Truthout Stories Sun, 14 Feb 2016 11:58:17 -0500 en-gb Time Spent in Guantánamo Is Time No One Gets Back - Whether Soldier or Prisoner

I love my local paper. The Day is locally owned and based right in downtown New London, Connecticut. They publish an actual, physical newspaper every single day and have a first rate photo department. Their news pages feature a mix of national and international articles from The New York Times and AP wire service stories, as well as locally produced articles of local interest - with headlines like "Reality television producer sees show for New London."

Usually, I turn to the opinion page first because I like to see what hits home with my fellow Southeastern Connecticuters. Wing nuts and firebrands of all political stripes (this one included) expound in the letters to the editor section. I am constantly composing letters to the editor in my head, but two kids down with the flu ate away all my screed-writing time last week. So, consider what follows an extended version of what I would have sent to my local paper if I hadn't been covered in vomit and cranky kids.

The headline that caught my eye was this: "Niantic-based National Guard Unit home after deployment to Guantánamo Bay." I read the article with interest, and had no idea that local people were among those burdened with patrolling and guarding this tropical hold-over of the Monroe Doctrine. The article was accompanied by joyous pictures of families reunited after the long deployment to the Cuban base.

One woman was welcoming home her husband right before their first wedding anniversary. She held a sign that read, "I would wait forever, but 10 months is long enough! Welcome home!" She told the reporter, "We have been apart for 10-and-a-half months. It's been a really long year by myself, and we're so excited to be back together finally." There were balloons, flowers, tears and children in adorable outfits.

Yet, there was no mention in the article of the unit's duties while on the base and - given the immensity of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay - no reason to assume they had anything to do with the Muslim men who have been held there in extremis for 14 years. There was no mention of the changes in policy and personnel that took place during their deployment. There was no mention of President Obama's oft reiterated promise to close Guantánamo.

I was struck that during our local guard's deployment, the prison population at Guantánamo shrank to under 100 for the first time since its establishment as a "Global War on Terror" indefinite internment site in early 2002. As the Connecticut guards were preparing to come home, three men were supposed to leave Guantánamo as well. But they were not welcomed home with flowers and balloons. They did not return to their home countries.

Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al Sawah was born in Egypt and sent to Bosnia, where he is a dual citizen. Abdul Aziz Abdullah Ali al Suadi, a Yemeni, was resettled in Montenegro. They join a growing cadre of displaced former Guantánamo prisoners, trying to make a life for themselves in new and unfamiliar countries after more than a decade of imprisonment, torture and mistreatment. They now live in Ghana, Palau, El Salvador, Uruguay, Slovenia and a dozen other European countries.

The third to be released refused to get on the plane. Mohammed Ali Abdullah Bwazir of Yemen was not told where he was going and according to his lawyer, John Chandler, was "frightened" to leave the prison headed to an unknown country, where he had no ties or connections. Bwazir, who is in his mid-30s, was brought to Guantánamo in 2002 and is one of the many men who had used hunger striking as a tactic to resist and oppose his detention. Chandler told The New York Times, "Can you imagine being there for 14 years and going to a plane where you could finally leave, and saying, 'No, take me back to my cell?' This is one of the saddest days of my life."

There was no such sadness as families reunited in Connecticut last week. One captain held his eight-month-old daughter who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the message: "I'm here to pick up my daddy." He and his family were able to video-chat and connect throughout his deployment, so he was not too surprised by how much his daughter had grown. But there is nothing like the real thing. He hugged her and told the reporter, "It's wonderful. I couldn't be more excited. We've been counting down the months, the days."

I am always happy when families are reunited, but the words of another father reuniting with his children rang through my head as I read these words.

Shaker Aamer was told he was going home an hour before he was loaded onto a U.S. military plane and flown back to England. The British resident and father of four had been at Guantánamo for nearly 14 years. The United States never charged him with a crime; he had been cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007. So, for nearly two thirds of his detention, he was officially and categorically innocent. At Guantánamo, he was beaten, tortured and almost asphyxiated. He was held in solitary confinement for 360 days at one point during his imprisonment. His lawyers think he was singled out for mistreatment because he spoke English, was well educated and well spoken, and was thought to be an agitator within the prison population. Aamer engaged in many hunger strikes to protest his detention and the mistreatment of his fellow prisoners.

Shaker Aamer met his 13-year-old son Faris for the first time on October 31, 2015. His older children are now young adults. He told the BBC, "I'm a father who did not practice his fatherhood for 14 years. I left them when they were little tiny kids, hugging them, carrying them all the time. And now they are grown up." Their first moments together were surreal, and punctuated by sorrow. "Even though it was a happy moment," Aamer explained, "it was sad at the same time. Because it was happy that I've seen my kids again, but it was so sad that the feeling is not that they are my kids. They look at me and they're just trying to know who is this person? But through their eyes, I feel like they are just looking at a stranger."

We heard President Obama repeat his "close Guantánamo" promise at the State of the Union. "As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice. So it makes no sense to spend $3 million per pris­on­er to keep open a pris­on that the world con­demns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I've been president, we've worked responsibly to cut the pop­u­la­tion of Gitmo in half. Now it's time to fin­ish the job." He added, "It's time to close Gitmo."

Time. We can't get it back. When it's gone, it's gone. The families embracing their returning fathers, sons and husbands after 10 months of separation in Connecticut know it. Shaker Aamer and his children - Faris, Said, Michael and Johina - meeting almost as strangers after 13 years apart know it too. All those innocent men released from Guantánamo and still struggling to find their footing in strange lands - and still struggling to heal from severe trauma - know it too. And so do those 91 men who remain at Guantánamo, while their families wait for them. Time, to close Gunatánamo. I wish my local paper had used the happy occasion of families reuniting to say it too.

Opinion Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Natural Gas Becomes a Fracking Mess

Until late last year, Laura Gideon's family lived in Porter Ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles. "We didn't ever want to leave," Gideon told the Associated Press. It's "a nice gated community."

What uprooted them from one of LA's wealthiest pockets? They became climate refugees when the nearby Aliso Canyon natural gas storage well sprang a nasty leak.

Clouds of gas have billowed from the faulty well, which lacked a subsurface shutoff valve, for three and a half months. After inhaling nonstop plumes of methane, benzene, and other toxic chemicals, local residents began to suffer nausea, vomiting, headaches, and nosebleeds. The disaster has also smacked local businesses hard and eroded real estate values.

Erin Brockovich, the activist and legal researcher made famous by an Academy-award winning film depicting her against-all-odds victory against another California utility, lives only 30 miles away. Now working with a law firm to help the locals file claims, she calls the Aliso Canyon leak a "BP oil spill, just on land" - because of its magnitude, duration, and climate impact.

And that's why this incident imperils more than the people who live there and the bottom line of Southern California Gas Co., the local utility that ran the well.

Just as the Gulf Coast disaster invigorated opposition to offshore oil drilling, the Porter Ranch debacle may sap the natural gas industry's popularity. Above all, it's exposing the fuel's persistent reputation as "clean" and climate-friendly as a complete lie.

Environmentalists, backed by ample research, have struggled to debunk that narrative for years.

Although burning natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal or diesel, extracting and distributing it releases methane into the atmosphere. And so do storage accidents like this one.

And methane is between 86 and 105 times as powerful as CO₂ at disrupting the climate over a 20-year period. The now common practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to obtain natural gas also pollutes waterways and squanders water - a big problem for parched California.

Environmental Defense Fund is tracking the climate damage wrought by the broken well, which is located in a vacant oil field about a mile and a half underground. The group calculates that the roughly 100,000 metric tons of natural gas that escaped is the equivalent of burning nearly 900 million gallons of gasoline.

This big climate footprint is particularly troubling because thanks to record production levels, natural gas will soon become the nation's top power source, eclipsing coal. Natural gas supplies have grown so fast that U.S. prices are crashing due to oversupply. The industry wants to fix this imbalance through exports.

Shipping the stuff overseas requires condensing natural gas into liquid form at very high heat, using expensive infrastructure. More production will trigger more pollution and potential leaks.

Exporting liquefied natural gas, or LNG, also depends on persuading foreigners to buy it. But where are the customers?

