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Rancher Bundy and His Cows in ‘A Visit to the Big Apple’

Tom Tomorrow

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Why the Campaign Against Keystone XL Still Matters

Keystone XL Earth Day protest

Riders on horseback in front of the Capitol building on April 22, 2014. A coalition of Native Americans and ranchers launched a five-day protest against the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday. (Zoë Carpenter)

A few years ago, it would have seemed implausible that a group of Midwestern ranchers and Native Americans would gather on the National Mall in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, as they did on Tuesday. Not because the union is so unlikely, but because the pipeline’s approval seemed all but certain.

“We bring you pickles from the heartland,” said a farmer in a red baseball cap, extending a jar to a Native American elder. At his feet lay other gifts—jewelry, blankets and more homemade preserves—exchanged between members of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, a coalition of ranchers, farmers and Native American tribes leading a weeklong protest against the Keystone pipeline.

“All farmers and ranchers and Native Americans are environmentalists, because without the water and the land we have nothing. It’s our livelihood,” said Mike Blocher, who raises Quarter horses in Antelope County, Nebraska, on land TransCanada has claimed for the pipeline route. “If that oil runs out on my land, my grass is gone. My water’s gone. My farm ground is gone. My livelihood is gone. And what will they do? Say, ‘Here’s a few bucks.’”

Later, riders on horseback made their way down the National Mall towards a cluster of teepees, which will be the hub for other action throughout the week: traditional water ceremonies to highlight the threat the pipeline poses to water resources like the Ogallala aquifer; an undisclosed “bold and creative action” at the White House on Thursday; and a rally on Saturday that organizers expect to draw several thousand people.

Earth Day may be a shadow of its initial self, but there is still something vital in the anti-Keystone campaign, the most significant environmental movement in the United States today. No other campaign has drawn as much attention to the issue of climate change. Few environmental causes include such diverse stakeholders, from major green groups to ranchers concerned about property rights, to indigenous leaders to urban residents worried about pollution from refineries at the pipeline’s end point. Still, there is a growing tendency to trivialize the decision about the pipeline, as The New York Times did in an article on Tuesday that pointed out that the greenhouse gas emissions from KXL would amount to “an infinitesimal slice of the global total.”

The campaign against Keystone isn’t ultimately about the impact of a single infrastructure project. The link between the pipeline and the future climate is indirect—the real point is the campaign itself. While the outcome of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule-making process for carbon emissions from power plants may make a bigger contribution to the climate fight in absolute terms, there is no single law or decision that can “solve” the present crisis. Besides, it’s hard to imagine people chaining themselves to the White House fence while advocating for stricter bureaucratic standards.

The first Earth Day illustrated how popular movement precedes political action. The 1970 demonstrations brought out some 20 million Americans, seemingly spontaneously. Within four year the agencies and legislation that undergird all of the environmental protections that matter today became law: the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to name a few.

Now, one of the most needed regulations is a tax on carbon—a way of making fossil fuel companies pay for damage caused by their product. Such a tax could provide funds for badly needed investment in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure while creating some incentive to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We know 80 percent of discovered reserves need to stay there if we want a chance to keep warming below the two degree Celsius threshold scientists say is critical. As Chris Hayes writes, this is essentially asking energy companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth.

Currently the path to regulation of this sort is politically impassable. But the anti-KXL campaign, with its ability to stoke energy and build diverse coalitions, right now looks like one of our our best chances to provoke the political shift necessary for more radical change.

The decision about the pipeline does itself matter, however. Given the overwhelming sense of paralysis, it’s easy to forget that inaction is a choice. We are electing a future of massive suffering. What Keystone illustrates so well is that we—the public and policymakers—make decisions about our climate future in any number of ways, both large and small, every day. Whether we drive or bike; whether we seek out modest ways to live or consume as much as we can afford; whether we drill deeper in search of profits or walk away from them. Many of these actions don’t feel like choices, and all of them are trivial in isolation. Together, however, they are the sum of our fate.

