Friday, October 7, 2016

Michael Pollan, food futures, and a dearth of Michael Moore moments

I was surprised and gratified to see Michael Pollan’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times: Big Food Strikes Back: Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take On Corporate Agriculture?

Why surprised? Because so much of what passes for political reporting in this election season is undermined by boorishness, hypocrisy, dog-whistling, race-baiting, and misogyny; whereas Pollan’s essay is carefully developed, illuminating, and actually useful to those who seek to responsibly understand and influence humankind’s shared-fate future.

Pollan is playing the long game. Yesterday’s essay follows-up on an open letter of similar length and depth published eight years ago, a month before the election that sent Barack Obama to the White House. The NYT titled the open letter Farmer-in-Chief, and addressed it to the President-Elect. Yesterday’s essay is a disappointed but clear-eyed assessment of how and why President Obama failed to take Pollan’s 2008 advice nearly far enough. It wasn’t because the President-Elect didn’t get it.
A few days after the letter was published, Obama the candidate gave an interview to Joe Klein for Time magazine in which he concisely summarized my 8,000-word article:

“I was just reading an article in The New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the meantime, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our health care costs because they’re contributing to Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity.”
(It warms my heart that the POTUS-to-be prefigured the title of my 2015 novel in his 2008 interview. Emphasis added. It’s the little things.)

I was interviewed a few days ago by Joanna Manqueros on her “Music of the World” program on KPFA, a public radio station broadcasting from studios in Berkeley, not far from where I work. Joanna read a passage from Consequence, and we discussed how the passage she read from addresses the complexity of communicating the essentials of agricultural politics and policy — complexity that led Michael Pollan to write 8,000 words in 2008 on the topic, and nearly 6,000 more yesterday in follow-up and reassessment.

Here’s a transcription of that part of my interview with Joanna (starting just shy of 16 minutes into her show if you want to listen):
Joanna: Let me read a little bit of what the character sees, and why he starts to get pulled in this direction of doing this radical action. It says:
Christopher watched out the window as they accelerated onto Highway 101 and sped south, following a steady march of telephone wires strung atop pocked wooden poles. He tried to visualize the surrounding acres as wetland, teeming with wildlife in the centuries before the state was logged, drained, burned, and given over to cattle and monocropping. At least the farms were smaller here, he thought. And a lot more of them grew organic than in the Central Valley. It was a start.
What’s going on there?

Steve: Well, Chris is — letting go of exactly what’s happening in the plot there — Chris is driving through … I guess it would be Sonoma County at that point … and looking at the small farms there. And what he’s observing, if you’d read a little bit further, is that really there’s nothing obvious about these small farms, that they tend more toward organic, and that they tend less toward monocrop — although I suppose you can see that it’s not the same plant for acres and acres and acres on end, as you would see, say, if you drove through, Nebraska, where corn or soy are pretty much your only choices.

But one of the things he’s reflecting on is how difficult it is to convey in a dramatic way, in a way that penetrates the teleconsciousness of the nation, that penetrates the chatter of the news cycle, to talk about the kind of long term and deep problems that evolve in environments that are monocropped, or where pesticide is leached out of soil into aquifer or into water that feeds cities. You don’t see that right away. There’s not a Michael Moore moment that you can film, or dramatize in a demonstration, in some kind of guerilla theater.

And so he’s reflecting — Christopher is more than anything else a propagandist. He’s been asked to write a manifesto to justify this vaguely-defined — to him — action that Chagall is going to take. And he’s thinking about how hard it is to vividly explain to people what’s wrong with monocropping, what’s wrong with putting genetically engineered creatures into an evolved biosphere that has taken, literally, hundreds of millions of years to come to its equilibrium.
There might be science, politics, and policy that can still avert the most horrific effects of the accelerated poisoning that humans have inflicted on our biosphere over the last couple of centuries. Pollan lays out some key, deeply intertwined threads of the answers we need to be looking for in his paired essays’ 14,000 words. Consequence depicts characters engaged across a spectrum of diverse approaches to correcting our species’ broken trajectory, tactics that range from reasoned dissent to all-out disruption or even destruction.

