The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was a British film of my youth. Such a title makes no sense today when millions upon millions of people, including our last two presidents, run everywhere. But a reasonable substitute might just be: “The Loneliness of Long Distance Humanity.” Even if we manage to squeak by somehow on this planet, it could prove a mighty lonely place. The noisier our synthetic surroundings get, the more we’re in the presence of images of species of every sort (just check out the Discovery Channel), the emptier our planet becomes.
Here’s how, the British magazine New Scientist puts it in a Biodiversity Update:
“The best guess of biologists is that species are disappearing between 100 and 1000 times as fast as they were before Homo sapiens arrived. But our impact is different from the mass extinctions of the past. They wiped out whole groups of animals, notably the dinosaurs, whereas humans are picking off individual species. In the past, biodiversity recovered as species spread into new ecological niches, but humans are wiping out niches as well as organisms. Wildlife will have a tough time regenerating.
The winners after the mass extinction that finished off the dinosaurs are about to become the losers. One in four mammal species and one in eight bird species face a high risk of extinction in the near future: the population of each species is expected to fall by at least a fifth in the next 10 years. Almost all are endangered by human activity…”
The frightening thing here is not that life can’t reestablish itself, but the almost incomprehensible time-spans it takes to do so. New Scientist offers an estimate of 10 million years for the planet to “repair” the present “dent” made in biodiversity. I like to use the example of the pronghorn antelope, “the prairie ghost,” to explain this. It’s a speedy creature, capable of running at up to sixty miles an hour, perhaps thirty miles-an-hour faster than any predator in its environment. That extra mileage might seem odd unless you understood that, before the great mammalian megafaunal die-out of human prehistory, some 13,000 to 16,000 years ago, there were evidently creatures (perhaps lions or dire wolves) which could power along at something close to those speeds. So all those thousands of years, more than encompassing our history from the first days of Ur to the latest events in Iraq, the pronghorn has had a ghostly companion. So much time, in human terms, and it still hasn’t “registered” the loss; so much time and that niche in our environment remains empty.
Species loss is a planet-wide phenomenon, but in our own noisy backyard, the Bush administration has launched a war upon nature, a “shock and awe” campaign of striking ferocity. There has been much debate about and discussion of the Bush doctrine of “preemptive” (actually “preventive”) war because the administration proudly issued a global strategic document proclaiming it part of a new Bush Doctrine in the world. But the same crowd is engaged in what could certainly be considered a preventive war against the environment (which does, as global warming may someday show, have the ability to strike back with weapons of mass destruction) and this has gone largely unreported in our country. On TV, according to Robert Kennedy, Jr. (see below), only 4% of TV network news minutes were devoted to environmental stories during this period. (He is, of course, excluding the one “environmental story” that gets massive attention, any good-old, isolated storm, as now in the Northeast.)
Let me first offer two suggestive pieces on the possible loss of specific species, both from the British Guardian, both focused on “charismatic” animals, ones for which we might have some sympathy (unlike insects, snakes, small fish, invertebrates, and most plant life). The first concerns “the most endangered big cat in the world” (and a man who wants to save it). The Iberian lynx is an animal you’re unlikely to have heard of, a seldom seen carnivore well adapted to a landscape of Portuguese small-scale farms, of pastures amid forested areas. As with most species loss, human land use has left the lynx endangered. Its environment has in recent years been chopped up by highways and taken over by sprawling eucalyptus plantations (which produce tree pulp for paper-making). As a result, it’s losing species viability (Natasha Walters, The cat that walks alone):
“[T]he places where the lynx can live are being fragmented, cut and cut again, into ever smaller habitats. In only two areas are there any reproducing populations – the Doñana National Park on Spain’s southern coast and the Sierra Morena mountains in Andalusia – and both are effectively ghettoes, walled in by motorways, cities and modern farms, with no chance of a lynx crossing from one to another.
This fragmentation seems an inevitable result of the way developed countries use their land. Those eucalyptus plantations in the highlands of Portugal are often growing paper for British offices, while the lowlands are being covered with big farms, many of them full of shiny plastic tunnels in which strawberries are grown to be sold out of season in British supermarkets. Paper for our printers and strawberries for lunch — conveniences for us, but a disaster for the lynx.”
Meanwhile, our closest relatives are threatening to depart this planet (Tim Radford, Countdown to extinction for world’s great apes):
“Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans… could vanish from the wild within 50 years, say United Nations leaders meeting today in Paris. They have appealed for $25m to save the world’s great apes from extinction.
