Catherine Komp

Noam Chomsky: America Is a Terrified Country

This is an excerpt from the just released 2nd edition of Noam Chomsky’s OCCUPY: Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity published by Zuccotti Park Press. Reprinted from with permission.

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Protecting Penguins Could Force Bush to Move on Climate Change

Though there are no wild penguins in North America, an environmental group is asking the US government to consider several species endangered -- a move that could help activists compel the government to act against global warming.

On Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to classify twelve kinds of penguins as "endangered" or "threatened." The Center says the change could create legal leverage against activities that contribute to climate change or otherwise threaten the birds.

"We… believe that if and when penguins are listed," said CBD staff attorney Kassie Siegel, "US entities that are responsible for large sources of greenhouse emissions will also be responsible for analyzing the impact of those emissions on listed species like penguins."

The classification would mean federal agencies are required to ensure that their actions will not "jeopardize the continued existence" of the birds. For example, the Department of Transportation might have to issue stronger fuel efficiency standards to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions; the National Marine Fisheries Service might have to limit fishing of Antarctic krill, a major food source for penguins.

Classification would also permit activists to file lawsuits against corporations that jeopardize the species' survival.

Siegel said the Endangered Species Act has not been applied in this way before, but she added, "There's absolutely no reason why the law doesn't apply to greenhouse-gas emissions and shouldn't be enforced."

Only the Galápagos Penguin is currently protected by the US Endangered Species Act. The Center says the emperor, white-flippered, African and other penguins are also imperiled, their numbers declining due to habitat destruction, fisheries, oil spills and marine pollution, in addition to global warming. The petitioners point out that several of the penguin species they seek to have listed are already designated as threatened with extinction by the World Conservation Union and BirdLife International.

The Center also filed a petition in February 2005 to list polar bears, citing climate change as a major factor in diminishing their habitat and food sources. The organization had to sue US Fish and Wildlife Service to force the agency to complete its review, which is expected next month.

Siegel, who is also director of the Center's climate program, said a few other species affected by climate change have already been listed, including some butterflies and coral reefs.

"Our whole mission is the protection of imperiled species and biodiversity," said Siegel, "and we cannot fulfill that mission unless we do something about global warming, because global warming threatens virtually every eco-system on earth."

Legally, the Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to respond to the petition.

Fighting Back Against GE Crops

Farmers and environmentalists are suing federal agencies for allowing a bio-technology giant to market genetically modified alfalfa, allegedly without fully considering potential harm to the American food supply and environment.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court against the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, argues that federal regulators illegally approved Monsanto's application for commercial sale of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa.

"Our belief is that there seems to be an increasingly frequent systemic lack of objectivity in a lot of the regulatory decisions that are flowing from USDA," said co-plaintiff Pat Trask, whose family has run an alfalfa-seed business in South Dakota for nearly a century.

Plaintiffs say approval by the USDA of Monsanto's request to market genetically modified alfalfa without regulation will eventually destroy farmers' ability to grow alfalfa free of engineered genes and will lead to increased use of harmful herbicides. Filed in the Northern District of California federal court, the lawsuit charges that regulators violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Plant Protection Act.

Experiments with nature

One of the most widely grown crops in the U.S., alfalfa generates an estimated $11.7 billion dollars yearly, according to the USDA. Though mostly grown for animal feed, the protein- and vitamin-rich purple-flowered legume is also sold for direct human consumption.

In 1998, Monsanto began developing a genetically modified strain called Roundup Ready Alfalfa. Like Monsanto's Roundup Ready Corn and Roundup Ready Soy, the GE alfalfa is designed to resist to the company's flagship herbicide product Roundup -- one of the most widely used industrial weed-killers in the world.

The USDA approved Roundup Ready Alfalfa for commercial sale last fall, making it the first large-scale perennial food crop approved and deregulated by the U.S. government. To date, GE alfalfa is grown on 50,000 acres across the country.

Some question the need to create an herbicide-resistant strain in the first place. According to the Center for Food Safety, a public interest and environmental advocacy organization, more than 80 percent of alfalfa grown in the United States is raised without any herbicides.

