Government indifference in the midst of historic Louisiana flooding

safe_image

By Tom Hall
20 August 2016

As floodwaters continue to recede, the historic scale of the destruction in south Louisiana is becoming more apparent. The Red Cross calls the floods, caused by unprecedented rainfalls which began last weekend, the worst US natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which devastated much of the East Coast.

The figures for the humanitarian crisis are being constantly revised upward. At least 13 people have been killed and 40,000 homes damaged, many beyond repair. Some 30,000 people have had to be rescued from the rising waters, either trapped in their homes or stranded in their cars on the highway while trying to evacuate. More than 7,000 people remain in emergency shelters, set up at the last minute by government agencies.

A broad area encompassing 20 of the state’s 64 parishes (counties) has been declared a disaster area by the federal government, spanning from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, considered part of the New Orleans metropolitan area, westward towards Lake Charles, near the border with Texas. Many places are still flooded, almost a full week after the initial rainstorms.

Entire parishes have been almost wiped out by the floods. A spokeswoman for the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s office estimated that three quarters of the parish’s homes were a “total loss.” Livingston Parish, comprising eastern suburbs of Baton Rouge, the state capital and second largest city in the state, is home to 138,000 people. More than 15,000 people were rescued in this one parish alone, which received more than 31 inches of rain in 15 hours on Friday. In nearby Ascension Parish, to the south of Baton Rouge, which is home to 114,000 people, more than 30 percent of the homes in the parish were flooded.

While the worst of the flooding has passed in most areas, the situation is far from over. With yet more rain in the forecast for the area over the weekend, many areas where water levels had been subsiding are faced with the prospect of renewed flooding. “The problem is there is nowhere for the water to run off” in the flat terrain of south Louisiana, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service told NBC News. “In the last couple of days, we’ve had to reissue flash flood warnings in areas that had been showing improvement.”

The federal response to the disaster is a mixture of stinginess and outright indifference.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) caps its financial assistance to flood victims, according to previously set guidelines, at a paltry $33,000 per family, far less than the costs faced by those whose homes were wiped out. However, most victims will likely see only a tiny fraction of even this inadequate sum; the average payout in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people and flooded 80 percent of the city of New Orleans, was a paltry $7,114, according to figures published by the Advocate newspaper.

This is all the more significant because the vast majority of the flood victims have no flood insurance, meaning they will be compelled to rely entirely on their own savings, if they have any, and upon government aid to rebuild their lives. Many areas affected by flooding lie outside of federally designated flood zones, where residents assumed that they would not need flood insurance. However, less than half of homeowners in even high-risk areas throughout the state lack flood insurance, according to FEMA.

Summing up official indifference to the plight of people whose lives have been destroyed by the floods, FEMA spokeswoman Robin Smith told the Wall Street Journal, “we’re like a life vest, not a lifeboat,” and told the newspaper that victims must look to private nonprofit groups, not the federal agency charged with responding to natural disasters, to be made whole. Some 86,000 people have already applied for help from FEMA, which has approved payouts of only $3.7 million so far, the paper noted.

The miserly aid to flood victims contrasts sharply with the virtually unlimited sums of money laid out by the federal government for the military. The Journal estimated that the total property damage from the floods could surpass $1 billion. By comparison, the Obama administration spent $80 billion to bail out General Motors and Chrysler. The net cost of the bailout of the auto bosses, $9 billion, is four times the total in disaster grants awarded by FEMA.

The $33,000 maximum FEMA grant “is not even going to cover repairs to the structure, not to mention the entire contents of the house stacked up by the street soaking wet,” Gene Broussard, whose brother was killed in the floods, told the Wall Street Journal. “The government bails out a company or another country, and you’ve got a good section of the state of Louisiana in total loss, and you’re going to offer us $33,000 to fix up our home and replace everything?”

To make matters worse, the destruction of much of the area’s housing stock by the floods will render essentially moot FEMA’s principal form of financial aid to homeowners, temporary rental assistance designed to provide some form of housing while their homes are rebuilt. The flooding of more than 40,000 homes will likely produce the most severe housing crisis in the state since Hurricane Katrina, which forced hundreds of thousands to seek shelter in hotels or shoddily built “FEMA trailers,” or to leave the state altogether in search of housing. FEMA “can’t rely on [rental assistance],” National Public Radio noted, because “there simply aren’t habitable homes available for rent.”

The political establishment has responded to the disaster with cold indifference. Hillary Clinton announced on Facebook that she would not be traveling to Louisiana, using the lame excuse that relief efforts couldn’t “afford any distractions” created by such a visit. Her Republican opponent Donald Trump made a photo-op appearance for a few hours in the Baton Rouge area on Friday afternoon before boarding a plane for a rally in Michigan.

But the most callous response so far has come from President Barack Obama, who has refused calls to end his two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard early to travel to Louisiana. Only on Friday afternoon did the administration finally announce that Obama would visit the state next Tuesday, after he ends his vacation and returns to the White House Sunday night.

While large portions of Louisiana remained under water, Obama spent his days “letting loose, staying out til 1 at night with friends and hitting the golf course by day at the beautiful island destination,” Time magazine reported, adding that vacation cottages in the area carry a rental charge from $2,900 to $20,000 a week. Obama did, however, take an afternoon off from his vacation to attend a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, also held in Martha’s Vineyard, where a well-heeled group of 60 people paid $10,000 to $33,400 apiece.

Obama’s decision recalls the actions of George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina. Bush initially refused to cut short his vacation at his ranch in Texas, later engaging in the infamous “fly-over” of Air Force One over New Orleans on his way back to Washington DC.

The comparison was not lost on the local media in Louisiana, where the Baton Rouge-based Advocate, concerned by the poor “optics” of this repeat performance, wrote an editorial criticizing Obama for passing his time in “a playground for the posh and well-connected,” while “Louisiana residents [languish] in flood waters.”

