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Book Review: Karen Piper, The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos

[ 30 ] May 17, 2015 |

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Karen Piper has written a powerful book about how water privatization threatens people around the world. Connecting the subject to the world’s colonial past, she demonstrates how a handful of multinational corporations working with global financial organizations like the World Bank have ridden roughshod over the world’s people in order to turn a profit off the substance of life. Piper visited nations around the world where water privatization and access connect to larger issues that threaten the globe, including Egypt and Iraq to connect water access with Islamic extremism and Chile to understand how the issues going on with privatization in that country are connected to climate change. Ultimately, she makes a convincing case for taking water privatization more seriously in conceptualizing the world’s biggest problems.

Of course water privatization isn’t something that most activists are completely unaware of. Most significantly was the Bechtel attempt to privatize the water of Coachabamba, Bolivia in 2000 and the grassroots protests against this that paved the way for the rise of Evo Morales. But by and large, it’s not an issue most of think about much. Yet we should.

Central to Piper’s argument is the relationship between water privatization on one hand and colonialism and imperialism on the other. She begins her book by profiling a visit to the World Water Forum, a big international event that brings the UN together with international development specialists, the IMF and World Bank, and water companies to promote water development. But really the extraordinarily elite event does little than promote the interests of the big water companies such as Suez, Veolia, and Agbar. In fact, 5 companies controlled 73 percent of the world’s privatized water in 2001. Of course grassroots activists are not allowed to participate in these big wig discussions of global water, even though (and really, because) they are the ones who will suffer in the attempt to turn water into a commodity.

These companies originated in the history of European colonialism. Veolia is a French company that evolved out of an 1853 Napoleon III decree that opened up water as a profit-making enterprise for many of Europe’s wealthiest men. Suez, another French company, was founded by an imperialist who was later involved in the failed French attempt to build the Panama Canal and the Belgian conquest of the Congo. The company was long run by colonial officials in North Africa and continues to see Africa as a prime place for Europeans to profit off of water. Today these companies are the world’s prime pushers of water privatization.

Water privatization in Chile began with the tight relationship between Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys with Augusto Pinochet during the economic plundering of Chile after the 1973 coup. The privatization regime of Pinochet largely remains in place today, while the conflation of indigenous rights with “terrorism” pioneered by that coup also retains power. The Pehuenche and Mapuche are resisting Chile’s attempts to dam the Bío-Bío River and Baker River and they face significant harassment from the government for doing so. In South Africa, she argues for integrating traditional understandings of water to push against the capitalist practices of both the apartheid and post-Mandela governments that have had widespread ecological damage for the sake of profit.

Meanwhile in the Middle East, where water supplies are already sensitive, water privatization can cause significant instability, including Islamic extremism. Piper notes how the 1991 American bombings of the Iraqi infrastructure permanently undermined what was once a very good water infrastructure. In Egypt, water privatization in 2005 doubled the price of water in some parts of Cairo and led to public protests that never really went away. She argues this led directly into the movement against Hosni Mubarak, whose family was heavily involved in water profiteering in the country. Meanwhile, Egypt’s elite classes had more water than they knew what to do with, with water inequality mirroring other forms of inequality. Briefly analyzing the post-revolutionary period, Piper notes that while the nationalization of water supplies would have benefited Egypt’s people, the water companies saw the nation as a future gold mine. The World Bank and IMF offered Morsi $4.5 billion in loans for recovery, but of course that came with the strings of continuing the privatization regime. When Morsi began cancelling some of the corrupt deals over water and other sectors of Egypt’s society, the foreign corporations began to panic and she argues this led to Morsi’s being forced to resign as the economy collapsed. I do however think the decline of Morsi is a lot more complicated than this given Piper ignores the religious tensions within Egyptian society entirely. But at the very least, it’s worth thinking of water as a central player in such events.

Piper also notes the dangers of calling water a “human right.” It’s not bad per se to do this but it opens space for corporations to co-opt this relatively meaningless language to say that they are privatizing the world’s water because they believe in human rights. Companies like Suez and Veolia have embraced the language of water as a human rights because now they could demand international funding to promote this human right so beneficially provided through them. Corporations could now sue foreign governments to make water payments using such language as a justification.

