For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism. In his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country. In America, conservative politicians have exploited racism to their own benefit, first to disempower blacks with Jim Crow, then to undermine the union movement, and more recently to undercut support for welfare programs, as Ian Haney Lopez recently documented in Dog-Whistle Politics. Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans. The left has much to learn about this strategy. It needs to fundamentally re-align Americans around an issue with a deep and latent importance: the environment.
Liberal hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer. (Stuart Isett/Fortune Live Media/Flickr)
Today's New York Times has a story about Tom Steyer, a retired hedge fund billionaire who is planning to spend $100 million ($50 million of his own, and $50 million of other people's) in the 2014 election to support action on climate change, which in practice means electing Democrats. That would put Steyer in the big leagues, though not at the top—the network of donors established by Charles and David Koch spent at least $400 million in 2012—and it raises the question of how liberals should feel about this kind of thing. If you believe that Citizens United has been a disaster for democracy, and spectacularly wealthy people shouldn't be able to swoop in to a House or Senate race with zillions of dollars and change the outcome from what it otherwise would be, then should you be bothered?
Five great extinctions have occurred in the history of Earth. Now, in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert eulogizes the decline of a handful of species and makes the case that a new mass die-off is under way. Industrial processes that pump carbon dioxide into the ocean are making life untenable for the thousands of plants and creatures that live in its depths, especially the vast but fragile coral reefs. Whole populations of bats in the northeastern United States have been decimated by a fungus brought to New England by an unsuspecting European traveler. The great auk, an extinct bird, suffered its last stand on an Icelandic island after being relentlessly hunted for just a few decades.
AP Images/The Tyler Morning Telegraph/Sarah A. Miller
Chances are that you missed the State Department releasing the final environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline last week. You were meant to: it came out on 4pm on the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday. The mainstream media only had a few moments to glance at the executive summary—the report itself is an un-skimmable eleven volumes long—before the news cycle moved onto the big game.
Proposals that make it as far in Washington as cap-and-trade did rarely die neatly; they suffer and bleed and seed the ground with a new generation of mutant offspring. Some of the planted ideas aren’t strong enough to thrive in the harsh conditions of politics; others turn out to be surprising hardy.
Building a campaign around the Keystone XL pipeline was one of the latter type. Born out of cap-and-trade's failures, it thrived, fed by two theories—that you can’t trust D.C. politicos to react responsibly to climate change and that victory in the next legislative bout would require gathering power outside the capital. As as issue, Keystone XL has grown so big that, whatever decision the Obama administration finally makes about it in 2014, it will be brandished as an omen of this country's future (and, because it's connected to climate change, every other country's, too).
Cap-and-trade’s failure also gave life to another idea: the Environmental Protection Agency's work on regulating carbon pollution is one of the few fighting chances for any sort of success at slowing climate change.
One hundred years ago next week, the water came to Los Angeles. On November 5, 1913, civic dignitaries gathered at the north end of the arid, undeveloped San Fernando Valley for the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a marvel of both engineering and chicanery. Five years in the making, the aqueduct pumped the water out of the Owens River Valley (to which the spring runoff from the melting snows of the Sierra Nevada descended) and carried it over 223 miles of mainly desert to the L.A. suburb. Raising his voice to be heard over the noise of both the crowd and the water cascading downhill, the project’s chief engineer, William Mulholland, proclaimed with epic succinctness: “There it is—take it!”
It took decades after the invention of nuclear weapons for today’s taboos against them to take hold. Some witnesses to the first nuclear explosions apprehended their horror immediately. Some planners, civilian and military, fell in love. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. built nuclear reactors in Iran, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries; in the 1960s and 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission made plans to use nuclear explosions to dig a canal in Nicaragua and carve a pass-through in the California mountains for Interstate 40. Influential strategists like Herman Kahn were enthralled by the potential of nuclear weapons to reshape the world. On Thermo-nuclear War, Kahn’s best-known book, contains scenarios not only for how nuclear weapons would work in World War III but also in World Wars IV, V, VI, and VII.
Arundo donax towers over the tallest man's head. It's thick, bamboo-like, and three-stories tall. It can withstand cold, and it can withstand drought. Give it water, and a little nitrogen, and it grows. Fast.
Killing it can be difficult. In California, where it was introduced in the 1800s, Arundo has gotten so out of control that in some places it seems to be the only plant growing on the riverbanks. It doesn’t have seeds, but it doesn't need them: it has other methods of multiplying. A fierce rainstorm can tear up its shallow roots and spread them far downstream. There, they start growing all over again.
Mow it down, spray it with pesticides—it’s all futile.
The news seemed tailor-made to drive conspiracy theorists and members of the tinfoil hat club into a frenzy. In July, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the CIA is helping to underwrite a yearlong study examining atmospheric geoengineering—deliberate, planetary-scale manipulation of the climate to counteract global warming. As reporters took jabs at the idea of “spooks” seeking to “control the weather,” the National Academy of Sciences tried to brush away concerns.
AP Photo/Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig
Grace Cagle knew what Keystone XL’s path through Texas meant for the state’s environment. The pipeline was going to run through the post-oak savannah, a type of forest that's drying out, desertifying. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ivory-billed woodpecker—one of the world's largest woodpeckers, a bird so endangered that for years no one had seen one alive—makes its home. Cagle graduated college at the end of 2012 and had planned to get a PhD.; she was studying ecology, biology, and chemistry. But she couldn’t just sit in a classroom or write a paper while Texas was in danger.
This was definitely not grown in a lab. (Flickr/Simon Willison)
Let's talk meat, shall we? Americans eat a lot of it. Our cow population (or "inventory" if you prefer, as the beef industry does) is almost 90 million, and total beef consumption in the U.S. is over 25 billion pounds. If you piled all those hamburgers in a stack, you'd have ... well, let's just say you'd have a really big stack of hamburgers.
Two of my favorite writers on legal subjects, Dahlia Lithwick and Barry Friedman, wrote a piece for Slate earlier this week wondering if the progressive agenda hasn't been exhausted by recent victories on same-sex marriage. "While progressives were devoting deserved attention to gay rights," they argue, "they simultaneously turned their backs on much of what they once believed." I share their sense of frustration, but I interpret the landscape differently. To me, the problem isn't the lack of a robust progressive agenda. The problem is that progressives generally lack power. Last week, I saw strong defenses of progressive goals at every level of politics, from ordinary citizens to the highest offices in the country. From the opposition of activists and state legislators to barbaric attacks on the welfare state in North Carolina and reproductive freedom in Texas, to the President Obama's climate change speech and the eloquent defenses of fundamental values of equality made by Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, a broad progressive agenda directed at urgent problems was seen in a brief window of time. The problem, of course, is that much of this came in the wake of defeat; even the stirring victory in Texas is likely to be merely delaying the inevitable.
Still, an extensive progressive agenda is out there. It's worth trying to define some of the most important issues that the American "left," broadly construed, should be and are trying to address. I do not claim originality or an exhaustive list; my intent is to generate discussion and thought about what problems to focus on and how to move forward.
To get an idea of how American coastal waters might look just before they succumb to all the degradations they have suffered these past five centuries, it would be worth taking a July trip to Mobile Bay, an Alabama inlet that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. If the air is still and hot, an event may occur that Gulf Coast residents call a “jubilee.” The bottom-dwelling flounder will be among its first victims, growing agitated as each successive gulp of water brings less and less oxygen across their gills.