Category Archives: US

Musings on the tinkling of glass from the almost shattered ceiling of American democracy

Dear Most Powerful Democracy(TM) in the World,

Congratulations on taking another step closer to having a woman break the ultimate glass ceiling in your country, with Hillary Clinton being declared the presumptive nominee of one of your two political parties. We look forward to welcoming you to the large community of nations that have been electing women leaders to head their government for decades now. It may surprise your citizens—especially those rooting for the big orange loudmouth presumptive nominee of the other party—to find that even a number of Islamic nations have elected women to their highest offices. But don’t be embarrassed about joining this group now. When it comes to matters of democracy and human rights and equality, “better late than never” always applies. Long arc of history and all that considering, you know?

I imagine you know that your presidential election tends to capture the attention of the rest of the world, and this one in particular has the world in its thrall like a spectacular car crash that one cannot look away from, even though the outcome may be disastrous for occupants of the cars and spectators alike. The popularity of the orange loudmouth with the strange hair alternately baffles and frightens the world’s citizens who can scarcely believe that so many citizens of this superpower nation, known for your leadership in science and technology, for crying out loud, are falling for the dubious charms of a globally well-known con-man. That one of your two parties, half of your entire political spectrum (seriously, America, how on earth do you do democracy in such a big diverse country with just two political parties? But let’s leave that question for another time!) has been hijacked by a narcissistic demagogue happy to use bombastic nationalism and xenophobia laced with racist and sexist slurs to score television rating in this election turned into reality show, is…incredibly depressing.

At the same time, though, what’s happening in the other party offers more hope for the world. A fierce battle over liberal/progressive ideology between, gasp, a woman and an old school socialist? Who could have even imagined this in America a decade ago? Now it appears that the woman may be winning the party’s nomination to become the first female presidential candidate ever in your long and storied history as the world’s leading democracy? And a majority of your citizens might well retain their senses to elect her to follow your first Black President? How wonderful of you to finally move into this new phase in this new millennium! (Let’s set aside, for now, the more touchy subject of how they both have continued to rain bombs on much of the world – but we must address that too, soon, after you send the lunatic orange man packing.)

What took you so long?

So many younger nations, often learning about democracy from your own history, have lapped you and surged so much farther ahead in how they run their elections now – you really should feel embarrassed. Looking at you from the polling booths of some of these younger nations might feel like looking at a venerable but arthritic old man who is too set in his eccentric ways and unwilling to adjust with the times to learn how to run things in this new millennium. We hope that you will pay attention to and build on the energy of your younger citizens, many of whom have been involved in this election campaign with no little passion, calling out the injustices of the really bizarre ways you still run your elections. Like it is still the 18th century and you are still an agrarian nation deeply mired in social, economic, and cultural inequalities spread across a vast and mostly depopulated continent.

But never mind that for now; let us be cautiously optimistic that you just might follow up on your first Black Man in the White House with your first Woman President! What a way to make another grand entrance on to the world stage, two hundred and forty years after your birth as a democratic nation! So please: don’t throw this opportunity away, and for Earth’s sake, don’t let the narcissistic con-man steal this election too, like his predecessor did at the turn of the millennium.

You still have much work to do in fixing your democracy and bringing it up to date though, all the way from the design of ballots to drawing of voting district maps to how votes are counted in different states to who actually oversees and runs your elections to these myriad and ludicrously convoluted ways your parties hold primaries… to who pays for the whole circus… the list is so long and so hilariously tragic! You really do have a lot of work to do – which may be why you show so little enthusiasm for actually cleaning up the mess! It is like the aftermath of a centuries old frat party (or democracy rave) in your living room when you just can’t summon up the energy to throw all the trash out and start a new day afresh. Yet that is what you need to do! And you might start with the odd thing that happened tonight, and keeps happening every election – when your media gives away the results of the game before the last votes have been cast! What’s up with that?

While we are getting ready to applaud this apparent imminent shattering of the glass ceiling in America, many of us are also baffled at how your much-lauded free press decided to declare the winner before so many states have even held the vote for their primaries! How does your free press, which is supposed to be such a crucial pillar for democracy in a free society, continue to undermine the most basic process at the heart of democracy: the casting of votes to elect representatives? How does this make any sense? I mean, sure, the press has an obligation – and more, a competitive drive – to report whatever it deems newsworthy, so some of the fault lies with those who release these results that can tip the electoral scales. Still, surely this is something that could be fixed by reminding the media of their serious responsibility and making them keep their megaphones switched off until the last vote has been cast? That’s how some other democracies do it, to protect the sanctity of every vote.

