Stan Cox

War on the Earth: The nightmare of military spending on an overheating planet

Stan Cox, A War on the Earth?

In so many ways, you still wouldn’t know it — not, that is, if you focused on the Pentagon budget or the economic growth paradigm that rules this country and our world — but this planet is in a crisis of a sort humanity has never before faced. Whether you’re considering heat in the American West, floods in Pakistan, the drying up of the Yangtze River in China, record drought in Europe, or the unparalleled warming of the Arctic, we are, as scientists have been pointing out (and ever more of us ordinary people have noted), in an increasingly “uncharted territory of destruction.” In the process, ever more climate “tipping points” stand in danger of being passed as the overheating of this planet becomes the stuff of everyday life.

And sadly, despite all that, Vladimir Putin’s Russia brutally invaded Ukraine, ensuring the release of yet more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as, among other things, various European countries were forced to turn to greater coal use. Meanwhile, the U.S. and China, the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, are now heading into what’s being called, without the slightest sense of irony, a “new cold war.” In the process, responding to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s decision to visit Taiwan, China recently suspended planned climate talks between the two countries.

Today, TomDispatch regular Stan Cox, author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, explores just what it means, in climate terms, for the U.S., no matter the administration, to pour ever more taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state. Yes, it’s long been commonplace to claim that war is hell (and if you don’t believe that, just check out the nightmare in Ukraine right now). One thing should be ever clearer: sadly enough, that way of life is now all too literally the path to hell. Let Cox explain. Tom

The Nightmare of Military Spending on an Overheating Planet – A Big Carbon Bootprint and a Giant Sucking Sound in the National Budget

On October 1st, the U.S. military will start spending the more than $800 billion Congress is going to provide it with in fiscal year 2023. And that whopping sum will just be the beginning. According to the calculations of Pentagon expert William Hartung, funding for various intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, and work on nuclear weaponry at the Energy Department will add another $600 billion to what you, the American taxpayer, will be spending on national security.

That $1.4 trillion for a single year dwarfs Congress’s one-time provision of approximately $300 billion under the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for what’s called “climate mitigation and adaptation.” And mind you, that sum is to be spent over a number of years. In contrast to the IRA, which was largely a climate bill (even if hardly the best version of one), this country’s military spending bills are distinctly anti-human, anti-climate, and anti-Earth. And count on this: Congress’s military appropriations will, in all too many ways, cancel out the benefits of its new climate spending.

Here are just the three most obvious ways our military is an enemy of climate mitigation. First, it produces huge quantities of greenhouse gases, while wreaking other kinds of ecological havoc. Second, when the Pentagon does take climate change seriously, its attention is almost never focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions but on preparing militarily for a climate-changed world, including the coming crisis of migration and future climate-induced armed conflicts globally. And third, our war machine wastes hundreds of billions of dollars annually that should instead be spent on climate mitigation, along with other urgent climate-related needs.

The Pentagon’s Carbon Bootprint

The U.S. military is this globe’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum fuels. As a result, it produces greenhouse gas emissions equal to about 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Were the Pentagon a country, those figures would place it just below Ireland and Finland in a ranking of national carbon emissions. Or put another way, our military surpasses the total national emissions of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Slovenia combined.

A lot of those greenhouse gases flow from the construction, maintenance, and use of its 800 military bases and other facilities on 27 million acres across the United States and the world. The biggest source of emissions from actual military operations is undoubtedly the burning of jet fuel. A B-2 bomber, for instance, emits almost two tons of carbon dioxide when flying a mere 50 miles, while the Pentagon’s biggest boondoggle, the astronomically costly F-35 combat aircraft, will emit “only” one ton for every 50 miles it flies.

Those figures come from “Military- and Conflict-Related Emissions,” a June 2022 report by the Perspectives Climate Group in Germany. In it, the authors express regret for the optimism they had exhibited two decades earlier when it came to the reduction of global military greenhouse gas emissions and the role of the military in experimenting with new, clean forms of energy:

In the process of us writing this report and looking at our article written 20 years ago, the initial notion of assessing military activities… as potential ‘engines of progress’ for novel renewable technologies was shattered by the Iraq War, followed by the horror of yet another large-scale ground war, this time in Europe… All our attention should be directed towards achieving the 1.5° target [of global temperature rise beyond the preindustrial level set at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015]. If we fail in this endeavor, the repercussions will be more deadly than all conflicts we have witnessed in the last decades.

In March, the Defense Department announced that its proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 would include a measly $3.1 billion for “addressing the climate crisis.” That amounts to less than 0.4% of the department’s total spending and, as it happens, two-thirds of that little sliver of funding will go not to climate mitigation itself but to protecting military facilities and activities against the future impact of climate change. Worse yet, only a tiny portion of the remainder would go toward reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions or other environmental damage the armed forces itself will produce.

In a 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan, the Pentagon claimed, however vaguely, that it was aiming for a future in which it could “operate under changing climate conditions, preserving operational capability, and enhancing the natural and manmade systems essential to the Department’s success.” It projected that “in worst-case scenarios, climate-change-related impacts could stress economic and social conditions that contribute to mass migration events or political crises, civil unrest, shifts in the regional balance of power, or even state failure. This may affect U.S. national interests directly or indirectly, and U.S. allies or partners may request U.S. assistance.”

Sadly enough, however, as far as the Pentagon is concerned, an overheated world will only open up further opportunities for the military. In a classic case of projection, its analysts warn that “malign actors may try to exploit regional instability exacerbated by the impacts of climate change to gain influence or for political or military advantage.” (Of course, Americans would never act in such a manner since, by definition, the Pentagon is a benign actor, but will have to respond accordingly.)

The CIA and other intelligence agencies seem to share the Pentagon’s vision of our hotter future as a growth opportunity. A 2021 climate risk assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) paid special attention to the globe’s fastest-warming region, the Arctic. Did it draw the intelligence community’s interest because of the need to prevent a meltdown of the planet’s ice caps if the Earth is to remain a livable place for humanity? What do you think?

In fact, its authors write revealingly of the opportunities, militarily speaking, that such a scenario will open up as the Arctic melts:

Arctic and non-Arctic states almost certainly will increase their competitive activities as the region becomes more accessible because of warming temperatures and reduced ice. … Military activity is likely to increase as Arctic and non-Arctic states seek to protect their investments, exploit new maritime routes, and gain strategic advantages over rivals. The increased presence of China and other non-Arctic states very likely will amplify concerns among Arctic states as they perceive a challenge to their respective security and economic interests.

In other words, in an overheated future, a new “cold” war will no longer be restricted to what were once the more temperate parts of the planet.

If, in climate change terms, the military worries about anything globally, it’s increased human migration from devastated areas like today’s flood-ridden Pakistan, and the conflicts that could come with it. In cold bureaucratese, that DNI report predicted that, as ever more of us (or rather, in national security state terms, of them) begin fleeing heat, droughts, floods, and tropical cyclones, “Displaced populations will increasingly demand changes to international refugee law to consider their claims and provide protection as climate migrants or refugees, and affected populations will fight for legal payouts for loss and damages resulting from climate effects.” Translation: We won’t pay climate reparations and we won’t pay to help keep other peoples’ home climates livable, but we’re more than willing to spend as much as it takes to block them from coming here, no matter the resulting humanitarian nightmares.

Is It Finally Time to Defund War?

Along with the harm caused by its outsized greenhouse gas emissions and its exploitation of climate chaos as an excuse for imperialism, the Pentagon wreaks terrible damage by soaking up trillions of dollars in government funds that should have gone to meet all-too-human needs, mitigate climate change, and repair the ecological damage the Pentagon itself has caused in its wars in this century.

Months before Russia invaded Ukraine, ensuring that yet more greenhouse gases would be pumped into our atmosphere, a group of British scholars lamented the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for military funding. They wrote that, “rather than scaling back military spending to pay for urgent climate-related spending, initial budget requests for military appropriations are actually increasing even as some U.S. foreign adventures are supposedly coming to a close.” It’s pointless, they suggested, “to tinker around the edges of the U.S. war machine’s environmental impact.” The funds spent “procuring and distributing fuel across the U.S. empire could instead be spent as a peace dividend [that] includes significant technology transfer and no-strings-attached funding for adaptation and clean energy to those countries most vulnerable to climate change.”

Washington could still easily afford that “peace dividend,” were it to begin cutting back on its military spending. And don’t forget that, at past climate summits, the rich nations of this planet pledged to send $100 billion annually to the poorest ones so that they could develop their renewable energy capacity, while preparing for and adapting to climate change. All too predictably, the deep-pocketed nations, including the U.S., have stonewalled on that pledge. And of course, as the recent unprecedented monsoon flooding of one-third of Pakistan — a country responsible for less than 1% of historic global greenhouse gases — suggests, it’s already remarkably late for that skimpy promise of a single hundred billion dollars; hundreds of billions per year are now needed. Mind you, Congress could easily divert enough from the Pentagon’s annual budget alone to cover its part of the global climate-reparations tab. And that should be only the start of a wholesale shift toward peacetime spending. No such luck, of course.

As the National Priorities Project (NPP) has pointed out, increases in national security funding alone in 2022 could have gone a long way toward supporting Joe Biden’s expansive Build Back Better bill, which failed in Congress that year. That illustrates yet again how, as William Hartung put it, “almost anything the government wants to do other than preparing for or waging war involves a scramble for funding, while the Department of Defense gets virtually unlimited financial support,” often, in fact, more than it even asks for.

The Democrats’ bill, which would have provided solid funding for renewable energy development, child care, health care, and help for economically stressed families was voted down in the Senate by all 50 Republicans and one Democrat (yes, that guy) who claimed that the country couldn’t afford the bill’s $170 billion-per-year price tag. However, in the six months that followed, as the NPP notes, Congress pushed through increases in military funding that added up to $143 billion — almost as much as Build Back Better would have cost per year!

As Pentagon experts Hartung and Julia Gledhill commented recently, Congress is always pulling such stunts, sending more money to the Defense Department than it even requested. Imagine how much crucial federal action on all kinds of issues could be funded if Congress began deeply cutting, rather than inflating, the cash it shovels out for war and imperialism.

Needed: A Merger of Movements

Various versions of America’s antiwar movement have been trying to confront this country’s militarism since the days of the Vietnam War with minimal success. After all, Pentagon budgets, adjusted for inflation, are as high as ever. And, not coincidentally, greenhouse gas emissions from both the military and this society as a whole remain humongous. All these years later, the question remains: Can anything be done to impede this country’s money-devouring, carbon-spewing military juggernaut?

For the past twenty years, CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization, has been one of the few national groups deeply involved in both the antiwar and climate movements. Jodie Evans, one of its cofounders, told me recently that she sees a need for “a whole new movement intersecting the antiwar movement with the climate movement.” In pursuit of that very goal, she said, CODEPINK has organized a project called Cut the Pentagon. Here’s how she describes it: “It’s a coalition of groups serving issues of people’s needs and the planet’s needs and the anti-war movement, because all of us have an interest in cutting the war machine. We launched it on September 12th last year, after 20 years of a ‘War on Terror’ that took $21 trillion of our tax money, to destroy the planet, to destroy the Middle East, to destroy our communities, to turn peacekeeping police into warmongering police.” Cut the Pentagon, says Evans, has “been doing actions in [Washington] D.C. pretty much nonstop since we launched it.”

Sadly, in 2022, both the climate and antiwar struggles face the longest of odds, going up against this country’s most formidable strongholds of wealth and power. But CODEPINK is legendary for finding creative ways of getting in the face of the powerful interests it opposes and nonviolently upending business-as-usual. “As an activist for the last 50 some-odd years,” Evans says, “I always felt my job was to make power uncomfortable, and to disrupt it.” But since the start of the Covid pandemic, she adds, “Power is making us more uncomfortable than we are making it. It’s stronger and more weaponized than it has been before in my lifetime.”

Among the hazards of this situation, she adds, social movements that manage to grow and become effective often find themselves coopted and, she adds, over the past two decades, “Too many of us got lazy… We thought ‘clicktivism’ creates change, but it doesn’t.” Regarding an education bill early in the Trump administration, “We had 200 million messages going into Congress from a vast coalition, and we lost. Then a month later, we had only 2,000 people, but we were right there in the halls of Congress and we saved Obamacare. Members of Congress don’t like being uncomfortable.”

As the military-industrial complex and Earth-killing capitalism only seem to grow ever mightier, Evans and CODEPINK continue pushing for action in Washington. And recently, she believes, a window has been opening:

For the first time since the sixties and early seventies, it feels like a lot of people are seeing through the propaganda, really being willing to create new structures and new forms. We need to go where both our votes and our voices matter. Creating local change — that’s our work. Our divest-from-war campaigns are all local. Folks who care about the planet need to figure out how do we make power uncomfortable… It’s not a fight of words. It’s a fight of being.

The major crises we now face are so deeply entangled that perhaps grassroots efforts to face them might, in the end, coalesce. The question remains: From the neighborhood to the nation, could movements for climate mitigation and justice, Indigenous sovereignty, Black lives, economic democracy, and, crucially, an end to the American form of militarism merge into a single collective wave? Our future may depend on it.

Flatbeds filled with fury and fascism

Stan Cox, Angry White Guys in Big-Ass Pickups

As gun sales in this country soar — another 43 million weapons bought in 2020 and 2021 alone — while the possession of military-style weaponry is normalized, whether in mass killings or everyday life, American politics, too, is becoming weaponized. If you doubt that, then you weren’t in that Comfort Inn room where, on the night of January 5, 2021, a group of Oath Keeper militiamen stored their weapons so that a “quick reaction force” could potentially transport them to the Capitol the next day.

In the end, as far as we know, none of those weapons made it that January 6th, but others certainly did, as the House January 6th committee made all too clear in its recent hearings. Worse yet, the president of the United States knew perfectly well that some of those he was encouraging to march on the Capitol to protest (or even reverse) his election loss were armed. In political terms, red states have been easing gun laws even as some blue states are cracking down. In California, which has among the nation’s strictest laws (especially when it comes to assault rifles), deaths from guns are approximately 40% below the national average — not that such figures, it seems, matter to most Republicans.

The result: an unequally armed nation at a moment where the weaponizing of our political system seems on the rise. As right-wing extremism grows and guns become ever more commonplace in American life, while the death toll from them soars, the idea that arms, not votes, might someday define the endpoint of an American election is also being normalized.

Oh, and my mistake, I forgot to include in the above description one of the ways in which this country is weaponizing big time. Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Stan Cox didn’t. So, sit back, watch out for the smoke and fumes, and let him explain. Tom

Three Tons of Fascism with a Bull Bar Fuming at the Rest of Us, Democracy, and the Earth

In the United States during 16 months in 2020 and 2021, vehicles rammed into groups of protesters at least 139 times, according to a Boston Globe analysis. Three victims died and at least 100 were injured. Consider that a new level of all-American barbarity, thanks to the growing toxicity of right-wing politics, empowered by its embrace of ever-larger, more menacing vehicles being cranked out by the auto industry.

And keep this in mind: attacks on street protests are just the most recent development in fossil-fuelized aggression. Especially in the red states of America, MAGA motorists have been driving our quality of life into the ground for years. My spouse Priti Gulati Cox and I live half a block south of Crawford Street, the central east-west artery in Salina, Kansas. Starting in the early Trump years, and ever more regularly during the pandemic, we’ve been plagued by the brain-rattling roar of diesel-powered pickup trucks as they peel out of side streets onto Crawford, spewing black exhaust and aiming to go from zero to sixty before reaching the traffic light at Broadway. By 2020, many of these drivers were regularly festooning their pickups, ISIS-style, with giant flags bearing slogans like “Trump 2020” and “Don’t Tread on Me,” as well as Confederate battle flags. Some still display them, often with “F*** Biden” flags as well.

If you live in flyover country as we do, you come to expect such performances. And don’t think that I’m just expressing my own personal annoyance about an aesthetic affront either. Fueled by diesel or gasoline, and supercharged by what political scientist Cara Daggett has labeled “petro-masculinity,” those men in big, loud vehicles serve as the shock troops for a white-right authoritarian movement that threatens to seize control of our political system. Recall the “Trump caravan” that tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road in Texas just before Election Day 2020. Or the “Trump Trains” of pickups carrying men with paintball guns, one of which attacked Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon.

Long forgotten now by most of us, those hapless North American truck convoys, some of which converged on Washington, D.C., last spring, might as well have been scripted by the writers of Seinfeld. To all appearances, they were protests about nothing — other than a vague sense of grievance personified (or truckified). Still, the drivers did manage to cause serious mayhem, assaulting the residents of two capitals, Ottawa and Washington, with diesel fumes, daylong horn blasting, and bellicose conduct. They paralyzed downtown Ottawa for almost a month (and cost the government there more than $36 million). Some drivers in the cross-country U.S. convoys physically assaulted counter-protesters, cyclists, and motorists. There was one bright spot, though: one day, a man on a cargo bike got in front of a line of semi-cabs and pickups and slow-pedaled through Washington’s narrow side streets, leaving the invaders no alternative but to creep along behind him for what seemed like forever and a day.

The convoy truckers, however, paid little price for the havoc they caused. Indeed, vehicular aggression and violence increasingly goes unpunished. On June 24th in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a man aimed his pickup truck at a group of women protesting that morning’s Supreme Court decision reversing Roe v. Wade. When his vehicle first came into contact with them, the women stood fast, and grabbed its bull bar — the steel armoring designed to protect the grille against livestock, but used more often these days to intimidate humans. With a yell, he plowed ahead, driving over one woman’s ankle and giving another a concussion. When the police arrived, they interviewed the driver, but they have yet to charge him or even identify him publicly. He was probably shielded by a law the Iowa legislature passed in 2020 immunizing drivers who run into or over protesters, if they simply claim to have been fleeing in fear. Ominously enough, Florida and Oklahoma have passed similar laws essentially encouraging such acts.

Are You What You Drive?

Here in the heartland, white nationalism feeds on gas, gunpowder, oil, and testosterone. Ranchers, wheat-growers, oilfield roughnecks, firefighters, loggers, hunters — in short, the very kinds of guys who populate today’s ads for pickup trucks — are widely viewed as the real Americans. Most pickups today, however, are found not out on the range but on city streets and Interstate highways, sporting empty beds and clean tires, with their drivers settled into cushy captain’s seats. For many of them, big pickups are no more than a non-utilitarian cultural statement and, in today’s culture, that means a political statement, too. (With so many luxury options on offer, a new truck can also be an extravagant statement, since their average price now exceeds $60,000.)

When I was reading High and Mighty, Keith Bradsher’s classic book on SUVs, in the early 2000s, there was as yet no correlation between the supersizing of personal vehicles and political preferences. It was mostly about armoring up against crashes and crime. A few years later, when even more bloated trucks and SUVs with abundant creature comforts started being advertised as “living rooms on wheels,” they still had no strong political associations. Over the past few years, however, manufacturers have begun capitalizing on MAGA-world belligerence by pumping up the road-ruling mystique of those vehicles. On this topic, I won’t even try to match the bracing prose of Angie Schmitt, the author of Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, who wrote for Bloomberg News last year:

Pickup truck front ends have warped into scowling brick walls, billboards for outwardly directed hostility… [T]he height of the truck’s front end may reach a grown man’s shoulders or neck… That aesthetic can be detected not only in the raised ‘militarized’ grille height of pickup trucks, but also the popularity of aftermarket modifications like blacked-out windows and ‘bull bars’ affixed to the front end.

Some pickups and full-size SUVs now approach the dimensions of World War II-era tanks and are advertised accordingly. Ford used the term “military-grade, aluminum-alloy” five times in a single press release for its F-150 pickup. This supersizing, as well as armoring, has had predictable results. For example, in another article, Schmitt observed that:

Passenger and driver deaths have remained mostly stable over the past decade while pedestrian fatalities have risen by about 50 percent. From 2019 to 2020, pedestrian deaths per vehicle miles traveled increased a record 21 percent, for a total of 6,721 fatalities. This astonishing death toll has multiple causes, but the scale of the front end of many pickup trucks and SUVs is part of the problem, and that’s been obvious for quite a while.

The politicization of big-box personal vehicles is now almost complete. By the 2020 election campaign season, few drivers, left or right, needed bumper stickers to tell the world which candidates they supported. A month before the election, Forbes summarized survey data illustrating the relationship between party affiliation and vehicle ownership. Of the models most disproportionately preferred by Democrats, liberals, and progressives, 14 were sedans or crossovers, three were trucks or full-size SUVs, and two were hybrid or electric vehicles. The Honda Civic sedan topped the list.

