Tag archive for environmental

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Not an optimist. Not on Twitter

The writer, journalist, and thinker Ta-Nehisi Coates has been embroiled in controversy for years now. Seemingly his every move attracts controversy, (for reasons mysterious to small-town hick yours truly). Near as I can tell Coates has not been doing anything another prominent and successful writer wouldn’t like to do, such as moving to Paris for a year with his family in 2009, or writing and publishing the great The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic, or for winning the National Book Award, or for attracting a vast following on Twitter, or for purchasing a brownstone in Brooklyn, or for today abruptly pulling the plug on that media.


On December 17, 2017, the philosopher and activist Cornel West published an editorial in The Guardian with the title: “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”.[33] The premise of the article was that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy” and, in West’s view, represents “narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neo-liberalism” by wrongly casting former PresidentBarack Obama as a successor to such figures as Malcolm X as an African-American hero.[33] West believes that Obama (which on a previous occasion he had called a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface“)[34] should never be compared to activists, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., who in their fight against white supremacy spoke out against systemic biases in predatory capitalism and war; according to West, this is because Obama, while he is of the same racial class, is part of the system that the activists should fight against.[33]

The same day, West shared the article on Twitter, attracting tweets in response from many others, including hundreds of supporters of Coates.[35][36] The next day, West’s tweet was retweeted by the alt-rightwhite supremacistRichard Spencer, who indicated tacit agreement with West’s criticism of Coates.[35][37] Shortly afterwards, Coates, who had enjoyed a following of over 1.25 million other Twitter users, deactivated his Twitter account.[35][38][39]

As Jonathan Chait remarked from bitter personal experience, “neoliberal” has become the Left’s favorite insult, and seems to mean more or less not living up to the legacy of FDR in the Great Depression. In an essay about this insult, Chait includes a pretty great joke from Lyndon Johnson, who although lionized among liberals today for the Great Society and civil rights legislation, in his time was considered a sell-out by the Left:

“What’s the difference between a cannibal and a liberal?” Johnson joked during his presidency. “A cannibal doesn’t eat his friends.”






But Coates, as that look indicates, isn’t here to joke around, he’s got something important to say, and frankly, part of what he’s saying is that the news isn’t good. That’s part of his message. To make that point (in an interview lost to memory) he spoke admiringly of Elizabeth (Betsyu) Kolbert, the indefatiguable chronicler of climate change and The Sixth Extinction.

That’s why I was so appalled when Krista Tippett, the usually thoughtful spirit animating the On Being podcast, insisted on asking Coates “the optimism question,”: even after specifically promising him she wouldn’t. It’s kind of incredible and it’s right in the transcript.

Ms. Tippett: And I told you before we walked out here that I’m not gonna ask you to be optimistic.

Mr. Coates: OK, but now you are?

Ms. Tippett: No, I’m not, because I see that everywhere you go, you’re telling this truth, and then white people want you to say, “OK, so where can we find our hope?” And I was watching you on Colbert recently — somebody saw that? He really wanted you to give hope.

Here’s what I find when you write: “Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me.”

Amazingly, that eloquent defense is not enough. It’s as if Tippett is driven to insist on that most American of demands from a public performance: a happy ending.

Ms. Tippett: You don’t have hope. Or you don’t want to use that word, because that word —

Mr. Coates: No, no, no.

Ms. Tippett: But you are — there’s a focus. There’s an energy…

Mr. Coates: You know what it is? I don’t actually think I’m that singular in this. I don’t know — and I don’t know if there are journalists here, but you have to understand: That’s my training. I was trained as a journalist. Journalists go out and look for things that are wrong in the world, and then they write them. And it is not the case that your editor says, “OK, that’s a cool story, but there’s no hope at the end.”


That’s not a thing editors say to journalists, which is what I am. And so it’s not so much that I even object to hope. It’s just that the thing I do, that’s not a criteria for. You know what I mean?

She actually still doesn’t understand, but finally corners him on one corner of American life which does “give him hope” and inspiration.

