Rachel's Democracy & Health News #887
Thursday, December 28, 2006

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #887 .........[This story printer-friendly]
December 28, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Here we continue our review of the important, thought-provoking book, Capitalism 3.0, by Peter Barnes. Part one of this review can be found here.]

By Peter Montague

Peter Barnes describes our current economic system as capitalism 2.0 or "surplus capitalism," because its main problem is finding buyers for the gushing fire hydrant of goods that the system so easily produces.

Barnes says surplus capitalism has three evident faults -- it is devouring creation, it is producing ever-widening disparities between rich and poor, and it largely ignores the needs of future generations. Barnes proposes to solve these three problems not by abandoning capitalism but by giving it a software upgrade -- turning it into capitalism 3.0.

Peter Barnes believes that the corporate sector of the U.S. economy and culture has grown so large and powerful that it cannot be regulated or made "socially responsible" to any significant degree. In this regard the book is deeply pessimistic about the future of democracy and of the viability of the natural world.

During the 19th century, the corporation evolved into an institution legally required to fulfill a single purpose -- to provide a steady return on investment capital garnered from strangers. This they do exceedingly well. As a result, since 1830 corporations have grown exponentially and without limit. Now fully 2/3rds of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) is created by the largest 500 corporations. (pg. 22) As part of their natural behavior, corporations privatize our common wealth, extracting whatever they need from nature, community and culture -- and they externalize their costs by dumping wastes into the environment, minimizing their tax contributions, and reducing pay and eliminating health-care and pension benefits for workers to the extent allowed by law. (In Barnes's view, the corporate globalization project is largely driven by a relentless search for cheap labor. For a brief period in our history, labor unions provided a countervailing power to the corporations, but Peter Barnes believes that that time is gone, presumably forever.)

Using the basic strategy of privatization and externalization, corporations have consolidated wealth for a fortunate few -- the 5% of Americans who now own more wealth than the other 95% combined. (pg. 27) (Barnes does not say so, but, importantly, the structure of the modern transnational corporation is the antithesis of democratic decision-making. As a secondary, unanticipated result of the corporate ascendancy, all the institutions of our culture have fallen under the influence of the corporate elite -- including legislatures, the judiciary, and the executive branch, but also the mass media, our schools and colleges, churches, elections, workplace policies and conditions, foreign trade, foreign policy, the military. Almost without exception, all the institutions of our culture are now disciplined by a hierarchical corporate perspective, and by the narrow corporate quest for ever-growing wealth.)

Because the corporate sector cannot be reined in to any significant degree, Peter Barnes believes, we must create an entirely new sector within the economy to act as a counterbalance to corporate influence. This he calls the "commons sector" and it would be created by "propertizing" the commons but NOT privatizing the commons. The commons would be "propertized" by giving everyone shares in it -- shares they receive at birth and own, but which they cannot sell, trade or pass on to their heirs.

By "the commons" Barnes means,

1. Nature, which includes air, water, DNA, photosynthesis, seeds, topsoil, airwaves, minerals, animals, plants, antibiotics, oceans, fisheries, aquifers, quiet, wetlands, forests, rivers, lakes, solar energy, wind energy... and so on;

2. Community: streets, playgrounds, the calendar, holidays, universities, libraries, museums, social insurance [e.g., social security], law, money, accounting standards, capital markets, political institutions, farmers' markets, flea markets, craigslist... etc.;

3. Culture: language, philosophy, religion, physics, chemistry, musical instruments, classical music, jazz, ballet, hip-hop, astronomy, electronics, the Internet, broadcast spectrum, medicine, biology, mathematics, open-source software... and so forth. (pg. 5)

In Barnes's software fix for capitalism, the mechanism for managing common property would be the trust -- an ancient legal mechanism that is widely used in the modern world. Barnes proposes creating "common property trusts" to manage the newly-created common property rights. A trust is a legal arrangement whereby one party (a trustee) manages an asset (the "trust property") for the benefit of a third party (the trust beneficiaries). The trustee's sole duty is to manage the trust property for the benefit of the beneficiaries.

Corporations using the commons would pay for the privilege, some of the proceeds being paid to living beneficiaries as income. But importantly, the trustees of the commons would operate under a strict legal code requiring them to manage the trust for its long-term productivity and survival. Trustees would be elected (or appointed) for long terms, similar to the way many judges serve today. The position of trustee would be an important one; trustees would be respected, perhaps even venerated.

This commons sector would be managed according a set of principles, which would vary somewhat depending on whether the asset was limited (nature) or inexhaustible (ideas and cultural creations).

