Electronic Journal & Daily Report OIL SHOCK REDUX Is OPEC the Real Cartel —or the Transnationals? by Vilosh Vinograd, WW4 Report GLOBAL WARMING AND THE STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE by Brian Tokar, Toward Freedom MARLON SANTI The New Voice of Ecuador’s… Read moreIssue #. 142. February 2008
Tamils in the UK marked the 60th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence Feb. 5 with a hundreds-strong protest at Downing Street demanding “real freedom” and “real rights” for the Hindu minority on the island. That same day, at least 14… Read moreTamil Tigers in London?
Jane’s Country Risk News reports Feb. 1 that renewed US attempts to woo Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to open his country’s vast natural gas reserves may be “too little, too late.” Russia already accounts for 97% of Turkmenistan’s gas exports…. Read moreTurkmenistan tilts to Russia, China
Iraq has halted oil exports to Austria’s OMV, Central Europe’s leading oil and gas group, to protest a deal with the autonomous Kurdish region. An official at the Oil Ministry said OMV will no longer receive 10,000 barrels per day… Read moreIraq cancels oil contracts in showdown over Kurdistan
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by Michael Eamonn Miller, NYC Pavement Pieces
The noisy, bustling streets of upper Manhattan known as “El Barrio” bear scant resemblance to the farmlands of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest, southernmost state. But three decades of Mexican immigration to New York have subtly transformed the neighborhood, establishing ties between the two communities and injecting new, sometimes controversial, ideas into the fight against gentrification in El Barrio.
No group demonstrates these ties or this controversy as strikingly as Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB). Founded in December 2004 by tenants fighting eviction from their East Harlem apartment building, MJB now considers itself a “Zapatista” organization—a name normally reserved for armed revolutionaries fighting for their indigenous Mayan lands in Chiapas. But to the extent that the affiliation has brought new methods of grassroots democracy and community organization to East Harlem, MJB’s brand of Zapatismo holds promise for a neighborhood undergoing rapid gentrification.
Gentrification affects many of New York’s poorer neighborhoods, not just El Barrio. Loosely defined as an influx of money and development, gentrification causes the displacement of low-income families by wealthier ones, its critics argue. As New York crime rates have fallen over the past 15 years, parts of the city once shunned by young, wealthy professionals have become targets for development. In neighborhoods like El Barrio, where many poor families have only recently arrived in the US, the potential for rapid change—and displacement of the poor—is even greater. Across New York, rising rents have led to confrontations between landlords and tenant organizations, between the tenants’ need for affordable housing and the owners’ property rights. In this clash of philosophies, New Yorkers’ homes are at stake.
“Gentrification is a fact of life,” argues East Harlem landlord Scott Zwilling.
“People look at me and say ‘the big, bad owner kicked me out,'” Zwilling said. “But if it wasn’t me buying the property and raising the rent, there would have been 10 others ready to do the same thing.”
But gentrification is neither inevitable nor desirable, according to Movement for Justice in El Barrio.
“What initiated the organization was the housing crisis,” said MJB founder Juan Haro. Fearful of eviction, tenants in five East Harlem buildings approached Haro for help. “People were trying to figure out how to combat the effects of gentrification,” he said.
Since 2004, MJB has grown to more than 380 members in 25 buildings around El Barrio. One key to this growth has been MJB’s link to the Zapatistas—a connection that, while intuitive for some members, may surprise Americans who remember 1990s images of masked Zapatista peasants clutching rifles.
MJB’s embrace of Zapatismo began in summer 2005. Far from a publicity stunt, the move was “organic,” Haro said.
“What happened early on was we began an internal discussion to learn about different social movements based in the US and abroad,” explained Haro. “Zapatismo made sense because most of our members are Mexican.” One of the group’s first meetings coincided with the “Sixth Declaration of the Lacondan Jungle,” a Zapatista call for an international campaign against neoliberalism and repression. “Our members read the declaration and got very excited,” Haro said.
El Barrio has had a large Hispanic population since the 1950s. But today’s neighborhood reflects recent national immigration trends. Just as Hispanics are now the largest minority in the US—growing from 9 to 12.5 percent of the population from 1990 to 2000—they have risen from 32 to 55 percent of the population in El Barrio since 1970, according to US Census and city government statistics. Meanwhile, the makeup of Hispanics in El Barrio has also changed. While Puerto Rican flags can still be seen on neighborhood murals and in shop windows, El Barrio’s cultural and political movements increasingly reflect its growing Mexican population.
But MJB’s affiliation with the Zapatistas goes beyond mere cultural connections, instead relying upon the perception of a common enemy and a shared solution.
Like the Zapatistas in Chiapas, MJB sees neoliberalism—free trade and unregulated international businesses—as the underlying problem. In New York, MJB members argue, the gradual weakening of rent control laws fits this neoliberal pattern and has led to gentrification.
