Op-Ed Thread

icarbone Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 12:32 am edit

I think this may be a bit more of a rant than an Op-Ed at this point, but maybe you all can help me focus it a bit.

Frustrations over socioeconomic disparities and the influence of corporations on the US political system reached a critical point on September 17th. Protesters swarmed to Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street, and since then demonstrations have been springing up in over 1000 US cities. The Occupy movements have empowered a growing community to push for significant societal change; change that was promised to Americans and that our government has failed to realize. The financial sector is one piece of the puzzle, but the beauty and challenge of the Occupy movement is that it has the flexibility to address all the sectors of society in which we lack the political will to rise above partisan politics and corporate interests. As Occupy grows and evolves, it is beginning to address issues that reach beyond Wall Street; not the least of which is the threat that fossil fuels and climate change pose to our environment and the global community.
Occupy Asheville participated in a solidarity action on November 6th with the Southeastern Student Renewable Energy Conference. Occupy Rooftops is a group that is trying to meet occupation energy needs with solar energy technologies. The Occupy Wall Street New York General Assembly even states in its declaration that the corporate and government spheres “continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil” as a protest motivation. In my own smaller occupation, Occupy Santa Cruz, the political and environmental objectives are often indistinguishable. These demonstrations are built around those who are marginalized by the current economic-political system. Simply surviving in occupied public space is an environmental statement. I have watched my Occupy community develop composting schemes, subsist on a largely local food system, and survive with very little energy consumption.
But I believe the actions can be bigger. Occupy is about forming a new communities with inclusive organizational and decision-making structures. It is a chance to experiment with more idealistic ways of living, and for many, this means living more sustainability without destabilizing foreign governments and supporting oppressive regimes for our our energy needs. It means not supporting an energy system that only increases local and global wealth disparities. Let us develop our own cooperative transportation schemes. Let us develop local food systems that promote health and environmental stewardship. Let’s provide our own energy from alternative sources and loosen the grip of 1%-ers like Exxon-Mobil or Koch Industries. Let us get more people down to the demonstrations. And let us all actively build communities that reflect our values.
The fearless abandon that protesters are exhibiting across the country can be our greatest asset in the movement away from fossil fuels and towards renewable alternatives in the United States. The OWS movement should inspire us all to reclaim science, technology, and the health of the natural world.
koverstreet Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 12:58 am edit

While Wisconsin has long been a stronghold of small- and medium-scale dairy farms, America’s Dairyland is approaching a demographic shift that may have profound affects on farm structure, rural communities, and the dairy industry as a whole. The average age of Wisconsin dairy farmers is in the late 50s, foreshadowing the coming retirement of many farms, and the decline in farm succession that the census has documented since at least the 1970s. Among many of the issues facing farmers, the dearth of farm succession is becoming an increasingly urgent crisis. As an anthropologist and long-time farm volunteer, I propose that farmers start to think differently about how they design their businesses and they ways that their farms can enable and foster more community and child involvement on their farms.
Before I became a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz, I worked and volunteered with several CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs and small-scale farms. In my early work on farms, I was amazed at how many people came to these farms and wanted to work for free! Every week new people would show up, eager to spend hours bent over picking kale or crawling along rows of starts, tediously weeding with kitchen knives. Sometimes they showed up in droves. Not only did they want to crawl through the dirt on other peoples’ farms, many of them were hoping to have their own farms someday.
When beginning preliminary dissertation fieldwork with dairy farmers in south-central Wisconsin, however, my offers of free labor were often met with inquiries about what kinds of machines I know how to operate or I was told that I could be a liability for the dairy farmer. If I am a liability, I can’t imagine that the work is welcoming for farm children either.
Despite the deep ideological divides that often fall between farmers who choose organic, conventional, or other ways of farming, the problem of farm succession is making it urgent that farmers talk across these divides. Small and medium-scale dairy farmers can look to some of the ways that organic farmers, locavores, and slow food activists are engaging with agricultural issues and community members for ways to re-think their operations.
For instance, many of the food activism movements are focused on involving children in planting, harvesting, and processing food on farms. During my research with predominantly conventional dairy farmers, children largely seemed to be absent from the dairy operations and were often involved in many off-farm hobbies such as soccer, horse-back riding, and gymnastics. Is it any surprise that children don’t want to work on farms when most of their social activities and hobbies are separate from the farm?
Another way that CSAs and many small organic farms are encouraging a future generation of farmers is through extensive community involvement. Community “weeding parties,” on-farm potlucks, and shared harvests, make farms into social spaces for work but also for commensality and pleasure. While these sorts of activities take time and organization on the farmer’s part, they encourage awareness of the difficulties and benefits of farming and cultivate community support for farmers in the vicinity. Further these sorts of on-farm activities help to educate consumers and community members about the “realities of production,” addressing a common complaint by farmers who see consumers as disconnected from food production.
While organic farmers and food activists certainly do not have all the “answers” to the present issues in farming, there are many resources developed in these realms that small- and medium-scale dairy farmers could draw on for encouraging community support and child succession on their farms. This requires a willingness to talk across some ideological divides, creative thinking about how farmers might design their farms to strengthen and support child and community involvement, and careful thinking about how to share the value of agricultural livelihood.
Kathleen Uzilov Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 8:42 am edit