Ms. Tippett: Where I find you to be closest to what I think other people are wanting from you, when they want you to be hopeful, is when you write and speak about Malcolm X.

Mr. Coates: Yeah, he gave me hope. He did, he did.

Ms. Tippett: You talk about — he presented, more than anybody else, the possibility of what you call “collective self-creation.”

Mr. Coates: Right. Well, you know what? I would listen to his lectures, and I just felt free. It’s not “hope” like — I think what people want is, “Tell us that we’re going to get past this.”

Ms. Tippett: That it’s going to be OK.

Mr. Coates: “Tell us it’s going to be OK.” So that’s one thing, right?

But there’s a different kind of hope. There are people in the world who accept that their life ends in death, and that’s bad, but that’s what’s gonna happen. And then within that, they find joys and hopes in between: “Oh, I have the ability…”

So for Malcolm — to me, it was: I can speak about the world in a way that is reflective of my life and my community. I can do that. I don’t have to calibrate my speech. I don’t have to calibrate how I look. I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right.

And so that was big for me, as a writer. When I started writing, there was a school of writing that says: Given that the audience is obviously — when you reach to any size, is not gonna be majority-black — that you have to hold people’s hands. You have to explain to them. And the Malcolm influence on me said: No, you don’t. Write as you hear it. Write as you hear it.

And in fact, I don’t even think that’s a particular black thing, because if you’re black in this world, and you are gonna become educated on the — what is considered mainstream art in this world, mainstream traditions — nobody slows down for you. Nobody is gonna hold your hand [laughs] and explain The Brady Bunch to you. Nobody’s gonna do that. Catch up.

Yes. “I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way.” Or talk, or write. Facing unpleasant facts, as Orwell said, is a job too — a job for a writer.

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Kingsnorth: Environmental activism doesn’t work

Because the scientific news about climate change continues to cast a gloomy shadow over our future, and perhaps because the press is bored with the usual happy Earth Day talk, two prominent magazines featured this week scathing denunciations of climate activism. 

In Pacific Standard, James McWilliams of Texas State University calls for a Kafka-esque "narrative of complete and utter ruin," as opposed to the false hope offered by the likes of activist Bill McKibben:

…the problem with climate change discourse isn’t the skeptic. It’s the true believer—and the fact that, for him, the slow burn of global warming obviates radical action despite knowing that nothing else will do. This paradox leaves many of us who take climate change seriously more or less speechless—or merely talking about building codes—while the planet cooks due to our hyper-charged consumerism.

Meanwhile The New York Times Magazine features the journey in thought of Paul Kingsnorth, formerly a British environmental activist, now a man who has now simply had it with efforts to slow or halt climate change and environmental degradation. He thinks it's useless. 

“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”

Kingsnorth and a fellow former activist, Dougland Hine, together — almost accidentally — launched an "Uncivilization" movement. Hine explained:

“People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’"

Two points. First, as Lucy Jones the thought leader of the USGS efforts to prepare for disaster (climatogical or geological) in Southern California put it in a talk last December at the American Geophysical Union — Imagine an American without Los Angeles — disasters are inevitable, but catastrophes are not.

Example? She offered the experience of the Northridge earthquake of l994 in Los Angeles vs Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The Northridge earthquake was one of the biggest disasters in the history of the world in its time, in terms of cost, but the governmental response was effective, and although the regional economy took a dip as freeways, telephone lines, and other infrastructure took a major hit, not to mention the loss of nearly sixty people, Los Angeles recovered quickly.

In contrast the inept governmental response to Katrina turned a disaster into a full-scale catastrophe, resulting in the largest diaspora in the history of the U.S., redistributing over a million people from the region across the country. The city still hasn't fully recovered, and is not expected to. 

The point being that, as Jones said, disasters are inevitable, but catastrophes can be averted. The Kingsnorth/Hine argument is that nothing has yet worked, re: climate and the other big environmental questions, and so we must give up on activism to find the radical solution that will work.

But what victories have ever been found in failure, in giving up? Makes no sense to yours truly. 

