Utilities in Cairo Illinois: The Price of History

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Cairo Illinois, at the tip of the state where it flows into Kentucky, is where the Ohio and the Mississippi flow into each other, where two great river systems crashing their way through America join the east and the Midwest on the way to the Gulf. It a slow, languid area, more deep south than Midwest, a strange humid little pocket in a state dominated by farm concerns and the bulk of Chicago.

Cairo (pronounced Kay-Row) is far from Chicago, a northern Great Lakes city born of industry. Cairo is, and always has been, a river town, a transit point. It’s proximity to great shipping areas should make it wealthy, or at least well off. Or at the very least, alive. But Cairo isn’t. It is grasping and almost dead, with over 100 years of racial violence, mismanagement, and neglect having brought it low. It’s few thousand remaining residents are battered by greed, oversight, and disinterest.

And, because this is America, race. It has been tortured by the violence of our endemic, perhaps inherent, racism. And it remains that way. Race, and the long tendrils of history, have choked the life out of Cairo, leaving it a broken city, filled with paranoia and injustice. One symptom of that is incredibly high utility prices. This seems minor, or at least explicable, but understanding why is key to the whole thing.

One symptom of that is incredibly high utility prices. This seems minor, or at least explicable, but understanding why is key to the whole thing.

If you want to understand this, you have to read this incredible series in The Southern Illinoisian by Molly Parker and Issac Smith. A 7-part series published this week titled “Why Are Electric Rates in Cairo So High?”, it seems like a simple question, or like a weird little quirky thing. But it isn’t. It is a complex and terrible story, and Parker and Smith truly dig into it, in some of the finest journalism I’ve read in a long time. It shows just how much history and modernity have conspired to make life in Cairo increasingly difficult.

You should really read it, but it comes down to simple math: the poorest people in the state are being charged the most for electricity.

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Malorossiya: Ukrainian Separatism, Mapmaking, and The Continued Restlessness of History

 

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This seems optimistic, to me

 

Dateline, Donetsk:

Separatists in eastern Ukraine have proclaimed a new state in the territories they control.

More than 10,000 people have died in fighting after Russian-backed rebels took control of parts of Ukraine’s industrial heartland in April 2014.

Ukraine signed a ceasefire deal with the separatists in 2015, which provided for a gradual return of the areas into Kiev’s fold while giving them some autonomy, but the agreement was never fully implemented.

Donetsk News Agency has quoted separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenkoas saying that the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk would form a state called Malorossiya.

Zakharchenko is calling for a three-year transition period in which to establish his new state, which will encompass not just the land annexed by Russia, but all territory that is Russian-leaning, including a great swath of the breadbasket between the Dniester and the Dnieper.

That seems ambitious, and it seems that our man in Donetsk Zakharchenko might have gotten a little ahead of his skis on this one.

Sputnik International has quotes from less-than-thrilled Russians on this, because of course it does.

“This is an unexpected initiative, and from my point of view, it diverges from the general line of actions prescribed by the Minsk agreements… The solution of the problems of Donbass, which have accumulated and are often urgent, has been initially and continues to be within the Minsk process agreed by all sides, and not within the unilateral initiatives announced today,” (Chairman of the Russian upper house of parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin) Kosachev said.

It makes sense why Russia wouldn’t be terribly happy about this. After all, the Minsk agreements muddle through the question of Crimea, since no one really seems to know how to make Russia leave. And continued unrest in the east works out well, since it leaves a divided and distracted Ukraine, one in which Russia has a lot of power.

It stands to some reason that Russia would have a lot of influence in the new Malorossiya, obviously. Their interference is what led to the schism, and they have been supporting the rebels. And the schism was even possible because Ukraine’s east historcially leans toward Russia. The fact that they have Russia in their name seems a good clue too, as does the proposal of unity between them, Russia, and Belorussia.

But that doesn’t always work out, as Russia knows. Belarus, under the never-dying Bond villain Lukashenko, has started to make overtures toward the west. For a long time he held out hope of a political union with Russia where he became the boss, but realizing that wasn’t happening, and realizing he could maybe play both sides, he has started teasing Putin with thoughts of Western alliances.

