Economic and political analysis-Window on culture-Media criticism

Monday, November 26, 2007

On Shopping More Safely and Trying to be Green

Coopamerica.org's Real Money newsletter includes an article titled "Beyond Lead: Toxins in Toys" that could be useful to consumers concerned about the toxicity of items they purchase and have lying around the house, where kids and other vulnerable people might be exposed to them.

The article touches on lead and the safety of toys in general. I'd recommend getting the newsletter by joining Coop America. The article isn't available online now but might be in the future archives of the Real Money newsletter. Only some of the newsletter's content is viewable online.

Shopping discounts are available through Coop America's Green Pages and online shopping directory. I don't often promote products here on my blog, but I do think Coop America's content is pertinent to like-minded individuals: people concerned about the environment and wanting to make a difference in how the spend their money.

I did want to quote one portion of the article mentioning flexible plastic:
"Studies have identified pthalates as a hormone disrupter. Pthalates may also cause liver and kidney lesions, a higher risk of certain cancers, and may exacerbate asthma and allergies in children...PVC also creates dangerous chemicals throughout its lifecycle: making PVC release carcinogens such as vinyl chloride and dioxins, and incinerating PVC generates carcinogenic dioxin."

The article goes on to recommend not using toys with a #3 plastics insignia, which indicated the use of polyvinylchlorate (PVC). Plastics with PVC are rarely marked as such. Plastics 1, 2, 4 and 5 appear OK. It recommends FSC-certified (sustainably harvested) wood. #7 plastics (polycarbonate) are a harder plastic, like that made in cups and reusable water containers and the Natural Resource Defense Council cautions parents against them.

I use the #7 5-gallon water jugs in order to cut down on how many disposable plastic water containers I use (safe or not, "single-use" water bottles require lots of water, petroleum, and energy to make.) According to my water company's website, my water jugs are recycled 40-50 times. Unfortunately #7 bottles can leach bisphenol-A, a known carcinogen.

For children, I'd recommend getting water filtration and using your tap water if it's received a clean bill of health. According to an older Real Money newsletter, testing standards on municipal tap water--regulated by the EPA--may in fact be far higher than those on bottled water, which is regulated by the FDA, I think, which has a lower standard. See the EPA drinking quality reports for some municipalities here

You could use #1 and #2 water gallon water jugs as a compromise if you have children. Children should drink from qualified metal containers. These are brushed stainless steel and some varieties have passed rigorous tests for leaching into waters (some metals can combine with water.) I bought a couple for $15/each or so from greenfeet last Christmas and they're great for hiking trips. I fill them up from filtered (Britta) tap water or from the 5-gallon jug. The water in them never gets stale, and tastes as fresh as when it is poured. Try that with a plastic water bottle after a couple hours of hiking! The weight is marginal relative to the water, so when it's empty, it's not much heavier than plastic.

Dangers of Striving for Perfection

Rather than run hysterically from any known evils, it's better to try and avoid those while adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors which include staying informed. Chances are you are using or coming into contact with products that you think aren't bad for you. Over time, these silent killers are likely to be the largest source of environmental exposure to toxicity. Shampoos and other personal care products are notorious.

The chances of contracting cancer can't be traced to singular events as much as they can be attributed to recurring behaviors and exposure over extended periods of time. For this reason, I wouldn't be terrified of infrequent exposure to a potential cancer-causing substance. Chances are these toxins are omnipresent. A better approach is to screen the toxicity of products you think are safe through web resources like the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org.) Ewg has a section on cosmetics, called Skin Deep, that all users of these products should examine in depth. I'd also recommend exercise and cleansing of body (and spirit) to periodically purge oneself of the toxins that our bodies are sure to accumulate over time.

My personal preference is to rely on chemical-free alternatives as much as I can. Hemp-based shampoos are a personal favorite, alongside Merry Hempster Vegan Lotion. I like Hemp Essentials for their healing salves, body washes and especially their soaps. It's not so much what these products have that I'm attracted to, it's what they don't, although hemp is a wonderful all-around ingredient.

With food, things like salt and saturated fat we know are bad for us; it's the food additives like MSG, aspartame, and high fructose corn syrup that can do the most damage on unsuspecting users simply because there is so little coverage of how they affect your health. Used by food companies, these ingredients may have healthier alternatives that are being ignored. In the case of HFCS, sugar cane sugar may be better for you. I heard that HFCS can confuse the stomach into thinking you aren't full. Hungrier people eat more, get fat, and consume more soda, this is a fact well-known to the soda companies, many of which also offer snack lines.

Following the products you purchase to their source can reveal a lot of sustainability issues. Organic ingredients may be better, but not if they are causing huge tracts of tropical rainforest--which is the world's most efficient carbon-trap--to be converted to sugar cane production, an issue which is behind rising demand for palm oil.

According to a Center for Science in the Public Interest report (.pdf):

"Oil palm is grown as an industrial plantation crop, often (especially in Indonesia) on newly cleared rainforest or peat-swamp forests rather than on already degraded land or disused agricultural land. Since the 1970s, the areaplanted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown over 30-fold to almost 12,000 square miles..."

Any agricultural product dependent on "newly cleared rainforest" should be a red flag as rainforests have tremendous species diversity and are disappearing at alarming rates. Peat-swamp forest contain huge amounts of methane and carbon. If burnt, the gases they trap are released.

Palm oil is also a good example of trying to do good while doing harm. Palm oil has been popularized through the outcry against transfats, an unhealthy by-product of frying using certain kinds of oils. Government stepped in to outlaw transfats. Palm oil has become a popular replacement because it contains no transfats. Yet it is high in saturated fats, which contribute to the obesity epidemic.

Governments can incent companies to do the right thing, but trying to disincent by punishing and making certain behaviors illegal is often counterproductive. Look at the war on drugs for an extreme example of what happens when government denies people things that give them pleasure. Passing a law outlawing certain substances with psychotropic, or unhealthy properties, is a short-run fix that fails to address the real underlying issues of why people want these things. Nothing is easier to demonize the food, additive, or drug if these things are the cause of a societal malady. We can blame the drug and exonerate the indidivual's choice to use it. Yet in the process of fixing a problem we neglect the cure--which in the case of eating is changing what we eat.

Does restricting transfats make American thinner? Such a causal link would be hard to prove. Absent any change in underlying behavior, the obese are likely to overeat as they have. Politicians might clasp hand in victory over some evil, but the problems of obesity, and drug abuse, remain. On the surface, the passage of laws might indicate progress, but unless individual behaviors change, laws meant to impact behavior are superficial. Demand simply goes underground, or in the case of food, people can just eat something else. Sooner or later, eating too much of virtually anything will have the same effect as eating something bad for us.

As we see with the impact of our energy use on Global Warming, it all begins and end with us. If we as individuals choose to do what's right, we as a society will see the benefit. If we don't think of the consequences of our decisions, we could well be morbidly obese and drug-addicted.

No governmental body can legislate proper behavior. Drugs and high fat foods can be driven underground, but substitutes can always be found if the user wants them badly enough. There's never been a case of people being forever denied what they want, if they want it bad enough. So demand reduction is the real solution to these problems--people have to be made not to want what isn't good for them.