While there is much you should learn from studying how other nations run their elections, at least in this one instance, you might consider the Most Populous Democracy in the World: India. Did you know that the press there, while invited and encouraged to closely observe and report on the entire election, is nevertheless restrained from announcing any results until after all the votes are cast and counted? And mind you, restraint is not likely to be the first word—hell, not even among the first 100 words—to come to mind when one thinks of / observes the Indian media these days; they are a cacophonous, obnoxious, loud-mouthed, argumentative lot, are India’s TV talking heads, who seemed to have learned too well the ratings game from your television networks. Yet, when it comes to election results, they exhibit remarkable restraint (or pay the price of jumping the gun).

Media Coverage

In order to bring as much transparency as possible to the electoral process, the media are encouraged and provided with facilities to cover the election, although subject to maintaining the secrecy of the vote. Media persons are given special passes to enter polling stations to cover the poll process and the counting halls during the actual counting of votes.

Doesn’t that sound like something for your press to try, at least for the general election?

Do click on that link and look around the helpful website of the Election Commission of India: all the fascinating details of how that rambunctious cacophony of a democracy, with over a billion people scattered densely across a varied landscape with poor infrastructure and much less money than you, manages to run its parliamentary elections—featuring thousands of candidates from dozens of political parties vying for hundreds of millions of votes cast at nearly a million polling stations—with much less of a fuss and a bother. Imagine, for example, running your entire presidential election, from the first primary to the general election, in just a couple of months instead of the years-long and practically never ending campaigns you force your candidates to run now! Wouldn’t that be refreshing? And conducive to the actual business of governing the nation for the public good?

Of course there is much that is also wrong with the running of elections in India – just see who they elected Prime Minister in the last election. Has any nation figured out a fool-proof way to conduct the messy business of democracy? Shouldn’t they all be talking to each other and borrowing from each other the best ways to make things work most impartially and openly and fairly?

There is a great deal more we could tell you about how to improve and modernize your elections, to bring you up to date in the 21st century. If you really put your mind and considerable resources to it, you might even come up blazing the trail again for the rest of the world, showing us how to get it done properly. Many other nations would love to help you with that, even as you claim to be the designated driver of democracy around the world. It is past time you got your own house in order, and we would love to talk to you about that. Perhaps after you’re done with this most insane of your recent elections, and are able to take a breather. Hopefully.

For now, let us raise a glass to the sound of all that tinkling glass, beginning to fall down slowly from that almost shattered ceiling… the world may hold its breath waiting for the final blow that breaks it fully apart come November. Until then, you do you – in the best way you know how!

– from a humble representative of your friends and well-wishers, citizens of other democracies.

What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

On the all too rare mornings when the Central Valley’s dirty air has been cleansed by a winter storm—and before the Tule fog has set in—I find myself fortunate enough to be gazing out upon the snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my office window, my view bracketed by two amazing National Parks: King’s Canyon (with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the US) at the southern edge, and Yosemite to the north. As a hiker and rock-climber in my youth, I spent many hours poring over photographs of these places in books checked out of the American Center Library in Bombay. I dreamt of visiting Yosemite, a mecca for rock-climbers, imagined myself walking through the fantastic landscapes captured on film by Ansel Adams, feeling the granite under my fingers. Rock-climbing gave way to bird-watching as I grew into an ecologist and a conservation biologist, and Yosemite assumed even more significance as one of the holiest places in any conservation pilgrimage of the US, indeed the world. What a model for nature conservation this National Park was, is. How wonderful the wilderness I could picture in these places in the writings of John Muir and others. And how lucky I am now to be living so close to such places. When I gaze out at the mountains, or visit Yosemite as part of the throngs of millions that flood its beautiful valley every year, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like a century or two ago—a fantasy we all share, those of us who despair over the state of the natural world. In my dreams now, though, I don’t see it as a “pristine” wilderness untouched by humans, but a home to a community of native people, the Ahwahneechee who once thrived there, but whose existence has been sought to be erased from our collective memory and imagination, as a centerpiece of the still prevailing notion of a National Park as pristine wilderness, a place where human beings don’t belong (and therefore never did), except as visitors who may be allowed to look and to listen, but scarcely to touch anything.

