He’s not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let’s not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet

Populist State of the Union with a fiery tone has liberals excited. They’d be wise to remember Obama’s true nature

He's not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let's not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet
Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren (Credit: AP/Reuters/Bob Strong/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Charles Dharapak/Photo montage by Salon)

Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech capped an epic political makeover. In two months he went from the living avatar of the political and economic establishment to a self-styled populist scourge. It’s as if he walked into a plastic surgeon’s office after Election Day and said “make me look like Bernie Sanders.” No president has ever tried to alter his image so drastically or so fast. I wonder if he’ll pull it off.

His campaign began emphatically on Nov. 5. Instead of the ritual submission the media demands of defeated party leaders, Obama used his post-election press conference to renew his vow to enact substantial immigration reform by executive order. Days later, he announced a major climate accord with China and finally came down foursquare for net neutrality.

These were big moves, but Obama was just warming up. In December, he announced the surprising end of our miserably failed Cuban trade embargo. Earlier this month, he unveiled a bold bid to make community college free for millions of students all across America.

Still not impressed? On Tuesday night he called for paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, a minimum wage hike and a tripling of the child tax credit to $3,000. He’s also pushing a $500 “second earner” tax credit and wants to give college students up to $2,500 apiece to help with expenses. The best part is how he’d pay for it all, mostly by taxing big banks, raising capital gains rates and closing loopholes that allows rich heirs to avoid capital gains taxes altogether.

A not-so-subtle shift in tone followed. Gone, for now, is Obama the ceaseless appeaser. He’s been replaced by a president with a more combative stance, as befits a true people’s champion. At times on Tuesday Obama even seemed to taunt his tormentors. In the last two months he has threatened five vetoes. In the previous six years he’d issued just two; that’s the fewest since James Garfield. Garfield, by the way, was president for six months.

What should we make of this new Obama? Are he and his new agenda for real? For liberals, these are tender questions. When Obama first appeared, their response was almost worshipful. Even today, many liberals treat Obama’s progressive critics as apostates. Given their deep investment in him, the vitriol of Tea Party attacks and the looming specter of GOP rule, it’s easy to understand why. But it’s crucial now for his liberal critics and defenders alike to see him as he is.



Obama’s new program seems real enough. We can’t gauge its full impact without more numbers, but this much is clear: Do it all — equal pay, minimum wage hike, community college tuition, family leave, middle-class tax credits and taxes on big banks and the superrich — and we’d make a very big dent in income inequality. Add the financial transaction tax Ralph Nader and Rose Ann DeMoro’s California nurses have long been pushing — and that some House Democrats now embrace — and you have enough money on the table to reverse decades of wage stagnation.

It may seem a big claim but the numbers are close to consensual. The transaction tax would raise a trillion dollars in 10 years, in which time a modest minimum wage hike would put $300 billion in the pockets of the working poor. Equal pay for equal work could do as much. Even without Obama’s numbers, we know the ideas gaining ground among Democrats could solve one of our biggest problems. As the president said apropos of just about everything, “this is good news, people.”

So what’s not to like? The bad news is there’s quite a bit. The problem is that Obama’s deeds so often contradict his words. Indeed, examine his actions over these same two months and one could also construct a compelling counter-narrative to this tale of populist transformation.

Consider climate change. While negotiating his China deal, Obama was also busy auctioning off drilling rights to 112 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as the deal was done, he was on the phone urging Democrats to back a bill that cut EPA staff, let the Export-Import Bank fund coal-fired electric plants and blocked enforcement of new rules for energy-efficient light bulbs.

In his first term Obama passed the word to his top hires to quiet down about global warming. He likes fracking and brags about increasing oil production. He won’t let Congress approve the Keystone pipeline, but he may approve it himself. In short, he’s a study in mixed climate messages.

The net neutrality story is even more confounding. The statement Obama released was one of the more thoughtful of his presidency. But he’d already made Tom Wheeler, CEO of the most powerful lobby opposing net neutrality, head of the Federal Communications Commission. And they decide the issue. It’s an independent commission that does what it wants. Its members may be moved by Obama’s eloquent words, or just confused.

Perhaps the most troubling contradiction lies in foreign policy. Obama began his speech on Tuesday by saying “tonight we turn the page.” As evidence he cited our newly reduced role in Afghanistan. As he put it: “For the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman… who has served to keep us safe.”

Obama’s relative restraint is such an improvement on George W. Bush’s bellicosity that we can’t help but judge him on a curve. That he’s bogged down in Afghanistan is no surprise, as these wars are always easier to start than finish. (It’s why they call them quagmires.) But in fact there are more than 15,000 Americans still left there. There are, for instance, the private contractors, whose number tripled under Obama. In early 2014, the last time figures were reported, there were 24,000. Obama says the “combat mission” is over — but the combat isn’t finished and neither is the mission.

On Wednesday, Mother Jones ran a story by Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com reporting that in 2014 Obama deployed U.S. Special Ops forces to 133 countries. That’s more than two-thirds of all the countries in the world; it’s a disturbing number and one that also grew exponentially on Obama’s watch. Even more disturbing are the drone strikes Obama has authorized, more than 10 times the number authorized by George W. Bush. American drones have now killed an estimate of more than 4,000 people. At least 20 percent of them were innocent civilians; less than 2 percent were high-value military targets.

