Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the category “Environment”

Crazy Horse and the Legacy of the American Indian Genocide

Recent news articles about coal pollution in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, and protests against new pipelines in North Dakota by the Standing Rock Sioux caught my eye. I’m an ardent environmentalist, but I’ve never been to and know little about the Mountain West area of the United States. The names of this particular river and Indian tribe jumped out at me, however, because I had just been reading about the 1876 Lakota Sioux War and its famous Battle of Little Bighorn, which took place along a stream parallel to the larger Powder River where much of the theatre of war was centered. I thought about how a minor link between past and present symbolized the entire history of the American Indians’ relationship with the United States.

Coal mine in the Powder River Basin

Coal mine in the Powder River Basin

I have always been interested in the story of the American Indians. When I was in the first grade in elementary school, we spent one week preparing a project on American Indians; everyday I had to fight with one other equally keen classmate over who got first rights to the ‘I’ volume of the class encyclopedia set. There was a long article on Indians in this volume with many great pictures and maps showing the locations of all the tribes, and their inexorable migration westward. A couple years later, in 1992, “The Last of the Mohicans” was the first R-rated film I saw in the cinema; I have seen it a couple dozen times since and it remains one of my all-time favorite films. There has always been something powerful in my consciousness, even before I understood it, that the country in which I was born and raised was once populated with a totally different group of people who were gone now–mostly gone, anyway. For a big, year-long historical research project in 7th grade in middle school, I chose the Trail of Tears–the forced death march of the Cherokee tribe from Georgia to Oklahoma to allow for gold-mining on their land. Long before I was politically aware, the innate feeling of tragic injustice moved me, and has continued to inform my historical and political readings to the present day.

My first year of college I took a class on early American history, during which I learned much more about the Pequot War and King Philip’s War. These two wars, beginning in 1634 and 1675 respectively, pitted for the first time New England colonists against local Indian tribes. They were brutal and both sides engaged in what would now be called ‘war crimes’, but by a narrow margin the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes were defeated, dispossessed of their land, enslaved, and driven into extinction (in a case of damnatio memoriae it was even forbidden to mention the name Pequot after the first war). The continual westward push of the European immigrants from the eastern seaboard gave rise to the same theme recurring again and again: frontiers with the Europeans and Indians were established, usually with an official peace treaty between the parties; the growing European population fueled the need for land; encroachment on Indian lands by Europeans started new conflict; Indians were defeated by Europeans, often with the help of rival Indian tribes, and often with extreme cruelty and duplicity. This pattern played out hundreds of times in the 280 years or so from the first English colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts to the “official” closing of the western frontier in 1890 (if we extend this history back to Columbus’ enslavement of the Arawak Indians on his first voyage in 1492 then it becomes almost exactly 400 years; in this essay I will focus only on the American Indians of the United States and not the entire American continent, though the history follows a similar pattern everywhere).

The contours of this long history are only ever taught in American history classes as a broad and tame overview, eliding most of the relevant details, and thus not providing scope for the scale of the tragedy of the American Indians’ plight. Only through independent reading and study, Howard Zinn’s unconventional history book The People’s History of the United States or Dee Brown’s engrossing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to name two famous examples, can one come to learn the heartbreaking tale of the American Indian.

Last Fight of the Fierce and Feathered

The last major war in these centuries of conflict between European Americans and American Indians was the 1876 Lakota Sioux campaign, called the Great Sioux War. This is one of the most famous events of all the Indian wars due to the abundance of contemporary sources (though no one bothered to interview or report anything from the Indian perspective until decades later, long after hostilities between Indians and white men were a thing of the past), as well as the well-known protagonists on each side. This war featured the most famous Indian fighter in American history, George Armstrong Custer, and two of the most famous Indian warriors of all time, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Custer was one of those 19th century American originals who made his name by fighting, first in the Civil War and then against the plains Indians. His total defeat by the Indians at Little Bighorn (known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass to the Sioux) is still the worst loss in American military history in which an entire unit was destroyed in such a short time. The 210 cavalry troops in Custer’s personal detachment of the 7th Cavalry were killed to the last man against a type of foe (Indians) who had never won a war against American forces in over 200 years of near continual, if low-level, conflict. This battle is described in a fascinating, thorough, and even-handed way in Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2010 The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which I would highly recommend (as well as his other books In The Heart of the Sea and Why Read Moby-Dick?).



