Podcast episode about the early U of T fossil fuel divestment campaign

The first episode of Amanda Harvey-Sánchez and Julia DaSilva’s podcast about the Toronto350.org / UofT350.org divestment campaign at the University of Toronto is online. This one features three organizers from the early campaign in 2012: me, Stu Basden, and Monica Resendes.

Satellite to satellite espionage and warfare

One inescapable but confounding element of trying to understand politics, international relations, and history up to the present day is that we don’t have access to what governments are doing in secret. We will need to re-write the history of these times decades from now, if circumstances and freedom of information laws permit historians to learn about the skullduggery of this era.

One potentially important example is happening now in space. Satellites have become crucial to everything from time synchronization for high precision activities to navigation and communication. They also can’t really be hidden. Perhaps there are satellites with optical stealth that are hardly or never visible, but even top secret spy satellites of the conventional design can have their orbits determined by civilians with stopwatches and binoculars.

That is why we know that Russia, among others, has been experimenting with satellites that approach others and can potentially disrupt or destroy them, or monitor their activity. An article on China’s program includes the intriguing phrasing: “non-cooperative robotic rendezvous” between spacecraft. Russia’s Cosmos 2542 is known to have approached USA 245: an American spy satellite believed to be one of the largest things in space.

One can only speculate on how such capabilities are influencing world politics and the unfolding of events.

Arithmetic of power and plutonium

The first pile at Hanford generated 250 million watts—250 megawatts or MW—of thermal power and produced each year about a hundred kilograms of plutonium. A rule of thumb is that a megawatt of fission heat in a natural uranium reactor accompanies the production of about a gram of plutonium-239 per day. About six kilograms were sufficient to make a bomb.

Garwin, Richard L. and Charpak, Georges. Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons. University of Chicago Press, 2002. p. 33


I watched the four-part Netflix series on the Three Mile Island disaster and found it to be well crafted and emotionally poignant, though only OK as an educational resource on the partial meltdown.

My technical complaint is that they explain almost nothing about why the accident happened and exactly what took place while it was going on. There is a lot of interesting material on how complex systems have interactions which cannot be foreseen, as well as user interface issues in the control room, which would have helped viewers better understand.

In terms of storytelling, my objection is with how the filmmakers basically set up two kinds of interview subjects: forthright and emotional local residents who suffered, and a few wicked representatives of the industry. They quote dismissive claims about culpability and the accident’s severity from the insiders, while uncritically quoting residents on how an unchecked disaster would have destroyed Pensyllvania or the East Coast. To me this all felt like too much handholding about who to believe, coupled with insufficient reference to credible outside accounts.

I wouldn’t especially recommend the series to either people who know a lot about nuclear energy or those who know fairly little. The former are likely to be annoyed at how anecdote-driven the whole thing is, while the latter may be given a false sense of confidence about the correctness of the view expressed. Unlike the remarkable 2019 series on the Chernobyl accident, this is one that can be safely missed.

For better explanations on TMI, I would suggest Nickolas Means’s talk (which also contains some fascinating discussion about what human error means in the context of major industrial accidents and how to investigate them after the fact) or this Inviting Disaster episode from The History Channel.

The marriage of journalism and intelligence

“One profession that is particularly close to my heart, a profession that can get away with nearly anything,” Wagenbreth told his colleagues, “and this group are our dear journalists.” Journalists with a good reputation, he said, had excellent access to officials with security clearances and business executives, and could even travel through the Iron Curtain without a cover. Intelligence and journalism, in Wagenbreth’s view, had “entered a kind of marriage,” he said. “They complement each other and can’t let go of each other.” The Stasi knew that the press was addicted to leaks, and that scoop-hungry reporters would even publish anonymous leaks; they also knew that it was extremely difficult for journalists to tell whether a source was genuine or fake, and ever harder to tell if the content of a leak was accurate or forged. And it was another notch harder still to tell whether an anonymous leak contained some shrewd mix of both, handcrafted for maximum impact. The symbiotic relationship found its fullest expression in the active measures field. “What would active measures be without the journalist?” Wagenbreth asked the Stasi leaders. “Revelations are their métier.” The X, of course, had the same métier.

For Wagenbreth, more competitive and polarized media outlets presented a major opportunity. “For the man on the street it is getting harder to assess and judge the written word,” Wagenbreth explained. “He is ever more helpless in the face of the monsters that are opinion factories. This is where we come in as an intelligence agency.”

Rid, Thomas. Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Now the world’s top clothing fibre

I came across an interesting article about the history of polyester, and particularly its rise to dominance with the popularity of sports- and outdoors-wear:

With that technology in hand, Patagonia developed a line of base layers that Smith dubbed Capilene to suggest capillary action. In fall 1985, the same season Synchilla hit the market, Capilene completely replaced the company’s polypropylene underwear. ‘Those two innovations – base layer and fleece – completely changed the world’s opinion of polyester, not just the outdoor industry’, says Harward. ‘It became seen as the high-end performance comfort fiber. Over time, polyester’s success as a performance fiber allowed it to reclaim its fashion luster.

The article is a bit hard on wool, which is better than anything for what it is best at including outer socks, but it’s interesting to read the description about how synthetic fabrics have been adapted for human requirements.

Ginsburg documentary

After today’s three presentations on my research — and the surprise discovery of another very pertinent U of T PhD dissertation which I will read tomorrow — I learned that through the library I have access to the Kanopy streaming service and watched the RBG documentary which was the first thing recommended. It’s rightly praised as very well done, and I learned a lot about her life.

