Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 22, 2014

Gunning for Vandana Shiva

Filed under: Ecology,farming,science — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm
The New Yorker, GMOs and Chemical Farming

Gunning for Vandana Shiva


Perhaps nothing symbolizes the decline of the New Yorker magazine more than the hatchet job on Vandana Shiva that appears in the latest issue. Written by Michael Specter, the author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress”, the article is a meretricious defense of genetically modified organisms (GMO) relying on one dodgy source after another. This is the same magazine whose reputation was at its apex when Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking articles on DDT appeared in 1962. If DDT was once a symbol of the destructive power of chemicals on the environment, GMO amounts to one of the biggest threats to food production today. It threatens to enrich powerful multinational corporations while turning farmers into indentured servants through the use of patented seeds. Furthermore, it threatens to unleash potentially calamitous results in farmlands through unintended mutations.

Specter represents himself as a defender of science against irrational thinking. Since many activists regard Vandana Shiva as grounded in science, it is essential that he discredit her. For example, he mentions a book jacket that refers to her as “one of India’s leading physicists”. But when he asked her if she ever worked as a physicist, she invited him to “search for the answer on Google”. He asserts that he found nothing and furthermore that no such position was listed in her biography. Not that I would ever take an inflated publicity blurb that seriously to begin with (having read one too many of those for Slavoj Žižek), I wondered what being a physicist would have to do with GMO in the first place. Is a degree in particle physics necessary for understanding the transformation of vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone because of fertilizer-enriched algae?

read full article


Wouldn’t you just know it? Bard College hired GMO hustler Michael Specter as a Visiting Professor of Environmental and Urban Studies.

I suppose that makes sense given that Stewart Resnick is on the board of trustees, the agribusiness billionaire who has diverted water from the commoners in Fiji and California to improve his bottom line and buy more politicians. When a college hires a big-time promoter of GMO to lecture on the environment, you just chalk that up to Leon Botstein’s Wizard of Oz con artistry.


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August 1, 2014

A letter to the author of “The Cancer Chronicles”

Filed under: Ecology,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 1:37 pm

Dear George Johnson,

I am currently reading “Cancer Chronicles” and am really impressed by both the elegance of your writing and your erudition.

I am a film critic and am doing some background research for a review of “Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering” that opens in NY on Aug.29. I used to work as a database administrator at Sloan-Kettering in the late 80s on patient registration systems and became interested in the “politics of cancer” as Samuel Epstein puts it, mostly as a function of my Marxist orientation. I read Epstein’s book while there and Robert Proctor’s “The Cancer Wars” much later on.

I noticed that–unlike Epstein–Proctor was hesitant to make a link between pollution and cancer. All this was in the back of my mind when I began reading your account of Love Canal yesterday that to my surprise concluded that there was no greater occurrence of cancer there than in the rest of NY state. I know that it is hard to argue with the data but I wonder whether your case would have been strengthened by a somewhat broader perspective.

I have been paying pretty close attention to China over the past 30 years ever since the country abandoned socialism (even a distorted version) and plunged full speed ahead into capitalist development with zero concern over health and safety. I seemed to have recalled many reports on cancer clusters–so to speak–over the years.

Refreshing my memory, I did a quick search and came up with this:


> Water Pollution and Digestive Cancers in China
> author(s): Avi Ebenstein
> 2008
> Following China’s economic reforms of the late 1970s, rapid industrialization has led to
> a deterioration of water quality in the country’s lakes and rivers. China’s cancer rate has
> also increased in recent years, and digestive cancers (i.e. stomach, liver, esophageal) now
> account for 11 percent of fatalities (WHO 2002) and nearly one million deaths annually. This
> paper examines a potential causal link between surface water quality and digestive cancers
> by exploiting variation in water quality across China’s river basins. Using a sample of 145
> mortality registration points in China, I find using OLS that a deterioration of the water quality
> by a single grade (on a six-grade scale) is associated with a 9.3 percent increase in the death rate
> due to digestive cancer, controlling for observable characteristics of the Disease Surveillance
> Points (DSP). The analysis rules out other potential explanations for the observed correlation,
> such as smoking rates, dietary patterns, and air pollution. This link is also robust to estimation
> using 2SLS with rainfall and upstream manufacturing as instruments. As a consequence of the
> large observed relationship between digestive cancer rates and water pollution, I examine the
> benefits and costs of increasing China’s levy rates for firm dumping of untreated wastewater.
> My estimates indicate that doubling China’s current levies would save roughly 29,000 lives per
> year, but require an additional 500 million dollars in annual spending on wastewater treatment
> by firms, implying a cost of roughly 18,000 dollars per averted death.
> Attachment Size
> Pollution_in_China.pdf 904.88 KB

I know that you were not trying to write a comprehensive study of pollution and cancer but I was left with a worry that you were giving too much credence to an analysis I have seen over the years from Gina Kolata, your colleague at the NY Times,  who has downplayed environmental factors to the point where she seems like a pro-chemical industry hack.

April 4, 2014


Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

Noah, Revised

A Hard Rain


More Tolkien than Torah, Darin Aronovsky’s “Noah” is a cinematic tour de force that combines breathtaking CGI-based imaginary landscapes with a film score by Clint Mansell that hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Even without a single minute of dialog, the film achieves the mesmerizing quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, especially the last installment Naqoyqatsi, the Hopi word for “Life at War”.

Like other films that view the bible as a theme to riff on in the manner of Miles Davis improvising on a banal tune like “Billy Boy”, Aronovsky takes the material of Genesis 5:32-10:1 and shapes it according to his own aesthetic and philosophical prerogatives. As might be expected, the Christian fundamentalists are not happy with the film since it turns Noah into something of a serial killer on an unprecedented scale, acting on what he conceives of as “the Creator’s” instructions, namely to bring the human race to an end. Religious Jews who have a literalist interpretation of the bible have been far less vocal, no doubt a function of the Hasidic sects viewing all movies as diversions from Torah studies. (For those with unfamiliarity with Jewish dogma, the Torah encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament that are replete with fables such as the Great Flood, many of which have inspired some classic cinematography, such as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea.)

