Before the Border Patrol started firing tear gas at toddlers, but after Hillary Clinton said the false and morally monstrous thing she said to the Guardian, Osita Nwanevu of the New Yorker wrote a concise and accurate tweet:
This was, and remains, the summation of the entire situation. It floated over the tear-gas clouds at the border and it hung like the inscription on a reading-room doorway over Bill McKibben’s thorough, crushing restatement in the New Yorker of everything we have already been told about what we have done to life on the planet, and of what more we will end up having done:
Until now, human beings have been spreading, from our beginnings in Africa, out across the globe—slowly at first, and then much faster. But a period of contraction is setting in as we lose parts of the habitable earth. Sometimes our retreat will be hasty and violent; the effort to evacuate the blazing California towns along narrow roads was so chaotic that many people died in their cars. But most of the pullback will be slower, starting along the world’s coastlines. Each year, another twenty-four thousand people abandon Vietnam’s sublimely fertile Mekong Delta as crop fields are polluted with salt. As sea ice melts along the Alaskan coast, there is nothing to protect towns, cities, and native villages from the waves. In Mexico Beach, Florida, which was all but eradicated by Hurricane Michael, a resident told the Washington Post, “The older people can’t rebuild; it’s too late in their lives. Who is going to be left? Who is going to care?”….
But it’s not clear where to go. As with the rising seas, rising temperatures have begun to narrow the margins of our inhabitation, this time in the hot continental interiors. Nine of the ten deadliest heat waves in human history have occurred since 2000. In India, the rise in temperature since 1960 (about one degree Fahrenheit) has increased the chance of mass heat-related deaths by a hundred and fifty per cent. The summer of 2018 was the hottest ever measured in certain areas.
Sunday, the New York Times carried a story about how Asia—led by China, but driven by the lack of steady, reliable electric service for masses of people all over the continent—is still building more and more coal-fired power plants:
Indonesia is digging more coal. Vietnam is clearing ground for new coal-fired power plants. Japan, reeling from 2011 nuclear plant disaster, has resurrected coal.
The world’s juggernaut, though, is China. The country consumes half the world’s coal. More than 4.3 million Chinese are employed in the country’s coal mines. China has added 40 percent of the world’s coal capacity since 2002, a huge increase for just 16 years. “I had to do the calculation three times,” said Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “I thought it was wrong. It’s crazy.”
Among the reasons the government is boosting coal production in Telangana, India, the Times wrote, is that “Ceiling fans cut out on stifling summer afternoons.” India will feel the need for cheap electricity even more in the future McKibben described, as “extreme heat waves that currently happen once every generation could, by the end of the century, become ‘annual events.'” Electrical consumption makes conditions survivable, until they are no longer survivable.
Always, somewhere off toward the horizon, is something that looks like it has a chance to be hope. McKibben wrote:
Solar panels and wind turbines are now among the least expensive ways to produce energy. Storage batteries are cheaper and more efficient than ever. We could move quickly if we chose to, but we’d need to opt for solidarity and coördination on a global scale.
The Times described coal use as “certain to eventually wane worldwide,” and wrote:
[R]enewables like solar and wind power are rapidly becoming more affordable. Soon, coal could make no financial sense for its backers.
Yet neither article presented those possibilities as likely to happen in time. Structural and political inertia—created by greed, intentionally false corporate propaganda, and policy sabotage—are keeping fossil fuels in control. The disasters are here, on United States soil and abroad, and the Trump administration is burying the climate data and sacralizing coal as an emblem of national will. And it is making a show of force as the refugees from ecological and political instability reach the border.
Against this, where elite opposition might be, we had Hillary Clinton sharing her thoughts about migration and rising right-wing ugliness with the Guardian:
“I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ —because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
The political judgment here was terrible, and characteristic. Hillary Clinton has turned away, as a point of policy, from the Bill Clinton administration’s prison policies, but the reflex is still to take up a less bad version of the opposition’s worst causes. As if mass incarceration, promoted for a generation by centrist Democrats, had done the least bit to stop Republicans from still running on race terror and law and order and American Carnage to this day. So now, in the face of xenophobic nationalism and a manufactured border crisis, the important thing is for liberals to show that they too are against migration.
It’s easy to blame this on Hillary Clinton as a person, but her intentions are probably no worse than those of most other people of her political alignment and generation. That’s what made her remarks appalling: the way they sounded like received wisdom. In whatever circles Hillary Clinton is hearing and discussing what the right ideas are, the consensus is that “the migration issue” is something about which “Europe has done its part,” and now it is time to seek calm by placating the anti-migrant forces (that is, the neo-Nazis, the ethnic chauvinists, the authoritarian bigots) by declaring that the West has absorbed all it can absorb of the misery and displacement of the world.
And this was packaged, worst of all, as a set of hard truths, as the veteran politician frankly describing the limits at which generosity and compassion would have to yield. The real hard truths—that today’s migration is only the beginning; that today’s brutality, if unchecked, will be merely the practice for tomorrow’s slaughter; and that the best practical and moral alternative will require immense and immediate disruption to everyday American life and business—are unthinkable to the leadership class. Like everything else, they will only get worse as long as politics keeps ignoring them.