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How to Regulate Production

[ 14 ] December 14, 2014 |

Imagine if this was the standard for regulating production rather than the exception that took a decade of hard struggle to win:

Growers in the Fair Food Program are prohibited from firing workers who complain about working conditions. Paychecks must be calculated based on electronic time card systems, which are difficult to fudge. Growers must hire their workers directly rather than through labor contractors, comply with surprise inspections, and they have to fire supervisors who abuse or sexually harass worker, or who allow children to work in their fields. Workers’ complaints, collected via a 24-7 hotline, are investigated within two days of being received.

If the FFSC finds that a grower both failed to follow the rules and failed to correct them once caught, the corporate buyer switches to another approved grower, and the noncompliant grower loses business.

This fall, Whole Foods was the first retailer to introduce the Fair Food Label, a labeling program for tomatoes grown under FFSC, in stores. “It’s been a wonderful program,” says Erik Brown, senior global produce buyer for Whole Foods, adding that it helped him to bring “dignity” to his work.

In the program’s first four years, FFSC staff interviewed 7,500 workers in person, and processed nearly 600 complaints from workers, according to the report. Of those, the FFSC found about 40 percent were valid reports of violations of the Fair Food Program; another third of complaints were for conditions not covered by the program. Over the same period, the FFSC suspended seven growers from its program.

This should be the standard, with routine real inspections and a process to deal with problems. This is what needs to happen everywhere from the apparel factories of Bangladesh to the vegetable farms of Mexico. Anywhere that sends products to the United States. Instead, this is a unique program developed in response to a decade or organizing the Florida tomato fields by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a union of Latino farmworkers. The CIW is hoping to expand this to the state’s berry fields and spread it around the nation. That would be great. But it shouldn’t take this level of organizing to win these kinds of inspections. They should be government mandated.

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Book Review: Hecht, Morrison, and Padoch, eds. The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence

[ 2 ] December 14, 2014 |

For those interested in environmentalism, the dominant narrative of the state of the forests is one of decline and collapse in the face of industrial development. While wilderness protection was won for some American forests in the second half of the twentieth century, around the world, the decline of the rainforest in the wake of logging, ranching, and slash-and-burn farming makes first world environmentalists fear for the planet’s future. In this narrative, forests are largely seen as the victims of humans, despoiled wildernesses that properly should not be centers of human economic activity.

The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence, edited by Susanna Hecht, Kathleen Morrison, and Christine Padoch,
pushes back against this narrative by focusing on forest economies and forest history to argue for a more complex examination of human interactions with the forests. Largely examining tropical forests, the twenty-eight essays that make up this collection situates forests within communities, stressing the necessity of nuanced understandings of their role in regional economies if we want to have a realistic shot of not letting them all go under the saws of industrial logging.

Behind the ways we think about forests is that poor people have an outright negative impact upon them. James Fairhead and Melissa Leach analyze how social scientists have talked about environmental degradation in west African forests to note that scholars see the landscape as degraded. But actually examining the historical advance of vegetation shows this is categorically not true. Using historical photographs and narratives going back to the eighteenth century, they show there is no discernible difference in the level of vegetation for much of the area. Similarly, while the Sahel is often portrayed as encroaching desert because of human activity, Chris Reij argues that Niger especially has actually re-greened the area to a significant extent, with a significant national gain in tree cover over the last twenty years.

Historians have noted how the creation of wilderness has often led to the expulsion of people’s traditional use of that land. That continues today in the developing world. Among many problems with this is that it creates resentment toward those forests and the animals within them. Without a strong government presence, these colonialist parks can’t be properly guarded and thus can actually be counterproductive in the long-term for environmentalist goals. Moreover, while in Europe, as Roderick Neumann states in his essay, has long seen biodiversity woven into history and culture, these very Europeans are conceiving of tropical biodiversity as completely separate from human history and culture.

Several essays discuss the human history and anthropology of tropical forests. Rather than be seen as untrammeled wilderness, it’s important that we understand these forests have long had human involvement. The essay by Heckenberger, et al., shows the “massive forest alterations” people created in the pre-Columbian Amazon, with earthworks, roads, and artificial ponds still observable. David Lentz and Brian Lane explore the long-term effects of an early Mayan site on the forests of Belize today, where trees of economic importance to the Maya are still more common than usual in areas of former population centers than the forest as a whole. Are these forests wilderness today? Does the term even have value? Should the nature/culture divide be broken down? The overarching theme of these essays is yes on the latter question.

When we do think of tropical forests and industrial production, John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfector remind us that most of these forests are fragmented, not fully deforested, which makes a significant difference in how we perceive of environmental problems and solutions. If we see everything through a lost Eden declension narrative, the will to solve problems with the forests that remain become much more difficult. And when people leave the forests to move to cities, they often still rely on the forest for their livelihood, an important issue for crafting forest policy according to Padoch, et al in their essay on the people and forests around Pucallpa, Peru. And in fact, people will need to make a living off the forest and do in creative ways, including minority populations in the uplands of Southeast Asia producing forest tea that they can and do market in a sophisticated manner to discerning rich consumers. Commercialized agricultural is also transforming many forests, including the Laos uplands as Yayoi Fujita Lagerquvist details. This has led to a lot of landscape degradation but understanding the choices farmers have made are important for governments to craft more environmentally and socially responsible policies.

