Paintings in this post are by Micaela Amateau Amato from Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era.
The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House —Audre Lorde
As with our shift from our systemically racist culture to one rooted in mutual respect for multiplicity and difference, we must practice caution during our transition out of our global petroculture. This vigilance should not be based on the motivation, but on the underlying false assumptions and strategies that perceived sustainability and “alternative” agendas offer. The implicit assumptions embedded in the concept of sustainability maintains the status quo. At this juncture of geopolitical, ecological, social, and corporeal catastrophes, we must critically question clean/green solutions such as the erroneously-named Renewable Energies Revolution. I suggest we face both the roots and the implications of how perceived solutions to our climate crisis, like “renewable” energies, may unintentionally sustain ecological devastation and global wealth inequities, and actually divert us from establishing long-term, regenerative infrastructures.
On the surface, sustainability agendas appear to offer critical shifts toward an ecologically, economically, and ethically sound society, but there is much evidence to prove that #1: these structural changes must be accompanied by a psychological shift in individuals’ behavior to effectively shut down consumer-waste convenience culture; and, #2: the core of too many green/clean solutions is rooted in the very essence of our climate crisis: privatized, industrialized-corporate capitalism. For example, in his The Age of Disinformation1, Eric Cheyfitz alerts us: The Green New Deal is a “capitalist solution to a capitalist problem.” It claims to address the linked oppressions of wealth inequity and climate-crisis, yet its proposed solutions avoid the very roots of each crisis.
My challenge is rooted in three interrelated inquiries:
How are our daily choices reinforcing the very racist systems we are questioning or even trying to dismantle?
How are the alternatives to fossil-fuel economies and environmental racism reinforcing the very systems we are questioning or even trying to dismantle?
What can we learn from indigenous philosophies and socialist ecofeminist movements in order to establish viable, sustainable, regenerative infrastructures—an Ecozoic Era?
As we transition to supposedly carbon-free electricity, we must be attentive to the ways in which we unconsciously manifest the very racist hegemonies we seek to dislodge; we must be cautious of the greening-of-capitalism that manifests as “green colonialism” through a new dependency on what is falsely identified as “renewable” energies. Currently, human and natural-world habitat destruction are implicit in the mass production and disposal infrastructures of most “renewable energies:” solar, wind, biomass/biofuels, geothermal, ethanol, hydrogen, nuclear, and other ostensible renewables2.
This includes our technocratic petroleum-pharmaceutical addictions that use technologies to create “sustainability.” Even if policy appears to be in alignment with environmental ethics, we are consistently finding that policy change simply replaces one hegemony, one cultural of domination, with another—particularly within the framework of neoliberal globalization. Only when we acknowledge the roots of our Western imperialist crisis, can we begin to decolonize and revitalize all peoples’ livelihoods and their environments.
Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era3, my climate justice book that explores the perils of the Anthropocene, challenges cultural habits deeply embedded in our calamitous trajectory toward global ecological and cultural, ethnic collapse. The book’s main character reflects: “We have this crazy idea that anything ‘green’ is good—but we know that there is no clear-cut good and evil. What happens when the very solution causes more problems than the original problem it was supposed to fix?”
How we measure our ecological footprint4 and global biocapacity is often riddled with paradox—particularly in the face of green colonialism, or what I call humanitarian imperialism5. The litany of our collusion with corporate forms of domination is infinite within the Anthropocene Era (increasingly characterized as the Plasticene). Disinformation campaigns spread by fossil-fuel interests deeply root us in assimilationist consumerism. The Zazu Dreams’ characters witness social and environmental costs of subjugating others through both fossil-fuel-obsessed economies and their “green” replacements. Vaclav Smil warns us of this “Miasma of falsehood.” This implies replacing one destructive socializing norm—petro-pharma cultures sustained by fossil-fuel addicted economics—with another: purportedly “renewable” energies. These energies (I don’t call them renewable, because they are not “renewable” and not carbon-free)6, like fossil-fuels, are rooted in barbaric colonialist extractive industries. Once again, the “solution” is precisely the problem. Greenwashing is a prime example of the ways in which capitalism dictates our alleged freedom. Free market is a euphemism for economic terrorism. The “green economy has come to mean…the wholesale privatization of nature.”7 Consumerism becomes the default for making supposedly ethical choices.
In Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith urges us: “We can’t consume our way out of environmental collapse; consumption is the problem”. Even within the 99%, consumers are capitalism. Without convenience-culture/mass consumer-demand, the machine of the profit-driven free market would have to shift gears. We can’t blame oil companies without simultaneously implicating ourselves, holding our consumption-habits equally responsible. How can we insist government and transnational corporations be accountable, when we refuse to curb our buying, using, and disposal habits? We don’t have to go far back in our cross-cultural histories of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience to learn from world-changing examples of strikes, unions, boycotts, expropriation, infrastructural sabotage, embargoes, and divestment protests.
