Less Lying Would Help
Prevarication Prevents Perception
This week a Japanese study found that the big oil and gas companies are—despite their numerous protestations to the contrary—completely focused on more oil and gas. This comes as no real surprise, but as climate stalwart sociologist Robert Brulle told climate stalwart journalist Amy Westervelt in the climate stalwart pages of the Guardian, “this is the first robust, empirical, peer-reviewed analysis of the activities – of the speech, business plans, and the actual investment patterns – of the major oil companies regarding their support or opposition to the transition to a sustainable society.” Essentially, they talk a good game, but it’s entirely talk. As NPR pointed out in its coverage of the study, ‘glaringly, ExxonMobil generated no clean energy during the last decade.’ BP's global renewables capacity — the largest among the four majors — amounts to only 2,000 MW, or the the equivalent of about two large gas-fired power plants.
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This, it strikes me, is a problem for two reasons. One, it means they’re continuing to pour carbon into the atmosphere, where it, you know, wrecks the prospects for ongoing civilization. Two, it keeps us from ever really fully grappling with that fact. Climate campaigners have spent two decades doing all they could to force a recognition that the climate crisis was a) real and b) a crisis. Polling indicates they’ve largely succeeded—to the point where significant numbers of people feel a real (and justifiable) climate despair.
But we’re not doing the things scientists tell us we must—in large measure because the oil companies and their allies, having dropped their insistence that climate change wasn’t a problem, now insist they’re solving the problem. This is a different lie, but equally consequential. (And calling it ‘denial,’ by the way, seems weak to me; the problem is that it’s a lie, and lies make actual discussion impossible).
The oil companies aren’t alone. Kate Aronoff, writing in The New Republic, describes a new study from the UK campaigners Share Action: It finds that 25 European members of the grandly titled Net Zero Banking Alliance “have provided at least $38 billion in financing to 50 of the most expansionary upstream oil and gas companies on earth. Half of that financing was provided by four of the founding signatories of the Alliance: Barclays, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, and HSBC. Since the Paris Agreement was brokered in 2016, the European banks analyzed have furnished upstream oil and gas expanders with $400 billion, and they ‘show no signs of stopping,’ the report writes.”
The challenge of switching our system to clean energy would be incredibly hard even if everyone was actually trying. But it gets exponentially harder if key players are poisoning not only the atmosphere but also the infosphere. One way to make it stop, as Westervelt points out, would be if pr firms and ad agencies stopped helping with the lying. She quotes Christine Arena, a former exec at pr giant Edelman, now working with the Clean Creatives campaign:
“PR and ad firms are central players in what we look at as the influence industry,” Arena says. “There’s a lot of money spent, and emphasis on external facing advertising, marketing, and promotion that helps prop up the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate and give the world a sense that, to quote the American Petroelum Institute, ‘We’re on it.’ We don’t need regulation. We’re good corporate actors.”
It made me angry when, for decades, they insisted physics wasn’t real. It makes us all crazy (and powerless) when they insist that they’re doing what physics demands. They will, perhaps, go to hell for it, but not before they’ve taken the planet to someplace of a similar temperature.
Some more news from around the climate world
+The good news is that, in a real feat of scientific heavy lifting, Antarctic researchers have squared two data sets, one from the dry interior valleys of the continent, and the other from the sea ice surrounding it. The bad news: "this work finally brings all of the geologic information neatly into line, and suggests that large parts of the Antarctic Ice Sheet may have collapsed under climatic situations similar to today."
+Um, once you calculate all the land you need to till to grow the corn, a new study finds that ethanol is 24% more carbon intensive than gasoline. Since more than half the corn grown in Iowa ends up in gas tanks, this has to be one of the stupidest government policies of all time.
+Good news: German researchers report they’ve been able to recycle the silicon from solar panels into…new solar panels! According to Inside Climate News, however, other parts of solar panels are proving more resistant to recycling efforts.
+The drought in the West is the worst since at least 800 AD, which is when tree-ring records begin, and a new study predicts bad wildfire days will double in southern California as the century slogs on. But there’s plenty of water in the mountains of Brazil, where as of this writing 117 are dead in mudslides, with an equal number still missing. In both cases, the news stories note, climate change is a big part of the equation
+Veteran campaigner Patrick Mazza argues here that it’s past time to focus climate activism on state and local governments, because campaigning in DC is simply running into too many roadblocks.