Unlike the fable it is based on, Aronovsky’s Noah never received instructions about being fruitful and multiplying. His intention is to leave the planet to the animals and wind down the human race’s participation in the tree of life, to use the title of Terrence Malick’s overrated 2011 film. In my view, Aronovsky has much deeper thoughts and more sure-handed cinematic instincts than Malick could ever hope for. To pick only one scene, the massive moving carpet of animals headed toward the Ark is a CGI tour de force. Instead of a stately procession in circus parade fashion, it is more like a zoological tsunami that anticipates the great tsunami soon to follow.

read full article

The Unknown Known; Watermark

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Two legends of documentary filmmaking have seen better days. Last November I was disappointed to see Frederick Wiseman take the side of the university administration in its attempt to thwart student protests over escalating fees. If anything, Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”, opening at theaters everywhere today, is even more of a failure. It allows Donald Rumsfeld to defend himself for 103 minutes with hardly any tough questions from Morris, his interlocutor. And when he does stray into Mike Wallace “Sixty Minutes” territory, it is always with the absence of a follow-up. Indeed, the closest resemblance is not to Mike Wallace, but to Charlie Rose or Larry King, the masters of softball interviews.

The new film is obviously modeled on Morris’s 2003 “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” that gave the Johnson administration’s Pentagon boss a platform. That film was somewhat easier to swallow since it demonstrated that the war-maker was suffering from some pangs of conscience, including a scene with him weeping—one that it was easy to describe as a display of crocodile tears.

That was to be expected with a war in which American imperialism was the clear loser. With Iraq, there is no abiding sense that the Pentagon’s nose was bloodied. In fact, the main point that Rumsfeld makes throughout the film is that it was worth it, even going so far as to insist that there was no deliberate attempt to con the American people into believing that there were weapons of mass destruction.

On top of the ideological self-justifications, there is the added ordeal of putting up with Rumsfeld’s personality. He is one of the more insufferably vain and boring personalities that has ever emerged out of the military-industrial complex, an ambitious hustler who started out as a Nixon administration operative and moved upwards and onwards to the heights of the Pentagon under George W. Bush. With his cold smile and “gee whizzes”, and “goshes”, you hope for something—anything—that will knock him back on his heels. Needless to say, this is not to be expected from Errol Morris.

Morris and Rumsfeld even managed to frustrate the Washington Post, a pillar of the establishment:

In the film, Morris quotes a 2003 Washington Post poll showing that 69 percent of Americans believed Hussein was involved in 9/11, then cuts to Rumsfeld suggesting the same at a news conference when he sarcastically rejects suggestions to the contrary. “It isn’t a confrontation in the sense of [me] saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ ” Morris said. “But, golly gee whiz, it’s all there.”

If Morris’s oblique strategy invites frustration, so does Rumsfeld’s seeming inability or unwillingness to confront the implications of his policies and actions, whether they have to do with interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay or the planning of the war itself. Whereas “The Fog of War” presented a fascinating portrait of McNamara as a historical figure reflecting, often painfully, on the events he witnessed or authored, in “The Unknown Known,” Rumsfeld often offers vague, inconclusive cliches: About Vietnam, he says simply, “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.” About Iraq, “Time will tell.”

In attempt to better understand the career of the much-heralded Errol Morris, I checked Wikipedia and was startled to discover that the “edgy” documentary filmmaker lost his edge long ago:

Although Morris has achieved fame as a documentary filmmaker, he is also an accomplished director of television commercials. In 2002, Morris directed a series of television ads for Apple Computer as part of a popular “Switch” campaign. The commercials featured ex-Windows users discussing their various bad experiences that motivated their own personal switches to Macintosh. One commercial in the series, starring Ellen Feiss, a high-schooler friend of his son Hamilton Morris, became an Internet meme. Morris has directed hundreds of commercials for various companies and products, including Adidas, AIG, Cisco Systems, Citibank, Kimberly-Clark’s Depend brand, Levi’s, Miller High Life, Nike, PBS, The Quaker Oats Company, Southern Comfort, EA Sports, Toyota and Volkswagen. Many of these commercials are available on his website.

Finally, it is necessary to take stock of the Errol Morris legacy. Giving scumbags the right to hold forth unchallenged for over a hundred minutes has been seen in two other highly regarded films. The first is “Act of Killing” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/07/20/fact-versus-fiction-in-three-new-films/), a film that Morris actually co-produced and that gives Indonesian death squad leaders a chance to tell their part of the story, as if there was one. The other is “The Gatekeepers” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/01/31/the-gatekeepers/), an Israeli documentary that gives a platform to the Zionist entity’s military judges, a bunch of disgusting war criminals who go unscathed.

Don’t bother with this crappy movie. You can watch FOX-TV for free.

“Watermark” is the second film I have seen that is based on the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian who specializes in landscapes of the most sterile and industrialized places on earth, particularly in China where the government is on a forced march to “modernize”. His first was the aptly named “Manufactured Landscapes” that I reviewed in 2007, about which I said:

He is not the typical photographer. As a teenager, he worked in automobile assembly plants and gold mines in Northern Ontario. Although he refrains from editorializing in his photographs (as does this very fine documentary), it is very clear that he is appalled by this spectacle of “progress”. In one scene, he shows a neighborhood in Shanghai that has been razed in order to make way for spanking-new high rises, with the exception of one old house whose elderly female inhabitant refuses to move. The high rises were simply built around her. The million or so villagers who were about to lose their homes because of the construction of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam had no choice. The film shows them being paid by the government to demolish their homes to make way for the new reservoir that will be created by the dam.

In “Watermark”, he returns to the same preoccupations but more closely focused on the rivers, lakes, and underground reservoirs and the communities they serve that are jeopardized by unsustainable practices such as China’s megadams and irrigation dependent on the Ogalalla aquifer.

There are interviews with people whose lives and culture are deeply intertwined with traditional and more sustainable use of the water systems such as Chinese abalone fisherman who work communally and a Native American from northern British Columbia.

As in Burtynsky’s first film, the footage is ravishingly beautiful even when what is being seen threatens the health of the planet, such as the Chinese megadam. There are also some fascinating meditations on the special power of water, as a scientist notes that without water there cannot be life itself. For a plant or a human embryo to grow, it needs water. In fact, the amniotic fluid an embryo grows in is like a tiny ocean. Another scientist observes that water owes its existence solely to the accident of a comet—a huge snowball in effect—colliding with the planet earth billions of years ago.

