A piece that appeared in issue number 2 of Luna Arcana, Joshua Tree’s local arts and culture print journal, published in June.
There is a new gold rush in the Mojave Desert, a new ore being mined from the landscape. The mines are everywhere, but they concentrate here in the Morongo Basin. Unlike the first Gold Rush, this “gold rush” isn’t chasing gold. The New Miners aren’t after silver or uranium or borax. Unlike their predecessors in recent decades, they’re not even after the desert’s scant water or ubiquitous solar energy.
Some of them are after enlightenment on demand, the people who come to the desert for a three-day weekend to find more meaning in their lives, then declare to themselves they have found it whether their lives change afterward or not.
Some are after a self-declared authenticity, a reputation as the kind of person that hangs out in the desert instead of, say, the beach or the mall.
Some are chasing style points. Their pick and shovel a selfie stick and a smartphone, they fan out across the desert, a good day’s haul a few artfully framed shots of themselves in front of desert plants they cannot name.
Some are after a sense of the edge, a fulfilled longing for post-apocalyptic lawlessness with a rust-colored motif, the Wild West updated to the 21st Century.
They come. They delve the Mojave. They prospect for their intangible prizes. And then they leave, thinking they have gotten something of value.
Is this assessment too harsh? The Mojave has seen far more than its share of mining, some of it catastrophically destructive of the actual desert. The New Miners generally do not slick ephemeral streams with mercury or cyanide, nor do they leave radioactive tailings piles a thousand feet tall behind them. They do sometimes leave behind tire tracks on previously undisturbed desert soils, a moment’s carelessness that will take centuries to heal. They sometimes set fires, or leave behind spray-painted tags on rocks or old houses or Joshua trees. They sometimes assemble in large groups for events that could far more easily have taken place in a stadium in Covina, save for the fact that Covina isn’t cool.
Still. Each individual New Miner is generally a fine person with lofty personal ideals, a fine sense of responsibility for her actions, and a willingness to listen and learn. Few of them actually want to damage the desert.
I certainly didn’t want to when I first came here. But I did, in a dozen small and stupid ways, born out of ignorance of what the desert actually is. In thirty years of seeking my own self-proclaimed desert authenticity, of stripmining the landscape for meaning and inspiration, I have just begun to learn a few things.
The biggest of those things I’ve learned: the desert— shockingly! — does not primarily organize itself around providing you with maximum comfort. Things that have lived here long enough have had the sense to grow thick skins, stout spines, chemical weapons and the ability to just… wait. The desert works just fine for them.
The desert is not about you.
It’s not a stylish backdrop for your music festival. It’s not your post-apocalyptic theme park. It’s not a monastery or a boot camp. (There are monasteries and boot camps here, but outsiders brought them.)
The desert is a tough, sensitive, harsh, forgiving environment. It is barren and lush, dangerous and nurturing, hard and soft.
A while ago, well out in the outback, I laid my sleeping pad down on a flat expanse of black-varnished gravel, desert pavement. I laid my sleeping bag atop the pad, crawled into the bag and laid there for a few hours, mostly sleeping. I awoke in the same position I’d fallen asleep in, my mummy bag too tight for thrashing. Packing up I found that my pad had left its mark in the black gravel, which was actually a layer just one stone thick. Beneath was a pale, invasive dust that began to billow from the scars I’d made in the gravel cap.
Black varnish develops slowly, over millennia. That gravel layer was very black. It had lain there for thousands of years, withstanding storms and howling wind and time and parching sun, and I broke it with a sleeping pad in a few hours.
We can take desert pavement as a symbol of the desert itself. The threat comes when we do not see it for what it actually is. When you see a continuously evolving, sensitive and responsive, nearly organic surface as just a pile of gravel, you will do damage.
But when you toss your preconceptions about the desert out with your empty IPA and kombucha bottles, when you start to see what the desert actually is, that right there is the beginning of hope.
It is not too late for you. Just put down the miners’ tools.
“The hundreds of miles of soil that surround the lives of Valley dwellers should not be confused with land. What was once land has become dirt, overworked dirt, overirrigated dirt, injected with deadly doses of chemicals and violated by every manner of ground- and back-breaking machinery. The people that worked the dirt do not call what was once the land their enemy. They remember what land used to be and await its second coming.”
— Cherrie Moraga, Heroes and Saints
It is two hundred fifty miles between Grant Line Road in Tracy and Beale Road in Arvin. It is also two hundred fifty miles back the other way. I have made each drive perhaps a hundred times. Perhaps more. Southbound Interstate 5 flirts with the San Joaquin Valley until Coalinga, sticks to the base of the Coast Ranges as if hesitant to commit itself fully to the Valley’s preternatural flatness.
Just south of Coalinga, after the low grasslands of the Kettleman Hills, those mountains recede to the west, a bay drawn down before the tsunami of the Grapevine. The road has no choice but to plunge across the flat from Kettleman City to Wheeler Ridge, where it can climb at long last into the Tehachapis, heading toward the sky and Los Angeles .
Travelers who do not intend to stay — in whose number I usually count myself, but not always — curse the flat. The speed limit is posted as 70 but traffic generally moves at 15 or 20 miles above the limit, as if pursued by demons. Perhaps it is. In more than thirty years of traversing the Valley I have at times fallen prey to that haste, the desire to exit the Valley as soon as possible after entering it.
At length, though, the Valley itself beguiled me, local two-lanes heading eastward toward one small town or another, miles of arrow-straight pavement punctuated every so often by a block or two of shade trees and vacant storefronts. At first I was traveling through, passing along the streets of Escalon or Wasco on my way to Yosemite or Los Angeles or, increasingly, Tehachapi, the fastest route into the Mojave Desert from my former Bay Area home. Then I stopped traveling through and just started traveling.
California’s Central Valley is actually three distinct valleys, or four, depending on who’s counting. In the north, the Sacramento Valley cradles its namesake river for about 150 miles. The Sacramento River is the West Coast’s second largest in terms of volume after the Columbia, and its valley is consequently better watered than much of the rest of the state. Immediately south is the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin conjoin to flow out into San Francisco Bay. About 50 miles north to south, the Delta has some of the richest soil in California. South of the Delta the San Joaquin Valley stretches southward for about 250 miles, becoming more arid, more desert-like with each mile.
