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  • Jan Flynn

Stop, Drop, and Howl

Sometimes it makes sense to freak out a little

It’s good to be calm. Just not right now

I am a big proponent of practicing mindfulness, cultivating equanimity, and approaching life as skillfully as possible. I meditate regularly, manage my exposure to the 24-hour news cycle, and strive to listen more than I talk.

Having said that, there are times when it makes complete sense to just grab onto one’s hair and scream. My friend, this is one of those times.

Full disclosure: this story is written firmly from the perspective of a left-leaning progressive. If that’s not you, reading further may result in you grabbing your own hair and shrieking, probably for very different reasons from mine, and I wish you no unpleasantness.

If you’re still with me, let’s take a deep breath for a moment while I uncurl from my fetal position on the floor and direct your attention to three news stories. Taken together, they form the three points of a malevolent triangle of current events.

1. The Australian Inferno

You don’t live under a rock, so I’m confident you’re aware that vast swaths of Australia’s southeastern coast are burning in a host of out-of-control wildfires. The Aussies, in common with Californians like me, are no strangers to wildfire.

But this is on a scale unlike anything the region has seen in generations. The military has been mobilized, using aircraft and naval ships to evacuate entire coastal communities in “a deployment not seen since World War II,” according to the New York Times.

Scott Morrison, the conservative Australian prime minister, is feeling the heat, facing withering criticism for his tepid stance on climate change, his support of the coal industry (Australia is the world’s leading exporter of coal and natural gas), and his slowness to respond to what he calls “the bush fires.” Didn’t help that he jetted off to Hawaii for a vacation in December, right in the middle of the crisis.

Sounds distressingly familiar to this Californian. Our president’s response in previous years helpfully blamed us for neglecting to rake our forests. Our wildfire season, culminating this year with the Kincade fire that scorched 120 square miles between Sonoma County and the ocean, wrapped up less than a month before Australia started burning.

If you don’t live in an area that’s burning up in increasingly short and fierce cycles, then perhaps this story doesn’t trigger you like it does me. But you’re likely to be facing more hurricanes or tornadoes or flooding or drought or epic snowstorms, or whatever else the deregulated climate throws your way.

2. Back in the U.S., we’re not going to worry about climate change when it comes to infrastructure

Trump Rule Would Exclude Climate Change in Infrastructure Planning” —This story was front-page online in the New York Times this morning but has already been relegated to a multi-click backwater by this evening, drowned out by . . . well, we’ll get to that.

But the gist of this article is that the Trump admin is “proposing changes” (a euphemism for “gutting”, or is that just me?) to the National Environmental Policy Act. So the Feds would no longer have to take climate change into account when planning major projects — enabling things like the Keystone oil pipeline to scoot right on through without a lot of inconvenient hitches.

No more worrying about whether a project will release more planet-warming gases, or require cutting down forests, or mean an increase in air pollution. No need to even determine if a proposed bridge will be adequate to accommodate rising sea levels.

At least we don’t have to worry about birds getting whacked by windmills as we keep mining coal and fracking up natural gas.

But maybe the news isn’t so great for birds after all, since the Trump administration has also devised a fresh interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as reported in the Times by Lisa Friedman on Dec. 24:

“as of now, companies are no longer subject to prosecution or fines even after a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 that destroyed or injured about one million birds and for which BP paid $100 million in fines.”

Gnashing your teeth yet?

3. Our loose cannon has gone off in the Middle East

Once again, and more dramatically than ever, Americans’ attention is whipsawed away from the critically important — the climate crisis — to the terrifyingly urgent.

With the “targeted killing” (assassination is such a provocative word) of Major General Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s top military commander, President Trump — who has promised repeatedly to get us out of “endless wars” in the Middle East — chose, out of all the options available to him, the most incendiary and extreme one.

As U.S. News & World Report remarked on Jan. 4:

“ . . .the targeting of Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was arguably the most provocative military action in the Middle East since President George W. Bush launched the 2003 Iraq war to topple Saddam Hussein.”

According to another story in the New York Times (“As Tensions With Iran Escalated, Trump Opted for Most Extreme Measure,” by Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Maggie Haberman and Rukmini Callimachi, Jan. 4), killing Suleimani was an option Trump’s top military advisors didn’t think he would take.

Yes, it’s one that Obama rejected during his administration. But it was also an idea that George W. Bush passed up at the height of the Iraq War, even as Iranian militias and Iran-supplied explosives were, under Suleimani’s direction, killing American troops.

This wasn’t due to squeamishness — Suleimani was without question a deadly enemy — or even concern about the specter of a state-sponsored assassination on either Obama’s or W’s part. It was because they found the idea reckless.

Elissa Slotkin, U.S. Representative (D) from Michigan who is a former CIA analyst who focused on Shia militias and worked under both the Obama and Bush administrations, is quoted in several news outlets including The Atlantic:

So now we wait for the next shoe to drop, anxious about what may befall the 3,500 troops we’re sending from Ft. Bragg into the region, or what may happen to other American targets elsewhere in the world, or our own cybersecurity, or even if we’ve just touched off the ultimate conflagration in the Middle East.

Is this an audacious act of misdirection from a president who’s reeling from impeachment and bent on reelection no matter the cost to the nation? Or is it another shot from the hip of a notoriously impulsive leader with a hair-trigger ego?

Whether intended or not, the effect is to have us all off-center, all distracted, all freaking out. And focused on possible immediate threat rather than long-term, certain peril.

So now what?

As I said, there are times when it’s appropriate to abandon composure. There is a time and place for both fear and outrage, and this is such a time.

But it’s only useful if it spurs us to action. It’s true that as private citizens there is very little we can do about the President’s actions. But we can raise our voices and call for sanity to those who will listen. We can stay awake and aware.

And we can focus on the coming election as though our lives, and our children’s and grandchildren’s lives, depend on it.

Because they quite literally do.C

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