Sunday, June 29, 2008


Chaos Approaches

1. Farewell to the Holocene

Our world, our old world that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper in North America or Europe has yet printed its scientific obituary.

This February, while cranes were hoisting cladding to the 141st floor of the Burj Dubai tower (which will soon be twice the height of the Empire State Building), the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London was adding the newest and highest story to the geological column.

The London Society is the world's oldest association of Earth scientists, founded in 1807, and its Commission acts as a college of cardinals in the adjudication of the geological time-scale. Stratigraphers slice up Earth's history as preserved in sedimentary strata into hierarchies of eons, eras, periods, and epochs marked by the "golden spikes" of mass extinctions, speciation events, and abrupt changes in atmospheric chemistry.

In geology, as in biology or history, periodization is a complex, controversial art and the most bitter feud in nineteenth-century British science -- still known as the "Great Devonian Controversy" -- was fought over competing interpretations of homely Welsh Graywackes and English Old Red Sandstone. More recently, geologists have feuded over how to stratigraphically demarcate ice age oscillations over the last 2.8 million years. Some have never accepted that the most recent inter-glacial warm interval -- the Holocene -- should be distinguished as an "epoch" in its own right just because it encompasses the history of civilization.

As a result, contemporary stratigraphers have set extraordinarily rigorous standards for the beatification of any new geological divisions. Although the idea of the "Anthropocene" -- an Earth epoch defined by the emergence of urban-industrial society as a geological force -- has been long debated, stratigraphers have refused to acknowledge compelling evidence for its advent.

At least for the London Society, that position has now been revised.

To the question "Are we now living in the Anthropocene?" the 21 members of the Commission unanimously answer "yes." They adduce robust evidence that the Holocene epoch -- the interglacial span of unusually stable climate that has allowed the rapid evolution of agriculture and urban civilization -- has ended and that the Earth has entered "a stratigraphic interval without close parallel in the last several million years." In addition to the buildup of greenhouse gases, the stratigraphers cite human landscape transformation which "now exceeds [annual] natural sediment production by an order of magnitude," the ominous acidification of the oceans, and the relentless destruction of biota.

This new age, they explain, is defined both by the heating trend (whose closest analogue may be the catastrophe known as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum, 56 million years ago) and by the radical instability expected of future environments. In somber prose, they warn that "the combination of extinctions, global species migrations and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks." Evolution itself, in other words, has been forced into a new trajectory.

2. Spontaneous Decarbonization?

The Commission's coronation of the Anthropocene coincides with growing scientific controversy over the 4th Assessment Report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is mandated to establish scientific baselines for international efforts to mitigate global warming, but some of the most prominent researchers in the field are now challenging its reference scenarios as overly optimistic, even pie-in-the-sky thinking.

The current scenarios were adopted by the IPCC in 2000 to model future global emissions based on different "storylines" about population growth as well as technological and economic development. Some of the Panel's major scenarios are well known to policymakers and greenhouse activists, but few outside the research community have actually read or understood the fine print, particularly the IPCC's confidence that greater energy efficiency will be an "automatic" byproduct of future economic development. Indeed all the scenarios, even the "business as usual" variants, assume that at least 60% of future carbon reduction will occur independently of greenhouse mitigation measures.

The Panel, in effect, has bet the ranch, or rather the planet, on unplanned, market-driven progress toward a post-carbon world economy, a transition that implicitly requires wealth generated from higher energy prices ultimately finding its way to new technologies and renewable energy. (The International Energy Agency recently estimated that it would cost $45 trillion to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.) Kyoto-type accords and carbon markets are designed -- almost as an analogue to Keynesian "pump-priming" -- to bridge the shortfall between spontaneous decarbonization and the emissions targets required by each scenario.

Serendipitously, this reduces the costs of mitigating global warming to levels that align with what seems, at least theoretically, to be politically possible, as expounded in the British Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change of 2006 and other such reports.

Critics argue, however, that this represents a heroic leap of faith that radically understates the economic costs, technological hurdles, and social changes required to tame the growth of greenhouse gases. European carbon emissions, for example, are still rising (dramatically in some sectors) despite the European Union's much praised adoption of a cap-and-trade system in 2005. Likewise there has been little evidence in recent years of the automatic progress in energy efficiency that is the sine qua non of the IPCC scenarios. Although The Economist characteristically begs to differ, most energy researchers believe that, since 2000, energy intensity has actually risen; that is, global carbon dioxide emissions have kept pace with, or even grown marginally faster than, energy use.

Coal production, especially, is undergoing a dramatic renaissance, as the nineteenth century has returned to haunt the twenty-first century. Hundreds of thousands of miners are now working under conditions that would have appalled Charles Dickens, extracting the dirty mineral that allows China to open two new coal-fueled power stations every week. Meanwhile, the total consumption of fossil fuels is predicted to increase at least 55% over the next generation, with international oil exports doubling in volume.

The United Nations Development Program, which has made its own study of sustainable energy goals, warns that it will require "a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2050 against 1990 levels" to keep humanity outside the red zone of runaway warming (usually defined as a greater than two degrees centigrade increase this century). Yet the International Energy Agency predicts that, in all likelihood, such emissions will actually increase in this period by nearly 100% -- enough greenhouse gas to propel us past several critical tipping points.

Even while higher energy prices are pushing SUVs towards extinction and attracting more venture capital to renewable energy, they are also opening the Pandora's box of the crudest of crude oil production from Canadian tar sands and Venezuelan heavy oil. As one British scientist has warned, the very last thing we should wish for (under the false slogan of "energy independence") is new frontiers in hydrocarbon production that advance "humankind's ability to accelerate global warming" and slow the urgent transition to "non-carbon or closed-carbon energy cycles."

3. Fin-du-Monde Boom

What confidence should we place in the capacity of markets to reallocate investment from old to new energy or, say, from arms expenditures to sustainable agriculture? We are propagandized incessantly (especially on public television) about how giant companies like Chevron, Pfizer Inc., and Archer Daniels Midland are hard at work saving the planet by plowing profits back into the kinds of research and exploration that will ensure low-carbon fuels, new vaccines, and more drought-resistant crops.

As the current ethanol-from-corn boom, which has diverted 100 million tons of grain from human diets mainly to American car engines, so appallingly demonstrates, "biofuel" may be a euphemism for subsidies to the rich and starvation for the poor. Likewise "clean coal," despite a vigorous endorsement from Senator Barack Obama (who also champions ethanol), is, at present, simply a huge deception: a $40 million advertising and lobbying campaign for a hypothetical technology that BusinessWeek has characterized as "being decades away from commercial viability."

Moreover there are disturbing signs that energy companies and utilities are reneging on their public commitments to the development of carbon-capture and alternative energy technologies.

The Bush administration's "marquee demonstration project," FutureGen, was scrapped this year after the coal industry refused to pay its share of the public-private "partnership"; similarly, most U.S. private-sector carbon-sequestration initiatives have recently been cancelled. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, Shell has just pulled out of the world's largest wind-energy project, the London Array. Despite heroic levels of advertising, energy corporations, like pharmaceutical companies, prefer to overgraze the commons, while letting taxes, not profits, pay for whatever urgent, long-overdue research is actually undertaken.

On the other hand, the spoils from high energy prices continue to gush into real estate, skyscrapers, and financial assets. Whether or not we are actually at the summit of Hubbert's Peak -- that peak oil moment -- whether or not the oil-price bubble finally bursts, what we are probably witnessing is the largest transfer of wealth in modern history.

An eminent Wall Street oracle, McKinsey Global Institute, predicts that if crude oil prices remain above $100 per barrel -- they are, at the moment, approaching $140 a barrel -- the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council alone will "reap a cumulative windfall of almost $9 trillion by 2020." As in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, whose total gross domestic product has almost doubled in just three years, are awash in liquidity: $2.4 trillion in banks and investment funds according to a recent estimate by The Economist. Regardless of price trends, the International Energy Agency predicts, "more and more oil will come from fewer and fewer countries, primarily the Middle East members of OPEC [The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries]."

Dubai, which has little oil income of its own, has become the regional financial hub for this vast pool of wealth, with ambitions to eventually compete with Wall Street and the City of London.

During the first oil shock in the 1970s, much of OPEC's surplus was recycled through military purchases in the United States and Europe, or parked in foreign banks to become the "subprime" loans that eventually devastated Latin America. In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the Gulf states became far more cautious about entrusting their wealth to countries, like the United States, governed by religious fanatics. This time around, they are using "sovereign wealth funds" to achieve a more active ownership in foreign financial institutions, while investing fabulous amounts of oil revenue to transform Arabia's sands into hyperbolic cities, shopping paradises, and private islands for British rock stars and Russian gangsters.

