Fish still contaminated with phased-out Scotchgard chemical

Reprinted from Environmental Health News under a Creative Commons License

smallmouth_bass

Smallmouth bass are one of many freshwater fish species contaminated with PFOS in U.S. rivers and the Great Lakes.

By Brian Bienkowski

A persistent chemical formerly used in Scotchgard still contaminates most fish in U.S. rivers and the Great Lakes despite a phase-out a dozen years ago, a new federal study shows.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers found perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) in all of the 157 fish sampled from nearshore waters in the five Great Lakes and in 73 percent from 162 rivers.

The study, the largest of its kind in freshwater fish, suggests that eating bass, trout, walleye and catfish could be a major source of exposure for anglers and their families. The chemical remains widespread in wildlife, people and water around the world.

“This just shows that PFOS still dominates. Even though production stopped more than a decade ago, it’s still the main perfluorinated acid in the environment,” said Craig Butt, a Duke University chemist who was not involved in the study.

PFOS and other perfluorinated compounds are used in oil and water resistant coatings for pots and pans, clothes, paper, carpet and flame retardant foams.

The 3M Company, the major manufacturer of PFOS, voluntarily stopped its production in 2002 after scientists discovered that it was building up in water, wildlife and people.

“This just shows that PFOS still dominates.” –Craig Butt, Duke UniversityNevertheless, “every single human being we test has levels of PFOS in them,” Butt said. The compound “doesn’t break down in light, it doesn’t oxidize. Once it’s in the environment it’s not going anywhere.”

Most health studies have focused on communities with drinking water contaminated by PFOS. But people are exposed in many ways, said Sarah Knox, a professor and epidemiologist at West Virginia University. “Routes of exposure are multiple – things like linings of food containers, stain resistance sprays, fire-proofing and non-stick cookware,” she said.

The EPA estimates that “contamination in food may account for more than 90 percent of human exposure to PFOS and PFOA” and that fish may be a major source of PFOS.

“It should be noted that the higher the fish is in the food chain, the greater the concentration of toxic compounds,” Knox said.

In the rivers 25 fish species were tested, with smallmouth and largemouth bass and channel catfish the most prevalent. In the Great Lakes, 18 species were tested, mostly lake trout, smallmouth bass and walleye. The study did not name the rivers but the sites were mostly east of the Mississippi River.

3M Company has switched from PFOS and PFOA to other perfluorinated compounds in its products.

3M Company has switched from PFOS and PFOA to other perfluorinated compounds in its products.

“It should be noted that the higher the fish in the food chain, the greater the concentration of toxic compounds.” –Sarah Knox, West Virginia UniversityPFOS, a suspected endocrine disruptor, has been linked to low birth weights, reduced immune system function in children and high blood pressure during pregnancy.

In addition, a study of about 47,000 people in West Virginia whose drinking water was contaminated by a DuPont plant linked PFOS to changes in liver function, early menopause in women and high cholesterol. Animal studies with rats and mice also have shown PFOS causes developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.

PFOA, another perfluorinated compound, was found in just 19 of the Great Lakes samples and none of the river samples. It has been linked to heart disease, suppressed immune systems in children and cancers.

Despite repeated requests, EPA officials would not allow the scientists who conducted the study to be available for an interview.

Of 13 compounds measured, PFOS was detected at the highest levels: In urban river fish it was measured at 4.8 to 127 parts per billion, and at 1.9 to 80 parts per billion in Great Lakes fish.

Channel catfish in many U.S. rivers were found contaminated with PFOS.

Channel catfish in many U.S. rivers were found contaminated with PFOS.

The EPA hasn’t established a “safe dose” of PFOS. However, Minnesota health officials recommend eating only one meal of fish per week if PFOS concentrations are 40 to 200 parts per billion, and only one meal per month if 200 to 800 parts per billion. About 11 percent of the fish samples from U.S. rivers and 9 percent of the Great Lakes samples exceeded 40 parts per billion.

Keri Hornbuckle, a professor at the University of Iowa who studies Great Lakes contaminants, said researchers suspect that wastewater treatment plants are an ongoing source of PFCs.

The compounds also travel on ocean and wind currents. “The animals with the highest levels of PFOS we know of are polar bears from the Arctic,” Butt said.

New compounds have emerged after 3M’s phase-out of PFOS and PFOA, which the company eliminated in 2008. 3M has touted perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) as a safe alternative, and the compound was not found in any of the river or Great Lakes samples. 3M did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Michael Murray, a scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, said that the key to addressing emerging contaminants in the Great Lakes is to look upstream now, before it’s too late.

“We don’t want to be dealing with the next round of perfluorinated compounds in five years,” Murray said. “The key is pollution prevention, practices like green chemistry, to reduce the need for these chemicals in the first place.

“Because once they’re here, they don’t go away,” he said.


Follow Brian Bienkowski on Twitter.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Editor in Chief Marla Cone at mcone@ehn.org.


Eric Holder: The Reason Robert Rubin Isn’t Behind Bars

Reprinted from The Center for Economic and Policy Research under a Creative Commons License

By Dean Baker

The big news item in Washington last week was Attorney General Eric Holder decision to resign. Undoubtedly there are positives to Holder’s tenure as attorney general, but one really big minus is his decision not to prosecute any of the Wall Street crew whose actions helped to prop up the housing bubble. As a result of this failure, the main culprits walked away incredibly wealthy even as most of the country has yet to recover from the damage they caused.

Just to be clear, it is not against the law to be foolish and undoubtedly many of the Wall Streeters were foolish. They likely believed that house prices would just keep rising forever. But the fact that they were foolish doesn’t mean that they didn’t also break the law. It’s likely that most of the Enron felons believed in Enron’s business model. After all, they held millions of dollars of Enron stock. But they still did break the law to make the company appear profitable when it wasn’t.

In the case of the banks, there are specific actions that were committed that violated the law. Mortgage issuers like Countrywide and Ameriquest knowingly issued mortgages based on false information. They then sold these mortgages to investment banks like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs who packaged them into mortgage backed securities. These banks knew that many of the mortgages being put into the pools for these securities did not meet their standards, but passed them along anyhow. And, the bond-rating agencies rated these securities as investment grade, giving many the highest possible ratings, even though they knew their quality did not warrant such ratings.

All three of these actions – knowingly issuing mortgages based on false information, deliberately packaging fraudulent mortgages into mortgage backed securities, and deliberately inflating the ratings for mortgage backed securities – are serious crimes that potentially involve lengthy prison sentences. Holder opted not to pursue criminal cases against the individuals involved.

In the last couple of years Holder did bring civil cases against these banks that led to multibillion settlements. These settlements won big headlines that gave the appearance of being tough on the banks.

If we look at the issue more closely the rationale for these settlements gets pretty shaky. When Bank of America or J.P. Morgan has to pay out several billion dollars in penalties in 2013 or 2014, the people being hit most immediately are current shareholders and to a lesser extent top management. Since stock turns over frequently, the overlap between the group of people who hold these banks’ stock today and the people who benefited from the profits racked up in the bubble years will be limited. This means for the most part the fines are hitting people who did not profit from the wrong doing.

The same story holds for the top executives. Insofar as these are different people from those in charge in the bubble years (this is mostly the case), they can rightly tell their boards that they should not be held responsible for the wrongdoing of their predecessors. As a result, boards are likely to compensate top management if they fail to hit bonus targets due to the fines. This just means more of a hit to current shareholders. So the people who profited from criminal acts get to keep their money, while Holder can boast about nailing people who had nothing to do with the crime.

Had Holder treated this as a normal criminal matter he would have looked to build cases from the bottom up. This means finding specific examples of mortgage agents issuing obviously fraudulent mortgages, cases where these mortgages got bundled into securities at investment banks, and then marked as investment grade by the rating agencies.

The people involved would then be pressed to say whether they are either buffoons or crooks. Most probably would not pass as the former. The next question is why they decided to break the law. When you get people to admit that they were acting on instructions from their bosses, you then ask the bosses whether they want to spend many years in jail or would prefer to explain why they thought it was a good idea to commit fraud. (This is the pattern the Justice Department is pursuing in going after illegal campaign contributions to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray.)

We can never know this pattern of prosecution would have nailed big fish like Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein or Citigroup’s Robert Rubin. We do know that Holder never even tried. As a result the Wall Streeters who profited most from illegal acts in the bubble years got to keep their haul. This is the message that bankers will take away going forward. This virtually guarantees ongoing corruption in finance.


AUTHOR_Dean_BakerDean Baker is the author of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, Taking Economics Seriously, False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economy, Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy, The United States Since 1980, The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, Social Security: The Phony Crisis (with Mark Weisbrot), and The Benefits of Full Employment (with Jared Bernstein). He was the editor of Getting Prices Right: The Debate Over the Consumer Price Index, which was a winner of a Choice Book Award as one of the outstanding academic books of the year. He appears frequently on TV and radio programs, including CNN, CBS News, PBS NewsHour, and National Public Radio. His blog, Beat the Press, features commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan.


Evidence Mounts of Hidden Fracking Hazards

Reprinted from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

“We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development,” environmentalist warns

A web of roads, pipelines, and fracking wells. (Photo: Simon Fraser University/flickr/cc)

A major report released Thursday exposes a hidden hazard of fracking: the mining of the special sand—known as ‘frac sand,’ for short—that is essential to the practice.

Frac sand mining uses significant volumes of groundwater, contributes to air pollution, and has negative socio-economic impacts, according to “Communities At Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest” (pdf), produced by the the Civil Society Institute’s Boston Action Research project in cooperation with Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA).

Analysts estimate that fracking operations will use 95 billion pounds of sand this year, up 30 percent from last year and 50 percent higher than initial forecasts. The sand, which must be uniform in shape and the grains able to withstand enormous pressures at great depth underground, is currently mined most heavily in Wisconsin and Minnesota, though the report identifies sand deposits in 12 others states (including New York, North Carolina, Maine, and Virginia) that could be affected as fracking demand grows. Wisconsin alone is on track to extract 50 million tons of frac sand a year—the equivalent of 9,000 semi-truck loads a day.

“Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape.”
—Kimberlee Wright, Midwest Environmental Advocates

The mining process, which involves blasting off the soil, rock, and vegetation above a sand deposit, then washing, drying, and storing the excavated sand, uses between 420 thousand and 2 million gallons of water per day, according to the report, potentially drawing down groundwater supplies. In addition, the use of added chemicals when processing the sand could lead to contaminated run-off in nearby streams and wetlands.

Even more troubling is the release of fine particulate matter, such as silica dust, at mining sites and in the surrounding areas. Frac sand mining produces “very small and very dangerous dust particles,” the report reads, which have been linked to respiratory infections, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. While air samples have shown particle pollution around mining sites exceeds safe levels, there is little regulation of these emissions. “[M]onitoring of this rapidly expanding industry has been outpaced by the rate of development,” the authors note.