From where I sit, humankind would do well to wrap our collective minds around the objectives laid out by Pollan, and the paths he suggests toward turning ourselves in constructive directions; and likewise would benefit from explorations of actively-engaged characters, hearts, and moral frameworks that could move us to grapple with the enormity of threats to our common future. I hope that readers find in Consequence an example of such an exploration — one among many.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Should we care how crops are grown *before* food insecurity spreads?
Facts vs understanding in GMO propaganda wars
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Broken food chains

Thanks to Lotus Head from Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa for his image Cornfield in South Africa —, CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia). This post was originally published on Medium, under the title Michael Pollan, Michael Moore Moments, and Humankind’s Future.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Counterclockwise around the Olympic Peninsula

In the vicinity of Puget Sound, road trips start with a drive to the ferry dock. Mine began a week ago, on Friday, a few miles from the Edmonds-Kingston ferry. From Edmonds we proceeded across Puget Sound, then to Port Gamble, across the Hood Canal Bridge, to Hwy 101 and west then south (and up!) to our first destination: Hurricane Ridge, overlooking the receding glaciers of the Olympic Range.

I'll describe the route and include photos of some of the spots we visited, then I'll include a few wildlife shots and a sampling of the mushrooms and other fungus that blooms across the well-watered Olympic Peninsula, especially in its rainforests.

We stayed in Port Angeles on Friday night, in a modest hotel with a million dollar view of the port and the ferries coming from and going to Victoria, BC, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

After dinner, we watched the sun set over the port.

The next morning we headed west toward Cape Flattery, first stopping for a short hike into Olympic National Park to visit Marymere Falls.

Then, leaving Hwy 101 at Sappho we turned north toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and west once we reached the shores of the Strait, into the Makah Reservation, Neah Bay, and out to the northwesternmost point in the continental U.S. Here's the Cape Flattery Lighthouse, on Tatoosh Island just off the cape:

The photo of cormorants settled around the mouths of sea caves, among the wildlife photos below, was taken just a few yards back from the observation deck overlooking the lighthouse. After a picnic back at Neah Bay we headed back to 101 and the hotel we'd reserved on the outskirts of Forks.

Though we stayed there on Saturday night, I have no photos of Forks, the town where Stephanie Meyers set her Twilight novels. Disclaimer: I saw one of the movies, couldn't say which; wasn't interested enough to read the books.

I wasn't charmed by Forks. The hotel we'd booked was functional. Everything on offer at the restaurant recommended by the fellow who checked us in was fried in the same vat of oil. The waffle-fried potatoes tasted like fish, know what I mean? But the signature quality of the meal? Every single one of the waitstaff, all of them young women, looked like they'd dressed to catch a vampire's roving eye, or that of a casting agent: tight skirts; pale, flat makeup; a deadpan affect that shouted, c'mon, bite me in the neck already! It seemed every commercial establishment had a poster from one or another of the Twilight movies prominently displayed. The supermarket's deli showcased wraps named for a vampire or a warewolf. It was sad, really.

We couldn't get out of Forks fast enough. On Sunday morning we headed for the Hoh Rainforest, which was gorgeous in a spooky kind of way, sans the undead.

Least-expected wildlife spotted in the Hoh: an owl sleeping on a high, sunny bough. Check out the photo below.

Ruby Beach was lovely, but it felt a little crowded compared to the sparsely peopled beaches I'm used to visiting on the Northern California coast. I waited for my moment, and snagged a shot of the beach from which only a single fellow-visitor needed to be cropped out:

From Ruby Beach we headed inland to skirt the Quinault Reservation, then west again to Moclips, where we stayed Sunday night. On the drive to Moclips we passed field after field of clearcut slash. Not so pretty.

On Monday, looping back to Seattle, we headed down to Grays Harbor, then turned east through Aberdeen, then north along the inside of the Hood Canal -- and soon arrived back at the ferry terminal in Kingston.

The Wildlife

A caterpillar; cormorants at Cape Flattery; an owl (barred? northern spotted?) napping high up in a tree in the Hoh Rainforest; a doe and fawn, also in the Hoh; and -- look carefully, I wasn't fast enough to zoom out my lens -- a bald eagle overhead, at the edge of the Hood Canal:

One, two, many fungi

As you can see looking up past that majestic eagle, as well as in other locations on the west side of the Olympic Range, the sky was surprisingly blue for this part of the world (the Hoh Rainforest gets twelve to fourteen feet of rain per year, according to the National Park Service). And so, blue sky or gray: fungus, and plenty of it. Here's some of what we saw:

All in all a gorgeous trip around a corner of the Left Coast I'd never visited before...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
A day at Bodega Head
Point Reyes National Seashore at the start of the year
Never mind Election Day 2014, consider Fall in Northern California
Tafoni at Pebble Beach on the San Mateo County coast

Monday, August 15, 2016

Should we care how crops are grown *before* food insecurity spreads?

