30 April 2013

Alan Waldman : Brit Crime Series ‘Cracker’ is a Gripping, Off-Beat Winner

Waldman's film and TV
treasures you may have missed:
Former comedy star Robbie Coltrane is outstanding as an obese, alcoholic, degenerate gambler and psychologist who profiles sicko criminals for the Manchester Police.
By Alan Waldman / The Rag Blog / April 30, 2013

[In his weekly column, Alan Waldman reviews some of his favorite films and TV series that readers may have missed, including TV dramas, mysteries, and comedies from Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland. Most are available on DVD and/or Netflix, and some episodes are on YouTube.]

One of the best crime series ever was Britain’s Cracker, starring a brilliant Robbie Coltrane. Three series originally aired from 1993 to 1995, a 100-minute special set in Hong Kong followed in 1996, and another two-hour story was broadcast in 2006. All 25 episodes are on Netflix and Netflix Instant, and most can be seen on YouTube. Here is an episode.

Obese Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Coltrane), smokes, drinks, gambles and cheats on his wife. He's also a brilliant criminal psychologist, or “cracker,” employed by the police to aid them in profiling and questioning Manchester's worst criminals. Fitz has an uncanny knack for drilling directly into the hearts and minds of his warped subjects.

Robbie Coltrane.
Cracker was a critical and audience hit, earning 20 awards plus 14 other nominations, including six best actor statuettes for Coltrane, seven best drama series wins, three awards for writer Jimmy McGovern, and a best supporting actor for Robert Carlyle (in one of the most chilling performances my wife and I have ever seen). The first new Cracker in a decade was a UK ratings winner in 2006, pulling in 8.1 million viewers (in a country of 63 million).

Writer/Creator Jimmy McGovern, one of Britain’s greatest drama/mystery writers, earned a total of 16 awards and 16 other noms for Cracker and six other series. Two of his Cracker episodes won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar award. Writer-Producer Paul Abbott won 14 awards plus 17 noms for great works including Cracker, Shameless, State of Play, Touching Evil, The Girl in the Café, and four other series.

Coltrane heads a strong cast, including fine character actors Geraldine Sommerville, Barbara Flynn, Lorcan Cranitch, and Ricky Tomlinson.

Coltrane and McGovern worked on bringing Fitz to life for months."Though I am a car maniac,” Coltrane says, “we decided he wouldn't drive, because we thought it would be quite funny if he would have to rush places and wait for the bus, like real people have to and not have all that macho screeching of tires and nonsense."

Some of the plot lines in the cases took as their starting point real events, such as the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which police misjudgment resulted in 96 soccer fans being crushed to death and 766 others being injured.

Several different psychotic types with increasingly complex psychological motivations were explored during the run of the show. As the series entered the middle of the second season, the story lines became as much about the interactions of the regulars as they were about the crimes. To emphasize how fine a line the police (and Fitz) walk in their close interaction with criminals, all three series featured several stories in which the police themselves commit criminal acts or become victims of crime.

Because of the remarkable characters, highly intelligent and dramatic plots, and fine production values, Cracker is a series that crime/detective fans should definitely check out.

[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine. Read more of Alan Waldman's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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Lamar W. Hankins : 'Dirty Wars' and Bush-Obama Foreign Policy

Yemini writer Farea al-Muslimi testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Screen grab from Democracy Now!.
Dirty Wars:
The terror of Bush-Obama era foreign policy
While some Bush policies may have been changed, the Obama administration has found new ways to accomplish the same purposes using Bush’s and Cheney’s tactics in slightly different ways.
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / April 30, 2013

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) noted critically this past week that most members of the mass media gave no coverage or gave short shrift to the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony of the young, partly American-educated Yemini writer and activist Farea al-Muslimi, who talked about the effect of American drone strikes on his village.

Al-Muslimi had a great love for America after spending a year here to further his education. He went home to convey to his people his love for America, only to have his views decimated by the drone bombs that have terrorized his villagers.
In the past, what Wessab's villagers knew of the U.S. was based on my stories about my wonderful experiences here. The friendships and values I experienced and described to the villagers helped them understand the America that I know and that I love. Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab.

This is not an isolated incident. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis. I have spoken to many victims of U.S. drone strikes, like a mother in Jaar who had to identify her innocent 18-year-old son's body through a video in a stranger's cellphone, or the father in Shaqra who held his four- and six-year-old children as they died in his arms.
FAIR reported that both The New York Times and the Washington Post covered the hearing, but there was nothing on the broadcast networks or cable channels, except for an interview with Al-Muslimi on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC program. Even National Public Radio found room only on Morning Edition to mention the hearing. Only Democracy Now! gave the hearing and the issues related to drones extensive coverage.

Yet many people, including Americans, believe that our drone program violates international treaties that have been adopted by the U.S., making us international pariahs, if not terrorists in our own right.

These drone attacks are intended to kill or assassinate certain people that we deem enemies. As Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor Marjorie Cohn has written: “Targeted or political assassinations -- sometimes known as extra-judicial executions -- run afoul of the Geneva Conventions, which include willful killing as a grave breach. Grave breaches of Geneva are punishable as war crimes under the U.S. War Crimes Act.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross describes the significance of the Geneva Conventions (the original four treaties of the Conventions have been ratified by the U.S.):
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are at the core of international humanitarian law, the body of international law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects. They specifically protect people who are not taking part in the hostilities (civilians, health workers and aid workers) and those who are no longer participating in the hostilities, such as wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners of war.
If you doubt that official U.S. policy is to commit terrorism, take a look at the official law of the U.S. found in the United States Code, which defines an “act of terrorism” as an activity that would violate our own laws if carried out in the U.S. and is intended “to affect the conduct of a government by assassination.” The definition is expansive, but this part of it makes clear that U.S. drone assassinations are terrorism by our own definition.

A new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, by Jeremy Scahill, and a film based on the book -- document secret military and paramilitary operations in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere that are being carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) under the leadership of our entire national security apparatus, from the President on down.

Scahill details the assassination of three American citizens, one of whom, a 16-year-old, had no connection with terrorism except that his father was involved with al Qaeda. However, he was killed by a drone, two weeks after his father’s death by drone in Yemen, while he was searching for his father.

Both JSOC and the CIA are carrying out assassinations based on the weekly meetings held in the White House to determine who will be targeted and killed by drone attacks. These meetings directly involve the President, who makes the final decisions on who will be killed. As described by Scahill in an interview on Democracy Now!:
...we now know that there’s these things that are called Terror Tuesdays, where they look at rosters of potential targets and present them to the president. And the president, my understanding, is very, very involved with plucking names off and deciding who stays on. And, you know, you have a working group...  that’s essentially focused around the clock on figuring out who to kill next around the world. And... what I think is really both disturbing and interesting is that there are multiple -- I know that there are at least three separate sets of kill lists.

There’s the kill list that the CIA has, and then there’s the Joint Special Operations Command, and then there’s another National Security Council list that contains certain high-value individuals that the U.S. wants taken out. And so, in a country like Yemen, you have both the CIA and JSOC conducting operations. In Pakistan, that’s been true for a very long time. In Somalia, JSOC has conducted operations on the ground, the CIA has done drone strikes, and JSOC has also come in by helicopter and launched missiles at people.
Scahill went on in that same interview to explain that it may be true (he doesn’t know) that the U.S. is no longer operating secret prisons to which people are rendered to be tortured and interrogated. But he does know that the U.S. uses secret prisons operated by the Somalis, to which we order people captured in other countries to be taken (rendered) so that U.S. officials can then go to those secret prisons, where the prisoners are tortured and interrogated.

While some Bush policies may have been changed, the Obama administration has found new ways to accomplish the same purposes using Bush’s and Cheney’s tactics in slightly different ways. The immoral and illegal practices of the Bush administration are continuing under Obama, though Obama doesn’t sound as belligerent as Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice.

Foremost among these practices, of course, is the prison known as Guantanamo, which houses 86 men approved for release (along with 80 others being held), who continue to be detained in violation of the due process of law and fairness principles identified in the Magna Carta nearly eight centuries ago.

Our political system exalts the military above all else. And the military-industrial-congressional complex exercises autocratic policies that assure we are constantly engaged in military control or action toward most of the rest of the world.

We find in our country extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy both here and abroad, and a belief in the natural rule of elites. Fascism is not a term I wish to apply to my own country, but there may be none other that adequately characterizes the nature of our government.

