Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal has died. I enjoyed reading his essays in the New York Review of Books, but I was never keen on his novels. (Although I did enjoy Julian.) Vidal’s acerbic criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and of this country’s plutocracy earned him an enthusiastic following among the left. However, Doug Henwood, who is generally an admirer of Vidal’s, reminds us that he had a “creepy nativist streak”. He recalls hearing Vidal express sympathy for the racist Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn. In the 1980’s, Vidal published an article titled The Empire Lovers Strike Back, in which he wrote:

    My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is the minority race with many well-deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.

The kindest thing one can say about this is that it shows that Vidal was completely ignorant about Asia. Vidal surely must have been aware of the “Yellow Peril” rhetoric that was common in the early twentieth century. And bear in mind that he was making this argument in a country with a history of discrimination against Asians, including the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In the same article, Vidal says that Norman Podhoretz is not an “assimilated American”. This comment provoked accusations of anti-Semitism. Vidal once said of Hilton Kramer that his name “sounds like a hotel in Tel-Aviv”.

Also problematic for the left are the disturbing implications of Vidal’s ham-fisted writings on population control. He once said:

    If the human race is to survive, population will have to be reduced drastically, if not by atomic war then by law, an unhappy prospect for civil liberties but better than starving… it may already be too late to save this ark of fools.

Vidal would perhaps have been pleased to know that the birth-rate in Japan has been falling.

Despite all his faults, I am saddened by Vidal’s passing. He was a public intellectual, a type of person that is becoming increasingly rare in the United States. Unfortunately, the media often saw him as a figure of entertainment rather than enlightenment. They could never get enough of his silly fight with Norman Mailer or his tiresome feud with Truman Capote. It seems the media must trivialize everything, including writers.

Revenge of the Electric Car

January 12, 2012

This is an incredibly shallow film. It spends ninety minutes talking about how wonderful electric cars supposedly are, yet it says almost nothing about how electricity is generated. Fifty-seven percent of the electricity generated in the United States comes from the burning of coal. So it is simply false to claim that electric cars do not pollute, as some of the people in this film do. Of all the “experts” interviewed in this film, only one, Thomas Friedman, even touches upon the issue of power generation. He glibly assures us that as the power grid becomes “cleaner”, so will electric cars. (Friedman is the only person in this film who acknowledges that electric cars are not “clean”.) Considering that the government is touting the fraudulent notion of “clean coal”, I cannot share Friedman’s complacent optimism.

There is a quick discussion of solar power at the end of this film, but, if you blink, you will miss it.

The development of electric cars needs to be done alongside developing renewable energy sources to the exclusion of all other types of sources. This is the only rational policy, but our for-profit system will not allow this to happen.

The Return of Navajo Boy

October 11, 2011

The Multicultural Center at the University of Oregon recently held a screening of the documentary, The Return of Navajo Boy. The director, Jeff Spitz, spoke beforehand. He told about how in the late 1990’s a man named Bill Kennedy approached him with a film that his recently deceased father had made in the 1950’s. It was a half-hour documentary about the Navajos (Diné) called Navajo Boy. Kennedy asked Spitz to help him preserve his father’s work. Spitz could make no sense out of the film, which had no sound. He took the film to a library in Chicago that had an extensive collection of literature and films related to Native Americans. The people at the library told him that the film showed a ceremony that, according to Navajo religious belief, should never be filmed. They advised him to destroy the movie. Spitz couldn’t bring himself to do this. Instead, he and Kennedy decided to locate the people in the film and ask them what should be done with it.

The documentary begins with Kennedy talking with Lorenzo Begay, a descendent of the family in the film. (We’re not told how Kennedy managed to locate him.) He lives with his family on a reservation in the austerely beautiful Monument Valley in Utah. He takes Kennedy to meet his uncle and his mother, Elsie Mae Cly Begay, both of whom appear as children in the film.

Elsie Mae Cly Begay in the 1950’s.

He shows the movie to the Begay family. They seem pleased to see themselves in it. We are then told about the family’s history. During the 1950’s, they supported themselves by raising sheep, which they still do today. They were also paid by a local merchant to pose for photographs that would be used for postcards. (They also appeared as extras in John Ford’s The Searchers). Elsie Mae’s mother, Happy Cly, was believed to be the most photographed woman in America at that time.

Happy Cly

Some members of the family also worked in the uranium mines. The Navajo workers were not warned about the health hazards of radiation exposure. One of Elsie Mae’s brothers worked in the mines, and he later developed cancer. The film discusses his efforts to get compensation from the government. Also, radioactive tailings from these minds contaminated the ground water. Elsie Mae’s hogan was built using rocks from the mines. Later it was found to contain 80 times the acceptable level of radiation, so it was destroyed. Two of Elsie Mae’s sons died of cancer, and a third has recently developed it. Happy Cly died from cancer. It turns out that the ceremony shown in the documentary by Bill Kennedy’s father is that of a medicine man trying to cure her.

