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Hearing aid: How to get the most out of an EPA listening session


Last week, I wrote about the plan that is meant to be President Obama’s key environmental legacy: the Climate Action Plan, which, because the president has some problems with Congress, bypasses new legislation entirely. Instead, it uses the Clean Air Act and the EPA to set new benchmarks that will regulate carbon emissions standards on a state-by-state basis.

Each state would have its own benchmark to reach, based on its current emissions, and each would choose how it gets there: through cleaning up existing power plants, closing down the highest emitters and shifting electrical generation to cleaner ones, or just improving energy efficiency throughout the state.

While this plan is not exactly on the lips of every American, it is controversial enough that the EPA decided to hold “Listening Sessions” across the country. With these events, EPA aimed to check the pulse of America -- or at least say it had really tried to check the pulse of America -- before writing the new benchmarks.

I went to a listening session in Philadelphia. I was curious: I had been hearing that listening sessions were being packed with persons bused in by various industries. I had also heard that they were being criticized for being limited in number, and for being mostly located in big cities that were by their nature more full of humans who use energy than those who are involved in digging it out of the ground and setting it on fire. That, at any rate, was the argument for why busing in coal miners and power plant employees was an appropriate response to the agency's choice of venues.


Sierra Club’s New Jersey boss works to insure human/dolphin football games remain hypothetical

Atlantic City postcard.
Party time in Atlantic City, at least until it joins Atlantis.

Environmental organizations -- even big, established ones -- move with the times. Preserving wilderness becomes concern over toxics becomes protecting big-eyed species becomes obsession over the Amazon rainforest. (I'm sure I'm missing a few steps in there.)

Today, they're moving into the next phase -- applying climate change science to the question of how to take care of the landscapes of the future.

Jeff Tittel, the outspoken director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, exemplifies these shifts. In the years he's been director he's worked on water issues, regulation of suburban sprawl, and restrictions on auto emissions. Now he works on flood insurance -- on the grounds that the way things are going, the landscapes we're trying to save aren't likely to stay put.

Q. So you're director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey. Why so interested in flood insurance? It doesn't jibe with my image of what the Sierra Club does.

A. It has to do with New Jersey being clobbered by Hurricane Sandy. Really, we got clobbered. Because of the Stafford Act, we keep on subsidizing building in the wrong places. The Biggert-Waters Act would change that, but it's getting weakened, even by our elected officials who are good on climate change. They're folding under constituent pressure. Our concern is that they're going to block these insurance increases and not make any changes, and that will put even more people in harm's way.


Old hobbits die hard: Why pundits poo-poo the Keystone fight, and why they’re wrong


Last week, the political writer Jonathan Chait wrote a short piece for New York magazine titled “The Keystone Fight is a Huge Environmentalist Mistake.” Others have already well rebutted the argument and summarized the debate. What I would add is that Chait has provided us with an excellent example of what I have come to think of as One Ring syndrome.

At a very deep level, we would like to think that unpleasantly large and murky political issues can be resolved by a single action or policy -- preferably along the lines of throwing the one magic ring that controls all other magic rings back into Mount Doom from whence it was forged.

Every time I read that article the Atlantic publishes at least once a year about how feminism has failed women because it hasn’t given the author and her friends all the boyfriends, babies, and work/life balance that they want, or how Occupy Wall Street failed America because it failed to solve everyone’s problems, I think: One Ring syndrome.  And I am thinking about it now.


“Our most paranoid friends were completely right”


We now know just how much of what happens on or near the internet is being catalogued by our government (basically, everything). Environmental activists have a history of drawing the attention of the surveillance-minded, especially if they are working in landscapes -- forests, tar sands -- that are financially valuable to someone.

I've been asking people to connect these dots. Some of the most interesting answers came from Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and co-founder of the international news blog Global Voices. As someone who works with activists around the world, Zuckerman has a unique take on the social and technological aspects of living under surveillance. He talked with me recently about how changes in the technological landscape have forced changes in privacy strategies.

Q. Were you at all surprised by the documents leaked by Edward Snowden? 

Ethan Zuckerman.
Ethan Zuckerman.

A. Yes. And then recently we had the NSA revelations where we basically found out that our most paranoid friends were completely right, and that the worst scenarios that any of us could have imagined turned out to be true.

So there has been a really panicky moment in the security space. Even the most hyper-hyper technical and hyper-paranoid folks are having a great deal of trouble securing themselves.


“Economic resistance” — a.k.a. divestment — is as American as apple pie

UIUC Beyond Coal

Bob Massie has been, at various points of his life, a historian, an anti-apartheid activist, a climate-change activist, an Episcopal priest, a money guy, an environmentalist, and various combinations of all of the above. He specializes in linking together the world of finance with the world of environmental and social ideals. For years, Massie was the executive director of Ceres; he’s now the CEO and president of the New Economy Institute.

