Burning Man Or Drowning Man? Climate Apparently Can’t Change Human Behavior

My friend and neighbor is a past chief of the Penobscot Nation here in Wabanaki territory. He’s been on social media recently harshly criticizing indigenous elders who fly in to big conferences about — well, anything really. His point: flying harms the climate significantly, and anyone who claims to be concerned about the environment should not be flying.

I thought of his long-standing advice when hearing about the Burning Man festival this year being inundated with rain and then immobilized by mud. One person has died out of approximately 70,000 who are locked down in the campsite since motoring, bicycling, or even walking through the thick, soupy mud is nearly impossible. And there’s more rain on the way.

Mud photos by Trevor Hughes/USA Today Network

This made me think of another friend, an adventurous grandmother who traveled to Burning Man this year. I hope she’s okay. When she told me she was finally going to attend after years of wanting to, I realized how much I avoid large crowds that I would have gleefully joined in my youth. Maybe it was the experience of attending a solar eclipse festival in India in 1980 with one million people? Or maybe it was traveling to big antiwar demonstrations in various U.S. cities that led me to reflect on why my political advocacy carbon footprint was so big.

“Phoenix” was the first of several burnings at the festival this year, with a trident emerging from the ashes that creators said represents the resilience of Ukrainian people.

Another notable thing about Burning Man 2023 is that the festival opened with an homage to Ukraine. From Evan Haddad writing in the Reno Gazette Journal:

The project was funded by Come Back Alive, a foundation that provides support to service members in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The organization, which was created by Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, Vitality Deynega, purchases equipment to help equip Ukrainian service members.

The creators probably knew it would play well with a wealthy audience that is heavily invested in the military-industrial complex: “Charter planes are descending on the Nevada desert — and the pop-up Black Rock City airport — as tech bros and billionaires gather for Burning Man” wrote Grace Kay in Business Insider.

“Phoenix” was the first of several burnings at the festival this year, with a trident emerging from the ashes that creators said represents the resilience of Ukrainian people.

But what it reminded me of was this piece I had just seen in Canada’s Globe and Mail: “Ukraine’s substandard medical supplies are endangering soldiers as the war intensifies.” 

Vladyslav Wolovin and Anton Skyba posting from Kyiv wrote:

“This guy should have survived,” Dr. Sobolevskyy said, as he recounted treating an injured soldier at a stabilization point in Orikhove, less than five kilometres from the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region.

Despite the short distance, it took several hours for the soldier to be safely evacuated to the medical post. He arrived with three tourniquets that had been tightly wrapped around his legs by fellow soldiers. One was broken. None of them created enough pressure to prevent blood loss. “Simply put, he bled to death because of these substandard tourniquets”

Nowhere in the article is corruption named as a contributing factor, but medical volunteers shared that they’ve tried in vain to go through official channels in Ukraine to remedy the problem of sub-standard medical supplies. Ironically, the very corrupt Biden administration scolded Ukrainian officials over corruption this week and invoked the rule of law (doubtful if the Ukrainians brought up Julian Assange).

We aren’t going to burn, fly, or bomb our way out of climate catastrophe. NATO’s proxy war on Russia in Ukraine has been terrible for the environment, including climate. But hey Lockheed Martin made a lot of money off the Ukrainian people’s suffering! Never mind the globally widespread flooding and off the charts temperatures this summer in the northern hemisphere. Gaze upon your stock portfolio instead!

Book Review: The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War

The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War: Charting the Rise and Fall of U.S. Military Emissions by Dr. Neta Crawford (MIT Press, 2022) could have been called Fully Burdened: The True Cost Of Energy Consumed by the Pentagon. “Fully burdened” is a concept that comes up repeatedly as Crawford examines what raw data she can find on military fuel use and its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).  

Pentagon white papers define the Fully Burdened Cost of Fuel as:

The commodity price for fuel plus the total cost of all personnel and assets required to move and, when necessary, protect the fuel from the point at which the fuel is received from the commercial supplier to the point of use.

Did you notice that GHG emissions are not included in the Pentagon’s definition of full cost? Therein lies the thesis of Crawford’s book.