+The Standing Rock Sioux tribe continues to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline—sign up here to add your voice to public comments in the ongoing battle.
+A great essay from the historian Zeb Larson exploring the links between the apartheid-era divestment campaign, and the fossil fuel effort that was modeled on it.
By increasing awareness of apartheid and the U.S. role in sustaining it, divestment activated a core of people who would support other actions against apartheid. Stigmatizing companies and lowering investor confidence are important, but the tactic’s primary advantage is that it organizes people, gives them an action to accomplish and leaves them open to pushing for even more substantive change.
Meanwhile, join the online party next week to celebrate the fossil fuel divestment effort passing the $40 trillion mark.
+A Guardian probe finds that private equity firms are doing their best to profit off expanding the fossil fuel .
It means people like firefighters and teachers whose pension funds are invested in private equity funds, have little way of knowing if their retirement nest egg is financing coal plants, oil wells or solar farms.
+There’s a move afoot to coax Koch heir Elizabeth into pushing her family to back off on the whole planetary destruction thing—and it’s not entirely far-fetched she might help, since she’s the publisher of some of the greatest environmental writing in the world—think Wendell Berry.
+Nnimmo Bossey and Anabela Lemos have an excellent essay in Foreign Affairs pointing out that the last thing African nations need is more oil and gas development.
“Far from generating prosperity and stability in sub-Saharan Africa, investments in fossil fuels cause real harm. Decades of fossil fuel development have failed to deliver energy to much of the continent and have built economic models dependent on extraction that have deepened inequality, caused environmental damage, stoked corruption, and encouraged political repression. Pouring more money into fossil fuels will not only perpetuate this dynamic but also delay the necessary shift to renewables. The likes of solar and wind energy are not just environmentally and ethically superior to coal, oil, and gas; thanks to advances in battery and energy storage, they are becoming cheaper and more practical alternatives to fossil fuels. African countries should avoid the fossil-fuel-burning habits of other countries not just because it is the right thing to do but also because it is the sensible thing to do.”
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It’s Friday, so a couple more chapters from our epic nonviolent yarn. If you need to catch up on the first 46 chapters of The Other Cheek, check out the archive.
Perry and MK were sitting in the back of a golf cart, traveling at low speed through a muggy Florida night. Addie Barclay was in the front street, next to the driver, Hazel Coulter, formerly of Quarry Hill in Barre, Vermont but for the past six years a resident of The Villages north of Orlando, and for the past two years the president of its Democratic Club.
“Not that it’s a very big club, mind you,” she’d told them when they’d called the week before to ask about visiting the retirement community, whose 100,000 residents were all above the age of 55. “This place has 621 holes of golf, and that’s about how many liberals it has too. I put the Bernie sticker on my golf cart in 2016 and the cart got keyed. Twice. When Donald Trump flew in to Orlando, people stood on the golf courses saluting as his plane flew over.”
“Still,” said Perry, “its death rate is quite high. So for our purposes that’s good.”
“Eight to ten a day,” said Hazel. “And eight to ten in the morning. They wake up, they climb out of bed, and their heart says ‘That’s it, we’re done.’”
“We have to start someplace,” MK had said, and so they’d bought tickets to Orlando. Addie flew down from Burlington via Dulles; her son Vern had offered to come but his mother said she was looking forward to a vacation with some young people and in any event she reminded him he hated Florida. Which he had to admit was true. So she’d flown south herself, and met MK and Perry at the airport. They’d driven a rental car as far as the edge of the Villages, where they parked and Hazel Coulter picked them up in her golf cart with the Bernie bumper sticker for the drive to the Mangrove Square recreation center—there, perhaps a hundred people had gathered in a small meeting hall. There was a neatly stacked rack of walkers outside the entrance, and many of the attendees were grabbing hearing aids from a stand in the back of the hall. MK—who was used to giving these talks—felt unaccustomedly abashed, in part because she was the only black person in the room. (“It’s educational—you get a good sense of what America looked like eighty years ago,” Hazel told her). But she gamely described the dangers of bomb trains, and the growing peril of climate change.