I’m sure at this point you won’t be surprised to learn that the vehicle preferences for Republicans and other conservatives were almost exactly the reverse of that. Of their top model preferences, 14 were trucks or full-size SUVs while only three were sedans or crossovers. None were hybrids or electric vehicles. Those with the strongest Republican/conservative associations were the Ford F-250 and Ram 2500 pickups, both weighing in at more than 6,000 pounds.

“Pollution Porn”

A couple of weeks before the 2020 election, Priti and I were cruising south along Santa Fe Avenue, the main street in downtown Salina. As we approached Crawford, we saw that a long, noisy Trump train was passing through the intersection, headed west. Decked out with flags, balloons, and other regalia, the parade of trucks stretched out of sight in both directions. When a temporary gap opened in the queue, we took a right turn toward home. In this way, our 2006 Civic hybrid (I know — too trite) involuntarily joined the procession. With a huge, flag-bedecked tailgate towering over our windshield, a five-foot-high bull bar looming in the rearview mirror, and a cacophony of horns drowning out our laughter, we crept home, where we bailed out of the parade. Though we faced no hostility ourselves, that was probably because the drivers on either side of us could barely see us.

Compared with many of the 2020 Trump trains, Salina’s version proved remarkably mild-mannered. But all such white-right parades, including the farcical “Boaters for Trump” regattas, also manage to do a remarkable job of making a relatively small number of Americans seem like a big crowd. There were far more people in Salina’s 2020 Black Lives Matter march than in that truck parade. But when you surround a modest number of people with tons of steel and aluminum propelled by loud internal-combustion engines, you’ve got an impressive spectacle in an ominous sort of way. The forests of flags only add to the fascist aura that surrounds the political use of such hulking vehicles.

Until James Alex Fields, Jr., drove his Dodge Challenger into a non-violent group of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, killing Heather Heyer, the tactic of crashing into crowds was best known as a terror tool used by Islamic State sympathizers, primarily in Europe. At the time, the means of aggression preferred by American pick-up drivers was something called “rollin’ coal.” It involved modifying a truck’s fuel system so that the driver could blast large clouds of thick, black diesel smoke from its tailpipes or smokestacks.

Often, coal-rollin’ was pure performance, a display of rebellion against anything in the culture that smacked of concern for climate change. It was, as Vocativ labeled it in 2014, “pollution porn.” But even then, under the surface was the potential for so much worse. In recent years, more aggressive drivers have taken that stunt to its logical conclusion by engulfing pedestrians, cyclists, electric vehicle or hybrid drivers, and other perceived enemies in toxic black clouds.

As Cara Daggett put it:

A lot of things are attached to fossil fuel culture because they are symbolically a part of a certain way of life or an identity. It’s no longer possible to operate in the world and not understand that fossil fuels are violent. [Rollin’ coal is] a kind of spectacular performance of power.

Psychology professor Joshua Nelson suggests that such an extravagant, showy combustion of fuel represents an attempt by white male drivers in particular to compensate for two new realities – that men like them can no longer feel they’re part of an all-powerful American clan and that what awaits us all, however hard it may be to express, however much they may want to repress the very idea, is impending doom from fossil fuels destroying this planet. As Nelson puts it:

There is nothing more possibly traumatizing (and requiring psychologically defensive operations) than potential global destruction and annihilation, especially when one is forced to consider [his] own role in this impending apocalyptic disaster.

Whether such “psychologically defensive operations” grow out of a sense of guilt, inadequacy, or something else entirely, they play out the same way — as aggression against the rest of us.

Standing Up to the Men in Trucks

One characteristic news photo from the violent conflicts of recent times — whether in Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, Syria, or elsewhere — has been of pickup trucks loaded with armed men. The U.S. hasn’t made it there — not yet anyway. But it’s hard to doubt that (thank you, Donald Trump!) ever since January 6, 2021, when so many right-wing militia members broke into the Capitol, some of them armed, we’ve been living through an attempted takeover of our country by members of one of the two major parties. And in 2022, it will hardly surprise you to know that its supporters own more guns and trucks than the rest of us.

This fits with trends pointed out by Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She’s studied the use of violence by a growing number of political parties in a wide range of countries and is now tracking America’s upsurge in militia activity, too. She recently wrote, “Even if Trump passes from the scene, the embrace of violence and intimidation as a political tactic by a faction of the GOP will cause violence of all types to rise — against all Americans.”

Ultra-MAGA elements in legislatures and the courts are already gutting our right to preserve a livable climate, ensure reproductive rights, and vote, even as they create new rights to own weapons of war and put them to deadly use. Usually, those weapons are AR-15s or other firearms, but they can also be tank-scale personal vehicles wrapped in military-grade alloy, with an armored front end.

Big trucks, aggressively driven, straddle the borderline between a democracy in crisis and a country (and world) facing a climate emergency of the first order. They guzzle fuel, spew pollution, and degrade our quality of life. With the paramilitary wing of the anti-democracy, anti-Earth GOP at the wheel, such vehicles portend even worse environmental harm to come. If the far right prevails, its politicos will choke off any state or federal efforts to phase out fossil fuels. If, using means legal or not, they consolidate their power over the Supreme Court, Congress in 2022, and the White House in 2024, they will be spewing the political version of rollin’ coal and are guaranteed to smother the possibility of climate action, probably long enough to make runaway global heating inevitable.

Keeping the anti-democracy party out of power will require massive get-out-the-vote efforts in 2022 and 2024, and record-breaking turnouts in the streets will undoubtedly be needed as well. In truth, there are many more of us than of the fascist wannabes in this country. Like the brave women in Cedar Rapids, we must neither surrender the public square to the extremists nor allow them to bestow rights on vehicles and fossil fuels while revoking rights that belong to us and to the rest of nature.

Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine is exacerbating global crises because our leaders cling to the status quo

In case you hadn’t noticed, we live on an eternally well-oiled and well-gased planet. Only recently, for instance, Joe Biden announced that the U.S. was going to ramp up the supplies of frozen liquid natural gas (LNG) it sends to Europe by 15 billion cubic meters in response to the invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia that followed. That’s a lot of gas and, as a result, it looks like new LNG terminals will be opened in the Gulf of Mexico in the coming years. Hooray! The U.S., it seems, will be a fossil-fuel exporter until the end of time. The only sad news: the end of time may come sooner than we think.

In 2022, our choices on this planet seem increasingly clear and grim: blow it up, burn it up (or both). Yes, there have been increasing worries that, pushed against the wall by his failing invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin might turn to his nuclear arsenal in some fashion. Only recently, both Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, and its defense minister spoke openly about that possibility. Medvedev specifically insisted that, under certain circumstances, his country, which has the largest nuclear stockpile on the planet, might indeed consider the first use of such weaponry. As he put it, that would be in response to “an act of aggression… committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardized the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons.” In other words, nuclear weapons are again in play on planet Earth, but when it comes to ultimate destruction, what isn’t?

Sadly enough, Putin and crew are in good company when it comes to preparing for planetary annihilation. After all, this country is now engaged in a three-decade-long “modernization” of its own nuclear arsenal at the cost of at least $1.7 trillion. And more generally, the Biden administration is responding to the new Cold War by preparing to ramp up the “defense budget” to a monumental $813.3 billion in 2023 — and that, keep in mind, is before Congress even gets the chance, as they did last year, to hike it further. In fact, a group of 40 House and Senate Republicans is already lobbying for more!

Meanwhile, the globe’s biggest arms dealer is preparing to sell yet more weaponry to a Saudi regime that the president called a “pariah” while running for office, a country waging a war in Yemen (for which sanctions are unimaginable) whose cruelty and brutality outweigh even the horror now taking place in Ukraine. So, war is increasingly well-oiled, while when it comes to oil and natural gas, let TomDispatch regular Stan Cox, author of The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic, fill you in on the fix in which we find ourselves. With Europe embroiled in a new war and the planet heating up ever more rapidly (check out the latest melting news from Antarctica, for example), he suggests where, if we were in a saner world, we might indeed head from here. If only… Tom

How Not to Cope with Vladimir Putin by Drilling and Pumping – A Bipartisan Oil Rush or the Phasing Out of Fossil Fuels?

While the Ukrainian people bear the lethal brunt of Russia’s invasion, shockwaves from that war threaten to worsen other crises across the planet. The emergency that loomed largest before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began — the heating of the Earth’s climate — is now looming larger still. The reason is simple enough: a war-induced rush to boost oil and gas production has significantly undercut efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres made that clear in an angry March 21st address blasting world leaders scrambling for yet more oil and gas. “Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil-fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil-fuel use,” he said, adding, “This is madness.” He linked obsessive fuel burning with the endpoint toward which today’s clash of world powers could be pushing us, using a particularly frightening term from the original Cold War. “Addiction to fossil fuels is,” he warned, “mutually assured destruction.”

He’s right. In this all-too-MAD moment, we’re facing increasingly intertangled threats of the first order and can’t keep looking away. To achieve mutually assured protection against both global broiling and global war, humanity will have to purge oil, natural gas, and coal from our lives as quickly as possible, a future reality the Ukraine disaster seems to be making less probable by the day.

To Cap Climate Risk, Cap the Wells

When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent the cost of a barrel of oil into the triple digits, the fossil-fuel companies and their friends in government, always on the lookout for profitable opportunities amid market chaos, responded predictably.

Oil and gas trade associations in Alaska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas promptly called for even less regulation and more investment in their industry. The Texas association’s president claimed that consumers, now facing steep price hikes at the gas pump, are “feeling the repercussions of canceled pipeline projects, delayed approvals for permits, and the discouragement of additional expansion” and want his industry unleashed. On that point, congressional Republicans couldn’t agree more. In a CNBC op-ed, House minority leader and wannabe speaker Kevin McCarthy called for fast-tracking liquid natural gas exports to NATO countries, issuing drilling leases that the Interior Department has been holding back since last year, and “immediately approving projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline” that President Biden had functionally cancelled by revoking a key cross-border permit.

McCarthy’s fellow Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana did him one better. He called for the launching of an “Operation Warp Speed for domestic production of energy.” It would presumably be modeled on the congressionally funded 2020 program to boost Covid-19 vaccine development.

And it wasn’t just the Republicans. The new oil rush is remarkably bipartisan. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), both acting distinctly in character, declared that oil and natural gas are gifts from God and that He has obliged us to pump and use them in perpetuity. Then there’s the Biden administration. Speaking at a Houston clean-energy roundtable last May, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said all the right things about a damaged climate and fossil fuels. Just 10 months later, however, with that boycott of Russian oil already beginning to squeeze the economy, she returned to Houston and pleaded with oil and gas executives to ramp up their production to record levels. At the same time, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki urged those very companies to use the thousands of new drilling permits the administration has issued to “go get more supply out of the ground” — pronto!

Three days before Guterres’s remarks, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a 10-point conservation plan to address the oil-supply issue, a welcome antidote to the ever more insistent “drill, baby, drill” policies of U.S. officials. In it, the IEA, an institution no one could mistake for a band of climate activists, recommended reduced speed limits; increased work-from-home arrangements; extra incentives for biking, walking, or taking public transportation; car-free Sundays in cities; ever more carpooling; more rail and less air travel (including deep cuts in business air travel); and other energy-saving policies.

Better yet, most of its proposed measures could be put in place with immediate effect. If that were done, the IEA’s experts estimate that “the advanced economies alone can cut oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day within the next four months.” That would exceed Russia’s pre-embargo oil exports, helping keep global supply and demand in balance amid the Ukraine war. But even that wouldn’t be enough, given what’s already happening on this planet. For the affluent world to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases rapidly and deeply enough to save us from a climate disaster, government policies would have to go far beyond the measures on that IEA list.

Sadly, decades of procrastination have so narrowed our range of options for heading off climate catastrophe that humanity now faces the necessity of a far steeper mandatory phase-out of fossil fuels as soon as possible. Indeed, the current disruption of world oil and gas markets makes this the optimal time to start driving fossil-fuel use down to zero on an expedited schedule, while ensuring universal, equitable access to affordable (and, as time passes, increasingly renewable) energy.

Unfortunately, the already badly broken 117th Congress has proven incapable of passing any effective climate legislation and so will surely not enact a fossil-fuel phase-out. You would think that the present convergence of catastrophes — a horrific war in Europe, our crippling dependence on fossil fuels, a global climate going haywire, and worsening injustice and inequality across the globe — should be a wake-up call to us all. But no such luck, and the political future in this country looks anything but bright right now with the possibility that the Republicans will take Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024.

Is the Fossil-Fuel Industry’s Hold on the Economy Only Growing?

Some prominent American figures in the climate movement suggest that the most effective way to react to Russia’s Ukraine war and the rising oil and natural gas prices accompanying it should be, above all else, to accelerate the development of this country’s renewable energy capacity and the electrification that goes with it. While acknowledging the obvious — that wind and solar parks built today won’t save Ukrainian lives or shield American society from economic shocks now or in the near future — they argue that such a renewable energy mobilization could at least reduce our long-term dependence on oil, gas, and coal. In the process, they add, it would strengthen our position against corrupt, violent petro-states like Russia and Saudi Arabia, while reducing the likelihood of future resource wars.

Unfortunately, in this world of ours, that argument puts the cart before the horse. Significant increases in renewable-energy capacity are needed to see us through a decline in fossil-fuel use, but such renewables can’t be relied upon to bring about that decline in time. There’s no reason to believe that such increases in green electric capacity will work fast enough through market forces to drive fossil fuels out of electricity generation, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction. History and scientific research show that, when such transitions are left to the market, new energy sources mostly go toward increasing the total supply of energy, not displacing older sources of it.

The climate crisis has already reached a point where fossil fuels must be driven out of the energy supply far more quickly than full-scale new energy systems can be developed. The rate of phase-out now required is astonishing. The United Nations Environment Program has estimated that global greenhouse emissions must be reduced by 8% annually, starting immediately, if the heating of the planet is to be held to reasonably tolerable (though still too harsh) levels. In fact, to achieve global equity, affluent nations like the United States would need to phase out their fossil fuels even faster, at perhaps a 10% yearly rate.

As far as I can see, there will be no way to reach that precipitous rate of reduction without pushing fossil fuels out of the economy speedily and directly by law. Only then could renewable energy development, electrification, efficiency, and, crucially, deep reductions in the wasteful production of military armaments play their crucial roles in helping us compensate for the shrinking of fossil-fuel supplies.

Policies of that sort were, of course, absent from Washington’s agenda even before all eyes turned (as they should have) toward supporting the Ukrainians, while being careful not to set in motion a cascade of events that could lead to World War III. Unfortunately, if Armageddon is indeed forestalled and the war ends with the world outside Ukraine about the same as it was, my fear is that Congress and the White House will have even less stomach for phasing out fossil fuels than they did before. It’s more likely that this destabilizing episode will further strengthen the fossil-fuel industry’s hold on our economy, leading only to increased carbon emissions.

Still, it’s crucial that, in the years to come, those of us who see the situation for what it is keep pushing for an ever-faster fuel phase-out, because a late start will be so much better than no start at all. Climate researchers are stressing that for every tenth of a degree of eventual heating that we prevent, future generations will see less ecological devastation and human suffering.

Is There a Path to Phase-Out? Well

How would our economy and society change if we did commit to phasing out oil, gas, and coal and adapting to dwindling fuel supplies in a just and equitable way? Based on America’s history of grappling with energy shortages in the 1940s and 1970s, as well as the growing amount of research on supply-side restraint, here’s my stab at describing policies that could achieve just such goals.

First, because the fossil-fuel industry would never truly cooperate with a statutory phase-out of the very products it sells so profitably, it would have to be nationalized. This isn’t as radical as it sounds. In fact, there’s a great American tradition of nationalization. Repeatedly in wartime, Washington has taken control of critical resources and industries to scale up production of essential goods or halt unwanted production. Episodes of nationalization have even occurred in peacetime, as for instance with the takeover of more than 1,000 savings and loan institutions during the 1980s financial crisis.

Operating under federal law, the newly nationalized fossil-fuel industry would place caps on the numbers of barrels of oil, cubic feet of gas, and tons of coal allowed out of the ground and into the economy annually. Those caps would then be ratcheted down quickly, year by year, until extraction rates and therefore greenhouse-gas emissions were driven close to zero.

Such rapidly declining caps would provide the strongest possible incentive for building renewable-energy capacity and improving energy conservation and efficiency. Fuels and probably other resources would also have to be reallocated for the production of essential goods and services. For example, the massive flow of resources that now goes to the military-industrial complex could be mostly diverted toward building renewable infrastructure and, in the process, provide far more genuine “national security” for this country.

Like today’s disruption of global oil markets, a future phase-out of fossil fuels would indeed push energy costs up. In both cases, the best remedy would be to keep energy affordable through price controls and rationing to ensure sufficient, equitable energy access for all. Price controls and rationing were used this way with much success during World War II. Indeed, if such rationing had been employed during the energy crisis of the 1970s, it could have prevented the endless gas station queues and the resulting misery for which that decade is now mostly remembered. Back then, gas rationing drew bipartisan support. For example, both President Jimmy Carter and conservative columnist George F. Will called for it. But by the time Carter’s standby gas-rationing plan was finally passed by Congress in 1980, it was too late to help.

Today, as enthusiasm for a carbon tax wanes, climate proposals like cap-and-ration that directly target the fossil-fuel industry while protecting everyone’s access to energy are gaining broader support. In a 2020 Data for Progress poll, for instance, almost 40% of Americans supported the nationalization of the fossil-fuel industry, while such backing hit 50% or more among those under 45 and Black respondents.

Similarly, more than 2,700 scientists and researchers have signed a letter urging the adoption of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Think of it as a global version of just such a declining cap. (A similar international effort is called Cap Global Carbon). Meanwhile, in both North America and Europe, more leading climate scientists, scholars, and activists have begun advocating for nationalization, declining caps, just-resource allocation, price controls, and rationing. (In a recent essay recommending such policies, Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute provided an impressive list of people and groups pushing such an agenda.)

None of this will happen, however, as long as a political minority, backed by powerful economic forces that fiercely oppose any action on climate, controls a country in which pathetic or nonexistent public transportation systems force a continuing deep dependence on the private vehicle. To make matters worse, as the Covid-19 pandemic showed so devastatingly, a militant minority of Americans fanatically devoted to individual “freedom” can effectively veto policies that promote the common good or even, in the case of climate change, the very possibility of living a reasonable life on this Earth.

Nevertheless, whatever the limitations of our moment, it’s important to plant some markers out there on the horizon of possibilities. That’s the only way to show just how deep the policies needed to ensure our collective survival must go, however abhorrent they may be to those in power. In times like these, when the stakes are higher than ever, we have to push even harder for those markers and maybe get at least a little closer to some of them.

'We've lost six years': Noam Chomsky says his generation betrayed its descendants — but there's still hope

This month will mark a critical juncture in the struggle to avoid climate catastrophe. At the COP26 global climate summit kicking off next week in Glasgow, Scotland, negotiators will be faced with the urgent need to get the world economy off the business-as-usual track that will take the Earth up to and beyond 3 degrees Celsius of excess heating before this century's end, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet so far, the pledges of rich nations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions have been far too weak to rein in the temperature rise. Meanwhile, the Biden administration's climate plans hang in the balance. If Congress fails to pass the reconciliation bill, the next opportunity for the United States to take effective climate action may not arise until it's too late.

For the past several decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most forceful and persuasive voices confronting injustice, inequity, and the threat posed by human-caused climate chaos to civilization and the Earth. I was eager to know Professor Chomsky's views on the roots of our current dire predicament and on humanity's prospects for emerging from this crisis into a livable future. He very graciously agreed to speak with me by way of a video chat. The text here is an abridged version of a conversation we had on October 1, 2021.

Professor Chomsky, now 92, is the author of numerous best-selling political works, translated into scores of languages. His critiques of power and advocacy on behalf of the political agency of the common person have inspired generations of activists and organizers. He has been institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1976. His most recent books are Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance, with Marv Waterstone, and Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet, with Robert Pollin and C.J. Polychroniou.

— Stan Cox

Stan Cox: Most of the nations that will be meeting in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference on October 31-November 12, 2021, have made emissions-reduction pledges. For the most part, those pledges are wholly inadequate. What principles do you think should guide the effort to prevent climate catastrophe?

