Category Archives: Environment

Symbolic politics

Al Gore in Bali...Photo:Jewel Samad/Getty images

Al Gore in Bali...Photo:Jewel Samad/Getty images

They kept the star power to the end. Al Gore fired-up the weary Bali climate change conference delegates with a speech which named the inconvenient truth everyone was battling against: the Bush delegates were stonewalling again. But his message of hope was more instructive: America is changing. As Time noted:

Toward the end of his speech Gore, with his customary taste for the eccentric analogy, invoked the hockey player Bobby Hull, who Gore said was skilled because he sent the puck, not where his teammates were, but where they would be. “You have to look to where we’re going to be”

If Gore wasn’t enough. Leonardo Di Caprio also flew in for the final hours of talks or maybe for the after party. Who knows? He might not have much effect on the talks but according to the The Guardian’s David Adam his arrival cheered many weary women journalists.

Australian PM Kevin Rudd got a lot of great press to start with after announcing his signing of Kyoto but in the last few days his refusal to join Europe on the 25-40% emissions clause has dulled his star. Rudd said last week that these talks were “horse-trading” and as a former diplomat he knows the trade better than many others.

To explore a slightly different metaphor, one with some poignancy after more news about further arctic ice caps melts: everyone is trying to stay afloat. Some are dog paddling quietly while others are splashing around trying to get attention. Europe is making a big noise hoping to push the agenda forward while the US is playing the old game of talking to extend the talking rather than to conclude the deal. Australia is playing to two different audiences: Rudd can’t afford to give the home-front opposition forces an excuse early in his term to talk about economic irresponsibility of his climate stance so he is being cagey on exact targets – he says he is waiting for his commissioned economic impact statement. He needs this report as ammunition. On the international level he seems to be siding with the US Japan and Canada perhaps, one would hope, in order to later play a mediator role which will push this group forward. Adam is more forthright about this political game than most of the mainstream reports have been:

Few will say it officially, but most here seem to have settled for a Bali roadmap that commits all countries to a formal negotiation on a new treaty, but doesn’t include the numbers. Even Greenpeace said as much this morning, joining the US, the UK (and so Europe) and the UN officials running the whole circus. So why are we still here? And why the continuing threats from both sides? Seasoned observers say this end game is all about how to sell the agreement when the countries go their separate ways tomorrow and have to explain to their citizens what they have signed up to. Each needs a success to trumpet, some good old fashioned political spin. Ours will be that the US has been dragged to the negotiating table. Mr Bush will point out that he is taking the issue seriously, without actually committing to anything.

There is a lot of posturing going on here but symbolic politics is increasingly important. In Bali Gore again went with his “the earth has a fever” metaphor and it is the power of metaphors like this one mixed with the startling brutality of constantly emerging new scientific facts that has really pushed the debate forward. The theatre of dispute has also emerged as important in the last days of the talks with the Europeans and the Indonesians unafraid to make their anger clear.

The term “roadmap” which is constantly being used reminds of course about another series of endlessly disastrous negotiations: the fraught process toward peace in the middle east. Here key moments of symbolic politics seem to have had little effect on real outcomes. But at least the pressure of symbolic politics have kept all parties at the negotiating table. As Yvo de Boer, the UN’s point man in Bali told the BBC it is unlikely that the politicians will walk away from Bali with no agreement:

“It’s possible but it won’t happen,” he said.

“It won’t happen because such public pressure has been built to deliver a result here, I do not believe ministers will be able to leave this conference without a political answer to the scientific message they have received.

”Everybody is working hard towards a result, nobody wants to see it fail and nobody wants to be the country that makes it fail.“

Retraumatisation

A disturbing but beautifully crafted narrative from the Guardian about Katrina survivors:

Katrina’s winds died a year ago, but they left deep scars. You see them in wrecked streets. You see them in destroyed forests. You see them in tiny white mobile homes that now dot the Deep South. You see them most, perhaps, in people’s fearful expressions when a hard rain begins to fall from an angry summer sky.

Dr Becky Turner sees them in the play of children. Her big blue bus pulls up outside schools on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and pupils walk in to use toys and paints. It sounds like fun. But what Turner and her colleagues see each day, drawn in crayon, is far from harmless. Turner uses play to tease out the children’s storm stories, and help them talk about the horrors.

And the horrors do come. Many of the children of Hurricane Katrina lost relatives. Some saw them die. All of them are still living with the hurricane. And it is about to get worse. Turner’s mobile mental-health unit is preparing for a flood of new cases as the anniversary approaches. ‘It will be like a retraumatisation,’ Turner says in a weary voice. ‘The storm just goes on and on.’

