Monthly Archives: April 2013

Old King Coal

imagesCoal is the big dirty secret of our time. When we turn on our sleekly designed iPads and MacBooks, we seldom consider that the energy used to power these totems of the global economy is derived from fiery combustion of the fossilized remains of massive Paleozoic plants. Nor do we often think about the human labor or environmental toll associated with the consumption of power today.

How else can one explain advertising campaigns such as that associated with the Nissan Leaf, an electric car which, as its name suggests, is represented as an embodiment of pristine nature despite the fact that its power source is more environmentally destructive than gasoline?

Although coal-fired power plants provide more than 50% of the electricity currently consumed in the US, when they stop to reflect on where their power comes from few Americans think about coal. The tense diplomatic brinksmanship associated with global oil supplies occupies a far more prominent place in news headlines than discussions of coal, yet 35% of the world’s electricity is currently generated by coal power, and developing nations such as China and India bring hundreds of pollution-belching coal-fired power plants online each year.

To consider coal is to step into a time machine that transports us not just back to the origins of terrestrial life, but to the images-1more proximate human inventions and struggles that gave birth to modernity. The sulfurous odor given off by burning coal meant that it was long associated with dark satanic powers. Despite fueling industrial revolutions in countries such as Britain, Germany, and the United States, coal was always regarded with ambivalence and even fear, its life altering energy ineluctably linked to forces of physical and racial degeneration. For much of the last half-century, the Age of Oil, coal has been associated with a bygone time, the era of King Coal. But coal is no longer invisible. As a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change, coal once again appears to hold the key to our collective future.

To stop today’s coal boom, the climate justice movement must make coal’s environmental and political toxicity visible. The campaign against coal can draw strength from the historical memory not simply of the importance of miners in the struggle to deepen democracy in industrialized nations, but also from the specific weaknesses of the coal industry’s infrastructure. Climate and environmental justice movements need to join with workers in the energy sector to choke the infrastructure of coal.

However, as the British film Brassed Off reminds us, workers will fight to retain their jobs in a dirty industry that kills them unless they are offered a clear alternative. The campaign against coal must therefore demand a just transition to a renewable, decentralized energy infrastructure.

We have powerful imaginative resources to mobilize in this regard. After all, the figure of King Coal reminds us that the energy infrastructure created by what Lewis Mumford called carboniferous capitalism has bred rampantly undemocratic forms of corporate oligopoly. Taking power thus implies a radical democratic transformation of both global energy systems and governance. Let us dethrone Old King Coal.

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Highway to Hell

Twice a week, I wake up at 6am to prepare for my commute in to work at the College of Staten Island. A colleague who also lives in Queens picks me up and we drive together to Staten Island in his car. To get there we take the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), a portion of Interstate 278.

The BQE is a product of the New Deal era, when the state sought to pull the region out of economic depression through massive public works. It staggers the mind to think about how much political will had to be mustered to carve such a highway out of the densely packed city neighborhoods it traverses. Like so much of the rest of the automotive infrastructure of New York City, the titanic figure of Robert Moses led this campaign. In blasting the BQE through the city, Moses helped create the mindset for the petroculture of the postwar period, a culture based on limitless consumption and growth. To drive on this highway is to step into a time machine to an era that is fast receding.

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Today, the BQE is in a state of advanced disrepair. As the photographs I took during one recent commute show, the highway is filled with potholes. Portions of the siding of the road and of overpasses like the Kosciuszko Bridge have fallen off. Construction work on the highway is constant, but the overall quality of the road never seems to improve. The construction that does take place is massively understaffed; long stretches of the highway are under renovation, but only four or five workers are visible laboring to make these changes.

The BQE also traverses some of the worst toxic sites in NYC, including the Newtown Creek, a bucolic sounding stream that divides Queens and Brooklyn and is one of the most polluted waterways in the country – it’s been an EPA Superfund site since 2010 -, and the Gowanus Canal, which should be a Superfund site as well because of its polluted state, except that developers don’t want to scare off potential residents.

I worry about the amount of pollution my body absorbs during these commutes. Seeing all this rotting infrastructure and the massive congestion of the roadway twice a week also makes me worry about the level of toxicity simply living in a city involves. At the same time, I’m aware that most other cities in the world have much higher levels of pollution.

