It's Friday--do you know where your $3.5 trillion spending bill is?
And other developments in the climate crisis--plus, more novel!
Meteorological autumn has already come, and calendar fall begins next week--which means we’re getting closer and closer to the moment of truth for the Biden administration: can they pass the giant ‘reconcilation’ bill that will require all 50 Democrats--and that would represent the first true effort ever by our Congress to take on the climate challenge.
Substack colleague David Roberts has, as usual, the best breakdown of where things stand at the moment--which is, not half bad. The Energy and Commerce Committee has approved a Clean Energy Performance Plan, which is a way to get a clean energy standard past the arcane rules of budget reconciliation--basically, it gives grants to utilities that increase their share of clean energy each year. And Ways and Means is moving forward with a bunch of clean energy tax credits. It could, taken as a whole, start to reshape energy in America, but of course it has to get past Prime Minister Manchin first. And it better--if John Kerry doesn’t have a robust package in his back pocket, he’s not going to get very far in Glasgow persuading other countries to up their ambition. (As China may be “relapsing” in its coal addiction, this would be a big problem; the AP reports that of the world’s nations only The Gambia is on path with its targets). On Wednesday White House press secretary Jen Psaki seemed to recognize this reality--she said the administration expects the bill to “move forward” before the November UN Conference of the Parties in Scotland. It’s cutting it close
+Big win as insurance giant Chubb declares it won’t be insuring tarsands projects going forward. It took…lots of committed organizing
+Useful context from the exemplary oceans activist David Helvarg, who writes that we better get moving or the 21st century is going to be grimmer than the bloody 20th. “Rebuilding our ecosystems has to be the Marshall plan of this and the next century starting with a Civilian Climate Corps to mobilize the muscle and idealism of today’s rising generation of youth.”
+Ken Pucker continues to do ground-breaking work explaining why ESG investing--which he calls the “trillion dollar fantasy”--isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Investors are finally taking ESG investment seriously. But as currently practiced, most ESG investing delivers little to no social or environmental impact.
+Amy Westervelt always punches up, and effectively: Big Oil, she points out in the Guardian, is engaging in what she calls “wokewashing.” A casual social media user might get the impression the fossil fuel industry views itself as a social justice warrior, fighting on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and women – at least based on its marketing material in recent years.These campaigns fall into what a handful of sociologists and economists call “discourses of delay”.
+For a fascinating if depressing read, check out this Twitter thread from Jim Baird on the ways that the climate crisis is undercutting food production this summer. Too much rain, too little rain: if the most important question humans ask is ‘what’s for dinner?’ the answer is clearly getting shakier.
+A new app, Climate Action Explorer, searches the web to constantly update a schedule of climate actions and protests.
If this weekly synthesis of the climate predicament works for you, remember to subscribe, because beginning in October these Friday posts will only go to people who’ve ponied up (my share of the subscription revenue goes to Third Act to help us get that new organizing effort off the ground--and big thanks to all who chimed in with suggestions for our statement of principles). And now I’ll cease with the difficult news from an overheating world and let you relax with the next installment of The Other Cheek.To catch up on the first 6 chapters, visit the archive.
By the next morning the Dalai Lama’s usual security detail had caught up with him. “Your holiness, please do not go off again on your own,” said Rajinder Nair, on assignment from India’s Defense Intelligence Agency, who was standing at the bottom of the guesthouse stairs when the Dalai Lama came down for breakfast. “If anything happened to you, it would also be very embarrassing to my nation, since you are here as a long-term guest.”
“Very sorry,” the DL said. “I was very well protected by my new bodyguard, Sonam Dolma. He even had a gun, though I surmise he is not as skilled with it as you are. But let us trust we will not need it in the future,” he said, handing over the pistol.
“Where are you going, your Holiness,” the agent asked.
“I’m going to breakfast now,” he said, “and then to meet with some representatives of the press. And after that I’m not completely sure, though I imagine the road will run through Delhi. My colleague here, Mr. Lopsak Tuleng, has been in charge of planning my itinerary so far.”
The DL left the two Tibetans and four Indians staring at each other, and went into the inn’s small dining room for breakfast: tsampa flour porridge, tea, bread, jam. As he was finishing, an aide ushered in the first journalists to reach Mandi: a Times of India entertainment reporter who had been profiling the parents of a Bollywood actress who’d grown up nearby, and a vlogger from Vice who’d been researching bhang for a feature on the 8 best marijuana highs on earth.
