Bill Gates: Only Socialism Can Save the Climate, ‘The Private Sector is Inept’


Bill Gates explains why the climate crisis will not be solved by the free market.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, billionaire tech magnate Bill Gates announced his game plan to spend $2 billion of his own wealth on green energy investments, and called on his fellow private sector billionaires to help make the U.S. fossil-free by 2050. But in doing so, Gates admitted that the private sector is too selfish and inefficient to do the work on its own, and that mitigating climate change would be impossible without the help of government research and development.

“There’s no fortune to be made. Even if you have a new energy source that costs the same as today’s and emits no CO2, it will be uncertain compared with what’s tried-and-true and already operating at unbelievable scale and has gotten through all the regulatory problems,” Gates said. “Without a substantial carbon tax, there’s no incentive for innovators or plant buyers to switch.”

Gates even tacked to the left and uttered words that few other billionaire investors would dare to say: government R&D is far more effective and efficient than anything the private sector could do.

“Since World War II, U.S.-government R&D has defined the state of the art in almost every area,” Gates said. “The private sector is in general inept.”

“When I first got into this I thought, ‘How well does the Department of Energy spend its R&D budget?’ And I was worried: ‘Gosh, if I’m going to be saying it should double its budget, if it turns out it’s not very well spent, how am I going to feel about that?’” Gates told The Atlantic. “But as I’ve really dug into it, the DARPA money is very well spent, and the basic-science money is very well spent. The government has these ‘Centers of Excellence.’ They should have twice as many of those things, and those things should get about four times as much money as they do.”

In making his case for public sector excellence, the Microsoft founder mentioned the success of the internet:

“In the case of the digital technologies, the path back to government R&D is a bit more complex, because nowadays most of the R&D has moved to the private sector. But the original Internet comes from the government, the original chip-foundry stuff comes from the government—and even today there’s some government money taking on some of the more advanced things and making sure the universities have the knowledge base that maintains that lead. So I’d say the overall record for the United States on government R&D is very, very good.”

The ‘Centers for Excellence’ program Bill Gates mentioned is the Center for Excellence in Renewable Energy (CERE), which is funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF, which operated with roughly $7.1 billion in 2014, is the source of one-fourth of federal funding for research projects at over 2,000 colleges, universities, K-12 schools, nonprofits, and businesses.  The NSF has even funded research by over 200 Nobel laureates, including 26 in just the last 5 years alone. The NSF receives more than 40,000 proposals each year, but only gets to fund about 11,000 of them. Bill Gates wants this funding to be dramatically increased.

“I would love to see a tripling, to $18 billion a year from the U.S. government to fund basic research alone,” Gates said. “Now, as a percentage of the government budget, that’s not gigantic… This is not an unachievable amount of money.”

As evidence around the world shows, the U.S. doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to be a green energy juggernaut — it can simply look to currently-existing examples in countries with socialist policies — like Germany and China, for instance — on how to become a leader in green energy. And according to Bill Gates, the rest of the world will follow the lead if the biggest countries set the bar.

“The climate problem has to be solved in the rich countries,” Gates said. “China and the U.S. and Europe have to solve CO2 emissions, and when they do, hopefully they’ll make it cheap enough for everyone else.”

This past July, Germany set a new record by generating 78 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, beating its previous record of 74 percent in May of 2014. Germany generated 40.65 gigawatts from wind and solar energy, 4.85 gigawatts from biomass, and 2.4 gigawatts from hydropower, for a total of 47.9 gigawatts of green energy when total electricity demand was at 61.1 gigawatts. Over the past year, Germany decreased its CO2 output by 4.3 percent. This means greenhouse gas emissions in Germany are at their lowest point since 1990.

But in terms of raw investment, China’s $80 billion green energy investment is more than both the U.S. ($34 billion) and Europe ($46 billion), combined. And those investments are already paying dividends. While coal is still China’s biggest source of electricity, the world’s biggest polluter aims to have its use of fossil fuels peak in 2030, and trend downward after that. Additionally, China’s solar production outpaces all other countries combined.

Between 2000 and 2012, China’s solar energy output increased dramatically from 3 megawatts to 21,000 megawatts. And its solar output increased by 67 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone. In 2014, China actually managed to decrease its CO2 emissions by 1 percent, with further reductions expected in the coming years.

China also powers more homes with wind energy than every nuclear power plant in the U.S. put together. China’s wind output provided electricity to 110 million homes in 2014, as its wind farms generated 16 percent more power than in 2013, and 77 gigawatts of additional wind power are currently under construction. China’s energy grid is currently powered by 100 gigawatts of green energy, and aims to double green energy output to 200 gigawatts by 2020.

Bill Gates wants the U.S. to be an additional green energy leader, and expresses hope that there may still be enough time for the U.S. to take green energy investment seriously, and that the public sector can be instrumental in preventing a 2-degree increase in global temperatures.

“I don’t think it’s hopeless, because it’s about American innovation, American jobs, American leadership, and there are examples where this has gone very, very well,” Gates said.

Tom Cahill is a writer for US Uncut based in the Pacific Northwest. He specializes in coverage of political, economic, and environmental news. You can contact Tom via email at

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.

