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Updated: 2 hours 42 min ago

Brexit Armageddon

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:47

London, New Year’s Eve 2018.

It is a very English middle-class trait: the world will end if the price of a certain life style goes up.  Certain services will be cut.  Access to certain travel destinations might be restricted. (The usual European haunts in France and Spain rendered dearer if not inaccessible.)  But there is no denying that the attitude to the New Year from this side of the world is one of gloom made normal.

Not a day goes by without a digest of panicked revelations about what will happen in the event of a “no-deal Brexit”.  A lack of certainly has propelled a set of speculations so thick as to be asphyxiating.  But there is always room for more, the next desperate act of a government so cadaverous it can only give vague clues that it is still alive, wincing, dodging and avoiding what faces the United Kingdom before the mandarins in Brussels and the nostalgia driven addicts in the Conservative Party.

London itself is the ground-zero of teeth-chattering panic.  Stockpiling of essentials (and various non-essentials) is taking place in a manner reminiscent of the doom that might arise from nuclear holocaust or a crippling blockade initiated by a foreign power.  These fears are not entirely irrational: no one knows what might happen to the smooth exchange of goods ands services with the EU in the absence of any clear set of guidelines.

The latest manifestations of this sense of heightened neuroses can be found in three ferry contracts that have been awarded to French, British and Danish companies.  But the means of shipping do not combat paperwork on the ground, the sort is bound to mount once Britain’s departure from the EU bloc is enforced.  Chief Executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping Bob Sanguinetti puts it bluntly: “Government is rightly preparing for every eventuality… but it is not clear that government-chartered ships can move goods faster or more efficiently than the private sector.”  The issue of customs remains an obstacle that threatens to hove into view with disrupting menace.

That said, the eve of 2019 featured a comic affair with a bitterly ironic dimension, an episode that rapidly came to be known in Twitterland as Ferrygate, more conventionally termed the Seaborne Freight controversy.  It began with murmurs printed in the Financial Times from the May government that a no-deal Brexit could see the Dover corridor, comprising the port and tunnel, run at between 12-25 percent of normal capacity for half a year.  Given that the proportion of trade being handled through the corridor comes to an eye-popping 52 percent of value of the total trade in goods with the EU (some £422.6 billion), this is more than troubling.

This doomsday scenario was somewhat papered over by the farcical circumstances behind one of the ferry contracts – the British one no less – that was meant to be yet another emergency measure, part of a broader £107.7 million arrangement.  The purpose of the contract will be to provide substitutable capacity to handle exiting volumes of trade that would have otherwise gone through the Dover corridor.

But the jokes piled on quickly: Seaborne Freight, having won a £13.8 million contract to operate ferries on a Ramsgate to Ostend route, had never previously operated ferries and had no intention of doing so till touching distance of the scheduled departure date from the EU. “It has no ships and no trading history,” observed Paul Messenger, Conservative county councillor for Ramsgate, “so how can due diligence be done?”

The Department of Transport finds itself in a state of pulsating anxiety, churning out the paperwork of woe.  The choice of words in its documents supplies more than a hint about what is coming, even if they genuinely cannot imagine what that might be.  Such agreements are being put in place to counter “unforeseeable” situations, which is more than mildly absurd given that those situations are precisely that: unforeseeable.

The entire Brexit reaction has been characterised by a total absence of planning, which propels the circular reasoning that you cannot plan for what you simply do not know.  This feeds the apocalyptic scenarios of empty supermarket shelves and absentee workers in industries characterised by the employ of vast numbers of EU citizens.

It has also bred a total mistrust. Plans circulate with a giddying confusion that show lack of consultation and engagement.  Major motorworks, by way of example, have focused on the port of Dover.  The plan (dare one use the word?) is to turn the M26 motorway into a holding area for hundreds of heavy vehicles to permit traffic greater freedom to move.  In October, local MP Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, was seething in the House of Commons: “It’s come to a pretty pass when [an MP] finds out that works have begun on a motorway to turn that motorway into a parking lot without consultation either with the local community or with surrounding [MPs].”  Fittingly absurd, though not as much as awarding a ferry contract to a company without ships.


Categories: News for progressives

Capitalist Word Play

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:47

Words make up language. Languages make cultures. They describe the world around us in ways the speaker understands. If the listeners hail from the same cultural background, they too understand the message being relayed. That being said, those meanings can change even as they are being told by one to another within the same culture. Examples that come to mind and are fairly well known are the various words US residents use to describe sandwiches. One person’s hero is another person’s sub…and so on. More specific to the point attempting to be made here and in a newly published text by John Patrick Leary titled Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism is the appropriation of words and phrases by the dominant culture that originated among members of a culture or subculture. I like to recall the phrase “Right On!” which originated as an expression of group power in the Black community of the United States. Indeed, in its original context it was often the follow up to an antiphonal call among Black radicals that went: Power Check! Right On! Somewhere along the way, the latter phrase got picked up by an advertising agency. This new use began the phrase’s journey into the mainstream culture.

The example of Right On’s journey into the mainstream is apocryphal in that it was the advertising business that appropriated the term and ultimately de-radicalized its meaning. It is quite often advertisers and their cohorts in the capitalist world that steal a piece of the “underground’s” language and redefine it to fit their needs. The success of these endeavors can be measured in how often the word is used afterwards and how removed it becomes from its original intention.

In 1976, the Marxist cultural critic Raymond Williams published a book also titled Keywords. Like Leary’s text (obviously titled in reference to Williams’ earlier work) this work discusses how words and phrases are appropriated and their meanings ultimately changed. In discussing this phenomenon, Williams examines how these changes reflect the nature of power in a society. Naturally, in a capitalist society, the appropriation of language by the capitalist class is designed to enhance and maintain its domination over the rest of us. In response, it is not unusual for the disenfranchised to take words used to oppress them and redefine them. This latter process could be seen when the LBGT community re-appropriated the word “queer.”

The text by Leary referred to above picks up where Williams book left off. Inspired by his discussion of language and (one assumes) appalled by its continued reworking by the powerful in the economy and academia, Leary’s Keywords provides a survey of words recently appropriated and redefined. This examination reflects the ongoing re-purposing of the language to serve capitalism’s newest champions—the tech industry and the motivational industry. Naturally, the longtime thieves of language are also represented: Wall Street, churches and academia.

I was at a meeting recently where the word “intersectionality” came up during a discussion regarding the text of some publicity material. One of the people at the meeting asked if we could please not use that word in the text we were considering. Their reason was not that they didn’t agree with the original intent of the word. It was that the word “intersectionality” has been appropriated by liberals and even right wing writers; in this appropriation its meaning has become something different—something quite removed from the definition proffered by those who originated the concept.

Although Leary does not discuss the word “intersectionality,” the words he does discuss have suffered similar fates. In other words, their newly created definitions have so mutated their original meanings, it is as if those first definitions never existed. With the Oxford English dictionary at his side, Leary examines the history of each word in his lexicon, it’s usage through time, and the appropriation of these words by management, government and executive boards. In doing this, he has written a clever, even witty examination of the manipulation of language in these days of neoliberal or late stage capitalism. Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism reminds the reader that those who control the language can more easily control the culture while also providing that reader with the tools needed to decipher the capitalist class’s manipulation of the words we use.

Categories: News for progressives

Trump’s Wasteful Military Venture

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:47

The media frenzy surrounding Trump’s political posturing about his wall during the latest government shutdown should not distract us from the fact that 5,000 active duty soldiers remain stationed at the border. This deployment is wasteful, not only of taxpayer dollars, but of potential, valuable experiences that the working people who are our troops could be receiving.

Why engage in this venture? According to now former Defense Secretary Mattis, “in terms of readiness, it’s actually, I believe, so far improving our readiness for deployments.” While that hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement, one must ask what deployments might the administration be planning and why? It is even more bizarre given that Trump has decided to remove soldiers from Afghanistan and Syria.

Such mixed signals highlight the mission’s lack of a clear purpose. Even its name – originally called Operation Faithful Patriot – has changed due to disputes over the reason for the troop’s presence on the border to confront a few thousand Central American asylum seekers. Some have alleged that the deployment was an attempt to rally political support before the midterm elections. Regardless, the deployment’s lack of a coherent objective, as President Trump has given no specifics, has hurt troop morale. With an estimated cost of $200 to $300 million, this use of tax dollars is impossible to justify, as is the waste of soldiers’ time.

What is clear is that military enlistment is potentially a vehicle for upward mobility. Now, perhaps more than ever, this is relevant for who is joining up. Active duty soldiers in the United States Armed Forces are disproportionately rural, people of color, and middle class. According to one study, 44% of military recruits come from rural areas, whereas less than 20% of the country’s total population reside in the countryside. People of color – African-American, Latino, and Asian – make up over 40% of enlisted personnel. Economically, middle-class people enlist at a higher rate than either the poor or the rich.

Whether they reside in rural areas, are people of color, or members of the middle class, working families in the United States currently struggle with job insecurity, an ever-increasing cost of living, and the reality that economically they will do worse than past generations.

Military service is about, or at least it should be about, more than war. It is a way to gain job experience in professions, including engineering, mechanics, and nursing. From the military, working people acquire skills that they put to use in the service of our country and then later, to get ahead in life.

In this deployment, what have the soldiers done at the border? According to one report, “very little.” They live in tents with little electricity and without hot meals and they receive no special pay for this operation because there is no combat. Troops cannot actively assist in border security given that the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act restricts the ability of the military to enforce domestic law – immigration law included. This was made clear on November 25th, when a group of migrants allegedly rushed the Tijuana/San Diego border to enter the United States. It was not military personnel, but border patrol agents, who shot tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

If troops are to be deployed within the United States, then why not set them to work at sites in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the fires that ravaged California, or the hurricanes that devastated Florida and Puerto Rico? There’s plenty of opportunity for military personnel to use and hone their skills in a positive way. Stringing barbed wire for a mission with unclear objectives is hardly the highest and best use of their time.

The reality is that military personnel work for their country and their families. Unfortunately for them, this current operation contributes nothing to their training, as they labor for little more than stroking the President’s vanity and boosting his political ambitions.

Categories: News for progressives

Democrats: Make Labor a Priority for 2020

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:45

Democrats and liberals need to take back the labor issue.

They, along with Republicans, have supported globalization and free trade policies that have stagnated the American wage for nearly 40 years. The worker remains in a precarious state, at the behest of the double-edged sword of outsourcing and artificial intelligence. Under these conditions, in which they are often happy to maintain any job, employers have been able to maintain low salaries and get by with offering only minimal benefits. Contracting out within the U.S. is also a problem, as seen with Uber and other employers that hire “independent contractors” who work long hours, are stripped of benefits traditional employees receive and are penalized for not providing rides around the clock.

A tax penalty for international outsourcing, stricter legal definitions on the “independent contractor” and fines for replacing workers with AI, without first securing an equal paying job, would be a good start. Tariffs on goods damaging American industry are another option. Unlike previous candidates, Trump paid lip service to the miserable conditions of the worker and has placed tariffs on steel imports. But his tax cuts, permanent only for corporations, and his further deregulation of industry have far outweighed any good that tariffs may have initiated. Furthermore, as the U.S. steel industry is already in a state of disrepair, the tariffs can only do so much, while negatively impacting American finished products industries that typically purchase cheap steel from China.

There are some daunting challenges to mainstream Democrats and liberals’ embracing pro-labor policies. First, just as the Republicans are closer to the fossil fuel industry, Democrat are in bed with the high-tech industry. Thus, placing a burden on industries that replace workers with AI faces a logistical hurdle – funding from the high-tech industry may then evaporate. Second, Democrats’ placing strong regulation on businesses is generally unlikely, as Republicans and mainstream Democrats are heavily funded by corporate interests. Lastly, making globalization work for employees requires that they are no longer easily replaceable with inexpensive labor in developing countries. But both parties have long-embraced the ‘freedom’ of American businesses to shift labor overseas, under the pretense of benevolent globalization. Yet placing a tax on businesses that outsource abroad is likely to further erode Democratic campaign funds.

There is also a perception problem among many Democrats and liberals. They hold a sanguine view of displaced workers’ ability to find other employment without difficulty. And they often associate disgruntled, displaced employees with the ‘angry white male’ who voted for Trump. However, worker displacement affects men, women, African Americans, Hispanics and the rest of the ethnic/racial gamut equally – from self-service cash registers replacing human cashiers, to AI removing white collar workers and outsourcing impacting workers throughout the socioeconomic spectrum.

The future of employment in the U.S. does not look very positive – unless Democrats act.

As mainstream Democrats and liberals are unlikely to promote labor reform, grassroots activism funded by a trove of small, individual donations – like the Ocasio-Cortez campaign – should push pro-labor candidates to the forefront for 2020.LGBT issues can temporarily move to the back of the agenda for strategic reasons.

While LGBT rights have made important gains over the past ten-to-fifteen years, labor issues have been largely swept under the rug. The precarity of labor affects everyone; thus, from a utilitarian perspective, the masses’ condition should be improved before focusing on who uses which bathroom. Which bathroom trans people are allowed to use is important enough, but the perfect storm of anti-labor policies over the past several decades and anemic wages has affected all Americans – LGBT, black, white, Hispanic, Asians, male and female, all included.

Labor issues are far less divisive than identity politics and, consequentially, more likely to gain mass support, if elucidated in clear, quotidian language. Furthermore, pro-labor policies are likely to bleed out the white working class’s support for Republicans and Trump in the heartland and key swing states in 2020.
And, most importantly, the ailing condition of the American worker is one of dire need.

Categories: News for progressives

Unions Need to End Pay Inequality Within Their Ranks

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:45

One of the pressing issues of our time has been the growing inequality between the rich and everyone else. It is accompanied by social ills including mass poverty, homelessness, hunger and a lack of decent healthcare. In a country as wealthy as the United States, these conditions should be viewed as crimes against humanity especially when many, including children, have to endure depravity at a time others live excessively opulent lifestyles.

Labor unions are vital to preventing greater inequality. They are under attack because, as is obvious to the wealthy and their enforcers, unions can be a major obstacle to the ability of the rich to accumulate greater wealth. With unions, workers are more likely to receive higher rates of pay and better benefits, be less dominated, have greater job security, and work under better conditions resulting in less of the wealth created by workers ending up in the pockets of the rich.

One would hope that “alternative” institutions critical to the achievement of social justice that include labor unions would not embody characteristics of gross inequality. Unfortunately, while far less egregious than the divide between the super-rich and everyone else, many labor unions do. There are highly paid union leaders and bureaucrats making large six figure incomes whose dues paying members often have extreme difficulties making ends meet.

The Example of Part-Time Teachers in Higher Education

An increasing number of faculty members in higher education work as job-insecure part-timers who are often guaranteed work for only one term at a time. Part-timers make up over 70% of the instructional workforce in higher education teaching more than half the undergraduate classes in public institutions.i

Most receive minimal, if any, benefits. Additionally, they are generally significantly underpaid compared to their full-time tenured “colleagues.” A third of them make less than $2,000 per class taught .ii

Many live in conditions of poverty and rely on public assistance.iii In her 2015 Atlantic article, There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts, Caroline Frederickson pointed out,

“Based on data from the American Community Survey, 31 percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line. And, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food stamps and Medicaid or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit.”iv

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) can be seen as a “progressive” union that is liberally-minded and a champion of social justice and equality. Yet, it embodies unacceptable levels of inequality.