Obama’s evident indifference to the plight of the people of southern Louisiana is itself a political statement. It demonstrates that the response to Katrina was not motivated merely by Bush’s personal callousness or racism, but was rather an expression of the class position of the entire capitalist political establishment towards the devastating social conditions facing working people.

WSWS

How the hipster aesthetic is taking over the world

Same old, same old.

Industrial furniture, stripped floors and Edison bulbs: why must we aspire to such bland monotony?
The Fortitude Coffee shop in Edinburgh.
The Fortitude Coffee shop in Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Observer

Go to Shoreditch Grind, near a roundabout in the middle of London’s hipster district. It’s a coffee shop with rough-hewn wooden tables, plentiful sunlight from wide windows, and austere pendant lighting. Then head to Takk in Manchester. It’s a coffee shop with a big glass storefront, reclaimed wood furniture, and hanging Edison bulbs. Compare the two: You might not even know you’re in different spaces.

It’s no accident that these places look similar. Though they’re not part of a chain and don’t have their interior design directed by a single corporate overlord, these coffee shops have a way of mimicking the same tired style, a hipster reduction obsessed with a superficial sense of history and the remnants of industrial machinery that once occupied the neighbourhoods they take over. And it’s not just London and Manchester – this style is spreading across the world, from Bangkok to Beijing, Seoul to San Francisco.

It’s not just coffee shops, either. Everywhere you go, seemingly hip, unique spaces have a way of looking the same, whether it’s bars or restaurants, fashion boutiques or shared office spaces. A coffee roaster resembles a WeWork office space. How can all that homogeneity possibly be cool?

In an essay for the American tech website The Verge, I called this style “AirSpace”. It’s marked by an easily recognisable mix of symbols – like reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting – that’s meant to provide familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere “authentic” while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same: more rustic interiors and sans-serif logos and splashes of cliche accent colours on rugs and walls.

Hence the replicability: if a hip creative travels to Berlin or Tallinn, they seek out a place that looks like AirSpace, perhaps recommending it on Foursquare or posting a photo of it to Instagram to gain the approval of culturally savvy friends. Gradually, an entire AirSpace geography grows, in which you can travel all the way around the world and never leave it.

You can hop from cookie-cutter bar to office space to apartment building, and be surrounded by those same AirSpace tropes I described above. You’ll be guaranteed fast internet, strong coffee, and a comfortable chair from which to do your telecommuting. What you won’t get is anything interesting or actually unique.

There are several causes of AirSpace. The first is that mobility is increasing: more people move more quickly around the world than ever before, mostly passing through the same urban hotspots (London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong), and carrying their sense of style with them. It’s globalisation, but intensified, made more accessible to a wider economic spectrum of people, more of the time. Mobility is not just for the rich any more: working remotely is increasingly common; you can take a sabbatical to work from Bali and not miss a beat.

Taste is also becoming globalised, as more people around the world share their aesthetic aspirations on the same massive social media platforms, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Foursquare, with their hundreds of millions or billions of users. As algorithms shape which content we consume on our feeds, we all learn to desire the same things, which often happens to involve austere interiors, reclaimed wood, and Edison bulbs, like a metastasised real-life version of Kinfolk magazine or Monocle.

Startups are also growing to provide these experiences of sameness as a product, predicated on the fact that we now prefer consuming ready-made generic spaces to creating new ones of our own. We’ve been infantilised. The companies use technology to foster a sense of easy placelessness; Roam, for example, is an international chain of co-living and working spaces that offers the same lifestyle (and same furniture) in Madrid, Miami and Ubud, and residents can live anywhere for £1,500 per month. WeWork’s WeLive branch creates wan dormitories for mobile tech workers, each with its own raw-wood furniture and mandated techno-kitsch interior decorating.

But the king of AirSpace is Airbnb. The platform enables users to travel seamlessly between places, staying in locals’ apartments. Its slogan is “you can belong anywhere”. But all Airbnbs have a way of looking like AirSpace, too – consultants who work with Airbnb hosts as well as the company’s own architects told me that a certain sameness is spreading, as users come to demand convenience and frictionlessness in lieu of meaningful engagement with a different place. Heading to yet another copycat coffee shop with your laptop isn’t “local”. Why go anywhere if it just ends up looking the same as whatever global city you started from?

It’s not just boring aesthetics, however. AirSpace creates a division between those who belong in the slick, interchangeable places and those who don’t. The platforms that enable this geography are themselves biased: a Harvard Business School study showed that Airbnb hosts are less likely to accept guests with stereotypically African-American names.

There’s also the economic divide: access to AirSpace is expensive, whether it’s a £3 cortado or the rent on a WeLive or Roam apartment. If you can’t afford it, you are shut out.

AirSpace is convenient, yes. It helps its occupants feel comfortable wherever they are, settled in amid recognisable reminders that they are relevant, interesting, mobile and global. You can change places within it with a single click, the same anonymous seamlessness of an airport lounge but distributed everywhere, behind the facades of local buildings that don’t look like hotels, but act like them.

Yet the discontent of this phenomenon is a creeping anxiety. Is everywhere really starting to look just the same? Glance around and you might be surprised.

The next time you pick out a cafe or bar based on Yelp recommendations or Foursquare tips, or check into an Airbnb, each system driven by an audience of similar people, check if you see reclaimed wood furniture, industrial lighting, or a certain faux-Scandinavian minimalism. Welcome to AirSpace. It will be very hard to leave.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/06/hipster-aesthetic-taking-over-world?CMP=share_btn_fb

The anti-scientific character of “race” as a concept

ethnicity

By Philip Guelpa
3 August 2016

As the capitalist media and political establishment whip themselves into a frenzy to promote a racialist view of police violence and of social inequality more broadly, in order to obscure its class basis and divide workers along supposed racial lines, it is important to emphasize the distinction between race as a social construct and race as a biological category.

