ONE OF THE conceits of modern life is that it’s always going to work out, always going to be okay. Indeed, it’s going to be better than it ever was. But the world is testing that idea.
When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico—its buzz-saw eye ripping from one end of the island to the other—it changed almost everything in the course of a few hours. Gone were airports and roads. Eighty percent of the island’s crops were destroyed—think of that. Almost all the cell towers: There were profound images of groups of people standing in fields where the few remaining transponders would catch a signal, desperately trying to phone friends and family. Electricity was suddenly a thing of the past, and in places likely to stay that way for six months or a year. And when you lose electricity—well, there goes AC, not to mention ice. The concept of cold disappears for a while. Modernity retreats.
OF ALL THE unlikely battles still to be raging, the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline has to be about the unlikeliest.
It was a long shot in the summer of 2011, when the national fight really began. Though a hardy corps of ranchers in Nebraska were already battling, and though Indigenous activists in Canada had been spreading the word about its source in the tar sands, it was all but unknown on a national basis.
I HAD A REAL New York City sojourn on a recent weekend, one that reminded this longtime country dweller how sweet the city can be.
It began on Friday night at the IFC Center downtown, watching a premiere screening of the pilot of the new HBO series The Deuce, which is set on 42nd Street in 1971. Though I didn’t get to New York until the early ’80s, the street scenes in the show were familiar—the grit and violence and general decay lingered at least through the crack years of the mid-1980s; when I left New York, 42nd Street remained a canyon of porn theaters and massage parlors. (The Deuce, by the way, is brilliant—Maggie Gyllenhaal is unforgettable as the complicated lead.)
WE ARE TOLD, in the classic story of Oedipus, about the king who managed to bring devastation to his city and family, a king who, when he finally learned the truth of his crimes, blinded himself.
I thought of that epic tragedy when I read of one decision by our current ruler, one event amid all the dozens of others. And this one was less immediately tragic—it didn’t involve pulling an immigrant with a brain tumor out of a hospital for deportation, nor forcing transgender Americans to produce a birth certificate before they pee. No, this tragedy will play out over a longer time.
In early March (and, of course, late on a Friday afternoon), his new team at the Commerce Department announced that they intended to cut the climate satellite program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 22 percent. They proposed a lot of other terrible cuts the same day: virtually zeroing out the environmental justice programs at EPA and cutting the environmental education budget by 94 percent. But the one that future historians will, I think, obsess over is the satellites.
Consider: In the last few months, we’ve learned that 2016 set the all-time record for the hottest recorded year on planet earth. We’ve seen, over the last few years, the highest wind speeds ever recorded in one ocean basin after another, as record-hot water produces amped-up hurricanes. An iceberg a quarter the size of Wales (not a whale—Wales) is about to break off from the Larsen Ice Shelf in the Antarctic. And we’re going to blind ourselves? We’re going to start paying less attention?
AS WE ENTER this new Trumpish world, I’ve been thinking a lot about civil disobedience. I had the honor of delivering the first lecture in honor of the late Jonathan Schell two nights after the election, and used the occasion to reflect on his masterwork Unconquerable World, with its confident belief that the era of violence was passing and that nonviolent action was the right way for the “active many” to beat the “ruthless few.”
This jibes with my own experience of the last few years. Helping to organize big protests like the ones that launched the Keystone pipeline fight, or watching in admiration as friends galvanized the country around Standing Rock, has convinced me that these techniques continue to represent our best tools for change.
On the one hand, disobedience may be harder in the Trump era—it may come at a higher price, as the zealot officials he’s appointed crack down.
But civil disobedience may also be more important than ever, especially the civil part. Because what we are battling now is not just corporate power and shabby oligarchy. It’s also a galloping incivility, the verbal violence and crudity that marked Trump’s campaign and his days of preparing for the presidency. It’s the “alt-right” ugliness of Breitbart’s white nationalism; it’s the constant barrage of nasty tweets. None of it looks like anything we’ve seen before from a president, and all of it, whether by design or not, hacks at the bonds that hold us together as a nation.
