Independent Media Institute

Billionaires envision a new utopian city to replace what they ruined

Silicon Valley’s wealthy elites have been secretly buying up land in one of California’s poorest counties to build a new city from the ground up. Who will stop them?

What do billionaires do with all their money? Maybe they buy off a Supreme Court justice. Maybe they get their kicks from diving to the extreme depths of an ocean in a tiny metal capsule. Maybe they start a space company to fly into outer space for fun.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Or, perhaps they fantasize about building a brand-new California city from scratch, one with more housing than San Francisco and more walkability than Los Angeles. The billionaires have money to burn. And so, they pool together a few drops of their obscene wealth into realizing this wild fantasy.

It’s true. The New York Times, in a series of reports in late August 2023, revealed that a small group of white male billionaires—a “who’s who of Silicon Valley”—has been secretly buying up thousands of acres of rural land in northern California’s Solano County since 2017 to build a city from the ground up.

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The idea originated with a young Czech-born billionaire and former Goldman Sachs trader named Jan Sramek. When he was only 22 years old, a profile in New York Magazine quoted Sramek as having adopted libertarian writer Ayn Rand’s credo: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” That sentiment forms the throughline of his long-term Utopian plan to build his new, perfect city.

At 36, Sramek has succeeded in charming fellow billionaires into investing in a company that has been the face of his mysterious project. Flannery Associates LLC is now the largest landowner in Solano County. What he and his rich friends want is to transform the Bay Area’s poorest county into a bustling, cultured, walkable metropolis, running on green energy and self-driving cars, with thousands of well-paid jobs. And they apparently think they know how to do it.

For years, local residents of Solano County wondered who was buying up parcels of land. News outlets speculated that the Chinese government was behind the purchases that circled Travis Air Force Base.

Even elected officials became concerned, with Ronald Kott, the mayor of nearby city Rio Vista, telling the press, “Nobody can figure out who they are… Whatever they’re doing—this looks like a very long-term play.” California congressional Representative John Garamendi, whose district encompasses Solano County, wanted to know, “Who are these people?” More importantly, “Where did they get the money where they could pay five to ten times the normal value that others would pay for this farmland?”

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that aside from government entities, the only ones with the money and audacity to embark on such a project are elite billionaires. They have a slick new website labeled California Forever, complete with attractive renderings of an idyllic city and platitudes about “good paying local jobs,” “homes of different sizes and price points,” and “walkable neighborhoods,” all built from a “consensus-minded plan.”

Now that the secret is out, what will we do about it? The billionaires are deluded in thinking they have the know-how, foresight, and intelligence to build a new city. But perhaps we as a society are equally deluded in believing that billionaires are smart enough to deserve the preposterous wealth they have accumulated.

Take Marc Andreessen, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist billionaire and one of Flannery’s investors. In a rambling, off-the-cuff essay in April 2020, Andreessen attempted to make the case that the only answer to society’s problems is to “build.” Build what? Anything! Everything!

Andreessen wanted to build more universities, more K-12 schools, and more highly automated factories. He wanted supersonic aircraft and millions of delivery drones. And if they weren’t being built, he wanted society to “force the incumbents to build these things.” To him, “building is how we reboot the American dream.”

In his essay, Andreessen laid down a challenge, ostensibly to governments: “Demonstrate that the public sector can build better hospitals, better schools, better transportation, better cities, better housing.”

Andreessen doesn’t understand why we as a society don’t want the same things that he does. “The problem,” he wrote, “is desire,” or the lack thereof. “We need to want these things.” How frustrating to be an idealistic billionaire and not have one’s desire to build masses of random things on a whim be shared by the rest of society!

Another Flannery investor and venture capitalist billionaire, Michael Moritz, has been more honest—at least to fellow investors—that it’s not about idealism as much as it is about profits. He wrote a 2017 note pitching the idea of building the fantasy California city in which, as the New York Times paraphrased, “[t]he financial gains [from the project] could be huge.” In Moritz’s own words, “If the plans materialize anywhere close to what is being contemplated, this should be a spectacular investment.” Unsurprisingly, billionaires, even in their wildest, most idealistic-sounding dreams, want to always ensure they can reap financial rewards.

Solano County, in addition to being the Bay Area’s poorest, is home to the region’s largest Black population by percentage and also has the highest unemployment rate. In other words, it is ripe for capitalist exploitation.

On the surface, it seems as though California’s real-world problems are cramping the billionaires’ style and all they want to do is realize a Utopian vision. But in truth, the billionaires are thesource of much of the state’s problems.

As their net worth has soared, billionaires have put upward pressure on the cost of living in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto, San Jose, and Mountain View. According to the 2023 Silicon Valley Index, “the San Francisco Bay Area is home to the greatest concentration of billionaires in the world.” The report also points out that Silicon Valley has the nation’s largest wealth gap, and, specifically, “the top 0.001 percent of Silicon Valley’s households [are] holding more wealth than the nearly 500,000 households in the bottom 50 percent.”

Rising housing prices, increased homelessness, traffic gridlock, and a generally higher cost of living are all the result of massive wealth differences—an inequality so deeply unnatural that it inevitably perverts the ability of cities to cope and skews the ability of ordinary people to survive and thrive.

The billionaires are steeped in so much hubris and so little wisdom that they don’t see beyond their own noses. Their answer to the problems they have created is to start from scratch and pour billions into a fantasy project whose details are so murky they won’t even share them with democratically elected representatives, and whose manifestation will likely replicate the same mess it is claiming to fix.

If their project fails, all they will lose is a few of their many billions.

What will the rest of us lose? Land, homes, resources, environmental regulations, tax revenues, and other perhaps things we cannot even foresee.

We need to have a good answer to the challenge that Sramek, Andreessen, Moritz, and their ilk have posed to the rest of us: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”

Will we stop them?

AUTHOR BIO:

Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

Twenty-first century socialism: What it will become and why

The real left is not the caricature crafted by the U.S. right. Alongside parallel right-wing political formations abroad, that caricature tries hard to revive and recycle Cold War demonizations no matter how far-fetched. Nor is the real left what Democratic Party leaders and their foreign counterparts try hard to dismiss as tiny and politically irrelevant (except when electoral campaigns flirt with “progressive” proposals to get votes). The real left in the United States and beyond are the millions who at least vaguely understand that the whole system (including its mainstream right and left) is the core problem. As those millions steadily raise their awareness to an explicit consciousness, they recognize that basic system change is the needed solution.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

On the one hand, the real left divides into particular social movements (focused on areas like ecological survival, feminism, anti-racism, labor militancy, and sexual rights). On the other hand, those social movements increasingly understand themselves to comprise components of a new unity they must organize. One key unifying force is anti-capitalism. Correspondingly, the different system they seek will likely be some new sort of socialism—with or without that name—particularly suited to 21st-century conditions.

The other big problem for the real left—besides unified organization—lies in its lack of a compelling “vision”: a clear, concrete, and attractive image of the social change it advocates. To succeed, a new socialism for the 21st century needs such a vision. Socialism in the 19th and 20th centuries had a very successful vision as evidenced by its remarkable global spread. However, that vision is no longer adequate. In 19th- and 20th-century socialism’s vision, militant unions and socialist political parties partnered to: 1) seize state power from the employer class; and 2) use that power to replace capitalism with socialism and eventually a minimally defined communism. Seizing state power could happen via reforms and electoral victories, direct actions and revolution, or combinations of them. Socialists spent immense energy, time, and passion debating and experimenting with those alternatives. Seizing state power from the employer class was to be followed by using that power to regulate and control private employers or to substitute the state itself (as representative of the collective working class) for private employers. Either way, the transition to socialism meant that the workers’ state intervened in economic decisions and activities to prioritize social welfare over private profit. Beyond replacing capitalism with socialism, possibly subsequent moves toward communism were mostly left vague. Communism seemed to be in and about the (perhaps distant) future while politics seemed to call for socialists to offer immediate programs.

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So socialists everywhere over the last two centuries concentrated on seizing the state and thereby regulating markets, raising mass consumption standards, protecting workers in enterprises, and so on. Workers increasingly supported a socialist vision that foregrounded how socialist parties would use state power directly and immediately to help them. This vision fit well with socialist parties’ partners in labor union movements. The latter contested employers in enterprises, while socialist parties contested the employer class’s hold on state power. Thus socialist political parties and labor unions formed, grew, and allied nearly everywhere in the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Together they built effective, lasting organizations. After one of them prevailed in the 1917 Russian Revolution, most socialist organizations and parties split to form coexisting entities (ideologically similar yet often competing): one called socialist and the other “communist.”

After 1917, the socialist parties (and most independent socialists too) articulated programs for “progressive” social reforms. The reforms aimed to control capitalism’s market structures—its labor, tax, housing, health care, and transport systems—and its cultural superstructure (areas like politics, education, and religion). Communist parties usually supported socialist reforms, but they went further than the socialists to favor state takeovers of capitalist enterprises. Communists viewed state-owned-and-operated enterprises as necessary not only to achieve but also to secure the reforms socialists advocated.

The socialists’ and communists’ shared programmatic focus on the state complemented their critiques of capitalism in its predominantly private form across the 19th and 20th centuries. As socialism and communism grew across those centuries, they became the great theoretical and practical oppositional forces to capitalism. The more moderate among them defined socialism as a state elected to control and regulate private employers and thereby lessen private capitalism’s hard edges, inequalities, and injustices. Scandinavians and other Europeans experimented with such moderate versions of socialism. In Soviet socialism, the state’s economic intervention went further. Its communist party leadership replaced private employers with state officials fulfilling a state-generated economic plan. In yet another version of socialism—China’s hybrid one—a mix of Scandinavian and Soviet socialisms includes large segments of private capitalists and state-owned-and-operated enterprises. Both are subordinated to a powerful communist party and state.

The common quality of all three socialism was the focus on the state. What most of the socialists involved in the three forms (Scandinavian, Soviet, and Chinese) missed was a shared omission. On the basis of admitting and overcoming that omission, a new socialism for the 21st century emerges complete with a compelling vision.

The state focus of 19th- and 20th-century socialists, besides being a source of their greatest expansionary success, proved also to be a source of their greatest weaknesses and failures. Socialists’ and communists’ focus on the state combined with neglect of the internal structures of enterprises and households. But what if changing the macro-level relation of the state to the private economy from capitalist to socialist required also changing the micro-level of workplaces: both the workplace inside enterprises and the workplace inside households? What if socialism, to be achieved, needed interdependent changes at macro- and micro-levels of society? What if socialist changes in one level cannot survive without correspondingly socialist changes in the other?

Human relations inside factories, farms, offices, stores, and households were rarely transformed by what 19th- and 20th-century socialists achieved because they rarely were objects of their social criticisms and debates. Enterprises were internally divided after socialists took power much as they had been divided before. Employers continued to confront employees as buyers of labor power, directors of the labor process, and exclusive owners of the products. States continued to control dimensions of that confrontation—more in moderate socialism than in capitalism—but the basic confrontation persisted. In versions of socialism where state officials replaced private citizens as owners and operators of factories, farms, offices, and stores, the persisting employer-employee organization of human relations inside enterprises invited criticisms. Some socialists thus referred to such systems as types of state capitalism, not of socialism.

By theoretically not criticizing capitalism’s signature employer-versus-employee internal organization of enterprises, socialists, and communists took a big risk they likely did not understand. When the socialisms they constructed left the employer-versus-employee relationship of enterprises unchanged, that relationship reacted back to undermine those socialisms. Where moderate socialists used state power merely to control capitalists—leaving them their private profits—those capitalists could use the profits to battle socialists and socialism. As socialism’s history in Scandinavia and Western Europe exemplifies, capitalists have always done exactly that. They sought and continue now to seek increased private profits by reducing or removing whatever state controls constrain them. In that way, Scandinavian and European type socialisms undermined themselves.

Where socialist state officials function as employers, the oppositional impulses arising among employees (strengthened by earlier socialist movements) will focus on the state. Worse still, employees struggling against employers in societies self-described as socialist may well come to identify their problem and adversary as socialism. In that way, such variants of socialism too undermine themselves.

The socialist and communist traditions largely neglected the internal structures of households as well as enterprises. Thus socialist experiments in constructing new societies mostly omitted the transformation of those structures. Employer-employee relationships inside enterprises inherited from capitalism largely remained: so too did the inherited spousal and parent-children relationships inside households. We say “largely” because there always were exceptions such as communal households, collective consumption, and larger communes. Yet they remained marginal to the main developments and rarely proved durable. For example, early in Soviet Russia (1917-1930), Alexandra Kollontai initiated major programs of state responsibility and direct support for children and housework. However, European-style nuclear family households, constructed in and for capitalism during the transition from feudalism (see Jacques Donzelot’s The Policing of Families), remained the basic household organization under socialist societies as well.

In the capitalist system’s prevailing household structure, men functioned as household “heads” responsible for disciplining and providing for subordinate wives and children. Wives were to offset the burdens of men’s labor in capitalist enterprises, prepare them for that work, and “raise” children to reproduce identical households. Such households should not only support families but also support the state with taxes (thereby reducing the employer class’s taxes) as well as soldiers. Efforts by households to obtain and secure state supports (schools, day care, subsidies, even veterans benefits) were systematically opposed or limited by the employer class. Even when won by mass mobilizations assisted by socialists such supports were never secure.

To this day, the employer class that dominates in capitalism blocks raising the minimum wage, mandating paid maternal and paternal leave policies, and funding an adequate public education system or adequate health insurance system. That employer class keeps the traditional household in place or else financially constrains individuals fleeing traditional households to serve the employer class’s needs. The authoritarian structure of enterprises (complete with CEOs as dictators inside corporations) reinforces parallel structures in households. Socialists must recognize and act on the premise that the reverse holds as well.

The solution for socialism in the 21st century is to correct for the omission earlier socialisms made. Socialism now needs to add a critical analysis of capitalism’s micro-level organization inside workplaces and households to its macro-level analyses. The focus of 21st-century socialism should balance the overstressed macro-level by a concentration on the micro-level: not as an alternative focus but rather as an additional focus deserving special attention.

The solution for socialism and communism in the 21st century is a new, non-state-focused vision. Socialism becomes the movement to transform 1) the top-down hierarchical organization inside capitalist enterprises (employers versus employees) into a democratic organization of worker cooperatives, and 2) the top-down hierarchical organization inside households into democratized alternatives.

Inside enterprises, each worker will have one vote to decide the major issues facing enterprises. Such issues include what, how, and where to produce as well as how to use the resulting products or, if products are marketed, what to do with the revenues. The difference between employers and employees disappears; the workers become collectively their own boss. Profits cease being the enterprise’s top priority or “bottom line” because that maximization rule prioritizes employers’ gains over employees’ gains and capital’s interests over those of labor. In democratized enterprises, profits instead become one among many democratically determined enterprise goals. Each worker has an equal opportunity to fill in the outlines of such a version of socialism with the creative imaginings of what such a transformed enterprise may make possible.

Inside households, socialism must stand for the freedom to construct different kinds of human relations. Kinship becomes only one of many options. Among adults, democratic household decision-making becomes the rule. Broad rights and freedoms are given to children. Responsibility for raising children becomes shared among parents, democratized households, democratized residential and enterprise communities, and a democratized government. The specifics of such shared responsibility will be among the objects of democratic decision-making by all. Whatever may remain of centralized and decentralized state apparatuses will support the new socialism’s households generously as capitalism never did. The twin reproductions—of democratic households and democratic enterprises—will be equal social responsibilities: 21st-century socialism’s notion of work-life balance.

Such reorganizations of enterprises and households define socialism for the 21st century in a new way. Social change becomes a lived daily experience in each enterprise and household (more profound than mere changes from private to state-regulated, controlled, or owned enterprises). Such a redefined socialism can defeat the anti-socialist movements that have long contested state power versus individual power and that dogmatically endorsed the nuclear family against all alternative household structures. It revives elements of socialism’s complicated history of alliance with anarchism.

Democratic worker cooperatives become a key institutional foundation of whatever state apparatus survives. Worker co-ops, democratized households, and individuals will be the state’s three revenue sources and thus key sources of its power. They will democratically decide how to divide the provision of such revenue among themselves. Undemocratically organized institutions—such as capitalist enterprises or traditional households—will no longer undermine democratically organized politics. Instead democratic economic, political, and household organizations will collaborate, interact, and share responsibilities for social development and social reproduction.

Democratically transformed enterprises and households are socialist goals well worth fighting for. So too is a state controlled by and thus responsive to individuals within democratically organized households, residential communities, and worker-co-op enterprises. Together these goals comprise an effective, attractive new vision to define and motivate a socialism for the 21st century. One of its banners might proclaim, “No king or dictator in politics; no boss or CEO at work; no patriarch or head at home.”

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Harriet Fraad is a mental health counselor and hypnotherapist in New York City whose writing and multimedia programs cover the interactions between global capitalism and personal life in the U.S. She is the host of the podcast/video series “Capitalism Hits Home,” available via Democracy at Work, and co-host of “It’s Not Just In Your Head” (with Ikoi Hiroe and Liam Tate). Her radio program “Interpersonal Update” airs on New York City’s radio station WBAI Tuesday nights at 6:30 EST. Her latest written work appears in Knowledge, Class and Economics, Routledge, 2018.

Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Socialism, and Understanding Marxism, the latter of which is now available in a newly released 2021 hardcover edition with a new introduction by the author.

The unfinished revolution of 'The Joy of Sex'

The sexual revolution may have reached its high-water mark 50 years ago, the week of August 5, 1973, when The Joy of Sex: A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking first topped the New York Times list of nonfiction hardcover best sellers. Published the previous fall, the book had swiftly become a publishing phenomenon. For the first time, anyone in America could walk into a respectable bookshop and openly purchase a detailed, illustrated sex manual: a modern version of the guidebooks that Indian aristocrats, Chinese mandarins, and Florentine grandees had consulted centuries before.

The book would notch 11 weeks at number one, and topped the trade paperback best-seller list for 13 months, making it one of the most successful books ever issued in that format, according to Publishers Weekly. To date, it has sold 12 million copies in various editions, and its sequel, More Joy, some 1.5 million more.

The Joy of Sex opened up the popular discourse about sex play, introducing millions of couples to a less anxious, more receptive and mutually pleasurable approach to intercourse than their parents’. While it was written specifically for heterosexual couples, it helped launch a vast genre of explicit better-sex guides addressing every possible inclination—gay, straight, trans, bi-, even some aimed at conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews, and observant Muslims, not to mention book-length explorations of specific techniques—all of which borrow something from the style and voice of their predecessor and that collectively have sold in the many millions.

Written by a 52-year-old British biologist, physician, poet, novelist, longtime anarchist and pacifist, and all-around pundit with the reassuring name of Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex was a milestone in a cultural transformation that, half a century on, is still unfolding.

The sexual revolution was declared dead and buried during the AIDS crisis and has since endured a powerful, rolling backlash from antiabortion zealots, antigay and anti-trans crusaders, and opportunistic politicians eager to take advantage of the latest moral panic. But it never really ended. Despite efforts to discourage and suppress teenage sexuality, the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics estimated that even in the pandemic year of 2021, 30% of teens had had sexual intercourse by age 18. Nor has the queer community gone back into the closet. Last year, the Gallup Poll reported that 7.1% of U.S. adults self-identify as other than heterosexual, double the percentage of 2012.

What did The Joy of Sex bring to the sexual revolution, and what does it have to say to us today, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and amidst the ongoing tug-of-war between personal freedom and social control? It was not the first best-seller to discuss sex frankly, but it was the first book from a major publishing house, intended for a mainstream, middle-class audience, that told you—and showed you—how to do it. To secure that audience, it rewrote the language and look of the sex manual: the format, the presentation, and above all, the voice. Previously, books about sex had fallen into one of two categories: sleazy, cheesy, and pornographic, or else dull, clinical, and unarousing. The Joy of Sex, by contrast, was urbane, witty, and disarmingly casual. “A well-designed bedroom can be a sexual gymnasium without it being embarrassing to let elderly relatives leave their coats there,” it advised.

The relaxed, humorous tone was intrinsic to the book’s message: “Bed is the place to play all the games you have ever wanted to play, at the play-level. If we are able to transmit the sense of play which is essential to a full, enterprising and healthily immature view of sex between committed people, we would be performing a mitzvah.” That approach extended to the visuals: a portfolio of paintings depicting the stages of a sexual encounter, a series of drawings explicitly illustrating the various positions described in the text, and a selection of classical Asian erotic illustrations, adding a touch of aesthetic refinement.

To be sure, The Joy of Sex displayed many of the deficiencies of what had always been a male-dominated form. It was noticeably phallocentric. In a good sexual encounter, it told the reader, the penis becomes like a third party or a child of the couple: “‘their’ penis.” That being the case, it was the woman’s responsibility to arouse the man, not so much the other way around. And while the book had no quarrel with non-hetero sex (“we’re all bisexual”), it still framed this as a deviation from the norm. Rape fantasies were fine as long as they weren’t acted upon, and when real rape occurred, it may have been the fault of the woman who deliberately excited a man she didn’t know well. The book would obviously receive plenty of justified criticism on these points and others in the years to come.

In spite of which, The Joy of Sex introduced an important positive element, urging couples to talk about their erotic needs and desires openly, unanxiously, and without embarrassment. “The whole joy of sex-with-love is that there are no rules, so long as you enjoy, and the choice is practically unlimited,” it urged. “That includes our whole skin surface, our feelings of identity, aggression, and so on, and all of our fantasy needs.”

* * *

Comfort’s agenda ran deeper, however. In his day, most people who studied sexual behavior assumed that sex had two functions: pleasure and procreation. Comfort added a third: sociality, or what he called “the forgotten art of being human.”

If socialization is the way we internalize society’s norms of conduct and belief, sociality is how humans learn to associate and cooperate with each other. Comfort held that sex is one of the most basic and profoundly formative ways that we achieve sociality. It’s how individuals, generally in adolescence, accustom themselves to understand and respond to each other’s needs and desires and, importantly, how they learn to share power within relationships rather than compete for it.

Unlike most forms of socialization, sex helps us achieve this not through discipline or instruction but through play. Fantasy is a basic part of erotic enjoyment, Comfort argued, and an important means by which couples understand and accommodate each other. He therefore encouraged exploration and experimentation over rigid sex roles (“refusing to try anything but the missionary position is as much a fetish as only being potent when wearing a diving helmet”).

Here’s how he summed up the elements of a healthy sexual relationship: “mutual respect, mutual communication, and a strong desire to protect one another without any corresponding wish to manipulate or mold.”

Other critics of sexual repression, especially Freudians and the followers of Wilhelm Reich, saw bad sex as leading to violence, oppression, even fascism, but Comfort turned that dynamic on its head. An unstable, economically precarious, often violent society distorts sexual behavior; sex can’t perform its crucial role in building sociality. In turn, a sexual culture riddled with violence helps make a violent society more so; and the cycle continues. Men are conditioned to experience sex as a kind of gladiatorial contest. Sexual imagery becomes increasingly tinged with violence and violent images in art and entertainment are eroticized. Meanwhile, much of the sex education that students receive in school is slanted to reinforce traditional roles and mythologies rather than to challenge them.

Censorship was not the answer, said Comfort, who had campaigned against the devastating air war that the UK and U.S. allies had conducted over occupied Europe during World War II and later against nuclear weapons. Rather, “a general outbreak of public resistance to militarism,” he once suggested, “would contribute more to the removal of sexual imbalance than any action through the channels we have come to regard as political.”

Accurate information that doesn’t just reinforce myths and stereotypes about sex must be made easily available, Comfort argued, and adolescents should be encouraged to explore their sexuality, not stifle it. He stipulated only two commandments: “Thou shalt not exploit another person’s feelings and wantonly expose them to an experience of rejection,” and “Thou shalt not under any circumstances negligently risk producing an unwanted child.”

* * *

The Joy of Sex was Comfort’s attempt to smuggle this agenda into the mainstream by updating the ancient but underground genre of the sexual instruction manual for the modern middle class. His timing was perfect. Booksellers couldn’t get enough copies fast enough, readily seeing it as the logical next step after Masters and Johnson’s dryly scientific bestseller, Human Sexual Response. Some put it on display like their other titles while others kept an unwrapped copy at the counter for patrons to peruse. Either way, opening this explicitly illustrated sex book at your local outlet became a semi-subversive statement for millions. You didn’t just look at it, you got away with looking at it.

Thereafter, and in spite of being repeatedly banned from public and school libraries, The Joy of Sex continued to sell in successive editions, the most recent appearing in 2009, nine years after Comfort’s death.

What kept the book fresh for so long, despite its flaws, was its insistence that we get the best sex when we develop the unashamed capacity to experience it not as an outlet for aggression or a neurotic exercise, but as play. Comfort’s insistence that problems in sexual relations between two people are not separate from social problems such as war, economic injustice, and abuse of authority still echoes strongly at a time when men in positions of power are repeatedly found to have leveraged their status to extract sexual favors.

The revolution that The Joy of Sex sought to instigate in the bedroom and in society at large is still a work in progress. But Comfort’s book, persistently in print and persistently finding readers, reminds us of the critical role that good, mutually satisfying sex can play in building a healthier, freer humanity.

*

Eric Laursen is the author of Polymath: The Life and Professions of Dr. Alex Comfort, Author of “The Joy of Sex (AK Press).

Rich men versus the rest of us

The new country hit song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” embodies the GOP’s narrative of white male resentment. But collectivism and an embrace of racial diversity are far more powerful and popular.

American conservatism has always been excellent at storytelling. Convincing people to back regressive policies isn’t easy and therefore stories generating fear and resentment in particular work quite well to help garner support for lowering taxes on the wealthy or pouring money into militarism and policing instead of into healthcare and housing.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Effective storytelling is the reason why right-wing commentators like Joe Rogan and Laura Ingraham elevated “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a song with a simple message by a relatively unknown country artist, and helped boost it all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The new song from country musician Oliver Anthony has suddenly become an anthem of the right, so much so that it was featured in the Republican Party’s first candidate debate for the 2024 presidential nomination.

Fox debate moderator Martha MacCallum asked Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, “Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?” DeSantis answered, it’s because “our country is in decline right now. This decline is not inevitable, it’s a choice.”

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Anthony’s song lyrics have a pithy answer to why the United States is apparently in decline: “We got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat.” He then pivots to the source of this injustice: “the obese milkin’ welfare.”

While he explicitly engages in fat shaming, he doesn’t spell out that he’s actually referencing people of color when he talks about people milking welfare. But that’s because he doesn’t have to. Welfare recipients have long been a dog whistle for Black Americans in particular, a trope that Ronald Reagan popularized all the way to the White House, building on white people’s resentment of Black people benefitting from tax-funded programs. The myth that Black people disproportionately use welfare programs has persisted within the American public, even though in reality, welfare programs have disproportionately benefited white people and even excluded Blacks.

No wonder Republican politicians and their voting base love Anthony’s song. It correctly identifies economic insecurity but instead of laying the blame at the feet of wealthy corporations who are hiking up food prices, or GOP representatives who are cutting food stamps, it instead scapegoats poor people of color and paints them as wily, greedy, fraudsters who take advantage of hardworking (read: white, male) Americans.

But, what about the “rich men” Anthony sings about? That too could be coded language for Democrats who are painted in the GOP’s worldview as well-educated, privileged liberal elites and embodied by people like Hunter Biden. These “rich men” are ensuring that welfare recipients (read: people of color) suck up all the resources, sending white men like Anthony to an early grave.

The victims of injustice in Anthony’s song are precisely the ones that the GOP has been trying to uplift: white men. “Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground, ‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down,” sings Anthony. He doesn’t explicitly say “white men,” because—again—he doesn’t have to. He signals it with his own demographic saying, “It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to for people like me… ” To be fair, he adds, “and people like you.”

Without actually spelling out the idea that people of color are taking over the nation and forcing white men to an early grave, Anthony’s song cleverly implies this powerful right-wing myth.

The narrative throughline of Republican ideology is the myth that America was a country built by white men but is now a nation where white men are deeply suffering. As America falls apart from this tragic turn of events, only white men can save it and can “Make America Great Again.”

Given how hard the GOP has beaten this drum it’s a wonder more Americans don’t buy this ludicrous, racist, and false idea. Just under a quarter of all Americans believe it. And nearly double that amount actively rejects it. And that is because the counternarrative to this grim world of white male resentment is a beautiful and far more seductive story: that America is a multi-hued nation where everyone has rights and everyone deserves freedom from hunger, homelessness, and illness. Although this is an ideal that has never been realized, especially for Black and Brown people, it remains an aspirational goal.

Indeed, even Anthony can’t help but embrace this collectivist idea. In an interview, the young singer identified “the roots of what made this country great in the first place,” as “our sense of community.”

He then said, “We are the melting pot of the world, that’s what makes us strong, is our diversity.” There’s no other way to interpret his words than the idea that the nation’s racial diversity is a good thing.

He then went further, saying, “We need to learn to harness that and appreciate it and not use it as a political tool to keep everyone separate.”

Whether or not Anthony actually believes such ideas that seem to be the opposite of his own hit song, or whether he was simply pandering to the cameras, is unclear. What is clear is that even the GOP’s newest poster boy, when asked to explain his position, publicly backed collectivism and embraced racial diversity.

In fact, in a video he released on YouTube, Anthony even disavowed being associated with the GOP, saying it was ironic that his song was played at the Republican debate. He “wrote that song about those people,” he said, adding, “I do hate to see that song being weaponized.”

The truth, of course, is that rich men from the Democratic Party, but even more so from the Republican Party, represent the wealthiest people in the nation and routinely use that power to make themselves and their ilk richer. When a reporter in May 2023 asked House Speaker Kevin McCarthy if his party would consider increasing taxes on the wealthy, he spat out “No” before the question was over.

The GOP’s cover story, to obscure its real agenda of making rich men richer, is one of white racial resentment. And to the party, Anthony’s song embodies this cover story. But his interview reveals what most Americans, given the chance to think for themselves, would embrace: that it’s rich men versus the rest of us.

British folk singer Billy Bragg attempted to rewrite the GOP’s new anthem to better reflect the sort of working-class ideals that are popular all over the world. He identified the true perpetrators of injustice as, “Rich men earning north of a million,” who “wanna keep the working folk down.”

Instead of fat shaming and echoing rightwing dog whistles about people of color, Bragg sang:

If you’re struggling with your health, and you’re putting on the pounds,
Doctor gives you opiates to help you get around,
Wouldn’t it be better for folks like you and me,
If medicine was subsidized and healthcare was free.

In a Facebook post, Oliver revealed that he has struggled with depression and anxiety. Clearly, he, like the rest of us, would benefit from tax-funded, free healthcare.

Anthony also laid out his financial troubles and struggle with unemployment, one that so many Americans can relate to. Again, Bragg had a good answer to this problem in his version of the country music hit: “Join a union, fight for better pay… join a union brother, organize today.” Given Anthony’s reluctance to be co-opted by the right, perhaps he may yet be convinced by this.

Is wastewater an answer for adapting to climate change?

Water pressures like droughts are intensifying due to global warming and population growth. Treating wastewater is a powerful solution, finally gaining more public support.

Population growth and climate change are stretching America’s water supplies to the limit, and tapping new sources is becoming more difficult each year—in some cases, even impossible. New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Colorado are facing the nation’s most significant strains on water supplies. But across the entire American Southwest, water stress has become the norm.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

“Every part of the Southwest experienced higher average temperatures between 2000 and 2020 than the long-term average (1895–2020),” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Some areas were more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average. … Large portions of the Southwest have experienced drought conditions since weekly Drought Monitor records began in 2000. For extended periods from 2002 to 2005 and from 2012 to 2020, nearly the entire region was abnormally dry or even drier.”

