“We’ll Meet Them Out in the Fields”: Challenging the Pipelines to Nowhere

Monthly Dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 6

Alton and Foxy Onefeather of the Great Plains Action Society: “In the last 500 years, Indigenous diets have drastically diminished. By providing healthier food options we can reduce the high rate of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. As well as reintroducing our Indigenous spiritual connection with the land, plants, and elements that nourish our soul.” 

Recent polls suggest that the bonkers, even barbaric, rhetoric coming from far-right MAGA candidates could be undermining Republicans’ chances of capturing both chambers of Congress in November. Now, the greater danger may lie down-ballot. If extremists win key offices in swing-state governments in 2022, they might manage to award their states’ Electoral College votes to the MAGA presidential candidate, against the will of the voters, in 2024 and illegitimately capture the White House.  

With the prospect of such coup-plotting in state capitals, and with the Democrats’ much-hyped federal climate bill now passed into law, the focus of struggle on both the political and climate fronts has moved from Washington out to regional, state, and local arenas. Exemplifying this shift is a confrontation now building in the Plains states that pits a grassroots alliance of Native tribes, farmers, and environmental groups against predatory agribusiness interests. It’s a confrontation with potentially profound ramifications for climate and the broader ecological emergency.

A company called Summit Carbon Solutions is proposing to build a 2,000-mile network of pipelines sprawling across parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The system would collect liquefied carbon dioxide (CO2) from 32 ethanol fuel plants across the region and transport it to North Dakota’s oil country for storage. A second company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, wants to build 1,300 miles of pipeline to pick up CO2 from 20 ethanol and fertilizer plants in the same region but transport it in the opposite direction, to Illinois. At both destinations, the compressed CO2 would be injected into deep rock formations where it is supposed to remain until far-off geologic time. 

Why would the industry go to all that work and expense? Because ethanol manufacturing facilities release a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, canceling out that biofuel’s purported climate advantage over gasoline. Retrofitting plants to capture most of the CO2 from the plant’s exhaust stream, liquefy it, and inject it into the earth could help shore up ethanol’s shaky “green” image.

Mahmoud Fitil of the Great Plains Action Society: “It’s a very sensitive matter for Indigenous folks. This country was founded on land stolen from them, and now they are trying to prevent some of that land from being stolen again, this time by big corporations. So Indigenous people are standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers.”

In 2016–17, the region fought a valiant battle against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which carries carbon-heavy oil into the Midwest from North Dakota. Now a broad, politically diverse coalition of environmentalists, Indigenous communities, and landowners is arrayed against the proposed carbon pipelines. 

Mahmud Fitil serves as Land Defense Organizer for the Great Plains Action Society, an Indigenous-led organization in the forefront of this struggle in Iowa and Nebraska. He gave me a quick verbal tour of the territory that Native tribes and the broader alliance of groups are defending: Western Iowa is home to the Meskwaki, or Sac and Fox. Along the Nebraska–Kansas border live the Ioway people, who were expelled from their homelands by 19th-century white settlers. And several Plains tribes have reservations along the Missouri River dividing Iowa and Nebraska: the Umoⁿhoⁿ or Omaha nation; the Ho-Chunk or Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska; the Santee Sioux; and farther upstream, the Yankton, or Ihanktonwan Sioux. “They all will be impacted by the carbon pipelines that are being proposed for the region,” says Fitil. “The tribes are alarmed by the designs the pipeline companies have on the area and are mobilizing against them.” 

The Summit pipeline would cross the Missouri River just north of the Winnebago reservation, and that’s a problem, says Fitil. “These projects typically have transient workforces to build out the infrastructure. During construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, we saw some of the issues that come with these types of transient camps: proliferation of drugs and alcohol, crime, violence, prostitution. That’s just not the type of thing we want in our communities in Iowa and Nebraska, whether you’re Indigenous or you belong to another part of the rural community.” The threat posed by the transient camps would be part of a cascade of damage that the pipelines would inflict on humans, other species, landscapes, and waters across the region. 

An ecologically irrational enterprise

The Summit and Navigator projects got a huge shot-in-the-pipe from the climate provisions of the new federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which increased the tax credit for carbon capture and burial from $50 up to $85 per metric ton. That’s likely to stimulate even more demand for carbon transport and pump up an industry that has already proven incapable of significantly reducing the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, even as taxpayers are compelled to fork over more than $20 billion worth of incentives to keep it afloat.

The primary purpose of these and other carbon pipeline systems was never to reduce atmospheric CO2. Its backers’ aim is to turn a profit by spiffing up the environmental image of US feed-grain agriculture. The lion’s share of US corn production goes to supply two commodities, vehicle fuel and grain-fed meat. And the chief purpose of feedlots and ethanol plants is not to provide for nourishment and transportation; it is to gobble up surplus grain, thereby propping up grain prices and the agricultural economy. Cultivating the tens of millions of acres of feed/fuel grains—mostly corn and soybeans—that generate that huge surplus has led to soil degradation, chemical contamination of air and water, high energy consumption, and massive greenhouse-gas emissions. The pipeline would address only the CO2 waste gas produced by fermentation of corn grain in ethanol plants, which is a teeny tiny sliver of those emissions.  

This ecologically irrational system is very lucrative for agribusinesses that supply equipment and inputs to produce the big crop surpluses and big emissions. These businesses are now offering to create yet another profitable industry, one that will, ostensibly, clean up after the ethanol plants that were built to help sop up the grain surplus resulting from the industrialization of farming. 

None of this carbon juggling is justifiable on climate grounds. In a 2022 open letter published as a paid ad in the Washington Post, almost 500 climate, environmental, and civil society groups urged the governmental policymakers of North America to “abandon the dirty, dangerous myth of carbon capture and storage.” Their conclusion: “We don’t need to fix fossil fuels; we need to ditch them. Instead of capturing carbon to pump it back underground, we should keep fossil fuels in the ground in the first place” (emphasis in original). 

Stopping the double-steal

Burying and maintaining more than 3,000 miles of pipe requires access to huge amounts of land. In Iowa alone, Navigator’s pipeline will pass through 35 counties, Summit’s through 24. Company representatives have been approaching property owners across those counties about signing over control of portions of their land as an easement. Hundreds are refusing to sign, citing safety concerns (CO2 leaks can be extremely dangerous), damage to their cropland and waterways, and corporate intrusion on their property. In response, Summit is moving toward taking over their land outright through eminent domain. 

“If these companies have actually secured as many voluntary easements as they allege,” asks Fitil, “then why are they moving to seize land through eminent domain so soon? People are starting to understand what these guys are up to, and a lot of people are reeling. It’s a very sensitive matter for Indigenous folks. This country was founded on land stolen from them, and now they are trying to prevent some of that land from being stolen again, this time by big corporations. So Indigenous people are standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers.” There is also the serious matter of burial mounds and other culturally sensitive areas that lie in the pipeline route: “We’re working with the State Historic Preservation Office and tribal officers to get those sacred sites preserved and make sure that they aren’t ransacked, basically, by these projects,” Fitil adds.

