I spent some time this week with a group of students from the Carnegie Mellon University Urban Systems Studio and the North Braddock Residents For Our Future thinking together about the Past, Present and Future of the Edgar Thompson Steel Plant. It was a remarkable conversation, because the students reconstructed the history of this industrial operation from archives and historic records but wanted to include the lived experience of the people from the community. As the community conversation progressed, I began to reflect that we are once again at a major inflection point in the history of this place.
The Edgar Thompson Steel plant has been in operation since 1875, originally owned by Carnegie Steel Company. Generations of people have lived in the communities surrounding this 200-acre industrial site. At first, they were the workers, mostly immigrants who walked from homes on the hillsides and streets that bordered the plant to take their shifts. The Edgar Thompson plant was the site of the Battle of Homestead in 1982 when workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions. Carnegie famously broke the strike with Pinkerton Guards and scab workers. But the legacy of organizing and workers challenging managers for more equitable treatment stands as a hallmark in the struggle for workers’ rights. Even as they were reaping tremendous profits, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick successfully suppressed the movement for more equitable treatment of workers.[i] They treated workers as units of production to be paid as little as possible to maximize the profit margin. This industry has been the epitome of the extractive industry era that supported the Industrial Revolution.
Is there a better way forward for the future?
The Braddock Residents for Our Future believe there is. When invited to add their ideas to the scenario for the future of the Edgar Thompson Works site, several expressed the apprehension that US Steel would leave, and walk away from the mess that local taxpayers would have to clean up. Others were concerned that the operation could be taken over by an even less responsible foreign operator and conditions could become even worse. But several people thought about converting the area to farmed land, or to place a solar array with pollinator-friendly ground cover and beehives on the site to power the surrounding communities. Some thought there would be a good space for “green steel” instead. The possibility for non-polluting industries emerged as inquiries.
I felt that a pebble had been dropped in a still pool of despair and was now sending out ripples of hope. U.S. Steel ultimately owns this land, but perhaps there will be a moment of enlightenment with the catalyst of new federal dollars and programs to allow a new concept for industrial development to emerge. A new industrial operating system that includes community benefit agreements to build truly shared prosperity. A way forward that moves away from the extractive industries as a base of operation and adopts a system based on recovery of resources. Steel is ideally suited to a recovery and reshape operation. I thank the students of the CMU Urban Systems Studio for opening this avenue for imagination. Without a vision, nothing changes, but with a new vision, inspired innovation follows. If we are to achieve a vision for manufacturing based on “Made in America” it will be important to restructure the process. We cannot continue to use fossil fuels to power production- we need to look at technologies such as direct reduction using hydrogen from renewable resources to support manufacturing.[i]
Beyond looking at non-fossil fueled technologies, we need to examine the entire approach to generating economic activity. The process of producing inexpensive goods to be replaced frequently, with designed obsolescence, is inherently wasteful. To thrive into the future, we can return to a society that values durability, high quality and lasting usefulness, instead of the immediate gratification of convenience and buying things designed to be discarded. Made in America can be “Made to last.” It can be a hallmark of quality and legacy.
On this Winter Solstice, I reflect on a time of closure, and a time for planning new beginnings. I have shared my life for the last 15 years with my partner, Tom Jensen as we had adventures to other countries, explored the places of his ancestors, and significant historical places. We found spontaneous dancing happened at any time, especially when we were both working at home. We took on several construction and reconstruction projects – and we laughed a lot…until he fell to a long and valiant battle with cancer. Chronic terminal illness challenges the character and erodes at the very soul of a relationship, but in lucid moments between bouts of delirium and rage, we were as close as ever. I will treasure those few precious times and remember the wonderful experiences we shared, and let the pain and sadness recede slowly into the past. I know I will miss Tom every day of the rest of my own life.
He was always there to cheer me on and encourage my work. It is ironic that my second book came to print the week of his passing. Writing “In the Footsteps of Rachel Carson- Harnessing Earth’s Healing Power” captured my own struggle to recognize my mortality. I am acutely aware that as a four times cancer survivor I am living on borrowed time. So, I make the most of every day.
All of the crises of the world have continued swirling around me as I have been in a cocoon of slow grieving and caregiving as Tom receded into the clutches of the tumors that consumed him over 18 months. I have swatted at them like irritating flies, keeping focus only on the most immediate and pressing needs. Now, I reflect on what is ahead, and set my priorities for this coming year.
Recognizing the amazing accomplishments of our collective action over the last year sets the stage for what comes next. Much of the ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint is now incorporated into law! (See https://reimagineappalachia.org ) Climate action policy, recovery of abandoned mine lands, broadband expansion, assistance for neglected communities, support for regenerative agriculture, requirements for community benefit agreements attached to federal grants, and many more actions now have the force of law. The tools for creating a more just, equitable and sustainable future are at hand. Now comes the challenge of implementing with intent and keeping the goals in the forefront.
The success story of ReImagine Appalachia needs to be celebrated, and documented. This is the subject of my next book, to be published through the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences. ReImagine Appalachia is quite a testament to the power of the people. It began with 45 listening sessions in which 1,500 people contributed ideas, concerns, life experiences, hopes and dreams – all on zoom because of COVID-19. With only a few paid staff and with amazing leadership from Amanda Woodrum, Stephen Herzenburg, Ted Boetner and Dana Kuhlein, and Natalia Rudiak, teams of working groups sorted the issues and ideas into issue papers, documented policy proposals and case studies illustrating the need for new laws. Visionary leaders like Rev. Marcia Dinkins inspired us to act. Fifty collaborating organizations across four states- Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia – worked together to brief critical members of Congress, and their key staff. We were at the table when the laws were being crafted, when the budgets were being set, and we turned out hundreds of engaged citizens at all stages for comments, support, and intervention when things got sticky. Faith communities, people of color, local government officials came together to press for changes that would heal the land and empower the people.
As I sit in my 76th year of life, I recognize the need to mentor and coach successors in my path as a compelling drive. All of my activities and engagements align to build a better future for the coming generations. The legacy of the Baby Boomers has been a mixed bag, and I feel a responsibility to show a vision forward that corrects some of the mis-steps. I think our civilization is ready for a renaissance of attention to cultural and spiritual values reflected in care for the natural capital of the Earth – fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and the vast diversity of species that constitute the great Web of Life. Restoring our life support system ties so many conflicting factions together. Seeking common ground and shared purpose in building a better future for our children and for their grandchildren allows us to rise above the petty conflicts that impede progress.
I am honored to be drawn in to the efforts of my colleagues and friends in the Mon Valley- Tina Doose, Lisa Franklin-Robinson, Chad FitzGerald, Lori Rue, and Derrick Tillman. Rather than moaning with horrors hidden behind a veil of nostalgia for the “heyday of Steel,” we are working for a new vision for the Mon Valley. Rising from the ashes of the extractive industries of the past, we are creating a future built around renewable resources, non-toxic production systems that are compatible with healthy neighborhoods, and circular supply chains that conserve resources and build local and regional resilience. We are developing major projects with community benefit agreements, and including workforce development pathways to careers that include returning citizens, high school students, and recovered addicts. People will not move to a vacuum. But they will embrace a movement that meets community needs and builds on the endurance, resilience and determination of people long ignored and suppressed. The Mon Valley will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the past and soar to a finer future.