As a full professor at Oxford University in Politics & International Relations, and as co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University here in the U.S., Crawford’s research has focused on an attempt to quantify military GHG emissions mostly by extrapolating from fuel purchase and usage data. This is necessary because, in a process detailed in her book, the U.S. has long insisted that the emissions of its military (and even intelligence sector) are privileged information not for the likes of us.

The Pentagon has steadily reduced its GHG emissions over the last two decades (mostly by closing bases and ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), it has developed many alternatives to fossil fuel use, and it extensively studies and prepares for climate crisis events that affect its installations and functions. However, Crawford and the rest of us are unable to account for why an obsession with “security” threatened by global climate change does not translate into an awareness of how the military itself — still, and for years, the biggest consumer of fossil fuels in the federal government AND the biggest single institutional consumer of fossil fuels on the planet — contributes to insecurity.

Crawford writes: 

In the late 1990s, U.S. political leadership had a choice to make. The United States could emphasize national security, which had traditionally been understood as requiring military force to protect national power and shape world events. This is security understood as the capacity to project power everywhere, essentially any time, to preserve U.S. global military dominance and promofte[sic] its economic interests. This was the familiar path, rooted in deep cycles of consumption, fossil fuel demand, military forces to protect access to fossil fuels..and back again, recursively, to ever higher levels of fossil fuel use and emissions.

Or the U.S. government and military leaders could have chosen an alternative path — to take advantage of the end of the Cold War to emphasize human security, which depends on ecological security.

Put this way, it sounds like nationalism is the problem, but that is not something Crawford addresses in her book. Indeed, her apparent acceptance of some of the whoppers told by the U.S. government about its wars e.g. 9/11 was an al-Qaeda operation, or that the U.S. fought, even defeated, ISIS in Iraq and Syria (without mention that with its other hand the U.S. was funding ISIS), reduce Crawford’s credibility as a political scientist.

The fact that she thinks Democrats offer meaningful solutions to the problem also strains credulity. Granted that anthropogenic climate change deniers among Republicans in Congress make it difficult to speak clearly about mitigating the effects of Pentagon emissions, but empty words about greening the military while simultaneously issuing new drilling permits on federal land do nothing to pull us back from the cliff of fatal climate chaos.

Crawford thus accepts some of the Pentagon’s pronouncements about our forever wars but not others. She writes:

Recall that in 1997, the Department of Defense warned the White House of the dire consequences that could flow, not from global warming, but from the Kyoto Protocol. They said that “imposing greenhouse gas emissions limitation on tactical and strategic military systems would…adversely impact operations and readiness.”

Now in 2023, we’re living with the reality of a U.S. Space Force that is hugely polluting, especially in the upper atmosphere where climate effects are longer lasting and more dire (Crawford touches on this briefly). 

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, author of Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race, said in a recent podcast shared on Truthout

The environmental damage that the contemporary space race is doing is one of the most under-discussed crises of our contemporary moment.

..Billionaires like Elon Musk have promoted fantasies that humanity’s best hope, in the face of an apocalyptic crisis, lies in the colonization of space. Jeff Bezos has argued that the extractive industrialization of space will ultimately make life on Earth sustainable.

So again we find that the solutions offered to climate catastrophe are actually driving us ever faster toward…climate catastrophe.

Some international scholars and journalists think the solutions lie elsewhere. From the blog and podcast Chronicles of Haiphong on the recent BRICS summit:

Pepe Escobar: In a room in Johannesburg, you have a Cuban who’s the leader of the new non-aligned movement, with all these leaders from the developing world, most of them Africans, meeting exclusively with Xi Jinping to discuss sustainable development. Everything about sustainable development. So this is something that you obviously won’t read in the New York Times or the Washington Post..

Michael Hudson: You also pointed out quite correctly that the key to all of this is indeed oil and energy. That’s what the Western press cannot discuss [emphasis mine] because the center point of all U.S. foreign policy since 1945 has been the international oil industry.

Crawford’s work on computing the true and fully burdened costs of continuing to do business in this fashion will remain useful. I especially appreciated her analysis of the climate impact of military air shows which are frequent insanely polluting prestige events for the military that contribute nothing to national security.

But real solutions to climate chaos will require stepping out of the box of conducting foreign policy as if the U.S. were the center of the world and not just a mere 6% of the total global population. Is U.S. military or political leadership capable of this kind of planetary thinking? I doubt it.