Rachel's Democracy & Health News #897
Thursday, March 8, 2007

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #897 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
March 8, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Human health is a prime indicator of environmental quality, and of the success of any society. If the health of residents is poor, then look for problems in the environment. If some groups are thriving and others are not, those health disparities are a sure sign of trouble -- and of injustice.]

By Peter Montague

Human health is a prime indicator of environmental quality, and of the success of any society. If the health of residents is poor, then look for problems in the environment. If some groups are thriving and others are not, it's a sure sign of injustice.

Such differences are called "health disparities" (or, sometimes, "health inequities"[1]) and the U.S. has set a goal of eliminating them.

There's a long way to go to meet that goal.

A recent study of longevity in the U.S. found that white "Middle Americans" live five years longer, on average, than black "Middle Americans" -- 77.9 years vs. 72.9 years. And this does not include "high-risk urban black men," who live, on average, only 71.1 years. The differences between "Middle American" racial groups are not explained by health insurance coverage or by frequency of medical appointments -- so access to medical care is not the primary driver of these disparities.

Hispanics are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to have diabetes, or to get cancer of the stomach, liver, gall bladder, or cervix. Hispanic women develop heart disease about a decade earlier than non-Hispanic white women.

Two times more black women die in childbirth than white women. The nation's cancer death rate is 35 percent higher in black men and 18 percent higher in black women than in white men and women, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society. These facts barely scratch the surface.

How are 'health disparities' defined?

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) has defined "health disparities" as "differences in populations' health status that are avoidable and can be changed. These differences can result from social and/or economic conditions, as well as public policy. Examples include situations whereby hazardous waste sites are located in poor communities, there is a lack of affordable housing, and there is limited or no access to transportation. These and other factors adversely affect population health."

On paper at least, the U.S. is committed to eliminating health disparities.

** The federal Department of Health and Human Services has established an Office of Minority Health with a "National action agenda to eliminate health disparities for racial and ethnic minority populations."

** The federal program, Healthy People 2010, has two goals: "(1) Increase quality and years of healthy life; and (2) Eliminate health disparities, including differences that occur by gender, race or ethnicity, education or income, disability, geographic location, or sexual orientation."

** The American Public Health Association has called for action to eliminate health disparities.

** NACCHO -- The National Association of County and City Health Officials -- has passed a strong resolution advocating for programs and policies that minimize health inequities;

** NACCHO has published standards that every local health department (LHD) should be able to meet: "These standards describe the responsibilities that every person, regardless of where they live, should reasonably expect their LHD to fulfill." The NACCHO standards say, "...all LHDs (local health departments) exist for the common good and are responsible for demonstrating strong leadership in the promotion of physical, behavioral, environmental, social, and economic conditions that improve health and well-being; prevent illness, disease, injury, and premature death; and eliminate health disparities."

** The national Society for Public Health Education in 2002 passed a "Resolution for Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities."

Health disparities can be eliminated by prevention

Health disparities are difficult (or impossible) to remedy once they have been allowed to develop. However, they can be prevented.

A recent report from the Prevention Institute in Oakland, California describes steps that communities can take to eliminate health disparities through prevention.

The "main premise" of the report is that, "reducing disparities can only be achieved if attention is paid to eliminating and minimizing diseases and injuries before the need for treatment, therapy, and disease management, and this can only be done by changing fundamental conditions of the environment that arise from racial and economic injustice." And: "Eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities is imperative both as a matter of fairness and economic common sense."

The Prevention Institute has identified 13 "community factors" that "play a pivotal role in determining health and disparities." (pg. iii)

The report then offers 10 disparity-reducing strategies that public health practitioners, advocates and decision-makers can focus on. This is good stuff -- grounded in the scientific and medical literature, yet very practical. The Prevention Institute even has a "community assessment tool" -- called Thrive -- that everyone can apply in their own community begin to prevent health disparities.

The 13 "community factors" are organized into 3 clusters:

1. The Equitable Opportunity Cluster: the equitable distribution of opportunity and resources

a. Availability of jobs paying living wages -- individual income alone has been shown to account for nearly one-third of health risks among blacks. The remainder may be explained by residential segregation, which locks people into poor housing, neighborhoods without recreational opportunity or access to nutritious food, and so on.

b. Education -- high school dropout rates correlate closely with poor health. Lower education levels are associated with smoking, overweight, and low levels of physical activity.

c. Racial justice -- racial and ethnic discrimination are harmful to health. Economic inequity, racism, and oppression can maintain or widen gaps in socioeconomic status, and increase stress.

2. The People-Factors Cluster

d. Social networks and trust: "strong social networks and connections correspond with significant increases in physical and mental health, academic achievement, and local economic development, as well as lower rates of homicide, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse." (pg. 9)

e. Participation and willingness to act for the social good: "Social connections also contribute to community willingness to take action for the common good which is associated with lower rates of violence, improved food access, and anecdotally with such issues as school improvement, environmental quality, improved local services, local design and zoning decisions, and increasing economic opportunity. Changes that benefit the community are more likely to succeed and more likely to last when those who benefit are involved in the process; therefore, active participation by people in the community is important."

f. The behavioral norms within a community, "may structure and influence health behaviors and one's motivation and ability to change those behaviors." Norms contribute to many preventable social problems such as substance abuse, tobacco use, levels of violence, and levels of physical activity. For example, traditional beliefs about manhood are associated with a variety of poor health behaviors, including drinking, drug use, and high-risk sexual activity.

