Tag Archive: ecopolitics


“clean” coal

Today is National Coal Ash Action Day, as MountainJustice.org reminds us — see the information there on what you can do about it. Meanwhile, Climate Ground Zero reports on a fascinating case unfolding in West Virginia’s coal country, where tree sitters have halted blasting of a mountaintop by Massey Coal company.

Climate justice folks have taken the old growth forest protection movement’s most direct form of direct action to a place where it’s clearly about justice, not just trees (as so many have documented, and as Google Earth provides plenty of photographic evidence of). A petition to halt the blasting can be found here. (And reading the comments can be a blast as well.)

One of the things I like about that video, incidentally (and ironically), is that it sounds like a piece of ambient drone music by someone like Nurse With Wound or Zoviet France being performed as if it were one of R. Murray Schafer’s outdoor concerts, on location where it counts. Except that here the horns are being played by real live mining company truckers. And what becomes clear here is that music can be dangerous — a force of violence, not merely to oneself (when subjecting one’s eardrums willingly) but to others. Like a lot of art that comments on atrocity, however, the sonic blasting is only a prelude to the physical blasting that awaits the landscape, or a kind of homeopathic substitute for it if the tree sitters succeed in stopping it from getting to the more destructively physical stage.

Meanwhile, President Obama, despite all the good things in his speech last night (which I generally liked a lot, and which helped renew the feelings of admiration I’ve had for him all along), worryingly continues to dither on the energy issue, speaking not only of “clean coal” as if it actually existed but of off-shore drilling and a whole “new generation” of nuclear plants, and not even mentioning sustainable energy once in a speech that should have been a programmatic reframing of reality. I understand (as I think one of the MSNBC commentators mentioned last night) that he was aiming, in part, to take the wind out of any possible response by Virginia’s governor, who gave the Republication response afterward. But please, we need more pressure on the folks in Washington…

Here’s an interesting piece on the use of GoogleEarth and GoogleMaps to disclose the reality of the 450+ mountaintops removed to access coal deposits in the United States:

climate rage

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Just a quick follow-up to the previous post…

After the East Anglia flare-up, Paul Krugman was right to ask what fuels the rage behind climate denialism. Anyone who has perused any popular web site on environmental and climate issues will be struck both by the numbers and the utter vehemence of the denialist community. Looking at their own web sites is even more disconcerting (I won’t draw your attention to them; they’re easy enough to find).

One of the things that fuels this is, of course, that it’s well funded by the fossil fuel lobby (we’ve known that for years). Another is simply the organic totality of the American right, the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, for whom climate change has become a hinge issue, just as abortion and gay marriage have been for some years now. Krugman puts it down to anti-intellectualism and “mommy party” politics — “Real men punish evildoers; they don’t adjust their lifestyles to protect the planet” — which sounds a little like George Lakoff’s argument about red staters’ “strict father” politics versus blue staters’ “nurturant mother” (which he later changed to “nurturant parent”) politics, an oversimplification that captures something, but misses more.

Identity, however, is clearly an important piece of it (as the Identity Campaigning blog knows), which is why global ecopolitics is now at least as much a matter of communication, image production, and cultural activism as it is of science or policy formulation.

Asked by an old and dear friend what I make of the recent “Climategate scandal,” I thought I’d do a quick check on sources summarizing the effect of the hacked East Anglia e-mails on climate change science.

To my surprise, the Wikipedia article on the topic is probably as good a place to start as any (as Wikipedia often is, despite its known flaws and potential unreliabilities; the fact that it’s both up-to-date and reasonably thorough on this topic allays my fears about Wikipedia’s slow decline, as reported in the digital media a little while back).

This article, published early last year in EOS: Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, summarizes the results of an extensive survey of climate scientists, which shows that while just over half of Americans believe there is a scientific consensus about human-caused global warming, 97.4% of actively publishing climatologists agree that human activities are bringing about a warming of the global climate. The study was carried out before the East Anglia e-mail flare-up, but the main thing that the latter would have done to this data is to bring down the level of trust in climate science among the public, especially the American public, not to change the scientific consensus. This editorial in Nature, one of the two most respected scientific journals on the planet, presents a fair assessment of what the hacked e-mails mean for the scientific community. (The other of the two, Science, has not editorialized about it, but here’s the news piece they published soon after the e-mail issue broke.)

This piece by Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters usefully summarizes an earlier study by Brown, Pielke, and Annan that shows more or less the same result, and mentions a few of the reasons for the mass media’s overemphasis on climate skepticism. Links to other studies of the scientific “consensus” and to statements by leading scientific organizations can be found at the Wikipedia page on scientific opinion on climate change and on the climate change consensus.

