The Ilisu Dam: Turkey, Iraq, and the Future of the Tigris

 

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Damn. Image from Global Water Blog

We interrupt the Daily Regreatening to bring news from Southeast Turkey, where the great rivers of yore are no longer yoked to nature

Turkey said Tuesday that Iraqis have nothing to fear from the filling of an upstream reservoir on the Tigris River, saying “sufficient quantities of water” would continue to flow to the neighboring country.

For decades now, in one of the slow-moving but earth-changing stories of our time, Turkey has been reinventing its power supply by building a series of dams and reservoirs along the ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers, along which the first major civilizations in human history were watered and grown. This has made Iraq and Syria less than thrilled, needless to say.

The final dam, the Ilisu, has slowly started filling, after years of construction interrupted by local protests, international disputes, and Kurdish militancy (the three are not entirely unrelated). The reservoir won’t be completely filled for at least a year, but it is expected to drop the water level in the Tigris by 8 billion cubic meters, leaving it at 17 billion cubic meters.

I don’t know if that is enough (like, I literally have no idea). Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources says it will be fine, but then, I guess, he says a lot of things.

He said Iraq and Turkey reached a “fair” agreement whereby Turkey will release 75 percent of the river’s volume while keeping the rest to fill the dam over the next six months. He said the two sides are set to meet again on Nov. 1. However, when asked about it at the press conference, the Turkish ambassador denied any agreement had been reached.

That’s kind of awkward, and telling as well. Why would Turkey reach an agreement? An agreement means that both sides have power, and if Turkey were to break it, they’d be in the wrong. Without an agreement though, Turkey holds all the cards.

None of this is to say that Turkey won’t release “a sufficient amount of water”, a coldly clinical phrase which carries with it a sort of reluctant and patronizing oblige. It’s not actually in their best interest to have Iraq turn into a waterless hellscape, a nation of 37 million wracked by drought and finally broken. Turkey doesn’t need another Yemen on its border.

But…I mean, things change, man. Even if Erdogan’s government is 100% sincere about releasing a sufficient amount of water–and why wouldn’t you trust him??–who’s to say what the future could bring? Conflict between the nations could easily lead to a withholding. Climate change could make Turkey reluctant to give up any of the water it is storing for itself. Maybe Turkey would want Iraq to turn the vise a little more on its Kurdish population. Who knows?

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It’s actually OK to make a Batman joke

No matter what, though, Turkey has already changed the water in the region through their projects. In a great interview with the UVA Darden Global Water Blog, Julia Harte of Reuters talks about what Turkey’s vast modernization projects have meant in the region.

Turkey’s hydroelectric dams have reportedly reduced water flow into Iraq and Syria by about 80 and 40 percent, respectively, since 1975. The Ilisu Dam is expected to open on December 31, 2017, but it will take several years for the 10.4 billion-cubic-meter reservoir to flood completely. When it has, Iraqi officials estimate it will reduce the downstream flow of the river by at least half, allowing more salty water to flood into the river from the Persian Gulf in southern Iraq.

Together with a severe drought that has afflicted the region for the past decade, this decline in the quantity and quality of Tigris River water is expected to strangle Iraqi agriculture and hobble the recovery of the Mesopotamian Marshes, vast wetlands in southern Iraq where Sumerian civilization began. The Arabs who live in the marshes were seen as security threats by Saddam Hussein, who accused them of sheltering Shi’ite rebels. He drained the marshes in the 1980s and 1990s by diverting the Tigris into a giant canal. Since the U.S. invasion, the marshes have been making a slow recovery, but the Ilisu Dam will place their survival in jeopardy once more, according to environmental scientists.

This has huge, regional-and-global changing impacts. Over the last 40 years, which is honestly nothing, the entire water ecosystem of three countries has entirely changed. It’s a vast experiment with real human lives at stake, and no one can really say how it will play out.

