Is Ukraine’s Opposition a Democratic Movement or a Force of Right-Wing Extremism?


  News & Politics  





A debate on whether the rush to back Ukraine’s opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin obscures a more complex reality beneath the surface.


Photo Credit:’J




Ukrainian anti-government protesters have rejected an amnesty bill aimed at ending the country’s political unrest, refusing to vacate occupied government buildings and dismantle their street blockades in exchange for the release of jailed activists. The demonstrations in the Ukraine are collectively referred to as “Euromaidan.” They began in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed his decision to sign a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union to forge stronger ties with Russia instead. While the Ukrainian opposition has been hailed in the West as a democratic, grassroots movement, we host a debate on whether the rush to back opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin obscures a more complex reality beneath the surface. We are joined by two guests: Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University; and Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian citizen and University College London researcher who has just returned from observing the protests in Kiev.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

Amy Goodman: We turn now to Ukraine, where thousands of anti-government demonstrators have constructed what amounts to a self-sufficient protest city within the capital, Kiev. The standoff prompted the country’s prime minister to resign on Tuesday. Its parliament has agreed to repeal a round of laws that cracked down on dissent. On Wednesday, lawmakers offered an amnesty to protesters who have been arrested during the standoff, but only on the condition that activists vacate buildings they’ve occupied in Kiev and other parts of Ukraine. This is the speaker of the Parliament, Volodymyr Rybak.

Volodymr Rybak: [Translated] Let me remind you that yesterday we have approved the bill number 4007 about the law of Ukraine that ceased to be in force. We have also agreed to discuss today the questions related to the “removal of the negative consequences and non-admission pursuit” and punishment of persons in relation to the events, which took place during peaceful rallies. So, I come up with a proposition to vote on legislation without discussion. I ask people’s deputies to vote.

AG: The government’s amnesty offer was an attempt to get people to remove their barricades and tents from the main protest zone in Kiev. But so far, demonstrators have vowed to continue their occupation.

Stepan: [Translated] If the authorities had shown honesty, according to the mandate they were given, we would trust them. But now they have compromised the guarantees. We have no trust in these authorities. We have doubts in their honesty and decency, and that’s why it’s risky. So we are not leaving. That’s for sure.

Vasil: [Translated] People came here so that all of them would be gone, so that the president would be gone and the government would be gone. We need full change. We cannot go on like this.

AG: The demonstrations in Ukraine are collectively referred to as “Euromaidan.” They began in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed his decision to sign a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union in a move that favored stronger ties with Russia instead. The protests rapidly grew in size after a violent police crackdown. While nationalists led the demonstrations at first, others have since joined the movement. At least five protesters have been killed in clashes with police; hundreds have been injured. Police have also attacked dozens of journalists, destroyed their equipment. As tensions continued to increase on Wednesday, Ukraine’s first post-independence president, Leonid Kravchuk, emphasized the seriousness of the crisis.

Leonid Kravchuk: [Translated] The situation is, frankly, very dramatic. All the world acknowledges, and Ukraine acknowledges, that the state is on the brink of civil war. There are parallel authorities in the country, and there is a de facto uprising. When the power is taken over, which is a real fact, when the power is falling down and the constitutional authorities refuse to honor their responsibilities, it becomes clear that this is a fall of the power. This is simply a revolution.

AG: For more, we’re joined by two guests.

Here in New York, Stephen Cohen is with us, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His most recent book, “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War,” is now out in paperback. He recently wrote “A Letter to ‘The New York Times'” that was critical of its editorial on Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in the country.

Joining us from London, Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian citizen who just got back earlier this month from observing the protests in Kiev. He’s a researcher at the University College London specializing in studying the far right. He recently wrote a piece titled “What the West Should Know About the Euromaidan’s Far Right Element.”

Anton Shekhovtsov, Stephen Cohen, welcome both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Anton in London. What should people understand?

Anton Shekhovtsov: Well, first of all, thank you for the invitation to Democracy Now!

I wrote the piece to highlight a very dangerous trend, in my opinion, is that many people in the West buy into Russian propaganda which is saying that Euromaidan is infiltrated by the neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. And this is completely untrue. There is a far-right element in the Euromaidan protests, but it is a minor element. And Euromaidan protest is basically a multicultural, democratic movement which is trying to build a new Ukraine, a democratic Ukraine. And sometimes, by the name “far right,” there goes Ukrainian nationalism, and Ukrainian nationalism has — its main thrust is building of a truly independent Ukraine, a Ukraine which would be a national democratic state and not a colony of Russia, as Ukrainian nationalists think Ukraine is.

So the move towards Europe is a move towards democracy and away from the authoritarianism of Russia and its projected Eurasian union, which would unite several authoritarian states, like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. So Ukrainians do not want this. They want to be away from authoritarianism, and they struggle for democracy now in Ukraine. So, basically, Ukraine is now a front line of democratic Europe. And they’re not — Ukrainians are not only fighting for their own freedom, but they are fighting to stop authoritarianism to spread westwards.

AG: Stephen Cohen, what is your take on what’s happening in Ukraine right now?

Stephen Cohen: Well, it’s not what Anton said. Where to begin? Can we begin at the beginning? What’s happening in Ukraine, what’s been unfolding since November in the streets, is probably the single most important international story underway today. It may impact for a very long time the geopolitics of Europe, Russia, American-Russian relations, and a lot more. At the same time, media coverage of this story, particularly in the United States, has been exceedingly misleading, very close to what Anton just told you. I would characterize Anton’s characterization, to be as polite as I can, as half-true. But a half-truth is an untruth.

The realities are, there is no “the Ukraine.” All this talk about Ukraine is on the front line of democracy — there are at least two Ukraines. One tilts toward Poland and Lithuania, the West, the European Union; the other toward Russia. This is not my notion. This is what every public opinion poll has told us since this crisis unfolded, that about 40 percent of Ukrainians want to go west, 40 percent want to stay with Russia, and, as usually true in these polls, 20 percent just don’t know or they’re not sure.

Who precipitated this crisis? It was the European Union, in this sense. It gave the Ukrainian government, which, by the way, is a democratically elected government — if you overthrow this government, just like they overthrew Morsi in Egypt, you’re dealing a serious blow to democracy. So if the crowd manages to essentially carry out a coup d’état from the streets, that’s what democracy is not about. But here’s what the European Union did back in November. It told the government of Ukraine, “If you want to sign an economic relationship with us, you cannot sign one with Russia.” Why not? Putin has said, “Why don’t the three of us have an arrangement? We’ll help Ukraine. The West will help Ukraine.” The chancellor of Germany, Merkel, at first thought that was a good idea, but she backed down for various political reasons. So, essentially, Ukraine was given an ultimatum: sign the E.U. economic agreement or else.

Now, what was that agreement? It would have been an economic catastrophe for Ukraine. I’m not talking about the intellectuals or the people who are well placed, about ordinary Ukrainians. The Ukrainian economy is on the brink of a meltdown. It needed billions of dollars. What did the European Union offer them? The same austerity policies that are ravaging Europe, and nothing more — $600 million. It needed billions and billions.

There’s one other thing. If you read the protocols of the European offer to Ukraine, which has been interpreted in the West as just about civilizational change, escaping Russia, economics, democracy, there is a big clause on military cooperation. In effect, by signing this, Ukraine would have had to abide by NATO’s military policies. What would that mean? That would mean drawing a new Cold War line, which used to be in Berlin, right through the heart of Slavic civilization, on Russia’s borders. So that’s where we’re at to now.

One other point: These right-wing people, whom Anton thinks are not significant, all reports — and I don’t know when he was in Ukraine, maybe it was long ago and things have gone — but the reports that are coming out of Ukraine are the following. One, the moderates — that’s the former heavyweight champion boxer, Vitali Klitschko, and others — have lost control of the street. They’ve asked the people who have been attacking the police with Molotov cocktails, and to vacate the buildings they’ve occupied, to stop. And the street will not stop, partly because — I’d say largely because — the street in Kiev is now controlled by these right-wing extremists. And that extremism has spread to western Ukraine, where these people are occupying government buildings. So, in fact, you have a political civil war underway.