“No need to sell us on that one,” said one man in shorts and a shirt that said “I’ve Already Spent My Kids Inheritance: Now What?” “The 14th hole at Sweetgum floods every time it rains, and it rains all the time now. I came here for the warm weather, but there’s warm and there’s disgusting. I miss Minnesota more every day.”
MK’s courage faltered, however, when it came time to actually explain Professor Vukovic’s plan. “Our idea,” she said, “is for people who have a certain immunity—people who won’t be so vulnerable to—“
Addie stepped in. “What we need are people who are going to die soon. People who won’t feel threatened by the ten-year sentences the feds are talking about. Cancers mostly, so it doesn’t keep you from moving around, but you’re definitely terminal. Like me. Lymphoma.”
“Prostate,” said the man with the shirt. “Of course, half the men here have it. Of course, there aren’t that many men.” Which was true, thought MK: not only had everyone they passed on the golf cart been white (albeit tanned to leather), but most of them were women.
“Colon,” said one lady. “Doctor said six months, but that was eight months ago.”
“Lung,” said another. “Stopped smoking the day I turned 65, but the damage had been done.”
“Melanoma,” said another. “The bad kind, the mole with the crooked edge that keeps growing?”
Perry was impressed with how forthright they all were. Maybe, he thought, if most of the people in your neighborhood were dying it didn’t seem particularly scary.
Anyway, Addie explained their plan. “Basically, we need you to go sit down on a railroad track and block a train. And then you’ll get arrested, and then we’ll bail you out, and then you’ll probably die before it ever gets to trial.”
This was, MK thought, a somewhat blunt ask, and people looked uneasily at each other. But Addie seemed confident: she asked people if anyone had pictures of their grandchildren. As it turned out, exactly every-one had pictures of their grandchildren, which they were entirely willing to pass around for others to see. And looking at them was enough to convince four people that they should be arrested on some lonely train track somewhere. Better yet, the group, just as Addie had predicted, was full of connections elsewhere.
“You need to go to the Kendal retirement communities—they’re in a bunch of college towns, and they’re full of old professors and that,” said one. “No golf. They go to lectures all day. When they hear about this they’ll think they’ve died and gone to heaven even before they die.”
“Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia—that’s all Quakers,” said another. “There’s a place in Tennessee called Rocinante, like Don Quixote’s horse?” said one lady. “All old hippies. I kind of wish I’d gone there; if they even have golf, it’s Frisbee golf.”
MK and Perry carefully collected names and phone numbers; several ladies, who apologized for being healthy but wanted to help anyway volunteered to start making calls to other communities. Then they all took a picture for the Democratic Club facebook page raising their fists in the air.
And then Hazel and Addie took the youngsters, as they called them repeatedly, to a nearby country club, where the women drank John Dalys (“it’s an Arnold Palmer, but with vodka,” Hazel explained. “It’s named for an alcoholic golfer”) and watched an alligator patrol a water hazard on the third fairway. Perry had a PenaltyDrop Pale Ale made by The Villages Microbrew Club. The jukebox featured Sly and the Family Stone, “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” circa 1969, which he calculated put it right about the middle of the Villages nostalgia demographic. “This place is okay,” he said to MK. “Maybe someday.”
MK gave him a look. And Addie said “didn’t you listen to your own slideshow? By the time you guys get here you’re going to need a snorkel.”
Allie and Maria sat in the back pew of St. Brigid’s church, a suburban parish twenty minutes drive from SGI. The Saturday evening mass was a quarter full; the priest, an African immigrant named Father Aaron, took the service briskly through its paces, pausing to give a long plug for an upcoming church fair.
Neither of the women knelt for the prayers; neither went up to take communion; when it was time to pass the peace, they hugged each other and managed to avoid the other parishioners. On their way out a nice woman from the altar guild slowed them down long enough with details about the approaching bazaar that the priest had made it to the narthex before they could escape.
“You are visitors,” Father Aaron said, more statement than question.
“Yes, Father,” said Allie.
“I hope you will come back,” he said.
“Yes, Father,” said Maria.
They made it to the car, and looked at each other. “That was not so easy,” said Allie. “I’ve only ever been to my church at home.”
