Joe Manchin's Truly Brutal Ransom Note

Time's running out in DC, on the climate (and also on free Friday posts...)

First, let’s be clear about one thing: Joe Manchin does not care about West Virginia’s coal miners. He obviously possesses sufficient leverage in the ongoing Capitol Hill negotiations that, if he wanted to, he could insure that the state’s remaining 15,000 coal miners all got yachts like his. He could make sure that every coal community in the state had health clinics, libraries, swimming pools, vocational high schools, community college branches. Hell, at this point Joe Biden would happily consent to plumbing the Monangahela River so that it ran as whiskey three hours a day and Coca-Cola on weekends.

But Joe Manchin is actually doing the work of the fossil fuel industry, which has given him more money than any other person in Washington (no easy feat, considering the scale of their largesse). That became indisputably clear yesterday when Politico obtained the memo he’d given Majority Leader Schumer over the summer, stipulating his Scrooge-ish conditions for doing anything about the climate crisis and all the other crises besetting America.

With regard to energy, he made one basic demand, which follow the industry’s line to a T. And it only took five words: “Spending on innovation, not elimination.” In other words: it is permissible to spend money on solar panels, windmills and so on, as long as none of it is aimed at actually reducing the amount of oil and gas we pump. As he put it, all policy had to be “fuel neutral.” He said, explicitly, if you’re going to give tax credits for clean and energy, you have to continue the tax subsidies for fossil fuels. Any credits for electric cars must also go to hydrogen-powered cars—because using natural gas to create hydrogen is one of the industry’s Rube Goldberg schemes for holding on to its business model.

This is nothing more than the “all of the above” energy strategy of the Obama years, and given how much more we now know both about the economics of clean energy (incredibly cheap) and the dangers of rapid climate change (incredibly existential), it’s disgusting. The Biden administration was trying to break with that model and move toward the clean energy world that both physics and finance demand—but the fossil fuel industry won’t let it, and Manchin is their hostage-taker.

Whatever deal emerges today will be judged on one thing (and the judging will be done not just here, but in every other capitol around the world): whether or not it allows us to meet Biden’s target of cutting emissions in half by 2030. If Manchin gets his way, that won’t happen. Manchin came to power with an ad showing him shooting climate regulations—now he’s holding a gun to the planet’s head.

Speaking of hostage-taking: October has come, and as I’ve previously threatened this is the last week that everyone gets this Friday post for free. I hope very much you’ll pay for a subscription (my share of the subscription revenues go to support our fledgling organizing efforts at ThirdAct.org). All the other posts I write will still go to everyone, no charge, of course. And I’m aware that it’s a little cruel to have given away the first tenth of my novel/yarn and now to force you to pay to see the rest. I will release it for free once it’s all been serialized, but if you’re seriously involved with the plot and simply can’t afford to pay for a subscription, let me know and I’ll figure out some way to send it to you for nothing.

I think the way it’s now supposed to work is that scads of people decide to pony up for subscriptions this week—I hope that’s the case, in part because we’re almost at the official launch of Third Act, and every dollar helps. Many many thanks to all who’ve already pitched in. It’s an odd model, this citizen-supported journalism, but I kind of like it.

Meanwhile, a few important notes from around the climate fight this week.

+Tom Athanasiou, who has done as much as anyone on the planet to work for international equity in the climate fight, has a superb curtain-raiser essay on the Glasgow climate talks for Sierra magazine. Takeaway quote:

Climate stabilization has everything to do with economic justice. Why? Because the majority of the world’s emissions now come from the so-called Global South, and thus, by definition, most of the work of planetary decarbonization must happen there as well. The problem is that, in sharp contrast to its emissions, most of the world’s wealth is still in the Global North. This is the key thing, and it means that the great decarbonization is simply not going to happen in time unless the rich world helps the poor one along by providing a great deal of financial and technological support. 

+Next item on the calendar: big gathering in DC Oct 11-15 for People V. Fossil Fuels, a week whose title kind of reflects the overall reality of planet earth right now.