Crazy Horse was a warrior leader of the Oglala Sioux tribe, one of five confederated groups that made up the Lakota, or western plains Sioux Indians. Sitting Bull was a chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa, another one of the five tribes. Both of these men shared the characteristics of noble defenders of their people against an unprincipled and perfidious enemy. Crazy Horse, considered strange and incomprehensible even to his own people, was never defeated in battle in hundreds of engagements against the U.S. cavalry and rival tribes. Despite this, even he had to surrender to the U.S. government in order to save his people from starving. In the end he was stabbed in the back by one of these people, and with his death the spirit of resistance of the Indians died. He was never photographed and his final resting place is still secret. One of the best biographies I have read is Mari Sandoz’s Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, which tells his story entirely from the Indian perspective with a compassionate and poetic touch. There has been an ongoing project in the Black Hills for the last 70 years to carve a sculpture of this great warrior, which will be the largest sculpture in the world when completed. It was originally blessed by one of the leaders of the tribe, but most Indians today feel the monument is a desecration of a sacred mountain in the hills they consider their rightful home.

The original cause of the Great Sioux War was that Custer led a large cavalry march into the Black Hills to cut open a path, which violated terms of the peace treaty between the Sioux and the U.S. government which stated that the Black Hills were property of the Sioux and would never be entered by white men. This path became frequented by gold diggers who had discovered a rich source of mineral wealth. As happened again and again, when Indian land was found to be valuable, treaties were summarily ripped up and war of conquest, displacement, and destruction was visited upon the Indians, who never understood why the white man’s word was not his bond. Offers of millions of dollars to buy the Black Hills were rejected over and over by the Sioux tribes, which led to the government taking the land by force. Today, moral resistance against the theft continues since no Indian has ever taken the money offered by the government for the Black Hills (now sitting in a trust worth $1.3 billion), which have since been extensively mined for over 130 years with the total gold and metal extraction unknown, but probably coming to at least hundreds of billions of dollars. As recently as 2015 Congress passed a defense bill authorizing Native lands in Arizona to be sold without permission to foreign companies for copper mining. To recap, the U.S. government and many private companies have made an enormous amount of money from a small piece of land that was stolen from Indians, who never took any money in return and today survive on unwanted land that they are not allowed to own in abject poverty.

The Economic and Environmental Effects of the Indian Genocide

I am fully aware that genocide is a strong word, the strongest one used by historians in fact. Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. I am also quite familiar with the entire centuries-long history of Indian wars and the many individual tragic episodes that comprise it, and I have no misgivings about using the word genocide. Starting from the Pequot War and King Philip’s War to the Trail of Tears to the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, 1868 Washita Massacre (one of Custer’s proudest “victories”), and the final, painful Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, the classification of genocide is appropriate. Look up the harrowing details and I’m sure you will agree.

Estimating historical population figures is always tricky, but the typical average estimate for Indian population in the Americas in 1492 (the watershed year) is around 50 million, with high estimates of 100 million; up to 20 million or so has been estimated for the population of the area of the present-day United States. For comparison’s sake, the likely population of Europe in 1492 was probably around 60 million (and for even further comparison, the Roman Empire at its height in the second century CE was around 50 million). This goes to show the general truth that population figures have held steady or grown very slowly for most of human civilization, with the explosion to nearly 8 billion humans building up only for the last two centuries. The current American Indian population in the United States today, on the other hand, is less than 3 million. This number, which has actually grown rapidly in the last couple decades after staying very low for most of the 20th century, shows how there is just a fraction left of the people that used to inhabit the entire continent, while the total non-Indian population of the United States itself has exploded from 0 to 320 million since the 1600s (it goes without saying that disease played the largest part in decimating the Indians, but for those survivors it was an endless campaign of total destruction waged by the white men that drove the Indians nearly to extinction; it is always worth revisiting Jared Diamond’s outstanding Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrating how Europeans came to wield such power over the rest of the world’s inhabitants).

The surviving Indian tribes remain dispersed almost completely in arid, resource-less lands of the American West, land unwanted by any white man for good reasons. Not only that, the arrangements by which they were herded onto reservations and which govern Indian relations today state that it is illegal for the Indians to actually own their own land, which makes them the only people in the country who are denied property rights, in a land which was all stolen from them in the first place. The irony is stunning and tragic. The biggest issue that raises awareness of the Indians’ plight today is not land or even history, however, but sports teams and school mascots. Most Indians today are not very concerned or offended by the Washington football team using the name Redskins, or by the hundreds of high schools and colleges using Indian names and mascots. They are too busy living in squalor, in third-world conditions in the richest country on Earth, and with little hope to even own their own property or improve their situation.

