Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wen Stephenson: Lobster Boat Blockade and Mainstream Activism

Paul Andreas Fischer

Wen Stephenson: Lobster Boat Blockade and Mainstream Activism

Prior to the completion of the Paris Climate Change Conference, Wen Stephenson, a Harvard graduate in journalism joined a panel at UVM to speak on activism and education in environmentalism. As an environmental journalist, he expressed serious frustration with his colleagues, quoting Obama that “failure to treat the greatest crisis we have ever faced with the treatment it deserves… for, I believe in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that there is such a thing as being too late.” His speech and the panel focused on a group of activists who took a lobster-fishing boat and placed it in front of a 689’ coal freighter, the Energy Enterprise, in international waters, resulting in incarceration on charges similar to piracy in a Russian prison facility, though terror charges were avoided.
While some see environmentalists as united on various issues, Wen believes there has been a failure of mainstream environmentalism to to come to terms with the reality of climate change. More importantly, he sees himself as an “environmental abolitionist”, who holds no tolerance for attempts to prolong, ignore, or exacerbate these issues which threaten all life on Earth. This hard surface position is tempered in his work by the two activists who actually engaged in the act, one of whom, Jay O’Hara, is a lifelong Quaker. Despite the peaceful nature of the protest, when an anti-piracy vessel was called to resolve the situation, the activists could hear the ominous click of rifle being chambered and prepared for use. This was intended to be a peaceful demonstration, but by the introduction of the machinery of warfare, became one which placed a Quaker, who hold abstinence from violence as a tenet of the religious practices, in the unfortunate position of surrender to charges of violence or to engage in violence themselves.
By holding 40,000 tonnes of coal in place for a single day, economic as well as environmental impacts could be felt. These brothers in resistance to energy policies which had been proven to spell disaster had risked their lives, and spent two years in prison, to show that an individual could make a difference. It was also critical to note that the behaviours of these men were not radical. This was a rational, calculated attempt to, in the words of Thoreau, “let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine” which then spoke to the necessity of civil disobedience in fighting war, but can be here applied to make clear that at the least there was a nod to the ability of iconoclasticism to change policies, even if the economic and political structures seemed blind to some very pertinent and distinctive facts. That is to say, there is power in the people of the worldwide community to make change even as other systems of communication and regulation fail.
In order to make the point clear, Gwen ran over some of the facts which he believed made this action necessary, and even heroic. For years, 80% of the Arctic has been gone in the summer, and recently for the first time since humans have inhabited earth in their modern form, the Arctic became a swimming pool. Rather than discussing the grave implications of this astounding change, fossil fuel industrial concerns doubled down in their attempts to extract and use these resources, Gwen cites the recommendations of scientist to keep carbon emissions to one fifth the level already burned. While some speculations see the global temperature raised by as much as 3.5 degrees, a mere increase of 2 degrees will result in disastrous problems, according to reliable research. We are already there, and there have been changes in storm mitigation plans as a result of the rising sea level and changing atmosphere on Earth.
To finish, the audience’s attention was drawn to a sign which read “cambimos el sistema y no el clima” or to change everything, we need everything. This was followed by a description of work in 2006 by other environmentalist activists. Ken Ward focused on a brief description of his work to repeal the Patriot Act and saw traditional organizations fail in their attempt to meet the challenge to change, which precluded the necessity to protest. While the protest of the Iraq War was too early in his experience of an activist to break rules, the destruction of the environment encouraged him to join Jay O’Hara on this lobster boat blockade. His motives for action were distinct to other panelists who presented their work.
May McBride has worked in the environmental field for a long time. She had some similarities with Ken Ward in that her work was not fulfilling at first, and that the goals and results of early activism were frustrated and the results were not tangible. Eventually she was rewarded with a decrease in pay and a unique job: to clean rivers one at a time. This was the most fulfilling work, and more importantly the impact can be seen. Her activism has no legal recourse, is not damaging in any way, and most importantly it builds the basis upon which these larger environmental standoffs activate.
Finally, Gideon Commey works in Ghana and focuses on education. He brought down the hammer by declaring that the nature of the status quo requires the nature of dissent in conclusion from a quote from Winston Churchill that an “era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” After the talk I had the opportunity to question him about his work in some detail.
While the United States and developed nations are among the world’s greatest polluters, the developing world also plays a role as many of these nations technologically and socially stand at a point many decades lost here. Oil is still seen as a blessing among these groups, new methods of extraction are eagerly anticipated. After being prompted, he elaborated on the necessity of using even magic to explain basic principles to people in villagers who will in all probability in the coming years either see their emissions rise dramatically or be subject to a radical change in the methodology of distribution of technology, one which has not occurred in other nations. In some cases, there are not the resources to purchase laboratory equipment or supplies, and it becomes necessary to combine the message of advanced science within social customs or even the importance of faith.
A parallel can be drawn in the industrialization of the United States which followed similar bans on such industrialization after widespread lung cancer and soot in English urban areas, which became so serious with heavy coal usage that soot even rained from the sky, leading to the invention of the umbrella. Once standards for air pollution were established which were deemed to be safe for humans seeking to avoid chemical exposure and cancer risks, similar such industrialization took hold across the world in various areas. Little did these new age industrialists ever suspect that their actions could put the health of the entire globe, and not just the residents of the big cities, at serious risk.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Conservationism, Resiliency, and Sustainability: the Etymology of Environmentalism