The EPA paints a bleak picture of the region by referring to its sparse water supply and how the rise in temperatures due to climate change is bound to worsen a bad situation. “Water is already scarce in the Southwest, so every drop is a precious resource. People in the Southwest are particularly dependent on surface water supplies like Lake Mead, which are vulnerable to evaporation,” the agency says on its website. “Thus, even a small increase in temperature (which drives evaporation) or a decrease in precipitation in this already arid region can seriously threaten natural systems and society. Droughts also contribute to increased pest outbreaks and wildfires, both of which damage local economies, and they reduce the amount of water available for generating electricity—for example, at the Hoover Dam.”

Farmers use the vast majority of water withdrawn from the Colorado River to irrigate crops—and 70 percent of that is for crops like alfalfa and hay used to feed cattle. The river also supplies drinking water to 40 million people in the Southwest, and in 2022, Lake Mead—which the Colorado feeds—shrank to its lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s.

These pressures on a precarious water supply will only intensify with continued climate change and a steadily growing population. Our existing supplies need to be managed better to ensure sustained access to water in the future.

Direct Potable Reuse (DPR)

There is hope. Technology, specifically potable reuse, safely turns wastewater into drinking water. One form of this technology, direct potable reuse (DPR), introduces treated wastewater directly back into the existing water supply.

This approach can be cheaper, quicker, and more efficient than many other options to sustain and expand water supply. Better yet, it’s also completely safe.

Despite this reality, U.S. states were once reluctant to introduce DPR, but this method has been gaining momentum as a legitimate, worthwhile, and potentially imperative solution to water supply problems.

“Everyone is feeling the drought,” says Aleks Pisarenko, principal engineer at Trussell Technologies, an environmental engineering firm working in water reuse solutions.

“There are no new sources of water, so when traditional supplies run low, you turn to alternative ones.”

Bad Branding Stalls Progress

Why have potable reuse projects faced an uphill battle? Just consider how the technology works. Potable reuse involves treating municipal wastewater to augment drinking water supplies and can be done in two ways. Indirect potable reuse (IPR) introduces purified water into an environmental buffer—like a groundwater aquifer, reservoir, or lake—before introducing the blended water back into a water supply system. And DPR skips the need for an environmental buffer altogether.

A National Research Council (NRC) report from 1998 labeled IPR as “an option of last resort” and did not even consider DPR as a possibility, stating that the “use of reclaimed wastewater for human consumption, without the added protection provided by storage in the environment, is not currently a viable option for public water supplies.”

Its assessment reflected questions and uncertainties over potable reuse that could only be resolved with more comprehensive data from full-scale operational potable reuse systems. A 1999-2000 Geological Survey report also cast doubt over whether water reclamation could safely remove all contaminants in stream water.

Misperceptions regarding the potable reuse process also spawned unpalatable “toilet to tap” narratives in the media, which helped to dismantle public support for these projects. Attempts by San Diego to introduce water reuse in the 1990s failed and were pulled apart by such aspersions.

What “toilet to tap” missed was that treatment options—i.e., membrane filtration, membrane desalination, ozone, and advanced oxidation, to name a few—can make the purified water entirely safe to drink.

However, recent advances in these technologies associated with potable water reuse have helped boost confidence in and acceptance of the practice among water professionals. Orange County Water District (OCWD) is a leading example of the successful implementation of the water reuse process. Since 2008, OCWD has provided drinking water to more than 2.5 million people in a region that receives less than 15 inches of annual rainfall with the help of its Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) project, which has helped highlight the effectiveness of IPR, giving other providers a model to emulate and providing the full-scale data that was previously missing to evaluate the viability of the process.

The NRC has changed its position on water reuse, too. In 2012, another NRC report concluded that “potable reuse of highly treated reclaimed water without an environmental buffer is worthy of consideration if adequate protection is engineered within the system.” It acknowledged: “Historically, the practice of adding reclaimed water directly to the water supply without an environmental buffer—a practice referred to as direct potable reuse—has been rejected by water utilities, by regulatory agencies in the United States, and by previous National Research Council committees. However, research during the past decade on the performance of several full-scale advanced water treatment operations indicates that some engineered systems can perform as well or better than some existing environmental buffers in diluting (if necessary) and attenuating contaminants.”

Subsequently, almost half of all the potable reuse projects built between 1962 (when the first project was introduced) and 2021 were installed in the last decade of the period. There are now IPR facilities in Arizona, Texas, and California, while more than a dozen states have developed regulations allowing the process.

DPR remains outside the fray, but while IPR has slowly taken hold, DPR has not.

In an essay he contributed to the 2020 book A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, G. Tracy Mehan III, the executive director of government affairs at the American Water Works Association, called DPR “the final frontier of water reuse.”

Indeed, DPR systems are legal in only three U.S. states: Texas, Arizona —where it is only utilized on a case-by-case basis—and Colorado, which became the first state to sign off on regulations in January 2023.

This is surprising given that DPR often uses the same treatment technologies as IPR and has several advantages over IPR.

DPR gives communities without a buffer the chance to implement potable reuse. It delivers water efficiently and cost-effectively using existing infrastructure, such as drinking water treatment plants, without building expensive and energy-intensive pipelines to a reservoir or groundwater basin.

For this reason, DPR allows more water to be recycled than IPR, as there are no reservoir or groundwater basin limitations. DPR also avoids regulations on putting water back into the environment by eliminating the buffer.

Finally, the environmental buffer used with IPR only serves as a middleman between wastewater and drinking water, which slows the process but provides a comfortable barrier for the consumer. Without this, DPR can also turn wastewater into drinking water in hours.

For this reason, DPR is also a more reliable source of water than IPR—especially in an emergency—but for the same reason, it is also more controversial.

The speed at which water can be recycled using DPR makes it a particularly easy target for the unflattering “toilet to tap” tag that still hovers over potable reuse. While “toilet to tap” does a huge disservice to the reality—the use of advanced technology to purify water for drinking—it shines a light on the major obstacle to the proliferation of direct potable reuse: public acceptance.

And while, at first glance, drinking water that was once wastewater might seem unpalatable, the fact is that the purification process makes it not only safe to drink but also of an even higher quality than most consumers may be used to. “Purifying water for reuse… relies on a multi-barrier treatment process to make recycled water safe to drink,” according to the San Diego County Water Authority. “Purified water produced in California with state-of-the-art technologies is higher quality than most bottled water.”

Desperation: The Mother of Innovation

As of early 2023, Big Spring, Texas, has the only functional DPR facility in the United States. The region identified DPR as the most feasible way to address an urgent need to diversify the city’s water portfolio and increase its supply reliability. In 2013, the Colorado River Municipal Water District (CRMWD) in Big Spring began operating the first DPR plant in the U.S., which could treat up to 2 million gallons per day of wastewater effluent to drinking water standards. It provided a much-needed water supply amid punishing droughts.

Wichita Falls in northern Texas followed Big Spring’s example. Anticipating a water crisis with city reservoirs at less than 20 percent capacity in 2012 and lacking a groundwater backup supply, the city determined DPR was a viable means of urgently meeting potable water demands. The system went online in July 2014 and provided nearly 5 million gallons of potable water per day to 150,000 people before it was decommissioned in 2015 due to sufficient rainfall.

With populations fiercely aware of water scarcity and the need to increase supply and improve reliability, both cities were forced to act under emergency regulations.

“Unfortunately, recognition of the need for water reuse is sometimes only realized at a point when immediate action is needed,” says Jeff Mosher, vice president and principal technologist at Carollo Engineers, a leading firm in water reuse engineering.

So, how do you convince a community to adopt and accept potable reuse when the situation is not dire?

Making Reuse Mainstream

Thanks to the educational and outreach efforts of community practitioners who understand the ingredients necessary to bring the public on board, DPR may soon be on a similar trajectory to IPR.

The first ingredient? Good old-fashioned common sense. The potential cost savings of DPR, coupled with its reliability in drought, directly serve the customer’s self-interest. But this is not enough to alleviate fear. It has to make cognitive sense too.

“You can’t tell people it’s just about saving money,” says Daniel Gerrity, an assistant professor in environmental engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It has to make more sense than that.”

San Diego’s Water Repurification Project in the 1990s learned this the hard way when it was trying to investigate the feasibility of an IPR project. Fears of “drinking sewage” diminished trust in the project and fostered uncertainty about the safety of the water. The aforementioned 1998 NRC report was released shortly after, and ultimately—after years of significant investment—the San Diego City Council voted to halt the water purification project in 1999.

Fast-forward 12 years to 2011, a rebranded project, Pure Water San Diego, did things differently. “We had to educate the community on the concept [of potable reuse],” says Amy Dorman, a senior engineer on the Pure Water potable reuse project. “We ran focus groups with the community, made ourselves flexible moving forward, and recognized the importance of listening to the community. … In the 1990s, there was not the right amount of education. Now it’s comprehensive. We do tours, presentations, websites, [and] mailers, and [we] identified all stakeholders—[we did] diligent and constant outreach.”

Dorman explained that 18,665 San Diegans had visited the demonstration facility as of 2021, while the team at Pure Water had spoken to almost 30,000 children in schools. They are given a presentation addressing concerns over limited local supplies, population growth, the rising cost of pumping, the risk of natural disasters, and recurring drought as drivers behind the requirement for potable reuse. Then, they’re told that more than 50,000 lab tests have been carried out on the water supply, each meeting every regulatory standard and producing exceptional water quality.

But the key statistic is on the first slide—that 85 percent of San Diego’s water is already imported. According to Dorman, because the city is downstream, its water has already been recycled 49 times by other water districts before it reaches San Diego. This usually quells fears that drinking recycled water is unsanitary since, as it turns out, residents have been doing it for years.

After the presentation, the public is encouraged to check out a demonstration facility that has been in operation for 12 years. People can see the advanced treatment that wastewater is put through before tasting the water for themselves. Pure Water now also runs virtual tours of the plant.

When the public is told of plans to pipe treated wastewater to a recharge basin, their response is essentially: “Why bother?” In other words, why not just adopt DPR and put the water straight back in? The environmental buffer/recharge basin that Pure Water was proposing served as a technical function for storage and dilution—but was also designed to placate any potential worries about drinking wastewater. It turned out, though, such a buffer wasn’t needed as the public embraced DPR.

This change in attitude was demonstrative of a broader acceptance of drinking recycled water in San Diego. In 2005, just 28 percent of 735 people randomly surveyed strongly favored or somewhat favored using advanced treated recycled water to supplement the drinking water supply. That number stood at 79 percent of 1,063 people surveyed in 2019.

As of 2023, the Pure Water Project, the first phase of which “includes 10 different projects that will clean recycled water to produce 30 million gallons per day of high-quality purified water,” has permission to add purified water to the Miramar Reservoir (using the reservoir as an environmental buffer) as part of the construction of an IPR facility, with DPR slated for phase two of the project—which could provide an extra 53 million gallons by 2035, ensuring that one-third of San Diego’s water supply will come from reused water by that time.

Education and Outreach Remain Critical

It isn’t only San Diego that has demonstrated that the public can accept DPR. While a Brownwood, Texas, DPR project was never fully realized, the public accepted DPR proposals thanks to extensive and integrated water education in the community. For two decades, the city’s wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) offered tours to residents of Brownwood and neighboring cities, while in 2019, Brownwood’s fourth-grade curriculum included learning modules about urban water reuse and a tour of the WWTP.

City officials also reached out to local media before introducing the DPR project to the public. They explained the water purification process and the need to incorporate DPR into the city’s water portfolio and requested the media’s help in educating the public. The final step needed to start construction of the facilities was the city council’s approval of a $12 million bond sale in 2012, but the sale was never approved—because the city received rain. (Even with public approval for potable reuse, rain can cause apathy for water supply contingency plans among those spending the money.)

El Paso Water (EP Water) received a $20 million grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for its water reuse facility in Texas. With construction to begin in late 2023, the “Advanced Water Purification” system will be capable of producing more than 45,000 cubic meters of fresh drinking water daily by turning treated wastewater into potable water available for reuse.

Again, public education and outreach played a key role in ensuring support for this project. El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU) offered tours of a pilot facility and a water reuse education program and educated the media about the need for the facility. This, coupled with a great awareness of water scarcity among residents and approval from the local government, meant the project could go ahead. In 2023, Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science for the U.S. Department of the Interior, praised the innovative project as a critical driver toward more sustainable resource management, saying, “It is one of a kind.”

The U.S. Depends on Water Reuse—and a Change in Public Perception

The impacts of climate change have been witnessed across the United States—particularly in the Southern and Southwestern states. And as water scarcity becomes more apparent in the face of droughts and forest fires, and as public awareness of climate change issues grows, attitudes toward potable reuse have softened.

“People need that change in mindset, forgetting where your water came from and focusing more on how clean it is when it’s in front of you,” Dan McCurry, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Southern California, told CNBC in 2022.

But while communities who have employed DPR have seen the realities of water scarcity firsthand, individual perceptions in other areas are shaped by outreach, trust in messengers, and the reputation of water agencies and providers.

“We’re ready to make the next step to DPR based on the experience we have,” adds engineer Mosher. “What we know now is that it’s possible to convince them. We have proven that [in] every community you go into that has concerns, you can overcome ‘the hangups.’”

Southwest U.S. Leads the Way in Water Reuse

Every time one community’s apprehensions are effectively addressed and they pursue potable reuse, it gets easier for the next one. A 2011 San Diego study showed that citizens are 50 percent more likely to accept recycled water when they learn that other communities have already done so. And the Southwest U.S. is leading the way.

Colorado became the first state to rubber-stamp their DPR regulations in 2023; others will follow. In addition to Pure Water’s plans in San Diego, Los Angeles is also considering a DPR/IPR hybrid facility that will deliver 230 million gallons a day.

To lessen its dependence on the Colorado River, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, announced plans in April 2023 for a multibillion-dollar facility that will use DPR to purify 60 million gallons of water per day—enough for about 200,000 households a year. El Paso, too, is in the design phase of a DPR facility that will turn up to 10 million gallons of wastewater a day into drinking water, which would make it the world’s biggest DPR facility providing treated wastewater to consumers.

But DPR isn’t a cure-all; it’s just another vital tool among many water reuse solutions that the U.S. will have to embrace as drought continues to grip the nation.

“We can’t have whatever we want,” says John Trotter, a photographer who has documented the Colorado River’s decline since 2002. “We must learn to adapt if we are going to continue to exist in these places.”

AUTHOR BIO: Frederick Clayton is an investigative journalist with the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism focusing on environmental themes, specifically water and sanitation issues worldwide. He is a contributor to the Observatory.

Profit Trumps people and planet in Brazil’s eucalyptus industry

Brazil is set to unleash several varieties of genetically engineered eucalyptus, which will worsen a bad situation.

Valued for its termite-resistant wood for building purposes, pulp to create products like writing and toilet paper, and its oil, which has numerous health and household benefits, the eucalyptus tree generates big business worldwide. Native to Australia and Tasmania, the prehistoric tree has been planted in such volumes that eucalyptus plantations cover some 25 million hectares around the globe—larger than the entire land area of the United Kingdom. By 2028, according to forecasts, the global eucalyptus oil market is projected to exceed $213 million, while the worldwide market for eucalyptus pulp will expand to nearly $17 billion.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

But the eucalyptus industry has a dark side. Eucalyptus plantations growing in regions spanning South America, southern Africa, southern Europe, and Australia have significant detrimental impacts on local communities and biodiversity. Communities located near eucalyptus plantations are likely to face water shortages—as these plantations utilize huge amounts of water—and pollution from agrochemicals, including exposure to glyphosate, which has been linked to various health problems, including increased cancer risk.

In addition, the presence of eucalyptus trees’ leaves and roots hinders the growth of other plants beneath them because they contain a biocidal oil that inhibits the survival and decomposition of most soil bacteria that come into contact with them.

Brazil is the world’s largest eucalyptus producer. With an estimated 7.6 million hectares of eucalyptus plantations, Brazil maintains 30 percent of the world’s total eucalyptus trees. In eastern Brazil, particularly in the states of Bahia and Espírito Santo, these plantations have replaced the diverse and endemic Atlantic Forest ecosystem, with some municipalities seeing nearly three-quarters of their land area being covered by eucalyptus plantations. Large corporations such as Suzano, Fibria, and Veracel dominate this industry, exporting eucalyptus as pulp for manufacturing products like toilet paper.

New Forest Threat: Genetically Engineered Eucalyptus

Genetically engineered (GE) varieties of eucalyptus trees are poised to exacerbate a new wave of ecological and social destruction. Brazil has approved seven varieties of genetically engineered trees. Current plantations rob regions of water, destroy wildlife habitat, and transform large swaths of land within the Cerrado—an expansive, biodiverse tropical biome situated in eastern Brazil—into unnatural, destructive monoculture farms: rows upon rows of non-native eucalyptus trees without vegetation in their understory. Many traditional communities and Indigenous people have opposed the spread of these plantations in the country.

Varieties of GE eucalyptus are pesticide-resistant and are likely to increase the use of toxic chemicals such as Roundup, the glyphosate-based weedkiller developed by Monsanto in the 1970s, which is the world’s most used herbicide—and was acquired by Bayer in 2018. Other engineered traits, such as increased growth rates, could make the trees more profitable for the pulp and paper industry but significantly more harmful to the environment.

International Opposition to GE Eucalyptus

The Campaign to STOP GE Trees is an international alliance of organizations working to halt the introduction of genetically engineered trees into the natural environment to prevent ecological destruction and harm to local communities. It is an initiative of our U.S.-based organization, Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP), with support from the Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement, which advances the cause of social justice in the forests.

An international delegation of the campaign, which was organized by GJEP, traveled to Brazil in July 2023 to meet with Indigenous and quilombola communities (descendants of escaped Afro-Brazilian enslaved people), members of the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST, in Portuguese), government ministries, and academics. The delegation’s goal was to learn about the history of resistance against the pulp and paper industry in the country and discuss how herbicide-resistant genetically engineered varieties of eucalyptus trees could increase the use of toxic herbicides and amplify ecological degradation, health impacts, and social injustice.

FASE (Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional), a group that has been supporting communities opposing eucalyptus plantations for a decade, organized the logistics of the delegation, which included representatives from Argentina, Canada, Chile, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States. Local representatives joined the delegation as it visited several Brazilian ministries to register official demands and testimonies from quilombola and MST community members from northern Espírito Santo and southern Bahia about the devastating impacts of eucalyptus plantations as well as new threats posed by GE eucalyptus trees.

“The demands that we recorded were from several MST communities that we met with that are doing important agroecological work and have a whole agroecological school training people in the region about how to grow organically,” said Anne Petermann, international coordinator of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees. She noted that “there were also statements from members of traditional quilombola communities in that region who are suffering, very directly, the impacts of eucalyptus plantations.”

The delegation also officially presented petitions from Rainforest Rescue, an environmental nonprofit based in Hamburg, Germany, signed by more than 100,000 people opposing the release of GE eucalyptus in Brazil to the ministries and Brazilian National Technical Commission on Biosafety.

During the delegation’s official meeting, Moisés Savian, secretary of Brazil’s Ministry of Agrarian Development, identified corporate interests driving the push for GE eucalyptus.

“It makes no sense in my vision to have a transgenic [eucalyptus] associated with glyphosate,” stated Savian. His comments highlighted the increasingly ubiquitous and dangerous as well as probable cancer-causing herbicide Roundup. “It is much more linked to market interests of the corporations that want to sell herbicide,” the secretary noted.

The Kafkaesque Incentive of Carbon Credits

Another motivation behind the push for GE eucalyptus is the Kafkaesque incentive of receiving carbon credits for planting trees. Corporations like Suzano—which has been called the “world’s largest pulp exporter”—can be rewarded for planting enormous industrial tree monocultures—since they are technically planting trees, they are eligible for carbon credits—even though they first clear-cut and remove the carbon-dense native forests, which release vast amounts of carbon from the forest and the soil.

The pulp industry in Brazil has accelerated the growth rate of their eucalyptus trees. This is increasing the already enormous demands on water resources. So problematic is the expansion of eucalyptus monocultures on the hydrology and biodiversity of regions that they are often called “green deserts.”

“They look green from a distance but are extremely fast-growing trees planted in perfect rows and columns optimal for mechanical harvesting. The huge plantations do not harbor wildlife, and the only biodiversity you find in them is ants and termites,” explained Petermann, who led the delegation that traveled to Brazil.

One of the most insidious trends in false solutions to climate change is the idea that living or biological carbon can offset fossil fuel carbon. An expanding landscape of monoculture industrial tree plantations in Brazil—which rob the forests of biodiversity, displace communities and wildlife, and deplete regions of water resources—epitomizes the eco-swindle of carbon credits.

João, a member of a quilombola community, told the delegation that when eucalyptus started being planted in Espírito Santo and Bahia, “they removed the native plant cover and all the nutrients from the soil. People [here] used to do agroforestry, would use cover crops, [and would] let the land rest—but now, with eucalyptus, there is no rest for the soil.” The total eucalyptus plantation area in Bahia is estimated to be about 658,000 hectares, positioning it as the country’s third-largest contributor to industrially cultivated eucalyptus.

Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, a biologist from the University of London who attended a forum hosted by the delegation, warned of unintended consequences of genetically engineered trees, stating that “the risks of GE trees is extremely high in terms of the impact on biodiversity, the people living around it, and the global ecosystem and climate.”

Not only are current eucalyptus plantations destructive, but the premise that they are superior to natural forests for capturing carbon is also unsound. In 2020, experts published a letter with the Institute of Physics stating that “forests are superior to, and irreplaceable by, plantations as agents of terrestrial C [carbon] sequestration.” They are harvested with incredibly short growing cycles for pulp and paper production, which releases the carbon back into the atmosphere. But the scheme is profitable for Suzano and other pulp companies since they profit from the production of pulp and paper as well as carbon credits for planting trees.

Belém Declaration

Brazil is home to numerous biomes, the most famous of which is the Amazon forest. Known as “the lungs of the Earth” for the massive amounts of carbon dioxide the forest inhales and the oxygen it exhales, the Amazon is the focus of many conservation initiatives and agreements.

In early August 2023, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva hosted the Amazon Summit in Belém, the capital of the Brazilian state of Pará, during which another conservation agreement was launched. The eight nations party to the Amazon Cooperation Treaty (ACT) released the Belém Declaration, a document aimed to unify the shared objectives of the signatory nations, which are focused on preserving the Amazon and the rights of Indigenous people who live in it. The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP30 ) is slated to meet in Belém in 2025.

In a press release, however, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) stated that the Belém Declaration fell short of commitments to end deforestation in the Amazon and failed to address the issues related to the continued use of fossil fuels.

Nikki Reisch, director of CIEL’s Climate and Energy Program, stated:

“The Belém Declaration does not commit… to ending deforestation by 2030, or to addressing the primary, intersecting drivers of rainforest loss—industrial agriculture and the extractive and destructive industries that expose primary forests to land conversion.”
“Glaringly absent from the declaration is any mention of the threat that continued production and use of oil and gas poses to the Amazon and the ecosystems, communities, and climate that depend on it. Instead, exploration and development of new oil and gas projects continue—even at the mouth of the Amazon itself—directly undercutting leaders’ pledges to prevent the region from reaching the point of no return. Allowing expansion of fossil fuel extraction in the Amazon is incompatible with human rights, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights, biodiversity protection, and climate goals.”

Similar deference to industry interests plagues the Cerrado, where eucalyptus plantations and agribusiness continue to run roughshod over Indigenous and traditional communities and destroy a lesser-known but equally precarious natural ecological system regardless of ostensible ecological concerns and overtures.

The Demand for Paper Pulp

As the global demand for paper pulp continues to climb, Brazil is expected to be the site of the most significant expansion of these production facilities in South America.

Two regions that the Campaign to STOP GE Trees’ delegation visited are likely to face the negative impacts of the tremendous growth of eucalyptus plantations to feed the pulp and paper industry.

Quilombola communities the delegation met with stated that in Espírito Santo, most of the municipal land has been turned into plantations by Suzano. They also explained that tax incentives and infrastructure investment in the Três Lagoas region by local and federal governments seek to attract investments by the pulp and paper industry to the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where much of the native Cerrado forest has been converted to eucalyptus plantation in the past decade.

It is so lucrative that Suzano is building the world’s largest pulp and paper mill in Mato Grosso do Sul. The enormous facility is being built by 10,000 workers, most of whom are stacked in nearby man camps. The mill is expected to employ 10,000 people when completed. The Cerrado Project, as Suzano has deemed it, is in a rural town that has a population of nearly 25,000. The project threatens grave environmental damage to natural habitat and biodiversity, water and air, and a devastatingly precipitous population influx.

Additionally, the Chilean corporation Arauco is planning an even larger mill in Mato Grosso do Sul after the scheduled completion of Suzano’s behemoth.

Robbing Land From Indigenous Communities

Land sovereignty of traditional communities has been a politically charged issue in Brazil, and the encroachment on lands belonging to traditional and Indigenous communities by agribusiness was a theme that the delegation heard repeated during its travels through Brazil, including in the affected areas of Espírito Santo, southern Bahia, and Mato Grosso do Sul. Born out of Brazil’s colonial past and decades of military dictatorship, land distributions in the country are highly inequitable. Agribusiness interests have been incredibly aggressive in the past and continue with this trend currently.

“What made us lose our land, our culture, was all those persecutions by agribusiness,” stated José De Souza, an instructor at the Indigenous Ofaié school in Mato Grosso do Sul. The Ofaié was “once a large people,” he said, noting that such agribusiness pressures almost made “them extinct.” Once having a population of tens of thousands, the Ofaié now live on a mere 45 hectares after being forcibly relocated twice. “It’s not an ended thing,” said Souza. “They destroyed our forests and water.” The school where Souza teaches emphasizes Ofaié culture and language in classes often taught outside in the open. The Ofaié land is small but is an oasis of native forest hemmed in by vast stretches of industrial monoculture plantations.

The Struggle for Land: The MST

Eucalyptus is as central to the Ofaié land struggle as it is to the MST, one of the most significant movements in South America. The group has nearly 2 million members, with hundreds of thousands of Brazil’s poor living in MST camps as farmers. The MST seeks to reverse Brazil’s profound inequality of land distribution by occupying land for communal farms.

The movement is a lightning rod of controversy in Brasilia, with lawmakers aligned with former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro trying to outlaw the movement. Still, judges have often accepted the MST’s interpretation of Brazilian law that allows unproductive land to be taken. The MST has occasionally included eucalyptus plantations as meeting the definition of “unproductive” and has occupied and repurposed them for communal farms.

The movement has been so successful in its occupation strategy that it is estimated that 460,000 families now live in encampments started by the campaign. The MST is forward-leaning with an eye to the future with agroecology schools that teach how to grow crops and food using agroecological methods. They are now the largest exporters of organic rice in Latin America.

Biden Administration Funding Eucalyptus Expansion

As the MST, Indigenous people, and traditional communities in Brazil struggle against the spread of industrial eucalyptus plantations, the Biden administration is reportedly funding its expansion.

According to a June 2023 article on Mongabay, “Biden promised funds from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to conserve the Amazon and other critical Latin American biomes.” Yet according to findings published by Mongabay, the debt investment, if approved by Congress, will primarily “be funneled into mass-produced eucalyptus in Brazil’s Cerrado savanna.”

Mongabay reported that $50 million of the funding would go to Timberland Investment Group’s (TIG) plan to expand its “planted forest operations,” which located its newest office near Suzano’s Cerrado Project in Mato Grosso do Sul.

PL 490: Curtailing Indigenous Land Rights

During the delegation’s visit to Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, to meet with ministers and lawmakers, Indigenous peoples held a large demonstration to oppose a proposal, PL 490, a law its supporters claim would bring certainty and fairness to land disputes in Brazil. Opponents, however, argue that the proposal would actually reverse hard-fought gains by Indigenous communities to have their land rights officially recognized.

Proposed by Bolsonaro-aligned lawmakers, PL 490 would reset Indigenous land claims to October 1988—when the current Brazilian Constitution was adopted after the military dictatorship. Since the lands were taken during the dictatorship, this is a land-grabbing ruse by extractive industries seeking to deny claims of land rights by Indigenous groups and even to erase gains they had made in the past. The Lower House of Congress gave its approval to this bill in May 2023.

The push for PL 490 underscores how land sovereignty is a fundamental issue in Brazilian politics and is inextricably linked to the country’s environment and the rights of traditional communities. Monoculture eucalyptus plantations play a central role in the contest over land rights, an issue central to Brazilian politics and ultimately connected to the rights of traditional communities and the world’s environmental health. With the specter of eucalyptus trees engineered for pesticide resistance and the Biden administration’s embrace of false solutions to climate change, the balance is being further tipped in favor of the pulp and paper industry in that fight.

“As Brazil goes, so does the world when it comes to the use of GE-engineered eucalyptus,” said Petermann. “The significance of the loss of the Cerrado to GE eucalyptus plantations cannot be overstated.”

AUTHOR BIO: Steve Taylor is the press secretary for Global Justice Ecology Project and the host of the podcast Breaking Green. Beginning his environmental work in the 1990s opposing clear-cutting in Shawnee National Forest, Taylor was awarded the Leo and Kay Drey Award for Leadership from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment for his work as co-founder of the Times Beach Action Group.

Orin Langelle is the director of Langelle Photography. His first assignment was photographing Vietnam War protests during the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida. He formally studied with Cornell Capa, former executive director of the International Center of Photography in New York. Langelle has photographed on six continents, worked in strategic communications, and co-founded Global Justice Ecology Project.

How a first union contract provides workers a seat at the table

James Golden knew the crowbar wasn’t the right tool for the job, but it was what the bosses provided when he needed to perform work on a piece of equipment at the Kumho Tire plant in Macon, Georgia.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

The crowbar slipped from Golden’s hand and smacked him in the head. Bleeding, yet unable to find adequate help on the sparsely staffed night shift, Golden drove himself to the hospital while a supervisor agonized over whether to fill out paperwork about the injury or try to get the machine operating once more.

While the memory of that night still infuriates him, Golden takes comfort in knowing that he and his 325 coworkers now have the power to protect themselves, look out for one another, and hold management accountable.

Along with wage increases, better work-life balance, and other wins, the workers gained a real voice on the job in early August when they ratified their first contract with Kumho as members of the United Steelworkers (USW).

The contract establishes a labor-management workplace improvement committee, affording Golden and others on the front lines the means to address issues like turnover, efficiency, and quality.

The agreement also mandates a joint health and safety committee, giving workers not only a say in how to properly operate and maintain equipment but also a role in developing emergency plans and input into other aspects of plant safety.

“It’s a new day,” Golden said, referring to the power of a first contract to level the playing field and afford workers a seat at the table. “This is the law of the land.”

Workers who want to band together for better futures often face prolonged and brutal anti-union campaigns from employers hellbent on holding them down.

Kumho, for example, committed such egregious violations of workers’ rights that an administrative law judge at one point ordered company representatives to call a plant-wide meeting and read a statement acknowledging their illegal conduct.

“Solidarity means everything,” said Golden, recalling how workers met at bars and cookouts to build the union drive and support one another during management’s attacks.

“I know each of us was going to have a better work environment and a living wage,” he added, explaining his own commitment to the effort. “I have no problem sacrificing for the greater good. I’m a veteran. I sacrificed eight years to go and serve my country.”

Workers ultimately achieved victory in 2021 when the National Labor Relations Board certified their vote to join the USW, making them the first U.S. tire workers to unionize in more than 40 years. But then, like all new union members, they immediately began a new battle at the bargaining table, testing their collective resolve all over again.

