October 10, 2011
October 10, 2011
Sometimes a decision forces you to think deeply about what you believe in and how you act on those beliefs. It happened to me when climate protection leader Bill McKibben asked me to sign a letter calling for civil disobedience to block the building of a pipeline designed to carry tar-sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. Opposing the pipeline might strain ties with unions that I’ve worked with and been part of for my whole adult life. And yet the pipeline might be a tipping point that could hurtle us into a desperate acceleration of climate change. Amid these conflicting pulls, what should I do? Having lived at the confluence of trade unionism and environmentalism, I struggled with the right course of action. What has my life’s work meant?
I was born into a union family. My dad worked in the steel mills in Lorain, Ohio and was a founder of the Steelworkers Union. My mom had been an organizer in the Clothing Workers Union in Cincinnati. I grew up near Cleveland and I walked the picket line with my dad during the 1959 steel strike.
My own trade union life began the day I walked through the factory doors at Capital Products Aluminum Corporation in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and I joined the United Steelworkers of America at age 17. That summer I engaged in my first strike. The following year, Hurricane Agnes pounded the mid-Atlantic states; central Pennsylvania was devastated, and the mill was flooded out. So I joined the Laborers’ Union and went to work on construction.
That’s where I first learned something about working on pipelines. I worked building the Texas-Eastern pipeline as it wound its way through the rolling hills of central Pennsylvania. Small teams of operating engineers, pipefitters, and laborers traveled across the state doing work we enjoyed and that we understood to be useful and important. (We didn’t know then what we know now.) It was a great job and I was a member of a great union, Laborers’ Local 158. We formed friendships and shared a solidarity that touched us all deeply.
On another job building a railroad bridge across the Susquehanna River, a buddy of mine got fired by a hubris-filled college kid. (The kid’s dad owned the construction company, so he had been made chief foreman over all laborers.) We struck and shut the job down. The operating engineers, carpenters, and ironworkers supported us. Without that support we would have lost, but we won and my brother laborer was hired back.
These jobs helped me pay my way through college. They also taught me a lot about solidarity and trade unionism, and helped launch me on a lifelong pursuit of workers rights and jobs with justice, first as a local leader and eventually as an official with the AFL-CIO.
I grew up along the banks of Lake Erie and I learned at a tender age about the possibility of human threats to the environment. I was there when they posted the signs telling us to stop swimming in the lake, and to stop eating the fish. I’d already eaten hundreds of Lake Erie yellow perch and swallowed more of that lake water than I care to think about.
I also learned early about the potential conflict between protecting labor and protecting the environment. In the 1970s I worked on the concrete crew during the construction of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, and my local union put out a bumper sticker that read “Hungry and Out of Work? Eat an Environmentalist.”
Since then I’ve devoted much of my life trying to bridge the gap between the labor and environmental movements. I’ve argued that both share a common interest in combining economic and social sustainability with environmental sustainability. I’ve argued that “jobs vs. the environment” is a false choice.
During my years with the AFL-CIO, I served on the UN commission on global warming from its inception in the mid-1980s thru the ‘90’s. I worked for many years to persuade the American labor movement to recognize the threat of global warming and to become a leader in addressing it. I witnessed how the labor movement — and our country — ignored the science and opposed efforts to reverse global warming. I’m glad that’s been changing — since that time, much of the country, including much of the labor movement, has recognized the reality of global warming and supported green jobs that help reduce it.
We’ve wasted more than two decades that could have been spent dealing with the problem. We’ve already warmed the Earth by 1.8 degrees F, causing floods, heat waves, forest fires, loss of food production, spikes in food prices, stronger storms, the loss of glaciers, arctic ice, permafrost, and snow-pack, and much more.
The best science tells us that the carbon we’ve already put in the atmosphere will raise global temperatures by almost 4 degrees F from pre-industrial levels, even if we stop putting carbon in the atmosphere today. And this is very, very bad news for the planet and its people. We can, however, stop the increase from going to 7 degrees F, which would mean massive ecosystem collapse — if we radically cut the carbon we are putting in the atmosphere.
The Keystone XL dilemma
Bill McKibben’s letter pointed out that burning the recoverable oil in the Alberta tar sands by itself would raise the carbon in the atmosphere by 200 parts per million (ppm). It wasn’t hard to figure out that this would increase the 390 ppm carbon in the atmosphere today by more than half. Indeed, it would increase the gap between the current level and the safe level of 350 ppm fivefold.
The letter called the pipeline “a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” It quoted the leading NASA climate change specialist Jim Hansen saying that tar sands “must be left in the ground.” Indeed, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over” for a viable planet.