February 14, 2014

How a Bard trustee and billionaire agribusinessman corrupts higher education

Filed under: bard college,Ecology,Education — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Stewart Resnick

The deep-going drought in California presents a fundamental challenge to the ecological status quo in which agribusiness trumps the needs of ordinary people relying on water for their dietary and sanitary needs. Does the right of a billionaire farmer to have his pomegranate or pistachio plantations irrigated trump that of a working person having a glass of water or being able to flush his or her toilet? It so happens that Stewart Resnick–the billionaire in question–is on the board of Bard College, an institution with enormous pretensions to social responsibility and Green values.

But his ties to Bard are small potatoes compared to UCLA, where he is a member of the executive board of the UCLA Medical Sciences, the advisory board of the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the advisory board of the Lowell Milken Institute for Business Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law. The name Lowell Milken might ring a bell. He was the younger brother of securities crook Michael Milken with whom he worked at Drexel-Burnham and like his brother was charged with racketeering. Michael cut a deal with the prosecutors. He’d plead guilty if they let his kid brother go free—just the sort of person you’d want a business law department to be named after.

Stewart Resnick is a latter-day Noah Cross. If you’ve seen “Chinatown”—for my money, one of the 10 greatest movies ever made in the USA—you’ll remember that character as a water utility CEO who conspired to divert precious water resources to agribusiness. Resnick has made huge donations to the Democratic Party in California to make sure that the tap is never turned off for his irrigation pumps. And all the while Resnick and his wife Linda unleash a steady barrage of advertising and PR trying to make the case that their agribusinesses ranging from pomegranates to Fiji bottled water are good for the planet.

In doing some research for this piece, I stumbled across an article in the August 8, 2009 Financial Times that is mind-boggling in its failure to acknowledge the double-dealing of people like Resnick. Interestingly enough, it is a profile on UCLA’s most famous professor: Jared Diamond. Diamond wrote a book called “Collapse” that warned about the looming environmental crisis. His solution called for developing partnerships with companies like Chevron. In a December 5, 2009 op-ed piece in the NY Times, Diamond wrote: “Not even in any national park have I seen such rigorous environmental protection as I encountered in five visits to new Chevron-managed oil fields in Papua New Guinea.” Chevron, of course, is the same oil company that is fighting tooth and nail to prevent Ecuador from collecting on damages to farmland and water supplies from Texaco’s drilling (Chevron took over Texaco some years ago and is unwilling to be responsible for its liabilities.)

The Financial Times reports:

As he moves between fridge and table, he [Diamond] launches into his pomegranate story. “Pomegranate was one of the first fruits domesticated in the world. It was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 4000 BC,” he says. “A friend of mine, a very successful businessman, bought farm acreage in the central valley of California, which is the most productive agricultural area in the US. And there happened to be 100 acres of pomegranates, about which he knew very little. So he started learning about them and discovered how healthy they are, that they are full of vitamins and full of antioxidants and that they may be a treatment for prostate cancer.”

The friend, Stewart Resnick, had the capital and commercial acumen to spread the message to the US consumer. Thus did the pomegranate boom begin, and the fruit make its way to the refrigerators of 21st-century America. The story somehow captures Diamond. We have the awe of ancient civilisations, the physical explanation of the fertile soil of ancient Mesopotamia and modern California, and the accident of his friend’s financial resources and ingenuity. In this way, all things, big and small, come to pass.

I suppose if you are going to promote Chevron, the logical next step is to promote Stewart Resnick’s POM juice, an ubiquitous product on grocery store shelves. I wonder if Diamond got paid for making this commercial or whether he did it out of gratitude for all the millions that the Resnicks have lavished on UCLA. You’ll note that Diamond qualifies POM as a cure for prostate cancer with the careful “may be”. He probably knew that the authorities were about to shut down the Resnick’s bullshit advertising campaigns that centered on its “miracle” cancer-curing powers, a claim that has about as much scientific value as copper bracelets relieving the pains of arthritis, etc.

Seven days ago San Francisco CBS News reported on a major lawsuit that challenged agribusiness’s right to divert water for pistachios, pomegranates, etc. while ordinary people go thirsty.

But there is one place where there’s no shortage of water. The bountiful pomegranate, almond and pistachio fields of Paramount Farms are as green as ever.

You wouldn’t know it because you can’t see it. But there is a huge underground water reservoir on the south end of the Central valley, near Bakersfield. It’s four times as big as Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

It’s called the Kern Water Bank. And it’s majority controlled by two of the state’s biggest agribusinesses: Paramount Farms, a division of Roll International, and Tejon Ranch Company.

So guess who owns Roll International? Bingo. You got it. The fucking Resnicks. That’s the holding company for their agribusiness empire. An alliance of environmentalists is suing to break the stranglehold of Roll and Tejon on the water supplies while the Resnicks can be expected to use their influence on the courts and the politicians to maintain the status quo.

It is also of strategic importance for the Resnicks to have UCLA on their side. Just as the Koch brothers spread their millions around to get economics departments to preach the values of deregulation and a balanced budget, so do the Resnicks effectively bribe one of the country’s most prestigious universities (big-time Marxists Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson teach there) to get them on Roll International’s side.

Yesterday I got the latest news on the Resnick shenanigans from Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade paper that I have been reading ever since I went to work for Columbia University in 1991. I started reading it to keep track of IT developments but soon learned that it was a good source for news on how academia is exploited by the rich and the powerful to suit their needs. Every so often it reports on Leon Botstein’s dodgy deals, like hosting a seminar on the advanced philosophical theories of a nitwit jeweler in New York who must have donated a small fortune for that privilege.

Unfortunately, the article “For UCLA, Pomegranate Research Is Sweet and Sour” is behind a paywall but I would be happy to send a copy to anybody who requests one. The Chronicle reports:

“Drink to Prostate Health.” “The Antioxidant Superpill.” “Take Out a Life Insurance Supplement.” Pomegranates are a superfood, or at least that’s what ads told us for years in newspapers and magazines.

Those ads have now vanished. They were banned as part of a lengthy battle between the couple behind Pom Wonderful, the company responsible for the ads and the federal government. Tangled up in that dispute, in more ways than one, is the University of California at Los Angeles.

In an opinion issued last year, the Federal Trade Commission found that 36 ads and other promotional materials for Pom Wonderful products, many of which cited UCLA studies and quoted UCLA experts, were false or deceptive. An order now prohibits Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Pom’s owners, from making any disease-related claims about Pom or any product of their holding company, Roll Global, during the next 20 years unless they have substantiated those claims through at least two well-controlled, randomized clinical trials. The Resnicks appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last August.

