USA: Transect by Train, Part III

Pacific Time

Day four began in bleak Arizona (we’d slept through Utah), on a flat plain washed over with grey, with steep bare mountains in the distance ahead of us.  Sparse vegetation grew on the sandy soil.  I couldn’t imagine what brings people to live here, but then saw some sort of mining operation, followed by various other industrial sites.  We began to follow a surprising river, which enabled some hardy trees to grow and led us into the mountains.

We gained height fairly rapidly and soon the pine trees were colonising the land, until, once more, we were back in winter.  Snow covered the ground and weighed down the pines’ branches, making them droop.  It was no impediment to the train, which persevered upwards on gleaming rails.  Soon we were curving round the sides of mountains, the ground to our right falling away into deep v-shaped valleys with mist rising up from their depths.  The mountain-tops were hidden in low-hanging cloud.  We reached 7000 feet at the highest point and then descended back down to autumn, with deciduous trees interspersed amongst the pines: few at first, then more, and we began to pass the occasional house.  The soil became a rich orange, the vegetation more lush.  Soon we were in the rolling foothills, leaving the Sierras behind in favour of an increasingly Mediterranean landscape with small vineyards.  By that point I had lost all sense of direction, location, and altitude.  I wanted to get off the train and run through the woods.  We had reached California.

With a few hours left before my destination, I was left feeling overwhelmed by the changing landscape; every new geological and ecological assemblage awed me with another kind of power.  Partly because of the scale of it: the continent unfolding on and on, the train tirelessly exposing new vistas to my island eyes: I began to understand the American presumption of never-ending resources and limitless possibilities.  It wasn’t just the space that overwhelmed me, but the intensity of humanity in each new place we passed, arranging itself into different communities, adapting to different circumstances: urban and rural; hilly and flat; arid, wet, and snowy.  At the same time, I had seen and heard indications of the limits within which we live, no matter what the continental mystique of infinity would have us believe.  The half-empty reservoirs near Denver, the wildfires near Boulder, the soil depletion, the loss of biodiversity in the great agricultural factory-land that used to be prairies in Iowa and Illinois.  Adaptation is not a single event but an ever-present requirement: once you begin to shape the earth to your needs, you create new environments that demand new adjustments.

Before we run out of coal in places like Wyoming and oil in places like Colorado, enormous shifts are likely to occur in our climatic systems, shifts that will reach even to the American heartland.  On my path westwards across the continent, I began to wonder.  In this country with its cornucopia of non-human nature and with such a diversity of communities, each one partially a product of human ingenuity and partially a product of the distinctive environment in which it is placed; a country that created the world’s first National Parks, that lived through the Dust Bowl and continues to live through more regular terrors like hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and floods – how can the people who live in such a country fail to take seriously the existential threat of climate change?  Or should I say, perhaps, the government of such a country?  How can the electorate stand for such an irresponsible, shameful set of politicians who appear to be happy to trade off the USA’s stunning natural heritage – not to mention the resilience of its myriad communities – for a few bucks from a sleazy fossil fuel industry lobbyist?

This country is truly breathtaking; everything I have seen on my four-day slow transect by train has left me at times speechless, many times humbled – not just by the spectacular scenery but by the people I’ve met and their everyday stories, like the guy who was on his way back from Iowa visiting his old dad, all the way from San Francisco and back on the train, just for his dad who’s not very well.  The terms of our existence are changing as a largely unintended result of our own fossil-fuelled actions, but as the years roll by without significant progress on tackling climate change, we cannot continue to assert our non-complicity.  Of course Americans have the capacity to change things for the better.  You think the personal effort is too hard?  Tell that to the people who spent years of sweaty dangerous back-breaking labour building a train line over the Rocky Mountains.


USA: Transect by Train, Part II

Mountain Time

ImageI woke up just before the sun began to light up the eastern horizon, at first almost pitiful against the deep blackness of the rest of the dome of sky.  I watched Colorado greying into colour.  Flat like Iowa, but more rugged and less fertile-looking, with patches of snow lingering in sheltered hollows.  As the sun gained ground, blue mountains appeared in the west.  The guy from Chicago I’d met in the dining car the evening before said the highest ones reached 14,000 feet.  Even Denver, sitting on the edge of the plains, is a mile high.  The bare landscape became increasingly populated with houses and we passed an enormous oil refinery, followed by what turned out to be stockyards – rough wooden fences squaring up against each other, but all empty.  We were seated with a tiny old woman who was off to visit her daughter in Boulder, whose house had “exploded” in a fire storm two years ago and has been in therapy ever since – she and her husband had to literally run for their lives, leaving their home behind to be engulfed in flames.  No one died, though a huge area was devastated.

From Denver, it was 35 minutes to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  A woman with hair dyed red and three inches of grey roots sat at the table opposite me with her grandson, a very sweet-faced boy who hardly said a word but who nodded his head with an enthusiastic smile when his grandma asked him if he was having fun.  She was taking him to Grand Junction, on the other side of the Rockies.  We passed square pools of standing water – reservoirs, worryingly low, with large patches of exposed ground at one end.  “It hasn’t rained,” explained the woman, “there’s been a drought for two years now.”  The lack of snow was unusual for this time of year, and there had been a lot of wildfires.  She told her son this was this boring bit, chugging out of Denver, and I said we’d seen a huge oil refinery on the way into the city and I hadn’t realised this was an oil-producing area.  “Oh yes,” she said, “and they seem to be drilling everywhere these days”.  She seemed mildly pissed off, as if they were cluttering up the countryside.  The boy got tired and they went to have a nap.

ImageThe lounge car filled up to the seams after the conductor said there would soon be great views of the mountains.  An elderly man in a light blue shirt asked if he could sit at my table.  “I’m Billy O’Reilly a retired teacher from Roseville California travelling with a group of senior citizens organised by a group called America by Rail”, he announced precisely, with no punctuation.  He was a little hard of hearing but very talkative.  Born in Oklahoma in the 1930s, his dad lost his hand working the oil derricks in Oklahoma and Texas.  World War II started and they joined the wave of migration to Los Angeles to do war work, where his parents laboured in ship-building – his mum used to cut sheets of metal with a blowtorch.  The parts would be manufactured in Pennsylvania then assembled on the west coast into “Liberty boats” – not battleships but vehicles to take supplies across the Pacific.  Billy’s brother was old enough to fight but he was only 17, so earned pocket money selling newspapers when the shifts changed at the shipyards, which used to run 24 hours a day.  After the war ended his family remained in California, not feeling the need to return back east: “There’d been the Dust Bowl, you might’ve heard of that, we weren’t farmers but…”  He didn’t continue but I sensed they had felt there was nothing to go back to.