Paul Andreas Fischer
Dr. Amy Seidl

Conservationism, Resiliency, and Sustainability: the Etymology of Environmentalism

William Cronon is an environmental historian who prefers to think of himself as more of a follower of trends. The most recent trend which he focused on in a recent lecture at the Ira Allen Chapel at the University of Vermont is the prevalence of the word sustainability and its roots in the history of American environmentalism. The literal roots of the word sustainability come from the latin word, suste, which means to lift or bring above. Another explanation of this would be as buoyancy, which is quite appropriate given the nature of many of the country’s largest cities’ predicament should the global industrial, political, and economic bodies fail to take heed of warnings in relation to the rising global temperature as a result of human activities, pursuant melting ice caps, and rising ocean levels.
This is not the first time that such a word has come to encapsulate the aims and goals of the environmentalist movement in modern times. In his own time as a student, resiliency carried a similar sort of rallying call for the short-lived federal and local efforts to break OPEC. This term was particularly appropriate to the time period as the intent was to indicate the ability of the United States to achieve geopolitical goals using neither violence nor by methods of massive destruction to the Earth and the ecosystems supported here. It indicates a necessity to preserve the extant structures and systems which have been in place, while instituting barriers and defenses against potential shocks to the natural resource flows which could include natural consumption, without unnatural controls at the time.
The ways in which this resilient-focused environmentalism surfaced are multi-faceted. Reducing consumption was encouraged, but also a number of innovations occurred which fostered a manner in which humans could live in harmony with the earth. As can be seen in the film Metropolis (1929), the process of tearing apart the mechanisms of industry can be costly and wasteful. Humanity constitutes of delicate and unique creatures and the same can be said of the creations of humanity, after all. The field of solar-panel technology was pioneered, ration cards instituted for gasoline, and even some scandalous pseudoscience which indicated that coal could be turned into oil (perhaps true with technology produced much later, and still under development in terms of energy independence) all played roles in breaking the back of OPEC demands and radicalizing the insistent increase in the price of oil which surrounded 1973. Even President Carter gave a televised address in a sweater and turned down the thermostat: America realized that the environment was not a luxury to be enjoyed by a few, but a fundamental right, and one which failure to protect could result in severe discomforts at home.
At the time, solar panels were inefficient, wind and tidal power only on the horizons of the imagination and the focus was on achieving a political goal rather than transforming societal demands on the Earth. Global warming as a theory celebrated its 50th or 60th anniversary but would not be the focus of environmental movements until ten or twenty years later in the 1990s, it was still at best publicized as a consequence of the nature of the mutually assured destruction that nuclear warfare might entail, a sticker on the billboard advertising the sale of these weapons. The seeds of modern environmentalism had been germinated, however, and the achievements of the period's movements were both real and necessary.
The destruction of human life from the actual nuclear weapons testing has been hinted at, but cannot be quantified precisely. Radioactive isotopes in the air which then settled into the groundwater and living organisms certainly had an effect on the Earth’s inhabitants as did the massive release of CO2 ignited by these efforts. It can be said without a doubt that without cessation of such testing that the increase in temperature would have occurred sooner, and more catastrophically. Natural disaster does lead to human strife, after all, though the recent disaster in Fukushima could perhaps be seen as an exception to this rule and may herald a new era of diplomacy and co-operation (though this might be as simply naive as making a similar statement about the global response to the Spanish Influenza).
Some discussion was given in the lecture to the origins of the environmental movement, as one of conservationism. This is a word which also has roots in latin, conserver in French is a verb both embraced and rejected by classical European environmentalists. The word environment itself comes from the latin root viron, or life, and en, or around. Conservationists see the environment in this way: unlike the resiliency and sustainability which came to mark later movements, this was something to be preserved, left untouched, and without human interaction by any means possible, but by implication barren and generally useless.
Understanding that humans are a part of that which is universally known as nature is critical to the march of modern environmentalism, and William Cronon uses this to trace the origin of actual events from the words which emblematize these movements. Social environments collide with physical ones to give motion to an idea or concept which was frozen almost in time, as a conflict between known and unknown. This gave way to the resiliency, necessity to discover the unknown, identify the problems which confronted mankind and to find or innovate the answers which were needed. Now one must incorporate these into the national idealisms which are demonstrated as green entrepreneurship, renewable energy sources, and sustainable housing, for the human and the environment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Review of Documents Pertaining to Colonel Isaac Clark, Discipline in the War of 1812, and Analysis of Education and Connections in Prosecution of Charges of Treason and Desertion

