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Limits of Liberalism?

I subscribe to our local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I appreciate its local coverage, liberal editorial bent, and the intelligent, well-written op-ed pieces.

The Gazette has given front page coverage since April 11th to protests organized by Divest UMass, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst student group demanding that the University divest from all fossil fuel companies. These protests included peaceful sit-ins in the University’s administration building leading to 34 arrests. The newspaper reported the Judge’s comments to some of those being arraigned. That article prompted me to write this letter to the editor:

"Older not wiser

According to the April 14 Gazette story, the Judge chided students for not riding bikes or public transportation to the hearing for students arrested for protesting UMass fossil fuel company holdings.

Of course we should all be aware of and act to reduce our carbon footprint. However, the individual actions the Judge addressed will at best only slow our plunge into civilization-threatening climate chaos. The students, on the other hand, by confronting the structure of our fossil fuel based economic system demonstrated a better grasp of what will save us.

Judge Estes is older, but the students are wiser."

I waited to see my letter in print. I’m still waiting ten days later. Instead, on April 19th, the Gazette published the following letter, by a professor of environmental economics at a local community college:

"Individual avoidance of fossil fuels does matter

Here, here to Judge Thomas Estes (“15 arrested,” Apil14) for putting his finger on the fact that it is students’ and everyone’s daily behavior that will effectively address climate change. Bike, bus, drive below the speed limit."

Evidently, our liberal newspaper was willing to print a letter that, in effect, said global warming induced climate change could be solved by altering our personal behavior, but not one that pointed out that we must change the nature of our system.

Individual verses structural change is not an either or proposition. I believe that basic economic change is paramount, but we must change our behavior as well. On the other hand, the published letter opined that modifying individual behavior is THE way to address climate change effectively. This personal focus turns a blind-eye to the root causes of the crisis. It lulls us into thinking that all we have to do to save ourselves is act more responsibly.

I wish that our decent local paper had published both letters, side by side, to encourage conversation about these issues. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’m familiar with the limits of liberalism.

PS The Gazette finally published my letter this morning (4/26). While I am glad that they did, the delay since the publication of the 4/14 story has blunted it's impact. The students won their demand, and the news cycle has moved on.  Read More 
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As Bill McKibben wrote in the April 11th issue of The Nation, many know that CO2 causes global warming, but fewer know about the impact of CH4 (methane).

I’ve worried about methane since I read WHEN LIFE NEARLY DIED, Michael Benton’s 2003 book about the greatest mass extinction event our planet has experienced. It is common knowledge that a giant meteor strike wiped out 50% of the earth’s species, including most dinosaurs, 67 million years ago. Benton’s book focuses on a more terrifying event 251 million years ago that destroyed 90-95% of the planet’s species. He wrote that the extinction “was no local phenomenon, since it has been detected in rocks from China to Spitsbergen, from Greenland to South Africa, from Russia to Australia. In every case, whether looking at events on land, or in the sea, the rate of species loss seems to have been similarly huge. There were no safe refuges, nowhere to hide.”

Scientists are still debating the cause of this die-off that transformed the lush and diverse web of life at the close of the Permian geologic period into a world-spanning wasteland from which life took millions of years to recover. Scientists consider the “Siberian Traps” the leading culprit. These were gigantic volcanic eruptions that inundated an area equivalent in size to the current European Union with lava 4,000 to 10,000 feet thick. These eruptions lasted a million years and spewed massive quantities of carbon and sulfur dioxide. Devastating acid rain and warming followed. But initially scientists had trouble accounting for the 6 degree centigrade global temperature jump that accompanied this calamity.

Enter methane: The 2011 edition of the ROUGH GUIDE TO CLIMATE CHANGE states that “Among all the by-products of the melting Arctic, one stands out in its sheer horror-movie potential. Trapped within the permafrost are billions of tonnes of methane hydrates (also known as methane clathrates). … Beside their presence in permafrost, methane hydrates are even more extensive in seafloor sediments around the margins of continents across the globe. In their supercompacted form, methane hydrates are more than 150 times more concentrated than gaseous methane.”

Many scientists believe the rapid warming caused by the volcanism of 251 million years ago generated a “methane burp” releasing these methane hydrates, literally poisoning the atmosphere while causing a global temperature spike. This was the coup de gras that annihilated up to 95% of all the species on our planet. It is the worst case scenario that our approaching climate chaos could generate.

Bill McKibben warns that we are wildly underestimating the amount of methane gas fracking pumps into the atmosphere. He cites a recent Harvard study showing that methane emissions in the U.S. increased by 30% between 2002 and 2014. The ROUGH GUIDE reports that although CH4 only stays in the atmosphere for 20 years (CO2 lasts 100 years), methane is dangerous because it is 25 times more efficient as a warming agent. Alarmingly, the Harvard study notes the “25 times” figure was based upon CO2’s life-span, not CH4’s. This led one Harvard researcher to conclude, “a more accurate figure… is between 86 and 105 times the potency of CO2 over the next decade or two.”

While the U.S. may have reduced CO2 emissions by switching from coal to fracked natural gas (which has half the CO2 emissions of coal), the methane that escapes during the fracking and transporting of natural gas actually increased our greenhouse gas footprint. Thus, we are poisoning the air and accelerating towards global warming tipping points that could cause a methane burp.