“Sir, I believe you know many top A-listers, such as Mr. Pierce Brosnan and also Sharon Stone. Will they be walking with you?” the Indian reporter asked.
“I actually have not had a chance to talk with anyone about my walk until now,” he said.
“It’s okay if I record this?” the young Vice reporter asked, fiddling with a balky iPhone.
“Of course,” said the DL. “You know I was once in an Apple commercial?” “You were?” the reporter said, with new appreciation. “That’s cool. Did you meet Steve Jobs?”
“The ads were not so popular when Apple wanted to sell in China,” said the DL with a smile. “So, no.”
“Is there anything you want to say?” the reporter asked, setting the iPhone on a tiny tripod and hitting record.
“Ah,” said the Dalai Lama, squaring himself and taking a moment to think. “I am a simple Buddhist monk, one of seven billion people on the planet. I am walking home to Tibet this year after many years away. I am not sure the Chinese will welcome me, even though I have stepped aside from politics. I am most concerned with the ecology of Tibet now—it is the roof of the world. As I walk I will carry the Chinese flag with me, to show the Chinese people we are not enemies. Maybe with Buddhism we even have something to offer the Chinese people, who are now rich in many other ways. Maybe not. Maybe people will want to come walk with me, but they should know it is going to be a little boring, and it will take a long time, and we haven’t figured out food or shelter. Also, road traffic in India can be hazardous to pedestrians. If you can’t come, it would be fine also to walk a little bit wherever you are. But please carry a flag like this,” he said, waving the red-and-yellow standard.
Within the hour that short video was up on Vice, and within three hours it had begun to spread across Facebook and Twitter. By the next day it was the fourth most popular item on Youtube, behind a video of a kitten in a bowl of spaghetti, a video of a Chihuahua curled up asleep with a Saint Bernard, and a video of a Norwegian girl posting a new top score on Grand Theft Auto: Mars Rover.
“Why is this so popular?” Tony asked his seminar, clicking off the screen where he’d been showing the DL’s short statement. “It has no production values. It’s a guy in robes talking into an iPhone. So why?”
“Because he’s the Dalai Lama?” asked Chandrika
“Sure, he’s famous. Professor Kinnison told me at breakfast he’s seventh on the list of most-admired people on earth, though well behind Bill Gates,” Tony said. “But he talks all the time. Why this? I mean, he’s asking people to come walk across India for no apparent reason.”
“Because it’s hard,” said Cass. “Because it’s a quest and he’s an underdog, one small guy going up against something huge. He’s Bilbo Baggins.”
“He looks more like Gandalf,” said Ramon de la Cruz, and Cass flushed as the class giggled.
“I’m pretty sure Cass is right,” said Tony. “All the time I watch people planning campaigns make the same mistake. They ask as little as possible of people. ‘All you need to do is click here,’ ‘Just give us $3.’ When I was your age, there was a popular book called ’50 Simple Ways to Save the Planet.’ It was popular, because we’re a consumer culture, and that’s how consumers think. But it wasn’t popular for that long, because deep down people know that if the planet needs saving, or history needs overturning, or whatever—it almost certainly won’t be easy. Art is about asking hard things of people—it’s about asking them to bring their best self to the surface for a while, so they can see or hear or feel. And movement building is about art.”
“But it’s just shaky video,” Aina said.
“Sure, any one of you could do something ten times slicker with an hour on Pro Tools,” Tony said. “And it’s good to be able to do things with polish. But remember that in a world where everything is polished, grit is actually going to stand out. There’s a good deal to be said for homemade. Look, I could be completely wrong. We’ll know if and when people start arriving to walk with him. But I’m guessing the key thing is what Cass said. This guy is on a quest. He understands the archetypes. He understands what myths looks like. He gets small and large. He’s an artist.”
The same tape was up on a flat screen in the main boardroom of the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party. The building was a block and a half east of the Forbidden City, and the room should have offered a broad view over the palace walls, but the smog was thick enough that even the building next door was indistinct—though it was noon no-one could have pointed to the sun in the sky. In any event, the nine men and women in the room were concentrated on the looping Youtube feed.
“Yes, they missed their best shot,” one man was saying. “We don’t know what went wrong, Director Liu—our guy heard six gunshots, but no commotion. Maybe his guy missed.”
