Hothouse Shrub

Bush logic and the resistence to environmental reality.

| Mon Nov. 10, 2003 4:00 AM EST

Curt Meine, conservation biologist, historian, and author of Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, suggests the following, when considering Bush's latest take on Iraq (this arrived via a friend of mine):

"Just think of all the great applications of W's excellent new system of logic:

"Those budget deficits? They indicate how we're finally learning to live within our means!

"Those fires in California? They show how well we are learning to live within our ecosystems!

"Those 9/11 attacks? They indicate just how we have them terrorists right where we want them!

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"Those record temperatures and melting glaciers? They show you the progress we're making on climate change!

"Those lies in high places? They tell you how healthy our democracy is!"

Let me just start with those melting glaciers and record temperatures, or rather with distant Alaska, now the decomposing poster child for global warming. In my dreams, I've probably always been a global warming sort of guy. Snow, ice, winter, cold -- as a child, all of it made me miserable beyond words. Of course, those were the days before anyone on earth other than the Inuit knew about layering. Actually, those were the days when, in November, if someone in New York City told you that the temperature was about to close in on 80 and people would soon be walking the wintry streets in shorts, halters, and sandals as if it were Miami Beach, you would have adjusted your muffler and laughed him out of town. Those were the days before you could check out Glossy Ibises by taking the subway to Jamaica Bay or catch robins landing in the distant reaches of Northern Alaska, or for that matter watch them winter over in New Jersey. (I suppose sooner or later we'll have to find a new marker -- perhaps the cattle egret -- for the start of spring here in what once passed for the North.)

A few years back I used to joke that I was planning to buy a couple of acres out in Jamaica Bay near Kennedy Airport, wait a decade or two and then open Club Med-North. Now, having talked a good game but done nothing, it's probably too late to invest. I'm sure the plans are already on the drawing board, though, given the progress of global melting in the places where ice still exists, the new club will probably have to be named -- in honor of what's sure to be the worst global-warming film ever made -- Waterworld.

"See what you have done!" she screamed. "In a minute I shall melt away." That, of course, was the reaction of the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy threw that bucket of water over her -- as reported by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It's a line that could easily become a bumper sticker for any movement to slow down our passage into a globally warmed world. But what follows would work far less well:

"'Didn't you know water would be the end of me?' asked the Witch, in a wailing, despairing voice.

"'Of course not,' answered Dorothy; 'how should I?'"

Okay, so no one told Dorothy. But we're not Dorothy. For us, the news is at hand. Yes, the reporting in this country isn't great, but Americans already know, after some fashion, what Dorothy didn't -- that our "bucket of water," greenhouse gasses, will "melt" the world. But denial is a powerful thing when ways of life are at stake. None of us should be surprised by that, nor perhaps that at this moment we live with an administration one of whose unbridled passions is to rip the environment and the movement to protect it to shreds. In its pure anti-environmental oomph, the Bush administration outdoes anything we've known in over a century. These are men and women who take pleasure in spitting, quite literally, in the face of the obvious.

A recent "environmental" decision to loose rich hunters and the animal equivalent of bounty catchers on endangered species outside American borders captures the essence of this -- as well as the consistency of this administration across the board, from Iraq to taxes to social services to the environment. As the Nation's Matt Bivens put it at his blog, The Daily Outrage:

"Who knew that we could save endangered animal species by letting rich people shoot them?

'Giving Americans access to endangered animals, [White House] officials said, would both feed the gigantic US demand for live animals, skins, parts and trophies' -- acres of glassy-eyed stuffed heads is the hallmark of any intelligent endangered species management policy -- 'and generate profits that would allow poor nations to pay for conservation of the remaining animals and their habitats.'

The brilliant core insight here, of course, is that anything good for the wealthy leisure class is good for all other forms of life, right down to shower mold. Call it trickle-down environmentalism. If it benefits the rich to hunt down furry little creatures, snap their necks and eat them, then it's also benefits the furry little creatures, even if they are ingrates about it."

At the www.commondreams.org website, Michael Winship, formerly a writer for Bill Moyers TV show, recently pointed out that this policy proposal to fund environmentalism in the Third World from the barrel of a gun, brought to mind another moment:

"Officials maintain that the profits from allegedly limited hunts will allow impoverished countries to pay for species and habitat protection. Doubtful at best; logic in the manner of the Vietnam era's, 'We had to destroy the village to save it.'"

As policy, this has all the wacky charm of John Poindexter's proposal for setting up a speculator's "market" for betting on future assassinations, terrorist attacks and the like. Only that was officially put into cold storage, while this may become policy. If you want to read more about it, check out Joanne Mariner's 'Saving Endangered Animals by Killing Them?' on Alternet. She concludes:

"It is worth remembering, in closing, that the recent proposals are part of a larger attack on the Endangered Species Act. With the administration's support, Republicans in Congress have been seeking to amend the law in order to weaken it. To achieve the same goal though other means, the administration has also consistently underfunded the endangered species program, creating a work backlog that undermines the Fish and Wildlife Service's ability to enforce the law's requirements."

