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Tag: "environment"

Labor and Nature in the Fields

[ 29 ] August 18, 2013 |

Mark Bittman is making sense:

Oddly, affordability is not the problem; in fact, the tomatoes are too cheap. If they cost more, farmers like Rominger would be more inclined to grow tomatoes organically; to pay his workers better or offer benefits to more of them; to make a better living himself.

But the processed tomato market is international, with increasing pressure from Italy, China and Mexico. California has advantages, but it still must compete on price. Producers also compete with one another, making it tough for even the most principled ones to increase worker pay. To see change, then, all workers, globally, must be paid better, so that the price of tomatoes goes up across the board.

How does this happen? Unionization, or an increase in the minimum wage, or both. No one would argue that canned tomatoes should be too expensive for poor people, but by increasing minimum wage in the fields and elsewhere, we raise standards of living and increase purchasing power.

The issue is paying enough for food so that everything involved in producing it — land, water, energy and labor — is treated well. And since sustainability is a journey, progress is essential. It would be foolish to assert that we’re anywhere near the destination, but there is progress — even in those areas appropriately called “industrial.”

I agree with everything in this article. I suppose he could have talked to a worker or two to investigate the conditions a bit more, but the overall point about making the food system more fair to the land and to people is excellent.

State Change

[ 64 ] August 13, 2013 |

The Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico (and presumably Chihuahua as well, but the Mexican side of the drought is completely ignored by most environmental journalists) is undergoing what ecologists call “state change,” where the grasslands are declining into a permanent scrub desert that radically transforms the ecosystem. This has resulted from a combination of climate change and overgrazing. The overgrazing create enormous ecological degradation, but that could be restored at least to some extent under the old ecological conditions. Now, it seems highly unlikely.

The future of human habitation in the American southwest is quite unclear with a non-zero possibility that cities from Denver to Las Vegas to Phoenix to El Paso could be more or less abandoned over the next century because the environment (specifically water supplies) simply won’t be able to carry this many people in those places. This would be catastrophic to the economy, although perhaps not more so than the near certainty that Miami is doomed and probably New Orleans as well.

John Graves, RIP

[ 2 ] August 2, 2013 |

The great Texas writer John Graves has passed. Goodbye to a River, about a float trip down the Brazos before it was dammed, is a truly wonderful book.

Legalize and Regulate for the Sake of the Ecosystem

[ 34 ] August 2, 2013 |

Once again, we see illegal marijuana farmers in California causing a huge toll on the local ecology, including the death of threatened species. The only way to deal with this is to legalize marijuana production, submit it to a strong regulatory system that includes forfeiture for using pesticides that kill important mammals, and move law enforcement toward that regulatory system. Otherwise, more rare animals will die.

Legacy Pollution

[ 44 ] July 31, 2013 |

In Carson, California, Shell Oil used to have an oil tank farm. Then, thanks to America’s lax environmental regulatory state, a housing development was built on top of it when Shell no longer needed it. Shell claims the land is safe and they have no responsibility for it. Residents say their soil is poisonous. Soil tests taken five years ago show elevated levels of benzene and petroleum. Residents claim an array of health problems The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board has ordered Shell to clean up the soil, but there is significant debate over whether to clean it up right now as an emergency or do the necessary testing that would delay the cleanup for a year. Shell is unhappy.

A dark side of southern California’s landscape is the legacy of nearly a century of oil production. You don’t always see that legacy, but it’s there. It became famous during the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that spawned an array of environmental legislation, but the roots go back to the early 20th century, as does local resistance to it. Too often, corporations get away with improper cleanup, leaving a legacy of pollution for residents, often the poor who can afford to buy houses in a ecologically degraded neighborhood.

Cannibal Lobsters

[ 24 ] July 28, 2013 |

Let’s take massive overfishing and combine it with rapidly worsening climate change. What you end up with is a nightmare of cannibalistic lobsters, not to mention a Maine fishing economy desperately holding on for survival.

Here’s a great infographic explaining what the larger article explores in more detail.

Are Your Distressed Jeans Worth a Dead Chinese Worker?

[ 20 ] July 23, 2013 |

The apparel industry’s terrible toll upon working-class Asians becomes more apparent everyday:

“Distressed” jeans are designed to make that wear-and-tear look seem oh-so-effortless, but it can be the result of someone’s body taking a real beating.

According to a recent investigation by the advocacy groups Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want, and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), several manufacturers in Guangdong, China—which supply global brands such as Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler—have used patently unsafe sandblasting techniques on their denim.

Sandblasting usually involves spraying chemicals and mineral dust against textiles to create a weathered look. It is commonly done by hand, using an air gun, though some manufacturers use mechanical sandblasting performed inside special cabinets. Without adequate ventilation and other protections, either technique can expose workers to damaging particles that increase the risk of silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung and respiratory problems.