3. The Place-Factors Cluster

This refers to the physical environment in which people live, work, play, pray and go to school. This includes:

g. What's sold and how it's promoted. The presence of a supermarket in a neighborhood increases the consumption of fruits and vegetables by more than 30%. The presence of many liquor stores is associated with greater liquor consumption which in turn is linked to increased violence. If large portions of high-fat, high-sugar junk food are aggressively marketed, that's what people tend to eat.

h. Neighborhood look and feel, and safety. "The physical space of communities influences patterns of life. The distances between home and work, the look and feel of a streetscape, the presence or lack of retail stores and parks influence whether people drive, walk, or bike and how they spend their leisure time.All too often, residents in low- income communities cope with inadequate sidewalks, inadequate access to public transportation, absence of bike lanes for cyclists, absence of walking and biking trails and absence or ill maintenance of parks, along with inaccessible recreational facilities and crime. Safety is a dominant concern leading parents to drive their children to school, rather than letting them walk, and to prohibit outdoor play." (pg. 12)

i. Parks and open space. Physical activity levels -- and positive interactions between neighbors -- are influenced by enjoyable scenery, greenery, access to parks, convenient transportation, and the design of streets and neighborhoods.

j. Getting around. "A well-utilized public transit system contributes to improved environmental quality, lower motor vehicle crashes and pedestrian injury, less stress, decreased social isolation, increased access to economic opportunities, such as jobs, increased access to needed services such as health and mental health services, and access to food, since low-income households are less likely than more affluent households to have a car."

k. Housing. Poor housing contributes to health problems in low-income communities and communities of color and is associated with increased risk for injury, violence, exposure to toxins, molds, viruses, and pests, and psychological stress.

l. Air, water, and soil. "Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to have poor air quality and toxic brownfield sites. Poor air quality prevents individuals from engaging in physical activity, especially if they have asthma or other respiratory illnesses. Contaminated empty lots, which could serve as badly needed parks and open space, frequently require large sums of money for sufficient clean-up.... Cancer, asthma, birth defects, developmental disabilities, infertility, and Parkinson's disease are on the rise, and they are linked to chemical exposures from air, water and soil, and products and practices used in our schools, homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. Low-income people and people of color are typically the most affected by environmental health concerns."

m. Arts and culture. "The presence of art and other cultural institutions contributes to an environment that is conducive to health and safety. Artistic outlets, such as gardens, murals, and music, promote a healing environment. This has been demonstrated in hospitals and other health care facilities, where the incorporation of arts into the building's spaces has reduced patient recovery time and assisted in relief for the disabled, infirm, or their caregivers. The visual and creative arts enable people at all developmental stages to appropriately express their emotions and to experience risk taking in a safe environment. For those who have witnessed violence, art can serve as a healing mechanism. More broadly, art can mobilize a community while reflecting and validating its cultural values and beliefs, including those about violence. Also, artistic expression can encourage physical activity, as in the case of dance. A report commissioned by the Ottawa City Hall states that culture "provides benefits in terms of...social cohesion, community empowerment... health and well being and economic benefit."[2]

So there you have it -- 13 community factors that strongly determine health disparities. Next week we'll discuss 10 disparity-reducing strategies that communities can use.

Meanwhile, here's one final thought. Health disparities go to the heart of "environmental health." Eliminating health disparities will take us in some new directions. As the Prevention Institute report says (pg. 22),

"This approach to improving health outcomes necessarily requires that the public health sector and health advocates approach health in a new way. It requires a new way of thinking and a new way of doing business. This is not an approach that identifies a medical condition and asks,"How do we treat this?" Rather, it requires understanding how the fundamental root causes of health disparities play out in the community in a way that affects health and asking, "Who do we need to engage and what do we need to do in order to prevent people from getting sick and injured?"

More next week.


[1] Dennis Raphael, "Health Inequities in the United States: Prospects and Solutions," Journal of Public Health Policy Vol. 21, No. 4 (2000), pgs. 394-427. Available here: 3.5 Mbyte PDF.

[2] Excerpted from Rachel Davis, Larry Cohen, and Leslie Mikkelsen, Strengthening Communities: A Prevention Framework for Reducing Health Disparities." Oakland, Calif.: Prevention Institute, 2003, pg. 18.


From: Conscious Choice ....................................[This story printer-friendly]
March 01, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Opposition to industrial agriculture has put down deep roots in the Midwest. An Expo in Chicago March 23-24 gives us all an opportunity to meet some of the leading thinkers (and doers) who are taking farms, farming and food in important new directions.]

By Alan Mammoser

What if you knew the story behind everything you ate, such as where the food came from, who grew it and how? Imagine the landscape from which it came, perhaps a thriving collection of family farms. What if you knew the people that grew the food, knew that they got a fair price for it and that they actively worked to protect the landscape?