Two years ago, when oil prices were less than half of the current level, The Financial Times estimated that planned new construction in Saudi Arabia and the emirates already exceeded $1 trillion dollars. Today, it may be closer to $1.5 trillion, considerably more than the total value of world trade in agricultural products. Most of the Gulf city-states are building hallucinatory skylines -- and, among them, Dubai is the unquestionable superstar. In a little more than a decade, it has erected 500 skyscrapers, and currently leases one-quarter of all the high-rise cranes in the world.

This super-charged Gulf boom, which celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas claims is "reconfiguring the world," has led Dubai developers to proclaim the advent of a "supreme lifestyle" represented by seven-star hotels, private islands, and J-class yachts. Not surprisingly, then, the United Arab Emirates and its neighbors have the biggest per capita ecological footprints on the planet.

Meanwhile, the rightful owners of Arab oil wealth, the masses crammed into the angry tenements of Baghdad, Cairo, Amman, and Khartoum, have little more to show for it than a trickle-down of oil-field jobs and Saudi-subsidized madrassas. While guests enjoy the $5,000 per night rooms in Burj Al-Arab, Dubai's celebrated sail-shaped hotel, working-class Cairenes riot in the streets over the unaffordable price of bread.

4. Can Markets Enfranchise the Poor?

Emissions optimists, of course, will smile at all the gloom-and-doom and evoke the coming miracle of carbon trading. What they discount is the real possibility that a sprawling carbon-offset market may emerge, just as predicted, yet produce only minimal improvement in the global carbon balance sheet, as long as there is no mechanism for enforcing real net reductions in fossil fuel use.

In popular discussions of emissions-rights trading systems, it is common to mistake the smokestacks for the trees. For example, the wealthy oil enclave of Abu Dhabi (like Dubai, a partner in the United Arab Emirates) brags that it has planted more than 130 million trees -- each of which does its duty in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, this artificial forest in the desert also consumes huge quantities of irrigation water produced, or recycled, from expensive desalination plants. The trees may allow Sheik Ahmed bin Zayed to wear a halo at international meetings, but the rude fact is that they are an energy-intensive beauty strip, like most of so-called green capitalism.

And, while we're at it, let's just ask: What if the buying and selling of carbon credits and pollution offsets fails to turn down the thermostat? What exactly will motivate governments and global industries then to join hands in a crusade to reduce emissions through regulation and taxation?

Kyoto-type climate diplomacy assumes that all the major actors, once they have accepted the science in the IPCC reports, will recognize an overriding common interest in gaining control over the runaway greenhouse effect. But global warming is not War of the Worlds, where invading Martians are dedicated to annihilating all of humanity without distinction. Climate change, instead, will initially produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes. It will reinforce, not diminish, geopolitical inequality and conflict.

As the United Nations Development Program emphasized in its report last year, global warming is above all a threat to the poor and the unborn, the "two constituencies with little or no political voice." Coordinated global action on their behalf thus presupposes either their revolutionary empowerment (a scenario not considered by the IPCC) or the transmutation of the self-interest of rich countries and classes into an enlightened "solidarity" without precedent in history. From a rational-actor perspective, the latter outcome only seems realistic if it can be shown that privileged groups possess no preferential "exit" option, that internationalist public opinion drives policymaking in key countries, and that greenhouse gas mitigation could be achieved without major sacrifices in upscale Northern Hemispheric standards of living -- none of which seems highly likely.

And what if growing environmental and social turbulence, instead of galvanizing heroic innovation and international cooperation, simply drive elite publics into even more frenzied attempts to wall themselves off from the rest of humanity? Global mitigation, in this unexplored but not improbable scenario, would be tacitly abandoned (as, to some extent, it already has been) in favor of accelerated investment in selective adaptation for Earth's first-class passengers. We're talking here of the prospect of creating green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet.

Of course, there will still be treaties, carbon credits, famine relief, humanitarian acrobatics, and perhaps the full-scale conversion of some European cities and small countries to alternative energy. But the shift to low, or zero, emission lifestyles would be almost unimaginably expensive.(In Britain, it currently costs $200,000 more to build a zero-carbon, "level 6" eco-home than a standard unit of the same area.) And this will certainly become even more unimaginable after perhaps 2030, when the convergent impacts of climate change, peak oil, peak water, and an additional 1.5 billion people on the planet may begin to seriously throttle growth.

5. The North's Ecological Debt

The real question is this: Will rich counties ever mobilize the political will and economic resources to actually achieve IPCC targets or, for that matter, to help poorer countries adapt to the inevitable, already "committed" quotient of warming now working its way toward us through the slow circulation of the world ocean?

To be more vivid: Will the electorates of the wealthy nations shed their current bigotry and walled borders to admit refugees from predicted epicenters of drought and desertification like the Maghreb, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Pakistan? Will Americans, the most miserly people when measured by per capita foreign aid, be willing to tax themselves to help relocate the millions likely to be flooded out of densely settled, mega-delta regions like Bangladesh?

Market-oriented optimists, once again, will point to carbon offset programs like the Clean Development Mechanism which, they claim, will allow green capital to flow to the Third World.

Most of the Third World, however, probably prefers for the First World to acknowledge the environmental mess it has created and take responsibility for cleaning it up. They rightly rail against the notion that the greatest burden of adjustment to the Anthropocene epoch should fall on those who have contributed least to carbon emissions and drawn the slightest benefits from 200 years of industrialization.

In a sobering study recently published in the Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Science, a research team has attempted to calculate the environmental costs of economic globalization since 1961 as expressed in deforestation, climate change, over-fishing, ozone depletion, mangrove conversion, and agricultural expansion. After making adjustments for relative cost burdens, they found that the richest countries, by their activities, had generated 42% of environmental degradation across the world, while shouldering only 3% of the resulting costs.

The radicals of the South will rightly point to another debt as well. For 30 years, cities in the developing world have grown at breakneck speed without any equivalent public investment in infrastructure services, housing, or public health. In large part this has been the result of foreign debts contracted by dictators, payments enforced by the International Monetary Fund, and public sectors wrecked by the World Bank's "structural adjustment" agreements.

This planetary deficit of opportunity and social justice is captured in the fact that more than one billion people, according to UN-Habitat, currently live in slums and that their number is expected to double by 2030. An equal number, or more, forage in the so-called informal sector (a first-world euphemism for mass unemployment). Sheer demographic momentum, meanwhile, will increase the world's urban population by 3 billion people over the next 40 years (90% of them in poor cities), and no one -- absolutely no one -- has a clue how a planet of slums, with growing food and energy crises, will accommodate their biological survival, much less their inevitable aspirations to basic happiness and dignity.

If this seems unduly apocalyptic, consider that most climate models project impacts that will uncannily reinforce the present geography of inequality. One of the pioneer analysts of the economics of global warming, Petersen Institute fellow William R. Cline, recently published a country-by-country study of the likely effects of climate change on agriculture by the later decades of this century. Even in the most optimistic simulations, the agricultural systems of Pakistan (a 20% decrease from current farm output predicted) and Northwestern India (a 30% decrease) are likely to be devastated, along with much of the Middle East, the Maghreb, the Sahel belt, Southern Africa, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Twenty-nine developing countries will lose 20% or more of their current farm output to global warming, while agriculture in the already rich north is likely to receive, on average, an 8% boost.

In light of such studies, the current ruthless competition between energy and food markets, amplified by international speculation in commodities and agricultural land, is only a modest portent of the chaos that could soon grow exponentially from the convergence of resource depletion, intractable inequality, and climate change. The real danger is that human solidarity itself, like a West Antarctic ice shelf, will suddenly fracture and shatter into a thousand shards.

Source - Mike Davis, TomDispatch

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Into Infinity


High and rising world oil and food prices, the implosion of the US housing bubble and the ensuing consumer credit vapour lock have cash-strapped US consumers staying out of retail stores in droves, and this is forcing dozens of US retailers to close hundreds of stores.

Information technology related companies that are closing stores include CompUSA going out of business, Sprint Nextel closing 125 locations, Movie Gallery closing 560 movie rental outlets, and bankrupt Sharper Image shutting down 90 to 180 stores.

Other retailers shutting down shops are: Ann Taylor, 117 stores; Eddie Bauer, 29 stores; Cache, 20 to 23 stores; Lane Bryant, 150 stores; Talbots, 100 stores; Gap, 85 stores; Foot Locker, 140 stores; Wickes going out of business; Levitz going out of business; Zales, 105 stores; Disney, 98 stores; Home Depot, 15 stores; Macy's, 9 stores; Pep Boys, 33 stores; Ethan Allen, 12 stores; Wilsons, 158 stores; Pacific Sunwear, 228 stores; Bombay Company, 384 stores; KB Toys, 356 stores; and Dillards, six stores. Sheesh kebab!