When bullying fails to stop workers from organizing, many employers simply shift gears and try to thwart bargaining.

More than one-third of companies use anti-union attorneys to derail negotiations, and a quarter threaten to close workplaces in an effort to sabotage contract talks, among other abuses, according to new research by Cornell University.

Starbucks’ “dirty war” on baristas, for example, includes starving union leaders of work hours in a bid to make them quit and dragging out negotiations with the aim of gutting solidarity, frustrating workers, and killing the union.

Kumho similarly bogged down negotiations for two years, balking at raises, nitpicking language, and throwing up other roadblocks. But union activists stayed the course and worked hard to engage new hires, averting the threat that turnover poses to collective strength.

“We didn’t give up,” observed Christopher Burks, who served with Golden on the workers’ bargaining committee, noting that a grievance procedure and other protections from bullying are among the first contract’s greatest strengths.

Similar concerns have prompted growing numbers of workers, across numerous industries, to unionize in the wake of the pandemic. And now those organizing victories are generating a wave of first contracts with transformative changes.

That’s especially evident in the South, where more and more workers are rising up against employers and right-wing politicians who long conspired to oppress them and keep unions out.

Nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, secured a first contract in 2021 that affords them a long-overdue voice on the staffing issues crucial to worker and patient well-being. Workers at a Coca-Cola Consolidated warehouse in Kentucky ratified a first agreement in the spring of 2023 providing a much-needed grievance process and other enhancements.

And newly unionized cleaners at Virginia Commonwealth University just negotiated historic pay increases, forcing the school to begin valuing them.

“You’re not getting what you’re worth for the job that you do,” Burks said of many workers in the South, noting that some companies deliberately locate in the region to exploit the historically poor wages and low union density.

“Some people are waking up and not going for that. It’s just like at Blue Bird,” he added, referring to about 1,400 workers at the Fort Valley, Georgia, bus company who voted in May 2023 to join the USW and seek better working conditions.

Many other workers also want to join unions and gain a voice on the job, but they need the support that only a long-overdue modernization of America’s labor laws can provide.

Right now, companies regularly obstruct organizing and bargaining because it’s so easy for them to get away with it. Workers’ unfair labor practice charges take months or even years to resolve. Even then, employers like Kumho face virtually no penalties for illegally firing workers during union drives or dragging out talks.

Golden and Burks want Congress to pass the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would make it easier for workers to exercise their will and impose fines on employers who break the law during union drives. It also would force employers to the negotiating table and impose mandatory arbitration when employers refuse good-faith bargaining for a first contract.

“I think it would finally make the employer respect your rights,” Burks said.

AUTHOR BIO: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

How to fix our food system

No food should be worth the amount of suffering experienced by sentient animals trapped in our food system.

The facts are clear and they are shocking: Factory farming is unhealthy for consumers, dangerous for workers, and devastating for the environment, and it is the largest cause of animal cruelty in the history of mankind.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In the United States alone, nearly 10 billion land animals are raised on factory farms and killed in slaughterhouses every single year, accounting for 99 percent of farmed animals in the nation. These animals are subjected to physical, psychological, and emotional cruelty on a constant basis, living in extreme confinement where they experience fear and pain daily until they are killed for their meat. The normal lifespan of a chicken is five to eight years. But on a factory farm, they live just 47 days before they are sent to slaughter.

Factory Farming Is Destroying the Environment

In addition to being the main cause of animal cruelty in the world, factory farming is a primary source of environmental degradation. The industrialized meat industry accounts for 37 percent of worldwide emissions of methane, a global warming gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first two decades after its release. It is also responsible for 65 percent of human-made emissions of nitrous oxide—a gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide—that depletes the ozone layer, which protects the Earth’s surface from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation.

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Factory farming also depletes the planet’s fresh water. Just a single egg takes more than 50 gallons of water to produce. A pound of chicken, 468 gallons. A gallon of milk, 880 gallons. A pound of beef, 1,800 gallons. It also requires vast tracts of land, which means the industrial meat industry is also the cause of massive deforestation around the globe, destroying ecosystems, threatening Indigenous communities and their traditional ways of life, and endangering a host of wildlife. Data shows that companies in the supply chain of JBS, the world’s largest supplier of meat, are potentially responsible for the destruction of up to 124 square miles of Brazilian rainforest every single year to produce beef that is exported around the globe.

Slow Progress

Josephine Morris, an expert in food policy and animal welfare with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), works with the largest food companies, from fast-food chains like McDonald’s to food service firms like Sodexo, to uphold their commitments to improving the lives of animals in their supply chains. She wrote about HSUS’s Food Industry Scorecard, a 2019 survey of 95 companies that looked at the progress being made (or not made) in terms of their stated public promises on increasing animal welfare.

“We’ve found that some of them are trying diligently to improve the lives of animals used in their supply chain; others are lagging behind or have backtracked from their pledges altogether,” she writes on NationofChange. “Sodexo is more than 60 percent compliant toward its goal of using only cage-free eggs and is actively working to increase its percentage of plant-based entrees,” Morris reports. “On the other hand, Marriott (and other companies) have repeatedly failed to keep their animal welfare promises, and Subway reports no progress made toward its 2012 promise to ‘rapidly eliminate’ cruel gestation crates from its pork supply.”

COVID-19 Exposes Reality of Factory Farming

The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the harsh realities of factory farming, as Linda Tyler, a fellow at Sentient Media who covers animal welfare issues, reported on Citizen Truth. “The COVID-19 crisis has played havoc with factory farming’s relentless raise-and-kill operations,” she writes. “Thousands of meatpacking and processing workers have been infected with the coronavirus, leading to the closing down of dozens of slaughterhouses. The animals destined for those slaughterhouses have had nowhere to go, and farmers have killed millions of animals, often in crude and cruel ways, including shooting, suffocation, and even heating the animals to death. Grown animals, as well as born and unborn baby animals, have been slaughtered. Farmers are ill-prepared to carry out this gruesome task, and animals are suffering horribly as a result.”

In addition, factory farm workers—often undocumented immigrants—are routinely exploited by factory farm owners as a source of cheap labor and are forced to deal with dangerous working conditions: There is a 50 percent chance that a factory farm worker will be injured on the job. No wonder U.S. factory farms, despite employing more than 500,000 workers, have one of the largest turnover rates in the nation: up to 100 percent annually.

How Shareholders and Consumers Can Help

What can be done? Well, the information gathered in the Food Industry Scorecard can help consumers make decisions about which companies they want to support, and which companies they want to avoid. It can also help shareholders decide where they want to invest and—if they’ve already invested in companies that have failed on their animal welfare commitments—where they might want to apply pressure. “Shareholders owning at least $2,000 worth of stock for at least one year can introduce a resolution,” writes Cameron Harsh, who manages the “Raise Pigs Right” campaign at World Animal Protection, a nonprofit. “In some cases, the submission of a resolution alone can lead to action by the company to address the issue of concern without requiring a full vote. It is in the interest of the company to avoid a public vote, and it can project a progressive image to shareholders ahead of the annual meeting.”

But the best thing we can all do is to reduce—or better yet, eliminate—our meat intake. For each person who chooses to switch to a meat-free diet, an estimated 100 animals per year could be spared a terrible fate. In addition to leaving animal cruelty and the environmental destruction caused by the meat industry off their plates, eaters who move to plant-based diets can experience a wide array of health benefits. Rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, plant-based diets are full of fiber, packed with vitamins and minerals, low in calories and saturated fat, and cholesterol-free. That translates to better health on multiple fronts: It can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and other major illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive conditions. Many people who have transitioned to a plant-based diet “report bigger fitness payoffs, more energy, reduced inflammation, and better health outcomes after making the switch,” reports Forks Over Knives.

It won’t be easy to transform the world’s food systems from animal to plants, but as Richard Trethowan, the director of the IA Watson Research Center at the University of Sydney’s Narrabri Plant Breeding Institute, writes in the Conversation, we can feed the human population with plant protein—without increasing the amount of farmland: “governments around the world must turn away from heavily [subsidized] but protein-poor cereals, and aggressively pursue legume production.”

On September 28, 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that NYC Health + Hospitals (NYC H+H), which operates the public hospitals and clinics in New York City as a public benefit corporation, that “culturally diverse plant-based meals are now the primary dinner options for inpatients” at NYC H+H hospitals, which serves about 3 million meals for lunch and dinner every year. The move makes New York City the first U.S. municipality to shift to a plant-based default across an entire public institution—in this case, its hospitals.

“When it comes to preventing diet-related chronic disease, there is a growing recognition that it’s not our DNA—it’s our dinner,” said Mayor Adams. “Since January [2022], we have introduced Plant-Powered Fridays into schools, introduced fresh produce into the nation’s only municipal emergency food system, and expanded Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Clinics to public hospitals across all five boroughs. Now, we are proud to announce the successful rollout and expansion of default plant-based lunch and dinner options at all H+H sites. This transformative program is already changing lives, empowering patients to take control of their own health and further cementing New York City as a leader in preventive medicine.”

Legislation

Some lawmakers are taking action. In 2023, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) re-introduced federal legislation that would ban large-scale factory farming in the United States over the following two decades of the bill’s passage. SB 271, the Farm System Reform Act, seeks to place a moratorium on large-scale factory farming. It would also strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 to require country-of-origin labeling on beef, pork, and dairy products. It has been co-sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Ed Markey (D-MA). Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) is also supporting the effort, having re-introduced companion legislation, HR 797, to the House of Representatives.

“Our food system was not broken by the pandemic and it was not broken by independent family farmers. It was broken by large, multinational corporations like Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS that, because of their buying power and size, have undue influence over the marketplace and over public policy,” Booker said. “That undue influence was on full display with President Trump’s recent executive order prioritizing meatpacker profits over the health and safety of workers.”

In 2023, ASPCA launched a public petition to give Americans a chance to lodge their support of the Farm System Reform Act. In addition to signing this petition, you can contact your senators and representatives to urge them to co-sponsor these bills. Animals trapped in our broken, inhumane food system don’t have a voice. So it’s up to all of us to speak on their behalf. Together, we can move the country to a healthier, more humane future. As Gandhi—who espoused a total commitment to nonviolence—wisely observed, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

AUTHOR BIO: Reynard Loki is a co-founder of the Observatory, where he is the environment and animal rights editor. He is also a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food, and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health and Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, Asia Times, Pressenza, and EcoWatch, among others. He volunteers with New York City Pigeon Rescue Central.

Making sense of Florida’s nonsensical history curriculum

Editor's note: Clarifying language was added by the original publisher.

‘Slavery wasn’t so bad; white men are the real victims’: these are the messages that appear to stem from the right-wing war on history. It’s part of a bigger picture rooted in the politics of fear.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is waging a war on history. The GOP’s aspiring presidential candidate saw how effectively Donald Trump tapped into white conservatives’ fears of demographic change and seems to want to use that same tactic to catapult himself into the White House. In 2021 and 2022, DeSantis championed the smugly named “Stop WOKE Act,” to undermine—try not to laugh—“woke indoctrination” and a “Marxist-inspired curriculum” in schools. To top that, the Florida Board of Education this summer released new standards for teaching history in middle schools that whitewash slavery and uplift white supremacist patriarchy.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Florida students will now potentially be exposed to instruction that claims, “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The standards also emphasize that “trading in slaves developed in African lands,” to remind students that it was not an American invention. Further, it covers “the practice of the Barbary Pirates in kidnapping Europeans and selling them into slavery in Muslim countries,” as well as, “how slavery was utilized in Asian cultures,” and “how slavery among indigenous peoples of the Americas was utilized prior to and after European colonization.”

In other words, American students of history will now be taught that slavery was so widespread that they surely can’t blame white American enslavers for engaging in what the rest of the world was doing, and that whites too, were victimized by the institution.

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It’s an increasingly popular idea among conservative whites that they have historically been the victims, not the perpetrators of racial oppression.

The Florida Board of Education also approved the use of videos created by PragerU, an outfit named after its co-creator, Christian-fundamentalism-peddling talk show host Dennis Prager. Dennis Prager. It is instructive to note that Prager once said, “If you see the n-word on a dormitory building, the odds are overwhelming that a Black student actually did that,” because they are engaging in “race hoaxes… to show how racist the country is.”

Again, a popular idea among conservative whites is that racism is so nonexistent in the U.S. today that overt acts of racism are surely hoaxes meant to defame white Americans—the real victims.

One of the Florida board’s spokespeople justified approval of PragerU’s videos for use in schools, saying that “the material aligns to [sic] Florida’s revised civics and government standards.” PragerU describes its tools as “pro-American,” which is code for pro-white, pro-fundamentalist, pro-patriarchy.

In its videos, PragerU overtly promotes “Judeo-Christian values,” encourages women and girls to “embrace… [their] femininity,” and teaches boys to “embrace… [their] masculinity.” It upholds revisionist history claiming Thanksgiving arose from Indigenous Americans working in harmony with white settlers, puts words into the mouth of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass to claim that slavery had to continue in order to “achieve something great: the making of the United States,” and spouts pro-police propaganda that attempts to discredit the racial justice uprisings of 2020.

When Florida’s Lieutenant-Governor Jeanette Núñez defended her state’s “Stop WOKE Act,” she claimed that it was about, “prioritizing education[,] not indoctrination.” But in a speech to the hate group Moms for Liberty, Prager said, “We bring doctrines to children. That’s a very fair statement… But what is the bad of our indoctrination?”

The effort to clamp down on education is spreading. Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who made a name for herself as Trump’s press secretary, has decided to use the DeSantis playbook in attacking the teaching of accurate history. Her state has decided that students will no longer receive credit for taking the AP African American history course because it violates the Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and Safety (LEARNS) Act, which she promoted and signed into law earlier this year.

In defiance, every public school in the Little Rock school district announced it would continue to teach the AP course.

There is a harmful narrative that frames right-wing conservative thought, and it goes like this: “Intrepid white settlers discovered America, fought for its independence, and created the most powerful nation on earth. Now, uppity Black folks are asking for special treatment, illegals are cutting in line, and women and gays are threatening the natural order. We have to fight to preserve the sanctity of America against these predators.”

It’s a dangerous and powerful story, one that is rooted in the politics of fear. And it is an effective tool to rally voters to back regressive policies, laws, and candidates in the face of popular ideas of collectivism, of policies promoting equity to undo the damage of past and current racial and gender-based harms, of realizing the ideal of a multiracial democracy.

This fear-based story is the overarching framework for a reactionary backlash to the teaching of accurate history—precisely because such education has been so effective.

In my new book, Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023), I cite the example of Brittany Murphree, a white Republican college student who took a Critical Race Theory (CRT) course at the University of Mississippi School of Law. When Republican lawmakers in her state passed a bill banning the teaching of such history in K-12 schools, she wrote to her representatives, “To date, this course has been the most impactful and enlightening course I have taken throughout my entire undergraduate career and graduate education at the State of Mississippi’s flagship university.”

Murphree added, “The prohibition of courses and teachings such as these is taking away the opportunity for people from every background and race to come together and discuss very important topics which would otherwise go undiscussed.”

It’s no wonder that the far right has taken aim at CRT, ethnic studies, and the teaching of accurate history saying they promote biased thinking and indoctrination. Indeed, such curricula are biased—toward truth, justice, and pluralism, and they have the potential to change the way young Americans think about race.

Murphree and the eye-opening education she benefitted from represent the worst nightmare of Prager, DeSantis, and Trump. Her education offers a powerful de-programming of archaic ideology and promotes a promise of a pluralistic future—one where white men like them no longer have a monopoly on power.

AUTHOR BIO: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

Humans did not evolve to be selfish and can influence a better future

At this critical moment in human history, a new paper on multilevel cultural evolution shows how looking to our cultural evolutionary origins might help us improve society at many levels.

Ours is a critical time in the cultural evolution of humanity that is likely to shape our long-term future, or lack thereof. As a species, we have been on a self-destructive trajectory that has led us to our current polycrisis of unlivable economic conditions, worsening climate disasters, and the potential of an unspeakably devastating war, as the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 puts it. The changes we all need to make, if we want subsequent generations to enjoy life, will most likely require big shifts toward improving connections with each other and the planet, and away from extraction and individualism.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The good news is that humans evolved often as cooperative and “prosocial” beings, so looking to the past and better understanding our cultural evolution as a species might help illuminate the best ways forward across the board. This is the basis of a paper published in April 2023 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) titled, “Multilevel Cultural Evolution: From New Theory to Practical Applications.” Rather than focusing on the genetic code and physical evolution of humans, the paper explores the advanced and groundbreaking—but seldom discussed—field of cultural evolution.

The paper’s senior author David Sloan Wilson, a distinguished professor emeritus of biological sciences at Binghamton University, New York, and the founder of the school’s Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program, told the Independent Media Institute in May 2023 that the authors of the article wrote it “to show that a synthesis, which has already taken place for the study of biological evolution, is now in progress for the study of human cultural evolution, with wide-ranging practical applications.”

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Looking at humanity through a lens of cultural evolution shows that “we are neither cooperative nor selfish,” Wilson says. “We are capable of both—so becoming cooperative requires providing the right environmental conditions. Also, cultural evolution helps us to recognize the common denominators that apply across all contexts of our lives—our families, neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and so on, and at all scales, from small groups to the planet. This is very empowering.”

He shared the example of a program for at-risk high school students that he helped to design in 2010 at Regents Academy in Binghamton, New York.

“By providing the right social environment, kids who flunked three or more of their classes during the previous year [2010] performed as well as the average high school student in the district [in 2011],” he says.

Wilson explained in an article published on the Binghamton University website in April 2023 that evolutionary science is made up of a triad: variation, selection, and replication—and that triad is also visible in the evolution of culture, “from economics and business, to engineering and the arts, and the functioning of society at all levels.” He added that “knowing how cultural evolution happens also means we can harness it for the larger good, creating a more just and sustainable world.”

While evolution has been at the core of biological sciences over the last century, evolutionary science is rarely part of the conversation when it comes to understanding culture and the modern-day problems of society.

As Steven C. Hayes, co-author of the paper, psychologist, and professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno, told the Independent Media Institute in May 2023, multidimensional and multilevel evolutionary theory “is now at a level of knowledge and sophistication where it’s ready to step forward and be part of that broader cultural conversation.”

However, he says that if you pick almost any area that might be important in our society, “from immigration to climate change, or economic justice, or the opiate crisis, or the impacts of the pandemic, or suicide in young people—and on and on it goes—” seldom will behavioral sciences and the behavioral aspects of the evolutionary sciences even be mentioned. The authors of the paper on multicultural cultural evolution sought to remedy this.

Hayes says that while he acknowledges the real atrocities humans have committed (like slavery, climate destruction, and much else), it’s imperative that people are able to see that humans have also done better, and are capable of doing better, going forward.

“It strikes me in doing this work that the narratives we tell ourselves about our history as a species are powerful in shaping the future,” he says. “We’ve created an economic system that is destroying the Earth. Think seriously about what we’ve supported just over the last 50 to 100 years, and how hard it is for us to step up to the challenges of just climate change, never mind economic disparities—we can do better.”

Hayes says as a species it is time for us to choose to “evolve on purpose,” and he believes “we can use the tools of evolutionary science to do that.”

Humans Evolved as Prosocial—Not Individualistic

One key point the paper makes is that humans evolved most often through cooperation and we are, at our foundations, prosocial—meaning that we’ve evolved to care about the welfare of others and behave in ways that support the greater good.

The paper explores in detail three hallmarks of cultural evolution that include: 1) prosociality, 2) social control that enforces prosocial behavior, and 3) symbolic thought, which includes an adaptable catalog of symbols with shared meaning.

Hayes, who is also president of the Institute for Better Health, has worked for four decades on developing a new behavioral science approach called Contextual Behavioral Science and studying how to ease human suffering by empowering them to live values-based lives.

“We did not evolve as selfish primates,” Hayes says. “We evolved as social primates, we reined in selfishness, we fostered community, and we made sure that every voice matters.”

He notes that from his perspective, having researched cognitive functioning and psychology there is an “alternative view of human functioning that will foster human beings who are whole and free.”

From a psychological perspective, which evolutionary science supports and the paper details, individualism is simply not good for us.

“Thriving… almost always means collaborating with others,” Hayes says, noting that one point that should give people hope is that when one moves in an individualistic way, toward selfishness and narcissism, they move toward unhappiness.

“Narcissists are not happy,” he says. “People who lie, cheat, and steal are not happy. There’s a deep-down yearning for love, connection, and belonging that is there at birth.”

Hayes sees the cultural biological evolution toward traits that benefit the common good over individual gain show up not just in human history, but in today’s world, by way of his work as a clinical psychologist. The afflictions that are most prominent today of narcissism, loneliness, and actions that harm others, and how they are intertwined with negative impacts of social media, for one example, all could be said to varying degrees to have a solution to focus more on building interpersonal relationships and communities. And individuals who partake in this positive socialization often have better mental health as a benefit.

“It’s time for us as mental health professionals and scientists to speak about the importance of relationships and of empowering our young people to learn how to have relationships that matter.”

An Alternative to the “Greed Is Good” Paradigm

The “Economics and Business” section of the paper is focused on the ways multilevel cultural evolutionary theory can provide an alternative to the “greed is good” economic narrative. It expands upon the Nobel Prize-winning work of political scientist Elinor Ostrom, which proved that groups can effectively self-manage common-pool resources like “forests, pastures, fisheries, and the groundwater,” without falling into self-serving behaviors when they follow a specific set of design principles she puts forth. Ostrom’s work disproved the well-known economic myth of the “tragedy of the commons” that insists privatization and top-down regulation are necessary to manage resources.

The paper proposes that Ostrom’s concepts have the potential to be effective across “contexts and scales” rather than being confined to the discipline of economics. And the paper predicts that by using cultural evolutionary theory, “[v]irtually all functionally oriented groups can benefit” from implementing the principles Ostrom laid out for economics.

Expanding the Conversation

Hayes says that if readers were to take one thing away from the paper, he would want it to be an understanding that modern evolutionary science is not just what you learned about in high school.

“My message to people would be: When you know how to evolve on purpose, who knows what your ceiling may be? You as an individual, you as a couple, you as a family, you as a company, you as a community, us as a world.”

While individualism and “survival of the fittest” were the takeaways from the study of evolution that were widely upheld in modern culture, Hayes notes that Charles Darwin was among the first to talk about the role of multilevel selection and cooperation in evolution.

“There are economic and social forces that took advantage of the competitive view, and it started very early on in the field [of evolution],” he says. And Hayes says that it wasn’t long after Darwin shared his theory of evolution, along with other prominent thinkers at the time, that corporations began to take hold of the narrative.

Hayes says he thinks society has been slow to adopt a more realistic understanding of human evolution because doing so would not appeal to certain economic and social interests. The paper on multilevel cultural evolution offers that alternative perspective, Hayes says.

“This paper says, modern, multidimensional, multilevel evolutionary science is ready to step forward as both a basic and applied field. It has a number of successes it can point to right now,” he says. “It is on sound ground that we can begin to think about how to evolve on purpose… in the real way that culture, companies, individuals, couples, communities, neighborhoods, and fields of study have always done: through healthy variation that’s selected, retained, and fitted to context in a multidimensional and multilevel way.”

Hayes notes that a principled alternative way of culture is “one in which we begin to see that it’s our obligation as citizens, as family members to create a context in which trust sharing and cooperation can grow,” he says. “That isn’t namby-pamby, it’s not weak, it’s not Pollyanna, it’s not anything goes. It’s the salve on the wounds that are created by selfishness, and a vision that we can live out.”

We humans do our best, he notes, when relationships, families, businesses, and groups cooperate.

“Why wouldn’t you want to scale that? Why wouldn’t you want a model for how to do that? The problem is that our models have been mostly part of [colloquial] wisdom and spiritual traditions, and they’ve been sliced and diced by the modern world,” Hayes says. “People with narrow interests have stepped forward and have sold humanity a bill of goods that is false.”

AUTHOR BIO: April M. Short is an editor, journalist, and documentary editor and producer. She is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor, and she is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she was a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Good Times, a weekly newspaper in Santa Cruz, California. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, LA Yoga, Pressenza, the Conversation, Salon, and many other publications.

How Washington State can protect workers at oil refineries

The grief hits Scott Campbell like a ton of bricks every time he walks into the union hall and sees the memorial to the fallen workers.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Seven members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union reported for their shifts at the former Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington, on April 2, 2010, and never drove back out. They perished when a decades-old, structurally deficient piece of equipment called a heat exchanger exploded and caught fire in one of the worst industrial incidents in state history.

Campbell and other members of USW Local 12-591 pay tribute to the seven with a laser focus on safety at the refinery, currently owned by Marathon.

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But now they’re seizing the chance to go even further and spare workers at other refineries the kind of loss that weighs so heavily on them. Campbell, president of Local 12-591, is helping to lead the union’s push for stronger rules aimed at revolutionizing the safety culture at all five refineries in the state.

The proposed improvements, modeled on the industry-leading advances that the USW pushed California to enact in 2017, represent the first comprehensive, statewide enhancements to “process safety management” (PSM) at Washington’s refineries in nearly 30 years. PSM refers to how workers and management use planning, training, and equipment to reduce risk and respond to incidents.

“Improving process safety is something that we always want to keep working on,” explained Campbell, who will testify during upcoming public hearings on the proposed rules overhaul. “It’s not something we ever think is finished. We’re always learning, and technology is always changing.”

“We don’t want to go backward. We don’t want to get complacent,” emphasized Campbell, noting that oil companies increasingly attempt to “exploit the loopholes” in the current, outdated rules despite the deadly warnings provided by the Tesoro incident and other tragedies.

For example, Campbell said, refineries sometimes have one management representative resolve a safety concern when the safer, prudent course would be to assemble a team of experts from engineering, production, and other disciplines to work through the issue.

The new PSM rules—also championed by community residents and other advocates fighting alongside the USW—would force employers to toe the line and hold management accountable. Among many other provisions, they’d require refineries to ensure the structural and mechanical integrity of equipment, make prompt repairs and give workers the authority to suspend operations when they identify hazards.

Lessons learned from the Tesoro disaster are driving those changes.

After the tragedy there, investigators denounced the company’s lax safety culture. They found that the refinery “normalized” hazardous conditions, including leaks from heat exchangers, and failed to take corrective action.

Instead, Tesoro looked the other way. On the day of the disaster, bosses assigned seven workers to the heat exchanger—far more than otherwise needed for the procedure underway there at the time—to handle leaks that the refinery failed to address through maintenance.

Besides requiring refineries to fix obvious problems, the new PSM rules place a heightened focus on proactively identifying issues and addressing them before they put lives at risk. Before installing a bigger pump, for example, a facility would have to assess the environmental impact, evaluate the refinery’s fire suppression system and ensure the capacity of the piping system, among other issues.

Just as important, the proposed rules mandate extensive worker involvement not only in hazard analysis and emergency preparedness but in responding to incidents and conducting the comprehensive “root cause” investigations that take place afterward.

“We are the experts on the equipment. We live here, 24/7,” Campbell said, referring to the rotating crews of USW members who operate the refinery around the clock. “We know when something’s being ignored. We know when corners are being cut. We need help from our state officials to enforce the behaviors we know to be safest.”

The same commitment to a path forward prompted USW members in California to successfully push for an overhaul of their state’s PSM rules after a 2012 fire at a Chevron refinery sent 15,000 people to hospitals with breathing problems.

In the wake of that disaster, investigators determined that the company repeatedly ignored warnings about corroded piping. One of those compromised pipes eventually ruptured and released flammable material, sparking the fire.

“It was a known problem, and it wasn’t addressed. They saved some money. That was the action they took,” Norman Rogers, second vice president of USW Local 675, said of Chevron management.

Members of Local 675 and oil workers from other USW locals across California collaborated with a broad-based community coalition in pushing through the stronger rules, which expanded worker participation in refinery operations and safety.

Rogers said workers previously felt as though they were “sitting on the bench in the dugout watching the game. Now, we are getting into the batter’s box.”

Washington officials describe California’s rules as “the most protective in the country,” and that is why Campbell and other advocates used them as a template for the improvements they’re determined to make.

The USW’s oil workers continually strive to negotiate safety improvements in collective bargaining agreements.

But stronger PSM rules at the state level bring sweeping improvements to workers at many refineries all at once. They also provide consistency and uniformity to the industry. And they offer stability to workers and communities when refineries change hands, as they often do.

“This is the ace up our sleeve,” explained Rogers, who will travel to Washington later this month to testify about his experiences with PSM in California.

“Companies will come and go. Operating philosophies and safety philosophies will change. The only thing we have to hold onto are the regulations. That they’re strong and give us a voice are crucial.”

AUTHOR BIO: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

How people are fighting the world’s reliance on the war economy

Many people are already investing themselves in the local peace economy as they divest from the economy of war.

War is not innate to humanity; it is learned culturally, and intentional systems of peace can prevent it from happening, according to anthropological research. We are living at a critical time in the history of humanity in which preventing and divesting from war are essential to our future existence—especially given the realities of the global climate crisis and the fact that the U.S. military is the worst single polluter that exists (and not even mentioning the unspeakable potential for destruction that nuclear weapons pose). If war is cultural, then we can prevent it by intentionally moving ourselves into a culture of peace. How do we do this? We begin with ourselves. We begin to break our war economy habits, and actively divest ourselves, wherever possible, from the ways in which the war economy takes hold in our lives. And we purposefully invest ourselves at the local level in what is often called the peace economy—the caring, sharing, supportive economies that already exist all around us.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The economy of war thrives on extraction and materialism, so it has—for thousands of years, and by no accident—made trite (or violently stifled) the things that are most valuable and important about living: caring; nurturing; love; art; peace; expression; and connection with nature, our bodies, and each other. The war economy, which is the overarching economic system of our times, promotes a culture that actively devalues play and community, and overly values hard work and individualism—to the grave detriment of mental and physical health. It uplifts money hoarding, competition, and the flaunting of one’s material wealth over generosity, sharing, collaboration, and appreciation. It stifles grief and asks us to harden ourselves against the expression of feeling rather than inviting us into depths of emotion where we can realize the gift of being alive in this world, together, for just a brief time.

The results of this unsustainable and unnatural lifestyle are ugly: Clear-cut, monocropped tree farms where once thrived biodiverse FernGully-esque old grove forests in the Pacific Northwest, the Amazon, and around the world; endless mining and building projects that plunder habitats, natural wonders, and Indigenous communities; worsening mental health afflictions, an opioid addiction epidemic, and soaring suicide rates; toxic chemicals and microplastics in our soils, oceans, streams, and bloodstreams that are causing irreparable damage to the planet and our bodies; people treated like criminals for experiencing homelessness, even amidst a devastating cost of living crisis; racist, militarized police murdering people in broad daylight, and often walking free even when they’re caught on camera; hustle and greed culture and the agony that comes with living a daily grind; so much unnecessary loneliness and stress… and this list could go on and on.

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But a movement is building from the commons to break with these war economy ways and replenish ways of being that are actually livable. Around the world, there are projects, people, and organizations creating solutions to the problems of our times. They are actively helping in divesting from the war economy in powerful ways. These examples of the local peace economy in action demonstrate that it is possible to create systems in which wealth and worth are rooted in equitable, community-centered care practices like health care for all, farming and feeding each other, parenting and education that are entrenched in love and engagement, and a culture that uplifts us and inspires interconnection.