An article published earlier this year in the prestigious journal Science, titled “Taking race out of human genetics,” reviews the “century-long debate about the role of race in science” and demonstrates that the concept of race is not only invalid for the purposes of biological and medical research, but that its use has distinctly negative consequences in those fields, let alone in the larger social context.

To illustrate the evolution of the concept in biology, the authors cite the example of Theodosius Dobzansky, considered by many to be the founder of evolutionary genetics, who for years struggled to employ the category of race in his research only to finally conclude that it had no scientific validity.

In recent years, according to the authors, the scientific study of “race” has tended to move away from earlier, overtly racist attempts to define racial distinctions and, in some cases, “prove” the superiority of one group over another (though such efforts have certainly not ended). Rather, it is now largely focused on efforts to identify genetic variation that may have implications for the treatment of diseases, based on the assumption that different racial groups may have varying reactions to medications or differing risk factor for certain diseases. The persistent use of race as an analytical unit, they argue, tends to obscure more than it reveals.

The authors draw a clear distinction between the genetic inheritance of individuals, on the one hand, and a priori “racial” categories, on the other. They describe the latter as “a pattern-based concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about hierarchical organization of humans, which connect an individual to a larger preconceived geographically circumscribed or socially constructed group.” After reviewing the evidence, they conclude that, “the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research…is problematic at best and harmful at worst.”

Contrary to superficial and highly arbitrary distinctions drawn by those with a racialist perspective, they write, “racial assumptions are not the biological guideposts some believe them to be, as commonly defined racial groups are genetically heterogeneous and lack clear-cut genetic boundaries.”

Race-based conceptions can have serious medical consequences, as when certain diseases are thought to occur predominantly or exclusively in a certain “race,” such as sickle cell anemia or thalassemia, another blood disorder. When such diseases occur in a person of the “wrong” race, correct diagnosis can be delayed or missed altogether. This is not only a medical issue, but also indicative of the lack of scientific validity of the concept of race more generally.

As the authors point out, this is not a problem that can be solved by the development of better genetic testing technology to more accurately determine a person’s race. The “problem” is not in the lack of specificity of the assays, but in the fundamental “messiness” of human genetics.

Following the success of the human genome project in the early 2000s, the growing popularity of individual DNA tests to determine ancestry has resulted in many “surprise” discoveries of complicated genetic pedigrees that do not fit into neat racial categories. This complex reality may not be recognized by the person or family due to the shallow depth of memory or intentional “forgetting” of previous racial/ethnic affiliations in order to accommodate current realities.

Equally if not more important, research on the human genome has demonstrated that, despite apparent variability in such visible traits as skin color, modern humans have a remarkable overall genetic similarity (99.9 percent), as compared to many other species, pointing to the comparatively recent appearance of Homo sapiens. Indeed, all modern humans derive primarily from a relatively small population that existed, probably in Africa, about 200,000 years ago (a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms), with subsequent minor admixtures from Neanderthals and, perhaps, other early populations (see “The genetic legacy of the Neanderthals”).

One of the critically important results of the DNA sequencing of increasingly large numbers of people is to reinforce the understanding that a person’s genetic makeup is a hodgepodge of differing inheritances rather than a consistent package that retains a basic identity passed down from generation to generation.

Anthropology and archaeology clearly demonstrate that throughout the course of human evolution and, in particular, since the appearance and spread of modern Homo sapiens at sometime around 200,000 years ago, accelerating even more with the development of agriculture, beginning around the end of the last Ice Age, human populations have more or less constantly been on the move, resulting in an ever-changing mosaic of biology, language, and culture. This “churning,” if you will, makes a mockery of any conception of “racial purity” or, for that matter, unchanging cultural identity.

History abounds with examples of migrations and intermixing of peoples formerly living in disparate locations. These include (to name but a few):

· The dispersal of early agriculturalists from the Near East

· The “Back to Africa” migration

· The Bantu expansion in Africa

· The ancient Greek diaspora throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond

· The invasion of Europe by the Huns

· The Norman Conquest of England

· The Mongol invasion of China, then Central Asia and Russia

· The multiple waves of pre-Columbian immigration from Asia, and perhaps even Europe, into the Western Hemisphere

All these predate the emergence of a globalized world over the past two centuries, characterized by unprecedented mobility, mass immigration and intermarriage, a period during which the world’s human population has expanded from 1 billion to more than 7 billion.

Homo sapiens is a single species. All members of the species (i.e., all living humans), regardless of their apparent racial or ethnic backgrounds, are genetically fully compatible and can produce viable offspring with other members of the species, barring disease or deformity (or prejudice). From this perspective, the genetic variation within the species is, relatively speaking, “noise.” It is not entirely random noise, and much can be learned from detailed research. However, attempts to force that variation into monolithic, a priori categories is simply bad science.

Comprehensive reviews of the scientific invalidity and pernicious effects of racialist views have convincingly refuted the idea of racial differences in intelligence—for example, The Mismeasure of Man (Stephen Jay Gould, 1981, 1996). And yet, justifications of such conceptions, in various forms, continue to be put forth, as in, for example, A Troublesome InheritanceGenes, Race and Human History (Nicholas Wade, 2014).

The explanation of the persistence of race as a category in scientific research is not a problem of science, per se, but the product of larger social forces. It has, in recent years, been influenced by the injection of post-modernist philosophies into the sciences. Such conceptions are promoted by the upper middle class to give a scientific veneer to the continued division and exploitation of the working class. They follow in the tradition of previous racially based prejudice in countries such as England, where the Irish were long considered a separate race by the English ruling class in order to justify keeping Ireland as a colony.

The authors of the Science article seek, as the title states, to take the category of race out of the study of human genetics. They fall short, however, when they identify race as a result of semantics rather than as a social construct. The proposed remedy is for the scientific community to eschew the use of the term “race” and substitute such terms as geographic ancestry or population.

