How “Big Data” can help save the environment

Journalists, scientists & techies must work to translate data into the knowledge needed to address climate change 

How "Big Data" can help save the environment
A rider attached to the appropriation bill that funds the EPA would end the moratorium on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon which could contaminate the Colorado River
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American

A recent study using NASA’s CALIPSO satellite described how wind and weather carry millions of tons of dust from the Sahara desert to the Amazon basin each year – bringing much-needed fertilizers like phosphorus to the Amazon’s depleted soils.

To bring this story to life, NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization team produced a video showing the path of the Saharan dust, which has been viewed half a million times. This story is notable because it relies on satellite technology and data to show how one ecosystem’s health is deeply interconnected with another ecosystem on the other side of the world.

Stunning data visualization like this one can go a long way to helping communicate scientific wonders to the wider world. But even more important than the technology driving the collection and analysis of this data is how the team presented its findings to the public – as a story. NASA’s CALIPSO data offers a model of how scientists, technologists and journalists can come together and make use of data to help us respond to this a slow-motion crisis like air pollution.

Being able to see the dust blowing in the wind has broad implications. Today, one in eight people in the world dies from exposure to air pollution, which includes dust. This stunning fact, issued by the World Health Organization last March, adds up to 7 million premature deaths per year. Air pollution is now the single largest environmental risk in the world, and it occurs both indoors and outdoors.

The WHO report, which more than doubles previous estimates, is based on improved exposure measurements including data collected from satellites, sensors and weather and air flow information. The information has been cross-tabulated with demographic information to reveal, for example, that if you are a low- to middle-income person living in China, your chances of dying an air pollution-related death skyrockets.

These shocking statistics are hardly news for people living in highly polluted areas, though in many of the most severely affected regions, governments are not eager to confirm the obvious. The availability of global scale particulate matter (dust) monitoring could change this dynamic in a way that we all can see.

In addition to the volume of satellite data generated by NASA, sensor technology that helps create personal pollution monitors is increasingly affordable and accessible. Projects like the Air Quality EggSpeck and the DustDuino (with which I collaborate) are working to put tools to collect data from the ground in as many hands as possible. These low-cost devices are creating opportunities for citizen science to fill coverage gaps and testing this potential is a key part of our upcoming installation of DustDuino units in Sao Paulo, Brazil later this summer. Satellite data tend to paint in broad global strokes, but it’s often local details that inform and motivate decisions.

Satellites give us a global perspective. The official monitoring infrastructure, overseen by large institutions and governments, can measure ambient air at a very high resolution and modeling exposure over a large area. But they don’t see everything. The nascent field of sensor journalism helps citizen scientists and journalists fill in the gaps in monitoring networks, identifying human exposures and hot spots that are invisible to official infrastructure.

As program officer of the Earth Journalism Network, I help give training and support to teams of data scientists, developers and environmental journalists around the world to incorporate this flood of new information and boost local environmental coverage. We have taken this approach because the skills that we need to communicate about slow-motion crises like air pollution and climate change require a combination of experts who can make sense of data and journalists who can prioritize and contextualize it for their readers.

Leveraging technologies, skills and expertise from satellites, sensors and communities alike, journalists, scientists and technologists need to work together to translate data into the knowledge needed to address environmental crises.

US seeks to placate Mideast allies angered by Iran nuclear deal


By Keith Jones
17 July 2015

US President Barack Obama is dispatching Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to the Middle East to placate Israel and Saudi Arabia, key US allies that are angered by Washington’s recent nuclear accord with Iran.

Under the accord, Tehran has agreed to dismantle key parts of its civil nuclear program, roll back and freeze others for 10-15 years, and submit to the most intrusive inspections regime ever devised. In return, and only after Iran completes the dismantling and rollback, the US and its European Union allies are to lift the punishing economic sanctions that have halved Iran’s oil exports and denied it access to some $150 billion of its own money—a sum equivalent to almost 30 percent of Iran’s annual GDP.

For years to come, the sanctions will only be suspended, however. They can be re-imposed should the US and its European Union allies deem Iran to have violated its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program reached Tuesday between Iran, the US, the four other permanent UN Security Council members, and Germany.

While no specifics have been provided, Obama and his top aides have indicated that Defense Secretary Carter will offer Israel and the Saudi monarchy new weapons systems and enhanced intelligence cooperation and security guarantees. In Israel’s case some or all of the new weaponry may be gifted.

Carter “will be continuing our practical cooperation with both Israel and our partners in the Gulf,” Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice told Reuters Wednesday. The previous day the Pentagon had said Carter would be traveling to Israel for “close consultation on security issues … as we remain vigilant in countering the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activities in the region.”

Israel’s opposition to the nuclear agreement is no surprise. For years Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been railing against Iran and threatening to attack its civil nuclear facilities, while authorizing Mossad to work with the US to mount cyber warfare against Iran and assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. Earlier this year, Netanyahu connived with the Republicans, behind the backs of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, to secure an invitation to Washington to denounce the nuclear negotiations with Iran from the floor of the US Congress.

Nevertheless, the vehemence of Netanyahu’s opposition and that of his government to this week’s agreement has shocked and angered the US’s European allies. It is also causing concern within Israel’s political elite and military-security establishment that Netanyahu may be doing permanent damage to Israel’s relations with the US.

Netanyahu has termed the nuclear deal a “stunning, historic, mistake” that provides “Iran a sure path to nuclear weapons.” Last week, when it was apparent that only the final details of the agreement still needed to be hammered out, Israel’s Prime Minister accused Iran of pursuing aggression in “every corner of the world” and harboring “the ultimate true aim of taking over the world.” This from the head of a nuclear-armed state that was founded on the dispossession of the Palestinian people and routinely bombards and invades its neighbors.

Netanyahu’s aides have told the Israeli daily Haaretz that he is ready to “‘kill himself’ pursuing the last remaining option for scuttling the deal,” rallying sufficient opposition within the US Congress to withstand a presidential veto.