Noam Chomsky: The initiators of the Paris Agreement intended to have a binding treaty, not voluntary agreements, but there was an impediment. It's called the Republican Party. It was clear that the Republican Party would never accept any binding commitments. The Republican organization, which has lost any pretense of being a normal political party, is almost solely dedicated to the welfare of the super-rich and the corporate sector, and cares absolutely nothing about the population or the future of the world. The Republican organization would never have accepted a treaty. In response, the organizers reduced their goal to a voluntary agreement, which has all the difficulties that you mentioned.

We've lost six years, four under the Trump administration which was openly dedicated to maximizing the use of fossil fuels and dismantling the regulatory apparatus that, to some extent, had limited their lethal effects. To some extent, these regulations protected sectors of the population from pollution, mostly the poor and people of color. But they're the ones who, of course, face the main burden of pollution. It's the poor people of the world who live in what Trump called "shithole countries" that suffer the most; they have contributed the least to the disaster, and they suffer the worst.

It doesn't have to be this way. As you write in your new book, The Path to a Liveable Future, there is indeed a path to a livable future. There are ways to have responsible, sane, and racially just policies. It's up to all of us to demand them, something young people around the world are already doing.

Other countries have their own things to answer for, but the United States has one of the worst records in the world. The United States blocked the Paris Agreement before Trump eventually got into office. But it was under Trump's instructions that the United States pulled out of the agreement altogether.

If you look over at the more sane Democrats, who are far from guiltless, there are people called moderates like Senator Joe Manchin (DWV), the leading recipient of fossil-fuel funding, whose position is that of the fossil-fuel companies, which is, as he put it, no elimination, just innovation. That's Exxon Mobil's view, too: "Don't worry, we'll take care of you," they say. "We're a soulful corporation. We're investing in some futuristic ways to remove from the atmosphere the pollution that we're pouring into it. Everything's fine, just trust us." No elimination, just innovation, which may or may not come and if it does, it will probably be too late and too limited.

Take the IPCC report that just appeared. It was much more dire than previous ones and said we must eliminate fossil fuels step by step, every year, and be free of them completely within a few decades. A few days after the report was released, Joe Biden issued a plea to the OPEC oil cartel to increase production, which would lower gas prices in the United States and improve his position with the population. There was immediate euphoria in the petroleum journals. There's lots of profit to be made, but at what expense? It was nice to have the human species for a couple of hundred thousand years, but evidently that's long enough. After all, the average lifespan of a species on Earth is apparently around 100,000 years. So why should we break the record? Why organize for a just future for all when we can trash the planet helping rich corporations get richer?

SC: Ecological catastrophe is closing in on us largely because, as you once put it, "the entire socioeconomic system is based on production for profit and a growth imperative that cannot be sustained." However, it seems that only state authority can implement the necessary changes in ways that are equitable, fair, and just. Given the emergency we face, do you think that the U.S. government would be able to justify imposing national-resource constraints like rules for resource allocation or fair-shares rationing, policies that would necessarily limit the freedom of local communities and individuals in their material lives?

NC: Well, we have to face some realities. I would like to see a move towards a more free and just society — production for need rather than production for profit, working people able to control their own lives instead of subordinating themselves to masters for almost their entire waking life. The time required for succeeding at such efforts is simply too great for addressing this crisis. That means we need to solve this within the framework of existing institutions, which can be ameliorated.

The economic system of the last 40 years has been particularly destructive. It's inflicted a major assault on most of the population, resulting in a huge growth in inequality and attacks on democracy and the environment.

A livable future is possible. We don't have to live in a system in which the tax rules have been changed so that billionaires pay lower rates than working people. We don't have to live in a form of state capitalism in which the lower 90% of income earners have been robbed of approximately $50 trillion, for the benefit of a fraction of 1%. That's the estimate of the RAND Corporation, a serious underestimate if we look at other devices that have been used. There are ways of reforming the existing system within basically the same framework of institutions. I think they ought to change, but it would have to be over a longer timescale.

The question is: Can we prevent climate catastrophe within the framework of less savage state capitalist institutions? I think there's a reason to believe that we can, and there are very careful, detailed proposals as to how to do it, including ones in your new book, as well as the proposals of my friend and co-author, economist Robert Pollin, who's worked many of these things out in great detail. Jeffrey Sachs, another fine economist, using somewhat different models, has come to pretty much the same conclusions. These are pretty much along lines of proposals of the International Energy Association, by no means a radical organization, one that grew out of the energy corporations. But they all have essentially the same picture.

There's, in fact, even a congressional resolution by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey which outlines proposals that are pretty close to this. And I think it's all within the range of feasibility. Their cost estimates of 2% to 3% of GDP, with feasible efforts, would not only address the crisis, but would create a more livable future, one without pollution, without traffic jams, and with more constructive, productive work, better jobs. All of this is possible.

But there are serious barriers — the fossil-fuel industries, the banks, the other major institutions, which are designed to maximize profit and not care about anything else. After all, that was the announced slogan of the neoliberal period — the economic guru Milton Friedman's pronouncement that corporations have no responsibility to the public or to the workforce, that their total responsibility is to maximize profit for the few.

For public-relations reasons, fossil-fuel corporations like ExxonMobil often portray themselves as soulful and benevolent, working day and night for the benefit of the common good. It's called greenwashing.

SC: Some of the most widely discussed methods for capturing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would consume vast quantities of biomass produced on hundreds of millions or billions of acres, thereby threatening ecosystems and food production, largely in low-income, low-emissions nations. A group of ethicists and other scholars recently wrote that a "core principle" of climate justice is that "the urgent, basic needs of poor people and poor countries ought to be secured against the effects of climate change and of measures taken to limit" climate change. That would seem to clearly rule out these "emit carbon now, capture it later" plans, and there are other examples of what we might call "climate-mitigation imperialism." Do you think that the world may be faced with more and more of this sort of exploitation as temperatures rise? And what do you think about these proposals for bioenergy and carbon capture?

NC: It's totally immoral, but it's standard practice. Where does waste go? It doesn't go in your backyard, it goes to places like Somalia that can't protect themselves. The European Union, for example, has been dumping its atomic wastes and other pollution off the coast of Somalia, harming the fishing areas and local industries. It's horrendous.

The latest IPCC report calls for an end to fossil fuels. The hope is that we can avert the worst and reach a sustainable economy within a couple of decades. If we don't do that, we will reach irreversible tipping points and the people most vulnerable — those least responsible for the crisis — will suffer first and most severely from the consequences. People living in the plains of Bangladesh, for example, where powerful cyclones cause extraordinary damage. People living in India, where the temperature can go over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. Many may witness parts of the world becoming unlivable.

There were recent reports by Israeli geoscientists condemning its government for not taking account of the effect of the policies they are pursuing, including developing new gas fields in the Mediterranean. They developed an analysis that indicated that, within a couple of decades, over the summer, the Mediterranean would be reaching the heat of a Jacuzzi, and the low-lying plains would be inundated. People would still live in Jerusalem and Ramallah, but flooding would impact much of the population. Why not change course to prevent this?

SC: The neoclassical economics underlying these injustices lives on in economic climate models known as "integrated assessment models," which come down to cost-benefit analyses based on the so-called social cost of carbon. With these projections, are economists seeking to gamble away the right of future generations to a decent life?

NC: We have no right to gamble with the lives of the people in South Asia, in Africa, or people in vulnerable communities in the United States. You want to do analyses like that in your academic seminar? OK, go ahead. But don't dare translate it into policy. Don't dare to do that.

There's a striking difference between physicists and economists. Physicists don't say, hey, let's try an experiment that might destroy the world, because it would be interesting to see what would happen. But economists do that. On the basis of neoclassical theories, they instituted a major revolution in world affairs in the early 1980s that took off with Carter, and accelerated with Reagan and Thatcher. Given the power of the United States compared with the rest of the world, the neoliberal assault, a major experiment in economic theory, had a devastating result. It didn't take a genius to figure it out. Their motto has been, "Government is the problem."

That doesn't mean you eliminate decisions; it just means you transfer them. Decisions still have to be made. If they're not made by government, which is, in a limited way, under popular influence, they will be made by concentrations of private power, which have no accountability to the public. And following the Friedman instructions, have no responsibility to the society that gave them the gift of incorporation. They have only the imperative of self-enrichment.

Margaret Thatcher then comes along and says there is no such thing as society, just atomized individuals who are somehow managing in the market. Of course, there is a small footnote that she didn't bother to add: for the rich and powerful, there is plenty of society. Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, ALEC, all kinds of others. They get together, they defend themselves, and so on. There is plenty of society for them, just not for the rest of us. Most people have to face the ravages of the market. And, of course, the rich don't. Corporations count on a powerful state to bail them out every time there's some trouble. The rich have to have the powerful state — as well as its police powers — to be sure nobody gets in their way.

SC: Where do you see hope?

NC: Young people. In September, there was an international climate strike; hundreds of thousands of young people came out to demand an end to environmental destruction. Greta Thunberg recently stood up at the Davos meeting of the great and powerful and gave them a sober talk on what they're doing. "How dare you," she said, "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words." You have betrayed us. Those are words that should be seared into everyone's consciousness, particularly people of my generation who have betrayed them and continue to betray the youth of the world and the countries of the world.

We now have a struggle. It can be won, but the longer it's delayed, the more difficult it'll be. If we'd come to terms with this ten years ago, the cost would have been much less. If the U.S. hadn't been the only country to refuse the Kyoto Protocol, it would have been much easier. Well, the longer we wait, the more we'll betray our children and our grandchildren. Those are the choices. I don't have many years; others of you do. The possibility for a just and sustainable future exists, and there's plenty that we can do to get there before it's too late.

Copyright 2021 Stan Cox

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Noam Chomsky is the author of numerous best-selling political works, translated into scores of languages. He has been institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1976. His most recent books are Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance, with Marv Waterstone, and Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet, with Robert Pollin and C.J. Polychroniou.

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Stan Cox, senior scientist at The Land Institute, is the author of The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic, just published, and The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, featuring a forward by Noam Chomsky.

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Is Florida Just One New Development Away From Environmental Ruin?

The monumental stone signs and freshly paved entry road appear to lead to nothing but wide-open, semitropical countryside. But a second look reveals a skyline of sorts on the horizon, and it's topped by a beige-and-brown, sharply arched roof. That turns out to be a 100-foot-tall church known as the Oratory, which sits at the core of downtown Ave Maria, Fla.  

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So You Think You Can Just Add a Clothesline to Your House? Dream on

Susana Tregobov dries clothes on a line behind her Maryland townhouse, saving energy and money. But now her homeowners association has ordered her to bring in the laundry. The crackdown came after a neighbor complained that the clothesline "makes our community look like Dundalk," a low-income part of Baltimore.

Tregobov and her husband plan to fight for their right to a clothesline, but the odds are against them. Although their state recently passed a law protecting homeowners' rights to erect solar panels for generating electricity, it is still legal in Maryland for communities to ban solar clothes-drying.

Twenty percent of Americans now live in homes subject to rules set by homeowner associations, or HOAs. These private imitation governments have sweeping powers to dictate almost any aspect of a member's property, from the size of the residence down to changes in trim color and the placement of a basketball hoop.

In the view of HOAs, people hand over control of such things when they buy their home, so they have no legitimate gripe. But a growing number of state and local governments are deciding that when HOAs ban eco-friendly practices, they violate the property rights of their members and damage everyone's right to a habitable planet.

In recent years, a dozen state legislatures have passed laws that restrict the ability of HOAs to ban solar panels and solar water heaters. Florida and Colorado now protect the rights of homeowners to replace irrigated, chemically dependent lawns with more natural landscaping that requires little or no extra water or other artificial life support. And Colorado has become the third state to give legal protection to people who dare to defy their HOAs by putting up that most economical of all energy-saving devices, the clothesline.

The more restrictive HOAs cling to outdated standards that treat necessary features of an ecologically resilient future -- renewable energy devices, clotheslines, fans in windows, awnings, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, compost bins, natural landscaping -- as eyesores to be buried under restrictions or banned outright.

Meanwhile, HOAs commonly mandate large, centrally air-conditioned square footages, two-car garages, lawn sprinkler systems or synthetic lawn fertilizers and weed-killers. You'd think that in 2008, community leaders would be embarrassed to enforce overconsumption and pollution, but these property cops seem determined to impose their narrow aesthetic preferences on everyone else.

Critics say that only a strong federal law can effectively protect America's 60 million HOA residents from antigreen rules. One bill, the Solar Opportunity and Local Access Rights (SOLAR) Act, is designed to do just that, but it languishes in Congress with only one co-sponsor.

The energy to restrain overbearing HOAs may have to come from the grassroots. As families struggle in coming years to keep up with rising grocery and utility bills, on top of their mortgage payments and HOA dues, they may well put the heat on lawmakers to protect their right to money-saving conservation, renewable energy and edible landscaping.

A small but growing number of HOAs are actually encouraging green practices. But let's see them push harder: Set strict limits on house size, ban pesticides and leaf blowers, maybe even discount association dues for energy conservers. These are rules we all can live with.

They also raise a dilemma. Rousing appeals to individual freedom and property rights can be effective in, say, winning Susana Tregobov her right to dry in Maryland. But as a vehicle for environmental causes, the property-rights argument can backfire. In its more fatuous forms, it can be a favorite weapon of anti-environmentalists, who would doubtless use it to obstruct green HOA rules.

We can debate the details of the rules, but we have to keep our eye on the ball - that blue-green ball we all live on. We must enforce universal rights, not just individual rights. With human-made climatic catastrophe looming, neighborhood groups have an ethical responsibility not only to protect their own turf but also to lighten the burden we all put on an ecosphere that belongs to everyone and to no one.

Scam Artists Are Prepped to Fleece Green Industries as Soon as the Money Comes in

Hard times are looming. And in their desperation to keep the American economy afloat, government and business will be tossing overboard any proposals for real environmental protection. No time for such romantic foolishness when there are investments to be protected. Get those tax refunds back into retailers' registers, quick!

Not that we won't be hearing about the environment; indeed, the next growth spurt, if it comes, is likely to be clothed in a green as green as the felt on a blackjack table.

Earlier this year, entrepreneur Eric Janszen declared in Harper's magazine that the next bubble -- alternative energy -- had already been "branded". His projection: the eventual creation of $20 trillion in fictitious, speculative wealth, "money that inevitably will be employed to increase share prices rather than to deliver 'energy security.'" and that "when the bubble finally bursts, we will be left to mop up after yet another devastated industry." After that next big bust, not only alternative energy but a host of other "green" industries will be left in ruin.

As long as an investing class is allowed to make all major environmental decisions, no new sources of energy will actually replace even one barrel or ton of fossil fuel; rather, they will go to further parasitizing the planet in the cause of growth. The boosters of "green" capitalism have never even bothered to argue otherwise in any effective way.

Typical is a book by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston entitled Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage, which became an immediate hit among "green" tycoons when it was published in 2006. It was a how-to manual for business people wanting to run the kinds of companies that, in the authors' phrase, "get ahead of the Green Wave," whose "environmental strategies provide added degrees of freedom to operate, profit, and grow."

These are some of the helpful tips to be found in Green to Gold:

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The Folly of Turning Water into Fuel

With corn selling at record-high prices, Steve Albracht expects to have no trouble paying his electric bills this year. Albracht irrigates 1,000 acres of corn near the town of Hart in the Texas Panhandle and expects to shell out $180 to $240 per acre to run his pumps through the spring and summer. "In this area," says Albracht, "the water table has dropped, but nobody's cutting back on watering yet. There's still plenty down there."

Albracht won the 2005 National Corn Yield Contest in the "irrigated" category, producing a whopping 352 bushels per acre. In a region that gets an average of less than 18 inches of rain annually, Albracht and his neighbors apply anywhere from 28 inches to more than 3 feet of water to their corn each year. With the prospect of a highly profitable harvest, Albracht says he can afford to water generously this year. And he'll need to, he says, "because it's been a dry winter."

For once, times are good in the High Plains. Corn and other grains are selling like precious metals, and there is every reason to believe that prices will stay high. At the heart of the boom is the U.S. government's decision to rely on corn-based ethanol to meet a big part of the nation's demand for "renewable" fuels.

Most recent controversy over ethanol has focused on the its poor energy return; in growing corn and turning it into ethanol, you have to burn three calories to get four. With prices of fuel and other inputs rising fast, corn farmers won't be getting rich (except for those who happen to have oil wells on their property.) But selling their corn for such high prices, they can afford to sow more acres and burn more propane, diesel or electricity to pump more water than ever. A torrent of cash will be flowing through the nation's corn-growing regions, but the biggest price will be paid in water.

Thirst for corn

To hear agribusiness boosters and politicians tell it, corn-based ethanol is a miraculous solution to the nation's hunger for liquid fuels. But as miracles go, it's not all that impressive. When Jesus, according to Biblical reports, converted approximately 150 gallons of water into an equivalent quantity of wine, his conversion rate was about a cup of ethanol per gallon of water invested (given the typical alcohol content of wine). Compare that to current processes that use irrigated corn as their carbon source and get less than a teaspoon of ethanol for each gallon of water consumed.

In dry areas of the High Plains where irrigation is the most crucial to corn production and the ethanol-to-water ratio even lower, agriculture is dependent on a one-time drawing of groundwater that hasn't seen daylight for 11,000 years or more. The vast Ogallala aquifer, stretching from not far south of Steve Albracht's Texas farm all the way up into South Dakota, is being mined at a rate that, in some areas, will drain it sometime in the relatively near future -- at least before the oil wells of the Persian Gulf run dry.

The Ogallala was trapped underneath the High Plains around the time of the last ice age. The formation holds enough ancient water to fill Lake Huron, the second-greatest of the Great Lakes -- or at least it did before being exploited for agriculture. In the High Plains, raising a single bushel of irrigated corn slurps up 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water, and more corn than ever is being raised there.

With national corn acreage having shot up 15 percent just from 2006 to 2007, pressure on water resources is increasing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that the land area sown to corn will remain at historically high levels of 90 million acres or more through at least 2017. The incentive: the price, which has rocketed up from around $2.00 to more than $5.00 per bushel. And USDA forecasters now see high corn prices as near-permanent.

Most of the region's corn currently goes to cattle feedlots, but from this point onward, prices will be kept high by the ethanol industry. In western Kansas, for example, ethanol production plants have a total capacity of 143 million gallons per day, but new plants already planned or under construction will add more than 700 million gallons per day, most of that from irrigated corn or sorghum. In the eastern half of the state, where the Kansas River is already considered a toxic hazard because of fertilizer contamination, corn ethanol capacity is slated to grow from 101 to 667 gallons per day in the near future.

The Energy Independence and Security Act, passed by Congress just before Christmas, requires that the nation produce 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year by 2015. While meeting only 10 percent of Americans' gasoline consumption, that level of production would require massive, permanent increases in the amount of land sown to corn, as well as ramped-up water consumption and pollution.

That new law will also be a big nail in the coffin of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which since the mid-80s has been paying farmers to reseed millions of acres of highly erodable cropland to diverse mixtures of native perennial grasses and other plants. CRP has done more to conserve soil and protect water in agricultural regions than any other federal intiative. But the USDA now estimates that farmers will plow up 5 million acres of CRP land in the next four years alone to plant corn and other biofuel crops.

According to the calculations of the Washington-based group Environmental Defense, increasing irrigated corn acreage by 10 percent to 20 percent in the High Plains will have an effect on water resources similar to that of plopping onto its landscape a city the size of metropolitan Denver (which would be equivalent to doubling the human population of the entire region).

Vanishing rivers

After World War II, irrigation technology reached a level that allowed for faster exploitation of the Ogallala. The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that by 2005, the most heavily exploited areas, accounting for almost a tenth of the entire region, had seen the water table drop between 50 and 270 feet farther beneath the surface. Farmers in some of the prime agricultural areas with the richest, thickest water deposits -- in western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles -- have had to spend more and more money and fuel to bring water from greater and greater depths.

Flowing through the natural shortgrass vegetation of western Kansas, once-great rivers like the Arkansas are fed not just by surface streams but also by water tables that reach up and away from their streambed. Across much of the region, irrigation has drawn aquifers down so far that the flow of water has reversed, now moving down and out of rivers into the surrounding dry ground. Rivers are actually dropping underground, leaving only dusty beds visible for much of the year.

