Category Archives: Activism

Do you suffer from Anthropocentric Personality Disorder?

Antisocial personality disorder is generally defined as a condition in which the sufferer exhibits a repeated pattern of disregard for the rights, feelings, and well-being of others. Tell me that isn’t how most people regard the non-human world.

(Originally published June 4, 2014 on Beacon Reader) 

White Mountains from North Shore of Mono Lake

Mono Lake is drying up again. The unprecedented drought that’s settled in over the state of California has dried out the snowmelt that usually feeds the picturesque, unearthly lake east of Yosemite.

Because the lake has no outlet other than evaporation, its water gets saltier as the lake shrinks: there’s no way of flushing out the dissolved minerals. In the best of times, when the lake is at its ideal level with the water surface at or above 6,400 feet above sea level, Mono Lake is twice as salty as the ocean. Right now the lake’s surface stands at 6,380 feet and an inch or two, and its water is closer to three times as salty. That increased salinity threatens to undo the lake’s ecology, killing off the algae and brine flies that form the base of a food chain supporting millions of migratory birds.

As the result of decades of bitter court battles against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which diverts fresh water from the streams that feed the lake, 6,380 feet is a threshold level for the lake. With the lake above 6,380 feet, LADWP is allowed to take 16,000 acre-feet from Mono’s tributaries each year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre to a depth of a foot; 16,000 acre-feet per year is enough water to fill Pasadena’s Rose Bowl to the brim every six days.)

Once the lake drops below 6380 feet, which it likely will by the end of June or July, LADWP’s exports are cut to 4,500 acre-feet per year. That’s still a significant amount of water to be removing from a lake in the desert, but it’s a steep cut nonetheless. And as a result, Los Angeles residents eager to make sure they help preserve the amazing ecosystem at Mono Lake have drastically cut down on the amount of water they use.

Wait, no, they haven’t.

Don’t get me wrong: ecologically conscious Angelenos exist by the tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. That’s a lot of green-leaning people. But in a city of ten million, a hundred thousand people putting buckets under leaky taps to catch the water for reuse amount to a… well,  you know.

It’s not just Mono Lake, of course. The whole west is going dry, with California hardest hit. Los Angeles infamously gets water from the Owens Valley. It also gets a fair amount in typical years from the Colorado River and from Northern California, via the California Aqueduct. In other words, the city of Los Angeles has straws stuck into just about every major stream and a bunch of minor ones across the southwest, all of which are exceptionally dry this year.

I visit LA about twice a month, and here’s what I see when I go:

That’s a photo from 2006, but trust me: it’s easy to find it happening this week. After a year of increasingly urgent warnings from local water districts, the state’s governor, and federal scientists that there’s not enough water to go around.

Oh, people are doing their part in other ways. You’ll see little signs in restaurants saying that the servers will only bring a glass of water to people who ask for it. That does make a difference. If all of Los Angeles’ 10 million residents refused an eight-ounce glass of water each, the water saved would add up to 1.9 acre-feet. That’s something.

I’m picking on Los Angeles because it’s the largest city in the drought-stricken West, but people aren’t any better elsewhere in California. Even in the supposedly eco-conscious San Francisco Bay Area, the culture of the sodden lawn still reigns, and water use cutbacks are “voluntary” and mainly going unheeded. In less liberal environs like the state’s Central Valley, thought leaders — if I may use that term loosely — are actually calling for wildlife species to be allowed to go extinct so that industry can continue to use the state’s water.

If you knew someone who treated his family and friends the way Californians treat the ecosystems that give them water, you’d likely give that guy a wide berth. Taking resources from someone for your own benefit, and not changing your ways even as they languish and decline? On a personal level, that is generally considered the mark of a monster.

On the political or corporate management levels it’s standard operating procedure, and as a result the makers of the 2003 film The Corporation proposed that we regard corporations the way we’d regard individuals who acted the same way: as sociopaths. That term has been deprecated of late in favor of phrases like antisocial personality disorder, but the basics remain:

  • a pattern of behavior that fails to take the welfare of others into account or even deliberately disregards that welfare;
  • •a lack of either empathy for those affected by one’s actions or remorse for those effects;
  •  poor impulse control and failure to properly assess the risks of the impulsive behavior.

