stem the tide of gun violence. And by snatching away the half-century-old right to an abortion, they rendered millions of women vulnerable to grievous harm, bodily and otherwise.
These decisions foretell that the Court will likely do further violence by eliminating many other fundamental rights of individuals and striking down regulatory laws crucial to the public’s well-being. The six reactionary justices are immune to the will of the people and can be thwarted only by kicking or keeping their enablers out of Congress at the polls this fall.
“Show Up Armed”
The Poor People’s Campaign aims to mobilize poor and low-income voters from all races, ethnicities, and faiths to defy violence in all of these forms. So it’s doubly dreadful that this fall, voters, as well as election officials, are likely to face a heightened threat of violence at the polls.
Last month, the House January 6 committee hearings highlighted the abuse now being endured by the people who keep the electoral system going. Perhaps most appalling was the testimony of Georgia election workers Wandrea’ “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman. When Donald Trump falsely accused them by name of scanning fake ballots in 2020, they were bombarded with death threats, many of them racist. Moss had to change her appearance, go into hiding, and work remotely. She finally left her job in April and is still suffering harassment.
Election workers across the country, fearing for their safety, are resigning in droves. Often, they are being replaced by people who are willing to subvert the vote. A nationwide survey found that one in six election officials has been personally threatened, and one in three knows a fellow official who resigned because of threats.
The election-year metaphor “battleground states” is threatening to turn grimly literal. I was shocked to learn that today only seven states and the District of Columbia ban guns from polling places. With the rise in violent rhetoric and gun violence that’s been occurring since the 2020 election, voting sites and vote-counting centers are bracing for increased violence in November. Officials are worried because of folks like Mike Detmer, a contender for the Michigan state senate in the August 2 Republican primary. He told a meeting of prospective poll workers in January, “The ideal thing is to do this peaceful, that’s ideal, but the American people at some point in time, if we can’t change the tide, need to be prepared to lock and load. So, if you ask what we can do, show up armed.”
In a panoramic, chilling July 6 article, Rachel Kleinfeld, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace laid out how the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other violent “militias have been embraced by GOP leaders at the national, state, and local level,” including in Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, California, Arizona, Wyoming, Florida, and Nevada. Having studied the rise of party-linked militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Nigeria, Colombia, and other countries, and the bloody consequences, Kleinfeld warns that “Even if Trump passes from the scene, the embrace of violence and intimidation as a political tactic by a faction of the GOP will cause violence of all types to rise—against all Americans.”
As scary as all of this sounds, it’s unlikely that Republicans will try to take power solely through force. If our side loses elections in 2022 because we have low turnouts, it will more likely be attributable to a collective sense of powerlessness than a fear of violence. Accordingly, the Poor People’s Campaign has kicked off a nationwide, four-month-long effort to register and energize low-income communities to vote “in historic numbers for our ancestors, for our children, and for the generations to come whose lives and planet are under threat today.”
A big turnout in November 2022 by America’s pro-justice, pro-Earth majority is indeed essential to prevent the nation from drifting further toward fascism. While electoral victories alone can’t resolve our predicament—the past two years have taught us that—they can buy time necessary for a national movement to coalesce and regain the path toward multiracial, pluralistic democracy. The Poor People’s Campaign could spark such a movement. Almost 400 “mobilizing partners” from the mainstream and typically apolitical to the deeply radical came together for the June 18 rally to address a spectrum of crucial issues (Priti and I were there with CODEPINK, the women-led group working to end U.S. wars and militarism.)
“Expressing Themselves with Two Tons of Metal”
Activists for poor and low-income communities are all too accustomed to the violence that is routinely inflicted by racist and right-wing elements—and, of course, by law enforcement. So, it’s not only election-related violence that must be overcome; nonviolent protest in the public square will increasingly be met with violent backlash from the extreme right and repression from the state.
Approximately 6 percent of respondents to a national poll taken by the Public Religion Research Institute in April 2022 lamented the increasing diversity of America’s population and also agreed with this statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Taking the poll’s margin of error into account, the results suggest that this is the position of 10 to 20 million Americans. Some of these people are already demonstrating their willingness to commit violence against nonviolent people whom they consider the enemy. They include the U-Haul truck full of Patriot Front thugs who were apprehended before they could attack a Pride event in Idaho and the lone racist gunman who massacred ten Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo.
Because the June 18 Poor People’s march and rally had a permit, D.C. police completely blocked off a long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. Marchers and rally-goers were free to exercise their constitutional rights on a vast open field of hot asphalt. I thought back to May and June of 2018, on the fiftieth anniversary of the original Poor People’s March, when Priti and I had joined the campaign in a couple of rallies and civil disobedience actions in Topeka, Kansas. Actions included blocking traffic at major intersections near the state capitol. The campaign had not obtained a permit, but police swooped in to reroute cars and trucks anyway. Dozens of us lay in the crosswalks for hours until police finally got us up and issued traffic citations. The many drivers whom we inconvenienced were, for the most part, very patient, some even supportive. Only a lone pickup driver got a bit aggressive.
It’s hard to imagine things playing out that way these days. Starting in 2020, when Americans surged into the streets after police killed George Floyd, protesters have been facing much higher risk to life and limb. Last year, an analysis by the Boston Globe found that between May 2020, and September, 2021, U.S. motorists slammed into groups of protesters at least 139 times, causing 3 deaths and at least 100 injuries. The assaults continue. “You’re going to have people coming in and expressing themselves with two tons of metal on wheels,” a transportation security expert told the Globe. “That’s part of the landscape now.”
Just last month in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a man plowed his pickup into several women protesting the Supreme Court’s overturn of the Roe vs. Wade decision. He drove over and broke one woman’s ankle. Iowa, like Florida and Oklahoma, passed a law in the wake of the 2020 protests heightening penalties for protesters while immunizing drivers who run into or over protesters—if they claim to have been fleeing in fright. Police did not immediately charge the Cedar Rapids assailant. Meanwhile, police across the country violently attacked groups of people who dared turn out to protest the Court’s abortion decision.
Legal experts worry that the Supreme Court’s strikedown of New York’s gun law will also chill nonviolent protest. When protesters or counter-protesters carry guns, demonstrations are about six times more likely to turn violent. That intimidating prospect discourages turnout. Yet the gun-toter at a protest scene, like the vehicle driver, is getting increasingly favorable treatment. The defense team for Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two men as they were protesting in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020, argued illogically but successfully that he acted in self-defense. Rittenhouse feared, they said, that if he did not shoot the protesters, there was a chance that one of them would snatch his gun away and kill him. This dangerous illogic—that my gun makes you a deadly threat—is often used to protect cops who shoot unarmed people, and now it has been applied to white, right-wing, civilian vigilantes as well.