Paul Andreas Fischer
Charlie Briggs

A Review of Documents Pertaining to Colonel Isaac Clark, Discipline in the War of 1812, and Analysis of Education and Connections in Prosecution of Charges of Treason and Desertion

The topics of treason and desertion are of particular interest during the War of 1812, and to military history since the origination of organized warfare. While at first these seem to have little in common other than the method by which they are carried out, through a court martial issued by a commanding officer, at the time approved by a general or special tribunal, there is often much more which connects these sentences than would be normally appreciated. Examination of documents from Colonel Isaac Clark and secondary sources reveal a personal understanding of American law and military procedure, one that may have been both important in his time as well as in modern understanding of the legal and political structures which govern today’s society. Isaac Clark demonstrated a personal growth in his career as an errant soldier and later as a commanding officer of soldiers in the United States Military in his exploration of his new nation and the Constitution; personal documents display both an ignorance luckily tempered by mercy which nearly cost eight of his soldiers their lives unnecessarily as well as an intuitive grasp and understanding of the basic tenets and principles which were not commonly accepted in America until the 1960s when properly contextualized. The charges leveled against Isaac Clark demonstrated experiential growth in which a mishap set precedent for a fundamental and unique interpretation of the Bill of Rights contained within the Constitution, that the right to remain silent implicitly connotes to a right to know the reason for one’s arrest.
Generally soldiers by this time period were disciplined in minor matters by use of the lash, though the War of 1812 saw the right of a commanding officer to use the instrument on soldiers ended as America sought greater recruitment in the newly founded army (Stagg, 541). While the expansion of military operations proved to be quite successful from a corp of permanent officers (Buchanan, lecture), this may not have been enough to withstand a legitimate invasion carried out in earnest. Without this rudimentary, though brutal, method of discipline, volunteers deserted at a greater rate than during previous invasions or even in comparative military operations, and military leaders used harsher forms of punishment, including the noose, as a form of protest (Stagg, 568). Of the soldiers enlisted in the War of 1812, one in eight deserted at one point, of whom one fifth received punishment (544). That is a percentage which correlates closely to those killed in the line of duty over the course of the war, and represents a statistically significant increase on the former statistic, though its importance should not be exaggerated as only around ten percent of these were actually executed or awaiting execution at the end of the war.
Isaac Clark’s first run-in with military procedures had been as a young man during the American Revolution. While interrogating a British officer with Ethan Allen, he shot the officer in the heart against orders to shoot after Ethan Allen had shot the officer in the hand (ICP, 1). This may have been an action in the heat of the moment, and charges were never pressed. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career was not what was done in battle, fighting skirmishes and leading an anti-smuggling unit but as a leader, defending his credentials, connections, and actions against rash and unscrupulous accusations, ones that turned out to be apparently unfounded.
The topic of desertion only arises with interest to the colonel in 1813, after the outbreak of war with England. He understood that the need to impress discipline in the ranks without a paddle, for whiplashing, could only be accomplished with the use or threat of a noose. That was likely a classical inflammatory response to a quite limited conciliatory measure for soldiers at the time, and cannot be considered a manner of sadism or hatred for his own men, as there is evidence that with medical advice certain conscripts were allowed to have another man stand in their place under his command (ICP, 41). The men responded to the accusations, despite one who may have been illiterate, with a written appeal for mercy, acknowledgement of their own guilt, and the company’s rectitude in their sentencing (48). As an act of civil disobedience, among many others, the use of corporal punishment by commanding officers in retaliation to losing their preferred method of discipline may have created genuinely negative concepts which ran throughout and beyond the military mobilization which occurred. It is important to remember that Isaac Clark did not lose his sword until 1815 and was likely a candidate for Brigadier General as late as 1812, according to a letter from Senator Jonathon Robinson.
