Category Archives: Political & Environmental Commentary

Sage-Grouse and National Defense Budget

sage.grouce.left_1

The PBS Nature series aired a program on the endangered Sage-grouse on May 20. The natural history of this bird and other denizens of the sagebrush plains was well represented. The documentary even mentioned habitat destruction by oil and gas interests. Very daring of them. And timely.  This lovely creature is not only under attack by resource extraction, but also the United States Congress. I wrote an editorial on this subject first printed in The Taos News on May 14:

The United States Senate Committee on Armed Services will be meeting later this month for a “Markup” of The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016. The bill that comes out of this committee, when reconciled with the version from the House of Representatives and signed by the President, establishes the budget for much of our national defense.

 
Included in this year’s bill is a special provision for the Sage-Grouse, an endangered (and spectacular) bird that (for now) lives in parts of Colorado and adjacent states to the north and west. Like the EA-18G Growler and the F-22 Raptor warplanes, the sage-grouse can fly. And while it is an effective system for destroying our nation’s insect enemies, it would seem better suited for the Agriculture or Interior Departments than as part of an appropriations bill for the Department of Defense.

 
The rapidly declining Sage-Grouse (also known as the Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, and its even more endangered cousin, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, C. minimus) is in catastrophic decline due to habitat loss. They may have once numbered in the millions, but are currently on their way out of existence. Animals and plants is this predicament have in the past found some protection through one of the great pieces of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which can help in saving habitat and reducing hunting pressure (while also protecting private property rights).

 
Instead, this time, the Sage-Grouse has become the latest victim in the culture-war being waged by right-wing politicians against all policies thought by them as “liberal.” As far as I know this Galliforme exhibits not the slightest political inclination, taking no position on the use of missiles or the deployment of aircraft carriers. The male of the species is primarily known for its “dancing,” or mating display. This should find favor with conservatives since the point of the dance is traditional male-female heterosexuality at its finest.

 
So what is the Sage-Grouse doing hanging out in the same bill with drones and helicopters? Here is where its special status comes about. Republicans have placed this animal on a hit list hidden within the labyrinth of defense spending that specifically exempts the Sage-Grouse from listing under the Endangered Species Act. Without this protection, the Sage-Grouse may be doomed to extinction.This is clever if underhanded: neither Congress nor the President is likely to sacrifice the national defense establishment to save a grouse.

If the Republicans are successful in this they will accomplish two goals. First, habitat that might have been protected to save the Sage-Grouse will not be protected and instead will be open to oil and gas resource extraction. Second, by establishing the precedent of defying the Endangered Species Act, they may also keep other species off the list and could de-listing those already protected. And if they succeed in gutting the ESA, why not move on to similarly decommissioning other environmental protections for clean air and water?

 
Thus, on the stubby wings of Centrocercus urophasianus, hangs a great weight.

 
On April 29 I met with Senator Tom Udall, Senator Martin Heinrich and Representative Ben Ray Lujan. I was part of a volunteer citizen group organized by the environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife (www.defenders.org). We discussed with these gentlemen (and their legislative assistants) the ESA, sustainable logging in National Forests, and assuring adequate funding for fighting wildfires. Our legislators were cordial and supportive, welcoming to their constituents from New Mexico. All three of them expressed support both for the ESA. We asked that they try to rescue the Sage-Grouse from being lumped in with defense appropriations.

 

Whether or not they (with our support!) can save the Sage-Grouse and the ESA is an open question since this legislation has never before been subjected to anything like the current level of attack. That the Endangered Species Act is itself highly endangered was an irony made all the worse when the Sage-Grouse exemption from protection passed through a House committee hearing in the same week when I was in Washington advocating for its protection.

 
If you care about saving the ESA from extinction (and its feathered, furred and leafed constituents), this would be a good time to make your opinion known to the policy makers in our nation’s capitol.

<Photograph turned up from Google search>

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Earth Day – Day of Mourning Not Celebration

The annual Day of Mourning occurs on Wednesday April 22 this year. I recall the excitement around the first Earth Day in 1970. Environmentalist Senator Gaylord Nelson (defeated by a non-environmentalist Republican ten years later) and a cynical Nixon White House promoted what I hoped would become a change in consciousness, a beginning to the end of our war on nature.

It did give a boost to the environmental movement, but the depth of the catastrophe and the technical and political complexity of achieving change was far greater than I understood as a 17 year-old. An intransigent global system of seeing nature as a convenient commissary and sewer has so far been impossible to dislodge. Millions of us have at once been convinced by the pro-nature message of Earth Day while also being largely ineffective in fostering needed change.