In case you thought our combat mission in Iraq ended, buried in Obama’s speech was a call for Congress to pass a “resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” That was it — no explanation of vital interests at stake or limits to set. It was strange coming from a man who wouldn’t be president but for a speech he once gave against a war into which we were tragically conned.

Our war with ISIL proceeds under cover of our original Iraq war resolution, the exhaustion of which Obama concedes by implication. Someone should tell him the same resolution is used to justify drone strikes in nations we’re not at war with. Someone might also mention that use of “private security contractors” — the word “mercenary” stirs indignation — ill befits a democracy; that sending special ops forces to 133 countries also requires authorization and that if you declare an end to combat operations in two wars, your next budget should declare a peace dividend.

Obama’s failure to reconcile words to deeds detracts mightily from the grab bag of ideas he offers under the catchy title “middle class economics.” As noted, these policies could really improve people’s lives. But while he’s out thumping for them, he’s in hot pursuit of what he hopes will be his last coup, approval of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership. It’s such a popular idea he chose not to breathe its name in his speech. What he did say was worth sampling if only to savor its cleverness: “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. We should write those rules… That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”

He doesn’t want another free trade fiasco like that awful NAFTA, just “trade promotion authority to protect American workers.” Surely we can all be for that.

Nearly all left-leaning Democrats oppose the TPTP: Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Bob Reich, Elizabeth Warren. One can’t imagine Obama changing his mind on it any more than one imagines him asking any of them to help craft his new populist agenda. As he likes to reassure his donors, “I’m a market kind of guy,” meaning he comes as close as a Democrat can to being a market ideologue. And yes, there is such a thing.

Market ideologues aren’t the sort to throw bombs or ruin dinner parties but they’re ideologues nonetheless. Their solution for every problem known to mankind is to adopt “market principles.” Their influence on Obama’s generation of Democratic elites has been profound. It’s why so many of them apply market theory to issues to which it is ill-suited, such as carbon reduction, health care and public education.

Obama doesn’t get that free trade can be as good as he says for business and still be a terrible deal for workers. He doesn’t get that markets by their nature do a great job of creating wealth and a poor one of distributing it; that absent a strong government to encode and enforce a social contract there is no middle class; that pitting our workers against those lacking such support will eventually impoverish them. It’s why he opposed raising the minimum wage when he had the votes to do it in his first term. It’s why he bailed out banks but not homeowners, and abandoned the public option.

Missing from Obama’s speech, as from his presidency, was any mention of public corruption. Countless polls attest to the depth of public revulsion at the domination of government by moneyed interests. Obama’s silence allows the Tea Party to fly the flag of “crony capitalism.” Most progressives miss the criticality of this issue that social change movements the world over put at the very top of their agendas.

It makes it really hard to enact new government programs, which is one reason Obama didn’t propose any new federal programs, just tax cuts, private sector mandates and grants to states. There are things the federal government does better, but voters won’t hand over the keys to a car with a cracked engine block. A real populist would fix what we all know is broken.

Betting on what a politician truly thinks is a high-risk business. Some say Obama has changed. Perhaps so; maybe a friend gave him a Krugman book for Christmas and midway through it he had an epiphany. Others say he feels liberated; that’s a popular hope among liberals in that it implies he really did love them all along. Still others say he wants to shape his legacy or the next debate.

But in studying Obama, one discovers a man of markedly fixed views. His take on issues has barely budged over a lifetime. Once he sets a course he sticks to it. We saw it in 2008 when Hillary Clinton rose from the dead sporting a new populist persona. It surprised many to see her peddling her wares to the working class. It shocked them when she won the Pennsylvania primary. John McCain shocked some by running even with him up until the Wall Street crash. We don’t know if either shocked Obama, but we do know he never once changed course.

On Tuesday he devoted an astonishing 20 percent of his time not to global warming or “middle-class economics” but to a defense of his 10-year pursuit of the holy grail of bipartisanship. For six years Obama played Charlie Brown to the Republicans’ Lucy in budget battles. In December he took another crack at the football. Is his new populism such a far cry from his 2008 rhetoric of transformation, or just a bit more specific to satisfy the hunger still rising for change? Do we really think it arose from somewhere other than the usual focus groups and polls?

There’s good news in all this. Someone changed, and if it isn’t Obama it must be us. It isn’t any politician but the power of public opinion that drives this debate. Republicans feel it. Hearing just an outline of a populist message scares them. Pundits say they won’t pass any part of Obama’s agenda but if they’re smart they will; perhaps a lesser minimum wage hike and something just for women. But we’ll never win the victory we must win without a strong progressive movement because neither this system nor those who run it will ever really change.

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/25/hes_not_suddenly_paul_krugman_lets_not_morph_obama_into_elizabeth_warren_quite_yet/?source=newsletter

Delusion and deception in Obama’s State of Union

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By Patrick Martin

21 January 2015

Two weeks ago, the WSWS published its initial review of the results of the year 2014 and the prospects for 2015. We wrote, “In examining the strategies and policies of the ruling elites of one or another country, it would be a mistake to either underestimate their ruthlessness or overestimate their intelligence.”

The State of the Union speech delivered by President Barack Obama Tuesday night confirms this assessment in the case of the United States. The US ruling elite exhibits a determination to stop at nothing in the defense of its wealth and privileges, and pig-headed blindness and stupidity, both on a colossal scale.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Obama’s hour-long address, riddled with tired clichés and empty rhetoric, was the sheer unreality of the picture he presented of America, totally at odds with the actual experience of tens of millions of working people: mounting social and economic crisis, escalating attacks on democratic rights and the growing danger of world war.

