Will Meyer | Longreads | October 2019 | 14 minutes (3,738 words)
“Seen clearly, nature and landscapes are palimpsests of history and social violence more than they are respites from these things,” observes legal scholar and environmental writer Jedidiah Purdy in his new book This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle For A New Commonwealth. This is an echo from his 2015 book After Nature, in which Purdy recalled the role of early American landscape paintings in a project of “collective self-creation”; these paintings, pioneered by the influential Hudson River School painters during the 1830s, obscured the settler violence inherent to the United States’ colonial project while presenting scenes from the fledgling countryside: the vistas, railroads, and faraway cities that were central to early imaginations of the nation. Not only were these images important to constructing a civic identity, they “yoked ideas of nature to nationalist and imperial projects and to new aesthetic and spiritual claims,” Purdy wrote — that is to say, seeing meant believing. Fusing together notions of landscape, nature, and narrative was critical to the success of the settler project — and remains so today, Purdy argues in This Land. Indeed, this violent visual history pulses through the slim book, which aims to make a case for a Green New Deal — “a commonwealth of shared dignity and mutual care.” Read more…
In a recent piece for Jacobin, climate writers Alyssa Battistoni and Thea Riofrancos drew a connection between fires burning in Greenland and those still ablaze in the Amazon rainforest: “They’re being sparked by the rich and powerful, whether by agricultural conglomerates, complicit right-wing governments, or fossil fuel executives who’ve lied to the public so they can keep spewing heat-trapping carbon up into the atmosphere for a quick buck.” The simplicity of the claim was dumbfounding, and, to that end, haunting. Was it merely the rich and powerful who lit the match?
Another writer for the magazine, Kate Aronoff, called for fossil fuel executives to be tried for crimes against humanity. “Technically speaking, what fossil-fuel companies do isn’t genocide,” she wrote, clarifying that energy CEOs don’t target their victims based on racial or ethnic animus. Yet genocidal land grabs are being carried out to expand “the Red Zone” — the agricultural frontier — eking its way deeper into the Amazon rainforest by way of roads and infrastructure backed by global capital. The Amazon, or the lungs of the earth, as it’s often referred to, is being seized from indigenous communities by mining and agribusiness interests, gutting the resiliency of one of the earth’s last great carbon sinks and producers of oxygen. But who is responsible for burning it? Bolsonaro? Corruption in Brazil? The World Bank? U.S. Financial Firms? Silicon Valley? Could the culprits be named, I wondered? Tried? Read more…
Still-life illustration of a plate containing a knighted cut of beef surrounded by Yorkshire pudding and a boat of gravy. (Illustration by Henry Stahlhut/Condé Nast via Getty Images)
Will Meyer | Longreads | July 2019 | 10 minutes (2,501 words)
This year beef has become yet another proxy in the never ending culture wars. Such foot-soldiers as Sebastian Gorka and Ted Cruz have stoked the flames, claiming that Democrats are going to take hamburgers away and kill cows, replacing summer barbecues with Stalinism. Of course, Democrats have no such plans, at least not yet; at this point, the Green New Deal (GND) is merely a pipe dream and hardly an actionable reality. Still, the idea that beef could become contested is what provoked reactions. A fact-sheet about the GND mentioned the carbon emissions from the meat industry, and last year’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report specifically named animal emissions and land use as issues that need addressing in order to save the planet within its twelve-year timetable.
“The forecast is bleak,” Troy Vettese writes of the IPCC report in Boston Review: “[over] the course of the twenty-first century, as the global population balloons past ten billion, the Earth simply will not have enough land to expand production for crops, meat, dairy, forestry, biofuels, as well as for various schemes to reduce carbon dioxide, while simultaneously preserving biodiversity and safeguarding the food security of the world’s poorest people.” Half of the world’s habitable landmass, he notes, is used for agriculture. Of this, just more than two-thirds is used for grazing. Of the remaining third, a third of that is used for animal feed, and a fifth for biofuels. In short, a downright incredible amount of the world’s land is used for animal agriculture. And the market for cheap beef is rapidly expanding to include the growing middle class in places like India, China, and South America, further exacerbating the problem.
As the human species faces a fork in the road of epic proportions — with survival hanging in the balance — chances are we will have to confront not only the engines of industrial capitalism, but also the diet it has subsisted on. To do that, historian Joshua Specht has turned his attention to the making of what he dubs the “cattle-beef complex,” the industrial mechanism that birthed a Red Meat Republic; or so asserts the title of his new book recently out from Princeton University Press. The book follows the development of the modern beef machine from the second half of the 19th century until the first decade or so of the 20th. From frontier settlements and the dispossession of Indigenous land to the development of transportation technology and the rise of monopolistic “Beef Trusts,” Specht chronicles what amounted to a “democratization of beef” — wherein cheap and accessible beef for the many became a signal of American progress. Read more…
'American Progress' (1872), by John Gast, depicts settlers moving west, guided and protected by a goddess-like figure and aided by technology (railways, telegraphs), driving Native Americans and bison into obscurity. (Fotosearch / Stringer/Getty)
Will Meyer | Longreads | March 2019 | 17 minutes (4,498 words)
In the small New England town where I live, Hadley, Massachusetts, the common lies a few miles from the mishmash of corporate chains that make up the town’s economic center. A quiet residential neighborhood surrounds the common. It is a grassy patch, left vacant most of the year, save for occasional festivals and craft fairs; open space to be utilized as needed, hardly disturbed otherwise. Adjacent to the college towns of Northampton and Amherst, not much happens in Hadley. I go for walks around my neighborhood most days and seldom run into many people. The common feels like an oasis, a fleeting yet contained sliver of vastness.