AFT union leaders and negotiators will claim that they favor equal pay for equal work, but, too often, they fail to seriously press the issue in negotiations. They will accept two tier contracts that allow different levels of pay for the same work done by part-timers who are equally as qualified as the more highly-paid full-timers. They will even declare a contract achieved in negotiations that increases the level of inequality among their members a victory.v

Exacerbating these problems of inequality is how union dues are assessed. They are often a fixed percent of one’s gross income. Part-timers pay less in dues than their full-time colleagues, but their ability to pay can be a hardship. Members of my own local union at City College of San Francisco, AFT 2121, pay 1.5% of their gross pay to cover their dues. One who makes $20,000 a year pays $300 while a full-timer making $100,000 pays $1,500. The $300 on a $20,000 income is a much greater burden than paying $1,500 on $100,000 in income.

Much of the dues paid by those who belong to an AFT local union are shipped off to the state and national union. In the case of my own local, in 2014, over $1 million was collected in dues. Significant amounts were sent to the California Federation of Teachers (over $500,000) and to the national American Federation of Teachers (over $225,000.)vi

From the 2016 tax return, one learns that national American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten salary package was for over $510,000 and that four other officials made in excess of $300,000. According to the California Federation of Teachers 2015 tax return, six state officials had salary packages of more than $270,000.vii

Financially struggling part-time faculty are paying dues to enable union officers to receive what, for most people, are lavish salaries—small compared to that received by some corporate CEOs, movie stars and professional athletes, but significantly greater than even members of Congress who in 2018 were paid $174,000!

Possible Reforms

This inequality between union officials and many of their members is not right. It alienates workers from their own unions. This could result in public unions having trouble keeping the workers they represent as members thanks to the Janus decision that allows public employees to opt out of paying dues to unions that will continue to represent them and negotiate contracts on their behalf.

Reforms could and should be put in place. They could include a requirement that no union leader or staff member working full-time has a level of pay with comparable benefits that is more than the average pay and benefits of a represented full-time worker; or that they receive a similar salary package at a level they would have been paid had they remained at the job instead of becoming a union official. Certainly, this could be modified for those leaders living in expensive regions whose workers may have been recently organized or have a level of pay less than $25/hour or $50,000 a year.

The continuation of the current level of inequality between union officials and the people they represent is unacceptable and contrary to social justice. Reforming this situation in ways suggested, and fighting for equal pay for equal work are important, and necessary steps in an effort to end what is today’s widespread gross levels of inequality.

Categories: News for progressives

Alexandria in Pelosistan

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:44

Those of us who live in San Francisco are often accused of inhabiting an alternative reality. I’m starting to think that maybe those SF bashers are right, but not for the reasons they think.

No, lately I have the feeling that I’m slipping down the rabbit hole because of the curious behavior of my representative in Congress, Nancy Pelosi.

Maybe I ate the wrong mushrooms with my avocado toast, but whether I shrink my perspective or expand it to tree top level, nothing quite makes sense here anymore. I thought I was living in the most progressive realm in the USA, but Pelosi, the Queen of Hearts in these parts, still thinks the smart move is playing 1990’s, Clintonite, triangulating, political power games rather than pushing for the real changes we desperately need to improve our lives today and secure a livable future for the generations to come.

I struggle to find a name for this strange place, where the great and urgent issues of our time are treated as if they have no substance, where our nearly octogenarian Queen is unwittingly in league with a grinning Cheshire cat with his orange comb over in resisting substantive change. Out of loyalty, let’s call it Pelosistan (with apologies to Lewis Carroll).

For just one upside down example here in this whimsical realm, our Queen appears to believe that only the most fortunate among us are entitled to quality, affordable health care. Our Queen is on the record as being opposed to Medicare for all (or anything like it) – despite the fact that a substantial majority of people in the nation favor it and our current health care system costs twice as much as that of any other advanced nation, yet the World Health Organization ranks us as the 37thbest health care system in the world, while by other measures we rank 40thin child mortality rate, 62ndin maternity mortality rate, 36thin access to essential health services and 35thin life expectancy at age 60. Hmmmmm. Curioser and curioser.

For another brain teaser, our Queen thinks it’s a clever idea to adopt a pay-go rule for the House of Representatives, meaning you can’t spend any money on new programs without offsetting tax hikes or budget cuts. She thinks it will appeal to voters if the Democrats adopt a Republican austerity strategy, although Republicans themselves refuse to follow such a strategy even as they drone on about its dire necessity. Not only does that seem like she might be taking her advice from a hookah smoking caterpillar, but it makes me wonder what voters she thinks this strategy appeals to. Certainly not her own constituency here in San Francisco.

What makes this all even more perplexing, she has been and will soon be again Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of only a handful of people in Washington D.C. in a position where she can actually make good things happen almost of her own volition. Of course, she can also stop them from happening. It’s within her reach to be a world hero, or a huge impediment to progress.

So, what does our Queen plan to do with her restored power? She has chosen to oppose a novel plan called the Green New Deal, brought within her view, oddly enough, by the latest ingénue unfortunate to fall into her domain. Appropriately for our times, our new Alice has morphed into a darker skinned version of her former self – Alexandria – who uncannily possesses a sorcerer’s command of the arcane rituals of our era, social media.

Our new Alice sees through the croquet game the Queen and her friends are playing, hustling for the best positions and angles in their dangerously insulated, out-of-touch, make-believe world but never accomplishing anything that matters. Our Queen of Hearts does her best to keep us thinking that she really wants to change things by yelling OFF WITH HIS HEAD at the grinning orange beast, but she never follows up on her threats.

So, Alice proposes that our Queen with her new power establish a select committee to hold hearings and create a comprehensive national plan that actually addresses directly the biggest real-world problem we face, and have ever faced, climate change. Our Alice even wants to draft actual legislation to carry out the plan, and stranger still, she wants Democrats to run on the plan as a major plank of the party platform in the 2020 elections. “It’s inevitable that we can use the transition to 100-percent renewable energy as the vehicle to truly deliver and establish economic, social and racial justice in the United States of America. … This is going to be the great society, the moon shot, the civil rights movement of our generation. That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require,” she exhorts our Queen.

But our Queen, a savvy political pro of the first insider order, knows a utopian fable when she sees one. She’s been around for a very, very long time (78 years, mostly during the last century), and apparently expects that the business as usual she helped to create will continue on well into the foreseeable future. Unconcerned with her legacy or how she will be perceived by those outside her realm, she’s obsessed with re-arranging the wickets on the croquet pitch and maintaining her own power. She tells Alice the same thing she’s been saying since the 90’s to all young people who stumble naively into her realm: we’d like to change things but, under the current circumstances, we have to be realistic because there’s only so much we can do.

Besides, our Queen feels that the only platform she and her party need is to go around shouting OFF WITH HIS HEAD, despite her friend Hillary’s failure with the same strategy. Our Queen appears completely oblivious to the fact that Alice was swept into her domain in the first place on a rising sea of her own tears that also carried in its torment a multitude of birds and animals.

So, our Queen, rather than listen to Alice, but not wanting to completely drive her away from playing the croquet game, offers to create a new committee, with a similar sounding name but minus the words Green New Deal. She appoints one of her pretend pinko flamingo cronies to head up the committee. That Alice will have a nearly impossible time knocking any hedgehogs through the wickets she envisions is confirmed when the new committee head immediately proclaims that although the Green New Deal proposal has “some terrific ideas,” those ideas will not be the “sole focus” of the committee’s efforts.

Of course, the last thing our Queen wants is for Alice to grow any larger and stronger, because that would threaten the fragile illusion that she presides over in Pelosistan.

I want to wake from this trippy nightmare dream before the Queen shouts OFF WITH HER HEAD at Alice, but I linger in that space between my dreams and wakefulness, where I still believe that anything can happen, not knowing quite what to do. I’m afraid that when I wake, that orange apparition with his slightly deranged smile and indecipherable pronouncements will still be hovering over me.



Categories: News for progressives

Yellow Vests, Modern Junk Politics and Robespierre

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:44

During the recent holidays, I had the opportunity to listen to my French friends extol the virtues of the yellow vests (gilets jaunes) movement. “We have had enough of the elitist rule that has left most of the French working class economically desperate,” Pierre said. “People have gone into the streets out of dire frustration.” Jean added; “This is not just a complaint about taxes, rather it is an uprising against the oligarchy that has destroyed democracy.”

I listened to their complaints with empathy, fully accepting their descriptions of what the French middle and lower classes are living through. Their emotions seemed genuine; I had no reason to question their analysis of the underlying causes of the recent protests. Where we differed was their inability to answer my simple question: “What is the solution?”

My answer to that question refers back to what is considered to be the first act of modern politics, the beheading of King Charles I of England in 1649 during the civil war between the monarchy and parliamentarians. The beheading highlighted the people’s uprising against the established order. The parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell, scored military victories, eventually capturing the monarch and convicting him of treason before sentencing him to death.

In this historical example, attention should be on the actions before the beheading, involving rulers, parliamentarians, armies and courts. All were legitimate structures of power. The political, in this sense, took place within a given system. Cromwell’s army had the goal of establishing rule by the people within that system. The actual beheading was the culmination of a political process.

The importance of legitimate structures of power is central to politics. “Who are you?” is a typical identity question that has to be answered within some form of authority. Politicians will say “I am the representative of my district in the city government” or “I am the treasurer of my political party in my neighborhood.” Diplomats will say “I am the second secretary of the mission of my country to the United Nations Office in Geneva.” All these examples show an identity within a given order.

But what if you object to that given order? Pierre and Jean’s emotional rejection of President Macron was not part of a political movement. They are not members of any political party. They have no political platform. They rarely vote. They do have a very strong sense that “the system” does not answer their needs, but that is as far as they can go.

Where does this leave the gilets jaunes or previous protest movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring?  The gilets jaunes have succeeded in getting the French President to change some of his policies, but their fundamental dissatisfaction with the way the government has functioned has not yet been reflected in the larger system. In retrospect, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement did not lead to a fundamental change in the United States. On the contrary, Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. And the Arab Spring? Are the situations today in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria or Iraq better than they were in late 2010?

My point is not to be against protests. My point is that emotional protests must include politics. The protesters must have alternative politics if they are to be politically successful.

When Benjamin DeMott wrote about what he called “junk politics” in 2003, he focused on how the political had become debates about civility, compassion, personal lives, and different moral perspectives instead of dealing with larger issues. “Junk politics,” or what he referred to as “touchy-feely,” was DeMott’s way of saying that the American political debate had been ambushed; the political had been lost. Similarly, Joe Klein wrote of “politics lost,” of how politics had become trivialized away from ideology towards only gaining and keeping power.

An update of “junk politics” would be social media encouraging decentralized mass mobilizations featuring a lack of leadership and structures. The gilets jaunes purposefully rejected any formal organization, something that is philosophically understandable, if not admirable, but politically suicidal. For a movement to be sustainable, it must have structure, a fundamental of politics.

My discussion with Pierre and Jean ended when they tried to convince me that there would be a revolution in France from the bottom up. They were proud of how the French people had taken to the streets; they were sure the movement would continue and overturn the current order well beyond Macron’s eventual resignation. Since they had not answered my initial question “What is the solution?” I wished them a happy new year by saying; “Remember Robespierre and the Reign of Terror came after the French Revolution of 1789.”

Categories: News for progressives

The Uighur Question: A Civil Society Solution

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:44

In the last few months, the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) like so many other civil society groups in various parts of the world has been inundated with videos and articles from different sources alleging cruel persecution and harsh oppression of the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province in the Western part of China. It is alleged that the Chinese government views the Uighur and also some other Muslim groups such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyzas as threats to national security given their purported links to terrorism and separatist insurgency. Even a UN human rights panel had issued a report in August 2018 that stated that in order to wean them away from terrorism “as many as 2 million people may have been forced into a vast network of detention camps” in Xinjiang.

In these camps, according to dissident Uighurs, there is a systematic effort to brainwash the detainees. The propaganda is not just about immunising them against militancy or separatist ideologies. They are required it is alleged to abdicate Islamic prohibitions and even to renounce their faith. Torture is apparently common in these camps and even deaths have occurred. Some critics have gone so far as to describe the targeting of the Uighurs as “the most brutal repression the regime has undertaken since the Cultural Revolution.”

The Chinese authorities have denied vehemently these allegations. They reject any suggestion that there has been forced renunciation of Islam in the camps. They admit though that there are re-education centres but focused entirely on combating terrorism, religious extremism and separatism.
These denials have not convinced the critics especially those from civil society in the West and the East. They persist with their allegations and are disappointed that governments as a whole have chosen to keep quiet about the atrocities supposedly committed by the Chinese authorities. They attribute their silence to the governments’ fear that China with its huge economic clout will make things difficult for countries that have become dependent upon Chinese investments and trade for their own economic well-being.

At the same time it is equally true that China is being attacked much more in the media and by civil society groups today than in the past because of its phenomenal rise as a global power. The forces that dominate the present global system resent this since they are hell-bent on perpetuating their hegemony. This is why they are using the media and civil society to expose flaws and foibles in Chinese governance. How Beijing treats the Uighurs and other minorities is perhaps one of those flaws that is susceptible to manipulation and distortion. And indeed, there has been a great deal of exaggeration and hyperbole in the media about the plight of the Uighurs. This does not mean however that the real challenges confronting the Uighurs and other minorities should be glossed over.

To convince everyone that the Chinese government is willing to address genuine Uighur grievances it should invite representatives from civil society in a number of Muslim majority countries to undertake a fact-finding mission to Xinjiang whose primary purpose would be to examine and analyse the actual situation on the ground facing the Uighur and other alleged victims of persecution. The mission should have maximum access to the Uighur community and to the authorities in the province. Members of the mission should have the full freedom to visit the re-education centres and conduct interviews with detainees past and present. The mission’s report should be submitted to not only the authorities in Xinjiang and to the leaders of the Uighur community but also to the government in Beijing. The countries from which the members of the mission are drawn and the world at large should also have full access to its findings.Most of all, one hopes that if the recommendations are feasible, Beijing and Xinjiang will try to implement them with sincere trust.If that is done, it is quite conceivable that the chapter on the Uighurs will be brought to a close.

It is in Beijing’s interest to resolve the Uighur issue in such a manner that the identity and dignity of the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang are protected and enhanced. If injustices against Uighurs real or perceived are allowed to fester much longer, it may erode China’s standing among Muslim majority countries. This is especially so since the Hui, Muslims among the majority Han people, it is alleged, are also now being targeted by the authorities.

As negative perceptions of the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs and other Muslims grow, there could be repercussions in the medium and long-term for China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) since it involves a large number of countries with substantial Muslim populations. China is also heavily dependent upon the import of oil from Muslim countries. There are already civil society groups in a couple of these countries which are unhappy about Beijing’s attitude towards the Uighurs and Muslims in general. They are demanding action against Beijing.

Viewed in this context, resolving Uighur challenges immediately may well secure China’s economic position and fortify its global role.

Categories: News for progressives

Can Nepal Realistically Look to China as an Alternative Trade Partner?

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:43

Three Chinese trekkers in Kathmandu. Photo: Barbara Nimri Aziz.

Three sturdy trekkers step out of a van and hoist top-heavy blue, green and orange rucksacks onto their backs. The two young women and a man then set off on foot, headed to one of Kathmandu’s numerous backpackers’ hotels. I ask where they’ve arrived from; “Langtang”, replies one of the women and hurries on. (Langtang is a rugged, remote valley north of the capital popular with hikers). The trio is likely booked at a Chinese lodge in Nepal’s newly designated “Chinatown”. That’s a crowded strip of shops, hotels and cafes in Thamel, the low-end tourist quarter of the Nepalese capital.