The US financial sector has already been decimated by the fallout from the recent subprime mortgage fiasco. Workers laid off from financial services and retailing positions tend to get forced into lower-paying service jobs. But with consumers being squeezed by increasing gas and food prices, they're not driving and patronising bars and restaurants as often, so it is somewhat doubtful that all of those laid-off employees will be able to find other work soon.

It's hard not to think that the US economy might get worse before it starts getting better.

Source - Inquirer

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


A Killing

As the global food crisis escalates, Big Biotech (Monsanto, Novartis, Syngenta, Dupont-Pioneer, Dow et al) are capitalizing on the desperation of the hungry at runaway prices and rapidly diminishing reserves as a wedge to foist genetically modified (GMO) seeds on a reluctant Third World.

Latin America is a prime marketing target for Big Biotech's little darlings, often tagged "semillas asasinas" or "killer seeds" for their devastating impacts on local food stocks. Now the killer GMOs are suspected of literally provoking murder most foul.

Last October, Armando Villareal, a farm leader in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, was gunned down after a farmers' meeting in Nuevo Casas Grandes. Villareal had been denouncing the illegal planting of GMO corn in the Mennonite-dominated municipalities of Cuauhtemoc and Naniquipa.

Chihuahua Mennonite communities originally migrated from Canada after a dispute with the Canadian government over education in the 1920s and were granted land by post-revolutionary president Alvaro Obregon. Over the decades, the Mennonites have successfully cultivated up to 60,000 hectares in the northeast of the state. Acutely insular with their signature dress (denim overalls for the men, prairie dresses and calico bonnets for the women) and speaking low-German as befits their European roots, the Mennonites have never integrated into the Mexican mainstream and their success as farmers - they have benefited from Mexican government irrigation projects - has created tensions in a region where aridity limits agricultural production for most farmers.

Hundreds of tractors lined up in a cortege at Villareal's October 15th funeral during which he was compared to another Chihuahua hero, Francisco Villa. Ironically, the slain farmers' leader who claimed to have evidence that the Mennonites' killer seeds had been smuggled in from Kansas, was not opposed to planting GMO corn which his "Aerodynamica" group hoped would save strapped farmers money on pesticides and power costs. His followers had even burnt tractors to demand that the Mexican government grant them permits to plant the transgenic corn.

Eight months later, Armando Villareal's murder remains unresolved.

The Chihuahua farm leader's assassination is not the only death of a militant Latin American campesino being linked to Big Biotech's encroachments. In Parana Brazil about the same time Villareal was gunned down in Chihuahua, Keno Mota, an activist of the Movement of Landless Farmers ("Movimento de Sem Terras" or MST), affiliated with the international poor farmers coalition Via Campesina, was drilled by security guards during an action on an illegal experimental station under cultivation by the Biotech giant Syngenta - the Syngenta plot, adjacent to Iguazu National Park, a protected nature reserve, violated Brazilian strictures as to where such "semillas asasinas" can be planted.

Unlike Mexico, Brazil has few restrictions on GMO crops and indeed under social democrat president Lula da Silva, has become the second-largest GMO soybean producer on the continent. Neighboring Argentina is Numero Uno. Big Argentinean growers, who have been blocking that southern cone nation's highways in a dispute over tariffs on soy exports for weeks, have announced intentions to surpass the United States as the largest grower of genetically modified maize in coming years. Argentinean corn is grown exclusively as feed for the gaucho nation's cattle industry, a cornerstone of its agrarian economy.

Mexico, where maiz was first domesticated 8000 years ago and where corn is at the core of culture as well as nutrition, has been more circumspect in embracing GMO seed. Under the banner of the "No Hay Pais Sin Maiz" ("we have no country without corn") campaign, farmers and environmentalists have joined hands to prevent GMO contamination of native species and the nation's Bio-Security Commission, initialed CYBOGEN, an inter-secretarial government body, declared a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified corn in the late 1990s.

Nonetheless, millions of tons of GMO maize pour into Mexican tariff-free each year from the U.S. under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.)

Now, in the wake of the much-hyped global food crisis, Big Biotech is pressuring the Mexican government to permit experimental plantations of the semillas asasinas as the only solution to predicted shortages, a ploy that Monsanto and its ilk have successfully sprung on the European Union.

Although GMO corn remains officially proscribed in Europe, seven EU members will grow the modified maize this year. Agribiz combines like the British National Beef Association, insist that "all resistance to GMO crops must be abandoned" in light of the growing international food psychosis.

One motive for the industry's big push, according to Sylvia Ribero who keeps tabs on Big Biotech for the left daily La Jornada: patents for some of the major GMO seed brands like Monsanto's BT corn are set to expire in the next five years.

Buckling under the Biotech barrage, Mexico's CYBOGEN posted regulations this March for applicants who contemplate cultivation of "experimental" GMO corn. Now, with a 60-day countdown ticking, Mexican farmers could be legally planting genetically modified maiz by July.

Under ground rules issued by both the Agriculture and Environmental secretariats (SAGARPA and SAMARNAT), experimental patches of GMO corn must be limited to regions where native corn stocks will not be contaminated by windblown pollens from such fields.

But the Mennonite farmers who occupy huge tracts in Chihuahua apparently jumped the gun.

Under the tutelage of Monsanto and Syngenta-Golden Harvest with the SAGARPA and the SAMARNAT turning a blind eye, the Mennonites have sewn GMO corn in at least two of their "camps" or agricultural stations (#102 and #305) in the municipality of Naniquipa where Villareal spotted the illegal patches last year. Decrying insufficient safeguards against windblown pollens, Chihuahua campesinos led by Victor Quintana of the "No Hay Pais" campaign, also affiliated with Via Campesina, and a deputy in the Mexican congress for the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), have threatened to tear out the Mennonite fields before they flower in mid-summer.

Quintana's group worries that the Mennonite "experiment" will germinate five to 25 million "granos" or kernels, each of which is a potential threat to native corn.SAGARPA regards the Mennonite "experiment" as a field test to see just how far the pollens can be spread by winds and other weather conditions.

Windblown GMO pollens are held responsible for the contamination of maiz in neighboring Sinaloa state where Greenpeace activists found traces of genetically modified corn in 96% of samples taken in nine municipalities in 2007 - Sinaloa is Mexico's top corn producing state. Aleira Lara, Greenpeace anti-GMO campaign coordinator, considers that trying to confine experimental plots to one geographical region is merely cosmetic. Last year, the Greenpeacers listed 39 instances of windblown GMO contamination in 23 countries.

Native Mexican corn was first found to have been infected by NAFTA GMO imports in 2001 when Indian campesinos in Oaxaca's Sierra of Juarez discovered that maiz from a lot introduced from Michigan and sold by a local government DICONSA grain distribution center had been inadvertently planted in the Zapotec-Chinanteco village of Calpulapan. Subsequent investigation by the National Ecology Institute, documented in a report suppressed by the Secretary of Agriculture, turned up traces of GMO contamination (some as high as 60%) in 11 out of 22 corn-growing regions in Oaxaca and Puebla. Maiz was first domesticated in the Puebla-Oaxaca altiplano eight millenniums ago.

Although the CYBOGEN has never until now licensed the production of genetically modified corn in Mexico, the semillas asasinas have almost certainly been cultivated here since the late 1990s. The International Commission for the Betterment of Corn and Wheat (CIMMYT), financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, with experimental fields in Texcoco just outside Mexico City is thought to be one source of windblown contamination. Roberto Gonzalez Barrera, the King of the Tortilla, the owner of MASECA, the world's biggest corn flour miller now a third owned by Archer Daniels Midlands, once boasted that he had thousands of hectares under GMO corn. NAFTA imports fall off DICONSA trucks on rural highways and the pollens are blown into roadside "milpas" (cornfields.)

Now GMO infestation is about to get much more acute. In a move to offset soaring prices and shrinking reserves that invariably generate social discontent, Mexican president Felipe Calderon has announced the tariff-free importation of millions of tons of basic grains (corn, wheat, soy, sorghum.) Because the Cargill Corporation, which has dominated grain distribution in Mexico ever since the government's CONASUPO system was privatized in 1999, claims it cannot separate out GMO from uncontaminated imports, the impacts on native corn and other grains will be greatly magnified - Greenpeace estimates that 60 to 70% of all corn imports are contaminated by genetically modified organisms.

Source - John Ross, Counterpunch

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Big Yawn

The ugly truth behind the Iraq and Afghanistan wars finally has emerged.

Four major western oil companies, Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP and Total are about to sign U.S.-brokered no-bid contracts to begin exploiting Iraq's oil fields. Saddam Hussein had kicked these firms out three decades ago when he nationalized Iraq's oil industry. The U.S.-installed Baghdad regime is welcoming them back.

Iraq is getting back the same oil companies that used to exploit it when it was a British colony.

As former fed chairman Alan Greenspan recently admitted, the Iraq war was all about oil. The invasion was about SUV's, not democracy.