Vandana Shiva, trained as a physicist and known worldwide as an analyst, activist, and advocate for biodiversity, organic farming, and fair trade, added an anthology earlier this year to her long list of published titles: Seed Sovereignty, Food Security: Women in the Vanguard of the Fight Against GMOs and Corporate Agriculture.  The gist of Shiva’s anthology: thirty authors from around the globe describe their respective parts in and perspectives on a worldwide movement in which millions of smallholder farmers are fighting to regain or retain the right to practice seed-saving, as they and their ancestors have done for thousands of years -- since humans began to cultivate food.

The anthology’s authors describe how the ancient practice of saving seed from one harvest to plant in the next -- a core practice of farming’s evolutionary and adaptive craft --  is threatened in Europe, India, Latin America, Australia, the United States, and Africa. The threat is driven by giant agribusiness conglomerates like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, and Syngenta that influence national governments to outlaw these traditional and resilient practices. As Tiphaine Burban of France explains in the European case (mirrored similarly elsewhere around the globe and in Shiva’s anthology):
In order to protect varietal innovations and to recognize breeders’ work, a system of intellectual protection was created by the Interational Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plans (UPOV), founded in 1961, called the Plant Variety Rights (PVR). [...]

In the early 1960s, while the PVR was being created, farmers could still preserve their right to sow seeds stemming from their own crops, or farm-saved seeds. A few years later, however, in 1970, a new UPOV convention considered the use of farm seeds as forgery. In theory, it became illegal to save and resow your own seeds. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and farm-saved seeds remained “farmer privilege.” In 1991, the third UPOV convention tried to forbid this [...] Since 1994, according to European legislation, farm-saved seeds are authorized for twenty-one varieties [...] upon payment of a tax. For remaining species, every farmer who planted seeds stemming from past crops could be accused of forgery [...] -- a progressive privation of farmers’ rights.
Why did and does this happen? The short answer is profit, by way of insidious influence over supposedly-sovereign governments. But a key, distressing consequence of corporate appropriation and centralization of control over seeds -- and control over farmers, land, and culture that follows -- is the devastation of humankind’s heritage of food crop diversity, cultivated and nurtured over countless generations and on every continent. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher and Sue Edwards, of Ethiopia, explain:
A report prepared for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) states that although about seven thousand species of plants have been used as human food in the past, urbanization and marketing have drastically reduced this number—only 150 crops are now commercially important, and rice, wheat, and maize alone now account for 60 percent of the world’s food supply. The genetic diversity within each crop has also been eroding fast; for example, only nine varieties account for 50 percent of the wheat produced in the United States, and the number of varieties of rice in Sri Lanka has dropped from two thousand to less than a hundred.
Sandra Baquedano Jer and Sara Larraín, of Chile, go further, outlining issues beyond the frame “food security” commonly laid out by government regulators and the corporations with which they are allied:
Food sovereignty in Latin America and the world does not just express a demand associated with nutrition and food production, as might be suggested by the concept of food security coined by national governments and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Rather, it embodies a serious cultural, social, and political dispute for access to the earth, water, seeds, and land and, in turn, to the forests, mountains, and water basins, which allow for the reproduction of life and the sustenance of all living beings, including humans. For this reason, food sovereignty and the movement for the protection of seeds as common goods, and as world heritage, includes the right of peoples to self-determination—to decide how to distribute and manage, from this day on, the water and the land that is sown and harvested and provides food—in other words, how to organize and maintain the food chain, which allows the subsistence of human beings, just as that of other species, but also the maintenance of knowledge, community, identity, and culture.
Many of the volume’s essays describe and promote a paradigm shift in people’s relation to power that has been sprouting across the tilled world in opposition to agribusiness-fueled depredation, be it political or corporate power. Frances Moore Lappé (author of the 1971 classic, Diet for a Small Planet) and her daughter Anne Lappé, in the volume’s leading essay, quote Brazilian economist João Pedro Stédile, a leader of that country’s Landless Workers’ Movement:
The first step is losing naive consciousness, no longer accepting what you see as something that cannot be changed. The second is reaching the awareness that you won’t get anywhere unless you work together. This shift in consciousness, once you get it, is like riding a bike, no one can take it away from you. So you forget how to say “Yes, sir” and learn to say “I think that …” This is when the citizen is born.

One current of the anthology’s essays describe how GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- further extend a shift toward corporate control of once-independent farmers and once-diverse varieties of food crops. This shift began with seed hybridization, a farming technique in which farmers plant and harvest the vigorous offspring of crossbred lines of a food crop. Importantly, crops grown from the harvested seeds of hybrids decline precipitously in vigor and productivity. This requires farmers who have been beguiled, convinced, or coerced to plant hybrid seed to purchase new breeding stock (seeds) in subsequent years, instead of saving, trading, and/or crossbreeding a portion of harvested crops for future seasons’ planting. Having lost control of a heretofore renewable means of production, these farmers become indentured to suppliers of agribusiness seed, purveyors of inputs required to maximize hybrid yields (generally owned by complementary branches of an agribusiness conglomerate), and banks that extend credit against future harvests.