Those three young trippers, all Chinese, are part of an international community enjoying the rigors and glamour of Himalayan hiking. Fitted in climbing boots and North Face jackets, they’re hardly distinguishable from thousands of foreigners striding through Nepal’s middle hills to glimpse the spectacular peaks beyond. Although, it’s doubtful if they reflect on the other side of this seemingly impenetrable stretch of the world’s highest mountains. There, after all, lays the Tibetan province of China, their homeland!

These tourists, along with (Chinese) Tibetans, most of them pilgrims, fly into Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport with other foreign visitors. Their flights originate in Chinese cities however, among them Chengdu, Kunming, and Zhengzhou. With numbers increasing annually, China is reportedly now Nepal’s second largest source of tourists. (China is Nepal’s second largest trade partner, too.) Yet these sightseers represent a minor, although personal, aspect of an established Chinese presence in Nepal.

Chinese are also visible in Kathmandu’s business quarter. Here, enterprising agents search out products for export to China. It’s not uncommon to see visitors from Shanghai or Shenzhen negotiating with pashmina shawl wholesalers and jewelry outlets, with dealers in handcrafted wood, silver and brassware, and with distributors of exotic teas and cosmetics.

Hotels catering to Chinese trekkers seem to be wholly Chinese- operated. Some ask how that’s possible given Nepal’s law against foreign ownership; although silent local partnerships are a common arrangement for foreign businesses here.

Nepali shopkeepers find it increasingly hard to complete when Chinese operators pay above market rates. However, one hears few criticisms of the Chinese presence, certainly nothing comparable to hostility directed at Indian business interests.

India and Nepal have a long and checkered relationship– mainly positive. Nepal’s recently ousted line of monarchs originated in India. And Hinduism, Nepal’s dominant religion, is either indistinguishable from Indian Hinduism or is a fusion of Indian and ancient Nepali traditions.

Being landlocked and without a manufacturing base Nepal became increasingly dependent on India– specifically on Indian imports. Its southern neighbor with whom it shares an almost porous border (of 1,088 miles) is Nepal’s main source of electricity, fossil fuels and virtually all manufactured goods as well as fresh produce. This is facilitated by decades of Indian aid for the construction of roads and transmission lines linking the two countries. India has long been the gateway into and out of Nepal.

Politically, India is a kind of mentor. Nepali opposition figures depended on India’s protection during periods of exile; once in power, newly elected leaders customarily make an inaugural visit to India for sanction and support. Nepal accepts its huge trade deficit with India and its cultural and political dominance as inevitable. But how long can this last?

The danger of their imbalance was manifest three years ago when India subjected Nepal to a mean-spirited economic boycott. That happened on the heels of the traumatic 2015 earthquake. In support of the Madeshi people (a Nepali population who inhabit the southern border regions) with their strong cultural and economic affinity, India effectively sanctioned a punishing trade ban on the Nepalese. Anti-Indian feeling generated during that six-month period is still palpable, perhaps one reason Nepal would welcome a cross Himalayan rail route from China.

Chinese economic interests in Nepal are not new and not confined to tourism. In recent years Chinese goods– phones, an array of electrical and other household items, and clothing and fresh fruits, most entering by air—have become ubiquitous. Chinese products at prices competitive with Indian goods are everywhere, in village and city. But for China to become a real alternative to India, a land corridor is essential.

For years we’ve heard rumors of a China-Nepal railway route. Today it’s a possibility— forged through Himalayan rock and glacier –and is discussed in practical terms. Consisting primarily of bridges and tunnels blasted through the Himalayas from Tibet, it would meet roads approaching the northern frontier from the south. Given China’s engineering successes domestically and advances in its global Belt and Road Initiative, this project is a real option (where Nepal would invest nothing). Thus far China seems tolerant of Nepal’s engineering incapacities and rampant corruption that undermined past construction projects. A December 2018 review of China’s economic interest in Nepal suggests rising investments in construction, transportation and tourism. Since 2013, it notes, “there have been 229 contracts signed between Chinese companies and Nepal, valued at $3.32 billion with $1.88 billion already closed.”

Nepal sees China increasingly as an alternative to Indian domination. Chinese earthquake support was substantial yet low-key; residents still recall the quiet deliberation with which Chinese medical teams worked. This is addition to quake-damaged road repairs and temple reconstruction by China.

As a major center of living Buddhism, a home to tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees created by China’s harsh anti-religious policies, Nepali’s view of China was very negative in the past. That has clearly changed. The number of Tibetan pilgrims from China is rising, while other Chinese visitors show genuine interest in Nepal’s Buddhist institutions. Increasing numbers of Chinese are evident touring the sacred Buddhist shrines of Bauddhanath and Swayambunath in Kathmandu Valley. And it’s reported that Chinese students attend lectures in Buddhism delivered by Tibetan abbots at monasteries there. We should not be surprised if Han Chinese will be found among acolytes taking vows and donning the red robes of Tibetan monk-hood.

Categories: News for progressives

The Troubles of “Invasive” Plants: Collateral Damage, Monsanto, and the Tragedy of Pinyon-Juniper eradication

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:43

St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum). Photo by KtS

This is part one of a three part series. In this part we discuss: a) the negative effects of invasive plant removal methods, b) the involvement of Monsanto in popularizing invasion biology, and c) the tragedy of Pinyon-Juniper forest eradication in the western U.S. under the rubric of “native invasive species management.”

Defining “invasive species” is a slippery proposition.

The U.S. federal government defines it as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

The National Wildlife Federation elevate s environmental considerations, describing it as “any kind of living organism… that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm.”

The Connecticut Audubon society is less discriminating about the effects of introduction. For them, an invasive is any “non-native species that has been introduced, either intentionally or accidentally into a new habitat or has escaped cultivation.”

A plant species doesn’t have to venture far outside its native range to be considered invasive. Such is the case of the endangered Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ), which “ is a frequent target for the chain saws of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department—even though two small stands in Monterey, just fifty miles south, are cherished and protected as natives.” Meanwhile, a 500 mile drive north of its relict range , a large specimen planted by European settlers in the 1850’s is an officially designated “Oregon Heritage Tree,” which we assume grants it some safety.

The State of New York includes a native plant, Silphium perfoliatum , on their “Prohibited and Regulated Invasive Plants” list because its growth is “aggressive.” Here the non-native requirement has been dropped entirely because the plant has committed the crime of thriving.

Similar accusations — of “encroachment” by native flora — are currently playing out with tragic circumstances in the western USA, where native Pinyon-Juniper forests are being eradicated. Juniper is now being called a “native invasive” by some. (We discuss this atrocity below.)

Excluded from the label are domesticated non-native plants on farms, which is not insignificant, considering that over one fifth of the land in the lower 48 states of the USA is cropland. That’s nearly 400 million acres of what was originally habitat for many, many native plant species. The excuse of “Well, we need to eat!” doesn’t fly here; only 20% of this cropland is devoted to growing food directly for US Americans; the remainder is for ethanol production, export industries and livestock feed.

Other exemptions apply. As the US Department of the Interior’s Invasive Species Advisory Committee points out: “Kentucky bluegrass would be considered an invasive species in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, but considered non-invasive a mere 60 miles away at a golf course in Denver.”

It should come as no surprise that one particular human-engineered landscape, though dominated by non-native plants species, nearly always get a pass, and that’s… the residential lawn.

Commercial interests have also been involved in defining what species are invasive and in drafting the official policies that guide the “management” of such species. As we discuss below, Monsanto has played no small part in the US federal stance. They and other chemical companies profit from the sale of herbicides used in “restoration.”

Though there is no consensus on the meaning of the word, “invasive,” the destructive effects of policies that aim to eradicate such plants are beyond doubt.

Negative effects of invasive plant removal efforts

“Invasive” plant species are removed using a variety of methods that can be classified into three broad categories: mechanical, biological and chemical. All means in these categories have their own varying rates of success and drawbacks. As practiced, few are effective at removing their targets without killing non-targets, and only then at very small scales. As the size of a particular project grows, so does the likelihood of unintended consequences and collateral damage.


Mechanical means include mowing, tilling, weed-whacking, smothering (with organic materials like mulch or synthetic ones like nylon fabric), soil solarization (covering the ground with plastic to kill plants and seeds), flooding (or alternately draining water if the target species is aquatic), prescribed burning, and simply pulling, hoeing or chopping by hand. Each of these processes varies in its precision (as measured by how many non-target species are also affected). Some, such as flooding, burning or smothering, affect all plants in the area of application. The particularity of others depends on the tools or materials used and on the operator’s skills, attention and concern. Unfortunately, it’s too often the case that operators lack those characteristics or are not properly equipped. The result is damage to non-”invasive” plants, the ones whose well-being is ostensibly of such strong interest.

In some cases, entire landscapes are scraped of all vegetative life. In the example of a project to remove European Beach Grass on a beach in Oregon, before and after photos document a process whose “success” resembles a moonscape. One is reminded of the adage, “We Had to Destroy the Village to Save It.

Further, non-target species are not limited to plants. Animals can also be displaced, injured or killed by all of the above methods. Burrowing mammals and reptiles can be chopped up, buried, asphyxiated, drowned or have their homes excavated (like the time I accidentally cut a Skink in half with a shovel blade while weeding a garden). Insects are harmed in their various life-stages, during some of which—caterpillars in cocoons, for example—they are unable to attempt escape. Fish and other aquatic creatures might lose an entire generation if their eggs are nestled in plants exposed by lowered water or buried in muddy lake floors that get covered by a “benthic barrier.” (Benthic barriers are sheets made of plastic, nylon, or burlap that are used to smother weeds underwater and which reduce or eliminate sunlight, deplete oxygen, and lead to gas production from decaying matter.)

The time taken to recover from the disturbance made by mechanical means differs depending on method, climate, season, etc. A quick bounce-back could be expected in the case of a careful individual digging up of blackberry canes in the US Pacific Northwest in springtime, for example. By contrast, a much longer time is needed when a Pinyon-Juniper woodland is “chained,” a process in which a very large chain is dragged between two tractors, uprooting everything in its path. Not only do trees need multiple decades to grow back, but the time required for certain soil-borne mosses in these ecosystems to completely regenerate might be well over two centuries.[1]

Additionally, mechanical means can actually encourage the reproduction of particular plants that thrive on certain disturbances. For example, Bindweed (the common name of several vining species in the Morning Glory family, most commonly in the genera Convolvulus or Calystegia) is very effectively spread by getting dug up or tilled under. A severed root fragment of as little as half an inch in length can produce an entirely new plant. This characteristic of Bindweed is well known in agricultural circles and we made the discovery for ourselves during our farming years.

Compared to chemical methods, mechanical ones can more easily be limited to target species because of their hands-on nature. However, they are usually more expensive than chemical methods due to equipment needs and labor hours, and so are often eschewed for that reason. Too often, saving a buck is more important than doing the best job.


Biological methods entail introducing additional non-native species that will consume the target plant. Most commonly, the new species are insects native to the target plant’s original habitat who were predators of the plant there. Ideally, the new species consumes only the target plant (i.e., has “host-specificity”), but it hasn’t always turned out this way. Warns the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS): “Classical biocontrol is irreversible and therefore it is essential that all potential consequences are adequately considered beforehand” [our emphasis]. Of course, it is impossible to foresee “all potential consequences.” That means trouble of some kind.

FWS lists a few ways in which introducing new species as a biocontrol can backfire. These are not hypothetical. Each one has been documented.

Non-target Attacks and Host-Shifting : Despite prior research, new predators can expand their diet to include non-target plants after they have been introduced. Such plants might be native or agricultural, so the damage can be ecological or economic.

Accidental Introductions : Despite care with collection and transport, other species can accompany the intended one. Cites the FWS: “For example, the pathogen Nosema was accidentally introduced as a contaminant of a weevil (Trichosirocalus horridus) introduced to control musk thistle.” Nosema affects Honey Bees and is a possible cause of colony-collapse disorder.

Food Web Interactions: An introduced species can throw off the balance in an ecosystem. FWS relates the case of a gall fly introduced to control a non-native plant that ended up becoming “superabundant” itself. This led to a two to three increase in the population of Deer Mice, which raised concerns that they might over eat native plants.

Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences lists over forty species of insects currently being used for biological control of “weeds.” One example is the so-called, “Klamathweed Beetle” (Chrysolina quadrigemina), which was released into the wild in California in the late-1940’s to control St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), a plant that Europeans imported in part for its medicinal uses. St. Johnny, as some herbalists call it, has become widespread throughout disturbed areas such as agricultural zones and along logging roads. Despite the voracious appetite of the beetle—which we witnessed ourselves in herb gardens where we were tending H. perforatum for harvesting—the plant remains common.

Not at all incidentally, the primary concern with St. Johnswort is that it causes phototoxicity in sheep. So the issue is economic, not ecological, and is being undertaken in the interest of a species that is itself non-native. Furthermore, though it is often claimed that the plant pushes out native plants in the disturbed areas where it thrives, we could not find any sources that actually demonstrate that allegation. For example, one article that is repeatedly cited to back up that claim merely restates it but offers no data or additional citation. In fact, the article is not even about the growth habits of St. Johnswort at all, but about the use of aphids as a biological control against it in Australia. One might be forgiven for wondering if the numerous people citing this article actually read it.

Domesticated animals are also used to eradicate invasive plants, but their role in these efforts is quite small compared to other methods. More significantly, cattle and sheep have played a major role in the distribution of non-native plant species, and in some areas—such as the arid non-agricultural west of the USA—have been one of the main vectors. Brush goats (Capra aegagrus hircus) have been increasingly popular in recent years—including in urban areas—but they will famously eat virtually anything (including plants that are toxic to them) so care needs to be taken.


Chemical methods for eradicating invasive plants are the most common because they are cheap and effective. Of course, they are also effective at killing non-target plants, and that result is quite common. In fact—and shockingly—less than 1% of a sprayed herbicide application ends up being delivered to the intended target. The remainder—if one can use that word to mean “the vast majority”—is dispersed into the surrounding environment. As a science, it’s quite a far cry from “exact.” A 1% success rate in just about any other endeavor would be considered a dismal failure.

What do the “extra” chemicals do? Let’s look at glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide in the world, which is manufactured by Monsanto and is the active ingredient in their notorious product, Round-Up. As a “broad spectrum” agent, it kills many kinds of plants, both terrestrial and aquatic, including algae. Sublethal doses are also harmful and lead to higher rates of fungal diseases and lower rates of micronutrient uptake. Additionally, glyphosate destroys beneficial bacteria and microorganisms in the soil, complicating recovery for native plants who no longer have the soil components required for health. As if that wasn’t enough, the bacteria that break down herbicides increase in number, further throwing off soil balance. Soil structure is also detrimentally effected by the way glyphosate binds with soil particles, which can lead to lower crops yields (and defeats the point of using it).

In the Animal Kingdom, glyphosate is also highly problematic. It can “cause genetic damage in fish, and also disrupt their immune systems… can cause genetic damage in insects… [and] can harm amphibians in a variety of ways, including causing genetic damage and disrupting their development.” In humans, “symptoms of exposure to glyphosate include eye irritation, burning eyes, blurred vision, skin rashes, burning or itchy skin, nausea, sore throat, asthma and difficulty breathing, headache, lethargy, nose bleeds, and dizziness” and it has been associated with “increased risks of the cancer non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, miscarriages, and attention deficit disorder.”