Farmers have excellent reasons to deny easements and to fight eminent domain. Many of them are cultivating some of the nation’s most productive agricultural lands, and the last thing they want is massive earth-moving equipment driving on, digging into, and compacting the soil in a 50-foot-wide swath across their farm. To bury pipelines, crews dig deep trenches, piling up the soil alongside them. Once the pipes are in place and the soil is dumped back into the trench, topsoil gets mixed with the less fertile subsoil. 

The results of this soil abuse are predictable. In 2021, Iowa State University agronomists found that on Dakota Access Pipeline easements, corn yields were reduced by 15 percent, soybean yields by 25 percent. The study’s lead scientist, Robert Horton, said, “Overall, in the first two years, we found the construction caused severe subsoil compaction, impaired soil physical structure that can discourage root growth and reduce water infiltration in the right-of-way.” 

An improbable alliance

The pipeline struggle has brought together communities that rarely find common cause and can often be adversaries. “We really have formed an unlikely alliance,” says Fitil. “A lot of conservative Republicans are joining up with Indigenous folks, and they all are joining up with environmentalists. These people normally don’t get along, they don’t join in anything together. But here they’re really pissed off and joining hand in hand in the struggle against these pipelines.”

Fitil told me that this improbable coalition is applying valuable lessons that were learned from the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That epic 2016 confrontation on the banks of the Missouri River at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation managed to win a months-long halt in work on a stretch of the pipeline in South Dakota, before the newly elected Trump administration authorized a restart. But in Nebraska and Iowa at that time, says Fitil, the opposition was less unified: “People kind of went their own directions, rolled up their sleeves to fight it on their own, and we lost. But now things are different. We’re networking all up and down this pipeline route. Organizers, landowners, tribes . . . there’s a huge groundswell of grassroots activism going on. In Linn County, Iowa [home to Cedar Rapids], every other farm that you pass by, they’ve got grassroots signage up there, you know, ‘country billboards,’ saying ‘No eminent domain for private gain,’ ‘Not on my farm,’ ‘Not through my timber.’ These are just people, not ‘dot-orgs’ or nonprofits, saying, ‘Hell no, we’re not going to have it.’” 

“This time, the tribes started networking before the companies even figured out which tribes were which,” says Fitil. “We started networking with our counterparts up in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska. As soon as we heard about the carbon pipeline more than a year and a half ago, we started coming together and discussing what we’re going to do. See, last time, North Dakota was doing their own thing, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, were all doing their own things. Now, we’re holding joint monthly meetings, we’re holding national and state meetings. The landowners are signing up with an easement action team. And that’s something that’s way different than it was with DAPL.”

On August 12, 2022, members of the Great Plains Action Society and allies from across the movement met with the Iowa Utilities Board, the body that will make decisions on eminent domain declarations, among other issues. Says Fitil, “They couldn’t have been any less interested in what ‘we the people’ had to say. These folks were handpicked by governors, current and past, one of whom is now working for one of the pipeline corporations. We let ’em have it! We and the landowners told them, ‘Hey, we’re all locking arms, we’re standing up against this.’”

“Is this pipeline really what we need to be spending our taxpayer dollars on?” he asks. “No! These are the industries that have contributed the most to the very crisis that they now claim to be addressing. This has really galvanized resistance like very few issues can do. And, you know, if it comes down to a matter of will, we’ll meet them out in the fields, and we’ll let them know how strong our resolve is. The land is worth it, the water is worth it. Future generations are worth it.” 

Flag of Atrocities, Caste, Present and Future: Bilkis Bano

One thing is constant in India: violence. The perpetrators are the same; only the faces of those who encounter and resist the violence change. In India, or JatiIndia — my name for this nation of jatis/castes — the social hierarchical structure of jatiism/casteism and the inherent violence that goes with it stems from the country’s tree of systemic upper-caste supremacy and injustice.

Today’s face of resistance is that of Bilkis Yakub Rasool or Bilkis Bano. Bilkis’ story is a nightmare that never ends; like a really bad David Lynch movie. Two decades have passed since the infamous 2002 Gujarat genocidal pogrom when Bilkis’ nightmare began.

Flag of Atrocities Caste:

On August 15, 2001, India celebrated 54 years of independence from British rule.

On January 26, 2002, India’s 52nd Republic Day, Gujarat was hit by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, killing more than 13,800 people. 

One month later, Narendra Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat. 

On February 27, 2002, in the Godhra train tragedy, 59 people (mostly kar sevaks, or right-wing Hindu volunteers) were burnt alive. 

Following which, more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were massacred in what came to be known as the Gujarat pogrom. 

On March 3, during the Gujarat riots, in a village near Ahmedabad, 21-year-old Bilkis Bano, who was five months pregnant at the time, along with her three-year-old daughter Saleha, her mother, and other members of her family were brutally attacked by Hindu fanatics, killing many, including little Saleha. During the assault, Bilkis was gang raped by twelve of those men.

In January 2008, a Special Court sentenced eleven of the accused (one died during the trial) to life imprisonment on charges of gang rape and murder.

In May 2014, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government came to power, making him the 14th prime minister of India.


This August 15, prime minister Modi wanted India to fly 200 million flags to celebrate the country’s 75 years of independence.

Fly the tricolor from that village in Gujarat where Bilkis Bano was raped; from other impoverished countryside huts, city skyscrapers, slums, from atop taxis and auto rickshaws, little tea stalls and what have you. From every food-insecure nook and drought-ridden cranny, fly that symbol of freedom. That was Modi’s vision. 

He must’ve been very proud of his people. The flag could be seen flying not only from all these places, but also from space! That’s right. “Space Kidz,” a “small team of young scientists working from Chennai” were behind an effort to fly the flag far, far away from the violence and gore of India on the ground … in space.

And on August 15, amidst all the tricolor fanfare, something else happened. The Gujarat government set free Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh — the eleven rapists who destroyed Bilkis Bano’s life.

Welcome to Indian democracy, where Independence Day is celebrated by freeing rapists and murderers; and on other days, throwing the country’s fighters for accountability and justice like Teesta Setalvad, and Rupesh Kumar Singh, among other lawyers, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, students, academics, and opposition leaders into jail.

“I have one request for every Indian. Can we change the mentality towards our women in everyday life? Pride of Nari Shakti (women’s power) will play a vital role in fulfilling the dreams of India! Respect for women is an important pillar for India’s growth. We need to support our Nari Shakti!” — Narendra Modi, August 15. 

There are some lyrics from a song that come to mind whenever Modi opens his mouth: 

Idiot wind

Blowing every time you move your mouth

Blowing down the back roads headin’ south

Idiot wind

Blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot, baba

It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe. 

