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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

The target of the Sierra Club's invigorated "Beyond Coal" fight

Part 5. Clarity 2012-2014: Sierra Club, 350.org, Naomi Klein

The confusion and dismay characterizing the environmental movement in the first decade of the new century gradually yielded in the several years following 2012 to clarity on the depth of the crisis and a general approach to its possible resolution. Partly this was just due to the devastating climate-change scenarios being projected; the coming world they foresaw was so terrifying, so clearly unacceptable, that a positive response was wrung out of the dismay. Partly the emerging clarity was due to the increasing attention that the newly assertive scientific world demanded from governmental leaders and policy-makers. The attention of the world was, finally, being caught by those chronicling climate change and its consequences.

Another source of attention was a series of long-running confrontations pitting peasants and indigenous peoples against extractive operations, which peaked in 2013. Because these skirmishes usually result in road blockades (by either the protesters or the authorities), the phenomenon has been labeled “Blockadia...not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines,” as journalist Naomi Klein describes it.

Throughout 2013, Blockadia was erupting around the world: in New South Wales, Australia, at the proposed Maules Creek coal mine; in northern Greece’s Halkidiki peninsula, at the proposed El Dorado open-pit gold and copper mine; in the fields surrounding the village of Pungesti, Romania, at Chevron’s proposed shale gas field; in New Brunswick, Canada, where Texas-based SWN Resources explored gas-fracking structures on historic Elsipogtog First Nation lands; even in the Russian Arctic, on the Arctic Sunrise ship of—yes, Greenpeace—where helicopter-borne Russian paratroopers rapelled down onto the vessel filled with radical environmentalists protesting plans for oil drilling in the fragile ecosystem.

Blockadia is not run by men wearing suits or the latest outdoor gear (though uniformed police and soldiers in battle gear are often there). The protesters are typically common folks, peasants and villagers, often belonging to indigenous peoples. Frequently their leaders (and most participants) are female, and very stubborn. Their goals—what they are desperately trying to save, against long odds—are very specific. Those on the front lines of Blockadia assert they are fighting for their healthy soil, their unpolluted water, their fresh air, their blue sky. And most often they come from a very different background than either the authorities sending the soldiers against them, or from the Big Green environmental groups sometimes supporting them.

As Klein describes their blunt philosophy: “It’s time to stop digging up poisons from the deep and shift, with all speed, to powering our lives from the abundant energies on our planet’s surface.” Or, as Seattle-based environmentalist K.C. Golden puts it: “Step one for getting out of a hole: Stop digging.” Or, as the French anti-fracking activists say: Ni ici, ni ailleurs—not here, nor anywhere.

What of the mainline environmental groups who, ideally, would be in the middle of a more effective fight to save the planet? Not all of the groups had lost their way in the years of confusion. Greenpeace and the other earth-centered radical environmental groups had held strong amidst the dismay; they were long-accustomed to bravely and tenaciously following what they knew to be right. Among the Big Green mainline groups, Friends of the Earth and Rainforest Action Network, particularly, remained steadfast in their earth-centered activity.

One of the first Big Green groups to alter its course was Muir’s own Sierra Club. The process was a gradual one, reaching back into the years of confusion. In 2010 Carl Pope, the club’s executive director who had forged ties with Clorox and Chesapeake Energy, extolling the virtues of fracked natural gas over other fossil fuels, was replaced by Michael Brune.

Brune came to the Sierra Club after working with Greenpeace and serving as executive director of Rainforest Action Network. He brought a new attitude and new energy to the country’s oldest environmental group. Within a year of Brune’s appearance the Sierra Club had secured a $50 million gift from Michael Bloomberg Philanthropies to invigorate their Beyond Coal Campaign, which doubled its staff to 200 and tripled its number of states affected, to 45. Soon the Sierra Club was the bane of the U.S. coal industry, having succeeded in retiring 170 coal plants in the U.S. and preventing the construction of over 180 proposed new plants since the campaign’s beginnings. The club had gone from being an apologist for the natural gas industry to the fiercest enemy of the coal industry.