“None of the states at the center of the current frac sand mining boom have adopted air quality standards for silica that will adequately protect the tens of thousands of people living or working near the scores of recently opened or proposed mining sites,” said EWG’s executive director Heather White. “EWG’s mapping research found frac sand sites in close proximity to schools, hospitals and clinics, where children and patients may be exposed to airborne silica. Chronic exposure can lead to emphysema and lung disease. We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development.”

Other economic impacts are harder to measure but no less important to consider. The report raises questions about how frac sand mining operations affect property values, infrastructure costs, and demands on health care providers, cautioning towns and local communities to “exercise precaution” when evaluating potential sites in their region.

“Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape,” said MEA executive director Kimberlee Wright. “Elected officials and our states’ natural resources protection agency have largely dismissed local citizens’ concerns about their health, the health of their environment and their quality of life. Without a clearer view of the big picture of frac sand mining’s impact, laws that protect our communities’ air and water aren’t being developed or enforced.”

The other end of the shale gas extraction cycle is no less toxic. A separate peer-reviewed study, published earlier this week in the American Chemical Society journalEnvironmental Science and Technology, suggests fracking wastewater can endanger drinking water even after it has passed through treatment plants and been diluted.

According to UPI:

Most fracking operations store their wastewater in holding ponds. Eventually, that water is filtered through municipal or commercial treatment plants and emptied into rivers, lakes and ponds.

But new research suggests that wastewater contaminants, when subjected to traditional treatment methods like chlorination or ozonation, encourage toxic byproducts.

Researchers with the American Chemical Society found that even extremely diluted wastewater can still produce these byproducts during the treatment process. Scientists say their findings suggest regulators and energy officials should be more careful about which surface waters treated wastewater is emptied into.

The scientists and engineers from Duke and Stanford Universities used water samples from Pennsylvania and Arkansas frack sites.

“The drinking water facilities should be aware of this,” said Bill Mitch, a lead author on the study and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. “You need a lot of dilution to make these discharges no longer matter.”


How the New York Times Enables Economic Illiteracy (Austerity)

Reprinted from the New Economic Perspectives blog at the University of Missouri-Kansas City

Editor’s Note: William K. Black, author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One,” is Associate Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where — according to James Galbraith — “the best economics is now being done.”

By William K. Black

In the latest example of the New York Times’ reporters’ inability to read Paul Krugman, we have an article claiming that the “Growing Imbalance Between Germany and France Strains Their Relationship.”  The article begins with Merkel’s major myth accepted as if it were unquestionable reality.

“It was a clear illustration of the dysfunction of the French-German partnership, the axis that for decades kept Europe on a united and dynamic track.

In Berlin this month, Chancellor Angela Merkel, riding high after nine years in power, delivered a strident defense in Parliament of austerity, which she has been pushing on Europe ever since a debt crisis broke out in 2009.”

No, not true on multiple grounds.  First, the so-called “debt crisis” was a symptom rather than a cause.  The reader will note that the year 2008, when the Great Recession became terrifying, has somehow been removed from the narrative because it would expose the misapprehension in Merkel’s myth.  Prior to 2008, only Greece had debt levels given its abandonment of a sovereign currency that posed a material risk.  The EU nations had unusually low budgetary deficits leading into the Great Recession.  Indeed, that along with the extremely low budgetary deficits of the Clinton administration (the budget went into surplus near the end of his term) is likely one of the triggers for the Great Recession.

The Great Recession caused sharp increases in deficits – as we have long known will happen as part of the “automatic stabilizers.”  This is normal and speeds recovery.  The eurozone and the U.S. began to come out of the Great Recession in 2009.  The U.S. recovery accelerated with the addition of stimulus.  In the eurozone, however, the abandonment of sovereign currencies and adoption of the euro exposed the periphery to recurrent attacks by the “bond vigilantes.”  The ECB could have stopped these attacks at any time, but it was very late intervening – largely because of German resistance.  Instead, Merkel used the leverage provided by the bond vigilantes and the refusal of the ECB to act to end their attacks to force increasing austerity upon the eurozone and demands for severe cuts in workers’ wages in the periphery.

Merkel’s actions in forcing austerity and efforts to force sharp drops in workers’ wages in the periphery were not required to stop any “debt crisis.”  The ECB had the ability to end the bond vigilantes’ attacks and reestablish the ability of the periphery to borrow at low cost, as it demonstrated.  Merkel’s austerity demands and demands that (largely) left governments in the periphery slash workers’ wages promptly threw the entire Eurozone back into a second Great Recession – and much of the periphery into a Second Great Depression.  It had the desired purpose of discrediting the governing parties of the left, particularly in Spain, Portugal, and Greece; that gave in to Merkel’s mandates that they adopt masochistic macroeconomic policies.

It is also false that Merkel began demanding that eurozone inflict austerity only in 2009.  Merkel wanted to inflict austerity and her war on the workers and the parties they primarily supported long before 2009.  What changed in 2009 was that the ECB, the Great Recession, and the bond vigilantes gave her the leverage to successfully extort the members of the eurozone who opposed austerity and her war on workers and the parties of the left.

But it is what is left out of the quoted passage above that is most amazing.  The fact that Merkel’s orders that the eurozone leaders bleed their economies through austerity and the war on workers’ wages led to a gratuitous Second Great Recession in the eurozone – and Great Depression levels of unemployment in much of the periphery disappears.  The fact that inflicting austerity and wage cuts in response to a Great Recession is economically illiterate and cruel disappears.  The fact that the overall eurozone – six years after the financial crisis of 2008 and eight years after the financial bubbles popped in 2006 – has stagnated and caused tens of trillions of dollars in lost GDP and well over 10 million lost jobs is treated by the NYT article as if it were unrelated to Merkel’s infliction of austerity.

“But the French economy has grown stagnant, with unemployment stubbornly stuck near 11 percent and an unpopular government pledging to cut tens of billions in taxes on business, which many French fear will unravel their prized welfare state.”

No, the eurozone economy “has grown stagnant” and produced a Second Great Depression in much of the periphery.  If France had a sovereign currency or if the EU were to make the euro and into a true sovereign currency France could simultaneously “cut tens of billions in taxes on business” while preserving the social safety net and speeding the recovery.  The same is true of the rest of the eurozone – including Germany where Merkel’s policies have made the wealthy far wealthier and deepened the economic crisis in other eurozone nations by cutting German worker’s wages.  The NYT article is disingenuous about both aspects of the German economy, noting only that “the German economy has shown signs of slowing down.”  German growth was actually negative in the last quarter and the treatment of its workers weakens the German and overall eurozone recovery.

It continues to be obvious that it is a condition of employment for NYT reporters covering the eurozone’s economic policies that they never read Paul Krugman (or most any other American economist).  Consider this claim in the article:

“[Prime Minister Manuel Valls] and Mr. Hollande have alienated many members of the Socialist Party by taking a more centrist approach to economic policy, stoking suspicions that the government is favoring business at the expense of the welfare state.”

I will take this part very slow.  By my count Krugman has written at least six columns in the NYT explaining that there actually is a powerful consensus among economists.  The “centrist approach” is that austerity in response to a Great Recession is self-destructive.  We have known this for at least 75 years.  Modern Republicans, when they hold the presidency, always respond to a recession with a stimulus package.  Valls and Hollande are moving away from a “centrist approach to economic policy.”  They are doing so despite observing first-hand the self-destructive nature of austerity (and proclaiming that it is self-destructive).  They do so despite the demonstrated success of stimulus in responding to the financial crisis.  They do so despite the fact that the results of the faux left parties adopting these economically illiterate neo-liberal economic policies is the destruction of the parties that betray their principles and the workers.  Valls and Hollande are spectacularly unpopular in France because of these betrayals.  It is clear why Valls and Hollande wish to avoid reading Krugman’s critique of their betrayals, but theNYT reporters have no excuse.

The reporters do not simply ignore the insanity of austerity and the plight of the eurozone’s workers – they assert that it is obvious that Merkel is correct and that the French reluctance to slash workers’ wages is obviously economically illiterate.

“Just over a decade ago, as Ms. Merkel is fond of noting, Germany was Europe’s sick economy. It recovered partly because of changes to labor laws and social welfare. Mr. Hollande now faces a similar task in an era of low or no growth.”

No.  These two sentences propound multiple Merkel myths and assume (1) that France’s (and the rest of the eurozone’s) problems are the same as Germany’s issues “just over a decade ago,” (2) that Germany “recovered” due to slashing workers’ wages and social programs, and (3) that the German “solutions” would work for the eurozone as a whole.

Germany’s “reforms,” which included increasing financial deregulation, have proven disastrous.  German banks finished third in the regulatory “race to the bottom” (“behind” Wall Street and the worst of the worst – the City of London).  The officers that controlled Deutsche Bank and various state-owned German banks were among the leading causes of the financial crisis.  German workers had lost ground even before the financial crisis and have lost even more ground since the crisis began.  Inequality has also become increasingly more extreme in Germany.

The current problem in the eurozone is a critical shortage of demand exacerbated by the insanity of austerity and Merkel’s war on workers’ wages.  The word “demand” and the concept, the centerpiece of the macroeconomics of recession, never appear in the article.  An individual nation in which the wealthy have the political power to lower workers’ wages can increase its exports and employ more of its citizens.  This obviously does not prove that the workers were overpaid.  Merkel and the NYT ignore the “fallacy of composition,” which is particularly embarrassing because they are neo-mercantilists pushing the universal goal of being a net exporter.  As Adam Smith emphasized, we can’t all be net exporters.  A strategy that can work (for the elites) of one nation cannot logically be assumed to work for large numbers of nations.

The last thing a society should want in a recession is rapidly falling wages and prices that can create deflation (another word expunged from the NYT article because it would refute their ode to Merkel, austerity, and her war on the worker).  If France were to slash workers’ wages to try to take exports from Ireland while Ireland slashed workers’ wages to try to take exports from Spain, which did the same to take exports from Italy the result would be deflation, a massive increase in inequality, the political destruction of any (allegedly) progressive political party that joined in the war on the worker, and a “race to Bangladesh” dynamic.

Germany’s “success” in being a very large net exporter makes it far more difficult – not easier – for any other eurozone nation to copy its export strategy successfully.  As a group, the strategy cannot work for the eurozone.  The strategy has, of course, not simply “not succeeded.”  It has failed catastrophically.  Merkel’s eurozone policies have caused trillions of dollars in extra losses in productivity, the gratuitous loss of over 10 million jobs, increased inequality, and the loss through emigration of many of the best educated young citizens of the periphery.

Hollande does not face “a similar task” to Merkel.  He faces different problems and Merkel’s “solutions” are the chief causes of France’s economic stagnation rather than the answers to France’s problems.

I repeat my twin suggestions to the NYT reporters that cover the eurozone’s economy.  The paper’s management should host a seminar in which Krugman educates his colleagues.  Alternatively, come to UMKC and we’ll provide that seminar without charge.  None of us can afford the cost of the reporters’ continuing willful ignorance of economics and their indifference to the victims of austerity and Merkel’s war on workers.

