Jeffrey St. Clair

March 28, 2007

Striding into Kyoto in December of 1997 claiming to be a mighty warrior in the battle against global warming was a familiar beast, the nuclear power industry. Some of the industry's biggest lobbyists, men such as James Curtis (a former deputy secretary of energy during the Reagan years), prowled the streets and sushi bars of this ancient city (itself running on juice from an aging nuke) angling for some positive words in the treaty for their troubled enterprise.

The big reactor makers — GE, Westinghouse and Combustion Engineering — were there too, dissing the oil and coal lobby, downplaying the long-term viability of natural gas and generally treating the eco-summit as if it were an international trade show.

March 11, 2007

Soon after John Kerry had sewed up the delegates needed to seize the Democratic nomination for president in the spring of 2004, he huddled for two hours with James Hoffa, Jr., the noxious boss of the Teamsters union. The topic was oil. The Teamsters wanted more of it at cheaper prices. They had suspicions about Kerry. After all, the senator had already won the backing of the Sierra Club, who touted him as the most environmentally enlightened member of the US senate.

Hoffa emerged from the meeting sporting a shark-like grin. Hoffa and the Teamsters have long pushed for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and for the construction of a natural gas pipeline to cut across some of the wildest land in North America from the tundra of Alaska to Chicago.

"Kerry says, look, I am against drilling in ANWR, but I am going to put that pipeline in, and we're going to drill like never before," Hoffa reported. "They are going to drill all over, according to him. And he says, we're going to be drilling all over the United States."

February 11, 2007

Jeffrey St. Clair

"The Dark Ages. They haven't ended yet."
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A kind of political narcolepsy has settled over the American environmental movement. Call it eco-ennui. You may know the feeling: restlessness, lack of direction, evaporating budgets, diminished expectations, a simmering discontent. The affliction appears acute, possibly systemic.

Unfortunately, the antidote isn't as simple as merely filing a new lawsuit in the morning or skipping that PowerPoint presentation to join a road blockade for the day. No, something much deeper may be called for: a rebellion of the heart. Just like in the good old days, not that long ago.

What is it, precisely, that's going on? Was the environmental movement bewitched by eight years of Bruce Babbitt and Al Gore? Did it suffer an allergic reaction to the New Order of Things? Are we simply adrift in a brief lacuna in the evolution of the conservation movement, one of those Gouldian (Stephen Jay) pauses before a new creative eruption?

November 5, 2006

I grew up south of Indianapolis on the glacier-smoothed plains of central Indiana. My grandparents owned a small farm, whittled down over the years to about 40 acres of bottomland, in some of the most productive agricultural land in America. Like many of their neighbors, they mostly grew field corn (and later soybeans), raised a few cows and bred a few horses.

Even then farming for them was a hobby, an avocation, a link to a way of life that was slipping away. My grandfather, who was born on that farm in 1906, graduated from Purdue University and became a master electrician, who helped design RCA's first color TV. My grandmother, the only child of an unwed mother, came to the U.S. at the age of 13 from the industrial city of Sheffield, England. When she married my grandfather she'd never seen a cow, a few days after the honeymoon she was milking one. She ran the local drugstore for nearly 50 years. In their so-called spare time, they farmed.

My parent's house was in a sterile and treeless subdivision about five miles away, but I largely grew up on that farm: feeding the cattle and horses, baling hay, bush hogging pastures, weeding the garden, gleaning corn from the harvested field, fishing for catfish in the creek that divided the fields and pastures from the small copse of woods, learning to identify the songs of birds, a lifelong obsession.

September 24, 2006

We rise early to the smell of bacon and coffee. Even the vegetarians follow the scent, uncorking their limbs after a long night inside the mosquito bunkers. Those bunkers, naturally, were easily busted by the stealthy insects, who drained us as we slept.

Weisheit has been up for hours already. Over the course of the week we never once catch him nodding. He supposedly reposes on his raft, a bobbing waterbed, though this remains speculation. We wolf down our food, too quickly to enjoy it, itching to cast off from Bloodsucker Beach.

We are not in the water long. Our destination for the morning is Fort Bottom, less than a mile down river, where a prow of sandstone juts out into a bend of the Green River that is so contorted it would humble even the most accomplished yoga practitioner. The mesa is topped by a stone tower built by the Fremont people a thousand years ago, the so-called Moki Fort.

