Category Archives: Development

Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland


For generations, immigrants left their homes for a new land, and of homesteading farms on some of the millions of acres of virgin soil.

But now the land is under threat from giant agribusiness corporations, many of them owned by investment bankers, real estate developers, and, more ominously, by the threat of climate change, which is literally squeezing th last drops of water out of once-fertile soils.

While the first threat seeks to end the role of the smallholder, the latter two change the very nature of the land itself.

We come from a long line of farmers. The first Brennemans were political refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 1600s in search of farmland in Pennsylvania, a colony founded by a religious dissident to provide a safe haven for other religious dissidents.

We know that small farmers care about their land, developing intimate relationships with each contour, learning which patches of soil bring the highest yields and which need special care, while investment bankers obsess only over the bottom line.

Many farmers agonize over the growing corporate control of their own land in an age when companies genetically alter the crops they plant by retaining ownership of the seeds themselves, barring farmers from doing what farmers have done for millennia — saving seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year’s harvest.

And then there are the patented chemicals made by those same corporations, chemicals needed to grow those same patented crops.

The investment funds move in

Like vultures, investment funds circle America’s wounded businesses and institutions, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and harvest “troubled assets” everything from apartments and newspapers to — since the crash of 2008 — America’s farmland.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Madeleine Fairbairn has been looking at the change of ownership of America’s farmland, as the university reported last year:

“We’re seeing growing interest in farmland acquisition, and we are seeing new investment vehicles being developed, but we have no idea what it means for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Fairbairn, who received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study “farmland financialization” in areas of peak agricultural production in California and Illinois.

Until about 2008, financial services companies looked askance at buying farmland, but today, they are snapping it up at an impressive pace: As an example, Fairbairn says TIAA, the leading retirement investor for the academic community, owned no agricultural land before about 2007; today, TIAA controls $8 billion worth of farmland globally, investing on behalf of itself as well as other institutional investors.

“We’re in the beginning stages of what could be a significant shift in land ownership,” said Fairbairn. “Pension funds have enormous resources because they manage money for so many individuals. This has potentially major implications, since access to affordable land is a cornerstone of American agriculture.”

A rural sociologist, Fairbairn has tracked the trend since it first emerged. She has attended agricultural investment conferences where “farmland funds” were pitched to potential investors, and witnessed the development of investment vehicles that cater to the phenomenon, including publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) that first came on the U.S. market in 2013.

“Land ownership is a really important part of agriculture, but one that most people spend very little time thinking about,” said Fairbairn.

California and Illinois represent two poles of U.S. agriculture: California is dominated by high-value specialty crops and “permanent crops” like almonds and wine grapes; land is very expensive; and corporations already are major players. Illinois produces commodity row crops like corn and soybeans, and is home to more small, family-owned farms.

There’s another force at work too, and that’s overseas investors.

Consider, for example, the Saudi royals, who have been scooping up American soil, buying acreage to raise hay to feed the imperial horses.

But the extent of the land grab is much greater, as the Midwest Center for for Investigative Reporting revealed in a 22 June 2017 account:

[B]etween 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land held by foreign investors doubled from 13.7 million acres to 27.3 million acres — an area roughly the size of Tennessee.

While representing only about two percent of total farmland, the value of the foreign-owned U.S. farmland soared from $17.4 billion (in today’s dollars) to $42.7 billion during that same time period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Most of today’s foreign investment in agricultural land began to increase in 2005, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Of the top foreign investors who own agricultural land, nine bought most of their land between 2004 and 2014, about $8.1 billion worth of farmland, the Midwest Center found.

The final threats: Destruction of the soil itself

Worse still are those threats that destroy the land itself.

Of the two, we’ll consider the less threat first — the destruction of land through development.

We begin with a map, depicting the amount of farmland lost to the bulldozer between 1992 and 2012, as revealed in Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, a new report from the American Farmland Trust [click on the image to enlarge]:

Conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012

The development of agricultural land is shown in relationship to the low-to-high continuum of productive, versatile, and resilient values for agricultural land. The conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential uses between 1992 and 2012 is shown as high (dark brown-red, > 25% conversion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius], moderate [light brown-red, 10–25% conversion] and low [tan, 5–10% conversion]. Urban areas are shown in gray.

From the report:

  • Our analysis, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s agricultural lands, shows that nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously known. Additional major findings, include:
  • Between 1992 and 2012, we lost nearly 31 million acres of land. That’s 175 acres an hour, or 3 acres every single minute
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation—classified as the most productive, most versatile and most resilient land
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent

And the temperature’s rising

The final threat up for consideration today is the long-term and destructive impacts of global warming on the soil itself.

As any farmer can attest, soil is more than just inert dirt. Each soil is a complex ecosystem, harboring microbes that process soil minerals, digest dead organic matter, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses.

Crops favor specific soil types as well, requiring significant levels of fertilizers when planted in less-favorable soils. A considerable body of science reveals that changing water levels changes the microbial community, and the drier soils become, the fewer species of soil microbe can thrive, resulting in a collapse of soil biodiversity.

And now a new study reveals that drier soils also play a direct role in global warming, as starkly captures in these maps, with the upper maps reflecting the regions average temperature increases between 1965 and 2014 compared. to a 1902-1951 baseline period. The lower maps feature of projection of temperature rises for 2050-2099 compared to a 1951-2000 baseline [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from the University of California, Irvine:

Dry months are getting hotter in large parts of the United States, another sign that human-caused climate change is forcing people to encounter new extremes.

In a study published today in Science Advances  [open access], researchers at the University of California, Irvine report that temperatures during droughts have been rising faster than in average climates in recent decades, and they point to concurrent changes in atmospheric water vapor as a driver of the surge.

“Available soil moisture can remove surface heat through evaporation, but if the land is dry, there is no opportunity to transport it away, which increases the local temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a UCI graduate student in civil & environmental engineering. “Atmospheric conditions can influence soil, and we argue that they’re shaping the temperatures we experience during droughts.”

UCI’s research team analyzed observed temperature and precipitation data from the early and late 20th century and discovered that regions undergoing droughts warmed more than four times faster than areas in the southern and northeastern United States with average weather conditions. In addition, climate models showed a significant warming shift in Southern states between the late 20th century and early 21st century.

These changes point to a greater number of droughts and heat waves co-occurring. This can lead to such calamities as wildfires and loss of crop yields. Widespread conflagrations, spurred on by abnormally high summer temperatures, are currently burning around the world, including in parts of California, Scandinavia and Greece.

“Heat waves and droughts have significant impacts on their own, but when they occur simultaneously, their negative effects are greatly compounded,” said co-author Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. “Both phenomena, which are intensifying due to climate warming, are expected to have increasingly harmful consequences for agriculture, infrastructure and human health.”

He suggested that society has a responsibility to respond to the challenges presented by this new climate reality.

“The observed escalation in the number and intensity of wildfires is likely caused by the increase in frequency of hot droughts,” AghaKouchak said. “We need to bolster our resiliency against these threats to protect our population health, food supply and critical infrastructure.”

This study was partially supported by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Endangered Species Act remains very popular


On 28 June 1973, President Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican who launched his career with a furious barrage of Red-baiting, signed a new law, declaring:

Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans. I congratulate the 93d Congress for taking this important step toward protecting a heritage which we hold in trust to countless future generations of our fellow citizens. Their lives will be richer, and America will be more beautiful in the years ahead, thanks to the measure that I have the pleasure of signing into law today.

