‘Living Lightly on the Earth’ — and in Kansas — as we adapt to a warming planet 

Kansas Reflector welcomes views from writers who share our goal to broaden the conversation about how public policy affects people’s daily lives across our state. Dave Kendall was producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his company, Prairie Hollow Productions.

In April 1978, I attended the New Earth Exposition in San Francisco, which a Stanford Daily article described as “a gigantic festival of alternatives in the fields of energy, transportation, housing, food and lifestyle. “.

The meeting revolved around the theme “Living lightly on earth”. I took home a T-shirt with those words emblazoned on a bucolic scene with a windmill producing electricity (no resemblance to today’s wind generators) and lots of sunshine. I wore that shirt until it became a pierced relic.

Jimmy Carter was occupying the White House at the time. He has put solar panels on the roof to indicate support for renewable energy and concern for the environment. His predecessor, Richard Nixon, also presided over a nation that witnessed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of the Clean Air Act, as well as the first Earth Day.

We were inspired by the first images of the Earth from space, with the knowledge that this beautiful blue globe was being abused and polluted. Many realized that we had to do a better job by taking care of it and managing its resources.

Inspired by mythologist Joseph Campbell, George Lucas – the creator of 1977’s “Star Wars” – developed a cinematic myth with a “Force” that aligns with the natural flow of the universe. It felt like, metaphorically, we were indeed forging a new relationship with the Earth.

And then “the Empire” reacted with a vengeance.

Climate-induced weather disasters include record fires in the West, record heatwaves and droughts, and aggressive hurricanes. Here, plumes of smoke and hurricane clouds are visible simultaneously. (NASA Earth Observatory)

Quick reversal

After Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, the federal government’s role in addressing environmental issues quickly reversed.

“Government is not the solution to our problems,” Reagan said in his inaugural address. “The problem is the government”.

That sentiment resonates with many Americans today, long after Reagan removed the solar panels from the roof of the White House.

Republicans, in particular, have staunchly defended the idea that government shouldn’t be too assertive or regulatory (with a few exceptions). In the United States Senate, they have consistently opposed efforts to address a growing threat to our biosphere.

Even with mountains of scientific evidence indicating that our planet is dealing with something far more threatening and general than the environmental threats highlighted in the 1970s, we have not been able to make any significant progress in addressing it.

By “it” I mean the “cascading multiple crises” associated with global warming due to the greenhouse gases we expel into the atmosphere. (That line comes from a new book written by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen: “An Inconvenient Apocalypse.”)

We have known for decades of the growing threat posed by greenhouse gases. NASA climate scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm in testimony to Congress in June 1988, before the end of the Reagan administration.

“Global warming has reached such a level that we can confidently attribute a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming,” he said. “It’s already happening now.”

This was over three decades ago. And, thanks to forces wishing to perpetuate the status quo, by staying in denial of what science tells us, we have not been able to come together in any meaningful way to address the issue.

So it’s really important that Congress is finally able to pass legislation that invests significant resources in efforts to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we generate.

On August 16, President Biden signed the groundbreaking bill that will provide incentives for things like buying electric vehicles or electric vehicles.

Governor Laura Kelly tells reporters "this is a big day for the state of Kansas" after announcing the state's agreement with Panasonic to build a $ 4 billion vehicle battery plant in De Soto.  (Reflector Sherman Smith / Kansas)
Governor Laura Kelly told reporters “this is a big day for the state of Kansas” after announcing the state’s agreement with Panasonic to build a $ 4 billion vehicle battery plant in De Soto. (Reflector Sherman Smith / Kansas)

Timely plan

All those electric vehicles are going to need batteries. And that’s why Panasonic’s plan to build a new manufacturing facility in northeastern Kansas appears to be timely enough.

It wouldn’t happen, of course, without a bipartisan effort involving the consensus of Republican leaders in the Kansas legislature who backed Governor Laura Kelly’s plan to attract new “mega-projects” to the state.

The plant will be built on land near De Soto previously occupied by Sunflower Ordnance Works, also known as the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, which at one point was said to be the largest smokeless gunpowder plant in the world. .

In a story broadcast in the 2007 season of KTWU’s “Sunflower Journeys”, producer Jim Kelly explored the history of the plant, noting that it consisted of more than 2,000 buildings that covered approximately 10,000 acres and employed more than 12,000 workers at its peak.

