MODULE 5: People and Planet
East Tennessee (1968)
In the 1960’s and 1970’s there was a growing realization among scientists as well as the general public that industrial civilization was unsustainable. As more and more people came to this conclusion, there were a wide variety of responses to this knowledge. Of course there is always the response of “hopefully someone else will figure out how to fix the problem eventually, I’ve got other pressing matters to worry about,” like paying next month’s rent, etc.
But among those who felt compelled to take some kind of action, actions varied. An example of the more militant variety of response occurred in both eastern Kentucky and eastern Tennessee within a few months of each other in 1968. Whoever carried out the bombings was never caught, but someone did altogether over a million dollars worth of damage to mines and mining equipment.
Whether these particular actions were carried about by a person or people who might have considered themselves to be environmental activists is unknown. While many such actions have been carried out in the name of the environment, probably as many have been carried out by disgruntled ex-employees or people more interested in industrial sabotage from the vantage point of an under-paid worker than someone making an environmental statement – or in other cases, local landowners whose land has been adversely affected by nearby mining operations.
The first Wal-Mart opened in 1968. Big box stores, and Wal-Marts in particular, would go on to dominate the landscape throughout suburban US for decades afterwards, becoming one of the world’s biggest corporations, with Walton family members always including a bunch of the world’s richest people.
As farmland, forestland and old neighborhoods around the US were paved over, there was much popular resistance. Many highways were stopped from being built as a result. But many more were completed, and the suburbanization and psychological atomization of US society steamrolled on like a cancerous growth for decades.
Many people have grown up in the US since Wal-Mart became ubiquitous. For so many, the idea that big box stores would replace downtown areas as the main shopping areas, and that the country would largely de-industrialize at the same time, with fewer job opportunities for most people as the decades went on along with rising costs of housing, is all just understood as somehow inevitable. And of course, for people in the US who are unable to see beyond of their own national borders, they’d have no reason to think otherwise. But there’s a world out there, and in many countries development has not meant endless highway and mall construction.
Student Massacres (1970)
Within a few weeks of each other, in two different college campuses in the United States (one mainly white and one mainly Black campus), the National Guard opened fire with live ammunition on student protesters, killing multiple students in each incident.
Student protesters had already been met with plenty of violence on the part of the authorities. For other groups such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the authorities had used deadly force on many occasions already. But shooting down students on college campuses like this was a new escalation.
As at many protests, there were rock-throwers among the ranks of those protesting. In the case of Kent State University, any students throwing rocks were 300 feet away from the National Guard at the time the soldiers fired.
Exploding Dam (1970)
The Icelandic environmental movement began with a bang. The government was planning on building a bigger dam on the Laxa River that would have flooded dozens of farms. Local farmers were against it. One night over a hundred members of the community went to the dam that was on the river already. Several of them wired it with dynamite and blew it up.
What made this action so different from others of its kind was what happened next. Over one hundred people called the police the next day, all taking responsibility for the blowing up of the dam.
For years afterwards, the Icelandic authorities tried to figure out who actually blew it up. They knew it wasn’t all the farmers of the valley who did it. But no one would talk, and as a result, no one was convicted of a crime, no one went to prison – and the dam was never rebuilt.
Decades later, the government was once again entertaining the idea of a dam at that spot. The children of the farmers who blew up the dam in 1970 wrote the ministry a letter, simply stating that “we still know how to use explosives.” The government dropped their plans.
For years, anytime a Black woman robbed a bank, the authorities tried to make it look like the woman who did it was Assata Shakur. The FBI and other branches of government were involved in a war with the Black Panther Party and other organizations, such as the Black Liberation Army that Assata was a part of.
The Cointelpro papers that made their way into the public reveal the extent of the government’s underhanded and often deadly activities at this time. Police departments had “red squads” which were all very actively trying to undermine the progress of movements and organizations that were fighting for human rights in different communities, such as the Panthers.
When Assata and other BLA members were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike, the police began firing at them when they realized who they were. Assata was wounded in the firefight. Others were killed, including one cop.
She was sentenced to prison, and sent to a men’s prison to serve her sentence. Due to popular pressure she was moved to a women’s prison, from which unknown supporters of hers liberated her in a daring raid. Ultimately she turned up in Cuba, where she has lived out her years since the 1980’s, under the protection of the Cuban government.
Showing how much they’re still thinking of her in the USA, in 2013, on the anniversary of the 1973 shoot-out on the New Jersey highway, a joint TV appearance of the New Jersey governor and an FBI agent told the nation that Assata Shakur was now considered to be the “#1 Most Wanted Terrorist” on the FBI’s list, and that they were therefore doubling the bounty on her head, from $1 million to $2 million.
On the 11th of September, 1973, the popular, democratically-elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup that was organized in cooperation with the CIA. It was not the first CIA-sponsored coup to overthrow a popular leftwing democracy (Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954), nor the last (Australia in 1975, Haiti in 1994, Honduras in 2009).