‘The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes, animals that share more than 96% of their DNA with humans,’ said Klaus Töpfer, the head of the UN environment programme. ‘If we lose any great ape species we will be destroying a bridge to our own origins, and with it part of our own humanity.’ He called the $25m (£15m) ‘the bare minimum we need, the equivalent of providing a dying man with bread and water’… [B]y last year, researchers on the ground had begun to reveal an even more ominous pattern of loss. They found that ape numbers in Africa had been slashed by logging, hunting and disease.”
Two modest examples which could be multiplied many times over globally and locally. In the meantime, back in the USA, the Bush administration has responded to the potential for an extinction “cascade” in its inimitable fashion. According to Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times (Species Protection Act ‘Broken’):
“A senior official of the U.S. Interior Department… said Thursday that the needs of an expanding population, agriculture interests and burgeoning development in the West should be given equal consideration with endangered plants and animals… Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson criticized the critical-habitat provision of the [Endangered Species Act], which limits development in areas favored by threatened species, saying such designations aren’t necessary for the perpetuation of many plants and animals.
The Bush administration has placed fewer plants and animals on the endangered species list than any other in the act’s 30-year history. Bush has listed 20 species since taking office. President Clinton listed 211 during his first three years in office. Conservationists note that none of the listings made during Bush’s tenure were done voluntarily by the Fish and Wildlife Service. All came as a result of lawsuits or petitions from private groups.”
Manson, typical of Bush administration environmental officials, is sick of seeing the Act (or the planet) used as, in his words, a “hospice” for threatened or endangered species. As former EPA head Bruce Babbitt, has said, this administration would simply like to see the Act “fail.”
As it turns out, Manson has been hard at work lately. He just nixed the release of a scientific report about the flow of the Missouri River aimed at preventing the extinction of the river’s endangered sturgeon, tern and plover populations. Amanda Griscom, aka “Muckraker,” who writes for the always engaging environmental magazine Grist, claims this is due to Missouri Senator Kit Bond, “a strong supporter of the barge industry,” who believes that any environmental protection of the river will “sabotage his state’s economy.” She notes — a key aspect of administration moves everywhere — that Missouri is a “swing state with more electoral votes than any other in the river’s path.”
Perhaps the most important environmental aspect of all this is habitat loss — something in which the Bush environmentalists seem eager to specialize. Right now, to give but one small example, they are intent are proving that wetlands and swamplands are pollution producers. As Griscom reports in the same piece, Bruce Boler, an EPA scientist in Florida, recently resigned in protest when the EPA (They Blinded Me with Pseudo Science),
“accepted a study concluding that wetlands can produce more pollution than they filter. ‘It’s a blatant reversal of traditional scientific findings that wetlands naturally purify water,’ Boler told Muckraker. ‘Wetlands are often referred to as nature’s kidneys. Most self-respecting scientists will tell you that, and yet [private] developers and officials [at the Corps] wanted me to support their position that wetlands are, literally, a pollution source.’
Why? So that Florida developers could fill in the wetlands to make golf courses (which use enough fertilizer and pesticides to make them among the highest-polluting forms of development). Boler’s scientific judgment that wetlands were not pollution sources but pollution filters — a judgment based on 25 years of research — would not have stopped big-budget golf courses and other projects from going forward, but it would have forced developers to clean up all pollution runoff generated by their projects. By contrast, a finding that wetlands are actually pollution sources would decrease the cleanup burden (and the price tag) for developers.”
(Isolated wetlands and swamplands can, under certain limited conditions “emit trace amounts of nitrogen and phosphate,” but nothing like what will replace them.)
These, then, are the two salient aspects of Bush administration environmental policy – – anything for corporate sponsors and anything for 2004. As for the issue of habitat loss, the New Scientist article puts the matter this way:
“The romantic notion of ‘wilderness’ is fast becoming outmoded. Lee Hannah at Conservation International in Washington DC found that human activity has displaced the natural habitat over two-thirds of the habitable surface of the planet. Much of the undisturbed land is merely rock, ice and blowing sand, already shunned by wildlife.”
The single best piece of writing I know on this topic is David Quammen’s prize-winning book, The Song of the Dodo. Islands are, in the nature of things, hot-spots of extinction. Quammen spends much of his book explaining how we discovered that and why it should be. He then leaps from islands to the mainland and shows how human land use has essentially chopped our continents up into a series of increasingly isolated wilderness islands, leaving species on the mainland open to island-style processes of extinction. What can you say of a writer who has made the biogeography of islands into a literal page turner (for me at least)?