How differently would we eat if we got to know our food better?

Basic knowledge of where food comes from and how it is produced is lost on many Americans today and with it a trust in the food supply that sustains us.

With the rise of a highly industrialized society, an industrial farming system has developed along with it. Farms have become ever more mechanized, specialized and distant from most of the population. The federal government has contributed to the trend through legislation, with consecutive farm bills that favor big concentrated commodity growers -- sometimes known as "factory farms" -- while nearly ignoring local growers with smaller operations, sometimes collectively called "family farmers."

Now, when you walk into your local grocery, you see shelves chock full of all the marvels of our food system, with colorful packaging and displays. But do you know where it comes from? Do you trust it? In most cases, there is no information beyond the basic government approvals and ingredient lists. But for a growing number of people, particularly in the age of food safety scares, the lack of information is unacceptable. Many Americans want to get to know their food, and the story behind it, better.

A new food movement is growing out of these concerns. Concerned citizens, farmers and others are starting to work on a new set of rules for the food system. These rules or standards would ensure sufficient incomes for family farmers, fair treatment of farm workers, proper care of farm animals and conservation of the environment. While some are working on the specific rules, others are figuring out how to communicate about the issue and efforts to others. They're devising ways to convey the stories behind food, so grocery shoppers know more about a cut of meat or a bag of beans and can use this information to make better choices.

This food and farming conversation is gathering force, appropriately, in the Midwest. Many leading thinkers are gathering in March at the Family Farmed Expo (familyfarmed.org), a two-day event in Chicago that contains events for the general public. Local experts on the subject will be on hand as well.

"When national organic food standards were adopted in the early 90s, there was a choice," says Jim Slama of Sustain USA, a Chicago-based non-profit that works on food and farming issues. "At that time, the feds chose to emphasize environmental standards in the strictest sense, to certify whether the food production system avoided artificial fertilizers and chemicals. But they chose to ignore other values related to producing and selling food, values that many people care about."

Slama and his colleagues are at the forefront of a "food convergence." Previously, food-related issues were addressed separately as individual groups focused on organics, local production, fair trade or family farm issues. Today, these groups are coming together to look at food from all angles with the belief that collectively, they can have far greater impact.

Four key topics of discussion include certifying family farms; fair trade standards; organics and beyond; and local food and flavor.

Certifying Family Farms

Fred Kirschenmann has watched with alarm as the number of independent family farms decline across the Midwest. The North Dakota farmer and senior fellow at Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture noted that this tragic disappearance was occurring even as demand was growing for specialty food products.

"New markets are opening," says Kirschenmann. "In many cases, markets for organic foods, but they really take organic to another level. They come from peoples' rising desire to buy food that protects the land and animals, supports farm families and farm workers. These markets demand food products that independent family farmers can, by their very nature, best provide."

This new demand for food can be summed up in three things food must convey: memory, story and relationship. People want food that carries the land's qualities and nutrients to their tables -- that's its memory. They want to know where it came from and follow it to its source -- that's its story. And they want to enjoy a trusting relationship through real communication with the producer.

Kirschenmann joined like-minded rural advocates and food activists to form the Association of Family Farms (AFF). The organization's goal is to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by forming cooperatives and creating their own unique brands, which they will certify with a special seal.

Like the ubiquitous "UL" (Underwriters Laboratories) label on household goods, the AFF seal will appear on food products from meat to wheat. It will certify food in three ways: 1) environmental stewardship on the farm; 2) social standards, such as fair treatment of farm workers; and 3) fair business practices including fair compensation for family farmers.

AFF is composed of farmers from local marketing organizations and co- ops and is gradually expanding through regional committees. In addition to the AFF seal, Kirschenmann foresees an interactive website that will provide detailed information about the food, and the farmers and practices used to produce it.

Fair Trade Standards

For AFF to work, it needs solid rules and agreed-upon standards by which to judge whether a food item deserves the seal. The group is drawing upon the Portland-based Food Alliance, whose certification programs support sustainable agriculture. Their standards are comprehensive and touch on every aspect of the farm economy and call upon farmers and ranchers for the following:

** Provide safe and fair conditions for workers

** Ensure healthy and humane care for livestock

** Avoid use of hormones or related antibiotics

** Avoid genetically modified crops or livestock

** Reduce their use of pesticides and other toxins

** Actively conserve soil and water resources

** Protect wildlife habitat

** Plan for continuous improvement

Michael Sligh of the North Carolina-based Rural Advancement Foundation is working to adapt international fair trade standards, such as those well-recognized for coffee, to the domestic food market. "The standards are tools to help small farmers make a claim, to make their products more unique and more valuable," Sligh says.

Organic and Beyond

Organic Valley is a LaFarge, Wisconsin-based cooperative that is owned by 900 independent farmers, most with small to mid-sized family farms. The Organic Valley label provides a powerful seal that guarantees social justice and environmental care. Now, the company is moving toward adopting some form of fair trade standard.

"Organic and beyond," is how the company's CEO, George Siemon, describes it, signaling Organic Valley's desire to reach buyers who care about a wide range of values in their food.