Well, we have one request of you, Modiji. Can you shut up and let the country’s women like Bilkis Bano breathe?


Two days ago, on August 15, 2022, the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again. When I heard that the 11 convicted men, who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my three-year-old daughter, had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb… Today, I can only say this — how can justice for any woman end like this? — Bilkis Bano, August 17, Sabrang

JatiIndia: Flag of Atrocities Caste, Present and Future is a continuing series that features a face of resistance to systemic injustice in the center of a modified Indian flag. The color orange in the flag symbolizes long-existing casteism, now made more open and feverish by resurgent Hindutva politics; blue — a color historically adopted by the Dalit movement — here honors all of JatiIndia’s and occupied Kashmir’s resisters of supremacy and injustice; the bottom green bar embodies the subcontinent’s ecological foundations, which are endangered by the ideology of extractive capitalism and defended by the country’s Adivasi (indigenous) communities and others, including Kashmiris resisting occupation. The circular image in the center, replacing the flag of India’s Dharma Chakra (Wheel of Law) signifies the view through the crosshairs of a saffron (Hindu nationalist) gunsight.

The blue strip in the middle of the flag is done in chain-stitch embroidery, illustrating the long chain of atrocities that have been carried out by the country over the years on Dalits, Kashmiris, Adivasis and other minorities. Each blue stitch, of which there are many thousands in the blue strip, represents a face of resistance to systemic state and upper-caste violence.

Flags of Resistance so far include: Thangjam Manorama, March 8, 2021; The Farmer We See and the Farmer We Don’t, March 6, 2021; Munawar Faruqui, February 13 2021; Masrat Zahra, January 9 2021; Manisha Valmiki, December 24, 2020; Anand Teltumbde, December 13, 2020; Ram Chander Chhatrapati, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh, Shantanu Bhowmick and Kancha Ilaiah, October 16, 2017; the sang-bazan, Kashmir, August 15, 2017; Gujarat, March1, 2017; Teesta Setalvad, February 10, 2017; Kashmir, December 21, 2016;Vinay Sirohi,Shaista Hameed and Danish Farooq,Lingaram Kodopi, March 29, 2016; and Rohith Vemula, March 29, 2016.

Brown, Peltier, Melaku-Bello, Abu-Jamal, and Assange

Lost Yet connected in Time, Part 1

No, because the face of a little girl in Bangladesh, or a little boy in Cambodia, and the thought of a nuclear blast going off close enough to them for them to lose their life, is enough. Again, this is a love letter. This is a love letter to all the civilians of the planet. — Philipos Melaku-Bello, in response to a question from Jacob Morgan of Slate Plus about whether he had ever thought about ending his now-41-year-old anti–nuclear vigil outside the White House gates. 

It’s Time: a work in progress; pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

In conjunction with Stan Cox’s “In Real Time” monthly dispatches with City Lights Books, I am working on an artwork titled “It’s Time,” starting with a central image and adding drawings that expand the work outward, in concentric ovals, tracking the pivotal events of the next two years, month by month. As part of “It’s Time,” I am also including images that portray people and events that have been either deliberately or lazily almost lost to the popular historical imagination but are still very much part of and connected to the existential kismet of the inhabitants of this heating Earth.

These portraits of human persistence are not actually lost, of course; rather, they serve as connecting threads to the present state of things. Both Tariq Ali and Gore Vidal wrote about this hole-in-history phenomenon and gave it their own labels: respectively, “The Extreme Center” and “The United States of Amnesia.”

The dark center of the overlapping clocks is perhaps where the lost in time yet connected have always been. 

These threads, frayed and forgotten as they are, must be acknowledged for their timeless place in history, and repaired. Because if we fail to do that, we can’t move forward in creating a fairer, more just world. Reparations and justice are part of the same tapestry. Justice for the past goes hand in hand with justice for the present and future.

The first five portraits that I’ve placed in this dark center of the “It’s Time” series are those of John Brown, Leonard Peltier, Philipos Melaku-Bello, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Julian Assange. 

If you notice, all of these five men, aside from having been thorns in the side of a state machinery that would rather they disappear from the annals of a dark, white-elitist history, happen to also have long gorgeous hair and/or beards. As if now there’s physically more of these five men for the state to disappear. In this age of unrestrained, ecologically destructive growth, the one kind of growth I can wholeheartedly support is this nonviolent, defiant growth on the face and scalp!

Stan and I live in the heart of the conterminous United States. And as we all know, this heart was beating fast and hard on August 2nd when Kansans flocked to the polls and voted no on an amendment that would have stripped women of their right to an abortion. All eyes and ears of the country and the world were on Kansas that evening as the results were coming in, and we demonstrated via the ballot box that women’s rights are human rights. 

John Brown

But this wasn’t the first time that Kansas voted “No” on a moral issue of great consequence. On August 2, 1858, 164 years to the day before the abortion referendum, Kansans voted down a ballot initiative that would have legalized slavery in our then-territory. Which brings us to the first of these portraits, that of John Brown, who carried out his militant abolitionist action in Kansas in the three years leading up to the slavery vote, the era of “Bleeding Kansas.” Brown said “No!” to slavery and was hanged for it in December, 1859, a year before his vision was partially achieved and Kansas was finally admitted to the Union as a free state.

Leonard Peltier

We all know of Leonard Peltier, America’s longest-held Indigenous political prisoner, who was wrongly convicted of the deaths of two FBI agents in June 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, was there that day protecting his people against the white supremacists of the time and was handed two consecutive life sentences for it. Many witnesses whose testimony was used to convict him later admitted that FBI agents had coerced them into lying. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton considered granting clemency to Peltier, but he was hounded by hundreds of FBI agents marching pathetically around the White House, so that put a stop to that.

It is quite possible that Philipos Melaku-Bello was present at the north side of the White House that December day as the agents marched. But how many of us have heard of him? I certainly did not know of him until this past Juneteenth weekend when Stan and I went to DC to join the Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. After the march, we saw Mr. Melaku-Bello and what he calls his “makeshift tent” outside the White House fence. He sat in a wheelchair wearing a Rasta cap and Freedom Bus Riders t-shirt, surrounded by human-rights and earth-rights photos, posters, and mementos going back decades. He had a needle and thread and was darning a black pouch adorned with pink and white hearts. 

Philipos Melaku-Bello

Just beside him was a poster on which the number ‘40’ had the ‘0’ whited out and replaced with a ‘1’, thereby announcing, “41 YEARS 24/7 ANTI-NUCLEAR PEACE VIGIL. Surviving thru: Rain or Shine; thru Hurricanes; Sleet; Hail; Blizzards; Tornados; H1N1; Coronavirus; 3 BLM Closures. Holders of the 24-Hour Permit for the Black Lives Memorial Fence.”

