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The Game
Illustrations by Miki LoweChildhood is a fruitful source of inspiration for artists, but some return to it more than others. The poet Marie Howe is one of them. She grew up in a large Catholic family, the oldest of nine siblings and one of 100 first cousins; she said in 2017 that family is “where everything happens.” If the image that comes to mind is a hectic and happy, Cheaper by the Dozen–type household, you should read her poems: The vignettes she paints can be dark. Several family members struggled with alcoholism, which wrought violence and chaos. And in 1989, her brother Johnny died of AIDS-related complications at age 28. In the same 2017 interview, Howe said that shared trauma—and alcoholism, in particular—eventually pulled her family apart. “As much as you want to be all in the same room, the nature of that illness fragments any unifying understanding,” she said. In her poem “The Game,” she revisits a moment before her family splintered, when her brothers and sisters created their own imaginary world. They could be whoever they wanted to be: All nine of them were together, none lost, and time was in their control. It’s a sweet memory, and a foreboding one. The game is so oddly specific, in the way that kids’ inventions often are, that it almost feels like the siblings could stay insulated in it forever. But outside their basement town, the clock works differently. Their world is still frozen in time—in the pages of this magazine—yet the real children are no longer in it.— Faith HillYou can zoom in on the page here.
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‘Land Acknowledgments’ Are Just Moral Exhibitionism
In David Mamet’s film State and Main, a Hollywood big shot tries to shortchange a set hand by offering him an “associate producer” credit on a movie. A screenwriter overhears the exchange and asks, “What’s an ‘associate producer credit’?” The big shot answers: “It’s what you give your secretary instead of a raise.”The practice of “land acknowledgment”—preceding a fancy event by naming the Indigenous groups whose slaughter and dispossession cleared the land on which the audience’s canapés are about to be served—is one of the greatest associate-producer credits of all time. A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land. It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen. Maybe it will be useful for an insurance claim? Anyway, you are not getting your jewels back, but now you have documentation.Long common in Canada and Australia, land acknowledgment is catching on in the United States and already de rigueur in certain circles. If you have seen enough of these —I have now watched dozens, sometimes more than one at the same event—you learn to spot them before the speaker even begins acknowledging. In many cases the tone turns solemn and moralizing, and the speaker’s posture stiff, as if preparing to read a confession at gunpoint. One might declare before, say, a corporate sales retreat: We would like to respectfully acknowledge that the land on which we gather to discuss the new line of sprinkler systems is in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. The acknowledgment is almost always a prepared statement, read verbatim, because like all spells it must be spoken precisely for its magic to work. The magic in this case is self-absolution: The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.[From the May 2021 issue: Return the national parks to the tribes]Thanksgiving relies on a cartoon version of the settlement of the Americas, focusing on a moment of concord between victim and génocidaire. Land acknowledgments are similarly confected to stroke the sentiments of mostly non-Indigenous audiences—this time by enabling their preening self-criticism. Earlier this month, Microsoft’s annual Ignite conference began with a land acknowledgment so bewildering to viewers that it went briefly viral. But it was not abnormal among statements of this sort. The emcee acknowledged that the company’s headquarters, one square mile of land outside Seattle, was “occupied by the Sammamish, Duwamish, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, Snohomish, Tulalip, and other coast Salish people... since time immemorial.” She noted that the tribes are “still there” but offered no connection between the past and today. Few if any of the baffled viewers would deny the historic presence of these peoples amid the sacred groves that later produced PowerPoint and Clippy, the Microsoft Word mascot. But in the absence of context, the effect of this parade of names was to suggest that for thousands of years the Indigenous peoples were crammed onto the Microsoft campus uncomfortably like canned salmon, doing who knows what, until Bill Gates arrived in the late 20th century to turn them into programmers.Maybe it is a victory for Indigeneity to have the name Muckleshoot even mentioned at a Microsoft conference. By far the most common defense of land acknowledgments is that they harm no one, and they educate Americans about a hidden history that took place literally where they stand. Do they not at least do that?No, not even a little. It is difficult to exaggerate the superficiality of these statements. What do members of the acknowledged group hold sacred? What makes them unique and identifies them to one another? Who are they, where did they come from, and where are they going? The evasion of these fundamental questions is typical. The speaker demonstrates no knowledge of the people whose names he reads carefully off the sheet of paper. Nor does he make any but the most general connection between the event and those people, other than an ancient one, not too different from the speaker’s relationship with the local geology or flora.At ceremonies and events in my home city of New Haven, Connecticut, I have heard acknowledgment that we are on “Quinnipiac land.” This statement is never accompanied by mention of the basic fact that the Quinnipiac all but ceased to exist as a people more than 150 years ago, and there is no currently recognized Quinnipiac tribe. I suspect that few in the audience know this, and that few of the speakers do. (There is an “Algonquian Confederacy of the Quinnipiac Tribal Council.” Its leader, Iron Thunderhorse, is currently in prison in Texas for rape, and projected to be released in 2051, at the age of 107. He is half-Italian, was born William Coppola, and according to a legal filing by the Texas prison authority, was not listed as Native American on at least one of his purported birth certificates.)Some people argue that land acknowledgments are “gestures of respect.” I’m not sure one can show respect while also being indifferent to a people’s existence. The statements are a counterfeit version of respect. Teen Vogue put it well, if unintentionally: “Land acknowledgment is an easy way to show honor and respect to the indigenous people.” A great deal of nonsense about identity politics could be avoided by studying this line, and realizing that respect shown the “easy way” is just as cheap as it sounds. Real respect occurs only when accompanied by time, work, or something else of value. Learning basic facts about a particular tribe might be a start.Most of these acknowledgments are considered (by the speakers, anyway) moral acts, because they bear witness to crimes perpetrated against Native peoples and