September 28, 2017

Unnatural Disaster

Puerto Rico, a territory of three-and-a-half million US citizens, is unplugged, de-sheltered and desperate for months to come. This tiny little island in the Caribbean, with more people than the Dakotas, Wyoming, Alaska and Vermont ...

Puerto Rico, a territory of three-and-a-half million US citizens, is unplugged, de-sheltered and desperate for months to come. This tiny little island in the Caribbean, with more people than the Dakotas, Wyoming, Alaska and Vermont combined, now sits in the dark: lights out, refrigeration, too; hospitals closed; food crops destroyed; communication systems collapsed. In a fully foreseeable crisis, some combination of forces seems to have chosen unreadiness as the first response.

It’s a man-made pattern of history that turns storms into unnatural disasters — empire, money and power sorting out who lives, who dies, and who pays for the destabilization of the human habitat.  A succinct and dignified case against the unfairness of this picture has been laid out before the United Nations by Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of tiny Dominica. His island and his own home were smashed to bits by Hurricane Maria.  

Stuart Schwartz at Yale is our historian of the 500-year interaction of weather and people in the Caribbean. His remarkable book, Sea of Storms, reveals the various ways massive tropical storms haven been interpreted throughout the ages.  The European Christians who got to the West Indies in the 16th Century had never seen such weather before: and read it, first, as God’s hand, then as whimsical Nature; eventually as human failure.

Kumi Naidoo is a global activist from South Africa who sees the fight for environmental justice as a natural extension of his own anti-apartheid struggles as a teenager. A former Rhodes scholar, Kumi Nadioo’s activist path led him from Durban to Oxford to Amsterdam where he served as the first African executive director of Greenpeace International from 2009 to 2015.

Jason Moore is a social and environmental historian with a wake-up argument that the most critical combination in our world is carbon and capitalism. His book is Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.  He’s joined in conversation by Christian Parenti, an investigative reporter with a Ph.D. in sociology and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.

Roy Scranton came back from his Army service in Iraq with a grim take on the war.  It’s our condition now, he says, that we are moments away from death, all day every day, and we know it.  After Iraq, Roy Scranton earned a Ph.D. in Literature at Princeton and wrote two books that have made waves: first the novel War Porn, and then an extended essay titled: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. He invited us this week to meditate on our fear that it’s “game over, ” not for the human species necessarily, but “over” as it was for the Sumerians or the Aztecs once upon a time. Climate change has sealed our collective fate.

The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat closes out the program with a poem and few words on the continuing crisis in the Caribbean. You can listen here, too:


June 11, 2015

The Pope and the Planet

Habemus problem! In an encyclical letter due next week, Pope Francis himself will intervene in the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face."

A week before the big release, this show had us excited about Pope Francis’s full-throated challenge to the status quo — the text in full of Laudato Si is now available on the Vatican’s website. But what he’s challenging (behavior that turns Creation, more and more, into “an immense pile of filth”) ended up sounding a lot like our guest Sally Weintrobe‘s psychoanalytic scolding of the wasteful parts of humanity:

It doesn’t go deep enough to say that this is a problem with capitalism. It’s a much, much older problem, the problem of the fantasy of the inexhaustible breast: that the earth is really a kind of a breast/toilet that provides endlessly in an ideal way and then receives all our waste. So I think the human race is being encouraged to grow up.

Meanwhile, our guest Naomi Oreskes got the celebrity-lightning-rod treatment in The New York Times — read more here.


Habemus problem!

In an encyclical letter, Pope Francis himself will intervene next week on the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face.”

Trade deals and drilling permits are booming while the Kyoto spirit limps along. No wonder world leaders, eco-crusaders, and atheist scientists are all so hungry for some Good News. It’s time to kick the climate problem upstairs, but can a letter from Rome change things?

We’ll be speaking to Naomi Oreskes, who’s advising the Vatican on climate and turning scientific knowledge into a political message. Her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt indicted the tactics that oil companies cribbed from the tobacco titans and became a film phenomenon last year. As with tobacco smoke and acid rain, science isn’t enough to win an argument against opponents with a modest but dangerous specialty: getting people to question certain unpleasant realities.

Sally Weintrobe, our psychoanalyst of climate change, will put late capitalism on the couch and explain why we’re so eager to ignore the real world of droughts, floods, and our own climate change complicity. Dr. Weintrobe says a little more climate guilt is what we need in the global North, and maybe that’s where the church comes in.