The direction and purpose of American foreign policy is so established in the very fabric of America that I see no way that it can be turned around. Our purpose since the end of World War II, if not before, has been to spread our military power and control so widely throughout the world that we can extract any of the world’s natural resources that we want, keep other peoples from deciding their own fates, and kill anyone who gets in our way.

Many Americans claim we have the right to do these things because we are an exceptional country, ordained by God to create the world in our own image.

Even Dwight Eisenhower, who warned us of the direction we were heading, could do nothing to stop it and, during his eight years as president, furthered the very evil he spoke about as he left office in 1960. Now, we are seeing the lawless, murderous policies begun in the late 1940s and followed by every president since develop into the most frightening, evil, deathly, and inhumane policies since Adolph Hitler.

What is a patriotic American to do in the face of such atrocities? I can’t fully answer that question for myself, and certainly not for others. But I know that a first step is to acknowledge that what our government is doing is hideous, inhumane, degrading, and illegal.

A second step is to let our politicians know that we do not approve of these practices. As soon as it is possible to do so, I plan to see Scahill’s new film and read the book. Video excerpts related to the film and book can be viewed at Democracy Now!.

Finally, I don’t know how best to respond to these things that my government is doing in my name, but I will be guided by a 1965 statement by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.”

The drone killings around the world are just such a moment of challenge and controversy. We must accept their challenge and end the controversy they present for the good of the people of the U.S. as well as the people of the world.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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Bob Feldman : More African-Americans Enter Texas Politics, Prisons, 1974-1995

Hoe squad from Texas' Clemens Unit in early 1970s. Photo from Texas Prison Museum.
The hidden history of Texas
Part 14: 1974-1995/1 -- More African-Americans in politics, prison
By Bob Feldman / The Rag Blog / April 30, 2013

[This is the first section of Part 14 of Bob Feldman's Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]

Between 1970 and 1990 the number of African-Americans who lived in Texas increased from 1.4 million to 2 million, but the percentage of Texas residents who were African-Americans remained at 12 percent. More African-Americans lived in Texas in 1990 than in any other state except for New York and California, and 90 percent of African-Americans in Texas lived in towns and cities by 1990.

Although the percentage of African-Americans in Texas who were registered voters dropped from 83 percent in 1968 to around 65 percent during the 1980s, the number of African-Americans who held political office in Texas increased from 45 in 1971 to 472 in 1992. And even though no African-American was elected to serve as a Governor of Texas or a U.S. Senator from Texas between 1970 and 1995, an African-American, Barbara Jordan, had been elected by 1972 to represent one of Texas’s congressional districts in the House of Representatives.

By 1985, 15 African-Americans had been elected to sit in the Texas state legislature, and by 1990 there were 12 African-American mayors and 138 African-American city council members in various cities and towns in Texas. In Austin, the first African-American man to sit on the Austin City Council since the 1880s -- Berl Handcox -- had been elected in 1971.

The first African-American mayor of Dallas, former Texas Secretary of State Ron Kirk (who later became the U.S. Trade Ambassador in the Democratic Obama Administration), was elected in 1995. In addition, between 1990 and 1992, an African-American woman named Marguerite Ross Barnett was the president of the University of Houston, and in 1991 the birthday of Martin Luther King was made a state holiday in Texas.

Yet between 1960 and 1984, the number of African-Americans in Texas who still owned their own farms had decreased from 15,000 to 5,000, and as late as 1993 “the University of Texas at Austin could count only 52 African-Americans among its faculty of 2,300 -- about 2 percent,” according to Alwyn Barr’s Black Texans. In addition, “in Austin , expansion of the University of Texas into an African-American community displaced people into more crowded neighborhoods” between 1974 and 1995, according to the same book.

Around 30 percent of all African-Americans who lived in Texas in 1990 still lived in poverty; and in 1987, the U.S. Equal Opportunities Commission office in Dallas still received 5,800 complaints of racial discrimination from African-Americans who lived in Texas.

Of the 37,532 people locked inside state and federal prisons in Texas in 1985, 36 percent were African-American prisoners; and 29 percent of all the imprisoned people in Texas who were executed by the State of Texas in the 1980s and early 1990s were African-Americans. Historically, “261 of 316 men executed by Texas between 1924 and 1995 were black,” according to Black Texans.

In addition, while 9 percent of college students in Texas were African-American in 1993, between 1985 and 1991 the percentage of people locked inside Texas prisons who were African-American had increased from 36 to 41 percent. And in 1990, 40 percent of all African-American families in Texas were now headed by women.

The total number of people imprisoned in state and federal prisons in Texas increased from 16,833 to 127,766 (including 7,935 female prisoners) between 1974 and 1995; and, between 1991 and 1996, Texas -- whose imprisoned population grew by 156 percent during these five years -- was the state with the highest percentage increase in the number of people incarcerated during this historical period.

In the 1980 Ruiz v. Estelle court decision, “the entire state prison system” of Texas “was declared unconstitutional on overcrowding and conditions,” according to the ACLU National Prison Project’s 1995 “Status Report: State Prisons and the Courts;” and, in 1996, Texas -- with an incarceration rate of 686 prisoners per every 100,000 residents -- was the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the United States.

Between 1970 and 1985, the number of people who lived in Austin increased from 250,000 to 436,000 and “from 1980 to 1990, Austin’s Jewish-affiliated population more than doubled, from 2,100 to 5,000,” according to an essay by Cathy Schechter, titled “Forty Acres and a Shul: `It’s Easy as Dell,’” that appeared in Hollace Ava Weiner and Kenneth Roseman’s book Lone Stars of David: the Jews of Texas.

By 1988, around 90,000 people of Jewish religious background now lived in Texas, according to the www.texasalmanac.com website, and of the nearly 17 million people who lived in Texas in 1990, around 108,000 were now of Jewish religious background.

Despite the continued presence of local anti-war movement activists in Austin in the 1980s, “Lockheed Austin Division [LAD] was formed in August 1981 by Lockheed Missiles & Space Companies to develop military tactical support programs and systems” in Austin;” and the programs under development at LAD in the 1980s fell “under two general headings of command and control systems and target location systems,” according to David Humphrey’s Austin: An Illustrated History.

The same book also revealed that “the equipment developed through these programs [was] used to provide military commanders with current information on the location of military units within their operating area”“employment reached 2,000 by July 1984” and a year later the number of LAD employees: had “risen to 2,500.”

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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Anne Lewis : Corporate Crime Scene in West, Texas

Putting on the makeup. Television reporter on the scene at the fertilizer plant explosion in West Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2013. Photo by Patrick Bresnan / The Rag Blog.
Getting the picture:
Corporate crime scene in West, Texas
How do we avoid the news story framework that gives us nothing but heroes and victims when tragedy strikes? How can those narratives, as seductive as they may be, possibly move us towards an honest search for the truth?
By Anne Lewis / The Rag Blog / April 30, 2013
See a gallery of photos by Patrick Bresnan, Below.
AUSTIN -- This is about the fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, on the night of April 17, 2013. It’s also about Patrick Bresnan who found himself in West on the night of the explosion and his photographs in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Governor Perry called it a crime scene; the progressive community says, yes, corporate crime. Neither the paranoid fantasy of Governor Perry who is stuck in an ideology that says that companies can do no wrong, nor the abstract politics of progressives blaming the state’s lack of regulation -- “We shouldn’t produce fertilizer anyway because it’s not good for the planet,” I overheard in a coffee shop -- seem to get at any real truth.

I ask myself the question: how one can be kind and dignified in the face of such sorrow and loss? I try to collect myself and cannot help but think about the Central Appalachian coalfields.

The dangers of coal mining both for the environment and the workers permeated my senses. I was married to an underground coal miner. I knew not to have an argument before he went to work. He might not come back. And we would patch things up, even when we shouldn’t have.

Time slowed in the hour that I expected him to come home. The most intimate relationship was distorted by the fear of injury and death. Then Rocky Peck, a young miner with a wife and daughter who wrote the song that ended my film about the Massey strike, was killed in a non-union mine three years after the strike was lost and the film was completed.

I saw raw footage of mining disasters -- family members waiting for loved ones who would not come out alive, calling to God for comfort, the exhausted children. I heard statements of attempted compassion by local mine managers who opened their offices to suffering families but protected the absent company, denying information and economic aid and never accepting guilt by apologizing.

