Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter research group; Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, curator of the MIT Solve Arts and Culture Mentorship Prize; and MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle speak at the 2017 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City on September 18, 2017.
Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter research group; Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, curator of the MIT Solve Arts and Culture Mentorship Prize; and MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle speak at the 2017 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City on September 18, 2017.
Francois Mitterrand – Man of Action, Man of Words – Review of Philip Short’s, A Taste For Intrigue.
R. L. Wallace November 8, 2015
Sitting up late one evening at Latche, I hear, all around me, talk of life and death, the origins of the world and the existence of God, the beyond and nothingness. The battle rages in both camps. What certainties on either side! They demonstrate, decide definitely, assert authoritatively. I listen and think that though I like those who ask themselves questions. I am wary of those who find answers.”
Francois Mitterrand – The Wheat and the Chaff
A man who lives the myths of his country is valued by its citizens because he shows through his actions and words what life is about, what its culture is.
The concept of country in France is as rich and fierce as any on earth, embodying Greek polis, the rule of monarchs, pagan cults, Roman poetry and oration, and Christianity in all of its beauty and beastiality.
Mitterrand, given his unique character, provided this composite for citizens to project upon, and to see themselves and to take in correspondences.
He stirred the thinking of the people. He defined causes worthy of engagement. He was fortunate in that human events were presented that allowed for the full expression of human action in the present.
He echoed de Gaulle, Napoleon, Robespierre and Louis XIV the sun king: strength, tolerance and justice for all people, leadership in the world community, the rule of law.
His actions as president strengthened the democracy, rebuilt the architecture of learning and created paths to adjust France to the new globalism and a European union. He knew where he wanted to take the people, a socialism that created equality for its citizens, a culture that blended Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance with the pragmatism of the American William James.
Mitterrand was a complex individual. He was highly mannered, a mesmerizing orator, a friend’s friend and a fierce opponent. These characteristics were honed in a rich family life. He grew up in the provinces, raised Catholic in a large family where books and learning were held in high regard and where the perception of money was devalued. He learned the rules of class from commerce (cognac vs vinegar) and religion (protestant vs Catholic). Entering Catholic boarding school at ten, he left the provinces for Paris at eighteen to enroll in two French colleges where he studied law, literature and politics with honors. He engaged in literary work beginning in the Catholic school through college and into the military and beyond. He was a strong writer and editor and applied the knowledge of literature and culture in most of his endeavors. Mitterrand developed a rigorous use of logic that is uniquely French – highly rational, academic and just.
He was a front line participant in losing his country and winning it back.
“In six weeks, four fifths of the French army deployed against Germany was taken prisoner….1.8 million soldiers were captured. … they were sent to POW camps inside Germany.” 1.
“Mitterrand was wounded on June 14, 1940, near the village of Stenay, by an exploding shell fragment that lodged in his back.” 2.
As an infantryman (colonial soldier) he fought hard, was wounded in battle, was captured, became a leader in the detention camp, escaped from German incarceration (after two failed attempts), and became a leader in the resistance that finally toppled the German occupation.
After WWII Mitterrand entered civilian life and joined the French political establishment where he operated for decades before his election to president in 1981. It is this period that Short spends most of the book describing in excruciating detail.
Philip Short has made an important contribution to Mitterrand works available in English. His reportorial style is fact based and walks the reader through Mitterrand’s chronological life steps. Mr Short reported on Mitterrand and other French issues for the BBC for several years in the 1980’s thus giving him a base of experience for the book.
Today there is an ongoing literary renaissance of French books, essays and films that celebrate Mitterrand’s life. It is hoped that more books will be translated into English. It is unfortunate for Americans that France is largely lost through the veil of language as it is the central host of the culture most important to the founding of America and the structure of its culture.
1. Philip Short, A Taste For Intrigue – The Multiple Lives Of Francois Mitterrand (Henry Holt and Company (New York 2014) p. 47.
2. Ronald Tiersky, Francois Mitterrand – The Last French President, (St. Martins Press June 2000), p 49.
Feb. 15, 2015, 12:31 p.m. | Op-ed — by Bernard-Henri Lévy – from Kyiv Post – Ukraine’s leading English-language newspaper.
