Special New Year’s edition: Three 2015 resolutions for America

Say what you will about America, there’s one thing that’s undeniably true: people don’t like you to say what you will about America. Despite being the most powerful economic and military force on the globe for the last 100 years, our culture is quick to take offense at even the mildest of criticisms. Self-reflection has never been our greatest strength, making a list like this controversial.

Nonetheless, we face several crises together. Most commentators don’t consider 2014 to have been a “good news” year. Whether we realize it or want to admit it, this country’s business and political classes have committed inhuman crimes in our name, and they will continue to do so for as long as we let them. If, instead, Americans pledged to confront these issues openly and honestly, we could pave the way to a much brighter future. These are the issues activists, organizers, and opinion leaders should be hammering home in 2015. Continue reading

GOP backlash to Denton fracking ban reveals a dark hypocrisy

Amid last week’s Republican sweep of the 2014 midterm elections, there were some notable progressive victories. Marijuana decriminalization, gun control laws and minimum wage increases all passed on various states’ ballots. But perhaps the most inspiring initiative voters put into law was a ban on fracking in Denton, Texas. Unfortunately, Texas politicians, bureaucrats and business interests are pledging to fight, repeal and/or ignore it. Continue reading

Why the “jobs” argument against climate action makes no sense

In September, hundreds of thousands of climate activists marched on Manhattan to bring attention to – and demand action from leaders on – environmental degradation and climate change. By now, just about everyone recognizes these as civilization-threatening problems requiring our attention. Even the Republican position on the issue is slowly evolving. As the overwhelming evidence implicating human activity mounts and the disastrous consequences of climate change are being experienced firsthand around the world, the question is finally turning from, “Is it happening?” to, “What are we going to do about it?”

Yet there are still plenty of holdouts in the political and business sectors who are stalling environmental progress. One of their favorite canards, and probably the single-silliest argument that can be made against environmental action, is that it will cost America jobs. Continue reading

Toledo algae bloom forces a reset of priorities; challenges definition of “safe”

Last week, the nearly half-million residents of Toledo, Ohio were given a grim warning: “Don’t drink the water.” Due to an enormous toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie, dangerous levels of the poisonous bacterial product microcystin entered Toledo’s water supply, prompting Governor John Kasich to declare a state of emergency.

I don’t mind telling you I’m from that area. I live in Texas now, but regularly entertain thoughts of moving home, partly because of the water. The Great Lakes region – the world’s most plentiful freshwater source – may one day be a mecca amid widespread desertification. But if the water is poisoned, it’ll hardly remain attractive for long. Continue reading

Let animals make the case against Kendall Jones’s twisted “conservation”

Who’d have thunk it – the trouble with Africa’s big mammals isn’t trophy hunting, climate change or habitat loss; it’s that they just aren’t being killed properly.

That’s effectively what Kendall Jones, a red-blooded 19-year-old from Texas, would have you believe. The hunter has seen her name in headlines over the last couple of weeks as photos of her posing next to various dead animals went viral and caused an internet maelstrom.

Pictures of the pure-blonde Jones holding up the heads of dead African animals while she grins like it’s her birthday are profoundly unsettling, and the racial and imperialistic components of the imagery are striking. Her poses are also often oddly sexual, which makes sense from a marketing perspective: she’s supposedly in discussions to have a TV show by next year, and with America’s lust for young girls and violence, she will probably get it.

This man is actually saying, at the exact moment this picture is displayed, that hunting "places value on the animals."

This man is actually saying, without irony and at the exact moment this picture is displayed, that hunting “places value on the animals.”

Her Facebook page contains infographics and data extolling the virtues of hunting, all unsourced or sourced to pro-hunting magazines and lobbies. She claims hunting is simply misunderstood, repeating the common trope among hunters that it is actually they who are leading the world’s conservation efforts.

It’s not as though there’s no truth there. Hunting licenses and fees help pay to keep land free from private development. In some cases, hunters target members of a species that have become burdensome or dangerous to the population. Several months ago, just such an endangered black rhino’s life was auctioned off at $350,000. The rationale held that a post-reproductive male is a threat to viable bulls, and if there’s a bloodthirsty millionaire who wants to blow the rhino away, his money can be used for real conservation.