"Alfalfa is not something that has a big need of weed control," said Trusk, whose family has been growing traditional strains of alfalfa on the edge of the Black Hills for four generations. The crop's natural growth pattern shades the ground, discouraging most weeds, Trusk noted.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are concerned that the increased planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa will similarly expand the use of toxic chemicals on farms. Scientific studies conducted by the British government and by academic researchers at Ohio State University have documented the evolution of "superweeds" -- nuisance plants ironically resistant to Roundup itself. Conservationists and public health advocates fear that farmers would then turn to even more toxic chemicals to kill the emboldened intruders.

"That creates a cycle of poisoning and dependency in agriculture which escalates over time, often referred to as a pesticide treadmill," said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a D.C.-based environmental group and co-plaintiff in the suit. "[This cycle] belies the stated intent of those promoting the technology as one that would reduce pesticide dependence."

The groups are also concerned that bees, which help pollinate alfalfa, will carry pollen from genetically altered Monsanto crops to their conventional cousin, contaminating heirloom crops and destroying farmers' ability to grow plants free from bioengineering. They argue that the USDA should devise regulations to force GE alfalfa farmers to create "buffer zones" between themselves and traditional growers to help prevent irreparable harm to the traditional alfalfa gene pool.

Documentation of this cross pollination has uncovered instances in which farmers were growing food containing Monsanto-patented genes without even knowing it because of contamination from nearby farms. One such case was Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who spent six years and $400,000 fighting Monsanto's claims of patent infringement after Roundup Ready canola was found in his fields.

Schmeiser, who had planted natural breeds of canola for 50 years, argued that his farm was contaminated with Monsanto's plants by wind, passing trucks, water runoff or insect pollination. Ultimately a Canadian Supreme Court judge ruled that regardless of how Monsanto's seeds reached Schmeiser's farm, Schmeiser had infringed on Monsanto's patent. In that case, the judge spared Schmeiser from paying any damages.

A lack of oversight

The 37-year old National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies prepare detailed analyses of any federal actions that could significantly affect the environment. But Will Rostov, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, says the USDA did not perform an environmental impact statement for GE alfalfa. In fact, he told TNS, the agency has not conducted one for any GE crops before giving them the green light.

In the case of GE alfalfa, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) - established in 1987 to oversee the safety of biotech products - conducted a preliminary environmental assessment and found "no significant impact on the environment" from Roundup Ready Alfalfa. The agency then decided no further analysis was needed.

However, the 42-page report acknowledges public concerns about the crop's potential impact, including increased use of herbicides, cross-contamination, harm to other organisms, and adverse affects on human health. The report also noted concerns that the crop could benefit large agribusinesses at the expense of family farms, and lead to loss of exports to countries that have expressed concerns about GE foods, such as Japan and South Korea, the two biggest customers for U.S. alfalfa exports.

APHIS dismissed all concerns but one: the potential growth of herbicide-resistant weeds as a result of releasing Roundup Ready Alfalfa to the industry. But the agency concluded that the problem could best be remedied if growers are careful to prevent their crops from maturing enough to reproduce.

Although the government's assessment also states that the majority of alfalfa growers and others tied to the alfalfa industry support the commercialization of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, the report also shows that out of 663 public comments submitted to APHIS, nearly 80 percent were opposed to the deregulation of Monsanto's GE alfalfa.

Many of those comments came from organic farmers who are concerned that GE alfalfa will compromise the integrity of their crops, leading to economic loss and liability issues. Wisconsin organic beef farmer Jim Munsch, who stays clear of consuming GE corn and soy products himself, said his customers come to him because they trust the purity of the food.

"You have to understand that the philosophy of an organic farmer starts out with a premise that we don't understand nature, that there are biological processes going on that people do not understand," Munsch told TNS. "When you start tinkering when any little piece of [nature], you have a tremendous risk of upsetting the whole process."

Additionally, doubts have emerged within the USDA itself about the agency's ability to monitor the safety of GE crops. In a report issued last December, the agency's inspector general wrote, "As the number of approved applications to field test new GE plants continues to rise, we are concerned that the Department's efforts to regulate those crops have not kept pace."