Selling to Europe means competing with Russian producers. And the Russians stand ready to block this competition by slashing their own prices. At the same time, liquefied natural gas prices in Asia have fallen. Experts say they could plunge further as supplies outweigh demand.

In other words, the natural gas business has turned into a money-losing venture at the same time that the fossil fuel's real costs to people and the planet are becoming clearer.

Capping the failed well won't stop all the physical, emotional, and financial distress experienced by Laura Gideon and thousands of other Southern Californians. As she told the AP: "We're in mourning now."

The natural gas industry probably is too. It's a fracking mess.

Opinion Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
People Are Happier in States That Allow Ballot Initiatives

Duane Phillips, left, talks about the Arkansas Minimum Wage Initiative with Zach Polett, who was passing out information about it at a barber shop in Little Rock, Ark., Oct. 31, 2014. (Photo: Stephen Thornton / The New York Times)Duane Phillips talks about the Arkansas Minimum Wage Initiative with Zach Polett, who was passing out information about it at a barber shop in Little Rock, Arkansas, October 31, 2014. Twenty-four states allow citizens to vote directly on policy matters, and research shows that life satisfaction is higher in them. (Photo: Stephen Thornton / The New York Times)

Is American democracy still "by the people, for the people?"

According to recent research, it may not be. Martin Gilens at Princeton University confirms that the wishes of the American working and middle class play essentially no role in our nation's policy making. A BBC story rightly summarized this with the headline: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy.

However new research by Benjamin Radcliff and Gregory Shufeldt suggests a ray of hope.

Ballot initiatives, they argue, may better serve the interests of ordinary Americans than laws passed by elected officials.

Busy Ballot Initiative Year

Today, 24 states allow citizens to directly vote on policy matters.

This year, more than 42 initiatives already are approved for the ballot in 18 states.

Voters in California will decide diverse questions including banning plastic bags, voter approval of state expenses greater than US$2 billion dollars, improving school funding, and the future of bilingual education.

The people of Colorado will vote on replacing their current medical insurance programs with a single payer system, and in Massachusetts people may consider legalizing recreational marijuana.

"By the People" - Or Not So Much?

Our founders would have been ambivalent about so much direct democracy.

Although the country was founded on the notion that people are happier when they have a say in government, the founders were not optimistic about the ability of people to govern themselves too directly. James Madison, the "father" of the Constitution, famously argued

the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.

By the late nineteenth century, average Americans felt excluded from a representative system they saw as becoming a plutocracy. Much like today, Americans then saw government controlled by the rich and corporate. This gave rise to the Populist Era in which citizens demanded government be more responsive to their needs. Most Populist Era reforms were expansions of direct democracy. Examples include the popular election of Senators, a primary system for picking party candidates, and woman's suffrage.

South Dakota adopted a system of "initiative, referendum, and recall" in 1898. Oregon and California quickly followed, and the system was adopted by another dozen states in under 10 years.

It's been a slow build ever since. Most recently, Mississippi gave citizens the initiative in 1992. That brings us to a total of 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, now recognizing some form of direct democracy.

Truly Democratic?

However, many have pointed to problems with direct democracy in the form of ballot initiatives.

Maxwell Sterns at the University of Maryland, for example, writes that legislatures are better because initiatives are the tools of special interests and minorities. In the end, initiatives are voted upon by an unrepresentative subset of the population, Sterns concludes.

Others like Richard Ellis of Willamette University argue that the time-consuming process of gathering signatures introduces a bias toward moneyed interests. Some suggest this has damaged direct democracy in California, where professional petition writers anddominate the process. Moneyed interests also enjoy a natural advantage in having the resources that ordinary people lack to mount media campaigns to support their narrow interests.

To curb this kind of problem, bans on paying people per signature are proposed in many states, but have not yet passed any legislature. However, because Californians like direct democracy in principle, they have recently amended the process to allow for a review and revision, and they require mandatory disclosures about the funding and origins of ballot initiatives.

Finally, some say initiatives can be confusing for voters, like the two recent Ohio propositions concerning marijuana, where one ballot proposition essentially canceled out the other. Similarly, Mississippi's Initiative 42 required marking the ballot in two places for approval but only one for disapproval, resulting in numerous nullified "yes" votes.

Routes to Happiness

Despite these flaws, our research shows that direct democracy might improve happiness in two ways.

One is through its psychological effect on voters, making them feel they have a direct impact on policy outcomes. This holds even if they may not like, and thus vote against, a particular proposition. The second is that it may indeed produce policies more consistent with human well being.

The psychological benefits are obvious. By allowing people literally to be the government, just as in ancient Athens, people develop higher levels of political efficacy. In short, they may feel they have some control over their lives. Direct democracy can give people political capital because it offers a means by which citizens may place issues on the ballot for popular vote, giving them an opportunity both to set the agenda and to vote on the outcome.

We think this is important today given America's declining faith in government. Overall today only 19 percent believe the government is run for all citizens. The same percentage trusts government to mostly do what is right. The poor and working classes are even more alienated.

The Survey Says

Our evidence comes from surveys of the American public large enough to allow comparisons across states.

Specifically, we used DDB-Needham Advertising's Life Style Studies. Beginning in 1975, this study annually asks large numbers of Americans about trends, behaviors, beliefs and opinions. The study uses such large samples we can directly examine the impact of initiatives on satisfaction in spite of the fact that it has multiple state and individual level causes.

The statistical evidence is clear.

Life satisfaction is measurably higher in states that allow initiatives than in those that do not. This holds even when controlling for a large range of other factors, including income, education, race, age, gender, employment status, personal health, marital status, and church attendance.

We found that satisfaction also increases with the cumulative use of initiatives over time. In other words, the more frequently a state has used initiatives to create its current policies, the happier people are. While it is difficult to quantify the increase in happiness due to the complexity of the statistical models, it's possible to say that living in a state that allows initiatives has about as much impact on happiness as one's gender, but less impact than marriage or employment status.

States that use the initiative tend to have policies that help protect citizen prosperity, health, and security, all of which contribute to greater happiness.

This may be because citizens themselves use the initiative process to implement laws that directly aid them. Or it could be that legislators are more attentive to citizen well being in states that have mechanisms for initiative, referendum, and recall. Either way, the net impact on both satisfaction and well being is positive.

Perhaps more importantly, the study finds that lower and middle income people benefit most from initiatives. Simply put, the happiness of the rich and powerful in a state increases less (or even declines slightly) relative to happiness boost that ordinary citizens receive.

In other words, the greatest increase goes to those who are the least happy to begin with, effectively reducing the "satisfaction inequality" between the rich and poor.

The Conversation

News Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Humans May Have Inadvertently Helped Spread a Bee Killing Virus

Researchers have determined that human activity appears to have enabled the spread of Deformed Wing Virus, which has ravaged colonies worldwide.Researchers have determined that human activity appears to have enabled the spread of Deformed Wing Virus, which has ravaged colonies worldwide. (Photo: ishyam79 / Flickr)

Scientists have known for some time that a combination of factors is likely responsible for the dramatic honeybee die offs witnessed in recent years. Now, researchers believe that one such factor could be a virus that we humans have inadvertently help spread.

Much has been written about the risks posed to our honeybees by commonly used insecticides. We've also heard that biodiversity loss has increased the pressures on honey bees. Various other issues, including mite infestations, have also been highlighted as potential causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, but that doesn't get as much press at the moment.

However, researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK and UC Berkley have determined in a new study that the European honeybee is "overwhelmingly" the source of Deformed Wing Virus that has ravaged colonies worldwide. The virus tends to weaken bees and shorten their lives considerably. What's more, it's human activity that appears to have enabled that virus to spread. 

Researchers analyzed Deformed Wing Virus samples taken from honeybees and Varroa mites across seventeen countries. Investigations have found that the parasitic Varroa mites exacerbated an existing threat from the virus.

After contracting Deformed Wing Virus, mites can inject it directly into bees when they bite and feed. Varroas previously just affected Asian bees, but they were eventually introduced into Europe, where they caused the infection rate among European honeybees to increase dramatically. But that still doesn't explain how widespread the virus has become. And that's where humans come in.

Using information about the Varroa mites, researchers were able to trace the epidemic back to Europe. They believe that the virus then spread to North America, Australia and New Zealand. While, admittedly, there was two-way movement in some cases, the spread of the virus closely matched the human transport of honeybees from Europe into other geographic locations. Essentially, by exporting the bees we created a pandemic.