Are there lessons we can learn from these essays for forest management here in the United States? Only one of the twenty-eight chapters discusses the U.S., but I think it’s useful to explore it. Peter Crane, et al write about the “Chicago Wilderness,” or the biodiversity hotspot that surrounds Chicago. Of course, not much of that is in anything close to a pristine state and even the open spaces are often overrun with invasive species. Yet managing those open spaces for both biodiversity and human enjoyment has great potential to bring people and the forest together for a lot of people who can’t make it to the great wilderness areas of the West. That’s what is happening in Chicago by organizations bringing volunteers and children into the wilderness for rehabilitation projects and education efforts. This is also why I like a lot of what The Nature Conservancy does. That organization is I think often unfairly maligned for the compromises it makes with corporations but it goes a long ways to preserve small spots, often near urban areas, that do a lot to promote biodiversity and help urban dwellers engage with the natural world.

To quote Hecht: “As forests become increasingly pivotal in global climate politics, understanding the dynamics of forest transitions, successions, and their social underpinnings—the social lives of forests—is a critical step for whatever resilience we might hope for in the maelstrom of twenty-first century climate change” (113). This sums up the book’s social purpose. If we see forests as “lost” whenever humans work in them, what we lose is the ability to marshal the resources we have to deal with global environmental problems while also giving local people a chance to live.

The Social Lives of Forests
is probably too technical for general readers. The essays range from fairly detailed short histories of forests to heavily data-driven articles. But for those concerned with the long-term sustainability of the global environment, the insights in these essays are very useful.

Heisman

[ 5 ] December 13, 2014 |

The greatest has won.

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Post Oat Flakes

[ 9 ] December 13, 2014 |

Discuss

Post-Racial America

[ 49 ] December 13, 2014 |

Structural racism is obviously dead in this country:

White households’ median wealth ticked up to $141,900 in 2013, up 2.4 percent from three years earlier, according to a Pew Research Center report released Friday.

Net worth for black households dropped by a third during that time to $11,000. Hispanic families experienced a 14 percent decline in wealth to $13,700.

Whites have 13 times the net worth of blacks, the largest wealth gap that’s existed since George H.W. Bush was president in 1989. The ratio of net worth between whites and Hispanics now stands at more than 10, the widest it has been since 2001.

Much of the focus in recent years has been the growth in income inequality, with the Top 1 percent capturing most of the post-Recession gains. But wealth inequality is also troubling.

There are several reasons for the growing gap, says Pew, citing Federal Reserve Bank data.

Minority households’ median income fell 9% between 2010 and 2013, compared to a drop of only 1% for whites. So minority households may not have been able to sock away as much or may have had to use more of their savings to cover expenses.

13 times the net worth of blacks. Post-racial America indeed.

Those Douche Country Bros Are Whiny Boys

[ 137 ] December 13, 2014 |

The purveyors of bro-country (I prefer douche country myself) are real sensitive to women criticizing their idiotic and terrible songs. I hope those guys are giving each other manly bro-hugs to console themselves before writing another song about a half-naked women riding in the back of their pickup to their favorite rural swimming hole.

The Conservation Biology Divide

[ 37 ] December 13, 2014 |

Conservation biologists are currently in another civil war over the meaning of the field. In short, should conservation be concerned more with humans or should it be concerned more with biodiversity? I find these conversations frustrating because they are so either/or. In other words, they reflect the larger debate among environmentalists over the past several decades around wilderness and the role of humans. Are humans strictly destructive and thus nature should be protected from humans or should we just accept the reality that there is no pristine and realize that the rest of the world is probably going to start looking like Europe, with a heavily managed and overpopulated landscape, albeit not one without any green spaces?

As much as I love wilderness, it’s more likely that the long-term answer is accepting human activity in most spaces in some way, even if that does cost some biodiversity. The major reason for this is political. Keeping people out is a short-term possibility but if people don’t develop a respect for environmental values, if those government structures begin to tumble, or are not strong to being with, it becomes really hard to enforce those legal restrictions. Plus, restricting people from land can cause resentment and incentivize poaching and other activities that can have a political angle against the wealthy white people from around the world coming to take their safaris instead of letting me farm this land so I am going to kill the animals they like plus feed my family. The best case scenario here is probably a Costa Rica, where you do have a lot of preserved land and a lot of biodiversity protected and mass deforestation everywhere else.

The Nature Conservancy ends up playing an outsized role in these debates. I like The Nature Conservancy because I think it is vitally important that small spaces are protected for the masses to visit. Yes, TNC works with corporations. No, they are not pure. But there are many rivers of environmentalism and ensuring that a piece of land outside Providence is not developed because some unique plants live there actually has value, both in preserving that biodiversity and in providing green spaces to people. But a lot of conservation biologists loathe this organization for, essentially, being sell-outs.