The USDA did not respond to repeated interview requests from TNS. The lawsuit also charges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with failing to assess the impact of increased Roundup use on endangered and threatened species. The EPA deferred all comment to the USDA.

Monsanto spokesperson Mica DeLong defended the company's testing of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, telling TNS that the company fulfilled all of the USDA requirements to bring the product to market.

DeLong added that farmers' concerns about cross-contamination are unfounded because the only way alfalfa can go to seed is if farmers let it, and farmers using Monsanto's Roundup Ready products sign a licensing agreement precluding them from saving and replanting the seeds.

Delong said that since the majority of growers produce Roundup Ready Alfalfa only for hay, animal feed or exports, growers would not allow their crops to go to seed because that would reduce the quality of the forage.

But the plaintiffs' concerns center on contamination from pollen, not seeds. And according to the Madison, Wisconsin-based group Family Farm Defenders, most alfalfa is cut after some of blossoms have already produced pollen.

Rostov of the Center for Food Safety said he hopes the lawsuit against the USDA will return some control to the public by encouraging better federal oversight of genetically modified crops. The suit asks the court to force the re-regulation of Roundup Ready Alfalfa and requests a full environmental impact statement for GE alfalfa from the USDA.

The agencies have until mid-April to respond to the lawsuit.

"There's a pattern that is noxious and toxic to the traditional American way of life," said Trask, the alfalfa-seed farmer. "This is not good for American people. You're losing food safety and property rights simultaneously. And the beneficiaries of this are not human beings with a conscious. They're corporate boardroom financial reports."

Barriers for Disability at Work

Impressing a potential employer during an interview and getting a good job offer is difficult for many. But for those with disabilities -- who must prove they are as qualified as non-disabled candidates -- finding any job has its own challenges.

When Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 15 years ago, supporters hoped the equity legislation would increase disabled peoples' opportunities for employment. But, according to researchers at Cornell University, the employment rate for people with disabilities peaked around 25 percent in the 1990s before dropping below 20 percent by 2004.

The Department of Labor attributes this low employment rate, in part, to the misconception that accommodating people with disabilities in the workplace is prohibitively costly. In fact, research indicates that the opposite is true. The Labor Department's Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which helps employers hire, retain, and promote people with disabilities, has found that most workplace accommodations can be implemented at little or no cost. Since cost is not the main barrier, say disability advocates, more needs to change than simply architecture and ergonomics.

"Most disabled people would tell you that the bigger concerns they have around the workplace are not around physical accessibility," said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities. "They're more around attitudes. I think it's easier to legislate and see change around bricks and mortar than it is around attitudes."

Low-cost, high-impact

The JAN survey, which will continue through September 2007, released preliminary findings last month based on feedback from 778 employers that had contacted the agency for information about employing people with disabilities.

The vast majority of the employers surveyed had called because they were interested in learning how to retain their employees, who on average had been employed for seven years and were paid about $13 per hour.

About half reported that implementing workplace adjustments came at no expense, and about 43 percent reported a one-time cost that averaged around $600.

"Many employers tell us it's as simple as making a flexible schedule [for an employee]," said Anne Hirsch, director of services for JAN and co-author of the study. She told The NewStandard that many accommodations are similar to those commonly purchased to make it easier for non-disabled employees to do their jobs, like telephone headsets or specialized computer software that can aid people with vision or range of motion impairments.

Cassie James, self-services coordinator at Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group for people with disabilities, said many employers wrongly assume that adaptive improvements will be pricey. James, who uses a wheelchair comfortably at her office, said there are many obstacles that need simple fixes rather than state-of-the art solutions.

She gave the scenario of needing to adjust desk height for someone in a taller wheelchair. "If I went out and thought about how can we make this, I might be able to get one of those long working tables and put it on a couple of bricks and it's just as good," James said.

The law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman is one company that found cost-effective ways to create a better work environment for disabled employees. The internationally-based firm, which employs over 1,000 people, discovered that minor adjustments -- like using instant messaging for some office communications and moving desks so that employees' backs were not facing the door - could help accommodate two employees with hearing loss.