I remember an eloquent piece by Michael Kline, a radio story with Sarah Koznoski who lost her husband in the Mannington, West Virginia, mine explosion in 1968. Seventy-eight men were buried alive. Michael asked Sarah to describe every moment of the last day with her husband.

That was all. There was no mention of Consolidation Coal Company, still the largest underground mining company in the U.S., or the corrupt United Mine Workers union that said Consolidation was a safe company after the explosion, or the lack of regulation or protection by the government. There was just Sarah’s voice describing an ordinary day with her husband. And it was enough.

Then came the rage. “They didn’t want us to know what was going on in their damn dirty filthy mines,” another of the widows would tell us five years later. Those seven widows, who refused the $10,000 death money from Consolidation Coal Company, organized a response across the coalfields. Coalminers and their communities rose up from the grassroots. They reclaimed their union for the rank and file, and they forced the new laws and regulations that have saved countless lives.

Field of first response. Triage area, West, Texas. Wednesday, April 17, 2013. Photo by Patrick Bresnan/ The Rag Blog.

We have heard none of these things from West -- none of the deep sorrow, none of the purposeful rage, no clear expression of collective purpose -- that this will never happen to other people in another community, especially not to those most loved in any community -- the firefighters and first responders. Perhaps it’s just too soon.

Patrick’s experience in West began the warm evening of the explosion. A European film director had wanted to document the last day of life of a young black man who was next on the Texas execution list. Patrick traveled to Waco to locate the man’s family and ask them to participate in the film. He was using the Internet at Starbucks when he saw a steady stream of ambulances and heard about a huge explosion in a nearby town. He drove to West.

There he found himself stalled in a traffic jam filled with ambulances, emergency responders, police, firefighters, people who had come from as far away as three hundred miles to help. A call had gone out to bring needed wheelchairs to the community center and community people waited to get through, wheelchairs in the backs of pickups.

Some tried to reach relatives in the community center but only the injured and the elderly were allowed in. Patrick described the smell of heavy chemicals and urine. 133 patients had been evacuated from the West Rest Haven Nursing Home and there was no way to help them use the bathroom.

He decided to see if he could get pictures of the fire and drove to the part of town that had been evacuated. He began to walk towards the fire but the air was hot. It was windy and so heavy with chemicals that he was forced to turn around. Patrick returned to his truck, took off his shirt, and went to sleep.

Wednesday morning was cold and rainy. By the time Patrick got back to the community center, most of the firefighters had left. Then a mass of new people descended on the town -- roaming the streets, doing their makeup and practicing their lines out loud, “Live from West, Texas -- a town that will never be the same. This small tightly-knit community,” over and over. Anderson Cooper popped up and Patrick succumbed like many others and took a photograph of himself with Cooper.

Succumbing to the celebrity presence! Photographer Bresnan takes his own picture with CNN's Anderson Cooper. Photo by Patrick Bresnan / The Rag Blog.

Patrick didn’t see reporters doing any kind of research or having serious interviews with local people. They were in West to do their makeup and read a few contrived lines to the camera. At the West Cattle Auction the media appeared to him like a group of animals. Patrick returned a week later to take a few additional pictures and attend the memorial. He told me of a Catholic priest who spoke from the heart about what had happened, but nobody mentioned the fertilizer plant.

At about that time I was on a shuttle bus at the Austin airport coming home from a weekend trip. The Latina shuttle bus driver announced, “Welcome home.” A woman on the bus said that she had no home to return to, that she lived in West. She pulled out a newspaper with before-and-after pictures and pointed to her house which was within the 1,500 foot blast perimeter. She had been at a far off hospital visiting her son who had been shot in Afghanistan when the explosion occurred.

When another woman on the bus asked if the plant was old and dilapidated, the woman said she really didn’t remember. It had always been there. She was just glad that her family had survived. She would go home to look for her missing cat. As she got off the shuttle bus, the driver gave her a big hug and handed her all of her tip money. She said, “Take it” and the woman did.

How do we avoid the news story framework that gives us nothing but heroes and victims when tragedy strikes? How can those narratives, as seductive as they may be, possibly move us towards an honest search for the truth? The patriotic frenzy, the flag waving, the church going and singing of popular songs don’t come close to the pictures of mine disasters that stay in my mind’s eye. Patrick’s pictures, as scattered and spontaneous as they may be, seem to get closer to the truth than endless newspaper images of worship and sorrow.

Media gathered at the West Auction House, West, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2013. Photo by Patrick Bresnan / The Rag Blog.

Thirteen people worked at the fertilizer plant in West, but we have heard nothing about them. The news talks about a close-knit community with few jobs, but I’m quite sure that many more livelihoods and lives were damaged at the nursing home, apartment complex, and three damaged schools.

Why didn’t the workers at the fertilizer plant complain about the danger they experienced every day at work and the potential disaster that their work imposed on the community? Was it alienation from their own lives, a lack of power over their own safety, a misplaced loyalty or belief in the power of a supposedly benevolent boss?

The plant had 250 tons of ammonium nitrate on site last year -- that’s more than a thousand times the trigger limit for oversight. That deadly factory somehow remained invisible to those who might have intervened.

What about the farmers in this “close knit community”? Surely they were aware of the dangers of the product they purchased and the conditions of its manufacture. Then there’s the religious factory owner who, we read, purchased the plant as an economic contribution to the community. Patrick couldn’t help but compare him to the young man on death row who was the cause of his trip to Waco. That man killed one security guard in comparison to the deaths of 14 people and more than a hundred injured including a child who was playing on a nearby playground when the blast blew him four feet in the air and broke his ribs.

The factory owner hired a Dallas public relations firm to represent him as he opened the doors of his church for the mourning residents of West and spoke through an outside source of his own broken heart.

A coal mine manager once said in one of my films, “If what we are doing in eastern Kentucky is wrong, then the whole country is wrong.” One could say the same about the murderous explosion in West, Texas. There’s something very rotten in our mistaken loyalties to companies over neighbors, our dependence on paternalism for our safety, our willed ignorance, the sacrifices we make to the dollar. Ultimately we all share some part of responsibility for what happened in West, Texas.

I think about the power of transformation, knowing that it must come from rage, knowledge, and love. I believe that deep within the community of West and our own, an independent, courageous, and collective voice can emerge to shake the foundations of what must change.

[Anne Lewis, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas and a member of TSEU-CWA Local 6186 and NABET-CWA, is an independent filmmaker associated with Appalshop. She is co-director of Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, associate director of Harlan County, U.S.A, and the producer/director of Fast Food Women, To Save the Land and People, Morristown: in the air and sun, and a number of other social issue and cultural documentaries. Her website is annelewis.org. Read more articles by and about Anne Lewis at The Rag Blog.]
Some of the photos accompanying this article were also published, under the name Otis Ike, in a gallery at the Austin Chronicle.
The next morning. House in West, Texas, Thursday, April 8, 2013. Photos by Patrick Bresnan / The Rag Blog.
School in West, Texas, Thursday, April 23, 2013.
Evacuation area, Thursday, April 18, 2013.
Missing dog sign. Thursday, April 23, 2013.
Car and flag. Thursday, April 23, 2013.
Residents respond to call for wheelchairs. Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Memorial service at Church of the Assumption, Thursday, April 18, 2013.

The Rag Blog

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25 April 2013

Bruce Melton : Calling all Earthlings

Alien beings emerge from “What Was Once Lake Buchanan” as the water level falls. Photos by Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog.
Calling all earthlings:
Climate change communications
may as well be from aliens
Relative to most of the 20th century, Austin’s January highs and lows were not 2.9 and 1.4 degrees above normal, but 9.9 and 10.4 degrees above normal!
By Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog / July 25, 2013

AUSTIN -- Average temperatures have risen rapidly at the Austin reporting station since the turn of the century but the National Weather Service’s 30-year average “normal” temperatures show little of this change yet. Average April highs and lows have risen 3.5 and 5 degrees respectively. The average August temperature has risen 5 degrees and the average January high and low has risen 6 and 9 degrees respectively.

Because the National Weather Service’s 30-year averaging procedures mask this recent rapid warming, a valuable tool in climate change communications lies unused.

We Earthlings who are not climate scientists do not have the telepathic powers necessary to understand how our climate is truly changing. Someone must tell us directly. Local temperature change is a prime example. We've heard a lot of “warmer than normal” since about the turn of the century, but when the details get broken down, accuracy falls behind.

Climate change is so far different from what most of us think that a change in communication tactics must happen very soon; otherwise we will continue on this business as usual path of denial and delay until we have a global climate catastrophe that cripples the world’s economy.