GMOs add intellectual property law to the lock corporations have on the means of food production. Vandana Shiva explains:
The door to patents on seed and patents on life was opened by genetic engineering -- by adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, corporations claimed that they had “invented” and created the seed, that the plant and all future seeds have now become their property.
But this power to monopolize has no scientific basis. It’s a power grab. Shiva again, in the introduction to Seed Sovereignty, Food Security:
Living organisms, including seed, are self-organized complex systems. As Mae-Wan Ho points out in her contribution in this volume, they adapt and evolve, and are “fluid” at the level of the genome. [...]

The claim to invention is a myth because genetic engineering does not create a plant or an organism; it is merely a tool to transfer genes across species. Living organisms are self-organizing, self-replicating systems. They make themselves. [...] Just as a mover of furniture is not the make or owner of the house to which the furniture is moved, the GMO industry is merely the mover of genes from one organism to another, not the creator or inventor of the organism, including seeds and plants.

Through the false claim of “invention” and creation, the GMO industry is appropriating millions of years of nature’s evolution, and thousands of years of farmers’ breeding.
Shiva’s anthology assembles accounts of struggle to preserve biodiversity that has, over millenia, enabled humankind to produce food in an innumerable variety of climates, soil conditions, terrains, and elevations. Biodiversity could again enable our species to better adapt to the many and diverse changes in local climate and farming conditions already occurring as the Anthropocene era unfolds, to the degree preservation succeeds against long odds and rigged political and economic conditions. Depiction of the range and seriousness of threats to our hard-won food heritage is ameliorated by the creative and resolute commitment of communities on five continents to the struggle to preserve it. Here again are Sandra Baquedano Jer and Sara Larraín, at the conclusion of their contribution to the anthology:
As an alternative to economic globalization and business integration, social movements and public interest citizen networks have proposed a Hemispheric People’s Integration, based on grassroots cooperation and people’s alternatives, and on seven principles: (1) the promotion and defense of expanded social, environmental, economic, cultural, and political rights, and of collective human rights; (2) the protection and sustainable use of nature and ecosystems as common property for the reproduction of life (water, seeds, energy, land, and biodiversity), and the conservation of immaterial goods of the cultural and historical inheritance of communities and peoples; (3) the integrated management of natural resources and territories by human society, but under the recognition and respect of the complexity of living systems and the interdependence of species; (4) the sovereignty of communities and peoples over territory and common heritage, that is, the right to decide freely and independently how to live, and to the organization, production, and use of natural heritage without the availability of, or access to, said heritage being affected for current or future generations; (5) the reciprocal and complementary nature of relationships and exchange of knowledge, goods, products, and services as an alternative to unequal competition, the ownership of resources, and the accumulation of capital; (6) the independence and self-determination of peoples, freely and from the perspective of their own land and culture, to decide on political orientations, rules, and regulations, and institutions for their coexistence and economy; as well as women’s sovereignty over their own lives and bodies, and the right to live free of violence, oppression, or coercion; (7) living democracy and active participation as an alternative to democracy being restricted to electoral participation, economic administration, and the imposition of “state” priorities over and above people’s rights.
An ambitious program, echoed in the programs envisioned by of other contributors to Vandana Shiva’s anthology, whose lives and goals are rooted in a breathtaking diversity of cultures, climates, and nations. It’s worth noting that the visions articulated in Seed Sovereignty, Food Security are no more or less ambitious than Pope Francis’s program laid out in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si': On Care for our Common Home, published in May 2015 … and present an equivalent moral imperative to humankind, human society, and human culture.

Clearly, there’s work to be done.

Vandana Shiva is pictured at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California, on 27 April 2016, delivering a talk about the global food system. Shiva signed copies of her anthology, Seed Sovereignty, Food Security, after the talk.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
GMO labeling and a dearth of principled discourse
Paris, the Pleistocene, and finding the grit to grapple with climate change
Facts vs understanding in GMO propaganda wars
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else

Friday, August 5, 2016

Desperate books aren't suited to desperate times

There's always been a place for apocalyptic tales in fiction and film ... from the Book of Revelations and Paradise Lost, to Mad Max and The Hunger Games. But an apocalyptic story set in an it-ain't-fantasy present—one that foregoes speculation, magic, and hyperbole—still gives me pause. Are readers really drawn to hopelessness fueled by authentic, looming calamity? What drives a skilled and visionary author to craft a novel in this vein?