After MJB’s early campaigning against local landlord Steve Kessner, he sold all 47 of his buildings to a London-based investment bank, Dawnay, Day. It was an important but Pyrrhic victory for MJB. Unlike Kessner, “Dawnay, Day has from the outset been very explicit about what they are trying to do,” Haro said.
“It’s not our goal to kick people out of their homes,” said Michael Kessner, director of operations for Dawnay, Day in New York and a relative of former owner Steve Kessner. “But obviously we’re out to make a profit, too.”
“Movement for Justice is out to serve their own interests,” Kessner said, describing MJB as “very confrontational” and only representing a small percentage of Dawnay, Day’s tenants.
At the heart of the disagreement are Dawnay, Day’s business practices since buying the apartments in March.
Dawnay, Day has aggressively tried to replace tenants in rent-controlled apartments with those willing to pay higher amounts, Haro said. “Dawnay’s other new tactic is offering money to the tenants to vacate.” The company has introduced a “buy out program,” he said, in which longer-term tenants have been offered $10,000 to leave their apartments. “Because of rent control, they’re targeting longer term tenants, some of whom have lived in El Barrio for 30-40 years.”
A lawsuit filed in October by 17 MJB members accused Dawnay, Day of making “false, deceptive and misleading representations to [tenants] in verbal and written communications, including rent bills and other correspondence,” in an attempt to force them out of their apartments. If true, these charges would violate a number of New York consumer protection laws.
“Billing and accounting was an issue at first,” Kessner said, referring to rents allegedly owed to the previous owner. “I think [the lawsuit] has been resolved because we’ve credited their accounts.”
But neither the lawsuit against Dawnay, Day nor the broader fight against gentrification is over, according to MJB.
The influx of multinational companies such as Dawnay, Day is both “an international problem” and a consequence of neoliberalism, Haro said. “To combat this, we have to have an international plan. It can’t be local, can’t be regional: it has to be international.”
MJB’s response to both Kessner and Dawnay, Day has been to rely on Zapatista strategies of community consultation and cooperation. MJB’s “Consultas del Barrio” is a grassroots initiative for popular democracy within the neighborhood. MJB canvassed over 800 people—of all ages and races—from around the community, asking them to identify the issues that most affected their lives.
“Our goal is to create space and opportunity for the broader community to engage in the democratic process,” Haro said. “We can’t say we represent every single member of the community unless we consult with all of them.”
“People feel discouraged or disillusioned with the forms of discourse in civil society,” he said. “For example, when it comes to voting, they feel that the powerful always win out,” but the “consultas” represent another form of politics, independent from the government.
Though time-consuming, these “consultas” have allowed MJB to stay abreast of evolving relationships between El Barrio’s tenants and landlords—relationships which, in the case of Dawnay, Day, are volatile.
“We consider ourselves to be on ‘red alert’ because of what Dawnay, Day has been doing,” Haro said.
But an equally important side to MJB’s success has been its cooperation with other anti-gentrification and social justice groups, both in New York and around the world. On October 21, MJB hosted its first “NYC Encuentro for Humanity and Against Gentrification.”
“The encuentro is a tool very helpful in getting people from different communities to share stories that are usually left out or silenced,” said Helena Wong, coordinator for the Chinatown Justice Project and for Right to the City New York. Attending the “encuentro” made sense, she said, because MJB and Right to the City both face gentrification in their respective communities.
“Gentrification is something that’s been happening in Chinatown for 10 years,” she said, “but you don’t know it’s happening until storefronts start changing.” Companies are buying up entire blocks, “kicking people out” so that they can build luxury condos, she said. Wong sees the same erosion of New York’s once-strong rent protection laws at work in Chinatown as in El Barrio.
“It seems like our struggles are the same, the causes of the conditions in our communities are the same,” Wong said. “We’re never going to win anything by ourselves in Chinatown so it’s important to work with other communities that are marginalized.”
Although tenant groups like Right to the City and MJB see gentrification as the enemy, landlords consider it their livelihood.
According to Zwilling, gentrification is as old as the neighborhoods themselves. It isn’t just business, he argues, it’s part and parcel of the American promise of upward mobility.
Zwilling says he understands peoples’ anger towards landlords, and has offered to help former tenants find new apartments. But landlords aren’t to blame for gentrification, he argues.
“Whose fault is it? I have a family to feed, too,” Zwilling said. “Is it the former owner’s fault? Is it no one’s fault? Is it the city’s fault for not having programs in place to help these people?”
The gentrification of East Harlem isn’t likely to slow down any time soon, Zwilling acknowledged. He bought an apartment building in East Harlem one year ago for $6 million. While honoring pre-existing leases, Zwilling said he has raised rents to market value whenever possible. But most long-time tenants cannot afford market prices, meaning they lose out to wealthier newcomers.