At the global extremes — where there’s heat and ice — the news is terrible, especially given recent reports that Russia is unlikely to sign the Kyoto climate treaty, which would make that accord a dead letter. Reports on the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps only multiply. See, for instance, David Fickling’s Guardian piece, Shrinking ice in Antarctic sea ‘exposes global warming.’ (“Scientists see Antarctica as a barometer of climate trends, with many of the indicators pointing towards global warming. Average temperatures on the Antarctic peninsula have risen 3C in the past 50 years, and the Antarctic ice shelves have retreated dramatically.”)
Or check out Geoffrey Lean, the Independent‘s environmental editor, summing up a new German governmental report (Melting ice ‘will swamp capitals’):
“Measures to fight global warming will have to be at least four times stronger than the Kyoto Protocol if they are to avoid the melting of the polar ice caps, inundating central London and many of the world’s biggest cities, concludes a new official report… The report, written by eight leading German professors, says that ‘dangerous climatic changes’ will become ‘highly probable’ if the world’s average temperature is allowed to increase to more than 2 degrees centigrade above what it was before the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Beyond that level the West Antarctic ice sheet and the Greenland ice cap would begin gradually to melt away, eventually raising sea levels world wide by up to 30 feet, submerging vast areas of land and key cities worldwide. London, New York, Miami, Bombay, Calcutta, Sydney, Shanghai, Lagos and Tokyo would be among those largely submerged by such a rise.
Above this mark too, other ‘devastating’ and ‘irreversible’ changes would be likely to take place. These include a cessation of the Indian monsoon and the ending of the Gulf Stream…”
Meanwhile, in tropical rainforests, the biodiversity heart of the planet, deforestation is taking place at an unexpectedly rapid pace (Destruction of Amazon rainforests excellerating, New Scientist):
“Newly released satellite imaging data has revealed a 40 per cent jump in deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforests. The massive leap is the worst acceleration in the loss of the tropical jungle since 1995 and is in sharp contrast to the drive to preserve the world’s largest area of continuous rainforest. The forest harbours enormous biodiversity and plays a significant role in the world’s climate.”
This is no less true of rainforests in places like Borneo. Meanwhile, to return to our own part of the puzzle, the Bush administration, which has never seen an international treaty or agreement it wasn’t eager to put on skids and send off the edge of the planet, made a strong attempt to ditch one of the environmental successes of recent years, the attempt to retire ozone-eating chemicals and so close the ozone hole in the atmosphere. As Kathryn Schultz, Grist‘s managing editor, writes (The Loophole in the Ozone Layer):
“Well, sic transit gloria mundi. Last week, at a meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya, the United States demanded an exemption from a Montreal Protocol requirement to phase out the use of methyl bromide by 2005. Methyl bromide is a deeply toxic pesticide that destroys ozone at 45 times the rate of chlorine, the better-known bad guy in the ozone-hole drama. (Chlorine is the insidious ingredient in chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.) According to the protocol, which took effect in 1987 and boasts more than 160 signatories, developed nations must cut their methyl bromide use 70 percent compared to 1991 levels by this year and phase it out entirely by 2005. Under previous administrations, the U.S. complied with the first part of that requirement — but in Nairobi, instead of going the last mile, the Bush administration demanded permission to increase U.S. use of methyl bromide to 38.2 percent of 1991 levels in 2005 and 37 percent in 2006.
The good news is that the European Union and the developing world wouldn’t stand for it. The bad news is that I can’t find an iota of evidence that the Bush administration gives a damn what the rest of the world stands for…”
Looting Planet Earth
Okay, it’s hard for any of us to grasp species time rather than human time. After all, if the pronghorn’s 13,000-plus predator-less years are but an evolutionary blink, they correspond to all of human history and a reasonable amount of our prehistory as well. True as it may be that we aren’t wired to plan in ten-thousand-year increments, at least we’ve always been capable of thinking about and planning for our grandchildren. So why are our extremist leaders so ready to use up the earth — quite literally to plunder it – in their own lifetimes?