It is time to stop all fracking, everywhere, immediately, and for climate change activists to escalate their attacks against those who could kill us all with “safe, clean” natural gas.

P.S. It is also time for someone with more scientific knowledge than me to write a book about the environmental impact of methane to educate us more deeply about what is at stake.  Read More 
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Advertising = Harassment?

I recently read Ecosocialislism: A Radical Alternative To Capitalist Catastrophe by Micheal Lowy (Haymarket Books, 2015). This little book is filled with essential, big ideas.

One chapter, “Ecology and Advertising,” was particularly provocative. I quote a paragraph here:

“Advertising pollutes the mental landscape, just like it does the urban and rural landscapes; it stuffs the skull like it stuffs the mailbox. It holds sway over press, cinema, television, radio. Nothing escapes its decomposing influence: in our time we see that sports, religion, culture, journalism, literature and politics are ruled by advertising. All are pervaded by advertising’s attitude, its style, its methods, its mode of argument. Meanwhile, we are always and uninterruptedly harassed by advertising, without stop, without truce, unrelentingly and never taking a vacation, advertising persecutes us, pursues us, attacks us in city and countryside, in the street and at home, from morning to evening, from Monday to Sunday, from January to December, from cradle to grave.”

Advertising drives us to compulsive consumption of fetishized, increasingly useless, items. This excess consumption is necessary to grease the wheels of capitalism. Consumption per se is not the root of the problem, but rather capitalism’s nature, whether green or neoliberal, that requires advertising to fuel acquisitiveness so more and more stuff can be produced and sold. We must work to change the nature of the system AND its underlying ideology of consumption if we value our grandchildren and their children’s survival.

Even if advertising is not at the heart of approaching ecological crises, we cannot avoid catastrophe without involving the majority of humanity in a green anti-capitalist revolution. And we must wean billions from advertising’s thrall to succeed in gathering that support.

We need to conquer Madison Avenue while taking on capitalism and its military-industrial complex. As Lowy writes: “How can people be convinced to abandon consumption habits incompatible with ecological equilibrium without putting a stop to continuous pounding of advertising that incites, encourages, and stimulates them night and day to buy and buy again?”

This is a challenging task: advertising would not be so effective if it did not resonate with components of our nature. But thousands of years of human history along with the vast variety of human cultures teach us that such neurotic acquisitiveness does not have to be the driving force of social success. Lowy writes, “Every attempt to put limits to advertising’s aggression - until we are, one day, to get rid of it altogether - is an environmental duty, a political and moral imperative for all those who hope to save our natural environment from destruction.”

I wish Lowy said more about how we should go about doing it. I may run afoul of my ACLU friends, but we must divorce the concept of advertising from free speech. We must convince the public that there is a qualitative difference between advertising products and the expression of personal opinions. As a first step, environmental organizations must call out advertising for what it is: mental harassment, a public nuisance, and a contributor to the destruction of our planet.  Read More 
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Hillary Clinton; Women and Children’s Rights

When talking Sanders verses Clinton I’ve argued “Clinton is a corporate democrat who stands for nothing progressive.” Some have responded, “she stands for women and children’s rights.” I’ve accepted that, but upon further thought, that is, at best, only partially true.

Clinton hasn’t championed poor women and children’s rights. In recent decades, nothing has hurt poor women and children more than President Bill Clinton’s 1990’s “welfare reform” which Hillary supported. Hillary Clinton’s connection to Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund is often cited as proof of her advocacy for children’s rights, but Edelman and Clinton parted ways over this “reform.” Moreover, Hillary’s support for the war on drugs has resulted in mass imprisonement that has devastated poor and minority communities including women and children.

Clinton’s promotion of huge bombing campaigns from Serbia, to Afghanistan, to Libya is no boon for women and children either. Once again, women and children suffer disproportionately from what is politely termed collateral damage. She also embraced over a decade of economic sanctions against Iraq that international human rights organizations report led to the malnurishment of hundreds of thousands of children. War is incompatible with women and children’s rights, yet Clinton is a hawk.

True, she has supported Obamacare, abortion rights, equal pay for women and educational initiatives. While all of these have some positive impact, there is either an elitist or corporate tinge to the policies she advocates. Obamacare, like the plan Hillary pushed in the early 1990’s, while better than nothing, is a convoluted system designed to benefit insurance companies. It has not even suceeded in cutting the number of uninsured in half. It’s most affordable “Bronze Plan,” has high co-pays that poor people have trouble paying. And once again, it is the poorest segment of society, over representated by women and children, who remain uninsured.

Hillary’s espousal of equal pay for women has focused on ensuring that professional women make as much as professional men and enabling women to shatter the glass ceiling that keeps them from ascending to the most powerful corporate positions. This kind of elite feminism only changes who wields corporate power. It does not lessen big businesses’ domination of budgetary priorities and control of the body politic.

Her backing of abortion rights effects women of all classes, but again, in the 1990’s she did not object to her husband’s willingness to cut federal funding giving equal access to abortion to poor women. As a member of the Obama administration she was fully behind massive standardized testing and charter schools, at the expense of the public school system. She has vocally supported the educational rights of girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but kept silent about the status of women and girls in Saudi Arabia. Apparently, our need for oil drowns her feminism.

We can argue about whether Hillary Clinton stands for women and children’s rights, but there is no question that there is little, if anything, progressive about how she goes about it.
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