Erin Ford, a project coordinator at the company, notes that good standards require good metrics. "To create useful standards, we need to answer basic questions, such as 'what is a family farm?'" she says. "Another is, 'what is local food?'"

Organic Valley has done much to provide answers, just through the guidelines it has established for its members. "We've got good working definitions, based upon our experience as a national brand working through a regional business model," says Ford. For example, to define a family farm, the company sets out certain thresholds, such as the number of heads of cattle (the maximum allowed for members is 500 without special approval, although their farmer average is 65). Their local milk is seen in a broad yet well-defined regional context, with seven major trade areas across the country broken up into the following regions: Pacific Northwest, California, Rocky Mountain, Texas, Midwest, Northeast and New England. Their goal is to ship within their regions, so the milk in the stores comes from relatively local producers.

Local Food and Flavor

To tell the food story, to convey trust, means food must become more local, in both a real and a figurative sense. The food buyer must come to know the landscape, the scene of the harvest, whether it be across the continent or in the buyer's own region. Locality plays a big role in any new standards for food.

The creation, or restoration, of local food systems goes to the heart of what people love most about food, namely, flavor. The international Slow Food movement sees this instinctively, placing the concern for good flavor into broader agendas for land conservation and the survival of diverse plant and animal varieties. Slow Food brings the discussion of fair trade down to where it really matters most: the plate.

"The universal aspect of food is pleasure," says Erika Lesser of Slow Food USA. "It's not gluttony. It's just the reality of how food motivates people. It's like doing good by eating well."

This appeal to taste could bring huge numbers of people into the fair trade fold, by getting them to look for good -- and good-tasting -- meals. Slow Food projects bring producers together around agreed-upon standards for special heritage varieties, such as raw milk cheese, Gravenstein Apples or other high value or unique foods.

There is still a lot of work ahead to make the "memories, stories and relationships" of food accessible to most city folk who live far away from farms and food production. The evolving conversation -- with new farmer-oriented standards, seals and methods to communicate food stories -- may create a growing swell that will shake our food system, and our ways of interacting with it, to its very roots.

Alan Mammoser is a Chicago-based writer and regional planner.


From: Washington Post (pg. A2) ...........................[This story printer-friendly]
March 2, 2007; A02


[Rachel's introduction: The federal Agriculture Department is about to approve the sale of rice containing human proteins. Is this different from cannibalism? If so, how exactly? When these human/rice genes get loose in the evironment and contaminate traditional rice with human proteins, will there be a general revulsion against eating rice?]

By Rick Weiss

The Agriculture Department has given a preliminary green light for the first commercial production of a food crop engineered to contain human genes, reigniting fears that biomedically potent substances in high- tech plants could escape and turn up in other foods.

The plan, confirmed yesterday by the California biotechnology company leading the effort, calls for large-scale cultivation in Kansas of rice that produces human immune system proteins in its seeds.

The proteins are to be extracted for use as an anti-diarrhea medicine and might be added to health foods such as yogurt and granola bars.

"We can really help children with diarrhea get better faster. That is the idea," said Scott E. Deeter, president and chief executive of Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience, emphasizing that a host of protections should keep the engineered plants and their seeds from escaping into surrounding fields.

But critics are assailing the effort, saying gene-altered plants inevitably migrate out of their home plots. In this case, they said, that could result in pharmacologically active proteins showing up in the food of unsuspecting consumers.

Although the proteins are not inherently dangerous, there would be little control over the doses people might get exposed to, and some might be allergic to the proteins, said Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science policy advocacy group.

"This is not a product that everyone would want to consume," Rissler said, adding that other companies grow such plants indoors or in vats. "It is unwise to produce drugs in plants outdoors."

Consumer advocacy groups, including Consumers Union and the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, have also opposed Ventria's plans. "We definitely have big concerns," said Joseph Mendelson, the center's legal director.

Ventria has developed three varieties of rice, each endowed with a different human gene that makes the plants produce one of three human proteins. Two of them -- lactoferrin and lysozyme -- are bacteria- fighting compounds found in breast milk and saliva.

A recent company-sponsored study done in Peru concluded that children with severe diarrhea recovered a day and a half faster if the salty fluids they were prescribed were spiked with the proteins.

Deeter said production in plants is far cheaper than other methods, which should help make the therapy affordable in the developing world, where severe diarrhea kills 2 million children each year.

"Plants are phenomenal factories," Deeter said. "Our raw materials are the sun, soil and water."

The company is also talking to the Food and Drug Administration about putting the proteins into health foods. Its third variety of rice makes serum albumin, a blood protein used in medical therapies.

Until now, plants with human genes have been restricted to small test plots. In October, Ventria sought permission to grow its rice commercially on as many as 3,200 acres in Geary County, Kan., starting with 450 acres this spring.

A previous plan to grow the rice in southern Missouri was dropped when beermaker Anheuser-Busch -- the nation's largest rice buyer, which has expressed concern about the safety and consumer acceptance of gene- altered rice -- threatened to stop buying rice from the state if the deal went through.

