Archive for December, 2014

To Successfully Deal with the Challenge of the Islamic State, the U.S. Must Accept that the Neo-Colonial Era Is Over.

December 31, 2014

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by Karl Meyer and Kathy Kelly

What to do about the political mess in the Middle East and the rise of the Islamic State and related political movements?

Shortly after the end of World War II, the Western powers and the whole world began to recognize that the age of explicit colonial domination was over, and dozens of colonies were let go of and took political independence.

It is now past time for the United States and other world powers to recognize that the age of neo-colonial military, political and economic domination, especially in the Islamic Middle East, is decisively coming to a close.

Attempts to maintain it by military force have been disastrous for ordinary people trying to survive in the affected countries. There are powerful cultural currents and political forces in motion in the Middle East that simply will not tolerate military and political domination. There are thousands of people prepared to die rather than accept it.

U.S. policy will find no military fix for this reality.

Stopping Communism by military imposition of subservient government did not work in Vietnam, even with the presence of a half million U.S. troops at one period, the sacrifice of millions of Vietnamese lives, the direct death of about 58,000 U.S. soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of U.S. physical and mental casualties, still ongoing today.

Creating a stable, democratic, friendly government in Iraq has not worked even with the presence of at least a hundred thousand U.S. paid personnel at one period, the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties and deaths, the loss of about 4,400 U.S. troops to direct death, and many more thousands to physical and mental casualties, ongoing today and for many more years to come. The U.S. military attack and occupation has led to fratricidal civil war, economic disaster and misery for millions of ordinary Iraqis trying to survive.

The results in Afghanistan are proving very similar: dysfunctional government, massive corruption, civil war, economic disruption, and misery for millions of ordinary people, at a cost of thousands of deaths, and uncounted thousands of Afghan, U.S., European, and allied casualties, that will continue to manifest symptoms for decades to come.

The U.S./European military intervention in the Libyan revolt left Libya in an unresolved condition of dysfunctional government and civil war.

The Western response to the rebellion in Syria, encouraging and fostering civil war, at the cost of death or misery for millions of Syrian refugees, has only made the situation worse for most Syrians.

We need to think, above all else, about the terrible costs of each of these military interventions for ordinary people trying to live, raise families and survive in each of these countries.

These awful failures of U.S. and European military intervention have led to immense cultural resentment among millions of serious and thoughtful people in Islamic countries of the Middle East. The evolution and emergence of the Islamic State and other militant movements is one challenging response to these realities of economic and political chaos.

Now the United States is engaging in another military intervention, bombing targets in areas of Islamic State control, and trying to persuade surrounding Arab states and Turkey to enter the fray by putting their troops at risk on the ground. The expectation that this will work out better than the interventions cited above seems to us another huge mistake, one that will be equally disastrous for ordinary people caught in the middle.

It is time for the U.S. and Europe to recognize that civil wars in the Middle East will be resolved by the emergence of the most powerful and best organized local movements, in spite of what the U.S. Government agencies, on the one hand, or worldwide humanitarian communities, on the other hand, might prefer.

They may also lead to the rearrangement of national boundaries in the Middle East that were arbitrarily set by European colonial powers a hundred years ago at the end of World War I. This has already occurred with Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and other eastern European countries.

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Kathy Kelly is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and a co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end economic sanctions against Iraq. She and her companions helped send over 70 delegations to Iraq, from 1996 to 2003, in (more…)

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11 of the Worst Policy Ideas of 2014

December 31, 2014

Health workers in Guinea. (photo: European Commission DG ECHO)
Health workers in Guinea. (photo: European Commission DG ECHO)

By Wonkblog Staff, The Washington Post

31 December 14

 

f we had to sum up 2014 in four words, they would be: “bold new policy ideas.” We needed them, and we didn’t get them. To be fair, though, some of them were actually new. And some of them were bold. But most of them barely qualified as ideas. Now, we don’t like to be nattering nabobs of negativism here at Wonkblog, but we do want our policymakers to do better. Or at least try harder. So, in the spirit of learning from our mistakes, here are the times when our leaders failed to answer the call in the most spectacular way possible. We invite you to add your own nominees in the comments, and without further ado, present the abbreviated version of the year that was in terrible policy.

Ebola quarantines for health-care workers

The first-ever cases of Ebola in America — timed with the midterm elections — prompted some notable fear-based policy prescriptions, such as suggestions that the United States shut off travel to the affected West African nations. But the strict, mandatory quarantines of health-care workers returning from Ebola’s front lines stands out among the worst policy response to the deadliest outbreak in the history of the virus.

On its face, the policy doesn’t sound too unreasonable: that health-care workers stay out of the public for 21 days upon returning from these countries. But the policy adopted by the governors of New York and New Jersey completely ignored how Ebola is spread, and it drew scorn from the medical community, who warned that the quarantines would threaten the ability to fight the virus at its source. “If we add barriers making it harder for volunteers to return to their community, we are hurting ourselves,” the New England Journal of Medicine wrote in a scathing editorial. Gov. Chris Christie’s office, in a New York Times story this past weekend, claimed the quarantine policy as a bipartisan accomplishment, and he earlier refuted that the quarantines would hurt the Ebola response.

Pilot’s licenses for drones

The Federal Aviation Administration is considering a rule that would require certification that can cost as much as $10,000 to operate a three-pound, battery-operated drone. The rule, as Drew Harwell wrote last month, would potentially add “a big new burden onto the first generation of small businesses using drones to cheaply shoot video, map land or monitor crops.” And it could place on a wedding photographer or farmer rules reminiscent of those used to govern massive, manned aircraft. As Harwell writes:

The rules, drone experts said, could potentially crush a high-tech, wide-ranging industry still in its infancy. In a survey of drone-related business owners, Colin Snow, the founder of Drone Analyst, said the market for small drones “would basically die” if regulators demanded rules like pilot licensing.

Banning fluoride in your water

The science is clear: Fluoride in water is a very good thing, because it prevents the decay of your teeth. The CDC heralds public water fluoridation campaigns as “one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.” Nonetheless, 2014 was another year in which anti-fluoridation campaigners scored some victories. The Fluoride Action Network lists a number of U.S. localities that rejected public water fluoridation this year, including the village of Wellington, Florida, in Palm Beach County, home to some 60,000 people. Earlier this year, Wellington’s city council voted to end fluoridation 14 years after the practice initially started. Dentists who stood up to defend fluoridation were, sadly, unable to stanch the flow of disinformation. “You can find all kinds of things on the Internet,” one of them observed, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Scapegoating Colorado for your state’s drug problems

Coming up with the Worst Drug Policy Idea of 2014 was tougher than we expected, in part because there were so many smart policy changes this year. From marijuana legalization to the reduction of sentencing requirements in California, the drug policy landscape was largely characterized by victories of common sense.

Still, a handful of politicians didn’t get the memo and continue to wage the Drug War like it’s 1984. Chief among them is Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who is leading a crusade against D.C.’s marijuana liberalization.

But the award for worst policy goes to the attorneys general of Nebraska and Oklahoma, who are so fed up with the hassle of arresting and jailing people for possessing small amounts of weed that they’ve sued their neighbor Colorado in the hopes of overturning its recreational marijuana market. Never mind that the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to save money on low-level pot offenses would be to simply, you know, stop throwing people in jail for low-level pot offenses.

Drug-testing welfare recipients

This isn’t a brand-new idea in 2014, but it’s gaining steam, particularly among Republican governors. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has argued that he wants to prepare welfare recipients for a labor market that will require them to be drug-free. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has argued that drug tests will save the state money by denying benefits to people who can’t pass them. Other proponents argue that testing will help ensure that poor children have drug-free parents, that taxpayers aren’t left aiding unworthy drug users, and that tax dollars aren’t spent — through cash assistance — on drugs themselves.

The problem? Drug testing is expensive (so is litigating over it). Itstigmatizes welfare recipients (who are no more likely to use drugs than people who don’t need welfare). It threatens to block benefits from needy families (including people who refuse drug testing on principle). The number of peoplecaught failing drug tests has been miniscule. And the whole idea has questionable legal merit. A few weeks ago, a federal appeals court struck down Florida’s 2011 law, which required drug testing of all welfare applicants even if officials had no reason to suspect drug use.