While there’s little scientific value in these, I find David McCandless’s visualizations at Information is Beautiful to be a neat summation of the main arguments pro and con and of the scale of consensus (though some of the commenters make a valid point about his approach, which is not very statistically rigorous). The first of these, however, follows the popular media frame of believers-versus-skeptics (“is climate change real or not?”), which is part of the problem of why so many in the public remain underinformed and unconvinced. Coby Beck’s How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, at Grist.org, delves into the various arguments put forward by the (fossil fuel industry-fueled) denialist machine and by the (reasonably) befuddled public.

That ought to do for a start…

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Bambi fights back

Kvond has a beautifully written post on James Cameron’s latest, Avatar: The Density of Being (you can tell he’s been reading Brian Massumi), to which I can only add my own quick thoughts after seeing the film this weekend.

1) New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat has it partly right: with its tree/Goddess-worshipping, tribal-shamanic-indigenous-hunter-gatherer-Daoist-pagan New-Age all-is-One-ism, Avatar is an expression of the longstanding American tradition of pantheist nature spirituality. Douthat thinks that that’s mainstream and that Hollywood is fully behind it, but it’s really still the insurgent religion to muscular Christianity and militarist nationalism. This is one of the rare films in which the Goddess (Mother Nature & the Natives) takes on the Capitalist War Machine and… well, you’ll have to see who wins.

2) It is James Cameron: with its rollercoaster-ride, shoot-em-up, special-FX thrills and chills (cf. Terminator, Aliens), it’s probably the most exorbitant and expensive such film in history. There’s cheesy dialogue (JC needs a scriptwriter) and gratuitous violence, with the never-say-die eternally recurrent monster, Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” in the form of the Dr. Strangelove-ish Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). All put to the service of a fairy tale storyline (cf. Titanic, Terminator) of good guys and bad guys and class tension, with the white-boy hero as an intermediary caught between the two and becoming-heroic by siding with — and leading — the underdog. The broken-bodied (war-victimized) and misunderstood marine with a “good heart” is given a (genetically engineered) new body and falls in love with the dark girl — Pocahontas replayed for the millionth time. The good white boy messianically leads the natives in rebellion against their overlord invaders — which makes it Christmassy in more ways than Douthat’s Solstice-timed op-ed suggests. It is, after all, that Messiah story too (cf. Terminator 2, just no virgin in this version). (Cameron’s initials aren’t JC for nothing: the king of Hollywood born in a manger in Kapuskasing, Ontario.)

3) The Na’vi and their planet, Pandora (Pan-Thea, the tree-forest-rhizome-neural-network Goddess and World Soul, Pandora whose box, when opened, unleashed a million megatons of reality on humanity — it’s pagan mythology with a sledgehammer; gotta love it): They are beautiful — as all the reviews say, there are scenes that are among the most beautiful ever put to screen. Cutting-edge CGI in the service of animating and re-enchanting nature, the movie is a cine-kinetic fusion of Bambi, Terminator, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and much else; see kvond).

There are strong resonances with Ursula LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” (a Vietnam war-like attack on a beautiful planet and its indigenous inhabitants) and her utopian ethnographic-poetic-musical epic novel Always Coming Home, its future-primitive Pacific Coastal ‘Kesh’ people being a kind of west coast precursor to the Na’vi. The ethnographic theme — the translation/mediation between two opposed cultural worlds, science and anthropology’s dependence and ultimate answerability only to empire/colonialism/militarism, and the cultural intermediary’s desire to go native, is overly stereotypical but, for the Hollywood thriller format, not badly done. It will propagate the gone-to-Croatan meme for a new generation.

4) Ideology: Behind it all is the Spielberg factor, i.e., that the overt message (‘Man vs. Nature’, or rather high-modernist techno-capitalism vs. Body-Shop-nature-tech) is undercut by the implicit message that it is science, technology, and Hollywood magic — the Image Industry, the Spectacle — that enchants us and brings us what we really want. And they bring us new life, maybe eternal life, through the New Age science of neuro-energetics, gene-splicing, virtual-reality, and all the rest. ‘Jake Sully’ the Na’vi avatar (not the marine) is, after all, a zombie: his body is a remote-controlled, genetically-engineered robot. Are we really supposed to believe that this guy will save the universe and that Na’vi wouldn’t all choke to death laughing at the whole idea? There are resonant images here, but also an underlying subtext: what’s the balance between the two? (This repeats a friendly spat I’ve been having with Pat Brereton over his book Hollywood Utopia.)