For years, the dangers of glyphosate to humans had been considered a matter of debate, but in a landmark court case in August 2018, a jury ordered glyphosate-manufacturer Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a California grounds keeper who was dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With this precedent set, further lawsuits are expected. This is good news.

The use of any herbicide at all that kills non-target, native species reduces the area’s biodiversity, and not just of the plants. Any animals and insects that depend on those plants are also impacted. Furthermore, these holes punched in the ecosystem adversely affect the natural processes of succession that previously existed. Herbicides take the story “off script,” so to speak, and there’s no guarantee the remaining players will be able to improvise themselves out of their conundrum.

Direct exposure to herbicides is not necessary to suffer from them. Through a process known as “biomagnification,” levels of toxins increase in the natural food chain. So, a tainted plant is nibbled by a mouse who is eaten by a snake who is caught by a bird of prey. Not only is the bird poisoned, but the resulting level of accumulation is at a higher concentration than would happen through direct exposure.

The more that herbicides are used, the more that certain target plants can adapt and survive. “Pesticide resistance” has become a real issue, and the solution so far has been to apply more poisons, which of course leads to more “collateral” damage. It’s a vicious cycle that we cannot afford to continue.

But there are definitely “conservationists” and even “environmentalists” out there who are enthusiastic about dumping poisons on living things when the targets are invasive plants. Something about the “invasive” concept works to sweep aside thoughtfulness.

Alien species seem practically designed to excite public concern. Almost by definition they are most abundant, and most visible, in the most highly human-modified habitats, such as towns and cities. Personal encounters with aliens are routine, so everyone has an opinion, and it’s often ‘obvious’ that aliens are actively supplanting natives, even if that isn’t what’s happening at all. It’s equally ‘obvious’ that something must be done, even if it’s not clear what that should be, and even if ill-judged intervention might only make things worse. [2]

It is our stance that herbicides are always an “ill-judged intervention” in restoration. If that seems extreme, that’s only because invasive ideology has pushed the mainstream of discussion to such an extreme place, where the perverse logic of war has been made commonplace.

The Feds (and Monsanto) sound the invasives alarm

The story of how the invasive species concept came to such wide public prominence starts in the late 1990s.

Although invasion biology as a school of thought was inspired by the 1958 publication of Charles S. Elton’s “The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants,” that book did not attract much attention for decades, even among biologists. It would not be scientific interests that would fuel the charge, but commercial motivations.

A watershed moment came on Feb. 3, 1999, with the issuing by President Clinton of Executive Order 13112 , which created the National Invasive Species Council (NISC). The order defines an invasive species as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Note that “economic” precedes “environmental.” That’s not an accident.

Back up two years to 1997, when the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) set up the “Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel” to make policy recommendations about a range of environmental issues including invasive species. PCAST’s membership was comprised about half/half of people from academia and the corporate world. From the latter were representatives from Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin (because apparently the military-industrial complex has to be involved in everything), D.E. Shaw & Co. (an investment firm), Glaxo-Wellcome (pharmaceuticals, now GlaxoSmithKline), IBM and… Monsanto.

The panel was chaired by Peter Raven. Raven was a nationally known botanist, the Director of the famous Missouri Botanical Gardens and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, but it was undoubtedly his ties to Monsanto that gained him his esteemed position on the panel. As reported by journalist Andrew Cockburn, Monsanto and Raven enjoyed a close relationship that included large donations from Monsanto to the Missouri Botanical Garden. In kind, Raven used his academic credibility, good reputation, and extensive network to help sell the public on the idea of genetically modified crops, which were then a recent development (having first been planted commercially in the US in 1996).

Then and now, Monsanto produces GMO crops that are “Round-Up resistant,” meaning they are not harmed by application of the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto also manufactures. (No GMO crop to date has been developed for higher yields per se.) As the planting of GMO crops has become more widespread, so has the use of glyphosate and its negative affects on the environment, including steep declines in the populations of the Monarch butterfly, whose host plant has been especially hard hit by the notorious environmental toxin.

In March 1998, the panel issued its report, “Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America’s Living Capital.” The political message is clear in the first lines: “Over the last few decades, a new paradigm has emerged: Improving and protecting our environment is compatible with growing the Nation’s economy.” As any serious environmentalist knows, that’s a statement of fantasy, not fact. The resources of the planet are finite, while the appetites of an expanding economy are endless. The two are incompatible. Raven, of all people, should know that, having collaborated with Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, back in the day.

There’s a lot of talk in “Teaming with Life” about “sustainable management,” “natural capital,” “biological resources,” “economic incentives to conserve” and the “’next generation’ national biological information infrastructure.” “Ecosystem services” are mentioned no less than 35 times. It’s doublespeak that has nothing to do with true conservation and everything to do with corporate bottom-lines, especially of the industries represented on the panel. Monsanto’s favorite, genetic research, is found under nearly every subject heading in the report. The second recommendation made in the Executive Summary is to “search out America’s biological species, their genetic properties, and their interrelationship” [our emphasis]. For Monsanto, the value of biodiversity is that “with genetic engineering, helpful traits in these wild relatives may be transferred to the crop species.”

Mentions of invasive species are sprinkled throughout the report, including the incredible claim that “at present, approximately one-fourth of annual US agricultural GNP is lost to invasive species and the cost of controlling them” We were unable to confirm or locate this figure anywhere else.

The report recommended “a mechanism to coordinate resources and initiatives to evaluate, control and mitigate the impact of invasive species should be developed across Federal agencies.”

That very outcome came to fruition a little less than a year later with Clinton’s executive order forming the NISC. In hindsight, we can recognize this action as yet another example of the neo-liberal ism that guided Clinton’s governance: the state’s role as regulator was exchanged for that of enabler, and instead of the commons being protect ed , it was divvied up amongst the highest bidders. But all with the right-sounding language, so most people were sold on it.

Cockburn notes that “among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson, a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for ‘habitat-restoration markets’—that is, for eradicating invasives.”

We respectfully suggest that you can have a process of legitimate scientific review and recommendation or you can have a process involving Monsanto every step of the way, but that you can no t have both.

Every political process involves compromise. In this case the compromise was between, on one hand, powerful industries with fat purses , and on the other, academic institutions that seek research funding. So, one unstated but understood element for all participants was financial interest of some kind. Their work cannot be understood clearly without taking that element into account. There is no moral judgment in this observation; it is simply descriptive.

Why does it matter? Because entities like NISC play a significant role in setting both the tone of the discussion and the parameters of action for the issues they cover. That’s the purpose of such public/private partnerships. The “stakeholders” agree what’s important and that’s how policy is dictated and how funds are disbursed. The messaging trickles down through related institutions and reaches the level of the individual with the resonance of distant but respected authority.

Fast-forward to 2016.

The NISC has now existed for seventeen years. Hundreds of government agencies at every level, from city, county and state to federal , are targeting invasive plants in their jurisdictions, taking their cues from above. Glyphosate has become a favorite eradication method across the nation. In 2014, “the federal government spent more than $2 billion to fight the alien invasion, up to half of which was budgeted for glyphosate and other poisons.” Budgets increased in both 2015 and 2016.

NISC’s “Management Plan, 2016-2018,” approved on July 11, 2016 contains a few interesting nuggets:

+ A recommendation to use free trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership to work with other nations towards “enhancing efforts to assess and address the risks and adverse impacts of invasive species.” Here’s a way to expand markets globally.

+ A warning! “ The United States currently lacks the comprehensive authority, or clarity of authority, necessary to effectively prevent, eradicate, and control invasive species that impact the human-built environment (“infrastructure”)… and that cause or transmit wildlife disease.” Thus are identified two more areas for expanding commercial markets.

+ By far the most malevolent item, we felt: “ By altering the genomes of entire populations of wild organisms , genetic editing may improve capacities to prevent, eradicate, and/or control populations of invasive species currently thought to be an indefinite problem” [our emphasis].

The issue of invasives has been receiving increasing attention from the power structure since 1999. Why is that? Let’s assume the issues as stated are real and have worsened since then; even if that’s the case, it’s still doesn’t necessarily answer the question. The climate crisis has increased tremendously since 1999 but there has been no concomitant ramping up of resources to address it, and it’s a bigger one: literally existential for the human race. Other crises have also worsened—over drinking water, affordable housing, and access to healthy food, for example—and none have merited an executive-ordered brain trust. No, the rising level of attention for invasives in officialdom is not about science or ecology or need; it’s simply reflective of the growing opportunities for profit by certain powerful players, most prominently herbicide manufacturers.

If there is a real invasion crisis, they’re not looking to solve it, just like no arms manufacturer wants to see world peace. So if you believe that there is a legitimate invasion crisis—and that’s a subject that deserves serious treatment—then you need to look beyond the conventional wisdom as filtered down to us from above. If we want facts, we need to start from the ground up. And lucky for us, that’s where we all happen to be, isn’t it?

The two of us daily mourn the hurts in the world that need healing. Also, it’s not that we don’t believe in invasions. We know that a very real one happened in 1492 and that forces of domination have occupied the continent since then. We agree that something doesn’t belong here. That’s where we’d like to focus our attention.

The Pinyon-Juniper forest tragedy

A pointless, brutal tragedy is currently taking place in the Great Basin of the US American west: the destruction of native Pinyon-Juniper forests. Old growth trees are being clear-cut, shredded and mulched. Collateral damage is being suffered by the vibrant community of flora and fauna these forests host.

As noted by biologist Katie Fite, this campaign against Pinyon-Juniper forests is the third wave in a series of massive assaults in US history. The first happened in the second half of the 19th Century when “trees were clearcut over vast areas—even their roots dug out—to produce charcoal to process gold and silver ore.” The purpose of the second wave, after WWII, was to clear land for ranchers. Trees were cut, chained, sprayed and burned on a large-scale basis until the 90’s. Three million acres were converted to pasture between 1950 and 1964, and more than a third of a million acres between 1960 and 1972, in Utah and Nevada alone. [3]

The current wave is being spearheaded by the BLM and the Forest Service and once again for the benefit of ranchers, though that’s not how it’s being presented. Instead, the ostensible reasons are to improve Sage- G rouse habitat, control wildfires, and halt the spread of so-called “native invasive” specie s, a new label being pinned on the Pinyon and Juniper trees.

We hasten to note that the “native invasive” concept does not enjoy consensus in the invasion biology community, at least not yet. But for the Pinyon-Juniper forests being decimated right now under that rubric, that’s no consolation.

Not that the word, “invasive,” has to be spoken for its damning specter to be invoked. In project descriptions, the BLM talks about the need to “restore natural site conditions” and remove “encroaching pinyon-juniper trees.” This isn’t the letter, but it’s the spirit. These are fighting words and they spur on the eradication of an enemy without any further justification. The language paves the way. Not for the first time in history , the popularity of an inciting ideology is giving cover to a criminal act.

How can the Pinyon tree be “encroaching” when it has lived in the area for so long? The Single-Needled Pinyon (Pinus monophylla), which is the dominant Pinyon species in Nevada and to the west, originated around 20 million years ago as a mutation of the Colorado Pinyon (Pinus edulis).[4] That makes P. monophylla 100 times older than Homo sapiens, which only goes back 200,000 years. Considering the age difference, do we have any right at all to question the wisdom of this elder? We’re serious. Maybe we ought to get off of their lawn.

P. edulis, which is even older, is currently found in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, but the ranges of both species have experienced expansions and contractions as climatic conditions have changed. For example, since the end of the last glaciation period, 11,700 years ago, they have been moving steadily northwards. ”Historic range” has been fluid over time but aren’t the locals just allowed to amble where they wish?

The BLM “treatments” in the Great Basin, both proposed and ongoing, include “lop and drop,” mastication, herbicides and chaining. Chaining involves attaching a huge anchor chain from a battleship between two tractors and dragging it along the desert floor, ripping trees and bushes from the ground, wrecking delicate soil crusts, and killing or injuring countless other creatures in their dens, nests and hideouts. The extent of the damage is unknown, as it is not being adequately tracked.

These “treatments” are presented as a viable option for creating Sage- G rouse habitat, rather than, say, removing cattle from degraded habitat so it can recover or not opening up current, more intact habitat for fracking. Other bogus reasons for “treatment” include decreasing erosion (whatever that means), and increasing stream flow for water users (who are already taking more than can be sustained).

Will Falk, an eloquently spoken friend of Pinyon-Juniper forests, summed it up well:

“The Pinyon-Juniper encroachment theory is a product of settler colonialism’s historical amnesia. One of the products of the white supremacy brought to the Great Basin by European settlers is a selective memory that ignores guilt-inducing facts of ecological destruction wrought on the Great Basin by European mining activities.”

Amnesia is right. The proponents of “encroachment” projects repeatedly refer to historical ranges of Pinyon-Juniper woodlands from the early 20th Century, a reference date conveniently placed after the massive clear-cutting of the late 19th Century, which significantly impacted these ancient forests and reduced their ranges locally.

A visit to the old Ward charcoal kilns on state park land outside Ely, Nevada, provide a great opportunity to confirm evidence of the former clear-cutting, as Nicole saw for herself on a 2017 visit. This is only one of many operations where thriving forests were converted into fuel for smelting ore. Tourist signs boast of how during their three years of operation (1876-1879), all the trees were cleared for thirty miles in every direction. As the trees of forest have returned to their recently vacated home, with the help of birds and other creatures, they have been falsely described as “encroaching.” The foothills in that valley have been subjected to removal treatment well within thirty miles of the ovens.

The Ward charcoal kilns that Nicole visited, Spring 2017

The Ward Charcoal Kilns [Photo N.P. Hill]

About fifty miles west of Ely is the town of Eureka, where “by 1878 the woodland was nowhere closer than fifty miles.”[5] This history repeats itself, about every 50 miles, all across the state along Highway 50, west to Virginia City. Throughout the entire area, Pinyon-Juniper forests have been recovering their native range, but certain invasive humans can’t leave them alone.

Such humans who argue for this “restoration” cite research that lacks real data, but no matter; they rely heavily on anxiety inducing language, and that’ll do the trick. This is a recurring theme that echoes through invasive biology. A fearful claim of invasion is the beginning bias of research, so results are reported as such, that bias is fed to the public and the restoration industry is fueled by public tax dollars and grants to answer the destructive cry. Take this sentence: “Most ecologists and resource managers agree that juniper has become a deleterious native invasive plant that threatens other vegetation ecosystems, such as grasslands, through a steady encroachment and ultimate domination” [our emphasis]. “Deleterious,” “threatens,” “encroachment,” “domination”: Those words describe someone, for sure, but it’s not Juniper.

We must point out that an indispensable party is left out of nearly all discussions of the Pinyon-Juniper forests and that’s the Native Americans. Pinyons were central to the lifeways of many tribes including the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, Cahuilla, Havasupai, Hopi and Kawaiisu, among others, who enjoyed the nuts as a staple food in a variety of delicious and healthy preparations; availed of the pitch and resin medicinally for a multitude of ailments; and utilized the needles, bark and wood for crafts and tools. Juniper berries also provided a source of sustenance for different tribes, though they were more sparingly employed.[6] The campaign to remove these trees in the 19thCentury didn’t just provide fuel for industry. Like the annihilation of the buffalo in the Midwest at the same time, it served to sever the Native Americans from their land by slaughtering their sources of sustenance.[7]

In this way, the current assault on Pinyon-Juniper forests is just the latest chapter of the Indian Wars, which never ended.

