Lawsuit Filed to Block Permit for Blue Lead Mine

Blue_Lead_Vicinity_MapA new local non-profit, the Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund (BYWDF), filed a lawsuit on June 3rd to block Nevada County from issuing a use permit for the Blue Lead Mine. The suit, according to the BYWDF press release (below) is based on the contention that Nevada County, as the lead agency, violated CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), because “it did not adequately address water quality issues due to the presence of mercury on the Blue Lead Mine site, a legacy mining site.”

Here’s the press release in full:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
June 13, 2015

Non Profit BEAR YUBA WATERSHED DEFENSE FUND Established

A non-profit organization established to protect the two watersheds in this area was formed last month and is launching a fund-raising campaign to fully fund its first project and continue ongoing as an environmental defense organization specifically for the Bear and Yuba watersheds.

Filling a lawsuit on June 3 naming the County of Nevada, the Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund is asking the court to set aside the April 28 decision of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors to approve, without a full Environment Impact Report, a use permit for the Blue Lead Mine, which was permitted as a 20-year, open-pit gold mining operation, located approximately 3.5 miles east of the Nevada County Air Park and adjacent to Greenhorn Creek.

In fact, the momentum to found BYWDF was launched after communications among area young people, the millennial generation, who typically asked…”what can we do to stop the Blue Lead?” And thus, the Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund found its reason to be.

In consideration of next generation’s concern for our water and to protect the watersheds, BYWDF filed this lawsuit contending that the County as lead agency violated CEQA, a State environmental law, because it did not adequately address water quality issues due to the presence of mercury on the Blue Lead site, a legacy mine site; nor did the County adequately address water quantity issues with knowledge the Blue Lead Mine will use copious amounts of water. The Blue Lead as designed will pump during dry years two groundwater wells, 24-7, 365 days all year to obtain enough water to operate this open-pit placer gold mine (see Water Study at link following).

It’s about the water…let’s NOT be stupid” is the mantra of the Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund.

When a governing agency circumvents laws intended to protect our home lands, sometimes We, the People must resort to using the law–to test and force compliance with any State or Federal laws. Approval of the Blue Lead Mine is one of those times; and the founding directors of BYWDF along with several individuals and organizations in this area who are already aligned with the efforts of BYWDF thank everyone, in advance, who can contribute any dollar amount towards this grass roots effort to protect our watersheds, and thus our home lands, from water-hogging projects and projects which threaten exposure of toxic or hazardous materials.

Learn More About It

• The Bear River Watershed is Number 76, and the Yuba River Watershed is Number 77 on Watershed Maps from the California Department of Conservation:

http://www.conservation.ca.gov/dlrp/wp/Documents/CALFED_Watershed_Map%5B1%5D.pdf

• For the effects of Mercury and methylated mercury on your health read Diagnosis: Mercury, Money, Politics and Poison by Jane M. Hightower, M.D.:

• For background documents including the water study on the Blue Lead Mine, a search on “Blue Lead Mine” at: http://www.mynevadacounty.com/search/pages/Results.aspx?k=Blue%20Lead%20Mine

• For an education about the effects of legacy mining in the Sierra go to the website for The Sierra Fund at: https://www.sierrafund.org

For additional information contact:

Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund
P O Box 262
Chicago Park, CA 95712
BYWDFInfo@gmail.com


Tomgram: Gottesdiener and Garcia, How to Dismantle This Country

Introductory Comments by Tom Engelhardt (Reprinted from Tomdispatch.com)

They say that imperial wars come home in all sorts of ways. Think of the Michigan that TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener describes today as one curious example of that dictum. If you remember, in the spring of 2003, George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of that country’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein. The invasion was launched with a “shock-and-awe” air show that was meant to both literally and figuratively “decapitate” the country’s leadership, from Saddam on down. At that time, there was another more anodyne term for the process that was also much in use, even if it has now faded from our vocabularies: “regime change.” And you remember how that all worked out, don’t you? A lot of Iraqi civilians — but no Iraqi leaders — were killed in shock-and-awe fashion that first night of the invasion and, as most Americans recall now that we’re in Iraq War 3.0, it didn’t get much better when the Bush administration’s proconsul in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, disbanded the Iraqi military and Saddam’s Baathist Party (a brilliant formula for launching an instant insurgency), appointed his own chosen rulers in Baghdad, and gave the Americans every sort of special privilege imaginable by curiously autocratic decree in the name of spreading democracy in the Middle East.

It now seems that a version of regime change, Iraqi-style, has come home to roost in parts of Michigan — but with a curious twist. Think of Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, as the L. Paul Bremer of that state. He’s essentially given himself regime-change-style powers, impermeable to a statewide recall vote, and begun dismissing — or, if you will, decapitating — the local governments of cities and school districts, appointing managers in their place. In other words, his homegrown version of regime change involves getting rid of local democracy and putting individual autocrats in power instead. What, you might ask yourself, could possibly go wrong, especially since the governor himself is going national to limn the glories of his version of austerity and autocratic politics?