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The scale of climate change is such that all “solutions” will be inadequate and imperfect. Rejecting Keystone isn’t a solution, but it would be a signal that the easy cycle of business as usual can be disrupted. That radical choices can be made, the kind that have nothing to do with buying a Prius instead of an SUV. That even as the avenues to democratic participation are closed off, there is still power in popular protest.

It was the idea that Keystone XL was inevitable that seemed most to bother Mike Blocher, the Quarter horse rancher. “They are just saying ‘this is the way it’s gonna be,” he said. “People say, ‘Why don’t you just take the money and run?’ Well, Nebraskans don’t take the money and run. We stay put.”

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, where air pollution often reaches dangerous levels. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

According to a study conducted by researches at the University of Minnesota, nonwhite people (black, Asian, Hispanic), regardless of income, are exposed to higher levels of air pollution than white people. John Metcalfe at the Atlantic Cities reports: “On average, non-white people inhale 38 percent higher levels of air pollution than whites, they say. If non-white people were brought down to the levels of pollution enjoyed by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease in their communities each year.” This, despite the fact that nonwhite people contribute less to air pollution than white people.

I tend to focus most of my time at this blog writing about issues related to racism, but have somehow skipped over environmental justice. Intellectually, I know that climate change is the most important issue facing us all. If the planet isn’t habitable, there will be no fight over how we allocate resources. Yet it feels like such a distant problem when faced with pervasive violence, food insecurity, disproportionate poverty rates, mass incarceration, etc., knowing that those things are killing us right now and the fixes are relatively easy, when compared to battling climate change.

But our environment—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fuel that powers us—is inextricably linked to every other issue we face. As this new study shows us, environmental justice is a crucial aspect of anti-racism work in the United States. Not only that, the fight for our environment is a fight for oppressed populations across the globe. It is the land that we stand on that is most in danger of disappearing.

We’re running out of time. The gravity of the situation requires that we all do our part. Of course there are other supremely important issues that require our attention. This doesn’t mean we drop everything. Our brains can hold more than one thought at a time, our actions can be multifaceted. It does, however, mean that those of us who haven’t been paying enough attention to climate change can no longer take for granted that others will do the work. It’s time for all of us to show up.

Let this Earth Day be the beginning of a new commitment.

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

If Rick Weiland Can Say ‘No’ to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama

Rick Weiland

Rick Weiland, Democratic candidate for one of South Dakota's two US Senate seats.(AP Photo/Dirk Lammers)

Phase IV of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project would, if approved and constructed, cut across the state of South Dakota from its northwest corner through hundreds of miles of ranch land to the Nebraska border. If all the promises of jobs for workers and protection for the environment that have been made by Keystone proponents were well grounded, there’s good reason to believe that Rick Weiland might be on the forefront of efforts to get the project up and running.

Weiland’s a rural-state Democrat seeking to hold a Senate seat that has been in Democratic hands since 1997. It’s a hard race, where the pressure is on to appeal across lines of partisanship and ideology in a state that has not backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Political pundits would, no doubt, make excuses for Weiland if he finessed the Keystone debate with a politically convenient bow to Nebraska legal deliberations and ongoing assessments of the potential impact by federal agencies—as the US State Department did with its just-announced delay of a decision on whether to approve the $5.4 billion initiative.

But Weiland, a former congressional aide and regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has a long record of balancing economic and environmental concerns. And he is not prepared to avoid the issue.

The Democratic contender declares flatly, “I’m opposed to it.”

Like the members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance of ranchers, farmers and tribal communities from along the pipeline route, which this week is rallying in Washington to urge the administration to reject the Keystone XL proposal and protect the environment, Weiland has sorted the issue out in practical terms.

“[There are] huge environmental impacts,” he said in a March interview during a visit with members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe on the fourth-largest Indian reservation by land area in the United States. “You look at what it takes in terms of the extraction of the oil and the energy that is consumed to do that, the transportation—the fact they have to heat the tar sand up so it becomes almost liquefied—through a pipeline that crosses over precious water resources like the Ogallala [the shallow water table aquifer that underlies portions of South Dakota and seven other states] and the potential for the damage that could occur, and the fact that we’re not really getting anything for taking on that risk. I think that in and of itself is reason not to build it.”