+Another big divestment win, this one at the University of Aberdeen. The Scottish city is at the heart of the European gas and oil industry—this is like the University of Oklahoma deciding to divest. The divestment campaigning by UK-based People and Planet simply can’t be overpraised. Meanwhile, a strong editorial from the National Catholic Reporter reminding more Catholic institutions that the time has come to divest—after all, the Pope says so! The big divestment win at Harvard continues to pay dividends—Politico reports that the rest of academia is “running for the exits.”

+Take a moment to read about the remarkable environmental justice work over many decades by Texan Juan Parras and his family. I’ve had the pleasure of working with his son Bryan, a remarkable climate fighter.

+Good news on the tech front, where cheap iron-based storage batteries are making a big gains. They’re too heavy for cars or phones—but just right for backing up entire utilities

+If you wonder why young people are occasionally annoyed with their elders: a new study in Science finds that, to quote USA Today, “children born in 2021 will on average live on an Earth with seven times more heatwaves, twice as many wildfires, and almost three times as many droughts, river floods and crop failures as people born 60 years ago.”

+Writing in Business Week, Jessica Brice and Michael Smith offer one of the most devastating pieces of reporting in this year or any other: they demonstrate that under Bolsonaro the destruction of the Amazon is accelerating, perhaps uncontrollably.

A review of thousands of public documents and dozens of interviews with prosecutors, forest rangers, and members of Bolsonaro’s inner circle show that Brazil’s government is engaged in an active campaign to open up the Amazon to privatization and development—first by turning a blind eye as public and protected lands are raided and cleared, and then by systematically pardoning the people responsible and granting them legal title to the stolen lands.

And now some more novel. Catch up on the first 11 chapters of The Other Cheek by visiting the archive. This week’s installments are Colorado-based.

Cass and MK sat on the thin tan carpet in the Fellowship Room of the Colorado Springs Unitarian Church, packing bags with food: four cans of formula, four tins of tuna fish, raisins, crackers. Maria had driven them down to town at high speed (“this is fun, like driving in Africa but with snow,” MK had said, as they drifted one highway bend) but now she stood patiently at the counter, talking with a tall, thin man who’d come in moments before.

“My baby doesn’t like formula. My baby likes tuna fish. Could I trade that formula for more tuna do you think?” he said.

“How old is your baby?” Maria asked.

“Um, four?” he said.

“Months or years?”

“Um, months?”

“Girls, could we have some more tuna fish over here please,” she said. When he left, MK said “what kind of baby eats tuna fish?”

“The kind he doesn’t have,” said Maria. “This is a family food pantry, but an awful lot of the people who need help in this town are single men. He probably doesn’t like tuna fish that much either, but I imagine it’s easier to trade for beer at that little store we passed, two blocks down on the right.”

“Should we be helping people get beer?” said Cass. “And should we be handing out food anyhow? I mean, I like doing it, that’s why I asked to come. But isn’t SGI’s whole thing ‘changing the system?’ Like, so no one has to ask for food.”

“Yes,” said Maria. “We should.”

A young woman with two small children came in the door, looking hesitant. “Hello hon,” said Maria. “What are the names of those cute kids?” “Gloria and Flora,” said the woman.

“I’m Gloria. I’m four,” said the older one proudly. “My sister is one.” “Ah,” said Maria. “You’re starting school next year?”

“Kindergarten,” she said. “But I already know my colors.”

“So what’s your favorite color?”

“Green!” said Gloria.

“That’s mine too,” said MK.

“These are Cass and MK,” said Maria. “They’re new in town here, and they might need a friend. Maybe they could come to your house sometime.”

“Could they, Mom?” the girl asked.

“Maybe,” said their mother. “But”

“But today you need food,” said Maria. “Which is why we’re here. MK, there’s a couple of bags of gummy worms in my pocketbook, could you find them please? Cass, we’ll need some extra tuna.”

