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The “Next Stage of Evolution”? Reflections on Asperger’s Syndrome, Greta Thunberg and Minority Culture
It seems that I have Asperger's Syndrome, which prompted me to write this essay.
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Though certainly devastating in an environmental, economic and even psychological sense, Hurricane Sandy may lead to significant long-term political change. Already, activists affiliated with Occupy Wall Street have fanned out across New York to provide disaster relief to the neediest. For "Occupy," the storm provides an opportunity to broaden a movement which in recent months had seemed to be on the verge of disintegration. As the movement matures, there has been some talk of rebranding as evidenced by this "Occupy Sandy" web page.
For Occupy, the storm represents a kind of coming of age and in the long-term relief efforts might serve to re-energize the movement along environmental lines. Such a change comes none too soon. Whatever its initial strengths, Occupy later suffered when it failed to provide a coherent and long-term vision for society. In hindsight, it is easy to see how the group's anti-establishment rhetoric and outlook only propelled the movement so far.
It's unfortunate that it took a devastating hurricane to alert the public to the dangers of climate change, but belatedly some national and state politicians seem to be waking up to global warming. Perversely, however, the issue of climate change remained largely absent from the presidential campaign, and both candidates seemed wedded to the underlying mantra of endless economic growth, a doctrine which has contributed to extreme weather in the first place. The planet urgently needs to act on climate change, but to question fundamental assumptions about the economy is to risk derision and probably even ridicule within the present context of U.S. politics. Given such constraints, how should Occupy promote its environmental agenda?
Return of the Humble Oyster?
It's a challenging dilemma for activists because climate change is a very abstract concept to convey and most people have difficulty grasping the true scope of the problem, not to mention the radical economic and technological changes which will necessarily be in order. In light of such limitations, perhaps the most central thing for activists to recognize —- at least initially —- is the importance of stressing non-threatening symbolism over ideology. As the city that inspired other Occupy movements across the country, New York should take the lead in developing such catchy symbols, and fortunately some have already come up with intriguing suggestions.
Curiously, a recent New York Times article suggests that the humble oyster could play a vital role in combating the ravages of climate change within the metropolitan area. At one time, oysters built up enormous underwater reefs, which protected New York from storm surges. "Just as corals protect tropical islands," the piece notes, "these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force."
At one time, the bivalve population numbered up into the trillions and assisted in coastal defense all along the eastern seaboard from Boston in the north to Washington in the south. Ingeniously, oyster beds also play a vital environmental role through efficient filtration. Indeed, a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water per day. Such filtration allows marsh grasses to grow and extend their root structure, which in turn helps to stabilize and hold shores together.
The humble oyster, then, has fulfilled a vital environmental purpose but has also played an important role in the local economy. Few are aware of such history, and it's a theme that activists might want to touch upon in the coming weeks and months. As far back as the 1600s, the Lenape Indians of New York ate oysters and discarded the shells in large so-called middens. When they first arrived, the Dutch observed that the estuary of the lower Hudson River still contained 350 square miles of oyster beds. Oysters were so abundant, in fact, that the Dutch called Ellis Island "Oyster Island" and Liberty Island "Great Oyster Island." Later, oysters contributed greatly to the mercantile wealth and international renown of the burgeoning New Amsterdam colony.
The British, who inherited New Amsterdam from the Dutch, also went crazy for oysters and the bivalve was equally consumed by both rich and poor. Even before bagels, pizza and food trucks became the talk of the town, cheap oysters were New York's original street food. Every kind of gastronomic creation was marketed, from oyster pie to oyster stew. Oystering later proved to be a particularly popular trade amongst free African American slaves who opened oyster bars in Lower Manhattan. Staten Island, a district hard hit by recent Hurricane Sandy, was also an important center of the oyster trade and by the mid-19th century a number of black oystermen chose to settle within the local community.
New Yorkers embraced original oyster varieties, which grew up to nine inches and longer, including the now extinct Rockaways and Bluepoint from Long Island. Though over dredging later reduced the local bivalve population, New Yorkers continued their mollusk eating habit by encouraging oyster farming. Eventually, oystering became one of the city's biggest industries and by 1880 New York was known as the oyster capital of the world. Unfortunately, however, unsound sewer systems led to the dumping of typhoid and cholera-carrying bacteria into the waterways, while industrial pollutants rendered oysters inedible. In 1916, a local typhoid epidemic led to an official ban on oystering and the industry, which had led to such fabulous wealth, died out virtually overnight.