Dams and Damn Lies and Where Dams Lie

All of this gets to the insanity of national aspirations in a world built on geology. It’s maddening and impossible to think that a border that is drawn arbitrarily, based just on a war here or there or some dusty treaty or just because that’s where we decided, means that some people control the water, and some don’t. Water is real; borders are not. But if you are on one side of that border, if you are upstream, you make the decision.

The decision on what to do with water is true power politics, because it gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We all need water, and whoever controls the headwaters somehow gets to decide who is sated and who is thirsty.

We see this in North America, where the US has essentially cut off the flow of the Colorado River into Mexico. There are treaties to restore it, and technical experts have been working their best to stay away from the heated politics of the moment, and many (though not all) are working in good faith, but it essentially comes down to: we have the river, you can pound (and maybe eat) sand.

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Pictured: not a healthy delta

When you think of the history of the US and Mexico, and the stolen land, and the cheap and phony wars, and the racism and xenophobia that follows, and the idea that those sentiments and actions can control a river, you start to see the ridiculousness of it.

When you reflect on just how recent these activities were (about 170 years), and then think of how recent these enormous dams were built, and think about the endless power of the Colorado River, which over countless eons carved out the goddamn Grand Canyon, you see how absurd this whole thing is. Mexico and the United States? Eyeblinks. That border? Sand. The idea that one country “owns” the Colorado? Mind-boggling arrogance. An insult not just to nature, but to the very concept of time.

And dams, ultimately, remind us what time and human life really mean.

Le Deluge: The Past and The Future

One of the effects of a dam is that the reservoir built by the dam is, well, a reservoir, and therefore underwater. Anyone around there has to leave or drown. Towns get submerged, drowned in the depths. There’s something haunting and ghostly about the idea, full cities suddenly made into Atlantis, being eaten away by our attempts to control the very agents of their deliquesence.

But these are real lives that the slow flood will ruin. Harte estimates 25,000-30,000 people will be displaced, with one of the towns being a true gasping tragedy.

Hasankeyf is one of the towns along the Tigris that will be completely submerged by the Ilisu Dam. Unlike most of the other towns, however, Hasankeyf has been continuously inhabited for 12,000 years. From Neolithic settlements to medieval tombs and temples, the town is a living museum where some people alive today grew up in caves built into cliffs overlooking the Tigris. Archeologists are still discovering new artifacts in the town – the most recent Neolithic settlement was unearthed in September – and they estimate that most of Hasankeyf’s archeological sites will be flooded before they can be excavated.

But flooded they will be, and gone under will be that seemingly-endless chapter of human history, in which people lived thousands of years before we started to decide that civilization meant cities and borders and power.

That’s an inevitable side effect of dams, of course: the submergence of history. It happened when the Aswan High Dam flooded the site of the ancient and enormous Abu Simbel temples, forcing Egypt to pick them up and move them, block by block, away from the drowning waters.

It’s really the damnedest thing

It happens in the United States too. Many communities were drowned when the TVA filled the valleys, and the Glen Canyon Dam destroyed thousands of years of Native history and sacred sites under the waters of Lake Powell.

But flooding, when looked at this way, is inevitable. While changing the flow of a river demonstrates an awesome power, it also is a temporary and transient one. Those ancient sites are not so ancient. They only seem so because of our graspingly desperate misapprehension of Deep Time. The rivers will, ultimately, win.

The Ilisu will one day erode and burst. So will the Hoover and the Aswan. It’s not just that dams are faulty and sometimes, like with the Oroville, can’t handle the weather. It’s that they are impermanent. The Colorado carved out the Grand Canyon. It eroded mile-thick volcanic dams over a dozen times during the Pleistocene. It always wins.

No matter how responsible the government of Turkey is, it will one day fall. Human habituations will change. We might flee a region altogether, or disease may wipe out a huge chunk of the population. None of this may happen soon, but it will happen. That none of the megadams have burst yet doesn’t mean they won’t; it is just a reminder of how impossibly new an idea these actually are.