In Kansas, a significant portion of the Ogallala's area has already shrunk below the threshold -- 30 to 50 feet thick -- that can support large-scale irrigation. Kansas lies downstream from Colorado and Nebraska, and has fought bitter water battles with both states in recent years. Those border regions in which struggles over water have been fiercest are precisely the regions being eyed for new ethanol plants and bigger plantings of thirsty corn.

Farther south, the situation is even worse. The USDA has recorded water-table drops of 100 feet in the Texas Panhandle, and by 2025, several counties at the southern fringe of the Ogallala in west Texas will have lost 50 percent to 60 percent of their water that's available for pumping. Agricultural economists at nearby Texas Tech University predict that unless restrictions are put in place, farmers will most likely respond to water shortages (and high corn prices) by drilling more wells and depleting the water even faster than that.

Chemical tide

Unlike the High Plains, the Corn Belt of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and surrounding states receives enough rain to naturally replenish most groundwater used to irrigate crops. There, the bigger issue is quality, not quantity of water. Maps of nitrate pollution in streams and groundwater fit closely to maps of nitrogen fertilizer use across the country, especially in the Corn Belt. The National Academy of Sciences found that recent increases in corn production have already led to greater pollution of surface and groundwater. The risk is "considerable," says the academy, that expansion of corn ethanol production will add to the nitrate load of the Mississippi River and expand the oxygen-depleted "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico a thousand miles downstream.

A study conducted last year at the request of Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., painted a scenario in which the conversion to biofuels is even more aggressive than what's currently mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act: 20 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 1 billion gallons of soy biodiesel annually by 2016. Even that mammoth effort would hardly achieve "energy independence," displacing only 13 percent of our current gasoline consumption and less than 2 percent of diesel. But it would achieve the long-term cultivation of almost 100 million acres of corn, with 47 percent of the nation's crop going straight to ethanol plants.

Under that scenario, fertilizer and pesticide use would increase substantially across the Corn Belt and in the High Plains as well. Toxic nitrates in groundwater would rise accordingly, by 11 percent in the states around the Great Lakes and 8 percent in the southern plains -- areas where a critical need to lower, not raise, nitrate levels already exists.

A recent study found nitrate pollution to be by far the worst in those aquifer-dependent regions of Texas where irrigated corn and sorghum are now grown and will likely increase in acreage as ethanol plants clamor for more and more grain. University of Kansas scientists found that pollutants have been concentrated in that state's portion of the Ogallala by "evapotranspiration, oil brine disposal, agricultural practices, brine intrusion and waste disposal," as well as nitrates, chlorides and sulfates.

'Everybody else has to get his cut'

Riding the roller-coaster of agricultural economics, farmers have learned to get whenever the getting is good. Ethanol mania is the latest in a long line of schemes designed to wring quick wealth out of a rural landscape that's more suited to slow, steady exploitation. Last year, the Lawrence, Kan., Journal-World reported on the short-term pragmatism that underlies the boom in western Kansas:

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Is Our Fear of Germs Bad for Our Health?

The "vomiting virus" now sweeping across Britain may be headed our way. At the same time, San Francisco is being hit with a new strain of the nasty bacterium known as MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) -- this one responsible for "flesh-eating pneumonia."

Meanwhile, four patients were recently isolated in the University of Maryland Medical Center, infected with a multidrug resistant bacterium called Acinetobacter baumannii, which has attacked a number of Afghanistan war veterans. As one doctor said of the that bug, "When these people get infected ... you sort of say this is the last straw."

Those new menaces, and more, are joining the usual biological villains that lurk everywhere in midwinter.

Even more than in past years, we're turning to the chemical industry for help in fortifying the American home against microbial invasion. Few go as far as Jacques Niemand, a reclusive Briton who was killed last May by fumes rising from vast quantities of disinfectant that he kept in open buckets around his house to ward off infection. But lower-intensity chemical warfare on our invisible housemates is in full swing.

Many hospital patients and people with compromised immune systems depend for their very survival on large quantities of not-entirely-benign antimicrobial products. However, there appears to be widespread scientific consensus that for most routine home uses, thorough washing with soap provides sufficient protection.

In domestic use, there's the possibility that some antimicrobial products could induce disease-causing bacteria to evolve antibiotic resistance. Then, as they flow down the drain into sewers and beyond, significant tonnages can accumulate in the tissues of wildlife and people with potentially toxic consequences. And it could be that dramatic increases in asthma and allergy rates are related to immune-system distortion that comes from living in microbe-poor bubbles.

Homeland sterility enforcement

Brian Sansoni, vice president for communication and membership with the Soap and Detergent Association, cites a body of research showing that antibacterial soaps reduce the numbers of harmful bacteria on the skin or other surfaces and are especially useful when you're caring for elderly or immunosuppressed people, dealing with an infectious illness in the house, or preparing food.

"The bottom line," says Sansoni, "is that consumers can continue to safely use antibacterial soaps and hygiene products with confidence - as they already do in homes, schools, offices, hospitals and health care centers, day care centers and nursing homes - every single day."

Among family members who do most of the housecleaning, 71 percent say they prefer to use antibacterial products when available. And germ-killing products are more widely available than ever. As of 2001, 76 percent of liquid hand soaps and 29 percent of bar soaps contained antibacterial chemicals. Mintel's Global New Products Database has seen introductions of new antimicrobial products grow from fewer than 200 in 2003 to more than 1600 last year.

Once you've strategically placed chemical hand cleaners in the kitchen, bedroom, car, and office, you can stock up on antimicrobial toothpaste, cosmetics, kitchen counter wipes, cutting boards, knives, chopsticks, dishrags, gloves, underwear, bath towels, computer keyboards, toys, dog ear wipes, laundry detergent, and paint. The Amana Corporation is promoting a washing machine whose drum is impregnated with an antimicrobial chemical, and several manufacturers offer vacuum cleaners that are chemically resistant to bacteria or bathe your carpet in germ-killing ultraviolet light. And, if you're intent on leaving no bug unturned, you can subscribe to an antibacterial garbage can-cleaning service.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has registered 8,000 disinfectant products to date. That's required, because the law says they're pesticides. Whether it's referred to as "disinfectant" or "antibacterial" or "antimicrobial" or even the somewhat disturbing term "biocidal," each compound kills a range or organisms -- bacteria, fungi, yeast, or even the viruses that cause colds and flu -- but none fully eradicates them.

The most popular of these weapons are still products of pre-1970 "better living through chemistry." There are standbys like ammonia, pine oil, and chlorine bleach, as well as types of germ-killing super-detergents called quaternary ammonium compounds; most prominent in that latter class is benzalkonium chloride, the active ingredient in many disinfectant wipes and sprays.

The compound drawing the most recent attention has been triclosan, along with its cousin triclocarban. Those chemicals, 1960s-era spinoffs from weed-killer research, are considered safe enough to come into very close contact with the human body: in food preparation, bathing, and even for cleaning sex toys.

Chemical weapons can backfire

Triclosan regularly makes the news because of suspicions that it might select for populations of bacteria resistant to pharmaceutical antibiotics. That's because triclosan and some antibiotic drugs attack bacteria through similar mechanisms, and resistant bacteria use similar means to rid themselves of both types of (what are to them) toxins.

A 2003 study funded by Proctor & Gamble Company allayed concerns about washing dishes with antibacterial detergent, finding that genetic resistance did not increase in bacterial cultures exposed to triclosan for several months. At the time the paper was published, one of its authors, a scientist at a British university, told the press that Proctor & Gamble "does not produce a liquid dishwashing detergent that contains triclosan" -- implying that the company therefore had no conflict of interest. P&G did, however, make a range of other products containing the chemical, and soon after, began marketing triclosan-fortified dishwashing liquids as well.

An independent 2004 evaluation of bacterial cultures collected from hands in more than 200 upper-Manhattan households did not find a relationship between resistance to triclosan and resistance to antibiotics (pdf). The lead author on that study was Dr. Allison Aiello, now assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan. She believes too little research that has been done to date, and much of what has been done was funded by industry.

Says Aiello, "There is still a big gap in surveillance and research on the ground." Now that lab research has made clearer the potential mechanisms by which triclosan might help breed bacteria resistant to clinical antibiotics, she says, "We need rigorous, independent, long-term studies on household use to fill the gaps in our knowledge."

Brian Sansoni also welcomes more research, but he says it shouldn't matter who pays for it: "The fact is, it's industry's responsibility to undertake and/or fund research on the ingredients they produce or are used in their products. It's a part of good product stewardship."

Back in the laboratory, there are hints of trouble. Research has shown, for example, that lab-selected strains of the disease-causing bacteria Salmonella enterica and Escherichia coli O157 resistant to triclosan or benzalkonium chloride also showed increased resistance to antibiotic drugs. Such "cross resistance" has been associated with use of other disinfectants as well, including pine oil, which is the natural active ingredient of Pine Sol.

Aiello points to another potential worry: "The triclosan concentrations used in medical settings are quite high, and are effective. But my work shows that the concentration in household soaps and detergents [only a tenth to a half of one percent, which is diluted further in cleaning] is too low to be very effective in reducing illness." On the other hand, she says, that lighter exposure may be just right for leaving behind genetically adapted bacteria.

To Sansoni, the threat of bacterial resistance is "suburban mythology." Pointing to the research of Aiello and others, he says, "The studies and the research to-date have shown there is no real world evidence linking the use of antibacterial products to antibiotic resistance."

"It is a shame," he adds, "that a few loud voices are trying to equate use of antibacterial products in the same breath with the known contributor to the antibiotic resistance problem: the over-prescription of antibiotic drugs by the medical community. It's like trying to compare an anthill to Mount Everest."

The associate director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Dr. Paul Fey, says he would be concerned if, as some studies indicate, the molecular "pumps" that resistant bacteria use to rid themselves of triclosan could also flush out medically important antibiotics. "That's another good reason why triclosan and other antibiotics should not be used in soaps, plastics, etc. And it's unnecessary. Plain soap itself is one of the best antimicrobials there is."

Sansoni cites an issue brief his group provided a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee in 2005, describing the benefits of antimicrobial bars, liquids, gels and wipes. In the end, that committee issued a nonbinding statement saying that in routine use, antibacterial soaps are no better at fending off illness than is regular soap, and that they might contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. FDA took no action in response to the panel's recommendation.

Beyond the kitchen sink

Proctor & Gamble Company scientists have published studies showing that sewage treatment can break down triclosan. But, says Dr. Rebecca Sutton, staff scientist at the Oakland, Calif. office of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), "Our current water-treatment processes are not designed to deal with it, and they aren't dealing with it." She points to numerous studies finding triclosan and triclocarban througout the environment, including the waters of San Francisco Bay.

The US Geological Survey reported in 2002 on a wide range of potential pollutants found in stream across the country. Triclosan was identified in 58 percent of the samples. Out of 95 chemicals surveyed, triclosan was one of the most commonly detected, outstripped by only three others: caffeine, cholesterol, and a metabolite of nicotine.

As far back as 1998, the people of Sweden were spitting out two tons of triclosan per year in their antibacterial toothpastes alone. In 2002, the chemical was detected in the country's municipal wastewaters, fish, and human breast milk.

Triclocarban, of which 1.7 million pounds are produced in the US each year -- check that rusty orange label on your bar soap -- was found at high levels downstream from three sewage-treatment plants out of nine surveyed across nine states. But it was in the treated solids -- sludge -- where the chemical built up to more than a million times the concentration flowing into the plants.

Triclosan behaves similarly. Speaking to Scientific American, Rolf Halden of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health explained that their buildup in bacteria-laden sewage solids is of particular concern because sludge is used to fertilize food crops. That, he said, "could be a recipe for breeding antimicrobial resistance."

And along with resistant bacteria, there are the prospects of dead algae, ailing fish and amphibians, and even sick humans. In a 2003 Japanese study, triclosan was acutely toxic to very young fish and caused liver damage in older males. And triclocarban can amplify the action of testosterone in humans and rats.

In other recent experiments, triclosan disrupted the functioning of frogs' thyroid glands. That is especially worrisome, says Sutton, because "the effects occurred even at concentrations less that are found in many of the country's streams, and the human and frog thyroid systems are very similar."

The Fear Factor

To declare war on household bacteria is to lose -- inevitably. You've probably seen the slogan many times on Lysol products (manufactured by Reckitt Benckiser PLC): "Kills 99.9% of germs in 30 seconds." And who's to doubt it? But under good conditions, the much-feared bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, for example, doubles its numbers every 30 minutes through cell division. So once the Lysol has worn off and the surviving bacteria go back to multiplying, the population could grow to its pre-Lysol size in as little as 5 hours.

Rather than stockpile buckets of disinfectant and spray every surface in the house every few hours, most independent researchers recommend that we settle for a stalemate in the war on microbes. But the home-products industry has other ideas.

Along with nursing and family groups, Clorox cosponsors a "Say Boo to the Flu" campaign, which, along with videos on handwashing and vaccination, features microbiologist Dr. Kelly Reynolds of the University of Arizona advising parents to be sure the cleaning products they buy are labeled "disinfecting" or that they contain chlorine bleach or quaternary ammonium compounds -- both of which are made by Clorox.

(A well-publicized 2002 study conducted by Dr. Reynolds's Arizona colleagues -- and funded by Clorox -- found that the average office desk is populated with 400 times as many bacteria as the average toilet seat. That sounds terrifying until you remember that neither desks nor toilet seats are significant causes of any kind of illness.)

WebMD's Flu Prevention page, sponsored by Lysol, features straightforward articles like one on the universally recommended practice of handwashing with plain soap and water. Alongside that are "Flu tips for parents," in which a Dr. Jim Sears recommends that "one of the most important ways to protect your family and stop viruses dead in their tracks is to disinfect commonly touched surfaces with a disinfectant spray or wipe, such as those made by Lysol®."

The Dial Corporation, which kicked off combat against skin-borne microbes with a deodorant in the 1940s, boosted sales of its antibacterial soaps in 2003 with a series of less-than-subtle TV ads. Featuring a range of scenarios -- a kid urinating in a swimming pool, a man using someone else's sweat-drenched towel in a gym, a nudist group riding a bus -- the commercials fed buyers' germ-phobia.

One of the company's vice presidents told USA Today, "We had been talking to focus groups, and consumers were coming back and saying, 'I'm clean enough.' We were stuck with this dilemma. But we turned it around and came up with [the ads'] premise: 'You're not as clean as you think you are.'"

Antibacterial compounds in bar soap or shoe insoles are there to make you smell better, not to keep you healthy. Used in mop handles, computer mouses, or telephones, they are intended to protect the object, not you, against degradation by run-of-the-mill bacteria and fungi. And bathing with antibacterial soap offers no protection when you swallow pee-laced pool-water.

But paranoia sells.

The Reactionary Principle

A commentary last year in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine urged adoption of the well-known "Precautionary Principle" -- that when a substance or technology is suspected of being harmful, "precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." Instead, said the article, current research operates under the "Reactionary Principle." The author explained:

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Is Prayer Good for Your Health?

As 2007 drew to a close, news media across the country reported on the usual holiday collection of medical miracles -- stories that almost always end with patients and family members giving credit to the healing power of prayer.

One survivor, a Christian heavy-metal vocalist who was struck in the neck in December's notorious Colorado church shootings, is now recovering, say his friends and fans, with the aid of prayer vigils throughout the United States and Europe.

And Christmas week, a 46-year-old Beach City, Ohio, surrogate mother, who had originally been thought to be carrying only one fetus, delivered a set of healthy twins after a difficult pregnancy. Her niece, the egg donor, announced that the double birth was the result of prayers she had secretly offered for months.

Arising partly out of religious belief and partly out of frustration with high-tech medicine, millions of prayers cross the lips of patients, family members, and even doctors and nurses each day in America's hospitals and examining rooms.

That has prompted a post-2000 wave of research aimed at determining what, if anything, all that praying accomplishes: Can it directly improve patients' health? Does it simply soothe? What happens if the patients aren't told they are being prayed for? And what if they do know -- can patients be harmed by prayer? The answers found so far don't seem to be making anyone feel much better.

Say two prayers and call me in the morning

A 1998 Harvard Medical School survey estimated that 35 percent of Americans pray for good health and that 69 percent of those who pray find it "very helpful" -- a bigger percentage than felt their visits to doctors had been very helpful. A much larger study conducted by the National Institutes of Health in 2002 found 43 percent of people in the United States pray for their own health, and 24 percent seek the prayers of others. Most strikingly, 73 percent of critical-care nurses in a 2005 national survey said they use prayer in their work.

Such results are no big surprise. Most Americans are religious believers and can recount for you any number of stories in which prayer appeared to heal. The highly respected Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University has even set up an "intensive prayer unit" to capture whatever benefits it might provide.

For medical prayer to have an effect, no actual divine or supernatural intervention is necessary; belief alone may give a psychological boost to a recovering patient. Any doctor or scientist wishing to lay bare the healing hand of God or the power of "energy medicine" finds that the placebo effect of prayer is much harder to account for than that of pharmaceuticals, which can be dispensed in controlled doses or replaced by sugar pills.

But one type of prayer experiment does attempt to account for the sugar-pill effect and thereby meet the rigorous statistical requirements of scientific journals. In randomized, double-blind studies, the praying is done by people who aren't in contact with the patients, the patients don't know whether they are being prayed for or not (and in some cases don't even know an experiment is going on), and the doctors and researchers don't know who is praying for whom as they go about treating patients and analyzing the data.

It's through such studies that a small cadre of researchers has been trying in recent years to go straight to the source, to determine whether prayers offered from a distance can heal patients' bodies without passing through their minds. Such "distant intercessory prayer" or "distant healing" studies have also become somewhat of a growth industry. Following only three papers published on the subject between 1960 and 1990 and just four during the 1990s, at least 18 new studies have hit the scientific literature since 2000.

Generous federal and private funding has helped fertilize work in this area, but results so far have been underwhelming. The majority of studies show no significant effects, positive or negative. Some actually find prayer harmful. Others have asked more specific questions: whether the benefits of prayer increase with "dosage" (they don't), whether it matters who does the praying (born-again Christians seem to have an edge, says one observer), and even whether prayers can travel back in time (you'll have to wait a bit for the answer to that one.)

The double-blind double-bind

A type of statistical merger -- called a "meta-analysis" -- of 15 distant-prayer studies, led by researchers at Syracuse University and published in 2006-07, was unequivocal in concluding that "there is no scientifically discernible effect for distant intercessory prayer on health," regardless of how often or how long patients were prayed for.

In contrast, Dr. David R. Hodge, an assistant professor of social work at Arizona State University, believes he has discerned positive effects of distant prayer on the health of patients. His own 2007 meta-analysis covered 17 papers, most of them in common with those covered in the Syracuse study. He did detect small effects, ones that just scraped past the customarily accepted limit at which they can be considered statistically significant.

That, combined with the fact that six of the 17 papers reported at least some positive effects, led Hodge to suggest that more open-minded medical practitioners might consider using prayer.

Although only small effects have been detected so far (no Bible-caliber tales of patients regaining their sight or rising from the dead in these papers), they're nevertheless important, says Hodge. Whether it's an omnipotent Supreme Being or some as-yet unidentified natural force at work, he maintains, the results can be blurred by experimental noise. As he puts it, "If prayer does produce positive outcomes, it is entirely plausible that the effects, as measured by quantitative methods, would be small when assessed in aggregate."

Hodge did take care to run two versions of his meta-analysis, one including and one excluding a controversial 2001 report that distant prayer boosted the success of in vitro fertilization in a Korean fertility clinic. The results, which featured prayed-for women achieving twice the rate of conception as did others, as well as a larger proportion of multiple births, were much more dramatic than others seen in prayer research (and would appear to support the claim of that egg donor in Ohio who prayed for and got twins from her aunt).

The study was soon attacked on several fronts: its allegedly flawed methodology; its renunciation by the original lead author, Dr. Rogerio Lobo of Columbia University; and the conviction on unrelated fraud charges of another author, Daniel Wirth, the person who had organized the Christian prayer groups in the United States that prayed for the Korean women in the study.

But Hodge failed to note the peculiar back-stories of some of the other scientific papers he cited as showing benefits of prayer.