For the Occupy movement, which had fallen into a state of torpor prior to New York's recent environmental disaster, Hurricane Sandy reshuffles the deck. Perhaps, in light of the catastrophe, the public may be more receptive to political activism with a strong ecological component. Nevertheless, Occupy needs to be careful lest it alienate many New Yorkers who are not yet ready for the coming radical debate about how to transform the economy in a green and environmental sense. It is here, however, where the humble oyster comes into play. If they are shrewd, activists might appeal to the mainstream by declaring the need for greater coastal defense and the repopulation of local oyster beds. As they recruit a wider following, activists might even bring up New York's forgotten environmental history which will come as a surprise to many.
Climate Change, Storm Surges and the Toxic Cocktail
So much for theoretical abstractions. But pragmatically speaking, how can Occupy achieve its long-term goals? Fortunately, even before Hurricane Sandy activists had turned their attention to valuable environmental work within the New York City area. Take, for example, oyster farmers operating within the area of the Gowanus Canal in the borough of Brooklyn. There, local residents, volunteers and young students carried out valuable oyster gardening projects, which have fostered a sense of environmental stewardship in the community.
At one time, the Gowanus was an ecological gem and early Dutch accounts made note of gigantic oysters in local waters, which were literally "the size of dinner plates." These days, however, the Gowanus is in dire need of ecological renewal and recently the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a federal Superfund site for cleanup. Such efforts come none too soon: for years the canal was fouled by industrial waste and light was unable to penetrate the water so as to sustain life. Though some eels, bluefish and jellyfish now ply the polluted waters, oysters are hardly on the menu. In 2007, a 12-foot minke whale calf infamously nicknamed "Sludgie" perished near the mouth of the canal after it failed to find its way back to open seas.
Like Staten Island, Lower Manhattan and other low-lying areas within the vicinity, the Gowanus is vulnerable to storm surges and the ravages of climate change. In the case of the Gowanus, however, residents are doubly concerned, owing to the threat of toxic overflow from the canal. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Gowanus flooded local residents' homes in oily sludge. As they clean up from the storm, many wonder how they will cope with future floods. Such concerns are well warranted given extensive future plans to develop the area and build new apartment complexes.
New Political Headquarters for Occupy
Is it time for Occupy to search for a new home? Ever since Mayor Bloomberg evicted protesters from their base in Zuccotti Park, the movement has lacked a fixed base. If they try to go back to Lower Manhattan, there is little doubt that activists will face the same level of political repression, if not more. Given these difficulties, perhaps establishing a headquarters in Brooklyn is not such a bad idea. If they head across the river, activists will be under less psychological pressure and could devote more time and consideration to the reformulation of their movement along environmental lines.
The Gowanus, with its recent history of ecological and oyster conservation, is probably just as good an area as any when it comes to launching a new base. Though Brooklyn is far from the corridors of power, the Gowanus is full of prime real estate and vacant buildings which could serve as a future political headquarters. If they venture into the neighborhood, activists will find a very diverse local crowd, including hipsters, artists, environmentalists and working class blacks and Latinos. The liberal enclave of Park Slope and the nation's largest food cooperative lay just a few blocks away.
All movements have their ebb and flow. In an earlier incarnation, Occupy raised awareness about the nation's corrupt economic elites and social injustice. With the more recent turn toward "Occupy Sandy," we seem to be entering a kind of intermediate phase, which could signal the turn toward something new. In the wake of the storm, activists have established some street credibility by assisting with everyday disaster relief. In the coming months, however, Occupy should hone its message in an effort to bring new people into the movement. Perhaps it's time to start connecting the dots between the earlier social justice work and climate change.
Perhaps, prior to the WikiLeaks scandal, small island nations which stand to be deluged by rising sea levels might have looked to the European Union and, specifically, Germany to provide leadership on climate change. Recent disclosures, however, have probably dashed any such hopes. Far from looking out for the interests of vulnerable countries imperiled by global warming, the European Union has conspired with the United States to limit the scope of climate change reform in international negotiations.