call, usually implicitly, for redress. If you enjoy moral exhibitionism, to say nothing of moral onanism, land acknowledgments in their current form will leave you pleasured for years to come. (Cartoon history serves this purpose well; reality, less so. Do you acknowledge the Quinnipiac, or the tribes they at times allied with the English to fight? Or both?) The acknowledgments never include any actual material redress—return of land, meaningful corrections of wrongs against Indigenous communities—or sophisticated moral reckoning. Nor is there an “easy way” to reckon with this past. In the early 1600s, as many as 90 percent of the Quinnipiac were wiped out, along with other coastal Native Americans, by chicken pox and other diseases imported by Europeans. How does one assign blame for the spread of disease, hundreds of years before anyone knew diseases were something other than the wrath of God? (Does China owe Europe reparations for the Black Death, which came, like COVID-19, from Hubei? Or should China take two Opium Wars and call it even?)Without time, work, or actual redress, the land acknowledgment that implies a moral debt amounts to the highwayman’s receipt. “To acknowledge Indigenous homelands and to return those lands are related, but the former alone allows for rhetoric without further action,” Dustin Tahmahkera, a professor of Native American cultural studies at the University of Oklahoma, told me. If Microsoft truly felt bad about the location of its offices, it could move its operations to soil less blood-soaked. (There aren’t many such places, alas.) Not every Microsoft conference needs to be an announcement of a real-estate deal. But if Microsoft is going to acknowledge a debt, it should also pay it. [Read: How to acknowledge a shameful past]If the practice of land acknowledgment persists, it should do so in a version less embarrassing to all involved. I would propose restricting such acknowledgments to forms and occasions that preserve their dignity and power.Follow these rules, and object to any land acknowledgments that violate them: The acknowledgment should reveal a specific relationship between the event and the people who are acknowledged. Boilerplate language is an insult. It should not smell of self-congratulation, either by the speaker or the institution. If it makes you look good, you are doing it wrong. Note that one form of self-congratulation is pedantic self-criticism. If the acknowledgment calls for restitution, it should specify the reasons for the restitution and the means for making it. If you think land should be given back or other payment made, say so. Venture a magnitude of the repayment and explain why. Even the highwayman’s receipt lists the jewels and coins taken. These reforms in land acknowledgment would leave plenty of cynicism to go around—nearly all warranted, I think. Land acknowledgments are a classic culture-war issue, Nick Estes, an American Studies professor at the University of New Mexico, told me via email. They can be “a pantomime of caring or outrage mostly by professional class elites and educational institutions.” Meanwhile, he asked, what of “the real issues facing Indigenous peoples—housing, employment, child removal, generational poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, police violence, racism, and erasure; in other words, real colonialism”?Land acknowledgments are just words, and words can distract from real issues, in particular the ultimate one, which is Native American tribal sovereignty. But some words are honest, even loving, and others are hollow and nauseating. As an American, and as a once and future member of an audience at ceremonies and events, I would be thankful for more of the former and fewer of the latter.
What Stephen Sondheim Knew About Endings
Back in 2020, I might’ve imagined the end of the pandemic being something like that gum commercial: everyone together, vaccinated, picking the same time to come safely and communally out of lockdown and get back to the way things were before, so grateful to be alive we practically leapt into each other’s arms as soon as we got the chance. That is not, of course, the way things have gone in 2021. But the closest I’ve felt to that gum-commercial feeling came from being in the audience at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on a recent Monday night, an experience I’ve played and replayed in my head since learning that Stephen Sondheim died suddenly on Friday at 91.November 15 was the re-opening night for Sondheim’s Company, which had abruptly ceased previews in mid-March of 2020. This production, directed by Marianne Elliott, had previously run in London, and it makes the formerly male protagonist of the show, Bobby, a female Bobbie instead. My colleague Sophie Gilbert has aptly described Elliott’s reimagining of the musical as “a kind of 21st-century Lewis Carroll fever dream.” Bobbie becomes our latter-day Alice, a disoriented but intrepid navigator trying to make sense of the strangeness of contemporary bourgeois life. In that way, it is sort of a perfect show for right now, when a lot of us feel a bit like observers trying to relocate our place as participants in the world. It’s much better living it than looking at it, Bobbie’s friends say. They’re talking about love and marriage, but the line takes on a more expansive meaning in the midst of a pandemic. In the audience, it was hard not to feel elated to be living.[Sophie Gilbert: Marianne Elliott’s gender-flipped Company mines modern ambivalence about marriage].The nervous excitement in the crowd reminded me of the opening-night energy at a school musical, every member of the audience hoping for the best, just so proud and happy to be there. These were the die-hards, people who had waited all pandemic for this moment. An older man and woman in the row ahead of me compared notes on the many versions of the show they’d seen over the years; the two people next to me kept turning to each other and shrieking. Every seat had a shiny party hat on it, and audience members gamely strapped them on—a nod to the evening’s celebratory mood and to the surprise birthday party at the center of the show.At first, when some people stood up and started clapping, I was confused; the show wasn’t starting yet. Then a few more joined, and soon most of the theater was standing, facing a row in the middle of the Orchestra section. Sondheim himself was taking his seat for the evening. How did he look? everyone I later told about the performance wanted to know. Did he seem well?From the few, partial glimpses I caught of Sondheim from the mezzanine, he seemed better than well, smiling wide enough you could tell despite the mask. (He doesn’t seem to have been ill; indeed, he reportedly enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner with friends the night before he died.) He was so very alive, in fact, applauding so joyfully after every number, that his presence was utterly reassuring: We had, all of us, made it through. We could be surrounded, once again, by hundreds of strangers and not fear for our lives. It was tempting to think that everything, maybe, would actually be okay, and this genius composer who never really aged would live forever to help guide us through the difficult, confusing times ahead.I’m sure Sondheim knew better, though. He never believed in simple happy endings, but he knew exactly how to take advantage of his audience’s