Today, I am pleased to share with you the following essay by Eric Michael Johnson, who reminds us of the human history of Yosemite, and what we in the conservation community have lost in seeking to airbrush humans out of our imagination of what Nature is supposed to look like, “unspoilt”. We must reclaim that history too if we are to reconcile our existence on this planet—not apart from, but as active participants in, Nature. This guest post is part of Eric’s Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or by following Eric on Twitter.

The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin river. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern Ahwahnee mountains causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below.

All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear would have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.

Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage had used smouldering logs from the Indians’ own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic and the crucial element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in the same searing glow that was now descending from the rocky peaks above.

“Charge, boys! Charge!!” bellowed the gravelly voice of Lieutenant Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of foot falls now joined the sound of crackling pine. Thirty men, many wearing identical red shirts and crude suspenders purchased at the mining supply depot, dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles.

“So rapid and so sudden were the charges made,” wrote the chronicler Lafayette Bunnell, “that the panic stricken warriors at once fled from their stronghold.” Savage’s men fired indiscriminately into the Ahwahneechee camp, a people who had called this valley their home for centuries.

“No prisoners were taken,” recalled the witness to these events, “twenty-three were killed; the number of wounded was never known.” All in all, it was a successful mission. However, the author noted that even more “savages” could have been hunted down and murdered had the fire not raged so out of control as to spread down the mountainside endangering their own camp. As the ragtag militia fled downhill to rescue their supplies the Ahwahneechee survivors escaped further into the mountains, little knowing that they would never be able to return home.

One month later, on January 13, 1851 by order of the governor and through a special act of Congress, the Savage militia received federal and state support to “punish the offending tribes” in the region now called the Yosemite Valley. For the leadership of California’s newly established government the approach for dealing with the native population had become a “war of extermination.” For more than a decade afterwards the land between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers remained under permanent military occupation until it became the first state park in US history to be ceded by the federal government.

I was raised in the mountains of Northern California and walked the trails near the site of this tragic massacre as a child. But I had never heard of John Savage nor the terrible events that lay behind the formation of Yosemite National Park, a picturesque symbol of the conservation movement and a vacation resort for millions. Rather it was John Muir, that noble wanderer and founder of the Sierra Club, whose name was synonymous with this national treasure. When my brothers and I climbed out of the family station wagon to witness the majesty of this glacier carved valley, it was Muir’s name that adorned the signs along the manicured trails and the celebrated volumes in the gift shop. If the indigenous population was mentioned in any of the brochures or trail guides I have no memory of it and I left with no indication that the region had once been inhabited. The impression I received was that Yosemite had always been a pristine wilderness, as sparse and pure as the Ansel Adams portraits that hung on my family’s wall for years afterwards.

But it was this skewed interpretation of wilderness that John Muir had successfully promoted, a vision that has haunted the conservation movement ever since. In his famous nineteenth century travel writings in the Sierra Nevada mountains Muir described Yosemite, not just as a picturesque marvel of nature, but as something divine that was beyond human frailties. The landscape of the “Sierra Cathedral Mountains,” was a “temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” he wrote. It was a place that was “pure wildness” and where “no mark of man is visible upon it.”

[T]he main canyons widen into spacious valleys or parks of charming beauty, level and flowery and diversified like landscape gardens with meadows and groves and thickets of blooming bushes, while the lofty walls, infinitely varied in form, are fringed with ferns, flowering plants, shrubs of many species, and tall evergreens and oaks.

It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels, he did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley it’s park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.

Yosemite Valley / Image: Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t only Muir who was struck by the ordered beauty of Yosemite Valley. Lafayette Bunnell, the New York physician who accompanied Savage on his exploits in 1851, recalled that “the valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park.” Likewise, Galen Clark who was the state guardian of the Yosemite Grant after it was ceded to California, remembered similar conditions when he first visited in 1855.

“At the time,” Clark wrote, “there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall.”

However, these conditions didn’t stay that way for long. Forty years later he found that Yosemite’s open meadow land had all but disappeared, estimating that it had been “at least four times as large as at the present time.” The reason for this, known in the nineteenth century but little appreciated until recently, were the many ways that Yosemite’s first inhabitants had transformed their environment over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chief among these was the strategic use of fire.