A lonelier world? Hey, more space for gated communities.

I've certainly written about all this before, so consider this an update on our overheating world. Has anyone noticed, by the way, that if you change a letter in global warming, you get global warning?

Sauna world

Okay, I promised you Alaska first, so here goes. In the Christian Science Monitor, Yereth Rosen recently offered a rare overall vision of how global warming is affecting one state. Keep in mind that, here in the U.S., global warming as a media story is almost invariably presented piecemeal, as a series of small, discrete, scientific studies and notices, usually tucked away on the inside pages of the newspaper. You wouldn't think that it threatens the very organization of our world. The piece begins:

"Overlooking the snowcapped mountains and tidewater glaciers around Kachemak Bay, this hamlet of fishermen, artists, and tourists seems the picture of Alaskan charm. But beneath the scene of plenty is a landscape parched: Three hot summers have dried local wells and forced the native village of Nanwalek to shuttle in bottled water and ration it. Swaths of spruce forest around Homer and the Kenai Peninsula are brown because of an unprecedented beetle infestation, linked to the warming climate. And snow levels have diminished steadily since 1938.

While much of the world knows global warming as a phrase, Alaska's warming climate is far more palpable…"

Pointing out that computer simulations of global warming indicate that its effects will be experienced most strongly at the poles, Rosen quotes Gunter Weller, executive director of the University of Alaska's Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research: "We are the canary in the mine shaft."

The piece then lays out the breadth of the changes in Alaska ("rivers have heated five degrees in 20 years, making mid-summer temperatures nearly lethal for salmon") and suggests that the economic toll there should be a wake up call for the national economy.

"Disruptions to oil and fishing industries would damage the nation's economy, Dr. Weller points out, and the cost of rebuilding roads, airports and entire towns is staggering. Still, he says, 'it hasn't been enough to convince the political system that something has to be done.'"

As yet, however, nothing has been enough to focus American attention.

Meanwhile at those poles, recent reports indicate that ice is thinning, glaciers melting. In the Arctic, according to a recent piece by Mike Toner in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

"The ice that covers the Arctic Ocean is shrinking so swiftly that the entire ocean could someday be ice-free during the summer months -- a transformation that could alter everything from world shipping routes to the fate of winter wheat crops in Kansas…. NASA satellite images show that Arctic ice has been shrinking at the rate of nearly 10 percent a decade. During the past 35 years, it also has thinned by more than 40 percent… 'Global warming is usually viewed as something that's 50 or 100 years in the future,' said David Rind, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. 'But we have evidence that the climate of the Arctic is changing right now and changing rapidly."

Despite the remoteness of the Arctic, scientists claim that warmer temperatures there will have serious consequences for all of us. "Computer models show that Kansas would be 10 degrees warmer during the winter -- and get 40 percent less snow, which could make it very difficult to grow winter wheat there."

The Arctic meltdown has by now formed a kind of feedback loop. The larger areas of open water absorb yet more heat, melting ever more ice. "If the warming continues, the scientists say, the thawing of Arctic soils could accelerate global warming by releasing huge quantities of trapped carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases…"

In the meantime, glaciers worldwide are retreating. In gorgeous Glacier National Park in Montana, only 26 of its 150 glaciers are left and all of them are shrinking. According to Los Angeles Times reporter Usha Lee McFarling, Glacier's glaciers aren't the only ones melting away:

"A new survey of glaciers in the Sierra Nevada shows the thick slabs of ice that have frosted many of the state's high peaks for the last thousand years are dramatically shrinking and, in some cases, disappearing altogether… Seven Sierra Nevada glaciers that were surveyed and rephotographed over the summer are all smaller than they were a century ago, said Hassan Basagic, a graduate student at Portland State University who initiated the survey." [Only on Mt. Shasta, for unknown reasons, are glaciers still growing.]

In the Antarctic's southern seas, events no less startling are underway, according to a recent piece by Tim Radford of The Guardian:

"A giant ice shelf the size of Scotland is melting rapidly in the Antarctic, scientists have warned today. Two sections of the Larsen ice shelf collapsed in 1995 and 2002. Now satellite measurements have confirmed that it has thinned by as much as 18 metres more than usual in the past decade, because of a warmer ocean. The report comes a day after a University College London report in the journal Nature confirmed a 40% thinning of the ice in the Arctic Ocean in the past 30 years."

Need I say more? And all this before the developing world even gets fully hooked up to the process. (If you want to check out what's on its way, just look at a recent New York Times piece by Keith Bradsher, 'China's Boom Adds to Global Warming Problem'. If only the Times wrote full-scale pieces like this about the U.S. and global warming.)

We're a down-and-dirty Dorothy who knows the score, even if our planet is no Wicked Witch of the West. All I can say is that the Bush administration had better direct those rich hunters northwards soon. All reports indicate that polar bears in Alaska are ever thinner and the polar bears, walruses and seals of the north, for all of whom ice floes and ice expanses are crucial to living and breeding, may be in trouble.

