Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Freaky stuff about the environment (people who think we're NOT screwing up our planet; and the Gaia guy who thinks nuclear power is the solution)

1. The 'Two Sides' of the Climate Debate – by David Roberts/Huffington Post

Bad Actors and their enablers have been pushing a particular spin on the climate debate: it has "two sides," the denialists and the alarmists. What can wise people above it all in the center do but roll their eyes at the grubbiness of it all?

I'd like to introduce you to one side of the debate:

Only 13 percent of congressional Republicans say they believe that human activity is causing global warming, compared to 95 percent of congressional Democrats. Moreover, the number of Republicans who believe in human-induced global warming has actually dropped since April 2006, when the number was 23 percent.

OK, there are the denialists: 87% of the Republicans in Congress.

Now, where are those alarmists? As the "other side" of the debate, we could expect about 87% of congressional Democrats to answer to that description, right?

But we survey the Democrats and find a patchwork of apathy and equivocation. We find endless hearings and tepid cap-and-trade proposals. Only two bills -- Waxman's Safe Climate Act in the House, Sanders' Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act in the Senate -- even pretend to target the 80% emissions reductions by 2050 scientists say will be needed to avoid irreparable damage. Suffice to say, those bills -- the closest thing on offer to alarmism -- are not supported by 87% of Congressional Democrats.

So if the alarmists are not in Congress, where are they? Where's this other side we always hear about? Al Gore? James Hansen? The director of Day After Tomorrow ? That one college kid at that one rally that one time?

Even accepting what is absurd -- that these so-called alarmists commit an error equivalent to denying anthropogenic climate change altogether -- how can this motley Band of the Shrill be said to balance a debate against 87% of Republicans in Congress?

Perhaps the fact that one of America's two political parties is led almost entirely by ignoramuses poses a somewhat larger barrier to commonsense climate policy than, say, the indelicacy of Al Gore's remarks on hurricanes.

COMMENT by johninoregon:
"Perhaps the fact that one of America's two political parties is led almost entirely by ignoramuses poses a somewhat larger barrier to commonsense climate policy than, say, the indelicacy of Al Gore's remarks on hurricanes."

I'm sure there's plenty of ignorance at play, but I think there's also a steaming pile of something else----lies from Republicans who know better but don't want to rile up their corporate supporters.

2. Cheney's Fund Manager Attacks... Cheney -- by Brett Arends /

The oil-based energy policies usually associated with Vice President Dick Cheney have just come under scathing attack. There's nothing remarkable about that, of course -- except the person doing the attacking.

Step forward, Jeremy Grantham -- Cheney's own investment manager. "What were we thinking?' Grantham demands in a four-page assault on U.S. energy policy mailed last week to all his clients, including the vice president.

Titled "While America Slept, 1982-2006: A Rant on Oil Dependency, Global Warming, and a Love of Feel-Good Data," Grantham's philippic adds up to an extraordinary critique of U.S. energy policy over the past two decades.

What Cheney makes of it can only be imagined.

"Successive U.S. administrations have taken little interest in either oil substitution or climate change," he writes, "and the current one has even seemed to have a vested interest in the idea that the science of climate change is uncertain."

Yet "there is now nearly universal scientific agreement that fossil fuel use is causing a rise in global temperatures," he writes. "The U.S. is the only country in which environmental data is steadily attacked in a well-funded campaign of disinformation (funded mainly by one large oil company)."

That's Exxon Mobil .

As for Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Lindzen, who appears everywhere to question global warming, Grantham mocks him as "the solitary plausible academic [the skeptics] can dig up, out of hundreds working in the field."

And for those nonscientists who are still undecided about the issue, Grantham reminds them of an old logical principle known as Pascal's Paradox. It may be better known as the "what if we're wrong?" argument. If we act to stop global warming and we're wrong, well, we could waste some money. If we don't act, and we're wrong ... you get the picture.

As for the alleged economic costs of going "green," Grantham says that industrialized countries with better fuel efficiency have, on average, enjoyed faster economic growth over the past 50 years than the U.S.

Grantham says that other industrialized countries have far better energy productivity than the U.S. The GDP produced per unit of energy in Italy is 50% higher. Fifty percent. Japan: 60%.

And China "already has auto fuel efficiency standards well ahead of the U.S.!" he adds. You've probably heard about China's slow economic growth.

Grantham adds that past U.S. steps in this area, like sulfur dioxide caps adopted by the late President Gerald Ford, have done far more and cost far less than predicted. "Ingenuity sprung out of the woodwork when it was correctly motivated," he writes.

There is also a political and economic cost to our oil dependency, Grantham notes. Yet America could have eliminated its oil dependency on the Middle East years ago with just a "reasonable set of increased efficiencies." All it would take is 10% fewer vehicles, each driving 10% fewer miles and getting 50% more miles per gallon. Under that "sensible but still only moderately aggressive policy," he writes, "not one single barrel would have been needed from the Middle East." Not one.