ImageBilly has been on lots of train journeys and he strongly encouraged me to visit the railroad museum in Sacramento.  He was awed by the railroad through the Rockies: “This isn’t a twentieth-century construction, it was the nineteenth century and they didn’t have the machines they have now, they had picks and shovels.  Some of the route, they shaved just enough off the mountain-side to fit the railroad on, and they got all these Chinese workers over here and they’d be hanging off the cliff, drilling holes and filling them with dynamite”.  The train was snaking up and up, elegant swoops of railroad falling behind us, and beyond that was the flat land we had crossed overnight.  The skyscrapers of downtown Denver were already dusted over with the particles of the intervening air.  We gained height astonishingly quickly, the gentle hillsides becoming ever more jagged.

We dived into tunnels in the red sandstone.  The blond woman at the table behind me poked me and told me to take pictures of a dam that had sprung into view.  Billy and I were joined by a doctor’s wife and her grandson, while steep slopes rose up on either side of us, forests of pine trees clinging improbably to the rocky ground.  I asked the woman why many of the trees had no needles and she told me it was a new disease that had struck mysteriously, which they were only just bringing under control.  Beetles, she remembered.  I later checked and found out this is the most extreme infestation in US history, partly due to recent relatively warm winters allowing the pests to flourish and attack trees at higher altitudes.  The situation is worsened by decades of suppressing wild fires, which leaves more trees vulnerable.  Ironically, once the trees have been killed by the beetles, they become giant matchsticks, dramatically increasing the danger of fire.

ImageThe pine beetle woman had spent time in Europe when her husband was posted in Germany as an army doctor.  She like Germany and Belgium, but thought the French were rude.  “Which is odd, y’know, because we’ve helped them out so much.  Why would they not like Americans?”  “It’s terrible, agreed Bill.  “You give them money and they turn around and give you a slap in the face.”  He looked disgusted.  The land was a dry orange.  We reached the highest point of the journey, a tunnel at around 9000 feet that took us under the continental divide (rainfall on one side ends up in the Atlantic, rainfall on the other side drains into the Pacific).  When we emerged on the Rockies’ western face, it was winter.  Up to our left, people were skiing.  It began to blizzard, and everyone cheered – quite a few of them with relief because they’d brought their skis, others because snow means a water supply.  It was a stunning shift in season, as if Jadis had flown out of Narnia and cast her wintry spell here.

We descended slowly, giving me time to take in the spectacular scenery.  Chicago, eat your heart out – skyscrapers are nothing on these precipitous canyons created by years of patient water-work.  Layer upon layer of deep red rock, cuboid outcrops, sturdy and grounded yet precariously tall.  We were tiny, following a river downwards.  At the top, the water had been so cold it had snow floating on its surface, even as it tumbled over jagged boulders.  Further down, the snow had disappeared and the water was a glacial blue, rolling over rounded large pebbles in a widening channel.  We sometimes saw cows grazing on bits of flat floodplain – areas that resisted the general trend for perpendicularity.  By now I had been joined by a grandpa, dad, and son trio, who were looking out for bald eagles.  We didn’t see any eagles, but we did see, far up the slope above us, a white car wreck shrunk by distance, which had plummeted off the highway even higher above us.  “Last time we came this way there was a red one,” remarked the grandpa.  We played a game of Scrabble on their i-pad.

ImageWe passed two or three trains hauling carfuls of coal, which looked like piles of black gems.  Pine beetle woman had said there were lots of coal mines in the Rockies – her dad had worked in one, got black lung but lived until the age of 99.  But Scrabble man said all this coal was coming from further north – Wyoming – then dragged over the Rockies to fuel Denver’s power stations.  We followed the Colorado River down a flat valley with steep red cliffs on either side, about half as high as the gorge but impressive nonetheless, especially when lit up a bright orange by the setting sun, which captured every crevice and mineral vein with its disappearing rays.  By evening, the land had flattened out, though it was still hard-edged without much vegetation.  It was arid, like a road trip movie – this would be where the car or motorbike would break down and the protagonists would all fall out with each other.  I began to feel pre-emptive nostalgia for this travelling community, the unstructured days, the magnificent landscapes, the gentle blowing of the horn, and the sense of movement.

ImageI met a jolly Coloradan whose florid red face and white hair and sturdy moustache matched the snow on the sandstone cliffs of the Rockies.  He was travelling five hours to Salt Lake City for a doctor’s appointment at the VA hospital there, because the VA hospital where he lives does not have heart specialists (VA = Veterans Affairs, a US government benefits programme).  He’d given up his composting business and started getting treatment for heart disease once the US government had decided that Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War was linked to heart problems.  That was two years ago.  When he retired, he wanted to sell his business, but the financial crash happened and forced his prospective buyers to pull out.   He had lived in Colorado his whole life, except for two years’ military service, and knew the place intimately.  He likes to raft down the Colorado River and camp out in the steep-sided valley we had passed through, but he says it’s not the ideal location.  When the freight trains roll by at night, first you feel the vibrations in the ground, and then what he described as “shock waves” as the air displaced by the fast-moving weight of iron and coal bounces across the valley from one side to another, trapped by the orange cliffs.


USA: Transect by Train, Part I

One Brit, two continental coasts, three trains, four time zones, and fifteen states.


Eastern Time

I left New Haven, Connecticut at dawn, my notebook lit by the sun blasting in through the window from across Long Island Sound, with the train rocking from side to side and making writing difficult.  New England factories and power plants stood between me and the water, interspersed with stretches of marshland and inlets lined with bulrushes.  Almost-naked trees that Sandy had stripped of this season’s yellows and reds; graffitied brick buildings; pylons and cables bisecting the sky overhead; yellow diggers on building sites, and the sun hitting the suburban wood-planked houses square on their eastern faces.  Factories were puffing white steam; brick chimneys poked their chemical cocktails high into the sky; and we passed old warehouses with boarded-up windows and new warehouses of corrugated plastic with no windows.  I sipped my Dunkin’ Donuts tea and watched Connecticut slip away, fixing my thoughts on San Francisco, where I would spend Thanksgiving after four days of train travel.  It was essentially a lazy person’s Duke of Edinburgh expedition, with more books and less exercise.

Image The train settled into a comfortable trundle, setting the pace for the rest of the journey.  Eight hours later I was on my second train of three, trundling out of Washington, D.C.  I knew the drill this time, after my railroad ride to Iowa last year: as soon as the ticket collector had passed by, I was in the viewing lounge on the upper deck, drinking another cup of tea.  The sun was balancing on the horizon, deepening into orange, and the landscape was thickening with trees as we headed inland away from the industrial coast.  The trees took over the horizon but the sinking sun blazed like fire between the branches.  There was no wind when we reached the West Virginia hills, so the trees were reflected perfectly on the surface of the wide, slow river we were following.  I pressed my forehead to the glass to prevent the train’s lights interfering with my view of the darkening hills, and imagined the colonising Europeans viewing the same landscape for the first time in the sixteenth century.

Central Time

“Over here we call them Democrats!” quipped the bloke from Ohio who I’d been placed opposite for breakfast in the dining car, when I told him I was studying the environment.  We were crossing frosty Indiana farmland.  I remembered someone at Yale telling me in all seriousness that Indiana was full of crazy Republicans, but it was difficult to confirm or deny that point when only presented with a landscape.  At least they weren’t crazy enough to elect the Senate candidate who had suggested that pregnancy caused by rape was “something God intended to happen”.  The waitress grudgingly asked me what I wanted to drink and marched off to fetch it.  “She’s very pleasant,” smiled the Ohio bloke’s wife sweetly.  The couple were in their sixties, off to Chicago for a couple of days’ break before hosting the family for Thanksgiving.

ImageWe arrived in Chicago on time, giving me five hours before my next train.  I left Union Station, crossed the sluggish river and headed west to the lakeside in the bright sunshine.  The downtown is overcrowded with megaliths, a forest of glass skyscrapers each trying to out-do the other – to be the most imposing, with the sparkliest windows.  Somehow they seem naked, as if they are trying too hard – too ostentatious, too obviously decadent.  Stark capitalism with no civic virtues to give it a facelift.  After I’d walked by the lake, avoiding the duck droppings, I joined the queue of people stretching down the steps of the Art Institute and along the street, being harassed/entertained by an enterprising homeless guy trying to sell what seemed to be the US version of the Big Issue.  I bought a student ticket and went to hang out with the Impressionists.  I was standing gazing at Van Gogh’s painting of his room, admiring the perspective and vivacious colours, looking at how perfectly he’d done the bed and the chairs and wondering why the pictures on the wall were wonky, when a man standing next to me said “Tell me, why do you look at this picture so long?”  He was rotund and grey-haired, with a thick French accent.  I told him, and he said “Yes, the perspective is exquisite.  I have seen copies of this picture many times, but this is the first time I have seen the original”.  He seemed quite moved.

I was also drawn to Monet’s pictures of London in the fog.  The one of the Houses of Parliament, dusky but still iconic and easily recognisable, was particularly beautiful – Monet was like a magician with colours, or a musician who seems to effortlessly create new harmonies that take you by surprise but that resonate deeply within you.  Looking at that painting made me strangely aware of my own embeddedness in time and space: here I am, in downtown Chicago, drifting westwards across a foreign continent by myself, when I come across a painting of a building I used to cycle past regularly, in which I’ve got lost and felt awed by history – painted a century ago by a Frenchman who was entranced by the quality of the landscape created by the fog, which as well as being beautiful and mysterious was a product of the Industrial Revolution, whose long-running climatic effects brought me to Yale to study the politics of the environment.

That evening, I headed off into a second sunset across flat Illinois.  So much space, the horizon appears only when your eyes give up distinguishing between field and sky.  A great patchwork of land, straw-coloured and earth-coloured, sprawls endlessly, with no walls, fences, or any perceptible dividers, just a sudden, straight-lined shift from one field to another.  Here and there a cluster of buildings protected by trees, like feudal manors with their territory staked out – but also like small factories, each farm with its huge steel grain storage cylinders growing out of the ground next to the trees.  Back home I would have to climb to the top of Grindslow Knoll to see this far in all directions. 

ImageI marvelled at how much this landscape has been transformed: from prairie to homesteads to industrial ag, networked by electricity pylons, drainage ditches, and roads (dead straight as if the Romans have marched through), with an occasional smattering of wind turbines.  And this train line, of course – easy to forget the position from which you see the world.  There used to be loads of railroads, sometimes two or three lying next to each other on the same route, all competing for custom: transporting white-pine wood down from the Great Lakes for homesteaders to build their houses on the pineless prairie; bringing cattle and pigs up from the South to be fattened on Midwest grass and slaughtered in Chicago; and conveying thousands of people, some of them to San Francisco like me.  It was dark by the time we crossed the wide Mississippi River into Iowa.

A geographer on history: What does it have to do with me?

Having resolved to communicate more about what I am learning and thinking during my graduate studies, I thought I would begin with one of the first assignments of this semester: to consider the question, ‘what is the history of the modern world and what does it have to do with me?’  I could have chosen to discuss calculus, which we are studying in our statistics class, but it doesn’t lend itself quite so easily to the format of blogging.  Plus, I am only at a painfully basic stage (as in, embarrassingly basic while still being fairly uncomfortable to endure) of calculus.  Historians will probably think this blog is also at quite a basic level of analysis, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment.

The history of the modern world is one of shifting geographies.  By ‘geographies’, I mean the constellations of political, environmental, cultural, social, and economic processes that define and shape a place.  We can think of geographies in the plural because, as well as there being numerous places in the world, there are different scales of analysis: local, national, and international.

At any one point in history, you find yourself occupying a particular point in space that is constituted by these multiple, intersecting processes (cultural, economic, etc.), which themselves change over time, i.e. historically.  If you can understand how these processes are working at a particular moment, you can understand your place in the world and the forces that keep you there or that push you towards another place (whether ‘you’ are an individual, an organisation, or a country).

If you can understand how these processes have changed over time, you can understand how and why you arrived at that particular place and why other people did not.  Understanding how the world’s geography has changed over time also helps you to avoid teleology – a sense of inevitability.  This is because historical study can reveal the uncertainties and alternative options that decision-makers have faced across the years, as well as the unintended consequences, unforeseen developments, or already-existing factors that were ignored, which led to expectations being unmet.  In understanding the history of why and how change has or has not happened, you begin to see the present as a still-shifting geography, and to see yourself as an agent of change who interacts with, and is part of, that geography.

Learning the history of the modern world can be a radical process: going back to the roots of a situation and working out how it could have been otherwise.  What are the forces or processes maintaining that situation?   How deeply entrenched are those forces or processes – or are they precarious?

The history of the modern world is also the history of ideas: how they arise and take root, or do not take root.  That is a political process, as much as it is an intellectual one.  Why do some ideas appear to be self-evident?  Some, perhaps, seem this way because they have been well-evidenced and established by the scientific method – like the idea that the Earth travels round the Sun.

Other ideas can seem self-evident because they form part of the make-up of the political status-quo; they are perpetuated on a daily basis by the media, by politicians, and by other well-respected or high-status figures within society.  Even though they might not be well-evidenced or established by the scientific method (which, I hasten to say, is not itself entirely free from bias or subjectivity), these ideas can become so well-instated that they begin to feel as natural as the fact that the Earth travels round the Sun.  The concept of never-ending economic growth is one example – a concept that has proved surprisingly resilient despite the financial upheavals of the past few years and despite the ever-more-dire warnings of decreasing ecological capacity to underpin the current global model of resource-intensive economic expansion.

I’m not sure “the history” of the world, in its entirety, is something that can ever be grasped.  But perhaps it doesn’t need to be.  Writing history is always a selective process, based on including and excluding.  It depends what you’re interested in finding out.  Our most commonly-used tools for understanding history are writing and reading, and the history-writer has the difficult task of translating a four-dimensional process (shifting geographies over time, in all sorts of directions) into a linear narrative, in which word follows word and chapter follows chapter.  Historians are limited by page limits and intellectual stamina.  The definition of history, then, is to tease out the strands that seem relevant from the knotted and frayed rope of time.

Museum curators might disagree with the above description, with reason.  Unlike books, articles, and blogs, museums create their own geographies of the past, with which the contemporary visitor can interact.  A well-designed exhibition can create a sense of time as you wander along its paths, while overlaying the different processes that make and reshape each historical era.  There might be reconstructed past physical environments or human settlements.  Perhaps some dug-up artefacts for you to contemplate their cultural, economic, social, or political significance.  Maybe costumed actors to perform the lives of people long dead.  A museum exhibition still involves the decisions of what to include and what to exclude, but it can use three-dimensional space to weave different strands of history together.

History is further complicated because the world continues to change, day by month by year, so you’re always asking questions in relation to something that is itself not fixed.  Insofar as the world is always moving or changing, our understandings of history will change too: different parts become salient, others forgotten.

Finally, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe, once you start to look at the history of the world’s geography and the human experience of continuation and change.  There have been tremendous struggles and stunning inventions during the layering-up of years of human creativity and passion.  We have seen power wielded sometimes wisely and sometimes terribly, sometimes by a few and sometimes by the many.  History enables us to appreciate how often people doggedly go on living, despite the seemingly impossible endurance required (which is why I am sure I will persevere through the statistics class).

The history of the modern world evokes an image of the world as our home, with disparate places and people becoming connected ever more closely.  It indicates that there are some processes we can influence, maybe even control, and others we cannot.  There are some processes we can influence collectively, but not individually – and vice versa.  It puts the twenty-first century in perspective: there are challenges that await us, the like of which we have never before faced and which may require unprecedented response.  It remains to be seen whether the necessary scale of response and degree of cooperation will materialise.

Above all, world history creates a sense of legacy: of what we have inherited, and what we will leave for future generations to inherit.  What does it have to do with me?  It means I am internationalist in outlook and forward-thinking in ambition.  Those are distant horizons, indeed, and the challenge is in finding a way to locate myself in relation to that geography.

Climate change and justice

One of my classes this week was on “climate justice”.  In the history of ideas, this is a relatively new one, which is used to highlight how the burdens of climate change are likely to be borne disproportionately by people who are already dealing with poverty and/or powerlessness.  Meanwhile, the benefits of the activities that cause climate change are enjoyed disproportionately by the world’s richest and most powerful people, with their resource-intensive lifestyles.  But I found that understanding the dictionary definition of the term generates more questions than it answers.  It doesn’t provide an immediately straightforward path for dealing with the problem – indeed, the closer you look, the messier the situation seems.  I started trying to make sense of it by scribbling down ideas and connecting them up, spider-diagram style.  This blog (and perhaps one or two blogs after this) is an attempt to disentangle the different things we mean when we ask that justice be done.

What does justice have to do with climate change?

Humans seem to have a deeply-embedded sense of justice, which they use to interrogate the world around them and decide whether what they see and experience is ‘just’ or not.  I remember feeling it at an early age, carefully weighing up at Christmastime whether the presents my siblings received were equal in worth to the presents I received.  But I’m not sure where it comes from – that’s opening up a whole can of worms.  Nature or nurture?  Spiritual sensibility, religious doctrine, or evolutionary advantage?  I’m not going to speculate on that topic here; for the sake of argument we’ll just take it as given that it’s there and it’s partially responsible for driving human actions.

There is no natural law or scientific logic that demands we tackle climate change.  Scientific evidence, theory, and models suggest the planet’s climate is changing.  There is other evidence that suggests these changes will, on balance, be harmful to human activity.  But science does not say “you ought to do such and such”.  Science can only say what is (and it doesn’t often say that – it’s more likely to say “there’s a good chance that such and such is occurring because of x, y, and z”).  It is up to us, as human beings with a sense of morality, to interpret the scientific findings and decide what it is we ought to do.  (Of course, this is an idealised description.  In practice, the distinction between facts and values does not clearly map onto the realms of science and politics/morality.)

A sense of justice is not the only driving force behind efforts to tackle climate change, but it is one of the big ones.  At the heart of these efforts is an acknowledgement that it would not be fair for this generation to leave the planet worse off than its present state.  There’s also a sense that it’s not fair for people with few resources to bear the cost of a problem caused by people rich in resources.  Ideas about justice and responsibility are embedded in the narratives we use to talk about climate change.  These narratives are important because they shape our actions, through helping us to determine which actions we believe to be good or right.

But not all of our stories agree.  People have different ideas about what a just world would look like, and different ideas about the best way to get there.  This is part of what makes it hard to agree on a global climate change deal.  It is clearly not the whole explanation – conflicting personal, national, and corporate agendas, for example, are a huge part of the mix – but disentangling the different ideas about justice is a step towards bringing more clarity to the debate.  It seems to me that justice must be considered at three different levels.  Level 1 is the pre-existing situation: how just is the world as we find it?  Level 2 is the process by which we make decisions.  Level 3 is the outcomes of those decisions.  These three levels are interrelated.  They are also ‘nested’ to some extent: justice at the first level makes it more likely there will be justice at the second level, which makes it more likely there will be justice at the third level.  I’ll discuss each in turn, beginning with Level 3.

Just outcomes

This is a huge topic.  Many arguments have been put forward as to what it is that makes an outcome just, or fair.  This short discussion won’t do them justice (ahem), but hopefully I’ll give you a taste of what they’re about.  One of the obvious types of justice at this level is distributive justice, the idea that an outcome is fair if it allocates costs and benefits in a fair way.  But ‘fair’ here could mean a variety of things.  Say you have a chocolate cake you’d like to share with 10 of your friends.  You might say it’s fairest to give everyone an equally-sized piece of cake – an equal allocation of benefits.  But what if two of your friends have just been to a bakery and bought themselves cake already?  Maybe it would be fairer not to give any chocolate cake to the friends who already have some, because they don’t need any more.  That would be another type of distributive justice, on the basis of necessity.

Or there might be a situation where one of your friends was suffering from obesity and you believe they ought to lose weight, and another one of your friends was looking too thin and you reckon they could really do with some extra calories.  Then you might try and distribute the chocolate cake on the basis of where it could do the most good: give almost all of the cake to the really skinny person, give none to the obese person, and maybe allow a tiny slice for anyone else who looked as if eating a bit of chocolate would do them some good.  This sort of justice is based on the idea of trying to be most efficient with your resources, to do the most good, or ‘maximise efficiency’.

But even this method is not without its problems.  What if the skinny person says they’d rather have a cheese salad sandwich, because they don’t like chocolate cake?  Or if the obese person is on a Weightwatchers plan and has designed this week’s diet with your cake-party in mind, making sure that a slice of chocolate cake would keep them within their weekly calorie count?  Or if the local cultural norms surrounding cake parties deem it unforgivably rude to withhold cake from any of your guests?  You get the idea.  Implementing justice is never straightforward in real life.  Another argument is that a ‘just’ outcome is one where the outcome itself may be uneven, but everyone has had an equal opportunity to get the benefits.  If you said your guests could only eat cake if they did 10 star-jumps first, and some were too lazy to do that, you could argue it’s not your fault they didn’t get any cake – they’ve only got themselves to blame (though that might not be very fair of you if one of them has a broken leg).

Other arguments about distributive justice focus on who should be asked to distribute their resources, rather than who receives them: why should it be you making the effort to give out chocolate cake and not your neighbour?  Perhaps it should be the person who is most fond of baking and most ‘willing to pay’.  Or should it be the person who has been most stingy in the past, and has never before given out any cake, thereby contributing to the chronic cake shortage that has developed in the neighbourhood?  This gets us to the idea of ‘corrective’ or ‘compensatory’ justice.  It’s the idea of just deserts (no pun intended): those who’ve done the most to cause a problem should do the most to remedy it.

In the context of climate change, the idea of what constitutes a just outcome is hotly disputed.  When states created the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which now provides the forum for the global talks on climate that happen each December, it was formed on the basis of some key principles of international environmental law.  One of those is the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, which acknowledges that climate change is everyone’s problem, but that some countries should do more to tackle it than others.  This is for two reasons: first, they have a greater capacity to do so (i.e. they’re richer); and secondly, they have historically emitted more greenhouse gases, so have done the most to create the problem in the first place.  It’s an eminently sensible principle, but still doesn’t show you a clear way forward.  People disagree, for example, about whether we should put most weight on historical emissions, or on present day emissions-rates.  And should we compare emissions on the basis of each country’s total emissions, or on the emissions per person?

Making decisions in a just way

But in any case, why should it be you who decides how to distribute the cake?  Especially if, say, you won it in the local church raffle with tickets you’d found on the floor of the village hall?  Maybe some of your friends would have liked a say in deciding how the cake should be distributed, particularly the skinny one who doesn’t even like chocolate cake.  And in order to decide whether they even want to eat your cake, they’re demanding access to information (e.g. whether it’s gluten-free, with sustainably-sourced sugar).  This is Level 2 – procedural justice.  Many people argue that you’re unlikely to achieve just outcomes (Level 3, above), if you don’t use a fair process to make the decisions.  For example, some might say it’s unlikely for the UK to have a fair tax system if the people making the tax rules are billionaires schooled at Eton – oh, hang on, um…  Anyway, procedural justice in the context of climate change involves, for example, the principle that all affected parties should be able to participate in decision-making; everyone should have access to information about climate change so they can make well-informed decisions; and no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour, nationality, gender, and so on.  The assumption is that the system will be fairer if all interested parties have equal negotiating power.

Again, this is difficult to put into practice.  At the UN climate talks, the wealthier nations send lots of people to negotiate on their behalf.  Small island states, under enormous threat from sea level rise, can usually only afford to send one or two negotiators.  Should being poor mean that you should be excluded from full participation in decisions that will affect the future of your country?  And if you look beyond the international level, the situation is more complex still.  The particular power dynamics within a given country can mean that certain groups are not included in the national decision-making process.  For example, many indigenous communities say the mainstream political system does not do enough to make room for their particular experiences, knowledges, and needs.  And many young people cannot vote, yet climate change will affect their lives more than the lives of present-day politicians.

A just starting-point

Underlying the debates about what makes a just outcome and what makes a just process is the context within which these debates happen: the real-world situation we need to apply these decisions to.  This is Level 1, to go back to my 3-part system for thinking about justice:  the pre-existing lie of the land.  A given situation could sit anywhere on a scale of ‘absolutely just’ to ‘not at all just’.  At the moment, the world is further towards the ‘not at all just’ end of the spectrum, which makes it even harder to do justice when a new, unjust situation arises, such as climate change (though you could argue about the extent to which this represents new injustices or just exacerbates older ones).  It can be very hard to do justice in an unjust world, because injustice comes in many forms and they tend to get tangled up in one another.  You start trying to remedy one injustice, like gender-based inequalities, and then realise you can’t really tackle that without thinking about other injustices too, such as racial inequalities.  Furthermore, there aren’t many decisions that lead to an outcome where no one is worse off – “win-win” situations don’t often exist in reality.  Beginning with an unjust lie of the land makes it even harder to make sure that justice can be done to everyone, all of the time.  Corrective justice, as mentioned above, has an impact on the baseline situation because it starts to make the situation more just.

As a final comment, I’ll note that there is a difference between, first, recognising that the world as we find it is unjust, and second, accepting that this is the way it should be.  The decisions we make will only be sensible if they are grounded in an understanding of how the world works at present.  But the true baseline against which we measure our actions should be an understanding of how the world ought to be.  This has implications for the way we frame the choices we are presented with.  We mustn’t conflate “is” with “ought”.  People talk about continually increasing greenhouse gas emissions as “business as usual”.  It feels natural.  If we accept this as our baseline, then it seems as if emissions reduction targets are asking rich people with resource-intensive lifestyles to make sacrifices, to reduce their emissions as an act of charity.  From this perspective, the rich can’t go wrong: either they carry on doing what they’re doing, which no one could argue with, because it’s what they’ve always been doing.  Or they could be magnanimous and agree to curb their emissions.  Then they get to feel good about themselves, and everyone is very grateful.  This is one of the few win-win situations that exist in reality.  Alternatively, we could say the true, desirable, and just baseline is a healthy and resilient biosphere and a human system in which greenhouse gas emissions are restricted.  Then the rich, who are required to restrict their emissions, are seen to be doing their duty, out of a sense of responsibility for preserving something of unspeakable value to humanity.

Wind farms: What’s the problem?

Wind turbines never fail to raise a few hackles in the UK.  Why is that?  Perhaps partly because those steel poles have become totem poles in the national imagination – but emblematic of different ideas for different people.  Depending on your perspective, they could represent a perverse eco-agenda to industrialise the British land- and seascapes, or a more ecologically-secure future, or maybe a job opportunity.

The National Trust has recently spoken out against wind farms, calling them a “public menace”*.  American businessman Donald Trump is throwing a vitriolic tantrum about the possibility of them blocking the view from his new golf course in Scotland.  Robert Mendick and Edward Malnick at the Sunday Telegraph recently portrayed the wind industry as an evil operation intent on gobbling up government subsidies through a horrifying network of lobbyists, to the detriment of the humble taxpayer.

At least one thing is clear: decisions about energy will always be tough.  If we want to continue to live energy-intensive lifestyles, we’re going to have to produce the stuff somewhere.  But if you want to become a smart participant in the energy debate, you’ll need to work out what questions to ask – and what questions other people asked before they delivered their verdicts.  The way you frame the problem will constrain the “solutions” you come up with.

Trump’s framing of the problem is “how can I maximise the profit I make from my golf-course investment?  And incidentally, how can I most effectively wind up those liberal interfering do-gooders who are obviously jealous of my hard-won success in life?”  The questions he isn’t asking are just as interesting – like, say, “how will future generations enjoy this golf course if the sea rises up and swamps it?”

The National Trust’s problem is outlined in its mission statement: amongst other aims, it wants to “look after places of historic interest or natural beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation”.  I’m pretty sympathetic to this agenda, but it’s not as straightforward as it seems.  The NT recognises climate change as a big threat to that mission, and is doing a lot to reduce its own emissions, which is great.  It needs to be very careful, however, in the way it uses its influential brand to shape the public debate about renewable energy in the UK – especially at a time where the green agenda is coming under fire from grumpy Tory backbenchers (not to mention Cabinet members who ought to be toeing the coalition line).

Mendick and Malnick’s problem is, at first sight, that of stopping government interference in what should be a free market.  But read a little closer, and you see the problem becomes “how can we keep power in the hands of the already-powerful, and wealth in the hands of the already-wealthy?”  Because the present situation is not even close to a free market in energy.  The influence of the fossil fuel industry on UK politics dwarfs the puny political power of the fledgling renewables companies.  Fossil fuel groups work hard to maintain the status quo and keep government subsidies flowing the way they’ve flowed for decades.  The folly here is to ignore some of the biggest challenges to the status quo: climate change; resource shortages; and hubris.

Here are a few alternative questions.  Like, how much energy is it ok for the UK to consume?  How can we produce enough energy for the UK while doing our bit to keep the world from crossing “planetary boundaries” – the thresholds which lie between a safe operating space for humanity, and a dangerous loss to the biosphere’s resilience and ability to keep supporting human needs and wants.  You might also ask how we can do this while supporting human flourishing.  Which begs the question: what is it about the world that we want to sustain?

*Clarification (15th Feb): The comments were from the NT’s renegade chairman, not the organisation itself.  The latter has said its chairman’s comments “don’t chime” with the NT’s position on wind farms.

Mixed reactions to agreement reached at Durban climate negotiations

The United Nations climate negotiations of 2011, which have been taking place in Durban, South Africa for the past couple of weeks, ended this morning after running far into extra time, with what Politico calls “a deal for more deal-making”.  Whether you think it’s a success or not depends on whether you’re comparing the agreement to where we were before Durban, or to where we need to go.  This result is more than many people had been expecting: professors at the lectures and discussions on climate change at Yale over the past few months did not want to get anyone’s hopes up.  One described the UN process as going in a cycle: one good year (Bali 2007), one bad year (Copenhagen 2009), one good year (Cancun 2010).  By this logic, Durban should have been a bad year, dealing with the tricky issues that got shunted across from Cancun – most notably, what to do about the Kyoto Protocol, the first commitment period of which is due to expire at the end of 2012 (note: the KP itself is not due to expire, just the first set of emissions reduction targets).  And in the end, Durban wasn’t the crushing failure that Copenhagen turned out to be. But neither was it the sparkling success that people had hoped that Copenhagen could have been.

The Durban Platform sets out a “roadmap” to creating a new global deal on climate change, which would involve commitments from all countries.  If you’re an international lawyer, this looks like a pretty radical step.  The key bit in the text is where it says they’ve decided “to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change applicable to all Parties”.  Legal force.  All Parties.  The US, China, India – everyone.  If this actually happens – and it’s by no means set in stone yet, because they’ve got until 2015 to agree on the actual deal – it will represent a decisive shift in the dynamics of global climate politics.  Since climate negotiations began in the early 1990s, the world’s nations have been grouped (in the typically obscure language of the UN) into “Annex 1” and “non-Annex 1”.  Annex 1 are those that were classed as industrialised or economies in transition, back in 1992, and these are the ones that have emissions reduction targets under Kyoto – if they signed up to Kyoto, that is – so not the USA.  Non-Annex 1 is everyone else.  The Annex 1 / non-Annex 1 divide has grown more and more contentious as countries classed as “developing” in 1992 have grown into some of the world’s most powerful economies – China’s the obvious one, but also India and Brazil, and others have grown significantly too, like Mexico.  The Guardian’s interactive map is a great illustration of the different ways of thinking about “who’s to blame”.

So what the Durban Platform does, in committing to adopt an agreement “with legal force” that applies to ALL countries, is overcome the Annex 1 / non-Annex 1 divide.  This is no mean feat, given the squabbles between the US on one side, and China and India on the other (delightfully depicted in this video from the UK Youth Climate Coalition, of the Cancun talks last year: “you sign first, USA” – “no China, you sign first” – “noooo, you sign first!”).  It’s been a victory for the EU, which came up with the roadmap idea and worked with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and less developed countries to push it throughout the negotiations.

Some other important developments are worth mentioning.  The Kyoto Protocol will continue for a second commitment period, meaning the countries that have emissions reduction targets (not the USA, because it didn’t agree to it, and not the non-Annex 1 countries) will see their targets extended for another 5 years, until 2017.  Progress was made on the design of a Green Climate Fund to help less wealthy countries adapt to climate change and develop greener economies: the Fund will have staff and an office, but the crucial detail – where the money will come from – is yet to be decided.  D’oh.  There’s this thing called the “global recession” and also “sovereign debt crises” which mean that none of the rich countries seem to have that much cash any more.  Or, more accurately, not much cash they’re happy to give away, amidst austerity drives and IMF bailouts.  The sensible thing to do would be to establish a tiny tax on financial transactions that would generate billions of dollars a year, known as a Robin Hood Tax.  The idea has been endorsed by President Sarkozy of France, Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, and even the Pope.  But the UK government is not keen, and neither is the US.

So, some progress, but it’s not fast enough.  Unfortunately, you can’t cut deals with an ecosystem.  The physical, chemical and biological processes at work on Earth – in and between the atmosphere, oceans, plants, rocks, ice – do not respond to political manoeuvring and fancy ways of wording the texts of international agreements.  Climate change will respond to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and not much else.  But, in an effort to be optimistic, Kyoto isn’t the only game in town.  It’s the only global game, so we’ll have to continue to work at it and puuuush global leaders to get their act together.  But while that’s happening, there is a plethora of national and sub-national initiatives plugging away at the problem.  In the UK, we’ve got climate legislation that commits us to cutting our emission by 80% by 2050.  Other countries, like Costa Rica and Norway, have pledged to go carbon neutral.  Even the bad boys of the global negotiations, China and US, are quietly making some progress.  China’s  12th Five-Year Plan puts climate targets into law.  The US is beginning to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under its Clean Air Act.

Let’s keep at it.  As David Attenborough points out, it is a Wonderful World, and it continues to inspire me to try and conserve its wondrousness.

On The (Rail)Road – Part IV

The delay meant we reached Chicago four hours late, leaving me just an hour and a half before my third and final train – the California Zephyr, which would drop me off at Iowa and reach San Francisco two and a half days later.  I walked round a few blocks to stretch my legs and realised I was walking down Route 66, between the tall glass skyscrapers of the financial district.  Back in the train station, I almost did a double-take when I saw a family of four, who looked like they’d walked off the set of The Roses of Eyam.  I wondered why Amish people were in a train station – I’d thought they eschewed all modern technology.

My last train-neighbour was an 80-year-old Iowan woman, bound for the same stop as me.  A couple in front of us were headed there too, leading the ticket collector to joke, “Mount Pleasant will be busy tonight!”  My travelling companion’s father was Dutch and had emigrated to Iowa in 1899.  His father had died and his mother moved to be with her parents, who had already settled in the US.  She travelled with her five children by ship to New York, and then by train to Iowa.  “The farms now are huge and mainly grow corn, soy, and now they do wheat as well.  It wasn’t like that when I was a kid.  We had a small farm, maybe 200 acres, with hogs, corn, cattle, wheat, sheep, and a vegetable garden.  There was something called a Depression in the 1930s but we hardly noticed it because we had everything we needed.  Meat and vegetables, and my mother used to sew our clothes out of feed sacks.”

She had lived in Mount Pleasant since 1969.  “It’s a nice place, 6000 or 7000 people live there, and we have some banks, a few post offices, and downtown there are plenty of grocery stores, and there used to be some places where they made things, um, factories, that’s the word I was looking for.  They made Blue Bird buses there.  But then they moved them to Georgia and that was bad for our economy.”  She looked slightly subdued for a moment, but, brightening up, “We’re a very rural area though, lots of farmers.  And we have a tractor show every year, which is pretty well-known.”

We rolled past fields and fields of corn, a golden carpet stretching out towards the flat horizon, where it dimmed into a dusty blue, punctuated by the occasional set of wind turbines, electricity pylons, or a cluster of houses surrounded by trees, and often the flicker of a red-and-white-striped flag.  Slowing to a 10mph crawl, we crossed the great Mississippi, and the Iowan woman pointed out the cable-stayed road bridge.  “It’s not quite as big as the one in San Francisco, but it’s still pretty nice, isn’t it?”

On The (Rail)Road – Part III

Realising it was hopeless trying to get more sleep, with the prospect of updates on the breakdown from Ada every twenty minutes, I headed to the dining car.  “Breakfast, ma’am?  Sit right here.”  The waiter indicated the one remaining seat in a four-person booth.  I sat next to a late-middle-aged woman in a colourful woollen cardi.  Opposite me, an oldish African American guy wearing round glasses and a black baseball cap with the words “Vietnam War Veteran” emblazoned across the front.  Next to him, a young guy my age, going to Montana.  “Beautiful place.  That’s God’s country,” pronounced the war vet.  “I liked it better when they didn’t have a speed limit though.”

I asked Montana Man why he didn’t fly there.  He said he’d never been on a train before and wanted to see what it was like.  I was impressed.  When I tried out a train for the first time, it was the 35-minute trip from Edale to Sheffield.  He had another 25-hour train ride coming after the 17-hour one to Chicago.  “I got a 25-hour flight once, when I went to Vietnam,” commented his neighbour.  “How long were you there?” asked the woman.  “A year.  I was in the army four years, but in Vietnam for one.”  “One year too long,” the woman said.  “Oh yes.  You know, what I say to everyone now is, there’s only one good thing about war”, he said, looking at us over his spectacles.  “Once you bin in a war, afterwards, every day feels like Christmas.”

He told us about having post-traumatic stress.  “It didn’t come out when I was working, because I kep’ myself busy – I was teaching microbiology at the medical school.  But when I retired, that’s when I felt it.  I was crying a lot, shaking.  I can’t go walking in the woods without taking my gun with me.  I tell anyone who’s been in a war, go get yourself tested for PDS.  They give you $3000 a month, you’re classified as disabled.  You get yourself down the VA and they look after you real good.  Ain’t nothing to be ashamed of.  I reckon, most people who’ve been in a war, they’ve got it.  It changes you.  You go there for just a year, it changes you.”  He looked at the young guy next to him.  “Imagine if you was in Afghanistan for a year, young guys like you, they’d different when they come back.  And you” – looking at me – “even young women are going now, fighting alongside the men.”  He raised his eyebrows.

“There’s only two types of people – them wi’ the Devil in them, and them wi’ God in them.  You see it.  One time, we found a man strung up on some barbed wire, all his insides hanging out, and our commander said “just kill him.”  Well, he weren’t gon’ do me no harm.  I ain’t never killed someone who was wounded.  But some o’ the guys, they’d shoot anyone, and feel nothing.”

As I sat back down at my seat after breakfast, Ada made another announcement, saying the mechanics were working hard to get us going again.  The Boston woman across the aisle from me said to her sister, in a satisfied voice, “We already said our prayers, didn’t we.  We just gotta let Him do his work.”  “Mm-hmm,” her sister concurred.  “I ain’t complaining – He’s probably protecting us from something bad up ahead.  He’s probably saved our lives.  So I ain’t complaining.  I just wish we could get goin’ again soon.”  The train started moving.  “See?  I told you!”

On The (Rail)Road – Part II

“And remember, the “A” in Amtrak stands for Adventure!” said Ada the dining manager cheerfully over the PA system, after waking us up at 7am with the announcement that we’d pulled into a siding somewhere near Toledo, Ohio, due to a mechanical problem.  “At this time, I’d like to remind you that we have a great selection on the breakfast menu today!  Scrambled eggs, pancakes and much more!  We’d love to see you in the dining car.  Or you can just sit back and relax!”  She sounded as if being on a broken-down train had made her day.  “And we’ll keep you updated every twenty minutes or so.” – Every twenty minutes?! This was going to be a long one.

Boarding the train the previous afternoon, my enthusiasm for the adventure had dipped somewhat when I realised I would be sitting next to the most enormous man I’d ever seen.  He was probably about four times my weight and was overspilling into my seat.  But I told myself this was all part of the American travel experience, so swung my rucksack down in front of us and wedged myself between him and the window.  The seats were actually pretty wide, and after all I am only A Small A.Mount, so it turned out fine.  He asked me where I was going – the standard greet-your-train-neighbour question – I said Iowa, how about him.  “LA.”  “LA?  Wow, I thought my journey was long!”  “I came from Boston,” chimed in the woman across the aisle, not to be outdone, who turned out to be my neighbour’s sister.

I asked him why he was taking the 3-day train journey, and he said he guessed it ran in the family, adding (unnecessarily) that it would’ve been much quicker to fly.  I wondered if maybe he wouldn’t fit in airplane seats; there’s much more space on trains, both widthways and lengthways.  His two sisters across the aisle started watching a video clip on their laptop without headphones.  It was some sort of pastor, very excitable, all Hallejuh!s and “thank the Lord our Father, he’s such a wonderful Father!”, getting louder and louder until he was shouting with a religious passion I’ve never heard before.  The two women seemed to think it was lovely.  No one else in the carriage batted an eyelid, and I assumed this was because they were used to hearing this kind of thing, rather than doing the pretend-nothing’s-happening, stiff-upper-lip, it’ll-be-over-soon British thing I was engaged in.

The train rumbled through a landscape of rolling hills, with lots of woods, occasionally breaking into open spaces.  Tree silhouettes fingered the darkening sky and were reflected in a wide, calm river.

My neighbour heaved himself out of his seat.  “Where you goin’?” demanded his sister.  “Nowhere” he grunted.  He turned around, leaning on his seat.  “Say you, know how the Eagles did in the game today?” he asks the bloke seated behind us.  “Nah, I don’t.  Could phone someone.”  “OK.”  The second guy rang his friend, asking about the game.  He had a hoarse voice, sounded like it had grit in it, which trapped the consonants so his words came out strung together, and gave the impression of being transmitted over radio from far away.  Made “Maryland” sound like “Merlan”.   He hung up, leaned forward.  “Hey, the Eagles play tonight, man.”  “OK, buddy.”