The decaying BQE offers a powerful symbol of the state of US empire. It’s the ugly, toxic product of a fossil fuel age that we cling to at our own peril. Like so many others, I remain shackled to this highway because of the constraints of life in NYC. What will it take to imagine viable alternatives to a highway like the BQE, ways of moving about the world and maintaining propinquity without the myths and destructive material realities of petroculture?

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Australia urged to formally recognize climate change refugee status

This opinion on climate refugees sets an incredibly important precedent in the struggle for climate justice

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Ogoni vs. Shell: U.S. Kiobel decision bucks 30 years of precedent

Another horrendous pro-corporate decision from the US Supreme Court

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Environmental Histories: Love Canal and Lois Gibbs

AP781221099While surfing the web recently I came across a really nice article on Lois Gibbs, the founder of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, and one of the primary protagonists of the battle against the poisoning of a working class community at Love Canal in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Gibbs and her friends fought against lying chemical companies and conniving government bureaucrats. They even held two members of the EPA hostage in order to get the attention of President Carter.

Their story is a key one in the annals of the US environmental movement, but it’s not nearly well known enough. In fact, it seems to me that the environmental movement in general is not nearly as well remembered as contemporaneous movements such as feminism and civil rights. Why is this?

Perhaps it has to do with the different institutional impacts of these movements. I’m generalizing wildly here, but it could be said that the environmental movement achieved a string of political victories that led to the creation of government organizations such as the EPA and inside the beltway NGOs like the Natural Resources Defense Council. It quickly stopped being an insurgent grassroots movement, and made little impact on enduring Leftist enclaves such as academia.

By contrast, feminism and civil rights both established toe holds in US universities through women’s studies, Black and Latin@ studies programs, and remained more organically linked to grassroots struggles (even if this sometimes was a result of problematic identity politics). In fact, it took a fusion of civil rights and environmental struggles to kickstart a more grassroots avatar of environmentalism in the 1980s: the environmental justice movement.

These reflections are far less accurate when one turns to environmentalism in the global South. As Ramachandra Guha and Rob Nixon have shown, environmental movements in the South are generally linked far more closely to struggles to preserve the commons and to survive than those in the North. Nonetheless, the history of movements such as the Chipko anti-logging protesters in India and the rubber tappers in Amazonia are not very well recorded.

Thinking about Lois Gibbs made me wish there was more public awareness of the history of environmentalism, both within the US and globally. While looking through online materials linked to Gibbs, I came across the trailer for a new film, A Fierce Green Fire, that seeks to tell precisely such stories. It is, the producers claim, the first big picture exploration of the environmental movement, and it was just released. Pretty hard to believe that it’s taken this long!

Here’s the trailer for the film:

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Poisoning Paradise

imagesYesterday I reblogged a great piece on organizing against GMO agriculture in Hawaii. My friend Dean Saranillio just sent me a link to an interview with Vandana Shiva that fills out more of the context for the anti-GMO struggle in Hawaii.

In this interview, Shiva, a brilliant environmental thinker and founder of the Vavdanya seed-saving organization, makes some powerful connections between the US military’s use of the Hawaiian islands as a testing ground for toxic munitions – including depleted uranium weapons – and the presence of GMO corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, and BASF.

Shiva argues that these companies, which emerged from the war industry by producing toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange (used widely in the US war in Vietnam), have a history of turning military chemicals into agricultural products. The fate of corporations such as Monsanto and Dow is, in other words, linked not just to the US military but also to the Green Revolution and its high-intensity forms of petro-agriculture.

Over the last few decades, these same corporations have begun peddling GMO crops which force farmers to buy seeds annually through [seed] “terminator” technology, and which has unknown toxic effects on plant, animal, and human life.

It seems that Hawaii is ground zero for experimentation with these militarized biotechnologies. Here’s a link to a good film that offers more background on GMOs in Hawaii, and on the resistance movement to the poisoning of paradise:

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The struggle to reclaim paradise

Hawaiians battle Monsanto & GMOs: ground zero for chemical testing and food engineering

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