“The shadow of crisis has passed,” Obama claimed, declaring that the US has successfully emerged from the economic slump that followed the 2008-2009 financial crash. “At this moment, with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production—we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.”

No one not hypnotized by the ever-rising share prices on the New York Stock Exchange can accept that as a serious description of American social reality. A few figures released in the past month make this clear:

* Nine million workers are officially unemployed, another six million have dropped out of the labor force, eight million work part-time when they want full-time jobs and 12 million work for temporary employment agencies.

* Real wages have fallen steadily for American workers since 2007, dropping another five cents an hour in December 2014. The real income of the average working-class family is now back to the level of 2000—15 years of stagnation in living standards.

* The US poverty rate has risen from 12.6 percent in 2007 to 14.5 percent in 2013. Nearly half of all Americans and more than half of all US school children are poor or near poor.

* One fifth of American children do not get enough to eat, while the overall rate of food insecurity has jumped from 11 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2013. One million Americans will be cut off food stamp benefits this year.

Obama evaded any discussion of such figures, substituting instead the proposal for “middle-class economics,” a term deliberately chosen to conceal the ongoing attack on jobs and living standards of American workers. It is the latest brand-name his speechwriters have concocted for the policy of both capitalist parties, Democratic and Republican alike, of promoting the interests of American corporations and banks against their foreign rivals and the working class at home.

The State of the Union speech made a brief reference to the monstrous growth of economic inequality, where “only a few of us do spectacularly well,” but Obama passed over in silence the connection between the growth of the fortunes of the super-rich and his own policies. Skyrocketing wealth for the few and mounting social misery for the many are not merely coincidental. They are product of a deliberate policy, spearheaded by the Obama administration, of handing trillions of dollars to the banks while orchestrating a coordinated attack on jobs, living standards and social programs.

Equally unreal was Obama’s depiction of the state of American democracy. “As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened,” he said, “which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.”

The formal prohibition of torture, however, has been combined with a lengthy rearguard action against the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, in the course of which Obama blocked any prosecution of the torturers. The White House is directly implicated in illegal activities, including the CIA’s spying on the US Senate and its efforts to withhold documents implicating the highest levels of the state in clear violations of national and international law.

As for “constraints” on the use of drones, there are none. The Obama administration has declared that the president has the unlimited right to order the assassination of any person on the planet, including American citizens, using drone-fired missiles, without any judicial review and without regard to US and international law.

Similarly, Obama claimed that “our intelligence agencies have worked hard … to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.” In fact, the NSA, CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies carry out unlimited surveillance on the population of America and the world, vacuuming up all electronic communications, telephone and Internet, and creating massive databases and political dossiers.

In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, the threat of terrorism has been used as the pretext for building up the structure of a police state in America. This process will only accelerate in the wake of the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the attacks in Paris January 7. Obama declared, “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office.”

This was only one of the many occasions in the State of the Union speech where the US president asserted his willingness to use force to insure the primacy of American imperialism over all its rivals. Half his speech was devoted to such threats, including against Russia, a nuclear-armed power, over Ukraine, and against Iran, where Obama, for the second time in five days, threatened to go to war to destroy the country’s nuclear technology program.

Perhaps the bluntest assertion of American supremacy came when Obama discussed negotiations over trade practices within the Asia-Pacific region (including China and Japan, the world’s second-largest and third-largest economies). “We should write those rules,” Obama declared, as though no other country mattered.

While Obama claimed that he had brought the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a close, reducing the total troop deployment in the two countries from 180,000 to 15,000, this represents a shift in focus to a more extensive, not scaled-back, imperialist intervention. The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) deployed forces to 133 countries in 2014, more than two thirds of the globe.

Obama concluded his speech with an appeal to the Republican Party, which now controls a majority of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, for bipartisan collaboration over the next two years. He warned against “always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.”

This language was chosen, not so much to urge the Republicans to resist the pressure of their ultra-right Tea Party faction, as to urge the Democrats to get on with devising bipartisan attacks on the working class, regardless of the popular reaction among workers, particularly the poorest and most oppressed who, if they go to the polls, generally vote for the Democratic Party.

Obama proposed a handful of measures aimed at sustaining the threadbare pretense that the Democrats still adhere to policies of liberal reform—free tuition for community college students and a child care tax credit for working families, to be paid for by increased taxes on the wealthy and the banks. But no one in official Washington takes these seriously for a minute. They are window dressing, while the policy of the US ruling elite moves further and further to the right.

Aside from the delusional character of the speech, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Obama’s remarks was the fact that, for the vast majority of the population, it was a non-event. Obama stands at the head of a state apparatus that, increasingly, is talking to itself.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/21/sotu-j21.html

State of the Union: Twenty Pounds of BS in a Ten-Pound Bag

Wednesday, 21 January 2015 11:11

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, in the House Chamber of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, in the House Chamber of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Let me be perfectly clear from the jump: It was a fine speech, one of the best of President Obama’s political career, which makes it automatically one of the best in the State of the Union’s august history. The last fifteen minutes, in particular, were absolutely soaring, not just in rhetoric, but in the delivery as well. The man parked it as deep as it can be parked, like a majestic David Ortiz line drive deep into the bleachers at Fenway, thanks for coming, turn out the lights when you leave. No one does it better that Barack Obama when the bright lights are on.

