Truthout Stories http://www.truth-out.org Mon, 25 May 2015 13:33:40 -0400 en-gb Not Lovin' It: Thousands Storm McDonald's Head Quarters to Protest Low Wages http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30968-not-lovin-it-thousands-storm-mcdonald-s-hq-to-protest-low-wages http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30968-not-lovin-it-thousands-storm-mcdonald-s-hq-to-protest-low-wages

In the largest protest of its kind, thousands of McDonald’s employees stormed the company’s headquarters today to demand that it stop spending millions manipulating stock prices, and start paying workers a living wage. McDonald’s cashiers and cooks came to the company’s shareholders meeting, at its corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. More than 100 were arrested for refusing to leave the property.

Marching with them were Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry; Moral Mondays movement leader Rev. William Barber; Rev. Marilyn Pagán Banks of North Side Power/A Just Harvest in Chicago, Illinois; and Rev. Rodney E. Williams of the Swope Parkway United Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

The company, which banned media from its shareholders meeting on May 19, responded by shutting down its corporate headquarters.

 

McDonald’s is already under fire worldwide for dodging €1 billion in corporate taxes in Europe, and violating labor laws in Brazil. Now its in hot water back home for a share buyback scheme designed to inflate the company’s stock price, which means more money in the already well-lined pockets of shareholders and company executives. The company recently announced plans to return $18 to $20 billion to shareholders by 2016, through dividends and share buybacks.

Thousands of workers swarmed the company’s headquarters to protest McDonald’s spending nearly $30 billion manipulating stock prices instead of paying its workers a livable wage. Some carried blown-up copies of their paychecks to illustrate how little McDonald’s invests in its workers vs. how much is spends repurchasing shares.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project released a statement in support of the protest:

“McDonald’s workers are rightly bringing the fight for $15 an hour and the right to form a union to their employer’s doorstep. For too long, the McDonald’s business model has served to enrich executives and short-term shareholders at the expense of workers and taxpayers. It’s time McDonald’s face the people who fry its fries and serve its customers but who are forced to pay for groceries with food stamps because McDonald’s does not pay them enough to feed their families.

“In the last decade, McDonald’s spent $30 billion on share buy backs—a widely discredited and short-sighted strategy to pump up the value of its stock. Spending billions on buybacks may provide short-term payoffs for a handful of rich investors, but it does nothing to benefit the company’s hundreds of thousands of employees, who are barely making ends meet. In fact, it misplaces resources that would be better used investing in growing the company or raising worker pay.

“More than half of fast-food workers are forced to rely on public assistance to support themselves and their families. McDonald’s costs taxpayers $1.2 billion every year in public assistance. McDonald’s is a $5 billion global corporation; its employees should not need to rely on food stamps, and taxpayers should not be subsidizing its profits.

“Today, as the workers protested, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Wage Board held its first hearing to significantly raise pay for fast-food workers across the state. And just yesterday, Los Angeles became the biggest city yet to vote for a $15 minimum wage, which is fast becoming a new baseline for workers across the country. The McDonald’s workers who are standing up and fighting for $15 and union rights are winning. This fight is not theirs alone—all of us have a stake in it. And when they finally get $15, all of us will be better off.”

The protest comes on the heels of the largest-ever strike against the fast food industry last month, when workers joined walkouts in 236 cities, as well as strikes and protests in 40 countries.

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News Mon, 25 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Farmers Fight Real Estate Developers for Kenya's Most Prized Asset: Land http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30967-farmers-fight-real-estate-developers-for-kenya-s-most-prized-asset-land http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30967-farmers-fight-real-estate-developers-for-kenya-s-most-prized-asset-land

2015.5.25.Kenya.1David Njeru, a farmer from central Kenya, attends to his cabbages. This community is at risk of being displaced from their land by powerful real estate developers. (Photo: Miriam Gathigah/IPS)

Ngangarithi, Kenya - Vegetables grown in the lush soil of this quiet agricultural community in central Kenya’s fertile wetlands not only feed the farmers who tend the crops, but also make their way into the marketplaces of Nairobi, the country’s capital, some 150 km south.

Spinach, carrots, kale, cabbages, tomatoes, maize, legumes and tubers are plentiful here in the village of Ngangarithi, a landscape awash in green, intersected by clean, clear streams that local children play in.

Ngangarithi, home to just over 25,000 people, is part of Nyeri County located in the Central Highlands, nestled between the eastern foothills of the Abadare mountain range and the western hillsides of Mount Kenya.

In the early 20th century, this region was the site of territorial clashes between the British imperial army and native Kikuyu warriors. Today, the colonial threat has been replaced by a different challenge: real estate developers.

Ramadhan Njoroge, a resident of Ngangarithi village, told IPS that his community’s worst fears came to life this past January, when several smallholder families “awoke to find markers demarcating land that we had neither sold nor had intentions to sell.”

The markers, in the form of concrete blocks, had been erected at intervals around communal farmland.

They were so sturdy that able-bodied young men in the village had to use machetes and hoes to dig them out, Njoroge explained.

It later transpired that a powerful real estate developer in Nyeri County had placed these markers on the perimeters of the land it intended to convert into commercial buildings.

The bold move suggested that the issue was not up for debate – but the villagers refused to budge. Instead, they took to the streets to demonstrate against what they perceived to be a grab of their ancestral land.

“We cannot have people coming here and driving us off our land,” another resident named Paul Njogu told IPS. “We will show others that they too can refuse to be shoved aside by powerful forces.”

“I was given this land by my grandmother some 20 years ago,” he added. “This is my ancestral home and it is also my source of livelihood – by growing crops, we are protecting our heritage, ensuring food security, and creating jobs.”

But Kenya’s real estate market, which has witnessed a massive boom in the last seven years, has proven that it is above such sentiments.

Those in the business are currently on a spree of identifying and acquiring whatever lands possible, by whatever means possible. It is a lucrative industry, with many winners.

The biggest losers, however, are people like Njoroge and Njogu, humble farmers who comprise the bulk of this country of 44 million people – according to the Ministry of Agriculture, an estimated five million out of about eight million Kenyan households depend directly on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Land: The Most Lucrative Asset Class

Last September, Kenya climbed the development ladder to join the ranks of lower-middle income countries, after a rebasing of its National Accounts, including its gross domestic product (GDP) and gross national income (GNI).

2015.5.25.Kenya.2This woman, a resident of Ngangarithi village in central Kenya, uses fresh water from the surrounding wetlands to irrigate her crops. (Photo: Miriam Gathigah/IPS)

The World Bank praised the country for conducting the exercise, adding in a press release last year, “The size of the economy is 25 percent larger than previously thought, and Kenya is now the fifth largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa behind Nigeria, South Africa, Angola and Sudan.”

According to the Bank, “Economic growth during 2013 was revised upwards from 4.7 percent to 5.7 percent [and] gross domestic product (GDP) per capita changed overnight, literally, from 994 dollars to 1,256 dollars.”

The reassessment, conducted by the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics, revealed that the real estate sector accounted for a considerable portion of increased national earnings, following closely on the heels of the agricultural sector (contributing 25.4 percent to the national economy) and the manufacturing sector (contributing 11.3 percent).

David Owiro, programme officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a local think tank, told IPS, “Kenya’s land and property market is growing exponentially.”

His analysis finds echo in a report by HassConsult and Stanlib Investments released in January this year, which found that the scramble for land in this East African nation is due to the fact that land has delivered the highest return of all asset classes in the last seven years, up 98 percent since 2007.

Land prices in the last four years have risen at twice the rate of cattle and four times the rate of property, while oil and gold prices have fallen over the same period, researches added.

Advertised land prices have risen 535 percent, from an average of 330,000 dollars per acre in 2007 to about 1.8 million dollars per acre today. Thus, equating land to gold in this country of 582,650 sq km is no exaggeration.