Here is the short version of the management principles:

1. Leave "enough and as good" in common -- a phrase first used by John Locke, who argued that it's OK to privatize some parts of the commons so long as "enough and as good" is retained in common ownership. "Enough" of an ecosystem would mean enough to allow it to regenerate itself and remain healthy.

2. Put future generations first. Trustees of common property would be accountable to future generations (and could be sued by the present generation if they were obviously failing in this duty).(pg. 75)

3. The more the merrier. Private property is inherently exclusive; common property is inherently inclusive. For example, social security and Medicare are efficient and fair because they include almost everyone.

4. One person, one share. "In the case of scarce natural assets, it will be necessary to distinguish between usage rights and income rights. It's impossible for everyone to use a limited commons equally, but everyone should receive equal shares of the income derived from selling limited usage rights."

5. Include some liquidity. Whenever possible, common property owners should receive some income from their share of ownership. People would notice -- and care about -- common property if they received income from it. But common property rights could not be traded or sold or passed to offspring. They are a birthright that stays with an individual for life.

In addition to creating "common property rights" and trusts to manage them, Peter Barnes suggests that we extend the list of birthrights we all receive free at birth. The Constitution presently guarantees each of us several birthrights -- free speech, due process, habeas corpus (though Congress recently revoked this 700-year-old birthright for some of us), speedy public trials, and secure homes and property. Barnes wants to add three additional birthrights to this list:

(a) An annual dividend (cash) paid by each common property trust to every shareholder. Businesses using common property would pay the relevant trust for the privilege of doing so, and the resulting cash would be distributed to everyone who holds a share. To cite but one example: firms trading shares on a stock exchange would pay for the privilege of doing so because a stock exchange only works because the community has created conditions allowing it to work -- the community creates some of the value and so a common property trust should receive some of the benefits.

(b) A start-up stake -- a lump sum of cash received at birth, which would stay invested until age 18 at which time the individual could use it for any purpose. (Example: In England every child born after 2002 now gets a trust fund seeded with $440 -- $880 if the child is in the poorest 40% of families.) (pg. 109)

(c) Health risk sharing. In the U.S., social insurance principles have been applied to the risks of old-age poverty, temporary unemployment, and disability. The U.S. remains the only capitalist democracy that has not yet applied these principles to the risk of ill health. Barnes favors the Canadian system which is "incredibly simple," much cheaper than the U.S. system, and provides health care and peace of mind to all Canadians. (pgs. 113-114)

In his semi-final chapter, Barnes describes a set of institutions that already exist somewhere, but which could be used much more widely. The goal, he says, is to produce the most happiness with the least destruction of nature. So here's an incomplete list

** Land trusts. Beside the agricultural land trust in Marin County, California (described last week), Barnes points to the Dudley Street neighborhood in Boston where a land trust owns 600 new and rehabbed homes -- all with a cap on resale prices -- plus gardens, parks and playgrounds.

** Surface water trusts -- The Oregon Water Trust acquires surface water rights to protect salmon and other fish. Similar trusts have appeared in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Nevada.

** Groundwater Trusts. In San Antonio, Tex., the Edwards Aquifer Authority limits groundwater withdrawals by issuing permits.

** Community Gardens -- The American Community Gardening Association lists 70 major cities with community gardens.

** Farmers' markets -- There are now nearly 4000 farmers' markets operating in 50 states.

** An American Permanent Fund -- this one does not yet exist. Barnes says it would be "the centerpiece of the new commons sector proposed in this volume. It's a way to fix, or at least ameliorate, capitalism's flaw of concentrating private property among the top 5% of the population." The American Permanent Fund's income would initially come from selling pollution permits (chiefly carbon dioxide). As Barnes envisions it, the sale of pollution rights would create income at first, some of which would be invested in buying stock in corporations. As the trust ratcheted down allowable pollution, return on corporate shares would replace lost income from pollution rights. Every individual in the nation would get an annual payout from the trust, establishing the important principle of one person, one share.

** A spectrum fund -- by which the airwaves (the electro-magnetic spectrum that carries radio and TV signals) would be set up as a trust, with everyone as beneficiary. No more free ride for the big media corporations. It is well-established that the public owns the airwaves -- why should the public not benefit by charging annual rent for their use?

Suffice it to say that this is a book rich with interesting new ideas -- or old ideas offered in a new context and a new light.

As Bill McKibben says, "It's an indispensable book on a critical topic. You may not agree with everything Peter Barnes proposes, but we all can benefit by engaging in the debate that this book so skillfully draws us into."