Kendall Jones in her native habitat. When not cheering for the home team, wouldja believe she’s a leading expert on African wildlife? Me neither.

Yet no matter how these hunts are explained, there’s a reflexive revulsion to hearing about them. We’re not talking about hacking away overgrown vines or using dynamite to clear out rocks from a landslide – we’re talking about taking the life of a full-blown, flesh-and-blood, thinking and feeling mammal. Every creature Kendall Jones poses with, beaming her proud Texas smile next to its rolled-back eyes, lived a life she could not begin to comprehend and carried in it a wisdom she will probably never attain.

Jones would probably accuse me of allowing emotion to get in the way of science. She’d be wrong. Science narrows the intelligence gap between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom just about every day. Big mammals are more clever, emotionally sophisticated and complex than we ever dreamed, potentially surpassing humans in some cases. Elephants possess a humbling ability to express deep inner feelings. Whales and primates communicate using a form of language we’re just beginning to understand. Even non-mammals are full of surprises, such as the crow that cracks nuts under a car wheel at a red light or the octopus that escapes from her aquarium to feed on animals in another enclosure.

Despite using the hashtag #ScienceNotEmotion, Jones allows her passion for hunting to interfere with the way she understands the world. Her life’s calling is objectively psychopathic: the killing of sentient beings. In order to justify it, she touts dubious conservation figures, none of which could ever justify the frighteningly incongruous smile she gleams out in pictures with her victims.

On Monday, Jones posted a list of “10 Reasons Why Hunting is Conservation.” About half of the reasons were animal rebound statistics like this one: “In 1900, only 100,000 wild turkeys remained. Thanks to hunters, today there are over 7 million.”

Thanking hunters is odd – surely not even she thinks hunting the animal is what made its population explode. The North American Wild Turkey Management Plan, a pro-hunting group, gives credit for the rebound to “improved habitat management and increased conservation efforts focusing on population status assessment and harvest regulation.” For those who don’t understand the jargon, “harvest regulation” essentially means hunting them less. In other words, hunters, upset that they’d nearly extinguished wild turkeys just as they’d done to the dodo 300 years prior, decided to restrain themselves a little bit to ensure there’d be turkeys to hunt long into the future. So, “Thanks to hunters,” sure – but it’s a little perverse.

An infographic from Jones’s Facebook. This truly remarkable statement credits the rhino’s rebound to the fact that trophy hunters can’t get enough of them, as though that's a good thing.

An infographic from Jones’s Facebook. This truly remarkable statement credits the rhino’s rebound to the fact that trophy hunters can’t get enough of them, as though that’s a good thing.

Boosting a population so that there is more of it to kill is Jones’s idea of conservation. It’s the most vicious form of hypocrisy that exists – announcing yourself as a savior of the thing you’re slaughtering. It’s a bit like Paul Ryan branding himself a champion of the poor in his crusade against welfare, or those “civilizing” missions the U.S. undertook in the Philippines.

If Jones cared half as much about science as she pretends to, she would recognize these animals as having intrinsic worth apart from the market value of their horn or the tourist dollars of a hunt. In cases where an animal is truly going to cause an endangered species more harm than good, removing it should be a sober, solemn affair, not an opportunity to showcase her million-dollar smile to TV producers. Even tribal hunters who depend on their kills for survival display humility and respect.

It’s that despicable tastelessness that’s drawing Jones her flack. Even if hunters are the biggest supporters of true conservation – and that’s obviously highly questionable – her craven glee at murdering so many intelligent, emotional animals is bereft of even the most basic morality and sensitivity. It’s unimpressive on every level – cowardly, sadistic and opportunistic.

Knowing and respecting animals as complex, equal beings with a rich evolutionary history all their own would prohibit a sane person from enjoying their death. The hunting lobby to which Jones belongs sees the entire world as a resource pool for humans, but that’s not the kind of conservation we need. What’s needed is the kind of conservation that values every life as worthwhile, the kind that would only kill as a last resort, and the kind that treats human interference as the problem, not the solution. Only then will these animals regain the freedom to be governed by nature and their own wills.

Bundy ranch case about politics, not principle

Chances are you’ve heard, by now, of the great American frontiersman Cliven Bundy, whose decision to parade his inherited cattle on public land that belongs to the endangered desert tortoise has led to his being fined by the U.S. government. Bundy has refused to pay his fees and fines with armed resistance. As a result, there was a standoff in Nevada between the government, who attempted to remedy the debt by seizing Bundy’s cattle, and Bundy’s militiamen.