“Native Americans’ uses of fire pervaded their everyday lives,” explains UC Davis ecologist M. Kat Anderson, whose research appears in the edited volume Fire in California’s Ecosystems. These ranged from setting fires to keep the land open and aid in travel, a wildlife management tool to burn off detritus and increase pasturage for deer, as well as for fire prevention purposes.

“Native Americans thoroughly understood the necessity of ‘fighting fire with fire,'” Anderson says. “Their deliberately set fires were often designed to preclude the kinds of catastrophic fires that regularly devastate large areas today.”

These fires may also have played an important role in promoting biodiversity. In 1996 Anderson wrote the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project’s final report to Congress (pdf here), co-authored with CSU, Fresno archaeologist Michael Moratto. In their report the authors state that most plants useful to the tribes of the Sierra Nevada were shade-intolerant varieties that required regular burning in order to thrive. These species included deer grass for use in basketry, edible native grasses, as well as a variety bulb, corm, and tuber species. By setting intentional fires throughout the forest “gaps or grassy openings were created, maintained, or enlarged within diverse plant communities,” the authors wrote. “The result was that plant diversity was maximized.”

However, for Muir, as it was for many conservationists in the nineteenth century, these fires were “the great master-scourge of forests” and extinguishing their fury would be his divine mission. “Only fire,” he wrote in 1869, “threatens the existence of these noblest of God’s trees.” It wasn’t enough to simply keep loggers and shepherds from degrading the forest. They needed strict and unyielding protection. To that end Muir would advocate federal forest protection and fire suppression measures with every politician and government official who might listen.

At times, as friends noted, Muir’s zeal to protect forests overshadowed all other concerns. In a revealing moment described by his close friend Mary Louise Swett, written to Muir’s fiance four days before their marriage, Mrs. Swett impressed upon the young woman her future husband’s intensity.

“I hope you are good at a hair splitting argument,” she wrote. “You will need to be to hold your own with him. . . He told Colonel Boyce the other night that his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination.”

In contrast to Muir’s advocacy of exclusion and suppression, Yosemite Park officials praised the logic of regular controlled burns “when the Indians were Commissioners” and stated that “absolute prevention of fires in these mountains will eventually lead to disastrous results.” But, for Muir, “the best service in forest protection — almost the only efficient service — is that rendered by the military.” Without enforcing the power to seal off protected forests from encroachment Muir feared that his ultimate goal of preservation would fail.

“One soldier in the woods, armed with authority and a gun,” he wrote, “would be more effective in forest preservation than millions of forbidding notices.”

In the end Muir’s position won out, supported as it was by such figures as then-New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, General William Jackson Palmer, and Captain George Anderson, the military official recently charged with protecting Yellowstone National Park. For those critics who still maintained that Indian-style fires should be employed in Yosemite, Muir had an alternative solution as he made clear before a meeting of the Sierra Club on November 23, 1895.

“Since the fires that formerly swept through the valley have been prevented,” he said, “the underbrush requires much expensive attention that will call for the services of a skilled landscape artist.” However, these funds never materialized to the extent that Muir imagined. As a result, the once park-like expanses of the Yosemite he had heralded soon became overcrowded through unchecked growth. At the same time, the United States was saddled with the high costs of suppressing every fire that ignited because the build up of fuel on the forest floor now threatened to wipe out the entire region.

Yosemite Valley in 1866 and 1961.

The conservation decisions of the nineteenth century have left a lasting legacy that is still felt today. In a study that appeared in the March, 2010 edition of Ecological Applications (pdf here), Penn State researchers Andrew Scholl and Alan Taylor published their analysis of how successful this fire suppression policy ultimately was. The authors sought to test the claim that intentional fires had been a widespread feature of Native American stewardship. To accomplish this they collected data throughout a 2,125 hectare region of the Yosemite National Park including the number of different species, the density by which trees were packed together, and their age as revealed through boring into trees to remove core samples.

