Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Desert Broom in Bloom

Many people realize that the hardworking honeybee is an endangered and necessary creature, but beyond that, in my experience, people see insects as inconveniences to be eliminated, much like the plants we call weeds. But inconvenient plants and insects can also be beautiful, and paying attention to small living things can help us understand and feel connected to the natural world.

In a blog post last year called “We can't ignore the little things that keep us alive,” scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki talked about his childhood fascination with insects: “To me, insects were endlessly riveting. Many of them display spectacular colours and patterns and occur in shapes and forms that are far more bizarre and surprising than any Hollywood sci-fi creation.”  He went on to explain the important roles small creatures play in the healthy functioning of ecosystems, and he lamented the fact that “In our concern with protecting grizzlies and polar bears, whooping cranes and redwood trees, wolves and caribou, we give short shrift to the small creatures that keep the planet livable.”

Here in the Sonoran Desert, an opportunity to enjoy insects and other small creatures comes around each year when desert broom begins to flower. This plant is native to our region, so it isn’t actually a weed, but desert broom prefers disturbed areas and therefore behaves like a weed. And after it blooms it produces lots of silky little seeds that clog swimming pools and make a mess. As a result, there are more articles on the internet about how to destroy it than about how to enjoy it. (For one of the milder opinions, see “Desert Broom…Is It a Desert Plant or a Noxious Weed?”) Nonetheless, if you live in the Sonoran Desert, you can see desert broom in bloom in late October. Its small cream-colored flowers attract an amazing variety of insects. If you belly up to the plant and listen to the busy hum, you can be pretty sure that these small and hard-working creatures will be preoccupied with finding food and strengthening themselves in preparation for the cold and dry weather to come, and they will barely notice you.

Greg and I have taken pictures of the same group of flowering desert broom plants in October of 2012, 2013, and 2014. Sometimes people who are walking or bicycling along will stop and ask what we’re looking at. “Butterflies,” I say, but really there are so many insects it’s hard to say which I'm most interested in. There are wasps, bee flies, flies, dragonflies, and even tiny lizards hoping to snag some of the smaller insects. Here's a gallery of some of the insects we have been able to watch. [Click on the photo to view a larger image.]
Great Blue Hairstreak, 2014
Queen butterfly on desert broom; 2012
Three Queens; photo by Greg Evans, 2014

Common Snout, wings open, 2014
Common Snout, wings closed, 2014
Paper Wasp and bees, 2014
Tarantula Hawk Wasp, 2014
Mexican Amberwing perched near desert broom, 2013
Some type of Metalmark? 2012
A Hover Fly, 2014
Mexican Cactus Fly, 2014
Bee Fly, 2013
Gray Hairstreak and Honeybee, 2014

Now the desert broom has gone to seed, and its white, silky seeds are beginning to drift around. I sometimes grab a pinch of seeds, release them into the air, and remember that some people call desert broom “Snow on the mountain.” I also hope that people can learn to appreciate this plant, which may not seem to be useful to home owners but obviously has its place in our ecosystem.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

Signs from September 21, 2014 Tucson Solidarity Protest,
which coincided with the NYC People's Climate March
(Photo by Greg Evans)
The September 21 People’s Climate March in New York City was a convergence of activists from all over the world to sound the alarm about climate change. The New York Times gave a crowd estimate of 310,000 people, and here in Tucson 250 activists took part in a march that was one of over 2,500 global solidarity events. Members of groups including, Tucson Climate Action Network, and Occupy Tucson marched from Himmel Park Library to the parking lot at Rancho Center where an exhibit of electric cars was the occasion for an informal rally. The Arizona Daily Star gave no coverage to this Tucson solidarity march, prompting Kathy Babcock, in a September 26 letter, to ask, “How many marchers does it take for the Star to consider covering an event?” But, despite the lack of full media coverage, the crowds of people in New York and the large numbers of solidarity events worldwide highlighted an increasing sense of urgency about climate change.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate -- already a New York Times bestseller -- is an eloquent expression of this urgency. Published just days before the People’s Climate March, the book was launched in New York on September 18 at an event sponsored by the New School, The Nation magazine, and As he introduced Ms. Klein at this event, Bill McKibben, co-founder of, said that “...uniquely, Naomi has been able to realize something that's hard to grasp, which is that climate change is not one more problem on a list of problems that we need to ... do something about. It's a... way of grasping what it is that everything adds up to, the power relationships on our planet, the way that wealth and power are distributed.” And in fact Klein has a unique vantage point from which to view this issue because she is the author of The Shock Doctrine, a book which shows how the neoliberal capitalist order takes advantage of crises to double down on its consolidation of power. She theorizes that things could be different with the climate crisis. In the introduction to This Changes Everything, she says, “Rather than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine – a frenzy of new resource grabs and repression – climate change can be a People’s Shock, a blow from below..." She says this is because, unlike right-wing shock doctors who exploit emergencies to push through policies that make us more vulnerable to crises, the activists who are sparking transformations in response to climate change are helping to move us toward both a more ecological and a more just world.