The fourth Valley is contained within the third: The Tulare Basin, occupying the southern third or so of the San Joaquin Valley, separated from the rest of the valley by a low rise around Visalia.
It was a wilderness once, and a garden. Some of each. A chain of seasonal wetlands ran up and down the spine of the 450-mile Central Valley. Sometimes those wet seasons lasted longer than others. A record wet winter in 1861-2 filled the valley with a lake 300 miles long and about 20 wide.
Like his later admirers, John Muir visited the Valley on his way somewhere else; it was an obstacle, especially to the traveler on foot, especially in the foot-slogging wet parts. But he paid it admiring attention, seeming hardly to mind the miles of wet socks between him and the foothills of his beloved Sierra Nevada, in a passage about an 1868 journey now more famous for what came after he looked upward from the Valley floor:
”Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine … And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. ” — from The Yosemite (1912)
The pre-development Central Valley wasn’t just covered by the little yellow daisies — goldfields — and California poppies that provoked Muir’s comparison of the Valley’s floor to the face of the sun. Much of the Valley’s 22,500 square miles was taken up by what ecologists call “Central Valley grassland,” a mix of prairie and savanna that was actually a mix of bunchgrasses and annual and perennial flowering herbs. Muir tarried for two weeks to do some botanizing, as he wrote 14 years later about his descent from Pacheco Pass:
“Descending the eastern slopes of the coast range, through beds of gilias and lupines, and around many a breezy hillock and bush-crowned headland, I at length waded out into the midst of the glorious field of gold.All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep next to the foothills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out. Here were bahia, madia, madaria, burrielia, chrysopsis, corethrogyne, grindelia, etc., growing in close social congregations of various shades of yellow, blending finely with the purples of clarkia, orthocarpus, and oenothera, whose delicate petals were drinking the vital sunbeams without giving back any sparkling glow. Because so long a period of extreme drought succeeds the rainy season, most of the vegetation is composed of annuals, which spring up simultaneously, and bloom together at about the same height above the ground, the general surface being but slightly ruffled by the taller phacelias, penstemons, and groups of Salvia carduacea, the king of the annuals.” — The Bee-Pastures of California, 1882
Clarkia unguiculata off Panoche Road Creative Commons photo by Eric in SF: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarkia_unguiculata#/media/File:Clarkia_unguiculata.jpg
In low-lying spots where the soil became waterlogged in winter, specialized ecosystems called vernal pools held unique populations of endemic plants and animals, including fairy shrimp. Hundreds of miles of forest flanked the Valley’s rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin and their tributaries, with impenetrable tangles of elder and grapevine, box elder and willow and mulefat, sycamore and cottonwood. Inexpressibly fertile soil made from decayed leaf litter sprouted morels and amanitas.
On the rivers’ higher banks, close enough to be well watered but not so close as to drown their roots too often, were parklike savannas of valley oak, Quercus lobata. The largest oak species in North America, valley oaks are big. The tallest known valley oak now living is in excess of 150 feet in height; one that grew in Chico, California until 1977, when it fell over, had a trunk 29 feet in circumference eight feet above the ground.
A description of the Santa Clara Valley by 18th Century explorer George Vancouver could stand in for a description of the Central Valley’s oak savanna:
“For about twenty miles it could only be compared to a park which had originally been closely planted with the true old English oak; the underwood, that had probably attended its early growth, had the appearance of having been cleared away and left the stately lords of the forest in complete possession of the soil which was covered with luxuriant foliage.”
Valley Oak in the Stanislaus County hills above the Central Valley Creative Commons photo by Allie Caulfield https://www.flickr.com/photos/wm_archiv/6546517055/
In the low foothills ringing the valley on the east and west, valley oaks grew in even greater profusion.
And then there was the jewel of the Valley.
As mapped in 1873.
Abundant runoff from the Sierra Nevada’s snow pack ran down the range’s west side rivers, finding low spots in the Tulare Basin. In the driest years, the Tulare Basin’s uplands nearly qualified as desert, as did the adjacent Carrizo Plain: alkali flats and arid grasslands dotted with Atriplex (saltbush). But the floor of the Basin was verdant, with marshes of tule and cattail surrounding three freshwater lakes: Kern, Buena Vista, and the greatest of them all, Tulare.
Up to 750 square miles in extent in wet seasons, about two thirds that in drier years, Tulare Lake was in the 18th and 19th centuries the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. (Lake Cahuilla had previously held the title, but it dried up some time in the early 1700s.) Fed by four wild rivers draining the highest and snowiest parts of the Sierra Nevada, Tulare Lake was so productive that about 70,000 members of the Yokuts tribe lived near its shores, one of the highest densities of population anywhere in California before European settlers arrived.
I drove across the bed of Tulare Lake in early May, cursing the thick, wind-whipped dust blowing off its furrowed fields. Its feeder rivers diverted into irrigation ditches, the lake died in the early 20th Century.
Utica Avenue near Kettleman City, looking east across the northern end of Tulare Lake. Via Google Street View
California’s Central Valley has been called the world’s most intensively altered landscape. Compared to, say, Manhattan Island, that may seem a bit of hyperbole: the last time I visited Times Square, for instance, there was very little in the way of red maple bog to be seen in the vicinity. But the sheer extent of the alteration counts for something. You could fit 666 Manhattans into the Central Valley and have enough room left over for a spare Roosevelt Island. The Valley is an almost wholly reengineered landscape larger than Croatia, nearly the size of Norway, and though fragments of the original landscape remain here and there, about 99 percent of the original valley has been lost. It has been diked, drained, plowed under and paved, usually for private profit, often at public expense.
We took the rivers that fed the Valley’s riparian forests, that roared in spring flood and slackened in summer, and we cut off their heads. The Central Valley’s chinook salmon runs were once the largest in the world. Now, like the agricultural corporations using much of their water, the Valley’s chinook would go extinct without assistance from the government, their numbers boosted in hatcheries and their fry trucked around dry sections of river on their way to the ocean.