Because no other rice is grown in Kansas and because rice can only grow in flooded areas, the risk of escape or cross-fertilization with other rice plants is nil there, Deeter said. The company will mill virtually all the seeds on site -- using dedicated equipment -- to minimize the risk of seeds getting mistakenly released or sold.

On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department published its draft environmental assessment, which concluded that the project posed no undue risks. The public can comment until March 30.

Also on Wednesday, the agency revealed that a type of rice seed in Arkansas had become contaminated with a different variety of genetically engineered rice, LL62, that was never released for marketing. The error was discovered in the course of an ongoing investigation into the widespread contamination of U.S. rice by yet another gene-altered variety, LL601, which has seriously disrupted rice exports.

Those problems, along with the previous discovery of unapproved, gene- altered StarLink corn in food and the accidental release of crops that had been engineered to make a vaccine for pig diarrhea, undermine the USDA's credibility, critics said.

"USDA's record is not good," Rissler said, pointing to several recent court judgments against the department and a December 2005 inspector general report that savaged the department for its poor oversight of biotechnology. "We don't think they can enforce even the inadequate system that is in place."


From: Agence France Presse ...............................[This story printer-friendly]
February 27, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: "Even tadpoles exposed to the weakest concentration of the hormone were, in one of two groups, twice as likely to become females.... The population of the two groups receiving the heaviest dose of estrogen became 95 percent female in one case, and 100 percent in the other."]

By Marlowe Hood

Frogs that started life as male tadpoles were changed in an experiment into females by estrogen-like pollutants similar to those found in the environment, according to a new study.

The results may shed light on at least one reason that up to a third of frog species around the world are threatened with extinction, suggests the study, set to appear in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in May.

In a laboratory at Uppsala University in Sweden, two species of frogs were exposed to levels of estrogen similar to those detected in natural bodies of water in Europe, the United States and Canada.

The results were startling: whereas the percentage of females in two control groups was under 50 percent -- not unusual among frogs -- the sex ratio in three pairs of groups maturing in water dosed with different levels of estrogen were significantly skewed.

Even tadpoles exposed to the weakest concentration of the hormone were, in one of two groups, twice as likely to become females.

The population of the two groups receiving the heaviest dose of estrogen became 95 percent female in one case, and 100 percent in the other.

"The results are quite alarming," said co-author Cecilia Berg, a research in environmental toxicology. "We see these dramatic changes by exposing the frogs to a single substance. In nature there could be lots of other compounds acting together."

Earlier studies in the United States, Berg explained, linked a similar sex-reversal of Rana pipiens male frogs -- one of the two species used in the experiment -- in the wild to a pesticide that produced estrogen-like compounds.

"Pesticides and other industrial chemicals have the ability to act like estrogen in the body," Berg said. "That is what inspired us to do the experiment," she said referring to her collaborator and lead author of the article, Irina Pettersson, also a researcher at Uppsala.

The other species examined was the European common frog, Rana temporaria.

Some of sex-altered males became fully functioning females, but other had ovaries but no oviducts, making them sterile, Berg explained.

The study does not measure the potential impact of pollutant-driven sex change for frog species, but the implications, said Berg, are disquieting.

"Obviously if all the frogs become female it could have a detrimental effect on the population," she said.

The only immediate remedy, she continued, would be to improve sewage treatment in areas where frogs and other amphibians might be affected to filter out estrogen concentrations coming from contraceptive pills and from industrial pollutants.


From: Newsweek International .............................[This story printer-friendly]
March 12, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Policymakers have settled on 'emissions trading' as their favorite global-warming fix. Unfortunately, it isn't working.]

By Emily Flynn Vencat

Global warming isn't the only debate that may be over. Governments and policymakers around the world also seem to have settled on a solution. "A responsible approach to solving this crisis," Al Gore said recently at New York University's Law School, would be "to authorize the trading of emissions... globally." Emissions trading, also called carbon trading, is being expanded in the European Union and Japan. And in many places where it's yet to take hold, like Sacramento, Sydney and Beijing, politicians are embracing it. Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank and Europe's foremost political expert on global warming, predicts that the value of carbon credits in circulation, now about $28 billion, will climb to $40 billion by 2010.

This should be great news for the environment, but many experts have their doubts. The notion that emissions trading is going to make a significant dent in global warming is deeply flawed, they say. Current emissions-trading schemes have proved to be little more than a shell game, allowing polluters in the developed world to shift the burden of making cuts onto factories in the developing world. Too often factory owners use the additional profits banked from carbon credits to expand their dirty factories. Even more worrying, emissions trading may have set back the battle against climate change by diverting investment from renewable-energy technology, which arguably is essential to any long-term solution. So far, the real winners in emissions trading have been polluting factory owners who can sell menial cuts for massive profits, and the brokers who pocket fees each time a company buys or sells the right to pollute. "Carbon trading is a promising strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions," says Dan Esty, director of Yale's Center for Environmental Law and Policy, "but the current structures have serious flaws."