Massie became involved in the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa as an undergraduate in the '70s. He later went on to write a very long history of the movement, titled Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years. I talked with him about divestment, then and now; the movement's roots in revolutionary America; how colleges try to wait out protests; the carbon bubble that's about to pop; and more.

Q. In Loosing the Bonds, you describe divestment as a very American institution, because of America’s history. What history are you talking about?

Bob Massie.
Bob Massie.

A. There are distinctively American things about boycotts and investment questions, going back to before the American Revolution.

George Washington, for example, was deeply frustrated with how, when most Americans wanted to buy something, they had to buy it in London. They would send their crops -- usually tobacco -- there, and then a broker in London would buy what they wanted for them -- clothes, a violin -- and send it back.

Somehow every time this happened, they lost money. And so Washington, long before he became president, became a part of a movement to boycott English goods. Wearing clothes that were “homespun” -- or made in America -- was considered a patriotic act [PDF].

Similarly the Tea Party occurred because the British were defending the Dutch East Indian Company. It was a defense against a corporate act. And the Stamp Act of 1765.  Economic resistance to unwanted corporate behavior is actually essential to American history.


Green activists navigate life in the post-privacy era


We now know that the U.S. government can obtain virtually any email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, Skype messages, file transfers, and social networking details it wants. We know that it can monitor the location, duration, and telephone numbers involved in any phone call on an ongoing, daily basis.  We know that it monitored the foreign officials who traveled to the G20 summit in 2009. We know that it has deliberately weakened the encryption software meant to protect financial transactions. We know that it has tapped into the fiber-optic cables connecting international servers so that it can copy, basically, any information that moves through them.

What does this mean for environmental activists, who, like the rest of us, increasingly organize their lives over the internet? “I remember in the past we used to tell each other to wipe our phone’s contacts before protests,”  says Joshua Kahn Russell, who has been organizing protests with the Ruckus Society for the last 7 years, and also works as Global Trainings Manager for "I can't imagine activists doing that now, since the government and private companies have infinitely more access to our personal information that we freely provide through Facebook and other social networking sites."

The '90s and early '00s were, arguably, the peak of government paranoia about the environmental movement. In 2005, John Lewis, the top FBI official in charge of domestic terrorism, declared that radical environmentalists were the No. 1 domestic terrorist threat. State, local, and federal officials dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to tracking down the disbanded members of The Family, an offshoot of the Earth Liberation Front that set fire to a car dealership, a ski resort, a horse slaughterhouse, and other sites in the Pacific Northwest. The FBI also spent three years monitoring Greenpeace [PDF] and put several members on the terrorism watch list, in an investigation that the Justice Department's inspector general later ruled was improper.

If electronic surveillance is being used on environmental activists, there is not much sign of it yet. “We use everything from two-way radios to cellphones to internet to chat to Facebook to organize,” says Ramsey Sprague, a Texan who has worked with the Tar Sands Blockade. “We follow Basic Security Culture, which is just about being aware of what you are talking about, and who you are talking about it with.”

The most visible manifestation of surveillance in the environmental movement has been a rash of undercover agents. At times they have engaged in activities that blurred the lines between police work and entrapment; but for the most part, they’re a consistent enough presence that every experienced environmental group has a policy for dealing with them.


Brown to student activists: We can’t live without coal

Brown Divest Coal

Rachel Bishop, a recent Brown grad involved in the university's divestment movement, has been spending a lot of time navigating the ins and outs of college governance.

“The president chairs the committee,” she says, of the group of Brown’s trustees who hold sway over the direction of the university’s investments. “We know that the five committee members we asked to recuse themselves because of conflicts of interest did not do so. We know that they didn’t hold a vote. They just had a conversation.”

One of the five who did not bow out is also noteworthy for having a large number of employees under investigation for insider trading. Bishop will have to wait 25 years to know what the discussion was, and who said what, because that’s when Brown University’s archives will unseal the minutes of the meeting.

All she knows, for now, is that Brown Divest Coal -- which appeared to have some of the most practical, low-key goals in the student divestment movement -- just lost its bid to have the university divest from the coal-related companies in its endowment. When Brown divested from businesses connected to apartheid South Africa in the '80s, the college had to shift around 13 percent of its endowment into other funds. Bishop and the other members of the campaign had  crafted their demands narrowly, with an eye to what the advisory committee might view as feasible.

Read more: Climate & Energy


What to expect when you’re expecting the cops

Photo by Zoran Karapancev /

I have never been arrested, a circumstance I owe more to dumb luck than anything else. We live in arresting times. One of the less-known consequences of 9/11 was the dispensing of an unprecedented amount of federal money and military training to 31 American cities seen as being at the greatest risk of terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, the same things that hypothetically make cities attractive to terrorists -- large numbers of people living together in high-density communities, getting out and interacting with each other in public, easily targetable public spaces -- are also what make cities attractive to large groups of people who feel like gathering together for a rally.