Yet, most contemporary transition movements are founded in the very system they are trying to dismantle. Our perceived resources, these alternative forms of energy proposed to power our public electrical grids, are misidentified under the misleading misnomers: labels such “renewable”/ “sustainable” / “clean”/ “green”. How is “clean” defined? For whom? There is not a clear division between clean energy and dirty energy/dirty power—clean isn’t always clean. Neoliberal denial of corporeal and global interrelationships instills conformist laws of conduct that continually replenish our toxic soup in which we all live. One perceived solution to help us transition is to create alternatives to fossil fuel-addicted economies, as proposed, for example, through The United States’ proposed Green New Deal and its focus on allegedly “renewable” energies. However well-intentioned, these supposed alternatives perpetuate the violence of wasteful behavior and destructive infrastructures. Even if temporarily abated, they ultimately conserve the original crisis.
Below I address specific technologies that are falsely identified as “renewable” energy; technologies that actually reinforce the very problem they are trying to solve.
1. Solar/Photovoltaic and Wind Technologies: Given the proposed solutions using industrial solar and wind harvesting, Western imperialism has and will continue to dominate global relations. “Clean energy” easily gets soiled when it is implemented on an industrial scale. Western imperialist practices are implicit in solar cell and storage production (mining and other extractive industries) and disposal infrastructures. Congruently, industrial wind farms—aka: “blenders in the sky,”(chopping up migrating birds & bats) use exorbitant resources to produce and implement (both the wind turbines and their infrastructure), and devastate migrating wildlife (bats and birds, critical to healthy ecosystems and some of whom are endangered species).
Both wind and solar energies require vast quantities of fossil fuels to implement them on a grand scale. As we have seen throughout both California and China (two examples among too many), massive solar-energy sites/solar industrial complexes strip land bare—displacing human populations and migration routes of both wildlife and people for acres of solar fields, substations, and access roads—all of which require incredibly carbon-intensive concrete. Consuming massive tracts of land, 100-1000 times more land area is required for wind and solar, as well as for biofuel energy production than does fossil-fuel production.
2. Hydro-Power Technology: Large-scale dams for hydro-power have also historically had cataclysmic effects on indigenous peoples and their lands. Although macro-hydro, like fracking, has
finally been recognized for its calamitous consequences, perversely, it is still proposed as a viable alternative to fossil-fuel economies.
3. Battery Technology: Let’s begin with a California-based scenario: According to the Union of Concerned Scientists and their Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) in California, fine particulate pollution harms African-American communities 43% more than predominantly white communities, Latino 39% more, and Asian-American communities 21% more. As if tailpipe emissions are the only humanitarian catastrophe, one “clean solution” is the electric vehicle for public transportation and for personal consumption. Completely ignoring the embodied energy involved, this perceived solution displaces the costs of environmental racism—once again exported out of the US into the global south—in this case to Boliva where lithium (essential for battery production) is primarily mined. Cobalt, also essential to battery production, is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like lithium, cobalt’s environmental and humanitarian costs are unconscionable—including habitat destruction, child slavery, and deaths. Eventually, production is followed by solar technology and battery e-waste dispersed throughout Asia, South America, and Africa. Additionally, rarely considered are the fossil-fuel sources used to supply the electricity for those private and public electric vehicles. And, of course most frequently, the poorest US populations work in and live near those coal mines/power plants/fracking stations.
The Renewable Energies Movement claims that our global addiction to oil (“black gold”) should be replaced by lithium (“white gold”). What we are not considering is that extracting lithium and converting it to a commercially viable form consumes copious quantities of water—drastically depleting availability for indigenous communities and wildlife, and produces toxic waste (that includes an already growing history of chemical leaks poisoning rivers, thus people and other animals). Paul Hawken‘s phrase “renewable materialism” counsels us that this hyper-idealized shift from a fossil-fuel paradigm to “renewable” energies is not a solution. Furthermore, these energies are LOW POWER DENSITY: they produce very little energy in proportion to the energy required to institutionalize them.
As the main character in Zazu Dreams prompts: “Even if we find great alternatives to fossil fuels, what if renewable energies become big business and just maintain our addiction to consumption? (…) Replacing tar sands or oil-drills or coal power plants with megalithic ‘green’ energy is not the solution—it just masks the original problem—confusing ‘freedom’ with free market and free enterprise”. We must now act on our knowledge that the renewable “revolution” is dangerously carbon intensive. And, as the authors of Deep Green Resistance caution us: “The new world of renewables will look exactly like the old in terms of exploitation.”