For this New Year of 2023, we step out of the dark shadows and into the light.
We, the people of 2022 are experiencing already the irreversible effects of global warming, global pollution and loss of biodiversity that herald the degradation of our life support system. Presented in the form of data, the statistics are frightening. Carbon dioxide measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory peaked for 2022 at 421 parts per million in May, now 50% higher than before the Industrial Revolution.
Most people notice incremental changes in the weather, and in trends in warming compared to recent past experience, but the gradual change does not cause a sense of danger for most people. The reality of the climate situation calls for an urgent transformative response, a Policy U-Turn. But the reality of the political situation portends the reverse of what is needed – a resurgence of regulation in favor of the fossil extractive industries. The oil, coal and gas magnates press for new investments based on hydrogen from fracked fossil methane and a further push for single use plastics to bolster the industrial petrochemical complex. These are false solutions perpetrated by short–term economic interests which, if pursued, will assure the even more rapid destruction of this living earth.
I want to scream in frustration at the misinformation and greed that perpetuates these disasters. I want to lash out in anger that so many in power refuse to see the needs of the people for now and for the future. I weep for what has been lost already, and for what will yet be exterminated from the face of the earth. Yet, out of this frustration, anger and grief comes a passion to intervene, to give voice to the solutions that are in hand, to organize for political action. This election. This summer. Now. Before it is too late.
No elected official would ever deliberately send hundreds of people into homelessness, but they decide that preventing wildfires is too expensive. No elected official would deliberately poison people, but every day decisions are made to allow uncontrolled pollution to continue in neighborhoods of marginalized people. We let injustice continue like a creeping blight –
Air pollution spreads asthma to one in five adults and one in four children in Clairton PA;
Chemical contamination spreads endocrine disruptors throughout the population until 93% of Americans have detectable levels of Bis-Phenyl A in their blood and a body burden of hundreds of synthetic chemicals in our bodies, even in newborn infants;
Obesity afflicts 33% of Americans who live in food desserts;
Water supplies in most major cities are contaminated with lead and other infrastructure failures.
The government has become powerless to change the laws to protect people now, and even less to protect people and other living things for the future.
If we were to govern FOR THE PEOPLE, the opinion of the majority of Americans clamors for urgent action on climate. “63% of Americans favor broad government action on climate. At a time when partisanship colors most views of policy, broad majorities of the public – including more than half of Republicans and overwhelming shares of Democrats – say they would favor a range of initiatives to reduce the impacts of climate change, including large-scale tree planting efforts, tax credits for businesses that capture carbon emissions and tougher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.” Even in the face of national opinion polls indicating that a majority of Americans believe that addressing climate change is important, Congress remains deadlocked. Inert. Ineffective. A few Senators, Manchin and Collins and McConnell, successfully block action on climate policy to protect fossil industry interests. Now the Supreme Court is eroding the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to rule on carbon emissions.
Local governments end up on the front line for dealing with the effects of climate change and protecting people where they live. Efforts at the local level can move forward a bit with climate action plans, however, for the sweeping structural changes from fossil fuels to renewable energy systems, there need to be changes in the underlying laws. This will not happen unless there can be a veto-proof majority of Senators willing to stand up for the future of our planet, for our children, and for the emerging industries of the clean economy: renewable energy systems; regenerative agriculture and permaculture; and circular materials management for consumer goods.
Many local and regional communities have put forward a vision for a better future critically needed to ameliorate the inevitable disaster that will occur if we continue on the current path. The ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint, the Marshall Plan for Middle America, internationally The Natural Step Framework, the German Energiewende and many others lay out a sustainable future. We know what the solutions are. We know they work. We need to amass the political will to make it happen. The laws of Nature are not negotiable: if we continue to add to the greenhouse gas burden in the atmosphere, we will experience global warming, ocean acidification and the consequences of ecosystem failure. Indeed, we are already seeing these effects beginning to accumulate.
We suffer from a failure to communicate effectively not only the urgency of the situation but the availability of the solutions. We cannot spare our children from the effects of climate change already in motion, but we can still shift to adaptations that can slow the progression and lead to a less disastrous fate.
What will it take to change the direction of the country? Earth Day 1970 brought 10 million Americans into the streets, the halls of Congress, the union halls, the city chambers to demand clean air, safe drinking water and protection from toxic chemicals. The Climate Convergence has mobilized fewer than five million, and the effort is scattered, fractured and fraught with infighting. Scientists leap to challenge, critique and shred each other, as good scientists do in the rigor of academic pursuit. But that very rigor of the scientific process is turned against the message in the public eye. The message of science is discredited successfully by pseudo experts and mouthpieces for the industry who cast doubt on climate findings and disparage the solutions by exaggerating minor flaws and disagreements.
We are indeed in a battle for survival as a species, as a civilization of Humanity. It is time to pull together and lift our eyes to what it is possible still to preserve for our children. It is time to see the vision of a finer future with a shared prosperity, equity and dignity for all people, a style of living that is sufficient but not profligate, where we can celebrate the richness of talent and spirit rather than race to consume and throw away more and more stuff we do not need.
Every election this November of 2022 presents a choice for decision makers and policy makers who will determine the fate of our country and our world. It is time for all of us in the science world, in the sustainability movement, in the arena of believers in the best that people can be to stand up and be counted. We need to make our voices heard and our demands recognized. Put climate on the agenda in the public debates. Build momentum to demand action on behalf of our children. Those who cannot vote yet are excellent ambassadors for climate change. We must stand for our youth and demand accountability from those in power or who wish to sit in seats of power.
And scientists- real ones – need to run for office and win.
Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Other Opinions” on Sunday, July 25, 2021
by Patricia M. DeMarco, Ph.D.
In September 2019, AMAZON made a public commitment to become carbon neutral in all of its operations worldwide by 2040 and launched a $2 billion fund to implement it.[i]
As The Borough of Churchill and other communities around Pittsburgh see advances of AMAZON interest in locating distribution centers in the area, those making the decisions and responsible for granting the building permits must stand to hold them accountable to their rhetoric.
Taking the former Westinghouse Research Park in Churchill as an example, there are three things that can be done on this site to ameliorate the climate impact of this proposed new facility. Many of my constituents and neighbors have expressed concerns about diesel pollution and emissions from the operation of this facility and outrage over the destruction of hundreds of mature trees on the site. Air quality, stormwater run-off, and destruction of carbon reducing trees are serious issues. Remedies to mitigate these issues are readily available and should be required in the permitting process.