Even if the EU wanted to set an ambitious course on climate change, there are serious doubts about the bloc's ability to do so. Indeed, when it's not negotiating with the U.S. behind closed doors, the EU has shown little unity on issues of vital environmental importance. To make matters worse, Germany and the U.S. reportedly lied about a satellite program ostensibly designed to collect information about climate change. In reality, Germany had no intention of employing the satellites for any such purpose —- the technology would be simply used for spying.
The WikiLeaks scandal represents a kind of fall from grace for Germany, which has long prided itself on its green credentials. Indeed, it wasn't so long ago that U.S. diplomats painted a rather flattering environmental portrait of the Angela Merkel government. In December, 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia noted that "Germany has long been the leading contributor of financial and technical assistance to Brazil on deforestation and climate change." U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske added that Germany planned to invest 100 million Euros on climate change and renewable energy projects. Furthermore, Kubiske added, "Germany has long played the leading role in the international effort on conserving the Amazon forest."
Even as it sought to deal with the Amazon, however, Germany fretted about climate change politics closer to home. According to cables, there were acrimonious divisions within the 27- member EU prior to the Copenhagen climate summit held in December, 2009. When the Dutch demanded that the EU cut its emissions by 30 percent, Italy and Poland balked during a particularly "vicious" meeting. One German official dismissed Poland's argument disdainfully as "give us two billion euros for technology." "Germany is concerned that a lack of internal solidarity is leading to problems with the EU's position and leadership internationally," noted the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Brussels.
Copenhagen and German Lack of Leadership
While Germany certainly confronted a disconcerting scenario, Merkel failed to push ahead and seemed to accept a zero sum game. Prior to the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, U.S. ambassador to Germany Phillip Murray wrote Secretary of State Clinton that "German leaders recognize the challenge of passing climate change legislation in the U.S. and have lowered their expectations for the possibility of reaching a legally binding agreement next month at Copenhagen. They have begun to describe the Summit as one step in a larger process — a politically binding framework — and may be preparing the German public for a less ambitious outcome." Far from seeking to exercise true leadership on climate change, Merkel advocated a strong "US/EU position towards the major emerging economies, particularly China and India, to urge them to commit to ambitious national actions at Copenhagen."
During the conference itself, major powers such as China, the U.S. and Brazil amongst others cobbled together a hastily agreed upon climate compromise. In the wake of the summit, some countries were left feeling bitter and pessimistic. The EU signaled that it would only sign on to a new UN treaty if other big economies agreed to make deeper cuts in their emissions. According to cables, incoming European Council President Herman Van Rompuy felt "angry that Europe was elbowed out of discussions in Copenhagen."
Van Rompuy was pessimistic that upcoming climate talks at Cancún would yield any positive result, and suggested that the U.S. and EU negotiate on their own and then approach China. The EU official was not the only one to share such a dismal outlook: Chancellor Merkel too was frustrated by the lack of progress at Copenhagen and started to move away from her goal of limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Merkel even signaled to the rest of the EU that she would not support the idea of Europe going it alone on climate change. Playing the blame game, the Chancellor said that China and India represented a true "structural problem" when it came to reaching a binding climate agreement.
Climate Change Shenanigans
The EU, then, felt excluded from negotiations but was not prepared to act as a trailblazer on climate change, arguing instead that emerging economies such as China and India should assume responsibility. The EU takes its cue from Germany, and in this case Merkel's lack of leadership had unfortunate consequences: in early 2010, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman met with EU officials, including Van Rompuy's Chief of Staff, in Brussels. The aim of the discussions was to "push back against coordinated opposition of BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) to our international positions." Though the BASIC group had widely differing interests, U.S. diplomats observed, the bloc was "surprisingly united" and would "take turns" playing the U.S. and EU off against each other.
To be sure, BASIC is a huge obstacle when it comes to climate change and other nations should take a stand against the bloc at international summits. On the other hand, the U.S. is not much better than BASIC when it comes to setting policy. If they wanted to take a more principled stand at this point, EU officials might have refused to take sides with either the U.S. or BASIC in the meaningless race to the bottom. According to cables, however, the EU cynically negotiated with the U.S. in an effort to head off meaningful change. When Froman remarked that "the U.S. and EU need to... work much more closely and effectively together... to better handle third country obstructionism and avoid future trainwrecks on climate," the Europeans agreed to lobby BASIC as well as the G-77 group of poor nations in advance of the next climate summit in Cancún, Mexico.