Thus far Obama has bent over backwards to placate Netanyahu. He had a lengthy phone conversation with the Israeli prime minister Tuesday during which he reportedly reiterated an offer of “expanded security cooperation.” But, according to US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, Netanyahu “wasn’t ready to have this conversation yet.”

In a New York Times interview Obama indicated he would not make an issue of Netanyahu’s efforts to conspire with his Republican political opponents to defeat an agreement he has touted as advancing the US’s “national security interests.” Netanyahu might think “he can further influence the congressional debate,” said Obama, “… But after that’s done, if that’s what [Israel’s prime minister] thinks is appropriate,” the two “will sit down” to discuss how the US can enhance Israel’s military capabilities and security.

An Israeli who held a “senior position in the defense apparatus” until recently told Al-Monitor in May that Washington has offered to “upgrade” and extend strategic relations with Tel Aviv, but this “irrevocable strategic opportunity” is “not happening” despite US willingness.

European leaders have been more ready to publicly spar with Netanyahu.

Responding to the Israeli government’s chorus of denunciations, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, “This is a responsible deal and Israel should also take a closer look at it and not criticize the agreement in a very coarse way.”

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond accused Israel of wanting to ensure Iran was permanently locked in conflict with the US and other western powers: “The question you have to ask yourself is what kind of a deal would have been welcomed in Tel Aviv? The answer, of course, is that Israel doesn’t want any deal with Iran. Israel wants a permanent state of stand-off and I don’t believe that’s in the interests of the region. I don’t believe it’s in our interest.”

During the three-and-a-half decades since the 1979 revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah and his brutal regime, Washington has mounted an unrelenting campaign of bullying, sanctions and threats of war against Iran. US imperialism has never reconciled itself to the loss of Iran as a client state and staging area for asserting its predatory interests in the Middle East and Central Asia, and has been determined to force Iran’s clerical-bourgeois rulers to forgo any challenge to US domination of the world’s most important oil-exporting region.

The unsubstantiated claim that Tehran has been seeking to develop nuclear weapons has always been a secondary issue in this. It was first trumpeted by Washington in 2003, following the US’s illegal invasion of Iraq and as the Bush administration sought to lay the groundwork for a regime change war targeting Iran.

In 2007, the US’s intelligence agencies themselves issued a report, to the dismay of then Vice President Dick Cheney, that concluded there was no evidence Iran’s nuclear program had a military dimension. Yet the US continued to ratchet up the confrontation with Iran. In 2011, the Obama administration and the US’s EU allies imposed upon Iran the most sweeping economic sanctions ever implemented against a state outside of a war.

Now the Obama administration has begun to implement a major tactical shift in US policy. It is seeking to exploit the growing fears within the Iranian bourgeoisie of a working class challenge to its rule. These efforts have been aided by the return to power in Tehran of the political faction of the clerical-bourgeois elite most amenable to rapprochement with Washington. Traditionally associated with the ex-Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, this faction is now led by his protégé, President Hasan Rouhani.

Two key calculations lie behind Obama’s shift toward a “diplomatic solution” with Iran: that the ratcheting down of the conflict with Teheran will assist the US in pursuing its military-strategic offensives against its more formidable adversaries, Russia and China; and that Iran can be bent to serve US strategic interests in the Middle East and, in the longer term, through a combination of threats and inducements, including an influx of western capital, “turned” against Russia and China.

This strategic shift is being bitterly contested by sections of the US ruling elite, including the Republicans and the Wall Street Journal, who are demanding as a precondition iron-clad guarantees of Tehran’s total subservience. It is also being opposed by the Israeli bourgeoisie and by the Saudi monarchy because they fear that any US accommodation with Tehran will result in a diminishing of their role as Washington’s principal regional allies.

Obama’s affirmation in his New York Times interview that Iran “will be and should be a regional power” will only further incense Netanyahu and the Saudi oil-sheiks.

Riyadh, while far less outspoken in its criticisms of the nuclear accord, has nonetheless made clear its dissatisfaction, including by stating that it may soon conclude a major arms deal with Moscow. While not condemning the nuclear agreement outright, a Saudi official told Reuters he feared it would allow Iran “to wreak havoc in the region.”

An article published by the Politico website this week reported, “Obama administration officials are keenly aware of Iran’s potential, at least in theory, for helping to solve a slew of devilish problems in a region Obama sees as a strategic sand trap (and) at a time when China and its neighbors demand more US attention.”

It further noted that the administration is “mindful” that under George W. Bush Washington spurned Iranian overtures after Teheran had assisted the US invasion of Afghanistan and the installation of Hamid Karzai as the country’s puppet ruler. (In fact, there is a decades-long history of the rulers of the Islamic Republic seeking an accommodation with US imperialism.)

But, according to Politico, the Obama administration now faces a dilemma: on the one hand, it is eager to explore the potential of leveraging the nuclear agreement with Tehran to pressure it to cut off support to its close ally Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and facilitate the US drive for regime-change in Damascus; but on the other, it fears that if it moves too quickly in the direction of promoting an Iranian role in bringing about a “political settlement” in Syria this will only further antagonize Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States.

The article concludes by citing the remarks of former Obama Pentagon and State Department official Ilan Goldenberg. “The core debate,” says Goldenberg, “is, will it be engagement (with Iran) first with some push back—or push back with some engagement?”

Goldenberg, who now works for the Center for a New American Security, himself advocates the stepping up of the US’s efforts to support, arm and train anti-Assad insurgents so as to “send our partners a signal that we’re not pivoting strategically to Iran.”

Mindfulness: Capitalism’s New Favorite Tool for Maintaining the Status Quo



The meditative practice is being used in a way that betrays its anti-materialist roots.

I stumbled across mindfulness, the meditation practice now favored by titans of tech, sensitive C-suiters, new media gurus and celebrities, without even really knowing it.