But after the Cuban Revolution and guerrilla campaigns in various Latin American countries, the idea of a socialist government coming to power through an election had become a novel and refreshing one for many. However, it wouldn’t be long before transnational mining corporations would become unhappy with the new government that didn’t want to give them a free ride anymore, but preferred to tax their profits in order to take care of the many impoverished people of Chile.
In light of the events of September 11th, 2001, the fact that the coup in Chile happened on that particular date (28 years earlier) were chilling for many. The Chilean version of the White House, La Moneda, was also targeted by a plane that day – except in the case of La Moneda, it was hit. On September 11th, 2001, close to 3,000 people were killed. In the weeks immediately following September 11th, 1973, the number was closer to 5,000 – and the dead included the country’s president, its most well-known singer and its most beloved poet, among many others.
In spite of what is actually known, there are many persistent rumors surrounding the 1973 Chilean coup. That the socialist government was somehow ruining Chile’s economy and that this made it OK to overthrow Chilean democracy is a line of argument you can still hear frequently. The truth is, the CIA, transnational corporations like ITT and Anaconda Copper and various Chilean capitalists were conspiring with elements of the Chilean military to sabotage the economy and manufacture all kinds of shortages.
Later, the dictator Pinochet’s government was praised for policies that supposedly were good for the Chilean economy. In reality, Pinochet’s free market policies (policies spoon-fed to him by Milton Friedman of the Chicago School of Economics) were a disaster for most Chileans, and the Chilean economy only started to improve after he abandoned these strict neoliberal policies.
Cuban Terrorists (1973)
The mind-boggling thing about the propaganda put forward by the US government is that just as the line is “just say no to drugs,” the CIA is actively manufacturing and exporting heroin from Asia. Just as we’re being told we support democracy and we’re against authoritarian rule, we’re actively overthrowing and undermining democracies, while aiding and training future dictators in Columbus, Georgia. And just as we’re condemning those awful terrorists who kill civilians out there in the world, we’re putting people like Luis Posada Carrilles on the CIA payroll.
Luis Posada and other rightwing Cuban terrorists planted a bomb on an airliner in 1973, killing scores of Cuban athletes. In many other attacks, many other Cubans were killed, in Cuba and abroad. Like so many other rightwing Cuban terrorists, Posada died of old age, a free man in Florida.
Post Industry (1973)
Much of industry in the US had been in decline since the 1950’s, as the other industrial powers rebuilt after WWII. But in the 1970’s the decline sped up, as much of US industry closed shop, with US corporations actively and with government assistance leaving their homes and opening up in countries where wages were much lower and environmental standards often nonexistent.
With downtown shopping areas in the US largely being replaced by strip malls, big box stores and later, town-sized monstrosities surrounded by endless expanses of asphalt which became known simply as “malls,” what was left of downtown cores became sad and empty. Then as industry also began to leave, according to some statistics in towns like Flint, Michigan, the population of rats was thought to be greater than the population of humans.
In the 1970’s and since, what has become the new normal are surreal conversations held by older people about the days when they lived in a neighborhood, when they had neighbors, and there were shops and cafes that were open.
Of course in certain hip cities this trend has now reversed, and many people once again see the value of living in neighborhoods with neighbors, and shops and cafes within walking distance. But the basic infrastructure in most of the country remains completely scattered. Few sensible people would now argue that this “era of convenience” is anything but very inconvenient – if you have to drive from one shop to the next in order to get the things you need for living, what is possibly convenient about that?
“Used To Be A City”
Welcome to the European Union (1973)
Meanwhile in Europe, countries were coming together and forming a union. What kind of union? Different people have always had different opinions on that one, and this has not changed over the decades.
The dominant narrative in most of Europe is that the EU is about freedom of travel, the convenience of a common currency, uniform long distance phone rates, and other things like that that seem clearly beneficial to the average person within the zone. But always nipping at the heels of this narrative are those from the right and the left who have basic questions.
Freedom of travel benefits whom the most? Many would say it especially benefits employers, who get to take advantage of eastern Europeans who are often willing to work for less money. Who benefits most from the common currency, and how is the currency’s value determined? There are different needs for countries with tourism-based economies than for countries with lots of manufacturing.
In spite of many efforts in the direction of lifting up poorer areas within the EU through various policies, the situation with Greece, the collapse of the funding-starved Greek medical system, etc., since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 makes it abundantly clear that the EU is still a very dysfunctional, divided collective.
“Welcome to the European Union”
The Biggest Windmill (1974)
At a time when countries throughout the industrialized world were building the latest nuclear power plants, the Danish parliament was considering jumping on that bandwagon. There were many people who did not support this dangerous, toxic new form of energy, and there were many protests against nuclear energy in many countries gaining speed around this time. A collection of students, teachers and others involved with a folk school in western Denmark thought of another very different way to protest the idea of building a nuclear reactor – by providing a model for a different way forward.