Changing Corporate Behavior

Now greenwashing is a common accusation these days, levelled at companies which claim to be doing business in an environmentally friendly way who aren't. Without getting into any specific accusations, a large grocer chain could be accused of greenwashing if it claimed to be conscious of its environmental impact yet carrying products that come from vast distances away. These items are themselves controversial because of the energy costs of transportation.

Pointing fingers is extremely tempting, especially if the products a company offers were universally expensive, as organic produce might now be. Paying $4/lb. for vegetables is simply beyond the ability of most Americans, yet this price is typical for organic produce nowadays.

The social responsibility element goes hand-in-hand with the commitment to safeguard the environment. Sustainable practices are expected throughout the entire supply chain from the producer to final reseller.

Now no one can be perfect, mind you. I've been active within the environmental movement and know the expectations of lowest greenhouse gas emissions coupled with alternative fuels can be impossible, so some environmental cost is to be expected. The whole point is to encourage change, and meeting environmental benchmarks is far preferable to premature overcommittal to perfection. Yet the idea is that if some change can come, why not more, and is a limiting factor on the acceptance of environmentally friendly choices, which at this point depend on voluntary participation.

The profit-motive and demand for increasing quarterly earnings often put pressure on companies to avoid taking steps to make themselves more sustainable. Mining and energy companies are good examples. Yet when companies take steps and improve, they can be rewarded long-term. This is especially true if carbon taxes and other fees are allocated to the producers of fossil fuels.

But taxing the companies that make the most greenhouses gases diminishes the importance of personal responsibility in making changes. Ultimately the success of the "greening" movement will be measured in the changes in individual behavior, lowering for instance the amount of energy we use. These types of changes require some sacrifices--like getting colder at night, or carpooling--but can reap huge benefits to society if we all share in them collectively.

Monetary punishments--through taxes or higher prices--might slow demand, but we Americans need to admit our dependence on cheap energy. In order to reduce demand, we need collective participation. Traditionally government is responsible for overcoming crises, but in the case of Global Climate Change, governments are proving themselves to be far too slow to act.

Even the Kyoto agreements--unratified by the US and Australia, among others--can't substitute for affecting societal change at the local level through individual action. If a rigid emissions schedule can't be addressed now, it's unreasonable to expect government to bail the world out before the problem is too big to solve.

The effects of greenhouse gases on the climate are substantially delayed. This is why scientists have been proclaiming the End is Neigh; not because climate change has started but because the build-up may lag the environmental impact. If for instance we cut carbon emissions by 100%, it may well be that the effects of Global Climate Change could well magnify for several decades before levels stabilize and begin to fall. The problem is worsened by the nasty likelihood that the effects of Climate Change will worsen as ice caps shrink and melt, which will have the added effect of reducing the amount of the sun's energy that's reflected during winter. Instead the sunlight meets the ocean blue and warms it, melting more ice in the process.

The world has been through dramatic climate shifts. I just watched a program on the Sahara that blamed the desertification of that massive region on a slight shift in the Earth's axis. During one portion of the 1300's, Europe endured a mini Ice Age. Before that, Greenland was warm enough to farm.

Critics of Global Warming ascribe many of our recent climatic changes to regular fluctuations in our climate. They'd be right if the changes weren't happening as a consequence of man-made activity. We can actually see the planet warm up through graphics like those seen on An Inconvenient Truth gathered from infrared satellite technologies and the like. There seems to be no denying the planet is getting warmer.

We clearly don't know how Global Climate Change will manifest itself in the future. We also can't scientifically prove that the CO2 or greenhouse gases are the only cause, or that the climate change could be prevented by controlling emissions. Yet at the same time, the best possible scientific data we can use would indicate that global warming is happening due to man-made sources of pollution.

Mankind's contribution to the problem is really an exclusive variable in the broader issue of climate change, no previous climatic changes could be attributable to that. Based on all available information, we at this point must assume it is our industrialized society that had produced the CO2 and greenhouse gases that have caused-- and will continue to cause--the warming. The warming will in turn lead to greater climate destabilization--stronger storms, more extreme floods and droughts, etc..

Now if industrialization is to blame, the sources of greenhouse gases need to be addressed. It is in short the combustion engine that is the most to blame. Put in fossil fuels, combust, and energy, water, and exhaust comes out. Included in the explosion is the conversion of oxygen (in the atmosphere) with the carbon (in the fuel) to produce C+O or CO, carbon monoxide, along with CO2 (carbon dioxide).

Change possible when the Cost of Going On is too high

I've heard it said that people will only change when the cost of change is less than the cost of going on or--alternately--that people will change only when the price of continuing to do as they have exceeds the cost (fiscal, emotional, etc.) of changing.

To effect change, we need to look at our use of energy in a whole new way. Countless new book and stories have been written on this topic, ranging from books on sustainable living to discussions of Peak Oil. One documentary, An End to Suburbia, sticks out as a good example of the self-reexamination of our lifestlye that will be required to commit to lower emissions. It may be that all of our previous assumptions about lifestyle, culture, and even our attitudes towards consumerism and consumption will have to be reconstituted.

Changes in attitude can easily take multiple generations; old thinking can die slowly, or in Global Warming's case, too late to avert dramatic changes and costly consequences.

If our society cannot by voluntary participation change our propensity to consume, the planet will itself be consumed. Already resource depletion is coming at unsustainable levels. For Americans, I think we consume 2 whole acres of the Earth's resources per person per year. And places like China may see the American model as the ideal. Already China belches huge quantities of toxic fumes from new coal plants. The country, also not a signatory of Kyoto, has charted an unsustainable course of economic development built on coal, a carbon-based fuel notorious for its mercury emissions, alongside particulant matter (soot), CO2, and other greenhouse gases.

As I've discussed in some recent posts, the mountaintop removal procedure greenlighted under Bush shows how destructive coal is at the mining stage, then coal becomes the number one source of greenhouse gases in America as it's burned.

Could technologies lead to cleaner-burning coal? Perhaps. Right now coal is subsidized, as is nuclear power. According to Sierra Club's newsletter for Indiana, a coal plant proposed for Southern Indiana is not being built because of demand--the area around the proposed planty already as plenty of energy--but rather because subsidies guarantee a profit for the power company. Higher emissions controls are expected to kick in around 2012 or so, so there's also a sense of urgency to build now, to get in before pollution caps are established.

With global warming, energy derived from coal may be a cheaper form of energy. People therefore want it. And as I said in my post on coal and mountaintop removal, people appear willing to accept the consequences of coal as long as they are in some else's back yard.

The equation changes when the waves of rising seas, or the howling winds of intensified storms come lapping at people's doors. Then the consequences of unrestrained emissions and energy waste come to full fruit. Then the effects of using so much fossil fuels will be very much in evidence. Like the addict or the chronically obese, avoiding accountability for our actions will no longer be an option. We will have to try to mitigate damage, like an alcoholic who hits bottom and needs to begin rebuilding their life from scratch, after hitting bottom.