Yes, it’s entertainment, and ideology, and religion, and politics… Happy Solstice to all.

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The responses to the final COP-15 “deal” from the environmental and social justice communities seem, at this point, to be largely negative. It’s a start, some acknowledge, but it’s pretty late to be starting, and it’s really pretty vacuous — a lost opportunity. (See, e.g., Bill McKibben’s deeply disappointed take on it, and other NGO leaders’ views.)

My last blog post tried to put a positive spin on things by arguing that the events in Copenhagen reflect the tension between two models of democracy, and that there is hope for the future in the very crystallization of the second model. Let me expand on that a little.

The first model is a democracy of representative institutions based in the modern system of (in theory) sovereign territorial states. Many of those states don’t pretend to be democratic themselves (think, for instance, of China), and the system as a whole is far from democratic, as anyone familiar with the UN Security Council or the actual workings of the World Trade Organization knows. But many of the states are built in part on democratic principles.

The main strength of this model of democracy (in quotation marks or not) is that it exists, and it has plenty of institutional power to get things done. The main weakness is that it has been thoroughly “captured,” at every level, by capitalism’s “preference for wealth.” In a capitalist economy, to the extent that economy and politics are intertwined (as they almost always are), wealth confers a certain amount of power. The relationship between wealth and power has, of course, been around for millennia, long predating capitalism itself, but only in the last century or two has it become a global and self-referential speculative system — that is, not one grounded in ecological realities, where the generation of wealth depends, in the last instance, on some set of material conditions, but one that is now primarily grounded in self-reference, where a system of policies and rules allow wealth to generate more wealth from nothing but the creation of other policies and rules (think: the “derivatives” that brought about last year’s Wall Street collapse).

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Also published at Indications.

It’ll take some time before the dust settles and we’ll be able to make sense of exactly what happened at the Copenhagen climate summit. But what’s becoming clear is that this may be a genuine turning point in the history of global politics.

The most remarkable thing that will come out of the meeting is not whatever set of policies will be agreed to tomorrow: this is because the key player, the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, is hamstrung by a conservatively poised party (his own Democrats) in power in the two houses in which he needs support in order to pass significant legislation. The most remarkable thing, rather, will be what happens to global civil society and its relationship to the structures of national and international power.

National governments, and none more so than that of the US, are deeply encumbered by the stranglehold of corporate lobbyists and other economic interests on their political systems — which is why nongovernmental and civil society groups are necessary to solve the issues that traditional political actors cannot. But while the NGOs and civil society groups speak of “democracy,” they are not elected and are, arguably, not representative in an obvious way. The democracy they speak of is of a different order than the one that’s doled out once every few years to the voting citizen of a given country.

What the activists mean by “democracy” is the activity and mobilization of citizens taking things into their own hands. And, unfortunately, that’s a kind of democracy that’s just as open to those on the right, from the Glenn Beck Tea Partiers and climate denialists in the US to racialist nationalists and religious fundamentalists around the world. So the lesson here, I think, is that we are now on a new and different political terrain — a terrain that is global and much more open than what we’re used to, and that really is a struggle for the hearts and minds of people around the world.

The climate justice activists in Copenhagen, fortunately, are sending a clear message to the rest of the world that there is a consensus emerging around basic matters of eco-social solidarity: that we are all in this together, and that the rich won’t get away with plunder any longer. As George Monbiot puts it, this is “a war between human decency and sheer bloody selfishness.”

A big piece of this message is that the industrial society that has grown over the last two centuries is hitting a wall, a limit point, beyond which something has to give way at a deep level. As David Loy argues, this limit point is forcing a test of people’s capacity to identify with humanity at the collective, global level and to internalize the lesson of interdependence. Assuming that the science is accurate — and science being what it is, we don’t and can’t know anything with 100% certainty, but we do know that the majority/consensus of climate scientists is strong in its conviction that anthropogenic climate change is most likely to be well on its way — then we are hitting a capacity limit that is comparable to the population density limits that triggered the shift from foraging societies to settled agriculture several thousand years ago.

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Annie Leonard’s Free Range Studios, whose viral video The Story of Stuff made some waves a little while back, has now produced a critique of the Cap and Trade system, some version of which is the most likely outcome of negotiations taking place in Copenhagen over the coming days.

Over at Grist, David Roberts claims that the video misses its mark.

But what we really need is videos like this…

Thanks to Anthony at Mediacology for alerting me to both of these. See Climate Justice Now for more of the green left’s take on the topic, and WorldChanging for Bill McKibben’s.

radical orthodoxies, left & right. . .