I repeat: This is not some rainbow coalition. This is not even Al Gore. Grantham is the chairman of Boston-based fund management company Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo. He is British-born but has lived here since the early 1960s.

Grantham is, like most fund managers, prudent, conservative and inclined to favor the free market and smaller government. He has even said he supported Bush-Cheney in 2000. That doesn't make him particularly political. He also manages a portion of the Heinz-Kerry fortune, as well as those of many other wealthy types.

But he's certainly a man Cheney respects highly. According to the vice president's last personal financial disclosure form, filed with the Federal Election Commission, Cheney has somewhere between $1.6 million and $6 million of his family's money invested in four of Grantham's funds. These aren't even index funds. These are discretionary funds, where you trust the manager to look at the landscape, analyze all the data, and make the best investments. Cheney must have a lot of faith in Grantham's judgement and analytical skills.

When I met Grantham last autumn he, quite rightly, refused to confirm that the vice president was a client. But you can see the evidence in Cheney's own personal financial disclosure.

There is an investment angle to Grantham's argument. He says he is "certain" that "oil substitution, energy conservation, and related environment issues will be the biggest investment issue of at last the next several decades." He adds: "It is clear there is no single solution so investment opportunities will be spread very broadly, especially in energy conservation."

He believes we will need more nuclear power.

But he calls corn-based ethanol "more or less a hoax" when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "U.S. corn-based ethanol, as opposed to efficient, Brazilian sugar-based ethanol, is merely another U.S. farmer-protection program, made very expensive both directly and indirectly by inflating real agricultural prices."

Tell that to the presidential candidates currently stumping the Iowa caucus. (Incidentally, three MIT scientists told me the same thing about corn ethanol more than a year ago when I interviewed them on the subject. After my article appeared in the Boston Herald , I received a snotty letter denying there was any such thing as "an Iowa corn growers' racket." It was from the "chairman of the Iowa Corn Growers' Association.")

Grantham's full letter can be seen on his company Web site -- , though you will need to register. It appears as the second half of the investment missive "Goldilocks Rules."

Grantham blames three decades of political cowardice for America's backward energy policy. As he dryly notes, "U.S. drivers -- the world's richest and some of the best behaved -- would, it was said, never accept increased taxes, where Italian drivers would! Even tax-neutral policies, such as taxing high mileage cars at purchase and subsidizing efficient cars, were never seriously considered."

The result: the fuel efficiency of U.S. cars has actually gone backward since 1982.

The irony is that this isn't, or shouldn't be, a partisan issue. Grantham singles out the Ford administration for his strongest praise on environmental matters. Everyone since, of both parties, has been a failure, he concludes. "The past 26 years have been such a wasted opportunity," Grantham writes. "This country had previously shown leadership in this field. President Ford got us off to a running start in energy efficiency... With a succession of President Fords, we would have ended up as an environmental leader and a great model."

I would love to know what President Ford's former chief of staff thinks of that.

His name? Richard B. Cheney.

3. The god of small things
After unlocking the secrets of the human genome, the controversial scientist Craig Venter now is trying to engineer a microbe to liberate us from our dependence on oil. Ross Douthat reports. (Sydney Morning Herald)

Back when Craig Venter was the bad boy of science, racing the US Government to sequence the human genome - and using some of his DNA to do it - he kept his face clean-shaven, and often posed for photographs in suits or medical coats.

With his high forehead, bald scalp and laboratory pallor, he looked more like central casting's idea of a respectable scientist than the self-promoting egomaniac that his enemies labelled him, or the surf bum and Vietnam War medic that, as journalists never failed to point out, he had been as a younger man.

These days Venter has the air of a richer, less-rumpled Steve Zissou, the Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer played by Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic . He sports a white beard and has the persistent tan of someone who's spent much of the past few years at sea, having circumnavigated the globe on a yacht, Sorcerer II. His office in Washington seems to boast a model ship for every distinguished-scientist citation, and screens on the walls display a rotating series of photos from his voyage - deep-sea creatures alternating with shots of a windblown Venter at the helm.

Not that Venter has settled into retirement. The voyage may have helped him relax and blow off steam after several years in the eye of a scientific, political, and media hurricane. But it was primarily a Magellan-meets-Darwin expedition in which Venter and his crew sifted the sea for enough biological material to map the genome of, well, the entire planet, collecting millions of microbes on filter paper and shipping them back to Rockville, Maryland, for analysis. Venter's labs once broke apart human DNA and put it back together again; now they're attempting the same thing with microbial genes.

But this time, Venter is out to build new genomes, not just to analyse existing ones. He's not just trying to understand how life works; he's trying to make it work for him, and us. The race to map the human genome, in its headier moments, promised cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer. Venter's undertaking shows promise for something no less ambitious: a cure for our dependence on oil.