Part of the appeal of emissions trading is that it is a market mechanism that's easy to implement. By turning the right to release greenhouse gases into a commodity that can be traded like gold or sugar, governments need only set caps on the amount of pollution they'll allow and let the invisible hand of capitalism do the rest. But emissions trading is proving to be a grossly inefficient way of cutting emissions in the developing world. For instance, under the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N.-brokered agreement that set limits for carbon and other emissions, companies in nations with Kyoto targets can avoid making expensive cuts to their own emissions by paying companies in countries like China to make cuts instead. This approach has been a boon to developing-world factory owners and international brokers, but the impact on the environment is more ambiguous. Since developing countries don't have any caps on emissions, companies can take the handsome payments they receive from carbon cuts and use the money to build new fossil-fuel and coal factories. India's Gujarat Fluorochemical, for instance, made €27 million in the last three months of 2006 -- triple its total company earnings compared with the same period in 2005 -- thanks to carbon credits. That boost in profits will no doubt help fund its new plant for making Teflon and caustic soda, both polluting substances.

One reason emissions trading is so politically popular is that it's vulnerable to lobbying. The European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme, which accounted for two thirds of the global carbon trading that went on last year, or $20 billion, is a case in point. On paper, the scheme is a zero-sum game: the European Commission issued a limited amount of carbon credits. These caps are supposed to bring emissions down across the EU to a level 8 percent below those of 1990 by 2012. But most European governments, under pressure from lobbyists, were too generous in handing out targets to specific industries. As a result, many companies weren't forced to make any cuts, or buy any credits. Indeed, in May 2006, when inspectors began checking the books, they found a surplus of carbon credits which, as soon it became public, triggered a market collapse.

The scale of the inefficiency of emissions trading was revealed in a study published in the scientific journal Nature last month. The nearly $6 billion already spent on projects to curb emissions of HFC-23, a potent greenhouse gas, had the same impact on the environment as would $132 million worth of equipment upgrades. Last year companies in Kyoto countries paid about $3 billion to some of the worst carbon polluters in the developing world. What impact did this money have? Shri Bajrang, an iron factory in a gritty stretch of flat scrubland near Raipur on the main route between Mumbai and Kolkata, is a typical case. In the nearby village of Bendri, the morning sun is barely discernible through the acrid haze, the trees are black with soot and women wash clothes in polluted ponds. Respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis, which now afflicts about 15 percent of the locals at the village, are on the rise. Last year, to generate carbon credits it could sell to European firms, the factory's owners fitted the plant with waste-heat-recovery boilers and turbine generators, which will reduce the amount of pollution it releases by 107,000 tons a year for the next decade -- which Shri Bajrang puts at 12 percent of its total emissions. "Put bluntly, the [United Nations'] carbon- credit scheme is a failure," says Larry Lohmann of London-based environmental and social-justice think tank Corner House.

Emissions trading has also failed to stimulate investment in new green technologies. While trading funnels billions of dollars of international environmental investment money into companies like Shri Bajrang, renewable-energy projects aren't receiving funding because they're more costly. Indeed, only 2 percent of the United Nations' trading projects involve renewable energy like hydro dams and wind farms, and communities that preserve forests and follow other ecofriendly practices are ignored. "The only solution is to stop the industry," says Ram Naran Nishad, a farmer in Bendri whose tomato yields have decreased by 70 percent since the factory's arrival.

Many experts think a carbon tax would be the better alternative. It's more straightforward and jargon-free, and would prevent much of the "gaming of the system" that's plaguing carbon trading. The problem, of course, is that new taxes are unpopular with voters. "A carbon tax would be far superior," says Yale's Esty, "but trading is a good second-best solution."

Legislators around the world are trying to fix the current trading schemes. Europe has set stricter carbon quotas for next year, U.S. politicians are talking about auctioning carbon credits instead of giving them away, and U.N. officials want to beef up renewable-energy projects. Emissions trading will succeed to the extent that world leaders can muster the political will to make the caps strict, and make them stick.

Copyright 2007 Newsweek, Inc.


From: The Archdruid Report ................................[This story printer-friendly]
March 1, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: If something constructive is to be done about peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society, yet another round of reasonable plans will not do the trick. The powers that must be harnessed are those of myth, magic, and the irrational. What remains to be seen is whether these will be harnessed by a new Gandhi... or a new Hitler.]

By John Michael Greer

Around once a month, since I first started this blog, I get plans in the mail for saving the world. I don't mean this last phrase derisively; the plans come from people who are deeply concerned about the consequences of peak oil, global warming, and other manifestations of the predicament of industrial society, and set out to find a solution. Many of them are extremely well crafted and, if put into place, would accomplish much. Every one of them, even the loopiest, would likely have better results than the industrial world's current policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss.

The most recent example arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of Tom Wayburn, a Texas engineer and a reader of this blog; you'll find his plan online at www.dematerialism.net and dematerialism.blogspot.com. He's far from alone in his efforts. M. King Hubbert himself proposed a scheme of social and economic reorganization to deal with peak oil back in the 1970s; you can find it at www.energybulletin.net/3800.html. These two are only a drop in the oil bucket, of course. Go looking for peak oil solutions online or in bookstores and you can find them by the dozen.