Now, Lukashenko is an annoyance to Putin, not a threat, but it goes to show you that life is pretty unpredictable. So there is no way of telling what can happen in a new independent state. What is conveniently violent and unsettled now might soon be settled, peaceful, and demanding respect.

And really, the whole thing seems kind of silly on its face, like a flighty rebel dream. “Soon, we’ll have all the Ukraine!” But really, there’s no reason for this to be absurd.

All of Eastern Europe is unsettled. The current map has only been in place for a decade, and a map from 1991 would be out of date in 1996, just as a map from 1989 would be irrelevant a couple of years later. It wasn’t just Eastern, Mitteleurope and the West (depending on where you define Germany) were shook by the beautiful cataclysms of 89.

But it is the east where the map has been going nuts since the Ottoman Empire started to dissolve, the Balkan Wars shattered the peace, and the late-era dominance of Austro-Hungary, and of course the empire-shattering WWI really made things impossible to follow. New countries were created (Yugoslavia, short-lived, and then long-lived, and then destroyed), old ideas were made real (Poland, also sort of short-lived, and then enslaved by the Soviets), and disparate lands coalesced only to be swallowed (the Ukraine).

 

Not pictured: pretty much everything

 

So what we know of the map is, at best, 100 years old, and even that not really. There’s no reason why Ukraine can’t be divided up, at least no historic reason. There are political and economic and maybe moral reasons why it shouldn’t, but just because we’ve come of age in a time where the Ukraine was a real, unified, independent state encompassing those exact post-Soviet borders, including Crimea, doesn’t mean that’s the only way it can be.

History doesn’t work that way. We thought we were in a freeze, and that the world was permanent. Which is weird: no one ever thought that maps couldn’t change. I know the Cold War had a weird feeling of never-endingness to it, but then the maps changed enormously over the next few decades. Yet we act as if what the world is at the moment is the way it is now and shall always be. We base our politics around it. We base our emotional maps around it, and react violently if there is a disruption.

This isn’t me being a Malorossiyan nationalist or anything. It’s not a good idea, for a number of reasons. But I think it is dangerous when we scoff at the idea of changing national borders. Borders are artificial. What’s more, they are new.  The problem is that the passions contained within those borders, and stoked partly because of those borders, are real. Even if they are manipulated they are real.

That’s the challenge of the 21st century. How do we handle the nation-state when transnational identity is so strong for so many but intense, smaller nationalisms are strong for an equal amount, in reaction to the first group? I don’t have any answers, but if we think the globe spinning in our office is the gospel, and any deviation is the ravings of heresiarchs, we have no chance of meeting the danger.

 

 

On Independence Day

 

(There’s not a real reason for this song, except it is elegiac and haunting and has been in my head, and it is awesome and represents the best of us, our creativity and drive, and that it has Canadians and Brits makes it even more beautifully and beatifically American in the best sense)

There is something grotesque and unwholesome about waking up on a blinding blue 4th of July and contemplating Donald Trump. It’s a day of jubilant parauppa-dum-dum parades and picnics along the lake. We shouldn’t be thinking about this waking nightmare, this wretched intrusion into our civic life. But then, it is exactly what we should be thinking about, because of how this intrusion reflects on our yearly show of patriotism.

What do these parades mean in the age of Trump? Where do our claims to greatness stand? Is celebrating Independence Day when Donald Trump is President a rebuke to his intrusion, or is it the same head-in-sand ignorance and chest-beating triumphalism that allowed our democracy to be so degraded?

To answer that, I think, we have to really think about that horrible phrase, “the Age of Trump”. It still seems ridiculous to say and makes the fingers itch to type; after all, how can we name an age for such an obvious buffoonish clown? As someone who has hated Donald Trump for as long as I can remember (really, literally), it is particularly painful. Here’s what I wrote last year during the primaries, which I think still rings true.

 He was the pinnacle of the worst of the 1980s, of the greed and opulence that marked our “return to traditional values”. In the 1990s, he was an avatar of cheating wealth, floating through a pointless time, opening and closing casinos, taking advantage of a game that was, for once and all, rigged toward the rich. In the 2000s he dominated the heightened idiocy of our reality age, all artifice and fake drama obscuring the disasters below our feet. And then of course in this decade he has been our preeminent birther, and the leader of the paranoid and hateful brigade.