So in closing I want to contribute to the debate this book will provoke. Here are two questions the book raises for me:

a) Given the influence of modern corporations over all our institutions -- and given the single purpose that makes them so "efficient" and, at the same time, so destructive of nature and of democracy -- how can we hope to insulate trustees of the commons from corporate influence?

b) Given that the human footprint on the Earth is relentlessly expanding, in effect crowding out the other creatures whose existence is essential for the proper functioning of the biosphere (upon which we ourselves depend), how can a system that requires perpetual corporate growth be sustainable? The American Permanent Fund is based on annual growth of corporate profits -- but such growth is demonstrably destroying the biosphere, so we obviously require a steady-state economy, not an endlessly-growing economy. Indeed, on a finite planet, an endlessly-growing economy is a physical impossibility. What will a steady-state economy look like and how can the corporate form as we know it accommodate to this new requirement of our survival?

Perhaps the most important point to make in closing is that some of the ideas in this book might well be applied to a steady-state economic system that was, by its nature, fundamentally different from capitalism 2.0 (which requires perpetual growth on a finite planet). In this sense, Peter Barnes's ideas might well outlast capitalism 2.0 and even 3.0 -- and might even outlast the corporate form itself -- as the requirements of the biosphere begin to discipline our thinking and entirely new steady-state economic forms emerge. In sum, this is a book to take with you on the long haul ahead.


From: Synthesis/Regeneration Winter 2006 ..................[This story printer-friendly]
December 15, 2006


"Green Energy" Panacea or Just the Latest Hype?

[Rachel's introduction: The biofuels industry -- typically making ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy -- is big business and getting bigger fast. New research shows that biofuels are far from environmentally friendly.]

By Brian Tokar*

You can hardly open up a major newspaper or national magazine these days without encountering the latest hype about biofuels, and how they're going to save oil, reduce pollution and prevent climate change. Bill Gates, Sun Microsystems' Vinod Khosla, and other major venture capitalists are investing millions in new biofuel production, whether in the form of ethanol, mainly derived from corn in the U.S. today; or biodiesel, mainly from soybeans and canola seed. It's virtually a "modern day gold rush," as described by the New York Times, paraphrasing the chief executive of Cargill, one of the main benefactors of increased subsidies to agribusiness and tax credits to refiners for the purpose of encouraging biofuel production.

The Times reported June 25, 2006 that some 40 new ethanol plants are currently under construction in the US, aiming toward a 30% increase in domestic production. Archer Daniels Midland, the company that first sold the idea of corn-derived ethanol as an auto fuel to Congress in the late 1970s, has doubled its stock price and profits over the last two years. ADM currently controls a quarter of U.S. ethanol fuel production, and recently hired a former Chevron executive as its CEO.

Several well-respected analysts have raised serious concerns about this rapid diversion of food crops toward the production of fuel for automobiles. WorldWatch Institute founder Lester Brown, long concerned about the sustainability of world food supplies, says that fuel producers are already competing with food processors in the world's grain markets. "Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in grain production this year," reports Brown -- a serious concern in a world where the grain required to make enough ethanol to fill an SUV tank is enough to feed a person for a whole year. Others have dismissed the ethanol gold rush as nothing more than the subsidized burning of food to run automobiles.

The biofuel rush is having a significant impact worldwide as well. Brazil, often touted as the most impressive biofuel success story, is using half its annual sugarcane crop to provide 40% of its auto fuel, while accelerating deforestation to grow more sugarcane and soybeans. Malaysian and Indonesian rainforests are being bulldozed for oil palm plantations -- threatening endangered orangutans, rhinos, tigers and countless other species -- in order to serve at the booming European market for biodiesel.

Are these reasonable tradeoffs for a troubled planet, or merely another corporate push for profits? Two recent studies aim to document the full consequences of the new biofuel economy and realistically assess its impact on fuel use, greenhouse gases and agricultural lands. One study, originating from the University of Minnesota, is moderately hopeful in the first two areas, but offers a strong caution about land use. The other, from Cornell University and UC Berkeley, concludes that every domestic biofuel source -- those currently in use as well as those under development -- produce less energy than is consumed in growing and processing the crops.

The Minnesota researchers attempted a full lifecycle analysis of the production of ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy. They documented the energy costs of fuel production, pesticide use, transportation, and other key factors, and also accounted for the energy equivalent of soy and corn byproducts that remain for other uses after the fuel is extracted. Their paper, published in the July 25, 2006 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that ethanol production offers a modest net energy gain of 25% over oil, resulting in 12% less greenhouse gases than an equivalent amount of gasoline. The numbers for biodiesel are more promising, with a 93% net energy gain and a 41% reduction in greenhouse gases.