…and when it was over, my immediate thought was of Steven the Irishman, the self-declared madman from the film Braveheart. Mel Gibson had just given his rousing speech to keep the Scots from fleeing before the battle at Stirling Bridge.

“Fine speech,” said Steven. “Now what do we do?”

Indeed.

You see, apparently we’ve “turned the page” on the economic wasteland created by our Neo-Con/Neo-Liberal brain trust in Washington. The shadow of crisis has passed, and we’re on a new foundation.

How many people do you know who actually feel that way?

Just about everyone I know is economically scared to death, and most of them are living paycheck to paycheck…and brothers and sisters, I know a whole hell of a lot of people, in all fifty states and most of the territories. I ain’t Pew or Gallup, so take this with as many grains of salt you need to choke it down, but here’s the hard truth: No pages have been turned, and the new foundation is just as porous as the old one…because it’s the same old God damned foundation. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The President of the United States gave a speech on Tuesday night that would, in parts, have gone over like gangbusters at any Occupy rally in the country, and then he turned on a dime to brag about our massively impressive oil and gas production, i.e. fracking and maybe the Keystone XL pipeline, and then went on further to give an impassioned aria about climate change, at which point my brain crawled out of my ear and slithered into the bathroom, where it wept piteously into the cold porcelain truth of the base of the toilet.

Stephen King, in several of his books, deployed a line I’ve never forgotten: “So full of shit you squeak going into a turn.” Between his cheerleading for fracking and his full-court press for the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which he championed again on Tuesday night out of the other side of his mouth – I honestly don’t know how the president sleeps at night, especially after coughing up so many demonstrably phony hairballs about protecting the environment.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” but gods be good, this is a bridge too far.

And then it got worse.

“Now America thrived in the 20th century,” said the president on Tuesday night, “because we made high school free, sent a generation of G.I.s to college, trained the best workforce in the world. We were ahead of the curve. But other countries caught on.”

Caught on?

Caught on? To what? To this nation’s deliberate defenestration of its manufacturing infrastructure and loyal Union work force, all in the name of a quick buck? Never mind the implication that other nations are incapable of their own innovations, but have to “catch on” to what we do. Yeah, that’s exactly how we wound up in this ditch.

No, you serial apologist, we signed on to trade pacts like the TPP you’re begging for and sold our economic strengths to the lowest bidder. We gave away the best of what we were to serve the people paying your bills and cut our guts out in the process, and you don’t have the courage to tell it like it really is.

It was a fine show on Tuesday night, a masterful performance, and a comprehensive waste of time. Leaving aside everything I’ve said, there is the stone-cold fact that absolutely none of the progressive ideas President Obama proposed on Tuesday night have the vaguest chance of seeing daylight in this new GOP-dominated congress…which begs the question:

Why did he wait until now – when everything he proposed was demonstrably doomed before the words even passed his teeth – to uncork the kind of rhetoric so many of his voters have been waiting for? Was it to poke a stick in the eye of this new assemblage? Perhaps to lay some rhetorical groundwork for the 2016 presidential race?

Or did he never mean any of it in the first place, and said it on Tuesday night secure in the fact that none of it would ever come to pass?

As I said, it was a fine speech. Soaring at points, in fact.

Now what do we do?

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT

William Rivers Pitt is Truthout’s senior editor and lead columnist. He is also a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of three books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know, The Greatest Sedition Is Silence and House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America’s Ravaged Reputation. His fourth book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with Dahr Jamail, is available now on Amazon. He lives and works in New Hampshire.

 

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/28649-twenty-pounds-of-bs-in-a-ten-pound-bag

SMART CROWS ACE CARD GAME

Crows can remember faces and use tools. Now new research shows they also have the brain power to spontaneously solve higher-order matching tasks—without being trained to do so.

That means crows join humans, apes, and monkeys in exhibiting advanced relational thinking.

baby crow
Ed Wasserman concedes there will be skeptics and hopes the experiment will be repeated with more crows as well as other species. “We have always sold animals short,” he says. “That human arrogance still permeates contemporary cognitive science.” (Credit: David Fant/Flickr)

“What the crows have done is a phenomenal feat,” says Ed Wasserman, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa and corresponding author of the study.

“That’s the marvel of the results. It’s been done before with apes and monkeys, but now we’re dealing with a bird; but not just any bird, a bird with a brain as special to birds as the brain of an apes is special to mammals.”

For the study, published in Current Biology, two hooded crows that were at least 2 years old were placed into a wire mesh cage into which a plastic tray containing three small cups was occasionally inserted. The sample cup in the middle was covered with a small card on which was pictured a color, shape, or number of items.

SPONTANEOUS LEARNING

The other two cups were also covered with cards—one that matched the sample and one that did not. During this initial training period, the cup with the matching card contained two mealworms; the crows were rewarded with these food items when they chose the matching card, but they received no food when they chose the other card.

Once the crows have been trained on identity matching-to-sample, the researchers moved to the second phase of the experiment. This time, the birds were assessed with relational matching pairs of items. These relational matching trials were arranged in such a way that neither test pairs precisely matched the sample pair, thereby eliminating control by physical identity.

For example, the crows might have to choose two same-sized circles rather than two different-sized circles when the sample card displayed two same-sized squares.