What's worse, there is evidence that honeybees themselves are now spreading Deformed Wing Virus. When their saliva and feces comes into contact with plants they share with other pollinators, the virus can infect and endanger other bee species too.

As an aside, we know bumblebees and other pollinators appear less resilient to the threat of neonicotinoids than honeybees, so adding the relatively new threat of Deformed Wing Virus may explain the dramatic colony losses that bumblebees are experiencing.

So what does that mean for us and how do we stop this problem?

Dr. Lena Wilfret, the senior author of this study, explained:  "We must now maintain strict limits on the movement of bees, whether they are known to carry Varroa or not. It's also really important that beekeepers at all levels take steps to control Varroa in their hives, as this viral disease can also affect wild pollinators."

While controls on the spread of bee populations already exist, advocates say that interstate transportation is lax and border vet checks are not preventing the spread of the virus. If the agricultural sector wants to keep honeybees alive - and it needs them - it must look at more ways to stop this virus from spreading.

Governments, too, must act to tighten regulations around bee transport to make sure screenings are effective and bees are not being transported unless absolutely necessary. That will be costly, but in the long run it could cost far more in terms of interruptions to our food supply if we don't act now.

News Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
"Insidious, Invisible" Impacts on Baby Health: Toxic Exposure and Preterm Births

Emerging evidence suggests even mild exposures to some contaminants may raise a pregnant woman's risk of delivering her baby too soon. Emerging evidence suggests even mild exposures to some contaminants may raise a pregnant woman's risk of delivering her baby too soon. (Photo: Baby feet via Shutterstock)

When Dr. Brian Morgan moved to Fresno, California, a decade ago, the frequency of babies being born too early in his new community struck him. So did the widespread pollution - freeway exhaust, processing plant emissions, pesticide-tainted soil stirred up by the agricultural region's fleet of tractors.

"If you park your car in Fresno, it's gonna get a layer of dust on it," said Morgan, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine at the University Women's Specialty Center in Fresno. "I began to wonder, and still do wonder, whether environmental pollutants are a factor here" in the number of preterm births.

Fresno has one of California's highest rates of preterm births - which means a baby arrives at least three weeks before their due date - at around 10 percent. The city also ranks among the dirtiest on state and national lists. 

Morgan could be on to something, according to a video released recently. Even mild exposures to some contaminants may raise a pregnant woman's risk of delivering her baby too soon, warns the four-minute production.

Little Things Matter: The Impact of Toxins on Preterm Birth from Bruce Lanphear on Vimeo.

The video draws on emerging scientific evidence that particulate matter, lead and other pollutants - especially in combination, as they're typically encountered - may play a role in the approximately 15 million babies born preterm every year around the world.

"Because these [toxics] are insidious, or invisible, they are easily dismissed or ignored. But they can have grave effects on pregnancy and a child's development," Bruce Lanphear, an environmental health expert at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, says in the video.

Nearly one in 10 babies in the U.S. is born preterm. About half of these early arrivals cannot be explained by known risk factors, such as multiple births, poor nutrition or infections. Lanphear and other experts say environmental toxics are generally overlooked and could be contributing to the nation's staggering rate - among the highest in the developed world, even rivaling some developing countries.

The stakes are significant. Babies born prematurely face serious challenges, from uncertain survival through the first weeks of life to greater risks for future medical troubles including diabetes and heart disease. A study published in October warned that fewer weeks in the womb could derail brain development, potentially setting a child up for learning, attention and psychiatric problems.

The toll on society is troubling as well: Preterm births cost the U.S. economy an estimated $26 billion every year.

But there is some good news. Recognizing and targeting preventable exposures to environmental toxics, suggests Lanphear in the video, could "result in a big reduction in preterm births."

While a pregnant woman's exposure to small amounts of any single toxic may trim her child's time in the womb by only three to seven days, he explains, the toll from multiple exposures can add up.

"If we really want to prevent preterm birth, it's about looking at the cumulative impact of various subtle risk factors," Lanphear said in an interview. "Collectively, they may help explain such large variations in preterm birth around the world."

Morgan said he's witnessed substantial variation even across his state. Los Angeles, where he previously worked, has a lower rate of preterm births, 8.6 percent, than 220 miles north in Fresno, where the rate is 9.8 percent, according to the California Summit on Preterm Birth.

Even a small percentage change can mean thousands more babies born too soon. Preterm birth rates are also inconsistent within Fresno County - African American babies are born too early 12 percent of the time, for example, compared to 7.3 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

"We know that [toxics] are not equally distributed across the environment," said Heather Burris, a neonatologist and expert in environmental exposures at Harvard Medical School. She has been studying racial and ethnic disparities in preterm births and finding hints that a mother's - or even grandmother's - environmental exposures likely account for some of the risk that a child arrives premature.

She, like Lanphear, lamented a general "under-appreciation" for the environment's role. But much like research into the causes of autism, which had previously focused almost solely on genetics, toxic exposures may finally be coming into the spotlight.

"As the data have been getting better, we've been getting more broadly interested in environmental [toxics] and impacts on pregnancy," said Dr. Edward McCabe, medical director of the March of Dimes. The organization has set two ambitious goals for the country's preterm birth rate - 8.1 percent by 2020 and 5.5 percent by 2030 - by primarily targeting what he labeled "things we can control," including family planning, avoiding alcohol while pregnant or trying to become pregnant and the use of progesterone and low-dose aspirin supplements.

He couldn't point to any current investments by the March of Dimes into environmental factors, but said they have funded related research in the recent past.

Lanphear's video comes as a public health disaster unfolds in Flint, Michigan. Among its many consequences, Lanphear said in an interview, the lead contaminating the city's drinking water could trigger an uptick in preterm births. In fact, his video highlights a British study published in 2015, which found pregnant women with higher levels of lead in their blood were nearly twice as likely to give birth too soon.

Caroline Taylor, an environmental health expert at the University of Bristol, led that study. She suggested the need for "large-scale surveillance" to see what is happening to Flint's pregnant women and children.

She also agreed in the broader need for research on the relationship between toxics and preterm birth.

"Lead is only one of a number of environmental exposures people come across during pregnancy," Taylor said.

Flame retardants, phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA) are among other toxics emerging as possible culprits in early births. Most recently, a study published in January - and partially funded by the March of Dimes - found exposure to high levels of particulate air pollution raised the risk of preterm births by 19 percent.

And just how these toxics might wreak their havoc on gestation is also under investigation. Tracey Woodruff, director of the University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, is eyeing potential impacts on the development of the placenta - the support system for the fetus. Flame retardants, phthalates, BPA and some pesticides are among chemicals that may mimic, and thereby disrupt, natural hormone messengers. And the implantation and development of the placenta, along with the rest of the architecture that connects mother to fetus, are guided by hormones.

She and other experts recommend pregnant women take steps to lower their risk of giving birth preterm, from choosing unprocessed and organic foods, when possible, to avoiding smoking, alcohol and the use of pesticides around their home. Yet many exposures remain out of an individual's control.

Woodruff is also beginning to work with Morgan to sort out what environmental factors may be at play in Fresno.

She emphasized the potentially profound impact of exposures across an entire population. If the average child is born just a couple days earlier, explained Woodruff, that may mean a huge jump in the total number of premature babies - even if most children still spend adequate time in the womb.

In the video, Lanphear highlighted one example of how this statistical phenomenon should also inspire hope: After Scotland banned smoking in public places, non-smoking women experienced a 15 percent decline in preterm births and a 25 percent drop in very preterm births.

"We can prevent many babies from being born too soon," he said. "Little things add up. Little things matter."

News Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Why Wall Street Won Round One and We Might Win the Next

The question then is not if another financial bubble will burst, but when. To avoid further crises with huge tragic social costs, we have an urgent task to bring finance back under democratic control, to reconfigure society's relation to finance capital, indeed, to capital itself. Iceland may have been the exception to the rule, but it shows that democratic control of the banks is possible.

The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, New York City.The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, New York City. The question is when - not if - the next financial bubble will burst. (Photo: Wall Street via Shutterstock)

When the ground from under Wall Street opened up in autumn 2008, there was much talk of letting the banks get their just desserts, jailing the "banksters", and imposing draconian regulation. The newly elected Barack Obama came to power promising banking reform, warning Wall Street, "My administration is the only thing that stands between you and the pitchforks".