As it happens, TomDispatch dispatched our ace reporter, Laura Gottesdiener, who has been traveling the underside of American life for this site, to check out what regime change in Michigan really looks like. As with all her reports, this time with photographer Eduardo García, she offers a grim but startling vision of where this country may be headed. Tom

A Magical Mystery Tour of American Austerity Politics 
One State’s Attempt to Destroy Democracy and the Environment 
By Laura Gottesdiener, with photos and reporting by Eduardo García

Something is rotten in the state of Michigan.

One city neglected to inform its residents that its water supply was laced with cancerous chemicals. Another dissolved its public school district and replaced it with a charter school system, only to witness the for-profit management company it hired flee the scene after determining it couldn’t turn a profit. Numerous cities and school districts in the state are now run by single, state-appointed technocrats, as permitted under an emergency financial manager law pushed through by Rick Snyder, Michigan’s austerity-promoting governor. This legislation not only strips residents of their local voting rights, but gives Snyder’s appointee the power to do just about anything, including dissolving the city itself — all (no matter how disastrous) in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

If you’re thinking, “Who cares?” since what happens in Michigan stays in Michigan, think again. The state’s aggressive balance-the-books style of governance has already spread beyond its borders. In January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appointed bankruptcy lawyer and former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr to be a “legal adviser” to Atlantic City. The Detroit Free Press described the move as “a state takeover similar to Gov. Rick Snyder’s state intervention in the Motor City.”

And this spring, amid the hullabaloo of Republicans entering the 2016 presidential race, Governor Snyder launched his own national tour to sell “the Michigan story to the rest of the country.” His trip was funded by a nonprofit (fed, naturally, by undisclosed donations) named “Making Government Accountable: The Michigan Story.”

To many Michiganders, this sounded as ridiculous as Jeb Bush launching a super PAC dubbed “Making Iraq Free: The Bush Family Story.”  Except Snyder wasn’t planning to enter the presidential rat race. Instead, he was attempting to mainstream Michigan’s form of austerity politics and its signature emergency management legislation, which stripped more than halfof the state’s African American residents of their local voting rights in 2013 and 2014.

As the governor jaunted around the country, Ann Arbor-based photographer Eduardo García and I decided to set out on what we thought of as our own two-week Magical Michigan Tour. And while we weren’t driving a specially outfitted psychedelic tour bus — we spent most of the trip in my grandmother’s 2005 Prius — our journey was nevertheless remarkably surreal. From the southwest banks of Lake Michigan to the eastern tips of the peninsula, we crisscrossed the state visiting more than half a dozen cities to see if there was another side to the governor’s story and whether Michigan really was, as one Detroit resident put it, “a massive experiment in unraveling U.S. democracy.”

Stop One: Water Wars in Flint

Just as we arrive, the march spills off the sidewalk in front of the city council building.

“Stop poisoning our children!” chants a little girl as the crowd tumbles down South Saginaw Street, the city’s main drag.  We’re in Flint, Michigan, a place that hit the headlines last year for its brown, chemical-laced, possibly toxic water.  A wispy white-haired woman waves a gallon jug filled with pee-colored liquid from her home tap. “They don’t care that they’re killing us!” she cries.

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A Flint resident at the march demanding clean water. Photo credit: Eduardo García

We catch up with Claire McClinton, the formidable if grandmotherly organizer of the Flint Democracy Defense League, as we approach the roiling Flint River.  It’s been a longtime dumping ground for the riverfront factories of General Motors and, as of one year ago today, the only source of the city’s drinking water.  On April 25, 2014, on the instruction of the city’s emergency manager, Flint stopped buying its supplies from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and started drawing water directly from the river, which meant a budgetary savings of $12 million a year. The downside: people started getting sick.

Since then, tests have detected E. coli and fecal bacteria in the water, as well as high levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic chemical cocktail known as THMs. For months, the city concealed the presence of THMs, which over years can lead to increased rates of cancer, kidney failure, and birth defects. Still, it was obvious to local residents that something was up. Some of them were breaking out in mysterious rashes or experiencing bouts of severe diarrhea, while others watched as their eyelashes and hair began to fall out.

As we cross a small footbridge, McClinton recounts how the city council recently voted to “do all things necessary” to get Detroit’s water back.  The emergency manager, however, immediately overrode their decision, terming it “incomprehensible.”

“This is a whole different model of control,” she comments drily and explains that she’s now working with other residents to file an injunction compelling the city to return to the use of Detroit’s water. One problem, though: it has to be filed in Ingham County, home to Lansing, the state capital, rather than in Flint’s Genesee County, because the decision of a state-appointed emergency manager is being challenged. “Under state rule, that’s where you go to redress grievances,” she says. “Just another undermining of our local authority.”