“But I’m glad I went,” said Maria. “I’ve been ducking it for twenty years. That was my life, and in some ways . . .”
“Why did you stop going?” Allie asked. “I mean, you were a nun. Until this week I thought you still were a nun. Everyone thinks you are.”
“Yeah, well. Anyway, I stopped going for all the usual reasons,” said Maria. “Men running everything. Complete hypocrisy—big money pretending to care about the poor. But more than that, Jesus . . . I’m not sure I should be telling you any of this.”
“I think actually you maybe should,” said Allie.
“I love Jesus—even that terrible painting in that ugly church,” said Maria. “You should see the cathedral in the town where I grew up, though. The expression on Jesus’s face changed my whole world when I was a girl in the Philippines. I became a nun.”
She paused, thinking back to the corrugated tin chapel on the smoking garbage dump outside Manila, and the nuns facing the bayonets of the regime’s soldiers when the dictatorship began to crumble. “And I’m glad I did—among other things, it got me to the Chapter house in the United States. But at a certain point, the more I worked with people in trouble, the more it started to feel a little sick, all the crucifixes everywhere, with Jesus bleeding, bleeding, bleeding. I work with people every day who suffer for days, weeks, months, years. A few hours on a cross compared with floating to Greece in a life raft and watching your baby fall over the side and drown and then having to go on taking care of your other children in some refugee camp? And the more I thought about it—it started to seem wrong somehow. I mean, look at you. You went off to college and you were having a fine time, and then you were raped and now you have to live with it.”
Allie was quiet for a minute. She started to talk, stopped, thought some more., looked out the window at the suburb they were traversing. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “Could we go to that DQ?”
They ate burgers and drank Blizzards, and still Allie didn’t talk. Finally she wiped up the table with a napkin, and balled it up, and tossed it at the trashcan ten feet away. “Nice shot,” said Maria.
“Here’s the best I’ve ever been able to work out about the cross,” Allie said, “and it’s probably wrong, because all I ever did was go to CCD class and be an altar girl. You were a nun. But the thing is, Jesus didn’t have to do it. He knew it was coming. The part of the story that always got to me was the night before, in the garden, when the disciples were falling asleep, and he said, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.’ He didn’t have to do any of it, but he did, because he thought he was doing it for everyone else. The actual part where his dying takes away all our sins makes no sense to me, but the choosing part, where he’s willing to simply do this thing because he . . .”
She looked up at Maria. “And the reason you don’t get it is because it’s what you do too, and the other people who run the school. Professor Vukovic has been doing it so long he doesn’t even remember there’s any other thing to do. He’s just, like, ‘here, take my oxygen bottle.’ When the doctor tells him he’s going to die he immediately starts figuring out how it might be useful to someone else. That doesn’t make him Jesus, and it doesn’t make you Jesus, and I doubt Jesus was thinking he was Jesus. He just—I mean, isn’t that why SGI is such a weird place?”
“Weird?” said Maria.
“UT Austin is a great school, everyone says so. It’s got great professors and it’s hard to get into, and you learn a lot. But the point is, so you can go out and do what you want in the world. Get rich, mostly. Most of the people there are pretty nice—most of them aren’t actually rapey frat boys. But the point is about you. Isn’t the point of SGI other people? Isn’t the point of church other people? Or shouldn’t it be? Isn’t that what the point of Jesus is? To help you remember that?”
“Allie, you know I usually have a reason for letting people in to SGI. They’re good at computers, they’re good at art. Cass—Cass understood stories.”
“Cass is amazing,” said Allie. “Like, it’s not clear at first that there’s anything that special about her, but . . .”
“Right,” said Maria. “Anyway, I let you in by mistake.”
“I kind of figured, once I got here. I mean, I pretty much I applied by mistake,” said Allie. “I liked to organize stuff, but it wasn’t the kind of stuff you guys organize. The me that applied here—the me that came here, was kind of the opposite of SGI. I mean, I brought a gun with me.”
“A pink gun,” said Maria, smiling. “But I don’t actually think it was a mistake for either of us. I think—how do you understand the Holy Spirit?”
“I can’t even remember the right response from catechism. We called him the holy ghost, and it always made me think of, like, Casper.”
