Earth Day in Retrospect

30 Apr

It is a dark irony that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stood grinning when former Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, said “drill, baby drill”. He declared a state of emergency yesterday because a BP oil spill threatens to destroy the ecosystem of the Gulf Coast. Last week we celebrated earth day, yet what exactly were we celebrating?

In the same Gulf Coast, like much of the worlds’ seas and oceans, it is becoming more acidic; which will greatly affect the food-chain, and immediately this oil spill will kill much of the wildlife. Earth Day and the events last week focused on creating an alternative development and creating a sustainable, reciprocal, and grassroots relationship between our communities and the environment.

Last Sunday, UB professor and activist Walter Simpson organized the 1st annual “Peace on Earth Week” event. This was a lecture denouncing militarism and its correlation with our environmental decline. The lesson was simple: “energy conservation, decrease dependence on foreign oil”; and stop using the military to defend that system.

Before Mr. Simpson elaborated on the connection between global conflict and environmental degradation, Al Parker of the Six Nations shared the story of the formation of the Six Nations Federation, in which “the peacemaker” delivered the message that “we need to bury the hatchet”. This is particularly relevant to the relationship between conflict and environmental decline; according to Refugees International, 50 million to 1 billion people may be displaced by Climate Change in the next 50 years, which would put an unsustainable stress on our collective and national resources; the main driver of climate change and damage is caused by a few (or two) squabbling industrial nations that represent none of the climate refugees.

Our foreign policy is not to make the world safe for the democracy but one of its key tenants is: protect oil supplies, and keep the oil flowing. During the Carter administration, the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 exposed the U.S. dependency on oil thus making oil our primary priority, especially in oil rich regions. In the 1991 Gulf War in which 14 Americans and 50,000 Iraqis lost their lives, the official premise of the Gulf War was to defend Kuwait from Iraq, an aggressor totalitarian nation.

Mr. Simpson noted two key flaws in the argument; Kuwait’s democracy: 1) It was an undemocratic republic in which, only one in six men could vote, no equal protection of women’s rights, and Palestinians were expelled and persecuted with U.S. indifference 2) Iraq was armed relatively recently armed & supported by the United States. In 1980, eleven years before, we supplied Iraq (and Iran, to a lesser extent: i.e. Iran-Contra Affair) with weapons and particularly with equipment that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths on both sides. Therefore, we maintained ties to a government that was sitting on the world’s second biggest oil reserves.

At the present, the continuing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have secured oil supplies for Western developers, that were nationalized under subsequent authoritarian governments in Iraq; particularly, British Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell, and Exxon Mobil.

Locally, we infamously have the highest gas prices in the country, which correlates with a largely car-based transportation infrastructure. In the top ten major cities in the United States, according to Popular Science magazine the top ten environmentally friendly cities have, “commuters take public transportation or carpool. Air quality also plays a role”.

Buffalo, according to the Environmental Protection Agency has some of the unhealthiest air for people with respiratory disease and asthma. Mr. Simpson, in a later interview criticized the Mayor or Buffalo and the Erie County Executive for their indifference:

“It appears that Mayor Brown could care less about the environment and County Executive Collins is actually hostile to environmental protection as is seen by his on-going efforts to shrink staffing in the County’s Department of Environment and Planning – most recently letting the County’s recycling coordinator go — and redirect federal funding that would have advanced county climate action planning, composting, and internal green activities within the County”.

Despite their indifference to local environmental concerns, other organizations are tackling environmental, health, quality of life factors. On Wednesday, April 21st, the Massachusetts Avenue Project organized a “Buffalo’s Growing Green Urban Farm” event featuring Edward Cassano, the Senior Director of Conservation Outreach from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium.

Mr. Cassano spoke about the state of the world’s oceans, the fishing industry, and creating sustainable food systems. According to Mr. Cassano, 1/4 of fish sold are harvested illegally and in the U.S. 85% of our fish is not produced in the U.S. so there’s a move to reinforce port-controls; however, this cycle has two key implications: 1) overfishing of fisheries; 2) unhealthy fish production will perpetuate mercury and chemical exposure- tuna is known for its high mercury content.