yearning for them. In Into the Woods, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, the characters end act one singing the jaunty “Ever After,” blissfully unsuspecting of the complications that await them in the second act.Sondheim’s work was at its strongest when it lingered in the pain of the dawning realization that no ever after ever lasted long. His music and lyrics looked squarely at life and insisted, gently and eloquently, that of course it was never going to be exactly how we wanted it to be, that messiness and ambiguity were to be expected, and could even be part of the beauty. Voices overlapped, words whizzed by, anxiety and sorrow and joy were written into the very structure of the songs. “I put it in as low a key as possible,” Sondheim once said of the opening of Sweeney Todd. “Always with a slight crescendo, so there’s always a little leaning in, as if something’s about to happen and then doesn’t. The feeling is of lifting the audience a little bit and then dropping, lifting and dropping.” (I saw him give this explanation in a 2004 PBS documentary, but the footage is clearly from an unspecified time long before 2004.)[Read: Tick, Tick … Boom is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s best work since ]Hamilton.In the documentary, he says it casually, as though this lifting and dropping of thousands of human beings were the easiest thing in the world to pull off. But to see Sondheim solely as a magician would be to miss the point. “Art isn’t easy” the refrain in Sunday in the Park with George goes. Sondheim loved collaborating, his New York Times obituary says, but he often worked alone, late into the night, when writing or composing. He wasn’t necessarily convinced by Company’s conclusion that being alone is incompatible with being truly alive. Or maybe, unlike so many generations of devoted theatergoers, he just didn’t see that as the show’s true conclusion.Before Company, Sondheim says in the 2004 documentary, musicals “would always lead to the so-called happy ending. We were saying something ambiguous, which is, actually there are no endings, it keeps going on, is what, really, Company’s about.”The night Company reopened, Times Square was eerily empty. Just north of 42nd street, I heard a man announce to no one in particular, “Now you will all watch me take a COVID test.” He swabbed himself and I kept walking. I spent the subway ride home anxious about all the unmasked people riding the C train with me. So much for the romantic optimism of Sondheim’s city of strangers.Which I guess is the point: It keeps going on. We haven’t reached the pandemic’s ever after yet, and if we do it won’t be in a single glorious moment. Cases are rising, again. A new variant has arrived, about which we know little. Sondheim has departed. But Company’s run goes on, too; you can watch it on 45th Street this winter, if you wear your mask. There are no endings.
We Know Almost Nothing About the Omicron Variant
As fall dips into winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the coronavirus has served up the holiday gift that no one, absolutely no one, asked for: a new variant of concern, dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organization on Friday.Omicron, also known as B.1.1.529, was first detected in Botswana and South Africa earlier this month, and very little is known about it so far. But the variant is moving fast. South Africa, the country that initially flagged Omicron to WHO this week, has experienced a surge of new cases—some reportedly in people who were previously infected or vaccinated—and the virus has already spilled across international borders into places such as Hong Kong, Belgium, Israel, and the United Kingdom. Several nations are now selectively shutting down travel to impede further spread. For instance, on Monday, the United States will start restricting travel from Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.It’s a lot of news to process, and it comes without a lot of baseline knowledge about the virus itself. Scientists around the world are still scrambling to gather intel on three essential metrics: how quickly the variant spreads; if it’s capable of causing more serious disease; and whether it might be able to circumvent the immune protection left behind by past SARS-CoV-2 infections or COVID-19 vaccines, or evade immune-focused treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. All are risks because of the sheer number of mutations Omicron appears to have picked up: More than 30 of them are in SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, the multi-tool the virus uses to crack its way into human cells—and the snippet of the pathogen that’s the central focus of nearly all of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines. Alterations like these have been spotted in other troublesome variants, including Alpha and Delta, both of which used their super-speedster properties to blaze across the globe. (Omicron is only a distant cousin of both, not a direct descendant.) If—if—Omicron moves even faster than its predecessors, we could be in for another serious pandemic gut punch.Read: The coronavirus could get worseBut it’s way too early to know if that’ll be the case. What’s known so far absolutely warrants attention—not panic. Viruses mutate; they always do. Not all variants of concern turn out to be, well, all that concerning; many end up being mere blips in the pandemic timeline. As Omicron knocks up against its viral competitors, it may struggle to gain a toehold; it could yet be quelled through a combination of vaccines and infection-prevention measures such as masks and distancing. Vaccine makers have already announced plans to test their shots’ effectiveness against the new variant—with data to emerge in the coming weeks—and explore new dosing strategies that might help tamp down its spread. Omicron might be set up for some success, but a lot of its future also depends on us.To help put Omicron in perspective, I caught up with Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, an infectious-disease physician, virologist, and global-health expert at Emory University. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.Katherine J. Wu: Why don’t we yet know for sure how worried we need to be about Omicron?Boghuma Kabisen Titanji: What we do know about the variant is this: Some of its spike-protein mutations have been seen in other variants and other lineages described earlier on in the pandemic, and have been associated with increased transmissibility and the ability of the virus to evade the immune response. What we don’t know, and what is really hard to predict, is what the combination of mutations will do together. This particular variant now appears to be outcompeting other circulating variants in South Africa—there have been these clusters of cases. That is actually what led to this variant being identified in the surveillance systems that they have in place there. That raises the concern that the variant is more transmissible or may be escaping the effects of the immune response induced by vaccines or infection from earlier strains. But we really don’t know that for sure yet.