The coming chaos of water is real enough with or without privatization. Pollution, overextraction and depletion of ground water, salinization, and climate change all threaten the world’s fresh water supplies. If nothing is done to ensure the ability of all citizens to have access to some water in order to survive, global disasters will result. But for corporations, this is all a chance to profit, which means that those who can pay will access water and those can’t won’t. That will exacerbate global inequality, could create wars, and will likely lead to the increased marginalization and oppression of indigenous peoples and racial minorities. None of this bothers corporations of course.

In the end, Piper hopes to “help return cultural diversity to the management of the world’s water supplies,” aiming for an anti-colonial view of water that pushes back against the post-colonial multinational corporations. Mostly she succeeds in her arguments. One can argue that the challenges of finding clean water for billions of people is something that can’t really rely on romanticized notions of local control. On the other hand, the current system of privatization and profit isn’t working either for the world’s poor. We in the U.S. might see the water system as fundamentally successful, although if you live in Detroit you probably don’t. Unfortunately, Detroit more represents what corporate water has done to most of the world. Piper effectively challenges this system and should make us think harder about the relationship between water and colonialism at the very least.

The Civil War in the West

[ 16 ] May 16, 2015 |

Adam Arenson and Virginia Scharff, who was my dissertation advisor, on the end of the Civil War in the West:

But looking at the war from the West is an important perspective. From the West, the Civil War appeared as merely the greatest in a series of conflicts that shaped the United States in the 19th century, conflicts over how to square liberty and slavery, empire and democracy — crises of authority that tested what the proper limits of the United States would be. The Civil War caused brawls among American miners in Victoria, British Columbia, and it launched multiple schemes for Americans — black and white, Union and Confederate — to colonize Mexico, or Central America, or islands in the Caribbean. The Civil War contributed to the rise and then the fall of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, as well as the Confederation of Canada from disparate provinces.

As Reconstruction moved forward in the South, it encountered questions of race and citizenship, occupation and voting rights that were familiar from the states and territories of the West. Republicans in California twisted themselves into knots to explain why African African-Americans should receive citizenship and voting rights, but Chinese immigrants should not; the Wyoming Territory granted woman’s suffrage in 1869 as part of a strategy to resist perceived equality among races.

Put simply, one cannot understand the Civil War without addressing the significance of the West in American history before, during, and after the traditional chronology of the war. And likewise you cannot understand the West without taking into account changes wrought by the nation’s cataclysmic Civil War. Though often held apart, the histories of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the American West compose a larger, unified history of conflict over land, labor, rights, citizenship and the limits of governmental authority in the United States.

The nation’s defining debates and battles over freedom, race, land, and the rights of individuals, took place amid, and because of, the territorial expansion of the United States, at the hands of men and women who welcomed an American empire. This was nothing new in 1848: Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholding son of a westering slaveholder, embraced territorial expansion as the engine of an “empire for liberty” — though Jefferson’s fellow slaveholders more often envisioned an empire for slavery. In the West as much as in the slave South, elites demonstrated how little regard they had for the life, liberty or pursuit of happiness of the American Indian nations they encountered, or of the Spanish-speaking peoples who had for generations lived in the newly American West.

This is really where I think Civil War scholarship is going. There’s been a major uptick in books on the Civil War in the West (see here and here) and its long-term impacts and I think integrating these perspectives into the North-South narratives that dominate the historiography of the War is going to significantly expand our understanding of the period.

Punk Rock Bernie

[ 2 ] May 15, 2015 |

We could use a president who has fostered local punk scenes.

Why Republicans Hate the Humanities (And Reading More Generally)

[ 326 ] May 15, 2015 |

Why do Republicans hate the humanities and want to turn institutions of higher education into nothing more than training schools for employers? The story of Ivy Ziedrich, now famous for challenging Jeb Bush on ISIS, tells it all:

Ms. Ziedrich, a high school debater who specialized in the parliamentary style and still helps coach her former team, said that all the attention she is garnering from those on the right (who thought she was rude) and those on the left (who want to canonize her) is confounding given her own political journey. Growing up in Northern California, she considered herself a conservative like her mother and father, who is a loyal Fox News viewer.

