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Water as Lens
dream hampton makes an important movie for this moment
My limbic system is down for repairs; week after week of record high temperatures around the globe, with fires blazing, reefs bleaching, ice sheets melting. It’s the biggest story on earth and I will go on working on it for the rest of my life, but today, for whatever reason, I found myself in need of something…not more cheerful but more meditative, something that engages a different part of my brain.
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So I found it useful to spend a day watching and rewatching a short new film by the director dream hampton (she lowercases her name, in part in tribute to the beloved essayist bell hooks) about her home city of Detroit. hampton is a big-time movie-maker; her harrowing account of an abusive R&B star, “Surviving R. Kelley,” has gotten all kinds of awards. But perhaps her limbic system needed a break too; in any event, this video, made for the Times Op-Docs series (in conjunction with the remarkable folks at the Hip Hop Caucus), is in a very different key. It’s about the way that as the Great Lakes have risen in recent years they’ve begun to flood the Belle Isle section of Detroit, which as she explains in a study guide accompnaying the video is a park rich in memories for her and “historically a gathering place for Black Detroiters’ family reunions, celebrations or just sunny afternoons.”
Whenever I come home, one of the first things I do is go to Belle Isle. I just do a lap around the isle. It doesn’t matter what season it is. It could be the dead of winter, or it could be a crowded summer day. But that’s like a real grounding for me, you know. When I was growing up and when my daddy would come get me on the weekends, we would do a lap around Belle Isle in his ‘98. He always knew somebody in the park.
There’s been flooding in other parts of Detroit in recent years too, as rainstorms have gotten stronger, and much of the film is imagery of people’s basements, where stored memories end up soggy and mildewed. In the film she puts it like this:
The flooding eats your memories. It destroys them. It literally takes your old photographs, your prom dress, your father’s boots. When I think about flooding, I think about how when water is still, flooding is literally like water being trapped and having nowhere to go. Sometimes we don’t even have not just the energy, but the means to deal with flooding. I think about what’s about to happen to this whole region. I think about individuals’ basement, and what it means every spring to have to go down there and bail out your basement every year and try to repair that damage, and have some resilience against the way that it eats your house, the foundation of your house. And so then, what we do consequently with memories and with, just, love thoughts, really, is we store them in a place. And sometimes we pull ‘em out to tend to ‘em, you know.
When I talked with her this week, she said—kindly—”I’m of course thinking about Vermont when I see stories like that,” and indeed we are busy across the Green Mountain State mucking out basements. Someone just sent me this picture of a book of mine about the climate crisis wrecked by the flooding and discarded in a pile outside the Montpelier library
But of course in Detroit, and in so many other places, the devastation is compounded by specific histories of unfairness. As she wrote me the other day: “Divestment, decades of neoliberal policy—Detroit became the hole in the donut, surrounded by segregated, sometimes but not always wealthy, hostile suburbs. Water was central to the struggle between the city of Detroit, which has rights to some of the best drinking water in the country, and the suburbs, who have tried relentlessly to get it for pennies. A part of the Flint crisis was (then-governor) Snyder trying to avoid paying for Detroit Water.”
We’re used to the idea—adopted as a slogan in the indigenous-led fight to block the Dakota Access pipeline—that “Mni Winconi—Water is Life.” And it is, of course. But it’s also sometimes other things. We’ve seen videos these past weeks of fast-rushing water devastating cities in Asia and Europe, with cars being swept down roads past buildings and hotels falling into rivers. Sea water off the Florida Keys set a new high-temperature record—101 degrees, or ‘hot tub’—and is in the process of devastating the coral reefs. Changes in salinity and temperature of that seawater are also threatening to collapse the Gulf Stream. And in places like Detroit, still water, in a rainy spring, can invade a basement, wrecking memories.
So much of what’s important about Detroit is the Blackness of it. You know, and as we lose that, just how much gets buried, whether it’s when freeways are created or when we just necessarily have to move forward, and things just get stored away. Maybe to be looked at some other time, but it could also be that they just end up being eaten up by the water, by the mold, by the neglect. I don’t have anything profound to say about erasure. It’s just this sinking feeling of, like, cities that may or may not have existed, you know, whether it was Atlantis or some city of gold. Will we exist moving forward? And if not, will these memories and these stories persist in 1,000 years?
We’re adults. We need room for fear and anger, and for planning and doing, but we also need room for reflection and melancholy. This film let me find that, and i hope it will do the same for you.
In other energy and climate news:
+Dominion Energy—one of the worst, and most politically connected, utilities in the country, announced plans for a new ‘gas peaker’ plant to be built in 2025 in Chesterfield, Virginia ; it’s the kind of zombie fossil fuel project we’ve got to drive a stake through, and happily the exemplary Chesapeake Climate Action Network has plans to do so.