He definitely isn’t a hero, as some on the right have made him out to be; he’s merely an entitled curmudgeon who doesn’t like to pay bills. The only reason Bundy is a hero on the right is that his adversary is a federal entity, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), operating under an Obama-controlled White House. The government has been attempting to collect fees from Bundy for 20 years – killing an endangered species is OK as long as you pay for it – but the situation has been in jeopardy of exploding in recent weeks.

Protesters gather at the Bureau of Land Management's base camp near Bunkerville, Nevada

Between fracking and widespread deforestation, the way private entities pillage public land for profit is a tragic disgrace. Bundy wants his freedom to participate, too, and conservatives have rallied in his defense.

As evidence that Bundy’s life as a cause célèbre for the right is based entirely on politics and not on principle, recent racist comments of Bundy’s have caused many of his supporters to walk back their endorsement. Whether he’s a racist or not has nothing to do with whether he’s right or wrong to use federal land in the way he has been – which is, apparently, freely and recklessly.

This is why, despite his multitudinous and colossal douche baggery, I find a very, very small measure of support for Bundy’s cause. His disregard of an endangered species is by far his biggest crime, but good luck selling the idea that a tortoise is more important than a hamburger. Nonetheless, there are questions about the way the government regulates both public and private land, and the Bundy case brings them to light.

Americans who choose to live their life in nontraditional ways face serious and disastrous consequences. Stories break fairly routinely about people in America being punished for living off the land or off the grid. Circumstances vary from story to story – one recent incident saw a renaissance woman being punished for using the sewer system for free – but taken as a whole, the stories paint a compelling portrait of an America that does not tolerate its citizens opting out of the established corrupt, corporate-driven society.

Bundy’s case is very sad for this reason as much as any other. By the right’s making a martyr of such an unsympathetic “victim,” there is a darker outlook on others who might, unlike Bundy, live outside business and the government’s jurisdiction in reasonable, eco-friendly ways. Under the draconian and radical-right direction of the present U.S. government, it isn’t difficult to imagine, for instance, a day when bicyclists will be fined for not pumping gas.

Bundy supporters confront the BLM agents.

Bundy supporters confront the BLM agents.

I also think it’s not so straightforward to criticize Bundy’s militia for showing up with guns. In a recent piece for Salon, Eric Stern writes, “Many repossession and foreclosure actions often involve a sheriff or other armed officials, and confiscation of property is an ordinary means by which a government resolves a debt.” Stern seems to wave his hand at this, saying it’s par for the course and therefore Bundy has no right to resist it.

Yet many folks, including many with the support of their communities and/or the Occupy movement, have protected their homes from bank foreclosures with a collective body mass. That, I think, is a tremendously wonderful and noble thing. Bundy’s wrongness doesn’t stem from his decision to meet an asset seizure with resistance – even armed resistance – but rather his dubious motivation, i.e., his desire to continue pillaging public land without consequence. That’s an important distinction, and to fail to make it is to leave others who resist asset seizure for better reasons open to the same criticism.

Bundy has not been done an injustice by the U.S. government. His reaction to this simple act of bureaucratic enforcement is dangerous and extreme. But the way the story is being presented is just as harmful because of the presupposed universality. It isn’t always wrong to resist asset seizure, nor is it always wrong to call bullshit on certain government fees. It just so happens that Bundy is wrong.


My guess is that cooler heads will eventually prevail. Some lawyer or bureaucrat will talk Bundy down, the BLM will reduce or waive the fee with certain conditions, and the situation may be declared a victory for democracy and the Tea Party. That’s the only reason it might not work – the government-business complex is never too pleased with successful democratic coercion. But in many perverse ways, that is exactly what it will be.

If not, there’s no telling what could happen. It’s a hostile situation, and it’s made all the more combustible by the careless waving around of deadly weapons on both sides. Hopefully, the situation resolves itself peaceably. My only real wish is that this energy could be harnessed for something more productive, like preserving the endangered desert tortoise. Because despite Bundy’s philosophical wrongness, it takes serious energy and popular support of the kind he’s receiving to enact meaningful change. People have just got to choose better causes.