It is fairly easy to find a spot to anchor the rafts. Less so to break our way through the thicket of tamarisk to the trail leading us to the purple mesa.

September 10, 2006

Day One.

A couple of years ago, Daniel Wolff and I began a casual e-mail banter about floating one of the West's mighty rivers. We thought we might canoe the Missouri, rewinding Lewis and Clark's route, from Ft. Benton, Montana to the badlands of the Missouri Breaks. The summer passed and the Missouri rolled on without carrying us on its back.

The following year there was manly talk again, this time centering on Oregon's John Day River, which is born in the Elkhorn Mountains and cuts its way in a lazy arc through basalt canyons to the Columbia River. By most standards, the John Day is not a big river, but it now stands alone as the longest free-flowing stream in the American West. The dam builders have marred everything else. But book tours and wars came in the way. So, another day for the John Day.

Still, desert rivers haunted my daydreams. One in particular: the one that begins in on the south slopes of the Wind River Range in Wyoming and once emptied into the Gulf of California in Mexico, though not a drop of river water reaches that far today. That river is, of course, the Green-Colorado, the great river of the desert southwest.

June 4, 2006

The only thing more predictable than the deaths of those 12 miners in the Sago coal mine was the Bush administration's rush to exploit a tragedy that they helped foster.

Over the past five years, Big Coal has benefited from the blind eye that Washington regulators have turned to their rampages across Appalachia. The cost of such official laxity is borne by decapitated mountains, buried and polluted streams, and hundreds of miners who have been injured and killed by an industry that has been liberated from even the most basic regulations governing worker safety and environmental protection.

The Sago miners didn't even have the minimal protections afforded by membership in a union. In the economics of coal country these days, people are so desperate for a job that they will sign up for the most dangerous kind of work with few questions asked about the risks or the precautions taken by the companies. And that's exactly the way Big Coal wants it.

May 7, 2006

The banner stretched across the entrance to the Crobar -- a trendy New York nightclub -- read, "Welcome to the Pombo-Palooza." At the door, members of the Rockettes handed out cowboy hats to the A-list invited guests. Inside, a model clad in rhinestone hot pants and a cleavage-enhancing top that might have chastened a Hooters waitress rode a mechanical bull.

On the stage, the Charlie Daniels Band cut loose with fiddle-driven Southern funk as lobbyists and lawyers, politicians and tycoons, danced the two-step and drank iridescent blue martinis.

Such was the scene in 2003 at Congressman Rick Pombo's coming out party. The young legislator from Tracy, Calif., had just been appointed the new chairman of the House Resources Committee. At 42, he was the youngest chairman on Capital Hill. Bush couldn't attend the hoedown, but he sent a herogram congratulating the congressman he calls "Marlboro Man."

April 23, 2006

Magnequench is an Indianapolis-based company. It specializes in the obscure field of sintered magnetics. Essentially, it makes tiny, high-tech magnets from rare-earth minerals ground down into a fine powder. The magnets are highly prized by electronics and aviation companies. But Magnequench's biggest client has been the Pentagon.

The neodymium-iron-boron magnets made by Magnequench are a crucial component in the guidance system of cruise missiles and the Joint Direct Attack Munition or JDAM bomb, which is made by Boeing and had a starring role in the spring bombing of Baghdad. Indeed, Magnequench enjoys a near monopoly on this market niche, supplying 85 percent of the rare-earth magnets that are used in the servo motors of these guided missiles and bombs.

But the Pentagon may soon be sending its orders for these parts to China, instead of Indiana. On September 15, 2004 Magnequench shuttered its last plant in Indiana, fired its 450 workers and began shipping its machine tools to a new plant in China. "We're handing over to the Chinese both our defense technology and our jobs in the midst of a deep recession," says Rep. Peter Visclosky, a Democrat from northern Indiana.

It gets stranger. Magnequench is not only moving its defense plants to China, it's actually owned by Chinese companies with close ties to the Chinese government.

March 26, 2006

Three years into the war in Iraq and now about two out of three Americans are against it, as against about one out of 50 elected politicians.

In Iraq 2,315 Americans have died, and 17,100 wounded, many of them with limbs lost, some facing a lifetime in a wheel chair. Of the tens of thousands who have returned from combat to army bases or civilian life here, around 2.5 percent suffer from severe post traumatic stress syndrome and are powder kegs, menaces to themselves and their families.

There will be psychic as well as physical wreckage across America for years to come.

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