What is the face of these people, this right wing? A, they hate Europe as much as they hate Russia. Their official statement is: Europe is homosexuals, Jews and the decay of the Ukrainian state. They want nothing to do with Europe. They want nothing to do with Russia. I’m talking about this — it’s not a fringe, but this very right-wing thing. What does their political activity include? It includes writing on buildings in western Ukraine, “Jews live here.” That’s exactly what the Nazis wrote on the homes of Jews when they occupied Ukraine. A priest who represents part of the political movement in western Ukraine — Putin quoted this, but it doesn’t make it false. It doesn’t make it false; it’s been verified. A western Ukrainian priest said, “We, Ukraine, will not be governed by Negroes, Jews or Russians.” So, these people have now come to the fore.

The first victims of any revolution — I don’t know if this is a revolution, but the first victims of any revolution are the moderates. And the moderates have lost control of what they created, helped by the European Union and the American government back in November. And so, now anything is possible, including two Ukraines.

AG: Anton Shekhovtsov, can you respond to Professor Stephen Cohen?

AS: Yes. So, this is basically what I said, as I called as a distortion in the Western media. I don’t know if Professor Cohen have been in Ukraine. I’ve been to Ukraine just a few days ago. I haven’t seen that the right-wingers have taken control of the streets. The streets are controlled by Euromaidan, which is ideologically very different. There is a right-wing element, but this is the element which is only a minor component of Euromaidan. And if you remember the Solidarity movement in the ’80s in Poland, it also comprised some right-wing elements, but in the end they built a democratic national — national democratic Poland.

As for the neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in western Ukraine, there are some, but at the same time, if you talk to them, if you interview them, and if you read their demands, you will not find any discrimination laws among their demands. What they demand is the national democratic state, independent from Russia. Even if they say that they are against the European Union, they at the same time support the pro-European protests. And this is partly what Euromaidan is about.

And then, again, there are many false reports about the beatings of representatives of national minorities in Ukraine. And mostly these reports are all false. They are being spread by Russian-backed propagandists, like Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the pro-Eurasian, pro-Russian party, Ukrainski Vybir, Ukrainian Choice. So, these people, they’re trying to distort the image of Euromaidan and picture it as something very violent, as something very right-wing, although the right-wing element, as I said, is a minor element at Euromaidan.

AG: Professor Richard Cohen —

SC: Stephen.

AG: Professor Stephen Cohen —

SC: Richard Cohen writes for The Washington Post. We are completely different people.

AG: But he’s not a professor, so —

SC: No, we’re still different people.

AG: Stephen.

SC: Yeah, thank you, Amy.

AG: Can you respond to what he’s saying? And also talk about how people are informed here, largely through the media, the media coverage of what’s happening in Ukraine.

SC: I’ve already responded to what Anton has said. To me, it’s a fundamental misrepresentation, and it raises questions in my mind, though he’s entitled to his political allegiances, who he represents in Ukraine. He is clear where he stands. But even the American media, which deleted this right-wing element for two months, now has gotten worried about it. There was an article in Time magazine, I think the day before yesterday. I think, because I saw it on the Internet, but today’s New York Times, January 30th New York Times editorial, is now worried about these people. So, Anton is not worried about them, for his own reasons, but the plain reality is that the so-called moderates, who are democratic, have lost control of the situation.

And here’s the evidence. The moderate leaders, including Klitschko, the boxer, who wants to be president of Ukraine, entered into a negotiation with Yanukovych, the democratically elected president of Ukraine. And what did he offer them? He offered them a coalition government, which is a traditional democratic solution to such a crisis. He said, “We will give Klitschko and the other Ukrainian democratic leader the prime ministership and the deputy prime ministership.” That’s a colossal concession. It’s power sharing. That’s what you do in a crisis. They didn’t accept. Now, they didn’t accept for several reasons.

AG: The protesters didn’t accept.

SC: No, wait a minute. Klitschko and the other democratic leader didn’t accept. One reason, the main reason, is the street wouldn’t accept it. And since both of these guys want to be president, when there’s elections in 2015, if there are elections, they’re not going to go against the street. They’ve become captives of the street. Now, the street, increasingly, is in the control of these right-wingers.

Let me make a point, and it would be interesting to hear what Anton thinks about this. Many young thugs in the street are trying to kill policemen. They’re throwing Molotov cocktails at them. They’re beating them up. Now, the police are brutal also. But name me one democratic country that would allow mobs to attack policemen in the street of a capital city and not crack down? And, in fact, the Ukrainian police haven’t cracked down.

AG: Anton Shekhovtsov, your response?

AS: Well, the police has already cracked down on the protesters at the end of November, when peaceful protesters were brutally beaten by the riot police. They did not do anything except for staying on the Independence Square in Kiev, and they were beaten up. And some people have disappeared. And since then, since the end of November, there are tens of, dozens of people who have been kidnapped by the police, and now they are found sometimes frozen to death with their hands tied at their backs. So, there is a whole campaign of state terror going on in Ukraine. And more than five people were killed already.

And Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the whom — one of the politicians whom Professor Cohen called the moderates, he was offered a position of prime minister. But Ukraine is a presidential republic, so the whole power, the whole political power, is in the hands of President Viktor Yanukovych. So this position is not really powerful. A prime minister does not have any influence on politics and on the way Ukraine develops.

SC: Amy, I —

AS: So, it wasn’t really a concession.

AG: Stephen Cohen?

SC: Yeah, Anton may have been in Ukraine a week ago, but he’s completely out of touch. Part of the deal that Yanukovych offered the moderates was to change the constitution to deprive the president of the power he now has and switch it to the prime minister. So —

AS: This is completely untrue. This is simply untrue.

SC: Please — it’s not untrue. I mean, I’ve read the documents. I’ve read the speech. It hasn’t gone through. It’s still at the Parliament. They may vote on it; they may not. But you’re simply not representing the situation correctly.

AS: Well, I am representing the situation correctly, because I’ve been there. I’ve seen all the documents that were being discussed in the Parliament. And President Yanukovych never offered to go back to the constitution of 2004, which would reintroduce the parliamentary republic. He wants all the power he’s got during three years of his rule. He has now control of all the oligarchic business in Ukraine. He’s trying to build — he was trying to build a whole business empire and give his family and the oligarchs and businessmen connected to the family all the economic power in Ukraine. So, of course, he is now — will be fighting ’til death, because if he loses, his family is losing — will lose all the money that they’ve stolen from Ukrainian people and invested it in European banks, invested it in European businesses, as well as American businesses, as well.

AG: I want to — I want to get Stephen Cohen’s response to last month Senators John McCain and Christopher Murphy visiting the protesters at their hub in Kiev’s Independence Square and voicing support for their cause.

Sen. Christopher Murphy: We are here to tell you that the American people and the United States Congress stands with the people of Ukraine.

Sen. John McCain: I am a Republican. Senator Murphy is a Democrat. We are here together speaking for the American people in solidarity with you.

AG: Professor Stephen Cohen?

SC: Well, that’s Anton’s position. I mean, Anton represents — at least his description of the situation — the mainstream American media political view of what’s going on in Ukraine. And when I say “mainstream,” I mean it extends from the right wing in America to MSNBC, to the so-called liberals and progressives, to Bill Maher, who did this on his show the other night. There’s no alternative voice in America, except what I’m trying to say to you today. It’s wrong — it’s wrong factually, it’s wrong in terms of policy — for McCain to go, as he’s done in other countries. He once said, “We’re all Georgians.” Now he’s saying, “We’re all Ukrainians.” If he understands the situation in Ukraine — and he may not — then he’s being reckless.

