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William deBuys, A Long Walk into an Imperiled Future

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Today, that superb writer and naturalist William deBuys returns to TomDispatch with a piece that offers a sense of his new book, The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss. As Bill McKibben, a man whose word I would always take, writes, “Bill deBuys is one of the planet’s great observers, and this may be his masterwork — a story of an exploration of Nepal, but also of the present and future of this planet. Caring for that world, and all that’s in it, is necessary, painful, and as he makes clear, exquisitely beautiful work.” Just out, that book is at the top of my own reading list and I hope it will be on yours, too. Should you want a signed, personalized copy in return for a donation of at least $100 ($125 if you live outside the U.S.A.), just visit our donation page and offer us the necessary support — the kind that allows me to regularly publish pieces like deBuys’s on a planet that desperately needs more of them. And, of course, my deep thanks go to so many of you across this country and the world who, after all these years, keep giving to this site! It simply couldn’t mean more to me. Tom]

Yes, unbelievably enough, her vote seems to control the direction that American politics is going to take in this era.  I’m thinking about Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democratic senator who, like that king of coal, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, has essentially held President Biden’s Build Back Better Act for ransom over these last weeks. Only recently, the New York Times reported that Sinema, representing a state that’s been clobbered by climate change, is deep in a megadrought unprecedented in its history, losing its water supplies, and regularly setting heat records, would like to see $100 billion in climate-change funding cut from that very bill. Brilliant! That should help solve Arizona’s problems fast!

Perhaps Sinema and Manchin are just holding the line as best they can until you-know-who announces his presidential bid for 2024. He’ll then ensure that, for at least another four desperate years of ultimate madness (if American democracy even survives), the fossil-fuel industry will continue to run wild on a planet that, these days, seems to stand every chance of going down. In such a world, who wouldn’t want a tad of hope, which is what TomDispatch regular William deBuys, author most recently of The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss, offers today on a planet increasingly desperate for just that.  But be prepared, you might have to take a long walk. Tom

Climate Change Viewed from the Attic of the World

A Himalayan Journey Toward Hope

Thirteen thousand feet high on the far side of the Himalaya mountains, we have entered the past and the future at the same time. We are a medical expedition and also a pilgrimage, consisting of doctors, nurses, Buddhist clerics, supernumeraries like me, and a large staff of guides, muleteers, and camp tenders. We are bound for the isolated villages of Upper Dolpo, a remote region of northwestern Nepal, land of the snow leopard -- both the actual animal and The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s nonfiction classic. We are traveling the same trails Matthiessen walked in 1973.

As a medical mission, our purpose is to provide primary health care to people who rarely, if ever, see a clinician. As pilgrims, our purposes are as varied as our individual identities. Mine is to make peace with the anger and grief that have dogged me since finishing a pair of books, one on climate change, the other on extinction. They left me heartsick. My delight in the beauty of the world had been joined to sorrow at its destruction, and the two emotions were like cellmates who refused to get along. Their ceaseless argument soured the taste of life. I hoped that a long walk -- about 150 miles in this case -- might cure the resultant moral ache. (The story of that walk provides the backbone of my new book, The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss.)

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Rebecca Gordon, The Curse of Cassandra

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I’ve never suggested this in any of these little introductions I’ve been writing for 19 years now, but it might make sense to read TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon’s piece first today and think of this as my afterword. As it happens, she writes movingly about Barbara Lee as the Cassandra of our time. Alone among members of Congress in the days after the 9/11 attacks, Lee grasped what the future held and voted against the initial congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force. She couldn’t, of course, have been more on target in her fears about what it would mean to let the Bush administration do its damnedest on this planet of ours. (And of course, in true Cassandra-style, no one who mattered paid the slightest attention to her.)

Gordon’s piece left me thinking that, from the beginning, when it came to this country’s disastrous forever wars that Lee was intuitively trying to stop, this website proved impressively on target, too, not because any of us had Cassandra’s gift of future sight but because the grim path ahead was (or should have been) so obvious.  Take Chalmers Johnson, writing as January 2003 began, months before the Bush administration’s March invasion of Iraq (“Mission accomplished!“), about what was going to happen — what had, in fact, been fated to happen since the first moments after the 9/11 attacks. As he put it, then, “Ever since the first American war against Iraq, the ‘Gulf War’ of 1991, the people in the White House and the Pentagon who planned and executed it have wanted to go back and finish what they started.”

