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

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Oakland doesn't need an oil train disaster, thanks but no thanks

Come 27 June 2016, Oakland, California's city council will vote on an ordinance to ban shipment of coal through the city's port.

The text of the ordinance is not yet drafted, and may not ban coal at all: it may instead require mitigations that are unlikely to be achievable, enforceable, and/or effective in protecting the health of people who live near the proposed bulk terminal that developers hope to use to ship coal mined in Utah and slated for dirty combustion in Asia. The ordinance may or may not also address a ban on or mitigations for shipping crude oil, fuel oil, and gasoline.

To call the city's mayor, Libby Schaaf, and the councilmembers' attention to just how crazy-dangerous it would be to permit oil transport through a port surrounded by communities they were elected to protect and serve, No Coal in Oakland activist Michael Kaufman sent to Oakland's elected officials yesterday afternoon a partial list of tanker car spills and pipeline explosions that have occurred over the past three years.

Here's what Michael Kaufman wrote to Oakland's Mayor Schaaf, nine councilmembers, and city staffer Heather Klein:
Dear Ms Klein, Mayor and Council Members

Please consider [this] list of tanker car spills of fossil fuels and other hazardous commodities that have been endangering our citizens in the last three years.

These spills, explosions and pollution of neighborhoods and water ways will continue without end, until our elected leaders ban fossil fuels from being loaded or off loaded in our communities.Below is a very incomplete list of just some of the spills and explosions that have occurred in North America during the last three years. Oil pipeline capacity is maxed out in North American. Consequently oil rail car use has expanded forty fold from 2008.

The prior NTSB chair said that the overwhelming majority of oil train cars are not built to carry the toxic oil now being massively produced.  The rules to control this form of oil transportation must be updated quickly; more quickly than is happening on the federal level.

The current rail cars for fossil fuel, DOT 111 type rail cars, are not crash resistant.  This type of car is being banned and replaced in Canada but not in U.S.  However some of the crashes and spills are also coming from newly designed, CPC-1232 type cars, which are supposed to be more crash resistant.

Normal fire departments don't have the capacity to deal with oil rail car spill, explosions and fires.

  1. 03/27/13 Parkers Prairie, MN; 30,000 gallons of oil spilled
  2. 03/29/13 Arkansas Exxon Pegasus Pipeline burst, 5,000-7,000 barrels of crude spilled
  3. 05/21/13 Jansen Saskatchewan; 24,000 gallons of oil spilled
  4. 06/27/13 Calgary, Alberta; oil train derailed on a bridge over Bow River, emergency crew prevented a spill
  5. 07/06/13 Lac Magantic, Quebec; Explosions from derailed oil cars killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings in town center
  6. 10/19/13 Gainford Alberta; 4 derailed oil tankers. evacuations were required due to explosions and fire
  7. 11/08/13 Aliceville, Pickens County, Alabama; 90-car derailment, 749,000 gallons spilled. Fire burned for 2 days.
  8. 12/30/13 Casselton, ND; 400,000 gallons of crude spilled, explosion caused evacuations of 2,000 people
  9. 01/07/14 Plaster Rock, New Brunswick; explosion and fire caused 150-person evacuation for 3 nights
  10. 01/20/14 Philadelphia PA; 6 train cars carrying Bakken crude derailed over Schuylkill River near university of PA and major hospitals, no spill
  11. 02/13/14 Vandergrift PA; 4 tankers spill nearly 3,000 gallons of oil
  12. 04/30/14 Lynchburg, VA; 17-car derailment, +29,000 gallons of oil spilled into the James River, threatening the Richmond, VA water supply
  13. 1/13/15 In Mississippi pipeline burst and put out smoke seen by satellites
  14. 1/17/15 Yellowstone River, Glendive, Montana Oil Spill, 40,000 gallons of oil
  15. 1/26/15 North Dakota Williston 3 million gallons of brine leaking since 1/6/15.  Leak has reached the Missouri River
  16. 1/27/15 Natural Gas Pipeline explosion in Brooke County, West Virginia from Pennsylvania Fracked Gas moving to Texas
  17. 2/14/15 Timmons, Ontario 100-car Canadian National train carrying crude oil derailed.  30 cars caught fire.  The tankers were the newer, CPC-1232, "safer" kind.  The fires burned for days blocking a main rail line for three days.
  18. 2/16/15 Mt Carbon, West Virginia Bakken Crude 109 car train, 27 tanker cars, the newer CPC 1232 cars, derailed and spilled crude into the Kanawha River.  Vapor pressure in tank cars was 13.9, higher than allowed by N Dakota. laws.   Tanker  cars exploded catching house on fire. 1.5 mile circle of evacuation.  Fire crews let fires burn for days.
  19. 3/4/15 North Dakota Tioga spill 19,000 gallons of brine saltwater chemical petroleum mix
  20. 3/5/15 Galena Illinois near Dubuque Iowa a unit oil train, 103 tanker cars derailed and exploded along the Galena River.  1 mile evacuation
  21. 3/7/15 Gogama, Ontario 94 car oil train had 35 CPC-1232 oil tanker cars derail, with 5 falling into the Makami River, explosion and fire.
  22. 5/6/15 Heimdal, ND another train blew up with 6 tankers carrying 180,000 gallons of Bakken Crude exploding.  Heimdal was evacuated.  Four separate fire department were dispatched and two Hazmat teams.  The EPA is monitoring air quality.  It is the fifth explosion in 2015 to date.  This one was using the updated tanker cars, CPC-1232.
  23. 7/1/16 Maryville Tennessee just south of Knoxville, one CSX car derailed, broke an axle and punctured the tanker and sparked a huge fire, which burned for over a day.  The car was carrying Acrylonitrile, used in making plastics.
  24. When it burns it releases cyanide gas, which can be fatal.  Evacuated a 2 mile radius, and 5,000 people.  Ten cops were hospitalized due to exposure.  55 were hospitalized with 25 admitted to the hospital.
  25. 11/7/15 Alma Wisconsin 25 cars derailed and fell into the river with 20,000 gallons of ethanol spilled into the Mississippi River, highways closed, residents evacuated
  26. 11/8/15 Watertown Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, 110 car oil train, 13 cars derailed, 100s of gallons of crude oil spilled, Homes Evacuated
[I've added links to news sources for the first ten. You get the idea, and readers can search the intertubes no less effectively than I can.]