“Since we bought it, most of the building now houses young professionals,” said Zwilling. Unlike the apartments in which MJB’s members live, these buildings are not rent-controlled, Zwilling said.
For MJB, January marks the beginning of both the New Year and a new campaign against Dawnay, Day.
“For the first time, we have an international campaign or plan to target Dawnay, Day,” Haro said, adding that MJB’s small staff had been working seven days a week to map out where the company owns property, both in the US and abroad.
MJB’s international campaign also includes cooperation with anti-gentrification groups in London, where Dawnay, Day has its headquarters. Haro met several of these groups at a conference on participatory democracy in Barcelona last April.
MJB plans to give presentations and workshops on its Zapatista-inspired “consultas del barrio” across Britain next year, Haro said, hoping to make more allies in the fight against gentrification and for affordable housing for the poor.
From our weblog:
Crime, water wars rock Chiapas Highlands
WW4 Report, Feb. 2, 2008
Zapatistas announce “new political initiative”
WW4 Report, June 30, 2005
Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Feb. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution
The New Voice of Ecuador’s Indigenous Movement
by Marc Becker, Upside Down World
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has elected Marlon Santi to serve as its president for the next three years. Santi was elected by more than 1,000 Indigenous delegates gathered at Santo Domingo de los Tsa’chilas from Jan. 10-12, 2008, for the Third Congress of Indigenous Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador.
Indigenous activists founded CONAIE in 1986 as a national federation to represent Indigenous interests to the government. CONAIE first gained broad international attention when it led a protest in June 1990 that shut down the country. In 1995, CONAIE helped found the political movement Pachakutik to run candidates for political office.
Santi was elected by consensus of the regional organizations CONAICE, ECUARUNARI, and CONFEINIAE that represent Indigenous peoples from Ecuador’s coast, highlands, and Amazon. He is a 32-year-old native of Sarayacu in the eastern Amazonian province of Pastaza. Sarayacu has long been a center of protest again petroleum exploration. After studying in Quito, Santi returned to Sarayacu where he was a tireless fighter against petroleum companies and corrupt governments. For his activism, Santi has received assassination threats. Santi vowed to continue CONAIE’s struggle against neocolonial domination.
Official delegates and other observers arrived to the Congress on the morning of Jan. 10 in a constant rain. The Congress opened with a traditional ceremony with the participation of several leaders of the different organizations, governmental representatives, members of the national assembly, and invited national and international representatives. Jaime Pilatuña, a yachak (shaman) of the Kitu Kara people, led a ceremony together with Hector Awavil, leader of the host Tsa’chila government, to create a harmonious space for the meeting. Children and women also made a presentation in the inaugural act. Juana Nenquimo, a member of Waorani nationality, spoke in four languages of their struggles against international oil, lumber and mining companies.
The Congress began with an analysis of Ecuador’s current political situation. Jorge Guamán, National Coordinator for the Indigenous political movement Pachakutik, and Mónica Chuji, an Indigenous delegate to the Constituent Assembly, presented reports on their political activities. Guamán stated that Indigenous peoples and nationalities in Ecuador have maintained the cultural, social, and political structures necessary to create successful government processes. They have formed these under the traditional Andean code of “ama llulla, ama shuwa, ama killa,” or don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy.
Luis Macas, outgoing CONAIE president, presented a report of his work during his three-year term. He referred to the Congress as a “minga” (a communal work party) to construct a new country that would belong to all Ecuadorians. “Even though some governments have done everything to divide us,” Macas said, “this Congress is a practical demonstration of our unity and brotherhood.”
Humberto Cholango, leader of the highland regional federation Ecuarunari, said that “this congress is of vital importance because CONAIE is responding to the poverty, exclusion, mistreatment, and discrimination we have received from the government with proposals for life.”
Constituent Assembly member Mónica Chuji read a letter from Alberto Acosta, president of the Constituent Assembly that is currently re-writing the country’s constitution, in which he states that “the assembly will fight for the recognition of the rights and achievements of all Indigenous peoples and nationalities.” Acosta called for a unity of all Indigenous organizations.
Acosta’s letter emphasized that Indigenous movements and its struggles against the oligarchy and colonial powers are of great transcendental importance to the social transformation that the country is experiencing. “The historical consciousness, the cultural inheritance of Indigenous peoples and nationalities are needed to build an inclusive and just society,” he said.
At the Congress, Indigenous leaders declared their opposition to any policies that would lead to an extraction of natural resources from Ecuador, particularly petroleum and water. Instead, these are elements of strategic importance to the development of the country.
A principle demand of the Congress was the recognition of Ecuador as a plurinational state. Delegates also appealed for the development of a social economy. Indigenous leaders called on the Constituent Assembly to change government structures and the political system to end social exclusion and inequality. They presented an Integral Agrarian Reform plan to redistribute land, eliminate inequality, and to stop environmental destruction.