Weiland notes that because the Keystone project is an export pipeline, “very little if any of the oil, tar sand oil, that’s going to be coming through South Dakota is going to stay in the United States. Most of it is going overseas.”

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At the same time, he expressed doubts about the suggestion that the project would create jobs. “The last report I read, which was put out by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) basically said we’re talking about thirty-five full-time jobs, permanent jobs, and we don’t even know how many of those are going to be in South Dakota. And the 2,000 that it’s going to take to build the pipeline, those are temporary jobs,” Weiland explained to Sustainable Dakota’s Tasiyagnunpa Livermont.

The Obama administration continues to wrestle with the Keystone issue. There are now suggestions that the wrestling could extend until after the November election. That’s earned the president criticism from Republicans such as Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, who called the delay “a stunning act of political cowardice.” And from Democrats such as Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who chairs the committee and called the delay “irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable.”

At the same time, opponents of the pipeline are frustrated and concerned. “Keystone XL poses a grave risk to our land, water and climate, and breaks long held treaties, and President Obama still has an opportunity to do the right thing and reject the pipeline,” argue activists with the Cowboy Indian Alliance’s “Reject and Protect” campaign. “But he won’t take it unless we commit ourselves to principled action and push him to step up.”

The president and his aides and appointees undoubtedly feel pulled in many directions.

In the end, they must make a choice.

And in doing so they would be wise to consider the reasoned position of Rick Weiland, who says that “what you end up having at the end of the day is an awful lot of risk associated with the construction of this and the potential for impacts on the environment and very little reward, and that’s why I’m opposed to it.”

 

Read Next: Taking on the fossil fuel industry will require a new abolitionism.

We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date

Smokestack

(Reuters/Sukree Sukplang)

It is a maxim in American politics that oil and gas companies are among the mightiest forces in Washington, second perhaps only to the big banks. They block any kind of meaningful action to reduce the country’s consumption of dirty energy; they enjoy billions in public subsidies—and they even put oil men in the White House.

That is no doubt true. But what’s remarkable is how little the industry actually has to spend to keep DC under control. This table from the Center for Responsive Politics shows the top oil and gas industry contributors in 2013 and 2014, as crucial midterm elections approach. In total, the top twenty contributors spent $6,222,245:

Sometimes that number can be much higher. The industry spent at least $153 million against President Obama in 2012; lobbying and donations costs the industry $536 million for the 112th Congress.

There are few Americans who could muster that kind of spending. But for the oil companies? It borders on trivial. North American oil, gas and coal companies generate $271 billion in profit each year. So take even the highest-end number—$536 million to influence Congress in 2011 and 2012—and compare it to the profits the industry generated over those two years. The money spent on Congress is around .09 percent of those profits.

So picture an American earning the median income—if he or she was able to control Congress as easily, it would cost $31.

Exact spending can be hard to pin down, and the real spending may be higher than what we can quantify, thanks to the millions no doubt pouring into undisclosed groups. But the fundamental point is, the oil industry can control our politics for but a fraction of its wealth.

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The payoffs are garish. The industry gets as much as $52 billion in taxpayer dollars back every year in the form of federal subsidies, which is many magnitudes higher than the amount the industry spends to buy Congress. Most of the subsidies are not challenged, as this graphic from Oil Change International shows:

And beyond this direct largesse, the industry benefits by continuing to operate freely. In a sane world, the people living on a rapidly warming planet would scale back the production of the dirty fuel that’s causing the problem. Surely there’s been some progress around the margins—but by and large, the industry still controls our politics. It barely costs them a thing.

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Earth Day’s Founding Father

Gaylord Nelson

The late Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson (AP Photo/Mark Hoffman)

Gaylord Nelson had been a Democratic senator from Wisconsin for six years when he developed the idea for Earth Day in 1969. Originally conceived as a “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment” at colleges and universities across the country, April 22, 1970, was selected to be the celebration’s first day because it conveniently fell between spring break and final exams on most campuses.