General Philip Sheridan ordered his soldiers to exterminate the American buffalo, which he thought would kill off the resisting plains Indians

General Philip Sheridan ordered his soldiers to exterminate the American buffalo, which he thought would kill off the resisting plains Indians

Like all indigenous peoples of the world, especially those of the western hemisphere, American Indians are the best and wisest advocates for environmental protections and the most dedicated fighters against exploitation of natural resources. According to Noam Chomsky, indigenous peoples of the world are the only hope for human survival. From the First Nations of Canada to the Zapotecs in Oaxaca and Mayans in Chiapas to the recently murdered rights activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras to the Amazonian tribes in Brazil and the Guaraní of Bolivia, indigenous peoples are leading the protests against deforestation, new pipelines, new dams, and other wanton destruction that is part of an exploitative capitalist system that does not account for environmental or human costs. As I have already mentioned, the Black Hills sacred to the Sioux are now deforested for timber and dotted with thousands of mines that blight the landscape. The Powder River basin of Montana and Wyoming, scene of the Great Sioux War, now produces 40% of the United States’ coal in super-intensive mining that renders the land into a real-world version of Mordor. The millions of American bison that once roamed the plains were massacred by the white man until there were only a few hundred left, all so that the plains Indians could not survive by their traditional nomadic hunting lifestyle. In 2016, members of the small remaining Standing Rock Sioux tribe are still protesting against new pipelines of dirty tar sands oil and a fracking-derived natural gas pipeline that would cross their land without their permission (or the land they inhabit but cannot own, which is considered public land by the government). If Crazy Horse were alive today he would be one of the leaders demanding political and property rights and environmental protections for his people. The current situation is the result of hundreds of years of principled American Indian resistance to genocide. Perhaps it is time for the rest of us to heed the wisdom and courage of the American Indians, and all indigenous people, and to treat animals as brothers and the land as if it is sacred, and not just an endless resource to be consumed and destroyed.


Republican Senator’s Ill-Conceived Plan to Block Vegetarian Options in the Military

Factory Farming

Factory Farming

Across the United States and most of the developed world, there is a growing awareness of the problems caused by overconsumption of meat, and an attendant growth in vegetarians and vegans. One of the many campaigns to help spread awareness and moderate our diets is Meatless Monday. This program, endorsed by many public and private organizations, encourages people to forego meat at least one day a week in favor of plant-based alternatives. The Department of Defense, one of the largest and resource-heavy organizations in the world, is considering adopting the practice in military dining facilities.

Jodi Ernst, a first-term senator from Iowa and retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, has recently introduced legislation into the United States Senate to actually block the Department of Defense from implementing “meatless Mondays” in military chow halls. She claims that daily meat consumption is necessary to satisfy nutritional needs. This is so facile and disingenuous that only a caveman could defend it. If you actually read the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it is suggested to eat less meat and eggs. But for legislators like Ernst, facts and logic cannot get in the way of their gut instinct.

If we dig deeper, it turns out that Iowa is actually the nation’s largest pork- and egg-producing state, and the agribusiness industry contributed at least $200,000 to Ernst’s 2014 Senate campaign. That is a good return investment for an industry whose 2014 sales were $186 billion. Because this isn’t about nutritional needs, obviously–it is about cold, hard cash. Like everything in America. Everyone knows that meat is not necessary for proper nutrition. It has actually been clearly linked to cancer, and the enormous consumption of meat in America has helped create not a healthy and balanced population, but one with an uncontrollable obesity epidemic.

I was in the US Army for four and a half years and spent two years deployed to Afghanistan. In this time of my life I was still a typical American meat-eater. I ate meat nearly everyday while deployed, and I can attest that the quality of the food was low, and it was in no way necessary to offer meat everyday even to highly active soldiers. In retrospect, I wish there had been more variety of food offered in the chow hall like meatless Mondays that would have given me different options and helped me lower my meat intake earlier.

I became vegetarian and then vegan after leaving the army, and I have not eaten any meat or animal products in over four years. I am light and healthy and energetic, and I practice rock-climbing several times a week with better physical performance than I ever felt during many years of army training with a heavily carnivorous diet. Senator Ernst is either ignorant or willfully lying on this issue. Neither is a good look for an elected politician.

