The election is over, and I’ve given my thanks to all who fought so hard—we’ll spend the next months, and the next four years, understanding what it all means. But it’s also worth remembering that we’re a part of a larger world, united by certain commonalities. That includes the fact that it’s usually a curse to be born in a place with something valuable beneath the surface.
In a remarkable Twitter thread last week, just before the endless vote-counting, Latif Nasser, a co-host of WNYC’s “Radiolab,” recounted the history of a stretch of territory that runs through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and into the Carolinas. Every election, it votes Democratic, a slash of blue across the red rural south. At the height of the Cretaceous era, a hundred million years ago, this land was covered by saltwater—a great sea of plankton, which, as it died, dropped to the bottom and formed the basis for what eventually became the belt of incredibly rich soil that made growing cotton so fantastically profitable. As Booker T. Washington wrote, “The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers.” The descendants of those enslaved people have—since they won the vote in the nineteen-sixties—turned out for Democrats. It is a regular reminder of the centuries of misery that rich land produced.
I’d been thinking of that phenomenon this week, because Tuesday marked twenty-five years since the execution by hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian novelist and playwright who was a leader of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta, a place cursed by the pools of oil beneath the ground. Those pools of oil attracted the interest of outside companies, notably Shell, who turned the region into a nightmare landscape of polluted rivers, contaminated soil, and leaking pipelines. Though oil production has mostly ceased in recent years, the blighted land remains. A Friends of the Earth report from last year states, “We meet Chief Saint Emma Pii who confirms that oil spills in 2008 and 2009 ‘totally destroyed the environment for agriculture and fishing. The whole ecosystem was destroyed.’ He takes us to the river banks, where abandoned wooden fishing boats are slowly sinking into the oily mud. ‘This place was our livelihood, we fished and traded from here. This was a living place.’ He gestures to the horizon. ‘All of these? What you see were mangroves, living mangroves. Before the spills, animals were living here: lizards, even lions and elephants.’ ”
Saro-Wiwa dared to protest this kind of destruction. The Nigerian government hanged him (and eight compatriots) in 1995, with the alleged complicity of Shell, the largest economic force in the country. He’d won the Goldman Prize and the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the alternative Nobel, for his work defending Ogoni territory against environmental despoliation, but the honors were not enough to protect him: two supposed witnesses to his crimes (he was charged with the murder of Ogoni chiefs) later recanted, saying at an international court in the Hague that they’d been promised money and jobs, with Shell representatives in the room. In 2009, the company offered millions of dollars to his family, but no admission of guilt: the money was for “reconciliation.”
Every commodity of value—cotton, rubber, sugar, gold, diamonds, cobalt—has brought with it great human suffering, as a few attempted to grab the profits and impose the inevitable costs on others. Coal, gas, and oil have simply added to that horror by also wrecking the atmosphere of our one, shared planet. Earlier this month, a communications staffer at Shell sent out a Twitter challenge: “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?” Designed, one supposes, to produce confessions about driving too much, or turning the thermostat too high, the tweet instead provoked an outpouring of fury. A group of English youth in the Extinction Rebellion movement replied, “We’re willing to shut you down before you murder any more environmentalists who get in the way of you extracting oil.”
Passing the Mic
As we contemplate a country whose health and economy have been ruined by the inept response to COVID-19, and whose political life desperately needs to be restored to something resembling normalcy, it seemed a good week to talk with Sandra Goldmark. She is a professor at Barnard College and its director of campus sustainability and climate action, and the author of a new book, “Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet.” Since 2013, she has operated Fixup, a pop-up repair shop that employs local theatre artists, stagehands, and technicians to repair broken household items—so far it has diverted more than ten thousand pounds of goods from landfills.
When you do go out to buy something new, how do you figure out if it’s going to be good for the long haul?
When buying new goods (which for me is very, very rare), I check first for good materials and good design. Is the item made of durable materials, like real wood instead of particleboard? Are those materials sustainably and ethically sourced and manufactured? This part can be tricky, since there are no international standards and relatively few certifications for durability, quality materials, fair wages, and repairability. You can look for the certifications that do exist, like U.S.A. Fair Trade, F.S.C.-certified lumber, Greenguard, or iFixit’s Repairability Scorecards, to name a few. But usually there is no indication of what goes into a product, or how it is made. In that case, you can look at the product itself. Does it have joints or stress points made out of plastic? Can it be opened easily for repair, or is everything all glued shut? Finally, price is sometimes—though not always—an indicator. If something is too cheap to be believed, don’t believe it. It’s much better to get a higher-quality item secondhand whenever possible.
Does the mind-set of repair help us get in a different attitude about the planet itself?
You might well ask, while the planet is burning, why we should bother to fix our toasters or chairs or lamps. After seven years spent running pop-up repair shops, I realized that repair is about much more than reducing waste or emissions from manufacturing, though those are, of course, benefits. Repair is about really understanding what we have, how it is designed, who makes it, and under what conditions. In short, it’s about rethinking what we value. We live in a society that drastically undervalues care of all kinds, from repairing toasters to maintaining subways to caring for children. In the U.S., care workers, who are predominantly women and people of color, typically earn at least ten dollars less than the average hourly wage. The pandemic has made the costs of this mentality all the more evident. So, yes, fixing stuff is actually part of a much larger and much-needed shift towards really seeing and caring for the incredible blessings all around us, from toasters to each other all the way up to our shared planet.
When you think about new appliances that save a bunch of energy (induction cooktops, say), how do you make the call?
This is an important question. Manufacturers and government agencies encourage us to think in terms of savings on our utility bills, but we also need to consider the embodied energy of the appliance—that’s the energy that went into extracting and processing the raw materials, manufacturing, and transporting it. For example, a new refrigerator might embody energy equivalent to about sixteen hundred kilowatt-hours: about as much energy as it consumes in two and a half years of normal operation. A new, more efficient appliance should pay for itself over time, but first it needs to break even in terms of embodied energy. And that means that a lot depends on how often you use it. A fridge, running twenty-four hours a day, might recoup its embodied energy in a year; an induction cooktop at a couple hours per day might take four to six years; a washing machine at a couple hours per week might take twelve years. So, yes, when it’s time to replace an appliance, energy efficient designs are much, much better, but that doesn’t mean we should all rush out and replace all of our appliances for the latest model: it’s worth considering the total impact of the item.
Young activists in Norway are suing to try and prevent the country from continuing to grant new oil-exploration licenses. They argue that, by continuing to back new fossil-fuel development, the country has breached its constitutional obligation to insure a clean environment.