Surrogate band-aids that are frequently equal to or worse than what is being replaced include: bioplastics, phthalates replacements, and HFC’s. 1.Compostable disposables, also known as bioplastics, are most frequently produced from GMO-corn monoculture and “composted” in highly restricted environments that are inaccessible to the general public. Due to corn-crop monoculture practices that are dependent on agribusiness’s heavy use of pesticides and herbicides (for example, Monsanto’s Round-Up/glyphosate), compostable plastics are not a clean solution. Depending on their production practices, avocado pits may be a more sustainable alternative. But, the infrastructure and politics of actually “composting” these products are extraordinarily problematic. These not-so eco-friendly products rarely make it into the high temperatures needed for them to actually decompose. Additionally, their chemical compounds cause extreme damage to water, soil, and wildlife. They cause heavy acidification when they get into the water and eutrophication (lack of oxygen) when they leach nitrogen into the soil. 2.The trend to replace Bisphenol A (BPA) led to even more debilitating phthalates in products. 3.Lastly, we now know that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), “ozone-friendly” replacements, are equally environmentally destructive as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Under the guise of the common good and universal values, humanitarian imperialism has emerged as a neo-colonialist method of reproducing the unquestioned status quo of industrialized, “First World” nations. For a detailed deracination of these fantasies (for example, taken-for-granted concepts of equality, poverty, standard of living), see Wolfgang Sachs’ anthology, The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. Although the term humanitarian imperialism is not explicitly used, all of the authors explore the hierarchical, ethnocentric assumptions rooted in development politics and unexamined paradigms of Progress. As public intellectuals committed to the archeology of prohibition and power distribution, we must extend this discussion beyond the context of international development politics and investigate how these normalized tyrannies thrive in our own backyard.
The air and sun are renewable, but giant wind and solar installations are not.
Editor’s note: Lierre Keith, co founder of DGR, is going to be in London for two events. On April 1, she’s going to be a part of a Women’s Rights Conference along with a number of other feminists. On April 2, she is going to give a talk on Bright Green Lies, followed by a screening of the documentary and Q&A.
What is to be Done? Women’s Rights Conference
A hybrid conference (up to 150 of us in real life and lots more online) in London on Saturday 1st April 2023,9am-5pmnear Old St tube or Barbican tube. Women’s Declaration International invites you to a day of speeches, workshops, networking, internet livestream link to global sisters and hopefully fun. If you would like to attend, help plan, organize, volunteer on the day, run sessions, etc, please email email@example.com or fill in this form https://forms.gle/bFLntzbBzrm4zd6M8
We will livestream the whole thing, so you can participate online too.You can use the normal FQT attendee login so if you are registered for FQT you are registered and need to do nothing further. If not go to womensdeclaration.com and register for Feminist Question Time and you will get a Zoom link the week before.
With four rooms, a garden and a coffee area, the speakers/workshop leaders include: Sheila Jeffreys, Lierre Keith , Zuleyka Valentin Arroyo, Kaïla Atarou Manfah, Christina Ellingsen, Julia Long, Amparo Domingo, Kate Coleman, Stephanie Davies-Arai, Amber Alt, Paula Boulton, Maureen O’Hara, Marian Rutigliano, Lynne Harne, Emma Thomas, Sally Wainwright, Louise Somerville, Jan Williams, Kelly Frost, Kate Graham, Alison Jenner, Lynn Alderson, Shannon from HearSheHearShe, Jo Brew and many more!
The theme is What is to be done, so talks and workshops will focus on what we should do next.
After the day, we have booked a quiet room at a pub where we can sit and chat, plus go downstairs to buy food and drink.
In order for WDI to break even (& hopefully increase our war chest), we need all of us to support the event both financially (by buying tickets, and donating funds) and also through volunteer activities (in preparation, day of, and cleanup).
You can buy tickets for the in person event here. Register for the online event here.
From Living Planet to Necrosphere: In the Time of Patriarchy’s Endgame
Lierre Keith – writer, radical feminist, food activist, and environmentalist will be in London Sunday, April 2nd for this highly anticipated talk. This will be followed by a screening of Bright Green Lies and a Q and A with the people behind it.
More and more environmentalists are starting to question whether not just fossil fuels, but also so-called ‘green energy’, could pose a potentially serious threat to our environment and to what remains of our already threatened species and biodiversity.