It sounded like a pretty compelling case. But there was another letter that made the question harder for me. It was a letter from the General Presidents of the Teamsters, Plumbers, Operating Engineers, and Laborers unions, the last of which helped give me my start as a kid. Their letter enthusiastically supported the Keystone XL project, saying it will “pave a path to better days and raise the standard of living for working men and women in the construction, manufacturing, and transportation industries.” It will allow “the American worker” to “get back to the task of strengthening their families and the communities they live in.” I’ve dedicated 35 years of my life to those goals.
Their position reflects the absolutely critical need for jobs. The Keystone Pipeline will provide a lot of good jobs. (A company-financed study claims it will create 118,000 jobs, though a government environmental impact statement says it will create 5,000 to 6,000, and only for the three-year construction period. Many would be well-paying, middle-class union jobs — the kind with health care and other benefits. And that at a time when the official unemployment rate is close to 10 percent and 2 million construction workers — one in five — are out of work.
A just transition to sustainability
In the long run, “jobs vs. the environment” is a false choice. But the Keystone Pipeline reminds us of the painful reality that often, in our day-to-day lives, there are jobs-vs.-environment choices with real immediate impacts.
I’ve often pleaded with my environmental and sustainability friends to understand that for generations, for me and my family — indeed, for all working people — sustainability starts at the kitchen table. Every day we seek decent work so we can provide food, housing, and health care for our families and an education for our children. Any job that does that helps provide for our sustainability. But what are we to do if those jobs are also building an unsustainable future for ourselves and our children?
There is a solution to this dilemma: Many of the jobs I had during the years I worked construction involved the kind of work that we need to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, from railroad repair to bridge construction. Today, such work can be a central part of building a new energy system, saving our water infrastructure, building a new transportation system, and constructing sustainable cities — everything that’s necessary to halt our destruction of the climate. We need to ensure that the transition to an economy that protects the climate is also a just transition that protects the livelihoods of those who, through no fault of their own, may have to pay the price of change.
The labor movement has become an enthusiastic supporter of “green jobs.” But by and large, it also continues to support jobs that will lead to climate catastrophe. There are many things that we should be building — but the Keystone XL Pipeline is not one of them. Every dollar we invest in fossil fuels is not only a dollar that goes to intensify the climate crisis; it is also a dollar that we should instead be spending for the transition to renewable energy.
Labor has been critical of corporate short-term thinking — maximizing profits on a quarterly basis and not looking to the future. Yet labor is guilty of similar short-term thinking when it comes to decisions related to climate and sustainability. To be fair, the job of today’s labor leader is beyond difficult: He or she has to balance the needs of workers who pay dues today with those of the future, and people pay dues to unions to protect their jobs. But the truth is that this short-term thinking is bad for the planet and its people, and equally bad for the future of the labor movement. As we build a labor movement for the 21st century, our self-interest is best served by building a labor movement that is a part of the sustainability movement.
Recently, West Virginians held a march on Blair Mountain to “abolish mountaintop removal,” but also to “strengthen labor rights” and invest in “sustainable job creation for all Appalachian communities.” I hope those who march to halt the Keystone XL pipeline will also march for labor rights and sustainable — and sustaining — jobs…
October 10, 2011
In late 1960, what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill British crime film, complete with trilby-hatted detectives in their bell-clanging Wolseley police cars roaming a bomb-scarred London, went into production. The casting seemed notably deluxe for such a seemingly mainstream enterprise, but on its release in 1961 Victim became one of the few pictures to genuinely shift social attitudes.
In 1861 Parliament had passed The Offences Against the Person Act, section 61 of which removed the death penalty as the punishment for ’buggery’ and replaced it with a minimum period of penal servitude. Almost a century later, after the Second World War, Sir Theobald Matthew, the Director for Public Prosecutions, embarked on his long campaign against homosexuals in ‘positions of authority and trust’, assisted by such headlines as the Sunday Pictorial‘s 1952 gem: ‘Is it true that degenerates infest the West End of London and the social centres of many provincial cities?’
That same year saw the cause célèbre of the John Gielgud case, in which the recently knighted actor was arrested by the Metropolitan Police for ‘cottaging’. Despite the fact that the actor gave a false name and occupation to the magistrates’ court – ‘Arthur Gielgud, a £20 per week clerk’ – and was fined a nominal £10, the press soon acquired the story. Then, on the August Bank Holiday of 1953, Edward Montagu and the film director Kenneth Hume took two boy scouts to a beach hut at Beaulieu for a bathe, where a stolen camera was subsequently reported by Montagu to Hampshire Constabulary. However, the boys claimed that they had been indecently assaulted and Montagu was charged by the police with both committing an unnatural offence and an indecent assault. At his trial Montagu was acquitted of committing an unnatural offence but the jury disagreed on the lesser charge and the DPP decided that Montagu and Hume should be tried again for indecent assault. Three weeks later Michael Pitt-Rivers, a cousin of Montagu, and Peter Wildeblood, a journalist, were also arrested and their premises were searched without a warrant prior to their being charged with indecency against two RAF servicemen in a beach hut at the Pitt-Rivers estate in Dorset.
