On December 13, 2012, the US Corps of Engineers held a hearing. Originally anticipated to be the ignored public function made open for the usual appearances, the Corps moved it to the convention center downtown. A whole floor of downtown Seattle neon and Christmas light was thrown open to a small army of red-t-shirted environmental activists. Big money was here. I’ve given money to some environmental groups and I went to see what I paid for.
The Sierra Club is the biggest instigator. Big full-color postcards have arrived over the past weeks, announcing with no small pride the convention center relocation and the huge impact to be made. Thursday night has the convention center streets mostly empty, the few activists outside hoisting their puppets to nobody.
Weaving through traffic, the doors are open, the space beyond empty. Police are nowhere to be seen, which surprises me. Thirteen years ago these same blocks were overrun with protesters, marchers, anarchists: every stripe of someone who felt strongly about the invisible human machinery deciding things for us. Police were everywhere then, horses charging out of tear gas. Tonight people indulge the holiday shopping orgy two blocks down and the convention center is overstaffed with green-jacketed attendants. They tell me to go up.
People hand out red t-shirts. It’s unclear whether money is expected for them, and before I can investigate a woman asks if I’ve testified. Halfway through my um, she explains the lottery procedure, how to give my number to someone in a Santa hat if I don’t want to speak. She gives me a big round sticker meant for my red shirt, worn at the postcard’s urging: no coal train pollution it says, more or less. I put it on.
The big action takes place in two massive conference rooms the size of aircraft hangars. Up in front, a woman tiny from distance reads off lottery numbers and people trudge up for their two minutes to speak, both on the record and to a panel of four rotating public officials. I catch on the public waves signs instead of applauds, in interest of time. Most chances to speak go empty. The woman keeps calling numbers.
Everybody is old. There are a few kids–the elementary school species obscured by the podium speaking the lines rehearsed with parents and teenagers: mostly angry, overachieving types–and some people my age and younger, but baby boomers and older are the most common demographic. The guys around me have thick glasses and move with the caution of advanced age. Behind me a guy gruffs and grumbles the way old men do when they can’t hear so well, his interjections a beat late. Standard protest tropes appear: quoting scripture, weird new-age invocations, rambling but on-topic observations way too windy to fit in two hours much less two minutes, and simply repeating hell no. It all seems like it has been done many times before. There are berets.
The issue, in a nutshell, is a proposed large deepwater port near Bellingham, oceangoing shipping supported by a massive rail terminus. It’s not entirely clear if the Corps believes the port could be used for something else, but the project’s raison d’etre is to allow big ships in to pick up coal shipped in by multi-mile long coal trains. The coal will be shipped to China, ostensibly desperate for it. The hearing is an environmental review for public comment on the impact of the trains and port construction.
Of course, as Naomi Klein so deftly discovered in her Nation article on climate change, the issue isn’t the issue. The Sierra Club has a strategy to at least make an appearance of doing something about climate change, and making noise to defeat the port is tactical move: the port could be scuttled for increasing well-accepted kinds of pollution, namely coal dust. I am sure the speakers have been provided talking points which focus on what the Corps wants the environmental review to be about, which is anything but climate change. The whole production is like the Raymond Carver stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. We can’t talk about what everybody knows.
I sit and listen. It’s not a bad show, especially for free. At points a spokesman for the building trades appears and the red shirts raise signs with the outline of a fish and the words RED HERRING. The building trades guy is a thin CNC machinist type with thick glasses and big hands and always speaks to the desperate need of jobs. Their managers are shorter and fat, with facial hair, and they talk about jobs too. Their comments are predictable repeats from the NAFTA fight, or even the old railroad barons. I still have sympathy with bluecollar types but never understand why they are such dupes, never putting together that the jobs disappear anyway.
A teenage girl speaks. She is livid. I would be too. I was. People looked at me then like I was crazy. Now it’s twenty-five years later and I’ve given up being angry. If the girl confronted me I wouldn’t have a good answer for her. I know, I would say, and shrug.
The project is a boondoggle, but who thinks they’re making out never makes sense. Coal companies, scrambling to save their outmoded industry, ostensibly believe they’ll make a bundle shipping the stuff to China. This while coal’s global commodity price has collapsed and China is investing its considerable resources in renewable energy. (China is many things. Stupid isn’t one of them.) There are no mines for the coal: it all lies underground in Montana and Wyoming, and will be liberated by massive strip mines if the port is built. As an added bonus, this coal is on public land, and the coal leases have been won in auctions with only one bidder, the amount paid a pittance. Coal barons–or whatever counts for one these days–see dollar signs, but it sounds more like the home mortgage scam to me. Maybe a few people will make some money, some of which will be left over from lawyers and protection, but everyone else won’t even have a bag to hold.
Yes, it’s depressing. And I’ve given up on being depressed. I’m not depressed or outraged at this hearing. It’s fun, really. Most of the speakers are coherent and thoughtful. People wave their signs and are well-behaved. Defeating the coal terminal would be a victory, if even a symbolic one. It’s worth doing. Everything is done one thing at a time.
The hearing ends at seven, the tiny lady thanking us all. All the old people troop out, stopping in the middle of things, as they always do. Again completing the script, they gather in the street with the puppets and bang on drums a while. I leave the salmon puppet behind for lights. So many lights! People walk with new bags of happiness, all the girls in boots.
Four days from now I will perform a piece I have written for a private audience. It will be surreal, more perfect than I could imagine. The next day I will start a job and begin two days of panic that dissolve away by week’s end, the same week’s end delivering a new job that starts in the new year. But this is all ahead, then. The future when the port is built or not is ahead, too.
Now I am in the transit station deep underground the city, the same station I rode to my first job here, back in 1997. Wires ran for electric buses and there were rails, but no train. Now the wires are gone and the train runs, and the job ended thirteen years ago. I am in the future. So much looks the same, but everything is different.
I can only handle so much future at a time.