In the meantime, many city residents remain frustrated and confused. A few weeks before the march, the city sent out two notices on the same day, packaged in the same envelope. One, printed in black-and-white, stated bluntly: “Our water system recently violated a drinking water standard.” The second, in flashy color, had this cheery message: “We are pleased to report that City of Flint water is safe and meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines… You can be confident that the water provided to you today meets all safety standards.” As one recipient of the notices commented, “I can only surmise that the point was to confuse us all.”

McClinton marches in silence for a few minutes as the crowd doubles back across the bridge and begins the ascent up Saginaw Street. Suddenly, a man jumps onto a life-size statue of a runner at the Riverfront Plaza and begins to cloak him in one of the group’s T-shirts.

“Honey, I don’t want you getting in any trouble!” his wife calls out to him.

He’s struggling to pull a sleeve over one of the cast-iron arms when the droning weeoo-weeooo-weeoo of a police siren blares, causing a brief frenzy until the man’s son realizes he’s mistakenly hit the siren feature on the megaphone he’s carrying.

After a few more tense moments, the crowd surges forward, leaving behind the statue, legs stretched in mid-stride, arms raised triumphantly, and on his chest a new cotton T-shirt with the slogan: “Water You Fighting For?”

Stop Two: The Tri-Cities of Cancer 

The next afternoon, we barrel down Interstate 75 into an industrial hellscape of smoke stacks, flare offs, and 18-wheelers, en route to another toxicity and accountability crisis. This one was caused by a massive tar sands refinery and dozens of other industrial polluters in southwest Detroit and neighboring River Rouge and Ecorse, cities which lie along the banks of the Detroit River.

Already with a slight headache from a haze of emissions, we meet photographer and community leader Emma Lockridge and her neighbor Anthony Parker in front of their homes, which sit right in the backyard of that tar sands refinery.

In 2006, the toxicity levels in their neighborhood, known simply by its zip code as “48217,” were 45 times higher than the state average. And that was before Detroit gave $175 million in tax breaks to the billion-dollar Marathon Petroleum Corporation to help it expand its refinery complex to process a surge of high-sulfur tar sands from Alberta, Canada.

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The Marathon tar sands refinery in southwest Detroit. Photo credit: Eduardo García

“We’re a donor zip,” explains Lockridge as she settles into the driver’s seat of our car. “We have all the industry and a tax base, but we get nothing back.”

We set off on a whirlwind tour of their neighborhood, where schools have been torn down and parks closed due to the toxicity of the soil, while so many residents have died of cancer that it’s hard for their neighbors to keep track. “We used to play on the swings here,” says Lockridge, pointing to a rusted yellow swing set in a fenced-off lot where the soil has tested for high levels of lead, arsenic, and other poisonous chemicals. “Jumping right into the lead.”

As in other regions of Michigan, people have been fleeing 48217 in droves. Here, however, the depopulation results not from deindustrialization, but from toxicity, thanks to an ever-expanding set of factories.  These include a wastewater treatment complex, salt mines, asphalt factories, cement plants, a lime and stone foundry, and a handful of steel mills all clustered in the tri-cities region.

As Lockridge and Parker explain, they have demanded that Marathon buy their homes. They have also implored the state to cap emission levels and have filed lawsuits against particularly toxic factories. In response, all they’ve seen are more factories given more breaks, while the residents of 48217 get none. Last spring, for example, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permitted the AK Steel plant, located close to the neighborhood, toincrease its toxic emissions as much as 725 times. The approval, according to the Detroit Free Press, came after “Gov. Rick Snyder’s business-promoting agency worked for months behind the scenes” lobbying the Department of Environmental Quality.

“Look at this cute little tree out of nowhere over here!” Lockridge exclaims, slowing the car in front of a scrawny plant whose branches, in the midst of this industrial wasteland, bend under the weight of white blossoms.

“That tree ain’t gonna grow up,” Parker responds. “It’s dead already.”

“It’s trying,” Lockridge insists. “Aww, it’s kind of sad. It’s a Charlie Brown tree.”

The absurdity of life in such an environment is highlighted when we reach a half-mile stretch of sidewalk sandwiched between a massive steel mill and a coal-fired power plant that has been designated a “Wellness Walk.”

“Energize your Life!” implores the sign affixed to a chain-link fence surrounding the power plant. It’s an unlikely site for an exercise walk, given that the state’s health officials considerthis strip and the nearby park “the epicenter of the state’s asthma burden.”