 


When Hope Becomes Revolutionary: Change in a Time of Climate Change

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

Editor’s Note: Rebecca Solnit, is one of the best writers in America because she’s one of the most original thinkers. Here she reminds us of the revolutionary power of hope, and how hope overturns old regimes from the bottom up.

By Rebecca Solnit

There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system.  They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inches since 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels.  The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know.  In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.

The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.

But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It isworking fine — in the short term and the most limited sense — for oil companies and the people who profit from them and for some of us in the particularly cushy parts of the world who haven’t been impacted yet by weather events like, say, the recent torrential floods in Japan or southern Nevada and Arizona, or the monsoon versions of the same that have devastated parts of India and Pakistan, or the drought that has mummified my beloved California, or the wildfires of Australia.

The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to — John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier — and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.

Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need, because a two-thirds majority in the Senate must consent to any international treaty the U.S. signs. Which is not to say much for the president, whose drill-baby-drill administration only looks good compared to the petroleum servants he faces, when he bothers to face them and isn’t just one of them. History will despise them all and much of the world does now, but as my mother would have said, they know which side their bread is buttered on.

As it happens, the butter is melting and the bread is getting more expensive. Global grain production is already down several percent thanks to climate change, says a terrifying new United Nations report. Declining crops cause food shortages and rising food prices, creating hunger and even famine for the poorest on Earth, and also sometimes cause massive unrest.  Rising bread prices were one factor that helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011. Anyone who argues that doing something about global warming will be too expensive is dodging just how expensive unmitigated climate change is already proving to be.

It’s only a question of whether the very wealthy or the very poor will pay.  Putting it that way, however, devalues all the nonmonetary things at stake, from the survival of myriad species to our confidence in the future. And yeah, climate change is here, now. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more, but there’s a difference between terrible and apocalyptic.  We still have some control over how extreme it gets. That’s not a great choice, but it’s the choice we have. There’s still a window open for action, but it’s closing. As the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Society, Michel Jarraud, bluntly put it recently, “We are running out of time.”

New and Renewable Energies

The future is not yet written. Look at the world we’re in at this very moment. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was supposed to be built years ago, but activists catalyzed by the rural and indigenous communities across whose land it would go have stopped it so far, and made what was supposed to be a done deal a contentious issue. Activists changed the outcome.

Fracking has been challenged on the state level, and banned in townships and counties from upstate New York to central California. (It has also been banned in two Canadian provinces, France, and Bulgaria.) The fossil-fuel divestment movement has achieved a number of remarkable victories in its few bare years of existence and more are on the way. The actual divestments and commitments to divest fossil fuel stocks by various institutions ranging from the city of Seattle to the British Medical Association are striking. But the real power of the movement lies in the way it has called into question the wisdom of investing in fossil fuel corporations.  Even mainstream voices like the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and publications like Forbes are now beginning to question whether they are safe places to put money. That’s a sea change.

Renewable energy has become more efficient, technologically sophisticated, and cheaper — the price of solar power in relation to the energy it generates has plummeted astonishingly over the past three decades and wind technology keeps getting better. While Americans overall are not yet curtailing their fossil-fuel habits, many individuals and communities are choosing other options, and those options are becoming increasingly viable. A Stanford University scientist has proposed a plan to allow each of the 50 states to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Since, according to the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuel reserves still in the ground are “at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level,” it couldn’t be more important to reach global agreements to do things differently on a planetary scale.  Notably, most of those carbon reserves must be left untapped and the modest steps already taken locally andad hoc show that such changes are indeed possible and that an encouraging number of us want to pursue them.

We can do it. And we is the key word here. The world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue; it’s going to be saved, if it is to be saved, by collective acts of social and political change. That’s why I’m marching this Sunday with tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of others in New York City — to pressure the United Nations as it meets to address climate change. That’s why people who care about the future state of our planet will also be marching and demonstrating in New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, Kathmandu, Dublin, Manila, Seoul, Mumbai, Istanbul, and so many smaller places.

Mass movements work. Unarmed citizens have changed the course of history countless times in the modern era. When we come together as civil society, we have the capacity to transform policies, change old ways of doing things, and sometimes even topple regimes. And it is about governments. Like it or not, the global treaties, compacts, and agreements we need can only be made by governments, and governments will make those agreements when the pressure to do so is greater than the pressure not to.  We can and must be that pressure.

The Long View from One Window

I lived in the same apartment for 25 years, moving into a poor but thriving black community in 1981 and out of the far more affluent, paler, and less neighborly place it had become in 2006. A lot of people moved in and out in that period, many of them staying only a year or two. Those transients always seemed to believe that the neighborhood they were passing through was a stable one. You had to be slower than change and stick around to see it. I saw it and it helped me learn how to take a historical view of things.

It’s crazy that anyone speaks as if our world is not undergoing rapid change, when the view from the window called history shows nothing but transformation, both incremental and dramatic. Exactly 25 years ago this month, Eastern Europe was astir.  Remember that back then there was still a Soviet bloc, and a Soviet Union, and an Iron Curtain, and a Berlin Wall, and a Cold War. Most people thought those were permanent fixtures, but in the summer of 1989, Hungary decided to let East Germans (who were permitted to travel freely to that communist country) stream over to the West.

Thousands of people, tired of life in the totalitarian east, fled. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as East Germany, were already electrified by a resurgent civil society and activist communities that had dared to organize in the face of repression. At the time, politicians and pundits in the West were making careers out of explaining, among so many other things, why German reunification wasn’t going to happen in anyone’s lifetime. And they probably would have been proven right if people had stayed home and done nothing, if they hadn’t begun to hope and acted on that hope.

The bureaucrats on both sides of the Berlin Wall were still talking about the possibility of demilitarizing it when citizens showed up en masse and the guards began abandoning their posts. On that epochal night of November 9, 1989, the people made whole what had been broken. The lesson: showing up is half the battle.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been so unnerved by developments in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European holdings that she went to Moscow, two months before the fall of the wall, to implore Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to prevent any such thing. That was early September 1989. “No dramatic change in the situation in Czechoslovakia can be expected,” predicted a Czech official two months before a glorious popular uprising, remembered as the Velvet Revolution, erupted and abolished the government in which he was an official.

There are three things to note about those changes in 1989. First, most people in power dismissed the possibility that such extraordinary change could happen or deplored what it might bring. They were comfortable enough with things as they were, even though the status quo was several kinds of scary and awful. In other words, the status quo likes the status quo and dislikes change. Second, everything changed despite them, thanks to grassroots organizing and civil society, forces that — we are now regularly assured — are pointless and irrelevant. Third, the world that existed then has been largely swept away: the Soviet Union, the global alignments of that time, the idea of a binary world of communism and capitalism, and the policies that had kept us on the brink of nuclear annihilation for decades. We live in a very different world now (though nuclear weapons are still a terrible problem). Things do change.

Maybe, in fact, there’s a fourth point to note as well. That, important as they were, the front-page stories about the liberation of Eastern Europe weren’t what mattered most all those years ago. After all, hidden away deep inside theNew York Times that autumn, you can find a dozen or so articles about global warming, as the newly recognized phenomenon was then called. And small as they were, anyone reading them now can see that so long ago the essential problem and peril to our world was already clear.

The thought of what might have been accomplished, had a people’s movement arisen then to face global warming, could break your heart.  That, after all, was still a time when the Earth’s atmosphere held just above 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, the maximum safe level for a sustainable survivable planet, not the 400 parts per million of the present moment (“142% of the pre-industrial era” level of carbon, the World Meteorological Organization notes). In other words, we’ve been steadily filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and so imperiling the planet and humanity since we knew what we were doing.

The Great Smog and the Big Wind

In that fall a quarter of a century ago, the world changed profoundly right before our eyes. Then we settled back into the short-term, ahistorical view that things are really pretty stable, that ordinary people have no power, and that the world can’t be changed. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at Germany today. Maybe because Germans know better than us that things can change for the worse or the better fast, that the world is not a stable and settled place, and that we do shape it, they have been willing to change.

At one point last spring, cold, cloudy Germany managed to get almost 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Scotland — cold, gray, oil-rich Scotland! — is on track to achieve 100% renewable electrical generation by 2020 and has already hit the 40% mark. Spain now generates about half its electricity through clean and renewable sources. Other European countries have similar accomplishments. In fact, many of the changes that we in the United States will be marching for this Sunday have already begun happening, sometimes on a significant scale, elsewhere.

To remember how radical this new Europe is, recall that most of these places were burning coal not just in power plants or factories but in homes, too, not so many decades ago. Everyone deplores the horrific air of Beijing and other Chinese cities now, but few remember that many European cities were similarly foul with smoke and smog from the industrial revolution into the postwar era. In December 1952, for instance, the “Great Smog” of London reduced daytime visibility to a few yards and killed about 4,000 people in three days.

A decade before that, in response to the war Germany started, North Americans radically reduced their use of private vehicles and gasoline and planted more than 20 million victory gardens, producing vast quantities of food by non-industrial means. We have done that; we could (and must) do it again.

At least, we don’t burn coal in our homes any more, and in the U.S. we’ve retired 178 coal-fired power plants, phasing out many more, and prevented many new ones from being built. The renewable energy sources that were, people insisted, too minor or unreliable or expensive or new are now beginning to work well, and the price to produce energy in such a fashion is dropping rapidly.  UBS, the European investment giant, recently counseled that power plants and centralized power generation are no longer good investments, since decentralized renewables are likely to replace them.

Of course, Germany and Britain are still burning coal, and Poland remains a giant coal mine.  Europe is not a perfect renewable energy paradise, just a part of the world that demonstrates the viability of changing how we produce and consume energy. We are already changing, even if not fast enough, not by a long shot, at least not yet. The same goes for divesting from fossil-fuel investments, even though dozens of universities, cities, religious institutions, and foundations have already committed to doing so, and some have by now actually purged their portfolios.  The excuse that change is impossible is no longer available, because many places and entities have already changed.

Last Glimmers

If you want to know how potentially powerful you are, ask your enemies. The misogynists who attack feminism and try to intimidate feminists into silence only demonstrate in a roundabout way that feminism really is changing the world; they are the furious backlash and so the proof that something meaningful is at stake. The climate movement is similarly upsetting a lot of powerful people and institutions; to grasp that, you just have to look at the tsunamis of money spent opposing specific measures and misinforming the public. The carbon barons are demonstrating that we could change the world and that they don’t want us to.

We are powerful and need to become more so in the next year as a major conference in Paris approaches in December 2015 where the climate agreements we need could be hammered out. Or not. This is, after all, a sequel to the Copenhagen conference of 2009, where representatives of many smaller and more vulnerable nations, as well as citizens’ groups, were eager for a treaty that took on climate change in significant ways, only to have their hopes crushed by the recalcitrant governments of the United States and China.