A handout picture taken and released by the Ukrainian presidential press service shows Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (2nd R), standing next to French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy (R), looking late on Feb. 10 at an unexploded rocket in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk Oblast. Fighting in Ukraine has killed at least 45 people in the last 24 hours, Kiev officials and rebel authorities said, ahead of a four-way summit in Minsk to thrash out a peace deal.
map from Google
The meeting was scheduled for that very evening—the evening before the Minsk summit this week—in Petro Poroshenko’s office at the presidential palace in Kyiv.
But the moment my colleague Gilles Hertzog and I arrive at the Kyiv airport and step on the tarmac, my phone rings.
It is Valeriy Chaly, the Ukrainian president’s deputy chief of staff, who is already in Belarus for the summit.
“Stay where you are. Whatever you do, don’t go into town. I can’t tell you anything on the phone. Protocol is coming to pick you up.”
We sit in a deserted waiting room where a converted duty free is selling bad coffee and bars of the Roshen chocolate, ubiquitous in Ukraine, on which Petro Poroshenko made his fortune.
After two hours, the security ballet begins—men in black, headsets in the ear, long, ultra-slim briefcase in hand, a routine that several decades in the planet’s hot spots have taught me signifies the imminent arrival of the Boss.
From there, everything moves quickly. The men in black assume battle stations as we charge back onto the tarmac, where a jet sits with its twin engines running. We scramble up the ramp at the rear. A security man leads us to the forward cabin, where Poroshenko is waiting. The Ukrainian president is barely recognizable in his khaki T-shirt, camouflage pants and military boots—but mostly because of an almost worrisome pallor, something that I have not seen on him before.
“Sorry about all the mystery, but except for him,” Poroshenko gestures to Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, the Ukrainian army’s commander in chief, who is also in uniform—“nobody knows where we’re going. Security reasons. But you’ll see. It’s awful. And I want you as witnesses.”
The flight, headed southeast, lasts an hour.
We are headed to Donetsk Oblast, where, the president tells me, vicious shelling of a civilian area has just claimed several dozen victims.
The conversation turns to the summit in Minsk, Belarus, where the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine will meet.
“Tomorrow at this time you’ll be face to face with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. What are you going to say to him?”
“That I will yield on nothing,” Poroshenko replies. “That neither Ukraine’s territorial integrity nor its right to Europe are negotiable.”
“And if he persists? If he won’t abandon his idea of federalizing the areas now in the hands of the separatists?”
“Then I’ll walk out and submit the question to public opinion and to the United Nations. We are not Ethiopia in 1935 or Czechoslovakia in 1938 or one of the little nations sacrificed by the great powers at Yalta. We’re not even your friend [Alija] Izetbegovic, who accepted the partition of Bosnia in Dayton.”
I tell him that the difference this time is that France, under François Hollande, is with him. He says he knows that.
I remind him that Germany contracted an ineradicable debt with respect to Ukraine (seven million dead in World War II alone) and that Chancellor (Angela) Merkel cannot fail to honor it. He nods as if to say that he knows that, too, but is a little less sure of it.
In any event, he feels strongly that his country has paid too dearly for its freedom and independence to accept any form of diktat. “I am hoping with all my heart for a peace agreement, but we are not afraid of war. Didn’t your General (Charles) de Gaulle say that great people, in dark times, have no better friends than themselves?”
We spend the rest of the flight discussing the formal statement that he will make at the opening of the summit, where the fate of his country will be hanging in the balance. It is a little after 10 p.m. when we land in Kharkov.
About 30 armored vehicles are waiting for us near the plane.
And off we go in convoy across the deserted plains of the Dnieper to Kramatorsk. After three hours of fairly easy going, the last 30 miles are a frozen track rutted by military convoys.
No lights to be seen.
Not a soul stirring.
The chilling atmosphere of a dead city.
And then, suddenly, a clutch of poor people warming themselves around a fire.
Here, the middle of the city had been the target of a Smerch rocket fired from a distance of more than 30 miles in the early afternoon.
Here, and within a radius of about 900 yards, the giant antipersonnel weapon released its rain of minirockets, killing 16 people and wounding 65.
And here I discover another Poroshenko: no longer the military leader from the plane; still less the billionaire president that I accompanied to the Élysée Palace a year ago; but a ravaged man, livid in the floodlights illuminating the scene. He listens as survivors recount the hellish whistle of the rocket, the women returning from the market who were mowed down by the deluge of pellets, the panic in the streets as people rushed for shelter, tripping over bodies, the brave mother who covered her child with her body and was killed, the arrival of rescuers, the anguish that another rocket could follow.