I think mine is more of a research article than an OpEd at this point! Hopefully this is something I can work on fixing today.

Every season it seems whatever weather phenomena is currently happening gets tossed around in the media (and elsewhere) as either proof for or against the existence of anthropogenic climate change, often with little if any scientific backing. Heavy snowstorms in winter are seen as refuting the possibility; while heat waves and droughts are claimed as indisputable proof that global warming is underway. This back and forth is not only unproductive, but also extremely confusing to the general public, who can hardly be blamed for having difficulty believing either side. Yet the potential for impacts of climate change is indeed real, and are likely more complex than the simple term ‘global warming’ suggests. These impacts need to be studied thoroughly, and scientific results communicated clearly to the public, especially those in the regions of interest.
Here in Buffalo, residents are well familiar with a distinct, local weather phenomenon: lake-effect snowstorms. These events have important consequences for this region, including disruptions in transportation, property damage, injury and even deaths can occur. Unusually strong lake-effect snow events can unsurprisingly cause even greater disruptions and costs; for instance, the lake-effect snow storm of October 12-13, 2006 near Lake Erie, which was a significant event not only for the amount of damage it caused – almost a million residents lost power, some for up to a week – but also for the early timing, with its 22.6 inches of snow recorded at the Buffalo airport greatly surpassing the previous October record of 6 inches. Because the storm occurred so unusually early in the year, as much as 90% of Buffalo’s trees were damaged, and clean up for debris was estimated to be at least $130 million. It is clearly of importance to Buffalo residents for scientific research to investigate whether and how the severity and timing of lake-effect snowstorms may change in the future as a result of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
I have recently performed a study doing just that, and think that the results need to be reached not only by those who read scientific journals, but a much wider audience instead. For this reason, I am summarizing my results and what they mean for lake-effect snow in the future here. Because many factors are important for the formation of a lake-effect snow event, a complex model is needed to predict how the frequency, timing and severity may change. Major factors include differences in temperature between the lake surface and adjacent land, tropospheric stability, wind directions and speeds, amount of ice cover over the lake, and air temperatures. These will change at different rates as well; so different factors can be dominant at different times. Previous studies have shown that over the past 50 years, lake-effect snowstorms have been on an increase, likely due to increases in lake surface temperatures and decreases in ice-cover. By the time period of 2050 – 2070, however, different factors will take over in importance, and lake-effect snowstorms are likely to decrease in frequency. Lake-effect rainstorms will probably replace these instead, as the main factor responsible for the change is that the air temperatures will simply be too high for snow to fall as often as it does today. I believe this is an important feature of regional climate change for local citizens and government to be aware of. This could be especially important for city planners to keep in mind when making infrastructure decisions. It is possible that an increase in lake-effect snowstorms will continue in the near-term, but in the longer-range view a decrease can actually be expected. So now instead of wondering each winter, if the current weather is characteristic of what is to come in a changing climate, citizens of Buffalo can have a more grounded idea of the bigger picture changes they can expect.
Sally Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 12:18 pm edit

For some white people, health disparities are a distant, if troubling, concern. For people of color, they’re a discouraging reality. Here’s a fresh approach to health disparities that might humanize the statistics and inspire people to act.