Science exists within an economic, social, and political context. While the interactions between scientific research and its larger context are complex, the idea that the influence of racism and racialist perspectives can be expunged from scientific research by a mere change in terminology is naive. Within science, as in society as a whole, discrimination of any sort can only be eliminated when its root cause—class division—is itself ended.

WSWS

Why Do We Pretend to Clean Up Ocean Oil Spills?

ENVIRONMENT
Many scientists describe such efforts as ‘prime-time theatre.’ Yet the farce continues.

Gulf-Oiled-Pelicans-June-3-2010 Heavily oiled Brown Pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on Thursday, June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned of Gulf spill crude at The Fort Jackson Wildlife Care Center in Buras, LA. Photo Credit: IBRRC
Photo Credit: International Bird Rescue Research Center

[Editor’s note: This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at HakaiMagazine.com.]

When the Deepwater Horizon well operated by BP (formerly British Petroleum) exploded and contaminated the Gulf of Mexico with at least 650 million litres of crude oil in 2010, blue-smocked animal rescuers quickly appeared on television screens. Looking like scrub nurses, the responders treated oil-coated birds with charcoal solutions, antibiotics and dish soap. They also forced the birds to swallow Pepto-Bismol, which helps absorb hydrocarbons. The familiar, if not outlandish, images suggested that something was being cleaned up.

But during the chaotic disaster, Silvia Gaus poked a large hole in that myth. The German biologist had worked in the tidal flats of the Wadden Sea, a region of the North Sea and the world’s largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud, and critical bird habitat. A 1998 oil spill of more than 100,000 litres in the North Sea had killed 13,000 birds in Wattenmeer National Park, and the scientist had learned that cleaning oil-soaked birds could be as harmful to their immune systems as the oil accumulating in their livers and kidneys. Kill, don’t clean, she advised responders in the 2010 BP spill. Gaus then referred to scientific studies to support her unsettling declaration. One 1996 California study, for example, followed the fate of brown pelicans fouled by oil. Researchers marked the birds after they had been “cleaned” and released them into the wild. The majority died or failed to mate again. The researchers concluded that cleaning brown pelicans couldn’t restore them to good breeding health or “normal survivability.” Another study from 1997 observed that once birds affected by an oil spill had been cleaned, they fared poorly and suffered higher than expected mortality rates.

And, consider the 2002 sinking of the MV Prestige. The tanker split in half off the coast of Spain, spilling more than 70 million litres of highly toxic bunker fuel that coated more than 600 beaches with oil. The catastrophe killed some 300,000 seabirds. Although response teams diligently cleaned thousands of animals, most of the birds died within a week. Only a few hundred ever made it back to the wild. In fact, said Gaus, studies indicate that, in general, the post-treatment survival rate of oil-soaked birds is less than one per cent.

Not all bird cleaning is futile. Rescuers saved thousands of penguins following the MV Treasure spill off South Africa in 2000, for example. Success stories, however, are rare. In the Gulf of Mexico, the giant BP spill probably killed nearly a million birds. Gaus’s comments highlighted two uncomfortable realities: cleaning oily birds is a risky business, and the marine oil spill cleanup can often do more harm than good.

A theatrical response

In many respects, society’s theatrical response to catastrophic oil spills resembles the way medical professionals respond to aggressive cancer in an elderly patient. Because surgery is available, it is often used. Surgery also creates the impression that the health-care system is doing something even though it can’t change or reverse the patient’s ultimate condition. In an oil-based society, the cleanup delusion is also irresistible. Just as it is difficult for us to acknowledge the limits of medical intervention, society struggles to acknowledge the limits of technologies or the consequences of energy habits. And that’s where the state of marine oil spill response sits today: it creates little more than an illusion of a cleanup. Scientists — outside the oil industry — call it “prime-time theatre” or “response theatre.”

Oiled turtle rescued from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (image: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Flickr CC)

The hard scientific reality is this: a big spill is almost impossible to contain because it is physically impossible to mobilize the labour needed and current cleanup technologies in a timely fashion. When the City of Vancouver released a study in 2015 on the effectiveness of responses to large tanker or pipeline spills along the southern coast of British Columbia, the conclusion was blunt: “collecting and removing oil from the sea surface is a challenging, time-sensitive and often ineffective process,” even in calm water.

Scientists have recognized this reality for a long time. During the 1970s when the oil industry was poised to invade the Beaufort Sea, the Canadian government employed more than 100 researchers to gauge the impacts of an oil spill on Arctic ice. The researchers doused sea ducks and ring seals with oil and set pools of oil on fire under a variety of ice conditions. They also created sizable oil spills (one was almost 60,000 litres, a medium-sized spill) in the Beaufort Sea and tried to contain them with booms and skimmers. They prodded polar bears into a man-made oil slick only to discover that bears, like birds, will lick oil off their matted fur and later die of kidney failure. In the end, the Beaufort Sea Project concluded that “oil spill countermeasures, techniques and equipment” would have “limited effectiveness” on ice-covered waters. The reports, however, failed to stop Arctic drilling.

Part of the illusion has been created by ineffective technologies adopted and billed by industry as “world class.” Ever since the 1970s, the oil and gas industry has trotted out four basic ways to deal with ocean spills: booms to contain the oil; skimmers to remove the oil; fire to burn the oil; sand chemical dispersants, such as Corexit, to break the oil into smaller pieces. For small spills these technologies can sometimes make a difference, but only in sheltered waters. None has ever been effective in containing large spills.