The law passed with unanimous support in the Senate, with only four House Republicans voting no.

The law Nixon signed was accompanied by a report from the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries explaining what was known at the time about the extent of harm the bill was designed to ameliorate. One sentence stands out: “According to the Department of the Interior, there may be more than 100 species of fish and wildlife which are presently threatened with extinction.”

Today we know the problem is far greater than scientists knew at the time. As a 2005 scientific report noted, “Only about 15% of the known species in the United States have been studied in sufficient detail to determine whether or not they are imperiled. Any estimate of the total number of imperiled species in this country must therefore rely on extrapolations from this small number of comparatively well studied species to a much larger number of poorly studied ones.”

Despite the limited knowledge we possess, there are 2269 animals and plants in the U.S. and its territories identified as endangered, a number certain to grow as our knowledge base expands.

Here’s a look at species identified by state, via MSN [click on the image to enlarge]:

Enter the orange-ruffed Narcissus

Fast forward 45 years and the Republicans are singing a different tune,as Mother Jones reported a couple of weeks ago:

In a series of announcements. . . Trump administration officials and their Republican allies in Congress announced actions intended to weaken key portions of the Endangered Species Act. If implemented, these regulatory changes in agencies as disparate as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service could wholly transform the intention of the act by allowing economic considerations to supersede environmental concerns when classifying animals as “endangered or “threatened.” The changes would also shift the balance of authority from federal regulators to the states and strip protections from several animals whose habitats pose a nuisance for developers and oil firms. Stakeholders who benefit from these rollbacks do not reflect the majority of voters, or even the Republican Party, but their viewpoint, closely aligned with the GOP and Trump, has become ascendant in recent years.

“There’s been a pretty long-term campaign against the Endangered Species Act, really for 20 to 25 years,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Now, with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, the administration’s outspoken promise to protect the fossil fuel industry, and a president who has promised to revoke two regulations for every additional one he implements, the time is ripe for the campaign against the act to succeed.

But popular support for the act remains strong and solid

While the real estate developer in the Oval Office sees the Endangered Species Act as an obstacle to his real estate empire, the American public remains solidly behind the law’s protections for our fellow critters.

From Michigan Technological University:

In the past two years, nearly 150 amendments, bills and riders aimed to weaken the U.S. Endangered Species Act. However, a new study indicates that four in five Americans support the act and this support has remained stable over two decades.

The Endangered Species Act is portrayed – by critics of the law, often by the media, and sometimes by conservation professionals – as increasingly controversial, partly due to the protection of species such as wolves and spotted owls. These portrayals suggest that public support for the law may be declining.  However, new research indicates that support for this law has remained consistently high over the past two decades.

The fresh survey data and analysis are laid out in a new paper, published last week in the Society for Conservation Biology’s journal Conservation Letters[open access], by a team from Michigan Technological University, the Ohio State University and California State University.

Because of the rift between citizens and government officials, the authors say the Endangered Species Act has joined the ranks of issues like gun control and climate change where political action veers from public opinion.

Continue reading

Climate change fuels soaring heat wave deaths


On 1 June 2017, Donald Trump made a momentous and lethal declaration:

I am fighting every day for the great people of this country. Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord — (applause) — thank you, thank you — but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.

As President, I can put no other consideration before the wellbeing of American citizens. The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.

Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country. This includes ending the implementation of the nationally determined contribution and, very importantly, the Green Climate Fund which is costing the United States a vast fortune.

Trump’s agenda is simple: Anything that gets in the way of the aspirations of billionaires to become the world’s first trillionaires must be abolished, even is millions of deaths ensue.

What else would you expect from a narcissistic real estate developer [and always remember that he is precisely and simply that]. And from our decades on reporting on real estate developers, we have learned that they hate nothing more than environmental regulations.

In pulling out of the Paris Agreement, a document signed by 179 nations thus far, Trump has donned another executive title, Mass Murderer-In-Chief.

Among the many consequences of his anti-environmentalism will be a massive spike in global deaths associated with the heat waves that have set new records and spawned a lethal rash of wildfire across the globe.

This map from a just-published worldwide study of the soaring rates of heat waves associated with climate change reveals some of the extent of the crisis [click on the image to enlarge]:

So how did they arrive at their alarming conclusions, and what did they find? From the study:

  • We developed a model to estimate heatwave–mortality associations in 412 communities within 20 countries/regions from January 1, 1984 to December 31, 2015. The associations were used to project heatwave-related excess mortality, with projected daily mean temperature series from four scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions during 1971–2099.
  • We used three scenarios of population changes (low, moderate, and high variant) and two adaptation scenarios  (no adaptation and hypothetical adaptation).
  • If people cannot adapt to future climate change, heatwave-related excess mortality is expected to increase the most in tropical and subtropical countries/regions, while European countries and the United States will have smaller increases. The more serious the greenhouse gas emissions, the higher the heatwave-related excess mortality in the future.
  •  If people have ability to adapt to future climate change, the heatwave-related excess mortality is  expected to still increase in future under the most serious greenhouse gas emissions and high-variant population scenarios. However, the increase is expected to be much smaller than the no adaptation scenario.

A somber warning from Down Under

More on the study, including it’s impacts on one lesser-impacted nation, there’s this more Australia’s Monash University, via Newswise:

If people cannot adapt to future climate temperatures, deaths caused by severe heatwaves will increase dramatically in tropical and subtropical regions, followed closely by Australia, Europe and the United States, a global new Monash–led study shows.

Published today in PLOS Medicine, it is the first global study to predict future heatwave-related deaths and aims to help decision makers in planning adaptation and mitigation strategies for climate change.

Researchers developed a model to estimate the number of deaths related to heatwaves in 412 communities across 20 countries for the period of 2031 to 2080.

The study projected excess mortality in relation to heatwaves in the future under different scenarios characterised by levels of greenhouse gas emissions, preparedness and adaption strategies and population density across these regions.

Study lead and Monash Associate Professor Yuming Guo said the recent media reports detailing deadly heatwaves around the world highlight the importance of the heatwave study.

“Future heatwaves in particular will be more frequent, more intense and will last much longer,” Associate Professor Guo said.

“If we cannot find a way to mitigate the climate change (reduce the heatwave days) and help people adapt to heatwaves, there will be a big increase of heatwave-related deaths in the future, particularly in the poor countries located around the equator.”

A key finding of the study shows that under the extreme scenario, there will be a 471 per cent increase in deaths caused by heatwaves in three Australian cities (Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) in comparison with the period 1971-2010.

“If the Australia government cannot put effort into reducing the impacts of heatwaves, more people will die because of heatwaves in the future,” Associate Professor Guo said.

The study comes as many countries around the world have been affected by severe heatwaves, leaving thousands dead and tens of thousands more suffering from heatstroke-related illnesses. The collective death toll across India, Greece, Japan and Canada continues to rise as the regions swelter through record temperatures, humidity, and wildfires.

Associate Professor Antonio Gasparrini, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and study co-author, said since the turn of the century, it’s thought heatwaves have been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, including regions of Europe and Russia.

“Worryingly, research shows that is it highly likely that there will be an increase in their frequency and severity under a changing climate, however, evidence about the impacts on mortality at a global scale is limited,” Associate Professor Gasparrini said.

“This research, the largest epidemiological study on the projected impacts of heatwaves under global warming, suggests it could dramatically increase heatwave-related mortality, especially in highly-populated tropical and sub-tropical countries. The good news is that if we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions under scenarios that comply with the Paris Agreement, then the projected impact will be much reduced.”

