‘Live gently on Earth’ – and in Kansas – as we adapt to a warming planet

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policies affect the daily lives of people throughout our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the series “Sunflower Journeys” on public television for the first 27 seasons, and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company, Prairie Hollow Productions.

In April 1978, I attended the New Earth Show in San Francisco, which an article in the Stanford Daily described as “a giant festival of alternatives in the areas of energy, transportation, housing, food, and lifestyle.”

The gathering revolved around the theme “Live gently on Earth”. I took home a T-shirt with those words written on it on a country landscape featuring an electricity-producing windmill (not like today’s wind generators) and plenty of sunshine. I wore that shirt until it became a relic.

Jimmy Carter occupied the White House at that time. Placing solar panels on the roof to signify support for renewable energy and concern for the environment. Even his predecessor – Richard Nixon – presided over a state that saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act, as well as the first Earth Day.

The first images of Earth from space inspired us, with the realization that this beautiful blue orb is being abused and polluted. Many realized that we needed to do a better job of taking care of them and directing their resources.

Inspired by mythologist Joseph Campbell, George Lucas—the creator of 1977’s “Star Wars”—developed a cinematic legend characterized by the “force” that brings one into line with the natural flow of the universe. It was as if, figuratively, we were already forming a new relationship with Earth.

Then the “Empire” responded with revenge.

Climate-induced catastrophes include wildfires in the West, record-breaking heat waves and droughts, and violent hurricanes. Here, plumes of smoke and hurricane clouds appear simultaneously. (NASA Earth Observatory)

fast reversal

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

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

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

Republicans, in particular, have vigorously defended the idea that government should not be assertive or regulatory (with some exceptions). In the US Senate, they have uniformly opposed efforts to deal with the growing threat to our biosphere.

Even with mounds of scientific evidence that our planet is dealing with something far more dangerous and more global than the environmental threats highlighted in the 1970s, we haven’t been able to make any significant progress in addressing it.

By “he” I mean the “multiple successive crises” associated with global warming due to the greenhouse gases we are expelling into the atmosphere. (This phrase is from a new book by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen: “Annoying Apocalypse.”)

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

“Global warming has reached a level where we can attribute with a high degree of confidence the cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming,” he said. “It’s already happening now.”

That was more than three decades ago. Thanks to forces willing to perpetuate the status quo, and to remain in denial of what science tells us, we have been unable to come together in a meaningful way to address the matter.

So it’s really important that Congress finally be able to pass legislation that would invest significant resources in efforts to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we produce.

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

Governor Laura Kelly tells reporters
“This is a huge day for Kansas,” Governor Laura Kelly told reporters after the state’s deal with Panasonic to build a $4 billion car battery plant in De Soto was announced. (Sherman Smith/Reflector KS)

Planning in time

All those electric vehicles will need batteries. Which is why Panasonic’s plan to build a new plant in Northeast Kansas appears to be just right in time.

It wouldn’t happen, of course, without a bipartisan effort involving the approval of Republican leaders in the Kansas legislature who supported Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to attract new “megaprojects” to the state.

The plant will be built on land near De Soto formerly occupied by Sunflower Ordnance Works, also referred to as the Sunflower Army Ammunition Factory, which at one time was said to be the world’s largest smokeless gunpowder factory.

In a story aired 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 covering nearly 10,000 acres and employed more than 12,000 workers at its peak.

Kathy Daniels, then a curator at the Johnson County Museum, explained to Jim Kelly that the plant had been licensed in February of 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had pushed the United States into World War II.

The station displaced more than 100 farming families as its large area included a buffer zone to isolate the surrounding population from accidental explosions. A small town called Prairie Center was also included in the possession of the land and almost all of its buildings were destroyed. These sacrifices were deemed essential to the success of the war effort.

With housing in short supply, the federal government built Sunflower Village on the site to accommodate some of the workforce, with the first apartments opening in August 1943.

“Sunflowers were really a whole community,” Daniels noted. “It had its own police force. It had its own power plant. It provided its own water. It had its own fire department and eventually its own hospital.”

However, the construction of the Sunflower Village did not eliminate all the demands placed on de Soto and the surrounding communities. Living space was still hard to come by, and the influx of new families put pressure on schools. Enrollment in de Soto’s primary school, which totaled 88 students before the war, grew to 346 in 1942-43 and 992 by the end of the war.

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

As the fighting stopped, so did the demand for gunpowder and fuel. Most of the workers at Sunflower were fired and the plant was decommissioned, although part of it was diverted to fertilizer production. It was used again during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, but the site was finally declared “surplus” by the military in 1998 and put up for sale.

The development of color maps illustrates the US military's work on decontamination of the former munitions plant in De Soto that is slated to be the site of the proposed $4 billion Panasonic car battery factory.  Federal and state regulators have issued a new permit allowing the redevelopment of land for Panasonic.  (Tim Carpenter/Reflector KS)
The development of color maps illustrates the US military’s work on decontamination of the former munitions plant in De Soto that is slated to be the site of the proposed $4 billion Panasonic car battery factory. Federal and state regulators have issued a new permit allowing the redevelopment of land for Panasonic. (Tim Carpenter/Reflector KS)

regeneration of life

The next phase saw consideration of the property’s redevelopment in various ways, including the proposed Wonderful World of Oz theme park. The site also saw extensive – and expensive – efforts to remove the pollution left by the plant.

Now we know what will be the next use of this land. It is assumed that preventive measures will be taken to ensure that the production of electric vehicle batteries does not add more pollutants to the environment. I’m sure this is being addressed in the process, and I’m sure the alarming sounds would raise the alarm if they weren’t.

De Soto and the surrounding area will once again feel the impact of rapid development on a large scale, which will undoubtedly have downsides for some people while providing a major boost to the economy. Those traveling K-10 between Lawrence and Overland Park are likely to experience a significant increase in traffic.

At the very least, the increased influx of electric vehicles promises to reduce the carbon load on the atmosphere.

It seems somewhat ironic that a company with roots in Japan is building its new facility on a site formerly occupied by a factory built in direct response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I say “sarcastic”, but I can also say “optimistic”.

Doesn’t it seem hopeful that those whose ancestors found themselves in mortal opposition to one another not so long ago can now collaborate on a project that addresses a greater threat to us all?

With heat waves and droughts spreading across much of the world, glaciers and ice sheets continuing to melt, and 1,000-year rainfall events continuing to flood our Midwest neighbors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that we are indeed facing a climate emergency.

Back in the 1970s, we had no idea the threats posed by the increasing warming of the planet, but it is now clear that we must dramatically increase our efforts to “live quietly on Earth.” Past enemies – and current enemies – must find ways to become allies if we are to make this transition to a new relationship with the planet.

Perhaps the collaboration here in Kansas between Republicans and Democrats in laying the groundwork for a new battery factory is an example that stimulates cooperation and bridges the divisions that have sprung up in this nation.

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

May the force be with us all.

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

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