In the case of the denim workers in Guangdong, SACOM is demanding that the global brands using the sandblasting factories take responsibility. SACOM advocate Pui Kwan Liang tells Working In These Times via email:

The brands are not required by the law to make compensation but since the workers are suppressed by the suppliers in China and the brands are making huge profit every day with the workers’ sacrifices, it is no doubt that the brands are ethically responsible to such issue.

Under pressure from international advocates for garment workers, several apparel brands, including Levi Strauss and H&M, have in recent years announced plans to phase out sandblasting, which has previously been used in factories in Bangladesh and Turkey. But SACOM’s investigations show that in the apparel industry’s twisted supply chains, “regardless of whether a brand has ‘banned’ sandblasting or not, the practice continues—to the point that some factories have taken to hiding sandblasting machinery in sealed rooms to avoid detection, while others have simply subcontracted the procedure.”

Meanwhile, the real distress of global capitalism is surfacing all over Guangdong, as workers continue shredding their lungs so Western consumers can wear perfectly abused denim.

But wait, there’s more! Because the capital mobility of the apparel industry, scouring the planet for people and ecosystems to exploit, has also created terrible pollution in Mexico, similar to the purple water of Bangladesh I pointed out yesterday.

That picture is from Tehuacán, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Yep, the distressed jeans industry dumps a tremendous amount of chemicals into local water supplies, poisoning humans and other animals. And then of course there’s Bangladesh. Turkey banned the manufacturing of distressed jeans in that country in 2009, after at least 6 workers died from lung diseases so that apparel corporations could market a cool new look that made them boatloads of money, but the apparel manufactures don’t care if a country bans the practice. They just move to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, wherever they can exploit people and nature with the greatest intensity.

Once again, we need to create environmental and labor law that transcend international borders so that companies, especially in the apparel industry, cannot circle the earth to find the most easily exploitable people. We need a set of labor and environmental law that empowers workers at the point of production to take on the corporations without the threat that their factory will close and move to Cambodia or Vietnam or Indonesia. Without this, industrial democracy and sustainable living on this planet will not take place.

The Environmental and Human Health Effects of Outsourcing Garment Production to Bangladesh

[ 19 ] July 22, 2013 |

Why do capitalists move their operations?

They do so to maximize profit. But that term is an euphemism that obscures the decisions behind those choices. Profits are great, right! For decades, corporations have shifted operations around the globe, sometimes within the United States but usually between nations, in order to take advantage of lax labor and environmental regulations. We know about the apparel industry’s exploitation of Bangladeshi labor. But that’s not the only reason to choose Bangladesh. Here is another:

That water is indeed purple. The large building near the water: a school. This is near the site of the factory collapse in April that killed over 1100 workers. Here is the mayor of the town of Savar, where this picture was taken:

The inspections were part of a highly publicized antipollution enforcement campaign led by Munir Chowdhury, a senior official in the environment ministry. Mr. Chowdhury raided factories, often at night, finding that many were saving money by dumping waste without treating it. He imposed repeated fines until he was transferred this year to run the state dairy operation.

Mr. Kader, the acting mayor of Savar, said there was only so much a single official could do. “You should understand the reality in Bangladesh,” he said. “These people who are setting up industries and factories here are much more powerful than me. When a government minister calls me and tells me to give permission to someone to set up a factory in Savar, I can’t refuse.”

For global brands that buy clothing from Bangladeshi factories, pollution rarely gets the same attention as workplace conditions or fire safety. H &M has sponsored some environmental programs, but Bangladeshi environmentalists say global buyers have done far too little.

“The buyers totally understand the conditions of Bangladesh and they take advantage of it,” said Ms. Hasan, the environmental lawyer.

After the United States and western Europe passed meaningful environmental regulations, corporations moved to the developing world precisely to recreate a situation where they could dump chemicals and dyes into water, without regard for how it would affect local ecosystems or human health.

In other words, the textile industry still operates by the laws of 1835. And they intend to keep it that way through capital mobility.

This is why environmental and working-class issues are so intertwined in my mind. Bangladeshis need jobs. There’s no reason why the textile industry needs to dump its dyes into the rivers. But if the Bangladeshi people organize to create meaningful environmental legislation and begin coming after the polluters, they will just move to another country. This is why we need international labor and environmental laws. There are meaningful and enforced laws prohibiting the importation of goods to the United States that are made by prison labor or slave labor. There is no good reason why we can’t expand those laws to include nations that allow union organizers to be killed with impunity or products that are produced in an environmentally unsustainable manner. Whether in Bangladesh or the United States, Vietnam or Honduras, worker rights and environmental rights are human rights. The United States should crack down on its corporations whose factories violate basic conceptions of these rights or who subcontract work out to employers who do the same thing. Workers need to be able to bring suit in western courts against companies who pollute their water, give them industrial disease, or kill their husbands and daughters on the job.

