Friday, February 22, 2008

Michael Kinsley spits out a mouthful of SURGE!

Michael Kinsley,'s founding editor, wrote a tolerably good article in Slate on the "Surge Strategy" in Iraq, arguing that while it has reduced casualties and violence, laudable goals indeed, it hasn't achieved its own aim: to produce stability such that more troops can withdraw than were added. That is, the point of the surge wasn't to provide stability enough for 130,000 US soldiers to continue staying there indefinitely, but rather stability enough that we could start drawing down soldiers. Going back to a (safer) status quo, but not so safe or stable that we can start leaving in even token amounts, is emphatically not a success:
In fact, President Bush laid down the standard of success when he announced the surge more than a year ago: "If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home." At the time, there were about 130,000 American soldiers in Iraq. Bush proposed to add up to 20,000 more troops... the surge was generally described as lasting six to eight months.

By last summer, the surge had actually added closer to 30,000 troops, making the total American troop count about 160,000. Today, there are still more than 150,000 American troops in Iraq. The official plan has been to get that number back down to 130,000 by July and then to keep going so that there would be about 100,000 American troops in Iraq by the time Bush leaves office. Lately, though, Gen. Petraeus has come up with another zenlike idea: He calls it a "pause." And the administration has signed on, meaning that the total number of American troops in Iraq will remain at 130,000 for an undetermined period.

So, the best that we can hope for, in terms of American troops risking their lives in Iraq, is that there will be just as many next July—and probably next January, when time runs out—as there were a year ago. The surge will have surged in and surged out, leaving us back where we started. Maybe the situation in Baghdad, or the whole country, will have improved. But apparently it won't have improved enough to risk an actual reduction in the American troop commitment.

Kinsley is making a basic point that (a weirdo-world morally consistent) President Bush would be on board with: we can't judge U.S. military "progress" in Iraq using the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hard energy -- Realities and opportunities for our energy future

Take some time to read some brilliance and clarity about energy and sustainability.

Some friends have been sending around this:
Toward a Sustainable Future
By Leopold Center Distinguished Fellow Fred Kirschenmann
Fall 2006 Vol. 18 No. 3
Managing with less energy

A low-energy policy allows for a wide choice of lifestyles and cultures. If, on the other hand, a society opts for high energy consumption, its social relations must be dictated by technocracy and will be equally degrading whether labeled capitalist or socialist. — Ivan Illich

Energy is on everyone’s mind and most of our attention is focused on developing alternative energy supplies to replace fossil fuels. This evolution in our thinking is driven by several factors: the recognition that the era of “easy oil” is over; our uneasiness about the political instability in the Middle East where most of the remaining oil reserves exist; and, of course, short-term investment opportunities in alternative energy development.

But three critical elements often are overlooked. First, all sources of alternative energy are much less energy efficient than our previous sources of oil and natural gas. Second, future energy use must produce far less greenhouse gases if we want to avoid major climate changes. And third, energy conservation and a more energy-conscious lifestyle must be part of our future. These are important factors that need to be integrated into energy policy if we want a sustainable future.

Energy efficiency ratios are seldom given full consideration in how we calculate our energy future. In media reports, alternative energy issues usually are framed in terms of switching to “renewable” energy and “weaning ourselves from Mideast oil.” The implication is that we simply need to change from oil and natural gas to ethanol, or use nuclear, solar or wind energy and life can go on pretty much as usual. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Days of cheap energy are gone
Peak Oil author Richard Heinberg, and Marty Bender who worked in this area at the Land Institute, point out that the days of “cheap energy” are over. In the 1940s when oil and natural gas reached peak discovery levels in the United States, we were getting 100 kilocalories of energy for every kilocalorie expended to extract the oil and natural gas. By the 1970s when we hit peak oil production, the efficiency ratio had dropped to 23 to 1. Today the efficiency ratio is somewhere between 8 and 11 to 1.

This drop in energy efficiency is largely responsible for short-term investments in alternative supplies. To mine the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, energy can be extracted at a ratio of 8 to 1, which makes economic sense compared to other energy sources. However, an industrial economy driven by cheap energy – and this would include modern agriculture – will likely undergo significant changes in the future.