First: This new construction should be based on a passive solar design with geothermal earth tube and heat pump systems for heating and cooling. The electric load of the facility should be met by installing a photovoltaic solar array on the roof. This will reduce emissions both from burning a fossil fuel on site for heating and from the regional power supply to produce electricity to serve the facility. A well-designed new building can be cost effective to build, cheaper to operate, and have a net zero energy profile.[ii]
Second, AMAZON has touted its electric fleet as one of its innovations for climate action.[iii] This new facility should be required to use electric vehicles, with charging stations at the facility to prevent the diesel emissions that will otherwise certainly inundate the area with particulate and organic compounds in the air.
Third, the site should be required to install bioswales and permeable paving in the parking areas and along the roadways. Stormwater runoff from this site is already an issue for neighboring areas, and the removal of the large trees to accommodate this facility will only worsen this effect. Sloping the parking areas toward bioswales and designing the area around the building to capture runoff will help to mitigate stormwater effects.
Finally, the removal of mature trees should be kept to an absolute minimum with careful siting of the facility on the land. Preserving the remnants of an Indigenous People trail and maintaining trees as visual and noise screening from the surrounding residential areas should be a priority for the site design. The Borough of Churchill has the opportunity to hold AMAZON accountable to its own rhetoric. This new facility can become a model for innovation and adaptation to the reality of our climate crisis, not a capitulation to the lure of “jobs” at any co
Patricia M. DeMarco, Ph.D. is the author of Pathways to Our Sustainable Future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Press. 2017. She is a Senior Scholar at Chatham University and writes a blog “Pathways to a Just Transition” at https://patriciademarco.com She is Vice President of the Forest Hills Borough Council and Chair of CONNECT – The Congress of Neighboring Communities surrounding Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Green New Deal (PGND)is committed to building a mass movement – locally, nationally and globally – to secure implementation a Green New Deal. This must involve ending and reversing the damage to our environment, while at the same time ensuring union scale jobs with a special focus on Black and Brown people and displaced fossil fuel industry workers, racial justice, health care, housing, mass transit systems, education, and cultural opportunities – in short mutual respect and quality of life for all people. We will work with organizations and individuals who share this commitment. We envision these areas of activity:
(1) educational activity (starting with the summer reading group, then reaching out with broader popular education efforts in community groups, churches, unions, etc.), spreading knowledge and consciousness to advance the Green New Deal;
(2) immediate environmental activity — tree planting and other practical work that can immediately benefit the environment;
(3) building a local coalition, linking up with national forces, to mobilize vigorous on-the-ground campaigns on behalf of the Green New Deal, most immediately seeking to build popular support and momentum for the THRIVE Act.
The structure of PGND is very simple. It is open to those in agreement with this statement of purpose. It operates on the democratic principle of one-person-one-vote, with regular membership meetings being the highest decision-making body of our organization, to which all committees or sub-committees established by the organization shall be answerable.
Adopted May 25, 2021
Summer Reading Group: There were three discussions with author Jonathan Neale based on his book “Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs.” available here https://theecologist.org/fight-the-fire. Recordings of the completed sessions are below:
In the month of July and August, The Green New Deal- Pittsburgh group will be discussing Pathways to Our Sustainable Futureas a way to evaluate actions in the Green New Deal for implementation. We are looking at both the substantive changes necessary and the social and institutional infrastructure for driving change.
Sunday July 11, 2021 at 4:00 to 5:30 PM Part I Connecting to the Living Earth – This discussion centers on the moral and ethical dimensions of transforming the economic and political systems to address climate change and social justice.
Sunday, July 25, 2021 at 4:00 to 5:30 PM Part II Choosing Sustainable Pathways – This discussion covers transformation of major systems: energy, agriculture and materials management. There are contrasting approaches to those taken in Fight the Fire, and there are specific ties to pending legislative initiatives in the U.S. Congress.
Sunday, August 8, 2021 at 4:00 to 5:30 PM. Part III Empowering Change – This discussion will evaluate the role of leadership in driving change; what are the critical components for success? What are the pitfalls and impediments? Discussion based on evaluating the effectiveness of activists in driving change.
In this second decade of the 21st century, we see the beginning of the transformation of our society and our economy away from the extractive fossil fuel base that is driving the climate emergency toward a more resilient, equitable and sustainable, shared prosperity based on renewable resources. The Spring comes as a welcome burst of hope after a long winter of COVID isolation, illness and fear. The living earth emerges once again with flowering trees, verdant woodlands and grasslands, and the manifestations of the cycles of life. These assurances of the resilience and certainty of the natural world offer hope, but also a caution. The laws of Nature are not negotiable. Preserving our life support system of oxygen-rich air, fresh water, fertile ground and the biodiversity of species depends on shifting from extractive fossil fuel industries to regenerative systems for energy, food and materials.
We must focus on the needs of society and the work needed to sustain it rather than on replacing fuels. Technologies from the 1800s – the Rankine steam cycle for electricity generation and the internal combustion engine for transportation – need to be updated with modern, cleaner and more efficient technologies appropriate to the needs of the 21st century.
We have heard President Biden call for an Infrastructure and Jobs Plan which strongly mirrors the ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint for a new economy that works for all of us. Similar to the THRIVE Agenda of Southeastern PA and neighboring states and the Mayors Marshall Plan for Middle America, the ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint has a focus on good-paying union jobs and offers tangible and realistic steps to reach a sustainable future for our state and region.
The ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint expands opportunity through public investments in local communities; builds a 21stcentury sustainable economy; and rebuilds the middle class.
First the plan maximizes good union jobs and provides fossil industry workers with genuine opportunities for doing this work. It ensures access to union jobs for Black, Indigenous, female and low-wage workers. And it ensures community benefits from federal investments through public input and oversight.
Second, the plan restores our damaged lands and waters, modernizes the electric grid, grows manufacturing by making it more efficient and cleaner, builds a sustainable transportation system and revives the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Third the Blueprint promotes union rights, better pay, benefits and local ownership models for working people across all industries in the region.
The jobs impact of this Blueprint is significant for Pennsylvania. A federal investment package with annual average allocations of $11.3 billion to Pennsylvania, from 2021 to 2030, along with an additional $19.7 billion in private investments, would generate approximately 243,000 jobs in Pennsylvania— enough to bring Pennsylvania’s high unemployment rate back down towards 4 percent.
Repair the damage done over the last century– $1.2 Billion federal investment and 9,283 jobs per year from plugging orphaned oil and gas wells, repairing leaks in gas distribution pipelines, and repairing dams and levees.
Modernize the electric grid with a $3.2 Billion federal investment, leveraging $18 Billion in private investment to create 142,999 jobs per year through electric grid updates; building retrofits; solar installations; onshore and offshore wind generation; low-emissions bioenergy (anaerobic digestion); geothermal HVAC systems; and broadband expansion.
Expand Manufacturing by making it more Energy Efficient and Clean– requires 1.28 Billion in federal investment, leveraging $1.08 Billion in private investment and will create 18,016 jobs per year through industrial efficiency upgrades, including combined heat and power; manufacturing research and development; and bioplastics research and development
Build a more sustainable transportation system with a federal investment of $928 million leveraged with $522 million in private investment will create 16,182 jobs per year through public transportation expansion and upgrades including rail; and expanding a high efficiency automobile fleet.