Right now, we are in a churning sea of change, of climate change, of subtle changes in everyday life, of powerful efforts by elites to serve themselves and damn the rest of us, and of increasingly powerful activist and social-movement campaigns to make a world that benefits more beings, human and otherwise, in the longer term. Every choice you make aligns you with one set of these forces or another. That includes doing nothing, which means aligning yourself with the worst of the status quo dragging us down in that ocean of carbon and consumption.

To make personal changes is to do too little. Only great movements, only collective action can save us now. Only is a scary word, but when the ship is sinking, it can be an encouraging one as well. It can hold out hope. The world has changed again and again in ways that, until they happened, would have been considered improbable by just about everyone on the planet. It is changing now and the direction is up to us.

There will be another story to be told about what we did a quarter century after civil society toppled the East Bloc regimes, what we did in the pivotal years of 2014 and 2015. All we know now is that it is not yet written, and that we who live at this very moment have the power to write it with our lives and acts.


A TomDispatch regular, Rebecca Solnit has 16 books out, the latest of which is the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me.   

Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit


Feds Set to Open Fracking Floodgates in California Based on One Flawed Study

Reprinted from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to state’s air and water, say opponents, and also highlights fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine extent of danger and future destruction

(Image: Global Exchange)

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has put the ecosystems, water resources, and residents of California at urgent risk, expert critics are warning, by accepting a failed scientific review of the dangers of fracking in the state as a basis to begin issuing permits for the controversial gas drilling technique as soon as next year.

The BLM-commissioned study was conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology and came in response to a lawsuit brought by two environmental groups—the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club—who objected to the leasing of public land in California to oil and gas companies for the drilling process also known as hydraulic fracturing—which injects water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth to release fossil fuel deposits trapped in shale formations. A federal judge ordered the study in 2013 after ruling that the BLM had violated state law by issuing oil leases in Monterey County, Calif., without considering fracking’s environmental risks.

The findings of the report, according to the BLM, conclude that no serious dangers were found and signaled that fracking licenses could be issued on federal lands for drilling in 2015. Jim Kenna, the BLM’s California state director, told reporters on a media call that the report would allow state regulators to authorized fracking while also monitoring for safety, environmental impacts, and health concerns.

But as the Los Angeles Times points out, even the independent research organization that conducted the survey on which the decision was based says the study had severe shortcomings and lacked key metrics.

[The report] authors noted that they had little time and scant information on which to base conclusions, citing widespread “data gaps” and inadequate scientific resources for a more thorough study.

For example, the report found no evidence of water contamination from fracking in California, but the scientist directing the research, Jane Long, said researchers also had no data on the quality of water near fracking sites.

“We can only tell you what the data we could get says,” said Long, a former director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “We can’t tell you what we don’t know.”

Environmental groups say the flaws of report are glaring—demonstrating a rushed process and an inadequate survey of data—and slammed the BLM for indicating that fracking leases would be approved based on such flimsy and inconclusive evidence.

“This report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to California’s air and water, but it also highlights the fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine the extent of the damage in our state,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “A few months of incomplete data simply can’t support a federal decision to resume selling off our public lands in California to oil companies. Using this report as a basis for continued fracking in California is illogical and illegal.”

The poverty of the report would not be so bad, according to Siegel, if the coming decisions based on its findings were not so profound.

“How can we count on a fair and unbiased process for evaluating the decision to resume leasing when the head of California BLM has predetermined the outcome?” she asked. “First we get the verdict, and then we get the trial.”

According to a review of the study by the San Francisco Chronicle, fracking in California may well, in fact, “endanger groundwater” in the state. The newspaper reports:

The report found that half of the oil wells fracked in the state lie within 2,000 feet of the surface, close to aquifers. Hydraulic fracturing uses a high-pressure blend of water, sand and chemicals to crack rocks containing oil or natural gas. Those cracks can sometimes extend as far up as 1,969 feet – not far from the surface.

Fracking chemicals, some of them toxic, could migrate along the cracks and leach into drinking water, according to the report. There are no recorded cases of that happening in California, the authors note, but it remains a possibility needing further study.

“In California, hydraulic fracturing is occurring at relatively shallow depths and presents an inherent risk for fractures to intersect nearby aquifers,” reads the report, from the California Council on Science and Technology.

Water wells in Kern County, where most of California’s fracking takes place, lie 600 feet to 800 feet below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In its analysis, the Center for Biological Diversity listed the federal review’s most disturbing conclusions:

  • Fracking in California happens at much shallower levels than elsewhere, and the report notes that, “Hydraulic fracturing at shallow depths poses a greater potential risk to water resources because of its proximity to groundwater and the potential for fractures to intersect nearby aquifers.”
  • The study notes that investigators “could not determine the groundwater quality near many hydraulic fracturing operations and found that existing data was insufficient to evaluate the extent to which contamination may have occurred.”
  • Some fracking chemicals used in California are “acutely toxic to mammals,” the report says, while also noting that “No information could be found about the toxicity of about a third of the chemicals and few of the chemicals have been evaluated to see if animals or plants would be harmed by chronic exposure.”
  • The report says that “Current practice and testing requirements do not necessarily protect against adding produced water contaminated with hydraulic fracturing fluid to water used in agriculture.”

The Twin Plagues of ISIS and Ebola

Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) under a Creative Commons License

The Plague

isis-ebola-plague

In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus describes how death comes to an ugly French port in Algeria.

 

Thanks to an infestation of rats and the fleas they carry, the bubonic plague descends upon the city in the spring and intensifies during the hot summer. After a short period of denial, the residents panic, then sink into despondency and alcoholism. The port is put under quarantine. Undeterred by the apathy of the population and the danger of exposure, a small number of courageous individuals mobilize to fight the epidemic and eventually beat back the invader.

Camus took great care to detail the symptoms of the disease. But for all his medical exactitude, the French writer was not primarily interested in epidemiology. His inspiration was a different kind of infection. The novel is set some time in the 1940s. The plague is Nazism, and those who fight the disease stand in for the heroes of the French Resistance. It is a supremely apt allegory, for did not the Nazis claim that their victims were vermin? Camus surely must have enjoyed reincarnating the German fascists as the lowest of the low: bloodsucking fleas and desperate rats.

The twin plagues of Nazism and bubonic plague, except for some isolated cases, are behind us. But now it seems that a different pair of plagues is in our midst.

Today’s headlines are filled with similar stories of the spread of death and destruction in the Middle East and Africa. American commentators worry that these plagues will burst their borders and somehow spread to these shores. And, as in Camus’s novel, these diseases point to something larger, not the imposition of a new malignant system but the breakdown of the existing order.

In West Africa, the plague is Ebola, a terrifying fever that ends in massive hemorrhaging. The mortality rate, if untreated, is as high as bubonic plague. But at least with the modern version of the Black Death, treatment brings the mortality rate down to 15 percent. Ebola, by contrast, resists treatment. There are no vaccines for this hemorrhagic fever—though there’s promising news out of Canada—and the few treatments that have been used remain highly experimental. Doctors and officials establish quarantines and hope the disease will burn itself out. With airlines shutting down service to the infected region, hampering efforts to deliver medical supplies, the disease continues to rage on.

Ebola has so far claimed around 1,500 lives. This is terrible, of course, but it pales in comparison to how many children succumb to diarrhea in Africa. According to a 2010 report, 2,000 African children die every day of a disease that can be prevented through relatively cheap methods: safe water and hygiene. But diarrhea is not a communicable disease in the same sense as the plague or Ebola. And no one in the United States worries that a summit of African leaders or the repatriation of infected patients will spread an epidemic of diarrhea stateside. Ebola monopolizes the headlines because what grabs attention is fear (along with the usual colonial images of Africans as dirty and irresponsible).

The panic is, of course, more acute in the areas hardest hit by Ebola. Consider the case of Kandeh Kamara, a brave 21-year-old who volunteered to help fight the disease in Sierra Leone. He was promptly drafted to become a “burial boy” responsible for dealing with the corpses of the infected. “In doing their jobs, the burial boys have been cast out of their communities because of fear that they will bring the virus home with them,” writes Adam Nossiter and Ben Solomon in apowerful piece in The New York Times. Talk about thankless tasks. Kandeh Kamara initially received no payment for his work and had to beg for food on the street. He now gets $6 a day and hopes to rent an apartment, though landlords often refuse to lease to the burial boys.

Ebola is bad news, but it hasn’t generated the same kind of fury as that other fast-spreading scourge, namely the Islamic State (IS). The recent beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley has ratcheted up the outrage of U.S. observers.

It’s certainly not the first beheading that IS has done. The group specializes inmeting out barbarous punishments—decapitation, crucifixion, amputations. But just as Ebola’s impact became real for Americans when it infected people “like us”—two U.S. missionaries in Liberia—the United States was prompted to act against IS when it began killing non-Muslims, first the stranded Yazidis and then the abducted journalist.

IS has spread quickly, and so has the panic that has accompanied its territorial acquisition. There have been the inevitable analogies to Nazism. But even those who don’t invoke Hitler are quick to use Manichean language to describe the IS challenge.

“We can see evil through the eye slits of the ski mask worn by Foley’s killer,” writes David Ignatius in a Washington Post commentary entitled The New Battle Against Evil. “But stopping that evil is a harder task.”

The IS killers are a nasty piece of work, and their ideology is thoroughly malign. But I hesitate to use the language of good and evil. Such moralistic terminology presumes that they, the beheaders, are a Satanic force that can only be exorcised with whatever version of holy water our angelic forces dispense—air strikes, boots on the ground, military aid to the Kurdish peshmerga, efforts in the community to dissuade angry young men from taking the next flight to Mosul.

We, on the other hand, are good. We would never behead anyone. Those we execute “deserve” their punishment (though the occasional innocent person might inadvertently fall through the cracks). And the civilian casualties from our military offensives, because we are by definition good, are simply mistakes. After all, we don’t publicly celebrate the deaths of Afghan civilians from our drone strikes (45 in 2013 alone) or the deaths of over 400 children in Gaza. But our protestations of innocence are little consolation to the families of the victims.

At what point do mistakes aggregate into something evil? At the very least, do they prevent us from claiming the mantle of good? And, of course, it’s not just the mistakes that are problematic but also the deliberate policies that, for instance, align Washington with dictators and other murderous actors. U.S. disgust with IS may already have prompted intelligence sharing with the regime in Damascus, though the Obama administration has denied such deals.

Camus had some choice words for those who are reluctant to call evil by its name. “Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences,” he wrote in The Plague. “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”

Humanists perhaps disbelieve in pestilences. “I used to not believe in evil,” confesses Richard Cohen this week in Washington Post column declaring a “return of evil” with ISIS. Once a liberal humanist, Cohen long ago remade himself into a liberal hawk.

I still consider myself a humanist. But my brand of humanism sees pestilence everywhere. Indeed, I tend to see pestilence not only in the acts of individuals but in the structures within which the plague takes root and spreads. And this is where the two plagues intersect, Ebola and IS. They both prosper where the immune system is weak.

When it comes to medical infrastructure, Africa definitely has a compromised immune system. The continent has been hit hard by HIV/AIDS (70 percent of those living with HIV are in Africa), cholera (major outbreaks took place recently in Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone), and malaria (an African child dies every minute from this disease). Ebola has spread rapidly because of critical shortages in medical staff and supplies.

