Greens need to occupy the Occupy movement

  • Tim Lydon


I recently drove to nearby Anchorage, Alaska, to join a crowd of 200 Occupy Wall Street protesters. Many held signs denouncing economic disparity, certainly a good reason to take to the streets. But my sign was about environmental disparity, the result of wealthy corporations despoiling our shared forests, air and even the world's climate to better profit the few.

I'd become frustrated that anger at environmental profiteering was not a more prominent message. So that day in Anchorage, I tried to occupy the movement itself, to ensure that it also protested corporate ties to our deepening ecological woes.

Those ties pervade the West. Just consider the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, where coal giants like Peabody and Arch Coal have dug a deep, black hole in the landscape. The nation's biggest coalfield, it's a monument to the poor energy choices currently holding average Americans hostage. Meanwhile, King Coal sits atop a pile of mountainous profits, singing "clean coal" lullabies while quietly paying an army of lobbyists to smear the EPA and fight protections for clean air.

Maybe we'd stomach it for energy independence.  "Energy independence," however, is just another corporate fairytale. And increasingly, Wyoming coal feeds Chinese power plants. The Asian coal rush, sparked by soaring economies, lures mile-long coal trains across the West to Canadian shipping terminals. Now, the companies want similar industrial facilities near Bellingham, Wash., and alongside the Columbia River. The permit request for the latter, by an Arch Coal affiliate, was recently delayed when leaked memos revealed that the company planned to export 10 times the amount of coal claimed in the application. In dozens of towns along rail lines, residents wondered: Does that mean 10 times the noise, coal dust and traffic congestion, too?

And what of our profit share when powerful corporations sell the West to China? Coal burned in China returns to our coast as mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, carried by wind into our forests and rivers, into our parks and wilderness areas.

But it's not just coal. In recent years, oil and gas companies drilled tens of thousands of wells in the Rockies, "fracking" trapped seams in deep deposits. The technology requires injecting a toxic and secret formula under ground, but companies have thwarted regulation and left average people defenseless after their wells were poisoned. Just ask the residents of Pavillion, Wyo., where the tap water smells like gasoline.

Or consider ExxonMobil's spill in the Yellowstone River last July. Although the company first claimed the spill was small, it later admitted 42,000 gallons had fouled the West's longest free-running river. Floodwaters carried the poison across Montana's agricultural lands.

As an Alaskan, I know about oil spills. This summer in Prince William Sound, I watched a researcher shovel into gravel spread along a seemingly pristine wilderness beach. Just 12 inches down, he reached toxic crude from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. That tragedy ended hundreds of careers and broke thousands of hearts. Exxon fought restitution and penalties for 20 years, pursuing the case all the way to the Supreme Court before paying survivors. Today, oil remains among the clams and mussels.

I could go on -- any of us could. There's the Pebble Mine proposal that would compromise Alaska's Bristol Bay salmon fishery, the richest on the continent, for the benefit of large mining companies. There are the ubiquitous clear-cuts that ravage the Northwest's temperate rain forest, from Oregon to Alaska's Tongass, where the magnificent trees protected by Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt were ultimately given away to Big Timber. There's the psychological warfare of the fossil fuel industry, whose astronomical profits support a campaign of denial about the climate crisis unfolding around us.

Of course, an inconvenient truth is that jobs and tax revenues from large corporations support community schools and add other economic benefits to cash-starved states. And most of us protesters depend on cars, cell phones and the rest of it, linking our consumerism to the entities we criticize. Nevertheless, the 99 percent bears an unsustainable cost for these benefits, including degraded air, habitat loss, and the droughts, bark beetles and other local calamities associated with climate change, especially in the West.

So I'm grateful to Occupy Wall Street in New York and across the nation for raising a fuss. I've still got my sign, and I promise we'll be out again protesting what we're doing to all the wild places that keep us sane.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes in southeastern Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Mary Keller
Mary Keller Subscriber
Dec 20, 2011 02:24 PM
I live in Wyoming. What's the strategy for taking your concerns to the people who work in the mines? How do we applaud our great little school buildings and athletic facilities, admire the hard work and the value of good work, and meaningfully link that to the degradation we conceal from ourselves?
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Dec 21, 2011 03:50 PM
Here in sunny San Diego the most egregious example of big corporations laying waste to the landscape and then pasting an environmental figleaf over the mess is the Sunrise Powerlink. As a classic environmental bait and switch was first sold as a link from San Diego to the so far undeveloped geothermal resources of the Imperial Valley. Once the usually shrill, hysterical local environmental community had been safely bought off, it was announced that the route of these enormous power transmission towers would be extended to tie in with an LNG (liquified natural gas) generator on the mexican side the the border that will burn LNG brought in from Indonesia! Oh, and oops- most of the power will actually be going up to Los Angeles! Southern California environmental litigationists, who usually wax hysterical over the possibility of trace residues in the ocean from fireworks, remain silent over the despoilation of the backcountry. I was shocked when hiking 2 weeks ago on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Laguna Mountains, when I came over a ridge and beheld a scene reminiscent of the Meadowlands in New Jersey: giant new steel towers in a landscape that 4 months ago was pristine, disrt roads cut in the chaparral, trucks and workers swarming over a site even on a Sunday. What Sempra has been able to pull off is breathtaking in the scale of its destruction and the for the sheer mendacity of it all. And when I look at the Bords of Directors of the local environmental organizations, what do I see? The CEO of Sempra, major donations by Sempra, etc etc. So much of southern california environmentalism seems like just theatre at this point, complete with paid mourners wailing (like a funeral in India) and stern attorneys issuing threats.
Roy Heberger
Roy Heberger
Dec 28, 2011 09:57 AM
The corporate and political focus is usually on "goods and services" produced not on the "bads and disservices" that we have to pay for ultimately, because Mother Nature always bats last. I don't know how as a society we will ever get to a truly sustainable existence. It seems as the infestation of humans on the planet keeps increasing that we're unlikely to fix the already-broken, growth-based economic model that I think is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever. I agree; the environment should be a significant part of the Occupy Movement. Thank you for your editorial.