Absorb carbon and Re-launch the Civilian Conservation Corps with a federal investment of $4.7 billion to create 56,700 jobs per year through regenerative agriculture; farmland preservation; land restoration, especially for abandoned mined lands; and restoration of watersheds, waterways and wastewater systems.
The ReImagine Appalachia initiative aims to consolidate our regional Congressional delegation to argue for federal resources directed toward our region because we have built the wealth of the industrial age through industries now in decline, and we need to move to a clean and efficient future. The jobs program presented here relies on the skills and capability of our union workers in electrical system upgrades and new generation integration into a smart micro-grid system. We see good union carpenters, pipefitters, boilermakers and steamfitters employed in anaerobic digestion and fuel cell operations as well as in constructing solar powered buildings that make more energy than they use. The possibilities are real, and only beginning.
No technological breakthroughs are necessary for this new economy to operate building a prosperity that can last without the boom/bust cycles of depleting extractive industries. We can muster the political will to make the necessary changes in policy and practice to support a new economy for the 21st century. Pennsylvania can assume a leadership role in building the new economy in three primary ways:
Adjust the regulatory infrastructure to enable rather than inhibit expansion of renewable energy systems and practices. Adopting practices such as uniform building standards for solar and wind installations, enabling a utility tariff system for virtual net metering and community shared power, joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and adopting a universal passive solar design building code for all new commercial and residential buildings are part of this process. Conduct a comprehensive review of regulations to enable sustainable practices and empower workers.
Shift Pennsylvania state subsidies toward private investment in the newer clean technologies addressed in the jobs scenarios above. Pennsylvania provided $3.8 billion in fossil fuel subsidies in Fiscal Year 2019 by systematically disabling many of its standard tools for collecting tax revenues, allowing the industry to extract public resources at little to no charge, and awarding the industry grants and tax credits. Meanwhile, in the same time period, the industry imposed $11.1 billion worth of external costs to the state and its residents. Pennsylvania can use these subsidies to entice private investment into the green jobs arena instead.
Empower local communities to attract investment in innovation. Establishing enterprise zones around re-purposed industrial or marginal commercial spaces before the tax base erodes to the point of bankruptcy will enable communities to offer resources for reinvigorating their economy before they fall into despair. Provide support for planning together around regional efforts to coordinate resource allocation and opportunities.
I would like to speak to the role of the gas industries in the sustainable future. The gas industries, especially in the Marcellus Shale region and the sectors pressing for plastics production, pose mighty and well-funded opposition to any perceived competition from renewable resources. Preserving the historic business model of extraction, combustion, or using fossil-based raw materials for single use commodities is not compatible with a sustainable future. The expertise and infrastructure of the gas industry is uniquely suited to developing methane from anaerobic digestion of municipal waste and sewage. Methane produced from these sources, as well as from manure pools of farm animals, stays in the contemporary carbon cycle and does not draw from carbonized remains of living plants that created the 20% oxygen in our atmosphere millions of years ago. Using anaerobic digestion creates methane biogas that can be sent into the existing gas distribution system for home heating. This would shift home heating from a fossil base to a sustainable base. In addition, biogas can be used to create hydrogen for fuel cells to generate electricity through a chemical reaction similar to a battery, without combustion. This technology is mature and operating efficiently in Germany, Japan, Korea and France based on American technology developed through space exploration research and commercialized in the 1990s.(6) The gas industry would rightly enjoy a leadership position in building a truly sustainable economy by making this kind of a shift in focus.
The true wealth of Pennsylvania lies in the land that supports us. Not the fossil resources buried deep within the crust of the Earth, but the living earth, the fertile ground that gives life to our planet through binding essential elements to create food, fiber, fuel, and oxygen. When we restore the land and empower the people, we set the foundation for a long-lasting prosperity for all of our citizens.
Citations and Resources:
 Patricia M. DeMarco. Pathways to Our Sustainable Future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Press. 2017.
As 2020 closes, I am weary from struggling against the challenges that confront us. With the approval of a vaccine, people see an end to the stress and fear of this pandemic that has taken the lives of 316,844 Americans with 1.8 million infected by the coronavirus. (1) We long for a return to “normal.” But as we wait for the pandemic to recede, it is critical to recognize the important lessons that emerge from this crisis. COVID-19 amplified difficulties that have always been present and forced a reckoning. The Presidential election in this year of pandemic restrictions gave a stress test to our institutions, and we passed, but with huge red flags waving. We have taken one step back from the edge of an abyss, but we have yet to make a turn in the direction of resilience, inclusion and prosperity for all, in America and around the world. As we execute a recovery from COVID, we must take the opportunity to address the complex problems revealed and build a New Normal.
web of life
Lessons to shape a “New Normal”
Take responsibility to preserve the interconnected web of life. The pandemic of COVID-19 is a predicted symptom to the destruction of the ecosystems that support life on Earth. Human infrastructure, industrial agriculture and extractive resource industries have altered the Earth significantly. According to the Fifth Global Biodiversity Assessment, 75 per cent of the land surface is significantly altered, 66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of wetlands area has been lost. While the rate of forest loss has slowed globally since 2000, this is distributed unequally. Across much of the highly biodiverse tropics, 32 million hectares of primary or recovering forest were lost between 2010 and 2015. Over one million species face extinction within a decade. (2) Transformative changes in the way we produce food, obtain and use energy, and manage materials can protect and restore biodiversity, habitats and ecosystems. Preserving biodiversity is our best defense against further pandemic outbreaks from viruses and diseases that cross from animals to humans either from contact or from food chains. Using agricultural land to capture carbon, protect watersheds and pollinators and provide food primarily for people rather than for animals can limit the wasteful depletion of soil from industrial agriculture practices.(3) We must adjust all of our policies and practices to protect our life support system, the gifts of the living earth. (4) It must be our mission to protect and restore natural ecosystems and integrate human activities into their functions without destroying them. The technology and policy pathways to do this are known and operate well. We must make the moral and ethical choice to live in harmony with Nature.