Zeno Hintermeier, the protagonist of Ilija Trojanow’s The Lamentations of Zeno, compels questions like these. Zeno is a misanthrope’s misanthrope. Though his despair is no formula for winning friends or influencing others, he has come to gruff and despairing misanthropy honestly, by way of a loss that crushes hope of redemption. A German glaciologist, Zeno has lived to witness the death of the alpine glacier to which he devoted his scientific career. He loved “his” glacier. He lived for it, for charting its cold, its depth, its growth, its ablation. Yet the world’s rapid warming, brought on by humankind’s recklessly gluttonous appetites, has killed it.
I knelt next to one of the remnants, the ice under the sooty-black layer of dust was clean, I ran my fingers across the cold surface, then across my cheek, the way I always did, performing my ritual greeting. In the past I could plunge my arms into the fresh snow and bring up full scoops that made my hands so cold they would revitalize my face. I licked my index finger, it tasted like nothing. Only then did the first trivial thought occur to me: never again would I be able to fill plastic bottles with glacier water to sip so enjoyably at home. My host was standing next to his vehicle, I brusquely signaled for him to leave me alone. Then I lay down on the scree, all balled up, a picture of misery [...]
Undone by his loss, Zeno divorces his wife, abandons his university post, and signs onto an Antarctic cruise ship, the Hansen, as an expert guide. Well into his sixties, Zeno flees south to narrate the death of a continent for wealthy seniors who seek cocooned adventure, an edge-of-the-world voyage with a righteous frisson of environmentalist penance ... but no skimping on the creature comforts.

A map of the latitude-longitude coordinates that serve as chapter titles in The Lamentations of Zeno
The author and his protagonist don’t think much of the Hansen’s passengers. Set off by a section break composed of dot-and-dash Morse Code notation for the international distress signal, each chapter closes with a pile up of conversational shards, as if the reader is eavesdropping on flippant chatter Zeno hears as he passes through the cruise ship’s crowded bar, a dozen fragments of conversation at once. The effect is disorienting. To a reader who has developed even the least empathy for Trojanow’s protagonist, this oblivious refrain is grating or worse.

And there’s plenty of empathy possible. It’s not as though Zeno lacks reason to despair of humankind. It may not be heroic to throw in the towel, but it’s not so hard to understand either. Here he is, informing one of the Hansen’s passengers of the history of Grytviken, a former whaling station at the eastern edge of the cruise's route:
“That was the blubber cookery, Mrs. Morgenthau. First they carved the whales up here right where we are standing, then they extracted oil from the blubber in giant cookers.”

“That sounds like hard work.”

“Lucrative work. With high returns. In a good year they cooked away up to forty thousand whales.”

I politely take my leave, otherwise I’d have to explain how first the fur seals were skinned, until there weren’t any fur seals left, after that the elephant seals were killed for their blubber and the try-pots were heated with penguins when the fuel ran out, and when there weren’t any elephant seals left the penguins were rendered into oil. Everything was put to use—humans are always so eager to show Nature more efficient ways to manage her resources. I tramp across a gently sloping soccer field: the crooked goalposts a comforting sight. Slaughter by morning and soccer in the afternoon. Did the goalie’s hands stink? Were the striker’s shins streaked with blood? I leave because I know what they would say, the same thing everyone is always telling me: How come you have to be so negative? Why do you always insist on ruining the mood? [...]
Psychologists have been warning for years that people bombarded with dire descriptions about global warming tend to be repelled, not convinced or engaged. On the other hand, the facts about what climate change has done, is doing, and will do to the only planet we’ve got are … well, they’re dire. As an environmental activist, I identify strongly with Zeno’s despair. Yet Trojanow’s novel, honest and vivid as it is, no matter that it is leavened with richly ironic gallows humor, is not the kind of story that will wake and activate the masses.

The author seems to know this. Here is Zeno and his shipboard lover, Paulina, as the novel comes to a close:
“Hell is not a place,” I finally answer. “It’s the sum of all our lapses and failures.”

She looks at me confused, her fingers dig into the back of my hand, she presses her thumb so hard into the flesh below my thumb it hurts.

“The realization, much much too late that you didn’t do anything when you still could, when you still should have, that is hell. And there’s no escape.”

