On Great Lakes Day, Some Pictures

I have a whole post planned about a terrible new law making its way through Michigan that will reduce oversight on lake withdrawals, as well as the gigantic diversion giveaways Scott Walker wants to give to Foxconn, but since it is Great Lakes Day, I thought maybe some pictures.

Let’s look at the stunning beauty of the Lakes, and think about what an enormous gift, what a continent-defining feature, what life-affirming and life-sustaining bodies these are, how they’ve molded our history and have given birth to millions of paused thoughts. And let’s remember to protect them.

(prior posts on Great Lakes are below)

 

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Courtesy of NASA

Look at how even the enormity of Chicago is just a blurry fuzz at Lake Michigan’s southern end. What I love about pictures like this is that you can see the meaningless and the human intrusion of borders.

 

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Public domain image taken from International Space Station

 

Small as we may be, our impact is enormous. From here, the lakes look almost unnatural, like the human lights (a gross and small-minded echo of the northern lights above) are the natural feature, and there is a vast darkness interposing itself. And in a way, that’s true: the lakes can swallow whole our individual aspirations, lap at our shores unconcerned and erosive. For years, I was terrified by Lake Michigan at night, but could never place it: the vastness and the lack of concern for human existence gave me an unnamable dread. As I got older, I figured it out, but it is no less quieting for that.

 

I saw this on twitter, but there’s no mention of origin, so I’ll just say it is beautiful.

 

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This was taken by the Canadian Space Agency. I like it for the different perspective than our usual “north is up” one, which makes little sense on a round planet. But also: Canadian Space Agency!

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These two beautiful shots were taken by Allison, just this afternoon, at Illinois State Beach Park. If you look closely at the bottom one, pointing south, you can see the dim outlines of the Chicago skyline, some 40 miles away. It’s so far, and so vast, and you’re really just still at the bottom part of the lake. Geologically, you’re right next door to Chicago.

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These were taken by me at various times in the last year. All about the same spot, and all, to me, show the great gift of the Lakes, with their never-same moods contrasting with their omnipresence. They are stabilizing, and we look to them in the morning to reassure of us some continuity, even as the world breaks apart, and even as their changing faces gives us a glimpse of our own impermanence.

Here are a few Great Lakes posts, if you’re inclined to do more reading.

 

 

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Clean Water is a Common Good. That’s Why Its Access is Being Limited.

Pictured: Not Tang.

“Brackish” is a wonderfully descriptive word; it is nearly onomatopoetic in its immediate salinity. It has a scaly tangibility to it, and contains within it an instant shudder. “Brack” is the sound you make when you taste something undrinkable, something wrong, something poisonous.

But for too many Americans, that is the reality of their water. It is choking, dirty, and dangerous. It is the opposite of what water should be. It has been degraded by capitalism and left to fester by the people elected to remember the forgotten.

This is laid out in stark detail by Sarah Jones and Emily Atkin at the resurgent The New Republic, in an article titled, with no pulled punches, Rural America’s Drinking Water Crisis.

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Programming Notes and Quick Hits!

 

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Quick hits, see.

 

Sorry for the slow week. We’ll be doing a lot of blogging next week, as the Presidents of the United States and North Korea flip through their dictionaries to find the most obscure insults they can understand (Un will call Trump a “dew-beating wandrought” and Trump will respond with “very bad and very sick ‘Rocket Man'”). It’ll be fun.

I had a whole Quick Hits and Weekend Reads planned out, but as I went through the stuff I collected during the week, it was all really depressing. I understand that isn’t unusual here, but after another stupid and hateful week, just didn’t want to do to any of you.

If you’re interested, you can read about how 1.3 billion people live on environmentally and agriculturally degraded land, or how dangerous Pipeline 5 under the Great Lakes is (something we’ve talked about), or how lead in Flint’s water led to a far higher rate of fetal deaths and infertility, which the party of pro-life is content to ignore because privatizing water is a goal unto itself.

Or don’t read any of that! Have fun instead. Go play outside.

If you want one cheerful-ish read, the good people at Circle of Blue have an extensive report on how California’s Clean Water for All law is working. California was the first state to declare access to clean water a human right, and the impact that has had on distribution and sanitation has really borne fruit. Even during a drought, and even when water usage and distribution is a political football (see the surprising new block to the  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel plan, which would have reengineered the state’s water supply), people in California are getting clean water.

That shows what happens when a government understands that water is for the people. It is a human right, a basic right, and our politics should be geared around ensuring that it works for everyone. It shouldn’t be based on figuring out who can profit from it.