Philipos told us that he’s been sitting there since 1984, manning the William Thomas Memorial Peace Vigil, which was established in 1981. He has volunteers that help him maintain the vigil day and night. But the Feds are waiting, he emphasized in an interview with Slate Plus. “They’re waiting for it to be abandoned by way of snowfall, blizzard, hurricane…That’s the way it can be taken away, by abandonment.”

To me that 4-by-4 foot area that Philipos legally occupies holds within it everything that the moneyed elite of the post-industrial world have had a hand in perpetuating, to the point of no return. Everywhere I looked in that small square I saw messages and images seeking justice for the earth, the “civilians of the planet,” for Peltier, for Indigenous, and Black and Brown people, for Palestinians, for the poor, for the countless victims of war and displacement, and yes, for Mumia Abu-Jamal and Julian Assange. They were there too.

Mumia Abu-Jamal

We know that Mumia will be free. We just want to delay Mumia’s release as long as possible. — Maureen Faulkner, wife of Daniel Faulkner speaking at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5.

Mumia’s fight for justice has been going on since 1981, the year Philipos’ anti-nuclear peace vigil was established. He has been appealing for a new trial in the shooting of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner since then. Just a couple of days ago I got a newsletter from Mumia supporters at Prison Radio, which read that “the current delays are a tactic designed to prevent justice and delay accountability… Fighting to keep Mumia in prison is all about limiting exposure. It is all about preserving the fiction that decades of mass incarceration prosecuted by former Philadelphia police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo and former governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell are not tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct. The goal is to prevent the white hot spotlight on Philadelphia’s long sordid racist history.” Having had double bypass surgery in 2021, Mumia has a life-expectancy of 5 years. He will be back in court on October 19.

The United States uses the whole earth as a petri dish for its bottomless extractive and exploitative pursuits and leaves people like Brown, Peltier, Melaku-Bello, Abu-Jamal and Julian Assange, respectively, with a noose; 45 years behind bars and counting; a 4×4 not-to-be-abandoned liberated space; 41 years behind bars and counting; and a possible jail term of 175 years for exposing U.S. war crimes to the world.

Julian Assange

“What they couldn’t tolerate was when Julian Assange was sent video footage which showed an Apache helicopter in Baghdad killing civilians. Ordinary people. That is the principal reason, the exposure of war crimes that caused outrage especially in the intelligence agencies of the United States. — Tariq Ali, AlJazeera, August 15.

Was it any coincidence that Assange was clutching a book titled ‘Gore Vidal: History of the National Security State’ in his hand as he was being physically dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London and into a police van in April, 2019? He was trying to send a message. Is it a coincidence that Melaku-Bello was sitting there like a cuddly Rasta Buddha repairing an old pouch? Maybe it was a subconscious message telling us that we need to repair the present and the past for a fairer, more just future.  

Whether it’s criminalization of abolitionism or criminalization of abortion, it isn’t hard for one to connect the dots of time to see a pattern emerge. A pattern extinguishing any sparks of accountability for the status quo.

According to the IPCC, actions we take in the next ten years will largely determine whether a future catastrophic heating of the Earth can be prevented. Given America’s apparent descent toward control by an authoritarian regime friendly toward the fossil-fuel industry and hostile toward any form of 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. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Death by hanging for being an abolitionist; 45 years and counting for being Indigenous; an open air jail cell for a non-violent civil disobedience vigil; 41 years and counting for being Black; and possibly 175 years for exposing war crimes. That’s American justice for you. And how many years does the state give the earth for exposing climate crimes? We’ll know in less than two years won’t we?

This Is No Time for Climate Complacency

Monthly Dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 5

With a melting of all the Earth’s ice cover, the coastline of eastern North America would retreat dramatically

The Inflation Reduction Act is being hailed by the mainstream climate movement, Congress members, and the media as the most important climate bill in U.S. history. That’s a pretty low bar, and it says more about our government’s long record of failure on climate than it does about whether this law can prevent dangerous temperature increases in coming decades.

The lion’s share of spending in the IRA is directed toward producing new capacity for generating and distributing energy and for developing new technologies that consume energy. There is only small funding for environmental justice, affordable housing, and insulation. And it doesn’t mandate a reduction in use of fossil fuels. Indeed, rather than shutter gas- and coal-fired power plants, the government will reward them with subsidies or tax credits if they keep operating and capture the emissions. And rather than ban further drilling for oil and gas on federal lands, the bill guarantees that plenty of new oil and gas leases will be issued. 

But wait! There’s more! In exchange for his essential “yes” vote on the IRA, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) extracted the promise of a second bill that would streamline the permitting of energy infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines and coal mines. Manchin’s chief aim in this new bill was ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Gas Pipeline through his state of West Virginia. Once in use, the pipeline will be responsible for 90 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, while imperiling hundreds of streams and wetlands.

IRA boosters claim that the emissions prevented by the IRA will far outweigh the emissions that its pro-fossil-fuel measures will engender. That assertion rests on economic modelers’ speculative assumption that the new law will work through market forces to steeply reduce the use of fossil fuels. In fact, the IRA contains no provisions for a direct, surefire phase-out of fossil fuels; therefore, no one can guarantee that it will reduce emissions by 40 percent. Yes, our society is better off with the IRA having passed than we would be without its passage. But if we don’t find a way to snuff out fossil fuels, directly, on a crash schedule, the climate emergency will only intensify. 

Why Climate’s Off the Stovetop

General excitement over the IRA has not dispelled a heightening sense of dread and discombobulation throughout our society. The weather’s going haywire. Representative government and human rights are under increasingly violent threat from extremists, many of them public officials. States are stripping away women’s right to bodily autonomy. The economy of the 1970s has returned, and systemic racism never left. 

Humans can pay close attention to only so many crises simultaneously, so we perhaps should not be surprised that several surveys show climate change falling lower on the list of public concerns. To make matters worse, passage of the IRA may engender a dangerous new sense of complacency on climate: “Oh, good! That’s one problem solved!” 

All of this prompted me to speak with some perceptive climate writers and activists who continue to urge that movements unite across issues to confront all of these crises—including climate—all at once, however daunting that prospect may be.  

Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She has written seven books, most recently Is Science Enough?: Forty Critical Questions about Climate Justice and Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, both from Beacon Press. When I asked her about the seemingly perverse, widespread apathy about climate, she said, “I think there’s still a strong sense that, oh, well, our institutions are going to take care of it. OK, maybe that’s the case with issues like abortion or gun violence that seem to have very clear and simple solutions that can be solved by our elected officials, if we just elect the right people.” But, she noted, greenhouse-gas emissions are deeply embedded in myriad ways throughout society and can’t be eliminated without a thoroughgoing transformation—and most politicians are allergic to that idea. 