With praise from world-renowned author and campaigner Vandana Shiva (anti-GMO activist and President of Navdanya International), Jeff Gibbs (director of Planet of the Humans, available to watch here for free) and Chris Hedges (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of America: The Farewell Tour), Bright Green Lies and its accompanying documentary film dig further into this issue, exploring whether our dependence on fossil fuels can really be replaced with a new form of industry that calls itself green.
Join us for the event with our expert panel:
Lierre Keith – writer, radical feminist, and food activist
Julia Barnes – Bright Green Liesfilmmaker and award-winning documentary maker
Derrick Jensen (author of the Bright Green Lies book, activist and named one of Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World”)
This illuminating film “dismantles the illusion of ‘green’ technology in breathtaking, comprehensive detail, revealing a fantasy that must perish if there is to be any hope of preserving what remains of life on Earth. From solar panels to wind turbines, from LED light bulbs to electric cars, no green fantasy escapes Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert’s revealing peek behind the green curtain. Bright Green Lies is a must-read for all who cherish life on Earth.”
—Jeff Gibbs, writer, director, and producer of the film Planet of the Humans
Copies of the film on DVD will be available for purchase, alongside copies of the book which Lierre may sign for you.
Editor’s note: Science, touted to be objective, is far from so. As Lewis Mumford explains and Derrick writes extensively in Myth of Human Supremacy, any tool cannot be separated from the overall social structure under which it was created and operates. Likewise, science, as a way of thought, was created under a paradigm of dominance of nature. Much of the scientific discoveries have been pursued for the same purpose. Neither climate science, not climate solution is an exception.
The following article is a part of a blog by Indrajit Samarajiva. DGR does not espouse the views express in this article in its entirety.
Popular science books are all about wonder and discovery and a bit of woe about the state of the world, but that’s what science says, not what science does. In the western delusion of words over actions, science is portrayed as a hero in the fight against climate collapse when in fact is the primary villain. Because that book came on a truck, and that truck ran on diesel, and that diesel was refined from oil, and that oil came from the ground, and the people finding it and digging it up were all scientists.The fact is that there are far more scientists (and science graduates) working to cause climate collapse than there are scientists working to stop it, whatever that means. The fact is that your average poor person simply not consuming much is doing more than the most vaunted scientists jetting around the world to ‘save’ it by ‘raising awareness’. It’s all a preening hypocrisy really. The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.If you judge science by its works and not its words, science should be judged by the thousands of scientists who ‘discovered’ fossil fuels and continued to discover even more violent and invasive ways of fracking them out of the Earth; well after they should have figured out that lighting dead ancestors on fire makes the world hot and the gods angry. Science is justified as a state religion of capitalism because it produces real miracles, like abundant store shelves wrapped in plastic and time-saving products. But at what cost? As Frank Ocean sang, “if it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.”In another example, the Seneca people of Turtle Island understood crop rotation through a story of three sisters (corn, beans, and squash). This along with much other wisdom was dismissed by science and reformulated as the nitrogen cycle. Taking this knowledge (without understanding) scientists have used natural gas to pump nitrogen into fertilizer and tie our food supply (frankly inextricably) to fossil fuels. We literally eat natural gas. This works miraculously, but it works in the sense that a deal with the devil does. It works miraculously for a while, but the devil always gets his due.Science as opposed to religions advocated progress as opposed to balance or apocalypse. There is no concept of humanity as fallen or ‘below’ anything, it is always rising to the top. But this is hubris, like Icarus, and we are the generation getting our polyester wings scorched.The fact is that scientific understanding is only superficially used to wonder at and revere the world. It’s about as sincere as using a cartoon chicken to sell fried chicken. While a few scientists write books and give talks about how we shouldn’t end the world, a dozen more are actively ending it. That is indeed what science is for. That is why it is funded. Nuclear knowledge is (and likely was) most actively pursued for killing massive numbers of people for the military and scientific knowledge is most avidly pursued for killing off the Earth for industry. All of the warnings and whining are just the marketing layer over big business, which is the master science actually serves.
The response then is what about solar panels and more efficiency and the green revolution to come. Yes science technically got us into this hole, but it’s also going to get us out. Which is to say, when you’re in a hole, keep digging I guess. Literally. The ‘green revolution’ requires digging huge amounts of lithium and copper and other rare earth minerals out of more and more obscure reserve (using massive amounts of diesel of course). This captive revolution is not in fact a revolt against the power relations and godless philosophical rot that both run and ruin the world. It is just more window dressing on a burning house.
Electric batteries will not square the circle that personal vehicles are wildly inefficient. What we need is public transport and the destruction of roads and cars, not more inventions catering to peoples laziness and greed, which is what science is focused on right now. They are effectively deck managers on the Titanic, asking if you’d like a virgin mojito instead of the alcoholic one. The ship is still running on massive inequality, extraction, and fundamental ignorance, and the ship is still going down.