Eight men were charged with desertion, and though it is not specified that supplies were stolen or, worse still, sold to the British, it is possible that this was the case. Such an incident was often worse than “changing colors” both in terms of danger and generally in severity of punishment. A unit could be endangered and left without ammunition, supplies, or even food and with long periods of time between communications, this was still long before the establishment of the Pony Express or efficient federal lines of communication, which could spell termination for units or even foil offensive operations. Of course, the greatest danger from such behaviour was recidivism, though such bounty jumping was relatively rare, and spread of desertion among new recruits. In reprimand, it is made very clear that soldiers could face death if not for the mercy offered in the officer’s clemency.
Not all cases of desertion were so malevolent in nature, however. Royal Dick was a New England black man in the 4th Infantry Regiment who was charged with desertion after leaving due to being teased by fellow soldiers, and sentenced to losing pay as well as having his ears cropped, though “the commanding general approved the sentence, but remitted the cropping of the ears” (Stagg, 551). The two incidents of Colonel Isaac Clark’s own transgressions of the law during war-time in the heat of interrogation and his reprimand of a similarly misguided band of soldiers are a fascinating insight into the development of an American military officer, but with the conclusion of the War of 1812 a new development takes place. Arrested for reasons unidentified, though it can be assumed this was no “marching order violation” and could well have been treasonous in nature, what is astounding about the particular case is the appeal of his reprimand. This document does not take responsibility for wrongdoing, but merely criticizes the manner of the colonel’s arrest (ICP, 61).
As an officer, to be charged with desertion would not have been likely, and it is instead the probability that the charges were treasonous in nature. This should not be taken to mean particularly threatening or dangerous, and probably differed quite significantly from the attempted surrender of West Point by Benedict Arnold during Clark’s previous combat service (Wright, 34) which was unsuccessful but foreshadowed a looming British invasion in the Northeast rather than in the South, as might have been expected. An example of how such an incident might be prosecuted for a man without education or connections can be seen in Irish-born Private Mitchell, who was charged with mutinous behaviour after talking back to an officer with expletives and was sentenced to be shot and fined three dollars, a sentence which was carried out after review in Washington (Stagg, 556).
In this defense, a potentially momentous event has transpired. Prosecution of officers was extremely rare during the War of 1812, and even more rare afterwards, though many deserters were freed in 1815 after being cleared by cessation of the war. Isaac Clark was never given a reason for his arrest, which for American civilians was officially codified in 1966 with the Miranda Rights as improper interrogation techniques implicit in the Fifth Amendment: without the knowledge one is under arrest and on what charges, there is no possibility of remaining silent or awaiting a proper legal counsel. The case in point is shown to be intrinsically constitutional in nature, though without evidence of such respect being placed in civilian cases until a century and a half later, this may not have been a defense frequently recognized in the United States in these early formative years.


Buchanan, Andrew. "Military History of the United States." Lecture at the University of Vermont. (2013).

Clark, Isaac. 1, 40, 41, 48, 61, 6a3, 73. "Isaac Clark Papers 1781-1821." Isaac Clark Papers, Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library, Burlington, Vermont.

Stagg, J. C. A. 2014. "Freedom and Subordination: Disciplinary Problems in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812." Journal Of Military History 78, no. 2: 537-574. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2015).

United States. Army. Regulations for the order and discipline of the troops of the United States. Part 1. Philadelphia, PA. Charles Cist.