“To me, there’s no candidate who has an adequate platform on climate anywhere in the United States. So, as a voter, why should I rank climate as an important election issue? I’d be much more likely to vote for someone who’s going to protect abortion rights, because that’s something where I actually see there’s a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.” With that kind of calculus driving opinion-poll responses, Chomsky says, “I don’t think it necessarily means that people don’t care about climate.” 

(This difference in tractability between climate and other issues was illuminated a few days after Chomsky and I spoke, when my adopted home state, deep red Kansas, voted in a landslide to defeat an amendment to the state constitution that would have stripped away the right to an abortion. Needless to say, the probability of such a sudden, dramatic victory on eradication of fossil fuels is microscopic.)

I also spoke with Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and the author of fourteen books, most recently Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (New Society, 2021). “Our ability to act at scale,” he said, “is being hampered by all this other stuff. Suddenly all these crises are coming at us from all these different directions. So doing something really big and long term [about climate and our transgression of ecological limits] gets pushed not just to the back burner, but off the stovetop altogether.” 

Heinberg said that in the 1970s, when some environmentalists were arguing that industrialized societies cannot be sustained over the long term without deep transformation, the environmental establishment’s response was, in effect, “Oh, well, we can’t really do all of that.” Therefore, he recalls, “Legislative efforts to fix the unsustainability of industrial society devolved down into little projects to target this area of pollution, or clean up that toxic waste site or whatever. I think the general idea was that all these little efforts would eventually add up to something major, which they really haven’t done.” Now, a half-century later, the political establishment remains stuck in “little efforts” mode.

Liz Karosick, a visual artist and climate activist with the group Extinction Rebellion in Washington, D.C. (XRDC), agrees that the urgency of fending off an array of political and human-rights disasters has, at least temporarily, kept climate in the background. “It feels like all of this is splintering us further in a lot of ways, because you have all of these specific problems that are intersectional and all feed back into one another. It’s like they’re just trying to keep dividing us. And that’s the last thing we need right now.”

We Don’t Have to Accept This

There could be a twist, though. The fact that we are seeing so much of what we value being imperiled all at once can be energizing. Says Karosick, “All of these threats are under the umbrella of an unjust system. It fundamentally has to be changed. And that’s why, with Extinction Rebellion, we’re disrupting business as usual.”

Chomsky also believes, based on her experience as a historian of Latin America, that cascading crises shouldn’t inevitably trigger despair and apathy. “Our culture of acceptance of capitalism,” she says, “just doesn’t exist in the same way in the formerly colonized countries; they see very clearly how much exploitation occurs in the capitalist system, whether it’s exploitation of labor, of land, of peasants, or of the natural world.” She believes that “the kinds of comforting myths about how capitalism works” that permeate our society just don’t work as well in regions like Latin America. And that opens up other, better routes to the future in those regions.  

“How,” for example, she asks, “have Latin Americans united and brought about fundamental social change, either through armed revolution, or through the ballot box, or through some combination thereof? And why does the left seem so much stronger, even when they’re in much more dangerous, difficult circumstances than the left in the United States?” 

Chomsky offers one answer: “In Latin America we see the real strength of peasant movements, indigenous movements, African-descended movements, peasant struggles for land against a corporate dominated economic model. You know, every Latin American revolution has had strong peasant participation. And every Latin American government has confronted the peasant struggle for land, which is a class struggle. And it’s a global struggle, because they’re struggling against not only local elites but also global corporations. That’s something we don’t have here in the U.S.” 

Karosick thinks she may see a ray of light through the gloom, even in the U.S.: “At this year’s Juneteenth celebration in D.C., one of the organizers was talking about how before Covid, there was so much momentum. So many people working across organizations, something really building, and then Covid really just took the wind out of the sails. But it’s interesting—there’s now a general sense that these relationships are coming back together, across organizations.” 

That same weekend, at the June 18 Poor People’s March on Washington, Karosick says, “You had all of these hundreds of groups coming together. And across the climate movement, specifically in Extinction Rebellion, we are joining with local residents and marginalized people who are being affected disproportionately by the climate crisis. There are definite opportunities to unite, and we’re definitely starting to sense that this is happening.”

Useful Pessimism?

In his recent writing, Heinberg has argued that in the affluent world, the ecological crisis is in part a result of what he terms deadly optimism. He described it to me this way: “We’ve now had seventy years or so of extreme optimism. Our public discourse has been dominated by the idea that we’re always going to enjoy ‘more, bigger, and faster’ because that’s good for business. But now we’ve reached the point where we can’t continue down that road. And a lot of bills are coming due from that era of excessive optimism—climate change, but lots of other things, too. So suddenly, we have a kind of pervasive pessimism sweeping society.” 

For decades, Heinberg has been warning of what he’s now calling a “Great Unraveling.” In his book Power, he writes that in recent years, in his private conversations with scientists and activists, a common theme is that an unraveling looms in our near future. “We understand that a lot of our institutions are going to fail,” he told me. “We’re going into a difficult time and we’re going to have to adapt. But we have to be determined to exclude the worst possible outcomes.”

If, instead, we were to “just give up on doing whatever they can to make things better, if we were to spend all our effort only looking out for ourselves, the result would be a dystopian nightmare.” The best alternative to either deadly optimism or fatalistic pessimism, he says, is “sort of like what psychologists call ‘defensive pessimism.’” Those folks chose an extraordinarily unappealing term, so Heinberg has suggested alternatives, including “useful pessimism.” But whatever we call this stance, he suggests, “the motivating ideal . . . might be stated as ‘respecting limits and living well within them.’”

Chomsky also advocates for channeling pessimism constructively, and that, she believes, will require even more on-the-ground organizing: “I almost feel like we don’t even have enough of a critical mass in this country to engage in serious protest. We should be focusing on building that critical mass. In Witness for Peace, which I worked with a lot in Colombia, every time we had a protest or other activity, the question was, what’s the ask? In Latin America, street protest has been criminalized, yet massive street protests occur nonetheless. And they generally have very clear and coherent asks. And they’ve often been successful. If we achieve the critical mass, and if we have a coherent ask, we can do it, too.”

“Even though it looks grim, and it is grim for many already,” says Karosick, “every degree of warming we can prevent matters. So we can’t let up.” Pointing to a Yale University survey finding that 28 percent of voters would support nonviolent civil disobedience by climate groups, Karosnik said, “That’s huge. There is a sense that people are starting to get really frustrated with the government’s inability to do anything with this crisis, and are willing to push them harder. I think people are very aware of what the problem is,” and, she says, they’re coming to realize that “nonviolent civil disobedience is a mechanism to get the government to pay attention and to make change.”

Regarding movements like the Poor Peoples’ Campaign and Extinction Rebellion that are striving for critical mass and do have very clear demands for systemic change—even against what could be the longest of odds—Chomsky was reflective: “Yeah, I think we have no choice but to push harder despite everything, on two grounds. One, because even if it seems impossible, we’re making it impossible if we don’t do anything. And two, because we just have to. Even if there’s no hope of success, we still have to, if we’re to live with ourselves.”