What surprised the researchers was not only that the crows could correctly perform the relational matches, but that they did so spontaneously—without explicit training.

“That is the crux of the discovery,” Wasserman says. “Honestly, if it was only by brute force that the crows showed this learning, then it would have been an impressive result. But this feat was spontaneous.”

SMART AS HUMANS

The researchers acknowledge that the crows’ relational matching behavior did not come without some background knowledge.

Anthony Wright, neurobiology and anatomy professor at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School, says the discovery ranks on par with demonstrations of tool use by some birds, including crows.

“Analogical reasoning, matching relations to relations, has been considered to be among the more so-called ‘higher order’ abstract reasoning processes,” he says. “For decades such reasoning has been thought to be limited to humans and some great apes. The apparent spontaneity of this finding makes it all the more remarkable.”

Joel Fagot, director of research at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, agrees the results shatter the notion that “sophisticated forms of cognition can only be found in our ‘smart’ human species. Accumulated evidence suggests that animals can do more than expected.”

Wasserman concedes there will be skeptics and hopes the experiment will be repeated with more crows as well as other species. “We have always sold animals short,” he says. “That human arrogance still permeates contemporary cognitive science.”

The Russian Foundation for Basic Research supported the research. Anna Smirnova, Zoya Zorina and Tanya Obozova, researchers at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia, are coauthors of the study.

Source: University of Iowa

 

http://www.futurity.org/crows-matching-game-826262/?utm_source=Futurity+Today&utm_campaign=cc6af04423-December_26_201412_26_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e34e8ee443-cc6af04423-205990505

Everything’s Coming Together While Everything Falls Apart: The Climate for 2015

Published on

A scene from the People’s Climate March in New York City.  (Photo: Light Brigading/flickr/cc)

It was the most thrilling bureaucratic document I’ve ever seen for just one reason: it was dated the 21st day of the month of Thermidor in the Year Six. Written in sepia ink on heavy paper, it recorded an ordinary land auction in France in what we would call the late summer of 1798. But the extraordinary date signaled that it was created when the French Revolution was still the overarching reality of everyday life and such fundamentals as the distribution of power and the nature of government had been reborn in astonishing ways. The new calendar that renamed 1792 as Year One had, after all, been created to start society all over again.

In that little junk shop on a quiet street in San Francisco, I held a relic from one of the great upheavals of the last millennium. It made me think of a remarkable statement the great feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin had made only a few weeks earlier. In the course of a speech she gave while accepting a book award she noted, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

That document I held was written only a few years after the French had gotten over the idea that the divine right of kings was an inescapable reality. The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).

Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).

How to Topple a Giant

As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).To use Le Guin’s language, physics is inevitable: if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet warms, and as the planet warms, various kinds of chaos and ruin are let loose. Politics, on the other hand, is not inevitable. For example, not so many years ago it would have seemed inevitable that Chevron, currently the third biggest corporation in the country, would run the refinery town of Richmond, California, as its own private fiefdom. You could say that the divine right of Chevron seemed like a given. Except that people in Richmond refused to accept it and so this town of 107,000 mostly poor nonwhites pushed back.

In recent years, a group of progressives won election to the city council and the mayor’s seat, despite huge expenditures by Chevron, the corporation that also brought you gigantic oil spills onshore in Ecuador and offshore in Brazil, massive contamination from half a century of oil extraction in Nigeria, and Canadian tar-sands bitumen sent by rail to the Richmond refinery. Mayor Gayle McLaughin and her cohorts organized a little revolution in a town that had mostly been famous for its crime rate and for Chevron’s toxic refinery emissions, which periodically create emergencies, sometimes requiring everyone to take shelter (and pretend that they are not being poisoned indoors), sometimes said — by Chevron — to be harmless, as with last Thursday’s flames that lit up the sky, visible as far away as Oakland.

As McLaughin put it of her era as mayor:

“We’ve accomplished so much, including breathing better air, reducing the pollution, and building a cleaner environment and cleaner jobs, and reducing our crime rate. Our homicide number is the lowest in 33 years and we became a leading city in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita. We’re a sanctuary city. And we’re defending our homeowners to prevent foreclosures and evictions. And we also got Chevron to pay $114 million extra dollars in taxes.”

For this November’s election, the second-largest oil company on Earth officially spent $3.1 million to defeat McLaughin and other progressive candidates and install a mayor and council more to its liking. That sum worked out to about $180 per Richmond voter, but my brother David, who’s long been connected to Richmond politics, points out that, if you look at all the other ways the company spends to influence local politics, it might be roughly ten times that.

Nonetheless, Chevron lost. None of its candidates were elected and all the grassroots progressives it fought with billboards, mailers, television ads, websites, and everything else a lavishly funded smear campaign can come up with, won.

If a small coalition like that can win locally against a corporation that had revenues of $228.9 billion in 2013, imagine what a large global coalition could do against the fossil-fuel giants. It wasn’t easy in Richmond and it won’t be easy on the largest scale either, but it’s not impossible. The Richmond progressives won by imagining that the status quo was not inevitable, no less an eternal way of life. They showed up to do the work to dent that inevitability. The billionaires and fossil fuel corporations are intensely engaged in politics all the time, everywhere, and they count on us to stay on the sidelines. If you look at their response to various movements, you can see that they fear the moment we wake up, show up, and exercise our power to counter theirs.