In this country the nature of nature unfriendly corporations and their politicians have continued to stall or work to reverse critically needed actions. Global heating, massive animal die-off in the Gulf of Mexico, and insane projects like building another Atlantic to Pacific canal through Nicaragua garner little attention beyond the nearly powerless circle of environmentalists.

Economist Jeffry Sachs has pointed out that while the earth’s human population has grown tremendously in recent decades, the earth itself has not increased in size. On Earth Day 1970 the human population was around 3.7 billion. Now it is around 7 billion. Over forth years later the total number of individual mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish has dropped by hundreds of millions. Perhaps there is an equation of proportionality. For each x% rise in human population there is an x% decrease in the total number of wild animals. 

The biggest recent response to the crisis has been California’s plan to reduce lawn watering. Get used to not having green lawns their Governor recently warned. Once we reacted differently to threats. The free peoples of the world banded together to fight the three parts of the 20th century world war against fascism and communism. At a considerable cost in lives and treasure. With climate change and species extinction the stakes are even higher now. Then our freedom was at stake, now it is about our survival. Yet, many (most?) American politicians, bending to the will of their paymasters, have lost the will to fight for the environmental survival of our country and our planet.

National policy is to take timid steps or none at all. At the same time that there is a growing movement towards Iraq War III to save civilization, there is not much interest in saving the climate that has nurtured us for thousands of years since the last ice age.

So we can celebrate the nature we have left, but we should also mourn for the nature we are losing. My wish for Earth Day is that we take a moment to ask: Why have we lost the will the save ourselves?

 

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Five Down and One To Go, where is Country Joe…

Mollusk Fossil and Computer  …when we need him prior to the Sixth Extinction?

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we waiting for ?
Just ask me, there is a reason,
Next stop is Extinction;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
While there is still time to wonder why,
We exclaim they are all gonna die!

The reason I usually don’t like post-apocalyptic movies such as The Matrix is that given the apparent destruction of wild nature what difference does it make rather a handful of humans survive or not? Part of what makes us human is the other creatures with whom we share the planet. According to Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History, “one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” And that is just in the near future. If the planet keeps warming and precipitation patterns alter as expected, it will only get worse.

Kolbert takes her readers through a history of extinction from the Ordovician (444 million years ago) to the 19th century when scientists began to come to terms with the idea that some of our fellow creatures had fallen from the evolutionary path. She offers up other important ideas such as the extinction rate has increased as humans have accidentally introduced new species of rats to fragile environments like islands where the newcomers destroy every defenseless creature they come across. The sheer number of species disappearing in our time is enough to leave a permanent mark in the geologic record.

I don’t know if climate change deniers also deny the sudden drop off of other creatures. In the face of overwhelming observational and statistical evidence, if the climate deniers have not yet also started denying the truth of species loss, they will likely do so any time now. The facts are that atmospheric carbon pollution and ocean acidification are driving coral ecosystems out of existence. Fungus infections are wiping our amphibians and bats. Some mammal and bird species move uphill to find cooler conditions but find less and less space since the land area of mountain tops is less than that at a mountain’s base.

The ecological concept of biomes (environments defined by dominant plant and animal species) is being replaced by “anthromes” (environments dominated by humans). The world of large animal biology (mice and bigger) is becoming simpler, that is, fewer different types of creatures as time goes on. Kolbert does not leave us with much hope: “The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.”

It seems to me that when all other creatures worth hunting and killing are gone we will have only ourselves left for that purpose. The mutually hating fundamentalists of all religions have a lot to look forward to.

<Mollusk fossil and computer. Photo by dlw.>

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Brian Williams and the Fall of Civilization

Snowstorm cloudless sky morning Dec 27_1DW3917        A celebrity news reader has been accused of misrepresenting a trivial incident during Iraq War II. Authentic journal Bill Moyers pointed out the irony: More attention paid to Williams than to the lies of Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld that got us into an unnecessary war. If we want to feel outrage about the antics of media figures, why not instead ask Williams and his ilk why they didn’t expose the lies? Democracy Now! and other media outlets did, so there is no excuse.

But why go back in time? The major TV networks cover up catastrophic issues of mass species extinction and climate change through downplaying or ignoring or falsely claiming that many scientists doubt the science. It is not a coincidence that carbon corporations provide an important revenue stream for all the networks.