“Pension smoothing” to fund highways

The Highway Trust Fund, which helps states pay for vital infrastructure, has been running out of money for years (here’s a quick explainer on why). This summer, Congress needed to find about $10 billion dollars to temporarily prop up the fund (in the absence of a long-term solution, that is). So what did Congress do to generate that money? Raise the gas tax? Create a better road user fee? In a rare act of bipartisanship, Congress found more than half that money instead through “pension smoothing,” which is widely derided by everyone outside of Congress as a mere budget gimmick.

In effect, Congress allowed corporations to underfund their future pensions to create the semblance of more tax revenue today. A succinct NPR explainer of the trick:

It allows employers that offer traditional pensions to set aside less money for future retirees. That makes the companies appear more profitable in the short run so they — or their employees — pay more money to the government in taxes.

Blocking cities from selling their own Internet

Call it a public option for the Internet. Fed up with limited choices, high prices and shoddy service, many cities want to turn their back on large Internet providers by building their own municipal broadband service. Standing in their way are state legislatures, lobbyists for the telecom industry and even federal lawmakers who believe states should have control over what projects their cities invest in. Nearly two-dozen states have laws on the books that either ban municipal broadband outright or make it tremendously difficult for cities to gain permission to lay down public fiber optic cables. Kansas tried passing such a law this January with a bill written by the cable lobby. A few months later, Republicans pushed through a budget amendment that would explicitly prohibit federal regulators from siding with cities on the issue.

But some local jurisdictions are beginning to fight for their right to choose — and they’re winning. This year, seven Colorado communities collected enough votes to get past the state’s law designed to thwart muni broadband. And two towns, Chattanooga, Tenn. and Wilson, N.C., have asked the Federal Communications Commission to intervene against those state restrictions. The FCC is still weighing whether to do so, but the agency’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, seems inclined to do so.

Cutting the IRS budget

The spending bill Congress passed earlier this month slashes the budget for the IRS by $346 million. That means we’ve effectively cut money for the very people responsible for collecting money for public programs and services. This is bad policy, and bad math. As Max Ehrenfreund explained at the time:

This is deeply counterproductive.

When the IRS doesn’t have enough money to conduct audits of tax returns, it’s easier for cheaters to get away without paying their fair share. Extra money spent on enforcement is well worth it from the perspective of the country’s bottom line. By one estimate, every dollar cut from the IRS budget increases the deficit by roughly $7. It’s free money. Congress is throwing it away, choosing instead to increase the budget deficit and national debt at the expense of people who are playing by the rules.

Two-week tax extenders

Congress passed a $42 billion tax bill just before closing out this session that extended — for two weeks only — a mishmash of special tax breaks for owners of race horses and second homes in foreign countries, and business credits that do little to stimulate investment. Congress has never been able to agree on how to reform this set of breaks, known affectionately as “tax extenders.” Instead, lawmakers keep reauthorizing them every year, hoping they’ll find a compromise at some point in the future. As a result, tax extenders have become a kind of holiday tradition on the Hill.

This year’s bill retroactively extended tax breaks that technically expired at the end of the 2013, then authorized them only through New Year’s Eve. And so the next Congress will likely go through this same exercise again next year. Meanwhile, as Sen Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) complained this time around, “The well-heeled and the well-connected are the ones that get the tax extenders.” Instead of revisiting the extenders yearly, Congress could make them a permanent, regular portion of the tax code and find a way to pay for them. But confronting how much they really cost would be embarrassing for everyone involved.

Civil asset forfeiture

Police departments around the country have been using millions of dollars in assets seized from people who were never charged with a crime to fund purchases of everything from coffee machines to surveillance equipment to military-grade weapons. The money amounts to “a slush fund,” as one former Department of Justice official told The Washington Post this year. The practice isn’t new — in fact, critics have been decrying it for years. But the policy, known as civil asset forfeiture, has drawn renewed criticism this year amid heightened scrutiny of police tactics and equipment.

Police can seize property on little more than suspicion, and the suspects are often never charged — only 81 percent of the money is seized from people who are indicted, according to The Post’s analysis. In St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located, police seized property from 98 people last year. Only 23 of them were charged with a crime. In 2012, the department seized property from 88 people, filing charges against only seven. The federal civil asset forfeiture law, which allows local police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize, was originally created to combat drug organizations. Instead, the Post found, “it has been used as a routine source of funding for law enforcement at every level.”

Forcing the Fed to follow the Taylor rule

For six years, conservatives have warned that the Federal Reserve’s unconventional policies will spark 1970s-style inflation. And for six years, they’ve been wrong. Oh so wrong. Headline inflation has averaged just 1.4 percent over that time, the lowest since the 1960s.

But conservatives haven’t let reality get in the way of their concerns—buy overpriced gold!—about inflation. Instead of ending the Fed, though, they settled for just trying to control it. Specifically, they tried to force the Fed to pick a mathematical rule for setting interest rates, the idea being that this would rule out the Bernanke-era Fed’s foray into bond-buying and other, at least in the staid world of monetary policy, exotic policies. Not only that, but Congress would have gotten to audit the Fed’s decision-making, basically becoming the 13th member of the Federal Open Markets Committee. And if you think that’s a good idea, well, remember that some Republicans have fallen for the conspiracy theories about the government hiding all the inflation in Area 51 (or is it a FEMA camp?).

Monetary policy is boring, but important. Let’s leave it in the hands of the people who actually know things about the economy.

 

“No civilization would tolerate what America has done”

December 31, 2014

MONDAY, DEC 29, 2014 05:00 PM CST

Institutional racism. Rampant income inequality. A broken justice system. America may never be a great society
DAVID MASCIOTRA, ALTERNET
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TOPICS: ALTERNET, CIVIL RIGHTS, ERIC GARNER, FERGUSON, JESSE JACKSON, POLITICS NEWS

“No civilization would tolerate what America has done”
(Credit: Reuters/Richard Rowe)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.
AlterNet It seems police can get away with anything: choking men who have surrendered; shooting unarmed teens; knocking pregnant women to the ground. While the issues involving race, civil rights and the relationship between law enforcement and communities are essential for examination and correction, few are talking about how all of this fits into the larger pattern of America’s cultural decline and decay. America has become a society addicted to violence and indifferent to the suffering of people without power. Whenever there is a combination of a culture of violence and an ethic of heartlessness, fatal abuse of authority will escalate, and the legal system will fail to address it.

Critics are right to condemn the criminal justice system for its embedded inequities and injustices, but they are hesitant to condemn the actual jurors giving killer cops get-out-of-jail-free cards. These jurors are representational of America: ignorant and cold. They hear testimony from eyewitnesses claiming Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown while he had his hands in the air, and set Wilson free without trial. They listen to reports of three officers choking Robert Saylor, an unarmed man with Down syndrome who wanted to see a movie without a ticket, and they send the police back to work. They watch video footage of police choking Eric Garner in New York, and of two police officers brutally beating Keyarika Diggles, a woman in Texas, and they decline to make them pay for it.

Have they been programmed into cruelty and apathy by American schools, churches, families, politics, and pop culture?

There are practical demands that the sane minority of Americans can make as they march the streets of Ferguson, New York and Chicago. Body cameras on police officers is a technological aid to the people who live under military occupation from the blue army. Tougher requirements for entering the police force, and better training methods for those in the academy are essential, as is a sweeping and radical review, best led by the White House, of a racist and predatory criminal justice system.

 

Jesse Jackson has offered the excellent proposal that the Department of Justice begin investigating police departments to determine if they are following civil rights laws on hiring, employment issues and law enforcement policy. If they are not, as it appears with Ferguson, they should no longer receive any federal funding. Jackson’s idea to “fight civil rights violations with civil rights law” is a brilliant plan to punish police departments that obstruct justice, prevent further abuses by exerting financial pressure for compliance and strike a blow against the militarization of police. No more armored vehicles or special forces gear for police departments that do not hire minorities, or that systemically target Latinos and African Americans for arrest.

While this all seems unlikely to happen, let us pretend America magically transforms into a decent society and begins policing the police, moves toward fairness in criminal justice and actually prioritizes civil rights. There is still the cancer at the heart of a culture committed to venerating violence, celebrating selfishness and condemning compassion.