Associate Professor Gasparrini said he hoped the study’s projections would support decision makes in planning crucial adaptation and mitigation strategies for climate change.

In order to prevent mass population death due to increasingly severe heatwaves, the study recommends the following six adaption interventions, particularly significant for developing countries and tropical and subtropical regions:

  • Individual: information provision, adverting
  • Interpersonal: Information sharing; communication; persuasive arguments; counseling; peer education
  • Community: Strengthening community infrastructure; encouraging community engagement; developing vulnerable people group; livelihoods; neighborhood watch
  • Institutional: Institutional policies; quality standards; formal procedures and regulations; partnership working
  • Environmental: Urban planning and management; built environment; planting trees; public available drink water; house quality
  • Public policy: Improvement of health services; poverty reduction; redistribution of resources; education; heatwave-warning system

Climate change fuels soaring heat wave deaths


On 1 June 2017, Donald Trump made a momentous and lethal declaration:

I am fighting every day for the great people of this country. Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord — (applause) — thank you, thank you — but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.

As President, I can put no other consideration before the wellbeing of American citizens. The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.

Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country. This includes ending the implementation of the nationally determined contribution and, very importantly, the Green Climate Fund which is costing the United States a vast fortune.

Trump’s agenda is simple: Anything that gets in the way of the aspirations of billionaires to become the world’s first trillionaires must be abolished, even is millions of deaths ensue.

What else would you expect from a narcissistic real estate developer [and always remember that he is precisely and simply that]. And from our decades on reporting on real estate developers, we have learned that they hate nothing more than environmental regulations.

In pulling out of the Paris Agreement, a document signed by 179 nations thus far, Trump has donned another executive title, Mass Murderer-In-Chief.

Among the many consequences of his anti-environmentalism will be a massive spike in global deaths associated with the heat waves that have set new records and spawned a lethal rash of wildfire across the globe.

This map from a just-published worldwide study of the soaring rates of heat waves associated with climate change reveals some of the extent of the crisis [click on the image to enlarge]:

So how did they arrive at their alarming conclusions, and what did they find? From the study:

  • We developed a model to estimate heatwave–mortality associations in 412 communities within 20 countries/regions from January 1, 1984 to December 31, 2015. The associations were used to project heatwave-related excess mortality, with projected daily mean temperature series from four scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions during 1971–2099.
  • We used three scenarios of population changes (low, moderate, and high variant) and two adaptation scenarios  (no adaptation and hypothetical adaptation).
  • If people cannot adapt to future climate change, heatwave-related excess mortality is expected to increase the most in tropical and subtropical countries/regions, while European countries and the United States will have smaller increases. The more serious the greenhouse gas emissions, the higher the heatwave-related excess mortality in the future.
  •  If people have ability to adapt to future climate change, the heatwave-related excess mortality is  expected to still increase in future under the most serious greenhouse gas emissions and high-variant population scenarios. However, the increase is expected to be much smaller than the no adaptation scenario.
A somber warning from Down Under
More on the study, including it’s impacts on one lesser-impacted nation, there’s this more Australia’s Monash University, via Newswise:
If people cannot adapt to future climate temperatures, deaths caused by severe heatwaves will increase dramatically in tropical and subtropical regions, followed closely by Australia, Europe and the United States, a global new Monash–led study shows.

Published today in PLOS Medicine, it is the first global study to predict future heatwave-related deaths and aims to help decision makers in planning adaptation and mitigation strategies for climate change.

Researchers developed a model to estimate the number of deaths related to heatwaves in 412 communities across 20 countries for the period of 2031 to 2080.

The study projected excess mortality in relation to heatwaves in the future under different scenarios characterised by levels of greenhouse gas emissions, preparedness and adaption strategies and population density across these regions.

Study lead and Monash Associate Professor Yuming Guo said the recent media reports detailing deadly heatwaves around the world highlight the importance of the heatwave study.

“Future heatwaves in particular will be more frequent, more intense and will last much longer,” Associate Professor Guo said.

“If we cannot find a way to mitigate the climate change (reduce the heatwave days) and help people adapt to heatwaves, there will be a big increase of heatwave-related deaths in the future, particularly in the poor countries located around the equator.”

A key finding of the study shows that under the extreme scenario, there will be a 471 per cent increase in deaths caused by heatwaves in three Australian cities (Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) in comparison with the period 1971-2010.

“If the Australia government cannot put effort into reducing the impacts of heatwaves, more people will die because of heatwaves in the future,” Associate Professor Guo said.

The study comes as many countries around the world have been affected by severe heatwaves, leaving thousands dead and tens of thousands more suffering from heatstroke-related illnesses. The collective death toll across India, Greece, Japan and Canada continues to rise as the regions swelter through record temperatures, humidity, and wildfires.

Associate Professor Antonio Gasparrini, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and study co-author, said since the turn of the century, it’s thought heatwaves have been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, including regions of Europe and Russia.

“Worryingly, research shows that is it highly likely that there will be an increase in their frequency and severity under a changing climate, however, evidence about the impacts on mortality at a global scale is limited,” Associate Professor Gasparrini said.

“This research, the largest epidemiological study on the projected impacts of heatwaves under global warming, suggests it could dramatically increase heatwave-related mortality, especially in highly-populated tropical and sub-tropical countries. The good news is that if we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions under scenarios that comply with the Paris Agreement, then the projected impact will be much reduced.”

Associate Professor Gasparrini said he hoped the study’s projections would support decision makes in planning crucial adaptation and mitigation strategies for climate change.

In order to prevent mass population death due to increasingly severe heatwaves, the study recommends the following six adaption interventions, particularly significant for developing countries and tropical and subtropical regions:

  • Individual: information provision, adverting
  • Interpersonal: Information sharing; communication; persuasive arguments; counseling; peer education
  • Community: Strengthening community infrastructure; encouraging community engagement; developing vulnerable people group; livelihoods; neighborhood watch
  • Institutional: Institutional policies; quality standards; formal procedures and regulations; partnership working
  • Environmental: Urban planning and management; built environment; planting trees; public available drink water; house quality
  • Public policy: Improvement of health services; poverty reduction; redistribution of resources; education; heatwave-warning system

Map of the day: Western Hemisphere happiness


From Views of the World, the always informative blog of British geographer Benjamin Henning, a look at how the nations of the Western Hemisphere fare on the Happy Planet Index [click on the image to enlarge]:

From the blog post, where you can find the full map, which is based on a remapping of the world to show the nations resized to match their relative populations:

March, 20th is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, recognising ‘the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world’. Bhutan is credited as the first country to have implemented the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an official measure for the state of a nation, introduced in 1972. After the global financial crash in 2008, ideas about giving the ‘spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of [people] and natural environment’ more prominence over mere economic development are reflected more and more in international efforts towards a sustainable future.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI), developed by the New Economics Foundation, takes a rather radical approach on this issue. It aims to measure well-being and happiness by taking a universal and long-term approach to understanding, how efficiently people in a country are using their environmental resources to live long and happy lives.

This cartogram maps the results of the 2016 Happy Planet Index from the perspective of people. The gridded population cartogram shows the world resized according to the number of people living in each area, combined with the national HPI score:

The indicators that are used for calculating the HPI score cover life-satisfaction, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and the ecological footprint. As argued in the report, ‘GDP growth on its own does not mean a better life for everyone, particularly in countries that are already wealthy. It does not reflect inequalities in material conditions between people in a country.’ This explains why consumption patterns are seen as more important for well-being than production. It also acknowledges that inequalities in well-being and life expectancy are important factors in the overall happiness of the population in a country.