The challenge is akin to that frog in a pot on the stove. This is a terribly cruel “cooked alive” analogy, but is it any more cruel than what we are doing to our future society because of delay on climate pollution action? As the analogy goes, the water in the pot gradually heats, the frog does not notice until it is too hot and he is dinner.

Climate change is insidious. The definition of insidious fits the process well. Insidious: proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects; working in a subtle or apparently innocuous way, but nevertheless deadly. It has snuck up on us because it only changes a little bit every year. It is already creating dangerous impacts to our society on a planetary scale, yet we as that society know very little of these impacts.

The way the weather is presented to us is one of the major reasons for our ignorance. There are many things that our media weather presenters could do that would help us Earthlings understand climate a truckload better than we do, but one stands atop the heap. Every 10 years the National Weather Service (NWS) refigures their “normal temperatures” that we hear on the weather report every day. They look back to the previous 30 years for these calculations. So every ten years, the averages change a little bit. In 2010, the averages were refigured for the period 1980 to 2010. In 2000 they were refigured for 1970 to 2000, etc.

This is fine and dandy when our climate is stable. Our climate has changed a lot lately and this technique masks the changes. The process is designed on purpose to mask relatively short term weather changes (less than 30 years) because traditional meteorology acknowledges that short term chaos in weather does not reflect “climate.”

But in our carbon-saturated 21st century new rules have arrived. Climate scientists warned us for decades that their models said an abrupt climate change would occur if we did not begin to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. Instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we ignored this counsel and almost doubled our emissions. Not surprisingly, this abrupt change is now happening and 20th century meteorology is hiding the abrupt change in its 30-year temperature averages.

Urban heat island

Before I go further, let me address the urban heat island because the temperature records I am talking about could be influenced by the heat island. This is one of the biggest of the perceived controversies in the so-called debate, and rightly so. Anyone who has driven into or out of the city on a cool night has experienced the extra heat that is absorbed by concrete and buildings in urban areas.

Climate scientists (not meteorologists) correct for the heat island by looking at rural weather stations surrounding urban areas and applying a correction factor to the urban records. The corrected global average temperature change, what is presented to us by the media as the effects of climate change, are corrected for the urban heat island. But the everyday weather stats presented to us on teevee are not.

In the last several years climate scientists have even begun to use satellite images of night lights to help locate those truly rural weather stations that they use for their corrections. Time goes on. Science moves ahead. We get more accurate information as a result (most of the time).

NASA brings us night vision satellites for a deeper look at our planet. Climate scientists use these “nightlight” images to help correct for the urban heat island effect in their average global temperature records. Shown is a crop of the Texas coast. Houston, Corpus, Brownsville, San Antonio, and Austin are the largest masses of lights. New in the last several years however is an odd crescent of lights that run from southwest of San Antonio to the northeast. These lights are all oil rigs drilling the Eagle Ford Shale in the latest oil fracking boom. The white spots in the Gulf are oil platforms.

To bring the heat island effect into perspective for the historic average temperature records that I want to discuss for the Austin Mabry station, we need to understand how the heat island has historically impacted the weather recording station in Austin. To do this is easy enough in a generalized way. Simplistically, all we have to do is compare the historic average temperature in Austin to population growth. If the urban heat island is impacting the weather station, the temperature should rise as does the population.

Average Temperature and Population for Austin Texas 1900 to 2012. All weather stations are different. Some respond more adversely to the urban heat island effect than others. Austin’s is one that does not show a lock-step similarity in the urbanization/heat island effect. If it did, it is quite likely that the local average temperature would have continued to rise in the late 1950s as Austin’s local population began to soar.

This is by no means a scientific evaluation, but it does shed light on the issue of the heat island, at least relative to the official temperature record for Austin. The red line shows our rapid population growth and the blue is the average annual temperature. I will not deny that the heat island effect is strong in Austin, but to say that the heat island effect is strong “at the weather station” in Austin is a different animal altogether.

Weather stations are set up by design to minimize the influence of the surrounding geography on the temperature measured at the weather station. It can be blisteringly hot in the middle of a giant asphalt parking lot but just a couple of hundred feet away in the middle of a grass covered ball field, or in a forested area for sure, the temperature can be much cooler.

The techniques used to assure that weather station thermometers record an accurate temperature have been refined for over 200 years. Some places still need to be adjusted though, so these techniques are being ever-more refined as is the case with the nightlight satellite imagery.

What the numbers are telling us about the average temperature for April (1948 through 2012) at the Austin Mabry Station are:
  • The NWS 30-year average high and low April temperatures have warmed 2 and 2.5 degrees respectively since the 1980s, but
  • The 10-year high and low April temperatures have warmed 3.5 and 5.5 degrees respectively.
The 2 to 2.5 degrees of warming in 30 years may just be normal climate fluctuations (probably not), but the 10-year changes are likely what climate scientists have been warning us would happen. This is the abrupt climate change that their models have been predicting for a generation. As we continue to use the 30-year averages without effectively communicating our current temperatures relative to the normal temps of the last century, our frog is being cooked without our realizing it.

The warnings have been that at some point the “lag” in climate change would catch up to greenhouse gas concentrations and we would begin to see a rapid rise in temperature. This “lag” is generally considered to be two to several or more decades. In other words, today’s temperatures are what they are because of greenhouse gas levels in our sky from the 1980s, not greenhouse gas levels in the sky today.

Since 1980, the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere has increased from about 335 ppm to about 397 ppm. Between the mid-1800s and 1980 the CO2 concentration increased from about 280 ppm to 335 ppm. So we have doubled the amount of greenhouse gases in our sky since the 1980s.

Because of the climate lag, we have another 4 degrees F or more of warming already built into our climate -- even if we were to stop emitting all greenhouse gasses this instant. This “lag” is caused mainly by the cooling effect of the oceans. Who in Texas hasn’t enjoyed a wonderfully cool summer day at the beach when just a few dozen miles away it was a sizzling 100 degrees?

Flattening temperature myth

Let me address another huge myth now. This is the “Flattening Temperature Myth.” Some would have us believe that Earth stopped warming about the turn of the century, and if we look at the temperature record it looks like this is a valid statement -- but we must understand the context. This flattening is simply a product of the massive high temperature record set with the Super El Niño of 1998. Erase that 1998 Super El Niño record and global temperature has not “flattened” at all.

The thermometer record has experienced two major flattening trends: from the late 1800s (end of the Little Ice Age) to the 1920s and then from the 1940s to about 1980. The current flattening is a product of the great Super El Niño of 1998. If we remove the Super El Niño from the record, the flattening trend that remains is similar to many more “flat” periods in the thermometer record other than just the two mentioned.

Austin’s average temperature record does not have a giant high temperature spike in 1998 so this myth does not float in this boat. And for Austin’s record to be different from the global record is quite normal. Some places will warm more than others and some places (a very few) will even cool a bit, at least for a while.

Abrupt climate change is here, it has caught up with the lag, and from here on it’s toast or be toasted. The models have been quite accurate so far and they tell us that things continue to get worse even faster. It's the 10-year averages that are important now because climate changes like we are now undergoing -- abrupt climate changes -- happen far faster than 30-year time frames. It is time that we recognize this not only in the media, but in the science as well. Things change, we live, we learn and then apply that new knowledge to life. If we don’t, we is frog legs.

In the last 100,000 years, based on highly accurate temperature records from Greenland ice two miles deep, we have seen 23 abrupt climate changes where global temperature changed up to a dozen degrees F in as little as several decades or less. The ice shows the biggest of these changes, that happened when climate was being forced the fastest, happened (in Greenland at least) in several years or less. Remember two things now: warming over land is twice or more what it is over water and we are changing our carbon dioxide concentration 14,000 times faster than anytime normal in the climate record in the last 610,000 years.

So, because climate change impacts have skyrocketed since the turn of the century (Greenland melt, Arctic melt, Antarctic melt, increasing sea level rise, forest impacts, and here in Austin, record drought and wildfires) we need to be looking at non-traditional climate averages, not the 30-year averages of 20th century climate. This is no longer our old climate. It has changed and is rapidly changing further.

Greenwood acres Pier on Lake Buchanan.

The new normal

January’s averages are even more astounding. Climate scientists have been telling us their models show more warming in winter and more warming at night in winter. Since the 1980s, the 30-year NWS highs and lows at Austin Mabry have warmed 4 and 2.5 degrees respectively but the 10-year highs and lows have warmed 6 and 9 degrees! Do you remember hearing any of this on the nightly weather report?