But a true understanding of Ukraine begins with the fact that there are at least two Ukraines, two legitimate Ukraines, culturally, politically, ethnically, economically, culturally. This isn’t Putin’s fault. This isn’t Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine’s fault. It’s either God’s fault, or it’s history’s fault. This is what came down through the centuries. The situation has been explosive since the end of the Soviet Union 22 years ago. When Western politicians go there, they’re playing with fire, metaphorically, and now they have real fire.

AG: Do you think this is about the media’s vilification of Putin?

SC: I think that the vilification of Putin in this country, demonization, is the worst press coverage by the American media of Russia that I’ve seen in my 40 years of studying Russia and contributing to the media. It’s simply almost insane. This idea that he’s a thug —

AG: Ten seconds.

SC: — and that explains everything, passes for analysis in America today —

AG: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, Stephen Cohen, as well as Anton Shekhovtsov, for joining us to talk about Ukraine. We’ll continue to follow it.

Are Fitbit, Nike, and Garmin Planning to Sell Your Personal Fitness Data?

These popular fitness companies say they aren’t selling your info, but privacy advocates and the FTC worry that might change.

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 3:00 AM GMT

Lately, fitness-minded Americans have started wearing sporty wrist-band devices that track tons of data: Weight, mile splits, steps taken per day, sleep quality, sexual activity, calories burned—sometimes, even GPS location. People use this data to keep track of their health, and are able send the information to various websites and apps. But this sensitive, personal data could end up in the hands of corporations looking to target these users with advertising, get credit ratings, or determine insurance rates. In other words, that device could start spying on you—and the Federal Trade Commission is worried. 

“Health data from [a woman's] connected device, may be collected and then sold to data brokers and other companies she does not know exist,” Jessica Rich, director of the Bureau for Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said in a speech on Tuesday for Data Privacy Day. “These companies could use her information to market other products and services to her; make decisions about her eligibility for credit, employment, or insurance; and share with yet other companies. And many of these companies may not maintain reasonable safeguards to protect the data they maintain about her.”

Several major US-based fitness device companies contacted by Mother Jones—Fitbit, Garmin, and Nike—say they don’t sell personally identifiable information collected from fitness devices. But privacy advocates warn that the policies of these firms could allow them to sell data, if they ever choose to do so.

Let’s start with the popular Fitbit. When you buy one of these bracelets or clip-on devices, you have the option of automatically sending fitness data to the Fitbit website. And the site encourages you to also submit other medical information, such as blood pressure and glucose levels. According to Fitbit’s privacy policy, “At times Fitbit may make certain personal information available to strategic partners that work with Fitbit to provide services to you.” Stephna May, a Fitbit spokesperson, says that the company “does not sell information collected from the device that can identify individual users, period.” However, she says that the company would consider marketing “aggregate information” that cannot be linked back to an individual user—which is outlined in the privacy policy as aggregated gender, age, height, weight, and usage data. (This is similar to what Facebook does.)

Nike, which makes the Nike + Fuel Band, says in its privacy policy that the company may collect a host of personal information, but doesn’t say that it can be shared with advertising companies. Joy Davis Fair, a Nike spokesperson, says that the company, “does not share consumer data” with outside advertisers, but selectively shares it with other companies under the Nike’s corporate umbrella, including Converse and Hurley. Garmin’s policy says that users have to consent in order for the company to sell personal information. A Garmin spokesman says the company doesn’t sell personal or aggregated information to advertisers, and doing so isn’t part of the company’s business model. (Polar Flow, which makes the Polar Loop band, is the only company with a privacy policy that explicitly says it won’t sell personally identifiable data for advertising. It is based in Finland and subject to stringent European Union privacy laws.)

Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, says that these privacy policies are so broad that they could allow the companies to sell health data—even if they aren’t doing so now. “When companies promise that they aren’t selling your data, that’s because they haven’t developed a business model to do so yet,” Chester says.

Scott Peppet, a University of Colorado law school professor, agrees that companies like Fitbit will eventually move toward sharing this data. “I can paint an incredibly detailed and rich picture of who you are based on your Fitbit data,” he said at a FTC conference last year. “That data is so high quality that I can do things like price insurance premiums or I could probably evaluate your credit score incredibly accurately.”

Even if the companies that make these devices aren’t selling the data, there is another potential privacy concern. Users can send their data to dozens of third-party fitness apps on their phone. Once users do that, the data becomes subject to the privacy policies of the app companies, and these policies do not afford much protection, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. The group examined 43 popular health and fitness apps last year, and found that, “there are considerable privacy risks for users.” A spokesperson for the FTC told Mother Jones that “fitness devices often work by having apps associated, and [Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's] analysis here may be relevant.”

If there’s one entity that knows the value of the health data uploaded to these devices, it’s the CIA. Last year, at a data conference in New York, the CIA’s chief technology officer, Ira Hunt, gave a talk on big data. During the discussion, he told the crowd that he carries a Fitbit. “We like these things,” he said. “What’s really most intriguing is that you can be 100% guaranteed to be identified by simply your gait—how you walk.”


Dana Liebelson


Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones’ Washington bureau. Her work has also appeared in The Week, TIME’s Battleland, Truthout, OtherWords and Yahoo! News. RSS |

Obama’s low-wage “recovery”

31 January 2014

President Obama’s State of the Union address this week coincided with the release of several year-end profit reports. Profits for the firms listed on the S&P 500 stock market index jumped 11 percent in 2013, in large part because of declining wages and the increased exploitation of American workers.

In his national address Tuesday night, Obama acknowledged that “corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened.” The “cold, hard fact,” he added, “is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by—let alone get ahead.”

As is his wont, the president posed as an innocent bystander, suggesting that some sections of the population had unfortunately missed out on “four years of economic growth.” In fact, the explosion of social inequality the president paid lip service to is the product of quite deliberate polices spearheaded by his administration.

Obama’s principal task on coming to office was to initiate the largest transfer of wealth—from the working class to the corporate and financial elite—in US history. This began with the bailout of the financial system. It continued through the 2009 restructuring of GM and Chrysler, premised on the halving of wages for new hires and a shift in the burden of health care expenses from employers to workers.

Billions have been slashed from social programs, including the cut-off of long-term unemployment benefits and cuts in food stamps, and the administration has backed the bankruptcy of Detroit, which is seen as a national model for forcing through pension cuts and other measures.

The surge in corporate profits is one consequence of these policies. According to Bloomberg, US corporations’ after-tax profits have grown by more than 170 percent under Obama, more than any president since World War II. They have reached their highest level relative to the size of the economy since the government began keeping records in 1947. Profits are more than twice as high than their peak during the Reagan administration, which, beginning with the smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981, initiated a class war against workers.

Since Reagan, the American ruling class has waged an unrelenting campaign, utilizing the services of the trade unions, which abandoned any defense of the working class. Deindustrialization and financialization has been accompanied by the destruction of millions of jobs and the decimation of entire industries. To the extent that any jobs are created, it is on the basis of poverty level wages.

Labor’s share of the Gross Domestic Product has now fallen to 57 percent, the lowest portion of the country’s output since 1950. Since the recession officially ended in January 2009, wages for auto workers have fallen by 10 percent in real terms, and for manufacturing as a whole they have fallen by 2.4 percent.

Although the global economic crisis resulted in losses or slower profits in Europe, China and the so-called emerging markets, multinational manufacturing firms reaped huge profits in the US. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing saw its profits rise 18 percent to $4.6 billion last year, while Ford saw profits rise 26 percent to $7.2 billion. Caterpillar beat analyst expectations with a 44 percent jump in fourth quarter profits, due primarily to “aggressive cost-cutting,” i.e., mass layoffs and wage cuts, which its CEO promised would accelerate in 2014.

US corporations are holding on to a record $1.5 trillion in cash reserves, according to Moody’s credit rating agency. Rather than investing in new plants or hiring, let alone raising wages and benefits, corporations are chiefly spending this stockpile of cash on dividend payouts to their investors and stock buybacks to drive up share values, like Caterpillar’s $10 billion program.