Treating people the way we treat the planet is considered a profound personality disorder.

And rightly so. Who’d want to be on the receiving end of the kind of treatment the non-human world gets dished out to it? Even just suggesting that the non-human world might be due a bit of concern and compassion can get you ridiculed in print, as witness the New York Times’ report on a recent controversy over negligient harm done to baby heron chicks in Oakland, California. Reporter Carol Pogash couldn’t just write about the heron chicks: she had make to unsubstantiated allegations that Oaklanders who cared about the birds didn’t care about homeless people. She did this not once but twice.

The inability to take part in a discussion without shifting everyone’s focus to one’s self is diagnostic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What do we call Pogash’s apparent inability to allow a discussion to proceed without making it focus on her species?

It’s a bigger issue than just individuals’ feelings about conserving water or helping urban wildlife. The conservation movement, which has always been opposed by those whose short-term profits might suffer if they can’t trample the natural world to their hearts’ content, is now being challenged by people calling themselves “new environmentalists,” who proclaim that conservation’s goal should be “Take Care Of People First.”

In other words, there’s a massive campaign to rewrite the goals of conservation away from protecting wildlife and their habitat, and in favor of terraforming the planet for humans’ maximum long-term comfort.

We should call out this point of view for what it is: a widespread personality disorder in which the sufferer is unable to empathize with the 99.9 percent of species in the world that aren’t human, feels wholly justified in any actions that benefit humans no matter the cost to those other species, is unlikely to feel remorse for the deleterious consequences of human actions on other species, and thus does not adequately assess the real-world risks of those actions.

Anthropocentric personality disorder hurts the planet. It hurts people who care about the planet. And it hurts the people who have it.

But there is help. If you think you might have anthropocentric personality disorder, just go outside and start paying attention.

Berta Cáceres and the California Desert

caceres

Berta Cáceres | Photo courtesy COPINH

In March of this year, Indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres was assassinated in Honduras. Her family is certain the assassins were sent to end Cáceres’ opposition to a twenty-megawatt hydroelectric project at Agua Zarca, on the Gualcarque River near Honduras’ border with eastern El Salvador.

The project, which is still being touted as a source of carbon-free power for more than 100,000 Honduran households, would have blocked Cáceres’ Lenca people from access to the river. The Lenca hold the Gualcarque as sacred. Cáceres’ work to stop the project, on behalf of the group National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was lauded worldwide. Her efforts won her the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Her death is mourned by human rights and environmental activists around the world.

Also in March of this year, The Bureau of Land Management held a meeting with Native tribes in the California desert to discuss the proposed Crimson Solar Project, which would generate more than 20 times the power of Agua Zarca, using six million solar panels on as much as 4,000 acres of land adjacent to the Mule Mountains, which the Mojave people and others hold sacred.

The project is new, and local Native people sometimes take a while to draft opposition to specific projects. I don’t wish to put words in their mouths. But after talking to a few of them, it’s clear to me that Crimson enjoys little support among local tribes, and is opposed by many. Aside from infringing on landscapes held sacred for millennia, Crimson risks depleting valuable groundwater — solar panels in the desert do need washing, and dust control is a serious public health issue — and the Mohave in particular suspect their rights to use Colorado River water may be a casualty to increased water demand from industrial solar.

And yet few of the environmental organizations who lent early support to COPINH and to Berta Cáceres as they fought renewable energy development on the Gualcarque have not said word one to oppose Crimson Solar, or to support the project’s Native opponents.

There are two main reasons for this. One is sad, the other ugly.

The sad reason? While Agua Zarca is one of just four planned hydroelectric projects in Lenca territory, there are dozens of solar projects proposed, under construction, or completed on culturally significant lands in the California Desert. Across the interstate from the Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat Crimson would convert to an industrial facility lies the nearly 2,000-acre Genesis Solar Project, which generates 10 times as much power as Agua Zarca would, and the construction of which was halted time after time as construction crews found cultural artifacts, habitation sites, and human remains. Being built not far to the east are the Blythe solar projects, which will generate 485 megawatts on a bit under 4,000 acres, and the adjacent McCoy solar project, now generating 250 megawatts on about 2,300 acres — though McCoy’s owners hope to double its output once they find a buyer for the additional power. To the west, the 3,800-acre Desert Sunlight solar project has been powering Californians’ video game controllers for a few years, at the cost of culturally significant landscapes and the views from Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds the plant on three sides. Down the road from Desert Sunlight, the ever-changing Palen Solar project might convert as much as 5,000 acres if it ever gets built. The proposed 3,600-acre Blythe Mesa solar project and 4,900-acre Desert Quartzsite project, both within view of the shifting sacred sands Crimson would occupy, merely drive the point home: part of the reason you haven’t heard of the Crimson Solar Project’s harm to Native people is that Crimson is just a drop in the bucket.