Can we change individual actions in time to prevent tragedy? Perhaps. But governmental precepts are hardly the way to go. Taxation may increase the cost of fossil fuels to the point people begin to reduce demand. But for so many Americans, using energy excessively is part of their way of life. Changing their impression that energy is cheap, and the consequences of producing it someone else's problem, will be nearly impossible.

It could take generations to change attitudes in this country. This isn't to say change is impossible; it will invariably need plenty of encouragement. Environmental changes have begun to occur quite rapidly as a result of global warming, which may be a good thing. If people accept the scope and severity of the problem, they may see the need for change. But even if they know they must change, people will be limited by issues like car dependency and suburban living. So carbon taxes may only punish people who have no alternative transportation, or who happen to live in large, older homes.

The first step is undoubtedly to begin a education effort and only government appears capable, although at present, the Big Energy orientation of our government makes it unwilling to restrain energy consumption. Mega-engineering projects like chemtrails or solar mirrors are popular ideas because they allow us to circumvent the personal responsibility element which contributes to ignorance on energy conservation and de-links cause and effect. Plus, companies that have the most to lose from carbon fuel taxes want to believe there's a cheaper solution, or costs that others can bear.

There may be in fact a way of reducing solar energy by floating thousands of small mirrored cubes in space between us and the sun. Research goes on. Yet in the end, if we fail we will fail future generations of Americans, who will be handicapped by their addiction to a dwindling supply of fossil fuels in a world reshaped by GCC. We may not suffer as much as other places on the planet, but right now we use more fossil fuels per capita than anyone else. Asking the US to lead the world may be too much considering recent events. Still we should try and change how we use energy, seek efficiency, and more than anything, accountability for individual decisions concerning energy use.

If we can't wean ourselves off using too much energy, we need to find a sustainable source of energy. I've read that a 100 by 100 mile area in Nevada covered in solar panels could provide all the US' energy needs, as could North and South Dakota if they were covered with wind farms (this assumes the power produced could be distributed effectively). Sustainable energy production is not on the horizon, it is here already. And I neglected to mention the huge wind turbines I saw in the mountains of West Virginia. Wind energy could well subsititute for coal power, but only if the popular will is there to pay for it. The government subsidies in the billions going to petroleum and nuclear energy producers would need to be extended to solar and wind power or terminated outright so that those dirtier producers would have to compete directly in the free market on equal terms. Subsidies and tax breaks are available for purchasers of solar and wind technology, but they've been notoriously unpredictable year-to-year as they're subject to Congressional whim.

Government can do much to encourage alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power. The latter option can lead to massive contamination. The half-life of radioactive isotopes is tens of thousands of years--look at the lifespan of depleted uranium used during the Gulf wars. Nuclear waste is almost impossible to deal with. Solar and wind produce no waste except in manufacture of their components. So why go nuclear?

Through non-point pollution, coal is increasing the amount of mercury in our waterways by about 5% a year. These waters will eventually seep into the groundwater. Burning coal is therefore unsustainable unless we want our children to suffer from the effects of mercury toxicity, not to mention leaving the legacy of a denuded and raped landscape in coal country where mountaintop removal has turned it into some kind of Mordor. (Tolkien actually modelled Mordor on the heavily polluted areas of England.)

I, for one, support a move to sustainable energies as soon as possible. I want to produce energy from renewable sources. In turn, I want to purchase products made with sustainable energy. Am I there yet? No, but I'm confident that if enough people come along and commit to a similar course, that companies will supply sustainable energies. Will we still be inefficient with our energy use? Probably, but at least we won't be forced to do business with despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia, who sent 15 of the 19 hijackers to our shores. Nor will we have to support the removal of entire mountains, or launch invasions, to sustain our energy gluttony. We can and will use less; we will be forced to by our government and if not by them, then by the inevitable decline of oil reserves, or at least the availability easily extracted (and cheaply extracted) known supplies. I far prefer assuming personal responsibility than waiting around for Peak Oil; but if Peak Oil should hit, I will truly be better positioned to avoid the higher energy costs if I've transitioned to alternative, clean sources.

A little nudge towards energy independence will do more to change behaviors than forcing people to change. Education is vital; Americans need to know that if they don't take action, much higher energy costs and taxes will be imposed on them later that will force them to reduce their demand for energy. Above all, we need our survival instinct to kick in as a nation. We need to pull together in order to meet this challenge, not wait cowering for it to come as it one day will.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Latin America Defying Economic Predation

I'm writing to follow up on a few items I discussed in my last post. Bottom line is that deregulation has become a mantra popular among Republicans, who want to seem as pro-business as possible. Corporate lobbying has also inhibited adequate regulation, and I explained that Bush has put lobbyists from a broad range of industries in positions of regulatory oversight.

Laissez faire (do nothing) capitalism has been cherished under the present regime. Disparities in wealth continue to grow in America. Disasters have become opportunties to privatize government services and award no-bid contracts devoid of any oversight. Consequences include preventable mine disasters, unregulated toxic toys, and a major American city woefully neglected more than two years after its partial destruction.

Follow-up on Pthalates

I'd brought up the recent California ban of pthalates, a type of compound with known health risks. Pthalates are dangerous to infants, especially boys' reproductive health. Pthalates are thought to reduce testosterone production and could be a cause of lower sperm counts and sexual dysfunction later in life.

Toy-makers have been one big user of pthalates in their plastics. Pthalates are added to plastics to give them flexibility. DEHP and DBP are two. Newer compounds exist but may be more expensive. Given the body of evidence against pthalates, an extra nickel or two for a safer alternative may seem well worth the cost. Still, for a purely profit-minded corporation, multiplying the additonal safety premium times a million products sold, real profits are at stake, especially if the use of safer components/ingredients is not required by law.

Pthalates are an excellent example of a consumer product that has bypassed adequate regulation. The health risks associated with pthalates has long been understated by the industries that use them. Relying on the business sector to police itself is extremely unlikely when alternatives to riskier compounds cost more. Enforcement efforts are lax, and have suffered further cuts in funding under Bush's brand of laissez faire capitalism.

Unfortunately, toddlers tend to mouth many of these plastics, which allows the toxic compounds to be absorbed into the skin or enter the bloodstream through the digestive tract. Pthalates can also go airborne; this is the off-gassing that occurs as plastic degrades.

According to an article, Toxic Toys, by Mark Schapiro in The Nation, large corporations have removed pthalates pursuant to an EU ban. They had made an effort to stymie the California ban but failed. Pthalates may be common in off-label toys, however, as The Nation article says "if they're plastic and they're soft there's a good chance they contain pthalates."

My advice is to avoid any products containing pthalates if you can. Be cautious with soft plastics, especially around boys.

As was the case with lead paint in Chinese toys, the federal government appears unwilling or unable to control the toxicity of the products we buy, so the consumer--at least if you aren't in the EU or California--is on their own. The real lesson in this deregulated free market is caveat emptor--buyer beware.