These core samples that Scholl and Taylor collected revealed the environmental history of every tree in their survey. Because tree ring shows evidence of environmental conditions at the time that section was exposed to the outside world, by analyzing these tree cores they were able to identify both when a fire took place and how widely it had spread based on the fire damage recorded in the rings. Furthermore, if one region contained significantly younger trees than another, it would indicate evidence of a serious fire that had wiped out entire sections of forest. In the end, the researchers were able to construct a map of forest change between the years of 1575 – 2006 and the impact that fire had on forest biodiversity.

The results of this analysis were highly significant (p < 0.01) and found that shade-tolerant species such as White fir and incense cedar had increased to such an extent that Yosemite Valley was now two times more densely packed than it had been in the nineteenth century. These smaller and more highly flammable trees had pushed out the shade-intolerant species, like oak or pine, and reducing their numbers by half. After a century of fire suppression in the Yosemite Valley biodiversity had actually declined, trees were now 20% smaller overall, and the forest was more vulnerable to catastrophic fires than it had been before the United States expelled the native population.

However, based on the rotation of historic burn sites throughout the forest, it left no question that the fires had been intentionally set rather than the result of random lightening strikes or other accidental burns. Native American groups had profoundly altered the landscape of the Yosemite Valley in ways that were both advantageous to them as well as to the local ecosystem as a whole. They were successful stewards of the forest, not because they had no impact on the environment, but because the forest was their home and they relied upon it for every aspect of their lives. In support of these findings two additional studies, one also in Yosemite and one along the California coast, came to similar conclusions. Despite John Muir’s passionate desire to protect Yosemite’s magnificent trees, after 100 years of conservation the overall density among the 14 most abundant large-diameter species had declined by 30%.

For Muir and his nineteenth century contemporaries, conservation meant “government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains.” This continues to be the standard model for conservation around the world. However, as in Yosemite, the global conservation effort has focused their attention on the idea of pristine wilderness to the exclusion of all other concerns, including those of the people who have lived there for centuries.

In 2003 the harmful effects of these policies were denounced by indigenous delegates from around the world when they presented a joint declaration before the Fifth Parks Congress then being held in Durban, South Africa.

“The strategy to conserve biodiversity through national parks has displaced many tens of thousands of very poor park residents, transforming them into conservation-refugees,” they announced. “First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.”

However, just as there could have been for the Ahwahneechee in 1851, there is also an alternative today. Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, along with her colleague Tanya Hayes at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, conducted a study in 2007 (pdf here) that compared vegetation patterns throughout 84 forests in 15 separate countries, only half of which were under national protection. In a direct rebuff to the claims of conservationists, they found no significant differences in vegetation density between forests that were protected and those that were not. However, there was one criteria that made a difference: the direct involvement of local and indigenous populations. Those regions where local groups were able to define the rules for how their forest was managed had significantly higher vegetation densities than those that didn’t, regardless of their protection status.

Vegetation Density Associated with User Group Right to Make Rules.
From Ostrom and Hayes, 2007.

“The above findings clearly contradict the belief that protected areas are the only way to conserve forests,” they wrote. In so doing they offer an opportunity to change course on a policy, well intentioned though it may have been, that led to the expulsion of native peoples and the commitment to an expensive conservation strategy that has had little result. In other words, it’s time for the exclusionary approach of John Savage and John Muir to be tossed on the fire.

In July, 1929, seventy-eight years after the Ahwahneechee people had been driven from their homeland, a frail, elderly woman quietly processed acorns on the valley floor. Her weather worn face appeared thin, yet firm like crumpled paper. She was a living record of the trials her people had suffered ever since they were herded into open air prisons at the point of a bayonet. As she sat, pulling back broken shell from acorns like damaged fingernails, a curiosity-seeking tourist offered her a nickel if she would serve him. I can only imagine the lifetime of rage she must have felt in that moment.

“No!” she cried. “Not five dollars one acorn, no! White man drive my people out–my Yosemite.”

Her name was Maria Lebrado, but she had once been known as Totuya. She was the granddaughter of Ahwahnee Chief Tanaya, a revered leader who had attempted to shield his people from harm only to witness the murder of his son and the loss of everything he held dear. Now the last remaining member of her tribe, Totuya had returned home in order to die.

During her brief stay she was interviewed at length by a Mrs. H.J. Taylor and given a tour of the lands she had not seen since she was a child. However, as she looked out upon what her beloved Yosemite had become, she cast her glance down in disapproval. What had once been a wide open meadow used for games by her entire village was now an overgrown field, pockmarked with thin trees and scrub brush.