Humans will stop tending them, or lose the knowledge, or just leave altogether. It may be war, but most likely, it will just be time and its insistence. The water will start finding cracks, and will grow them a forceful laziness, and persistent path of least resistance. These towering structures, which need a word beyond Pharaonic, will weaken and crumble and burst, and the water will burst forth. Ancient cities onces submerged may be see in outlines, while existing cities, themselves now ancient, beaten and strangled by the floodtide.

And the rivers will run again, unconcerned. Looking downhill. Glimmering toward the shining sea.

 

 

 

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Weekend Reads and Quick Hits, Mostly Bleak

Hey, remember on Wednesday, when we had sort-of good news about things? A post that wasn’t super bleak? Well, don’t get used to it, chumps.

Let’s hit some things, quickly! How about we start with…the death of the planet?

Planetary Forcast Is Hot and Dead

 

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Earth, 2075. (Note: POSSIBLE exaggeration)

 

At Inverse, which is really a wonderful site, Mary van Aue reports that we’ve had our 400th consecutive month of above-average temperatures. We’re also pretty much guaranteed to have a temperature change of at least 2 degrees, Celsius. This is: bad.

With these new records behind us, scientists are now forecasting that the “worst case scenario,” one in which the planet heats up more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by the end of the century, is more likely.

That number isn’t arbitrary. Limiting global warming to just 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures would limit the carnage that climate change has on the Earth’s biodiversity. A new study published in Science on Friday found that keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius would preserve tens of thousands of land-based species of plants, vertebrates, and insects living on the planet.

For anyone who thinks “biodiversity” is just something liberals like, remember that we all eat plants and animals! And they eat other things, and get nutrients from other things, and keep other plants and animals alive, and often work in complex, symbiotic ways.  When species start dying, whole ecosystems can collapse. We live in a bunch of overlapping ecosystems. This is a catastrophe, and honestly, I don’t think we’re going to make it.

Congressman Has Odd Ideas About Rising Sea Levels

You probably saw this earlier, but Mo Brooks (R- Alabama, the least surprising parenthetical ever) made maybe the dumbest comments ever uttered in the House of Representatives, a place that employs Louis Gohmert. It was about climate change and the rising seas.

Now, the official GOP position is that global warming doesn’t exist, and that it is all a hoax made up for some reason, most likely to make scientists rich. This is enshrined in our nation’s highest office.

But on the other hand, there are things like “facts” that make it super hard to pretend this isn’t happening. One fact is that we just passed 410ppm of CO2. That’s not a record, probably, since there have been times when it was higher, like when the Deccan Flats or Siberian Traps were coming damn near to extinguishing life on the planet, but it is the highest we have in about 800,000 years. (I linked to Business Insider there because I don’t think they’re known for their raving liberalism.) This keeps going up, according to the dangerous radicals at NASA.

There’s also the fact of rising oceans which threatens a lot of the world’s population, and which is getting considerably worse. One of the reasons it is getting worse is because of all that CO2 floating around, and warming the oceans, which is melting Antartica from beneath, which we just discovered, and is genuinely terrifying.

So it is the job of Republicans to wave away these facts, and they showed their tactics in full at a hearing this week. As Science explains:

The purpose of the hearing was to focus on how technology could be deployed for climate change adaptation. But the hearing frequently turned to the basics of climate science. Many of the questions by Republicans and Democrats alike were directed to Philip Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and former senior adviser to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said he was bothered that established climate science has not been questioned more by the committee, which has accused federal climate scientists of fraudulently manipulating climate data and subpoenaed their records.

“I’m a little bit disturbed by, No. 1, over and over again, I hear, ‘Don’t ever talk about whether mankind is the main cause of the temperature changing and the climate changing,'” he said. “That’s a little disturbing to hear constantly beaten into our heads in a Science Committee meeting, when basically we should all be open to different points of view.”