In 1995, the Hadley Historical Commission installed a plaque on the side of a rock, near the end of the common, between where it meets the main road and a paved rail trail. The plaque commemorates the “17th Century Palisade,” a wall that was “3 fingers thick and 8 feet high” in 1676, 100 years before the American revolution. The “fortification,” the plaque states, “was one mile long by 40 rods wide.” Most saliently, however, “Hadley was then a frontier outpost which felt threatened by Native American attack.” In other words, the settlers built a wall (around the corner from where I live now) both to assert their settlement and ward off perceived threats — namely the brown-skinned Other the United States was founded, at least partially, to pacify and remove. Read more…
Will Meyer | Longreads | January 2019 | 15 minutes (4,073 words)
“At the museum steps
Didn’t we establish
That all this blood is not a dream
This is progress
And we are not that high
We could almost be redeemed”
— unreleased song by The Lentils
For years, changes in butterfly populations and migrations have been considered an “early warning indicator” of global warming. In 2006, a British butterfly specialist told The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert that of 10 species living in Southern England at the time, “Every single one has moved northward since 1982.”
Now, several years and many missed early warning indicators later, the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, has received a letter from Customs and Border Protection announcing the government’s intent to build a border wall through critical habitat for 240 species of butterflies and 300 types of birds. The letter explains that the wall will be 36-feet tall and 20-feet wide, and that an additional 150 feet south of the border will be cleared of all vegetation to create an “enforcement zone.” Comparing the wall’s construction with a calamitous weather event, the National American Butterfly Association president told the San-Antonio Express News that: “For us to financially survive and weather this storm, we’re trying to create a fund that will be kind of like an endowment.” As of this writing, a GoFundMe created to protect the Center has raised just over $24,000.
Meanwhile, given that Mexico hasn’t “paid for it” and won’t, a GoFundMe to finance the wall’s construction raised $20.5 million dollars before GoFundMe decided to offer refunds. That’s nowhere near enough money to actually build the thing, but enough to make you pretty sure the butterflies don’t stand a chance. Indeed, the president and the Republican-controlled Senate have shut down large swaths of the government for over a month, demanding that the Democrats in the House vote to pay for the wall before the government can be reopened. Still, it’s hard to believe the wall is really going up. Read more…
George Benjamin Luks, "The Menace of the Hour," 1899. Wikimedia Commons.
Will Meyer | Longreads | December 2018 | 19 minutes (4,998 words)
As Amazon attempts to wrap its strangling octopus tentacles around Long Island City and the nondescript “National Landing” — a newly renamed portion of Crystal City — in Northern Virginia, one of the words floating in the punch bowl of our popular vernacular to describe the firm’s unchecked power is “monopoly.” The “HQ2 scam,” as David Dayen dubbed it, was never an act of good-faith competition, but rather a cunning scheme to collect data about cities all over the country: What infrastructure did they have? How many tax-breaks was the local (or state) government prepared to hand over to the richest man in the history of the world? What would they do to accommodate a massive influx of professional-class tech workers? The spectacle of the publicity stunt was gratuitous, to put it mildly, but it was also beside the point. In Dayen’s formulation, as Amazon expands from two-day to one-day or same-day delivery, the company will need more infrastructure everywhere. From Fresno, California, to Danbury, Connecticut, at least 236 cities stumbled into Amazon’s HQ2 flytrap: submitting bids — bargaining chips — for the company to use in its quest for monopoly.
The story of HQ2 isn’t about Amazon’s superior products, or even benefit to consumers, but instead how the company is the current poster boy (poster behemoth?) for the unchecked political and economic power of tech giants. Amazon has the ability to drive out rivals, to engage in dirty tricks — like the HQ2 scam — due to its size and inertia. One need look no further than the Forbes billionaire list to see evidence of the damage caused by forgoing antitrust action against tech companies. Zuckerberg, Gates, Bezos are all high on that list. The white collar cops in Washington haven’t bothered them for the most part (they did go after Microsoft enough to scare them in the late nineties, but that was the last serious case), basically allowing these firms to scoop up competitors and amass as much power as they please. Read more…
Will Meyer | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,846 words)
In July of 2015, writer and ex-McKinsey consultant Anand Giridharadas addressed a room full of elites and their good company in Aspen, Colorado. He was a fellow with The Aspen Institute, a centrist think-tank, which was hosting an “ideas festival.” Giridharadas’ talk took aim at what he dubbed the “Aspen Consensus,” an ideological paradigm in which elites “talk a lot about giving more” and not “about taking less.” He earnestly questioned the social change efforts and “win-win” do-goodery promulgated at the business-friendly get-together. In the speech, Giridharadas walked a thin line: both praising the Aspen community which “meant so much” to him and his wife while also laying into its culture and commandments. He dropped the mic: “We know that enlightened capital didn’t get rid of the slave trade,” and suggested that the “rich fought for policies that helped them stack up, protect and bequeath [their] money: resisting taxes on inheritances and financial transactions, fighting for carried interest to be taxed differently from income, insisting on a sacred right to conceal money in trusts, shell companies and weird islands.”
The talk received a standing ovation, though certainly ruffled some feathers as well. An attendee confided in Giridharadas that he was speaking to their central struggle in life and others gave him icy glares and called him an “asshole” at the bar. The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the speech — which had hardly prescribed any policies — and clearly felt so threatened by it that his resulting column was titled “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” and attempted, albeit poorly, to nip any systemic critique of his favored economic system in the bud. But Brooks too realized that there would be a “coming debate about capitalism,” and his column prompted Giridharadas to post his talk online, stirring lots of debate — not quelching it. Read more…