The continuing legal battle has highlighted the complications that can arise when people have multiple relationships with a university, as the Resnicks do with UCLA.

The couple has given generously to various parts of the university. They’ve provided money to UCLA scientists to do research. They have engaged some of those same researchers to act as advisers. They paid the chief of the UCLA Health System more than $120,000 from 2010 to 2012. Two of the Resnicks’ expert witnesses at the FTC trial were from UCLA.

Last summer the university created the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy in the university’s School of Law, through a $4-million gift from the couple. The program’s founding executive director, Michael T. Roberts, worked as special counsel at Roll Law Group, part of Roll Global, for five years.

It is not uncommon for industry donors and university researchers to have more than one connection. But, says Josephine Johnston, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, an independent institution that studies bioethics, she cannot recall hearing of a relationship as multilayered as the one between the Resnicks and UCLA. Such relationships “could actually create some kind of bias or impaired judgment” in researchers, she says, but even if they don’t, “they raise this question about how independent and trustworthy the institution is.”

Well, obviously the institution is neither independent nor trustworthy. As is the case with all other sectors of the economy, the modern university is very much a corporate entity with tentacles from the Resnick’s or the Koch’s reaching into ever pore of its body.

The article continues:

Another UCLA scientist who has played more than one role with the Resnicks’ companies is David Heber, an emeritus professor of medicine and public health, and founding director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. He is on the Pistachio Health Scientific Advisory Board for Paramount Farms, a Roll Global company. He said in an email message that he is paid an annual honorarium of $2,500 for that role.

Dr. Heber also participated in studies on Pom products and pistachios, was quoted in promotional materials for Pom, and served as one of the Resnicks’ expert witnesses.

No one at UCLA Health Sciences agreed to be interviewed for this article, although a few researchers and Ms. Tate responded to questions by email.

Gosh, only $2500 to promote the Resnicks’ snake oil. I know call girls who would be insulted by such a low-ball offer.

Then there is David T. Feinberg, who is president of the UCLA Health System and chief executive of the UCLA Hospital System. The Chronicle report states:

Last May in Maryland, several students from the organization [Students Against Sweatshops] confronted Dr. Feinberg as he stood on stage to give a speech at the national conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine. One of them read a letter objecting to his and UCLA’s financial relationship with Pom.

In state disclosure forms, Dr. Feinberg, a psychiatrist, indicated that he received between $10,001 and $100,000 from the Stewart & Lynda Resnick Revocable Trust in 2010 and again in 2012, and more than $100,000 in 2011, for his role as a “consultant/adviser.”

Government is for sale. The media is for sale. Higher education is for sale. All these bastards are no different then the Chinese or Bangladeshi officials getting pay-offs from American corporations to look the other way when a sweatshop is a firetrap or workers are getting paid for 8 hours work when they are putting in 12. But at least you understand that a Bangladeshi or a Chinese bureaucrat is taking bribes on a straightforward basis. The dollars that Nike or Walmart lays on him is meant to pay for a BMW and a country house. But in the case of these UCLA professors and administrators lining up at the Resnick trough, there is the claim that they are fighting prostate cancer or saving the planet. Dante should have created a 10th circle in Hell just for them.

January 6, 2014

The New York Times’s free advertisement for genetically modified crops

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

University of Hawaii officers hold up Monsanto gift–no strings attached, of course

I am not sure when I began reading the N.Y. Times on daily basis but it must have been just after I graduated Bard College in 1965 and moved to New York City. So addicted I became to the paper that I had recurring bad dreams a few years ago about waking up much later than usual on a Sunday morning and desperately searching newsstands for a copy of the Sunday Times to no avail. In all the years I have been reading the paper, I have never run into a more biased and misleading article than the one that appeared yesterday—a Sunday—under the title “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” by Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon. This 5442-word article reads as if someone working for Monsanto wrote it. Harmon, like Clifford Krause who is a shameless propagandist for fracking in the paper’s business section, is clearly an industry spokesperson. Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism as this excerpt bears out:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

A number of the pro-GM scientists Harmon refers to are at the University of Hawaii. From the university’s newspaper:

The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa received $500,000 from Monsanto Company to establish the Monsanto Research Fellows Fund. The fund will assist graduate students pursuing a masters or PhD degree and post doctoral researchers at the college related to the study of plant science and protection.

 “We are very grateful to Monsanto Company for its generous financial support of CTAHR students engaged in agricultural research – Hawai‘i’s future leaders of sustainable industries and a strong, diversified economy,” said UH Mānoa Chancellor Virginia S. Hinshaw.

Harmon dismisses the idea that the contribution might have an influence on the school by quoting an administration figure that said that the money is only one percent of the school’s budget.

This question of corporate ties to pro-GM scientists is a sensitive one since Monsanto and other such firms have such a shitty reputation. Harmon cites a blog that supports her case:

“Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming, many progressive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits” of genetically engineered crops, Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, wrote on the blog of the nonprofit Biology Fortified.

If you go to Biology Fortified, you will get these assurances on their financial information page:

The site hosting costs of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI) were initially footed by the founding editors, and currently the majority of financial support for these overhead costs comes from individual personal donations. BFI is not supported by any companies, government entities, or political parties.

Now I don’t know if Pamela Ronald says the things she says because Monsanto is paying her under the table, but one has to wonder about the journalistic integrity of Amy Harmon by accepting Ronald’s word at face value in light of the reporting on her work at Independent Science News just six weeks before Harmon’s article appeared. Does the N.Y. Times care that Harmon was trawling through the garbage for support? Apparently not. In the article titled “Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?”, we discover:

Did Pamela Ronald jump, or was she pushed?

In fact, scientific doubts had been raised about Ronald-authored publications at least as far back as August 2012. In that month Ronald and co-authors responded in the scientific journal The Plant Cell to a critique from a German group. The German researchers had been unable to repeat Ronald’s discoveries in a third Ax21 paper (Danna et al 2011) and they suggested as a likely reason that her samples were contaminated (Mueller et al 2012).

Furthermore, the German paper also asserted that, for a theoretical reason (3), her group’s claims were inherently unlikely.

In conclusion, the German group wrote:

“While inadvertent contamination is a possible explanation, we cannot finally explain the obvious discrepancies to the results in..…..Danna et al. (2011)”

Pamela Ronald, however, did not concede any of the points raised by the German researchers and did not retract the Danna et al 2011 paper. Instead, she published a rebuttal (Danna et al 2012) (4).