We have entered the Era of Distraction where television viewers are diverted from the major environmental issues of our time by pseudo-scandals (Williams) or war as entertainment: See CNN’s “The Blockbuster story of American Sniper.”

And while we are distracted, the creatures and the habitats in which they live (or once lived) die in unfathomable numbers.

Hey, Brian, I’ve got a good story idea for you to work on during your six month suspension from NBC. It will restore your reputation and could help save civilization: start telling the real story about carbon-based destruction of the atmosphere, about the deaths of millions of our fellow creatures from amphibians to bats, and about the small number of individuals who profit from the destruction. If someone like you started telling the truth, I believe that many people would begin to listen.

<Snowstorm, cloudless sky morning, December 27, 2014. Photo by dlw>

 

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Dangerous Sleeper Cell Suspected in Washington, D. C .

DSC_0007    During the 19th century, following the age of sail, the British Navy made the decision to stick with the energy source of the future: coal. They saw little value in oil. Britain had lots of coal; digging it up provided lots of low wage jobs and lots of corporate wealth. Why not stick to the tried and true? (Even when it was obviously outdated.)

On January 29, 2015, the U.S. Senate joined the House of Representatives in giving a foreign corporation mostly tax free rein and mostly liability free rein plus right of eminent domain (the ability for foreigners to deprive U.S. citizens of their private property) to build the latest odious pipeline across America. (This could also be seen as “free reign” since a foreign power has been granted king-like powers over citizens of what used to be an independent republic.)

U.S. lawmakers (in return one images for campaign contributions from the oil industry) sees oil as the energy source of the future. These available-for-rent politicians will prove as prescient as the British Navy coal advocates of a century ago.

A hundred years from now, in the unlikely event that any publications remain following the environmental heat collapse that takes down civilization, observers will look back on this date. They will be mildly amused (in an ironic way) that seemingly rational, intelligent people bet the future on oil rather than on renewable energy.

That amusement, however, will be tempered by the bitterness they will feel towards us for having destroyed all that was good and beautiful about our planet. They will mark January 29 as Black Thursday, the day when an anti-American cell of sleepers awoke long enough to cast a vote unmatched in scope by any other terrorist act.

<For our 22nd century readers this is what the now extinct aspen forest looked like in the Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico in July 2010)

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This Changes Everything – But Will It Matter?

Socialist economist Naomi Klein speaks truth to power once more in her recent book, This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs. The Climate. She is convinced that climate scientists are correct in their predictions that our current course of unbridled carbon pollution will threaten both the natural environment and the civilization built upon the favorable conditions of the past several thousand years. She proposes that the struggle against environmental destruction and the struggle against poverty are one in the same.

Klein attempts to mainstream the combination of these two concepts into the term “climate justice.” Two news reports in January 2015 lend this idea support. A NOAA/NASA analysis shows 2014 as the globally warmest year in recorded history. The charity Oxfam presented evidence at the World Economic Forum conference in Switzerland that 1% of the world’s population will come to control 50% of the world’s wealth in 2015. Wealth-producing carbon pollution wrecks the atmosphere and impoverishes people at the same time.

Conservatives, a.k.a, free market capitalists, a.k.a. “neoliberals,” continue their concentration of wealth and the CO/2 level continues to rise. Neoliberals breathe the same air as the rest of us, so what are they missing? Klein speculates that the ideology of low tax, low regulation libertarianism has become so ingrained that the right wingers fundamentally cannot admit the truth of global climate change. To do so would challenge their identity.

Climate disruption cannot be addressed solely by individuals or even by entire countries. “Global warming” is already creating disasters everywhere and will only get worse. The response to this must be one of hyper-regulation and internationalism on a previously unknown scale. Which is to say that if Klein’s hypothesis is correct, then the neoliberals are not only wrong, but more than wrong. If global warming is true, then their entire belief system (and thus their personal and ideological identity) is demonstratively false. The destruction of America (and the world, for that matter) is preferable to admitting that their beliefs and lives are a sham.

Corporate interests putting profits about patriotism is nothing new, but the stakes are very high. What will happen to democratic government when climate disasters pile up in an overwhelming way?

Rather crazily, the renewable energy technology needed to significantly mitigate climate change already exists and putting that technology into place would create far more jobs than the ones produced the carbon industry now. Thus saving the environment plus economic opportunity for an ever great number of people equals social justice.

Arrayed against common sense is the well financed greed of the carbon industry. That wealth is used to buy media, politicians and elections. And where that isn’t enough, industry shills have infiltrated several once effective environmental organizations (The Nature Conservancy, et. al.) to effectively neutralize much of the threat those organizations might pose to our corporate overlords.