“Our guy has been taken care of—there’s nothing to tie us to the attempt?” the man at the head of the table asked. He had a broad forehead, a wide face, and still his wire-rimmed glasses were too big, a leftover style like the wide-bottomed necktie he wore. He looked owlish, old, especially compared to the rest of the people arrayed around the table, who checked their smartphones from minute to minute.
“He’s been taken care of,” one of them said. “And the guy who actually pulled the trigger didn’t know anything about us—from what we can tell he seems to have joined the splittist’s entourage. No idea what that’s about. And the trouble is, that entourage is big now. There are a dozen reporters all the time, there’s Indian security, there are monks. And ordinary people are starting to arrive, to walk with him.”
“We could still do it,” a middle-aged woman said. “We have drones that can take out moving cars, and these guys are just walking.”
“We could do it, Colonel Wang, though that is not our decision. But perhaps, just speaking as people who deal with perception, someone would suspect us if a missile from a drone took out a man we’ve been calling an enemy for decades? And perhaps killing a Nobel Peace Prize winner with a missile might have repercussions for our image? And perhaps the Indians would not like us carrying out bombing missions on their territory?”
“And perhaps coddling a saboteur of the friendly relations between manifold ethnicities is a mistake,” she said, looking down into her phone.
“Your position is noted, and I’m sure you will share it with others in any event,” said the director evenly, looking directly at her till she met his eyes for a sullen moment. “In any event,” he continued, “our job is to figure out how to handle this mess. As usual we’ve got two problems, outside and inside. Zhang, how is the foreign press dealing with this so far?”
“So far, mostly just human interest story. The New York Times guy reads his statement to say he’s given up on political change and just wants to go home. Tom Friedman has a column too, about how it’s the Asian century and maybe China should be graceful in victory, and how if you stand on the walls of the Potala Palace outside the DL’s childhood bedroom you can now count 14 KFCs in Lhasa, which means serious strife is ended. European newspapers are pretty much the same. All in all, not so bad. He’s a curiosity from another age, sweet old man, that kind of thing. On the Economist blog the headline is, ‘It’s Been Swell, Dalai.’”
“Not so bad.”
“Not so bad, director. Except what worries me a little bit is the social. Facebook, people still sharing the video. Youtube, it dropped to seventh now behind a bunch more cat videos, but partly because our data team is playing with the algorithm some. Also, there’s a remix, to a song with the title ‘Walk With Me’ from a Canadian singer called Neil Young. It’s pretty good.”
“Canadian?” said the director. “That’s not so bad.”
“Well, he lives in America,” said Zhang. “Anyway #WalkWithMe isn’t quite trending, but it’s close. And there are some other celebrities. Any current star would know better than to get involved, or the studio would tell them. China’s the number two movie market, number one by 2022. But there are some older people, not making big movies any more. Not so famous now, but maybe not scared either.”
“Also, there’s the thing with the flag, which I don’t get,” said the young man sitting next to him.
“I don’t get it either,” said the director, slumping forward. “What about the internal situation.”
“No worries there—the firewall is tight enough that not much is going to leak in to China even if gets really big in the rest of the world,” said a woman in a bright quilted jacket at the end of the table. “Hong Kong, maybe, but we’ve pretty much cracked down on all that. My thought is, just to be safe, we flood Weibo and RenRen with the anti-Dalai line.”
“Not flood, I don’t think Mrs. Chang,” said the director. “Trickle. Don’t make it too obvious.”
“The best news is, the DL is old and he has no real idea about the news cycle,” Zhang said. “He said he’s going to walk for a year, but in a day or two something else will have happened and people will have moved on. A year doesn’t even really exist in Internet time. If we wait him out—I mean, walking for a year.”
“Point noted,” said the director. “Although it’s worth remembering there is a Long March in our own history. But yes, a long time ago. Before ‘social.’”
Two men and a woman sat in an office at the State Department, watching CNN—out the window, a winter downpour continued for the second day, and a crawl across the bottom of the screen warned of minor flooding along the Potomac.
“We haven’t heard much from the Dalai Lama for years,” a man on the screen was saying—the chyron beneath his chin showed him to be a professor of international relations from Princeton.
“We haven’t heard much from Richard Gere for years either,” a jovial anchor cut in. “But he’s said on Twitter that he’s headed for India to walk with the Dalai Lama. Do you think this march of his could amount to anything?”