Kansas Trusted Women

CODEPINK Sidewalk Gallery of Congress, August 1st, 2022

“There is something deeply immoral when you would be willing to use your power not to give people universal healthcare, not to protect a woman’s reproductive rights, not to provide people living wages, not to provide people voting rights. But you get up in the morning and say, the best use of my power is to give a rapist more power over a woman’s body than she has. You think the best use of power is to give somebody who commits incest more power over a woman’s body than she has. The best use of your power is to use it to give death more power over a woman’s body than she has. That is not a proper use of power. That is an abuse of power and we have to challenge it.” — Rev. Dr. William J. Barber 11, Co-founder of the Repairers of the Breach and Poor People’s Campaign, at the Planned Parenthood protest in D.C., June 30.

The “Vote Yes” side screamed at us that we wanted to kill babies. Their skillfully branded mother-and-child logo and cynical three-word slogan “Value Them Both” were everywhere here in Salina, Kansas. Always the same cozy white-on-purple image and soothing words on yard signs and banners, as if they were My Pillow or Hobby Lobby. On weekends, they would occupy street corners. Just a half-dozen or so actual humans accompanied by a much larger number of stars-and-stripes flags (almost certainly made in China) flying in the crazy Kansas winds (which are quickly going climate-change crazier).

To our forced-birth crusaders, a woman, a fetus, and a live child are commodities, like wheat or soybeans. The higher the yield, the higher their value.

But that’s not all we witnessed here in Kansas in the months since a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the banning of abortions was plopped onto the August 2 primary ballot. Diverting our eyes from the fields of purple and white ‘Vote Yes’ eye-candy, we could see lots of ‘Vote No’ messaging. It was bold and personal, visual and colorful, creative and diverse.

We had an outpouring of signs, banners, voices, stories, costumes, and slogans. Everywhere you looked, it was different, and original. Each ‘Vote No’ rally on the sidewalks and streets had its own energy. Here in Salina, we saw an array of brilliant homemade signs: 

July 24 rally, Abiline, Kansas.

Abort the patriarchy 

Not your incubator

Mind your own uterus 

It won’t stop at women! 

Separate cooch and state

Free vasectomy!!! for men who vote yes

This body is not a political battleground 

Sidewalk Gallery of Congress, election eve rally, outside Ad Astra Books and Coffee House, Salina.

Vote yes to destroy constitutional rights

Forced birth? Sounds like an alien invasion to me!

Not voting for women’s rights is small-dick energy 

Vaginas brought you into the world, and vaginas will vote you out!

and my favorite one: We are not livestock!! 

At one of our ‘Vote No’ rallies, I heard a women shout at us from her car that “Killin’ babies is irresponsible.” Agreed, but the premise of her statement was a delusion—a talking point that Republican operatives first ejaculated into America’s highly fertile evangelical movement in the 1980s.

Election eve rally.

Life does not begin at conception. But in the U.S., violence does. To treat a woman’s body like it’s a high-yielding 160 acres of Kansas farmland is irresponsible. And it’s violent. To not give a hoot about the health and well-being of a born human is violent. To criminalize miscarriage is violent; to make a woman feel so afraid that she would rather tie her tubes than bring a child into this unjust world is violent. To have a U.S. Senator as cruel and ruthless as Roger Marshall—Kansas’ mini-Trump, who likes to call himself “Doc” but believes in neither science nor democracy nor good health care for all—is violent.

But we showed ‘em, not with violence and Old Glory and branding, but with peace and color, and with our bodies and voices. We showed ‘em with two words, “Trust Women.” That was the motto of Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kansas abortion provider who was assassinated by a forced-birth extremist in 2009. 

On another momentous August 2, thirty-two years ago, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States launched Operation Desert Storm. Activist friends Janice Norlin, David Norlin, and Stan Cox rose up against that war; this was back when I still lived in India. They have been organizing and protesting United States’ illegal wars and regime-change interventions since the 1980s. But from Central America to the Gulf War to the forever-wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to systemic racism to the latest assault on the rights of the half of our population who can be compelled to give birth, nothing much had changed for the better here in Kansas. Until now.

July 30 rally, Salina; video by David Norlin.

As we got closer to election day here in Salina, there were more frequent rallies, and the honks and solidarity shouts from passing cars got louder and longer. Not just thumbs-ups. People were hanging out of windows and leaping up through sun roofs. We thought to ourselves, “We might have a fighting chance to defeat this thing.” But we did not anticipate this. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined this landslide victory, not only in Kansas as a whole, but even here in little ol’ redder-than-red Saline County, where “Vote No” passed 55-45. Kansas voters sent out a clear message: We are not barnyard animals. 

Stan and I, and Janice and David, have protested one goddamn unjust law and policy after another for decades, fighting the same fights over and over again, and losing. But no, not this time. Not on this August 2. We did it. We won, and won big.

Art matters, not so much on walls indoors, but on the streets and sidewalks, in full public view. With that in mind, in 2018, I established a peaceful space of community art-making and dissent called Sidewalk Museum of Congress, located in front of the office of Kansas’ then-1st District Congress member, Roger Marshall, in Salina, Kansas. Over time, it came to be a place for free expression and for the peace community to gather spontaneously and interact with the general public. Now, four years later, when so-called American democracy is being hollowed out, one U.S. policy victim and one climate-chaotic day at a time, CODEPINK, Kansas is replanting seeds of justice for the victims of US empire, greed, patriarchy and fanaticism, in a new location and under a new name Sidewalk Gallery of Congress. So, who says Kansas is flat? Come, join us on the sidewalk, and let’s continue to plant pink-seeds of justice together.

Confronting “Policy Murder” and the Rising Violence of the Right

Monthly Dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 4

On Juneteenth weekend, tens of thousands of people walked up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol as part of the epically titled Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. (Priti Gulati Cox and I traveled via Amtrak from Kansas to join in.) Although we were following the footsteps of a mob that had stormed the Capitol seventeen months earlier, this march embodied the polar opposite worldview. At the rally ending the march, Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Rev. William J. Barber II made that clear, saying that the event was not a violent insurrection but rather “a resurrection” of people power against violence.

Like its namesake led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign is working to end the violence being inflicted every day by a soulless economic-political system. The night before the march, at a somber, tearful vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial, marchers gathered to mourn the victims of the past two horrific years, including more than a million Americans dead of Covid-19, along with countless more deaths from poverty, systemic racism, militarism, and ecological degradation. Rev. Barber solemnly declared this tide of death, mostly preventable, to be a case of “policy murder” that must be stopped.

