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Chip Ward: Leave It to Beaver(s)

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

If you want to be unnerved, just pay a visit to the U.S. Drought Monitor and check out its map of the American West with almost all of California stained the deep, distressing shades of red that indicate either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.  In other words, it could hardly be worse.  California is now in its third year of drought, with no end in sight; state agricultural losses are estimated at $2.2 billion for 2014 alone; most of its reservoirs are less than half full; the Colorado River basin, which supplies water to “about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states,” including California, is compromised; and California’s first six months of 2014 have been the “hottest ever… nearly five degrees warmer than the twentieth century average.” The drought’s arms extend north through Oregon (“severe”) into Washington, where it’s already been the fire season from hell — and it’s just beginning.  They also reach east through Nevada as far as Utah and straight across the Southwest in various shades of yellow, orange, and deep red.

TomDispatch’s western contingent, environmentalists Chip Ward and William deBuys, have had the stresses of climate change, rising heat, drought, wildfires, desertification, and someday the possible abandonment of parts of the Southwest on their minds (and so on the minds of TD readers) for years now.  These days, the chickens are coming home to roost — but not, it seems, the beavers.  Ward, a Utah environmentalist and the former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, has long focused not just on how our American world is being ravaged, but on how to protect and restore it.  In today’s post, he offers a reminder that sometimes such restoration can come in small packages and that even the most modest of natural geo-engineering can disturb vested interests. Tom

The Original Geo-Engineers
Or How to Save the Iconic West from the Cow
By Chip Ward

The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the “boomers” who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol’ boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the “nesters” or “stickers” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.

That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple.  All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms, reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust. 

The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature’s own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one.  Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.

Dances with Beavers

The dance floor is my Utah backyard, which, like most backyards out here, is a watershed.  At its top is the Aquarius Plateau, the horizon I see from my deck, a gracefully rolling forest of pines and aspens that stretches for 50 miles to the south, 20 miles wide at its midpoint, and reaches 11,300 feet at its highest ridge.

The forest on top of the plateau is unique, as trees rarely grow almost two miles above sea level.  That high forest is heated by the deserts that fall away around the plateau’s shoulders, culminating in the amber, bone, and honey-toned canyons of Capitol Reef National Park on its eastern flank and on the west by Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

During a long career with the Bureau of Land Management, Sage Sorenson saw firsthand how beavers created rich green habitat out of overgrazed and burned-over land.  Now retired, he calls himself a “beaver believer” and devotes his days to monitoring and protecting scattered “remnant” beaver colonies in our region. Quietly but persistently, he advocates for their reintroduction onto stressed landscapes that need their services. 

Beavers are the original geo-engineers.  It’s no exaggeration to credit them for their major role in building the North American landscape.  In pre-colonial times, there were as many as 400 million of them.  They used their big buckteeth and tough paddle-tails to build dams across every stream imaginable, spreading water to a Noah’s Ark-worth of creatures that thrive in the wet habitats they create.  Now, of course, they are mostly long gone from the land, and conservationists want them back.     

Sorenson recently trained and got certified to trap and transport beavers in anticipation of restocking the streams that tumble down the Aquarius Plateau.  He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are reintroduced.  After all, several of those streams have already been scientifically assessed and identified as prime candidates for such a reintroduction program.   But when I talked to him at a café in the small hamlet of Boulder, Utah, he was feeling discouraged. 

A remnant colony of beavers along North Creek, he told me, is just about gone.  Over the last two years, at least 34 of them have been illegally shot or legally trapped by a local irrigation company.  Although beaver reintroduction is getting rave reviews in places like Scotland where the last one had been trapped out hundreds of years ago and Oregon where they are healing land hammered by logging, in Utah the road back will be rough.

Flat-Tail Climate Hero

Beavers were once abundant across the Aquarius Plateau, but they have now retreated to its high headwaters where they do not compete with cattle or cowboys with guns. Visiting them requires strong lungs for steep hikes and sturdy boots to navigate flooded meadows.  Up close, beavers look like especially large rodents that swim.  Call them cute if you care to, but a wet mammal that smells like its mud hut is neither cuddly nor charismatic.  They are not, in other words, like the penguins or polar bears that adorn fundraising appeals from wildlife advocates. 

Nevertheless, as Sage patiently explains, they are key to the restoration of damaged watersheds. First, their dams create ponds and wetlands for diverse plants, amphibians, fish, and fowl. Eventually, those ponds fill with silt and become meadows, creating yet more habitat for another round of plants and animals. 

Letting beavers do their work is one powerful way to make the land and its creatures resilient in a time of climatological stress.  For example, across the planet a wide range of amphibians, including frogs and salamanders, are declining fast, becoming rare or extinct.  Their sudden decline may be due to habitat loss, pollution, viruses enabled by a warming climate, or all of the above, but their disappearance is one more measure of the ecological catastrophe now underway.  Beavers make wet habitat where amphibians can recover and thrive. 

The aquatic insects that bloom in wetlands feed populations of stressed songbirds. Their ponds shelter fingerling fish — beavers are vegetarians — and baby ducks.  Beavers are ecological servants par excellence who give life to the land.  They are not only beneficial agents of biodiversity, however: humans benefit, too. 

In Western forests, the beaver’s stick-in-the-mud architecture spreads, slows, and deepens the flow of water from spring runoff so that it recharges underground aquifers, springs, and seeps. Slowing that runoff means that the streams feeding reservoirs last longer, possibly all summer.  That’s important for local agriculture, which depends on irrigation.  Beaver dams improve water quality by trapping sediment that filters pollution. A lush-green landscape also inhibits landslides, floods, and fire.  So beavers are not only good for the usual crew of endangered species, but also for millions of humans whose drinking water originates in heat-stressed watersheds that could be restored by the beaver’s hydrological habits.

Considering all the benefits beavers bring with them, why haven’t we rushed to return them to their keystone role in the Western landscape?  The simple answer to a complicated question is one word: cows. 