That’s the most common Republican tactic…allege that the scientists aren’t open to other points of view, that it is a conspiracy, and that they just want to get the truth. It’s a very hard-to-fight cynicism, because overwhelming consensus is whistled away as proof that everyone is in on it. It’s a real mob mentality! That this is being put forward by bought Russian stooge Rohrabacher is the real icing here.

But it is up to Mo Brooks to not just counter the idea of rising seas, but to find alternate ideas. These are…interesting.

Brooks then said that erosion plays a significant role in sea-level rise, which is not an idea embraced by mainstream climate researchers. He said the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover tumble into the sea every year, and that contributes to sea-level rise. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world’s major rivers, including the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Nile, is contributing to sea-level rise.

“Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up,” Brooks said.

“What about the white cliffs of Dover, California, where time and time again you’re having the waves crash against the shorelines, and time and time again, you’re having the cliffs crash into the sea. All that displaces water, which forces it to rise, does it not?”

Duffy responded: “I’m pretty sure that on human time scales, those are minuscule effects.”

It’s really the “does it not”, that sells this, like Brooks just check and mated the eggy egghead liar. There’s no doubt that on a grand geologic timeframe the land all washes into the sea and the world is remade, but it doesn’t actually happen this quickly. Brooks could also possibly be surprised by the fact that, as the earth is currently constituted, there is more ocean than land.

At least this was a nice exchange.

Brooks added that Antarctic ice is growing. That was true a few years ago, and scientists say it does not disprove the theory of global warming because different factors affect the Arctic and Antarctic rates of melting.

“We have satellite records clearly documenting a shrinkage of the Antarctic ice sheet and an acceleration of that shrinkage,” Duffy said.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but the data I have seen suggests — ” Brooks said.

Duffy answered: “The National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

Your Reminder That The President Doesn’t Know Anything: North Korea and Libya Edition

Sigh…

The US president issued the threat at the White House when he was asked about the recent suggestion by his national security adviser, John Bolton, that the “Libyan model” be a template for dealing with North Korea at a summit between Trump and Kim planned for 12 June in Singapore.

“The model, if you look at that model with Gaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him. Now that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy,” Trump said, suggesting that the regime’s survival could be assured if Kim agreed to disarm.

“This with Kim Jong-un would be something where he would be there. He would be running his country. His country would be very rich,” the president said.

I mean…that’s not what the Libya model is. It’s when, after the invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear power in exchange to be welcomed into the world community and keep getting rich. The problem is that after a while, the world helped him be overthrown and killed. So it is a weird precedent for Bolton to suggest, but I see the outline of coherence there.

But Trump doesn’t know that, or doesn’t care. He’s just making random threats, only remembering one thing, and using that as his “model”. If you wanted to argue that he was making a point, it is that he’s assuming Kim saw what happened to Gaddafi, so he knows the US could take him out, so he should make a deal. After all, Trump literally says that they’ll decimate the regime if a deal isn’t made, which now that I read it, should be the fucking headlines.

That’s terrifying and a horrible way to negotiate. I know he thinks it sounds tough. But combined with the “Libya model”, what reason is there for Kim to give up his weapons? The stability of the United States? The strength of our promises? It’s madness predicated by total ignorance and a half-cocked notion of how strongmen talk.

What 100 Miles In Means to Border Patrol

 

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The borderlands of Indianapolis

 

A year and change ago, we talked about how an aggressive CBP, who, along with ICE, is the spear end of Trump’s white nationalism, were using the full extent of their powers to harass people “100 air miles from any border“.

It’s a weird notion for those of us who don’t really have to worry about Border Patrol. We don’t really understand the extent of their jurisdiction. But Tanvi Misra and the great people at CityLab showed exactly what this means, in a tremendous piece of research and data-reporting.

In the “border zone,” different legal standards apply. Agents can enter private property, set up highway checkpoints, have wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations—and can even use race and ethnicity as factors to do so.