The vernal pools that once dotted the Valley have been plowed up, the riparian forests cut down, the valley oaks preserved and revered in a few old urban parks but otherwise replaced with cotton, and then tomatoes, and then alfalfa and almonds. Square mile after square mile of wild habitat for wild things was replaced by fields whose stewards smoothed them out with laser levels, the better to channel that diverted Sierra snowmelt to their row crops.
Even in the heart of the Valley, the Delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers conjoin and flow into San Francisco Bay, even in that wettest and least tractable part of the 450-mile vale running nearly the length of California, we could not resist tampering. Giant pumps reverse the flow of Delta rivers, pull salt water deep into the heart of the land. Irrigators have even tapped rivers outside the Valley, the Trinity and Klamath.
And now, in the face of the worst drought to hit California since we started measuring droughts, the irrigators are turning up the speed on their groundwater pumps, tapping hydrological wealth laid down millennia ago. Few experts think the San Joaquin Valley will have any groundwater left by the end of this century, unless something changes.
In 1999, I walked across a patch of Moraga’s “dirt” near the Stanislaus County town of Hills Ferry, not sure whether I was trespassing. My destination was a copse of box elder draped with wild grape a hundred yards or so across the barrens. I walked past plastic bags and motor oil bottles, unidentifiable bits of plastic spindrift and old barbed wire spools. The woods, when I reached them, were not much relief: a vegetative understory of discarded alternators and buckshot televisions, mattresses decomposed as far as they ever would, and a bit of Russian thistle interspersed between the jetsam.
At the bottom of a sharp slope, the Merced River flowed in lazy meanders to my left. To my right, it flowed into the sluggish, viscid San Joaquin. I stood at the confluence of two rivers that rose in the high Sierra Nevada, the Merced on the back slopes of Half Dome and the San Joaquin off the melting snows on the Minarets, their headwaters within a few miles of each other in the back country of Yosemite National Park, then diverging in a wide arc surrounding a huge chunk of the state, and, I thought, look where they end up. Flowing out of the sublime and into the profane, out of Ansel Adams’ photos and into Dorothea Lange’s. The rivers deserved a better confluence than this, I thought.
And then I remembered. There was no confluence. The riverbeds met here, but the rivers themselves had not met in half a century. Diversions from the Friant Dam above Fresno had “dewatered” a long stretch of the San Joaquin River on the valley floor. Just upstream from where I stood, an electric fence spanned the San Joaquin to keep chinook salmon from trying to run upstream, where they would strand themselves and die.
It was the first time I realized it, and as I would prefer to forget it I have realized it again many times since. The Central Valley is a moribund landscape.
There are fragments left. A chain of wildlife refuges and preserves runs up and down the Valley floor, a rosary of tiny protected beads strung along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. A patch of upland here and a patch there holds hints as to what the Valley was, once. New ecologies emerge within the irrigated cities of the Highway 99 corridor.
But the pronghorn Muir called ubiquitous in the Valley have been gone for decades. Tule elk survive only because of a fluke, a weird moment of compassion in the heart of a 19th Century landowner not given overmuch to compassion. San Joaquin kit foxes skulk around the margins of the Endangered Species list. Tricolored blackbirds, the Central Valley’s passenger pigeon, now nest primarily in grain fields; one recalcitrant dairy farmer wanting to feed his chattel could do in the species.
And the Delta smelt, a little two-inch fish that once thrived in huge numbers at the shifting interface between saltwater and fresh, where water from the snows of Lassen and Shasta met water from the tidal Pacific, that defined better than any single organism the sensitive, beating heart of California… the Delta smelt probably went extinct this year. It is at least functionally extinct.
It would be a mistake to treat those who benefitted from this wholesale and rapacious conversion, this breaking of one of the globe’s richest environments to the wheel of commerce, it would be a mistake to treat them as monolithic. They are not. A rice grower in the Sacramento Valley might well be proud of her farm’s providing habitat for waterfowl and baby salmon. Delta farmers regard their colleagues farther south in the Tulare Basin with some suspicion. It was a single San Joaquin Valley dairy farmer who, in the spring of 2014, gladly held off on harvesting his triticale until the tricolored blackbirds had left his field. That decision came at no small financial cost.
But it is not the sympathetic farmers, the salmon- and blackbird-loving famers, who have ahold of the megaphone. It is not the farmers who are grateful to the natural world for the common bounty they have privatized who get the press attention. There are no signs along Interstate 5 saying “We farmers can coexist with the salmon and the valley elderberry longhorned beetle.”
Instead, the loudest voices coming out of the Valley, especially the San Joaquin Valley, are spreading resentment and lies. Here’s Fresno’s House Representative Devin Nunes on the delta smelt and its defenders:
I don’t see any of them up here saying that they’re going to tear down this [Hetch Hetchy aqueduct] system, dump this water into the Bay to protect their stupid little fish, their little delta smelt that they care about.
The political discourse in San Joaquin Valley water politics is dominated by voices like this one, in which those of us who prefer not to see one species after another go extinct to enable another few fiscal years of ag industry profits are derided as “radical environmentalists.”
On this last visit to the San Joaquin Valley, I wondered, and not for the first time, whether maybe we shouldn’t take the Wise Use, Tea Party San Joaquin pundits at their word.
What if environmentalists’ approach to the issue of the Central Valley and its dying ecosystem was as radical as the other side claims? Ignore for the moment the fact that the biggest groups in the modern environmental movement are so tamed, so addicted to access and consensus, that if you presented them with the last tree on earth they would try to save half of it. What if we weren’t so domesticated? What could we demand?
Let’s focus on the far more injured San Joaquin Valley. Agriculture as it has been practiced there for the last century cannot continue. It’s the fate of all societies based on agriculture irrigated with imported water: the aqueducts will fall. It was true for the Hohokam and the Sumerians. It will be true for the Southwestern United States. If the rains come back, the system will silt up. If they do not, the system will fail.
The handwriting has been on the wall since the 1980s, when irrigation drainage with dissolved selenium salts from the western San Joaquin Valley began poisoning wildlife in the wildlife refuges the irrigators used as sumps. It was a shot across the bow: massive irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin would not be sustainable.
We did not heed that warning then. What if we did now?