The scientific consensus on global warming and the role of carbon-dioxide emissions in heating up the earth is stronger than it has ever been. Concern is growing that the world might be nearing "peak oil" - the moment at which supply starts to decline (leading, some say, to the collapse of industrial civilisation).

Ironically, though, the most-talked-up oil alternative in this alternative-energy moment is a fuel that's long been called a boondoggle: ethanol, a form of alcohol produced through the fermentation of sugar derived from plant matter, usually corn kernels.

Like most alternative fuels, ethanol has problems on both the demand and supply sides of the equation.

So why the excitement over ethanol? The answer isn't in corn kernels, but in the stalks, roots and leaves of corn and other plants - "cellulosic" material that's been difficult to break down into sugars efficiently, but that now may be only a few breakthroughs away from becoming the source that makes ethanol available on the cheap. Cellulosic ethanol could be made from agricultural waste, so we need not rob our food supply for our energy supply. Better, it could be derived from non-food-producing plants grown on land otherwise unsuitable for cultivation.

All that's needed is the right science.

This is where Venter comes in - though arguably, he's been there all along. Genomic research, after all, doesn't just offer scientists an opportunity to take apart the genome of a human being, a mouse, or a bacterium to see how it works and what it does. It offers them a chance - if they're sufficiently ambitious, or hubristic - to change what a genome does, and to make the organism do what we want it to do. And one of the obvious things we might want organisms to do for us -they already do it for their own purposes - is produce energy.

Venter took a roundabout route to scientific prominence. After growing up in a working-class neighbourhood in the San Francisco area, he drifted through junior college, spending most of his time on boats and surfboards, and then enlisted in the navy to avoid being drafted. After training as a medic in San Diego he was sent to Vietnam, where he spent a year in a field hospital in Da Nang during the Tet offensive.

After surviving Vietnam, Venter never drifted again. The brashness remained, and the surfer's disrespect for authority, but they were channelled into a fierce ambition and a desire to make a difference in the world. He got married, went back to community college, and then enrolled in the University of California, San Diego, where he earned a joint doctorate in physiology and pharmacology, choosing research over medicine.

It was followed by a junior faculty position at the State University of New York, Buffalo, where he drove a baby-blue Mercedes, favoured garish shirts and bell-bottoms, split with his wife, and married one of his students, Claire Fraser. In 1984 he took a position at the National Institutes of Health. There he would first impress and then clash with James Watson, the co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, who took over the leadership of the institutes' branch of the nascent Human Genome Project in 1990.

After Venter developed a quick-and-dirty method of identifying genes, Watson, with Venter present, told a 1991 senate meeting that the technique "isn't science" because the machines "could be run by monkeys". By the following northern summer, Venter had quit the health institutes and raised enough venture capital to found the Institute for Genomic Research, or TIGR, where he would have control of all research, although any marketable discoveries would belong to the commercial wing of the enterprise, a company called Human Genome Sciences; this was his initial step on to the nonprofit/for-profit tightrope he has walked ever since.

In 1995 his team published the decoded genetic script for the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae; it was the first time the complete genome of a living organism had been mapped. Later that year, a team led by Fraser published the genome for the parasite Mycoplasma genitalium, a far simpler organism, with only about 500 genes to H.influenzae's 1800.

So began the quest for the "minimal genome", the bare-bones genetic material necessary for life to sustain itself and reproduce. This required dismantling M.genitalium, which suggested another possibility: if you could take a genome apart bit by bit, why not put one together in the same way, creating "life from scratch", as Venter puts it, with a genome of your choice? Meanwhile, Venter sequenced a third microbe, Methanococcus jannaschii, an organism found deep in the Pacific Ocean.

"That organism," Venter says, was responsible for "stimulating our thinking, or my thinking, on the energy front".

But then the human genome beckoned. In 1998 the biotech firm PerkinElmer persuaded Venter to head a new company that would use a technique called "whole-genome shotgunning" to try to speed up the genome-mapping process. At that point the government's Human Genome Project, using a slower, more painstaking method, was seven years away from its projected date of completion. The new company, eventually called Celera, vowed to finish the work in three years. The pledge, and the race that followed, made Venter famous. It also cemented the reputation for egomania he had developed and added a multitude of government scientists and officials to a substantial list of enemies.

The Human Genome Project's custodians would probably have resented any private-sector rival, but Venter made himself easy to loathe. In May of 1998, when he met the project's scientists to outline his company's plans, he suggested that while his team polished off the human genome, they might consider turning their attention to another creature. Specifically, the mouse.

Venter's rivals in government predicted that his method would deliver a patchy, error-ridden product, and warned that if he succeeded in sequencing the genome first, Celera could enjoy a dangerous monopoly over information that rightly belonged in the public domain. They were wrong on both counts, in part because the Human Genome Project, spurred on by the competition, finished about the same time as Celera. A tie was announced in June of 2000; shortly thereafter Celera's stock collapsed, and Venter was forced to resign as president.