For a while, holiday dinners were wonderful. We had friends, extended family, kids and two Saint Bernards gathered to take joy in one another’s company. But year by year, all the black men and one white immigrant at the table have disappeared, and not for the reasons you might think. They died young, from chronic disease or cancer, a vivid reminder of the shorter life spans predicted by health disparity statistics.

I’d like to show Globe readers the depth of these inequities, why they should care about them, and how they can do something about them. The piece will draw from an interview with Brian Smedley, vice president of the Joint Center Health Policy Institute, who suggests specific ways in which people of color can counteract unconscious bias in the medical system.

My holiday dinner provides an opportunity to illustrate the community-wide impact of health disparities, while keeping a light tone. Please let me know if this piece would be of interest. I can tell you more about how I plan to develop the piece if you wish.
choag Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 12:37 pm edit

The drying up of the Salton Sea has put California’s landmark 2003 water sharing agreement in jeopardy. A three-judge panel of the 3rd Appellate District Court in Sacramento heard arguments yesterday from farmers, environmentalists, and others about the state’s commitment to saving the Salton Sea⎯and the plants and animals that depend upon it. Three months from now, the judges will present their decision.

The case presents Southern California with a profound challenge. With ever increasing demands on water resources, determining how to allocate water is a difficult topic. But the case also presents Californians with a unique opportunity to rethink our water consumption practices. We need to make the most of this opportunity.

During a recent survey conducted by X, Y% of Californians reported that they “very rarely” or “never” think about where their water comes from. It is no wonder that Californians use more water per capita than any state in the nation.

As is evident by the situation facing the Salton Sea, this has to change. Draws on the Sea have steadily increased over the past few decades and, without a reduction in draws or state action to increase the amount of water diverted to it, the Salton Sea will disappear, leading to ecological collapse and public health hazards such as dust storms.

Until Californians come to understand just how much water they consume, and the effects of water consumption on the areas from which water is transferred, our habits will not change. A number of educational campaigns aimed at reducing water consumption have been implemented in the past, and yet the results of these campaigns have been less than encouraging.

The most recent proposal put forward by a range of academics and conservationists is unique: the use of “virtual water” labels for products sold in stores. These labels would explain to consumers just how much water was used to manufacture the t-shirt, tomato, or tablet they hope to purchase, helping consumers minimize their water footprint by directing them toward less water-intensive products.

According to its proponents, virtual water reconnects people with the relations of a commodity’s production. In this way, virtual water invokes Karl Marx’s concept of the “commodity fetish,” the tendency for commodities to obscure the social relations that gave rise to their production. A virtual water indicator label on products addresses the “water fetish,” revealing the ecological conditions of production.

Explaining this to people is important work, and the goal of reducing water consumption through virtual water labels is a good one. But virtual water should be abandoned… [I will go on to explain that virtual water is itself a form of commodity fetish]
Derek Padilla Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 3:24 pm edit

With the recent ammunition handed to Obama detractors from the Solyndra bankruptcy, solar technology has had its coming out party delayed even further than it’s perpetual ten-years-out label suggests. Solar power still heavily relies government subsidies to make it competitive with less green energy alternatives, which are also subsidised to be sure. And with the most solar-friendly president since Carter in the Oval Office, we should be pushing harder than ever to get photovoltaics on every roof in the country.

So why hasn’t this happened yet? Simply put, it’s too expensive. Too expensive to purchase the panels. Too expensive to install.

However, this expense is clearly not the flat value of upfront costs, but a comparison with the return on the investment, which immediately evokes a discussion of efficiency.

Our current efficiency metric is based on values tightly pegged to financial gain. But a question not asked enough until recently, thanks in large part to the recent Occupy movement, is “financial gains for whom?” Before asking this question, the old values of dollars-in versus dollars-out puts solar at an insurmountable disadvantage compared to fossil fuels.

We need to shift our measure of efficiency away from the dollars-per-watt value currently discussed in conjunction with solar energy. The more critical measure of efficiency that I am concerned with requires a shift in values–shifting away from financial return and toward societal impact. Using this metric, solar greatly outweighs any form of energy production.