Wright, Esmond. "Benedict Arnold and the Loyalists." History Today 36 (1986): 29.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Petition for the Release of 8 Soldiers in an Anti-Smuggling Unit Charged With Desertion

To Colonel Isaac Clark Commandant of champlain District.
We the undersigned persistently [sp.?] and humbly pray you would take our unhappy and deplorable case into consideration, by your merciful interposition arrest the execution of the sentence of death about to be consummated.
We have offended and broken the laws of our country, and by them, we are condemned to suffer the most ignominious punishment justly merited by us; and necessary to others, as an example, not to be guilty of a like offence. - the end of punishment is the reforma - tion of the criminal, and a warning to others; if consistent with your duty, we ask you, under god, to open to us the doors of mercy: to lengthen out our span of escis - tence, that by our penitence, and example, we may be as monuments of mercy, escorting all, late our brethern in arms, to obedience to the laws, both civil militancy and divine. ‘We are fully sensible of the forlammers [?], of our situation, for we of ourselves can give no assurances of better conduct. We have nothing to give, our crimes have swept from us the least refuge of the afflicted; but if we are worthy of being considered as objects of pity, and com-passion, we pray you to consider our situation, can we as active living men, grateful for mercy extended to us, be better living than dead; to us your decision is of eternal importance.
We are sensible of the heinousness of our offences, for we have all sworn before our - God, faith - fully to serve our country - we have broken that oath! We have been regarless [sp.?] of its obligation and solemnity! For this, we fervently hope that thee opportunity I perciod [sp.?] of necessary atonement may not be stinted but prolonged our feelings are alarmed to agony, in the fear that our peace is not made with heaven! We are awfully impressed with the distracting idea of entering into a boundless eternity unprepared! of passing that bourne from which there is no return, with all our transgressinos upon us! O dear Colonel! is there no respite, no pardon for us?! Must we appear before the tribunal, unannoited, unaneded [sp.?]?
Tis it necessary that you say we have sinned out the day of our repentance and our opportunity of reformation, and pardon is gone - Never to return 31 are we last past redemption! May God direct you in your decision, and incline you to that mercy which is consistent with your duty ad for our eternal good.
We pray you hear us further altho’ language can - not reach the horror we feel, or describe our area? at thot’s the of our ignominious death, and this to a certain and hor - rid death, due to a manifest crime against our country - a crime too against our God, the breach of our solemn oaths! we should not fear as soldiers to run the hazard of an honorable and useful death! But to die disgraced - a dishonor to our friends, and hundred, and remembered only as a reproach to our surviving relatives, gives a lummlife [sp.?] to our feelings which nothing can blunt! have we so far transgressed that it is necessary that we should be instru - ments of wounding our friends and connexions? We our had hoped that the sympathy and blessings of our friends would have followed us beyond the grave! - Unless your mercy interposes to snatch us from impending disgrace, a dis - grace that nothing can wash away. We have nothing to take one sting from death! Cannot you afford us consolation! Must we drink of the bitter cup to its dregs and is there nothing left to lessen its bitterness?!
We cannot ask you to do a wrong, we would not move you to it. But we fervently and solemnly solicit your attention to our situation! and if upon reflection you think the ends of punishment can be answered - if the day of re - pentance for our crimes against our God and our country be not forever past, and if our friends can be spared that portion of the punishment, they must participate if our sentence is executed - we do as our only hope cling to the belief we shall be spared - and we pray God that if we are pardoned; it may terminate for good - and if otherwise that we may be supported in the hour of execution, with that consolation which God alone can give -
and while we live we shall ever pray!
Abel Stele
James Chase
Cerillman Burkford
Jebulon Carswell
Benjamin Lymann
Daniel Sargent
David Leonard
Thomas X Lethbridge

Original Document from Special Collections at the University of Vermont
Transcribed by Paul Fischer

Isaac Clark Papers 1781-1821. Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library, Burlington, Vermont. 48.

Congratulatory Letter and Account of Progress in the War of 1812 from Senator Jonathon Robinson to Col. Isaac Clark

Senator Jonathon Robinson to Col. Isaac Clark

My dear friend, Washington Dec. 22nd 1812
I have harried unwearingly the Secretary of War in behalf of your for and have the Jaleasee now to announce to you your Lou in their day confirmed in the Senate as an Ensign - I feel excessively dis couraged nothing has been done by our Armies if nothing was intended why call over Militia into the Field to distruste their families I will not Lay where lies all the blame but one thing is certain the deranged situation of our Armies cx their having done nothing has distroyed the politics of Vermont disgraced our country and burned the Enthusiasm from our Land to our naval Forces all is glory there - There things will ruin us I expect the next long raph [?] will not hate Every measure that has nerve cx shall be Oratsowed [?] by Madison - we learn that your hoops are exceedingly Link at Burlington I wish you to give me some account of this fact indeed I am almost Surprised you have never written me time I saw you at Bennington may god preserve our dear Country - your Cordial friend,

Gen Clark -
Jon a Robinson

Original document from Special Collections at the University of Vermont
Transcribed by Paul Fischer

Isaac Clark Papers 1781-1821. Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library, Burlington, Vermont. 40.

