The social and political context of the Germanwings disaster


By Peter Schwarz
28 March 2015

The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in France, which sent 150 people to their deaths, was, according to investigators, the result of the deliberate actions of the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz.

Following an evaluation of evidence from the voice recorder, specialists from the French Civil Aviation Authority (BEA) and the Marseille public prosecutor, Brice Robin, have come to the conclusion that after the pilot left the cockpit, the 27-year-old co-pilot manually reset the Airbus A320’s autopilot to take the plane from 38,000 feet to 96 feet, the lowest possible setting. Lubitz then refused to allow the pilot back into the cockpit and quietly remained at the controls until the plane crashed into the side of a mountain.

Investigators say this could not have been an accident. From the quiet breathing of the co-pilot, who can be heard on the recording, they conclude that he was fully conscious until the impact.

No sooner had this highly troubling analysis been made known than the media, assorted politicians and the Lufthansa management sought to present the disaster as an incomprehensible event without deeper social significance.

The crash was a tragic fluke that the best security procedures and psychological safeguards could not have prevented, said Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr. In his “worst nightmare” he could “not have imagined that such a thing could happen one day.”

On the web site of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, editor Mathias Müller von Blumencron wrote, “This accident has to be explained, as that is the only way we can come to terms with it.” But he sought the explanation exclusively in the individual psyche of the culprit, declaring: “At the heart of the explanation is one person, more precisely, his head, his possibly misguided brain… It is the psyche of Andreas Lubitz that caused the incomprehensible. On the basis of the present state of things, the solution can be found only in the person of the co-pilot.”


Of course, one has to establish what motives, personal issues or psychological problems drove Lubitz to do this terrible deed. But the psychological background alone cannot explain a disaster of this magnitude. Lubitz acted within a particular social environment. To understand his actions, one must understand not only his individual malady, but also the society in which he lived.

What immense social pressures are required to drive a young man—described by all of his acquaintances as unobtrusive, quiet, pleasant and easy to deal with—to murder 149 people? Why had no one seen the warning signs of the coming disaster?

To probe these questions inevitably necessitates going beyond the “possibly misguided brain” of the culprit and considering a social context that is characterized by increasing occupational stress, economic insecurity, public anxiety, social tensions, state violence and militarism.

The Düsseldorf Public Prosecutor’s Office raided Lubitz’s apartments in Montabaur and in Düsseldorf but found neither a letter of confession nor evidence of a political or religious motive. But they discovered evidence of possible mental distress. They found a torn doctor’s note recommending time off from work, including the day of the crash, and concluded that “the deceased had concealed his illness from his employer and professional colleagues.”

Why did Lubitz go to work despite having a sick note? Did he fear losing his job, which was apparently his dream job? He had joined the local glider club as a 15-year-old and was trained by Lufthansa as a pilot after leaving high school in Bremen. However, he interrupted his training for six months due, according to unconfirmed reports, to depression.

Was Lubitz unable to cope with the increasing work pressure, which is constantly growing, especially at Lufthansa and its low-cost subsidiary Eurowings? This issue has been the source of a year-long industrial dispute by pilots.

Work-related stress and associated mental disorders have increased tremendously, not only in the aviation industry, but throughout society. According to a study by the World Health Organization, 5 percent of the German population of working age, or 3.1 million people, suffer from a major depressive illness. The number of days of sick leave due to mental illness has increased in recent years—18-fold, according to health insurance companies. In 2012 alone it increased by 10 percent.

Lubitz must have felt himself under enormous pressure to commit such a monstrous act. Even experienced psychologists cannot recall a similarly extreme case.

While there is the phenomenon of extended suicide, where a suicide victim kills others in addition to himself, the other victims are usually relatives or people with whom the perpetrator has a personal relationship. Lubitz’s actions can only partially be compared to killing sprees such as the Columbine High School massacre in America or the bloodletting at Erfurt Gutenberg Gymnasium in Germany.

In such events, the victims usually come from the perpetrator’s social milieu and are targeted because of some perceived offence. In the Germanwings disaster, however, 149 people whom Lubitz in all probability did not know were randomly sent to their deaths simply because they happened to be aboard the airplane.

One would expect that even a mentally ill and depressed person would have inhibitions against committing such a massacre. That these were apparently not present should be seen against the backdrop of a general devaluing of human life.

Andreas Lubitz was 11 years old when the Bundeswehr went into Yugoslavia in the first foreign operation of the post-World War II German military. Thereafter, he lived through one war after another in which American and German troops killed thousands and officials publicly boasted of the number of alleged terrorists “taken out.”

In the Mediterranean, thousands of refugees drown each year while the European Union erects new barriers to prevent them from reaching the continent. The austerity cuts demanded by the German government push millions into poverty in Greece and drive unknown numbers of people to suicide.

The explanation for the Germanwings disaster cannot be found simply in the mind and psyche of Andreas Lubitz. Rather, one must place his sickness within its real context—that of a dysfunctional and diseased social order.

At the same time, the wave of sympathy, human solidarity and eagerness to help with which the population reacted in the crash area, throughout France and in the home countries of the victims brought something different to light—a deep yearning for a truly humane society.

The politicians who commemorate the victims will not fulfil this need. They return from the memorial ceremonies to pursue their policies of welfare cuts, labour market “reforms,” ever expanding police powers at home and increasingly bloody wars abroad.

New discoveries show that Mars may have once been habitable

By Bryan Dyne
28 March 2015

A recent study using data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences present data showing the presence of nitrates on Mars. This molecule, composed of one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, may indicate that there was once a nitrogen cycle on ancient Mars, one of the necessary mechanisms on a planet to sustain terrestrial-like life.

The Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The research was undertaken with an international team led by Jennifer Stern using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. In earlier studies of Martian soils and rocks at Gale crater, nitrogen was detected in both scooped and drilled sediment samples. However, it was not clear whether the nitrogen detected was from the surrounding atmosphere, indicating molecular nitrogen, or from the rocks themselves, indicating nitrates. Using SAM and subtracting out the known sources of nitrogen within the instrument, Stern’s team was able to show that there were still up to 1100 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen remaining, depending on the sample analyzed. From this, Stern’s team concluded that the nitrogen originated from the sediments and thus from nitrates.