Klein’s well researched book thoroughly explores these and other issues, but I will skip to the Now What? question. Having exposed the fearsome forces arrayed against us who believe that saving nature and civilization is a higher value than continuing on a course of neo-fascism and corporate corruption, Klein proposes a surprising remedy. Her solution seems to reside in faith that “Blockadia,” small unit citizen action, has a chance of prevailing against greedy, destructive corporations. Yet at the very beginning of the book she makes the opposite argument that the small scale actions of recycling, driving less, etc. is of minor consequence compared to the scale of the environmental disasters facing us.

If her premise that we are facing certain destruction is correct, then her solution of grass roots citizen action, while admirable, doesn’t seem to rise to the level of the problem. She rightly accuses many of us, corporate-types and social activists alike, of not taking the problem of carbon pollution seriously enough, leading both billionaires and conservationists to propose easy solutions that ultimately won’t work. She suggests that many of us don’t have the courage of our convictions, and doubtless this is true.

But if admitting to the likelihood of an apocalyptic future is a first step in avoiding that future, then voting for a green candidate or boycotting a local mining operation just will not be enough. Klein’s well documented criticisms of our current economic and political system call not for wishy-washy actions (Occupy Wall Street, etc.) but for a thorough anti-corporate, anti-carbon revolution. She is an economist, not a political theorist, so maybe economic analysis goes only so far. She does warn, however, that the longer we wait to address the issues of social justice, the more draconian will be the remedies once we admit to having no choice but to change or die.

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Je Suis Charlie: Social Justice, and Warning for Corpocracy?

Should the internationally destructive corporations and the politicians they own fear Je Suis Charlie? Over a million people of many different religions plus 43 heads of state marched together in Paris on Sunday not for revenge, not pro-fascist or pro-corporate but for freedom and to uphold the highest values of civilization.

The Obama administration decided it was not important enough to send a high ranking official but the U.S. was represented by its soft power figure, the “Charlie Brown” of cartoonist Charles Schulz. Maybe that was enough.

Or maybe the pro-corporate U.S. administration made (for them) the correct decision. What if Je Suis Charlie gets out of hand? Could the momentum of the movement live past one day? What if it grew into a larger call for Social Justice? Or for Climate Justice, extending to the environment and all species? Our corporate masters would not care for that.

The movement could broaden into solidarity of all peoples against all forms of oppression, including oppression of nature.

Imagine.

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A Very Pretty Nature Essay. But Now What? Winter Solstice Thoughts

_1DW2870  Writer George Monbiot has posted to the BBC one of the most beautiful web presentations I have seen. I enjoyed his essay, but am disappointed that, as is often true of writers celebrating the beauty of nature, he offers no pathway to the solutions (such as rewilding) he would like to see. That is the hard part. Naturalists and environmentalists have an idea of what our world should look like, but what is the step by step process of getting there? Help from our politicians?

Notice that most Democrats survive American legislative elections by raising campaign money from the very corporations that are destroying the planet. Only a minority of them are interested in issues of poverty, social justice, and the environment. In the trillion dollar budget passed by Congress before its holiday recess Democrats agreed with Republicans to lift the already weak restrictions placed on banks by the Dodd-Frank legislation. Also, they made it easier for employers to renege on pension benefit plans. Meanwhile, Republicans actively work against issues of poverty, social justice, and the environment—and they now have large majorities in both houses of Congress.

Another example of the insanity: the Senate Democrat’s report condemning the use torture by the CIA has been blunted by the right wing argument that the use of torture does not make us look bad, only documenting it. How do you fight this attitude?

I was recently shocked to learn that The Nature Conservancy makes a significant amount of money through oil and gas extraction on a large tract of land it was supposed to have preserved. The Environmental Defense Fund actively supports fracking for natural gas. The Sierra Club supported natural gas drilling for awhile but has come back to its senses. How many environmentalists know that those first two environmental organizations have sold their souls to the carbon industry? (The Nature Conservancy’s CEO has a compensation package of above $600,000. I suppose for him the environmental movement is a success.)

I hope that many people will read the Monbiot essay but consciousness raising has not stopped mass extinctions of wildlife and mass exploitation of impoverished peoples here and abroad. So what concrete steps can we follow to take political control back from the corporations who have bought off most of our politicians? If anyone has the answer I will run it as a guest essay.