The impetus for creating such an event came to Nelson because, as a student and politician and activist, he’d kept his eyes open. He once described the results of timber exploitation in his native Wisconsin North Woods, writing that loggers had come into the white pine forest and “wiped it out in an eyewink of history and left behind fifty years of heartbreak and economic ruin.” As Wisconsin’s governor between 1959 and 1963, Nelson watched municipalities shower their residents with DDT. Upon becoming a senator in 1963, he wrote to President Kennedy, “There is no domestic issue more important to America in the long run than the conservation and proper use of our natural resources, including fresh water, clean air, tillable soil, forests, wilderness, habitat for wildlife, minerals and recreational assets.”

Three planks of Nelson’s activism stand out. First, and perhaps most important, Nelson actually had an environment for which to fight. That is to say, he was able to experience the pristine majesty of places like the North Woods before the logging trucks moved in. (Today’s younger activists must use a book to picture a pre–Exxon Valdez Prince William Sound, tomorrow’s will need Google to look at the pre–Deepwater Horizon Gulf.) For Nelson, though, the “before” and “after” of environmental degradation sat right in front of him in stark contrast. As our contemporary assault on the environment continues apace, we risk losing any sense of that we might have had of “the way things were,” which breeds cynicism, apathy and further destruction. Across the country—at the irradiated wastelands surrounding Washington State’s Hanford Site, for example—we’re encountering more and more situations in which the best we can hope for is “less awful”—and even that standard is slipping towards “less catastrophic” or “not lethal.”

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Second, the media tools for Nelson’s activism existed. Writers, that is, wrote; activists staged actions; and robust progressive media made sure that the American people knew about it. During his time in state politics—first as a three-term state senator, then as governor—Nelson was inspired by the writer-activist Aldo Leopold, whom he met and whose Sand County Almanac (1949), today part of the canon along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), motivated his conservation initiatives. He developed the idea for the National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment after reading an article in Ramparts magazine about the inroads that teach-ins about the Vietnam War were having, an example of the importance of ideas that progressive media (like The Nation) can engender, provided they have a clear voice and dedicated audience. Progressive ideas flourish in the presence of other ideas; cross-pollination, like Nelson’s brainstorm to apply antiwar techniques to the environment, is necessary to ensure a continuous evolution of thought and dialogue.

Finally, Nelson recognized the power he commanded as a US senator. He was, after all, an insider, part of the most exclusive club in America, and he used his power to leverage the federal government into action. As evidenced by the legislation he sponsored—including the creation of a national hiking trails system and the Wilderness Act of 1964—Nelson conceived of the US government as a facilitator of, for lack of a better term, the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence. When it comes to saving the environment, the pluck and intellect of a handful of inspired actors are not enough. Nelson recognized that only the federal government had the wherewithal to create a true national framework for conservation; this was not something that well-funded private enterprise (which lacked the motivation) or well-meaning activism (which lacked the funding) could do on their own. Unlike today’s government-is-the-problem attitude espoused by too many lawmakers, Nelson rightly saw that, at least in this case, government was one of the few players capable of creating a solution.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day

Arctic sea ice

A NASA satellite image shows the state of Arctic sea ice. (Reuters/NASA)

It’s hard to feel hopeful when contemplating climate change. I’ve found it increasingly difficult as I’ve become the father of two children. Both the science and the abundance of money on the denialist side make for a pretty grim picture. But there is another perspective, seen though countless inspiring signs of people recognizing and grappling with the impact of climate change. Only history will tell how sufficient the response but, for now, I want to highlight some of the heroes of the climate change movement, which at least on my better days, lend me hope that my children will inherit something salvageable.