After a sad laugh, we head for Zug Island, a Homeland Security-patrolled area populated by what look to be giant black vacuum cleaners but are actually blast furnaces. The island was named for millionaire Samuel Zug, who built a lavish mansion there only to discover that it was sinking into swampland. It is now home to U.S. Steel, the largest steel manufacturer in the nation.

On our way back, we make a final stop at Oakwood Heights, an almost entirely vacant and partially razed subdivision located on the other side of the Marathon plant. “This is the white area that was bought out,” says Lockridge. The scene is eerie: small residential streets lined by grassy fields and the occasional empty house. That Marathon paid residents to evacuate their homes in this predominantly white section of town, while refusing to do the same in the predominantly African American 48217, which sits closer to the refinery, strikes neither Lockridge and Parker nor their neighbors as a coincidence.

We survey the remnants of the former neighborhood: bundles of ragged newspapers someone was once supposed to deliver, a stuffed teddy bear abandoned on a wooden porch, and a childless triangle-shaped playground whose construction, a sign reads, was “made possible by generous donations from Marathon.”

As this particularly unmagical stop on our Michigan tour comes to an end, Parker says quietly, “I’ve got to get my family out of here.”

Lockridge agrees. “I just wish we had a refuge place we could go to while we’re fighting,” she says. “You see we’re surrounded.”

Stop Three: The Great White North

Not all of Michigan’s problems are caused by emergency management, but this sweeping new power does lie at the heart of many local controversies. Later that night we meet with retired Detroit city worker, journalist, and organizer Russ Bellant who has made himself something of an expert on the subject.

In 2011, he explains, Governor Snyder signed an emergency manager law known as Public Act 4. The impact of this law and its predecessor, Public Act 72, was dramatic. In the city of Pontiac, for instance, the number of public employees plummeted from 600 to 50. In Detroit, the emergency manager of the school district waged a six-year slash-and-burn campaign that, in the end, shuttered 95 schools. In Benton Harbor, the manager effectively dissolved the city government, declaring: “The fact of the matter is, the city manager is now gone. I am the city manager. I replace the financial director, so I’m the financial director and the city manager. I am the mayor and the commission. And I don’t need them.”

So in 2012, Bellant cancelled all his commitments in Detroit, packed his car full of chocolate pudding snacks, canned juices, and fliers and headed north to support a statewide campaign to repeal the law through a ballot referendum in that fall’s general election. For two months, he crisscrossed the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the part of the state that people say looks like a hand, as well as the remote Upper Peninsula that borders Wisconsin and Canada.

“Seven or eight hours a day, I would just knock on doors,” he says.

In November, the efforts paid off and voters repealed the act, but the celebration was short-lived. Less than two months later, during a lame-duck session of the state legislature, Governor Snyder pushed through and signed Public Act 436, a broader version of the legislation that was referendum-proof. Since then, financial managers have continued to shut down fire departments, outsource police departments, sell off parking meters and public parks. In Flint, the manager even auctioned off the plastic Santa Claus that once adorned city hall, setting the initial bidding price at $5.

And here’s one fact of life in Michigan: emergency management is normally only imposed on majority-black cities. From 2013 to 2014, 52% of the African American residents in the state lived under emergency management, compared to only 2% of white residents. And yet the repeal vote against the previous version of the act was a demographic landslide: 75 out of 83 counties voted to nix the legislation, including all of Michigan’s northern, overwhelmingly white, rural counties. “I think people just internalized that P.A. 4 was undemocratic,” Bellant says.

That next morning, we travel north to the city of Alpena, a 97% whitelakeside town where Bellant knocked on doors and the recall was triumphant. The farther north we head, the more the landscape changes. We pass signs imploring residents to “Take Back America: Liberty Yes, Tyranny No.” Gas stations feature clay figurines of hillbillies drinking moonshine in bathtubs.

It’s almost evening when we arrive. We spend part of our visit at the Dry Dock, a dive bar overseen by a raspy-voiced bartender where all the political and demographic divides of the state — and, in many ways, the country — are on full display. Two masons are arguing about their union; the younger one likes the protections it provides, while his colleague ditched the local because he didn’t want to pay the dues. That move became possible only after Snyder signed controversial “right-to-work” legislation in 2012, allowing workers to opt-out of union dues and causing a sharp decline in union membership ever since.

Above their heads, the television screen projects intentionally terrifying images of the uprising in Baltimore in response to the police murder of Freddie Gray, an unarmed African American man. “The Bloods, the Crips, and the Guerrillas are out for the National Guard,” comments a carpenter about the unarmed protesters, a sneer of distain in his voice. “Not that I like the fucking cops, either,” he adds.

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The bartender of the Dry Dock plays pool with other regulars. Photo credit: Eduardo García

Throughout our visit, people repeatedly told us that Alpena “isn’t Detroit or Flint” and that they have absolutely no fear of the state seizing control of their sleepy, white, touristy city. When we press the question with the owner of a bicycle shop, the hostility rises in his voice as he explains: “Things just run the way they should here” — by which he means, of course, that down in Detroit and Flint, residents don’t run things the way they should.