A couple of years ago, I was deeply mired in an insane schedule that involved almost everything (compulsive list-making at 4am, vacations mostly spent working, lots of being “on”) except for one desperately missed item (sleep; pretty much just sleep). A friend suggested I download Headspace, a meditation app he swore would calm the thoughts buzzing incessantly in my head, relax my anxious energy and help me be more present. I took his advice, noting the app’s first 10 trial sessions — to be done at the same time over 10 consecutive days — were free. When I found the time to do it, it was, at best, incredibly relaxing; at worst, it barely made a dent in my frazzled synapses. When I didn’t find the time (because again, schedule), the effort to somehow make time became its own source of stress. In the end, I got an equally hectic yet far more satisfying career, took up running and forgot Headspace existed.

That is, until the term “mindfulness” reached a tipping point of near ubiquity. As it turned out, what I’d regarded as just a digitized form of guided meditation was actually a “mindfulness technique,” part of a bigger, buzzy, Buddhism-derived movement toward some version of corporate enlightenment. As long ago as 2012, Forbes reported that Google, Apple, Deutsche Bank and several other corporate behemoths already had mindfulness programs in place for employees. Phil Jackson, the basketball coach with a record-setting 11 NBA titles, tacitly praised mindfulness for his wins, telling Oprah he’d incorporated the technique into player practice regiments. Arianna Huffington, empress of media, not only sings the praises of mindfulness in speeches around the country, but she and Morning Joe  co-host Mika Brzezinski just hosted anentire conference dedicated to it this past April. And perhaps least surprising of all, Gwyneth Paltrow is a proselytizing adherent, giving mindfulness in general, and Headspace in particular, a shout-out on her lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-beautiful website, Goop.

You can tell a lot about trendy new concepts by who embraces them, and why. In the case of mindfulness, business leaders cite a number of reasons why they’ve adopted the concept so wholeheartedly. Studies have found that mindfulness meditation reduces stress, thereby making it a safeguard against employee burnout. Research finds that mindfulness bolsters memory retention and reading comprehension, which means employees can be more accurate in processing information. One Dutch study found that mindfulness makes practitioners more creative, helping ensure workers remain a fount of ideas. And some schools for children as young as first grade have begun teaching mindfulness meditation, based on studies that suggest it helps maintainfocus, a resource in constant threat of short supply for those multitasking their way through so many mundane, workaday obligations.

The idea is that mindfulness helps cleanse cerebral clutter and hush neural distractions so we can redirect that brain power into being our most in-the-moment selves.

But really, we already knew this. Long before mindfulness became the path toward corporate good vibes — back when Westerners were getting into what was then simply called Zen meditation — millions were already offering unsolicited testaments to the restorative powers of the technique. (To modify an old joke about vegans, Q: How do you know someone’s into meditation? A: Oh, don’t worry, they’ll tell you.) The pesky problem with meditation, now dubbed “mindfulness,” was its connection with Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn, widely credited with introducing the concept of mindfulness to America in the 1970s, reportedly recognized the spread of the concept might be helped by loosening its religious ties. As a New York Times article on the practice explains, Kabat-Zinn redefined the technique, giving it a secular makeover and describing it as “[t]he awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Without all that dogma attached, the opportunities for use were suddenly endless.

And there’s nothing business loves better than a good opportunity. Silicon Valley, which sits in the shadow of San Francisco and its countercultural influence, was first to recognize the benefits of mindfulness. In a New Yorkerpiece that explores the history of the phenomenon, Lizzie Widdicombe cites Steve Jobs — who traveled India as a teen and was an avid practitioner of meditation — as the first tech industry icon to weave mindfulness with business practices. His heir apparent in this arena is Chade-Meng Tan, whose title at Google is, no kidding, Jolly Good Fellow, or alternately, the slightly more formal Head of Personal Growth. Originally hired in 1999 as an engineer, in 2007 Tan headed up the company’s first “Search Inside Yourself” course, a two-day mindfulness-focused program. Since then, the corporate adopters of mindfulness, which also include Procter & Gamble, General Mills and Aetna, have grown to include companies in every area of business, stretching far beyond tech to banking, law, advertising, and even the United States military. (Although, it should be noted, deep meditation may actually be damaging for some PTSD sufferers, exacerbating the condition.)

Strip away all the fuzzy wuzzy, and one glaring fact stands out about mindfulness’s proliferation across the corporate world: At the end of the day, the name of the game is increased productivity. In other words, the practice has become a capitalist tool for squeezing even more work out of an already overworked workforce. Buddhism’s anti-materialist ethos seems in direct odds with this application of one of its key practices, even if it has been divorced from its Zen roots. In an article about “McMindfulness,” the pejorative term indicting the commodified, secularized, corporatized version of the meditative practice, David Loy states “[m]indfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.”

A 2013 piece from the Economist titled “The Mindfulness Business” compares mindfulness to the culture of self-help, previously held as the cure-all for a business culture looking to maximize worker usefulness. The piece points out that this recontextualized version of meditation seems, cynically, to miss the point of the practice’s original intent:

“Gurus talk about ‘the competitive advantage of meditation.’ Pupils come to see it as a way to get ahead in life. And the point of the whole exercise is lost. What has parading around in pricey Lululemon outfits got to do with the Buddhist ethic of non-attachment to material goods? And what has staring at a computer-generated dot got to do with the ancient art of meditation? Western capitalism seems to be doing rather more to change eastern religion than eastern religion is doing to change Western capitalism.”

It’s a valid point that drives home the schism between the roots of the practice and the warped interpretation of it.

