The New Normal

So is this the New Normal?   The question gets asked about lots of things—Washington politics, the economy, terrorism, infrastructure, the financial markets.   And the question gets asked anxiously because as a normal—as a baseline—this new normal (whatever it may be) is less than entirely believable.   To be sure, the New Normal is recognized in conversation—as in “Well, you know, this could be the new normal.”   But most often, it’s offered as a theoretical possibility acknowledged, but then quickly bracketed, because not quite believable.

Well, why isn’t the New Normal believable?

One reason, of course, is that it flies in the face of deep-seated American myths about collective and personal progress—about things getting better because well… things are supposed to get better.  Problems are supposed to get fixed.  Solutions are supposed to be found.  That’s the way it’s always been (not true) and that’s the way it always will be (surely not).

A second and more interesting reason that this New Normal isn’t quite believable is that we recognize that things are going to change.   Quantitative easing can’t go on forever.   Climate change will get worse.  Infrastructure, if we do nothing, will not remain at a D+.    Structural corruption of politics is self-compounding.  MOOC’s really are waiting in the wings to displace the traditional university.  Meanwhile in almost every field, (journalism, politics, business, etc.) the people who lead really are, for the most part, mediocre.  And unfortunately for us—it’s systemic: The triage, certification, and screening mechanisms designed to promote excellence and ward off decadence are themselves decadent—incapable of controlling for self-promotion effects, image manipulation or other forms of gaming.  More broadly, the mechanisms we usually rely upon to recognize, name, and correct for institutional breakdowns (e.g. mechanisms such as law, politics, journalism) are themselves broken.

The upshot?  Well, the affirmation that this is the New Normal really isn’t believable.   Unless, of course, the New Normal is defined as 1) a precarious state of affairs that will soon change radically but 2) in ways that are utterly out of our control (and out of the control of our institutions).   Now this “dynamic” conception of the New Normal, arguably does capture the moment—the recognition that things are slated to change, but in ways utterly out of our control.

And so we are waiting—essentially spectators waiting to see what is going to happen to our collective lives (and thus our individual lives).  It’s not apathy or indifference.   Nor is it that jaded 80’s or 90’s sense of postness—that everything worth happening already has.   It’s more a sense that we are profoundly irrelevant—except, perhaps in our own micro-activities.   It’s also a sense that the mindsets of the people who are relevant (think for example: Supreme Court Justices) are so historically askew to our times, so outdated in their frames, their preoccupations, their concerns, that they couldn’t possible help.

What then is this?  Full circle: It is the recognition that we are a very (very) old society and that the institutions and practices we have created over the decades (the  centuries) are too exhausted to deal with what they have wrought.   They are incapable of naming and comprehending—they have neither the language nor the motivation to register and articulate—the cultural, political, and economic forces and agencies that our constructing us and our world.    And so they just drone on (Supreme Court opinions) or they foment angry self-referential tirades (the media blogosphere) or pose and posture (Congress) or document the trivial with exacting rigor (academia) or… and so on.   And so meanwhile, we (who are also them) wait, wistfully wishing for a return to the old normal and yet knowing it’s not going to happen.

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Notes in Support of the Liberal Arts Law School

Here are a few ideas for how law schools that are not in the top ten (or not in the fifteen that are in the top ten) might respond to the structural forces bearing down on legal education. For those who haven’t been keeping up, the structural forces include: defunding of public education; rising tuition (in part due to defunding of public education but also for other reasons); increasing student debt loads; diminishing job opportunities; diminishing pay; and changes to the format and delivery of legal services. These forces have unearthed some longstanding shortcomings in legal education, and also have brought new pressures to bear. When law schools, particularly public law schools, were cheap, students did not have to worry much about how their legal education was or was not serving them.  They also did not have to worry much about landing a legal job.  The credential was helpful for a variety of career paths, and most options remained open financially. Now, students have to think very seriously about whether to go to law school and incur significant debt, and therefore become channeled into narrower career options, if they have options at all.

The top 10 or so schools will likely be able to continue with a law school business-as-usual scenario, with the possible exception that they will be engaged in global competition for students and faculty. Otherwise, a few tweaks to financial aid and loan forgiveness and a few nods to improving the quality of the educational experience should do it for them. The schools in the lowest tier will likely face an equally foregone, though diametrically opposite, future. The pressure will be great to dramatically decrease faculty scholarship and emphasize skills training and bar prep approaches to teaching. Many schools will follow this vocational-technical route in order to remain cost efficient and therefore survive.