The researchers cautioned, however, that these figures do not account for the significant environmental damage from increased acreages of these crops, including the impacts of pesticides, nitrate runoff into water supplies, nor the increased demand on water, as "energy crops" like corn and soy begin to displace more drought-tolerant crops such as wheat in several Midwestern states.

The most serious impact is on land use. The Minnesota paper reports that in 2005, 14% of the U.S. corn harvest was used to produce some 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol, equivalent to 1.7% of current gasoline usage. About 1 1/2 percent of the soy harvest produced 68 million gallons of biodiesel, equivalent to less than one tenth of one percent of gas usage. This means that if all of the country's corn harvest was used to make ethanol, it would displace 12% of our gas; all of our soybeans would displace about 6% of diesel use. But if the energy used in producing these biofuels is taken into account, the picture becomes worse still. It requires roughly eight units of gas to produce 10 units of ethanol, and five units of gas to produce 10 units of biodiesel; hence the net is only two units of ethanol or five units of biodiesel. Therefore the entire soy and corn crops combined would really only less than 3% of current gasoline and diesel use. This is where the serious strain on food supplies and prices originates.

The Cornell study is even more skeptical. Released in July 2005, it was the product of an ongoing collaboration between Cornell agriculturalist David Pimentel, environmental engineer Ted Patzek, and their colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, and was published in the journal Natural Resources Research. This study found that, on balance, making ethanol from corn requires 29% more fossil fuel than the net energy produced and biodisel from soy results in a net energy loss of 27%. Other crops, touted as solutions to the apparent diseconomy of current methods, offer even worse results.

Switchgrass, for example, can grow on marginal land and presumably won't compete with food production (you may recall George Bush's mumbling about switchgrass in his 2006 State of the Union speech), but it requires 45% more energy to harvest and process than the energy value of the fuel that is produced. Wood biomass requires 57% more energy than it produces, and sunflowers require more than twice as much energy than is available in the fuel that is produced. "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," said David Pimentel in a Cornell press statement this past July. "These strategies are not sustainable."

The Cornell/Berkeley study has drawn the attention of numerous critics, some of whom suggest that Ted Patzek's background in petroleum engineering disqualifies him from objectively assessing the energy balance of biofuels. Needless to say, in a field where both oil and agribusiness companies are vying for public subsidies, the technical arguments can become rather furious. An earlier analysis by the Chicago-area Argonne National Laboratory (once a Manhattan Project offshoot) produced data much closer to the Minnesota results, but a response by Patzek pointed out several potential flaws in that study's shared assumptions with an earlier analysis by the USDA. In another recent article, Harvard environmental scientist Michael McElroy concurred with Pimentel and Patzek: "[U]nfortunately the promised benefits [of ethanol] prove upon analysis to be largely ephemeral."

Even Brazilian sugarcane, touted as the world's model for conversion from fossil fuels to sustainable "green energy," has its downside. The energy yield appears beyond question: it is claimed that ethanol from sugarcane may produce as much as eight times as much energy as it takes to grow and process. But a recent World Wildlife Fund report for the International Energy Agency raises serious questions about this approach to future energy independence. It turns out that 80% of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions come not from cars, but from deforestation -- the loss of embedded carbon dioxide when forests are cut down and burned. A hectare of land may save 13 tons of carbon dioxide if it is used to grow sugarcane, but the same hectare can absorb 20 tons of CO2 if it remains forested. If sugarcane and soy plantations continue to spur deforestation, both in the Amazon and in Brazil's Atlantic coastal forests, any climate advantage is more than outweighed by the loss of the forest.

Genetic engineering, which has utterly failed to produce healthier or more sustainable food (and also failed to create a reliable source of biopharmaceuticals without threatening the safety of our food supply) is now being touted as the answer to sustainable biofuel production. Biofuels were all the buzz at the biotech industry's most recent mega- convention in April 2006, and biotech companies are all competing to cash in on the biofuel bonanza. Syngenta (the world's largest herbicide manufacturer and number three, after Monsanto and DuPont, in seeds) is developing a GE corn variety that contains one of the enzymes needed to convert corn starch into sugar before it can be fermented into ethanol. Companies are vying to increase total starch content, reduce lignin (necessary for the structural integrity of plants but a nuisance for chemical processors), and increase crop yields. Others are proposing huge plantations of fast-growing genetically engineered low-lignin trees to temporarily sequester carbon and ultimately be harvested for ethanol.