<Unnamed lake, Wheeler Wilderness, New Mexico June 16, 2014, dlw photo>

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The Call of Cthulhu to Ayn Rand

20141212_152317-2 In his 1901 book Lives of the Hunted, Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) gave the wildlife conservation movement a major boost, including this statement in the foreword: “My chief motive, my most earnest underlying wish, has been to stop the extermination of harmless wild animals; not for their sakes, but for ours, believing that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.”

(Visit the Ernest Thompson Seton blog for more about his philosophy.)

Seton did care about animals for their own sakes so I have wondered why he wrote this statement as he did. He spent a long art and writing career establishing the importance of wild animals as whole beings in and of themselves, exhibiting both sentience and morality. Very importantly, he believed that wildlife held inherent rights, especially the right to a home in which to live out their lives.

“Not for their sakes, but for ours,” is a profound statement. In her recent book This Changes Everything, the insightful economist Naomi Klein observes that the earth doesn’t need us—instead, we need the earth. This has profound implications for the environmental movement. Looked at this way, it is as Seton said. We need to preserve wild nature not for instance, for tigers or European songbirds, but for our own survival. The Virtue of Selfishness forces of Ayn Rand should take notice. For all their hated of anything that doesn’t have a dollar sign in front of it, it turns out that saving wild nature is the best way of saving ourselves, the ultimate in selfishness.

Another astute writer, H.P. Lovecraft took on this issue even more vividly. The earth survived for billions of years before we arrived and will survive for billions of years more after we are gone. The question then is not will the earth survive, but will we survive? The evil creature with a name that can’t be spoken since it can’t be pronounced—Cthulhu—is just one of earth’s earlier denizens, a forerunner of those who will come again once we are gone. The earth itself is indifferent to which monsters rule here at any given time.

(Time magazine runs a section called “Briefing.” It frequently provides statistics on nature issues. It has recently reported that 274 tigers have died in India over the past four years leaving a population of under 2000. The magazine also cited the journal Ecology Letters as stating the European songbird population has declined by 421 million individuals over the past thirty years.)

<Rock Dove couple in the Taos-El Prado borderlands, December 12, 2014, dlw photo>

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The Parable of Admiral Yamamoto’s Suicide for the Age of Carbon Addiction

DSC07047  By the time of his death by from U.S. warplanes on April 18, 1943, Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of Japan’s Pacific naval war strategy, could see its impending failure. Sixteen months earlier, after the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, that path had seemed promising, although he was taking a major gamble that U.S. military commitment to the Pacific would just go away. Today we would call this Magical Thinking.

The May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway two months later, and the Guadalcanal Campaign culminating early the following year, had shown that the U.S. would never retreat. Worse yet, unlimited industrial capacity allowed the U.S. to make good all its battle loses. Japan’s naval and air power diminished month by month leading to the inevitable conclusion of their defeat.

The Japanese could have responded by developing a new strategy. Instead, they took this as their way: We will choose death and defeat before we will change course. Japan’s leadership could see that the war effort had gone badly wrong but continued to lie to their citizens about what was happening. They persuaded the public to suspend disbelief to make them believe what could not possibly be true. The Japanese were convinced to overlook the disappearance of their military forces, the devastation of their economy, and even the bombing of their cities.

When that fig leaf finally dropped, they were convinced to support an evil, corrupt government and their attendant greed-motivated industrial corporations by an appeal to patriotism (the last refuge of all scoundrels). I don’t know for sure, but perhaps at their right-wing political conventions they mindlessly chanted, “Kill Baby Kill!”

Admiral Yamamoto could not find a way out for his country, but he may have come up with a way out for himself. Personal humiliation comes out of being found out as a liar. Propaganda can cover up lies for a long time, but not forever. Although he was needed at headquarters, he decided to fly off to make an inspection tour of an island base, a risky move given the increasing danger of American air power. He knew of this danger and no doubt was warned not to take a risk better assumed by a more junior officer.

Did Yamamoto choose his own death rather than live with the humiliation that all he had believed in was a lie? Is death preferable to admitting that a long-standing way of life is morally and functionally wrong? Is this cowardice or insanity or both?

Is it possible that an entire civilization can ignore the disappearance of our fellow creatures, the collapse of the economic well being, and the corruption of government and corporate officials? If the leadership of a country follows insane policies (even while well compensated for doing so), should citizens share that insanity?

Moral: The belief that we can continue on a path of purposeful destruction without creating dire consequences is clearly false.

<Chrysanthemum photo from Wikipedia>

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