“I see,” she says, “you’re trying to reassure me.” She loosens her grip. “In your own weird way you’re trying to tell me you’re not going to hell.”
There aren't many boundaries that art can't cross: a tale of abject despair isn't even close to taboo. In fact, though I'm probably an outlier, I found The Lamentations of Zeno cathartic. Despair happens, and it often happens because life is desperate. Portraying that truth—head on, vividly, without flinching, without collapsing into mawkish, trivializing sentimentality at the end of a harrowing tale—is in itself an artistic achievement. And Zeno’s story is told masterfully. Trojanow’s prose is spare, evocative, pointed, and wry.


I’m drawn to fiction that grapples with our damaged 21st century world and our deeply compromised place in it with some measure of grit. When I consider how to rally myself and others to live and act honorably in an era dominated by anthropogenic crises, it's clear that a path forward—determination, at least, if hope would strike too false a note—has to be woven into a narrative I would want to read or write.

I'm certainly drawn to a different tack than Ilija Trojanow’s. There's despair. And then there's facing the music, grim as it may be. As Samuel Beckett put it, at the end of his novel The Unnamable:
you must go on, I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on
I'm not prepared to abandon hope, without struggling to right what can still be righted. Not in life, and not in literature.

This post was originally published on Medium. Thanks to Google Maps for the rendering of Trojanow's lat-long chapter titles.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Grappling with climate change in U.S. cities: a pre-apocalyptic comic book, Warning from my Future Self
Pre-apocalyptic fiction: staving off catastrophe
Paris, the Pleistocene, and finding the grit to grapple with climate change
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Oakland coal ban: real politics amid the Drumpfoolery

Last night the Oakland City Council held its scheduled second reading of a ban on coal handling and storage that was originally approved in late June. It's worth a mention that on the same night, Alameda County's Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban fracking: the fifth county in California to to so. Oh, and more ridiculous sh*t went down in Cleveland.

The two Oakland measures banning coal were placed on the council’s consent calendar: an ordinance to prohibit storage and handling of coal and coke throughout the city, and a regulation that applies the ordinance specifically to the proposed Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, from which developers were planning to ship coal from Utah and other western states to Asia. The council's single vote on the consent calendar multiple measures was unanimous: 8 ayes, with all council members present. Following more than an hour of citizen and community testimony on a range of issues, the consent calendar was passed in a single vote, no roll call, so quickly that the couple dozen coal activists in the council chambers missed our chance to cheer.

Unsurprisingly, Oaklanders filling the chambers, overflow rooms, and hallways didn't seem to regret missing the chance to monitor the Republican Party convention's second evening of crashing and burning, live and simultaneously, in Cleveland. There was plenty of actual governance beyond the coal ban on the agenda: the council was taking testimony on a ballot measure to fundamentally strengthen citizen oversight of it's much-worse-than-problematic police department (the council will vote on 26 July whether to put the measure on the ballot); and two proposals to "sharply limit property owners' ability to raise rents" as protection against displacement driven by the the current tech-bubble economy were passed later that night. The meeting ended around 1:20 a.m.

The scene at City Hall, my own participation in the No Coal in Oakland work (a campaign more sharply focused on nuts-and-bolts local politics than most of the many forays I've made into other issues and movements over the decades), and a nagging awareness of the ongoing celebration of cesspool-politics in Cleveland, recalled to mind a piece Adam Gopnik penned about the Obama presidency in The New Yorker about two months ago. From Liberal-In-Chief, 23 May 2016:
His words have been varied, but his purpose has been consistent and his point simple: liberalism isn’t centrism. It isn’t a way of splitting the differences between two sides, and finding an acceptable soft middle. Liberalism of the kind he practices, the President has been saying, is the most truly radical of ideologies, inasmuch as it proposes a change, makes it happen, and then makes it last. Someone proposes a more equitable world—the enfranchisement of working people, or of African-Americans, or of women, or marital rights for homosexuals—and then makes it endure by assuring those who oppose it that, while they may have lost the fight, they haven’t lost their dignity, their autonomy, or their chance to adapt to the change without fearing the loss of all their agency. “The civil-rights movement happened because there was civil disobedience, because people were willing to go to jail, because there were events like Bloody Sunday,” Obama told Stephanopoulos. “But it was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation, and sought to understand the views—even views that were appalling to them—of the other side.” Liberalism is a belief in radical change made through practical measures.
How does that happen at a local level, in ways that engage hundreds and thousands of unelected citizens in determining the future of their own communities -- in ways that stand a chance of realizing progressive twenty-first century goals, many of which were lent fire and urgency by Bernie Sanders' recent successful run at the presidency (and I mean successful -- by any measure other than winning the Democratic Party nomination)?