BP oil workers attempt to clean oil covered sand on June 23, 2010 in Pensacola Beach, Florida (image: Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock.com)

Conventional containment booms, for example, don’t work in icy water, or where waves run amok. Burning oil merely transforms one grave problem — water pollution — into sooty greenhouse gases and creates air pollution. Dispersants only hide the oil by scattering small droplets into the water column, yet they often don’t even do that since conditions have to be just right for dispersants to work. Darryl McMahon, a director of RESTCo, a firm pursuing more effective cleanup technologies, has written extensively about the problem, and his

The issue partly boils down to scale, explains Jeffrey Short, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research chemist who studied the aftermath of the 2010 BP disaster as well as the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, which grew at the alarming rate of half a football field per second over two days. “Go try and control something like that,” says Short. Yet almost 30 years after the Exxon Valdez contaminated much of Prince William Sound, the cleanup technology has changed little.

“What I find the most disturbing is the tendency for responsible authorities and industry to adopt technologies mainly because of their optics and with scant regard for their efficacy,” says Short. In addition, chaos rules in the aftermath of a spill. The enormous political pressure to do something routinely sacrifices any duty to properly evaluate what kind of response might actually work over time, says Short. “Industry says ‘we just want to clean it up,’ yet their demonstrative ability to clean it up sucks.”

Consider, for a moment, the industry’s dismal record on oil recovery. Average citizens may think that a successful marine oil spill cleanup actually involves recovering what has been spilled. They may also expect the amount of oil recovered would increase over time as industry learns and adopts better technologies. But there has been little improvement since the 1960s.

During the BP disaster, the majority of the oil evaporated, dropped to the ocean bottom, smothered beaches, dissolved, or remained on or just below the water’s surface as sheen or tar balls. Some oil-chewing bacteria offered assistance by biodegrading the oil after it had been dispersed. Rough estimates indicate that, out of the total amount of oil it spilled, BP recovered three per cent through skimming, 17 per cent from siphoning at the wellhead, and five per cent from burning. Even so, that’s not much better than theExxon Valdez spill in 1989 when industry recovered an estimated 14 per cent of the oil. Transport Canada admits that it expects only 10 to 15 per cent of a marine oil spill to ever be recovered from open water. “Even informed people are taken aback by these numbers,” says Short.

Nor are the numbers any better for small marine spills (smaller than 7,950 litres). This year, York University researchers discovered that offshore oil and gas platforms reported a total of 381 small spills between 1997 and 2010. Only 11 spills mentioned the presence of seabirds, yet it only takes a dime-sized blotch of oil in cold water to kill a bird.

A dead seabird, possibly a great egret, covered in oil from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. (image: Michael Martin/Flickr CC)

The danger of wishful thinking

Self-reporting combined with an appalling spill-recovery record underscores how poorly industry’s preferred technologies perform in the field. Deploying dispersants, for example, is about as effective as cleaning oil-soaked birds and remains another example of response theatre designed to hide the real damage. During BP’s catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the company sprayed over 6.8 million litres of Corexit. It was the largest volume of dispersant ever used for an oil spill and one giant chemical experiment.

Researchers have known for decades that mixing oil with Corexit rarely works. Short compares it to adding detergent when you’re washing dishes: it produces a cloudy suspension that scatters through the water but hovers close to the top. Sweden has banned its use, and the U.K. followed suit, based on the potential danger to workers. That didn’t stop the aerial bombing of Gulf of Mexico waters with Corexit — which actually killed oil-eating bacteria — because it looked as if the authorities were doing something. Their work made little difference. Bottlenose dolphins, already vulnerable, died in record numbers from adrenal and lung diseases linked to oil exposure.

“We’ve put the wrong people in charge of the job,” says McMahon, who has charted industry’s oil spill myths for years. Corexit, industry’s favorite dispersant, is widely believed to contain hydrocarbon, which gives it an ominous undertone. The product was first developed by Standard Oil, and its ingredient list remains a trade secret. Although the oil industry boasts a “safety culture,” everyone really knows that it operates with a greed culture, adds McMahon. Over the years, industry has become adept at selling an illusion by telling regulators and stakeholders whatever they want to hear about oil spills (in the past, executives claimed that their companies recovered 95 per cent of spilled oil).

In Canada, multinational oil companies also own the corporations licensed to respond to catastrophic spills. The Western Canadian Marine Response Corp., for example, is owned by Kinder Morgan, Imperial Oil, Shell, Chevron and Suncor while the Eastern Canada Response Corp. is owned by Ultramar, Shell, Imperial Oil and Suncor. In a recent analysis on this cozy relationship, Robyn Allan, an economist and former CEO of the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia, concluded that letting international oil companies determine the goals and objectives of marine spill preparedness and response was a flagrant conflict of interest.

Large spills, which can destroy fisheries and entire communities, can impose billion dollar cleanup bills and still not restore what has been lost. The cleanup costs for the Exxon Valdez disaster reached US$2 billion (paid by various parties), and Exxon fought the federal government’s claim for an extra $92 million for restoration, until the government dropped their claim in 2015. To date, BP has spent more than US$42 billion on response, compensation and fines in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, the evidence shows that nearshore and in-port spills are four to five times more expensive to clean up than offshore spills and that heavy oil, such as bitumen, costs nearly 10 times more than light oils because it persists longer in water. And yet, no more than C$1.3 billion has been set aside in Canada for a major oil spill — a sum experts find woefully inadequate. According to a University of British Columbia study, a release of 16,000 cubic metres of diluted bitumen in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet would inflict at least $1.2 billion worth of damage on the local economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism and promoting its “natural” beauty. That figure doesn’t include the cost of a “cleanup.”

Based on the science, expecting to adequately remedy large spills with current technologies seems like wishful thinking. And there will be no change unless responsible authorities do three things: give communities most affected by a catastrophic spill the democratic right to say no to high-risk projects, such as tankers or pipelines; publicly recognize that responding to a large oil spill is as haphazard as responding to a large earthquake and that there is no real techno-fix; and recognize that industry won’t adopt more effective technologies that actually recover oil from the ocean until governments and communities properly price the risk of catastrophic spills and demand upfront multibillion-dollar bonds for compensation. “If they spill, they must lose a bloody fortune,” says Short.