Delegates to the congress ratified their unlimited support to the changes in Bolivia led by president Evo Morales. They identified those developments as an example for the entire continent of Latin American. Ecuarunari leader Humberto Cholango emphasized the Indigenous movement’s defense for the changes sweeping throughout the region. Cholango stated that Indigenous communities will not allow the oligarchy to destabilize their sister nations with the support of the United States government.
The Congress elected Miguel Guatemal as vice-president of CONAIE. In addition to Santi and Guatemal, CONAIE’s governing council for the next three years will be comprised of Humberto Martínez (Organization), Silvio Chiripuwa (Fortification), Luis Champis Dirigente (Territory), Fredy Paguay (International Relations), Fausto Vargas (Education), Agustin Punina Dirigente (Health), David Poirama (Youth), Norma Mayu (Women), Janet Kuji Dirigente (Communication). The new leaders were sworn in by a ceremony of thanks to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) led by the Yachakuna (Shamans) Jaime Pilatuña and Carlos Pichimba.
This story first appeared in Upside Down World, Jan. 15, 2008
FOR THE “TOTAL TRANSFORMATION” OF ECUADOR
An Interview with Pachakutik Presidential Candidate Luis Maca
by Rune Geertsen, Upside Down World
WW4 Report, October 2006
From our weblog:
Ecuador: Correa puts down oil protests
WW4 Report, Dec. 26, 2007
Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Feb. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution
by Brain Tokar, Toward Freedom
If 2006 was the year that the “inconvenient truth” of global climate disruption made its way into the popular consciousness—and sparked a huge new wave of green products and corporate greenwashing—then hopefully the results of 2007’s revelations about the earth’s rapidly changing climate will prove more substantive and long-lasting. Not only did the UN’s Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issue a massively comprehensive report on climate science and its consequences, but the disturbing, and sometimes catastrophic, reality of worldwide climate collapse began to affect almost everyone’s daily life.
In the US, where the minds of a media-saturated public seemed to be firmly lodged in the sand around this issue for at least two decades, people finally began to notice the disturbing changes in the weather and in the once-familiar pattern of the seasons. In most regions now, spring comes a couple of weeks or more earlier than it used to and fall comes later. In much of the country, unseasonably warm weather appeared sporadically throughout the year and cold spells were sudden, severe, and relatively short-lived. Rain in many areas was sparse and appeared more often in rapid, concentrated deluges. Major floods seemed more common than ever. The extreme drought in much of the Southeast—the worst in over a century—made national headlines, and nearly everyone saw the news of the unprecedented wildfires that swept across southern California in October. Midsummer temperatures in much of the US Southwest, as well as in parts of Greece and Turkey, reached 115 degrees F. or higher.
The professional doubters continue to relegate all this to chance and coincidence, but two central facts make the evidence more compelling than ever. First, the patterns of heat, highly erratic weather, and cycles of floods and drought are felt worldwide and closely match the projections of climate modelers going back more than a decade.
Second, the scientists of the IPCC have documented an unprecedented convergence of findings from hundreds of studies and tens of thousands of distinct data sets in numerous independent fields of inquiry.
Another reality that began to break into the public consciousness in 2007 is that the effects of chaotic global warming were felt most by those people who are least able to adapt or compensate for these disturbing changes: the roughly half of the world’s population that live on less than two dollars a day. Beside the anecdotal evidence, several systematic studies, including the IPCC’s second volume addressing the consequences of climate change, have begun to map out this story in detail. Impoverished people around the world are also bearing the consequences of some of the most prevalent false solutions to global warming, including the push for so-called “biofuels” and the dual hoax of carbon emissions trading and purchases of offsets. Considerations of justice and equity further highlight the scale of social and economic transformations that are necessary if we are to head off the very worst consequences of an increasingly erratic, overheating climate. While business-as-usual scenarios in terms of energy use and carbon dioxide emissions have now been shown to be untenable, so, too, is the continuation of business-as-usual in the structure of our political and economic institutions.
One of the latest articles to bring the global justice consequences of global warming to a wide audience was an unusually insightful piece in the New York Times that appeared fast on the heels of the IPCC’s initial 2007 report. As reporter Andrew Revkin stated, “In almost every instance, the people most at risk from climate change live in countries that have contributed the least to the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to the recent warming of the planet. Those most vulnerable countries also tend to be the poorest.”
The Times dispatched reporters to cover four widely varying instances of people coping with the consequences of a severely altered climate, illustrating some stark contrasts across different parts of the world. In a village in Malawi, officials struggled to maintain the functioning of a simple weather station, chronically lacking basic supplies like light bulbs and chart paper, while in India, rural villagers struggle to cope with the effects of increasing floods and more erratic monsoons on their already fragile life support systems. Meanwhile, Western Australia has built a state-of-the-art water desalinization plant, powered by an array of wind turbines about 100 miles away and the Dutch have begun building homes attached to huge columns that allow houses to rise and fall by as much as 18 feet with the ebb and flow of tidal waters.