This group in Ulfborg set out to build the world’s biggest industrial windmill. Consulting scientists in Stuttgart in the process, people of all ages, with a wide variety of skills (either preexisting or quickly being developed on the spot), completed this task within a few years.
When they finished building Tvindkraft, they quickly could then convince their detractors that it had all worked out. At that point, they gave away the plans and the patents to them, so any group or corporation or government entity that wanted to set about building their own big windmills could easily do so.
The Danish parliament at that point decided not to build a nuclear reactor, but instead to become a pioneering country in the field of manufacturing windmills.
“The Biggest Windmill”
Big Mountain (1974)
The Indian Wars never ended, you’ll hear many people say in Indian Country. In 1974, a new chapter in a long story began, when the federal government announced that tens of thousands of Dineh (Navajo) people would now have to move off of their land, to make room for an expanded coal mine.
People didn’t want to move, so many of them stayed. The government didn’t want the bad publicity that would result from moving thousands of people off their land at the same time, so they went about making life more and more difficult for the locals, to encourage them to move. They stopped repairing the roads, which over decades became just massive ditches, mortally dangerous to any but the most agile pickup truck. Local authorities began harassing people for having too many sheep under the new regulations, or for repairing their hogans against regulations.
A uranium spill poisoned the land the government was moving people on to, but they kept moving people there. The sheep that moved to the new land drank the water and died. At Big Mountain itself, life was also becoming less and less livable, as the coal mine was slurrying millions of gallons of water each day, along with the coal, drying up the land, making it impossible to live with the sheep anymore.
Many people in the US grow up thinking that terrible things happened in the past in terms of killing off and evicting the indigenous people from their lands, but that those days are over. The authorities today may be too politically savvy to cause another Trail of Tears, but what they have done around Big Mountain is just a slower version of the same sort of thing.
“Song for Big Mountain”
As the mass slaughter from the air in and around Vietnam was finally coming to an end, and the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were left with their millions of dead and tens of millions of bomb craters, ruined buildings, and poisoned land, back in the US, the homeless, drug-addicted war veterans were also remembering their dead comrades. And in lonely homes, old men who had managed to survive a prior war were left to lament the loss of their sons to the one that had just ended.
“He Called Me Dad”
Cluster Bombs (1975)
Cluster bombs are designed not just to kill lots of civilians (or other people, if they’re around) at one time indiscriminately, but they’re also designed to overwhelm a country’s medical system. The thousands of shards of shrapnel that enter the bodies of the victims are made of plastic. So removing them is possible, but extremely time-consuming for the surgical teams.
The other renowned aspect of this kind of bomb is that they keep killing people for decades after the end of a war. The Vietnam War ostensibly ended in 1975, but many thousands more have been killed since then from cluster bombs going off years and decades later.
The environmental movement developed various tendencies. Among the more militant of them has been the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a group that became most renowned for sinking whaling ships.
“Between You and That Harpoon”
Questions/thoughts for further exploration…
East Tennessee (1968)
“Disgruntled” can take many forms.
The corporation that led the process of suburbanization and mallification of the USA was formed.
Student Massacres (1970)
Two mass shootings of students by National Guard soldiers within the space of two weeks.
The Dam (1970)
A bombing of a dam for which an entire community took credit, for which no one went to prison, that achieved its goals entirely.
The Black Panthers, BLA and related groups were treated by the state with the most extreme forms of repression. If the effectiveness of a social movement can be measured by how much force the state attacks it with, the movement of this period was powerful.
September 11th, 1973 was a classic example of the CIA supporting a fascist coup against a democratic government that the US didn’t like. Does the US support democracy or dictatorship? The rhetoric and the record differ starkly.
Luis Posada (1973)
US leaders often talk about fighting terrorism, but many terrorists are sanctioned by the US and live freely in Florida and elsewhere.
Used To Be A City (1973)
Many political economists point to 1973 as the year the social contract between labor and capital ended in the US, and the process of de-industrialization began.
Welcome to the European Union (1973)
It’s a union of nations, but whose interests does it mainly serve? European capitalists or European workers?
The Biggest Windmill (1974)
Another way to protest a policy is to build the alternative that you wish to see instead, which is what folks in Denmark did when they built the world’s biggest windmill as a counter-proposal to the nuclear reactor the government was debating at the time.
Big Mountain (1974)
Anyone who thinks the Indian Wars ended has probably never been to Big Mountain.
Intergenerational Trauma (1975)
What happens to a society when some portion of every generation fights, kills and dies in wars, leaving family members and the rest of society to deal with all the consequences?
Between You and That Harpoon (1977)
Groups that found more creative, more disruptive forms of protest include the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who took to sinking whaling ships, among other activities.