[Read: Coronavirus variants have nowhere to hide]The disconnect is this: The surveillance systems have worked exactly in the way they are designed to. It makes us know what to look out for. However, when these systems pick up a signal, we don’t immediately get the epidemiologic data we need to know all of the impacts a new variant can have. That takes time. Right now, we have a limited number of [viral genomic] sequences, and a limited number of cases. Now the alert is out. People will start looking for this new variant, not only in the countries that initially reported on this, but now worldwide. There’s now a search to make sure this variant is well-characterized. That’s when we will gain a better understanding of whether it’s causing more severe disease, how much it is escaping immunity, and how transmissible it is.It’s important to keep in mind that other variants of concern have emerged before, including immune-evasive variants like Beta, which was first identified in South Africa, but eventually petered out.Wu: Could we have seen the arrival of Omicron coming?Titanji: Viruses are going to evolve regardless of what we do. There are things we can do to slow that down: barrier measures [such as masking], vaccinating. And there are things that we can do that can maybe speed up or aid the evolution of the virus. One is if we’re not doing what we need to do to prevent spread of the virus within the population. Every time a virus spreads, it gets another opportunity to infect a new host, and it gets another opportunity to evolve and change and adapt.All of this means that it is worth having a conversation about whether the slow rollout of vaccines globally has had an impact. In certain parts of the world, not enough people have been given a measure of protection to allow them to be able to withstand infection, and to slow down transmission of the virus. Are we actually giving the virus an opportunity to spread unrestricted in certain places and drive its evolutionary trend? It’s basically exposing ourselves to the emergence of more variants. So this was predictable. If the virus has the opportunity to spread unchecked in the population, then we’re giving it multiple ways in which to evolve and adapt.If we had ensured that everyone had equal access to vaccination and really pushed the agenda on getting global vaccination to a high level, then maybe we could have possibly delayed the emergence of new variants, such as the ones that we’re witnessing.Wu: We’re still dealing with Delta, a previous variant of concern. Where do we go from here?Titanji: A good place to start is reminding people that we are definitely not where we were two years ago, when SARS-CoV-2 emerged. We now have a better understanding of how the virus is transmitted from person to person. We have antivirals that are coming down the pike. We have a better understanding of how to manage and treat cases of people who do get infected. We have vaccines and incredible mRNA technology that allows us to adapt quickly to a changing virus, and we will have second-generation vaccines. It’s definitely not back to square one.[Read: Timing is everything for Merck’s COVID pill]Secondly, this does not mean that the vaccines that people have are now completely useless—the doses they have received are not null and void. We have not yet seen a variant of concern emerge that has been able to completely escape the effect of vaccines. The immunity from the vaccines may be less protective, which may translate into more post-vaccine infections from a new variant, if it takes off. But that is yet to be determined.We also know that a booster dose really does boost the antibody response. A new variant could dent the [protection offered by the immune system], but that usually happens in degrees. There is still going to be immune responsiveness from previous immunizations, and infections from ancestral versions of the virus. It may simply mean that you need more of those antibodies to be able to neutralize that new variant of concern. We also have T cells, which play a role, and may not be as impacted by the variant.[Read: The body is far from helpless against coronavirus variants]This variant could not have chosen a worse time to emerge. We’re in flu season. This is a time when respiratory viruses tend to spread quite efficiently. And we are in the holiday season, and there's a lot of traveling, and a lot of people getting together with family. But it’s certainly not the time for people to let their guard down, or relax on nonpharmaceutical interventions. People have to be mindful of wearing their mask when they’re out in public, or in crowded areas with people whose vaccination status they may not know. People have to be mindful of getting tested when they feel unwell, and isolating appropriately and doing all of those things that we have learned how to do over the course of the last two years, and that we know are effective in mitigating the spread of virus. The same measures will still work while we figure out just what this new variant means for us. Get your boosters. We’ll figure it out.Wu: Several countries instituted travel bans this week, many of them primarily focused on African countries, where surveillance systems detected Omicron not long ago. How big of an impact might that make?Titanji: Historically, there is a lot of evidence that by the time a travel ban is instituted, the virus has already gone … and potentially well beyond the borders of the countries that [the ban is] restricting travel from. Instituting travel bans as a knee-jerk reaction can send the wrong message to countries that are contributing to the global effort of virus surveillance. We could end up disincentivizing countries from reporting because they fear retaliation. There are other measures that could be taken to ensure that travel is safe. For example, to get an international flight, you have to be fully vaccinated as a requirement for most countries, or show proof of negative tests.We will be better served if we put the emphasis on the countries that have seen the highest number of cases of this new emerging variant: providing them with the resources to actually contain the variant, and making sure that they have the resources for testing, for isolating cases, for doing the science that we need to better understand Omicron.Wu: Some countries are already deep into their rollout of booster shots, and have, in recent months, lifted many restrictions; others are still barely making a dent in administering first doses. Regardless of where we go with Omicron, what does this say about our approach to COVID-19 as a global society?Titanji: What this reiterates is that the world is so interconnected. We are in a global pandemic, and we cannot address this fully if we only have regional solutions. The solutions really have to be with a global mindset. And that global mindset means that the resources we have—vaccination, testing, access to therapeutics, and also the support to carry out appropriate surveillance—need to be equally accessible and equitably distributed in all parts of the world.[Read: The fundamental question of the pandemic is shifting]We can’t leave people behind. The virus will catch up with us regardless of where you are, regardless of what country you’re located in. You may be fully vaccinated, you may have had your booster, but you’re not that disconnected from the person who lives in a country where only 2 percent of the population is vaccinated, and who doesn’t have access to any of the treatments. We need to have less of an inward-looking focus. Because otherwise we’re just going to prolong how long we stay in this pandemic.