What constitutes a positive societal impact? Perhaps it’s easier to look at society’s problems and see how solar can help solve these issue.

The discussion of a “green economy” providing “green collar” jobs for many of the unemployed has largely fizzled out since President Obama took office. There is no reason for this besides a lack of pressure on our part to keep the issue at the forefront of the national agenda.

Beyond providing jobs for the general unemployed population, there exists plans and organizations which aim to direct these green jobs towards poverty-stricken individuals as well as providing a trade skill for those stuck in the awful and over-funded incarceration loop that plagues so much of our society. Van Jones, the wrongfully shamed former Special Advisor for Green Jobs under Obama, established Green for All in 2007, an Oakland-based NGO which aims to “build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. Simply empowering already-established local organizations with financial backing will spark a great “societal return on investment”.

(Several other examples…educational tool, environmental benefits, TBD.)

(Compare with other projects: highway system, electrical grid. XL Pipeline “values”.)

There is little doubt that solar energy is a necessary piece of our future energy policy. But rather than focusing money and effort to improve the dollar-per-watt efficiency of solar technology, we should be catalyzing its societal efficiency through utilizing solar as a solution to our most trying problems. This steering of the green economy would be truly striking at the root rather than the feeble hacking at the branches that has so far produced no change, no solutions, and no improvements to our disastrous environmental, energy, and social policies we lump together and call a democratic government.
egan Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 3:31 pm edit

One In Seven People Today Are Starved: Why Should You Care

On November 4, 2011, Planet Money aired a podcast titled “How Fear Turned A Surplus Into Scarcity”. It is a report about rice, which feeds over 3 billion people, half of the world’s population. In 2007-8, rice shortages throughout Asia starved thousands. Within the first four months of 2008, rice prices more than doubled from US$393 to over US$1,020 per metric ton, a shift that was particularly devastating to the Philippines, the largest importer of rice today where average income is less than US$2 per day. Claiming to have spent two weeks of research on this, Planet Money correctly reports that the shortages were not due to actual grain supply, but to fear which led to hoarding at international, national, and household levels. However, it incorrectly attempts to locate an origin for the crises in the Indian government’s decision to ban rice exports in October 2007. It then incorrectly and problematically attributes Philippine shortages to “public incompetence and private greed”. Planet Money maps out this cycle: a government ban in India leads to an expectation of lower supply, which raises prices in other countries in Asia, which then triggers hoarding and corruption, which then leads to empty shelves of rice at Costco in San Francisco. This is wrong because it tells only one part of a much larger story. It turns a series of contemporary events — ongoing effects of colonial and imperial relations — into causes. Like many, I assume that the point of running these “reports” is to raise awareness, to teach, and therefore begin to find ways of solving scarcity or fear or greed. This kind of knowledge is dangerous. More importantly, why should you care? If you, indeed, want to build a better world, let’s start here.

We are facing a food crisis. We know the statistics, we’ve seen the images, and some of us have witnessed and experienced “scarcity” firsthand. Still, for those of us who consider US$2 nothing more than pocket change, it is almost too easy to disengage daily life from critical action once we step inside a Safeway or Walmart, spaces that project infinite abundance, spaces that make hunger remote and abstract. What keeps those shelves stocked?

1. This crisis is uneven. It appears localized or regionalized, but it is global and rhizomatic. The government ban in India is not the cause of a snowball effect that leaves to hoarding in Manila. It is one manifestation, one thread in a web of relations that connect speculative traders of rice commodity futures on the Chicago Board of Trade to loan officers at the World Bank to colonial haciendas in northern Luzon and tenant farmers who pay 90% of their harvests to landowners.

2. This crisis did not begin in 2007. It emerged out of a specific configuration of dynamic forces that began to take shape in the 1850s when the British invaded the Irrawaddy Delta and the French invaded the Mekong Delta to finance their flailing imperial regimes back home. And those configurations emerged out of a logic of extraction and commodification that began in the 1750s when the Royal Botanical Gardens opened in Kew to house species collected from British expeditions. We could trace those configurations back to the early 11th century when the Song dynasty imports 30,000 bushels of champa rice from the Mekong to support the Yangtze Delta.