No Coal in Oakland -- whose state senator, Loni Hancock, found that 92% of her district's constituents oppose the proposed Oakland coal-export terminal -- is asking city residents to stand up and be counted at the 27 June council vote ... and to turn out for the first half-hour of tonight's City Council meeting to speak to the folly of shipping fossil fuels through the city's port.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes
Oil trains, coal trains: extractive economics vs. people and place
Northern California mobilizes for climate action as Paris talks near

Thanks to Sûreté du Québec via Wikimedia Commons for the image of the Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment disaster.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The pursuit of boredom

The other day a friend pointed out an article by Sandi Mann in The Guardian. The title was Why are we so bored? The author got me wondering: should we think about boredom as a bane or a boon -- a feature or a bug -- in the trajectory of our lives?

Here’s the gist of Why are we so bored?, datelined 24 April 2016:
With so much to occupy us these days, boredom should be a relic of a bygone age – an age devoid of the internet, social media, multi-channel TV, 24-hour shopping, multiplex cinemas, game consoles, texting and whatever other myriad possibilities are available these days to entertain us.

Yet despite the plethora of high-intensity entertainment constantly at our disposal, we are still bored. Up to half of us are “often bored” at home or at school, while more than two- thirds of us are chronically bored at work. We are bored by paperwork, by the commute and by dull meetings. TV is boring, as is Facebook and other social media. [...]

There are a number of explanations for our ennui. This, in fact, is part of the problem – we are overstimulated. The more entertained we are the more entertainment we need in order to feel satisfied. The more we fill our world with fast-moving, high-intensity, ever-changing stimulation, the more we get used to that and the less tolerant we become of lower levels.
This spin on collateral damage -- boredom -- caused by our 21st century distractions, including the device + social media distractions with which many now fill every interstice of otherwise-unclaimed attention, is more interesting to me than the usual gnashing-of-teeth over decreasing attention spans. (Though I do think there’s merit in observations about decreasing attention spans. Oh -- look! Squirrels!)

Sorry. Back to boredom.