Following last night's City Hall victory, Margaret Rossoff, one of No Coal in Oakland's principal organizers, circulated to NCIO campaign activists a report summarizing how the group won a citywide ban on coal (I am excerpting rather than linking to the whole report, as it has not been made public at this time). She noted:
NCIO attracted people with long histories of political organizing in a wide variety of contexts, who between them had deep and broad knowledge of Oakland politics, successful campaign strategies, environmental justice struggles, legal analysis, environmental science, and more. The group included members who were vehemently anti-establishment and cynical about the possibility of success with the elected council, along with a couple of people who had served as elected city officials. We included at least one Republican and quite a few socialists working together, deeply religious people alongside atheists, and a few folks with histories of past conflict who focused on our shared goal. Our passionate commitment generated mutual respect within the campaign and widespread appreciation for the campaign.
The rails were no-doubt greased for this kind of broad-based coalition building by the Bay Area's general environmentalist tendencies, and the blinding obviousness of damage done to planet and people by digging, transporting, and burning coal. As Rossoff put it:
Coal already had a terrible reputation.  A widely recognized imperative to close existing coal-fired plants, including a national campaign by the Sierra Club, provided context for our local struggle.  The local dangers of coal dust escaping from railroad cars and the exacerbating effects of burning coal on climate disruption were intuitively obvious to people we spoke with.  Of course, we needed to amass scientific data to justify the ordinance banning coal, but in our community work we were building on a pre-existing narrative.
But ... go back and follow that link to Robert Reich's post on Bernie's 7 Legacies that I snuck in a couple paragraphs up.

I fully acknowledge the urgency of defeating, on November 8th, the jackbooted buffoon who has now hijacked the Republican Party. But "urgent" doesn't mean "only." There's plenty to be done locally (including but not limited to campaigning for progressive candidates in down-ballot races across the U.S.) as The Donald goes down to his rightful place as World's Loudest Loser. And we can succeed locally -- and, eventually, more broadly -- if we attend steadily to the work at hand, without getting derailed by national media spectacle and the likes of Pokémon Go.

I'd say that sealing last night's legislative victory keeping coal out of Oakland gave hope to the prospect that we might yet win still bigger contests than a presidential election, so long as we keep our eyes on the prize.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Coal hazard "protection" fallacies exposed by Oakland public health experts
Oakland doesn't need an oil train disaster, thanks but no thanks
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes
Oil trains, coal trains: extractive economics vs. people and place

Monday, June 20, 2016

Coal hazard "protection" fallacies exposed by Oakland public health experts

The City of Oakland will rally on the afternoon of Saturday 25 June outside City Hall, in opposition to the prospect of coal storage and handling in the city. Coal transport proposed by developer Phil Tagami would funnel up to nine million metric tons of coal through the city's proposed Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal (OBOT) each year, sending mile-long trains of Utah coal through West Oakland every day for the duration of Tagami's 66-year lease of the OBOT site.

Immediately upon learning of this threat to the community's health and waterfront, city residents have organized to push elected leaders to take a stand against this misuse of publicly owned space. The City Council will vote on a proposal to ban coal storage and handling at the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal (OBOT) at a special meeting on Monday, June 27 at 5 pm (rally at 4).

As debate over the terminal unfolded over this past year, coal proponents have advertised they will use new technology to shield port workers and their West Oakland neighbors from the toxic, corrosive, and explosive dangers of transporting coal through the former Oakland Army Base. But fantasies can't protect Oakland's workers and families from coal's frighteningly real threats.

Public Health Advisory Panel on Coal in Oakland figures in their report, An Assessment of the Health and Safety Implications of Coal Transport through Oakland , that up to 620 tons of dirty coal dust could be blown into West Oakland every year if the coal terminal proceeds [p. 17].

And that's just for starters.

As the Health and Safety report explains, coal isn't easy to transport or to handle [p. 43]:
  • It can spontaneously burst into flame in its solid form (in fact, combustibility is why coal is dug out of the ground in the first place).
  • It's highly explosive when suspended as dust particles in confined spaces, such as covered railroad cars and enclosed coal terminals.
  • Coal is toxic to humans, especially when inhaled as dust.
  • Coal dust is filthy: if coal is shipped through Oakland, 90-620 tons of black, sticky particles will get into and onto everything in its path -- from homes to cars to clothing to playgrounds -- each and every one of the 66 years the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal (OBOT) is leased to coal profiteers.
Can these hazards be mitigated by technology? Here's what Oakland is up against:
Export of coal through Oakland requires that coal be transferred from the mine site to rail cars, transported by rail over many hundreds of miles to the port facility, transferred from rail cars into the port facility, transferred into storage heaps pending shipment, transferred out of the storage heaps to the wharves, loaded into ships, and then shipped out to the destination. Each step creates opportunities for release of dust and for hazards to adjacent workers, residents, businesses, and communities. [p. 43]
Coal proponents claim that technology can protect against potential harms. But the proposed technology is unproven, and in some cases has never been tested in real-world conditions (i.e., has not been field-tested).