The best publicized of them, and indeed one of the best in practical terms, is the oil depletion protocol originally crafted by the Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Richard Heinberg's latest book The Oil Depletion Protocol does a fine job of explaining the protocol and showing how it could manage the transition to a sustainable society. It's an extremely well thought out plan, and if implemented, would almost certainly make the coming of the deindustrial age a good deal less ugly than it will otherwise be. The only criticism it merits is that its chances of actually being put into effect make a snowball in hell look like a safe investment.

Unfortunately, the same sort of criticism can be leveled at the entire genre of peak oil solutions, from Tom Wayburn's project to such highly publicized plans as the oil depletion protocol or the one presented in Lester Brown's much-discussed book Plan B.

There has never been a shortage of good ideas for dealing with peak oil or, for that matter, any other aspect of the predicament of industrial society. What has been lacking consistently is the collective will to put any of those ideas into practice.

It bears noticing that between 1956, when Hubbert originally announced the approach of peak oil, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and catastrophic potential of peak oil has grown steadily more convincing. On the other hand, the prospect that any constructive response to peak oil will actually be implemented has grown steadily more distant. Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party in every major nation in the industrial world supports pro-growth economic policies that move the world further away from a transition to sustainability with each passing day, and the more imminent and obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world's political and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the worst possible outcome in the not very long run.

Now a good part of this astonishing failure of will and vision can be traced to familiar factors. Many peak oil authors have talked about the way that today's political and economic systems have perpetual growth hardwired into them, and malfunction or break down completely when the rate of growth even starts to approach zero. Many of them, myself among them, have also discussed the way that people's ability to weigh benefits against risks breaks down just as spectacularly when the benefits are immediate and the risks lie somewhere in the indefinite future. Still, there's more to the issue than this. The same underground realm of mythic narratives and magical symbols I've been trying to explore in recent posts has a major role in setting the stage for the paradox just outlined.

The crux of the matter, I suggest, is that attempts to change the course of industrial civilization without changing the narratives and symbols that guide it on its way are doomed to failure, and those narratives and symbols cannot be changed effectively with the toolkit that peak oil advocates have used up to this point. Behind this specific technical problem lies a much vaster predicament -- the failure of the Enlightenment project of rebuilding human civilization on the foundations of reason.

The Enlightenment, for those of my readers who received an American public school education -- which in matters of history, at least, amounts to no real education at all -- was an 18th century movement of European thought that laid most of the intellectual foundations of the modern world. The leading lights of the movement argued that the transformation that Galileo, Newton, and their peers accomplished in the sciences needed to happen in the realms of social, political, and economic life as well. To them, the traditional ideologies that framed European society in their time amounted to one vast festering mass of medieval superstition that belonged in the compost heap of history. Voltaire's famous outburst against the Catholic church -- Ecrasez l'infame! ("Chuck the wretched thing!") -- gave voice to a generation's revulsion against a worldview that in their minds had become all too closely bound to bigotry and autocracy.

Mind you, there was quite a bit of truth to the charge. The upper classes of 18th century Europe had been as strongly affected by the scientific revolution's disenchantment of the world as anyone else, and in their hands, traditional ways of thinking that once wove a bond of common interest among people of different classes turned into abstractions veiling brutal injustice. Like so many social critics, though, the thinkers of the Enlightenment combined a clear if one- sided view of the problem with unworkably Utopian proposals for its solution. They argued that once superstition was dethroned and public education became universal, rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis would take charge, leading society progressively toward ever better social conditions.

If this sounds familiar, it should.

The ideology of the Enlightenment swept all before it, forcing even the most diehard reactionaries to phrase their dissent in the terms of an argument the Enlightenment itself defined, and it remains the common currency of social, economic, and political thought in the Western world to this day. One of its consequences is exactly the habit of producing rational plans for social improvement that spawned the torrent of peak oil solutions we're discussing in this post. Since Voltaire's time, the idea that building a better social mousetrap will cause the world to beat a path to one's door has pervaded our civilization.

The irony, of course, is that neither in Voltaire's time nor in ours has social change actually happened that way. The triumph of the Enlightenment itself did not happen because the social ideas circulated by its proponents were that much better than those of their rivals; it happened because the core mythic narrative of the Enlightenment proved to be more emotionally powerful than its rivals. That narrative, of course, is the myth of progress, the core element of the worldview that has made, and now threatens to destroy, the modern world.

This irony defines a faultline running through the middle of the modern mind. On the one hand, our economists treat human beings as rational actors making choices to maximize their own economic benefit. On the other hand, the same companies that hire those economists also pay for advertising campaigns that use the raw materials of myth and magic to encourage people to act against their own best interests, whether it's a matter of buying overpriced fizzy sugar water or the much more serious matter of continuing to support the unthinking pursuit of business as usual in the teeth of approaching disaster. The *language* of rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis is itself part of a mythic narrative of the sort it attempts to dismiss from serious consideration.

The crux of the problem, as suggested in an earlier post in this blog, is that human thought is mythic by its very nature. We think with myths, as inevitably as we see with eyes and eat with mouths. Thus any attempt to bring about significant social change must start from the mythic level, with an emotionally powerful and symbolically meaningful narrative, or it will go nowhere.