Yet nearly eight years after the outbreak of the global financial crisis, it is evident that those who were responsible for bringing it about have managed to go completely scot-free. Not only that, they have been able to get governments to stick the costs of the crisis and the burden of the recovery on their victims.

How Wall Street Won

How did they succeed? The first line of defence for the banks was to get the government to rescue the banks from the financial mess they had created. The banks flatly refused Washington's pressure on them to mount a collective defence with their own resources. Using the massive collapse of stock prices triggered by Lehman Brothers going under, finance capital's representatives were able to blackmail both liberals and the far-right in Congress to approve the US$700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Nationalization of the banks was dismissed as being inconsistent with "American" values.

Then by engaging in the defensive anti-regulatory war that they had mastered in Congress over decades, the banks were able, in 2009 and 2010, to gut the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of three key items that were seen as necessary for genuine reform: downsizing the banks; institutionally separating commercial from investment banking; and banning most derivatives and effectively regulating the so-called "shadow banking system" that had brought on the crisis.

They did this by using what Cornelia Woll termed finance capital's "structural power". One dimension of this power was the US$344 million the industry spent lobbying the U.S. Congress in the first nine months of 2009, when legislators were taking up financial reform. Senator Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, alone received US$2.8 million in contributions from Wall Street in 2007-2008. But perhaps equally powerful as Wall Street's entrenched congressional lobby were powerful voices in the new Obama Administration who were sympathetic to the bankers, notably Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Council of Economic Advisors' head Larry Summers, both of whom had served as close associates of Robert Rubin, who had successive incarnations as co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, Bill Clinton's Treasury chief, and chairman and senior counselor of Citigroup.

Finally, the finance sector succeeded by wielding their ideological power, or perhaps more accurately, hitching their defense to the dominant neoliberal ideology. Wall Street was able to change the narrative about the causes of the financial crisis, throwing the blame entirely on the state.

This is best illustrated in the case of Europe. As in the U.S., the financial crisis in Europe was a supply-driven crisis, as the big European banks sought high-profit, quick-return substitutes for the low returns on investment in industry and agriculture, such as real-estate lending and speculation in financial derivatives, or placed their surplus funds in high-yield bonds sold by governments. Indeed, in their drive to raise more and more profits from lending to governments, local banks, and property developers, Europe's banks poured US$2.5 trillion into Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain.

The result was that Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio rose to 148 percent in 2010, bringing the country to the brink of a sovereign debt crisis. Focused on protecting the banks, the European authorities' approach to stabilising Greece's finances was not to penalise the creditors for irresponsible lending but to get citizens to shoulder all the costs of adjustment.

The changed narrative, focusing on the "profligate state" rather than unregulated private finance as the cause of the financial crisis, quickly made its way to the USA, where it was used not only to derail real banking reform but also to prevent the enactment of an effective stimulus programme in 2010. Christina Romer, the head of Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, estimated that it would take a US$1.8 trillion to reverse the recession. Obama approved only less than half, or US$787 billion, placating the Republican opposition but preventing an early recovery. Thus the cost of the follies of Wall Street fell not on banks but on ordinary Americans, with the unemployed reaching nearly 10 percent of the workforce in 2011 and youth unemployment reaching over 20 percent.

Big Finance's Victory in the US and Europe

The triumph of Wall Street in reversing the popular surge against it following the outbreak of the financial crisis was evident in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. The U.S. statistics were clear: 95 percent of income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the top 1 percent; median income was US$4,000 lower in 2014 than in 2000; concentration of financial assets increased after 2009, with the four largest banks owning assets that came to nearly 50 percent of GDP. Yet regulating Wall Street has not been an issue in the Republican primary debates while in the Democratic debates, it was a side issue, despite the efforts of candidate Bernie Sanders to make it the centerpiece.

The political institutions of one of the world's most advanced liberal democracies were no match for the structural power and ideological resources of the financial establishment. As Cornelia Woll writes, "For the administration and Congress, the main lesson from the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 was that they had only very limited means to pressure the financial industry into behavior that appeared urgently necessary for the survival of the entire sector and the economy as a whole".

In Greece, the austerity policies provoked a popular revolt - expressed in the June 2015 referendum on the bailout in which over 60 percent of the Greek people rejected the deal - but in the end their will was trampled on as the German government forced Tsipras into a humiliating surrender. It is clear that the key motives were to save the European financial elite from the consequences of their irresponsible policies, enforcing the iron principle of full debt repayment, and crucifying Greece to dissuade others, such as the Spaniards, Irish, and Portuguese, from revolting against debt slavery. As Karl Otto Pöhl, a former head of Germany's Bundesbank, admitted some time back, the draconian exercise in Greece was about "protecting German banks, but especially the French banks, from debt write-offs".

Pyrrhic Victory

Yet, the victory of the banks is likely in the end to be Pyrrhic. The combination of deep austerity-induced recession or stagnation that grips much of Europe and the U.S. and the absence of financial reform is deadly. The resulting prolonged stagnation and the prospect of deflation have discouraged investment in the real economy to expand goods and services.

Meanwhile with the move to re-regulate finance halted, the financial institutions have all the more reason to do what they did prior to 2008 that triggered the current crisis: engage in intense speculative operations designed to make super-profits from the difference between the inflated price of assets and derivatives based on assets and the real value of these assets before the law of gravity causes the inevitable crash.

The non-transparent derivatives market is now estimated to total US$707 trillion, or significantly higher than the US$548 billion in 2008, according to analyst Jenny Walsh. "The market has grown so unfathomably vast, the global economy is at risk of massive damage should even a small percentage of contracts go sour. Its size and potential influence are difficult just to comprehend, let alone assess." Former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the SEC, agreed, telling one writer that none of the post-2008 reforms has "significantly diminished the likelihood of financial crises".

The question then is not if another bubble will burst but when.

Winning the Next Round

Then the next question is, will it take this coming crisis to finally achieve what the reaction of the 2008 financial crisis failed to do - place finance capital under restraints? In his classic book The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi talked about the "double movement" whereby the excesses of capital create a counter-movement among the people, which forces the state to restrain and regulate it.

In this we can learn from Iceland's unique experience. In October 2015, Iceland's judicial system sent the heads of the country's biggest banks to jail, along with 23 of their lieutenants. The sentencing was the culmination of a process in which Iceland took a different course from the U.S. and the rest of Europe. It let the banks go under instead of bailing them out as "too big to fail". It did engage in bailout operations but these were to rescue ordinary citizens rather than bankers, forgiving mortgage debts that went above 110 percent of the actual value of the home linked to the loan.

The economy of Iceland did not collapse when its biggest banks were allowed to fail. As one article pointed out,

Iceland returned to economic growth much faster than skeptics expected after breaking from the conciliatory approach toward financial industry actors that most countries took in the wake of the global collapse. The tiny economy's growth rate outpaced the average for European countries in 2012. It halved its unemployment rate since the peak of the crisis.

That the country was able to tame the finance industry was perhaps due to several factors. One was the relatively small scale of its democracy. With a population of only 329,000 people, most of them in the capital city, Reykjavik, Iceland's elected officials were susceptible to very direct pressure from the electorate, many of whom had suffered massive losses. Another is that with finance having emerged relatively recently as the main driver of the economy, the financial elite had not achieved the massive structural and ideological power that finance capital had achieved in the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of Europe.

Iceland may have been the exception to the rule, but it shows that democratic control of the banks is possible.

To avoid further crises with huge tragic social costs, we have an urgent task to bring finance back under democratic control, to reconfigure society's relation to finance capital, indeed, to Capital itself.

Opinion Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Healthy Ground, Healthy Atmosphere: Recarbonizing the Earth's Soils

Plant soilSoil scientists and climate researchers believe that returning carbon to the soil on a large scale could help mitigate climate change. (Photo: Plant soil via Shutterstock)

On a bright October morning Dave Brandt tromps through the middle of his central Ohio wheat field. The grain was harvested months ago, but there isn't an inch of bare dirt anywhere. Instead, more than 10 varieties of plants, including crimson clover, pearl millet, and Austrian winter peas, form a "cover crop cocktail" that stretches all the way to the road bordering his property. "This will be here all winter," Brandt says. "And in the spring, we'll plant corn right into this."