For example, a double-blind 1998 California study found that six months after being prayed for, the health of AIDS patients was significantly better than the health of those who received no prayer. But in 2002, Wired magazine reported that while analyzing the data, the study's authors, having failed to find differences in death rates between the two groups, had "unblinded" the data, looked for other health measures that would show a difference and even searched medical records for other health outcomes that had not been part of the original study, all before re-blinding and reanalyzing the data. Statistical results achieved in such a way are considered unreliable at best.

A 2002 study of 39 patients in an intensive-care unit of an unidentified hospital found that those treated with prayer were released from the hospital sooner than patients who weren't; however, the two groups suffered equally from medical complications. The paper appeared in a predominantly nonresearch publication -- the Journal of Christian Nursing -- alongside articles with titles like "Evelyn and Charles: An Oasis of Love in the ER."

Finally, there was a study published in the British Medical Journal purporting to show that prayer can reach backward through time to aid patients' recovery! In 2000, medical professor Leonard Leibovici coded the identities of all bloodstream-infection patients who'd been treated at Rabin Medical Center in Petah-Tikva, Israel, between 1990 and 1996, and ran them through a random-number generator. He then allocated them randomly into two groups, one of which was then prayed for.

Despite having been hospitalized five to 10 years before the experiment was even conceived, the patients in the prayed-for group had, on average, shorter fevers and were discharged more quickly from the hospital.

In subsequent writing, Leibovici made it clear that he hadn't meant the paper to be taken as serious research; rather, it was to stand as a tongue-in-cheek warning that statistical analyses, no matter how valid, cannot be used to draw nonscientific conclusions. But two doctors in Iowa and Texas responded to Leibovici's work in a subsequent issue of the journal, claiming that advanced physics -- specifically quantum mechanics -- supports the idea of time-traveling prayer.

They even credited Leibovici with what would almost certainly be one of humanity's most amazing achievements, writing that the Israeli professor "may have laid bare a facet of reality -- unity and inseparability of all humans across space and time."

However, the odd phenomena associated with quantum physics have never been shown to occur at any scale above the subatomic, let alone among living beings. Dr. Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University and author of the 2006 book Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine dismisses the invocation of quantum mechanics by prayer advocates as nothing more than "an intellectually cheap way of cowing the listener by appealing to something no one fully understands."

Like Sloan, Dr. Bruce Flamm, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Irvine, is a prominent critic of medical prayer research. He has been especially harsh in his analysis of the controversial study of in vitro fertilization patients in Korea, saying that the paper exemplifies many of the fallacies inherent in prayer research. He has written in one of his critiques:

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Toxic Waste Exposure Is the High Price Developing Countries Pay to Produce Our Medicine

Hazardous imports have been the top story on the evening news for weeks now. But the poor quality of some foreign-made products is only half the story. Before we ever see those products, manufacturing plants in the countries of origin can pose an even greater danger to human and ecological health.

Take India, which is now our biggest foreign source of pharmaceuticals. A just-published study by Sweden's Goteborg University shows that, whatever the quality of the drugs being shipped out of India, they are leaving behind a toxic mess. Even after days in a water-treatment plant, effluents discharged into streams and rivers in one Indian region show concentrations of antibiotics and other drugs at 100 to 30,000 times the levels considered safe.

In a 2005 story, I described the devastation of water, land and human health that I saw in the area around Patancheru, India -- damage that local villagers, doctors and environmentalists attribute to pollution from the 90 or more bulk-drug factories in the vicinity. State law says that the factories must haul their toxic wastes to an effluent treatment plant run by Patancheru Enviro Tech, Ltd. (PETL) on a tributary of the Nakkavagu rivulet. The treatment plant's outflow into the Nakkavagu (which waters a valley dotted with 14 villages) has often been found to carry industrial pollutants at many times the statutory limits.

Now the Swedish study, recently published online by the Journal of Hazardous Materials (abstract here free) has found record-breaking concentrations of 11 drugs -- antibiotics and treatments for high blood pressure, ulcers and allergies -- in wastes flowing from the PETL plant.

Noting that "to the best of our knowledge, the concentrations of these 11 drugs were all above the previously highest values [ever] reported in any sewage effluent," the authors singled out the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), which flows out of the plant at the rate of 100 pounds of active ingredient per day. That, say the authors, "is equivalent to the total amount consumed in Sweden (population 9 million) over an average five-day period"!

Concentrations of five other antibiotics were found at levels that are toxic to plants, blue-green algae and a range of bacteria. And before it leaves the facility, the stew of drugs is mixed with human sewage, creating perfect conditions for breeding dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In June, a front-page story by Washington Post reporter Marc Kaufman revealed that there are virtually no controls on the quality of drugs being imported from India. He wrote that India and China together supply as much as 20 percent of the U.S. market for generic and over-the-counter drugs and 40 percent of all bulk drugs used here, and that the two nations' share may rise to 80 percent by 2022. India's share of the U.S. market in 2006 was $800 million, exceeding China's.

According to Kaufmann, the FDA conducted 1,222 quality-assurance inspections of domestic drug-manufacturing plants in 2006. That same year, the agency carried out only 32 inspections of Indian drug plants, mostly to check on new import applications, not for quality control by existing suppliers. And "on-the-ground inspections of Indian and Chinese plants remain rare and relatively brief and are always scheduled in advance, unlike the surprise visits that FDA inspectors pay to domestic manufacturers." There is no indication that FDA inspectors pay any attention to environmental impacts of the plants.

The Swedish researchers calculated that if the quantities of pharmaceuticals they detected being released from the Patancheru treatment facility in a single 24-hour period could be collected and sold in Sweden, they would fetch an amount approaching $200,000, even in generic form. But, they wrote, because the production costs are so much lower than the eventual retail price, it is cheaper for companies to waste the drugs than to invest in pollution control.

When I returned to India earlier this year and checked on the current state of pollution in Patancheru, I was told that burgeoning export-drug production is putting more pressure than ever on the system. Meteorologist Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy -- a former chief technical advisor to the United Nations and now a campaigner for tougher policies on pollution in the Patancheru area -- told me that the sheer quantity of drugs that plants are producing means that they pump out far more waste water than the treatment plant can handle.

The state permits each company to dispose of only a certain amount of water per day, and if its chemical concentration is too high, the company is fined. But, said Dr. Reddy, "The fines are peanuts to them." And, of course, the effluent is not even tested for presence of pharmaceuticals. The bulk-drug plants are often producing at two, three, sometimes ten times the permitted capacity.

Reddy has watched as tanker trucks full of effluent from drug factories are turned away by the water treatment plant because their company's daily quota has been exceeded. He says that rather than returning to the factory, the trucks will often head out into the countryside to dump their load. Those wastes would contain, if anything, higher concentrations of pharmaceuticals than seen in the Swedish study.

So when we're raising the alarm over hazardous toys, food and drugs imported from China, India or other countries, it's important to remember that it's our own insatiable demand for those cheap products that pushes manufacturers into using slapdash practices -- and that it's people living and working downstream or downwind from the foreign factories who could well be paying the highest price of all.

Are Your Cell Phone and Laptop Bad for Your Health?

In the wee hours of July 14, a 45-year-old Australian named John Patterson climbed into a tank and drove it through the streets of Sydney, knocking down six cell-phone towers and an electrical substation along the way. Patterson, a former telecommunications worker, reportedly had mapped out the locations of the towers, which he claimed were harming his health.

In recent years, protesters in England and Northern Ireland have brought down cell towers by sawing, removing bolts, and pulling with tow trucks and ropes. In one such case, locals bought the structure and sold off pieces of it as souvenirs to help with funding of future protests. In attempts to fend off objections to towers in Germany, some churches have taken to disguising them as giant crucifixes.

Opposition to towers usually finds more socially acceptable outlets, and protests are being heard more often than ever in meetings of city councils, planning commissions, and other government bodies. This summer alone, citizen efforts to block cell towers have sprouted in, among a host of other places, including California, New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois, North Dakota and north of the border in Ontario and British Columbia. Transmitters are already banned from the roofs of schools in many districts.

For years, towers have been even less welcome in the United Kingdom, where this summer has seen disputes across the country.

Most opponents cite not only aesthetics but also concerns over potential health effects of electromagnetic (EM) fields generated by the towers. Once ridiculed as crackpots and Luddites, they're starting to get backup from the scientific community.

It's not just cell phones they're worried about. The Tottenham area of London is considering the suspension of all wireless technology in its schools. Last year, Fred Gilbert, a respected scientist and president of Lakehead University in Ontario, banned wireless internet on his campus. And resident groups in San Francisco are currently battling Earthlink and Google over a proposed city-wide Wi-Fi system.

Picking up some interference?

For decades, concerns have been raised about the health effects of "extremely low frequency" fields that are produced by electrical equipment or power lines. People living close to large power lines or working next to heavy electrical equipment are spending a lot of time in electromagnetic fields generated by those sources. Others of us can be exposed briefly to very strong fields each day.

But in the past decade, suspicion has spread to cell phones and other wireless technologies, which operate at frequencies that are millions to tens of millions higher but at low power and "pulsed."

Then there's your cell phone, laptop, or other wireless device, which not only receives but also sends pulsed signals at high frequencies. Because it's usually very close to your head (or lap) when in use, the fields experienced by your body are stronger than those from a cell tower down the street.

A growing number of scientists, along with a diverse collection of technology critics, are pointing out that our bodies constantly generate electrical pulses as part of their normal functioning. They maintain that incoming radiation from modern technology may be fouling those signals.

But with hundreds of billions in sales at stake, the communications industry (and more than a few scientists) insist that radio-frequency radiation can't have biological effects unless it's intense enough to heat your flesh or organs, in the way a microwave oven cooks meat.

It's also turning out that when scientific studies are funded by industry, the results a lot less likely to show that EM fields are a health hazard.

Low frequency, more frequent disease?

Before the digital revolution, a long line of epidemiological studies compared people who were exposed to strong low-frequency fields -- people living in the shadow of power lines, for example, or long-time military radar operators -- to similar but unexposed groups.

One solid outcome of that research was to show that rates of childhood leukemia are associated with low-frequency EM exposure; as a result, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled that type of energy as a possible carcinogen, just as they might label a chemical compound.

Other studies have found increased incidence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly called ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), higher rates of breast cancer among both men and women, and immune-system dysfunction in occupations with high exposure.

Five years ago, the California Public Utilities Commission asked three epidemiologists in the state Department of Health Services to review and evaluate the scientific literature on health effects of low-frequency EM fields.

The epidemiologists, who had expertise in physics, medicine, and genetics, agreed in their report that they were "inclined to believe that EMFs can cause some degree of increased risk of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, and miscarriage" and were open to the possibility that they raise the risks of adult leukemia and suicide. They did not see associations with other cancer types, heart disease, or Alzheimer's disease.

Epidemiological and animal studies have not been unanimous in finding negative health effects from low-frequency EM fields, so the electric-utility industry continues to emphasize that no cause-and-effect link has been proven.

High resistance

Now the most intense debate is focused on radio-frequency fields. As soon as cell phones came into common usage, there was widespread concern that holding an electronic device against the side of your head many hours a month for the rest of your life might be harmful, and researchers went to work looking for links to health problems, often zeroing in on the possibility of brain tumors.

Until recently, cell phones had not been widely used over enough years to evaluate effects on cancers that take a long time to develop. A number of researchers failed to find an effect during those years, but now that the phones have been widely available for more than a decade, some studies are relating brain-tumor rates to long-term phone use.

Some lab studies have found short-term harm as well. Treatment with cell-phone frequencies has disrupted thyroid-gland functioning in lab rats, for example. And at Lund University in Sweden, rats were exposed to cell-phone EM fields of varying strengths for two hours; 50 days later, exposed rats showed significant brain damage relative to non-exposed controls.

The authors were blunt in their assessment: "We chose 12-26-week-old rats because they are comparable with human teenagers -- notably frequent users of mobile phones -- with respect to age. The situation of the growing brain might deserve special concern from society because biologic and maturational processes are particularly vulnerable during the growth process."

Even more recently, health concerns have been raised about the antenna masts that serve cell phones and other wireless devices. EM fields at, say, a couple of blocks from a tower are not as strong as those from a wireless device held close to the body; nevertheless many city-dwellers are now continuously bathed in emissions that will only grow in their coverage and intensity.

Last year, the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia closed off the top two floors of its 17-story business school for a time because five employees working on its upper floors had been diagnosed with brain tumors in a single month, and seven since 1999. Cell phone towers had been placed on the building's roof a decade earlier and, although there was no proven link between them and the tumors, university officials were taking no chances.

Data on the health effects of cell or W-Fi towers are still sparse and inconsistent. Their opponents point to statistically rigorous studies like one in Austria finding that headaches and difficulty with concentration were more common among people exposed to stronger fields from cell towers. All sides seem to agree on the need for more research with solid data and robust statistical design.

San Francisco, one of the world's most technology-happy cities, is home to more than 2400 cell-phone antennas, and many of those transmitters are due to be replaced with more powerful models that can better handle text messaging and photographs, and possibly a new generation of even higher-frequency phones.

Now there's hot-and-heavy debate over plans to add 2200 more towers for a city-wide Earthlink/Google Wi-Fi network. On July 31, the city's Board of Supervisors considered an appeal by the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (SNAFU) that the network proposal be put through an environmental review -- a step that up to now has not been required for such telecommunications projects.

In support of the appeal, Magda Havas, professor of environmental and resource studies at Trent University in Ontario submitted an analysis of radio-frequency effects found in more than 50 human, animal, and cellular-level studies published in scientific journals.

Havas has specialized in investigating the effects of both low- and high-frequency EM radiation. She says most of the research in the field is properly done, but that alone won't guarantee that all studies will give similar results. "Natural variability in biological populations is the norm," she said.

And, she says, informative research takes time and focus: "For example, studies that consider all kinds of brain tumors in people who've only used cell phones for, say, five years don't show an association. But those studies that consider only tumors on the same side of the head where the phone is held and include only people who've used a phone for ten years or more give the same answer very consistently: there's an increased risk of tumors." In other research, wireless frequencies have been associated with higher rates of miscarriage, testicular cancer, and low sperm counts.

Direct current from a battery can be used to encourage healing of broken bones. EM fields of various frequencies have also been shown to reduce tissue damage from heart attacks, help heal wounds, reduce pain, improve sleep, and relieve depression and anxiety. If they are biologically active enough to promote health, are they also active enough to degrade it?

At the 2006 meeting of the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety in Benevento, Italy, 42 scientists from 16 countries signed a resolution arguing for much stricter regulation of EM fields from wireless communication.

Four years earlier, in Freiburger, Germany, a group of physicians had signed a statement also calling for tighter regulation of wireless communication and a prohibition on use of wireless devices by children. In the years since, more than 3000 doctors have signed the so-called "Freiburger Appeal" and documents modeled on it.

But in this country, industry has pushed for and gotten exemption from strict regulation, most notably through the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Libby Kelley, director of the Council on Wireless Technology Impacts in Novato, California says, "The technology always comes first, the scientific and environmental questions later. EM trails chemicals by about 10 years, but I hope we'll catch up."

Kelley says a major problem is that the Telecommunications Act does not permit state or local governments to block the siting of towers based on health concerns: "We'll go to hearings and try to bring up health issues, and officials will tell us, 'We can't talk about that. We could get sued in federal court!'"

High-voltage influence?

Industry officials are correct when they say the scientific literature contains many studies that did not find power lines or telecommunication devices to have significant health effects. But when, as often happens, a range of studies give some positive and some negative results, industry people usually make statements like, "Technology A has not been proven to cause disease B."

Michael Kundi, professor at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria and an EM researcher, has issued a warning about distortions of the concept of cause-and-effect, particularly when a scientific study concludes that "there is no evidence for a causal relationship" between environmental factors and human health. Noting that science is rarely able to prove that A did or did not "cause" B, he wrote that such statements can be "readily misused by interested parties to claim that exposure is not associated with adverse health effects."

Scientists and groups concerned about current standards for EM fields have criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) and other for downplaying the risks. And some emphasize the risk of financial influence when such intense interest is being shown by huge utilities and a global communications industry that's expected to sell $250 billion worth of wireless handsets per year by 2011 (that's just for the instruments, not counting monthly bills). Microwave News cited Belgian reports in late 2006 that two industry groups -- the GSM Association and Mobile Manufacturers Forum -- accounted for more than 40 percent of the budget for WHO's EM fields project in 2005-06.

When a US National Academy of Sciences committee was formed earlier this year to look into health effects of wireless communication devices, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Sage Associates wrote a letter to the Academy charging that the appointment of two of the committee's six members was improper under federal conflict-of-interest laws.

One of the committee members, Leeka Kheifets, a professor of epidemiology in UCLA's School of Public Health, has, says the letter, "spent the majority of the past 20 years working in various capacities with the Electric Power Research Institute, the research arm of the electric power industry."

The other, Bernard Veyret, senior scientist at the University of Bordeaux in France, "is on the consulting board of Bouygues Telecom (one of 3 French mobile phone providers), has contracts with Alcatel and other providers, and has received research funding from Electricite de France, the operator of the French electricity grid." The NAS committee will be holding a workshop this month and will issue a report sometime after that.

A paper published in January in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that when studies of cell phone use and health problems were funded by industry, they were much less likely to find a statistically significant relationship than were publicly funded studies.

The authors categorized the titles of the papers they surveyed as either negative (as in "Cellular phones have no effect on sleep patterns"), or neutral (e.g., "Sleep patterns of adolescents using cellular phones"), or positive, (e.g., "Cellular phones disrupt sleep"). Fully 42 percent of the privately funded studies had negative titles and none had positive ones. In public or nonprofit studies, titles were 18 percent negative and 46 percent positive.

Alluding to previous studies in the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries, the authors concluded, "Our findings add to the existing evidence that single-source sponsorship is associated with outcomes that favor the sponsors' products."

By email, I asked Dr. John Moulder, a senior editor of the journal Radiation Research, for his reaction to the study. Moulder, who is Professor and Director of Radiation Biology in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Wisconsin, did not think the analysis was adequate to conclusively demonstrate industry influence and told me that in his capacity as an editor, "I have not noted such an effect, but I have not systematically looked for one either. I am certainly aware that an industry bias exists in other areas of medicine, such as reporting of clinical trails."

Moulder was lead author on a 2005 paper concluding that the scientific literature to that point showed "a lack of convincing evidence for a causal association between cancer and exposure to the RF [radio-frequency] energy used for mobile telecommunications."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has questioned Moulder's objectivity because he has served as a consultant to electric-power and telecommunications firms and groups. Moulder told me, "I have not done any consulting for the electric power and telecommunications industry in years, and when I was doing consulting for these industries, the journals for which I served as an editor or reviewer were made aware of it."

A year ago, Microwave News also reported that approximately one-half of all studies looking into possible damage to DNA by communication-frequency EM fields found no effect. But three-fourths of those negative studies were industry- or military-funded; indeed, only 3 of 35 industry or military papers found an effect, whereas 32 of 37 publicly funded studies found effects.

Magda Havas sees a shortage of public money in the US for research on EM health effects as one of the chief factors leading to lack of a rigorous public policy, telling me, "Much of the research here ends up being funded directly or indirectly by industry. That affects both the design and the interpretation of studies." As for research done directly by company scientists, "It's the same as in any industry. They can decide what information to make public. They are free to downplay harmful effects and release information that's beneficial to their product."

Meanwhile, at Trent University where Havas works, students using laptops are exposed to radio-frequency levels that exceed international guidelines. Of that, she says, "For people who've been fully informed and decide to take the risk, that's their choice. But what about those who have no choice, who have a cell-phone tower outside their bedroom window?

"It's the equivalent of secondhand smoke. We took a long time to get the political will to establish smoke-free environments, and we now know we should have done it sooner. How long will it take to react to secondhand radiation?"

For more information, visit Environmnental Health Perspectives; Microwave News; the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Your Bank Account Probably Supports Cluster Bombs and Big Coal

What if you had a solid, reliable business partner who, you discovered, had been investing in cluster bombs, or coal and nuclear power plants, or destruction of tropical ecosystems, or loan-sharking or strip-mining?

You just might be in such a relationship if you're one of those 4 out of 5 Americans who have a bank account. Each time you deposit your paycheck, you build a relationship with a corporation that, going by the odds, is likely to be involved in all sorts of unsavory pursuits.

Short of stowing cash in your socks drawer, is there a way to keep your hard-earned money out of trouble? Maybe, but to do that while still taking advantage of the interest, federal deposit insurance, and many conveniences afforded by checking and savings accounts is not a simple matter. By closing an account or two, you can get away from Big Banking and its high-profile abuses, but finding a place to open a new, clean-and-green account is not that easy.

