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The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank (2018) (read in 2019)

Published by root on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a collection of essays from the last 20 years, mostly about the environment and about the various services charged with safety and maintaining public lands and animals in the U.S. The Wildlife and Forestry Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the EPA and many more. The book is split into groups of essays: Landscapes, Waterscapes, Politiscapes, Warscapes and Frontlines.

The essays vary in quality, though all address some interesting, relevant and important point. They also vary wildly in supporting information—some aren’t even really journalistic pieces, but more wild screeds, lashing out at the unfairness of how the assholes keep winning. One of the nicest and longest is about rafting down the Columbia River past the Hanford nuclear power plants, but it is, at the same time, filled with St. Clair’s awkward attempts at writing like Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not sure how far his desire to be Alexander Cockburn goes. Overall, he does a decent job, with Frank misstepping more often.

So the essays are interesting and about important environmental issues not often reported. Some are chock-full of very interesting and shocking data. They are all, however, terribly copy-edited, with most having at least one or two grammatical errors (usually missing words) in the first paragraph. I don’t think anyone, least of all the authors, went through these online essays again to clean them up for publication.

Still, I’m glad I read the book. It was a good journey through the continuity of rapacious environmental policy from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump—their performances being uniformly anti-green and pro-business and nearly indistinguishable.


“The shaggy bovines are victims of rancher panic and a gutless government. Like cattle and elk, bison can carry an infectious bacterium that leads to a disease called brucellosis which can, rarely, cause cows to abort fetuses. There’s no evidence that Yellowstone bison have transmitted the disease to Montana cattle, grazing cheaply on public lands near the park. But as a preventive strike, all bison that wander outside the boundaries of the park in search of forage during the deep snows of winter are confined in bison concentration camps, tested and either killed on site or shipped to slaughter-houses.”
Page 14
“Yet, even as it gets warmer and fires burn hotter, people are continuing to build homes in fire-prone areas. And no real entity is putting a stop to it. Banks are not evaluating loans based on the potential for wildfire and homeowners are having little trouble insuring their properties despite being built in the path of potential flames.”
Page 36

Such a criminal enterprise. They’re spending tax money: bailout money.

“There is compelling evidence that anti-wolf hunters in Wyoming had been honing in on the telemetry frequencies from the radio collars to track and kill the wolves as they crossed the boundary of the park. In May of this year on the northern border of Yellowstone, a wolf-hating rancher lured another pack of Yellowstone wolves out of the park to his ranch. He baited the wolves by setting out sheep carcasses on his property. The rancher waited until park wolves showed up and opened fire, killing a black two-year old female, who had been born and reared in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley.”
Page 47

Utter garbage.

“Again, it was a prolonged drought that forced the deeply egalitarian people of Puyé—the place where the rabbits gather—from their mesa-top fortress.”
Page 53

And here I thought the scene in Topo was completely fabricated.

“Yet now there is no hidden refuge to move toward. There is only a final movement left to build, a global rebellion against the forces of greed and extinction. One way or another, it will either be a long time coming or a long time gone.”
Page 54
“The fire had started on September 2. It was a suffocatingly hot day in a record run of hot, dry days. Northwest Oregon hadn’t seen measurable rain since the first of June. The forest floor was crisp, arid and flammable. A group of teens had ventured into Eagle Creek Canyon seeking refuge under its tall trees, emerald pools and waterfalls. Goofing around, one of them shouted, “Hey, watch this.” Then he lit a pack of fire-crackers and tossed it down to the canyon floor, where it detonated like a bomblet.”
Page 63

How do you keep stupid from ruining everything? Stop. Having. Kids.

