If you care about freedom, shut up about high gas prices
And put a solar panel on your roof
We’ve had an immense amount of nonsense in the last year or two about what constitutes freedom—mostly, it appears, freedom is the right to give others covid so that you’re not burdened with the unbearable sacrifice of wearing a square of cloth across your mouth.
The Crucial Years is a reader-supported publication. Please underwrite my work by becoming a paid subscriber.
But as of Wednesday night, the idea of freedom got a little more real. People in Ukraine are suddenly being killed for daring to want to choose their own leaders. And people in Russia—many thousands—are bravely taking to the streets to support that choice. Those are all extremely brave people, and they deserve our deep gratitude and admiration. And we should do what we can to help them.
We’re not being asked to do much. President Biden took the prospect that we might stand militarily with Ukraine off the table early—that was probably wise, since there’s clearly not an appetite in America for helping in that way, and since actual fighting with a nuclear-armed foe run by a dead-eyed zealot is no easy thing. In fact, Biden seems to me to be doing a very steady job in the deepest crisis since 9/11—our impulsive and rash reaction then led us down a terrible path of stupid wars. This time he’s corralling allies, drawing up sanctions, doing what he can to hold together a democratic world order against autocrats abroad (and Fox News at home).
But he’s fighting with one hand tied behind his back, because he feels he can’t do the most obvious thing, which would be to shut off the flow of Russian oil and gas to the world. And the reason, above all, is that he worries it would raise gas prices to a point where Americans would refuse to support our efforts. As one State Dept. official explained to the Wall Street Journal, “Doing anything that affects … or halts energy transactions would have a great impact on the United States, American citizens and our allies. So our intention here is to impose the hardest sanctions we can while trying to safeguard the American public and the rest of the world from those measures.”
This is sad. The last time a European autocrat sent tanks speeding across the plains to subjugate sovereign nations we (eventually) responded by sending millions of men off to war and sacrificing everything about our domestic economy in order to produce the armaments needed to fight. This time America’s burden involves…paying higher gas prices. And for many that’s too much. Continuing the uninterrupted enjoyment of our national fleet of grotesquely oversized SUVs and pickups is more important to some significant part of our population than standing beside brave people running real and terrible risks. There are Americans who can’t afford the fuel to heat their homes—we need to assist them. But the loudest whiners are people who have decided that freedom comes for free.
The way to square this circle, of course, is to rapidly build out renewable energy, and the electric vehicles that can use it. That step would make standing by the victims of this autocratic thug almost painless (along with, you know, helping save the planet). Once you have an EV gas prices are not a worry—electric rates do not jump up and down, and the fueling costs are radically lower anyway. Where once we built tanks to defend democracy, now we need to build air source heat pumps and EV chargers, along with electric buses and bike lanes. President Biden is warning the oil companies not to price-gouge, but of course they will—we need to break their power. And one way to do that is to quickly build out clean energy technology, everywhere we can.
But in the meantime, perhaps Americans could suck it up for a few months. Think about people who are paying a real price.
Other notes from around the climate world
+It strikes me as both admirable and significant that Blackstone, the huge private equity fund, has sworn off investing in new oil and gas ventures.
At Blackstone, the view in the executive suite has hardened: The world will rely less on extracting hydrocarbons from the ground for energy needs. Though its energy private equity arm hasn’t made a new oil and gas investment since 2017, the formal prohibition is new, and it’s getting stitched into its rules. Since that year, buyout firms have slashed their annual spending on U.S.-focused energy and utility investments by more than 60% to $11 billion in 2021, according to data provider Preqin.
Those who’ve worked hard on divestment can feel proud of their efforts, according to Bloomberg, who reports that Blackstone’s move “lines up with demand for more sustainable investments from some of its backers — typically including pensions, university endowments and family offices.”