 “Too dirty, too much bushy,” she explained sadly. After centuries of care the land she cherished had been allowed to lay dormant and unused, the fire needed to bring this valley to life having been extinguished long ago. Her beloved Ahwahnee was lost.

Do we applaud when a President merely comes close to speaking the truth?

Or should we really be holding his feet to the fire until he does acknowledge the stark truth? And does so with a kick to the nation’s collective butt so we can begin to at last face up to the real challenges of weaning this economy off oil, rather than applying more palliatives that were too little too late several decades ago! I was deeply disappointed by President Obama’s address to the nation last night, for this was supposed to be the transformative leader who was going to change this country – and he couldn’t even do what mild-mannered Carter did 30 years ago?! And the end of the speech really left me gasping in astonishment – for here was the US President telling us to hang our hopes on prayer, “…that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day!” Huh?! Wasn’t that supposed to be your hand, Mr. Obama? Isn’t that pretty much why we elected you – to guide us through the storm towards a brighter day?!

As for the substance of the speech – and how many ways it fell far short of what it should have been – Sharon Astyk zeroes on on the key point, which is that this leader of leaders is simply unwilling to lead us away from the post-peak-oil chasm looming right in front of us, unwilling to even tell us that plain truth in a way that only he can to make a nation sit up and take notice. He came close, agonizingly disappointingly close, but couldn’t bring himself to make the real jump:

Obama doesn’t explain that most renewables are less energy-dense than oil or natural gas – that it isn’t a 1-1 transition, one solar panel or wind turbine for X barrels of oil, but that we need more renewables, and have to run faster and faster to keep up. Obama doesn’t explain that at every stage in the renewable transition, we depend on stable prices for oil, coal and natural gas – that we don’t make solar panels with solar panels, but with fossil fuels, and that shifts in price can change the economic equation dramatically.

It would have been too much to ask for all this information – the best presidential speeches are pithy. And it would also be too much to ask Obama to admit that it is only now, when people are asking “where the heck were you during this spill” that he’s committing publically to fulfilling his promises, only now that he’s talking about our energy limits, after approving increased offshore drilling and discussing the way the magic oil off our coasts would fix our problems. It is only now that we’ve already started sacrificing that he’s ready to call for sacrifice. And it all depends on language that implies that we can keep everything largely the way we want it to be – that costs will be largely economic, that a clean energy economy is something that will look like our own, that this isn’t going to hurt too badly, that the economy can recover and we can have a low-cost transition and a “victory” that gets us all the things we dream of.

And there was a time when all that was true. When Jimmy Carter was making essentially the same speech Obama just did, only in a cardigan, that was entirely feasible. It was almost certainly doable in the 1980s, and probably into the early 1990s. Now it is not. And Obama didn’t tell us about the most basic problem – that the speech he just gave is precisely the kind of speech that has been part of the process of not doing anything. That when George W. Bush said we had to get off foreign oil, and Bill Clinton said we had to get off foreign oil that they too talked about clean energy economies and incentives and making a better world for our kids.

And it isn’t that they didn’t necessarily even mean it. It is that the oil-addicted culture of America is so deeply dependent on fossil fuels and the economic growth they power that no leader, left or right has ever been able to figure out how to do this shift meaningfully – once we passed the critical moments at which we could have powered a smooth transition, the reality of making words energy – the economic and personal costs, the change required in our culture, those were too big to conquer.

The speech that needs to be given hasn’t happened yet, and every year it gets harder to give. It begins with the classic acknowledgement that good physicians give “this is going to hurt.” And it explains why – why the greater good comes from endurance. It begins acknowledging that everyone wasted a golden opportunity, and that now our choices are governed by material physical realities – that we face the pain of living with what is possible, rather than what is desirable. It includes both a call to build what renewable energies we can, and also the acknowledgement that we will not be living anything like the present American way of life. It involves a real call to sacrifice – the kind of sacrifice past generations endured in incredibly difficult times, the kinds of sacrifice that cost them a great deal, but for a vastly greater goal. It probably involves unpalatable words like “rationing.” It will involve admitting fault and responsibility, and then moving on, telling the public what they need to know, but also engaging them in the project of creating a future for their children and grandchildren.