The plight of people in Pacific island nations is also finally attracting some mainstream press attention. With rising sea levels, not only are people less able to live near the shore, but inland sources of essential drinking water are becoming brackish due to increasing infiltrations of sea water. Migration of Pacific islanders to New Zealand has quadrupled in recent years, according to the Independent, as rising numbers of island communities are becoming uninhabitable. Yet island nations, according to the IPCC, are collectively responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
In the US, Hurricane Katrina brought home the extreme inequity in people’s capacity to cope with climate-related disasters. While affluent homes have been restored and people are again flocking to New Orleans’ unique tourist quarters, roughly a third of the population has yet to return and public housing projects remain empty, continually threatened with demolition, despite a relatively low level of storm-related damage. While the human toll from the more recent San Diego area wildfires was comparatively low, the systemic inequities remained rather harsh. Naomi Klein reported in the Nation in November that residents able to pay several tens of thousands of dollars were whisked away to elite resorts to wait out the fires, while their homes were sprayed with special fire retardants that were tragically unavailable to their neighbors.
It has become common wisdom that people living near the coasts are vulnerable to the uncertainties of a changing climate; however the magnitude of that threat remains controversial, even among climate scientists. The IPCC, reflecting the high level of scientific uncertainty around this issue, projected an estimated sea level rise of less than 25 centimeters this century, based on current trends. But scientists agree that the two most vulnerable glacial landmasses, Greenland and the West Antarctic, each hold enough water to raise sea levels by 20 feet.
In a paper published by the British Royal Society last spring, NASA climatologist James Hansen documented a much higher level of ice sheet instability than is accounted for in the IPCC report. Factors such as the decreased reflectivity of Arctic zones due to global warming—the well known “albedo effect”—along with an increasing incidence of glacial fractures and quakes, and the lubricating effects of glacial meltwater, all point toward a much faster rate of melting. Hansen stands by the far more disturbing prediction of an 80-foot sea level rise, based on extrapolation from the period 3 to 4 million years ago when global temperatures were last as warm as they will become by the end of this century.
The IPCC devoted several chapters of its second volume to the human costs of global warming. By comparing all of the available studies issued since their last report in 2001, and quantifying the confidence levels of various observations and trends, this report establishes a benchmark for virtually all future study.
Their basic message is overwhelming in its consequences. The northern- and southernmost portions of the earth’s temperate zones may reap some short-term benefits from global heating, including longer growing seasons. The tropics and subtropics, however, where most of the world’s poor people live, are in for a future of uncertain rainfall, persistent droughts, coastal flooding, loss of wetlands and fisheries, and increasingly scarce fresh water supplies. Flooding will most immediately affect residents of the major river deltas of Asia and Africa. The one-sixth of the world’s population that depends on water from glacial runoff may see a brief increase in the size and volume of their freshwater lakes as glaciers melt, but very soon the overall decrease in glacial area will become a life-threatening reality for many people.
The IPCC predicts a worldwide decrease in crop productivity if global temperatures rise more than five degrees Fahrenheit, but crop yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by half as early as 2020. In Africa alone, between 75 million and 250 million people will be exposed to “increased water stress.” Agricultural lands in Latin America will be subject to desertification and increased salt content.
The health consequences of climate changes are perhaps the most starkly framed: “increases in malnutrition and consequent disorders…; increased deaths, disease and injury due to heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts; the increased burden of diarrheal disease; the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone…; and, the altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease vectors,” including malaria. There is little doubt that those with “high exposure, high sensitivity and/or low adaptive capacity” will bear the greatest burdens.
The UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in 2005, offers a particularly graphic representation of where we seem to be headed. Page 119 of the “Synthesis Report on Ecosystems and Human Well Being” offers a pair of world maps, each with a bar graph superimposed on every continent. The upper map chronicles the number of major floods reported in each decade from 1950 to 2000; the lower map displays the number of major wildfires. Everywhere but in Oceania (which is facing such a severe drought that large portions of Australia are now virtually unable to grow crops), the graphs rise steeply as the decades advance. Over this period, global temperatures only rose about one degree Fahrenheit; only the most optimistic of the IPCC’s projected future scenarios limits further warming during this century to less than three additional degrees.
The biannual UN Human Development Report, issued at the end of November, reported that 1 out of every 19 people in the so-called developing world was affected by a climate-related disaster between 2000 and 2004. The figure for people in the wealthiest (OECD) countries was 1 out of every 1,500. Yet the funds available thus far to various UN efforts to help the poorest countries adapt to climate changes ($26 million) is less than one week’s worth of flood defense spending in the UK and close to what the city of Venice spends on its flood gates every 2 to 3 weeks. The report estimates that an additional $86 billion will be needed to sustain existing UN development assistance and poverty reduction programs in the face of all the various threats attributable to climate change.
