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Book Review: Ellen Griffith Spears: Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town

[ 16 ] April 25, 2015 |

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Ellen Spears’ new environmental history of the chemical industry in Anniston, Alabama is a worthy addition to the literature on environmental justice. She tells the story of Anniston, a city noted for the burning of the Freedom Riders bus in 1961, through both the narrative of civil rights and also the narrative of a modern postwar New South city dominated by the military-industrial complex. Monsanto sited one of its largest plants in Anniston and poisoned the poor and African-American part of the city with massive PCB production. Yet even as the environmental movement fought against PCB production and succeeding in ending the production of these extremely toxic substances in Anniston, Monsanto never got around to telling the local people what was in their soil and water. This quite readable story of race, environmental justice, and chemical corporate greed in one southern city is well worth the time of interested general readers.

Anniston was more of a postbellum southern city and as a representative of the New South, it cultivated both an industry-friendly pose and a city leadership that attempted moderation on racial issues, albeit well within a Jim Crow framework. Even during the bus bombings, the city’s leadership attempted to distance itself from this violence, although without granting rights to African-Americans. Like other New South cities, it attempted to cultivate a reputation of civility, even as its white citizens acted violently toward blacks. In the early 20th century, it began attracting attention from the growing chemical industry.

This growing chemical industry merged with the militarization of the United States after World War II, as national sacrifice zones developed to develop the weapons the U.S. wanted to fight the Cold War. Of course, most of these places took advantage of those who were poor and people of color. So the Mormon and Paiute downwinders of Nevada and Utah, the poor whites living outside of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the African-Americans of Anniston became those who would have to live with the impact of this production. As Spears notes, “pollution is related to other forms of inequality,” and disadvantaged people struggling for basic rights in this nation also struggled to maintain control over their bodies from the vast pollution around them because they were so poor. For wealthier and whiter Anniston in most of the 20th century, pollution was simply the price of progress. And with nonexistent or limited regulation, the corporations simply had no need to tell local people what was happening.

Monsanto developed in St. Louis in 1901 and became a major player in the synthetic chemical industry by World War I. It began expanding its product lines after World War I and entered the nascent PCB market in the 1930s. From very early, Monsanto knew of PCBs dangers because some of its workers got sick and died from exposure. But many of the laborers in the Anniston plant were African-American and so the need to tell them about any of these health issues was essentially nonexistent. Instead, Monsanto tried to shape public relations around the chemicals, assuring the public of their safety and value. That worked for awhile locally, but nationally, the environmental movement began organizing against DDT, PCBs, and other chemicals poisoning the nation. The company had a lot of lose with PCB regulations and bans and its hired scientists went so far as to commit outright fraud in their scientific reports about the safety of PCBs. It worried about being held legally responsible for all its pollution as early as 1970, as up to 80 pounds of PCBs were coming out of the plant in a single day. Finally, PCB production was banned in the United States in 1979 and Monsanto adjusted very nicely.

Through all of this, even as Monsanto was warning its industrial customers about handling PCBs, the company said absolutely nothing to the people who lived near the plant. As public knowledge of the dangers of PCBs built in the nation, activist groups began in Anniston. These usually developed out of the civil rights movement, as activists by the late 1970s started noticing the correlation between impoverished black parts of the country and where corporations and the government sited toxicity. African-Americans in Anniston had long been concerned about the impact of the factory on their community. They soon built upon the nascent environmental justice movement and began organizing to keep themselves and their neighborhoods safe. Making this all the more important was U.S. Army plans to build an incinerator in Anniston to burn chemical weapons stored at the Anniston Army Depot as the Cold War ran down. Both corporate and government entities were actively degrading the bodies of the largely African-American population living near these facilities.

With the discovery of deformed fish in nearby streams, the movement to hold Monsanto accountable really took off in the early 1990s. The activists took Monsanto to court both for compensation for the PCBs and to stop the development of the incinerator. Of course, Monsanto contested every claim. When one scientist based his expert opinion of Monsanto’s culpability by noting the high rates of PCBs in local residents’ blood, the company’s lawyers called him a “fringe scientist.” The company claimed it simply had no idea how contaminated west Anniston was and besides, it was “not a liability issue anymore because it happened so long ago”(257). But in 2003, the lawsuits finally ended with Monsanto agreeing to a $400 million settlement. Yet the attorneys received 40 percent of this money because they were working on a percentage, leaving a great deal of resentment over the attorney fees and a continuing struggle to recoup some of that money today. Plus the cleanup procedures uprooted people from their homes, disrupted ways of life, and destroyed communities. There was no real win for the people who Monsanto had made suffer.

This review is a bit unbalanced compared to the focus of the book. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the in depth discussions of the trials and aftermath might be a bit lengthy, taking up about third of the book. Yet while not every detail might be of particular use to scholars, it probably does engage general readers who are interested in how the case developed and who wins and who loses in these struggles. Overall, it’s a very good book, a quality addition to the literature, and likely on my syllabus the next time I teach a graduate seminar in Environmental History.

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Big Corn, Dumb Reporters

[ 116 ] April 24, 2015 |

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We often vilify agribusiness and rightfully so. But the actual farmers growing the crops of agribusiness are just people trying to make a living in a capitalist system that constantly makes their lives more difficult, forcing consolidation that ends a way of life whether in Iowa, Mexico, or India. Grist profiles and humanizes some of these Iowa farmers, a useful short read.

Speaking of food and Iowa, the new frontrunner for the stupidest article about the presidential race award, outside of every Maureen Dowd column, is this one wondering whether Jeb Bush’s weight loss will make him out of touch with the fat people in Iowa and other flyover states he needs to win.

Atrios:

One of the worst trait of political reporters is to think their contempt for flyover country means they understand it, instead of just meaning that that they hate the great unwashed they perpetually pretend they’re giving voice to.

It’s like when Candy Crowley flipped her shit because John Kerry, prostate cancer sufferer, dared to try to order Green Tea. If you live in Real America you know that every supermarket sells a variety of types of tea, and that either restaurants have or don’t have a basket of random tea options. Either they do or they don’t. People in kabumfuck Iowa might have actually experienced something other than deep fried Twinkies with a side of Coke in their lives, and it’s journalists, not politicians, who are being elitist assholes for assuming otherwise.

The complete lack of understanding so many journalists have about what life outside of the coasts is like is amazing until you realize they never actually go to these places except during primary season.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Democratic Party

[ 57 ] April 24, 2015 |

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Since Obama conned enough Democrats in the Senate to work with the capitalists for fast track authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the debate over the TPP within the Democratic Party has been interesting because other than Obama and senators who are not particularly influential to the public debate like Ron Wyden, there has been almost no support for it. Of course there are very good reasons why most Democrats oppose fast track. Eric Schneiderman, attorney general of New York, discusses one of them in detail, which is the TPP’s potential to undermine state and national laws through the Investor State Dispute Settlement provision.

One provision of TPP would create an entirely separate system of justice: special tribunals to hear and decide claims by foreign investors that their corporate interests are being harmed by a nation that is part of the agreement. This Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision would allow large multinational corporations to sue a signatory country for actions taken by its federal, state or local elected or appointed officials that the foreign corporation claims hurt its bottom line.

This should give pause to all members of Congress, who will soon be asked to vote on fast-track negotiating authority to close the agreement. But it is particularly worrisome to those of us in states, such as New York, with robust laws that protect the public welfare — laws that could be undermined by the TPP and its dispute settlement provision.

To put this in real terms, consider a foreign corporation, located in a country that has signed on to TPP, and which has an investment interest in the Indian Point nuclear power facility in New York’s Westchester County. Under TPP, that corporate investor could seek damages from the United States, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars or more, for actions by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Westchester Country Board of Legislators or even the local Village Board that lead to a delay in the relicensing or an increase in the operating costs of the facility.

The very threat of having to face such a suit in the uncharted waters of an international tribunal could have a chilling effect on government policymakers and regulators.

This simply cannot stand. Given how aggressive corporations are increasingly becoming in going after nations who restrict their profits, it’s very much something to worry about. Elizabeth Warren:

Those justifications don’t make sense anymore, if they ever did. Countries in the TPP are hardly emerging economies with weak legal systems. Australia and Japan have well-developed, well-respected legal systems, and multinational corporations navigate those systems every day, but ISDS would preempt their courts too. And to the extent there are countries that are riskier politically, market competition can solve the problem. Countries that respect property rights and the rule of law — such as the United States — should be more competitive, and if a company wants to invest in a country with a weak legal system, then it should buy political-risk insurance.

The use of ISDS is on the rise around the globe. From 1959 to 2002, there were fewer than 100 ISDS claims worldwide. But in 2012 alone, there were 58 cases. Recent cases include a French company that sued Egypt because Egypt raised its minimum wage, a Swedish company that sued Germany because Germany decided to phase out nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, and a Dutch company that sued the Czech Republic because the Czechs didn’t bail out a bank that the company partially owned. U.S. corporations have also gotten in on the action: Philip Morris is trying to use ISDS to stop Uruguay from implementing new tobacco regulations intended to cut smoking rates.

ISDS advocates point out that, so far, this process hasn’t harmed the United States. And our negotiators, who refuse to share the text of the TPP publicly, assure us that it will include a bigger, better version of ISDS that will protect our ability to regulate in the public interest. But with the number of ISDS cases exploding and more and more multinational corporations headquartered abroad, it is only a matter of time before such a challenge does serious damage here. Replacing the U.S. legal system with a complex and unnecessary alternative — on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong — seems like a really bad idea

If you like corporate control over the world, you’ll LOVE the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The pushback among the Democratic base has some really interesting facets to it because of the question of what Hillary Clinton is going to do here. There is no realistic wedge issue in the primary because there is no meaningful primary regardless of how much Martin O’Malley hopes this can be a wedge issue. But there really could be a real battle within the party over the TPP. Even people such as Matthew Yglesias are noting that all the arguments the administration is making for the agreement don’t really make sense (as for the unions’ opposition which he also says doesn’t make sense, it’s certainly true that there’s nothing keeping the remnant industrial jobs in the U.S. at this point anyway, but unions have to try and stop the bleeding somehow. What else are they going to do? Plus the ISDS provisions could theoretically be used against labor agreements nationally and internationally). So one question worth asking is whether it makes political sense for Hillary Clinton to come out against the deal instead of trying not to provide any meaningful answers about her positions? Certainly doing so would enamor her to the base and really put a stake in any potential primary difficulties. On the other hand, she almost certainly supports the deal and doesn’t want to make Wall Street mad. So I think she’ll probably keep doing what she’s doing. But there is a real risk here because leading senators with national consistencies like Warren and Sanders are going to keep the attack going.

So just from a political perspective this is going to be interesting. As for Obama, he is now engaging in a full attack on his own party over the TPP. The White House blog has been nothing but hatchet jobs in favor of the TPP for a long time, but who really reads that anyway. Obama is now calling up favored reporters to attack Elizabeth Warren and other leading Democrats who oppose the bill. To no small extent, he is wrapping a major part of his legacy up in this bill and he is simply out of touch with working class Americans and the people who elected him president. Obama hasn’t done anything in this agreement to protect everyday Americans. And he deserves the criticism he is getting.

I borrowed the image above from the 350.org petition against the TPP which you can sign here.

The $70,000 Capitalist

[ 130 ] April 24, 2015 |

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The credit card processing executive who decided he would raise the minimum wage for his company to $70,000 a year got a lot of attention this week. It’s certainly an interesting experiment at the very least. Got to give it to the guy–he probably made a really smart long-term business decision because all of a sudden he’s famous and that may well attract a lot of new clients. The exchange of short-term personal profit for long-term growth is pretty unorthodox in this era of the quarterly profit report. Of course this could never ever happen in a publicly traded company. The long-term significance of this experiment is probably not all that great, but at least it’s a sign that income inequality and CEO pay are real issues that at least someone is taking seriously.

What’s more interesting to me is the total right-wing freakout.

Sandi Krakowski, an author and Facebook marketing expert, posted on Twitter: “His mind-set will hurt everyone in the end. He’s young. He has a good intent, but wrong method.”

Patrick R. Rogers, an associate professor of strategic management at the School of Business and Economics at North Carolina A&T State University, wrote in an email: “The sad thing is that Mr. Price probably thinks happy workers are productive workers. However, there’s just no evidence that this is true. So he’ll improve happiness, only in the short term, and will not improve productivity. Which doesn’t bode well for his long-term viability as a firm.”

Perhaps the most prominent attacker was Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host, who labeled the move “pure, unadulterated socialism, which has never worked.”

He added: “That’s why I hope this company is a case study in M.B.A. programs on how socialism does not work, because it’s going to fail.”

Most critics were not as ideological as Mr. Limbaugh but were nevertheless put off by Mr. Price’s deviation from trusting in the market, both to set wages (his own as chief executive and that of his employees) and to maximize his own profits. Overpaying workers may make them lazy and is likely to inspire resentment among colleagues who once sat on the higher end of the pay divide, they warned.

During an interview with Mr. Price on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the co-host Mika Brzezinski noted that people would probably say “you’re a terrible manager.”

Another guest, Sam Stein, an editor at The Huffington Post, was simply flummoxed. “Are you crazy?” he asked.

Three things come to mind reading these responses. First, is the religious belief in “the market,” which is presented as this natural force like gravity but which of course is nothing but a serious of decisions made by humans about how to organize their economy. The idea that one would interfere with this natural force that tells you to make as much money as possible and screw everyone else is an apostasy that must be ridiculed and crushed. Second is the lies that well-compensated workers aren’t productive. There is of course an enormous literature suggesting that happy workers are indeed productive workers. Here is just one piece of that literature. The upshot of Patrick Rogers position is that corporations should treat workers as poorly as they can since there is no connection between happy workers and productive workers. So we might as well drive them like slaves. Which is basically the economic ideology of the New Gilded Age. Third, is the idea that this guy is committing class suicide, betraying the world of executives and giving credence to those who think that the government might need to do more to regulate income inequality and CEO pay. Limbaugh blathering about socialism once again shows that he doesn’t actually know what socialism is, but also demonstrates just what a threat this move is for the vast majority of American capitalists and their lackeys.

Acquaintance Cards

[ 27 ] April 24, 2015 |

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It seems that if hipsters really want to be all steampunk, they might as well bring back acquaintance cards and other routines of 19th century versions of courting. Surely someone has done this. Think of the ironic courting statements a good hipster could write on one of these!!!

Hippie Tour

[ 24 ] April 23, 2015 |

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In 1967, a company was giving bus tours of the Haight for squares wondering what this whole hippie thing was about. Here’s a story and some photos taken on one of these tours by a reporter interested in the phenomenon. Cool stuff.

Punishing Protest

[ 32 ] April 23, 2015 |

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Nice that participating in a protest to get your state to accept the provisions of the Affordable Care Act gets one in seriously hot water at the University of Georgia.

Steel and the Trans Pacific Partnership

[ 42 ] April 23, 2015 |

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There aren’t a lot of steel jobs in the U.S. anymore but the ones that remain are about the disappear as U.S. Steel announces more layoffs. At the core of layoffs is unrestricted free trade that undermines the ability of American corporations to sell its own steel because it has to pay workers decent union wages and abide by environmental standards. The Trans Pacific Partnership will just continue to undermine the ability of Americans to work industrial jobs. And before we argue this is a good thing, note that for all the workers, like the rest of the American working class, they face unemployment, decreased earnings, and increased instability in their lives. Every United Steel Workers job lost means less ability for unions to influence American economic and social policy, giving more power to corporations and moving the New Gilded Age another step forward. Those who continue to say that these free trade agreements like the TPP need to reckon with these realities, especially liberals who do not trust corporations at home but want to empower them overseas. Everything that is wrong with this nation in the New Gilded Age can be traced back to the decline of union jobs and the disappearance of working class voices from politics.

A Timeline of DDT and Rachel Carson

[ 17 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Might as well mark Earth Day, that once meaningful day that now gives corporations an opportunity to pretend they care about the planet. Let’s note it a different way. American Scientist put together a useful timeline of the history of DDT and Rachel Carson, particularly how both have been discussed in the media. Quite worthy of a bit of your time.

Today in the History of Cannibalism

[ 77 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Another reason I’m glad the U.S. broke free from these savages in 1776:

Some 14,700 years ago, in a cave in southwest England, humans were dining on the flesh of other humans and drinking from their skulls.

We know of these gory events because the Paleolithic inhabitants of this natural shelter—which is called Gough’s Cave today—left an enormous amount of fossil evidence of cannibalism, in addition to amassing a large cache of animal and human bones.

But wait, it gets creepier. According to a study published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution, the bulk of the disturbing remains were deposited within a short period of time, suggesting a sudden and brutal occupation.

Moreover, the authors of the study, led by paleontologist Silvia Bello of London’s Natural History Museum, identified new evidence of ritual bone modification from the cave.

“The human remains have been the subject of several studies,” Bello said in a statement. “In a previous analysis, we could determine that the cranial remains had been carefully modified to make skull-cups.”

“During this research, however, we’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded earlier,” she continued. “We’ve found evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow.”

This of course would never happen in a civilized country like the United States.

Journalism in the New Gilded Age

[ 47 ] April 22, 2015 |

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This certainly makes one feel bad about the future of journalism.

One of today’s Pulitzer winners for local reporting isn’t actually a reporter anymore.

The Daily Breeze’s Rob Kuznia won the prize alongside Rebecca Kimitch for a series on corruption in the Torrance, California school district. Now the former reporter, who had more than 15 years’ experience covering local affairs, is celebrating the career high in his new job… as a publicist.

Apparently, as Kuznia co-reported the award-winning series, he was slowly getting squeezed out of the journalism racket.

Appended to the LA Observed’s coverage of the awards was the following bittersweet update:

We should note that Kuznia left the Breeze and journalism last year and is currently a publicist in the communications department of USC Shoah Foundation. I spoke with him this afternoon and he admitted to a twinge of regret at no longer being a journalist, but he said it was too difficult to make ends meet at the newspaper while renting in the LA area.

The effective elimination of the profession that is most likely to expose the problems of the present sure is a great way for corporations and politicians to protect their behavior. What I do isn’t exactly journalism but I can do it because I have a full-time job of a very specific kind. Those I know who are freelancing and trying to make ends meet without being the partner of someone rich is really hard to watch. Its just a constant struggle. Even the best journalists have to leave the profession in order to eat.

Walmart Union Busting

[ 35 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Oh Walmart. You are so evil.

Wal-Mart suddenly closed five stores in four states on Monday for alleged plumbing problems.

The closures could last up to six months and affect roughly 2,200 workers in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Florida, CNN Money reports.

Wal-Mart employees say they were completely blindsided by the news, having been notified only a couple hours before the stores closed at 7 p.m. Monday.

“Everybody just panicked and started crying,” Venanzi Luna, a manager at a store in Pico Rivera, California, told CNN Money.

All workers will receive paid leave for two months. After that, full-time workers could become eligible for severance, according to CNN Money. But part-time workers will be on their own.

Local officials and employees have questioned Wal-Mart’s reasoning for the closures.

Why were these stores closed? Because they had activist employees.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said it planned to seek an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board on Monday compelling retailer Wal-Mart to rehire 2,200 employees at five recently closed stores.

The UFCW claims that Wal-Mart Stores closed its Pico Rivera location — one of the five stores — in the Los Angeles area in retaliation for protests by workers there in recent years seeking higher pay and benefits.

The voice of a worker at the Pico Rivera store:

“This is a new low, even for Walmart,” said Venanzi Luna, an eight-year Walmart worker and long-time OUR Walmart member. “It’s just so heartless to put thousands of your employees out of a job with no clear explanation on just a few hours’ notice. We know that Walmart is scared of all we have accomplished as members of OUR Walmart so they’re targeting us. Through OUR Walmart, we’re going to keep fighting back until the company gives us our jobs back. It’s unfortunate that Walmart has chosen to hurt the lives of so many people, just to try to conceal their real motives of silencing workers just like they’ve always done.”

Interestingly, this comes at the same time that the UFCW is pulling back its commitment for the expensive and rather unproductive Walmart campaign is has funded.

I suspect there will be more details about these Walmart closings coming out in subsequent days.

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