Is some of this the result of fundamentalist Christianity with its apocalyptic sense of a rapturous future, an end-time which is almost upon us? I don’t know. Whatever the explanation, I find it mind-boggling. Their only vision is of domination — of the planet militarily and economically, and of nature which is to be eaten alive. I noted the other day that George and Dick are thinking about sending us back to the moon (where we would establish a base and – naturally – test weapons) and then on to Mars — flights not of discovery, undoubtedly, but of conquest. Such a plan would fit well with my sense that our mullahs are acting as if they could loot Earth and then retire with their friends, corporate sponsors, and children to a nearby planet to enjoy the spoils.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I include below the single most damning account I’ve seen of the Bush assault on the environment — “Crimes Against Nature” by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who prosecutes polluters for the National Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org). It appeared at the always interesting www.alternet.org website. Though long and painful to read, in a sense it’s hardly long enough, given what’s going on, and not to be missed.
Kennedy paints a picture of extreme corruption — though that’s really the wrong word. This is beyond corruption; it’s the ultimate form of fox-in-the-henhouse-ism surpassing, I believe, even what occurred in America’s Gilded Age. Kennedy offers us the background history of the Reagan era, where this urge to plunder first reared its head, and then picks up quite literally on inauguration day.
“The attacks began on Inauguration Day, when President Bush’s chief of staff and former General Motors lobbyist Andrew Card quietly initiated a moratorium on all recently adopted regulations. Since then, the White House has enlisted every federal agency that oversees environmental programs in a coordinated effort to relax rules aimed at the oil, coal, logging, mining and chemical industries as well as automakers, real estate developers, corporate agribusiness and other industries.
Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency has halted work on sixty-two environmental standards, the federal Department of Agriculture has stopped work on fifty-seven standards, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has halted twenty-one new standards. The EPA completed just two major rules – both under court order and both watered down at industry request – compared to twenty-three completed by the Clinton administration and fourteen by the Bush Sr. administration in their first two years.”
The administration has turned over just about every environmentally related position to someone connected with an extractive or destructive industry or a corporate lobbying interest; someone, that is, intent on doing in or away with any kind of environmental safeguard, law or regulation. This is exactly the sort of plundering we saw in Iraq — right down to the copper wiring in the walls — but at an incomparably more sophisticated level.
Please don’t miss Kennedy’s report, which I’ll return to in a different context for my Tuesday dispatch.
I want to emphasize as well the consistency with which the Bush administration has staffed plunderers across the board. The job situation is little different, for instance, in occupied Iraq than at the EPA or the Interior Department. Joshua Marshall, Laura Rozen and Colin Soloway recently wrote a “who’s who” in Baghdad for the Washington Monthly that reads like an extension of the Kennedy piece. They say in part:
“[In the place of experienced experts,] the architects of the war chose card-carrying Republicans–operatives, flacks, policy-wonks and lobbyists–for almost every key assignment in the country. Some marquee examples include U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer’s senior advisor and liaison to Capitol Hill, Tom Korologos, one of the most powerful GOP lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Then there’s the man in charge of privatizing Iraq’s 200-odd state owned companies, Tom Foley, a venture capitalist and high-flying GOP fundraiser. Foley was one of the Bob Dole’s top-ten career donors, Connecticut finance chair for Bush 2000 and a classmate of the president’s from Harvard Business School.
The chief advisor to the Agriculture Ministry is Dan Amstutz, a Reagan administration veteran who until recently served as the president of the North American Export Grain Association. Oxfam’s Director of Policy Kevin Watkins recently quipped that with his record of opening up developing economies to cheap American agricultural exports, ‘putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission.'”
The formula is simple really: Feed the allied corporations (the real “coalition” in wars at home and abroad), hire the flacks and lobbyists, prepare for the election, plunder the earth now. Who cares what happens the day after tomorrow? This is, of course, a form of terrorism.
Lucian K. Truscott IV in a piece that just about filled the New York Times op-ed page today reported the following from the front lines of the occupation of Iraq (A Million Miles From the Green Zone to the Front Lines):
“A colonel in Baghdad (who will go nameless here for obvious reasons) told me just after I arrived that senior Army officers feel every order they receive is delivered with next November’s election in mind, so there is little doubt at and near the top about who is really being used for what over here. The resentment in the ranks toward the civilian leadership in Baghdad and back in Washington is palpable. Another officer described the two camps, military and civilian, inhabiting the heavily fortified, gold-leafed presidential palace inside the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, as ‘a divorced couple who won’t leave the house.'”
And Paul Krugman made a similar point last week in a column (included below), aptly entitled, “Looting the Future,” that concludes: “Everything we know suggests that Mr. Bush’s people have given as little thought to running America after the election as they gave to running Iraq after the fall of Baghdad. And they will have no idea what to do when things fall apart.”