He had money, though, from stock in various companies, and he had freedom. Using $US100 million of his own funds, he started three non-profit research centres, which are now consolidated under the J. Craig Venter Institute.

One of the new centres, the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, took up the challenge of creating the minimal genome. Because a minimal genome has no non-essential pathways, it is the ideal template for the creation of designer organisms. By inserting "cassettes" of engineered genes into a stripped-down genome, Venter hoped to construct organisms that would do exactly what he wanted, and nothing else - organisms, for instance, that could serve as "biofactories", carrying out energy-generating functions that had been written into their genetic code. In 2005 he founded Synthetic Genomics, a company that would build on the minimal-genome research.

Meanwhile, he was making his ocean-sifting trip on Sorcerer II. The first third of the material from the voyage (the rest is still being sequenced) has yielded 6 million genes. Somewhere in this wealth of material, perhaps, are the keys to better living through ethanol - the genes that, inserted into a minimal genome, could produce an organism able to break down cellulose quickly and cheaply.

Or at least that's one possibility. Venter is already looking beyond ethanol. It may well be that a gene from the ocean, or elsewhere, will enable a synthetic organism to break down cellulose quickly and cheaply - but that's only the first step to real independence from oil.

"Ethanol's not an ideal fuel," Venter said. In the long run, you want fuels that burn hotter and that don't require long-distance transportation, vast tracts of land, and huge biorefineries. Fuels, perhaps, that you could make at home. ("Everybody would have their own little bath in their backyard and fuel their car from it.") Natural gas from sewage sludge. ("Pretty bad-smelling stuff coming out of septic tanks. If you could convert it into something useful and burn it … methane is natural gas, you know.") And hydrogen, the cleanest fuel, from sunlight. ("We're working on modifying photosynthesis to go directly from sunlight into hydrogen production.")

But research needs steady support, and investors tend to move in cycles. Consequently, Venter believes, the US Government needs to make a steady commitment to alternative energy. But not with props like its 51 cents-a-gallon (a US gallon is 3.78 litres) ethanol subsidy.

The Government should be funding research rather than products, he says, so as not to create "a false industry that collapses once the subsidies collapse". Venter wants to see the Government fund a variety of competing companies and research projects. "I'd rather see a thousand points of light than one dull bureaucracy," he says. "We don't have to have a single industrial-complex solution to this problem."

A thousand points of light. A thousand Craig Venters. "I'm hoping our research teams come up with the breakthroughs," he says, "but I think as a society, we need those breakthroughs, and there's no guarantee we'll make them. So … I'd be almost as happy if somebody else makes those breakthroughs."


Environmental Guru Lovelock Urges Expansion of Nuclear Energy
James Lovelock is attracting attention again with his provocative ideas. The former hero of the environmental movement has called for an end to "green romanticism." The only way to delay climate catastrophe, says the environmental guru, is through the massive expansion of nuclear energy.
By Marco Evers/Der Spiegel

A few days ago, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking gave a speech in London in which he said that nuclear war no longer poses the only threat to humanity's very existence. According to Hawking, the dangers posed by climate change are now almost equally as great, and we must do everything that is humanly possible if we are to have any hope of averting them.

When James Lovelock heard about Hawkings' lecture, three hundred and fifty kilometers away at his remote estate near Cornwall, he exclaimed loudly: "Hawking is underestimating the danger."

Lovelock is a chemist, inventor, author and visionary environmental guru. Using a detector he invented himself, he was the first to provide evidence of ozone-consuming fluorochlorohydrocarbons (FCHC) in the atmosphere. More importantly, Lovelock is the inventor of the famous "Gaia hypothosis," which holds that the planet (which he named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia), constantly controls all of its systems on land, in the water and in the air in such a way as to preserve life -- almost as if the earth itself were a living organism.

Lovelock's fellow scientists were initially appalled by the New Age nature of his theory. But now his ideas have not only become a cornerstone of the environmental movement, but have also acquired a new name: "Earth System Science."

Lovelock's current prognoses for the earth's inhabitants are as gloomy as they are provocative. He is convinced that the 21st century will not be a good one. He claims that climate change caused by human activity will devastate large swaths of the earth, and by the year 2100 there will only be about a billion people left -- and possibly only half as many.

Lovelock is now 87 years old and happy that he will be able to avoid this future -- although he has nine grandchildren. Sometimes he feels like a Roman citizen living around the year 480, watching as an empire meant for eternity fades away, or like a doctor delivering a fatal diagnosis. And at times he probably relishes how he distresses his audiences (he is in demand worldwide as a speaker) in his role as a prophet of doom. "Even a nuclear war," says Lovelock, "would not lead to the level of devastation worldwide that global overheating will cause."

