A Reckoning

October 27, 2021 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the October issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, pp. 1-3.

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, by Kerri Arsenault. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2020. 314 pp. $27.99.

Over the past summer, the climate action group of my women’s community, the Grail, has been reading Kerri Arsenault’s Mill Town. I’m sure my Grail sisters in the group have their own takes on the book, but I thought I would share mine with you today.

Arsenault’s book is a memoir/study of the dire health impacts on the people of Rumford, a town in west-central Maine, by a paper mill that employed a majority of them over decades, including Arsenault’s own father. She lays out her narrative through interviews with people in an around Rumford, as well as research into those who had been addressing the question for many years.

Among these was “Doc Martin,” a local MD who had long reported on the high levels of colon and prostate cancer in the area, linking it to the high amounts of dioxin, a toxic chemical compound produced in the chlorine bleaching of paper pulp. (Dioxin was also released by the burning of Agent Orange in Vietnam.). Martin’s attempts to raise the alarm were fruitless, and powerful people at all levels retaliated against him, ending his career. And then he himself died of cancer.

Arsenault also documents the history of many of the mill workers as “Acadians,” people expelled from Canada after the French and Indian War in 1755, and the various attempts at ethnic cleansing applied to them as “foreigners” over the years. Yet they were considered outstanding mill employees because of their hard work She links this earlier persecution of the Acadians to the social and environmental catastrophes in Rumford in recent years.

Another important part of the book is Arsenault’s analysis of why the community in and around Rumford chose to continue to work at the mill in the face of the exploding death rates: they needed the work in order to survive. One popular saying was that what you saw coming out of the smokestacks at the mill was money.

But another reason for locals being unaware of the truth was that the owners and the government, at all levels, covered up the mill’s harmful health impacts. Arsenault reports that the mill owners intentionally hired only older men to work in the bleaching room, the most toxic part of the mill, because they didn’t want to cover the health care costs for younger men. Older men retired and died; case closed. Yet their families never acknowledged the risks of working there. And the EPA permanently “postponed” its report on the connection between dioxins and cancer. 

Interestingly enough, during the 9/11 twentieth anniversary commemorations, a PBS documentary called “9/11’s Unsettled Dust” showed all the ways that New York, city, and state, as well as the Federal government, intentionally covered up the presence of massive amounts of dioxins, asbestos, and other toxins in the air around Ground Zero. Christine Todd Whitman, director of Nixon’s EPA, claimed multiple times that the air there was clean, despite irrefutable evidence that it wasn’t. Apparently, the authorities didn’t want such information to slow down the clean-up of lower Manhattan and, in particular, the reopening of Wall Street. People fought for two decades to get the government to cover responders’ health care and recompense the families of those who later died.

Throughout Mill Town, Arsenault weaves the story of her family’s involvement with the plant and her own father’s death from cancer as well as her failed attempts to find a clear linkage between his death and the toxins. She also draws a fascinating line between earlier exploitation by the mill owners and Nestlé’s recent attempts to exploit local water resources for bottled water. 

Reviewers have criticized Mill Town for Arsenault’s tendency to include so many sources and to keep stating how hard it is to draw absolute conclusions from all the material she uncovers in her research. One reviewer said that because of this, Arsenault isn’t a very good journalist. But she isn’t a journalist. Her graduate degree is in creative writing. Maybe splendidly written narratives also have something to contribute to the conversation about environmental destruction?

Besides my interest in good writing, I was drawn to Mill Town for another reason. In recent years I have done a fair amount of teaching, writing, and protesting about “environmental justice”—that is, opposing environmental racism. 

But I wonder sometimes about environmental classism. Which was clearly what was going on in Rumford. I was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, now considered one of the Ground Zeroes of environmental racism. Some of my earliest memories, as a child, however, are of driving past the Sun Oil refineries around Chester when it was still majority white, on the way to visit relatives in Chester, and in South Philadelphia, where there were many refineries as well.

In recent years, many members on my mother’s side of the family—myself included–have contracted serious abdominal cancers. Most of them died. in recent years we have learned that the cancers were a result of a genetic defect, Lynch Family Syndrome. There’s no reason to think that there’s any connection between this genetic defect and all that smoke constantly pouring out of the oil refineries, right? Just like the people in Rumford had no reason to see a connection between the dioxin pouring out of the mill, and the responders after 9/11 had no reason to the think the dioxins in the air there had any connection to their later COPD and cancers?


All Hell Breaking Loose

October 21, 2021 at 4:12 pm | Posted in Climate Change, war and violence | 1 Comment

The following review appeared in the May 2021 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, pp. 1-3.

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. By Michael T. Klare. Metropolitan Books. 2019. 237 pp. Paper. $18.00.

I have been reading Michael’s Klare’s critiques of US militarism in The Nation and elsewhere for years. Klare is a scholar of peace studies and a fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington. Never in my wildest would I have expected him to portray the Pentagon as an ally in the fight against climate change. But in All Hell Breaking Loose, that, to a great extent, is what he does.