When beavers re-occupy their historic homelands, they compete with the human economy that once drove them deep into the wilds.  Farmers and ranchers who irrigate their fields via ditches and culverts hate them.  There are simple techniques to guard against beavers clogging irrigation systems but they are either unlearned or resisted as yet another example of unwanted government intrusion on Western life.  Across the rural West, ranchers have power and influence way beyond their numbers or their contribution to the economy. 

The Elephant in the Room Is a Cow  

One man’s keystone species is another’s varmint.  For conservationists like Sorenson who are devoted to bringing beavers back, seeing one with a bullet hole in it is not just sad, but taken as a very personal warning.  Despite the popularity and success of beaver reintroduction elsewhere, in much of the American West it runs into an outsized obstacle — the iconic western cow.  Not ol’ Bossy chewing a cud in Wisconsin, but the wild steer chased by a cowboy with a lasso yelling “yeeha!”  That cow is sacred.

In reality, cattle ranching is a tough, marginal business in this part of America and grazing on public lands makes it possible.  In other words, it’s heavily subsidized by distant taxpayers. Those grazing fees Cliven Bundy objects to cost less than a buck and a half per cow per month for all it can eat on federal land — food stamps for cows, indeed.   Cattle ranchers, whose families have been on the land for generations, think of grazing allotments on federal land as an entitlement, even if that attitude contradicts the image of the independent cowboy they cherish.  About 250 million acres — or more than half of the federal lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management — are open to cattle grazing, and that’s a large arena where cowboys and conservationists compete.  

Moving cows out of sensitive riparian areas (streams and springs) or putting competitors like wolves and beavers onto the land with them is seen by ranchers as the start of a slippery slope that might lead to removing cows altogether.  That is, however, unlikely.  In the West, cows rule.  The soundtrack of Manifest Destiny may once have been the sharp crack of gunfire aimed at Indians and wolves, but it was followed by a mellow moo.  Cows graze over the bones of bison and the other creatures we eliminated to make room for them.

Our Dams, Not Theirs

Like the beavers they replaced, cows have reshaped the land — not, in their case, by creating habitat but by destroying it.  The pioneers who first came upon southern Utah described the vast grasslands they found there.  That grass is long gone.  The soil blew away, too, and rusting fences now swing above gullies or are buried under dunes.  When millions of cows and sheep were let loose on that fragile soil, massive erosion and the disappearance of that vast native grassland followed.  It never came back. When Congress finally stepped in and passed grazing regulations in 1934, improvements followed. 

Conservationists claim that cows are today contributing to the die-off of the West’s beloved aspen groves by eating tree seedlings and short-circuiting forest succession. They also spread highly flammable cheat grass in their voluminous poop.  But whatever damage cows do directly to public lands pales in comparison to the way the infrastructure necessary for the cattle business has captured western water sources and de-watered western lands.

Stegner’s boomers dammed thousands of rivers and streams, while building pipelines through our national forests down to valley floors.  Aqueducts, canals, and tunnels followed.  The growth of many western towns is rooted in the building of a water infrastructure that has allowed us to suck the forests dry in order to irrigate the fields of alfalfa that feed those cows.  And yet — hold onto your hats for this — only a miniscule 3% of the nation’s beef is raised in the West. 

Yet at least 80% of the water out here goes to alfalfa and other cow-food crops.  When you get those dire warnings about the Colorado River going dry and Phoenix and Vegas blowing away, remember this: because the cattlemen own the rights, cows get a lion’s share of whatever water is left after the western watersheds are baked and burned.  We grow so much cow-food that we now essentially export our precious water to China in the form of alfalfa.

Beavers as Underdogs 

Now maybe you’re beginning to see just why the odds are so stacked against the lowly beaver. Americans have forgotten the formative nature of our relationship with that creature.  Not only did European explorers encounter a landscape that had been thoroughly carved out and watered by them, but a robust trade in beaver pelts drove settlement.  Pelts that were made into warm hats for wealthy people were a kind of rodent gold and trappers couldn’t get enough of them.

Under the grinding wheel of a voracious commerce in furs, beavers were so trapped-out that they seemed to be headed for the fate of the once plentiful but now extinct passenger pigeon. This precipitous decline was reversed by one of North America’s earliest conservation campaigns.

In the 1920s, through the new medium of film the public imagination was captured by a Canadian Indian named Grey Owl.  He lived on a lake with his wife, Anahareo, and raised orphaned beaver kits, explaining their ecological importance and the consequences of their loss to a public unfamiliar with the beaver’s role in keeping forests healthy.  As the original beaver-believers cuddled their kits, audiences ooohed and aaahed. 

Eventually Grey Owl was exposed as Archie Belaney, an Englishman posing as an Indian, but by then the message he had delivered had been translated into governance.  Beaver trapping was strictly regulated across most of the West and eventually many colonies recovered.  Today, there are far more beavers in North America, perhaps 10 million, than at their near-extinction moment, but their distribution on the land remains thin and uneven.  Once upon a time, hundreds of millions of them helped create the American landscape.  It would be fitting if, in the era of global warming, the beaver’s influence came full circle, this time as a means of making heat-stressed landscapes more resilient.  

Are Beavers a Plot Against Humanity?

Most of the land in the American West is federally owned and managed, despite recent schemes by local tea-hadis to take it over and sell it to the highest bidder (or closest crony).  Because federal lands are a national treasure that we own together, there are rules for the sustainable use of it and sanctions for abuse.  Those rules and policies are negotiated by stakeholders and change over time.  That is happening now as our forests and grasslands are baked by prolonged drought.

In 2009, a Utah Beaver Advisory Committee composed of wildlife biologists, forest rangers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, and conservationists hammered out a plan to restore healthy beaver populations to their historic range across Utah “where appropriate.”  The beaver’s ecological service was finally acknowledged, but with the proviso that it be balanced against “human needs.”  Getting such an endorsement for restoration and protection, however qualified, was an important first step and a catalyst for a grassroots campaign to “leave it to beavers.”