Whether nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or in other forms plays an important role in biochemistry on Earth. While the majority of terrestrial nitrogen is in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air we breath, it is in the inert form of molecular hydrogen (N2). To incorporate nitrogen into more complex molecules—such as nucleobases, amino acids, DNA, RNA and proteins—it must be in more accessible forms. The nitrate molecule (NO3) is one of the most prevalent and useful molecules seen on Earth for this purpose.

As such, the strong evidence of nitrates in a variety of different rocks and sediments on the Martian surface implies that, at a very early point in the planet’s history, there could have been large amounts of biologically useful nitrogen on the Red Planet.

Stern’s research complements a report released three weeks ago in Sciencewhich provides strong support for the existence of an ocean of liquid water on the surface of Mars during the planet’s early life. The ocean is estimated to have held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. That is enough water to cover the entire surface of Mars in liquid 137 meters deep. More likely, the ocean covered almost half Mars’ northern hemisphere and reached depths greater than 1.6 kilometers.

This is much larger than previous estimates of a primordial Martian ocean, meaning that the planet’s surface could have been wetter for much longer than estimated, perhaps 900 million years. Combined with a thicker, warmer atmosphere, volcanism on the surface and the presence of nitrates, this likely led to rich reservoirs containing the diverse chemical elements needed for life.

Artist conception of the primitive ocean the NASA suspects once existed on Mars

This second discovery was made by a team led Geronimo Villanueva, working with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. Using detailed maps of the Martian atmosphere, the scientists were able to distinguish the chemical signatures of two slightly different isotopes of water. The first is the familiar H2O. The second is the more exotic form HDO, in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by one its more massive forms, deuterium.

By taking the ratio of H2O and HDO in Mars’ atmosphere and comparing it to those values found in water trapped in a 4.5 billion-year-old Martian meteorite, Villanueva’s team was able to measure the atmospheric change in the intervening time span and determine how much water escaped to space. The forthcoming MAVEN probe will take similar measurements.

These maps were made over the course of three Martian years, amounting to six years on Earth. Beyond showing that Mars once housed a massive ocean, the research also revealed seasonal changes and local weather patterns across what was previously thought to be a mostly homogenous desert climate.

Mars’ polar ice caps were also studied, using the same H2O and HDO ratio, as they are suspected to contain a more direct record of water on Mars from 3.7 billion years ago to the present. The researchers found that Mars once had at least 6.5 times the amount of water currently contained in the ice caps, meaning a volume of water on ancient Mars of at least 20 million cubic kilometers. This is in general agreement with the atmospheric study.

Both the nitrogen amounts and water levels now thought to have existed on ancient Mars lead to the question: Where did this all go? Mars today is a barren world with an atmosphere that is 96 percent carbon dioxide and less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s. There is no liquid water on its surface and one has to dig before finding any indication of biologically useable material.

It is suspected that Mars lost its atmosphere to space. The results gathered by the Curiosity rover as a whole are in agreement with in situ atmospheric measurements made by the Viking landers from 1976 to 1982, when this idea first gained traction. The three main mechanisms for losing atmosphere include interactions between the atmosphere and the solar wind, a massive impact by an asteroid or other body, and/or the atmosphere escaping as a result of thermal motion and the planet’s relatively low gravity. It is not clear which of these mechanisms (if any) is primary.

The loss of the ocean is somewhat more mysterious. Neither the solar wind nor low Martian gravity can account for the loss of liquid water. As the planet cooled and the water froze, one way for the ocean to have disappeared is for the frozen water to sublime into water vapor in the atmosphere and then into space. A more interesting hypothesis is that the ocean didn’t go anywhere at all, but was covered up by sediment and dirt as it froze. If so, this would mean that a great deal of water ice is under the northern lowlands of Mars, the Vastitas Borealis basin. It is unknown how far down a probe would need to drill in order to test this idea.

A further question is posed: What is the possibility that life developed on early Mars?

While a great deal more research needs to be done on this subject, these two results are further evidence that at the very least, the conditions once existed on Mars for a life cycle to begin.

New research suggests certain parasites may be subtly tweaking our health and even our personalities

The parasite made me do it: How a common infection could manipulate our behavior

The parasite made me do it: How a common infection could manipulate our behavior

(Credit: pogonici, via Shutterstock)

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanImagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all kinds of daredevilry and watch horror flicks without flinching. Yet consider the prospect a little more deeply, and the possibilities become darker, even deadly. Our fears, after all, can protect us.

The basic aversion that a mouse has for a cat, for instance, keeps the rodent out of death’s jaws. But unfortunately for mice everywhere, there is a second enemy with which to contend, one that may prevent them from experiencing that fear in the first place. A unicellular organism (a protozoan), Toxoplasma gondii, can override a rodent’s most basic survival instincts. The result is a rodent that does not race away from a cat but is instead strangely attracted to it.

Toxoplasma‘s reach extends far beyond the world of cat and mouse. It may have a special relationship with rodent and feline hosts, but this parasite also infects the brains of billions of animals on land, at sea and in the air. Humans are no exception. Worldwide, scientists estimate that as many as three billion people may be carrying Toxoplasma. In the U.S., there is a one-in-five chance that Toxoplasma parasites are lodged in your neural circuits, and infection rates are as high as 95 percent in other countries.

For most people, this infection appears asymptomatic, but recent evidence shows that Toxoplasma actively remodels the molecular landscape of mammalian brain cells. Now some researchers have begun to speculate that this tiny single-celled organism may be tweaking human health and personalities in stealthy, subtle ways.

What the cat dragged in

Researchers first discovered T. gondii in 1908, and by the end of the 20th century they had a good grasp on how people could pick up this parasite. The story starts with cats: for reasons that scientists have yet to unravel, Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the feline gut. The parasite breeds within its feline host and is released from the feline’s tail end. Cats are such obsessive groomers that it is rarely found in their fur. Instead people can become infected from kitty litter or by ingesting it in contaminated water or food.