“To me, it was always the force that made you pick one book off a crowded shelf instead of another,” said Maria. “And then something in that book would set you off on a new course. Except this time I think it was not a book, it was a person. And I think you’ve got a good deal to teach me—you already have.”
“Teach you what?” said Allie.
“That it was time to go back to church, for one thing,” said Maria. “Can I confess something to you? Not, like, confession. Just like tell you something?”
“Is it embarrassing?” said Allie.
“Kind of,” said Maria.
“Oh good,” said Allie.
“When I was your age—a little younger, really, and you have to remember I was a naïve girl from a provincial town in the Philippines—you know what I used to worry?”
“That you weren’t pretty? That’s what I worried about”
“Everyone worries about that. No, what I worried was: would there still be poor people left for me to go help when I grew up? Or would it already all have been taken care of? Before I could be, like, Mother Teresa? How sick is that, to want there to be poor people so you could take care of them?”
“Were you an only child?” said Allie.
“One older brother,” said Maria.
“Well, if you’d had five youngers, you wouldn’t have worried about running out of people to help,” said Allie. “Just the opposite. Let me tell you my confession.”
“Ok,” said Maria.
“After—after the thing? When I became a libertarian? Which was actually a little bit like first Communion, except no dress, no presents? But you did, like, get a new set of beliefs?”
“Yeah,” said Maria.
“Well, the thing I liked about it was that you didn’t have to care about anyone else. Like, I was tired of caring about everyone else. I didn’t like the Church partly because the Church is really screwed up—did they tell you about the morning-after pill thing?”
“Yeah,” said Maria. “Ugh.”
“Right. But I also stopped liking the Church because you were supposed to care about other people. That’s the cross thing, really, right? ‘God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, etcetera etcetera.’
And why should I be the only one who was supposed to care about other people? I mean, everyone else I knew at UT was getting ready to go make some actual money; that was the point. And most of them didn’t even much like their parents, let alone have to worry about taking care of them. But I’ve got six brothers and sisters, and my Dad is a mailman, and my Mom is old and worn out.”
“So Ayn Rand said you didn’t have to feel guilty?”
“Yeah, and the church said I did. So that’s a pretty easy choice. But then I got to SGI.”
“Which must have seemed very odd.”
“I thought the tree yoga people were actually part of it. Like, I almost left the first day. But Cass—Cass asked me to help her take care of Gloria. Who was pretty much like all my little sisters. I mean, I still was doing my thing: half the boys in the class have read Ayn Rand now thanks to me. But I was watching. Tony, and you, and then Professor Vukovic. You know he figured out my gun was a fake, right?”
“I didn’t,” said Maria. “He wouldn’t have told me anything if he hadn’t asked you first.”
“Well, not a fake. But it had no bullets. Which was good since he shot it at himself. But anyway. Being selfish doesn’t feel quite so special at SGI. And not in church either. Not because church is so amazing. I mean, that was a pretty weak church.”
“Father Aaron seemed nice,” said Maria
“Father Aaron seemed three thousand miles away from home, which he is because they’ve basically run out of priests over here,” said Allie. “That’s why my priest at home, Father Walsh, is still priesting and he’s way too old for it.”
“If they would let sisters say Mass . . .” said Maria.
“But anyway, you know what I mean,” said Allie. “There’s nothing actually all that like Wow about being in there, except it’s not about me. I get God doesn’t, like, live there. But I don’t think about him all that much on my own? So could we go back? Not every week—like once a month? As, like a reminder? I mean, you don’t need it—you’ve spent your life caring about other people. But I need it. Like, a booster shot?”
“I have a feeling I need it too,” said Maria. “I have a feeling that it’s our story, the way Harry Potter is the story for a lot of your classmates. It’s stuck in our heads. It’s our way of making sense of the world. Not the only story in the world, and plenty screwed up, but we started on it so young that it imprinted.”
“So can we go?” said Allie.
“Once a month, first Sunday. If we get to go to Dairy Queen after.”
“I might take communion next time,” said Allie. “But I’m not going to confession first, even if you’re supposed to.”
“You just went to confession,” said Maria. “Remember, I’m a semi-nun.”