Unnatural Disaster, The Basquiat Renaissance, & Gertrude of Arabia

This Week — Climate Catastrophe in Puerto Rico and Beyond — with Stuart Schwartz, Jason Moore, Christian Parenti, and Kumi Naidoo, and Edwidge Danticat. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: It was the stately prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerritt, who focussed our attention this week on the issue of climate justice in the the wake of killer storms this season.

Nearly every word of his speech before the UN last week will break your heart. “I come to you straight from the front line of the war on climate change,” he began. “The desolation is unimaginable. The stars have fallen. Eden is broken.”

To deny climate change is to procrastinate while the earth sinks; it is to deny a truth we have just lived. It is to mock thousands of my compatriots who in a few hours without a roof over their heads will watch the night descend on Dominica, in fear of sudden mudslides . . . and what the next hurricane may bring…“My fellow-leaders, there is no more time for conversation. There is little time left for action. While the big countries talk, the small island nations suffer. We need action and we need it now.”

How would David Koch and the climate-denial kooks respond to this man we wondered, as if anything can stop the horrific spiral we’re descending into.

We found an assortment of guests this week who we think penetrated the usual drone of climate change coverage, beginning with Kumi Naidoo, a South African anti-apartheid activist turned environmental justice warrior Bill McKibben wrote us about.

Kumi says he didn’t make the connection between environmental justice and economic and racial injustice until his teenage daughter made him woke to it. It’s been another success of the Koch fake news factory to marginalize enviro stories and to obscure the role of capitalism and carbon in creating the climate catastrophe. I can remember Jim Lehrer calling environmentalists “bearded moaners” back in the 80’s when I was an impressionable cub science reporter.

The world ecologist / historical geographer Jason Moore has some context for how it is that the environmental movement (what he calls The Green Big 10) managed, along with the labor movement, to let the political argument become one of a choice between jobs and nature, thus making nature “a sacred object” divorced from societal issues. Rather, we need a politics of nature around work, and a politics of nature around work, he says; he calls it The Web of Life. Works for me. We’ve been getting used to the term anthropocene, but Moore says now we’re in a new phase, the capitalocene.

Another discovery was Stuart Schwartz, a storm nerd (that’s an endearing complement from us) who tells a 500 year history of the Caribbean using the narrative of storms. Sea of Storms starts with Columbus and gets as far as Katrina, and is chock full of amazing storm facts and figures. You can find some of this storm history in a recent post on his Facebook page;

The initial response of the U.S. government has evoked memories of Katrina: slow, poorly implemented, but self-congratulatory. A week after the storm, no emergency had been declared, distribution of aid outside of San Juan has been little or none, the military was not quickly mobilized to provide logistics, and perhaps because its citizens can not vote in federal elections and its representatives in Congress have no vote, Congress exhibited no haste in providing the necessary aid to Puerto Rico as it did to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The pall of bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of urgency with hints of neocolonial attitudes about people who are incapable of caring for themselves or want “something for nothing,” have now become part of the response to the situation. What comes next, given the financial situation of the island and the measures of austerity and drive for privatization already in place, will reveal, just as it has previously done in the island’s history with hurricanes, the real status of Puerto Rico and the attitude of the U.S. government toward these American citizens.

There’s also a longer (17min) version of our conversation with Schwartz this week, which you can listen to on Soundcloud

Frank Horton made a terrific one minute long animation of Schwartz’s riff about hurricanes and the origins of the scientific revolution here.

The writer and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton has a bleak way of stating the philosophical truth about climate change. Short form: we’re doomed. There’s nothing we can do about it. We’re going to die. Game over. He wrote an essay in the New York Times in 2013 called Learning How to Die in the Anthopocene that was widely shared. Chris called it a “mood experiment, and it works for a radio experiement and maybe for a war torn soldier, but most of us are still scrambling for more optimistic answers and solutions.

Our crack team of researchers found a load of good stuff to read this week: There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster by Neil Smith; “The Capitolocene” by Ben Kunkel, “The Uninhabitable Earthby David Wallace-Wells which ran in New York Magazine a while back. And as usual Zach found the perfect music for the open with Ray Baretto’s version of “Lamento Borincano

Edwidge Danticat, in addition to an original poem she wrote for us called “Crossing,” also told us about a beautiful Haitian song to play for the end of our show: Layla Mcalla’s “Mesi Bondye” (“Thank You, God”)

Conor also reminds us that it’s the 20 year anniversary of the Buena Vista Social Club album, a Caribbean masterpiece

Remembering Jean-Michel Basquiat

Frank Horton: Before there was Banksy there was Basquiat. A genius to some, a charlatan to others, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s moonshot rise to the pinnacle of the New York art scene in the 1980s astonished all. In the span of a few years, he would go from cardboard accommodations in Central Park to leasing out a space at 57 Great Jones Street from his newfound mentor, Andy Warhol. Now, in 2017, Basquiat is once again back on the art scene blazing as bright as ever in two transcontinental shows and a new documentary film.

At the Barbican Gallery in London: Basquiat: Boom for Real will be the first large-scale UK exhibition of iconic painter and New York downtown scene prodigy Jean-Michel Basquiat.

At the Cranbrook Art Museum in Denver: Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979–1980includes the entire cache of works made by Jean-Michel Basquiat during the year he lived with his friend Alexis Adler in a small apartment in the East Village.

Boom for Real (2017) dir. Sara Driver. Boom for Real combines the life of Basquiat, as this effervescent figure, during his late formative years in New York City, and how his vision was embodied not only by the city, but its people and arts culture of the late 1970s and ’80s.

Watch: Letters From Baghdad

Gertrude of Arabia! Move over Lawrence! A terrific documentary about the amazing Gertrude Bell, maybe a more compelling, more colorful character than T.E. and no less influential in shaping the modern Middle East. Tilda Swinton (genius move) reads Bell’s letters

Stay safe,

Mary, Frank, Zach & the OS Storm Shelter



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