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman wrote the classic Manufacturing Consent, about the manipulative and exploitative relationship corporate media has with the American public. What if the consent is not manufactured? What if, as historian Morris Berman contends, the plutocratic theft of American lives and treasure is not actually a robbery, but a transaction?

William of Ockham famously devised the problem-solving principle, Occam’s razor: Cut away the unnecessary complications and the simplest answer to a question is most likely the correct answer. After all the analysis of the normalized dysfunction of democracy in America, launched with the assumption that the political system fails to represent the will of the people, the question remains: what if it actually does represent the will of the people? That the system is actually succeeding in upholding its representational promise might be the simplest and most probable answer to the mystery of America’s comatose slumber in a nightmare of torment for the oppressed and treasures for the oppressors.

More optimistic liberals will identify the masses of protestors filling the streets with rage and disgust over the state-sanctioned murder of two unarmed black men, but the thousands of people protesting in major cities are only the sane minority. The sane minority fights against the “silent majority” of Richard Nixon’s delight. The disgraced president was right in 1969 when he pointed out that the majority of Americans were not part of anti-war demonstrations or countercultural movements; they were his voters, and their children became Reagan’s voters. From beyond the grave, he is still right.

The police officers who shoot teenagers for the crime of stealing cigarillos, the cops who choke men to death and beat women, along with the police administrators and county prosecutors who protect them, are not from Mars. They are not lizards in disguise, as some of the wildest conspiracy theorists suggest. They are Americans. They are products of American institutions and culture, and they staff and supervise the enforcement of our laws.

In all of the attacks on the “system” for endorsing the behavior of murderous cops, few critics actually condemn those most responsible for the decisions not to press charges: the jurors. No one reasonable can doubt that the county prosecutor, Robet McCulloch, in Ferguson, did his best to corrupt the process, but clearly no one marching in solidarity with Michael Brown’s family would have let Darren Wilson live comfortably with the $1 million his supporters raised to assist him through his financial difficulties. A large part of the problem lies with the jurors who accepted their roles as McCulloch’s toys and Wilson’s collective shield.

There is no imaginable defense of the jury in the Eric Garner case. They had visual evidence of the police murdering a man begging for his life. They, like the police they protect, are average Americans. They are not cyborgs. They are your neighbors.

Twelve more Americans in Texas felt no horror or sympathy when watching two police officers beat Keyarika Diggles in a police station. Perhaps they viewed it with the same amusement we when watching the destruction of lives on reality television. One thing that is for certain is that they did not watch as decent human beings.

There is no question that the criminal justice system is racist, and that the American political system is vicious. Black people have always suffered the worst beating and battering in America, because the mental disease of racism is too viral to quickly heal. African Americans were three-fifths human during slavery, and it seems that in 2014, with a biracial man in the White House, they are four-fifths human. America has made progress, but no one but the blind can believe that black life has equal value as white life.

These “systems,” however, are not giant computers. They are institutions run and powered by people. The people are the face of America. Darren Wilson, Robert McCulloch and the jurors who failed to punish police officers for killing, are part of the silent majority. They are the same silent majority of voters responsible for the election of officials who dismiss poverty as an unimportant issue, who assault public education, and who continually call for the enhancement of killing Muslims in the Middle East. They are the same silent majority, 66 percent according to polls, who support air strikes against Iraq, and they constitute the 40 percent, which will only grow if the propaganda campaign picks up again, that support a ground invasion.

For a particularly horrific glimpse into the creep show of American values of violence, consider that, according to a recent Pew Report, 51 percent of Americans believe that torture, such as rectal feeding, waterboarding and other gruesome methods described in the Senate Intelligence Committee report, is justified. Another 20 percent said that they have no opinion.

It seems the jurors in the Brown, Garner and Diggles cases were easy to deceive, and in the case of Ferguson, likely because they had little knowledge of American history or law. They are likely part of the 71 percent of Americans who never read a newspaper, the 80 percent of American families who bought no books last year, and the 70 percent who cannot name a single part of the Bill of Rights.

They are the natural products of a culture that has steadily mutated into embracing destructive hyper-individualism. The for-profit healthcare system, the prison-industrial complex, and the bitter segregation along race and class lines in the public education system are also natural products, along with deranged and violent police who face no consequences for shedding blood. The victims of this culture, whether they are the children caught in the crosshairs of drone strikes or the women beaten in police stations, are made invisible or insignificant by myths of American exceptionalism and benevolence.

Speaking to me about Michael Brown’s death and the racial divide in America, Jesse Jackson said, “We’ve removed the layer of skin—the epidermis—that separates us. So now we can vote together, work together, date each others’ sisters, but this thing is bone-deep. That’s what people don’t want to acknowledge. We know how to survive apart, but we must learn how to live together.”

The acknowledgment of America’s need to learn to live together has a simplicity that masks its profundity. Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, documented the extent of Americans’ isolation from each other. Mass shootings, rates of violent crime higher than the rest of the developed world and outrages like Garner’s and Brown’s deaths demonstrate that the inability to peacefully coexist in America goes beyond race. It is a bone-deep dysfunction with social costs, political implications and spiritual disasters. Inequality will continue to grow and injustice will continue to worsen until America is made to actually deal with its levels of selfish indifference to suffering, from ordinary people on grand juries to those who occupy the highest thrones of power.

The sane minority might ostensibly protest the racism of the criminal justice system, but they are actually demanding that America become a civilized society. No civilization would tolerate what America has recently done, but it is that very concept —the idea of civilization—that the silent majority so fiercely seems to hate and reject.

David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). He writes regularly for the Daily Beast and Splice Today. For more information visit http://www.davidmasciotra.com.

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10 Good Things About the Year 2014

December 31, 2014
ublished on
by

(Photo: Daniel Arauz/flickr/cc)

It’s been a year of fervent activism on police accountability, living wages, climate change, personal freedoms, immigrant rights, an open internet and diplomacy over war. The electoral beating the Democrats received has prompted both the Administration and some spineless congresspeople to realize that support for progressive issues could reinvigorate their base —a realization that has already led to Obama’s executive action on immigration and the opening to Cuba.

So here are some of the 2014 highlights.

1. Uprising for police accountability. The movement for police accountability has swept the nation, spawning brilliant new leaders from communities most affected, giving a voice to the families who have lost loved ones and opening people’s eyes to the militarization of our police forces. It is an organic, grassroots movement destined to have a transformative impact on the struggle for racial equality. Keep an eye out in 2015 for CODEPINK’s campaign to demilitarize the police, Communities Organize to Demilitarize Enforcement.

2. Historic opening with Cuba. President Obama’s announcement that the US would work to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in over 50 years washistoric. It including a prisoner swap that led to the release of the final three members of the “Cuban 5”—a group unjustly imprisoned for trying to stop terrorist acts against Cuba. And it marks the end of Cuba policy being dominated by a small cabal of right-wing Cuban Americans. (CODEPINK is taking a delegation to Cuba for Valentines Day, learn more about it at codepink.org/cuba.)

3. Progress in talks with Iran. Iran and the six world powers announced they wouldextend an interim nuclear deal seven more months, and gave themselves four more months to reach a political agreement for a comprehensive nuclear accord. Despite intense opposition from the Israel lobby group AIPAC, as well as Republican and Democratic hawks, the U.S. and Iran are closer than ever to securing a historic agreement. It is a rare and commendable example of the Obama administration engaging in Middle East diplomacy instead of militarism.

4. Triumph of the fractivists. Out of a year of environmental progress ranging from the People’s Climate March to the US-China bilateral agreement on climate change, one of the most monumental victories has been in the anti-fracking movement. The New York State ban on fracking imposed by Governor Cuomo followed a long campaign waged by tireless grassroots activists. But that wasn’t the only victory. Voters in eight locales from Mendocino County, California to Athens, Ohio to Denton, Texas, won fracking bans on the ballot in the 2014 election. So did Canadian citizens in Quebec and New Brunswick. These victories have spawned a national conversation on fracking, with public support for the practice plummeting.

5. New gains for legalizing marijuana. With the majority of the country now supporting legalization, and Colorado and Washington proving that it actually works, new gains were achieved at the ballot box in Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. World leaders like former UN head Kofi Annan and presidents from Latin America called for an end to the drug war and for legally regulating drugs. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder continued to speak out against racist mandatory minimum drug laws and mass incarceration, while President Obama made national news declaring that marijuana is not more harmful than alcohol.