So yes, let’s take this word—“invasive”—and let’s stick it where it belongs. But that’s not on plants who have lived here for tens of millions of years—or on any plant at all, for that matter, who are all merely acting in their own nature, regardless of where they end up, no fault of their own. No, there’s one place and one place only where that word belongs and that’s on the savage culture of death that arrived here from the “Old World” in 1492 and is still viscously occupying this land.

We who benefit from this reality need to own up to it and stop dishing out the blame where it doesn’t belong. As a start.

In Part 2, we will detail some of the questionable statistics that bolster invasion biology.

In Part 3, we will discuss the ramifications of climate change for invasion biology, the bad science behind Tamarisk & Russian Olive removal, and the cultural issues raised by invasion biology’s popularity.


[1] Jones, Allison & Catlin, Jim & Vazquez, Emanuel “Mechanical Treatment of Piñon-Juniper and Sagebrush Systems in the Intermountain West: A Review of the Literature” (Wild Utah Project).
[2] Thompson, Ken. Where Do Camels Belong? The Story and Science of Invasive Species. (London: Profile Books, 2014), epub edition, location: 82.5.
[3] Lanner, Ronald M. The Pinyon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History. (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1981), p. 144.
[4] Lanner, from “Chapter 3—Origin of a Species: How the Singleleaf Piñon Was Born.”
[5] Lanner, p. 136.
[6] Sonnenblume, Kollibri terre. “Singleleaf Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla)” and “California Juniper (Juniperus californica)” entries in Wildflowers of Joshua Tree Country (Portland, Oregon: Macska Moksha Press), 2015.
[7] Lanner, from “Chapter 15—Fuel for a Silver Empire.”

Nicole Patrice Hill holds a bachelors degree in Environmental Science with a minor in Botany. She is a former farmer who has been exploring the wildtending life in the US American west. Ms. Hill can be reached at wildwiskedjak (AT) riseup (DOT) net

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer, photographer, tree hugger, animal lover and dissident, whose work can be found at Macska Moksha Press. Kollibri can be reached at kollibri (AT) macskamoksha (DOT) com

Categories: News for progressives

A Loose Canon for Peace

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:43

Circle the wagons!

Apparently what’s under assault is war itself, or so the Establishment believes, in the wake of the shocking announcement by the president that he plans to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops now deployed in Syria and 7,000, or half, the U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

No, can’t do that! Can’t do that! This screws everything up. “. . . we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours,” writes Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis in his resignation letter to Donald Trump over the issue.

And the New York Times noted that Trump’s decision “risks leaving United States’ allies in the long-running war weakened while strengthening rivals backed by Iran and Russia.

“American troops entered Syria in 2015 as part of a coalition fighting the Islamic State, which had seized large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. In the three years since, the extremist group’s self-declared caliphate has crumbled. But the continuing lack of stability in both Syria and Iraq could provide fertile ground for the jihadists to retrench.”

Sounds sensible enough until you factor in the fact that the pursuit of short-term national interests and, indeed, war itself — particularly the wars fomented by, underwritten and armed by the United States over the last two decades — are the primary cause of global instability and the upsurge of terrorism. There’s never an acknowledgment, by the war establishment, of the consequences of militarism, just an abstract discussion of strategy and “interests.”

Since Mad Dog is the face of reasonable opposition to these U.S. troop withdrawals, let me pause for a moment simply to note that, as commanding officer of the two U.S. invasions of Fallujah in the early stages of the Iraq war, in April and November 2004, he’s a full-on war criminal.

Dahr Jamail, writing at Truthout, tells us: “While reporting from inside Fallujah during (the April) siege, I personally witnessed women, children, elderly people and ambulances being targeted by U.S. snipers under Mattis’ command. Needless to say, all of these are war crimes.

“During the November siege of Fallujah later that same year, which I also covered first-hand, more than 5,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. Most were buried in mass graves in the aftermath of the siege.

“Mosques were deliberately targeted by the U.S. military, hospitals bombed, medical workers detained, ambulances shot at, cease-fires violated, media repressed, and the use of depleted uranium was widespread. All of these are, again, war crimes.”

The horror inflicted on Fallujah is, of course, merely the tippy-tip of the military iceberg, but my God, I must ask the New York Times and all the rest of the media that fell in line behind GWB and supported the horrific and pointless invasion of Iraq: Why are the consequences — and failures — of our past wars never part of the present discussion? Why is a larger vision, a peace vision, never given serious consideration when it comes to U.S. foreign policy?

“It is common,” Richard Falk pointed out in an interview with Daniel Falcone, “for media pundits to question policy choices so long as they do not touch the fundamental guidelines of structure and geopolitical priorities that have shaped the American global role ever since 1945. These fundamentals include . . . the globe-girdling military presence as typified by more than 800 overseas military bases, a sizable naval operation patrolling in every ocean, and a capability to wage hyper war from any point in space.”

Beyond the establishment’s offense taken, the question remains: What is the value of Trump’s decision to start shrinking U.S. involvement in several war-ravaged sectors of the Middle East?

Understandably, peace activists remain wary. He’s an America Firster who wants to wall off “USA! USA!” from the global rabble at our southern border. He’s a racist and NRA shill who feeds refugee children to his base. He’s a corrupt narcissist with fascist inclinations and an ego the size of Mussolini. He’s a loose cannon. Has he suddenly become a loose cannon for peace?

Well, maybe.

A statement released by the organization World Beyond War, which has been calling for the U.S. withdrawal from Syria since 2015, acknowledges that Trump’s plan is a beginning, but only that. In a statement released shortly after Trump’s announcement, it notes:

“Removing troops from the ground — all of them, not just some — and ceasing base construction, if it happens, will be a start.

“Even more important is ceasing to bomb from above.

“In addition, alternative approaches need to be launched, including unarmed peaceworkers, a weapons ban for the region, a disarmament program, major actual humanitarian aid (and an end to sanctions that harm ordinary people), and diplomacy.”

The statement acknowledges that leaving a war is enormously complex and things can get worse before they get better, especially without intelligent preparation and a willingness to invest in social healing. However: “Things have been getting worse for years all over Syria, without that ever being understood as a reason to halt the militarism.”

What has to happen next is that building peace becomes the norm. As Falk pointed out in his interview: “Humanity remains trapped in a cage sometimes called ‘the war system,’ which has the semblance of a permanent lockup.”

Without intending to, Trump may have opened the cage door. Now the hard part must begin.

Categories: News for progressives

A Philosophy of Liberation in Pressing Times

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:43

Like a Rembrandt, Professor Frederick B. Mills* assembles philosophical brush strokes of insight on Mexican prolific philosopher Enrique Dussel in his recent book (monograph) titled Ethics of Liberation: An Introduction (2018).  All gestures of critique by Mills’s research and interviews with Dussel are liberating thoughts, groundbreaking moments of awe for the intellectual, the grass-root organizer, the student and the worker to go beyond contemplation. The kinetics behind Dussel’s Philosophy of Liberation is to engage and transform.

By cross examining modernity’s Eurocentric philosophies of exclusion and marginalization of the poor and excluded, Professor Mills brings to the forefront Dussel’s analectic method concerning the advancement of human life and the protection of our fragile ecosystem.  For Philosopher Dussel the absence of an ethical complicity with any victim is complicit:

 with the system, victims are a necessary inevitable moment, a functional or natural aspect-like slaves of Aristotle’s polis or the least favored in socioeconomics terms in [John] Rawls second principle. (p. 21)

Mills demonstrates the risk of uncritical and naïve consciousness dominated by the ideology of capitalism, “As though it was natural and inevitable, there be those who dominate and those who are dominated.” He lays out the rawness of an embedded Anglocentric bias in colonial Western instrumental rationality that negates non-western ways of being and the relevance of Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation, towards a comprehension of our “co-responsibility to critique and ultimately transform the unjust socio- economic order.” (p. 2)

Dusselian philosophy claims that any political and economic system that situates itself from the vantage point of critical-ethical consciousness, the victim is amplified vs concealed and given up as collateral damage. (p. 21)

Regarding ethics, Mills cites Dussel’s note 337 of Ethics of Liberation: “the principal of human life is not intrinsically ethical, but instead the foundation of all possible ethical orders. To negate life is the evil; to affirm life is what is good. But life itself is neither good nor evil.” (p. 80)

The monograph presents three fundamental principles of Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion (1998/2013):

First, the material ethic principle: we ought to ensure the production, reproduction and growth of human life in community and in harmony with the earth’s ecosystems.  Second, the formal principle: the material principle ought to be pursued through democratic symmetrical deliberative procedures in which all those who may be impacted by any decision are included.  And third, the feasibility principle: whatever we endeavor, in accord with the first two principles, ought to be achievable, given our understanding of conditions with which we are presented.

Without the material principle in consideration, formal democratic procedures run the risk of negating human life. All in combination are promising ethical principles geared at building a more equitable society protective of its biosphere. (p. 3)

Furthermore, Mills argues against the founding framers of capitalism: Adams Smith, John Locke and John Rawls. Adam Smith’s celebrated perspectiveinvisible handas a magical economic regulator, “Presupposes that the capital system is natural and, in some ways, self-correcting.”  Mills puts forth Dussel’s excellent counter-argument that capitalism is not natural or inevitable nor is the social Darwinism so often attached to capitalism as the law of the strong and fittest. (p. 112)

For Smith the communitarian values that are expected in private life are virtues. Mills points out such virtues do not extend to the norms of the economic field and cites Dussel, “The ethical suspension occurs because there is no transfer of ethical principles from a pre-compact community of human life to the socio-economic field. The egoistic pursuit of self-interest is fetishized as both natural and in accord with utilitarian values,” encompassing corporate global greed. (p. 112)

According to Smith, the accumulation of wealth by capitalists for the greater good was to be endured despite the hardship and negative impact, “patiently by the toiling workers of the system.” (p. 112) Smith’s interpretation can better be described as the trickle-down effect that so often spills out from the mouth of politicians and CEOs, whereby the accumulated wealth from the top works its way to the subordinate class of those below.

Professor Mills also refers to John Locke’s theory of social contract as an example to study. He examines the provincial founding ideals and theories of accumulation that have prevailed to the present.  For Locke, democracy is limited to the few, in the hands of the elite, to manage on behalf of the people’s public affairs and concerns as it is today.  Locke’s right to possession of private property is normalized as part of human nature to own and possess; canceling other ways of owning and sharing that do not lead to fetishized ownership of property as an extension of power and privilege. Thestate of natureleads Mills to explore philosopher John Rawls view of economic inequalities as “simply natural facts.” Such views that naturalize private property and egoism disregard the bases of accumulated wealth and power by means of colonization and enslavement of Africans in the so-called new world. (p. 83)

Mills reminds us of the impact of colonization and the racializing of non- European people:

Based on the myth that Europeans are intellectually, biologically, and spiritually more advanced than any other people, modern subjectivity of the European conqueror justified subjugation of innocent victims in the name of victim’s own emancipation. Not only did European perpetrators of violence take themselves as innocent of any crime, but resistance by Indians to what appeared to them [the Indians] as the advent of the end of the world was taken to be culpable behavior.  (p. 44)

Chapter six The Ethical Dimension of Economics unveils the mechanics behind capitalist relations with labor, value and labor as a means only to produce, consume and live alienated from any other alternative, beyond what we have experienced. Dussel’s critique of leased labor that adds value (known as surplus) for the enrichment of others (as commodified labor) is the source of all wealth and exploitation all in one. For the capitalist, the source of living labor, the worker- is valueless until he or she produces commodities. Only then is a laborer considered to have a utilitarian use.

Mills’s introduction is charged with references, citations and arguments that expose justifications that deem others as less and inferior. It is an x-ray that permits the face to face encounter with the other not as a mere reflection of life with value, but life as dignity that bestows value. Life for Dussel has no value or is it priceless as it is accustomed to hearing, above and beyond all it has dignity! (p. 68)

The absence of ethical values in an egocentric capitalist society puts in question norms that limit the general will or the constituent power that Dussel alludes too.[1] It is no coincidence that the constituted power by the ruling classes often holds constituent interests in contempt. When the indirect asymmetrical representation of corrupt constituted power bypasses the general will of the people and the people seek to reclaim their institutions, constituted power may either cede or resort to coercion. (p. 108)

Dussel ardently rejects what Mills describes as: “the reduction or “neutralization” of persons to the status of an instrument or function of the same.” It is this form of western instrumental thought that Dussel unveils in Ethics of Liberation. Dussel, departs from Dasein (being in the world), from the standpoint of the vanquished, those in resistance, the wretched of the earth, and not from above in ivory towers of knowledge.

Mills provides a brief but dense summary, readable, and understandable in a language that is accessible to everyone. Hence, it is un encuentro (a gathering) with the reader and a call for ethical acts. The final chapters reveal Dussel’s urgent call to work towards a transmodern world not based on hegemony, exploitation or the destruction of our biosphere. With the vision of building a transmodern world, the ethics of liberation seeks to recover a pro-democracy way of being in the world, one that does not totalitize the human experience to market values.

The book is a reference for an inter-cultural north/south, east/ west dialogue as an essential component of discussion. The introduction is vital in understanding the contributions by one of today’s most important and living Latin American philosophers. Influenced by Caribbean intellectuals, de-colonial writers, global south thinkers, and most importantly Emmanuel Levinas, Mills lays out Enrique Dussel’s life laboring work at the service of liberating horizons for the reader during pressing times.

* Frederick B. Mills is a professor of philosophy at Bowie State University and cofounder of the Philosophies of Liberation Encuentro/roundtable.

This review is dedicated to The Zapatistas on its 25thAnniversary since its uprise On January 1st, 1994 and its influence on the Global South Philosophies of liberation. 


[1] Constituent power is a reference to the inalienable people’s sovereign power.

Categories: News for progressives

Why France’s Yellow Vest Protests Are Ignored by “The Resistance” in the U.S.

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:42

“”The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

— C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins

In less than two months, the yellow vests (“gilets jaunes”) movement in France has reshaped the political landscape in Europe. For a seventh straight week, demonstrations continued across the country even after concessions from a cowing President Emmanuel Macron while inspiring a wave of similar gatherings in neighboring states like Belgium and the Netherlands. Just as el-Sisi’s dictatorship banned the sale of high-visibility vests to prevent copycat rallies in Egypt, corporate media has predictably worked overtime trying to demonize the spontaneous and mostly leaderless working class movement in the hopes it will not spread elsewhere.

The media oligopoly initially attempted to ignore the insurrection altogether, but when forced to reckon with the yellow vests they maligned the incendiary marchers using horseshoe theory to suggest a confluence between far left and far right supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen. To the surprise of no one, mainstream pundits have also stoked fears of ‘Russian interference’ behind the unrest. We can assume that if the safety vests were ready-made off the assembly line of NGOs like the raised fist flags of Serbia’s OTPOR! movement, the presstitutes would be telling a different story.

It turned out that a crisis was not averted but merely postponed when Macron defeated his demagogue opponent Le Pen in the 2017 French election. While it is true that the gilets jaunes were partly impelled by an increase on fuel prices, contrary to the prevailing narrative their official demands are not limited to a carbon tax. They also consist of explicit ultimatums to increase the minimum wage, improve the standard of living, and an end to austerity, among other legitimate grievances. Since taking office, Macron has declared war on trade unions while pushing through enormous tax breaks for the wealthy (like himself) — it was just a matter of time until the French people had enough of the country’s privatization. It is only a shock to the oblivious establishment why the former Rothschild banker-turned-politician, who addressed the nation seated at a gold desk while Paris was ablaze, is suddenly in jeopardy of losing power. The status quo’s incognizance is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette who during the 18th century when told the peasants had no bread famously replied, “let them eat cake” as the masses starved under her husband Louis XIV.