On a personal scale, we don't stop living, even when faced with the inevitability of death. Far from it. And in the environment, as the renowned poet Wendell Berry points out in The Peace of Wild Things, nature is its own reward:

The Peace of Wild Things


When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Most tellingly of all to yours truly, Kingsnorth in his personal life has moved away from conventional civilization, to remote Scotland, but has chosen to marry and have children.
That in itself is a living faith in "the grace of the world," is it not? 

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Ray Bradbury the environmental activist

In a lovely tribute to the late great writer Ray Bradbury, Felicity Barringer of the inevitable New York Times shows us how much he cared for our planetary home, and how little he trusted our species:  

Unlike classic environmental writing that focuses largely on the good that nature does for the soul or mankind — think Thoreau and Leopold — [Bradbury's story] “And The Moon Be Still As Bright” and its sequel include substantial passages lamenting how bad man is for nature. Its mixture of anger and elegy anticipates writers like Rachel Carson and David Brower.

There’s a caveat: the character who voices these concerns, an archaeologist named Jeff Spender who is part of the fourth expedition to the planet, is happy to murder his shipmates to protect the Martian environment from man. And this is three decades before the founding of groups like Earth First! or the use of the phrase “radical environmentalist.”

But Spender is as eloquent as he is extreme. In a discussion with the captain of his ship, Wilder, Spender argues that most of the Mars explorers will be unable to appreciate the culture they have destroyed (the Martians having died of chicken pox, which arrived with one of the first three expeditions). Referring to his fellow Earth men, he says of Mars: “You know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it, rip the skin off it. And change it to fit ourselves.”

Wilder responds: “We won’t ruin Mars. It’s too big and too good.”

Scornfully, Spender replies: “You think not? We Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.”

BradburybikeSometimes it seems that only in fiction — in stories printed on pulpy paper, for which Bradbury in the late l940's was paid a one and a half pennies a word — can we as a culture think on a planetary scale. 

Perhaps that's unfair. Today Christopher Mims writes an slashing, desperate ode to our reckless indifference to our planet's health, and Nature brings out a study on ecological degradation that foresees us barreling past a climactic tipping point. 

Maybe we'll remember these warnings, but as long as there are books and readers, we will remember Ray Bradbury, for his imagination, his grandeur, his prophetic ambition.

And in Southern California, he will probably also always be known as perhaps our most famous citizen never to drive

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Santorum: Global Warming is a dangerous world view

Leading in the national polls in the Republican party, at least for this week, Rick Santorum denies on Face the Nation that he ever said President Obama wasn't a Christian, though he implied as much yesterday with a remark about his phony theology.

Today he implies that Obama's faith has been corrupted by environmentalism: 

I just said that when you have a world view that elevates the world above man, and says that we can't take those resources because we're going to harm the Earth by things that are frankly just not scientifically proven, like for example the politicization of the whole global warming debate, I mean this is just all an attempt to centralize power and give more power to the government.



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Bumbling environmentalists, according to Carl Hiassen

The great newspaperman and comic/detective novelist discusses journalism, esp. environmental journalism, with Curtis Brainard: 

Newspaper cutbacks are a recurring theme in your novels. How do you see them affecting environmental journalism?

They’re a grave threat, because the first things that tend to go are investigative and explanatory journalists. Everything becomes shorter and more bite-sized. Environmental journalism can be complicated. It’s one of the most important things to do, yet it’s also one of the first things they start hacking at.

Amen. I've managed to place a few longer stories in recent months, but it ain't easy, and only a fool would do it for the money. Good to see a genial man like Hiassen find a way to make it work. 

Irony is that the interview with the journalist bemoaning cuts is too short!

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The beautiful secret: Robinson Jeffers

From an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:

[Robinson] Jeffers celebrated the "transhuman magnificence" of nature, the beautiful things both vast and near that can provide even a 21st century reader with solace, even if we are often a muddled, ugly species and even if all things, as they do, fade away. 

