The Weather

Bum Logic: The Survivalist Meeting, Redux

This is the eighth installment in Peter’s “Bum Logic” series, about his investigation into our inadvertent complicity in climate change, continued from his last post, The Survivalist Meeting.

After that helping of sonic sap from Nellie McKay, the coeds re-incorporated up by the public address system. A lass spoke. Thankfully, she kept her words close to the core of her message. Brevity is beautiful. She stated that she was Jessica Grady-Benson, a student at Pitzer, and that the fifty-plus bodies standing with her represented students of the five Claremont Colleges calling for their respective schools to reallocate their stock into companies behaving in a socially acceptable manner. Then she said thank you, nodded at the sympathetic crowd and walked off.

She was promptly replaced by the ex-footballer. He barked some niceties and introduced Kevin Minogue of the Sierra Club and Beyond Coal. Kevin, with a grey beard, a green sweater, and grey hair, gesticulated his way to the microphone. His charisma was visible. When he spoke it became audible. He started his monologue by asking the audience to take out their cell phones and to make sure they were on. Then he described the Beyond Coal Campaign. He started by listing these past achievements:

Nationally 125 coal plants had been decommissioned. Locally, Mayor Villagrosa had pledged to eliminate coal from the city’s energy portfolio by 2020. In a unanimous 10-0 vote this past summer, the Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution to defend the recently approved mercury pollution standards set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency.[1] The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power budget for 2012-13 contains critical investments in clean energy solutions like energy efficiency and rooftop solar.

After detailing those points of momentum, Kevin segued into current controversy. Nationally, 398 coal plants remain active. Los Angeles still gets 39% of its power from two out-of-state plants: The Navajo Generating Station located on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Page, Arizona, and the Intermountain Power Plant located in Delta, Utah. While the city has committed to transitioning away from the Arizona generators, it remains invested in the Utah plant’s future, failing to oppose the expansion of the Alton Mine Project, which feeds the Delta plant’s furnaces. That strip mine had been operating on 665 acres of private land, and now it has been given permission by the B.L.M., aka the Bureau of Land Management, aka the Bureau of Logging and Mining, aka dipshits, to sprawl onto 3,500 acres of federal land adjacent to Bryce Canyon National Park in Kane County.

Satisfied with putting us again on edge, Kevin then mollified the audience. He told us that if we worked together the dire destiny that seemed to be manifesting itself could be averted. He asked us to text “beyond coal” to a five-digit number. He said that would help. It seemed easy enough, and the girl in the New Mexico shirt was doing it, so I followed suit, and Kevin exited stage right.

Perhaps sensing that the throbbing hoard was starting to froth, Bill McKibben hopped on the soapbox. He looked the archetypal nerd: pleated khakis, posture mangled by time spent sitting at keyboards, wire-rim glasses, utilitarian buzz cut. One of his initial assertions was that he was not a nerd, but a Methodist Sunday School teacher. He apologized for his tendency to get “all sermony,” but said it was his default mode. I realized the metaphor my mind had been leaning towards: Revivalist meeting morphed into Survivalist meeting. I conjured a scene from There Will Be Blood.

Bill proceeded to humbly weave a grand narrative of his exploits and aspirations. He mixed his media with an illustrative PowerPoint[2] and video monologues by Van Jones, the founder of Move-on.org; Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement; Kumi Naidoo, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International; and reporter Naomi Klein, author of the book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In stride, he marched out a litany of allegorical aphorisms: Comparing fossil fuel companies, cigarette companies, and drunk drivers, calling for the revocation of their social licenses; making a distinction between nuclear weapons manufacturers who could, however tenuously, claim that their products were not intended for actual use outside of theoretical deterrence[3], and fossil fuel companies who rely on the inevitable combustion of their products.

Furthering his logic, he elucidated statistics that rendered turgid any defense of the national energy policy’s integrity. It went something like this (the bolding is mine):

The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists, estimates that proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, together with the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies, equals 2795 Gigatons of CO2.  While those reserves are physically underground, they are economically above ground, with a current market value of twenty-five trillion dollars. The fiscal worth of these fossil fuel companies is based upon the speculation that those reserves will be combusted in the future.

At the moment, humans have, through the release of CO2, which occurs when fossil fuels are combusted, raised the temperature of the earth .8°C. That has resulted in tragedy. Its terrors range from headline worthy storms, like Sandy, to lurking facts, like, “over the past year alone, grain prices have risen 40%.” However, it is internationally agreed that if temperatures warm to 2°C above their norm, tragedy will turn to calamity, devastation. Conditions conducive to civilization will be no more.

Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have some reasonable hope of staying below that two-degree increase. Computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 levels now, the temperature would still rise another 0.8 degrees above the 0.8 we’ve already warmed, which means that we’re already three-fourths of the way to the two-degree line. And fossil-fuel companies are actively moving towards releasing more than five times the number of gigatons than is considered safe.

Upon landing on that last point, Mr. McKibben started to draw his speech to a close by performing personalized honesty. He described himself as a “professional bummer-outer.” He described his own naive belief that his words written twenty-plus years ago, in his first book The End of Nature, would have been sufficient to actualize the change he wanted to see. He speculated that the head of the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hanson, likely felt similarly about the efficacy of the data he distributed. Then he told a story about his friend, Gus Speth. Gus was the cofounder of the National Resource Defense Council. He was a former Dean at Yale University. He was also the former inhabitant of a jail cell in Washington, D.C. He had gained that real estate after being arrested, along with 1,253 others, while participating in a non-violent protest of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a protest that held hands to encircle, to embrace the White House on November 6, 2011.[4] Gus wrote a short note from his confinement: “I’ve held a lot of important positions in this town, but none have felt quite so important as the one which I find myself in now.” With that depiction of hope in the face of hardship, of embodied criticism, the house music was turned on—Bruce Springsteen.

As we filed out of the auditorium, my friend Corey made an old anarchist joke about crowded theaters. “Yell fire,” he baited me. I immediately recalled a Buckminster Fuller line, and said, “Using fossil fuels is like burning your house to keep your family warm!” I thought about the work to be done. Mike, one of the three severely under-developed characters in this herky-jerky narrative, looked like he was doing likewise, but then we regained the parking garage and our party of four suffered secession.


[1] EPA estimates that implementation of MATS, mercury and air toxic standards, nationwide will avoid as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma, prevent 540,000 missed days of work, and save the country $90 billion in public health costs by 2016.

[2] this is a pie chart of my favorite bars. this is a bar chart of my favorite pies.

[3] don’t pull the thing out, unless you’re prepared to bang

[4] http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/11/pipeline-protesters-encircle-the-white-house/

Peter Nichols is a poet, rock climber, and vagabond originally from Toledo, Ohio.