No world power, no scientist, no politician, no consumer forsaking his or her familiar comforts, and neither emissions trading nor wind energy nor biofuels will be capable of preventing the earth's demise, he says. According to Lovelock, it will at best be possible to delay the catastrophe for a while -- primarily through the massive expansion of nuclear energy.

Lovelock presents his bold theories in his shocking page-turner "The Revenge of Gaia," which will be published in German in February. The gist of Lovelock's message is that humanity must begin an "orderly retreat" involving smart planning and technology if it hopes to save its most precious asset: civilization itself.

Hardly any reputable climate researcher or politician is willing to wholeheartedly embrace this combative octogenarian's predictions. After all, the civilized world is beginning to seriously address the need to protect itself against climate change. Climate change was one of the dominant topics at last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her counterparts to devise a new climate treaty. The Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012, but a successor treaty is not yet in sight.

In a letter delivered to US President George W. Bush last week, the heads of global corporations like General Electric, Dupont and Alcoa urged him to support radical measures to protect the world's climate. After having long turned a deaf ear to the problem, Bush has suddenly taken to calling climate change a "serious challenge."

Waste gases burn and steam belches from a steel mill in Canada.
Lovelock, the apocalyptic prophet, is only moderately impressed by such efforts. The elderly gentleman sits in his study on his estate eating cookies and drinking hot chocolate. The stream outside used to freeze over almost every winter, he says, but this hasn't happened since 1991. England's first commercial olive grove was recently planted, and vineyards are also becoming established there. Scorpions will soon be indigenous to Kent, which has always enjoyed the kind of mild climate that has made its gardens famous. Botanists say that palm trees and eucalyptus will be part of England's future landscape.

Lovelock believes that the world needs different political leaders, politicians who are willing to accept the unavoidable and stop pretending that they can do something to stop global warming.

In November, the British Environmental Agency published a list of 100 people who have made significant contributions to saving the world. Lovelock, the Gaia Nostradamus, is fifth on the list, which puts him ahead of environmental activists like Al Gore and Prince Charles. French President Jacques Chirac recently offered him a position on a senior French climate committee. Lovelock will travel to Paris in February.

At the end of this week, an event will take place in Paris that will likely heat up the global warming debate even further. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will present its fourth World Climate Report, the first since 2001. On Friday the IPCC's Working Group I will present a report, based on the most detailed scientific models to date, describing how the planet's climate will change by 2100 and beyond.

Their conclusions reflect a consensus among more than 2,500 researchers and government employees from more than 130 countries. Although members of the working group are likely to grapple over the contents of the report until the very end, some of its conclusions have already been leaked.

According to the group's conclusions, there are no longer any doubts over the validity of the manmade greenhouse effect. Icebergs and glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising and both the air and the oceans are getting warmer. Climatologists have calculated that the average temperature on earth, compared to the pre-industrial age, will have increased by between 2 and 4.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. The most likely scenario predicts an increase of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Not everything the IPCC researchers have to report is bad news. They have made a surprisingly significant downward correction to their prediction of the maximum increase in sea levels by the end of the century -- from 88 centimeters (35 inches) to only 43 (17 inches).

The outlook for the more distant future is less favorable. The greenhouse gases released by human activity during the 21st century alone will continue to cause sea levels to rise for the next 1,000 years, a reflection of just how long the gases remain active in the atmosphere.

In early April, the IPCC's Working Group II will analyze what all this means for life on Earth. The most disturbing report will appear in early May, when Working Group III explains everything else humankind still needs to do.

Lovelock is convinced that he has recognized that in the past Gaia has consistently endeavored to keep living conditions on earth as constant as possible. Although the sun's radiation is now 30 percent more intense than it was when the planet was born, temperatures on earth have not increased by 30 percent. The Earth, says Lovelock, regulates its operating temperature through the interplay between ground, water, air, plants, bacteria and all the animals. But suddenly it was confronted with what Lovelock calls "the human epidemic." In other words, by cutting down forests and engaging in agriculture, humans deprived Gaia of its repair mechanisms.

Gaia, says Lovelock, has been overcome by a fever that has launched a new geological era, one in which disastrous effects are feeding on themselves. In other words, it is getting warmer because it is getting warmer. Someday, says Lovelock, crocodiles will be swimming in the Arctic Ocean once again, just as they did 55 million years ago.

"Our situation," Lovelock says, "is similar to that of a boat that suddenly loses engine power shortly before reaching Niagara Falls. What's the point of trying to repair the engine?" To save what it can, Lovelock believes, the world must embark on a completely different path. Most important, it must abandon the notion of "green romanticism."

Lovelock has nothing but ridicule for environmentalists' favorite issues, such as "sustainable development" and "renewable energy," calling them "well-meaning nonsense." He is convinced that wind and solar energy will never be even remotely capable of meeting worldwide energy needs. In China alone, for example, a new large coal power plant is put into operation every five days, imposing additional burdens on the atmosphere. The only solution, according to Lovelock, is the massive expansion of nuclear energy worldwide.