In short, he’s been at the forefront of what has been the worst in American culture for four decades. He’s represented what is greedy and vulgar and dirty and stupid, what is fake and pompous and overblown and artificial. His glamour has always been the dull and lifeless sex of hostage porn, the weeping simulacrum of something beautiful. Whatever the American dream is, he’s been buying it on the cheap, packing it into something gaudy and worthless, and selling it at a profit.

He has always been this person: an insecure bully, an overhyped dope, a tabloid non-person. But that’s what has been celebrated. Artifice, vulgarity, ignorance, the virtues of blow-hardedness, the diminution of expertise, the faux-regular-guy with the golden yacht. We’ve celebrated the fake for so long that it isn’t an aberration. It might be part of our national character.

Every country has its myths and legends, and every country sees its best reflections in history’s dirty mirror. I can’t say that America is unique in this. But not being unique isn’t a virtue. America has always told a story of itself that is almost the exact inverse of the truth. It’s a cliche to say “We said all men were created equally, but still had slavery”, but really: think about it. The intensity of that hypocrisy is overwhelming, and yet, we still tell ourselves the myths of liberty.

We tell ourselves that America is now, and always has been, uniquely virtuous, and that we’ve never taken land in a war, and yet our entire country is stolen land. We warred for over a century to annihilate the existing nations. We were the exterminators. The British, French, even the Spanish after time weren’t interested in taking over all the land. Their claims were economic, making deals with the native nations to rob them. It wasn’t virtuous, of course, but it was nothing compared to the violent horrors of when America decided she wanted all the land.

(Want a good representation of our colonization process versus, say, the English? There are a billion Indians in India. The English, for all their cruelty, bigotry, and avarice, didn’t wipe them out, just as they didn’t wipe out the native tribes here. But we still somehow tell ourselves we are unique in our goodness, even while every inch of land was stolen via murder, war and broken treaty.)

We’ve employed horrific violence against workers trying to win rights. We’ve employed horrific violence against minorities trying to vote and take equal part in the civic life promised to them. We’ve employed horrific violence against the LGBTQ community for daring to be human. And those assaults–on labor, on voting rights, on equal rights–still continue, through legal means.

And yet, doesn’t that represent a kind of progress? Isn’t that sort of the point of America, this wild and fractious land, that we struggle toward a more perfect union, never getting there, but making incremental progress? Isn’t it inspiring that we’ve changed the battlefield for rights?

It is, yes. But that we’re still fighting those battles, and that the supposed rear-guard is actually winning, despite being in the minority is, I think, less an aberration but a continuation of our national character. It’s part of our belief that somehow good will always win even in the face of bad actors, and in our belief that America does good simply by doing. That we can’t do wrong, because we’re America.

That’s artifice, obviously, and it is artifice in a way that Trump exemplifies. He is a fake, and always has been. He’s a relentless self-promoter of his wholly-invented mythology, and in that way is extremely American. That he is grotesque and disgusting and entirely ignorant doesn’t make him distant from other hucksters and Gantrys, but rather an evolution.

That’s where America is right now. We’ve had 40 years of anti-intellectual “elite-bashing”, of praising “Real Americans” while destroying their jobs and poisoning their air and water, and that’s combined with a truly idiotic reality-show/tabloid/celebrity culture. None of this is entirely unique in America, but it does mix with our lack of historic honesty to create a culture in which a man like Donald Trump does more than exist, and more than thrive: it’s one in which he rises to unimaginable power, not despite, but because of these elements. He’s the right man for his time.

So yes, it is a weird 4th. We have to reconcile the fact that we aren’t a mature democracy. A mature democracy wouldn’t create opportunities for Donald Trump to rise in politics, and it certainly wouldn’t have a mechanism where he could win with fewer votes than his opponent (another legacy of slave power). A mature democracy wouldn’t allow a minority power to ruthlessly gerrymander votes out of existence based entirely on race.