Before too long the family was on the way out the door—the stroller was filled with bags, and Flora was walking hand in hand with her sister. They’d gotten the woman’s name—Delmy—and her cellphone number, and Cass and MK had promised to call.

“That’s why,” said Maria, once the door had swung shut. “Because we need to change the system that leaves people poor, but who knows if we can? And we’re definitely not changing it before Gloria gets to second grade, by which time she’ll either want to spend the rest of her life reading books, or she won’t, which is why I hope you’ll go by most weeks; you can take my car. As for beer, if I was that guy I’d drink beer too, and a lot of it.”

“Can we ask you something else,” MK said suddenly, tossing Cass a look.

“Let me guess: about Matti,” said Maria.

“How’d you know,” said MK, stunned.

“I’m a nun, more or less, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind or deaf or even particularly stupid,” said Maria. “And I’ve been thinking a lot about him myself, though for slightly different reasons. Yes, he’s cute, and yes he’s smart. Smart enough that he knows he’s smart, not smart enough to have figured out that smart is only a little bit of it. Smart people usually want to go it alone. Glory, money. If they’re very lucky they wise up eventually. Generally, not-quite-so-smart people are a better bet. Like you two. Smart enough.”

“Do you really think he’ll tell about the school,” said Cass.

“I’m not certain,” said Maria. “Not for awhile, would be my guess. I don’t think anyone would listen to him at the moment. He’s smart, but he’s a kid.”

“Would it matter if he did?” said MK. “I mean, we’re just a school.”

“Good question,” said Maria. “As I told Cass once, I don’t really know the answer. On the one hand, we’re just a school, as you say. All we really do is add 50 new people to the fight every year, with some minimal skills. If someone shut us down it’s not like there wouldn’t be plenty of people fighting all over the world—it probably wouldn’t even be noticed. But I think we’re coming into a moment when the world is going to need what we know. We have a dozen faculty, and we have the archives of all the peaceful resistance there’s ever been, and we have Professor Vukovic who has that archive catalogued in his brain. Together it all adds up. Last century was about inventing nonviolent action—but mostly people still fought with guns. This century the fights are going to be different, bigger, harder to understand. So maybe we’re needed. I think we are, some days anyway.”

The door swung open, and a mother entered with a small boy in a dirty snow jacket. Maria nodded at the girls, and headed for the back room.

“Hello there. What’s your name?” Cass asked the boy. “Say your name, Darren,” the mother said.

“Darren,” said the boy.

“My check didn’t come,” said his mother.

“So, item one,” said Maria, looking around at the SGI faculty spread out across the small lounge. “Not a good item. You’ll remember Perry Alterson, who was here for a few weeks this fall.”

“With the hair,” said Professor Ramakrishnan.

“Oh God,” said Tony. “He was my fault. I kept trying to get him to find his voice, to speak out. To connect with his pain. That’s why he left.”

“It was not your fault,” said Mark, taking his hand. “We need students who can handle the things we need to teach them.”

“It was my fault,” said Maria. “I didn’t figure out early enough how . . . different he was. We think we’re good at handling all kinds of kids, but really we’re only good when they bend in certain directions. He bent in, and that’s not good for us. And now he’s apparently dead.”

“Dead!” said Tony. “Oh God.”

“He was involved in something in Vermont, where he was from. And it seems to have gone awry. They haven’t found a body, but the house he was staying in is a pile of warm ash, and there are FBI agents all over it.”

“Actually,” said Professor Lee, “I’m not at all sure he is dead. You know that Perry and I stayed in touch—computers are what he’s good at. Actually, very good at. Anyway, we’ve been . . . consulting a little these last few weeks. And I heard from him this morning. At least, I think from him. I’m being a little careful about responding, because I want to make sure it’s not a trap.”

“We’ve never lost a student, not yet,” said Maria. “So please keep me informed. Some of the students know about it, and some of them want a memorial service. I’ll keep them at bay for now. And thank heaven. So that scratches item two—the memorial service—off my list for now.