Yet, misconceptions notwithstanding, the county voted to repeal Public Act 4 with a staggering 63% of those who turned out opting to strike down the law.

Reflecting Bellant’s feeling that locals grasped the law’s undemocratic nature in some basic way, even if it would never affect them personally, one resident offered this explanation: “When you think about living in a democracy, then this is like financial martial law… I know they say these cities need help, but it didn’t feel like something that would help.”

Stop Four: The Fugitive Task Force

The next day, as 2,000 soldiers from the 175th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard fanned out across Baltimore, we head for Detroit’s west side where, only 24 hours earlier, a law enforcement officer shot and killed a 20-year-old man in his living room.

A crowd has already gathered near his house in the early summer heat, exchanging condolences, waving signs, and jostling for position as news crews set up cameras and microphones for a press conference to come. Versions of what happened quickly spread: Terrance Kellom was fatally shot when officers swarmed his house to deliver an arrest warrant. The authorities claim that he grabbed a hammer, prompting the shooting; his father, Kevin,contends Terrance was unarmed and kneeling in front of him when he was shot several times, including once in the back.

Kellom is just one of the 489 people killed in 2015 in the United States by law enforcement officers. There is, however, a disturbing twist to Kellom’s case. He was not, in fact, killed by the police but by a federal agent working with a little known multi-jurisdictional interagency task force coordinated by the U.S. Marshals.

Similar task forces are deployed across the country and they all share the same sordid history: the Marshals have been hunting people ever since the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act compelled the agency to capture slaves fleeing north for freedom. One nineteenth-century newspaper account, celebrating the use of bloodhounds in such hunts, wrote: “The Cuban dog would frequently pull down his game and tear the runaway to pieces before the officers could come up.”

These days, Detroit’s task force has grown particularly active as budget cuts have decimated the local police department. Made up of federal Immigration and Customs officers, police from half a dozen local departments, and even employees of the Social Security Administration office, the Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team has nabbed more than 15,000 people. Arrest rates have soared since 2012, the same year the local police budget was chopped by 20%. Even beyond the task force, the number of federal agents patrolling the city has risen as well. The Border Patrol, for example, has increased its presence in the region by tenfold over the last decade and just two weeks ago announced the launch of a new $14 million Detroit station.

Kevin Kellom approaches the barricade of microphones and begins speaking so quietly that the gathered newscasters crush into each other in an effort to catch what’s he’s saying. “They assassinated my son,” he whispers. “I want justice and I’m going to get justice.”

Yet today, six weeks after Terrance’s death, no charges have been brought against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who fired the fatal shot. Other law enforcement officers who have killed Michigan residents in recent years have similarly escaped punishment. Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley was videotaped killing seven-year-old Aiyana Jones with a submachine gun during a SWAT team raid on her home in 2010. He remains a member of the department. Ann Arbor police officer David Reid is alsoback on duty after fatally shooting 40-year-old artist and mother Aura Rosser in November 2014. The Ann Arbor police department ruled that a “justifiable homicide” because Rosser was holding a small kitchen knife during the encounter — a ruling that Rosser’s family members and city residents are contesting with an ongoing campaign calling for an independent investigation into her death.

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Residents march during a #BlackLivesMatter protest on May 1, 2015, in Ann Arbor to call for an independent investigation into Aura Rosser’s death. Photo credit: Eduardo García

And such deadly incidents continue. Since Kellom’s death, law enforcement officers have fatally shot at least three more Michigan residents — one outside the city of Kalamazoo, another near Lansing, and a third in Battle Creek.

Stop Five: The Unprofitable All-Charter School District

Our final stop is Muskegon Heights, a small city on the banks of Lake Michigan, home to perhaps the most spectacular educational debacle in recent history. Here’s the SparkNotes version. In 2012, members of the Muskegon Heights public school board were given two options: dissolve the district entirely or succumb to an emergency manager’s rule. On arrival, the manager announced that he was dissolving the public school district and forming a new system to be run by the New York-based for-profit charter school management company Mosaica Education. Two years later, that company broke its five-year contract and fled because, according to the emergency manager, “the profit just simply wasn’t there.”

And here’s a grim footnote to this saga: in 2012, in preparation for the new charter school district, cryptically named the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, the emergency manager laid off every single school employee.

“We knew it was coming,” explained one of the city’s longtime elementary school teachers. She asked not to be identified, so I’ll call her Susan. “We received letters in the mail.”

Then, around one a.m. the night before the new charter school district was slated to open, she received a voicemail asking if she could teach the following morning. She agreed, arriving at Martin Luther King Elementary School for what would be the worst year in her more than two-decade career.