However, the utility of incorporating the amylase enzyme into crops is questionable (it's also a potential allergen), gains in starch production are marginal, and the use of genetic engineering to increase crop yields has never proved reliable. Other more complex traits, such as drought and salt tolerance (to grow energy crops on land unsuited to food production), have been aggressively pursued by geneticists for more than twenty years with scarcely a glimmer of success. Genetically engineered trees, with their long life-cycle, as well as seeds and pollen capable of spreading hundreds of miles in the wild, are potentially a far greater environmental threat than engineered varieties of annual crops. Even Monsanto, always the most aggressive promoter of genetic engineering, has opted to rely on conventional plant breeding for its biofuel research, according to the New York Times (Sept. 8, 2006). Like "feeding the world" and biopharmaceutical production before it, genetic engineering for biofuels mainly benefits the biotech industry's public relations image.

Biofuels may still prove advantageous in some local applications, such as farmers using crop wastes to fuel their farms, and running cars from waste oil that is otherwise thrown away by restaurants. But as a solution to long-term energy needs on a national or international scale, the costs appear to far outweigh the benefits. The solution lies in technologies and lifestyle changes that can significantly reduce energy use and consumption, something energy analysts like Amory Lovins have been advocating for some thirty years. From the 1970s through the '90s, the U.S. economy significantly decreased its energy intensity, steadily lowering the amount of energy required to produce a typical dollar of GDP. Other industrial countries have gone far beyond the U.S. in this respect. But no one has figured out how to make a fortune on conservation and efficiency. The latest biofuel hype once again affirms that the needs of the planet, and of a genuinely sustainable society, are in fundamental conflict with the demands of wealth and profit.

* Brian Tokar directs the Biotechnology Project at Vermont's Institute for Social Ecology (social-ecology.org), and has edited two books on the science and politics of genetic engineering, Redesigning Life? (Zed Books, 2001) and Gene Traders (To-ward Freedom, 2004).


From: The Independent UK ................................[This story printer-friendly]
December 21, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Global warming is scrambling nature, with effects felt far and wide.]

By Genevieve Roberts

Bears have stopped hibernating in the mountains of northern Spain, scientists revealed yesterday, in what may be one of the strongest signals yet of how much climate change is affecting the natural world.

In a December in which bumblebees, butterflies and even swallows have been on the wing in Britain, European brown bears have been lumbering through the forests of Spain's Cantabrian mountains, when normally they would already be in their long, annual sleep.

Bears are supposed to slumber throughout the winter, slowing their body rhythms to a minimum and drawing on stored resources, because frozen weather makes food too scarce to find. The barely breathing creatures can lose up to 40 per cent of their body weight before warmer springtime weather rouses them back to life.

But many of the 130 bears in Spain's northern cordillera -- which have a slightly different genetic identity from bear populations elsewhere in the world -- have remained active throughout recent winters, naturalists from Spain's Brown Bear Foundation (La Fundacion Oso Pardo - FOP) said yesterday.

The change is affecting female bears with young cubs, which now find there are enough nuts, acorns, chestnuts and berries on the bleak mountainsides to make winter food-gathering sorties "energetically worthwhile", scientists at the foundation, based in Santander, the Cantabrian capital, told El Pais newspaper.

"If the winter is mild, the female bears find it is energetically worthwhile to make the effort to stay awake and hunt for food," said Guillermo Palomero, the FOP's president and the coordinator of a national plan for bear conservation. This changed behaviour, he said, was probably a result of milder winters. "The high Cantabrian peaks freeze all winter, but our teams of observers have been able to follow the perfect outlines of tracks from a group of bears," he said.

The FOP is financed by Spain's Environment Ministry and the autonomous regions of Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia and Castilla-Leon, where the bears roam in search of mates. Indications of winter bear activity have been detected for some time, but only in the past three years have such signs been observed "with absolute certainty", according to the scientists.

"Mother bears with cubs make the effort to seek out nuts and berries if these have been plentiful, and snow is scarce," Mr Palomero said, adding that even for those bears -- mostly mature males -- who do close down for the winter, "their hibernation period gets shorter every year".

The behaviour change suggests that global warming is responsible for this revolution in ursine behaviour, says Juan Carlos Garcia Cordon, a professor of geography at Santander's Cantabria University, and a climatology specialist.

"Meteorological data in the high mountains is scarce, but it seems that the warming is more noticeable in the valleys where cold air accumulates," Dr Garcia Cordon said. "There is a decline in snowfall, and in the time snow remains on the ground, which makes access to food easier. As autumn comes later, and spring comes earlier, bears have an extra month to forage for food.

"We cannot prove that non-hibernation is caused by global warming, but everything points in that direction."