Furthermore, Ernst, like all of her Republican colleagues, loves to completely dismiss either that climate change is happening or that it is caused by humans, saying things like “I’m not a scientist.” On every other issue, they are experts, however. On abortion, they are medical experts; on gay marriage, they have a direct line to God; on guns, they are all enthusiastic hunters and potential freedom fighters. It’s all hypocrisy. Everyone who studies the issue knows that not only is climate change the most urgent crisis humans have faced since the last ice age, but that intense industrial meat production is one of the largest single causes of pollution and climate change (I’ve written about climate change here). Factory farms, like the ones that are concentrated in midwestern states like Iowa, are enormously inefficient and harmful to the environment. And that is to say nothing about the ethical question of raising billions of sentient, emotional creatures to live short brutal lives in cramped metal cages, pumped full of steroids and antibiotics before being slaughtered. It has been said, with no irony or exaggeration, that modern factory farms are humanity’s biggest crime.

Senator Ernst was elected on a platform of freedom and her military experience. She deployed to Kuwait as a combat tour. She has also falsely claimed that National Guard duty is the reason she missed over half of the votes in the Iowa State Senate. She thinks these things make her an expert on military matters, and that all military personnel and veterans will support her no matter her policies. As a veteran myself with two years of deployment on a remote outpost in Afghanistan, I can say that most veterans see through self-serving and corrupt politicians quite easily. That is why Bernie Sanders’ top contributors are active duty military members. This is also important because Ernst is one of the people who will be considered for the Republican Vice President nomination because she is a woman and a veteran. Too bad she is also a corrupt fraud like most of her party’s standard-bearers.

The Republican Party, which has long made “freedom” its watchword, does not seem to understand what it actually means. It often tends to conveniently ignore freedom for people that disagree with them. It does not take a political philosopher to realize that freedom does not count if it only means restricting other people’s freedom. The Republican Party, which claims to want “smaller government” while insisting that government should be able to regulate and block the most personal individual choices in people’s lives, has struck again with an absurd logic-bending proposal about people’s most personal individual choices.

Eating is one of the most personal things we do. Just like religion, sexual preference, whether to have a child or not. In all these cases, the supposed party of individual freedom wants to restrict freedom. In the spirit of 1984, the Republicans would operate a Ministry of Freedom that insures everyone eats what they told to eat and prays how they are told to pray. It is hypocrisy, unmasked, not even trying to be masked, in fact. Like many Americans, I’m tired of it and want to change the system. One important way is to follow political campaigns, be active, and vote. Arguably even more important is to vote with your wallet with the products you buy, and get involved and stay involved in local or personal issues that you are passionate about. That is why I do not take it lightly when I see a hypocrite try to spread lies about meat consumption in order to help prop up a hundred billion dollar industry, or spreading lies that it is necessary to eat meat to be healthy when it is clearly the opposite. Veganism is an idea whose time has come as more and more people are learning that it is better for their health and for the planet (and for the animals). Fortunately, people have more freedom to do as they please than people like Senator Ernst realize.

Not Quite Ready to Die in the Anthropocene

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, by Roy Scranton: A Review

(originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian)

The recent Paris Climate Conference has been called the last best chance for the leaders of the world, nations and multinational corporations, to agree upon a framework that can somewhat mitigate and limit the compounding effects of climate change. Some have commented that a best-case scenario for such an agreement would still not prevent a future of unbearable heat and widespread famine, drought, war, and mass migrations; a total failure to reach a feasible agreement, like the previous iteration in Copenhagen in 2009, would mean much, much worse: no less than the end of human civilization as we know it and the extinction of huge numbers of plant and animal species, possibly including homo sapiens. Roy Scranton, in his new book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, cleaves to the latter option as the most likely scenario, and this slim volume is dense with big history, scientific nitty-gritty, and philosophical reflections.

Scranton opens the book by invoking his experience as a soldier in the Iraq War, driving and patrolling through Baghdad and pondering the collapse of a once-bustling ancient city into chaos and violence. Back home in the States and safe once again, he witnessed the similar breakdown of order and imposition of martial law in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Scranton connects these localized disaster zones of social breakdown with the future fate of the planet and the human race when climate change accelerates and worsens. He cites a litany of military planners, economists, and scientists to draw his indisputable and alarming conclusion: “Global warming is not the latest version of a hoary fable of annihilation. It is not hysteria. It is a fact. And we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything about it.” Sobering words.

Over the next four chapters, we are treated to a God’s eye view, in the style of Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatis, of geological eras, the rise of homo sapiens, the evolution of energy and industry, the seemingly intractable conundrum of the greenhouse gas effect, the near impossibility of the nations and leaders of the world to come to a working solution that will fix things, and the universality of violence in our primate species. Scranton presents well-researched and argued points on an impressive range of topics with a concise and continually compelling sense of conviction.