Talk of a manufacturing “renaissance” is largely a fraud. Only 568,000 manufacturing positions have been added since January 2010, a small fraction of the nearly six million lost between 2000 and 2009, according to a New York Times column published last week by Obama’s former “car czar,” Steven Rattner.

Employers that have moved production to the US have been lured through wage reductions and massive tax cuts, like the $280,000 a job credit given to Volkswagen for its Chattanooga, Tennessee plant. Pointing to the German auto company, Rattner noted that it “moved production from a high-wage country (Germany) to a low-wage country (the United States).”

As Obama boasted in his address, “for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.” The president added that, “over half of big manufacturers say they’re thinking of in-sourcing jobs from abroad.”

As a model of success, the president pointed to Detroit Manufacturing Systems, a business that hires welfare recipients and the long-term unemployed to produce components for Ford. A Washington Post article noted that the workers, who are members of the United Auto Workers union, are hired “at far lower wages than many had been earning in their previous jobs.”

The Obama administration and the ruling class have counted on the UAW, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and other trade unions, whose executives and their financial advisors see “in-sourcing” as a growth strategy. Manufacturers making some of the largest profits have relied on the treachery of the unions to impose wage-cutting contracts and suppress struggles when they did erupt.

This included the UAW’s collaboration in the restructuring of the auto industry, which reduced wages of new hires to the equivalent, in real terms, of what was earned by workers in 1914, when Henry Ford first established the $5 day. The UAW was rewarded with corporate shares and millions more in dues money from newly hired workers, who, on top of suffering the indignation of poverty wages, are soon to be hit with a 25 percent dues increase.

Most recently at Boeing, the IAM rammed through a contract extension originally defeated by rank-and-file workers that allowed the jet manufacturer to end company paid pensions, won in 1947, and ban strikes for the next decade.

The experience of the Obama administration, which has overseen the greatest explosion of social inequality in US history, while accelerating the attack on democratic rights and war-mongering policies of his Republican predecessor, has provoked widespread disgust and anger. The president’s election-year rhetoric about “equality” and his proposals for token “reforms” is largely falling on deaf ears.

The historic reversal in living standards for the working class in the United States and around the world is producing enormous levels of social anger, which the capitalist parties, the trade unions and their apologists will not be able to contain. It is only a matter of time for these tensions to erupt into massive struggles. When they do, however, they must be guided by a new leadership and political program, based on the international unity of the working class, its political independence from the corporate-backed parties and the fight to replace the capitalist profit system with socialism, that is genuine social equality.

Jerry White


2014 State of the Union Response



The Dark Side of the “Smart City”


Annalee Newitz on io9

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

The “smart city” is a futurist’s dream town. It’s carbon neutral because computers regulate its energy use perfectly. It has no traffic jams because sensors capture real-time data on the roads and guide drivers to optimal routes. Other sensors can quickly alert police to crime, or send information to your mobile about cool events. But living in a smart city could be a nightmare.

Photo of graffiti in Rio de Janeiro by Paul Keller.

If you want to know where the idea of the smart city came from, you have to look at advertising brochures from IT giants like IBM and Cisco.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

About a decade ago, these companies wanted to figure out how they could turn their computer networking products into something that made sense in physical space. Essentially, they were wondering how they could start selling networking devices to cities, governments, and even consumers — not to connect their computer devices, but to connect the physical objects around them.


They were, in essence, trying to figure out how to monetize what is now often called “the internet of things.” Out of those early brainstorms at large companies emerged the idea of a smart city, where buildings, cars, infrastructure, and public utilities would all be networked. They could be easily regulated and controlled with a “city operating system” that could figure out where power was needed and wasn’t in the city — or where police were needed and they weren’t.

Most of all, this city would be a data-gathering machine. Sensors would adhere to every surface, monitoring air quality, foot traffic, crime, water use, and even how many insects were flying around. Smart phones would be one of the most important sensors of all, as they would track the activities of every person in the city. Once Cisco or another company had enough of that data, they could use algorithms to optimize everything in the city, routing traffic, stationing police officers — or planting trees to draw insects away from schoolyards.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

Eventually this data could even be used to drive city government, generating information about what citizens need before they even realized they needed it.

It all sounds lovely in theory, and the idea has now leapfrogged out of the corporate R&D zone, into academic research and enthusiastic pop science books. There are even smart cities being built, with help from Cisco, like Songdo in South Korea.

The problem is that making a city “smart” could also crush everything that makes it a city, argues urban studies expert Adam Greenfield in a new pamphlet called “Against the Smart City.” A former designer for Nokia and professor at NYU’s design school, Greenfield has written extensively about urban life and technology. He believes that cities have a logic all their own, which is based on chaos and diversity. Making them “smart,” and subjecting their citizens to the logic of algorithms, could be more like authoritarianism than freedom.

Though the idea of a smart city is appealing, it’s crucial to keep Greenfield’s perspective in mind. He and I talked about the dark side of smart cities by email, right after Greenfield had relocated to London — one of his favorite cities — from New York.

io9: Your essay is a response to advertising about smart city products, primarily from IBM, Cisco and Siemens. Why are tech companies leading the conversation about future city planning? How is that changing the way people understand cities?

Adam Greenfield: In order to understand the disproportionate influence these companies have on a domain as seemingly distant from their remit as urban planning, I think we need to start from the idea that the perception of where capability resides has shifted in our culture. We live in a time when the popular imagination positions any individual who made their name and fortune in information technology — a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, a Jeff Bezos, or even, latterly, a Mike Bloomberg, a Marissa Mayer or a Mark Zuckerberg — as some kind of universal genius, capable of speaking meaningfully to just about any domain of human endeavor, and the enterprises they founded as being capable of productive intervention in just about any state of affairs you care to mention.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

This is why Bill Gates’s opinions on family planning in the Global South are taken seriously, and nobody bats an eyelash when a company whose best-known and most widely-used product is a search engine proposes to intervene in automotive design. That’s just where all the grandeur has come to reside in our age, and inevitably a tremendous share of the capital as well. So when a municipal governing body finds itself confronting the kind of wickedly complicated, multidimensional challenge that any real city generates on a routine basis, it’s natural (or “natural”) that it would turn for help to the institutions that appear to have all the answers.

The enterprises you mention just organically have a better grasp of the specifically information-technological possibilities cities and city governments now have available to them. So they’re well-positioned to profit from the general sense abroad in our culture that whatever the domain, problems that have bedeviled people for decades or even centuries will readily yield to the application of insight founded in these technologies. And while I don’t, myself, think that sense is entirely misguided, I definitely don’t think that an IBM or Cisco is ever going to have anything like the whole picture, either. To them, the city’s just another terrain for business operations; they’re inevitably (and, if you’re a shareholder, maybe even properly) oriented toward selling the products and services they already know how to sell, and the systems they propose to deploy are no different than those one might use to manage any other large, complex organization. As far as I’m concerned, they completely miss most of the salient, defining features of urban life in doing so.

io9: Do you think there are aspects of city life that every city shares, no matter where it is in time or place? What are they?

AG: I do, yeah. I think they mostly have to do with personality — with the kind of affect, subjectivity or sensibility the act of living in a great city reliably seems to produce in people. Negotiating the circumstances of everyday life in any true city tends over time to create a broad-minded, feisty, opinionated personality type we’d have no problem recognizing, wherever and whenever it appears in human history. City people may well be tolerant of diversity not out of any personal commitment to a utopian politics, but because that’s just what the daily necessity of living cheek-by-jowl with people who are different imposes upon you. City people are possessed of a hard-earned savoir faire; they know how to operate. They’re not easy to cow, to snow, to take advantage of or to dominate. They like to believe, anyway, that they think for themselves.