You don't have to be a Wall Street tycoon to play a hand in global ruin and local plunder. A modest checking or savings account at a major bank can get you in on some pretty ugly activities. Before trying to find a new, innocent home for your paycheck or tax refund, we'll take a look at what your current business partner may have been up to.

Big banks behaving badly

America's largest banks take in colossal sums of money every day, and they have before them a world of profitable opportunities in which to invest that wealth. Commercial banks and savings institutions have taken full advantage, chalking up a sixth straight year of record profits in 2006. But follow those profits to some of their sources, and the view is not so pleasant:


-- According to a 2007 report by the Belgian nonprofit Netwerk Vlaanderen, international banking groups led by Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wachovia and Bank of America (America's four biggest banks) supplied lines of credit totaling more than $8 billion between 2004 and 2006 to companies involved in production of cluster bombs -- probably the most vicious form of non-nuclear weaponry. The banks' customers included GenCorp, Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, Textron, Thales and EADS.

-- In February, Texas electric utility TXU became the target of history's largest-ever leveraged buyout, which had crucial backing by banking powerhouses JPMorgan Chase, Citgroup and Morgan Stanley. Intense pressure from environmental groups convinced the banks and buyers to announce that they would reduce the number of new coal-fired plants planned by TXU from eleven to three. Their eco-consciousness, however, was short-lived; they announced in mid-March that if the deal goes through, TXU will contract with Mitsubishi to build two nuclear plants near Dallas and build three additional nukes by 2020!

-- Wells Fargo & Co., with more than 3,200 bank branches in 23 states, has provided hundreds of millions in loans to Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha strip-mines coal in the Appalachians, favoring the extreme technique known as "mountaintop removal". Wells Fargo is heavily invested in oil and gas in the western United States, it has funded Burlington Resources' oil exploration on indigenous lands in the Amazon of Peru and Ecuador, and it funded a report supporting logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. Oh, and Wells Fargo was also named one of the country's "100 Best Corporate Citizens for 2007" by Business Ethics magazine.

-- A predatory feature of life in low-income America, the "payday loan" industry has ballooned by more than tenfold since 1993. The Tennessean in Nashville fingered four of the nation's top ten banks -- Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wachovia and Wells Fargo -- as having played a crucial role in the rise of payday-loan shops, which saddle their customers (who average $25,000 in income) with interest rates reaching 200 percent, 300 percent, or even 500 percent on an annualized basis. Amazingly, such rates are legally recognized. The state of California, for example, limits interest on payday loans to 459 percent annually!

Who's in your wallet?

If you'd rather not endorse such shenanigans each time you endorse a check, it's not too difficult to stay away from predatory megabanks. In most cities and towns, there are plenty other places to take your money. But even if a financial institution's not on the list of America's largest banks, it still may not be the kind of business associate you'd like to have. Listed more or less in order of increasing "virtue," here are some ways that have been suggested to find a better home for your money:

Local commercial banks, even though they are perfectly capable of helping developers pave over good farmland or putting people out of their homes, have less power than the big ones to do harm. Corporate insider Catherine Austin Fitts of solari.com recommends a strategy for keeping your money in a local bank and out of what she calls "The U.S. Banking Tapeworm 20." Here's only a very brief summary of what Fitts sees as necessary in choosing a local bank with a heart: investigating the bank's coverage area, ownership and governance; reading their financial statements and Security and Exchange Commission filings, if any; contacting bank-rating agencies; doing web searches on owners' and board members' names; talking to branch managers and loan officers; determining the backgrounds and attitudes of board members; and checking out customer diversity, profitability, loan-to-deposit ratio and soundness of investments.

Few people are going to have the interest and knowledge to do what Fitts suggests; indeed, if you are able and willing to follow that whole procedure, it probably means you are a banker. Fitts estimates that investigating one's local banks will take 4 to 15 hours. Good luck with that.

Dr. Ritchie Lowry, professor of sociology at Boston College, runs the website goodmoney.com. He told me that the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which requires financial institutions to target an appropriate portion of their investments to low-income communities in their area, provides a convenient window on what a local bank is up to: "Each bank has to file a report under the act. So you can go to the manager and say, 'I'd like to see your report.' That way, you'll find out if they are supporting things like low-income housing and the right kinds of small business."

Credit unions have a lot of appeal as places to keep your money. They're owned by their depositors. They're nonprofit and tax-exempt, so they can afford to pay slightly higher interest rates and loan money at lower rates. These days, they can provide a broad range of services that include increasing availability of ATM services. And your money is less likely to end up in the global arms trade or tropical sweatshops.

A credit union must have a well-defined "field of membership" -- for example a group of employees or a geographical community. The Credit Union Membership Access Act of 1998 has allowed them to greatly expand their fields of membership. This, naturally, has drawn fire from the owners and managers of commercial banks, who don't like competing against tax-exempt institutions that are permitted to offer most of the same services they do.

Now any industry that's a thorn in the side of Big Banking can't be all bad, but credit unions aren't without faults of their own. Complaints by the major banks' friends in Congress prompted the General Accounting Office (GAO) to look at the lending practices of credit unions, which are exempt from the Community Reinvestment Act. Released late last year, the GAO report (pdf) found that "despite the shift toward community charters and the increase in the number of credit unions participating in NCUA's [the National Credit Union Association's] low-income and underserved programs, our analysis ... indicated that credit unions had a lower proportion of customers who were of low and moderate income than did banks."

NCUA's own figures show that only 30 percent of credit union members earn less than $34,000 a year, compared with 39 percent of bank customers, while credit unions serve a much higher percentage of people in the $90,000 to $130,000 bracket than do banks.

Although credit unions aren't under pressure to make a profit, there's nothing to stop them from investing in shady ventures on behalf of their members. A recent instance: The 73-year-old New Horizons Credit Union of Denver, which lost $20 million in 2006, was taken over by the state of Colorado last April and is now up for sale. Its fiscal ill-health appears to be related to loans made through car dealers who exploit credit-challenged customers.

Community development financial institutions (CDFIs) are designed primarily to serve low-income areas. The National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions lists 220 members. Among the most prominent is Self-Help Credit Union of Durham, N.C., which since 1980 has loaned $4.5 billion to over 50,000 small businesses, homeowners and development organizations. Self-Help has regional offices in nine other cities. Anyone can become a member and open money market and savings accounts, complete with ATM services.

The Community Development Bankers Association has 22 member banks across the country. The most celebrated is ShoreBank of Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, which pioneered the community-development model. Having gotten its start in 1973 as South Shore Bank in Chicago, ShoreBank has made more than $300 million in development and conservation loans, including the financing of 47,000 affordable residences. It offers the usual banking services, including online banking, to customers anywhere in the country. Shorebank has been widely credited with helping revive Chicago's South Side.

Although you can join or bank at almost any CDFI, even if you don't live near one, you may have to give up a lot of the conveniences provided by local banking -- like having ATMs nearby or writing checks accepted readily by your own local businesses. Ritchie Lowry points out, however, that if you have a couple of thousand dollars to set aside, you can buy a certificate of deposit (CD) at any community development credit union or bank you choose, whether you live on the South Side of Chicago or the North Slope of Alaska. As Lowry points out, "It doesn't really make much difference whether or not a CD is from a local bank."

"Do the right thing with the rest of your life."

Wherever you put your own money, don't expect highly profitable but less-than-pure industries to go begging for investors. (In fact, for the truly hard-nosed, bottom-line investor, there's the Vice Fund, which claims high and "recession-proof" returns on your investment in military armaments, tobacco, alcohol and gambling.) Nevertheless, there is little doubt that by depositing in a community development bank or screened mutual fund instead of the Vice Fund or Wells Fargo, you can sleep somewhat better at night.

To get a broader picture of personal banking, I asked Doug Henwood, publisher ofLeft Business Observer and author, most recently, of the 2003 book "After the New Economy," about alternatives for people on the left who don't have the means to become big philanthropists but who want the equivalent of a checking and savings account with adequate convenience and security in which to put their modest earnings.

Henwood was blunt, telling me, "Basically it's very hard to do what you're talking about." Just because a bank is local, he noted, it's not necessarily innocent: "A lot of small banks have far more money than they can invest locally, so they either lend the surplus to bigger banks via the federal funds market or buy U.S. Treasury bonds, which means they're directly funding the purchase of cluster bombs."

Citing the GAO report on credit unions, Henwood characterized them as "notorious for underserving lower-income people and communities." Even with a community development credit union, he said, "you have to read the fine print on what they do."

The effort to bank ethically is a variation on the theme of "socially responsible investing," which rose to prominence in the 1980s with the campaign that pushed companies to divest from apartheid-era South Africa. As a veteran advocate of responsible investing, Ritchie Lowry sees the choice of a bank as an exercise of power: "Whether you have a bank account or a credit card or a mortgage, you're a customer, and customers always have a degree of power over businesses. We can use that. People say, 'Well, corporations are starting to use green practices just because they're hot right now and it's good PR.' I say fine; I don't care what's going through the souls of CEOs as long as they do what's needed."

In a recent article, Aaron Chatterji of Duke University and Siona Listokin of the University of California at Berkeley acknowledged that, "by the numbers" responsible investing has become an important feature of the nation's financial landscape, with one dollar of every nine invested now being put through some kind of social and/or environmental screening process.

But how effective are such screens? The number of issues concerning people is now so large, write Chatterji and Listokin, that companies can shop around for issues and voluntary codes of conduct that will be pleasing to customers and investors but won't hurt the company's bottom line -- and probably won't accomplish very much. They conclude:

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How Much Is That Dog Dress in the Window?

On a recent evening outside the Trixie + Peanut pet boutique in Manhattan's exclusive Gramercy Park neighborhood, a woman dragged her reluctant companion diagonally across 20th Street. "Look! Puppy sweaters! Come on, we have to go in, just for a minute."

The man resisted, but in vain. "Honey," I heard him plead as the store's door closed behind him, "we don't even have a dog!"

As that accidental shopper probably came to realize, the American pet-products market is big -- much, much bigger than the cat and dogs it's built around. In extending its reach, the industry also splitting, with big-box stores led by Petsmart (860 stores), Petco (800+ stores), and, increasingly, Wal-Mart ($2 billion+ in annual pet-product sales) handling a larger share of day-to-day purchases, while smaller stores and online retailers like Trixie + Peanut go after the luxury trade.

This Christmas, America's pets will be tearing open $5 billion worth of presents. But whatever the season, according to the publication Drug Store News, retailers "can encourage multiple purchases, impulse buys, and 'just because' gifts for reasons like one's pet has been home alone all day."

In a recent profile of the "pampered pets consumer," Unity Marketing of Stevens, Pa., explained that "Pet luxuries represent the best opportunity for pet product marketers, retailers and service providers. People spend more -- lots more -- on purchases that are driven by desire and passion, than those bought out of pure need."

Honorary humans

Trixie + Peanut is cashing in big on that desire and passion. Sweaters like those modeled by doggie mannequins in the window average about $50, or $129 for an upgrade to cashmere. Christmas shoppers can find a leash ($69), a monogrammed collar ($54), a leather pet carrier ($170 to $850), booties ($35 for the two pair), "hound hiking boots" ($79), or a "Furrari" bed designed like a sports car (why chase one if you can sleep in one? -- $249).

For the hungry canine, there are frozen steaks, Hannuka carob-chip dog bones, "Pup-pies" (dutch apple, raspberry truffle, and banana creme), and Oreo-style carob cookies (five cookies for $10), all to be followed by Fresh Breath Care drops with peppermint and cinnamon. For other needs, Trixie + Peanut can provide "nail pawlish," hair detangler, and dog-poop pickup gloves made with "Oxo-Biodegradable, d2w technology."

And for that sad day when it's time to say your final farewell, there's the "In Loving Memory Keepsake Urn" ($155 for a small dog's ashes, $175 for a big one's) and a Pet Sympathy Coin ($25).

The password to success in pet marketing these days is "humanization": convincing that demographic group now known as "pet parents" that they should buy the same kinds of products for Buster or Taffy that they'd buy for themselves or their (human) kids.

As part of the humanization trend, says the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association (APPMA), pet-friendly hotels are offering dog massages and "plush doggie robes"; pet boutiques carry faux mink coats, feathered French day beds, botanical fragrances, "cleaning cloths for muddy paws that mimic traditional baby wipes," touch-activated toys, "hipster lumberjack vests," and Halloween costumes; and pet-safe cars are equipped with seat-belt systems and motion-sickness aids. High-tech health care facilities are extending the lives (and driving up the costs) of aging pets, and the pet health insurance market is growing at 25 percent per year.

Pet showers can now be incorporated into the design of upscale bathrooms, for $4,000 tacked onto the price. And, inevitably, there are dog jacuzzis.

In a March press release, APPMA president Bob Vetere said the industry that supplies the nation's 74 million dogs, 90 million cats, and tens of millions of other assorted pets continues to show a 7 percent per-year growth rate -- double the pace of growth in the economy as a whole. He predicted that growth will be sustained by the humanization of four-legged companions by childless baby boomers and young professionals: "With these families' higher-than average disposable incomes, their pets are enjoying elaborate high-end and high-tech products."

APPMA also sees a boom in pet services, partly because "it is becoming socially unacceptable in some areas to leave your dog home alone during the day or your cat alone for the weekend." PetsMart, for example, now offers "PetsHotels" and "Doggie Day Camps" to ease pet parents' minds on that score.

The 66,000-pound gorilla in the living room

Biologists have devised metabolic formulas that relate the body sizes of animals to their rates of energy consumption. Humans are unlike other animal species in that we have access to vast amounts of energy from sources other than food. Only one percent of the energy consumed by the average American comes from simply digesting what we eat. The other 99 percent is used in the many other activities, including agriculture, that burn fossil fuels and deplete natural resources.

It is as if our bodies were connected by invisible wires and hoses to a global resource-supply network. Based on those metabolic formulas, it has been calculated that over a 24-hour period, the average American consumes as much energy as would a 66,000-pound primate not living on that network (pdf).

And each step taken to "humanize" pets -- each next-size-larger car or SUV that's bought to accomodate the family dog, each section of a jet's baggage compartment that's heated and pressurized for pet transport, each spa treatment or Atlantic-salmon-with-capers dinner to which the family's smallest member is treated -- is another burden on the planet's resources.

Weigh up all the members of one of those other big populations of domesticated, industrially supported animals -- the nation's 42 million cattle or 59 million hogs -- and it would come to a lot more body mass than does the pet population. But the physical weight of increasingly humanized cats and dogs and ferrets is becoming much less important than all those invisible wires and hoses to which we're hooking them up.

'If it's good for you, it's good for your dog'

An hour's ride from Trixie + Peanut by subway, train, and bus is Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. There the 2006 Long Island Pet Expo, held Nov. 10-12, targeted a very different slice of the economic scale than do Manhattan's pet boutiques. Merchandise on offer tended toward everyday food bowls, chew-bones, and hair-and-fur-capable vaccum cleaners. Of 94 registered exhibitors, 22 were nonprofit pet-welfare groups.

But there was the occasional aromatherapy product, as well as high-tech emergency-room care. And gourmet-food exhibitors stood ready to pounce on any disposable income that came their way. At the Canine Caviar Pet Foods booth, Matt Wurtzel was enthusiastic about his "holistic" products. By eliminating wheat, corn and soybean meal -- all of which, he said, cause allergy problems in dogs -- and by adding ingredients like alfalfa, chicory, rose hips, kelp and canola oil, Wurtzel said, "We can improve a dog's skin, coat, sight, hearing, breath, teeth, digestion, kidneys and liver, and prevent cancer and diabetes -- and prevent obesity. And our products contain yucca for hip and joint problems!"

Working on the humanization principle -- as Wurtzel put it to me, "If it's good for you, it's good for your dog" -- Canine Caviar serves up dog dinners that even we humans rarely experience: gourmet duck, venison and split pea, lamb and pearl millet, and even gourmet beaver. They've also branched out with a chicken with pink salmon formula for cats.

A few steps away was Canine Caviar's competition, Evanger's Dog and Cat Food Co. Evanger's offered its own exotic menu: whole mackerel with gravy, pheasant and brown rice, duck and sweet potato and even a vegetarian dinner, which includes avocados, blueberries and cranberries. They also have an organic line featuring turkey with potato and carrots.

The claims of gourmet pet food makers go far beyond the federal government's simple nutritional guidelines. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with ensuring that "pet foods, like human foods, be pure and wholesome, safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances and be truthfully labeled." FDA designates meat, poultry, grains and their byproducts as safe under its guidelines, and allows food additives that are "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS) for humans to be fed to pets as well.

The pet market has long been a leading destination for that 50 percent of the typical cattle carcass and 25 percent of the hog carcass that are not consumed by humans. But because many pet parents are disgusted by the thought of eating cooked bone meal, hog lungs, fish guts, or chicken blood, humanization of the pet industry is leading to the elimination of animal byproducts from most high-end cat and dog foods. As a result, packing plants are having to treat unused byproducts as waste products instead.

There's a grain, but only a grain, of truth in claims by Canine Caviar and other luxury pet-food companies that wheat, corn and soybean have caused an allergy epidemic among pets. Research has shown that foods account for only about 10 percent of the allergies seen in pets and that when the animals do develop allergies, it's usually to foods that they have been eating the most of. Therefore, the most common offenders in dogs, in order, are beef, dairy products, chicken, wheat, eggs, corn, and soybeans. If dogs don't have allergies to the avocados and blueberries that Evanger's puts in its vegetarian dinners, it's because they haven't eaten enough of them (and, given canine tastes, there's little danger that they will).

Even nonluxury pet foods are tied into far-flung resource networks. Almost a quarter of the global fish catch goes to feed livestock and pets. The amount of fish canned for house pets amounted to one-third of all fish canned for the U.S. market. (And the 437 million pounds of fish canned in 2003 for pets doesn't include the more than 40,000 tons of tin, steel and aluminum that was required to can it.)

In light of a recent, much-discussed paper in the journalScience reporting that overfishing and other abuse of the oceans "impairs the ability of marine ecosystems to feed a growing human population but also sabotages their stability and recovery," pets may find a favorite source of food dwindling in the very near future.

Humanizing the food that goes into cats and dogs means hooking them up to our own industrial agriculture, a system that threatens ecosystems and human health. Organic pet food shows double-digit growth but is still a microscopic part of the market. And even if, in a best-case scenario, U.S. agriculture were to convert to all-organically raised crops and chemical-free, grass-fed, free-range meat production, vast amounts of grain and meat byproducts would still be available to help feed the country's vast pet population, as an alternative to spending more resources on raising additional food especially for them.

The end product

In an increasingly urban/suburban nation, people's keen interest in what goes into their pets' mouths is often matched by a preoccupation with what comes out the other end. Ten million tons of dog and cat excreta are disposed of each year in the United States; the city of San Francisco estimates that pet wastes make up 4 percent of its residential waste stream -- almost as much as disposable diapers.

Poop B Gone, which had a prominent booth at the Pet Expo, is part of a rapidly growing service industry to help busy homeowners deal with pet wastes. In the areas of Long Island that they service, yard cleanup for one to two dogs runs $15 a week; litter box service is $59 a month for one or two cats, $105 for six to eight. I asked Mike, one of Poop B Gone's proprietors, if there was extra money to be made from the nutrient-rich dog wastes he collects. Has he considered a joint venture with a compost or energy entrepreneur? "No, we just have to pay the landfill to take it," he said.

Pet poop and pee-pee are moneymakers in another, wholly different way, stimulating an annual U.S. kitty litter market of $1.7 billion, according to APPMA. If their figures are right, and at prevailing prices, that works out to a staggering 2 to 3 million tons of the stuff that has to be disposed of each year, along with the malodorous substances it's designed to carry. And the means of disposal can have consequences.

A bill now before the California legislature would require cat litter packaging to carry a label warning cat owners not to flush cat wastes down the toilet (yes, there is such a thing as flushable litter). The move was prompted by a study showing that 52 percent of dead sea otters washing up on California beaches were infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, the source of which was cat feces. Not all of the feces carrying tough parasitic spores were coming from sewage; some were simply washing from yards and parks into storm drains.