Here’s what technology observer Jerry Mander wrote about the experience of watching TV, foreshadowing a 21st Century link between distraction and boredom in his 1978 classic, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:
You are looking at a face speaking. Just as you are becoming accustomed to it, there’s a cut to another face. (technical event) Then there might be an edit back to the first face. (technical event) Then the camera might slowly draw back to take in some aspect of a wider scene. (technical event) Then the action suddenly shifts outdoors to the street. (technical event) Intercut with these scenes might be some other parallel line of the story. It may be a series of images of someone in a car racing to meet people on that street we have just visited. (technical event) The music rises. (technical event) And so on.

Each technical event -- each alteration of what would be natural imagery -- is intended to keep your attention from waning as it might otherwise. The effect is to lure your attention forward like a mechanical rabbit teasing a greyhound. Every time you are about to relax your attention, another technical event keeps you attached.

The luring forward never ceases for very long. If it did, you might become aware of the vacuousness of the content that can get through the inherent limitations of the medium [i.e., television]. Then you would be aware of the boredom. [...]
Mander drew the same line in 1978 that Sandy Mann did the other day: overstimulation is somehow linked to boredom.

But here’s another take on the question that I’d like to juxtapose with Mann’s and Mander’s, quoting UC Berkeley Professor of Philosophy Alva Noë from his latest book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.
Any adequate account of what art is and of its place in our lives must address the striking fact that art has the power to bore us. [...] And art’s potential to be dull does not contradict the fact that art also moves and thrills and transforms and excites us. Indeed, it is the opposite side of the very same coin. Just as there is no encounter with love without the live risk of heartbreak, so there can be no confrontation with art that does not open up the possibility of getting lulled unconscious and bored to death. Art is valuable only in direct proportion to the degree to which it can, or might, bore us. [...]

Works of art are strange tools, after all. That is, they are tools we can’t use, they are useless. They are texts with no practical content, or pictures that don’t show us anything in particular. And so they require us to stop doing. To stop acting and to stop demanding application or even pertinence. [...] The pictures in the clothing catalog show you something you can buy; the architect’s model lays out something you can build. But the choreography on the stage? The painting on the wall? [...] They stop you dead in your tracks. That is, if you let them. If you suspend. If you interrupt. If you enter that special space and that altered state that art provides or allows. Art situations have this in common with religious spaces like churches. They are places where so much can happen but only because nothing really happens. They are spaces for self-transformation.
So is boredom a condition to be avoided at all costs? Or might it be a state we ought to cultivate??

Maybe the best answer is ‘neither.’

It’s no mystery that distraction degrades focus, and completion of directed tasks (which we sometimes think of as “productivity” -- getting stuff we want to do done). Multitasking as a valuable mode of behavior or a ‘skill’ is a myth. But continuous distraction also degrades creativity, synthesis and sharpening of new ideas, and ‘serendipitous’ discovery … because each of these tends to require the kind of mental elbow-room that Alva Noë described in Strange Tools: “They are places where so much can happen but only because nothing really happens.” Noë describes boredom as a state between distraction and engagement with transformation.

Boredom isn’t the goal. It’s a way station.

I happen to know Alva Noë: we’re both students of Tai Chi Ch’uan, and study that slow-moving, deeply attentive practice with the same teacher, in Berkeley, California. Some find a martial art built of slow, steadily-paced movements, repeated over and over and over again through many years of study and practice … well … some find it boring. Others find the state of deep attention to space, precision, movement, breath, and awareness … wait for it … a space for self-transformation.

When I go to a Tai Chi class, or practice my form on the back porch, or head over to the nearby schoolyard of an early morning to run through my sword form before too many neighbors are out and about -- I leave my electronica behind.

There’s something to be said for letting distraction go. It doesn’t have to be boring … at least, not in a bad way, and not for long.

This post first appeared on

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Should technology shape art?
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy
You can't click your way to social change
Getting a grip on attention span

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

GMO labeling and a dearth of principled discourse

Does a two-week interregnum between the Wisconsin and New York primaries leave a window to post about something other than elections? I'd like to try. Personally, I find the cacophony around the presidential primaries dispiriting, but there's a thing or two to say now about the feeble level of discourse over another very hotly contested question, one for which a lot of the action is also coming out of the state of Vermont.

GMO labeling, coming to a supermarket near you

Yep. I'm talking about labeling food that contains GMO ingredients.

You may already know that beginning on 1 July Vermont's Act 120 will require that GMO ingredients be called out on labels of food sold in that state (the nitty-gritty is delineated in the Vermont Attorney General's Consumer Protection Rule 121). The imminent deadline made March a pretty lively month in this particular corner of the struggle between What People Want and What Megacorporations Wish People Wanted.