From what I can tell, this is so across cultures and centuries both. It’s this kind of personality that underlies the culture, the innovation, the urban productivity economists like Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser seem so transfixed by. And yet it’s just this set of characteristics that so many smart-city provisions seem hellbent on undermining, or even eradicating. The ability to search the space of the city for the perfectly congenial set of circumstances, to tune the environment until we never have to leave the contours of our own comfort: where the making of citydwellers and citizens is concerned, that’s a bug, not a feature. It erodes the development of savoir faire; it eliminates the risk, but also everything wonderful, that arises in the confrontation with difference.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

It seems bound to produce self-absorbed, self-centered people, trapped in a foam of epistemic bubbles, each unable to communicate meaningfully with all of the others, acknowledge the validity of anyone else’s prerogatives, or even stipulate the basic humanity of the others who happen to share the space and time of the city. And at the limit, the technical capability to bring the environment under arbitrarily finely-grained personal control ultimately means each of those bubbles is the size of a single individual. I obviously can’t speak for anyone else, but I sure don’t want to live in a densely packed hive of ten or twelve or twenty million such individuals.

io9: You argue that there are elements of the smart city idea that are already creeping into our everyday urban lives without most of us realizing it. Can you talk about what these elements are, and why some of them are dangerous?

AG: Well, the first and most obvious to me is the emphasis placed on quantification in the smart-city discourse — the idea that something doesn’t exist, or has no meaning, unless it can be measured. As it happens, I believe that the qualities most of us cherish about urban life just aren’t susceptible to direct measurement, whether that’s the pleasure of the “sidewalk ballet,” the thrill of discovering something secret, the solidarity when times are rough or the tacit understanding that neighbors help each other when the chips are down. You may be able to infer the presence of these from metrics you can actually garner from a distributed net of sensors, but in themselves they’re just not the kind of indices that show up on a wallscreen dashboard in City Hall. So I worry that we’ll undervalue precisely those qualities that are the most important to us, and the most definitive of metropolitan experience, because they can’t be harvested from a camera, an accelerometer, a load cell, a GPS trace or some other order of machinic perception.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

The next concern I have is a sentiment you overwhelmingly encounter in smart-city advocates, which is that the act of quantification is somehow neutral — that there somehow haven’t been deeply interested decisions made about how, when and where to collect data, using what means, or how it’s labeled, characterized, represented and made use of, that color its interpretation profoundly. I mean, I actually heard a very senior scientist at IBM say, in so many words, “The data is the data,” perfect, serene and eternal, at which his colleagues nodded sagely. I confess that I have a hard time understanding how any adult could believe that, let alone an incredibly bright and accomplished adult whose job it was to build systems capable of acting on collected data. But there it is. It’s inexplicable to me.

My third beef is something I’ve already alluded to, the belief inherent to a product like IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center that municipal administration is a straightforward matter of triggering stereotyped, preformulated protocols in response to the fluctuation of key performance indicators. You might be able to run a small commercial enterprise that way, or a battalion-sized military unit — some organization where there’s a relatively clear and uncomplicated chain of command and accountability, and a single, overridingly shared mission. But a city? Come on. Any city, at least in a nonauthoritarian society, is a roiling cauldron of contestation, in which a million constituencies, with profoundly different conceptions of the right, the just and the good — constituencies, mind you, which are themselves in a constant, ongoing process of coherence and decoherence — jockey for access to spatial, budgetary, attentional and other resources, and it’s impossible to satisfy them all simultaneously. And that’s true even in principle. There are and will be no Pareto-optimal solutions to the city. Cities are inherently tragic.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

So, again, it’s inexplicable to me that you would even for half a heartbeat entertain the idea that a city can or should be managed like a top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control organization. Finally, there’s a sense that hovers over the more recent “urban science” work, that it very definitely shares with the smart-city rhetoric, that a city is in some sense algorithmic — that all its perceptible operations are little more than the shadow cast in four dimensions by an equation or set of equations that persist in some eternal Platonic hyperspace, and that if we could but wrap our head around these equations we’d be able to intervene in urban affairs more or less as we chose to. That however blindly we’d been feeling our way through the dark, we’d at long last stumbled onto the royal levers that govern systemic behavior, and found them numeric. This mindset feels pernicious to me because the state of affairs it implies is so profoundly corrosive of our sense of agency, whether individual or collective.

I’m not saying that systemic approaches to things aren’t useful, and potentially hugely and irreplaceably so. Nor am I afraid of whatever uncomfortable truths might be waiting for us in future explorations of the Big Set. But even so profoundly cybernetic a thinker as Stafford Beer placed the greatest stock in our ability to choose among the futures available to us. I think it’s just disappointing that the parties currently carrying on this work seem to so badly misunderstand what cities are, what they do and what they’re for.

io9: You contrast the corporate vision of the smart city with the idea of an open city that is heterogeneous, and whose citizens participate in creating an “emergent order.” I love the moment toward the end of your essay where you talk about a city that uses information gathering to empower citizens, inform political debate, and improve the city. What does this open city look like, and what kind of government does it have?

AG: I mean, “Against the Smart City” was essentially hygienic, right? It just felt necessary to clear the table, sweep these fatally flawed and shallow and ultimately antidemocratic smart-city visions away, and open up some space for alternatives, before laying out what I think is ultimately much more interesting (to me and to everyone else), which is some kind of affirmative proposition.

What is it that I do think we can achieve in our cities with sensitively-designed informational-technical tools and services? I like to tell a story about a management consultant I once saw give a talk about technology and the future of civic governance. During the Q&A after his very conventional, bullet-pointy presentation, he was asked if he thought the basic forms of democratic municipal government — elected mayors, city councils and so on — were still relevant, and would remain so. And very surprisingly to me, he said no, that there was a decent chance that due to the decentralizing and distributing effects of networked information technologies, more power would come to reside with citizens themselves, organized in something resembling a federation of autonomous local collectives. I mean, this was a very conservative, very buttoned-down guy, who worked for the most prominent name in his industry, and whether he quite knew it or not, what he was describing would have been immediately familiar to, say, the members of the anarchosyndicalist CNT union who ran the Barcelona Telephone Exchange during the first part of the Spanish Civil War.

I found it fascinating that his understanding of contemporary political dynamics would lead him to any such belief. It was profoundly hopeful and encouraging. And that actually is what I believe — that if there’s a tendency to universal surveillance and control latent in the design of these tools, which there unquestionably is, there’s at the same time an equally strong tendency in them to the decentralization and distribution of knowledge of the world, which we can grasp hold of, reinforce and make use of if we choose to. We can use the technics of data collection, representation and actuation to reinforce the best qualities of our cities, and all the things about them that make us stronger and wiser and more capable. And that’s a pretty exciting set of circumstances.

io9: What is it that you love about London?

AG: Oh, god. Damn near everything. The texture of it, to start with. Even though London is not in any meaningful sense any older than New York — relatively few extant buildings are any older than the Great Fire of 1666, vast swaths of the East End were bombed to rubble by the Nazis during the Blitz, and some fairly misguided “regeneration” projects have done for a lot of the rest — it’s still built to the contours of a medieval street plan, and that’s what furnishes the urban fabric with its enduring drama, mystery, and human scale. Every corner is, quite literally, a revelation.

The Dark Side of the "Smart City"

Photo by Jason Hawkes

My sense is that they’ve done a better and more sensitive job here of interpolating high-quality contemporary architecture with pre-modern than in the States. I’m a sucker for the imperial pomp of Regent Street or Admiralty Arch, the scale of the Georgian and neo-Georgian squares, what you might call the voice of the public signage you encounter in the Underground and on the streets. I admire the long local history of mostly working-class resistance to oppression and authoritarianism, whose traces can be found right beneath the seemingly pacified suface of London life (and occasionally breaching it).