Democrats vs. the New Deal: The party is now firmly anti-New Deal

Who really runs the party — and why it might surprise you

Democrats vs. the New Deal: Who <em>really</em> runs the party -- and why it might surprise you

In the aftermath of the shellacking they took in the midterm congressional and state elections, many Democrats are calling for their party to return to its New Deal roots.

This is inadvertently comical.  The present-day Democratic Party has next to nothing to do with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  Today’s Democratic Party is a completely different party, which coalesced between 1968 and 1980.  And this half-century-old party has been anti-New Deal from the very beginning.

Now that I have your attention, allow me to explain.

While there have been two parties called “the Democrats” and “the Republicans” since the mid-19th century, these enduring labels mask the fact that party coalitions change every generation or two.  Franklin Roosevelt created a new party under the old name of “the Democrats” by welding ex-Republican Progressives in the North together with the old Jacksonian Farmer-Labor coalition.  The contentious issue of civil rights nearly destroyed the Roosevelt Democrats in 1948 — and finally wrecked it in 1968, when George Wallace’s third party campaign proved to be a way-station for many working-class whites en route from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Today’s Democratic Party, in contrast, took shape between 1968 and 1980.  Although George McGovern lost the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon in a landslide, the McGovernites of the “New Politics” movement wrested control of the Democratic Party from the old state politicians and urban bosses of the Roosevelt-to-Johnson New Deal coalition.  Robert Kennedy’s aide Fred Dutton, one of the architects of the disempowerment of the old New Deal elite, called for a new coalition of young people, college-educated suburbanites and minorities in his 1971 book “Changing Sources of Power: Politics in the 1970s.”  Sound familiar?  That’s because, nearly half a century later, the same groups are the core constituents of today’s Democrats.

Jimmy Carter was the first New Politics president (or New Democrat or neoliberal, as they were later called).  He was a center-right Southern governor who ran against big government and touted his credentials as a rich businessman.  He did not get along with organized labor, one of the key constituencies of the Roosevelt Democrats.  His major domestic policy achievement was dismantling New Deal regulation of transportation like trucking and air travel.  He appointed a Federal Reserve chairman from Wall Street, Paul Volcker, who created an artificial recession, the worst between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, to cripple American unions, whose wage demands were blamed for inflation.

Even before Carter’s election, the Democratic “class of ’74” in Congress wrested power from the old largely Southern politicians of the New Deal era. The  northern Irish Catholic-Southern alliance, symbolized by House Speakers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright, gave way among congressional Democrats to a new Northeastern-West Coast domination, beginning with Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, of the state of Washington.  Many of these younger Democrats were deficit hawks, like Bill Bradley of New York and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.  Democrats like these supported the 1983 Social Security “reform,” which cut Social Security benefits by raising the formal retirement age from 65 to 67.  In his 1984 presidential campaign, Carter’s former vice-president, Fritz Mondale, made deficit reduction his central issue.

Bill Clinton had worked for McGovern’s campaign in 1972.  A center-right Southern governor like Carter, he too combined moderate economic conservatism with social liberalism.  Like Carter, Clinton attacked a major New Deal program, teaming up with the Republicans in Congress to abolish a New Deal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and replacing it with what conservatives wanted: federal grants to state-based programs.  Clinton made deficit reduction rather than public investment central to his presidency. Clinton also supported the dismantling of New Deal regulations of the financial sector, completing the dismantling of the New Deal in the economy that Carter had begun.  In the 1994 midterms, many of the remaining Southern “blue dog” Democrats were replaced by Republicans, shifting the regional base of the party even more to the former liberal Republican states of the Northeast and West Coast.

Barack Obama is the third New Politics Democrat in the White House, following Carter and Clinton.  His base is the Fred Dutton constituency — young people, some college-educated whites, and blacks and Latinos.  Like Carter and Clinton, he went after a major New Deal program — the most iconic of them all, Social Security.  Obama proposed cutting Social Security by means of inflation adjustments or “chained CPI” as part of a “grand  bargain” with Republican conservatives.  He backed off only after a rebellion from what remains of the Democratic left.  Those who call him an “Eisenhower Democrat” recognize that he is closer in outlook to penny-pinching, dovish mid-20th century liberal Republicanism than to “guns and butter” Rooseveltian liberalism.

The New Politics Democrats, in class terms, are an “hourglass party,” uniting the disproportionately nonwhite working poor with affluent whites who are drawn to the Democrats by non-economic issues like environmentalism and feminism and gay rights, not the bread-and-butter issues of the older Rooseveltian New Dealers.  While the New Dealers preferred universal jobs programs and universal social programs like Social Security and Medicare to means-tested “welfare,” all of the social insurance programs pushed by the New Politics Democrats since the 1970s — SCHIP, the earned income tax credit, Obamacare — have been means-tested welfare programs targeted at the working poor, not at the better-paid but still struggling working class or middle class.

The policies of the New Politics Democrats are frequently the exact opposite of those of the old New Deal Democrats.  Here are a few examples:

Foreign policy.  The New Deal Democrats were more hawkish than mid-century Republicans. New Politics Democrats, from McGovern to the present, have been more dovish than post-Reagan Republicans.  Even the hawks in the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s distanced themselves from the greatest New Deal presidents — FDR and his protégé LBJ.  Instead, they tried to rehabilitate Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.  Because of Vietnam, the erasure of LBJ by embittered antiwar baby boomers is understandable.  But didn’t FDR win World War II, while Truman’s Korean policy was a bloody debacle?  It is bizarre that partisan Democrats created the Truman National Security Project instead of a Roosevelt National Security Project.