Shoveling ‘green’ energy into the same voracious greed of the 1% and the heavily marketed dream of everyone else living like that simply isn’t going to work. The fact is that science is being used to change the engine on a train that’s simply on the wrong track. It will still reach its destination, which is collapse.
At that point the tools of science (which are agnostic) can theoretically be used to balance the thermostat, just as cyanobacteria figured it out after they froze the Earth with their oxygen emissions. But that requires wisdom, accumulated over millions of years by our photosynthetic ancestors. Scientists—like children finding their fathers gun—have dug up and burnt those very photosynthetic ancestors and marveled at their own power. But it was all stolen glory, and now the climate is taking it all back. The debt incurred by scientific hubris yoked to capitalist greed is the death of 90% of species, including much of our own.
Science is thus not a way out of climate collapse. It is its most proximate cause. The way out means going backwards through science to philosophy (whence it sprung) and unfucking that. It involves going even further to the gods and stories that west Asian philosophers discarded and scorned. Hence the answer is not in the popular science novels you see in airport bookshops. They (and you) are part of the problem.
The answers are in the ancient (and frankly superior) civilizations crushed by western science and technology crashing on their shores, in the ancient wisdom rejected as superstition, and in the simple experience of being a human on earth, sitting still, not consuming much, and inhaling and exhaling oxygen under the trees. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that we’ve got to go much deeper than science. We’re in a hole. The answer is definitely not more blind faith in the shovel.
We are excited to announce the publication of our twentieth book, available now from our online shop. This year’s special issue is an all colour collection of prose, poetry and art that delves into the subject of extractivism. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing a selection of pieces from its pages. Today, we begin with the book’s editorial and cover by Lawrence Gipe.
No. 2 from Russian Drone Paintings (Mir Diamond Mine, Siberia) by Lawrence Gipe
Standing on the brink, before the towering back wall of the Berkeley, whose semi-circular sloping terraces resemble a gigantic Greek amphitheater, one is overtaken by a sense of doom…Viewed from the edge, the pit is a théâtre du sacrifice. The gateway to dominion is also a staircase to hell – Milton’s ‘wild Abyss’, the womb and grave of nature.
– Edwin C. Dobb, ‘The Age of the Sacrifice Zone’, EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss
In 2016, tens of thousands of snow geese, midway through their winter migration from Alaska to northern Mexico, diverted from their route in order to avoid a storm. Many landed on a blue lake at the bottom of a deep crater. But the water was not right; it hurt. Within minutes the exhausted birds were dropping dead in their thousands. Officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, examining the corpses afterwards, found burns inside their bodies, evidence of the cadmium, copper, arsenic, zinc and sulphuric acid they had sought to shelter on. This deadly toxic soup was what filled Montana’s milelong Berkeley Pit, leftover tailings from Butte’s heyday as the copper mining capital of the world, now one of the largest environmental clean-up sites in the country.
In 2020, the poisoned rivers, the hacked, fracked and exploded ground, the countless wounds from the thousands of mining projects in the American West inspired Peter Koch, founder and director of the CODEX Foundation, a California-based arts nonprofit, to launch a project called EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss. This ‘multimedia, multi-venue, cross-border art intervention’ invited artists from around the world to examine all forms of extractive industry, from open-cast mines in Butte to the exploitation of water, minerals, timber, coal, sand, animal and marine life, and the innumerable other ‘resources’ that fuel the global economy. EXTRACTION co-founder Edwin C. Dobb, who passed away in 2019, called this the ‘age of the sacrifice zone’, after an official government term for the areas that are left despoiled as the accepted collateral damage of so-called ‘progress’.
Dark Mountain’s 20th issue, ABYSS, is a response to that project’s call, bringing an uncivilised eye to the mindset of extractivism: an insatiable, pathological drive that has fuelled a seemingly endless expansion in energy use, manufacturing and economic activity. Just as our consumption appears to have no end in sight, there are no geographical limits: as mining or drilling operations shut down in one part of the world, having exhausted their seams or become economically unviable, new ones open up elsewhere – many of them to power the so-called ‘green’ technology boom.
Governments and billionaires dream of extending this frontier deeper and higher than ever before, from deep-sea mining on the ocean floor to plundering the minerals of other planets. Impelled by the need to take, take, take, the appetite of extractivism is all-consuming and unending.
