Sunday, March 30, 2014

Four years on, reflections from a new home

On three previous occasions I have used this anniversary day to reflect on what I can do with my privilege and the tremendous resources I am surrounded by; to lessen my burden on the world; to continue a dialogue about the larger impacts of our individual choices, and the structural challenges we face in reshaping this culture of destruction, violence, and injustice into one aligned with peace, equality, and harmony; to make this dialogue actionable.  Today is the fourth time I reflect on a small journey that began in my Ann Arbor kitchen, this time from a new home, Washington, DC.

As grey skies poured rain on my bus ride home from a weekend New York City today, I read a recent essay by Gretchen Legler in Orion, The Happiness Index: Putting people before profit in Bhutan.  The essay describes Bhutan's alternative social, economic, and environmental metric, Gross National Happiness, in the context of the country's and people's struggles "negotiating the wilderness of modernization without losing its soul," a soul that has so far been filled with organic food and resided in lush, untouched environmental beauty, a soul being challenged by the opening of its borders and the cautious welcoming of what we call "modernization."

Sadly for Legler, she found in Bhutan a new found obsession with the modern world in which "traditions and nature are taking a backseat to convenience."  For example, traditional, handcrafted bamboo food containers call bangchung replaced by "plastic insulated containers made in China, exported to Thailand, flown to India, and trucked over the southern borders."

After a three-day hike to to the holy lake Dragipangtsho, or "in the lap of the mountain," Legler and her group drink tea around a fire on the lake shore.  She reflects:
When we finally arrive at the holy lake, it is nearly night...But even with the fire and tea, this is a fierce place.  Magnifying this eerie scene is that we are camped in what feels like a garbage dump, surrounded by piles of plastic litchi juice containers, candy and gum wrappers, packaging from dried noodle soups, clear plastic Bhutanese gin and vodka bottles, worn out trousers, a blue rubber boot. 
I stare outside the bus window along I-95, and see a congruent scene rushing by my eyes at seventy miles per hour: junk of all kinds littering the shore of the highway, the shore of forested lands.  While many have benefited from a paradigm of environmental destruction, modern society's most boundless production is pollution, waste, and trash, refuse strewn across landscapes, leeching unwanted chemicals into our soil and water, ending up in living bodies, cancerous.

"I begin to pick up trash and toss it into the fire," Legler writes.  "Karma stops me in alarm: "No!  You must not burn trash beside a holy lake!  It will offend and anger the local deities."...[W]hile burning garbage beside a holy lake is taboo, leaving garbage as of yet seems to carry no spiritual repercussions.  The incongruity of it hangs over us all."

I do not live trash or recycling free anymore, but I live a changed life because of this journey, because of where I live.  Climate change resilience, low-cost air pollution sensors to fight for environmental justice, the politics of the Environmental Protection Agency, protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, anti-drone new home, this nation's capital, has provided new outlets for socioecological engagement, and alternative concepts and paradigms to think about, act on, build.  I am fortunate to be here, and I am looking forward to what is next.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How can we forget? Exxon Valdez and the Kirby Barge

"​The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting​," wrote Milan Kundera.  

Many people remain blind to or unaware of the power that must be challenged if we are going to revolutionize our economic and political systems to align their interests with justice and ecological integrity.  This is due partly because of a massive disinformation campaign by corporate and political elites, and partly because everything we do--heating our homes or transporting ourselves to work--is inextricably bound to these power structures that feed us toxic and dirty energy.  If this energy is in everything, we do not have a choice.  If we do not have a choice, we can slowly become blind to alternatives.    

It is sadly fitting that on the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska, we are dealing with another ship-caused oil spill,  this time in Houston and Galveston after a barge owned by Kirby Inland Marine Co. leaked bunker fuel into the Gulf of Mexico.  While the size of the spill is sixty times smaller than Exxon Valdez spill (11 million gallons from the Valdez vs 170,000 gallons from the barge), the spill could not have come at a worse time for the birds that are migrating to and from the area.  (News just in: We are also dealing with another oil spill in Lake Michigan.  The culprit, BP.)

Just when we thought that we learned lessons from Exxon Valdez, that the BP Deepwater Horizon spill was fading into distant memory, just when politicians (and some scientists, and, maybe even the President) delusionally support of the Keystone XL pipeline by saying that its ecological effects are minimal or could be mitigated, we are presented with not one, but two oil spills.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  Perhaps 

We need to use these events to keep ourselves and the masses from forgetting, from losing focus on the struggles that lie in every next step.  We need to use these events to (re)orient ourselves to strategically challenge and fight the culprits of socioecological havoc and injustice of all kinds.  

We cannot forget that challenging big oil means confronting hegemonic power.  We must use these events, as Naomi Klein says, to make the increasingly popular calls for fundamental and systemic reform powerful.    

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Keystone XL pipeline: Environment be damned

There is a ton of literature and information available about the ecological impacts of tar sands.  These impacts stem from the entire spectrum of the tar sands process--from mining the sand, to extracting the unrefined bitumen oil, transporting the diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), and refining the dilbit to be burned.

First and foremost, a vast expanse of tar sands, the source of the oil that the northern leg of the Keystone XL will be shipping, lies in one of the largest intact forest and wetland ecosystems in the world--the Canadian Boreal Forests.  Currently, trees need to systematically cut down to gain access to the tar sands that lie beneath the ground.  There is a significant amount of greenhouse gas emission that occurs from deforestation.  (It does not really matter what the deforestation is for, greenhouse gases will be released.)  Of the 767 sq. km of forest that has been destroyed over the past few decades, only 104 hectares has been "certified restored," i.e. only 0.13% of the land has been somehow restored to its "original" state, if that is possible.  If the average age of black spruce is 200 years, and the average age of lodgepole pine is 150-200 years, and if it is likely that this is the average age of the trees cut down, how long will it take to actually restore the land the condition it was once in?