Until those reforms take place, expect more dramatic prime-time theatre on oiled ocean waters. But we shouldn’t for a moment believe we’re watching a cleanup. The only things being wiped clean are guilty consciences.

[Editor’s note: The bird in the image by Michael Martin was incorrectly identified as a pelican. According to Kris Wiese, an environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish & Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention & Response, it appears to be a great egret. The caption has been corrected. Thanks to Kris Wiese for the close read and the correction.]

THE RISE OF FACEBOOK AND ‘THE OPERATING SYSTEM OF OUR LIVES’

Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship.Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship. (Photo by Dan Addison)

Recent changes announced by social media giant Facebook have roiled the media community and raised questions about privacy. The company’s updates include a higher level of news feed priority for posts made by friends and family and testing for new end-to-end encryption software inside its messenger service.

As Facebook now boasts more than a billion users worldwide, both of these updates are likely to impact the way the world communicates. Prior to the company’s news-feed algorithm change, a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that approximately 44 percent of American adults regularly read news content through Facebook.

UVA Today sat down with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship and Robertson Professor of Media Studies, to discuss the impact of these changes and the evolving role of Facebook in the world. Naturally, the conversation first aired on Facebook Live.

Excerpts from the conversation and the full video are available below.

Q. What is the change to Facebook’s News Feed?

A. Facebook has announced a different emphasis within its news feed. Now of course, your news feed is much more than news. It’s all of those links and photos and videos that your friends are posting and all of the sites that you’re following. So that could be an interesting combination of your cousin, your coworker, the New York Times and Fox News all streaming through.

A couple of years ago, the folks that run Facebook recognized that Facebook was quickly becoming the leading news source for many millions of Americans, and considering that they have 1.6 billion users around the world, and it’s growing fast, there was a real concern that Facebook should take that responsibility seriously. So one of the things that Facebook did was cut a deal with a number of publishers to be able to load up their content directly from Facebook servers, rather than just link to an original content server. That provided more dependable loading, especially of video, but also faster loading, especially through mobile.

But in recent weeks, Facebook has sort of rolled back on that. They haven’t removed the partnership program that serves up all that content in a quick form, but they’ve made it very clear that their algorithms that generate your news feed will be weighted much more heavily to what your friends are linking to, liking and commenting on, and what you’ve told Facebook over the years you’re interested in.

This has a couple of ramifications. One, it sort of downgrades the project of bringing legitimate news into the forefront by default, but it also makes sure that we are more likely to be rewarded with materials that we’ve already expressed an interest in. We’re much more likely to see material from publications and our friends we reward with links and likes. We’re much more likely to see material linked by friends with whom we have had comment conversations.

This can generate something that we call a “filter bubble.” A gentlemen named Eli Pariser wrote a book called “The Filter Bubble.” It came out in 2011, and the problem he identified has only gotten worse since it came out. Facebook is a prime example of that because Facebook is in the business of giving you reasons to feel good about being on Facebook. Facebook’s incentives are designed to keep you engaged.

Q. How will this change the experience for publishers?

A. The change or the announcement of the change came about because a number of former Facebook employees told stories about how Facebook had guided their decisions to privilege certain things in news feeds that seemed to diminish the content and arguments of conservative media.

Well, Facebook didn’t want that reputation, obviously. Facebook would rather not be mixed up or labeled as a champion of liberal causes over conservative causes in the U.S. That means that Facebook is still going to privilege certain producers of media – those producers of media that have signed contracts with Facebook. The Guardian is one, the New York Times is another. There are dozens of others. Those are still going to be privileged in Facebook’s algorithm, and among the news sources you encounter, you’re more likely to see those news sources than those that have not engaged in a explicit contract with Facebook. So Facebook is making editorial decisions based on their self-interest more than anything, and not necessarily on any sort of political ideology.

Q. You wrote “The Googlization of Everything” in 2011. Since then, have we progressed to the “Facebookization” of everything?

A. I wouldn’t say that it’s the Facebookization of everything – and that’s pretty clumsy anyway. I would make an argument that if you look at five companies that don’t even seem to do the same thing – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – they’re actually competing in a long game, and it has nothing to do with social media. It has nothing to do with your phone, nothing to do with your computer and nothing to do with the Internet as we know it.

They’re all competing to earn our trust and manage the data flows that they think will soon run through every aspect of our lives – through our watches, through our eyeglasses, through our cars, through our refrigerators, our toasters and our thermostats. So you see companies – all five of these companies from Amazon to Google to Microsoft to Facebook to Apple – are all putting out products and services meant to establish ubiquitous data connections, whether it’s the Apple Watch or the Google self-driving car or whether it’s that weird obelisk that Amazon’s selling us [the Echo] that you can talk to or use to play music and things. These are all part of what I call the “operating system of our lives.”

Facebook is interesting because it’s part of that race. Facebook, like those other companies, is trying to be the company that ultimately manages our lives, in every possible way.

We often hear a phrase called the “Internet of things.” I think that’s a misnomer because what we’re talking about, first of all, is not like the Internet at all. It’s going to be a closed system, not an open system. Secondly, it’s not about things. It’s actually about our bodies. The reason that watches and glasses and cars are important is that they lie on and carry human bodies. What we’re really seeing is the full embeddedness of human bodies and human motion in these data streams and the full connectivity of these data streams to the human body.

So the fact that Facebook is constantly tracking your location, is constantly encouraging you to be in conversation with your friends through it – at every bus stop and subway stop, at every traffic light, even though you’re not supposed to – is a sign that they are doing their best to plug you in constantly. That phenomenon, and it’s not just about Facebook alone, is something that’s really interesting.