3. The mainstream economy is not working for millions of Americans. Household incomes have grown only modestly in this century. Economic inequality, whether measured through the gaps in income or wealth between richer and poorer households, continues to widen. Households near the top of the economic ladder had incomes that were 12.6 times higher than those at the bottom in 2018. (5) Income inequality has increased by about 20% from 1980 to 2016 according to Congressional Budget Office reports. (6) Moreover, one-third of US adults either can’t pay all their bills or are one small problem away from it. Forty three percent of rural households report adult household members have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had wages or hours reduced since the start of the COVID outbreak, with two-thirds of these households (66%) reporting serious financial problems. (7) The pandemic crisis has made evident the stark reality that faces nearly half of Americans- we are one paycheck away from disaster. Savings are insufficient to the need, and loss of a job to illness or business closure leaves millions with no recourse but bankruptcy and despair. Millions see no path to upward mobility or wealth accumulation, and most believe they are powerless to change the situation. One way to address this issue is to strengthen unions and establish a higher minimum wage, with adjustments to the cost of living regularly incorporated into the minimum wage index. As union membership declines, more of the income share has gone to the top 10% of wage earners. The weakened bargaining power of workers since 1979 has continuously decreased the earning power of workers (11.1% growth) compared to productivity increases (70.3% growth) from 1979 to 2017. At the same time, a greater share of corporate earnings has gone to the capital owners, expanding the earnings gap significantly over this period. (8)
2. Acknowledge and address systemic racism. This year, America was confronted again with the painful reality that our country was founded on the genocide of Indigenous Peoples of this continent and was built on a culture of slavery and indentured servitude. The statistics on COVID impact on people of color made the inequities of systemic racist practices impossible to ignore. It is clear that without acknowledging that the Health Gap, the Wealth Gap and the Power Gap stem from long-sustained practices and deliberate policies of oppression, we will be unable to heal this nation and find our common ground. (9) We are none of us free until we take responsibility for the rights of the downtrodden. None of us are free as long as our fellow citizens are abused before the law. We are all guilty if we stand by in silence while our fellow citizens suffer injustice, abuse and despair. Public demonstrations for Black Lives Matter in the face of police killings of black people in multiple locations around the country raised this issue again. More police, training for police or defunding police were proposed in various locations to keep peace. Freedom is not free- it comes with a responsibility to fight for justice, to act for fairness, and to demand accountability from those in power. (10) Redressing the legacy of redlining districts, of limiting credit for business and personal loans, and failing to provide the social infrastructure to support people and communities of color must take a higher priority in public policy. Those of us who do not bear the daily burden of hatred must stand up and lift that yoke of racist hatred from the backs of our Brothers and Sisters.
4. Govern for The People, not corporations. The pendulum of politics swings over decades from right to left and back, driven by circumstances and the struggle for power. Two forces have shaped our governance culture since the 1980’s. The Regan Administration introduced a governing principle of economic determination for all federal programs, and argued for a trickle down effect for government spending. Thus, federal programs that did not meet the economic productivity test were defunded and gradually eroded. These included education programs, grants to the arts and to basic research, social services, health care services and public parks. Even under the Democratic administrations in the period 1979 to 2020, there was little push back to these policies in principle. At the same time, the influence of corporate interests expanded considerably through Citizen United granting corporations the rights of “persons” under the law. And finally the heavily gerrymandered voting districts where districts are aligned for political advantage rather than for logical and fair distribution of representation for voters. While productivity of American businesses grew 70.3% between 1979 and 2017, hourly compensation of workers grew by only 11.1% in the same period. ( 11) These disparities are not accidental, but rather flow from specific subsidies and tax policies. The social inequities in wealth, health care, education and access to capital have grown from these practices which give advantage to the top 10% and corporations, even multinational corporations not headquartered in America, to the disadvantage of working people. (11 ) Environmental protections, climate mitigation and protection of public lands and parks have likewise fallen in priority to the advantage of specific corporate interests. It is time to return the priorities of government to protecting the interests of The People, to govern for the public interest, not private benefit. For this year and the next three decades, we must sustain a divestment from subsidies to fossil extractive industries at all levels from research, exploration, production and development of infrastructure. We must invest in communities to build the infrastructure for the green economy, creating manufacturing and restorative jobs in areas abandoned and left waste by prior decades of extraction. We must restore the environmental protections and the social safety net that sustain the well being, productivity and quality of life for all Americans, placing priority on those most affected by sacrifice zones and abandoned extractive practices such as the people of Appalachia. (12 )
Decide to preserve a living planet with a just, inclusive, caring society for our children and theirs to seven generations forward.
As we close this year of challenge and such sadness, we can look ahead to a better time. The solutions to the inter-related problems of environmental degradation, racial and social injustice and wealth disparity can be solved like a set of simultaneous equations. Only by integrating environmental health with a social safety net based on respect for the dignity of every person can we reach a sustainable prosperity. We must restore the value that to achieve prosperity that can be sustained, we must create an inclusive structure where all can thrive. The bloated enrichment of the top few has distorted our sense of what is right and just. Without justice there is no peace. Without accountability there is no freedom. Without love, there is no life.
2. IPBES (2019): Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondízio E.S., H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G.F.Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 56 pages. (https://www.ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf )
The Green New Deal Discussion group meets on alternate Sundays to discuss Naomi Kline’s book of essays, On Fire! The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal On February 23rd we had a discussion of the essay “Capitalism vs. the Climate.” I was asked to provide some background and insight to the utility industry.
A new decade dawns with fresh snow and a bright clear sky. We face a world fraught with strife, misery and hatred, exacerbated by the inexorable march of global warming and global pollution. We must meet these fearful prospects with courage.
The United Nations Science Advisory Council Report submitted to the 2019 Climate Summit stated the dire facts we face:
Warmest five-year period on record The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is on track to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record. It is currently estimated to be 1.1°Celsius (± 0.1°C) above pre-industrial (1850–1900) times. Widespread and long-lasting heatwaves, record-breaking fires and other devastating events such as tropical cyclones, floods and drought have had major impacts on socio-economic development and the environment.
Continued decrease of sea ice and ice mass Arctic summer sea-ice extent has declined at a rate of approximately 12% per decade during 1979-2018. The four lowest values for winter sea-ice extent occurred between 2015 and 2019. Overall, the amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet increased at least six-fold between 1979 and 2017. Glacier mass loss for 2015-2019 is the highest for any five-year period on record.
Sea-level rise is accelerating, sea water is becoming more acidic The observed rate of global mean sea-level rise accelerated from 3.04 millimeters per year (mm/yr) during the period 1997–2006 to approximately 4mm/yr during the period 2007–2016. This is due to the increased rate of ocean warming and melting of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets. There has been an overall increase of 26% in ocean acidity since the beginning of the industrial era.
“Only immediate and all-inclusive action encompassing: deep de-carbonization complemented by ambitious policy measures, protection and enhancement of carbon sinks and biodiversity, and efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, will enable us to meet the Paris Agreement.”
Irreversible effects are upon us from continued dependence on natural gas, coal and petroleum for the base of our economy. It is time to change course toward pathways that offer better choices and a more secure and resilient future for our children and for those yet to be born in the 21st century. Time is of the essence as each ton of carbon dioxide released into the air from burning fossil fuels or making petrochemicals will stay in the atmosphere for over 200 years.
We stand at a crossroad now. In one direction, we can continue toward a future based on petrochemical industries- build out the infrastructure that will bind our economy to natural gas and plastics for another fifty years. Or we can recognize the ultimate futility of this pursuit and turn our investments, our education tools, our might and political will toward building a sustainable future. The tools for doing this are at hand: Renewable energy systems; Regenerative agriculture that captures carbon and restores the fertility of the land; Non-fossil based materials in a circular supply chain; and the Biodiversity of the earth in living ecosystems that provide fresh water, clean air and fertile ground.