When the weather person says the weather today should be exactly normal, there's a large inaccuracy in his or her statement. In January in Austin, the NWS normal low today is almost 10 degrees warmer than what it was in the 1980s! But J.Q. Citizen goes about his business thinking that the weather is as normal as normal is normal.

The NWS tells us that January’s (2013 average) high was 2.9 degrees above normal and the low was 1.4 degrees above normal. But this is the NWS 30-year average. Relative to most of the 20th century, Austin’s January highs and lows were not 2.9 and 1.4 degrees above normal, but 9.9 and 10.4 degrees above normal!

This is one of the simplest and likely most effective techniques to educate the public about climate change. Our media weather presenters simply need to talk about it. They need to talk about it all the time. This information is endlessly available to the meteorologists who give us the forecast every night, but ferretting out these statistics and reporting them is not something they are accustomed to doing.

Almost everything of importance in the weather is based on long-term averages. With abrupt climate change, these averages need to be seriously reconsidered. Our climate is no longer stable. Why should we be using statistics that are based on a stable climate?

Please try and talk with your local weather information source and tell them that it is their responsibility to inform the public of this kind of information. It’s time to kick the delayers off the island and get along with the solutions to climate pollution.

It’s OK to start talking about climate change. It’s important that we get this moving. The delayers are now among the minority. The number of people offended by actively discussing climate issues is diminishing rapidly. And besides, we the “believers” now have a majority of votes -- even in Texas.

[Bruce Melton, a regular contributor to The Rag Blog, is a professional engineer, environmental researcher, filmmaker, and author in Austin, Texas. Information on Melton’s new book, Climate Discovery Chronicles, as well as more climate change writing, climate science outreach, and critical environmental issue documentary films can be found on his website and at climatediscovery.com. Read more articles by Bruce Melton on The Rag Blog.]

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Tom Hayden : Earth Night

Is 'Earth Night' coming? Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Earth Night
Al Gore wrote in 1992, 'the maximum that is politically feasible still falls short of the minimum that is truly effective.' Making it 'politically feasible' to tackle extreme climate change remains the task two frustrating decades later.
By Tom Hayden / The Rag Blog/ April 25, 2013
Monday, April 22, 2013, marked the 43rd celebration of Earth Day. Founded in 1970, the event is observed each year in nearly 200 countries.
After 43 years of Earth Days, it is past time to contemplate the possible coming of Earth Night.

There is little promise, so far, of a coming “reverse polarization” or evolutionary leap that might prevent the piracy of our life support -- clean air, water, soil, and healthy eco-systems -- nor much sign that our institutions will heed the warnings of climate scientists, and even the CIA, about the deepening eco-crisis.

There is no indication among the dominant think tanks of re-thinking beyond the models of market or state capitalism, which mindlessly measure “growth” by stealing natural resources from future generations. Nor is there evidence that the power grab by corporations over democracy will soon diminish.

This is the dire context in which many, like NASA’s Dr. James Hansen, assert that excavating the Alberta Tar Sands for the Keystone XL pipeline will be a “game over” for the climate, propelling humanity into a terminal and irreversible crisis. With Canada’s liberal hope, Justine Trudeau, endorsing XL last week, with the growing appetite by the Chinese for Tar Sands takeout, with an apparent U.S. Senate majority favoring the XL project, the options before President Barack Obama are dwindling.

The “game over” concept means Earth Night. Its troubling implication for many is that we all give up on saving the planet or ourselves. That encourages suicidal depression, or perhaps a new wave of Beat existentialism, as the earth’s energy systems wane.

The “game over” concept is inflexible, leaving no space for resurgence, much less mundane efforts to strengthen everyday life. What are idealists to do if it is really “game over”? Or are we supposed to accept a global Jonestown? These are terrible questions to ponder, much less share with our children.

Yes, life will go on even after the game is over, but life will be more miserable and traumatic. Daily decisions will have to be made to mitigate the disaster, feed, educate and provide medical care for whole populations. The important missions will resemble that of the health teams in Albert Camus’ The Plague. Dreams of utopia or environmental restoration will become unattainable, obsolete.

To date, the environmental movement’s symbols have been polar bears, seals, butterflies, and salmon -- all visible species tottering on the brink of extinction (we even had a charismatic tree-sitting advocate named Julia Butterfly). Environmentalists during Earth Night, on the other hand, may find the earthworm, the nightcrawler, more suitable. Like community organizers, they enrich the soil, toiling in darkness, avoiding the spotlight. If the earth is in decline, they simply work harder until there is nothing left to do.

If the nightcrawler is too distasteful an image, consider an alternative, courtesy an aged Buddhist monk I once interviewed in Kyoto. I wanted to know how the Buddhist philosophy could support social action. He stirred our green tea for a long time before answering in two succinct sentences. “The earth is slowly dying. In the face of death, we must act with compassion.”

So even in the worst-case scenario, there is work to do, either to mitigate the effects of extreme climate change or simply to express compassion and solidarity. Since it is hard to precisely define “game over” -- how quickly, how pervasively, in what order, etc. --  it is also possible that “the game” might extend indefinitely, into overtime, so to speak.

The “game” is not over with a State Department pipeline permit being issued; what Hansen must mean is that it is over if all the bituminous muck in Alberta is excavated, transported and used -- which suggests a more gradual timetable toward the unsustainable Night.

A comparison with the threat of nuclear war is perhaps appropriate here. For my generation, the expectation of a nuclear apocalypse was the equivalent of today’s predictions of collapsing ecosystems. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the fear of immanent extinction was bone deep; the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned that the Doomsday Clock was mere minutes to midnight.

While some might argue that we are learning to manage the danger, the threat we face now is just as real. We are fast approaching midnight, even though the tragic realization of the consequences may be deferred. How will we forever manage to live on the brink of extinction?

The possibility of change
“Natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight successive favourable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modification; it can act only by very short steps.” -- Charles Darwin
Assuming that we may have indefinite time before game over, let us consider the possibilities for action. Thought unlikely by most environmentalists, what if Obama surprises us by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline in a historic pivot toward a different energy future?

Obama’s recent standing up to the Gun Lobby could be the model for a bold change in direction. Conventional wisdom, however, says he will issue a limited approval for the pipeline, guaranteeing a prolonged fight in the years ahead, while around the same time announcing new executive orders on pollution and energy efficiency that will make it impossible for new coal plants to be licensed, while winding down the lifetimes of those that exist. We can be sure that Obama’s new appointees at EPA and Energy are preparing the options.

It is only speculation, but a connecting political link for Obama between gun control and climate control is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is pumping millions into “common sense gun control” campaigns, and who gave the Sierra Club $50 million for its grassroots campaigns against coal. The Democrats have reason to worry about an independent Bloomberg-financed presidential campaign in 2016.

It is even possible that Obama, the Democrats, and some Republicans will endorse a carbon tax -- a regressive market approach to reducing emissions, though one which could make a difference with tightened energy efficiency regulations. The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, often scorned on the left as a Pied Piper of corporate globalization, has been an insistent voice favoring carbon taxes as essential to battling global warming.

Friedman favors what he calls a "radical grand bargain” -- carbon taxes, corporate and individual tax cuts, public investments in education, and deficit reduction. Republican heavyweights like George Schultz favor the revenue-neutral option, with direct rebates of the revenue back to citizens and businesses. A tax of $20-25 per ton would generate some one trillion dollars over10 years and be an incentive for conservation.

Another option could be combining Obama’s tougher federal regulations with green infrastructure investments in states like California and New York. That was the model in the 1970s when the automobile industry was saved by fuel-efficiency regulations they opposed.

At the very least, Obama “has made a huge down payment on a greener economy,” according to Michael Grunwald’s counterintuitive book, The New New Deal. Just 10 years after Bill Clinton proposed a five-year clean energy initiative that was considered “hopelessly unrealistic,” Obama spent $90 billion on clean energy, and leveraged $110 billion in private capital with a one-year stimulus.

The U.S. solar industry was on “the brink of death” before Obama’s stimulus legislation, but it then grew six-fold in three years, along with a doubling of renewable electricity. By the end of 201l, the federal government financed the weatherization of 680,000 low-income homes and retrofitted 110,000 buildings. Whatever initiatives next come to pass, the measure for progressives might be how many new jobs -- and for whom -- will be created by a rapid transition to a Green New Deal.