“As an incentive to drill, the deepwater operators were exempted from paying royalties until the amount of oil produced hit certain price and production triggers. These triggers were supposed to be written into the lease contracts. For example, the price trigger was set at $28 per barrel. The companies were meant to pay royalties to MMS on all oil sold above this rate, which was substantially below the market price of crude in the late 1990s. But this language mysteriously disappeared from the contracts. One MMS staffer later told investigators with the inspector general’s office that he had been instructed to remove the price trigger language from the leases.”
Page 75
“Oynes is the one constant figure in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. The project originated during his term in the Bush administration and was approved under his watch in the Obama administration. Despite the highly experimental nature of the drilling operation, the MMS’s approval came without environmental review. It contained no special restrictions or impositions on BP’s operating plan. Just like old times.”
Page 77
“Hours later, the nets are cranked up to the piercing whine of straining engines. Inside: more than 400 tons of fish, crabs and squid. A Stellar’s sea lion and a few fur seals, indiscriminately snared while foraging for salmon, are also part of the haul. The sea lion and seal are not spared. Indeed more than forty percent of the haul is considered worthless by-catch and will simply be ground up and spewed in bloody currents of saturated chum from the bilges of ship back out into the sea. Some 500 million pounds of marine life are wasted in this way in the North Pacific every year.”
Page 87
“The canneries, surimi plants and frozen fish processing factories provided year-round high wage jobs, an important stabilizing force for rural Alaska’s predominantly season economy. Today many of those plants and jobs are gone, replaced by the factory trawlers, which increasingly tend to employ Mexican and Vietnamese laborers at sweatshop pay rates.”
Page 89
“Using sophisticated sonar and electronic tracking devices, factory trawlers like the Gijon can swiftly zero in on new spawning grounds and fish them to near extinction. This is called pulse trawling. A particularly outrageous example of this genocidal method occurred in the 1980s in the Shelikoff Strait off the Aleutian Islands, when a newly discovered pollock stock was relentlessly fished to the point of collapse. According to a report on factory trawlers by Greenpeace, in less than a decade the Shelikof pollock fishery had declined from an estimated biomass of 3 million tons in 1981 to less than 300 thousand tons in 1988.”
Page 89
“The Magnuson Act established regional fish management councils to determine fishing seasons and allocate catch quotas. These councils, which soon came to be dominated by fishing industry lobbyists, were expressly exempted from federal conflict-of-interest laws, allowing industry flacks to direct as much of the haul back to their own companies and clients as they could get away with. And they did just that.”
Page 91
“Medical researchers, backed by hefty grants from companies like Arctic-Alaska, continue to churn out reports touting the health-enhancing benefits of diets laden with pollock, salmon and perch.”
Page 91
“Now disturbing levels of Americum, Plutonium and Tritium are showing up in plants samples on the island. “If we’re finding these levels of radioactive waste, then the potential for severe harm is there,” said Pam Miller, a Greenpeace scientist who wrote a detailed report on the radioactive leakage on Amchitka. “This stuff appears to be leaking into the most important commercial fishery in the world.””
Page 93

And everybody’s shitting their pants over Fukushima, which was an accident. This was deliberate.

“In The Order of Things, Foucault exposed the repressive political engines driving the classification and regulation of knowledge and the arbiters of “worthy” texts have been on the run ever since.”
Page 95
“The real surprise for me was the number of virtual black jack tables, where dealer avatars with distracting cleavage run the games on widescreen monitors. The human players, perhaps visually sedated by years of video gaming, sit silently at the tables, clinging to a desperate faith in the fairness of the casino’s poker algorithms. Call it an Homage to Catatonia.”
Page 96
“On the plane from Portland, I sat next to an engineer who has been working for the last decade at Lake Mead. The reservoir is shriveling, drying up before our eyes. The water level drops each year, leaving a baleful white stain on the walls of Black Canyon. His company’s job is to paint the freshly exposed bone-white walls of the canyon back to their accustomed color, so as not to frighten the tourists.”
Page 96
“The liberal response to all of this is to demand that Trump make a public act of contrition by acknowledging the existence of climate change in some primetime speech. How quaint. I don’t care what Trump believes or what he says. What difference could it possibly make at this point? Climate change is a fact. The sea levels are rising. The polar ice caps are melting. The forests of the West are burning. The Colorado River is dwindling. The snowpack in the Rockies, Sierras and Cascade Mountains is shrinking. Bird migration patterns are changing. Coral Reefs are bleaching out. Salmon and grizzlies are being driven toward extinction. All of this is happening whether Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt believe it or not. And there’s little they could do to change the dynamic, even if they were willing to try.”
Page 101
“I tend to see Harvey as the latest aftershock of the political mentality that led to Deepwater Horizon. The Obama mentality, if you will. The pious mentality that signs the toothless Paris Accords, while authorizing deepwater drilling, fracking, coal liquidification, mountaintop removal mining, LNG terminals and offshore drilling.”
Page 102
“Not surprisingly, Obama refuses to consider strict regulation, let alone a carbon tax to address the country’s big CO2 emitters. Instead, after intense pressure from the pollution lobby, Obama’s approach to attacking climate change has been whittled down to nothing more than weak market-driven economics that can too easily be manipulated politically.”
Page 122