The subsequent retractions, beginning in January 2013 (of Lee et al 2009 and Han et al 2011), however, confirm that in fact very sizable scientific errors were being made in the Ronald laboratory. But more importantly for the ‘Kudos to Pam’ story, it was not Pamela Ronald who initiated public discussion of the credibility of her research.

Harmon can’t resist taking a potshot at Vandana Shiva, who is probably the best known critic of GM crops in the world today:

Monsanto’s cotton, engineered with a gene from bacteria to ward off certain insects, had “pushed 270,000 farmers to suicide” since the company started selling it in India in 2002, the activist Vandana Shiva said in a Honolulu speech Ms. Wille attended.

But in Nature, a leading academic journal, Mr. Ilagan [a Hawaiian elected politician who favors GM] found an article with the subhead “GM Cotton Has Driven Farmers to Suicide: False.”

You can read Shiva’s rebuttal to the Nature article here but I think it is far more worthwhile to consider what India’s Supreme Court has decided. In October 2012 they called for a 10 year ban on Monsanto’s GM cotton over worries that “transgenics can contaminate and adversely affect the biodiversity”. The last time I checked the Indian Supreme Court was not exactly a champion of poor peasants or environmental safety. Something must be going on, no?

Furthermore, the Hindustan Times reported on March 26, 2012 that a “Secret govt note says Bt cotton failing, leading to farmer suicides” had been leaked to the press. The government agency referred to in the article was the Ministry of Agriculture, which like the Supreme Court was not to be mistaken for Vandana Shiva even on its best days.

Harmon makes the case that genetically modified papayas have been a boon to the Hawaiian economy relying on the expertise of one Jon Suzuki. Unfortunately, she neglects to mention that he is an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, an agency that has been presented with over 5,000 applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops. Not a single one has been denied.

This is now the third article in a row in which Harmon has made the case for GM crops. So egregious has been her advocacy that it has even attracted the notice of the Columbia Journalism Review that gave her the benefit of the doubt, no doubt a function of the journalism school’s cozy relationship to the gray lady. I do recommend a look at it, however, since it will give you an idea of the amount of controversy Amy Harmon has been generating. It is focused on food policy expert Michael Pollan’s disapproving tweet of an earlier Harmon article: “Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry talking pts.” For those unaccustomed to the 140-character straight jacket imposes, the 2 means too. The concluding paragraphs of the CJR article will give you a sense of the authoritative journal’s unease with Amy Harmon’s reporting, despite her Pulitzer Prize (but then again Thomas Friedman has a wheelbarrow full of them.)

In many ways this is less a clash of journalistic ethics than of journalistic styles. Pollan would like Harmon to use more of the history and economics of crop modification to give a picture of Monsanto’s cornering of the market. Harmon explicitly chose to leave out such scope to focus on the narrative at hand. “I didn’t consider it my responsibility to put in 20 years of the GMO debate,” she says.

But without a fact-driven chronicling of GMO’s lineage, Harmon’s story of innovation lacks what Pollan considers crucial context. “Should we be debating what GM might do to feed the 9 billion, or should we debate what, after 15 years in the market, it can and has done,” he says. “They’re always trying to get us to focus on these wonders to come. And I’m looking forward to the wonders to come too. I just haven’t seen them yet.”

November 12, 2013


Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 10:23 pm

While most of my readers understand that the environmental crisis threatens humanity’s survival, that understanding revolves generally around issues that effect us as a species. This is typified by the loss of foodstuffs and the increase of catastrophic flooding such as demonstrated by the typhoon that just wreaked havoc in the Philippines–very likely the result of the wanton production of greenhouse gases.

But there is more to the equation than that. The environmental crisis also threatens the extinction of many animals, whose loss also affects us in a material way. When predators like the eagle disappear, carcinogenic chemical pesticides become the rule. But the extinction of animals such as the polar bear, the raptor, the orangutan, and the tiger also lessen us culturally. What would our world be if it is left with the pigeon, the rat, and us? It is the same as burning Rembrandts.

“Musicwood”, a documentary that plays at the Quad in NY through Thursday (the film is also available on ITunes and DVD), poses the question of what our world would be like if the great guitars became extinct as well. It turns out that the sounding board of a Gibson or a Martin (the top of the line of which can cost close to $200,000) relies on the Sitka Spruce tree that can be found in the Tongass National Forest of Southeastern Alaska on land that is owned by a First Nations corporation called Sealaska. Although I referred positively to the Inuit and to the tribes resisting the tar sands extraction of Canada as examples of the ecological Indian, I now realize I was being somewhat reductionist. In reality, native peoples have frequently made deals with oil, mining and lumber companies to profit from unsustainable practices on tribal lands. Sealaska unfortunately is one of the most egregious examples, allowing clearcutting of trees ranging from 300 to 600 years old with the raw materials shipped off to Asia where they become furniture or construction material. In the grand scheme of things, it is not much different than burning Rembrandts.

The film makes it clear that the beneficiaries of this wasteful practice are the tribal elite who serve on the board of directors of Sealaska with a couple of non-native men who have spent their careers in the lower 48 states supervising clearcutting operations. They are the moral equivalent of those who are responsible for mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

The two First Nations people on the Sealaska board who are featured in the documentary are hostile to Greenpeace since it has made preserving Tongass a priority. Rosita Worl, a Tlingit who serves on the board of trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian, sets the tone by referring to Greenpeace as the outsiders who want to “save the whale” at the expense of native peoples. As someone who has stood up for the right of the Makah to hunt whales against the interference of the Sea Shepherds, I might have been sympathetic to her objections but there’s a huge difference between a whale or two being killed by a tiny band of Indians desperate to maintain their cultural heritage as opposed to an entire rainforest being turned into coffee tables for sale at Pier One.

The ordinary Indian, who is a shareholder in Sealaska, has no problem seeing through the elite’s pretensions. One native woman shrewdly observes that not a single penny of the corporation’s profits has filtered down into her pocketbook. She and her family, like most other ordinary folks, survive by catching salmon and hunting deer while the Rosita Worls of their world go to cocktail parties in Washington and receive handsome salaries for serving on the board of Sealaska.