What if we turned off the taps to large corporate farms in the Westlands and the Tulare Basin? What if we held true to the original intent of the Central Valley Project, which was to serve family farms of 160 acres or less? We can grow all the food California needs on 500,000 acres, less than 800 square miles. That could all be in the better-watered Sacramento Valley, which leaves the San Joaquin, as they say, in play.
What if we decided not to pay for more water diversions that serve only to enrich family farmers like the Resnicks of Beverly Hills?
What if we lived up to the antienvironmentalists’ worst fears, the thought that a fish and a fox might mean more to us than a split stock? What if we started taking back some of the land we gave San Joaquin’s One Percent?
We could twist the knife: we could call it a biosphere reserve. The “Barack Hussein Obama San Joaquin Valley Biosphere Reserve and Ecosystem Services Research Center,” perhaps.
First step: raze the almond groves, let the trees die and dry out, set them afire and bury the charcoal as biochar. (If that seems draconian, perhaps we could merely biochar the 320,000 acres of almond trees planted since the drought began in 2009, almost a third of the state’s total acreage. But we’re blue-skying it here, and besides, those older almonds are toast within a decade anyway.)
Concomitant with ending the San Joaquin Valley almond industry, we let some water back into the rivers. Start with opening the taps at Friant Dam to let the San Joaquin flow year-round again. Follow up with flows in the Kings, Kern, White and Tulare rivers to fill Tulare Lake and its siblings, Buena Vista and Kern lakes. That reemergent vital stopover point on the Pacific Flyway would do a lot to make up for the impending loss of the Salton Sea, and some of the people who lose their jobs tending almond trees could get jobs as fishing guides.
Once the placid shores of Alpaugh have waves lapping at them once more, we hire more of those idled ag workers — who have formidable and relevant skill sets — and put them to work planting valley oaks. We can plant them in orchard rows if the powers that be insist: the woodpeckers and owls won’t care, and in a few decades those acorns might make an edible cash crop for the trendy food people of 2075.
Under the valley oaks, our noble and heroic oak restoration crews — los robleros — can plant bunchgrasses. Nasella pulchra, purple needlegrass, can be the backbone of this reimagined Central Valley Grassland: it’s the state grass of California, after all, and it’s a fine food source for the rodents and rabbits that will feed a growing population of the once-endangered San Joaquin kit fox. But we’ll add other species to the mix as well: Muhlenbergia rigens for its prodigious soil-forming abilities, Leymus triticoides in the boggy and alkaline wetlands of the Tulare Basin, and then there are plants other than grasses, the Clarkia and Madia and Salvia of Muir’s (at that point) two-centuries-old revery.
As temperature climbs, our strategy for the Tulare Basin might shift: instead of cottonwoods and willows, we might need to plant plants from the deserts, mesquite and palo verde and big galleta grass. We can be flexible. We can think outside the box. The point is: the valley soils right now loose carbon into the atmosphere. They could be sucking it out of the atmosphere. As the soil recovers, we could be sequestering billions of tons of carbon in a landscape that once contributed nothing but export cotton, tumbleweeds and pomegranate juice to the global economy.
That sequestration could even be happening on the San Joaquin’s remaining farms. In Upstate New York, the farms from which my family springs were farmed out, worn out, down to cracked gray soil. And then in the 1980s young Amish families started buying up those farms, working them with draft animals. Those farms are rich and productive now, and the manured soil is astoundingly fertile. Hand out parcels nationalized from the holdings of Tenneco and the Resnicks to the Oaxacan and Hmong laborers who know how to work the land, and make that grant contingent on using healthy draft animals instead of fossil fuels, and Fresnos and Visalia and Bakersfield could have food supplies the envy of elitist foodies anywhere — with a negative carbon footprint.
Wild notions of reclaiming the arid wastes, of greening the deserts, are old hat. They are nothing new. But the San Joaquin Valley is a landscape we took in the opposite direction.
At each stage of his imprisonment he had known, or seemed to know, whereabouts he was in the windowless building. Possibly there were slight differences in the air pressure. The cells where the guards had beaten him were below ground level. The room where he had been interrogated by O’Brien was high up near the roof. This place was many meters underground, as deep down as it was possible to go.
It was bigger than most of the cells he had been in. But he hardly noticed his surroundings. All he noticed was that there were two small tables straight in front of him, each covered with faux gold leaf. One was only a metre or two from him, the other was further away, near the door. He was strapped upright in a chair, so tightly that he could move nothing, not even his head. A sort of pad gripped his head from behind, forcing him to look straight in front of him.
For a moment he was alone, then the door opened and O’Brien came in.
“First of all, it’s great to be with you,'” said O’Brien, “You asked me once what was in Suite 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. Just read the polls. Suite 101 is the greatest suite, it’s really, it’s a beautiful thing. And they all agree, millions of people that I represent.”
The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.
“We are going to stop radical Islamic terrorism in Oceania,” said O’Brien, “You have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, I’ll do a whole lot more than waterboarding. It varies from individual to individual. It could be buried alive, or burned up, or drowning. Waterboarding is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”
He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four meters away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.
“We’re going to have the best rats, the biggest rats,” said O’Brien. ‘These rats are gonna be so great that you’ll actually get tired of how beautiful they are.”
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.
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.
Today’s the deadline for commenting on the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). Many of the people I know have been putting in long hours for the last several months pulling their comments together on the plan, which is gargantuan.
The plan covers 22 million acres of the California desert, with a huge amount of land proposed as renewable energy Development Focus Areas (DFAs) and an even huger amount proposed for a modicum of protection, but what that protection actually entails is a matter of both vagueness and controversy.
I suspect that most of the comments submitted by today on the DRECP will dive into the details to a formidable degree. One such set of comments, crafted by Basin and Range Watch, was so good I signed onto it myself.
But the comments I submitted today were very specific, and concerned an issue not addressed in the draft DRECP itself.
Here they are.
I am Chris Clarke, a resident of Joshua Tree in San Bernardino County, and of the 22-million-acres covered by the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). I work as a journalist covering renewable energy issues for KCET TV in Los Angeles, but I make these comments solely on my own behalf as a private citizen.
These comments are submitted in addition to a comment letter by Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch, which I co-signed.