Obama managed without changing anything for eight critical years. He “fixed” the economy by rewarding the culprits and doubling down on the climatologically destructive existing economy. He failed. So do they all. But Obama mouthed platitudes and was just as bad as Bush and nearly as bas Trump for the future of humanity.

“Less endearing is the Obama administration’s relentless push to replace oil with biofuels, which will push marginal agriculture lands into production of genetically engineered and pesticide-saturated monocrops, scalping topsoil and draining dwindling water supplies across the Great Plains and Midwest.”
Page 124
“It should have been different. Within hours of the explosion, the federal government should have seized control of both the well and the cleanup operations. The only responsibility that should have been left to BP was to sign checks for billions of dollars.”
Page 131
““From 1993 to 1999, 6,538 new leases were issued covering approximately 35 million acres of the Outer Continental Shelf…. Lease Sale 175 in the Central Gulf of Mexico, held on March 15, 2000, offered 4,203 blocks (22.29 million acres) for lease. The Interior Department received 469 bids on 344 blocks. There were 334 leases awarded….More than 40 million acres of federal OCS blocks are currently under lease. Approximately 94 per of the existing OCS leases (7,900) are in the Gulf, and about 1,500 of these leases are producing…. Issued over 28,000 leases and approved over 15,000 permits to drill…Implemented legislation changing the competitive lease term from five years to ten years, allowing lessees greater flexibility in exploration without endangering the lease.””
Page 134

How much less influence could Gore have had in the face of this kind of relentlessness?