While the media’s conspicuous blackout of coverage is partly to blame, the deafening silence from across the Atlantic in the United States is really because of the lack of class consciousness on its political left. With the exception of Occupy Wall Street, the American left has been so preoccupied with an endless race to the bottom in the two party ‘culture wars’ it is unable to comprehend an upheaval undivided by the contaminants of identity politics. A political opposition that isn’t fractured on social issues is simply unimaginable. Not to say the masses in France are exempt from the internal contradictions of the working class, but the fetishization of lifestyle politics in the U.S. has truly become its weakness. We will have to wait and see whether the yellow vests transform into a global movement or arrive in America, but for now the seeming lack of solidarity stateside equates to a complicity with Macron’s agenda.

It serves as a reminder of the historically revisionist understanding of French politics in the U.S. that is long-established. The middle class dominated left-wing in America ascribes to a historical reinterpretation of the French Revolution that is a large contributor of its aversion to transformative praxis in favor of incrementalism. The late Italian Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo, who died in June of this year, offered the most thorough understanding of its misreading of history in seminal works such as War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century. The liberal rereading of the French Revolution is the ideological basis for its rejection of the revolutionary tradition from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks that has neutralized the modern left to this day.

According to its revised history, the inevitable outcome of comprehensive systemic change is Robespierre’s so-called ‘Reign of Terror’, or the ‘purges’ of the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. In its view, what began with the Locke and Montesquieu-influenced reforms of the constitutional monarchy was ‘hijacked’ by the radical Jacobin and sans-culotte factions. Losurdo explains that counter-revolutionaries eager to discredit the image of rebellion overemphasize its violence and bloodshed, and never properly contextualize it as self-defense against the real reign of terror by the ruling class. The idea behind this recasting of history is to conflate revolutionary politics with Nazi Germany whose racially-motivated genocide was truly the inheritor of the legacy of European colonialism, not the ancestry of the Jacobins or the Russian Revolution.

Maximilien Robespierre’s real crime in the eyes of bourgeois historians was attempting to fulfill the egalitarian ideals of republicanism by transferring political power from the aristocracy and nouveaux riche directly into the hands of the working class, just as the Paris Commune did nearly 80 years later. It is for this reason he subsequently became one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned figures in world history, perhaps one day to be absolved. The U.S. reaction to the yellow vests is a continuation of the denial and suppression of the class conflict inherent in the French Revolution which continues to seethe beneath the surfaces of capitalism today.

In today’s political climate, it is easy to forget that there have been periods where the American left was actually engaged with the crisis of global capitalism. In what seems like aeons ago, the anti-globalization movement in the wake of NAFTA culminated in huge protests in Seattle in 1999 which saw nearly 50,000 march against the World Trade Organization. Following the 2008 financial collapse, it briefly reemerged in the Occupy movement which was also swiftly put down by corporate-state repression. Currently, the political space once inhabited by the anti-globalization left has been supplanted by the ‘anti-globalist’ rhetoric mostly associated with right-wing populism.

Globalism and globalization may have qualitatively different meanings, but they nevertheless are interrelated. Although it is shortsighted, there are core accuracies in the former’s narrative that should be acknowledged. The idea of a shadowy world government isn’t exclusively adhered to by anti-establishment conservatives and it is right to suspect there is a worldwide cabal of secretive billionaire power brokers controlling events behind the scenes. There is indeed a ‘new world order’ with zero regard for the sovereignty of nation states, just as there is a ‘deep state.’ However, it is a ruling class not of paranoiac imagination but real life, and a right-wing billionaire like Robert Mercer is as much a globalist as George Soros.

Ever since capitalism emerged it has always been global. The current economic crisis is its latest cyclical downturn, impoverishing and alienating working people whose increasing hardship is what has led to the trending rejection of the EU. Imperialism has exported capital leading to the destruction of jobs in the home sectors of Western nations while outsourcing them to the third world. Over time, deep disgruntlement among the working class has grown toward an economic system that is clearly rigged against them, where the skewed distribution of capital gains and widespread tax evasion on the part of big business is camouflaged as buoyant economic growth. When it came crashing down in the last recession, the financial institutions responsible were bailed out using tax payer money instead of facing any consequences. Such grotesque unfairness has only been amplified by the austerity further transferring the burden from the 1% to the poor.

Before the gilets jaunes, the U.K.’s Brexit referendum in 2016 laid bare these deep class divisions within the European Union. One of the most significant events in the continent since WWII, it has ultimately threatened to reshape the Occident’s status in the post-war order as a whole. Brexit manifested out of divisions within Britain’s political parties, especially the Torys, which had been plagued for years by internal dispute over the EU. Those in power were blind to the warning signs of discontent toward a world economy in crisis and were shocked by the plebiscite in which the working class defied the powers that be against all odds with more than half voting to leave.

In general, well-to-do Brits were hard remainers while those suffering most severely from the destruction of industry, unemployment and austerity overwhelmingly chose to leave in what was described as a “peasants revolt” by the media. The value of the pound sterling quickly plunged and not long after the status of the United Kingdom as a whole came into question as Britain found itself at odds with Scotland’s unanimous decision to remain. Brexit tugged at the bonds holding the EU together and suddenly the collective standing clout of its member states is at stake in a potential breakup of the entire bloc.

Euroscepticism is also by no means a distinctly British phenomenon, as distrust has soared in countries hit the hardest by neoliberalism like Greece (80%), with Spain and France not far behind. In fact, before there was Brexit there was fear among the elite of a ‘Grexit.’ In response to its unprecedented debt crisis manufactured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Greek people elected the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA, to a majority of legislative seats to the Hellenic Parliament during its 2015 bailout referendum. Unfortunately, the synthetic alliance turned out to be anything but radical and a trojan horse of the establishment. SYRIZA was elected on its promise to rescind the terms of Greek membership in the EU, but shortly after taking office it betrayed its constituency and agreed to the troika’s mass privatization. Even its former finance minister Yanis Varousfakis admitted that SYRIZA was a controlled opposition and auxiliary of the Soros Foundation.

Apart from suffering collective amnesia regarding the EU’s neoliberal policies, apparently the modern left is also in serious need of a history lesson regarding the federation’s fascist origins. It has been truly puzzling to see self-proclaimed progressives mourning Britain’s decision to withdraw from a continental union that was historically masterminded by former fifth columnists of Nazi Germany. It was in the aftermath of WWII’s devastation that the 1951 Treaty of Paris established the nucleus of the EU in the European Coal and Steel Community, a cooperative union formed by France, Italy, West Germany, and the three Benelux states (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands). The Europe Declaration charter stated:

“By the signature of this Treaty, the involved parties give proof of their determination to create the first supranational institution and that thus they are laying the true foundation of an organized Europe. This Europe remains open to all European countries that have freedom of choice. We profoundly hope that other countries will join us in our common endeavor.”

The idea of forming a “supranational” union was conceived by the French statesman Robert Schuman, who during the outbreak of WWII served as the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees in the Reynaud government. When Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Schuman by all accounts willingly voted to grant absolute dictatorial powers to Marshall Philippe Pétain to become Head of State of the newly formed Vichy government, the puppet regime that ruled Nazi-occupied France until the Allied invasion in 1944. By doing so, he retained his position in parliament, though he later chose to resign. Following the war, like all Vichy collaborators Schuman was initially charged with the offense of indignité nationale (“national unworthiness”) and stripped of his civil rights as a traitor.
More than 4,000 alleged quislings were summarily executed following Operation Overlord and the Normandy landings, but the future EU designer was fortunate enough to have friends in high places. Schuman’s clemency was granted by none other than General Charles de Gaulle himself, the leader of the resistance during the war and future French President. Instantly, Schuman’s turncoat reputation was rehabilitated and his wartime activity whitewashed. Even though he had knowingly voted full authority to Pétain, the retention of his post in the Vichy government was veneered to have occurred somehow without his knowledge or consent.

Schuman is officially regarded as one of the eleven men who were ‘founding fathers’ of what later became the EU. One of the other major figures that contributed to the federal integration of the continent was Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Nuremberg Trials may have tried and executed most of the top leadership of the Nazi Party, but the post-war government that became West Germany was saturated with former Third Reich officials. Despite the purported post-war ‘denazification’ policy inscribed in the Potsdam agreement, many figures who had directly participated in the Holocaust were appointed to high positions in Adenauer’s administration and never prosecuted for their atrocities.

One such war criminal was the former Ministry of the Interior and drafter of the Nuremberg race statutes, Hans Globke, who became Adenauer’s right hand man as his Secretary of State and Chief of Staff. Adenauer also successfully lobbied the Allies to free most of the Wehrmacht war criminals in their custody, winning the support of then U.S. General and future President Dwight Eisenhower. By 1951, motivated by the desire to quickly rearm and integrate West Germany into NATO in the new Cold War, the policy of denazification was prematurely ended and countless offenders were allowed to reenter branches of government, military and public service. Their crimes against humanity took a backseat to the greater imperialist priority of rearmament against East Germany and the Soviets.

In the years following WWII, there was also concern among the elite of anti-Americanism growing in Western Europe. The annual Bilderberg Group conference was established in 1954 by Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, himself a former Reiter-SS Corps and Nazi Party member, to promote ‘Atlanticism’ and facilitate cooperation between American and European leaders. Invitations to the Bilderberg club meetings were extended to only the most exclusive paragons in politics, academia, the media, industry, and finance. In 2009, WikiLeaks revealed that it was at the infamous assembly where the hidden agenda of the European Coal and Steel Community, later the EU, was set:

“E. European Unity: The discussion on this subject revealed general support for the idea of European integration and unification among the participants from the six countries of the European Coal and Steel Community, and a recognition of the urgency of the problem. While members of the group held different views as to the method by which a common market could be set up, there was a general recognition of the dangers inherent in the present divided markets of Europe and the pressing need to bring the German people, together with the other peoples of Europe, into a common market. That the six countries of the Coal and Steel Community had definitely decided to establish a common market and that experts were now working this out was felt to be a most encouraging step forward and it was hoped that other countries would subsequently join it.”

At the 1955 conference, the rudimentary idea for a European currency or what became the Eurozone was even discussed, three years before the Treaty of Rome which established the European Economic Community, without the public’s knowledge:

“A European speaker expressed concern about the need to achieve a common currency, and indicated that in his view this necessarily implied the creation of a central political authority.”

The mysterious Bilderberg gatherings are still held to this day under notorious secrecy and are frequently the subject of wild speculation. One can imagine a topic behind the scenes at this year’s meeting would be how to address the growth of anti-EU ‘populism’ and uprisings like the gilet jaunes. Hitlerite expansionism had been carried out on the Führer’s vision for a European federation in the Third Reich — in many respects, the EU is a rebranded realization of his plans for empire-building. How ironic that liberals are clinging to a multinational political union founded by fascist colluders while the same economic bloc is being opposed by today’s far right after its new Islamophobic facelift.

While nationalism may have played an instrumental role in Brexit, there is a manufactured hysteria hatched by the establishment which successfully reduced the complex range of reasons for the Leave EU vote to racism and flag-waving. They are now repeating this pattern by overstating the presence of the far right among the yellow vests. Such delirium not only demonizes workers but coercively repositions the left into supporting something it otherwise shouldn’t — the EU and by default its laissez-faire policies — thereby driving the masses further into the arms of the same far right. Echoes of this can be seen in the U.S. with the vapid response to journalist Angela Nagle’s recent article about the immigration crisis on the southern border. The faux-left built a straw man in their attack on Nagle, who dared to acknowledge that the establishment only really wants ‘open borders’ for an endless supply of low-wage labor from regions in the global south destabilized by U.S. militarism and trade liberalization. Aligning itself with the hollow, symbolic gestures of centrists has only deteriorated the standards of the left participating in such vacuousness and dragged down to the level of liberals.

There is no doubt Brexit and Trump pushed the xenophobia button and could not have come about without it. However, such criticism means nothing when it comes from moral posturers who claim to “stand with refugees” while supporting the very ‘humanitarian’ interventionist policies displacing them. Nativism was not the sole reason the majority voted to leave the EU and many working class minorities also were Brexiters. Of course their fellow workers and migrants are not the true cause of their misery. After all, it was not just chattel slaves who came to the U.S. unwillingly but European immigrants fleeing continental wars and starvation as well — the crisis in the EU today is no different.

Fundamentally, migrants seek asylum on Europe’s doorstep because of NATO’s imperial expansion and the unexpected arrival of Brexit has threatened to weaken the EU’s military arm. Already desperate to reinvent itself and a new enemy in Russia despite its functional obsolescence, the shock of the referendum has inconveniently undermined NATO’s ability to pressure Moscow and Beijing, a step forward for mitigating world peace in the long run and a silver lining to its outcome. It is the task of the left to reject the EU’s neoliberal project while transmitting the message that capital, not refugees, is the cause of the plight of the masses. It is also necessary to have faith in the people, something cynical liberals lack. Racism may historically be the achilles heel of the working class but underlying Brexit, the election of Trump, and the yellow vests is the spirit of defiance in working people, albeit one of political confusion in need of guidance.

If the yellow vests are today’s sans-culottes, like those which became the revolutionary partisans in the French Revolution, they will eventually need a Jacobin Club. Relatively progressive but ultimately reformist figures like Mélenchon are no such spearhead and will only lead them down the same dead end of SYRIZA. The absence of any such vanguard has forced the working class to take matters into their own hands in the interim. If history is any guide, the gilets jaunes will be stamped out until a new cadre takes the reins whose objective is, as Lenin said,“not to champion the degrading of the revolutionary to the level of an amateur, but to raise the amateurs to the level of revolutionaries.” We also cannot fall into ideological fantasies that we live in permanent revolutionary circumstances or that a spontaneous uprising can become comprehensive simply because of ingenious leadership. Nevertheless, as Mao Tse-Tung wrote, “a single spark can start a prairie fire” and hopefully the yellow vests are that flame.

Categories: News for progressives

Loving Me Was Easier: A Parable for the Perplexed

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:35

A few years ago I married myself, but we’ve reconsidered and have filed for divorce.  It’s no one’s fault really, but we are emotionally devastated nevertheless. At least we have no children.  Sologamy didn’t seem to suit us.  We had acted impetuously.  I had gotten the idea after hearing a NPR radio report about a woman who fell in love with herself and said that after she tied the knot she had never been happier.

The world was getting me down at the time with all the political news about the Russians coming and insinuating themselves between me and you and all good Americans who had just wanted to elect Hilary Clinton and be happy.  And as I was thinking about this happy married couple – the woman and herself, not Bill and Hillary – I chanced upon a New York Times article in a coffee shop that convinced me to take the plunge.  It was a  weird article that jumped out at me about transracialism and transgenderism and this big debate about these big words and a big philosopher who claims if you can self-identify as a different sex, or is it gender – I  can never get them straight – you should also be able to self-identify as a different race.  It was a long article with a lot of people arguing back and forth about self-identifying as this and that and what names to call themselves and I couldn’t concentrate on it all but I got the gist of the professor’s point and thought this might be for me, it might help me get OK and happy, which was my goal. So I self-identified as I and me, a couple, and we said I do and I do too in a private ceremony.  I really wanted to be happy like that woman and to forget all the stuff about Trump being in bed with the Russians, and the Russians trying to get into our heads and voting booths, maybe even our beds where they would whisper lies about capitalism being immoral and other sweet nothings meant to confuse us about our identities and what was right and wrong. I figured going to bed with myself might help me forget.