Latin America Responds

A new paradigm is being shaped south of the border, where a Friedman-esque (see Correction?, at bottom) definition of free market capitalism is being abandoned. In short, the concept of trickle down economics has been proven to be a complete failure. As Naomi Klein says in an article from The Nation, "the open market schemes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are being rejected as undemocratic and injurious to the economic health of poorer Latinos."

For centuries, the people of Latin America have suffered under colonialism. After massacring up to 75% of the continent's indigenous peoples, foreign powers proceeded to enslave and exploit the population to procure raw materials for export and profit. A small and very prosperous upper class emerged, led often by the stereotypical Generale like that played so brilliantly by Richard Dreyfuss in Moon Over Parador.

The aristocratic classes have been usurped by left wing populists like Morales in Bolivia and Chavez in Venezuela. The Wall Street Journal and other mainstream media sources have much maligned the socialistic movements replacing the Yankee, "pro-business" models of government. In 2005, Christian Right broadcaster Pat Robertson even called for Chávez's assassination. The opinion that "assassination was cheaper than war" stirred a powerful reaction through the blogosphere and helped show just how threatened Right wing Americans feel about Latin populism, which almost invariably leans to the left (very vocal anti-socialist movements exist among overseas Cubans and in Venezuela.)

Robertson is freuquently demonized by the Left, for good reason. His charity has seen a great increase in federal funding under Bush's faith-based initiatives, which seek to drive public revenue into religious organizations, in what is widely considered a violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state. [Natural disasters like Katrina offered a window of opportunity for faith-based organizations to supplant the traditional role of government, alongside large contracts with companies like KBR and Bechtel which have influence with the administration.] Robertson's charities have been on the receiving end of Bush's faith-based initiatives, which emphasize abstinence to the exclusion of sex-ed and prevention. In Africa, NGOs that offered education on contraception or abortion were denied all funding.

I'd read that Robertson personally owned a large number of shares in a hedge fund investing in energy development that had seen some of its projects get nationalized under Chávez, so the preacher had been hit financially by Chávez's actions. Like so many other prominent figures on the Right, money and politics are mixed, so one serves the other. Incumbency, even that of tyrants, is valued since it perpetuates the profitable albeit exploitative status quo.

To extend the symbiotic relationship between the political cause and its economic beneficiary is no feat of the imagination. War appears to be an extension of profit-making entitlement, exercised on the back of the public and exploiting the lives of others for personal gain, using nationalism as its backbone and yellow journalism as its screen. Dating to the earliest empires, the conjunction between war and economic policy is nothing new; colonialism is one newer example. Nor is the war-making business limited to the control of a government on the far Right--the profit-making potential of war extends to both parties.

While the prominent anchorperson for the 700 Club would later retract his comments, it had shown the contempt with which people like Robertson treat democratically elected Latin populist leaders. Surely Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara would have been similarly demonized, considering the threat they posed to the ongoing exploitation of economic resources by the ruling classes and their Yanquitos/conquistador friends.

It's the arrogance of our colonialistic thinking that drives so many Latins to explore alternatives to the model we offer, a model that has kept Latin America largely in economic bondage since its discovery. Rather than serve as a glowing example of democracy and economic opportunity, the US has come to be associated with corporate exploitation and neglect of the underclass. These themes have buoyed the popularity of new leaders like Chávez, who provide a political model that encourages broad participation, especially for the poor who've been disenfranchised for so long under dictatorships largely supported by the US.

Training Terrorists?

Recently two friars were sentenced for tresspassing at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona. Huachuca provides training in interrogation techniques and counterinsurgency warfare. The priests claim the US army teaches torture.

Franciscan Friar Louis Vitale and Jesuit Friar Steve Kelly run a website, www.tortureontrial.org, on the reasons behind their protest. They were recently sentenced to five months in federal prison for trying to deliver a letter to the base commandant.

In one article authored by Attorney Bill Quigley, who defended the pair in Federal court, Fort Huachuca is described as the source of the training manuals for the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Many graduates of that School went on to serve in governments like those of El Salvador and Honduras, where they committed a string of atrocities in counterinsurgency actions aimed at left wing populist movements during the 80's and beyond. See a list of graduates and their dastardly deeds here. Thirdworldtraveler has a webpage on the SOA here, and another site called School of Americas Watch, http://www.soaw.org, tracks the conduct of SOA alumni.

The blowback from the free training provided to these henchmen is only now really being felt as Latin governments sever their connection to the US military. Klein explains in her article:

"...the governments of Venezuela, Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have all announced that they will no longer send students to the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation)–the infamous police and military training center in Fort Benning, Georgia, where so many of the continent’s notorious killers learned the latest in “counterterrorism” techniques, then promptly directed them against farmers in El Salvador and auto workers in Argentina. Ecuador, in addition to closing the US military base, also looks set to cut its ties with the school. It’s hard to overstate the importance of these developments. If the US military loses its bases and training programs, its power to inflict shocks on the continent will be greatly eroded."

Klein illustrates the influence of militaristic thinking on Latin opinion towards the US well, but she does presume that enhanced "security cooperation" is purely exploitative. It may be that the US can exert positive influence on Latin America; however I don't think using our hard power is ever as effective, or economical, as our soft power. Alliances must be based primarily on non-military cooperation; if an alliance is based purely on military cooperation, it can hardly be considered solid.

Predatory Lending

I'm not much of a expert in Latin affairs and couldn't begin to decribe the long list of dirty laundry that the US and developed world have left behind in Latin America. Despite knowing what little I do, it scarcely takes much thought to recognize that Latin America has been exploited economically and overburdened by austere and punitive measures imposed by the IMF and lenders from more advanced economies. We might have been led to believe these governments brought their suffering "down there" upon themselves, but there appear to be far more nefarious purposes behind the meddling. Dark forces have conspired to keep Latinos down.

In her Nation article, Klein talks about the consequences of the disasterous consequences of meddling in Latin affairs by Western economic and financial powers. Establishing a free trade zone in Latin America has been a major Bush goal. Already accomplished in Mexico, NAFTA's results that include lower incomes south of the border, particularly among farm workers who've immigrated to greener pastures in the north. Higher levels of narco-trafficking and corruption have also come, perhaps not as a direct consequences of NAFTA but certainly strengthened by rural poverty and a lack of political empowerment for the lower classes. In almost all cases, Latinos have been left worse off than before foreign investments, which are repatriated to their home countries. Gold companies, like Newmont Mining, leave behind toxins (link). Profits for the deals have also been traditionally lost to corruption, or are absorbed by the ruling class elite long before ordinary people touch the money.

The colonial argument that we, as a more established country, know better and they, the natives, know less has created shock wave after shcok wave felt by Latins exploited for their labor and natural resources. It's perhaps fitting that we pay the price for the sins of colonialism. At the very least, we can't expect Latin America to welcome exploitation of their natural resources, or cede control over their financial systems to external lenders like the IMF in the name of free markets.