You may have already seen, for example, that corporate-backed federal legislation to neuter Vermont's labeling requirements moved to the U.S. Senate's front burner last month. Here's how, way over here on the Left Coast, San Francisco's newspaper reported how that has turned out thus far (GMO food labeling bill does not pass in SenateSF Chronicle, 16 Mar 2016):
Following an emotional debate, the Senate blocked a bill that would prevent states from requiring labeling of genetically modified food Wednesday.

The Biotechnology Labeling Solutions Act (S2609), authored by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., which would create a national voluntary labeling standard for genetically engineered foods, did not pass. Roberts had hoped to pass the bill before Vermont’s mandatory labeling law goes into effect July 1.

Despite getting support from Democrats such as Agriculture Committee members Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitcamp of North Dakota, he didn’t get the 60 votes he needed. California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein voted against the bill.
The game's not over, of course: another bill may yet make it through.

But with July approaching and clear evidence that nearly 90% of people in the United States want to see GMO food labeled, a number of key corporate giants appear to be throwing in the towel. General Mills, for example, a conglomerate with $17.9bn in 2014 revenue, announced two days after that Senate vote to label its products (see General Mills to add GMO labeling on its products, SF Chronicle, 18 Mar 2016):
In a striking reversal for big food manufacturers, which have spent millions fighting state efforts to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, General Mills announced Friday that it would voluntarily add that information to its labels.

General Mills’ move is a reaction to a law due to go into effect July 1 in Vermont that will require mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified organisms. On Wednesday, the Senate blocked efforts by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to preempt Vermont’s law by making that labeling voluntary nationwide.
Mars, ConAgra, Campbell Soup Co., and Kellogg are also printing new labels to be used nationwide.

Health effects caused by GMO food: the narrow view

General Mills may be throwing in the towel, but the discourse on genetically engineered crops and animals in mainstream media (MSM) is, generally speaking, narrowly and poorly focused. The sound-byte battle is consistently and most visibly framed around questions of food safety: will humans be adversely affected by consuming food with genetically modified ingredients?

Some examples of this framing:
[Kansas Senator Pat Roberts] emphasized that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration have all deemed genetically engineered foods safe. “It’s not about safety. It’s not about health. It’s not about nutrition. It’s all about marketing,” he said. (GMO food labeling bill does not pass in SenateSF Chronicle, 16 Mar 2016)
[Executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. retail at General Mills Jeff] Harmening also noted that “every major health and safety agency in the world agree(s) that GMOs are not a health or safety concern” — though he acknowledged that some consumers want to know about their presence in food. (General Mills to add GMO labeling on its productsSF Chronicle, 18 Mar 2016)
On the other side of the debate are those who argue that labels would inherently suggest something is wrong with foods containing GMOs, even though major scientific bodies — from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the World Health Organization to the American Medical Association — insist genetically modified foods are safe to eat. (Bill Blocking GMO Labels Stalls In Senate, But Battle Is Far From Over, NPR, 16 Mar 2016)
The Food and Drug Administration says they are safe, and there is little scientific concern about the safety of those GMOs on the market. But advocates for labeling say not enough is known about their risks. (Senate blocks bill to make GMO labeling voluntary, Fox News, 17 March 2016)
Others sometimes emphasize transparency (something that General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening gave a nod to in the second excerpt above). One transparency advocate is NYU Professor Arthur Caplan, who wrote, in an NBC News post of 15 September 2015, GMO Foods Should be Labeled, But Not for Safety: Bioethicist:
The case for labeling is tied up with arguments about safety. Safety concerns would trigger Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements. But, ironically, that is entirely the wrong issue when it comes to labels. The reason GMO food should be voluntarily labeled by the food industry is that it is clear some consumers want to know what they are eating and they have a right to know what is in their food.
A more honest discourse

I'm all for transparency. But:

We'd be having a more honest discourse, less susceptible to flak sprayed into the debate from all quarters, if journalists ferreted out and responsibly reported on the most serious and consequential questions around GMO agriculture and bioengineered animals.