Afghanistan just signed a major deal to launch a long-planned, 1,680-km pipeline project expected to cost $8 billion. If completed, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) will export gas and later oil from the Caspian basin to Pakistan's coast where tankers will transport it to the West.

The Caspian basin located under the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakkstan, holds an estimated 300 trillion cubic feet of gas and 100-200 billion barrels of oil. Securing the world's last remaining known energy El Dorado is a strategic priority for the western powers.

But there are only two practical ways to get gas and oil out of land-locked Central Asia to the sea: Through Iran, or through Afghanistan to Pakistan. Iran is taboo for Washington. That leaves Pakistan, but to get there, the planned pipeline must cross western Afghanistan, including the cities of Herat and Kandahar.


In 1998, the Afghan anti-Communist movement Taliban and a western oil consortium led by the U.S. firm Unocal signed a major pipeline deal. Unocal lavished money and attention on the Taliban, flew a senior delegation to Texas, and hired a minor Afghan official, Hamid Karzai.

Enter Osama bin Laden. He advised the unworldly Taliban leaders to reject the U.S. deal and got them to accept a better offer from an Argentine consortium. Washington was furious and, according to some accounts, threatened the Taliban with war.

In early 2001, six or seven months before 9/11, Washington made the decision to invade Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban, and install a client regime that would build the energy pipelines. But Washington still kept sending money to the Taliban until four months before 9/11 in an effort to keep it "on side" for possible use in a war against China.

The 9/11 attacks, about which the Taliban knew nothing, supplied the pretext to invade Afghanistan. The initial U.S. operation had the legitimate objective of wiping out Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. But after its 300 members fled to Pakistan, the U.S. stayed on, built bases -- which just happened to be adjacent to the planned pipeline route -- and installed former Unocal "consultant" Hamid Karzai as leader.

Washington disguised its energy geopolitics by claiming the Afghan occupation was to fight "Islamic terrorism," liberate women, build schools and promote democracy. Ironically, the Soviets made exactly the same claims when they occupied Afghanistan from 1979-1989. The Iraq cover story was weapons of mass destruction and democracy.

Work will begin on the TAPI once Taliban forces are cleared from the pipeline route by U.S., Canadian and NATO forces. As American analyst Kevin Phillips writes, the U.S. military and its allies have become an "energy protection force."


From Washington's viewpoint, the TAPI deal has the added benefit of scuttling another proposed pipeline project that would have delivered Iranian gas and oil to Pakistan and India.

India's energy needs are expected to triple over the next decade. Delhi, which has its own designs on Afghanistan, is cock-a-hoop over the new pipeline plan.

Russia, by contrast, is grumpy, having hoped to monopolize Central Asian energy exports.

Energy is more important than blood in our modern world. The U.S. is a great power with massive energy needs. Domination of oil is a pillar of America's world power. Let's be realistic. Afghanistan and Iraq are about oil, nothing else.

Source - Toronto Sun


Horrors To Come

In the depths of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick created a notoriously-mad scientist character, Dr. Strangelove, whose passion was for dropping atomic bombs. Now there is a rising media and Beltway fascination with a new Dr. Strangelove, whose passion is imposing a mad science of counterinsurgency on Iraq.

His name is David Kilcullen, an Australian academic and military veteran whom the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks once described as Gen. David Petraeus' "chief adviser" on the counterinsurgency doctrine underlying the surge in Iraq.

Kilcullen advocated a "global Phoenix program" in an obscure military journal, Small Wars, in 2004. For the ahistorical or uninitiated, Phoenix was a largely off-the-books detention, torture and assassination program aimed at tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who were identified by informants as the Vietcong's "civilian infrastructure." The venture was so discredited that the US Congress denounced and disbanded it after hearings in the 1970s.

But Kilcullen says the Phoenix program was "unfairly maligned" and was actually a success. So inflammatory was his advocacy in some circles that he revised his 2004 paper to rename the Phoenix program one of "revolutionary development."

In addition, he advocates "armed social science", which involves a key role for anthropologists and shrinks of various kinds in order to "exploit the physical and mental vulnerabilities of detainees."

The long New Yorker piece by George Packer pictured Kilcullen as a charming, eccentric, and isolated genius of sorts. In the Washington culture of national security think tanks, he appears to be a familiar and friendly figure.

His latest media fan is the Post's David Ignatius, reporting a Kilcullen briefing given "in a private capacity" at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. It was an argument for appearing to get out of Iraq while staying in, expressed in the Kilkullen formula "Overt De-Escalation, Covert Disruption.". Kilcullen argues that the American troop presence is so large that it's counter-productive, only inflaming Iraqi sensibilities. What is required is a combination of US combat troop withdrawals combined with "black" special operations to "hunt terrorists" plus "white" special operations forces training and embedded with the Iraqi security forces, turning tribes against tribes wherever possible. Covert warfare is the future: "over the long run, we need to go cheap, quiet, low-footprint." And, he might have added, off the television screen and front pages.

What Kilcullen means is a kind of deception-based warfare that is contradictory to democracy itself, with its instruments of critical media, congressional oversight, and public disclosure of the cost in blood, taxes and honor. The key militarily is to secure the civilian population from the insurgents, in South Vietnam by "strategic hamlets", in Iraq by the "gated communities" with checkpoints, blast walls, concertina wire, fingerprinting, retinal scans and house-to-house population listings. The insurgents, meanwhile, are to be hunted, killed if necessary, and detained without charges in American-controlled or American-supported prison camps indefinitely, without access to lawyers, journalists, human rights observers, or family members.

In most cases, there are no charges against them. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who headed the Abu Ghraib inquiry, has more than once suggested that "a systematic regime of torture" occurs in these camps. That's not including the CIA's secret rendition sites or the secret Baghdad prisons under the US-funded Ministry of the Interior, as reported previously in the New York Times.

Naturally the distinction between civilian and combatant is difficult to draw in counterinsurgency warfare. But aside from those already killed, it is a fair estimate that 100,000 detainees are currently languishing in such facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, few with any charges against them. These facilities are incubators for future insurgencies. Last week, after a long hunger strike, for example, 1,100 detainees escaped an Afghan facility after the Taliban blew up the walls. The Pentagon's plan is to build a permanent $60 million new detention facility on forty acres. The money might be better spent on lawyers for the present defenseless detainees.

These are the realities masked behind the almost-sensual description of a "lighter, smaller, more nimble residual force" in Ignatius' summary of the Kilcullen scenario.

How have the nation's once-great newspapers come to virtually sanctify -- and obfuscate the real meaning of -- these military doctrines, as if there were no alternatives? An explanation is impossible to obtain. But the uncritical acceptance, and even promotion, of counterinsurgency as a rational, realistic alternative to the either the status quo or withdrawal draws the Times and Post closer to the very Pentagon news manipulation operation they have recently exposed. The mainstream media have rarely if ever published anti-war critiques by leaders of protests against US military policy since the 2002 buildup, to the 2003 invasion, to the current turn to counterinsurgency. On the contrary, both the Post and the Times regularly publish the views of unrepentant neo-conservatives with no military experience whatsoever. The only valid "anti-war" voices apparently must be former military men or White House operatives who have turned against their former employers. The spectrum of the "op-ed page" is devolving into center-right insiders. As a result, the wild frontier of the blogosphere has exploded as the only outlet for dissent, with or without the documentation. The two opposing sides of the Iraq debate now inhabit separate worlds, the anti-war voices having been expelled from the mainstream for being prematurely anti-war or not being attendees at places like the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies.

In the era of Dr. Strangelove, the sociologist C. Wright Mills vented against the national security intellectuals as "crackpot realists." Few realized then [or now] that our lives and future are placed at risk by the unbalanced nature of our national dialogue, including the extreme gap between the reportage in America and the rest of the world.

Will a November election of Barack Obama bring an end to the one-note monotony of the national security debate? I fervently hope so. Obama to his credit favors combat troop withdrawals and diplomacy with Iran rather than obliteration. Obama and John McCain would seem to have totally opposing views of Iraq. But at a deeper level, Obama seems to be heading towards the counterinsurgency trap -- planning to leave a "lighter, smaller, more nimble residual force" behind in a wasteland of preventive detention, secret gulags, and advisers like David Kilcullen. For the media and public to fail to recognize, evaluate and debate this likely future during the presidential campaign will mean something beyond tragedy or farce.

Source - Alternet

Monday, June 23, 2008


Beyond Repair?

Parts of Australia's key Murray-Darling river food bowl may be beyond recovery unless a prolonged dry spell and political wrangling over water use ends by October, a leaked scientific report warned on Wednesday.

"There has been 10 years at least that people have said you have got to restore the environmental flows to the system if you wish to keep the natural assets. We have failed to do that," University of Adelaide ecologist David Paton told local radio.