If we respond to that in kind—with the same sort of anger and snarl—then we play into the hands of the Steve Bannons of the world. They’re always going to be better at it, just as they’re always going to have more weapons.
AS SUMMER drew to a close, one of the great dramas in the planet’s ongoing environmental uprising erupted in a remote place, the Standing Rock Sioux reservation that straddles the border of North and South Dakota. The Army Corps of Engineers had approved plans for “fast-tracking” the Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry crude from the Bakken shale of North Dakota west to Illinois and then south to Gulf refineries. The pipeline was mostly on private land, and the company had gotten most of the necessary approvals from pliant state officials—but it had to cross the Missouri River somewhere.
The original plans had called for that crossing to happen just above Bismarck, a mostly white North Dakota city. But there had been concern about what would happen to the town’s water supply in the event of a leak, so the map had been redrawn, to take the pipe across the river just above the Sioux reservation. And the Army Corps had signed off on the plan—even though three other federal agencies, including the EPA, had raised serious objections. Just another day in the ongoing saga of environmental injustice that haunts this nation.
Except that this time something unexpected happened. The local Sioux said no: They erected an encampment blocking access to the construction work. And their message spread: White environmentalists joined them, as well as a crew from Black Lives Matter, but mostly other native Americans poured in, from all across the West—representatives of as many as 200 different tribal nations, according to reports. Chief Harry Goodwolf Kindness of the American Indian Movement commented that it has been well over a century since people from so many tribes had engaged in such joint action. “First time since the Battle of Greasy Grass,” he said, “so it’s been a long time.”
WE LURCH FROM ecological crisis to crisis, all of them real: So far this year we’ve seen the sickening collapse of much of the Pacific’s coral in a 10-month blitz of hot ocean water; we’ve watched a city of 90,000 evacuated ahead of a forest fire so big it was creating its own weather; and we’ve witnessed the earliest onset of widespread Arctic melting ever recorded. And so on.
All of these need urgent responses—the fire company has to report for duty. So it’s been sweet to see activists doing civil disobedience on an unprecedented scale around the world and increasingly putting the fossil fuel industry on the defensive. We’ve got to turn the tide soon.
But “soon” and “urgent” and “emergency” are words that can blind us as well—keep us from seeing the deep roots of problems and solutions. So it is a very good thing that we have some folks who don’t scare easily. I’m thinking in particular of Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, who keep patiently pushing the most deeply (and literally) rooted piece of legislation I know of, the 50-year Farm Bill.
The Kansas geneticist and farmer, and the Kentucky writer and farmer, begin with the premise that roots are important. Our industrial agriculture has plowed up the perennial crops that once covered the continent (and the planet) and replaced them with high-yielding annuals. All that wheat and corn feed us cheaply—and lead to dead, eroding soils that, among other things, can’t soak up much in the way of carbon. So Jackson, at his Land Institute, has spent the last decades crossing annual and perennial crops. The goal is nothing less than grains you don’t need to replant every year—grains that will grow deep, tangled roots into the prairie soil, feeding us and restoring a desperately needed balance.
FOR THOSE PAYING attention, this has been a fairly terrifying winter and spring. And I don’t just mean the presidential election. I mean that the signals we’re getting from the natural world indicate we’re crossing thresholds much more quickly than expected.
February, for instance, was the most anomalously hot month ever recorded on the planet, crushing all records. The world had pledged in Paris in December to try to hold global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius—well, February was just about at that level already.
The elevated temperatures were especially noticeable in the Arctic—for long stretches of the winter the region as a whole was as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit above average. (Christmas Eve was almost 50 degrees warmer than normal at the North Pole). Not surprisingly, this meant the lowest levels of Arctic sea ice ever recorded by late March.