In November, 2011 Brune had partnered with 350.org and other groups encircling the White House with protesters to urge the President to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline. He had exuberantly persuaded 350.org founder Bill McKibben to do a celebratory lap around the entire circle of some 3,000 demonstrators, exchanging high-5s all the way.

The Sierra Club had a long-established policy prohibiting its executive director from engaging in civil disobedience (though individual members had just as long engaged in such activity). Brune in 2013 persuaded the club’s Board of Directors to change that policy. On February 13, 2013 he was arrested in front of the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline again, and was hauled off to a D.C. jail. He had distinguished company: James Hansen, the original sounder of the climate change alarm; Julian Bond, civil rights veteran first jailed during a 1960 sit-in at the Atlanta City Hall cafeteria; Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org; and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., environmental activist from the famous clan.

Thus by 2013 a new day was dawning for the Sierra Club, which was beginning to look--and act--a bit more like the radical environmentalists who had taken the hidden Muir to heart four decades earlier. The Sierra Club under Brune partnered again with 350.org and other groups in organizing the massive September, 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, the largest environmental demonstration ever. Over 400,000 people clogged Central Park West to urge the next month’s U.N. climate summit to more seriously address the crisis. Brune expressed confidence that the march would “inspire climate leadership across the board—including from governors, mayors, and investors.” He also agreed with a sign he noticed a marcher carrying: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this crap.”

As indicated above, one of the most important leaders of the newly-clarified and energized environmental response to climate change was 350.org. As with the Sierra Club, its role had its roots during the period of uncertainty. Author and Middlebury College professor Bill McKibben had written perhaps the first book to describe the coming climate crisis, 1989’s The End of Nature. When the book failed to evoke any meaningful public policy response, McKibben led a group of Middlebury students on a 2006 walk across Vermont to dramatize the situation. In 2008 he took James Hansen’s recently-declared maximum safe concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide as the basis of the name for a new, social-media-savvy environmental organization, 350.org. The group of mainly college students specialized in organizing nation-wide, then world-wide demonstrations via social media.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry particularly dirty crude oil from the Alberta, Canada tar-sands to the Gulf of Mexico, which Hansen had declared “game over for the climate,” became the new group’s focus. In August of 2011, two weeks of 350.org protests against the pipeline at the White House resulted in the arrest of an impressive list of demonstrators, including not just McKibben, but long-time labor activist Gus Speth, actor Danny Glover, author Wendell Barry, James Hansen, journalist Naomi Klein, and McKibben himself. Speth and McKibben were in the first day’s group, who spent three days in jail.

350.org was the driving force behind the previously-mentioned encircling of the White House in November of 2011, and the September, 2014 People’s Climate March, working closely with the Sierra Club as well as other groups on both projects. In 2012 they had launched a Divestment campaign, “Do the Math,” leading several dozen colleges, cities, and religious institutions to withdraw investments from fossil fuel companies, a movement still challenging Boards of pension funds and other groups.

The months leading to the 2015 U.N. climate summit in Paris saw 350.org as the most active and potent organizer of events pressuring the delegates to enact serious measures. As always, the group partnered with many other groups, including the Sierra Club, but emphasized massive gatherings of often youthful activists in events throughout the world.

In the fall of 2014 a book appeared which focused and publicized the emerging clarity of the environmental picture, at least for a large portion of the movement. “The most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring, ” said The New York Times Book Review. “Urgency and outrage is balanced by meticulous documentation and passionate argument. Heart and mind go hand in hand in this magisterial response to a present crisis,” observed the Jury Citation of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize.