1. Student Divestment Movement
There’s a tired trope that the students of today are politically apathetic, too busy branding themselves on social media to care much about the real world and their actual place in it. I’ve found this to be patently false and we hope that the StudentNation blog is a daily reminder of the deep dedication young people are showing to social justice, economic equality and environmental responsibility. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the burgeoning student campaign for divestment from fossil fuel companies. More than 400 campuses currently have campaigns and six schools have already pledged divestment. As many critics have rightly pointed out, this movement, even if broadly successful, still would lack the economic impact necessary to radically change corporate behavior. This is totally true but there’s a broader benefit in the way these campaigns make it much harder for individuals and institutions to ignore climate. And it can’t hurt to have children of the elite go home for holidays with nagging questions that make their parents’ business-as-usual lives less comfortable.

2. 350.org
350.org was founded with the goal of uniting climate activists into a movement, with a strategy of bottom-up organizing around the world. Activists in 189 countries have organized 350.org’s local climate-focused campaigns, projects and actions. In India, organizers have mobilized people to speak out against the country’s dependence on coal for growth. In the US, the group has campaigned to divest public institutions like municipalities and universities from the fossil fuel industry, to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and to press for environmental regulations to be included as part of international trade agreements.

3. Idle No More
Idle No More, a group of largely Canadian Native North Americans, was born in the fall of 2012, when Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper pushed a law, known as C-45, through Parliament rolling back both environmental protections and indigenous peoples’ sovereignty in order to make the country’s tar sands easier to exploit. Resource extraction projects, like the tar sands, often hurt North America’s indigenous populations more than anyone else. In protest of C-45, the group organized rallies in major cities across Canada. A leader of Idle No More, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, sparked a six-week-long hunger strike and protesters blocked rail lines and highways. International recognition and awareness of the issues followed, and the group continues to push back against environmental degradation and social injustice on numerous fronts.

4. Union of Concerned Scientists
The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded during the Vietnam War at a teach-in at MIT to protest the US government’s militarization of science. At first, the group organized against nuclear proliferation and around energy issues, but today, the bulk of the UCS’s work focuses on climate change. The organization is responsible for groundbreaking research on sustainability standards for vehicles and the disastrous affects of climate change globally and continues to function as an intellectual bulwark against lavishly funded denialist junk science.

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5. The Super-Rich are Waking Up
Billionaire investor Tom Steyer recently announced that he’s planning a $100 million push to make climate change a key issue in the 2014 midterm elections. He’s also been been a major voice of opposition to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Even Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, has been outspoken in his calls for climate action. No social movement can ever rely on the 1 percent, but increasing enlightenment among the global class of super-rich investors doesn’t hurt the cause.

6. Global Power Shift

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Paper Towel

One of the more creative uses for a paper towel (psyberartist/Flickr)

I’ve been using paper towels a lot—a lot—more often lately, and every time I do, I feel a spark of guilt. It’s wasteful, bad for the environment, I know, but I’ve been sick lately, so I need it. I figure that paper is more sanitary than the cloth towel that’s been sitting out for days. (I can understand the woman with sick kids who said on the radio, “Thank god for paper towels.”)

But I’ve also been destroying groves of trees for reasons that have nothing to do with health or hygiene. Paper towels are easier; there’s a slight satisfaction when the perforated seam rips just right, and when I tear off a piece, I’m participating a little bit more in America and its corporate pleasures. To ignore your worries about waste is itself a kind of pleasure, and for a moment, I imagine that Sarah Palin isn’t scorning me as a wimp mom-pants green do-gooder. That bright white, clean slate of a paper towel momentarily wipes my politics clean enough to join the ranks of both corporate and red America.

My guilt and good sense usually win out over such ridiculous pulp fictions. I recycle and, in the summer, I compost. I try my best to boycott the long list of Koch-owned household products, like Stainmaster carpet and Lycra, that have invaded the world. (So no Brawny paper towels or other Georgia-Pacific products in my house.) I bring my own shopping bags.

But… I eagerly stock up on plastic shopping bags, for the kitty litter. I get a lot of take-out and, not always bothering to track what’s recyclable and what’s not, I throw out tons of plastic containers and unused knife and fork sets. Water? I often forget and let it run and run.

