Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Toxic Sludge is Good For You!

When it comes to capitalism vs. the environment, capitalism always wins.

The disheartening though unsurprising defeat of a South Portland ordinance earlier this month that would have prohibited the transportation of tar sands oil through neighboring Sebago Lake, provides another stark example of the environment's perpetual subordination to capitalism.

The citizen-led referendum, "The Waterfront Protection Ordinance," would have effectively prevented the loading and transportation of tar sands oil onto ships at South Portland's waterfront. Voters narrowly defeated the measure 51-49 percent, or by a margin of about 200 votes.

The Portland Pipe Line Corporation, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil and operator of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline which would deliver dirty, highly corrosive oil sands (or "tar sands" oil) from Alberta, Canada, poured in close to $600,000 to defeat the referendum question.

Opponents received additional campaign funding from other oil giants including Citgo, Irving, and the American Petroleum Institute, as well as the South Portland Chamber of Commerce, according to The Bangor Daily News (11/05/2013). Former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat whom the local chapter of the Sierra Club awarded an environmental record of "B+" in 2002, also publicly opposed the ordinance.

The oil industry used the traditional Business talking-points--"Job killer!", "Protect working families!", "Our way-of-life is in danger!"--to convince residents to vote against the measure. They even recruited the local firefighters union in their efforts, thus making the campaign out to be a labor issue. Editorials in the ("liberal") local press uniformly lambasted the ordinance as "overly broad," preferring to quibble over procedural details while ignoring the ordinance's overall aim. The Press Herald staff editorial against the WPO ("Our View: Waterfront vote affects more than tar sands," 10/17/13), for instance, cites all the economic concerns, yet says virtually nothing about the dangers of tar sands oil.

The fact is, if the Portland-Montreal Pipeline were to rupture and leak heavy tar sands oil into Sebago Lake, none of these purely economic concerns will matter. None of them. Jobs...? Sure, temporary clean-up jobs. Local economy...? Destroyed. Tourism...? Ha! Yes, I can see it now: "Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Used to Be." Or, how about this play on our new city motto: "Portland. Yes, water's poisoned here."

Sebago Lake, it is worth noting, provides the water supply for the Greater Portland area, and about 15 percent of the state. It is routinely ranked as some of the cleanest water in the Northeast.

Contrary to the claims of Exxon Mobil press secretaries, tar sands oil is nothing like the conventional oil you put in your car. It is exponentially worse.

Tar sands contain crude bitumen and release about three times as much CO2 as refined oil. The process of extracting the sludgy material alone is extremely energy intensive and poses a major risk to the Alberta boreal forest and wetlands from which it is derived. But a mass-scale production of the substance, as envisioned in the all-but-imminent Keystone XL Pipeline, would be an environmental nightmare--a "carbon bomb," in the words of esteemed climate scientist James Hansen. Tar sands oil's potential impact on climate change, Hansen warns, would spell "game over for the climate."

Earlier this year, global CO2 emissions surpassed 400 parts per million, an atmospheric concentration not seen since prehistoric eras. According to Hansen, any CO2 level greater than 350 ppm is not compatible with "a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and life on Earth is adapted."

As I write, Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm in recorded history, has left nearly 4,000 dead in the Philippines. (The precise death toll, according to NPR, may never be known.)

Contemporary political discourse perpetually (and myopically) pits The Economy against The Environment as if the two are separate and mutually exclusive concerns. And The Economy (i.e. Capitalism) wins every time. Environmental regulations and protections, politicians warn us, will mean job losses or potentially missed economic opportunities.

Not only is this mentality completely warped, on a practical level it is unsustainable. Unlimited, unhindered economic growth on a planet of finite resources is simply not possible. To put it another way, capitalism and environmental sustainability are incompatible. The fact that the oil industry has shifted focus in recent years to tar sands, mountain-top removal, deep-water oil drilling and "fracking" is testament to the reality that we have essentially used up all the planet's readily available resources. The easy stuff is gone. We burned it all into the atmosphere. Now the oil giants, like an obsessed Captain Ahab, are maniacally tearing the planet apart to find more.

As Ahab says in Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick, "All my means are sane, my motive and object are mad." The doomed whale-hunting captain, like the self-serving billionaire CEOs that manage Exxon Mobil, "did long disassemble" from mankind. If they must destroy the planet in order to maintain their outrageous profit margins, so be it.

The good news is the environmental activists that crafted the WPO ordinance are not ready to give up the fight. Indeed, a vote this close signals no mandate for the winners. South Portland Mayor Tom Blake and most of the members of the City Council support a ban on tar sands transportation in the city. The day after the election, Mayor Blake convened a Council meeting to discuss the issue further.

While I hope my neighbors in South Portland are successful, it is important to keep the larger perspective in mind. As long as protecting the planet remains subordinate to capitalism and "economic growth," this battle remains one we are, in the long-run, doomed to lose.

Fawzi Ibrahim, author of the eco-socialist book, Capitalism Versus Planet Earth: An Irreconcilable Conflict, sums it up best:

"Today, humanity faces a stark choice: Save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet."