This is how a worldwide industrial democracy must work. Without empowering workers to improve their lives and limiting corporate mobility to evade basic labor and environmental regulations, environmental problems and working-class life will not improve.

Thai Bin Two

[ 8 ] July 20, 2013 |

The US Export-Import Bank has decided not to fund the Thai Binh Two coal-fired power plant in Vietnam. This is a marginally good sign that the Obama Administration’s rejection of coal that he set out in his climate change speech will have real life benefits. However, it’s also a decision that comes at almost no political cost except irritating the Vietnamese government. What happens with the Keystone XL Pipeline and especially the exporting of Powder River Basin coal to Asia will be far more telling.

Powder River Basin Coal

[ 69 ] July 11, 2013 |

I agree with Zoe Carpenter here. If President Obama is serious about fighting climate change through clamping down on coal, he has to deal with the coal industry’s plans to export Powder River Basin coal to Asia through west coast ports. If the United States is to become more of a leader on climate change by reducing coal, it can’t just be through how we consume coal in power plants. It also has to step in and severely reduce or eliminate exports of coal to other countries. Obama has been silent on this issue. Instead, citizens of Oregon and Washington have stepped in and said they didn’t want their ports used for these exports. They have defeated the industry three straight times in finding outlets for that coal, but the industry is incredibly powerful. Ultimately, the federal government has to step in here. However, like with the Keystone XL Pipeline, I am skeptical Obama make the right decision.

More on Bees and Insecticides

[ 6 ] July 3, 2013 |

Updating the story from last week on bumblebees dying by the thousands from insecticide exposure in Oregon, the state has issued a 6 month moratorium on using neonicotinoid-based insecticides. The maker of the insectcide the killed the bees is angry. And while I suppose that’s a good sign, the fact that it is now illegal to use the chemical but not illegal to buy and sell the chemical makes me think this is not all that helpful. Maybe it’s a good first step for a more comprehensive review and ban.

Today in Humans Destroying the Planet

[ 28 ] June 26, 2013 |

1. You like Canadian tar sands? Then you’ll love domestic Utah tar sands, as Tara Lohan reports!

2. The EPA dropping a fracking study linking the practice to contaminated groundwater in Wyoming is just embarrassing and again suggests the one step forward, one step back approach to the environment under Obama. As Sarah Gilman at High Country News (the best newspaper on western environmental issues, you all should read it!) states:

On a higher level, though, it’s yet another example of the Obama administration coming out guns a-blazing, aiming at the high middle of progressive ambition on an environmental policy issue, only to shrink back (or roll back proposed rules) when things get politically ugly. It’s something HCN staffers have tracked with bemusement since Obama’s election in 2008. There were those new ozone limits that the administration had trumpeted as a necessary step to protect public health, for example, which it later withdrew and endlessly delayed for further review after a political flogging from the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. There were the Bureau of Land Management’s first-ever hydraulic fracturing rules, which the administration first tried to spin in terms of clearing the industry’s name and then later were systematically weakened after a top White House official met several times with industry groups.

Before last fall’s election, when Obama still had everything to lose by taking a stand that could be construed as anti-economy, his agencies’ wishywashyness sort of made sense. (Only sort of, though, since politicizing legitimate public health concerns actually doesn’t make moral sense at all.) Now, though, it’s baffling.

We can only hope that the lofty language and goals Obama laid out in his June 25 speech on how he (FINALLY!) plans to address the biggest environmental problem of all – climate change — won’t suffer the same fate as so many other of his administration’s environmental initiatives.

Yep.

3. In our focus on energy, let’s not forget the joy of pesticides. Certainly people in Wilsonville, Oregon won’t forget:

Target shoppers in Wilsonville, Oregon found a tragedy in the parking lot as tens of thousands of of bumble bees were found dead and dying on the pavement, along with honey bees and ladybugs. Shoppers notified Rich Hatfield, a conservation biologist with the Portland-based Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation, who went to the scene to investigate.

Oregon officials say preliminary results point to an insecticide that was used on the nearby European Linden trees. The trees were sprayed with a pesticide called Safari to kill aphids, an insect that destroys plants and vegetation. Safari is part of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids that are known to kill pollinators such as bumblebees, Associated Press reports. The investigation is still under way. If the pesticide is the confirmed cause and it wasn’t used according to the label instructions, civil penalties could be handed down ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 per violation for gross negligence or willful misconduct, Dale Mitchell, program manager in the Agriculture Department’s pesticide compliance and enforcement section, told AP.

Why is this pesticide even legal? But hey, I’m sure that a pesticide that kills 50,000 bees has no effect on humans. So. Much. Confidence.

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