Elsie Mae had a baby brother, John Wayne Cly, who also appears in Kennedy’s movie. When Happy Cly died, the family was unable to take care of him, so they gave him to white missionaries who promised to bring him back when he was older. They never did. When Kennedy’s documentary is shown at a Navajo museum, John Cly, who was then living in New Mexico, reads about it in a newspaper. The film ends with an emotional reunion between him and his family. There is also a postscript that relates how Elsie Mae now travels the country and to other countries to tell people about what uranium mining did to the Navajo nation.

This is an interesting and important film. Incredibly, the government wants to reopen some of these mines to provide fuel for a new generation of nuclear reactors. This is more evidence that nuclear energy is a bad idea.

You can learn more about this film at

Alexander Cockburn Gets Peak Oil Theory Wrong

October 2, 2011

Yesterday, I turned to Alexander Cockburn’s CounterPunch Diary to see if he had anything to say about the highly critical comments people have been making about CounterPunch contributors Gilad Atzmon and Israel Shamir. Instead, I found a (mostly) good article about the Keystone XL pipeline. Cockburn rightly argues that the whole thing is a boondoggle. It will not make domestic oil cheaper, for the obvious reason that the whole purpose of the pipeline is to pump oil to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, so the resulting products can be shipped overseas.

Unfortunately, Cockburn begins his article this way:

    I’ve never had much time for “peak oil” (the notion held with religious conviction by many on the left here, that world oil production either has or is about to top out – and will soon slide, plunging the world’s energy economies into disarray and traumatic change.) In fact there’s plenty of oil, as witness the vast new North Dakota oil shale fields, with the constraints as always being the costs of recovery. Oil “shortages” are contrivances by the oil companies and allied brokers and middlemen to run up the price.

    Contrary to the lurid predictions of declining US oil production, disastrous dependence on foreign oil and the need for new offshore drilling, not to mention the gloom-sodden predictions of the “peak oil” crowd, the big crisis for the US oil companies can be summed up in a single word that drives an oil executive to panic like a lightning bolt striking a herd of snoozing Longhorns: glut.

The fact that the global economic slump has resulted in an oil glut does not in any way disprove peak oil theory, which is concerned with a long-term trend. (One would think that a Marxist would be able to understand the concept of a trend.) Moreover, Cockburn gives the impression that the North Dakota oil shales are a new discovery. They aren’t. Geologists and engineers have known about them and the Canadian oil sands for decades. (The rate of new oil discoveries has been declining since the 1960’s, by the way.) For a long time, the high cost of recovering oil from these sources made it economically unfeasible to do so. In recent years, however, high oil prices have made such recovery profitable, which is why these sources are now being tapped. Also, it’s because of the high price of oil that companies like BP are willing to undertake risky off-shore drilling ventures – such as the one that led to the Gulf oil spill – especially since the price is expected to continue rising in the future.

Domestic oil production has increased during the Obama administration, yet gasoline prices have remained high in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930’s. This is because the technology required to recover the remaining oil in largely tapped out wells has become increasingly expensive. That’s why it’s delusional for Michele Bachmann to claim that she can bring back $2 a gallon gasoline by allowing more oil drilling. Barring a total collapse of the world economy, we will probably never see $2 a gallon gasoline again.

Cockburn should stay away from scientific issues. From global warming to anti-vaccine quackery, he has shown that he doesn’t understand science. He even seems to have an animus toward science. Every time, for example, that evolution comes up, he starts droning on about how William Jennings Bryan didn’t believe in evolution, which has nothing to do with anything.

And don’t get me started on Atzmon and Shamir.

If A Tree Falls

June 27, 2011

Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman have made a film about the Earth Liberation Front. This group was very active in Eugene, Oregon, where I currently live; so I was naturally interested in seeing this film. Marshall Curry says he learned from his wife one day that the police had arrested an employee at her company for being an “eco-terrorist”. He immediately became interested, and he eventually decided he wanted to make a film about this person. The employee was Daniel McGowan, whose story serves as the central thread of this film. A round-faced, soft-spoken man, he seems an unlikely person to become a violent criminal. The son of a New York cop, he grew up on Rockaway Beach. In his youth he became interested in environmental issues. He eventually gravitated towards Eugene, a hotspot for environmental activism. The film does a short history of the environmental movement in the Pacific Northwest, recounting how non-violent protests have sometimes been met with police violence. Faced with such a response, it was inevitable that some activists would conclude that they should resort to violence themselves. A cell of the Earth Liberation Front was formed in Eugene, and McGowan, frustrated by the lack of progress by environmentalists, was eventually drawn into it.