The fine points of minuting meetings

The British comedic TV series’ Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister — as well as being extremely funny — make some acute and accurate points about politics. One quote from the episode “The Quality of Life” is an arguably cynical, arguably tragically accurate summary of the relationship between civil servants and politicians.

Today, while pondering how to interpret some specific bits of activist decision-making and analysis, I was reminded of another gem from series 2 of YPM: “Official Secrets:”

Bernard Woolley: The problem is, the prime minister did try to suppress the chapter, didn’t he?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: I don’t know. Did he?

BW: Well, didn’t he? Don’t you remember?

HA: What I remember is irrelevant Bernard. If the minutes don’t say that he did, then he didn’t.

BW: So you want me to falsify the minutes?

HA: I want nothing of the sort! It’s up to you Bernard, what do you want?

BW: I want to have a clear conscience.

HA: A clear conscience?

BW: Yes!

HA: When did you acquire this taste for luxuries? Consciences are for politicians, Bernard! We are humble functionaries whose duty it is to implement the commands of our democratically elected representatives. How could we possibly be doing anything wrong if it has been commanded by those who represent the people?

BW: Well, I can’t accept that, Sir Humphrey, “No man is an island.”

HA: I agree Bernard! No man is an island, entire of itself. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee, Bernard!

BW: So what do you suggest, Sir Humphrey?

HA: Bernard, the minutes do not record everything that was said at a meeting do they?

BW: Well, no, of course not.

HA: And people change their minds during a meeting, don’t they?

BW: Well, yes.

HA: So the actual meeting is a mass of ingredients for you to choose from.

BW: Oh, like cooking.

HA: Like, no, not like cooking. Better not to use that word in connection with books or minutes. You choose from a jumble of ill-digested ideas a version which represents the prime minister’s views as he would, on reflection, have liked them to emerge.

BW: But if it’s not a true record…

HA: The purpose of minutes is not to record events, it is to protect people. You do not take notes if the prime minister says something he did not mean to say — particularly if it contradicts something he has said publicly. You try to improve on what has been said, put it in a better order. You are tactful.

BW: But how do I justify that?

HA: You are his servant.

BW: Oh, yes.

HA: A minute is a note for the records and a statement of action if any that was agreed upon. Now, what happened at the meeting in question?

BW: Well, the book was discussed and the solicitor general advised there were no legal grounds for suppressing it.

HA: And did the prime minister accept what the solicitor general had said?

BW: Well, he accepted the fact that there were no legal grounds for suppression… but

HA: He accepted the fact that there were no legal grounds for suppression. You see?

BW: Oh!

HA: Is that a lie?

BW: No

HA: Can you write it in the minutes?

BW: Yes

HA: How’s your conscience?

BW: Much better! Thank you Sir Humphrey.

Or, as put later by Linton Barwick in the 2009 satirical film “In the Loop“:

Linton Barwick: Get a hold of those minutes. I have to correct the record.

Bob Adriano: We can do that?

LB: Yes, we can. Those minutes are an aide-mémoire for us. They should not be a reductive record of what happened to have been said, but they should be more a full record of what was intended to have been said. I think that’s the more accurate version, don’t you?

Obviously in these cases there is a clear political purpose being served in presenting the minutes a particular way, but the problem of interpretation is intractable even with no such agenda. Humphrey is quite right to say that minutes which are not verbatim require decisions from the person writing them, and it is as true in political conversations as in talks between friends or lovers that people who take part in the same conversation can come away from it with quite different recollections about what each party tried to say and what was decided.

Growing campus fossil fuel divestment bibliography

As I have been writing drafts of my PhD dissertation, I am working in Microsoft Word for the sake of interoperability with committee members, with the intention of submitting the dissertation in LaTeX format after the defence. My footnotes are just unique identifiers to sources listed in my developing public bibliography.

In it’s way it must be one of the most comprehensive cross-indexings of academic and journalistic writing on fossil fuel divestment campaigns at universities and related matters.

It’s the sort of document it’s fascinating to imagine looking at as some sort of human-computer hybrid or hyperintelligent AI which could take it all in and cross-reference with no restrictions on the number of items it can hold in memory and compare at the same time.

The bibliography is also a valuable document because of how link rot is making many of the sources unavailable as websites are taken down and reorganized. Because of all the specialized information I have been able to collect about the movement, I have been able to find Wayback Machine archives for dozens of sources that are no longer accessible at their original locations or the URLs cited in other documents.

350.org, fossil fuel divestment, and the campaign in a box

From a social movement perspective, one of the most interesting things about 350.org’s fossil fuel divestment campaign is how they have proliferated the strategy among (often newly formed) independent groups.

One mechanism has been written documents. Bill McKibben told me that reading the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s 2011 report “Unburnable Carbon: Are the World’s Financial Markets Carrying a Carbon Bubble?” was part of what prompted him and Naomi Klein to start promoting fossil fuel divestment. One of the main ways he got attention for the idea was his 2012 Rolling Stone article: “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

350.org also undertook a “Do the Math” tour in 2012, visiting 21 cities in part to seed divestment campaigns.

350.org and other NGOs that worked to proliferate fossil fuel divestment held convergences for university divestment organizers at Swarthmore College (where Swarthmore Mountain Justice had first tried using divestment against mountaintop removal coal mining) in 2013, as well as in San Francisco and Montreal in 2014.

There are also written materials on setting up and advancing campaigns. A campus guide was released in 2012 and a trainers’ handbook in 2013. There has also been a similar document on their gofossilfree website since 2016.

I won’t get into analysis of the implications of this approach to organizing here, but I was prompted to write this because I have found the “campaign in a box” idea strangely undocumented online, despite how I thought it was a widely discussed feature of the movement.