For now, there seems no end to the spread of mindfulness — which isn’t such a bad idea. The notion of self-care in an era of constant digital distractions, as well as midnight and weekend work email exchanges, is a welcome one. But what of the halfhearted appropriation of a noble, anti-capitalist practice to thicken the bottom line? As Loy notes in his Huffington Post piece, American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi warns that “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” That’s a pretty good summation of what’s already happening. Until corporate America discovers its next trendy panacea, the practice will continue to spread, its miraculous effects touted — and often overstated— as a booster of profits and more. It’s a bit like oms for making better worker drones; or rather, Zen done the American way.

EPA study whitewashes the effects of fracking


By Philip Guelpa
13 July 2015

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the final draft of a study last month on the effects on drinking water of fracking (high volume hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of oil and natural gas). The study had been requested by Congress in 2010.

An earlier, 2004, EPA study had found that fracking had no adverse effect on drinking water. That conclusion was then used to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since then, there has been an accumulation of evidence that fracking has substantial negative consequences for a whole range of environmental and health concerns.

The EPA study found no evidence that fracking has caused “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” It goes on to say, however, that, under certain circumstances, wells can leak and cause local contamination of the water table.

Energy industry representatives and political supporters of fracking have taken this as constituting a “clean bill of health” for the process, the use of which has expanded explosively over the last few decades.

Fracking is now taking place across substantial portions of the US, from California to Pennsylvania and Texas to the Dakotas, bolstering the position of the US as a major oil and gas producer. There are fracking wells in half of US states, with at least 12.2 million people living near or drinking water from a source within a mile of a fracked well. In Pennsylvania alone there are currently about 8,800 active fracking wells.

The EPA report is consistent with the Obama administration’s long-established support for fracking (see: White House announces pro-corporate fracking rules).

The EPA’s analysis is narrow in scope and the language carefully crafted so as to appear to say more than it really does. While stating that the numbers of documented incidents is low compared to the number of wells, the report represents an acknowledgement that contamination does occur, a fact that has long been denied by fracking supporters.

Furthermore, the agency acknowledges that there are gaps in the data on which its findings are based. This is the result of insufficient numbers of independent field studies, because much of the data is derived from industry self-reporting, and because the industry habitually settles lawsuits with payments that are tied to gag orders preventing those injured from discussing their cases. In one notorious example, a lifetime ban on public comment encompassed not only the parents, but also their minor children (see: Gas drilling company imposes lifetime gag order on Pennsylvania children).

The study cites a range of weaknesses that can cause serious problems, including inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below-ground migration of gases and liquids; inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources; and spills of hydraulic fluids and wastewater. Numerous examples of such failures are cited by the EPA. There is little information regarding how the integrity of fracking wells holds up over time. Many wells continue to be used significantly past their originally projected use life. As oil and gas prices continue to fall, there will be growing pressure to increase efficiency (i.e., cut corners), increasing the potential for accidents and equipment failures.

Furthermore, while the proportion of incidents is supposedly low, the severity of the consequences can be quite high, given the witch’s brew of toxic and carcinogenic materials involved. Over a thousand different chemicals are used in varying mixtures at sites across the country. The long-term effects on health and the environment of 92 percent of these chemicals are unknown.

EPA representatives were careful to state that their report was not a pronouncement on whether fracking is safe.

A more comprehensive, seven-year-long study recently released by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) provides a very different perspective than that of the EPA. It concluded that fracking poses significant environmental and health risks. As a result, the state, which has substantial gas-containing shale deposits that could be fracked, has now permanently banned the practice. The announcement of the ban states, “High-volume hydraulic fracturing poses significant adverse impacts to land, air, water, natural resources and potential significant public health impacts that cannot be adequately mitigated.” The move makes permanent an earlierprovisional ban, based on a study by the state’s Department of Health. The state of Maryland has recently placed a two-and-a-half year moratorium on fracking.

Research on a variety of harmful effects of fracking continues to be released. Among the most recent are studies on the impacts of environmental fragmentation, the growing consumption of water, and negative health effects on infants and children.

Scientists estimate that the average fracking well pad, along with all its associated appurtenances (roadways, pipelines, compressor stations, etc.) disturbs at least 30 acres. In areas such as northeastern Pennsylvania, where the countryside has suffered extensive fracking activity, large swaths of terrain have been denuded of vegetation, and the ground churned up and contaminated by a variety of toxic substances.

The residual effects of fracking, which will linger long after the drill rigs are gone, include not only the chemical pollution of land and ground water, but also severe disruption of plant and animal communities. One recent study found that intensive fracking reduced an area’s biodiversity by 75 percent. A number of species are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act because of habitat degradation due to hydraulic fracturing. Environmental disruption caused by fracking operations also opens the way for invasive species that can severely impact pre-existing ecological communities.

The effects of fracking on plant and animal species only compound the growing and potentially devastating impact of climate change.

Regulations that supposedly require restoration following the termination of a fracking well have had little impact. For example, a recent study by StateImpact Pennsylvania found that of 200 well sites in state forests, restoration activities had been carried out, even partially, at only 5 percent. None of the nearly 1,700 acres encompassed by these well sites have been fully restored. Furthermore, the long-term effectiveness of “restoration” is unknown.

A US Geological Survey study published by the American Geophysical Union reports that fracking for oil and natural gas now consumes 28 times more water than it did 15 years ago. A single well may use up to 9.6 million gallons of water, depending on the geology of the formation being fracked. This water is nearly impossible to decontaminate, becoming, for all practical purposes, unavailable for any further use. Much of this contaminated water is being disposed of deep underground through the use of injection wells, a process that has been shown to increase the frequency and severity of earthquakes. Cumulatively, in areas of intensive fracking activity, the amount of such losses can be significant. The consequences are especially severe under drought conditions, which are currently occurring in some western portions of the United States where fracking is or may occur.