What questions are those? For example, quoting myself from a post of 9 September 2015:
  • How does GMO agriculture encourage or discourage monocropping, and what impact does that have on land productivity, herbicide use, and soil sustainability?
  • How do GMO crops influence use and costs of farming inputs (seeds, fertilizer, energy, machinery, water) and what short- and long-term effects does this have on sustainability of soil, farms, and family farming?
  • How does GMO farming affect biodiversity and the relationships of plant, insect, and animal species that influence or are influenced by the production of food for human consumption?
  • How do the economics and legal constraints of using patented seeds affect farming, farmers, and farm communities? 
Or, more circumspectly if you prefer, quoting from the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists:
While the risks of genetic engineering are often exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may spread undesirable traits to weeds and non-GE crops, produce new allergens and toxins, or harm animals that consume them.

At least one major environmental impact of genetic engineering has already reached critical proportions: overuse of herbicide-tolerant GE crops has spurred an increase in herbicide use and an epidemic of herbicide-resistant "superweeds," which will lead to even more herbicide use.

How likely are other harmful GE impacts to occur? This is a difficult question to answer. Each crop-gene combination poses its own set of risks. While risk assessments are conducted as part of GE product approval, the data are generally supplied by the company seeking approval, and GE companies use their patent rights to exercise tight control over research on their products.
Speaking truth to mainstream media: a steep uphill climb

Contrary to general appearances, it's not impossible to report responsibly in the MSM. Bio-engineered fish are target of lawsuit is another article published at the tail end of last month in the SF Chronicle. The subject is the AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon. Excerpting:
Government regulators and the manufacturer insist the product is safe. But the notion of genetically altered seafood has created a furor among environmentalists, who have dubbed the species "Frankenfish" and say it could spread mutant genes and circulate diseases in wild salmon if an accident or sabotage ever set it loose.

"Our main concern is that the FDA approval was done without any consideration for what these Frankenfish might do if they escape into the wild in places where wild salmon live," said John McManus, the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which joined the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Center for Food Safety and eight other environmental organizations in the suit.

"What has ended up happening in every place where there are farmed salmon is the nets rip and the fish escape," McManus said.
John McManus is on point when he describes a main concern about genetically modified salmon. And he was permitted in this article to express it. Alas, in the mainstream U.S. press, the systemic picture is more often obscured in favor of focus on sound-bytes to do with direct, individual health effects of human consumption of GMO food.

Why does this happen?

Lots of reasons, I suppose. But in this post, rather than follow-the-money (that is, the argument that capitalists or corporations own both the government and the press), I'd like to suggest that principal reasons include the fact that direct, individual health effects make for more easily digestible news about complex subjects. Here are three qualities that make this so:
  1. Individual health effects fit our familiar (U.S.) legal framework, and thus become the focal point of efforts to regulate the Monsantos and Du Ponts of the world. As Dr. Caplan, quoted above, put it, "Safety concerns would trigger Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements." Individual health effects give individuals and classes of individuals standing to bring lawsuits aimed at constraining (through regulation) or punishing (through economic penalties) those who cause those effects by harming the environment. From Cornell University's Legal Information Institute: "Standing, or locus standi, is capacity of a party to bring suit in court. State laws define standing. At the heart of these statutes is the requirement that plaintiffs have sustained or will sustain direct injury or harm and that this harm is redressable." American newspaper reporters and readers understand how this works.
  2. Individual health effects are a simpler concept to grasp and more concrete than systemic harms. From Wikipedia on literacy in the U.S.The 15% figure for full literacy, equivalent to a university undergraduate level, is consistent with the notion that the "average" American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.
  3. Individual health effects directly threaten individuals, which means it's easier to induce people to consider their own personal stake in an issue than it would be if the threat were more abstract, indirect, long-term, or diffuse. Having a personal stake in a story or issue is key to generating interest in it. The MSM, in order to sustain itself, favors publication of stories in which it can generate interest (duh...).
It's worth noting that these qualities apply to other environmental issues, not just questions of genetic engineering.

Opposition to the transport of coal and tar sands oil, for example, are easier to sell (and thus more commonly 'marketed' and argued in regulatory hearings, courtrooms, and environmental activists' appeals to the grassroots) as community health and economic issues (coal dust causes respiratory disease, volatile oil trains threaten cities with massive explosions) than as activity that causes long term harm to our planet's biosphere (leaving fossil fuel "assets" in the ground rather than burning them is necessary to mitigate the massive and lethal effects of human-induced climate change). This is not to say that environmental activists don't see the bigger picture. Of course we do. But effective arguments skew toward harm to individuals and local communities, so those are the arguments most frequently and prominently promoted, especially to regulatory officials and non-activists.