That’s striking because the border zone is home to 65.3 percent of the entire U.S. population, and around 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to a CityLab analysis based on data from location intelligence company ESRI. This zone, which hugs the entire edge of the United States and runs 100 air miles inside, includes some of the densest cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It also includes all of Michigan and Florida, and half of Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to a prior rough analysis by Will Lowe, a data scientist at MIT.

Read the whole piece to understand the democratic dystopia that has been gaining steam for decades, and has now been shot into hyperspeed.

Finally, A Nice Thing About Rivers

 

Bluff Springs Fen, October 31

Bluff Springs Fens, Oct 31st. By the artist. I mean, this is just lovely, right? 

 

The Center for Humans and Nature has a nice interview with an artist named Joel Shessley. (Disclosure: the company I work for has the Center as a client, though I wasn’t there when we did their website.) He is painting the Fox River, and his work will be presented at Aurora University in September. Anyway, he has some lovely thoughts about rivers, and I’ll leave you with them, contemplatively.

How has painting from different perspectives and during various seasons transformed the way you view life on the river and the life of the river itself?

Since I’m dealing with the watershed, and not just the river itself, I’ve become much more aware that the river cannot be separated from the land that feeds it. The river is what it is by virtue of all the named and unnamed tributaries, all the little rivulets and the larger streams that flow together to become the Fox River. Working across the Fox River Valley, I’ve begun to feel the pull of gravity down the gentle slopes. I’ve begun to sense how the river and the land interact. A topographic map would show you this, but patient observation on the ground and moving with the current in a canoe puts this information into your bones in a visceral way.

Weekend Good Reads and Quick Thoughts: Chelsea Manning, Gitmo, The Sinking East Coast, and More

This is the last weekend of the year you are legally allowed to listen to this song. 

I always want to do “Quick Hits” and such because I think they’ll be shorter, but they never are. Anyway, here are a few scatterings on some stories as well as things you should read, if you don’t have anything else going on during summer weekend, as summer blazes up once again to send us into the fall.

Let’s do this gossip column style.

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Bear Eras Update: It Turns Out People Like National Monuments

 

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Surprisingly, most people like the way this looks without oil derricks. 

Last week, we revisited our old friend Bear Ears National Monument, which is Patient Zero for the GOP’s attempt to destroy the Antiquities Act. They don’t like the idea that land can be set aside just for public use, and not for the gain of private extraction and logging concerns. It’s one of the driving motivations of the contemporary GOP: the idea that the government is an alien, and that if something can be sold and converted into capital, it should. It’s why the Sagebrush Rebellion is one of the primary events in modern Republican history.

But, it turns out, just as people don’t like being kicked off their health care in order to finance tax cuts for the rich, people also like the idea that we should have unspoiled land for everyone to enjoy, not just for the few to profit off of. And they let Ryan Zinke’s Department of Interior know just that.

Most regulations are subject to public comment, which lets lawmakers know where people tend to stand on things. The attempt to eliminate or reduce 27 national monuments is no different. They received an incredible 1.3 million comments. And the results? It was close!

Charlottesville, Virginia-based Key-Log Economics used an innovative combination of crowdsourcing and machine learning, to comb through and analyze every one of the 1.3 million comments that were publicly available by the end of the official comment period. They found that 99.2 percent of comments oppose the possible elimination of the national monument designations or a reduction in their size and protected status.

(That the study was conducted in Charlottesville is just a coincidence, but does provide nice harmony about who wants to unite the common good and the forces arrayed against it.)

This is unsurprising! Most people are in favor of national monuments. But that’s one of the more insidious things about the Republican Party. They simply don’t care what most people want. And they have always used the manipulation of language (government overreach, private land, etc) to convince people to support things that they don’t actually support.

Any Western GOP politician, from Chaffetz to Zinke, has the speech down pat. The government wants to take over this land! They’ve taken it over without actually setting foot in it, a bunch of Washington bureaucrats! We want to return it to the people.