That power operated on a larger scale last week, when local activists and public health professionals applied sufficient pressure to get New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign legislation banning fracking statewide. Until the news broke on December 17th, the outcome had seemed uncertain. It’s a landmark, a watershed decision: a state has decided that its considerable reserves of fossil fuel will not be extracted for the foreseeable future, that other things — the health of its people, the purity of its water — matter more. And once again, the power of citizens turned out to be greater than that of industry.

Just a few days before the huge victory in New York, the nations of the world ended theirmost recent talks in Lima, Peru, about a global climate treaty — and they actually reached atentative deal, one that for the first time asks all nations, not just the developed ones, to reduce emissions. The agreement has to get better — to do more, demand more of every nation — by the global climate summit in Paris in December of 2015.

We need to end the age of fossil fuels the way the French ended the age of absolute monarchy.It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here, but easy to see that activists and citizens will have to push their nations hard. We need to end the age of fossil fuels the way the French ended the age of absolute monarchy. As New York State and the town of Richmond just demonstrated, what is possible has been changing rapidly.

Three Kinds of Hero  

If you look at innovations in renewable energy technologies — and this may be an era in which engineers are our unsung heroes — the future seems tremendously exciting. Not long ago, the climate movement was only hoping against hope that technology could help save us from the depredations of climate change. Now, as one of the six great banners carried in the 400,000-strong September 21st climate march in New York City proclaimed, “We have the solutions.” Wind, solar, and other technologies are spreading rapidly with better designs, lower costs, and many extraordinary improvements that are undoubtedly but a taste of what’s still to come.

In parts of the United States and the world, clean energy is actually becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. The price of oil has suddenly plunged, scrambling the situation for a while, but with one positive side benefit: it’s pushed some of the filthier carbon-intensive, cutting-edge energy extraction schemes below the cost-effective point for now.

The costs of clean energy technology have themselves been dropping significantly enough that sober financial advisers like the head of the Bank of England are beginning to suggest that fossil fuels and centralized conventional power plants may prove to be bad investments. They are also talking about “the carbon bubble” (a sign that the divestment movement has worked in calling attention to the practical as well as the moral problems of the industry). So the technology front is encouraging.

That’s the carrot for action; there’s also a stick.

If you look at the climate reports by the scientists — and scientists are another set of heroes for our time — the news only keeps getting scarier. You probably already know the highlights: chaotic weather, regular records set for warmth on land and at sea (and 2014 heading for an all-time heat high), 355 months in a row of above-average temperatures,more ice melting faster, more ocean acidification, the “sixth extinction,” the spread of tropical diseases, drops in food productivity with consequent famines.

So many people don’t understand what we’re up against, because they don’t think about the Earth and its systems much or they don’t grasp the delicate, intricate reciprocities and counterbalances that keep it all running as well as it has since the last ice age ended and an abundant, calm planet emerged. For most of us, none of that is real or vivid or visceral or even visible.

For a great many scientists whose fields have something to do with climate, it is. In many cases they’re scared, as well as sad and unnerved, and they’re clear about the urgency of taking action to limit how disastrously climate change impacts our species and the systems we depend upon.

Some non-scientists already assume that it’s too late to do anything, which — as premature despair always does — excuses us for doing nothing. Insiders, however, are generally convinced that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best- and worst-case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written.

After that huge climate march, I asked Jamie Henn, a cofounder of and communications director for 350.org, how he viewed this moment and he replied, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart,” a perfect summary of the way heartening news about alternative energy and the growth of climate activism exists in the shadow of those terrible scientific reports. This brings us to our third group of heroes, who fall into the one climate category that doesn’t require special qualifications: activists.

New technologies are only solutions if they’re implemented and the old carbon-emitting ones are phased out or shut down. It’s clear enough that the great majority of fossil fuel reserves must be kept just where they are — in the ground — as we move away from the Age of Petroleum. That became all too obvious thanks to a relatively recent calculation made by scientists and publicized and pushed by activists (and maybe made conceivable by engineers designing replacement systems). The goal of all this: to keep the warming of the planet to 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), a target established years ago thatalarmed scientists are now questioning, given the harm that nearly 1 degree Celsius of warming is already doing.

Dismantling the fossil-fuel economy would undoubtedly have the side effect of breaking some of the warping power that oil has had in global and national politics. Of course, those wielding that power will not yield it without a ferocious battle — the very battle the climate movement is already engaged in on many fronts, from the divestment movement to the fight against fracking to the endeavor to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and others like it from delivering the products of the Alberta tar sands to the successful movement to shut down coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and prevent others from being built.

Climate Activism: Global and Local Movements

If everyone who’s passionate about climate change, who gets that we’re living in a moment in which the fate of the Earth and of humanity is actually being decided, found their place in the movement, amazing things could happen. What’s happening now is already remarkable enough, just not yet adequate to the crisis.  

The divestment movement that arose a couple of years ago to get institutions to unload their stocks in fossil fuel corporations started modestly. It is now active on hundreds of college campuses and at other institutions around the world. While the intransigence or love of inertia of bureaucracies is a remarkable force, there have been notable victories. In late September, for instance, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — made fat upon the wealth of John D. Rockefeller’s founding role in the rise of the petroleum industry — pledged to divest its $860 million in assets from fossil fuels. It is just one of more than 800 institutions, including church denominations, universities, cities, pension funds, and foundations from Scotland to New Zealand to Seattle, that have already committed to doing so.