A day earlier, the campaign’s other co-chair, Rev. Liz Theoharis, also decried the violence being inflicted on Americans, telling members of Congress that

 Any nation that chooses not to lift 140 million people out of poverty and low incomes, any nation that chooses to disenfranchise voters, to withstand the greatest attack on voting rights since right after the Civil War, any nation that allows the poor to be hurt first and worst by ecological devastation and the denial of healthcare . . . is issuing a declaration of war on the poor.

The decisions that tumbled out of the Supreme Court soon after Juneteenth also qualify as “policy murder.” By cramping the government’s ability to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, a six-justice majority set a precedent that will lead to countless more deaths from heat, fire, flood, and storms. By striking down firearms regulations in New York, they hamstrung efforts to stem the tide of gun violence. And by snatching away the half-century-old right to an abortion, they rendered millions of women vulnerable to grievous harm, bodily and otherwise. 

“safe haven” drop box: During oral arguments in the Dobbs abortion case last December, Justice Amy Coney Barrett highlighted “safe haven” laws in some states that would relieve women of the “consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood” if they are forced to give birth. In some states, “safe haven” comes down to a baby drop-box. Wisconsin, where the state Supreme Court has blocked the use of drop boxes for ballots, has a safe haven law but without baby drop boxes. 

These decisions foretell that the Court will likely do further violence by eliminating many other fundamental rights of individuals and striking down regulatory laws crucial to the public’s well-being. The six reactionary justices are immune to the will of the people and can be thwarted only by kicking or keeping their enablers out of Congress at the polls this fall.    

Show Up Armed”

The Poor People’s Campaign aims to mobilize poor and low-income voters from all races, ethnicities, and faiths to defy violence in all of these forms. So it’s doubly dreadful that this fall, voters, as well as election officials, are likely to face a heightened threat of violence at the polls. 

Last month, the House January 6 committee hearings highlighted the abuse now being endured by the people who keep the electoral system going. Perhaps most appalling was the testimony of Georgia election workers Wandrea’ “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman. When Donald Trump falsely accused them by name of scanning fake ballots in 2020, they were bombarded with death threats, many of them racist. Moss had to change her appearance, go into hiding, and work remotely. She finally left her job in April and is still suffering harassment

Election workers across the country, fearing for their safety, are resigning in droves. Often, they are being replaced by people who are willing to subvert the vote. A nationwide survey found that one in six election officials has been personally threatened, and one in three knows a fellow official who resigned because of threats. 

Jayland Walker was shot and killed by Akron, Ohio, police on June 27, 2020. More than 90 rounds were fired at Walker, who was unarmed at the time.

The election-year metaphor “battleground states” is threatening to turn grimly literal. I was shocked to learn that today only seven states and the District of Columbia ban guns from polling places. With the rise in violent rhetoric and gun violence that’s been occurring since the 2020 election, voting sites and vote-counting centers are bracing for increased violence in November. Officials are worried because of folks like Mike Detmer, a contender for the Michigan state senate in the August 2 Republican primary. He told a meeting of prospective poll workers in January, “The ideal thing is to do this peaceful, that’s ideal, but the American people at some point in time, if we can’t change the tide, need to be prepared to lock and load. So, if you ask what we can do, show up armed.”

In a panoramic, chilling July 6 article, Rachel Kleinfeld, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace laid out how the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other violent “militias have been embraced by GOP leaders at the national, state, and local level,” including in Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, California, Arizona, Wyoming, Florida, and Nevada. Having studied the rise of party-linked militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Nigeria, Colombia, and other countries, and the bloody consequences, Kleinfeld warns that “Even if Trump passes from the scene, the embrace of violence and intimidation as a political tactic by a faction of the GOP will cause violence of all types to rise—against all Americans.”

As scary as all of this sounds, it’s unlikely that Republicans will try to take power solely through force. If our side loses elections in 2022 because we have low turnouts, it will more likely be attributable to a collective sense of powerlessness than a fear of violence. Accordingly, the Poor People’s Campaign has kicked off a nationwide, four-month-long effort to register and energize low-income communities to vote “in historic numbers for our ancestors, for our children, and for the generations to come whose lives and planet are under threat today.”


At a June 17, 2022, vigil at the Lincoln Memorial, marchers gathered to mourn the victims of the past two horrific years, including more than a million Americans dead of COVID-19, along with countless more deaths from poverty, systemic racism, militarism, and ecological degradation. People added names of the dead to a Covid-19 and Poverty Memorial Wall.

A big turnout in November 2022 by America’s pro-justice, pro-Earth majority is indeed essential to prevent the nation from drifting further toward fascism. While electoral victories alone can’t resolve our predicament—the past two years have taught us that—they can buy time necessary for a national movement to coalesce and regain the path toward multiracial, pluralistic democracy. The Poor People’s Campaign could spark such a movement. Almost 400 “mobilizing partners” from the mainstream and typically apolitical to the deeply radical came together for the June 18 rally to address a spectrum of crucial issues (Priti and I were there with CODEPINK, the women-led group working to end U.S. wars and militarism.)

 “Expressing Themselves with Two Tons of Metal”

Activists for poor and low-income communities are all too accustomed to the violence that is routinely inflicted by racist and right-wing elements—and, of course, by law enforcement. So, it’s not only election-related violence that must be overcome; nonviolent protest in the public square will increasingly be met with violent backlash from the extreme right and repression from the state.     

Approximately 6 percent of respondents to a national poll taken by the Public Religion Research Institute in April 2022 lamented the increasing diversity of America’s population and also agreed with this statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Taking the poll’s margin of error into account, the results suggest that this is the position of 10 to 20 million Americans. Some of these people are already demonstrating their willingness to commit violence against nonviolent people whom they consider the enemy. They include the U-Haul truck full of Patriot Front thugs who were apprehended before they could attack a Pride event in Idaho and the lone racist gunman who massacred ten Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo.

Because the June 18 Poor People’s march and rally had a permit, D.C. police completely blocked off a long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. Marchers and rally-goers were free to exercise their constitutional rights on a vast open field of hot asphalt. I thought back to May and June of 2018, on the fiftieth anniversary of the original Poor People’s March, when Priti and I had joined the campaign in a couple of rallies and civil disobedience actions in Topeka, Kansas. Actions included blocking traffic at major intersections near the state capitol. The campaign had not obtained a permit, but police swooped in to reroute cars and trucks anyway. Dozens of us lay in the crosswalks for hours until police finally got us up and issued traffic citations. The many drivers whom we inconvenienced were, for the most part, very patient, some even supportive. Only a lone pickup driver got a bit aggressive. 

It’s hard to imagine things playing out that way these days. Starting in 2020, when Americans surged into the streets after police killed George Floyd, protesters have been facing much higher risk to life and limb. Last year, an analysis by the Boston Globe found that between May 2020, and September, 2021, U.S. motorists slammed into groups of protesters at least 139 times, causing 3 deaths and at least 100 injuries. The assaults continue. “You’re going to have people coming in and expressing themselves with two tons of metal on wheels,” a transportation security expert told the Globe. “That’s part of the landscape now.”

