June 8, 2015
September 2, 2014
This is a video I recorded last weekend in Rockaway, Queens—the epicenter of Hurricane Sandy. It is a follow-up to the video I made in November 2012, shortly after the hurricane had inflicted major damage in Rockaway including the deaths of local residents.
It is a report both on how the peninsula has recovered as well as the threats now posed by a natural gas pipeline being installed underneath Rockaway as part of a nationwide network built by the Williams Company, an outfit that can be described as the BP of natural gas pipelines.
May 9, 2014
Reading Ken Silverstein’s “The Secret World of Oil” is like picking up a rock in the middle of the night and shining a flashlight at the creepy, crawly things found beneath. The emphasis is on the word secret since many of the men he scrutinizes prefer it that way. Even when their activities remain within the law, their assault on ethics and decency would provoke a Sodom and Gomorrah punishment from a just god if one existed. Is moral turpitude, criminality and a bestial level of greed intrinsically connected to making a living as a middleman in the petroleum industry? That is the conclusion a reader would draw after reading the fast-paced and entirely entertaining tour led by Ken Silverstein, our Virgilian guide to a Dante’s Inferno fueled by oil and gas.
Silverstein manages a juggling act that puts Philippe Petite to shame. While his record of investigative journalism, especially that part of it dealing with energy industry sleazebags, is well-established, he manages to ingratiate himself with some of the major players even managing to establish friendships. Of course, if one of them is gazillionaire Ely Calil, an oil middleman who is one of the richest men in England, there are certain rewards. Dinner on Calil’s dime would include on one occasion “a bouillabaisse, small plates of scallops in a truffle sauce, and veal loin with poached pear”. One imagines Silverstein taking notes under the table surreptitiously for a future article. If details such as this give the reader a sense of the opulence enjoyed by oil tycoons no doubt within the law, it is really the business side of things revealed by Silverstein that make you wonder if he will ever be invited to dinner again.
read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/05/09/a-descent-into-big-oils-inferno/
April 17, 2014
At the risk of stretching a point until it breaks, both films under review bear on the relationship between race and petroleum. “Vanishing Pearls”, a documentary opening on April 18th at the Imagenation in New York and Downtown Independent in LA (nationwide screening info is at http://www.affrm.com/vanishing-pearls/), looks at the plight of the largely African-American oyster fisherman of Louisiana who have been screwed royally by BP and their henchmen—witting or unwitting.
Since “Bad Hair” (Pelo Malo) is a Venezuelan narrative film about a 9-year-old biracial boy living in Caracas with his mestizo mother and since the Tribeca Film Festival where it is being shown is a platform for films from a left perspective, one might assume that it would be full of positive references to the benefits accrued from petro-development. In fact, just the opposite is the case. The protagonists of Mariana Rondón’s very accomplished film appear totally untouched by the Bolivarian revolution. Despite my commitment to the goals of the Venezuelan government, I could not help but be troubled by the reality depicted in Rondón’s film. Notwithstanding the doubts it raised in my mind, I strongly recommend it as a neorealist examination of the lives of poor people in Caracas, and particularly as a study of the challenges that Junior, its 9-year-old hero, faces in a society where homophobia still looms strong.
If you’ve grown sick of those BP commercials about how the Gulf coast has “returned”, generally shown to the point of saturation on Sunday morning news shows, as well as those full-page ads in the NY Times about how poor BP is being robbed by unscrupulous lawyers, “Vanishing Pearls” is a film that that will provide some satisfaction since it nails the criminal corporation to the wall. Written, directed, and produced by Nailah Jefferson, a young African-American female from New Orleans in her debut production, it profiles a group of oyster fishermen from Pointe a la Hache taking the lead of Byron Encalade, a sixtyish boat owner whose family, neighbors and friends have been ruined by BP’s greed and neglect.
The film is both a fascinating history of an important element of the Black struggle in the Deep South and a study of the environmental impact of unregulated oil drilling in a state where criminal outfits like BP run the state government like a puppet on a string.
Alcalade’s ancestors started out as sharecroppers on sugar and cotton plantations. When Black Louisianans first broke into the oyster fishing business, it was also as sharecroppers. A wealthy white man would pay for the boat and the gear and hire Black crews to operate them. Based on the haul, they would earn a percentage of the profits, just as if the oysters were cotton. Eventually, however, they were able to put away enough money to buy their own boats and become independent small entrepreneurs.
Oyster fishing was one of the prime casualties of the chemical dispersants BP sprayed into the Gulf waters to mitigate the effects of the disaster. In a very real sense the cure was more harmful than the disease since the oil was simply broken down into smaller droplets and floated to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where it could destroy the habitat not only for oysters but other marine life.
Jefferson did not manage to get interviews with the openly nefarious BP corporate heads and the politicians they own but did get plenty of time with two men who were supposedly on the side of the fishermen. One is Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who is supervising payments from BP and who has an alarming tendency to sound and look like a bald Donald Rumsfeld. Feinberg was also the lawyer who managed payouts to the victims of Bernie Madoff. After seeing his double-dealing with the oyster fishermen, you pray that he would end up in a cell next to Madoff. Essentially, most of the fishermen took one-time payments of $25,000 from BP in exchange for agreeing that they would make no further claim. Since all were out of business for months after the BP spill and economically distressed, the payoff was effectively a form of blackmail. Feinberg made no effort to force BP to look after their long-term interests. Feinberg’s firm was paid $850,00 per month for its services. After a couple of months showing its pro-corporate bias, BP rewarded it with a raise to $1,250,000.
The other unwilling villain is a scientist named Wes Tunnell who wrote a report in three days effectively underscoring BP’s claim that things would return to normal by now. At one point he tells Nailah Jefferson that the spill amounted to a cup of coffee being spilled into the New Orleans Superdome, seen from an aerial mounted video camera.
The press notes for “Vanishing Pearls” reveals how Feinberg and Tunnell worked as a tag-team:
By December, many of the fishermen were in dire and desperate straights. Suddenly, Feinberg and GCCS decided to issue “emergency funds” as Christmas neared. This move was not without one small caveat – getting the funds required waiving all rights to bring a suit against the BP oil company. The gravity of the struggling that many of the fishermen had to deal with led many to take the settlement offered in the hopes that they would be able to save their homes and businesses.