When taking these notions into account, the rich industrialised countries score much worse in achieving sustainable well-being for all. Of the 140 countries included in the HPI, Luxembourg is the most extreme example for a wealthy nation scoring very badly – it does well on life expectancy and well-being, and also has low inequality, but sustains this lifestyle with the largest ecological footprint per capita of any country in the world. It would require more than nine planets to sustain this way of life if every person on Earth lived the same way, showing that the standard of living comes at a high cost to the environment.

Among the positive stories is Costa Rica, which is also highlighted on the map. The country has persistently scored highest in all HPI releases (the 2016 edition is the third, after 2009 and 2012). More of a surprise might be the high score for Mexico (second), which is credited to massive efforts at improving health and environmental sustainability. Despite challenges with tackling inequality, well-being is perceived higher than in the wealthier northern neighbour, the United States. Quite a few Central and South American nations, as well as some Asian and Pacific countries do better than many wealthy nations. However, the African continent shows that at the bottom end extreme poverty can be a limiting factor in achieving sustainable well-being.

Charts of the day: Latin American land inequality


Two significant graphics from Unearthed: land, power and inequality in Latin America, a major study of land distribution in Latin America, reveal the gross inequalities of land distribution in the Americas.

First, a look at agricultural land tenure rates, featuring the percentage of farms in each country owned by the top one percent of landowners:

More from the report:

Latin America is the world’s most unequal region in terms of land distribution. The Gini coefficient for land—an indicator of between 0 and 1, where 1 represents the maximum inequality—is 0.79 for the region as a whole, 0.85 in South America and 0.75 in Central America. These figures indicate much higher levels of land concentration than in Europe (0.57), Africa (0.56) or Asia (0.55).

According to this indicator, Paraguay (with a Gini coefficient of 0.93) is the country where land is most unequally distributed, followed by Chile (0.91) and Venezuela (0.88). At the other end of
the spectrum is Costa Rica (0.67), which has the most equitable land distribution in the region. Most Latin American countries have extremely high levels of concentration with Gini coeffi-
cients above 0.80, while the ratio is over 0.90 in Chile and Paraguay.

Compared with the distribution of income—for which Latin America is also the most unequal region in the world—land distribution is even more inequitable. The regional Gini coefficient for income is 0.48 compared with 0.79 for land, and is higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa (0.43), North America (0.37) or the East Asia-Pacific region (0.37).

And, next, a look at what crops are planted on those vast latifundias:

Note particularly the vast acreage devoted to soybeans.

The great majority of those acres are planted with Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans, according to this September report from Reuters:

South American farmers are expected to sow 57 percent more area with Monsanto Co’s second-generation, genetically modified soybean seed Intacta RR2 Pro in the new planting season, a company executive said.

Intacta, which tolerates the herbicide glyphosate and resists caterpillars, was planted on 14 million hectares in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay in 2015/2016.

Farmers are expected to plant 18 million to 22 million hectares this season, Maria Luiza Nachreiner, head of South American soy operations, said in an interview before Monsanto announced it would accept a $66 billion takeover bid from rival Bayer.

“We have a positive outlook this crop,” Nachreiner said.

Intacta will account for 31 percent to 38 percent of the planted area in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, up from 24 percent this season, she noted.

Monsanto does not release specific numbers about the area planted with its seeds in Brazil, the world’s largest soybean exporter. For years, its Roundup Ready Soybeans dominated the regional GMO seed market, peaking in 2013/14 with 84 percent of Brazil’s soybean area, according to data from local consultant Celeres.

To maintain those crops, farmers are also basically forced to use Monsanto weed-killers, most notably glyphosate, the main chemical ingredient in the company’s Roundup,.

Roundup has been linked with a growing number of human health problems, but weeds have been growing tolerant, forcing the company to create new blends featuring even more toxic chemicals, including 2,4-D, one of two chemicals used in the toxic Agent Orange blend sprayed over much of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, resulting in a growing number of severe infant deformities.

The tragedy of Trump/Big Oil’s war on the EPA


We spent a good many years covering environmental issues, including the role played by corporations and the nation’s largest university system in building on polluted land.

We were first stirred to concern for our impact on the environment in 1962 when we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that inspired the rise of the modern environmental movement in the last half of the 20th Century.

The movement became so significant that a Reoubkican President [and a loathed one at that] created the Environmental Protection Agency,

And while Donald Trump may share a leak paranoia with Agent Orange, he’s anything but Richard Nixon when it comes to the environment.

An agency dismembered

While Trump and many of his appointees called for outright elimination of the EPA, realism set in.

That and the beginning of the death by a thousand cuts, starting with a story from Newsweek written as the initial proposed budget cuts were revealed:

The proposal, sent to the EPA [last week], would cut into grants that support American Indian tribes and energy efficiency initiatives, according to the source, who read the document to Reuters.

State grants for lead cleanup, for example, would be cut 30 percent to $9.8 million. Grants to help native tribes combat pollution would be cut 30 percent to $45.8 million. An EPA climate protection program on cutting emissions of greenhouse gases like methane that contribute to global warming would be cut 70 percent to $29 million.

The proposal would cut funding for the brownfields industrial site cleanup program by 42 percent to $14.7 million. It would also reduce funding for enforcing pollution laws by 11 percent to $153 million.

The budget did not cut state revolving funds for programs, that Congress tapped last year to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, for its lead pollution crisis.

All staff at a research program, called Global Change Research, as well as 37 other programs would be cut under the plan.

As Bloomberg notes:

More than 40 percent of EPA’s budget – about $3.5 billion – is dedicated to state and tribal grants used to pay for staff and support an array of programs, including initiatives that protect drinking water. State clean air and water programs also benefit.

That means the disproportionate burden will fall on states, most of which have Republican-controlled legislatures and chief executives.

So it’s unlikely most states will replace the lost funds, and layoffs will ensue.

Also impacted will be city government, losing both federal funds and monies from the states.

Given that the burdens of pollution fall disproportionately on the poor, life expectancies may decline.

Hey, but he’s makin’ Ahmurka great agin, ain’t he?

Ain’t he?

The latest development: Still more cuts

Needless to say, climate research is involved.

Scientific American puts it i context:

The administration is seeking a nearly 20 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget, including to its satellite division, The Washington Post reported. That includes significant cuts to the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, which has produced research that disproved the notion of a global warming pause. NOAA’s satellites provide invaluable data on climate change that are used by researchers throughout the world. The NOAA cuts target the Office of Ocean and Atmospheric Research, which conducts the bulk of the agency’s climate research.

That’s on top of proposed reductions to climate research at U.S. EPA, including a 40 percent cut to the Office of Research and Development, which runs much of EPA’s major research. The cuts specify work on climate change, air and water quality, and chemical safety. The Trump administration also has proposed 20 percent staffing reduction at EPA.

More than a dozen federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department and the Department of Energy, conduct climate research. Further cuts are expected, particularly at NASA, which develops and launches the satellites that provide invaluable information on climate change used throughout the world. President Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and some congressional Republicans pushing for climate science cuts have falsely claimed that federal scientists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to defraud the American public into thinking that human activity is causing the planet to warm.