Fires in California:

It's been all too warm in Southern California lately and, as it turns out, it's the fault of environmentalists -- as no doubt is global warming, just as sooner or later the already endless war in Iraq will be pinned on the antiwar movement. As for the southern California fires, everyone knows that environmentalists never want to trim a tree, no matter how flammable. As Paul Rogers as the San Jose Mercury News puts it:

"For the past week, while Southern California has burned, environmental groups have been pilloried on talk radio. They have received streams of angry e-mail. Columnists have blasted them. As the story goes, tree-huggers blocked logging projects to thin the very forests that are burning. Had they not been so obstructionist, the fire danger would have been reduced, critics say."

Forget that a significant part of the fuel feeding Southern California's fires seems to have been chaparral brush (perhaps environmentalists should be renamed "brush huggers") or that the Bush administration used the moment, as it so effectively has used other crises, to get its own agenda through -- this time via the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which frees its logging industry buddies to hack and hew away. Rogers reports:

"The reality, however, is not so straightforward. Environmental groups have indeed appealed and sued to block forest-thinning projects on public land in the Sierra Nevada and other fire-prone areas in the West in recent years. But U.S. Forest Service records show that in the four national forests in Southern California affected by this week's catastrophic fires, environmentalists have not filed a single appeal to stop Forest Service tree-thinning projects to reduce fire risk since 1997 -- the time period for which records are immediately available."

In the meantime, in addition to the brush, what burned furiously in recent weeks were the masses of trees that had been killed by an infestation of bark beetles not native to California, which generally only get a foothold in forests already badly hit, as these had been, by drought. And here's the curious thing, as an Associated Press piece in the Sacramento Bee reported:

"In a quiet announcement made late last week as the Southern California wildfires had only just begun, the Bush administration turned down a six-month-old request by Gov. Gray Davis for help in removing dead and dying trees in the same forests now being consumed by flame.

Davis made the plea in April for a federal emergency declaration in three counties where the bark beetle infestation had left thousands of acres of dense woodland vulnerable to fire. If approved, the presidential proclamation would have paved the way for millions of dollars in federal support for clearing dead trees in San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties."

To bring all this back to the topic du jour, Nancy Oreskes and James Fleming, two professors of science, write in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, 'An Ill Wind Blows Toward an Even More Inhospitable Climate':

"There's more bad news for those watching the fires raging uncontrollably through Southern California: the prediction that in the years ahead, global warming will intensify our weather patterns, leading to an increase in the droughts and floods to which California is naturally prone. More droughts, in turn, will almost certainly mean more fires; more floods will mean more mudslides."

And in a country where environmental protection, like so much else, has fallen out of the hands of the federal government and into the hands of states, California's new governor is himself something like a poster boy for global warming. After all, John Sutherland of The Guardian reports, Arnold is the man who claims to have...

"... invented the Hummer - the civilian version of the US army's Humvee armoured personnel carrier. Or, at least, so he has claimed. 'I created that industry,' Arnold Schwarzenegger boasts. 'I went to the Hummer factory and said we should make this Hummer not only a military car but a civilian car.' This was during Desert Storm. The manufacturer did what it was told. The result was the H1-SUV; a huge success. Its successor, the H2, hit the dealerships (along with Operation Iraqi Freedom) earlier this year. In California, 'gotta-have' purchasers stumped up thousands of dollars to get on waiting lists. Schwarzenegger figureheaded the H2 publicity. It was his kind of car - big, ugly, guttural. The Hulkwagen."

I'll also recommend two longer pieces. The first, "Road to Ruin" by Matthew Engel, also of The Guardian, is a coast to coast look at why global warming hasn't gained greater traction as an issue here -- something frustrating to governments in much of the rest of the world. As Engel puts it: "[T]he US is in denial about what is, beyond any question, potentially its most dangerous enemy. While millions of words have been written every day for the past two years about the threat from vengeful Islamic terrorists, the threat from a vengeful Nature has been almost wholly ignored. Yet the likelihood of multiple attacks in the future is far more certain." He writes of the "alarming… intellectual atmosphere in Washington. You can attend seminars debunking scientific eco-orthodoxy almost every week."

It's a superb report on resistance to reality in our country. But no less striking to me is the fact that the Guardian (which has also just launched a multipart series on poverty in the United States on which more another day) would think to send a correspondent on such a journey around the greenhouse-gas capital of the planet and into the heart of global-warming denial and environmental destructiveness. I doubt a major newspaper in America has run such a sweeping piece on the subject in the last year, if ever. Certainly I haven't seen it.

Secondly, I point you to 'Unified Field Theory,' a piece by journalist Mark Hertsgaard for Grist magazine on what the Bush administration has done for the environmental movement -- the answer: gone a long way toward unifying it. It's well worth remembering - without being Pollyanna-ish about it - that the Bush administration is responsible for creating a global antiwar movement and a far more unified and driven environmental movement, just as it has created Tomdispatch and so many other oppositional websites. It has, in a sense, called us into being or given us a new or renewed sense of purpose - and little wonder. It's hardly a fair trade, but there's no point in simply being gloomy about all this. We are here.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be found throughout the week at TomDispatch, a web log of The Nation Institute.

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