Amidst this mess, in 2013, the documentarian decided to contact Feinberg to try and get some answers. Strangely and without hesitation, he agreed to meet with her. It was revealed that BP had begun to urge Feinberg to halt claims payouts all together. They had paid for a “scientific study” and based on the resulting report, BP felt “the areas affected by the spill had recovered and the economy was improving.” The biased report had been commissioned by GCCS and was the sole instrument used to stifle claims. The reality of the situation was quite different, it had been over the stated two years and the oyster beds had not regenerated themselves, the fishermen were still out of work, and recovery claims were still not being paid. Feinberg remained ambivalent. He offered no apology and simply stuck to his ludicrous story that “everything would come back.”
Ms. Jefferson has made a very compelling documentary on a shoestring budget. Considering the fact that Barack Obama has given BP a green light to continue drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, this film arrives at a time when it is most needed. My recommendation is to check this film out and to tell your friends about it.
Marta has her hands filled raising her son Junior and another baby son in a Caracas high-rise that has seen better days. She has just lost her job as a security guard and is scraping by as a maid. In an early scene, she asks Junior to scrub the walls of a Jacuzzi in a middle-class apartment. Yielding to temptation, he fills the tub, strips down to his underwear, and reclines beneath the soothing waters until the matron of the house spots him. Chagrined by her son’s fecklessness, Marta returns home where the conflict between mother and son continues.
Like the women in Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair”, very likely a partial inspiration for Rondón’s film, Junior is obsessed with his “bad hair”, the curly legacy of his Black father who was killed by gang members in their typically lawless neighborhood. While fleeing from his Black identity, Junior seems equally gravitating toward some early form of Gay identity, or at least that is Marta’s fear based on his love of singing. What can be more gay, after all, then a 9 year old loving to sing?
Marta’s mother-in-law is okay with his gay tendencies since that would protect him from gangsters. Who would find a reason to shoot a gay man? When Marta leaves the boy with his grandmother while she is out job-hunting, the stay is always crowned by her tending to his hair with a blow dryer. When he all set to get a photo id for school, she gets the bright idea to adorn him in a costume she is sewing together that is similar to the one worn by a popular singer. It goes one step further than Elvis’s costumes in Las Vegas. It is a gold lamé dress that Junior rejects with the words: “I am not a girl”. If the film is influenced by Rock’s documentary, it also bows in the direction of “Billy Elliot”, a British narrative film about a young boy who prefers ballet to boxing, defying his coal miner father’s homophobia.
The film depicts a daily life that is not only untouched by socialism, but by any of the social safety nets of a welfare state except for the local clinic that is free. Marta keeps bringing Junior in the hopes that the doctor can figure out what is making her son “queer”.
There is little doubt that Rondón takes the Bolivarian revolution with a grain of salt. The film is set in the final months of Hugo Chavez’s illness and she includes footage from Venezuelan television of that time when people were praying for the president or shaving their heads in solidarity. She leaves the impression that the people view him as a semi-divine benefactor.
As might be expected, the film has generated a fair amount of controversy in Venezuela. Caracas Chronicles, an anti-Chavista website, has taken the director’s side. While keeping her distance from the violent street protesters, she blames the country’s polarization for the way that her film has been used as ammunition against the government.
Wikipedia reports that “In 2007 she directed and produced Postales de Leningrado (Postcards from Leningrad), an autobiographical film (her parents were members of the Venezuelan guerrilla movement Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN).”
It is a little hard for me to glean her politics from this film other than to say that it is best seen as a study of sexual and racial paradoxes in a country trying to move forward as best it can under very difficult circumstances. As film, it is deeply involving and worth seeing whatever its political orientation, especially for the performance of Samuel Lange Zambrano as Junior, about as fine as one from a child actor as can be imagined.
May 18, 2013
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 13, 2013
There must be something wrong with me. Here I am at the age of 68 still getting worked up over some Koch brother’s funded op-ed piece in the NY Times. If I had stopped reading newspapers 33 years ago after dropping out of the SWP, maybe I could have launched a career writing fiction. What is it that they recommend for people like me? A chill pill?
The offending piece is titled “China Must Exploit its Shale Gas”. My first reaction was to wonder if it was some kind of onion.com spoof. Not a day goes by without a disaster in China attributable to some profit-driven shortcut. Some reminders. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake caused 7000 inadequately constructed schoolhouses to collapse, thus costing the lives of 5000 children and another 15000 injured. As predicted, the Three Gorges Dam has had a terrible environmental impact, producing erosion on 80 percent of the adjacent land. One last instance to dramatize how risky it is for China to “dig deep” for any resource, including coal. Although producing just 35% of the world’s coal, China is responsible for 80% of coal miner fatalities. For example, a gas explosion at the Nanshan mine on November 13, 2006 killed 24 people. The mine, like so many, was operating without any safety license.
The op-ed piece written by one Elizabeth Muller encourages Obama’s pro-fracking and pro-nuke (what? You were expecting a Green?) Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz to push China to go full blast in hydrocracking (ie., fracking) since this would alleviate global warming. As China’s chief energy source right now is coal, this would cut down on greenhouse gases. I guess that makes sense given China’s current situation–exchange air pollution and climate change for carcinogenic, flammable water.
At the bottom of the article, Ms. Muller is identified as the co-founder and executive director of Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit research organization focused on climate change. Gosh, as the head of something called Berkeley Earth, you’d expect her least of all to be wearing Birkenstocks and driving a Prius. But more importantly, that branding would ensure her to be Greener than Green, right?
Being an inveterate “cui bono” investigator, I went to the Berkeley Earth website and checked out the donor page, which is divided into three “phases”. Guess what? In phase one, they got $150,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the largest chunk. Bill Gates’s Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research kicked in another hundred thou. A brief search revealed that Gates’s main interest in all this is to promote geoengineering. An opinion piece by Naomi Klein on October 27, 2012 described Gates’s stake in this jury-rigged technology:
Bill Gates has funneled millions of dollars into geoengineering research. And he has invested in a company, Intellectual Ventures, that is developing at least two geoengineering tools: the “StratoShield,” a 19-mile-long hose suspended by helium balloons that would spew sun-blocking sulfur dioxide particles into the sky and a tool that can supposedly blunt the force of hurricanes.
The geopolitical ramifications are chilling. Climate change is already making it hard to know whether events previously understood as “acts of God” (a freak heat wave in March or a Frankenstorm on Halloween) still belong in that category. But if we start tinkering with the earth’s thermostat — deliberately turning our oceans murky green to soak up carbon and bleaching the skies hazy white to deflect the sun — we take our influence to a new level. A drought in India will come to be seen — accurately or not — as a result of a conscious decision by engineers on the other side of the planet. What was once bad luck could come to be seen as a malevolent plot or an imperialist attack.