Brandt hasn't tilled his soil since 1972, when he rented his first 600 acres of farmland to grow wheat, corn, and soybeans. And by keeping plants on his land in various stages of growth and decomposition, Brandt appears to have increased the amount of carbon in his soil over the years. One study estimated that total organic carbon in the top foot of Brandt's soil increased by 10% after six years of no-till, 35% after 20 years, and 61% after 35 years.[1] (The data on which this estimate was based were not peer reviewed.) Overall, Brandt's soil stored, or sequestered, an estimated average 960 kg of carbon per hectare per year.[1]

With figures like those, soil scientists and climate researchers believe that returning carbon to the soil on a large scale could help mitigate climate change. The world's terrestrial carbon stores - the combined amount of carbon in soil and in plant matter - are much greater than the amount of carbon in the atmosphere: 3.12 trillion metric tons in the top meter of soil versus 780 billion metric tons in the atmosphere, by one estimate.[2] Before the dawn of agriculture, there was even more carbon in the global soil pool - an estimated 55–78 billion additional metric tons,[3] and the world's plant biomass held still more, much of it lost to land use changes.[2]

That's why Rattan Lal, one of world's preeminent soil scientists and director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center (C-MASC) at The Ohio State University, has called for recarbonizing the world's soils.[2] Doing so, Lal says, "would be a truly win–win–win situation." In addition to carbon sequestration, increasing carbon in soil has many other co-benefits: increased water storage in soil, increased length of the growing season, cooling of the ground via evapotranspiration, recharging groundwater aquifers, keeping springs and rivers flowing in the dry season. Soil itself filters water, reduces flooding, and provides a water reserve for plants in times of drought.

Lal believes food security is an especially important co-benefit. By one estimate, about 24% of total global land area shows evidence of impaired productivity,[4] and each year some 1–2.9 million hectares is degraded so badly that it becomes unsuitable for farming.[5] Increasing population levels, predicted to reach 9.2 billion by 2050, will place more pressure on the world's farmlands to produce enough food.[6]

Lal has calculated that increasing organic carbon in the soil surrounding plant roots by 1 ton per hectare per year can increase grain production by 32 million tons per year.[7][8] "This is especially important for small landholders of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean," he says.

Promising but Slow to Catch On

The same study that estimated the increased carbon levels in Brandt's soils compared the productivity of two no-till fields on his farm - one with cover crops and one without - and found corn yields increased by 36–44% with the use of cover crops.[1] In addition, Brandt estimates he uses 75% less fertilizer and herbicide on his land (he has eliminated pesticides altogether) and less fuel than if he were employing conventional methods that would require more passes over his fields. "We operate this farm on 2.5 gallons of diesel fuel an acre, compared to 35 gallons an acre for conventional farms," he says.

Brandt also has observed no soil erosion, and he says his crops are protected against weather extremes. "Where we cover crop our soils," he explains, "the soil never gets above 95–98°F in the summer, whereas in [his neighbor's] conventionally tilled fields, the soil will get to 120–140°F."

Despite those promising statistics, it has taken decades for Brandt to convince other local farmers to follow his lead, and many still resist. Indeed, just across the road lies a vista of bare brown soil on his neighbor's farm; it will remain like that all winter. Nationally, no-till is used on about 13% of farms and cover crops on just 6%.[9][10]

Most conventional agricultural practices deplete rather than build up carbon.[11] When farmers leave their fields bare between crops, for instance, only a small amount of organic matter is left to decompose and replenish the carbon stocks that are removed by harvesting the crops. The situation is worse in developing countries, where farmers often remove every bit of plant material left after harvest to feed animals or to burn as cooking fuel.[12] In addition, tilling the soil brings any leftover plant material into contact with soil microbes faster than if the plant were to slowly degrade on the surface of the ground, which speeds up the plant's decomposition and the return of its carbon stores to the atmosphere.[13]

But Brandt is feeling positive these days. That may be due to the fact that French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll made a special stop at his farm on a five-day swing through the United States in July 2015. Several months earlier, Le Foll had unveiled a new initiative that he would go on to present at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), held in Paris in December. The initiative, dubbed 4/1000, calls for increasing the worldwide level of organic carbon in soil by a relative magnitude of 0.4% per year, an increase Le Foll says would compensate for current annual emissions of 4.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.[14][15]

To discuss the potential benefits and challenges of soil carbon sequestration, Le Foll spent two days with Lal at Ohio State's C-MASC, where the discussion focused on the feasibility of the 4/1000 proposal.[16] C-MASC has collaborated with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct research on this theme since early 1990s.

Lal and his colleagues then took Le Foll to Brandt's farm so he could see a local operation that was successfully sequestering carbon. "He was here for about two hours," Brandt says, clicking through some photos of the visit on his computer. "And he got real excited about what we're doing."

Biochar: Another Opportunity to Increase Soil Carbon

Another option under exploration for increasing the carbon content of soil is biochar. This highly stable substance is produced when plant matter is heated at high temperatures in a low-oxygen environment, a process known as pyrolysis. Carbon is concentrated in the resulting biochar at levels twice that of ordinary plant materials.[17]

Biogeochemist Thomas J. Goreau, who is coordinator for the Soil Carbon Alliance information network, first encountered biochar years ago when someone brought him a sample of ash from rock layers marking the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, the geologic time period when scientists believe an asteroid hit the earth, causing massive fires and bringing 75% of plant and animal life to extinction. "When we looked at the ash through a microscope," Goreau says, "you could see every cell in the plant that had burned. I mean, this sample was 65 million years old, and it was untouched."

He tells that story to illustrate just how long biochar can persist in the ground. Biochar deposits have helped produce extremely fertile soils, including the famous terra preta ("black earth") soils in the Amazon.[18] Yet, scientists say, it is only within the last decade - after the first international conference on the use of biochar to help mitigate climate change in 2007[19] - that researchers began to seriously study it.

"If we look back, there were less than a dozen publications [on biochar] until 2007," says Johannes Lehmann, a professor of soil science at Cornell University. Today, "more than 400 [are published] on the subject per year."

Lehmann has coauthored a number of papers that show biochar can increase soil fertility and crop yields.[20][21][22] He and colleagues have estimated that if farmers and land managers were to pyrolyze plant matter on their land (anything from crop residues to leaf litter) and bury the resulting biochar in their soils, they could potentially lock up 1 billion tons of carbon a year, which would offset the estimated 130 billion tons of CO2 that is expected to be added to the atmosphere over the next century.[23] As an added benefit, renewable energy can be generated at the same time as biochar and partially displace fossil fuels, says David Laird, a professor in the Iowa State University Department of Agronomy - another step toward climate change mitigation.

Nevertheless, a range of socioeconomic, technological, and scientific challenges must be solved before there is widespread use of biochar. Right now, Lehmann says, the most important step is to have farmers and land users experiment with it and see how it works in their specific situation. Lehmann is working with farmers in Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia to do just that. "We're building cases for biochar, and I'm sure there will also be cases where biochar has not been found to add value," he says. "Only when we tie all these cases together will we have a more realistic scenario of what could be done."

Reversing a History of Neglect

Convincing nations to undertake soil conservation measures of any type has been a long time coming. Lal and 30 other scientists co-authored a 2013 paper arguing that soil security has long been overlooked, pointing out that soil health was left off the agenda of numerous high-profile international meetings on climate change, sustainable development, ecosystem management, and biodiversity.[24] Policies to protect soil are long overdue, says Andrea Koch, the lead author of the paper and director of the Soil Carbon Initiative at the University of Sydney's U.S. Studies Centre. "Therefore," she says, "soil degradation has continued silently to be a problem."