While the crisis worsens and Obama’s green stimulus suggests significant gains, those seem paltry in the face of the challenge, however.

Roots and new growth 

Al Gore wrote in 1992, “the maximum that is politically feasible still falls short of the minimum that is truly effective.” Making it “politically feasible” to tackle extreme climate change remains the task two frustrating decades later. Though the environmental movement has long since approached critical mass, it has been foiled time and again.

Will someone like Gore arise from the present crisis? Could it be Gore again, beginning a campaign in 2015? Perhaps the younger Andrew Cuomo, who has been calling loudly and consistently for action on climate change? Or might Hillary Clinton awaken from her midlife centrism to lead such a campaign? Might there be a candidate as unknown today as Barack Obama was in 2007?

There must be a push from a national campaign to shift the center of gravity of political decision-making. Even if 57,000 Americans are arrested following a potential XL pipeline approval, a vacuum will exist the following day, which could attract a serious presidential candidate for 2016. The very threat of such a candidacy will loosen the hammerlock of the fossil fuel industry on the two parties.

The factor of presidential politics, beyond pressuring Obama, is hardly mentioned in the present discussions on the theme of “what happened to Earth Day?” The most vibrant environmental movement in America today, 350.org, contains a healthy disrespect for electoral processes; the 350 movement counts on direct action and divestment strategies to move the world off fossil fuel addiction.

In the tradition of past campaigns to save redwood forests and stop nuclear power plants, their success at movement building has been admirable. On the other hand, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters have little to show for their millions spent on electoral politics, except the worthy achievement of slowing the rate at which conditions worsen.

The time of the nightcrawler?

My own experience has been along two tracks, outside and inside. The first, rooted in deep ecological understandings and expressed in civil disobedience, is a broad renewable river in American history and global culture, the fountain of many great achievements. The second, arising from the first, is more like a climactic rapids that reconfigures the institutional barriers that stand in the way.

The first Earth Day and the 1970s anti-nuclear movements were examples of the former. Indicators of the latter are Jerry Brown, Al Gore, and the UN Earth Summits.

The theft of the presidency from Al Gore in 2000 destroyed the emergence of a genuine environmental presidency. Until then, the environmental movement was following the trajectory of many other social movements, from a spectacular birth to a march through mainstream institutions. Earth Day was an extraordinary expression of a new consciousness, at a time when photos from space first revealed the beauty -- rapturous to millions -- of our fragile home in the universe.

Yes, Earth Day required organizers, people like Denis Hayes and Senator Gaylord Nelson among the committed few, but it was self-organized in its very nature. The roots of the 2000 Gore candidacy lay in the original Earth Day, a movement co-opted early and successfully by the Nixon administration and conservatives fearing its radical threat.

The Nixon administration and corporate America took charge of managing the politics that followed Earth Day. They accepted a reformist model of stewardship -- far better than plunder, but far less than the rising spirit of kinship that millions were feeling toward their earth home. They engineered significant legislation: the Clear Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Endangered Species Act. Though isolating themselves quite well, radicals were institutionally isolated from leadership of the movement.

The first hope for a radical political shift in politics from Earth Day came in the successful California gubernatorial campaign of Jerry Brown (1974). He immediately opened his doors to Earth Day visionaries, blocked the expansion of nuclear plants and an LNG terminal, and launched an unprecedented push toward energy efficiency and renewables.

Brown was ahead of his times nationally, however, representing constituencies of the future against the dinosaur lobbies of the present. He was too “weird” for the national elites, including the Clinton Democrats. Jimmy Carter took up Brown’s conservation themes during his one-term presidency (perhaps to block Brown’s possible campaign against him). But Carter, like Brown, was frowned upon for being outside the national corporate-labor consensus favoring growth.

Both leaders eventually fell to the countermovement symbolized by Ronald Reagan, and the Democratic Party slipped back into its familiar model of political economy, in which environmental costs were treated as mere “externalities," and failed.

For a time, both parties opened safe channels inside the institutions for a growing culture of non-government organizations that specialized in advocacy before judges and regulators, and lobbying politicians whose staffs they sometimes joined. They adopted wherever possible a “win-win” model of partnerships between environmental advocates and companies like Duke Energy, BP, and General Electric. They raised funds from wealthy liberals for candidates to their liking. Their budgets rose to the tens of millions.

From these organizational roots came the draft climate bill -- the “US Climate Action Partnership” -- which passed the House on a partisan vote in 2009, but stalled to death in the Senate, never to be raised in Congress in the subsequent years.

A recent New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann, based on two in-depth studies of the environmental movement, blames “the inside game” played by environmental organizations “at the expense of broad-based organizing” for the failure to much advance the movement against global warming since Obama’s election in 2008 and, by implication, for decades since the Nixon legislation four decades prior.

As evidence, Lemann points to an inability to pressure Senate Pro Tem Harry Reid to bring the House bill to a 2010 vote on the Senate floor, which Reid agreed to do in the recent case of the gun control package.

Having repeated what many others have said about the DC-based environmental bureaucracies, Lemann does not offer much new in the way of solutions. He cites the study by Harvard globalization expert Dr. Theda Scokpol, who argues, “reformers will have to build organizational networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political efforts that stretch far beyond friendly Congressional offices, comfy board rooms, and posh retreats.”

Scokpol’s is a withering intellectual critique, unfair in some ways to the environmental NGOs. She says the environmentalists should build “federated” chapter-based national networks starting at local and state levels, which sounds like a neat version of what many environmental groups have already attempted to do.

She opposes the obsession with market-based cap-and-trade, and instead suggests a “cap and dividend,” another market model but one based on consumers pocketing the revenue from low-carbon products, thereby creating a bottom-up market that might win favor with Republicans.

But none of these analyses suggest an alternative to the two pathways already carved by history: a radical awakening expressed through civil disobedience and boycott campaigns, or a complementary political awakening like the one that carried Al Gore to an majority of votes for an environment-centered presidency, only to be snatched away by the Supreme Court.

This is not 1992, nor 2000. Awareness of the climate crisis is both broader and deeper; its connection to our economic recession still requires further public explanation and coalition building. A new environmentally aware generation has risen to influence globally. Where my generation was compelled to overthrow apathy toward the scandal of racism and impending threat of nuclear war, the challenges before this new generation are arguably worse: entrenched inequality, disappearing jobs and economic opportunities, and widespread helplessness at reports of the end of a habitable planet.

What happened to Earth Day? It accomplished great things, then receded and was folded into the labyrinths of its success. We lost the chance to experience and test our first -- and the world’s first -- environmental presidency. We lost a generation’s greatest opportunity.

But movements and leaders always rise again, if only because of the creative and adaptive intelligence of evolution itself. We are the agents of natural selection and, even as we imagine apocalypse, we should heed Darwin’s careful words: that we act only by ”accumulating slight successive favorable variations”; that we can produce “no great or sudden modification”; that change is achieved only “by very short steps.”

If Darwin is misunderstood, it may be the interpretation that natural selection is an objective force outside human nature, rather than one acting through human agency. It is natural then that we try and fail; natural, too, that we breed mutations; natural that we struggle and compete for life.

According to Aldo Leopold, we are evolving toward an Evolutionary Ethic, a more cooperative one. We will see. The darkest hour is before the dawn. We may still end the Night.

This article was also published at TomHayden.com.

[Tom Hayden is a former California state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice, and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His latest book is The Long Sixties. Hayden is director of the Peace and Justice Resource center and editor of The Peace Exchange Bulletin. Read more of Tom Hayden's writing on The Rag Blog.]

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Norman Pagett and Josephine Smit : Can We 'Downsize' and Survive?

Sewers under construction, north bank of the Thames looking west. Image from End of More.
The end of more:
Can we 'downsize' and survive?
We continue to delude ourselves that 'downsizing' will somehow allow us to carry on with our current lifestyle with perhaps only minor inconveniences.
By Norman Pagett and Josephine Smit / The End of More / April 25, 2013
"Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.” -- Winston Churchill
LONDON -- Faced with inevitable decline in our access to hydrocarbon resources, we read of numerous ways in which we will have to downsize, use less, work less, grow our own food, use goods and services close to home, consume only what we can manufacture within our own personal environment, or within walking distance.

If we are to survive, we must "live local" because the means to exist in any other context is likely to become very difficult. There is rarely, if ever, any mention of the healthcare we currently enjoy, which has given us a reasonably fit and healthy 80-year average lifespan.