Not all of the press coverage of the Montagu affair was unsympathetic and some journalists detailed the dubious methods of Hampshire police in their quest for evidence. A month after the Montagu trial David Maxwell-Fyffe, the home secretary, agreed to the appointment of a departmental committee to examine and report on the laws relating to homosexuality, chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, the former headmaster of Uppingham and Shrewsbury public schools and then vice-chancellor of Reading University.
The committee deliberated over a period of three years and in the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, published on September 3rd, 1957, concluded that ‘homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects. It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour’.
In short the committee considered that homosexuality should be treated on a par with other forms of sexual behaviour that, although viewed as repugnant by some, were not proscribed by law.
Meanwhile the British film industry was heading towards one of its regular crises; by 1957 television had overtaken radio in terms of popularity and cinemas were closing at a rate of knots. When the former school teacher John Trevelyan was appointed secretary to the British Board of Film Censorship (BBFC) in 1958 he was facing both a declining film industry and an acceptance that ‘The main thing is that people’s ideas have changed’. Ten years earlier Trevelyan’s predecessor had laid down the threefold criteria for film censorship: was the story, incident or dialogue likely to impair the moral standards of the public by extenuating vice or crime or depreciating moral standards; was it likely to give offence to reasonably minded cinema audiences; and what effect would it have on children.
In fact until the X certificate was introduced in 1951 there was no film category that specifically excluded children – even the H’ (for ‘horror’) certificate was ‘advisory’. The BBFC retained the power to ban certain films – such as the 1953 biker film starring Marlon Brando, The Wild One – but by the end of the decade Trevelyan argued that ‘The British Board of Film Censors cannot assume responsibility for the guardianship of public morality. It cannot refuse for exhibition to adults films that show behaviour that contravenes the accepted moral code, and it does not demand that “the wicked” should also be punished. It cannot legitimately refuse to pass films which criticise “the Establishment” and films which express minority opinions.’
It was the release in 1959 of Room at the Top, based on John Braine’s gritty novel, that established the idea that X films could encompass commercially and critically successful ‘adult dramas’. Unlike British theatre, where the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship policy had banned plays with a ‘homosexual theme’ until 1957, there was never any explicit bar to films tacking the subject but initially Trevelyan was wary: ‘Until it becomes a subject that can be mentioned without causing offence, it will be banned’. However by 1959 the BBFC did pass, albeit with an X certificate, Serious Charge, which concerned a teddy boy falsely accusing a vicar of molesting him. The following year saw two further breakthroughs with separate portrayals of Oscar Wilde by Robert Morley and Peter Finch.
These developments inspired the film producer Michael Relph’s plans for a picture with ‘… the same point of view as the Wolfenden Report, that the law should be changed … The film shows that homosexuality may be found in otherwise completely responsible citizens in every strata of society’.
Relph and his directing partner Basil Dearden had recently made Sapphire, a brave if not wholly successful attempt to tackle racial prejudice on screen, and for their next ‘social conscience film’ they showed the censor their plans for a film concerning an apparently successful, happily married barrister who is a covert homosexual. When his ‘boyfriend’ commits suicide he attempts to uncover the blackmail ring that led to the young man’s death.
When Trevelyan was shown a draft script in early 1960 he realised that there was a wealth of difference between the depictions of a genuine historical figure who had been dead for nearly six decades and a drama centring on a ‘respectable’ character in contemporary London. ‘It would be wise to treat the subject with the greatest discretion,’ he said. Relph assured the BBFC that this would indeed be the case and filming started in the autumn of 1960. The film’s leading man was Dirk Bogarde, by now one of the most high profile actors in the United Kingdom.