Ms. Muller’s husband Richard founded Berkeley Earth and now is the institute’s Science Director. Doing a bit of research on him, you discover from Wikipedia that he is the director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project that Koch funds as well. But interestingly enough, that project confirmed that temperatures were rising despite suspicions that it would fall within the skeptic’s camp.
This of course has some bearing on Elizabeth Muller’s op-ed piece that accepts the science but proposes a remedy that will likely kill the patient—mother earth. The only conclusion you can be left with is that the Koch Brothers are hedging their bets. If governments move more and more in the direction of eliminating “dirty” greenhouse emitting energy sources like coal, then why not push natural gas and hydrocracking?
Tina Casey of Triplepundit.com ties everything together and puts a red ribbon around it:
The green blogs were buzzing last week with news of a new bombshell report that affirms the role of human activity in global warming. Studies affirming climate science are nothing new to say the least, but this one was produced through the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST), under the auspices of well known climate skeptic Richard A. Muller. The kicker is that BEST is partly funded by the Koch brothers, who have become notorious for their financial support of the “climate change denial machine.”
Hence the bombshell, and with it a lesson in the perils of corporate funding for scientific research. But is it really a bombshell? Take a closer look at some of the Koch brothers’ energy investments and pair that with another BEST funder, and it’s clear that the new study works in favor of the Koch interests, not against them.
The Koch brothers and natural gas
First off, it’s important to note that not all fossil fuels are due for a quick and brutal end once the so-called climate “skeptic” movement is neutralized.
Fossil fuels will continue to feature prominently in the U.S. energy landscape during a transitional period to low-carbon energy, and proponents of natural gas have positioned this particular fuel to play a key role in the transition, based on the idea that it is “cleaner” than other fossil fuels.
It’s also worth noting that natural gas is not necessarily deserving of this advantage, at least not when it is obtained through fracking. Fracking is a highly controversial drilling method that involves pumping a toxic chemical brine underground. It has been linked to water contamination, greenhouse gas emissions, and even earthquakes.
Be that as it may, Koch Industries is heavily involved in natural gas, as detailed in an article last spring by Lee Fang in the Republic Report. Its recent activities in the natural gas industry focus on services for fracking operations including pipelines, storage, processing, and supplies.
BEST, Novim and natural gas
That pretty much explains why the new report from BEST is not such bad news for the Koch brothers after all.
In fact, the report is not such bad news for the natural gas industry as a whole, judging by another major funder behind BEST, a non-profit organization called Novim.
According to its website, Novim initiated and sponsored BEST in line with its stated mission, which is “to provide clear scientific options to the most urgent problems facing mankind.” Novim’s mission also focuses on cost/benefit analyses, and it claims to report its findings “without advocacy or agenda.”
That’s all well and good, but Novim’s news page currently leads off with an Associated Press article asserting that evidence of water contamination and public health impacts from gas drilling is “sketchy and inconclusive.”
Other featured articles include a New York Times piece touting increased natural gas production (with a veiled reference to new fracking technology) as a critical factor in carbon emissions management, and a love letter to fracking in the form of a Yale study review published in Forbes.
Aside from BEST, Novim is also involved in at least one other research project with implications for the natural gas industry, an analysis of methane leakage from natural gas drilling. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and critics argue that the leakage effectively neutralizes the low-carbon advantage that natural gas is supposed to have over other fossil fuels.
He who laughs last, laughs BEST…
As for the methodology behind BEST, some critics are already lining up to shoot it down but according to a recent article in The Guardian, others are having themselves a bit of a chuckle over it. For all the media firestorm surrounding BEST, so far it pretty much confirms conclusions about global warming that had already achieved general acceptance back in the 1990′s.
At any rate, regardless of the science it’s a win-win for the Koch brothers. Either the critics are right and BEST contributes little or nothing to the body of climate science, or it is a valid study that happens to support Koch Industries’ investments in the natural gas industry.
Who’s laughing now?
August 16, 2012
Today’s NY Times has an article on the divisions among the Blackfoot people in Browning, Montana over fracking.
It is an increasingly common sight for tribes across the West and Plains: Tourist spending has gone slack since the recession hit. American Indian casino revenues are stagnating just as tribal gambling faces new competition from online gambling and waves of new casinos. Oil and fracking are new lifelines.
One drilling rig on the Blackfeet reservation generated 49 jobs for tribal members — a substantial feat in a place where unemployment is as high as 70 percent. But as others watched the rigs rise, they wondered whether the tribe was making an irrevocable mistake.
“These are our mountains,” said Cheryl Little Dog, a recently elected member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the reservation’s governing body. “I look at what we have, and I think, why ruin it over an oil rig?”
Oil exploration here began in the 1920s, largely on the plains along the eastern edge of the reservation, but it died off in the early 1980s. Over the last four years, though, new fracking technologies and rising oil prices have lured the drillers back, and farther and farther west, to the mountains that border Glacier National Park.
Oil companies have leased out the drilling rights for a million of the reservation’s 1.5 million acres, land held by the tribe, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They have drilled 30 exploratory wells this year alone, and are already engaged in fracking many of them, pumping a slurry of water, sand and chemicals to crack open underground rock beds to pry out the oil.
“It’ll change the lives of a lot of people,” said Grinnell Day Chief, the tribe’s oil and gas manager. “It’ll be a boost to everybody. There’s talk of a hotel coming up.”
As it turns out, this is an Indian reservation I visited in the late 90s through connections I had made with Jim Craven, an economics professor of Blackfoot descent who was subscribed to PEN-L at the time. About three years after that trip I returned to the Blackfoot reservation in Alberta, Canada just north of Browning to participate in a tribunal on residential school abuse that Jim Craven had organized. Through my trips out west and through research on the Blackfoot I managed to learn quite a bit about their struggle and eventually wrote an article on “The Blackfoot and the Barbarian” that pretty much exemplifies my approach to indigenous issues as a Mariátegui disciple.
(I should mention that I have used the word Blackfoot rather than Blackfeet over the years mainly because of Jim Craven’s insistence that the latter term is racist. Frankly, I am not so sure whether the distinction is as important to the tribe as it was to Jim but as is generally the case I am happy to respect the views of a member of an oppressed nationality when it comes to matters such as this.)
In 1998 I wrote an article titled “Energy Tribes” that addresses the economic contradictions that led to fracking on the Browning reservation. I am reproducing it below in order to provide some insights into what is called commonly called environmental racism and that is felt particularly hard by indigenous peoples in the Americas.
One of the crowning ironies of the history of this racist, capitalist country is that Indian reservations today hold enormous quantities of coal, oil, gas and uranium. If the 19th century architects of genocide had been able to predict this startling outcome, they probably would have simply killed every last Indian in order to put a lock on future profits. The struggle for Indian control of these resources has turned out to be one of the sharpest struggles of the past 25 years.