About a third of the American economy relies on weather, climate and natural hazard data, said Chris McEntee, president of the American Geophysical Union, the nation’s largest scientific organization. She said much of the federal scientific research and data comes from multiple agencies working together, so cutting one will have a ripple effect.

“It’s not just one agency, it’s a holistic view here, and cutting one piece also has an impact on the whole enterprise of what we get out of science from the federal government that enables us to have the kinds of tools and information we need to protect the infrastructure, to protect lives, to protect public safety, and to give us knowledge and information to make a more effective economy and country,” she said.

After the jump, more cuts, the threats to a massive database and efforts to preserve them, and a case of class war. . . Continue reading

Quote of the day II: A Trumpster’s racist wishes


Artvoice, an alternative paper in Buffalo, asked prominent Buffalo real estate developer and property magnate Carl Paladino a list of questions. He also served as co-chair of Trump’s New York state campaign and held meetings with the President-elect and key staff members, including White House counsel-designate Steve Bannon and National Security Advisor-designate and retired Gen. Michael “Mad Dog” Flynn.

Here are his answers to the first two questions, “1. What would you most like to happen in 2017?” And “2. What would you like to see go away in 2017?” via a screencap from the paper’s website:

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Yet another Trumpster mainstreams racism.

Fukushima reactor disaster costs near $200 billion


The latest sobering numbers from Japan Today:

Japan’s trade ministry has almost doubled the estimated cost of compensation for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and decommissioning of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to more than 20 trillion yen ($177.51 billion), the Nikkei business daily reported on Sunday.

The trade ministry at the end of 2013 calculated the cost at 11 trillion yen, which was comprised of 5.4 trillion yen for compensation, 2.5 trillion yen for decontamination, 1.1 trillion yen for an interim storage facility for contaminated soil, and 2 trillion yen for decommissioning, the report said.

The new estimate raised the cost of compensation to 8 trillion yen and decontamination to 4-5 trillion yen, the cost for an interim storage facility remained steady, and decommissioning will rise by several trillion yen, it added.

The part of the cost increase will be passed on in electricity fees, it added, citing multiple unnamed sources familiar with the matter.

A parallel story from California

The Fukushima reactor complex was constructed adjacent to the Pacific Ocean coast in a nation known for it’s frequent and furious earthquakes.

Remind you of California?

As we’ve written previously and extensively, California allowed construction of both its commercial power reactor complexes on the Pacific Coast and in areas riddled with earthquake faults.

And when one of the reactor complexes suffered a major breakdown, the Golden State did just as Japan is now doing. They stuck utility customers with the bill.

From a 3 June story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, reporting on the shutdown of the San Onofre reactor complex in northern San Diego County, a project of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.:

According to the utility, customers are on track to save $500 million or more off their share of the original $4.7 billion deal adopted by regulators 19 months ago.

An insurance payout and funding from a federal nuclear decommissioning trust have helped, the utility said. And further reductions in the ratepayer contribution may come if Edison is successful in a lawsuit against vendor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and in selling off fuel purchased for the nuclear plant that will no longer be needed.

Consumer advocates criticized Edison’s response to the utilities commission. They said the company cherry-picked numbers to make it appear customers are being charged less than they are.

The critics said that nowhere in the filing does the utility accept responsibility for installing flawed equipment that led to the shutdown of the plant amid a radiation leak in January 2012.

The reason for the shutdown is that the company installed a faulty piping system inside the reactor complex, a set of pipes so flawed that they leaked radioactively “hot” water inside the containment structure.

The whole nuclear power industry was an offshoot of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, and the government lied to the American people in order to get concessions and support run through Congress.

The most notorious lie came in 1954, when the first chair of the Atomic Energy Commission [now the Department of Energy] told science writers that “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”

Those children now have children of their own, and those meters are still clocking up the dollars.

And now when those power stations go flooey [a favorite phrase of esnl’s own dad], the customers are stuck with the bill.

Consider an analogy

You’re in a grocery store when an earthquake hits, hurling all those beer and wine bottles, milk containers, pickle jars, and all the rest smashing to the floor.

Where they break.

Then you go the the checkout line to pay for whatever you’re gathered before the earth moved, only to discover that you’re forced to pay for all that smashed inventory — goods smashed because the store didn’t built in devices to restrain those goods from hurtling into into a catastrophic mess of goo and gunk. . .

Seem fair to you?

Army says it won’t evict Dakota pipeline protesters


Some good news, for the moment for protesters attempting to blockade the Dakota Access Pipeline [previously].

From Deutsche Welle:

The US Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday it has “no plans for forcible removal” of protesters who have been camping in North Dakota to protest the pipeline. The Corps had notified tribal leaders Friday that all federal lands north of the Cannonball River would be closed to public access December 5 out of “safety concerns.” The move sparked fears of a violent confrontation with law enforcement officials as they attempted to evict thousands of activists from the Oceti Sakowin camp erected in April.

Protesters and local law enforcement have regularly clashed over efforts by activists to disrupt final construction of the 1,172-mile (1,885-kilometer) pipeline that would move crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.

But in a statement the Army Corps’ district commander in Omaha, Nebraska clarified that federal agencies aren’t planning to forcibly evict protesters.  “I am very concerned for the safety and well-being of all citizens at these encampments on Corps-managed federal land, and we want to make sure people are in a safe place for the winter,” Colonel John Henderson said.  “We fully support the rights of all Americans to exercise free speech and peacefully assemble, and we ask that they do it in a way that does not also endanger themselves or others, or infringe on others’ rights.”

The Standing Rock Sioux have challenged the project in federal court, saying the pipeline’s more than 200 water crossings, including one less than a mile upstream of the reservation, would imperil drinking water for more than 8,000 tribal members and millions downstream. Activist organizers told a news conference on Saturday at the main protest site where about 5,000 people are camped that they had no intention of moving. There are smaller camps on land not subject to the planned restrictions, including an area south of the Cannonball River where the Corps said it was establishing a so-called “free-speech zone” by authorities.

A tale of two indigenous land protest movements


The Dakota Access Pipeline [DAP] is a 1,600-mile pipeline being built to carry high-grade petroleum from North Dakota’s fracked-up Bakken Shale proposed across North and South Dakota and on through Iowa to Illinois.

The only problem, besides all the environmental worries connected with oil, fracking, and constructing a pipeline that could leak into some of the nation’s most environmentally sensitive landscapes and waterways, the project is being driven through land considered sacred by several of the nation’s indigenous tribes.

Native American take a different view of land that do the statutes of states and the federal government, which see land as property, susceptible to “improvements” — usually those proposed by folks looking out to make a fast buck.

Indigenous people tend to see land different, as a living thing of which they are a small but significant part.

Mother Earth, in other words, is more than just as advertising slogan.

The DAP passes through landscape — a better term than the purely utilitarian land favored by legislators, banksters, and corporateers — considered sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux, and it was a woman, tribal Historic Preservation Officer LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who formally launched the protest movement against the project by opening the Sacred Stone Camp on April 1.

The protest has been joined by other indigenous groups, environmentalists, and scientists concerned about the ecological impacts and threats to endangered species.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that protesters blockading pipeline construction must end by 5 December or mass arrests would follow, and the Obama administration shows no sign of intervening as of this writing.

Which brings us to the story of another protest, and a successful campaign launched by women to thwart a housing development of scared landscape north of the U.S. border.