But the deeper reason is environmental: the clear-cutting of forests that have served as a traditional barrier to pathogens. West Africa has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, losing nearly a million hectares a year. The forests are Africa’s natural defenses, and Ebola is a sign that these defenses have been fatally weakened. What used to stay in remote villages now spreads quickly to urban areas.

The recent victories of IS in Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, suggest not a breakdown in the environmental system but in the political one. IS is not simply a band of serial killers. They have a distinct ideology and set of political motives. Nor does it matter whether they are operating in a formally dictatorial or democratic environment. IS thrives both where Assad rules with an iron fist and where Saddam is long gone.

The common denominator is chaos. IS has ruthlessly expanded in the grey areas beyond the reach of the rule of law. In Syria, it has prospered in regions that already broke loose from the country during the uprising. In Iraq, it took advantage of a paralyzing conflict between Shi’a and Sunni that left the northern reaches of the country tenuously connected to the central government.

Local governance, whether it’s democratic or authoritarian, serves the same function as the forests of West Africa. Such governance holds society together. When it deteriorates, the very cellular structure breaks down. In Ebola, the cell walls fray and the patient bleeds out. With a virus like IS, the fibers of the social fabric fray and large sections of the country bleed out.

There are, of course, many differences between a pestilence like Ebola and a movement like IS. But they are both the result of systemic breakdown. They are opportunistic infections.

In both cases there are no magic pills. Even if we come up with an antidote to this version of Ebola, as long as we continue to cut down the forests of Africa, more potent versions will continue to appear and spread. And if we attempt to obliterate IS only with bombs or boots on the ground, it will simply pop up somewhere else where the conditions favor such desperate efforts to create a totalitarian order. Instead we should focus on the conditions that give rise to these phenomena—and our role in helping to perpetuate these conditions.

Camus recommended vigilance. Pestilence, he concluded, “bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves and…perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” The current plagues have certainly been a bane. Whether they also help to enlighten us remains to be seen.


John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.


“We’re in a golden age of investigative journalism”

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

The Fall and Rise of Investigative Journalism

From Asia to Africa to Latin America, Muckrakers Have Corrupt Officials and Corporate Cronies on the Run

By Anya Schiffrin

In our world, the news about the news is often grim. Newspapers are shrinking,folding up, or being cut loose by their parent companies. Layoffs are up and staffsare down. That investigative reporter who covered the state capitol — she’s not there anymore. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune have suffered from multiple rounds of layoffs over the years. You know the story and it would be easy enough to imagine that it was the world’s story as well. But despite a long run of journalistic tough times, the loss of advertising dollars, and the challenge of the Internet, there’s been a blossoming of investigative journalism across the globe from Honduras to Myanmar, New Zealand to Indonesia.

Woodward and Bernstein may be a fading memory in this country, but journalists with names largely unknown in the U.S. like Khadija Ismayilova, Rafael Marques, and Gianina Segnina are breaking one blockbuster story after another, exposing corrupt government officials and their crony corporate pals in Azerbaijan, Angola, and Costa Rica. As I travel the world, I’m energized by the journalists I meet who are taking great risks to shine much needed light on shadowy wrongdoing.

And I’m not the only one to notice.  “We are in a golden age of investigative journalism,” says Sheila Coronel.  And she should know.  Now the academic dean at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Coronel was the director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, whose coverage of the real estate holdings of former President Joseph Estrada — including identical houses built for his mistresses — contributed to his removal from office in 2001.

These are, to take another example, the halcyon days for watchdog journalism in Brazil.  Last October, I went to a conference of investigative journalists there organized by the Global Journalism Investigative Network.  There were 1,350 attendees. In July, I was back for another conference, this time organized by the Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists and attended by close to 450 reporters.  Thanks in part to Brazil’s Freedom of Information Act and the “open budget” movement that seeks to shed light on the government’s finances (and let people have a say in how their tax dollars are spent), journalists there have been busy exposing widespread corruption in local government as well as a cash-for-votes scheme that resulted in the arrest of nine senior politicians.

Cross-border news networks funded by foundations and philanthropists are carrying out similar investigations all over the world.  Based in New York and edited by a Nigerian, Omoyele Sowore, Sahara Reporters uses leaked stories and documents to expose corruption in Africa’s richest country. Its funders include the Omidyar Network, created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, and its stated goal is nothing less than “seeking the truth and publishing it without fear or favor.”

A group of students and I studied Sahara Reporters earlier this year.  In our report, we described one typical story that outlet broke which detailed how then-Minister of Aviation Stella Oduah purchased two bulletproof BMWs — at nearly double the normal price — with funds from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).  Sahara Reporters posted receipts of the purchases and documents linking Oduah to the scheme.  It also located sources who testified that the whereabouts of the cars were unknown and that they were suspected of being employed for Oduah’s private use.  Meanwhile, Sahara Reporters exposed the budgetary constraints the NCAA was operating under and linked these to several air mishaps, including two crashes resulting in the deaths of 140 people.

Oduah, who was already under fire for the NCAA’s poor performance, initially denied the accusations. Within days, however, numerous news outlets had picked up the story and run with it. The reports triggered a series of reactions from the government, opposing political parties, civil society organizations, and the Nigerian public. Earlier this year, Oduah was fired.

Honorable Mentions

In recent years, I’ve been a judge for the human rights reporting awards given out by the Overseas Press Club in New York. You should see the staggering pile of entries.  It takes days to read through them all. Our major “problem”: an overabundance of top-notch reporting we’re unable to acknowledge with prizes. (Happily, some of them received prizes anyway, just not from us).

Among the remarkable pieces we read but didn’t give the human rights prize to was an Associated Press series on the effects of narco-violence on ordinary people in Honduras.  It laid out the way they have been forced to flee their villages or vacate neighborhoods block by block as drug dealers moved in and took over their homes. The series described how some homeowners stopped painting their houses or mowing their lawns lest they appeal to drug lords who might seize them. People were even being shaken down by gangs that left notes demanding payments if they wanted to be allowed to stay in their houses.

At the same time, the government was sowing misery of its own.  As part of the series, Alberto Arce wrote about a 15-year-old boy — the son of a college professor — who went out one night to meet a girl he had friended on Facebook only to be killed at a government roadblock by trigger-happy soldiers.

This year, when the press started to cover theflood of children from Central America crossing the U.S. border, I thought back to that series and how well it explained the kinds of desperate conditions that can lead to mass migration.

Similarly unforgettable was the reporting of Cam Simpson at Bloomberg Businessweek about the workers behind Apple’s iPhone 5.  Migrants from Nepal, they fell into debt paying middlemen for jobs assembling that smartphone in factories in Malaysia. After Apple started rejecting the phones, production was cut back and some 1,300 workers were left to fend for themselves for months without food or pay. Since their passports had been taken from them, they were unable to leave the country and essentially confined to a hostel, trying to scrape together a bit of rice each day. Finally, in despair, they began rioting and the Malaysian police were called in. Their response will seem odd indeed to anyone reading recent reports from Ferguson, Missouri.  Instead of arresting the workers, the police had food delivered and went to work to get the Nepalese sent home. (Still broke, many of them are likely to go further into debt to again pay brokers to secure overseas jobs that may land them in similarly dire straits.)

A third striking piece of global reportage was E. Benjamin Skinner’s “The Fishing Industry’s Cruelest Catch.”  It focused on the conditions Indonesian migrant workers encounter fishing in the waters off New Zealand, for New Zealand companies, aboard Korean boats.  A report by academic researchers Christina Stringer and Glenn Simmons, in collaboration with deep sea fishing skipper Daren Coulston, prompted Skinner, a journalist specializing in slavery, to spend six months in several different countries checking out their allegations.

The result was a gripping story of modern day slavery. Indigent Indonesian villagers were, he reported, misled into accepting contracts on vessels that ply the Southern Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea searching for fish to be sold to giant American chains like Safeway, Walmart, and Whole Foods. Many of the Indonesians thought they were signing on to first world labor conditions on modern New Zealand-owned vessels.  Once aboard, however, they found themselves virtual prisoners, forced to work long hours for substandard food and beaten or sometimes sexually assaulted when they tried to resist.

After various deductions were taken from their paychecks, the workers, promised $12 an hour, ended up getting only about a dollar an hour. Not only was Skinner’s story well-written and well-reported, but within months of its appearance, New Zealand had moved to change its laws and Safeway, Whole Foods, and Walmart began investigating their supply chains.

The Future of Global Muckraking

When I began researching my new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, I assumed that the good old days of investigative reporting were in the past. It was a surprise to learn just how much high quality work is still being done around the planet. The amount of data now available online, the ability of journalists to use the Internet to connect to one another and share information — a major aid in cross-border reporting — and a wave of new philanthropy have all helped fuel the current boom.  In addition, fresh news operations of every sort seem to be popping up, eager to promote investigative reporting.

I thought I was well versed in innovative twenty-first century methods of news funding when I headed into this project, but I continue to stumble upon exciting experiments.  For example, Morry Schwarz, a book publisher and property developer from Melbourne, Australia, funds weekly, monthly, and quarterly publications devoted to long-form writing on serious issues of the day, while also running the publishing house Black Inc.  Australian philanthropist Graeme Wood, with money he made from an online business, founded the Global Mail, a nonprofit website that was similarly aimed at promoting long-form journalism.  He also underwrites cross-border investigations via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In Brazil, João Moreira Salles, scion of a prominent family enmeshed in the banking sector, has used his money to found a monthly magazine,Piauí, whose recent issue included an investigative piece about indigenous opposition to Belo Monte, a hydroelectric plant under construction in Altamira in the Amazon region.

Moves toward democracy in many countries, along with the Arab Spring (however shortcircuited it was) have also unshackled the global press in a variety of ways. Compared to five, 10, or 20 years ago, Myanmar, Ghana, and Tunisia, to take just three examples from many, have far freer — sometimes remarkably freewheeling — media atmospheres. And what’s happening in countries like those has had a knock-on effect on nearby states.

Of course, there are also democratically elected governments in countries like Turkey, Ecuador, and Hungary that have been clamping down on free speech.  And from Syria to Ferguson, Missouri, many locales remain dangerous for journalists.  On balance, however, the press is ever less under the thumb of government, a situation that only encourages investigative reporting.  To take two examples where the press has become at least marginally harder to control thanks to social media, the Internet, and some brave (or nervy) independent-minded journalists, consider China and Vietnam, where once utterly closed media scenes are slowly being pried open.

The mass layoffs of older journalists around the world has had one benefit: there are plenty of experienced hands ready to train the next generation and provide institutional memory at innovative ventures. Some of these oldtimers, who aren’t busy teaching (or taking public relations jobs — but that’s a story for another time), are busy founding and running nonprofits dedicated to doing hard-driving, investigative reporting. These include: 100 ReportersGlobal Journalism Investigative NetworkForum for African Investigative ReportersInvestigative Reporters and EditorsInvestigative News NetworkSCOOP, and theInternational  Consortium of Investigative Journalists. All of these organizations are benefitting from experienced editors and reporters downsized from traditional media outlets and committed to helping the next generation — and learning from them, too.

