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 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, and to monthly conversations with Stan on Justin Podur’s Anti-Empire Project podcast. Also see the evolving “In Real Time” visual work!
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.”
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.
It’s Time. is a work in progress. Each month, in parallel with City Lights Books’ print series In Real Time, Priti will be adding drawings that expand the work outward in concentric ovals, tracking the pivotal events of the next two years. Next dispatch and image June 15.
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.
Listen to audio editions of all “In Real Time” dispatches, as well as the monthly “In Real Time” podcast.
This article was first published at City Lights Books.
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.
The ‘New Deal’ part of the Green New Deal is mostly good and necessary. But the ‘Green’ part has a big hole at its center: the lack of a direct mechanismto rapidly reduce the use of fossil fuels in the economy; therefore, it cannot guarantee their elimination on a crash deadline. It relies instead on an erroneous assumption that an industrial mobilization to build up non-fossil energy capacity will automatically eliminate fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse emissions through the magic of the market. It also ignores the heavy ecological and humanitarian impacts of all ‘green’ industrial means of energy generation, including wind, solar, and (especially) hydroelectric power. It embodies the worst of technology-dependent magical thinking. — Stan Cox, author of The Green New Deal and Beyond (City Lights, 2020).
The Green New Deal (GND) and its vision to address the threat of climate emergency is an idea born out of an elite imagination. Its provisions for jobs, workers’ rights, racial justice, economic equality, social safety nets, and universal health care, laudable as they are, serve as sugar coating for a massive industrial stimulus program that is incapable of achieving a phase-out of fossil fuels and will likely juice greater emissions.
When I think “Green” I think growth. Something to be harvested, and whose value has always been measured not by its usefulness to its own existence and in harmony with the ecosphere it inhabits, but by its usefulness to the myriad product-designs of our harvesting eyes. Green has became a “left” color for a cause, a movement, a public policy proposal. Just another (maybe a darker) Green product. But a product nonetheless.
We tend to forget that there would be nothing green on this planet if it wasn’t for the brown: the soil that births what’s left of the lower-case green around us. Call it The Old Brown Steal: an arrangement for the continuation of a certain human lifestyle for a certain type of human.
In fact, there would be no green left on this planet if it wasn’t for Brown, indigenous fighters like Berta Cáceres, who stood between the corporation Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and her peoples’ sacred and precious body of water — the Gualcarque river, and was assassinated defending it. What a heavy price to pay for Green.
Capital must build in increasingly unsafe locations after the safest locations are used up… This is true for the construction of dams just as it is true for fossil fuels. It is also true for the location of solar arrays and the location of wind farms. It is likewise the case for mining the massive number of minerals that go into the production of various type of energy. This is why ‘alternative’ energy cannot be ‘clean’ or ‘renewable.’ Perhaps it is time to realize that there is only one form of ‘clean’ energy – less energy. — Don Fitz,From the Murder of Berta Cáceres to Dam Disaster in Uttarakhand, Green Social Thought, March 2.
March 2 marked the five-year anniversary of the murder of Berta Cáceres, an Earth defender and indigenous Lenca from Honduras. DESA’s design was to plant the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque. It took many Brown lives, including Berta’s, to stall the construction of an “alternative” form of energy. For now.
“Alternative energy” sounds like another genre of music — very groovy, but still very much part of the capitalist system. Capital, no matter how Green, has always plucked pieces of the brown earth to keep the engines of extraction greased and moving. It keeps plucking another piece, and another, and another, till a Brown person like Cáceres and millions like her who have had enough stand in its way with their bodies like juggernauts of resistance, an extension of the brown beneath their feet, if you will. And so they must be plucked as well.
Cáceres was murdered for standing in the way of Green energy. And since August, 2019, about 1900 miles away, someone else is still living under house arrest for standing in the way of fossil fuels.
Making Chevron and other companies clean up the messes created by their oil production will speed the transition away from fossil fuels, according to Rex Weyler, an environmental advocate who co-founded Greenpeace International and directed the original Greenpeace Foundation. ‘If hydrocarbon companies are forced to pay for the true costs of their product, which include these environmental costs, it will make the alternative energy systems more competitive.’ The Intercept, January 29.
A public defender and life-long crusader for the rights of indigenous people and farmers of the Amazon rain forest, Steven Donziger has also paid a heavy price for standing in between the oil-drilling interests of Chevron and the complete devastation of the Lago Agrio region of Ecuador. The corporation in question didn’t take Donziger’s life like they did Cáceras’ but took everything else away from him including his law license, his bank account, his passport, and other things. They did leave him with one thing though: an electronic monitoring device around his ankle that “he calls ‘the black claw,’” and that feels to him like “the government still there on my ankle.”