From the National Film Board of Canada, a 2009 documentary film by Sara Roque:

Six Miles Deep

Program notes:

A documentary portrait of a group of women who led their community, the largest reserve in Canada, Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, in an historic blockade to protect their land. On February 28, 2006, members of the Iroquois Confederacy [also known as the Haudenosaunee or People of the Longhouse] blockade a highway near Caledonia, Ontario to prevent a housing development on land that falls within their traditional territories. The ensuing confrontation makes national headlines for months. Less well known is the crucial role of the clan mothers of the community who set the rules for conduct. When the community’s chiefs ask people to abandon the barricades, it is the clan mothers who overrule them, leading a cultural reawakening in their traditionally matriarchal community.

Poisoning San Francisco’s poor, Latino babies


In our years reporting for the Berkeley Daily Planet, our primary beat was land development, long the dominant force in California politics.

One thing we learned very quickly: Much of the San Francisco Bay Area is built on sites laden with environmental pollutants hazardous to human health, and without rigorous enforcement by federal and state regulatory agencies — agencies under relentless attack by Republican — thousands of Californians would face even greater dangers

[And note that one of Donald Trump’s campaign promises is the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency (or, as he calls it, the “Department of Environmental Protection“, the federal enforcement arm created by, of all people, fellow Republican Richard M Nixon.]

Who suffers most from the legacy of a century or more of unregulated manufacturing along San Francisco Bay.

It is the poor of course, forced to live in housing on or adjacent to some of the most polluted sites. and their children most of all.

From the University of California:

Low-income and Latina pregnant women who seek care at Zuckerberg San Francisco General have widespread exposure to environmental pollutants, many of which show up in higher levels in newborns than the mothers, according to a new study from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and Biomonitoring California. The study is the first in the United States to measure exposure to 59 toxic chemicals in pregnant women and their newborns.

“Pregnant women in the U.S. are exposed to many harmful industrial chemicals that have been linked to premature birth, low birth weight and birth defects, but estimates of how efficiently pollutants are transferred from mother to fetus have varied widely,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at UCSF. Woodruff, the senior author of the study, also directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF. “Our findings have found that many chemicals do indeed accumulate in the fetal environment and are absorbed at greater levels by fetuses than by the pregnant women themselves. This may have significant consequences for the growing fetus, since many of these chemicals are known to affect development.”

Researchers measured polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), mercury and lead, among other chemicals. These industrial pollutants are common in the environment, and in previous studies many have been detected in greater than 99 percent of U.S. pregnant women, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data.

“Contrary to previous research, we found evidence that several PCBs and OCPs were often higher in umbilical cord samples than in maternal blood samples,” said lead author Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. The study also found that concentrations of mercury and certain PBDEs were often higher in umbilical cord samples than in maternal samples, and for most PFCs and lead, cord blood concentrations were generally equal to or lower than maternal concentrations, which is consistent with previous research.

The study was published Nov. 1 in the print edition of Environmental Science and Technology [$40 to access for 48 hours].

Risks for women of color

Almost 80 percent of the chemicals detected in maternal blood samples were also detected in the umbilical cord blood samples, indicating that they passed through the placenta and entered the fetal environment, where they can pose a health risk to the developing baby. For those chemicals detected in at least 20 paired maternal and umbilical cord samples, 77 percent had significant correlations between maternal and umbilical cord concentrations.

Continue reading

Brazilian prosecutor probes Trump profiteering


Yep, The Donald’s a shady character in Brazil as well, reports teleSUR English:

A Brazilian prosecutor investigating potentially corrupt investments made by state pension funds said the real estate company run by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears to have benefited “suspiciously” from a massive redevelopment of Rio de Janeiro’s port ahead of the Olympics.

The development, known as Porto Maravilha, or Marvelous Port in Portuguese, cost 8 billion reais (US$2.5 billion) and developed run-down docklands into a plaza, museums, corporate and residential real estate. As part of the project, five 38-story buildings were meant to be erected under the Trump brand.

Public prosecutor Alselmo Lopes said in a court filing made public on Thursday that he is investigating the Porto Maravilha deal in which the national employee severance fund FGTS, managed by state bank Caixa Economica Federal (CEF.UL), paid up front for building rights which it then resold.

The structuring of the Porto Maravilha deal “favored, in a suspicious way, the Trump Organization economic group”, among others, Lopes said. The prosecutor gave no further details and was not immediately reachable for comment.

Chart of the day: Wealth rises to the top, again


Just as the rich are getting richer while the rest of us stagnate, so too the richer economies are getting richer while the poorer economies can’t keep up.

From the Yomiuri Shimbun:

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Big Agra African land grabs raise risk of violence


Regions of Africa where the relative availability of fresh water, as calculated by the Blue Water Index [BWI] threatens violence as the competition got fresh water between smallholders and giant foreign-owned farms intensifies.

Regions of Africa where the relative availability of fresh water, as calculated by the Blue Water Index [BWI] threatens violence as the competition got fresh water between smallholders and giant foreign-owned farms intensifies.

We’ve long been concerned about the increasing share of African farmlands, once owned in common by the people who farm them, being sold to foreign agricultural giants by cash-strapped African governments.

One of our deepest concerns has been the power of those corporations, largely own by Chinese and European multinationals, to gain control over the continent’s water supplies, raising the risk of starvation and violence for the planet’s poorest continent.

And now comes a study confirming our suspicions and revealing just where the risks of conflict are greatest.

From Sweden’s Lund University:

For the first time, researchers point to areas in Africa where foreign agricultural companies’ choice of crops and management of fresh water are partly responsible for the increased water shortages and greater competition for water. This in turn increases the risk of outright conflicts between all those who need water – plants, animals and humans.

During the 21st century, foreign companies have leased large tracts of land in Africa – more so than in other parts of the world – in order to produce cheap food, cheap timber and cheap raw material for biofuels. An interdisciplinary study from Lund University in Sweden shows that about three per cent of the land leased in Africa by foreign companies has been registered as currently in production, for the purpose of growing crops. For various reasons, the companies have either pulled out or not started producing on other leased land.

The study also shows that the crops that foreign investors decide to grow often require more water than the traditionally grown crops. Furthermore, it shows that the same crop can have very different needs for water, depending on the climate where it is grown and which irrigation systems the companies use.

The researchers in Lund, together with a colleague in France, have developed a model that shows how much water is needed for different production systems, in different types of climates, in different parts of the continent. The model takes into account both the size of the land and the type of irrigation system.

This model has enabled researchers to distinguish between areas where rainwater accounts for the largest share of irrigation water, and areas where large foreign agricultural companies satisfy more than half of their water needs by using fresh water sources, such as groundwater, rivers and ponds. This has allowed the researchers to highlight the areas around the continent where increased competition for water escalates the risk of water-related conflicts between different sectors and ecosystems.

“These hotspots have not been identified in this way before. Previous studies have often focused on the size of the area and not on how much fresh water is used to grow the demanding crops that foreign companies are interested in”, says physical geographer Emma Li Johansson, who was in charge of the study.

The leases are often written for periods of 33 to 99 years. The contracts rarely include any rules or limits concerning the use of water.

“Our research can perhaps lead to foreign investors showing greater consideration for how much water is necessary, in relation to how much water is actually available. Hopefully, the results can serve as a basis for documents that regulate the water consumption of large-scale farming companies”, says Emma Li Johansson.

The results are published in an article in the scientific journal PNAS.

Download article: Johansson E L et al (2016) Green and blue water demand from large-scale land acquisitions in Africa. PNAS (open access).