No one can say how this wave of new reporting will continue to be funded in the future, nor can I promise to be as cheery a decade from now as I am today about investigative journalism’s prospects.  Already some donors are putting in place stipulations that might constrain future reporting — like requiring publications to meet benchmarks offering proof of a story’s impact. Still, if the history of investigative reporting in the United States has taught us anything, it’s that outlets come and go, but the legacy of great investigative reporting, the tradition that inspires future generations of crusading journalists, endures.

It can take years for investigative journalism to make a difference and, in the past, many of the most important outlets didn’t make money and disappeared. They were sometimes run by passionate crusaders who seized the moment, wrote the stories, and then moved on.  Everybody’s Magazine folded long ago, but Upton Sinclair’s takedown of the scandalous Beef Trust, specifically Armour and Co., in 1908 opened American eyes to the way meat was produced in this country. Who remembers In Fact? But George Seldes’s prescient 1941 exposé of the dangers of cigarettes in the pages of that now-defunct publication has stood the test of time.  And while McClure’sI.F. Stone’s Weekly, and Ramparts may be increasingly distant memories, the effects of their investigative work ripple all the way to the present.

And this isn’t peculiar to the United States.

Young journalists on their way up are being trained in a craft that, history tells us, will outlast the death of any particular publication. Ory Okolloh of the Omidyar Network regularly makes this point. She notes that after the pioneering Nigerian newspaper Next234 went out of business, its reporters and editors simply moved on to other media outlets in Africa, where they are breaking important stories and training the next generation of reporters.

For investigative reporting, injustice is the gift that just keeps giving.  While so much of the business side of journalism remains in flux, fine reporters with an investigative urge are finding ways to shine much needed light into the parts of our global lives that the powerful would rather keep in the shadows.  These may be tough times, lean times, difficult times, but don’t be fooled: they’re also boom times.  There can be no question that, if you’re a reader with access to the Internet, you’re living in a new golden age of investigative journalism.


Anya Schiffrin is the director of the media and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs.  She teaches courses on media innovation and writes on journalism and development as well as the media in Africa. Schiffrin spent 10 years working overseas as a journalist in Europe and Asia and is on the advisory boards of the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and of the Revenue Watch Institute.  Her most recent book is Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Reporting from Around the World (New Press 2014). Thanks to Hawley Johnson, Jillian Hausman, and Angela Pimenta for their research for this piece.  

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Anya Schiffrin

 


To Terrify and Occupy: The Militarization of America’s Police

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

How the Excessive Militarization of the Police is Turning Cops Into Counterinsurgents 

By Matthew Harwood

Jason Westcott was afraid.

One night last fall, he discovered via Facebook that a friend of a friend was planning with some co-conspirators to break in to his home. They were intent on stealing Wescott’s handgun and a couple of TV sets. According to the Facebook message, the suspect was planning on “burning” Westcott, who promptly called the Tampa Bay police and reported the plot.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the investigating officers responding to Westcott’s call had a simple message for him: “If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and shoot to kill.”

Around 7:30 pm on May 27th, the intruders arrived. Westcott followed the officers’ advice, grabbed his gun to defend his home, and died pointing it at the intruders.  They used a semiautomatic shotgun and handgun to shoot down the 29-year-old motorcycle mechanic.  He was hit three times, once in the arm and twice in his side, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

The intruders, however, weren’t small-time crooks looking to make a small score. Rather they were members of the Tampa Bay Police Department’s SWAT team, which was executing a search warrant on suspicion that Westcott and his partner were marijuana dealers. They had been tipped off by a confidential informant, whom they drove to Westcott’s home four times between February and May to purchase small amounts of marijuana, at $20-$60 a pop. The informer notified police that he saw two handguns in the home, which was why the Tampa Bay police deployed a SWAT team to execute the search warrant.

In the end, the same police department that told Westcott to protect his home with defensive force killed him when he did. After searching his small rental, the cops indeed found weed, two dollars’ worth, and one legal handgun — the one he was clutching when the bullets ripped into him.

Welcome to a new era of American policing, where cops increasingly see themselves as soldiers occupying enemy territory, often with the help of Uncle Sam’s armory, and where even nonviolent crimes are met with overwhelming force and brutality.

The War on Your Doorstep

The cancer of militarized policing has long been metastasizing in the body politic.  It has been growing ever stronger since the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were born in the 1960s in response to that decade’s turbulent mix of riots, disturbances, and senseless violence like Charles Whitman’s infamous clock-tower rampage in Austin, Texas.

While SWAT isn’t the only indicator that the militarization of American policing is increasing, it is the most recognizable. The proliferation of SWAT teams across the country and their paramilitary tactics have spread a violent form of policing designed for the extraordinary but in these years made ordinary. When the concept of SWAT arose out of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Police Departments, it was quickly picked up by big city police officials nationwide.  Initially, however, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations, or large-scale disturbances.

Nearly a half-century later, that’s no longer true.

In 1984, according to Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, about 26% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT teams. By 2005, that number had soared to 80% and it’s still rising, though SWAT statistics are notoriously hard to come by.

As the number of SWAT teams has grown nationwide, so have the raids. Every year now, there are approximately 50,000 SWAT raids in the United States, according to Professor Pete Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. In other words, roughly 137 times a day a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants and the surrounding community into terror.

Upping the Racial Profiling Ante

In a recently released report, “War Comes Home,” the American Civil Liberties Union (my employer) discovered that nearly 80% of all SWAT raids it reviewed between 2011 and 2012 were deployed to execute a search warrant.

Pause here a moment and consider that these violent home invasions are routinely used against people who are only suspected of a crime. Up-armored paramilitary teams now regularly bash down doors in search of evidence of a possible crime. In other words, police departments increasingly choose a tactic that often results in injury and property damage as its first option, not the one of last resort. In more than 60% of the raids the ACLU investigated, SWAT members rammed down doors in search of possible drugs, not to save a hostage, respond to a barricade situation, or neutralize an active shooter.

On the other side of that broken-down door, more often than not, are blacks and Latinos. When the ACLU could identify the race of the person or people whose home was being broken into, 68% of the SWAT raids against minorities were for the purpose of executing a warrant in search of drugs. When it came to whites, that figure dropped to 38%, despite the well-known fact that blacks, whites, and Latinos all use drugs at roughly the same rates. SWAT teams, it seems, have a disturbing record of disproportionately applying their specialized skill set within communities of color.

Think of this as racial profiling on steroids in which the humiliation of stop and frisk is raised to a terrifying new level.

Everyday Militarization

Don’t think, however, that the military mentality and equipment associated with SWAT operations are confined to those elite units. Increasingly, they’re permeating all forms of policing.

As Karl Bickel, a senior policy analyst with the Justice Department’s Community Policing Services office, observes, police across America are being trained in a way that emphasizes force and aggression. He notes that recruit training favors a stress-based regimen that’s modeled on military boot camp rather than on the more relaxed academic setting a minority of police departments still employ. The result, he suggests, is young officers who believe policing is about kicking ass rather than working with the community to make neighborhoods safer. Or as comedian Bill Maherreminded officers recently: “The words on your car, ‘protect and serve,’ refer to us, not you.”

This authoritarian streak runs counter to the core philosophy that supposedly dominates twenty-first-century American thinking: community policing.  Its emphasis is on a mission of “keeping the peace” by creating and maintaining partnerships of trust with and in the communities served. Under the community model, which happens to be theofficial policing philosophy of the U.S. government, officers are protectors but also problem solvers who are supposed to care, first and foremost, about how their communities see them. They don’t command respect, the theory goes: they earn it. Fear isn’t supposed to be their currency. Trust is.

Nevertheless, police recruiting videos, as in those from California’s Newport Beach Police Department and New Mexico’s Hobbs Police Department, actively play up not the community angle but militarization as a way of attracting young men with the promise of Army-style adventure and high-tech toys. Policing, according to recruiting videos like these, isn’t about calmly solving problems; it’s about you and your boys breaking down doors in the middle of the night.

SWAT’s influence reaches well beyond that.  Take the increasing adoption of battle-dress uniforms (BDUs) for patrol officers. These militaristic, often black, jumpsuits, Bickel fears, make them less approachable and possibly also more aggressive in their interactions with the citizens they’re supposed to protect.

A small project at Johns Hopkins University seemed to bear this out. People were shown pictures of police officers in their traditional uniforms and in BDUs. Respondents, the survey indicated, would much rather have a police officer show up in traditional dress blues. Summarizing its findings, Bickel writes, “The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, instead of trusted community protectors.”

Where Do They Get Those Wonderful Toys?

“I wonder if I can get in trouble for doing this,” the young man says to his buddy in the passenger seat as they film the Saginaw County Sheriff Office’s new toy: a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. As they film the MRAP from behind, their amateur video has a Red Dawn-esque feel, as if an occupying military were now patrolling this Michigan county’s streets. “This is getting ready for f**king crazy times, dude,” one young man comments. “Why,” his friend replies, “has our city gotten that f**king bad?”

In fact, nothing happening in Saginaw County warranted the deployment of an armored vehicle capable of withstanding bullets and the sort of improvised explosive devices that insurgent forces have regularly planted along roads in America’s recent war zones.  Sheriff William Federspiel, however, fears the worst. “As sheriff of the county, I have to put ourselves in the best position to protect our citizens and protect our property,” he told a reporter. “I have to prepare for something disastrous.”

Lucky for Federspiel, his exercise in paranoid disaster preparedness didn’t cost his office a penny. That $425,000 MRAP came as a gift, courtesy of Uncle Sam, from one of our far-flung counterinsurgency wars. The nasty little secret of policing’s militarization is that taxpayers are subsidizing it through programs overseen by the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department.

Take the 1033 program. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) may be an obscure agency within the Department of Defense, but through the 1033 program, which it oversees, it’s one of the core enablers of American policing’s excessive militarization. Beginning in 1990, Congress authorized the Pentagon to transfer its surplus property free of charge to federal, state, and local police departments to wage the war on drugs. In 1997, Congress expanded the purpose of the program to include counterterrorism in section 1033 of the defense authorization bill. In one single page of a 450-page law, Congress helped sow the seeds of today’s warrior cops.

The amount of military hardware transferred through the program has grown astronomically over the years. In 1990, the Pentagon gave $1 million worth of equipment to U.S. law enforcement. That number had jumped to nearly $450 million in 2013. Overall, the program has shipped off more than $4.3 billion worth of materiel to state and local cops, according to the DLA.