The peace economy is built brick by brick, through the commitments of individual people and communities. What follows are some examples (of many more that exist worldwide) showing how people and communities are divesting from the war economy and investing in a future centered in peace, love, and aliveness:

Our globalized, Big Ag, monoculture food systems—which are monopolized by a handful of megacorporations owned by billionaires responsible for the war economy—are unraveling. The COVID-19 pandemic cast a bright light on the fragility of those systems. But the issues the pandemic exposed were present prior to 2020, and they promise to continue into the future. People in communities around the world are relocalizing food supply chains to create food sovereignty and reclaim culture in these times of fraying global food systems:

  • Communities in the Pacific Northwest have been working to regionalize food supply chains through relocalized flour mills, sustainable livestock ranches, a creative chicken farming model, and community garden programs. These efforts have paid off in creating food security for communities while also leading to greater job opportunities and a thriving ecosystem.
  • Palestinian farmers have been rekindling connections with Indigenous farming practices and creating community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs to resist Israeli colonialism. This has helped Palestinians to reconnect with their land and economically support locally grown food.
  • Black, formerly incarcerated people in Chicago are challenging the megacorporations that tend to dominate food contracting with schools and other large facilities in America by prepping locally sourced meals for schools, nursing homes, and transitional housing. The Chicago worker cooperative ChiFresh Kitchen is 100 percent employee-owned and provides nutritious and culturally appropriate food to these institutions and facilities.
  • There are many networks of Indigenous seed savers and others keeping and propagating seeds in community gardens and cooperative programs in the U.S. and around the world. Indigenous-led communities like Seeding Sovereignty and many others are keeping their spiritual connections and cultural practices alive through their connections with seeds, and seed savers are challenging the monocrop-based Big Ag industry that is responsible for so much deforestation and other climate destruction. These networks have also helped bring back “Indigenous foodways that were lost during genocide and forced relocation” inflicted by European colonizers.
  • The Deep Medicine Circle in the San Francisco Bay Area, a women of color-led, worker-directed 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is one group that is rethinking health care at its roots, and healing the ways U.S. colonial extraction is making people sick. Local community members who make up Deep Medicine Circle are creating systems of health and care, through the lens of community food justice. They’re planting community gardens and thinking up long-term models of localized food and community engagement that uplift Indigenous practices, provide access to healthy foods in poor urban neighborhoods, and dismantle colonialist ways of thinking and being in the world.
  • Neighbors are voluntarily keeping free-food fridges stocked in cities around the world, in a mutual aid movement that gained speed in response to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. People have fed and cared for each other through the pandemic and beyond, creating a free-fridge movement that has raised awareness about racial inequity in food systems.
  • Sallie Calhoun’s Paicines Ranch in California is working to bring agricultural business and investment up to date with our times and closer to nature by prioritizing ecosystem health, habitat, and the sequestration of carbon through soil practices. The project was founded with the aim of working with the dynamic natural world to explore ways of building healthy ecosystems while growing crops and supporting community through food. Paicines Ranch is intentionally creating a model of doing business that is focused on managing complexities rather than solving problems, and is centered on adding true value over profits.

Outside of the food system, examples of other applications of mutual aid, social justice, creative arts, community resilience, and activism for human rights and the environment that all embrace the peace economy include:

  • People are reimagining safety through alternatives to policing. Safety in the peace economy comes from the engagement of community and the reallocation of resources and funding into programs of care—not militarized police forces and punitive systems of justice. While many alternatives to policing already exist, recent initiatives after the murder of George Floyd by police in May 2020 have introduced changes, both big and small, across the U.S., and the global uprisings against systemic racism have led to these issues being part of the mainstream conversation.
  • Creative cooperatives are reclaiming real estate and bringing access to art, living spaces, and community spaces back to marginalized Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in Oakland and elsewhere who have played an integral part in shaping the culture of cities across the U.S.
  • Fire recovery efforts in Oregon, California, and elsewhere have depended on people-led mutual aid projects and local volunteer networks. Devastating fires, worsened by climate change and the criminal negligence of public utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), have been increasing in recent years, some of them incinerating entire towns. Fire recovery efforts in Oregon and California have largely been community-led, and networks have formed among neighbors to create resilience and support—including grief spaces like those created in Ashland, Oregon, which provide a space for people to share their experiences of loss.
  • People are fighting the fossil fuel industry while building community spaces and support for people who are homeless in New Mexico. The grassroots project is part of a larger project in New Mexico. SOL for All has brought solar power to various locations across the state in an effort to support alternative energy solutions, which are necessary to combat climate change.
  • The largest dam removal in history started in 2023 in southern Oregon and Northern California, thanks to years of Indigenous-led community activism. The Karuk, Yurok, and other Native American groups for whom the Klamath River Basin is their ancestral home since time immemorial have been organizing against the dams since they were proposed in the 1910s—which have had disastrous results for people, salmon, and other wildlife—for decades. After multigenerational efforts, the massive dam removal project is expected to be completed by 2024.
  • Many people are also building a peace economy through creative sharing efforts and alternatives to money-based exchanges. This includes community gardens, mutual aid groups, and participation in the solidarity economy, and just transition efforts like those of Americans with jobs sharing their stimulus checks with those in need in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. People are also creating skill share networks like Kola Nut Collaborative and others, and millions of people daily are sharing tools and operating in a moneyless economy via “free” signs on street corners, Craigslist’s “free stuff” page, Freecycle, and other creative routes.

The above are just some of the countless examples of the peace economy in action—and most of these efforts were started by just one or two people deciding to do something about the problems they saw happening in their local community.

AUTHOR BIO: April M. Short is an editor, journalist, and documentary editor and producer. She is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor, and she is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she was a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Good Times, a weekly newspaper in Santa Cruz, California. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, LA Yoga, Pressenza, the Conversation, Salon, and many other publications.

Our food system is the bullseye for solving the world’s climate challenges

The industrialized food system is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The impact of agriculture on climate change is significant. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agriculture sector is responsible for 10 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, after transportation (29 percent), electricity production (25 percent), industry (23 percent), and commercial and residential usage (13 percent). However, according to Peter Lehner, managing attorney for EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, the EPA estimate is “almost certainly significantly quite low.”

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Lehner argues that most analyses exclude five unique sources of emissions from the farming sector: soil carbon (carbon released during the disturbance of soil), lost sequestration (carbon that would still be sequestered in the ground had that land not been converted into farmland), input footprints (carbon footprint for products used in agriculture, like the manufacturing of fertilizer), difficult measurements (it is harder to measure the carbon emissions of biological systems like agriculture than it is to measure the emissions of other industries that are not biological, like transportation), and potent gases (like methane and nitrous oxide).

Regarding that last source: Focusing on carbon dioxide as the main greenhouse gas often ignores powerful planet-warming gases that are emitted by agriculture and that are even more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane, which is emitted by the burps and farts of ruminants like cows and sheep, has up to 86 times more global warming potential over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide (and also impacts public health, particularly in frontline communities). Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of fertilizer runoff, has 300 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide (and also harms plants and animals).

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“Most other studies, including by the [United Nations (UN)] and others, say that agriculture contributes much closer to 15 or 20 percent or more of world greenhouse gas emissions,” Lehner points out.

Miscalculating Agricultural Emissions

A systems engineering analysis of climate science and animal agriculture published in the Journal of Ecological Society in 2019 by Sailesh Rao, the founder and executive director of Climate Healers, an environmental nonprofit, backs up the claim that the majority of analyses of agricultural emissions are low. Rao’s paper found that “animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, responsible for at least 87% of greenhouse gas emissions annually.”

According to Rao, there are “four major miscalculations in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports, which systematically undercount the climate change impact of animal agriculture.” These miscalculations relate to carbon dioxide, methane, land use, and the timeline of analysis (using data only from the Industrial Era onward, which discounts the long-term contribution of animal agriculture to historical emissions).

Rao’s abstract states:

“We show that we need to transition to a global plant-based economy first and that blindly eliminating fossil fuel usage first will accelerate the warming of the planet. We show that the annual methane emissions from animal agriculture alone cause more incremental global warming than the annual CO2 emissions from all fossil fuel sources combined. We further show that the transition to a global plant-based economy has the potential to sequester over 2000 Gigatons (Gt) of CO2 in regenerating soils and vegetation, returning atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to the “safe zone” of under 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 equivalent, while restoring the biodiversity of the planet and healing its climate. This paper clearly illustrates why the scientific community, government institutions, corporations, and news media, who vastly underestimate the role of animal agriculture and focus primarily on reducing fossil fuel use, need to urgently change their priorities in order to be effective.”

Tackling Food Systems at Global Climate Summits

Agriculture was not a central topic of discussion at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. “Despite [the] huge impact to ecological systems and climate,” writes Suzannah Gerber, a nutrition scientist and fellow of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture—a research agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture—“specific high-level talks about agriculture comprised less than 5 percent of all official negotiations and less than 10 percent of side events, favoring the less controversial topic of renewable energy.”

And while renewable energy supporters cheered the fact that the Glasgow Climate Pact is the first UN climate agreement to explicitly mention “coal” and “fossil fuels”—something that the fossil fuel industry fought hard against in previous summits, and that China and India managed to water down in the current agreement—the pact makes no mention of the words “agriculture” or “food.”

Deforestation and methane emissions were main topics at COP26 (resulting in pledges to reduce both), but agriculture—which is intimately linked to deforestation and land-use change—was relegated to a sideline topic. “Unlike forest, finance, and transport—that got the feted ‘title of a day’ at … [COP26]—agriculture was taken up as part of ‘Nature Day’ on a Saturday,” reported Richard Mahapatra for Down to Earth. “Outside the venue, thousands protested against a gamut of things, including step-motherly treatment to food systems that have been a major source of greenhouse gas… emissions.”

Governments did a better job addressing the agriculture and climate connection the following year at COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. At the conference, governments actively engaged in intensifying efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance adaptive measures in the agriculture sector to combat the challenges of climate change.

During the discussions, an important milestone was reached with the establishment of a comprehensive four-year plan focusing on agriculture and food security, which included the mobilization increased financial resources to drive the transformative changes needed in the agricultural sector by 2030. A pioneering initiative called Food and Agriculture for Sustainable Transformation (FAST) was also launched under the leadership of over 20 agriculture ministers and the Egyptian COP27 presidency.

“Practical lessons that can be scaled exist: from sustainable intensification of food systems to regenerative agriculture, to agroecology and related agroforestry,” said Dr. Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. “Such solutions offer us an opportunity to build food, social-economic and ecological resilience to the negative effects of climate change. These practices work towards empowering communities against hunger and poverty, and ensure inclusion of marginalized communities and people.”

Meat Is Murder—for Animals and the Environment

Forests continue to be clear-cut to make room for farms, such as factory farms—which supply humans’ appetite for meat—and plantations that produce the world’s most used vegetable oil: palm oil. Within agriculture, producing meat is the main climate problem: Plant-based foods account for 29 percent of the global food production greenhouse gas emissions, while animal-based food accounts for almost twice as much—57 percent—with beef being the main contributor. “Every bite of burger boosts harmful greenhouse gases,” said the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). “Research shows that if cows were a nation, they would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter,” according to UNEP. “As humans, meat production is one of the most destructive ways in which we leave our footprint on the planet.”

UNEP states, “Between 1970 and 2011, livestock increased from 7.3 billion to 24.2 billion units, worldwide.” With such a staggering number of animals trapped in our food system, it should be no surprise that industrial farming is, as the animal rights nonprofit Animal Equality states, “the largest cause of animal abuse in history.” The group points out, “At no other time in history have so many animals died or suffered so much throughout their lives.”

A More Sustainable Future Is Plant-Powered

Animal-based agriculture is ultimately a poor way to feed a skyrocketing human population. “Farming animals is notoriously inefficient and wasteful when compared to growing plants to feed humans directly, with the end result that ‘livestock’ animals take drastically more food from the global food supply than they provide,” writes Ashley Capps, a researcher specializing in farmed animal welfare for A Well-Fed World, an international food security organization advocating for the transition to plant-based agriculture.

“This is because in order to eat farmed animals, we have to grow the crops necessary to feed them, which amounts to vastly more crops than it would take to feed humans directly,” writes Capps. “To give one example, it takes 25 pounds of grain to yield just one pound of beef—while crops such as soy and lentils produce, pound for pound, as much protein as beef, and sometimes more.”

Beef is so resource-intensive to produce, that it requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gases per gram of edible protein than beans, lentils, and peas—all commonly farmed plant proteins, according to the World Resources Institute.

Switching to plant-based agriculture would help prevent food shortages, hunger, and even famine at a time when climate change is creating food insecurity across the globe. Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, had warned during the Saudi Green Initiative Forum in October 2021, that failure to stem the climate crisis “would mean less food, so probably a crisis in food security.”

A Well-Fed World points out that “[c]limate change is a hunger risk multiplier, with 20 percent more people projected to be at risk of hunger by 2050 due to extreme weather events. Unfortunately, the world’s most food insecure populations are also those disproportionately harmed by climate-related events, including increased heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis, and flooding.”

Climate, Conflict, and COVID-19: A Perfect Storm

“A perfect storm of conflict, climate crises, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising costs for reaching people in need is causing a seismic hunger crisis,” warns the World Food Program, the food assistance branch of the UN. The agency launched a public appeal to the world’s billionaires to donate $6.6 billion to save 42 million people across 43 countries from famine.

“Concurrently replacing all animal-based items in the U.S. diet with plant-based alternatives will add enough food to feed, in full, 350 million additional people, well above the expected benefits of eliminating all supply chain food waste,” according to a 2018 study by an international team of researchers published in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The authors note that the results of their study “highlight the importance of dietary shifts to improving food availability and security.”

The dietary shift from meat to plants is something that UNEP has underscored as a way to combat climate change and increase the efficiency of our food system. In their Emissions Gap Report 2021, the agency noted that—in addition to switching from the combustion of natural gas to renewables—“behavioral changes such as reduced consumption of cattle-based foods and reduced food waste and loss” present a significant opportunity to reduce methane emissions. “[F]ast methane action, as opposed to slower or delayed action, can contribute greatly to reducing midterm (2050) temperatures,” the report states.

In many ways, this behavioral change is already underway, as veganism is on the rise. “It can be difficult to get an accurate picture of how many vegans there are in the U.S., but one survey found a 300 percent increase in vegans between 2004 and 2019, amounting to about 3 percent of the total population or nearly 10 million people,” notes Sentient Media, a nonprofit animal rights journalism organization. Still, even though there has been a steady increase in plant-based diets, meat consumption is hitting record levels, aided by carnivores in low- and middle-income countries where incomes are on the rise, like India and China.

Looking Ahead

By 2050, the human population is expected to reach a staggering 9.9 billion people. (The Earth supports more than 8 billion people as of 2023; just 50 years ago, the global population was less than half that number.) To ensure global food security in 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that food production must increase by 60 percent.

In a 2022 Economist blog post, Alice Ruhweza, the Africa regional director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an environmental nonprofit, urged nations to make food systems a priority. “From brands to retailers, manufacturers to farmers, it will take every organization and person involved in the food system to deliver on progress for climate and nature—ensuring our children have access to high-quality fresh food in the future which doesn’t cost the planet,” she writes. “Actions that food system organizations can take now include ensuring renewable energy is used on-site, investing in circular initiatives that simultaneously tackle food waste and address soil health, removing deforestation from their supply chain, and communicating to consumers in a way that makes plant-rich diets irresistible. All of this must be underpinned by a just transition for farmers—who are often the first to feel the impacts of climate change—and a firm commitment to food security.”

If society can effectively address the runaway emissions of our broken, unsustainable, and inhumane industrialized food system—including moving humanity to plant-based diets—perhaps the existential climate crisis can truly be overcome. But that is a big “if.”

AUTHOR BIO: Reynard Loki is a co-founder of the Observatory, where he is the environment and animal rights editor. He is also a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food, and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health and Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, Asia Times, Pressenza, and EcoWatch, among others. He volunteers with New York City Pigeon Rescue Central.

The rise of private cops: How not to tackle homelessness

Like many cities with a serious housing problem, Portland is increasingly relying on private security to “clean up” the human debris of capitalism.

During a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, my husband and I watched a private security guard help up an unhoused man from the sidewalk. Three white women looked on at the interaction that took place in the trendy Nob Hill neighborhood on August 7, 2023, right in front of a yoga studio.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

But the guard was not responding with compassion. Seconds earlier, the tall and very muscular man sporting a flak jacket emblazoned with the word “security,” had walked right by me toward the unhoused man and savagely knocked him to the ground without provocation or warning. Blood streamed from the victim’s face and onto the sidewalk. He stood up as the guard hovered over him and stumbled toward the damaged glasses that had fallen off his face during the assault. The guard, who was twice the man’s size, picked up and offered him the hat that had also fallen off his head and ushered him away.

It’s increasingly common to see private security guards patrolling the streets of Portland—considered one of the most progressive cities in the United States. Not only are businesses banding together to pay for private armed patrols, but even Portland State University is using such a service on its campus. The city of Portland also recently increased its private security budget for City Hall by more than half a million dollars to hire three armed guards.

The trend is a knee-jerk response to sharply rising homelessness. There are tents belonging to unhoused people sprinkled throughout downtown Portland and Nob Hill. Like much of Portland, many of the unhoused are white, but, as Axios in a report about a homelessness survey pointed out, “the rate of homelessness among people in the Portland area who are Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander grew more rapidly than among people who are white.”

Three summers ago, Portland—one of the nation’s whitest cities—was also an epicenter of the nationwide racial justice uprising in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “There are more Black Lives Matter signs in Portland than Black people,” joked one Black resident to the New York Times. As Donald Trump’s administration sent armed federal agents to Portland to quash the uprising, the city’s residents and officials came to symbolize a heroic resistance to rising authoritarianism.

The brutal savagery of what we witnessed in Nob Hill was in jarring contrast to the signs, stickers, and posters that many Portland businesses continue to display on their windows, declaring that “Black Lives Matter,” or “All Genders are Welcome,” and that promise safety to everyone. Everyone but the unhoused, apparently.

Shocked by the violence of the security guard’s assault, my husband and I confronted the perpetrator. He responded that hours earlier the victim had allegedly assaulted a woman in the neighborhood. In the seconds before he was attacked, however, I had walked within a few feet of the unhoused man as he muttered to himself in what sounded like a mix of English and a foreign language. The man had been minding his own business.

In a detailed three-part investigation for Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) in December 2021, Rebecca Ellis examined how businesses have begun paying unknown sums of money to hire private security patrols. According to Ellis, “Private security firms in Oregon are notoriously underregulated, and their employees are required to receive a fraction of the training and oversight as public law enforcement.” She added, “They remain accountable primarily to their clients, not the public.”

Business owners and residents are claiming that rising homelessness is the result of increased drug addiction, forcing them to resort to private security. But researchers point to high rents and a lack of affordable housing—not drug use—as the cause of people living without homes.

As we responded to the assault against the unhoused man with an appropriate level of shock, the three white women who had also watched the incident unfold rushed to the guard’s defense. They seemed to know instinctively by our visible horror that we were visitors to the city, and informed us in no uncertain terms that the guard was simply doing his job. “Leave the poor man alone,” said one of them, sporting what appeared to be scrubs (I wondered, was she a health care worker?). She wasn’t referring to the victim, but rather his assaulter.

Meanwhile, an employee of prAna, the storefront where the attack took place, shooed us away from the still-wet blood spatters that now stained the sidewalk. He used a spray cleaner to wipe away the evidence, seconds after I photographed it. The yoga studio, which also sells high-end clothing, boasts on its website that the Sanskrit word for which it is named, is “the life-giving force, the universal energy that flows within and among us, connecting us with all other living beings.”

Although the unhoused man bled the same way as any of us would, he was not seen as a living being in the moment that the security guard brutally slammed him into the sidewalk. He was an inconvenient object, a nuisance, marring the enjoyment of consumers who simply wanted to practice their mindfulness without having to face the ugly underbelly of racial capitalism.

The consequences of private muscle are as serious and as potentially deadly as state power. In 2021, a private security guard named Logan Gimbel was sentenced to a life term in prison for fatally shooting a resident named Freddy Nelson with an unlicensed firearm. Ellis reported in the second piece of the OPB series that a private security guard working for a company named Echelon had engaged in a brutal assault on a 46-year-old unhoused woman named Katherine Hoffman. The assault sounded similar to what I had seen happen in Nob Hill. When speaking with police, the guard who beat Hoffman with his baton bizarrely claimed it was the baton that did it, not he. “I had it in my hand, I didn’t hit her with it,” he told police. “But it did hit her.”

The mercenary reliance on private security is embedded in a belief that Portland’s police have been “defunded.” But detailed analyses such as this one reveal that it is not true that the police force has been stripped of funding. As was the case in many American cities, Portland’s city council representatives initially paid lip service to racial justice protesters in the summer of 2020 by voting to make modest cuts to police budgets, only to restore them merely months later.

There is indeed a serious problem of homelessness in Portland and the business owners who have resorted to private security claim they simply want to “clean up” the problems that the city refuses to. A political battle is ensuing over allowing homelessness to flourish rather than cracking down on the unhoused.

But there is a glaring omission in the police-versus-private-security and violence-versus-the-unhoused fights, and that is the fact that Oregon is simply an unaffordable place to live. One economist told OPB’s April Ehrlich, “We have the worst affordability… Low vacancies and high prices… [are] indicative of a housing shortage.” According to Ehrlich, “Oregon is among states with the lowest supply of rentals that are affordable to people at or below poverty levels.”

When housing is in short supply and rents are out of reach, it’s inevitable that the number of people without homes will rise. Hiring private security firms to supplement policing does little to address this systemic cause of homelessness. Just as the yoga studio’s employee cleaned away the blood of the unhoused man from the sidewalk, the use of private security is intended to sweep away the human detritus of economic injustice.

About 30 minutes after the assault that I witnessed took place, the Portland police showed up, blocking the intersection outside the yoga storefront with a large patrol car. Were they on the scene to arrest the security guard, I wondered?

No. We spotted the guard walking freely on the sidewalk and then disappearing into a nearby store, which was presumably one of his employers. Meanwhile, the police officers had placed the unhoused assault victim in the back of their patrol car. We offered the cops our testimony, but they appeared uninterested. Ultimately, it was clear to us that the guard and the police were both paid to lock up the unhoused man (who clearly needed mental health treatment), in service of their wealthy white patrons—Nob Hill’s business owners and residents.

Unless city, state, or federal governments directly address the fact that the rent is too damn high and wages are too damn low, people will continue to lose access to housing and services and find themselves on the receiving end of blows and batons from either private guards or the police, as business owners and wealthier residents look on with approval.

AUTHOR BIO: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

The deadly intersection of labor exploitation and climate change

Neither the corporate media nor our politicians who are beholden to corporate lobbyists honestly address the common root causes of (and solutions to) worker exploitation and climate change.

As temperatures soar in the United States this summer, some among us are lucky enough to be able to remain in air-conditioned interior spaces, ordering food, groceries, clothing, and other products to be delivered to us. The rest, toiling in the extreme heat to pull products off hot warehouse shelves and drop them off curbside in scorching delivery trucks, are risking health and even life. July 2023 marked the planet’s hottest month on record.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In San Bernardino, California, where retail giant Amazon has a massive warehouse and fulfillment center, daily temperatures reached triple digits for the majority of days in July and have been dangerously hot all summer. Workers with the Inland Empire Amazon Workers United (IEAWU) protested the dangerous conditions and complained to CAL-OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. One worker, Daniel Rivera, told Fox11, “Amazon’s main focus is production. Safety is not the priority until it’s too late.”

What we are witnessing with such increasingly common instances is capitalism-induced climate change intersecting with capitalism-induced labor exploitation. It’s a deadly combination and one that is being discussed in ways that obscure its causes and solutions.

Take the corporate media, whose coverage has focused on the pro-business buzzword of “productivity.” CBS worried in an August 1, 2023 story, “How Hot Weather Affects Worker Productivity—and What That Means for the Economy.” The New York Times similarly lamented in a July 31, 2023 headline, that “Heat Is Costing the U.S. Economy Billions in Lost Productivity.” The cost to the economy (a euphemism for stock values and profit margins) is the bottom line—not the safety and health of human beings. Therefore, it matters a great deal that, as per the Times, “more than 2.5 billion hours of labor in the U.S. agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and service sectors were lost to heat exposure.”

The Times story quoted R. Jisung Park, an environmental and labor economist, who was concerned that workers’ “performance declines dramatically when exposed to heat,” and therefore “hotter temperatures appear to muck up the gears of the economy.”

How inconvenient the corporate-induced climate crisis has been to the performance standards of corporate-driven worker exploitation!

We oughtn’t to be surprised that in an economy designed to see workers as units of production for a profit-driven top-down system of exploitation, corporate media coverage would spout such callous narratives based on internalized capitalist values.

President Joe Biden’s administration, on the surface at least, appears to be centering worker safety and well-being. In late July the president asked the Department of Labor to “issue the first-ever Hazard Alert for heat,” and to increase enforcement of heat-related worker protections. “The Hazard Alert will reaffirm that workers have heat-related protections under federal law,” announced the White House. The Biden administration pointed out proudly that it “has continued to deliver on the most ambitious climate agenda in American history,” and that, in contrast, “many Republicans in Congress continue to deny the very existence of climate change.”

Yet, in its first two years, the Biden administration actually approved more oil and gas drilling permits than in the first two years of the previous Republican administration of Donald Trump. A 21-year-old climate activist, Elise Joshi, confronted White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in late July 2023, saying, “A million young people wrote to the administration pleading [for it] not to approve a disastrous oil-drilling project in Alaska and we were ignored.” The video of Joshi’s brave action has gone viral.

If Biden truly cares about the health and safety of working people in a warming climate, and about the future of young people like Joshi, he has the power to do much more than merely enforce safety standards—which is a band-aid solution and won’t do anything to stop global warming.

The Center for Biological Diversity has devoted an entire website, BidensClimatePowers.org, explaining what the president could do immediately, without needing congressional approval. The recommendations include refusing permits for fossil fuel projects, as Joshi pleaded for him to do.

Neither the corporate media nor our politicians who are beholden to corporate lobbyists honestly address the intersection of worker exploitation and climate change. They neither pinpoint the common cause—corporate greed—nor do they identify the common solution—ending corporate greed.

The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were a practice run for what is currently transpiring with the climate catastrophe enveloping the planet.

Even those who had the luxury of working from home during the lockdowns were measured by their productivity. At first corporate America celebrated because people worked harder from home than from their workplace, freed from time-consuming commutes and the distractions of in-person camaraderie. Now, as many workers are realizing they don’t want to be cogs in someone else’s wheel, Fortune.com blared the headline, “American Worker Productivity Is Declining at the Fastest Rate in 75 Years—and It Could See CEOs Go to War Against WFH [Work From Home].”

Meanwhile, those whose labor our society relies on were labeled “essential” and sent off to work, braving a killer virus, often without adequate safety measures in place. Even working in a grocery store during the lockdowns cost people their lives. A third of all workers in the U.S. were deemed essential. Unsurprisingly, they were disproportionately low-income and people of color. We can expect the same to transpire in a warming climate as people like Daniel Rivera, the Amazon warehouse worker in San Bernardino, toil in the burning heat in order to keep the wheels of productivity turning.

Just as corporations care little for worker lives, the climate crisis is the predictable outcome of an economy designed to maximize shareholder profit, not ensure a viable planet for future generations. Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson connected the dots in his novel New York 2140. “We’ve been paying a fraction of what things really cost to make, but meanwhile the planet, and the workers who make the stuff, take the unpaid costs right in the teeth,” said Robinson. We cannot rely on fiction writers painting dystopian futures to be the only ones identifying the common root causes of climate change and labor abuse.

The current design of our economic system privileges the well-being of only 1 percent of all humans. Whether it’s a deadly virus or the deadly climate, unless we clearly identify the systemic problems and redesign our economic system to center the well-being of all human beings, the future will not be livable, rendering discussions of “productivity” moot in the deadliest possible way.

AUTHOR BIO: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

U.S. leaders split on China policy

On the one hand, U.S. policy aims to constrain China’s economic, political, and military development because it has now become the United States’ chief economic competitor and thus enemy. On the other hand, U.S. policy seeks to secure the many benefits to the United States of its companies’ trade with and investments in China. U.S. debates over “decoupling” the two countries’ economies versus the milder version of the same thing—“de-risking”—exemplify, on both sides, U.S. policy’s split approach to China.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The difficult reality for the United States is economic dependence on the world’s number two economy that deepens with China’s relentless march toward becoming the world’s number one. Likewise, China’s stunningly rapid growth over recent decades entangled it in a complex economic codependence with the U.S. market, the U.S. dollar, and U.S. interest rates. In stark contrast, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia ever offered the U.S. economic opportunities or competitive challenges comparable to what China now does. In this context, consider World Bank 2022 data on GDPs in Russia, Germany, China, and the United States: $1.5 trillion, $3.9 trillion, $14.7 trillion, and $20.9 trillion, respectively.

The political right wings of both major U.S. political parties and the military-industrial complex have long prevailed in shaping how U.S. mainstream media treat the country’s foreign policies. Over the last decade especially, the media has increasingly accused China of aggressively expanding its global influence, of authoritarianism at home, and of policies targeting the United States. Over recent decades, big business interests promote a quite different U.S. foreign policy prioritizing profitable coexistence between the United States and China. U.S. policy splits and oscillates between these two poles. One day Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase bank and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen go to Beijing to support mutuality of interests while at the same time, President Biden labels Xi Jinping a “dictator.”

The history and legacy of the Cold War accustomed U.S. media, politicians, and academics to traffic in hyperbolic denunciations of communism plus parties and governments they link to it. Right-wing political forces have always been eager to update anti-Soviet, Cold War logics and slogans for use against China’s government and Communist Party as continuing villains. Old (Taiwan and Hong Kong) and new issues (Uyghurs) mark an ongoing campaign.

Yet as the Cold War wound down and then collapsed with the USSR’s demise, Nixon and Kissinger reconnected with a China already launched on an economic development surge that never stopped. Capitalists from the system’s old centers in the G7 (Western Europe, North America, and Japan) poured investments into China to profit from its relatively much lower wages and its rapidly growing internal market. Over the last 50 years, consumer goods and capital goods flowed out of factories in China to markets around the world. China became deeply entangled in global supply chains. Exports from China brought an inflow of payments in U.S. dollars. China lent many of those dollars back to the U.S. Treasury to fund its growing budget deficits. China joined Japan as the two major creditor countries of the United States, the world’s greatest debtor country.

China’s investment of its accumulating dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds helped to enable the fast-rising U.S. national debt over the last half-century. That helped keep U.S. interest rates low to fuel U.S. economic growth and its recoveries from several economic crashes. China’s relatively low-priced exports reflected its low wages and active government development supports. Those exports to the United States helped prevent inflation over most of those years. In turn, low prices reduced pressures from employees for higher wages and thereby supported U.S. capitalists’ profits. In these and still other ways, U.S.-China connections became deeply embedded in the functioning and success of U.S. capitalism. Cutting those connections would risk very adverse economic consequences for the United States.

Moreover, many proposals favoring such cutting are ineffective and ill-informed fantasies. If the U.S. government could force United States and other multinational corporations to close up shop in China, they would most likely move to other low-wage Asian locations. They would not return to the United States because its wages and other expenses are too high and thus non-competitive. Where they do go will entail sourcing inputs from China, already their most competitive producer. In short, forcing capitalists to leave China will help the United States minimally and hurt the Chinese minimally as well. Closing off the China market for U.S. microchip-makers is likewise a faulty fantasy. Without access to the booming Chinese market, U.S.-based companies will be uncompetitive with other chip-makers based in countries not closed out of the Chinese market.