What about the schools in the middle?  Can they, and should they, pay for faculty to write articles and books?  Can they, and should they, continue to teach theory, jurisprudence, and critical approaches to law?  Can they, and should they, pay for expensive in-house clinics where students can acquire skills in the context of intensive feedback accompanied by opportunities for critical reflection?  Here is a short outline, a sketch really, of an argument in support of the answer “yes.”  A significant caveat exists, however.  It is this:  yes, if at the same time these schools can increase the value of legal education by requiring higher quality teaching and in other ways demanding more of their faculty, without doing so in unimaginative ways that lead solely to a vo-tech model.  Law teaching can continue to be one of the last great jobs, but only if faculty can respond constructively to the changes facing us and our students.

The Case for the Feisty Liberal Arts Law School, in Outline Form:

–Our society is riddled with law, and will continue to be so indefinitely.

–People, poor and rich, will always need excellent lawyers when things go wrong (divorce, death, catastrophic injury, foreclosure, injustice, etc.)

–The top ten schools cannot produce enough excellent lawyers for all of society.

–Excellent lawyers not only have the best skills, they understand how to dissect arguments and to cut through layers of obfuscation and preconception.  They are, in other words, interpreters and translators.

–The ability to interpret and translate requires critical thinking skills and a deep understanding of the structures of language and argument.

–Excellent lawyers also know how to make their arguments resonate with deeply held beliefs.

–Knowledge of history, including legal and intellectual history, is necessary to speak in a register consonant with people’s deeply held beliefs.

–A legal liberal arts education, along the lines of what is available at all good law schools, provides access to professors (both clinical and non-clinical) who can teach critical thinking, legal and intellectual history, and legal theory, all of which are necessary to produce excellent lawyers as described above.

–Professors inclined to teach in these ways can add knowledge to the world (through their scholarship), that most judges, lawyers, and law-makers cannot.  Academics can take the time to study a field of law in its historical sweep. They can dissect the moves and unearth the assumptions in a line of legal argument that have, sometimes dangerously, been left unexamined. Not all of what academics do will illuminate or enlighten, but much of it will.  And if the machinery of law grinds along, with no one minding the gaps, all the skills in the world will do nothing for those who might be crushed in its wake.

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Facts (The)

These little items are trouble.   Let me state right off that I have not always been on entirely friendly terms with “the facts.”  We have had a long and, at times, uneasy relation.   Things took a bad turn early.  I was prepared to be French—to deduce (and occasionally refute) large aspects of the world without ever having to leave the Latin Quarter. Instead I had to become an American.  Pragmatic.  Fact-focused.  (I don’t want to talk about it.)

But let me explain about the facts.  First, notice, that the most factish of facts (apologies to Latour) are actually factoids—trivial data bits shorn of any actual narrative.  CNN had it down cold: “America has had five presidents who ate fish for breakfast.”  What, I ask you, could you possibly do with that qua fact?

Still, Americans like facts.  It was Joe Friday on Dragnet who first said, “all we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Just the Facts, Ma'Am: The Authorized Biography of Jack Webb

Really? That’s all?   I don’t think so.  He was on a mission.   He wanted facts on a mission. And we, the viewers, did too.

So I have to say, as a preliminary matter, things already don’t look too good for the facts. Indeed, the possibility that in their most prototypical factishisness, facts are nearly useless while in their most desirable state they are on a mission—well, that’s not an auspicious start.  For a fact.

Things get worse.  In law and social science (that’s my domain limit here—I feel really cramped) facts generally function as poseurs.  The facts, are nearly always posing as the truth about “what-is-actually-going-on.”  Facts are frequently presented as “the-real-story” or  “the bottom line.”    One is no doubt supposed to conclude from this that “facts are facts”—that they are the veritable bedrock of truth.  But notice that this doesn’t make any sense.    Notice that the “bottom line” is an accounting metaphor.   Consider that, “the real story” is an oxymoron deliberately composed of both truth and fiction.   Note that “what-is-actually-going-on” is a problematic state hanging precariously on the ungrounded and notoriously unreliable  reality/appearance pair.   All of this is to say, that the appeal of “getting down to the facts,” (or some such thing) often rests on situating the facts in some initially alluring rhetorical space (e.g. “the real story” “the bottom line”) that turns out, upon further inspection, to be constructed of images, metaphors or fictions of questionable philosophical countenance.  (See, Nietzsche, On Lies and Truth in a Non-Moral Sense)    Now, it’s not that these metaphors, images or fictions turn facts into non-facts.   But still, I ask you: what could be more humbling to a fact then to learn that it has been selected for our attention by a metaphor, an image, or a fiction?