Civil rights.  The liberal rather than radical proponents of desegregation in the mid-20th century, like Bayard Rustin and Hubert Humphrey, favored race-neutral remedies, instead of race-based affirmative action (Martin Luther King Jr. was ambiguous).  Today any Democrat who questioned race-based affirmative action — including preferential policies for Latinos who arrived following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — would be ostracized.

Immigration.  To protect the working class from wage-lowering immigrant competition, the New Deal Democrats abolished the Bracero program (a Mexican guest-worker program).  The Hesburgh and Jordan commissions, appointed by President Carter and President Clinton, respectively, reflected this older pro-labor emphasis by calling for reductions in low-wage immigration.  Today’s orthodox Democratic position favors not only an amnesty for undocumented immigrants already here, but also more legal immigration and fewer penalties for “illegal” immigration.  This was, and still is, the position of Republican business elites, who want to use immigration policy to create a buyer’s market in labor.

The white working class.  The loss of the white working class to the Democrats is hardly a new development. It goes back to George Wallace in 1968. Every decade since then there has been a debate in the New Politics party about whether to try to get the white working class back.

You get the point. Today’s Democrats have no more in common with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson than today’s Republicans have in common with Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower.  From its origins in the 1970s to the present, the contemporary Democratic Party has had deficit reduction, cutbacks of New Deal-era entitlements and regulations and identity politics in its DNA. This is a party that is not only post-New Deal but in many ways anti-New Deal. It was born that way.

If I am right, the New Politics party, as the most recent party to use the Democratic label, is between 40 and 50 years old.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the steam had pretty much gone out of the New Deal Democrats, many of whose young idealists had aged into corrupt hacks. Today it is the New Politics Democrats who are running on fumes.  The neoliberal combination of center-right economics, deficit reduction at the expense of middle-class entitlements, and means-tested small-bore welfare programs for the working poor is tired and uninspiring.

For their part, the Republicans can’t go on for much longer trying to revive the imagined glories of the Reagan presidency in the 1980s.

Real change may not come in 2016, or even in 2020.  But no party system lasts forever. The Great Recession failed to shake up the New Politics-Movement Conservative dichotomy that has held since the 1980s. But maybe at some point sheer boredom will succeed.

Chomsky: U.S. Plunges the Cradle of Civilization into Disaster

…while Its Oil-Based Empire Destroys the Earth’s Climate

Humanity has the effect of an immense asteroid hitting the planet.

Photo Credit: Kelly Maeshiro/Creative Commons

It is not pleasant to contemplate the thoughts that must be passing through the mind of the Owl of Minerva as the dusk falls and she undertakes the task of interpreting the era of human civilization, which may now be approaching its inglorious end.
The era opened almost 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, stretching from the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates, through Phoenicia on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to the Nile Valley, and from there to Greece and beyond. What is happening in this region provides painful lessons on the depths to which the species can descend.
The land of the Tigris and Euphrates has been the scene of unspeakable horrors in recent years. The George W. Bush-Tony Blair aggression in 2003, which many Iraqis compared to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, was yet another lethal blow. It destroyed much of what survived the Bill Clinton-driven UN sanctions on Iraq, condemned as “genocidal” by the distinguished diplomats Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who administered them before resigning in protest. Halliday and von Sponeck’s devastating reports received the usual treatment accorded to unwanted facts.
One dreadful consequence of the US-UK invasion is depicted in aNew York Times “visual guide to the crisis in Iraq and Syria”: the radical change of Baghdad from mixed neighborhoods in 2003 to today’s sectarian enclaves trapped in bitter hatred. The conflicts ignited by the invasion have spread beyond and are now tearing the entire region to shreds.
Much of the Tigris-Euphrates area is in the hands of ISIS and its self-proclaimed Islamic State, a grim caricature of the extremist form of radical Islam that has its home in Saudi Arabia. Patrick Cockburn, a Middle East correspondent for The Independent and one of the best-informed analysts of ISIS, describes it as “a very horrible, in many ways fascist organization, very sectarian, kills anybody who doesn’t believe in their particular rigorous brand of Islam.”
Cockburn also points out the contradiction in the Western reaction to the emergence of ISIS: efforts to stem its advance in Iraq along with others to undermine the group’s major opponent in Syria, the brutal Bashar Assad regime. Meanwhile a major barrier to the spread of the ISIS plague to Lebanon is Hezbollah, a hated enemy of the US and its Israeli ally. And to complicate the situation further, the US and Iran now share a justified concern about the rise of the Islamic State, as do others in this highly conflicted region.
Egypt has plunged into some of its darkest days under a military dictatorship that continues to receive US support. Egypt’s fate was not written in the stars. For centuries, alternative paths have been quite feasible, and not infrequently, a heavy imperial hand has barred the way.

After the renewed horrors of the past few weeks it should be unnecessary to comment on what emanates from Jerusalem, in remote history considered a moral center.

