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[ 60 ] April 22, 2013 |

Dylan Matthews’ list of ways to reduce violence without gun control starts with one that cannot be stated strongly enough. The decline of lead exposure over the past decades is probably the single biggest reason why violent crime has dropped so much since the 1970s:

None of the above. The real answer, it’s now becoming clear, is lead. In the 1970s, the environmental movement succeeded in getting lead out of gasoline and household paint, and the result has been smarter, less violent kids. Economist Rick Nevin has found that, if you add a 23-year lag, variations in lead exposure explain 90 percent of the variation in crime rates in the United States.

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at the Amherst College, found that declining lead exposure caused a 56 percent decline in crime from 1992 to 2002, a decline that was reversed by other factors to leave the actual decline at 34 percent over that period. Wolpe Reyes has also found significant effects on childhood delinquency and academic performance. The correlations are simply staggering.

This is one reason why I focus so much on environmental exposure and working conditions in my writing. These issues not only affect people in the short-term, but they are absolutely central to solving larger societal problems, including violence.

Earth Day

[ 79 ] April 22, 2013 |

Today is Earth Day, also known as the one day a year Americans pretend that they care about the environment.

In 1970, Earth Day seemed like the beginning of a radical change in American life.

To say the least, it didn’t turn out that way. Even though the 70s saw a number of crises that seemed as if it might create radical transformations in Americans’ relationship with the environment, particularly the two oil crises and rising gas prices that began to spur government investment in alternative fuels, the nation quickly backed away from anything more than cosmetic changes to the national lifestyle. Today, it seems that hardly anyone cares. Polls show less concern about the environment than in 1970. Climate change is a backburner issue that drives virtually no political agenda.

That’s not to say real gains weren’t made. One problem the environmental movement faces is that the visceral causes of environmentalism in the 60s were mostly solved by the early 80s. Our rivers don’t catch on fire anymore, we don’t see smoke belching out of smokestacks, and we mostly live lives relatively distanced from the downsides of industrial nature (although there are obvious exceptions to this, such as West, Texas). Of course, much of this comes from the fact that we have outsourced industrial risk to Asia and Latin America. I am just old enough to remember the anti-littering campaigns of the early 80s. Woodsy the Owl made a big impact on people of my generation. Who really litters these days? So things look clean and we don’t choke so we don’t worry about it much.

But the environmental movement also faces the fact that for a lot of Americans, accepting the idea of limits is anathema to the national psyche. Atrios asks today why Americans drove so much between the mid-80s and mid-90s, when the miles driven exploded? There are a number of answers to that question. Exurbs (people commuting 100 miles from South Carolina to Atlanta for work–1 way), SUVs, very cheap oil, enough economic activity to fund driving vacations, etc. But at the heart of it all was Americans rejecting the limits of the 1970s and embracing Reagan’s America of no limits, big rhetoric, and big manly vehicles that kept us safe from the blahs when we drove from our lily-white suburbs into those dangerous cities to work.

It’s possible that some environmental factors are improving, particularly the rapid decline in young people’s driving rates, although that’s largely for cultural than environmental reasons. If the U.S. becomes more like Europe, that’s good. It’s less good as the rest of the world becomes more like the U.S. But you take what you can get.

Nonetheless, it’d be nice if Earth Day was something more than a one-off event once a year with less meaning for the average American than Labor Day.

The Final Frontier

[ 35 ] April 22, 2013 |

The Arctic is truly the final fishing frontier. Like in the entire history of the human race.


[ 37 ] April 21, 2013 |

I’m all for the FCC being completely fine with David Ortiz saying “fuck” in his speech before the Red Sox game yesterday. On the other hand, it would be nice if the FCC would more generally assume people are grown-ups and allow the language used in everyday life to be part of mass media on a more general basis. I’m not sure that reserving the word for political occasions where the agency’s head deems it appropriate has much value.

West Fertilizer Violated Federal Anti-Terror Regulations

[ 133 ] April 21, 2013 |

Does it go too far to call the West Fertilizer Corporation a terrorist corporation for its actions that led to the explosion that has killed at least 14 people so far, a number that could still go higher, and destroyed much of the town of West, Texas? Perhaps it goes too far to use such a term. On the other hand, the West Fertilizer Corporation actually violated federal anti-terrorism law:

The fertilizer plant that exploded on Wednesday, obliterating part of a small Texas town and killing at least 14 people, had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate – which can also be used in bomb making – unaware of any danger there.

Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.

A U.S. congressman and several safety experts called into question on Friday whether incomplete disclosure or regulatory gridlock may have contributed to the disaster.

“It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-MS), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”

That’s a pretty incredible violation. It’s hardly the only problem with the plant. Last summer, it was fined $10,000 for safety violations, although that was reduced after the company ameliorated the problem. It last received an OSHA inspection in 1985, when it was fined $30. The town itself is devastated, not only because of the 14 dead but because of the destruction of its infrastructure.

So what punishment should the owners of the West Fertilizer Corporation receive? Should they be treated like other violators of anti-terrorism law? They killed far more people than the Tsarnaev brothers. Should they be charged with murder? Should they even serve prison time? It’s highly unlikely that even the latter will happen given the amount we excuse anti-social corporate behavior. Corporations now have free speech rights but they don’t have personal responsibility.

Of course, the real question is how many other ticking time bombs are in communities around the nation? There are few industries with the potential for massive disaster of fertilizer, but between petroleum, chemicals, and mining, there are all sorts of communities suffering from enormous environmental and workplace safety problems. Grain elevators with poor safety standards litter much of the nation. Then there’s industries most of us don’t even think about, like fertilizer. Without a far more vigorous regulatory structure with real consequences for corporations, workers and communities will continue to bear avoidable burdens. It might be a long time before we see a workplace disaster this bad again (although it will eventually happen in coal), but smaller disasters will kill 1, 2, 5 workers in various places, while the poor will contract cancer, black lung, and other diseases from their inability to escape exposure to industrialized nature and the consequences of corporate malfeasance.


[ 15 ] April 21, 2013 |

As we should all have expected, the Paraguayan quasi-coup that forced Fernando Lugo out of office seems to have worked out pretty well for the oligarchs, likely ushering them back into power and making the poor cynical that any political movement could improve their lot.


[ 56 ] April 21, 2013 |

Principled conservative Ted Cruz calls federal relief for Hurricane Sandy pork, wants federal relief after fertilizer plant explosion in Texas.

Medieval Medical Experiments

[ 46 ] April 20, 2013 |

Learning about the oldest existing dead body used for medical experiments does not make me feel any less queasy about medieval Europe, but it is most certainly quite interesting. I’m not going to put the image up though. It’s kind of disturbing.

But radiocarbon dating put the specimen firmly in the 1200s, making it the oldest European anatomical preparation known. Most surprisingly, Charlier said, the veins and arteries are filled with a mixture of beeswax, lime and cinnabar mercury. This would have helped preserve the body as well as give the circulatory system some color, as cinnabar mercury has a red tint.

Thus, the man’s body was not simply dissected and tossed away; it was preserved, possibly for continued medical education, Charlier said. The man’s identity, however, is forever lost. He could have been a prisoner, an institutionalized person, or perhaps a pauper whose body was never claimed, the researchers write this month in the journal Archives of Medical Science.

The specimen, which is in private hands, is set to go on display at the Parisian Museum of the History of Medicine, Charlier said.

It’s kind of creepy to buy something like that. Do you display it in the front room for visitors? Use it to frighten children?

Ornette Coleman’s White House Band

[ 40 ] April 20, 2013 |

Ornette Coleman’s 1980 attempt to put together an all-white cover band of his own songs in order to create an audience for his music, since white people were more willing to listen to white musicians than black musicians is interesting, odd, and a little sad.

“Why have form follow function when you can have form follow acid trip and no function at all?”

[ 98 ] April 20, 2013 |

This is great for anyone who rolls their eyes at celebrity architects and the absurd non-functioning buildings they construct.

Celebrated Spanish Architect Santiago Calatrava (whose WTC PATH station is interminably under-construction and insanely over-budget), has now been asked by a Spanish winery to fix a leaky roof, after his Ysios winery, with its miraculous undulating roof, has failed to keep out rain.

The owner of the winery is so fed up with trying to patch the roof, it wants money from the original architect to pay for hiring someone to build a new roof. This demand comes after another one of Calatrava’s buildings, the Palau de Les Art in Valencia, has had its ceramic outer skin begin to slowly wrinkle and “its tiles have started to shake loose.” The city also wants some of its money back.

Calatrava said that “his honour was wounded” by these requests. Other projects have also shown signs of structural failure — a bridge in Bilbao is known as the “wipe-out” bridge as people have slipped and fallen on it. Authorities in Bilbabo now have “to spend up to €6,000 a year replacing broken tiles.” Cities are constantly complaining to Calatrava about the budget of his projects, which often run double their anticipated price and cannot be altered by anyone but Calatrava.

The post title comes from a comment in the link.

Can We Also Desecrate the Grave of Warren Burger?

[ 64 ] April 19, 2013 |

Minnesota Republicans are up in arms because the Minnesota Historical Society wants to commission a bust of Harry Blackmun. Why are they going crazy? Because Blackmun was one of the justices who legalized abortion in 1973.

Zoning and Nuisance Industries

[ 64 ] April 18, 2013 |

One of the fundamental questions about the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion is why a fertilizer plant was located right in a town, with a nursing home, middle school, and homes close enough to be destroyed if the plant blew up. Fertilizer plants are a ticking time bomb. We don’t know too much yet about the history of the plant, though we do know that it filed a document with the EPA saying it presented no risk for fire or explosion. Given the lack of regulatory capability in the modern American government (with current staffing, it would take OSHA inspectors 129 years to inspect every worksite in America), we have decided to trust corporations to self-regulate. Last night is an example of why that is a very bad idea and why we need a much more activist government with regular inspections of all workplaces and significant fines for violations.

Part of the problem here is the history of American land use and the lack of state control over development. Texas is especially bad on this point, since several cities, including Houston, have no zoning at all. But there is a history, albeit relatively limited, of cities declaring industries as nuisances and banishing them outside of town. Between 1692 and 1708, several Massachusetts towns, including Boston, Salem, and Charlestown, banished so-called “nuisance trades” outside of town. These were mostly slaughterhouses and tanneries.

But outside of New England, there was never much tradition of separating people from industry no matter how bad the health risk. The meatpacking district of Gilded Age Chicago might be the most notorious, but there are any number of examples. The rise of zoning in the 20th century helped alleviate some of these problems. By creating industrial districts, it served to protect Americans from the health hazards of manufacturing. But industrial zoning was largely a municipal rather than federal or state project, meaning that corporations had a tremendous amount of influence on the process. Zoning is not a perfect solution, largely because its local control means that racial prejudice can easily be replicated onto the landscape, but for the purpose of keeping Americans safe from hazards, it’s the best tool we have.

As commenters have pointed out, the fertilizer plant in West is hardly the only example we have of poorly sited industrial projects that threaten large numbers of people. But in examining this tragedy, we have to ask what we could have done to mitigate it. One question revolves around how the fire started and turned into an explosion. That’s under investigation, but when you are dealing with fertilizer there are very real risks. A vigorous regulatory program and strong unions would help a lot, but neither would completely eliminate risks in a nuisance industry like fertilizer. So given the inherent dangers of nuisance industries, why are they located near cities? The answer of course is corporate control over American life.

The move of meatpacking out of Chicago and into the rural Midwest was in part a union-busting move, and in fact meatpackers treat their largely immigrant labor forces terribly, but it actually does make sense to site meatpacking plants in southwestern Kansas, where they will harm fewer people. The same is true of fertilizer production. The government needs to play a more active role in deciding where dangerous and nuisance industries will be located. I am a historian and not a journalist, so I don’t have the time to investigate the specific history of the factory in West. But it doesn’t really matter for the broader point. If factories preexist neighborhoods, zoning needs to keep residents out. If neighborhoods preexist factories, zoning needs to move factories to more isolated places. After all, it’s not like you couldn’t build that factory 10 miles west of West and have it in a much less populated and safer place, basically the scrub country where George W. Bush used to show off his brush-cutting skills in order to score cheap political points.

Let me close by quoting Bill Minutaglio from the Texas Observer:

Because I wrote a book about The Texas City Disaster, my phone began ringing last night with reporters asking about parallels between West and Texas City. A public radio producer who said he wasn’t from Texas wanted to know if it was common to have industrial facilities, like the ones in West, close to residential areas, to schools, to a nursing home. He wanted to know if that kind of thing was “grandfathered” in.

I told him it was complex, and we talked about an inherited political and economic ethos in Texas. That the anti-oversight credo runs deep. It’s in the state’s bedrock. And that, over time, the results are painfully predictable: There will be another explosion (there have been others, more recent ones, in Texas City). There will be more loss of life. And the same questions will emerge—and probably dissipate: What could have been done? Was there enough oversight?

Of course there wasn’t enough oversight. But it’s a cultural problem. We believe capitalists look out for everyone’s interests and that as a society we should cater to the needs of the rich. When we do that, people pay with their lives.

….Here’s an aerial map of West, showing the fertilizer plant’s proximity to the rest of town.

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