Long Odds Call for Longer Vision
A pro-Earth, pro-democracy, pro-economic justice, anti-racist, anti-war transformation was already a long shot long before the rise of MAGA world, and the chief impediments haven’t changed. For climate, it’s the system’s insistence on unlimited economic growth. For Black lives and voting rights, it’s the elected and unelected public officials who continue to benefit from a racist, undemocratic system. For closing the vast economic gap between the few haves and the many have-nots, it’s the haves, with their massive political power.
Today, those obstacles may appear insurmountable. So why do the Poor People’s Campaign and other movements keep pushing against these longest of odds, even as the threat of violent retaliation escalates? Why don’t they just figure out how to adapt to life in an unacceptable system? They press on because long odds don’t equal impossibility. Introducing a must-see gallery of “48 protest photographs that changed the world,” in the July 2 Guardian, George Monbiot writes,
Protest is not, as governments like ours seek to portray it, a political luxury. It is the bedrock of democracy. Without it, few of the democratic rights we enjoy would exist: the universal franchise; civil rights; equality before the law; legal same-sex relationships; progressive taxation; fair conditions of employment; public services and a social safety net. . . And we will continue to come out in defiance, as people have done for centuries, even when facing state violence and repression. Everything we value depends on it.
At a time when rights hard-won in past struggles are being wrested away from us, we can draw strength from the knowledge that if people-power has prevailed in so many such struggles before, it can prevail again.
The United States is moving fast on climate change—in the wrong direction. The Energy Information Agency forecasts that by 2023, the nation will set a new annual record for oil extraction: 4.6 billion barrels. Plans to build more than 200 new natural gas power plants are in the works. More than 130 new oil and gas pipelines now under development will carry enough fuel to increase national emissions by 10 percent—560 million metric tons per year.
Now, freaked out by high fuel prices, the Democratic majority in Congress is pushing to accelerate this fossil fuel rush while President Biden rushes, hat in hand, to Saudi Arabia, forgetting that the kingdom is supposed to be a pariah. Furthermore, as Robinson Meyer recently wrote in The Atlantic, the party’s leadership seems blissfully unbothered by the fact that Congress has failed to pass even the weakest of laws to curb climate catastrophe. And if the Democrats—having been unable to defend either voters’ rights or life on Earth over the past year and a half—lose their congressional majority to the oily authoritarians in November, our already dim hopes for the federal government to reverse course and start phasing out fossil fuels could fade away altogether.
If that nightmare scenario unfolds, local and regional activism will not only become more essential than ever; it could be the nation’s only route to climate mitigation and adaptation. As the republic teeters on a knife edge in coming months, “In Real Time” will be recognizing grassroots movements across the country that stand as exemplars for collective climate action. Climate is not always the chief focus of such struggles, but the movements’ strategies and methods are deeply relevant.
I’ll begin this month with two such examples: Native struggles against fossil fuel infrastructure and the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union.
Keeping Turtle Island’s oil and gas in the ground
Last year, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and Oil Change International reported on seventeen struggles against fossil fuel infrastructure across North America that were either ongoing or had already succeeded. The potential impact of such actions on greenhouse gas emissions, they concluded, was staggering. “If [all of] these struggles prove successful,” they wrote, “this would mean Indigenous resistance will have stopped greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to nearly one-quarter of annual total U.S. and Canadian emissions.” An emissions reduction of that size would be like shuttering 400 coal-fired power plants or taking 345 million passenger vehicles off the road—more than all the coal plants or cars in North America. IEN wanted the continent’s governments and citizens to do one thing:
[R]ecognize the impact of Indigenous leadership in confronting climate chaos and its primary drivers. We hope that such settlers, allies or not, come to stand with Indigenous Peoples and honor the inherent rights of the first peoples of Turtle Island—the land currently called North America—by implementing clear policies and procedures . . . and by ending fossil fuel expansion once and for all.
Here are just a few of the campaigns included in IEN’s analysis:
The infamous Keystone XL pipeline project, which would have carried oil from Canada’s tar sands south through the United States, was finally killed in 2021 after a years-long struggle led by Indigenous communities on both sides of the border.
The White Earth Band of Ojibwe continues trying to shut down the 340-mile-long Line 3 oil pipeline in Minnesota, which has already severely damaged at least three aquifers. On March 20, 2022 in the worst incident, 300 million gallons of groundwater spilled from the aquifer. The battle continues.
In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe prevailed in the epic struggle they had led against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, but their victory in the face of appalling state violence was overturned the next year by the Trump administration. Now, tribal groups and white landowners are applying lessons learned in that struggle to block a different kind of pipeline in the same part of the country: the 2,000-mile Midwest Carbon Express Pipeline. The purpose of the pipeline would be to pump carbon dioxide collected from refineries producing climate-unfriendly fuel, ethanol, to underground storage sites throughout the region. The pipeline would not only cause extensive ecological degradation, it would also be a threat to human health in the areas it traverses.
Indigenous communities and their allies succeeded in completely scuttling a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Although only about 1 percent of North Carolinians belong to Indigenous communities, an estimated 13 percent of people who would have been harmed along the pipeline’s route through the state identified as Native American.
The Trans-Pecos gas pipeline runs about 150 miles through Texas out of the Permian Basin, home to gargantuan reserves of oil and gas that, if burned, could produce 60 billion tons of carbon dioxide—roughly equivalent to a year and a half of humanity’s total carbon dioxide emissions from all sources. The Society of Native Nations has contested this pipeline from the start, significantly slowing but so far not halting the pipeline’s construction or operation.
Native communities, says IEN, will continue “fighting through lived values and principles to keep fossil fuels in the ground and protect Turtle Island.”
In the front of the bus
Preventing climate catastrophe requires not only keeping oil in the ground but also keeping private vehicles off the streets and compensating for their absence with public transportation, bikeways, and walkways. Car use has been reduced this way only in a limited number of places in the United States. And people who have low personal carbon emissions because they can’t afford the many costs of car ownership are obliged to commute, often over long distances, in rundown, crowded buses that might show up at your stop once an hour, if you’re lucky (and that cost more every year to ride). Fixing public transportation needs to be a fast-lane issue for both climate mitigation and protecting human rights.