60 Minutes report on BP’s Deepwater Horizon Blowout and the ongoing oilpocalypse

Last night, CBS’s venerable hard-hitting news magazine 60 Minutes aired their take on the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s the full report, in two parts (the website has more in the form of web extras, so do visit there).

There, now aren’t you appropriately depressed for a Monday morning?

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Unite Arizona: harnessing the power of maps to fight back against the new anti-immigrant law!

Maps can be powerful tools for social change, and I sure hope this new one plays its part in beating back Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law. My friends who founded and run which has developed a number of interesting crowdsourced community mapping projects (including some work on the Fresno Bird Count), have come up with a good response to the new Arizona law requiring police to stop and demand citizenship/immigration papers from anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. While many of my friends from other states are thinking of boycotting Arizona (in their summer travel plans, among other things) and others living in the state are angry and upset about their state’s legislature, NiJeL now offers a novel way to take action if you spot any incidents of harassment or victimization under the new law, or are subject to such yourself – read on for more about what you can do through Unite Arizona in this email they sent me today:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

With the passage of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, global media, politicians, human rights groups, and concerned individuals have turned their attention toward Arizona, rightfully concerned about the negative impacts of this new law. Minority groups in Arizona have been and will continue to be subject to verbal and physical harassment and intimidation from organized hate groups, some members of law enforcement and xenophobic Arizonans. Moreover, many more victims will likely cease to report crimes out of fear of detention and deportation due to this law.

NiJeL created Unite Arizona ( to provide both a way for Arizonans to anonymously report harassment, intimidation, raids/sweeps, and an outlet for unreported criminal activity via SMS (text message), Twitter, email, or the web. These incidents will be filtered by the type of incident and visualized on a participatory map and a timeline for the community to see. This project was the subject of a recent NewTimes story ( and you may follow the project’s updates on Twitter (@immigrantharass) or at our Facebook Fan page (!/pages/Unite-Arizona/114811748558349?ref=ts).

Unite Arizona uses the Ushahidi Platform: free and open source software designed to gather real-time, crowdsourced data for crisis response. Unite Arizona is currently live and accepting SMS data at 602-824-TALK (8255), Twitter updates with the hashtag #MHRSAZ, and emails at

Incoming data can be tagged by location, category, date and time, and each report can include references to news items, photos and video. Trusted site administrators are charged with mapping and coding incoming messages, approving and verifying each incident, scoring the reliability of the source and indicating the probability that the event is real. Users of the site can also rate the importance of incidents, promoting those that are particularly egregious. Finally, anyone can sign up to receive alerts of approved incidents, filtered by location. With this system we intend to provide a powerful reporting platform for victims and activists, an alert system for crisis responders, and a compelling visualization of the scale and scope of harassment, intimidation and unreported crime in Arizona.

We would be very interested in partnering with your organization for several purposes. First, we could use your help in disseminating the SMS or text message number (602-824-8255 or 602-824-TALK)), the Twitter hashtag #MHRSAZ and the email address,, that people can use to report incidents. We would very much appreciate your help in disseminating this information to your networks. Thanks!!

There are a number of other ways to help us with this project:

Moderation Volunteering
If you would like to help us moderate reports of harassment, intimidation and unreported crime and comments from the public, please contact our volunteer coordinator, Layal Rabat, at You will need to go though a background check process and attend a training session to learn how to use the internal moderation tools. Thank you!

Organizational Support
If your organization would like to show support for this effort and would like more information about how to get involved, you may contact me at Thank you!

We are also accepting donations to help us support our volunteer coordinators, train new moderators, disseminate SMS and other site information, and improve the site technology among other items. Any amount would be much appreciated. Please follow the PayPal link below to donate, and thank you so much for your support of Unite Arizona!

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

A People’s History of the United States – read it and add your own voice

1. Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress

2. Drawing the Color Line

3. Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

4. Tyranny is Tyranny

5. A Kind of Revolution

6. The Intimately Oppressed

7. As Long As Grass Grows Or Water Runs

8. We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God

9. Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom

10. The Other Civil War

11. Robber Barons And Rebels

12. The Empire and the People

13. The Socialist Challenge

14. War Is the Health of the State

15. Self-help in Hard Times

16. A People’s War?

17. “Or Does It Explode?”