Spanish meteorologists predict that this year is likely to be the warmest year on record in Spain, just as it is likely to be the warmest year recorded in Britain (where temperature records go back to 1659). Globally, 2006 is likely to be the sixth warmest year in a record going back the mid-19th century.

Mark Wright, the science adviser to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the UK, said that bears giving up hibernation was "what we would expect" with climate change.

"It does not in itself prove global warming, but it is certainly consistent with predictions of it," he said. "What is particularly interesting about this is that hitherto the warming has seemed to be happening fastest at the poles and at high latitudes, and now we're getting examples of it happening further south, and heading towards the equator.

"I think it's an indication of what's to come. It shows climate change is not a natural phenomenon but something that is affecting not only on the weather, but impacting on the natural world in ways we're only now beginning to understand."

The European brown bear, with its characteristic pelt that ranges from dark brown through shades of grey to pale gold, has black paws and a tawny face. It has poor vision, although it sees in colour and at night, and if threatened rears on its hind legs to get a better view. It can live for up to 30 years. It has acute hearing, and an especially fine sense of smell that enables it to detect food from a long distance. It is carnivorous, but has a multifunctional dental system with powerful canines and grinding molars perfectly adapted to an omnivorous diet.

The animals would normally begin hibernation between October and December, and resume activity between March and May.

The Cantabrian version of the brown bear, a protected species, was once as endangered as the Iberian lynx or the imperial eagle still are in Spain, but is now recovering in numbers. Between 70 and 90 bears roamed Spain's northern mountains in the early 1990s; now 130 live there.

Other Seasonal Freaks

The osprey found in the lochs and glens of the Scottish Highlands in the summer months, usually migrate to west Africa to avoid the freeze. This winter, osprey have been spotted in Suffolk and Devon. Swallows, which also normally migrate to Africa for the winter have been also seen across England this winter.

The red admiral butterfly, below, which hibernates in winter, has been spotted in gardens this month, as has the common darter dragonfly, usually seen between mid-June and October, which has been seen in Cheshire, Norfolk and Hampshire.

The smew, a diving duck, flies west to the UK for winter from Russia and Scandinavia. This year, though, they have been mainly absent from the lakes and reservoirs between The Wash and the Severn.

Evergreen ivy and ox-eye daisies are still blooming and some oak trees, which are usually bare by November, were still in leaf on Christmas Day last year.

The buff-tailed bumblebee is usually first seen in spring. Worker bees die out by the first frost, while fertilised queen bees survive underground between March and September. This December, bees have been seen in Nottingham and York.

Primroses and daffodils are already flowering at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, in Carmarthenshire. 'Early Sensation' daffodils usually flower from January until February. Horticulturalists put it down to the warm weather.

Scientists in the Netherlands reported more than 240 wild plants flowering in the first 15 days of December, along with more than 200 cultivated species. Examples included cow parsley and sweet violets. Just two per cent of these plants normally flower in winter, while 27 per cent end their main flowering period in autumn and 56 per cent before October.


From: Toronto Star (Ontario, Canada) (pg. D1) ...........[This story printer-friendly]
December 10, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: One day we will all happily be implanted with microchips, and our every move will be monitored. The technology exists; the only barrier is society's resistance to the loss of privacy. An expert on surveillance and society lays out how corporations and governments will team up to break down that fragile barrier.]

By Kevin Haggerty

By the time my four-year-old son is swathed in the soft flesh of old age, he will likely find it unremarkable that he and almost everyone he knows will be permanently implanted with a microchip. Automatically tracking his location in real time, it will connect him with databases monitoring and recording his smallest behavioural traits.

Most people anticipate such a prospect with a sense of horrified disbelief, dismissing it as a science-fiction fantasy. The technology, however, already exists. For years humane societies have implanted all the pets that leave their premises with a small identifying microchip. As well, millions of consumer goods are now traced with tiny radio frequency identification chips that allow satellites to reveal their exact location.

A select group of people are already "chipped" with devices that automatically open doors, turn on lights, and perform other low-level miracles. Prominent among such individuals is researcher Kevin Warwick of Reading University in England; Warwick is a leading proponent of the almost limitless potential uses for such chips.

Other users include the patrons of the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, many of whom have paid about $150 (U.S.) for the privilege of being implanted with an identifying chip that allows them to bypass lengthy club queues and purchase drinks by being scanned. These individuals are the advance guard of an effort to expand the technology as widely as possible.

From this point forward, microchips will become progressively smaller, less invasive, and easier to deploy. Thus, any realistic barrier to the wholesale "chipping" of Western citizens is not technological but cultural. It relies upon the visceral reaction against the prospect of being personally marked as one component in a massive human inventory.