Eighty years ago, Martin Heidegger extolled Nazi Germany as providing the best hope for rescuing the glorious civilization of the Greeks from the barbarians of the East and West. Today, German bankers are crushing Greece under an economic regime designed to maintain their wealth and power.

The likely end of the era of civilization is foreshadowed in a new draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the generally conservative monitor of what is happening to the physical world.

The report concludes that increasing greenhouse gas emissions risk “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” over the coming decades. The world is nearing the temperature when loss of the vast ice sheet over Greenland will be unstoppable. Along with melting Antarctic ice, that could raise sea levels to inundate major cities as well as coastal plains.

The era of civilization coincides closely with the geological epoch of the Holocene, beginning over 11,000 years ago. The previous Pleistocene epoch lasted 2.5 million years. Scientists now suggest that a new epoch began about 250 years ago, the Anthropocene, the period when human activity has had a dramatic impact on the physical world. The rate of change of geological epochs is hard to ignore.

One index of human impact is the extinction of species, now estimated to be at about the same rate as it was 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Earth. That is the presumed cause for the ending of the age of the dinosaurs, which opened the way for small mammals to proliferate, and ultimately modern humans. Today, it is humans who are the asteroid, condemning much of life to extinction.

The IPCC report reaffirms that the “vast majority” of known fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avert intolerable risks to future generations. Meanwhile the major energy corporations make no secret of their goal of exploiting these reserves and discovering new ones.

A day before its summary of the IPCC conclusions, The New York Times reported that huge Midwestern grain stocks are rotting so that the products of the North Dakota oil boom can be shipped by rail to Asia and Europe.

One of the most feared consequences of anthropogenic global warming is the thawing of permafrost regions. A study in Science magazine warns that “even slightly warmer temperatures [less than anticipated in coming years] could start melting permafrost, which in turn threatens to trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases trapped in ice,” with possible “fatal consequences” for the global climate.

Arundhati Roy suggests that the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times” is the Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers have killed each other on the highest battlefield in the world. The glacier is now melting and revealing “thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate” in meaningless conflict. And as the glaciers melt, India and Pakistan face indescribable disaster.

Sad species. Poor Owl.


Workers and environmentalists of the world, unite!

by Stefania Barca on June 3, 2014

Post image for Workers and environmentalists of the world, unite!

The conflict between labor and the environment is a neoliberal construct. What we need is a broad coalition that can fundamentally transform production.

Nowadays it sounds so familiar, almost natural: the mutually exclusive demands and apparently opposing agendas of labor and the environmentalist movement. But in fact, this artificial division is nothing more than a crucial neoliberal strategy to divide two of the most powerful social movements of the industrial era, whose alliance could be a dangerous liaison with the capacity to call into question the very essence of the capitalist “treadmill of production.” It is thus essential that labor and environmental/public health organizations gain a historical perspective on their current state of conflict and become aware of the revolutionary potential of a common political project.

One place where this fact has become much clearer in recent years is the Italian city of Taranto, Apulia, where a number of citizens’ organizations and “committees” emerged in response to one of the most serious occupational, environmental and public health crises of the last decade. These organizations and committees have now begun mobilizing different resources and forms of action — from cyber-activism and film-making to street demonstrations and campaigning — to fight against the occupational blackmail of a local employer. At the last May Day celebrations, they managed to gather more than 100,000 people for a self-organized, crowd-sourced mass concert, held in open competition with the one traditionally organized in Rome by the trade unions confederation and RAI, the national public television.

Liberate Taranto!

As the biggest and one of the oldest steel factories in Europe, counting about 20,000 employees in 2012 and belonging to the formerly state-owned ILVA group (now controlled by the Riva family), the Taranto plant rose to national attention in 2011. A court decision found the company guilty of outrageous violations of environmental regulations and ordered its immediate closure until a thorough technical renovation and the environmental clean-up of damaged areas would be put into place.

The company’s response consisted in arrogantly restating the incompatibility of environmental regulation with its economic plans, thus re-enacting the occupational blackmail strategy which has traditionally functioned as way to structurally block any actions against business interests. The management even went so far as to actively organize workers’ demonstrations against the court decision, gaining ample and complicit media coverage, in order to convince public opinion that there was in fact real opposition in the city of Taranto — in which ILVA is by far the largest employer — against the public prosecutors and local environmentalist organizations.

Taranto is just one striking manifestation of the unbearable contradiction forced upon people of what Allan Schnaiberg has called the “treadmill of production” (and consumption and waste): the contradiction between production and reproduction. This can be imagined as a Hydra-like monster with many heads: occupational illnesses, job accidents, environmental contamination and ecocide, public health disasters, the annihilation of possibilities for alternative/autonomous forms of local economy, and so on. For the past 50 years, this monster has provoked an unbearable concentration of cancer, malformations and other health disorders in the Taranto bay area, something rendered even more unbearable by the weakness of public health infrastructure and the lack of adequate healthcare. Like the Alien of the science-fiction movie, the Hydra-like monster has now entered the local space and people’s bodies, taking possession of them from within.