Don't often hear poets extolled on the editorial pages of a major newspaper. At the heart of the essay is a quote from a poem written late in Jeffers' life, after he had suffered many grevious losses:


Cokinos writes:

Jeffers goes on, considering what is gone (his beloved wife) and what remains (trees that herons nest in, the material universe as a kind of divinity). He still "can feel the beautiful secret/In places and stars and stones…/I wish that all human creatures might feel it./That would make joy in the world, and make men perhaps a little nobler — as a handful of wildflowers."




The beautiful secret…  


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Love is the engine, but love is not remembered

So writes Charles Bowden, in the award-winning Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing. 

This is an "environmental" book, but I don't believe Bowden ever mentions that word. Yet unlike nearly every other book about nature I can think save a couple written by John Muir or Edward Abbey, this "environmental" book does bring up "love" and/or "sex" quite frequently…and even bawdily. 

Bowden writes:

Love is the engine, the only thing that matters, the sensation that moves the planet down some path that makes today look less than tomorrow. And love is not remembered. The wars, the rich, the blues men beating their women, the long drag off that joint, the killing ground, these get remembered. Along with famines, plague, and those other two horsemen riding death through the duly recorded pages. But not love. It simply moves things. All the forgotten mothers. And lovers. And eager lips facing down history and reaching for warmth amid the cold stars of midnight. 

I believe this. But I cannot clearly tell you what love is. 

Bowden is not being sentimental here; in another passage, he mocks those scientists who would attempt to chalk up every quirk of every creature's behavior by "evolution" or "instinct." He's simply puzzled — and fascinated by love. Reading this book about the natural world, one wonders: why is this so rare?  

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Tom Friedman, Cut to Shreds

Matt Taibbi is the writer as slasher. When you finish with one of his pieces you feel a little light-headed, as you might feel if you were a tough guy, and had just rolled some local thug. But the thing is, in Taibbi's case, the thug (be it Bush, Palin, or Erica Jong) always seems to deserve the mugging. So it feels good, in a slightly sick, pro-wrestling sort of way. 

Taibbi's latest effort, in which he tears the hypocritical Tom Friedman to shreds, is, as they say in Hollywood, very funny. Which is true of Friedman, too, but Friedman doesn't realize it.

First Taibbi begins with Friedman's often ludicrous rhetoric:

Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even
if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the
“illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what
you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster
Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping
and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your
steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving
without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s
analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:

"The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”

of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly,
what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging
when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does
that even begin to make sense?

Then he moves on to a more substantive complaint, that Friedman has remade himself as an environmentalist, when his lifestyle is all about chewing up the planet:

To review quickly, the “Long Bomb” Iraq war plan Friedman supported as
a means of transforming the Middle East blew up in his and everyone
else’s face; the “Electronic Herd” of highly volatile international
capital markets he once touted as an economic cure-all not only didn’t
pan out, but led the world into a terrifying chasm of seemingly
irreversible economic catastrophe; his beloved “Golden Straitjacket” of
American-style global development (forced on the world by the “hidden
fist” of American military power) turned out to be the vehicle for the
very energy/ecological crisis Friedman himself warns about in his new
book; and, most humorously, the “Flat World” consumer economics
Friedman marveled at so voluminously turned out to be grounded in such
total unreality that even his wife’s once-mighty shopping mall empire,
General Growth Properties, has lost 99 percent of its value in this
year alone.
So, yes, Friedman is suddenly an environmentalist of sorts.

the fuck else is he going to be? All the other ideas he spent the last
ten years humping have been blown to hell.

Color me unimpressed that he
scrounged one more thing to sell out of the smoldering, discredited
wreck that should be his career; that he had the good sense to quickly
reinvent himself before angry Gods remembered to dash his brains out
with a lightning bolt. But better late than never, I suppose. Or as
Friedman might say, “Better two cell phones than a fish in your

And for a funny cartoon version of the same argument, called How Green Was My Mustache, see the cover of the New York Press here. (And by way of contrast, here's a disappointingly uninformative profile from The New Yorker of the same famous mustachioed opiner…they're better than that.)

