A Few Small Nips

H. Bruce Rinker
H. Bruce Rinker

In her 1935 painting, “A Few Small Nips,” revolutionary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo recorded in cartoon-like fashion a grisly murder: a bare and bloodied woman lying on a bed underneath her knife-wielding macho killer. In his courtroom trial, the murderer wailed, “But I just gave her a couple of little nips.” It is an often-heard claim of many criminals to undervalue with grotesque exaggeration the impact of their self-serving misdeeds.

Frida’s painting might also be a symbol for our collective impacts on the natural world here in the Shenandoah Valley and beyond. Habitat fragmentation, invasive species, pollution, and overexploitation of resources are a few measureable categories of our “little nips” across the region.

Any one of them – an ill-conceived gas pipeline right-of-way in western Virginia’s karst topography, an infestation of the hemlock wooly adelgid in the Jefferson National Forest, mercury contamination in the South River, and the global extinction of the Passenger Pigeon – would have been tragic enough. But, collectively, these “little nips” threaten the health and integrity of the entire area in a fiendish synergy.

According to the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, America depends on a network of more than 2 million miles of pipelines for petroleum and gas to fuel our nation’s economic engine. That’s enough pipelines to encircle the Earth over 80 times!

Some of that serpentine mileage is a consequence of ruinous property seizure by the fossil fuel industry through a land grab called eminent domain that often carries the imprimatur of state policymakers.

Some of that mileage has hacked into remote national forests and parks held in the public trust, profiting the companies but jeopardizing scenic vistas and local ecosystems.

All of that mileage demands the scrutiny of a dissenting public no longer convinced by the industry’s disingenuous arguments that “It’s either jobs or the environment” or, even more inanely, “You want to keep warm in the winter, right? So it’s either this pipeline or people will freeze to death.” What evidence can the industry proffer that America needs this ever-growing network of pipelines to fuel its domestic economic engine?

“But I just gave the Earth a couple of little nips.” It’s the often-heard claim of those who offend our environment – heedless developers, greedy utility reps, industry polluters, and small-minded government officials among them –to undervalue with grotesque exaggeration the impact of their self-serving misdeeds. They fail as stewards of an ancient planet with finite resources that need to be shared equitably by 7 billion humans – and over 30 million other species.

When describing her controversial canvas, Frida Kahlo admitted, “My painting carries with it the message of pain.” Her shrewd statement describes another canvas called the Earth. It is painful to consider all the human-caused extinctions, human-accelerated climate change, and human-disrupted ecological services across the planet. Most of these heartrending “little nips” were, or are, preventable through individual and corporate action.

But here’s the rub. It’s not just the greedy utility reps or industry polluters. It’s all of us who drive cars and trucks, wash clothes, heat homes, use mobile phones and laptop computers, fly in airplanes, drink from plastic straws, eat fast foods, shop with single-use plastic bags, light up our night skies with artificial light, and indulge in the conveniences of 21st century Western lifestyles. Frida Kahlo’s reference to pain hints at the need for us all to curb our appetites and live within the means of our economic AND natural capital.

Such an approach assumes, however, the best of intentions and an order of openness heretofore missing from corporate resource planning.

In September 2013, Dominion Virginia Power drew a lot of favorable publicity when it leased a patch of the Atlantic Ocean offshore from Virginia Beach to construct an offshore wind farm: an ideal location for its strong winds, shallow water, and first-class ports. However, with no substantial action by Dominion since that time to make offshore wind a reality, it now appears a “green wash” public relations ploy by a multi-billion-dollar corporation to block a rival from outshining it.

Parenthetically, installed wind power capacity in the European Union (EU) now covers more than 10% of the EU’s electricity consumption. In 2014 alone, over 400 offshore wind turbines were connected to the EU grid! How many offshore wind farms were in the United States in 2014? None.

And what about solar? Did you know that enough sunlight strikes the Earth’s surface in just over an hour to fuel humankind’s energy needs in toto for an entire year?

Yet, in 2012, Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade association based in Washington, DC, launched a multi-year campaign to weaken solar energy policies across the country. In October 2014, Consumer Energy Alliance, a Texas-based utility trade lobby, was busted in Wisconsin for stirring up a phony anti-solar campaign. In early April 2015, Duke Energy, North Carolina’s monopoly utility company, allegedly coordinated a “solar hurts the poor” strategy that targeted low-income and black households.

If it looks like a conspiracy, acts like a conspiracy, smell and tastes like a conspiracy, then maybe, just maybe it’s a conspiracy!

Even so, “it’s just a couple of little nips,” right?

Campaigning against solar and wind technologies. Dumping billion of tons of carbon dioxide annually into the atmosphere. Wiping a few dozen species off the face of the planet in a single calendar year. Jeopardizing ecosystem services by fragmenting intact forests and wetlands. Chucking a few hundred million tons of pollutants into our waterways. Building 2 million miles of pipelines and cutting through thousands of acres of public wild lands and private farms.

We all know on some visceral level that these “little nips” can add up to a hemorrhaging victim who may not recover from such a combined assault.

Not wanting to end on a dismal note, I hasten to add another quote by artist Frida Kahlo: “There is nothing more precious than laughter.”

In the face of our dismal relationship with the natural world, it’s important to remember that we’re only one species among millions on the planet, a naked ape with a knack for bullying our fellow organisms into submission.

A little laughter at ourselves – along with a hefty dose of humility – might be good therapy for our little nips against a vulnerable world.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D., is a forest ecologist and science educator. Since July 2014, he has been the Executive Director of the Valley Conservation Council, a land trust protecting America’s legendary Shenandoah Valley for a quarter-century. E-mail: [email protected]