For 30 years, the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union has been fighting the racism that they argue is built into the city’s public transit. It’s an epic struggle, still far from over. In a report from the 1990s, the union noted that the city’s dirty, dilapidated buses, many providing unreliable service to low-income areas, carried 350,000 riders per day, more than 80 percent of them Latinx, Black, or Asian/Pacific Islander. Meanwhile, the city’s clean, new rail system was carrying only 26,000 riders per day, a majority of them white and middle class. Public subsidies were less than a dollar per bus passenger, compared with $5 to $25 per rail passenger.
Based on this and other evidence, the Bus Riders Union accused the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority of taking funds intended for the bus system and using them to cover construction and operation expenses for the always over-budget and underused rail system. Union founder Eric Mann wrote at the time that these disparities grew out of a longstanding philosophy within the bus system. It was, he said,
based primarily on the importance of the “choice rider.” According to this line of argument . . . the main purpose of public transportation is to reduce congestion and auto emissions. Thus, it would be precisely the suburban car rider who would be targeted to ride public transportation. According to this argument, the choice rider who lives in the suburbs and prefers to drive his/her car must be attracted by better and more convenient service. On the other hand, according to the theory, services do not need to be attractive to gain the ridership of the transit-dependent since, by definition, they have no choice.
In 1994, the union took the MTA to court to block further fare increases and service cuts, accusing the agency of violating a law that forbids using federal public transportation funds in a racist manner. The court sided with the union, issuing a consent decree under which the parties were to negotiate a plan. Dubbed “Billions for Buses” by the union, the plan eventually lowered fares, replaced high-polluting diesel buses with new ones run on natural gas (no electric buses were available then), and added a million hours of annual service. But when the consent decree expired in 2006, MTA went back to raising fares and cutting service.
Tired of being taken for a ride by the city, the union scored another big upset victory in 2012, when it organized a get-out-the-vote coalition to defeat a ballot initiative called Measure J. Had it passed, Measure J would have allocated $90 billion of local government funds to rail and highway projects. It included freeway expansion in the already freeway-choked city. Mann wrote that passage of Measure J also would inevitably have led to “crippling fare increases and services for the city’s bus riders,” whose numbers had risen by then to half a million, and who had a median income of only $14,000 per year. More than 80 percent continued to be people of color.
The defeat of Measure J was a big victory, but a decade later the struggle continues. Last year, Bus Riders Union organizer Channing Martinez wrote about how the MTA had continued its abuse of low-income residents, even scuttling a plan that would have provided free public transportation for K-12 and community college students. He laid out the union’s strategy for carrying on the struggle into the 2020s: continue spending lots of time riding the buses to organize, make more alliances, and keep the heat turned up on local officials.
The transformation of L.A.’s public transit is not yet a reality. Bus ridership was falling even before COVID-19 struck, thanks to a classic feedback loop. The city’s infamous, and increasing, traffic congestion bogs down buses even more than cars, leading more bus riders to go back to driving.. Congestion then gets worse, and the bus system loses even more riders.
Public transit advocates told the Los Angeles Times that “the only lasting solution . . . is to carve out space for buses on major streets using bus-only lanes and bus rapid transit.” That would improve bus service immensely and leave less space for driving and parking cars, prompting more people to take the bus. These and other solid policies are needed to accomplish what the Bus Riders Union has been demanding for three decades: an adequate system of low-emissions buses providing high-quality service to the whole city—especially to the low-income communities who have always contributed the least to global warming.
Whether it’s carried out by a local movement such as the L.A. Bus Riders Union or continent-spanning drives like the Native campaigns against Big Oil and Gas, no single effort can snuff out fossil fuel extraction and consumption on its own. In the absence of a federal phase-out, however, a multiplicity of grassroots efforts like these and others, popping up and spreading across the country like bermudagrass in June, are more essential than ever.
“I think for me the struggle to defend the truth is a precondition for defending our democracy, and the struggle to defend our democracy is a precondition for taking the effective action that needs to be taken in order to meet the climate crisis in a serious way and turn it around.” — U.S. House member Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol
Democratic politicians are being pressed hard on issues of critical importance to Black, Native, and Latinx communities—those most harmed by state oppression, economic injustice, the extraction and use of fossil fuels, and the impacts of climate change. In response, a minority of the party’s lawmakers began in 2021 to push harder for stronger voting rights and climate legislation. But without a functioning majority in the Senate, they flopped on both fronts.
The party remains stalled largely because it’s tightly limited in how far most of its members will go in challenging the economic power structure. That has led some on the left to ask a bleak question: If neither major party is responding productively to the climate or justice emergencies, let alone challenging the corporate drive for profit that underlies those ills and many others—why should we even care if either party seizes and maintains control of the federal government for the foreseeable future?
I recently reached out to a couple of people whose views I greatly value to ask how they would respond to that question. Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes), a lecturer of American Indian Studies at Cal State San Marcos and author of As Long as Grass Grows (2019), replied in part, “I would agree that the corporate Democrats are beholden to their corporate overlord donors . . . But I do think that [the Democrats overall] are more reasonable in many ways, and responsive to marginalized, racialized others. With the continued growth in leadership of Indigenous, Black, and Latino populations, there is a possibility for paradigm shift, especially if we can build real coalitions with each other.”
I also asked Noam Chomsky, long one of the world’s most forceful voices confronting capitalism’s exploitation of people and the Earth. He was blunt: “I’ve been hearing this all my life. In childhood, it was the squabbling between the two main left parties in Germany. The Communists, religiously following Stalin’s orders, condemned the Social Democrats as ‘social fascists,’ no different from the Nazis. Why should we care whether one or the other party seizes power for the foreseeable future? We found out why then.”
Despite all its flaws, the only realistic course is to protect the electoral process and ensure universal voting rights while pushing harder than ever to make this country what it has never been: a multiracial, pluralistic democracy.
Election Subversion in the Wild
How serious is the current threat to the republic? Is Jamie Raskin overreacting? No, says Richard Hasen, a law/political science professor at UC Irvine. He concluded his 2022 Harvard Law Review analysis of the republic’s predicament with these words: “I fear that only concerted, peaceful collective action against an attempt to subvert election results stands between American democracy and nascent authoritarianism.” Hasen and others cite the following developments as cause for alarm.
Key states are enacting ever more extreme gerrymanders of state and congressional districts; prescribing criminal charges for election workers and voting-rights groups based on minor mistakes and trumped-up accusations; and replacing local and state election officials with partisan operatives. Those measures and others would be used primarily to suppress vote totals in counties and districts with large racialized populations. Some are intentionally designed to invite legal challenges that could be struck down by the Supreme Court’s rightist majority, thereby gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act and taking civil rights law back to the 1950s.