This is where I want to offer hope. After all, it turns out our institutions are standing strong. The workers of the state are loyal to the country and are resisting Donald Trump’s attempts to turn them into personal servants. The courts are standing up to him. The media has seemed to at least sort of learn their lesson, and aren’t being cowered. And the people continue to resist his attempts to make bigotry and hatred the law and rule of the land.

But maybe it is already. Maybe the worst of us use these national myths not to unify, but to further their agenda of hatred (because it is impolite to cry “racism”). Maybe the worst of us use our devotion to 18th-century documents to erase actual democracy. Maybe there is something inherent in the American character, in our devotion to the myth and  that makes it easy for the worst of us to win. Maybe we’re just too big and wild and impossible to be governed.

We have to reconcile with these stories. They have raw power, and can often been used for good. This has happened as recently as the election of Barack Obama, a decent man who invoked these myths as a way to inspire. They’ll be used for good today, when we smile at neighbors and paint our faces and snuggle on blankets to watch fireworks enredden and smolder the bat-wheeling night. And that will be good, and we’ll be happy.

But when a man with no decency and no dignity is fronting an agenda that works to enshrine minority power, subvert democracy, and sell off our heritage, we have to ask ourselves what these stories mean. It’s time to tell a new one, before it is too late.

 

Food Distribution Chokepoints Threatened By Global Warming: Your Reminder That Climate Change is Already Happening

Most famines, as is by now axiomatic knowledge, are man-made. These days, there is more than enough food to go around, but the problem is distribution, which is usually choked off by war or as a product of deliberate cruelty. Sometimes it is a matter of poverty, but that too is a choice we’ve made: that food should be a function of your economic status. We’ve successfully removed natural laws from the ability to generate food; it is only market laws and political decisions that allow countries like Yemen to starve.

But now, according to Chatham House thinktank, we’re taking that to the next level. The Guardian sums it up.

Increasingly vulnerable “chokepoints” are threatening the security of the global food supply, according to a new report. It identifies 14 critical locations, including the Suez canal, Black Sea ports and Brazil’s road network, almost all of which are already hit by frequent disruptions.

With climate change bringing more incidents of extreme weather, analysts at the Chatham House thinktank warn that the risk of a major disruption is growing but that little is being done to tackle the problem. Food supply interruptions in the past have caused huge spikes in prices which can spark major conflicts.

The chokepoints identified are locations through which exceptional amounts of the global food trade pass. More than half of the globe’s staple crop exports – wheat, maize, rice and soybean – have to travel along inland routes to a small number of key ports in the US, Brazil and the Black Sea. On top of this, more than half of these crops – and more than half of fertilisers – transit through at least one of the maritime chokepoints identified.

Droughts lower the water level in the Panama Canal. Most of the water comes not from the ocean, but from a lake, which is the same ones where most Panamanians get their drinking water. Drought means shipping suffers or people thirst. Or both! The Suez Canal keeps getting choked by sandstorms and is also vulnerable to terrorism. Intensifying hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico hurt vital ports and limit the prime shipping seasons.

The issue here is that we’ve globalized food, which to me is a positive thing. In theory, our ability to easily send food from Nebraska to Somalia means that there is no reason anyone should go hungry. It is one of the benefits of globalization, and in theory, that’s something we should celebrate.

But it is a little more complicated than that. Global capitalism and local conflict combine to almost ensure that people still starve, as famine is a tool of bad actors everywhere. What’s more, the system that could generate a level of food security in the world is reliant on a few areas, and because we’ve globalized foodchains, disruption to those means instability everywhere. And one of the outcomes of this globalized planet is climate change, a byproduct of converting the environment into capital.

Which means that theoretically beneficial cross-dependencies can become vulnerabilities, either by choice or circumstance. And those vulnerabilities can spiral from local problems to global ones. We’ve talked about how drought played a huge role in the epoch-defining Syrian civil war, but The Guardian takes causality further, and farther.

The Middle East and North Africa region is particularly vulnerable, the report found, because it has the highest dependency on food imports in the world and is encircled by maritime bottlenecks. It also depends heavily on wheat imports from the Black Sea.

In 2010, a severe heatwave in Russia badly hit the huge grain harvest, leading the government to impose an export ban. As a result, prices spiked in 2011 and this was a significant factor in the Arab Spring conflicts. Other factors were important too, said Wellesley, but she said: “At the start, it was about the price of bread.”

