Thursday, April 19, 2012

The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism

I'm reading two books right now, neither of them my usual, fictional fare. One is The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder (2008). The other is Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962).

For decades I've regarded Snyder as a key teacher and a deep thinker about human culture and our relationship to the many places and beings, more and less sentient, with whom we inhabit the Earth. I haven't read Ginsberg as deeply, and don't have a well-rounded sense of his similar concerns. But I was moved to read Ginsberg's letter of 26 July 1967, sent from New York to Kyoto where Snyder was then living, in which he notes, in a telegraphic style the poets sometimes used in their correspondence:
Gregory Bateson says auto CO2 layer gives planet half-life: 10-30 years before 5-degree temperature rise irreversible melt polar ice caps, 400 feet water inundate everything below Grass Valley -- to say nothing of young pines in Canada dying radiation -- death of rivers -- general lemming situation.

Five years earlier, in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson had written of human effort to eradicate the Japanese beetle in the American midwest by applying insecticides over very large tracts of land:
Incidents like the eastern Illinois spraying raise a question that is not only scientific but moral. The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.

[...] Scientific observers at Sheldon described the symptoms of a meadowlark found near death: "Although it lacked muscular coordination and could not fly or stand, it continued to beat its wings and clutch with its toes while lying on its side. Its beak was held open and breathing was labored." Even more pitiful was the mute testimony of dead ground squirrels, which "exhibited a characteristic attitude in death. The back was bowed and the forelegs with the toes of the feet tightly clenched were drawn close to the thorax ... the head and neck were outstretched and the mouth often contained dirt, suggesting the dying animal had been biting the ground."

By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?
There's no doubt that since Carson published her seminal book, and Ginsberg wrote to Snyder in Kyoto, humans have done a great deal to curb detrimental impact to the planet's environment of our residence on Earth. Yet our effort of the past fifty years has been insufficient to ward off threat of mass extinction, according to scientists around the world ... even when the rate of extinction is a topic of academic haggling.

So let's fast-forward to 2012, the present-day.

Turns out that the question whether we ought to make efforts to fix what we've broken -- even at the insufficient levels undertaken to-date -- are hotly contested. Here, for example, is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's summary on presidential candidate Mitt Romney's positions on environmental issues, datelined Tuesday of this week:
ROMNEY: Supports opening the Atlantic and Pacific outer continental shelves to drilling, as well as Western lands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore Alaska; and supports exploitation of shale oil deposits. Wants to reduce obstacles to coal, natural gas and nuclear energy development, and accelerate drilling permits in areas where exploration has already been approved for developers with good safety records.

Says green power has yet to become viable and the causes of climate change are unknown. Proposes to remove carbon dioxide from list of pollutants controlled by Clean Air Act and amend clean water and air laws to ensure the cost of complying with regulations is balanced against environmental benefit. Says cap and trade would "rocket energy prices."

Blames high gas prices on Obama's decisions to limit oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas and on overzealous regulation.
Overzealous regulation (my emphasis added)?

We can only wish. Never mind the ju-jitsu with facts implicit elsewhere in this brief position summary, about which I've written elsewhere. Let me explain what I mean:

Also on Tuesday of this week, Associated Press reported a proposed Obama administration rule for managing environmental threats to polar bears. The proposed rule fails to change policy enacted by the GeorgeW. Bush administration, and pretends that the threat to the polar bears' environment (that is, the threat to polar ice) can be managed independently of the question of greenhouse gasses and the warming temperatures they precipitate ... which is, after all, the substantive threat to the polar ice that these magnificent creatures require to live. You can find the AP article in The Republic, out of Columbus, Indiana, under the headline Federal agency again proposes polar bear management rule that leaves out greenhouse gases. From the lede:
Polar bear management policy proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to omit regulation of greenhouse gases blamed for the climate warming that's reducing the animals' summer sea ice habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that it is proposing a special rule clarifying how the agency will manage polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. The proposed rule, the agency said, will replace a similar special rule issued in 2008, but as before, will not change regulations regarding greenhouse gas emissions.

It happens that this story came to my attention because I have friends with whom I did political work in the 1980s who are now affiliated with the Center for Biological Diversity. I follow CBD posts on Facebook, and friends 'like' and re-post the juicy ones. One old friend was cited in the AP article:
A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity said that means the Obama administration will duplicate ineffective polar bear management policies put in place by the Bush administration. Polar bear conservation measures that don't mention greenhouse gases are like a discussion of the Titanic without mentioning icebergs, Brendan Cummings said.

"What they're doing is essentially going through a song and dance routine to essentially say, 'We're going to do nothing,'" Cummings said.

Nicely done, Brendan, bringing this week's 100th anniversary of the sinking of a monument to human hubris into discussion of one staggering testament to what Allen Ginsberg called, some forty-five years ago, the lemming situation.

It's not like nobody ever told us.

It's not as if we don't know.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Water, water everywhere and a lot of murky reasoning
The Compromise: Sergei Dovlatov, there and here
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind

Thanks to PBS for the polar bear image from the Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures Educators Library; and to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies for the graph of world temperature over time. And a special thanks to for the fab do-it-yourself image generation, discovered by searching for ... images of lemmings. You never know what you'll find on the intertubes...

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