An agreement had been reached among stakeholders traditionally at odds.  It was a rare feat of consensus building in a political environment where acrimony generally reigns supreme and it could have been a model for resolving other conflicts over land use and regulation.  Instead, local politicians, in a panic that beavers might “steal” water, have effectively resisted it.

Joe Wheaton, who teaches watershed hydrology and restoration at Utah State University, says the science on this is clear: there is no net water loss downstream from beaver dams.  If anything, they only increase a watershed’s capacity by capturing water that would otherwise be lost to floods.  But the cattlemen aren’t buying it. Science, you see, is just another liberal ideology.  As a Kane County commissioner put it succinctly, “Beavers are an environmentalist plot.” Think of those dead beavers along North Creek that Sage Sorenson described to me as collateral damage in the ideological civil war now raging across the region.  

You Can’t Drink an F-35 

The Grand Canyon Trust and a local citizens group, Boulder Community Alliance, have tried to fill the gap between the advisory group’s clear intention and the state’s hesitance to overrule obstructionist county commissioners and actually implement the plan.  The Trust recruited local volunteers and trained them to assess canyon drainages using the best scientific criteria and methods available.  Several streams were identified as candidates for beaver reintroduction.   

Volunteers monitor and report on the few existing beaver settlements like the one being decimated in North Creek. Through education and advocacy they are building a constituency for putting beavers back on the land to do their job.  They have faith that the benefits of beaver reintroduction will become obvious as re-habitation happens. When the time comes to move beavers into new streams, they will be ready.

The kind of homegrown resilience practiced by Sage Sorenson and thousands of other backyard conservationists gets a paltry piece of the taxpayer pie compared, say, to homeland security.  I used to say that in the long run we’d be wiser to invest in restoring watersheds than putting a camera on every corner.  As it happens, given the tenacious drought now spreading across the West and Southwest, the long run seems to be here, sooner than expected.  Even the Pentagon now acknowledges that ecological catastrophe sows human turmoil and suffering that eventually blows back our way.  For the cost of just one of the 2,400 F-35 fighter jets we are committed to buying at historic prices, we could restore the stressed Aquarius watershed. 

But the beavers don’t care what we do.  They just do their own thing.  They are like their human partners: persistent and oh so local.

Saving The World, Stick by Stick  

Each ecosystem has its own particular dynamic.  There are endless variables to understand. That’s why conservation work is ultimately local.  It focuses on improvements in this river and that forest, specific habitats and watersheds with specific conditions and a set of specific inhabitants and users. 

The world we aim to save is a planet of mundane dirt, air, and water that, when woven together, somehow becomes a transcendent whole.  It’s a diverse universe of living plants and critters not well-suited for one big solution.  Rather, it calls forth a million small solutions that add up, like the natural world itself, to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps there are no parts at all, just participants. 

Will introducing beavers onto wounded watersheds save the world?  The answer is: yes.  That and all the other acts of restoration, protection, and restraint, small and large, individual and collective, taken together over time.  Sure, it’s not the same as the U.S. taxing carbon or China abandoning coal.  Restoring a watershed doesn’t curb the corporations that reduce communities to commodities. But in addition to the global goals we support, our responses to ecological crisis must be grounded in the places where we live, especially in the watersheds that nourish our bodies.

Rewilding tattered land is holistic because it sees and honors connectivity.  It trades hubris for humility by acknowledging complexity and limitations.  Its ultimate goal is landscape health and resilience, not the well-being of a small handful of stakeholders. 

If we want to construct a healthy and resilient world for ourselves and our fellow creatures, we could do worse than look to the lowly beavers for hints on how it can be done. They build a vibrant world for themselves and so many others by weaving one small limb into another, stick by stick by stick.

Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Chip Ward

Naomi Oreskes: A “Green” Bridge to Hell

6:22 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Poster: Male face saying 'Frack' as oil drips down his chin

More fossil fuels won’t cure our fossil fuel crisis.

Call it the energy or global warming news of recent weeks.  No, I’m not referring to the fact this was globally the hottest June on record ever (as May had been before it), or that NASA launched the first space vehicle “dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Nor do I mean the new report released by a “bipartisan group,” including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and three former secretaries of the treasury, suggesting that, by 2100, $238 billion to $507 billion worth of American property will be “below sea level”; nor that Virginia’s coastline is already being eaten away by rising seas and storm-surge destruction in such a striking manner that state Democrats and Republicans are leaving global warming denialists in the lurch and forming a climate change task force to figure out what in the world to do.

No, I was referring to the news that the Obama administration has just reopened the eastern seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration. To the extent that this has been covered, the articles have generally focused on the economic positives — for jobs and national wealth — of finding new deposits of oil and gas in those waters, and the unhappiness of the environmental community over the effect of the sonic booms used in underwater seismic exploration on whales and other sea creatures. Not emphasized has been the way, from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, not to speak of the shale-gas fracking fields of this country, the Obama administration has had an all-of-the-above policy on fossil fuels.  Our “global warming” president has consistently championed reforms (of a modest sort) to combat climate change.  These, however, fit uncomfortably with his administration’s anything-goes menu of oil and gas exploration and exploitation that is distinctly in the drill-baby-drill mode. Unlike that drill-baby-drill proponent Sarah Palin, however, the president knows what he’s doing and what the long-term effects of such policies are likely to be.

Part of the way he and his officials seem to have squared the circle is by championing their moves to throttle coal use and bring natural gas, touted as the “clean” fossil fuel, to market in a big way.  As it happens, historian of science Naomi Oreskes, an expert on the subject, has news for the president and his advisors: when looked at in a clear-eyed way, natural gas isn’t going to turn out to be the fossil-fuel equivalent of a wonder drug that will cure the latest climate disease.  Quite the opposite: its exploitation will actually increase the global use of fossil fuels and pump more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, while possibly suppressing the development of actual renewable alternatives.  In a magisterial piece today, she explores every aspect of the crucial question of why natural gas is anything but a panacea for our climate change problems.