The Murray-Darling river basin, an area the size of France and Germany, produces 41 percent of Australia's agriculture and provides $21 billion worth of agricultural exports to Asia and the Middle East, including rice, corn, grapes and dairy.

But the government wants to secure water supplies and repair ailing rivers with an A$13 billion ($12.2 billion), 10-year water plan topped by a A$3 billion deal to buy river water back from irrigators.

The centre-left Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deferred consideration of a scientific report into the crisis facing the basin's lower reaches until a ministerial meeting with state counterparts in November.

But Paton and other ecologists say much of the river system could be virtually dead by then, with vegetation on the lower Murray lost and fish species driven to extinction.

The lower Murray, where vast wetlands and lakes meet the sea, is an important region for horticulture, vegetable and pasture cropping, as well as dairy farming.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett said the government was aware the situation in the region was critical, but negotiations to better manage water flows were "tough and difficult".

"Recognizing the seriousness of what's happening in the lower Murray is something that is front of mind for this government," he told Reuters. "These are particularly difficult times for the Murray ... with such low inflows."

Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown accused the government of "environmental vandalism" for not acting with more urgency.

"The government's missing in action when it comes to the greatest river system in this country and the urgent need for action," Brown said.

Australia, the driest inhabited continent on Earth, has been suffering more than seven years of drought, with water inflows into the nation's rivers at record lows and farmers facing tough restrictions on irrigation.

Climate scientists have warned the continent is suffering accelerated climate change, with temperatures expected to rise by about 1 degree Celsius by 2030 and rainfall forecast to decrease by up to 20 percent by 2070 in the most populous southeast.

Australia this week cut its wheat output forecast by nearly 9 percent after the return of dry weather during a crucial planting period dashed hopes for a record crop from the world's second-biggest exporter.


American Reality?

So if I’m standing and line at a bank or some store and I want to bitch about the price of a 50 pound sack of corn chops to feed the chickens with, where am I if all I can expect to get is a blank stare? Must be an urban area, right? Rats and pigeons, yappy dogs and a stray cat or two staring as the local fauna. And it must be rural if the guy you’re talking to hooks his thumbs in the overall straps and says “ayup, seven twenty a bushel”. What do you call a place where you get the stare and the county population is smaller than the nearest “city” in the next county?

I’m going to call it a welfare backwater. Middle of nowhere, no factories or manufacturing to speak of, and nobody is running a shovel except one out of 642 on the road crew. The video stores do alright, quickie marts abound, the walmart is full of shoppers and the dog groomer is open for business. I also am beginning to believe this is the real America. Get on any two lane state highway and spend an afternoon traveling in a random direction and that’s what you’ll see - town after town of a whole bunch of nothing but village centers empty of anything but gas stations, banks and video stores. On the way out of town the glitz of the new walmart/lowes complex arises like the Emerald City - surely I’m not the only one who wonders what powers and feeds this behemoth.

Must be a lawyer or something in town who pays fifty grand in taxes. Our magical financial system can leverage and default swap that shit into a good million or so to fill up food stamp cards and propane tanks for the households that operate on income “derived” from gov’t grants like matching highway funds, social work, education, emergency room medicaid, and the bad back disability check. It sure as hell isn’t from the joebobs selling cheeseburgers to each other - the only yield on that “swap” is a couple more inches around the middle. It’s just a wonder, that’s all - how some burg as a whole spends a dollar while creating a nickel’s worth of wealth and the population doesn’t even know that’s happening. I think that 95 cents may be coming due.

Same blank stare when the sheriff comes to evict. Unpayable mechanic’s lein on the car. Unfathomable balances on the last chance threat letter from finance company. Food stamp card running out by the 17th of the month. Do you know horror? Ever watched the burner go off - stare out the window at an empty propane tank through swirling snowflakes. It won’t take much to make the the real America a really uncomfortable place to be.

I have the luxury of waltzing out past the courtyard into my woods with my chainsaw and 50 cents worth of gasoline later I have a week’s wood all cut up ready to haul to the woodpile. It’s just sheer luck of the draw that there is a big ass Amish Pioneer Maid wood cookstove for that firewood to go into, right? Sheer dumb luck… Kinda the same mechanics in action that leaves me unbeholden to a mortgage company. Or GMAC, Citibank, Chase and the rest of the gang. Perhaps it’s because i never had to play gladiator in the child support forum. Yeah, that’s got to be it.

I’m verging on being, shall we say, uncompassionate so’s I’d better wrap this up. Suffice to say that “it’s” coming down the pike, and not that I’m unconcerned about what’s coming, I won’t be caught with my pants down.

Source - ComradeSimba

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Look Up

Cargill - Evil Unleashed

While millions of people around the world face severe hunger, the handful of agribusiness corporations that dominate the global agricultural market are seeing huge profits. One of the key players in the global food market, Cargill, is profiled in a new report released today by the national consumer group Food & Water Watch. The report, entitled Cargill: A Corporate Threat to Food and Farming, details Cargill’s vast influence over international trade and how the company threatens consumers, family farmers, workers, the environment, and even entire economies around the world.

“Cargill is making enormous profit from the international trade system that is causing all this food instability around the world,” stated Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “This corporate behemoth is behind almost every aspect of the worldwide agricultural system with no accountability for consumer health, the environment or human rights.”

The name Cargill largely goes unnoticed by many consumers, yet their products appear on shelves in grocery stores and in menus at fast–food chains across the world. According to the report, Cargill has gained control over huge swaths of the world’s agriculture processing, storage, transport and trade, operating numerous business sectors and divisions. Cargill produces and markets chicken and egg products to McDonald’s in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, in addition to Pizza Hut, Burger King, and school cafeterias in the United States.

Cargill’s meat and poultry divisions are just a fraction of the products they control. The company deals with oilseeds, wheat, corn, biofuels, oils, lubricants, salts, health and pharmaceutical products and animal feed and fertilizers –– products that have contributed to environmental degradation both in the United States and abroad.

The report details the numerous threats Cargill’s operations pose to air, water and rainforests. Cargill is responsible for spilling toxic chemicals into the San Francisco Bay, releasing hazardous compounds into the air, and clearing South American rainforests to expand its production of soy and palm oil.

And it is not just controversies over global trade or environmental impacts that surround the company. Cargill is also linked to questionable food technologies such as irradiation, genetically modified foods, and the use of carbon monoxide to artificially enhance the color of meat long past its expiration date.

The report recommends action by Congress and regulators to rein in this agribusiness giant, as well as telling consumers how to opt out of Cargill’s model of industrial meat production.

To view the report Cargill: A Corporate Threat to Food and Farming, visit:

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Food Emergenices Loom

Corn futures in Chicago this week rose to record highs of more than $8 a bushel on fears that up to 5m acres of the crop could be lost, while soyabean prices hit a record of $15.93 a bushel.

Tom Jennings, acting director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, said: "The price of corn and the price of beans could rise more. If we lose a lot of corn the prices will continue to go up."

The increase in the cost of corn and soyabeans - the two main feed crops for farm animals such as cows and chickens - increased the price of live cattle yesterday for the second day in a row, to the highest level in 22 years.

Mr Jennings said that the impact of the heavy rains was "dramatic".

"According to the emergency reports I'm getting, we're above what happened in 1993 but we'll have to see how that tapers off as [the rain water] comes down the river," he told the Financial Times.

The Mississippi River broke through its levee system in 1993, destroying about 1m acres of crops and causing $20bn of damage.

Lewis Hagedorn, of JPMorgan in Chicago, said that the losses were significant.

"The risk of still-higher agricultural prices remains decisively distributed to the upside amid the fundamental need to ration demand in light of smaller supply," he said.

Greg Wagner, at Ag Resource in Chicago, added that corn prices could take a pause to assess the weather impact. However, he warned: "Additional price gains are likely as the market is prone to overshoot."

After weeks of heavy rains and low temperatures, the US Department of Agriculture said that only 57 per cent of the country's corn crop is in good or excellent condition, considerably less than the 70 per cent registered this time last year.

Local farmers in Illinois said that the bad weather had delayed planting by up to five weeks, which would result in a much reduced crop of corn and soyabeans. Some farmers expected their corn production to be down by as much as 50 per cent from last year's level.

Agriculture traders described the problem graphically, saying that corn plants in Iowa or Illinois should now be reaching almost waist height, but due to the impact of the heavy rains and low temperatures were below knee-height.

They added that expensive nitrogen fertiliser - critical for the plants' development - has now been washed out from the fields by the rains. For that reason, some farmers are likely to leave their land fallow and, instead, cash in their crop insurance policies, further reducing supply.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Over A Barrel

If wasn't clear before it should be now: the Bush Administration can't afford to attack Iran. With gas already at $4 a gallon and rising almost every day, Iran figuratively and literally has the United States over a barrel. As much as the Administration is tempted, it is not about to test Iran's promise to "explode" the Middle East if it is attacked.

