Saturday, March 2, 2013

In Memoriam: Stéphane Hessel

The late Stéphane Hessel, October 6, 2012, Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Photo by me.

         The great humanitarian and fighter against fascism and oppression, Stéphane Hessel died Tuesday at the age of 95. Here is a link to the NY Times obituary. Hessel was born in Berlin and became a naturalized French citizen in 1938 while still a student. He escaped to London to join DeGaulle after the Nazi occupation of France, then returned to fight in the Résistance, where he was capture three times in toward the end of the war, but managed to escape each time. Here’s a link to the  Times obituary:

         Among the things that this obituary leaves out are Hessel’s struggles with the creators of the United Nations to strengthen its commitment to human rights. He notes, for example, that Dag Hamarskjold was chosen as Secretary-General because he was considered a rather anodyne economist and wouldn’t stir things up. He turned out to be a very activist occupier of that office, whose death in a plane crash remains suspicious.
         Hessel worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and became France’s first ambassador to the United Nations. He continued to struggle his whole life for justice, as he documents, among other things, in his impassioned autobiography Danse avec le siècle. He was also very involved in the art world, through Pierre Roché, his mother’s lover and father’s close friend, who was an art dealer, and famously the author of Jules et Jim. That 1953 novel and 1959 film by François Truffaut fictionalizes the love triangle—and and takes revenge on Hessel’s mother, Helen (Catherine in the novel and Truffaut film), by having her character drive off a bridge with her children and husband. In reality, she dumped him when she found out he had had a child in secret with another woman. But she had died 12 years before the novel came out.

         I saw Hessel speak at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, this past October, where he was as impassioned as ever. I wasn’t sure who he was, but I was impressed with his message and duly photographed him and added him to my Apostles of Justice collection ( The chairman of the conference held up his pamphlet Indignez-vous (A Time for Outrage) and stressed its role in inspiring the Occupy movement. All the official photographs of Hessel depict him as a benevolently smiling old man. But I saw him in the throes of his outrage as he addressed us (see photo, above), that same outrage which probably enabled him to survive Nazi torture and imprisonment, and which fueled his personal fight for human rights thereafter, to the world's enormous benefit.

Friday, March 1, 2013

North Dakota Oil Convergence

Theodore Roosevelt's Cabin, South Unit, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial National Park
Interior of Theodore Roosevelt's Cabin

"Cannonball" formations, badlands of Theodore Roosevelt Memorial National Park, North Unit, near Watford City, a North Dakota oil drilling center.
The March issues of both National Geographic and Harper’s feature cover stories on the same subject: oil exploration through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Bakken shale in North Dakota. In reporting this exceptional boom, which has driven North Dakota’s unemployment rate to 3%, the lowest in the nation, neither article exudes optimism. The articles supplement each other. The one in National Geographic anchors itself in the perspective of a 39-year-old woman, a risk-taker—fiction writer, painter, filmmaker, and lead singer in a rock band in her earlier life—to leave the desperate financial straits she, her husband, and two daughers were in in southwestern Montana, to travel alone to North Dakota, where she learned to drive an 18-wheeler, and then plunked herself down amidst the “testosterone cloud” of nearly all male workers, where her superior trucking skills found her work that very quickly solved her families financial problems back home. Truckers in this land of fraying two-lane roads, make six-figure incomes, as do many of the other workers in this oil-boom region, which in the past two years has surpassed California and Alaska in its oil output, behind only Texas now. The boom, like any boom, has strained the local roads, hospitals, schools and other municipal services, attracted vice and guns, and quintupled housing prices, forcing many long-time residents to leave. While workers are well-paid, most are from out of state, and the profits enrich company owners in Texas and Oklahoma. The state, which has legislated that the drilling poses no environmental risk to the fragile prairie, receives an 11.% on oil sales, which has led to a $1.6 billion budget surplus during this time of cutbacks. The National Geographic article provides excellent cutaway illustrations of how the drilling works to extract the elusive oil. It voices concerns about the toxic effects of the chemicals used in fracking, but couches them in the fears of others, not the author of the article.
         The Harper’s article by Richard Manning roots its perspective in the experiece of Theodore Roosevelt, who in his twenties and reeling from the deaths of his mother and young wife on the same Valentine’s day in 1884, bought a ranch he named Elkhorn, and where he rusticated for two years, minutely recording his experience of his natural environment, but saying nothing about his mourning process. (His cabin is preserved near the Visitor Center of the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial National Park, near Medora, N.D. that features magnificent badlands, and which I visited this past summer—along with the North Unit, which has its own distinctive badlands, equally beautiful.) When Roosevelt returned to public life, he founded the conservation movement and was determined to preserve the American wilderness against business and especially oil monopolists, like John D. Rockefeller, whom he called “the most dangerous members of the criminal class—the criminals of great wealth” (turned into his more famous “malefactors of great wealth” in a speech in 1907).
         Though National Geographic, with its social and technological emphasis, is careful not to take position on the environmental impact of the massive drilling the Harper’s article offers many facts on the subject that speak for themselves: that there were 1100 oil spills in North Dakota in 2011, that a berm designed to prevent the runoff of toxic water from a reserve-pit was breached resulting in a massive fish kill, that drainages has permanently killed all vegetation in their paths, that a drilling rig located close to an eagles’ nest resulted in the death of all the birds, one of them by gunshot, arriving at the summary conclusion, “Gunplay, the roads, the rigs, the noise, the trucks, the off-duty oil workers on all terrain vehicles (ATVs), the general disregard for anything living that is the consequence of industrializing a once-wild landscape”—all of these killed the eagles. And Manning notes that the 8000+ wells, involved more in a “plumbing” operation than an exploratory one in the Bakken shale of North Dakota has never entered the national political discussion around climate and environmental issues. Yet it's so big that the natural gas burnoff fires (as he shows with a photograph) rival the metropolis of Minneapolis-St. Paul from the air at night—except that they're red. He adds a significant note on the Keystone XL pipeline that has provoked so much protest, saying that it’s “designed to relieve a bottleneck caused, in part, by a glut created by increased Bakken production,” adding that such pipelines are cheaper, safer and less carbon-producing than the massive amount of trucking now used to transport oil.        
         So the logic seems to be clear: as long as our dependence on oil is not questioned, and especially as long as the “externalities” (meaning the human and environmental costs resulting from a commercial operation such as oil drilling which the the companies don’t have to take responsibility for) are excluded, the virtually unregulated oil drilling in the Bakken and the Keystone XL pipeline are no-brainers. The problem is that they are killing the environment, and may end up killing us.