Local readers can join the effort to keep Maine tar-sands free by clicking here. And you can make a donation to Guerrilla Press by clicking the "Donate" button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Portland Paves the Way on Pot

Photo appropriated from the Portland Press Herald website, 'cause dammit Jim, I'm a writer not a photographer.

Portland, Maine became the first city on the East Coast to legalize marijuana on November 5 with the passage of the city ordinance Question 1. The ordinance, which asks voters to legalize 2.5 ounces of marijuana for residents 21 and older, passed in a landslide with close to 70 percent of the vote. My colleagues and I in the Portland Green Independent Committee spearheaded the initiative back in January. We collected nearly 3,000 voter signatures to place the question on the ballot.

While the ordinance is specific only to Portland, our hope is its passage will set the precedent and model for the rest of the state. (Many politicos anticipate a statewide referendum in 2016.) We ultimately envision the state of Maine taxing and regulating marijuana as it does alcohol and other legal drugs.

Though local pundits and opinionators leveled a barrage of criticism and ridicule our way, there was no formal, organized opposition to the measure. The brief demonstrations of public protest proved inept, unprofessional and incomprehensible.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has told numerous local media outlets he intends to ignore the new law and continue treating marijuana possession in the city as a federal crime. The police chief's blatant disregard for the will of the voters is indeed contemptuous. This is the same person, keep in mind, who used lies and hyperbole this summer to convince the City Council to pass an overly broad and counterproductive ban of panhandling on median strips.

Maine is once again leading the way forward.

Decriminalizing marijuana is a sensible step toward ending the racist, economically unsustainable war on drugs. The U.S. spends more than $51 billion annually on a policy even former  President Jimmy Carter believes is a failure. That is money that could be going to re-hire all those laid off teachers, repair our schools, roads and crumbling bridges, or even provide health care for every citizen.

Additionally, the drug war disproportionately targets minorities and people of color. According to statistics from the Drug Policy Alliance, African Americans constitute 37 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession nationwide, even though they use the drug at comparable rates to whites.

The U.S., it is worth noting, has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

It is important to understand this effort did not come out of either of the two political parties. It was the Greens working with the libertarian Marijuana Policy Project that enacted it.

Maine's Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree claims she supports marijuana legalization, but has taken no action in the House of Representatives to that end. What's stopping her...? State representative Diane Russell (D-Portland), meanwhile, introduced a legalization bill in the Legislature this summer. But she failed to even get it out of the committee. That is how supportive the Democrats are on this issue. And State Rep. Mark Dion, a Democrat who helped craft Maine's medical marijuana law back in 1999, snidely dismissed the will of the voters on WGME 13 as a glorified "opinion poll."

Throughout this campaign opponents constantly argued marijuana legalization is a "state issue," that should not be decided by Portland alone. They are correct. It should be a state-wide issue. But, with the notable exception of Rep. Russell, no one else in the Legislature is acting on it. The residents of Portland are tired of waiting for our lawmakers in Augusta.

Tuesday's vote is further proof that meaningful, substantive progressive change rarely, if ever, comes from the top-down. It comes from the bottom. It comes from hard-working, ordinary Americans most people have never heard of. Their names are conveniently left out of history textbooks. It comes from activists, labor leaders, socialists, anarchists, and third-parties. From people like Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, Mary "Mother" Jones, Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair.

Most of these figures never achieved formal positions of power. Many were scornfully dismissed and savagely attacked by the power elite just as Ralph Nader, Edward Snowden and Jill Stein are today. Yet they used their books, writings, speeches, and organizing abilities to threaten those in power and demand real change.

"Democracy is not what governments do," the radical historian Howard Zinn said. "It's what people do."

As Zinn's dissident treatise, A People's History of the United States illustrates, all major progressive gains throughout this nation's history have come from outside the political sphere. Even such cornerstone victories of liberalism like Social Security and Medicare were not immediately embraced by the Democratic Party that, to this day, claims credit for them. Celebrated liberal figures like FDR and LBJ enacted their signature social reforms, Zinn observes, only when pushed and prodded by labor unions, activists and other citizen-led protests.

Roosevelt is said to have told a group of activists to "Make me do it." So they did.

The late Peter Camejo, who ran as Nader's vice presidential running-mate in 2004, concurs. In the 2006 documentary film, An Unreasonable Man, Camejo compares Nader's plight to that of  Debs and Thomas. He says:

Every major progressive law in the United States--whether it's the right of women to vote, Social Security, the rights of the Labor Party--never [did] any of these proposals come out of the two major parties. They always came from the grassroots, from the people. And there were people who lead those struggles who were independent and not functioning as agents of those parties who were always called names and suffered personal abuse...
Tuesday's victory is, no doubt, quite limited. It puts Maine--along with Colorado and Washington--in direct conflict with federal law. And its limit to one municipality in the state seems to make a statewide vote not only inevitable, but mandatory.