According to Owiro of the IEA, a growing demand for commercial enterprises and high-density housing in the capital and its surrounding suburban and rural areas is largely responsible for the price rise.

Government statistics indicate that though the resident population of Nairobi is two million, it swells during the workday to three million, as workers from neighbouring areas flood the capital.

This commuter workforce is a major driver of demand for additional housing, according to Njogu.

As a result, two distinct groups who see their fortunes and futures tied to the land seem destined to butt heads in ugly ways: real estate developers and small-scale farmers.

What Is Sustainable?

While the land rush and real estate boom fit Kenya’s newfound image as an economic success story, they run directly counter to the United Nations’ new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), due to be finalised in September.

The attempt to seize farmers’ land in Ngangarithi village reveals, in microcosm, the pitfalls of a development model that is based on valuing the profits of a few over the wellbeing of many.

2015.5.25.Kenya.3A farmer shows off his aloe plants, popular among farming families in central Kenya for their medicinal value. (Photo: Miriam Gathigah/IPS)

Farmers who have lived here for generations not only grow enough food to sustain their families, they also feed the entire community, and comprise a vital link in the nation’s food supply chain.

Taking away their land, they say, will have far-reaching consequences: central Kenya is considered one of the country’s two breadbaskets – the other being the Rift Valley – largely for its ability to produce plentiful maize harvests.

In a country where 1.5 million people experience food insecurity every year, according to government statistics cited by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), pushing farmers further to the margins by separating them from their land makes little economic sense.

Furthermore, encroachment by real estate developers into Kenya’s wetlands flies in the face of sustainable development, given that the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) has identified Kenya’s wetlands as ‘vital’ to its agriculture and tourism sectors, and has urged the country to protect these areas, rich in biodiversity, as part of its international conservation obligations.

For Njogu, the land rush also represents a threat to an ancient way of life.

He recounted how his grandmother would go out to work on these very farmlands, decades ago: “Even with her back bent, her head almost touching her knees, she did all this for us,” he explained.

“When she became too old to farm, she divided her land and gave it to us. What if she had sold it to outsiders? What would be the source of our livelihood? We would have nowhere to call home,” he added.

Already the impacts of real estate development are becoming plain: the difference between Ngangarithi village and the village directly opposite, separated only a by a road, has the villagers on edge.

“On our side you will see it is all green: spinach, kale, carrots, everything grows here,” Njogu said. “But the land overlooking ours is now a town.”

Various other villagers echoed these sentiments, articulating a vision of sustainability that the government does not seem to share. Some told IPS that the developers had attempted to cordon off a stream that the village relied on for fresh water, and that children played in every single day, “interacting with nature in its purest form,” as one farmer described.

“I am not fighting for myself but for my children,” Njogu clarified. “I am 85 years old, I have lived my life, but my great-grandchildren need a place to call home.”

Villagers’ determination to resist developers has caught the attention of experts closer to the policy-making nucleus in Nairobi, many of whom are adding their voices to a growing debate on the meaning of sustainability.

Wilfred Subbo, an expert on sustainable development and a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, told IPS that a strong GDP is not synonymous with sustainability.

“But a community being able to meet its needs of today, without compromising the ability of its children to meet their own needs tomorrow, [that] is sustainable development,” he asserted.

According to Subbo, when a community understands that they can “resist and set the development agenda, they are already in the ‘future’ – because they have shown us that there is an alternative way of doing business.”

“Land is a finite resource,” Subbo concluded. “We cannot turn all of it into skyscrapers.”

 

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

This reporting series was conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons

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News Mon, 25 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"There's Nothing Left": Women's Future Under the Conservatives in the United Kingdom http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30966-there-s-nothing-left-women-s-future-under-the-conservatives-in-the-uk http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30966-there-s-nothing-left-women-s-future-under-the-conservatives-in-the-uk

The United Kingdom went to the polls on Thursday 7th May. The second polls closed at 10PM, the BBC were able to reveal the results of their exit poll. The projected outcome - a huge swing to the incumbent Conservatives, the decimation of their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, and a sizeable loss of seats for the Labour party countered all previous opinion polling, which repeatedly projected a dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives, making a hung parliament seem a certainty for the second time in five years. Twelve hours later, as the results cascaded in, the BBC’s poll looked too cautious in its predictions for the Conservatives. After an election campaign in which every politician, journalist and analyst was confident the UK would see a hung parliament, David Cameron had secured a majority, and returned to Downing Street, unfettered by his former coalition partners.

When this reconfigured parliament sits for the first time, a change in make up will be evident amongst the new faces. More Conservatives, more Scottish Nationalists, but also more women. The number of women in the House of Commons rose by a third after all seats were returned. It’s a cheering statistic on its own, but one that merits more scrutiny. Of the 650 seats elected last Thursday, nearly 100 had all male candidates on the ballot paper. Even with the significant hike in the number of women MPs, the proportion still dwindles below a third - 191 women in parliament, compared to the 147 elected at the last election.

Of the big name politicians who lost, a large proportion were men, but for the Liberal Democrats, the loss of Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone means of their eight remaining politicians, none are women. Esther McVey, the Conservatives’ employment minister lost her Merseyside seat, and has been replaced by Priti Patel, albeit still in a male dominated cabinet.

But numbers aside, the outlook for women in the next government is far bleaker. Five years of cuts and austerity hit women in Britain far harder than men, with 80 per cent of public spending cuts affecting women. The Conservatives ran their campaign on an economic platform, arguing that they were the only party to continue to reduce the country’s deficit. Whether a deficit reduction programme is necessary or desirable depends on your political outlook, but both the Conservatives and Labour bought the neoliberal argument that austerity was the only option throughout the campaign.

Now in office, and with a majority, the Conservatives have to fulfil their election commitment to cut £12bn from the welfare budget - a sum that amounts to a 10 per cent cut in all non-pensioner spending. For those reliant on welfare benefits to make ends meet, the disabled, the low-waged, the families in poverty, this is almost unthinkable. The exponential rise in food bank demand, as a result of sanctions and stagnant wages, was arguably the most alarming fallout from the coalition’s time in office. Further cuts will not just entrench, but deepen suffering.

The Conservatives were curiously loathe to explain where the cuts would come from. To cut £12bn from the welfare budget requires some very deep cuts to benefits that have already been squeezed and reordered. Unconvincing mutterings from Conservative Party headquarters claimed the cuts would be achieved through behaviour change - but this is a canard, that is very revealing of the Conversative attitude towards poverty. People claim benefits because they need to - either their employer pays wages too low to live on and the state is forced to subsidise these business by paying benefits to their staff, or people are unable to work and feed their children, and need cash benefits to make ends meet. A ‘change in behaviour’ won’t stop the need for benefits. Someone disabled won’t suddenly decide they can work after all. A young mother won’t wake up and decide she can afford to work, pay her rent and bills and shell out for extortionate childcare purely by force of will.

Documents leaked to the Guardian newspaper mooted the shape of cuts considered by the Department for Work and Pensions. They include capping child benefit at two children, removing housing benefit for people under the age of 25, and making it harder for sick people to claim state aid when out of work. Some floated cuts affect women directly, such as making employers contribute more to the cost of statutory maternity pay, or as an alternative, abolishing it entirely.

Often women’s rights are seen as a continuum. Once fought and gained, it can be easy to assume those rights are secure, accepted as a societal duty and more, and the next battle can be fought. But threats to maternity pay can’t be seen as anything other than an attack on women’s position - if women have to choose between reproducing and working, we are intrinsically seen as second class citizens. During the last parliamentary term, huge cuts to legal aid and the introduction of fees for employment tribunals attacked women’s right to work free from discrimination. Women sacked for getting pregnant, or sexually harassed in the workplace only had access to justice if they also had access to capital. The poorest women were hung out to dry - this will only be compounded by attacks on maternity pay.