Two additional studies addressed the likelihood for increased violent conflict in the world as a result of climate-related changes. A paper published in the journal Political Geography by Rafael Reuveny of Indiana University examined 38 cases over the past 70 years where populations were forced to migrate due to a combination of environmental (droughts, floods, storms, land degradation, pollution) and other factors. Half of these cases led to varying degrees of violent conflict between the migrating population and people in the receiving areas. It is clear, states Reuveny, that those who depend the most on the environment to sustain their livelihood, especially in regions where arable land and fresh water are scarce, are most likely to be forced to migrate when conditions are subjected to rapid and unplanned-for change.
In November the UK-based relief organization International Alert reached a similar conclusion. In a report titled “A Climate of Conflict,” they compared maps of the world’s most politically unstable regions with those most susceptible to serious or extreme effects of climate change, and concluded that 46 countries, with a total population of 2.7 billion people, are firmly in both categories. The report states: “Hardest hit by climate change will be people living in poverty, in under-developed and unstable states, under poor governance. The effect of the physical consequences—such as more frequent extreme weather, melting glaciers, and shorter growing seasons—will add to the pressures under which those societies already live. The background of poverty and bad governance means many of these communities both have a low capacity to adapt to climate change and face a high risk of violent conflict.”
The report profiles eight case studies of places in Africa and Asia where climate changes have already put great stress on people’s livelihoods and often exacerbated internal conflicts. The outlook is significantly improved, however, in places where political institutions are relatively stable and accountable to the population. This contrast allows for a somewhat hopeful conclusion, with the authors extolling “the synergies between climate adaptation policies and peace-building activities in achieving the shared goal of sustainable development and peace.” One specific recommendation is to prioritize efforts to help people adapt to a changing climate, especially where subsistence-based economies already contribute very little to global warming but are highly vulnerable to the consequences. Various international NGOs have already intervened, particularly in Africa, to document and disseminate those adjustments in farming practices that prove most useful in facilitating adaptation to a changing climate.
Worldwide, the potential human (and non-human) toll from severe changes in the climate is even more disturbing than the statistics and “objective” case studies suggest. Two centuries of capitalist development—and especially the unprecedented pace of industrial development and resource consumption that has characterized the past 60 years—have created conditions that threaten everyone’s future. “There could be no clearer demonstration than climate,” says the recent UN Human Development Report, “that economic wealth creation is not the same as human progress.” Those who have benefited the least from the unsustainable pace of economic growth and expansion over the past five or six decades are facing a future of suffering and dislocation unlike any the world has ever seen.
Mitigations Worse Than the Disease?
Unfortunately, many of the most widely promoted solutions to the problem of global warming don’t come close to addressing these highly unequal impacts. Indeed, some of the most popular proposals, including the widespread conversion of food crops to so-called “biofuels” and the payment of fees by Northern consumers to development projects in the South hoping to “offset” personal greenhouse gas emissions, often do significantly more harm than good.
A year ago in these pages (WW4 Report, December 2006), I cited some early studies demonstrating that the extraction of ethanol from corn and biodiesel fuel from soybeans may not offer much of a solution to the dual problems of climate change and declining fossil fuel resources. Most striking at the time were the land use consequences of US production of agrofuels (the preferred term among activists and critics in the global South): for example, researchers at the University of Minnesota demonstrated that the entire current US corn and soybean crops could only displace about 3%, respectively, of our gasoline and diesel consumption. In the past year, the pressure on global grain prices from the accelerated push for agrofuels has led to a near crisis in global food supplies.
Analysts such as Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute have been predicting a conflict between food and fuel consumption for some time. Brown calls it an “epic competition between 800 million people with automobiles and the 2 billion poorest people.” But in the past year, the effects began to reverberate worldwide. World corn prices nearly doubled, as more than 20 percent of the US corn crop was diverted to ethanol production. Wheat prices rose to an all time high as midwestern farmers, seeking to profit from the ethanol boom, converted acreage from wheat to corn production. (Wheat is also relatively drought tolerant, whereas corn is far more dependent on large inputs of water and chemicals.) The world price of milk increased nearly 60 percent and people in Mexico rioted as prices for tortilla flour nearly doubled. China announced a freeze on the diversion of food grains to fuel production, as the effect on their own food prices began to be felt. Even the elite journal Foreign Affairs determined that “[t]he biofuel mania is commandeering grain stocks with a disregard for the obvious consequences.”