When we visit that school, a single-story brick building on the east side of town, the glass of the front door had been smashed and the halls were empty, save for two people removing air conditioning units. But in the fall of 2012, when Susan was summoned, Martin Luther King was still filled with students — and chaos. Schedules were in disarray. Student computers were broken. There were supply shortages of just about everything, even rolls of toilet paper. The district’s already barebones special education program had beenfurther gutted. The “new,” non-unionized teaching staff — about 10% of whom initially did not have valid teaching certificates — were overwhelmingly young, inexperienced, and white. (Approximately 75% of the town’s residents are African American.)

“Everything was about money, I felt, and everyone else felt it, too,” Susan says.

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The smashed glass of the front entrance of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, which closed after students fled the charter school district. Photo credit: Eduardo García 

With her salary slashed to less than $30,000, she picked up a second job at a nearby after-school program. Her health faltered. Instructed by the new administration never to sit down during class, a back condition worsened until surgery was required. The stress began to affect her short-term memory. Finally, in the spring, Susan sought medical leave and never came back.

She was part of a mass exodus. Advocates say that more than half the teachers were either fired, quit, or took medical leave before the 2012-2013 school year ended. Mosaica itself wasn’t far behind, breaking its contract at the end of the 2014 school year. The emergency manager said he understood the company’s financial assessment, comparing the school system to “abroke-down car.” That spring, Governor Snyder visited and called the district“a work in progress.”

Across the state, the education trend has been toward privatization andincreased control over local districts by the governor’s office, with results that are, to say the least, underwhelming. This spring, a report from The Education Trust, an independent national education nonprofit, warned that the state’s system had gone “from bad to worse.”

“We’re now on track to perform lower than the nation’s lowest-performing states,” the report’s author, Amber Arellano, told the local news.

Later that afternoon, we visited the city’s James Jackson Museum of African American History, where we sat with Dr. James Jackson, a family physician and longtime advocate of community-controlled public education in the city.

He explains that the city’s now-failing struggle for local control and quality education is part of a significantly longer history. Most of the town’s families originally arrived here in the first half of the twentieth century from the Jim Crow South, where public schools for Black students were not only abysmally underfunded, but also thwarted by censorship and outside governance, as historian Carter Goodwin Woodson explained in his groundbreaking 1933 study, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Well into the twentieth century, for example, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were barred from grade-school textbooks for being too aspirational. “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” Woodson wrote back then.

More than eight decades later, Dr. Jackson offered similar thoughts about the Muskegon Heights takeover as he led us through the museum, his bright yellow T-shirt reminding us to “Honor Black History Every Day 24/7 — 365.”

“We have to control our own education,” Jackson said, as we passed sepia newspaper clippings of civil rights marches and an 1825 bill of sale for Peggy and her son Jonathan, purchased for $371 by James Aiken of Warren County, Georgia. “Until we control our own school system, we can’t be properly educated.”

As we leave, we stop a moment to take in an electronic sign hanging in the museum’s window that, between announcements about upcoming book club meetings and the establishment’s hours, flashed this refrain in red letters:

The education of
Muskegon Heights
Belongs to the People
Not the governor

The following day, we finally arrived back in Detroit, our notebooks and iPhone audio records and camera memory cards filled to the brim, heads spinning from everything we had seen, our aging Prius-turned-tour-bus in serious need of an oil change.

While we had been bumping along on our Magical Michigan Tour, the national landscape had, in some ways, grown even more surreal. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont, announced that he was challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic ticket. Detroit neuroscientist Dr. Ben Carson — famous for declaring that Obamacare was “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” — entered the Republican circus. And amid the turmoil, Governor Snyder’s style continued to attract attention, including from the editors of Bloomberg View, who toutedhis experience with “urban revitalization,” concluding: “His brand of politics deserves a wider audience.”

So buckle your seat belts and watch out. In some “revitalized” Bloombergian future, you, too, could flee your school district like the students and teachers of Muskegon Heights, or drink contaminated water under the mandate of a state-appointed manager like the residents of Flint, or be guaranteed toxic fumes to breathe like the neighbors of 48217, or get shot like Terrance Kellom by federal agents in your own living room. All you have to do is let Rick Snyder’s yellow submarine cruise into your neighborhood.


Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Guernica, Playboy,Rolling Stone, and frequently at TomDispatch.

Eduardo García is an Ann Arbor-based photographer and researcher focused on indigenous peoples in México, Mexican and Central American migration, disappearances, and social movements in Latin America.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Laura Gottesdiener


This Billionaire Governor Taxed the Rich and Raised the Minimum Wage. Now, His State’s Economy Is One of the Best in the Country

By Carl Gibson, Reader Supported News

Mark_Dayton_MinnesotaThe next time your right-wing family member or former high school classmate posts a status update or tweet about how taxing the rich or increasing workers’ wages kills jobs and makes businesses leave the state, I want you to send them this article.