A reliable supply of electricity, says Lovelock, is the key issue when it comes to survival on a warmer planet. He loses no sleep over the risks of nuclear power.

"Show me the mass graves of Chernobyl," he demands provocatively. No more than a few thousand people died after the 1986 meltdown -- a small price to pay, he says, compared to the millions who could fall victim to CO2. He adds that compact nuclear waste is vastly easier to control than the close to 30 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year by the burning of fossil fuels.

"Fanatical Greens" who confuse nuclear power with nuclear bombs, says Lovelock, have discredited this source of energy. Do-gooders, he adds, are concerned about pesticide residues in bananas and the link between mobile phones and cancer, all the while accepting CO2 poisoning as a necessary evil. "They strain out the mosquitoes while blithely swallowing camels," he says.

Lovelock does give his readers at least some reason for optimism. Humankind, he writes, could use the tools of technology to ease its suffering. For example, engineers should develop jet engines that can tolerate traces of sulfur in kerosene. This, according to Lovelock, would be the easiest way to eject sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere, where they would reflect sunlight back into space, thereby helping cool the earth. Giant mirrors positioned in space would be another option.

And yet none of this will prevent the planet's illness from progressing, at least according to Lovelock's diagnosis, which is ultimately fatal.

But, like almost all prophets of doom, Lovelock will no longer be around to witness the possibility that he could be wrong.

5 The Withering of the American Environmental Movement
The Thrill is Gone
By JEFFREY ST. CLAIR/Counterpunch

"The Dark Ages. They haven't ended yet." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Akind of political narcolepsy has settled over the American environmental movement. Call it eco-ennui. You may know the feeling: restlessness, lack of direction, evaporating budgets, diminished expectations, a simmering discontent. The affliction appears acute, possibly systemic.

Unfortunately, the antidote isn't as simple as merely filing a new lawsuit in the morning or skipping that PowerPoint presentation to join a road blockade for the day. No, something much deeper may be called for: a rebellion of the heart. Just like in the good old days, not that long ago.

What is it, precisely, that's going on? Was the environmental movement bewitched by eight years of Bruce Babbitt and Al Gore? Did it suffer an allergic reaction to the New Order of Things? Are we simply adrift in a brief lacuna in the evolution of the conservation movement, one of those Gouldian (Stephen Jay) pauses before a new creative eruption?

Perhaps, the movement, such as it was, experienced an institutional uneasiness with the rules of engagement during the long cold war in Clinton time. A war (War? Did someone say war?) where hostilities, such as they were, remained buried beneath graceful gestures at meaningful discourse-where the raw passions for rare places are, at the insistence of lawyers and lobbyists, politically sublimated or suppressed altogether.

Environmentalism has never thrived on an adherence to etiquette or quiet entreaties. Yet, that became the mode of operation during Clinton and it has continued through the rougher years of Bush and Cheney. Direct confrontation of governmental authority and corporate villainy was once our operation metier. No longer. None aggression pacts have been signed, an unofficial détente declared. Was it sealed in the spring of 1993 on the lawn of Blair House, perhaps, while the cherry blossoms where in bloom? Did the late Jay Hair, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, forge a deal in the fall of that year to green light the logging of the last ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest? (What was the late Vince Foster's role in all of this? He had one, you know, but that's another story.) Cold wars, naturally, engender such paranoid perambulations.

More than a decade later, this much is clear: the vigor of the environmental movement has been dissipated, drained by the enforced congeniality displayed in our disputes with Clinton and Bush, the Democrats in congress, and the grim, green-suited legions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Despite the rampages of the Bush administration, the big green groups can't even rouse themselves into much more than the most reflexive kind of hysteria, fundraising letters printed in bold type.

Like so many vacant-eyed victims of Stockholm Syndrome, most professional environmentalists find themselves conscripts to the conference room and the consensus table, situations about as satisfying as computerized chess or phone sex. (I'll sign up for one jolt of Electro-shock over four years of group therapy any day.)

Accusations of elitism, hurled at us like political creampies, from the property right jihadis, hit their targets more often than not these days. Once highly regarded (and deeply reviled) as fierce advocates of the "public interest," environmentalists now are largely dismissed in the living rooms of America as merely another "special interest" group (weaker than most), peddling its meager influence on the Hill, angling for access to the anterooms (never the control room) of power, or, at least, a line item in the federal budget.

What's worse, our best efforts these days hardly seem to even raise a hackle on the hierophants of industry. After okaying the logging of ancient forests, signing off on anti-wilderness legislation in Oregon, Idaho and Montana, pampering the whims of Bruce Babbitt (and Dick Cheney), endorsing NAFTA and GATT, the failure to stand up for high level whistleblowers like former BLM head Jim Baca, the mainstream environmental groups don't scare anyone anymore. Except maybe their own members. Yes, they may scare them a great deal, indeed.