What is the magnitude of these reserves? “Breaking the Iron Bonds,” by Marjane Ambler (U. of Kansas, 1990), lays out the numbers for the year 1974:
The Interior Department said thirty-three reservations had as much as 200 billion tons of coal, which represented as much as 30 percent of all the coal west of the Mississippi. Federal estimates of uranium holdings ranged from 16 percent to 37 percent of the nation’s total. The department said forty Indian reservations held reserves of 4.2 billion barrels of oil and 17.5 trillion cubic feet of gas–3 percent of the nation’s known reserves. Most of these minerals still lay underground; so even if the tribes had been politically able to operate as a cartel, they could not have influenced energy fuel prices. Nevertheless, they represented the largest mineral owners in the country outside the federal government and the railroads.
These reserves became the subject of intense interest in the early 1970s during the so-called energy crisis. Almost overnight, tribes who eked out a living as ranchers or farmers were receiving bids from some of the biggest and most avaricious companies in America. Two American Indians emerged as champions of tribal rights against the marauders. They sought to accurately measure the amount of energy reserves. They also had to figure out how to defend the development needs of the tribes against the interests of corporations who were merely out to make a quick profit. In other words, all corporations.
One of these was the Comanche LaDonna Harris, who was instrumental in the formation of Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) in 1975, a coalition to protect Indian interests. Not coincidentally, she was Barry Commoner’s vice-presidential running mate on the Citizens Party ticket in 1980. Such was the racism of the radical movement that when her name used to come up that year, they referred to her as “Just some Indian woman.” That was enough to satisfy the curiosity of a brain-dead leftist movement that could not appreciate the importance of ecologists and American Indians coalescing. There is evidence that it still doesn’t.
Harris had founded Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) in order to promote tribal self-government. Concerned about disadvantageous contracts with energy companies, she hired 3 interns from Dartmouth University to review federal records. The results were earthshaking. Nobody had ever realized the magnitude of the potential wealth. She presented Federal Energy Administration (FEA) chief Frank Zerb with the evidence in the summer of 1975 and read him the riot act. “You can’t have an energy policy without Indians; collectively, they’re the biggest private owners of energy in the country.”
Another key figure was Chuck Thomas, a Cherokee who worked as an oil-field inspector for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). If Harris was instrumental in putting a spotlight on the existence of huge energy reserves, Thomas was critical in raising tribal awareness about the need to tightly control them. He figured out something was amiss on June 13, 1980 when he caught an oil truck leaving the Wind River Reservation without a permit. This led to a full-scale investigation and upgrade of the inspection and accounting system on the energy-rich reservations. Thomas was the right person to help put new training procedures into place. Before going to work for the USGS, he had worked in the oil fields for fifteen years as a roustabout and roughneck. He was plain-spoken about his qualifications. “I’m not a man of long words and big politics…I have a worm’s eye view of it (oil thefts) because I was the man in the field.” He had blunt advice for Indian youth who were interning with him: “Be suspicious and trust nothing or nobody.”
CERT played an important role in defending tribal interests during the energy boom years. The revenues that came from royalty payments from big corporations, while not eliminating Indian poverty, did play a role in tribal development. One of the most tangible results was the creation of the Blackfeet Tribal bank, the beneficiary of Jim Craven’s consultation services. The Blackfeet tribe derived 90 percent of its total income in 1985 from oil and gas royalties and taxes.
The emergence of a cartel-like formation like CERT scared the tribes’ enemies out of its wits. During the mid-1970s OPEC was the bogeyman of many Americans, rich and not-so-rich. The notion that Americans would have to pay top dollar for petroleum was shocking. It was one thing for Americans to have a monopoly on computer software, automobiles, weapons, medicine, etc., but it was another thing for the rest of the world to assert itself in this manner. All nations were equal, but some nations were more equal than others.
The Denver Post fretted over the emergence of CERT in a 1979 editorial:
Supposedly we are to pony up cheerfully so the noose of escalating energy prices can be tightened around our necks… The people who manipulate Indian policies are indulging in much nonsense…Admittedly, justice has not always been dispensed equitably. But is the sufferance of our national government–dedicated to tribal advancement [??!!]–that gives the tribes leeway to act with more independence than other Americans.
But limits there are. Imagine what would happen if some adviser persuaded a tribal group to sign a treaty with Libya which Colonel Quaddafy was to ship Russian missiles to the reservation to guarantee the tribe’s integrity.
These fears, which were largely a psychological projection of rapacious American capitalists on their victims, were heightened when CERT hired Ahmed Kooros as its chief economist. Kooros had served as Iran’s deputy minister of economics and oil under both the Shah and Khomeini.
The parallel with OPEC nations was of course overdrawn. The true relationship between the U.S. and the energy tribes was not unlike that which exists between it and oil-producing countries like Nigeria and Angola that have non-industrialized, financially weak economies. The possibility for exploitation is much greater. The producers do get royalties, but it comes at a price. The big corporations leave the underdeveloped countries in a state of ecological ruin while draining the life-blood of the nation. The relationship is like Dracula’s to his victims. Dracula might treat somebody to a good meal but afterwards the guest became a blood-pudding dessert.
The most dramatic instance of the social and environmental costs of energy development was the break in a tailing dam at the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock, New Mexico uranium mill on July 16, 1979. (Tailings are the residue of uranium mining.) One hundred million tons of radioactive water spilled into the Rio Puerco River on the Navajo reservation and it took on a sickly yellow hue, like battery acid. Animals that stepped into the river developed sores on their legs and died almost immediately. For the next year Navajos could neither eat nor sell mutton, an economic mainstay of the tribe. For the next decade the Indians and other people living near the river could not use local water supplies for drinking or stock watering. Despite all the publicity surrounding 3-Mile Island, this was the worst nuclear plant accident in American history.
Another noteworthy example of the destructiveness of unregulated energy development is what happened at the Upper Missouri River Basin in the 1980s. The tribes of the Northern Plains felt the need to defend their long-term interests against some powerful energy corporations that were planning a huge coal gasification plant in Wyoming. The companies needed water from nearby states where Indians had ownership of the potential supply. The plant and ancillary energy development operations would require huge amounts of water. The only source was the nearby Yellowstone River, as important to the Northern Plains tribes as the Rio Puerco was to the Navajos.
The federal government was all for the diversion of water to the Wyoming mega-project. A formal request had come from the following companies: Peabody Coal, Gulf Oil, AMAX, Shell Oil, Exxon, Kerr-McGee, Western Energy Corporation, Consolidated Coal, ARCO, Conoco, Mobil and WESCO. How could the US turn down a request from such companies? After all, they bribe both parties to carry out their wishes.