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Why the Energy Transition Will Be So Complicated
To appreciate the complexities of the competing demands between climate action and the continued need for energy, consider the story of an award—one that the recipient very much did not want and, indeed, did not bother to pick up.It began when Innovex Downhole Solutions, a Texas-based company that provides technical services to the oil and gas industry, ordered 400 jackets from North Face with its corporate logo. But the iconic outdoor-clothing company refused to fulfill the order. North Face describes itself as a “politically aware” brand that will not share its logo with companies that are in “tobacco, sex (including gentlemen’s clubs) and pornography.” And as far as North Face is concerned, the oil and gas industry fell into that same category—providing jackets to a company in that industry would go against its values. Such a sale would, it said, be counter to its “goals and commitments surrounding sustainability and environmental protection,” which includes a plan to use increasing amounts of recycled and renewable materials in its garments in future years.But, as it turns out, North Face’s business depends not only on people who like the outdoors, but also on oil and gas: At least 90 percent of the materials in its jackets are made from petrochemicals derived from oil and natural gas. Moreover, many of its jackets and the materials that go into them are made in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, and then shipped to the United States in vessels that are powered by oil. To muddy matters further, not long before North Face rejected the request, its corporate owner had built a new hangar at a Denver airport for its corporate jets, all of which run on jet fuel. To spotlight the obvious contradiction, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association presented its first ever Customer Appreciation Award to North Face for being “an extraordinary oil and gas customer.” That’s the award North Face spurned.[Read: Ultra-fast fashion is eating the world]Different people will draw different conclusions from this episode. Central to the response to climate change is the transition from carbon fuels to renewables and hydrogen, augmented by carbon capture. This was highlighted at the historic COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which emphasized the need for urgency and a greater ambition on climate backed by a host of significant initiatives, including on carbon markets, and country pledges of carbon neutrality by 2050 or a decade or two thereafter. The North Face story, however, offers a difficult reminder that the energy transition is a whole lot more complicated than may be recognized.A New Energy CrisisAs if to remind us of the complexities, a most unwelcome guest appeared on the doorstep of the Glasgow conference: an energy crisis that has gripped Europe and Asia. Energy crises traditionally begin with oil, but this recent one has been driven by shortages of coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG). That sent prices spiking, disrupting electricity supplies in China, which then led to the rationing of electricity there, the closing of factories, and further disruptions of the supply chains that send goods to America.In Europe, the energy shortages were made worse by low wind speeds in the North Sea, which for a time drastically reduced the electricity produced by offshore wind turbines for Britain and Northern Europe. Gas, coal, and power prices shot up—as much as seven times in the case of LNG. Factories, unable to afford the suddenly high energy costs, stopped production, among them plants in Britain and Europe making fertilizers needed for next spring’s agricultural season.Trailing the other fuels, oil prices reached the $80 range. With a tightening balance between supply and demand, some were warning that oil could exceed $100 a barrel. Gasoline prices have hit levels in the United States that alarm politicians, who know that such increases are bad for incumbents. That—along with worsening inflation—is why the Biden administration asked Saudi Arabia and Russia to put more oil into the market, so far to no avail. The administration then announced, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the largest-ever release of oil from the U.S. government’s strategic petroleum reserve, in coordination with other countries, to temper prices.Is this energy shock a one-off resulting from a unique conjunction of circumstances? Or is it the first of what will be several crises resulting from straining too hard to bring 2050 carbon-reduction goals rapidly forward—potentially prematurely choking off investment in hydrocarbons, thus triggering future shocks? If it’s a onetime event, then the world will move on in a few months. But if it is followed by further energy shortages, governments could be forced to rethink the timing and approach to their climate goals. The current shock offered just such an example: Although Britain is calling for an end to coal, it was nevertheless forced to restart a mothballed coal-powered plant to help make up for the electricity shortage.[Read: When the climate crisis becomes unignorable]Jean Pisani-Ferry, a French economist and sometime adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron, is among the most prominent voices pointing to the consequences that could result from trying to move too fast. In August, before the current energy crisis began, he warned that going into overdrive on transitioning away from fossil fuels would lead to major economic shocks similar to the oil crises that rocked the global economy in the 1970s. “Policymakers,” he wrote, “should get ready for tough choices.”A Different Energy TransitionThe term energy transition somehow sounds like it is a well-lubricated slide from one reality to another. In fact, it will be far more complex: Throughout history, energy transitions have been difficult, and this one is even more challenging than any previous shift. In my book The New Map, I peg the beginning of the first energy transition to January 1709, when an English metalworker named Abraham Darby figured out that he could make better iron by using coal rather than wood for heat. But that first transition was hardly swift. The 19th century is known as the “century of coal,” but, as the technology scholar Vaclav Smil has noted, not until the beginning of the 20th century did coal actually overtake wood as the world’s No. 1 energy source. Moreover, past energy transitions have also been “energy additions”—one source atop another. Oil, discovered in 1859, did not surpass coal as the world’s primary energy source until the 1960s, yet today the world uses almost three times as much coal as it did in the ’60s.The coming energy transition is meant to be totally different. Rather than an energy addition, it is supposed to be an almost complete switch from the energy basis of today’s $86 trillion world economy, which gets 80 percent of its energy from hydrocarbons. In its place is intended to be a net-carbon-free energy system, albeit one with carbon capture, for what could be a $185 trillion economy in 2050. To do that in less than 30 years—and accomplish much of the change in the next nine—is a very tall order.Here is where the complexities become clear. Beyond outerwear, the degree to which the world depends on oil and gas is often not understood. It’s not just a matter of shifting from gasoline-powered cars to electric ones, which themselves, by the way, are about 20 percent plastic. It’s about shifting away from all the other ways we use plastics and other oil and gas derivatives. Plastics are used in wind towers and solar panels, and oil is necessary to lubricate wind turbines. The casing of your cellphone is plastic, and the frames of your glasses likely are too, as well as many of the tools in a hospital operating room. The air frames of the Boeing 787, Airbus A350, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet are all made out of high-strength, petroleum-derived carbon fiber. The number of passenger planes is expected to double in the next two decades. They are also unlikely to fly on batteries.Oil products have been crucial for