U.S. capitalism needs the inflow of most Chinese exports and needs inclusion in China’s markets. U.S. megabanks need access to China’s fast-growing markets or else European, Japanese, and Chinese banks will eventually outcompete the U.S. banks. Even if the United States could force or maneuver G7 banks to join a U.S.-led exit from China, China’s banks and those of its allies in India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa (the BRICS) would control access to the profitable financing of China’s growth. In terms of aggregate GDPs, the BRICS are already a bigger economic system, taken together, than the G7 taken together, and the gap between them keeps widening.

Were the United States to pursue its resumed Cold War crusade against China—economically, politically, and/or militarily without nuclear warfare—the results could risk major dislocations, losses, and costly adjustments for U.S. capitalism. With nuclear warfare, of course, the risks are still larger. Other than extreme parts of the U.S. right wing, no one wants to take such risks. The United States’ G7 allies surely do not. Already they are imagining their desired futures in a bipolar world split between falling and rising hegemons and perhaps counterhegemonic groupings of other nations. Most of the world recognizes China’s relentless growth and expansion as the major dynamic of today’s world economy. Most likewise see the United States as the major antagonist tilting against China’s rise into a global superpower position.

What many observers of the China-U.S. clash miss are those of its causes and shapers located in the extreme tensions and contradictions besetting the employer-employee class conflicts within both superpowers. Those class conflicts in the United States respond to this basic question: whose wealth, income, and social position will have to bear the major burden of accommodating the costs of declining hegemony? Will the redistribution of wealth upward across the last 3-40 years persist, be stopped, or be reversed? Are rising labor militancy across the United States and the quasi-fascistic resurging U.S. right wing foretastes of struggles to come?

China’s remarkable ascension rapidly transformed a rural, poor, agricultural economy into an urban, middle-income, and industrial economy. The parallel transformation in Western Europe took centuries and occasioned profound, bitter, and violent class struggles. In China, the transformation took a few decades and was likely the more profoundly traumatic for that reason. Will similar class struggles erupt there? Are they building beneath the surface of Chinese society already? Might the Global South be where global capitalism—the system defined by its employer-versus-employee productive core—goes finally to play the endgame of its profit-maximization fetish?

Both the United States and China display economic systems organized around workplace organizations where a small number of employers dominate a large number of hired employees. In the United States, those workplace organizations are mostly private enterprises. China displays a hybrid system whose enterprises are both private and state-owned and operated, but where both types of workplace organizations share the employer-versus-employee organization. That organization typically features the employer class accumulating far more wealth than the employee class. Moreover, that wealthy class of employers can and usually does buy dominant political power as well. The resulting mix of economic and political inequality provokes tensions, conflicts, and social change.

That reality is already well established in both the United States and China. Thus, for example, the United States has not raised its federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour since 2009. Both major political parties are responsible. Yellen gives speeches bemoaning the deepening inequalities in the United States, but the deepening persists. In the tradition of blaming the victim, American capitalism tends to fault the poor for their poverty. Xi Jinping also worries openly about deepening inequalities: likely more urgent in nations calling themselves socialist. Even though China has taken significant steps to reduce its recently extreme economic inequalities, they remain a serious social problem there too. The U.S.-China clash depends as much on each nation’s internal class conflicts and struggles as it depends on their policies toward one another.

China adjusts to the twists and turns in the United States’ split policy approach. It prepares for both eventualities: cutthroat competition abetted by intense economic nationalism possibly including military warfare or a conjointly planned peaceful economic coexistence. As China awaits the United States’ decisions on which way to guide the United States’ economic future, China’s growth will likely continue, matching and then surpassing the United States’ global economic footprint. China’s stunning economic growth success across the last 30 years secures China’s remarkable hybrid economy of private and state enterprises supervised by and subordinated to a powerful political party. An anxious world awaits the next chapter in capitalism’s always dangerously uneven mix of class and national struggles.

AUTHOR BIO: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Socialism, and Understanding Marxism, the latter of which is now available in a newly released 2021 hardcover edition with a new introduction by the author.

Is Earth close to another 'Great Dying'?

You may remember the 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which large parts of Europe and the American East Coast suddenly freeze up?

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The plot device is that the Great Conveyor Belt—also known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)—which brings heat from the south Pacific around the southern tip of Africa and up the east coast of the Americas (we call it the Gulf Stream) into the North Atlantic and Europe shuts down.

The AMOC and the heat it brings to the North Atlantic ocean is the main reason why London (at the same latitude as Calgary) has a relatively temperate climate year-round, instead of being snowbound six months out of the year.

It’s why Europe can grow enough food to feed its 740+ million people; if the AMOC was to stop transporting all that heat to the North Atlantic, the continent could be plunged into famine in a matter of years or decades (the movie was heavily dramatized).

The IPCC has warned of this possibility but had placed the danger zone for the failure of the AMOC in the early 22nd century, well past the lifetimes of most people living today. That proclamation moved it off most of our immediate-attention screens.

Now, however, might be a good time to watch the movie again: a new study published in Nature Communications last week titled “Warning of a Forthcoming Collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation” reports that global warming forced by all the CO2 and methane in our atmosphere—if we don’t do something immediately—could shut down the AMOC as early as 2025 and almost certainly before 2095.

This adds to a growing body of alarming climate science, like the one published last year in the Journal of ClimatetitledSixfold Increase in Historical Northern Hemisphere Concurrent Large Heatwaves Driven by Warming and Changing Atmospheric Circulations,” which indicates we’re much farther down the path of dangerous climate change than even most scientists realized.

That study essentially predicted this year’s shocking Northern Hemisphere heat waves (with more and worse to come); the lead researcher’s first name is Cassandra, no doubt an unintentional choice in the paper’s authors’ pecking order, but still.

Perhaps most alarming was a paper published eleven months ago in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) titled “Evidence for Massive Methane Hydrate Destabilization During the Penultimate Interglacial Warming.”

It brings up the topic of the “Clathrate Gun Hypothesis,”which is the absolute worst case scenario for humanity’s future.

All across the planet there are an estimated 1.4 trillion tons of methane gas frozen into a snowcone-like slurry called clathrates or methane hydrates laying on the sea floor off the various continental shelves.

When they suddenly melt, that’s the “firing of the gun.” An explosion (in the context of geologic time) of atmospheric gas that’s over 70 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. The Clathrate Gun.

The PNAS paper mentioned above concludes that 126,000 years ago there was an event that caused a small amount of these clathrates to warm enough to turn to gas and bubble up out of the seas. The resulting spike in greenhouse gas (methane) led to a major warming event worldwide:

“Our results identify an exceptionally large warming of the equatorial Atlantic intermediate waters and strong evidence of methane release and oxidation almost certainly due to massive methane hydrate destabilization during the early part of the penultimate warm episode (126,000 to 125,000 y ago). This major warming was caused by … a brief episode of meltwater-induced weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and amplified by a warm mean climate.”

The researchers warn we may be looking at a similar event in our time:

“Our results highlight climatic feedback processes associated with the penultimate climate warming that can serve as a paleoanalog for modern ongoing warming.”

As glaciers melt and the oceans warm, they note:

“[M]eltwater-induced AMOC weakening significantly amplifies the warming of intermediate waters and, in turn, destabilizes shallow subsurface methane hydrate deposits.”

In other words, the recent extreme warming of our oceans increases the chances the AMOC Great Conveyor Belt will shut down, throwing Europe into an existential crisis and wilding the rest of the world’s weather. And, most ominously, the AMOC shutting down will speed up the melting of more methane clathrates on the sea floors around the world.

The process is driven by warming of the oceans, which absorb more than 90 percent of the additional global warming heat we’re forcing by burning fossil fuels. As the BBC noted, the past month and first weeks of July “were hotter than any in recorded history” and:

“This week, sea surface temperatures along the coasts of Southern Spain and North Africa were 2-4C (3.6-7.2F) higher than they would normally be at this time of year, with some spots 5C (9F) above the long-term average.”

Ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida this week were in the range that Jacuzzi recommends for their hot tubs: 101 degrees. This has never happened before in human history.

The least likely but most dangerous outcome scenario is that the warming ocean might begin a massive melting of those methane hydrate slurries into gas, producing a “burp” of that greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, further adding to global warming, which would then melt even more of the clathrates.

It would be a deadly “positive feedback system,” with each phase of warming setting up the next and worse one. The Clathrate Gun.

At the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago, this runaway process is apparently what happened when a spike in methane led to such a violent warming of the planet that it killed over 90 percent of all life in the oceans and 70 percent of all life on land, paving the way for the rise of the dinosaurs, as cold-blooded lizards were among the few survivors.

That period is referred to as the Permian Mass Extinction, or, simply, “The Great Dying.” It was the most destructive mass extinction event in the history of our planet.

Eight years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio and I put together and co-narrated a 12-minute video about this exact scenario, interviewing some of the world’s top climate scientists.

The “clathrate gun hypothesis” is controversial, but there’s a large body of evidence for it having done the damage at the end of the Permian, as we note in that video.

While it’s the least likely but most dramatic outcome of today’s global warming, it’s worth heeding the warning: by pouring over thirty billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year we have stirred a beast that could—if we don’t take serious action soon—spell the doom of human civilization, if not humanity itself.

As the scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted:

“The key findings of our study add to a growing body of observational findings strongly supporting the ‘clathrate gun hypothesis.’ … Importantly, the interval we have studied is marked by a mean climate state comparable to future projections of transient global climate warming of 1.3 °C to 3.0 °C.” [emphasis mine]

We just this year passed 1.3 degrees Celsius of planetary warming: we are now in the territory of the Clathrate Gun Hypothesis if these researchers are right (although the risks are still small).

This is the first study I’ve seen to make such a claim, and it’s not from crackpots or alarmists; these are solid, credible scientists with a lifetime of learning and work behind them.

And, they argue, if the AMOC weakens or shuts down, all bets are off:

“Simulation studies have suggested warming of intermediate waters has been limited to ∼1.5 °C to 3 °C, and that such warmings were insufficient to significantly affect the stability of shallow subsurface methane hydrates. However, the magnitude of intermediate water warming can be significantly amplified by meltwater-induced weakening of atmospheric and ocean circulation, an amplification not considered in the simulations that examined potential gas hydrate destabilization.”

In other words, if the AMOC fails, the clathrate gun hypothesis becomes significantly more viable.

For much of the past four decades, climate activists have been warning us that we’re approaching tipping points and thresholds that will alter how Americans live, cost us a fortune, and kill millions of humans every year.

Now we’re there. Our “normal” climate is dead; the weather has gone insane, and it is annually killing thousands of Americans and millions of people all around the globe. And the numbers are increasing almost exponentially, year to year.

This is how quickly it has hit us: when I published the first edition of my book warning of climate change, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, in 1996 (it’s been updated twice since then) there was still a vigorous debate here in the United States—funded in large part by the fossil fuel industry and its allies in rightwing media—over whether climate change was even a real thing.

They knew that their product was poisoning our atmosphere, but they were making hundreds of billions of dollars in profits. Nothing was more important to these morbidly rich people than that money.

They and their bought-off politicians began to believe their own lies, or at least some did, and thought this wouldn’t happen until they were all dead anyway, even if it was true.

But then it happened. The climate emergency we were worried about arrived. It is here, now.

Looking at statistical information about major heatwaves—particularly ones that hit multiple continents at the same time—the authors of the Journal of Climate paper referenced above found:

“Such simultaneous heatwaves are 7 times more likely now than 40 years ago. They are also hotter and affect a larger area.”

In the 1980s the Northern Hemisphere averaged around 73 heatwaves during the summer months from May to September. By the 2010s that number had grown to 152 heatwaves per summer.

And those heat waves are also almost 20 percent hotter than they were the year Reagan won the presidency (and denied climate change throughout his 8 fossil-fuel-funded years in office).

One of the most startling understandings of what’s happening has only become apparent in the past decade or so: that the atmospheric Polar Jet Stream is acting weird and thus making our weather extremes more severe.

Over the course of multiple conversations with a few of the world’s top climate scientists I’ve learned that the Polar Jet Stream—the fast-moving river of high-altitude (30,000+ feet) air that circulates around the North Pole—has slowed down, weakened, and is beginning to “drool” down over parts of North America, going as far south as Texas.

This was, in fact, what caused the severe winter weather that shut down Texas’ privatized power grid a few years back, along with causing the “bomb cyclone” freezing storms hitting the Midwest and Northeast every winter, and the extended periods of 100+ degree weather all across America, Europe, Russia, and China this summer.

Historically, the Polar Jet Stream was held in place—mostly in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere—by the temperature differential between the Arctic and the middle latitudes, where most Americans (outside of northern Alaska) live.

The cold arctic air defined the northernmost margin of the Polar Jet Stream while the warmer middle latitude air defined its southernmost margin. While it pushed weather patterns across North America for much of my life, it rarely dipped below the Mason-Dixon line and, even when it did, generally just brought the hot/cold, or wet/drought weather behind it for only a day or two.

But the Arctic has been warming at least three times faster than the middle latitudes where most of us live, which means the difference in temperature between the Arctic air to the north of the Jet Stream and our air to its south has diminished.

The North Pole/Arctic, once a solid cap of ice where Santa Claus was supposed to live, is now an open sea every summer.

As that temperature differential has declined, so has the strength and velocity of the Jet Stream. Now, instead of whipping across the Northern Hemisphere, it often spills down as far south as Mexico and then stays in place for days at a time.

What would have been a one-day cold-snap or heat wave becomes multiple days, long enough to wreak billions in damage to a state’s residential and energy infrastructure.

What would have been a rainstorm lasting a few hours becomes an unrelenting downpour lasting for days, creating massive flooding.

These changes in the Jet Stream, combined with the warming of our oceans (whose temperatures also drive weather), have also caused what were once routine weather patterns to change.

Regions that were only dry during the summer are now experiencing drought year-round; parts of the country where flooding was occasional but rare are now regularly experiencing massive, days-long storms that tear up houses and flood entire regions.

Flights are bumpier and being canceled with increasing frequency because of weather, as we’re just now sliding into this unknowable new era of severe weather weirding.

This is our new normal, and it’s costing us lives and billions of dollars every year, all to preserve the profits of a fossil fuel industry that knew in the 1960s that their product was poisoning the world and would lead to this outcome.

But don’t think that just because this is the new normal that this “normal” will last. The last time our planet saw CO2 levels at their current 422 parts-per-million, sea levels were 60 feet higher and trees were growing in Antarctica.

In other words, we’re on a path, not at a destination. The planet will catch up with all that CO2, and as it does our weather will continue to become more and more severe until we figure out a way to get CO2 levels back down to the 1950s count of just over 300 ppm.

Meanwhile, we’re pouring more CO2 into the atmosphere right now than at any time in human history, despite efforts among the world’s developed nations to reduce their carbon footprints.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a major kick-in-the-pants to Europe to get off their dependence on fossil fuels and go green, as have high oil and gas prices around the world.

But here in America, Republicans on the Supreme Court (with 6 justices put on the bench with money from fossil-fuel billionaires) kneecapped the Biden administration’s ability to regulate CO2 and promote green energy.

In 2010, five Republicans on the Court legalized political bribery with their Citizens United decision. And, of course, Republicans deeply in the pocket of Big Oil, Gas, and Coal continue to deny climate change is even happening. Just last week, Congressman Scott Perry called climate change a massive “grift.”

And now the Heritage Foundation has, according to Raw Story, a plan for the next Republican administration to gut the EPA; end the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations; end “grid expansion for the benefit of renewable resources or supporting low/carbon generation”; ban EPA workers from using certain types of science; and prevent other states from copying California’s strict environmental standards for greenhouse gasses.

The fossil fuel industry has almost unlimited money to buy politicians, per Citizens United. The ten top recipients of fossil fuel money in Congress last year were:

Manchin, Joe (D-WV): $724,270
McCarthy, Kevin (R-CA): $396,284
Lankford, James (R-OK): $275,148
Pfluger, August (R-TX): $268,011
Kennedy, John (R-LA): $264,788
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK): $249,808
Sinema, Kyrsten (D-AZ): $230,160
Fletcher, Lizzie (D-TX): $191,765
Cuellar, Henry (D-TX): $191,450
Scott, Tim (R-SC): $181,291
Scalise, Steve (R-LA): $181,263
Gonzales, Tony (R-TX): $174,461
Rubio, Marco (R-FL): $165,636

Amazing how little it costs to buy a member of Congress to keep your multi-billion-dollar-a-year profits flowing, isn’t it?

Here’s who opensecrets.org says are the top fossil fuel money recipients through their careers:

Romney, Mitt (R-UT): $8,291,262
Cornyn, John (R-TX): $4,678,062
Cruz, Ted (R-TX): $4,138,421
McConnell, Mitch (R-KY): $2,852,107
McCarthy, Kevin (R-CA): $2,581,832
Hutchison, Kay Bailey (R-TX): $2,332,021
Inhofe, James M (R-OK): $2,320,139
Pearce, Steve (R-NM): $2,236,714
Barton, Joe (R-TX): $2,211,987
Brady, Kevin (R-TX): $2,087,396
Scalise, Steve (R-LA): $1,847,013
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK): $1,792,602

Americans are dying because these paid-off shills have either failed to act or actively blocked any meaningful change in our nation’s climate policy. They have blood on their hands, with more to come as every year brings more severe floods, storms, and drought.

We can no longer tolerate this morally criminal level of political malpractice, particularly since there is still time to act. And we must move quickly.

If America is to reclaim its position as a leader and role model for the world and stop the disastrous new climate “normal” we’re now entering from becoming radically more severe, we must get our use of fossil fuels under control.

That means ostracizing elected officials in the pocket of the industry, rolling back Citizens United so Big Oil and Big Coal can’t continue to bribe members of Congress, and throwing significant subsidies into greening our energy and transportation systems.

The climate emergency is here. We can’t wait any longer for major and dramatic worldwide action.

How America can better care for its veterans

Sergeant Jackie E. Garland, twice wounded during combat in Vietnam, returned home only to face even more battles that battered his spirit as well as his body.

The ex-Marine and his wife, Helen, struggled for decades to support their six children while fighting for service disability benefits that always remained a few steps out of reach.

Garland—wracked by pain from the shrapnel he took in his back and hepatitis he contracted during surgery to repair the damage to his spine—died feeling abandoned by his country.

Spurred by that tragedy, George Walsh, Garland’s son-in-law, now finds himself on the front lines of efforts to improve support for veterans and arrest the epidemics of suicide, homelessness, and alienation afflicting those who served.

Walsh, a trustee of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 10-00086, is helping to lead the union’s push for the federal Commitment to Veteran Support and Outreach (CVSO) Act. The bill would expand the ranks of county veteran service officers across the nation and provide other resources needed to connect veterans with care.

“This is a no-brainer. We send people to war. We ask them to fight for their country. We need to start taking care of them,” explained Walsh, himself a veteran of the Navy submarine service who later served in the Reserve as a Seabee. “We need to start putting our money where our mouths are and helping these veterans and their families.”

“This is really a good piece of legislation. We should have had this years ago,” added Walsh, a USW safety representative at the Merck plant in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, noting many veterans feel adrift and lose hope. “My father-in-law was that way.”

County veteran service officers are trained advocates, accredited by the federal government, who help former service members, their loved ones, and caregivers “navigate the complex intergovernmental chain of veterans services and resources.”

They make veterans aware of the medical benefits as well as the education, job search, housing assistance, and other services available to them. They also assist veterans in applying for these opportunities and go to bat for them if government agencies balk at approving claims or applications.

These grassroots officials leverage billions in support every year. But there’s a dire shortage of them across the country.

The CVSO Act would provide $50 million a year for counties to hire more veteran service officers and fund outreach campaigns aimed at connecting ex-service members with assistance.

High levels of suicide and homelessness speak to veterans’ struggles on the home front. Yet the resources to confront these challenges often go unused because veterans either don’t know what’s available to them or struggle to access it.

Walsh’s in-laws felt overwhelmed trying to penetrate the bureaucracy on their own while coping with life’s daily challenges.

“If it wasn’t for my mother-in-law, I don’t know how they would have done it,” said Walsh, noting that Helen Garland, a Navy nurse who met her husband during his recovery at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, largely held the family together on her own.

He said his father-in-law, once a “Marine’s Marine” who wanted a military career, endured pain every day and became so disillusioned with the government’s treatment of him that he refused to let taps be played at his funeral.

Walsh knows what an enormous difference a county veteran service officer would have made because, at the end of his father-in-law’s life, he found one.

He recalled watching a nonprofit television channel one night when he saw an interview with Elias Tallas, a veteran service officer from Berks County who served with the Army in Vietnam.

He tracked down a phone number for Tallas, met him a couple of days later, and handed over the “meticulous notes” his mother-in-law kept about Jackie Garland’s quest for benefits.

Tallas agreed to wade into the case. And although his assistance came too late to help Jackie Garland, he succeeded in securing benefits for Helen Garland that enabled her to live decently for the rest of her life.

Walsh wants all former service members to have the expertise, support, and compassion that Tallas provided. Motivated by respect for his in-laws and a sense of duty to fellow veterans, he’s meeting with members of Congress to explain the need for the CVSO Act.

He starts those meetings by showing his father-in-law’s photo. “I’d like to introduce you to Sergeant Jackie E. Garland,” he says, then tells his story.

While the Garlands fought on their own, other veterans lean on one another—sharing leads, tips, and information—as they try to navigate the system. In July 2023, for example, Frank Brondum and a friend exchanged information about the various education opportunities available to them.

It’s outrageous, he said, for the nation to leave veterans in the dark. “I’m 42 years old, I served for 13 years, and I’m still learning about the benefits I’m qualified for,” said Brondum, a member of USW Local 13-1 who works at the Shell refinery in Deer Park, Texas.

Brondum, who served in the Army, said more than two dozen former service members at the refinery alone would benefit from a single point of contact for veterans programs.

However, it’s as important to publicize the work of the county veteran service officers as it is the benefits and services themselves, Brondum said, noting he only found out about his county’s representative in July 2023.

Once they’re back home, Walsh said, veterans deserve a system of care that serves them as reliably as they did the nation.

“When he was asked to serve, he served,” Walsh observed of his father-in-law. “There was no hesitation on his part.”

AUTHOR BIO: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

Navigating the polycrisis: Life in turbulent times

Editor's note: The author's biography was updated with a corrected version provided by the original publisher.

How can we explain the explosive emergence of global awareness of the polycrisis over the past year, 2022-2023? Three years ago, almost no one had heard of the polycrisis.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

What happened?

What Is the Polycrisis?

First, let’s roughly define the polycrisis. Some claim it is nothing new. We believe the polycrisis is new. We believe a confluence of environmental, social, technological, financial-economic, natural and other forces are interacting with ever-increasing unpredictability, rapidity and power. We believe these unpredictable interactions are causing future shocks of ever greater frequency and amplitude.

Because the polycrisis looks different, feels different, and is explained differently everywhere, there won’t be any single understanding of it. Think of the polycrisis as a global weather system. Weather everywhere is deeply interrelated, but local weather looks different in each place.

The polycrisis has many names—cascading crises, the metacrisis, the permacrisis, the great unraveling, the great simplification, “the end of the world as we know it” [TEOTWAWKI], and more. In Latin America it’s called “eco-social collapse.” The French call it “collapsologie.” Or one can simply call it turbulent times or a rapidly changing world.

It doesn’t matter much what we call the polycrisis. What matters is whether we recognize that it is real, that we are living in it, and that it is changing our lives. If we accept that much, we will recognize that we have to navigate it—and that good maps are essential to skillful navigation.

Navigating the Great Unraveling

Our friends Asher Miller and Richard Heinberg at the Post Carbon Institute and Resilience.org use this powerful phrase for the task ahead for all of us: “Navigating the great unraveling.” Resilience.org is focused on energy, economy, environment, food and water, and society. Its tagline is “insight and inspiration in turbulent times.” In my judgment, Post Carbon Institute and Resilience.org are among the best and most accessible polycrisis resources in the United States.

At every level, we must learn to navigate the polycrisis. We have no choice. The only choice is whether we prepare to navigate it consciously—or just let it unfold and respond as it does.

“The future is already here,” the great science fiction writer William Gibson has said. “It’s just not very evenly distributed.” We know that all over the world millions of people have lived under polycrisis conditions for a very long time. The polycrisis is not new to them. It’s just now coming home to roost everywhere.

What Are the Best Maps and Charts of the Polycrisis?

Let’s look at how some experts are seeking to understand and map the polycrisis. I will be using three overlapping terms to describe these maps. The first is world view maps. The second is systems analysis maps. And the third is narrative maps. These are very crude concepts since all the maps tend to include all these elements in different ways.

The comprehensive worldview maps include orientations like techno-optimism, neo-Marxism, critiques of colonialism and imperialism, religious or spiritual understandings, and many more. It matters whether you believe in an enlightened spiritual future or a future that belongs to the powerful. It matters whether you think we will be governed by humans or trans-humans or algorithms. It matters whether you see the future as hopeful or tragic or perhaps both.

Then there are the systems analysis maps. Unlike worldview maps, systems analysis maps seek to be analytically neutral—albeit there are often deeply embedded biases.

The concerned capitalists of the world and their powerful friends gather annually at the World Economic Forum in Davos to opine on the state of the world. Their Global Risks Report 2023 is extensive and their prognosis dire. They offer a top 10 list of global risks for the next two years and the next ten years, along with a global risks landscape map. An additional Global Risks map puts global risks at the center surrounded by natural ecosystems, security, human health, economic stability, and digital rights. The outer circle then lists perhaps one hundred specific issues.

Kate Raworth’s “Donut Economics” is a highly influential systems map. “Humanity’s 21st-century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend—such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.”

The elegant donut diagram has an outer circle of an ecological ceiling for nine sectors (climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution and the like.) It has an inner circle of social foundation that lists human needs by sector (food, water, health, education and the like). The map elegantly allows her to show where we have already exceeded the ecological ceiling and where we have undercut the social foundation of human needs.

A third systems analysis comes from Thomas Homer-Dixon and his colleagues at the Cascade Institute in British Columbia. Homer-Dixon is among the foremost analysts of the polycrisis. In books like “The Upside of Down” and “Command Hope,” he has explored the polycrisis in depth. His thinking is deeply influential in Canada and internationally. I can’t point to a single map because Cascade Institute has produced multiple maps. In my judgment Homer-Dixon shows what sophisticated scholarly study of the polycrisis looks like—and why governments and others around the world should invest in it.

A fourth systems map comes from the Fan Initiative which also has a strong team of scientific experts behind it. The Fan has an influential categorization of twelve “blades” of the fan that interact. They include toxification, soils, population, oceans, health, governance, freshwater, energy, economy, climate, biodiversity and behavior.

There are academic centers focused on variants of the polycrisis like the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. Their research interests include biotechnology, artificial intelligence, technology risks more generally, environmental risks, and justice risks. Unlike the other projects above, they are less comprehensive on the polycrisis and more focused on explicitly existential risks to human survival.

Another outstanding contributor to polycrisis understanding is Nate Hagens’ The Great Simplification and his podcasts, Frankly. His tagline is “people, society and earth’s systems midway through the carbon pulse.” Here’s an example of his thinking: “How do the catalysts triggering the SVB collapse compare to the 2008 financial crisis? What might world financial market reactions indicate as we move closer to The Great Simplification?.. One thing I’m pretty confident of: world governments and central banks are gonna need bigger boats as more and more entities require bailouts and guarantees. Eventually that ‘boat’ may become so large that it will be ‘Too Big to Save.’”

A major recent development in the field is the United Nation (UN) Foundation’s Accelerator for Systemic Risk Assessment. “The UN Foundation announced today the new Accelerator for Systemic Risk Assessment (ASRA), to be led by Ruth Richardson as its inaugural Executive Director. The three-year initiative is designed to contribute to the emerging field of systemic risk analysis with particular attention to helping leaders and practitioners—especially those in the public sector—better understand, assess, and incorporate sensitivity to systemic risks into their decision-making. It will work closely with practitioners, multilaterals, academics, the public and private sectors, as well as other partners across institutions, sectors, and geographies.”

Historically, one of the most influential of all systems analyses of the polycrisis came from Donella Meadows and her colleagues in their report to the Club of Rome, “Limits to Growth” in 1972. What is remarkable about their model is that it has proven highly accurate for fifty years.

These are simply examples. What they have in common is their effort to understand the underlying drivers of the polycrisis and their interactions in some systematic way.

Narrative Maps

There is another way of thinking about the polycrisis that we might call narrative maps. We are taking this approach in our Omega Resilience Awards project, which focuses on exploring polycrisis maps with younger leaders in the Global South.

This approach focuses on exploring different narratives of the polycrisis as they are understood in different places and different situations. These are not necessarily systematic maps. This is storytelling or meaning-making in a vast variety of forms.

Many contemporary commentators offer us narrative maps—though these maps are also often systematic. The Columbia historian Adam Tooze, the New York Times contributor Ezra Klein and the Financial Times Chief Economics Commentator Martin Wolff are analysts whose ongoing analyses of different dimensions of the polycrisis are widely respected.

Science fiction—or speculative fiction—offers another influential example of a narrative approach. “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson is a brilliant example of the genre of speculative utopian fiction that examines in detail how the climate crisis could actually be resolved.

Poets, novelists, film-makers, artists, and video game producers are among the many creative people who are telling stories and making narrative maps of the polycrisis.

A Map of Ten Top Polycrisis Drivers

What I offer below is a phenomenological map focused on issues as they emerge in the informed public media. This map is designed to change as the global polycrisis “weather system” changes. It is a kind of “polycrisis weather report.” My map is a mix of a worldview, systems and narrative map.

My starting point is the question I posed at the start. Why did the polycrisis explode into global awareness this year? I suggest that the polycrisis emerged as three principle drivers accelerated in sequence—climate, COVID, and the Ukraine war.

First, public attention was focused on the climate emergency. Then COVID turned the world upside down. Then a completely unexpected land war erupted in the middle of Europe. That war forced a great power confrontation, scrambled alliances around the world, and accelerated the last phase of the breakdown of American global hegemony. These three developments unfolding in sequence are, I believe, what brought the polycrisis to global attention.

Once the polycrisis was firmly established in the informed media and public mind, new developments kept confirming the increasing pace of global change and the reality of the polycrisis.

The new United States-China cold war is a classic example of the inevitable conflict between a rising power and a declining hegemon. The United States—unwisely from a geopolitical perspective—undertook to confront both Russia and China at the same time, hence driving these two great powers into alliance.

The new breakout developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are again transforming the world. Bill Gates has likened this new technology to the development of the computer in terms of its significance.

Almost every few months, a new salient polycrisis driver seems to emerge. You can’t fully grasp this process with abstract systems maps alone. You need a “changing global weather systems” map that tracks the phenomenological developments in the public media and public mind.

The Polycrisis Pop Charts

What I attempt here is a phenomenological map of what informed Western media are throwing up the “Polycrisis Pop Charts.” I borrow the “pop charts” analogy from popular music where the pop charts track the popularity of different songs. Polycrisis drivers are like pop songs that move up and down the polycrisis pop charts of public attention. Some stay at or near the top for long periods of time. Others enjoy only a brief stay.

Here are seven diverse candidates to add to a potential high level public awareness threat matrix for a “Polycrisis Top 10.” (climate, COVID, and conflicts without end are already on the Top Ten list.)