+Manure is becoming as profitable as milk, as “biogas” projects explode. As the Wall Street Journal reports, a “Chevron investor presentation in September showed plans for a national network of as many as “190,000 milking cow equivalents” and forecast double-digit returns. Amazon has inked a deal with Clean Energy to buy biogas for its massive trucking fleet.” Truthfully, since growing the corn that feeds these beasts is carbon-intensive and we’ve got more milk than we know what to do with, it would make more sense just to build solar panels and wind turbines
+One blessedly simple climate solution: protect older trees! According to the Washington Post, “The groups launching a new campaign the groups launching the campaign include the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Wild Heritage. Their specific demand is for the U.S. Forest Service to begin crafting a rule to protect all old-growth trees on federal lands from logging.” Carole King made a wonderful case for the same work on Wednesday’s Third Act monthly national call, which attracted thousands of older activists—she was reminding everyone about the important Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act
+The cost of the TransMountain pipeline, to carry tarsands oil from Alberta to the Pacific coast of British Columbia, just keeps spiraling up. Canadian officials announced the pricetag was now going to be $21.4 billion, up from a mere $12 billion two years ago. Why? In large part because incredible flooding from record rainfalls was making construction harder. It’s almost as if the planet was trying to send a message about the advisability of pouring carbon into the air…
+A big new Spanish deal makes it clear that ‘green hydrogen’ is cost-effective already. The plan will use a vast array of solar panels to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, and the resulting power will run a steel mill and fertilizer factory
The Crucial Years is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Amidst the horrific violence of the past few days, it’s not a bad time to be reminded of the power of nonviolence, both in the real world (where President Biden predicted the people of Ukraine would engage in massive civil disobedience) and in the next chapters of our epic yarn. That’s why I’m publishing this week’s Friday post just a few hours early. If you need to catch up on the first 48 chapters of The Other Cheek, check out the archive.
Among the things Huan Cheung had learned at Princeton was how to make a presentation—how to lull your audience and then hit them hard.
“Lottery sales were projected at 30 billion yuan, which would have left us with a roughly 6 billion yuan profit after the 18 billion yuan prize and administrative expenses,” she said, pointing to a drab black-and-white bar graph on the monitor at the front of the room.
“It turns out,” she said, “that those projections were . . . conservative. Sales have actually topped”—and here the graph morphed into bars of bright green and gold—“60 billion yuan. That figure represents almost 1% of monthly GDP for China a whole, making this the most successful lottery in world history. Almost too successful—there have been some worries from our colleagues in commerce that lottery tickets were squeezing out other discretionary spending. But even that’s worked out—cigarette sales have actually dropped slightly for the first time since we started measuring, which makes the Health Department very happy.”
“More to the point,” she added, “since the original intent of the lottery was to distract from ongoing problems with, for instance, pollution, thus buying us some time to proceed, I am pleased to report that the measurements here are even more encouraging. As you can see, fully 31 percent of chat traffic on Weibo now concerns the lottery, sometimes spiking as high as 40 percent when we release ‘news.’ On the day that Prime Minister Xi polled the nation’s top astrologers to figure out his lucky numbers, more than half of comments in that three-hour period concerned the lottery. Other concerns are being literally squeezed out.”
“Even the flooding?” asked one young man, sitting next to Director Liu.
“Not entirely,” said Huan. “These were severe floods, and in several regions. However, we worked with local officials to try and direct concerns in responsible directions, and even there the lottery helped. Search engine data shows that at the height of the flooding in Yiwu, for instance, the most common search terms were ‘yacht’ and ‘ how much does a floating villa cost?’”
“That’s better than ‘corruption’ and ‘drainage’” said Director Liu. “This is remarkable work, Huan. Your idea was better than even you imagined.” She gave him a smile and a nod.
“However,” he continued, “it means we’ve got some decisions to make. For one, we’ve got more money than we know what to do with. We don’t want people saying we’ve exploited them. We’re already giving out a prize worth—what, 2 billion dollars US at the current exchange rate.”
“I’ve been doing some research,” said Huan. “The folks at Mothra say it would be easy to identify, say, 7 other winners—a billion yuan each, $150 million US. That would still allow us to give the space agency more than they’re expecting—and the consultants predict that just announcing there would be 7 more winners would spur ticket sales all over again. Plus, with seven more, they’re going to end up coming from different regions and so on. We’d have more new celebrities to, um, fascinate people.”
“Like the emperor and his court,” said one of the aides. “We could definitely do something with that.”
“I like it,” said Director Liu. “So now let’s talk about the real question. Who’s going to win this thing?”
“What do you mean?” asked Huan.