But it hasn’t worked out as we expected.  Last night, we had a little New Year’s Eve party and had a few anime hologram friends over.  As usual, we talked about the past year and old times and old friends and sang a few lines of Auld Lang Syne as we toasted left hand to right with some nice Prosecco with pomegranate juice since we heard that was the drink all the smart set use to celebrate their clever happiness.  But then we got to arguing, and between you and me, it wasn’t pretty. Our friends were mortified.  It was a scene straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  The Prosecco had gone to our head, so we don’t remember all the scathing interchanges, but I do know our anime friends said not a word and that me said to I at one point words that seemed to echo Martha and George’s. Martha: “Truth or Illusion, George; you don’t know the difference.”  George: “No, but we must carry on as if we did.” Martha: “Amen.”

So now it’s the day after and we must carry on “as if.” Amen, indeed!  And though our head hurts a bit, we have been talking over coffee and have decided to split up, amicably of course.  It’s a new year, and like most people, we want to make a fresh start.  I wish me the best and know me reciprocates. We will now go separate ways but it will be very lonely. Facebook friends might help somewhat, but they are no substitute for the intimacy of the past few years.  Who will now help me make it through the night?  And what about poor I?  Forgive me, but I am so confused and have a hell of a headache.

Although I want 2019 to be a happy year, if 2018 is any gauge, 2019 will be a long night from hell politically and culturally, with fake news everywhere and our Russian enemies infiltrating our minds at every turn with backstopping and sheep dipping their spies throughout the media and academia. It’s so lonely trying to make sense of it all.  Without my me-spouse, it can only get worse.  Even CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s New Year’s Eve words of comfort to the lonely from Times Square don’t help much.  Like Fox News’s “Fox and Friends,” Anderson is always there with a helping hand, and when I and me were arguing, I could always go to my true friends in the media for a dose of truth and sustenance.  They know all about the Russian threat.

But while I am grateful for their comfort in these confusing times, I need more.  With apologies to Kris Kristofferson, but loving me was easier that anything I’ll ever do again.  I need easy, real easy, easier even than when I would say something and me would disagree but we would let it slide for the sake of our relationship. It was easier that way.  But our relationship was probably doomed from the start.

But thank God for technology and CNN that has alerted me to a new technological possibility with a report about a Japanese man, Akihito Kondo, a school administrator, who fell in love years ago with Miku, a cyber-celebrity hologram. He has finally taken the plunge and married Miku in a lovely ceremony in front of 39 people.  Kondo seems radiantly happy and not at all confused.

Such a possibility was right in front of my nose all along: my anime hologram friends who watched me and I get drunk last night. One of them – Meto – is cute as a button and is always looking to snuggle and comfort others.  If she will have me, I will propose after a dignified waiting period, maybe an hour or so.

I will carry on as if loving her will be easier than anything I’ve ever done before.


Categories: News for progressives

Why I am Still a Cryptocurrency Enthusiast, 2019 Edition

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:34

Cryptocurrencies had a rough ride in 2018. As of January 7, 2018, the total market capitalization of all cryptocurrencies tracked by came to more than $800 billion, its highest point ever. As I write this on January 3, 2019, that total market capitalization is down to about $130 billion — about 1/6th of the market’s high point.

You might be surprised to learn that I’m still a cryptocurrency fan. But, just to be up front, yes, I am.

Not because I’m sitting on a huge pile of the stuff (as of this moment, my cryptocurrency holdings are worth less than $100 US), nor because I expect to make a killing speculating (when I get some crypto, I generally spend it without waiting very long to see if it increases in value).

I’m still enthusiastic about cryptocurrency because I’ve seen what it can do and make plausible predictions about what it will be able to do in the future. Cryptocurrency seizes control of money from governments and puts it in the hands of people. With improvements in its privacy aspects, that’s only going to become more true. In short, cryptocurrency fuels freedom.

But can it last? Will it win? I think that the last year, far from dispelling that notion, reinforces it. Let me explain.

Two kinds of noise related to cryptocurrency seem to have faded in tandem with the market cap’s downward trend. As one might expect, the ultra-bullish “Bitcoin will go to $100,000 real soon now!” voices have gone down in number and volume. But so have the voices comparing cryptocurrency to a Ponzi scheme or to the 17th century “tulip bubble.”

Yes, there are exceptions. One is Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, who still seems to think that transaction costs and lack of “tethers” to fiat government currencies will make crypto a bad bet. Of course, Krugman also said, in 1998, that “[b]y 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.” So however expert he may be in other areas, I doubt I’m alone in discounting his predictive abilities when it comes to technological advancements.

This year-long market correction has been exactly that — a correction toward real values. After a period of hype (“Initial Coin Offerings” based on bizarre use cases) and scams (“pump and dumps” cons based on new fly-by-night “altcoins”), the wheat is separating from the chaff, the fraud is settling down to a level consistent with the rest of human activity, and the financial “mainstream” attitude has gone from dismissive to curious to “how do we get in on this?”

Cryptocurrency is getting better and better at what it was meant to do. It facilitates transactions without regard to political borders, it safeguards the records of those transactions through a distributed ledger system (“blockchain”), and to varying degrees (depending on which currency and the individual user’s habits) it protects the privacy of those who use it from prying eyes.

Cryptocurrency, and the freedom it entails, are here to stay. Welcome to the future.

Categories: News for progressives

Walking on the Aussie Wild Side: The Counterculture Down Under with Michael Wilding

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:30

“Surely, there was a counterculture in the 1960s. That’s what seems so missing in present times. It wasn’t just dope smoking, music and back to the land, there were all the countercultural newspapers papers and small presses, a thriving alternative publishing scene, which is no longer with us.”

– Michael Wilding, Australian author

You’re either in it or out of it. In this case “it” is the cannabis bubble. If it’s a bubble in California and elsewhere in the U.S., it can feel much the same around the world, including Australia, as Michael Wilding knows. Smoking a joint is smoking a joint whether one is in Sydney or Sacramento, Melbourne or Modesto.

An Englishman who settled in Australia in the early 1960s, Wilding has helped—through his writing—to move cannabis away from the periphery and toward the mainstream.

Many of the same words that are used in the U.S.—grass, weed, dope, marijuana, pot, reefer, cannabis and more—are used “Down Under,” Wilding explains, though the land Down Under doesn’t have a history of African Americans jazz men and woman, such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, or Hollywood stars like Robert Mitchum, who smoked reefer and went to jail.

American cannabis activists might pat themselves on the back and insist that they’re in advance of the Aussie movement for legalization, but as history, culture and language show, Americans and Aussie are in the same boat, though separated by a vast ocean.

The island nation—which Wilding has mapped in his fiction and non-fiction for more than half a century—is a vast continent, that boasts surfers and stoners, plus cattle and sheep ranchers, and descendants of criminals who were kicked out of England and who helped to create the backbone of the nation, much as slaves, indentured servants, non-conformists and misfits helped to shape the national character of U.S.

The Aussies are our cultural cousins. They share many of our problems, including racism and white nationalism, though they have also made them their own, as Wilding knows all too well. They also make their own world class wine and beer and enjoy inebriants.

In Australia—which is about the same size as the 48 continuous states of the U.S.—cannabis is cultivated and consumed, Wilding explains, from New South Wales and Victoria to Queensland and beyond. But it’s not legal to do so without a government license. Like the U.S., Australia has a long history of prohibition, though it’s rare these days for anyone to serve time in prison for possession or cultivation. Decriminalization has proceeded slowly Down Under.

Weed smells, tastes and looks much the same in, say, New South Wales as in California, though a cannabis connoisseur in Sydney or Sacramento might be able to tell the differences between ours and theirs—terroir does matters—much as wine connoisseurs can tell the difference between an Australian red and a California red.

Working class and British, Wilding attended Oxford, where he studied English. Teaching jobs at the university level were hard to come by in the early 1960s, so he left the land of his birth for greener academic pastures.

Getting out of England and settling in Australia was the best move he ever made, academically speaking. For decades, he taught literature at the University of Sydney. He has also taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he had a chance to see the hippie counterculture, and the National University of Singapore, which isn’t friendly to countercultures.

Now a professor emeritus, Wilding is a national literary treasure and the author of twenty-three books. He’s well known for a series of novels with a private investigator or P.I. who is appropriately named “Plant,” and who has appeared in seven novels so far, with an eighth on the way.

None of the Plant novels have been published in the U.S., but some, including In the Valley of the Weed, Little Demon, and The Travel Writer, are available on Amazon. Like the American detective, Moses Wine, in the novel The Big Fix, which was made into a movie with Richard Dreyfus, Plant belongs to the counterculture, at least in part.

“I call him Plant because he’s a sort of a passive observer,” Wilding explained. “He’s also a vegetarian and he’s non-violent. PI’s traditionally were hard drinkers. I differentiated him by making him a cannabis user.” In one dramatic scene in The Prisoner of Mount Warning,Plant rolls a joint and describes how he does it.

“Roll, roll, roll,” Plant tells himself. “Lick, lick, lick.” He adds, “How could it have become so difficult, he had to be stoned.”

Like his creator, Plant doesn’t flaunt his cannabis habit. On the whole, Australians don’t flaunt it, either. They’re discreet, though there are Australian versions of the Emerald Cup, and other cannabis festivals were growers and users congregate and smoke in public.

Ever since the Sixties, conservative social historians in the U.S. and elsewhere have gone far out on a limb and insisted that there really never was a counterculture, and that all cultures reflect the norms and values of the dominant society.

Tell that to hippies, stoners, dissidents and fans of rock ‘n’ roll who protested against the war in Vietnam, which the Australian government stupidly supported, and that sparked an anti-war movement in the land Down Under.

After all these years, what did Wilding think about the counterculture?

“Surely, there was a counterculture in the 1960s,” he told me. “That’s what seems so missing in present times. It wasn’t just dope smoking, music and back to the land. There were all the countercultural newspapers and small presses and a thriving alternative publishing scene. Of course, it soon became another area for capitalist exploitation.”

In 1974, Wilding co-founded with Pat Woolley, the Australian book publisher, Wild & Woolley. For the past three decades, Wilding has been the foremost critic of and apostle for Australian literature. He’s also capitalized on his last name, Wilding, in books like Wild Bleak Bohemiaand Wildest Dreamsand has explored Australia’s wild side in fiction and non-fiction.

Cannabis doesn’t grow wild in Australia, but it’s wild in the sense that it’s mostly unregulated. Australian law calls it a “narcotic drug.” For decades, Australian drug warriors took many of their cues from Washington, D.C. “Reefer madness” Down Under matched reefer madness in the U.S. Like American potheads, Australian potheads suffered under politicians who believed that cannabis was the Devil’s very own weed.

These days, cannabis can be cultivated legally with a license from the Australian government. Applicants must be “fit and proper persons.” How very British that sounds! As of November 2018, fewer than 50 licenses were granted to companies with names like “Little Green Pharma” and “Indica Industries.” The government is mighty stingy, but that hasn’t stopped growers from growing.

In Australia, as in the U.S., attempts to eradicate cannabis only seemed to make it stronger. An estimated 300,000 people used it daily; 750,000 on a weekly basis. A MardiGrass Festival, with a rally and parade, takes place in springin New South Wales. Indeed, Aussie potheads occasionally come out of the cannabis closet.

On the subject of the black market, Wilding said, “Keeping drugs illegal meant a huge amount of money could be made from them. I think that’s one reason why the Reagan-Thatcher years introduced de-regulation and large-scale privatization. There was all that funny money around that was looking for legit business to invest in.”

Is that a conspiratorial view? Perhaps so! Wilding has been fascinated with conspiracies and conspirators. In fact, drug smugglers from Miami to Sydney and beyond have laundered the money they’ve made in cannabis and cocaine, which sometimes went hand in glove.

One of Wilding’s most appealing characters is a feisty Australian woman named Rose who enjoys flirting with Plant. She appears for the first time in a novel called Pacific Highway and again in The Prisoner of Mount Warning. Wilding calls Pacific Highway “a sort of hippified, Richard Brautigan-influenced, peace and love post-modern novel.”

That is, in large part, Michael Wilding: a post-modernist who has explored the hippie countercultural world, and in doing so has put Australian literature on the literary map of the world. His English working class roots, to which he has remained true, have also led him to study and write about the Australian working class—another kind of counterculture—but that’s a story for another day.

Categories: News for progressives

Why I am Still a Cryptocurrency Enthusiast, 2019 Edition

Fri, 2019-01-04 14:55

Cryptocurrencies had a rough ride in 2018. As of January 7, 2018, the total market capitalization of all cryptocurrencies tracked by came to more than $800 billion, its highest point ever. As I write this on January 3, 2019, that total market capitalization is down to about $130 billion — about 1/6th of the market’s high point.

You might be surprised to learn that I’m still a cryptocurrency fan. But, just to be up front, yes, I am.

Not because I’m sitting on a huge pile of the stuff (as of this moment, my cryptocurrency holdings are worth less than $100 US), nor because I expect to make a killing speculating (when I get some crypto, I generally spend it without waiting very long to see if it increases in value).

I’m still enthusiastic about cryptocurrency because I’ve seen what it can do and make plausible predictions about what it will be able to do in the future. Cryptocurrency seizes control of money from governments and puts it in the hands of people. With improvements in its privacy aspects, that’s only going to become more true. In short, cryptocurrency fuels freedom.

But can it last? Will it win? I think that the last year, far from dispelling that notion, reinforces it. Let me explain.

Two kinds of noise related to cryptocurrency seem to have faded in tandem with the market cap’s downward trend. As one might expect, the ultra-bullish “Bitcoin will go to $100,000 real soon now!” voices have gone down in number and volume. But so have the voices comparing cryptocurrency to a Ponzi scheme or to the 17th century “tulip bubble.”

Yes, there are exceptions. One is Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, who still seems to think that transaction costs and lack of “tethers” to fiat government currencies will make crypto a bad bet. Of course, Krugman also said, in 1998, that “[b]y 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.” So however expert he may be in other areas, I doubt I’m alone in discounting his predictive abilities when it comes to technological advancements.

This year-long market correction has been exactly that — a correction toward real values. After a period of hype (“Initial Coin Offerings” based on bizarre use cases) and scams (“pump and dumps” cons based on new fly-by-night “altcoins”), the wheat is separating from the chaff, the fraud is settling down to a level consistent with the rest of human activity, and the financial “mainstream” attitude has gone from dismissive to curious to “how do we get in on this?”

Cryptocurrency is getting better and better at what it was meant to do. It facilitates transactions without regard to political borders, it safeguards the records of those transactions through a distributed ledger system (“blockchain”), and to varying degrees (depending on which currency and the individual user’s habits) it protects the privacy of those who use it from prying eyes.

Cryptocurrency, and the freedom it entails, are here to stay. Welcome to the future.

Categories: News for progressives

Foppish Fashions and Sonic Banquets

Fri, 2019-01-04 14:25

If ours is not a great age of Tudor, Elizabethan, Protectorate, Restoration, Hanoverian, and ongoing Windsorite dramas on big and small screens alike, it is certainly an abundant one. The sun never sets over this British Empire, streamed by Netflix and the lesser world entertainment powers through ever time of day and every time zone.