There is a growing body of evidence that people living near fracking sites are suffering severe health effects. Among the most alarming is the impact on children. A study funded by the Pittsburgh Foundation, based on data from eight Pennsylvania counties where intensive fracking is occurring, found significant increases in infant mortality, perinatal mortality, low-weight births, premature births and cancer in infants and children. Since the early 2000s, compared to the rest of the state, infant mortality in the counties under study rose by 13.9 percent, perinatal mortality by 23.6 percent, low-weight births by 3.4 percent, premature births/gestation less than 32 weeks by 12.4 percent, and cancer incidence in age 0-4 by 35.1 percent. Other recent studies have had similar results.

The EPA study, while formally concluding that it found no evidence of widespread drinking water contamination due to fracking is, in fact, a political smokescreen intended to serve the interests of the energy industry. Based on an ever-growing body of data, there is every reason to conclude that fracking, under the control of private, for profit energy companies, is highly dangerous to human health and the environment. Only a planned, socialist economy can develop an energy industry that provides safe, clean energy for the world’s population.

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Scientific study confirms groundwater contamination by hydraulic fracturing
[9 July 2013]

US health insurers seek huge rate increases for 2016


By Kate Randall
6 July 2015

Health insurance companies across the US are seeking rate increases of 20 percent to 40 percent and more, according to filings by the insurers with state insurance commissions. Insurance companies cite a larger than expected pool of unhealthy enrollees, high drug prices, and diminishing profits as contributing factors requiring the premium hikes.

The rate increase requests are the latest demonstration of the pro-corporate character of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare. The news follows the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling June 25, which upheld government tax subsidies, a critical component of the law that provides tax credits to those purchasing insurance coverage on all the exchanges set up under the ACA.

Under Obamacare’s “individual mandate,” uninsured individuals and families must obtain insurance or face a tax penalty. The premiums for plans purchased on the ACA exchanges go directly into the coffers of the private insurers.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield, one of the nation’s largest insurers, is seeking double-digit increases in many states, including a 23 percent hike in Illinois, 25 percent in North Carolina, 31 percent in Oklahoma, 36 percent in Tennessee, and 54 percent in Minnesota.

The ACA, signed into law in 2010, requires insurance companies to disclose large proposed increases in premiums, and increases of 10 percent or more must be made public and are subject to review under federal law. However, there is no mechanism to rein in the rate hikes if state insurance commissions approve them.

In cynical comments made last week in an appearance in Tennessee, Barack Obama said consumers should put pressure on state insurance regulators to examine the rate requests carefully. “My expectation,” he said, “is that they’ll come in significantly lower than what’s being requested.”

In one example of the opposite result, Oregon Insurance Commissioner Laura N. Cali has just approved rate increases for companies that cover more than 220,000 people. Moda Health Plan, with the state’s largest enrollment, received a 25 percent increase; LifeWise, the second-largest Oregon plan, received a 33 percent hike.

In some cases, state insurance commissions have already granted insurance hikes in excess of those requested by the insurers. In Oregon, Health Net requested increases averaging 9 percent and was granted increases averaging 34.8 percent. Another insurer in the state, Health Co-op, requested a 5.3 percent increase and the state approved a 19.9 percent hike.

Insurers cite the fact that new customers enrolling in ACA plans have turned out to be sicker than expected, which leaves the insurers with a more unhealthy pool of insured customers, requiring them to increase premiums. This is hardly a shocking development, as significant numbers of younger, healthier people have chosen to remain uninsured and risk the cost of getting sick and needing medical care that would have to be paid out-of-pocket.

However, these young people are not simply paying Russian roulette with their health. The driving force behind the decision of many not to enroll in coverage—including the so-called young invincibles, and many workers—is the economic reality that they cannot afford the premiums. To add injury to insult, they face the prospect of being both uninsured and paying tax penalties under the Affordable Care act. For individuals, these penalties for the uninsured were $95 in 2014, rose to $325 in 2015, and will increase to $695 in 2016.

Another factor contributing to the increased pool of unhealthy customers is a policy adopted by the Obama administration in late 2013 that allowed people to keep insurance plans that did not meet new federal standards, including a set of required coverage, including wellness checks and some screenings. The exemption was a political move on the president’s part to make good on his earlier statements that “If you like your plan, you can keep it.”

Customers may also be required to switch plans in order to keep premium costs down. The Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed 2016 premium changes in 10 states and the District of Columbia where the group found complete data for all insurers for the lowest- and second-lowest cost “silver” plans.

For example, Kaiser found that in Seattle, Washington, an unsubsidized person enrolled in the second-lowest silver plan offered by BridgeSpan in 2015 would see a 12.6 percent premium increase if the individual stayed in the same plan, but would pay 10.1 percent less if the person switched to a similar plan offered by Ambetter.

Kaiser found that those switching plans to save money would potentially have to switch doctors and hospitals as well, and that staying with one’s plan also did not guarantee maintaining a provider network. The entire framework of the ACA is thus skewed to the whims of the insurers, and customers are required to scramble each year to determine their selection.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell told the Times, “You have a marketplace where there is competition and people can shop for the plan that best meets their needs in terms of quality and price.”

The HHS secretary did not mention that the most affordable “bronze” plans come with deductibles in excess of $5,000, which means that coverage for all but “essential” medical services do not kick in until the deductible is paid out-of-pocket. This means that despite being insured, many people will go without health care for themselves or their children, resulting in needless suffering and deaths.

Some of the premium increase requests by the private insurers are staggering. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico has requested rate hikes averaging 51 percent for its 33,000 enrollees. Scott & White Health Plan in Texas is seeking a 32 percent rate increase. In a ludicrous statement to the New York Times, Scott & White’s CEO Marinan R. Williams said that the rate hike requests show that “there was a real need for the Affordable Care Act.”

Arches Health Plan, which covers about a quarter of the people insured through Obamacare in Utah, says it collected premiums of $39.7 million in 2014, but had claims of $56.3 million in 2014. The insurer has requested rate increases averaging 45 percent for 2016.