The nominal heroes of the film are a Greenpeace lobbyist and a group of guitar industry presidents who understand the need to preserve Tongass through the auspices of Musicwood (http://www.musicwood.org/), an advocacy group that is supported by world-class musicians such as Steve Earle and Ya Lo Tengo who are seen in the film. Unfortunately the guitar companies can be as easily seduced by the dollar as the native elite. We learn that the FBI raided Gibson Guitars for using unlicensed rosewood and ebony from Madagascar.

The struggle to preserve Tongass is ongoing. Like the equally essential “People of a Feather” I reviewed for Counterpunch last Friday, the film’s website points you in the direction of valuable resources. I strongly recommend the purchase of the film for high school and college classes since it poses the question of how capitalism pits people against each other without bludgeoning you over the head in didactic fashion. It challenges the student to think about how justice can be served in a period of declining expectations—mostly a function of the need to preserve corporate profits.

Director Maxine Trump has done an excellent job of making her material appeal to anybody concerned about the planet’s future. In the press notes, she states:

Working with our editor, we simplified the politics as much as possible without doing disservice to anyoneʼs issues, and let the passion, the music, and the spiritual essence of the film take over. We had to make sure we werenʼt taking on anyoneʼs agenda; we let the facts speak for themselves, and got to the truth of the situation.

She has succeeded admirably. Very highly recommended.

October 3, 2013

Three environmental films of note

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Two of the documentaries under review here are focused on rivers, while the third takes a close look at soil. Given the mounting environmental crisis, they achieve an urgency that would put them at the top of any serious filmgoer’s “must see” list. The fact that all three are fully realized works of art, independent of their topic, recommends them even more. Those looking for escapist fantasies should not feel the need to read any further. Of course, any of my regular readers are the film audience elite and would be well advised to continue reading.

Although I have seen a number of very good documentaries on organic farming, “Symphony of the Soil” is the first to ground them (excuse me for the bad pun) in soil chemistry. The first half of the film is a guided tour of various locales by some of the world’s leading soil chemists, ranging from fjords to rain forests, with an emphasis on how soil becomes fertile. Like most people, I suppose, the idea of listening to a scientist explain the differences between different kinds of soil might seem dry as dust (excuse me for another bad pun) but it is almost impossible not to be swept along by their passion. In some ways the film is a throwback to the classic Disney nature films of the 1950s like “The Living Desert”. If you loved those films as a kid, you will find “Symphony of the Soil” impossible to resist. If you have kids, this is the quintessential family film.

My interest in soil chemistry is heightened by my reading of John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” that described in great detail the ecological crisis of the 19th century, namely the loss of soil fertility. The crisis was so deep that scavengers went through battlefield remains looking for bones that could be pulverized into fertilizer. The “guano wars” between Peru and Chile were fought over control over the fertilizer-rich islands in the Pacific.

“Symphony of the Soil” describes how this crisis was resolved in the 20th century though the discovery of chemical-based nitrogen fertilizers. This was the so-called Haber process, named after Fritz Haber who was involved with military research. His goal was to procure the chemical compounds that could be used for explosives, a reminder of how Timothy McVeigh was able to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. It was with a bomb based on 200 pounds of ammonium nitrate from a farm supply company.

In a way, chemical fertilizers became just as deadly even though they were touted as solving the hunger problem through the much-heralded Green Revolution. When chemical nitrates are introduced into the soil, they are absorbed into the water at a much greater rate than organic fertilizers and eventually leach into the rivers and lakes where they accelerate the growth of algae and rob marine life of much needed oxygen. The net result in one instance is the presence of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of New Jersey and expanding rapidly.

The final half of the film is a guided tour of organic farms across the world with farmers who are as passionate about their responsibilities to Mother Earth as the soil chemists that preceded them. I found the interview with Jaspal Singh Chattha, a Sikh farmer living in Punjab, particularly interesting. Chattha is the hope for farming in India, a nation whose reliance on chemical-based farming and its heavy capital outlays has led to a suicide epidemic.

“Symphony of the Soil” is aptly named. The photography is first-rate, including many time-lapse images of plants and flowers growing that come out of the Disney tradition. The film score is also top-notch.

Deborah Koons Garcia directed “Symphony of the Soil”. In 2004 she made “The Future of Food” that took aim at the genetic modification industry and about which I wrote:

The film gives one example after another of how elected politicians serve on the board of Monsanto and related companies. It also documents the incestuous relationship between their high-level employees and federal agencies meant to regulate them. It is not unusual for some top manager of Monsanto to take a job with the FDA, which is analogous to an Exxon executive going to work for the EPA. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have been co-opted as shills for biotechnology. In 1997, Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, joined the Monsanto board where William Ruckelshaus, Nixon’s EPA director, already sat. One wonders why the property-owning class bothers with the pretense of democracy at this point. It would be far more honest if the government was simply made up of CEO’s selected at random from Fortune 100 companies.

“Symphony of the Soil” opens at the Quad Cinema in NY on October 11th. If you can’t make it to the theater, I strongly urge you to buy the DVD from the film’s website (http://www.symphonyofthesoil.com/watch/buy-dvds/). This is a film that would be of great significance for both the high school and university classrooms. It unites art and science in a way that sets the standard for such documentaries henceforth.

When I got email from Icarus Films about their new acquisition, I said to myself that this was a must:

Unbeknownst to today’s city-dwellers, buried beneath nearly every major metropolis are a network or convergence of rivers. As urban living grew with the Industrial Revolution, these rivers became conduits for disease and pollution. The 19th-century solution was the merge them with sewer systems and hide them underground. These rivers still run through the cities of today, but they do so out of sight. LOST RIVERS examines hidden waterways around the world from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Korea to Italy. Viewers are introduced to environmentalists and urban explorers re-discovering their city’s network of medieval rivers. As climate change forces us to reconsider the relationship between built and natural environments, a fascinating secret of contemporary ecology is revealed.

If you are a native New Yorker, you are probably aware of a road called the Saw Mill River Parkway, a prime route into the city from the north. The river, a tributary of the Hudson, runs alongside the highway until its final leg into Mount Vernon, a suburb that has seen its better days.

In the 1920s the city fathers decided to literally bury the river under what is called a flume, a tunnel in effect, that effectively turned the river into part of the city’s sewer system. As was the case everywhere underground rivers went through such “scientific engineering”, there were unintended consequences. In heavy rainstorms, the sewer system became overloaded and the waters below came rushing out of drainpipes saturated with feces and other pollutants.

Mount Vernon decided to return the river to the surface as part of an effort to beautify the downtown and to allow native species to thrive once again. Despite some temporary dislocations for local small businesses, the project has been an overwhelming success.