As for the big dark of the not-yet-vanquished movie theatre, it is precisely when night falls that certain parts of the Empire glower most fiercely in the firelight and guttering candles; lurk most malevolently in the mist and rain; clash most clangorously on darkened moor and along sepulchral loch. I refer of course, to the epic, Mary Queen of Scots, that sprawls across the second half of the sixteenth century, beginning and ending with the beheading of the title character in 1587; and its current competition—and unlikely companion (seen one, why not see the other?)—for box office lucre, the antechamber/bedchamber frolic The Favourite set in the waning months Queen Anne’s life and reign that concluded with the childless monarch’s death in 1714.

When on-screen lights—that is to say, tapers and torches—are low it is music that that speaks most powerfully, if often obscurely (fittingly so) from the shadows. The music tells us what the story and its characters are up to, even if it doesn’t exactly shine the light of reason on their machinations.

The soundtracks of both films are diverse, one might even somewhat ironically say catholic in taste: both stage period music that is heard within the world of the film, but also import updates of various vintages to frame the action. This commentary is beyond the hearing of the on-screen characters. Mary Queen of Scots brings these two forces—the so-called diegetic and non-diegetic—into ponderous juxtaposition. The soundtrack of The Favourite, by contrast, embraces the bizarre in its dialogue between the appropriate and the outlandish.

This Queen Mary is a voice for female empowerment. She quarrels and commiserates—long distance until a final, fateful face-to-face— with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, who, instead of pursuing brazen and ultimately fatal independence from male influence, plays the victim of her own political power, a force that she claims has, for all intents and purposes, turned her into a man. The script is from Beau Willimon, the creator of the American House of Cards. As that show’s creator Willimon proved himself adept not only at transplanting British shenanigans to the fertile lands across the sea, but also at sanctioning—or at least showing—many politico-sexual practices traditionally banned by television morality. Chief among these was presenting to the public a bisexual president, who, in the off-screen person of Kevin Spacey was overtaken by scandals his character had evaded in the show. At the apex of the series’ success the actor was swept from the throne of celebrity and into the Tower of public humiliation. Reality and fiction are increasingly dubious distinctions, from Netflix to CNN to Fox News and beyond. Machiavelli’s Wheel of Fortune is blind to ratings.

In Mary Queen of Scots, Willimon exercises his skill in cultural transformation by playing fast and loose with a key figure in the geo-political drama. The person in question is a musician, David Riccio, an Italian lutenist who had come to the Scottish court in 1561 and soon ingratiated himself with the Queen. He lasted five years before a plot ended his life.

Mary was wont to have herself serenaded with chansons and madrigals by three of her ladies-in-waiting. Rizzio was enlisted to sing bass in this girl group and soon became one of the queen’s favorites, a role that in turn elicited much palace jealously.  In Willimon’s fantasy Rizzio sings solo, and rather than join the women in song, he dresses up in in their clothes, dances, pets, and preens.  His adopted queen is no fiery upholder of Catholic doctrines of hate, however. Rather than burn Rizzio at the stake, this Mary wants him “to be what he wants to be.”

We catch chiaroscuro glimpses of Rizzio, who doesn’t say much, making music—singing or playing a lightly varnished violin with an antique convex bow. These appear to be modelled on the instrument he holds in a contemporary portrait of him now in the Royal Collection in Edinburgh. The music Rizzio plays is also of the period: stately dances enlivened by flourishes that suggest forbidden desire and malevolent designs.

Rizzio was an important figure in the early British histories of music: Charles Burney, author of the first of these encyclopedic studies, even claimed to have found local informants with knowledge about Rizzio in the doomed man’s native Piedmont when the historian visited the region two centuries after the musician’s vicious murder at the hands of Scottish courtiers. Rizzio was of interest to Burney and other English music historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because he was purported to have composed many beloved Scottish melodies: when it came to Scotch airs and reels, this Italian was more Scottish than the Scots. Needless to say, British historians were keen to debunk foreign influence and instead reclaim Scottish music as pristinely indigenous and older than historical memory itself.

In Mary Queen of Scots Rizzio’s music provides a patina of authenticity to his cross-dressing—and to an even more outlandish plot point: the musician beds Mary’s husband, the Scottish nobleman Lord Darnly, on the pair’s wedding night. In the film, the viciousness of Rizzio’s murderers can in this way fired by homophobia even more than by political maneuvering against a Catholic agitator. Music makes the anachronistic message of tolerance go down.

The larger political sweep of the picture is urged on by Hans Richter’s original minimalist score. Like so many other creators of royalist film music, Richter is sucked into the musical Black Hole that is Handel—that most regal and sublime of British Royal Composers, and like Richter a German émigré (though Richter came to England at a much younger age and was raised there). Richter’s original score for Mary refashions Handel’s 1727 coronation anthem for George II, Zadok the Priest. Richter dispenses with the mighty choral outbursts and occupies himself with teetertottering arpeggios of the upper parts. These oscillate energetically above a circulating bass-line, known in the eighteenth-century as the Mannheim cadence, and familiar from the closing gestures of countless classical sonatas and symphonies, among them Mozart’s Jupiter. This same bass figure was later drafted to serve as the underpinning of doo-wop. As the mainstay of the Mary soundtrack it unwittingly mirrors the repetitive cycles of the plot.

In contrast to the intimate Elizabethan strains heard within the film, these incessant loops try to impress on us the gravity of Mary’s situation and the fate of nations in the balance.  Richter strives for the sublime but never escapes his own minimalist echo chamber. Instead of armies on the march the score more often evokes swarms of the infamous Highland midges: frantically busy but going nowhere.  Rather than spurred to glorious tragedy by these sonorities, the plot lumbers on in spite of Richter’s efforts. The musical patchwork of period detail and modern updating of a Handelian classic yield a well-intentioned, but tiresome hodgepodge.

Vault ahead 150 years to the foppish fashions of Queen Anne and her court. Not a beard is to be seen. Powdered wigs are in. Instead of one man (Rizzio) wearing makeup, now they all do. Is this punctilious verisimilitude or sumptuous exaggeration? One soon realizes it is the latter.

This is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and especially not when feigning portentousness. Whereas the diegetic music of Mary tries to shore up our belief in the story’s historicism, unpredictable Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos often has his soundtrack for The Favourite mock his characters and muddy their motives: are they scheming, scared, nobly intentioned or just plain out for themselves? The soundtrack would have us believe it’s almost always the last—and the soundtrack is almost always right.

Rather than the chronologically correct lutes, viols and recordings heard by Mary and her Scots, Lanthimos goes for disjunction. The Vivaldi heard at the outset is just about in the ballpark of historical accuracy, but its performance on thundering modern instruments already gives the game away. Soon enough courtiers, and a maid who is keen to become one, are tip-topping in high heels down long dimly hallways to the tune of thunderous organ music ranging from frightening Bach to mystical Messiaen, piped into Hampton Court as if from the moon. There are spooky drones (musical ones, I mean) that are paradoxically and unsettlingly intermittent; these tones and silences lead the way haltingly to the queen’s bed for lesbian encounters and other debaucheries—none of them ratified by royal moralizing as Willimon likes to do up north. When a group of young musicians-in-training launches a period-appropriate concert in the courtyard the children and their master are shouted down viciously by Anne from the gallery above. This outburst reveals that the queen grieves for her seventeen dead children. She takes this undying sorrow out on the musical kids, but also on their audacity to play something the real sovereign might actually have heard as performed on the proper period instruments.

Snatches of string quartets by Beethoven and Shostakovich blow us farther off musical course.   There are even some pensive Hans Richter piano arabesques that sneak in as if from the other film, but now cleansed of sublime monarchic pretensions.

Both movies have dance scenes. In Mary Queen of Scots legitimate renaissance music accompany believable steps.  The minuet in The Favourite—featuring young officer played by Joe Alwyn, who happens to appear in Mary as Robert Dudley, the ardent admirer of Queen Elizabeth—is an outrageous send-up of court ritual: one of robotic moves, ungainly contortions and awkward gymnastic poises. Once again, the music for this symbolist spoof devised by the avantgarde Berlin choreographer Constanza Macras is delightfully wrong for early eighteenth century. As if intent on decorating this bizarre confection with its droppings, Elton John’s “Skyline Pigeon” flaps over the end credits.

In contrast to the try-hard soundtrack of Mary Queen of Scots, that of The Favourite stokes the film’s irreverent whimsy, making for a visual and sonic banquet in which sadness, one realizes only late in the feast, is the palate cleanser.

Categories: News for progressives

Time Travelers of the World Unite

Fri, 2019-01-04 14:03

It’s ok, they say, to dream
of killing evil men
As long as they’re already dead

A scientist, a presidential candidate
and others discuss this
in books, interviews
in respectable venues
And all do agree — as the planet’s polluted
to death — that it’s fine
To kill them in the cradle
via time machine

The presidential candidate’s not asked
if there are candidates
For this prospective self-defense at present
But how would he reply?
He’d certainly have the wrong people
in mind
the right ones — those responsible —
in future generations kids
can dream of killing all of them
And maybe you and I will sit
and witness just this very thing
Should future kids build time machines

Categories: News for progressives

Burn Lands

Thu, 2019-01-03 16:10

At dawn, and again at sundown, the cloud scudded winter skies over the foothills of Southern California’s Sant Ynez mountains have been flushed recently with pinks and violets, shadowed with undertones of browns and grays. In the early mornings, the charred skeletons of laurel sumac, chamise, and ceanothus are silhouetted against the blazing firmament above these burn lands. The flame and drought plagued mountains are a grey-brown, newly studded with pale sandstone, exposed by the Thomas Fire. The foothills look as though they are covered with the mottled skin of some bottom-dwelling sea-creature.

The flesh of the chaparral, that biotic fuzz that drapes itself over so much of California, is fire-changed. Beneath its erstwhile canopy the matrix of sandstone and thin soil is now revealed as though a new volcanic age is upon us, the mantle still writhing from some recent uplift of magma. It’s not new of course, this growing medium has been weathering down for many eons, derived from sediment laid down in the Eocene, perhaps fifty million years ago. The plants of the chaparral emerged more recently, just twenty million years ago, and organized themselves into chaparralian assemblages just as soon as some semblance of a Mediterranean climate (wet winters, long, dry summers) emerged mid-Miocene, about ten million years ago. The florid, crepuscular skies that glow on the horizon at either end of winter days are a characteristic of that climate, of moisture laden skies that both diffract and reflect the near-horizontal rays of the sun.

I can only comprehend the strange images that the local hills present as simile. So, their surface look likes the camouflaged skin of a giant cuttlefish recumbent on the sea-floor. What remains of the chaparral is spiked with skeletal limbs awaiting miracles of stump-sprouting or obligate re-seeding. These burn lands have spread over storied territories of Southern California such as Malibu, Calabasas and Ojai. Absent the drama of flame and smoke, the ancient plant communities now mutely regenerate.

Far below this landscape, plankton and tiny sea creatures rich in stored solar energy, have been compressed, over the geologic ages, beneath dank swamps and shallow seas underlayers of sea-bottom sediment and metamorphized into oil through the influence of pressure and heat.  As the earth has moved and folded, seams of this fossil biomass have puddled beneath the land. Where it has pooled, it has been assiduously extracted since 1865, although California has mercifully seen a fall in oil production of over 50% since 1985.

Southern California expresses itself geographically as ocean, off-shore Islands, beaches, sand dunes and wetlands, mostly transverse mountains (running west to east), coastal sage-scrub, chaparral, oak woodlands – sometimes mixed with juniper and pinyon – and desert. Freeways thread through and between sprawling conurbations, suburbs and exurbs. The burn lands (either consummated or awaiting a random, probably anthropogenic, ignition source) exist throughout the natural landscape but especially at the Wildland-Urban-Interface. Something approaching half a million acres burned in SoCal in 2018 while the State saw a record year of almost two million charred acres. It is now a land of wildfire and oil (where 40% of carbon emissions come from gasoline-burning public and private transportation).  It is a land that burns both living and fossil biomass. It is a land that is making good on this burn-notice by its carbon contributions to an atmosphere now infused with over 400 ppm of CO2, a level that likelyrepresentsplanetary ecocide.

As this remarkable year ends, I have sought to sketch a geological, botanical and topographical survey of Southern California. It has been a year significant, I think, for the raw physicality of exposition that has attended the fires in California. None here can now doubt the conflation of global warming and its deadly terrestrial consequences. This may be considered as the revenge of the Carboniferous, a sixty million year period that concluded three hundred million years agoduring which the formation of oil began, but did not end. Its characteristic geological strata were first mined for coal and it was the combination of this fuel and the invention of the steam engine that would propel the Industrial Revolution in Britain, a revolution whose global momentum is, even today, not quite spent.

Historically, the recent increased levels of CO2in the atmosphere date to the middle of the nineteenth century and have been greatly advanced over the last one hundred and seventy years. This phenomenon has led to what the geologist Marcia Bjornerud (in Timefulness, 2018) calls the “wreckage of long-evolving biogeochemical cycles”. More generally, the civilization enabled by fossil-capital has also destroyed ancient ecosystems and caused extinction rates to spike by a factor of somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 above background rates. These issues, together with vastly increased human-caused erosion and sedimentation, ocean acidification and sea level rise are taken, by most of the world’s scientific community, to validate the notion of a new epoch in the geologic timescale, the Anthropocene.

While the connection between the increase of CO2in the atmosphere and global warming is widely accepted, less understood is the connection between atmospheric carbon dioxide and the five other mass extinctions that are used to mark geologic periods. Bjornerud notes that the concept of a species driven epoch, such as the Anthropocene, fundamentally challenges the continuity of processes established by the founders of Geology, Hutton and Lyell. Yet there is a chemical thread that links all but one of the mass extinctions that demark the geologic timescale – all were partially initiated by quantum increases in atmospheric CO2. The exception is the Cretaceous extinction event that ended the reign of the dinosaur. It was caused by the impact of a meteor in the Yucatan which kicked up rock dust rich in acids and sulfur. This shroud of rock particles blocked photosynthesis and led to a kind of nuclear winter. All five extinctions then, were precipitated by abrupt changes in the climate attributable to an alteration of the atmosphere.

Southern California is uniquely entwined in global warming. It has produced vast quantities of oil and shown the world’s peoples how it could be used in the private automobile to enrich their lives, both by the example of Los Angeles, the first city to be shaped by the needs of the car, and through Hollywood’s cultural colonialism. Its over three hundred miles of highly developed coastline from San Diego to Morro Bay, which harbor many oil production facilities along the way, are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its dominant plant community is chaparral, whose drought-stressed shrublands reach deep into suburban and exurban enclaves and which are chronically subject to wildfires. The desire of its wealthier inhabitants to site their homes in the foothills amidst these fire-prone landscapes and drainages vulnerable to flood and debris-flows exacerbates the intrinsic connection between Southern California and what Mike Davis calls an Ecology of Fear. For many of us, the shorthand for these myriad real and potential disasters is, quite simply, global warming.

Even in the burn lands, the beauty of the hills, valleys, canyons and distant mountains remains. Bathed in the soft glow of early morning and evening light, it is transfixing. Scoured by cold north-easterly Santa Ana winds (in other seasons, the fire wind) the atmosphere is preternaturally clear, the landscape stunningly chromatic. Yet as the year turns, and we enter another millionth sliver of geologic time, it is apparent that although we humans are often individually long-lived, as a species we will die young.

What remains is to negotiate the precise terms of our extinction.

Categories: News for progressives



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