In any case, even within a single discipline there needs to be room for different methods and goals. It’s not like if all the conservation biologists stand together, the world is going to listen. All the climate scientists are standing together and the powerful just call their science a hoax. Rather, while these debates should exist in a field, I don’t think it’s particularly productive to go to war over them. After all, here I am writing about this and not noting some recent victory in the field of conservation.

Put Your Face On and Forget It

[ 15 ] December 12, 2014 |

Discuss

Questions That Aren’t So Hard to Answer

[ 61 ] December 12, 2014 |

Here we have yet another article on the decline of the middle class, by which of course the author actually means the words you can’t say in America–the working class. In other words, we had good paying jobs that allowed people to be upwardly mobile. Now we don’t. And now I’m going to write 2000 words on the mystery of why this is instead of just saying the obvious, which is that corporate greed led to massive outsourcing which undercut unions which undercut the ability of the working class to influence policy. This led to policies allowing the elite to concentrate wealth in their own bank accounts they could use to create policies even more favorable to themselves. Thus the jobless recoveries, purchasing of elections (and even more influence in policy!), shrinking economic safety net, long-term unemployment, and generational declines in economic mobility when compared to people’s parents.

I know the Washington Post doesn’t want to run a column ripping corporations and policy makers for greed, but that is actually the answer to why we have a downwardly mobile working class and shocking levels of income inequality.

Cancer Clusters

[ 29 ] December 12, 2014 |

Paul Voosen has an interesting article at National Geographic that wonders why there has not been more known cancer clusters develop given the nation’s long history of toxicity. There’s no shortage of the skeptic in Voosen and so the article in places reads like someone who really doesn’t believe toxicity may be that great of worry. That concerns me because we do know that toxicity and pollution can cause powerful and horrible things to happen to human bodies. The large historiographies of workplace health, toxicity, women’s bodies, and the history of science plainly demonstrates this in broad terms. But the fact remains that there are not a lot of officially designated cancer clusters as was predicted in the 1970s. Is this because we don’t study this issue enough? Is it because of corporate influence over science? Is it because Americans move around so much? Is it because people respond to outside influences on their bodies in different ways, making it hard to verify? Is it because cancer is just so common anyway that we aren’t really seeing when toxicity causes it? Or is the impact of toxic materials on human health overstated? I am pretty skeptical of the last possibility, but I think the answer to why the cancer clusters haven’t been recognized may be a combination of several of the above factors.

In any case, protecting humans from toxic waste is not something that should be up for debate. It’s important and the resources to clean up the environment and make humans safe are a necessary expenditure. There is far too much clear historical evidence before the environmental laws of the 1970s to make us question that.

Organics from the Air

[ 123 ] December 12, 2014 |

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What can we tell about organic farms from the air? These aerial photos are intended to show the problems with large organic animal farms. They convey an image of industrial farming that the organic movement was intended to reject. A couple of key points missing here:

1. I’m far from the first person to note the problems with the term “organic,” as defined by the government. Those who care about this issue far more than I have long noted how it was co-opted by industrial farms. However, one can also legitimately question if it is possible to have organic farming on an industrial scale that will feed the people who want to eat this way without some industrial farming methods. If everyone wants organic milk, can farmers provide that without the mega-farms the movement does not want? With eggs at least one can see how raising your own chickens is possible for many, but for other products, it really isn’t.

2. It’s quite clear that there’s a strong correlation between the organic and local food movements and a romanticization of a certain type of work and certain type of relationship to the land. It’s not just that when people think organic, they think of a little local farm with chickens running around happy. It’s that they can’t imagine anything other than that because that, I think, more than the quality of the food or the happiness of the animals, is really what a lot of consumers want here. So any reality of large-scale farming is going to upset them.

3. The fact that such a survey had to be done in the air does get at major problems in our production system, not only in food but in apparel and everything else. It is out of sight. Everyday citizens can’t really go into these places. The regulatory system is captured by industry and vastly underfunded. The reality is that people want to know what is happening on farms. They want to know what is being put in their bodies. And they largely can’t. That’s why food is such a powerful way to indict the entire production system. Maybe people can’t see how their clothes are made in Bangladesh. That’s just too hard to imagine. But they do know food is being produced all around them and food is such a personal thing because it affects the inside of your body and not just your fashion. Thus, if demands around a meaningful inspection and regulatory system are going to succeed, food is probably where it happens. And it indeed needs to happen in food, as I write in my book.

4. I would also like to note that there is real room for alliance here between the labor and food movements if the food movement cares about workers. That’s one thing this article lacks. If we can’t tell what is happening to the animals, we can’t tell what is happening to the workers. When animals are abused, often so are workers. So if we can’t tell whether a farm is really organic, we also can’t tell whether it is treating its workers with dignity. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that organic farms treat workers better than conventional farms. Food justice cannot exist without justice for workers as well.

Deep Thoughts

[ 41 ] December 12, 2014 |

What happens to the Corleone family if Sonny lives?

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