“The people”, here, are of course private concerns, who would shoot your ass for trespassing on their newly fenced-off land. But it sounds seductive, and is part and parcel of their overall philosophy that the government is the enemy of the people, and not the expression of our politics. It is contempt for democracy at the most basic level.

But we can push back. Who knows if these comments will do any good. Zinke is already showing himself to be a good Trumpista by wildly spinning the results.

Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments and demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations. Opponents of monuments primarily supported rescinding or modifying the existing monuments to protect traditional multiple use, and those most concerned were often local residents associated with industries such as grazing, timber production, mining, hunting and fishing, and motorized recreation. 

Well-orchestrated national campaigns. You can almost hear him whispering “Soros” and “fake news.” They contrast this with locals, though at least they are honest enough not to hide the mercenary motivations.

Again, this is part of the GOP and right-wing emotional strategy. A bunch of elites want one thing, and are ramming it down the throats of the hard-working locals, simple folk, really, who just want Uncle Sam off their back. Never mind that they aren’t going to be doing much huntin’ or fishin’ on Amalagamted Strip-Top Mining land. It’s freedom is what it is.

Don’t ignore either the way that the “national” campaign is sneered at, as if we as Americans shouldn’t have a say in our national heritage. It is the politics of division, as if a few people in one area have the full rights over who we are as a nation. It’s really a funny sort of patriotism. The million comments are dismissed because they came from people who care enough to comment, which is, I guess, a bad thing.

Will it work? I don’t know. I kind of feel like this is one of those things that could go either way. It is so unpopular that in a normal system they’d have to back off, but it is also under the radar enough that it can slip under the constant deafening storm of nonsense. But if the Antiquities Act goes, our national heritage is up for sale. It’s something to keep fighting.

****BONUS COMMENTING COMMENT***

You can now comment on the Water of the United States Act, which the admin wants to roll back. I think it is a bad idea. If you have an opinion, comment. It actually does mean something.

 

 

With Bear Ears, We See The Fullness of the GOP (Bonus: The Worst Dude!)

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Interior Secretary Zinke: This is nice. Could use some derricks.

In December, not knowing much about him, I tentatively declared Interior nominee Ryan Zinke to be potentially “not terrible?” It wasn’t exactly high praise, but even that most mild of optimism (or a lower level of dread) was misplaced.

BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Utah — Parts of this sprawling region of red-rock canyons, towering mesas and ancient Native American sites in southeastern Utah could lose their strict federal protection as a national monument, under a recommendation that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is expected to issue on Thursday.

Shrinking the Bears Ears National Monument and reopening much of the land for possible mining and drilling would be widely seen as a direct blow to former President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy, and the first major test of a century-old conservation law.

Bear Ears is the opening for them. This was a piece of land set off almost entirely due to indigenous concerns, which in and of itself already goes against conservative philosophy. It’s not the Democrats really understand that there are multiple nations still on this continent, in different occupied territories, but conservatives want to entirely wipe that idea out, subsume it all under the guise of America.

And America, for them, is business. We’ve talked endlessly about the idea of how the modern GOP is set up in opposition to the idea of “the common good,” whether that is the shared responsibilities of public health or helping people not be trapped by the circumstances of their birth. But its apotheosis is in how it treats the sprawling and beautiful land that makes up this country, however it was gained.

They want to dig it up and convert it into wealth. Not for everyone, of course. For miners and loggers, mostly. For large companies. For those already wealthy. The argument is that the government shouldn’t control the “people’s land”, logic which is easily disproven, but very seductive on its face. Public land reverts to the states, which sells it to private companies, which tear it up.

The Trump admin has wanted to do this from Day 1, which really any GOP government would have done. He’s particularly eager to sell the country off, since he’s a cheap monster with no respect for anything but himself, but this would have happened with any Republican. It’s what they do.

Bear Ears has been at the top of their list since President Obama designated it last year. To them it was the ultimate in tyrannical over-reach, since it was just for Indians, and since there are precious, precious minerals under it. Jason Chaffetz even launched an investigation into how a staffer at Bryce Canyon could have made a mail slot for Bear Ears unless there was prior collusion (I’m not kidding).

