Greenpeace banner deployed on Mt. Rushmore.
Image: S.J. Carrera / Greenpeace
There have been few more passionate and prescient figures in the history of science than the Russian naturalist and political radical Peter Kropotkin. Upon the confirmation of his geological research that demonstrated an ancient ice sheet had once extended across the Russian landscape, this evolutionary theorist and gentle anarchist reported in 1894 that “we must accustom ourselves to the idea that climate, like everything else on the earth, is a changeable element.” In his many books and articles he regularly identified sustainable methods for living in concert with nature, rather than in opposition, and connected the importance of political freedom with environmental stewardship.
In the midst of our current climate crisis, this one brought on by human behavior, the past few weeks have witnessed a veritable perfect storm as activists from the grassroots to the ivory tower have come together to demand a new direction on the politics of the environment.
On Thursday, July 9, eleven activists with Greenpeace scaled Mount Rushmore in order to erect a banner (see above) calling on President Obama to take serious action on protecting the environment. Both on the banner and on their website Greenpeace admonished the current administration for failing to follow through on campaign promises. The 65-foot-long banner read, “America honors leaders, not politicians: Stop global warming.”
The action was taken just prior to Obama’s meeting with G8 leaders because, according to Carroll Muffet, Deputy Campaign Director for Greenpeace:
We are at a key moment in history when we must challenge our president to take real leadership. The steps taken so far have been frankly inadequate. If President Obama wants to take his place among the great leaders of history, he must take aggressive measures to combat climate change and prioritize a strong deal in Copenhagen.
At nearly the same time, 27 activists associated with Cascadia Rising Tide and Earth First! blocked logging access to Elliot State Forest in Oregon, preventing a timber sale on 79 acres of native growth forest that is home to numerous endangered species such as the spotted owl, marbled murrelet and coastal coho salmon. Activists were “locked down” to the only gate accessing the 140-year-old forest-land that the state of Oregon had decided to sell to developers (a decision made in 2005, prior to the economic crisis). Some activists were locked both to the gate itself as well as barrels filled with cement while others were suspended atop forty-foot-tall tripods, forcing engineers to spend several days figuring out how to remove them without causing serious injury. Officials estimate that the cost of arresting and prosecuting the activists, on a range of misdemeanor charges, may exceed the $1.4 million that the state hoped to earn by selling off the protected timber. According to Cascadia Rising Tide member Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, such actions will continue in the future until governments understand the connection between forest degradation and global climate change. As she told journalists on Friday:
Pacific Northwest forests store more carbon per acre than any other forest in the world. And we know that, according to NASA, deforestation is the second leading cause of climate change, so we really see the importance in protecting these amazing carbon reserves in Oregon and other places in the Pacific Northwest.
In a third concurrent event, this time in West Virginia, it was a NASA scientist himself who was arrested in opposition to the state’s environmental policies. Dr. James Hansen, director of the NASA Godard Institute for Space Studies and one of the leading climate scientists in the world, joined hundreds of activists in opposing West Virginia’s policy of mountain-top removal, a controversial practice currently under review by a Senate subcommittee. Hansen was arrested along with West Virginia congressman Ken Hechler, Vietnam veteran Bo Webb, actress Daryl Hannah and Rainforest Action Network executive director Michael Brune. In an open letter to President Obama Hansen wrote:
Mountaintop removal, which provides a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, is done by clear-cutting forests, blowing the tops off of mountains, and then dumping the debris into streambeds — an undeniably catastrophic way of mining. This technique has buried more than 800 miles of Appalachian streams in mining debris and by 2012 will have seriously damaged or destroyed an area larger than Delaware. . . We must make clear to Congress, to the EPA, and to the Obama administration that we the people want mountaintop removal abolished and we want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now.
All three of these actions were independent of one another, sponsored by different organizations and only coincidentally occurred within the same time period. However, it would be inappropriate to say that they were unconnected. Rather, they suggest a shift in culture that is, at this moment, arising all around us like sudden gales on a previously calm sea. Cultural change can be a difficult concept to pinpoint; to adapt a phrase by Nicolas of Cusa for the purpose, it is like a circle where the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. However, just as it’s easy to recognize when independent natural forces gather together to create a storm, so too can cultural forces arise independently and build off one another to capsize the status quo. However, independent events all moving in a common direction, and without any signs of slowing, speak to a common direction that emanates from a change in how people think.
Such signs of imminent cultural and political change have been witnessed prior to every major social and political revolution throughout history. Writing twenty years prior to the unprecedented labor movements that occurred throughout Europe and the United States, and fifty years prior to the social movements of the 1960s, Peter Kropotkin saw the nascent rumblings of a cultural shift taking place in “the hundreds of strikes and small uprisings occurring everywhere, and gradually assuming a more widespread and a deeper character.”
The same has occurred whenever a revolution drew near, and we can safely say that as a general rule the character of each revolution was determined by the character and the purpose of the insurrections that preceded it.
One more sign of this profound change in cultural attitudes was also witnessed in the scientific literature last week. At the same time that James Hansen was typing his open letter to the President explaining his reasons for facing arrest, and as activists on opposite ends of the country prepared their own separate actions, a research paper was quietly being prepared for the peer-reviewed journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution entitled Cultural Evolution and the Human Predicament. Written by conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich, the paper presents a passionate defense of the need for radical political and social change in order to adequately address the environmental needs of the planet.
A revolution in human behavior is urgently needed if civilization is to attain ecological sustainability. Science has shown us the basic changes required, but cannot tell us how to redirect cultural evolution to achieve them. . . We must find ways to evolve new norms that support ending population growth and humanely starting a gradual decline, reducing overconsumption by the rich, making the distribution of wealth and the ways that we treat each other more equitable, quickly deploying more environmentally benign technologies and production practices, and placing environmental protection at the top of the policy agenda.
Ehrlich doesn’t pull any punches in his dire warning. Because humans have so greatly increased the scale of our impact on the planet, an impact that Ehrlich refers to as “the epoch of the sixth mass extinction,” he argues that the current state of affairs for our lifeboat planet is one of increasing danger, and unexpected outcomes, from the natural forces that our accumulating against us.
This probably means that humanity can count on big surprises, but when and how they will occur cannot be predicted; it also means that the current civilization might be the first one that could suffer a global collapse.
However, in understanding how we might be able to face this human predicament and return to Kropotkin’s call for political and environmental sustainability, he offers a few crucial guidelines by which we might steer clear of the gathering black clouds on the open seas.
Stay tuned for Part 2 . . .