In ABYSS , Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk write that we are living in the age of wetiko, an Algonquin term for a cannibalistic spirit that spreads like a virus. Amitav Ghosh draws the link between capitalist imperialism today and the 17th-century Dutch colonists in Indonesia’s Banda Islands, who massacred the indigenous population in order to gain control over the trade in nutmeg. And in South Africa, colonised for its mineral wealth and fertile land, Sage Freda writes of how environmental and human exploitation are inextricably linked; the more we wreck and ravage the Earth, the more deeply we damage ourselves. As wetiko spreads across the world, all of us – and all other species – end up living and dying in the sacrifice zone.
From the Amazon to the Niger Delta, the Atacama Desert to the Minnesota wetlands, communities and indigenous people are attempting to defend the living world from devastation. Many contributors to ABYSS are part of the pushback against the pillage: from the protest camp at the proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada, and from a deep-sea oil rig in New Zealand’s Great South Basin, we bring you stories from the activist front line. Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert take us to China’s giant black lake full of toxic run-off from the rare-earth metal mining that powers our laptops and phones. And we meet a Romanian peasant farmer whose fight against fracking and open-cast mining has helped to save one of Europe’s last medieval landscapes.
How do we remain fully human while so much around us is being destroyed, especially as we (at least, some of us) enjoy so many of the material benefits that devastation brings?
Extractivism’s story can be told through these struggles, as it can be told through statistics: that China now consumes more sand for concrete and cement every three years than the US consumed in the entire 20th century; that wild animal populations have decreased by 60% in the last 50 years. But this book also tells the story of how extractivism feels – how do we remain fully human while so much around us is being destroyed, especially as we (at least, some of us) enjoy so many of the material benefits that devastation brings? The fiction and poetry in this book navigate this tricky terrain, from Claire Wahmanholm’s haunting depictions of glaciers melting on the page to Tacey Atsitty’s wrenching depiction of the poisoned water supplies of the Diné in the American Southwest.
Photography, observes Richard Misrach, is a profound means of bearing witness. Many images in this all-colour issue come from the EXTRACTION project, giving evidence of the otherwise invisible toll of our voracious appetites, from David Maisel’s turquoise lithium ponds in the Atacama Desert to Lawrence Gipe’s stunning cover image depicting the largest hole on the planet in Siberia. Noble views of sublime natural landscapes give way to surveys of industrial ravages, as artists behold the world’s dams, tailing ponds, abandoned mines, oilfields, slag heaps and quarries, and the walls of granite, marble and coal that lie beneath. Among the litany of disappeared places, Jaime Black’s The REDress Project alerts us to the absences of indigenous women in Canada, while Aboriginal artist Betty Muffler shows the scale and beauty of the Earth repair required in her post-nuclear work, Healing Country. This is the world we do not see: the reality that powers the illusion of our spellbound lifestyles, with our sparkly wedding rings, our magical keyboards, our salmon and steak dinners, our electric cars gliding towards the emerald green cities of the future.
Once you start looking through the lens of extractivism, you start to see it everywhere – in the intellectual industries’ absorption of organic life and culture to feed its never-ending appetite for analysis and codification; in the teetering stacks of digital finance, each newly created layer of speculative instrument appropriating value from the one below it; and in the exploitation of ‘human resources’, making ever-greater demands on workers’ psychological and physical labour while demanding they carry ever more of the economic risk. And the suspicion arises that, behind all these manifestations of extraction, lies the same emotional and metaphysical vacuum – a hole in the heart as long and wide as the Berkeley pit: unappeasable, irrational, and ultimately incapable of ever being filled.
IMAGE: No. 2 from Russian Drone Paintings (Mir Diamond Mine, Siberia) Oil on canvas Courtesy of the artist
Gipe’s latest series, Russian Drone Paintings is based on images taken by drones for news programmes and surveillance posted on the government–run RUPTLY Network. Each painting consists of a frozen frame from this feed with subjects like pit mines in Siberia, bombings in Syria, ghost towns on remote mountains, towns abandoned because of radiation, and other residual evidence of interventions into nature.
Lawrence Gipe’s practice engages the postmodern landscape and the visual rhetoric of progress, in media that ranges between painting, drawing, video and collaborative curatorial projects. Gipe has had 60 solo exhibitions in galleries and museums in New York, Beijing, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Munich, Berlin and Düsseldorf. Currently, he splits his time between his studio in Los Angeles, CA, and Tucson, AZ, where he is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at the University of Arizona.
On Friday, January 15th, two activists drove eight hours from Eugene, Oregon, to a remote corner of public land in Nevada, where they pitched a tent in below-freezing temperatures and unfurled a banner declaring:
“Protect Thacker Pass.”