Bear Ears was at the center of anti-Obama paranoia, fraudulent terror, anti-Native activism (of which DAPL is a huge part), and of course the assault on public land. This is the door they want to push through in order to break the Antiquities Act. Any action will be challenged in court, and challenged for years, and with hundreds of federal seats open, and the potential for more Supreme Court posts, they feel confident they’ll win.

They genuinely don’t think that the President should be able to protect land from capitalism. They don’t think anyone should. And they’re going to use Bear Ears as the first test case to erode the Act that has allowed us to celebrate the wild and impossible beauty of this still-forming continent. These are people who gaze into the vast western sunsets and say “Not bad. Could use some mines.”  Make sure you call your Senators and Reps and tell them to fight to protect the Antiquities Act.

Oh, and a bonus! Here’s the worst person.

Mike Noel, a Utah state representative, said that reducing or eliminating Bears Ears would be “a victory for our state.” Federal management of land in his state had constrained drilling, mining and grazing, he said, adding that Washington had no business setting aside so much land for the strict protection that monument status affords.

“When you turn the management over to the tree-huggers, the bird and bunny lovers and the rock lickers, you turn your heritage over,” Mr. Noel said.

Rock lickers?

“I’m Here”: The Radical Optimism of “The Leftovers” Series Finale

 

 

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Swoon…

 

(This post actually covers what happened in the episode, and presupposes knowledge of the show. It has spoilers.)

“So,” Allison asked, turning to me with tear-blurred eyes as the last sweet gasp of The Leftovers faded away, “was all this just a way of telling us to be thankful for what we have?”

Before the finale, it might have seemed like an absurd question. This was a bizarre and at time operatically-bleak show about loss and grief, about how what you love can be taken away at any moment due to sickness or accident, chance or fate, one misstep or maybe some kind of supernatural event like, in the show, 2% of the world’s population disappearing all at once. Indeed, I titled my review of the opener (also in the words of Allison) “You’re Alone In Your Beliefs.

The show was about (inasmuch as it could be reduced) somehow trying to find meaning in the face of that.  Some people tried to find religion, or more likely start their own. Some entered doomed relationships where pain was the only thing that worked. Some joined cults, so threw themselves deeper into sex and nihilism. But everyone was broken by that universal truth: we’re all going to die. As Woland said in The Master and Margarita, the problem isn’t that man is mortal. It’s that he’s so often unexpectedly mortal.

How do we live with that? How do we trudge on? How do we find solace? It’s a question this remarkable TV show, one of the most astonishing I have ever seen, dared to ask but didn’t presume to answer. It didn’t care to solve its mysteries. And that turned out to be the answer the whole time.

(Much more below the jump)

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“The Leftovers” Season 3: You’re Alone in Your Beliefs

(Note: This isn’t a “review” per se of Episode 1 of The Leftovers, nor is it a summary of what came before. We might do a mini-breakdown every week, but there are people far better at that, and at tying that into the big themes, than I am. This is just random thoughts. There are minor spoilers here, but nothing you wouldn’t know just from getting the general vibe. If you’ve never seen the show, the central driving plot point is not spoiler.)

Season 3 of HBO’s The Leftovers, perhaps the most astonishing and awesome (in the literal sense) show I’ve ever seen, opens with colonial characters we’ve never seen in an unmentioned place, though it seems clear it is Australia (it is colder in August than January; the people look Australian; we know the show is going there eventually). But while you can look for Easter eggs, it doesn’t really matter: what matters is that these strange characters are wrapped up in the same mysteries our main characters are. Roughly: why do some things happen and others don’t?

The wordless cold open shows a family of three, a youngish married couple and their young son, enthusiastically following a preacher who divines through what we, on our couches, snicker at as snake-oil tomfoolery, what day a rapture-like event will occur. The family spends the night excitedly standing on the roof, waiting. They are still there the next morning, which sort of sucks, since they gave away their goat and other possessions. Ah, but the preacher gets another date! And the same thing happens.