It cannot be ‘business-as-usual’
A second consideration that must be an essential part of any energy policy is the need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases. The economic and environmental cost of continuing this “business-as-usual” approach will soon be felt throughout the world. As the polar ice caps melt, sea levels will rise, putting major land masses (now occupied by humans) under water. More unstable climates and more severe weather events will make it increasingly difficult to maintain highly specialized monoculture cropping systems. The loss of biodiversity stemming from these severe weather alterations will reduce the resilience of local ecosystems, making it more difficult, if not impossible, for these systems to be self-regulating and self-renewing.

These emerging energy costs – both economic and ecological – will require that we fundamentally rethink our human economies and the consumptive lifestyles we seem to have taken for granted.

Perhaps one of the greatest fears that makes us reluctant to consider the kind of low-energy lifestyle essential to a sustainable future is that we have been indoctrinated to believe that consuming less energy inevitably means a lower quality of life. Several decades ago theologian and philosopher Ivan Illich suggested that a low-energy lifestyle, in fact, would result in a richer lifestyle because of the need for more human and social capital.

Illich argued that societies that opted for a low-energy lifestyle encouraged more diversity and culture, stimulating the development of more supportive communities, which would increase the quality of life. On the other hand, societies that opted for a high-energy lifestyle would inevitably lose individual freedoms due to the concentration of power in a technocracy that produced the needed energy. He argued that tools developed for “conviviality” would consequently produce a higher quality of life than tools developed for high energy consumption.

Today as we already witness the erosion of our rights and democratic freedoms, and see struggles intensify over rising energy costs, we might want to take a fresh look at Illich’s proposal.

Fred Kirschenmann

More from Ivan Illich is here, and podcasts from a colleague of Illich, Sajay Samuel, are here and here. (Links care of J-friend D. Bavington).

Friday, February 08, 2008

It's 3 o'clock: do YOU know where your Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the Twenty-Six US Great Lakes Areas of Concern Report is?

Alert public-health involved J-friend NSH sends news of a seemingly suppressed government report finding major health problems in cities and for vulnerable populations due in some large part to industrial pollutants.
The Center for Public Integrity has obtained the study, which warns that more than nine million people who live in the more than two dozen “areas of concern”—including such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee—may face elevated health risks from being exposed to dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, lead, mercury, or six other hazardous pollutants.

In many of the geographic areas studied, researchers found low birth weights, elevated rates of infant mortality and premature births, and elevated death rates from breast cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer.

Why suppressed? Well,
Canadian biologist Michael Gilbertson, a former IJC staffer and another of the three peer reviewers, told the Center that the study has been suppressed because it suggests that vulnerable populations have been harmed by industrial pollutants. “It’s not good because it’s inconvenient,” Gilbertson said. “The whole problem with all this kind of work is wrapped up in that word ‘injury.’ If you have injury, that implies liability. Liability, of course, implies damages, legal processes, and costs of remedial action. The governments, frankly, in [the US & Canada] are so heavily aligned with, particularly, the chemical industry, that the word amongst the bureaucracies is that they really do not want any evidence of effect or injury to be allowed out there.”

The IJC requested the study in 2001. Researchers selected by the ATSDR not only reviewed data from hazardous waste sites, toxic releases, and discharges of pollutants but also, for the first time, mapped the locations of schools, hospitals, and other facilities to assess the proximity of vulnerable populations to the sources of environmental contaminants.

All this is particularly disturbing and also of the moment due to the recent discovery in Michigan of unprecedented* dioxin levels downstream from the home of Dow Chemicals.

Read more about the report at the Center for Public Integrity here.

*From a Detroit News article by Francis X. Donnelly, "Saginaw River dioxin find spreads fear", Friday, November 23, 2007:
"State action is triggered by readings of 90 parts per trillion; federal action is triggered at 1,000 parts per trillion, a level Dow insists is more reasonable. Still, widespread water sampling in recent years has found spots that far exceed even federal standards. Before last week, the heaviest dose of dioxin found in the Saginaw River was 32,000 parts per trillion. The heaviest in the Tittabawassee was 87,000 parts per trillion. The amount discovered last week near Wickes Park in the Saginaw River was 1.6 million parts per trillion. "

The Audacity to Agree with This Guy

It's useful that "The Audacity of... [blank]" can be used as a shorthand for talking about (satirizing) Barack Obama.