For women who do have children, and can’t find work, the leaked documents also propose forcing single parents, predominantly women, on benefits to seek work when their youngest child reaches the age of three. Currently, single parents have a duty to seek work once their youngest child reaches five years old, the age when they start full time education. At the age of three, any mother seeking work will need to find a job that pays for the extortionate childcare costs necessary for her to start work.

But as well as fresh cuts, the poorest women in the UK will experience more of the same. And “business as usual” for women in the United Kingdom since the recession has meant deep cuts and entrenched inequality. Prior to the election result, the abolition of the bedroom tax looked quietly imminent. The Labour party had promised to abolish it if elected, and Liberal Democrats had come out against it, meaning even a Conservative coalition government may have had to agree to a deal to scrap the controversial policy. Instead, the Conservatives will leave it in place. One in four households affected are single parent families, predominantly women, losing around £800 a year in benefit, and being forced deeper and deeper into debt and poverty. In total, 60 per cent of all people affected by the bedroom tax are women. Over 340,000 of the families hit by the Bedroom Tax are single women, compared to 160,000 single men and 160,000 couples. For the two years the policy has been in place, many households have just about managed to keep their heads above water, through applying for emergency grants from councils, to selling belongings. But those survival tactics only last so long: the discretionary housing payments for councils are temporary payments that are rarely permitted for longer than one or two years. On visiting a woman in Bradford affected by the bedroom tax, it was stark how bare her home was: barely any furniture, no electronics, just large, sparsely decorated rooms in an area with no smaller homes to move into. “I’ve sold it all,” she explained. “There’s nothing left.”

Equally, the rollout of Universal Credit - a much botched consolidation of multiple benefit payments - will continue. Many women’s groups and domestic violence charities have raised concern about the policy, which pays benefits to one person in a household. The potential for financial abuse and manipulation is heightened as a result: for women at risk of abuse, having all benefits paid to your partner leaves you completely financial dependent. The policy is a gift to abusers, and overlooks the many reasons benefits were paid directly to women for so long.

Breaking down the statistics, of the British population living in relative poverty, 40 per cent are women, and 23 per cent are children. Five years of the worst cuts since Margaret Thatcher’s government saw many people clinging desperately to a semblance of a life. A Conservative majority government promising deeper cuts that Thatcher looks set to rip that away, leaving a lost generation of women disenfranchised and alienated by poverty.

When you speak to the women affected, two things are stark - the anger and the fact that they are very aware that, contrary to right-wing ideology, poverty is neither something that passively happens to an individual, or a symptom of personal and moral failings. It is structural and economic violence inflicted on a section of society. The attempted atomisation of the poorest in society may not work though - when individuals reach a breaking point, rather than give up, they often fight back. Five years of cuts has pushed the women’s sector and the poorest women to the brink. Further cuts may act as the touch paper for wider resistance and fightback.

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Opinion Mon, 25 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Success! Los Angeles Votes to Raise Minimum Wage to $15 http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30965-success-l-a-votes-to-raise-minimum-wage-to-15 http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30965-success-l-a-votes-to-raise-minimum-wage-to-15

The Los Angeles City Council approved a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour by 2020 in a preliminary vote that found only one of fifteen members dissenting.

Los Angeles currently has a $9 per hour minimum wage. The new measure raising the wage to $15 must return to the council for final approval.

Care2 teamed with LA Raise the Wage to petition the city council for a minimum wage increase, gathering thousands of signatures for the members’ consideration.

Like other cities who have implemented recent wage increases, the process will take place in increments over the defined period of years. According to Reuters, City Councilman Curren Price Jr. prefaced the preliminary vote by saying, “We are embarking upon, I think, the most progressive minimum wage policy anywhere in the country.”

ThinkProgress highlights that Los Angeles is the largest city in the country to move toward a $15 minimum wage. Seattle and San Francisco are the other largest regions to adopt that wage level. The highest new wage in the country is held by Emeryville in California, where minimum earners will be making nearly $16 an hour by 2019.

News of the Los Angeles wage hike comes alongside congressional Democrats’ new bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020. The current federal minimum wage is only $7.25 per hour, an amount that couldn’t realistically support a single individual in many U.S. localities.

Naturally, many Republican critics of minimum wage increases cite fears of layoffs in their resistance to raising workers’ pay. But the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) data actually shows that raising the minimum wage just to $10.10 has a projected positive impact on 95 percent of workers and results in $2 billion of real income growth.

Los Angeles is positioning itself as a national leader in the fight for increased worker wages.

Will New York City step up next?

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News Mon, 25 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Bernie Sanders Takes It to Wall Street With Financial Transactions Tax http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30964-bernie-sanders-takes-it-to-wall-street-with-financial-transactions-tax http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30964-bernie-sanders-takes-it-to-wall-street-with-financial-transactions-tax

2015.5.25.Sanders.mainSen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who recently announced he is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 6, 2015. (Photo: Zach Gibson/The New York Times)

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Last week Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont and only announced challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, took a strong stand for everyday people. He proposed a financial transactions tax (FTT), effectively a Wall Street sales tax, and to use the revenue to make public colleges tuition free.

While making college affordable to low and middle income families is important, the proposal for an FTT is a real game changer. There is no single policy that would have anywhere near as much impact in reforming the financial sector. A FTT would effectively impose a sales tax on stocks and other financial assets, so that speculators have to pay a tax on their trades, just like people who buy shoes or clothes.

There are three points people should understand about a FTT. The first is that it can raise an enormous amount of money. A FTT could be imposed at different rates. Sanders proposed following the rate structure in a bill put forward by Minneapolis Congressman Keith Ellison. Eleven countries in the European Union are working to implement a set of FTTs that would tax stock trades at a rate of 0.1 percent and trades of most derivative instruments at the rate of 0.01 percent.

Extrapolating from a recent analysis of the European proposal, a comparable tax in the United States would raise more than $130 billion a year or more than $1.5 trillion over the next decade. This is real money; it dwarfs the sums that have dominated most budget debates in recent years. For example, the Republicans had been trying to push through cuts to the food stamp program of $40 billion over the course of a decade. The sum that can be raised by this FTT proposal is more than thirty times as large. The revenue from a FTT could go far toward rebuilding the infrastructure, improving the health care system, or paying for college tuition, as suggested by Senator Sanders.

The second point is that Wall Street will bear almost the entire cost of the tax. The financial industry is surely already paying for studies showing the tax will wipe out the 401(k)s held by middle income families. This is nonsense. Not only is the size of the tax small for anyone not flipping stock on a daily basis, research indicates that most investors will largely offset the cost of the tax by trading less. 

Most research shows that trading volume falls roughly in proportion to the increase in transaction costs. This means that if a FTT doubles the cost of trading then the volume of trading will fall by roughly 50 percent, leaving total trading costs unchanged. Investors will pay twice as much on each trade, but have half as many trades. Since investors don’t on average make money on trades (one side might win, but the other loses), this is a wash for the investor.

While most middle income people don’t directly trade the money in their retirement accounts, they do have people who manage these funds. The research means that the fund managers will reduce their trading, so that the total costs of transactions that are passed on to the investor remain roughly constant. This means that the financial industry will bear almost the entire cost of the tax in the form of reduced trading volume.

This gets to the last point: a smaller financial industry is a more efficient financial industry. The purpose of the financial industry is to allocate money from savers to companies that want to finance new investment. As the industry has exploded in size over the last four decades there is no reason to believe that it has gotten better in serving this basic function. In fact, the stock bubble at the end of the 1990s and the housing bubble in the last decade might suggest that it has gotten worse.

A study from the Bank of International Settlements and more recent research from the International Monetary Fund find that a bloated financial sector slows growth. An oversized financial sector pulls resources away from more productive sectors of the economy. People who could be engaged in biological research or developing clean technologies are instead employed on Wall Street designing computer programs to beat other traders by a microsecond to garner profits at their expense. A FTT will make much of this activity unprofitable, encouraging people to turn to more productive work.