18. The Impossible Victory: Vietnam

19. Surprises

20. The Seventies: Under Control?

21. Carter-Reagan-Bush: The Bipartisan Consensus

22. The Unreported Resistance

23. The Clinton Presidency and the Crisis of Democracy

24. The Coming Revolt of the Guards

24. The 2000 Election and the “War on Terrorism”

You have this book on your shelf already, heavily dogeared and annotated, don’t you? No? If not, you better get a start on this real history of this nation, not the imperial history sanctioned in the formal textbooks! Thanks to the History is a Weapon website, you can also read the entire text online via the above links, but you’re better off getting an actual copy (or several to share!). Read it and weep, for the voice we have lost today with the passing of Howard Zinn. Read it and raise your own voice and follow his path, for he showed us how not to let the victors in history silence the rest of us!

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Rush Hour in Yosemite: the American Wilderness Experience

Yosemite National Park is an enduring symbol of the American “wilderness“, a textbook example of how National Parks protect Nature by holding at bay the rising tide of humanity’s demands on natural resources. National Parks are instead meant to be a different medium for us to experience and enjoy those natural resources – as aesthetic ones to be protected for posterity. If you’ve ever been to such a place as Yosemite armed with a camera, go back and look at your images (as I just did) and ponder how much you edit your own experience of this wilderness! How do you frame your pictures, when you attempt to capture the beauty of nature and wildlife? Do you include our fellow tourists, our conspecifics (not counting the obligatory family vacation shots), as part of that nature? If not (and I don’t often enough), why not? Do you find yourself wishing there just weren’t so darn many people out there, tramping through this wilderness, and spoiling your own serene immersion into it? Ignoring the rather inconvenient factoid that you are also but one among that teeming mass of humanity that wants this experience for its collective soul! But isn’t that what a National Park in a democracy is meant to be: a way to share the experience with everybody, rather than an elite few? How then do we accomplish that sharing without destroying that which is being shared, the very wilderness we all want to experience?

What would you get if you pointed your camera the other way – at the c.3.5 million people who visit Yosemite every year? Steven Bumgardner, a videographer for the National Park Service has done just that to produce this remarkable time-lapse video of people in Yosemite one July (which is effectively the rush month for that park):

People in Yosemite: A TimeLapse Study from Steven M. Bumgardner on Vimeo.

Yosemite is bigger than Rhode Island at almost 800,000 acres, but it receives about 3.5 million visitors each year, and most of them spend time in Yosemite Valley. This project was shot back in 2005 after purchasing a Sony Z1U. This was my first HD project (ok, fine, HDV) and I spent about a week in Yosemite during the busy month of July. The footage was all shot in real time, and then sped up in post.

I chose busy places during busy days to show the effects of this mass of humanity. I could have just as easily pointed my camera in another direction and shown nothing but plants, animals and wilderness. Yosemite is popular, but it’s also still a relatively wild place.

I’ve lived and worked in National Parks for almost 20 years, and as much as I love landscape photography, I also like looking at the human footprint and the human experience in our national parks. Some of this footage helped me get my current job in 2006, as a videoographer for the National Park Service and the photographer/editor/producer of the web video series “Yosemite Nature Notes”

The music is from Peter Gabriel’s “Passion” (a.k.a. the soundtrack from Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”)

A black bear heads for the beer cooler (like the Indian tiger?)

It seems, according to an official brochure from the Forest Department at India’s Sariska Tiger Reserve, that “The Tiger prefers to hunt large deer specially sambar, chital, nilgai and omnivore COLD BEER.” Really, I’m not making this up:

Could be why the tigers went extinct from Sariska several years ago – maybe they were too drunk to avoid the poachers – and had to be reintroduced! Well, one hopes the replacements stay off the brew and put on their best tigerish behavior this week when environment ministers from SAARC nations come to visit them.

Meanwhile, over in Hayward, Wisconsin, a young black bear (apparently unaware of or undeterred by the tigers’ misadventures) just wandered into a grocery store, and headed straight for the beer cooler in the liquor department:

The sad part is that the bear apparently didn’t even get a drink after all that effort – although it did get the tranquilizers! Was it just cooling off after a long hot walk through suburbia? Looking for a cool place to hibernate? Well, at least this bear didn’t become drunk and disorderly, unlike its cousins, the Indian Sloth Bears, which are well known for their predilection for alcohol from fermenting flowers of the mahua trees in central India!