This is the decade we must recognize the true existential crises we face from human activities that destroy the natural systems of the living earth. We must make a U-turn in our policies. This requires a level of commitment equivalent to the the mobilization of World War II. The tools are at hand. For 2020 these priorities can drive progress:
Stop subsidizing fossil fuels research, exploration, production, processing and use. Taxpayer dollars in the U.S. alone exceed $649 Billion annually in direct subsidies. Replace this with a bottom line tax deduction for all property owners for energy efficiency, renewable energy installations, carbon sequestration in trees and organic farming, and replacements of fossil resources with non-fossil materials such as bamboo, hemp and algae.
Reverse the primacy of mineral rights over surface rights. Ecosystem services such as wetlands, grasslands, forests depend on intact surface conditions. Disruptions for mining, drilling, excavation and erosion destroy the ecosystems that provide our life support.
Re-invest in communities. Give communities the resources to plan for a diverse and stable future based on renewable resources and affirming community values. Invest in people, rather than multi-national corporations with no allegiance to sustainability.
Protect and care for the people who are victims of social and humanitarian disruptions associated with the response to climate change. For the workers of the oil, gas and coal industries, transition to productive jobs in the new economy, protecting pensions and health benefits, and maintaining the dignity of their worth are essential. Millions of people are thrust into forced migration from climate effects around the world, and even within the US. Criminalizing people who face extended drought and social collapse is inhumane and demeans our humanity.
This may seem like an impossible task. Legislation will be needed that fundamentally changes energy policy, land use policy and social safety net systems. But without the coordinated effort at a national level, without the collective will of all of us acting together to make the changes necessary, our children have no future. We must find common ground and take the bold necessary actions to retain a viable living condition for our civilization. The corrupting power of the fossil industry wealth was gained at the cost of our survival. Our children and grandchildren for generations will pay the price of our cowardice in allowing the continued plunder of our earth for the profits of a few multi-national corporations who hold accountability to no nation or people.
We, The People have the responsibility to call out this destruction and resume the leadership America can show in taking the path of protecting the public interest for now and for the future. Have we gone so far into the pit of despair that we have no faith in our power for change? I look into the faces of my students and think not. It is time for every person to join hands and stand up for the Mother Earth that gives us life, and gives us hope. The laws of Nature are not negotiable. When we accommodate our laws and life style to living in harmony with nature, we will find that the Earth can heal, and we will see a better future.
Here is my plea for 2020: Find your centered, still point of calm in this churning world. In the face of hatred, show kindness. Greet the people you see with a smile and a nod. Counter divisiveness with solidarity. We are more alike as humans than different in culture, race, gender, religion or political persuasion. Have faith in the power of the Earth to heal. Embrace the force of life and make it your own. Challenge the arrogance of those who block change and preach hate. Stand up for what is true and good. Speak for our children. Find your voice and use your power. Practice Peace and work for Justice.
Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, marking the first time humans had stepped out in space: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”[i] The iconic images of our fragile blue planet spinning in the vast reaches of space cemented the perception of Earth as our only home. This giant leap in perception of the fragility of our planet set the stage for many of the environmental protections written into law in the United States during the 1970s.
The living earth fueled by the power of the sun provides the essential elements of our life support system: fresh air, clean water, fertile ground, and the biodiversity of species that constitute the interconnected web of life, of which humans are but one part. The gifts of the living earth include the many ecosystem services that humans rely on without thinking about them. The supporting services that provide nutrient cycling, soil formation, habitat formation and primary production; the provisioning services that produce food, fuel, wood and fiber and fresh water; the regulating services that temper the climate, control flooding, control pests and diseases, and purify water; and the cultural services that offer spiritual, aesthetic, educational and recreational benefits.[ii] This priceless life support system is in crisis. Burning fossil fuels has accelerated the accumulation of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, leading to global warming. Resource extraction to obtain fossil fuels and other minerals has destroyed nearly one third of the natural habitat areas of the earth. Human populations, with life spans extended by modern health treatments, have spiraled beyond the carrying capacity of the natural world as the world’s people increasingly model their behavior after the Western standard of hyper-consumption. These four stresses on the earth have produced the twin existential crises of our time- global warming of the climate and global pollution, especially from plastic materials.
Solving the existential crises of global warming and global pollution is not a technology problem. It is a moral and ethical problem. The laws of Nature are not negotiable. We must change the way our society operates to abide within the laws of Nature in ways that can sustain life on earth. The United Nations Brundtland Commission in 1985 framed the concept of sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This concept implies a commitment to preserve the well-being of future generations on a global basis.
The most recent United Nations Report of the IPCC[iii] finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air. “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.[iv] Achieving a more sustainable path for modern civilization requires an adjustment of priorities.
In the current system of the global economy, business decisions and government policies, especially recently in the United States, place highest value on monetary gains, with diminished or minimum weight on environmental and social values. This heavy stress on economic outcome regardless of environmental or social damage or inequity has resulted in rapidly accelerating deterioration of ecosystems, habitat, and quality of life across the country, and in many places around the world.
To achieve a more sustainable civilization for our children, preserving and restoring the ecosystems that provide our life support system must assume a higher value in decision making at all levels. Likewise, to achieve a higher level of equity, justice, and fairness, the social and cultural values that provide quality of life must have higher importance in all levels of decision making.
Pollinators provide essential eco-system service
The industrialized economy takes the basic premise that the resources of the earth are available for exploitation giving profits to investors. The land is not restored or regenerated as part of this process because there is no immediate profit in restoration. Only when regulations require remediation or protection do most corporations indulge in repair of damaged land. Likewise, to maximize profits, labor is paid as little as possible, with investment in machinery to reduce labor costs as much as possible. The entire tax structure and investment reward strategy of our current U.S. economy rests on these concepts.[v]
The earth is a living system of which humans are but one part; not human property to be owned or destroyed for profit. The laws of nature co-evolved over millions of years – chemistry, physics, biological and physiological responses to conditions in the environment -define complex inter-relationships among all living things and connect the living earth elements with the mineral and inert elements. These functions are inherent in living systems, priceless attributes of the living earth that are not reflected in the drivers of the economy. To achieve meaningful and lasting solutions to the existential crises of global warming and global pollution, the laws of nature must be incorporated into the practices of civil society.
Indigenous Peoples all around the world have long recognized the necessity of living within the laws of nature and do so by respecting the rights of the living earth. A gathering of Indigenous Peoples in the People’s Climate Conference at Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010 adopted a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth that was introduced at the COP-15 meeting in Paris in 2015 arguing for a 1.5°C increase above pre-industrial ceiling for global warming. The goal of a 1.5°C ceiling was incorporated into the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 signed by 195 nations due to these efforts. The justification for this action states in part:
We the Peoples and Nations of Earth are all part of Mother Earth, an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny; and … Recognizing that capitalism and all forms of depredation, exploitation, abuse and contamination have caused great destruction, degradation and disruption of Mother Earth, putting life as we know it today at risk through phenomena such as climate change … establish this Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.[vi]
The Universal Rights of the Living Earth
The Indigenous Peoples Congress defined ten Universal Rights of Mother Earth.