Today we might strongly hold such beliefs, but sensibilities can, and probably will, change. How this remarkable attitudinal transformation is likely to occur is clear to anyone who has paid attention to privacy issues over the past quarter-century. There will be no 3 a.m. knock on the door by storm troopers come to force implants into our bodies. The process will be more subtle and cumulative, couched in the unassailable language of progress and social betterment, and mimicking many of the processes that have contributed to the expansion of closed-circuit television cameras and the corporate market in personal data.

A series of tried and tested strategies will be marshalled to familiarize citizens with the technology. These will be coupled with efforts to pressure tainted social groups and entice the remainder of the population into being chipped.

This, then, is how the next generation will come to be microchipped.

It starts in distant countries. Having tested the technology on guinea pigs, both human and animal, the first widespread use of human implanting will occur in nations at the periphery of the Western world. Such developments are important in their own right, but their international significance pertains to how they familiarize a global audience with the technology and habituate them to the idea that chipping represents a potential future.

An increasing array of hypothetical chipping scenarios will also be depicted in entertainment media, furthering the familiarization process.

In the West, chips will first be implanted in members of stigmatized groups. Pedophiles are the leading candidate for this distinction, although it could start with terrorists, drug dealers, or whatever happens to be that year's most vilified criminals. Short-lived promises will be made that the technology will only be used on the "worst of the worst." In fact, the wholesale chipping of incarcerated individuals will quickly ensue, encompassing people on probation and on parole.

Even accused individuals will be tagged, a measure justified on the grounds that it would stop them from fleeing justice. Many prisoners will welcome this development, since only chipped inmates will be eligible for parole, weekend release, or community sentences. From the prison system will emerge an evocative vocabulary distinguishing chippers from non-chippers.

Although the chips will be justified as a way to reduce fraud and other crimes, criminals will almost immediately develop techniques to simulate other people's chip codes and manipulate their data.

The comparatively small size of the incarcerated population, however, means that prisons would be simply a brief stopover on a longer voyage. Commercial success is contingent on making serious inroads into tagging the larger population of law-abiding citizens. Other stigmatized groups will therefore be targeted. This will undoubtedly entail monitoring welfare recipients, a move justified to reduce fraud, enhance efficiency, and ensure that the poor do not receive "undeserved" benefits.

Once e-commerce is sufficiently advanced, welfare recipients will receive their benefits as electronic vouchers stored on their microchips, a policy that will be tinged with a sense of righteousness, as it will help ensure that clients can only purchase government-approved goods from select merchants, reducing the always disconcerting prospect that poor people might use their limited funds to purchase alcohol or tobacco.

Civil libertarians will try to foster a debate on these developments. Their attempts to prohibit chipping will be handicapped by the inherent difficulty in animating public sympathy for criminals and welfare recipients -- groups that many citizens are only too happy to see subjected to tighter regulation. Indeed, the lesser public concern for such groups is an inherent part of the unarticulated rationale for why coerced chipping will be disproportionately directed at the stigmatized.

The official privacy arm of the government will now take up the issue. Mandated to determine the legality of such initiatives, privacy commissioners and Senate Committees will produce a forest of reports presented at an archipelago of international conferences. Hampered by lengthy research and publication timelines, their findings will be delivered long after the widespread adoption of chipping is effectively a fait accompli. The research conclusions on the effectiveness of such technologies will be mixed and open to interpretation.

Officials will vociferously reassure the chipping industry that they do not oppose chipping itself, which has fast become a growing commercial sector. Instead, they are simply seeking to ensure that the technology is used fairly and that data on the chips is not misused. New policies will be drafted.

Employers will start to expect implants as a condition of getting a job. The U.S. military will lead the way, requiring chips for all soldiers as a means to enhance battlefield command and control -- and to identify human remains. From cooks to commandos, every one of the more than one million U.S. military personnel will see microchips replace their dog tags.

Following quickly behind will be the massive security sector. Security guards, police officers, and correctional workers will all be expected to have a chip. Individuals with sensitive jobs will find themselves in the same position.

The first signs of this stage are already apparent. In 2004, the Mexican attorney general's office started implanting employees to restrict access to secure areas. The category of "sensitive occupation" will be expansive to the point that anyone with a job that requires keys, a password, security clearance, or identification badge will have those replaced by a chip.

Judges hearing cases on the constitutionality of these measures will conclude that chipping policies are within legal limits. The thin veneer of "voluntariness" coating many of these programs will allow the judiciary to maintain that individuals are not being coerced into using the technology.