Map of the day: Land cover in the United States


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From the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Land Cover Database, and here’s the key to all those colors:

blog-land-key

Game of Zones heats up, confrontation looms


From BBC News, one of the venues for the Game of Zones in Asian waters.

From BBC News, one of the venues for the Game of Zones in Asian waters.

The Game of Zones, our term for the escalating multinational confrontations in the China Seas, are reaching the boiling point, with military encounters between China, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines occurring on a daily basis as a nuclear-armed North Korea watches from the sidelines.

The looming crisis is the result of the Asian Pivot, a strategy created by Barack Obama and his then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Five tears ago, Michael T. Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, dissected the Obama/Clinton Asian policy for The Nation:

The South China Sea has had increased prominence in Washington’s strategic calculus in recent years as China has asserted its interests there and as its importance as an economic arena has grown. Not only does the sea sit atop major oil and natural gas deposits—some being developed by US companies, including ExxonMobil—it also serves as the main route for ships traveling to and from Europe, Africa and the Middle East to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The Chinese say the South China Sea is part of their national maritime territory and that the oil and gas belongs to them; but Washington is insisting it will fight to preserve “freedom of navigation” there, at whatever cost. Whereas Taiwan once topped the list of US security challenges in the western Pacific, Hillary Clinton said on November 10 that “ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” is now Washington’s principal challenge.

Focusing on the South China Sea achieves several White House goals. It shifts the emphasis in US security planning from ideological determinism, as embedded in the increasingly unpopular drive to impose American values on the Middle East and fight a never-ending war against Islamist jihadism, to economic realism, as expressed through protecting overseas energy assets and maritime commerce. By dominating sea lanes the United States poses an implied threat of economic warfare against China in any altercations by cutting off its access to foreign markets and raw materials. And, through its very location, the South China Sea links US strategic interests in the Pacific to its interests in the Indian Ocean and to those of the rising powers of South Asia. According to Secretary Burns, a key objective of the administration’s strategy is to unite India with Japan, Australia and other members of the emerging anti-Chinese bloc.

Chinese officials following these developments must see them as a calculated US effort to encircle China with hostile alliances. How, exactly, Beijing will respond to this onslaught remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that it will not be intimidated—resistance to foreign aggression lies at the bedrock of the national character and remains a key goal of the Chinese Communist Party, however attenuated by time. So blowback there will be.

Perhaps the White House believes that military competition will impede China’s economic growth and disguise US economic weaknesses. But this is folly: China has far greater economic clout than the United States. To enhance its position vis-à-vis China, America must first put its own house in order by reinvigorating its economy, reducing foreign debt, improving public education and eliminating unnecessary overseas military commitments.

Ultimately, what is most worrisome about the Obama administration’s strategic shift—which no doubt is dictated as much by domestic as foreign policy considerations, including the need to counter jingoistic appeals from GOP presidential candidates and to preserve high rates of military spending—is that it will trigger a similar realignment within Chinese policy circles, where military leaders are pushing for a more explicitly anti-American stance and a larger share of government funds. The most likely result, then, will be antagonistic moves on both sides, leading to greater suspicion, increased military spending, periodic naval incidents, a poisoned international atmosphere, economic disarray and, over time, a greater risk of war.

The Obama/Clinton push for a remilitarized Japan

The push for a Chinese confrontation has only grown stronger, and a key element is Japanese militarization, a full reversal of longstanding U.S. policy that began with the Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S.-imposed military governor of Japan after World War II.

MacArthur’s chief accomplishment was a new national constitution, embraced by the Japanese, in which the nation was barred from creating all but a token military, one designed only for self-defense — hence the name, the Japanese Self Defense Forces.

But no more, as Roll Call’s Rachel Oswald reported in May:

In recent years, Japan, eager to show its commitment to working with the U.S. military, has moved past the strictly pacifist security posture it adopted after World War II. A little over a year ago, the United States and Japan finalized new defense cooperation guidelines allowing deeper military collaboration.

In September, Japan’s parliament, the Diet, approved legislation that would, in the words of the Abe government, “reactivate Japan’s innate right to collective self-defense,” authorizing the country’s Self-Defense Forces to come to the defense of threatened allies, namely the United States.

Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for East Asia, said “2015 was a historic year for us and for the alliance,” and the United States wants “to ensure that momentum continues.”

Japanese officials are trying to demonstrate to Washington they are working overtime to modernize their regional defense posture.

“Japan is the most determined military partner of the United States,” said Yoji Koda, a retired vice admiral of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. But Koda and others worry there is little awareness of Japan’s role in world security efforts. “Washington always complains, ‘free rider.’ But if there were no Japan, U.S. world strategy doesn’t function.”

The crisis begins to boil

The confrontation between China and the Japanese/U.S. partnership is heating up, with the latest developments especially troubling.

From BBC News:

Japan’s foreign minister has warned that ties with China are “significantly deteriorating”, after Chinese vessels repeatedly entered disputed waters in the East China Sea.

Fumio Kishida said he had called China’s ambassador to protest against the “incursions”.

On Friday, about 230 Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels sailed near islands claimed by both countries.

Beijing has been increasingly assertive about waters it believes are Chinese.

The Japan-controlled, uninhabited islands – known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China – are the source of a long-running dispute.

The Japanese coast guard said on Monday that about 13 Chinese coast guard ships, some of them armed, had been seen near the islands, higher than the usual number.

“The situation surrounding the Japan-China relationship is significantly deteriorating,” Mr Kishida told Cheng Yonghua, Beijing’s envoy to Tokyo, according to a statement on the foreign ministry website.

“We cannot accept that [China] is taking actions that unilaterally raise tensions.”

Much more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Resisting the Greek capitulation to the banksters


Greek’s have seen austerity at its worst, inflicted by the joint powers of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

The austerians are acting in the interest of the banks of Germany and France, lending institutions that bankrolled arms deals that profited the military/industrial complexes of the lender nations.

While Greek official corruption was clearly involved in some of the deals, the bribe payments came from German companies eager for profits from the sale of weapon systems, warships, and other materiel necessary for the new Cold War.

A succession of Greek governments signed off on massive cuts in public salaries and pensions, restrictions on the national public health system, and the sell-off of ports, railroads, islands, and other public assets.

Finally, the Greek people said “Enough!,” and in and in January 2015, they voted in a new government headed by a previously marginal party, a coalition of the Left named Syriza [previously], swept to power on a platform calling for an end of the payments.

With party leader Alexis Tsipras becoming chancellor, Syriza seemed on track to mount the first real resistance to the ave of austerity programs imposed on nations of Ireland and Southern Europe in the wake of the crash caused by the institutional corruption of Wall Street and the City of London.

Seven months after taking power, Syriza called a referendum on the issue of whether or not Greece should accept the latest austerity mandates from the Troika. When the votes were tallied, 61 percent of the Greek electorate declared no to further austerity.

Two months later the leaders of the anti-austerity movement were gone, and Tsipras was ready to surrender once again.

In this interview with The Real News Network, one of those leaders talks about those critical events, and the launch of a new party to continue the resistance to the money lord of the North:

Odious Debt and the Betrayal of the Popular Will in Greece

From the transcript:

DIMITRI LASCARIS, TRNN: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting from Lesbos, Greece, for The Real News.