Weather and climate are not incidental to politics, even in our mechanized and digital age. We’re still vulnerable to them, and any vulnerabilities are made instantly global. Conflict in Yemen heightens (and is exacerbated by) the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which draws in other local actors, shifts alliances (like with Qatar), changes the calculations of Russia and Turkey (which changes the consideration of smaller players like Azerbaijan) and changes the fate of millions.

There are no small issues. There are enormous ones, and the biggest one of all is how we will deal with the changed and changing climate. Because it isn’t something that will happen in the future. We won’t wake up on New Year’s 2100 and be like “dammit, climate change happened last night. Just like those eggheads said!” It’s effects are already changing the world, and it will take a concerted, global effort by responsible and far-sighted leaders to mitigate its worst impacts.

Are you optimistic?

Here are the Chatham House recommendations.

  • Integrate chokepoint analysis into mainstream risk management and security planning – for example, government agencies should assess exposure and vulnerability to chokepoint risk at the national and subnational levels.
  • Invest in infrastructure to ensure future food security – for example by agreeing on guidelines for climate-compatible infrastructure through an international taskforce established under the G20.
  • Enhance confidence and predictability in global trade – for example, through a process under the World Trade Organization (WTO) to continually reduce the scope for export restrictions
  • Develop emergency supply-sharing arrangements and smarter strategic storage, e.g. an emerging response mechanism among major players in the global food trade, modelled in part on that of the International Energy Agency in oil markets and led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) or the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS).
  • Build the evidence base around chokepoint risk –  including through the collection of data on real-time food trade  and infrastructural capacity to aid in assessing risks to food supply chains.

Try to imagine these happening in the next four years, and laugh bitterly at how 70,000 hippie-punching votes and an 18th-century slavery-supporting compromise made it impossible. It’s a perfect encapsulation of local decisions with global consequences. A few pissed off jokers outside of Milwaukee will make responding to this changing world impossible, which will lead to more conflicts, more deaths, and more spiraling disasters.

I always thought 2 + 2 = 5 by Radiohead was a little over-the-top, even for the Bush years,but it seems like the international anthem.

Qatar and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, War in Syria: The Dangers of Unserious Leadership in Fragile Times

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I’m not saying that to be a successful President you have to understand what this map means. But you actually kind of do…

America has been rightfully consumed with the subdued opera of the Comey hearings, in which members of both parties accepted as a stipulation that the President was a grotesque, habitual liar, and that his best defense was he literally has no idea what he is doing, so how could he be obstructing justice? I don’t know the legal ramifications of this, but even as the GOP desperately tried to downplay Comey, which seems to imply a return to the status quo, I think there will continue to be a steady drip of revelations. Comey implying that Sessions is dirtier than we (well, the media) thought might be the first major crack. No one is going to want to be the last person to go down for this.

But think again about the essential shrugging reaction even senators from his own party have to the essential nature of Trump: sure he’s dishonest and completely incapable of being President, but is that illegal? Maybe for the former, probably not for the latter. But that’s not the issue: the issue is that it is extremely dangerous. It’s dangerous domestically, and potentially catastrophic abroad.

There could be few worse times to have a blundering, spite-filled, ego-driven ignorant man as President of the United States. The post-WWII order was crumbling, but just as importantly (if unremarked), the post-WWI order in the Middle East (and much or Eurasia) is crumbling and reforming in unexpected and difficult ways as well. This is a hinge moment for a huge part of the world, and with his disaster-junkie approach to things, Trump can’t help but make it enormously worse. And it starts, of course, with Qatar.

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Russia’s Caspian Problem: Weird News Update About the Workings of the World

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Every day, there are millions of stories that don’t make the headlines, and don’t get written up in the papers, but that reflect the slow and grinding way the world really works. They reflect the tiny changes in policies, the historical patterns that ebb and flow but are never really absent, the way that past actions impact present decisions, and the way that political abstractions like “countries” and “borders” crash against the real world.