Q. What are the implications of that for society?

A. The implications of the emergence of an operating system of our lives are pretty severe. First of all, consider that we will consistently be outsourcing decision-making like “Turn left or turn right?,” “What kind of orange juice to buy?” and “What kind of washing detergent to buy?” All of these decisions will be guided by, if not determined by, contracts that these data companies will be signing with consumer companies.

… We’re accepting short-term convenience, a rather trivial reward, and deferring long-term harms. Those harms include a loss of autonomy, a loss of privacy and perhaps even a loss of dignity at some point. … Right now, what I am concerned about is the notion that we’re all plugging into these data streams and deciding to allow other companies to manage our decisions. We’re letting Facebook manage what we get to see and which friends we get to interact with.

MEDIA CONTACT

Clinton Endorsement Backfires as Sanders’ Supporters Look to Jill Stein

Instead of falling in line, blindly loyal to Clinton just because she’s a Democrat, Sanders’ supporters will vote for values

Jumping for Bernie.

Jumping for Bernie. (Illustration: Clay Jones)

“Today, I endorsed Hillary Clinton to be our next president,” Bernie Sandersannounced to supporters on July 12, shortly after formally endorsing Clinton at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. “I know that some of you will be disappointed with that decision. But I believe that, at this moment, our country, our values and our common vision for a transformed America are best served by the defeat of Donald Trump and the election of Hillary Clinton.”

This was, unfortunately, the best Sanders could do ahead of the Democratic National Convention to ensure Clinton and her superdelegates don’t vote down every progressive concession he squeezed into the Democratic platform. But fear mongering Donald Trump is not a valid or viable reason to vote for Clinton, and many of Sanders’ supporters won’t be following suit.

Over the past few weeks, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s social media presence has increased exponentially. Stein, whose platform shares more similarities to Sanders’ campaign than Clinton‘s, recently tweeted a Sanders quote from 1989. “I think we need to go in the direction of Canada, which has a third party, a democratic socialist party,” Sanders said. “We may not win right away. But our job is to bring together workers and poor people, minorities, environmentalists. Let’s come together, articulate the issues, and I think we’re gonna make some real progress.”

View image on Twitter

The Democratic Establishment hasn’t progressed over the past several decades, and the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) vote is a prime example of the Party’s inability to move forward. Progressives and Bernie Sanders alike have vehemently opposed TPP, with Sanders surrogates on the Democratic National Platform Committee voting against TPP in the party platform. But even though Clinton vocally opposed TPP, her surrogates and those appointed by DNC ChairDebbie Wasserman Schultzvoted in favor of the agreement.

On July 10, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich took to Facebook to reveal he was told—by an acquaintance currently advising Hillary Clinton—that Clinton and other Democratic Establishment leaders would never oppose TPP because Obama is in favor of it. As with most of Clinton’s stances, they favor political expediency rather than true principles.

Because of her propensity to flip-flop on important issues, Sanders supporters aren’t going to trust Hillary Clinton to push forward Sanders’ ideals. In contrast, Jill Steinhas been an adamant opponent of TPP, calling to “Flush The TPP” more than six months before Clinton ever took a formal position on the matter.

When Bernie Sanders formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, several of his supporters walked out of the campaign rally—just as many more will walk out of the Democratic Party to support Jill Stein.

“I am currently trending on both Twitter and Facebook. Why? Because Americans want more than warmongers and fools,” Stein tweeted on July 12, shortly after Sanders’ endorsement.

Sanders’ supporters won’t fall victim to the emotional blackmail of propaganda like “Unite Blue,” “Vote Blue No Matter Who” and Clinton’s most recent “Stronger Together.” Instead of falling in line, blindly following Clinton just because she’s a Democrat, Sanders’ supporters will vote for values. Bernie Sanders sparked a political revolution that will continue strong with Jill Stein.

“Millions are realizing that if we want to fix the rigged economy, the rigged racial injustice system, the rigged health care system, toxic fossil fuel energy and all the other systems failing us, we must fix the rigged political system, and that will not happen through the riggedDemocratic Party,” Stein said in a statement on Sanders’ endorsement. “Right now we have a real chance to change our rigged political system, and we must not squander this opportunity by pledging allegiance to a corrupt political insider who the majority of Americans do not like, trust or believe in.”

Clinton Endorsement Backfires as Sanders’ Supporters Look to Jill Stein

Brexit and the New Global Rebellion

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Boris Johnson is tipped as the next Prime Minister as British voters opt for Brexit. (Photo: PA wire)

Things are changing. A major crack has appeared in the edifice of globalization, and the neoliberal order that has dominated the world’s economy since the end of World War II is now in danger.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by any means. But poisonous weeds are just as likely as green shoots to grow up through those cracks. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Those who make constructive evolution impossible may be making destructive devolution inevitable.

We now know that Great Britain, itself an amalgam of older nations, is divided. England and Wales voted to leave Europe, while Scotland, Northern Ireland, and ethnically diverse London voted to remain.

This vote was a stunning rejection of Great Britain’s political establishment. “Leave” prevailed despite opposition from all three major political parties. Prime Minister David Cameron, who will now step down, called on voters to “Remain.” So did socialist Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing Labor leader in a generation. Barack Obama crossed the Atlantic to stand beside Cameron and offer his support.

Voters rejected all of them.

The uprising has begun. The question now is, who will lead it going forward?

 

Globalism’s Shadow Self

The world’s financial and political elites must now face the fact that resistance to their economic order, which has shaped the world since the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, is a major phenomenon. These elites are apparently more out of touch with the citizens of the industrialized world than at any time in modern memory.

Make no mistake: The “Leave” vote was a rejection of globalization, at least as it’s currently structured. This was a revolt of working class Britons who have seen their postwar prosperity erode around them and their social contract eviscerated by the corporate and financial oligarchy.

But it was also the sign of a darker and more sinister worldwide phenomenon: the resurgence of global nativism and xenophobia. This worldwide turn toward fear of the Other is globalization’s shadow self.