Consent for an Enlisted Man to have Another Stand in his Place: 1812

Captain Charles Follett, NS to -Colonel Isaac Clark
Consent for an enlisted man to have another stand in his place: 1812

Dear Colonel,
Sir, I am in Health to good Hreennies [sp.?] I find Our friend near the Ready to Attack in Fopely [sp.?] to Be Made on Our Enemy
I Have Entitled a man by the name of Thommas Richardson which you will see by My Return I find him to be an inferm Man verry rivalling to You I told him if he would get a Man to Take his Silou. With your Consent,, He was found among which I think will Better than him See I became te affis Aim in his discharge, your Complyance Will I blieys. yours with Esteem

Charles Follett, Capt.

Original Document from Special Collections at the University of Vermont
Transcribed: Paul Fischer

Isaac Clark Papers 1781-1821. Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library, Burlington, Vermont. 41.

Appeal for Reinstatement of Sword Colonel Isaac Clark, ALS to 26th Regiment

Regimental Rendezvous,
Burlington May 13, 1815.
To the Officers of the 26th Regt. now at this Rendezvous -
I have the honor of acknowledging the re [-] ceipt of your address of the 12th int. on the subject of my arrest. -The sentiments you have expressed towards me personally, cannot fail of engaging all my feel [-] ings in favor of complying with your earnest request - but having for many years of my life been em [-] ployed on Military duty, and having from long experience, considered it as a privacy [privileged?] duty in every officer of an army to set the example of subordination, that soldiers may be induced the more promptly to follow the example.
The subject of your acidress [sp?] involves a very se [-] rious question, which has not, to my knowledge been decided upon by a court-martial - it therefore be [-] comes my duty to take counsel on the subject before I take a step that may reflect dis honor on my military character. - This being the Just time that I ever received even the slightest repri [-] mand from a superior officer, not even for a mis - take in any of the complicated duties that have been assigned me - therefore, Gentlemen, you cannot but See the pro [-] priety of my desire to preserve the principle so necessary for the government of an army: - but before I close this answer, I beg leave to observe, that it has ever been my expectation that the question would have been promptly decided by the Department of War - and that officers, merely from their high standing in rank, would not in future be permitted to interphere with the recruiting regulations of that Department, which I am conscious of having pursued with unremitting ardor, until sickness deprived the Regiment of my a∫ [-] sistance, in a measure. - In this situation the General deprived me of my sword on the 12th day of July last - and altho’ repeated applica - tions have been made to him in becoming language for a trial, I have not been able to obtain one - neither have I been furnished with a proper copy of the charges, specifications upon which my arrest was predicated, [?] which was necessary to a suitable defense. -
I am, Gentlemen,
very respectfully,
your obedient Servea: [sp?]

Isaac Clark

Original Document provided by Special Collections at the University of Vermont: Documents Pertaining to Isaac Clark, 61
Isaac Clark Papers 1781-1821. Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library, Burlington, Vermont. 61.

Transcription: Paul Fischer

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bill McKibben: American Environmental Policies and Saying No to Big Oil Today and in 2014