  • The end of American hegemony. The multi-centric geopolitical realignment of the world is taking place rapidly. Russia, China, Iran and other countries have aligned against Western domination. India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, and other countries are asserting their own independent interests, often playing both sides off against each other. The end of American hegemony is coinciding with the end of 500 years of Western domination of the world. It also coincides with the end of Western colonialism and imperialism. While these interlinked forms of dominance have been eroding for decades, the rapidity of developments now is astonishing.
  • The resurgence of autocratic regimes. The Western democratic model of free markets and representative democracy has never worked everywhere. (One can argue it never worked anywhere, but that is a different conversation.) Newly empowered by technologies of mass surveillance, a growing number of autocratic leaders of “illiberal democracies” and more totalitarian regimes are asserting themselves. They are far less constrained today by eroding democratic norms. They are far less concerned about American or Western disapproval. They regard the Western democracies as weak and decadent. They are more assertive of shared cross-ideological interests. In many places, the autocrats have strong, or at least majoritarian, support from their home populations. It may be true that the impulse toward freedom is universal. But that aspiration must be measured against other goods provided by regimes that meet essential human needs—for food, energy, shelter, economic progress, health, education, safety and the like. China is an excellent example. In a polycrisis world, it is an open question as to what forms of governance will actually work best in the interests of the people of different nations.
  • The explosion of AI technologies. Brought to public awareness by GP-Chatbox, Microsoft, Meta, Google, and others, the developers of AI technologies have abandoned caution—even as hundreds of scientists signed a letter urging a moratorium based on potentially catastrophic risks. A survey of AI scientists found them estimating a 10% chance that AI could ultimately wipe out human life on Earth. AI is not alone. Biotech, nanotech, and robotics are what Bill Joy famously called the three “technologies of mass destruction.” The difference between these technologies of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction, Joy said, was that the weapons required a large industrial base while the technologies could be cooked up by someone working out of their bedroom and posted to the Internet. This category is actually a stand-in for all the explosive technological developments transforming our world literally beyond understanding.
  • Global financial system chaos. Economic researchers warn that the global debt overhang may soon be “too big to avoid failure.” The likelihood of a global recession, or worse, is believed to be increasing. The fight to control inflation without ending growth puts central banks in a quandary. On the other hand, ending conventional growth as we know it is essential to a better future. The dollar as the dominant global currency may well be coming to an end. It is overdue in historical terms.
  • The migration crisis. Over 100 million forcibly displaced people are desperately seeking refuge as barriers to safe havens go up everywhere. The number will continue to grow exponentially. The migration crisis is among the greatest human tragedies of the polycrisis. No one has compassionate solutions that are politically acceptable in the West—or elsewhere for that matter. But mitigation strategies are profoundly important—curbing climate change, improving food production, reducing conflict, making home countries safer, aiding those caught at frontiers, and much more.
  • The risk of a nuclear accident or tactical nuclear arms use. The focus is Ukraine, but the risk is global. So is the risk of the use of dirty bombs or the deliberate targeting of nuclear plants by terrorists or a nuclear meltdown caused by an electric grid going down from a terrorist attack or other causes.
  • World food, water, work and safety deficits. Billions of people around the world are at increasing risk for the basics of life. This is more an outcome measure than a primary driver, except that this outcome drives all kinds of other feedback loops.

This list is, as I said, highly arbitrary. My list is heavy on the end of American hegemony, the rise of new autocracies, financial chaos, the migration crisis, nuclear risk, and the global food, water, and safety deficits. I add these seven to the list that set off polycrisis awareness—climate, COVID, and conflict without end.

What seems incontrovertible is that the number of polycrisis drivers keeps increasing and their interactions are every more rapid, unpredictable, and powerful.

Disaster Capitalism and Other Opportunities

The other side of any global threat matrix list consists of the global opportunities for advantage that countries, corporations, communities, and non-state actors are exploring on all sides. Whether it is disaster capitalism, opportunities for criminal gangs, cybercrimes, or legitimate new markets, the opportunists are enlivened everywhere. Likewise there are truly hopeful developments. We have to keep in mind breakout developments on the upside. Whatever the future brings, there will be winners and losers—even if the winners inhabit a devastated planet of universal scarcities.

The Thucydides Trap–the Prospect for U.S.-China War

The Chinese-mediated detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia has underscored China’s new role as a global power broker.

French President Macron was criticized by allies for his China visit and his explicit push for European geopolitical and economic autonomy. But many other European Union leaders think along Macron’s lines. Europe has no intention of giving up trade with China. Volkswagen and the chemical giant BSF are planning major expansions in China to offset the high cost of operating in Europe. The better European environmental regulations, the more attractive markets and manufacturing bases like China become.

Both Europe and China have lasting strategic reasons to build economic and political ties that lessen the threat to both an unreliable and fading global hegemon. Both China and Europe are caught for now balancing their conflicts over Ukraine and Taiwan against their long-term interests in economic ties and strategic autonomy. But in the longer run, both know the Ukraine war will end, the Taiwan conflict will resolve, and they need each other in the new multipolar world.

The Biden administration’s call for a global alliance of democracies against authoritarians rings increasingly hollow to people around the world. There is too long a history of what 500 years of Western hegemony has wrought. There is too much awareness of America’s classic hegemonic descent. The U.S. has wasted blood and treasure in foreign wars, devastated counties in the name of defending democracy, overturned democratic governments that threatened U.S. interests, and moved from soft power supporting shared interests to hard power for increasingly nationalistic goals. This is the well-known trajectory of fading hegemons.

The U.S.-China confrontation is also the classic “Thucydides Trap.” In 12 of 16 past cases, the confrontation between a ruling power and a rising power led to war. The world has a great deal at stake in avoiding it.

A Multi-Centric Sci-fi Future?

The world simply isn’t buying the American narrative any longer. There are too many persuasive counter-narratives emerging from the Global South, from neo-Marxism, from post-colonial writers, and indeed from the internal critiques within the Global North and within America—to say nothing of counter-narratives from right-wing nationalist parties, which appeal to very large numbers of people in countries around the world.

Yet, in a multi-centric world, it’s hard to see how the narrative we need—for new global governance structures that bring us together in the urgent global cause—will attract sufficient support.

It looks more and more to this observer as if the future will be a multi-centric world of ever-shifting alliances in which hybrid warfare and lower-level conflicts among state, corporate, and non-state actors will launch us into an entirely unpredictable sci-fi future. That’s only one scenario, but in my mind it is the most likely one.

Archipelagos – Linking Islands of Coherence in a Sea of Chaos

There are hopeful trends. Many of the global stressors have substantial upsides. Systems theory makes it clear that we can create virtuous cascades as well as endure negative ones. This is a central thesis of Homer-Dixon’s work at the Cascade Institute.

At a recent Commonweal conference with leaders of our Omega Resilience Awards hubs in India, Nigeria and Argentina, Mark Valentine mentioned Ilya Priogene’s observation on the power of “islands of coherence” in a complex system in chaos. Here’s the quote:

“Ilya Priogene demonstrated scientifically that when complex systems are far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence can shift the entire system to a higher order.”

We liked this concept of focusing on creating “linked islands of coherence” at the grassroots level and at every possible level. It’s doable, achievable, and hopeful. Many of the Nordic countries are engaged in conscious efforts to create societal resilience in the polycrisis. So is Switzerland, so is New Zealand. They may become islands of coherence that offer hope and models for others.

Local communities, grassroots social movements, service organizations, and local governments are slowly coming to grips with the reality of the polycrisis. And they are crafting solutions. New economy theorists and practitioners are imagining ways to strengthen resilient local economies based on self-help, local currencies, and more.

Polycrisis Thinking as a Lens for Exploring Resilience

We believe the polycrisis cannot generate a single strategic agenda. Unlike the climate emergency, or the fight against hunger, the polycrisis doesn’t lend itselfMichael Lerner is the president and co-founder of Commonweal, a nonprofit center in Bolinas, California. Commonweal works in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice with more than 40 programs. His principal work at Commonweal is with the Cancer Help Program, CancerChoices.org, the Omega Resilience Projects, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, and The New School at Commonweal. Michael received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship for contributions to public health in 1983. He is co-founder and president emeritus of the Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, D.C. He is president of the Jenifer Altman Foundation. He is co-founder and chair emeritus of the Health and Environmental Funders Network. He lives with his wife and colleague Sharyle Patton in Bolinas and on Whidbey Island north of Seattle.to universal shared objectives and solutions.

Rather, polycrisis awareness is a lens through which we can assess the most effective strategies for whatever we are working on. As one colleague put it, “if you don’t factor in the polycrisis, your strategies are far more likely to fail.”

For example, imagine that the power grid goes down whether from a cyberattack or other causes. Or imagine that the food system breaks down leaving people dependent on local food resources. Or imagine a financial collapse takes place and we enter a new global depression. Who would be prepared to respond—and how?

One of the lessons from past disasters is how rapidly the structures that sustain life can collapse. Most people don’t have the bandwidth to think about these questions. Their survival needs or personal concerns are too urgent. But it helps if in every community or organization at least some people think this way.

Cultivating a “Polycrisis Eye”

It is entirely possible to cultivate a “polycrisis eye” that enables you to watch developments across many spheres and witness the unfolding of the polycrisis in all its complexity and unpredictability. When I read the news I am constantly tracking these intersections.

If Russian gas is cut back in the EU, Norway becomes the bloc’s primary supplier despite cries of anguish from its environmental community. Likewise Biden breaks a pledge and allows new oil development in the Alaskan wildlife refuge. Germany closes its last three nuclear plants which makes it more dependent on fossil fuels and renewables. The constant eruption of new developments continuously reconfigures whatever sector they appear in and those changes flow out to other sectors as well.

So it’s not just the polycrisis world view maps, the polycrisis systems maps, and the polycrisis narrative maps that help us navigate. It’s cultivating a “polycrisis eye” with which to watch as this accelerating global weather system evolves, changing local weather conditions everywhere. A “polycrisis eye” refines our ability to use a “polycrisis lens” to understand and navigate this turbulent time.

A Caveat

Though I have continuously referenced polycrisis analyses emanating from the Global South and the emerging multicentric world, this essay has drawn primarily from Global North examples of polycrisis maps and thinking. The principal reason is that while the Global South and the multi-centric world have experienced by far the greatest burden of the polycrisis, the polycrisis analysis has developed primarily in Europe (where the term first emerged) and the United States. That said, one of our principal goals at Omega and the Omega Resilience Awards is to support polycrisis analyses and narratives emerging in Africa, India and Latin America. Those analyses will be the subject of later essays.

A Crown of Feminine Design

We can hold the ultimate hope—the real hope—that we will emerge from this time of chaos and peril to build a better world. It might ideally be, as Randy Hayes, the founder of Rainforest Action Network proposes, a world of continental networks of bio-regional economies.

The critical question for global governance is whether a new set of global institutions can emerge to replace the Bretton Woods institutions from World War II. There may be a remote possibility that this will happen—as it does in “Ministry for the Future.” But in a polycentric world of widely diverse interests, it will be hard to achieve.

At the community level, most disaster preparedness has common themes. Communities need to be able to meet basic human needs for food, water, clothing, shelter, energy, safety, communications, and the spirit and tools to rebuild a better way of life. Building this capacity builds resilient communities—islands of coherence that could shift the whole chaotic system toward a higher level of functioning.

We know what local and regional self-reliance and resilience look like. Less than a century ago, community self-reliance was a way of life all around the world. It is still practiced in many communities today. If we can remember those lessons we’ll have a better chance, come what may. This is what Nate Hagens envisions as “the great simplification.”

All around the world people are coming together in the face of all the challenges to create communities of hope and resilience. They work with the skills and tools available to them. The fight for a better world is never won. It goes on forever. We’ll do that best if we are clear-eyed about what we are facing.

Whatever happens, our consciousness will have a powerful impact on how we face whatever is coming. Like all great life crises, the polycrisis has the potential to awaken us to what really matters in our lives. Perhaps the polycrisis could even stimulate a great global awakening of what we all need to do together to create a more liveable world. It’s possible.

I close with this line from the great Indian saint Sri Aurobindo, “the future, if there is to be a future, must wear a crown of feminine design.” The structures of wealth and power that we have built in this world are mostly of masculine design. We might amend Aurobindo and say that the future, if it is to be a compassionate one, must honor Mother Earth and evoke the feminine in us all.

That’s a thought worth holding.

AUTHOR BIO: Michael Lerner is the president and co-founder of Commonweal, a nonprofit center in Bolinas, California. Commonweal works in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice with more than 40 programs. His principal work at Commonweal is with the Cancer Help Program, CancerChoices.org, the Omega Resilience Projects, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, and The New School at Commonweal. Michael received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship for contributions to public health in 1983. He is co-founder and president emeritus of the Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, D.C. He is president of the Jenifer Altman Foundation. He is co-founder and chair emeritus of the Health and Environmental Funders Network. He lives with his wife and colleague Sharyle Patton in Bolinas and on Whidbey Island north of Seattle.

Five critical lessons from UPS’ union workers

The UPS Teamsters’ negotiations with the world’s largest delivery company offer the American labor movement lessons in organizing.

Narrowly avoiding, for now, what might have been the largest strike in United States history of workers employed by a single corporation, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters came to a tentative agreement with the United Parcel Service (UPS) in late July 2023 over contract negotiations. While the union did not win everything it wanted, it secured a majority of its demands in what it called “the most historic tentative agreement for workers in the history of UPS.” Union members will vote on whether to accept the deal between August 3 and 22.

There are numerous lessons to be learned from what has transpired between the Teamsters and UPS during this year’s #HotLaborSummer.

First, and most important: unions work, and not just for the workers being represented, but for all workers. Despite the UPS Teamsters’ checkered history under Jimmy Hoffa’s leadership, UPS’s delivery drivers today have significantly higher wages than their counterparts at competitors like FedEx and Amazon. This is consistent with what unions in general do for wages. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “non-union workers earn just 85 percent of what unionized workers earn.” Additionally, “When more workers have unions, wages rise for union and non-union workers.” There is an upward pressure on wages for all when groups of unionized workers win wage benefits for themselves.

Second, one of the most powerful responses to corporate monopolies is large unions. UPS is the world’s largest package delivery service and is the most dominant delivery company in the U.S., handling one out of four deliveries in a nation increasingly dependent on mail-order service. The majority of its workers are represented by a single union. This means that if the UPS Teamsters go on strike, it can utterly cripple the company. Indeed, media coverage has focused on this fact, as well as the damage to the entire U.S. economy in the event of a strike.

That kind of power is rare in our splintered labor movement. Take the entertainment industry. Film, television, and theater production intersects with many unions, among them DGA, IATSE Local 80, ICG Local 600, Actors’ Equity, and the two currently on strike: WGA and SAG-AFTRA. In late 2021, film and television crew workers agreed to a flawed contract and decided not to strike. Earlier this year, unionized Hollywood directors reached an agreement with the major production studios and signed a contract at the same time, writers whose scripts they bring to life, were striking. Then, actors also went on strike.

Now, a significant number of Hollywood workers remain on strike while others are working. The major studios are hoping to simply wait out the striking workers until their resolve withers. Meanwhile, workers creating unscripted television—known colloquially as reality TV—are not unionized and are “torn” about continuing to work while their colleagues are on strike.

While the workers are fractured, their bosses are united. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) is a single entity representing all the major studios such as Netflix, Apple, Amazon, and Disney. This single powerful entity boasts on its website that it “negotiates 58 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements.” If the majority of Hollywood’s workers were organized into a single union, they would have the kind of power that UPS Teamsters wields.

A third lesson from the UPS agreement is that labor militancy works. In September 2022, I pointed out that the UPS Teamsters launched a major public campaign for a fair contract a full year before their existing contract was set to expire, highlighting the dangerous summer conditions under which many UPS drivers were forced to work. The Teamsters’ new president, Sean O’Brien, did not mince words when he threatened that, “we’re not going to be afraid to pull that trigger [on a strike] if necessary.”

Then, this summer the union enacted “practice pickets,” saying, “The most powerful tool we have as Teamsters to win a historic contract at UPS is a credible strike threat.” This clever approach had an equally clever tagline: “Just practicing for a just contract.” The display of power was an intimidation tactic and a turning of the tables against corporate America, which has relied on armies of union-busting lawyers to quash labor movements.

A fourth lesson is that solidarity is critical. Although UPS accepted a majority of what the Teamsters demanded by early July 2023, the company held out on increasing wages for those part-time workers who had been hired a few years ago at lower starting salaries. Instead of giving in, UPS Teamsters walked away and began their practice strikes, likely betting that the company would cave. The company soon issued a statement saying, “We are prepared to increase our industry-leading pay and benefits, but need to work quickly to finalize a fair deal that provides certainty for our customers, our employees[,] and businesses across the country.” Instead of throwing their part-timers under the bus, the union held out for a better deal and won a starting pay of $21 an hour, up from $16.20 an hour.

A fifth lesson is that although unions help to boost wages and working conditions, they are not yet strong enough to undo the damage of unfettered capitalism. Wages continue to lag behind inflation. As worker productivity has risen, wages have fallen. The UPS Teamsters had initially demanded a starting salary of $25 an hour for its part-time workers, who are nearly half of all the company’s workers. Although $21 an hour is progress, some workers are unhappy. One UPS warehouse worker told the Washington Post, “Working this job, it feels like the good parts of life—like going out to dinner and taking a vacation—aren’t meant for us.”

He added, “I’m prepared to vote no,” and who could blame him? Throughout the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, UPS delivery drivers risked their lives to bring us essential products. They braved heat waves, long hours, and heavy loads.

Today, they are continuing to offer a public service: showing the rest of the U.S. workforce how workers can find power in numbers, be militant, stand up for one another, stare down corporate greed, and demand our full suite of labor rights.

AUTHOR BIO: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

Why the GOP is trying to take credit for union workers’ infrastructure victory

John Campbell and other union activists led the fight in 2021 for historic infrastructure legislation needed to modernize the nation, support millions of good-paying jobs, and supercharge the economy.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

They wrote tens of thousands of postcards, made countless phone calls, and pounded the halls of the U.S. Capitol, ultimately securing enough votes to overcome Republican opposition and push the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) through the Democratic-led Congress. Democratic President Joe Biden swiftly signed the legislation into law.

Now, as that union victory unleashes $1.2 trillion for new roads and other hugely popular projects from coast to coast, Republicans who tried to kill the legislation want to jump on the bandwagon and take credit for the same investments they once opposed.

“Republicans are so short-sighted that they can’t see past their donors,” fumed Campbell, a member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), pointing out how ridiculous opponents of the infrastructure package look as money floods into their districts for high-speed broadband, lead-free drinking water, and other life-changing initiatives.

“They have no shame,” Campbell said of the Republicans trying to evade responsibility for how they voted. “They have no integrity. They have no principles.”

For example, Representative Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama in June issued a press release in which he praised a $1.6 million grant for a railroad bridge in his district and proclaimed himself “always happy to support this type of funding in Congress.”

Yet he voted against the IIJA, which expanded the very program providing the grant for the railroad bridge.

Representative Ashley Hinson, who represents part of Campbell’s home state of Iowa, was another of the 200 House Republicans who ignored workers’ demands and voted against the IIJA.

But nothing as inconvenient as the truth was going to stop Hinson from trying to grab the limelight and take credit in a tweet when the Army Corps of Engineers announced $829 million in IIJA funding for a major project benefiting her constituents.

The Corps will use the funds to construct a new 1,200-foot lock and repair other parts of an Upper Mississippi River transportation system critical not only for Midwestern farmers, miners, and factory workers but for the entire nation’s economy.

It’s game-changing for sure, no thanks to Hinson. In all, the IIJA delivers billions for Iowa, including $19 million so far to prevent the kind of flooding that ravaged much of the state, including Cedar Rapids, part of Hinson’s district, in 2008.

It’s also providing the city of Waterloo—in Hinson’s district—with $20.5 million for a “complete streets project” on La Porte Road that will improve safety for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

And it’s delivering $20.4 million to Eastern Iowa Airport—also part of Hinson’s district—for a modernization effort that will bring more gates, improved facilities for passengers with special needs, and other upgrades. After attempting to torpedo the IIJA, Hinson had the gall to join other officials at a press conference to tout the airport overhaul and say she’s “proud” of the work being done there.

The benefits of these and other IIJA projects will last for generations and enhance national security, noted Campbell, a retired tire worker and member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L who’s spent decades supporting pro-worker candidates and initiatives.

“This bill is critical for the success of America. Period,” said Campbell, who’s angry with Hinson not only for boasting about investments she opposed but for sitting on the sidelines while working Iowans charted a path forward.

“What was her alternative?” he said, referring to the infrastructure legislation. “What did she propose to make Iowans’ lives better?”

Other Republicans who opposed the infrastructure program all but admitted their folly by sending letters to the Biden administration seeking IIJA funds for projects their constituents want and need.

Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona sent three letters requesting millions for a trio of road projects, while Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky sent 10 letters seeking support for road, riverwalk, and dam improvements, among other work.

Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee voted against the bill as well but later wrote letters seeking funding for nine projects and tweeted her support for the progress that the city of Wartburg made in expanding broadband access. The IIJA provides millions for Tennessee to deliver high-speed internet to every household.

The IIJA—also opposed by Senator Bill Hagerty and all of the Republican members of Tennessee’s House delegation—allocated millions more for the state’s roads and bridges as well as $150 million to support a new plant in Chattanooga that will supply graphite for the electric vehicle market and other industries.

Those investments will help to foster growth that residents of Tennessee already see all around them.

“Jobs are here,” said Van Tenpenny, financial secretary for USW Local 1155L, noting the infrastructure program creates new demand for truck tires produced by union members at the Bridgestone plant in Warren County while also making the highway improvements needed to more efficiently get products to customers.

As Republicans try to take credit for the infrastructure program, Tenpenny said, it’s important for union members to continue pointing out the truth. Workers and their Democratic allies created the wave of progress now washing across the nation.

“We’re responsible for it,” he said.

AUTHOR BIO: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

Burn the Barbies, pause the pink

The highly anticipated live-action film starring Margot Robbie is an attempt to redeem the problematic toy. But it’s really just an expensive ad campaign for an outdated doll.

A few months ago, my two sons, aged 10 and 15, told me they were excited to see the new Barbie film. I was surprised. They are not interested in dolls, and, in spite of Barbie being the top-selling doll in the world, they were not very familiar with the iconic toy until they saw an online trailer of the live-action feature film starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Although I had played with a much-loved Barbie doll as a child, I had grown up to hate everything the doll stood for: dangerously unattainable beauty standards, the deliberate vapidity of femininity and feminism, and the centering of whiteness.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

But, the clever marketing of the new film has people of all demographics eager to see it: “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you,” proclaimed the trailer. There should have been an addendum: “If you’re indifferent because you have no idea who or what Barbie is, this movie is also for you.” Because, ultimately the film is a giant commercial for an outdated toy. Its interminably long marketing campaign helped generate breathless anticipation for months.

Launched in 1959 and conceived by Ruth Handler, one of the co-founders of Mattel, Barbie was modeled on a German doll named Bild Lilli, marketed to adult men as a sort of gag gift. According to Brennan Kilbane, writing in Allure, “Bild Lilli was a single-panel comic character in a German tabloid—a sweet, ditzy, curvy figment of the male imagination, frequently losing her clothes and enjoying the company of men. Each punch line hinged on Bild Lilli’s hotness, her horniness, or her lack of common sense. When a police officer informed Bild Lilli that the two-piece swimsuit she was wearing was in violation of decency laws, she responded earnestly, ‘Which piece do you want me to take off?’”

Handler wanted to market an “adult” doll to little girls because the prevalent dolls of her time were either baby dolls or else they had, in her words, “flat chests, big bellies, and squatty legs—they were built like overweight 6- or 8-year-olds.” Apparently, Handler, who appears in the film as a wise elderly grandmother played by Rhea Perlman, felt that a doll with impossibly frail wrists and a thin waist was a more suitable aspiration.

Vox’s Constance Grady put it best, saying, “The plastic body little girls are given to practice being grown-up with is the same as the plastic body grown men hang from the rearview mirrors of their cars as a dirty joke,” referring to the Bild Lilli dolls. This point is especially disturbing when, as Grady also pointed out, the first commercial for the doll featured a girl singing “Someday I’m gonna be exactly like you… Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you.”

The doll has always been tone-deaf. A few years after it was launched, just as second-wave feminism was gaining ground, Mattel released Slumber Party Barbie, who “came with pink pajamas, a pink scale set at 110 lbs, and a diet book on how to lose weight, with only one instruction: DON’T EAT!”

Since then, the doll’s history has been marked by a constant tug-of-war as it has attempted to market misogyny to a world whose women are tired of being trodden upon. The film is a similar mess of contradictions, and as Andi Zeisler wrote in a New York Times op-ed, it is “one that acknowledges and embraces that weirdness under the vigilant gaze of a corporate chaperone.” Zeisler admitted how she didn’t realize that “the film’s narrative would essentially serve as a Mattel redemption arc,” turning her as a viewer into, “an unwitting Barbie P.R. booster.”

Now, just as Mattel managed to reinvent a male fantasy as a girl’s toy, the new Barbie movie is reinventing the doll as a universally beloved character in our imagination. Forget product placement—the insidious insertion of branded products into films and television shows as a sly form of advertising—the Barbie movie is one giant advertisement, the inaugural creation of Mattel Films. Rather than creating new characters to tell a story and then milking the profits from the resulting merchandise—as is the traditional marketing ploy popularized by films such as Toy Story—Mattel has followed in the footsteps of companies such as Lego and its popular 2015 Lego Movie.

There has been little mention of this as problematic within the slew of glowing reviews of the film. Is this to be the future of film? Indeed, filmmaker J.J. Abrams is working on a new Hot Wheels film.

Audiences are supposed to overlook the ethical conundrums presented by the Barbie film in part because the film’s creator, Greta Gerwig, apparently identifies as a feminist. But, she’s hardly a critic of the doll and its regressive representation. According to the film’s costume designer Jacqueline Durran, “Greta really liked… [the outfits in the film that had an ’80s aesthetic because] they chimed with the date of the Barbies that she used to play with… She was a great Barbie fan.”

Additionally, because the film validates the various criticisms leveled at the doll over the years, audiences are expected to embrace this bizarre brand-turned-film as entertainment. “The role comes with a lot of baggage. But with that comes a lot of exciting ways to attack it,” said Robbie, who was one of the initiators of the project and who stars as the main (white, blonde) Barbie protagonist (there are many other Barbies in supporting roles) in the film. But the film doesn’t truly attack Barbie’s baggage. The opening scene of the film, showcased in its first trailer, was a nod to the deeply problematic original Barbie, with Robbie appearing in the same black-and-white striped bathing suit worn by the first version of the dolls to hit store shelves in 1959.

In spite of the film’s clever marketing as a universal project, it does not challenge Barbie’s main function as a dress-up doll. Durran told British Vogue, “Barbie really is interlinked with fashion, because how you play with her is by dressing her,” and that aspect remains central in the film.

Audiences are being encouraged to wear the doll’s signature Pepto-Bismol pink to theaters—the same color associated with gender stereotyping of girls from birth into adulthood. It’s not enough anymore for little girls to aspire to Barbie’s standards; “Barbie will certainly strike a chord with adult women—even more so than with young girls,” explained a Harper’s Bazaar shopping guide for what to wear to the film.

One “trend expert” explained the push to wear pink to People Magazine, saying, “[w]ith many nostalgic for simpler, sunnier, and more carefree times, it only makes sense that this ’80s-inspired, unapologetically pink aesthetic is taking center stage as the ‘it’ style of the summer.”

So effective is the film’s branding campaign that there is now a massive social media fashion trend called #Barbiecore on TikTok garnering hundreds of millions of views for posts created by young women influencers heavily caking their faces with makeup to look like the doll, wearing pink tulle, batting fake eyelashes, and pursing plump glittery lips coyly. Their posts are tagged with the recognizable Barbie logo, fulfilling Mattel’s wildest marketing dreams while setting women back decades. This is apparently the new face of feminism.

The criticism that the film is a blow to feminism is not overblown. The Barbie movie has popularized the horrific-sounding label of “bimbo feminism” (really!). “Instead of abandoning femininity to succeed in a patriarchal society, bimbo feminism embraces femininity while supporting women’s advancement,” wrote Harriet Fletcher in the Conversation. In other words, women are supposed to attain career success while also shaping themselves to fit the male gaze.

There persists a belief that Barbie is indeed a feminist icon in spite of Mattel steering clear of embracing the f-word. Robbie Brenner, head of Mattel Films, has decided that his company’s film is “the ultimate female-empowerment movie.” This disturbing state of discourse on feminism is the direct result of relying on corporate America to define women’s rights and status. While America Ferrera’s character as a real-life woman struggling with the pressures of patriarchy is the film’s most refreshing and powerful aspect, she remains relegated to a supporting role.

Even the ridiculous right-wing backlash to the film, casting it as “anti-man,” is being touted as a measure of the film’s feminism. If it’s pissing off the misogynist incels, surely it’s on the feminist track, claim the film’s defenders. “[I]t’s not a Barbie doll that threatens women’s rights, opportunities, and safety—it’s the patriarchy,” wrote Fletcher in the Conversation. Really, though, both are true, just to different extents.

When I was about 8 or 9, my immigrant parents bought me a Barbie doll. They were proud to be able to (barely) afford a pricey Western toy for their daughter. My Barbie was blonde and blue-eyed, and I happily played with her for years, well before I ever met a blond, blue-eyed person in real life. My doll set the standard for feminine beauty—one that was out of reach of a brown-skinned, dark-haired kid like me whose body type was chubby in contrast to my Barbie, but typical for my age and size. In 2016, Mattel attempted to diversify the doll’s body types. But “curvy” Barbie was still thinner than most real-life women.

Defenders of the film also point to its racially diverse casting and its embrace of varying body types. After all, Issa Rae plays a Black Barbie, Simu Liu is cast as an Asian Ken, and Nicola Coughlan is a gorgeous plus-size version of the doll. But, as Kilbane explained in Allure, “The Barbieverse distinguishes between two Barbies. There’s Barbie ‘the icon,’ or ‘brand,’ who can be blonde and short, or Black and svelte, or Frida Kahlo and white. There’s Barbie ‘the character,’ who is exactly who you’re thinking of, and will be played by Margot Robbie.”

Unlike Disney’s recent reboot of The Little Mermaid, which actually dared to reimagine the central character as a young Black woman played by Halle Bailey, Barbie—the “real” Barbie—will remain white, blonde, skinny, and conventionally pretty, the ultimate aspiration. The rest of us are part of the supporting cast, as per usual.

Even though Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz said, “It’s not about making movies so that we can go and sell more toys,” that’s a misleading claim. Toy company executives are hoping that the movie renews interest in dolls to the tune of billions of dollars. It is an attempt to redeem Barbie and its problematic history so that people will go out and buy the doll. Ultimately the clearest description of the film—enjoyable and thought-provoking as it is—is that it is a $145 million ad campaign for a toy that should have faded away years ago.

AUTHOR BIO: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

Why capitalism is leaving the US

Early U.S. capitalism was centered in New England. After some time, the pursuit of profit led many capitalists to leave that area and move production to New York and the mid-Atlantic states. Much of New England was left with abandoned factory buildings and depressed towns evident to this day. Eventually employers moved again, abandoning New York and the mid-Atlantic for the Midwest. The same story kept repeating as capitalism’s center relocated to the Far West, the South, and the Southwest. Descriptive terms like “Rust Belt,” “deindustrialization,” and “manufacturing desert” increasingly applied to ever more portions of U.S. capitalism.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

So long as capitalism’s movements stayed mostly within the U.S., the alarms raised by its abandoned victims remained regional, not becoming a national issue yet. Over recent decades, however, many capitalists have moved production facilities and investments outside the U.S., relocating them to other countries, especially to China. Ongoing controversies and alarms surround this capitalist exodus. Even the celebrated hi-tech sectors, arguably U.S. capitalism’s only remaining robust center, have invested heavily elsewhere.