In June, 2022, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a man plowed his pickup into a group of women protesting the Supreme Court’s overturn of the Roe v. Wade decision. In this image, the driver is just about to hit the gas, striking the women in front of the truck and driving over the ankle of the woman at the side of the truck with her back to us.

Just last month in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a man plowed his pickup into several women protesting the Supreme Court’s overturn of the Roe vs. Wade decision. He drove over and broke one woman’s ankle. Iowa, like Florida and Oklahoma, passed a law in the wake of the 2020 protests heightening penalties for protesters while immunizing drivers who run into or over protesters—if they claim to have been fleeing in fright. Police did not immediately charge the Cedar Rapids assailant. Meanwhile, police across the country violently attacked groups of people who dared turn out to protest the Court’s abortion decision.

Legal experts worry that the Supreme Court’s strikedown of New York’s gun law will also chill nonviolent protest. When protesters or counter-protesters carry guns, demonstrations are about six times more likely to turn violent. That intimidating prospect discourages turnout. Yet the gun-toter at a protest scene, like the vehicle driver, is getting increasingly favorable treatment. The defense team for Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two men as they were protesting in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020, argued illogically but successfully that he acted in self-defense. Rittenhouse feared, they said, that if he did not shoot the protesters, there was a chance that one of them would snatch his gun away and kill him. This dangerous illogic—that my gun makes you a deadly threat—is often used to protect cops who shoot unarmed people, and now it has been applied to white, right-wing, civilian vigilantes as well.

Long Odds Call for Longer Vision

A pro-Earth, pro-democracy, pro-economic justice, anti-racist, anti-war transformation was already a long shot long before the rise of MAGA world, and the chief impediments haven’t changed. For climate, it’s the system’s insistence on unlimited economic growth. For Black lives and voting rights, it’s the elected and unelected public officials who continue to benefit from a racist, undemocratic system. For closing the vast economic gap between the few haves and the many have-nots, it’s the haves, with their massive political power.

Today, those obstacles may appear insurmountable. So why do the Poor People’s Campaign and other movements keep pushing against these longest of odds, even as the threat of violent retaliation escalates? Why don’t they just figure out how to adapt to life in an unacceptable system? They press on because long odds don’t equal impossibility. Introducing a must-see gallery of “48 protest photographs that changed the world,” in the July 2 Guardian, George Monbiot writes, 

Protest is not, as governments like ours seek to portray it, a political luxury. It is the bedrock of democracy. Without it, few of the democratic rights we enjoy would exist: the universal franchise; civil rights; equality before the law; legal same-sex relationships; progressive taxation; fair conditions of employment; public services and a social safety net. . . And we will continue to come out in defiance, as people have done for centuries, even when facing state violence and repression. Everything we value depends on it. 

At a time when rights hard-won in past struggles are being wrested away from us, we can draw strength from the knowledge that if people-power has prevailed in so many such struggles before, it can prevail again.

The People vs. Petrocracy

Monthly Dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 3

It’s Time: a work in progress; pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

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.  

If current Indigenous struggles against fossil-fuel infrastructure in North America prove successful, they will prevent an annual quantity of carbon emissions equivalent to nearly one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions. Here, law enforcers mete out brutal treatment to water protectors during one of those struggles, at the Standing Rock reservation in 2016.

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. 

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. 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’s built into the city’s public transit; their struggle is for both justice and climate.

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.

The ‘In Real Time’ Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onslaught of the Oily Authoritarians

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real time: Chronicle of a Fate unknown, Part 2

“I think for me the struggle to defend the truth is a precondition for defending our democracy, and the struggle to defend our democracy is a precondition for taking the effective action that needs to be taken in order to meet the climate crisis in a serious way and turn it around.” — U.S. House member Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol

It’s Time: a work in progress; pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

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? 

A modern-day Janus helped sink voting-rights and climate legislation in 2021-22: Sen. Kirstin Sinema (D-AZ) / Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)

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.” 

the Yin’s been Yanged

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.

Some oily authoritarian state legislatures are seeking to restrict voting by mail or strictly limit the numbers of polling places and ballot drop boxes per city or county—even to a single one per county—putting long distances between many voters and their right to vote.

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.”

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.

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.

Internal-Combustion Politics

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.  

Rollin’ coal : “’Rollin’ coal’ means retro-fitting a diesel truck so that its engine can be flooded with excess gas, producing thick plumes of black smoke. Coal, which is not actually burned, functions as a symbol of industrial power expressed as pollution. The truck becomes its own mini-factory, complete with belching smokestacks; the driver becomes a coal baron. . . Instagram has over 300,000 posts on two of its largest rollin’ coal streams, while tens of thousands of user-generated videos show (mostly) men blasting smoke at bikers, protesters, and hybrid cars, especially Priuses, as ‘Prius repellent’ against hybrid cars that have become widely recognized as symbols of green consumerism.”  – Cara Daggett, “Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire”

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. 

Corporate-backed carbon pricing and technological climate fixes do not impede the growth of fossil fuel use or greenhouse emissions.

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.

Sally and Nelson Benally of the Navajo Nation are among many residents of tribal lands at risk of being poisoned by toxic pollutants from idle wells drilled long ago by oil and gas companies.

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. 

T-Junction Ahead

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 1

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.

It’s Time. Pen & Ink on vellum embroidered on canvas.

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.

According to the IPCC, actions we take in the next ten years will largely determine whether a future catastrophic heating of the Earth can be prevented. Given America’s apparent descent toward control by an authoritarian regime friendly toward the fossil-fuel industry and hostile toward any form of 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. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

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.

Our nation has arrived not at a crossroads but at a T-junction. There’s no path leading straight ahead. 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.

Washington, DC, January 6, 2021

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.”

Minneapolis, May 25, 2020

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.

Resource consumption (especially of fossil fuels) and material production have been increasing sharply over the past century, with severe impacts on climate and the overall health of the ecosphere. Little time is left to turn the situation around. It will be equivalent to making a U-turn in a tanker truck hurtling down the freeway at 80 miles per hour.

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.

Vanessa Waddell was an elections official in Floyd County, Georgia, in the heart the congressional district represented by the far-right diva Marjorie Taylor Greene. After the nonpartisan county election board was dissolved in 2021 and replaced by a “Greene- wing” majority board, Waddell, a 27-year veteran of election work, lost her job to a partisan operative.

 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.

This essay was originally published by City Lights Books as part of its In Real Time” series. Listen to the In Real Time” podcast  for the spoken version of the series and to the Anti-Empire Project podcast. Also see the evolving In Real Time” visual work by Priti Gulati Cox. Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is the author of The Path to a Livable Future (2021) and The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020), both also published by City Lights.