But Francis is expected to take us back to bigger ideas than guilt. Awe of creation and care for “the least of these,” are the old values that welcome (even prefigure) the most complicated climate science. Dorothy Boorse, a biologist who combines love of nature with love of God — and who’s been pitching American evangelicals on climate as a moral issue for years — will let us in on a faith-science alliance that’s well underway and ready to save all of us gas-guzzling sinners.

We hear the most bracing telling, not in the skeptical speeches of Rick Santorum, even, but in the doomsaying of Paul Kingsnorth, a former eco-activist who has lost his faith in the ability of people to change. Here he is on the broken myths of our society too late to change:

Tell us: are you waiting to hear what the pope has to say about the environment and justice next week? And what will it take to move the needle toward real collective action on climate matters?

By the Way • October 5, 2014

Report: The People’s Climate March

The march announced itself by force of numbers, and by its feel. No one seemed angry. This is not to say that the marchers had been bought off, or didn't understand the long odds facing them, or even that they aren't angry. But they are taking a clever rhetorical detour around a problem.


By Max Larkin

NEW YORK, NY. — I traveled down to New York for the People’s Climate March, I admit, out of a sense of political curiosity. I care, but like many Americans I’ve found it hard to rate the climate over poverty or prison or the foreign-policy fires that break out from time to time. By chance a friend and I had joined an interfaith brigade, a subsection in the People’s Climate March had assembled on West 58th Street, in the shadow of The Shops at Columbus Circle and CNN HQ. It was around eleven o’clock.

At the front of the crowd, Rabbi Jay Michaelson stood at the stern of an ark-shaped float on the back of a truck, wearing a technicolor tallit. The ark was a new construction; organizers hoped it could be reused in other parades down the line. Right then it held ministers and kids, markers and tape; a few volunteers wore horse masks or had paper unicorn horns strapped to their heads, and signs that read: “We Missed the Boat Last Time,” etc., etc.

Michaelson blew a shofar after speeches and prayers made onstage; he’s newly a rabbi and comes from a career in activism. Even today, he said, he’s “more of a march-in-the-streets rabbi than a pray-in-the-pews rabbi.” He’s also a columnist on environment and politics for the Jewish Daily Forward.

Two days before Michaelson had written that the green movement needed to appeal to the mainstream to be successful. In the fight for gay rights, he had learned about the all-importance of political messaging. He spoke candidly:

It was market-tested to death. When that movement was about gay rights, it was a big loser. It didn’t work, and nobody was motivated. When it turned into ‘love is love’, ‘we just want what everybody else wants: family, love, connection’ — and faith leaders played a big part in that — that message worked. It wasn’t cynical. It’s not that that’s not true. It was true. But which side do you emphasize?

He looked out over the group: “Calling it the ‘People’s Climate March’ — it isn’t exactly a frame that reaches out.”

We paused while some of the Muslim delegation began silently to pray toward Central Park, backed by an inflatable mosque. The crowd — Buddhists with banners, little platoons of hippie Catholics, here and there anti-nuclear T-shirts, crafty, hand-painted signs — was very definitely “progressive”. How would a People’s Climate March look to people who would never think of attending?

Suddenly an organizer tapped me on the shoulder: “We need to get going, so would you—?” The Rabbi and I said a quick goodbye, I hopped off the boat, then we all were off. The ark seemed to drift away on a sea of shoulders.

The march followed the line of the park, passing a ‘climate vigil’ sat in cross-legged meditation on the grass. There was no overwhelming sound; the march had no sergeants. The signs read: “There is No Planet B”, “Don’t Frack With U.S.,” “Ashamed Republican” with an arrow pointing down at the man holding it. Children, long-haired teens, nuns, and expatriates walked unregimented, in drifting formations. An older woman wearing a paper bag as a hat — she had written “Recycle” on it in Sharpie — emerged as a swaggering presence nearby. (One of the amazing things about the movement is the respect it has for its grandmothers.)

We made the turn down Sixth Avenue, and marched into the heart of Manhattan. A family pushed their luggage across the street and through the crowd on a trolley. There was Fox News HQ; a building-side crawl reminded passersby of ISIS. Then we passed the banks, with all-glass facades that made them look all the emptier, the more forbidding.

Nobody threw a brick. A young man, in full Caledonian dress, blew a bagpipe; behind him people danced to a Brazilian drumline. The “Recycle” lady strutted along alone, between banks of public and parochial-school students. Bryant Park was quiet, bracketed by a police cordon. For those present, midtown Manhattan was transformed. Did anyone notice?


The movement’s answers may come from repurposing a history. In 2002 the administration of George W. Bush reintroduced a doctrine of preemptive war, or “anticipatory self-defense.” For obvious reasons that language has fallen into disuse (though we are now fighting a limited preemptive war against the jihadis of ISIS, who pose, it’s said, “no immediate threat” to the American people).