Within a new host the parasite begins dividing asexually and spreading throughout the host’s body. During this initial stage of the infection, Toxoplasma can cause the disease toxoplasmosis in immunocompromised or otherwise susceptible hosts, leading to extensive tissue damage. Pregnant women are particularly at risk. If a woman is infected with Toxoplasma for the first time during pregnancy, the parasite may invade the developing fetus, cutting through tissues and organs as it spreads from cell to cell. Infection early in pregnancy can result in miscarriage or birth defects.

In otherwise healthy individuals, however, the only symptoms during this period are brief, flulike discomforts such as chills, fever and body ache. Within days the immune system gets the parasite under control, and Toxoplasma retreats into a dormant state. It conceals itself within a hardened wall in the host’s cells, a structure called a tissue cyst.

This stage of the infection has no other discernible symptoms, but individuals with dormant infections who develop compromised immune systems—because of AIDS, an organ transplant or chemotherapy—may experience severe complications. With the body’s defense systems weakened, Toxoplasma can reactivate and grow uncontrollably.

Once infected, a person will remain a carrier for life. Our immune system is apparently incapable of eliminating the tissue cysts, nor can any known drug. Nevertheless, the infection, detectable with a blood test, has long been viewed as relatively benign. After all, many people carry this parasite with no obvious ill effects. Only recently have scientists begun reexamining this belief.

Eat me, Mr. Kitty

In the 1980s researchers noticed unusual behaviors in Toxoplasma-infected mice. The rodents became hyperactive and groomed less. In 1994 epidemiologist Joanne Webster, then at the University of Oxford, observed that rats harboring tissue cysts behaved differently from their uninfected counterparts. Instead of fleeing from cats, the infected rodents moved toward them—making them easier prey.

Webster suspected that this “fatal feline attraction,” as she called it, was a crafty way for the parasite to get back into a cat’s belly to complete the sexual stage of its life cycle. In the years to follow, this idea gained ground: a large body of work now shows that the parasite can indeed manipulate rodents’ behavior by altering neural activity and gene expression.

Several well-controlled experiments have shown that although uninfected rodents avoid areas that have been infused with cat stench, infected rodents do not seem to mind. Even more bizarre, in 2011 neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, molecular biologist Ajai Vyas of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and their colleagues found that—at least in terms of neural activity—infected rats appeared to be sexually attracted to cat scent.

In the mammalian brain, the “defensive” and “reproductive” neuronal pathways run in parallel. These pathways start at the olfactory bulb, involved in odor detection, and ter-minate at the limbic system, an area critical to basic reactions such as fear and arousal. Their proximity may partially explain how the parasite manipulates rodent behavior.

Working with 18 infected and 18 uninfected male rats, Sapolsky and his colleagues studied the rodents’ behavior when they were exposed to either the odor of female rats or cat urine. Then they sacrificed the animals and looked at their brains. The researchers found a slight enrichment of parasite cysts in the limbic system compared with other brain areas.

They also assessed which parts of the brain had been operating during exposure to odors by staining the cells with a solution that revealed c-Fos, a protein expressed when neurons are active. The Stanford researchers discovered that infected rodents had high levels of engagement in their brain’s reproductive pathway in response to the odor of both female rats and felines. In addition, the team found that infected rodents exposed to cat urine showed activation in the reproductive pathway similar to what uninfected rodents showed for the scent of a female rat. These results suggest that in infected rats, neural activity shifts from the defensive to the nearby reproductive pathway. Instead of smelling danger, the rats smell love.

Scientists are not sure how exactly the parasite elicits this fatal attraction, but one clue surfaced in 2014 in Vyas’s laboratory. Vyas and his colleagues showed that Toxoplasma increases its host’s levels of a neurotransmitter involved in social and sexual behavior. To accomplish this task, the parasite alters DNA methylation. Methylated genes are silent, blocked by a molecular cap. Toxoplasma uncaps a group of genes that spurs the creation of the sex-promoting neurotransmitter. Vyas and his team discovered this trick by performing the process in reverse: when they administered a chemical compound to the infected rats that silences the associated genes, the rats’ peculiar attraction to feline odor vanished.

Kiss and spit

With evidence mounting that Toxoplasma can influence its host’s brain, other scientists set out to understand the parasite’s effects at a much smaller scale: within each host cell. Their findings suggest that this microbe is particularly insidious—the changes it makes may be permanent.

To replicate, Toxoplasma must invade a cell. Stanford parasitologist John C. Boothroyd has dubbed this process “kiss and spit.” The parasite first attaches to the host cell (the kiss) and then releases an arsenal of foreign proteins into that cell (the spit). Toxoplasma then enters the host cell, and the injected proteins help it redecorate its new home.

The parasite’s first act is establishing a protective bubble in which it can divide in peace without attacks from host cell proteins. (Later, during the infection’s dormant stage, these bubbles thicken to become tissue cysts.) The parasite then moves the mitochondria, which serve as the cell’s powerhouses, to be adjacent to the protective bubble. It also acts on the cell’s DNA, inhibiting the expression of some host genes while activating others. Finally, Toxoplasma modifies host proteins to alter their function and inhibit the immune response.

Altogether, these modifications ensure that the host cell will live a long time and supply energy to the parasite, without alerting immune cells that a parasite has moved in. Although these findings have principally been made with rodents, work with human cell cultures suggests that the same changes probably take place in the human body. In our labs, we are studying how Toxoplasma replicates and interacts with its host in an effort to develop new drugs to treat this infection.

Remarkably, a study that Boothroyd’s group published in 2012 showed that Toxoplasma not only spits into the cells it invades but also spits into cells that it does not infect. This behavior—spitting proteins in passing without lingering in the cells—is a recent discovery in the microbial world. Consequently, cells that are not harboring Toxoplasma contain parasite proteins that can co-opt and reprogram that cell. In the brains of infected mice, cells that have been spat into but not invaded are even more common than ones containing parasites. This widespread scattering of proteins means Toxoplasma can affect its host at a global level, making it easier to imagine how the parasite might manipulate the activity of an entire animal.