Not only do facts frequently function as poseurs, but, when they are at their most factish, they’re often not all that interesting.   Factish facts don’t really tell you much of anything you want to know.  Imagine a party.  Here are some exemplary factish facts: There were 19 people at the party.   9 were women.  10 were men.   While the party was happening, gravity exercised a constant force of 32 feet per second/per second.  Everyone standing stayed connected to the ground.    Not the greatest narrative is it?  And notice here that if you stick strictly to the facts (if you admit only of truly factish facts) adding more of these little items will not markedly improve your story line.  (For you editors of university press books and law review articles, please pay special attention here.)

The only time facts are really interesting (remember law and social science is the domain limit)  is when they’re something more than just the facts.  Go back to the party.   Here’s another fact:  Jill left the party with Tom.   This fact is more interesting.   Well, mildly so.  With this sort of fact, you can start imagining possible implications (amorous, murderous, whathaveyou).  But note that now we’re no longer talking about “just the facts.”   We’re talking about facts with implications, facts with attitude.

Why then are facts ever interesting?    Well, ironically  it’s because they’re not functioning as “just facts,” but something more.  And that something more (call it a narrative?) is very often not terribly factish.

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Gun Culture, Part 2

The national spotlight is on Colorado, where Governor John Hickenlooper, a moderate democrat, has endorsed the idea of tightening gun control regulations. Hickenlooper and members of the democratically-controlled state legislature have indicated plans to introduce laws that would require universal background checks and ban the sale of high capacity magazines.  Colorado is rightly seen as a bellwether because, despite the current democratic state majorities, the politics here are purple in two important ways.  First, Colorado swings between republican and democratic in national elections.  Second, the current cultural and political zeitgeist is an arranged marriage between progressive and conservative forms of libertarianism.  Different factions of left and right exist, of course, but to make headway politically in Colorado is to walk that line between “let them do their own thing,” and “don’t make us do a damn thing.” (That’s why we can smoke pot legally, carry concealed weapons just about everywhere, and hardly pay any income tax!) If we can pass even these modest forms of gun regulation, maybe the federal government will be able to pull it off too.

First, a brief word of support for these modest regulations is in order. It may be the case that as a general matter it is difficult to show that local gun control measures lead to less gun violence.  But one thing is certain: fewer children would have died in Newtown if Adam Lanza had stormed the elementary school with a regular handgun instead of a semi-automatic weapon.  And fewer children would have died in Newtown if, even if armed with his military-style assault rifle and his semi-automatic handgun, he had not had high capacity magazines.  So even if we cannot prevent all Bad People from accessing guns in the future in any scenario consistent with the Second Amendment, we can prevent the hideously opportunistic nature of the mass slaughter that occurred in Connecticut by making it illegal for people like Mrs. Lanza, a law abiding gun owner and the person from whom Adam got the guns, to own the means for it.  For many of us, the prospect of saving even some of those very young children is well worth the small price of restricting what some people think of as their liberty in this way.  (And the same can be said about the Aurora Theater shooting.  Without the capacity to shoot repeatedly simply by pulling the trigger, James Holmes would have killed fewer people.  We might even, just for the moment, grant the “Good Person with a gun” fantasy it’s due, and acknowledge that such a person might have at least a snowball’s chance to stop the Bad Person, but only if the Bad Person had to pause for a second to reload before killing again.)  These legal measures, in other words, might not accomplish much with respect to our national problem of excessive gun violence.  But they are well tailored to the events that occasioned their consideration:  a “Bad” (or Mad?) Man intent on inflicting as much harm as possible with the means readily available.

In addition to the prospect of legislation, there is another indicator of a shift toward sanity about guns. A national outdoor retail chain, Jax Mercantile, recently announced that it would stop selling semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.  Jax will still sell plenty of guns, including hand guns, hunting rifles, etc., in addition to the full range of other outdoor gear.  But Jax President Jim Quinlan said it was a matter of conscience to stop selling assault-style weapons and magazines, and that 80% of the reaction to his decision has been positive.  There is likely no swaying the minority of gun owners who have convinced themselves that the core of liberty is the ability to own any and all manner of firearms in order some day to compete with a potentially tyrannical government in an imaginary (and let’s face it, unwinnable) arm’s race.  But it is reassuring to think that many proponents of gun ownership, including those who make their living off of selling guns, understand that a “right,” whatever it may mean, does not have to entail unlimited and slavish devotion to the ever-evolving technology of mass killing.