Most ominously for presidential elections, the Supreme Court could also uphold moves by swing-state legislatures to grant themselves the power to choose the slates of electors that their states send to the Electoral College, nullifying the will of their states’ voters and potentially the nation’s voters. This is not wild speculation. We learned from that recently leaked draft opinion on reproductive rights that this Court is willing, even eager, to blow up long-established Constitutional protections.
And secretary-of-state offices across the country, which typically attract about as much public attention as the fish and game commission, have become prime political battlegrounds. Twenty-three candidates running for secretary of state in 2022 across twenty-seven states are currently labeled by States United for Democracy as “election deniers” for having said or done things that indicate a willingness to steal elections. Once elected, any of them could become, in one official’s words, “arsonists with keys to the firehouse.”
Working synergistically, these ploys have a solid chance of bringing the federal government under unified extremist control by January 2025. The most plausible scenarios have been delineated in chilling detail by Barton Gellman, Matthew Seligman, and, most recently, J. Michael Luttig, a retired U.S. Court of Appeals judge and superstar in the conservative legal establishment.
Eva Darian-Smith, a professor of global and international studies at UC Irvine, wrote recently about the outsize role that industry donors and lobbyists have played in keeping fossil fuels in the drivers’ seats of economies worldwide, particularly in countries under anti-democratic leaders—most prominently, Scott Morrison of Australia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and, of course, Donald Trump. But such corruption isn’t the whole story; it serves primarily to aggravate the hard right’s inherent hostility toward any environmental regulation.
Throughout history, authoritarian regimes have pledged to restore a mythical, romantic past that celebrates the white cultural life of the countryside. America’s anti-democracy politicians and pundits peddle such myths today. But it’s all talk. They don’t actually aid or protect rural communities and long-endangered landscapes; they instead assert the rights of landowners and businesses to abuse soil, water, the atmosphere, and the living world as they see fit.
Race-based voter suppression directly suppresses votes for climate action. Nathaniel Stinnett of the Environmental Voter Project notes that “In every state where we’ve measured voter priorities, we’ve found that Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans are significantly more likely than Caucasians to prioritize climate change and the environment.” And if suppression efforts targeting Indigenous, Latinx, and Black voters succeed in 2022 and 2024, the potential increase in fossil fuel extraction, abuse of the nation’s lands and waters, and urban air pollution will hit those very same communities the hardest.
Political assaults on the will of the people and life on Earth are already working in tandem. We saw in the congressional battles over “Build Back Better” and similar legislation that for many lawmakers, “infrastructure” means roads, bridges, and airports—period. In this view, climate-friendly public transportation exists only for poor people, racialized communities, and environmental activists. Accordingly, many of the 34 voter-suppression laws passed by states last year alone make voting more difficult for those who don’t have their own vehicles. Some restrict voting by mail or strictly limit the numbers of polling places and ballot drop boxes per city or county, putting long distances between many voters and their right to vote. Others penalize volunteers who collect and deliver ballots for less mobile neighbors. And voter identification continues to focus on the driver’s license, placing yet another hurdle between non-drivers and the voting booth.
This means one’s exercise of constitutional rights in America is often contingent on ownership of an internal-combustion engine. And our ability even to challenge the power of the oil, gas, and coal industries is under attack as well. A key feature of the current slide toward autocracy is the blizzard of new state and local legislation that would further criminalize public protest against government and corporate policies.
A remarkably large number of these anti-protest bills and laws are aimed at shielding the extraction and use of fossil fuels. For example, some specify that nonviolent demonstrations anywhere in the vicinity of oil or gas pipelines, power plants, or other fossil-fuel-related infrastructure will be punished. Hardest hit are the Indigenous communities who have been at the forefront of the climate movement. Other new bills and laws put the rights of vehicles over those of people, prescribing severe penalties for anyone who impedes traffic flow at or near the scene of a lawful protest: jaywalking could thus become a felony. Some are even designed to absolve drivers of legal responsibility if they strike a pedestrian with their vehicle in the vicinity of a protest; they simply need to claim to have been fleeing in fear. And lobbyists are circulating a model bill in state legislatures that would punish climate-aware companies, universities, or other organizations if they take even the modest step of selling off their investments in oil, gas, and coal.
In her 2018 article “Petro-Masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire,” Cara Daggett of Virginia Tech University wrote that the slogan “Make America Great Again” harks back to a time when “cars, suburbs, and the nuclear family, oriented around white male workers, formed a triumvirate that yoked the desires of Americans not only to wage labor, but to the continued supply of cheap energy that made the dream possible.” This, she wrote, goes way beyond climate denial, becoming what Daggett labels climate refusal. “Refusal is active. Angry. It demands struggle,” she wrote. “Refusal can no longer rest at defending the status quo but must proceed to intensifying fossil fuel systems to the last moment, which will often require resorting to authoritarian politics.”
This onslaught by the oily authoritarians must not go unchallenged. Over the coming months, “In Real Time” will follow the efforts grassroots movements to achieve climate justice, multiracial, pluralistic democracy, and other goals. If these efforts consolidate, we the people can thwart the rise of any regime that would empower politicians to choose their voters while valuing fossilized hydrocarbons more highly than the living world within and around us.
We have seen recently how the western media along with the so-called international community and their governments react very differently when it comes to the suffering of Christian white folks around the world as compared to the people of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Palestine. In the case of the former there is round-the-clock coverage, attention and sympathy; in the latter, a few minutes of the same here and there, if at all.
Of course, most of us know that the United States empire has always been a key player in all of these countries in one way or the other, interfering in their internal affairs, armed with “weapons, weapons and weapons,” lots of money, and crippling sanctions. While the current president of the US poses sweetly with the children of Ukraine for the camera, mothers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen hold starving babies in their arms. Starving because as always the US empire has either clumsily withdrawn from these countries after decades of war and occupation, turned their backs on them, and in the case of Afghanistan, is denying them access to their own country’s funds; or it suits the interests of US weapons manufacturers to continue with the ugly status quo no matter the consequences to the civilian populations involved.
The US feigns diplomacy while igniting the sparks of conflict and civil strife, escalating and intensifying them all across the world: in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and yes, in Ukraine.
The United States is facing two grim prospects in 2022: one, that accelerating climate disruption could render much of the Earth unlivable, and two, that the United States’ current political drift toward right-wing autocratic rule could quickly become a steep slide, dashing our hopes for attaining a multiracial, pluralistic democracy. “In Real Time” is a month-by-month account of what could be the most fateful span of time for our country since the 1860s. The blog will follow the climate, voting rights, and justice movements as they work toward a livable path for all, no matter who wields the levers of power in Washington and our state capitals. This, the first of at least twenty-four monthly posts, provides the introduction and rationale for the series.