Revolt of the Powerless

That’s not to say that there wasn’t a legitimate left-wing case to be made for leaving the European Union. The “Left Leave” movement, or #Lexit, had its own advocates. “Why cling to this reactionary institution?” asked one.

But this near-victory wasn’t won with leftist arguments about resisting the global oligarchy. The left was too divided to make that case clearly or forcefully. It was largely won by stirring up bigotry against immigrants, cloaked in flimsy arguments about excessive regulation. Legitimate economic grievances were channeled into nationalist hostility.

Many “Leave” voters felt powerless, that they no longer had much of a say in their own destinies. They weren’t wrong. The European Union was largely a creation of transnational financial forces driven by a self-serving neoliberal ideology of “free” markets, privatization, and corporate economic governance.

But ,even at its worst, the EU is a symptom and not a cause. Great Britain’s citizens haven’t been losing control over their fate to the EU. They’ve been losing it because their own country’s leaders – as well as those of most other Western democracies – are increasingly in thrall to corporate and financial interests.

The British people have lost more sovereignty to trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP then they could have ever surrendered to the European Union. Their democratic rights are trampled daily, not by faceless EU bureaucrats, but by the powerful financial interests that dominate their politics and their economy.

Low Information Voters

This vote won’t help the middle class. British workers will no longer be guaranteed the worker rights that come with EU membership. British corporations will be less regulated, which means more environmental damage and more mistreatment of employees and customers. They will not, in the words of William Blake, “build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”

Most “Leave” voters probablydon’t know that, because the media failed them too. Instead of being given a balanced understanding of EU membership’s advantages and disadvantages, the British people were fed a constant diet of terror fears and trivial anti-government anecdotes meant to reinforce the notion that EU was needlessly and absurdly bureaucratic.

As Martin Fletcher explains, Boris Johnson played a key role in degrading the performance of Britain’s corporate press back in his days as a journalist. Other outlets were all to eager to mimic his anti-government and anti-Europe stereotypes. And now? It’s as if Sean Hannity’s deceptive sensationalism had made him a top presidential prospect.

Johnson and UKIP leader Nigel Farage played the same role in the Leave campaign that Donald Trump is playing in US politics. Like Trump, they have used economic fears to stoke the anti-immigrant fear and hatred that is their real stock in trade. Their slogan might just as well have been “Make England Great Again.”

The campaign’s fearmongering and hate has already claimed a victim in Jo Cox, the Labor MP who was violently martyred by a white British racist. Tellingly, her murder was not described as an act of terrorism, which it clearly was. The decision to restrict the “terrorist” label to Muslims, in Great Britain as in the United States, feeds precisely the kind of hatred that fuels movements like these.

Great Britain’s immigrant population grew by 4.5 million under EU membership. But in a just economy, that would lead to growth for the existing middle class. Britain’s immigrants didn’t wound that country’s middle class. They’re scapegoats for rising inequality and the punishing austerity of the conservative regime.

Aftershock

What happens next? Markets are already reacting, retrenching in anticipation of new trade barriers and political uncertainty.

Before the voting, estimates of a Leave vote’s effect on Britain’s economy ranged from “negative” to outright “calamitous.” The outcome will probably fall somewhere between the two.

Will the reprehensible Mr. Johnson, who pushed aggressively for Brexit, now lead his party –perhaps even his country? How much will this boost UKIP? By rejecting the EU, will Great Britain soon experience even harsher economic austerity measures than Cameron’s?

Scotland may once again pursue independence so that it can rejoin Europe. Sinn Fein is calling again for the reunification of Ireland. Suddenly anything seems possible.

There are already calls for a similar referendum in France.

British workers are likely to be worse off without EU protections, especially if the far right prevails in future elections as the result of this vote.

Trade deals will need to be negotiated between Britain and the EU, along with the terms of separation. Judging by its behavior toward Greece, Germany prefers to punish any nation impertinent enough to try guiding its own economic destiny. These negotiations won’t be pleasant.

The New Resistance

The current order is unstable. The uprising has begun. But who will lead it?

All over the world there are Boris Johnsons and Nigel Farages poised to capitalize on the chaos. The US has Trump, who was quick to tie himself to the vote. Greece has Golden Dawn. Germany has the far-right, anti-immigrant AfD party. Scandinavia has the Sweden Democrat Party and the Danish People’s Party. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, itself nationalistic and totalitarian by nature, is in danger of being outdone by the racist and anti-Semitic Jobbik party.

Hungary is already building a Trump-like wall, in fact, a barb-wired fence meant to keep Syrian refugees out of the country and Jobbik out of political power.

There is also also a growing democratic counterforce, poised to resist both the global elites and the nationalist bigots. It includes Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the Corbyn movement in Great Britain (although Corbyn’s fate is unclear in the wake of this vote). In the US it has been seen in both the Occupy movement and, more recently, in the newly resurgent left inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

The global financial order is fracturing. But will it fall? It’s powerful and well organized. Even if it does, what will replace it: a more humane global order, or a world torn by nationalism and hate? Should these new parties and factions form a transnational movement?

That’s the goal of economist Yanis Varoufakis, among others. Varoufakis confronted the EU’s economic leadership directly when he negotiated with them as Greece’s first Finance Minister under Syriza. They prevailed, and Varoufakis is now a private citizen.

The Greeks chose economic autonomy when they voted for Syriza. They didn’t get it. The British aren’t likely to get what they want from this vote either. No matter what happens, British citizens will still be in thrall to corporate financial forces – forces that can rewrite the rules they go along.

Greece’s fate has been a cautionary tale for the world, a powerful illustration of the need for worldwide coordinated resistance to today’s economic and political elites. We can vote. But without economic autonomy, we aren’t truly free. In the months and years to come, the people of Great Britain are likely to learn the truth: We are all Greece now.

The question is, what do we do now?

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a senior fellow at Campaign for America’s Future.