“What a disaster,” he groans.
He repeats it several times: “What a disaster . . . We are kilometers from the front. There’s no one here but civilians. This isn’t war—it’s slaughter. This isn’t a war crime; it’s a crime against humanity.”
And then, standing at the edge of the crater formed by a rocket that had failed to explode, Poroshenko—suddenly immense and strangely colossal because of the bulletproof vest that his aides had him don under his jacket—points at the engine of death as if it were his personal enemy and adds: “A monster of that size, outlawed by the Geneva Convention, the separatists don’t have those. That could only be the Russians.”
He repeats, a grim smile freezing his features. “The Russians. When I think that the Russians will be there in Minsk tomorrow and will have the audacity to talk about peace . . .”
A doctor, his arms bare even though the temperature is well below zero, approaches to escort us to the nearby hospital emergency room.
The president lingers at the bed of each of the injured, sometimes asking questions, sometimes offering sympathy, sometimes, with the hardiest, trying to joke. I think I even see him give a quiet blessing to an old woman as she hands him the fragments that had been removed from her legs, saying, “Here, Petro, you give these to Putin. Tell him they’re from Zoya in Kramatorsk.”
We make a last stop, far from the city, at the military headquarters of the general staff of the Donetsk region. In a vast building entirely covered with camouflage net are dozens of officers, helmeted Herculeses, their faces furrowed and exhausted, some asleep on their feet with their backs to the wall, still clutching their weapons. And there Poroshenko resumes the role of war leader. He disappears into the map room with his top officers, where he gives orders for the counteroffensive that will have to be launched if the Minsk summit fails.
It is 3 a.m.
Military intelligence fears the launch of another rocket attack. In any event it is time to go. We take the same route back, though it seems even more desolate.
Once we return to the plane, I tell Poroshenko that I had dinner the night before in Paris with a former ambassador to Ukraine who is advocating deliveries of weapons—and who believes that the Ukrainian armed forces are in a tough spot, especially in the Debaltsevo pocket, where thousands of troops are menaced on three sides.
“He’s not wrong there,” Poroshenko responds with a smile, digging into the cold cuts that the flight attendant has just brought to him. “But make no mistake: The time is long past when the navy at Sebastopol and the barracks at Belbek and Novofedorivka gave up without firing a shot. That’s the only advantage of war: You learn how to wage it.”
I also tell him that many in the U.S. and Europe doubt the capacity of his soldiers to make good use of the sophisticated weapons that eventually may be delivered to them. At this, he guffaws and, after exchanging a few words in Ukrainian with his chief of staff, says:
“Well, tell them, please, that they’ve got it wrong. We would need a week, no more, to take full possession of the equipment. Know that, because we had no choice, our army is about to become the best, the bravest, and the most hardened force in the region.”
From that point on, he darkens again only when I mention the uphill battle that his American friends will have to fight before any equipment can be delivered: Congress will have to reapprove the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act that it first passed on Dec. 11. It is an appropriation bill to release the $350 million in military aid that was approved. Final approval will be needed from President Obama, whose tendency to procrastinate in such matters is well known. And a decision will need to be made about whether the equipment can be taken from existing stocks or will have to be manufactured, which would take even more time.
“I know all that,” Mr. Poroshenko mutters, closing his eyes. “I know. But maybe we’ll get a miracle. Yes, a miracle.”
That reminds me that Poroshenko is a practicing Christian, a deacon in civilian life. On the presidential campaign trail last year, in Dnepropetrovsk and elsewhere, before every meeting, I watched him find the nearest church and take a moment to kneel and pray.
The idea also crosses my mind that the skilled strategist that he has become—the civilized man whom circumstances have obliged to join the admirable club of reluctant heroes who make war without wanting to—is possibly thinking that what he most needs now is to gain time. Perhaps gaining a few weeks would be the chief advantage of the accords that, without for an instant trusting Vladimir Putin’s word, he is going to sign.
Minsk. Is it a fool’s bargain?
Will the agreement he signs be a false one that, like last September’s, stops the war for just a month or two?
Of course. Deep down, he knows it. His statement after the signing of the accord was simple: “The main thing which has been achieved is that from Saturday into Sunday there should be declared without any conditions at all a general cease-fire.”