All of these factors are interesting, and I think especially so to Americans, a nation which is nearly unique in trying to ignore history, the ramifications of decisions, and geopolitical realities. But all that is catching up.

I bring this up due to a neat little story by Paul Goble in Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, called “Collapse of Russian Shipping in Caspian Put’s Moscow’s Regional Strategy at Risk.” Even though shipping in the inland sea is booming, Russian ports, a key part of both its North-South and East-West regional strategies, is drying up. It’s about how the other Caspian nations are essentially colluding against Russia to starve its seaports, creating new regional alliances based on both underwater rights and the laws that govern surface territory, all hinging on the question: is the Caspian more like a lake or like an ocean?

What then is going on?  The answer can be found in the complicated politics of the Caspian region, the continuing difficulties the littoral states have in demarcating the seabed, as well as growing tensions among some of these states with Russia. And because that is the case, the decline of freight traffic at Russia’s Caspian ports in the first quarter of 2017 is even more significant than might appear at first glance.

In Soviet times, Moscow and Tehran divided the Caspian into two unequal zones, a division that even then had important implications because of the oil and natural gas reserves discovered on the seafloor as well as due to the rising trade between the Soviet Union and Iran. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the number of littoral states increased from two to five: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan thus become involved in talks about delimitation and trade on the Caspian alongside the Russian Federation and Iran.

For 25 years, these five littoral states have been unable to reach an agreement on the division of the seabed, something Moscow has exploited to block many pipeline projects that would not have involved Russia. Yet, at the same time, that deadlock has led to expanded contacts between other pairs of littoral states and increased shipping between and among them—again to the exclusion of the Russian Federation (Abo.net, April 18, 2016; Natural Gas World, May 6, 2017). Now, Moscow’s policies have returned like a boomerang to limit its future role in the region.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan call for treating the Caspian as a lake rather than an ocean, an arrangement that would divide the seabed among the countries but leave surface commerce open to all. Whereas, Turkmenistan and Iran want it to be treated as a sea and be divided totally into five sectors. Despite suggestions at a January 2017 ministerial in Baku that the five Caspian littoral states would sign an agreement overcoming the divergence of positions (see EDM, May 8), the participating foreign ministers could not even say when such a meeting would occur this year, an indication that they remain far apart (Mfa.gov.az, Azernews.az, January 25).

This isn’t a headline story, and nor should it be. Could you imagine if you got a buzz on your phone signifying a news alert and it was this? “Russia, Turkmenistan Remain Deadlocked on Oceanographic Nomenclature!” Holy shit, you’d be furious.

But that’s a reflection of how, regardless of the way time feels right now, the world doesn’t work in headlines. People come and go, and the decisions they make are momentous, but slow patterns of geography and history grind underneath their feet, constraining and shaping their actions.

Moscow’s centuries of expansion, whether as Russia or the Soviet Union, influence its relations with its former vassal states, as well as Iran, not to mention the ethnic federal entities that actually border the Caspian (most notably restless Dagestan, whose port revenues were seen as a guarantor of some stability). Russia also has no non-arctic  oceanic sea ports; it is a continental power. That’s why it is so aggressive in the Caspian and Black seas, as a way to control the Eurasian sphere.

But its aggression can often backfire, as we see here, when its oppressive thumb led other states to pair with each other and Iran, bypassing Russia, and perhaps putting its regional goals in check. This gives more lie to the “Putin is a flawless puppet master” myth. I still think Russia will rue their cruel Middle East adventures. He just got lucky with America and Trump.

But then, what choice did Putin have, with the Caspian? He was dealing with the legacy of an empire that rushed from the colds of northern Europe to the sunbaked sea, colliding with Iran and with other ancient Muslim nations, having to bloodily hack their way through the Caucuses to get there.

The sea is what mattered to Russia, as an easier way to get across the continent. And then, after WWI, for its insane abundance of oil and natural gas. This was heightened in WWII, when Hitler diverted a good chunk of his invading army south to secure the oil fields near Baku. And certainly, after the fall of the USSR, Russia fought to hang on to it Caucus territories both to stay by the sea, and to avoid letting the rest of its hard-fought empire, which we take for cartographical permanence, from spiraling away.