The founders of the Enlightenment recognized this, and accomplished one of the great intellectual revolutions of history by harnessing the power of myth in the service of their project. The very nature of their legacy, though, has made it much harder for others to recognize the role of myth in social change.

Thus it's not accidental that the great storytellers of recent history, the figures who catalyzed massive changes by the creative use of myth, have mostly come from the fringes of the Western cultural mainstream. Two examples are particularly worth citing here. Mohandas Gandhi, who broke the grip of the British Empire on India by retelling the myth of European colonialism so powerfully that even the colonial powers fell under the spell of his story, drew on his own Third World culture as well as his Western education to pose a challenge to the reigning narratives of the West that they had no way to counter. On the other side of the scale, but no less powerfully, Adolf Hitler came out of the crawlspaces of Vienna's urban underclass with a corrupted version of Central European occult traditions, and turned them into a myth that mesmerized an entire nation and plunged the planet into the most catastrophic war in its history. In rational terms, the story of either man's achievements seems preposterous -- another measure of the limits of reason, and its failure to plumb the depths of human motivation.

If something constructive is to be done about peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society, in other words, yet another round of reasonable plans will not do the trick. The powers that must be harnessed are those of myth, magic, and the irrational. What remains to be seen is whether these will be harnessed by a new Gandhi... or a new Hitler.


From: Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) ...........[This story printer-friendly]
March 1, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Alaska Community Action Against Toxics (ACAT) won a big victory over the Alaska Railroad Corporation when state government denied the raiload a permit to spray toxic herbicides along 600 miles of tracks.]

By Pamela K. Miller

Dear Friends,

We are celebrating a significant victory today that the Alaska Railroad Corporation will not be granted a permit by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) to spray herbicides along its more than 600 miles of right-of-way. Over 1,500 water bodies, including rivers, streams, and creeks are within 225 feet of the tracks, making salmon and salmon habitat vulnerable to contamination from herbicides.

The following is from ADEC's web site (see the full decision document at http://www.dec.state.ak.us/eh/pest/RRPermitDecision.htm)

The [Alaska] Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) is denying the Alaska Railroad Corporation's (ARRC) application to spray herbicides on the railways and rail yards for vegetation management purposes. The ARRC applied for a permit to spray three herbicides as well as a drift retardant to approximately 500 miles of track plus approximately 100 miles of rail yard.

Any pesticide sold, distributed, or used in Alaska must be registered by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the ADEC. The labels of all three proposed herbicides specifically prohibit applying these chemicals directly to water. According to Kim Stricklan, ADEC's Pesticide Program Manager, the ARRC did not adequately identify all the water resources in and near the proposed spray area. Concerns raised during the public comment period and during coordination with other state agencies were compelling regarding the potential for the proposed herbicides to reach waters of the state.

In its application, the ARRC proposed a 10-foot spray buffer zone around water resources. ADEC concluded this buffer zone would pose an unacceptable risk that the herbicides would reach waters of the state.

ADEC reviewed and evaluated nearly 100 studies in support of the decision to deny the permit. All studies were given equal consideration for inclusion. However, only unbiased, scientifically- based, peer-reviewed (or validated) data were utilized in the decision to deny the permit.

Background: The specific herbicides included in the ARRC application are Razor Pro, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Registration Number (Reg No.) 228-366, with active ingredient glyphosate; Solution Water Soluble , EPA Reg No. 228-260, with active ingredient dimethylamine salt of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid; and Oust Extra, EPA Reg No. 352-622, with active ingredients sulfometuron methyl and metsulfuron methyl; as well as the drift retardant Alenza with principle functioning agents proprietary polyvinyl polymer.

Excerpt from Alaska Community Action on Toxics' news release:

Alaska citizens living along the railbelt expressed consistent opposition to the use of herbicides by the Alaska Railroad; the ADEC received approximately 1,083 written comments in addition to oral testimony, as well as resolutions and letters expressing opposition from local governments and community councils, including: Native Village of Eklutna (resolution and letter), Montana Creek Native Association, Inc. (resolution), Municipality of Anchorage (letter), City of Seward (resolution), Kenai Peninsula Borough (resolution), Matanuska-Susitna Borough (resolution), Denali Borough (resolution), Birchwood Community Council, and Talkeetna Community Council.

Alaska Community Action on Toxics firmly opposes the use of herbicides and associated chemicals for vegetation management purposes by the Alaska Railroad. "We assert that there are viable, economical alternatives that preclude the need for chemical treatments," stated Pamela Miller Executive Director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. "Herbicide use poses an unacceptable threat to water quality, fish, wildlife, habitat, and public health. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation had the responsibility to deny the permit application of the Alaska Railroad in order to meet their obligation to protect human health and the environment."

Please contact Pamela Miller at Alaska Community Action on Toxics for more information (907) 222-7714.

Pamela K. Miller, Director Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) 505 West Northern Lights Boulevard Suite 205 Anchorage, Alaska 99503 (907) 222-7714 (Phone) (907) 222-7715 (Fax) www.akaction.net

Mission: We believe that everyone has a right to clean air, clean water, and toxic-free foods


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