The fifth and final chapter, entitled “A New Enlightenment”, is the most original, interesting, challenging, and vexing part of the book. Scranton opens with an epigram from the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest pieces of literature on earth which was rediscovered by chance only 150 years ago. The epic tells of the adventures of the powerful king Gilgamesh and his wild companion, Enkidu, as they unite their opposing forces against the gods themselves, forcing the gods to strike down Enkidu. Gilgamesh becomes distraught over the death of his friend and wanders the earth seeking a way to conquer death. Frustrated in the end, Gilgamesh curses the futility of existence. His experience lives on, though, and offers, as Scranton says, “a lesson in the importance of sustaining and recuperating cultural heritage in the wake of climate change.” It also represents “not only the fragility of our deep cultural heritage, but its persistence.” For the author, the specter of climate change is such a monumental problem that we have no hope of solving it; rather, we should focus on maintaining and deepening our humanism and protecting our rich cultural legacy in order that we will both have a softer descent into the envisioned post-apocalyptic future, and that this rich heritage painstakingly accrued over millenia may be rediscovered one day by our survivors in order to rebuild a new civilization. Our study of philosophy, the ancient classics, and Shakespeare, as rewarding as it may be, creates something of a non sequitur when used as a transition to the idea that our unfortunate inheritors will be fighting for resources and survival in a post-apocalyptic world where life will revert to that pre-state existence invoked by Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is an far-reaching, erudite, and cultured book with a bleak view of humanity and its future. The author draws upon a wide variety of philosophical ideas to make his point, from Heraclitus (“Life, whether for a mosquito, a person, or a civilization, is a constant process of becoming…Life is a flow.”), to Hegel (“The human being is this Night, this empty nothingness which contains everything in its simplicity.”), to Heidegger (“We fall into the world caught between two necessities, compelled to live, born to die, and reconciling them has forever been one of our most challenging puzzles.”). More than any schools of thought, though, it seems like the author subscribes on some level to the Stoicism of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius when he says “Learning to die means learning to let go of the ego, the idea of the self, the future, certainty, attachment, the pursuit of pleasure, permanence, and stability. Learning to let go of salvation. Learning to let go of hope. Learning to let go of death.” This echoes once again the oft-repeated quote by Montaigne that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.” In both the title of this book and the many references to “learning to die”, I think we could easily substitute the phrase “philosophizing” without losing any significance; for Scranton envisions a dying world in which we will all need to become philosophers if we are to hold onto our humanity.

Fear of death is universal among humans and many of the higher mammals. It likely spawned our myths as well as our art. It is only the philosophers who do not avoid it or fear it, but look it clearly in the face. This is true of Democritus, Socrates, Epicurus, the Zen Masters, the Bodhisattvas, Hume, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, and many others who have spent their lives contemplating death not as a morbid fascination but as a means to improving and perfecting their own lives. If it is difficult for most people to attain such peacefulness of mind even after a lifetime of meditation, it is even more unfathomable to find any comfort in the inconvenient truth that the Earth will be rendered uninhabitable in a few million years, and that the cold death of the universe will follow in its wake a few billion years later. The cycle of life and death does not occur on an individual level, or even that of an entire species; it includes planets, stars, and the universe itself. Numerous other books, films, and stories, including Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, discuss this tragic reality in one way or another; Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, Asimov’s “The Last Question”, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Lars Trier’s Melancholia, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, and the Samurai manual Hagakure, which Scranton read in Iraq as a way of dealing with the pervasive and daily dance of death.

Everything in the book springs from the idea that global warming is a problem too big for humans to deal with based on the total lack of realistic and practical alternatives we have to stop it. On this point, I fully understand the enormity of the problem, the almost complete lack of political and corporate will to change our entire world economic system and sacrifice short-term profit, and the bleakness of the future we therefore guarantee for ourselves; but I do not, and cannot, fully endorse the complete resignation of the search and struggle for solutions that the author advocates. On the merits, I have no issue with any of his conclusions except for his certainty of failure in the face of global warming. I am by no means hopeful about the state of the climate and its geopolitical effects that my children will witness, but rather I think that is exactly why pervading pessimism must give way to de rigueur active optimism for the sake of our survival. The current Paris Climate Conference will be not the last best chance, but the first great step to further increase momentum towards a global solution to the extremely daunting but not impossible crisis we face. If that means a change away from neoliberal capitalism towards a more sustainable future, as Scranton alludes to, so be it.