In situations where the chips are clearly forced on people, the judgments will deem them to be undeniable infringements of the right to privacy. However, they will then invoke the nebulous and historically shifting standard of "reasonableness" to pronounce coerced chipping a reasonable infringement on privacy rights in a context of demands for governmental efficiency and the pressing need to enhance security in light of the still ongoing wars on terror, drugs, and crime.

At this juncture, an unfortunately common tragedy of modern life will occur: A small child, likely a photogenic toddler, will be murdered or horrifically abused. It will happen in one of the media capitals of the Western world, thereby ensuring non-stop breathless coverage. Chip manufactures will recognize this as the opportunity they have been anticipating for years. With their technology now largely bug-free, familiar to most citizens and comparatively inexpensive, manufacturers will partner with the police to launch a high-profile campaign encouraging parents to implant their children "to ensure your own peace of mind."

Special deals will be offered. Implants will be free, providing the family registers for monitoring services. Loving but unnerved parents will be reassured by the ability to integrate tagging with other functions on their PDA so they can see their child any time from any place.

Paralleling these developments will be initiatives that employ the logic of convenience to entice the increasingly small group of holdouts to embrace the now common practice of being tagged. At first, such convenience tagging will be reserved for the highest echelon of Western society, allowing the elite to move unencumbered through the physical and informational corridors of power. Such practices will spread more widely as the benefits of being chipped become more prosaic. Chipped individuals will, for example, move more rapidly through customs.

Indeed, it will ultimately become a condition of using mass-transit systems that officials be allowed to monitor your chip. Companies will offer discounts to individuals who pay by using funds stored on their embedded chip, on the small-print condition that the merchant can access large swaths of their personal data. These "discounts" are effectively punitive pricing schemes, charging unchipped individuals more as a way to encourage them to submit to monitoring. Corporations will seek out the personal data in hopes of producing ever more fine- grained customer profiles for marketing purposes, and to sell to other institutions.

By this point all major organizations will be looking for opportunities to capitalize on the possibilities inherent in an almost universally chipped population. The uses of chips proliferate, as do the types of discounts. Each new generation of household technology becomes configured to operate by interacting with a person's chip.

Finding a computer or appliance that will run though old-fashioned "hands-on"' interactions becomes progressively more difficult and costly. Patients in hospitals and community care will be routinely chipped, allowing medical staff -- or, more accurately, remote computers -- to monitor their biological systems in real time.

Eager to reduce the health costs associated with a largely docile citizenry, authorities will provide tax incentives to individuals who exercise regularly. Personal chips will be remotely monitored to ensure that their heart rate is consistent with an exercise regime.

By now, the actual process of "chipping" for many individuals will simply involve activating certain functions of their existing chip. Any prospect of removing the chip will become increasingly untenable, as having a chip will be a precondition for engaging in the main dynamics of modern life, such as shopping, voting, and driving.

The remaining holdouts will grow increasingly weary of Luddite jokes and subtle accusations that they have something to hide. Exasperated at repeatedly watching neighbours bypass them in "chipped" lines while they remain subject to the delays, inconveniences, and costs reserved for the unchipped, they too will choose the path of least resistance and get an implant.

In one generation, then, the cultural distaste many might see as an innate reaction to the prospect of having our bodies marked like those of an inmate in a concentration camp will likely fade.

In the coming years some of the most powerful institutional actors in society will start to align themselves to entice, coerce, and occasionally compel the next generation to get an implant.

Now, therefore, is the time to contemplate the unprecedented dangers of this scenario. The most serious of these concern how even comparatively stable modern societies will, in times of fear, embrace treacherous promises. How would the prejudices of a Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, or of southern Klansmen -- all of whom were deeply integrated into the American political establishment -- have manifest themselves in such a world? What might Hitler, Mao or Milosevic have accomplished if their citizens were chipped, coded, and remotely monitored?

Choirs of testimonials will soon start to sing the virtues of implants. Calm reassurances will be forthcoming about democratic traditions, the rule of law, and privacy rights. History, unfortunately, shows that things can go disastrously wrong, and that this happens with disconcerting regularity. Little in the way of international agreements, legality, or democratic sensibilities has proved capable of thwarting single-minded ruthlessness.

"It can't happen here" has become the whispered swan song of the disappeared. Best to contemplate these dystopian potentials before we proffer the tender forearms of our sons and daughters. While we cannot anticipate all of the positive advantages that might be derived from this technology, the negative prospects are almost too terrifying to contemplate. What might Hitler, Mao or Milosevic have accomplished if their citizens were chipped, coded, and remotely monitored?

Copyright (c) 2006, Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.


Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all.

The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few.

In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How DO the few control the many, and what might be done about it?"

Rachel's Democracy and Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

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