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:

 

August 18, 2016

Apocalypse Now?, Part 3: So Far, So Good?

You can hear the first part of our summer series, “Apocalypse Now?” here, and Part 2 here. We’ve come to the end of the end: our third and final apocalyptic investigation (for now!). In the ...

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You can hear the first part of our summer series, “Apocalypse Now?” here, and Part 2 here.

We’ve come to the end of the end: our third and final apocalyptic investigation (for now!).

In the first two episodes we faced a future of superintelligent machines and a nearer-term genetic revolution—all (still) a little sci-fi. But we’re closing with the apocalyptic anxieties of Right Now, and the beginnings of a reorientation.

That story begins with the 20th century, which our leadoff guest, Amb. Chas Freeman, learned his trade as a diplomat and advisor. It was a period of enormous development, in spite of the twin Armageddons of the world wars, with America rising to the top of the heap. And it set our species moving at a turbocharged clip—after 250,000 years of relative tranquility. We live pretty high up the hockey-stick inflection in every kind of graph measuring human growth and progress: consumption, carbon emissions, productivity, population growth, economic expansion, and computer processing power.

A few numbers for context. In 1900, there were 1.4 billion humans. Today, there are 7.3 billion. The “gross world product”—a roundup of all human-produced value—grew from about one trillion dollars to more than 77 trillion dollars over that same period.

When you dwell long enough on all the turbulence of the last century, it becomes kind of a miracle that we made it to this one. And yet, when it comes to carbon pollution, we seem to be stepping over our first threshold. Finally, planetary consequences. It’s a caution: can we count on the spaceship Earth to keep cruising at its incredible clip?

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Our guest, the great investor Jeremy Grantham, reminds us if the population of ancient Egypt had grown at even 1 percent a year across 3,000 years, it would have increased by a factor of 9 trillion. (Instead it doubled.)

And yet our population is still growing at that rate, year after year. Economists tell us to expect even greater growth in GDP: 2 or 3 percent, year over year. Grantham warns us that what goes up must come down:

The people who [dismiss the possible end of growth] are really like the people falling out a very tall, burning building: “so far, so good, so far, so good.” Of course, the “so far, so good” argument can always be used, but anyone with a slight math tendency can see that compound growth is unsustainable.

Grantham calls this period “the race of our lives”—the last-ditch, hundred-year effort to step up technological development in order to convert our civilization into something sustainable, harmonious, equal and fair. He gives us a 50-50 shot of making it!

The activist-turned-novelist Paul Kingsnorth would put it a slightly different way. After a career of advocacy, he’s restarted life with his family, farming and writing in the Irish countryside. Where Grantham preaches collective effort on technological fixes, Kingsnorth preaches repair, if not quite retreat: working land, baking bread, unlearning dependencies and relearning skills.

The solution to the problem of apocalyptic risk in our society lives somewhere in the middle—between the technological crusade and the moral revolution.

A final production note!

We heard that the doomy tone of the past few shows was getting to some of our younger listeners—born at the end of the last century but determined to do some good in this one. So Christopher Lydon concluded the series with a reminder from the eternal optimist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that “the World Spirit is a good swimmer.” From his first book, Nature:

All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.

In other words: onward—ever onward!

 

December 16, 2015

The Art of Wildness

The quote, from Henry David Thoreau, often goes: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Turns out Thoreau had been misheard. The real line is: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Our guest Jedediah Purdy, ...

The quote, from Henry David Thoreau, often goes: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Turns out Thoreau had been misheard. The real line is: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Our guest Jedediah Purdy, author of After Nature, says Thoreauvian wildness is exactly what our post-natural world requires. Purdy likes a new term, the anthropocene, to describe a geological age of our own making — one in which no place is untouched by human activity. And so, Purdy says, this new age needs a new program, beyond the Paris mandates, the carbon offsets, and clean-tech investments. More urgently, we need a radically different sensibility.

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In other words, we should learn to listen better — cultivate a deeper, more direct way of understanding ourselves and the landscape, toward a more participatory, more global politics. As Purdy says, “We’ve got to create that circuit between inside and outside in this wrecked world that we’ve made, if we’re going to be moved to participate in its healing and its improvement and its change.”

Along with John Luther Adams, the minimalist composer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean, and Janet Echelman, the world-renowned sculptor and urban designer, we’re re-imagining the environmental crisis in the wake of the accord in Paris. The economists had their turn. Now we’re asking: What would the artists do?

enviro artLeft: scale models of Janet Echelman’s artwork at her studio in Brookline. Right: Chris with John Luther Adams outside John’s apartment in Harlem.

Music From The Show: John Luther Adams

  • Illimaq (with Glenn Kotche) (2015)

Special thanks to Veronica Barron for her readings from Thoreau’s journal. Thanks also to Anne Callahan.

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.

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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?

September 30, 2014

Hacking Climate Change

Can we hack our way toward solutions for climate change? While governments dither, Congress negates and the world warms, how about deploying private finance, atmospheric chemistry and every kind of ingenuity to tackle the problem that’s too big to solve?

Can we hack our way toward solutions for climate change? While governments dither, Congress negates and the world warms, how about deploying private finance, atmospheric chemistry and every kind of ingenuity to tackle the problem that’s too big to solve?

Political and economic change has been slow in coming for lots of reasons. ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Shell alone spend tens of millions of dollars per year lobbying to protect oil and gas concerns and to question the climate consensus.  The fault may lie, as Naomi Klein claims in her big new book, with a capitalist economy that favors short-term, non-disruptive fixes and that runs on fossil fuels.  But it may also lie in our brains: we might be hardwired to ignore complicated, slow-moving, author-less threats — and to choose problems like ISIS instead.

But there’s change in the wind. More than 300,000 people marched down 6th Avenue in New York to encourage world leaders to do something. Everyone from the Rockefellers to the World Council of Churches are divesting from fossil fuels (though Harvard President Drew Faust has declined). If we’re coming to realize that climate change is the ultimate big-tent issue, what kind of solutions should we be proposing? What’s the agenda of the new environmental movement?

We’re staying positive and summoning all hands on deck: scientists and engineers, activists and capitalists, pastors and atheists. What will it take to tackle carbon?

June 11, 2012

Real India: a land soon without tigers, and maybe orchids

Suprabha Seshan -- a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India -- is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the "New India," which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a "virtual" prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way.

BANGALORE — Suprabha Seshan — a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India — is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the “New India,” which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a “virtual” prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way. It’s an underlying premise among Indian chatterers, as they keep telling us, that often the best point in an argument is one whose direct opposite may sound equally plausible, even true. So let the conversation continue, through many paradoxes. “Is it possible,” she asks herself in conversation, “to live a life without contradiction?” — i.e. without petroleum, chemical fertilizers, technology? “In today’s society,” she answers, “it’s not possible.” There’s a cutting Indian edge here on the global contradictions of growth in a collapsing biosphere. Tea and eucalyptus plantations under the British Raj upset the balance and beauty of the green range of India’s Western Ghats in the 19th Century, and destroyed vast natural forest lands — but not so much that the state of Kerala doesn’t still market its mountains as “God’s own country.” For 20 years now there’s been an eco-tourism boom in Suprabha’s jungle — with roads, hotels, breaking-up of farms and new construction to serve high-end and mass visitors. The “eco” industry gets its name from the jungle, Suprabha says, but the jungle is withering. Ayurvedic medicine, the rage in New Delhi as well as Los Angeles, draws heavily on plants from Kerala wilds, “but where will we get them in a few years?” Better eco-tourism, I wonder, than the coal and bauxite mining that is churning a tribal rebellion in Eastern India? “Mining is rape,” Suprabha responds. “Eco-tourism is prostitution.” The good news from her own two decades on 60-plus acres in the wild is that forests and all their complexity do grow back. “The forest will return if given the chance. We call it ‘gardening back the biosphere.’ It can be done.” The bad news is that no one in or out of power will say “no” to eco-tourism and the promise of jobs. How, I asked her, will all this be remembered in the emerging story of the new India?

SS: I cannot relate with the new India at all. We have nothing in common in terms of what we seek as a possible future. The new India is appalling to me, if the new India means the exclusion of the forests. The new India means the end of nature to me. The two cannot go together: this is an apocalypse in the making. Because what is new “Shining” India going to shine with if it doesn’t have its rivers and its plants and its forests? What will it go forth with? CL: What piece of the old India are you invoking? And what is it in the old India that might ring an alarm? SS: The old India, what little I’ve known, is the diversity of things, the beauty and the sacredness and the diversity of things. In people, in the land, in trees and plants. Everything was sacred, and this was commonly felt. But modern industrial civilization, colonialism, all the powers that be have made it their special mission to destroy that relationship. The sacred doesn’t mean worship necessarily. The sacred means seeing each thing for what it is, and that it has its own right to be. And unfortunately it seems that a lot of mainstream religion has ritualized the sacred and has made an idol out of the sacred. So the sacred is now a plastic idol ringed by lights in someone’s concrete home. And so you worship your elephant that way. And meanwhile, the actual elephant is dying of tuberculosis, and herpes virus.  So my question has always been with regard to the so-called famous Indian tradition which is spiritual and so on: it’s become so symbolized and so ritualized and so separated from the actual earth that it has lost its meaning. It is virtual. It’s a virtual religion. CL: You sound like high Hindu priests I’ve read about, who teach this reverence for the single wasp, for every form of life… Is that a foothold for India to catch, against environmental disaster? This reverence for the planet, for life. SS: Reverence of any kind, of course, would be a very very powerful foothold. But I just don’t see it. Except in textbooks and stories. I do feel the modern media are crowding them out. Because you can have this experience of nature, of the wild, of the sacred, of anything, and you can almost believe that it’s true. And that’s the danger of the new technology to me: you can track a tiger in the forest through your computer and feel all that adrenaline rush, but you don’t have a relationship with a tiger. Because when you are with a tiger in the forest and your adrenaline rushes you’re a life and death situation… One gym instructor told me in the city, when I told him I live in the forest. He said “Oh, the jungle is a deadly place to booze!” That’s a crude version of what a lot of people do. They go to the jungle and they’re shut away from the jungle. The new technologies and this kind of removal that we see: it’s a severing that’s happened. They’re blind when they go to the forest. They have no means to look at the forest, to see it in a simple way. Just the beauty of it, let alone sacredness. Sacredness is so much more, it’s part of a life and a relationship, a recognition that we all have our spaces and relations with each other.

The deeper messages of entering the forest, and the silence, and the sensitivity, opening up and so on. That is a very quiet thing. That can’t happen in the way outdoor education is being sold to people: you work in an IT company and then you go for a weekend to the forest and then you have this outward bound experience. I don’t think it can happen like that. A relationship with nature is built over generations for the human species — the human species has come out of this million-year evolution, eye-to-eye contact with snakes, and elephants, and plants. You can’t really do it instantly. But a lot can be done: awareness is a pretty instant thing. People can be suddenly opened up in a pretty instant way. But, for that to build into a living relationship of sensitivity and mutual care, I don’t think that is so simple.

Suprabha Seshan in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India. July, 2010

Podcast • August 9, 2011

The Fisherfolk of Karachi: a Parable of Pakistan

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Ali Shah (16 minutes, 8 mb mp3) Mohammad Ali Shah, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum KARACHI — We are taking the fishermen’s measure of Pakistan’s distress here in a ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Ali Shah (16 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Mohammad Ali Shah, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum

KARACHI — We are taking the fishermen’s measure of Pakistan’s distress here in a fishing village that goes back to antiquity, that fights the present-day odds with spirit. The fisherfolk all around us are the sea-level “canaries” in a shrinking and severely polluted fish-farming system, centered on the Ibrahim Haidri neighborhood on the south shore of Karachi. Make of it what you will that the young men repairing nets and wooden boats for a day’s work tomorrow on the Arabian Sea don’t look out-of-luck yet. And they have a notably serene and good-humored leader in Mohammad Ali Shah, who is giving us the awful litany of threats to their way of life.

The city of Karachi (pop. roughly 20-million) dumps 500-million gallons of waste into its harbors every day — “into the bowl of our livelihood,” as Mohammad Ali Shah puts it, and that’s just the beginning. “Land grabbers,” whom we’d call developers, are encroaching on their land, as fish factories at sea are gobbling their catch. Two of the allied activists fighting the “land mafia” that has targeted their mangrove forest were murdered this past May. Fishing families suffer the cold war between Pakistan and India acutely, in the periodic arrest (and long arbitrary sentences) of fishermen who stray across territorial borders. And on top of everything, says Mohammad Ali Shah, nobody seems to care — certainly nobody with much political power. Pakistani politics, he instructs us, is an inside brokers’ game that shuns “people power.”

In short, we are looking at what seems a hopelessly broken system — a metaphor for all of Pakistan, perhaps. And yet the people talking with us seem anything but hopeless. The air about them suggests solidarity, savvy, global awareness — the “resilience” that Pakistanis seem to count as their last card. It counts, too, that fishermen paint their own boats in Pakistan (as teamsters paint their huge trucks) with brilliant floral designs, colorful splashes in their workplace at sunset.

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Podcast • May 6, 2010

Bill McKibben: Coming into View, Another Eaarth

“That picture… a beautiful blue-white marble floating through the black empty void of space… is as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. It’s kind of the reverse of my high school yearbook ...

3134273868_06fdc0a0a2“That picture… a beautiful blue-white marble floating through the black empty void of space… is as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. It’s kind of the reverse of my high school yearbook photo. I have more white up top; the earth has less. It’s a very different place.”

Bill McKibben in conversation is counting a few of the ways that earth has changed since Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman on his fourth turn around the moon in December 1968 tilted his craft and saw the earth rising, “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life,” Borman said. “It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was simply black or white. But not the earth.” Bill McKibben has a revised spelling for a changed place in his new book: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

Pretty much name a physical feature of the planet. Take the great boreal forests that dominate the northern hemisphere across, say, North America. We’ve lost now tens of millions of acres of pine trees. You get up in a plane and, horizon to horizon, there’s not a living tree because the pine bark beetle that had always been there… no longer has those cold winter temperatures to contend with. Last winter was the warmest winter ever recorded in Canada, and hence the beetles are spreading almost literally like wildfire, and in their wake comes actual wildfire as those dead trees burn. When they burn they put a whole new plume of carbon into the atmosphere.

Forest fire season across the west which used to be confined to warmest driest months of the year, three or four months of the year, now stretches from March to whenever snow finally falls in the fall. The number of fires goes up just astonishingly.

The great storms that circulate across the stormy bands around the middles of the earth are more powerful than they’ve ever been because of course they draw their power from the heat in the first few meters of the earth’s surface. So we see astonishing storms, Katrina being one example but by no means the only one.

Last summer the chain of typhoons that marched across Asia was a sight to behold. One stalled for three days over the mountains of Taiwan and before it was gone there were villages there that had received nine and a half feet of rain. Needless to say those villages are no longer there.

Those kind of things are happening on a new earth.

Bill McKibben wrote the first popular warning about climate change, The End of Nature, 21 years ago. These days he spends relatively less of his boundless energy writing than he does organizing a global grassroots mission, 350.org, to bring the carbon content in the atmosphere back down to a sustainable 350 parts per million. In key dimensions Bill McKibben and 350.org are mirror opposites of Tom Friedman and Hot, Flat and Crowded. The Friedman drumbeat is for a competitive corporate super-tech and, of course, super-profitable American-led greening of a global economy. It sounds to McKibben like “butch environmentalism.”

Look, it’s a nice fantasy that we would just keep the machine going as it’s going, but rip out the internal combustion engine and toss in a solar panel. And on we would fly. I don’t think it’s a realistic one. I think among other things it just completely ignores the physical difference between fuels. Fossil fuel was the most important thing about modernity. It’s what modernity was. It describes why we live the way we live. It’s dense, rich in BTUs, concentrated in a few places, easy to get at and easy to transport…

That’s not the world we’re moving into. The kind of energy we can afford to use, sun and wind and such, is very different. It’s omnipresent but it’s diffuse. It’s dispersed. The logic that goes with it is almost exactly the opposite logic.

We need a farmers’ market in electrons, and a farmers’ market in food… We need to figure out how to spread out and become stable and resilient, and part of that’s being smaller.

What’s the most important phrase of the last three years? If you ask me, it’s got to be, “too big to fail.” It wasn’t just our banks that were too big to fail. Much worse than that is our food system and our energy system. If they go, then we’re in much deeper trouble. They’re just as centralized, just as deeply linked and just as shaky as the banks ever were. And that’s why it’s encouraging that we’re at least beginning to think about how we might build those things down.

Bill McKibben in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 30, 2010.