This month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its starkest assessment of prospects for climate mitigation to date. The IPCC concluded that to sufficiently limit warming of the atmosphere, global greenhouse-gas emissions must be cut in half by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2040. That widely established limit amounts to 1.5 degrees Centigrade, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. If efforts fail and current climate policies are kept in place, humanity will experience a calamitous heating of 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
Five months ago, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance pointed to another crisis, this one centered on the United States. For the first time, the think tank moved the U.S. out of its “democracy” category, classifying us instead as a “backsliding democracy.” On this issue, sober-minded elected officials, scholars, analysts, and others have for months been raising ever louder alarms. An attempted hijacking of the U.S. electoral process, they say, is under way.
These environmental and political warnings present us with two terrifying prospects: one, that continued abuse of the ecosphere could render much of the Earth unlivable for humans and myriad other species, and two, that the United States’ current political drift toward autocratic rule could accelerate, dashing any hope of attaining a just, pluralistic democracy. These crises are intertwined. Either we find meaningful responses to both, or we fail dramatically on both.
We are entering what could well turn out to be, for the United States, the most consequential span of time since the 1860s. Movements both to defend the ecosphere and to remake our society, for the first time, as a multiracial, small-d democracy have gained strength in recent years. But we are now seeing a backlash that aims to take us down a very different road, toward far-right minority rule and accelerated degradation of the Earth.
The peril is not neatly contained within our nation’s borders, and Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised the stakes further, to the point that the risk of nuclear conflict is being discussed. Seemingly unperturbed by this prospect, MAGA Republicans (and media hosts on Fox News) have expressed admiration for Putin or avoided comment altogether, turning instead to attack their domestic political adversaries—further telegraphing how they would act should they gain full power.
The Far-Right Power Grab
Our nation has arrived not at a crossroads but at a T-junction. There’s no path leading straight ahead, no more business as usual. Historians of democracy and its decline tell us that we’ll soon be turning one way or the other—either toward a deeper, more diverse, inclusive democracy centered on justice and a livable future for all, or toward life under a corporate-dominated, far-right regime in an ecologically impoverished world.
We have known for decades that urgent action is required to prevent climate catastrophe, but the United States has frittered those years away. Time after time, legislation aimed at suppressing greenhouse-gas emissions, curbing the die-off of biodiversity, or halting the disruption of other critical Earth systems has been pronounced dead on arrival in Washington, out of fear that it would interfere with economic growth.
Recent events have brought this failure into sharper focus. Russia’s war on Ukraine disrupted global oil and gas markets and presented another clear opportunity to finally start addressing climate by reducing the world’s dependence on all oil and gas, not just Russian supplies. A bipartisan array of key figures in the White House and Congress called in unison for climate-busting increases in oil and gas production at the same time that the Republican half of Congress was busy endorsing, or at best ignoring, electoral hijinks in state legislatures that would hasten the nation’s descent toward one-party autocratic rule—further thickening the atmosphere of ecological/political dread.
Our institutions have failed us in ways large and small, but we now face the possibility of a much broader systemic breakdown. If we fail to block the far-right power grab, opportunities for positive governmental action, not only on climate but on a host of other issues we have long fallen short of addressing—general ecological degradation, Indigenous rights, economic and racial justice, health, food and agriculture, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and, crucially, universal voting rights—will slip even further out of reach.
Scholars who study the decline of democracies are warning that the Capitol attack of January 6, 2021, was just the beginning. Both the far right and the establishment right are seeking to exploit constitutional vulnerabilities and suppress the political agency of Americans of color. Working largely through state legislatures, they aim to gain control over all three branches of the federal government. From there, they could enact voting legislation to keep their regime in power indefinitely, reinforce the racial caste system, increase corporate power, further militarize policing, and keep extracting maximum fossil fuels for maximum profit.
In late 2020, with the peaceful transfer of presidential power under threat, the Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) downgraded the United States’ status from “democracy” to “anocracy,” the latter term signifying a nation in limbo between democracy and autocracy (i.e., tyranny). CSP edged us back, just barely, into the “democracy” portion of their scale in early 2022. Nevertheless, warned Barbara F. Walter, a historian and the author of How Civil Wars Start, “we could easily slip back into anocracy,” and from there, she wrote, things could go either way: “Anocracy is usually transitional—a repressive government allows reforms, or a democracy begins to unravel—and it is volatile.”
The current volatility grows out of right-wing desperation. The historian Thomas Zimmer wrote recently that for the white far-right, “allegiance has never been to democratic ideals—their acceptance of democracy was always conditional and depending entirely on whether or not it would be set up in a way that allowed for the forces of multiracial pluralism to be kept in check.” In recent years, Zimmer argues, “the lack of legitimacy for the restricted white elite version of democracy”—the system we have lived under all our lives—has become too stark to ignore. A solid majority of voters now find that hoary old version of democracy to be wholly unacceptable, so candidates who oppose pluralism find it harder and harder to prevail in properly conducted elections. Therefore, Zimmer concludes, “America will either slide into authoritarianism or make the leap to multiracial, pluralistic democracy.”
Zimmer is talking about that T-junction we’ve arrived at, but he uses more active imagery: if we don’t take a bold “leap” toward the multiracial democracy that America has so far failed to achieve, we will “slide” inexorably into an autocratic future. Our current, truncated version of democracy—of, by, and for only some of the people—cannot hold together much longer.
We Have Two Years to Get Ten
The IPCC’s report points to a stark conclusion: actions we take in the next ten years will largely determine whether a future catastrophic heating of the Earth can be prevented. One could now argue that in the United States, the climate movement faces an even shorter deadline. Given the anti-democracy camp’s fealty to the fossil-fuel industry and hostility toward climate mitigation, the question of whether we will have an opportunity even to work for, let alone achieve necessary federal legislation within the next decade could be decided in just the next two years or so. We’d better use the coming months wisely.
With vigorous mobilization, hard work, and solidarity, we could manage a leap toward a more pluralistic and just democracy. Nevertheless, I’d like to discuss how we could keep striving toward a livable future even if we were to find ourselves living under a far-right regime. Such a discussion will be productive whether or not the worst comes to pass. We need to be aiming for a radical social-ecological transformation now, whichever direction the U.S. polity turns in the period ahead.