6. Massive wins for gay marriage. In decision after decision, courts in 18 states struck down gay marriage bans. It is now legal for gay couples to marry in 35 of the 50 states. A year ago, only about a third of Americans lived in states that permitted same-sex marriage. Today, nearly 65 percent of Americans do, making 2014 perhaps the biggest turning point in the history of same-sex marriage in the United States.

7.  Raises for minimum wage workers. From ballot initiatives and grassroots organizing to major legislative efforts, campaigns to raise the minimum wage gained momentumacross the country. Voters, cities and statehouses passed minimum wage increases. The states included Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, New Jersey and South Dakota; cities included San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Louisville and Portland,OR. And the calls for raises came from workers themselves: Black Friday saw the largest strikes ever against Walmart, with pickets and strikes at 1,600 stores in 49 states. And on December 5, fast-food workers went on strike in 190 cities. Congress might not be able to push through national legislation, but workers and local communities are not waiting!

8. Reform of immigration policy. In November, President Obama signed an executive order stopping five million people from being deported and allowing many to work legally. While it does not offer a pathway to citizenship, it does provide relief for millions of immigrants. And it was only possible because of the sophisticated organizing and sacrifices made by so many activists in the immigrant community.

9. Release of the torture report. For years, human rights advocates have been pushing for the release of the 6,000-page torture report compiled by the Senate Intelligence Committee–against vehement opposition from the CIA. The full report remains classified, and the 600-page executive summary was redacted by the CIA itself. The public deserves to see the entire report, but the fact that any of it was released is also a tribute to Senator Dianne Feinstein and her colleagues. It marks the beginning of our nation coming to grips with this sordid page of our history. The next chapter should include accountability–bringing to justice all those who authorized and participated in these shameful acts.

10. Palestine solidarity becomes mainstream. 2014 was horrific for Palestinians, with the Israeli war against the Gaza killing nearly 2,200, mostly civilians. But the invasion spawned unprecedented international solidarity with Palestine and huge steps forward for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS won the support of Christian congregations including the Presbyterian Church USA and academic groups like the American Studies Association. Activists shut down ports in California to stop the unloading of Israeli ships; they forced SodaStream to close its settlement-based factory, and the online shopping site GILT dropped AHAVA cosmetics, made in an illegal Israeli settlement in Palestine. In Europe, the movement has been hugely successful with country after country voting to recognize Palestine as a state and the European court ruling to remove Hamas from its list of terrorist organizations. Keep an eye out in 2015 for CODEPINK’s new campaign, No Open House on Stolen Land, targeting RE/MAX real estate company for selling illegal Israeli settlement homes.

The 2014 low electoral turnout and the Democratic defeat revealed how unenthused the public is about national politics. But it also revealed the popularity of progressive ballot measures. And the campaign pushing Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to run for President is putting populist economic issues into the national limelight and already influencing the positions of likely presidential contender Hillary Clinton. With this framework and the new energy infused into social justice and environmental activism, the progressive movement is poised to make significant gains in 2015.

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“Emergency shutdown” at one of world’s largest nuke plants — Local Official: “Radiation is 14 times higher than acceptable norm” in area

December 30, 2014
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ENENews


“Emergency shutdown” at one of world’s largest nuke plants — Local Official: “Radiation is 14 times higher than acceptable norm” in area; Warns of Chernobyl-type disaster — Gov’t: Levels are “within acceptable limits”, incident is under investigation — Second accident at plant this month

Posted: 29 Dec 2014 10:11 AM PST

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Walking: The Secret Ingredient for Health, Wealth, and More Exciting Neighborhoods

December 30, 2014

wlakinghealthy122814

Walking has been thought of as old-fashioned and a slow mode of transportation, but times are changing. Millions of Americans are taking to walking again and are already feeling its health benefits.

Walking is going places.

Over recent decades, walking has come to be widely viewed as a slow, tiresome, old-fashioned way to get around. But that’s changing now as Americans recognize that traveling by foot can be a health breakthrough, an economic catalyst, and the route to happiness.

Is walking the next big thing? Look to the media to give you an answer. Popular lifestyle magazine Real Simple declared it “America’s Untrendiest Trend” on its February cover. A month later Builder, a construction trade journal, announced something similar on its cover: “Walkability. Why We Care … and Why You Should Too.” A new book called A Philosophy of Walking, reviewed in The New Yorker, asserts that walking “makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing.”

And one of the year’s top music videos, “Happy” by soul singer Pharrell Williams, shows all kinds of people strutting, stepping, striding, and sashaying down city streets. It’s an exuberant celebration of walking and has been viewed more than 500 million times on YouTube.

There is sure to be continuing coverage of foot power next year when the Surgeon General’s office releases a Call to Action on the health and social benefits of walking and walkable communities—a step some are comparing to the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking.

Already the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all adults engage in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, such as walking, five days a week. It has been proven to lower incidences of major medical problems—not just heart disease, diabetes and obesity, as you might expect, but also depression, dementia, and other serious conditions.

This flurry of attention about walking is more than a flash in the pan. Evidence that millions of Americans are now rediscovering walking to fulfill their transportation, fitness, and recreation needs is as solid as the ground beneath our feet.

Americans Are Getting Back on their Feet

“Walking is the most common form of physical activity across incomes and ages and education levels,” explained Thomas Schmid of the federal CDC at a conference in Pittsburgh last fall. The CDC’s most recent research shows that the number of Americans who walk for leisure or fitness at least once a week rose to 62 percent in 2010 from 56 percent in 2005—that’s almost 20 million more people on their feet.

Walking is already more prevalent across the United States than most of us realize. Paul Herberling of the U.S. Department of Transportation noted that 10.4 percent of all trips Americans make are on foot—and 28 percent of trips under a mile. For young people, it’s 17 percent of all trips. Americans walk most frequently for exercise, errands, and recreation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Last year the first ever Walking Summit was held in Washington, D.C., drawing more than 400 people from 41 states and Canada. A second summit is scheduled for October 28–30, 2015, in D.C.

The 2013 summit, which sold out weeks in advance, marked the birth of a new walking movement committed to: encouraging everyone to walk more; and boosting policies, practices, and investments that make communities everywhere more walkable. It was convened by the Every Body Walk!Collaborative, a joint effort involving more than 100 influential organizations across many fields to promote walking as part of the solution to problems ranging from chronic disease and health care costs, to climate change and the decline of community.

Walking also strengthens our social connections, which have been shown to be as important to health as physical activity, says Kaiser Permanente Vice-President Tyler. The more we are out walking, the more people in our community we come to know.

Americans overwhelmingly view walking as a good thing, according to a nationalsurvey . Here’s what it found:

-Good for my health (94 percent)

-Good way to lose weight (91 percent)

-Great way to relax (89 percent)

-Helps reduce anxiety (87 percent)

-Reduces feelings of depression (85 percent)

Americans Are Voting With Their Feet

Even the American dream is being remodeled to meet the public’s growing enthusiasm for walking. Sixty percent of Americans would prefer to live in neighborhoods with stores and services within easy walking distance, according to a recent survey from the National Association of Realtors—nearly twice as many who want to live where stores can be reached only by car.

This is especially true for the millennial generation, which is now entering the workforce and housing market in large numbers and will shape the future of American life as dramatically as the baby boomers did in the 1960s and 1970s. “With drastically different views of transportation from those of generations that came before them, millennials are transforming communities,” notes anotherreport from the National Association of Realtors. “Millennials own fewer cars and drive less than their predecessors. They’d rather walk, bike, car-share, and use public transportation—and want to live where that’s all easy.”

Why Walking? Why Now?

What’s driving the growing passion for walking? “It’s a convergence of factors,” says Christopher Leinberger, a real estate developer, George Washington University business professor, and a leading advocate for walkable communities. Those factors are:

1. The well-established link between walking and better health , which is reinforced by recent research pointing to the dangers of sitting for long periods of time. A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition that charts 240,000 Americans between ages 50 and 71 found that “overall [time] sitting was associated with all-cause mortality”.