And yet, against the largeness of the disaster, let me set the tiniest bit of hopefulness. I live in New York City. It’s a place being recolonized by birds and animals. Only nine blocks from my apartment in Riverside Park, a thin strip of park-land along the Hudson River built above old railroad tracks, a female turkey is roosting, the second this year to be spotted in the city, and written about in my hometown paper. (How she arrived we don’t know. She’s that rarest of creatures, refusing the Times an interview.) In Central Park, that miraculous swath of green in the midst of my own urban wilderness, on a fine spring day you can once again see Great Blue Herons, Black Crowned Night Herons, Green Herons and both kinds of white egrets, undoubtedly because the nearby Hudson has been cleaned and the fishin’ is good (or at least a lot better).
Joseph Berger of the Times recently wrote (So, You Were Expecting a Pigeon):
“The spot was in the heart of an urban bedlam, surrounded by the hurtling traffic of the Triborough Bridge, the smokestacks of Con Edison, the grim warrens of Rikers Island, the roar of La Guardia jets and three sewage treatment plants. Yet there hunched on a beach on South Brother Island in the East River, looking like old philosophers mulling a tangled question, were five great blue herons…. [F]or many years now, herons – as well as egrets, ibises and other wading birds – have been nesting or roosting on South Brother Island and 13 other uninhabited islands managed by New York City’s Parks Department or the National Park Service with help from the New York City Audubon Society.
Several of the islands are unlikely sanctuaries, a stone’s throw from Gracie Mansion [where the mayor lives]… Yet the fact that there are wading birds hovering near these landmarks is a lyrical measure of the restored health of the city’s waterways and of the salt marshes where the birds feed…”
In part, this is due, Berger tells us, to the city Park Department which, two decades ago, founded a “natural resources group” to acquire and restore parkland. This now employs “30 ecologists, hydrologists, landscape architects and engineers and is working on $90 million worth of projects.” He doesn’t, however, mention the citizen’s groups who pressured for and organized for the cleaning up of the rivers.
Elsewhere in my city, peregrine falcons, a human reintroduction, eye pigeons from skyscraper aeries; bald eagles are being experimentally reintroduced at the city’s edge; and red-tailed hawks, arriving on their own wing-power, soar over the parklands. A couple of years ago, a coyote, which somehow crossed a bridge — we’re an island after all — made it all the way to Central Park where it was trapped. And just the other day, a block from my door a friend saw a raccoon pile out of a garbage can and waddle up the street, heading in the direction of Broadway. It’s a reminder that sometimes you can go home again, that nature will in a fashion come back — except, of course, for those creatures and plants that are gone forever.
One of the small miracles just to the north of my city is the reforested northeast, deserted by so many farmers, who had cleared the land of its forests generations back. And in the same region, organic farms, geared more to human dimensions, to localities, are blossoming along with green markets to sell their crops, a reminder that the whole failed wave of sixties back-to-the-landism didn’t simply disappear without a trace.
And on the distant island of Fiji, a small, “extinct” warbler has been found. This is such a tiny “beacon of hope” that I can, appropriately enough, give you the full story, as reported in the British Guardian, in a mere 122 words (‘Extinct’ warbler found in Fiji):
“The long-legged warbler, a robin-sized bird thought extinct since 1894, has been rediscovered in Fiji. Twelve pairs, some with young, were photographed by researchers carrying out a rare bird survey. Trichocichla rufa, which was only previously known from four individuals collected between 1890 and 1894, was found in Wabu, a remote forest reserve on Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. A subspecies, Trichocichla rufa clunie, was discovered in 1974 when two birds were seen on Vanua Levu, but it has not been found again.
“‘The rediscovery is a rare beacon of hope when all too often birds are becoming extinct in their natural habitats,’ said Guy Dutson, of the conservation group Birdlife International. ‘We must now ensure this bird does not disappear again.'”
Yes, the reforested Northeast may not look like the original, and the Hudson could still be cleaner, and the bird population of New York may not be the “real McCoy,” but give nature a chance — and give environmentalists a chance — and much restoration remains possible within our lifetimes and those of our children. All this is a reminder that, though there’s much we can’t control, there are so many things to do.
As a reader wrote me recently, many Americans may still be in deep denial about the environmental realities of our time, but sooner or later environmentalism could provide the best structure for organizing another future. When global warming and other environmental disasters hit, their harm is not going to be restricted to the poor or the globe’s southern reaches. Everyone will be touched in some fashion. In this, believe it or not, there is a hopeful politics and our plundering president, little as he means to, may be helping to create it.
Additional briefings can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute