Embracing the Commons in the Age of Trumpism

“As we enter the twenty-first century,” Thomas Berry observed in The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (2000), “we are experiencing a moment of grace.” “You’ve got to be kidding!” is the understandable response. Certainly, anyone paying attention to the news these days has good reason to challenge this seemingly naive claim.

What Berry means, however, has less to do with a positive assessment of our current circumstances than with the narrow window of opportunity we have to turn back from the disastrous road we are on. We have an all too brief moment to transform our exploitation of the Earth and each other into a web of relationships that is, in Berry’s words, “mutually beneficial.” Unless we act now to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, Berry contends, we will become “impoverished in all that makes us human.”

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These are important words to remember as we come to grips with a level of political polarization in our nation’s history unprecedented since at least the days of racial, ethnic, and class conflict in the 1890s, when lynchings, virulent opposition to immigration, and widespread  attacks on labor dominated the U.S. landscape. In particular, the threat that Trumpism poses to democracy is all too real, and the implications of “America First” for global efforts to stabilize the climate and confront inequality in the developing nations are alarming.

How should we respond? For those of us privileged enough to have the resources, it is all too easy to fall into despair and retreat into our respective cocoons. But that is moral cowardice and, at any rate, will end up being self-defeating. As Van Jones has pointed out, ” eco-apartheid is just a speed-bump on the way to eco-apocalypse. Any successful, long-term strategy will require a full and passionate embrace of the principle of eco-equity.”

What does it mean to embrace eco-equity? Conventional politics offers two opposing points of view: conservatism, in which the unfettered market is seen as the way forward, and progressivism, in which the expanded state is considered to be the solution. But the hard truth, as George Monbiot contends, is that “the market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state.” In Monbiot’s words, “One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”

What are the commons? Monbiot provides an admirably concise explanation: the commons are “an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights.” It can, at least in theory, include land, water, air, knowledge, scientific research, and culture. Historically, the commons in pre-industrial England were an integral part of the manor. They existed as part of the estate owned by the lord of the manor, but to which the tenants and others held certain rights.

By definition, then, the commons as an idea holds itself over and against the concept of private and exclusive ownership. Perhaps the most compelling current example of the commons is the Missouri River, which the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans, have fought to protect against the incursion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Knowing the clear risk that a potential oil spill could pose to the drinking water not only of their own people but also all those living downstream, the “water protectors” have taken a stand against the argument that the rights of corporations have precedent over the rights of all those whose lives depend on the commons, including those yet to be born.

To understand the crucial place of the commons in determining the future of what it means to be human, in short, is to see that the “moment of grace” to which Berry refers insists that we resist Trumpism and the corrosive atomization of community and radical individualism that it engenders. It is the most effective and humane way that we can bring about the kind of eco-equity Van Jones rightly views as the only viable option left for avoiding an otherwise inescapable eco-apocalypse.

The Pearl in a Swinish Year

There are lots of reasons to bid 2016 good riddance. But there was one moment that stood out in striking contrast to the tawdry events of the last twelve months: the day earlier this month when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was denying an easement to Dakota Access to drill under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed and alternative routes are explored.

By the time this announcement hit the news wires, more than 550 activists known as “Water Protectors” had been arrested as a result of their peaceful and prayerful protest against DAPL over the past nine months.

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As Rebecca Solnit noted, the victory was “not necessarily the end of the road, but a really great milestone.” It underscored “the importance of knowing that we don’t know what will happen next,” the need “to live on principles, hunches and lessons from history,” and the essential value of “standing up for what you believe in, even when victory seems remote to impossible.”

The proposed pipeline route generated intense opposition because, aside from the threat posed to the Missouri River ecosystem, it cuts through the ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other members of the Oceti Sakowin or Great Sioux Nation. These lands and waterways are sacred to the Oceti Sakowin.

The 1,172-mile DAPL would connect the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois, shipping roughly 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The Bakken Shale holds an estimated 5 billion barrels of oil, and is producing approximately 900,000 barrels per day.

What does this incredible level of production mean for climate change? This past spring University of Michigan researchers concluded that the Bakken field alone accounts for about 2 percent of the world’s ethane, about 250,000 tons per year into the air, directly affecting air quality across North America. These emissions, combined with combustion of Bakken oil, are major contributors to the global climate crisis that threatens our well-being and that of future generations.

The fear that a break in the pipeline could have a devastating impact on the Missouri River and the millions of people who depend on it for their drinking water is not merely theoretical. Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas company behind Dakota Access, has a long history of violations of environmental laws. These infractions include citations for releases of hazardous materials from its pipelines and facilities in Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii.

In one year alone, there were over 300 pipeline breaks in North Dakota. Numerous pipeline spills of millions of gallons of oil and contaminants into the Missouri River and its tributaries have already occurred. Most dramatic was the release In January of over 50,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana. The lesson is painfully clear: pipelines fail, despite the many claims about their safety, spilling oil across the land and into nearby creeks and rivers.

DAPL may yet get completed. But the struggle against its construction has brought together the greatest single gathering of native North Americans ever, inspiring a new generation of tribal activism. Just as important, the resistance has demonstrated the many ways in which the environmental and social justice movements are intertwined as well as the crucial role that indigenous people play in the climate movement.

In a year in which reactionary and racist forces have combined with greed and corruption to produce an unending wave of unsavory developments, the courage of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock reminds us that when we come together as subjects in history, not just objects of history, great things can be accomplished in the face of overwhelming odds. It comes as no small comfort that 2016 closed on such an inspiring note.

“The Climate is a Common Good”

Pope Francis’s just released encyclical on climate change and the environment, as expected, issued a hard-hitting warning about the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem” and the need to reject the “throwaway culture,” “extreme consumerism,”  and excessive profit-seeking that has led to this life-threatening degradation.

As I noted in my last post, although the Vatican has spoken out on the environment many times before, this is the first encyclical dedicated to the issue. The key theme of this historic document is that climate change and inequality are inextricably linked. In the pope’s words, “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

In the encyclical, Pope Francis called for the phasing out of fossil fuels, insisting that the responsibility for paying the cost of this transition belongs to the developed countries, “which are more powerful and pollute the most.” He pointed out that developing nations will probably experience “the worst impact” of climate change, and they lack the resources to “adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.”

While the groundbreaking encyclical has received wide coverage in the media, it remains to be seen what its longer-term impact will be. In particular, the climate agreement negotiations in Paris at the end of this year will provide a telling indication of whether world leaders will have taken to heart the pope’s powerful declaration that “the climate is a common good.”

Underscoring the serious consequences at stake, the very next day a new study appeared cautioning that, unless we reversed our climate change trajectory soon, the planet was on course for its sixth mass species extinction. The key difference this time is that it will be the first one induced by human behavior, especially the burning of fossil fuels and the adoption of industrial-scale agriculture.

“Unless we do something radically different soon,” observed Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and lead author of the study, “we may end up having a big catastrophic collapse of humans, not only animals.”

Together, the religious and moral pronouncements of Pope Francis and the scientific analysis of six leading researchers provide a sobering picture of our future. Still, as the pope pointed out, “human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.”

The Time is Now

The March-April issue of the TCCPI Newsletter highlights the wide ranging work of the Tompkins County government and other members of the TCCPI coalition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. Clearly, it’s an impressive record, one that demonstrates the commitment of our community to meet the central challenge of our time.

Elsewhere in the United States and around the world similar work is going on in thousands of communities. The crucial question, of course, is will it be enough to stave off runaway climate change? Can we make the changes necessary at the required scale and rate to avoid the 2 degrees Celsius increase scientists say will set off climate catastrophe

Open pit coal mine in Western Australia.

The latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations group that issues periodic summaries of the ongoing research on climate science, underscores the speed at which we are hurtling toward the point of no return. As the Guardian observes, the new study emphasizes five key points:

  1. Climate change is already posing a serious threat to the world’s food supply and will only get worse, especially in light of projected population growth.
  2. Potential shortages of food and water will become major drivers of future conflicts, undermining human security in every hemisphere.
  3. Climate change is going to intensify existing inequalities and have a disproportionate impact on poor people in both developed and developing nations.
  4. Our current trajectory puts us on course to raise the average global temperature 4 degrees Celsius, ensuring that no one will escape the effects of climate change.
  5. We face a difficult but not hopeless task and can still prevent the worst effects off climate change from occurring.

It’s a sobering picture: the passenger jet on which we are traveling is in a steep dive, we don’t quite know when the craft will begin to come apart because of the stress on its systems and structural integrity, and if we don’t pull out of the dive soon, it will surely crash.

Fortunately, in a follow up report released on Sunday the IPCC finds that the cost of implementing the transformation necessary to avoid the crash would shave only 0.06% off expected annual global economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%. The IPCC analysis does not take into account the environmental and health benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which could very well offset the costs of a sweeping shift to clean energy.

Here’s the rub, though: the longer we wait the more it will cost. In short, the time for a massive mobilization is now.

Climate Change and Inequality

The disproportionate impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the least privileged portions of society is not some distant threat; it is already taking place. Typhoon Haiyan’s destructive path through the Philippines in early November underscored the vulnerability of low income populations to super storms that climate change models predict will become more frequent.

According to the latest estimates from the government there, more than 6,100 people have been reported dead and nearly 1,800 more are still missing three months after the storm ravaged the country. The vast majority of the casualties occurred in low lying areas where the storm surge hit hardest, areas most heavily populated by the poor.

Typhoon Haiyan inflicted the worst damage on poor families in rural areas.

Of course, climate change is not only wreaking havoc in developing nations. The U.S., England, and Australia, just to name three, are coming to grips with drought, floods, and brutal heat waves.

The difference between these events and the Filipino super storm lies in the greater wealth and more robust infrastructure of industrial nations, assets that make them better able to deal with the growing consequences of climate change. All one has to do is compare the resources of the Netherlands to fend off rising sea levels with those of Bangladesh to grasp the point.

It is nearly certain that extreme weather will become a fact of life in the 21st century. What isn’t certain is whether the developed world will become numb to its consequences and keep up practices that contribute to climate destabilization and make the lives of poor people even more exposed than they already are to the resulting destruction. Extended heat waves, food and water shortages, and disappearing coast lines will inflict enormous suffering on millions of people least able to absorb it.

Democratic society, and its core commitment to social equity, requires a livable climate. “Climate change causes drought, floods, and resource scarcity, leading to famine, civil unrest, armed conflict, innocent suffering and government oppression,” writes Ashley Anderson. “Anyone who believes that all individuals deserve basic human and civil rights should see the climate crisis as an imminent threat.”

Democracy even in times of stability and prosperity is difficult to build and maintain; under the stress of global climate disruption, it will in all likelihood collapse in a heap.

In short, we make a huge mistake if we think climate change, economic inequality, and democracy are separate issues having nothing to do with each other. If previously difficult to discern, the interconnections are now becoming increasingly evident. The destabilization of the climate is largely a product of the same forces – the rise of global corporate power and unprecedented technological exploitation – that have resulted in levels of economic and social stratification inimical to the survival of democracy in even its most diluted forms.

The time is long past for those of us who are relatively well off to take stock of how we can act to protect the climate and reduce the vulnerability of those less fortunate than ourselves to its disruptive effects. Whether it is working to expand renewable energy in our communities, strengthening local food and farming systems, calling on universities and colleges to begin divesting from fossil fuel companies, challenging unchecked corporate greed, or insisting that our political leaders take seriously the science of climate change, there is a wide range of actions we can carry out on a daily basis that, cumulatively, will have a global impact. None of us can afford to stand on the sidelines.

“We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it,” observes Wendell Berry in a recent interview with Bill Moyers. “And to take good care of it we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.” It is hard to think of a better way to spend time during the holidays than to reflect on what Berry says here and (re)commit to this timeless truth during the coming new year.