In 2013 biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues found that a rodent’s strange attraction to cat odors may be permanent, even if there are no longer signs of infection. In one study, Eisen exposed mice to a mutant strain of the parasite that does not appear to form brain cysts. Four months later the infected mice had no detectable parasites in the brain, yet they were still attracted to cat odors instead of repelled. This finding suggests that even if the parasite can be removed from the body, behavioral changes may persist. The infection leaves a mark, like a permanent parasite-given tattoo.

The human connection

The fact that people do not throw themselves into the lion cage at the zoo strongly argues that Toxoplasma does not affect humans in the way it transforms mice. Mammalian brains are not all the same, and Toxoplasma‘s tricks are most likely specially suited for rodents. The parasite has little to gain, in evolutionary terms, by adapting to control the human brain. We are, after all, a “dead-end” host—the parasites within us are unlikely to return to the cat gut for breeding. Nevertheless, these cysts lodged in our brains could be manipulating us in subtle, unexpected ways.

A large body of research, mostly conducted by parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague, supports the idea that Toxoplasma harbors the potential to change human behavior. In a series of personality assessments spanning more than a decade and involving nearly 2,500 individuals, Flegr and his colleagues found that certain traits often coincide with a Toxoplasma infection. For example, infected men tend to be introverted, suspicious and rebellious, whereas infected women tend to be extraverted, trusting and obedient.

Using a simple reaction time test, Flegr has also found that infected individuals are slower to respond than uninfected peers. This lag may relate to another correlation he has identified. In a 2009 analysis of 3,890 military conscripts in the Czech Republic, those with latent toxoplasmosis who also had a negative blood type, meaning they lacked the protein RhD, were six times more likely to be in a fender bender than those who were Toxoplasma-free or who had a positive blood type. The function of RhD is unknown. Flegr’s results suggest RhD somehow protects people against Toxoplasma‘s effects, but how it does so remains a mystery.

More recently, Flegr and his colleagues found that some of the changes that occur in mice also exist in humans—albeit in a gender-specific manner. In 2011 the researchers asked 34 Toxoplasma-infected students and 134 noninfected students to rate the intensity and pleasantness of urine samples from different animals. Curiously, infected men found cat urine odor more pleasant than uninfected men; in women, the opposite occurred.

Another line of research has focused on a potential link between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia. In 2001 psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and neurovirologist Robert Yolken of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reported significantly more antibodies associated with Toxoplasma in patients experiencing their first schizophrenic episode as compared with healthy peers. Although this initial study was limited to only 38 people, additional studies in the ensuing years have largely supported this link.

Fascinating and attention-grabbing as these studies may be, they come with several caveats. The sample sizes are relatively small, meaning the findings are preliminary. They do not definitively demonstrate that Toxoplasma causes behavior changes in humans. In the case of schizophrenia, it is important to note that the condition is complex and may involve many triggers. The parasite may be one contributor, but it is also possible that people with schizophrenia may simply behave in ways that make them more likely to pick up an infection. No hard evidence has emerged to date that directly implicates the parasite as a cause for any psychosis, including schizophrenia.

Ultimately these provocative findings probably reflect a complex exchange among various factors. Certain genetic predispositions, for example, or even an interaction between Toxoplasma and another infectious agent could mean that some people are more susceptible to the parasite’s persuasion. Only larger studies from multiple research groups will determine precisely what this parasite may do to the people it infects.

An accidental meddler

As researchers continue to uncover the astonishing effects that Toxoplasma has kept secret for so long, many scientists are beginning to think that Toxoplasma‘s impressive cellular and molecular tricks make it capable of causing disruptions in a human host. At the very least, the findings from human surveys beg for further clarification.

If you are curious whether you carry the parasite, you can get a blood test. In the meantime, you can increase your odds of staying Toxoplasma-free by maintaining good hygiene for you and your feline friends. If cats wander through your yard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing gloves and a mask when gardening and keeping any sandboxes closed up when not in use. Other basic health tips—cleaning fruits and vegetables, thoroughly cooking meats and washing hands regularly—are also important for avoiding an infection.

The notion that Toxoplasma could radically reorient the brain and behavior is certainly disturbing. But perhaps these findings are a reminder of a more basic truth. Each person is actually a rich ecosystem. For every human cell in the body, there are 10 more bacterial cells that influence physiology, metabolism and health. The protozoan Toxoplasma is just another stowaway within the system and one that warrants further study. After all, we will never fully understand ourselves without learning about our microbial companions.


The California drought: Water-rationing plan leaves corporate interests untouched


26 March 2015

The unprecedented drought gripping California has deepened for the fourth consecutive year, having already set new records for the lowest annual precipitation levels on record. 2014 brought the highest calendar-year temperature for the state, while this February was the hottest on record and this January the driest.

A recent study conducted by Daniel Griffin and Kevin J. Anchukaitis found that the current episode “is the most severe drought in the last 1200 years, with single year (2014) and accumulated moisture deficits worse than any previous continuous span of dry years.”

Last Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a new bill, which he claims will provide $1 billion in drought-related spending, mostly on flood protection. The bill merely expedites funds already approved by California voters, and will do nothing to resolve the state’s dire water crisis.

Last Tuesday, the California State Water Resources Control Board intensified emergency legislation targeting residential “water wasters,” initially implemented last summer. The law imposes a $500 fine for offenses including excessive lawn watering.

Both measures leave untouched the giant agribusinesses and oil corporations that account for a majority of the state’s water usage and dominate the political system.

On Sunday, Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, asked Governor Brown whether “considering how much water…is used for fracking [hydraulic fracturing]…isn’t that alone enough reason to prohibit fracking or temporarily stop it?”

Brown sought to deflect the question, responding: “No, not at all. First of all, fracking in California has been going on for more than 50 years. It uses a fraction of the water of fracking on the East Coast for gas, particularly.”