While it may not come as a big surprise to see a suburb of New York move in such a direction, it is quite a revelation to see that Seoul has embarked down the same road. An underground river has been reclaimed there as well, leading to sense of well-being for urban society that now has a healthy and beautiful resource in its midst. In a very real sense, such projects are analogous to the decision made in the 19th century to create Central Park in New York.

It is understandable that environmentalism is framed in terms of functionality, as if its dictates serve as a kind of RX for a sick planet. But when you see an underground river rescued from obscurity and made the centerpiece of a downtown metropolis, you realize that being surrounded by beauty is as important as being surrounded by clean air and water. A week ago when I was running in Central Park, I saw a green heron in the reservoir and stood there mesmerized for a minute or two. The salvation of the planet has to be understood in spiritual as well as physical terms and “Lost Rivers” is a good place to start.

Go to the Icarus website (http://icarusfilms.com/) for information on how to view this groundbreaking film.

“A River Changes Course” is a poignant study of the struggle of Cambodian fishermen to make a living against a backdrop of ecological crisis and declining marine life in the waters near Phnom Penh, the capital city. It is directed by Kalyanee Mam, a young Cambodian woman who served as cinematographer on Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”.

Despite their relative closeness to the city, the people featured in Mam’s documentary appear to live under conditions that prevailed 100 years ago. Mostly Muslim, they survive as traders hooked into local markets that they rely on for cash to purchase essentials like clothing and food.

As is the case everywhere in the world, small, subsistence fishermen are being crowded out by much larger and much more technologically advanced commercial fishermen who care little about environmental sustainability.

Not only are the river’s riches being squandered, so are the rain forests that surround the river. As is happening throughout Asia, the forests are being cleared to make room for plantations producing export crops. In this particular instance, the main exploiters are Chinese who not only take over the land but also turn desperately poor Cambodians into virtual slaves on the plantations.

“A River Changes Course” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York and on October 11, 2013 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. If circumstances prevent you from attending a screening, I urge you to visit the film’s website at http://ariverchangescourse.com and to read the press notes as well for useful background on the political economy of contemporary Cambodia.

May 18, 2013

Bidder 70

Filed under: Ecology,energy — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

As one of the more counter-intuitive economics departments in the United States, the University of Utah has not only been the long-time host of the Marxmail server but also where Tim DeChristopher was a graduate student. When you first take a look at Tim’s face in the documentary “Bidder 70” that opened yesterday at the Quad in New York without knowing anything about him in advance, you might assume that he was just another conservative Mormon student especially with his military-style haircut.

It turns out that he was one of the most courageous and principled civil disobedience activists in recent American history, standing in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. The title of the film refers to Tim’s taking part in an oil and gas lease auction on December 19, 2008 in which he bid $1.8 million for 14 parcels of land without any intention of paying for them. Although there was a well-organized environmental movement in Utah to protect the pristine land that was at stake, he decided to put his body on the line and face the consequences. And some consequences they were. He faced up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

Since Tim was from West Virginia, he knew first-hand what energy corporation despoliation of the wilderness amounted to. Mountaintop removal in that state has generated enormous profits for the coal companies while leaving the water and forest ruined forever. Not only is there an injury to the natural world, there are few benefits economically to the working class. In one scene, where Tim returns to survey the latest damage, a long-time environmentalist tells him that in the richest parts of the state from a corporate standpoint, the local businesses remain hanging on a thread. And once the coal is gone, the small businesses and population become totally superfluous.

While I paid close attention to the incident that led to Tim’s arrest, I realized that I had heard little about the case in the intervening months. This led me to sit at the edge of my seat in suspense wondering whether he would have to spend a decade in prison. Usually I don’t mind including a “spoiler” in my film reviews, but in this case will not include one since it would rob the documentary of its powerful dramatic tension.

The film is not only valuable for telling Tim’s story but that of the movement in Utah as well. You hear from dedicated activists and see how they organize their creative and compelling protests. While Utah might seem like the sleepy boondocks to people living in blue state America, the truth is that it is in the vanguard. This might be expected since the stakes are so high. As one of the most beautiful and environmentally endowed states in the country, its citizens would have to be sick with shortsighted greed not to take a stand against energy company rape.

Of course, there are those who don’t mind seeing Utah suffer the same fate as West Virginia, starting with a Democratic Party Congressman who is in the back pocket of the energy companies. Tim and his comrades support a more progressive candidate against him in the primaries but the immense wealth of the corporate polluters make electoral bids almost futile.

“Bidder 70” is a character-driven documentary that is a success on its own terms but one might have hoped for more expert testimony on the environmental issues that provide the backdrop for Tim’s heroic intervention. It probably would have to be the subject of another film unless a decision had been made to double the length of the film.

There is little doubt that if the public was aware of the disaster that it awaits it because of global warming, it would be driven to offer vocal support for Tim DeChristopher as well as other leading figures such as Bill McKibben and James Hansen who are seen in the film.

At one point Tim expresses his worries over the mounting presence of greenhouse gases. At the time of the filming, he said that we were rapidly approaching the tipping point of 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Just a week or so before the film opened at the Quad in New York, the news came out that we were now at 400 ppm.

On Democracy Now, climate change expert Michael Mann spoke about what this meant:

So, this number, 400 parts per million, what does it mean? It’s the number of molecules of CO2 for every million molecules of air; 400 of them are now CO2. Just two centuries ago, that number was only 280 parts per million. So if we continue to add carbon to the atmosphere at current rates, we’ll reach a doubling of the pre-industrial levels of CO2 within the next few decades.

Now, 400, what does that round number, 400, mean? Well, what it means is that, as you alluded to, we have to go several million years back in time to find a point in earth’s history where CO2 was as high as it is now. And, of course, we’re just blowing through this 400 ppm limit. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at accelerating rates, if we continue with business as usual, we will cross the 450 parts per million limit in a matter of maybe a couple decades. We believe that with that amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, we commit to what can truly be described as dangerous and irreversible changes in our climate.