In California, where I live, advocacy for the health of salmon fisheries and delta smelt quickly devolves in the mainstream press into arguments about harm to people who make their livings in fishing vs. farming sectors of the human economy.

And so on.

Does it have to be this way?

So news in mainstream media is reported in simple terms, framed by near-term and close-to-home and legally-effective stakes.

But a path out of this (literal!) dead end is emerging. Right here in the U.S. of A., even, though the path seems to be better paved in the Global South thus far.

Here, from the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Orion Magazine, in If Nature Had Rights by South African attorney Cormac Cullinan (co-author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice):
On September 19, 2006, the Tamaqua Borough of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, passed a sewage sludge ordinance that recognizes natural communities and ecosystems within the borough as legal persons for the purposes of enforcing civil rights. It also strips corporations that engage in the land application of sludge of their rights to be treated as "persons" and consequently of their civil rights. One of its effects is that the borough or any of its residents may file a lawsuit on behalf of an ecosystem to recover compensatory and punitive damages for any harm done by the land application of sewage sludge. Damages recovered in this way must be paid to the borough and used to restore those ecosystems and natural communities.

According to Thomas Linzey, the lawyer from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund who assisted Tamaqua Borough, this ordinance marks the first time in the history of municipalities in the United States that something like this has happened. Coming after more than 150 years of judicially sanctioned expansion of the legal powers of corporations in the U.S., this ordinance is more than extraordinary — it is revolutionary. In a world where the corporation is king and all forms of life other than humans are objects in the eyes of the law, this is a small community’s Boston tea party.
And more recently, from Jason Mark in Spring 2012's Earth Island Journal:
[...] even among card-carrying environmentalists the idea of putting humanity on an equal footing with the rest of nature remains a minority conviction. The twenty-first-century environmental movement is focused almost exclusively on “sustainability” – which essentially is the idea that we have to keep Gaia just healthy enough to maintain human civilization. Mostly, we are “saving” the planet for ourselves.

Placed in this context, the new activism demanding legal rights for nature marks an important development for the global environmental movement.

Several factors have spurred the reinvigoration of the idea that we are not the center of the universe. Climate change is an obvious one. As some see it, a new ideology is needed to counter what appears to civilization’s drive to swallow the planet whole. In the US, the push for rights of nature is part of the broader attempt to push back the power of corporations. It’s a way of arguing that the environment should come before corporate earnings.
These developments beg the question: what will it take to advance the idea that humans must acknowledge the gravity and responsibility implicit in long-term, complex, systemic effects of human activity -- by appropriately acknowledging and valuing the standing of every thing and being affected by that activity?

And: how do we embed that responsibility in our legal system, our journalism, and in many more hearts and minds?

I'm not asking these questions rhetorically. I don't know the answers.

I do, however, believe that we ought to be thinking, talking, and writing about these big-picture questions.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia Commons for the image from a Roman floor mosaic, circa 200-250 C.E.: Aion, the god of eternity, is standing inside a celestial sphere decorated with zodiac signs, in between a green tree and a bare tree (summer and winter, respectively). Sitting in front of him is the mother-earth goddess, Tellus (the Roman counterpart of Gaia) with her four children, who possibly represent the four seasons. Also, thanks to NASA via Wikimedia Commons for the image of our planet, Earth.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

1999’s ‘Battle in Seattle’ set in lyrical prose, overconstructed allegory

What if a lyrically talented author gave readers a visceral view into how love and empathy drives activists to take great, disruptive risks?

Both my thumbs are up.

Okay. So now this: what if that author painted those activists into a vast and dramatic social landscape, but drew them in such broad and unapproachable strokes that only a very few readers could identify with their stories ... let alone find models, examples, or lessons applicable to readers' real worlds?


Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is set on the afternoon of Nov 30, 1999, as confrontation peaked at the Seattle WTO protests. It’s a gorgeous, stream-of-consciousness tapestry depicting "the whole ugly beautiful thing" of an intricately interwoven globe, countless strands embodied by tens of thousands of demonstrators converging on one world-shaking afternoon at the tail end of the twentieth century.