“I mean, we’re not going to let just anyone become the most famous person in China. We’re going to have to make sure we get the right person.”
“It’s not . . . we’re not . . . I bought three tickets . . .” said one of the aides.
“You thought we were going to let a deputy assistant in the Propaganda Department win 18 billion yuan?” said Director Liu. “Can you predict what the biggest search term would be the next day? ‘Rebellion’ I think. No, we’ve got to pick someone who fits the right profile.”
“What profile exactly?” asked Huan—she’d seemed a little stunned too when the director asked who would get the prize. But she was adapted quickly, reminding herself that so far she was the lottery’s biggest winner and by a large margin. Already she had a staff of a dozen working for her; by the day of the drawing she guessed that number would be fifty or more.
“Well, said Director Liu, interrupting her day-dream, “I’d say urban, young, maybe a party member. Definitely not a government employee,” said Liu. “Works hard, doesn’t make much money yet. Handsome—I’m thinking a guy? Good-time normal guy, ready to spend a lot of money on stuff, but not a drunk. Maybe married with a young kid? Someone who you look at and think ‘Chinese success story.’ Maybe in a second city, not Beijing or Shanghai. Be good if they had family back in some village that they could, you know, transform. That would be weeks of follow-up stories.”
“Do-able,” said Huan. “Easily. What about the other seven? Do we need to handpick them too?”
“I’d say . . . not,” said Director Liu. “Make sure they come from different places, backgrounds, though. Not all Han; we need one ethnic, anyway. Someone rural. But a random element is probably good. Some unexpected stories. When the computer picks them, though, give them a quick vetting first. We do not need some official’s brother-in-law. One story like that and all the goodwill we’ve built goes out the window.”
The aide with the three tickets still looked almost glassy-eyed; weeks of fantasy erased in a second. Director Liu feared that would be a national problem, that a kind of tired disappointment would set in if they didn’t keep the excitement coming. “Can you brief us on the plans for the ceremony?” he asked Huan.
“All set,” she said. “We pick the numbers on national tv, we find the lucky . . . guy, now we find the seven others, and that next night we have them back at the Egg for the big party. As you know, we’d already planned to give the winner a ride into space, lifting off next day—do we do it for all eight of them?”
“If the space agency has room,” said the director. “And they should, we’re giving them an extra 20 billion yuan.”
“And do we announce next year’s lottery at the same time?” Huan asked.
“Not right away,” said Director Liu. “Let popular demand build for a little while. Let there be a little controversy around it, people demanding their chance to win. Controversy we can solve is the right kind of controversy—just have the announcement ready to go.”
Looking back, thought Lopsak, Bhopal was clearly the turning point. They’d arrived a few weeks after the debacle with the pigs, having collected plenty of trash along the way—but it was a subdued, small band. The silent DL stuck patiently to his task of picking up bottles and cans, and the clot of devoted monks and priests and meditators followed his example. But the media had drifted away, and the celebrities, and most of the energy.
In Bhopal, though, the spark had returned, and with a vengeance.
It began when Sister Shareen insisted they go visit the site of the old Union Carbide factory. She told Lopsak and Sonam the story: how in 1983 the chemical plant—using old methods that they’d already abandoned back in the states to produce pesticides—managed to let loose a cloud of chemicals that killed three thousand people—maybe many more—in the course of a night. A couple of hundred thousand people went to the hospital. Around-the-clock cremations, mass graves, trees turned leafless overnight, dead and bloated animals lying in the street. Eight American executives were indicted for negligence, she said, but the U.S. government never sent them off to India for trial. “Environmental justice,” she said. “That’s how power works. You got to fight it, all the time.”
As they turned a corner by the factory site, they saw an awning erected over a spread of carpets, and dozens of people, mostly older women, sitting listening to speeches. “What do those signs say?” Shareen asked.
“Justice for gas victims,” said Sonam. “Justice for the dead.”
“These people are still protesting? It’s been forty years,” said Shareen, who seemed stunned—even by her standards of endless campaigning, four decades was apparently a long time. They introduced themselves to the women, who told them it was a weekly vigil that had been going on since the accident, demanding compensation for the victims. Sometimes, they explained to her, they’d travel to Delhi to make their case to the central government; but most often they were in Bhopal. “I lost my boy and my girl, 4 and 6,” one of them told Sister Shareen in Hindustani, with Sonam as interpreter. The hug she got back needed no translation.