Or for that matter consider what I wrote in December 2002 about the future of the war in Afghanistan, already a year old, when I brought up a classic Vietnam-era image: “The word to watch for in the American press is ‘quagmire.’ When you see that and Afghanistan appearing in the same articles, you’ll know we know we’re in trouble.” In fact, that word never really appeared, but Afghanistan did indeed become a classic all-American quagmire for — as we all now know — 20 years.

And I could repeat such passages from TomDispatch authors, year after year from then on. Yet, however on-the-mark this website may have been, sadly it was never mainstream, never influential enough. Had it, like Barbara Lee, been attended to, perhaps there might have been no “forever” in our forever wars. But no such luck. Cassandras can, I suppose, take pride in what they’ve seen of the future, but to tell you the truth, being one is, in the end, a remarkably depressing occupation.

With that in mind, if you’ve insisted on dealing with this as an introduction, not an afterword, then, whatever you do, don’t miss Rebecca Gordon’s piece. Tom

Seeing the Future

When No One Believes You

For decades, I kept a poster on my wall that I'd saved from the year I turned 16. In its upper left-hand corner was a black-and-white photo of a white man in a grey suit. Before him spread a cobblestone plaza. All you could see were the man and the stones. Its caption read, “He stood up alone and something happened.”

It was 1968. “He” was Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. As that campaign slogan suggested, his strong second-place showing in the Maine primary was proof that opposition to the Vietnam War had finally become a viable platform for a Democratic candidate for president. I volunteered in McCarthy’s campaign office that year. My memory of my duties is now vague, but they mainly involved alphabetizing and filing index cards containing information about the senator's supporters. (Remember, this was the age before there was a computer in every pocket, let alone social media and micro-targeting.)

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Michael Klare, The Burning Future of U.S.-China Relations

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Hey, these days the world really is a barrel of cheery news, isn’t it? Take the U.S. and China. How much more swimmingly could relations between them go on this planet of sickness and heat? Just in case you missed it, despite the attack on the Capitol on January 6th and his never-ending claims that he won the election, Donald Trump did leave office. Economically speaking, however, as the New York Times reported, he didn’t — not when it comes to China anyway. To date, eight months into his term, President Joe Biden is Donald Trump, at least in the sense that he’s refused to lift the former president’s tariffs on Chinese goods (for which, during the election campaign, he criticized Trump fiercely) and is pushing China’s leaders on “trade commitments agreed to during the Trump administration.”

Worse yet, when it comes to preparing for a new cold war with that country, if not a potential full-scale conflict, he’s increasingly become The Donald-plus. And with the recent announcement of AUKUS, a new anti-Chinese bloc involving Great Britain, Australia, and the U.S. (the white man’s Asian alliance, it seems), cemented by the selling of nuclear-powered subs to the Australians, things only grow more ominous. And both sides continue to spar dangerously around the island of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, as the American West has burned and the Chinese city of Zhengzhou essentially drowned, the possibility of significant climate relations between by far the two greatest greenhouse-gas emitters on the planet seems anything but hopeful. In fact, when former Secretary of State John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, visited China last month, he came away with distinctly less than nothing. (“The Taliban got a better reception,” noted one China observer.) And yet, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare makes all too clear today, if Beijing and Washington can’t reach some kind of serious agreement, we, our children, and our grandchildren are in trouble deep. We face a future all-too-literally embroiled in what, as he explains, could be the hottest “war” around. Tom

How to Save the World (from a Climate Armageddon)

There’s Only One Way and This Is It

This summer we witnessed, with brutal clarity, the Beginning of the End: the end of Earth as we know it -- a world of lush forests, bountiful croplands, livable cities, and survivable coastlines. In its place, we saw the early manifestations of a climate-damaged planet, with scorched forests, parched fields, scalding cities, and storm-wracked coastlines. In a desperate bid to prevent far worse, leaders from around the world will soon gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for a U.N. Climate Summit. You can count on one thing, though: all their plans will fall far short of what’s needed unless backed by the only strategy that can save the planet: a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance.

Of course, politicians, scientific groups, and environmental organizations will offer plans of every sort in Glasgow to reduce global carbon emissions and slow the process of planetary incineration. President Biden’s representatives will tout his promise to promote renewable energy and install electric-car-charging stations nationwide, while President Macron of France will offer his own ambitious proposals, as will many other leaders. However, no combination of these, even if carried out, would prove sufficient to prevent global disaster -- not as long as China and the U.S. continue to prioritize trade competition and war preparations over planetary survival.

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