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Nothing is More Conservative

In l990, Gary Snyder dedicated a new library at UC Davis with a magnificent speech, perhaps the single most eloquent “environmental” speech I’ve ever heard or read. 

In it he gave us the library as a watershed, of things and thoughts, and found its commonality with the land on which it stands.

It’s called “The Forest in the Library.”

It’s worth some remembering. (It’s not available on-line, as far as I can Google, but it can be found in a book called “A Place in Space,” which can be had through the astoundingly wonderful abebooks site for a mere $4.00 plus shipping.)

Here’s the first of a couple of quotes:

In the old and original spirit of dedications, and in honor of the life of buildings, I want to invoke the many presences that are here – not invisible, just rarely seen – whose goodwill towards this projects certain can be hoped for. We are right on the territory of the old Patwin village of Putah-toi, which was a large, settled, and affluent community whose memories went back several thousand years. May the deeply conservative spirit of the Native Californians, and their love for lore and rituals that preserve it, welcome this structure to a long and useful life. May the even older presences here – the valley oaks and in particular the great oak within the courtyard (bemused as it may be by the recent changes), the Swaninson’s hawks that soar past the top of Sproul Hall, the burrowing owls, and Putah Creek itself (reduced as it is for the moment)—lend their support to this current human effort of a university and a library. May the trees that were sacrificed for this expansion be justified by the good work that should come forth. We devoutly hope that this large enterprise will serve the welfare of watersheds, owls, trees, and, of course, human beings.

Yes…this is the best expression of a long-standing conviction that has been growing in me, despite my inability to express it clearly.

Let me put it boldly:

Noting is more conservative than wanting to save the earth, the air, the woods, the water, and the world they create together.

Am I making any sense?

Here’s how I put it to the social conservatives at Rod Dreher’s/Dallas Morning News/Crunchy Con/Beliefnet site. I don’t think they like me over there but I believe in my heart and soul that trying to save the earth is deeply conservative and keep trying to convince them, and this process seems to help me gather my thoughts.

On the table is the question: What should social conservatives do about Obama?

I called for:

…a conservatism not just of sexual mores, but also of money, blood, and
earth. Meaning — no foreign adventures, a Federal budget that is not
all things to all people, including corporations, and a recognition
that our civilization depends on the natural capital of the planet.

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Not Against the Environment: Against Environmentalists

Sometimes I think rightwingers (I’m talking about you, Jonah) write these columns just to drive enviros up the wall. It’s such malarkey, to put it politely. Goldberg admits he’s no environmentalist, blames John Muir for environmentalism (which of course includes heinous measures to improve air quality, water quality, and reduce energy consumption) and claims he’s a conservationist, as if he were on the front lines with David Brower, saving Mineral King from Disney, and Julia "Butterfly" Hill, saving Luna. Right.

Goldberg then declares he’s trying to save environmentalism from environmentalists.

Insincerity, meet Jonah Goldberg.

But taking these arguments on with logic is probably the wrong way to go. Better to respond with the right’s favorite weapon, mockery, as Benjamin Cohen did for McSweeney’s, in a piece entitled An Anti-Environmentalist Drafts His Next Newspaper Column While Eating Takeout and Driving His Hummer.

Cohen opens:

Those alarmists have complained for
years that unsightly gobs of plastic bags won’t deteriorate for
centuries. In landfills, in oceans, flying out of the garbage truck in
front of me as I write this column on my PDA. Then they go and complain
about the tiny, tiny chemicals inside, like this bisphenol-A thing they
made up—chemicals they can’t even see! Or pronounce! So which is it?
Unsightly gobs or invisible fake chemicals? The environmental movement
is riddled with these moral contradictions.

And concludes…

You don’t have to worry about
global warming anyway. Some are now arguing that what we lose in cooler
temps we make up for with less spending on clothes. Bad news for Old
Navy; good news for Americans and the environment. It all evens out
economically, just like in that Seinfeld episode where everything always evens out. Can you believe that Kramer guy? What a racist!

Incidentally, racism is no longer a problem. They caught Kramer. And that one guy is running for president.

Thank you, Ben.

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