This is how capital works with its gradations of injustice. If you’re a Brown earth defender like Cáceres and living among the green, the government will mow you down. If you’re a white earth defender like Donziger and live far away from the green, the government clasps itself around your ankle and destroys your life. Either way, governments are still puppets in the hands of corporations like DESA and Chevron and will continue to play to their tune, alternative or otherwise, unless something drastic is done about it. Revolution anyone?
Justice for George Floyd’s lynching doesn’t end with the gaveling of Chauvin’s guilty verdict but with the gaveling down of institutional racism and violence. Similarly, climate justice won’t end with gradations of Green, alternative energy fixes, but as Cox says, with a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.
Meanwhile in the dungeons of the U.S. Congress:
While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law and that we also — because we can chew gum and walk at the same time — must address the root causes that cause people to make the trek. — Kamala Harris, “Kamala Harris gets high-profile, politically fraught immigration assignment,” Washington Post, March 25.
Really, Kamala? Wanna get to the “root causes” of “the trek?” How about starting with the economic consequences of the 2009 coup in Honduras and United States’ role in keeping it fed and intact? How’s that for Green?
We’re still far from recognizing our elite theft of the planet’s resources as the Old Brown Steal and are stuck on Green. Why else would someone like Rex Weyler talk about “alternative energy systems” being “more competitive” like as if that’s a good thing? This imagination, so far, lacks the ability to limit the usefulness of the green toward a landscape where there is sufficiency for all and excess for none. Something not driven by competition but by accountability and fairness and justice for all.
Humanity’s transgression of ecological limits has caused widespread damage, including a climate emergency, catastrophic loss of biodiversity, and extensive degradation of soils around the world. Earth abuse is also at the root of the Covid-19 pandemic and the grim possibility that new pathogens will continue to emerge from other animal species to infect humans.
Cultivation, deforestation, mining, livestock raising, and other activities degrade and destroy wildlife habitat, leaving animals no choice but to move closer to humans, potentially bringing pathogens along with them. Suburban sprawl and tourism (especially “eco-tourism”) also bring humans and wildlife closer together. Hunting involves the most intimate contact with wild animals; indeed, the prevailing hypothesis is that the hunting of horseshoe bats probably kicked off the chain of events that led to the current coronavirus pandemic.
Humans have lived with domestic animals for millennia, and our bodies may have learned how to deal with the pathogens passed back and forth. But when ecosystems are disturbed or encroached upon, novel zoonotic viruses can move from wildlife into domestic animals and from there into humans. There is strong circumstantial evidence that the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which killed more than 675,000 Americans and as many as 50 million worldwide, began with the flu virus jumping from swine into humans in Haskell County, Kansas, moving on to what is now Fort Riley with new army recruits, and from there reaching the battlefields of World War 1.
The horrific wildfires that were ignited across Southeast Asia for land-clearing in 1997-98, combined with a regional drought, killed off many fruit-bearing trees in the forests of Malaysia. Fleeing the dead forests, fruit bats found sustenance in domestic orchards, bringing with them the Nipah virus. Swine being raised within the orchards became infected through the bats’ virus-laden droppings and passed the virus on to the people who handled them. Nipah brings high mortality among both hogs and human population, killing approximately 50 percent of the people it infects.
We saw during the past year that once the new coronavirus gained a foothold in our species, the modern human propensity for long-distance travel quickly turned local outbreaks into a pandemic. Air conditioning, another technology with severe climate effects, was also implicated in Covid-19 outbreaks. Summertime, a season in which respiratory viruses typically wane, instead saw dramatic infection peaks throughout the Sun Belt as people escaped the heat and gathered in tightly enclosed, air-conditioned spaces.
Vacation cruises, which should have been banned decades ago given their exploitation of workers and heavy effect on the oceans and atmosphere, hosted some of the worst early outbreaks. The industrial meat industry, despoiler of soils and water, prolific emitter of greenhouse gases, also turned out to be an efficient viral incubator.
In some cases, greenhouse warming itself creates conditions for spread of zoonotic infection. In East and North Africa, for example, droughts have become more frequent and intense thanks to climate change. Many pastoralists have responded by replacing their cattle herds with camels, which, famously, can survive for long stretches of time without access to water. As a result, much larger numbers of camels are now in close contact with humans in the region. Worryingly, the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome is circulating in dromedary camel populations in several countries in the region.
