On April 29, the day that the European Union voted to ban three of the most widely used pesticides in the world, I was at an insecticide industry conference in England having having tea and cookies. The ban on clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam -- collectively called neonicotinoids -- would begin on Dec. 1, and was specifically aimed at seeing if this class of pesticide was indeed making honeybees too stupid to find their way back to the hive, as some studies suggested. Delicious snacks aside, the mood in the conference room was apocalyptic. The panic persisted despite the fact that the …
Earlier this month I wrote about the upcoming FDA monograph on triclosan, that plucky little disco-era chlorinated aromatic compound whose antifungal and antibacterial properties made it the hottest additive around for anyone afraid of germs/decay. Were you a seller of hand soap or toothpaste, looking to make your product seem even more awesome by saying that it was "antibacterial" rather than just regular "soap" and "toothpaste?" Add triclosan. Were you selling something that you didn't want mold to grow on, like a mattress, or makeup, or a cutting board? Add triclosan to it. Now, after years of pressure from activists, …
When Barack Obama took the oath of office for the first time, the day began with a faint electric hum in the air -- as though the neighborhood I lived in was a sound stage and all of us, going about our daily routines, were on the verge of bursting into collective song. This was not far off. By the time night fell, a brass band had appeared and a dance party was in full swing. One of my last memories of that night is of a man dressed as Dick Cheney dancing in the middle of the street with a man dressed as a disco ball.
People were already voicing doubts that Obama could do much. Other people wondered exactly what mattered to this new president, what would he fight to accomplish. Hope was just one word, and there was a lot that we hoped for.
As 2013 winds down and we approach the longest night of the year, the question arises again: What, Mr. President, have you been doing for the environment? We now know what pretty much everyone suspected, which was that the Obama administration deliberately delayed implementing environmental regulations in the years before his reelection, on the grounds that it might keep him from winning a second term. But 2013? 2013 looked like it might be a magical year. This was the first year of Obama's last term as president, and it was hard to not experience that expectant feeling again -- as though perhaps, just perhaps, he would walk into a phone booth and come back out dressed like Captain Planet.
If you're talking to policy wonks like Jonathan Chait, who wrote a long and thoughtful article this May, Obama has done more for the environment than we realize. Obama didn't get enough credit for legislation like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Chait argued, which put a $90 billion subsidy into green energy. American wind-power generation has doubled, solar power has increased sixfold, and the move, Chait wrote, "transformed the Department of Energy, previously a sclerotic backwater charged mainly with overseeing the nuclear-weapons cache, into a massive new engine of cutting-edge environmental science."
I grew up around the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was all grownups talked about in Detroit: the Sound of NAFTA. Although not much rhymed with that phrase, the hills were indeed alive with the sounds of grouchy tool and die workers, complaining that all of our jobs were going to Mexico.
As a kid, I found it hard to see what was so exciting about jobs. My dad worked in a tool and die shop with bad ventilation and no heat, and every winter he would come down with a case of bronchitis that was one order of magnitude worse than the last. But it didn't matter what we thought, anyway. George Bush Sr. was for NAFTA, and Bill Clinton was for NAFTA, and the only guy who wasn't was Ross Perot -- which is always a sign your cause is in trouble.
Now, at nearly 20 years of age, NAFTA is almost old enough to drink responsibly. The number of people I knew who worked in tool and die shops went from everybody to nobody, and while on the whole the consensus has been this is Not Great, it's also been years since my dad has had trouble breathing.
What I didn't realize at the time was that NAFTA was not just about jobs. Chapter 11 of the agreement contained a provision that has had, and has continued to have, major effects on the environment and environmental regulations.
To understand why, look to the province of Quebec, which, two years ago, put a stop to fracking. At first the move didn't seem like much. Quebec's environment minister, Pierre Arcand, said that the province was just going to conduct an environmental review, and that "informative demonstrations" of hydraulic fracturing would still be allowed. But by April, 2012, there was a complete moratorium, the environmental review showed no signs of finishing, and there was talk of extending the ban five years into the future.