So it does. Katrina hit on 29 August 2005 and, a year later, life on the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is still a nightmare. Rebuilding scarcely seems to have begun. Gaunt ruins stretch for miles through a disaster area the size of Britain. All over America, from Houston to New York, hundreds of thousands of evacuees have been torn from their homes. Many expect never to return.

Bodies are still being found – this month a victim’s skeleton was unearthed in New Orleans – yet Katrina is now an ignored tragedy. The hurricane slammed one of the poorest areas of the country. It had no respect for colour, creed or wealth, but its victims tended to be black and poor. For a while it pointed a spotlight on issues of race and poverty, but America quickly returned to other matters. Katrina asked fundamental questions about American society. It prompted a nation and a White House to pledge itself to meet the challenge. But after a year, Katrina is a test that America is failing. The storm’s victims are still living in limbo as the rest of the country has moved on. They are the forgotten. This is their story.

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More on Bush and Katrina

With the one year anniversary of Katrina at hand we will be deluged by a Hurricane of commemoration and analysis over the next few weeks. What strikes me so far is the similarity of all the assessments I have read so far.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today’s NYT begins with a focus on that same image of Bush that I referred to in yesterday’s post. She makes an even more striking comparison:

When the nation records the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.

The first is of Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of the twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way from Crawford, Tex., to Washington, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina thousands of feet below.

If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president’s competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Mr. Bush: his compassion.

She goes on to quote James Thurber a presidential scholar who notes that this is a critical moment in the Bush presidency and that “it will be in every textbook”.

The gravitas of Bush’s recent radio address shows that he is well aware of the significance of the ongoing Katrina storm. He also knows full well that what is wiping him off the political map now as then are his perceived lack of compassion and competence. In a carefully structured talk Bush first praises the compassionate response of ordinary Americans and puts this firmly in the context of the extraordinary “spirit of America”:

During the storm and in the days that followed, Americans responded with heroism and compassion. Coast Guard and other personnel rescued people stranded in flooded neighborhoods and brought them to high ground. Doctors and nurses stayed behind to care for their patients, and some even went without food so their patients could eat. Many of the first-responders risking their lives to help others were victims themselves — wounded healers, with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering. And across our great land, the armies of compassion rallied to bring food and water and hope to fellow citizens who had lost everything. In these and countless other selfless acts, we saw the spirit of America at its best.

He then goes on to admit not his failing or the failing of his administration but the failings of “federal, state, and local governments”

Unfortunately, Katrina also revealed that federal, state, and local governments were unprepared to respond to such an extraordinary disaster. And the floodwaters exposed a deep-seated poverty that has cut people off from the opportunities of our country. So last year I made a simple pledge: The federal government would learn the lessons of Katrina, we would do what it takes, and we would stay as long as it takes, to help our brothers and sisters build a new Gulf Coast where every citizen feels part of the great promise of America.

His sudden jump to the first person pledge takes him into the rhetorical zone of the previous paragraph with his pledge’s “great promise of America” neatly matching the previous paragraph’s “spirit of America at its best”. He thus tries to rhetorically insulate himself from the institutional failings and link himself with the heroism and courage of ordinary Americans.

However as Michael Gawenda reports in the Sydney Morning Herald for those from the poorest and most devastated areas of New Orleans Bush’s promise counts for little.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, Bush is unlikely to find many people who feel part of this great promise. Indeed, he is unlikely to find too many people at all. Like much of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, it remains a devastated wasteland in which there is still no electricity and where only a fraction of toxic debris – all that was left of the houses – has been removed.

When the Herald visited the Lower Ninth Ward a few months ago, a three-man emergency agency crew was just beginning the task of removing wrecked cars, at a rate of three or four a day. With up to 100,000 cars needing to be removed, the process could take years.

Like a number of other commentators Gawenda also notes the rise of conspiracy theories:

There are still widespread rumours of a secret plan cooked up by the Administration and the New Orleans City Council not to rebuild the poorer, lower-lying areas of New Orleans which for some people, is the explanation for the fact that so little has been done to rebuild these neighbourhoods.

The film director Spike Lee, in his four-hour film When the Levees Broke, makes the case, admittedly without much evidence, that the Administration is determined to use the Katrina disaster to rid New Orleans of poverty and of its black population. The film has just been shown on US television.

Lee even raises the possibility that the levees were smashed on purpose so the black neighbourhoods would be flooded, a conspiracy theory widely believed in many black communities.

It shows how deep is the distrust of Bush, how widespread the hostility and anger towards him and his Administration among blacks after Katrina.

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Back with Bush in New Orlean’s

I am back after taking six months leave of absence from this project currently focusing on getting together a stronger structure for my thesis.

In the news everything circles around the same issues. With the first anniversary of Katrina and the fifth anniversary of September 11 both approaching there are a growing body of comment pieces which from my perspective seek to make sense of the myth of President Geroge W Bush. In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune Mark Silva catalogues the series of powerful image moments that constructed the overall image of a removed president as Katrina made landfall:

At first he was remote from the disaster, leaving a long summer vacation in Texas for a scheduled speech to senior citizens in Arizona the day Katrina struck. His distance was magnified the next day in San Diego, where he commemorated the 60th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day and hoisted a singer’s guitar for photographers.

The next soon-to-become iconic image of detachment came with a photograph of Bush looking down at New Orleans from Air Force One as he flew east to Washington. It portrayed, not a concerned leader, but one who had not stopped to comfort suffering people.

When Bush finally did arrive on the Gulf Coast on Sept. 2, he uttered the words to the struggling director of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, that have haunted Bush since: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

As most of New Orleans lay under water and thousands piled into the convention center pleading for food and potable water, the nation’s most costly natural disaster had become a full-fledged political disaster.

This image of a detached president, inappropriately upbeat seems to have had a major impact on his standing as a leader. But it also clustered with a range of other misadventures and missteps. Silva continues:

The crisis arrived as growing numbers of Americans were starting to question the conduct of the war in Iraq as well as Bush’s handling of the economy. His approval rating in the Gallup Poll already had slumped to 40 percent days before Katrina, then a low point for Bush and a level of support he still is struggling to maintain.

“The greatest damage that Katrina did to President Bush was in his aura of competence,” said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama. “It shook the confidence of a lot of people in the White House’s ability to respond to either natural or man-made disasters.”

The elephant in the hurricane was of course the issues of race and poverty. Something that overtime even Bush seemed to understand. Two weeks after Katrina he made a significant speech that linked race and poverty and made a commitment to developing minority owned businesses and increasing homeownership. But New Orleans is still waiting.

“He said he was going to talk about race and poverty,” said Brinkley, who teaches American civilization at Tulane. “When did that happen? It’s back to business as usual.”

The federal government has committed $17 billion for community development block grants, offering as much as $150,000 for each homeowner whose home stood outside designated flood zones.

But Mississippi only recently started paying out this money to homeowners, and Louisiana is just now starting.

Experts say little will end up in the hands of low-income homeowners–and none will go to renters, nearly half of the people displaced by Katrina.

“This is a unique opportunity in American life,” said Roland Anglin, director of the Initiative on Regional and Community Transformation at Rutgers University. “When the president came to the Gulf Coast and made those remarks, a lot of us thought that was an opportunity to readdress the issue of race and equity. Unfortunately, that has not progressed as much as many of us hoped it would.”

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Bush’s photo-ops

Bush is being criticised for not acting fast enough and for a lack luster, even humorous, speech when he first addressed the plight of New Orleans. The New York Times has become increasingly strident in its editorials over the last few days:

George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom. In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end.

Bush doesn’t seem to have either a natural sense of compassion or even a natural political instinct on these occasions when symbolic leadership is most needed. Either Clinton or Reagan would have acted immediately and made us feel that they were involved personally and politically with the crisis. This symbolic act of the leader is of such importance and has real impact on the course of actual events by creating a buoyant atmosphere for recovery. But there is a difference between a genuine act of symbolic leadership, which requires engagement, reflection and action and a staged media event. Increasingly it is difficult for both politicians and the public to distinguish between the two.

A story has just emerged about how deliberately the Bush team stage managed the tour of the crisis zone. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu has just released a statement:

“But perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment. The good and decent people of southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast – black and white, rich and poor, young and old – deserve far better from their national government.

This has been reported by the wires and some blogs but doesn’t appear to have been picked up by the mainstream press yet.

It is confirmed by at least one report from a viewer of a German news service who says the German account of Bush’s tour differed markedly from the CNN account:

There was a striking dicrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.

ZDF News reported that the president’s visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of ‘news people’ had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.

The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF.

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Blame the gays

The floods in New Orleans has given rise to the usual discourse of balme from predictable quarters. Repent America director Michael Marcavage:

“Just days before ”Southern Decadence“, an annual homosexual celebration attracting tens of thousands of people to the French Quarters section of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina destroys the city….

”Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city…New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin. From the devastation may a city full of righteousness emerge.“

What is interesting about this release is that it is not just attacking the usual suspects it is explicitly holding the whole city to blame for their permissivness in allowing these events to occur. He ends on a note of psuedo-compassion:

”We must help and pray for those ravaged by this disaster, but let us not forget that the citizens of New Orleans tolerated and welcomed the wickedness in their city for so long. May this act of God cause us all to think about what we tolerate in our city limits, and bring us trembling before the throne of Almighty God.“

The symbolic violence implicit in this kind of discourse is the same as the will to violence in Governor Blanco’s invocation of the troops ability and willingness to kill. Jeff Sharlet reports:

Three hundred troops directly from Iraq have landed in the city, and ”they have M-16s, and they’re locked and loaded,“ blusters Louisiana Governor Blanco. ”These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.“

As Sharlet also suggests on this occasion there are indeed people to blame or at least people that must be held accountable for their ”stewardship“. This whole violent erruption is undergirded by the historic and willful refusal of government and corporate powers to address the saftey of the people of New Orleans. This refusal is in itself an act of violence by the US government on its own people and has also been linked by a number of commentators to funding cuts that are the direct result of the cost of Bush’s militarised war on terror.

This event is not about the violence of God it is about the interlocking violence of man – male pronoun used deliberately because this is masculinist violence no matter the gender of the perpetrator – obvious at so many levels. It is indeed a call to righteousness but not of the type Marcavage imagines.

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More extreme weather

Another article, this time from Mother Jones, on the apocalyptics of weather: “Dropping in on the Apocalypse,” by Tom Engelhardt. Its a great piece with lots of links to studies and other articles that I will come back to. For now a brief extract about media coverage:

Our media, of course, adores Xtreme weather events. Dan Rather’s CBS prime-time news show, for instance, never saw an El Nino effect, a hurricane, a major flood, or an onslaught of snow that it didn’t rush right to the top of the news; while those once Weather-Channel-restricted scenes of reporters, their bodies oddly angled, shouting into mics and staring into water-smeared lenses in the pelting rain of an onrushing storm are now commonplaces of the national news; and yet you can search the television news and our mainstream press almost in vain for anyone even willing to speculate that the increase in Xtreme weather events which has brought us multiple massive hurricanes in Florida, a prolonged drought in the southwest, Europe’s burning summers, Brazil’s first South Atlantic hurricane ever, the storm of the century on Canada’s east coast, and Japan’s worst season of typhoons in memory might have anything to do with global warming.

This kind of reporting normalises disaster and it becomes difficult to distinguish between Day After Tomorrow and CBS/CNN/The weather channel. Its classic “straight” reporting that does nothing to draw connections or ask questions: just the facts ma’m.

Checking Crichton’s footnotes

It must be the day for finding articles on the environmental debate. Here’s an interesting article from Boston Globe Ideas on Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. It appears that a number of scientists are none too happy about being used by Crichton in his footnotes.

Toward the end of the novel, Kenner lectures another character on the futility of the Kyoto Protocol, which requires participating nations to adopt binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. ”The effect of Kyoto would be to reduce warming by .04 degrees Celsius in the year 2100,” he says. ”Four hundredths of a degree.” When another character disputes this claim, Kenner promises, ”I can give you the references.”

Tom Wigley, author of a 1998 article Crichton cites to back up this point, has complained previously that others have misused his research to undermine Kyoto. While that paper did indeed find that the treaty would have a relatively small long-term effect, Wigley has subsequently warned that his analysis ”assumed that Kyoto was followed to 2010, and that there were no subsequent climate mitigation policies.” The point of the paper was not to bash Kyoto (which goes into effect internationally on February 16) but rather to demonstrate that it represents only a first step toward climate stabilization. ”Once we’ve done Kyoto we’re obviously going to do other things,” says Wigley.

Chris Mooney the author of the piece makes the very pertinent point that Crichton’s veneer of objectivity is a deceptive political ploy.

In Crichton’s defense, those seeking to counter
consensus scientific conclusions on climate change–and to use
published evidence to support their own views–face an uphill battle.
Naomi Oreskes, a science studies scholar at the University of
California, San Diego, recently analyzed more than 900 scientific
articles listed with the keywords ”global climate change,” and failed
to find a single study that explicitly disagreed with the consensus
view that humans are contributing to global warming. While such
literature may exist, it appears minimal.

That hasn’t stopped Crichton from expounding his views in recent
speeches, including a talk on ”Science Policy in the 21st Century”
held late last month at the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings
Institution’s Joint Center for Regulatory Studies in Washington, D.C.
In an appendix to ”State of Fear,” Crichton frets about ”Why
Politicized Science is Dangerous.” But he may himself have provided a
case study.

Climate Apocalypse

With the Kyoto Protocol coming into effect and the shock of the Tsunami, climate change has been big news over the last few months. It seems to be taking the place of the "nuclear threat" as the front line in contemporary apocalyptic thinking.

This weekend’s Independent published an interesting analysis of the recent meeting of climate scientists that makes this connection:

But it was last
week at the Met Office’s futuristic glass headquarters, incongruously
set in a dreary industrial estate on the outskirts of Exeter, that it
all came together. The conference had been called by the Prime Minister
to advise him on how to "avoid dangerous climate change". He needed
help in persuading the world to prioritize the issue this year during
Britain’s presidencies of the EU and the G8 group of economic powers….

About halfway
through I realized that I had been here before. In the summer of 1986
the world’s leading nuclear experts gathered in Vienna for an inquest
into the accident at Chernobyl. The head of the Russian delegation
showed a film shot from a helicopter, and we suddenly found ourselves
gazing down on the red-hot exposed reactor core.

It was all, of
course, much less dramatic at Exeter. But as paper followed learned
paper, once again a group of world authorities were staring at a crisis
they had devoted their lives to trying to avoid.

The consensus of scientists seems even clearer than ever in spite of all the neo-con crowing about a great liberal conspiracy typified by Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear. What is interesting about the Independent article from a media analysis point of view is the dramatic list of possible catastrophies that ends the article. Each possibility is outlined in brief in a three part format:

  • What could
    happen?
  • How would this
    come about?
  • How likely is it?

While this provides great capsule information the creation of lists like this is likely to increase both the sense of crisis and passivity in the face of the seemingly inevitable. the independent’s cxatageories include:

  • WATER WARS
  • DISAPPEARING NATIONS
  • FLOODING
  • UNINHABITABLE EARTH
  • RAINFOREST FIRES
  • THE BIG FREEZE
  • STARVATION
  • ACID OCEANS
  • DISEASE
  • HURRICANES

These kinds of lists end up functioning as a kind of secular version of the biblical "signs of the times."

Cataclysm and moral sentiment

Excellent reflection from Susan Neiman in the NYT Magazine on the response to the Tsunami. Neiman begins by comparing our reaction to that of Europeans in the 18th century to the earthquake and Tsunami that destroyed Lisbon 250 years ago.

But Enlightenment thinkers took broader perspectives. Though many denied the existence of a personal Creator, most believed in the wonder of Creation, which was beginning to seem intelligible. Lisbon was no worse than London or Paris. Why smash the one and spare the others? Shattered babies were inert reproaches, not only to anyone wanting to call this world the best of all possible worlds, but to anyone wanting to make sense of it at all. Lisbon rubbed people’s noses in meaninglessness, and a savvier Enlightenment emerged. No longer did nature reflect moral order. The Lisbon earthquake left a breach between humankind and its planet that has been with us ever since. Nature and reason are different in kind, and any meeting they have will be accidental. This is one idea that makes us modern.

Or so we like to think. Reactions to the recent tsunami make me wonder. Everybody who has seen it describes the wrecked expanse as a war zone. (In 1755, there were no weapons of mass destruction; only a natural catastrophe could create that much disaster in such a short time.) True, the numbers of people committed to the Enlightenment seem to get smaller by the day. They face growing competition from fundamentalist Christians who view every disaster as a harbinger of the apocalypse and from radical Islamists who find any flood that washes the beaches clean of half-nude tourists to be divine. But even modernist observers are searching for sense. Some see it as nature’s revenge for the way we have ignored her fragile balance. The tourists are not at fault for being half-naked, but for being rapacious. According to some environmentalists, cheap beachside construction, built to satisfy Europeans’ search for exotic spots in which to spend their long vacations, wrecked the coastal forests and coral reefs that might have broken the tsunami…..

But it would be wrong to reject moral sentiment just because it can be misused, and we should remember Lisbon’s major lesson: if there is to be meaning in the world, we need to put it there. Contrary to cliche, no major Enlightenment thinker thought progress was inevitable. The picture of the future was often dark. Kant’s evidence of our progress was minimalist: not the French Revolution, whose outcome was uncertain, but the hopefulness observers felt when thinking of it — that was sign enough that we had made progress and might make some more. The signs coming out of the tsunami are better than that. Suddenly observers across the globe, in the face of the relief efforts, express sentiments they would very recently have been ashamed to reveal.