In short, a FTT is a great way to raise large amounts of money to meet important public needs. It will come almost entirely at the expense of the financial industry and should strengthen the economy. We now have one presidential candidate who is prepared to support a strong FTT. Are there others?

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News Mon, 25 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"Incommunicado" Forever: Gitmo Detainee's Case Stalled for 2,477 Days and Counting http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30963-incommunicado-forever-gitmo-detainee-s-case-stalled-for-2-477-days-and-counting http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30963-incommunicado-forever-gitmo-detainee-s-case-stalled-for-2-477-days-and-counting

Even though the torture was over, Abu Zubaydah's ordeal was just beginning. For nearly a decade, he's been shuttled around the world and held in legal limbo - even as hundreds of detainees have been transferred or released.

2015.5.25.Gitmo.mainUS Army Military Police escort a detainee to his cell in Camp X-Ray at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing to the temporary detention facility on January 11, 2002. (Photo: Mate 1st Class Shane T. McCoy via Wikimedia Commons)

Since being seized in a raid in Pakistan in 2002, Abu Zubaydah has had his life controlled by American officials, first at secret sites, where he was tortured, and since 2006 in a small cell in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And, thanks to one of the strangest, and perhaps most troubling, legal cases to grow out of the War on Terror, it appears he’s not going to be leaving anytime soon—which was exactly the plan the CIA always wanted. Not even his lawyers understand what’s transpired behind closed doors in a Washington, D.C., courtroom.

In June of 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees at Guantanamo had the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal court and that their cases should be handled “promptly’’ by the judicial system. The next month, lawyers for Abu Zubaydah, a detainee whose torture and waterboarding in secret prisons was among the most notorious of the Bush years, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging his detention.

The progress of that case has been anything but prompt. While more than 100 Guantanamo detainees have been released since then, and the military tribunals of even more high-profile detainees like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are moving forward in Guantanamo’s courtrooms, the federal judge hearing Zubaydah’s case has failed to rule on even the preliminary motions.

The seemingly intentional inaction has left even experienced court observers baffled. Richard W. Roberts, the U.S. District court judge handling the suit, is not a particularly slow-moving judge. His median time for resolving entire cases is slightly over two years; Zubaydah’s initial plea has already been pending 6 years 9 months and 12 days.

Because the entire file has been kept secret, it’s not possible to know why Roberts, who is the chief judge of the D.C. circuit, has let Zubaydah’s case languish. But this much is clear: Keeping Zubaydah from telling his story is exactly what the CIA wanted from the moment it began to torture him. And it’s exactly what they promised they’d do in 2002 during one of the darkest chapters of the War on Terror. (He was one of the first al-Qaeda suspects to face the harsh new regime implemented by the CIA following 9/11—a regime that FBI agents at the scene tried to prevent.)

Soon after the agency’s contractors began their program of “enhanced interrogation’’ at the secret black site in Thailand – placing him in a coffin-size box; slamming him against wall; depriving him of sleep; bombarding him with loud music; as well as waterboarding – they sent an encrypted cable to Washington.

The CIA interrogators said that if Zubaydah died during questioning, his body would be cremated. But if he survived the ordeal, the interrogators wanted assurances that he would “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

Senior officials gave the assurances. Zubaydah, a Saudi citizen, “will never be placed in a situation where he has any significant contact with others and/or has the opportunity to be released,” the head of the CIA’s ALEC Station, the code name of the Washington-based unit hunting Osama bin Laden, replied. “All major players are in concurrence,” the cable said, that he “should remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

The decision to hold Zubaydah “incommunicado’’ was disclosed by the Senate report on torture, which was released last December. But the judicial inaction on his case has received virtually no public attention.

In all, Roberts has failed to rule on 16 motions, 13 of which have been filed by Zubaydah’s lawyers. Several of those allege misconduct by the government.

Roberts’ judicial inaction runs the gamut: Zubaydah’s motion for an un-redacted copy of his own diary, which the government seized, has sat for six years without any ruling by the judge. His habeas corpus petition was sealed at the request of the government. Zubaydah’s lawyers filed to have it declassified. It remains classified.

A lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been at the forefront of lawsuits to gain the release of Guantanamo detainees, says he has been baffled by the judge’s inaction. “It appears to be highly unusual,” says the lawyer, J. Wells Dixon, who has represented several Guantanamo detainees, but is not involved in the Zubaydah case. In contrast to Zubaydah’s case, Dixon said that 64 Guantanamo detainees who filed habeas petitions have seen their cases adjudicated.

Rooted in English common law, the principle of habeas corpus is a cornerstone of the American legal system. In England, it served as a check on the king’s power to lock someone in the dungeon and throw away the key. Dixon noted that the Supreme Court has said habeas was designed to be a “swift and imperative remedy.”

Yet Judge Roberts appears content to let Zubaydah’s case languish. Compared to his handling of other cases, the jurist has been anything but “swift” in Zubaydah’s case. For cases he closed in 2014, the median time from filing was 751 days, according to data assembled for ProPublica by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization at Syracuse University. The longest any closed case had been on his docket was 1,651 days, according to TRAC. Zubaydah’s case has been pending for some 2,400 days, and it will be years before it goes to trial, if it ever does.

There are few answers for why Zubaydah’s case has gone so far off track — and there’s nothing in Roberts’ background or recent behavior on the bench that would make him seem incapable of ruling if he desired. He was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1998 and has a fairly typical background for a federal judge: A Columbia law school grad, he rose through the ranks of the Department of Justice, working as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York and as principal assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. He later spent three years as the chief of the criminal section at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Absent the apparently intentional aberration of the Zubaydah case, his court docket proceeds as normal in Courtroom 9 on the fourth floor of the U.S. District Courthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

A spokeswoman for the federal district court declined to comment on the case.

One possible clue about the judge’s failure to act may be found in a motion Zubaydah’s lawyers filed in 2010. They asked Roberts for access to any “ex parte filings,” which is evidence the government shows the court outside the presence of the other side’s lawyers.

In other cases involving detainees, secret prisons, watch lists and challenges to domestic spying, the Justice Department has attempted to win dismissals by presenting classified evidence to judges in the secrecy of their chambers.

A rare insight into how that tactic is deployed was made public by a federal judge in San Francisco in a lawsuit by a Malaysian woman who challenged her placement on the no-fly list. The government sought to dismiss the case on the grounds of national security. In a ruling on the motion, the judge, William H. Alsup, described what happened next: “A telephone call came into the court staff saying that a federal agent was on the way from Washington to San Francisco to show the judge confidential records about this case, all to be relied upon by the government in support of its motion to dismiss (but not to be disclosed to the other side). The officer would take back the records after the judge reviewed them and would leave no record behind of what he had shown the judge.”

In that case, Alsup declined to receive the officials, although he did receive other ex parte filings in the case.

It’s not clear whether Judge Roberts has received a comparable offer, and if so, how he reacted. But it’s unlikely that if such a meeting or meetings happened, the public would ever know—and likely that not even Zubaydah’s own lawyers would know about it, unless Roberts came forward as Alsup did.

Although the case is an infamous one, it’s worth recalling the details of Abu Zubaydah’s custody in U.S. hands.

He was captured in a joint Pakistani-CIA-FBI operation in Lahore, Pakistan, in March 2002, during which he was shot in the groin, leg and stomach. Severely wounded, Zubaydah lingered near death as the CIA, which wanted him alive for interrogation, flew in a top surgeon from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Later, Zubaydah was handcuffed, hooded, drugged and flown to Thailand, where the CIA was in the process of creating one of its first “black sites.” Initially interviewed by the FBI, Zubaydah cooperated. FBI Special Agents Ali Soufan and Steve Gaudin even held ice to his lips so he could receive fluids. Zubaydah told the agents that Khalid Sheik Mohammad was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and gave them further detailed information about him, including his alias—the news ricocheted across Washington and Zubaydah became a pawn in the capital’s power tussle between the FBI and the CIA.