The most popular solutions to this dilemma carry equally troubling consequences. Europe is getting less of its biodiesel from soybean or canola oil and more from oil palm plantations, mainly in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular, have lost 80 to 90% of their tropical rainforests to intensive logging, followed by the planting of monocultures of oil palms. Brazil is plowing under its unique Cerrado grasslands for sugar cane plantations, known to be a more efficient source of ethanol than corn, and is collaborating with US and global investors to export its exploitative model of sugar production throughout the Caribbean. Meanwhile, soy plantations are spreading deep into the Amazon to satisfy growing demands for biodiesel, as well as for livestock feed. Peasant and indigenous groups throughout the global South have come to see the agrofuel push as an accelerated effort to expand industrial agriculture and drive subsistence farmers from their lands.
Meanwhile, virtually all biofuel/agrofuel advocates are staking the future on the hope of rapidly switching from food crops to cellulose-rich sources—mainly trees, grasses, and crop wastes—as the major feedstock for agrofuel production. But these scenarios, too, often rely on the massive replacement of natural biodiversity with monoculture plantations of “energy crops.” Cellulose, as one of the two main structural components of plant cells, is extremely resistant to chemical or biological digestion, and current experimental “cellulosic” agrofuel plants consume far more energy than they produce. Thus, the push for cellulose-based fuels has also turned into a massive subsidy to biotechnology companies that are attempting to re-engineer enzymes and microorganisms—and even synthesize entirely novel bacterial genomes—in the hope of developing an efficient way to turn cellulose into fuel.
Even if these technical problems can be resolved without dire unforeseen consequences, there is not enough “excess” biomass to keep all of the privileged world’s cars running. Crop “wastes” are an essential resource for farmers seeking to return some fertility to the soil after harvesting grains, and many of the grasses frequently proposed as fuel sources are noxious weeds in many parts of the world.
One of the most disturbing consequences of the push for cellulose-based fuels is a resurgence of interest in the genetic engineering of trees. A company known as Arborgen, partly owned by International Paper and Mead-Westvaco, received USDA approval last summer to expand its experimental plots of a variety of eucalyptus that is genetically engineered to withstand cold temperatures. This would allow these highly invasive and resource-consuming trees to be planted throughout the southeastern US, as well as in other moderate temperate zones. Backers of this technology continually invoke the idea that such trees are needed to make fuel to replace petroleum, in an attempt to disarm critics and dismiss wider ecological concerns. Throughout the global South, people whose lands have been appropriated by corporations for conversion to commercial tree plantations have joined the worldwide campaign to prevent the commercial growing of genetically engineered trees. Ultimately, there is not enough biomass on earth, whether on fields, grasslands, or forests, to replace the millions of years of accumulated biomass that produced the once-abundant reservoirs of fossil fuels, consumed at an ever accelerating pace during the past century.
Similarly, the growing practice of purchasing carbon dioxide credits in order to “offset” affluent consumers’ excessive greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly opposed by people on the receiving end. Carbon offsets, whether sold on the Internet or negotiated through the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, also favor the conversion of forests into monoculture plantations and further the displacement of traditional communities. Intensive monitoring required by the UN may be necessary to prevent profiteering and outright fraud, but also significantly favors homogeneous and biologically deficient plantations owned by transnational timber companies, in contrast to richly biodiverse tropical and subtropical forests inhabited by indigenous communities.
Most of us tend to view planting trees as an inherently benign activity, but as Larry Lohmann has documented in his study, “Carbon Trading: A critical conversation on climate change, privatization and power” (online at The Cornerhouse), international funding for tree planting (also for various industrial conversions and even for solar electricity) often exacerbates inequalities and semi-feudal economic relations in the recipient regions. Further, the process of global warming has begun to measurably decrease the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide, as nighttime respiration begins to emit more carbon than the trees can absorb through photosynthesis during the day. The added damaging effects of hurricanes and other catastrophes can quickly turn even the healthiest forest into a net emitter of carbon dioxide.
A Different Response
The more closely we follow the evolving discussion of global warming and its potential impacts, the more often we seem to find ourselves hovering at the edge of despair. This is especially true once we realize how many of the proposed “solutions” worsen the problem and exacerbate inequalities around the world. Powerful interests in the US are seeking massive subsidies for ever more destructive false solutions, including the expansion of nuclear power and the liquification of coal. So what are we to do? Most analysts opt for a cautious approach, trying to piece together enough different strategies to reduce CO2 emissions while maintaining current levels of production and consumption. Such systematic analysis is necessary and several approaches to building a more renewable energy system will be reviewed in a future article. But it is not sufficient, and current consumption levels in the industrialized world cannot be sustained. The technical obstacles to addressing the problem of global warming are often not even the most important ones. If we can find a way beyond the current impasse to imagine and realize a different kind of society, the problem of reorganizing our energy sources becomes far more tractable.
