“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Dear Fossil Fuel Executives: How Can You Live With Yourselves?
Horrific heat waves across the nation, leaving hundreds dead. Wildfires tearing apart the American west. Billions of shellfish dead in the Pacific in a mass die-off. All of this within the past week. Another destructive hurricane season incoming.
Welcome to the era of the climate crisis. For a long time, activists and journalists have been yelling about it; but decades of inaction, doubt, and misinformation have stalled progress, leaving us on track to blow past worse case scenarios predicted years ago.
A new bombshell report from the IPCC, recently leaked in France, warned that global warming was happening faster than expected, and several "tipping points" — significant climate changes that cannot be reversed — have already happened. "Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems," it warned. "Humans cannot."
Of course, we can still mitigate the worst consequences of the climate crisis by decarbonizing and switching to renewable energy. Every single degree that we can reduce warming by is incredibly significant; every fraction of a degree means another nation not flooded, another war caused by drought or starvation avoided.
This is common knowledge, understood by the majority of our world's leaders. So what is stopping progress? Why have we moved so unfathomably slowly towards change?
At the heart of the issue is the fossil fuel industry, which is currently fighting tooth and nail to block climate legislation and maintain the oil and gas industries. This is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1980s, when the first reports of climate change's potentially dire consequences emerged, the oil and gas industries have been launching disinformation campaigns to convince the public that climate change is a myth, while spending billions to block climate legislation on federal and global levels.
Fossil fuel companies knew as far back as the 1960s that their products could potentially be dangerous. A 1968 paper produced for the American Petroleum Institute found that carbon dioxide levels were rising in the atmosphere, potentially causing rising sea levels and significant changes in the global ecosystem.
By the early 1980s, fossil fuel companies including Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio and Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil were meeting together in a task force to discuss climate change, showing that they were always aware of the problem long ago. A vast account of evidence that the fossil fuel industry knew about climate change can be found here: The evidence is stark, and stunning, particularly because these same fossil fuel companies would later deny that climate change was even real.
Somehow, by the 1990s, the American Petroleum Institute was organizing million-dollar plans to challenge the science of climate change; Exxon and Chevron were revealed to be participants in the plan. Exxon-funded think tanks received millions in funding to create research that "disproved" climate change, much of which was later debunked.
Over the next 20 years, fossil fuel companies would launch ever-more advanced disinformation campaigns to convince the public that climate change wasn't real. "The fossil fuel industry's denial and delay tactics come straight out of Big Tobacco's playbook," reads a report on the industry's disinformation efforts.
Fossil-fuel funded right-wing think tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation — many of which were funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers and Exxon — manufactured research that appeared to "debunk" climate change.
But mysteriously, "90% of skeptical or denialist climate change papers in the United States originate from right-wing think tanks." The Washington Post reports, "In the 1990s, oil companies, fossil fuel industry trade groups and their respective PR firms began positioning contrarian scientists such as Willie Soon, William Happer, and David Legates as experts whose opinions on climate change should be considered equal and opposite to that of climate scientists."
"Think tanks, foundations, trade associations and other third-party groups that represent fossil fuel companies for promoting 'contrarian' science that misleads the public and disrupts efforts to implement climate policies needed to address the rising threats," Politico wrote last week.
"Rhetoric on climate change and the undermining of science have contributed to misperceptions of the scientific consensus, uncertainty, unduly discounted risk and urgency, dissent, and, most importantly, polarized public support delaying mitigation and adaptation action, particularly in the U.S."
This disinformation spiraled into what we have today: A world that has barely lifted a finger to respond to climate change, leaving us with disaster after disaster. Why? What was all this misinformation for?
It was to preserve the profits of fossil fuel industries. It was mostly to continue to line the pockets of wealthy fossil fuel executives.
If there is a hell, Exxon's various CEOs — like Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson — who denied their own companies' climate research while raking in profits — will one day burn in it for what they did. Their actions, along with the leaders of various disinformation campaigns and politicians, will condemn millions — if not billions — of people to death. They should be viewed alongside the greatest villains of our history as orchestrators of mass genocide.
Fewer than 100 companies are responsible for two-thirds of climate change. The leaders of these companies should be recognized as genocidal criminals, and they should burn in hell. "What is unfolding could be, in a sense, a series of individual 'slow genocides' that, taken together, amount to a collective extermination," writes James Robbins in The New Republic.
Yet their efforts continue, even as the world grows hotter. The great irony is that even if these people burn in hell, innocent people on Earth will also burn in the fire-torn, heat-soaked world they created.
It's not too late. It will never be too late. There will always be more that we can save. There is so much to do. Emily Atkin's Heated has an excellent primer on how to take action, which can look like lobbying the government or joining a campaign or teaching or educating; the important thing is that everyone does something. However, contrary to the popular narrative that defined environmentalism for the past few decades, simply conserving water and recycling is not enough.
Ironically, the fossil fuel companies were also largely responsible for spreading the myth that individual action could stop climate change. BP, for example, was responsible for creating the myth of the "carbon footprint."
Today, fossil fuel companies are trying to pull similar tricks by greenwashing themselves, launching PR campaigns that make it seem like they are "going green" when actually, they are contributing to the problems more than ever.
The fossil fuel industry has to die. It has to stop pouring poison into our atmosphere and condemning billions to agonizing suffering. It needs to be replaced by renewable energy — which could create millions of jobs and supercharge the economy — and fast.
There is hope. There's always hope. The European Union recently unveiled an ambitious plan to achieve a carbon neutral future within the next nine years, which includes a plan to tax jet fuel and effectively ban petrol and diesel-powered cars over the next 20 years. "We're going to ask a lot of our citizens," EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans said. "We're also going to ask a lot of our industries, but we do it for good cause. We do it to give humanity a fighting chance."
But the plan is expected to suffer through years of negotiations before implementation — years that we don't have.
And the fossil fuel executives and politicians who continue to push back against these efforts — even as the world literally burns — should have a place next to the worst genocidal madmen in our history.