My comment here centers on the fact that the identification of Development Focus Areas (DFAs) in the draft DRECP has been tainted by an instance of personal malfeasance by high-ranking Interior Department staff, to the extent that the ecological and energy resource justifications for any of the wind-oriented DFAs are now likewise tainted with the prospect that they may have been tailored to maximize the personal gain of Interior Department brass rather than to either develop renewable energy or protect public lands’ biological resources.
On November 7, 2014, the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General posted a report on its investigation of malfeasance by Steve Black, a senior counselor to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Interior’s lead on renewable energy siting. The report identified several areas in which Black at least appears to have improperly influenced renewable energy policy to benefit either his own professional advancement or that of his then-paramour, Manal Yamout, who at the time worked for NextEra Energy Resources.
According to that report, which I have attached, Black put pressure on federal agency staff preparing the draft DRECP to increase the acreage of wind-oriented Development Focus Areas in the draft DRECP. This pressure induced staff to reconsider areas they had previously ruled out as too ecologically sensitive or lacking in wind potential, or both.
At the time that Black pressured DRECP authors to increase the amount of acreage available in the draft DRECP’s wind DFAs, he was seeking employment as the Executive Director of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Black did not notify the Interior Department of his conversations with AWEA until nearly two months after he pressured agency staff to add wind DFAs to the draft DRECP.
According to a timeline included in the Inspector General’s report, NextEra Energy Resources’ Vice President of Development, a member of AWEA’s board of directors, asked Black in early January of 2013 whether he should add Black’s name to a list of candidates for AWEA’s Executive Director position. Black agreed but asked that his interest in the position be kept quiet.
On January 11 of that year, Black received an email from the director of the California Wind Energy Association, a member group of AWEA, complaining that his group felt the draft DRECP should include far more wind development areas.
On January 17, says the Inspector General’s report, Black directed state and federal agency staff working on the draft DRECP to — in the words of the report — “find more areas in the plan for wind development.” The DRECP program manager — not identified by name in the Inspector General’s report, but presumably Vicki Campbell — told investigators, again in the words of the report, that
“she and other DRECP team members disagreed with Black about adding certain areas for renewable energy development to the DRECP because the areas were not biologically supportable. She said that the areas were ultimately added, but the DRECP team decided to add requirements for them to mitigate the environmental issues. She said this was one of the ways the team ‘dealt’ with Black’s involvement. She stated that DOI officials, including Black, also asked the team to find more areas for wind development in the DRECP, but doing so would be difficult in the desert because the eagles and condors that lived there were ‘not real compatible with giant spinning blades.’”
Black did not inform Interior Department ethics staff of his interest in the AWEA position, according to the Inspector General’s report, until March 4, at which point he was informed that he “should not engage in matters that affected AWEA’s finances.”
Had Black informed Interior ethics staff of his interest in the AWEA position when it first arose, in January, that proscription would assuredly have included intervening to increase the acreage available for wind development in the draft DRECP.
Black’s unethical tinkering in the DFA selection process is a matter of public record. And yet the draft DRECP contains no indication as to which DFAs may have been included or expanded as a result of Black’s influence.
And that means that those of us who are observing and commenting on the DRECP process can not extend our full confidence that those DFAs were selected and mapped under the highest scientific standards required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and general best practices followed by the state and federal agencies contributing to the draft plan.
Ethical lapses like those Black committed must not be allowed to shape land management decisions and policy in the California Desert. At a very minimum, the Interior Department should fully disclose precisely which areas were added to the roster of wind Development Focus Areas as a result of Steve Black’s unethical influence into the process. Those DFAs should be removed from the final DRECP or else supported with the best available science to explain just why the initial decision by agency staff to exclude them from consideration should not be trusted.
Without such disclosure and transparency, the full plan will remain shadowed by the suspicion that the DFAs were chosen more to benefit Steve Black’s personal and financial well-being than to move California to a renewable energy future, or to protect its irreplaceable desert public lands.
I usually don’t bother with people like Peter Kareiva. His kind would be a dime a dozen, were it not for the fact that he operates in a part of society where dimes are probably considered litter. “Chief Scientist” for the Nature Conservancy, Kareiva has gotten himself some notoriety in recent months for signing on with a growing reactionary criticism of the conservation movement which says, to summarize, that conservation needs to stop thinking so much about non-human species, especially those that don’t offer direct benefit to us all-important humans.
But it’s a point of view that’s wildly popular with a certain sector of society, to wit: the corporate donors that ensured Kareiva’s employer reported $5,406,671,996 in net assets to the IRS in 2013. If one dominant species is properly the be-all and end-all of conservation, then that species’ short-term economic activity becomes more important weighted against the mere survival of lesser species.
We dominate the planet now, Kareiva has argued, and we might as well adopt that as our overarching goal. There are about six or seven logical steps missing in the road from that hard to dispute premise to Kareiva’s conclusion. That hasn’t kept him from becoming a darling of the present-day anti-environmental movement. For instance, he’s found supportive fellow travelers in the Breakthrough Institute (BTI). BTI was founded by the bantamweight environmental pundits Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who turned humiliation at being laughed out of the grassroots habitat protection movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s into success, when philanthropic foundations bought the same line of argument that had caused the redwood defenders mirth.
Again, I don’t usually spend much time paying attention to their ilk. If I spent time pulling apart everything a well-funded antienvironmentalist said in public that happened to be wrong, I’d never have time to write about those unimportant non-human species. Especially if I started with Kareiva and BTI.
Buut in the course of pulling a few things together for my Beacon piece, I found a video by Kareiva on BTI’s site that I just couldn’t ignore. Those of you who know me will understand why almost immediately. Here’s the video. I’ve set it to start at the thing that set me off, 2:45 in. You could watch the whole thing, but why?
Here’s the transcript of that section:
You know, there’s this notion out there, and a lot of us have read these books, read these philosophies, of this pristine wilderness that exists out there in which we can venture — it’s almost always a solitary man — a solitary man can venture and rediscover himself and find himself and be inspired, and somehow learn something more about the universe and themselves [sic].
Henry David Thoreau was a classic take on that.
In the 1960s, when I grew up, I read Edward Abbey. Edward Abbey wrote a book called Desert Solitaire. A fascinating book. I loved it.
I recently discovered his personal journals.