You’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the place—it’s seriously in the boonies—but these activists, Will Falk and Max Wilbert, hope to make it into a household name. One of the activists is Will Falk, a writer and lawyer who helped bring a suit to US District Court seeking personhood for the Colorado River in 2017. He describes himself as a “biophilic essayist” and he certainly lyrical in describing the area where they set up:
“Thacker Pass is a quintessential representation of the Great Basin’s specific beauty. Millions of years ago a vast lake stretched across this land. Now, oceans of sagebrush wash over her. If you let the region’s characteristic stillness settle into your imagination, you’ll see how the sagebrush flows and swells like the ancient lake that was once here. On the north and south ends of the Pass, mountains run parallel to each other. The mountains feature outcroppings of volcanic rock left by the active volcano that was here even before the ancient lake. The mountains cradle you with the valley’s dips and curves up to the ever-changing, never-ending Great Basin sky. During the day, the sun shines down full-strength creating shape-shifting shadows on the mountain faces. At night, the stars and moon shine with such intensity and clarity that you can almost hear the light as it pours to the ground.”
I’ve spent enough time in the Great Basin to attest to its beauty myself: the dramatic ranges, the expansive flats, the gnarled trees, the stiff-stemmed wildflowers, and the lean, sinewy jack rabbits; they are all expressions of endurance in a landscape imbued with the echoes of the ancient. How long ago it must have been, when waves lapped the foothills, yet the shapes they left are unmistakable. The sense is palpable of being elevated, inland, and isolated from the ocean—the waterways here don’t run to the sea, hence the name “basin.”
Austere as it all is, humans have lived in the area for many thousands of years, digging roots, gathering seeds & berries, harvesting pinenuts and hunting game.
These traditions, though assaulted, survive.
To the Europeans seeking fertile valleys to farm or dense forest to cut, the Great Basin offered little to nothing, so most of the folks from “back east” just passed through. But ranching and mining cursed the region since the invasion began, and its grasses were razed and its rocks ripped open. Still, many areas, especially up the slopes, were spared the hammering that befell the tallgrass praries of the Midwest and the old growth forests of the West, which were extirpated to the degree of 95% or more. In fact, some of the last best wildlife habitat in the lower 48 still hangs on in the Great Basin, ragged though it might be around the edges.
Yet it seems the time has come when these “wastelands,” as so many erroneously consider them, will be put on the chopping block for a new kind of exploitation: “green” energy development. Massive solar arrays and huge wind farms have been taking the lead in this latest wave of exploitation, and now mining is being imposed. Not coal for fuel or gold for wealth but lithium for electric car batteries.
Thacker Pass is the site of a proposed lithium mine that would impact nearly 5700 acres—close to nine square miles—and which would include a giant open pit mine over two square miles in size, a sulfuric acid processing plant, and piles of tailings. The operation would use 850 million gallons of water annually and 26,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day. The ecological damage in this delicate, slow-to-heal landscape would be permanent, at least on the human scale. At risk are a number of animal and plant species including the threatened Greater Sage Grouse, Pygmy Rabbits, the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, a critically imperiled endemic snail species known as the Kings River Pyrg, old growth Big Sagebrush and Crosby’s Buckwheat, to name just those that are locally significant. Also present in the area are Golden Eagles, Pronghorn Antelope, and Bighorn Sheep.
A cultural heritage also exists in this area. In describing the north-south corridor immediately to the east of Thacker Pass, wildtender Nikki Hill says:
“This pass in Nevada is a bridge of great importance. My auntie, Finisia Medrano, would speak of how this was the way one would travel by horse or foot from the wild gardens of Eastern Oregon to continue into Nevada and still be supported, finding food and water for the journey. She would speak of how there was no other real good way to make this crossing, due to a lack of resources in the surrounding landscape. If this is the case for a human, it is the case for all the non human people traversing this area as well. There is so much fragmentation, in landscape, mentality and relations, all stemming from a displaced sense of belonging. How will we know our way back to places, both in spirit and in touch, without threads of continuity to weave together?”
It’s industry vs. ecology once again, and there’s nothing “sustainable” about it for the thousands of creatures who will lose their lives or homes if the mine is allowed to happen.
The reason that Will Falk and his fellow activist Max Wilbert rushed to the site on January 15th was because that’s the day the Bureau of Land Management issued it’s “record of decision,” which greenlighted this horrific project. The BLM considered four alternatives and admitted that it did not choose the “environmentally preferable” one—which was no mine—because it would not have satisfied the “purpose and need”—which was obviously the mine itself. I point this out to illustrate that US land management decisions are primarily made in favor of development not preservation. Typically, what environmental regulations do exist are weak, poorly enforced, and increasingly watered down. Hence, Falk and Wilbert’s decision to take direct action.