Arrayed against the government and energy companies was a coalition of ranchers, environmentalists and Indians. Potential royalty payment to the tribes was not enough to placate them. Their relationship to the land and water, which had pastoral and spiritual dimensions, could not easily be priced. This in essence is the source of the conflict between the tribes and capitalist America, just as it is in other parts of the world. Last week 10,000 villagers occupied the construction site of a dam on the Narmada river in India. It would destroy their livelihood as well as strip the river of the sacred quality it held in their lives. The main beneficiaries of the dam would be wealthy farmers.
A final example will illustrate not only the conflicts between the corporations and the tribes, but within different tribes themselves. The power of the dollar is enormous. A big corporation will not be above pitting one group of Indians against another when it is seeking to advance its bottom line. Capitalists have been dividing and conquering for centuries. Since they are such a tiny percentage of the population, they are always seeking ways to weaken their potential victims.
I am referring here to the conflict between the Hopi and Navajo tribes over development in the Black Mesa region of New Mexico. This is an extremely complex problem that pits the development needs of the Hopi tribe against Navajo sheepherders. There are enormous profits at stake as the Peabody Coal Company has targeted this area for extensive development of coal and other energy resources. I will not even begin to try to arbitrate the rival claims of the two tribes, but refer to the Black Mesa Web Page for testimony from both sides in the dispute.
In a 1993 complaint to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the Navajos complained about the slurry line that transports approximately 5 million tons of coal each year from Black Mesa to Laughlin, Nevada. It was “the only instance in American history where coal has been transported with groundwater that represents the only source of drinking water for an Indian Tribe.” Since the Peabody Coal Company uses over a billion gallons of pristine drinking water from the Navajo-Aquifer, it is no surprise that a drought afflicted both the Hopi and Navajo reservations in 1996. Development comes at a cost.
As long as tribes insist on putting their own interests above other tribes, the capitalist will come out ahead. The capitalist has trained himself to do this. Cecil Rhodes perfected this art in Africa and was able to safeguard the interests of the mining companies while trampling on the rights of the tribal peoples. A recent PBS biography of the arch-imperialist showed how he did it You promise one tribe one thing as long as it will make war against the other. When the tribe is victorious and hands the spoils of war over to the British colonists, they simply find another tribe to enlist in their sordid fight.
There is absolutely no question that a higher level of American Indian unity is necessary to protect the economic and ecological rights of one and all. This is easier said than done because the tribes have histories that go back for hundreds of years. Some experts analyze the conflicts between Hopi and Navajo as having existed long before the appearance of Peabody. Their resolution would seem to be one of the most urgent tasks facing Indian peoples.
Economic necessity is driving Indian nationalism, a progressive force. The emergence of CERT shows that Indians can coalesce nationally when their interests as a people coincide. Despite a downturn in the energy sector of the economy through the 1980s and 90s, there is little question that it will reemerge with a vengeance. There are several factors that lie behind this.
First of all, energy companies have a double standard when it comes to pollution. They view Indian reservations and Third World countries as less deserving of the sort of protections that white American neighborhoods enjoy. The term for this is “environmental racism.” This is in part a reflection of the tendency of mainstream environmental organizations to fight harder for their own constituencies, which are largely white and middle-class. An oil spill in the ocean near Santa Monica aroused the affluent swimmers and surfers to action. A uranium spill in New Mexico hardly registers on mass consciousness, even when it is greater than what occurred at 3-Mile Island.
Energy companies have less latitude in white, middle-class or even working-class neighborhoods, so they go overseas to make the kind of profits they need to satisfy Wall Street. Chevron Oil had to clean up its act in the waters off Santa Monica, but throws caution to the wind in Nigeria. Nigeria, like large sections of New Mexico, is an environmental disaster. When poor people object to pollution, their “benefactors” argue that they have to make a choice between clean air and water, and jobs. The term for this is “greenmail.” Opposed to greenmail is the demand that all development take place under the strictest environmental guidelines. People must come before profits.
Another important consideration has to do with the potential importance of uranium mining in the near future. Concerns over global warming have spurred new interest in alternatives to oil and gas, greenhouse emission producing fuels. The more sensible approach would be to explore solar and wind energy, but nuclear power companies have been pressing their case. Their lobbyists were very active at the recent Kyoto Global Warming conference. East Asia is a potential market for their poisons. The Chinese and other Asian governments are planning to build 70 nuclear power plants in the next 25 years. A large portion of the fuel will certainly come from the Indian reservations, where more than 1/3 of potential reserves exists. The capitalist would love to mine uranium without caution in such places and sell it to Asian governments whose willingness to poison for profits equals their own.
The choice is not between poverty and pollution, although this is what the big corporations would have us believe. Development can take place without destroying rivers and soil in the process. Mining and oil-drilling can take place in a relatively safe manner, as long as certain guidelines are in place. The decision to mine or to drill for oil must first of all be made by the tribal peoples who will suffer the consequences both good and bad. Once they make this democratic decision, the oil, coal or uranium companies must respect the surrounding ecology.
How can the numerically small and impoverished Indian tribes force huge corporations like Peabody Coal or Exxon Oil to respect their economic and ecological demands? The answer is that they first must find ways to merge their tribal interests into a larger Indian collective. The American Indian nation would not abolish the local traditions of the tribe; it would simply present a united fist to those who would exploit it.
Closely related to this task is the need to internationalize the struggle. The American Indians on their own are a tiny percentage of the United States. However, they are part of an immense struggle that is going on world- wide against the same exact corporations who are attempting to foul their air, soil and water in the pursuit of profits. The Indians of the Amazon rainforest, the aborigines of Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand, the Odongi people in Nigeria are all in similar fights. There are signs that this type of internationalism is already beginning to take shape. North American Indians have offered solidarity to the peoples of Chiapas, who are defending themselves against a capitalist system that has more and more of a global character.
NAFTA and similar agreements accelerate the economic onslaught that has taking place within the borders of the United States, but displaces them into regions where protection of human rights are weaker. When a corporation faces a determined coalition of ranchers, environmentalists, trade unions and tribes within our borders, it has no recourse except to go places where the cops or army can openly repress such a coalition. This is what happens in Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil where the popular movement must deal with death squads and lesser forms of intimidation.