The leftovers

Long Island Pet Expo exhibitor Allen Roth stood behind a long table full of small covered dishes containing baby snakes in just about every color of the rainbow. He and his wife Amy run the wholesale company Reptile Kingdom of Toms River, N.J. Roth met my cheery greeting of "How's business?" with a solemn shake of the head.

"What keeps things going is for people to spend their disposable income, and they just don't have as much these days," he said. What about the reported 7 percent industry growth rate? "That's from a lot of new Petco and Petsmart stores opening, more sales at Wal-Mart, and people getting into breeding. Mom-and-pop stores are decreasing. The new ones that are opening have to focus on expensive exotic pets and products for the few people who can afford them."

Surprisingly common on the floor of the Expo were associations devoted to saving escaped, abandoned or maltreated pets. To list those organizations is to review pet-marketing success stories of the past and present: Chinchilla Rescue and Refuge, AFC Ferret Rescue, Parrot Haven, Golden Retriever Rescue, Potbelly Pig Placement Network.

Clarence Hertzog's WarmFuzzy Ferret Rescue booth seemed to be drawing little attention from Expo-goers. He blamed pet marketers for the plight of his favorite mammal: "The stores have been selling ferrets as fast as they can without educating the owners on how to take care of them. Even a lot of the breeders and store owners themselves don't know how."

Just across the aisle from Hertzog's forlorn booth, the sugar glider exhibit was thronged with potential customers. Sugar gliders are 6- to 7-inch-long marsupials with huge, endearing, wallet-opening eyes. It's illegal to keep them as pets in their native Australia and in some U.S. states, but traffic in the species is flourishing nationally. It's still early in the species' marketing trajectory, but Pet Expos of the future are almost certain to include a Sugar Glider Rescue Society booth.

The American way of consumption

In her 2004 book Why People Buy Things They Don't Need, Unity Marketing president Pamela Danziger writes that pets "have become full-fledged members of the family" and luxury consumers in their own right. She lists pet accessories among 37 categories of unnecessary merchandise that people buy, but she says the products don't move without a little help from her profession: "For the typical American, especially the affluent whose physical needs are completely satisfied, and who have everything one could want or need, what's next? That is the ultimate challenge for marketers today."

Danziger is more forthright than most analysts in recognizing the U.S. economy's addiction to overconsumption. In her book's first chapter, she rejects the contention of prominent Boston College sociologist/economist Juliet Schor that "competitive spending" is devastating to the condition of society as a whole.

Writes Danziger, "In light of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the worsening economic crisis, this point of view seems strangely un-American. The simple fact remains that our whole economic system, even our way of life, depends upon the continued, sustained practice of 'excessive,' as some see it, American consumerism."

But if the economy really can't sustain itself without excessive consumerism, and if that means that tens or hundreds of millions of pets will be joining 300 million humans in living the American Way, the consequences for ecosystems and resources are only too predictable.

Of all the services I encountered at the Pet Expo, the most benign and least resource-intensive had to have been Karen Kober Animal Communication. While Kober worked with a customer, her associate described the process for me: "We connect with the animal telepathically. We can work with any species of animal, living or dead. We simply ask you for the description, name, breed and sex, and then we listen to the pet."

He said the communication isn't necessarily verbal: "It may be visual. Or we might feel the pain the animal's feeling, in the same part of the body. But they let us know what's on their minds."

Needless to say, I didn't believe a word of it. But if a pet-human conversation were possible, this is the first question I'd ask: "Which would make you happiest this Christmas: a set of hiking boots, a cashmere sweater or a good belly-scratch?" But then I suppose we don't need telepathy to know the answer to that.

The Disjointed States of America

After the results are counted on November 7, the varied political complexions of the 50 states will play a big role in post-election punditry. But beware of Wednesday-morning quarterbacks whose analysis goes no deeper than a contrast between red-state believers and blue-state pagans.

The assertion that America's red-blue divide is rooted in "moral values" was recently and rightly condemned by Newsweek's Jonathan Alter as an explanation that is "loaded and unfair, and was popularized by lazy-minded journalists." Pundits have latched onto "values" because nothing else seems to explain why so many millions of non-wealthy Americans are so insistent on voting so heavily against their own economic interests.

On this election eve of 2006, let's get a jump on the analysts and examine more closely the deep differences among the states in some of their most important characteristics.

Wages, wilderness, and Wal-Mart

Those post-2004 election maps that showed a blue "United States of Canada" draped over a big red "Jesusland", witty as they were, painted only an incomplete political picture. Leaving aside the usual election-year fascination with scandal, abortion, sexual orientation, and fear of foreigners, I took a more analytical approach, computing the relationships among states' rankings for eight different economic and environmental characteristics. Based on those rankings, I've bent and stretched the red-blue map in some new directions.

I compiled rankings of the 50 states for a range of characteristics, including wages, taxes, and energy costs from a recent Forbes Magazine's survey entitled "The Best States for Business," an environmental policy ("green-capacity") rating by the Resource Renewal Institute, and government data on median income, income inequality, population size, and the number of Wal-Mart Supercenters relative to population. Then I fed the data into a statistical procedure called "principal component analysis" to produce a different kind of US "map":

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How Many People Is Too Many?

By mid-October of this year, the world's third most populous nation will hit 300 million inhabitants. And thanks to America's burgeoning fertility rate, we will keep moving briskly onward, hitting 400 million in less than 40 years, by Census Bureau projections.

Is 300 million people too many -- or not enough? Wade into a discussion of population size, and you're soon up to your neck in a host of knotty issues: sex, contraception, immigration, economic justice and ecological crises. To find out who'll be celebrating the big milepost, who'll be deploring it, and why, I got in touch with seven individuals who have especially strong views on the various forces that will decide the eventual size and composition of our nation's population.

One out of three pregnancies unintended

I started with an organization that's been at the center of the population struggle for decades. Population Connection, based in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1968 as Zero Population Growth by, among others, biologist Paul Erlich. Erlich wrote "The Population Bomb," a 1960s bestseller that put human numbers on the public agenda.

Brian Dixon, Population Connection's director of government relations, told me the group will try to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the 300 million mark to advance its congressional agenda. Today, that consists mostly of rearguard actions to protect existing reproductive rights and resist what Dixon calls "the war on sex information."

He said that when people don't have the means and information to control their fertility, the results are obvious: "Just here in the D.C. area where we work, you can't go a week without seeing evidence of overpopulation in the press: choked highways, crowded classrooms. It's our job to make it clear that we have to maintain not only living space but also lots of forests, farms, wetlands, etc."

Dixon cited research showing that one-third of all pregnancies in this country are unintended. "And our teen pregnancy rate is almost twice that of the next-highest industrialized nation. Yet we're wasting hundreds of millions on abstinence programs that have been shown never to work, and in fact can be quite harmful."

He doesn't believe abstinence proponents are really interested in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases: "They want to punish people who act, in their view, immorally. You got pregnant? It's because you behaved badly. You got an STD? You should've thought about that before you had sex. They want bad outcomes."

I asked Dixon about a May 6 article by Russell Shorto in The New York Times Magazine that created a national stir by exposing the religious right's efforts to restrict access to contraception. He said the threat is very real, and it's nothing new: "That's been pretty obvious around Washington for a while."

Fruit of the womb

Among the motives behind what Shorto called the "contra-contraception" campaign, a "pro-procreation" philosophy is not necessarily foremost; current attacks on birth control are as much about making political hay as making babies. But some Christian writers are giving top priority to what they see as the duty of believers to reproduce, early and often.

Nancy Campbell of Franklin, Tennessee, is author of the 2003 book "Be Fruitful and Multiply." Her title quotes Genesis 1:28, in which God gives Adam and Eve a bit of advice that many evangelical Christians interpret as a command to procreate energetically. In an article on her website aboverubies.org, Campbell lists "101 Reasons for Having Children." (No. 27 -- "It's just as easy to cook for ten as it is for one!")

Regarding religious groups' efforts to restrict contraception, she told me, "I would like to see contraception be made less available to young unmarried people. Contraception has actually caused more babies born out of wedlock than when young people had to say no to sex before marriage."

She also sees access to contraception within marriage as a negative influence: "It has caused more divorces and breakups. It gives easy access to adultery and therefore has reduced faithfulness in marriage."

It's not easy to find hard data on the impact of American religion on reproductive behavior where it counts most -- in the delivery room. Very recent research (pdf) at the University of Colorado found that Catholicism (which still forbids artificial contraception) had a positive association with fertility rates in some parts of the country, but a negligible or negative effect in others. Mainstream Protestantism was linked to higher fertility rates only in a few regions, whereas evangelical Protestantism had a "significant and positive" relationship with fertility "everywhere in the U.S."

Is Nancy Campbell encouraged that evangelicals are having more kids? "Yes, I think this is a positive trend. I think that Christian people, on the whole, are going to raise more God-fearing and honest citizens who will bless the nation."

Mark T. Coppenger, distinguished professor of Christian apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, doesn't want to do away with contraception, but he does believe in a divine mandate to procreate. Last year, Coppenger wrote an article entitled (what else?) "Be Fruitful and Multiply" in which he assured his readers, "We've got room. Don't let the fear of overcrowding discourage you. And even if things get tight with unbelieving families, we could always use more Christian parents raising Christian kids, should they be saved."

I asked Coppenger how far parents should go in their efforts to be fruitful. He leaves that up to the parents, sort of: "Following Genesis 1:28, I believe there is a prima facie duty to try to have children, but I believe each couple's number is a matter of personal calling, of vocation. This is not fancy talk for personal preference or convenience. Rather, the issue is what the Lord wants for them."

Congratulations -- it's a bouncing baby Republican!

With evangelicals seemingly more eager to have their sex bear fruit than are other Americans, and with religion and politics running more and more in parallel, it's not surprising to find conservatives gleefully claiming not only electoral dominance but also a reproductive edge over liberals. That has led to recent Democratic handwringing over an apparent liberal "baby bust" and the possibility that the party's platform is insufficiently "pro-family."

Jennifer Shawne has heard plenty about the alleged baby bust phenomenon since she published her book "Baby Not on Board: A Celebration of Life Without Kids" last year. Shawne, who lives in Oakland, California, told me it's not just religious conservatives who try to convince her of her duty to have children. "Some of my very liberal, nonbelieving friends tell me, 'You and your husband are liberal and well-educated, and you have good-paying jobs. You are the type of person who has an obligation to raise kids. Otherwise, there will be all kinds of societal problems.'"

Aside from the not-so-subtle prejudices implied by such arguments, Shawne points out the unsupported assumption that political and cultural attitudes are inherited traits. "The idea that people will turn out like their parents … it's so untrue, so silly."

Others have told Shawne that, without kids, her life's missing a dimension, that she's not a complete person until she has sacrificed for the sake of children. "Well," she says, "If I don't go live in Japan, my life's missing that dimension. That doesn't mean I should do it. And of course, if you do have kids, you give up a lot of other things."

As for more religious folks, Shawne says they need no longer be concerned about the command to be fruitful and multiply. "On that front, I think humanity can say, 'Mission Accomplished'! We all get a big pat on the back for that one."

Bigfoot spotted

Any biologist will tell you that a species that's too fruitful for too long will undercut its means of survival. How much bigger beyond 300 million people can this country grow without facing ecological ruination? I put that question to childbearing advocates Nancy Campbell and Mark Coppenger.

Campbell sees no problem. "God made this earth to be inhabited. I have traveled from one side of America to the other, as I am sure you have. You travel for miles and miles and miles of uninhabited land, drive through a city and back to uninhabited land. I think that the God who created this earth knows more than the environmentalists of our day."

And in Coppenger's opinion, "Three hundred million is not at all high. Even if you doubled that number, the U.S. population could still huddle on Nantucket Island, not that we would want to."

But how empty is all that land beyond Nantucket? In its 2005 update, the Oakland-based think tank Redefining Progress estimated that this nation's staggering level of consumption and waste generation requires a lot more than standing room for each person. The average American's "ecological footprint" -- the theoretical area required to supply everything a person consumes and to deal with the aftermath -- is 269 global acres, almost nine times the footprint of the average person in China and more than 22 times that of the average Indian or Pakistani.

According to their analysis, the ecological footprint of the United States as a nation is bigger than the combined footprints of China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Russia, which together are home to 3 billion people. So from the planet's point of view, the birth of a single American child has the potential impact of 10 births in those countries.

Jennifer Shawne believes that such statistics should be a consideration in deciding whether to reproduce: "Each child born in this country means further destruction of the planet. Now that argument doesn't really stick with people who are eager to have kids. But for others who are constantly being told by society that they are selfish for not wanting to have kids -- maybe it does help them."

And they're pushed in that direction by economic forces as well. History shows that the typical way a nation stabilizes its population is to raise its economic standard of living -- a process social scientists call the "demographic transition." The transition works partly because it takes so many more resources to raise a child in a rich country. The United States went through the transition, but it wasn't as effective here as in other industrialized nations, which have both lower resource consumption and lower birth rates than we do.

What would 400 million Americans look like?

In his 2002 book "The Death of the West," paleoconservative godfather Pat Buchanan argued that our nation's very existence is threatened by a one-two punch: insufficient enthusiasm for childbearing among native-born women and growing immigration from Mexico. In consummate Buchanan fashion, he denounced former President Bill Clinton and other "Western elites" who "don't seem to care if the end of the West comes by depopulation, by a surrender of nationhood, or by drowning in waves of Third World immigration."

Believing that the best defense is a good offense, Buchanan urged a return to large, patriarchal families (at least for people who look like him and his family) as a way of outstripping the immigrant population demographically and culturally.

However, another strain of anti-immigrant activism, motivated more by environmental concerns, sees overpopulation as the chief cross-border threat.

On the question of how many Americans there should be, no group goes further than Negative Population Growth (NPG), based in Arlington, Virginia. NPG's long-term goal is a U.S. population of 150 million -- half as many people as will reside here come October. Founded in 1972, NPG still advocates the two-child family and curtailment of resource consumption, but now spends most of its time and energy on immigration issues.

NPG Executive Vice President Craig Lewis is concerned that 300 million Americans will represent a much bigger environmental load than the same number of people almost anywhere else. But, he maintains, working for reproductive rights and smaller families without forceful action on immigration -- the strategy followed, for example, by Population Connection -- is doomed to fail.

"If not for immigration," he told me, "we already would have stabilized the U.S. population. Look at Italy and Ireland. Two Catholic countries that now have stable or declining populations. Our problem is immigration. It's easy for one person to bring in his sisters, brothers, parents. And immigrants have more children. Pretty quickly, one immigrant can really amount to 12."

Peter Brimelow, a financial journalist who lives in Washington, Connecticut, and runs the anti-immigration website vdare.com, also wants to see less population pressure within our borders.

He told me, "The environmental movement is generally thought to be liberal, but liberal environmentalists are apolitical for the most part. They just know that they like trees." He sees conservative environmentalists as hard-headed realists who, since President Theodore Roosevelt, have worked successfully to preserve lands in their natural state.

"It's simple: Do you like unspoiled land, or do you want to pave it over? To avoid paving it, I would like to see the population stabilize." Instead, he says, the government is encouraging growth through immigration: "We're carrying out a social engineering experiment on an unprecedented scale. And there's not even an economic rationale for it. Immigrants are mostly unskilled, and they have unskilled children."

Brimelow's plan of action is extreme: no net immigration into the United States for 15 years. What he calls "family unification chains" -- the ability of immigrants to be joined by family members -- should be broken. And the U.S.-Mexican border should be sealed.

How would sealing of the border be accomplished? "It would be easy to build a 2,500-mile fence. The Israelis say their fence is working very well. It's just a question of will."

The wall Israel is building on occupied Palestinian land may be "working" in the most narrow sense of deterring cross-border movement. But the broader consequences for a country that withdraws into that kind of isolation seem clear. In taking such extreme measures to protect our natural landscapes, we risk crippling our social and psychic landscapes.

Are Brimelow, Lewis, Buchanan and the rest of the anti-immigration movement aiming to preserve America's great traditions only by embalming them? Can we find ways of viewing immigration that lead to a less cruel course of action?

Don't blame us

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of the left political journal Monthly Review and former professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. When I asked him whether the United States is threatened by under- or over-population, either within or outside our borders, he insisted that it's wrong to blame a nation's problems on people because they're poor or immigrant, or have what are seen as too many kids: "People are poor and nations are poor not because they have too many people. Rather, the reverse is true."

Most anti-immigration activists are highly critical of U.S. businesses that take advantage of a swollen labor pool to exploit workers. But their bombast about "drowning in waves of immigration," says Yates, only draws attention away from the fundamental problem, which is economic. Companies, he says, structure themselves to make workers as interchangeable as possible. As a result, they "continuously throw onto and draw into the market a pool of surplus labor, and this surplus puts downward pressure on the wages of those still employed."

When the native population isn't producing enough people willing to work for the wages being offered, companies look beyond their national borders for a bigger pool of people. And, says Yates, "Any competition for jobs between native and immigrant labor can be exploited by many different actors. All sorts of bogus arguments can be made, as we see here now. The goal is to make natives see the immigrants as the cause of native problems. What is really going on is capitalism operating normally. Employers gain. Native workers lose. Immigrants lose too. Both groups lose because they are not united."

How soon the United States adds another 10 million or 50 million or 100 million to its population, and who those new Americans will be, is clearly an open question. The religious beliefs, political maneuvering, racial and ethnic struggles, economic realities, and ecological limits that will come together to shape the U.S. population curve in this century are probably enough to thwart even the most sophisticated demographic models.

And if it's hard to predict how many of us there will be, it's even tougher to know who we'll be. I'll leave the last word on that to non-breeder Jennifer Shawne. She told me, "This culture, like all cultures, is constantly evolving. I'm more interested in seeing how it changes in the future than in preserving it as it is or was. Trying to freeze any culture in time is futile anyway -- even dangerous."

How the Drug Companies Want Us to Be Sick

You see a TV show or a commercial featuring medical problems, and you start feeling the symptoms yourself: a twinge in the leg or maybe a moment of doubt about your emotional stability.

If so, you, like millions of Americans, could be suffering from a serious condition known as telechondria. But help is here, with new Advertil(R) in the green-and-yellow caplet. Ask your doctor …

No, wait, don't really ask. Telechondriacs have not yet been recognized by science. Pharmacists are not dispensing drugs like "Advertil," and they probably never will. The last chemical that pharmaceutical executives would want to sell you is one that makes it harder for them to convince you that you're sick and need their products.

Drug corporations and their "awareness" groups, as we're all painfully aware, have defined and redefined a host of medical conditions -- including female sexual dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, restless legs, sleeplessness, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, social anxiety disorder and irritable bowel syndrome -- to include larger and larger segments of the population in the United States and other Western nations.

Accepting for a moment the industry's claims about the numbers of people suffering from the eight diseases listed above, we could do some simple calculations showing that up to 93 percent of adult women and men in the United States suffer from at least one of them. Throw in a few more conditions like depression, bone density loss and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and industry figures make it appear that virtually every American has a disease in need of a treatment.

Last year, Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels called attention to the epidemic of disease marketing in their book "Selling Sickness." Last month, health professionals, academics, journalists and consumers gathered in Newcastle, Australia, for the Inaugural Conference on Disease Mongering. A set of papers from that meeting was published free by the online journal PLoS Medicine. Also last month, the Prescription Access Litigation Project (PALP) in Boston announced its "2006 Bitter Pill Awards," recognizing drug companies that engaged in the year's worst "overzealous and questionable marketing practices."

These and other recent activities make it all too clear that the profitable practices exposed in Lynn Payer's 1992 book "Disease Mongers: How Doctors, Drug Companies, and Insurers Are Making You Feel Sick" have been refined and amplified in recent years, with the apparent goal of medicating an entire population.

Unruly body parts

The evolution of "restless legs syndrome," documented by Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz in a paper from the Disease Mongering Conference, is a case study in how a pharmaceutical company, with help from the media, can turn what is a serious problem for some people into a contrived medical condition for millions more.

Woloshin and Schwartz analyzed media coverage in the interval between 2003, when GlaxoSmithKline Inc. first issued press releases about trials of its drug Requip for relief of restless legs syndrome, and 2005, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved that use.

Of 187 major newspaper articles published during those two years, 64 percent relayed without comment the industry's claims that millions of Americans -- as many as "1 in 10 adults" -- suffer restless leg. Forty-five percent of the articles stressed that many people may be unaware they're sick, even though, according to 73 percent of the articles, the syndrome can have extreme physical, social and emotional consequences. Reports of the relief provided by drug treatment used "miracle language" 34 percent of the time, while 93 percent of articles failed to quantify Requip's side effects.