There are any number of landmarks of personal significance to me — here’s the sidestreet in Hackney where Throbbing Gristle had their Death Factory, there’s the Mayfair storefront where Archigram launched “Living Cities,” and that’s supposedly where the infamous schoolkid’s issue of Oz was put together. There’s an arcane, eldritch, non-Euclidean aspect to the city that delights me, as well, on a daily basis — I mean, you’re not going to find anything as weird as the mythos around the Hawksmoor churches in the States. And finally, the sense that you’re swimming in a different gene pool here — you just see different faces on the bus or the sidewalk than you do in New York. It’s just, in so many ways, an overflowingly generous base of operations for an urbanist and a lover of cities.

Obama’s Surrealist Spectacle

Neoliberalism or Death!


US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address was a somewhat surrealist spectacle. Way beyond avalanches of PR spin, the US government for a long time has not exactly done wonders for the public good. So as it advertises itself in front of a dysfunctional US Congress dismissed as repellent by an overwhelming majority of Americans – including, and expanding, on those 76% who are living paycheck to paycheck – what’s left is a grand, old Hollywood production.

And Obama, of course, is a decent actor who can deliver a decent speech – certainly better than Ronnie Reagan, whom Gore Vidal used to describe as “the acting president”.

The key theme of SOTU 2014 was the appalling income inequality in the US. Call it an appendix of this past week at the World Economic Forum in Davos – that snowy Vegas for the 0.00001% – in which the Masters of the Universe finally “discovered” inequality. So much inequality, in fact, that 2014 was instantly tagged by the Masters – and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – as the new 1914, all that furiously tweeted to all corporate boardrooms of the liquid modernity elite.

As Obama got into his groove, he proclaimed that Obamacare had won; that he would resort to ruling by executive order to get things done; and that a mixed salad of platitudes and vague proposals/generalities attested to the imminent success of his agenda of improving “opportunity” as the only answer to fighting inequality. Oh yes; and that the American Dream was not in a coma.

No word, of course, about the “gentle”, progressive dismantling of what’s left of US democracy, via the Orwellian/Panopticon complex, through which 0.00001% elite rule is painfully achieved in a sanitized Total Information Awareness (TIA) environment. With the US government in total control of the Internet, that once-upon-a-time dream – the revolution will be televised – won’t happen even on the web.

Neoliberalism or death

In the absence of the late, great Howard Zinn, Americans now have to put up with historic Clintonista Robert Reich. Reich may be correct on two of his reasons for the American malaise.

With the US working class paralyzed and fearful of losing their jobs (labor unions have been virtually destroyed), and with students mired in horrendous debt (even as the average starting salary for graduates has been dropping steadily), two key vectors of protest are neutralized.

But Reich is wrong on his third reason – that over 80% of US public opinion distrusts government so much that they have given up on any possibility of reform.

The key point would be to examine how American turbo-financial capitalism has been drifting since the mid-1970s. The point is not that a cabal of medievalist Republicans, evil corporate CEOs (and their handpicked pols), plus Wall Street is in charge. The point is to examine how demented financial asset speculation plus a demented inflation of dodgy financial securities have been the defining features of the US and global system.

This would imply a hardcore critique of advanced capitalism – which in fact is neither “advanced” nor really capitalism – that is absolute taboo in US corporate media. And the whole thing started even before the prophet Ronnie Reagan, then through Bubba Clinton and all the way to the Dubya/Obama continuum.

The latest graphic illustration is a system in which 85 people – packable in a London double-decker – own as much wealth as the bottom 50% of humanity. How’s that possible? A cursory examination of David Harvey’s groundbreaking A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005) would answer most questions – all related to such tricks as trickle-down economics, slashing taxes for the wealthy and corporations, the destruction of labor unions, lower real wages, job outsourcing, the disenfranchising of just about anyone who’s not part of the 0.00001%, and a free for all in the 0.00001% banking and finance casino. End result; a vortex of wealth concentration – which has absolutely nothing to do with democracy in a republic.

Good ol’ Uncle Marx would tell it for what it is: a class war. And the 0.00001% has won, hands down, fast and loose.

It’s easy to forget that Dubya inherited a sizable budget surplus. He then slashed taxes for the wealthy; presided over two horrendously expensive wars, one because he “had to bomb somebody” and the other a war of choice; and then he was the MC of the biggest Wall Street crash since the Great Depression.

And yes, it’s all about the Bush-Obama continuum. In Obama’s “recovery” era, asset values for the wealthiest 7% of Americans has shot up 28% while declining 4% for the rest.

At least 80% of US voters don’t want social programs to be cut so the budget can be balanced; they want more taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Obama instead cut from social security.

Then there’s the destruction of American cities; this study details how Detroit was screwed while the state of Michigan was spending a fortune on “business incentives”.

And to top it off, there’s the Jamie Dimon syndrome, as in the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, aka Obama’s “one of the smartest bankers we’ve got”. Even if the US’s number one bank has lost billions in dodgy toxic mortgage-backed securities, manipulated energy prices and even defrauded credit card customers, your CEO still gets a hefty bonus as the bank’s stock were up 21% in 2013.

Whether Obama played ball – small or otherwise – at the SOTU is irrelevant. Apart from flagrant absurdities on Iran, Syria and Israel-Palestine, and not a word on Russia and China, no wonder the climatic Hollywood tear-jerker sequence involved an Army Ranger almost killed by an improvized explosive device in Afghanistan. He was Obama’s living metaphor of “Yes We Can”, the 2014 remix.

Curiously, just before SOTU, the US government and the Pentagon leaked to the New York Times that if “a small number” (Obama) of US troops actually remain in Afghanistan, the CIA will continue to drone the tribal areas of Pakistan to oblivion, and will continue to use Afghan bases to spy on Pakistan.

So it’s all about the CIA’s dirty wars. Obviously none of the AfPak components want this state of affairs – so it looks like Obama’s heroes will have to beat the hell out of Dodge for good. Good for them, as they will be exchanging lethal IEDs for a new shot at the ultimate land of “opportunity.” Is that a fact? Yes, because POTUS said so.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at

This column originally appeared on Asia Times.

The Human Body May Not Be Cut Out For Space


The human body did not evolve to live in space, and the longest any human has been off Earth is 437 days. Some problems, like the brittling of bone, may have been overcome already. Others have been identified — for example, astronauts have trouble eating and sleeping enough — and NASA is working to understand and solve them. But Kenneth Chang reports in the NY Times that there are some health problems that still elude doctors more than 50 years after the first spaceflight. The biggest hurdle remains radiation. Without the protective cocoon of Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, astronauts receive substantially higher doses of radiation, heightening the chances that they will die of cancer. Another problem identified just five years ago is that the eyeballs of at least some astronauts became somewhat squashed. ‘It is now a recognized occupational hazard of spaceflight,’ says Dr. Barratt. ‘We uncovered something that has been right under our noses forever.’ NASA officials often talk about the ‘unknown unknowns,’ the unforeseen problems that catch them by surprise. The eye issue caught them by surprise, and they are happy it did not happen in the middle of a mission to Mars. Another problem is the lack of gravity jumbles the body’s neurovestibular system (PDF) that tells people which way is up. When returning to the pull of gravity, astronauts can become dizzy, something that Mark Kelly took note of as he piloted the space shuttle to a landing. ‘If you tilt your head a little left or right, it feels like you’re going end over end.’ Beyond the body, there is also the mind. The first six months of Scott Kelly’s one-year mission are expected to be no different from his first trip to the space station. Dr. Gary E. Beven, a NASA psychiatrist, says he is interested in whether anything changes in the next six months. ‘We’re going to be looking for any significant changes in mood, in sleep, in irritability, in cognition.’ In a Russian experiment in 2010 and 2011, six men agreed to be sealed up in a mock spaceship simulating a 17-month Mars mission. Four of the six developed disorders, and the crew became less active as the experiment progressed. ‘I think that’s just an example of what could potentially happen during a Mars mission, but with much greater consequence,’ says Dr. Beven. ‘Those subtle changes in group cohesion could cause major problems.


Is Fracking About to Arrive on Your Doorstep?