After 2001, America was lucky to avoid further terror attacks within its borders. Meanwhile, city police trained to manage terrorist attacks began to apply their new crowd management techniques in other situations -- like protests. In 2004, 1,800 protesters were arrested at the Republican National Convention in New York -- setting a new record for most Americans arrested at a political convention. Mass arrests also surfaced during the Occupy Movement, where 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and over 400 were arrested on a single day in Oakland.

Have mass arrests become the new normal of protest policing? Heidi Boghosian, the executive director of the National Lawyers’ Guild (NLG), a group which has been handling protest arrest cases since the labor protests of the 1930s, spoke to Grist about the practice.

Q. Have you noticed that police treat protesters differently now that they have all this post-9/11 Homeland Security training in crowd control techniques?

A. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and the seemingly permanent state of perpetual war, protesters represent the front-line recipients of punitive policing. They have been easy targets for local and federal law enforcement agencies to label as potential terrorist threats.

Although we have all become prospective criminal suspects to some extent -- witness post-9/11 airport security protocols and requirements that workers wear badges to enter their buildings.

Read more: Cities, Politics


The National Review’s worst nightmare: Climate activists might win

Won't somebody please think of the capitalism?
James Ennis
Won't somebody please think of the capitalism?

The activists beginning to push universities and local governments to sell their oil stocks may think they have a tough road ahead of them. Other divestment campaigns, like those involving tobacco, the arms trade, and apartheid in South Africa, have taken decades, if they've worked at all. But the climate change divestment movement has one observer who thinks it is capable of moving mountains.

Not that this observer thinks it should move those mountains. In fact, he would rather divestment activists stop trying to move anything, period -- which is the story of how the climate movement came to have an ambitious three-part series written by Stanley Kurtz, Harvard PhD and social commentator for The National Review, about how divestment is one of the greatest dangers facing this great country. Published last spring, it remains a noteworthy attempt from across the political spectrum to take this new movement seriously.

“Silly as it may seem,“ Kurtz writes, "we need to pay careful attention to what these young people are telling us”:

Fossil-fuel divestment is economics Lena Dunham-style: an embarrassingly naïve and apparently futile stance by those who nonetheless hold the power to swing elections and shift the culture. When nearly three-quarters of voting Harvard undergraduates elect to treat the companies that power our economy as pariahs, it’s time to take notice. Energy is so fundamental -- in a sense, fossil fuels are the economy -- that our climate wars increasingly serve as proxies for a battle over the status and even the existence of America’s free-market system. Look carefully at the fossil-fuel divestment campaign and you’ll find a new and potentially more damaging incarnation of Occupy Wall Street.


Divestment: Making colleges do the right thing with their cash since before you were born

1986 Duke divestment protest
Duke Yearlook

Years ago, an editor of mine drifted into a nostalgic reverie when he was supposed to be telling me how to do journalism, and that is the story of how I first heard about the divestment movement of the ‘80s.

“It was fantastic,” he said. “So many protests. We wouldn’t stop, we told the college administration, until they got rid of all its investments in things like South African gold mines. We occupied buildings. Oh, I barely even went to class.” He twitched, like a man shaking off a daydream. “And the administration did get rid of its investments. Years later. When it didn’t mean anything. But still, it was great.”

At the time, I marveled at the existence of people who could sustain enthusiasm for any protest movement. I had been to exactly one demonstration: As a college student I had carpooled in an ancient Volkswagen Rabbit to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of George W. Bush Jr. I was shy and scared of crowds, but I felt possessed with the injustice of the election. I had just taken a history class about the ‘60s, and from what I could gather, this is what Americans did when they were disappointed in their government.

It was the first time I had been to the capital. The sky was the color of pewter and it was raining ice. I remember standing there, surrounded by a seemingly inconceivable number of decent American folk from all walks of life. “Well this is it,” I thought. “Now that so many people are here to register their disapproval, things are really going to change.”

Instead, we stood, facing the police lining the route of the presidential motorcade, until we were all coated with a delicate rime of ice, like frosted donuts. After about a thousand years, a parade of limos drove by, and a hand waved out the back window of one. Some people said it was the president. Some people said it was a decoy. Some people said it was just a hand. We returned to the Volkswagen to find that someone had smashed a hole in the window, right above the “I’m Pro-Choice, and I Vote” sticker glued to the back bumper.

When we woke up the next morning, Bush was still president. The newspapers wrote about the protest as though barely anything had occurred at all. The experience didn't build an unshakable foundation for my belief in the power of collective social protest.

I’ve thought a good deal about my experience back then as the most recent iteration of the divestment movement has begun working its way through our culture. Once more, youthful protesters are massing to push institutions to use their investment clout in service of an urgent moral cause -- this time, divestment of holdings in the fossil-fuel industry that is powering global climate change. And once more, institutions aren't exactly leaping into action.