The Keystone pipeline could have been up and running years ago, delivering the dirtiest energy from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast with little fanfare, had activists nottaken it on. It has become a profoundly public, hotly debated issue, the subject of demonstrations at dozens of presidential appearances in recent years — and in the course of this ruckus, a great many people (including me) were clued in to the existence of the giant suppurating sore of sludge, bitumen, and poison lakes that is the Alberta tar sands.

Canadian activists have done a similarly effective job of blocking other pipelines to keep this landlocked stuff from reaching any coast for export.  One upshot of this: quite a lot of the stuff is now being put on trains (with disastrous results when they crash and, in the longer term, no less disastrous outcomes when they don’t). This exceptionally dirty crude oil leaves behind extremely high levels of toxins in the mining as well as the refining process.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported:

“The Keystone XL pipeline was touted as a model for energy independence and a source of jobs when TransCanada Corp. announced plans to build the 1,700-mile pipeline six years ago. But the crude-oil pipeline’s political and regulatory snarls since then have emboldened resistance to at least 10 other pipeline projects across North America. As a result, six oil and natural-gas pipeline projects in North America costing a proposed $15 billion or more and stretching more than 3,400 miles have been delayed, a tally by the Wall Street Journalshows. At least four other projects with a total investment of $25 billion and more than 5,100 miles in length are facing opposition but haven’t been delayed yet.”

The climate movement has proved to be bigger and more effective than it looks, because most people don’t see a single movement. If they look hard, what they usually see is a wildly diverse mix of groups facing global issues on the one hand and a host of local ones on the other. Domestically, that can mean Denton, Texas, banning fracking in the November election or the shutting down of coal-powered plants across the country, or the movement gearing up in California for an immense anti-fracking demonstration on February 7, 2015.

It can mean people working on college divestment campaigns or rewriting state laws to address climate change by implementing efficiency and clean energy. It can mean the British Columbian activists who, for now, have prevented a tunnel from being drilled for a tar-sands pipeline to the Pacific Coast thanks to a months-long encampment, civil disobedience, and many arrests at Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver. One of the arrestedwrote in the Vancouver Observer:

“[S]itting in that jail cell, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. One that I was only partially aware that I have been carrying for years now. I am ashamed by Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty and our increasingly contemptible position on climate change. If these are the values of our society then I want to be an outlaw in that society.”

Making the Future

Just before that September climate march in New York, I began to contemplate how human beings a century from now will view those of us who lived in the era when climate change was recognized, and yet there was so much more that we could have done. They may feel utter contempt for us. They may regard us as the crew who squandered their inheritance, like drunkards gambling away a family fortune that, in this case, is everyone’s everywhere and everything. I’m talking, of course, about the natural world itself when it was in good working order. They will see us as people who fiddled while everything burned.

They will think we were insane to worry about celebrities and fleeting political scandals and whether we had nice bodies. They will think the newspapers should have had a gigantic black box above the fold of the front page every day saying “Here are some stories about other things, BUT CLIMATE IS STILL THE BIGGEST STORY OF ALL.”

They will think that we should have thrown our bodies in front of the engines of destruction everywhere, raised our voices to the heavens, halted everything until the devastation stopped. They will bless and praise the few and curse the many.

If you are a resident of a country that is a major carbon emitter, as is nearly everyone in the English-speaking world, you are part of the system, and nothing less than systemic change will save us.There have been heroic climate activists in nearly every country on the planet, and some remarkable things have already been achieved. The movement has grown in size, power, and sophistication, but it’s still nowhere near commensurate with what needs to be done. In the lead-up to the U.N.-sponsored conference to create a global climate treaty in Paris next December, this coming year will likely be decisive.

So this is the time to find your place in a growing movement, if you haven’t yet — as it is for climate organizers to do better at reaching out and offering everyone a part in the transformation, whether it’s the housebound person who writes letters or the 20-year-old who’s ready for direct action in remote places. This is the biggest of pictures, so there’s a role for everyone, and it should be everyone’s most important work right now, even though so many other important matters press on all of us. (As the Philippines’s charismatic former climate negotiator Yeb Sano notes, “Climate change impinges on almost all human rights. Human rights are at the core of this issue.”)

Many people believe that personal acts in private life are what matters in this crisis. They are good things, but not the key thing. It’s great to bicycle rather than drive, eat plantsinstead of animals, and put solar panels on your roof, but such gestures can also offer a false sense that you’re not part of the problem.

You are not just a consumer. You are a citizen of this Earth and your responsibility is not private but public, not individual but social. If you are a resident of a country that is a major carbon emitter, as is nearly everyone in the English-speaking world, you are part of the system, and nothing less than systemic change will save us.

The race is on. From an ecological standpoint, the scientists advise us that we still have a little bit of time in which it might be possible, by a swift, decisive move away from fossil fuels, to limit the damage we’re setting up for those who live in the future. From a political standpoint, we have a year until the Paris climate summit, at which, after endless foot-shuffling and evading and blocking and stalling and sighing, we could finally, decades in, get a meaningful climate deal between the world’s nations.

We actually have a chance, a friend who was at the Lima preliminary round earlier this month told me, if we all continue to push our governments ferociously. The real pressure for change globally comes more from within nations than from nations pressuring one another. Here in the United States, long the world’s biggest carbon-emitter (until China outstripped us, partly by becoming the manufacturer of a significant percentage of our products), we have a particular responsibility to push hard. Pressure works. The president is clearly feeling it, and it’s reflected in the recent U.S.-China agreement on curtailing emissions — far from perfect or adequate, but a huge step forward.