McGowan’s first job was to serve as a lookout when ELF torched the offices of a lumber company. His second job was helping ELF destroy a tree farm that was allegedly growing genetically modified trees. Only it turned out afterwards that the trees were not GMO’s. At the same time ELF set fire to the office of a University of Washington professor who was involved in genetic engineering. The fire grew out of control and did a lot of damage that ELF didn’t intend. In the aftermath, the cell underwent a crisis and disbanded. McGowan became disillusioned with ELF’s methods, while still retaining his radical environmental views. He returned to New York, where he got a job with a group dealing with domestic violence issues.

The film then deals with police efforts to solve the crimes. For years they got nowhere. Then, by sheer dumb luck, they stumbled upon Jacob Ferguson. He just happened to be the weakest link in the ELF cell, since he was a heroin addict and therefore vulnerable to legal pressure. The police outfitted him with a wire and flew him to different parts of the country to have conversations with his former comrades. He showed up in New York to talk to a surprised McGowan. The latter thought there was something odd about this, especially since Ferguson seemed “talkative”, whereas McGowan remembered him as being quiet. McGowan spoke to him any way, which was a fatal mistake. McGowan was later arrested and found himself facing a possible sentence of life plus 350 years. He eventually made a plea deal in which he confessed to the arsons but did not name any accomplices. He was sentenced to eight years, but received a “terrorism enhancement”, meaning that he was put in a special high security prison built for “terrorists”. He can only receive one fifteen minute phone call a day and one visitor a month. The film documents the emotional anguish that this experience has inflicted upon McGowan and his family.

The filmmakers interview many people involved in these events, including the prosecutor and police detectives who pursued the ELF members. People with different viewpoints are allowed to state their positions. Although the filmmakers maintain a neutral tone, it’s clear that they feel that McGowan and other members of ELF were dealt with unfairly. Ferguson, who was involved in more arsons than anyone else, did not receive a prison sentence. He betrayed his friends solely to save himself, and the system rewarded him for that. Someone makes the point that capitalists who destroy the environment, such as the executives at BP, are never punished for what they do.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

The Edge

June 21, 2011

David Evans – a.k.a. “The Edge” – going for that “face in the police line-up” look.

It seems that rock stars almost always become bores as they get older. I’m not exactly sure why this is. It seems that rock & roll is a music of youth. As these guys get older, they inevitably lose the spark that initially made their music interesting.

The Irish band, U2, have carried this to a new level. Not content with being bores, they have tried to make themselves into a nuisance as well. Bono goes around posing for photos with war criminals, which is apparently their reward for flicking some dollars towards Africa. Bono and The Edge have written the music for a Broadway musical about Spiderman, which has resulted in several actors suffering severe injuries.

Now we learn that The Edge (whose real name is David Evans) wants to build a five-mansion compound in the pristine Santa Monica mountains near Malibu, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, has said of The Edge’s proposal:

    In 38 years of this commission’s existence, this is is one of the three worst projects that I’ve seen in terms of environmental devastation. It’s a contradiction in terms — you can’t be serious about being an environmentalist and pick this location.

“One of the three worst projects that I’ve seen in terms of environmental devastation”. Mind you, this is in Southern California, where environmental devastation is practically a way of life. A project must be mind-blowingly stupid just to raise eyebrows there.

The California Coastal Commission has rejected The Edge’s proposal. However, Steve Lopez, of the Los Angeles Times reports: “Evans has made it clear he’s going to try to exploit a legal loophole by arguing this isn’t a single five-mansion project, but five separate projects.”

Now, the question I have is this: WHAT THE FUCK DOES HE NEED A FIVE-MANSION COMPOUND FOR? Is he going to start a cult? I mean, what else do you do with a five-mansion compound? If Evans – uh, I mean The Edge – just wants to enjoy the beauty of the Santa Monica mountains, why doesn’t he live in a trailer, like the guy who made that silly I Am movie?

Oh, did I mention that The Edge (I wonder, do his friends call him “The”?) says that he is an environmentalist?

Since The Edge can afford to hire a whole army of lawyers, it’s not impossible that he may find a way to build his Pleasure Dome. Some day The Edge and his followers may be drinking unsweetened Kool-Aid and giving a collective finger to people sitting in traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway.

This may be the worst thing to happen since Rattle and Hum.

Into Eternity

April 25, 2011

Nuclear energy has always struck me as a bad idea. The idea that you can simply bury radioactive waste in ground and forget about it (I once heard an MIT professor make this very argument) has always struck as naive. This stuff remains radioactive for one hundred thousand years. We have no idea what the world will look like in one hundred thousand years.