Overall, the book is exceedingly ambitious and almost too wide-ranging for its own good, and it feels like the solution offered by the author in the face of a crisis he goes to great lengths to explain renders the conclusion relatively feeble and unconvincing. It is not really a work of philosophy as much as a cri de coeur over the indispensability of philosophy and the humanities as a way of securing “the fate of humanity itself.” I do believe, along with the author, that a deep sense of compassion and humanism are necessary to continued civilization, but so are collective action. My grasp of philosophy helps me cope with the thought of my and the world’s eventual annihilation, but my appreciation of human craft, art, technology, and collective potential to solve problems tells me that we will not go gently into that good night, but will rage against the dying of the light.

It’s Still Not Enough: Comments on the Paris Climate Accord

image.adapt.960.high.paris_climate_protest_01aThe long-awaited Paris Climate Conference just ended and is widely reported to be the most successful and ambitious international climate agreement ever. The most important and cited number from the agreement is the goal of limiting the warming of the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is ambitious and a better result than even many of the most optimistic observers had predicted. It’s still not nearly enough.

The 1.5 degree figure is enormously out of whack with the actual national plans submitted by each of the signatory nations, which would allow out least 2.7 degrees of warming even if all measures were implemented (and that is, of course, a significant “if”). Add to the fact that the conference was heavily influenced (and partly sponsored) by fossil fuel industries and that the words “fossil fuels”, “coal”, or “oil” appear anywhere in the document, and you can see that there are at least a few reasons to be skeptical of the positive press the agreement has received.

Among committed environmental activists, there are mixed reviews about the agreement, and different schools of thought about the necessary solutions to save the world from becoming one big, real-life Mad Max movie. While reasonable people would obviously agree that the results of the conference are better than nothing, no one who studies environmental issues thinks the agreement is anything more than a toothless statement of non-legally-binding promises that continue to explicitly put profit and national interest above the livability of our planet.

Naomi Klein has written one of the most talked about and controversial books about global warming causes and solutions in her recent book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. As stated in the subtitle, she claims that the cause of our problems is the system of global capitalism itself, and the solution is to usher in a new system that values local environmental sustainability over the endless, all-consuming, and all-destroying system economic growth at all costs. It is a compelling argument, and I’m sure that she is right on some level.

Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist who is responsible for galvanizing opposition to the infamous Keystone XXL pipeline (which was defeated), comments that the terms of the Paris agreement are only a starting point which should give activists renewed vigor and moral imperative to hold international leaders to their words. Basically, to refuse to let the politicians and industries off the hook for weak, slow, and unenforceable promises to pollute slightly less than usual.

Real change always comes from a combination of bottom-up activism and top-down leadership. This is especially the case for such an enormous world-wide problem as warming climate, which will create the biggest and most dangerous environmental changes our species has witnessed in the last 70,000 years or so (since a huge volcanic eruption almost wiped us out and led to a genetic bottleneck in the last wave of migrations out of Africa). Top-down leadership exists or increases only in direct proportion to the amount of activism and public outcry that force political leaders to act. Their natural impulse is generally not to act, or to act only for the benefit of themselves or the most deep-pocketed lobbyists; in order to keep up and increase the momentum for better national and international climate policies, environmental organizations and activist groups must put more and more pressure on politicians to uphold their promises. The success of the Keystone pipeline campaign was symbolic as a turning point for activists to see real-world results and to begin to turn the narrative against the use of fossil fuels. Other examples include the protests and kayak blockade of Shell’s latest arctic drilling rig before it was set to explore for oil under the Arctic Ocean (the project was cancelled, along with all future explorations in the frozen ocean due to the changing political and economic calculus away from fossil fuels), and the ongoing battle against natural gas fracking by citizens who refuse to accept polluted drinking water and daily earthquakes for a few cents of savings at the gas pump. It goes without saying that people are responsible for their own elected leaders, so if our politicians do not lead on climate change or even acknowledge its existence, it is on us to vote for new ones who do promise to lead (this obviously eliminates any Republicans from being worthy of consideration in America). For interested readers, here are just a few actions one can take to affect climate change and lower your ecological footprint.