How will we get to where we need to be? No one knows, but we do know that we must keep moving in the direction of reduced carbon emissions, a transformed energy economy, an escape from the tyranny of fossil fuel, and a vision of a world in which everything is connected. The story of this coming year is ours to write and it could be a story of Year One in the climate revolution, of the watershed when popular resistance changed the fundamentals as much as the people of France changed their world (and ours) more than 200 ago.

Two hundred years hence, may someone somewhere hold in their hands a document from 2021, in wonder, because it was written during Year Six of the climate revolution, when all the old inevitabilities were finally being swept aside, when we seized hold of possibility and made it ours. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” says Ursula K. Le Guin. And she’s right, even if it’s the hardest work we could ever do. Now, everything depends on it.

Rebecca Solnit is an activist, TomDispatch.com regular, and author of many books, including the just published, Men Explain Things to Me (Dispatch Books, Haymarket Books). Her first essay for TomDispatch.com turned into the book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, since translated into eight languages.  Other previous books include: The Faraway Nearby, A Paradise Built in Hell, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, The Battle of The Story of the Battle in Seattle (with her brother David), and Storming The Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics.  She is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine

http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/12/23/everythings-coming-together-while-everything-falls-apart-climate-2015

Amid Uproar, Nicaragua to Break Ground on Massive Canal ‘Scheme’

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Opponents of the project say inter-ocean canal will displace tens of thousands, violates the constitutional rights of indigenous people

During a 2013 demonstration against the canal, protesters carry a banner that reads "Ortega Vendepatria" or "Ortega sold our home," referring to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. (Photo: Jorge Mejía Peralta/cc/flickr)

During a 2013 demonstration against the canal, protesters carry a banner that reads “Ortega Vendepatria” or “Ortega sold our home,” referring to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. (Photo: Jorge Mejía Peralta/cc/flickr)In the face of months of growing opposition and protests by local people, a Chinese firm on Monday will begin construction on a $50 billion project to link the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean that critics say will displace tens of thousands of people and bring untold environmental damage to the region.

One day ahead of the groundbreaking ceremony, dozens of furious Nicaraguans blockaded roads, stopping workers with the Hong Kong-based firm Hong Kong Nicaragua Development (HKND) from accessing the construction site.

In videos shared online by an activist group, protesters shouted “Viva Nicaragua!” while they blocked streets with a banner reading: “No to the canal.”

“This project will bring no benefit to the people of Nicaragua, it will only benefit the Chinese,” the South China Morning Post quoted 24-year-old protest leader Danilo Lorio as saying. “The compensation offer for our lands is ridiculous.”

There have been 17 such demonstrations against the canal in recent months with the largest on December 10 drawing a crowd of 5,000 to the capital Managua. Nicaraguans are angry over what they charge are illegal land seizures by the Nicaraguan government in order to pave the way for the massive and controversial infrastructure project.

The proposed canal is set to intersect Lake Nicaragua, known locally as Lake Cocibolca, sending cargo ships and tankers straight through the largest source of freshwater in Central America. Further, the canal is expected to displace tens of thousands of mostly rural and indigenous landholders and would likely devastate over 400,000 acres of rainforests and wetlands, which scientists say are critical to local and regional biodiversity conservation efforts.

According to Ohio State University doctoral candidate Chris Hartmann writing for Foreign Policy in Focus, “Farmers and residents near the lake are concerned that the proposed canal will disrupt subsistence agricultural practices, further pollute the lake, and decrease water for personal consumption and irrigation. Both farmers and residents worry they will be evicted from their lands, and many will refuse to leave willingly.”

Azahalea Solís, an activist lawyer with the Women’s Autonomous Movement, told theSouth China Morning Post that she was particularly concerned about how the police and military would enforce the land seizures and crack down on protesters.

“We are working to avoid violent confrontations,” said Solís. “Our country has had a long history of violence which we don’t want to see again.”

The proposed canal, Hartmann says, disregards several of Nicaragua’s constitutional mandates—including indigenous peoples’ rights to autonomy and self-determination, and the right to collective ownership of communal and indivisible lands. Several indigenous groups have filed suit against the Ortega administration, alleging violations of constitutional and international rights, including the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

More troubling, according to critics, is that local supporters of the canal were unaware of its environmental and social costs.

Execution of the project has been veiled under a “shroud of secrecy,” according to the UK-based Geographical magazine, as construction is set to proceed without public consultation or parliamentary debate and prior to the release of both an environmental impact study and a social impact assessment.

“This massive engineering scheme will impact the country and the region on such a gargantuan scale that one wonders why there was no national referendum presented to the Nicaraguan populace in advance; either to determine the degree of support for the project or to lend an air of public inclusion to create the desired support,” Dr. Jorge Huete-Pérez, Director of the Molecular Biology Center at the University of Central America (MBC-UCA) told Geographical.

Huete-Pérez continued: “Plans for the canal are constantly changing. Sub-projects are added and subtracted, or simply disappear from the HKND Group website without explanation. Considering the enormous technical, geological, social and financial challenges facing the project–including plans to begin operations within just five years from the initial date of construction–this project appears to be rushed and lacking in responsible planning.”

The official groundbreaking ceremony will be held Monday evening in Managua.