The Iranians haven't been shy about making clear what's at stake. If the U.S. or Israel so much as drops a bomb on one of its reactors or its military training camps, Iran will shut down Gulf oil exports by launching a barrage of Chinese Silkworm missiles on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and Arab oil facilities. In the worst case scenario, seventeen million barrels of oil would come off world markets.

One oil speculator told me that oil would hit $200 a barrel within minutes. But Iran's official news agency, Fars, puts it at $300 a barrel. I asked him if Iran is right, what does that mean?

"Four-dollar-a-gallon of gasoline only reflects $100 oil because the refiners' margins are squeezed," he said. "At $300, you have $12 a gallon of gasoline and riots in Newark, Los Angeles, Harlem, Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit, Dallas."

In either case, whether at $200 or $300, Bush does not want to be the President who leaves the White House on a mule-drawn cart. But Iran's blackmail is not just about oil. The Iranians truly believe they have us hostage in Iraq — our supply lines, the acquiescence of the Shi'a in the occupation. It would all change in an instant, though, especially if we were to borrow Iraq to attack Iran. The way Fars put it: "In Iraq, fighters would rise up in solidarity with each other and begin ... making the Tet Offensive in 1968 Vietnam."

If this all sounds very alarming, Iran meant it to, and it seems to be working. On Tuesday Bush was talking about the prospect of new sanctions rather than attacking.

Which leaves Israel. Are the Israelis, who have a lot more on their minds than the price of gas in the United States, going to launch a pre-emptive attack? One hard and fast rule in the Middle East is never rule out Israel's readiness to turn the table over. But an Israeli hawk on Iran, with close ties to Israel's Ministry of Defense, told me to forget about it. "There's not a chance Israel will do anything. Maybe there's a window after the American elections and the new President but even that's doubtful. Washington does not have the stomach for another war."

Israel cannot attack or contain Iran on its own; it needs the full military might of the United States behind it. So in the meantime Israel can only huff and puff, hoping new sanctions on Iran will do the trick.

Source - Time

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Break Their Legs; Then Give Them Crutches

Canada, addressing one of the darkest chapters in its history, formally apologised on Wednesday for forcing 150,000 aboriginal children into grim residential schools, where many say they were sexually and physically abused.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a Parliamentary chamber packed with legislators and aboriginal representatives that there could be no excuses for what happened at the church-run schools, which mainly operated from the 1870s to the 1970s.

"The government of Canada sincerely apologises and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry," Harper said in a 15-minute address, at one point fighting back tears.

Native leaders said they hoped the apology would lead to a new era of reconciliation between Canadians and the often marginalised aboriginal population, which routinely suffers from poor living conditions and high unemployment.

The residential schools were initially set up to educate native children but later became part of a government campaign to assimilate aboriginals and eradicate their culture -- "to kill the Indian in the child", as some put it at the time.

"There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail," Harper said.

Contemporary accounts suggest up to half the children in some institutions died of tuberculosis and other diseases.

Many survivors say they were abused mentally, physically and sexually. Children were beaten for speaking their own languages and told they would be damned unless they converted to Christianity.

Harper received a lengthy standing ovation when he finished. The public galleries in the House of Commons were full of native activists, several wearing feathered headdresses and embroidered clothes.

Twelve aboriginal representatives -- including 104-year-old Marguerite Wabano, the oldest school survivor -- sat on chairs in a circle in front of Harper. The leaders of Canada's three opposition parties also gave speeches of apology.

Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations, said the apology "for this dreadful chapter in our shared history" would ensure the survival of Canada's aboriginal people.

"Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry," he told Parliament, his voice breaking.

"It is possible to end our racial nightmare together. The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help us to put that pain behind us," said Fontaine, wearing a full native headdress.

Native leaders say the damage done by the schools is directly responsible for many of the social problems that plague the country's 1 million aboriginals today.

"The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language," Harper said.

In May 2006, Canada reached a C$1.9 billion (949.5 million pound) settlement with the roughly 90,000 school survivors, who say an apology is crucial to help them overcome their trauma.

The settlement created a truth and reconciliation commission which started work on June 1 and will spent the next five years hearing from school survivors across Canada.

The scandal is reminiscent of what happened during the same period in Australia, where at least 100,000 aboriginal children were removed from their homes. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the "Stolen Generations" in February.

Source - Reuters

Wednesday, June 11, 2008



At the relief operations center in China’s mountainous Qingchuan county, government workers are still in emergency mode nearly a month after the devastating May 12 earthquake. Powerful aftershocks, heavy rains and dangerous “quake lakes” keep them from devoting all their attention to their primary task: getting the county’s residents into tents.

But even as they work to provide temporary shelter, officials are looking ahead to an even more formidable problem: When the ground stops shaking and the dust settles, this county alone will have 250,000 people who will need new homes.

It is not just a question of rebuilding what was here. Some towns lost not only their buildings but also the land they were standing on and scarce cropland when landslides hit from both sides, said Xiang Zhichun a young public affairs worker.

“A lot of crops were buried, polluted and spoiled,” said Xiang. “After the earthquake there is not enough flat area to live.”

Qingchuan is but one corner of a disaster area roughly the size of Kentucky. And its population accounts for just a fraction of an estimated 5.5 million people left homeless by the earthquake. The number of homes needed may go even higher, suggest some analysts, based on Beijing’s announcement last week that some 15.5 million people have been “relocated” because of the quake — a number that the official Xinhua News Agency published without elaboration.
Officials in Beijing have promised to rebuild the towns and villages that were destroyed within three years, but they have not yet addressed some critical questions:

What will be done with those people whose land has literally disappeared?
Will towns be rebuilt in areas that clearly are not safe?
Will residents of villages that were impoverished before the quake be returned or resettled in cities?
Will Beijing oversee mass relocations to far-away cities, as some officials are discussing?

In a country that is still in transition from communism to capitalism — less than 5 percent of the population has property insurance, for example — the responsibility for rebuilding falls squarely on the government. But it is a task of mammoth proportions, even for Beijing, with its history of megaprojects. And unlike other major projects, there is little time to plan.

“Part of the problem is the tension between long-term planning and a temporary solution,” says Oded Shenkar, a business professor at Ohio State University and author of “The Chinese Century.” “This is part of the discussion right now. What are you going to do, keep these people in tents for three years? What are you going to do when the winter comes?”

Scramble to temporary housing

Since the disaster, officials have scrambled to get displaced people into tents. The government hasn’t released the number of people who remain without shelter. Xinhua reported that as of June 3, 749,200 tents had been delivered to the region. Based on government figures released a week ago, this suggests about 3 million more are needed.

Even before that effort is complete, some cities began building villages of prefabricated housing units with capacity to house 10,000 to 20,000 people. Beijing has ordered that 1 million such temporary units be constructed by mid-August.

Even though the pace of building in these sprawling villages is impressive, it is a tall order to provide even short-term shelter for millions of homeless. Even upon completion, there will be an urgent need to start moving people out of these villages, which could otherwise become overcrowded slums. Up to five family members currently live in the unheated 10-by-12 units, which do not have individual kitchens. They share communal bathrooms with their equally crowded neighbors.

In some parts of the earthquake zone, there is no question of rebuilding at the same site. The town of Beichuan, county seat in an area that had a population of about 160,000 people, was crushed by landslides and has been written off as a ghost town. Now, officials are discussing relocating the town in a neighboring county, suggesting that Beichuan’s former site should be designated a memorial to the disaster victims.

But the fate of Beichuan residents is generally assumed to be in the hands of the central government in Beijing, which has overseen relief and rescue operations.

A whole new city?Among longer-term solutions being floated is the idea of creating a new city in a safe location in Sichuan to house populations from riverside towns that are at risk from earthquake-related landslides and flooding or are now unbuildable.

You Nuo, a veteran journalist and pundit for the official China Daily, endorsed the idea in the June 2 edition of the English-language daily, calling on the National People’s Congress to fund a major redevelopment outside the danger zone in its next budget. “China should help Sichuan, much of whose economy is dangerously perched on quake-prone mountains, build a redevelopment zone in a geologically safer area,” he said.

Beijing is experienced at mass relocation, though it has never moved this many people this fast. When the government decided in the 1990s to go ahead with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam despite the concerns of environmental and human rights advocates — as well as sporadic citizen protests — it removed about 1.2 million people from the Yangtze River area.

“It’s one of those things where the negative aspects of the regime may sometimes turn out to be a blessing of sorts,” said Shenkar, the Ohio State University professor. “This government is used to relocating people, sometimes against their will, as (it) did with the Three Gorges.”

Another idea being discussed in official circles is the mass relocation of Sichuan residents to other parts of China. Xiang, the official in Qingchuan, said one destination being considered is the coastal port city of Ningbo, which is at least 1,000 miles from the terraced mountains of Sichuan.
“Ningbo is relatively developed,” Xiang said, adding that the idea is only preliminary.