Throughout his entire political career, dating back to the 1970s, Brown has been entirely beholden to Big Oil, while posturing as a defender of the environment. He has accepted at least $2 million in campaign contributions from oil corporations since 2006, including Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, Southern California Edison, Valero Energy, Tesoro Corp, Conoco Phillips and Aera Energy (owned jointly by Shell and ExxonMobil). Most of these companies donated the maximum amount possible to Brown’s reelection campaign last November.

Earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, for years, state regulators knowingly allowed oil companies, mostly in the impoverished Central Valley, to pump their wastewater into groundwater aquifers that contained drinkable water.

Every year, the oil industry in California produces roughly 130 billion gallons of wastewater, as the state is the third-largest oil producer in the US. Kern County, home to most of California’s oil and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) wells, has the worst air quality of any county in the US, along with some of the highest rates of cancer and respiratory illness.

Climate change, a byproduct of the oil corporations’ unrelenting drive to accumulate profit, has played the most significant role in determining the length and severity of the ongoing drought, as well as the likelihood for future droughts.

On March 12, the leading bourgeois press outlet in the state, the Los Angeles Times, prominently featured an op-ed penned by NASA’s senior water scientist, Jay Famiglietti, titled “California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?”

Famiglietti begins the op-ed by stating that “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing.” He proposes a water rationing scheme across “all of the state’s water sectors, from domestic and municipal through agricultural and industrial.”

Despite the calls by experts to place restrictions on business, last Tuesday the State Water Resources Control Board furthered emergency drought regulations that target solely consumers, leaving agribusiness untouched. Local water districts must restrict lawn watering to twice weekly, among other tepid reductions in consumers’ water usage.

The state will now place local water agencies under intense scrutiny, ensuring that they levy $500 daily fines against “water wasters” that were first enacted last summer. Over the past year, few fines were doled out locally, with one notable exception being Santa Cruz, which issued over $1.6 million in penalties against individual consumers. The cities of San Ramon and Dublin, both east of Oakland, issued $40,000 in combined fines.

Instead of adopting any sort of progressive policy to implement well-known, rational planning methods that would ensure the viability of California’s water supply for future generations, the existing political setup seeks to reduce the highly complex issue to merely punishing individual consumers.

The drought has already devastated thousands of working-class families, as an estimated 17,100 agricultural laborers lost their jobs during last year’s growing season alone, with that number expected to rise significantly this year. The brunt of these job losses occurred in the agricultural heart of the state, the Central Valley, a stretch of land roughly 450 miles long, from Bakersfield in the south to Redding in the north, and between the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west.

Between the spring of 2013 and the spring of 2014, water levels in groundwater basins throughout the Central Valley fell by 50 feet or more, amid a race to drill ever-deeper and more expensive groundwater pumps. In one of the Central Valley’s most productive agricultural regions, Tulare County, 874 well permits were issued in the first six months of 2014 alone, 44 more than the county issued in all of 2013.

In the process, hundreds of private wells across Tulare County dried up, leaving thousands of East Porterville’s working-class residents without water. The state’s only response to this dire crisis has been to provide limited amounts of bottled water to inhabitants, with no plans implemented to develop water infrastructure for residents.

A package of three bills signed last September by Brown will implement the first-ever groundwater regulations in the state, but will have no effect until 2040, and even then will not require businesses to report how much water they pump individually. Barring an end to the drought, which scientists have noted could become a decades-long “megadrought,” all remaining groundwater will have long disappeared by that time.

The legislation passed last Tuesday does nothing to curb groundwater usage by the agricultural giants, the only ones capable of shelling out upwards of $400,000 to drill the 2,000-foot (600-meter) pumps required to extract dwindling groundwater reserves.

Agriculture accounts for roughly 80 percent of California’s total water usage, while the remainder is used by urban industry and household consumers, with outdoor landscaping accounting for roughly half of total urban usage. Thus, at most the recent regulations will cause a 5 percent reduction in the state’s total water usage.

California produces over 99 percent of all almonds, pistachios, olives, walnuts, rice, plums, dates, figs, raisins, artichokes, kiwis, peaches and pomegranates grown in the US, and is also the leading producer of dozens of other food commodities. In recent decades, international demand has led to a large transition toward growing orchard and vineyard crops.

During the drought, many farmers have fallowed even more of their traditional vegetable crops, diverting water toward almond trees and other orchards, which take longer to mature and are thus a larger capital investment. California currently grows roughly 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, in addition to 43 percent of all pistachios and 28 percent of all walnuts, and these cash crops are indispensable to maintaining profitability.

The “almond empire” is centered in the San Joaquin Valley, home to the largest almond-growing monopoly in the world, Paramount Farming. Paramount’s owners, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, are closely connected to Governor Brown, as well as Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and other state politicians, and have influenced water policy in the state for decades.

This couple is the modern-day reincarnation of the most corrupt aspects of former Los Angeles Mayor Frederick Eaton and his associate Joseph Lippincott, immortalized in the character of Noah Cross, played by John Huston in the 1974 Roman Polanski classic Chinatown. In addition to Paramount Farming, their holding company also owns Paramount Citrus and Paramount Farms, the world’s largest growers of citrus and pistachios.

Financial interests, including New York-based retirement and investment fund TIAA-CREF and Hancock Agricultural Investment Group, a subsidiary of the insurance and financial services giant Manulife Financial, have recently joined the bumper crop frenzy, becoming some of the largest nut growers in California.

Despite the proven efficiency of drip irrigation for orchard and vineyard crops, 20.3 percent of all vineyard and 13.4 percent of all almond and pistachio crops in the state continue to be grown using flood irrigation methods. Thus, almond trees alone presently account for 10 percent of California’s total annual water usage, more than the combined domestic usage of the state’s 38.8 million inhabitants.

There are immense efficiencies to be gained through the statewide adoption of crop-specific irrigation methods and other efficiency improvements. Yet any such rational reorganization is blocked by the interests of the US financial oligarchy, which, controlling the entire political system, will not abide any impingement on its profits.