The book garnering this praise was Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate. In it, Klein accomplishes several urgently-needed tasks. First, she shows us where we are, by gathering together the current scientific data on climate change, making it readable and understandable. Secondly, she recounts how we got to our present situation, detailing the successful campaigns by the Heartland Institute, Big Oil, and Big Coal to cast doubt on the findings of virtually the entire worldwide scientific community. Here the unfortunate timing of the Reagan era’s apotheosis of free-market capitalism is recounted, along with how corporate globalization came to be locked into the numerous trade agreements made at the time.

Thirdly, Klein details the abdication of the pro-business wing of the environmental movement in the 1980s, and the confusion characterizing the movement in the last decade of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st centuries. She shows how the economic and political elite of America, as a whole, were persuaded to discredit and ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence of a crisis threatening humanity. Fourthly, the absurdity, hubris, and real danger of the geoengineering last-gasp proposals to avert catastrophe are examined in some detail.

And lastly, Klein provides a road map to get us out of the mess—if we move quickly and decisively.

Because she wanted This Changes Everything to be a reference, and to be convincing, the book is thick physically and intellectually, with 58 pages of very small-print references cited at the end. Much of Klein’s content in the first three areas I mention above have already been covered in my previous chapter, which draws considerably on her material. I here summarize her last two points.

The foolishness of reliance on geoengineering to resolve our problems. Klein observes that it is the common ending to every movie dealing with impending catastrophe: at the last moment, the hero (usually male) comes up with a totally novel, bright idea to save the day most unexpectedly, and everything works out after all. General joy in the movie theater. Fade to credits amidst upbeat music.

The challenge of climate change is not a movie, but too many of us expect the same thing to happen. We even already have the heroes and their bright idea which will save the day. It is called geoengineering. And we have a host of extremely bright, self-assured men clamoring to tell us how it will go down.

These confident men gathered in spring of 2011 in an elegant, Downton-Abbey-ish Georgian mansion northwest of London to share their ideas, inviting some media to observe and be dazzled—including Naomi Klein. The meeting was sponsored by no less than the Royal Society of Great Britain and the World Academy of Sciences. And oh yes—the Environmental Defense Fund, still insisting that all will be well if we just trust corporations and work amiably with Big Oil.

There’s no end to the schemes to engineer our way out of the climate crisis. They include dumping massive amounts of iron (as fertilizer) into the oceans to stimulate huge growths of marine plants to suck carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas—out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the ocean. Or we could build a fleet of machines to just suck the carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere and dump it somewhere.

Or wait—we could cover vast stretches of desert with white sheets in order to reflect sunlight back into space to cool off the atmosphere. Or spray sea water into the sky to create more clouds to intercept solar radiation there before it hits the planet. Or mirrors. Or how about this: we inject sulfite molecules into the atmosphere to reflect the radiation. How? Well, by airplane, or cannons, or really, really long hoses suspended by helium balloons. Seriously.

These last geoengineering proposals are currently the most favored, and are termed SRM, for solar radiation management. The sulfite molecule version constitutes “the Pinatubo option,” referring to the 1991 volcanic eruption which spewed such concentrations of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere that the reflected solar radiation dropped average global temperature the following year by 0.5 degrees Celsius. Since 1992 was an El Nino year, tending to be warm for other reasons, climatologists calculate that in a “normal” year, the temperature drop from the Pinatubo eruption would have been 0.7 degrees Celcius—roughly equivalent to our current temperature rise due to human-caused climate change. Voila!

The smiling, can-do proponents of the Pinatubo option point out that the technology for all this is currently available, is relatively cheap, and the cooling effect would be instant.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, plenty, as it turns out. Many climatologists (led by Alan Robock of Rutgers University and Australian Clive Hamilton, among others) point out troubling consequences of the Pinatubo option.

First, much of the world would be subject to a permanent haze, as the sun is dimmed by the virtual ceiling of sulfur particles. We could all have blue-sky photos on our screen savers, but otherwise—goodbye to blue skies dotted with white clouds.