But let’s not let perfectly sound moral thinking be abandoned entirely, when it has only been misapplied. Preemption itself is not evil: in a risk-ridden and high-velocity world, it’s common sense. And finally we may have a problem worthy of its use — and hundreds of thousands of people are marching over it. We might, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher William James, consider the climate movement as the moral equivalent of preemptive war: brigades of clean-energy advocates, barge-stopping kayakers, arborists, aquaculturists, and architects, toiling and thinking and building as if the worst is still avoidable.

In his original essay, James predicted that we might civilize ourselves by putting the “barbarian virtues”, so popular with so many American men, to civic work: in football and Americorps and the Civilian Conservation Corps, where the struggle is against nature and privation, a cordial opponent or our own limits.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter pitched the nation on treating our energy dependency as an opportunity to rally and fight a common cause in this nature using this very rhetoric.

But maybe it would be best if the climate movement today proposed a grander kind of struggle. The enemy ought to be, beyond oil and even capitalism, a defect in national, or human, consciousness — the immature American wish to remain outside of history, our tendency to treat every small emergency as a fire to be managed, an opportunity to avoid the big ones.


After turning at one last barricade, the march continued on to Eleventh Avenue where it dried up uneventfully: no speech. It was an evanescent kind of civil action, like weather. It was a dazing kind of day, but by the time I left New York the next morning I was impressed.

The march announced itself by force of numbers, and by its feel. No one seemed angry. This is not to say that the marchers had been bought off, or didn’t understand the long odds facing them, or even that they aren’t angry. But they are taking a clever rhetorical detour around a problem.

I thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s terrifying poem of extinction, “Requiem”.

When the last living thing

has died on account of us,

how poetical it would be

if Earth could say,

in a voice floating up


from the floor

of the Grand Canyon,

”It is done.”

People did not like it here.

If there was a common message to the march, it is this: “We do like it here, don’t we?” (And love is love, isn’t it?)

I hope that the marchers — especially the youngest among them — another generation tempered by war and peace that is bitter and uneven, can help the rest of us relearn our history, relearn that there is history beyond four-year cycles and Long Wars, and that the United States has a lot of making up to do.

We are finding it harder to ignore the consequences of our actions and self-aware, with the medium of the internet and the medium of the atmosphere as instructors. We have the fear of shame that would come from a world whose barrenness testified to our carelessness. And all we will need, in a sense, is prompting: if not from storm and drought, then from such marches as this one in September.

To do this the activists will need to be militant, but un-military — they will need, much of the time, to smile and be peaceable and commonsensical: to remind us how worthy all this is, Chris Hedges be damned.

In a tight huddle toward the end of the walking some twenty-two-year-old finished up a pep talk to others in his group: “Organize, organize, organize!” Everyone around him cheered, and even sighed. It’s the call that Stokely Carmichael made after a long march fifty years ago this summer, and it still sounds like the answer.

Podcast • October 4, 2014

Jeremy Grantham: In a Climate of Risk

Jeremy Grantham is a Boston financier who has found himself in the thick of the fight over climate change for more than twenty years. He’s the founder and chief strategist of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo, or GMO, which manages ...

Jeremy Grantham is a Boston financier who has found himself in the thick of the fight over climate change for more than twenty years. He’s the founder and chief strategist of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo, or GMO, which manages $112 billion in assets.

When we spoke to him in his Rowes Wharf office, overlooking Boston Harbor, Grantham calls himself a “scatterbrained” investor working with a third-rate education. If, after raising the alarm loudly and very early about the catastrophic market bubbles of 1999 and 2008, he’s become one of America’s most prominent financial strategists, it’s a tribute to natural patience and a conservatism that he chalks up to a Yorkshire childhood and a Quaker grandfather. But Grantham’s also glad to carry weight in the world of feverish investment. His quarterly letters have become must-reads, offering a warier look, going deeper into the future, than one usually finds on Wall Street. (His latest is here.)

Grantham discovered the fragility and beauty of the natural world on family trips into old and ravaged forests of the Amazon basin and Borneo. Now his family foundation is engaged in a farsighted effort to fight climate-skeptical “propaganda” with propaganda of its own: funding change-now messages from groups like Bill McKibben’s, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund. It’s the “race of our lives”, he wrote: against short-term psychology and an entrenched fossil-fuel economy. Grantham is troubled by the long odds, but still he’s trying to draw money and mass attention to an existential risk — before it’s too late to do anything about it. Call it the biggest short.

Photo credit: Remco Bohle.