Rather than belabor the point that I'm not the possible 2009 president's biggest fan, I'm just going to link to a guy that summed up how I feel about Obama pretty succinctly.

Of course, many have pointed out that I'm a radical and so a mainstream candidate (i.e. anyone with any chance whatsoever of winning) is plainly never going to appeal to me. Be that as it may, the point of Professor Marc Lamont Hill still stands: Obama himself is packaging himself as the great bringer of change. He clearly doesn't represent a radical break from the status quo -- and if he's not a radical break (in the general, not necessarily progressive sense) then he can't represent fundamental change, hmm, ahh? It's sort of a logical impossibility. Of course, the continued argument is that one must kowtow to the status quo to be elected, and that the people aren't ready for a radical change -- and more pertinently, that presidents are not usually the instigators of radical change. Which simply makes me think, then:

a) change agents rarely kowtow to the status quo -- as I believe Frederick Douglas said (to paraphrase) -- "You cannot expect to applauded by the same system you are trying to oppose";
b) "the people" are never "ready" for change -- change agents build the movements that create this change that lurches society forward faster than it thought it could go (take your pick -- MLK Jr., Gandhi, Mandela, Castro, Guevara, and any number of other revolutionaries and visionaries you might name);
c) if presidents aren't instigators of radical change, then I can't really get all that excited about Obama -- keeping in mind that getting back to "normal" is still a world where Democrats have been as responsible for US foreign aggression, military intervention, deaths of foreign nationals, and maintaining US imperialism as Republicans -- I'm going to get excited about the next MLK, not JFK (i.e. the same JFK that brought us Vietnam and nearly WW III with the Bay of Pigs, for starters).

This attitude is perhaps that "negative attitude" I was accused of at my old job, when I felt I'd proved that the bodywash we wanted to design was chemically and kinetically impossible. I was told not to be such a pessimist -- but really, is pessimism the best way to describe "I think we're going to hit that mountain if we don't pull up?" Or is the optimism of "Pshaw, all we have to do is slow down a little bit and we'll be fine" really preferable?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

With all due respect to Sir David Bowie, I'm afraid of Republicans

Actually, I'm afraid of Democrats as well, as readers of the J Continuum know. (Yes, even Obama. Deal with it.*)

But anyway, a forwarded e-list of Republican beliefs came my way, and I'm sharing it with you (on the presumption that it isn't misattributed copyrighted material):
To be a Republican you need to believe:

1. Jesus loves you, and shares your hatred of homosexuals and Hillary Clinton

2. Saddam was a good guy when Reagan armed him, a bad guy when Bush's Daddy made war on him , a good guy when Cheney did business with him, and a bad guy when Bush needed a "we can't find Bin Laden" diversion.

3. Trade with Cuba is wrong because the country is Communist, but trade with China and Vietnam is vital to a spirit of international harmony.

4. The United States should get out of the United Nations, and our highest national priority is enforcing U.N. resolutions against Iraq.

5. A woman can't be trusted with decisions about her own body, but multinational drug corporations can make decisions affecting all mankind without regulation.

6. The best way to improve military morale is to praise the troops in speeches, while slashing veterans' benefits and combat pay.

7. If condoms are kept out of schools, adolescents won't have sex.

8. A good way to fight terrorism is to belittle our longtime allies, then demand their cooperation and money.

9. Providing health care to all Iraqis is sound policy, but providing health care to all Americans is socialism. HMO's and insurance companies have the best interests of the public at heart.

10. Global warming and tobacco's link to cancer are junk science, but creationism should be taught in schools.

11. A president lying about an extramarital affair is an impeachable offense, but a president lying to enlist support for a war in which thousands die is solid defense policy.

12. Government should limit itself to the powers named in the Constitution, which include banning gay marriages and censoring the Internet .

13. The public has a right to know about Hillary's cattle trades, but George Bush's driving record is none of our business.

14. Being a drug addict is a moral failing and a crime, unless you're a conservative radio host. Then it's an illness and you need our prayers for your recovery.

15. Supporting "Executive Privilege" for every Republican ever born, who will be born or who might be born (in perpetuity.)

16. What Bill Clinton did in the 1960's is of vital national interest, but what Bush did in the '80's is irrelevant.

17. Support hunters who shoot their friends and blame them for wearing orange vests similar to those worn by the quail.

Friends don't let friends vote Republican.