Secondly, the perpetual haze would decrease the ability of photo-voltaic solar power grids to generate electricity, and, thirdly, very likely also decrease the ability of plants (which we might call “biologic photo-voltaic solar power grids”) to do photosynthesis, thus decreasing crop yields to feed 7.2 billion (and counting) humans. This would certainly be very problematic.

Fourthly, though global temperatures would drop, carbon dioxide would continue to be produced by ongoing combustion of fossil fuels, causing the oceans to continue their (surprisingly rapid) increase in acidity. Already, we see the widespread death of corals, decreased reproduction of shelled organisms such as diatoms and molluscs, and early disruptions of the marine food web—all of which would be intensified. The oceans are an important source of protein for most of the world, and the disappearance of many fisheries, and decline in the remaining, are already a cause for concern.

Fifthly, there is what the geoengineers delicately term “the termination problem”: all the heat building up on top of the reflective sulfite sunshade would rush back onto the planet surface whenever the shield was discontinued or damaged. Think of building a major metropolis at the base of a huge dam, except here it is blasting, withering heat rather than water being held back—hopefully. All life on the planet’s surface would be jeopardized if the sulfite shield somehow failed, whether due to a mistake, unanticipated problem, or sabotage.

Sabotage? Yes, a very possible result of the sixth consequence of the Pinatubo option: the sulfite ceiling would affect world rainfall differentially. (They call this “Distributional consequences.”) Considering that the geoengineers are overwhelmingly from Northern regions, creation of an anticipated sulfite ceiling mainly over the Northern hemisphere would result in dramatically decreased monsoonal precipitation in Africa and south Asia, according to computer models by Alan Robock reported in 2008. Monsoons are the rains that permit agriculture in these regions and feed their populations, due to the (formerly) hot continental interiors in the summer pulling in moisture-laden air from the adjacent oceans. Another study, in 2013, indicated 60 to 100 percent decreases in plant productivity in the Sahel of central Africa in this scenario.

Historical studies of volcanoes, cited in the previous chapter, confirm what these computer models predict concerning rainfall consequences of sulfur molecules in the atmosphere. After the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcanoe in Iceland, with its attendant spike of atmospheric sulfur, the French traveler Constantin-Francois Volney noted that one sixth of the population of Egypt either died or fled the country when the flow of the Nile suffered a severe reduction.

“Soon after the end of November, the famine carried off, at Cairo, nearly as many as the plague.” Historians estimate the death toll worldwide from the effects of the Laki eruption at between 1.5 to 6 million people—this at a time when total world population was less than a billion humans.

After the 1912 eruption of Mt. Katmai in Alaska, the Nile’s flow was the lowest ever recorded for the 20th century. Robock’s team found “a significant weakening of the Indian monsoon in response to the 1912 Katmai volcanic eruption,” and failures of rice, millet, and sorghum crops in Nigeria that killed at least 125,000 in western Africa alone.

Geoengineering that benefits Northern hemisphere countries but trigger such side-affects in other regions might be considered a form of “soft” warfare—inadvertent, but nonetheless producing massive deaths in other countries, measured in the millions. Would it be surprising if the other countries took steps, including sabotage of the geoengineering projects, to defend themselves? Would it be surprising if they did not?

To many, it is not the identified, anticipated side-affects of geoengineering that frighten, but the unanticipated ones. Biologists who study the dynamic workings of the environment, especially, voice concern over the geoengineers’ attempts at blunt, heavy-handed manipulation of the entire planet. Sallie Chisholm, world-renowned authority on marine microbes at MIT: “Proponents of research on geoengineering simply keep ignoring the fact that the biosphere is a player (not just a passive responder) in whatever we do, and its trajectory cannot be predicted. It is a living breathing collection of organisms (mostly microorganisms) that are evolving every second—a ‘self-organizing, complex, adaptive system’ (the strict term). These types of systems have emergent properties that simply cannot be predicted. We all know this! Yet proponents of geoengineering research leave that out of the discussion.”

