Climate Justice: The Global Movement

Tomorrow’s Power

Directed by Amy Miller (2016)

Film Review

This documentary compares local climate justice movements in Gaza, Arauca (Colombia), and Germany’s Rhineland.

Gaza

In Gaza a consortium of doctors are working with the UN Development Fund to procure solar panels and batteries for the Gaza City Hospital. The Gaza strip has experienced repeated power outages ever since Israel bombed their power plant in 2010. Owing to the blockade on their borders with Israel and Egypt, engineers have been unable to repair the damaged turbines. With only two working turbines, Gaza residents get an average of four hours of electricity for each ten hours of outage.

Because the solar operation is insufficient to supply the entire hospital, the solar feed is used for operating theaters and intensive care, neonatal intensive care and dialysis units. Even brief outages in any of these critical facilities can cost patient lives.

Araucua

The climate justice movement in Arauca (on the Colombia-Venezuela border) is a compesino movement focused on preventing multinational oil companies from illegally evicting indigenous and Afro-Caribbean farmers from their land. I found it intriguing to learn the true purpose of the US government’s notorious Plan Colombia. Despite the spin fed to the American public (ie about Plan Colombia shutting down Colombian coca production), its true purpose was to assist the Colombian military (and paramilitary forces) in seizing, torturing, and murdering human rights activists. It was actually the campesino movement that shut down coca production in Arauco between 2007-2011.

In addition to organizing protests and direct actions, Colombia’s climate justice movement has organized large local food coops to support their local economy and to resist schemes by multinationals to rip off their cacao crop and sell it back to them as chocolate.

Their movement  has become so large and powerful that the Colombian military has ceased trying to evict them from their lands.

Rhineland

Germany’s climate just movement is focused on shutting down coal mining and coal-fueled power plants. Coal powered plants largely replaced the nuclear industry after activists forced the German government shut it down after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Will the Green Revolution Save Us?

Breakpoint: A Counter History of Progress

Directed by Jean Robert Vialett (2019)

Film Review

This is a bleak but fascinating documentary about the downside of so-called “progress” associated with the two century-long fossil fuel age. Starting with the replacement of wood with coal in the early 18th century, the film examines each new technological innovation the ruling elite celebrates as “progress.” By the end of the film, it is alarmingly clear that the great majority of the global population has paid an enormous price for this progress, in terms of chronic exposure to toxic chemicals and radionucleotides, global warming, near total deforestation, collapse of our fish stocks, colonization, massive poverty, and destruction of formerly vibrant public spaces by the automobile.

In the filmmaker’s view, what is commonly called “progress” are actually wealth making schemes that have made a few hundred people fabulously wealthy by destroying the health and wellbeing of the rest of us.

There are a number of surprises in the film. Previously I had no idea that social critics were warning against deforestation at the beginning of the 19th century, nor that this was a principal driver of the shift to coal. Nor was that the first solar PV technology was developed during World War II to reduce domestic demand for oil (needed for the war effort). The first solar home, built in 1948, was 75% self-sufficient. The early 1950s saw the production of 100,000 solar water heaters in the US. Eighty-percent of Florida homes were solar equipped at the peak of the first solar boom.

The early solar industry would be strangled in its infancy by a conspiracy between railroads, coal companies, and property developers to ensure all new power plants were coal-fired and all post-war boom homes connected to the grid.

The 1973 oil shock and Club of Rome study Limits to Growth inspired Carter to push energy conservation policies, as well as installing solar panels on the White House a second time in 1979. The solar industry would be killed a second time by the wave of neoliberal globalization launched by Reagan and Thatcher.

I was also horrified to learn about Project Plowshare, which promoted the use of nuclear bombs for “peaceful purposes” during the fifties and sixties. For 20 years, the US government detonated 27 atomic bombs to build a ship canal in Alaska. This cost taxpayers $770 million ($4 billion in today’s dollars).

The Soviets deployed 150 atomic bombs for similar civilian purposes.

The filmmaker is extremely pessimistic about the Green Revolution “saving” us given the massive demand for rare earth minerals (such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel) required to make solar panels and storage batteries.

Anyone with public library card can view film free at Kanopy – just type Kanopy and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

 

The End of Oil

end-of-oil

The End of Oil

by Paul Roberts

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (20014)

Book Review

Although fourteen years old, The End of Oil offers an invaluable historical analysis about the absolute link between cheap fossil fuels and the development of industrial capitalism. Roberts starts his analysis with the first century Persians who first distilled surface petroleum for use as lamp fuel. According to Roberts, widespread use of oil as a fuel was impossible until drill technology became available in the 19th century to drill for it at deep levels.