Latin Americans have soured on outside investments and have greatly improved their independence financially as a result of the shock treatment they've received from foreign lenders. However they are still poor, and many have sold rights to foreign companies like Costa Rica, which sold its fishing rights away and has contracted with Harken Energy for oil exploration (link). Harken has an illustrious history, having done business with oil prodigy George W. Bush. Harken is active in Colombia, a nation with a dubious human rights record. See the details on Harken in Columbia in a 2002 article by Sean Donahue.

Blowback might actually impede investment where it could do some good, if indeed more equitable deals can be struck. The consequences of losing foreign investment might be damning, but they can certainly be overcome. One method for replicating outside funding has been the cooperative pooling of resources, along with bartering and swaps that avoid the use of traditional capital altogether. While results might be slow in coming, the economic development that comes from local sources is far more sustainable, and provides more balanced progress than the exploitation of raw materials, which is almost always unsustainable. And in the case of coffee farming, we see mass plantations run by agribusinesses that tend to deflate commodity prices, while denuding the forest. [Personal Note: For this reason, I choose to drink shade grown, Fair Trade coffee. (I use groundsforchange.com) Maintaining mature tree cover (tropical forest canopy) is vital to protecting song birds in North America, which winter in Latin America, and have been losing population.]

The consequences of environmental degradation are quite severe. One potential reason for the extreme damage caused by flooding from Hurriicane Mitch was the deforestation of the region; trees protect the watershed and save lives.

Now back to Klein's article. She explains that the puntive cycle of foreign investors pulling their money out has actually made Latin countries less dependent on foreign capital (notice the jab against Halliburton-style cronyism):

For the cooperatives, there is no fear of facing an economic shock of investors leaving, because the investors have already left. Chávez has made the cooperatives in Venezuela a top political priority...

...Many are pieces of state infrastructure– toll booths, highway maintenance, health clinics–handed over to the communities to run. It’s a reverse of the logic of government outsourcing: rather than auctioning off pieces of the state to large corporations and losing democratic control, the people who use the resources are given the power to manage them, creating, at least in theory, both jobs and more responsive public services. Chávez’s many critics have derided these initiatives as handouts and unfair subsidies, of course. Yet in an era when Halliburton treats the US government as its personal ATM for six years, withdraws upward of $20 billion in Iraq contracts alone, refuses to hire local workers either on the Gulf Coast or in Iraq, then expresses its gratitude to US taxpayers by moving its corporate headquarters to Dubai (with all the attendant tax and legal benefits), Chávez’s direct subsidies to regular people look significantly less radical.

Klein goes on to talk about a form of financial servitude engendered by massive loans to corrupt rulers by First World bankers. Incapable of paying off the massive debt loads, these countries' financial systems end up in ruins, allowing the cycle of debt burdening and collapse to begin once again.

Latin Americans nations are leaving the IMF, abandoning not only Western capital, but the colonial-era inferiority complex relative to the financial systems and capital formulation of more developed nations. Alternative sources and methodologies are sought which break dependency on outside sources of capital.

I'm reminded of the book Confessions of an economic Hitman, which I have yet to read. The premise is that the "economic hitman" extends loans that third world countries cannot hope to pay off. Gradually, rising interest payments squeeze its economy. Hard currency reserves are sent to repay overseas bankers instead of propping up the domestic currency. To compound problems, the falling currency makes imports all the more expensive, which further drains foreign currency reserves. Impoverished by the process, the victimized central bank is forced to borrow from foreigners to stabilize its financial environment, which the excess of foreign borrowing had destabilized. In the end and after the financial shock subsides, the debtor nation is even more deeply in debt.

Perhaps the lending institutions see fit to exercise some mercy by granting more favorable repayment terms. Yet in truth the mercy is simply self-interest: the destabilization could eventually make the loans worthless.

The spectre of predatory lending fits with the idea that economic crises are intentionally manufactured in order to depress wages and devalue worker purchasing power. [Purchasing power means that money buys more goods and services; inflation is essentially theft of money from the working classes, whose incomes rise far more slowly than those of the wealthy.]

Labor movements and alternatives to traditional free market capitalist systems become more attractive at times of economic instability, so long-term destabilization is probably not in the best interest of the corporations and their investors. Labor unions and dangerous ideas like communism became quite popular during the Great Depression. Economic catastrophe might encourage greater political participation as well, which might threaten the hegemony of Big Money over our corrupted electoral process, so too much of a good thing might be bad for the ruling elite.

Junta de la Bush

"South Americanization" is the political equivalent of disaster and crony capitalism. The idea is that Bush and his junta have ruled America much as a traditional Latin despot might. Rule is by decree, the Armed Forces play a much larger political role, and governmental monies are dispersed to a small elite aristocracy.

Looking at the Bush administration's contempt for the law, its politicization of the Justice Department, and disregard for international standard of torture demonstrate the Executive's willingness to use its power for political advancement and economic gain. During the eight years, we've seen great stagnancy in wage growth for the masses, while the top income earners have seen a staggering rise in incomes (up 14% in just one year, 2004, if I recall) attributable to large tax cuts for the wealthy. Meanwhile government spending on the military has exploded, with a good percentage of that rise being fed to companies with close ties to the Executive branch.

Like an IMF loan, the debt on which the spending is based has become the people's burden, and average people will face higher tax burdens for years after the regime vanishes. The higher debt also forces cuts in social spending, impacting the poorer majority disporportionally. The wealthy meanwhile, have shuttled their newfound moneys abroad, and built crafty tax dodges to skirt the inevitable recourse of higher taxes.

And like a third world nation, the US is now dependent on foreigners to finance its purchase of exports and government debt. More than half of our government's debt is now owed to foreigners. Inflation will make the dollar forever cheaper and make financing from domestic sources of capital less competitive against foreign sources, whose currencies will be rising.

Exports might rise, though, but these gains may be transient and exist only as long as the dollar is weak, versus being organic improvements based on sustainable economics. And the diminished global stature of our pro-torture and pro-war leadership weakens the competitiveness of US exports. Import prices will skyrocket and open opportunities for domestic producers, assuming the industrial capacity remains after decades of decline. Political winds could shift and lead to the erection of protectionist barriers, especially if the economy tanks. These would encourage retaliation by foreign governments and threaten our exports.

Where South Americanization will take us, no one knows. Perhaps we will end up more like a banana republic then we now dare admit, as Latin countries move towards more democratized models themselves.

The American people are indeed resilient and the world's most productive, so I do have faith in the US long-term. I am sure an economic crisis is coming, whether the product of too much debt or a general slowdown or both. Pure free market capitalists would argue a correction is precisely the "creative destruction" we need. Yet Naomi Klein consistently produces evidence that such a correction is in no way natural but is rather part of a larger scheme to enrich the wealthy at the expense of average citizens.

The application of shock therapy appears to be the method of choice to affect change; natural disasters and war provide the shock. Crony capitalism, deregulation, and privatization of government services are the methods of choice used by economic predators bent on exploiting the economy for short-term personal gain, whatever the damage to the overall system or people dependent on it.

Additional Resources

For more on Robertson, see "Investigating Pat Robertson" on Alternet. Searching under "Pat Robertson" will yield abundant articles at the more popular alternative websites.