To satisfy the BBFC’s worries over the potentially damaging use of explicit language, the word ’queer’ was sparingly used and the screenplay ensured that there was at least one sympathetic police officer in the form of John Barrie’s detective-inspector. ‘The less we have of groups of “queers” in bars, and clubs and elsewhere the better. There is plenty of scope for the police … to let a little normality, light and shade on this very sombre world,’ advised Trevelyan. Indeed, with the exception of Bogarde’s character, virtually all the homosexuals portrayed in Victim are essentially passive. Homosexuality is seen as ‘a condition’ and although Bogarde’s Melville Farr takes an active and heroic role in uncovering the blackmail ring, Janet Green’s screenplay is at some pains to point out that although Farr has homosexual desires, he has ‘never acted on them’…
Roads of the future: Roads hold America together, but at a cost. Now, thinkers are starting to imagine—and engineer—a better way
October 10, 2011
SINCE OUR NATION’S earliest days, America has been fixated on our roads, be they yellow brick, high or low, or the one less traveled. The United States has 4 million miles of roads, covering a surface area equivalent to that of South Carolina. They represent freedom, possibility, connection, and even escape. They are the circulation system of our culture and economy, shaping where we live and work, how we transfer goods, how we access services.
But roads have another side as well: a harmful one. Roads are the site of 30,000 deaths every year, but even beyond the obvious dangers, the network has its own, unintended effects on the country. Roads erode soils, trap heat, and disrupt wildlife habitat; they are expensive to create and even more so to maintain.
We’ve long fantasized that ultimately we’d see roads disappear completely, as Doc Brown suggests at the end of the classic 1985 movie “Back to the Future”: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” He’s talking about 2015, a time when, as we see in the sequel, people are flying in hovercraft. But as 2015 approaches, we still rely on roads as the backbone of our transportation networks, towns, and cities. As engineers, city planners, and “road ecologists” are realizing, we do need roads. We just need better ones.
A road may seem so basic as to be unchangeable — a strip of asphalt or concrete laid across the ground. But in recent years, researchers have started to ask imaginative questions about how roads work and don’t work — not just in their immediate impacts, but in the way they affect animals, water, energy use, and quality of life for people. They have begun to propose creative, even radical solutions to the problems that roads can cause, using everything from better highway design to smarter asphalt to reduce roads’ harmful effects. And though it’s still in early stages, some of this work goes even farther, plotting a future in which roads are not just a necessary evil, but can bring unexpected benefits to the land around them.
WHEN YOU’RE DRIVING on a highway through a vast desert or forest, it can seem as if the road is an insignificant part of the landscape. But that’s an illusion. Though roads are conduits for one kind of movement, they’re barriers as well: they block ancient patterns of animal migration and cause countless wildlife deaths every year. They help spread invasive plant species by dispersing seeds and allowing them to gain a foothold along the roadside corridor, while fragmenting and isolating native populations. That isolation can disrupt usual breeding patterns, making populations less genetically diverse and more vulnerable to being wiped out by catastrophic events.
The ecological effects of roads extend beyond the road surface; Richard Forman, an ecologist at Harvard, estimates that one-fifth of the nation’s land is directly affected by roads. Noise from heavily trafficked roads can inhibit bird densities and breeding for several hundred yards on either side. The construction, use, and maintenance of roads causes erosion and spreads pollutants into surrounding air, soil, and water. Roads and related structures like culverts also disrupt water flows and wetlands, which can have far-reaching impacts on humans and other species. In fact, while roads may seem like an innocuous and narrow disruption, they actually amount to a re-engineering of habitat on a vast scale.
Forman is one of the founders of road ecology, the study of roads’ effects on ecosystems. The discipline was founded in the 1990s, and research from the field is finally beginning to yield practical innovations in road design. Joseph Burns, who works in transportation ecology and species protection for the National Forest Service, says that a paradigm shift is taking place in the way highways are constructed. “Instead of breaking up systems — whether human communities or natural processes — now they’re more permeable.” To take one example, traffic collisions had been one of the top killers of Florida’s panthers, one of the most endangered animals in the country. When a series of highway underpasses was built along I-75 in the 1990s, the panthers began using them for safe passage across, lowering collisions on the highway.
Wildlife overpasses and underpasses now straddle highways and roads throughout the country, particularly in the Rockies and in Florida, where large animals are frequently hit by cars. Bill Ruediger, a wildlife consultant in Montana who has been involved in over 100 wildlife crossing projects over the past decade or so, says that animals readily learn to use these structures. Although the will to build crossings is highest where collisions with large animals cause injuries and cost money for travelers, conservation activists and biologists are also looking for solutions for small animals like salamanders and frogs, whose survival depends on the connection of far-flung populations.
The flow of wildlife is not the only thing historically disrupted by roads: there’s also the flow of water. Burns says that engineers are now taking waterways into account in considering how to plan and rebuild roads. Where highways once barreled through floodplains, they are now built to bridge them, which preserves water stores and habitat while also protecting roads from costly washouts. Roads that work with water systems, he says, “are adaptable and more cost effective.” He adds that if designed correctly, such roads can even provide a service, withstanding the peak flows while helping to hold water in dry times…