In its recent report, the ACLU found a disturbing range of military gear being transferred to civilian police departments nationwide. Police in North Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, received 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, two robots that can be armed, military helmets, and a Mamba tactical vehicle. Police in Gwinnet County, Georgia, received 57 semi-automatic rifles, mostly M-16s and M-14s. The Utah Highway Patrol, according to a Salt Lake City Tribuneinvestigation, got an MRAP from the 1033 program, and Utah police received 1,230 rifles and four grenade launchers. After South Carolina’s Columbia Police Department received its very own MRAP worth $658,000, its SWAT Commander Captain E.M. Marsh noted that 500 similar vehicles had been distributed to law enforcement organizations across the country.

Astoundingly, one-third of all war materiel parceled out to state, local, and tribal police agencies is brand new. This raises further disconcerting questions: Is the Pentagon simply wasteful when it purchases military weapons and equipment with taxpayer dollars? Or could this be another downstream, subsidized market for defense contractors? Whatever the answer, the Pentagon is actively distributing weaponry and equipment made for U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns abroad to police who patrol American streets and this is considered sound policy in Washington. The message seems striking enough: what might be necessary for Kabul might also be necessary for DeKalb County.

In other words, the twenty-first-century war on terror has melded thoroughly with the twentieth-century war on drugs, and the result couldn’t be anymore disturbing: police forces that increasingly look and act like occupying armies.

How the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice Are Up-Armoring the Police

When police departments look to muscle up their arms and tactics, the Pentagon isn’t the only game in town. Civilian agencies are in on it, too.

During a 2011 investigation, reporters Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz discovered that, since 9/11, police departments watching over some of the safest places in America have used $34 billion in grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to militarize in the name of counterterrorism.

In Fargo, North Dakota, for example, the city and its surrounding county went on an $8 million spending spree with federal money, according to Becker and Schulz. Although the area averaged less than two murders a year since 2005, every squad car is now armed with an assault rifle. Police also have access to Kevlar helmets that can stop heavy firepower as well as an armored truck worth approximately $250,000. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1,500 beat cops have been trained to use AR-15 assault rifles with homeland security grant funding.

As with the 1033 program, neither DHS nor state and local governments account for how the equipment, including body armor and drones, is used. While the rationale behind stocking up on these military-grade supplies is invariably the possibility of a terrorist attack, school shooting, or some other horrific event, the gear is normally used to conduct paramilitary drug raids, as Balko notes.

Still, the most startling source of police militarization is the Department of Justice, the very agency officially dedicated to spreading the community policing model through its Community Oriented Policing Services office.

In 1988, Congress authorized the Byrne grant programs in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which gave state and local police federal funds to enlist in the government’s drug war. That grant program, according to Balko, led to the creation of regional and multi-jurisdictional narcotics task forces, which gorged themselves on federal money and, with little federal, state, or local oversight, spent it beefing up their weapons and tactics. In 2011, 585 of these task forces operated off of Byrne grant funding.

The grants, Balko reports, also incentivized the type of policing that has made the war on drugs such a destructive force in American society. The Justice Department doled out Byrne grants based on how many arrests officers made, how much property they seized, and how many warrants they served. The very things these narcotics task forces did very well. “As a result,” Balko writes, “we have roving squads of drug cops, loaded with SWAT gear, who get money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests, and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line.”

Regardless of whether this militarization has occurred due to federal incentives or executive decision-making in police departments or both, police across the nation are up-armoring with little or no public debate. In fact, when the ACLU requested SWAT records from 255 law enforcement agencies as part of its investigation, 114 denied them. The justifications for such denials varied, but included arguments that the documents contained “trade secrets” or that the cost of complying with the request would be prohibitive. Communities have a right to know how the police do their jobs, but more often than not, police departments think otherwise.

Being the Police Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Report by report, evidence is mounting that America’s militarized police are a threat to public safety. But in a country where the cops increasingly look upon themselves as soldiers doing battle day in, day out, there’s no need for public accountability or even an apology when things go grievously wrong.

If community policing rests on mutual trust between the police and the people, militarized policing operates on the assumption of “officer safety” at all costs and contempt for anyone who sees things differently. The result is an “us versus them” mentality.

Just ask the parents of Bou Bou Phonesavanh. Around 3:00 a.m. on May 28th, the Habersham County Special Response Team conducted a no-knock raid at a relative’s home near Cornelia, Georgia, where the family was staying. The officers were looking for the homeowner’s son, whom they suspected of selling $50 worth of drugs to a confidential informant.  As it happened, he no longer lived there.

Despite evidence that children were present — a minivan in the driveway, children’s toys littering the yard, and a Pack ‘n Play next to the door — a SWAT officer tossed a “flashbang” grenade into the home. It landed in 19-month-old Bou Bou’s crib and exploded, critically wounding the toddler. When his distraught mother tried to reach him, officers screamed at her to sit down and shut up, telling her that her child was fine and had just lost a tooth. In fact, his nose was hanging off his face, his body had been severely burned, and he had a hole in his chest. Rushed to the hospital, Bou Bou had to be put into a medically induced coma.

The police claimed that it was all a mistake and that there had been no evidence children were present. “There was no malicious act performed,” Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was a terrible accident that was never supposed to happen.” The Phonesavanhs have yet to receive an apology from the sheriff’s office. “Nothing. Nothing for our son. No card. No balloon. Not a phone call. Not anything,” Bou Bou’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, told CNN.

Similarly, Tampa Bay Police Chief Jane Castor continues to insist that Jay Westcott’s death in the militarized raid on his house was his own fault.  “Mr. Westcott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at police officers. You can take the entire marijuana issue out of the picture,” Castor said. “If there’s an indication that there is armed trafficking going on — someone selling narcotics while they are armed or have the ability to use a firearm — then the tactical response team will do the initial entry.”

In her defense of the SWAT raid, Castor simply dismissed any responsibility for Westcott’s death. “They did everything they could to serve this warrant in a safe manner,” she wrote the Tampa Bay Times – “everything,” that is, but find an alternative to storming the home of a man they knew feared for his life.

Almost half of all American households report having a gun, as the ACLU notes in its report. That means the police always have a ready-made excuse for using SWAT teams to execute warrants when less confrontational and less violent alternatives exist.

In other words, if police believe you’re selling drugs, beware. Suspicion is all they need to turn your world upside down. And if they’re wrong, don’t worry; the intent couldn’t have been better.

Voices in the Wilderness

The militarization of the police shouldn’t be surprising. As Hubert Williams, a former police director of Newark, New Jersey, and Patrick V. Murphy, former commissioner of the New York City Police Department, put it nearly 25 years ago, police are “barometers of the society in which they operate.” In post-9/11 America, that means police forces imbued with the “hooah” mentality of soldiers and acting as if they are fighting an insurgency in their own backyard.

While the pace of police militarization has quickened, there has at least been some pushback from current and former police officials who see the trend for what it is: the destruction of community policing. In Spokane, Washington, Councilman Mike Fagan, a former police detective, is pushing back against police officers wearing BDUs, calling the get-up “intimidating” to citizens. In Utah, the legislature passed a bill requiring probable cause before police could execute a no-knock raid. Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has been a vocal critic of militarization,telling the local paper, “We’re not the military. Nor should we look like an invading force coming in.” Just recently, Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department agreed with the ACLU and the Los Angeles Times editorial board that “the lines between municipal law enforcement and the U.S. military cannot be blurred.”

Retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has also become an outspoken critic of militarizing police forces, noting “most of what police are called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy, and interpersonal skills.” In other words, community policing. Stamper is the chief who green-lighted a militarized response to World Trade Organization protests in his city in 1999 (“The Battle in Seattle”). It’s a decision he would like to take back. “My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose,” he wrote in the Nation. “Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict.”

These former policemen and law enforcement officials understand that police officers shouldn’t be breaking down any citizen’s door at 3 a.m. armed with AR-15s and flashbang grenades in search of a small amount of drugs, while an MRAP idles in the driveway. The anti-militarists, however, are in the minority right now. And until that changes, violent paramilitary police raids will continue to break down the doors of nearly 1,000 American households a week.

War, once started, can rarely be contained.


Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties Union and a TomDispatch regular. You can follow him on Twitter@mharwood31.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Matthew Harwood

 


Beavers, The Original Geo-Engineers

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

How to Save the Iconic West from the Cow

By Chip Ward 

The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the “boomers” who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol’ boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the “nesters” or “stickers” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.

That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple.  All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms,reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust.

The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature’s own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one.  Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.

Dances with Beavers

The dance floor is my Utah backyard, which, like most backyards out here, is a watershed.  At its top is the Aquarius Plateau, the horizon I see from my deck, a gracefully rolling forest of pines and aspens that stretches for 50 miles to the south, 20 miles wide at its midpoint, and reaches 11,300 feet at its highest ridge.

The forest on top of the plateau is unique, as trees rarely grow almost two miles above sea level.  That high forest is heated by the deserts that fall away around the plateau’s shoulders, culminating in the amber, bone, and honey-toned canyons of Capitol Reef National Park on its eastern flank and on the west by Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

During a long career with the Bureau of Land Management, Sage Sorenson saw firsthand how beavers created rich green habitat out of overgrazed and burned-over land.  Now retired, he calls himself a “beaver believer” and devotes his days to monitoring and protecting scattered “remnant” beaver colonies in our region. Quietly but persistently, he advocates for their reintroduction onto stressed landscapes that need their services.

Beavers are the original geo-engineers.  It’s no exaggeration to credit them for their major role in building the North American landscape.  In pre-colonial times, there were as many as 400 million of them.  They used their big buckteeth and tough paddle-tails to build dams across every stream imaginable, spreading water to a Noah’s Ark-worth of creatures that thrive in the wet habitats they create.  Now, of course, they are mostly long gone from the land, and conservationists want them back.

Sorenson recently trained and got certified to trap and transport beavers in anticipation of restocking the streams that tumble down the Aquarius Plateau.  He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are reintroduced.  After all, several of those streams have already been scientifically assessed and identified as prime candidates for such a reintroduction program.   But when I talked to him at a café in the small hamlet of Boulder, Utah, he was feeling discouraged.

A remnant colony of beavers along North Creek, he told me, is just about gone.  Over the last two years, at least 34 of them have been illegally shot or legally trapped by a local irrigation company.  Although beaver reintroduction is getting rave reviews in places like Scotland where the last one had been trapped out hundreds of years ago and Oregon where they are healing land hammered by logging, in Utah the road back will be rough.

Flat-Tail Climate Hero

Beavers were once abundant across the Aquarius Plateau, but they have now retreated to its high headwaters where they do not compete with cattle or cowboys with guns. Visiting them requires strong lungs for steep hikes and sturdy boots to navigate flooded meadows.  Up close, beavers look like especially large rodents that swim.  Call them cute if you care to, but a wet mammal that smells like its mud hut is neither cuddly nor charismatic.  They are not, in other words, like the penguins or polar bears that adorn fundraising appeals from wildlife advocates.

Nevertheless, as Sage patiently explains, they are key to the restoration of damaged watersheds. First, their dams create ponds and wetlands for diverse plants, amphibians, fish, and fowl. Eventually, those ponds fill with silt and become meadows, creating yet more habitat for another round of plants and animals.