In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey has a couple lines in there in one of the opening chapters about sitting out there in Utah and being by himself and looking up at the stars and writing poetically about “Oh, I’m alone, there’s nobody else around, it is beautiful. I feel nothing but exhilaration and happiness.”
At the same time in his personal diary he wrote “Oh my god, I’m so lonely, why did my wife Rita have to go back to New Jersey?”
It’s a lie! It’s a total lie.
There’s a lot to pick apart here. There’s the odd insistence that expository and lyrical nature writing is the domain of the solitary man. True of John Muir, perhaps, but not of Thoreau, of whom I can only recommend that you read Rebecca Solnit’s deft unraveling of his complicated relationship with solo contemplation. What of Mary Austin, Terry Tempest-Williams, Ann Zwinger or Ellen Meloy? What of those men whose wilderness sojourns were as often as not in the company of others? For fuck’s sake, the genre in the American West essentially began with Frémont, with Powell, with Lewis and Clark, none of whom got any solitude on their journeys. Clarence King with his assistants, John Steinbeck on the boat with Ed Ricketts, any number of desert writers of the 19th and 20th centuries: convivial exploration of the wild world.
Kareiva isn’t the first observer to ding Abbey for misrepresentations of the degree of his solitude at Arches in Desert Solitaire. After the above transcript leaves off, he does mention Rita and their son moving into the trailer with him for the second season, which never gets mentioned in the book. That criticism is fair game.
But his characterization of Abbey’s opening chapter is orthogonal to how the chapter actually reads. It begins:
This is the most beautiful place on earth.
There are many such places. every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.
For myself I’ll take Moab, Utah…
Hardly a paean to the illuminating properties of pristine wilderness. Later in the chapter, mainly taken up with a description of the surroundings on his arrival, Abbey does wish that his time at Arches will provide redemption of a sort. But it’s a hard-headed and rational redemption he seeks:
I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with the nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.
And then, in Chapter Two, Abbey is engaged in tasks with his coworkers. Worlds apart from Kareiva’s goopy misrepresentation.
As for those journals, I just happen to have them here. Here’s the sum total of what Abbey says in his Arches first season journal about his wife: On August 26, 1956, at the end of a purple-prosed passage describing summer storms, we have Ed saying:
It’s the evenings that are kinda bad; mostly around supper time; I sit down to my steak and beans with only a can of beer for company. Ah then, then I miss her, miss my friends, miss all the crazy irresponsible delights of my old society. But most of all then I miss her, the one true love-passion of my life on earth.
I mean — Rita.
On September 15 Abbey quotes from a letter from Rita in which she decrees that their marriage at an end, and he writes:
Terrible words; they make living rather difficult. Therefore, I must go back to her at once, even though she writes that there is nothing for me to come home to except “a glimpse of what could have been.” I must go back; three or four days, and then I leave this place. Probably forever. A lovely place, but tourists have come to depress me terribly. I can’t bear to look a tourist in the face anymore.
That’s what Kareiva is talking about when he says Abbey’s longing for a hardheaded communion with the beauty of the slickrock country while pining for his wife as their marriage crumbled is “a total lie.” As if a person’s heart can’t be broken in two directions at once.
Kareiva recorded this video in 2011, but I just saw it today — like I said, I generally have more significant targets for my time and attention — and I was primed to respond badly to what he said about Abbey and Desert Solitaire. In the interests of full disclosure, I share here my immediate reaction on Twitter:
If I ever meet Peter Kareiva I’ll punch him in the nuts just for this 40 seconds of video: http://t.co/Xt3op8rlG2
I would like to take this opportunity to say that I regret that intemperate response. But I can’t without telling a total lie.
I have spent much of the last month grieving a change in my life I did not ask for or want, longing for the company of the one I love and being deeply sad. I have also seen simple, quiet things in the desert, those I meet out walking or those who come peer at me through my window as I work, that fill me with joy. And I write in some detail about those things. I exclude the sadness, mostly, because everyone whose business it is already knows about it.
So I write about verdins. One came to eat mandarins off the shelves outside my window today:
Is it really that hard to understand that I could grieve my lover’s absence and rejoice in this little subtly colored spark at my window? That both of those pangs could coexist in my heart?
If I don’t offer up my private pain for public delectation, is that verdin a “total lie”?
Kareiva’s main argument is that conservation is doomed unless it reorients itself to focus first on the welfare of human beings.
I don’t think he’s qualified to make that determination until he learns what it’s like to be a human being.
On days like this I’m not sure whether I’m too lonely or not lonely enough.
On the one hand, I spent the day alone aside from the cat. A few minutes’ phone conversation for work, a few more catching up with Annette, and thirty seconds of conversation when I dropped off the rent check, and that aside I had solitude. I could happily have had more of those contacts, less of that solitude.
And yet I recoiled from other kinds of contact today. Two people I don’t know got in touch with open-ended demands on my time and attention. Not asking me to write, or asking for other discrete favors: just asking for energy. And time. And attention. Out of the blue. I won’t offer more details except to say they both made the hairs on the nape of my neck jump to attention.
A few weeks ago I decided to scale back my time spent on Facebook, and the fact that both of these people found me through that venue didn’t do much to change my mind.
It’s odd. I’ve done much of my socializing online for the last 20 years. It used to seem a complement to an emotionally healthy life, and it brought me joy. Now it feels like a synthetic substitute for real connection.
I think the difference between then and now may lie in non-reciprocality. In 1994 I socialized in a newsgroup with maybe 30 people in it. It was a community of sorts. Everyone participated and contributed to the discussion.
Now? I have tens of thousands of readers. Many of them are incredibly kind and supportive: in fact, I couldn’t do the work I do without their aid. Some of the people with whom I’ve become acquainted online in the last few years are people I’m very glad to know.
So it feels crass to say that life online feels less like a community than it used to. But it does.
All of us online grapple with this relationship, a new one in human history. I think Facebook opened us up to a world of drama when it bestowed the name “friend” on its basic unit of relationship. I have “unfriended” a few people in the last week, and how much less fraught would that have been if it was called “removing this person from your contact list”?