This couldn’t be more important.  Science historians Oreskes and Erik Conway have already written a classic book, Merchants of Doubt, on how Big Energy and a tiny group of scientists associated with it sold us a false bill of goods on the nature and impact of its products (as the tobacco industry and essentially the same set of scientists had before it).  Together, they have now produced a little gem of a book on climate change: The Collapse of Western Civilization: a View From the Future.  Written, so the claim goes, in 2393 by a “senior scholar of the Second People’s Republic of China,” it traces the events that led to the Great Collapse of 2090.  You haven’t heard of that grim event yet?  Well, you will as soon as you pick up Oreskes’s and Conway’s “thought-provoking” and gripping work of “science-based fiction” on what our future may have in store for us — if we don’t act to change our world. Tom

Wishful Thinking About Natural Gas
Why Fossil Fuels Can’t Solve the Problems Created by Fossil Fuels
By Naomi Oreskes

Albert Einstein is rumored to have said that one cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that led to it. Yet this is precisely what we are now trying to do with climate change policy.  The Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, many environmental groups, and the oil and gas industry all tell us that the way to solve the problem created by fossil fuels is with more fossils fuels.  We can do this, they claim, by using more natural gas, which is touted as a “clean” fuel — even a “greenfuel.

Like most misleading arguments, this one starts from a kernel of truth.

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Peter Van Buren: Undue Process in Washington

6:18 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A seated Anwar al-Awlaki in front of a low table

The death of al-Awlaki is part of the destruction of our 5th Amendment right to due process.

What a world we’re in. Thanks to smartphones, iPads, and the like, everyone is now a photographer, but it turns out that, in the public landscape, there’s ever less to photograph. So here are a few tips for living more comfortably in a photographically redacted version of our post-9/11 world.

Even if you’re a professional photographer, don’t try to take a picture of Korita Kent’s “Rainbow Swash.”  It’s “one of the largest copyrighted pieces of art in the world,” painted atop a 140-foot-high liquefied natural gas tower in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  James Prigoff, a former senior vice president of the Sara Lee Corporation and a known photographer, tried to do so and was confronted by two security guards who stopped him.  Later, though he left no information about himself and was in a rented car, he was tracked down by the FBI.  Evidently he had been dumped into the government’s Suspicious Activity Reporting program run by the Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security.  (And when you end up on a list like that, we know that it’s always a living hell to get off it again.)  He sums up his situation this way: “So, consider this: A professional photographer taking a photo of a well-known Boston landmark is now considered to be engaged in suspicious terrorist activity?”

And while you’re at it, don’t photograph the water tower in Farmer’s Branch, Texas (as professional photographer Allison Smith found out), or planes taxiing to takeoff at the Denver airport (if you have a Middle Eastern look to you), or that dangerous “Welcome to Texas City” sign (as Austin photographer Lance Rosenfield discovered when stopped by BP security guards and only let off after “a stern lecture about terrorists and folks wandering around snapping photos”), or even the police handcuffing someone on the street from your own front lawn (as Rochester, New York, neighborhood activist Emily Good was doing when the police cuffed and arrested her for the criminal misdemeanor of “obstructing governmental administration”).

The ACLU has just launched a suit challenging that Suspicious Activity Reporting database, claiming quite correctly — as Linda Lye, one of their lawyers, puts it — that the “problem with the suspicious-activity reporting program is that it sweeps up innocent Americans who have done nothing more than engage in innocent, everyday activity, like buying laptops or playing video games. It encourages racial and religious profiling, and targets constitutionally protected activity like photography.”

You know the old phrase, “it’s a free world?”  Well, don’t overdo it any more, thank you very much.  Your safety, your security, and the well-being of an ever-expanding, ever more aggressive national (and local) security state and its various up-arming and up-armoring policing outfits increasingly trump that freedom.  And let’s face it, when it comes to your safety not from most of the real dangers of our American lives but from “terrorism,” freedom itself really has been oversold.  Remember the famous phrase from the height of the Cold War era, “better dead than red”?  It seems to have been updated without the commies.  Now, it’s something like: “better surveilled than sorry.”  And based on that, all behavior is fast becoming potentially suspicious behavior.

Since 2013, State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren has been covering our new world of constricting freedoms in what he’s termed “Post-Constitutional America” for TomDispatch.  With this look at the government’s newfound “right” to kill an American citizen without due process, he completes a three-part series on the shredding of the Bill of Rights, the previous two parts having focused on the First Amendment and the Fourth AmendmentTom 

Dead Is Dead
Drone-Killing the Fifth Amendment
By Peter Van Buren

You can’t get more serious about protecting the people from their government than the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, specifically in its most critical clause: “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In 2011, the White House ordered the drone-killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without trial. It claimed this was a legal act it is prepared to repeat as necessary. Given the Fifth Amendment, how exactly was this justified? Thanks to a much contested, recently released but significantly redacted — about one-third of the text is missing — Justice Department white paper providing the basis for that extrajudicial killing, we finally know: the president in Post-Constitutional America is now officially judge, jury, and executioner.

Due Process in Constitutional America

Looking back on the violations of justice that characterized British rule in pre-Constitutional America, it is easy to see the Founders’ intent in creating the Fifth Amendment. A government’s ability to inflict harm on its people, whether by taking their lives, imprisoning them, or confiscating their property, was to be checked by due process.

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Jonathan Schell: A Niagara Falls of Post-9/11 Violence

6:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Unconquerable World cover

A new book on the ways nonviolent resistance matters.