I’m among those who have argued that although reducing emissions and respecting ecological limits at the individual, household, and community scales is good and necessary, national action is also essential. With so few years left for the U.S. to eliminate fossil-fuel use, only a declining national cap on fossil fuels use can ensure that we are all playing by the same fair rules, and that oil, gas, and coal use is driven down to zero quickly enough. In a society where it’s the people who decide, we still would have a fighting chance to get such policies passed, at long last, into law. But if the anti-democracy camp manages to take the driver’s seat and shift federal climate policy into reverse, we will need to redouble our efforts to confront the climate emergency and preserve economic and civil rights in other ways, wherever and whenever we can.
A Tsunami for Democracy?
In marginalized communities, many might well respond to all these warnings of climate chaos and the death of democracy by asking, “What democracy?” Structural racism has meant a history of slavery and state-enforced racial terrorism that much of the country simply won’t acknowledge. Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities have been fighting injustice for centuries and have intergenerational traditions of resistance that continue to this day. Indigenous peoples continue to be at the forefront of the climate movement, standing up to the fossil-fuel industry and undermining its ability to operate. These communities are also at the forefront of educating the public on non-Western traditions for living in harmony with the Earth and its natural limits.
If the right takes full power in Washington and a majority of state capitals, and we lose much of our ability to effect change through the ballot box, grassroots climate action will become more important than ever. For that, movements like the Indigenous-led pipeline struggles, Extinction Rebellion, youth climate strikes, the Sunrise Movement, and the like provide sterling models. They have helped lift climate and its broader ecological-social context to near the top of the list of public concerns, polls show—even in the face of corporate and political hostility that is explicit, unapologetic, and often violent. Meanwhile, existing and emerging efforts to bring human activity into harmony with the rest of the ecosphere must carry on, whatever the sociopolitical context. For instance, efforts here at the Land Institute, where I am, and among our allies, to transform food production and reverse soil degradation, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse-gas emissions, will play a central role.
The possibilities looming ahead may look grim, but we are not powerless bystanders capable only of gawking at events as they unfold over the next two years and beyond. Pro-democracy voters could, through our sheer numbers, overwhelm the anti-democracy camp’s attempts to subvert the Constitution. The movements for climate mitigation and justice, Indigenous sovereignty, Black lives, economic democracy, and the Earth could merge into one collective wave. Other events, unforeseeable today, also might change the landscape of possibilities in our favor.
But we don’t have time to stand back, to wait and see. The clock is ticking. In the upcoming months, we’ll need to strive for a leap even as we brace ourselves for a slide. See you in May.
So much carbon dioxide has now accumulated in the atmosphere that it’s no longer possible to prevent a dangerous rise in global temperatures through purely technological means. In other words, it’s too late to prevent catastrophic ecological damage and human suffering simply through building more renewable electric capacity and improving energy efficiency.
Humanity can keep atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration within tolerable limits, but only if we do not aim to sustain today’s profligate material production and wealth accumulation, let alone continue increasing production. Instead, we must deeply reduce production and thereby shrink energy and material use.
In contrast, conventional green-growth thinking starts with “decarbonizing” the economy (by building more and more wind farms, solar parks, electric vehicles, energy-efficient appliances, etc.) in order to reduce carbon emissions per dollar of wealth generated, thereby making it possible, in theory, to sustain and even increase material production without increasing the rate of carbon emissions. But in practice, progress in decarbonization gets swamped out by growth in material production.
The energy supply required to meet current and expanding global demand can never be fully decarbonized. That’s because solar irradiation and wind energy, thinly and intermittently dispersed as they are, cannot substitute for the bonanza of highly concentrated, portable, storable energy from fossil fuels that we’ve enjoyed century and a half. Even if that were possible, building industrial parks across vast swaths of the Earth’s surface to harvest that energy would result in irreparable ecological damage.
Policy should not start with the assumption that growth can be increasingly “decarbonized” by building more and more wind and solar capacity and improving energy efficiency indefinitely into the future; in any case, that is barred by non-repealable physical laws. Policy should instead aim to reduce total carbon emissions by reducing total material production.
A downsizing economy will require a smaller and smaller energy supply; in time, energy demand will become modest enough that it can be fully satisfied with renewable sources, sustainably deployed. Fossil carbon emissions will be reduced to zero, while, if goods and services are distributed equitably, the reduced material output can be made sufficient to meet society’s material needs.
It’s not just us saying this. A highly respected international group of researchers recently evaluated the various climate-action scenarios laid out by the international climate-science body IPCC. They weighed each of the scenarios with regard to their relative ability to limit greenhouse warming to 1.5º C—a threshold once thought safe and now viewed as too hot but probably the best we can hope for at this point.
Only a strategy that reverses growth in material production, concluded the researchers , can “substantially minimize many key risks for feasibility and sustainability compared with established, technology-driven pathways.” They showed that all pro-growth approaches will probably fail to keep up with growing demand for renewable energy, fail to sustain increases in energy efficiency, and fail to avoid extensive ecological damage. Could the world’s policymakers decide to be optimistic, roll the dice, and pursue green growth anyway, to see if humanity can make it work? They could, but by the time we find out that sure enough, green growth is leading to collapse, it will be too late to turn back.
If we follow the implications of IPCC’s report Global Warming of 1.5º C or the UN’s latest Emissions Gap Report, then greenhouse emissions must be reduced very steeply within the next fifteen years. Accordingly, viewing this lineup as a time series, each popover would represent a period of about two years.
To instead portray a green-growth scenario in this way would have looked very different. Starting with an almost full cup and increasing the amount of batter used for each successive popover not only would have resulted in a messy culinary catastrophe; it would have also required that carbon be added to all dozen rolls, because each would represent an economy far too large to be “powered” by non-fossil energy. Even with increased technological efficiency, which could be illustrated by gradually reducing the concentration of charcoal in the batter as the quantity of batter increased, the total quantity of carbon would not diminish and would probably increase, as over time, exponential growth outstripped diminishing returns on efficiency.
Assorted Sourdough Popovers and Popunders
113g sourdough starter (discard or fed)
3 large eggs
227g slightly warm milk
120g all-purpose flour
8g powdered charcoal
Place a muffin pan in a 450°F preheating oven. Meanwhile, combine the starter, eggs, salt and milk. Add the flour and mix till just combined. Don’t over-mix. Weigh out and divide 60g of the batter into four small bowls—15g into each. Add the charcoal to the remaining batter and lightly mix it in till just combined. Once the oven is preheated, take the muffin pan out and spray generously with oil. Orienting the pan with four cups across and three down, start at the top left cup, pour the carbon batter right to the top with a little spilling over the rim. Then pour each of the 15g charcoal-free batter portions into the second, fourth, sixth and eighth cups (counting left to right and top to bottom). Pour the remaining charcoal batter into each of the remaining cups, measuring by eye, and reducing the amount of batter in each successive cup. There will then be the first cup, which is slightly overflowing; the third cup almost full to the rim; the fifth cup a little farther below the rim; the seventh cup about three quarters full; and so on, until the twelfth cup has slightly more than the cups that have 15g. Now all the 12 cups have batter in them — eight with the charcoal batter and four without. Place the pan in the oven and bake at 450°F for the first 15 minutes. Then turn the temperature down to 375°F and bake for another 18 minutes or so.