I have several dozen contacts on Facebook I’ve never met with whom I’d unhesitatingly make coffee plans. I have many more with whom I have hardly any interaction aside from the occasional “like.” And then there is the third group, a small but growing number of people with whom I have to remind myself that we are all muddling through this world, with our desires to fix others’ problems and sadnesses. The people who forget that they do not actually know me.
It’s usually benign. I am mildly prominent online, and the temptation to treat mildly prominent people as a favorite TV show is well documented. Sometimes it gets annoying but forgivable, as when strangers with familiar names offer unsolicited advice on health or relationship issues. Mainly everyone means well.
But sometimes, as today, it goes over the line into “block this person and forswear all contact” country.
My work is a combination of writing and activism, and having a wide group of cooperative sources and collaborators is part of what has given that work whatever degree of success it can claim. There’s no way for me to refuse to give out an email address to a stranger that asks for one to “talk about something,” as that’s how some of my best work has been sparked. The percentage of contacts who fail to respect personal boundaries is fractional at this point, but it seems to be growing.
I guess it’s an inevitable consequence of relying on a trust-based system: some will take advantage of it, knowingly or not.
Cliven Bundy’s cattle illegally grazing at Gold Butte. Photo courtesy Rob Mrowka.
“Overgrazing is much too weak a term. Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Weeds.
“I… suggest that we open a hunting season on range cattle. I realize that beef cattle will not make sporting prey at first. Like all domesticated animals (including most humans), beef cattle are slow, stupid, and awkward. But the breed will improve if hunted regularly. And as the number of cattle is reduced, other and far more useful, beautiful, and interesting animals will return to the range lands and will increase.”
These days I find myself close to desperately grateful that I never really pursued a career in academia. The American university is dissolving. Tenure was once a significant guarantor of academic freedom, so schools have naturally been doing away with it. Not by abolishing it, but by limiting it to an old guard and to a fraction of new instructors who prove they fit in with the corporate ethos of the school. The rest of the degreed have the possibility of theoretical future tenure track positions held out to them like crumbs to hungry sparrows at an outdoor cafe. The system promotes unwillingness to speak out among the tenured, and fighting for lower rungs on the ladder among the less-well-privileged.
It’s an inhumane and counterproductive system, not conducive to either education or research, and that’s not even getting into the whole issue of grantseeking, publication, and other emergent phenomena of the corporate university.
I get it.
But using the 1968 “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” a.k.a. the Kerner Report, as a metaphor for the increasing divide between two groups of people with post-graduate degrees?
1968 was a long time ago. “The Kerner Report” isn’t particularly a household phrase these days, 46 years later. The reason for the Kerner Report is probably a little better recollected: the year before, in 1967, riots “broke out” in African-American neighborhoods in Newark and Detroit, with more than 150 smaller disturbances in other cities, including Buffalo, where I lived at the time. 1967’s turmoil followed on the Division Street riots of ’66 in Chicago and the Watts Riots in ’65.
A good liberal, then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission in 1967 to study the causes of the civil unrest and make recommendations to correct whatever was causing the problem. The Kerner report came out a few months later, in February 1968. LBJ decided he didn’t like what it said and ignored the recommendations. A month later Martin Luther King, Jr., who had lauded the report, was assassinated in Memphis. More than a hundred American cities caught fire in the next few hours.
What did the report identify as the source of the anger that led to the earlier riots? The Wikipedia entry on the report calls it “black frustration at lack of economic opportunity.” That’s about like reporting a prognosis of hemorrhagic fever as “a health care concern.”
More accurately, the report identified persistent and often violent racial segregation imposed by white society on Black communities as the driver of the (centuries-old) resentments that fueled the riots:
In the 24 disorders in 23 cities which we surveyed… Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident-in itself often routine or trivial-became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.
In fact, the report identified police behavior as the most important of 12 social factors that caused the riots, which (at the risk of blockquoting this post to hell and back) I’ll list here, as an eyebrow-raisingly broad critique of how racism works in American society.
Although specific grievances varied from city to city, at least 12 deeply held grievances can be identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity: ‘
First Level of Intensity
1. Police practices
2. Unemployment and underemployment
3. Inadequate housing Second Level of Intensity
4. Inadequate education
5. Poor recreation facilities and programs
6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms Third Level of Intensity
7. Disrespectful white attitudes
8. Discriminatory administration of justice
9. Inadequacy of federal programs
10. Inadequacy of municipal services
11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
12. Inadequate welfare programs
There was a lot more to the Kerner Report than that: it ran close to 500 pages. The Report spends time talking about hopes having been raised by the Civil Rights Movement, the beginnings of urban police militarization and reactive white supremacist groups, the history of African-American migration into Northern city cores, “new media” (TV) flaunting a growing standard of wealth before the eyes of those who’d never attain it, and the beginnings of white flight.
Remarkably, the Commission’s recommendations were essentially that (as far as was possible without actually tearing down the basic structures of government) America utterly remake its society to eradicate racism. It was ambitious. “Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale,” said the report, “can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society.” Recommendations included ensuring African-Americans’ access to the decision making afforded other members of the community by decentralizing local government operations, training the police to stop being “abrasive,” stepping up media coverage of — and by — minority communities, that kind of thing: a classic Liberal, New Society approach to ameliorating the problem. In its day, it was dismissed by many on the left and on the street as Establishment happy talk. These days, it reads like utopian fiction. It’s worth a read.
It’s best known these days for one sentence: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
That’s the sentence that apparently persuaded the author of the post I mentioned up top to use the Kerner Report as a metaphor for academic employment inequities. I understand the temptation: it’s a ringing, Lincolnian statement.
And it erases the vast majority of people in the country.
Given what I do for a living, many people assume I’ve had access to a college education. That assumption is not, strictly speaking, false, depending on how you define “access.” The mythology of Academia is that of meritocracy: the people who land there and do well are those who are intelligent and creative: the intellectually worthy.
I offer the fact that I started college at age 14 on a full scholarship as evidence that I have some insight into the meritocratic argument. I started at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1974, then transferred to the nearby State College in Buffalo in 1976, a few months before I predictably burned out. My schooling career was long on pressure and short on actual help from anyone, teachers or parents. I had absolutely no study skills or helpful habits, and while that hadn’t kept me from coasting through to graduate high school at age 13, college, was of course a different matter.