Yet the relief people get from Requip appears to be anything but miraculous. In one trial, 73 percent of subjects saw improvement -- compared with 57 percent whose symptoms improved with a placebo! Side effects that occurred in clinical trials at least twice as often with Requip as with a placebo included nausea (40 percent of subjects), vomiting (11 percent), somnolence (12 percent), dizziness (11 percent) and fatigue (8 percent).

My attempts to obtain responses from several drug companies to charges of mongering restless leg and other conditions went unanswered. Quoted last month by the Guardian (U.K.) as he defended his company against bad publicity generated by the conference, David Stout of GlaxoSmithKline said, "You need to talk to the patients. Things like restless leg syndrome can ruin people's lives. It is easy to trivialize things when you don't have them. If people did not want the treatments, they would not seek them."

Restless leg syndrome in its most serious form is indeed no joke. My father was tormented for years by near-constant symptoms, until, without ever having seen an advertisement, he sought treatment.

But, says Dr. David Henry, who is a physician, professor at the University of Newcastle and co-organizer of the Disease Mongering conference, "When you extend a drug beyond the [most severely afflicted] group on which claims of its effectiveness are based, you see a falling ratio of good to harm. The benefits of the drug diminish, while the side effects tend to stay the same."

Henry told me, "The companies know quite consciously that they're going into areas where they're doing net harm."

In their conference paper, Woloshin and Schwartz note that restless legs syndrome is one of those "disease promotion stories" that the press loves to cover: "The stories are full of drama: a huge but unrecognized public health crisis, compelling personal anecdotes, uncaring or ignorant doctors, and miracle cures."

Irritable everything syndrome

The story of another disease, irritable bowel syndrome, has all of those dramatic elements, plus dead patients.

In "Selling Sickness," Moynihan and Cassels describe public-relations offensives by Novartis Pharmaceuticals and GlaxoSmithKline to popularize a condition called irritable bowel syndrome (symptoms of which are described as "abdominal pain or discomfort associated with changes in bowel habits in the absence of any apparent structural abnormality").

The companies stood to gain billions in sales if, as they claimed, as many as 20 percent of Americans had the syndrome. GlaxoSmithKline's drug Lotronex received FDA approval for treatment of irritable bowel in 2000, and Novartis' Zelnorm was approved in 2002. In statements to the FDA and the public, the companies tended to characterize irritable bowel syndrome as it is experienced by the worst-afflicted patients -- a tiny percentage of the total -- while emphasizing claims that the syndrome hits vast numbers of Americans.

TV star Kelsey Grammer and his wife Camille Grammer, who suffers from the disease, made the rounds of talk shows in a publicity effort quietly funded by GlaxoSmithKline, while Novartis deployed former Wonder Woman Lynda Carter to stress that common stomach problems might be irritable bowel, a "real medical condition." The FDA wrote to Novartis in 2003, demanding that the company discontinue other advertising that it considered misleading because it exaggerated the drug's benefits and the numbers of people who need it while minimizing its side effects.

Lotronex can now be prescribed only by doctors who have enrolled in a GlaxoSmithKline "Prescribing Program." According to Moynihan and Cassels, the drug came under fire in late 2000 when three FDA scientists wrote to their superiors expressing alarm over a rising toll of deaths and hospitalizations of irritable-bowel patients during the nine months that Lotronex had been on the market. (The concern was spurred by the remarkably increased rates; the deaths had not been shown in a clinical trial to have been caused by Lotronex.)

"Selling Sickness" contains this frightening description of one side effect: "For some of those who experienced severe constipation after taking the drug, their feces would become so impacted within their bowel that the bowel wall perforated, leading to potentially fatal infections inside the body."

Head games

A conference paper by David Healy traced the expanding definition of bipolar disorder over the past quarter century. The disease officially entered the manual of mental disorders in 1980, and based on its original diagnostic criteria -- which included an episode of hospitalization -- bipolar disorder is a devastating disease for 0.1 percent of the U.S. population. Over time, it has been broadened with additional criteria based on community surveys, so that the disease once known as "manic depression" is now said to affect 5 percent or more of Americans.

According to Healy, there is "almost no evidence" that drug treatment works for that much broader group of "community-based" disorders. Yet manufacturers like Eli Lilly and Co. and Janssen L.P. have heavily promoted pharmaceutical treatment of bipolar, as broadly defined, through websites, patient literature and new scientific journals devoted to the disease.

Evidence is accumulating that one drug prescribed for bipolar disorder (Lilly's Zyprexa) causes withdrawal symptoms, that patients on drugs for bipolar tend to be hospitalized more often than those who are not, that the drugs are associated with a heightened risk of suicide and that antipsychotic drugs in general are associated with increased death rates.

Despite such problems, says Healy, there is a recent "surge of diagnoses of bipolar disorder in American children." He cites one book that actually appears to accept the possibility that bipolar disorder may first show up in hyperactive fetuses.

The drug industry has thoroughly penetrated the juvenile market for another well-known disease, attention deficit disorder (ADD, also called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD). The numbers of prescriptions to be written are huge; the National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that there's an average of at least one afflicted child per typical-size classroom. But people spend many more years as adults than as children, and stiff competition among the major ADD drugmakers -- among them Shire PLC, Novartis and Lilly -- guaranteed that the larger pool of potential adult patients would be targeted.

All three companies contribute or have contributed funds to the organization Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), which calls ADD "a lifespan disorder, affecting children, adolescents and adults." In "Selling Sickness," Moynihan and Cassels describe a talk by a Shire executive at a CHADD charity golf event, in which he estimated that 8 million U.S. adults could benefit from treatment. CHADD gets about 20 percent of its funding from drug firms, and its website provides detailed advice on medication for ADD. One example:

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Infected Planet

When Michael Crichton's first novel, "The Andromeda Strain," was published in 1969, it was scary but also strangely reassuring. If some new disease were to threaten humanity with a deadly pandemic, it seemed, the microbe responsible would come from another planet. The march of medical progress appeared to have terrestrial germs on the run.

Twenty-five years later, when Laurie Garrett published her nonfiction bestseller, "The Coming Plague," people were waking up to the fact that our own abused planet is perfectly capable of spawning a steady stream of new diseases without any help from alien worlds.

Today, old familiar scourges like tuberculosis, malaria, measles, and diarrhea -- and a newer one, AIDS -- are the world's biggest killers, but they've been joined by a host of newcomers. Indeed, one could get the impression that each year brings a new disease. That's because it does.

Mark Woolhouse, chair of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, has counted 38 new pathogens (disease-causing biological agents) that have moved into the human population from other animal species in just the past 25 years. In a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last month, Woolhouse noted that we're under assault not only from those novel species, but also from new genetic variants of pathogens that have been with us for a long time.

A recent tally identified 1,415 disease-causing microbes in humans, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasitic worms. We share fully 61 percent of those pathogens with other animal species. Of the total, 175 cause "emerging diseases" -- ones not known until recently in humans. Of those, 75 percent came out of other animals to invade Homo sapiens.

The impact of species-jumping pathogens varies. Hendra virus moved from fruit bats to horses in 1994 and is known to have killed a total of only three people. Since the 1970s, the Ebola virus has incited some horrifying outbreaks that, so far, have failed to blow up into epidemics. Influenza viruses usually cause a lower mortality rate but hit far more people; currently, an H5N1 "bird flu" strain threatens to break that pattern by staging an encore of the 1918-19 killer flu pandemic that killed 50 million to 100 million people. HIV/AIDS is both chronically widespread and deadly, now accounting for almost a fourth of infectious disease deaths.

But have "emerging" species-jumping diseases actually been with us for millenia, identified only when medical research achieves sufficient precision in detecting and identifying microbes? Durland Fish, professor at the Yale School of Public Health, says that better research is part of it, but there still appears to be a faster rate of disease appearance these days. He told me, "Dr. Woolhouse makes an interesting point: that 'emerging disease' is a new concept but a very old process. Humans have always acquired new diseases." We're being hit more frequently today than in previous eras, he says, partly because "transportation, trade, human population growth, and environmental change are going on at unprecedented rates."

They don't show up uninvited

Scientists have seen associations between human activites, which have burgeoned in the past quarter century, and diseases that gained prominence during those same years. Some examples:

The chances of the potentially catastrophic flu virus H5N1, and others like it, emerging from interaction between wild birds, domestic animals and people may have been enhanced by loss of natural wetlands in southern China. That has led infected migratory birds to alight more often on farms and other populated areas. There, they come into contact with denser populations of chickens, ducks and pigs destined to satisfy an increasing rate of animal-protein consumption per person.

Ticks transfer the bacterium that causes Lyme disease from infected mice and deer to people. First described in New England in the 1970s, Lyme disease is now a chronic problem in parts of the United States. Reforestation in eastern states, but by a less diverse ecosystem than the one that was destroyed during original white settlement two to three centuries ago, has brought large populations of deer, mice and ticks into much closer contact with suburb-dwelling humans.

Mad cow disease is believed to have resulted from the ecologically suspect practice of feeding processed livestock remains to naturally vegetarian cattle. Scary little protein fragments called prions that appear to be responsible for the disease are not destroyed when meat is cooked. They can and do strike humans, causing the debilitating and inevitably fatal condition known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Perhaps the biggest threat from new genetic strains of old, familiar pathogens is the onslaught of bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics. Livestock are now a widely recognized source of drug-resistant strains of salmonella, E. coli and other bacteria. Heavy feeding of antibiotics to cattle, swine and poultry (often even when they're not sick) in the overcrowded, filthy conditions of gigantic feedlots, animal-confinement facilities and meat-packing plants provide ideal incubators for bacteria resistant to the drugs. Meat coming out of such ecological horror houses can contain animal feces bearing the newly evolved "superbugs." Of 10 organisms listed by the U.S. Public Health Service as the most serious threats in this country, seven are carried by meat and dairy products.

The most catastrophic of the recent emerging diseases so far has been AIDS. The route by which HIV jumped to humans is still a matter of speculation, but encroachment into forests and the resulting increased contact with other primate species is widely believed to have been involved.

Destruction of forest habitat in Asia has driven several species of fruit bats infected with Nipah virus into increasing contact with pigs and humans, and both are susceptible. Nipah is an especially nasty virus, causing severe headache, fever, nausea and seizures. In seven outbreaks since 1999, in Malaysia, India and Bangladesh, it has killed one-third to three-fourths of its victims. A series of Bangladesh cases in 2004 indicated possible human-to-human transmission -- an ominous sign.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in Guangdong province of China in 2002-03, the virus that causes it was also found in palm civets. Soon, the small wild mammals -- a traditional food in the province -- were being targeted for killing by the thousands. Some scientists decried the slaughter as unnecessary ecological disruption. Now it appears that bats, not civets, are the reservoir for the virus. And experts are saying that bat extermination programs would be no more effective than civet killing as a way to curb SARS, Nipah or other bat-harbored diseases.

When people in the American Midwest began falling ill in 2003 with monkeypox (a disease similar to human smallpox), investigators quickly discovered that all of the victims had been in contact with that beloved North American native, the prairie dog. The pox virus had entered the country in infected African rodents legally imported by pet stores, where they had passed it on to the highly susceptible prairie dogs.

Since its first detection in the United States -- in New York in 1999 -- West Nile virus has become an annual threat in many U.S. regions. The virus kills 5 percent to 15 percent of those infected, and more than one-third of elderly patients who are infected die from it. It's known to infect more than 200 species of birds, but unlike bird flu, it doesn't depend primarily on migratory fowl to get around. It's passed to humans by mosquitoes, and many human activities make mosquito populations more mobile. For example, the Asian Tiger mosquito, one of at least 43 species known to carry West Nile, has been reaching U.S. ports since the 1980s in water that collects in used tires imported from Asia. However, it is still not known how the virus first reached this country. (One also wonders why we're importing used tires.)

You play, you pay

Modern human plagues aren't a result of mysterious forces. It's not, as Kurt Vonnegut has put it, that "the Earth's immune system is trying to get rid of us." Diseases have concrete, often mundane causes. The necessary species and genetic variants are everywhere, and whether we mean to or not, we're relentlessly seeking them out and inviting them to do their worst.

To cause human disease, a pathogen first has to come into contact with people. As with bird flu, Nipah and lyme disease, environmental disruptions like habitat destruction or distorted reforestation serve that purpose well. Or, as with monkeypox and SARS, the exotic-pet or exotic-food industries can introduce pathogens to their new home.

However, every new disease-of-the-year doesn't blow up to the catastrophic scale of HIV, which was first recognized two decades ago and is now estimated to be killing almost three million people a year. The impact of most new diseases is ghastly for victims but very small for humanity as a whole. How do a few microbial species go on to cause widespread illness and death, while others don't?

Like any organism entering a new environment, the microbe population either must have within it some genetic variants that are somewhat well-adapted to their new human host, or, once in the host, it has to throw up new, better-adapted forms quickly through mutation or by scavenging genetic material from other strains or species. That's probably why a large proportion of new human diseases are RNA viruses, which mutate and scavenge more readily than DNA viruses, bacteria or other pathogens.

Chance mutations that improve an organism's ability to thrive are extremely rare, even among viruses. This year, the world is watching and waiting to find out if the H5N1 bird-flu strain is capable of producing mutants that can spread directly from person to person. Two years ago, we were wondering if SARS would beat the odds and go global. But it's not all up to the pathogen; as its hosts, we help determine its success.

Given enough opportunities, even highly improbable events have a way of eventually happening. Twenty-first-century humanity does everything in a big way, and much of what we do gives microbes the multiple chances they need to make the improbable unavoidable. Rare, better-adapted genetic combinations may not succeed in the first or fifth or 50th person they've infected -- but give them enough opportunities, and they'll be off and running.

In a 2005 paper published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Mark Woolhouse and two colleagues described the mathematical hurdles a species-jumping germ must clear before it can sort out or produce the necessary mutants, spread through a population and cause an epidemic. The lucky pathogen that finds itself in a human body gets a boost over those hurdles, because of the sheer scale of civilization.

When people crowd into high-density cities, sprawling slums and hospitals; consume insufficient or bad food and polluted water; travel widely and often; ship vast quantities of products worldwide; make sex an industry; damage their immune systems by disease, chemotherapy, transplant-facilitating drugs or environmental toxins; or are plunged into the chaos of war, the pathogen has a much bigger field of play.

Some efforts to economize through greater resource efficiency can give pathogens the boost they need. In "The Coming Plague," Laurie Garrett noted that in the 1980s, airlines began saving fuel by drastically cutting the rate of cabin air turnover, and that large numbers of people now live and work in "energy efficient settings" that also restrict outside air flow. Groups of people repeatedly rebreathing the same air have a better chance of getting sick.

Some pathogens, like West Nile virus, don't have to work out a genetic system for direct person-to-person transmission because they've evolved to be transferred by mosquitoes or other vectors. And any ecological disruption that creates favorable conditions for disease-carrying species of insects or ticks favors the disease as well.

It's not surprising that descriptions of humanity's attempts to fight off microbial assaults often involve military imagery. In his 2001 book, "War and Nature," Edmund Russell describes how malaria-laden mosquitoes were often equated with America's Japanese enemies in World War II-era propaganda, while pesticides used to fight the insects had originated in the chemical weapons industry. Our war with mosquitoes has produced no winner. Despite the vast quantities of insecticides sprayed in the years since, malaria still kills 1.2 million people a year.

And then there's global warming, the grandaddy of all ecological threats. What effect will it have on human disease? Many predictions are dire, because warmer conditions have the general effect of increasing biological activity. There is concern, for example, that tropical insect species will bring pathogens into now-temperate regions.

Yale's Durland Fish downplays the specter of pestilence: "We don't have a lot of convincing evidence that global warming will result in epidemics. So far, health alone is not a sufficient reason to reduce CO2."

The overall forecast may indeed be cloudy, but for specific diseases there is very good evidence that more people would fall sick in a hotter world. Outbreaks of cholera in Asia and Latin America have been shown to happen when coastal ocean temperatures rise, as they do during El Niño events. Cholera bacteria lying dormant in the bodies of microscopic marine animals called copepods are stimulated by the warmer temperatures to become active, multiply rapidly and cause local outbreaks.

Heading off future pandemics

The modern better-living-through-chemistry approach is unlikely to do us much good in the face of new pathogens or new, more virulent forms of old ones. Especially against viruses, existing drugs are rarely very effective, and pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to make the huge investment of time and money to develop new drugs until a new disease is already a widespread problem.

As Laurie Garrett explained last year in a comprehensive review of the bird flu threat, we should not expect companies to develop an effective vaccine in time. For one thing, vaccines are much less profitable and more risky than are drugs. In a more recent piece, Garrett argued for a public-health approach that involves monitoring wild bird and virus movements and protecting domestic fowl when the virus is expected to hit a particular area. She even called on the world's bird watchers to help in the effort.

As long as our species continues making the planet a friendlier place for microbes that can infect us, we'll never see the end of potential public-health emergencies. When I asked Durland Fish if he was placing bets for or against a bird flu pandemic, he wouldn't venture any guesses; rather, he made this prediction: "Sooner or later, whether it's H5N1 or another strain, a pandemic is inevitable -- like an earthquake in California."

When new diseases show up, we have no choice but to deal with them. But in the meantime, we need to reverse the ecological damage that makes us increasingly vulnerable. Doing that would also help reduce the already huge and largely unnecessary death toll from existing infectious diseases. That toll currently stands at about 12 million per year worldwide, chiefly in the most severely impoverished parts of the planet. The World Health Organization weighed in late last year with its contribution to the global Millenium Ecosystem Assessment project. In a summary of its report, WHO saw people's health as closely tied to the health of the planet:

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Fowl Play In the Slaughterhouse

In my hometown of Gainesville, Ga., there's a statue of a broiler hen, a monument to one of the longtime mainstays of the region's economy. Today I live in Kansas, where beef is king and bovine statuary is common. And over in the Corn Belt, the winner of the annual football game between the universities of Iowa and Minnesota takes home a big bronze hog representing both states' favorite farm animal.

Public art honors these doomed objects of our affection for their contribution to the American diet and economy. Recent years have also brought growing awareness of the often-cruel conditions under which they are raised and slaughtered.

But as far as I know, there are no monuments to the workers who kill and process cattle, hogs, chickens or other livestock. And in one of the nation's most grueling and dangerous industries, laws meant to protect those workers are often inadequate and getting worse.

Foreseeable and preventable

In its January 2005 report, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants, the organization Human Rights Watch amassed a mountain of data and personal testimony demonstrating that everyday conditions in plants from North Carolina to Nebraska to Arkansas violate a host of international human-rights standards.

The report concludes that the risk of injury in the beef, swine and poultry industries is "constant, foreseeable and preventable."

One of the most common problems is repetitive-motion injury. A 2002 Fortune magazine article reported that while the overall injury rate in poultry plants was more than double the average for private industries, "poultry workers are 14 times more likely to suffer debilitating injuries stemming from repetitive trauma."

Look through the Human Rights Watch report or Eric Schlosser's 2001 bestseller, "Fast Food Nation," and read the ghastly stories of workers' lives in any of the meat-processing industries. Then pick one of the jobs they describe, a single task, and try to imagine repeating it all day long, as quickly as you can.

Better yet, take two 5-pound weights, hang them on hooks above your head, pull them down, and then repeat the cycle maybe 15,000 times in an 8- to 12-hour day. Be sure to do this in the dampest possible conditions, with the temperature either above 90 or below 50 degrees. Imagine that the weights are panicky live animals with beaks and claws. If you need a break, you might try cutting half-frozen chickens apart with dull scissors for a while.

If your hands, wrists or back don't ache the next morning, repeat the process five or six days per week until they do. Don't worry -- they will.

Repetitive-motion injuries are commonplace throughout the slaughtering and processing industries, but they are epidemic in poultry work. Very large numbers of the relatively small animals pass through a plant each hour, requiring workers to repeat their actions more often than in beef or pork plants.

On a recent visit to Gainesville, home of the chicken monument, I asked Dr. Nabil Muhanna, a local neurosurgeon, about one of the poultry industry's most common repetitive-motion problems, carpal-tunnel syndrome. He pointed to his own wrist to show me where the median nerve passes between the bones of the wrist on one side and the transverse carpal ligament on the other. That is, he said, how the nerve is naturally "packaged."

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