There would be cultural challenges to such a mass resettlement. Many farmers in Sichuan, for example, do not speak the same dialect as the people in Ningbo. And while China has not formally prevented the migration of rural people to the city, many migrants working in cities don't have access to benefits enjoyed by urban residents, such as health care and free education for their children.

Quake comes amid drift to citiesOn the other hand, millions of young people and bread winners from Sichuan were already working outside the province before the earthquake, supporting families back home. In more prosperous urban areas of China, they work in child care, construction, restaurants and prostitution in order to send money to their children and elderly parents.

Wang Yuchang, a 70-year-old farmer, fled his devastated village in the mountains after the quake and now lives in a blue relief tent in a low-lying area of Qingchuan county. He says he and his extended family of 11 cannot return home because their homes and land were buried by landslides caused by the quake.

As a long term solution to rural poverty, the government supports the drift of the population from rural areas to cities. So in this sense, the earthquake comes at a pivotal moment.

“They are in the midst of this transition that other countries saw 100 years ago,” Shenkar said.

“Will the government ride on that trend? … Many of these families (in Sichuan) are neither here nor there anyway.”

Although Beijing will be in charge of the master plan for resettlement — including decisions such as where electricity and water will be provided — it is increasingly clear that the views of the victims will have to be considered. And not all are eager to move.

Yan Runqi, a former resident of the now devastated town of Yingxiu, at the quake’s epicenter, said he plans to rebuild right where his house once stood. His wife survived the earthquake too, after jumping out of a window to avoid being crushed by her collapsing house. He’s not waiting for a geological survey to determine whether it is safe.

“We’re not afraid,” Yan said, speaking at a relief staging area near Yingxiu. “I’m almost 60, so I want to see my hometown rebuilt. That would make me happy.”

Others in the Yingxiu area said they would like to return to their mountainside farms, but had doubts that the government would reconnect electricity and water for their tiny clusters of homes.

Still others assumed they would have to go elsewhere.

Wang Yuchang, a 70-year-old evacuee, fled his village in the mountains, where he used to farm potatoes, corn and wheat. Now he lives in a blue relief tent in Guanzhuang, a village in the lowlands of Qingchuan county.

“It’s impossible to go back,” he said of the land that had been worked by his family for at least six generations. "There are no fields, and the road was destroyed.”

Asked where he thought he and his 11-member family would end up, Wang said he had no idea. “The government hasn’t made a decision,” he said. “But we want to stay together.”

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Avoid Beta-Blockers

Would you knowingly trade a slightly lower risk of heart attack for an increased risk of death and stroke? Neither would I. In fact, I doubt that anyone about to undergo surgery would want to take on those odds.

Of course, if you enter a hospital for surgery, you’d be the rare exception if anyone actually explained to you the pros and cons of each pill they expected you to take. More realistically, you’re handed some pills and down the hatch they go, for better or for worse.

Old Treatments Die Hard in Conventional Medicine and beta blockers are a great example of that.

Beta blockers work by “blocking” the normally stimulating effects of the adrenaline hormone on your heart. They also slow your heart rate and reduce your heart’s need for oxygen when you exert yourself, which means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard.

These drugs have been used for more than 30 years to treat high blood pressure, and they are recommended as the first line of defense in both the United States and international health guidelines.

However, it’s being increasingly suggested that beta blockers are not a good choice for high blood pressure at all. Aside from often being ineffective, they’re known to cause an array of serious side effects including:

Heart attack
Type 2 diabetes
Fatigue, dizziness and weakness
Sexual dysfunction
Slow heartbeat and shortness of breath
Trouble sleeping

One review published last year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology even concluded that “there is a paucity of data or absence of evidence to support use of beta-blockers as … first-line agents [for high blood pressure].”

And they continue:

“Given the increased risk of stroke, their "pseudo-antihypertensive" efficacy … lack of effect on regression of target end organ effects … and numerous adverse effects, the risk benefit ratio for beta-blockers is not acceptable for this indication.”

Despite this, they are still widely prescribed. In one six-month period in 2007 alone, more than 75 million prescriptions were written for beta blockers, according to data from IMS Health.

High Blood Pressure Can be Treated Without Drugs

The Harvard Health Letter even recently named high blood pressure as one of seven common conditions that can be managed without medication.

It’s worth mentioning also to make sure your blood pressure really is high before you start worrying about it. Blood pressures are extremely variable, and all of the following can cause you to have a false high reading:

Emotional stress
Over-the-counter drugs containing caffeine
A cold room
A full bladder
Improper cuff size or arm position

At least two readings should be taken at each doctor visit (separated by as much time as possible), and three individual sets of readings at least one week apart should be taken before you ever consider taking a blood-pressure-lowering drug. And even then, that should only be in extreme cases.

For the vast majority of you, the following three tips will cause your high blood pressure to normalize quite quickly:

1. Limit grains and sugars in your diet. This will help to normalize your insulin and leptin levels, which is essential for good blood pressure. In my experience this is one of the most common reasons why people have elevated blood pressures. High insulin levels tend to drive blood pressures up.

2. Exercise regularly. In some cases, you may need to work your way up to one hour a day. This will also help to get your insulin and leptin levels where they need to be.

3. Manage the stress in your life. The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a simple and inexpensive tool that can help you to do this.

Source - Dr Mercola

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Water Defects

Expectant mothers can expose themselves to the higher risk by drinking the water, swimming in chlorinated water, taking a bath or shower, or even by standing close to a boiling kettle, say researchers.

The finding, based on an analysis of nearly 400,000 infants, is the first that links by-products of water chlorination - chemicals known as trihalomethanes, or THMs - to three specific birth defects.

Exposure to high levels of THMs substantially increased the risk of holes in the heart, cleft palate and anencephalus, which results in the absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp.

Where exposure to THMs was above 20 millionths of a gram per litre, there was an increased risk of 50 to 100 per cent of these conditions compared with levels below 5 millionths of a gram per litre.

The dangerous levels are reached in one in six households in the UK - around four million homes - according to the author, Professor Jouni Jaakkola, at the University of Birmingham's Institute of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

"The biological mechanism for how these disinfection by-products may cause defects are still unknown," says Prof Jaakkola, who reports the findings with Taiwanese colleagues in the journal Environmental Health.

"However, our findings don't just add to the evidence that water chlorination may cause birth defects, but suggest that exposure to chlorination by-products may be responsible for some specific and common defects."

Chlorination has been a major public health success, cutting waterborne diseases, but he says that earlier work may have missed this effect by not using specific categories of birth defect.

"While the benefits of water chlorination are quite evident, more research needs to be carried out to determine these side-effects," he says.

The water industry body, Water UK, also said it would study the findings but says chlorination in the UK meets current World Health Organisation guidelines and drinking water directives.

The Drinking Water Inspectorate said it will study the new findings but said it had recently funded a study with a sample size approximately eight times larger than the Taiwan study and found "little evidence between THM concentrations in drinking water and risk of congenital defects and consequently tap water is safe for expectant mothers."

The majority of people on the public water supply receive chlorinated water, though not all those who drink the water will be exposed to the byproducts.

Those who generally will not be exposed are the approximately half a million people on private supplies - and some of them may, depending on the nature of their supplies have chlorination.

Source - UK Telegraph

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Reductions Inevitable

First, a climate crisis, then an energy crisis, now a food crisis. No wonder we've forgotten the poverty crisis that was declared the mother of all crises by the G8 only a year ago.

Yet, our success in tackling these predicaments doesn't seem to match the urgency we accord them. People don't stop travelling or even change their light-bulbs. Meanwhile, the steps we do manage to take turn out to conflict. Biofuels hijack farmland; enhancing agricultural output requires more oil; even scrapping food packaging increases waste by reducing the contents' longevity.

Maybe the problem is that we're looking at things in the wrong way. Perhaps these supposedly separate crises should really be considered facets of one straightforward, if intractable, phenomenon.

The populations of animal species expand with available food and habitat. When the supply of these things contracts, their populations fall. Technology has enabled humans to expand their global footprint massively, and their population has surged accordingly. However, this process couldn't go on for ever.

Actually, some of the technological advances that sustain the 6.6 billion of us here at present are now proving ecologically counter-productive. So, it should hardly surprise us that a population still expected to increase by a further three billion is overshooting the earth's carrying capacity.

A reduction in human numbers is therefore to be expected. Because we're aware of our circumstances and consider ourselves omnipotent, unlike other species, we imagine we can somehow circumvent this. However, technology cannot foster unlimited population expansion. Sooner or later, the bubble must burst.

Equally, we're incapable of enhancing group prospects by changing our behaviour. Ants might manage this, but humans are individually, rather than collectively, motivated. Our urges to consume and reproduce are therefore destined to flourish unrestrained.