The last time a popular movement compelled significant changes in US environmental and energy policies was during the late 1970s. In the aftermath of the OPEC oil embargo, imposed during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the nuclear and utility industries adopted a plan to construct more than 300 nuclear power plants in the United States by the year 2000. Utility and state officials identified rural communities across the US as potential sites for new nuclear facilities, and the popular response was swift and unanticipated. A militant grassroots anti-nuclear movement united back-to-the-landers and traditional rural dwellers with seasoned urban activists and a new generation of environmentalists who had only partially experienced the ferment of the 1960s.
In April 1977 over 1,400 people were arrested trying to nonviolently occupy a nuclear construction site in the coastal town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. This event helped inspire the emergence of decentralized, grassroots anti-nuclear alliances all across the country, committed to nonviolent direct action, bottom-up forms of internal organization, and a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between technological and social changes. Not only did these groups adopt an uncompromising call for “No Nukes,” but many of them promoted a vision of an entirely new social order, rooted in decentralized, solar-powered communities empowered to decide their energy future and also their political future. If the nuclear state almost inevitably leads to a police state—due to the massive security apparatus necessary to protect hundreds of nuclear plants and radioactive waste dumps all over the country—a solar-based energy system could be the underpinning for a radically decentralized and directly democratic model for society.
This movement was so successful in raising the hazards of nuclear power as a matter of urgent public concern that nuclear construction projects all over the US began to be canceled. When the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, nearly melted down in March 1979, it spelled the end of the nuclear expansion. While the Bush administration today is doing everything possible to underwrite a revival of nuclear power, it is still the case that no new nuclear plants have been licensed or built in the United States since Three Mile Island. The anti-nuclear movement of the late 1970s also spawned the first wave of significant development of solar and wind technologies, aided by substantial federal tax benefits for solar installations, and helped launch a visionary “green cities” movement that captured the imaginations of architects, planners, and ordinary citizens.
The 1970s and early 1980s (before the “Reagan revolution” fully took hold) were relatively hopeful times, and utopian thinking was far more widespread than it is today. Some anti-nuclear activists looked to the emerging outlook of social ecology—developed by Murray Bookchin and others—as a new theoretical grounding for a revolutionary ecological politics and philosophy. Social ecology challenges prevailing views about the evolution of social and cultural relationships to non-human nature and explores the roots of domination in the earliest emergence of human social hierarchies. For the activists of the period, Bookchin’s insistence that environmental problems are mainly social and political problems encouraged radical responses to ecological concerns, as well as reconstructive visions of a fundamentally transformed society.
Radically reconstructive social visions are relatively scarce in today’s political climate, dominated by endless war and further inequality. But dissatisfaction with the status quo reaches wide and deep among many sectors of the US population. While elite discourse and the corporate media continue to push political debates rightward and politicians of both major parties glibly comply, poll after poll suggests the potential for a new opening, reaching far beyond the confines of what has become politically acceptable. The more people consume, and the deeper into debt they fall, the less satisfied most people seem to be with the world of business as usual.
Global warming can represent a future of deprivation and scarcity for all but the world’s wealthiest or this global emergency can compel us to imagine a radically transformed society—both in the North and the South—where communities of people are newly empowered to remake their own future. The crisis can drive us to break free from a predatory global economy that fabulously enriches elites, while leaving the rest of us scrambling after the crumbs. The time is too short and the outlook far too bleak to settle for status-quo false solutions. Instead, we can embrace the reconstructive potential of a radically ecological social and political vision, prevent catastrophe, and begin to make our way toward a fundamentally different kind of future. As a writer in The Nation recently summed up her assessment of two books on the rise of the extreme right in the US, “sometimes only a willingness to be radical really brings about change.”
Earth Policy Institute
The Climate Divide, by Andrew Revkin
New York Times, April 2, 2007
How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor
by C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer
Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007
Rapture Rescue 911: Disaster Response for the Chosen
by Naomi Klein
The Nation, Nov. 1, 2007
NASA’s Hansen says oceans could rise several meters by 2100
Post-Carbon Cities, Aug. 28, 2007
Rafael Reuveny profile
Indiana University News Room, Feb. 1
by Kim Phillips-Fei
The Nation, Dec. 10, 2007
BETRAYAL AT BALI
Toward a People’s Agenda for Climate Justice
by Brian Tokar
WW4 Report, January 2008
THE REAL SCOOP ON BIOFUELS
“Green Energy” Panacea or Just the Latest Hype?
by Brian Tokar
WW4 Report, December 2006
From our weblog:
Darfur crisis linked to climate change: UN
WW4 Report, June 27, 2007
New US reactors ordered for first time since Three Mile Island
WW4 Report, Sept. 25, 2007
Murray Bookchin, visionary social theorist, dies at 85
WW4 Report, Aug. 1, 2007
Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Feb. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution