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Solving the Palm Oil Problem

[ 9 ] November 17, 2014 |

Palm oil is a very efficient way of producing cooking oil and is thus in high demand around the world. One huge problem is that it is turning the incredibly diverse rain forests of southeast Asia into a region-wide monoculture. Deforestation for palm oil plantations is a major problem. Luckily, this has led to significant criticism of the food industry. So many of the big palm oil producers have recently signed agreements to limit or eliminate deforestation in the production of palm oil.

That’s great, I guess. Certainly it’s better than nothing. However, I want to stress that just like agreements to improve labor conditions in southeast Asian sweatshops, there is very little incentive for companies to actually follow through. There is no stick to go along with that carrot. Without a way to enforce that agreement, you are relying on corporate beneficence. From the corporation’s perspective, they are waiting for attention to be drawn to something else. Without a way for people to sue or prosecute the companies over violating these agreements, the long-term benefit may well be negligible.

Remembering U.S. Complicity in Salvadoran Military Crimes

[ 18 ] November 17, 2014 |

25 years ago yesterday, the Salvadoran military massacred six Jesuit priests and two women who worked for them. The National Security Archive has collected documents showing how the Bush administration refused to acknowledge that its client state’s military could have committed such an atrocity, when in fact it committed human rights violations all the time. This isn’t just a past event without relevance to the president. A Spanish court is attempting to extradite of the indicted offices for the tragedy. U.S. support of that effort would partially remediate American complicity in the mass deaths that plagued El Salvador in the 1980s and continue to destabilize that nation today.

Deporting Parents

[ 47 ] November 16, 2014 |

What happens when our unjust immigration system deports parents of children who are under 18? It’s usually pretty grim. Orange is the New Black actress Diane Guerrero’s story is about as good as it is going to get:

And then one day, my fears were realized. I came home from school to an empty house. Lights were on and dinner had been started, but my family wasn’t there. Neighbors broke the news that my parents had been taken away by immigration officers, and just like that, my stable family life was over.

Not a single person at any level of government took any note of me. No one checked to see if I had a place to live or food to eat, and at 14, I found myself basically on my own.

While awaiting deportation proceedings, my parents remained in detention near Boston, so I could visit them. They would have liked to fight deportation, but without a lawyer and an immigration system that rarely gives judges the discretion to allow families to stay together, they never had a chance. Finally, they agreed for me to continue my education at Boston Arts Academy, a performing arts high school, and the parents of friends graciously took me in.

Being 14, having friends with generous parents, a great high school, this is not the norm. Even here, her family was deported and she was left behind, separated from her parents during many of the most important moments of her life. This is a horrible thing that does no one any good. Completely unjustified and it’s about time that President Obama take more concrete steps to deal with this unjust system, even without Congressional approval.

Labor Notes

[ 15 ] November 16, 2014 |

There are a lot of labor stories in my blogging queue right now. Let’s just deal with them all at once.

1. Do we need a new legal framework for food workers? Jacob Gersen and Benjamin Sachs say we do and they are correct:

Take farm workers who witness the processing of infected (or “downer”) cows — an illegal but, unfortunately, not uncommon practice that risks spreading a host of diseases to humans. Or workers in poultry-processing facilities, where safety and hygiene regulations are flouted, thus increasing the risk of salmonella, which every year results in more than one million illnesses, more than 350 deaths and over $3 billion in health care and lost productivity costs. Unless we offer specific legal protection for all food workers who come forward to expose such practices — something the law does not do now — we all are at risk.

We should also adjust many of our standard workplace rules to take account of the special nature of food production. To avoid the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which causes mad cow disease, workers involved in the processing of beef must fully and carefully remove the dorsal root ganglion, a part of the spinal nerve, from all cattle that are 30 months old or older. That’s because these dorsal root ganglia can contain the infective agent behind B.S.E.

Not sure what the Obama Administration can do on this in the face of certain Republican opposition but it should be a priority within American labor regulation.

2. San Francisco is considering an ordinance to force companies to provide a “predictable schedule” for part-time workers. This is absolutely a workplace justice issue that needs to be taken care of. Among the many problems with people stringing together multiple part-time jobs to keep a roof over their heads is the inability to know when they will need to work week-to-week at each job. Keeping workers’ lives unstable of course helps the company and so they will probably fight such a common-sense idea.

3. In the world of labor on our college campuses, administrators at Pensacola State College are telling faculty members they are violating state law by talking to student reporters about their stalled contract negotiations. The administration is trying to use a section of the state legal code already shot down by both state and federal courts. Absurd, but all too typical for one of the biggest union-busting industries in the U.S. right now–institutions of higher education.

4. I always like to highlight stories of student labor activism when I see them, so here is one on anti-sweatshop activism at Oregon State University.

5. Meanwhile, a Chicago alderman whose father worked in a sweatshop in India is pushing the City Council to pass an anti-sweatshop ordinance. Wonder what ol’Rahm thinks about that.

6. Finally, the chemical industry strikes again, with 4 dead workers at a DuPont plant in LaPorte, Texas after a chemical leaked. I’d be real curious to see when the last time this plant was inspected by OSHA.

The Climate Conundrum

[ 156 ] November 16, 2014 |

I haven’t read Naomi Klein’s new climate change book but I want to. I did read Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of it. The basic problem we face in dealing with climate change is that both Klein and Kolbert are correct. First, Kolbert’s summary of Klein:

Klein traces our inaction to a much deeper, structural problem. Our economy has been built on the promise of endless growth. But endless growth is incompatible with radically reduced emissions; it’s only at times when the global economy has gone into free fall that emissions have declined by more than marginal amounts. What’s needed, Klein argues, is “managed degrowth.” Individuals are going to have to consume less, corporate profits are going to have to be reduced (in some cases down to zero), and governments are going to have to engage in the kind of long-term planning that’s anathema to free marketeers.

The fact that major environmental groups continue to argue that systemic change isn’t needed makes them, by Klein’s account, just as dishonest as the global warming deniers they vilify. Indeed, perhaps more so, since one of the deniers’ favorite arguments is that reducing emissions by the amount environmentalists say is necessary would spell the doom of capitalism. “Here’s my inconvenient truth,” she writes.

“I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the “warmists” in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody.”

Klein goes so far as to argue that the environmental movement has itself become little more than an arm (or perhaps one should say a column) of the fossil fuel industry. Her proof here is that several major environmental groups have received sizable donations from fossil fuel companies or their affiliated foundations, and some, like the Nature Conservancy, have executives (or former executives) of utility companies on their boards. “A painful reality behind the environmental movement’s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic interests behind our soaring emissions,” she writes, is that “large parts of the movement aren’t actually fighting those interests—they have merged with them.”

Absolutely–the system of capitalism created climate change and we cannot effectively fight climate change by tweaking around the edges. The only answer is, frankly, economic shrinkage which means the rejection of capitalism. There just isn’t any way around this.

And Kolbert:

The need to reduce carbon emissions is, ostensibly, what This Changes Everything is all about. Yet apart from applauding the solar installations of the Northern Cheyenne, Klein avoids looking at all closely at what this would entail. She vaguely tells us that we’ll have to consume less, but not how much less, or what we’ll have to give up. At various points, she calls for a carbon tax. This is certainly a good idea, and one that’s advocated by many economists, but it hardly seems to challenge the basic logic of capitalism. Near the start of the book, Klein floats the “managed degrowth” concept, which might also be called economic contraction, but once again, how this might play out she leaves unexplored. Even more confoundingly, by end of the book she seems to have rejected the idea. “Shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint,’” she writes, is “simply not an option today.”

In place of “degrowth” she offers “regeneration,” a concept so cheerfully fuzzy I won’t even attempt to explain it. Regeneration, Klein writes, “is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.”

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

Couple of things here. First, again, both are correct. The changes we need to make to forestall climate change are huge, no question about it. But the changes we need to make to forestall climate change will be completely rejected by people. So what do you do? Nothing is the worst possible answer but by far the most likely. Second, the biggest weakness of The Shock Doctrine was her refusal to do much to think through solutions to the problems she so perceptively diagnosed. When I wrote Out of Sight, I very much kept this critique in mind and in the last chapter, I work very hard to suggest ways forward. People might think the ideas are crazy or unworkable or unrealistic, but I want to envision the society I see. It doesn’t look like Klein does too much of that here either, other than highlighting a few examples of people doing good things. In the end, if we are criticizing capitalism, we have to articulate some kind of alternative to the system we disdain. That’s especially true when we are fighting climate change, the greatest threat to human society in centuries. But, in dealing with climate change, there is no hope of adapting a consumerist lifestyle to the problem, which means people will largely reject the solutions out of hand.

Good times.

Book Review: Andrew Graybill, The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West

[ 9 ] November 16, 2014 |

The borderlands historian Andrew Graybill’s latest book is an extremely readable saga into the great complexities of what it has meant to be mixed-race in the American West. The Red and the White is a set of family biographies from one Montana family that originated with the marriage of a fur trader and a Piegan woman. Spanning the early 19th through mid 20th century, Graybill demonstrates the complexity of race in the American West, where mixed white-Native American families faced both opportunity and discrimination, choosing between two different and competing worlds (and often having choices made for them).

At the center of the story is the Marias Massacre. Many of the major massacres of Native Americans by Americans are well-known to us–Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, Washita. The campaigns to eliminate the Lakota and Nez Perce, the forced marches of the Cherokee and Navajo–these have become part of our national memory. Some are spots of national mourning and remembrance. The National Park Service has played a leading role in this, negotiating the tremendously tricky and contentious politics around Sand Creek, renaming Custer Battlefield as the Little Big Horn, etc. Native Americans themselves have played a leading role in creating these newer ways of understanding the expansion of Europeans across the North American continent. Visiting Wounded Knee is a powerful and disturbing experience because of the poverty and palpable anger of the people who live at Pine Ridge. Another example is how the Pequot Museum forces visitors to hear about the genocide against their people by the Puritans in 1637.

Yet the Marias Massacre–and many other events–remain almost completely unknown to everyone who is not a historian of the American West. In 1870, the Second U.S. Calvary attacked a Piegan (which are part of the larger tribe called the Blackfeet) encampment and massacred all they could see. Around 200 people were killed that day, even though this encampment probably had nothing to do with the violence that led to it. Central to this event was the murder of a fur trader named Malcolm Clarke.


Site of the Marias Massacre

Graybill tells five stories over three generations around the Clarke family. He begins with Coth-co-co-na, a Piegan woman who would marry trader Malcolm Clarke in 1844. We can’t know all that much about the details of her life, especially the early years, so Graybill uses this as an introduction to how rapidly the world is changing for the Blackfeet in the early 19th century. Horses, guns, fur traders, disease, and white American expansions had completely turned the lives of northern Plains people upside down and the worst was yet to come.

The second biography is of Clarke himself. A hot-tempered man kicked out of West Point, he roamed around a bit before moving to the upper reaches of the Missouri River, where he became one of the most successful fur traders in the region. His marriage to Coth-co-co-na was far from unusual during this period, as white traders had many reasons to take indigenous wives–sometimes for love, sometimes for trading advantage, often for both. Those relationships were often fluid, as was not uncommon for many native peoples and which gave white traders the advantage of avoiding the stigma of interracial sex if they reentered white society. But Clarke and Coth-co-co-na were together until the day he died, in 1870, after growing violence between whites and the Blackfeet led to his murder in a planned attack by members of his wife’s family.

When Clarke was murdered, the American military response became the Marias Massacre. This story is told through Clarke and Co-co-co-na’s son, Horace Clarke. As a mixed-race child in a transforming world that did not have much of a place for people like him, Horace had to make a decision when his father was murdered: would he side with this father’s people or his mother’s? He chose the former and was there during the Marias Massacre. Yet he chose to live most of his life among the Piegans despite his role in the violence. He married a Piegan woman and established a homestead near what is today East Glacier Park, Montana, serving as a mediator between the government and the Piegans.

One literature this book really contributes to is the effect of the Civil War on the West. By 1870, with William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan in command of the postwar Army, the military had taken the lessons they learned in defeating the Confederates and applied them to Native Americans. In 1868, the Army massacred a group of Cheyenne at the Washita Massacre in what is today western Oklahoma. The death of so many innocents there caused widespread criticism in the east and stung the military. Sheridan wanted to avoid a repeat of this in putting down the Blackfeet but when he was unable to do so, and such a truly horrific massacre of people who had done nothing wrong took place, Sheridan defended himself. He wrote to Sherman, “Did we cease to throw shells into Vicksburg or Atlanta because women and children were there?” What these generals failed to see was the moral complexity of the world in which they lived and that different opponents might need different strategies. In fact, William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, and other ex-abolitionists still fighting for social justice actually rallied enough opposition to strip the military of quite a bit of authority over Indian affairs in the aftermath of the Marias Massacre.

Malcolm and Coth-co-co-na’s daughter Helen had an even more fascinating tale. She went to Minnesota to live with her father’s family after his death, moved to New York and then Europe where she became an actress for a short time, although with seemingly very positive feedback for her height (she was 5’10″ in a time of short people), her look, and her acting ability. She then returned to Montana, probably because she ran out of money, where she became the first woman (along with another at the same time) to win election to public office in Montana. Then in 1890, she moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the wake of the insidious Dawes Act to work for the federal government as an allotment agent, convincing the Ponca and Otoe peoples to give up most of their land. Despite all of this, she lived in poverty for most of her life, had her own land allotted when she moved back to the Blackfeet reservation, and eventually lived with her brother at the end of their lives.

Finally, Horace’s son John lost his hearing as a baby, yet became one of the West’s most renowned artists. Working primarily as an animal sculptor in wood, he sold pieces around the nation and received major commissions later in his life. He married a white woman yet identified very strongly as a Piegan, posing with headdresses on and creating art based around traditional Piegan ways of life.

Detailing how each of these five complex people negotiated the fraught racial terrain of western and American history is fascinating because unlike so many of these stories, such as that of the Bent family of Colorado, this does not end in disaster for most family members. Rather these are stories of great complexity, adding significantly to our understanding of race and the West. Strongly recommended for LGM readers.

Comfort Women

[ 106 ] November 15, 2014 |

The level of denial in Japan over forced prostitution, rape, and colonized Korean “comfort women” in World War II is remarkable. Instead, the Japanese government’s narrative is that Japan is the victim in this story. Yeah, right. Between Germany and Japan, I know which one I’d put my money on as potentially being a threat to their neighbors again. Although I’d put my money on neither.

The Neo-Confederate Roots of Off-Year Governor Elections

[ 33 ] November 15, 2014 |

Why are so many governor elections in non-presidential years? The answer depends on state, like so much else in American life. But in Florida at least, the election was moved off the presidential year in order to preserve white supremacist power:

Or maybe just like 1961.

That’s the year Florida Democrats changed the rules.

And to increase turnout and win, Florida Democrats should change the rules back in 2016.

According to legendary journalist Martin Dyckman, in 1961, Democrats were scared of presidential election cycles screwing up their dominance of state government, specifically Nixon vs. Kennedy.

So, instead of allowing JFK to be a drag on the (conservative) Democratic ticket, the Florida Legislature amended the Constitution, requiring the Governor and the Florida Cabinet to be elected in midterm, non-presidential election cycles.

This resulted in racist segregationist Democrat Haydon Burns serving an abbreviated two-year term. In 1968, the new rules were further cemented in the Florida Constitution.

Today, because of this change, about 2.5 million presidential cycle voters entirely ignore the Governor and the Florida Cabinet.

In short, knowing that poorer and younger voters don’t come out for midterm elections, the Florida white supremacist power structure changed the state constitution to ensure voting at a time that would more likely protect their interest. I’d like to know more about this and explore why states have selected their gubernatorial elections on a particular date.

I will also suggest that the staggering of elections is pretty unhealthy for our democracy because the proliferation of political ads turns more people off than on and seeing them 2 or 3 times every 4 years instead of once probably reduces public interest. That’s strictly my speculation though.

Burn Baby Burn

[ 92 ] November 15, 2014 |


150 years ago today, troops under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman undertook the major portion of the burning of Atlanta. The real story around this event is quite complicated, but it was November 15, 1864 that the major conflagration began. He then proceeded to take the reality of war to the plantation owners of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina before they finally gave up on their treasonous war to defend slavery the next spring.

…See also this piece about how Georgia is moving to a less offensive official public remembrance of Sherman, making neo-Confederates cry. So sad.

Food Royalty

[ 72 ] November 14, 2014 |

corn girl

We’ve discussed the 1935 Idaho Potato Queen here in the past. But she didn’t exist in a vacuum. Food related royalty has long been a thing in the U.S. They still are too. I once attended the Yamboree in Gilmer, Texas. There was a Yam Queen. It was very exciting.

Sometimes, said food royalty poses with the food in somewhat odd ways.
That is the subject of tonight’s Friday night open thread. Above is the Kearney, Nebraska Corn Goddess. Don’t know the year. Below, a Pork Queen.


Choose Your Own Adventure

[ 32 ] November 14, 2014 |


R.A. Montgomery, author of the Choose Your Own Adventure children’s book series, has died. It is impossible to overstate how awesome these books were when I was 10 or 11 years old. Hopefully, Montgomery’s path to Heaven or Hell doesn’t include such similarly precarious choices as the many where the Maya would kill you, which seemed to happen a lot to me when I read the books.


[ 56 ] November 14, 2014 |


Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy and one of the most detestable and immoral people living in the United States, was finally indicted for a few of his many crimes yesterday.

Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive officer of Massey Energy, was indicted Thursday on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

A federal grand jury in Charleston charged Blankenship with conspiring to cause willful violations of ventilation requirements and coal-dust control rules — meant to prevent deadly mine blasts —during a 15-month period prior to the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.

The four-count indictment, filed in U.S. District Court, also alleges that Blankenship led a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance of government inspections.

“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing,” the indictment states. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”

The indictment also alleges that, after the explosion, Blankenship made false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the investing public about Massey’s safety practices before the explosion.

I’m really curious to what extent lying to investors wasn’t his real downfall. Being indicted is definitely not the same as receiving the harsh punishment Blankenship deserves, but it is a necessary and all too rare step to hold an employer accountable for people dying on the job. Still, the case of Blankenship is SO egregious that it could not be ignored and still took 4 1/2 years after the death of 29 miners.

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