When he took office in January of 2011, Minnesota governor Mark Dayton inherited a $6.2 billion budget deficit and a 7 percent unemployment rate from his predecessor, Tim Pawlenty, the soon-forgotten Republican candidate for the presidency who called himself Minnesota’s first true fiscally-conservative governor in modern history. Pawlenty prided himself on never raising state taxes – the most he ever did to generate new revenue was increase the tax on cigarettes by 75 cents a pack. Between 2003 and late 2010, when Pawlenty was at the head of Minnesota’s state government, he managed to add only 6,200 more jobs.

During his first four years in office, Gov. Dayton raised the state income tax from 7.85 to 9.85 percent on individuals earning over $150,000, and on couples earning over $250,000 when filing jointly – a tax increase of $2.1 billion. He’s also agreed to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2018, and passed a state law guaranteeing equal pay for women. Republicans like state representative Mark Uglem warned against Gov. Dayton’s tax increases, saying, “The job creators, the big corporations, the small corporations, they will leave. It’s all dollars and sense to them.” The conservative friend or family member you shared this article with would probably say the same if their governor tried something like this. But like Uglem, they would be proven wrong.

Between 2011 and 2015, Gov. Dayton added 172,000 new jobs to Minnesota’s economy – that’s 165,800 more jobs in Dayton’s first term than Pawlenty added in both of his terms combined. Even though Minnesota’s top income tax rate is the 4th-highest in the country, it has the 5th-lowest unemployment rate in the country at 3.6 percent. According to 2012-2013 U.S. census figures, Minnesotans had a median income that was $10,000 larger than the U.S. average, and their median income is still $8,000 more than the U.S. average today.

By late 2013, Minnesota’s private sector job growth exceeded pre-recession levels, and the state’s economy was the 5th fastest-growing in the United States. Forbes even ranked Minnesota the9th-best state for business (Scott Walker’s “Open For Business” Wisconsin came in at a distant #32 on the same list). Despite the fearmongering over businesses fleeing from Dayton’s tax cuts, 6,230 more Minnesotans filed in the top income tax bracket in 2013, just one year after Dayton’s tax increases went through. As of January 2015, Minnesota has a $1 billion budget surplus, and Gov. Dayton has pledged to reinvest more than one third of that money into public schools. And according to Gallup, Minnesota’s economic confidence is higher than any other state

Gov. Dayton didn’t accomplish all of these reforms by shrewdly manipulating people – this article describes Dayton’s astonishing lack of charisma and articulateness. He isn’t a class warrior driven by a desire to get back at the 1 percent – Dayton is a billionaire heir to the Target fortune. It wasn’t just a majority in the legislature that forced him to do it – Dayton had to work with a Republican-controlled legislature for his first two years in office. And unlike his Republican neighbor to the east, Gov. Dayton didn’t assert his will over an unwilling populace by creating obstacles between the people and the vote – Dayton actually created an online voter registration system, making it easier than ever for people to register to vote.

The reason Gov. Dayton was able to radically transform Minnesota’s economy into one of the best in the nation is simple arithmetic. Raising taxes on those who can afford to pay more will turn a deficit into a surplus. Raising the minimum wage will increase the median income. And in a state where education is a budget priority and economic growth is one of the highest in the nation, it only makes sense that more businesses would stay.

It’s official – trickle-down economics is bullshit. Minnesota has proven it once and for all. If you believe otherwise, you are wrong.


Carl Gibson, 27, is co-founder of US Uncut, a nonviolent grassroots movement that mobilized thousands to protest corporate tax dodging and budget cuts in the months leading up to Occupy Wall Street. Carl and other US Uncut activists are featured in the documentary We’re Not Broke, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Carl is also the author of How to Oust a Congressman, an instructional manual on getting rid of corrupt members of Congress and state legislatures based on his experience in the 2012 elections in New Hampshire. He lives in Sacramento, California.


A Man You’ve Never Heard of Saved Your Life

Reprinted from WashingtonsBlog (Posted on February 6, 2015

 Vasili Arkhipov
Covert mission: In a game of high stakes cat and mouse it wasn't long before the Russian's were spotted

On October 27, 1962, a man you’ve never heard of saved your life …

It was at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were on hair trigger alert for World War Three.

And an order to launch a nuclear missile against Americans was actually given by the commander and political officer of a Soviet nuclear submarine.

One man stopped global nuclear war.

Edward Wilson explains in the Guardian:

An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.

The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that world war three had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.

If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have died. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove‘s orgiastic Götterdämmerung – would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China.

***

The decision not to start world war three was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine. The launch of the B-59’s nuclear torpedo required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. Arkhipov was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save a submarine with an overheating reactor. That radiation dose eventually contributed to his death in 1998.