The novel's protagonist is Victor, a detached, apolitical, biracial nineteen year old with a shadily-scored stash of weed for sale. Victor has wandered the globe witnessing a web of human hurt since ditching his Seattle home and his enraged adoptive father three years before. As Yapa's tale opens Victor has returned, and sets out to look for customers among the protesters filling Seattle's downtown. Alas, none are interested in pot or even sympathetic to pot dealers. His failure to drum up business leads Victor to King (an erstwhile Earth Liberation Front arsonist who helped destroy a ski resort in Vail the year before) and John Henry (her lover, a cerebral activist with a Christlike commitment to nonviolence). Though a reader would be hard-pressed to explain why, Victor changes course dramatically, abandoning his retail ambitions and throwing down with the WTO protesters, setting the stage for confrontation with three of the book’s other principals: two beat cops and Seattle’s melancholic, befuddled, yet stubbornly authoritarian police chief.

Yapa’s novel paints the suffering caused by globalized capitalism’s exploitation across a vast canvas of humanity, and brings vividly to life how witness of "what pain their life caused in the world" crystallizes into empathic activist resolve:
No way to undo the world where they lived in a shack made of loose boards, a family of six in a shack the size of a car on blocks, and in her life anytime she wanted she could sleep in an apartment where she turned hot water on and off and stepped from the shower and toweled dry thinking about what to eat for breakfast.

How easy to slip into that life where she had a closet for her clothes and a closet for food and how easy to believe this was somehow normal. That’s what got King. Because where was the logic in the thing?
The author lays out his scenes impressionistically; while he succeeds in gestalt, his prose frequently trips over itself, muddying the narrative. The novel’s plot is intricate and sometimes exhilarating, but it is subverted by improbably-coincidental overconstruction, and by voyeuristic immersion in out-of-control police violence. I found it hard to grit my teeth through Yapa's prolonged, cinematically sensual portrayal of police brutality that rivaled the ugliest scenes in A Clockwork Orange.

Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a seventy year old Sri Lankan Deputy Minister is the novel’s seventh principal. He has flown into Seattle to collect a signature from then-POTUS Bill Clinton that will enable his country to join the WTO. With a diplomat’s calm, and an intricately informed history entwined with neighbors and university colleagues who morphed into the Buddhist mobs that burned, raped, maimed, and murdered their Tamil neighbors as Sri Lanka’s civil war ignited in the 1980s, Charles gives a judicious perspective on the protesters:
Charles Wickramsinghe was surprised to feel a widening respect. A respect with more than a pinch of regret. Because how wrong had he been? To think they knew nothing. To dismiss them. All these thoughtful young people striding toward the gates of capitalism -- they had taken Gandhi’s hunger strike and arrived at this.
And yet.

In the end I couldn't identify with characters whose experience of and relationship with the world they inhabit is presented in fleeting, fragmented glimpses. I found Victor, King, John Henry, Bishop, Park, Ju, and Charles more credible as allegory than as individuals. It was hard to swallow that their collective history encompassed the Oklahoma City bombing, impoverished young women begging for change in India and Peru, the Rodney King riots, the ELF arson in Vail, farmworkers striking in Watsonville, Shanghai's behind-the-flash backstreets, Seattle's gay pride parade, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, 'zine culture, the writings of Che Guevara and Mumia Abu-Jamal, storefront preaching, Fort Benning's School of the Americas ... pretty much the whole globalized ball of wax. Not that it couldn't be so. But the fictional-fact that these seven characters touched all that history makes for a fistful of narrative conveniences too many.

Does Sunil Yapa see and render the true, zero-degrees-of-separation relationships between everything and everyone in this interconnected century? He does. A reader stands in awe of his synthetic vision. But even as I tumbled voraciously through his pages I was disappointed to find no credible character with whom to identify, and -- especially for readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of both political economy and mass protest -- little to establish a grounded footing in the world that the novel portrays.

On the other hand: just because it can't stand alone as a key to understanding the roiling conflicts of our current century does not diminish the insight and value of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. I’m glad to have read it, and look forward to the author's future work.

An earlier version of this post was published in the Spring 2016 issue of UltraViolet, the newsletter of LAGAI - Queer Insurrection.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Paris, the Pleistocene, and finding the grit to grapple with climate change
Activist fiction: it's about engagement, not about The Issue
Sticking your neck out
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Everything relates to everything else