The terrifying “smart” city of the future

Cities across the country are implementing smart technologies — with grave implications for our personal freedoms

The terrifying "smart" city of the future
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Imagine a world without waste. A place where the train always comes on time, where streets are plowed before snow even stops falling, and watchful surveillance cameras have sent rates of petty crime plunging. Never again will you worry about remembering your keys because your front door has an iris recognition system that won’t allow strangers to enter. To some people, this kind of uber-efficient urban living sounds like a utopian dream. But to a growing number of critics, the promise of the “smart city” is starting to seem like the stuff of nightmare.

Smart cities are loosely defined as urban centers that rely on digital technology to enhance efficiency and reduce resource consumption. This happens by means of ubiquitous wireless broadband, citywide networks of computerized sensors that measure human activities (from traffic to electricity use), and mass data collection that analyzes these patterns. Many American cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, already make use of smart technologies. But far more radical advances are happening overseas. Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, and Songdo, in South Korea, will be the first fully functioning smart cities, in which everything from security to electricity to parking is monitored by sensors and controlled by a central city “brain.”

The surveillance implications of these sorts of mass data-generating civic projects are unnerving, to say the least. Urban designer and author Adam Greenfield wrote on his blog Speedbird that this centralized governing model is “disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.” To further complicate matters, the vast majority of smart-city technology is designed by IT-systems giants like IBM and Siemens. In places like Songdo, which was the brainchild of Cisco Systems, corporate entities become responsible for designing and maintaining the basic functions of urban life.

Smart cities are predicated on the neoliberal idea that the market can fix anything—that companies can manage cities better than governments can. Their advocates claim that they will enhance democratic participation by relying on crowdsourcing and “civic hacking projects” that allow locals to use newly available data to solve municipal problems. But they ignore the fact that private corporations are the ones measuring and controlling these mountains of data, and that they don’t have the same accountability to the public that government does.

In the Nation last year, urban theorist and author Catherine Tumber expressed some of the principle concerns about smart tech, reviewing Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the review). Tumber asserts that “the economics of ‘smart’” are in keeping with “the ramped-up market rationalization carried out by finance monopoly since the Civil War, culminating in a minimally civic world fit only for…the unencumbered self.”

I caught up with Tumber via telephone at her office at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, where she is a visiting scholar, to talk about what the rise of smart cities means for our understanding of urban life.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Allegra Kirkland: How did you first become acquainted with the concept of smart cities?

Catherine Tumber: I had been aware of them kind of through the ether because I pay attention to cities, and I’m very much aware of what’s going on in the digital world in a broad sense. I think it’s quite dangerous actually, in all kinds of ways….

I thought Townsend did a good job laying out what the fault lines are: the big digital systems corporations like Siemens and Cisco and IBM versus what these hacker “democratic heroes” are trying to do. I found that to be useful but I wasn’t persuaded that they aren’t all part of the same sort of dangerous direction of things.

AK: These digital innovations are supposed to be all about access to information and transparency, but it seems like many people don’t even know these initiatives are going on. Like Chicago, Barcelona, and all of these other urban centers are now considered “smart cities” but I feel like most people don’t think of them that way.

CT: I think people are only vaguely aware.

AK: It seems like these major urban initiatives are being conducted largely out of the public eye, without public oversight or involvement. Maybe there are some smaller initiatives being carried out by civic hackers, but the major ones have to be implemented by corporations or the government because regular people don’t have the ability to build that kind of infrastructure.

CT: Right, these are major infrastructure projects.

AK: And there’s no means of opting out. Once a city integrates smart technology, your information gets caught up with all the rest, whether you want it to be or not.

CT: Exactly. And also what’s often not taken into account, and I guess you have to live long enough to really see it—though it’s happening very quickly in our time—is that when you introduce a whole new paradigm of infrastructure, the old infrastructure dies. So it ends up being coercive. At some point, you really have to participate in it or you are not able to execute that function, whether that function be communications or entertainment or transportation or energy.

For example, if you did not really want to be available on a cell phone at any given moment or own one, and wanted to simply rely on a landline, that was fine as long as you were home. But they stripped out all of the phone booths. That was really completed by around five years ago. So it really forces your hand quite a bit.

AK: You seem skeptical of the idea that smart cities are inherently democratizing—that they are sites of greater sociability and inclusion. Does that seem plausible to you? 

CT: I think that digital technology, aside from providing all kinds of information that is trackable, holds up the false promise of greater democratic participation. It holds out a sort of false sense of moral agency, for one thing. The argument as I understand it is that crowdsourcing provides people with a different, less curated sense of democratic participation. It involves reaching out to individuals, so it’s a version of democratic practice. I think the jury is still very much out on whether that is persuasive.

Part of what I think is important and rich about democratic culture as a living tradition is that it brings people of very different backgrounds and types together in surge spaces. And crowdsourcing tends to be consistent marketing in that it excludes whole groups of people, just because of the way it works. It’s not even intentional.

AK: Because of the kind of people who get surveyed, who are aware that these kinds of civic campaigns are going on and would get involved?

CT: Yeah. I find that to be somewhat dubious…for the long-term health of the civic project.

AK: It seems like there’s a fundamental split between people who think there is something organic and inexplicable about the ways human beings come together in cities, and those who believe that all human behavior is quantifiable—that we can rely on data to understand how humans interact. Which side of the line do you fall on?

CT: Digital technology and its use compresses experience. It tends to lead to niche cultures; it tends to lead to a sense of being untethered, as if that’s the golden pathway to real freedom. There are several traditions of political philosophy that hold that its important to be tethered so that you have a sense of the limits of yourself and of what it is that humans can do in the time that they have on this earth. This sense of endless freedom can lead to a very false sense of utopian promise that is simply unrealistic and unwanted. It’s yet another way that we’ve decided to take a pause from history and what history has long told us.

There are some things that you really don’t play with. People have acquired great wisdom over the ages—across the globe, this isn’t just a Eurocentric thing—about what it means to travel and to leave home and to come back. These are all the great stories and myths and fables. Technology kind of flattens all of that.

AK: This is sort of a related question, but what do you think are the primary things smart cities take away from the people who live there? What do we lose in these sorts of manufactured urban environments?