In December 2002, finishing the introduction to his as-yet-unpublished book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Jonathan Schell wrote that the twentieth century was the era in which violence outgrew the war system that had once housed it and became “dysfunctional as a political instrument. Increasingly, it destroys the ends for which it is employed, killing the user as well as his victim. It has become the path to hell on earth and the end of the earth. This is the lesson of the Somme and Verdun, of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, of Vorkuta and Kolyma; and it is the lesson, beyond a shadow of a doubt, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

More than a decade later, that remains a crucial, if barely noticed, lesson of our moment. Jonathan Schell died this March, but he left behind a legacy of reporting and thinking — from The Real War and The Fate of the Earth to The Unconquerable World – about just how, as the power to destroy ratcheted up, war left its traditional boundaries, and what that has meant for us (as well as, potentially, for worlds to come). In The Unconquerable World, published just before the Bush invasion of Iraq, he went in search of other paths of change, including the nonviolent one, and in doing so he essentially imagined the Arab Spring and caught the essence of both the horrors and possibilities available to us in hard-headed ways that were both prophetic and moving.

Today, partly in honor of his memory (and my memory of him) and partly because I believe his sense of how our world worked then and still works was so acute, this website offers a selection from that book. Consider it a grim walk down post-9/11 Memory Lane, a moment when Washington chose force as its path to… well, we now know (as Schell foresaw then) that it was indeed a path to hell. Tom

The Path to a New 1914? 
How America Chose War After 9/11 
By Jonathan Schell

[This essay is slightly adapted from Jonathan Schell’s 2003 book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of its publisher, Metropolitan Books.]

Then came the attack of September 11th. Like the starting gun of a race that no one knew he was to run, this explosion set the pack of nations off in a single direction — toward the trenches. Although the attack was unaccompanied by any claim of authorship or statement of political goals, the evidence almost immediately pointed to al-Qaeda, the radical Islamist, terrorist network, which, though stateless, was headquartered in Afghanistan and enjoyed the protection of its fundamentalist Islamic government. In a tape that was soon shown around the world, the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was seen at dinner with his confederates in Afghanistan, rejoicing in the slaughter.

Historically, nations have responded to terrorist threats and attacks with a combination of police action and political negotiation, while military action has played only a minor role. Voices were raised in the United States calling for a global cooperative effort of this kind to combat al-Qaeda. President Bush opted instead for a policy that the United States alone among nations could have conceivably undertaken: global military action not only against al-Qaeda but against any regime in the world that supported international terrorism.

The president announced to Congress that he would “make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbor them.” By calling the campaign a “war,” the administration summoned into action the immense, technically revolutionized, post-Cold War American military machine, which had lacked any clear enemy for over a decade. And by identifying the target as generic “terrorism,” rather than as al-Qaeda or any other group or list of groups, the administration licensed military operations anywhere in the world.

The Future Is Not Ours (and Neither Is the Past)

6:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Requiem for the American Century
Turning 70, Paragraph by Paragraph
By Tom Engelhardt

First Paragraphs on Turning 70 in the American Century That Was

Kennedy and McNamara in a Cuban Missile Crisis meeting

A reflection on 70 years of history and life.

* Seventy-three years ago, on February 17, 1941, as a second devastating global war approached, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called on his countrymen to “create the first great American Century.”  Luce died in 1967 at age 69.  Life, the pictorial magazine no home would have been without in my 1950s childhood, ceased to exist as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000; Time, which launched his career as a media mogul, is still wobbling on, a shadow of its former self.  No one today could claim that this is Time’s century, or the American Century, or perhaps anyone else’s.  Even the greatest empires now seem to have shortened lifespans.  The Soviet Century, after all, barely lasted seven decades.  Of course, only the rarest among us live to be 100, which means that at 70, like Time, I’m undoubtedly beginning to wobble, too.

* The other day I sat down with an old friend, a law professor who started telling me about his students.  What he said aged me instantly.  They’re so young, he pointed out, that their parents didn’t even come of age during the Vietnam War.  For them, he added, that war is what World War I was to us.  He might as well have mentioned the Mongol conquests or the War of the Roses.  We’re talking about the white-haired guys riding in the open cars in Veteran’s Day parades when I was a boy.  And now, it seems, I’m them.

* In March 1976, accompanied by two friends, my wife and I got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and then adjourned to a Chinese restaurant for a dim sum lunch.  If, while I was settling our bill of perhaps $30, you had told me that, almost half a century in the future, marriage would be an annual $40 billion dollar business, that official couplings would be preceded by elaborate bachelor and bachelorette parties, and that there would be such a thing as destination weddings, I would have assumed you were clueless about the future.  On that score at least, the nature of the world to come was self-evident and elaborate weddings of any sort weren’t going to be part of it.

* From the time I was 20 until I was 65, I was always 40 years old.  Now, I feel my age.  Still, my life at 70 is a luxury.  Across the planet, from Afghanistan to Central America, and in the poverty zones of this country, young people regularly stare death in the face at an age when, so many decades ago, I was wondering whether my life would ever begin.  That’s a crime against humanity.  So consider me lucky (and privileged) to be seven decades in and only now thinking about my death.

* Recently, I had the urge to tell my son something about my mother, who died before he was born.  From my closet, I retrieved an attaché case of my father’s in which I keep various family mementos.  Rummaging around in one of its pockets, I stumbled upon two letters my mother wrote him while he was at war.  (We’re talking about World War II, that ancient conflict of the history books.)  Almost four decades after her death, all I had to do was see my mother’s handwriting on the envelope — “Major C. L. Engelhardt, 1st Air Commando Force, A.P.O. 433, Postmaster, New York 17, N.Y.” — to experience such an upwelling of emotion I could barely contain my tears.  So many years later, her handwriting and my father’s remain etched into my consciousness.  I don’t doubt I could recognize them amid any other set of scribblings on Earth.  What fingerprints were to law enforcement then, handwriting was to family memories.  And that started me wondering: years from now, in an electronic world in which no one is likely to think about picking up a pen to write anyone else, what will those “fingerprints” be?

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Dahr Jamail: Incinerating Iraq

6:19 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Kurdish child holding a flag

The future Iraq and the region looks more uncertain than ever.