These things matter. History matters. Geography matters. America, whose long racial history is catching up with it, which is seeing the impact that its centuries of continental aggression and century of global aggression have wrought, and who is slowly learning the real lessons of geography, needs to understand that. Russia does. Iran does. The butchers of the ISIS and al Qaeda do. It’s time we do, too.

Trump Attacks the Antiquities Act; Public Land At Risk

 

They seriously had the nerve to announce this in front of Teddy Roosevelt, who created the Antiquities Act. 

 

While the grim and still-strong lingerings of slavery and Jim Crow animate much of the modern conservative movement, it also drew enormous energy from the Sagebrush Rebellions of the 70s, when western ranchers and farmers started “standing up” to an overbearing federal government who didn’t want them to destroy the land. It was this, dovetailing with Buckley’s ideas of conservative politics, that allowed Ronald Reagan to win by saying “government is the problem”; something that Richard Nixon wouldn’t even think, much less say out loud.  It’s not very well-known now, but its spirit is still around.

You see the spirit of Sagebrush in most Republican policies, which is that the there is no common good. It’s what makes the idea that corporations should be able to do whatever they want to whomever they want seem somehow principled, and even patriotic. But you also see it literally, in the actions of the Bundys, direct descendants of the movement.  And you see it in the actions of the Trump administration, run by a man who never saw anything he didn’t want to sell.

We talked about how the administration was planning to sell off public lands to be developed or mined or logged or stripped clean (the cruel quintessence of the GOP), but now they are paving the way to make it actually happen. Adam Markham at the Union of Concerned Scientists has the details.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president of the United States the power to designate lands and waters for permanent protection. Almost every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used the Act to place extraordinary archaeological, historic and natural sites under protection and out of reach of commercial exploitation.

Many sites originally designated as national monuments were later upgraded by Congress to become national parks, including Bryce Canyon, Saguaro and Death Valley. In many cases in the past, the Antiquities Act allowed presidents to protect vital natural and cultural resources when congressional leaders, often compromised by their ties to special interests representing coal, oil, timber and mining industries, were reluctant or unwilling to act.

A new Executive Order signed by President Trump on April 26th, 2017 puts this important regulatory tool for conservation and historic preservation at risk. The clear intention of the Executive Order is to lay the groundwork for shrinking national monuments or rescinding their designation entirely, in order to open currently protected public lands for untrammeled growth in coal, oil and minerals extraction.

Ryan Zinke, who this blog once made the mistake of calling “maybe not terrible“, is all in on this. Markham slaps him down.

Secretary Zinke himself was quoted ridiculing “people in D.C. who have never been to an area, never grazed the land, fished the river, driven the trails, or looked locals in the eye, who are making the decisions and they have zero accountability to the impacted communities.”

But, in fact, national monument designations almost always derive from a local grassroots demand for greater protections, and usually only come after lengthy periods of community engagement and consultations.

Because here’s the thing. In Zinke’s list, “graz(ing) the land” is the only thing that people will still be able to do. Maybe fish the rivers, if you buy commercial fishing rights. People can walk or drive the trails and visit the areas because they are protected. What do you think–if a mining company buys rights to land in Bear Ears they’re going to just let you waltz in?

Or course not. If you let rich ranchers like the Bundys take over more land, it is, by definition, no longer the people’s land. Go ahead. Walk onto Bundy property. They aren’t going to greet you with a Woodie Guthrie song.

Public designations are how we protect these lands for everyone. It’s how we protect our heritage. It’s a way of saying that not everything can or should be parceled off, exploited, turned into capital, and sold to benefit the very few. Because of that, it is anethema to the modern Republican Party. That this move is an immediate screw you to natives is just a bonus). Bear Ears didn’t

(Bear Ears didn’t create an idiotic Chaffetz controversy for no reason: it’s because Obama designating it a park became a cause celebre to the heirs of Sagebrush.)

I guarantee you that Trump has never heard of Sagebrush, and I doubt he has any strong ideological reasons for selling off the land, unless he gets a taste. But he hates things that Obama did, and his animating principle has always been “I got mine, so screw you.” In that, as in so many things, he is the perfect Republican. He is ready to sell, and our national sense of unity and a common good is paying the price.