Despite a long history of neglect, Koch says there are promising developments concerning soil security. In 2006 an international consortium of soil scientists undertook the massive project of compiling the world's first digital soil map, known as GlobalSoilMap.[25] The 3-dimensional map, slated for completion in 2018, will allow scientists to look at a range of soil properties - including pH levels, texture, and carbon levels - at a much finer scale than ever before. The data will also be available in a format that will make it easier for researchers in other fields, such as climatology, to incorporate accurate soil data into their research models.[26][27]

Having such information will be a boon to land managers and policy makers worldwide, says Thomas Reinsch, national leader of the World Soils Resources Branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's NRCS. To make his point about the need for such information, Reinsch shares a story from a trip he and others took to Haiti to train agronomists how to recognize different soil properties. One day, Reinsch stood on a hilltop with Jean Pierre-Ogé, director of Forest and Soils for Haiti's agriculture ministry. As the two looked out over the valley, Ogé pointed to an area where structures were being erected for families displaced by the 2010 earthquake. "Those soils over there are our best soils," Ogé said, "[but] that's where all of our houses are being built."

Another boost came in 2011, when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations launched the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) to support sustainable management of soil resources for food security and climate change mitigation.[28] Then, in 2012, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany launched an annual Global Soils Week in Berlin, where researchers, farmers, and others meet to discuss soil issues.[29]

More recently, the NRCS launched a new Soil Health Division to promote a sea change in how farmers work their land by giving them technical advice, education, monetary incentives, and tools to adopt soil conservation measures such as no-till.[30] NRCS scientists are working toward standardized soil health assessments to measure not just soil pH and nutrients but all its biological and physical properties such as water-holding capacity, compaction, microbial and enzymatic activity levels, porosity, and respiration rate.

Finally, the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soil, a campaign to raise awareness, support policies, and promote investment toward soil security as well as enhance soil collection and monitoring.[31] And on 4 December 2015, on the occasion of the 12th annual World Soil Day, the GSP released its first report on the state of the world's soils.[32]

As for the 4/1000 initiative, many hoped that Le Foll would press for it to become part of the agreement signed by nations at the Paris climate talks in December. Instead, it was adopted as a voluntary action plan as part of the Lima–Paris Action Agenda,[33] a set of events designed to keep momentum going on greenhouse gas reductions between meetings of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Partners in 4/1000 agree to "implement farming practices that maintain or enhance soil carbon stock on as many agricultural soils as possible and to preserve carbon-rich soils."[34] A group of 25 nations and many other nongovernmental organizations, universities, and private companies have signed the agreement.[35]

No Single Practice

For soil carbon sequestration advocates, this attention to soil health is long overdue. Goreau has long argued that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cannot seriously address climate change mitigation if it focuses only on reducing fossil fuels (the supply side of the equation, he says) and ignores increasing carbon sinks (the demand side).[36] He calls the 4/1000 initiative a game changer. And he believes many countries will back it not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's in their own self interest. "And it is!" he says. "It's hard to imagine that anyone's going to lose from having their own land greener and more productive."

Like many others in this area, Le Foll believes individual farmers are the most important ambassadors for carbon-enriching farming techniques such as no-till. After his July visit to C-MASC and Brandt's farm, Le Foll invited Brandt to France so he could address a room full of international representatives at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It was a heady experience for Brandt, and he likes to tell the story of an e-mail he received from one of Le Foll's assistants asking him what he planned to wear to the meeting. "A dress shirt, a tie, and a new pair of black bibs," he wrote back. "Those are my going-to-meetin' clothes." She replied, "Very funny, David. Buy a suit."

Brandt roars with laughter at the memory. But after a moment, he turns serious. "Who would ever believe that what we're doing" - he pauses, searching for the right words. He finally continues: "It's quite humbling for me to think about a farmer talking to all those dignitaries about how to get [greater worldwide soil carbon sequestration] accomplished."

Ultimately, there is no single practice - cover crops, no-till, biochar, or anything else - that is universally applicable to all the soils in the world. The overall strategy, Lal says, must be to create a positive soil carbon budget so that the input of carbon in soil exceeds the losses by erosion, decomposition, and leaching.

But that's not enough, either. "Even if carbon sequestration is a win–win solution, in terms of climate change mitigation it remains a finite solution," says agronomist Dominique Arrouays, scientific coordinator for the GlobalSoilMap project. "It should not prevent us from reducing fossil fuel emissions."

More than Carbon Depletion

Conventional agriculture practices don't just deplete organic carbon levels; they can also reduce the amount of micronutrients in soil. Plants draw minerals toward the soil surface as they grow - on bare soil, these minerals are more readily lost through soil leaching and erosion.[37][38] There is evidence that, as a result, plants growing in this soil - and the livestock that eat the plants - may contain lower amounts of the vitamins and trace minerals necessary for optimum human health.[37][39]

This is a potential problem, given that an estimated 2 billion people around the world are deficient in at least one of the 21 micronutrients that are essential for plant, human, and livestock health.[40] Zinc deficiency - which kills an estimated 800,000 people a year and causes problems such as growth retardation and metabolic disorders in thousands of others - is the best documented.[37] The most severe deficiencies happen in developing countries, where large segments of the population do not have access to a varied diet.[37]



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2. Lal R. Managing soils and ecosystems for mitigating anthropogenic carbon emissions and advancing global food security. BioScience 60(9):708–721 (2010), doi: 10.1525/bio.2010.60.9.8.

3. Lal R. Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. Science 304(5677):1623–1627 (2004), doi: 10.1126/science.1097396.

4. Bai ZG, et al. Proxy global assessment of land degradation. Soil Use Manage 24(3):223–234 (2008), doi: 10.1111/j.1475-2743.2008.00169.x.

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9. USDA NASS. 2012 Census of Agriculture: Highlights. Conservation: Producers Protect or Improve Millions of Acres of Agricultural Land. Washington, DC:National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (July 2014). Available:​s/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Conse​rvation/Highlights_Conservation.pdf [accessed 25 January 2016].

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12. Akpaul W, Ekbom A. Environment for Development Discussion Paper Series: The Bioeconomics of Conservation Agriculture and Soil Carbon Sequestration in Developing Countries. Environment for Development Discussion Paper Series EfD DP 10-07. Gothenburg, Sweden:Environment for Development (March 2010). Available:​Images/Download/EfD-DP-10-07.pdf [accessed 25 January 2016].

13. Bot A, Benites J. Practices that influence the amount of organic matter. In: The Importance of Soil Organic Matter: Key to Drought-Resistant Soil and Sustained Food Production. FAO Soils Bulletin 80. Rome, Italy:Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2005). Available: [accessed 25 January 2016].

14. France Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Forests. Join the 4% Initiative Soils for Food Security and Climate [website]. Paris, France:Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Forests (updated 23 September 2015). Available:​ative-soils-food-security-and-climate-0 [accessed 25 January 2016].

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16. The Ohio State University. French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll visits C-MASC [website]. Columbus, OH:School of Environment and Natural Resources, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, The Ohio State University (2016). Available:​-agriculture-minister-st%C3%A9phane-le-f​oll-visits-c-masc [accessed 25 January 2016].

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27. Arrouays D, et al. GlobalSoilMap: towards a fine-resolution global grid of soil properties. Adv Agron 125:93–134 (2014), doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-800137-0.00003-0.

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29. Global Soil Week. First Global Soil Week 2012: Soils For Life. Global Soil Week Programme [website]. Potsdam, Germany:Global Soil Week, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (2012). Available:​ek/gsw-2012 [accessed 25 January 2016].

30. NRCS. NRCS Soil Health Division [website]. Washington, DC:Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2016). Available:​/detailfull/soils/health/?cid=stelprdb12​37522. [accessed 25 January 2016].

31. FAO. 2015 Year of Soils [website]. Rome, Italy:United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (2016). Available: [accessed 25 January 2016].

32. FAO. Status of the World's Soil Resources. Rome, Italy:Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Natural Resources and Environment Department (2015). Available:​6814873-efc3-41db-b7d3-2081a10ede50/ [accessed 25 January 2016].

33. UNFCCC. Agriculture [website]. Bonn, Germany:United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2016). Available:​ure/join-the-41000-initiative-soils-for-​food-security-and-climate/ [accessed 25 January 2016].

34. UNFCCC. Join the 4% Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate. Paris, France and Bonn, Germany:Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood, and Forestry and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2015). Available:​4-per-1000-initiative.pdf [accessed 25 January 2016].

35. Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood, and Forestry. 4 per 1000 - Soils for Food Security and Climate [website]. Paris, France:Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood, and Forestry (2016). Available: [accessed 25 January 2016].