In important ways, Taranto’s May Day concert was therefore a manifestation of discontent with what the organizers (and much of the city’s inhabitants) perceive to be the politics of the main trade unions in matters of ecology: 1) they are seen to be largely complacent with corporate occupational blackmail; 2) they are insensitive to the threats to public health that come with environmental contamination; and 3) they often strongly oppose grassroots environmental mobilization at the local level.

The truth, however, is that it is simply impossible to separate or to alienate life from work — as the industrial economy and society have tried to do for so long. Another type of economy must be built; one that makes work the human activity that sustains life and that all members of a community share in its different forms across space (the city, its sea, its hinterland, and the local ecosystem), and even across species, in respect for the daily work made by non-human nature in sustaining life in the local environment.

Another type of economy is undeniably, urgently needed. All the rage, the frustration, the pain and the conflict that working-class communities of industrial areas have embodied and carried in their lives must now lead towards a new horizon of struggle, a new and better dream than those fabricated by the market and the neoliberal state, and by the unions and political parties associated with them. A dream that can finally liberate local people from the unbearable contradictions of the “treadmill of production”; of the Alien within. The slogan Taranto libera! (“liberate Taranto!”) which was screamed again and again during the concert, spoke to just that.

Instruments of liberation

But for another world to become possible, it has to be imagined first, not only by individuals or activist groups, but also at the political level. Imagining a new world becomes essential for the struggle not to close in on itself and reproduce the contradictions of the old world, but to become constructive and hopeful. Here it is that political memory becomes essential, as a project of activist knowledge-production which engages with the world’s transformation as an instrument to usher in new possibilities for politicization. By becoming aware of what has already been done by other people, past and present, with their struggles and movements, either in our own communities or elsewhere, we will immediately get a much clearer perception of the possibility of not just one but many other worlds.

Seeing those possibilities in their reality, with their dreams and their challenges, with their victories and their contradictions, will help us envision our own possibilities here and now and better organize our own struggles. This is the contribution that this article aims to give to all those who are struggling for self-liberation from the straitjacket of occupational blackmail. In the following part, I will “unearth” a few stories, in the hope that they may become (figurative) axes of war, as the Wu Ming writers’ collective would put it: instruments of liberation operating through the political imagination.

Worker/environmentalist coalitions operating on common platforms of labor and political struggle are not uncommon in the history of the post-war world. When truck drivers and eco-activists marched together in the streets of Seattle during anti-WTO demonstrations in 1999 under the banner of “Teamsters and turtles”, this was nothing new, but simply the resurgence of a political strategy that had already been successfully experimented with during the Fordist era, leading to important legislative reform in occupational and public health as well as in environmental protection. It was the active collaboration between labor, environmental, student and feminist movements that allowed the passage of the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts (1972) in the USA, strongly supported by the most powerful trade-union confederation of the time, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW).

In Italy, the very institution of the Public Health System (Sistema Sanitario Nazionale) in 1978 was the result of a decade of intensive  struggles and two general strikes, promoted by what was known as the “environmental club” within the unions’ confederation: a coalition of labor physicians, sociologists and union leaders who had previously produced revolutionary changes in the regulation of the work environment, promoting the principle of direct workers’ control (articles 4 and 9 of the Labor Statute, passed in 1970).

Other relevant examples of such strategic coalitions can be drawn from very different places and economic sectors, such as the successful struggle against pesticide use that was conducted in the mid-1960s by the United Farm Workers union, organizing the Latino wage laborers of the orange fields and vineyards of California to obtain decent working and living conditions and the recognition of labor rights. A struggle centered on the serious health threats that agro-chemicals posed not only to the farmers and their families, but to the American consumer and environment at large.

But perhaps the most striking example of workers’ environmentalism can be found in the deep of the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, where, in the mid-1980s, a union of rubber tappers — the seringueirossuccessfully organized to defend the forest from the attack of powerful lumber companies and ranchers, while at the same time defending their right to live and work in the forest, forming cooperatives for the management of sustainable extractive activities, such as rubber and nut collection or fisheries. Despite the violent opposition raised by powerful local interests, leading to numerous assassinations of trade unionists and environmentalists, the rubber tappers’ struggle did succeed in obtaining the creation of a number of “extractive reserves”, where landless local people are legally recognized and supported by the state as the legitimate “owners” and safeguards of the forest.

What the above stories tell us is that it is indeed possible to build social struggles that are, at the same time, environmental struggles, even though they emerge from a working-class experience, and vision, of what ecology is.

More solid premises

However, the renewed alliance between labor and environmental movements must be rebuilt on more solid premises than in the past. The ideology of economic growth as a panacea for all social problems and the only way to produce social welfare must be thoroughly questioned and ultimately abandoned by the labor movement, because growth imperatives are powerful justifications for the most shameless disregard for the well-being of people and of non-human nature. The same applies to the illusion of greening the economy (i.e., capitalism) through eco-efficient technologies and market mechanisms; an illusion embraced by large parts of both the labor and the environmental movement, with support from governments and financial institutions.

The process of de-industrialization in “developed” countries in the last 20 years shows how the greening of the economy has led to the simple transmigration of industrial hazards and their death toll to less developed countries, acting through the ferocious logic of the “double standard” regime, by which multinationals can shift abroad those productions/technologies which are banned or heavily regulated in their countries of origin. This same mechanism makes working-class communities in the first world more and more vulnerable to occupational blackmail, threatening them with the shifting of industrial activities elsewhere.