Roberts identifies coal mining as the first really capital intensive industry requiring extensive external funding. Building the infrastructure to mine and process all three fossil fuels is always extremely capital intensive. The fact that a coal or gas-fired power plant takes three or four decades to pay off is one of the main reasons fossil fuel companies, and the banks and governments that subsidize them, are so reluctant to replace them with renewable energy infrastructure. The End of Oil also emphasizes the absolute importance of cheap fossil fuel to the economic health of industrialized countries, Between1945 and 2004 (when the book was published), there were six big spikes in the price of oil – each was accompanies by a major economic recession.

Roberts maintains the cheap, easily accessible oil is all used up, explaining its steady price increase since the late 70s. Russian oil, which is fairly costly to mine, only became economically viable when the price of oil hit $35 a barrel in 1980.

Prior to the final chapters, which review the economics of various forms of renewal energy, the book also discusses the geopolitics of oil. Roberts leaves absolutely no doubt that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an effort by neoconservatives Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz et al to control the volatile price of oil and the devastating effects of this lability on the US economy. Although the US wars in Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen occurred after the book’s publication, Roberts’s analysis left me with no doubt whatsoever they were driven by similar geopolitical objectives.

Roberts also discusses the geopolitical threats posed by China, India and Southeast Asian countries as their growing middle classes put pressure on a finite supply of oil. He also explores the threat the growing political/military alliance between Russian and Iran creates. Between them, the two countries control half the world supply of natural gas. He leaves no doubt, in other words, that the current US military threats against China, Russia and Iran are also about fossil fuel security, just like the war on Iraq.

China’s Ecological Tragedy

when a billion

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy it

 By Jonathan Watts (2010 Faber and Faber)

 Book Review

 (Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 1/5 of China’s farmland is contaminated with heavy metals, such as arsenic and cadmium, that are absorbed by rice and very damaging to human health.) 

The major premise of When a Billion Chinese Jump is the enormous threat China’s burgeoning middle class poses to climate stability with their insatiable demand for gas-guzzling cars and energy-intensive homes and consumer goods.

The reader comes away with an overall impression of an environmental war zone: severely contaminated rivers, aquifer depletion, clear cut forests, smog, landslides, toxic waste-related cancer villages, and mass species extinction

Watts makes no secret of his belief that catastrophic climate change can’t be prevented – no matter what the rest of the world does – unless China drastically curbs its reliance on coal for energy production.

China: the West’s Industrial Cesspool

Watts traces a variety of political, economic, and philosophical influences that have led to China’s current ecological disaster. Ironically the key factor behind the country’s rapid development – the outsourcing of western industry – is number one on the list. For the past thirty years, western companies have been exporting their industrial base to China and other Asian countries to exploit low labor costs. They have simultaneously exported the major ecological damage associated with heavy industry – along with mountains of defunct electronic devices for end-of-life disposal.

The second major cause of China’s ecological nightmare is the reality that most of provincial China operates outside the law. Despite China’s “totalitarian” central government real power, according to Watts, rests in a middle band of local party chiefs, factory owners, and foreign investors and outsourcers.

He believes centralized control of China began its decline with Mao’s death. In his view, each successive government is more politically “timid” than the previous. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has developed many far-sighted environmental regulations that the Politburo is afraid of enforcing at a regional and local level. They are terrified of imposing any measures that might impair development. Without elections, the central government has no popular mandate. This means that surging development and nationalism are the only source of their legitimacy.

An interesting side effect of this endemic corruption is that illegal protests and riots – usually over crop and health damage caused by pollutions – are extremely common. In most cases, rioting is the only way to ensure environmental protections are enforced.

The Chinese Environmental Movement

The book’s most interesting chapter concerns the Chinese environmental movement. When Beijing shut down the pro-democracy movement after the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre, many pro-democracy advocates found it was safer to transplant their activism to the environmental movement. Especially after President Hu Jintao explicitly called for greater public, NGO (non-governmental organization) and journalistic oversight to expose companies that breach environmental regulations.

Despite nominal central support for greater openness and transparency, Chinese environmentalists still play a cat and mouse game with government authorities. National environmental networks have been forbidden since 2008, owing to deep Politburo suspicion of the role the CIA played in instigating the 2004-2005 color revolutions in Eastern Europe.

Watts talks about an invisible line circumscribing acceptable activism – activists, journalists and lawyers don’t know where the line is till they cross it and local security officials beat them up and throw them in jail.