Klein’s coverage of the Royal Society’s geoengineering gathering in 2011 prompted the following observation: “The Geoclique (of geoengineering proponents) is crammed with overconfident men prone to complimenting each other on their fearsome brainpower.”

I’ve been told many times, by intelligent though very busy men and women, that “Something will come up to solve our climate problems.” After all, it always happens in the movies. But the “Last-minute Geoengineers in White Hats Save the Day” scenario resolves itself in real life to the following, in Klein’s words: “We very likely would not be dealing with a single geoengineering effort but some noxious brew of mixed-up techno-fixes—sulfur in space to cool the temperature, cloud seeding to fix the droughts it causes, ocean fertilization in a desperate gambit to cope with acidification, and carbon-sucking machines to help us get off the geo-junk once and for all...The earth—our life support system—would itself be put on life support, hooked up to machines 24/7 to prevent it from going full-tilt monster on us. And the risks are greater still because we might well be dealing with multiple countries launching geoengineering efforts at once, creating unknown and unknowable interactions.”

All to produce this: “We would have a roof, not a sky—a milky, geoengineered ceiling gazing down on a dying, acidified sea.” Geoengineering offers us not health, not solutions, but an entire planet in intensive care, stuffed with tubes and needles and monitors. That’s the best-case scenario, assuming nothing goes wrong. Brought to us by the same overconfident, brash men who brought us the Titanic, the BP Horizon gulf oil spill, the 2008 financial meltdown, the pro-business wing of the environmental movement, and the nuclear reactors on the Fukushima coast. Welcome to our brave new world.

Getting us out of our mess, quickly. Klein’s 2014 book despairs of the power-brokers and the mainline environmental groups saving us from the impending catastrophe. She is not completely despondent, though, for she sees a glimmer of hope in the gathering influence of indigenous peoples and peasant folk standing up to the destructive plans of extractive corporations for their lands: the Blockadia movement.

Beyond their common-sense approach, their urgency, and the frequent female leadership, the participants of Blockadia are characterized by another commonality: a way of thinking about themselves and the earth distinctly at odds with that of the modern, urbanized culture surrounding them. The most revealing articulations come from two unlikely sources: the peasants and villagers of poor, undeveloped southeast Europe (Greece and Romania) and the historically marginalized indigenous peoples of Canada’s First Nations.

One of the leaders at the Halkidiki peninsula, young mother Melachrini Liakou, told Klein: “I am part of the land. I respect it, I love it and I don’t treat it as a useless object...Because I want to live here this year, next year, and to hand it down to the generations to come. In contrast, Eldorado and any other mining company, they want to devour the land, to plunder it, to take away what is most precious for themselves.”

Pungesti, Romania villager Doina Dediu: “Our kitchens are filled with homemade jams and preserves, sacks of nuts, crates of honey and cheese, all produced by us. We are not even that poor. Maybe we don’t have money, but we have clean water and we are healthy and we just want to be left alone.”

Canada First-Nation educator Lelanne Simpson of the Mississiauga Nishnaaberg tribe: the extractive view is “stealing...taking things out of relationship.” The Anishinaabe view is “a way of living designed to generate life, not just human life but the life of all living things...Our systems are designed to promote more life.” This concept of balance is often translated as “the good life,” but Simpson prefers the translation “continuous rebirth.”

“The task,” Klein reflects, “is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—(an alternative) one embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance.”

All of this should sound familiar: these are expressions of the very same Earth Wisdom John Muir developed in his life of rambling over the land, the same immanent worldview espoused by the Taoists in China for over two thousand years. We have come full circle, which is intriguing. Like Muir and Taoists, Blockadia’s indigenous peoples and southeast Europe villagers insist on the centrality of respect and love for the earth, and resolutely reject the dominance of commercial interests plundering the natural world for profit. The activist movement Klein invokes resembles nothing so much as the early radical environmentalists of the 1970s, who explicitly rejected anthropocentrism and claimed the Gaiacentrism at the heart of Taoism and the hidden Muir.