The Obama administration has touted a provision of Obamacare that requires insurers to spend at least 80 percent of premiums on medical care and related activities. How this works out in reality, however, is that if the profit margins are not to the insurers’ liking, they request premium increases to generate the revenue to pay stockholder dividends and the bloated salaries of insurance company executives.

The CEOs of the top five for-profit health insurance companies—Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Humana and UnitedHealth—all took home at least $10 million in 2014, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Executive compensation ranged from $10.1 million for Humana CEO Bruce D. Broussard to more than $15 million for Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini.

In the latest round of mergers as a byproduct of Obamacare, Aetna Inc. and Humana Inc. announced last week they had reached a deal to merge, creating an insurance company valued at $37 billion. If approved by the government and carried through, the insurer would become the nation’s second largest, covering more than 10 percent of the US population.

Twenty-one was “the perfect wolf”

He was a legend — he never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival

Twenty-one was like history’s highest-status human leaders: Not a ruthless strongman but a peaceful warrior

Twenty-one was "the perfect wolf": He was a legend -- he never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival
(Credit: andamanec via Shutterstock)

“Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” Without looking at me, Rick McIntyre quizzes me like a Zen master during one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had. He’s trying to lead me into a realization about the roots of mercy by talking about superheroes as we’re looking through telescopes in subfreezing weather while watching wolves eating an elk a mile away on a frozen, snowy slope. Rick, a ranger here in Yellowstone National Park, conducts the whole conversation without taking his eyes from his scope. Rick follows free-living wolves every day. I’ve never seen real wolves before, so my eyes are glued to my scope too.

“If ever there was a perfect wolf, it was Twenty-One,” says Rick, using the wolf’s research-collar number as his name. “He was like a fictional character.

“Twice, I saw Twenty-One take on six attacking wolves from a rival pack — and rout them all,” Rick recalls. “I’d think, ‘A wolf can’t do what I am watching this wolf do.’ Watching him felt like seeing Bruce Lee fighting.”

Wolf territorial fights resemble human tribal warfare. Wolves often target the rival pack’s alphas, seemingly understanding that if they can rout or kill the experienced leaders, victory will be theirs.

Twenty-One distinguished himself in two ways: He never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival. But why? A wolf letting vanquished enemies go free seems inexplicable. Rick’s question about Batman and the Joker is his koan-like way of trying to lead me to a big-picture explanation as to why. But I’m not getting it.

Rick is saying that history’s highest-status human leaders are not ruthless strongmen like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They are Gandhi, King and Mandela. Peaceful warriors earn higher status. Muhammad Ali — who has been called the most famous man in the world — was a practitioner of ritualized combat who spoke of peace and refused to go to war. His refusal cost him millions of dollars and his heavyweight title, yet with his refusal to kill, his status rose to unprecedented height.

For humans and many other animals, status is a huge deal. For it, we risk much treasure and blood. Wolves do not understand why status and dominance are so important to them, and for the most part, we don’t either. In wolf and human alike, our brains produce hormones that compel us to strive for status and assert dominance. Dominance feels like an end in itself. We don’t need to understand why.

Here’s why: Status is a daily proxy for competition. Whenever mates or food are in short supply, the high-status individual has preferred access. What’s at stake is survival, and ultimately, reproduction — the chance to breed, to count. Our genes don’t need to let us understand why; they just need us to want it. One could hardly expect that wolves would understand, any better than we do, what drives us all. But I still don’t get what this has to do with Batman.

“So, Rick,” I ask, my eye still in the scope watching several ruddy-faced wolves bedding down in snow to sleep off a big meal they’ve just finished, “why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”

“In admiring the hero who restrains himself” — Rick has clearly thought about this — “we are impressed with the hero’s power.” Rick elaborates that in what’s been called the greatest movie of all time, Humphrey Bogart has won the love he has sought. But he arranges things so that the other man does not lose his wife and is not hurt. We admire him for strength combined with restraint.”

But could wolves have such an ethic? If a human releases a vanquished opponent, the loser’s status suffers anyway and the victor seems more impressive. You’ve already won and you show tremendous added confidence. If you show mercy, you gain even more status. But could a wolf be merciful? A wolf might be a super-animal, but he ain’t no superhero.

In wolf Twenty-One’s life there was a particular male, a sort of roving Casanova, a continual annoyance. He was strikingly good-looking, had a big personality, always doing something interesting. “The best single word is ‘charisma,’” says Rick. “Female wolves were happy to mate with him. People absolutely loved him. Women would take one look at him — they didn’t want you to say anything bad about him. His irresponsibility and infidelity; it didn’t matter.”

One day, Twenty-One discovered Casanova among his daughters. Twenty-One caught him and was biting him. Various pack members piled in, beating him up. “Casanova was big,” Rick says, “but he was a bad fighter.” Now he was totally overwhelmed and the pack was finally killing him.

“Suddenly Twenty-One steps back. Everything stops. The others are looking at Twenty-One as if saying, ‘Why has Dad stopped?’” Casanova jumps up and — runs away.

Casanova kept causing problems for Twenty-One. So, why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker so he simply doesn’t have to keep dealing with him? It doesn’t make sense — until years later.

After Twenty-One’s death from age, Casanova became the model of a responsible alpha male. Though he’d been averse to fighting, Casanova died in a fight with a rival pack. But everyone in his own pack escaped — including grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Twenty-One.

Wolves can’t foresee such plot twists any more than can people. But evolution can. Anything that’s helped descendants survive will remain in the genetic heirloom, a driver in the behavioral toolkit.

So, say you’re a wolf; should you let a beaten rival go free? I think the answer in both wolves and in our own tribal human minds is: Yes — if you can afford to. Sometimes, your rival today becomes, tomorrow, a vehicle for your legacy. Perhaps that is the basis for magnanimity in wolves, and at the deep heart of mercy in men.

Excerpted from “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” by Carl Safina, published by Henry Holt and Company LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Carl Safina.  All rights reserved. 