For the time being, the nightmare will recede a bit.
It is nearly dawn when we finally land in Kyiv. And Poroshenko has only a few hours to make it to that summit where, one way or another, he has a rendezvous with history.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France’s most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is a leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His 2013 book, Les Aventures de la vérité—Peinture et philosophie (Grasset/Fondation Maeght), explored the historical interplay of philosophy and art. A play, Hotel Europe, performed in Sarajevo, Venice, Odessa, and Paris in the latter half of 2014, is a cry of alarm about the crisis facing the European project and the dream behind it. This article was translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
It was the most thrilling bureaucratic document I’ve ever seen for just one reason: it was dated the 21st day of the month of Thermidor in the Year Six. Written in sepia ink on heavy paper, it recorded an ordinary land auction in France in what we would call the late summer of 1798. But the extraordinary date signaled that it was created when the French Revolution was still the overarching reality of everyday life and such fundamentals as the distribution of power and the nature of government had been reborn in astonishing ways. The new calendar that renamed 1792 as Year One had, after all, been created to start society all over again.
In that little junk shop on a quiet street in San Francisco, I held a relic from one of the great upheavals of the last millennium. It made me think of a remarkable statement the great feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin had made only a few weeks earlier. In the course of a speech she gave while accepting a book award she noted, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
That document I held was written only a few years after the French had gotten over the idea that the divine right of kings was an inescapable reality. The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).
Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).
How to Topple a Giant
To use Le Guin’s language, physics is inevitable: if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet warms, and as the planet warms, various kinds of chaos and ruin are let loose. Politics, on the other hand, is not inevitable. For example, not so many years ago it would have seemed inevitable that Chevron, currently the third biggest corporation in the country, would run the refinery town of Richmond, California, as its own private fiefdom. You could say that the divine right of Chevron seemed like a given. Except that people in Richmond refused to accept it and so this town of 107,000 mostly poor nonwhites pushed back.
In recent years, a group of progressives won election to the city council and the mayor’s seat, despite huge expenditures by Chevron, the corporation that also brought you gigantic oil spills onshore in Ecuador and offshore in Brazil, massive contamination from half a century of oil extraction in Nigeria, and Canadian tar-sands bitumen sent by rail to the Richmond refinery. Mayor Gayle McLaughin and her cohorts organized a little revolution in a town that had mostly been famous for its crime rate and for Chevron’s toxic refinery emissions, which periodically create emergencies, sometimes requiring everyone to take shelter (and pretend that they are not being poisoned indoors), sometimes said — by Chevron — to be harmless, as with last Thursday’s flames that lit up the sky, visible as far away as Oakland.
As McLaughin put it of her era as mayor:
“We’ve accomplished so much, including breathing better air, reducing the pollution, and building a cleaner environment and cleaner jobs, and reducing our crime rate. Our homicide number is the lowest in 33 years and we became a leading city in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita. We’re a sanctuary city. And we’re defending our homeowners to prevent foreclosures and evictions. And we also got Chevron to pay $114 million extra dollars in taxes.”
For this November’s election, the second-largest oil company on Earth officially spent $3.1 million to defeat McLaughin and other progressive candidates and install a mayor and council more to its liking. That sum worked out to about $180 per Richmond voter, but my brother David, who’s long been connected to Richmond politics, points out that, if you look at all the other ways the company spends to influence local politics, it might be roughly ten times that.
Nonetheless, Chevron lost. None of its candidates were elected and all the grassroots progressives it fought with billboards, mailers, television ads, websites, and everything else a lavishly funded smear campaign can come up with, won.
If a small coalition like that can win locally against a corporation that had revenues of $228.9 billion in 2013, imagine what a large global coalition could do against the fossil-fuel giants. It wasn’t easy in Richmond and it won’t be easy on the largest scale either, but it’s not impossible. The Richmond progressives won by imagining that the status quo was not inevitable, no less an eternal way of life. They showed up to do the work to dent that inevitability. The billionaires and fossil fuel corporations are intensely engaged in politics all the time, everywhere, and they count on us to stay on the sidelines. If you look at their response to various movements, you can see that they fear the moment we wake up, show up, and exercise our power to counter theirs.