Paul Fischer
Bill McKibben: American Environmental Policies and
Saying No to Big Oil Today and in 2014
Bill McKibben is a regular contributor to many publications including the New York Times. His work has been steadfast and consistent in protecting the environment from corporate and at times even government institutions which threaten ourselves and the world we are surrounded by. Looking at an interview from 2014 with Bill Moyers brings to light some particularly important issues which are in the national headlines today, such as the Keystone pipeline and the impact of Big Oil in politics today. McKibben’s own activism goes beyond steady writing and academic work, however, but is instead rooted in political work which has even been criminal in nature. Shortly before the interview, he had been arrested after chaining himself to the White House in an environmental protest, an action which created national headlines and drew attention to the work of environmental activists.
The two met on a canoe trip, which holds significance one of the potentially greatest threats to the environment from the new pipeline are the vital waterways which sustain our nation culturally and have historically provided the backbone of economic systems in the nation. A potential target in this area has certain risks in times of peace; in the event of a war on the home-front, the cost of providing security for such a monument could prove, well, monumental. Then the potential catastrophes which are warned against would be a certainty.
More importantly, it could destroy the nation’s ability to protect itself without self-inflicting permanent and persistent damage on America’s greatest resources, economically and environmentally. An example of a similar situation in another wartime which threatened to reach American shores was in the Manhattan project carried out by American scientists. While Albert Einstein was able to organize a widely diverse collection of ethnically and even linguistically separate experts and professionals into completing the nuclear race in time to save Allied military efforts, original plans included disposing of the waste into major American waterways in the mid and northwest.
Fortunately this plan was squashed by the once powerful fishing interests in these waterways out of fears it might impact in the long run their productive output. Given modern information about the nature of radioactive materials, it is likely that such disposal could have not only exposed tens of millions of Americans to lethal amounts of radiation, but also destroyed the agricultural output of the entirety of what was once called the Louisiana Purchase. This is an example of the precautionary principle successful by accident only; it was not until recently that the full effect of radioactive exposure has been determined and revealed on plant and animal lifeforms. Unfortunately, inappropriate weapons testing and disposal techniques contributed or caused extensive damage to American ecosystems and health concerns following that effort, and the arms race with the Soviet Union exacerbated those harms.
Following this with debate on the pipeline is critical. Not only must a dangerous proposal be defeated, but it must also be defeated for the right reasons and by the correct interests. Understanding the full potential effects of such construction, as well as that of an economic depression or recession such as that which recently occurred, on security costs and the viability of maintenance of the undertaking is necessary in order to not only prevent the great disaster, but also smaller ones to follow. In the interview, this is the crux of the argument delivered by Bill McKibbens.
Rather than focusing on the short-term effects of the construction and damage that may be done by bad maintenance or in the event of economic disaster, his focus in the interview is on what happens when things proceed properly. The global warming effects of the carbon released from 800 thousand barrels of oil a day, or nearly a quarter billion barrels a year, could change the emissions released by the United States by a factor of ten percent. As the USA begins negotiations next month in Paris in which there is an effort to show commitment to environmental protection and energy independence through renewable sources, there will be an effort to quantify the effect of American pollutants on other countries, as well as the global warming disasters which greenhouse gases will predicate if not properly understood and regulated.
This is not an individual who survived the dust-bowl sands of the 1930's, in which American prospects simply dried up and cornfields turned to storms and death, but it is clear that he has a specific understanding of the seriousness of failure to control economic development and of global industrial development on the environment and productivity. What then cost billions and breadlines in America (along with some interdependent nations), today would mean global starvation and the destruction of American international hegemony in a way that not only could no nation possibly step in to fill the gap, but in fact warfare on a scale unprecedented, this time likely nuclear, could be initiated. While Bill Moyers estimates the costs of action at twenty trillion dollars (no time frame was given), he fails to point out what President Obama and Bill McKibben instinctively emphasize: this is the mutually assured destruction of our time. That is, America was faced with the same question in the past, and invested tens of trillions of dollars in deterrent nuclear weapons and understanding the consequences and actions both of doing so and in not doing so. The investment initiated and prolonged the Cold War, in the long run critical information on the nature of carcinogens in huge numbers of products was discovered and mandatory age limits or recommendations have been set on products from cigarettes and cosmetics to carpets and landfills which otherwise could have contributed to trillions in excessive health care costs.
In that time period, the consequence was falling victim to a foreign nuclear strike and decades of cancer mortality and cultural slavery under the satellite system of a foreign superpower. Now we face our own generational questions with the same rewards and losses. Failure to act will not only spell disaster for American agricultural and infrastructural investments, but unlike the dust-bowl of the 1930's, will induce far more severe consequences for nations we are obligated to help. That means immediate repayment of our own debt in some nations, and loss of direct foreign investment which adds up to a cool trillion dollars every few years. This is a simple equation: failure to invest (or rather simply not exploit currently) these 20 trillion dollars now can cost American businesses, corporations, and taxpayers the opportunity to invest over 200 billion dollars in lucrative investments internationally every year and require some fraction of the nearly 20 trillion dollars in US debt currently held by other nations to be paid or to face severe global catastrophes. This can mean billions, such as Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, or here in Vermont, Irene, or trillions in the event of the worst-case scenarios presenting themselves.