There seems to be a strange expectation that we will remain as healthy as we are now, or become even healthier still through a less stressful lifestyle of bucolic bliss, tending our vegetable gardens and chicken coops, irrespective of any other problems we face.

And while "downsizing" -- a somewhat bizarre concept in itself -- might affect every other aspect of our lives, it will not apply to doctors, medical staff, hospitals and the vast power-hungry pharmaceutical factories and supply chains that give them round the clock backup.

Nor does downsizing appear to apply to the other emergency services we can call on if our home is on fire or those of criminal intent wish to relieve us of what is rightfully ours. Alternative lifestylers seem to have blanked out the detail that fire engines, ambulances and police cars need fuel, and the people who man them need to get paid, fed, and moved around quickly.

In other words "we" can reduce our imprint on the environment, as long as those who support our way of life do not. Humanity, at least our "Western" developed segment of it, is enjoying a phase of good health and longevity that is an anomaly in historical terms. There is a refusal to recognize that our health and well-being will only last as long as we have cheap hydrocarbon energy available to support it.

Only 150 years ago average life expectancy was around 40 years and medical care was primitive, basic, and dangerous. Children had only a 50/50 chance of reaching their fifth birthday. Death was accepted as unfortunate and inevitable, but big families ultimately allowed survival of a few offspring to maturity, which gave some insurance against the inevitable privations of old age.

The causes of disease, many of which we know to be the result of the filth and chaos of crowded living, contaminated water. and sewage, were merely guessed at. The overpowering smell of this waste was generally accepted as a cause of a great deal of otherwise unexplained sickness.

Even the ancient Romans built their sewers to contain the smells they considered dangerous; getting rid of sewage was a bonus. Malaria literally meant "bad air," and the name of the disease has stayed with us even though we now know its true cause.

Prevailing winds

As cities developed, particularly in Europe, the more prosperous quarters were, and still are, built in the south and west, to take advantage of the general prevailing winds blowing the smells of the city eastwards. Thus the east side of many cities had to endure the industrialization that created the prosperity of the western suburbs.

In many respects the populations of European cities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflected the problems of our own times: they were growing faster than any means could be found to sustain them. Cities were seen as sources of wealth and prosperity, so people crowded together in them, but in so doing they created the seedbeds for the diseases that were making the cities ultimately untenable.

To quote from Samuel Pepys’ Diary:
This morning one came to me to advise with me where to make me a window into my cellar in lieu of one that Sir W Batten had stopped up; and going down into my cellar to look, I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that My Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me. October 20th 1660; …
People were being debilitated and killed by the toxicity of their own wastes and that of the animals used for muscle power and food. By 1810 the million inhabitants of London (by then the biggest city in the world) used 200,000 cesspits; their contents could only be cleared out manually and so were usually neglected. Waste simply accumulated because no authority took final responsibility for doing anything about it, and any laws on the matter were widely flouted.

By the 1840s, water closets were coming into general use in more affluent homes through the availability of pumped water. While these were seen as an improvement on the chamber pots of previous eras, the water closets resulted in greater quantities of water flowing into the cesspits.

This water in turn overflowed into street drains that had only been created to take rainwater into ditches and tributaries of the River Thames. Improvements in personal hygiene, allowing the upper classes to "flush and forget," had unwittingly created an even bigger danger to public health for everyone else.

Cities and towns were expanding under the pressure of industrialization, but by continuing to use a pre-industrial infrastructure of waste disposal they were being constantly hit by outbreaks of diseases that swept through huddled tenements and luxury homes alike.

Draw off points for public drinking water were often carelessly close to sewage discharges, or the water came from town wells that were contaminated by overflowing cesspits. Cholera and typhoid fever became the scourge of Victorian London.

The Thames as it ran through the city became an open sewer, as tidal flows washed effluent back and forth twice a day. It was a problem that grew throughout the early part of the nineteenth century, culminating in the unusually hot summer of 1858 when bacteria thriving in the fetid water created what became known as the "great stink."

Even the business of government itself was overcome, and plans were made to evacuate parliament to Oxford or St Albans, such was the overpowering stench of the river. Even curtains soaked in chloride of lime could not counteract the smell of raw sewage coming up from the Thames outside, but at least it focused minds and money on the problem.

Numerous proposals were made to deal with it, but only Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the London Metropolitan Board of Works, came up with a workable solution. This was a truly stupendous undertaking that involved building 82 miles of intercepting sewers on the north and south banks of the Thames serving 450 miles of main sewers, linking to 13,000 miles of minor street drains. The completed system could deal with a daily waste output of half a million gallons of sewage.

The sewers were designed to take the raw effluent out to the coast to the north and south of London by gravity, terminating in giant pumping stations driven by Cornish beam engines each needing 5,000 tons of coal a year to keep them running. They lifted the sewage into giant reservoirs that discharged it out to sea on ebb tides. No attempt was made to treat the sewage, merely to get rid of it.

To build those sewers required 315 million bricks, and almost a million tons of mortar and cement. You can’t make bricks and mortar without heat, and lots of it. The only source of heat on that scale was coal, which could only be got in quantity by deep mining. With the heat energy from coal, Victorian engineers could manufacture top quality bricks by the million in enormous new kilns, rather than on the relatively small scale previously allowed by using wood as a heat source.

London embankment sewer brickwork under construction. Image from End of More.

A marvel of Victorian engineering

The entire scheme was completed between 1856 and 1870 and was a marvel of Victorian engineering, but it was only made feasible by fossil fuel energy. Coal from deep mines had only become widely available in the late 1700s, when the invention of the viable steam engine allowed miners to pump out flood water from deep shafts (the same type of steam engines that pumped the sewage to the sea).

Bazalgette’s enterprise was the biggest undertaking of civil works in the world at that time, and from firing the bricks to discharging waste into the open sea it depended entirely on the availability of cheap energy from coal. Even the delivery of the bricks and materials into the heart of the city could only have been done by the recently constructed steam powered railways.

The sewer system is out of sight and largely out of mind but remains a stark example of how we need continual energy inputs at the most basic level to sustain our health. The same sewers still keep London healthy today, and they discharge a hundred times the volume anticipated by Bazalgette’s original design.

It was ironic that burning cheap coal would save thousands of lives in the capital city by providing the means to build its sewers, while simultaneously causing thousands of deaths over the following century by poisoning its air until the introduction of the clean air act in 1956.

Every developed town and city across the world now safeguards the health of its citizens in the same way, by pumping away wastes to a safe distance before treatment. But to do it there must be constant availability of hydrocarbon energy. Electricity will enable you to pump water and sewage but it cannot provide all the infrastructure needed to build or maintain a fresh water or waste treatment plant; for that you need oil, coal, and gas.

Modern domestic plumbing systems are now made largely of plastic, which is manufactured exclusively from oil feedstock, while concrete main sewer pipes are produced using processes that are equally energy intensive. The safe discharge of human waste and the input of fresh water have been critical to health and prosperity across the developed world, yet we continue to delude ourselves that "downsizing" will somehow allow us to carry on with our current lifestyle with perhaps only minor inconveniences.

But we are even more deluded when it comes to the medical profession and all of the advanced treatments and technologies it can provide to keep us in good health for ever longer lifespans and make our lives as pain-free as possible. We have a blind faith that we can continue to benefit from a highly complex, energy-intensive healthcare system, irrespective of what happens to our energy supplies.

We read of the conditions endured by our not-so-distant forebears, and recoil in horror at the prevalence of the dirt and diseases they had to accept as part of their lives. We should perhaps stop to consider that they did not have the means to make it otherwise. In the absence of any real medical help, people who could afford them carried a pomander, a small container of scented herbs held to the nose as some kind of protection against disease and the worst of the city odours.

We think of ourselves as somehow different, but our modern health system will survive only as long as the modern day pomander of our hydrocarbon shield is there to protect it.

The last century saw massive advances in healthcare, driven by both fossil fuel and world war. The new technology and energy sources available at the start of the First World War allowed killing on an industrial scale but it also drove innovation and industrialization of medical care. The war saw the development of the triage system of prioritizing treatment for the wounded, and new means of transporting patients away from the dangers of the battlefield quickly.

In 1914 Marie Curie adapted her X-ray equipment into mobile units, specifically designed to be used in battlefield conditions. At the same time, disease was being contained with the help of mobile laboratories, tetanus antitoxin, and vaccination against typhoid. All this was no defence against the virus of the so called Spanish flu, which broke out and spread among troops and civilians alike, killing more people than the previous four years of conflict in a pandemic that ran from 1918 till 1920.