On Eating Ecologically

Besides becoming a vocal activist or voting once every two years, there are various things people can and must to turn the tables away from catastrophic warming. The bottom-up part of the equation goes beyond just turning off lights when you leave the room. It will require real sacrifice and a totally altered sense of priorities by those of us most responsible for pollution and global warming in the rich industrialized nations. One example is change of diet. Meat consumption must be reined in dramatically. This is not an option, but a necessity. When even that paragon of steroid-induced, action-film machismo who is Arnold Schwarzenegger starts saying that people need to eat less meat, you know it is beyond debate. Global livestock production is an enormous contributor to global warming through methane and nitrogen emissions, not to mention being a hugely inefficient use of our resources. It takes something like 100 times the amount of grain and water to produce one kilo of meat than it does to just eat the grain. I have been strictly vegan for several years (I wrote about the reasons why in greater deal here), and many other people will have to give up meat and animal products as much as possible in order to make real progress towards a more sustainable future.

On Saving (and Spending) Money Ecologically

Another massively important thing you as citizens and consumers can do besides voting every couple years is become actively interested and involved in how you spend your money. That could mean moving your bank account away from a big name-brand corporation that invests in things like fossil fuel development and arms producers towards small, local credit unions or other ethical choices. In Italy, there is a very good bank called Banca Etica that I use, and there are similar options in other countries if you look. Food shopping is a daily event where you can make a big impact. Switching to organic fruits and vegetables, buying local products as much as possible, and generally not buying anything from multinational name brand companies has a two-fold effect: it helps the environment and the economy (which is linked, obviously), and it takes away money from the companies who contribute most to environmental destruction. For example, organic produce ensures that soil-killing fertilizers and fauna-poisoning pesticides are not used, as well as helping to resist the forest and soil-killing monocultural agriculture practices that have boomed in the post-war decades.

On Being a More Ecologically-Minded Consumer

If you are buying wood products, look for the FSC label which helps ensure that that forestry is done on a sustainable basis. If you must eat seafood, look for the MSC label which helps protect against overfishing (but, again, best to avoid all fish). Inform yourself in general about what you buy so that you are not contributing in some small part to things like the massive destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia and other countries for the sake of palm oil. Do not buy products with palm oil at all, which means cutting Nutella from your guilty pleasures. If you look, there is always a better option available, and savings of a few cents do not outweigh the ruination of natural habitats. In many respects, your dollar is more powerful than your vote, so use it properly. Without even mentioning the big tickets items (such as investing in green energy, green cars, and green houses), these are just a few indicative examples of what individuals can do in their daily lives to help inch gradually towards a collective global solution.

Do you know anyone who has been personally affected by a hurricane, flooding, forest fire, or drought in recent years? That answer will increasingly become yes for everyone as these events become more common, more powerful, and more destructive in the coming years, decades, and centuries. I want to live, and for my children to live, in a world where those existential threats are as minimized and controlled as possible, even if they are in large part locked in due to warming that has already occurred. This is no longer a drill, an option, or a belief; it is an imperative by us humans who have created these changing conditions. The Paris Conference agreement is undoubtedly a positive first step, though it is already a couple decades too late. It is also a weak and tentative first step that needs to quickly become a leap. It goes without saying that this is the death knell for the fossil fuel economy; if it means we also have to find a more sustainable alternative to rampant global capitalism, so be it. Nothing can continue to grow forever unimpeded, neither an interconnected world economy nor, if we do not take the proper steps to increase momentum after the historical Paris Accord, a species like homo sapiens.

The Connection Between Walking and Thinking

A difficult decision on Day 19 of the Camino de Santiago

A difficult decision on Day 19 of the Camino de Santiago

I haven’t always been a walker. Where I grew up in America, in a small town in South Carolina, walking was not a normal activity. A town of 30,000 people that was so spread out that there were no schools or stores within walking distance. While at university in the state capital, walking became more common to get around the large campus, but it remained purely a functional rather than pleasurable activity. In the army, I spent a lot of time doing a certain kind of walking–marching at a vigorous pace with a heavy uncomfortable rucksack in too hot, too cold, or too rainy conditions. This, too, did little to foster the love of walking in me. Only after finishing my time in the army did I have the time to cultivate other more relaxing hobbies such as walking for fun.

My first real experience of this new world was the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage path from France across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, ostensibly the site of the remains of the apostle James. This trip was one of the best and most valuable experiences of my life, and a personal symbol of my starting a new life after unfocused and unhappy years in the army. On the Camino, the only goal everyday is just to walk as far as you want at a pace you want until you decide to stop for the day, which is repeated day after day during the slow progress across Spain. I did the walk alone, though it is so full of interesting fellow travelers that you are never really alone except when you want to be. Every night was a social event at the various pilgrim hostels along the way. There is much to see in the countryside, the changing landscapes, from mountains to high plains to wet forests, and yellow arrows point the way at every crossroads of the 800-kilometer trek. The absence of any other duties or responsibilities means that you have time to let your mind wander freely and really think about whatever you want. You become mentally stronger as you walk, not only because walking is a healthy activity that increases blood flow to the brain, but because you find new challenges for yourself along the way. Some days I pushed myself to see how far I could go in a day (my record was 58 kilometers); some days you just found a quiet place in a wood near a stream to take a break, perhaps a nap, before continuing on to the next village.