Since the 1970s, wages were far lower abroad and markets were growing faster there too. Ever more U.S. capitalists had to leave or risk losing their competitive edge over those capitalists (European and Japanese, as well as U.S.) who had left earlier for China and were showing stunningly improved profit rates. Beyond China, other Asian, South American, and African countries also provided incentives of low wages and growing markets, which eventually drew U.S. capitalists and others to move investments there.

Profits from those capitalists’ movements stimulated more movements. Rising profits flowed back to rally U.S. stock markets and produced great gains in income and wealth. That chiefly benefited the already rich corporate shareholders and top corporate executives. They in turn promoted and funded ideological claims that capitalism’s abandonment of the U.S. was actually a great gain for U.S. society as a whole. Those claims, categorized under the headings of “neoliberalism” and “globalization” served neatly to hide or obscure one key fact: higher profits mainly for the richest few was the chief goal and the result of capitalists abandoning the U.S.

Neoliberalism was a new version of an old economic theory that justified capitalists’ “free choices” as the necessary means to achieve optimal efficiency for entire economies. According to the neoliberal view, governments should minimize any regulation or other interference in capitalists’ profit-driven decisions. Neoliberalism celebrated “globalization,” its preferred name for capitalists’ choosing to specifically move production overseas. That “free choice” was said to enable “more efficient” production of goods and services because capitalists could tap globally sourced resources. The point and punchline flowing from exaltations of neoliberalism, capitalists’ free choices, and globalization were that all citizens benefited when capitalism moved on. Excepting a few dissenters (including some unions), politicians, mass media, and academicians largely joined the intense cheerleading for capitalism’s neoliberal globalization.

The economic consequences of capitalism’s profit-driven movement out of its old centers (Western Europe, North America, and Japan) brought capitalism there to its current crisis. First, real wages stagnated in the old centers. Employers who could export jobs (especially in manufacturing) did so. Employers who could not (especially in service sectors) automated them. As U.S. job opportunities stopped rising, so did wages. Since globalization and automation boosted corporate profits and stock markets while wages stagnated, capitalism’s old centers exhibited extreme widening of income and wealth gaps. Deepening social divisions followed and culminated in capitalism’s crisis now.

Second, unlike many other poor countries, China possessed the ideology and organization to make sure that investments made by capitalists served China’s own development plan and economic strategy. China required the sharing of incoming capitalists’ advanced technologies (in exchange for those capitalists’ access to low-wage Chinese labor and rapidly expanding Chinese markets). The capitalists entering the Beijing markets were also required to facilitate partnerships between Chinese producers and distribution channels in their home countries. China’s strategy to prioritize exports meant that it needed to secure access to distribution systems (and thus distribution networks controlled by capitalists) in its targeted markets. Mutually profitable partnerships developed between China and global distributors such as Walmart.

Beijing’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” included a powerful development-focused political party and state. Conjointly they supervised and controlled an economy that mixed private with state capitalism. In that model private employers and state employers each direct masses of employees in their respective enterprises. Both sets of employers function subject to the strategic interventions of a party and government determined to achieve its economic goals. As a result of how it defined and operated its socialism, China’s economy gained more (especially in GDP growth) from neoliberal globalization than Western Europe, North America, and Japan did. China grew fast enough to compete now with capitalism’s old centers. The decline of the U.S. within a changing world economy has contributed to the crisis of U.S. capitalism. For the U.S. empire that arose out of World War II, China and its BRICS allies represent its first serious, sustained economic challenge. The official U.S. reaction to these changes so far has been a mix of resentment, provocation, and denial. Those are neither solutions to the crisis nor successful adjustments to a changed reality.

Third, the Ukraine war has exposed key effects of capitalism’s geographic movements and the accelerated economic decline of the U.S. relative to the economic rise of China. Thus the U.S.-led sanctions war against Russia has failed to crush the ruble or collapse the Russian economy. That failure has followed in good part because Russia obtained crucial support from the alliances (BRICS) already built around China. Those alliances, enriched by both foreign and domestic capitalists’ investments, especially in China and India, provided alternative markets when sanctions closed off Western markets to Russian exports.

Earlier income and wealth gaps in the U.S., worsened by the export and automation of high-paying jobs, undermined the economic basis of that “vast middle class” that so many employees believed themselves to be part of. Over recent decades, workers who expected to enjoy “the American dream” found that increased costs of goods and services led to the dream being beyond their reach. Their children, especially those forced to borrow for college, found themselves in a similar situation or in a worse one. Resistances of all sorts arose (unionization drives, strikes, left and right “populisms”) as working-class living conditions kept deteriorating. Making matters worse, mass media celebrated the stupefying wealth of those few who profited most from neoliberal globalization. In the U.S., phenomena like former President Donald Trump, Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders, white supremacy, unionization, strikes, explicit anti-capitalism, “culture” wars, and frequently bizarre political extremism reflect deepening social divisions. Many in the U.S. feel betrayed after being abandoned by capitalism. Their differing explanations for the betrayal exacerbate the widely held sense of crisis in the nation.

Capitalism’s global relocation helped raise the total GDP of the BRICS nations (China + allies) well above that of the G7 (U.S. + allies). For all the countries of the Global South, their appeals for development assistance can now be directed to two possible respondents (China and the U.S.), not just the one in the West. When Chinese entities invest in Africa, of course their investments are structured to help both donors and recipients. Whether the relationship between them is imperialist or not depends on the specifics of the relationship, and its balance of net gains. Those gains for the BRICS will likely be substantial. Russia’s adjustment to Ukraine-related sanctions against it not only led it to lean more on BRICS but likewise intensified the economic interactions among BRICS members. Existing economic links and conjoint projects among them grew. New ones are fast emerging. Unsurprisingly, additional countries in the Global South have recently requested BRICS membership.

Capitalism has moved on, abandoning its old centers and thereby pushing its problems and divisions to crisis levels. Because profits still flow back to the old centers, those there gathering the profits delude their countries and themselves into thinking all is well in and for global capitalism. Because those profits sharply aggravate economic inequalities, social crises there deepen. For example, the wave of labor militancy sweeping across nearly all U.S. industries reflects anger and resentment against those inequalities. The hysterical scapegoating of various minorities by right-wing demagogues and movements is another reflection of the worsening difficulties. Yet another is the growing realization that the problem, at its root, is the capitalist system. All of these are components of today’s crisis.

Even in capitalism’s new dynamic centers, a critical socialist question returns to agitate people’s minds. Is the new centers’ organization of workplaces—retaining the old capitalist model of employers vs. employees in both private and state enterprises—desirable or sustainable? Is it acceptable for a small group, employers, exclusively and unaccountably to make most key workplace decisions (what, where, and how to produce and what to do with the profits)? That is clearly undemocratic. Employees in capitalism’s new centers already question the system; some have begun to challenge and move against it. Where those new centers celebrate some variety of socialism, employees will more likely (and sooner) resist subordination to the residues of capitalism in their workplaces.

Hollywood executives stall industry rather than give workers a raise

Refusing to negotiate better compensation and fair working conditions for actors and writers, major film and television studios are to blame for the work stoppages afflicting their industry.

Hollywood has come to a standstill this summer as actors join their writer colleagues on the picket line. The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) announced that it would be on strike starting July 14, 2023, over negotiations breaking down with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents most of the major studios in the film and television industry. That same body failed to negotiate in good faith with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which has been on strike since May 2, 2023. Together, writers and actors represent the majority of creative talent in the most influential film industry in the world.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Even before the SAG-AFTRA strike, labor activity had been surging across the board. Axios tallied the number of striking workers from January to May every year since 2021 and found that by the end of May 2023, there were 119,000 striking workers in the United States—far more than the number on strike during the same period in the previous two years.

Since May, the number of striking workers has surged even higher as 15,000 hotel workers employed by about 60 hotels in Los Angeles went on strike. This was quickly followed by SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000 actors launching their strike, and coming on their heels was the announcement that 340,000 UPS workers could be going on a nationwide strike in August in what would be “the largest strike against a single employer in U.S. history.”

Hollywood’s rank and file joins a phenomenon that has been dubbed #HotLaborSummer, a moment when workers in industries across the nation are making themselves heard about poor working conditions and low pay. Already, production on television shows has halted with the writers’ strike. Viewers anticipating the return of their favorite TV shows in September will likely be waiting a while. As highly anticipated summer movies like “Barbie” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” hit theaters, actors will not attend press junkets, San Diego Comic Con, or any other publicity-related events to promote their projects. The Emmy Awards Show will either be empty of actors and writers or have to be postponed altogether.

In spite of the power they wield in numbers, actors and writers are facing off against moneyed interests that are so flush with cash and other projects that they can afford to wait out the workers. A shocking report in Deadline on how AMPTP plans to drag its feet on negotiating with writers suggests that the same could be in store for actors: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” a studio executive told Deadline. Acknowledging the cold-as-ice approach, several other sources reiterated the statement. One insider called it “a cruel but necessary evil.” If the strike were an on-screen plot, AMPTP executives would be the undisputed villains.

Unlike a potential UPS strike, which could economically devastate the company within days and cost the entire U.S. economy more than $7 billion over 10 days, Hollywood studios feel they can dig in their heels. According to the Deadline report, “as network schedules shift to unscripted shows and streamers buy up foreign content, the studios and streamers have been saving money on shuttered productions and cost-cutting.”

Filmmaker Boots Riley, whose new “anti-capitalist” streaming series “I’m a Virgo” has garnered serious accolades, called it a “union-busting tactic” on Twitter and added, “they want 2break [sic] us.” He told the Hollywood Reporter that the studios are “trying to put forward… a message that you’re not going to be able to have a say in how we do things.”

Indeed, that’s precisely what the Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger seemed to be saying when he claimed that the actors on strike “have to be realistic about the business environment and what this business can deliver.” Iger and his fellow entertainment industry executives appear to be claiming that it’s simply impossible for companies like Disney to continue to remain viable and pay its writers and actors what they want.

But, consider the shocking disparity in pay between rank-and-file workers and their bosses. Actor Kendrick Sampson, who is known for his work on “The Vampire Diaries” and “Insecure,” and who is a common fixture at Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles, illustrated on his Instagram page just how poorly he is compensated in residuals, or royalty payments—a major point of contention in negotiations with AMPTP. From the 50 residual checks he opened, he counted a grand total of only $86 in residual payments. “This is why we strike,” explained Sampson.

Meanwhile, Disney CEO Iger recently spent $7 million in renovations alone on his lavish $33 million Los Angeles mansion. Forbes reported in 2019 that he was worth about $690 million—a figure so unimaginably large that he could afford to work for free and would never want for anything. In spite of this, he siphons off $27 million a year in compensation to run Disney.

What’s most potentially powerful about the actors’ strike is the narrative force it wields across the country and the world. Movies and television shows influence our thinking on so many social issues. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, actors are loved and lauded. Now, they’re under attack from greedy millionaires and billionaires.

“Abbott Elementary” star Sheryl Lee Ralph, a veteran, award-winning actor, explained it in plain terms: “We’re fighting for our art… We’re fighting for what we love, and what we know people love. We’re not big million-dollar companies. No, we’re people, and we want to enjoy what we do, and we want to make a living at it. That’s what this is about.”

The actors’ decision to strike could spark interest in labor issues and in the oppositional dynamic between bosses and workers that Ralph articulated. If our favorite movie stars are on a picket line demanding better pay and fairer working conditions just so they can survive doing what they love to do, it could have a ripple effect, inspiring others to make similar demands of their own employers.

In contrast to Ralph, AMPTP sounds heartless, responding to the SAG-AFTRA strike in a statement, saying, “The Union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry.” There was no mention of the financial hardship that AMPTP has put union members through, as industry executives deflect blame on everyone but themselves, casting beloved actors as the villains.

Iger lamented that striking actors “are adding to a set of challenges that this business is already facing, that is quite frankly, very disruptive.” But disruption is precisely the point. If it were convenient, a worker strike would affect nothing.

AUTHOR BIO: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

How federal law can protect all workers on sweltering summer days

The heat index soared to 111 degrees in Houston, Texas, but the real-feel temperature climbed even higher than that inside the heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) that John Hayes and his colleagues at Ecoservices wear on the job.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Sweat poured from the workers clad in full-body hazardous materials suits, heavy gloves, splash hoods, and steel-toed boots as they sampled and processed chemicals from huge metal containers under a searing sun.

Fortunately, as members of the United Steelworkers (USW), these workers negotiated a policy requiring the chemical treatment company to provide shade, cool-down periods, and other measures to protect them during sweltering days.

But unless all Americans have commonsense safeguards like these, workers across the country will continue to get sick and die during ever-worsening heat waves.

The USW, other unions, and advocacy groups are calling on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to speedily enact a national standard specifying the minimum steps all employers need to take to safeguard workers from unprecedented and deadly bouts of heat.

Because of union advocacy, OSHA already has national standards that protect workers from falls, trench collapses, asbestos exposure, infectious diseases, injuries from equipment, and many other workplace hazards. It’s way past time to also protect workers from the heat waves that are growing more severe, lasting longer, and claiming more lives each year.

“Heat affects everybody. It doesn’t care about age,” observed Hayes, president of USW Local 227’s Ecoservices unit, who helped to negotiate the heat-related protections for about 70 workers in treatment services, maintenance, logistics, and other departments.

“There’s so many things they can come up with,” he said of OSHA officials.

The policy the union negotiated with Ecoservices requires low-cost, sensible measures like water, electrolytes, modified work schedules, tents and fans, and the authority to stop work when conditions become unhealthy and unsafe.

“If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, take your timeout,” Hayes reminds coworkers. “Don’t worry about it.”

In 2021, OSHA initiated efforts “to consider a heat-specific workplace rule.” In the meantime, states and local governments are free to make their own rules, let workers fend for themselves, or even put workers at greater risk.

While workers everywhere would benefit from a national heat standard, nowhere is the need more obvious than in Texas.

It’s one of the states hardest hit by the heat wave now blistering much of the country, with cities like Junction and Laredo shattering heat records.

Worse, in the midst of the crisis, right-wing Governor Greg Abbott signed a new law sweeping aside city and county ordinances mandating water breaks for construction workers. The so-called “Death Star law” is nothing but blatant pandering to Abbott’s corporate cronies at the expense of workers’ lives.

The law goes into effect on September 1. But in the three weeks from when Abbott signed it, at least three workers already died in the face of scorching conditions.

One was a letter carrier, another a utility lineman who traveled from West Virginia to Texas to restore power knocked out by the heat, and the third an otherwise healthy construction worker who collapsed while helping to meet Houston’s long-running building boom.

“We were called essential workers,” Hayes said, referring to Texans who remained at their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic to serve residents and keep the state operating. “Now some of us can’t even get a drink of water.”

Heat already ranks among the top causes of occupational incidents and death, according to Public Citizen’s analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources.

Heat can directly sicken or kill, as it did the Texas construction worker. But it also induces fatigue, dizziness, and cognitive impairments, leading to falls and other incidents on the job.

And with climate change fueling heat waves, workers face ever-greater risks.

While workers in the construction, agriculture, and other outdoor industries battle the sun, those working indoors face their own challenges from summer heat that’s magnified by steel beams, metal pipes, and energy-generating equipment.

“First of all, we’ve got huge furnaces that are melting down scrap aluminum to cast ingots,” explained David “Buzz” Sawyer, president of USW Local 309, which represents about 840 workers at two Arconic plants in Alcoa, Tennessee.

“It goes into the furnace, and from that point on, it’s either molten or relatively close to molten,” continued Sawyer, noting that welding jobs, a rolling mill, and other processes also expose workers to heat as they manufacture material for road signs, cars, and other products.

Like workers at Ecoservices, Local 309 members negotiated a contract with numerous protections, including the authority to stop work, in dangerous temperatures. “We’re the ones doing the work and know what a safer job looks like,” observed Sawyer.

Worker solidarity fuels the robust safety system. But a healthy, stable workforce is also in the company’s best interest, he said, noting the national heat standard is needed because some employers, as well as state officials like Abbott, lack both compassion and reason.

“How in the world can you deny your workers an opportunity to get a drink of water?” he said. “If you’re going to do that, what else are you going to do?”

Sawyer wants others to know about the strong safety measures that union members built at Arconic and to think, “We deserve it, too.”

At the end of a shift, he noted, “This is what takes you home to your family.”

AUTHOR BIO: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

Being free means getting climate reparations right. But not everyone is onboard

Those who would have to pay the most are trying to hide what the climate crisis is costing the rest of us and ignoring the fact that social justice begins with a fair start in life.

Climate change has already caused harm not only to mothers and children, but also to people of color, Indigenous and fenceline communities, and residents of the world’s poorest nations. These groups have been disproportionately impacted by environmental crises that, for the most part, stem from the pollutive, extractive, and consumerist behaviors of rich nations.

How will they be compensated for this long-term and ongoing harm? Wealthy nations will have to compensate less wealthy ones for the loss and damage, including effective reparation methods like direct payments to young women, mothers, and children through programs like Seeds for the Future family reforms. Family reformation is the key while compensating those affected.

Direct family-based reparations reverse economic systems based on unsustainable population growth and inequity—those that create wealth by fundamentally externalizing costs to others. They do so by robbing women and children of resources that would give children an ecosocial fair start in life and instead use children to create growth. Those who would be paying back the wealth they owe are now doubling down, creating hysteria around an idea that reduced fertility rates and degrowth are themselves a crisis, with key targets like Elon Musk (whose wealth was created through such externalization) even suggesting that child-free people should not be allowed to vote.

Such direct obligations and payments move beyond the governments that created the crisis, beyond an unfair, anthropocentric system of top-down coercion, and instead towards bottom-up empowerment. This is less about population and more about power, and whether each individual; has equity—or influence—in their political system (focusing on the relations between humans, and not just counting them). It is about whether individuals matter politically. Compensation is equity, and equity is freedom. Creating humans for economies rather than democracies is the opposite.

The extreme concentration of wealth at the top of the economic pyramid was created by externalizing its environmental and other costs—on the poor, future generations, and nonhuman animals—argues Nobel laureate Steven Chu, who served as the Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration. “Increased economic prosperity and all economic models supported by governments and global competitors are based on having more young people, workers, than older people,” Chu said in 2019. “Two schemes come to mind. One is the pyramid scheme. The other is the Ponzi scheme.”

In this case, “justice for all” means that the wealthy must pay for the damaging, externalized costs resulting from their acquisition of that wealth. But how do we ensure a fair process for calculating the costs, recovering the money, and getting it directly to young women, mothers, and children to counteract the effects of the crisis today? And what about tomorrow? The future can be protected through family planning entitlements that most effectively benefit the majority of people, including future generations. The decisions we make will impact the baseline for climate reparations (i.e., what exactly was lost and damaged) by billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

We must ensure that those who are least responsible for the climate crisis and economic inequality (i.e., future generations), do not suffer their greatest consequences. Otherwise, future generations will be the victims of a great injustice.

“The world needs a new model of how to generate a rising standard of living that’s not dependent on a pyramid scheme,” said Chu. We believe that the “Fair Start Model” is that model.

The Fair Start Model: Properly Addressing Population Ethics Means Achieving Equitable Opportunities for All

Population ethics is a complex field that the United Nations and world governments must properly address if future generations are to live sustainably in a planetary ecosystem that is not damaged beyond repair. Having meaningful and effective discussions with policymakers includes setting standards that deal with the moral, ethical, and scientific considerations surrounding population size—relative to levels of consumption, growth, and the distribution of resources.

More than a third of Nobel Laureates are calling family policies and consumption-relative population the key driver of the crises we face today. Establishing population standards would reduce the overhaul of climate activities and begin the process of climate reparations from those who have benefitted the most from economic activities that have damaged climate conditions. These payments can fund optimal democratic and biodiverse communities, those envisioned by thought leaders like Sir Partha Dasgupta, where people are empowered.

Human rights are the rules that put limits on what governments can do so that people can live free, and the basic requirement for all rules is that they be fair. The fundamental problem is that the human right to have and raise children in conditions (including sustainable resources) that meet their needs—which is the first and overriding rule because it accounts for our creation and fundamental power relations—has been disconnected from that fairness requirement. Requiring fairness would have cost the wealthiest what it takes to invest in all children, and prevented the profits that come with explosive growth, This disconnect has benefitted a few at a great cost to many.

It is long past overdue to expose the truth and those who are hiding the truth, and urge them—and global policymakers—to change society’s course toward child-centric planning and development that adheres to fairness, justice for all, and human rights.

The Fair Start Model is an approach that 1) aims to provide every individual with an equal opportunity to lead a fulfilling life, and 2) treats this obligation as the first and overriding human right. It treats reproductive justice and freedom as occurring within the larger context of societal freedom, which starts with ecosocial birth equity. If governance derives from the people, then constitutionalism—or the limitation and decentralization of power—starts with the creation of relations, not written documents.

The Fair Start Model is based on five key principles:

  • Equitable opportunities: Every person, regardless of background or circumstance, must have access to resources, education, healthcare, and other essential services necessary for a fair start in life.
  • Sustainable population size: To ensure the long-term well-being of both current and future generations, society must consider the carrying capacity of the environment (i.e., natural resources) and support “eco-centric” (not “egocentric”) families to maintain sustainable population size, understanding that even large families in poor nations have less of an environmental impact than small families in rich nations.
  • Resource allocation: Allocating resources equitably among the population involves addressing disparities and ensuring that basic needs are met for everyone, while also considering individual differences, such as disabilities or other vulnerabilities, to ensure fairness.
  • Inter-generational equity: We must acknowledge the interdependence between present and future generations and emphasize the responsibility to ensure that the actions taken today do not compromise the well-being and opportunities of future generations. This consideration involves sustainable resource management, environmental conservation, and responsible reproductive choices.
  • Ethical considerations in reproduction: Population ethics must involve ethical deliberation regarding reproduction. While individual reproductive freedom is generally respected, we must take into account the collective impact of reproductive choices on the overall population, the environment, and future generations. Balancing individual autonomy with responsible decision-making is crucial in maintaining a fair and sustainable population. High-consumption families in the past have made it harder for young women to have children in safe conditions. That reality means that, as a society, we have fundamentally misunderstood the true meaning of “autonomy” because we did not ask families to limit their reproductive autonomy so that it could be enjoyed in perpetuity. As a comparison, this is like limiting time at a podium in a room with many speakers: Future speakers will have less time to speak if previous speakers do not take the time of future speakers into consideration.

The Assumption Behind All Theories of Freedom

John Rawls’ theory of freedom starts with the assumption that we become free when our obligations—like following the letter of the law—are justified. The Fair Start Model suggests a flaw in such theories of political obligation and freedom that has blocked just such a process.

The first and overriding obligation, from which others (like laws) are derived, must be existential rather than practical because “we are before we do.” Former theories did not derive from this fundamental origination. Hence they never developed an objective and this justifying standard, like ecosocial fairness, for our existence—relational in nature —which is the form of justice that precedes before justifying our actions.

If we are truly concerned with how to be relatively self-determining and less controlled by others, and have the capacity for consent or choice, we would logically start with deontological population ethics, and a creation norm/first principle and obligation that looks to create groups akin to 0123...0, with 0 being non-polity/non-humanity or nature, and self-determination for each being offset equally as new persons enter, up until division or subdivision is required. Nations can subdivide through federalism into states and local jurisdictions. Some would argue that corporations and clubs, etc. are subdivisions, so if we imagine we need many nations for all to have a voice, subdivision complicates this, whereas, for example, Catalan seceding from Spain is just division.

We would have to invest enough in the birth and development conditions of each person to achieve this outcome—with power flowing from the bottom upward. In other words, absolute self-determination among political equals is inverse to population growth and relative to a nonhuman world.

This axiom can expose the fact that many individuals and groups—hiding behind “private” families and family planning—do not want political equality, but would rather exploit children as economic inputs than invest in their being born and raised in conditions likely to make them highly educated, resilient and politically confident citizens that who challenge concentrations of wealth and power. The Fair Start Model still reserves a private right to have children to would-be parents, but it would be more limited—like the right to speak freely is (we can’t defame or incite violence, and we all get a turn, etc.), and be geared around birth equity. So there is still autonomy for the would-be parents but balanced against other interests.

As early as the middle of the 20th century, when international law was coming into true effect, family planning could have been determined by incentives and entitlements that ensured children’s ecosocial birth and development conditions. That did not happen. Instead, that money went to the top of the economic pyramid.

Family policies could have been determined by the presence of incentivizing and equalizing resources. In fact, they were hidden behind the idea of privacy. The Fair Start Model argues that one’s perspective on whether procreative decisions should be personal or interpersonal, private or public, should be influenced by a consideration of the climate.

Is there a way to see this more simply? Who do you have to be—minimally—to exist in a social contract and hence be free because you are willingly part of an enterprise? You have to be—minimally—“other-regarding” enough to ensure that family planning, as well as birth and development conditions, is consistent with the Children’s Rights Convention (particularly Articles 5, 6, 12, 13, 17, 19, 24, 26, 27, 28 31, 32, 34, 35, and 36)—interpreted as first requiring climate restoration via birth equity. This thinking aligns deference to majorities, with individual rights, by giving those rights to the future majority first and foremost as a fair start in life. To the extent that these things were in conflict and not aligned in the past, the opposition justified top-down governance (based on a lack of common trust) rather than relative self-governance.

Why should we trust one another if we accepted a system that was fundamentally unfair? The easiest way is to say that democracy and social contracts, or any form of consensual cooperation, require trust. It is hard to be trustful when you have not been treated fairly, and without a fair start in life, something which is now not part of how we are created.

Some theories of political obligation, having to comply with the law, require that everyone who participates in a reasonably just, mutually beneficial cooperative practice—philosopher H.L.A. Hart’s “joint enterprise according to rules”—has an obligation to bear a fair share of the burdens of the practice. Understandings of what constitutes “fairness” are where political theories frequently diverge. The contingent obligation may be, according to some, owed to the others who cooperate in the enterprise, for cooperation is what makes it possible for any individual to enjoy the benefits of the practice. Thus, the obligation is contingent on the capacity to participate, which is and should be contingent on the norms which account for our creation.

Those norms would not crowd speakers out of getting meaningful time at the podium; rather, they would make sure we respect each other enough as equals to listen, and we would be surrounded by ecologies not already determined by others—like Exxon destroying our climate—so that very idea of “relative self-determination” makes sense. This is a claim that is driven home in the recent film Artifice Girl, a story about what we owe—in the act of creation—to AI that might develop a capacity for autonomy.

In other words, to properly assess costs and benefits, we have to first become groups of people capable of doing so in a way that is inclusive and reflective of the group constituents (the very thing implied by the preambles to constitutions and international covenants). Those who refuse to give children an ecosocial fair start in life as the first and overriding human right are opting to leave the resources there, undercut their claims, risk millions, and undercut U.S. national security.

It is better to use things like climate reparations to fund equity than to react to disempowerment in violent ways (and maybe because inequity is backed by legal systems that rely on and legitimize violence), the way some have and will, hitting innocent victims rather than those who benefited from the disempowerment.

Divided Perspectives: The Controversy Surrounding Climate Reparations

Climate reparations (or climate justice) refer to the concept of compensating communities and countries that have been disproportionately affected by climate change and its impacts. The idea is rooted in the recognition that historical emissions and unsustainable practices of developed nations have contributed significantly to climate change, while vulnerable communities and countries that did little to contribute to the crisis bear the brunt of its consequences.

While the concept of climate reparations has gained traction and support from various organizations and advocates, not everyone is on board.

We suggest several reasons for this divide:

  • Disagreements on Responsibility: Some argue that assigning blame and responsibility for climate change is complex and that the historical emissions of developed countries alone do not contribute solely to the consequences of climate change. No doubt they have contributed significantly to the damage.
  • Economic Concerns: Implementing climate reparations requires significant financial resources—a cause for concern for many countries and individuals—which many feel they do not owe and see as an unfair burden.
  • Political Challenges: Climate reparations involve global cooperation and agreement, which can be challenging to achieve. Negotiating and implementing a fair and equitable system of reparations would require consensus among nations with diverse economic interests and priorities.
  • Resistance to Change: Some individuals and organizations may be resistant to the idea of climate reparations due to ideological or political reasons. They may oppose the redistribution of wealth or view it as an unfair burden on their own countries or communities.

Despite the disagreements, it is essential to recognize the urgent need for action on climate change and the disproportionate impacts it has on vulnerable communities. While the specific mechanisms and approaches for climate reparations may vary, the overall goal is to ensure fairness, justice, and support for those who have been most affected.

Ultimately, finding common ground and fostering dialogue among stakeholders is crucial to developing effective climate justice frameworks and achieving a sustainable and just future for all. This is what the Fair Start Model does.

Leveling the Playing Field: The Importance of Birth Equity in the Fair Start Model

The Fair Start Model advocates birth equity because the circumstances into which individuals are born can significantly impact their life outcomes. Birth equity refers to ensuring that all children—regardless of their background or socioeconomic status—have an equal opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential from the moment they are born.

By advocating for birth equity, the Fair Start Model addresses the disparities and inequities that exist among children and prevents every child from having a fair start in life.

Birth equity aligns with the principles of social justice and equal opportunity. It recognizes that some individuals and communities face systemic disadvantages and barriers that hinder their ability to provide their children with optimal conditions for growth and development. By advocating policies and initiatives that promote birth equity, the Fair Start Model seeks to level the playing field and ensure that every child has a fair start in life.

By prioritizing birth equity, the Fair Start Model strives to create a society in which all children have access to essential resources and opportunities that support their physical, cognitive, and emotional development. That is why we support RAFUG’s Seed for Future (Uganda) Project and seek to partner with the Golden Love and Hands of Hope Foundation on the Seeds for Africa (Nigeria) Project.

Ultimately, the Fair Start Model recognizes that birth equity is not just a matter of fairness, but also a crucial step toward building a more equitable and just society and helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. By addressing disparities early in life, the Fair Start Model seeks to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, improve overall health outcomes, empower individuals to reach their full potential (regardless of their circumstances at birth) and help protect the climate world.

Questions to Identify Those Who Reject Equity

What is your stance on the basic connection between children being born, and things like child welfare, the climate crisis, animal rights, or anything else you might claim to care about? Does your answer prohibit violations of children’s rights?

In the answers given, we will be looking for an inversion related to growth, evidence of an intent to actually empower people as they enter the world, taking democracy seriously, and considering non-Eurocentric instances of democracy that might have been more inclusive than their later counterparts.

In the Fair Start Model, the best response to climate change starts with using an alternative version of social justice that does not use future generations to convert the nonhuman world into wealth for a few. This idea of justice does not ignore our day-to-day relations and how they are determined by our birth position but flows from a place of bottom-up vulnerability, not strength.

While some inquiries into climate justice and social equity focus on the idea of population we can think of these matters as the relations between people as they are created. Humans are defined by their relations and obligations to others, and our birth position, in terms of nationality or class, largely defines our impact on the ecologies we all share and our disparate influence in our relations with one another.

If you are empowered at all—as part of the source of legitimate government and sovereignty—then the first question you ask is: “Are children being born into the world because they will have fundamental power over me in every sense, politically from the governance, and daily in their impact (impact which largely depends on nationality and class, as cited above)?” You will limit the power of others at the base, and not accept obligations to follow rules in a system that does not allow me to limit and consent to that power, so that you are objectively (mathematically) obligated, based on deriving back all the way to the most fundamental obligation. Free people will condition compliance with the law on that norm empowering them.