That power operated on a larger scale last week, when local activists and public health professionals applied sufficient pressure to get New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign legislation banning fracking statewide. Until the news broke on December 17th, the outcome had seemed uncertain. It’s a landmark, a watershed decision: a state has decided that its considerable reserves of fossil fuel will not be extracted for the foreseeable future, that other things — the health of its people, the purity of its water — matter more. And once again, the power of citizens turned out to be greater than that of industry.
Just a few days before the huge victory in New York, the nations of the world ended their most recent talks in Lima, Peru, about a global climate treaty — and they actually reached a tentative deal, one that for the first time asks all nations, not just the developed ones, to reduce emissions. The agreement has to get better — to do more, demand more of every nation — by the global climate summit in Paris in December of 2015.
It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here, but easy to see that activists and citizens will have to push their nations hard. We need to end the age of fossil fuels the way the French ended the age of absolute monarchy. As New York State and the town of Richmond just demonstrated, what is possible has been changing rapidly.
Three Kinds of Hero
If you look at innovations in renewable energy technologies — and this may be an era in which engineers are our unsung heroes — the future seems tremendously exciting. Not long ago, the climate movement was only hoping against hope that technology could help save us from the depredations of climate change. Now, as one of the six great banners carried in the 400,000-strong September 21st climate march in New York City proclaimed, “We have the solutions.” Wind, solar, and other technologies are spreading rapidly with better designs, lower costs, and many extraordinary improvements that are undoubtedly but a taste of what’s still to come.
In parts of the United States and the world, clean energy is actually becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. The price of oil has suddenly plunged, scrambling the situation for a while, but with one positive side benefit: it’s pushed some of the filthier carbon-intensive, cutting-edge energy extraction schemes below the cost-effective point for now.
The costs of clean energy technology have themselves been dropping significantly enough that sober financial advisers like the head of the Bank of England are beginning to suggest that fossil fuels and centralized conventional power plants may prove to be bad investments. They are also talking about “the carbon bubble” (a sign that the divestment movement has worked in calling attention to the practical as well as the moral problems of the industry). So the technology front is encouraging.
That’s the carrot for action; there’s also a stick.
If you look at the climate reports by the scientists — and scientists are another set of heroes for our time — the news only keeps getting scarier. You probably already know the highlights: chaotic weather, regular records set for warmth on land and at sea (and 2014 heading for an all-time heat high), 355 months in a row of above-average temperatures, more ice melting faster, more ocean acidification, the “sixth extinction,” the spread of tropical diseases, drops in food productivity with consequent famines.
So many people don’t understand what we’re up against, because they don’t think about the Earth and its systems much or they don’t grasp the delicate, intricate reciprocities and counterbalances that keep it all running as well as it has since the last ice age ended and an abundant, calm planet emerged. For most of us, none of that is real or vivid or visceral or even visible.
For a great many scientists whose fields have something to do with climate, it is. In many cases they’re scared, as well as sad and unnerved, and they’re clear about the urgency of taking action to limit how disastrously climate change impacts our species and the systems we depend upon.
Some non-scientists already assume that it’s too late to do anything, which — as premature despair always does — excuses us for doing nothing. Insiders, however, are generally convinced that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best- and worst-case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written.
After that huge climate march, I asked Jamie Henn, a cofounder of and communications director for 350.org, how he viewed this moment and he replied, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart,” a perfect summary of the way heartening news about alternative energy and the growth of climate activism exists in the shadow of those terrible scientific reports. This brings us to our third group of heroes, who fall into the one climate category that doesn’t require special qualifications: activists.
New technologies are only solutions if they’re implemented and the old carbon-emitting ones are phased out or shut down. It’s clear enough that the great majority of fossil fuel reserves must be kept just where they are — in the ground — as we move away from the Age of Petroleum. That became all too obvious thanks to a relatively recent calculation made by scientists and publicized and pushed by activists (and maybe made conceivable by engineers designing replacement systems). The goal of all this: to keep the warming of the planet to 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), a target established years ago that alarmed scientists are now questioning, given the harm that nearly 1 degree Celsius of warming is already doing.
Dismantling the fossil-fuel economy would undoubtedly have the side effect of breaking some of the warping power that oil has had in global and national politics. Of course, those wielding that power will not yield it without a ferocious battle — the very battle the climate movement is already engaged in on many fronts, from the divestment movement to the fight against fracking to the endeavor to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and others like it from delivering the products of the Alberta tar sands to the successful movement to shut down coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and prevent others from being built.