Kathy Daniels, then curator of the Johnson County Museum, explained to Jim Kelly that the facility had been cleared in February 1942, not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pushed the United States into World War II.

More than 100 farming families have been displaced from the plant as its large footprint included a buffer zone to insulate surrounding residents from accidental blasts. A small town called Prairie Center was also included in the land acquisition and nearly all of its buildings were destroyed. Such sacrifices were deemed necessary for the success of the war effort.

Due to the housing shortage, the federal government built Sunflower Village on site to house part of the workforce, with the first apartments opening in August 1943.

“Sunflower was really a whole community,” Daniels noted. “He had his own police force. It had its own power plant. He provided his own water. It had its own firefighters and, finally, its own hospital ”.

The construction of the Sunflower Village, however, did not eliminate all the demands made on De Soto and the surrounding communities. Living space was still difficult to find and the influx of new families was putting the schools to the test. Enrollment at De Soto elementary school, which had 88 students before the war, grew to 346 in 1942-43 and 992 at the end of the war.

This happened after President Truman authorized the first military use of atomic bombs to force the Japanese to surrender. Emperor Hirohito relayed the news to the nation about him on a radio broadcast on August 15, 1945. The Allies had secured victory in Europe a few months earlier.

With the cessation of the fighting, the demand for gunpowder and propellants also ceased. Most of the Sunflower workers were laid off and the plant was taken out of service, although some went to fertilizer production. It was put back into use during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, but the site was eventually declared “in excess” by the military in 1998 and put up for sale.

A progression of color maps illustrated the U.S. Army's work to remove pollution from the former ammunition manufacturing facility in De Soto, which will be the site of a proposed 4 billion Panasonic vehicle battery manufacturing facility. dollars.  Federal and state regulators have issued a new permit allowing land redevelopment for Panasonic.  (Spotlight Tim Carpenter / Kansas)
A progression of color maps illustrated the U.S. Army’s work to remove pollution from the former ammunition manufacturing facility in De Soto, which will be the site of a proposed 4 billion Panasonic vehicle battery manufacturing facility. dollars. Federal and state regulators have issued a new permit allowing land redevelopment for Panasonic. (Spotlight Tim Carpenter / Kansas)

Renewed life

The next phase saw the property being considered for redevelopment in several ways, including a proposed Wonderful World of Oz theme park. The site has also seen extensive and costly efforts to clean up the contamination left behind by the plant.

We now know what the next use of this land will be. Presumably, safeguards will be taken to ensure that the production of electric vehicle batteries no longer adds contaminants to the environment. I am confident that this will be addressed in this process and I am sure that rumors of concern will raise the alarm if they are not.

De Soto and the surrounding area will again feel the impact of rapid large-scale development, which will no doubt have downsides for some people by providing a big boost to the economy. Those traveling the K-10 between Lawrence and Overland Park are likely to experience a significant increase in traffic.

At least the growing flow of electric vehicles promises to lighten our carbon load in the atmosphere.

It seems somewhat ironic that a company with its roots in Japan will build its new facility on a site previously occupied by a factory built in direct response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I say “ironic”, but I could also say “confident”.

Doesn’t it seem hopeful that those whose ancestors found themselves in mortal opposition to each other not long ago can now collaborate on a venture that faces a greater threat to us all?

As heatwaves and droughts plague much of the world, glaciers and ice sheets continue to melt, and 1,000-year rain events continue to flood our Midwestern neighbors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that we are really facing. a climate emergency.

In the 1970s we had no idea of ​​the threats posed by our incremental global warming, but it is now quite evident that we need to significantly step up our efforts to “Live Lightly on Earth”. Former enemies – and current ones – must find ways to become allies if we are to successfully transition into a new relationship with the planet.

Perhaps the cooperation here in Kansas between Republicans and Democrats in laying the groundwork for the new battery plant will serve as an example, stimulating collaborations and bridging the divisions that have been created in this nation.

While some politicians continue to rail against the culture of “awakening” and evade the real problems we face, don’t you think it’s time to wake up and start doing more to overturn this ship?

May the Force be with us all.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policy or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your comment, here.

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