The End of the Camino de Santiago at the Atlantic Ocean

The End of the Camino de Santiago at the Atlantic Ocean

Walking puts our human capabilities into perspective. For example, walking was the primary (or only) means of human transportation for a huge majority of humankind for a huge majority of our existence. The distance you can walk in a day has not changed since humans migrated from Africa to Asia and down to South America. The days I spent walking 30, 40, or 50 or more kilometers were exactly the same, quantitatively if not qualitatively, as those spent by countless ancestors searching for new hunting grounds, living space, or fleeing stronger tribes. You feel more connection to the land as you slowly explore it step by step, and a closer connection with other people. Hospitality becomes important when you have nothing but what you can carry on your back and no means of travel except your own feet. Indeed, in the days before its worldwide popularity and commercialization, the Camino was still supported almost exclusively by the hospitality of local people.

In the six years since I completed the Camino de Santiago, I have only increased my walking ability and appreciation. Almost all of my food shopping has been done on foot carrying only what fits in my backpack. I have been able to commute on foot to all the jobs I have had. When I spent a year in Wales doing a graduate degree, I joined the university hiking club and went on a long walk every weekend in the green hills or lovely coast of that wild country. In Italy, my home for the last four years, I have explored as much as possible the nearby mountains of the Dolomites, and started rock climbing again as well.

I wanted to write about this topic because I have recently moved from the city center of a large industrial area to a small rural town on a hillside surrounded by mountains with a panoramic view of the western edge of the Venetian plain. While I have to drive to work and shops for the first time in years, there are also miles of quiet and wooded paths just outside my door that go higher and higher up the hill into the clouds. I was thinking about the countless hours I have spent walking in the last six years, either in conversation with friends or occasionally listening to an MP3 player, but mostly in quiet meditation and contemplation of the ground below my feet, the trees and landscapes around me, and the myriad thoughts that come and go in the mind when unshackled to a specific task at hand. Even if it is not immediately or obviously clear, the time I spend walking is not only good for its physical and psychological aspects, but has also helped me find the inspiration and motivation to develop my intellectual and literary pursuits.

Writers and philosophers have long known and appreciated the benefits of walking. As described by his pupil Plato, Socrates is often seen walking the six miles or so to the Piraeus harbor while interrogating his companions. Plato’s pupil Aristotle famously did most of his discussion while walking around Athens, which is why his followers were called the Peripatetics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the central figures of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, wrote one of his last autobiographical works called Reveries of a Solitary Walker, in which he expounded on his thoughts on natural science, political philosophy, and other subjects that were inspired during long walks around Paris. He went so far as to claim that he could not work or even think when not walking. Immanuel Kant followed the same daily schedule every day of his adult life, including the same walk at the same hour rain or shine. It was only delayed one time when he was unable to put down David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, which Kant famously claimed had awoken him from his dogmatic slumber. Incidentally, Kant also believed it was healthier to always breathe through the nose while walking. Arthur Schopenhauer followed a similar identical daily routine for the last 27 years of his life, which included a two-hour walk no matter the weather. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, who interrupted his furious work pace for a two-hour walk in the late morning, and an even longer walk before dinner. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the last three men were lifelong bachelors. In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell mentions that from his university days he would walk at least 20 miles every Sunday, and recounts how some of his peers at Cambridge walked much more.

0092Probably the most famous literary walker was Henry David Thoreau, who wrote a long essay entitled “Walking”. It is filled with many examples and musings on the importance of walking, and is also one of the early inspirations for the environmental movement. Thoreau opens by giving his reason for writing as the following: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” The text contains many learned digressions on philosophy, literature, politics, and local culture, among other things. He says at one point, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

The connection between walking and thinking is strong. If the most obvious examples I have given are all philosophers and writers, it is because their intellectual currency and production–words and ideas–are most easily wrought while the body and mind are otherwise free to walk at leisure through nature. I would recommend that you make a habit of walking more frequently and, in addition to added health benefits and lower stress, perhaps you will find inspiration for your own project striking when you least expect it.

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