PBS’ The Man Who Saved the World adds details:

Just how close the world came to complete destruction during those dark October days has only recently come to light.

***

“I now believe that it could have meant the end of humanity.”

***

“I saw Defence Secretary McNamara, take Dean Rusk to the side and said, ‘The sun is setting, it could be the last sunset we will ever see.’ And that’s when I got scared.”

***

“There is a specific signal that we have, and that is 3 explosions, grenade explosions, which means you have to surface.

I don’t know what the Americans were doing, but it wasn’t three…”

The American signal to surface is different from the Russians …

***

[The commander and political officer of the Russian nuclear sub both command the launch of a nuclear weapon against the Americans. But Arkhipov said:]

“We don’t know that this is an attack – for all we know they are trying to surface us…”

The future of the world now rests on Vasili Arkhipov’s shoulders…

***

[Gary Slaughter, signalman aboard the American destroyer USS Cony:] “God only bless the man because err, what would have happened after that? We would have been a nuclear war with Soviet Russia, and there would maybe perhaps not be a world.”

The following is a 60-minute video of the PBS program, “Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World.”

We only avoided a nuclear war because one man – Arkhipov – put down his foot and said no.

Postscript: We are also grateful to American military heroes – many of them anonymous – who have blown the whistle on things which could also have led to nuclear war.

Unfortunately, Michel Chossudovsky documents In Towards a World War III Scenario that the U.S. is currently so enamored with nuclear weapons that it has authorized low-level field commanders to use them in the heat of battle in their sole discretion … without any approval from civilian leaders.

Given that top Russians, Americans and Poles say that we’re once again drifting towards a nuclear confrontation with Russia, cool-headed, ethical commanders may be our best chance of preventing catastrophe.


Right-to-carry gun laws linked to increase in violent crime, study shows

Stanford research reaffirms that right-to-carry gun laws are connected with an increase in violent crime. This debunks – with the latest empirical evidence – earlier claims that more guns actually lead to less crime.

Vartanov Anatoly/ShutterstockgunResearch co-authored by law Professor John Donohoe finds that right-to-carry gun laws are linked to an increase in violent crime.

New Stanford research confirms that right-to-carry gun laws are linked to an increase in violent crime.

Right-to-carry or concealed-carry laws have generated much debate in the past two decades – do they make society safer or more dangerous?

While there is no federal law on concealed-carry permits, all 50 states have passed laws allowing citizens to carry certain concealed firearms in public, either without a permit or after obtaining a permit from local government or law enforcement.

Recently published scholarship updates the empirical evidence on this issue. Stanford law Professor John J. Donohue III, Stanford law student Abhay Aneja and doctoral student Alexandria Zhang from Johns Hopkins University were the co-authors of the study.

“Trying to estimate the impact of right-to-carry laws has been a vexing task over the last two decades,” said Donohue, the C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith Professor of Law, in an interview.

He explained that prior research based on data through 1992 indicated that the laws decreased violent crime. But in 2004, he noted, the National Research Council issued a report that found that even extending this data through 2000 revealed no credible statistical evidence these particular laws reduced crime.

‘Totality of the evidence’

Now, Donohue and his colleagues have shown that extending the data yet another decade (1999-2010) provides the most convincing evidence to date that right-to-carry laws are associated with an increase in violent crime.

“The totality of the evidence based on educated judgments about the best statistical models suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates” of aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder, said Donohue.

The strongest evidence was for aggravated assault, with data suggesting that right-to-carry (RTC) laws increase this crime by an estimated 8 percent – and this may actually be understated, according to the researchers.

“Our analysis of the year-by-year impact of RTC laws also suggests that RTC laws increase aggravated assaults,” they wrote.

The evidence is less strong on rape and robbery, Donohue noted. The data from 1979 to 2010 provide evidence that the laws are associated with an increase in rape and robbery.

The murder rate increased in the states with existing right-to-carry laws for the period 1999-2010 when the “confounding influence” of the crack cocaine epidemic is controlled for. The study found that homicides increased in eight states that adopted right-to-carry laws during 1999-2010.

Research obstacles, next step

“Different statistical models can yield different estimated effects, and our ability to ascertain the best model is imperfect,” Donohue said, describing this as the most surprising aspect of the study.

He said that many scholars struggle with the issue of methodology in researching the effects of right-to-carry laws. But overall, his study benefits from the recent data.

Donohue suggested it is worth exploring other methodological approaches as well. “Sensitive results and anomalies – such as the occasional estimates that right-to-carry laws lead to higher rates of property crime – have plagued this inquiry for over a decade,” he said.

Media Contact

John J. Donohue III, Stanford Law School: (650) 721-6339, donohue@law.stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu


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


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