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Mayan End of the World Canceled (A Brazenandtenured Exclusive)

Apparently, through some rather incredible and oddly parallel set of mistakes, the ending of the world will not happen on December 21st.   Instead, it appears the world has already ended on November 10th.     The mistake is a moment of some embarrassment for the experts involved–all of whom seem to have been taken in.

Protests have broken out throughout the globe demanding that leaders cease their war efforts.   As one German Green Party member noted, “Look if the world has already ended, what’s the point of going on with all these wars.  I mean, really.  Think about it.  All this killing—how can it possibly help now?”

Fox News, MSNBC, and other cable shows have turned to academic philosophers to help explain the implications.  In the main—and the Anglo-American philosophical community seems to be of one mind here—whether the world ends on December 21st or has already ended on November 10th is, as one Oxford don put it, “really (really) inconsequential.  Mere facticity.   One thing is clear, however: Insofar as the world ended on November 10th,  nothing that has happened since is of any significance.”  As another Oxford don put it,  “After November 10th,  it’s all been gravy actually.   So if you’ve won an award or you got an article placed somewhere really good, well bully for you.  It’s extra.   A little bit more.   Of course, it doesn’t count.”

I asked the Oxford don, what philosophical strains looked promising in light of the world having ended.  At first, he was non-plussed by the question, but quickly recovered:  “Basically, if the world were to go on—which quite clearly, it can’t because, well you know, it’s ended—existentialism would be the only remaining option.   Asked what he thought about this, the Oxford don replied, “Well, you know, existentialism—it’s mostly French.”

Brian Leiter posted one final entry on his blog:  “The rankings are in.  The final world rankings are in.  Chicago is number one.  I AM NUMBER ONE.”

The most negatively affected group are the Nihilists who seem to have lost their entire program.  “We all feel really deflated here,” said Karl Osmann—the red-haired German leader of Nihilism Plus.    I caught up with him in a condo in East Frankfurt.   He was sitting an overstuffed chair in a darkened room gulping single malt from a bottle of Laphroaig.  “How would you feel?” he added.   “We’ve lost everything.   Everybody else had their day, you know.  The Christians.  The Marxists.  The Hugenots.   They all had their shot.  And now for us—it’s too late.  It’s like nihilism never really had a chance.   We’re all really bummed here.”

I interrupted my interview with Karl to take a phone call from  Tom Frades, CEO and Chairman of NASCAR.    His outlook seemed more upbeat.   Frades announced that NASCAR will continue the Indy 500 as scheduled—except basically the race will now go on forever.

“You mean around and around?”


“So, uninterrupted—forever? ”


I mentioned the NASCAR news to Karl Osmann.   He cracked a weathered smile around his smoldering Gitanes and said, “Well, we’ll take support anywhere we can get it.  We love NASCAR.  And we are grateful that people are still trying.”

“Any thoughts of a possible merger?”

“Not at this time,” said Osmann.

Thomas Thompson, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, was also contacted He was characteristically succinct:  “You know the Mayans were also small businessmen.  You get that—right?”

Sisyphus was contacted by phone by my assistant, Francesca.  (Francesca is new with us and is just getting started so please be patient. ) In any event, Francesca reported a tense conversation.   Apparently, Sisyphus exploded in fury as soon as he got on the phone: “I knew it. I f-ing JUST knew it,” he said.   “I’m just glad that the end didn’t happen before November 10th.  Otherwise,  well—you see the point?  But does anybody ever think of calling me?  Uh?  ‘Hey let’s give Sisyphus a call?  Make sure, he doesn’t waste his time?’  No.  Never happens.  They never give me a thought.   I am outta here.”

The world was asked why it had ended and what would take its place.   As to the former, apparently, there is no reason.  “Just a change.   Last year, we all went down to Aruba.   This year, we just decided that ending it all would be nice.  Don’t read anything into it.”   As for the anticipated replacement, the world thinks it will look a lot like a 1950’s bubble gum machine.   No one knows why–indeed, no one knows why generally and the world expressed the weary hope that, in the future, people will stop asking.

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The Great GOP Identity Search

In the wake of the great Republican defeat (and despite the distraction of the Petraeus Affair) pols and pundits continue to offer advice to the Republican Party as to how it might reform itself in order to…. well, do better next time around.   Yesterday’s New York Times contains a number of suggestions:  Ditch the radical right.  Court the black vote.   Embrace immigration reform.   Etc.