*(Every time I think, use, or see this phrase, it reminds me of this. Note: We don't hire dirty centaurs.)

This is kind of like working, right? It DOES have to do with the environment...

More on the "Growth is Madness" Population conversation I mentioned in this earlier post.

A HUGE conversation has developed there; here is my latest contribution (out of context, alas, but I think it still makes some points in its own rambling way):
Quite the conversation here!

I'd like to come back to two or three points I may have (unsuccessfully) made in my original comments.

One is that of the Developed Countries' footprint. It is absolutely true that we can't effectively address environmental problems by exclusively focusing on population *or* consumption; it's also true that the Developed Countries, because of (generally) better governance structures and more coherent, stronger non-governmental actors have much more latitude to do both. The relative payoff is great, considering that this, what, 25% of the world uses 40% of the resources? So again, my argument is the effectiveness of focusing resources disproportionately (but not exclusively) on the "Developed" World for a greater payoff.

Two, this would also have effects on consumption in the rest of the world, as per some earlier comments both about the Western "model" of consumptionism and the complex feedbacks between population growth and consumption. Western popular culture and industrial food are not solely to blame for worldwide increases in resource consumption intensity, but they are major contributing factors. Were the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan to seriously change their approach to population and consumption, it would strike everyone as less imperialistic and condescending to address it in the world's poorer countries. To be sure, they are contributing more than their share, but my question is -- what effective means to you propose to address population growth and consumption in Developing Countries? We do all realize here that the reason population growth projections have been decreasing is the growth of female education and political power, especially in Developing Countries, where women with free choice decide much more often to have less children? Clearly, this is an agenda that should be pushed forward with all due haste and focus, but a huge part of the reason for the population taboo are the horrible and misguided things done in its name in the past -- forced sterilization (see especially Puerto Rico's "La Operación) being a notable one. Neither forced sterilization nor handing out prophylactics have noticeable effects on population growth in absence of female political power, thus while we can speak of population growth in the Developing World, it is of utmost importance to *always* pair it with concerns for equity and access to *sufficient* consumption. Those who reproduce most are the poorest and thus many are those who consume *below* their fair share, even in Developing countries consuming net *more* than a sustainble share. (Urbanization and elite consumption no doubt account for the lion's share of this consumption as well; I'd be interested on information of resource consumption from the world's poorest rural subsistence areas - not the factory farms they may work on that consume resources but don't distribute them back to those who are disadvantaged and likely to have "too many" children).

Thus a strategy of population and consumption decrease seems best for "Developed" countries, and a focus on substantive equity, redistribution, and political power and reproductive control seems wises in the Developing countries. Not only does speaking of women's empowerment and reproductive control sound more palatable to those who've been victims of "La Operación"-like schemes in the past, it *is* the vehicle that's been shown to be successful in reduced population growth.

(And one last point -- a great article by Sloan in 2007 in Biotropica and another by Ravnborg in 2003 in World Development show some very good initial proof that local population size isn't necessarily connected to environmental degradation; this connection shows up at the national scale but is weak at the local, at least in terms of deforestation, and they both show that it is not the faster-growing population of poor that consume the most resources on agricultural frontiers, but the relatively small number of medium-and-large landowners and rich farmers, who have the money and resources to, for instance, by a small farmer's farm and expand it further into the forest. Again, equity and elite consumption confound the population issue at a local scale, and empowerment and substantive equity would do much to address it. I suppose this is my overall point -- talk of population without talk of substantive equity isn't just asking to be caricatured as old-style draconianism, but also overlooks the most effective tool we have for reducing population growth.)

Monday, February 04, 2008

Scientists Rediscover that Lead and Carcinogens are bad for you

A fantastic review of two new books on "theories of cancer" by a friend and colleague of my mentor.

Sandra Steingraber discusses the evolution, devolution, and re-evolution of our understanding of environmental factors' role in cancer. (Steingraber is also the author of the fantastic book Living Downstream, a "follow-up" of a kind to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.)

I was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1979, when I was twenty years old and just at the beginning of my career as a biologist. At that time, US newspaper headlines featured Love Canal, the upstate New York community whose residents had been evacuated a year earlier when 20,000 tons of industrial chemicals were discovered buried under their basements. Toxic-waste activism in the United States was in the ascendant...