Climate Activism: Global and Local Movements
If everyone who’s passionate about climate change, who gets that we’re living in a moment in which the fate of the Earth and of humanity is actually being decided, found their place in the movement, amazing things could happen. What’s happening now is already remarkable enough, just not yet adequate to the crisis.
The divestment movement that arose a couple of years ago to get institutions to unload their stocks in fossil fuel corporations started modestly. It is now active on hundreds of college campuses and at other institutions around the world. While the intransigence or love of inertia of bureaucracies is a remarkable force, there have been notable victories. In late September, for instance, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — made fat upon the wealth of John D. Rockefeller’s founding role in the rise of the petroleum industry — pledged to divest its $860 million in assets from fossil fuels. It is just one of more than 800 institutions, including church denominations, universities, cities, pension funds, and foundations from Scotland to New Zealand to Seattle, that have already committed to doing so.
The Keystone pipeline could have been up and running years ago, delivering the dirtiest energy from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast with little fanfare, had activists not taken it on. It has become a profoundly public, hotly debated issue, the subject of demonstrations at dozens of presidential appearances in recent years — and in the course of this ruckus, a great many people (including me) were clued in to the existence of the giant suppurating sore of sludge, bitumen, and poison lakes that is the Alberta tar sands.
Canadian activists have done a similarly effective job of blocking other pipelines to keep this landlocked stuff from reaching any coast for export. One upshot of this: quite a lot of the stuff is now being put on trains (with disastrous results when they crash and, in the longer term, no less disastrous outcomes when they don’t). This exceptionally dirty crude oil leaves behind extremely high levels of toxins in the mining as well as the refining process.
As the Wall Street Journal recently reported:
“The Keystone XL pipeline was touted as a model for energy independence and a source of jobs when TransCanada Corp. announced plans to build the 1,700-mile pipeline six years ago. But the crude-oil pipeline’s political and regulatory snarls since then have emboldened resistance to at least 10 other pipeline projects across North America. As a result, six oil and natural-gas pipeline projects in North America costing a proposed $15 billion or more and stretching more than 3,400 miles have been delayed, a tally by the Wall Street Journal shows. At least four other projects with a total investment of $25 billion and more than 5,100 miles in length are facing opposition but haven’t been delayed yet.”
The climate movement has proved to be bigger and more effective than it looks, because most people don’t see a single movement. If they look hard, what they usually see is a wildly diverse mix of groups facing global issues on the one hand and a host of local ones on the other. Domestically, that can mean Denton, Texas, banning fracking in the November election or the shutting down of coal-powered plants across the country, or the movement gearing up in California for an immense anti-fracking demonstration on February 7, 2015.
It can mean people working on college divestment campaigns or rewriting state laws to address climate change by implementing efficiency and clean energy. It can mean the British Columbian activists who, for now, have prevented a tunnel from being drilled for a tar-sands pipeline to the Pacific Coast thanks to a months-long encampment, civil disobedience, and many arrests at Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver. One of the arrested wrote in the Vancouver Observer:
“[S]itting in that jail cell, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. One that I was only partially aware that I have been carrying for years now. I am ashamed by Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty and our increasingly contemptible position on climate change. If these are the values of our society then I want to be an outlaw in that society.”
Making the Future
Just before that September climate march in New York, I began to contemplate how human beings a century from now will view those of us who lived in the era when climate change was recognized, and yet there was so much more that we could have done. They may feel utter contempt for us. They may regard us as the crew who squandered their inheritance, like drunkards gambling away a family fortune that, in this case, is everyone’s everywhere and everything. I’m talking, of course, about the natural world itself when it was in good working order. They will see us as people who fiddled while everything burned.
They will think we were insane to worry about celebrities and fleeting political scandals and whether we had nice bodies. They will think the newspapers should have had a gigantic black box above the fold of the front page every day saying “Here are some stories about other things, BUT CLIMATE IS STILL THE BIGGEST STORY OF ALL.”
They will think that we should have thrown our bodies in front of the engines of destruction everywhere, raised our voices to the heavens, halted everything until the devastation stopped. They will bless and praise the few and curse the many.
There have been heroic climate activists in nearly every country on the planet, and some remarkable things have already been achieved. The movement has grown in size, power, and sophistication, but it’s still nowhere near commensurate with what needs to be done. In the lead-up to the U.N.-sponsored conference to create a global climate treaty in Paris next December, this coming year will likely be decisive.