Attitudes in Canada seemed to be shifting. "Why does my kid come home from Alberta junior high school social studies saying the oil and gas industry is evil?" Michael Binnion, the CEO of Questerre Energy Corp., complained to Alberta Oil magazine. "I hardly know a senior oil and gas executive who hasn’t had a similar experience."
But Quebec's fracking ban wasn't simply a political move fueled by a cultural shift; it also carried a financial risk. This September, an energy company named Lone Pine Resources sued Canada for allowing the province to tighten its environmental policies, and asked for $250 million. The suit read:
The dispute is in relation to the Government of Quebec’s arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation of the Enterprise’s valuable right to mine for oil and gas under the St. Lawrence River, in violation of Chapter Eleven of the NAFTA.
Welcome to NAFTA's unexpected environmental legacy. Chapter 11 is not well known in the U.S. -- its tribunals are secret, and Canada and Mexico are the countries that get sued the most under it. But NAFTA was always meant to be a template for other trade agreements, and since its mid-'90s enactment it has become one. As NAFTA's offspring have multiplied around the world, so have lawsuits like Lone Pine's, where corporations seek damages from countries whose environmental regulations affect their ability to do business.
A year ago, Unity College in Maine became the first school to divest from the energy companies whose bottom line depends on digging up and burning enough coal, gas, and oil to make climate change even worse.
“The campaign has some serious potential,” wrote Gristback then, “but we shouldn’t expect a social movement to coalesce and achieve results in just a couple months -- we’ll only be disappointed when it doesn’t.” The article went on to quote Angus Johnson, an assistant professor at the City University of New York and a historian of student organizing. “If you actually take the apartheid example seriously,” said Johnston, “it’ll be a PR war for the next 20, 30 years.”
Colleges are institutions well accustomed to deflecting youthful idealism. Students graduate every four years, after all, and administrators don't. But something interesting is happening with the divestment movement. While college administrations are rejecting the protesters' arguments, one significant external group is paying heed -- only its address is on Wall Street, not Ivy Lane. Specifically, three powerful individuals who are capable of commanding attention have begun, in different ways, to make loud noises about the climate: hedge fund founder and billionaire Tom Steyer, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and chair of Goldman Sachs Hank Paulson, and financial media mogul and outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Back in the '40s, my grandmother lost her scholarship to college after the school found out she had attended a meeting run by a communist organization. Whoever made the call that my grandmother was a communist rabblerouser no longer deserving educational subsidy was clearly acting on bad intel. It would be hard to think of a more terrible communist than my grandmother: She loved playing the stock market.
As someone who enjoys hanging out with both spooks and radicals, I leave a greater trail of troublemaking by proximity than the people who snooped on my nana could have ever dreamed of. Selfishly, I wonder, thehow does this affect me? The epic growth of Homeland Security in the last decade has also led to a commensurate growth in people trained by federal intelligence agencies working for private intelligence firms. Wal-Mart's internal security department, for example, is filled with former agents from the C.I.A., the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other government agencies.
So Detroit is now allowed to file for bankruptcy. It's the largest city ever to do so in this country, though certainly not the only one. More so than some of our other insolvent municipalities -- like Vacaville, Calif., or Central Falls, R.I. -- it is also a place on which people have pinned a lot of dreams and nightmares.
I grew up just outside Detroit, with its high-quality pierogi and its endless hours spent in the car, feeling the traffic like a salmon trying to work its way upstream. The landmark that most defined my childhood was the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The school tours I took must have involved the rest of the museum at some point, but all I remember is a jumble of naked ladies, Madonna and Childs, and fruit. The court, lined with frescoes based on Diego Rivera’s tours of the River Rouge Ford Plant, felt familiar to me. My dad, like all the dads I knew, worked in a tool and die shop, and I loved visiting that, too. The machinery really did look that impressive, the people who worked there really did look that tired and grimy, and there really were sparks everywhere, fanning out like cartoon rainbows.