CIA Director George Tenet wasn’t satisfied with the progress on the interrogation. The agency was convinced that Zubaydah knew more, that he was a high-level al-Qaeda operative, and that he was withholding information about pending terrorist plots. Thus, Zubaydah became the guinea pig for what the Bush Administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The FBI pulled its agents out of Thailand as the CIA’s plans for the prisoner became clear—but not before the agents got one final useful tip: Zubaydah pointed them to a name “Abu Abdullah al Mujahir” that eventually led agents to José Padilla, a would-be jihadist who was arrested in Chicago on May 8, 2002.

Meanwhile, the CIA started in on Zubaydah. For 47 days, he was held in complete isolation, with only a towel. Then, shortly before noon on August 4, 2002, hooded security personnel entered his cell, shackled and hooded him, and removed his towel, leaving him naked. “So it begins,” a medical officer in Thailand cabled CIA headquarters about the first day’s session.

Interrogators placed a towel around his neck, as a collar, and slammed him against a concrete wall. They removed his hood and had him watch while a coffin-like box was brought into the cell. The waterboarding started, “after large box, walling, and small box periods,” the medical officer reported. “NO useful information so far.” He added, “I am head[ing] back for a waterboard session.” During the waterboarding Zubaydah frequently vomited, made “hysterical pleas,” and experienced “involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms.”

After a few days, some of the individuals involved in Zubaydah’s interrogation were deeply disturbed, to the “point of tears and choking up,” the team cabled Washington.

Over the course of the interrogations, Zubaydah “cried,” he “begged,” he “pleaded,” he “whimpered,” the team in Thailand reported to headquarters in various cables. But he never gave the CIA information about plans for attacks in the United States. And in the end, the CIA “concluded that Abu Zubaydah had been truthful and that he did not possess any new terrorist threat information,” the Senate torture report says. He was not even a member of al-Qaeda.

Yet even though the torture was over, Zubaydah’s ordeal was just beginning. For nearly a decade, he’s been shuttled around the world and held in legal limbo—even as hundreds of detainees have been transferred or released and court cases have moved forward for other suspected terrorists at Guantanamo.

After the first media reports appeared about a CIA secret prison in Thailand, Zubaydah was moved to a secret site in Poland. A year ago, the European court of human rights ruled that Poland had been complicit with the United States in subjecting Zubaydah to “inhuman and degrading treatment,” and ordered Poland to pay him reparations. After losing an appeal, Poland paid Zubaydah 100,000 Euros, which Zubaydah has said he will give to victims of torture.

Zubaydah, who was transferred from Poland to Guantanamo Bay in 2006, has not fared well with the American judicial system even as his lawyers have attempted to nudge the case forward to a conclusion.

Much of the case remains wrapped in secrecy, meaning that his lawyers are unable to discuss or elaborate upon much of their work or knowledge of the case. Glimpses into it, though, are possible through the languishing court filings. Zubaydah’s lawyers have filed two motions that raise questions about the government’s conduct in the case. In 2010, they sought an “order prohibiting the government from obstructing petitioner’s investigation.” The court hasn’t ruled, and we don’t know what might have prompted this request because the documents are sealed. Similarly, three years ago, Zubaydah’s lawyers asked for sanctions against the government because of what they said was “the improper seizure” of documents “subject to the attorney-client privilege.” Again, Judge Roberts has yet to rule.

Frustrated by the inaction in the case, Zubaydah’s lawyers filed a motion in January asking the judge to recuse himself for “nonfeasance.” It is an unusual motion. Judges are occasionally asked to recuse themselves because of conflicts of interest or bias, but not for simply failing to act. The government has filed its response, which is sealed, and the judge—perhaps not surprisingly, given the track record thus far—has not yet ruled.

“We don’t take this step lightly,” said Joseph Margulies, one of Zubaydah’s lawyers. Margulies, an experienced criminal defense lawyer who has represented several Guantanamo detainees and is a professor at Cornell University School of Law, added, “I have never seen a case in which there has been this much judicial inaction. There has to be a remedy.”

But there may not be. If Judge Roberts “ignores Abu Zubaydah’s case, there is very little we can do,” said Margulies. “The net effect is that the CIA wins.”

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News Mon, 25 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
A Fossil-Fueled Fantasy http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30962-a-fossil-fueled-fantasy http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30962-a-fossil-fueled-fantasy

Extracting coal from the ground and disposing of its toxic byproducts makes a dirty mess no matter how it's burned. But this "clean coal" ruse is conjuring up billions of dollars in government subsidies. Burning the dregs from spent oil wells releases yet more carbon into the atmosphere, stoking climate change.

2015.5.25.Greco.mainZigging and Zagging Down a Slippery Slope, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

Want to challenge injustice and make real change happen? That's Truthout's goal - support our work with a donation today!

Newfangled carbon-capture power plants supposedly burn coal without poisoning the planet. They don’t.

Extracting coal from the ground and disposing of its toxic byproducts makes a dirty mess no matter how it’s burned. But this “clean coal” ruse is conjuring up billions of dollars in government subsidies.

Take the 110-megawatt Boundary Dam plant in Canada’s Saskatchewan province, the world’s first carbon-capture operation. It cost $1.2 billion to get it switched on last year. That’s several times the price tag for a standard coal-fired plant or building a wind farm or utility-scale solar project capable of generating the same amount of energy — enough to power 100,000 homes.

Going with wind or solar would have produced zero emissions without burning any fuel, reducing environmental and monetary costs down the line.

Another carbon-capture boondoggle is slated to open next year on this side of the Canadian border: Southern Co.’s Kemper County plant in Mississippi. It’s an even bigger cautionary tale.

Kemper’s construction costs have tripled to more than $6 billion since crews first broke ground in 2010. The project is more than two years behind schedule and in trouble. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in February that the locals were unfairly shouldering cost overruns via higher electric bills.

“The ratepayers’ property (money) is being confiscated through governmental decree, by a rate increase imposed by a privately owned corporation,” the court’s majority declared, ordering Southern to issue refunds. The company has, naturally, requested a new hearing.

Other efforts to build or retrofit existing power plants to use these new systems face similarly grim prospects.

The Obama administration wisely let a $1 billion commitment to complete the long-delayed FutureGen carbon-capture plant in central Illinois lapse a few months ago. The canceled government money came from 2009 stimulus funds that expire in September.

Still, the federal government has injected $6 billion into carbon-capture coal to date. And President Barack Obama’s proposed 2016 budget calls for wasting another $2 billion in tax credits on this pipe dream.

Lawmakers backed by Big Fossil aren’t giving up on this corporate welfare either. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both Democrats, just introduced bills that would direct the federal government to squander more money on carbon-capture systems.

Burning coal with this new twist will “reduce electricity costs for all of us,” Heitkamp asserted.

Really? She should check out what the Energy Department says: Carbon-capture coal technology jacks up costs by up to 80 percent and can render power plants as much as 30 percent less efficient.

Gasification, another pricey new way to burn coal, is equally futile. Just ask the ratepayers forced to subsidize Duke Energy’s costly experiment with it at the troubled Edwardsport coal plant in Knox County, Indiana. Or check out the predictable cascade of lawsuits over there.

Perhaps the most damning thing about this racket is what happens to the trapped carbon itself. Utilities may sell it to oil companies, which use the stuff to pry lingering barrels of petroleum from tapped-out oil wells.

The Border Dam plant in Saskatchewan is selling carbon sucked out of that pioneering, over-priced, and supposedly “clean” coal-fired power plant to the Cenovus oil company, which uses it to extract a fossil fuel that would otherwise stay in the ground.