That was my college education, ages 14-16. At 16 I figured I’d go back when I was ready.
I felt ready at 20, in 1980. I stopped by the office of the chair of the PoliSci department at Buffalo State and talked him into admitting me to his department. It all went well on paper, until I applied for Financial Aid. Declined. My father had declared me a dependent on his taxes for the previous year. I hadn’t gotten any financial support from him all year aside from sneaking food from his fridge. He explained that he’d been paying child support to my mother, two years past his legal obligation to do so, despite the fact that I’d gotten no financial support from her either. (Neither had my siblings, and it turned out she’d hoarded the money for years only to have one of her boyfriends lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of it in Vegas.)
The several hundred dollars I would have had to pay in yearly tuition was not something either of my parents felt motivated to pay. I made other plans for my life. A couple years later, safely off my Dad’s tax returns and 2,700 miles west, I’d been talking to admissions counselors at U.C. Berkeley and getting hopeful when an Act of Congress stripped Federal financial aid eligibility from anyone who, like me, was required to register for the draft but refused to do so. I had spent the previous few years trying to build a movement to encourage non-cooperation with draft registration, and I wasn’t willing to violate that more important law to be able to fill in a financial aid form.
And that, 30 years ago, was that.
I am luckier than many, in that no one ever presumed to deny me access to higher education based on how I look or who I am. My lack of degree stems from a combination of parental neglect and political fluke, with a little bit of teenage ADD rebellion thrown in for good measure.
But just the same, I was forced to find other ways to educate myself. I like to think I have done fairly well at it. And the biggest push I ever got in the direction I ended up heading? My equivalent of the life-changing undergrad major? Was a minimum wage job that gave every indication, when I took it, of being a dead end.
Eventually I achieved what the intersectionalists call “passing privilege,” where postdocs and such almost always grant that I may actually possess some intellectual competence.
The point of all this biographical maundering is that that postgraduate degree is something I wanted, was denied, and will never have, despite being reasonably well-suited for a life of learning, thinking, creating knowledge, and sharing it. And that, along with occasional though thankfully dwindling encounters with prejudice toward the undegreed, means that it bothers the fuck out of me when people don’t recognize the privilege that a degree entails.
In 2012, according to the U.S. Census, 19,816,000 or so people age 18 and older in the U.S possessed either a Master’s or Doctoral degree: 8.4 percent of the total adult population. That’s about ten million fewer people than those in the same cohort — 18 and older in 2012 — that didn’t finish high school. The social disparities described in the Kerner Report are still reflected in access to higher education: only 5.5 percent of African Americans older than 18 in 2012 possessed either a master’s or a doctorate.
Those are rosier figures than in 1968, as far as African-Americans’ access to higher ed goes. But the point remains: 91.6 percent of American adults don’t have postgraduate degrees, and that’s 94.5 percent for African-Americans.
Which is as good a definition of an elíte as I can picture.
I reckon being a postdoc on a non-tenure track these days doesn’t feel in the slightest like being part of an elíte. You work godawful hours for poverty-level pay, are subject to abusive workplace politics, and face one frustration after another in doing what you sunk yourself several hundred thousand dollars into debt to be able to do: learn, think, research, and teach. It’s a sick system getting sicker, and Learning Writ Large suffers as bright, enthusiastic and talented young adults leave academia in droves.
But there’s just something nasty about using the Kerner Report as a metaphor for a class divide among a group of people who have something 90 percent of their fellow residents in this country will never have. Many progressive academics would shy away from calling negative paper review a “lynching” or comparing a declined grant proposal to “getting raped.” Aside from politer language, I don’t see how comparing the class struggle between tenure-tracked and non-tenure-tracked postdocs to a sweeping summary of the effects of 400 years of genocide and racism is any better.
There’s a line from the Kerner Report I think is a whole lot more appropriate in this context, from the report’s discussion of 1960s press coverage of race issues in the U.S. The press, said the report’s authors, “has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”
I’ve heard there was a marriage forged
Reflexive-gagged the common gorge
But you don’t really care for liberals, do you?
It goes like this: A mayor-elect,
His family all mixed complecked,
Our middle fingers asking “what’s it to ya?”
What’s it to ya, what’s it to ya?
What’s it to ya, what’s it to ya?
Your schtick is weak and easily spoofed
Your hiring by the Post a goof
And readers with a brain can all see through you
You claim that you’re no doctrinaire
Some silver-plate wingnut Voltaire
Still families worldwide say “What’s it to ya?”
What’s it to ya, what’s it to ya?
What’s it to ya, what’s it to ya?
Baby, we’ve been here before
Like back in 1954
Just which part of the Constitution threw you?
I’ve seen your flag on rednecks’ trucks,
Your punditry, quite frankly, sucks:
It old and stale and racist. What’s it to ya?
What’s it to ya, what’s it to ya?
What’s it to ya, what’s it to ya?
Because having your hair set on fire once is upsetting, and twice is an unfortunate coincidence, but after the third time your hair was set on fire, perhaps you should have asked yourself what the common factor was in each of these so-called “hair set on fire” incidents.
Because fire is good. Fire is our friend.
Because Webster’s Dictionary defines “fire” as “a state, process, or instance of combustion in which fuel or other material is ignited and combined with oxygen, giving off light, heat, and flame.” I see neither light, heat, nor flame, but merely a progressive singeing, reddening of the scalp, and a sulfurous smell. Your hair is therefore not on fire by any definition of “fire” of which I am aware.
Because the end result of having your hair set on fire is not having any remaining hair. Meanwhile, men suffer from male pattern baldness, yet who gets irrationally upset about their plight? The deck is stacked against them.
Because until we have the results of the forensic examination and several signed affidavits, we really have no way to be certain whether that’s just a Brazilian blowout gone horribly wrong.
Because some people prefer their hair bright red, and they deserve respect and not shaming.
Because that man’s head is cold and he says that if someone set his hair on fire he would take it as a compliment.
Because if we just start putting out every fire we see without going through a calm and measured deliberative process in which we consider all the facts at hand, we will eventually be unable to cook food or smelt useful alloys.
Because you really ought to be used to it by now. It’s just the way life works in an oxygenated atmosphere.