There’s something almost always missing in the way these suggestions are presented.  They are all written as if the plight of the GOP could be ameliorated through simple operations of subtraction (e.g., ditch the radical right) or addition (e.g., take up immigration reform).    Only rarely is consideration given to how the proposed subtraction or addition would affect the ostensible identity of the party or how the change could be effectuated given the ostensible identity of the party.

Consider:  If the GOP ditches the radical right, to what degree does the GOP remain the GOP or become instead something else?   Isn’t the radical right an important voting constituency?  A draw for donors?   Isn’t the ideology of the radical right infused throughout the GOP?   And can the radical right really be conceptualized as a divisible part of some imaginary GOP whole—a part that can be jettisoned without creating fissures and ripples throughout the party?   Is it really as easy as simple as dropping a part from some part/whole metaphor?

Or consider again:  If the GOP embraces immigration reform, does it not lose the support and allegiance of some of its white constituency?   And is embracing immigration reform really sufficient to counter-act the effect of  all the other GOP policies (and attitudes) that alienate Latino voters?   A simple add-on and things will be fine—really?

So how then are we to understand the various proposals of the GOP pols and pundits? What presumptions about identity are in play here?

Are we to understand the pols and pundits to be presuming that the GOP has an essential identity that can remain unchanged even with the addition or subtraction of purportedly discrete parts?   Maybe.  But if so, it would be interesting to try to figure out what this essential identity might be.   Not the least reason is that the effort is likely to fail.  Indeed, whatever the identity of the GOP  may be, it is unlikely to be of the essential kind.   To put it differently, whatever may be essential about the GOP,  it is likely to be somewhat abstract or, in the alternative, highly variegated (which is to say, not very essential at all).

Perhaps then, we are to understand these GOP pols and pundits to be saying that the GOP should become something else (presumably some more electorally successful version of itself).   Again, maybe.    But it is doubtful that the GOP (whatever it may be) cares so intensely about electoral success that it is willing to become some other party in order to get it.   At the very least there is a tension here (and, again, it would make for interesting inquiry.)

Are we then to understand the GOP pols and pundits to be making a kind of pragmatic pitch—something like the following: this is what we, the GOP, should be given what we are and can realistically become in light of our ideals as qualified by the subtraction and additions presented by my argument here.   Again maybe so.   But this pragmatic approach seems to founder on the shoals of a very unpragmatic reality–namely, that identity of the modern-day Republican Party is weighed down (perhaps irretrievably?) by the very unpragmatic results of what was once a pragmatic strategy–namely, “Nixon’s southern strategy.”   That strategy was once the height of pragmatism.  Now it’s like a lead weight–rendering change or reform all but impossible.   See here.   That is the fundamental irony of  pragmatic strategies: Ultimately, pragmatic strategies have to yield results and when the latter register, they become, not surprisingly, rather unpragmatic.

In the end, it’s also conceivable that all this advice to the Republican party is nothing more than cosmetic–attempts to call for and perform relatively minor makeovers.    That possibility is not very interesting (though that does not make it any the less likely.)

Addendum; January 29, 2013

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks’s oped seems to get it  Brooks criticizes Republican stalwarts (e.g. Bobbie Jindahl, etc.) along a form/substance track:  The sounds of reform (let’s not be “the stupid party”) are all packaging (form) devoid of any new proposals (substance).   Leveraging the form/substance distinction, Brooks then calls for a “second GOP”–one whose core commitments and issues will differ from the first GOP.  (For details see here.)  And then Brooks ends on almost the right note:  “This is really the only chance Republicans have. The question is: Who’s going to build a second G.O.P.?”  Right.   Exactly.   Recycle back up to the top.

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Sustainability and Equity in a Climate Changed World

A small group of environmental law professors gathered recently for a two-day workshop on the concept and practice of sustainability.  I was asked to lead a discussion about the relationship between sustainability and equity.  The group decided to take the next step of publishing a series of essays on the topics we addressed, and the following is my contribution. 

From top to bottom, climate change has altered the earth’s systems in ways that render impossible a static notion of sustainability.  The idea of fixed natural baselines, contested to begin with, today is nearly quixotic. The many losses accompanying this state of affairs include the homelands of small island nations, Native Alaskan villages, and flood-prone communities throughout the world.  They also include untold numbers of species, large and small. For many communities, the shocks and adjustments will be ongoing.  The challenge for all will be to reconfigure economies and cultures that have been structured around an anachronism– what used to be the local climate.