It makes me think of the complaints about the gentrification of places like New York City. Michael Bloomberg created new green spaces in Times Square and along the waterfront, made city services more efficient, rezoned districts, and now we have this sanitized, business-friendly, soulless city. The neighborhoods look the same; there’s no mixing of social classes, no weird dive bars. So you’d think smart cities, with their emphasis on homogeneity and efficiency, would be equally off-putting to people.

CT: I think it’s a matter of the convenience of it and the novelty of it. But smart technology is relatively new and there are so many unexamined consequences, as I think there are with any major technological change like this.

I think that we’re only beginning as a culture to wince a little and take a second look at this. … There really hasn’t been any sort of consensus about what the right manners are in using these technologies. Across the world for time immemorial, every culture had some understanding of manners, and I don’t mean that in the prim Victorian sense. But just some ways in which you convey unspoken, coded assumptions about respect and caring and common courtesy and stuff like that. We haven’t had that conversation here. …The main point is that there are real unintended consequences of this.

AK: The corporations behind smart cities throw around all these statistics about how smart technology reduces crime, reduces waste. So it makes you feel like a Luddite to say that you’re uncomfortable with these technologies because there is all of this evidence that they’re successful. But I feel like there’s a difference between using technology to fix a specific urban problem, like Rio de Janeiro using weather tracking to forecast flash floods, which are a major problem there, and places like Songdo, where you’re really rebuilding the concept of the city from scratch and dictating how people should live. 

CT: Yes, they’re riddled with totalitarian overtones, and that’s built into it, it’s part of the built structure.

AK: So do you think smart city initiatives are not necessarily problematic, and it’s just when they’re applied on the scale of an entire city that it gets out of control?

CT: I’m mainly concerned with this assumption that this is new, this is shiny, this is innovative, to use everyone’s favorite buzzword, and that we should just do it. A lot of people don’t really understand what’s involved. There’s a tendency to have it sort of inflicted on people, and part of that is the way the business model for digital technology, at least at this point in time, works, which is to make everything cheap. It doesn’t cost the public very much to say, oh, okay, because there’s not much of a pricetag on it yet. Part of the reason why it’s so cheap is that so much of the work is based on volunteer labor.

So many of these civic hackers, all these projects and apps they develop, so much of that is based on free labor. People try to frame that as a sort of revival of Tocqueville—voluntary associations and all that stuff. But instead it’s just downright free labor, like unpaid internships or something. That’s why I’m very skeptical of all of this; this is really just another variation on the sort of neoliberal business model that we’ve been using now for the past 35 years and has grown out of control. This is just another iteration of that with nice shiny technology attached to it. Americans are always suckers for technological determinism.

AK: Sure. I feel like privatization initiatives in cities have multiplied in recent years, with cities selling stakes in public housing to private developers—

CT: And all the stuff Rahm Emanuel is doing in Chicago.

AK: Exactly. It seems like smart cities are sort of the ultimate example of the corporate-designed urban environment. Should that inherently be a cause for concern? It goes without saying that corporations don’t always have the best interests of people in mind. And places like Songdo were designed to have minimal regulatory barriers. They prioritize technological innovation and wealth generation, so it seems like they could really deepen existing economic inequality. If you’re not part of those spheres, you don’t really have a place in these cities.

CT: To really take on wealth inequality and the kind of ravaging done by the spoiling land use policies that we’ve had in place since after World War II, we need to have a body of ideas and practices that have a clearly defined sense of what their political vision is: what the good life is and how to get there. What are our fundamental values, our limitations? All of this smart city design is apolitical. That’s the problem. The longer it seeps into our political culture, the more it will drain the public imagination of the next generation, of what a real political movement looks like and why politics are important.

AK: It also seems like the obligation of government to provide essential public services like housing is reduced. It becomes the responsibility of corporations and developers, so there’s less accountability, less control over pricing and over the data the companies acquire.

CT: Then there’s all this debate about regulations—which industries require more or less. These are all very difficult questions of practicality and philosophy. And I fear that our political discourse and understanding of the world is being degraded and coarsened by the uncritical dissemination of a digital substitute for a real politics.

AK: Another thing I wanted to bring up is the surveillance concern. I read a quote from the mayor of Rio, which is a smart city, saying “The operations center allows us to have people looking into every corner of the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” He meant it as a positive, but that’s a sort of terrifying statement. What are your thoughts about the surveillance implications of smart technology?

CT: All these sensors will and are being used to invade our privacy. There are good and bad things about that. You know, here in Boston we had the marathon bombers and they were very quickly apprehended, partly because that area is so rigged up with security cameras. We have to decide whether it’s worth it.

Another thing I’ve been concerned about is thinking about the difference between Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. You know, George Orwell talked about Big Brother and the authoritarian state, the invasion of privacy. Huxley talked more about the internalization of oppression, and I’m in some ways even more concerned about that. It’s a cultural critique of the way we internalize and accept the terms of our lack of freedom. We accept the deprivation that totalitarian movements end up exacting on us. So we end up being our own worst enemies. It’s almost like we don’t even need Big Brother.

AK: Sure. We voluntarily give up so much information about ourselves.

CT: When I see people walking around in public as though they’re wearing a blindfold because they’re so absorbed in another world on their devices, that has the look to me of self-degradation and degradation of the public realm that is more effective than security cameras. Because people won’t resist. They’re not even aware of their surroundings, just as animals moving through the world. So why would they be able to muster whatever it takes to resist the invasion of privacy by the state or by corporations, for that matter? It just all represents such a contraction of democratic culture to me. It worries the heck out of me.


Noam Chomsky: “The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim”

The intellectual sat down with Jacobin to discuss ISIS, Israel and climate change

Noam Chomsky: "The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim"
Noam Chomsky (Credit: fotostory via Shutterstock)

Renowned linguist and well-respected political commentator, Noam Chomsky, was interviewed by journalist David Barsamian for Jacobin. In the fascinating and thought-provoking conversation the two touch on the origins of ISIS, America’s relationship with Israel, among other foreign policy topics. Below are a few choice selections from the interview, which can (and should) be read in full at Jacobin.