There is no other way to defend oneself from a marauding, profit-hungry, globe-trotting capitalist system except through international solidarity. The collapse of the East Asian economies makes the promise of prosperity through low wages and polluting industry even more hollow than it ever was. The only beneficiaries of low wages and pollution are the shareholders of the corporations who expect maximum profits. To satisfy these shareholders is to risk death from the poisons that the corporations spew in their name, since cutthroat competition will simply allow the investor to shift his money to a more profitable and anti-human corporation.
In my next post I will discuss American Indian beliefs about ecology, which are essential to understanding a way out of the madness of a capitalist system run amok.
(sources for this post include Marjane Ambler’s book and the Short History of Big Mountain – Black Mesa Web Site at http://www.aics.org/BM/bm.html)
August 5, 2012
(The author is an electrical engineer who has designed over 600 Turbine generators that are still working all over India and abroad. He is also a long-time revolutionary.)
India’s Power failure: The culprit – Crony Capitalism!
By Vijaya Kumar Marla
This is what I had gathered from News reports: A major power failure Tuesday has left hundreds of millions of people in northern and eastern India without power, making this one of the worst power outages in history. The blackout affected an area encompassing about 670 million people, or roughly 10 per cent of the world’s population. This has been declared by NDTV to be the worst power crisis EVER! According to 2011 census data, only 67.2% of India’s homes have electricity. Besides, in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous northern state, only 36.8% of homes have access to electricity, compared to 99.1% of Delhi homes. One contributor to the blackout, TV analysts theorize, could be stepped up power demand from farmers who need to run water pumps (to cope with drought conditions). After of the hottest summers in recent years, the North of India has seen a weak monsoon, which has meant lower hydroelectric generation of power than expected. In states like UP, Punjab and Haryana, farmers have resorted to using water pumps, drawing more power than usual.
“Power swing is suspected on account of some transmission line tripping, causing grid failure. It requires further investigation to ascertain the real cause,” says an official. India’s power sector has been suffering from a shortage of fuel for plants (coal and gas, mostly). Now the blackouts are showing just how creaky the nation’s electricity grid is, says WSJ, on July 31, 2012. Fuel shortages are crippling coal and gas-fired plants, forcing them to run below capacity or shut down for long stretches; state utilities have billions of dollars of accumulated losses; and, as has been on stark display, the nation’s creaky grid needs upgrading as per NY Times. Government officials said a sudden spike in load in several states initiated a cascading failure of the national grid, but declined to say which states were responsible. Several Indian states face chronic electricity shortages. In Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state and the site of the first problem that officials say caused the blackout, power demand outstripped supply at peaks hours by 15.3% in June. The Himalayan region of Jammu & Kashmir had a 25% peak power deficit; it was 16.3% in Bihar and 13.4% in the southern state of Tamil Nadu 13.4%.
Theories for the extraordinarily extensive blackout across much of Northern India included excessive demands placed on the grid from certain regions, due in part to low monsoon rains that forced farmers to pump more water to their fields. Sushil Kumar Shinde, the power minister, who spoke to reporters, did not specify what had caused the grid breakdown but blamed several northern states for consuming too much power from the national system. Surendra Rao, formerly India’s top electricity regulator, said the national grid had a sophisticated system of circuit breakers that should have prevented such a blackout. But he attributed this week’s problems to the bureaucrats who control the system, saying that civil servants are beholden to elected state leaders who demand that more power be diverted to their regions – even if doing so threatens the stability of the national grid. “The dispatchers at both the state and the regional level should have cut off the customers who were overdrawing, and they didn’t,” Mr Rao said. But India’s power generation capacity also has not kept pace with growth. Demand outpaced supply by 10.2 per cent in March, government statistics show.
India depends on coal for more than half of its power generation, but production has barely increased, with some power plants idled for lack of coal. Many analysts have long predicted that India’s populist politics were creating an untenable situation in the power sector because the government is selling electricity at prices lower than the cost of generating it. India’s public distribution utilities are now in deep debt, which makes it harder to encourage investment in the power sector. Phillip F Schewe, a specialist in electricity and author of the book “The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World,” said the demand pressures on India’s system could set off the sort of breakdown that occurred on Tuesday. In cases when demand outstrips the power supply, the system of circuit breakers must be activated, often manually, to reduce some of the load in what are known as rolling blackouts.
But if workers cannot trip those breakers fast enough, Mr Schewe said, a failure could cascade into a much larger blackout. (Perhaps Mr Schewe is unaware that the power systems in India are as sophisticated and modern as anywhere else. In fact, Indian companies export power plant equipment to many countries, after successful competitive bidding – Marla). India’s Power Minister, Mr. Shinde, when asked about the reasons for the failure of grids, said some states are drawing electricity over and above their limits. “This was creating problems,” the minister said. “This morning only, I was told (by officials) that about 3,000 MW extra power has been over drawn from the Eastern Grid. We have given the direction to either stop it (over drawal) or take action against them,” he added. “Grid incident occurred at 13:00 hours affecting the Northern Grid, Eastern Grid and North Eastern Grid,” National Load Despatch Centre (NLDC) said.
The Confederation of Indian Industry had estimated that businesses lost between Rs 2.5-5 billion because of the blackout. The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham) said the blackout had “severely impacted” business activities. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry: Reforms that would help make coal and gas available as per the nation’s requirements must no longer be held back. If Coal India limited is unable to meet the coal requirements of industry and the power sector, then the government must think of breaking it down in smaller segments that would be more manageable. Alternatively, the responsibility for management of coal mines can be shared with the private sector for bringing in greater efficiency in operations.”
The image of it looks very bad,” said Naresh Chandra, a former ambassador to the United States and former electricity regulator in New Delhi. But Mr. Chandra said the problems were fixable and that international investors should not lose heart. Power experts in the United States speculated that inattention by those manning crucial circuit breakers on India’s electrical grid may have led to the blackout. India’s basic power problem is that the country’s rapid development has led demand to far outstrip supply. That means power officials must manage the grid by shutting down power to small sections of the country on a rotating basis. But doing so requires quick action from government officials who are often loathe to shut off power to important constituencies.
Whatever the excuses put forward by the government, years of neglecting power sector reform and misplaced investment priorities are at the root of the crisis. “I think over the next decade the investments of the government and particularly the investments of the private sector will be a big part of the solution here,” says Professor Arun Sundararajan at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Many of India’s major corporations and industrial groups generate their own power and thus were spared much of the disruption from the blackouts on Monday and Tuesday. Many apartment and office buildings in India’s major cities have their own generators as well. And as India’s power grid becomes ever more unreliable, private power alternatives will further proliferate, despite their relative inefficiency.