This may seem like a terrible time to cast a critical eye on the past of the American environmental movement.  Instead of looking at its flaws, we might be drawn to glossing over problems in order to unify support for very strong climate change mitigation and adaptation policies.  Yet glossing over might prove counterproductive.  The inescapably damaged state of the world we are trying to preserve provides an opportunity to escape from narratives that have divided communities over environmental policies.  Those narratives include saving the environment from people and preserving pristine places from contamination.

Let’s explore those narratives in two places.  Aspen, Colorado is a former mining town reborn as a luxury ski resort.  Efforts to preserve the wilderness and other natural resources of the surrounding mountains have coincided with pricing Aspen out of any reasonable housing market and creating a distant commuter class of service workers, composed mostly of Latino immigrants.  The two phenomena do not have to coincide.  The conversion from a boom-and-bust extractive industry economy to an amenity and service-based economy can be managed in ways that produce equitable distributions of environmental and social benefits.   But often it is not.  The path to easy money for developers is the path of environmental privilege.  Wealthy people come for real estate or experiences near beautiful and sparsely populated public lands, and then structure a service economy around the protection of their privileges.  (To be clear, I do not mean to say that individual wealthy people do this intentionally; the logic of this type of development is naturalized in a way that makes it invisible to many well-intentioned people.)  This often includes, as it has in Aspen, externalizing a range of costs and impacts to outlying communities.  Service workers must commute by car from distant places.  The towns where they live, which have lower tax bases than Aspen, provide the schools and other services to Aspen’s working class.  In short, Aspen is a place of environmental and class extremism, where the very wealthy enjoy the best that the Rocky Mountains can offer in terms of scenery and access to wilderness and other outdoor activities, and low-income workers live in distant communities, drive hours to and from their jobs, and barely have time to notice that the supposedly transformative experience of pristine nature surrounds them.

Estate in Aspen, Colorado

Black Mesa, Arizona is a high desert plateau, most of which is on the Navajo Nation but portions of which comprise the Hopi Tribe’s land.  The Navajo and Hopi people of Black Mesa are among the more traditional Native communities in the country in terms of maintaining their ancestral lands as well as the religions and cultures tied to those places.  The community is not a monolith, but it is fair to say that most of the Navajo and Hopi people who live there have strong interests in ensuring that their water (from underground pristine aquifers), their land, and their air can sustain many future generations who will perpetuate Navajo and Hopi life ways.  The threats to their ability to ensure that future come from two main sources:  the strip mining of coal on Black Mesa (and the accompanying pumping of ground water from the aquifers to mine and transport the coal), and the pollution from the several coal fired power plants that surround the Navajo Nation, including the Navajo Generating Station which receives all of its coal from Black Mesa.  None of the electricity generated at the Navajo Generating Station supplies power to people on the Navajo or Hopi reservations.  Instead, the power is used by the Salt River Project, Los Angeles Water & Power, Nevada Energy, Arizona Public Service Co., Tucson Electric Power, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The beneficiaries of coal mining, aquifer pumping, and emissions from the coal fired power plant are therefore corporations and people in the distant cities of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tuscon.  The recipients of all of the environmental burdens are the Navajo and Hopi people, whose land, resources, and water serve as raw material to develop these far away places.

Hard Rock Chapter, Black Mesa, Navajo Nation

Contemporary environmental laws, in place since the early 1970’s, have done tremendous good, but have done little to curb the extreme inequities in the distribution of environmental burdens and benefits exemplified in these two very different places.  In Aspen, the narrative of keeping people out of pristine places is at play.  On Black Mesa, the narrative at work is one that separates the plight of subordinated people from the structural forces that harm our environment.  The build-up of Los Angeles and Phoenix surely seemed foregone, inevitable, and right to those involved in it.  What thought was given to the Native communities on whose backs those cities were built?  Their lands were seen as nothing but the disposable raw material from which to build something better.

As we move forward, post climate change, with only a murky comprehension of how best to preserve remnants of the faultless non-human world, perhaps we can reconsider how to weave human communities and their just demands for equitable treatment into the picture.  Otherwise, we may lean towards sustaining only non-human nature, and that will inevitably also benefit only certain classes and strata of humanity.  We might unwittingly be sustaining a very hierarchical and increasingly rigid system of doling out environmental privileges and harms.  If this is a moment of reconsideration, my vote is to construct a competing narrative of environmentalism, one that has a vision of vibrant, equitable, just and diverse communities of humans and non-humans as its end.

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