2. The accelerating costs of owning one, two, or more cars, which many Americans, especially younger people, find a poor investment of their resources. Transportation is now the highest cost in family budgets (19 percent) next to housing (32 percent). In auto-dependent communities—where walking is inconvenient and unsafe—transportation costs (25 percent) approach housing costs (32 percent).

3. Metropolitan areas with many walkable neighborhoods do better economically than those with just a few. Leinberger’s recent report “ Foot Traffic Ahead“ finds that walkable metropolitan areas “have substantially higher GDPs per capita” and a higher percentage of college graduates. Office space in walkable locations enjoys a 74 percent rent-per-square-foot premium over offices in auto-oriented developments in America’s 30 largest metropolitan regions.

4. More people discovering the personal satisfactions of walking.“Seeing friends on the street, walking to work, strolling out for dinner or nightlife” are among the pleasures of walking that enrich our lives, says Leinberger.

Walking Means Business

Firms in the booming tech, information, and creative industries are at the forefront of the trend toward walkable communities because the coveted young talent they need to stay competitive want to work in places that are a short stroll from cafes and cultural attractions.

The first thing Google did after buying the electronics firm Motorola Mobility was to move its headquarters away from the freeways and strip malls of Libertyville, Illinois, to the walkable environs of downtown Chicago. “They felt like they couldn’t attract the young software engineers they needed” to an isolated 84-acre complex, says Leinberger. Other companies that recently moved from suburban Chicago to the city include Medline, Walgreen’s, Gogo, GE Transportation, Hillshire Brands, and Motorola Solutions.

“Two things seem to resonate for businesses about the importance of walkability—how to attract the best workforce and wanting to locate in communities where health costs are lower,” says Mark Fenton, a former U.S. National Team race walker who now consults on public health planning and transportation. Employees with more opportunities to walk at work and at home are healthier, meaning lower insurance rates for their firms.

From his vantage point at the CDC, Thomas Schmid observes, “If a business is located in a community that is not healthy, they’re paying more to be there. Think of it as a tax or cost of doing business because of health care costs.” One company relocating to Chattanooga, he said, would do so only if a walking and bike trail was extended to their facility.

The Challenges to a More Walkable America

The walking movement has picked up a lot of momentum in a very short time. “The wind is behind our sails,” says Kate Kraft, a public health expert working with EBWC and America Walks. But she goes on to note that “it took 80 years to make America unwalkable, and it will take a lot of work to make it walkable again.”

Last year’s national survey on attitudes about walking accentuates these challenges. By a huge majority, people say that walking is good for them but admit that they should walk more (79 percent) and that their children should walk more (73 percent). Only 11 percent say they meet the CDC’s recommended daily minimum for walking—half an hour a day, five days a week.

Common reasons cited for not walking are:

-My neighborhood is not very walkable (40 percent)

-Few places within walking distance of my home (40 percent)

-Don’t have time (39 percent)

-Speeding traffic or lack of sidewalks (25 percent)

-Crime in my neighborhood (13 percent)

Solutions for a More Walkable America

Here are some of the promising developments, strategies, messages, and tools that are now emerging to promote walking:

Vision Zero for Safe Streets : As many as 4,500 Americans are killed crossing the street every year—a tragedy that very few people acknowledge. But there’s hope that will change now that New York City, San Francisco, and other places are implementing Vision Zero campaigns to reduce traffic deaths through street improvements, law enforcement, and public education. Similar policies in Sweden cut pedestrian deaths in half over the past five years—and reduced overall traffic fatalities at the same rate. “Vision Zero is the next big thinking for walking,” saysAlliance for Biking & WalkingPresident Jeff Miller.

Federal Action Plan on Pedestrian Safety: New U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recently announced an all-out effort to apply the department’s resources to boost bike and pedestrian safety the same as they do auto and airline safety. Secretary Foxx—former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina—notes that pedestrian deaths rose 6 percent since 2009. “Bicycling and walking is as important as any other form of transportation,” he says.

Safe Routes to Schools : Half of kids under 14 walked or biked to school in 1969. Now it’s less than 15 percent. Safe Routes to School campaigns work with families, schools, and community officials to identify and eliminate barriers that block kids from getting to school under their own power. “We’re finding that the best interventions include both infrastructure improvements and programming. You put the sidewalks in but also get parents involved,” explains Margo Pedroso, deputy director of the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership.

Walking as a Basic Human Right : Walking has been shown to optimize our health and strengthen our communities, which means everyone should have equal opportunity to do it. But low-income people often find it difficult or dangerous to take a walk in their neighborhoods, which often lack sidewalks and other basic infrastructure. Studies show that pedestrians in poor neighborhoods are up to four times more likely to be injured in traffic accidents. This theme is now being addressed by many transportation activists and professionals.

Communities for People of All Ages : The mark of a great community is whether you’d feel calm about letting your 80-year-old grandmother or 8-year-old son walk to a nearby park or business district, says Gil Penalosa, former park director of Bogota, explaining why he founded 8-80 Cities. Too many young and old people today live under virtual house arrest, unable to get anywhere on their own because driving is the only way to go.

Complete Streets: The simple idea that all streets should offer safe, convenient, and comfortable travel for everyone—those on foot, on bike, on transit, in wheelchairs, young, old or disabled. Twenty-seven states and 625 local communities across the U.S. have adopted Complete Streets policies in some form.

The Healing Properties of Nature and the Outdoors: Not all exercise offers the same health benefits, according to a growing body of researchshowing that outdoor physical activity, especially in nature, boosts our health, improves our concentration, and may speed up our natural healing process. A walk in the park is not only more interesting than a workout at the gym, but it may also be healthier too. The Wingspread Declaration—recently signed by 30 of America’s leading health officials, researchers, and non-profit leaders—calls for business, government, and the health care sector to step up efforts to reconnect people with nature.

Walking as a Medical Vital Sign : There’s an initiative afoot among public health advocates to encourage health care professionals to chart their patients’ physical activity the same as they do weight, blood pressure, smoking, and family health. Ascension Health (with 1900 facilities in 23 states) Kaiser Permanente (648 facilities in 9 states), Group Health (25 clinics in Washington state), and Greenville Health System (7 facilities in South Carolina) are among the health providers already doing it.

Walk With a Doc: Walking has the lowest drop-out rate of any physical activity, which is why Ohio cardiologist David Sabgir started Walk With a Doc: to sponsor events in parks and other public places where people can talk to health care professionals while taking a casual walk. Walk With a Docnow operates in 38 states.

Signs of the Times: Many people are so out of practice with walking that they don’t realize how convenient it is. That’s why architecture student Matt Tamasulo posted signs in Raleigh, North Carolina, explaining that key destinations were only a few minutes away by foot. The city soon embraced his guerrilla campaign, and official walkway-finding signs can now be found around town. Tamasulo has launched Walk [Your City] to help other communities show how easy it is to get around on your own power.

Walking is Fun: “Walking is still not seen to be as sexy as biking,” says Robert Ping, program manager for Walking and Livable Communities Institute. “We could focus more on walking as recreation—the stroll through the neighborhood after dinner, going around the block, walking down to the park, meeting your neighbors. Something that’s not only utilitarian and good for the environment, but that’s fun!”

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. He is also a contributor to Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference, from YES! Magazine. His website: JayWalljasper.com

10 Most Important Environmental Stories of 2014

December 30, 2014

environmentlist122814

Climate change and energy dominate 2014’s most important environmental stories. It is nice seeing positive environmental changes that will improve our world’s future.

The calendar is about to flip over once again, meaning it’s time for the obligatory roundup of the most important environmental stories of the past year.

This list is mostly subjective—my own personal picks, filtered through my own lens. But I did reach out to a several dozen environmental activists and thinkers to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. I asked folks to give me their suggestions not necessarily for the “biggest” news as measured by headlines or page views or likes, but for the most important stories. That is, happenings likely to have an impact on ecosystems, politics, economy and culture beyond 2014.

Not surprisingly, climate change and energy once again dominate the list. But there was also some important news in wildlife conservation and loss, forest protection and politics. Without further ado, here’s my list of the top 10 most important environmentally related stories of 2014.

1. Obama Finally Acts on Power Plant Emissions

In June, Obama’s EPA announced draft rules to slash carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: Mario Goebbels
In June, Obama’s EPA announced draft rules to slash carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: Mario Goebbels

President Obama has been a reluctant warrior when it comes to the environment. In his first term he focused on dealing with the biggest financial meltdown and recession in a generation, and then passing his signature health care reform. Now, hamstrung by an oppositional Congress, he’s found that one of the issues on which he can use his executive authority to make real progress is climate change.

In June, Obama’s EPA announced draft rules to slash carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Once finalized in 2015, the rules are expected to slash power plant emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030 (from a 2005 baseline). Fossil fuel interests are attempting to challenge the rules in court, but the administration’s actions rest on solid legal footing. In a landmark case in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that “greenhouse gases fit within the [Clean Air Act’s] capacious definition of an air pollutant.” Here’s how Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune described to me the importance of the rules for a story I wrote for The Daily Beast:

“This is the kind of leadership that we’ve needed for a long time. And the impacts on clear energy will be huge. For the first time we are regulating carbon [dioxide] from arguably the largest source of carbon [dioxide] in the U.S. Unlike every single other pollutant, there has never been any limit on the amount of carbon pollution that can be dumped into the atmosphere. And [now] that will change. And that change is profound—it’s historic.”

2. U.S. and China Agree to Cut Emissions

“But what about China?” That line—usually delivered in the equivalent of a falsetto whine—has long been the fossil fuel industry’s centerpiece complaint about any U.S. actions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In short: U.S. actions don’t matter as long as other major polluters resist making emissions reductions. Here’s a classic bit of concern trolling from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a week after the power plant rules were announced: “The problem is that the climate is a global issue, not just a U.S. one. … To date, China, India and other major emitters have shown no interest in reducing their emissions appreciably.” Well, the chamber lost that talking point (and President Obama chalked up a major diplomatic accomplishment) when, in November, the U.S. and China announced a bi-lateral agreement to tackle climate change. The U.S. promised to cut emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025—a significant boost from Obama’s earlier goals to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020. (Again, these numbers are from a 2005 baseline). For their part, the Chinese pledged that their emissions would peak sometime around 2030, and also that they would generate at least 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by that year.

To be sure, there’s a lot of wiggle room in the non-binding pledge, which merely outlines what the two nations “intend” to do. Still, climate hawks agree that this is a Very Big Deal. Together, China and the U.S. account for about 45 percent of total greenhouse gas emission, so what these giant emitters intend matters. Their joint pledge—however squishy—keeps hope alive that climate negotiators meeting in Paris in December 2015 will be able to craft a global agreement to ratchet down emissions.

3. A Vibrant, Diverse U.S. Climate Movement Emerges

While the sheer size of the People's Climate March in New York was clearly important, the diversity of the participants was even more so. Photo credit: maisa_nyc'Flickr
While the sheer size of the People’s Climate March in New York was clearly important, the diversity of the participants was even more so. Photo credit: maisa_nyc’Flickr

The turnout blew away organizers’ expectations. The constellation of environmental and social justice groups behind the Sept. 21 People’s Climate March in New York City were hoping to enlist at least 100,000 people to participate in their mass mobilization. At least three times as many people turned out for what observers agreed was the largest climate demonstration in history. Let me just say that again: the largest climate demonstration in history.

While the sheer size of the march was clearly important, the diversity of the participants was even more so. There’s a persistent and pernicious assumption among political observers that only white, affluent, college-educated people care about the environment and climate change. The New York demonstration (along with other marches in cities and towns worldwide) revealed what a lie that bit of snark is. Trade unions played a major role in organizing the march, and young people of color from environmental justice organizations led the massive column. In its ethnic, religious, and age diversity, the march looked like New York City. Global leaders couldn’t help but notice. In a speech just a few days later at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama alluded to the demonstration when he said: “Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.”

4. Oil Train’s a’ Comin

My 2013 list of top environmental stories included the horrific July 2013 oil train explosion in the Quebec town of Lac Megantic that killed 47 people. But it wasn’t until this year that reporters, environmental groups and community organizations caught up to the fact that shipping oil by rail is 1) a growing practice that 2) poses a real threat to public safety and 3) is frightfully under-regulated. The sudden burst of attention was due, in large part, to spate of oil-by-rail accidents in late 2013 and 2014. In November 2013 a train carrying 2.7 million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken fields exploded near Aliceville, Alabama. A month later, a train collision in Casselton, North Dakota spilled 400,000 gallons of petroleum. And then on April 30, 2014, an oil train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia, forcing the evacuation of 300 people. People began waking up to the fact that, as Adam Federman wrote in our Summer issue, “Each day million of gallons of highly combustible oil are moving through major metropolitan areas.”

With the U.S. shale oil boom continuing and pipelines stretched to capacity, oil-by-rail will continue to be a hot topic in 2015. Photo credit: Roy Luck
With the U.S. shale oil boom continuing and pipelines stretched to capacity, oil-by-rail will continue to be a hot topic in 2015. Photo credit: Roy Luck

National newspapers like The New York Times have jumped on the issue, as have environmental groups like Forest Ethics and Earthjustice, which just this month filed a lawsuit to ban the DOT-111 cars that most oil is shipped in. According to a story in Mother Jones, the DOT-111 is like “the Ford Pinto of rail cars.” Federal regulators are belatedly taking action. In July, the US Department of Transportation proposed new rules to govern shipping crude by rail; even Republicans applauded the move. But the issue is far from settled. With the U.S. shale oil boom continuing and pipelines stretched to capacity, oil-by-rail will continue to be a hot topic in 2015.

5. Election #Fail

In Case You Missed It, there was a big election this year. Going into November, environmentalists were cautiously optimistic that big spending byTom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action PAC and the League of Conservation Voters could help make climate change a wedge issue in several key contests. And so tens millions of dollars were spent in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Colorado, New Hampshire and Iowa to elect climate champions and/or defeat climate deniers. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go according to plan.Environmentalists came up with a 2-4 record in the major races in which they picked a fight and spent heavily. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, will now chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Ouch.

But all is not lost. The massive investments made to organize Millennial voters, especially, may pay off in the long run—or as early as 2016. The spending in 2014 might soften the ground for electoral contests to come. On the eve of the election, NextGen released a voter survey showing that younger voters overwhelmingly acknowledge that climate change is real, are dismissive of climate science deniers, and want to see federal action to stem greenhouse gas emissions. As veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said in a conference call explaining the poll results: “This issue matters for Millennials. It is defining issue, and leaders that deny or decline to act will pay a serious price for this politically.”

There were a few bright spots. Foremost among them, the vote by residents of Denton, Texas to ban fracking within the city limits. That’s right—Texas, the birthplace of hydraulic fracturing. According to environmental advocates, the vote in Denton shows that once people get to see fracking close and personal, they don’t much like it, and want to see the practice stopped. The oil and gas industry has filed a lawsuit to overturn the citizens’ vote; Big Green groups are rallying to Denton’s defense. Keep an eye on this one in 2015.

Though not election related, in another surprise win for environmentalists, on Dec. 17 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide ban on fracking following a two-year review that raised “red flags” about its risks to public health. The move is being seen as a major setback for the oil and gas industry.

6. Cargill Promises to Stop Contributing to Deforestation

Probably the most concrete progress to come out of the September UN Climate Summit was the New York Declaration on Forests, a pledge by multinational companies such as Asia Pulp and Paper and Unilever to cut worldwide deforestation in half by 2020 and to eliminate it completely by 2030. One of the signatories was Cargill, the privately held agri-business giant. As CEO Dave MacLennan said at the UN: “We understand that this sort of commitment cannot be limited to just select commodities or supply chains. That’s why Cargill will take practical measures to protect forests across our agricultural supply chains around the world.”

In a word, this is HUGE. From the pantanal of Brazil—where forests are razed for soy plantations and cattle ranches—to the ancient peat forests of Borneo—where trees are cut down to make plant massive palm monocrops—agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation worldwide. We are humans are, quite literally, eating up wild nature.

Of course, it’s one thing to make a pledge; it’s another thing to keep it. Environmental groups and other public interest watchdogs will have to stay on top of national governments and mega-corporations to ensure they keep their promises. Here’s hoping they do.

7. Wildlife Continues to Decline

There are now only five white rihnos left in the world. Our sheer numbers and our relentless appetites are chewing up the space for other critters. Photo credit: Arno Meintjes
There are now only five white rihnos left in the world. Our sheer numbers and our relentless appetites are chewing up the space for other critters. Photo credit: Arno Meintjes

It was probably the most depressing single bit of news of the year: In September, the World Wildlife Fund released a report concluding that in the 40 years between 1970 and 2010, the populations of birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish fell by 52 percent. “There is a lot of data in this report and it can seem very overwhelming and complex,” Jon Hoekstra, chief scientist at WWF, said in a statement releasing the findings. “What’s not complicated are the clear trends we’re seeing—39 percent of terrestrial wildlife gone, 39 percent of marine wildlife gone, 76 percent of freshwater wildlife gone—in the past 40 years.”

It’s no coincidence that even as wildlife populations have been cut in half, human numbers have nearly doubled; in 1970 there were 3.7 billion people on Earth, while today there are more than 7.2 billion. If you put those two trends on a graph, you get something resembling the muzzle of a blunderbuss—the prototype of the rifle. And blowing away the rest of nature is exactly what we’re doing.

The dire figures are a reminder that climate change isn’t the only threat to the planet’s health. Our sheer numbers and our relentless appetites are also chewing up the space for other critters, in the process diminishing the wonder and the beauty of Earth.

8. California Drought

Folsom Dam, the source of water for about 500,000 Sacramento-area residents, was at just 18 percent of capacity in January 2014. The drought in California, now in its fourth year, is not even close to being resolved by recent rains. Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker
Folsom Dam, the source of water for about 500,000 Sacramento-area residents, was at just 18 percent of capacity in January 2014. The drought in California, now in its fourth year, is not even close to being resolved by recent rains. Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker

This isn’t a parochial inclusion just because I happen to live in California. The drought in California—now in its fourth year, and not even close to being resolved by some recent rains—is big news since the Golden State growsnearly half of the U.S.’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and is also the number one dairy state. What happens to California agriculture affects the whole country.

Make no mistake, the drought is climate-related. Or, in the words of scientists at Stanford: “The atmospheric conditions associated with the unprecedented drought currently afflicting California are “very likely” linked to human-caused climate change.” The California drought is important news because it’s (yet another) glimpse of things to come in a hotter, drier American West. And it’s an indicator of how an intensely concentrated agriculture sector is susceptible to climate shocks.

Currently California produces 99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach and 69 percent of carrots, as Slate reports here. In a world beset by an unstable climate, perhaps this isn’t the smartest idea. We need to rethink our strategy of putting all of our eggs—or, as the case may be, almonds—in one basket.

9. California Bans Plastic Bags

OK, maybe this one is parochial—but for good reasons. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law making California the first state in the U.S. to ban plastic bags. The new law—which will go into effect in at large supermarkets in 2015 and corner stores in 2016—also puts in place a 10-cents-per-bag surcharge on paper bags or compostable bags offered to customers, creating an even greater incentive for shoppers to bring reusable bags to the store. (Customers buying groceries with food assistance won’t have to pay for the bags.)

Many grocery chains are in favor of the new law. “History was made today, and our environment and economy will be better for it,” Ronald Fong, president of the California Grocers Association, told CNN as the bill was signed. The plastics industry—not so much. Plastic bag makers have launched an effort to get an initiative on the state ballot to overturn the law, meaning this issue is still in flux.

Plastic bags—flimsy, ugly, prone to getting caught in the wind and fueling sophomoric musings—are like the mascot of an economy built on disposability. By banning them, California legislators took an important step toward stemming single-use plastics and made an important statement against wastefulness.

10. Wolves on the Move

The gray wolf spotted near the North Rim of Grand Canyon. Gray wolves continue to increase their range and find new places where they can thrive.
The gray wolf spotted near the North Rim of Grand Canyon. Gray wolves continue to increase their range and find new places where they can thrive.

Despite the disgusting predator-killing contests, and the continued hysterical fears, and the fact that they’ve been dropped from Endangered Species Act protection in many states, gray wolves continue to increase their range and find new places where they can thrive.

In July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that the famous wolf known as OR7 had sired three pups in southern Oregon after spending years roaming hundreds of miles looking for a mate. The revelation came just a month after the California Fish and Game Commission voted to add the wolves to the state’s endangered species list, meaning that if any members of OR7’s new pack cross the state line, they will enjoy additional protections.

Then, in November, a single gray wolf was spotted near the North Rim of Grand Canyon, in Arizona. DNA tests of its scat revealed the animal, which is wearing an inactive radio collar, came from the population of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. Meaning the animal had walked some 450 miles down the spine of the continent.

Amazing. Or, I would dare to say, inspiring. The new wolf pack in Oregon and the lone wolf at the Grand Canyon are proof of that wild nature can recover and rebound from past wounds if only we humans will allow it. Hope springs eternal.

Greed Kings of 2014: How They Stole from Us

December 30, 2014

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The theft of society’s wealth may be due to ignorance as well as to greed. Why are we wrongly being advised that the best way to defuse the situation is to teach tolerance for inequality?

The Merriam-Webster definition of ‘steal’ is to take the property of another wrongfully and especially as a habitual or regular practice. Much of our country’s new wealth has been regularly taken by individuals or corporations in a wrongful manner, either through nonpayment of taxes or failure to compensate other contributors to their successes.

1. The Corporations

As schools and local governments are going broke around the country, companies who built their businesses with American research and education and technology and infrastructure are paying less in taxes than ever before. Incredibly,over half of U.S. corporate foreign profits are now being held intax havens, double the share of just twenty years ago. Corporations are stealing from the nation that made them rich.

There are many examples of greed among individual firms. Based largely on 2014 SEC documents submitted by the companies themselves:

Exxon has almost 80% of its productive oil and gas wells in the U.S. but declared only 17% of its income here. The company used a theoretical taxto account for 83% of last year’s income tax bill, and paid less than 2% of its total income in current U.S. taxes.

Chevron has about 75% of its oil and gas wells and almost 90% of its pipeline mileage in the United States, yet the company claimed only 13% of last year’s income in the U.S., and paid almost nothing (less than 1/10 of 1%) in current U.S. taxes.

Pfizer had 40% of last year’s sales in the U.S., but claimed losses in the U.S. and $17 billion in profits overseas.

Bank of America, despite making 84% of its 2011-2013 revenue in the U.S., declared just 31% of its profits in the United States.

Citigroup had 43% of its 2011-2013 revenue in North America but declared less than 3% of its profits in the United States.

Apple still does most of its product and research development in the United States. Yet the company moved $30 billion in profits to an Irish subsidiary with no employees, with loopholes in place to avoid establishing residency in any country. The subsidiary files no returns and pays no taxes. Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “We pay all the taxes we owe.”

Google’s business is based on the Internet, the Digital Library Initiative, and the geographical database of the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet the company has gained recognition as one of the world’s biggest tax avoiders.

2. The Forbes 40

Defenders of inequality argue that fortunes are deserved because of innovation and hard work. But many of the 40 Americans who own as much as the poorest half of the country have relied on less deserving means of accumulating great fortunes (details here).

—Warren Buffett’s company (Berkshire Hathaway) made a $28 billion profit last year, yet claimed a $395 million refund.

—The Koch brothers have taken clean air and water from us.

—The Walton siblings take our tax money to subsidize their employees.

—Larry Ellison was #1 on Sam Pizzigati’s Greediest of 2014 list.

The rest of the Top 40 List (details here) is speckled with instances of fraud, tax avoidance, and billionaire subsidies. The worst is probably hedge fund manager John Paulson, who has built a $13 billion fortune after conspiring with Goldman Sachs in 2007 to bundle and bet against sure-to-fail subprime mortgages that took the homes from millions of Americans.

Speaking of hedge fund managers, the carried interest loophole allowed just 25 individuals to take almost $5 billion from society last year by claiming that their income is different from the rest of ours.

3. The Deniers

After 35 years of wealth theft there are still inequality deniers — notably theAmerican Enterprise Institute, which claims that income inequality has been shrinking since 1989, and that we should be asking whether or not the bottom 60% are paying their fair share.

Another insult from The Federalist: Income Inequality Is Good For The Poor.

The Reason Foundation tops it off, advising us that the best way to defuse the situation is to teach tolerance for inequality.

All of which suggests that the theft of society’s wealth may be due to ignorance as well as to greed.

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Bio: Paul Buchheit is a college teacher with formal training in language development and cognitive science. He is the founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (UsAgainstGreed.org, RappingHistory.org, PayUpNow.org), and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

The Empire Is Collapsing, and Americans Will Be the Last to Know

December 30, 2014

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50 years from now historians will probably be writing about the fall of the American empire. But history is writing itself furiously in the present, accelerated by the revolution of global freedom of information. What would have taken years to unlikely gather is accessible to anyone with a few strokes on a computer keyboard. So never mind the historians of the future, and lets  see how  reality is shaping up today.

In my last commemoration of 9/11/2001, I made the argument that the crumbling period of the United States empire started on this tragic day. Since then, a chain of events so dire occurred that it would seem the empire defeated itself by a series of catastrophic mistakes. After 9/11,  Americans wanted revenge, and the war in Afghanistan became a very easy sale for the Bush administration. But then the neo-cons seized the opportunity to push their agenda  of the New American Century project, and it was precisely the Achille’s heel  of the empire.

Attacking Iraq: The Biggest Geopolitical Blunder In History

When the Bush administration attacked Iraq in 2003, a critical element escaped their understanding of the regional and demographic parameters: By toppling the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein, they would give the upper hand to the oppressed Shia Iraqi majority allied with Iran.

In a word, the US troops who fought and died in the conflict did it ultimately for the regional benefit of the Iranian Islamic Republic. The blunders did not stop with geopolitics, but were compounded by a catastrophic financial burden.

The Cost Of Wars in Iraq And Afghanistan Is Bankrupting The US Economy

If the Pentagon was a corporation, it would be the largest in the world. The curiously called, Department Of Defense, costs the  American taxpayers, since the ill advised attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, around $700 billion a year. Of course, if you add up health care for wounded veterans, and  layers of new “security” administration such as the Department of Homeland Security,   the numbers keep adding up to top $1 trillion a year. Overall more than 25 percent of the federal budget gets swallowed in the financial black hole that is the Pentagon.

If Americans could do the math, they would quickly understand that the bill for the two wars is now creeping up to $10 trillion. In order to achieve the chimeric goals of the neocons of an ever lasting global American empire money had to be borrowed. Currently, for every dollar spent by the federal government 40 cents is borrowed. America used to borrow mainly from Japan and Europe. but now does its main borrowing from China. In a striking reversal of fortune, the “poor man of Asia” has now become the country in the world with the most liquid assets.

Empires Always Have An Expiration Date

Americans have a delusional  sense of historic exceptionalism which they share with most previous empires. After all America’s ascension to a leading role on the world scene is very recent. The deal was sealed in Yalta in 1945 between Stalin and Roosevelt, with Churchill present but already taking the back seat. In a matter of 5 years, and about 60 million deaths, two news empires had emerged from the ruin of three: the United States and the Soviet Union. On the losing side of history was, of course, Japan, the empire of the sun, but also Britain and France.

The old imperial powers of Britain and France were slow to fully understand the nature of the new game. It took the loss of India for the United Kingdom, in 1948,  and the one of Indochina for France in 1951 to make them understand that they would have from now on an ever shrinking role on the world stage. However, it took 9 years for Britain and France to fully digest the consequences of Yalta. In 1956, France and Britain took their very last joint imperialist venture by attacking Egypt over the ownership of the Suez Canal. The decaying empires were told to back off by the United States and the USSR.

A Repressive Capitalist  Globalization Or The Revolution Of Global Freedom Of Information ?

The Cold War was a fairly predictable era. Beside a few crisis such as the flash point of  the Cuba missile crisis, the two super-powers fought to augment their respective turfs thought proxy wars. But Afghanistan came along for the Soviets, and the long war made the USSR collapsed. Naturally the United States started acting as the only super-power left, and for this reason as the master of the universe.

The narrative of Ronald Reagan is peppered by such elements, and so is the one of all of his successors including Barack Obama. But all empires had the same  distorted visions of themselves, the Romans imposed the Pax Romana on their vassals for a long time , so did Charlemagne, and Napoleon for a much shorter time. In any sense, power is cyclical and never lasts.

Thanks to WikiLeaks and the courage of his founder Julian Assange and the one of  Pentagon’s whistleblower Bradley Manning, it has become rather obvious that while President Obama has changed the official tone of Washington from the Bush administration, the overall goals of US foreign policies have remained  the same: Ensure and expend  US power and authority on vassal states. This push to establish a new world order under exclusive US authority has been prevalent in all of the US administrations since Ronald Reagan and the end of the cold war.

President Obama, despite what could be his personal convictions is a prisoner of this imperial system. Obama is trapped by a complex nexus of inter-locking institutions such as the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department etc, and by powerful interest groups profiting from endless wars. The very same institutions and interest groups have been at the core of every post-1945 imperial presidency. As early as 1946, president Harry Truman said: “From Darius’ Persia, Alexander’s Greece, Hadrian’s Rome, Victoria’s Britain; no nation or group of nations has had our responsibilities.”

However, most analysts and foreign policy experts currently assume that the present century will not be American. In this tectonic  power shift, under the push of China and India, the emerging new world order will be plural and decentralized. But the main question is: How Americans will adapt to this new paradigm where the United States loses its status of uncontested leadership?

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Hawaii’s GMO Ban Is Now Official! Mayor Kenoi Signs Bill 113

December 30, 2014

Hawaii's GMO Ban Is Now Official! Mayor Kenoi Signs Bill 113

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Mayor Billy Kenoi signed Bill 113 on December 5, 2013. Below is the message he sent to the Hawai’i County Council:

Aloha, Chair Yoshimoto and Members:

On Nov. 19, 2013 the Hawai’i County Council adopted Bill 113 Draft 3 adding a new article relating to Genetically Engineered Crops and Plants, and on Nov. 21, 2013 delivered the bill to me for my consideration. After careful deliberation and discussions with members of my administration and the public, I am signing Bill 113.

Our community has a deep connection and respect for our land, and we all understand we must protect our island and preserve our precious natural resources. We are determined to do what is right for the land because this place is unlike any other in the world. With this new ordinance we are conveying that instead of global agribusiness corporations, we want to encourage and support community-based farming and ranching.

The debate over this bill has at times been divisive and hurtful, and some of our hard-working farmers who produce food for our community have been treated disrespectfully. We are determined to protect every farmer and rancher. Agriculture on Hawai’i Island will continue to grow with county assistance, investment and support. That commitment includes initiatives such as the public-private partnership to improve and expand the Pa’auilo Slaughterhouse to support our grass-fed beef industry, and the launch of the Kapulena Agricultural Park, the largest agricultural park in the state on 1,739 acres of county-owned land. It also includes support for innovative training programs to grow the farmers of the future, and to train veterans to engage in agriculture on Hawaiian Home Lands, and the introduction and advancement of Korean Natural Farming as a sustainable method of producing healthier crops and livestock. It includes completion of the first-in-the-state Food Self-Sufficiency Baseline Study of Hawai’i Island to measure the island’s progress toward food self-sufficiency.

We are determined to reunite our farming community to create a stronger and more vibrant agricultural sector. It is time to end the angry rhetoric and reach out to our neighbors. Our farmers are essential to creating a wholesome and sustainable food supply on this island, and they deserve to be treated with respect and aloha. We must turn now to a meaningful, factual dialogue with one another.

With my approval of this bill, our administration will launch a year of research and data collection to investigate factual claims and to seek out new directions that farming in our community should take. This work will include an expanded database detailing the locations of both organic and conventional farms, the crops that are grown, more accurate estimates of the revenue earned from these enterprises, and the challenges our farmers face in meeting food safety and organic certification requirements. We will work with our farmers and our ranchers to carefully monitor the impacts of this bill over the next year to separate speculation and guesswork from the facts.

Today our communities expect that government will be as cautious as possible in protecting our food and water supplies. We all want to minimize impacts to the environment while also producing abundant, affordable food for local consumption. This ordinance expresses the desires and demands of our community for a safe, sustainable agricultural sector that can help feed our people while keeping our precious island productive and healthy.

Aloha,

William P. Kenoi
MAYOR

Download a PDF of Mayor Kenoi’s message to the Hawai’i County Council

Source: The Office of Mayor Billy Kenoi