While Blockadia was blooming around the world in 1913, the divide between the pro-business Green groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the centrist ones widened, particularly over the issue of fracking natural gas, which “provoked enormous tensions, with grass-roots activists accusing the EDF of providing cover for polluters.”

A May, 2013 letter to the EDF signed by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and 66 other groups and individuals, blasted the EDF for its direct role in the creation of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD). “CSSD bills itself as a collaborative effort between ‘diverse interests with a common goal,’ but our goals as a nation are not, and cannot, be the same as those of Chevron, Consol Energy, EQT Corporation, and Shell, all partners in CSSD. These corporations are interested in extracting as much shale gas and oil as possible, and at a lower cost. We are interested in minimizing the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels and in facilitating a rapid transition to the real sustainable energy sources—the sun, the wind, and hydropower.”

Step one for getting out of a hole: Stop digging.

After surveying where we are as a civilization and where the scientific findings indicate we are going, Klein asks the bottom-line question: “What is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology...The challenge, then, is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it's that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible."

Since Blockadia provides such an alternative, earth-centered worldview, married to an activism that flows directly from it, Klein at the end puts all her hopes on Blockadia inspiring a mass populist movement, similar to that of Civil Rights in the mid-20th century and the Abolitionists a century earlier in the United States, compelling the needed changes in our governing elite and economic system. Capitalism itself must be transformed, for basic aspects of that economic system are at cross-purposes with the planet.

A big challenge. “But it gets bigger,” she admits. “Because of our endless delays, we also have to pull off this massive transformation without delay. The International Energy Agency warns that if we do not get our emissions under control by a rather terrifying 2017, our fossil fuel economy will ‘lock-in’ extremely dangerous warning.”
Klein is under no illusions: she realizes that the transformation will be fought, savagely, by the powerful economic elite. “How can we create change so that the people responsible for the crisis do not feel threatened by the solutions? How...do you reassure members of a panicked, megalomaniacal elite that they are still masters of the universe, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

“The answer is: you don’t. You make sure you have enough people on your side to change the balance of power and take on those responsible, knowing that true populist movements always draw from both the left and the right.”

Positive reviews of This Changes Everything articulated the challenge and the hope. Mason Inman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Naomi Klein’s latest book may be the manifesto that the climate movement—and the planet—needs right now...For those with whom her message does resonate—and they are likely to be legion—her book could help catalyze the kind of mass movement she argues the world needs now.” Indeed, the book came out the very month--September, 2014--that 400,000 activists staged the Peoples Climate March in New York City.

Alas, neither Klein’s book nor the 2014 march precipitated the hoped-for mass populist movement. The book was widely-reviewed and debuted at number 10 on the NY Times nonfiction best-seller list on October 5. It slipped to number 12 the next week, number 17 the next, and dropped off the list by the end of the month. Meanwhile, The Boys in the Boat and Unbroken roared on month after month, it evidently being more pleasant to read about others’ triumphs over daunting challenges, than to actually make it happen yourself in your own time.

The “alternative worldview” of Klein, her southeast Europe villagers and indigenous peoples, and the worldview of the hidden Muir would mark time for nearly a year. But in the summer of 2015 someone else took up the banner, attracting considerably more attention, and making that year, and the U.N. climate conference in Paris ending it, remarkable for providing the first serious glimmer of hope that humanity might be saved from its headlong rush to catastrophe.

The new standard-bearer was a humble Argentinian named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a city-dweller and devout member of the West’s oldest institution of power. Anyone concerned with the earth and the future of humanity on the planet must seriously consider the thinking of this modest man, also known as Pope Francis I.

Next Week, Part 6. Dawn of Hope 2015: Pope Francis’ Encyclical

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