“I think it’s freaking brilliant,” said one of the men in the State Department office, switching off the television with a remote. He got up, pacing. “Or at least necessary. The DL finally figured out the old way wasn’t going to work any more. I mean, the U.S. government can’t help him—China owns half the freaking national debt. No more state dinners for him.
“The last time the DL came to Washington the best we could do was a seat for him near the front of the National freaking Prayer Breakfast with 3,000 Baptists, and even that sent China over the edge. By the next time he visits, the president will be meeting him at Shake Shack for some fries.”
“What does Beijing say?” the woman asked.
“The embassy was over at the Foreign Ministry this morning, apparently, and they got less flak than they’d expected,” said the other man. “They’re not happy that Americans are going to be flying in to walk with the DL, but they know we can’t stop them. They’ll lean on the Indians too, but I doubt that will go well. Anyway, the embassy analysis is, the Chinese want it to blow over. Less attention the better, that sort of thing.”
“Let’s hope,” she said. “Because it’s bad news for us too if it really gets going.”
“You really think that?” the first man said, halting his pacing at one end of the room. “China’s been running the table on us—building islands just to claim more of the south China sea, clamping down on Hong Kong. This could give them fits.”
“You know the U.S. position: Tibet is part of China,” she said. “And you know the real U.S. position, which is we need the Chinese for a hundred other things, like climate change and North Korea and not pancaking the global economy. And you know that if this did get going the left wing and the right wing both would be all over it. Richard Gere we can live with; we do not want it getting bigger.”
“I doubt the Dalai Lama wants us helping anyway,” said the second man. “When he says he’s given up on politics, I think he means he’s given up on people like us being much use. He’s got another kind of power in mind.”
Within 24 hours, the first thumb drive had made it up the Arniko Highway from Kathmandu and across the across the Friendship Bridge at Kodari. The trucker who had it in his pocket handed it to a monk at a tea stand along the busy road, and from there the video spread through the monasteries of Tibet. Agents planted in several of them reported to Beijing that monks had begun sewing Chinese flags, cutting up saffron robes for the stars.
At Darshen, in the shadow of the great cliffs, an 82-year-old man began the parikrama, the ritual circumambulation of Mt. Kailas. Like others scattered down the trail before him, he was wearing a leather apron, and what looked like wooden sandals on his hands. He would fall on his chest in the rocky trail, slide his hands along the rough ground, and reach his fingertips out in front to mark his progress in the dust. And then he’d slowly clamber to his feet, walk to the line, and begin again, a pilgrimage that would take three weeks. At each prostration he picked up the small Chinese flag on a tripod beside him, and shuffled it forward, setting it carefully on the uneven ground so it wouldn’t fall.
“So, exactly how much do you miss Matti?” Mahali Khatoane asked Cass as they wandered through the aspen groves outside the school, avoiding four people with signs that said “Yoga Bends Over Backward—for the Devil” and “Hug Your Children, Not Your Trees.” Khatoane was a year older than Cass, and everyone called her MK; she was from Zimbabwe in the south of Africa, but two years at a UN school in Norway, followed by three years at Oberlin, meant that most of her young adult life had been spent in the west. While at college she’d helped close down a coal ash dump after the utility that ran it—Duke Energy—coated 70 miles of riverbank with gray sludge following a spill.
“Let’s be serious,” said Cass, pausing. She reached for a branch, and swung herself up into a tree.
“That would not be a change for you,” said MK, choosing a branch on the other side of the same trunk.
“He hasn’t called, texted, emailed since he left. I don’t imagine he’s even thought of me. Even if he didn’t get kicked out, he and I were not going to last,” said Cass. “I mean, he’s pretty much out of my league in every way.”
“He is not,” said MK. “You’re as smart as he is, and almost as pretty.”
“I’m nowhere near as pretty and you know it. You, maybe, though he’s awfully pretty. And he’s smart in a different way than the rest of us. Grown-up smart. Fast. He understands how things work.”
“He didn’t understand how Maria worked—she bounced him out of here in about no time at all.”
A round-faced woman appeared at the bottom of their tree, a few feet beneath them. “Are you girls worshipping that tree?” she asked.
“I’m a Jew,” said Cass.
“My grandfather knows how to read the future from cattle entrails,” said MK. “He can do it by Skype if you’d like.” The woman walked quickly away, looking alarmed.
“I’m thinking Maria is a different kind of smart altogether,” said Cass.
“And I need to tell you something about Matti. You won’t repeat it to anyone?”
“Of course not,” said MK.
“It’s possible he’s not so so smart,” said Cass. “The great paper about the DL and the walk across India with the flag? Um, I wrote that.
“What do you mean you wrote it?”
“I mean, he couldn’t come up with something for the first assignment, so I sat down with him and we—well, really I just wrote it.”
“Because he was cute?”
“Because I’ve never had anyone near that cute interested in me,” said Cass.
“Um, about that.” said MK. “There’s something I probably should have told—”
Both their pockets buzzed at once, and they reached instinctively for their phones.
“Whole school, right now in Fannie Lou Hamer,” said MK. They swung off their branches and jogged back through the aspens.
Sister Maria was at the front of the Hamer auditorium, the biggest gathering space in the center. Students dropped into the seats that rose steeply in the raked hall; across the front of the room the entire faculty was arrayed at a long table. “Thank you for your promptness,” said Maria. “As you may have heard, a few times each year we cancel regular classes for what we call a ‘charrette.’ It’s an exercise borrowed from the architects, and it’s designed to make you think quickly and creatively—it’s like brainstorming, but with more focus. The point is not to come up with the absolute best decision, because that would take months. It’s designed to come up with a solution that might work. If you find your team stalled, remember the architects: someone gives them a funny-shaped lot to build on, they don’t say ‘that’s impossible, give me a square.’ They take the funny shape and use it as a stimulus. We’ll give you a problem, and then you’ll break down in teams of four and spend the next three hours coming up with a proposed solution. Then we’ll meet and present and critique. And critique is the part we all like, right faculty?” The row nodded vigorously, except for Tony, who looked a little distressed at the concept of critique.
“Professor Kinnison, would you please present the problem?”
“Thank you, director Santos,” he said, walking to a lectern as he unfolded a pair of reading glasses from the pocket of his cardigan.
“The challenge for today’s charrette comes from Fresno, a city of 500,000 in the Central Valley of California,” he said. “A new police chief has announced plans for the most extensive surveillance system of any department in the western world. They have installed a so-called ‘Real Time Crime Center’ in a bunker under the police station. It has 57 monitors, connected to 200 cameras they’ve installed at points around the city—and an additional 800 cameras on traffic lights and in the schools. They also have a system that can scan license plates and compare them against a database of two billion recent sightings across the country to make a match. In addition, they’ve installed new technology called ShotSpotter that can instantly triangulate a location for the sound of gunfire anywhere in the city. And they’ve added a software program called MediaSonar that constantly trawls social media accounts, looking for suggestions that residents might be a danger. They have four drones in regular circulation overhead, able to zoom in on any coordinates immediately—and, since they’re constantly recording they’re able to look back for ten hours and see anything that seems important in retrospect.
“All of this technology is in use in other places, but no jurisdiction has combined it as extensively as Fresno,” he continued, looking around the room. “They’ve gotten extensive financial support from the new Justice Department. And they’ve added a new component, a software program called Beware. When a police officer receives a call, it instantly analyzes everything known about the people at the pertinent address, and gives the officer a color-coded threat level: Green, Yellow, or Red.
“Civil libertarians have flagged a number of issues with the new technology, even beyond what some have called the Orwellian level of surveillance. For one thing, it’s apparently less smart than it appears: last year, for instance, a girl tweeted about a card game called ‘Rage,’ but since that is one of the ‘trigger words’ the software looks for she was immediately labeled a red-level threat. And of course there is fear, given the 1,532 police shootings nationwide last year, that a red label will be an invitation for law enforcement officers to arrive on the scene predisposed to take hasty action. Are there questions about the scenario?”
“This is for real? Or you’re making this up?” Ramon asked.
“This is entirely for real,” said Professor Kinnison, severely. “I deal in facts.”
“And now, with those facts, the rest of you need to get to work,” said Maria. “Your job is to come up with a campaign plan that reacts to this new reality. You can use books, computers, anything is fair game. We will see you in three hours.”
Cass, MK, Natty Rajimder from Delhi, and Icarius de Costa from the south of Brazil took over a table at the far end of the center’s small library.
“Has anyone been to . . . Fresno?” MK asked.
“Wikipedia says it’s the 5th least educated city in America, and the fifth most polluted,” said Natty, looking down into his laptop. He got the best grades in Professor Kinnison’s class, and he’d also taken to wearing the same crewneck sweaters as the professor, and using both hands to frequently reset his glasses on his nose. His classmates called him Database, DB for short; he sincerely believed in Wikipedia. “Also, of 372 American cities it’s got the sixth worst unemployment rate. On the other hand, there’s an underground house built by a Sicilian immigrant that’s open for tourism, which is good because the average July high temperature is 97 degrees. Oh, and 20 percent of residents have asthma, compared with 8 percent for the nation as a whole.”
“Sweet,” said Icarius—Ick to his friends. He was adjusting the earbuds attached to his phone.
“So. Ideas?” asked MK.
“Um, well, the obvious thing is a protest at City Hall,” said Cass. “We could get some leading civil liberties people to talk. Or a sit-in, at the city council.”
“Right,” said Ick. “Absolutely.”
“Actually,” said MK, “that sounds kind of boring. Like, if there’s a demonstration at City Hall about civil liberties would you even bother to read about it in the newspaper. It doesn’t do much for me.”
“Actually,” said Cass, “you’re right. It doesn’t . . . tell a story. Like, we need something that gets people to think about why this stuff is such a bad idea. Maybe we could get that Twitter girl to play Rage on the steps of City Hall. Reporters would cover that.”
“Rage is a cool game,” said Ick.
“Ick,” said MK. “Do you have any good ideas at all here? Like, think of this as a computer problem.”
The boy thought for a few moments, and looked up shyly. “DOS,” he said. The others looked blankly.
Natty was pounding keys on his Chromebook. “It could mean ‘disk operating system,’ which was something Microsoft used a long time ago. Until something called Windows 98. But that doesn’t make much sense.”
“It’s hacker,” said Ick, pulling out one earbud.
“It’s a hacker thing,” he continued. “DOS. Denial of service. Like, you get a botnet, and you activate it all at once, and you just, like, swamp some website. We—they’ve done it to the Pentagon, and the White House, and, like Yahoo. The server is getting so many hits it just stops. It even happens by accident. Like when Steve Jobs died, so many people headed to, like, Reddit. Things crashed.” Ick looked exhausted, and carefully put his earbud back in.
“So we should overwhelm their computer systems? By having people log in from all over the country?” asked MK. “Like, if we got Anonymous or something, and they just broke their network?”
“I don’t think quite like that,” said Cass. “I think there’s another way.”
Three hours later they were back in Hamer Auditorium, listening to other groups present their plans.
“And so, in summary, group 4 would defeat the drones—which seem to be a linchpin of the system—with a series of weather balloons attached to steel cables over contested neighborhoods,” Ramon de la Cruz was saying. “If a drone flew into the cable it would crash, so they’d have to ground them. Denied access to the air, the city’s intelligence capability would be degraded, and they’d be forced to negotiate with residents on a more realistic policing system.”
“Thank you, group 4,” said Maria. “Faculty?”
“I have a question,” said Linny Matthews—29, strikingly beautiful, with a mostly shaved head, she was in charge of “physical skills” for the school. A veteran of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, she had once climbed the side of an advertising blimp while it was in the air, so she could drop a banner over the side that made it read “2018 Was Not a Goodyear for the Climate.” She usually stuck to more grounded skills with the SGI students: the day before had been devoted to the question of how to keep large banners from blowing away on a windy day. (Cut airholes). “My question is, what are you planning to attach these steel cables to.”
“Weather balloons,” said de la Cruz.
“No, on the other end.”
“Oh, to, um, to . . . houses and trees and stuff I guess,” he said.
“So why won’t the police just drive up to those houses and trees and untie the steel cables and let the balloons float away?” asked Professor Matthews.
“I told you it was a stupid idea,” said Maylee St. Louis, from Trinidad and Tobago. She was part of Group 4 too, reluctantly.
“Now, there are no stupid ideas,” said Tony—Professor Goccilupe. “It’s a charrette, after all. And anyway, the whole idea raises an interesting philosophical question. You’re calling this action non-violent, but aren’t you really just giving notice that if they fly a drone where you don’t want it, you’ll destroy it with a steel cable? How is that different from announcing you have an anti-aircraft gun that will shoot it down?”
“Yeah, but there’s no one in it,” said de la Cruz. “It’s just a drone.”
“Which is an interesting philosophical question too,” said Tony. “One we get to most years. Is destroying property really non-violent? It’s obviously less violent than attacking people, but is it right?”