Moreover, many of today’s so-called “green” technologies actually have a very negative impact on the environment, on labor conditions, and on public health as well, especially when implemented on a large scale — a fact that has been demonstrated by grassroots struggles (and engaged research) on a number of such “green economy” projects over the last decade. Windmill parks, for instance, have been strongly opposed by local communities in Greece and Spain due to the impact they have had on extended rural areas, altering local climates and landscapes, as well as heavily conditioning land use patterns.

Even greater impacts on soil, local climate and ecosystems are associated with large solar power plants — also an object of contestation and a cause of serious occupational hazard. But the most striking example comes from the biofuel business in Brazil (and elsewhere in Latin America), where extensive monoculture plantations of sugarcane have replaced millions of hectares of forest, and are often run through semi-slave laborers working in conditions of horrible toil and health risk.

Clearly, the point is not to cynically dismiss any form of alternative energy production as equally threatening to environmental and public health. There is no doubt that renewable and non-fossil energy sources must be developed as the only possible way out of the current climate crisis. But the issue of dimension and scale is of fundamental importance: alternative energy can and should be developed on the small scale, aiming at autonomous and decentralized forms of self-provision for households and local communities. Renewable energy technologies can be really sustainable only if implemented at such a de-centralized and locally-controlled level, even if this is not the scale at which huge concentrations of profit (and political power) can be made. But this would imply a thorough transformation not only of the form and structure of urban life, but of the social organization of work itself.

Breaking out of the multiple crises that afflict the world today — both in the domains of the economy and work as well as in the domain of ecology and public health — requires no lesser effort than completely abandoning the “treadmill of production”, including the politics, economics and ideology of unlimited growth. This requires an ecological revolution as theorized by Carolyn Merchant: a complete shift in the social organization of production, reproduction and consciousness. Another way of working and living, of producing and distributing wealth, rooted in non-alienated work, in respect for life and in commonality, must be the political platform on which to build this new alliance. Workers and environmentalists of the world, unite!

Stefania Barca is an environmental historian and political ecologist working at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. She has published extensively on the history of the commons and on working-class environmentalism.

A Better Yardstick for Measuring Inequality


Too Much
How many of America’s most awesomely affluent would have to come together to create a group with enough combined wealth to equal $1 trillion? Phoenix tax lawyer Bob Lord posed that question last fall. His initial answer, based on an analysis of the September 2013 Forbes list of America’s 400 richest: just 51.

Those 51 deep pockets, Lord calculated in the Arizona Republic, held 1.5 percent of America’s wealth. Back in 1982, the year the annual Forbes 400 list began, that same 1.5 percent share sat in the hands of about 1,500 rich Americans.

And what about today? Bob Lord last week updated his figures, based on the latest available billionaire data. We now need to gather together, he notes, just 37 super-rich Americans to reach the $1 trillion threshold. And to hit $1 trillion 20 years from now, if current trends continue, we’ll likely need only five.

What would have to happen for current trends not to continue? We have some statistical ideas on that score. More on them in this week‘s Too Much.

First we had primaries, contests where candidates chased after real voters. Then came what reporters dubbed the “money primary.” In an ever more unequal America, candidates were first chasing after billionaires, to raise enough cash to prove their “viability.” Now comes what the Washington Post is calling the “Sheldon primary.” The nation has become so top-heavy that candidates today need only corral one billionaire to prove their mettle. For Republicans, Sheldon Adelson, the casino king who spent over $92 million on the 2012 election, has emerged as that one. Adelson is now looking for a horse to back in 2016, and “a lengthy list” of Republican presidential contenders, says the Post, is “jockeying” to win his affections. Last week, four top GOP hopefuls joined Adelson for a VIP dinner at the Las Vegas hangar where Adelson keeps his private jet fleet . . .

Richard GonzalezAmerica’s pharmaceutical giants had a real problem a dozen years ago. Their monopoly power had raised drug prices so high that Americans couldn’t afford their prescriptions. But to the rescue came the Bush White House, with legislation that gave seniors taxpayer subsidies to pay for drugs that cost Americans as much as five times what people elsewhere in the world are paying. The latest beneficiary of this generous subsidy: Richard Gonzalez, the CEO of AbbVie, an Abbott Labs spinoff. Gonzalez took in $18.2 million last year, after hitting, says AbbVie, all his “performance targets,” including one goal of getting the firm’s 25,000 employees fired up about the new company’s mission. Hitting that target must have come easy. Nothing, after all, gets employees fired up more than working for a CEO making $18.2 million . . .

Luxury Swiss watchmakers, reports Reuters, have come up with a new way to separate the financially fortunate from tidy chunks of their fortunes. Innovators in the fine timepiece industry are now letting the uber wealthy personalize their wrist wear with just about anything from diamond stars to engraved images of their nearest and dearest. The jewelers at Buccellati, for instance, are offering “a bespoke service where the customer has a say on everything: the material, the case, the dial, the hands.” The cost for this bespoking: a minimum of 100,000 Swiss francs, about $113,000. What’s driving the new personalization push? Industry analyst Mario Ortelli has an explanation: “Customers will pay more if they feel a stronger emotional link to the product.”