Something Happened

The surest sign of decadence in a social/political movement is its engagement in the suppression of internal dissent: such decadence now erodes the moral core of the environmental movement. Stray beyond the margins of permitted discourse, publicly critique the prevailing "strategy," strike out in an authorized new direction and the overlords of the environmental movement crack down. They enfilade the insurgents with legalistic maledictions, gag orders, and accusations of sedition.

Witness the Sierra Club's threats to sue renegade chapters that publicly opposed anti-wilderness bills proposed by the Club's political favorites in Montana. Or its attacks on anti-war protesters in the Club's ranks in Utah. Or NRDC's attempt to squelch the filing of endangered species petitions, for on-the-run critters such as the Queen Charlotte's goshawk. Or the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund's arm-twisting of its own clients in the spotted owl cases. Or the Environmental Defense Fund's betrayal of at-risk communities across America when it endorsed Dow Chemical's proposed "revamping" of the Superfund Act. (Col. Fred Krupp, EDF's CEO, was once overheard telling Carol Browner, Clinton's head of the EPA, "You are our general. We are your troops. We await your orders.") Or the sado-masochistic pleasure that NRDC (yes, them again) displayed while boasting about "breaking the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA."

You don't have to be versed in the works of Hannah Arendt or Michel Foucault (although Madness and Civilization ought to be required reading for all activists and other "eccentrics") to understand the dynamics of power and repression at work here. Activists are now aliens on the political landscape; their relationship to the lawyers, lobbyists, economists, marketing agents, PR flaks and CEOs that management the environmental movement parallels that of welfare mothers to the welfare bureaucrats: abusive indifference.

To quote Jospeh Heller: Something happened. Somewhere along the line, the environmental movement disconnected with the people, rejected its political roots, pulled the plug on its vibrant and militant tradition. It packed its bags, starched its shirts and jetted to DC, where it became what it once despised: a risk-aversive, depersonalized, hyper-analytical, humorless, access-driven, intolerant, centralized, technocratic, dealmaking, passionless, direct-mailing, lawyer-laden monolith to mediocrity. A monolith with feet of clay.

The environmental movement didn't so much go awry as it simply flatlined, cruise-controlled right into an entropic cooldown-the ultimate thermodynamic fate of all closed systems. The Group of Ten (aka: Gang Green) now manifest all the intensity of an insurance cartel; their executives and administrative underlings are much more likely to own dog-eared copies of Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal or (god forbid) Kissinger's Diplomacy, than Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire , Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild , Bill Kittridge's Hole in the Sky or Doug Peacock's Grizzly Years . Forget the eyes, a person's bookshelf is the real window to their soul.

National environmental policies are now engineered by an Axis of Acronyms: EDF, NRDC, WWF: groups without voting memberships and little responsibility to the wider environmental movement. They are the undisputed mandarins of technotalk and lobbyist logic, who gave us the ecological oxymorons of our time: "pollution credits," "re-created wetlands," "sustainable development."

In their relativistic milieu, everything can be traded off or dealt away. For them, the tag-end remains of the native ecosystems on our public lands are endlessly divisible and every loss can be recast as a hard-won victory in the advertising copy of their fundraising propaganda. Settle and move on, is their unapologetic mantra. And don't expect them stick around to live with the consequences of their deals and trade-offs.

Into this political vacuum rough beasts have already been loosed and others are bound to follow. The decline of a militant environmental movement has been countered by the rise of a militant anti-environmental movement, unrestrained, and all to often encouraged by, the agents of federal and state governments. The new anti-environmental movement, a strange hybrid of Aryan Nationists, gun-fetishists and the loonier incarnations of the Wise-Use crowd, have used arson, muggings and deaths to intimidate local environmental activists across the West.

The ranks of this malicious melange continue to expand up and down the spine of the Rockies and across the Great Basin. Like deranged Deadheads on tour, these neo-militians follow roving weapons bazaars (some of which were reportedly backed by arms merchant and Iran/contra star Richard Secord) across the rural backwaters of the American West, from Libby, Montana to Tonopah, Nevada.

At these moveable conclaves of righteousness, the blonde, blue-eyed penitents can purchase enough firepower to call forth the Second Coming-a state goal of some attendees. Here's the Defense Dividend we've all been waiting for, where the Pentagon largesse of the Cold War is offered for sale on the homefront at discount prices: tanks, armor-piercing bullets, APCs, night-vision gunsights, Humvees. It's all there for the bidding.

Living embodiments of the quaint cultural traditions of the West memorialized at places like Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, these characters are preparing to defend what's theirs and what they think ought to be theirs. By force if necessary-perhaps preferably.