The right to life and to exist. The diversity of living plants, animals and micro-organisms on earth have a right to life and to exist. The complex interactions among the parts of ecosystems work best when all the components are in place and functional. Human habitat destruction, exploitation, and life cycle interruption drive hundreds of species to extinction.
The right to be respected. Indigenous Peoples lived on the Earth for thousands of years in harmony with Nature. Colonial appropriation of lands, especially for resource extraction, has destroyed many cultures. The cultural wisdom of Indigenous Peoples holds great value for guiding the transformation of society.
The right to regenerate bio-capacity and to continue vital life cycles and processes free from human disruption. Human activities have permanently destroyed habitat, for example by converting rain forests to mono-crop plantations. Entire ecosystems have been disrupted by such activities as strip mining and mountaintop removal. Global pollution of air and water have damaged the viability of many living things. North American bird populations have declined by 29% since 1970 due to habitat loss.[vii]
The right to maintain identity and integrity as a distinct self-regulating, and interrelated being. Complex symbiotic systems such as coral reefs, wetlands and rain forests are compromised by human actions both directly by development and exploitation and indirectly by the effects of pollution and global warming. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has experienced fatal bleaching for 50% of its range. [viii]
The right to water as a source of life. Fresh water is a critical indicator for the viability of all living things on earth. Co-evolution of the integrated living systems currently on earth depend on the availability of fresh water. Over 140 million people are expected to face migration due to prolonged drought caused by climate change by 2050.[ix]
The right to clean air. Air pollution transcends local, regional and continental boundaries. In many parts of the United States, pollution has reduced the distance and clarity of what we see by 70 percent. One in four children in the U.S. have asthma. Global air emissions contribute to global warming, ocean acidification, and particulates
The right to integral health. The concept of health as a universal right recognizes the interconnectedness of physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual health. Healthy beings only can exist in a healthy environment. To keep the planet and people healthy, we need food systems designed to protect natural resources, absorb greenhouse gas emissions, provide nutritious and affordable food, and strengthen the resilience and prosperity of rural populations.[x]
The right to be free from contamination, pollution, toxic or radioactive waste. Pollution from the by-products of modern society have contaminated the entire world. There are now 15–51 trillionpieces of plastic in the world’s oceans. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. The fossil fuel industry plans toincrease plastic productionby 40 percent over the next decade in petrochemical plants across the United States to turn fossil natural gas liquids extracted by hydraulic fracturing into single-use plastic.[xi]
The right to not have genetic structure modified or disrupted in a manner that threatens integrity or vital and healthy functioning. 105 commonly used agricultural pesticides, fungicides and herbicides have endocrine- disrupting effects on wildlife.[xii] In addition, the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture and other industrial processes compromises wild stocks as pollen travels without restriction on the winds.
The right to full and prompt restoration from violations caused by human activities. Many environmental harms from extractive industry particularly are not reversible. Extinction is forever. And for some damages, there is no recovery possible. For example, Mountain top removal mining of thin coal seams has destroyed 500 mountains throughout Appalachia.[xiii] The “restored mine sites have vastly different, less diverse landscapes subject to erosion and acid runoff.
“Restored” mountain top removal coal mine site in West Virginia.
The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth articulates an urgent plea for use of the precautionary principle in shaping the relationship of human activity to the natural world. The concept of protecting, and restoring to the extent possible, the natural systems of the earth lies at the heart of preserving the priceless life support systems of the living earth for current and future generations. As Rachel Carson wrote in her essay “On the Pollution of Our Environment,”
Underlying all these problems of introducing contamination into our world is the question of moral responsibility – responsibility not only to our own generation, but to those of the future.[xiv]
In some cases, the harms to the environment or to living systems may not be known until long after the fact. But in many cases, especially with modern techniques for assessing biologic harm, the potential for harm is either well established, or can be shown to be highly likely. For example, Bristol Bay Alaska is home to the largest wild salmon run in the world. The open pit Pebble Creek Mine, if it begins operation, would end this $1.5 Billion fishery from arsenic contamination.[xv] Arsenic released from mining gold and highly soluble in water, even in minute amounts is toxic to salmon especially as they spawn and in the juvenile stages of growth. The livelihood of over 14,000 people directly depends on the wild runs of salmon, including the subsistence villages of Bristol Bay.[xvi] Even species as abundant as salmon can vanish quickly if critical habitat is lost, or harvesting is heedless of regenerative needs, as happened with the abrupt extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.[xvii] Some harms are not reversible. Extinction is forever.
A Matter of Ethics and Justice
How we as a society address the challenges of climate change is not a matter of technology, but rather a matter of justice and ethical choices on several levels. Most urgently, addressing climate change effectively now is a matter of intergenerational justice. Actions taken or not taken by the current generation will markedly affect the fate of future generations. While this has always held true in the past, these times are different because actions taken today will have irreversible consequences that compromise options for the future. It is important to recognize that within the range of options available now, there are many choices that will lead to a better future, without relying forever on fossil fuels. For example, the re-Imagine Beaver project facilitated by the League of Women Voters in Beaver County PA developed a four-part plan for diversifying and renewing the economy as an alternative vision to having the Shell Appalachia Petrochemical Plant dominate the area’s economy.[xviii]
Climate action is also a matter of international justice because the effects of global warming are not evenly distributed around the world. The richest 10% pf people produce half of the global carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 50% of people produce only about 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions.[xix] Globally, the industrialized countries mostly in the northern hemisphere are greatest causes of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but the greatest damages from resource extraction and global warming occur in the southern hemisphere among poorer nations. Global market drive resource extraction practices that destroy habitat as well. For example, palm oil used for snack foods devastates 27 million Hectares of tropical rainforest and is endangering hundreds of native plants and animals.[xx] Island nations and coastal areas along all continents are affected by sea level rise, more extreme and frequent storms and tidal surges. Even within single nations such as the United States, climate change has varied geographic effects. Coastal areas suffer flooding and storm surge while other areas suffer from prolonged droughts, wildfires, and advancing deserts. The World Bank estimates there will be 140 million climate migrants fleeing lands made uninhabitable by loss of water due to climate change.[xxi]
People of all faiths all around the world hold common concern for the well-being of people and for the need for justice and equity in interpersonal transactions. As a civilized society, we must consider the present and impending conditions that require understanding, empathy for our fellow beings, and a sense of obligation for the welfare of future generations. We must recognize that the laws of Nature are NOT negotiable. Humans cannot legislate the laws of chemistry or physics or the biologic system responses to changes in the environment. We must adjust our laws and cultural customs to live in harmony with Nature. The time for exploitation and subjugation of Nature for short term profits is over if we are to survive as a species.