Quote of the Week

“The rich can buy more of everything. More food. More cars. More houses. More vacations. More boats. But for a democracy to function properly, they should be forbidden from buying more votes.”
Leo Gerard, president, United Steelworkers, Our Plutocracy Problem, March 25, 2014

Howard SchultzHoward Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, doesn’t think much of the emerging national movement to establish a $15 minimum wage, an effort that’s running particularly strong in his own Seattle backyard. Schultz told reporters earlier this month that “most companies, especially small and midsized companies, would not be able to afford” a minimum set at $15 an hour. Added the billionaire: “I wouldn’t want to see the unintended consequences of job loss as a result of going that high.” Activists at the “15 Now” campaign quickly noted that the billionaire Schultz makes $9,637 an hour. The campaign is urging the Starbucks chief to “stop hiding behind small businesses and pay your own workers 15 now!”

Cook Islands

Sand, palms, breezes. None of these wonders are attracting the world’s wealthy to the Cook Islands, tiny flyspecks halfway across the Pacific. What is? The Cooks, says the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have become “a global pioneer in offshore asset-protection trusts,” devices that can shield the assets of the rich from nasty lawsuits back home. Island officials had a Denver attorney write their nation’s trust law, and so far Americans have parked the most money in Cook Islands accounts. Among them: wealthy doctors convicted of Medicaid fraud and execs who’ve bilked employee pension funds.

Web Gem

PolicyShop/ This site, hosted by the Demos think tank, frequently features inequality-related resources, like this chart pack on how “class haunts people from womb to grave, limiting their ability to flourish and pursue the good life as they define it.”

Sanjay SanghoeeLawmakers love business tax credits. They hand them out all the time, ostensibly to encourage investment and innovation. Why not use tax credits instead, asks former Lazard Freres banker Sanjay Sanghoee, to rein in CEO pay? Sanghoee has spelled out one approach toward that end in the business magazine Fortune. Under his proposal, a 3,000-worker firm with a 250-to-1 CEO-worker pay ratio would get a credit that equals $1,000 multiplied by 3,000 multiplied by 1/250, the inverse of the pay ratio. Total credit: just $12,000. But if that company’s CEO-worker pay ratio dropped to 25:1, the credit would jump to $120,000, the sort of incentive that might encourage companies to moderate their CEO pay. How to pay for the credits? Start closing, says Sanghoee, the offshore corporate tax loopholes that run $150 billion a year.

Take Action
on Inequality

Tell the nation’s top lawmakers that inequality in the United States has gone “too damn high.” Sign this new petition that proposes a progressive wealth tax and more.

inequality by the numbers
Penthouse prices

Stat of the Week

Business income in the United States sits increasingly in the hands of a few. In 1979 the top 1 percent of America’s households accounted for 17 percent of the nation’s business income, notes economist Paul Krugman. By 2007: 43 percent.


A Better Yardstick for Measuring Inequality

We always get what we measure. And if we measure inequality with a yardstick that only wonks can decipher, we’ll end up with a society too confused about inequality to do anything meaningful about it.

Just 85 of the world’s billionaires, the anti-poverty group Oxfam reported earlier this year, hold as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people in all.

Seven of every ten people on earth today, Oxfam added, live in nations where inequality has jumped since the 1980s. Our richest global 1 percent currently own a whopping 46 percent of the world’s wealth.

Corrado GiniWe can’t blame Corrado Gini for this incredibly extreme global divide. He never set out to create inequality. He just tried to measure it.

This eminent Italian sociologist once ranked as one of the world’s premiere statisticians. Almost exactly a century ago, he developed what would become the most widely accepted default statistic for measuring inequality, a yardstick now commonly known as the “Gini coefficient.”

In Gini’s formulation, a society where one person grabbed all the income would have a value of one. A society with all income shared evenly would have a value of zero.

No nation, of course, has ever had either absolute income equality or absolute income concentration. Most nations end up with Gini numbers like 0.57, the Gini rating for the United States last year, or 0.49, the Gini for Japan.

These numbers tell statisticians a great deal. A rise or fall of a mere 0.1 in Gini values can be a big deal and signify a major change in income distribution. But these abstract numbers mean nothing to the general public and, consequently, essentially do nothing at all to raise inequality’s political profile.

The Gini numbers have other problems as well. Gini ratings say a good bit about a society’s overall level of inequality, but offer no clue about what’s driving changes in that level. Are the rich grabbing more or less of the income pie? Are the poor losing ground? Or households in the middle?

On questions like these, note inequality-watchers Andy Sumner and Alex Cobham, “the Gini won’t be a great deal of help.”

Gabriel PalmaSumner, the co-director of the International Development Institute, and Codham, a Center for Global Development researcher, have been beating the drums for a new inequality yardstick based on the work of Gabriel Palma, a Chilean economist now based at Cambridge University.

In almost every society, Palma’s research shows, the income share of people who make less than the most affluent 10 percent and more than the poorest 40 percent tends to remain fairly stable. Substantial shifts in income share typically only turn up in that top 10 and bottom 40.

The “Palma ratio” addresses this volatility at the edges by defining income inequality as a ratio between the top 10 and bottom 40. In a society with a Palma ratio of 4, the top 10 percent is grabbing four times the income of the bottom 40 percent.