Meanwhile in the Antarctic, new data showed that sea level may be set to rise far faster than expected, as the great ice sheets start to slide into the ocean—the water could go up by meters in the course of this century, which would make the defense of most of the world’s great cities a nightmare.
WE SPEND, in the Christian tradition, a fair amount of time meditating on Mary as she waited to give birth.
But maybe this month it would be a good idea to meditate on the millions of women around Latin America and the Caribbean who are waiting to give birth—and doing so in a state of quiet panic.
Health ministers in countries such as Jamaica, Colombia, and Brazil were telling their (enormous) populations to avoid becoming pregnant. To avoid reproduction. To avoid the most basic task of any species. In El Salvador, the health minister said it would be at least 2018 before it would be safe to get pregnant. Think about that.
The culprit is a new disease, the Zika virus, which is mainly spread by mosquitos.
Not quite new, actually—it was found in Africa decades ago. But it’s migrated to South America, perhaps during soccer’s 2014 World Cup. And it appears to be having an entirely new effect. Though innocuous enough to those who catch it (flu-like symptoms so mild that most people don’t even know they have it), it appears linked to a truly horrendous set of birth defects. In a normal year, Brazil has a couple of hundred cases of microcephaly, an incurable birth defect that may result in intellectual disabilities, seizures, and reduced life expectancy. In 2015, that number suddenly jumped to 4,000, and the best guess is that the Zika virus is the culprit.
TWO RECENT news items: 1) A new U.N. report finds that over the last 20 years, 4.1 billion people have been injured in extreme weather events—the floods and forest fires that are proliferating as the climate warms. The report adds that the total will keep steeply climbing in the years ahead.
2) Two teams of investigative journalists, following separate document trails, proved in the course of the fall that Exxon—now ExxonMobil, the world’s most profitable company—had known everything there was to know about climate change 25 years ago. And then lied about it, helping to set up the elaborate infrastructure of climate denial that has prevented serious international action on global warming.
I don’t know how to keep these two things in my head at the same time without giving myself over to hatred. I know I’m not supposed to hate, and much of the time I’m able to work on climate change without losing my cool. I can meet oil industry executives, understand the problems that make it hard for them to move quickly; I can and do sympathize deeply with coal miners and tar sands miners whose lives will be disrupted as we take necessary action.
But for Exxon? There have been hours, reading these reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News, when I’ve just found myself in a blind rage, unable to comprehend how people—professed Christians, most of them, in that Texas hotbed of Christianity—could act this way. Their scientists told them quite straightforwardly that burning coal and oil was heating the planet and that it was going to be disastrous. By the mid-1980s, before any politician was talking about climate change, they had good computer models indicating (correctly as it turned out) how much the earth would warm. And they believed those predictions—they helped guide their actions in places like the Arctic, where they were bidding for leases in waters they knew would soon be free of ice.
But they also knew that serious action on climate change would cost them money—would force them to start switching their business from fossil fuel to renewable energy. And so they went to work, helping to set up front groups that hired veterans of the tobacco wars to open a new front of obfuscation. Their CEO, Lee Raymond, gave a speech in Beijing in 1997 insisting that the climate models were hokum, and that the earth was cooling.
THE POPE'S “climate change encyclical,” Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), is actually far more than that: It is the most remarkable religious document in a generation, offering a powerful and comprehensive worldview that is consonant with the Bible and hence profoundly countercultural. You owe it to yourself to take a few hours and read it slowly and carefully; you’ll be enlightened, but mostly, if you’re like me, you’ll be reassured. Reassured that someone powerful in this world actually sees our time for what it is, and understands the crises facing our planet for what they are.
Near the beginning, for instance, the pope discusses the “rapidification” of life, the sense that “the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity.”
That’s as useful a description of the last 100 years as we’re likely to get, that sense of life out of balance. It affects the poor, yes, and the pope is always most mindful of the poor—but it also affects everyone. The ever-more-technologized world we inhabit no longer makes us happier. It makes us stressed.