No Pipe Dream

By Ellen Cantarow

For the past several years, I’ve been writing about what happens when big oil and gas corporations drill where people live. “Fracking” — high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which extracts oil and methane from deep shale — has become my beat. My interviewees live in Pennsylvania’s shale-gas fields; among Wisconsin’s hills, where corporations have been mining silica, an essential fracking ingredient; and in New York, where one of the most powerful grassroots movements in the state’s long history of dissent has become ground zero for anti-fracking activism across the country. Some of the people I’ve met have become friends. We email, talk by phone, and visit. But until recently I’d always felt at a remove from the dangers they face: contaminated water wells, poisoned air, sick and dying animals, industry-related illnesses. Under Massachusetts, where I live, lie no methane- or oil-rich shale deposits, so there’s no drilling.

But this past September, I learned that Spectra Energy, one of the largest natural gas infrastructure companies in North America, had proposed changes in a pipeline it owns, the Algonquin, which runs from Texas into my hometown, Boston. The expanded Algonquin would carry unconventional gas — gas extracted from deep rock formations like shale — into Massachusetts from the great Marcellus formation that sprawls along the Appalachian basin from West Virginia to New York.  Suddenly, I’m in the crosshairs of the fracking industry, too.

We all are.

Gas fracked from shale formations goes by several names (“unconventional gas,” “natural gas,” “shale gas”), but whatever it’s called, it’s mainly methane. Though we may not know it, fracked gas increasingly fuels our stoves and furnaces. It also helps to fuel the floods, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and ever-hotter summers that are engulfing the planet. The industry’s global-warming footprint is actually greater than that of coal. (A Cornell University study that established this in 2011 has been reconfirmed since.) Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) and an ecological nightmare due to its potential for dangerous leaks.

According to former Mobil Oil executive Lou Allstadt, the greatest danger of fracking is the methane it adds to the atmosphere through leaks from wells, pipelines, and other associated infrastructure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found leakage rates of 2.3% to 17% of annual production at gas and oil fields in California, Colorado, and Utah. Moreover, no technology can guarantee long-term safety decades into the future when it comes to well casings (there are hundreds of thousands of frack wells in the U.S. to date) or in the millions of miles of pipelines that crisscross this country.

The energy industry boasts that fracking is a “bridge” to renewable energies, but a 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that shale gas development could end up crowding out alternative energies. That’s because as fracking spreads, it drives natural gas prices down, spurring greater consumer use, and so more fracking. In a country deficient in regulations and high in corporate pressures on government, this cascade effect creates enormous disincentives for investment in large alternative energy programs.

The sorry state of U.S. renewable energy development proves the case. As the fracking industry has surged, the country continues to lag far behind Germany and Denmark, the world’s renewable-energy leaders. A quarter-century after the world’s leading climate change scientist, James Hansen, first warned Congress about global warming, Americans have only bad options: coal, shale gas, oil, or nuclear power.

Living in Gasland

There’s been a great deal of reporting about “the drilling part” of fracking — the moment when drills penetrate shale and millions of gallons of chemical-and-sand-laced water are pumped down at high pressure to fracture the rock. Not so much has been written about all that follows. It’s the “everything else” that has turned a drilling technology into a land-and-water-devouring industry so vast that it’s arguably one of the most pervasive extractive adventures in history.

According to Cornell University’s Anthony Ingraffea, the co-author of a study that established the global warming footprint of the industry, fracking “involves much more than drill-the-well-frack-the-well-connect-the-pipeline-and-go-away.” Almost all other industries “occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools.” By contrast, the industry spawned by fracking “permits the oil and gas industries to establish [their infrastructures] next to where we live. They are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals, and schools inside their industrial space.”

Wells, flanked by batteries of vats, tanks, and diesel trucks, often stand less than a mile from homes. So do compressor stations that condense gas for its long journey through pipelines, and which are known to emit carcinogens and neurotoxins.  Radioactive waste (spewed up in fracking flow-back and drill cuttings) gets dumped on roads and in ordinary waste sites. Liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals that move this energy source for export are a constant danger due to explosions, fires, spills, and leaks. Every part of the fracking colossus, it seems, has its rap sheet of potential environmental and public health harms.

Of all these, pipelines are the industry’s most ubiquitous feature. U.S. Energy Information Administration maps show landscapes so densely veined by pipelines that they look like smashed windshields. There are more than 350,000 miles of gas pipelines in the U.S. These are for the transmission of gas from region to region. Not included are more than two million miles of distribution and service pipelines, which run through thousands of cities and towns with new branches under constant construction.  All these pipelines mean countless Americans — even those living far from gas fields, compressor stations, and terminals — find themselves on the frontlines of fracking.

Danger Zone

The letter arrived in the spring of 2011. It offered Leona Briggs $10,400 to give a group of companies the right to run a pipeline with an all-American name — the Constitution — through her land. For 50 years Briggs has lived in the town of Davenport, just south of the Susquehanna River in New York’s Western Catskills. Maybe she seemed like an easy mark. After all, her house’s clapboard exterior needs a paint job and she’s living on a meager Social Security check every month. But she refused.

She treasures her land, her apple trees, the wildlife that surrounds her. She points toward a tree, a home to an American kestrel. “There was a whole nest of them in this pine tree out here.” Her voice trembles with emotion. “My son was born here, my daughter was raised here, my granddaughter was raised here. It’s home. And they’re gonna take it from us?”

Company representatives began bullying her, she says. If she didn’t accept, they claimed, they’d reduce the price to $7,100. And if she kept on being stubborn, they’d finally take what they needed by eminent domain. But Briggs didn’t budge. “It’s not a money thing. This is our home. I’m sixty-five years old. And if that pipeline goes through I can’t live here.”

The Constitution Pipeline would carry shale gas more than 120 miles from Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County through New York’s Schoharie County. This would be the first interstate transmission pipeline in the region, and at 30 inches in diameter, a big one. Four corporations — Williams, a Tulsa-based energy infrastructure company, Cabot Oil & Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas, and WGL Holdings — are the partners. Williams claims the pipeline “is not designed to facilitate natural gas drilling in New York.” But it would connect with two others — the Iroquois, running from the Long Island shore to Canada, and the Tennessee, extending from the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast into Pennsylvania’s frack fields. This link-up, opponents believe, means that the Constitution would be able to export fracked gas from New York, the only Marcellus state to have resisted drilling so far.

In 2010, a high-pressure pipeline owned by Cabot Oil & Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas, exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. It was the same size as the proposed Constitution pipeline. What makes that distant tragedy personal to Briggs is her memory of two local pipeline explosions. In the town of Blenheim, 22 miles east of her home, 10 houses were destroyed in 1990 in what a news report called “a cauldron of fire.” Another pipeline erupted in 2004 right in the village of Davenport. From her front porch, Briggs could see the flames that destroyed a house and forced the evacuation of neighbors within a half-mile radius. “That was an 8-inch pipe,” she says. “What would a 30-inch gas line do out here?”

Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit watchdog organization, says that, on average, there is “a significant incident — somewhere — about every other day. And someone ends up in the hospital or dead about every nine or ten days.” This begs the question: are pipelines carrying shale gas different in their explosive potential than other pipelines?

“There isn’t any database that allows you to get at that,” says Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and consultant of 40 years’ experience. “If it’s a steel pipeline and it has enough gas in it under enough pressure, it can leak or rupture.” Many pipelines, says Kuprewicz, aren’t bound by any safety regulations, and even when they are, enforcement can often be lax. Where regulations exist, he continues, corporate compliance is uneven. “Some companies comply with and exceed regulations, others don’t.  If I want to find out about what’s going on, I may [have to] get additional information via subpoena.”

In 2013 alone, Williams, one of the partners in the Constitution pipeline, had five incidents, including two major explosions in New Jersey and Louisiana. These were just the latest in what an online publication, Natural Gas Watch, calls “a lengthy record of pipeline safety violations.” As for Cabot, its name has become synonymous with water contamination in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Even that state’s Department of Environmental Protection, historically joined at the hip to gas companies, imposed sanctions on Cabot in 2010. (The corporation later settled with 32 of 36 Dimock families who claimed contamination of their water supplies.)