What do they want? Simply unfettered rights to grazing, mining and logging on public lands, the federal lands themselves revested to the states or private corporations and, to quote one Arly Gruder, a rancher from somewhere near Salmon, Idaho, arguably America's most inhospitable town: "To run all the damn feds, Jews, Spics and homo-enviros the hell out of here." Run them back across the 100th Meridian, no doubt. But how far? Back to Brooklyn? Back to Juarez? Back to Buchenwald?

Listen to Hugh McKeen, a rancher and former commissioner in Catron County, New Mexico, who told reporter Tony Davis that his neighbors and friends are arming themselves, preparing for a new range war, against greens and their sidekicks, the illegal immigrants: "The people have fought for this land in the past. There have been killings over water. It runs in the genes. You have very independent people here. They want to be left alone. But the government oppresses them. And the environmentalists come in here and want to oppress their life." Apparently, the West is theirs to waste by virtue of the Doctrine of Manifest Genetics.

The absence of a forceful opposition from progressive greens and the appearance/reality of collaboration with the federal government by Beltway groups, only strengthens the cause of the extreme right. As the left migrates toward the center, the right repels further to the right-and the government follows suit. This a recipe for a future in which things, to crib from Thomas Pynchon, will not be quite so amusing.

Toward a Resolute Clarity of Place

Still there's no reason to beginning strumming a threnody just yet. Beneath the six-figure salaries, limo-driven executives, and glossy magazines clotted with ads for SUVs, there's a flickering pulse to the grassroots environmental movement, in the hinterlands and barrios, in the secret gardens of the Bronx and amid the toxic detritus of New Orleans. Foucault and Tom Paine sang the same refrain: the more pervasive the repression, the more profound the rebellion to come. Well, the rebellion has started.

In the southwest, a small outfit called Living Rivers is campaigning to decommission Glen Canyon Dam and restore the Colorado River. In Montana, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies remains the grizzly bear's most unflinching ally and advocate. In the Pacific Northwest, the Western Land Exchange Project is nearly alone in challenging the disposal of public lands to private concerns and the Center for Environmental Equity is chasing the big gold mining companies out of Oregon.. In the Midwest, Heartwood is defending the incredibly diverse hardwood forests of the Ohio Valley and waging an intense campaign against the proliferation of noxious and inhumane confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs. In the heart of cancer alley, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (aka LEAN) is taking on chemical and oil companies, as well as the toxic sludge left behind by Katrina. In South Dakota, the Lakota Student Alliance is waging a courageous battle to have the Black Hills and other sacred lands returned to the Sioux Nation. Deep in Appalachia, Save Our Cumberland Mountains is fighting the most destructive form of mining ever devised by man or satan: mountain top removal.

Like snowpeaks sprouting from a far horizon, these scattered pockets of resistance can help us triangulate our way back home, entrench with a resolute clarity of place. And that move, as Terry Tempest Williams suggests in her shimmering book The Unspoken Hunger , may be the most radical act of all.

Environmentalism was once a people's cause, unaligned with any political party and independent from the demands of the shadowy syndicate of mega-foundations (Pew, Rockefeller, Ford) that now hold the mortgage on the movement-those high priests of what Foucault called "condescending philanthropy." Environmentalism was once driven by a desire for social justice and an unremitting passion for the wild. We need to tap back into those populist currents. Let the vision attract the money and don't allow it to be refracted through the ideological prism of neoliberal foundations.

The power of the environmental movement derives from its essential and shared imagery, its sensual tangibilities. Simply put: the destruction of the wild sparks militancy in the heart. At least it does for me. Wild places communicate their own passion and power, sensations that are the antithesis of political abstractions.

It's all about the singular sense of openness on the Snake River plains. The way light plays across ancient petroglyphs on the canyon walls of Navajo sandstone outside Moab. The smell of sagebrush in the high desert on the north slope of the Ruby Mountains. A cool rush of wind unleashed by distant storms hammering the Gallatin Range. The bluegray fogbanks that sleeve up the North Santiam River canyon on an August morning in Oregon. The crisp shock of being busted out of a raft by a rapid on the Selway River. The carcass of a grizzly-clean salmon annealed by the Alaskan sun to a granite boulder along the MacNeil River. The surrealistic explosion of October color from dense forest of oaks, poplars and maples on Nebo Ridge in southern Indiana. The cry of a lone coyote trembling across the sepia sky in the predawn badlands of South Dakota. These are the threatened images that haunt my nights, the green fires that burn in my soul. You have your own. Nearly everyone does. Everyone with a heartbeat.

The power of the people can still overwhelm the influence of big money. Look at Chiapas. Read Edward Abbey. Listen to Mandela and Evo Morales. Anything is possible. Find your place, take a stand. People will join you.

(Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon)


At 2/07/2007 8:40 AM, Blogger Secret Rapture said...

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