And that’s only counting projects within an hour’s drive of Crimson. There are just far too many projects to track.

The ugly reason: It’s easier for American environmentalists to support Native activists living in lands far away, where their activism doesn’t risk cramping the environmentalists’ lifestyles.

And, of course, we do things differently for the most part in the United States. Cáceres’ assassination was an atrocity, as are the killings of her COPINH compañer@s both before March and since. In the U.S., we don’t bury our Native activists in unmarked graves so much any more: we bury them in paperwork and poverty and bureaucratic inertia. The Bureau of Land Management is obligated by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to consult with federally recognized Native tribes when considering a project, and to take steps to protect the kind of artifacts and remains found on the Genesis Solar site and to protect the location of other sensitive sites by keeping them confidential. But while those distinct and discrete artifacts and sites are important to the tribes, they aren’t the whole story.

There are few generalizations one can make about the dozens of diverse Native cultures in the California desert, but here’s one, as near as my faulty understanding can manage: The whole desert landscape is considered something like sacred. That “S” word, mind you, carries connotations of piety that are both too exaggerated and too superficial to describe the actual relationship of people and desert. The people see themselves as part of the landscape. They see the landscape as part of the people. They see landscape, people, and a metaphysical layer of ghosts and supernatural entities inextricably intertwined.

In this world view, paving the living landscape of the wild desert is something akin to homicide. Wreaking massive changes on that landscape — industrial conversion of 40 square miles just in eastern Riverside County, if all plans proceed — is a blow to both Native culture and Native lives every bit as threatening as the joint Honduran-Chinese plan to dam the Río Gualcarque.

And yet some of the same environmental organizations that lauded Cáceres’ work, and wrung their organizational hands over her murder, are supporting the wholesale conversion of California desert Native people’s sacred landscape to power plants to run coastal cities.

It’s easier to oppose colonialism when it’s someone else doing the colonizing. When you are the colonialist, it’s important to mask it in procedure, to make a show of formal consultation and grinning respect, to speak in high-minded tones of stakeholding and win-win solutions.

That illusion must be maintained. Faults in the rhetorical armor must be defended. Those of us who’ve spoken up have often found ourselves criticized by our erstwhile colleagues; ostracized, barred from supposedly public meetings and conferences, having our jobs threatened for the simple sin of saying something about the growing cultural genocide that is renewable energy development in the desert Southwest.

 

Your grandchildren will ask

Your grandchildren will ask
how we could possibly have been so blind.

Your grandchildren will ask
what it must have been like
to live in a world with tigers,
sea turtles, to live in a world
where the tide line wrack
was made of wood and kelp.

Your grandchildren will ask
what the hell we were all thinking.

Your grandchildren will ask
why we didn’t just shut
the coal plants down,
what we were doing
with all that electricity
we bought with their future.

Your grandchildren will ask
why we put potatoes and oranges
in plastic bags.

Your grandchildren will ask
what it was like
to walk into a wild landscape
and not see the other side.

Your grandchildren will ask
what the fuck was wrong with us.

Your grandchildren will ask
how we could possibly have thought
it was ever a good idea
to bring their parents into the world.

Some folks may have the luxury

Some folks may have the luxury
to remember what Kissinger did.
Some folks may have the luxury
to be too far removed
from some othered authenticity
to forget the artists rounded up into the stadium,
the young women thrown out
of helicopter doors above the ocean,
their newborns newly adopted by junta families.

Some folks may have the luxury
of the barrier of maquila shanties,
heat waves fetid off the border creeks
to block their vision of the value in the Imperfect Now.

Some folks may have the luxury
of empathy.