Carl Safina’s work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew and Guggenheim fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard and George Raab medals. Safina is founding president of the not-for-profit Safina Center at Stony Brook University. He hosted the 10-part PBS series “Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina.” “Beyond Words” is his seventh book. He lives on Long Island, New York.

The U.S. faces a major superpower conundrum


America’s Got the #1 Military in the World — and It’s Increasingly Useless

The rise and fall of great powers and their imperial domains has been a central fact of history for centuries. It’s been a sensible, repeatedly validated framework for thinking about the fate of the planet.  So it’s hardly surprising, when faced with a country once regularly labeled the “sole superpower,” “the last superpower,” or even the global “hyperpower” and now, curiously, called nothing whatsoever, that the “decline” question should come up. Is the U.S. or isn’t it? Might it or might it not now be on the downhill side of imperial greatness?

Take a slow train — that is, any train — anywhere in America, as I did recently in the northeast, and then take a high-speed train anywhere else on Earth, as I also did recently, and it’s not hard to imagine the U.S. in decline. The greatest power in history, the “unipolar power,” can’t build a single mile of high-speed rail? Really? And its Congress is now mired in an argument about whether funds can even be raised to keep America’s highways more or less pothole-free.

Sometimes, I imagine myself talking to my long-dead parents because I know how such things would have astonished two people who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and a can-do post-war era in which the staggering wealth and power of this country were indisputable.  What if I could tell them how the crucial infrastructure of such a still-wealthy nation — bridges, pipelines, roads, and the like — is now grossly underfunded, in an increasing state of disrepair, and beginning to crumble? That would definitely shock them.

And what would they think upon learning that, with the Soviet Union a quarter-century in the trash bin of history, the U.S., alone in triumph, has been incapable of applying its overwhelming military and economic power effectively? I’m sure they would be dumbstruck to discover that, since the moment the Soviet Union imploded, the U.S. has been at war continuously with another country (three conflicts and endless strife); that I was talking about, of all places, Iraq; and that the mission there was never faintly accomplished.  How improbable is that? And what would they think if I mentioned that the other great conflicts of the post-Cold-War era were with Afghanistan (two wars with a decade off in-between) and the relatively small groups of non-state actors we now call terrorists? And how would they react on discovering that the results were: failure in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, and the proliferation of terror groups across much of the Greater Middle East (including the establishment of an actual terror caliphate) and increasing parts of Africa?

They would, I think, conclude that the U.S. was over the hill and set on the sort of decline that, sooner or later, has been the fate of every great power. And what if I told them that, in this new century, not a single action of the military that U.S. presidents now call “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” has, in the end, been anything but a dismal failure? Or that presidents, presidential candidates, and politicians in Washington are required to insist on something no one would have had to say in their day: that the United States is both an “exceptional” and an “indispensible” nation? Or that they would also have to endlessly thankour troops (as would the citizenry) for…well…never success, but just being there and getting maimed, physically or mentally, or dying while we went about our lives? Or that those soldiers must always be referred to as “heroes.”

In their day, when the obligation to serve in a citizens’ army was a given, none of this would have made much sense, while the endless defensive insistence on American greatness would have stood out like a sore thumb. Today, its repetitive presence marks the moment of doubt. Are we really so “exceptional”? Is this country truly “indispensible” to the rest of the planet and if so, in what way exactly? Are those troops genuinely our heroes and if so, just what was it they did that we’re so darn proud of?

Return my amazed parents to their graves, put all of this together, and you have the beginnings of a description of a uniquely great power in decline. It’s a classic vision, but one with a problem.

A God-Like Power to Destroy

Who today recalls the ads from my 1950s childhood for, if I remember correctly, drawing lessons, which always had a tagline that went something like: What’s wrong with this picture? (You were supposed to notice the five-legged cows floating through the clouds.) So what’s wrong with this picture of the obvious signs of decline: the greatest power in history, with hundreds of garrisons scattered across the planet, can’t seem to apply its power effectively no matter where it sends its military or bring countries like Iran or a weakened post-Soviet Russia to heel by a full range of threats, sanctions, and the like, or suppress a modestly armed terror-movement-cum-state in the Middle East?

For one thing, look around and tell me that the United States doesn’t still seem like a unipolar power. I mean, where exactly are its rivals? Since the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, when the first wooden ships mounted with cannons broke out of their European backwater and began to gobble up the globe, there have always been rival great powers — three, four, five, or more. And what of today? The other three candidates of the moment would assumedly be the European Union (EU), Russia, and China.

Economically, the EU is indeed a powerhouse, but in any other way it’s a second-rate conglomeration of states that still slavishly follow the U.S. and an entity threatening to come apart at the seams. Russia looms ever larger in Washington these days, but remains a rickety power in search of greatness in its former imperial borderlands.  It’s a country almost as dependent on its energy industry as Saudi Arabia and nothing like a potential future superpower. As for China, it’s obviously the rising power of the moment and now officially has the number one economy on Planet Earth.  Still, it remains in many ways a poor country whose leaders fear any kind of future economic implosion (which could happen). Like the Russians, like any aspiring great power, it wants to make its weight felt in its neighborhood — at the moment the East and South China Seas. And like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Chinese leadership is indeedupgrading its military. But the urge in both cases is to emerge as a regional power to contend with, not a superpower or a genuine rival of the U.S.

Whatever may be happening to American power, there really are no potential rivals to shoulder the blame. Yet, uniquely unrivaled, the U.S. has proven curiously incapable of translating its unipolar power and a military that, on paper, trumps every other one on the planet into its desires. This was not the normal experience of past reigning great powers. Or put another way, whether or not the U.S. is in decline, the rise-and-fall narrative seems, half-a-millennium later, to have reached some kind of largely uncommented upon and unexamined dead end.