The mother still believes, with a desperate yearning, when she gets the next date. The father has taken the son away. She climbs to roof on a cold night, a storm comes in, she looks at the lightning with hope and terror and despair…and climbs down the next night, sodden, broken. Laughed at and scorned. Of course nothing happened. Phonies have spent thousands of years convincing suckers that the end was here. And it never was.

But in the universe of The Leftovers, the End did come, of sorts, and that’s the driving tension. If you’ve never seen it (and again, this isn’t a spoiler), one day 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes. They might be eating breakfast or at school or driving a car or on TV. Just bam- gone. The show has resolved to never “solve” the mystery, because that’s beside the point. It is more interested in asking what would happen next?

What happens is much how you would expect. 2% is a perfect number, because the world could go on pretty normally, on the surface. But everything is different. Some religions take this as vindication; others have no idea what it means. Dozens, hundreds, probably thousands of new religions and cults spring up, showing finally that there is no difference between the two. Beauracracy tries to make sense of it, but there is a lingering and miasmatic dread everywhere. Every human interaction is changed. How do you become close when the person might disappear? How do you create bonds in the face of such awful mystery?

Those of you paying attention to life might ask: ok, but don’t we all wonder that? After all, we’re all going to die. We all have that looming and terrible mystery at the back of every interaction. Every meeting carries within it the seeds of tragedy. The law of conservation of matter hints that every cloud carries the memories of someone’s weeping goodbyes.

And that is part of the show, to me (I never want to say “that’s what it’s about”, because it is reductive and makes it a lesson). The show at many times seems like an enveloping manifestation of grief, filtered through terror, humor, and an outlandish sense of possibilities. It’s a far stranger and outright weird show than I am making it seem.

But it isn’t just grief. It isn’t “just” that we’re all going to die one day. If there is a central message of the show to me, it became clear in the first episode of this season, which took an incredible show to dizzying heights. As Allison and I discussed it, we came to realize that it was saying, in a way (or rather reminding us), that we’re all alone in our beliefs. Every single one human being has a different faith, because we all have a different way of looking at the world, even if it is just slightly.

Everyone in The Leftovers went through the same thing, ostensibly, to one degree or the other (some to horrifying ones. Carrie Coon’s Nora turned her back on her husband and two kids to grab something and then they were gone). Everyone is looking for answers or trying hard not to think about it. Everyone has an idea or an answer, but even the people in the same churches or the same cults filter what happened through the veils of their own experience. Everyone is broken in their own way, and removed from each other. No one can really know how the other person is handling this world.

Kevin, the primary character, was tormented by a ghost no one else could see. But aren’t we all?

And that’s sort of the point. None of us experience the world in the same way. We can’t. We’re ultimately all alone. You could be staring at the same sunset with the love of your life, the person with whom you share every experience, inseparable, and you can both be describing your inner monologue, but you can never really know what they are thinking, or how they are thinking, or the way the aching orange blabbers through their brain and tingles the nostalgic memory centers buried somehow in their toes. And you can never really know how they feel about dying.

And that’s ok. There are nearly 7.5 billion people experiencing the terrors and mysteries of the world all alone, but we find each other, and come together. The Leftovers shows the aftermath of these mysteries, but it is just an exaggerated look at what we go through just from being alive. It portrays this loneliness and fright as unmistakeable, instead of sublimated. It rips away the veil. But it leaves open the possibility that people still come together, and that there is still light and happiness and joy even in the face of unspeakable loss, which, really, all loss is.

And to me, love in the face of this is the whole point of life. It’s not how we get by. It’s why we get by. It’s the miracle for which we don’t have to wait.

Anyway, watch it. There’s never been anything like this on TV. It’s singularly great, brilliantly acted, beautifully directed, impossibly rich, often funny, difficult, wrenching, and bizarre.