Some folks may have the luxury
to be consigned to extinction
by Saudi princes, Honduran generals
for declaring
that they are hurting right now.

Some folks may have the luxury
of Workfare.

Some folks may have the luxury
of historical memory.

Some folks may have the luxury
of sight.

Return to Ivanpah

ivanpahSEGS

 

I hadn’t been back since they built it, since they denuded six square miles of old-growth desert, shredded ancient cacti and yuccas for a project with an expected functional lifespan shorter than my own remaining life expectancy.

I hadn’t been back. I’d been monitoring the plant’s construction, and then its operation, about as closely as anyone not in the employ of a government agency or energy company. But I couldn’t bring myself to go look.

The valley saved my life not long ago, less than a decade ago, reminded me in the midst of grief and dislocation that there was still beauty to be found among the head-high creosotes and the swooping nighthawks, and then I failed to return the favor. Instead, I heard from people who told me the sacrifice wasn’t all that big. The valley was worthless, they said, or at best a place it was a necessary shame to lose. And I didn’t go back. I didn’t force myself to go back.

And then, yesterday, in the pursuit of a walk and photography session in what will very likely become the Castle Mountains National Monument, I went back. I was well prepared: I took a pit bull. And some coffee, and a friend who likely feels the loss of those six square miles even more keenly than I do, whom circumstances have forced to drive past the fucking thing at frequent intervals.

After a ceremonial first glimpse of the lair of Sauron The Renewable, we went across the valley to Nipton, where I lived for much of 2008, and we ate burritos we’d imported from Barstow and the dog snoozed in the shade of a eucalyptus and we spoke to a long-time resident who hadn’t seen the place yet when I lived there. It was much as I’d left it, except that the restaurant was closed and the town was for sale and my little house looked slightly more inclined toward the ground.

And then, after I walked Heart through what had been my backyard, the three of us headed up the road toward Nevada and over the shoulder of Crescent Peak. The power plant is till intrusive as hell from that remove, and I fought the dangerous impulse to stare into it, blinding even from 15 miles distant.

I yield to no one in my regret that the thing was built, and when I sift through the ruins of the site in 2050 for shards of mirror to build solar cookers I will feel the same way, because I knew the land before the machines came.

But I can report that no matter how egregious, profit-driven and soulless the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System might be, no matter how bereft of clear vision its planners and admirers, no matter how visibly jury-rigged, insensitive and inappropriate the technology, no matter how it slashes the face of the valley like a hit man hired by the urban power companies, no matter how ugly and evil the power plant is, it turns out its power is insufficient to overwhelm the gut-punching beauty of the valley. I belong there, it turns out.

I will be back soon.

At that first glimpse, pulled on the little extension of Nipton Road at that road’s westernmost end, where the Interstate takes a deep breath and plummets headlong toward the state line, I swallowed hard and grabbed my camera, stepped out of the rented F-150. I took a few steps, raised the camera, took the shot above and a few others.

David and Heart sat in the truck, waiting for me to finish so that we could hie for Nipton and eat cold burritos. I tried to think of something sonorous and weighty to say to mark the occasion to the yuccas and the air, but no words came. Instead, I set the camera gently on the ground a few steps behind me, returned to my vantage point, unzipped, and then pissed in the power plant’s direction. It seemed appropriate.

As it happened I was pissing into the wind, which also seemed appropriate.

Grief

The realization came this morning. It was not the first time. I busy myself with small crisis after small crisis to stave it off most days, most years.

Today it persisted through noon,  through an afternoon of rain, through a moonlit walk under fresh-washed stars with a joyous dog.

We are losing. We have always been losing, the desert tortoises and the coho salmon and the Lane’s milk-vetch and the few humans who care to think about them. The losses come day by day, and I have taken the short view, fought for one desert valley or one small species at a time.

It is a form of triage, a way to focus one’s effectiveness, but it is also a palliative. A way of focusing on a discrete, winnable battle while the war is lost all around us.

It’s not just the one desert valley you choose to defend, its birds and herps and undocumented wildflowers written off as a sacrifice somehow more acceptable than unplugging your game console. Worlds of unknown species, unknown relationships among species, paved before the scientists get to them because we need those phone chargers ready to go while our phones are in our pockets somewhere else.