And I rationalize: I’ve never been a purist, I tell myself. We’re all a little corrupt. As long as I’m pointed in the right direction, that’s good enough. Excuses and small daily denialisms course through our minds as much as fire retardants, pesticides, BPA, phthalates and PFOAs (the magic ingredient in Teflon) course through our bodies.

It is comforting, after all, to think that everything is OK. In fact, only since writing this have I dared look into the dioxins that are a byproduct of the chlorine used to bleach paper towels and tissue.

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Corporations depend on our rationalizations: it absolves them of doing anything wrong and it creates guilt-free consumers. That’s why they run all the ads that tell us, “What, you worry?” Falling back on wasteful or toxic products not only has its perverse pleasures, but it can seem “natural,” especially if those products are featured in ads with wild animals and awe-inspiring landscapes.

So of course it’s better not to go with the corporate flow. But if you sometimes do, mop up the excess with old rags.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change

The Runge reservoir in the town of Runge, Chile suffers from a drought

The Runge reservoir in the town of Runge, Chile, suffers from a drought (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

There is a brutal conundrum at the heart of the fight against catastrophic climate change: when people grasp just how dire things are, they’re as likely to hunker down as to rise up. Maybe more likely.

A haunting New York Times Magazine story from last weekend demonstrates this. It’s about Paul Kingsnorth, a onetime environmental activist who has essentially given up, devoting himself instead to a multifaceted project of grief and survival called Dark Mountain. “Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth told writer Daniel Smith. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”

What Kingsnorth did was draft an apocalyptic manifesto, titled Uncivilisation. “It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality,” he wrote. “There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us… Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.”

“Uncivilisation” is not a practical plan of action. Rather, it’s a call for a new artistic and literary movement meant to grapple with life amid the coming ruin. “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side,” wrote Kingsnorth. “We suspect that by questioning the foundations of civilisation, the myth of human centrality, our imagined isolation, we may find the beginning of such paths.” Meanwhile, as the Times story says, he and his family have moved to rural Ireland, where they plan to grow their own food and develop the skills their children will need to survive in a hotter world.

In some ways, Kingsnorth’s story is an old one—he is, after all, hardly the first charismatic visionary to withdraw from society amid visions of the end. What makes it new is that there’s nothing supernatural or even all that improbable in his predictions. Plenty of sensible people are similarly alarmed. The science writer Jared Diamond, for example, recently put the odds of human civilization surviving another 100 years at 51 percent—a terrifyingly thin margin of optimism. Indeed, the only people offering assurance that everything is going to be fine are the climate change denialists, who are either ignorant, mendacious or both.

It would be nice if this sense of desperation and imminent peril were galvanizing, but in general that’s not how people work. We’ve long known that fear leads to conservatism. As a 2008 paper in Science puts it, “[T]he degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.” When liberals get scared, they move rightward. “Fear makes liberals more conservative, and even authoritarian,” the science journalist Chris Mooney wrote in his book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality. “Just make them mortally afraid, and they’ll become much more inclined to support decisive leaders and crackdowns on civil liberties.”

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This dynamic affects how people process news about climate change. When faced with threatening messages about the environment, one group of researchers found, people will either try to control the external danger or the internal fear. “If the external danger—in this case, the impacts of climate change—cannot be controlled (or is not perceived to be controllable), then individuals will attempt to control the internal fear,” the wrote. “These internal fear controls, such as issue denial and apathy, can represent barriers to meaningful engagement.”

As tempting as it is to sneer at the fear/conservatism connection, it’s also not hard to understand. I feel it myself—when I think about the loss, breakdown and chaos that climate change could portend, I’m filled with mute despair, and far more concerned with protecting my son than saving the world. (It’s why I ordinarily never write about the subject, even though its import eclipses everything else.) Fear narrows the vision and makes us provincial. What is desperately needed is a credible source of hope. If anyone out there manages to find one, they will have taken an invaluable step towards beginning to conserve the world.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

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