The war had killed 37 million people, and estimates put the total number of fatalities of the flu epidemic at up to another 50 million, but even those enormous numbers show as barely a blip when we look back on the inexorable rise in population in the last century.

Laying a foundation for modern medical care

The skills that had been employed to create the sewage disposal and fresh water pumping works of the nineteenth century now provided the foundations for making medical care and childbirth cleaner and safer in the twentieth.

But every innovation demanded energy input. Even the production of chlorine based bleach, which kills the bacteria of tetanus, cholera, typhus, carbuncle, hepatitis, enterovirus, streptococcus, and staphylococcus, and which we now take for granted, would not have been be possible without the industrial backup to manufacture and distribute it.

Incorrectly handled, chlorine will kill almost anything, including us. Progress in healthcare might have appeared slow to those involved, but in historical terms it began to move rapidly. Fossil fuel energy provided a cleaner environment for humanity to breed, and we began to make up the numbers lost between 1914 and 1920.

While human ingenuity was critical to such rapid progress, none of it would have been possible without the driving force of oil, coal, and gas. Our collective health today still hangs by that thread of hydrocarbon.

As the industrial power of nations forced technology ahead at an ever increasing pace after World War One, the underlying energy driving our factory production systems increased general prosperity, and that in turn financed research into unknown areas of disease.

Alexander Fleming, professor of bacteriology at St Mary’s Hospital in London first identified Penicillium mould in a petri dish in his laboratory in 1928, and began to recognize its potential for preventing post-surgical wound infections. But its full potential was not brought into play until World War Two, just over a decade later.

The drug had been created on the laboratory bench, but it needed the power of energy-driven industry to make it available in quantity. Constraints in Britain’s wartime manufacturing capacity meant that production had to be carried out in the U.S., and even there it proved difficult to refine the process to produce penicillin on an industrial scale.

John L Smith, who was to become president and chairman of Pfizer and who worked on the deep-tank fermentation process that provided a successful solution to large scale production, said of penicillin:
The mold is as temperamental as an opera singer, the yields are low, the isolation is difficult, the extraction is murder, the purification invites disaster, and the assay is unsatisfactory.
Even with the power of American industry behind it, penicillin only became available for limited use on war wounds by 1944/5, and was not made available for general use until after the war.

For little more than a century developments in safe drinking water supply, sanitation, and medical science have allowed us progressively to tackle many once-fatal diseases and illnesses. We minimized the risk of infection and created vaccines, cures, or life-prolonging treatments for everything from measles to cancers.

Western affluence and medical technologies support lives that would not otherwise be viable, for those who are born prematurely or who suffer serious injury, disability or illness. Medical treatment now incorporates preventative measures to extend lives and keep people in "perfect" health for as long as possible. As a result, average life expectancy across the global population has grown from just under 50 years in the 1950s to 67 years today.

So-called "miracle" drugs gave man a sense of omnipotence that tipped into hubris when, in 1969, U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart, was reported to have said it was time to “close the book on infectious disease.”

Fighting a losing battle

But we have not closed that book, nor are we likely to. Sir Alexander Fleming forecast that bacteria killed by his new wonder drug would eventually mutate a resistance to it. Within decades the effectiveness of antibiotics in tackling staphylococcus aureus bacteria was diminishing and the methicilin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA "superbug," was taking hold.

It is easy to forget that before the development of the antibiotic the medical profession could provide no effective cure for infections such as pneumonia, and a slight scratch from a rose thorn bush could be enough to cause death from blood poisoning.

We are fighting a losing battle against nature; bacteria will always win the war of numbers. No matter what medication we add to our arsenal, bacteria will always mutate to resist it. Since the emergence of MRSA, hospitals have had to deal with constantly mutating new strains, each one more virulent than the last, testing our ingenuity in dealing with them, and killing patients we thought could be protected from such infection.

In some regions of the world the malaria parasite is becoming resistant to the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, while drug-resistant tuberculosis has been reported in 77 countries, according to research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In our arrogance we have failed to take account of nature’s resilience, and have also neglected to consider human nature and our instinct to put self-interest above the common good, even if contagion is spread in the process. The behavior of the human race is less easily controlled than bacteria in a petri dish.

In less developed parts of the world, notably Africa, HIV/Aids and other infectious diseases continue to claim nearly 10 million lives a year. Global political directives and programmes to prevent and tackle disease are commonly falling short of their objectives for a variety of reasons, including localised corruption, lack of financial support from the wealthy West and misinformation propagated through local superstition or by religious groups.

Tending to the rich

In spite of the good intentions of global leaders, there continues to be a huge disparity between the health risks and care of rich and poor within cities, nations,and regions of the world. The U.S. has more than a third of the world’s health workers, tending the diseases of the affluent: heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Many of the consuming world’s ills are being caused by people’s excesses, eating too much of the wrong foods, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, or sunbathing. A billion of the world’s people are overweight, a figure that is balanced in the cruelest of ironies by the billion who cannot find enough to eat.

At the same time, the poor of the world often lack access to medical facilities, doctors, and drugs, and also to the basics of safe drinking water, sanitation, and waste disposal. It is estimated that almost half of the developing world’s population live without sanitation, and as increasing numbers of people are living in overcrowded, urban conditions the potential for transmission of infectious disease grows.

The consuming nations had the geological good fortune to be sitting on resources -- coal and iron -- that could be used to build water and waste disposal systems, but others have been far less fortunate. We now see megacities like Lagos and others with populations of 10 million or more with little or no water or sewage infrastructure, in tropical heat.

For them, the energy to build a modern health infrastructure is a dream that will never materialize: there is too little energy left and it has all become too expensive.

It is also becoming too expensive for the consuming countries of the west, as can be seen in the government cuts in health service budgets now taking place. We have developed extremely successful and innovative medical technologies, a pill for every ill and a physical infrastructure of surgeries, clinics and hospital buildings: all are highly sophisticated luxuries that we can no longer afford and consume vast amounts of energy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that hospitals use twice as much energy per square foot as a comparable office block, to keep the lights, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning on 24/7 and run an array of equipment from refrigerators to MRI scanners.

But don’t take our word for it. Dan Bednarz, PhD, health-care consultant and editor of the Health after Oil blog, presented his view of the future at a nurses’ conference in Pennsylvania, USA:
Fossil fuel costs will continue to rise and eventually the healthcare system will be forced to downsize -- just as the baby boomers and (possibly) climate change effects inundate the system.
Without energy input our hospitals and medical systems cannot be maintained at their present levels, and concepts of health and care become very different.

We are already seeing a resurgence of alternative medical therapies, often using herbs similar to those in the historic pomander. This foreshadows what will happen in your post-industrial future as well-fed health and wellbeing give way to weakness and disease, accentuated by poor nutrition, and the energy-driven skills of modern medicine are no longer readily available.

A doctor might have a knowledge of what ails you, but that might be almost his only advantage over his medieval counterpart. Knowing that you need an antibiotic to stop a raging infection will be of little use if there’s no means of getting hold of it.

Just contemplate the "innovative" methods of the surgeons in northern Italy’s medieval universities in the 1400s:
"They washed the wound with wine, scrupulously removing every foreign particle; then they brought the edges together, not allowing wine nor anything to remain within -- dry adhesive surfaces were their desire. Nature, they said, produce the means of union in a viscous exudation, or natural as it was afterwards called by Paracelsus, Pare, and Wurtz. in older wounds they did their best to obtain union by desiccation, and refreshing of the edges. Upon the outer surface they laid only lint steeped in wine.” -- Sir Clifford Allbutt, regius professor of physic, University of Cambridge
The modern health system has replaced our need to take responsibility for our own bodies. It cannot give us immortality, but it has given us the next best thing: long, safe, and comfortable lives. We built our good health on hydrocarbon energy, but in the future a wealth of factors will make it progressively more difficult for us to exert control over disease as that energy source slips from our grasp.

Disease will become more prevalent, not only in localized outbreaks, but at epidemic and even pandemic levels. Your healthcare system cannot downsize, it’s either there or it isn’t.

[Norman Pagett is a UK-based professional technical writer and communicator, working in the engineering, building, transport, environmental, health, and food industries. Josephine Smit is a UK-based journalist specializing in architecture and environmental issues and policy who has freelanced for British newspapers including the Sunday Times.Together they edit and write The End of More.]

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