"The fact that they're still proposing new fossil fuel infrastructure and new fossil fuel generation, it really flies in the face of state law," said Mason Manley, the Central Virginia Organizer for CCAN. "It really makes no sense. During the cold snap in December 2022, 90% of the plant failures across our regional grid were from gas and oil powered, fire powered plants. So, 90% of those failures were from gas and oil. Meanwhile, wind was outperforming expectations," he continued.
Elsewhere in Virginia, a gas pipeline exploded, closing an interstate.
+Even before the most recent heatwaves, Yale pollsters found that Americans were increasingly worried about heatwaves
In Spring 2023, we found that most Americans (72%) are at least “a little” worried about extreme heat harming their local area – and extreme heat tops the list of worries about climate impacts (e.g., droughts, flooding, water shortages). Additionally, a large majority of Americans (75%) think that global warming is affecting extreme heat at least “a little,” including 42% who say global warming is affecting it “a lot.”
+The federal government is hemming and hawing about forcing companies to disclose their Scope 3 carbon emissions—the ones that come from a company’s supply chain. The Securities and Exchange Commission is under pressure to back off this important step, but as has often happened in the past, state legislators in California could accomplish much of the task by mandating such discloser for companies doing business in the state. (California, remember, has an economy as big as Germany’s). As Michael Gerrard and Eric Orts write “the new California legislation, if adopted, would press forward a general global trend toward requiring Scope 3 emissions disclosures, even if the SEC balks at taking this step.”
+Tesla lied about the range of its cars, and when worried owners called in to see if there was something wrong with their batteries, the company set up a team of employees to try and cancel their service appointments, according to some great reporting by Reuters. Elon Musk, by this time, seems to be doing as much harm as good to the cause of electrifying our infrastructure; I will note that my EV, which comes from Kia, delivers much better mileage than its maker promised—it’s rated at 239 miles, which is what it gets in the winter, but some summer that number goes up to about 300.
+Bad bad news on the Mountain Valley Pipeline front; the Supreme Court said that Congress indeed had the power to block all challenges to the construction. The only small piece of sweet news is that Roanoke County finally dropped a retaliatory lawsuit against three elder climate activists.
+For those who have fought hard for fossil fuel divestment this last decade, some powerful vindication from, of all people, Goldman Sachs. The key argument in this fight was that the oil companies have far more carbon in their reserves than any scientiest thinks we can burn, and so these need to become “stranded assets.” According to Goldman, it’s done an enormous amount to dry up investment.
“There is no question [this issue] has run somewhat rampant across the finance sector, especially within ESG-focused investment houses. Goldman’s report contends that these concerns have played the major role in curtailing investment, in turn cutting global oil resource life since 2014 from 50 years to just 23 years.
Meanwhile, it’s always worth reading Ian Edwards to understand more about the real fiduciary duty around climate change. “I am quite certain that oil assets in pension funds that currently have young participants who don’t retire until 13 years after “net zero 2050” deadlines would fail a fiduciary review.”
+Earth Day 2024 is going to focus on plastics, and its organizers are doing excellent work explaining the issues in the lead-up to the day. Their new briefing shows that oil-rich countries are blocking international efforts to control the scourge of single-use plastics:
Countries like the United States and Saudi Arabia want the treaty to focus on improving plastic recycling and waste management instead of decreasing production. The United States and Saudi Arabia oppose reducing production because they profit greatly from large petrochemical companies located in their countries. However, nations in the High Ambition Coalition — which includes EU members and Japan — want the treaty to include plastic production reduction targets and improved waste management strategies.
The United States also aligned itself with Saudi Arabia on the issue of how the UN should enforce the treaty. Both countries support national action plans where every country has different compliance requirements. However, the Paris Agreement proved this approach was flawed. The individual requirements allowed countries, like the United States, to set their own reduction targets and avoid consequences when they failed to reach them. A global, legally binding treaty ensures the UN can hold countries accountable to reach the targets.
Focusing on waste management and recycling is not enough to solve the plastic problem. Only 9% of plastic ever created has been recycled. If the United States and other oil-rich countries continue to produce plastic, it will continue to end up on our sidewalks, oceans, and forests. It is impossible to recycle our way out of the plastic pollution problem. Limiting, and eventually ending, plastic production is the only way toward a future free from the chokehold of plastic pollution.
+Old friends JP Morgan and Citibank are the top lenders for oil and gas development in the Amazon, Bloomberg reports, which lets them destroy our environment two ways at once.
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