This simple relationship gives every Palma ratio figure a readily understandable meaning. In a society where the Palma ratio has gone from 2 to 3, households in the top 10 percent have gone from making double the income of that society’s poorest 40 percent to making triple the bottom 40’s income share.

Last March 90 noted social scientists urged a key UN economic development panel to place the Palma ratio front and center. The top 10-bottom 40 inequality that Palma stats measure, they argued, really matters. Nations with shrinking Palma ratios, as researchers have detailed, turn out to be three times better at reducing extreme poverty and hunger than nations with rising Palma ratios.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has just added to this growing push for the Palma yardstick. In a new co-authored paper, he’s asking world leaders to add a new ninth goal — eliminating extreme inequality — to the eight adopted at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000.

Top-heavy income distributions, Stiglitz and his colleague Michael Doyle observe, “undermine both political equality and social stability” and generate chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and other public goods that make for “long-term economic prosperity.”

Stiglitz and Doyle, a former UN assistant secretary-general, suggest a specific target for ending these top-heavy distributions. By the year 2030, the two analysts advise, all nations should have their top 10 percents taking in no more income than their bottom 40 percents, a Palma ratio of just 1.

Scandinavian nations already at or near this Palma ratio level, the pair adds, are benefiting from an “equality multiplier” that has left them not just more “equitable and stable” economically but more “efficient and flexible” as well.

“Sustainable development,” Stiglitz and Doyle sum up, “cannot be achieved while ignoring extreme disparities.”

And shoving Gini aside for Palma might make that ignoring all the harder.

Want to learn more about Palma ratios? Check this two-minute video.

New Wisdom
on Wealth

Ryan Cooper, Free Money for Everyone, Washington Monthly, March/April 2014. In an unequal America, the old tools for managing the economy no longer make much impact.

Doug Henwood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, BookForum, March 25, 2014. An important review of Thomas Piketty’s new take on the long-term reign of the 1 percent.

Helaine Olen, Self Help is no help for inequality, Reuters, March 25, 2014. How the self-help industry is poisoning our politics.

Tony Atkinson and Salvatore Morelli, The chartbook of economic inequality, Vox, March 26, 2014. A new summary of changes in inequality for 25 countries over more than 100 years.

Paul Caron and James Repetti. Revitalizing the Estate Tax: Five Easy Pieces, Tax Prof, March 27, 2014. The estate tax could again make a difference.

Dan Rodricks, With Democrats like these, who needs GOP? Baltimore Sun, March 27, 2014. A Democratic-dominated legislature is throwing millions at millionaires.

Paul Krugman, America’s Taxation Tradition, New York Times, March 28, 2014. The demonization of anyone who talks about really taxing concentrated wealth reflects a misreading of both the past and the present.

Stein Ringen, Is American democracy headed to extinction? Washington Post, March 29, 2014. In Athens, democracy ended when the rich grew super rich and undermined the polity, a point the United States has now reached.

John Cassidy, Forces of Divergence: Is surging inequality endemic to capitalism? New Yorker, March 31, 2014. Another solid write-up on Piketty’s new blockbuster.

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover

Now online: the full Introduction to Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati’s new history of the triumph over America’s first plutocracy.

NEW AND notable

Must Taxpayers Pay Tribute to Wall Street?

No Small Fees reportNo Small Fees: LA Spends More on Wall Street than Our Streets, A Report by the Fix LA Coalition, March 25, 2014.

Wall Street banks handed out $26.7 billion in bonuses last year, the New York state comptroller recently informed us, to some 165,200 execs and staff.

This same $26.7 billion, an Institute for Policy Studies analysis noted earlier this month, would have been “enough to more than double the pay” of all 1,085,000 Americans who work full-time at the current federal minimum wage.

And where did all those bonus billions come from? A hefty share came directly from America’s taxpayers, this clever new study makes outrageously plain.

No Small Fees drills down deep into the finances of a single city, Los Angeles. L.A. city officials, the study details, are annually passing Wall Street at least $204 million in financial fees, for everything from managing the city’s pension funds to selling the city’s bonds.

Some perspective: Last year L.A. spent only $163 million on its own streets.

The difference between what Los Angeles pays for its own streets and to Wall Street actually runs wider than these numbers suggest. The Wall Street total doesn’t include city dealings with private equity and hedge funds, exchanges, notes the Labor Institute’s Les Leopold, that don’t have to be publicly disclosed.

Nationwide, estimates Leopold, “the fees Wall Street extracts from public entities could total more than $50 billion a year — enough to provide free tuition at every public college and university in the country.”

We have, adds Leopold, distinct alternatives to Wall Street’s gouging of America’s public entities. State public banks — with modestly salaried executives — could save localities big-time on fees. North Dakota already has one.

The Federal Reserve could also “directly purchase municipal bonds from cities and states,” as the Fed is already doing with the toxic mortgage securities held by Wall Street’s largest banks. That move would save states and localities billions in fees and also “dramatically reduce municipal interest rate costs.”

Conclude the labor, religious, and community groups in the Fix LA Coalition: “City leaders have a choice: invest in our streets or Wall Street.”