After breaking the bad news from the pathology lab, my urologist asked me about tyres: automobile tyres. Had I ever vulcanized tyres? His second question was about textile dyes. Any exposure to the colour yellow? And had I ever worked in the aluminium industry?

...Indeed, there were data on dyes and bladder cancer going back to the nineteenth century. In fact, there was absolute proof that certain textile dyes caused bladder cancer in humans. And yet, mysteriously, this evidence had not resulted in the abolition of these chemicals from the economy. Other suspected bladder carcinogens, for which the evidence was highly troubling, if not outright damning, were produced and used by the industries in my home town. The National Cancer Institute was generating maps of cancer mortality in an attempt to unveil other possible environmental carcinogens that could explain rising rates of cancer.

And then Ronald Reagan was elected President, and everything changed. No one asked me any more about my possible environmental exposures. In fact, by the mid-1980s, I was hard-pressed to find the word “carcinogen” in any pamphlet on cancer that I collected from my doctors’ various offices. Meanwhile... [t]he new focus of the National Cancer Institute was on “lifestyle” explanations for cancer.

...I was a vegetarian who ran four miles a day. Thus there was no explanation for my situation. “Some kind of fluke”, said one of my doctors. Wherever I lived, I dutifully submitted to cancer check-ups. By the 1990s, the new explanation for cancer was genetic, and I started receiving lots of questions from young intake doctors about my family history. I had fun with this. I would describe in detail my mother, diagnosed with breast cancer, my various uncles with prostate and colon cancers, and – the crowning point – my aunt who died of the same kind of bladder cancer that I had. The young doctors took furious notes. I would always pause a few beats before adding, “Oh yeah. And I’m adopted”.

Today, I’m a forty-eight-year-old professor in Ithaca, New York, and during my last renal ultrasound, the technician asked me casually if I’d ever worked with textile dyes...

After the full introduction that excerpt is taken from, Steingraber goes on to review "Two new books [that] expose and explicate the ongoing social contest that is at the heart of our shifting understanding about cancer":

Devra Davis
505pp. Basic Books. £16.99.
978 0 465 01566 5

Phil Brown
Contested illnesses and the environmental health movement
356pp. New York: Columbia University Press. £19 (US $29.50).
978 0 231 12948 0

Read, learn, go. Hurry! Do it now!

James Baldwin: Your Must-Learn-About for Black History Month

Listening to my backlogged Democracy Now! podcast, an excellent hour discussing James Baldwin, gay African-American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist, and civil rights activist. His Wikipedia entry is here.
A boy last week—he was sixteen—told me on television—thank God we got him to talk, maybe somebody was taught to listen—he said, “I’ve got no country, I’ve got no flag.” And he’s only sixteen years old. And I couldn’t say, “You do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.

And the moment you were born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white, and since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are, too. It comes as a great shock, around the age of five or six or seven, to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover the country, which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality involved any place for you.
--James Baldwin, in Cambridge debating William Buckley, also seen in the documentary The Price of the Ticket, written and directed by Karen Thorsen.

If the people of this nation are not capable of true self-evaluation, this nation may yet become one of the most distinguished monumental failures in the history of the world. People imagining their history flatters them, as it does indeed, since they wrote it, they are impaled on that history, like a butterfly on a pin, and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world. Now, this is the place in which, it seems to me, the most white Americans find themselves: impaled. The do not know how to release themselves from it and suffer enormously, see, from that resulting personal incoherence. See, they are dimly or vividly aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, alright?

Now, the one person who released us all from that suffering—I met on that blood-red soil of Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King. He told me, he says, “Jimmy, segregation is dead.” And I replied, “Yes. But just how long and how violent and how expensive of a funeral is it going to be?"
--Calvin Levels, portraying James Baldwin, on Democracy Now!, December 7, 2007.

A fantastic edition of Democracy Now!, a fantastically interesting and important person to learn about, a man with a fantastic cadence, diction, and pose. An incredible early advocate for civil rights, for blacks and homosexuals. A last quote from him that applies as well to the J Continuum:

"Look, I love America more than any country in the world, and it is exactly for that reason that I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that."