Boreal forest against a Suncor surface mine.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

The yellow spots are the largest trucks in the world. 
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

Secondly, one the trees are cut, the land below must be industrially excavated and large quantities of water used to extract the bitumen from the sands.  According to the Canada National Energy Board, it takes between 2.5-4 barrels of water to extract one barrel of unrefined synthetic crude oil.  This water is significantly contaminated and the water that isn't recycled is stored in tailing ponds that leak into local water supply.  The Athabasca River is connected to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the world's largest freshwater deltas.  Estimates say that by 2020, around 1 billion cubic meters (the volume of 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or the entire area of around 11 Manhattan islands submerged to a depth of one meter) of toxic water will be stored in tailing ponds by Suncor and Syncrude alone.  

A Suncor facility and tailing ponds alongside the Athabasca River.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

Tailing ponds along side the Athabasca River, seen on the top left.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

What is the potential for contamination and leakage of this water, let alone the fact that this water is essentially permanently toxic?  Fish in Lake Athabasca, near Fort McMurray (an oil boom town), have unusual red spots on them, likely from the pollutants.

"Ronnie Campbell hauls whitefish from Lake Athabasca, downriver from Fort McMurray, to use as feed for his sled dogs. Locals say their catches are often covered in unusual red spots, and many no longer eat lake fish. While the cause of the spots is unclear, some believe toxic chemicals, such as those released during bitumen production, are leaching into Alberta's rivers and lakes." Peter Essick, National Geographic Magazine, 2009

Thirdly, the bitumen is viscous and dense.  To transport it, it must first be diluted with diluents--other petroleum products--and then pumped at high temperatures and pressures.  Dilbit is much more corrosive than other kinds of crude oil, and the likelihood of pipe leaks and eruptions thus increases.  When the leak occurs in water, the diluents separate from the heavier bitumen, and the bitumen sinks to the bottom of the water body.  This is exactly what happened in June 2010, just weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred, when an Enbridge-owned pipe erupted and spilled more than a million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River.  The technology to adeuqately deal with such a spill does not exist.  Four years and a billion dollars later, 40 miles of the Kalamazoo river still remain contaminated.  What might happen if the Keystone XL leaked (and its southern leg Keystone 1 has already...twelve times in its first year...more than any other first-year pipeline in the US) or burst over the Ogallala Aquifer, so important for agriculture and drinking water?

Fourthly, the processing of dilbit creates petroleum coke, or petcoke--a solid byproduct with a high suplur content.  Burning it is illegal in the US because it emits significant amounts of smog-forming sulphur dioxide pollution.  Currently, mounds of petcoke line the banks of the Detroit River and Calumet River and contaminate the air of Detroit and Chicago, or better yet, are shipped to poor places to exacerbate the air there.  "You can't have a picnic outside because you are going to get a mouthful of black dust.  It's so bad we have to power-wash the house every week to wash it off," says Lilly Martin of Mackinaw Avenue in Chicago. The petcoke is this sent to countries even less concerned about environmental issues and public health to be burned.

Next, more about the environmental impacts of the pipeline, specifically on public health and the economics of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Keystone XL pipeline: Youth protests

Four days after I moved to Washington, DC, on 28 August, 2014,I was fortunate enough to find my way into the 50th anniversary celebrations of the March on Washington.  While the event was no protest, the goal was clear--direct political messaging, in this case about the confluences of racial and economic injustice.  That day provided my first taste of attending more politically charged events in this city.  Fast forward through a heated anti-drone summit by CODEPINK and a peace vigil in solidarity against the Keystone XL pipeline to today, when several hundred youth activists marched from the Red Square at Georgetown University to The White House to engage in civil disobedience dissent action to send a simple, concise, and extremely political message to President Barack Obama--say no to the construction of the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Saying no to the pipeline sets the stage for a course correction on President Obama's "all of the above" energy policy, which is basically this: we can combat the social and ecological dimensions of climate change while still expanding offshore oil drilling, promoting fracking, continuing mountaintop removal, and becoming even bigger trade partners with Canada by importing their ecologically devastating oil.  How such an energy policy can reduce America's dependence on fossil fuels and lighten this culture's burden on the world I do not know, but at the very least saying no to the pipeline is a serious symbolic commitment that activists can gather around to wean this country and the world of toxic and climate change-inducing fossil fuel energy.

Today, I am energized by the spirit of young climate change activists who came in buses and cars from all across the country and who zip-tied themselves to The White House fence and got arrested, with the intention of showing President Obama that the youth cares deeply about the causes and effects of climate change--physical, economic, social, political, ecological.  I thus revive this blog from its hibernation by focusing my next several posts on the Keystone XL pipeline, both to educate myself and to provide you with information about the spectrum of issues that tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline affects.

My next posts will focus on:
  • the science and engineering behind tar sands extraction, processing, and transport
  • a brief foray into the social implications of tar sands
  • the ecological impacts of tar sands, now and possible
  • arrest, direct action, and the legal issues surrounding arrest for civil disobedience and dissent
  • the climate change movement's relation to other social movements
  • the State Department's environmental impact statement 
Responses to this culture's addiction to oil cannot look at alternatives that continue to bolster the political, economic, and technological paradigm that has us locked in to degrading our Earth to the benefit of a few.  Tar sands represent the very worst things about the risks our government and corporations are willing to take to keep themselves in power.  Just take a look at a very real and ongoing tar sands disaster on the Kalamazoo River--here, here, here and here--in my state of Michigan.  More than three years and close to a billion dollars in clean-up efforts later, who knows when the nightmare will end. 

For now, I leave you with photos I took today during the dissent.