"Latin America says, 'No mas,' to America's corporatocracy" about Chávez and Simon Bolivar by Jason Miller is here.

"Oil's New Mr. Big" by Nelson Schwartz of Fortune talks about Chávez's grappling with Big Oil, an industry he nationalized in Venezuela. It can be found here.

Huffington Post Blogger Nathan Gardels takes issue with Naomi Klein's characterization of Milton Friedman as--in Gardels' words--the "ultimate villain of disaster capitalism."

It's easy to mischaracterize economists as being too scientific, or detached, or the cold opposite of warm humanists. Yet the study of economics is very imprecise and full of contradictions and inconsistencies, so it's perhaps fitting that Gardels writes about Friedman's Last Interview. While Friedman was no saint, he could hardly be called a diabolical force conspiring to enrich the already wealthy at the expense of the public, even if recent years have seen the rise of that phenomena.

It's worth remembering that the economy can lift all boats. There are expolitative elements to economic growth, but capitalism appears to be the best method to date by which an economy can grow. Ideally, the benefits of that growth extend to all people. There are limits to how much free markets can achieve, as Friedman would admit.

The purpose of introducing Friedman's concepts should be put in context. Capitalism and the free markets are not perfect, but neither was Friedman. There's plenty of room to improve on his theories, despite the way politicos have deified the economist and stolen his legacy to advance their agendas.

Politicizing economics tars the Friedman legacy because laissez faire capitalists are identified with the politics of one party--the Republicans--who've claimed Friedman's policies as their own. Friedman, as Gardels' article suggests, was deeply concerned with the inequities of the economic system, more so than his political patrons would ever dare admit.


Friday, November 09, 2007

The Wild Ride Down the Path of Unregulated Free Market Capitalism

Forbes has issued a new summary of America's Greenest (And Least Green) States. West Virginia won as the state with the worst environment.

In my last post, I'd brought up West Virginia's environmental issues. The state suffers from the popular perception that nature needs to suffer in order for business to grow. George Bush and his crony-bent system of political patronage has capitalized on the idea, stolen from Libertarians, that excessive government regulation is bad. Since Ronald Reagan, GOP politicians have said, and the MSM echoed, the concept that regulation constricts economic activity.

We now see in the mountains of West Virginia the effect of regulations neutered at the state and Federal level. Mountaintop removal has violated the Clean Water Act that prevents dumping into creeks. The Clean Water Act of 1977 is composed of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act from 1972 and subsequent legislation.

I'd written my Congressman as part of an e-mail campaign in support of Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 2169). I hadn't been too familiar with the bill, but I'd been convinced by the folks at ilovemountains.org (link to the right) to support it. Here is my Congressman's response referring to the bill:

"...The legislation aims to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify that fill material cannot be composed of waste. The legislation defines fill material as that which replaces portions of waters...with dry land or which changes the bottom elevation..."

OK, somewhat clear. Fill material isn't waste, that seems obvious. Why would the bill need to clarify the difference, though?

The letter goes on, saying that the bill "does not consider any pollutant discharged into the water primarily for waste disposal to be considered fill material..."

Huh? So pollutants were being called fill? Why would it take Congressional action to clarify the difference?

After translation out of legalese, I realized that the new bill would prevent any pollutant from being called fill material. The purpose of the legislation was to stop waste from being called fill. If H.R. 2169 would prevent waste material from being called fill, that means waste is now being called "fill" in an effort to get around the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, part of the Clean Water act.

Now some fill may not have any pollutants in it, which would mean it could be dumped, even under the new law. My grasp of legalese is somewhat limited so I may be misinterpreting it. The new bill looks like an effort to close the loophole that allowed mining waste to be called "fill".

So "slurry"--a by-product of coal mining--bypasses the Federal Water Pollution Control Act's definition of waste. So as a result, the valleys of Appalachia have been filled with miles and miles of low-grade sludge and rubble, the leftovers from the constant use of explosives, literally blowing mountains apart. Into the V of surrounding valleys the mining debris goes, and with it any chance preserving Appalachia's rare mix of wildlife and flora.

The bill therefore attempts to correct the odious redefinition of waste--calling it fill--to get around the FWPCA's controls on waste. Without the ability to dump mining waste into the surrounding valleys at whose bottoms streams inevitably meander, mountaintop removal would not be authorized or legal. I did see that a rule re-interpretation had led to the practice of mountaintop removal which began in earnest around 2002.

The Clean Water Act was hailed as quite a victory for residents of Appalachia, who'd been forced to live downriver of massive dams that hold mining byproducts, called tailings. Coal mining companies build massive dykes to hold back the mix of tailings and slurry, which is kept in large pools braced against nearby mountains. Tailings (as the residues of mining are called) have long been a problem. Mining residues can't be put back into the mine from which they originate nor can they be dumped just anywhere, and over time they combine with water that's trapped in the sludge pool.

From time to time, levees holding back the slurry break. In Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, in 1972 one such dam broke and sent a 10-foot-plus wall of slurry and water down a remote valley. The coal waste smashed through everything in its path. The mix quickly dried into a hardened, asphalt-like mass, forcing survivors to use pickaxes to chip their way down to the valley floor and retrieve what was left of their belongings.

For the people living in the valley, it was an unforgettable experience. For most others, it was simply someone else's problem. The difference is a matter of perspective and ethics. Much of America relies on coal for its energy, so accepting the risks of coal use need to be understood. And as the ultimate users of coal-based energy, we need to be conservation-minded, and demand that the latest and safest technologies be used to extract and burn coal.

We would hope that our energy providers would use technologies to cut down on toxins put in our atmosphere by burning coal, but in the same breath we expect the lowest possible energy prices. In short, we are energy gluttons. So we are reluctant to do anything that might push up energy prices. Mountaintop removal and mercury posioning are just two of the consequences of our gluttony.

The energy industry might see the problem more clearly, and self-regulate, but unfortunately those companies need to maximize profits. So in the absence of government regulation, they are almost certain to keep on polluting, and producing energy in a way that leads to the lowest cost, thereby maximizing short-term profits. Since pollution measures do cost money--arguably at a small fraction of the overall costs of pollution to society--they are seen as counterproductive.

This leaves the task of pollution regulation to government, as a last recourse. If officials at the state and Federal level "serve at the pleasure" of politicians supported by contributions from coal producers, it's only logical that regulatory efforts will come under tremendous pressure.

In Bush's cabinet we've seen the appointment of industry lobbyists into leadership positions that oversee mine safety and other industries responsible for most of the country's pollution. Industry reps who had previously been pursuing the liberalization of pollution rules were suddenly responsible for regulatory oversight. As a result, numerous administrative rule changes made life easier for polluters. As a result of those lower standards, we've seen a marked increase in pollution and as a result of that, we will see more accidents, and more toxins in our air and water.

The regulatory pendulum has begun to swing back towards protecting the environment, but has come at great cost to the environment. While some places in Appalachia have seen the gruesome effects of dam breaks and more recently mountaintop removal, the effects of pollution can be felt far away. In our global economy, production practices in China can impact the personal safety of purchasers of Chinese-made goods. And in the ultimate example of its a small world, the use of greenhouse-depleting gases and CO2 are creating an Global Climate Change tsunami that may present the greatest challenge to the human race since the Ice Age.