dealing with the pandemic too, from protective gear for emergency staff to the lipids that are part of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Have a headache? Acetaminophen—including such brands as Tylenol and Panadol—is a petroleum-derived product. In other words, oil and natural-gas products are deeply embedded throughout modern life.A New “North–South Divide”?There’s another complexity beyond the technical challenge. Call it a new “North–South divide.” The original divide emerged as an economic struggle in the 1970s between the developed countries of the Northern Hemisphere and the developing countries (and former colonies) of the Southern Hemisphere. That was the decade when OPEC burst onto the global scene, with the price of oil very much at the center of the battle. The rancor of that divide was reduced over time with the advance of globalization, the rise of emerging markets, and increased economic integration.A different divide is beginning to develop today around differing perspectives on how to tackle climate change. It once again pits the developed world against developing countries, but the contours are different. For the developed world, as Glasgow demonstrated, climate is an overwhelming imperative—often described by political leaders as the “existential” question. While also deeply concerned about climate, developing countries face other existential questions as well. In addition to climate, they struggle with recovering from COVID-19, reducing poverty, promoting economic growth, improving health, and maintaining social stability.For India, it’s a question of “energy transitions”—plural—which reflects the fact that its per capita income is only one-tenth that of the United States. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has announced very ambitious goals for wind, solar, and hydrogen, and has set a net-zero target for 2070. Yet at the same time, it has said it will continue to use hydrocarbons to achieve its immediate priorities. As the government put it in an official report, “Energy is the mainstay of the development process of any country.”“Our energy requirements are vast and robust. Mixing all exploitable energy resources is the only feasible way forward in our context,” Dharmendra Pradhan, until recently the minister of petroleum and natural gas and now the minister of education, told me. “India will pursue the energy transition in our own way.”So while the European Union debates whether natural gas has any appropriate role in its own future energy program, India is building a $60 billion natural-gas infrastructure system to reduce its reliance on coal, thereby reducing stifling pollution for its urban population and bringing down carbon-dioxide emissions. It is also delivering propane to villagers so that they don’t have to cook with wood and waste any longer, and suffer resulting illnesses and premature death from indoor air pollution.A similar point was made by Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, when I spoke with him this year. “The term energy transition itself is a curious one,” he began. “We sometimes tend to focus on one element of the transition. But in fact, that energy transition itself is multidimensional” and must take “into account the different realities of various economies and accommodat[e] various pathways to net zero.”Osinbajo is particularly worried about European banks and international financial institutions “banning” the financing of hydrocarbon development, especially natural gas, owing to climate concerns. “Limiting the development of gas projects poses big challenges for African nations, while they would make an insignificant dent in global emissions,” he said. Natural gas and natural gas liquids, he continued, are “already replacing the huge amounts of charcoal and kerosene cookstoves that are most widely used for cooking, and thus saving millions of lives otherwise lost to indoor air pollution annually.”Aissatou Sophie Gladima, the energy minister of Senegal, put it more pithily: Restricting lending for oil and gas development, she said, “is like removing the ladder and asking us to jump or fly.”Moreover, a number of energy-producing developing countries depend on exports of oil and gas for their budgets and social spending. It is not obvious what would replace those revenues. In October, a top U.S. government official warned American companies of “regulatory actions” and other potential penalties if they made new investments in African oil and gas resources. Yet there’s no ready alternative for Nigeria, with a population of more than 200 million and a per capita income that’s one-12th of the United States’, and which depends on oil and gas exports for 70 percent of its budget and 40 percent of its GDP.[Read: The energy crunch, in six paragraphs]“Africa did not cause climate change, and its role in emissions is very small,” says Hakeem Belo-Osagie, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School focusing on the business and economy of Africa. “Covid has wrecked [the] finances of many African countries, and African countries cannot be expected to cut fossil-fuel production, as it is essential to the finances of several African countries.”Will a new North–South divide lead to a fracturing in global policies? For an early indicator, look at what happens in the next two years on global trade. The growth of trade and the opportunities it presented to developing countries have done much to ease the original divide. But signs of the new tensions are certainly there. Europe is moving to establish a “carbon border adjustment mechanism,” which is a complicated name for what is essentially a carbon tariff. It will be assessed according to “carbon intensity”—that is, the amount of carbon expended in making a product. Europe sees these tariffs as a way to ensure that its policies and values on climate change are adopted globally, while providing protection to European industries that face higher costs because of carbon pricing. The EU is starting with tariffs on a limited number of goods but is expected to expand the list. The Biden administration is also mulling carbon tariffs. Yet developing countries regard the moves as discriminatory and an effort to impose Europe’s policies on them.The 2015 Paris climate conference established the “what”—the goal of carbon neutrality. COP26 in Glasgow resulted in major steps forward on the “how”—achieving the goal. But when it comes to the energy transition itself, we may still have much to learn about the complexities that lie ahead.
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How Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship Is Like Nuclear Brinkmanship
Republicans and Democrats alike have characterized the debt-ceiling fight as a game of chicken, in which two drivers barrel toward each other and each hopes that the other swerves away first. Political pundits have described some strategies for resolving the conflict, such as changing the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow a simple majority to raise the debt limit, as “nuclear options.” Language like this might seem to melodramatize the legislative process, but the comparisons are apt. Nuclear-war strategists have long understood how recklessness, or the appearance of recklessness, may help one side get the other to relent during a single game of chicken. But these strategists’ work also offers a warning for Congress: The more times the game is played, the more treacherous it becomes, because when both sides become convinced that catastrophe will always be averted in the end, each behaves more rashly.Tensions between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have cooled after a temporary extension of the debt limit last month, but they could quickly escalate as a new deadline looms in mid-December. If the possibility of default is anything other than zero, it will happen if debt-ceiling chicken is played enough times. Will this latest round be the time our luck finally runs out?From a nuclear strategist’s point of view, the way the United States has repeatedly flirted with a potentially catastrophic default on the national debt bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the crises of the early Cold War. During the period from the first Berlin Crisis, in 1948, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, a superpower standoff with the potential to escalate into all-out nuclear war occurred every few years. Under the Eisenhower administration’s policy of “massive retaliation,” Washington sought to contain communism by leaving open the possibility that a conventional conflict could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. But the mercurial Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev appeared all too willing to test Western resolve. This apocalyptic environment encouraged strategic theorists to seek ways to make brinkmanship more effective and “win” at it.[Read: A new nuclear era is coming]The most influential theorist contemplating brinkmanship strategies was the future Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling. He sought a solution to the problem of making deterrence credible: If thermonuclear war could not be won, then why would the Communists take seriously American threats to use nuclear weapons, especially to retaliate against a nonnuclear attack on U.S. allies? If risking full-scale nuclear war, in which most Americans might perish, struck Soviet leaders as too irrational, it wouldn’t serve as a credible deterrent threat.Schelling proposed that irrational threats could still work as a deterrent by incorporating an element of chance. He argued that states could exploit “the danger that somebody may inadvertently go over the brink, dragging the other with him.” In his 1966 book, Arms and Influence, Schelling used this analogy: “If two climbers are tied together, and one wants to intimidate the other by seeming about to fall over the edge, there has to be some uncertainty or anticipated irrationality or it won’t work.” If the climbers are competent and the mountain isn’t treacherous, then approaching the brink carries no danger. Either climber could jump off on purpose, but could not make a plausible, rational threat to do so. Yet so long as the climbers could slip or stumble, they can still intimidate or deter each other. In the presence of “loose ground, gusty winds, and a propensity toward dizziness,” Schelling explained, “one can threaten to fall off accidentally by standing near the brink.”The United States could harness this idea, Schelling argued, to convince the U.S.S.R. to back down in a superpower crisis. Instead of trying to prevail militarily in nuclear war, the U.S. could signal its resolve by taking steps that increased the risk of inadvertent escalation, akin to one of the imagined climbers trying to intimidate the other by moving closer to the crumbling edge. Schelling’s approach provided a possible way to credibly deter the Soviets—and also avoided the need to match them in nuclear weapons, because the winner in a contest of resolve is not the player with the most bombs, but the one that blinks last. Even if one side had a larger nuclear arsenal, its leaders might still make concessions if they believed that the other side had the resolve to spark an uncontrollable war.Despite its elegance, Schelling’s argument did not win over all nuclear strategists. His contemporary Herman Kahn argued that the “rationality of irrationality” strategies Schelling promoted were like to the games of chicken played by delinquent teenagers on public highways. While Kahn admitted that Schelling’s framework had appealing features, he fretted about its dangers. Competing at risk taking is gambling, and not losing depends on a certain amount of luck. Kahn pointed out that even if the risk of each game of chicken was small, “the probability of war actually occurring as a result of ‘chicken’ being played too often may be very high.”[Read: The debt ceiling is a national disgrace]Disturbingly, the game can become more dangerous with each repetition. “In any long period of peace there may be a tendency for governments to become more intransigent as the thought of war becomes unreal,” Kahn wrote. He warned ominously that “this may be the case especially if there is a background of experiences in which those who stood firm did well, while those who were ‘reasonable’ seemed to do poorly.”Imagine that Schelling’s hostile mountaineers have played their game of alpine chicken many times. Perhaps they have attracted an audience that cheers the climber who takes risks and mocks the one whose resolve falters. After enough repeated games, neither the spectators nor the climbers take the possibility of falling seriously. Some observers even begin to doubt that a fall can occur, making arguments that the climbers are too “rational” to allow it, or that a fall would not actually be catastrophic. Chastened by the boos of the crowd, the climbers grow inured to the danger and take larger risks. Inevitably, at some point one of them slips, dragging both of them into the abyss.The regular brinkmanship in Congress over the debt ceiling appears to have degenerated into the kind of repeated game of chicken that Kahn warned us about. The more times the crisis is repeated, the less each occurrence seems like a crisis, because none has yet resulted in a catastrophe. Politicians are encouraged by experience to grow more and more inflexible and take harder positions the next time.In the debt-ceiling dispute, the U.S. could end up defaulting precisely because each side keeps waiting for the other to blink.Such an outcome is entirely avoidable. Unlike nuclear weapons, the debt ceiling could be un-invented. If it chose to, Congress could amend the rules to reduce or ideally eliminate the opportunity for this kind of brinkmanship. But as long as the debt ceiling exists in its current form, the incentives to play chicken over and over again remain in place. And each new confrontation brings the country closer and closer to calamity.
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Beijing Keeps Trying to Rewrite History
Under the relentless crush of Beijing, the courtrooms of Hong Kong have become some of the few venues safe for protest in the city. Defendants accused or convicted of political crimes have turned otherwise banal hearings and bail applications into opportunities to voice dissent and challenge the arduous legal process.In mid-November Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran prodemocracy figure, used his mitigation hearing, where defendants can address the court in hopes of obtaining a lesser sentence, to deliver a stirring and defiant speech. He recounted his memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, exalted Hong Kongers for never forgetting the tragedy, and excoriated city officials for curtailing basic freedoms. Lee, who for decades helped organize the annual vigil held in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to mourn the crackdown, choked up as he addressed the courtroom.“I want to thank the people of Hong Kong who kept the promise of 1989,” he said. “In the face of suppression, they persisted, honoring the memory of the June Fourth Massacre in Victoria Park with their candlelight. Your Honor, the people of Hong Kong who took part needed no person or organization to incite them. If there was a provocateur, it is the regime that fired at its own people.“For 31 years,” he continued, “our unyielding memory and unrelenting conscience drove us to keep the promise, persist in honoring their memory, demand truth and accountability, and carry on the pursuit of freedom and democracy of the Chinese people.”[Read: Standing up to Beijing, 30 years apart]Yet the unyielding memory of which Lee spoke has come under sustained attack this year, part of a broader effort by Beijing, its loyalists in the city, and an ever-growing list of collaborators to erase Tiananmen from public memory. Weaponizing pandemic protocols and vague threats of possible national-security violations, authorities have canceled the once-annual vigil for the past two years. Prominent activists, Lee included, who took part in prior gatherings have been arrested. A museum dedicated to Tiananmen was abruptly closed. Its contents were hauled away by police as evidence against members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organized the vigil and ran the museum. The group disbanded as a result. Unsatisfied with residents being only physically barred from viewing its displays, Hong Kong officials blocked access to the museum’s website as well. An investigation by Hong Kong Free Press found that dozens of books on the topic of Tiananmen have disappeared from the city’s libraries. One monument that has escaped erasure, just barely and perhaps only briefly, is also the city’s most prominent dedicated to Tiananmen, the Pillar of Shame statue. An orange cenotaph of pained, contorted bodies constructed as a memorial to protesters killed in the massacre, it was put on permanent public display to serve, as its creator, Jen Galschiøt, wrote in 1997, as a test of the authorities’ “guarantees for human rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong.” The pillar was staged at the University of Hong Kong, the city’s oldest and most prestigious institute of higher learning, in 1998, after being displayed at other campuses.For more than two decades, the city passed Galschiøt’s assessment. Students and activists gathered every spring to ceremonially wash the structure, which across its base reads The old cannot kill the young forever. The ritual was the first in a sequence of events held every year in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre culminating with the candlelight vigil. Now, though, the pillar is caught in a sort of purgatory—unwanted by the university, which has tried to remove it but faced fierce resistance, and Galschiøt’s attempts to retrieve it have gone unanswered. The awkward situation is representative of the city itself, not entirely subjugated by Beijing but not as free, open, or vibrant as it once was.“Many things in the past in Hong Kong that were treated as normal and being a kind of symbol that Hong Kong is still enjoying freedom and a high degree of autonomy … are now facing challenges,” Richard Tsoi, the secretary of the now-dissolved alliance, told me.The attempts at removing the horrors of Tiananmen from the popular consciousness follow a full-scale effort to rewrite more recent history in Hong Kong. Officials have consistently attempted to twist the narrative of the city’s protest movement, portraying the demonstrations as organized by a small, violent group, conspicuously omitting the occasions when more than 1 million people marched peacefully. The reasons behind the protests have been obfuscated as well. Blame, officials now say, lies with the United States and astronomical housing prices, not the continued erosion of freedoms and broken promises from Beijing. The police have taken part in some of the most blatant acts of historical revisionism, hoping that residents will forget violent actions they witnessed with their own eyes.“The authorities … are working overtime to teach us what is the official position,” John P. Burns, an emeritus professor at HKU and the former dean of its faculty of social sciences, who has written in support of keeping the statue, told me. “Making Hong Kong more like the rest of China, that is the name of the game.”In 1989, residents of Hong Kong were horrified by Beijing crushing the protests at Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in what The New York Times described as a “long ribbon of humanity” that stretched through the city’s streets. The outrage extended beyond those who supported full democracy. Many who signed published petitions denouncing Beijing’s actions and who took part in demonstrations are pro-Beijing stalwarts today. David Ford, then the territory’s chief secretary, wrote in a letter to the city’s vaunted civil service that residents felt a “profound feeling of shock and grief,” at what had occurred. Authorities in Beijing believed then that the city’s protests would be a one-off event, according to a former Hong Kong government official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, and that the territory would revert to being a purely “economic city,” whose inhabitants were uninterested in politics. This hypothesis—like many made by Beijing about Hong Kong—was totally incorrect. Instead, Hong Kong fostered a lively tradition of protests and demonstrations.[Read: Remembering Tiananmen Square is dangerous, even in Hong Kong]Galschiøt’s two-ton sculpture was unveiled in downtown Victoria Park eight years after the massacre and 28 days before the city’s July 1, 1997, handover to China. It was eventually relocated to HKU’s campus, and activists painted it bright orange in 2008. The artist wrote at the time of its installation that “no ban on the sculpture can diminish its symbolic value. No attack, not even the destruction of the sculpture can obliterate the symbolism of the Pillar of Shame.” One of his tenets is now being tested: “No authority will ever succeed in preventing the mounting of the Pillar of Shame in Hong Kong.”Following the disbandment of the alliance, HKU tried to have the sculpture removed, enlisting the global law firm Mayer Brown to help. In a statement to news outlets, Lisa Sachdev, a spokesperson for the firm, said that Mayer Brown was “asked to provide a specific service on a real-estate matter for our long-term client, the University of Hong Kong.” She continued: “Our role as outside counsel is to help our clients understand and comply with current law. Our legal advice is not intended as commentary on current or historical events.” (The firm regularly comments on U.S. news events, though, including the death of George Floyd and voting-rights issues, and Mayer Brown later relented after its involvement drew considerable press and condemnation, saying, “Going forward, Mayer Brown will not be representing its long-time client in this matter.”)Galschiøt hired his own lawyers in an effort to reclaim the statue himself. He said in an open letter this month that he would travel to Hong Kong to remove the statue but would need assurances from authorities that he wouldn’t face any legal issues. This seems highly unlikely because Galschiøt has been barred from entering Hong Kong on two previous occasions. He added that HKU has not responded to his inquiries. The university did not address the contents of Galschiøt’s letter and, when asked for comment, said only that it was working to resolve the issue in a “legal and reasonable manner.”HKU and other universities in the territory have quickly moved to submit to Hong Kong’s new, more authoritarian political order. Maintenance workers at the university removed colorful walls of protest art, and the administration cut ties with the students’ union and barred some of its members from campus because of a union motion expressing sympathy for the “sacrifice” of a man who had killed himself after stabbing a police officer in July. The students later apologized and retracted the statement, but four were arrested under the national-security law and charged with advocating terrorism.Burns told me that by moving to remove the sculpture, the university is “acknowledging its dependence on the mainland and on authorities in the mainland for the things the university wants.” One professor, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, told me that the threat of removal was part of “a wholesale embrace of the wider crackdown that we have seen in the media, civil society, and the general public,” and that the university was in “free fall into a totalitarian-friendly tertiary institution.” Another professor, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told me about recently going out of their way to walk by the statue with colleagues to confirm that it was still standing. “I find campus very depressing,” the academic said, “because of everything that is no longer there.”In court, Lee said that even while in jail earlier this year after being convicted for his role in a 2019 protest, he continued to uphold the memory of June Fourth by fasting and, without access to a candle, lighting a single match. “I am proud to be a Hong Konger,” he said. “For 32 years, we have marched together in the fight to bring justice to those who put their lives on the line on 4 June 1989, and in the struggle for democracy.”In the end, he told the judge that he was at peace with any sentence that might be handed down: “If I must go to jail to affirm my will,” he said, “then so be it.”
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