The agricultural scenes on the eastern wall were familiar, too. My grandparents were farmworkers who moved to Detroit during World War II, and the time my grandfather spent on the assembly line was just a means to an end that he never could have reached if he had stayed where he was born. He wanted to own land and grow as many vegetables on it as the earth could stand, because to do so was true wealth, at least according to the culture he was raised in.
Diego Rivera finished the frescoes in 1933 -- the same year that Detroit’s Mayor Frank Murphy, who had set up soup kitchens and potato gardens all over the city for unemployed auto workers, shepherded Chapter 9 through Congress. Chapter 9 is the law that made it possible for a city to file for bankruptcy -- the law Detroit is now invoking.
A few years ago, I worked at one of those scrappy neighborhood news websites that was supposed to be the future of journalism. (I don’t know if it was the future of journalism. It was certainly a future of journalism.) We rode our bikes to crime scenes and wrote stories about which local developer was having problems with the planning department, which local restaurant had rats. It was very 19th century in a lot of ways.
In one project, we collaborated with a local research university's investigation of the giant hairball of research that is multiple chemical exposure. They were trying to translate that research to a wider audience -- specifically, women who were about to have babies. The public health outreach workers would write what we hoped would be fun, informational articles. I would edit them.
Then the op-eds began to trickle in. In the same way that all fairytales share certain essentials, the op-eds all boiled down to a single narrative: That thing you think is OK? It’s bad for you.
I came to dread the op-eds. My private name for them was “Fear of the Week.” I felt like our readers didn't really have time to be afraid of all these things. I often said to the public health people that if they were so serious about public health, they should be working on legislation, not just education. They responded that legislation was more complicated than I might suspect.
Perhaps, I suggested, they could tell our readers the story of some environmental successes in their field, to leaven the panic a bit. Did anything spring to mind?
Lauren Regan became a lawyer for idealistic reasons: There were trees; she wanted to save them.
Then, in October 2001, the Patriot Act was signed into existence, and the landscape of environmental protest changed. Police, now equipped with military surplus gear and Homeland Security funding, began to treat protesters differently. So did the legal system.
In 2003, Regan founded the Civil Liberties Defense Center specifically to help environmental activists navigate this new legal landscape. Regan spoke with me recently about how location and legal precedent mean a lot when you’re interested in saving a landscape.
Q. What made you decide to become an environmental lawyer?
A. I saw a potential way to be even more effective as an activist. Before that, I was involved in forest activism.
Q. So you were a tree-sitter?
A. I certainly learned to climb trees. But I was not big on going to jail. For the most part, in activist land, there is an understood line of what is legal and illegal. If you don’t want to put yourself into a position to be arrested, there’s always a lawful space for you at a protest. You can be the media contact, or a legal observer.
Q. What changed during the transition from activist to lawyer? Did it make you see activism any differently?
A. Protests and tree sits can save a little forest with a lot of effort, but getting an injunction in a timber sale case can shut down the entire national forest for a while. I also litigate timber sales and Endangered Species Act cases and Clean Water Act cases.
But then once I was doing that kind of law, I realized that oftentimes activists were getting really shoddy criminal representation. Especially as the punishments have gotten more severe and the stakes have gotten higher, it’s more important that there are lawyers who specialize in defending dissent in all its different forms.
It started like this: On the first day of the U.N.'s climate change talks (a.k.a. COP19) in Warsaw, Philippines delegate Naderev (a.k.a. Yeb) Saño made an announcement. Barring any concrete agreement on how the Annex 1 countries (basically the U.S., Australia, the E.U., and Japan) would help countries currently being hammered by climate change, he would be going on hunger strike.
20 years hence we continue to fall short of the ultimate objective: which is to prevent dangerous trophogenic interference with a climate system. By failing to meet the objective of the convention, we may have ratified our own doom.