But that’s not the GOP line. Everything should be sold. If it can be carved up, chopped up, and taken from people without political clout, it should be. Everything for profit. I swear to Moses, we’re about a year or two away from hearing Doocey say “Water isn’t a right, it’s a privilege!”

But the California experiment in basic decency serves as an elegant rebuttal to all that. So drink up, in whatever liquid you find fits a celebration. Even if things are dark, raise one up. Why not? Dark times call for good times. It’s the one light we have.

 

 

A Brief Follow-Up on Houston, City Planning, And Over-Reactions

 

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Wetlands are pretty, but they wouldn’t have saved Houston. (They’re still good though!)

 

In the post below, I wrote “There might be some doubt if this particular tropical storm was a direct result of climate change, but there is no doubt that it was made worse by the simple fact that we have completely altered the way water drains itself, which is to say: it no longer does. It relies on our pavement floodplains, our sewers, our channels. And when those aren’t enough, as we know, water never slinks off.”

Charles Mahron and Daniel Herriges at Strong Towns think I am being unfair.

OK, they don’t think I’m being unfair. Neither of them have read my piece, and indeed wrote their articles before mine. I probably shouldn’t take it personally. But they both think that narrative- Houston overdeveloped, paved over wetlands, and is paying the price- is unfair. And that’s worth listening to.

They have a very good point. In their articles, they go into how Houston isn’t particularly less-regulated than other cities (though in a way it is) and how it is weird to say that “they shouldn’t keep developing”, as if development wasn’t a reaction to the desire of people to live there. (Essentially, if you took that to its logical conclusion, cities should shut people out once they reached a point, and the people shut out would most likely be poor).

But, more broadly, they point out that Harvey would have obviously overwhelmed the most porous city in the world.

As Mahron says:

he Texas A&M research I highlighted above suggests reckless wetland filling robbed Houston of 4 billion gallons of stormwater storage capacity. For context, the Washington Post is reporting now that Harvey dumped 19 trillion gallons on the Houston area. That means that, had those wetlands never been filled, they could have accommodated 0.02% of the water that fell in Harvey. I tried to plot this up in some type of graphic representation, but at no scale could I get the wetland capacity to even show up, it’s so insignificant.

That’s very true. It isn’t Houston’s “fault” that they got flooded. Harvey would have destroyed anywhere, and if my article implied that better city planning would have saved Houston, I take it back.

But the broader point is still true: our choices, all of them, helped create catastrophe, both isolated ones like Harvey and civilizational ones like climate change. And all the little disasters in Harvey, each individual explosion and each chemical leak, is the result of decisions made as to how we arrange our society and technology.

(And the point isn’t that wetlands are bad. You should still have them. Not every storm is Harvey (for now!), and a lot of flooding can be prevented.)

Both articles are very learned, well-reasoned, and worth reading, providing nuance to the story. I worry that there is a little too much “now is no time to be talking about this”. It’s the same argument about “politicizing” tragedy that lets us avoid making hard choices about how we’ve set up our lives. I don’t think either writer is saying that. Strong Towns, which I love and support, is based around the idea of asking hard questions about that very topic. But I always worry about a counter-narrative that “everything was fine and you are being hysterical” can easily take hold.

And, though both articles imply it, I think the idea that people are saying Houstonians “deserve it” is overblown. I haven’t heard any of that. And what is there shouldn’t be countered with overwhelming cries for “decency”. We can help the people of Houston and ask how we can do better at the same time. Irma might already be bearing down. The opposite of knee-jerk snark isn’t piled smarm. It’s intelligence.

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.

 

 

Weekend News Roundup: Gorka, Tillerson, and Harvey

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There’s a Soviet-era sci-fi book by the Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov called The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years. I really liked it as a book (though it has been like 18 years since I’ve read it), but love it as a title. It’s a truism every day, of course, the long pace of a day, with each individual tumbling thought taking up its own space, elongating the day beyond memory. But it is especially true in our moment of nitwit authoritarianism, when we’re so consumed with the daily thrum of horror and inanity that time itself is distorted.

All of this is a long way of saying that a whole lot happened since Friday. Let’s do a quick breakdown of the hits (we’ll have a standalone post on the Arpaio pardon).

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Water Monday: Too Much in New Orleans, Too Little in The Plains, and a Big “Who Cares” on the Border by DHS

 

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But her emails, etc

 

When it comes to arguing about the proven and increasingly-lived reality of climate change, deniers have one big asset on their side: climate change is really complex and slow. It affects different parts of the world differently, and in ways that can be very unexpected. This is because the earth’s climate is big and complex; in fact, one could say it is all-encompassing.