If Washington had any doubts about where Europe stood, EU officials certainly cleared up any uncertainty: when Froman remarked that it would be necessary to "neutralize, co-opt or marginalize" radical Latin American nations which were advocating deeper cuts in carbon emissions, the Europeans agreed that it was imperative to "work around unhelpful countries such as Venezuela or Bolivia." An EU official then noted how "ironic" it was that Europe donated a lot of money to radical Latin American countries, but they in turn were "actively discouraging" others from signing on to Copenhagen, a heavily criticized accord which the EU nevertheless sought to foist on the rest of the world. Simultaneously, in preparation for Cancún the EU aimed to downgrade public expectations for the summit, hoping to merely score modest agreements on climate financing and a climate warning system.
Despite such unpromising backroom diplomacy, the Cancún summit ended with Germany agreeing to reduce its emissions by 40 percent by 2020. That would be well ahead of pledges made by the EU bloc as a whole, which only agreed to reduce emissions by 20 percent. Indeed, Der Spiegel reports that "other countries in the [EU] club are appreciative of Berlin's pledge — but none have followed the example." For Cancún to be effective Germany will have to cajole other member states to make deeper commitments, but already there are indications, in the words of Der Spiegel, that the central European powerhouse "no longer wants to be the model EU pupil."
Since China and the U.S. left Cancún without offering concrete carbon pledges, it is up to the EU to make the greatest difference on global warming. German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats, argues that his country must "advance decisively," in the post Cancún milieu. A new eco-boom, he declares, might create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. If other EU members should renege on carbon reductions, Röttgen argues, Germany should lead even further by raising its targets to between 42 and 50 percent.
Throwing cold water on that idea, Merkel says that such a deep commitment would put pressure on the economy. Officials at the Chancellery declare that "Germany, with its national reduction target of 40 percent, is at the upper limit" of its Cancún targets and that other EU countries need to make up the difference. Seeking to avoid a confrontation with Merkel, Röttgen has now changed his tune and lambastes other EU countries, demanding that they "make a contribution that corresponds to the German contribution."
The Satellite Imbroglio
Failing to inspire fellow EU members is disappointing enough, though further WikiLeaks cables show that the Merkel government has truly acted cynically. Recently, Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten released U.S. cables from the American Embassy in Berlin dating from early 2009 to early 2010. The documents show that Germany and the U.S. sought to develop a joint satellite program which would be operational by 2013. Code named HiROS, or High Resolution Optical Satellite System, the project would reportedly detect objects on the ground as small as 50 centimeters in diameter and take infrared images at night.
Because of the controversial nature of HiROS, the U.S. and Germany planned to present the project to the public as a civilian project which would study climate change and improve the environment. In reality, however, HiROS was "under the total control" of German intelligence and the national aerospace center. Observing the growing German-U.S. détente, neighboring France grew concerned and sought to derail the satellite program at every turn. The Merkel government, however, which had long sought to become a leading player providing satellite data, disregarded French entreaties.
The satellite imbroglio reveals the Merkel government at its most crass. At a time when the world desperately needs satellite data to further understand global climate change, Germany seems more intent on outmaneuvering its fellow EU members on intelligence gathering. Even as its rails against other European countries for not living up to their carbon commitments, Germany is pursuing narrow self interest and failing to use its technology for the benefit of all. If anything, the WikiLeaks scandal may sow suspicion amongst EU members and make further environmental diplomacy that much more difficult to achieve.
On the other hand, ongoing disclosures might actually spur a public outcry and further debate. With the chances for climate change legislation looking dimmer and dimmer in the new Republican-dominated U.S. Congress, the EU must be a more forceful player on global warming. As the most significant political and economic country in Europe, Germany must lead in a much more convincing way than recent WikiLeaks cables suggest. Perhaps, German environmentalists and the media will raise a stir and pressure the Merkel government to finally assume its historic responsibility.