This week, The Real News is in Lesbos to cover the Crossing Borders Conference on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

This afternoon we’re joined by Zoe Konstantopoulou. Zoe Konstantopoulou is the former speaker of the Greek Parliament. She was elected to that position in February of last year with a record number of votes from her fellow MPs, including, surprisingly, the support of the right-wing New Democracy Party. But her tenure as speaker of the Greek Parliament was short-lived. Her position was vacated in October of last year after the SYRIZA government decided to implement an austerity program that was even more severe than [the one that] over 60 percent of the population of Greece had rejected in a referendum in July of last year.

>snip<

LASCARIS: Now, last year, after the referendum in which over 60 percent of the Greek population effectively voted to reject an austerity program that was even less severe than what was ultimately implemented, the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, called a snap election and there was a rebellion of the left wing of the SYRIZA party, and they formed another party called Popular Unity, which I understand you supported in the election that was held in September.

KONSTANTOPOULOU: I cooperated as an independent candidate with Popular Unity.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Quote of the day: The Imperial Olympic$


From Pacific University political scientist and scholar of the politics of sports Jules Boykoff, writing for Jacobin [emphasis added]:

Since at least the 1980s, the Olympics have been big business. Corporate sponsors flock to the games to bask in the five-ring glow.

NBC forked over $4.4 billion to broadcast the Olympics from 2014 through 2020, and recently paid another $7.65 billion to extend their contract through 2032. Already the network has raked in a record-setting $1 billion in ad revenues for this summer’s games.

But well-connected local developers make out like bandits too. The Olympics are all about real estate — not the jobs, tourists, or tantalizing “legacies” that Olympic boosters use to sell the games. The public pays for expensive development schemes that fill private entities’ bank accounts. As urban geographer Christopher Gaffney puts it, “The flaccid Olympic mantras, superstar pedestal climbers, stadiums, and legacy promises are mere distractions from the realpolitik of urban development.”

The Olympics create a state of exception — a sort of “jock doctrine” — where elites can commandeer the city with uncommon speed and ease. As Rio mayor Eduardo Paes put it back in 2012 — supposedly as a joke — “The Olympics pretext is awesome; I need to use it as an excuse for everything.” He added, “Some things could be really related to the games, others have nothing to do with them.”

Take Rio’s Olympic golf course, a brazen transfer of public resources into private pockets. Mayor Paes helped site the project in the wealthy western suburb Barra da Tijuca where billionaire developer Pasquale Mauro could make a killing. During the Christmas holiday in 2012, Paes called an emergency session to pass a law allowing Mauro to build the course inside Marapendi Nature Reserve — home to a number of threatened species — and to ring it with 140 luxury condominiums. As long as Mauro footed the $20–30 million bill for the golf course, he could sell each condo at $2 million or more.

You don’t need a calculator to figure the monster profits. And thanks to Paes, pesky environmental impact reports and public hearings didn’t slow down the project. It was full steam ahead for the mayor and his cronies.

Austerity on the march in Portugal and Brazil


The austerians, the folks who impose a “new fiscal order” on nation-states in order to assure the ongoing profits of banksters and corporateers, are exercising their reign across the globe, forcing governments to public abandon healthcare systems, public spaces, public sector pensions, and other institutions that had characterized the post-World War II political and social landscapes.

The rhetoric the austerians use is inevitably pretentious and portentous, declaring, in effect, that the plight of the poor in developed in late-stage developing nations is essentially their own fault, and that programs designed to lift them from poverty are really sloth-inducing handouts.

The bottom line, of course, is the bottom line. Not the bottom line of the social contract, but the bottom line on corporate and banksters spreadsheets.

Austerianism, in short, makes the world save for corporatocracy.

Two classic examples can be found in events unfolding in two nations an ocean apart, yet united by a common language.

Austerity on the march in Portugal

Portugal, one of the PIIGS nations [along with Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain] of post-Bush crash Europe, has never recovered from the crash, and state financing has been critical to keeping the country viable.

But enough is enough, the austerians have decreed.

From United Press International:

European Union finance ministers supported sanctioning Spain and Portugal for breaking targeted budget deficits Tuesday.

The EU’s economic and financial affairs council decided Spain and Portugal should be sanctioned for breaking rules that countries’ budget deficits must remain within 3 percent of gross domestic product.
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“The Council found that Portugal and Spain had not taken effective action in response to its recommendations on measures to correct their excessive deficits” the European Council said in a statement on its website on Tuesday. The Council’s decisions will trigger sanctions under the excessive deficit procedure.”

According to the EU, Portugal and Spain have 10 days to appeal the decision. And the commission has 20 days to recommend fines that could amount to 0.2 percent of GDP.

But top EU officials have indicated the sanctions are likely to be symbolically set at zero, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In other words, Portugal has just been served notice.

Austerians and the Brazilian coup

The government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, while less than perfect, had been struggling to keep the social contract alive, but that didn’t suit the Brazilian plutocracy, the spiritual descendants of the colonial land and cattle barons who exploited the native population and were the largest buyers of African slaves, outstripping the American South by far.

They used their bought-and-paid-for legislators to oust Rousseff through a vote of impeachment for crimes that, events have subsequently made clear, could be more rightly charged to them than to Rousseff.

And now, challenged with potential criminal charges for their own looting, they are busily engaged in the sell-off of the Brazilian commons, opening up endangered landscapes for industrial agriculture, displacing native populations, and generally grabbing up as much as they can whilst the sun still shines.

The latest grab, via teleSUR English:

Brazil’s unelected interim President Michel Temer said his government is considering the privatization of two of the country’s busiest airports in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

“It is possible that we will privatize Congonhas and Santos Dumont, which should give a good sum” of money, Temer said in an interview with the Folha de S.Paulo website, referring to Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo and Santos Dumont in Rio de Janeiro.

The interim government, imposed by the Brazilian Senate, is considering two options for privatizing the airports: one would keeping the government airport authority Infraero as a minority partner while giving most control to private companies, while the other would keep Infraero as the biggest stockholder with 51 percent of shares while private companies would manage the airports.

In both cases such moves would lead to thousands of people losing their jobs, as private contractors would seek to bring in new staff with new contracts and less oversight by the state.

Temer said the sale of state assets and major privatization plans is meant to generate sufficient revenues to meet the fiscal target for 2017, which foresees  a deficit of around US$42 Billion.

So who are the Brazilian lootocrats?

Glenn Greenwald has conducted a fascinating interview with U.S.-born Portuguese-speaking journalist Alex Cuadros, who covered the Brazilian plutocracy for Bloomberg.

Author of the just-published Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country, a book on Brazil’s financial elite, he describe the relevance of the Brazilian experience for folks in the U.S.

From the Intercept:

[T]he relationship between Brazil and its billionaires is relevant to an American reader. There was something about studying this relationship in a country that’s not my own, where I don’t have nearly as much baggage, that made it easier to see how it works. But really it’s a relationship that exists in most countries today. In the end I think that the Brazilian billionaire tradition is simply an extreme version of a natural relationship between wealth and political power.

There are some differences. In Brazil, partly because the state has always had a large presence in the economy, a lot of wealthy families owe their fortunes to personal connections to the government or even outright corruption. This clashes with the American ideal of the self-made man who gets rich thanks only to his own talent and hard work.

But of course, if you look at the richest people and companies in the U.S., they tend to defend their fortunes by putting their money to work in the political system, swaying the rules in their favor through lobbying, campaign donations, and other, less transparent contributions. Obviously there’s a difference between outright graft and legal forms of influence, but the desire and the effect are often similar: to allow the very rich to claim a larger piece of the economic pie without necessarily making the pie larger.