"With the deaf employees, that was something new for us, and we actually went to them and asked, 'What can we do to make life easier and help you communicate with us and help us communicate with you?'" explained Britta Stromeyer, human-resources manager at the firm.

Pillsbury law has joined other large companies, including Cingular, Embassy Suites Hotels and IBM, in working with the Employer Assistance & Recruiting Network (EARN), a federally funded accessible-technology company that helps connect businesses to people with disabilities who are looking for work. Stromeyer said she initially used EARN's services because of problems finding quality candidates through traditional labor recruiting sources, but discovered added benefits beyond simply attracting qualified employees. "It makes a difference in teamwork in general when you really have a diverse pool of opinions and ideas," Stromeyer told TNS.

The JAN report found that of the employers surveyed, nearly 9 in 10 reported retaining a valued employee through better workplace accommodations. In addition, three-quarters cited increased productivity, and over half said they eliminated the costs of hiring and training a new employee.

Employers also reported indirect benefits like improved interactions with co-workers and customers, increased company morale and improved workplace safety. Report co-author Hirsch said that all of these results are nothing more than the product of good management skills. "Employers who are proactive look at [workplace accommodations] as how can we use this to improve work for everyone," she said.

Attitudes must follow

While the results of JAN's survey indicated that many employers of people with disabilities found little cost and great benefit, survey respondents were limited to companies that had sought out the agency to help them accommodate employees.

Advocates for people with disabilities interviewed by TNS shared a common concern that in the larger market, stereotypes and discrimination present greater hurdles.

"The biggest barriers are still attitudinal," said Linda Richman, deputy executive director of Liberty Resources. In her view, many employers mistakenly believe that hiring a person with a disability means that "you're automatically compromising somehow on the quality or volume of work."

"That means that workers that really want to work [might not] have the right exposure to the business world," she explained, "and it also means employers... are still carrying around a lot of misconceptions about what it would really be like to work with a person with a disability every day."

Richman, who runs an intensive 18-month job-training course for people with disabilities, added that in today's economic climate, they are lucky if one student per month is hired. "We really have the decks stacked against us a lot of the time," Richman said. "[The economy] makes it hard because our folks are all entry level, and most companies these days have a glut of really experienced people that are taking entry level jobs because they don't have anything else."

In addition to a tight job market and employer misconceptions, people with disabilities are sometimes hindered by their own apprehensions about the employment process, according to Kristen Stern, an employment consultant at the Milwaukee-based education, advocacy and independent-living-services organization Independence First.

"A lot people that have disabilities may be afraid to go back to work. If it's a [newly acquired] disability, they might not know if they can do the job, or they might not have the confidence needed to do the job," Stern told TNS.

Imparato, of the American Association for People with Disabilities, stressed the need for more fundamental change to increase employment rates and financial independence for people with disabilities.

"The ADA is an equal-opportunity law," Imparato said, "so it works well for people with disabilities who have skills and who are qualified for jobs that are open." But, he added, "we still have a lot of barriers in terms of our education system, our rehabilitation system, where there are a lot of people with disabilities who are not competitive in the modern labor market, and the ADA is not going to change that."

The possibility of losing Social Security benefits and access to reliable transportation has also prevented some from venturing into the job market, Imparto noted.

Imparato is currently serving on a federal advisory panel to develop recommendations to reform Social Security benefits that would permit people with disabilities to both work and receive federal assistance for medical bills and other supportive needs.

"I believe we've defined eligibility for that program based on outdated attitudes about what people with significant disabilities are capable of doing in the workplace," said Imparato. He advocated revising eligibility requirements to give more weight to the degree of functional impairment, which would allow more opportunities for people to both work and receive benefits.

For Babs Johnson, national spokesperson for American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT), one of the organizations that pushed for passage of the ADA, the issue of employment rates among people with disabilities relates directly to the organization's mission of fighting against the institutionalization of people with disabilities and enabling them to attain greater independence.

"I believe that it's healthy for everybody to [work]," said Johnson. "We all need to feel like we are contributing to society, and employment is one of the main ways that people do that."

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