So the water and enforcement of the laws matter, and not just to environmentalists. There've been two notorious mining accidents, one in West Virginia and the other in Utah; both events are preceeded by a string of safety violations.

The Bush Administration is responsible for federal oversight; it's no surprise we've seen such a marked decrease in federal regulatory oversight. Among Bushites and GOP stalwarts (and a large number of Reagan Democrats and neo-liberals) the perception abounds that environmental requirements dampen growth and hurt profits.

While no one may be intending to hurt the environment, such things just happen, the theory goes. And with these people, the environment is only important around where they live: all politics is local. Most people are insulated in their cocoons from the consequences of an inadequate regulatory environment.

Environmental inequity has become a hot topic. Studies consistently reveal that minority communities are disproportionally impacted by pollution. Thus when regulatory standards fall, they suffer more.

The consequences of Free Market capitalism likely impact someone downstream, someone quite likely not White, and hopefully not you. Eventually, though, we may all find the impact of man-made changes to the environment lapping at our door.

The legacy of environmental abuse should raise awareness about the need for environmental stewardship. But anti-environmental views are espoused in Right wing political circles, part of the myth that environmental destruction is a necessary part of economic progress. History would seem to show that the best interests of the society are compromised when powerful commercial interests escape regulatory oversight.

Deregulation and the Privatization pathway

The idea held by neolibs and business-firsters is that government is inherently inefficient--Milton Friedman--and services can be better performed by the private sector. The policy goal therefore becomes the conversion of government services into contracts with for-profit (and often private) companies. The idea is that by bringing in corporations, efficiencies will be wrung out of the traditionally inefficient government bureacuracy, through a process touted as the exercise of Free Market principles.

Privatization is deregulation's twin. Take one with the other. If shedding government is good in one area--regulation--the next logical step is to reduce government further, by the wholesale transfer of government responsibilities to the private sector.

This has been the driving mantra behind Reagan conservatism. While deregulation has seen a lot of success in some fields like airline travel, there are limits to self-regulation, which may or may not emerge when government regulations subside. Rhetorically though, deregulation has been a smashing success, as it gives neoliberal/Reagan democrats and the "pro-business" Republican Right an example of how they are putting their principles into action.

In reality though, we've seen private companies take the money and give very little back. The same forces that have been advocating privatization have benefitted from government-issued contracts, which have not by coincidence spiked alongside fiscal imprudence. And as the bottom line bloats with federal contracts, many of these companies tend to lose their competitive edge--the same efficiency on which their alleged superiority is based.

It's also not a coincidence that the mostly Republican business moguls who've benefitted the most from privatization have given the most money to the campaigns of pro-privatization politicians. Payback comes from the elected who pump their cronies with massive no-bid contracts, which are inadequately regulated in a system of crony capitalism.

One politician--our Vice President--actually owns some 2 million shares of one defense contractor which has moved to Dubai: Halliburton. No doubt the most influential Vice President in American history has used his influence to spike Halliburton revenues. Along with a spinoff (KBR) the company has received over $17 billion in military contracts from 2003-2006. (See the MSN report here.) Halliburton stock has tripled and the value of Cheney's holdings have grown dramatically as a result of the war that he so eagerly advocated.

Something like 40% of the Pentagon's budget now passes directly into the hands of contractors, passing the soldiers and veterans, where it is spent of programs that may only marginally impact the battlefields of Iraq, where the money is most definitely needed for upgraded Humvees, body armor, and the like. Star Wars-type missile defenses and aircraft and high-tech weapon development systems are good examples of questionable spending. If the contracts flow to some Republican party faithful, then the spending can be considered a success, regardless of the opportunity costs and consequences to our mainline fighting troops.

If only the American people would rise up and put forth just a fraction of their blind faith into following the money trail! Incumbents of both parties would be quickly revealed to be the scoundrels they are! Yet sadly ignorance is quite popular today, largely due to the over-stressed lives of so many, who have no time to follow the news. They lack the will to participate in the political process; surely if they knew the cost they will end up paying, they would demand accountability and transparency here and now.

Instead the sheople, as they are referred to, go on like lemmings over the cliff. I for one will be able to tell them that they were warned. After the lemmings disappear into the foaming seas below, I'll not bother to tell them the error of their ways, for they shall be dead at that point. Well, maybe not dead, but a heck of lot worse off, with higher taxes (to pay for the bulging deficit and its interest), higher prices (from inflation), inadequate governmental aid (look at Katrina) and with diminished legal rights, including the right of redress (to hold the government accountable).

The corporate, Mainstream Media has been blamed for much of the problem, but the responsibility to maintain our society and hold our government accountable ultimately falls to the people. They must participate (vote) and stay informed. The MSM has been an enabler of government indiscretions, even facilitating the spread of propaganda, but is not solely responsible.

Unsustainable Economics

States like West Virginia look at the environment as an infinite resource, and value the immediate economic benefits of jobs more than the long-term. negative environmental consequences associated with some kinds of jobs. Economic development and environmental exploitation are seen as two sides of the same coin; Nature is thought to provide economic opportunity in a zero-sum game, a trade-off of environmental good for economic advancement.

Long-term, this dichotomy simply doesn't work. As the environment degrades, it's inevitable a less developed economy will be able to rely on natural resource exploitation to attract economic developement.

Resources aren't infinite. Obviously procedures like mountaintop removal are unsustainable. Every mountain that is destroyed by mountaintop removal represents that much less of the natural available for future plunder. So even if you're a neoliberal or closet Nature-hater, the practice of mountaintop removal doesn't make sense from a long-term perspective: West Virginia will run out of mountains.

Apparently the industries that make billions from exploiting finite resources--and ignore the consequences--and leaving polluted and scarred environment behind. Highly stressed state and federal sources of funding are left for the clean-up, which in the case of the nations's many Superfund sites invariably prove to be more expensive and time-consuming to correct than whatever marginal benefit the pollution brings to the few who profit.

For those profitting, an extra dollar is pure profit, and if they aren't held responsible, the absence of ethics--enabled by the greed-is-good mantra enshrined in our covenant with the Gods of Money and Capitalism--allows the pollution to go on without shame. Those who profit from the pollution very rarely face and punitive consequences, so they often repeat their behaviors, going on to start anew once one area has been plundered.

Property Rights

I know the development-first argument well because I've lived in Indiana for the majority of my life. I fought sprawl in Indianapolis and have tried to improve the watershed where I live now. I'm no gladiator for the environmental movement but I've seen myself as an advocate of smart growth, which is the practice of limiting the speed of new construction, and forcing planning on all new construction where sprawl is a factor.

The idea of limiting growth is anti-property rights, which is an popular rallying cry against sprawl, combined with the attitude that all growth is good, no matter where it is, or what it is.