This aftermarket defrays some of the money spent sequestering carbon. It also generates emissions that render the process no cleaner than equipping coal-fired power plants with modern filters, scrubbers, and other gizmos.

Burning the dregs from spent oil wells releases yet more carbon into the atmosphere, stoking climate change. If that doesn’t bother you, maybe pondering the possibility that injecting the carbon dioxide deep underground may trigger earthquakes will.

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Opinion Mon, 25 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Hijacking the Anthropocene http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30961-hijacking-the-anthropocene http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30961-hijacking-the-anthropocene

How the anti-green Breakthrough Institute misrepresents science to advance a technocratic agenda and undermine grassroots environmentalism.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,
“it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

What can lobbyists do when science contradicts their political messages? Some simply deny the science, as many conservatives do with climate change. Others pretend to embrace the science, while ignoring or purging the disagreeable content. That’s what the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) is doing with one of the most widely discussed issues in 21st century science, the proposal to define a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

BTI has been described as “the leading big money, anti-green, pro-nuclear think tank in the United States, dedicated to propagandizing capitalist technological-investment ‘solutions’ to climate change.”[1] Founded in 2003 by lobbyist Michael Shellenberger and pollster Ted Nordhaus, its philosophy is based on what’s known in academic circles as ecological modernization theory – described by Richard York and Eugene Rosa as the view that “industrialization, technological development, economic growth, and capitalism are not only potentially compatible with ecological sustainability but also may be key drivers of environmental reform.”[2]

In BTI’s simplified pop version, to which they’ve assigned catchier label ecomodernism, there is no “may” about it – their literature consistently couples a professed concern for the environment with rejection of actual pro-environmental policies, on the grounds that new technology, growth and capitalism are the only solution to all environmental concerns.

Most notably, BTI opposes efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, claiming that investment in nuclear reactors and shale gas will produce all the energy we need, and global warming will wither away as a side-effect. “The best way to move forward on climate policy,” write Shellenberger and Nordhaus, “is to not focus on climate at all.”[3]

As Australian environmentalist Clive Hamilton comments, BTI’s founders “do not deny global warming; instead they skate over the top of it, insisting that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth system might throw up, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them.”[4]

In 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote a notorious pamphlet, The Death of Environmentalism. That title wasn’t an announcement – it was a goal. They declared their conviction “that modern environmentalism … must die so that something new can live.”[5] Their organization has worked to achieve that death ever since.

Bill Blackwater has exposed the “self-contradictions, simplistic fantasy, and the sheer insubstantiality” of BTI’s thought, and John Bellamy Foster has shown that ecological modernization theory involves “a dangerous and irresponsible case of technological hubris [and] a fateful concession to capitalism’s almost unlimited destructive powers.”[6] In this article I examine one specific feature of BTI’s current activity: its attempt to hijack the Anthropocene, to misrepresent one of the most important scientific developments of our time so that it seems to serve Breakthrough’s anti-environmental agenda.

Scientists define the Anthropocene

For scientists, the arrival of a new geological epoch signifies that there has been a qualitative change in the Earth System. For 12,000 years we have been in the Holocene epoch, but we now face conditions that are as different from that as the Holocene was from the ice age Pleistocene that preceded it. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize winner who first suggested that such a change had occurred, and Will Steffen, former director of the International Geophysical-Biophysical Program, write:

“The Earth System has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over at least the last half million years. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change, are unprecedented and unsustainable.”[7]

The name Anthropocene, from the Greek anthropos, meaning human being, was proposed to emphasize that the new epoch is driven by a radical change in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth System – that “global-scale social and economic processes are now becoming significant features in the functioning of the system.”[8]

The shift began with the growing use of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution, and went into overdrive in the “Great Acceleration” of economic activity, pollution and environmental destruction in the second half of the 20th century. Now human activity is “overwhelming the great forces of nature,” to the point that if “the institutions and economic system that have driven the Great Acceleration continue to dominate human affairs … [then] collapse of modern, globalized society under uncontrollable environmental change is one possible outcome.”[9]

Foster describes the Anthropocene as “both a description of a new burden falling on humanity and a recognition of an immense crisis – a potential terminal event in geological evolution that could destroy the world as we know it.”[10] Similarly, the editors of Nature say it “reflects a grim reality on the ground, and it provides a powerful framework for considering global change and how to manage it.”[11]

By contrast, Nordhaus and Shellenberger want us to believe that everything’s going to be just fine. They tell the world that “by 2100, nearly all of us will be prosperous enough to live healthy, free and creative lives.” All we need to do is “once and for all embrace human power, technology, and the larger process of modernization.”[12]

Foolish environmentalists may “warn that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich.” Environmental problems are merely unfortunate side-effects of developments that are fundamentally positive for humanity: “the solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and always has been, more modernity.”[13]

Hijacking a word, misrepresenting science

Given the huge difference in views, it would have been appropriate and honest for BTI to declare how and why it disagrees with the scientists who have identified profound changes in the Earth System and are proposing to declare a new epoch.

Instead, when the word Anthropocene started appearing frequently in academic journals and mainstream media, Nordhaus and Shellenberger jumped on the bandwagon and tried to steer it in a direction more congenial to their views. In contrast to scientists they deem to be depressing, pessimistic, and catastrophist, they declared that the Anthropocene isn’t a crisis, it’s an opportunity to build a global technological utopia, in which humanity embraces nuclear power and shale gas, and we all enjoy US-style consumerism forever.

What they offer is a homeopathically diluted Anthropocene, in which the only remaining trace of Earth System science is the fact that the Earth is dominated by human activity – and even that, BTI insists, is neither a recent development or a matter for concern.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger gave the game away in an article they wrote for Orion magazine and then reprinted in a BTI-published e-book. After agreeing that humans are “rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for many hundreds of millions of years,” they wrote:

“But the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.”[14]

Read that again. If it’s true, then there is no case for declaring a new epoch. There has been no qualitative change, so we are still in the Holocene, still doing what humans have always done, since long before the ice sheets retreated.

Landscape ecologist Erle Ellis, a Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow, has been arguing for the “scope and scale, not kind” view in the Anthropocene Working Group, the international committee that is evaluating the proposal for a new geological epoch. He supports an early Anthropocene – the view that the Anthropocene began not recently but thousands of years ago, when humans first made large-scale changes to landscapes and ecosystems.

Official endorsement of an early date would strengthen the Nordhaus/Shellenberger claim that there is no qualitative break between current and past human impacts on the Earth. As Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald write, the early Anthropocene option justifies a business-as-usual understanding of the present.

“It ‘gradualizes’ the new epoch so that it is no longer a rupture due principally to the burning of fossil fuels but a creeping phenomenon due to the incremental spread of human influence over the landscape. This misconstrues the suddenness, severity, duration and irreversibility of the Anthropocene leading to a serious underestimation and mischaracterization of the kind of human response necessary to slow its onset and ameliorate its impacts.”[15]

BTI’s website describes Ellis as “a leading theorist of what scientists increasingly describe as the Anthropocene,”[16] but doesn’t mention that his early Anthropocene position, while compatible with BTI’s philosophy, has little support among the other scientists involved.

In January 2015, over two-thirds of the Anthropocene Working Group’s 38 members endorsed 1945 as the beginning of the Anthropocene, both because the Great Acceleration is an historical turning point, and because it can be located in geological strata by the presence of radiation from nuclear fallout. The early Anthropocene argument, they write, unduly emphasizes just one aspect of the case for a new epoch:

“The significance of the Anthropocene lies not so much in seeing within it the ‘first traces of our species’ (i.e. an anthropocentric perspective upon geology), but in the scale, significance and longevity of change (that happens to be currently human-driven) to the Earth system.”[17]

The AWG hasn’t formally decided yet, but Ellis, who evidently believes he has lost the debate, recently told an editor of the journal Nature that he opposes making any official decision. “We should set a time, perhaps 1,000 years from now, in which we would officially investigate this…. Making a decision before that would be premature.”[18] That would allow BTI to continue misusing the word, but he seems to have little support: a recent article in Science, proposing to “avoid the confinement imposed by a single formal designation” has only four signatures, and of them, only Ellis is a member of the AWG.[19]

Oxymoron alert

Breakthrough has invited influential environmental writers to a luxury California resort in June, all expenses paid, for a two-day seminar on “The Good Anthropocene.”[20] So don’t be surprised if articles using that oxymoron appear in the mainstream media this summer. Phrases like “unprecedented and unsustainable” will not be emphasized, if they appear at all.

The seminar’s message was revealed in April, in An Ecomodernist Manifesto, signed by Nordhaus and Shellenberger and 16 others, all closely associated with BTI. Subtitled From the death of environmentalism to the birth of ecomodernism, it is self-described as “an affirmative and optimistic vision for a future in which we can have universal human development, freedom, and more nature through continued technological and social modernization.”[21]

The manifesto extends the oxymoron, promising “a good, or even great, Anthropocene” if only we will reject the “long-standing environmental ideal … that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.”

Yes, you read that right. BTI’s pseudo-Anthropocene requires deliberately expanding the metabolic rift between humanity and the rest of nature into a permanent chasm. After all, “humans have remade the world for millennia,” so more of the same must be good.

A striking feature of all BTI propaganda is the gulf between the concrete problems they admit exist and what Bill Blackwater calls “the daydream quality of their positive solutions.”[22] That is clearly on display in their Ecomodernist Manifesto, which proposes to solve the pressing problem of climate change with “next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission and nuclear fusion” – technologies that don’t exist and won’t soon arrive. In the meantime, BTI proposes reliance on hydroelectric dams, which can cause major environmental problems, and on carbon capture and storage, which doesn’t exist in any practical form.

Clearly, BTI’s “Good Anthropocene” won’t arrive before the climate and other essential elements of the Earth System reach tipping points. As Blackwater says, BTI’s purported realism is actually “the very height of fantasy,” a contemporary form of what C. Wright Mills used to call “crackpot realism.”

It’s time to defog

The pundits, politicians and CEOs whose interests are served by the Breakthrough Institute don’t want to be identified with the science deniers of the far right, but neither do they want the radical measures that responding to the real Anthropocene requires. BTI’s fantasy of a Good Anthropocene builds the illusion that both objectives are easily achieved. Don’t worry, be happy – technological ingenuity will save capitalism from itself.

BTI could have avoided mentioning the Anthropocene, but that would have left a widely discussed concept unchallenged, posing the possibility that public understanding of the state of the Earth System will grow, strengthening the environmentalism that BTI wants to kill. It’s far more effective to appropriate the word, to sow confusion by promoting a caricature that has nothing to do with the actual Anthropocene and everything to do with preserving the status quo.

There can be no question about which side the left is on in this conflict. We may not endorse every element of the Anthropocene project, but we must not allow Earth System science to be hijacked and misused by enemies of the environment.

As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes, the scientists whose work BTI is trying to undermine “are not necessarily anticapitalist scholars, and yet clearly they are not for business-as-usual capitalism either.”[23] Many are adopting more radical views as they study what’s happening to the Earth System. It’s our responsibility to help them blow away Breakthrough’s fog of confusion, and work with them to stop capitalism’s drive to ecological disaster.

 

Notes:

[1]Notes from the Editors” Monthly Review 66, No. 2 (June 2011).

[2] Richard York and Eugene A. Rosa. “Key Challenges to Ecological Modernization Theory.” Organization & Environment 16 No. 3, September 2003

[3]Statement on ‘Climate Pragmatism’ from BTI Founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.’” Breakthrough Institute, July 27, 2011.

[4] Clive Hamilton. “The New Environmentalism Will Lead Us to Disaster.” Scientific American Forum, June 19, 2014.

[5] Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World. Oakland, Breakthrough Institute, 2004.10

[6] Bill Blackwater. “The Denialism of Progressive Environmentalists.” Monthly Review 64, No. 2 (June 2012). John Bellamy Foster. “The Planetary Rift and the New Human Exemptionalism.” Organization & Environment 25 No. 3 (September 2012)

[7] Paul J. Crutzen and Will Steffen. “How Long Have We Been In The Anthropocene Era? An Editorial Comment.” Climatic Change 61 No. 3 (2003)

[8] Will Steffen et al. “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship.” Ambio 40, No. 7. October 2011.

[9] Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36, No. 8, December 2007.

[10] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York, Monthly Review Press, 2010), 18.

[11] Editorial. “The Human Epoch.” Nature 473, No. 7347, May 19 2011.

[12] Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, “Introduction,” in Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, editors,  Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. (Breakthrough Institute, Oakland, 2011). Kindle e-book.

[13] Nordhaus and Shellenberger, “Evolve.” in Love Your Monsters

[14] Nordhaus and Shellenberger, “Evolve.” in Love Your Monsters

[15] Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald. “Was the Anthropocene Anticipated?” The Anthropocene Review 2 No. 1. (April 2015)

[16] Erle Ellis, Associate Professor, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.” Breakthrough Institute, n.d.

[17] Jan Zalasiewicz, et al., “When Did the Anthropocene begin? A Mid-Twentieth Century Boundary Level is Stratigraphically Optimal.” Quaternary International, In Press, January 2015

[18] Quoted in Richard Monastersky. “Anthropocene: The human age.” Nature 519, No. 7542. (March 11, 2015)

[19] William F. Ruddiman et al. “Defining the Epoch We Live In.” Science 348, No. 6230 (April 3 2015)

[20] In “Ecomodernists Envision Utopia—but What about War?” Scientific American blogger John Horgan says his expenses are being paid.

[21] Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger et al. “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.” (April 2015)

[22] Bill Blackwater. “The Denialism of Progressive Environmentalists.” Monthly Review 64, No. 2 (June 2012)

[23] Dipesh Chakrabarty. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35 No. 2 (Winter 2009).

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News Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Mexican Auto Workers Fired for Protesting Sexual Harassment http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30960-mexican-auto-workers-fired-for-protesting-sexual-harassment http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30960-mexican-auto-workers-fired-for-protesting-sexual-harassment

At the new Mazda assembly plant in Salamanca, Mexico, 20 workers were fired in March for supporting a co-worker who was being sexually harassed by their supervisor.

According to workers, the accused supervisor would use the cultural practice of a kiss on the cheek as an excuse to get sexual. He would stalk women at work and force himself on them physically.

While traditionally most Mexican auto industry workers have been men, in the state of Guanajuato, where the Salamanca factory is located, women make up about half the auto workforce. They tend to be single—as in the maquiladoras, the Mexican textile factories which prefer women because bosses feel they are more vulnerable and can be paid less.

One worker first complained about this sexual harassment—to the company and the union, using the established complaint procedures—back in May of last year, but the situation was allowed to continue. Next, workers took their case to government agencies, with witnesses and support statements, again with no results.

So “we decided to protest,” said Tadeo Velaquez, one of the 20 fired workers. “We were [all] being harassed at work by this supervisor. It was so intense that it was really difficult to work in a good environment. He would mistreat and bully us all the time.

“Then we heard that one of our partners, a woman, was sexually harassed by him. He wasn’t just disrespecting us; he was also sexually abusing her.”

In March, workers on a subassembly line organized a work-to-rule slowdown. That grabbed management’s attention. A meeting was held. Management and the union agreed to handle the problem with the supervisor.

“We were informed that we weren’t going to be punished for the demonstration,” said Edgar Capetillo, another fired worker. “We had a mutual agreement with the union that nothing was going to happen to us. But 15 days later, we were removed from our duties.”

They were fired without explanation. All 20 of the workers were male.