The Assorted Sourdough Popovers and Popunders recipe is modeled after our favorite popovers recipe by King Arthur.
Time is fast running out. The world’s affluent nations, with their abundant greenhouse emissions, have to finally drag themselves across the starting line and begin phasing out fossil fuels at the accelerated pace that the climate emergency demands. And if they can manage to do that, they clearly will need to quickly build up wind and solar electric capacity to partially compensate for the shrinkage of oil, gas, and coal supplies while addressing the prospect of energy shortages by securing production of essential goods and services for everyone.
Unfortunately, mainstream climate visions have strayed far from confronting the existential necessity to banish fossil fuels. They simply assume that the buildup of renewable energy will automatically chase fossil fuels out of our lives and fully replace them, watt for watt and Btu for Btu. These visions hold out the promise of a world in which a pristine, Sun-powered economy fulfills any and all of our material desires far into the future—a delicious, guilt-free cornucopia. But the green-growth promise is a mirage, and the realities of a high-production, wind- and solar-powered world will be much less tasty.
Any industrial installation, including solar and wind farms, profoundly disrupts the landscape on which it sits. If it were possible to fully satisfy the bloated energy appetites of affluent nation by covering hundreds of millions or billions of acres of the Earth’s surface with power-harvesting hardware, the result would be irreparable ecological damage.
Meanwhile, the manufacturing booms to supply such a sprawling proliferation of solar arrays, wind power plants, battery-backed electric grids, electric-vehicle fleets, and other hardware would require outrageously large inputs of metals such as lithium, cobalt, silver, copper, aluminum, nickel, iron, and a host of exotic rare earth elements.
The global rush to mine these metallic ores is on, and the dire ecological and humanitarian consequences that always follow have spurred growing concern. But the mining and processing of a much more mundane, often overlooked mineral resource—sand—is also critical to renewable-energy expansion and terrible for the Earth and its human and non-human inhabitants.
The solar-energy industry, like digital electronics, is built on a foundation of silicon. Number 14 in the periodic table of the elements, silicon is abundant in the Earth’s crust. But the industries that mine and process sand, quartzite rock, and other sources of silicon dioxide to obtain pure silicon for use in solar equipment belie the popular, sunny green conception of an alternative-energy economy.
Manufacturing a solar panel’s photovoltaic cells requires very high-quality silicon. Before the rapid growth in solar panel production took off, manufacturers could satisfy their need for the element by recycling flawed computer chips cast off by computer makers. As the solar industry’s demand for silicon exploded, however, they had to start producing their own supplies, by extracting pure silicon from sand and other minerals.
Sand headed for solar uses must go through energy-intensive, and often toxic, processing. It begins with heating sand or quartzite rock, along with a carbon source like wood chips or charcoal, to 3,500 degrees F, resulting in a chemical reaction that produces metallurgical grade silicon. Both the energy for heating and the combustion of the carbon sources contribute to greenhouse warming. Producing one pound of this form of silicon generates an estimate pound and a half of carbon dioxide emissions.
Further refining the metallurgical grade silicon, in order to achieve the 99.9999% purity required in photovoltaic wafers, requires additional heating and chemical treatment. That process produces four tons of the highly toxic compound silicon tetrachloride for every ton of the desired product, polysilicon. And the ultrathin wafers that are sliced from polysilicon blocks for use in photovoltaic cells must be cleaned and smoothed, typically with extremely dangerous hydrofluoric acid.
Sand’s central role in solar energy and its ecological impacts doesn’t end there. The glass sheet that covers and protects a solar panel must have higher transparency than ordinary window glass, to maximize light capture. That requires starting with sand that carries minimal impurities. Most desirable is sand mined from river beds—causing severe disruption of local and downstream ecosystems. Then even the highest quality sand must be deep-cleaned, which involves further energy- and chemical- intensive industrial techniques.
And there’s more to solar energy’s footprint than silicon—for example, the panels’ requirements for large quantities of pure silver and the exploding demand for aluminum frames and supports. In sum, the broad ecological impacts of manufacturing, installing, operating, and, finally dismantling and disposing of a solar installation at the end of its life span include global warming potential (mostly from the silicon processing), ozone depletion, eutrophication of water bodies, and toxicity to humans and non-humans. The lifetime energy consumed is equivalent to a year and a half to three years of the solar farm’s energy output. And photovoltaic panels last only 25 years on average. Their power output declines year by year, and then they have to be replaced—and the cycle of ecological damage begins again.
The chief reason for recent, much-touted decreases in the cost of solar-generated electricity is the increasing share of solar component manufacturing being performed in China, with its low-wage labor force and cheap coal-fired power supply. A whopping 80% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon is produced in China, with 45% in the northwestern province of Xinjiang alone.
Recent news reports show how China’s solar-energy industry is having dire consequences not only for the environment but also for human rights and well-being. In Xinjiang, members of the persecuted Uyghur ethnic minority make up most of the labor force in the hazardous quartz mining and polysilicon manufacturing industries. And most of the Uyghurs are employed through the government’s so-called “surplus labor” and “labor transfer” programs.
A 2021 investigative report from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK concluded, based on strong evidence, that these initiatives “are deployed in the Uyghur Region within an environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment” and are “tantamount to forcible transfer of populations and enslavement.” The researchers found that the supply chains of at least ninety solar energy companies worldwide included polysilicon produced by this forced-labor system.
We must be pragmatic, of course. If the world is going to start leaving oil, gas, and coal in the ground forever, an expansion of wind and solar energy capacity will indeed be necessary. (Some industry insiders turn to a reliable if rusty old saw in advising us that to make a “renewable omelet”, you have to break—and “melt”—some ecological eggs.)
New energy development, however, must be pursued judiciously, minimizing ecological impacts and aiming for a much more modest energy capacity and less industrial production than we have today. Affluent societies worldwide will need to adapt to life with a much smaller and much more equitably shared energy supply; otherwise, we will keep extending our plunder of the Earth, jogging along on the same old ecologically destructive industrial treadmill.