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37. Udo de Haes HA, et al. Scarcity of Micronutrients in Soil, Feed, Food, and Mineral Reserves - Urgency and Policy Options. Report and Advisory Memorandum for the Dutch Minister of Agriculture and Foreign Trade. Culemborg, the Netherlands:Platform for Agriculture, Innovation, and Society (2012). Available:​cronutrients.pdf [accessed 25 January 2016].

38. Thompson B, Amoroso L. Combating Micronutrient Deficiences: Food-based Approaches. Rome, Italy and Oxfordshire, United Kingdom:Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and CAB International (2011). Available:​27e.pdf [accessed 25 January 2016].

39. Davis DR, et al. Changes in USDA food consumption data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999. J Am Coll Nutr 23(6):669–682 (2004); PMID: [Pubmed].

40. FAO. Micronutrients [website]. Rome, Italy:Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2016). Available:​iculture-and-food-based-approaches/micro​nutrients/en/ [accessed 25 January 2016].

News Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Critics Say Proposed Sulfide Mine in Minnesota Threatens State's Watersheds

As the profitability of Minnesota iron declines, the state is looking to sulfide mining as a potential investment. Thousands of critics, however, have voiced concerns about the possible environmental impact of the proposed mines, including the danger of toxic contaminants leaching into waterways.

A portion of the Hull-Rust Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, a 1.5 mile long open-pit iron mine. Minnesota is considering sulfide mining as a potential investment. Sulfide mines are notorious for producing highly toxic contaminants that easily leach into waterways.A portion of the Hull-Rust Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, a 1.5 mile long open-pit iron mine. Minnesota is considering sulfide mining as a potential investment. Sulfide mines are notorious for producing highly toxic contaminants that easily leach into waterways. (Photo: Lars Hammar / Flickr)

Over the last century, Minnesota's "Iron Range" has produced billions of tons of iron ore, as well as its less pure counterpart taconite, both key ingredients for US steel manufacturing. Iron mining successfully bolsters the state economy and supports a large, unionized labor force.

Now, as the profitability of Minnesota iron is squeezed by a global oversupply and international competition, the state is looking into sulfide mining as a potential investment for the future. Thousands of critics, however, have registered concerns about the potential environmental impact of the proposed mines. Sulfide mines are notorious for producing highly toxic contaminants that easily leach into waterways.

Sulfide mining separates metals like gold, platinum, copper and nickel from ores containing sulfur. The minerals are used primarily to create wiring and electronics for everything from power plants to cellphones.

Minnesota has some of the largest deposits of copper and nickel in the world, according to Mining Minnesota, an advocacy group made up of lobbyists and industry leaders dedicated to promoting precious metal mining. The group is pushing hard for sulfide mining in Minnesota. Its website states: "Minnesota has a history of getting things right. Responsible copper and nickel mining is next on our list."

But Al Gedicks, environmental sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, is not convinced that sulfide mining is a responsible economic decision for the state. "There is no demand for either copper or nickel or any of the other metals that would be extracted from the [Minnesota] deposit," Gedicks told Truthout. In the past five years, both copper and nickel prices have dropped dramatically.

Bruce Richard, vice president of corporate communications and external affairs for PolyMet Mining Corporation, says proposed mines would still meet an international need. He wrote in an email to Truthout, "Worldwide inventories at the current time are not in balance with demand, but that's the cyclical nature of the industry, where supply and demand ebbs and flows. Overall, demand for copper continues to grow worldwide."

PolyMet Mining Corporation is set to build the first sulfide mine in northern Minnesota. The proposed mine, known as NorthMet mine, will span three open pits. A refurbished iron processing plant will perform new techniques that allow the extraction of copper and nickel from Minnesota's low-quality deposits.

While the Canadian-based PolyMet Corporation is new to mining, 33.8 percent of the company's voting rights are owned by Swiss commodity trading giant Glencore International, which has a long history in the international mining industry. In recent years, the Fortune 500 company has been criticized for unethical practices while promoting its interests around the globe.

Despite state tradition and economic incentive, 58,000 people raised concerns over the proposed mining project.

Traditionally, Minnesotans are pro-mining. Mining in northern Minnesota provides jobs to thousands of union workers at an average annual salary of $100,000, according to the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. A percentage of taxes levied on iron mining goes toward public schools and universities. Even some of Minnesota's conservation projects are funded by tax revenue from iron mining. Recent layoffs in the iron mines have devastated towns in northern Minnesota.

Despite state tradition, economic incentive and an unstable job climate, 58,000 people raised concerns over the proposed NorthMet mining project during the 90-day public comment period on the 2013 environmental impact statement.

The environmental group, Friends of the Boundary Waters, argues on its website that sulfide mining in the Iron Range will cause local lakes and rivers to become polluted. St. Louis County, where NorthMet mine will be located, is home to major tourist attractions and wilderness reserves, including Superior National Forest, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

In its final environmental impact statement, PolyMet predicted that NorthMet's containment system would "achieve complete capture of groundwater" close to the surface. This water will be treated and discharged, eventually flowing into Lake Superior. Their model shows the mine will meet state water quality standards.

However, a study of 25 sulfide mines by environmental consulting groups Kuipers & Associates and Buka Environmental found that 60 percent of sulfide mines exceeded state water quality standards, and in only 4 percent of project plans was water quality impact correctly predicted.

Tom Myers, an independent consultant with a Ph.D. in hydrology from the University of Nevada, prepared a report for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy that claims "the analyses of the [NorthMet] containment system rely on grossly optimistic assumptions."

In general, sulfide mining is more environmentally risky than iron mining. The process produces significant quantities of both sulfates and mercury, which, when combined, create the highly toxic substance methylmercury. This mercury accumulates to toxic levels as it moves up through the food chain, eventually posing a direct threat to humans. Past mercury contamination has led to fishing bans throughout Minnesota.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been protected since 1978 and attracts 250,000 tourists annually, many of whom are avid fishermen. While the Boundary Waters is in a different watershed than the NorthMet mine, Myers predicted that other mining activities in the area could cause contaminants from NorthMet to bridge the divide between watersheds and flow north toward the Boundary Waters.

PolyMet pledged its commitment for the protected areas in its "Water Quality Fact Sheet," which takes special note of the concerns over possible contamination of the Boundary Waters. It states: "The PolyMet project is in the Lake Superior watershed so none of the treated water that will be discharged from the site will ever enter the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness lakes or streams. PolyMet's commitment to protecting water quality and complying with all applicable water quality standards remains steadfast regardless of the watershed."

The Downstream Business Coalition, a group of 37 local businesses considered to be "pro-responsible mining," opposes the NorthMet mine on environmental and economic grounds. In an open letter to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, the group stated: "We believe the risk to the environment poses a long-term threat to the regional economy that far outweighs the short-term benefits."

PolyMet's project proposal assumes that the mine will create 360 jobs directly and 600 more indirectly - a total of 960 possible jobs. According to an independent study done by the University of Minnesota Duluth Labovitz School of Business and Economics, mining output, or sales, will generate around $515 million annually.

In contrast, tourism in St. Louis County alone generates a half billion dollars in gross sales and another $33 million for the state government in sales taxes. Minnesota's tourism industry generates thousands of jobs and has grown significantly in recent years.

"If you are going to invest state resources into generating jobs, then you get much more 'bang for the buck' by investing in tourism, recreation and sustainable agriculture and forestry, than you would by investing in a mining project," the University of Wisconsin's Gedicks told Truthout.

Beyond its potential effect on tourism revenue in the state, the NorthMet mine threatens wetlands in the area. Wetlands filter and regulate water flow and are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, equal to the tropical rain forest and coral reefs.

According to its impact statement, the NorthMet mine is predicted to directly disturb almost 12.5 square miles of wetlands. By law, any wetland that has been harmed by the mining project must be replaced. Replacement systems often fall short, however. There are eight types of wetlands and each has a different function. Replacing wetlands of a different type or in a different watershed is less effective than protecting the original wetlands.

Paul Glaser, a research professor with the University of Minnesota's Earth Science Department, wrote that the wetland replacement sites chosen by PolyMet are "inadequate for fulfilling mitigation needs since these mitigation sites are located in an entirely different drainage basin and also contain wetlands that are quite different from those at the NorthMet site."