Bending from Growth to Justice and Relative Self-Determination

This gives us a formula (which qualifies at least as a provisional baseline for climate reparations) to determine, qualitatively, optimal population ranges, and the method to achieve them: Shift unjust concentrations of wealth and power, built by not having to pay the costs of ensuring birth and development conditions consistent with the Children’s Rights Convention (CRC), towards funding all children with equal opportunities in life and a natural, biodiverse environment. The CRC is a standard because it tells us who, minimally, we should be. And the formula above applies to any grouping of people, from states to companies, to clubs, to spontaneous gatherings.

Funding, resources, and incentives, should have been the factors in determining family planning behaviors for the last century or so, and had it been, we could have evaded climate disasters and other crises we face today. Instead, we lived under a system of growth economics that created many people raised in inequitable conditions for shopping malls, rather than investing in them as equal members of a town hall; i.e., creating consumers, not citizens. This is the fountainhead of what some call the economization of life.

What are the practical ramifications of all of this? As “climate loss and damage” reparation formulas are assessed, we should correct this flaw and use true relative self-determination as the baseline—a move that could increase what wealthy countries owe by trillions of dollars. Moreover, correcting this mistake ensures that we can override current property rights to ensure that all children get enough of what they need in order to physically compromise legitimate democracies, capable of actually and fairly assigning property rights. That comes first. No theory of obligation to follow the law works unless it accounts for the creation of just power relations, and all power relations are fundamentally created at birth. Overconsumption (the power of wealth) relative to population size is the issue, rather than population alone.

Moving wealth into family-based reparations catalyzes the trend that is already having the greatest impact on the climate crisis and our chance for a better future—women choosing smaller families or a child-free life. This is a sea-change in our species and how we relate to our ecologies, and despite the best attempts of those at the head of the economic pyramid to resist, this change is here and something we can accelerate.

Do we need official governing processes like the United Nations, or Congress, to authorize this wealth transition? Thinking so commits the fallacy described above: that governmental authority derives from a prior obligation to ensure the capacity to participate. Many individuals are already disclaiming property rights to portions of their wealth in favor of family planning entitlements and will target concentrations of wealth and corrupt politicians to do the same. They should do so nonviolently, but be aware that acts of mass violence may very well arise from the same sense of disempowerment, and just be directed at the wrong targets rather than those who actually benefited from fundamental injustice.

The “FamScam”

When this research was brought to wealthy funders in the animal rights space—who would have been obligated to help pay to correct the mistake and would have been potentially liable for years of greenwashing under the standard (the climate crisis means their claims of being green, sustainable, humane, eco-friendly, etc., were false)—they ignored it, then quietly backed the elimination of litigation that was designed to correct the mistake. They blocked the solution, for their own benefit, at a deadly cost to others.

They did this while many organizations—including the ones they were funding—were simply filling the public domain with fundraising noise designed around low-impact campaigns that did not threaten the fundamental power structure.

Their reaction mimics other concentrations of wealth and power—like the editor of the New York Times—who appear to want to further liberal values while quietly undoing them with family policy to maintain their position. A peremptory norm that would avert the birth of billions of people because we have new and expensive obligations to anyone born has ramifications for nonhumans that makes iconic animal rights battles, like Proposition 12, look fairly irrelevant.

How can we possibly think we are protecting animals while ignoring the creation of humans who will harm them? Organizations avoid this issue because it is hard to navigate since they do not make the connections above, or because they don’t really believe in justice and they can make money on low-impact and less risky campaigns instead by relying on donor ignorance.

It’s bad enough to not do what one says, but skewing the baseline and process for climate reparations, by ignoring a right to nature and equal opportunity as the basis to judge what the climate crisis cost us, risks a grand injustice. Humans face the climate crisis because we did not recognize exactly who we should be—minimally, in order to be free. Future generations deserve a world in which that mistake is corrected, and those who benefited from the mistake must pay the amount they benefitted.

One concrete tactic to do this is through greenwashing litigation, challenging humane, environmental, ESG, DEIJ, and other value-based claims. Misleading claims in this area obfuscated the impacts companies, media, and nonprofits (some of which intentionally hid basic obligations that would have shown they were knowingly undoing their own claims) were having, forestalling reforms and risking millions of innocent lives. Suing the bad actors can bring forth the truth, and enable things like truly green certification systems, and family-based climate reparations. Using the Fair Start Model—and nurturing critical discourse about actually distributing power to constitute democracy—is one standard for this important and essential work. It requires climate restoration and biodiversity and accounts for empowering children to thrive by improving their birth and development conditions.

It demands these things as the first peremptory norm under international law, and can thus ensure a fundamental truth and reconciliation process for the climate crisis that actually compensates the victims directly. It may also reduce growing acts of mass shootings and other violence, which may be unfolding as many feel keenly disempowered.

We will also be outing those described above who were involved in hiding the research—including research that showed their own fundamental mistakes and liability—and moving the goalposts for what nature and freedom mean. Doing so skews the baseline for compensating future generations for the climate crisis by making it seem that the anthropocentric standard that caused the climate crisis is the only standard available. That skewing also hides the idea that truly free persons will make their obligation to follow the law on being empowered to control it, and with it, the influence others—like Exxon—have over them, and over their children.

We are urging those who care about basic justice to help make examples of those blocking these truths, publicly urging them to use their massive wealth—in dozens of effective ways—to bend the arc of who we are becoming towards being just and empowered people. If they do not believe in a coherent system of political obligation that accurately assesses costs and benefits, it’s unclear why they should deserve its benefits and protections.

The Fair Start Movement is the story of—and solution for—this struggle.

Author Bios:

Esther Afolaranmi is a co-executive director at the Fair Start Movement and the founder of Golden Love and Hands of Hope Foundation, which works to strengthen vulnerable and underprivileged communities in Nigeria.

Mwesigye Robert is the founder of Rejoice Africa Foundation.

Carter Dillard is the policy adviser for the Fair Start Movement. He served as an Honors Program attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice and also served with a national security law agency.

'Baked into the frameworks': Archeologist reveals '3 pervasive myths' that blind us to the past

The New Gilded Age, wars along the Russian border, a global pandemic, battles for women’s rights, even the Titanic: history does rhyme with the present. Yet as former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert once observed: “If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history.”

This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

That’s something we can realistically change. And if we do, we’ll have an easier time addressing the macro and multiple challenges humanity faces, and finding the pathways to necessary compromises and alliances with people across all borders.

But our blinders and misconceptions about the past constrain the knowledge that we have to plan for a better future. Societies don’t get much out of living memory because the longer-term ramifications from recent decisions generally remain unsettled, and most of the big problems we face are the cumulative products of decades or centuries of the wrong approach to humanity’s histories and transitions. To leverage and learn from humanity’s history regarding what fostered sustainability in the past, we need to know the outcomes.

The good news is that through concerted research in history and archaeology, we now know a great deal more about the different paths that people have taken and their outcomes than we did just fifty years back. Long-term perspectives on cities, states, and empires are now much fuller and more regionally diverse than was known decades ago. Synthetic, comparative analyses have been undertaken. We now know what worked and what did not.

To draw better inferences and learn from past human histories, it is necessary to challenge three pervasive myths, which fundamentally shape not just what we think about the past, but why so many see history as irrelevant when it comes to guiding the present and shaping the future. Each myth is pervasive and entrenched as the ideas and presumptions behind them were born and entangled with the roots of the Western tradition of social sciences, baked into the frameworks through which researchers traditionally study the past.

The first myth supposes that humans in their natural state are nasty, brutish, and self-absorbed, only tamed by the power and coercion of the state. Clearly, humans do have the capacity for great selfishness, but as a species, we also are better cooperators with non-kin than any other animal. This seeming paradox is explicable if we recognize that people are not by nature either uniformly cunning or cuddly, but rather humans, past and present, are capable of both cooperation and selfishness depending on context. Our nature is not one-dimensional. Cooperative behavior is situational; we engage when an individual’s wants dovetail with their larger social network. Lack of alignment short-circuits cooperation whether the network is large or small.

The first supposition or myth undergirds a broadly held second one—that large premodern societies were universally coercive or despotic in organization. Autocratic governance kept the ever-selfish in line, the argument goes. Ancient Athens and republican Rome generally have been categorically distinguished as the unexplained exception to this presumed premodern path, which came to an end just a few centuries ago when ideas from the Classical era were rediscovered, giving rise to The Enlightenment, when Europeans adopted reason, science, democracy, and more.

The latter scenario became the mid-twentieth-century justification for the third myth, the walling off of modernity from the deeper past. Only after the Enlightenment with rational thought could people organize themselves democratically, in forms of governance where voice, power, and resources were not monopolized by a few.

These three myths underlie the severing of deep history, especially non-Western pasts, from the present. Often in the absence of robust historical information, contemporary observations of non-Western peoples were categorically slotted into imagined pasts that led stage-by-stage to modernist Western presents and futures.

Progressive visions of human history spurred research in history, archaeology, and related disciplines. What we have learned over recent decades does not conform with those starting myths and expectations. Change was not linear, nor was it uniform from region to region. Likewise, premodern governance was not consistently despotic, especially in the Indigenous Americas. Yet in every global region, how people governed themselves shifted over time.

When it comes to the past, we also know the outcomes. And, in the region where I study, prehispanic Mesoamerica, cities that were governed more collectively with less concentrated power tended to persist as central places longer than those urban settlements that were ruled more autocratically. A similar pattern, albeit less definitive, was also found for a global sample of states and empires. More in-depth study is necessary, but these historical patterns seem worth investigating in other regions and probing further where they have been documented. The role and success of governance and institutions in facing and meeting the challenges of the past unlock a treasure trove of information that just may guide us toward better futures.

Gary M. Feinman is an archaeologist and the MacArthur curator of Anthropology, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

Solving homelessness is not that hard

Our economic priorities have created a serious housing crisis and fueled homelessness. Solving the problem simply requires us to change our priorities from profits to people.

California is home to Hollywood and Disneyland, sun and sand, and… nearly one-third of all unhoused people in the entire nation. Compare this to the fact that 12 percent of the nation resides in the Golden State and it becomes clear that there is a serious problem of housing that undercuts the Left Coast’s liberal reputation.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

An extensive study of the state’s struggle with homelessness by the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) paints a detailed picture of the problem, and it’s not pretty. Homelessness is thriving at the intersections of racism, sexual violence, overpolicing, and more. The report’s authors explain, it “occurs in conjunction with structural conditions that produce and reproduce inequalities.”

Contrary to the popular perception that good weather fuels voluntary homelessness and consists largely of transplants from out of the state, the report points out that 90 percent of the unhoused had been living in California when they lost access to housing. And, three-quarters continue to remain in the same county.

The problem also manifests in systemic racism, with Black and Indigenous people overrepresented among the unhoused compared to their populations. More than a quarter of all unhoused people in California are Black, and yet only 5 percent of the state’s overall population is Black.

Homelessness also fuels sexual violence that disproportionately impacts unhoused LGBTQ people and women. More than one-third of transgender and nonbinary people experiencing homelessness reported being victims of sexual violence, while 16 percent of cisgender women did so as well.

And, nearly half of all the study’s participants (47 percent) report being harassed by police. Law enforcement routinely subjects California’s unhoused population to violent police raids, dehumanizing searches and seizures of property, forced relocation, and incarceration. The unhoused are disproportionately criminalized by a system that pours a significant amount of tax dollars into policing rather than into affordable housing. Increasingly, cities are simply making it illegal to live outdoors, as if criminalizing homelessness will magically make the math of housing affordability work out.

The UCSF report is neither the first, nor will it be the last one to explore the extent of homelessness in California. And while it makes clear how serious the problem is, the main question remains: how to solve it?

There are several policy solutions put forward including rental assistance in the form of housing vouchers, an exploration of shared housing models, mental health treatment, and even a progressive-sounding monthly income program. But these are merely metaphorical band-aids being applied to a gaping, bleeding wound. None of them address the fundamental reason of why there are more than 171,000 people without housing in California.

Interestingly, the UCSF study’s main author, Dr. Margot Kushel, honed in on the core issue in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle when she said, “We have got to bring housing costs down, and we’ve got to bring incomes up… We need to solve the fundamental problem—the rent is just too high.”

This is a nationwide problem and California is merely on the front lines.

So, how to bring housing costs down? The federal government sees a shortage of homes as the problem, treating it as an issue of supply and demand: increase the supply and the price will fall. But there is no shortage of housing in the nation. There is a shortage of affordable housing and as long as moneyed interests keep buying up housing, building more won’t be a fix.

Since at least 2008, hedge funds have been buying up single-family homes and rental units in California, throwing a bottomless well of cash at a resource that individuals need for their survival and pushing house prices and rents out of reach for most ordinary people. This too is a nationwide phenomenon, one that was extensively outlined in a 2018 report produced by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Americans for Financial Reform, and Public Advocates.

That report makes it clear that Wall Street hedge funds see housing as the next frontier in profitable investing. Once these funds buy up homes and apartments to rent out, they cut the labor and material costs associated with maintenance, and routinely raise the rents.

And why wouldn’t they? Their bottom line is profits, not safe, clean, fair, affordable housing. In 2000, the average American renter spent just over 22 percent of their income on housing. Today that percentage has jumped to 30. Hedge fund landlords are likely celebrating their success at getting “consumers” to fork over a larger share of money for their “products.”

The only way to stop hedge funds from taking over the housing market is… [drumroll] to stop hedge funds from buying up homes. To that end, the ACCE report calls on local municipalities and state governments to offer tenants the first right of refusal in purchasing homes, along with appropriate supports, and then offer nonprofit institutions like community land trusts to have the second right of refusal to purchase. It also calls on the federal government to “not incentivize speculation, or act to favor Wall Street ownership of housing assets over other ownership structures.”

The other end of the problem is that incomes are too low. According to Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the federal minimum wage ought to be $21.50 an hour in order to keep up with the rise in productivity. But it’s not. It’s a horrifyingly low $7.25 an hour. And while nearly half of all states have pushed that wage floor far higher to about $15 an hour, it doesn’t come close to what’s needed. Even the few dozen cities that have forced the minimum wage past their state requirements don’t get to $21.50 an hour.

Yes, individual incomes are rising because of worker demands on employers, but they are not keeping up with inflation. And even though government officials admit that rising wages don’t fuel inflation, the Federal Reserve sees rising wages as the problem, countering them with higher interest rates.

Putting together these pieces of the puzzle, one can only conclude that our economy is designed to keep ordinary Americans living hand to mouth, running on an endless treadmill just to keep from falling into homelessness.

The rent is too damn high—to cite affordable housing activists—and wages are too damn low. That is the nutshell description of an economy that is simply not intended to center human needs.

Passing laws to prevent hedge funds and other large businesses from buying up homes and apartments and raising the minimum wage to at least $21.50 are hardly radical ideas, but they offer course corrections for an economy that is running roughshod over most of us. Rather than tinkering at the edges of the problem and putting forward complex-sounding solutions that don’t actually address the root of the issue, wouldn’t society be better served by redesigning our economy to make homelessness obsolete?

AUTHOR BIO: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

Why workers demand Julie Su’s confirmation as labor secretary

It wasn’t enough for owners of lucrative Southern California car washes to cheat their workers out of wages and overtime.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

They made workers pay for the towels they used to clean cars, denied them rest breaks, forced them to toil in filthy water that bred foot fungus, and even required the so-called “carwasheros” to hand-wash vehicles with skin-burning solvents.

Outraged members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675 launched an effort to help these workers about a dozen years ago, just as the state’s new labor commissioner, Julie Su, kicked off her own battle against the state’s shadow economy.

In a one-two punch that still reverberates through the industry, the USW empowered carwasheros at the negotiating table while Su ramped up enforcement of labor laws, pursued millions in back wages, and filed criminal charges against unscrupulous bosses.

Given this and other fights Su waged on behalf of ordinary people, it’s no surprise that workers across the country are demanding her confirmation as the next U.S. secretary of labor. President Joe Biden nominated Su for the Cabinet post on February 28, but the Senate has yet to vote.

The labor secretary enforces workers’ rights along with federal wage, overtime, and child labor laws. The nation’s top labor cop also fights discrimination, oversees workplace safety agencies, administers pension security programs, and polices employer compliance with shutdown and layoff rules.

To truly make a difference, however, the secretary needs the ardor for working people and impatience for change that define Su’s career.

“It’s one thing to be a policy person. It’s another to connect with people on an emotional level,” said David Campbell, secretary-treasurer of Local 675, recalling not only the skill but the passion and tenacity that Su brought to the fight for car wash workers.

The multi-million industry preyed on recent immigrants, the homeless, and other vulnerable people, said Campbell, noting one “was paid with the privilege of sleeping in the car wash bathroom at night.”

“The car washes knew there was a special enforcement program going on with the labor commissioner. So that made them—at least some of them—more amenable to collective bargaining agreements,” which increased wages, improved working conditions, and gave workers a voice, explained Campbell, whose local worked with several community partners on the initiative.

Su tirelessly helps workers build better lives.

In the 1990s, as a 26-year-old attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Su helped 72 Thai workers start over after federal agents freed them from a garment sweatshop in El Monte, Calif., where they were imprisoned by barbed wire, watched by armed guards and paid by the cent.

Su won $4 million in back wages and legal protections for the workers. But she recalled being most gratified by how “the workers stood up, learned they had power, and, against all odds, defied the message they had heard their whole lives—that they should keep their heads down and know their place.”

After her appointment as California labor commissioner in 2011, Su fought not only for the carwasheros but for poorly paid workers who cleaned buildings, harvested crops, and performed other essential yet largely invisible tasks in the state’s underground economy.

She also stepped up to tackle other pressing issues, such as vigorously enforcing a California law requiring health care facilities to develop customized violence-prevention plans to protect workers like the thousands of USW members who work in hospitals and other medical settings.

And Su helped implement a law protecting workers whom unscrupulous employers deliberately misclassified as contractors so they could skimp on wages, benefits and workplace safety. That work spoke not only to Su’s drive to help workers but to her long-held conviction about the need to provide a “level playing field for honest employers to prosper and thrive.”

“Julie Su was able to greenlight important issues rather than let them founder in an uncaring bureaucracy,” observed Campbell, noting that low wages and poor working conditions for some workers drag everyone down in the long run.

“The obvious move is to raise the floor, and that’s what we should do,” noting that unions and labor enforcers have a “common interest” to protect workers and fuel the economy.

Biden tapped Su to be deputy labor secretary, the department’s No. 2 position in 2021, and then nominated her for the top role upon Secretary Marty Walsh’s departure last winter. The USW, along with dozens of unions, social justice groups, and other organizations, quickly sent senators a letter urging Su’s confirmation because of her record of accomplishments and ability to confront current challenges.

Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, she helped employers and dock workers negotiate a tentative contract that keeps West Coast seaports—and America’s economy—operating. Her work on that case drew praise from both union workers and the Pacific Maritime Association, a trade group.

Americans need Su to watch their backs more than ever, especially as a growing number of workers join unions on the heels of the pandemic and advocates push for a national version of the California law protecting health care workers.

“If she asked me to knock on doors for her, I’d be out there knocking,” said David Simmons, a member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) from Pasadena, Calif., explaining his eagerness to build support for Su’s nomination.

Simmons, who worked on the car wash initiative, remembers not only Su’s commitment to the workers but how she galvanized her entire agency to a mission that previous labor commissioners neglected.

“I think she’d make a great secretary of labor,” he said.

AUTHOR BIO: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

Microplastics are invading our bodies

Plastic is in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. How does it get there—and what does it mean for human health?

The air is plasticized, and we are no better protected from it outdoors than indoors. Minuscule plastic fibers, fragments, foam, and films are shed from plastic stuff and are perpetually floating into and free-falling down on us from the atmosphere. Rain flushes micro- and nanoplastics out of the sky back to Earth. Plastic-filled snow is accumulating in urban areas like Bremen, Germany, and remote regions like the Arctic and Swiss Alps.

This adapted excerpt is from Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, by Erica Cirino (Island Press, 2021). Reproduced with permission from Island Press. This adaptation was produced for the web by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Wind and storms carry particles shed from plastic items and debris through the air for dozens, even hundreds, of miles before depositing them back on Earth. Dongguan, Paris, London, and other metropolises around the world are enveloped in air that is perpetually permeated by tiny plastic particles small enough to lodge themselves in human lungs.

Toxic Tires

Urban regions are especially full of what scientists believe is one of the most hazardous particulate pollution varieties: synthetic tires’ debris. As a result of the normal friction caused by brake pads and asphalt roads, and of weathering and wear, these tires shed plastic fragments, metals, and other toxic materials. Like the plastic used to manufacture consumer items and packaging, synthetic tires contain a manufacturer’s proprietary blend of poisons meant to improve a plastic product’s appearance and performance.

Tire particles from the billions of cars, trucks, bikes, tractors, and other vehicles moving across the world escape into air, soil, and water bodies. Scientists are just beginning to understand the grave danger: In 2020, researchers in Washington State determined that the presence of 6PPD-quinone, a byproduct of rubber-stabilizing chemical 6PPD, was playing a major factor in a mysterious long-term die-off of coho salmon in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. When Washington’s fall rains heralded spawning salmon’s return from sea to stream, the precipitation also washed car tire fragments and other plastic particles into these freshwater ecosystems.

Up to 90 percent of all coho salmon returning to spawn in this region have died—much greater than is considered natural. As the study’s lead author, environmental chemist Zhenyu Tian, explained in a 2020 interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, 6PPD-quinone appears to be a key culprit: “You put this chemical, this transformation product, into a fish tank, and coho die… really fast.”

Microplastic Inside Human Airways

While other researchers had previously searched for, and detected, microplastic dispersed in indoor and outdoor air, Alvise Vianello, an Italian scientist and associate professor at Aalborg University in Denmark, was the first to do so using a mannequin emulating human breathing via a mechanical lung system, publishing his study’s results in 2019. (Despite the evidence his research provides—that plastic is getting inside of human bodies and could be harming us—it was not until 2022 that modern health researchers first confirmed the presence of microplastics in human lungs. And as comprehensive health research has ramped up, we are just beginning to understand how having plastic particles around us and in us at all times might be affecting human health.)

Vianello and his colleague Jes Vollertsen, a professor of environmental studies at Aalborg University, explained that they’ve brought their findings to researchers at their university’s hospital for future collaborative research, perhaps searching for plastic inside human cadavers. “We now have enough evidence that we should start looking for microplastic inside human airways,” Vollertsen said. “Until then, it’s unclear whether or not we should be worried that we are breathing in plastic.”

When I met Vollertsen in 2019, he had speculated that some of the microplastic we breathe in could be expelled when we exhale. Yet even if that’s true, our lungs are indeed holding onto some of the plastic that enters, potentially resulting in damage.

Other researchers, like Joana Correia Prata, DVM, PhD, who studied microplastics at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, have highlighted the need for systematic research on the human health effects of breathing in microplastic. “[Microplastic] particles and fibers, depending on their density, size, and shape, can reach the deep lung causing chronic inflammation,” she said. Prata noted that people working in environments with high levels of airborne microplastics, such as those employed in the textile industry, often suffer respiratory problems. The perpetual presence of a comparatively lower amount of microplastics in our homes has not yet been linked to specific ailments.

While they’ve dissected the bodies of countless nonhuman animals since the 1970s, scientists only began exploring human tissues for signs of nano- and microplastic in earnest during the late 2010s and early 2020s. This, despite strong evidence suggesting plastic particles—and the toxins that adhere to them—permeate our environment and are widespread in our diets. From 2010 to 2020, scientists have detected microplastic in the bodies of fish and shellfish; in packaged meats, processed foods, beer, sea salt, soft drinks, tap water, and bottled water. There are tiny plastic particles embedded in conventionally grown fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets and food stalls.

Petrochemical-Based Plastics, Fertilizers, and Pesticides

As the world rapidly ramped up its production of plastic in the 1950s and ’60s, two other booms occurred simultaneously: that of the world’s human population and the continued development of industrial agriculture. The latter would feed the former and was made possible thanks to the development of petrochemical-based plastics, fertilizers, and pesticides.

By the late 1950s, farmers struggling to keep up with feeding the world’s growing population welcomed new research papers and bulletins published by agricultural scientists extolling the benefits of using plastic, specifically dark-colored, low-density polyethylene sheets, to boost the yields of growing crops.

Scientists laid out step-by-step instructions on how the plastic sheets should be rolled out over crops to retain water, reducing the need for irrigation, and to control weeds and insects, which couldn’t as easily penetrate plastic-wrapped soil.

This “plasticulture” has become a standard farming practice, transforming the soils humans have long sown from something familiar to something unknown. Crops grown with plastic seem to offer higher yields in the short term, while in the long term, use of plastic in agriculture could create toxic soils that repel water instead of absorbing it, a potentially catastrophic problem. This presence of plastic particles in the soil causes increased erosion and dust—as well as the dissolution of ancient symbiotic relationships between soil microbes, insects, and fungi that help keep plants—and our planet—alive.

From the polluted soils we’ve created, plants pull in tiny nanoplastic particles through their roots along with the water they need to survive, with serious consequences: An accumulation of nanoplastic particles in a plant’s roots diminishes its ability to absorb water, impairing growth and development. Scientists have also found evidence that nanoplastic may alter a plant’s genetic makeup in a manner increasing its disease susceptibility.

Plastic: Part of the Human Diet

Based on the levels of micro- and nanoplastics detected in human diets, it’s estimated that most people unwittingly ingest anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 bits of microplastic in their diets each year. That number increases by 90,000 microplastic particles for people who regularly consume bottled water, and by 4,000 particles for those who drink water from municipal taps.

In 2018, scientists in Austria detected microplastic in human stool samples collected from eight volunteers from eight different countries across Europe and Asia. By 2023, scientists had detected the presence of plastic particles in people’s lungs, bloodstreams, veins, placentas, feces, testes/semen, and breast milk. And while the long-term health impacts of plastic on the human body are still unknown, it is well understood that plastic has toxic effects on laboratory animals, marine wildlife, and human cell lines.

In a 2022 study, researchers showed that nanoplastics less than 100 nanometers wide can enter the blood and organs of animals and cause inflammation, toxicity, and changes in neurological function.

Clearly, micro- and nanoplastics are getting into us, with at least some escaping through our digestive tracts. We seem to be drinking, eating, and breathing it in.

And these tiny particles are just one component of plastic’s myriad forms of pollution. From the moment plastic’s fossil fuel ingredients are extracted, to its production, transportation, use, and eventual disposal in landfills, incinerators, and the environment, the plastics pipeline emits toxic chemicals that pollute Earth’s air, soils, waters, seas, animals, plants, and human bodies, and releases greenhouse gases that drive the climate crisis. Most often harmed are already underserved groups, including Black, Brown, Indigenous, rural, poor, and fenceline communities everywhere, driving severe injustice worldwide.

AUTHOR BIO: Erica Cirino is a contributor to the Observatory and a science writer and artist who explores the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. She took on the role of communications manager of the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition in 2022. Her photographic and written works have appeared in Scientific American, the Guardian, VICE, Hakai Magazine, YES! Magazine, the Atlantic, and other publications. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, a gold Nautilus Book Award, and several awards for visual art.

The problem with 'humanely raised' poultry and eggs

Chicken producers are misleading consumers with misinformation.

On June 13, the animal advocacy organization Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) rescued and reported their removal of nineteen chickens from trucks delivering the 6-week-old birds to a slaughterhouse in Sonoma County owned by Petaluma Poultry, a subsidiary of Perdue Farms. Petaluma Poultry markets its chickens as “free-range” and “organic” under brand names like Rocky and Rosie.

A report covering several investigations of Petaluma Poultry published by DxE on the same day shows scenes of sick, crippled, dying, and dead chickens living in filth and being subjected to extreme acts of cruelty by workers. The report includes veterinary diagnoses of Petaluma Poultry chickens from several locations infected with zoonotic bacteria (transmissible to humans) in their blood and body parts.

Petaluma Poultry is not an isolated case in an otherwise truthful industry targeting customers willing and able to pay high prices for “humanely-raised” chickens as opposed to “factory-farmed” birds.

Los Angeles-based Jidori Chicken provides yet another example of misleadingly marketed chickens “raised free range, humanely, at small farms in California.” From 2020 to 2022, slaughterhouse investigators for Slaughter-Free Network documented what they described as some of the worst animal abuse and filthy conditions we’ve ever seen,” in what surely must violate California’s sanitary and animal cruelty statutes.

U.S. egg producers, like poultry meat producers, have similarly been shown by investigators to misrepresent how the hens—whose high-priced eggs they market as humane, free-range, and organic—are housed and treated.

An example is Nellie’s Free Range Eggs. Owned by the New Hampshire-based company Pete and Gerry’s Organics, Nellie’s Eggs, which can cost up to $8 a dozen, are labeled “Certified Humane.” In 2019, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit alleging that Nellie’s Eggs falsely depicts hens ranging on open pastures and being cuddled by children, when in fact, Nellie’s hens are crammed inside long confinement sheds each holding 20,000 hens with little more than a square foot of living space.

In 2009, I became involved with a farm called Black Eagle, which portrayed itself as “the largest organic, free-range, egg producer in the state of Virginia.” The farm president said the hens had “places to roost inside, exposure to natural light and air, and access to the outside with an average of five feet of space per bird within a fenced yard.”

Meanwhile, that same year, documents obtained by an attorney in the course of investigating a complaint about malnourished dogs at Black Eagle Farm revealed an absentee owner, unpaid bills, and malnourished pigs and sheep. Unexpectedly, a veterinarian from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services discovered a building with 25,000 hens described in her report as “thin to emaciated,” with many dead and dying birds on the floor. Farm personnel told her the hens had been unfed for seven days in November, five days in December, and for two straight weeks earlier in the year.

Lest it is thought that the conditions I’m describing are rare or are no longer practiced by the majority of alternative egg producers, I must point out that, while some businesses may treat their hens better, investigations of alternative poultry and egg farms typically reveal practices and attitudes that do not meet consumer expectations—expectations that are cultivated not only by the companies and retailers they do business with but also by animal welfarists who employ “humane” farming language that glosses over the facts with nebulous assertions and omissions. Omissions include but are not limited to, showing hens foraging in a field while never showing them being grabbed upside down by their legs and thrown into gas-killing carts or transport crates. More often than not, the difference between “humane” farms and factory farms is moot.

In part, the deception arises from the popular notion that free-range, cage-free, and organic farming is essentially a collection of small, local enterprises, distinct from industrialized operations like, say, Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms in the meat industry, or Cal-Maine and Rose Acres in the egg industry.

But as a 2019 report on the organic food industry in the Washington Post explains, contrary to the pristine image of organic egg production, “many conventional egg producers have organic subsidiaries that operate on a vast scale, 100,000 laying hens housed in a huge building, their federally mandated access to outdoor space winkingly fulfilled by screened porches.”

The fact is that constricting and diminishing the life of animals is built into raising them for food. Their own food is chosen; their social, familial, and physical environment is controlled; their reproductive organs and activities are manipulated; and how long they live is determined by humans. They can be abused and killed at will based on economic “necessity.” An example in poultry and egg production is the routine culling—removal from the flock for killing—of birds who are not gaining weight fast enough or laying enough eggs. Whatever compassion a person may initially feel for birds slated for commercialization, once they become a business, the business mentality takes over.

The business mentality prioritizes a commitment to soothing rhetoric over harsh reality, shielding the customer from the practical facts of animal farming with palliative platitudes and pretenses. All agribusiness companies claim “high animal welfare standards.” But at best, it is only by comparison with the worst conditions and practices of industrialized animal farming that any commercial animal farm can claim to be “humane.”

[Author’s note: For a closer look at the issues presented in this article by a range of contributors, see the new book The Humane Hoax: Essays Exposing the Myth of Happy Meat, Humane Dairy, and Ethical Eggs, edited by Hope Bohanec and published in 2023 by Lantern Publishing and Media.]

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