“You have to break some eggs to make an omelette,” said de la Cruz with a small smirk.
“Anyone know who said that originally?” Tony asked.
“Um, Jack Nicholson to Kim Basinger in the 1989 Batman?” said Natty, who was staring at his laptop.
“Go back a little farther,” said Tony. “Check out a guy named Robespierre on Wikipedia. The head of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, who demanded that the king be executed without a trial. He was called ‘the Incorruptible,’ and he helped run the Reign of Terror, sending lots of the people to guillotine, until it was his turn to go.”
“We’ll get to the debate around violence to property soon in ‘Introduction to Nonviolence,’ Maria said. “We’re not going to solve it today. What we are going to do today is hear from our last group.”
“We call our approach ‘HDOS,’” said Natty. “Human Denial of Service. You won’t find it googling, because we thought it up.”
“It’s like a Denial of Service attack on a website, where you overwhelm it with, like, too many logins,” said Ick, who then sat down.
“Here’s the strategy,” said MK, pulling up a couple of Powerpoint slides. “Imagine, for instance, the 200 cameras and the 57 monitors. They’re useful precisely because most of the time most of them are showing nothing. But if they’re all showing something—well, then you’d need 57 policemen sitting in the control center just to try and keep track. So, since everyone knows where they are—I mean, every driver is clear on which traffic lights have a camera, right?—we recruit enough people to go stand in front of each one doing something. Maybe pretending to fight, maybe dancing. People could hold up signs that say ‘There’s a crime going on here,’ and the police would have to respond.”
“Or imagine the drones up there,” said Natty. “Flat rooftops start sprouting huge banners: ‘It’s a crime.’”
“Social media’s the easiest part, because people can join in from anywhere,” continued MK. “The Fresno Police Department twitter account is @fresnopolice, for instance. A few hundred people an hour tweeting them to say ‘I’m in a Rage about civil liberties’ should pretty much render it inoperable. If a few thousand people in town put a few key words— say, ‘I’m binge-watching Homicide tonight,’—on their facebook page, the Beware thing would be almost useless. If everyone’s coming up coded Red, then Red won’t mean much.”
“And the thing is,” said Cass, looking at Maria, “all the action really adds up to a story. Everyone who hears about it has to think, ‘I say stuff on Facebook all the time—does it really make sense for the police to be deciding beforehand who’s a criminal?’ Our approach doesn’t just make life hard for the police, it makes a point. The sillier people are with it, the sillier it makes the whole deal seem. And it could spread elsewhere. Surveillance only works if people are worried about being seen. But if people decide to perform for the cameras—well, there are way more of us then there are police. I mean, the people, united.”
She stopped suddenly, and blushed a little—she’d gotten carried away. But Tony said “it’s kind of brilliant. It’s like performance art. It’s like a flash mob. You could send the police on scavenger hunts, and when they got to the end there’d be, I don’t know, a hundred people singing Christmas carols.”
And then came a shaky voice spoke up from the far end of the faculty table. “Overloading of facilities,” the frail man said. “Boston City Hospital, 1967. The doctors couldn’t go on strike for higher wages, obviously, so they did the opposite, admitting everyone with even minor complaints. Before long the hospital board had to give in.”
Everyone in the room was silent—it was the first time all year they’d heard the man speak. Dr. Marco Vukovic was the world’s leading authority on the history of nonviolent protest, or so they’d been told, the author of innumerable books and the curator of a massive file on every known instance of civil disobedience back to the 18th century. But he was also 94, and seemed perpetually lost in thought. From every class one student was picked to stay at SGI for an extra year, to serve as his assistant. It was a great honor—and so, apparently, was his comment on the Fresno plan, because every other member of the faculty had turned to him, nodding their heads.
“Thank you Dr. Vukovic,” Maria said. “Thank you very much for your perspective. And thank all of you for this exercise today—I hope it’s got your mind working. I will say that some of the solutions to the problem were highly creative. But I was disappointed by one thing. I had hoped it might occur to some of you to ask if we really did want to hamper the police here. As a little research would show”—and here she nodded to Natty—“Fresno is the 5th most crime-ridden city in America, and of course most of the victims are precisely who you’d expect. The poorest, and the most vulnerable. Maybe you want to defund the police, maybe you want to turn them into people who know how to deal with poverty. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I do know you should plan on writing an essay about it, to be emailed to my office before the start of classes tomorrow. That will be all.”