Slavoj Zizek’s engagement with theologians like radical orthodoxist John Milbank continues to perplex me a little bit, but having heard him speak a few days ago with death-of-God theologian Thomas Altizer at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Montreal left me reassured me that Zizek is far from the wildest (and zaniest) mind out there. Altizer’s voice thundered through the Palais des Congres conference room as he corralled Hegel and William Blake into a kind of ecstatic rave-up on Satan and the self-annihilation of God. I’m not familiar enough with Altizer’s thinking to judge it, but it sounded a little to me like taking two parts X (in this case, Hegel), one part Y (Blake), and sprinkling in some N and M (Nietzsche and Jung?) just to see what will come of it (something, I think, about spirit’s immanence in the world through the self-annihilation of God via Christ). [sentence deleted out of respect]*

But Zizek’s big argument was the same as ever: that the relativists, postmodernists, multiculturalists, holists, pagans, buddhists, relationalists, Deleuzians, and even deconstructive theologians like John Caputo (addressed directly) are all wrong, and are really just propping up the illusory Big Other instead of releasing us into the revolutionary moment, and that what we need instead is a Leninist revolutionary force to bring about, I guess, an egalitarian utopia on Earth.

I like watching Zizek perform and enjoy his post-Yugoslav sense of humor, and I think his big Lacanian thought is a very good one to have around — on ecological matters no less than on others (though there’s an incoherent desperation in his writing on ecology that makes me glad Tim Morton is around to tell us more clearly what Zizek would like to say). But I can’t help wondering if there’s a kind of continuity — not of ideas, but of sensibility — developing between his (and Alain Badiou’s) ultra-Left neo-Orthodoxy and other orthodoxies, like the Radical Orthodoxy of Milbank and of Philip Blond, spiritual gurus for some of the “red Tories” among David Cameron’s soon-to-be-ruling Conservatives in the UK, and maybe even the Radical Traditionalists that have influenced the European New Right (including the neo-’Pagans’ among them such as Russia’s Aleksandr Dugin and France’s Alain de Benoist). I haven’t read Zizek’s/Milbank’s Monstrosity of Christ (being, quite honestly, a little afraid of it), only reviews of it; but it does seem to me that all of these neo-orthodoxies are fervently anti-liberal, both in liberalism’s economic (neoliberal) and its cultural variants, and are either sour on democracy, or at least merely utilitarian in their approach to it.

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Before Ken Burns’ 6-part, 12-hour series on the national parks was aired, a perceptive article by the LA Times’ Scott Timberg warned that it might be greeted by “sharp knives.” Ten years in the making, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, finally came to our television screens last week, and so far no sharp knives seem to have been drawn. But there have been blunt forks poking into the meat and leaving large parts of the six-course meal undigested on the plate, its servings a bit too super-sized for easy consumption. (There are, of course, the stealth knives and box-cutters of right-wing bloggers, who criticize the series for its NPR liberalism, communism, paganism, and whatever else, but so far the jabs have been mostly off the mark, and few and far between.)

The US national park system would seem to make for an ideal subject for the Burns treatment — a treatment Apple has captured, at least in part, on its iPhoto program as the “Ken Burns Effect.” Timberg describes the Burns style as a “combination of a deep, authoritative male voice, pan-and-zoom camera work over sepia-toned photographs, period music and extravagant claims about American exceptionalism.” The Washington Post’s Tim Page has less charitably called Burns’ style an “unreflected populist Hallmark-ese,” a “strange mixture of New Deal and New Age.” The latter was said in reference to Burns’ “Jazz” series, with its idea that improvisation was an integral element of the American spirit, but it could easily also be said about National Parks.

But there’s something to Burns’ claim about improvisation: one finds that improvisational spirit in the pragmatism of the country’s best philosophers (John Dewey, William James, et al) and in the poetry of Whitman, the Beats, and the nature romanticism of Thoreau and Muir. All of which is another way of saying that progressivism, the very backbone of the American conservation movement (the national parks being one wing of that, the national forests being another), is very American, and those who forget that — like today’s rabid Republican right — are not nearly as American as they would like to think.

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I agree with Mediacology‘s critique of Derrick Jensen’s ‘dark side’ — or at least of a certain linearity in his political vision — but I still find his Star Wars spoof pretty funny. And I think it’s good to have someone saying the things he says (like these). And his column does add some fire to Orion magazine, which as the reigning most beautiful environmental mag, has always been better with the other three elements (air, water, earth) than with the fire.