But that can make it easy for deniers. They can sneer and say things like “Oh, so climate change makes it hot some places and cold in other places? That’s really convenient.” They also sneer about how “climate change” replaced “global warming”, as if scientists were caught in a lie and so changed the name; as if no one was saying that global warming would change the climate.  A simple lie is easier to digest than a complex truth.

(Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump was one of those idiots who tweeted about global warming every time it was chilly out. He was even one of those idiots who would use record-setting colds across the entire country as proof everything was fine. There’s a reason he had instant appeal to the GOP voters.)

Anyway, this is to say that if you don’t believe in climate change, this post is good fodder for your argument.

(Note: the invaluable folks at Circle of Blue linked to much of this in their daily newsletters; that’s where I got it from. Don’t want to take credit for it)

Too Much Water, Not Enough Infrastructure

 

This was yesterday, not 2005. Image nola.com

 

NEW ORLEANS — Heavy weekend rainfall in New Orleans overwhelmed the municipal pump stations, leaving parts of the community flooded, and some officials say they’re not satisfied with the city’s response.

“Are our city pumps working as they should?” Councilman Jason Williams said, according to local news reports. “If we can’t handle a bad storm, then what will we do when there’s a hurricane?”

What indeed? Now, heavy rain can’t be blamed on global warming, nor can hurricanes. But the intensity of both is modeled to increase as the oceans heat up. That’s not conspiracy or far-fetched. Even the dimmest denier admits that there is such a thing as “hurricane season”, and it isn’t when the water is coldest.

This just highlights the dangers of climate change in our most vulnerable cities, and our lack of preparation in how to mitigate its effects. We know that climate change is going to hit hardest in poorer countries ill-equipped to handle environmental and demographic shifts. But it will happen in America too. And our politics, indeed our culture, rarely gives precedence to the poorest and most vulnerable. Except poor Gulf communities, black and white (but especially black) to be decimated.

Even with good planning, water can and will overwhelm. We don’t invest in infrastructure, and we don’t take care of what we have. As a species, we’re spectacularly ill-equipped to handle enormous issues. As a wild and fragmented democracy, America might be especially ill-suited for it. That just means we have to keep fighting, though.

Flash Drought: Too Little Water

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How flash drought start (citation needed)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The drought plaguing eastern Montana and much of North and South Dakota came on quickly and is intensifying, leading ranchers to sell their cattle and farmers to harvest early whatever crops that have grown so far this summer.

Just three months ago, no areas of moderate drought were recorded in the Northern Plains region by the U.S. Drought Monitor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But July’s soaring temperatures and lack of rain quickly parched the soil and dried up waterways, creating what climatologists call a “flash drought.”

Now, 62 percent of North Dakota, more than half of South Dakota and 40 percent of Montana are in severe, extreme or exceptional drought, according to the drought monitor’s weekly report released Thursday. There are also pockets of drought in the Southern Plain states of Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas.

In Montana, 12 percent of the state’s land is experiencing “exceptional drought,” meaning widespread crop and pasture losses and water-shortage emergencies, mainly in the northeastern part of the state.

“We would expect to see conditions that bad once or twice in 100 years,” said Deborah Bathke, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s National Drought Mitigation Center and a co-author of the drought monitor.

I’ve never heard the terms “flash drought”, or “exceptional drought” before, but, like “hydro-political strife”, is just another one of those damn things we’ll have to get used to. These are baking regions, and are prone to drought, and we (as a political entity working together, through the government), worked to transform them from arid to arable.

And it worked! But like the high-water mark of the Colorado, it won’t last forever. It couldn’t last forever. And climate change will accelerate that, with unknown political, economic, and agricultural impact.

Up the Wall! 

 

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Walls are dangerous

 

The Secretary of Homeland Security has determined, pursuant to law, that it is necessary to waive certain laws, regulations and other legal requirements in order to ensure the expeditious construction of barriers and roads in the vicinity of the international land border of the United States near the city of San Diego in the state of California.

Yup. In one of his last acts as DHS head, General Kelly (who is a Wise and Steadying Hand, remember) waived the need to study environmental impacts of a border wall. This isn’t the whole wall, of course. But it sets an precedent.

Trump’s wall will be (among many other things) a potential environmental disaster. It’s going to be in the middle of a floodplain, which, as we’ve emphasizeddoesn’t care who is in the White House, or what a “Mexico” is.

Everyone involved in the wall, advocates like Kelly included, know that it is a political disaster. Now they don’t even want to know if it will be an environmental one. The rush to get it up is as unseemly as its end goal. But that it could be a disaster on the enviornment has to be seen, for these jackals, as a feature.