Now if I were sitting in a over-zoned, over-regulated, and over-taxed community, I'd probably advocate less government controls. I am, in my heart, a libertarian, but I can't stand by and let my town or city turn into a strip of ugly fast-food conglomerates and Big Box retailers that gut the urban core, all for the benefit of some faraway company paying slave wage jobs abroad. Better to build less, more slowly, than to sell out to the fast buck that comes, then inevitably wafts away when the sprawl growth goes on to consume some other perfectly good farmland on the periphery of the next town.

True libertarians might call me a traitor, but I don't believe one person's right to own property gives them a right to build whatever they want. I don't think government involvement in smart growth is evil, but rather is the direct responsibility of government where you have a capitalist system.

Letting private markets dictate that way a place grows or, worse, its environmental situation is a recipe for inadequate management of shared resources. While property owners have rights, the rights bestowed on the individual should never be allowed to eclipse the common good. Pollution is an excellent example of how one person's greed--exhibited through the desire to simply dump and not clean up toxins and other by-products of a commerical enterprise---contaminated the good.

Ownership rights should not allow a landowner to do whatever they please with their land. No resident should have to worry whether a neighbor will open a dump next door, or start a business collecting toxic pools of sludge. Yet many people in rural and developing areas have no zoning and are thus exposed to any manner of unregulated exploitation of the environment. The contagion effects could easily spread through the water, either on the surface or sub-surface as pollution works its way down into the watertable.

Indirect contamination contaminates vast areas well beyond the property owner's domain. We now see this with coal burning, which is the number one source of mercury in the atmosphere (source), along with greenhouse gases. Airborne mercury ends up settling into our streams, lakes, and rivers. Fish are contaminated as the neurotoxic mercury works its way up the food chain, where it presents a clear and present danger, especially for women and children.

The entire production cycle of coal appears to be doing massive damage to our environment, putting at risk the health of millions. With coal mining, the Clean Water Act has come under attack. Under pressure from the Bush Administration, the Office of Surface Mining is proposing a rule change that would eliminate the restriction on dumping with 100 feet of a waterway (obviously valley fill-in breaks that condition.) On coal's dirty-burning side, mercury emissions controls haven't been adequately enforced under the Clean Air Act.

Comparative Advantage

Odd how the free market system seem to produce more benefits for the population where it is controlled. States in the top of Forbes list have high education levels, higher incomes and savings rates, and better employment.

You could argue these standards of life show the benefit of environmental stewardship. Still, this argument can be undermined by Occam's Razor, a principle from physics that says just because one thing is proven does mean that another is true (explained better here.

Basically, the better environment is evidence of superior quality of life not a cause of it. States that have a better development pattern are less dependent on natural resource depletion or cultivation, occupations which are by their nature lower income and environmentally destructive (although an argument should be made that they could be less so, and therefore more sustainable.)

In other words, a more primitive state of economic development necessitates more resource depletion, and encourages destructive practices like mountaintop removal. In the minds of the people in West Virginia Department of Environmental Management--who have yet to deny a mountaintop permit--the diminished state of economic advancement becomes a rationale for more extreme and unsustainable practices.

Unfortunately, this willingness to lower standards dooms the state to attracting the lowest of the low, those companies that are fleeing more stringent environmental standards in other states. The fact the state is less developed keeps it from getting developed when those responsible for its "growth" choose unsustainable industries that damage the environment. The effect is made much worse when State officials view economic development and environmental stewardship as having an inverse relationship. Sure the environment's nice--the reasoning might go--but we need jobs and this company will bring them. Never mind that the new company might pollute, or end up degrading the state's attractiveness to tourists, hikers, and businesses who might be drawn to the recreational opportunities that abound in areas of natural and scenic beauty.

People drawn to environmentally attractive areas tend to be smarter, higher income, exactly the kind of people a state like West Virginia--or any on the bottom tier of the Forbes list--don't have and therefore need. Repel them by degrading the environment and you are essentially destroying your state's #1 asset: its environment. What nature lover could stand to live under the shrinking shadow of a removed mountaintop? I can't imagine anyone who enjoys nature living or wanting to go anywhere near these man-made abdominations. And that says nothing of the truck traffic and boom of explosives used to blast the mountain apart. (According to one environmental resource, over 4 million pounds of explosives are used on a daily basis in West Virginia, literally blowing the mountain to bits.)

Changes can take some time. But they are happening. Already over 100 Congresspeople have signed on to end mountaintop removal. But again, returning to libertarian principles, the mandate for federal action should be seen as the product of inadequate environmental protection at the state level. Like property owners, states shouldn't have the right to destroy their land or turn their natural heritage into a denuded and toxic legacy for future generations to deal with. Nature is an asset and should be managed. True selfishness is the notion that we are entitled to deny countless generations the natural beauty that we once enjoyed.

While I'm not one for federal control over land use decisions, if for whatever reason some states cannot protect and preserve their own resources, then the Feds will have to do it for them. This is the inevitable backlash that comes from inadequate regulatory oversight and selling out to polluters. We see this as our banks try to account for billions in write-offs on speculations in the housing market and exotic derivates hapahazardly packaged and sold, which now threaten to embroil the larger economy in chaos (see Whitney article.)

Internationally we see this effect as toxic industries operate in places beyond the reach of regulatory oversight. But this phenomena--the product of a new borderless economy--has brought new horrors to the toy shelves of America: date rape drugs encapsulated in plastic capsules, melanin-laced dog-food, and a list of unknown horrors waiting to be discovered by unsuspecting children and parents.

Surely the global economy can do better than allow a dumbing down of environmental standards and the proliferation of clearly unsustainable and dangerous production of toxic products. Maybe international political regulations will be necessary to contain this unrestricted greed. Maybe our trade with China need to be regulated in the same way that an errant state need supervision by the Feds. If the free market can't police itself, it will have to be policed, because these recent transgressions, and the ones to come, will show that it must be regulated.

Additional Resources

The State of California authorized a toy certification process that should help Californian children avoid some of the toxic ingredients in toys. Link) Europe has for a while now forbidden the use of dangerous plastics called pthalates. Meanwhile, belated regulatory efforts have begun in the U.S., as self-policing by manufacturers is simply failing to assure product safety standards, particularly among imports. It's only a matter of time before enough product recalls and child sickenings get Congress to act.

Daily Kos posted a good article by Patriot Daily News on mountaintop removal.

Ilovemountains.org has a link to write the Office of Surface Mining in regard to a proposed rule change. They explain:
"The current law requires that the impacts of mining be kept at least 100 feet from a stream. In August, the Bush Administration and the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) proposed a change to the law that would seriously weaken this stream protection."

Savethecleanairact.org has a factsheet on coal available here. They also have an automated letter-writing program set up so you can help stop mercury pollution. Don't stop there! Try to restrict your use of energy sourced from coal. Choose green power if your utility offers it.

Conservation is a unheralded message in the media today. Reducing demand for energy hurts short-term profits for energy companies. Longer-term, unrestrained demand will lead to shortages. Don't hold your breath waiting for action out of Washington though: Bush comes from the oil industry and many politicians are owned by Big Energy and higher prices have brought record profits.