This is not the most comfortable time of year to be camped out in northern Nevada, so I admire them for making this choice. Overnight lows are in the teens and twenties at this time of year, and daily highs in the thirties and forties. Snow is possible. But it’s the truth that showing up is often the only way to make a difference.
They sent out a press release on Monday, January 18th, announcing their encampment. Said Falk:
“Environmentalists might be confused about why we want to interfere with the production of electric car batteries.”
Here, Falk is speaking to the fact that over the last twenty years, the focus of mainstream environmentalism has narrowed in on carbon pollution as a central concern, too often to the exclusion of issues like industrial development, technological consumption and other forms of pollution. Specifically, the topic of automobile use has been reduced to a question of emissions when, in reality, cars and car culture are problematic for many other reasons:
Car-related deaths in the US are typically around 40,000 per year, and far more people are injured, sometimes maimed for life.
Cars kill countless animals annually in both urban and rural settings. Whether the vehicle is gas-powered or battery-powered doesn’t make a difference to the poor squirrel, cat, coyote, skunk or deer who is taken out.
Roads themselves demand a tremendous amount of resources for their construction and upkeep. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of carbon in the world.
In rural areas, roads fragment habitat, preventing natural pattern of foraging, hunting and migration.
Car tires contain toxic substances that are harmful to wildlife, and as the Guardian recently reported, Salmon in the Pacific Northwest are being killed by a chemical being washed into rivers and streams by the rain.
City life is made far less hospitable by the quantity, speed, and dominating presence of cars. Streets and parking lots can take up 50% of a US city. Much of that would be better be used for other purposes like pedestrian plazas, green spaces and urban agriculture.
Then there are the cultural aspects of car culture. The car-based suburbs struck a terrible blow to localized communities in the US, breaking up close-knit urban neighborhoods and replacing them with atomized subdivisions, in which each household (now reduced to its “nuclear” form, without extended family) was isolated with a propaganda machine. The “conveniences” imposed on us then ended up having a far higher price tag than advertised, and the resulting consumer culture is now swallowing up the world. From a mental health stand point, the alienation the suburbs inflicted on our society still tortures us to this day.
More subtle, but very real, is the way our perception is shaped by observing the world from inside a metal box at great speed. From a vantage of insulation and separation, other objects—including people—are reduced to mere obstacles. The dehumanization that is imprinted this way doesn’t immediately end when we get out of the vehicle.
Replacing gas stations with charging stations is not going to address any of this. Though the globalized system of extraction that supports all of this is itself running out of fuel, I fear that electric vehicles will only draw out the agony.
Some will argue that electric cars are beneficial regardless of all of the above, because they do reduce emissions while driving, and doesn’t that make them worth it? That’s unclear. The entire calculus must include the damage incurred by lithium mining, and by all the other extractive activities needed specifically for electric cars. The air might indeed be fresher in the city, but at the cost of habitat destruction, pollution and human suffering in another place—in somebody else’s home.
“The biodiversity crisis is every bit as dire as the climate crisis, and sacrificing biodiversity in the name of climate change makes no scientific or moral sense. Over the last 50 years, Earth has lost nearly two thirds of its wildlife. Habitat loss is the major cause. Humans can’t keep destroying important wildlife habitat and still avoid ecosystem collapse.”
Human rights issues are also in the mix. Lest we forget, the US-backed right-wing coup in Bolivia in late 2019 was motivated in part by desire to control the lithium deposits in the Andean highlands, a place of otherworldly beauty. (See “Coups-for-Green-Energy added to Wars-For-Oil.”) Though the Bolivian people have since taken back their government, they experienced violence and suffering in the meantime. Unfortunately, the socialist party returned to power also favors mining the lithium. Their model is Venezuela, where oil profits were used to fund social programs. So, US leftists should take note that overthrowing capitalists does not automatically translate into “green” policy.
As Falk said: “It’s wrong to destroy a mountain for any reason – whether the reason is fossil fuels or lithium.”
The real answer, of course, is fewer cars.
Plenty of activists, academics and planners have been talking about how to do that for years, and there’s plenty of solutions to pick from. What’s been lacking so far is the political will and the vibrant movement needed to force that will.
Nikki Hill further commented:
“The answer to the climate crisis is not ramping up new, more, green energy. This ‘green’ is just a word coloring the vision of insatiable growth, peddled by green greed. The green we need so desperately is the one that fills our hearts with connected wonder with the rest of the living world. And that requires slowing the fuck down.”
Indeed. And as of Friday, January 15th, two activists are camped out in Thacker Pass, Nevada, to slow down—and hopefully stop—that insatiable growth.