Additionally, the simulated water models for the NorthMet mine did not take into account the water passing between wetlands and groundwater. This interaction could cause wetland water levels to drop and toxin levels to rise, increasing wetland destruction.

"This is a failure to disclose potential impacts of the projects, including water quality impacts to wetlands. These are impacts that, if severe enough, could cause substantial mitigation to be required, including denial of the permit," Myers wrote in his report.

Noting the deficiency in PolyMet's wetlands plan, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that the US Army Corp of Engineers require PolyMet to monitor wetland impacts, develop an impact assessment and create a contingency plan.

Still, the EPA approved the final environmental impact statement for the NorthMet mine on December 21, 2015. Now, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources must approve the impact statement before the project can move on to permitting.

The official decision is expected in February, although Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr already said he plans to approve it. This decision will come amid an EPA investigation into allegations that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency failed to hold iron mining companies to the standards set by the Clean Water Act.

The NorthMet mine is not the only sulfide mine proposed in northern Minnesota. Twin Metals is about two years away from submitting their environmental impact statement for a mine to be located near the NorthMet site. The Twin Metals mine would fall within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area watershed. Any spill or leak from the Twin Metals mine would cause the Boundary Waters to become polluted with no feasible cleanup option. 

News Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Who Endorsed Hillary Clinton? The Congressional Black Caucus or Its PAC Filled With Lobbyists?

This week's endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president by the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee prompted some confusion due to a lack of familiarity with the PAC. We look at the many lobbyists who comprise its board, including those who work for Purdue Pharma, the makers of highly addictive opioid OxyContin, and others who represent Philip Morris and Walmart, the largest gun distributor in America. We also speak with the CBC PAC's chair, Rep. Gregory Meeks, who notes the PAC "also includes the labor groups, labor organizations," and argues, "We in the Congressional Black Caucus have to raise money so we can elect folks. But if you look at how the Congressional Black Caucus votes, no one can say that they don't vote in a very progressive way." Our guest Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist, notes it is important to understand "what this endorsement meant" and adds, "Our politics has been corrupted by the money. That's why our policies are so bizarre."

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Fri, 12 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
How Do Police-Worn Body Camera Programs Actually Work?

The shooting death of Michael Brown last August in Ferguson, Mo., ignited a public debate about police video cameras. The incident was not videotaped. Two competing narratives emerged. In one, Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, was approaching officer Darren Wilson with his hands up, only to be shot six times. In another, ultimately supported by a Department of Justice investigation, Wilson shot Brown after Brown reached through the window of the officer's cruiser, struggled for Wilson's gun, retreated, and then appeared to lunge at him again. A grand jury investigation that brought no charges against Wilson did little to soothe the community uproar.

By contrast, former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing's fatal shooting of Samuel Dubose was captured by a body-worn video camera. Tensing pulled over Dubose for a routine traffic stop. Tensing told officers at the scene that he fired one fatal shot because "he was being dragged by the vehicle and had to fire his weapon," But the Hamilton County prosecutor said the dragging story was a lie.  When he announced Tensing's indictment for murder, he played Tensing's body camera video. "Every day now, I'm going to be marching for video cams," Dubose's sister said when the charges were announced.

The Cincinnati case shows the promise of body-worn cameras (BWC's). They have the potential to build community confidence and police accountability. Yet BWCs also raise difficult questions. When should police record an encounter? Must they tell the people involved? If the video is not used as evidence, how long should the police hold on to it? What are the privacy protections for civilians caught on camera? How much access should the public have to the video? And what are the implications of outfitting thousands of police officers with a surveillance device? The conversation has been hindered by a lack of publicly available information about how BWC programs actually operate.

The Brennan Center for Justice recently completed a comprehensive review of BWC policies from twenty-four police departments around the country. We created an interactive map and series of charts that allow detailed comparison of policies, to help police departments, city councils, analysts, activists, and academics. When it comes to whether BWC policies are more likely to promote accountability or to intrude on privacy, these documents show that the devil is in the details. We review here some highlights and common themes, and encourage you to dip - or delve - into the accompanying materials to learn more.

To begin with, when do the cameras record? Almost all departments require law enforcement actions, such as arrests or searches, to be recorded, while two - Charlotte and Ferguson - require all citizen interactions to be recorded. The majority permit recording at any other time at the officer's discretion, with some exceptions. Only five policies require officers to notify subjects that they are being recorded; six more encourage it.

When are officers prohibited from recording? In the absence of confrontation, most departments forbid recording in places such as bathrooms and locker rooms, and some limit recording in places such as hospitals and doctor's offices. While private homes traditionally receive the strongest constitutional protection against police intrusion, only four policies require a resident's permission to record in a home during a "consent search" (a search that takes place pursuant to the owner's consent, versus a warrant). One city, Charlotte, requires officers to cease a consent search altogether if the resident does not consent to recording. Fourteen do not address homes at all, and four explicitly say the resident's consent to record is not required. No city forbids recording in homes altogether. When it comes to victims of domestic violence, policies vary. Several allow the officer to exercise discretion not to record "sensitive" victims, whereas one - San Diego - specifically instructs officers to record domestic violence victims with serious injuries, to account for the possibility that these victims may not agree to testify later.

Even recording people in public raises concerns if it chills the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Six of the twenty-four departments have limits on recording First Amendment activity, such as protests, or using the recordings to identify law-abiding participants. The New York Police Department's latitude to record is limited by court-ordered guidelines because of a history of monitoring political activity and keeping files on activists. Other departments may wish to consider implementing similar rules as a preventive measure. Dallas and DC require police to record all First Amendment assemblies they attend in their official capacity, although DC prohibits use of the footage to identify law-abiding participants.

Of course, when to record is only half the picture - we must also look at what happens to the recorded video, both within and outside of the department.

First, can officers watch their BWC videos before making reports or statements? Public debate continues, with some expressing concern that police involved in misconduct will be able to tailor their stories to match the evidence, and others suggesting that prohibiting officers from watching their own videos will breed mistrust and discourage officer cooperation. Whatever the merits of each side, the policies show a strong trend. Fifteen departments guarantee officers the right to view their videos before writing reports or giving a statement to internal or criminal investigators, including after a use-of-force incident or a civilian death. Five allow viewing for reports, but require an officer to give a statement after a serious incident before seeing the video, or make viewing contingent on permission from an investigator or prosecutor. We also found that many departments sharply limit the ability of supervisors to view BWC video - some can only view if there is a complaint or if the officer flags a video - and to discipline officers based on it. To be sure, no one wants their boss peering over their shoulder as they work; at the same time, these policies highlight a potential tension between arguments that cameras will enhance police accountability and the actual guidelines in place.

Many have argued that release of BWC videos will help increase police accountability to the public. However, these recordings show sensitive moments in people's lives, and releasing them publicly can pose major privacy concerns. This makes it essential to examine the process for public release.

In theory, the process for releasing videos outside the department is determined by state or local law. At least four states we reviewed (which include six of the cities we survey), plus DC, have statutes that explicitly address the release of videos from body-worn cameras. Elsewhere, management of the videos is governed both by laws limiting release of evidence in an active criminal case and laws making government records accessible to the public. Where neither the law nor the department's policy specifically addresses videos, it may be unclear how these general laws apply.

Moreover, in practice, police departments have a lot of discretion. Videos have been released when they make the police look good; when they don't, they may still be released if there is intense public demand. Many departments have managed to avoid release despite media and activist pressure. Conversely, some cities have innovated to increase transparency; Seattle, for instance, releases videos online that have been blurred so individuals are not recognizable.

How long can the footage be kept? The ACLU recommends that non-evidentiary video be stored for as short a period as possible to minimize the risks to privacy, whether from hacking or from misuse or abuse by the department itself. On the flip side, some departments are opting to keep recorded video for multiple years, in case a citizen complaint or civil rights charge is filed. Eight departments keep videos that are not evidence and not likely to be subject to a complaint for 180 days or less. Seven keep them for one or two years. Ten of the departments do not say.

The above factors are only some of the considerations that enter into the public debate over body-worn cameras. Interested in the rules that govern facial recognition technologies, privacy protections for victims of sexual assault, procedures for auditing the videos, or others? Check out our map and five charts with twenty total categories to find the departments and trends that matter to you.

News Fri, 12 Feb 2016 10:53:32 -0500