A Dark Earth Day

embroidery and graphite on khadi

The New Dealpart of the Green New Deal is mostly good and necessary. But the Greenpart has a big hole at its center: the lack of a direct mechanism to 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 greenindustrial 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 alternativeenergy cannot be cleanor renewable.Perhaps it is time to realize that there is only one form of cleanenergy – 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.

embroidery and graphite on khadi

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.

Earth Abuse and the Next Pandemic

By Stan Cox

Human Miasma, embroidery and graphite on khadi

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.