Who even knows what to call it?  The Iraq War or the Iraq-Syrian War would be far too orderly for what’s happening, so it remains a no-name conflict that couldn’t be deadlier or more destabilizing — and it’s in the process of internationalizing in unsettling ways.  Think of it as the strangest disaster on the planet right now. After all, when was the last time that the U.S. and Russia ended up on the same side in a conflict? You would have to go back almost three quarters of a century to World War II to answer that one. And how about the U.S. and Iran?  Now, it seems that all three of those countries are sending in military hardware and, in the case of the U.S. and Irandrones, advisers, pilots, and possibly other personnel.

Since World War I, the region that became Iraq and Syria has been a magnet for the meddling of outside powers of every sort, each of which, including France and Britain, the Clinton administration with its brutal sanctions, and the Bush administration with its disastrous invasion and occupation, helped set the stage for the full-scale destabilization and sectarian disintegration of both countries.  And now the outsiders are at it again.

The U.S., Russia, and Iran only start the list. The Saudis, to give an example, have reportedly been deeply involved in funding the rise of the al-Qaeda-style extremist movement the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Now, facing that movement’s success — some of its armed followers, including undoubtedly Saudi nationals, have already reached the Iraqi-Saudi frontier — the Saudis are reportedly moving 30,000 troops there, no doubt in fear that their fragile and autocratic land might someday be open to the very violence their petrodollars have stoked.  Turkey, which has wielded an open-border/safe haven policy to support the Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime, including ISIS and other extremist outfits, is now dealing with kidnapped nationals and chaos on its border, thanks to those same rebels.  Israel entered the fray recently as well, launching airstrikes against nine Syrian “military targets,” and just to add to the violence and confusion, Assad’s planes and helicopters have been attacking ISIS forces across the now-nonexistent border in Iraq.  And I haven’t even mentioned Hezbollah, the Jordanians, or the Europeans, all of whom are involved in their own ways.

Since 2003, Dahr Jamail, a rare and courageous unembedded reporter in Iraq, has observed how this witch’s brew of outside intervention and exploding sectarian violence has played out in the lives of ordinary Iraqis.  It couldn’t be a sadder tale, one he started reporting for TomDispatch in 2005 — even then the subject was “devastation.”  Nine years later, he’s back and the devastation is almost beyond imagining.  As he now works for the website Truthout, this is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.Tom

A Nation on the Brink 
How America’s Policies Sealed Iraq’s Fate 
By Dahr Jamail

[This essay is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.]

For Americans, it was like the news from nowhere.  Years had passed since reporters bothered to head for the country we invaded and blew a hole through back in 2003, the country once known as Iraq that our occupation drove into a never-ending sectarian nightmare.  In 2011, the last U.S. combat troops slipped out of the country, their heads “held high,” as President Obama proclaimed at the time, and Iraq ceased to be news for Americans.

So the headlines of recent weeks — Iraq Army collapses! Iraq’s second largest city falls to insurgents! Terrorist Caliphate established in Middle East! — couldn’t have seemed more shockingly out of the blue.  Suddenly, reporters flooded back in, the Bush-era neocons who had planned and supported the invasion and occupation were writing op-eds as if it were yesterday, and Iraq was again the story of the moment as the post-post-mortems began to appear and commentators began asking: How in the world could this be happening?

Iraqis, of course, lacked the luxury of ignoring what had been going on in their land since 2011. For them, whether Sunnis or Shiites, the recent unraveling of the army, the spread of a series of revolts across the Sunni parts of Iraq, the advance of an extremist insurgency on the country’s capital, Baghdad, and the embattled nature of the autocratic government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were, if not predictable, at least expectable. And as the killings ratcheted up, caught in the middle were the vast majority of Iraqis, people who were neither fighters nor directly involved in the corrupt politics of their country, but found themselves, as always, caught in the vice grip of the violence again engulfing it.

An Iraqi friend I’ve known since 2003, living in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, emailed me recently.  He had made it through the sectarian bloodletting of 2006-2007 in which many of his Sunni compatriots were killed or driven from the capital, and this is the picture he painted of what life is now like for him, his wife, and their small children:

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Todd Miller: Bill of Rights Rollback in the U.S. Borderlands

6:31 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Editor’s Note: Hear Todd Miller interviewed by Rania Khalek and Firedoglake’s Kevin Gosztola in the most recent Unauthorized Disclosure podcast. -MyFDL Editor

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A Border Patrol agent poses with a K9 unit

US Customs & Border Patrol oversees a growing “constitution-free zone.”

You’re not in the United States. Oh sure, look around at the fog lifting over the New England countryside or the diamond deserts of Arizona, but this land isn’t your land, not anymore. It’s a place controlled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and your constitutional rights do not apply on their territory. CBP can, and does, detain Americans, search them without warrant, and physically mistreat them in what has become, for our 9/11 sins, a Post-Constitutional legal purgatory. You are neither outside their grasp in a foreign land, nor protected from them by being inside America.

The concept that the Constitution does not apply at America’s borders is not new, particularly in relation to Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure. (In this context, “seizure” often takes the form of detention, as well as the more traditional concept of taking physical possessions away.) Once upon a time, the idea was that the United States should be able to protect itself by examining people entering the country. Thus, routine border seizures and searches without warrants are constitutionally “reasonable.” Fair enough. The basic rules, in fact, go back to 1789.

But the fairness of the old rules no longer applies, particularly in the face of a constantly metastasizing CBP, anxious to expand its place in the already expansive Homeland Security ecosystem. On its website, CBP boasts of making 1,100 arrests a day as, in its own words, the “guardians” of America. Do the math: that’s 401,500 a year, and those arrests are not limited to dangerous foreigners. Americans who hold certain beliefs and affiliations are swept up as well, whether they are prominent journalistsactivists, or simply (as in today’s piece) angry spouses of men beaten nearly to death by CBP agents. The agency now insists that its jurisdiction does not end at the physical border, the line on the map that separates say the United States from Mexico, but extends 100 miles inland.