Notwithstanding the suggestions from environmental groups and the government’s own plans to increase the share of renewable energy, the intractable problems still plaguing India, such as inadequate infrastructure, a crippling power shortage and, as many critics point out, a yawning absence of governmental action and leadership. Ian Bhullar, writing on August 3, 2012 says that the reasons may be much more systemic, including over-dependence on oil, gas and coal imports, corruption that has led to the degradation of the power network, and widespread theft of power from the national grid. As per Moody’s, the rating agency, the domestic power sector suffers from inadequate coal supplies, inability to transport imported fuels to power stations located inland as well as unreliable distribution networks. Also, the sector has “higher-than-usual” losses associated with distributing energy apart from losses related to fraud and corruption by consumers who don’t pay for the energy their use, it said.
Some regions of the grid are drawing more power than they are entitled to. The officials regulating the power allocation are helpless because powerful vested interests demand that they get more power for themselves. In a poor backward state like Uttar Pradesh, rich farmers, who are also politically powerful, use most of the subsidized power allocated to agriculture. Poor farmers cannot afford to install pump-sets. This is a classic case of crony capitalism at work. Capitalist agricultural practices demand intensive inputs in the form of water, power, chemicals etc., and only the powerful rich farmers can go for this.
The gross misuse of political power by the rich peasants and industrialists with active collusion of politicians and government officials has resulted in the precipitation of the crisis. Here is a comparison of Transmission losses in India and comparable countries (countries with grids stretching over long distances).
Electric power transmission and distribution losses (% of output) Electric power transmission and distribution losses include losses in transmission between sources of supply and points of distribution and in the distribution to consumers, including pilferage. Source: International Energy Agency (IEA Statistics © OECD/IEA, http://www.iea.org/stats/index.asp), Energy Statistics and Balances of Non-OECD Countries and Energy Statistics of OECD Countries, and United Nations, Energy Statistics Yearbook.
It is amply clear from the above table, a lot of pilferage takes place, often with the connivance of the concerned officials and the theft is accounted as T&D losses. The rich do not pay for what they steal. There is an old saying in Hindi, which translates roughly as: “the thief is accusing the policeman of theft”. This assault has already begun. The business elite, who are in fact little affected by the Blackout, reel out extraordinary figures of losses to the business interests and call for privatization of public sector power and power equipment companies, oils and coal business. This is neoliberalism at work. Grabbing public wealth for private gain, when it is they, the rich and powerful, who had misused public wealth (grid power) and now accuse the same poor government power distributors of mismanagement and shout at the top of their vices that everything should be privatized.
The comment above that most of the major industrial giants have been spared during the blackout is true because they have been encouraged by the government in the last few decades to install captive generation. And the shortage of natural gas is the handiwork of Reliance Petro Corporation, who according to reports, have cheated the government of gas production figures in the KG Basin and other offshore wells, by deliberately quoting wrong figures and diverting the gas to their own power plants. And the government is unable to bring Reliance Corp. to book as it is believed that that this monopoly company has more than a fourth of Indian lawmakers on its payrolls. In fact, one of the previous ministers, who headed the Petroleum Ministry, was a long term agent of Reliance Petro and he had been installed there to look after the interests of his master. To conclude, we will be witnessing a full scale assault on the public sector in the coming days. Unfortunately, no one from the Left has opened his mouth till now. Amen!
February 27, 2012
The Economic Function Of Energy
by Manuel García, Jr.
(Swans – February 27, 2012) Economics is the consumption of energy to process matter and produce action for the maintenance and renovation of society. Just as form follows function, the right choice of an energy technology for any society is a function of its economic model and socio-economic goals. Politics is the process of determining the allocation of costs and the distribution of benefits for an economy. Therefore, the selection of the energy technologies to power a society is based on political consensus and political power.
Industrialization is a synchronized and mechanized form of economics. For example, suburbia and exurbia are industrializations of the concepts of village, town, and city. They are the stretching of human settlements into 2D space with a compensatory time contraction provided by an energy-intensive kinetic network of unitary transport vehicles.
Public debates on the influence of industrialization on the global heat balance (the average temperature of much of the biosphere), and the sensitivity of climate change to inputs of industrial waste heat and waste matter (e.g., CO2, methane, soot), are political debates on economic forms couched in terms of the relative convenience, profitability and environmental impact of different energy technologies.
January 20, 2012
Two new documentaries resonate with me on a personal, political and more deeply philosophical level. The first is “The City Dark” that is now playing at the IFC Center in NY. It examines the phenomenon of “light pollution”, the seemingly benign phenomenon of electric lighting that makes star-gazing in places like New York virtually impossible. As someone who grew up in a tiny village in upstate New York in the 1950s with a breathtaking view of the starry sky, the film made me realize how much I miss this natural work of art that inspired Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting.
Opening on February 3rd at the Quad Cinema in New York, Laura Israel’s “Windfall” is a cautionary tale about wind power, the “green” source of energy almost universally accepted as a sane alternative to fossil fuels. As it turns out, windmills, especially those that are 400 feet tall and financed by Goldman-Sachs using generous tax breaks, are not exactly that benign.
The two films complement each other politically and philosophically since they confront in their own ways the cost of maintaining what passes for “civilization” in an epoch of dwindling natural resources and stresses on the environment and the human body engendered by living on the grid. Viewing them raises the question of our future as a species on the most fundamental level even if the intention of their makers was more narrowly focused on a specific socio-political problem.
Growing up on a farm in rural Maine, Ian Cheney enjoyed the same vista I did in the Catskills. So captivated was he by the night sky as a young man that he built his own telescope and spent hours each evening gazing at the stars. I had the exact experience when I was 12 or 13 years old and begged my parents to buy me a telescope. But nothing prepared me for what I saw in the summer of 1962 when I was at home from my first year at Bard College when a display of northern lights appeared at around 10pm one evening. For about two hours I stood in wonderment on my front lawn at the green lights dancing across the dark sky.
Like me, Cheney ended up in New York City to pursue a career. He fell in love with the city’s dazzling skyline and the neon lights on Broadway even if it meant not being able to see more than a dozen or so stars at night. At one point in the film there is a sage observation that the modern city is an inversion of the natural order. The stars have fallen from the sky, only to appear as the streetlights and neon signs of the boulevards.
The longer Cheney lived in the city, the more he missed the starry skies of his youth. The loss was not just esthetic and spiritual. As he looked deeper into the problem of “light pollution”, the more aware he became of the environmental and health costs of living in an urban environment crowned by supposedly one of civilization’s brightest jewels: electrification.