Specifically, Klare draws on official documents and statements by officials to demonstrate that the Pentagon has long rejected the political posturing of much of the rest of the US government regarding climate change. This is the case because they believe that climate change will exacerbate the global security threats that are their immediate concern: wars with Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. With this in mind they call climate change a “threat multiplier.”

Klare’s extremely readable book is divided into eight chapters, bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. The first chapter, “A World Besieged,” uses the Cold War concept “ladder of escalation” to explain the Pentagon’s understanding of climate change as “a spectrum of increasingly severe disasters resulting in ever more complex and demanding missions for American military forces.” Indeed, Pentagon reports between 2000 and 2010 had already predicted the integrated climate calamities and tipping points that we have experienced more frequently in recent years–wildfires that cause thunderstorms whose lightening ignites more fires, for example, or the melting of permafrost caused by global warming giving off methane that increases the warming.  

Chapter II, “Humanitarian Emergencies,” addresses what is, in general, the lowest step on the ladder of climate escalation, assistance the military has to provide in climate emergencies like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. But as Klare explains in Chapter III, “States on the Brink,” violence often breaks out between already hostile groups because of the effects of climate change, as when war began in Mali when Islamicists rose up against the government not only because of religious/ethnic differences but also because a drought drove nomadic Tuaregs into battles with agricultural tribes. At the end of this chapter and throughout Chapter IV, “Global Shocks,” Klare links climate change crises to other security threats–in Latin America to the migration crisis on the US southern border (and to the rise of cartels in Mexico). Then, even more masterfully, he links a Russian heat wave that reduced grain production to the Arab Spring in 2011. 

In the chapter that I personally found most concerning, Chapter V, “Great Power Conflicts,” Klare delineates the way the Pentagon connects massive climate transformations with the possibility of actual military confrontations between the great powers. He does so by focusing primarily on the Arctic. I could hardly get my head around the idea of melting ice turning the Arctic into a “whole new ocean,” but that’s what the Pentagon anticipates. 

Such an ocean would present great new opportunities for tourism, transportation, and the extraction of invaluable resources. Yet it is precisely potential conflicts over who controls those resources—oil, gas, and especially vital minerals—that most concerns the military. And international law about the rights of nations bordering this new ocean is worryingly ambiguous. The most powerful claim on such resources comes from Russia, and the US and Russia have each been conducting massive military training exercises in the area. And Putin has threatened nuclear war if any conflicts should erupt. The warming of the oceans and the security of the US and the entire planet clearly intersect in the Arctic.

Chapter VI, “Homeland,” addresses the threat of successive, escalating climate crises on the North American homeland, and the military’s increasing involvement in them, such as its extensive deployment in response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico in 2017. The great fear is that as the crises multiply and resources dwindle, the military will confront “escalating failure.”

The last two chapters “No Safe Harbor” and “Going Green,” connect the degradation of defense capabilities from damage to US military bases caused by climate change with military efforts to go off fossil fuels. Even in the Iraq War, (2004) the Pentagon became aware of the fragility of infrastructure dependent on power grids and fossil fuels as the enemy attacked convoys bringing such fuels to troops. So a switch to solar and wind, and the achievement of net zero emissions, is crucial for the deployment of military resources.  

In his conclusion, Michael Klare brings together the various steps in the “climate ladder of escalation” detailed in the previous eight chapters, culminating in “all hell breaking loose.” The military’s “greatest nightmare” is being confronted with multiple warming-related crises abroad while the homeland also experiences severe climate effects, the immobilization of US military bases by rising seas, and global trading systems breaking down. 

Although the 2018 National Defense Strategy does not address climate change, because military leaders were forbidden to do so by the commander-in-chief, in response to this nightmare, the military has in fact formulated a deeply ambitious strategy for addressing climate change. This strategy begins with, first, vastly better preparation of the military’s own forces and installations to withstand coming harsh effects of climate change; second, reducing the DOD’s reliance on carbon emitting fossil fuels.; and third, cooperating with the militaries of other nations in adopting similar measures. 

All this has crucial implications, Klare argues convincingly, for non-military communities as well. In particular, the military’s emphasis on international cooperation, such as stockpiling emergency supplies and conducting joint disaster drills, would be a tremendous addition to current US environmental policy.

One review of All Hell Breaking Loose expresses fear that Klare’s generally positive review of the Pentagon’s attitude and policies toward climate change will result in increased funding for the military. Funding for civilian volunteers during coming climate crises would be far better.  Writing this as I am during the national Global Days of Action on Military Spending, I share this concern*.

Yet that does not undercut the importance of the information Michael Klare makes available in this book. If even the Pentagon is so frightened by the climate crisis that they are converting their bases and vehicles to renewables and preparing for war in the melting Arctic, surely the rest of us, including the rest of the US government, should be scared into greater action as well.

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