Building on his successful new book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland SecurityTomDispatch regular Todd Miller brings us more examples of CBP lawlessness and brutality, while asking crucial questions about its larger meaning to our nation. Get ready to be scared. If you live near the border, cross the border after a trip abroad, or attract the attention of roving CBP patrols in New England or Arizona within 100 miles of the line, this land belongs not to you and me, but in Post-Constitutional America, increasingly to our so-called guardians. Peter Van Buren

Border Wars in the Homeland “Stop Stepping on the Pictures” By Todd Miller

Shena Gutierrez was already cuffed and in an inspection room in Nogales, Arizona, when the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent grabbed her purse, opened it, and dumped its contents onto the floor right in front of her. There couldn’t be a sharper image of the Bill of Rights rollback we are experiencing in the U.S. borderlands in the post-9/11 era.

Tumbling out of that purse came Gutierrez’s life: photos of her kids, business cards, credit cards, and other papers, all now open to the official scrutiny of the Department of Homeland Security. There were also photographs of her husband, Jose Gutierrez Guzman, whom CBP agents beat so badly in 2011 that he suffered permanent brain damage. The supervisory agent, whose name badge on his blue uniform read “Gomez,” now began to trample on her life, quite literally, with his black boots.

“Please stop stepping on the pictures,” Shena asked him.

A U.S. citizen, unlike her husband, she had been returning from a 48-hour vigil against Border Patrol violence in Mexico and was wearing a shirt that said “Stop Border Patrol Brutality” when she was aggressively questioned and cuffed at the CBP’s “port of entry” in Nogales on that hot day in May.  She had no doubt that Gomez was stepping all over the contents of her purse in response to her shirt, the evidence of her activism.

The Age of Impunity

6:11 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

An Exceptional Decline for the Exceptional Country? The Empire as Basket Case
By Tom Engelhardt

A judge's gavel

US government and corporations no longer answer to the law.

For America’s national security state, this is the age of impunity.  Nothing it does — torture, kidnapping, assassination, illegal surveillance, you name it — will ever be brought to court.  For none of its beyond-the-boundaries acts will anyone be held accountable.  The only crimes that can now be committed in official Washington are by those foolish enough to believe that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.  I’m speaking of the various whistleblowers and leakers who have had an urge to let Americans know what deeds and misdeeds their government is committing in their name but without their knowledge.  They continue to pay a price in accountability for their acts that should, by comparison, stun us all.

As June ended, the New York Times front-paged an account of an act of corporate impunity that may, however, be unique in the post-9/11 era (though potentially a harbinger of things to come).  In 2007, as journalist James Risen tells it, Daniel Carroll, the top manager in Iraq for the rent-a-gun company Blackwater, one of the warrior corporations that accompanied the U.S. military to war in the twenty-first century, threatened Jean Richter, a government investigator sent to Baghdad to look into accounts of corporate wrongdoing.

Here, according to Risen, is Richter’s version of what happened when he, another government investigator, and Carroll met to discuss Blackwater’s potential misdeeds in that war zone:

Mr. Carroll said ‘that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,’ Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit. ‘Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,’ Mr. Richter stated in his memo. ‘I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.’

When officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, heard what had happened, they acted promptly.  They sided with the Blackwater manager, ordering Richter and the investigator who witnessed the scene out of the country (with their inquiry incomplete).  And though a death threat against an American official might, under other circumstances, have led a CIA team or a set of special ops guys to snatch the culprit off the streets of Baghdad, deposit him on a Navy ship for interrogation, and then leave him idling in Guantanamo or in jail in the United States awaiting trial, in this case no further action was taken.

Power Centers But No Power to Act

Think of the response of those embassy officials as a get-out-of-jail-free pass in honor of a new age.  For the various rent-a-gun companies, construction and supply outfits, and weapons makers that have been the beneficiaries of the wholesale privatization of American war since 9/11, impunity has become the new reality.  Pull back the lens further and the same might be said more generally about America’s corporate sector and its financial outfits.  There was, after all, no accountability for the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.  Not a single significant figure went to jail for bringing the American economy to its knees. (And many such figures made out like proverbial bandits in the government bailout and revival of their businesses that followed.)

Meanwhile, in these years, the corporation itself was let loose to run riot.  Long a “person” in the legal world, it became ever more person-like, benefitting from a series of Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unions and ordinary Americans even as it gave the corporation ever more of the rights and attributes of a citizen on the loose.  Post-9/11, the corporate world gained freedom of expression, the freedom of the purse, as well as the various freedoms that staggering inequality and hoards of money offer.  Corporate entities gained, among other things, the right to flood the political system with money, and most recently, at least in a modest way, freedom of religion.

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Rebecca Gordon: A Nation of Cowards?

6:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A protester in an orange GITMO jumpsuit with zip-tied hands.

Who will answer for yesterday’s acts of torture? Or today’s?

It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke: a CIA agent and a U.S. Special Operations commando walked into a barbershop in Sana…

That’s the capital of Yemen in case you didn’t remember and not the sort of place where armed Americans usually wander out alone just to get a haircut.  Here’s what we know about the rest of this mysterious tale that surfaced in the U.S. media in early May (only to disappear again shortly thereafter): according to unnamed “American officials,” two armed Yemeni civilians entered that barbershop with the intention of “kidnapping” the Americans, who shot and killed them and were then “whisked” out of the country with the approval of the Yemeni government.

For today, set aside the mystery of what in the world was actually going on in that barbershop and just consider the fact that when “they” do it to “us,” there’s no question about what word to use.  It’s kidnapping, plain and simple.  When we do it to “them” (even when the they turn out to be innocent of any terror crimes), it’s got a far fancier and more comfortable name: “rendition” or “extraordinary rendition.”  When they bust into a barbershop in a tony district in the capital city of Yemen, no question what they have in mind.  When we do it in MilanBenghaziTripoli, or other major cities, sometimes with the collusion of the local police, sometimes with the help of the local government, sometimes with no locals at all, we’re just “rendering” our victims to “justice.”