In looking for an explanation, consider a related narrative involving military power. Why, in this new century, does the U.S. seem so incapable of achieving victory or transforming crucial regions into places that can at least be controlled?  Military power is by definition destructive, but in the past such force often cleared the ground for the building of local, regional, or even global structures, however grim or oppressive they might have been. If force always was meant to break things, it sometimes achieved other ends as well. Now, it seems as if breaking is all it can do, or how to explain the fact that, in this century, the planet’s sole superpower has specialized — see Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — in fracturing, not building nations.

Empires may have risen and fallen in those 500 years, but weaponry only rose. Over those centuries in which so many rivals engaged each other, carved out their imperial domains, fought their wars, and sooner or later fell, the destructive power of the weaponry they were wielding only ratcheted up exponentially: from the crossbow to the musket, the cannon, the Colt revolver, the repeating rifle, the Gatling gun, the machine gun, the dreadnaught, modern artillery, the tank, poison gas, the zeppelin, the plane, the bomb, the aircraft carrier, the missile, and at the end of the line, the “victory weapon” of World War II, the nuclear bomb that would turn the rulers of the greatest powers, and later even lesser powers, into the equivalent of gods.

For the first time, representatives of humanity had in their hands the power to destroy anything on the planet in a fashion once imagined possible only by some deity or set of deities. It was now possible to create our own end times. And yet here was the odd thing: the weaponry that brought the power of the gods down to Earth somehow offered no practical power at all to national leaders.  In the post-Hiroshima-Nagasaki world, those nuclear weapons would prove unusable.  Once they were loosed on the planet, there would be no more rises, no more falls. (Today, we know that even a limited nuclear exchange among lesser powers could, thanks to the nuclear-winter effect, devastate the planet.)

Weapons Development in an Era of Limited War

In a sense, World War II could be considered the ultimate moment for both the narratives of empire and the weapon. It would be the last “great” war in which major powers could bring all the weaponry available to them to bear in search of ultimate victory and the ultimate shaping of the globe. It resulted in unprecedented destruction across vast swathes of the planet, the killing of tens of millions, the turning of great cities into rubble and of countless people into refugees, the creation of an industrial structure for genocide, and finally the building of those weapons of ultimate destruction and of the first missiles that would someday be their crucial delivery systems.  And out of that war came the final rivals of the modern age — and then there were two — the “superpowers.”

That very word, superpower, had much of the end of the story embedded in it. Think of it as a marker for a new age, for the fact that the world of the “great powers” had been left for something almost inexpressible. Everyone sensed it. We were now in the realm of “great” squared or force raised in some exponential fashion, of “super” (as in, say, “superhuman”) power. What made those powers truly super was obvious enough: the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union — their potential ability, that is, to destroy in a fashion that had no precedent and from which there might be no coming back.  It wasn’t a happenstance that the scientists creating the H-bomb sometimes referred to it in awestruck terms as a “super bomb,” or simply “the super.”

The unimaginable had happened. It turned out that there was such a thing as too much power. What in World War II came to be called “total war,” the full application of the power of a great state to the destruction of others, was no longer conceivable. The Cold War gained its name for a reason. A hot war between the U.S. and the USSR could not be fought, nor could another global war, a reality driven home by the Cuban missile crisis.  Their power could only be expressed “in the shadows” or in localized conflicts on the “peripheries.”  Power now found itself unexpectedly bound hand and foot.

This would soon be reflected in the terminology of American warfare. In the wake of the frustrating stalemate that was Korea (1950-1953), a war in which the U.S. found itself unable to use its greatest weapon, Washington took a new language into Vietnam. The conflict there was to be a “limited war.” And that meant one thing: Nuclear power would be taken off the table.

For the first time, it seemed, the world was facing some kind of power glut. It’s at least reasonable to assume that, in the years after the Cold War standoff ended, that reality somehow seeped from the nuclear arena into the rest of warfare.  In the process, great power war would be limited in new ways, while somehow being reduced only to its destructive aspect and nothing more. It suddenly seemed to hold no other possibilities within it — or so the evidence of the sole superpower in these years suggests.

War and conflict are hardly at an end in the twenty-first century, but something has removed war’s normal efficacy. Weapons development has hardly ceased either, but the newest highest-tech weapons of our age are proving strangely ineffective as well. In this context, the urge in our time to produce “precision weaponry” — no longer the carpet-bombing of the B-52, but the “surgical” strike capacity of a joint direct attack munition, or JDAM — should be thought of as the arrival of “limited war” in the world of weapons development.

The drone, one of those precision weapons, is a striking example. Despite itspenchant for producing “collateral damage,” it is not a World War II-style weapon of indiscriminate slaughter. It has, in fact, been used relatively effectively to play whack-a-mole with the leadership of terrorist groups, killing off one leader or lieutenant after another.  And yet all of the movements it has been directed against have only proliferated, gaining strength (and brutality) in these same years. It has, in other words, proven an effective weapon of bloodlust and revenge, but not of policy.  If war is, in fact, politics by other means (as Carl von Clausewitz claimed), revenge is not. No one should then be surprised that the drone has produced not an effective war on terror, but a war that seems to promote terror.

One other factor should be added in here: that global power glut has grown exponentially in another fashion as well. In these years, the destructive power of the gods has descended on humanity a second time as well — via the seemingly most peaceable of activities, the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change now promises a slow-motion version of nuclear Armageddon, increasing both the pressure on and the fragmentation of societies, while introducing a new form of destruction to our lives.

Can I make sense of all this? Hardly. I’m just doing my best to report on the obvious: that military power no longer seems to act as it once did on Planet Earth.  Under distinctly apocalyptic pressures, something seems to be breaking down, something seems to be fragmenting, and with that the familiar stories, familiar frameworks, for thinking about how our world works are losing their efficacy.

Decline may be in the American future, but on a planet pushed to extremes, don’t count on it taking place within the usual tale of the rise and fall of great powers or even superpowers. Something else is happening on Planet Earth. Be prepared.