A Transformation for a Better Future
When faced with the alarming facts of the effects of climate change, many people respond with fear. At the hearings on the Clean Power Plan in the summer of 2016, the streets of Pittsburgh were filled with demonstrators on both sides of the proposed action to close coal power plants and move toward renewable energy systems. Coal miners and their allies in the IBEW, AFL-CIO and trades unions marched 3,500 strong with uniform T-shirts, loudspeakers and goading from Governor Corbett. In contrast, a few hundred assorted environmental activists, mothers with children in strollers, and students gathered on the corner of Grant Street near the Federal Building to chant and sing. This sharply drawn contrast belies the reality under the demonstrations. Coal miners understand that their work gives them lung diseases and faces a stark future, but their fear stems from knowing that if nobody goes into coal mining, there will be no new workers to support their pensions, health benefits and families. Laws protect corporations in bankruptcy, but as has been evident as Patriot Coal, Murray Coal and others have gone bankrupt, the workers are left with pennies on the dollar to fend for themselves.[xxii] Union strength has eroded significantly, and many workers in the oil and gas fields are not unionized. Transformation to a sustainable economy must address the entire social fabric of our culture, not just fuel switching. The human face of the transformation must be a major part of the way forward. The AFL-CIO statement to the Copenhagen Climate Accord states: “We are asking for a just transition of the workforce that creates decent work and quality jobs.” [xxiii] But the climate crisis is much more complex than a simple transition. It requires a rearranging of the elements of our society to reach a sustainable civilization, much as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly.
We must make a plan to move to a sustainable future. The tools for this process are at hand, lacking only the political will to move forward. There are three principal pathways for our sustainable future:
Renewable Energy Systems that conserve and restore resources
Regenerative Agriculture for a non-toxic food system that captures carbon in fertile ground
Pollution Prevention and A Circular Economy for materials designed for re-use from benign materials.[xxiv]
Steps in the transformation require a comprehensive approach, recognizing that as sustainable systems become more prevalent, the process of adopting them will become more sophisticated and streamlined in practice. Take for example the shift from horse-drawn carriages to motorized vehicles and consider the many adjustments that took place. Rules of the road had to be established to keep drivers from running into each other. Roads had to be paved so vehicles would not become bogged down in mud, and vehicles were licensed to certify drivers. An entire fuel delivery and supply infrastructure had to be established. Horseshoe operations, blacksmiths, tack shops and buggy makers all saw the decline and extinction of their business. Now, as we look at a transformation of the energy system to renewable resources, we have similar adjustments facing us. The utility interface changes when the customers also produce energy some or all of the time. Zoning issues and building codes become a consideration if net zero energy buildings are to become standard practice. Converting the energy system from a fossil-based operation to a renewable energy system will require attention to micro-grid integration using artificial intelligence to balance load and supply and offers the new utility service function of storage and load leveling. Technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and anaerobic digestion of waste to make non-fossil methane or hydrogen become more economic options. Similar changes will need to occur in food systems, transportation and materials management.[xxv]
The transformation to a society living in harmony with nature will place priority on protecting biodiversity in all areas of the world, as an excellent indicator for the health of the complex ecosystems that comprise Earth’s life support system. We are facing a critical time in which we will choose the fate of our living Earth for hundreds of years into the future. In making the critical choices about energy and all resource management, we must place greater value on the living things, rather than on the short-term profits to corporations as the dominant driver. The plan. For a just transition must address the needs of people caught in the transition- the oil, gas, and coal workers especially, who will need to transition to new ways of working in new fields. Just and equitable solutions will need to include protecting pensions, health benefits and re-training for existing workers. A companion to a policy of re-investing in communities can empower people to re-structure our society with a more diverse and locally responsible economy.
We need a new system of governance that relies on a doctrine of public trust for natural resource management. In such a system, common resources are managed for the long-term benefit of the whole of society collectively, rather than to be owned and divided to profit individuals or corporate owners. A particular major change in this approach would place the ecosystem services, mostly on the surface of the earth, as priority for protection above the rights for extracting mineral deposits from deep underground. Such an approach recognizes the priceless value of the services the living earth delivers to all living things for free, as conditions of mutual support. We can transform our society to align with the natural cycles of resource use, recovery and re-use, rather than changing raw material to trash as rapidly as possible.
The Moral Imperative
Humanity now faces global crisis conditions: Carbon Dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have reached at 412 parts per million, the highest level in 650,000 years; 2019 is the hottest year on record since 2001; Arctic ice sheets are decreasing at 12.8% per decade; and coastal flooding worldwide is common as sea levels rise and oceans warm.[xxvi] Storms, wildfires, and prolonged drought conditions affect broad areas of the world. In the face of these dire facts, children all over the world have stood up to plead for action on climate to protect their future. How can we ignore the pleas of our children as they protest, file lawsuits, demonstrate and march for the right to live on a viable planet?[xxvii]
There are no technological barriers to making rapid and meaningful changes toward sustainable climate solutions. All of the technologies necessary to address the major sources of global warming and global pollution are in hand and will only improve in effectiveness as they become more widely adopted. Only the political will to act stands in the way of transforming our economy. Over 73% of Americans want action on climate change but are deeply divided on partisan lines (67% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans)[xxviii] The U. S. Constitution vests the power of government in The People. We have the power to act to save our world.
The best way to move forward is to remember that we are more alike in our common humanity than different in political stance, race, gender, religion or culture. If we protect the rights of the living Earth and connect our own fate to the fate of the natural world, we will find the courage to make the necessary changes. The result will be a better future and the legacy of a renewed sense of wonder in the miracle of creation. Each person can act. Each person matters in the great interconnected web of life. Here is Rachel Carson’s conservation pledge:
I pledge myself to preserve and protect America’s fertile soils, her mighty forests and rivers, her wildlife and minerals, for on these her greatness was established, and her strength depends.[xxix]
Decide to leave our children a living Earth. Thank you.
Presented to Integrity of Creation Conference: toward a Healthy Planet at Duquesne University on September 25, 2019
[ii] Robert Costanza, Ralph d’Arge, Rudolf de Groot, Stephen Farber, Monica Grasso, Bruce Hannon, Karin Limburg, Shahid Naeem, Robert V. O’Neill, Jose Paruelo, Robert G. Raskin, Paul Sutton, Marjan van den Belt. “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural capital.” Nature. 387: 253-260 (1997) https://www.nature.com/articles/387253a0#auth-2 Accessed September 19, 2019.
[viii] Terry P. Hughes, James T. Kerry, Andrew H. Baird, Sean R. Connolly, Tory J. Chase, Andreas Dietzel, Tessa Hill, Andrew s. Hoey, Mia O. Hoogenboom, Mizue Jacobson, Ailsa Kerswell, Joshua S. Madin, Abbie Mieog, Allison S. Paley, Morgan S. Pratchett, Gergley Torda, & Rachel M. Woods. “Global warming impairs stock-recruitment dynamics of corals.” Nature. 18 April 2019. Nature Vol. 568. Pages 387-401. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1081-y.epdf Accessed September 19, 2019.