The oceans at the moment are acidifying by the absorption of excess CO2 (this is deadly to marine life) and being over-fished, according to Mr. Cassano; by 2040 ninety percent of open-ocean fish will be gone, for example in the Northeast, cape-cod fisheries are rapidly decaying.
Nevertheless, Ed Cassano put forward his organization’s proposed solution: communal based ownership of fisheries and 20 mile national exclusive economic zones.

At the moment, like much of the natural commons, it has been divided up by public sector actors big and small; however, if you set up no fish areas, such as the Alaska fisheries that are beginning to recover, and give all the fishermen a monetary or civic stake in the oceans welfare then fisheries can recover. On the other hand, CO2 excess threatens the chemical balance of the oceans and on land this is a fight that has recently intensified.

The U.S.A. and the People’s Republic of China are the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. In the U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who’s the co-sponsor of the Kerry-Graham Climate Change Bill has dropped out because of his party’s objections to debating immigration reform in the Senate. In addition to this, the precarious nature of the solution to stopping the present oil spill in the Gulf that is depositing 200,000 gallons a day is a difficult one; the U.S. coast guard is strongly considering burning off the oil, which would put 95-98% of it into the water as CO2 laden water (NPR) and the rest of it as aerobic soot and smoke. This would be extremely damaging given current acidification, and due to this Pyrrhic situation some people are revisiting offshore drilling in the U.S. as a whole.

The last discussion for earth day was organized by Buffalo State Students for Peace: “The Dangers of Nuclear Weapons Today”, a lecture by Larry Wittner of Peace Action NYS and a professor at SUNY Albany. Mr. Wittner’s discussion was focused on the current status of nuclear weapons and the importance of current developments, such as, the new START treaty signed by Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama. Nukes do not just threaten our national security but, our entire ecosystem.

As with Mr. Simpson’s earlier lecture on Sunday, Mr. Wittner called the nuclear-weapons complex out for its past involvement in fueling the hegemony of the United States vis-a-vis its policy to viciously secure energy resources. Most importantly, he illustrated the damage that nuclear weapons can do in the case of a nuclear war or terrorist attack. In fact, in citing a Scientific American article from January 2010 he addressed the nuclear danger that is ever-present from South Asia.

In South Asia, the antagonism between Pakistan and India (they each have just under 100 nuclear weapons) can be a serious danger to the stability of the worlds climate in the case of a nuclear war, or more likely a nuclear terrorist attack in either country. Within the context of food scarcity, nuclear war would push us over the edge:
“The particles would remain there for years, blocking the sun, making the earth’s surface cold, dark and dry. Agricultural collapse and mass starvation could follow http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=local-nuclear-war”.

If a nuclear exchange would happen now, then the poorest of the worlds people would pay for it. The current estimate for the rate of global starvation is more than 1.02 billion people, according to the UNFAO, and this number would no doubt rise astronomically; coupled with the mass migration of climate refugees to the global north, and the scarcity of food that may occur due to overfishing and a maldistribution of food (organic or inorganic), global civilization may face collapse.

In retrospect, as Slavoj Zizek stated in the 2008 film ‘Examined Life’, “environmentalism like Marx’s religion is now becoming the opiate of the masses”. Last week, despite the mainstream celebration of Earth Day our situation is still incredibly dire. At the end of the day for the multitude of activists last week was a week of learning and constructive reflection. Social movements and grassroots organizations that focus on ecology can also catalyze social change and vice versa.
Martin Empson of UK Climate Action Campaign stresses this in his pamphlet “Marxism and Ecology”: “The unequal impact of Climate Change means that those at the bottom of society have the most to gain from the struggle for a better and a more sustainable society. In particular, workers have to be at the center of this battle”.
He continues to argue for a combined labor and environmental struggle:
“Socialists [and Trade Unionists, and other activists] shouldn’t argue that car factories shouldn’t simply be shut down, but must be converted to produce more socially useful products- such as vehicles for public transport”.

This is the kind of environmentalism that activists on the left are pondering today. On Earth Day week, activists aren’t just interested in saving the ecology of the earth, but stopping the militaristic and consumer-based degradation of its population that realistically would extinguish advanced civilization and a huge swath of the world’s population.

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