Letting beavers do their work is one powerful way to make the land and its creatures resilient in a time of climatological stress.  For example, across the planet a wide range of amphibians, including frogs and salamanders, are declining fast, becoming rare or extinct.  Their sudden decline may be due to habitat loss, pollution, viruses enabled by a warming climate, or all of the above, but their disappearance is one more measure of the ecological catastrophe now underway.  Beavers make wet habitat where amphibians can recover and thrive.

The aquatic insects that bloom in wetlands feed populations of stressed songbirds. Their ponds shelter fingerling fish — beavers are vegetarians — and baby ducks.  Beavers are ecological servants par excellence who give life to the land.  They are not only beneficial agents of biodiversity, however: humans benefit, too.

In Western forests, the beaver’s stick-in-the-mud architecture spreads, slows, and deepens the flow of water from spring runoff so that it recharges underground aquifers, springs, and seeps. Slowing that runoff means that the streams feeding reservoirs last longer, possibly all summer.  That’s important for local agriculture, which depends on irrigation.  Beaver dams improve water quality by trapping sediment that filters pollution. A lush-green landscape also inhibits landslides, floods, and fire.  So beavers are not only good for the usual crew of endangered species, but also for millions of humans whose drinking water originates in heat-stressed watersheds that could be restored by the beaver’s hydrological habits.

Considering all the benefits beavers bring with them, why haven’t we rushed to return them to their keystone role in the Western landscape?  The simple answer to a complicated question is one word: cows.

When beavers re-occupy their historic homelands, they compete with the human economy that once drove them deep into the wilds.  Farmers and ranchers who irrigate their fields via ditches and culverts hate them.  There are simple techniques to guard against beavers clogging irrigation systems but they are either unlearned or resisted as yet another example of unwanted government intrusion on Western life.  Across the rural West, ranchers have power and influence way beyond their numbers or their contribution to the economy.

The Elephant in the Room Is a Cow  

One man’s keystone species is another’s varmint.  For conservationists like Sorenson who are devoted to bringing beavers back, seeing one with a bullet hole in it is not just sad, but taken as a very personal warning.  Despite the popularity and success of beaver reintroduction elsewhere, in much of the American West it runs into an outsized obstacle — the iconic western cow.  Not ol’ Bossy chewing a cud in Wisconsin, but the wild steer chased by a cowboy with a lasso yelling “yeeha!”  That cow is sacred.

In reality, cattle ranching is a tough, marginal business in this part of America and grazing on public lands makes it possible.  In other words, it’s heavily subsidized by distant taxpayers. Those grazing fees Cliven Bundy objects to cost less than a buck and a half per cow per month for all it can eat on federal land — food stamps for cows, indeed.   Cattle ranchers, whose families have been on the land for generations, think of grazing allotments on federal land as an entitlement, even if that attitude contradicts the image of the independent cowboy they cherish.  About 250 million acres — or more than half of the federal lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management — are open to cattle grazing, and that’s a large arena where cowboys and conservationists compete.

Moving cows out of sensitive riparian areas (streams and springs) or putting competitors like wolves and beavers onto the land with them is seen by ranchers as the start of a slippery slope that might lead to removing cows altogether.  That is, however, unlikely.  In the West, cows rule.  The soundtrack of Manifest Destiny may once have been the sharp crack of gunfire aimed at Indians and wolves, but it was followed by a mellow moo.  Cows graze over the bones of bison and the other creatures we eliminated to make room for them.

Our Dams, Not Theirs

Like the beavers they replaced, cows have reshaped the land — not, in their case, by creating habitat but by destroying it.  The pioneers who first came upon southern Utah described the vast grasslands they found there.  That grass is long gone.  The soil blew away, too, and rusting fences now swing above gullies or are buried under dunes.  When millions of cows and sheep were let loose on that fragile soil, massive erosion and the disappearance of that vast native grassland followed.  It never came back. When Congress finally stepped in and passed grazing regulations in 1934, improvements followed.

Conservationists claim that cows are today contributing to the die-off of the West’s beloved aspen groves by eating tree seedlings and short-circuiting forest succession. They also spread highly flammable cheat grass in their voluminous poop.  But whatever damage cows do directly to public lands pales in comparison to the way the infrastructure necessary for the cattle business has captured western water sources and de-watered western lands.

Stegner’s boomers dammed thousands of rivers and streams, while building pipelines through our national forests down to valley floors.  Aqueducts, canals, and tunnels followed.  The growth of many western towns is rooted in the building of a water infrastructure that has allowed us to suck the forests dry in order to irrigate the fields of alfalfa that feed those cows.  And yet — hold onto your hats for this — only a miniscule 3% of the nation’s beef is raised in the West.

Yet at least 80% of the water out here goes to alfalfa and other cow-food crops.  When you get those dire warnings about the Colorado River going dry and Phoenix and Vegas blowing away, remember this: because the cattlemen own the rights, cows get a lion’s share of whatever water is left after the western watersheds are baked and burned.  We grow so much cow-food that we now essentially export our precious water to China in the form of alfalfa.

Beavers as Underdogs 

Now maybe you’re beginning to see just why the odds are so stacked against the lowly beaver. Americans have forgotten the formative nature of our relationship with that creature.  Not only did European explorers encounter a landscape that had been thoroughly carved out and watered by them, but a robust trade in beaver pelts drove settlement.  Pelts that were made into warm hats for wealthy people were a kind of rodent gold and trappers couldn’t get enough of them.

Under the grinding wheel of a voracious commerce in furs, beavers were so trapped-out that they seemed to be headed for the fate of the once plentiful but now extinct passenger pigeon. This precipitous decline was reversed by one of North America’s earliest conservation campaigns.

In the 1920s, through the new medium of film the public imagination was captured by a Canadian Indian named Grey Owl.  He lived on a lake with his wife, Anahareo, and raised orphaned beaver kits, explaining their ecological importance and the consequences of their loss to a public unfamiliar with the beaver’s role in keeping forests healthy.  As the original beaver-believers cuddled their kits, audiences ooohed and aaahed.

Eventually Grey Owl was exposed as Archie Belaney, an Englishman posing as an Indian, but by then the message he had delivered had been translated into governance.  Beaver trapping was strictly regulated across most of the West and eventually many colonies recovered.  Today, there are far more beavers in North America, perhaps 10 million, than at their near-extinction moment, but their distribution on the land remains thin and uneven.  Once upon a time, hundreds of millions of them helped create the American landscape.  It would be fitting if, in the era of global warming, the beaver’s influence came full circle, this time as a means of making heat-stressed landscapes more resilient.

Are Beavers a Plot Against Humanity?

Most of the land in the American West is federally owned and managed, despite recent schemes by local tea-hadis to take it over and sell it to the highest bidder (or closest crony).  Because federal lands are a national treasure that we own together, there are rules for the sustainable use of it and sanctions for abuse.  Those rules and policies are negotiated by stakeholders and change over time.  That is happening now as our forests and grasslands are baked by prolonged drought.

In 2009, a Utah Beaver Advisory Committee composed of wildlife biologists, forest rangers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, and conservationists hammered out a plan to restore healthy beaver populations to their historic range across Utah “where appropriate.”  The beaver’s ecological service was finally acknowledged, but with the proviso that it be balanced against “human needs.”  Getting such an endorsement for restoration and protection, however qualified, was an important first step and a catalyst for a grassroots campaign to “leave it to beavers.”

An agreement had been reached among stakeholders traditionally at odds.  It was a rare feat of consensus building in a political environment where acrimony generally reigns supreme and it could have been a model for resolving other conflicts over land use and regulation.  Instead, local politicians, in a panic that beavers might “steal” water, have effectively resisted it.

Joe Wheaton, who teaches watershed hydrology and restoration at Utah State University, says the science on this is clear: there is no net water loss downstream from beaver dams.  If anything, they only increase a watershed’s capacity by capturing water that would otherwise be lost to floods.  But the cattlemen aren’t buying it. Science, you see, is just another liberal ideology.  As a Kane County commissioner put it succinctly, “Beavers are an environmentalist plot.” Think of those dead beavers along North Creek that Sage Sorenson described to me as collateral damage in the ideological civil war now raging across the region.

You Can’t Drink an F-35

The Grand Canyon Trust and a local citizens group, Boulder Community Alliance, have tried to fill the gap between the advisory group’s clear intention and the state’s hesitance to overrule obstructionist county commissioners and actually implement the plan.  The Trust recruited local volunteers and trained them to assess canyon drainages using the best scientific criteria and methods available.  Several streams were identified as candidates for beaver reintroduction.

Volunteers monitor and report on the few existing beaver settlements like the one being decimated in North Creek. Through education and advocacy they are building a constituency for putting beavers back on the land to do their job.  They have faith that the benefits of beaver reintroduction will become obvious as re-habitation happens. When the time comes to move beavers into new streams, they will be ready.

The kind of homegrown resilience practiced by Sage Sorenson and thousands of other backyard conservationists gets a paltry piece of the taxpayer pie compared, say, to homeland security.  I used to say that in the long run we’d be wiser to invest in restoring watersheds than putting a camera on every corner.  As it happens, given the tenacious drought now spreading across the West and Southwest, the long run seems to be here, sooner than expected.  Even the Pentagon now acknowledges that ecological catastrophe sows human turmoil and suffering that eventually blows back our way.  For the cost of just one of the 2,400 F-35 fighter jets we are committed to buying at historic prices, we could restore the stressed Aquarius watershed.

But the beavers don’t care what we do.  They just do their own thing.  They are like their human partners: persistent and oh so local.

Saving The World, Stick by Stick 

Each ecosystem has its own particular dynamic.  There are endless variables to understand. That’s why conservation work is ultimately local.  It focuses on improvements in this river and that forest, specific habitats and watersheds with specific conditions and a set of specific inhabitants and users.

The world we aim to save is a planet of mundane dirt, air, and water that, when woven together, somehow becomes a transcendent whole.  It’s a diverse universe of living plants and critters not well-suited for one big solution.  Rather, it calls forth a million small solutions that add up, like the natural world itself, to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps there are no parts at all, just participants.

Will introducing beavers onto wounded watersheds save the world?  The answer is: yes.  That and all the other acts of restoration, protection, and restraint, small and large, individual and collective, taken together over time.  Sure, it’s not the same as the U.S. taxing carbon or China abandoning coal.  Restoring a watershed doesn’t curb the corporations that reduce communities to commodities. But in addition to the global goals we support, our responses to ecological crisis must be grounded in the places where we live, especially in the watersheds that nourish our bodies.

Rewilding tattered land is holistic because it sees and honors connectivity.  It trades hubris for humility by acknowledging complexity and limitations.  Its ultimate goal is landscape health and resilience, not the well-being of a small handful of stakeholders.

If we want to construct a healthy and resilient world for ourselves and our fellow creatures, we could do worse than look to the lowly beavers for hints on how it can be done. They build a vibrant world for themselves and so many others by weaving one small limb into another, stick by stick by stick.


Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Chip Ward


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