When asked about the origins of ISIS Chomsky explained how sectarian conflict derived from the Iraq war:

“There’s an interesting interview that just appeared a couple of days ago with Graham Fuller, a former CIA officer, one of the leading intelligence and mainstream analysts of the Middle East. The title is “The United States Created ISIS.” This is one of the conspiracy theories, the thousands of them that go around the Middle East.

But this is another source: this is right at the heart of the US establishment. He hastens to point out that he doesn’t mean the US decided to put ISIS into existence and then funded it. His point is — and I think it’s accurate — that the US created the background out of which ISIS grew and developed. Part of it was just the standard sledgehammer approach: smash up what you don’t like.”

Late in the answer Chomsky continues:

“Finally, the US just decided to attack the country in 2003. The attack is compared by many Iraqis to the Mongol invasion of a thousand years earlier. Very destructive. Hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions of refugees, millions of other displaced persons, destruction of the archeological richness and wealth of the country back to Sumeria.

One of the effects of the invasion was immediately to institute sectarian divisions. Part of the brilliance of the invasion force and its civilian director, Paul Bremer, was to separate the sects, Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd, from one another, set them at each other’s throats. Within a couple of years, there was a major, brutal sectarian conflict incited by the invasion.

You can see it if you look at Baghdad. If you take a map of Baghdad in, say, 2002, it’s a mixed city: Sunni and Shi’a are living in the same neighborhoods, they’re intermarried. In fact, sometimes they didn’t even know who was Sunni and who was Shi’a. It’s like knowing whether your friends are in one Protestant group or another Protestant group. There were differences but it was not hostile.

In fact, for a couple of years both sides were saying: there will never be Sunni-Shi’a conflicts. We’re too intermingled in the nature of our lives, where we live, and so on. By 2006 there was a raging war. That conflict spread to the whole region. By now, the whole region is being torn apart by Sunni-Shi’a conflicts.

The natural dynamics of a conflict like that is that the most extreme elements begin to take over. They had roots. Their roots are in the major US ally, Saudi Arabia. That’s been the major US ally in the region as long as the US has been seriously involved there, in fact, since the foundation of the Saudi state. It’s kind of a family dictatorship. The reason is it has a huge amount oil.”

Asked about Congress’ unfailing support for Israel — even beloved progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren — Chomsky responds thusly:

“She probably knows nothing about the Middle East. I think it’s pretty obvious. Take the US prepositioning arms in Israel for US use for military action in the region. That’s one small piece of a very close military and intelligence alliance that goes back very far. It really took off after 1967, although bits and pieces of it existed before.

The US military and intelligence regard Israel as a major base. In fact, one of the more interesting WikiLeaks exposures listed the Pentagon ranking of strategic centers around the world which were of such significance that we have to protect them no matter what, a small number. One of them was a couple of miles outside Haifa, Rafael military industries, a major military installation.

That’s where a lot of the drone technology was developed and much else. That’s a strategic US interest of such significance that it ranks among the highest in the world. Rafael understands that, to the extent that they actually moved their management headquarters to Washington, where the money is. That’s indicative of the kind of relationship there is.

And it goes way beyond that. US investors are in love with Israel. Warren Buffet just bought some Israeli enterprise for, I think, a couple billion dollars and announced that outside the US, Israel is the best place for US investment. And major firms, like Intel and others, are investing heavily in Israel, and continue to. It’s a valuable client: it’s strategically located, compliant, does what the US wants, it’s available for repression and violence. The US has used it over and over as a way of circumventing congressional and popular restrictions on violence.”

And he says this about climate change:

“The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim. The major concern ought to be the one that was brought up in New York at the September 21 march. A couple hundred thousand people marched in New York calling for some serious action on global warming.

This is no joke. This is the first time in the history of the human species that we have to make decisions which will determine whether there will be decent survival for our grandchildren. That’s never happened before. Already we have made decisions which are wiping out species around the world at a phenomenal level.

The level of species destruction in the world today is about at the level of sixty-five million years ago, when a huge asteroid hit the earth and had horrifying ecological effects. It ended the age of the dinosaurs; they were wiped out. It kind of left a little opening for small mammals, who began to develop, and ultimately us. The same thing is happening now, except that we’re the asteroid. What we’re doing to the environment is already creating conditions like those of sixty-five million years ago. Human civilization is tottering at the edge of this. The picture doesn’t look pretty.”

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

US faces historic megadrought

“The 21st century predictions make the [previous] megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden” VIDEO

Brace yourself: US faces historic megadrought
(Credit: NASA Goddard/YouTube)

According to a new study published in the journal “Science Advances“, the Southwest and Great Plains will very likely be stricken by megadroughts–decades-long periods of extreme drought–the likes of which we haven’t seen for 1,000 years. The study’s co-author Toby Ault of Cornell University says that the chances of this happening by the end of the 21st century are at around 80 percent, unless we do something to fight man-made climate change.

USA Today’s Doyle Rice reports:

To identify past droughts, scientists studied tree-rings to find out how much — or little — rain fell hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Scientists then used that historical data in combination with 17 different computer model simulations to predict what changes we may see later this century.

The computers showed robust and consistent drying in the Southwest and Plains, due to a combination of reduced precipitation and warmer temperatures that dried out the soils.

Although the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is what we generally refer to as a worst-case drought scenario, Lisa Graumlich, head of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, told Climate Central that the drought in the same region from 1100-1300 (called the ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly‘) “makes the Dust Bowl look like a picnic.” The coming drought is expected to surpass these two in a major way.

“The 21st century predictions make the [previous] megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden,” said the study’s co-author Jason Smerdon, a researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in an interview with The Guardian.

“We haven’t seen this kind of prolonged drought even certainly in modern US history,” he continued. “What this study has shown is the likelihood that multi-decadal events comprising year after year after year of extreme dry events could be something in our future.”

Joanna Rothkopf is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on science, health and society. Follow @JoannaRothkopf or email