But it is a start. The Greens have made a small yet decisive crack in the machinery of the drug war. We have demonstrated that Mainers are ready for a more sensible, humane policy toward marijuana. Ignore the Establishment media that claim the new law is "meaningless" or "purely symbolic." They are, as is so often the case, out of step with their own readers. 

As Maine goes...so goes the nation...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Sox.

I often feel like the only person in New England who does not care one iota about The Boston Red Sox. Sports, which are inherently sexist and anti-intellectual, have never held any interest for me. Given that most of today's celebrated professional athletes seem to derive their physical prowess from performance enhancing drugs, I am uncertain what makes these games, won through cheating and deception, appealing to anybody, frankly.

Red Sox fans (which, for reasons I have never fully understood, include hundreds of Mainers, despite the fact the team is based in Boston) can recall, from memory, intricate details and minutia of past World Series games from ten, twenty, even fifty years ago, but most cannot tell you the name of their state's congressional representative. In a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released prior to last year's presidential election, only 39 percent of eligible voters could correctly identify Joe Biden as the vice president.

As for the 54 percent that agreed with the statement, "[Politics] is so corrupt," as their excuse for not paying much attention to politics, I refer you to my previous statement about steroids in professional sports.

If the Red Sox lose a game, the entire city of Boston practically erupts in riots. If Obama guns down an innocent teenage boy with a drone in Yemen, nobody blinks an eye. It is good to know we have our national priorities straight. What's that you say, Sen. Angus King...? Drones are a more "humane" way of killing people? Well, if it's good enough for our junior "independent" senator, it must be good enough for liberals.

"Sports plays a societal role in engendering jingoist attitudes," Noam Chomsky once said. "They're designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators."

Baseball fans gush evangelically about the sport's "cultural tradition," its embodiment of essential values of "competitiveness," and "teamwork," often with an almost spiritual reverence. Many sports reporters even cast the Red Sox's World Series win as a symbolic "healing" of the city in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year.

Get real, people!

Baseball, like all major league spectator sports, is commercial entertainment, pure and simple. Don't believe me? Just consider the Red Sox's major sponsors this year:

Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Poland Spring (which is owned by Nestle), Verizon Wireless and Dunkin Donuts. (The New York Times sold its share of the Red Sox last year.) The very purpose of these games is not to create any sort of community bonding experience, or even provide pleasurable entertainment. It is to sell ad-time to viewers.

These corporations do not care at all about the citizens of Boston--or anywhere for that matter. They do not even care about baseball. They just want your money. Feel stupid yet?

Sports, Hollywood movies, television and pop music make up what Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno called "The Culture Industry." Their seminal 1944 essay, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, proved eerily prescient in its portrayal of the then burgeoning popular culture as a system designed to distract and control a passive citizenry to satisfy the aims of the corporate state. As German-Jewish emigres to the  U.S. during the rise of the Third Reich, Adorno and Horkheimer observed ominous parallels between the Nazis' repressive propaganda machine and America's own commercially driven systems of mass media.

"Culture today is infecting everything with sameness," the authors wrote. "Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together. Even the aesthetic manifestations of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm."

Not only does this system of commercial culture, the authors warned, come at the expense of more emotionally and intellectually gratifying art, but it also creates within citizens a set of false needs--or "manufactured consent," to use Chomsky and Edward Herman's term--that can only be satisfied through consumer capitalism.

Or, as George W. Bush urged Americans following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, "Go shopping."

"Freedom to choose an ideology," Adorno and Horkheimer wrote, "which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same."

For further confirmation of this last point, simply turn on any given commercial radio station anywhere in the country. Nearly every new song and artist sound the same. Clear Channel Communications, the world's largest radio producer and concert promoter, owns over 850 Top-40 radio stations in 300 cities nationwide.

The music featured on their stations is hook-laden, upbeat, obnoxiously overproduced and about as slick and soulless sounding as you can get. Most of the songs sound as if they were literally assembled in a factory. And, try as one may to fight it, listen to any of these stations long enough, and about a dozen of these tracks are bound to get stuck in your head.

Pop stars of the moment like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, and Katy Perry stand in stark contrast to the messy, dissonant proto-punk of Lou Reed, who passed away last week. With the Velvet Underground, one of the great unheralded bands in rock history, Reed created music that was angry, cerebral and sonically volatile. His noisy, experimental rock challenged and provoked listeners as all great art should.

Yet, Reed and his contemporaries--Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television, The Stooges, The Sex Pistols--were never deemed safe or suitable enough for the corporate-owned airwaves. Their music always existed on the margins outside of popular culture. Thus, the culture industry ensures audiences are not exposed to true artists whose work could rouse them to dissent, rebellion, or protest.

The great media scholar Neil Postman was correct: We are amusing ourselves to death.

Postman opens his 1985 anti-TV polemic of the same name with an oft-cited comparison of the equally bleak though starkly different totalitarian futures depicted in George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contending that "Huxley, not Orwell, was right," Postman observes:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.... In 1984... people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
But rather than "rage, rage at the dying of the light," as Dylan Thomas urged, Americans prefer to relax, relax at the throwing of the opening pitch at the next game at Fenway Park.

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