“Vilsak resides to the right of Salazar and not just in the sitting arrangement at Cabinet meetings. He is a post-Harken Iowa Democrat, which means he’s essentially a Republican who believes in evolution six days a week.”
Page 144
“Vilsak is a creature of industrial agriculture, a brusque advocate for the corporate titans that have lain waste to the farm belt: Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. As administrations come and go, these companies only tighten their stranglehold, poisoning the prairies, spreading their clones and frankencrops, sucking up the Oglalla aquifer, scalping topsoil and driving the small farmers under.”
Page 144
“In eight years of Clinton time, the Forest Service cut six times as much timber as the agency did under the Reagan and Bush I administrations combined. The pace of logging set by Thomas continued unabated during the Bush the Younger’s administration.”
Page 145
“[…] by and large, the mainstream environmental movement muzzled itself while the Obama administration stocked the Interior Department with corporate lawyers, extraction-minded bureaucrats and Clinton-era retreads. This strategy of a self-imposed gag order only served to enable Salazar and Vilsak to pursue even more rapacious schemes without any fear of accountability.”
Page 147
“The message from the White House to clean-air advocates was clear: “Because the Republicans are so rotten on environmental issues, you’re stuck with whatever we do. If you don’t like it, tough luck. We don’t really care what you think. You have nowhere else to go.””
Page 154
“But by throwing out the Delaney Clause, the federal government simply abandoned any effort to prevent cancer provoked by pesticides and instead goes into the cancer management business by way of “risk assessment.” Corporate and governmental statisticians will broker the “acceptable” number of people permitted to contract cancer from pesticide residues, comforted in the knowledge that most of these people will be poor and black or Hispanic. To put it another way, the government regulators are now set to determine how many people may be sacrificed in order for the food and chemical industries to make more money with fewer liabilities.”
Page 157
“Back in the 1970s the FBI issued a memo to their field offices stating that when attempting to break up dissident groups, the most effective route was to forget about hard intelligence or annoying facts. Simply make a few arrests and hold a public press conference. Charges could later be dropped. It didn’t matter; by the time the news hit the airwaves and was printed up in the local newspapers, the damage had already been done.”
Page 225
““[I’m] true to a higher power … I don’t feel I need to be rehabilitated,” Arrow stated in a verbose speech to the court upon hearing the ruling. “Corporations have usurped much of the governmental power. Corporations seem to be able to get away with poisoning the very entity we rely on for our well-being with no punishment, or very little punishment,” he declared.”
Page 232
““Bechtel is the best at playing the game of getting the most taxpayer money to address technical issues that are their responsibility,” says Tamosaitis. “They wait for DOE to give them more money. This maximizes their profits at taxpayer expense. If they don’t get the money, they just move on. It’s the only business where not doing it well leads to more profits—all of which is taxpayer money.””
Page 293
“Over the past decade or so, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies has won 85 percent of its lawsuits and appeals. That’s an eye-popping record of success, but it also serves as a rather chilling indictment of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management as lawless agencies doing the devious bidding of the extraction industries.”
Page 304
“Over the course of the next 22 years, Montgomery, working closely with Missoula-based attorney Jack Tuholske, waged a relentless war against the intransigence of federal and state wildlife agencies. These lawsuits had one common result: Montgomery’s team won them all. First, there were the three victorious lawsuits forcing the feds to list the trout as a threatened species, with the ultimate victories coming in 1998 and 1999. Then there was another decade long legal fight to secure critical habitat designations for the trout, a battle which pitted Montgomery against Julie McDonald, one of the most corrupt and venal members of George W. Bush’s hatchet team at the Interior Department. Montgomery prevailed in 2010 when the agency was forced to designate vast areas of the Northwest as critical habitat for the trout, including 19,729 miles streams and rivers across five states, 754 miles of marine shoreline in Puget Sound and 488,000 acres of ponds and lakes.”
Page 309
“Friends of the Wild Swan has fewer members than the summer population of Swan Lake—about 200 or so and many of them don’t pay their dues all that regularly. The group’s annual budget is about $46,000 a year—or about a third of the salary for the CEO of a big time environmental outfit like the National Wildlife Federation. Yet this tiny group based in a small seasonal town hidden in the Northern Rockies has won more decisive legal victories for wildlife and wildlands than the National Wildlife Federation (annual budget $88 million), National Audubon Society (annual budget $90 million) and Defenders of Wildlife (annual budget $30 million) combined.”
Page 310
“That’s where we come in. Defenders of the Earth need to abandon all hope before entering the fray. Hope is a paralytic agent. Hope is the enemy. The antidote is action. Action, however, is not marching in a parade a couple of times a year, featuring puppets, vagina hats and signs printed up by the Sierra Club©. Action is not taking selfies with a celebrity in the back of a police wagon after a designer arrest. Action is not typing your name on a MoveOn e-petition or voting for a Jill Stein-like candidate in safe states like Oregon or California.”
Page 317
“The time for protests is over. Protests will not prick the conscience of the unmasked beast called Donald Trump. Trump has no conscience to arouse, no shame to trigger, no remorse to cultivate. Trump is a full-frontal menace, that dangerous object in the mirror that is closer than it appears. It is the old threat, coming at us faster than before and from all directions at once. An unchained beast that will not be moderated by regulations, social conventions or appeals to common decency.”
Page 318
“We’ve thrown monkey-wrenches big and small into the gears of the System. It has been done and it will be done again and again. No grant applications or protest permits needed. As Ed Abbey used to say: there’s no battle more important, no fight more fun waging, no comrades more trusty-worthy than those in the trenches with us when we rise up together in defense of life on earth. To crib a line from Leonard Cohen: “we may be ugly, but we’ve got the music.” So draw a line and take a stand—almost any place will do, since the whole shebang is under threat—and let loose an old battle cry so that others will know where to come join you: Earth First!”
Page 320