MERS originated in bats, has become endemic in camels, and then over the past decade has repeatedly made the jump from camels into humans. It does not spread as readily from person to person as the Covid-19 virus, but it is orders of magnitude more deadly. Of approximately 2,500 people who have been infected by the MERS virus since 2012, one-third have died. As droughts worsen, farmers and herders take their camels on increasingly long journeys in search of forage. Trips often extend for days, and, without fuel for fire building, the herders often must sleep close to the camels for warmth. For want of fire and water, they also may sustain themselves by drinking the camels’ milk raw. All of this increases the risk of virus transmission.
We may wriggle out from under the Covid-19 pandemic by year’s end, but we won’t be in the clear. It is likely that we will continue to encounter novel coronaviruses. Never before the year 2000 were coronaviruses known to emerge from bats into human populations and cause highly lethal disease in humans. In the two decades since, however, there have been three such events, involving SARS-CoV-1, which caused the 2002-2004 “severe acute respiratory syndrome” (SARS) pandemic; MERS-CoV, which causes MERS; and SARS-CoV-2, the cause of Covid-19.
In a 2020 article in the journal Cell, David Morens and Anthony Fauci – yes, that Dr. Fauci – wrote that as we continue disrupting the ecosphere, pathogens are finding their way into human populations with increasing frequency: “The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another reminder, added to the rapidly growing archive of historical reminders, that in a human-dominated world, in which our human activities represent aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced interactions with nature, we will increasingly provoke new disease emergences. We remain at risk for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century. It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature, even as we plan for nature’s inevitable, and always unexpected, surprises.”
Our encroachment on the ecosphere has opened a Pandora’s box. In addition to the viruses causing SARS, MERS, and Covid-19, some of the other bat coronaviruses studied so far have all the necessary pathogenic tools for attacking humans, and they have been shown to infect and sicken laboratory mice. According to a paper authored by a national group of ten researchers in the field, there are “enormous groups of bat coronaviruses distributed globally,” and many, like SARS-CoV-2, are “functionally preadapted” to infecting humans. That preadaptation may be related to similarities among bats, minks, cats, humans, and some other mammalian species in our lung-cell membranes’ susceptibility to entry by this group of viruses.
There’s more. Since 2017, another coronavirus – emerging, like the Covid-19 and SARS viruses, from horseshoe bats – has been triggering deadly outbreaks among piglets in China. In the laboratory, the new bug appears to have the genetic potential to infect human airway and intestinal cells. Three different coronaviruses that cause severe disease in cattle, horses, and swine are closely related to another virus that has long been causing the common cold in humans. These livestock viruses may acquire, through genetic exchange, the ability to infect us.
Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the propensity of different coronavirus strains to engage in recombination, that is, to swap blocks of genetic code with one another. Reportedly, the code for shaping the “spike” protein that allows the virus to enter host cells is especially prone to recombination, raising concerns that code for versions of the spike that can serve as “keys” for opening human cells to infection could pass from human pathogens like the Covid-19 or common-cold viruses into livestock viruses. The latter might thereby acquire the ability to infect the people who work around them. In researchers’ words, “[C]oronaviruses can change rapidly, drastically, and unpredictably via recombination with both known and unknown lineages.”
The ten scientists who warned that coronaviruses are functionally preadapted to the human body further stressed that their data “reaffirm what has long been obvious: that future coronavirus transmissions into humans are not only possible, but likely. Scientists knew this years ago and raised appropriate alarm. Our prolonged deafness now exacts a tragic price.”
What’s good for the ecosphere is good for human health, and we are not helpless victims. Escaping ecological catastrophe and reducing the frequency of pandemics that might be lurking in the decades ahead is well within our capability, but it will require assiduous respect for ecological limits and great restraint in our interactions with nature.
Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020) and the upcoming The Path to a Livable Future: Forging a New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic.
This article was originally published by The Land Institute’s Land Report.
As his 67th birthday nears, and Pennsylvania political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal faces challenging and potentially fatal health crises, his legal case is still slowly winding its way through the arduous appellate court system. — New court filings for Abu-Jamal’s appeal, Workers World, March 22.
Injustice is an industry in the United States of America, just like militarism and prisons. An inorganic perennial landscape irrigated by lies, silence, deception, fossil fuels, white-freedom-weapons and the victimization of black and brown people. A rhizomatous perpetual motion machine whose oozing pus fertilizes itself and keeps going.
This industry is undemocratic and bipartisan. It uses words like freedom and dreams and green to describe the journey.
Don’t be fooled. There’s nothing free and dreamy and green about this journey. It is in fact shackled and nightmarish and grey, rooted in the oxymoronic and popular yet fantastical belief in infinite human potential on a finite planet. This potential, still needs a piece of the planet to thrive. And if we turn around to face the diabolically long and wide landscape, we might get a sense of the human miasma in this journey of injustice. We might see Mumia Abu-Jamal, somewhere in the distance, 39-40 years ago. Like a lotus blooming through the muck.