So, what we are already witnessing, in fact, the effects of climate change. If we look at the past year here in the U.S., last summer, the record heat, the record drought, the record wildfire that destroyed large forest areas in Colorado, New Mexico. We saw, you know, tremendous damage to our crops in the breadbasket of the country. We saw Arctic sea ice diminish to the lowest level we’ve ever seen, and it’s on a trajectory where there will be no ice in the Arctic at the end of the summer in perhaps a matter of 10 years or so. We also saw the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. Now, we can’t say that Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change, but many of its characteristics are precisely the kinds of characteristics that we predict tropical storms and hurricanes will have if we continue to warm the planet. We will see more destructive tropical storms. We’ll see more flooding. We’ll see more drought. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because, remember, we’ve only just crossed 400 now. We will reach 450 ppm in a matter of a couple decades if we continue with business as usual.

Who knows how many will die because of the consequences of global warming? One expert predicts as many as 100 million. Ironically, “Bidder 70” connected to “Hannah Arendt”, the film I saw the day before. Based on actual footage of the Eichmann trial, it takes up the question of the “banality of evil”. If six million Jews died because of a combination of anti-Semitism and bureaucratic indifference, who could deny that the ethical path practically forced on Germans in the 1930s was resistance to Hitler, including the young people who posted anti-Nazi posters in the name of the White Rose. While we by no means face the same kind of killing machine as the Nazi state, there are huge risks involved in standing up to the bureaucratic petro-military machine. Tim DeChristopher is the living embodiment of White Rose values.

April 23, 2013

New York Ecosocialism Conference: a resounding success

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:19 pm

Last Saturday’s conference was a success beyond the organizer’s expectations and mine. They would have been happy with a hundred attendees but 240 showed up. Before offering my own thoughts, let me start off with what Bard College composition professor and long time Green activist John Halle had to say on Facebook:

Some off-the-cuff reactions to the Ecosocialist Conference at Barnard on Saturday:

1) Much larger, focussed, informed and energetic than I, and I would imagine others, were expecting. (Plenaries filled a large lecture hall.)

2) Clustering of ages-most were between 20-30 or 65 and 80. (My age cohort seemed conspicuously underrepresented).

3) Impressively ecumenical: ISO, it appears, were the initiators, but in no way dominated the panels or the proceedings . e.g. substantial representation of the Green Party, labor (e.g. Bruce Hamilton head of Amalgamated Transit Workers) and academics (Cornell’s Sean Sweeney, Nancy Romer)

4) Joel Kovel’s talk brought in an absolutely necessary, albeit uncomfortable recognition that the ultimate stakes of climate change are meta-economic, meta-social, and meta-political, which is to say they are transcendental or, to use his vocabulary, spiritual.

5) Capitalists were described on several occasions as “blood suckers”, a term I quite like, most notably by TWU leader Marty Goodman.

In short, great conference-provided a small emission of light after a fairly dark week.

I concur with John’s observations but would add this one. As I sat through the various workshops and plenary Q&A’s, I fully expected someone to announce themselves as a member of the Bolshevik League and launch into a speech about the need to abolish the capitalist system on the basis of the Transitional Program or some such thing. Instead, the comments were universally cogent and to the point. And, more importantly, reflected the difficulties that many were having in figuring out how to deal with the environmental crisis that brought us together. For example, in the Q&A on “Both Red & Green”, I spoke to a point about the dangers of neo-Malthusianism that had been raised in the discussion. I said that I could understand the racist uses of the overpopulation argument, but can we really expect a world’s population to have all the Bluefin tuna it wants to eat. Isn’t the idea of ecological limits true no matter what social system we live in?

After reflecting on the seriousness of the discussion for a day or so, it dawned on me that the environmental movement, unlike those that the disorganized left traditionally “intervenes” in does not lend itself to pat answers. What is there in Lenin or Trotsky that can serve as an off-the-shelf solution to climate change?

Indeed, we are dealing with the problem of being in uncharted territory. This makes it difficult for activists to recite dogmatic mantras of the kind that are usually heard around issues of war and peace or labor struggles, etc. And this is not to speak of the inadequacy of the Great Men of Marxism when their productivist formulas are applied to a world in which productivism—either capitalist or “socialist”—have cast a shadow over our futures. Take, for example, what Trotsky wrote in 1934: “It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”

Just a few highlights:

Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2012, spoke at the morning plenary. She is really dynamite, using Powerpoint slides to illustrate how fucked the system was. I am not sure how well organized her campaign was but she is capable of turning around the minds of millions of people given the chance. No wonder she was prevented from taking part in debates. She really knows how to speak to working people using concrete examples like people and loaves of bread. With the current income disparities in the USA, there is one person at the top with fifty loaves of bread and at the bottom fifty people to share one loaf. That’s the kind of talk that Ralph Nader used to give and that Green candidates need to develop.

In the morning workshop I attended, I got a chance to hear John Ridell who wears two hats. In addition to being a scholar of the early Comintern, he is also an ecosocialist. He spoke about the resistance to the Canadian Tar Sands project that the ruling class hopes would turn the country into the next Saudi Arabia. Christ, just what Canadians need… John started out as a Latin America solidarity activist but moved into environmental activism after Hugo Morales told a group that the best way to show solidarity was to fight global warming. John is a terrific speaker, by the way. What a waste of cadre—all the talented people who went through the revolving door of the Trotskyist movement.

In the afternoon, I attended a workshop on Hurricane Sandy that was basically a discussion of its impact on the Rockaways, a topic close to my heart since I have been going out there to play chess with an old friend from Bard College for 25 years or so. I made a video about the hurricane that some Rockaway folks think is the best they have seen:

One of the panelists was Josmar Trujillo, who works with a group called Wildfire that is geared to the needs of the predominantly Black and Latino housing project residents on the east side of the peninsula. When you look at Josmar, your immediate reaction is that he must be a Con Ed or UPS worker. Working class to the bone. That being said, he was really political and sharp. When I used to be in the Trotskyist movement in the 60s and 70s, we used to talk a lot about how the working class would radicalize. I suspect that it will be the environmental crisis as much as the economic crisis that gets working people moving.

The last workshop was on the history of the green left that included Richard Greeman as a speaker. Greeman has been around forever and writes many interesting things, especially about Victor Serge. I was a little bit skeptical about his tendency to view the state as an unqualified evil—almost in Hardt-Negri terms. Commenting on the failure of the city government to get involved with hurricane relief and the people’s need to rely on Occupy Sandy, he said that this was a good thing. This made me uncomfortable since it reminded me of the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that said just about the same thing. Ugh.

The evening plenary featured Joel Kovel, whose remarks John Halle summed up admirably. The other speaker was Chris Williams, who I knew by reputation as someone who Pham Binh admires greatly. That’s good enough for me.

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