When I was involved with Tecnica, a volunteer program for revolutionary Nicaragua, we worked closely with a young engineer from Portland named Ben Linder who was killed by contras while working on a small-scale hydroelectric dam that would generate electricity for isolated and impoverished rural villages in the north. There was nothing that better expressed our hopes for a new Nicaragua than the possibility of people being able to have lighted homes in the evening. It was the age-old dream of socialism to make this possible, symbolized by the poster below that includes the slogan “Communism is Power of the Soviets Plus Electrification” beneath a light-bulb.
As it turns out, there can be too much of a good thing, including electric lights. Considering the fact that animals, including homo sapiens, have lived for millions of years without artificial lights, it comes as no surprise that mother nature can throw us for a loop. The film shows the toll light pollution takes on animals. Thousands of sea turtles newly hatched on the Florida coast mistakenly head toward the city lights rather than the ocean, which they have been programmed genetically to seek out because of its relative brightness compared to the land. As an endangered species, the idea that their numbers are decreasing at an ever greater rate because of shopping mall lights, etc. makes you reconsider the question of progress.
Since ultimately we are part of the animal kingdom, it might be expected that artificial lights will affect our health and survival as well. Richard Stevens, an epidemiologist interviewed by Cheney, believes that disrupted circadian rhythms can affect one’s health. For example, statistics indicate that night-shift women workers are twice as likely to develop breast cancer. As Sciencenews.org reported:
Exposure to light at night can disrupt the body’s production of melatonin, a brain hormone best known for its daily role in resetting the body’s biological clock. Secreted primarily in the brain, and at night, melatonin triggers a host of biochemical activities, including a nocturnal reduction in the body’s production of estrogen. Some researchers have speculated that chronically decreasing nocturnal melatonin production—as with light—might increase an individual’s risk of developing estrogen-related malignancies, such as breast cancer.
Unlike a film about genetically modified food or climate change, there are no simple solutions to light pollution. You can easily enough keep Frankenfood out of your kid’s cafeteria, for example, but what do we do about millions of people herded together in a metropolis for economic reasons? Nobody would endorse a forced march into the countryside in Khmer Rouge fashion, but “A City Dark” really makes you think about what kind of alternatives are both sustainable and feasible. There are some measures that are obviously worth taking in the short run, like putting lights into public spaces that are appropriate. However, wouldn’t we better off in the long run finding a way to stay in touch with the same thing that captivated our forefathers millenniums ago–the starry night?
Laurie Israel lives in Meredith, New York, a small farming town in Delaware County, New York just to the northwest of Sullivan County, where I grew up. Like Sullivan County, it is an impoverished area marked by the collapse of the dairy industry.
As is so often the case, impoverished areas are susceptible to environmental super-exploitation. A farmer on the edge of bankruptcy might be enticed to sign a contract to allow natural gas fracking on his land even if it results in undrinkable water.
But Meredith was not approached by a natural gas drilling company. Instead it was a company devoted to wind power, an alternative energy source that was on the leading edge of a Green revolution talked about in the press and touted by liberal politicians such as Al Gore crusading against fossil fuels. As it turned out, the windmills were not the sort of thing you would think of when it comes to an “alternative” to corporate malfeasance.
They were in fact part of the same arsenal that energy companies draw upon to make big profits for their shareholders, the public be damned—especially the citizens of Meredith. As Laurie Israel put it in the press notes:
The first proposal in Meredith called for forty 400-foot tall turbines, sited 1,000 feet from people’s homes. These were not the friendly windmills I first pictured, nor would they be far off in the distance, like ones I’ve seen in the desert. Mountains would have to be clear-cut, and turbines embedded in tons of concrete to keep them standing. Roads would be widened to accommodate the huge blades, which can be up to 180 feet long. I found out about the potential for problems in homes close to turbines, such as low frequency sound and shadow flicker when the sun gets behind the moving blades. I started to question the scale of this type of development for the area, which is both rural and residential. I talked to others in the community, and found I was not alone in questioning the proposed development. In fact, many neighbors had gone through the same transition I had – initial excitement about helping to save the world quickly changing into concern for protecting the health and wellbeing of residents and the future of their community.
As the community began to doubt whether the windmills were appropriate for their community, your first reaction might be to link them with the wealthy denizens of Cape Cod who rejected them as a blight on the landscape—something that the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world never tire of denouncing as an example of rich, liberal “not in my backyard” hypocrisy.
But it was not just a question of esthetics. Studies of industrial windmills of the sort that would be imposed on Meredith reveal that there are health hazards that are nearly as costly as the night shift work discussed in “The City Dark”. Studies reveal that the low frequency sound is not just unpleasant to the ears; it is also linked to sleeplessness, headaches and nausea. While one can put up with relatively minor ailments such as this from time to time, the thought of suffering from them on a nearly daily basis would be enough to force one to sell one’s property at a loss. For many of the people living in Meredith for generations, this would be a devastating hardship.
The town divided along fairly predictable lines. Those who stood the most to gain were large land-owners who would profit by having windmills on their land, especially land-owners whose dairy farms were not producing the income they did decades ago. But for many, especially those who treasured the natural beauty of the rolling hills and green pastures whether they had lived in Meredith for generations or were new arrivals like Laurie Israel, the money was not worth it.
As is also the case with fracking (a burning issue in my home county and one facing Delaware County as well), neighbors grew alienated from each other based on how they stood on the windmill question. The film describes the genuine pain the townspeople felt over their estrangement from one another. The costs of forced industrial penetration are felt in many ways, both in the pocketbook and in ones’ hearts.
Like “The City Dark”, “Windfall” raises fundamental questions about life on earth as conditioned by “civilization”. Keeping in mind that the root of this word is derived from the Latin for city, we must acknowledge that any political solution to our problems (war, poverty, etc.) must eventually penetrate to the very core of social relations and our relationship to nature in order to enjoy the Good Life. Our energy crisis is related very much to the demands put on the economy in order to support cities of millions of people enjoying all the amenities that electricity can support. To keep your computer powered and to provide the light necessary to look at the illuminated pixels, a steady source of electricity is necessary. That in turn can lead to a town like Meredith being swamped by 400 foot windmills that look like they stepped out of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds”. And even if the electricity keeps flowing, there remains the problem of urban life itself which is at odds with nature in ways both known and unknown. The notion of birds bouncing off lighted buildings to their death is eerily similar to the images in apocalyptic films such as “Melancholia” and “Take Shelter”.
The only thing we can be sure of is that any solution to such intractable contradictions can only result from a society in which the wealthy no longer have the power to dictate the outcome. As was the case in Meredith, where an aroused citizenry rose up to challenge industrial windmills, a global democracy—based on political and social equality—will ultimately be the only power capable of creating a new kind of civilization that overcomes alienation between people and between people and nature.