Then she identified as a libertarian and, ultimately, as Democratic, influenced by her time spent debating and by books like Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

There we have it. When people read and learn about the world, they become less conservative. When students read, especially radical texts like Zinn, they start questioning the world around them. That might lead to them to challenging power like Ziedrich just did. And we can’t be having that now. So instead, let’s eliminate the humanities entirely and get everyone majoring in business so that our elites can continue their wars and their exploitation of the world’s workers without pushback from the plebs.

Train Funding

[ 83 ] May 15, 2015 |

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John Boehner may think discussing Amtrak funding in the wake of the crash is “stupid” but of course it isn’t. Boehner notes that the crash was caused by the train going too fast, not infrastructure. But it’s not like high-speed trains are unknown in the world. Instead, Republicans prefer to attack the terrible national train system we already have because only those urban hippies ride trains, not good truck drivin’ folk. We could invest in super-modern high-speed trains that could zip Americans around the nation. We could also invest in better safety infrastructure so that such train wrecks don’t happen if they are the fault of the conductor. Instead, the rail industry and its Republican friends are pushing for the reduction of train crews on freight trains, which would only cause more crashes.

So Democrats should absolutely push for greater Amtrak funding in the wake of the crash. I don’t expect Boehner or any Republican to take any real heat for opposing this, but at least it makes their moral position on these issues more clear.

Today in Apparel Industry Disasters

[ 5 ] May 15, 2015 |

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Another horrible disaster in the global apparel industry. This time it was in the Philippines where at least 72 are dead after a fire burned a slipper factory. There might not have been many deaths, despite the fact that the sparks set off chemicals used in making the slippers, had the owners not put bars on the second floor windows. It does seem that this factory was producing strictly for the Philippine market. But that doesn’t mean the types of global labor standards I argue for in Out of Sight could not have an impact in a situation like this. Since I advocate the U.S. to more strongly regulate the goods entering the country and the factory conditions of American companies operating abroad while empowering workers to have the power to take these matters into their own hands, these standards would have a race to the top effect by making it harder for companies with substandard conditions and unsafe factories to operate. If workers could leave for safer factories, they would and other companies would presumably have to improve conditions to play catch-up. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t be as effective as I think, but we have to ensure that apparel made by American companies or for American consumers is produced ethically. Hopefully it would have cascading effects.

Borders

[ 45 ] May 14, 2015 |

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National borders are usually pretty weird and unsettling places. But the story of the India-Bangladesh border is especially odd.

Race and Food Injustice

[ 47 ] May 14, 2015 |

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One of the reasons I vastly prefer Mark Bittman to Michael Pollan among famous food writers is that Bittman gets that injustice is a major issue whereas Pollan is mostly happy to talk about the glories of foraging for mushrooms and longing for women to go back into the kitchens, blissfully ignoring most issues of poverty and food. Bittman has his own blind spots, no doubt. But at least he tries. Bittman’s good side has come out again. In the wake of the protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Bittman notes how racism and food access intersect:

And — since I’m the food guy, it’s worth pointing out — without access to good food or nutrition education. This is murder by a thousand cuts. The rate of hunger among black households: 10.1 percent. Among white households: 4.6 percent. The age-adjusted rate of obesity among black Americans: 47.8 percent. Among white Americans: 32.6 percent. The rate of diabetes among black adults aged 20 or older: 13.2 percent. Among white adults: 7.6 percent. Black Americans’ life expectancy, compared to white Americans: four years less. (The life expectancy of black men with some high school compared to white men with some college: minus 14 years.)

These numbers are not a result of a lack of food access but of an abundance of poverty. Lack of education is not a result of a culture of victimhood but of lack of funding for schools. And rather than continuing to allow these realities to divide us, we should do the American thing, which is to fix things. Which we can do, together.

Not long ago African-Americans were enslaved; until recently they were lynched. Isolated racist murders still occur, but they are no longer sanctioned or tolerated, and we’re seeing the vestiges of that as both national and local attention is paid to violence by the police against black people.

But oppression and inequality are violence in another form. When people are undereducated, impoverished, malnourished, un- or under-employed, or underpaid and working three jobs, their lives are diminished, as are their opportunities. As are the opportunities of their children.

This is unjust and intolerable. The bad news is that we should be ashamed of ourselves: As long as these things are true, this is not the country we say it is or the country we want it to be.

The good news is that it’s fixable, not by “market forces” but by policies that fund equal education, good-paying jobs, and a good food, health and well-being program for all Americans.

He doesn’t pretend that food access is going to solve larger problems, which is an issue among many food writers who see food as a mystical experience. But he notes that we can solve the interconnected issues of poverty, injustice, and food access through good policy. Which is absolutely true and the position that the entire food movement should be taking on the recent uptick in protest against racism.

Nail Salons

[ 135 ] May 14, 2015 |

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You probably read Sarah Maslin Nir’s excellent investigative report on the labor conditions inside New York nail salons, which are brutal and including wage theft, poisoning from breathing in cosmetics, and physical abuse. There are relatively simple answers to solving these problems, which are strong labor enforcement of state and federal law. The report convinced Andrew Cuomo to announce “emergency measures” to help these workers, including more inspections and a multilingual attempt to inform workers of their rights. We’ll see how real this is once people stop paying attention.

Anyway, the unfortunately most common response is what we often see from empowered individualistic consumers, which is “how can I consume ethically.” The question turns the issue from being about the workers to about the consumer. We see this in apparel activism too often from people who think that buying second-hand clothing is an answer to sweatshop labor. Michelle Chen answers the question about what you can do quite simply–support worker organizing–and she provides plenty of information about how that is shaping up. Amanda Marcotte takes on the middle class guilt part of this debate more directly (with plenty of links of this sort of thing if you are so inclined). She writes:

I don’t mean to pick on people,I really don’t. These huge labor and immigration issues can feel overwhelming and I get that people want to know what part, however small, they can play. But that leads to this unfortunate tendency to frame these issues around middle class complicity, as if that were the main problem and not just a sideshow. The problem with that is that these sort of individualized rituals of self-sacrifice in the name of purity do almost nothing to actually improve the lives of marginalized or exploited people. In some cases, it might make it worse—in this case, for instance, the end result will be that a smaller proportion of customers in nail salons will be good tippers who are nice to the workers. Great.

To be fair, some writers cleverly used the “how to assuage your guilt” click bait headlines to compel people to take real action, such as calling the authorities when they discover a salon is breaking labor laws or to surreptitiously distribute materials informing workers of their rights in their native language. These are still small actions, but they are actions that might actually help a real person who actually needs help, and that’s not nothing. But most of what I saw out there was focused on how you personally can feel better about yourself. That’s not helpful to people who actually need help.

And then she says what you actually can do, which is to make this a political issue and call your politicians to demand they do something about it. Like just about everything else when it comes to workers, the way to solve these problems is to give workers power. That means actively taking power from employers. The nail salon workers are the modern version of immigrant sweatshop labor a century ago and while we’ve outsourced that work to people we can exploit far out of our sight, the need for service labor means there are still workers who we do see. We can demand the rigorous inspections of these agencies with shutdowns and heavy fines for employers who violate the law.

Of course, if you are a libertarian, your hot take on all this is that there’s no way we should do anything about these workers. After all, how can we know what they want since we are not them? Of course we could ask workers what they want but that would mean libertarians talking to real people and I mean, c’mon. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

Getting more government involved when it’s not at the behest of these workers, however, is only going to lead to more hardship for those most marginalized. When state investigators find a bunch of undocumented immigrants working as unlicensed manicurists—yes, being a manicurist in New York technically requires a state permission slip—for under the minimum wage, do you think they’re going to stop with forcing employers to institute a pay hike? Do you think salon owners under more investigative scrutiny from government agents are going to be more attune to requests from their underground employees?

I don’t want to diminish the concerns of workers in these communities. But this top-down, outsider, progressive, law-and-order view concerns me. Would workers be better off with no jobs or means to support themselves? Living back in their home countries? Maybe in some cases, yes, but we don’t know because we are not them. And I tend to believe that immigrant salon workers, being as intelligent and rational as the rest of us, are capable of weighing their own interests and situations and acting accordingly.

This of course is nothing more than the same Gilded Age arguments conservatives have always loved, that workers make rational decisions and that if they didn’t think it was in the interest to work in dangerous jobs, they wouldn’t do so. Nevermind that government can actually make that work less dangerous or that the unions these people inevitably oppose can do the same or that workers don’t actually have choices if the “choice” is work or starve. For conservatives, this is all a fun theory they can sit in their comfy houses and pontificate about. They aren’t interested in actual workers and their lives.