(Modification for Sourdough Cinnamon Raisin Sweet-Swirl Bread:
Use the above ingredients, but substitute sugar for sand in the dough and filling.)
Combine the dough ingredients and [‘no kneed’] knead (adding a little flour if needed) to form a smooth doughball. Place the doughball in a lightly greased container and let it rise, covered, for 1½ to 2 hours till doubled. Meanwhile, make the filling by mixing the sand with the cinnamon and sorghum flour. Lightly grease a 9” x 5” loaf pan and set aside. Transfer the risen doughball to a lightly greased surface and roll into a 6” x 20” rectangle. Leaving about a 1” bare strip on one of the 6” edges, brush the remaining 19” of the dough with the beaten egg and sprinkle it evenly with the filling and raisins. Starting with the 6” edge that has the filling, roll the dough into a log till you reach the bare strip and pinch it closed. Pinch-close the two ends as well. With the seam side facing down, transfer the log to the loaf pan and let it rise, covered, for about an hour. Preheat the oven to 350° F (or 3500° for the “Gritty-Swirl” version, if you want to try making polysilicon), and bake for 45 minutes. To avoid over-browning the top, you could place a piece of foil on top of the loaf after the first 20 minutes of baking.
Losses on both sides were profound — U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken, May 25 press conference with Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu in Israel, AlJazeera. (All of the following li(n)es were uttered during the same press conference.)
Yes. Losses were profound. But not on both sides. On one side, among Palestinians, of whom 253 were killed, including 66 children, and 2,000 injured, including 200 who may suffer from long-term disability. None of this would’ve happened if it wasn’t for the continuing U.S. policy of showering Israel with unconditional military, diplomatic and political support.
Casualties are often reduced to numbers. — Antony Blinken
Well that depends on whether you’re looking for details or not. Let’s go behind some of these numbers Blinken is referring to, starting with Bashar Ahmad Ibrahim Samour.
Bashar was just 17 years old when Israeli forces targeted him with the help of the United States’ continuing bipartisan silence of mass destruction, which currently amounts to $3.8 billion of military aid, every year. That’s almost $500,000 of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent every hour of every day on the Occupation and resulting atrocities committed by Israel on Palestinians like Bashar.
Bashar was killed on the morning of May 12 with two gunshot wounds to the right side of his chest. At 10 a.m. to be precise. Bashar worked as a farmer and “was connecting irrigation pipes about 500 meters from the fence when he was shot and killed. Relatives working with him at the time transported him to a hospital in Khan Younis where he was pronounced dead on arrival.” If you search the web for a picture, you’ll find one of him strapping a camera and smiling, wearing a pink hibiscus flower in his hair.
According to Defense for Children International (DCI) – Palestine, 16-year-old Rashid Mohammad Rashid Abu Arra, was shot and killed by Israeli forces on May 13th in Ramallah, in the village of Aqaba, in the occupied West Bank. Occupation forces entered his village to conduct “search and arrest operations,” and Rashid was shot from behind, sustaining “two gunshot wounds to his upper and middle back.”
I underscored to the prime minister something that president Biden made crystal clear throughout the violence. The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks such as the thousands of rockets fired by Hamas indiscriminately against Israeli civilians. — Antony Blinken
On May 10, 16-year-old Ibrahim Abdullah Mohammad Hassanain and 11-year-old Hussein Muneer Hussein Hamad were killed in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip in a blast. It has still not been determined whether they died as a result of Israeli drones and warplanes that were reportedly flying overhead, or if they were victims of rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups toward Israel that fell short. But to Ibrahim and Muneer and their families it doesn’t matter how they died. What matters is that they died as a result of 73 years of the United States’ $146 billion silence of mass destruction.
At 8 p.m. on May 19, in Jabalia, in the northern Gaza Strip, 10-year-old Dima Sa’d Ali Asaliya who, according to her uncle, had gone to her sister’s house to get an electric cooker that her family often borrows to bake bread, was walking back home with it when she was struck and killed by an Israeli drone on the street between their two houses. Her little body was “covered in shrapnel wounds.” In the photo I used as a reference to embroider her outline portrait, you can see her hands decorated in henna, framing one side of her smiling face.
According to DCI, 2-year-old Mariam Mohammad Odeh Talbani, “had been missing and presumed dead since May 12 until her body was located in rubble” on the 21st, nine days after the building she lived in with her family was demolished in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City’s Tal Al-Hawa neighborhood. The attack also killed her 4-year-old brother Zaid, and her 5-month-pregnant mother Rima.
These are just six out of the 66 children’s stories illustrated here. No, not those kind of children’s stories that we, those whose taxes feed our government’s apartheid-friendly silence, read to our children 6700 miles away, but the ones our corporate, biased media don’t bother to inform us about.
As the prime minister mentioned we had a detailed discussion about Israel’s security needs including replenishing Iron Dome. — Antony Blinken
“Replenishing Iron Dome” indeed. Maybe the focus on Israel’s missile defense system has something to do with the fact that Israel was caught off guard by the Palestinian resistance, with their bodies and rocks in hand ready to use for self-defense, in response to Israel’s increasing attempts of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem; the rockets that were launched by Hamas and other resistance factions after Israel refused to meet their demands that included withdrawing its military forces from the Al-Aqsa mosque and from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood — all of which led to the latest round of hostilities.
Why rocks for self-defense? Because remember, the United States believes that Palestinians, unlike Israeli’s, neither have a right to any, leave alone $3.8 billion of its military aid, nor a right to defend themselves against Israeli military and settler violence.
As Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of The Electronic Intifada said recently in an interview with theAnalysis.news that “the goal was to break the popular resistance in Jerusalem so that the settler march could go through the old city and Israel could show who’s boss, but it failed to do that, and Israel was forced into a humiliating retreat.” He added that “the miscalculation Israel made is that they thought that they had fragmented the Palestinian people so much” that they were a broken people. But the truth is that “Palestinians throughout historic Palestine are in common resistance to Israel, the settler colonial occupying state. So they are fighting from Gaza. People are resisting in the West Bank, they’re resisting in Jerusalem, and for the first time in decades, there is a broad uprising among Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
We know that to prevent a return to violence we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges. And that begins with tackling the great humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild. — Antony Blinken
Bravo, Blinken! And if you have to break things down to numbers, maybe you can start by responding to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) appeal by defunding Israel and handing over about 2.5 percent of the monies — $95 million — to them? They need it for “immediate humanitarian and early recovery responses for the coming 3 months, requesting… to address the needs of 1.1 million Palestinians, in the areas of protection, health, water and sanitation, education and food security.” You can go here to access the breakdown of needs.