Pushy New Plant

Representatives of the fired workers appeared on the local news program, Zona Franca, and asked their fellow workers for support. Another woman came forward with her story of harassment.

The supervisor was given two days off. Many workers feel he should be fired.

Supervisor bullies are common at this plant, where management is pushing arduous hours and an intense pace. Workers on the assembly line have suffered injuries to the tendons in their hands, spinal injuries, even convulsions.

Production would stop for nothing, according to the fired workers—if a worker was having convulsions, they would simply be carried away and replaced by another worker.

The plant opened last year with 3,000 employees. It’s in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, Mazda’s only North American assembly site.

This is the first time in decades that the company has run an overseas plant on its own. The last one, in Flat Rock, Michigan, became a joint venture with Ford in 1992, and Mazda ceased production there in 2012.

The Salamanca plant’s annual capacity is initially targeted at 140,000 vehicles. Production is slated to grow to 230,000 in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2016.

After the plant reaches full production, about 30 percent of the Mazda vehicles sold in the United States will be sourced from North America—compared with virtually none today. At full capacity, it will employ 4,600 people.

Mexico's Auto Boom

Mazda isn’t alone. Mexico just surpassed Brazil as the seventh-largest auto producer in the world, producing 3.2 million vehicles last year. By 2020 it’s expected to reach 5.1 million.

Toyota has announced a new $1 billion plant in Guanajuato that will employ 2,000 workers and make 200,000 vehicles. GM is investing $5 billion between 2013 and 2018, adding 5,600 new jobs to the 15,000 it already employs in Mexico. Ford projects another $2.5 billion.

The combination of tariff-free manufacturing, low wages, cheap land, few enforced regulations, and easy access to global markets make Mexico a prime manufacturing center. In the last five years companies have announced $20 billion in investments made or planned.

Salaries have stagnated. One recent study—by a financial institution, the Grupo Financiero BVA Bancomer—found more than half of all working people in Mexico earn less than twice the minimum wage, or about $7 per day. Ten percent receive less than the minimum, $3.50 a day.

These days, if plants in Mexico are threatened with closure, it’s to move the work to Asia. But a Bank of America study found that while in 2003 Mexico’s average wages were 188 percent higher than China’s, today they’re 20 percent lower.

Corrupt Unions

All the workers in Guanajuato’s auto industry, including at the Mazda plant, are represented by the corrupt Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).

The union sided with management in the firing of the 20.

Despite a law that allows workers the right to return to work after unjust firings, companies operating in Mexico can bank on getting away with firing permanently. Unions are regional, and contracts are negotiated plant by plant. Workers report that the CTM, a company union controlled by Mexico’s ruling party, will not defend them. Fired workers are often forced to sign away their jobs and accept a legally required cash payment instead.

To illustrate the level of corruption, look at Alejandro Rangel, a leader in the Guanajuato CTM who’s also a federal deputy. Union leaders often become federal and state deputies and senators.

Since taking office, Rangel has built himself a castle with a gigantic swimming pool in front. He used his position to have federal funds used to build a road from the main road to his castle.

Unfortunately for him, an error in the specifications labeled the paving project as meant for a nearby town. Like many in the area, this town only had a dirt road. When the error became known, townspeople demanded that their road be paved too.

As a side effect of a federal labor “reform” law passed in 2012, regional union leaders are now allowed to move into other regions. This means those who have the most power in the party and government are taking control of plants in other areas—making the corruption even worse. But they all belong to the CTM and oppose independent unions.

Those independent unions that do exist—in auto plants in Puebla and Cuernavaca—have been unable to expand into Guanajuato. An attempt to form one at the Honda plant in the neighboring state of Jalisco a few years ago ended with organizers being fired, though that’s still being challenged in court.

Revolutionary Legacy

Ford’s plants are close to the U.S. border. But most of Mexico’s auto production is in the center of the country. That’s where GM, Volkswagen, Honda, Renault-Nissan, BMW, Daimler, parts suppliers, and even research and development operations are concentrated.

From a mountain high point, the view is spectacular: an enormous plain filled with auto plants, all emitting the same brownish-pinkish smog. It sits in a layer over the plain, and extends into the surrounding mountains.

This is also the area where the Mexican Revolution of 1810 began. When Miguel Hidalgo announced independence, he demanded that the slaveholders immediately release the indigenous people who toiled in the mines here, carting out gold and silver for the empire.

Will Mexico’s workers be able to use their strength to confront the companies, the government, and the corrupt CTM to build independent unions that can give form to their anger?

 

Wendy Thompson is a former president of United Auto Workers Local 235.

Meanwhile in the U.S., workers in a Chicago Ford plant are also battling against sexual harassment on the job.

New book from Labor Notes: How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers tells how activists transformed their union and gave members hope. "A beacon to all rank-and-file members on how to bring democracy to their locals." Buy one today, only $15.

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News Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Latest Victim in the War on Whistleblowers http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30959-the-latest-victim-in-the-war-on-whistleblowers http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30959-the-latest-victim-in-the-war-on-whistleblowers

Jeffrey Sterling recently stood before a judge as his sentence was read. The former CIA officer, the judge declared, would spend 42 months — that’s three and half years — behind bars. The feds had convicted Sterling on nine felony charges, including seven counts of espionage.

He didn’t sell secrets to the Russians. He didn’t trade intelligence for personal gain. He made no attempt to disrupt the American way of life.

What did he do, then?

He reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the CIA had botched an operation to feed false information about nuclear technology to Iran — and may have actually helped Iran’s enrichment program instead.

Largely based on this, the government accused Sterling of leaking details about the program to journalist James Risen, who wrote about it in his book State of War.

Even worse, the feds claimed that Sterling, who is black, did it out of resentment over a failed racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency — in effect using Sterling’s willingness to stand up for his rights against him.

There was no actual proof, though, that Sterling was Risen’s source. The only evidence the prosecution had against Sterling was metadata that showed he had spoken to Risen by phone.

There were no recordings, no messages, and no snitches to testify against him. For all we know, Sterling and Risen were talking about the weather. Was this guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? I think not.

Whatever the case, the worst Sterling can be accused of is exposing government failure and indiscretion. In that sense, he easily meets the legal definition of a whistleblower. Whatever information he exposed, he did it in the public interest.

But the Obama administration has abused whistleblowers. I know a little something about that myself — I was charged with three counts of espionage for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program several years ago.

If I hadn’t taken a plea deal, I could’ve been locked up for the rest of my life. I still had to endure nearly two years in a federal prison, followed by a few months of house arrest.

Sterling is the latest victim in this war on whistleblowing.

The message is clear: If you go public with evidence of government malfeasance, you must prepare yourself for the worst. The Justice Department will spend millions of taxpayer dollars to ruin you financially, personally, and professionally — and to make an example of you in the media.

And if you have the nerve to deny the charges and go to trial, the punishment will be even worse.

Sterling believed that if he could get in front of a jury and explain his side of the story, they’d see how ridiculous the entire case really was. But the government exercises such tight control over these cases that most juries would, as the saying goes, convict a baloney sandwich.

In a small sense, Sterling was lucky to get a 42-month sentence. The government had sought up to 24 years. To the judge’s credit, she recognized what one expert witness described as the government’s “overwrought hyperbole.”

And she was surely aware of the sweetheart deal — 18 months unsupervised probation and a fine — General David Petraeus recently landed. The former CIA director had given classified information, including the names of covert agents, to his lover — and then lied about it to the FBI.

In short, the Justice Department is meting out very little “justice” to whistleblowers. But if you’re part of the White House “in” crowd, you’ll get a pass.

I’m glad Sterling’s not going away for 20 years or more.

But the proper action would have been for the judge to send Sterling home to be with his wife, and castigate the Justice Department for wasting the court’s time — and the taxpayers’ money — on wrongheadedly prosecuting another whistleblower.

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Opinion Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400