It’s not just the one valley. It’s the forested ridge above, ancient fire-scarred trees cut down to fuel biomass power plants, trees turned to pallets to ship cubic miles of consumer crap to the big box stores where the vernal pools used to be. It’s hundreds of miles of river, once wild and flooding in spring, now slack behind concrete plugs, bereft of fish and watering rich men’s investment export crops. Mountain passes once choked with eagles now industrial landscapes of whirling blades.

We have warmed the deep valleys beneath six miles of sea. We have bred monstrous storms, put plastic in every drop of ocean, thinned the glaciers and slicked the seas. The planet is heating up, and the damage done by deniers is rivaled only by the damage done by those who would remake the world because they fear climate disaster — but not enough to change the way they live.

I live too comfortably myself: I have power and running water 24 hours a day, a lifestyle that is likely unsustainable, a lifestyle that will soon be reserved for the very rich. I would haul my own water on my back if it meant I could see desert tortoises on my 75th birthday. I will not, and that birthday is less than 20 years away.

They are losing, the wild things. They are taking a hit for a team they never joined. We see the damage we’ve done by burning coal to feed our habits, and contrite, we propose to scour forest and desert to feed those habits instead.

And all the while the best and brightest concerned young progressives argue about themselves in comfortable chairs.

Last night, under a quarter moon, the dog and I stood not 50 feet from a trio of coyotes as they sang a counterpoint to the sirens on Route 62. They were mainly unconcerned by our presence, as if they knew we would not be here much longer.

Cynicism

If there is a phenomenon more dehumanizing, more destructive than hate, it is this: hopelessness.

That’s been driven home to me with a vengeance the last few days, but it’s something I’ve thought about for decades. Hatred can ebb. It can burn itself out. People can be educated out of their hatred. I have seen it happen, seen the former Klansman realize his world view had been broken, seen the fervent patriot come to realize the Enemy isn’t all that different.

But that stylish sentiment that nothing we do can ever change the world, that feeling strongly about issues is embarrassing and sincerity is not to be trusted, that world-weary and separate cynicism is, I think, far more pernicious, far less amenable to cure.

Hatred is fueled by fear, and fear has a half-life. Unless stoked, it eventually goes cold. Cynical hopelessness is self-healing. In other realms, other contexts, it would be called “learned helplessness”: the conviction that trying to improve your lot will only make you feel worse in the long run.

Cynicism is a form of depression. It is scar tissue covering that part of the soul that would dare to hope, if it had a little fresh air on it. I have spent time in the last years describing radical feminism to angry misogynists in Mojave Desert bars, and deep green environmentalism to off-road vehicle riders, and getting somewhere with each group. I cannot recall the last time I persuaded a cynic of anything: the very attempt to persuade is seen as selling something.

In his 1999 book Soul of A Citizen, Paul Rogat Loeb wrote:

Cynicism salves the pain of unrealized hope. If we convince ourselves that nothing can change, we don’t have to risk acting on our dreams. But the more we accept this, the more we deny core parts of ourselves. We deny even the possibility that our choices can matter…
Cultivated or crude, cynicism is treacherous. It converts the sense of not wanting to be lied to into bitter protection against dashed hopes: if we never begin to fight for our dreams, there’s no risk that we will fail.

Loeb quotes Lewis Hyde describing cynicism as “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage,” and observes — in a passage that predated most social media by more than a decade but which rings ever truer with each updated Facebook feed:

[T]oo many activists almost delight in rolling around in the bad news, like dogs in rancid fish. If that’s all we do, we’ll reinforce the belief that efforts to change things are doomed. We’ll foster resignation and despair.

I hear him. My job for the last 25 years has been finding and sharing that bad news. I’ve fought that resignation, that despair, sometimes less successfully than others.

And I look back at my life over those last 25 years and find ways in which the world would be worse, at least marginally, had I not done the work.

I might as well quote Loeb again. (Really, you should read the whole thing.)

As an alternative to this impotent realism, I’d like to propose a clear-eyed idealism, which recognizes that these are bad times for many people, but refuses to accept that the bad times are inevitable.

That clear-eyed idealism is a difficult path: it requires you take a fair number of jabs to your soul right where that scar tissue might once have cushioned the blow. Walking the line between blithe and jaded isn’t easy.

But it is the best, most fulfilling way to live.