The planet isn't threatened and our species will survive. However, billions will die. Get over it.

Source - First Post

Monday, June 02, 2008

Where To?

Water Issues

Public fountains are dry in Barcelona, Spain, a city so parched there’s a €9,000 ($13,000) fine if you’re caught watering your flowers. A tanker ship docked there this month carrying 5 million gallons of precious fresh water – and officials are scrambling to line up more such shipments to slake public thirst.

Barcelona is not alone. Cyprus will ferry water from Greece this summer. Australian cities are buying water from that nation’s farmers and building desalination plants. Thirsty China plans to divert Himalayan water. And 18 million southern Californians are bracing for their first water-rationing in years.

Water, Dow Chemical Chairman Andrew Liveris told the World Economic Forum in February, “is the oil of this century.” Developed nations have taken cheap, abundant fresh water largely for granted. Now global population growth, pollution, and climate change are shaping a new view of water as “blue gold.”

Water’s hot-commodity status has snared the attention of big equipment suppliers like General Electric as well as big private water companies that buy or manage municipal supplies – notably France-based Suez and Aqua America, the largest US-based private water company.

Global water markets, including drinking water distribution, management, waste treatment, and agriculture are a nearly $500 billion market and growing fast, says a 2007 global investment report.

But governments pushing to privatize costly to maintain public water systems are colliding with a global “water is a human right” movement. Because water is essential for human life, its distribution is best left to more publicly accountable government authorities to distribute at prices the poorest can afford, those water warriors say.

“We’re at a transition point where fundamental decisions need to be made by societies about how this basic human need – water – is going to be provided,” says Christopher Kilian, clean-water program director for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation. “The profit motive and basic human need [for water] are just inherently in conflict.”

Will “peak water” displace “peak oil” as the central resource question? Some see such a scenario rising.

“What’s different now is that it’s increasingly obvious that we’re running up against limits to new [fresh water] supplies,” says Peter Gleick, a wat­­­er expert and president of the Pacific In­­­sti­­tute for Studies in Development, En­­vi­­­ron­­ment, and Sec­­ur­­ity, a nonpartisan think tank in Oak­land, Calif. “It’s no long­­er cheap and easy to drill another well or dam another river.”

The idea of “peak water” is an imperfect analogy, he says. Unlike oil, water is not used up but only changes forms. The world still has the same 326 quintillion gallons, NASA estimates.

But some 97 percent of it is salty. The world’s re­maining accessi­ble fresh-water supplies are divided among industry (20 percent), agriculture (70 per­­cent), and domestic use (10 percent), according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, fresh-water consumption worldwide has more than doubled since World War II to nearly 4,000 cubic kilometers annually and set to rise another 25 percent by 2030, says a 2007 report by the Zurich-based Sustainable Asset Management (SAM) group investment firm.

Up to triple that is available for human use, so there should be plenty, the report says. But waste, climate change, and pollution have left clean water supplies running short.

“We have ignored demand for decades, just assuming supplies of water would be there,” Dr. Gleick says. “Now we have to learn to manage water demand and – on top of that – deal with climate change, too.”

Population and economic growth across Asia and the rest of the developing world is a major factor driving fresh-water scarcity. The earth’s human population is predicted to rise from 6 billion to about 9 billion by 2050, the UN reports. Feeding them will mean more irrigation for crops.

Increasing attention is also being paid to the global “virtual water” trade. It appears in food or other products that require water to produce, products that are then exported to another nation. The US may consume even more water – virtual water – by importing goods that require lots of water to make. At the same time, the US exports virtual water through goods it sells abroad.

As scarcity drives up the cost of fresh water, more efficient use of water will play a huge role, experts say, including:

• Superefficient drip irrigation is far more frugal than “flood” irrigation. But water’s low cost in the US provides little incentive to build new irrigation systems.

• Aging, leaking water pipes waste billions of gallons daily. The cost to fix them could be $500 billion over the next 30 years, the federal government estimates.

• Desalination. Dozens of plants are in planning stages or under construction in the US and abroad, reports say.

• Privatization. When private for-profit companies sell at a price based on what it costs to produce water, that higher price curbs water waste and water consumption, economists say.

In the US today, about 33.5 million Americans get their drinking water from privately owned utilities that make up about 16 percent of the nation’s community water systems, according to the National Association of Water Companies, a trade association.

“While water is essential to life, and we believe everyone deserves the right of access to water, that doesn’t mean water is free or should be provided free,” says Peter Cook, executive director of the NAWC. “Water should be priced at the cost to provide it – and subsidized for those who can’t afford it.”

But private companies’ promises of efficient, cost-effective water delivery have not always come true. Bolivia ejected giant engineering firm Bechtel in 2000, unhappy over the spiking cost of water for the city of Cochabamba. Last year Bolivia’s president publicly celebrated the departure of French water company Suez, which had held a 30-year contract to supply La Paz.

In her book, “Blue Covenant,” Maude Barlow – one of the leaders of the fledgling “water justice” movement – sees a dark future if private monopolies control access to fresh water. She sees this happening when, instead of curbing pollution and increasing conservation, governments throw up their hands and sell public water companies to the private sector or contract with private desalination companies.

“Water is a public resource and a human right that should be available to all,” she says. “All these companies are doing is recycling dirty water, selling it back to utilities and us at a huge price. But they haven’t been as successful as they want to be. People are concerned about their drinking water and they’ve met resistance.”
Private-water industry officials say those pushing to make water a “human right” are ideologues struggling to preserve inefficient public water authorities that sell water below the cost to produce it and so cheaply it is wasted – doing little to extend service to the poor.

“There are three basic things in life: food, water, and air,” says Paul Marin, who three years ago led a successful door-to-door campaign to keep the town council of Emmaus, Pa., from selling its local water company. “In this country, we have privatized our food. Now there’s a lot of interest in water on Wall Street…. But I can tell you it’s putting the fox in charge of the henhouse to privatize water. It’s a mistake.”

Water and war: Will scarcity lead to conflict?

Cherrapunjee, a town in eastern India, once held bragging rights as the “wettest place on earth,” and still gets nearly 40 feet of rain a year. Ironically, officials recently brought in Israeli water-management experts to help manage and retain water that today sluices off the area’s deforested landscape so that the area can get by in months when no rain falls.

“Global warming isn’t going to change the amount of water, but some places used to getting it won’t, and others that don’t, will get more,” says Dan Nees, a water-trading analyst with the World Resources Institute. “Water scarcity may be one of the most underappreciated global political and environmental challenges of our time.” Water woes could have an impact on global peace and stability.

In January, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon cited a report by International Alert, a self-described peacebuilding organization based in London. The report identified 46 countries with a combined population of 2.7 billion people where contention over water has created “a high risk of violent conflict” by 2025.

In the developing world – particularly in China, India, and other parts of Asia – rising economic success means a rising demand for clean water and an increased potential for conflict.

China is one of the world’s fastest-growing nations, but its lakes, rivers, and groundwater are badly polluted because of the widespread dumping of industrial wastes. Tibet has huge fresh water reserves.

While news reports have generally cited Tibetans’ concerns over exploitation of their natural resources by China, little has been reported about China’s keen interest in Tibet’s Himalayan water supplies, locked up in rapidly melting glaciers.

“It’s clear that one of the key reasons that China is interested in Tibet is its water,” Dr. Gleick says. “They don’t want to risk any loss of control over these water resources.”

The Times (London) reported in 2006 that China is proceeding with plans for nearly 200 miles of canals to divert water from the Himalayan plateau to China’s parched Yellow River. China’s water plans are a major problem for the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, says a report released this month by Circle of Blue, a branch of the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Himalayan water is particularly sensitive because it supplies the rivers that bring water to more than half a dozen Asian countries. Plans to divert water could cause intense debate.

“Once this issue of water resources comes up,” wrote Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Affairs, to Circle of Blue researchers in a report earlier this month, “and it seems inevitable at this point that it will – it also raises emerging conflicts with India and Southeast Asia.”

Tibet is not the only water-rich country wary of a water-poor neighbor. Canada, which has immense fresh-water resources, is wary of its water-thirsty superpower neighbor to the south, observers say. With Lake Mead low in the US Southwest, and now Florida and Georgia squabbling over water, the US could certainly use a sip (or gulp) of Canada’s supplies. (Canada has 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.)

But don’t look for a water pipeline from Canada’s northern reaches to the US southwest anytime soon. Water raises national fervor in Canada, and Canadians are reluctant to share their birthright with a United States that has mismanaged – in Canada’s eyes – its own supplies. Indeed, the prospect of losing control of its water under free-trade or other agreements is something Canadians seem to worry about constantly.

A year ago, Canada’s House of Commons voted 134 to 108 in favor of a motion to recommend that its federal government “begin talks with its American and Mexican counterparts to exclude water from the scope of NAFTA.”

Source - CS Monitor