  • Claims that the coal terminal would be wholly enclosed is not how existing coal terminals are designed or implemented, and these claims run contrary to design documents submitted by coal project advocates. For example, by the developers own admission (in its “Basis of Design” document), the stockpiles of coal will be moved from the domed terminal to be stored outdoors for unspecified lengths of time before being loaded onto ships. [p. 47] In the description of its enclosed conveyor system, the Basis of Design document reveals that different types of conveyors will be used, depending on the phase of coal transfer, and not all of them will be covered. All indicators point to the likelihood that a “wholly enclosed” terminal is at best an untested fantasy, and at worst a bait-and-switch lie.
  • If coal dust is contained in an enclosed terminal, it will present “potential for suspension of coal dust in the air, which can be explosive and ignited by spark, static electricity, or heat.” [p. 47]
  • Filtering technology creates potential for fires like one reported earlier this month in a dust collection system at the John Twitty Energy Center in Springfield, Missouri. Though filtering and wetting strategies may be used if coal ships through Oakland, “no safety analysis has been conducted for the potential transfer of bulk coal through OBOT” [p. 47-48].
  • Coal advocates have asserted that no review is necessary for environmental impacts such as air pollution, water pollution, production of solid wastes, noise levels, or safety & traffic hazards, but their claims regarding regulatory compliance appear to be shaky at best. For example, wastewater disposal plans are not specified in OBOT plans, raising concern about the potential for coal processing to significantly poison the San Francisco Bay ecosystem. [p. 48-51]
  • “The project area has seismic vulnerabilities that could create hazards in the likely event of an earthquake, as the soils are in highest category for liquefaction.” Replacement of soils near the OBOT wharf has been proposed, but this remedy may be insufficient and requires additional review. [p. 51]

The Public Health Advisory Panel on Coal in Oakland report offers 145 well-researched and footnoted pages of reasons to distrust assurances that grievous hazards can be magically neutralized by technology that is unproven, uneconomic, or 'optional' at the discretion of profit-motivated coal proponents.

There is only one way to protect our workers and communities from coal hazards: banning its transport through Oakland and its OBOT.

A version of this post was originally published on the No Coal in Oakland web site. Numbers in square brackets refer to page numbers in the report An Assessment of the Health and Safety Implications of Coal Transport through Oakland. Thanks to Toni Morozumi for the image of Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre marquee advocating "No Coal in Oakland."

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Oakland doesn't need an oil train disaster, thanks but no thanks
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes
Oil trains, coal trains: extractive economics vs. people and place

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A day at Bodega Head

I took a mid-week day off from work yesterday, and drove out to Bodega Head to see if I could catch a glimpse of any of those whales that so many others have spotted this month in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. Humpback and blue whales were seen cavorting around in the bay itself, but off Bodega Head gray whales are more usually visible.

I arrived early enough to catch a bit of the low tide: sea anemone and mussels were packed like sardines on rock formations still exposed even a couple hours after the lowest tide of the morning (-0.1 according to NOAA). (Packed like sardines. Hmmm. That would be a truly terrible simile, except that the sea anemone do look a bit like rolled anchovy fillets. Alas, no one says "packed like anchovies.")

Some of the larger anemone were beginning to open again as the surf came in. Click the photo to see its fluorescent tentacles, enlarged -- a little cool, a little creepy...

Alas, the closest I got to seeing a whale was spotting a crab boat you can (barely) make out offshore in this photo:

And there was this turkey vulture (among many other birds):

And the flowers! April showers paid their May dividends this year: poppies, paintbrush, lupine, yarrow, and more:

When I visit the coast north of the San Francisco Bay I most often go to Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, usually to the north end of the preserve, Tomales Point. Bodega Head (in Sonoma County) is at the north end of Bodega Bay, and Tomales Point is at Bodega Bay's south end. So from where I stood yesterday, I could look south and see the tip of Tomales Point and the opening to Tomales Bay on its inner (east) side.  In the photo below, the sharp end of the point is sticking out of the fog  across Bodega Bay.

Even with binoculars, though, I didn't spot any of the elk who live on Tomales Point. I guess it wasn't my day for big mammals ... but a fine day nonetheless.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Seasons blur as El Niño starts in on California
Never mind Election Day 2014, consider Fall in Northern California
Point Reyes National Seashore at the start of the year