Then there’s this:

Increased FDA oversight can’t educate nail workers about the importance of leaving the job when they’re pregnant, or help make doing so financially feasible; it can’t instill simple best practices, like wearing gloves, that could mitigate skin problems; it can’t encourage salon owners to install work on better ventilation systems. These sorts of education and outreach efforts are best undertaken by public health nonprofits and people in these communities. And they would have a much more immediate effect than the years or decades it could take to get accomplish similar feats via federal regulation.

Actually increased oversight can do those exact things. Maybe not through the FDA but through OSHA. OSHA can educate workers. OSHA can instill best practices and mandate wearing gloves. OSHA can fine employers for not installing ventilation systems. And if there’s a reason that it is hard to make federal regulation work on these issues, it’s because people like Brown and her plutocrat masters spend money opposing these regulations.

Quite the hot take there.

A Centrist Weepy

[ 62 ] May 14, 2015 |

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This Robert Draper profile of a Democratic Party supposedly in turmoil because its base is demanding politicians stand up for values outside of Beltway centrism is ridiculous. Note that the only non-politician who gets any major play here is Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way. And that’s what this whole article is–a lament that the Democrats are stepping away from Broderism. There’s little that causes more concern trolling among the Washington press corps than Democratic voters demanding that Democratic politicians stand up for liberal values, especially on economics. Certainly when the most inane journalism awards of the 2016 elections are held there are going to be worse articles than this. But it should at least get an honorable mention.

The FBI and Keystone

[ 22 ] May 14, 2015 |

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Above: Obvious environmental extremists

It’s ridiculous that the FBI was violating agency protocol by going to rather extreme measures in monitoring those protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Calling the opponents “extremists” (because nothing screams extremist, near-terrorist activity like Bill McKibben…), the FBI cultivated informants and connected its monitoring of the protesters to anti-terrorism investigations. This is pretty bad. But it also suggests how law enforcement sees basically all protestors as enemies and essentially serves not as a neutral agent in society but rather as one defending power.

Organizing the Silicon Valley

[ 33 ] May 13, 2015 |

Labor has made some positive gains recently in organizing the working-class employees of the Silicon Valley. But what’s really interesting here is the aggressive attitude of labor:

The state’s labor movement has been “very good at being the opposite of Wisconsin,” Paulson said. Unions have traditionally been strong in Wisconsin, but over the past few years a state government has dealt a series of crushing blows to the labor movement, including passing a law restricting collective bargaining for public employees and a law that bans union shops. Labor in California has remained strong enough to make such attacks unlikely, but Paulson said he and others in the movement have tired of focusing so much on simply avoiding disaster.

“Over the last few years, some of us have just said, fuck that,” Paulson told Al Jazeera. “Let’s do what we want to do to fight for workers. And so the state federation of labor in particular decided that we are going to put our resources into organizing. Into real organizing, that is going to result in a collective bargaining agreement at some time or another, and people being in a labor union, and officially having a voice at work.”

The California Labor Federation selected three particular campaigns on which to combine resources: The SEIU-USWW drive to organize Silicon Valley security officers, as well as a UFCW-backed campaign to organize workers at Walmart and a similar Teamster-driven campaign at food processing plants in California’s Central Valley. Every union in the federation is expected to contribute something to those three campaigns, regardless of whether the campaigns have anything to do with their immediate interests, Paulson said.

“Even school employees, we’re going to send them to the Walmart campaign,” he said. “We’re going to send them to food processing and help the Teamsters out in Central Valley. All of us central labor councils, we’ll organize civil disobedience and actions outside of Google and Apple in order to reinforce organizing for security officers.”

After the security officers campaign began to pick up supporters and public attention, the labor movement started throwing itself behind other organizing drives in the Silicon Valley area, according to SEIU-USWW organizing director Sanjay Garla. The most prominent of those campaigns is the Teamsters’ effort to unionize shuttle drivers — but, Garla said, “there’s a lot of talk about how food-service workers are also part of this fight.”

“Everyone sat down and said, ‘How do we back up these security officers that are going up against these major giants?’” he said. “It was really about supporting the security officers, and it’s turning into something more.”

Cajoling all the unions into contributing something for organizing is a good idea and being aggressive is a great one. There can be good reasons to play defense, but labor also must press its advantages where possible. And if it isn’t possible in California, it isn’t possible anywhere.

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