Item three is somewhat less dire. Sunitha, can you bring us up to date on the progress of the Dalai Lama?”

“So far as expected,” she said. Professor Ramakrishnan was short and graceful; her family had renounced its Brahmin privilege two generations before, but the commanding bearing remained intact. “The reason we didn’t think Matti’s plan was ready was precisely because it started better than it finished, and it’s clear already that that’s going to be the problem. Yes, it’s excited interest in the west, even if the DL’s not as well-known as he was ten years ago. Yes, everyone in Tibet knows about it, and yes the Chinese flag is causing a certain amount of confusion. Two days ago the senior nun of one nunnery in the hills above Shigatse was arrested for flying the Chinese flag on their pole, but the authorities apparently have no idea what to charge her with.

“The problem is, China proper. For the scheme to exert any real leverage, it somehow has to get inside the mainland. Tibetans have an effective network through villages and monasteries, but that’s because they’re—‘backward.’ It takes a week, but any message gets to Lhasa. As China proper has developed, people have lost most of their connections, and they communicate as we do: through the net. Highly efficient, of course—forget about a week, you can get a message everywhere in a millisecond. Chinese twitter, Weibo, is enormous. But easily blocked. The so-called ‘Great Firewall’ is effective when they want it to be.

“Our outside hope was that they’d panic and go on a public attack against him, but so far they’re playing it cool. They’ve sent out word to world capitols, and to the media industry: anyone who wants a presence in China is steering clear of talking about this. But inside, nothing. No pressure building. Not about Tibet, anyway. People are too busy trying to breathe, literally.”

“Suni’s right,” said Professor Lee—herself small, and with the slumped shoulders of someone who’d spent a lifetime in a front of a computer monitor. “We can watch their strategy pretty easily—they’ve bumped up the anti-Dalai propaganda, but only a notch; it’s like a booster shot. And we don’t have a way in. It’s at least eight months before he gets to the border—it could easily stretch to a couple of years, depending on how you cross India—but if you had to predict, the whole thing ends in a fizzle.”

“And if it does,” said Professor Ramakrishnam, “then the Tibetans are a lot worse off than when they started. The DL will be pitied, and the young Tibetans who want to go fight the Chinese will feel vindicated, and that will be that.”

“It’s why we spend a week in ‘History of Nonviolence’ on Albany, Georgia,” said Maria. “One of the great defeats in movement history. That police chief, Pritchett, was about the only person who ever figured out how to beat Dr. King. Wait him out. No violence to build sympathy. Patience patience patience. Didn’t give the moment anything to feed on. Maybe I need to move it up in the curriculum, because Matti was already long gone by the time we got to it.”

Tony leaned in. “The good news is the time—eight months, two years, whatever” he said. “People are at work. Art doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ve made sure our world knows about it. On the day he visits Gandhi’s ashram we’ll have marches all over the place. Small, at least at first. I mean, Universal is not going to make a movie about it. Kundun was 1997, which was about the last moment China was still poor.”

“Chinese GDP per capita in 1997 was $775,” said Mark. “Compared with $8,000 now.”

“And $8,000 buys a lot more movie tickets. So no Kundun 2, no one is going to risk offending the Chinese. But we have our own movement media now, and feeling will build around the world, and if we’re lucky we’ll figure out a way to get that feeling into China. Because Matti was right—the story does work. Small and big.”

“We’ll all do what we can,” said Maria. “Final item. You may have noticed an . . . intensified presence around the campus.”

“When I went out for a run this morning, a man started shouting at me, wanting to know if I was a ‘warlock,’” said Mark. “I asked him if this was some kind of racial slur, and that shut him up for a minute. But by the time I got back to the entrance drive there were 18 young women praying that the demons possessing this place would be overcome.”

“I may have overdone it a bit with the wiccan yoga thing,” Maria said. “I mean, the first page of a Google search on SGI is now all youtube prayers to deliver us from Satan, which is good, just what I wanted. But it’s beginning to interfere with getting anything done.”