So this is the time to find your place in a growing movement, if you haven’t yet — as it is for climate organizers to do better at reaching out and offering everyone a part in the transformation, whether it’s the housebound person who writes letters or the 20-year-old who’s ready for direct action in remote places. This is the biggest of pictures, so there’s a role for everyone, and it should be everyone’s most important work right now, even though so many other important matters press on all of us. (As the Philippines’s charismatic former climate negotiator Yeb Sano notes, “Climate change impinges on almost all human rights. Human rights are at the core of this issue.”)
Many people believe that personal acts in private life are what matters in this crisis. They are good things, but not the key thing. It’s great to bicycle rather than drive, eat plants instead of animals, and put solar panels on your roof, but such gestures can also offer a false sense that you’re not part of the problem.
You are not just a consumer. You are a citizen of this Earth and your responsibility is not private but public, not individual but social. If you are a resident of a country that is a major carbon emitter, as is nearly everyone in the English-speaking world, you are part of the system, and nothing less than systemic change will save us.
The race is on. From an ecological standpoint, the scientists advise us that we still have a little bit of time in which it might be possible, by a swift, decisive move away from fossil fuels, to limit the damage we’re setting up for those who live in the future. From a political standpoint, we have a year until the Paris climate summit, at which, after endless foot-shuffling and evading and blocking and stalling and sighing, we could finally, decades in, get a meaningful climate deal between the world’s nations.
We actually have a chance, a friend who was at the Lima preliminary round earlier this month told me, if we all continue to push our governments ferociously. The real pressure for change globally comes more from within nations than from nations pressuring one another. Here in the United States, long the world’s biggest carbon-emitter (until China outstripped us, partly by becoming the manufacturer of a significant percentage of our products), we have a particular responsibility to push hard. Pressure works. The president is clearly feeling it, and it’s reflected in the recent U.S.-China agreement on curtailing emissions — far from perfect or adequate, but a huge step forward.
How will we get to where we need to be? No one knows, but we do know that we must keep moving in the direction of reduced carbon emissions, a transformed energy economy, an escape from the tyranny of fossil fuel, and a vision of a world in which everything is connected. The story of this coming year is ours to write and it could be a story of Year One in the climate revolution, of the watershed when popular resistance changed the fundamentals as much as the people of France changed their world (and ours) more than 200 ago.
Two hundred years hence, may someone somewhere hold in their hands a document from 2021, in wonder, because it was written during Year Six of the climate revolution, when all the old inevitabilities were finally being swept aside, when we seized hold of possibility and made it ours. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” says Ursula K. Le Guin. And she’s right, even if it’s the hardest work we could ever do. Now, everything depends on it.
Rebecca Solnit, who has ended TomDispatch’s year for years now, grew up reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s books. Her own most recent book is The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (Trinity University Press), and her 2014 indie bestseller, Men Explain Things to Me (Dispatch Books), released in May, is ending up on best of the year lists everywhere.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit
This is uncommonly good advice for Americans to heed.
It’s sheer folly to hope that the country is destabilised and Vladimir Putin overthrown. We’ve no idea what the outcome would be.
‘Bush understood nothing about Russia – from the moment he looked into Putin’s eyes and told us he got a sense of his soul.’
Tuesday 16 December 2014 14.35 EST
Like a rudderless ship running out of fuel and buffeted in an icy storm, the Russian economy looks as if it is heading for a crash. All the graphs – the rouble-dollar rate, the slump in GDP, bank interest rates, oil prices – look like menacing icebergs. The only question seems to be how long the ship can stay afloat.
There are two immediate causes of the crisis: the price of oil, and western sanctions. Oil is trading at below $60 a barrel while Russia, still overwhelmingly dependent on exports of its most precious resource, needs a price of $105 to balance its books. That’s the consequence of having failed to reform and diversify the economy over the past 20 years.
As for the west’s sanctions, they were introduced with one explicit aim – to force Putin to change tack in Ukraine. At least, that was the stated aim. But since the measures show no sign of having any effect on his thinking, and yet the west is considering even more sanctions, there is obviously another goal – to punish Putin for his actions, regardless of whether he changes his mind. Sadly, it is not Putin who feels this punishment. It is the Russian people.