Klein worked with a number of fact-checkers and researchers, and This Changes Everything is impeccably researched, with a depth and breadth that is compelling, if sometimes overwhelming. In the first section of the book, "Bad Timing," Klein tells us it’s no wonder there are so many right-wing climate deniers -- the right is right in the sense that it would be “intellectually cataclysmic” for right-wing ideologues to acknowledge climate change. But what about the rest of us? What kinds of measures should we demand? Citing works like Tim Jackson's Prosperity Without Growth, Klein suggests that we need to pursue "selective degrowth" and "support those parts of our economies that are already low-carbon and therefore do not need to contract," such as "the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits." Earlier in the book she says, “I'm convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity... on the scale of the New Deal but far more transformative and just.” She adds that, as we bring down our emissions levels we will also be able to bring forward policies that improve lives, create jobs, and close the widening gap between rich and poor. She discusses ways we might go about "growing the caring economy, shrinking the careless one." This could in turn lead to shorter working hours and the call for a guaranteed annual income, which Klein says “…discourages shitty work (and wasteful consumption)." And much of the first section of the book addresses the question of how we can stop using fossil fuels and transition to renewables in a fair and equitable way, both in this country and around the world. How this will defeat the 1% is not so clear. 

When Klein talks about groups that have long actively opposed capitalism, she says “If we are part of industrial or postindustrial societies, we are still living inside the story written in coal./  Ever since the French Revolution, there have been pitched ideological battles within the confines of this story: communists, socialists, and trade unions have fought for more equal distribution of the spoils of extraction, winning major victories for the poor and working classes.” She acknowledges that in all of these movements there were those who understood the connection between capitalism’s abuse of the natural world and its abuse of human beings, but she doesn’t devote much attention to the left, adding that, except among anarchists, challenges to the domination of nature mostly came from “the intellectual realm” and the left has largely been a part of the extractivist project. It would have been difficult to examine anticapitalist ideologies thoroughly in an already dense 460-page book, but doing so would have given more coherence to her sometimes incomplete arguments about how we’re going to stop neoliberal capitalism from doing what it does best. To be clear, Klein doesn’t give much praise to the environmental movement’s contribution to this fight against the domination of nature either; in part, she says this “has to do with the movement’s unduly elite history, particularly in North America.”

In the second section of the book, "Magical Thinking," Klein debunks what she considers to be wrong-headed solutions to the problem of climate change. She begins by looking at the environmental groups she calls Big Green, by which she means green groups with a lot of corporate backing like Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and WWF (originally the World Wildlife Fund). Though she aims her harshest criticism at the Nature Conservancy (which actually drilled for oil on its Texas City Prairie Preserve, once home to endangered Attwater’s prairie chickens), she says that Big Green groups have done little to help solve the problem of climate change because they “consistently, and aggressively, pushed responses that are the least burdensome, and often directly beneficial, to the largest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet – even when the policies come at the direct expense of communities fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground.” In this section she also examines the solutions proposed by “messiah” billionaires like Richard Branson, T. Boone Pickens, and Bill Gates, who either fail to deliver the money and assistance they promise (Branson and Pickens) or want a quick end-run around the problem via geoengineering (Branson and Gates). And she attends a conference of the Royal Society, Britain’s prestigious academy of science, to hear scientists debate geoengineering. At one point geoengineering proponent David Keith tells her, “It’s pretty clear that just putting a lot of sulfur in the stratosphere isn’t terrible. After all, volcanoes do it.” (Note, for example, that one proposed geoengineering project would spray sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to create a “global dimming effect.”) What Keith doesn’t mention is that volcanic eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo which erupted in 1991, can cause or badly worsen regional drought, and the potential for harm is great. This is why Klein refers to geoengineering as an example of how climate change could be exploited by shock doctors if “in the desperation of a true crisis all kinds of sensible opposition melt away and all manner of high-risk behaviors seem temporarily acceptable.”

Klein frequently says that people should not have to choose between poverty and pollution, and in the third section of the book, “Starting Anyway,” she gives many concrete examples of people who are fighting both for economic and environmental justice. This section of the book is filled with descriptions of inspiring movements – from indigenous people’s struggles in Canada, the U.S., and South America to university-based divestment campaigns and Blockadia, the “roving transnational conflict zone” that crops up wherever there’s a need to fight extractive projects. One of these movements can be found in the city of Richmond, California, where Chevron has a huge refinery, and where local residents have experienced many health and safety problems as a result of that refinery, including fires in 1999 and 2012. Klein describes Richmond as “Predominantly African American and Latino,… a rough-edged, working-class pocket amidst the relentless tech-fuelled gentrification of the Bay Area,” and she says that in 2009 community members successfully blocked Chevron’s plan to expand its refinery so it could process heavier crudes, such as the bitumen from the tar sands. Klein also cites the solar co-ops employing growing numbers of workers in Richmond, “who might otherwise see no option besides the Chevron refinery.” After her speech at the September 18 NYC book launch, Klein led a panel discussion that included four other activists who are struggling both for environmental and economic justice. One of the panelists was Michael Leon Guerrero of Climate Justice Alliance, a group which has been doing organizing work in Richmond . He described the city as the scene of collaborations among unions, environmental justice organizations like Asian Pacific Environmental Network, urban farming groups and student groups that are all coming together to develop alternatives and build political power. Since Klein’s book was published, voters in Richmond rejected Chevron's attempt to influence the local election, even though the oil giant spent more than $3 million on a slate of pro-Chevron candidates. According to one estimate, this failed effort cost Chevron $72 per voter. What we see in Richmond – and in the outpouring of people who joined the People's Climate March in New York, Tucson, and all over the world -- shows that people really are starting to fight back. This Changes Everything is an homage to and an inspiration for these onoing struggles.

Make sure you check out the Beautiful Solutions section of the book's website, which promises to gather "the most promising and contagious strategies for building a just, democratic, and resilient world." Both the book and the site encourage us, in thoughtful and challenging ways, to become part of the solution and in that way to help to change everything for the good of the planet and our communities.

A Fifth and Final Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: the Prairie and the Dust Bowl

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