In his documentary, Into Eternity, Michael Madsen investigates the construction of the Onkalo nuclear repository in Finland. (Onkalo means “hiding place” in Finnish.) It is a massive underground tunnel blasted out of granite bedrock. It will be used to store radioactive waste from nuclear plants. It will be closed off after one hundred years, sealed forever (one hopes).

The film is filled with interviews with scientists and engineers working on the project, as well as with the man responsible for detonating the explosives that carve the tunnel out of solid rock (I must say, he is poetic in his observations). They all come across as intelligent and well-intentioned. They discuss the problem of trying to deter people in the future from disturbing the tunnel and its contents. The idea of putting up warning markers, in all the world’s major languages, is the preferred solution. Someone suggests putting up ominous jagged sculptures to frighten people away. Someone else actually suggests that they should simply “forget” about the structure after its done, though this idea is (wisely, I think) rejected.

There are lingering shots of the inside of the tunnel. There is something eerily beautiful about the place, especially since one knows that it will eventually be sealed from human sight forever.

When Madsen asks an engineer if perhaps nuclear energy is more trouble than it’s worth, the latter replies that it is better than global warming. This assumes that our only choice is between nuclear and coal. Madsen doesn’t make the argument that what we need to do is develop renewable energy sources. This would be a far better plan than riddling the Earth’s surface with radioactive tunnels.

Vandana Shiva

March 5, 2011

Vandana Shiva, environmentalist and feminist, recently spoke at the University of Oregon as part of a program celebrating International Women’s Day. She began by saying that the issue of women’s power is partly about recognizing the traditional wisdom of women in many societies. She cited the example of Indian women who fought against the cutting down of forests in the Himalayas during the 1970’s. The erosion from the mountains subjected to these cuttings was damaging the Ganges river. Their efforts ultimately resulted in a ban on such cutting enacted in 1981.

She then went on to say that the real patriarchs of today are corporations. She pointed out that 200,000 farmers in India have committed suicide because of the genetically modified cotton they are forced to grow, which does not allow them to save seeds, which they need to do to be economically self-sufficient. She talked about how genetically modified alfalfa is being brought to the Willamette valley in Oregon. The cross-pollination of this crop with the crops on other farms will make all the alfalfa farmers subject to Monsanto’s patent. It will also make organic farming (in the true sense of that term) impossible. Shiva calls this “eco-imperialism”. She pointed out that before the advent of genetic engineering, farmers developed thousand of different varieties of rice, that can be grown under all sorts of different conditions. Genetic engineering only serves to create corporate (mainly Monsanto) control of the food supply.

Shiva also talked about the idea of “eco-feminism”, which is the idea that environmental degradation and the oppression of women are related. This is certainly true in the sense that capitalism encourages both.

Chris Williams

February 4, 2011

Chris Williams, a professor at Pace University, spoke at the University of Oregon recently. He was promoting his new book, Ecology and Socialism. He began by talking about the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. He pointed out those uprisings were in part a reaction to the rising cost of food, due to the rising cost of oil (one calorie of food requires ten calories of oil), and in part a reaction to the revelations in Wikileaks, which revealed the corruption in U.S. policy in the Middle East. He then went on to point out that Wikileaks documents show that the U.S. is not serious about fighting climate change. He criticized the U.S.’s behavior at the recent climate conference, pressuring countries to accept the U.S.’s terms. He pointed out that climate change is making the weather more unpredictable. “If you can’t predict the climate, you can’t grown any food,” he said, since farmers have to know when to plant their crops.

He discussed Obama’s State of the Union speech. Obama said his goal is to have 80% clean energy by 2035. Unfortunately, Obama considers “clean” coal and nuclear energy to be “clean energy”. In effect, the U.S. elite want to continue down a 19th century road to energy use. He pointed out that the Obama administration has approved zero solar energy projects and only one offshore wind project. The reason for the U.S.’s reactionary position is that the U.S. economy is based on the continual flow of cheap oil. There are plans to double oil production from the tar sands in Canada. He also talked about hydro-cracking, and it’s deleterious effect on the environment.

Williams went on to argue that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological and unsustainable. First of all, capitalism is based on continual expansion. Grow or die. This is a problem because we live on a finite planet. Also, under capitalism, exchange value is more important than use value. It’s more important to create things to sell than to create things for use. Also, because of the need to keep profits high, there is an incentive to cut corners, to build things that pollute.

Williams sees market solutions, such as cap and trade as false solutions. He was also dismissive of some technological solutions as capturing carbon in the ground. He was also opposed to the “blame ourselves” approach. He pointed out that only 2.5% of pollution is by individuals. The rest is by corporations and by the government. The U.S. military is the world’s biggest polluter. It produces more wast then the top 5 chemical companies.

Williams argues that by 2030 the world could be powered by renewable energy. In order, to achieve that, however, we need a world system that is not based on profit.