About 40 miles northeast of Davenport lies the town of Schoharie, where James and Margaret Bixby live on a well-tended, 150-year-old farm. The day I visited, their 19-acre pond glimmered in the early fall sunlight. As we talked, Bixby listed all the wildlife in the area: bear, raccoon, beavers, muskrats, wood ducks, mallards, mergansers, cranes, skunks, and Canadian geese.  He began telling me about the last of these.  “Pretty soon they’re going to come in by the hundreds, migrating north. A dozen will stay, hatching their young. We have wild turkeys, just about everything. I don’t care to live no place else.”

The Bixbys were offered more money than Briggs — more than $62,000 — for a pipeline right of way and they, too, turned it down. He and his wife are holding fast and so, he says, are 60 neighbors. “They don’t want it to bust up this little valley.”  Pointing, he added, “There’s gonna be a path up our woods there as far as you can see, [and] there’s gonna be another one over there. That’s nothing nice to look at.”

Driving around New York and Pennsylvania you’ll spot odd, denuded stretches running down hillsides like ski jumps. On the crests of the hills, the remains of tree lines look like Mohawk haircuts on either side of shaved pipeline slopes. This is only the most obvious sign of pipeline environmental degradation. The Constitution pipeline would also impact 37 Catskills trout streams, endangering aquatic life. According to Kate Hudson, Watershed Program Director at Riverkeeper, one of the state’s most venerable environmental watchdog organizations, the pipeline would “cross hundreds of streams and wetlands by literally digging a hole through them… Any project that jeopardizes multiple water resources in two states is clearly against the public’s interest.”

Holding the Line

Longtime residents aren’t alone in opposing the building of the Constitution pipeline. This tranquil region has been attracting retirees like Bob Stack, a former electrical engineer. In 2004, he and his wife, Anne, bought 97 acres near Leona Briggs’s home. Their dream: to build a straw bale house, a sustainable structure that uses straw for insulation. No sooner had engineers visited the land to start planning than the couple got a letter from Constitution Pipeline LLC. “We were absolutely clueless. We knew nothing about fracking or about pipelines. Fracking was about as remote from us as oil in Iraq or someplace else,” says Anne. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘What an outrage!’” The Stacks, who moved east from Nevada, are now living in limbo.

“Once you have this pulsing fossil fuel energy coming through, it will… industrialize the Susquehanna River valley,” says Anne Marie Garti, who in June 2012 co-founded a local activist group, Stop the Pipeline. (“The unConstitutional Pipeline” reads the organization’s website banner.) “They’re going to start building factories. There’s an interstate, a railroad, there’s cheap labor, and there’s a river to dump the toxins in.”

Garti, a small, quietly assertive former interactive computer software designer, is now a lawyer; her aim: helping people like Briggs and the Bixbys. She grew up in the town of Delhi, near Briggs’s home. In 2008, she found herself among a small group of activists who convinced New York’s then-Governor David Paterson to impose a moratorium on fracking. Under the measure’s shelter a powerful grassroots anti-fracking movement grew, using zoning ordinances to ban drilling in municipalities.

Mark Pezzati, a graphic designer, helped get his town, Andes, in New York’s Delaware County to enact a fracking ban. “Pipeline news wasn’t high on the radar [then],” he says. “Most people were concerned about drilling.” In 2010, Pezzati was shocked to discover that a pipeline called the Millennium had penetrated his state.

It turned out that local land use laws govern only drilling. Under the 1938 Natural Gas Act, pipelines and compressor stations represent interstate commerce. “Suddenly there was this frantic flurry of emails, where people were saying, ‘We’ve got to meet and make people aware.’” (The meeting took place and 200 people flocked to listen to Garti.) “As time went on,” adds Pezzati, “it became apparent that you really can’t frack without a pipeline. There’s no point in drilling if there’s nowhere for the gas to go. So a light bulb went on. If you could stop pipelines you could stop fracking.”

That was when Pezzati and his friends, used to arguing for bans at town board meetings, came up against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which, among other responsibilities, regulates interstate natural gas transmission. It tilts to corporations, and even Garti found the bureaucratic hurdles it posed daunting.  “I have some experience and training in environmental law and it took me a month to figure out the intricacies of FERC’s process,” she told me.

Because FERC refused to disclose the names of landowners in the pipeline’s path, Garti, Pezzati and about a dozen other volunteers had to pore over county tax databases, matching names and addresses to the proposed route. “First we sent letters, then we did door-to-door outreach,” says Garti. Her basic message to landowners along the right of way: “Just say no.”

“People are kind of impressed that you came all the way to their house,” Pezzati points out. “There’s not that many landowners in favor.”

Garti attributes local resentment against the pipeline corporations and their threats to exercise eminent domain to a “fierce” regional “independence” dating back to the anti-rent struggles of tenant farmers against wealthy landlords in the nineteenth century. “People don’t like the idea of somebody coming on their land and taking it from them.”

The activists drafted a letter refusing entry to corporate representatives and circulated it to local landowners. By October 2012, Stop the Pipeline was able to marshal a crowd of 800 for a public hearing called by FERC — “a big crowd for a sparsely populated rural area,” Garti recalls.  The vast majority opposed the pipeline’s construction. By January 2013, 1,000 people had sent in statements of opposition.

The organization has created a website with instructions about FERC procedures and handouts for local organizing, as well as a list of organizations opposing the pipeline. These include the Clean Air Council and Trout Unlimited. Among state and federal agencies expressing concerns to FERC have been the Army Corps of Engineers and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, known in earlier fracking battles for its collusion with the gas industry.

“Just like we have a fracking story that’s different in New York State, we have a pipeline story that’s different,” says Garti. “The force of the opposition to pipelines is in New York State. And we have a shot at winning this thing.”

Coming Home

Having covered the environmental degradation of Pennsylvania’s shale gas fields, the wastelands that were Wisconsin’s silica-rich hills, and tiny New York towns where grassroots fracking battles are ongoing, I now have a sense of what it means to be in the crosshairs of the fracking industry. But it was nothing compared to how I felt when I learned Spectra Energy had its sights set on my hometown, Boston.

Fracking isn’t just about drilling and wells and extracting a difficult energy source at a painful cost to the environment.  Corporations like Spectra have designs on spreading their pipelines through state after state, through thousands of backyards and farm fields and forests and watersheds.  That means thousands of miles of pipe that may leave ravaged landscapes, produce methane leaks, and even, perhaps, lead to catastrophic explosions — and odds are those pipelines are coming to a town near you.

Spectra’s website explains that the Algonquin pipeline “will provide the Northeast with a unique opportunity to secure a… domestically produced source of energy to support its current demand, as well as its future growth.“ Translation: Spectra aims to expand fracking as long as that’s possible. And a glance at any industry source like Oil & Gas Journal shows other corporations hotly pursuing the same goal. (A new New-York-based group, Stop the Algonquin Pipeline Expansion, is the center of opposition to this project.)

It remains to be seen whether the people of Massachusetts will undertake the same type of grassroots efforts, exhibit the same fortitude as Bob and Anne Stack and Leona Briggs, or demonstrate the same organizing acumen as Anne Marie Garti and Mark Pezzati. But Massachusetts citizens had better get organized if they want to stop Spectra Energy and halt its plans to run the Algonquin all the way from Texas northward to Boston and beyond. Fracking is on its way to my doorstep — and yours.  Who’s going to hold the line in your town?

Tom Dispatch regular Ellen Cantarow reported on Israel and the West Bank from 1979 to 2009 for the Village Voice, Mother Jones, Inquiry, and Grand Street, among other publications. For the past four years she has been writing about the toll the oil and gas industries are taking on the environment.

Copyright 2014 Ellen Cantarow


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