“Y’all remind me of some folks back home,” said Sister Shareen. “Give me a couple of days.” The trek was pausing for a week in any event, occupying a few guesthouses near the Chota Talaab, one of the city’s famous lakes. While the DL met with aides, Shareen kept Lopsak busy rigging up internet connections and sound systems; on the third day, juggling time zones, she’d coordinated a skype call between the protesters outside the factory and a big group of women back in Louisiana, members of the so-called Cancer Alley Resistance who’d learned to monitor emissions from the chemical plants along the Mississippi. They traded stories, publicly, up on a big screen in the vigil tent—it turned out that Dow Chemical, which now owned Union Carbide, had poisoned the entire town of Grand Bayou with a methane leak, eventually buying out the residents. “If they can pony up over here, they can pony up over there,” one Louisianan explained, which defied Sonam’s translation skills. “What she means is, they’re going to go to work for y’all in the States,” said Shareen, who was holding a bullhorn at the front of the protest encampment. “Get what they can for you.”
The promise cheered the Bhopalis—they applauded the screen that showed their counterparts in the States. “Don’t go getting your hopes up,” said Shareen. “They’ll fight hard, but a bunch of black women in the U.S. don’t exactly run the show.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Betwa Goyal, one of the leaders of the protest. “It’s good that we’re heard. We know we’re probably not going to get money. We want—we want them to say they’re sorry. You know they still say it was sabotage that caused the accident? That Indians killed Indians?”
“I believe it. When we tell them our kids have asthma, they tell us to move away from the plant,” said Shareen. “How you going to sell a house next to a chemical plant? Same thing everywhere. But I have something I need to ask you ladies.” She paused a moment. “Can I say something that’s not my place to say, because I’m a visitor?”
“You can say anything you want,” said Betwa. “You’re not a visitor. You’re one of us. A sister.”
“I’m here with the Dalai Lama—he’s like a famous guru?” said Shareen. “It’s true he’s a man, but don’t hold that against him. And one of his things is litter, trash, garbage. You have a beautiful city here, especially those lakes. But it’s—well, it’s dirty.”
“True,” said Betwa. “The city government does a bad job of trash collection.”
“Also, we toss a lot of things in the street,” another woman said. “We’re kind of used to it, but to hear from a visitor, it’s—.”
“No need to be embarrassed. Let me tell you what we do in the States,” said Shareen. “If the government isn’t doing a good job of picking up the trash, we do it ourselves. And then we take it to City Hall. You have a City Hall here?”
A small flurry of translation followed. “They have better than a City Hall,” reported Sonam. “The whole state government for Madhya Pradesh is here—the office is the Vidhan Bhavan—you can see it over there.”
“That place that looks like a bundt cake pan?” said Shareen. “Okay, great. That’s where we’ll meet tomorrow. We’ll spread out around the city, and then that’s where we’ll come back with the trash. You can get the word out to your friends?” she asked Betwa. “Tell them to bring plastic bags?”
“We can get the word out to everyone,” was the reply. And such seemed to be the case; the next morning at 7 at least a hundred people, most of them women and children, gathered on the front steps of the legislative assembly. Betwa, at ease in command, dispatched teams in every direction; by noon-time they were returning with mountains of garbage bags, many balanced on the back of sputtering three-wheel taxis, or balanced precariously on the handle-bars of bikes. More men were appearing—people spilled out of public buses carrying sacks of trash. A man in a suit appeared, pressing rupees into Shareen’s hands. “For trash bags,” he explained. When she handed it to Sonam, he whistled. “That’s about ten thousand dollars,” he said. “That’s a lot of trash bags.”
“I think we’re going to need them,” said Shareen, and it turned out she was right. Word spread further that evening—all the local tv stations turned up to do stories on the ‘garbage satyagraha,’ and to take pictures of the small mountain of green trash bags, a pyramid at least forty feet high. “More tomorrow,” said Betwa, and she was right: the crowd the next day was five or six times bigger, and many of them arrived in the morning with trash from their neighborhoods, only to be sent back out for more. There were entire Boy Scout troops, and a knot of young men in suits and ties, who introduced themselves to Shareen as the leaders of Rotaract in Bhopal. “Rotaract is like the junior Rotary Club,” one of the men explained.
“You have Rotary Club in India too?” said Shareen. “I give the prayer at a Rotary meeting every year where I come from.”
“Rotary is very popular in India—second only to the U.S.” he said solemnly, giving her a small Rotary flag and taking a selfie. “3,191 clubs. We are very honored to meet an important foreign guest.”
Shareen had made sure that her fellow religious leaders were on hand at the garbage pile. “This city is 75 percent Hindu, 24 percent Muslim, and zero percent African Methodist Episcopal,” she’d told Lopsak. “Not a good look if I’m the only one out there.” But since the other clerics had taken vows of silence, they merely stood by, bowing and smiling as Shareen greeted each incoming garbage-picker, most of whom seemed more interested in the American anyway. Everyone needed a selfie holding trash next to Shareen: after a while Sonam became the official photographer.
It didn’t hurt that India’s biggest newspaper group, Dainik Bhaskar (“Rising Sun,” Sonam told Shareen) was headquartered in Bhopal. The next morning its 62 editions in 14 states carried a picture of the giant mound of trash bags, now so tall the dome of the assembly building could barely be seen behind. Next to it was an interview with Sister Shareen, under the headline “American Holy Woman Tries to Clean Up India.”
“Isn’t this an impossible task,” the writer had asked her. “There are so many Indians.”
“That’s what makes it easy,” said Shareen. “So far most of the Indians I’ve seen have two hands, and all you need is one to pick up trash.”
“This is traditionally work for lower-castes,” said the reporter. “It may be hard to get more affluent Indians to take part.”
“Poor people get the bad jobs where I come from too,” she said. “But garbageman is nothing to be ashamed of. The point is, the government needs to be organizing this.”
And by midday on the third day, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh was on the steps next to the trash mound. “We are very proud of the hard work of Bhopalis,” he said. “You can stop now, and government will take care of trash collection.” He placed a garland of orange and yellow flowers around Shareen’s neck, and as he spoke, a long line of leased trucks started carting away the bags, a job that would clearly take many hours.
“Thank you Mr. Minister,” said Shareen. “Your state is lucky to have such a responsive leader,” she added, as the man beamed. Then she gestured to Betwa, standing in the front of the crowd, and got her up on the makeshift dais. She took off the garland, and put it around her neck, then turned back to the minister. “I want to introduce you to Betwa Goyal, Mr. Minister,” she said. “She’s the one who actually got all this organized, she and her friends. I’m sure you two will work together for years to come.” The minister gave a forced smile, and bowed slightly to Betwa.
The two women came down off the platform together, arm in arm. “Typical politician,” Shareen whispered “The only thing they understand is pain. Well, we’ve given him a little, but I imagine you’ll have to keep it fresh in his mind.”
“From now on, we have decided: every Saturday youth will collect trash from the downtown and leave it here on the steps,” Betwa said. “Just a few bags, but a tradition. So they never forget.”
The women had hugged, and then, with the DL at her side, Shareen had led the march out of Bhopal and northwest on the road towards Murwara. But now they were an item—as they approached each village along the way, they’d find a heap of filled trash bags at the sign marking the town limits, and usually a delegation of imams and priests and sweating local officials in suits. There was less and less trash to collect—soon, Lopsak thought, he’d have to go ahead and scatter some along the road so the photographers that had once again flocked to the march would have something to take a picture of the DL and Shareen picking up.
“Shame works wonders, dawgs,” she said to the boys one afternoon as they approached the next pile of trash bags and the next cluster of beaming local officials. “Or at least it does over here. I wish we could get things happening this fast back home; in Louisiana the mayor would just have hired a p.r. firm.”
The DL, who was nearby, gestured to an aide for paper, and handed Sonam the flag for a moment so he could write. He scratched a few words on the notepad, and then handed it to Shareen.
She read it aloud: “Mark 6:4,” and then she rummaged in her knapsack for her Bible. “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country,” she read. “Mr. DL,” she said, “that sounds right to me. Also, for a living Buddha, you know your Bible. Respect.”