The CIA in particular and more recently U.S. special operators have made global kidnappings — oops, renditions — a regular beat since 9/11.  A kind of rampage, actually.  As it happens, whatever it can’t do these days, the “sole superpower” still has the ability to make the global rules to its own liking.  So when we wield the “R” word, it couldn’t be more “legal” or at least, as U.S. experts will testify, the only reasonable way to go.  Of course, when others wield the “K” word, can there be any question of the nastiness or illegality of their acts?  Here’s a guarantee: not a chance.  Any judge-jury-and-executioner-rolled-into-one approach to the world (as with, for instance, the CIA’s drone assassination campaigns) is an ugly way to go and will look even uglier when other countries adopt the latest version of the American Way.  As with torture (oops, sorry again, “enhanced interrogation techniques”), making global kidnapping your loud and proud way of life is a dangerous path to take, long term, no matter how bad the bad guys are that you may be rendering to justice.

Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture, a new book on the American way of enhanced interrogation techniques, is here to remind us not only of those facts, but of an even uglier one.  While the Obama administration washed its hands of torture (global assassination campaigns being its claim to fame), its top officials didn’t think it worth the bother to dismantle the elaborate torture system created in the Bush years, which means that, with another flick of the switch somewhere down the line, off we’ll go again. Tom

The 25th Hour 
Still Living With Jack Bauer in a Terrified New American World
By Rebecca Gordon

Once upon a time, if a character on TV or in a movie tortured someone, it was a sure sign that he was a bad guy. Now, the torturers are the all-American heroes. From 24 to Zero Dark Thirty, it’s been the good guys who wielded the pliers and the waterboards. We’re not only living in a post-9/11 world, we’re stuck with Jack Bauer in the 25th hour.

In 2002, Cofer Black, the former Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate committee, “All I want to say is that there was ‘before’ 9/11 and ‘after’ 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off.” He wanted them to understand that Americans now live in a changed world, where, from the point of view of the national security state, anything goes. It was, as he and various top officials in the Bush administration saw it, a dangerous place in which terrorists might be lurking in any airport security line and who knew where else.

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Michael Klare: Fighting for Oil

6:42 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A tank lies in the rubble of a Syrian buildinh.

Conflicts in Syria and worldwide are part of a new wave of energy wars.

Call it a double whammy for the planet or simply irony with a capital “I.”  As the invaluable Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of The Race for What’s Left, points out today, if you scan the planet for conflict, what you’ll find from Syria and Iraq to the South China Sea are a series of energy wars — fossil-fuel conflicts to be exact.  At present, despite some hopeful signs, this crazed planet of ours is still a ravenous beast that only fossil fuels can sate.  No question that conflicts and wars are terrible things.  Just consider the million new refugees just generated by the disintegration of Iraq in a blaze of warfare and sectarian killings.  But oil wars add a grim twist to the mix, because when they’re settled, however miserably or bloodily, the winners take to the oil rigs and the refineries and pump out yet more of the stuff that puts carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere and, as in the Middle East today, creates the basis for yet more conflict.

That region has been going through a period of heightened dryness and drought that researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe to be caused, at least in part, by global warming.  This winter, the driest in decades, Syria and Iraq in particular have experienced a severe lack of rainfall in what should be the wettest part of the year and record heat as well.  These are factors the Pentagon lists in its recent Quadrennial Defense Review as “threat multipliers.”  According to meteorologist Eric Holthaus, “As in neighboring Syria, it’s increasingly clear that Iraq is drying out, an effect that’s long been predicted as a result of the human-caused build up of heat-trapping gases like CO2. Since 1973,… parts of Iraq and Syria have seen ‘some of the most dramatic precipitation declines in the world.’ Citing projected stark declines in rainfall and continued population pressure and upstream dam building, a study released earlier this year made the case that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers may no longer reach the sea by 2040.”

The weather destabilization of Syria and the rise of ISIS seem to be connected.  In the Mobius Strip of life, the more desperate you are — thank you, global warming — the more you’re likely to fight over what resources, from water to oil, you can command, and then when you’re done, you’ll use those resources to heat the planet further.  It’s a closed system, a simple formula for the production of violent emotions, dead bodies, and a particularly nasty world. Tom

Twenty-First-Century Energy Wars Global Conflicts Are Increasingly Fueled by the Desire for Oil and Natural Gas — and the Funds They Generate
By Michael T. Klare

Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine, the East and South China Seas: wherever you look, the world is aflame with new or intensifying conflicts.  At first glance, these upheavals appear to be independent events, driven by their own unique and idiosyncratic circumstances.  But look more closely and they share several key characteristics — notably, a witch’s brew of ethnic, religious, and national antagonisms that have been stirred to the boiling point by a fixation on energy.

In each of these conflicts, the fighting is driven in large part by the eruption of long-standing historic antagonisms among neighboring (often intermingled) tribes, sects, and peoples.  In Iraq and Syria, it is a clash among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, and others; in Nigeria, among Muslims, Christians, and assorted tribal groupings; in South Sudan, between the Dinka and Nuer; in Ukraine, between Ukrainian loyalists and Russian-speakers aligned with Moscow; in the East and South China Sea, among the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and others.  It would be easy to attribute all this to age-old hatreds, as suggested by many analysts; but while such hostilities do help drive these conflicts, they are fueled by a most modern impulse as well: the desire to control valuable oil and natural gas assets.  Make no mistake about it, these are twenty-first-century energy wars.

It should surprise no one that energy plays such a significant role in these conflicts.  Oil and gas are, after all, the world’s most important and valuable commodities and constitute a major source of income for the governments and corporations that control their production and distribution.  Indeed, the governments of Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, South Sudan, and Syria derive the great bulk of their revenues from oil sales, while the major energy firms (many state-owned) exercise immense power in these and the other countries involved.  Whoever controls these states, or the oil- and gas-producing areas within them, also controls the collection and allocation of crucial revenues.  Despite the patina of historical enmities, many of these conflicts, then, are really struggles for control over the principal source of national income.

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