The west needs to accept a simple fact: that Putin’s response to sanctions is always bizarre. He tends to favour reactions that hit his own people rather than the west. America passed the Magnitsky Act to “punish” those alleged to be responsible for the killing of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and Putin responded by banning adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans. There is no sign that the killers of Magnitsky suffered in any way; indeed the only official being investigated for the crime was released. The west imposed sanctions on Putin’s “cronies” and Russian banks because of the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea; and Putin responded by banning the import of western foodstuffs.
To keep repeating the same mistake again and again and expecting different results is, as they say, a sign of madness. And if by doing so you punish only ordinary Russian people, then it is also cruel – and counterproductive. Twenty years ago the dream was to rescue the former communist world and bring prosperity and democracy to its people. What we are doing now is impoverishing and alienating the Russians.
We can, of course, stick to our guns and insist that “sanctions are having an effect”. But what will we gain if the only effect is to destroy the Russian economy? Perhaps the hope is to destabilise the country so much that Putin is overthrown. (I detect much schadenfreude among observers, who desperately hope a collapse of the Russian economy will bring about Putin’s fall.) If so, it is a highly dangerous game of chance. Pouring fuel on Kremlin clan wars that we barely understand would be the height of folly. We have no idea what the outcome might be – and it could be much worse than what we have at present.
Or perhaps the hope is that the Russian people, ground down into poverty and despair, will rise up against the Kremlin and install a government of the west’s choosing. Dream on!
It has long been my contention that we should deal with the causes of Putin’s aggressive behaviour, not the symptoms. There is a way to bring him back into the fold (always assuming that anyone actually wishes to do so any more), but it will require fresh ideas that are utterly unappealing to most of the west’s leaders. It will take bold and imaginative thinking, not kneejerk reactions and the false logic of piling on ever tougher sanctions.
Perhaps it is time to recognise that George W Bush’s disastrous foreign policy legacy encompasses far more than just Iraq, torture and the fanning of terrorism. Bush also understood nothing about Russia – right from the moment that he looked into Putin’s eyes and told us how he “got a sense of his soul” – and now we are living with the consequences.
It was the Bush administration that created the sense of insecurity that has caused Russia to react, and overreact, to every perceived threat – including, most recently, the perception that Ukraine was being forcibly dragged out of Russia’s orbit and into the west’s. Bush unilaterally abandoned the anti-ballistic missile treaty, seen by Russia as the cornerstone of strategic balance; he began building a missile shield on Russia’s doorstep; he expanded Nato to Russia’s frontiers, blithely granting the east Europeans “security” while causing Russia to feel threatened.
The solution is clear. Abandon the missile shield. End the expansion of Nato. And think boldly about a new security arrangement for the whole of Europe – one that will bring Russia in rather than leaving it outside feeling vulnerable. If this were done, everything I know about Putin and Russia tells me the crisis over Ukraine would be solved – and the Russian economy would not end up being needlessly destroyed, causing woe and bitterness among its people. If it is not done, we will have to deal with a resentful Russia for decades – for Putin’s successors will also demand security.
Let us return to the ideals of 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev envisaged a new “common European home”. That is what every Russian leader since him has wanted – while the west, it seems, never did.
• Angus Roxburgh served as an adviser to the Russian government from 2006 to 2009
photo – getty images
“Michael Kinsley, who did two stints as editor of The New Republic and then rejoined the magazine in 2013 before leaving in January for Vanity Fair, cautioned against rushing to judgment about the new regime. “We don’t know, or at least I don’t know, what their plans are,” he said. “Have they said anything about what they’re going to do except in these vague and cliché-ridden terms?”
Mr. Kinsley is no longer on the magazine’s masthead. But if he were, he said, he wouldn’t join the protest. “We live in a capitalistic society, and that’s something that The New Republic has historically stood for,” he went on. “It’s his magazine, and if he wants to wreck it, he can.” From the New York Times article below.
The New York Times – JONATHAN MAHLER and RAVI SOMAIYA: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/08/business/media/revolt-at-the-new-new-republic-.html
More articles about the controversy:
Real Clear Politics – Joe Nocera: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/2014/12/09/the_new_republic039s_rebellion_347288.html
The New Yorker – George Packer : http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/real-crisis-journalism-new-republic
RAVI SOMAIYA – The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/27/business/media/the-new-republic-is-sold.html?_r=0