Conventional wisdom would have us believe that it is insane to resist this, the mightiest of empires, but what history really shows is that today’s empire is tomorrow’s ashes; that nothing lasts forever, and that to not resist is to acquiesce in your own oppression. The greatest form of sanity that anyone can exercise is to resist that force that is trying to repress, oppress, and fight down the human spirit. — political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, Incarcerated at SCI Mahanoy, Pennsylvania; his twelfth book, “the sweeping historical polemic, Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, and Manifest Destiny marks a historic pinnacle for Abu-Jamal as a writer and critic of the American Empire.”
We don’t need some unreal green message from the future where everyone is living off the fat of the land. Maybe we’re going about it all wrong and need to stop and look back instead of looking forward. Maybe the answer to the human miasma lies there? In a small piece of the planet-past. Maybe then it will hit us. That solutionism itself needs a piece of the earth, and the end result will be more violence, more displacement and death and devastation. Not less.
Mumia and his story sits on one of those pieces of the planet-past. Forgotten and neglected in our liberal quest for quenching immediate injustices, and future ones. All Black Lives Matter. Not just those who the state and white supremacists kill instantly, but also those that the state kills slowly. Like Mumia.
The state wants Mumia to die… Congestive heart failure…Covid-19 breathing difficulties…Organ failure of the skin… Unrelenting skin eruptions are causing damaged, ruptured, leathery, dry, exposed wounds. Not one spot on his body is free of dry cracked and bloody open wounds… The message from his personal physician, Dr. Ricardo Alvarez, could not be clearer, ‘Freedom is the only treatment.’— Prison Radio, March 9.
What the system has done to Mumia’s life, his body, his mind, his words, to me encapsulates the dark nature of this miasmic journey: a microcosmic example of what we’re continuing to do to the earth, in a corner of which we planted a state that planted a system that planted an injustice industrial complex that planted the prison industrial complex that planted Pennsylvania prisons that planted Mumia, an innocent man inside it, “still writing by hand and on a plastic typewriter — no computers are allowed”…
…and that planted the trial judge Albert Sabo and the infamous six words that he was “going to help them fry the ‘n***r’.”
White supremacy is an ideology that gets its message across using very few words, and represents one of the darkest greys in the grey scale of the human miasma. But those six words of judge Sabo, for example, bring home the limits of the human potential. That the poison (if you’re a white supremacist) or elixir (if you’re a liberal human supremacist) is always going to be sought through violent means no matter how hard or how light your blow to the planet and the ecosphere: something always moving forward; something extractive; some more pieces of the planet; and the piece that still holds the forgotten freedom for Mumia.
Mumia’s freedom isn’t the freedom you and I are used to and that we take for granted. It’s the real thing: something that has to be unjustly snatched away from you first and then never granted if the system continues to have its way. Our freedom is part of the miasma. An illusion. It’s meaningless if we don’t use it to fight for someone else’s.
But yes, freedom is the only treatment. Freedom for Mumia by other fellow humans. And freedom for the earth, from human superiority.
It’s time to let go of the idea of infinite human potential and let the planet breathe. Let Mumia breathe. That’s one of the few things that we can do that’s within our modest human potential. Our mobilization for freedom of political prisoners like Mumia will actually plant something beautiful and non-violent on this planet without taking a piece of it away.
Your support, from Philadelphia to France, from points across the nation and literally around the globe, has pulled me from a prison cell and placed me in a hospital room to be treated for a condition I didn’t know I had. In the age of pandemic… as of January 2021, over 300,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. Imagine that… Imagine an elder man, or a woman, or even a young person, because yes, we are also in an age of mass incarceration which day by day increases its infliction upon the elderly, struggling unsuccessfully, to breathe. To walk. To be. I thank you all for reaching out, and I urge you all, let our mission be abolition. — ‘A Letter of Thanks’ by Mumia Abu-Jamal, Prison Radio, March 19.
Resources, updates and calls to action:
Watch the March 18 forum sponsored by the Prisoners Solidarity Committee of Workers World Party titled Mumia Abu-Jamal: The Only Treatment is His Freedom!
The fact that this case is old, 39 years old, and that an innocent man with severe health concerns, is languishing in prison makes it even more critical that you do everything in your power to make sure that justice is not delayed. — What Krasner Needs to Do!, March 18
Write to Mumia: Smart Communications/PADOC, Mumia Abu-Jamal AM 8335, SCI Mahanoy, PO Box 33028, St Petersburg, FL 33733.
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