Dispatch — December 4, 2015, 5:31 pm

The End-of-the-World’s Fair

“If a wealthy country won’t contemplate tapering down a relatively new industry, then what are we to say to Kuwait, Iraq, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, whose economies rely hugely on fossil fuel?”

Photograph by Darren Aronofsky

Photograph by Darren Aronofsky

What do you say to the woman sitting atop the third biggest carbon bomb on earth? I began by admiring her shoes, chunky bright orange pumps. Then Rachel Notley, the recently elected premier of Alberta, and I sat down on a couple of beige banquettes in the Ikea-furnished upstairs of the media center at the climate conference. Notley’s aide, who set up the interview, presumably hoped I’d talk about her much-lauded climate plan for her province, but I wanted to talk about the Alberta tar sands. Notley, the fifty-one-year-old head of the Alberta New Democratic Party, won election in a surprise victory last spring. But having good energy policy for your own people while unloosing vast quantities of carbon on the rest of the earth is a bit like being a gun manufacturer who goes to a Quaker meeting.

The Alberta tar sands are the third-largest petroleum deposit on earth, and unlike, say, the Saudi hoard, they’re low-grade, filthy, sludgy semi-solid bitumen that takes a lot of water and fossil fuel just to extract and leaves vast quantities of toxic matter behind. If you’ve seen the pictures you know that central Alberta—the tar sands region is the size of New York State—looks like a festering sore in the middle of a belt of boreal forests and rivers. The widely accepted scientific assessment concludes that preventing worst-case-scenario climate changes means keeping 80 to 85 percent of all known reserves of fossil fuel in the ground for the foreseeable future. The climate conference is not negotiating a global climate budget—despite what scientists, activists, and vulnerable countries like Bolivia think—and it’s not addressing production as well as consumption. But when it comes to climate change, the really important thing about Alberta is that gigantic pile of bitumen.

So I asked Notley what about the fact that keeping the world to two degrees (centigrade) of warming pretty much requires keeping the tar sands in the ground. It was a pointedly naïve question, since politicians don’t generally offer to change course dramatically or halt a major industry. But here at the climate conference, with Amazonian tribal people in traditional feather headdresses, island-dwellers and sub-Saharan Africans all speaking bluntly about the death sentence that runaway climate change means for them, their places, and their futures, the question needs to be asked.

Notley replied, “I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. I think it’s a question of pace and I think it’s a question of the technology that goes into the extraction. So you know the fact of the matter is that the world is not going to be off nonrenewable energy. It just isn’t. So the question is whether our supply, which is very stable and very predictable not only in terms of its nature but in terms of its political and administrative context in which it lives, may well continue to be one of the suppliers.”

She added, “Can it be done responsibly? Can it be done in a sustainable way? We are a relatively wealthy and a very progressive jurisdiction and if anybody can be a progressive energy producer my belief is that it’s going to be Alberta.” Which is a completely standard thing for a politician in a petroleum state to say and is also completely insane. There isn’t really a responsible, sustainable way to release vast amounts of carbon to be pumped into the atmosphere. Notley wants the burning of the petroleum extracted in Alberta to be chalked up to someone else’s account, and she wants credit for plans to make the process more efficient—that is, to burn less oil to get this oil—and to cap emissions in Alberta at one hundred megatonnes per year, which allows for continued industry expansion.

The good news is that it’s not necessarily up to Notley. The tar sands are landlocked, and pipelines have been essential to their profitability. Shipping oil by rail is, from a humanitarian and environmental standpoint, far more dangerous than doing so with pipelines—one such train incinerated forty-seven people in a fiery explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013, and there’ve been many accidents since. From an industry perspective, it’s more costly. About ten to fifteen dollars more per barrel, according to Stephen Kretzmann of Oil Change International, an activist think tank on all things petroleum. This means that at the current price of oil, many of the tar sands projects have dropped below the break-even point. Blocking pipelines strangles the Alberta industry. And activists have done exactly that.

The defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline, after six years of tenacious fighting by climate activists in Canada and the United States, was a huge victory for the earth and huge blow for the Alberta industry. Notley called it “a kick in the teeth from the Government of the United States” and told me she is committed to building another pipeline. But she may not be able to. Keystone XL’s crucial northern segment is now dead. Many other pipelines and pipeline expansions have been held up by activists, notably by indigenous Canadians refusing to let pipelines cross their lands.

Being at the climate conference is being where all the points of view come together—and clash. Just across the warehouse-like room from Notley, I found Kretzmann, cheerful and brilliant in a chartreuse tie with bicycles on it, and he handed me Oil Change International’s new report. That handy document notes that “industry expansion plans are no longer inevitable. Public support for climate action, and therefore opposition to export pipelines for the tar sands, has publicly impacted the viability of expansion plans. Growing public opposition has put this high-carbon, high-cost sector in a position in which it could run out of pipeline export capacity once it reaches a production level of 2.5 mbpd [million barrels per day], a level likely to be reached as soon as 2017.”

What’s dismaying about Alberta is that it’s, as Notley notes, a wealthy province in a wealthy country in the global north. She didn’t note, though she could have, that major exploitation of the tar sands only dates back about twenty years. 1995 is not some deep desperate past to which the province can’t imaginably return. And if a wealthy country won’t contemplate tapering down a relatively new industry, then what are we to say to Kuwait, Iraq, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, whose economies rely hugely on fossil fuel? 

Climate change means that there is no status quo. Either we make dramatic changes in our greenhouse gas emissions or we accept dire changes in the impact on oceans, sea level, weather, agriculture, geopolitics, species extinction, economics, and human and nonhuman life generally. The situation in Alberta is an example of the lack of politicians’ will and imagination to make real change. It’s also a model of what may be the best hope for the future, that civil society will continue to lead the way. 

The climate conference is tens of thousands of people from civil society, government, and industry gathered in what I’ve come to think of as the End-of-the-World’s Fair, a vast, secured suburban cluster of convention buildings with exhibits, displays, meeting rooms, conferences, and cafes. The meetings are essentially editorial meetings; the editors are the 195 nations’ negotiating teams. The text is a document proposing how we manage the fate of the world. There are line-by-line fights, battles over the terms, which result in terms being placed in brackets and in brackets inside brackets.

Of course every sentence translates into what we will and won’t do, how we will do it, and how we will live (or die). It’s just text, but in the same sense that your trial verdict is just speech. This week Saudi Arabia sabotaged the language about human rights by insisting it be changed to the rights of ‘occupied peoples,’ a clear reference to Palestinians that the United States will balk at and then the whole thing will go down the tubes. And so it goes. 

Though only nation-states edit, they are pressed by citizens and climate activists on one side and financial interests on the other. Today, there’s a meeting of cities, regions, and states like California to address the way that sub-national powers can do some of the real work of shifting away from fossil fuel. Thursday activists held a demonstration to demand that the organizers “kick big polluters” such as fossil-fuel corporations out of the conference. Wednesday young activists demonstrated inside the security perimeter to support the Vulnerable Nations Forum’s demand for a commitment to 1.5 degrees of warming and zero emissions by 2050. The good news is Germany has joined 107 other countries to support the 1.5-degree standard, a remarkable change this week, and a remarkable victory. What may happen a week from today could be miraculous—or disastrous. No one yet knows.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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