3. This is not about rice grains and world trade. It is about rice seeds and genebanks. Only 6% of rice is traded on the world market. It is largely considered a domestic product and as Planet Money points out, a source of national security. Food crises, then, are seen as largely attributable to local government incompetencies (and we know how those narratives support Western supremacy narratives.) But a closer look at the rice cycle suggests that we are missing most of the story. It is not about the grains that are harvested. It is about who owns the seeds. We need to look, not at the end of the rice cycle, but at the beginning. In the late 1960s, the International Rice Research Institute was established in the Philippines by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Its genebank currently houses X00,000 varieties of rice that it distributes for free. So, a wild variety of rice from a developing nation is easily, in a sense, transformed into genetic information that can then be patented by multinational corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto. This is happening right now in the development of genetically modified rice varieties.

4. This is not about turning more farmers into better business managers, or restructuring “other” governments into neoliberal models of democracy (presumed to be more advanced, more efficient). Since the 1960s, market-based solutions to food scarcity and species obsolescence have proposed capital management, expert science, higher yield, faster growth. We know these to be violently unsustainable. Some of the largest cultivation areas, such as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and the Chao Phraya in Thailand, are also the most biodiverse ecosystems, centuries-old multispecies contact zones. Our market-driven logics are rendering extinct species, organisms, and imaginaries upon which our continuing co-existence rely. Fear and false expectations do not lead to food crises. Intelligent systems and scenario planning models that are programmed to account for profits do.

Yes, things are complicated. Whose reports should you believe? Is my account here exploitive (part of the problem) or emancipatory (a way out of the problem)? As an artist—not a scientist, not an expert, not a public official, not a social worker—why should my words count? And why should you listen? Like never before, we are witnessing the limits of scientific methods that measure, calculate, classify, reproduce, aid — charged and unstable practices tethered to long and messy regimes of occupation and accumulation through violent and sustained dispossession. We starve one of every seven people alive today. Caring is no longer optional.

NPR podcast:

molivera Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 3:42 pm edit

Congress needs to reassess its role in the U.S. government. When congress seriously considers the declaration that pizza is a vegetable, we receive more confirmation that the people’s representative body does not represent the people. Perhaps people are mute if congress does not represent, but if the Occupy movement, a movement that is a part of the larger global social movement, is something, it is the voice of the masses demanding their violated rights reinstated and protest further erosion of a civil society. Congress must be deaf.

If justice is blind and congress is deaf, what will it take to enact progressive change? There was a petition circulating about to ask Congress to consider discontinue taxing graduate student fellowships. As a lifelong poor person, a recipient of school lunches through my education career, and now a graduate student researching alternatives to agricultural fumigants, I have no other source of income. Fellowships are distributed not just to the individual, universities also take a dip of the money pot, by the time it gets to the student there is little left for them and much less come tax day. To sign this and other petitions one has to navigate thick brushes of proxy, create a digital online account, and eventually get an email to sign the petition. By the time I recovered patience of the flustering process the deadline had passed. I am unsure how pizza is a vegetable got on the agenda with such roadblocks to civic engagement. I now under know why Occupy Spaces is more attractive. Congress is deaf, but they are neither blind nor mute and can appeal to blind justice. However, the role of justice is muddled.

People are peacefully exercising their civic duty when they Occupy. Students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are Occupying Education to protest cuts to education and the gloomy prospects of life after college. We demonstrate and we are confronted with violence. How is it that in this intellectual realm characterized as Athenian students experience Spartan action? Could it be that we’ve been Sparta for quite some time. This would certainly explain why Congress cannot tell a plant from a baked good, why we’ve spent exponential amounts more on war than on education over the last decade, and why in this latest round of spending cuts more is at stake for education than for the armed forces. Indeed more is at stake than meets the eye when pizza is a vegetable.

Quality of education continues to degrade when we tie immediate economic gains to the future foundations of our next generation’s workforce. Pizza is a vegetable because the National School Lunch Program, a program aimed to feed the rising number of our nation’s food insecure children, is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is funded by the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is revised every four years. The Farm Bill began as a program to ensure that the nation’s farm economy remains. Farming is a gamble, it faces high market volatility and unpredictable weather conditions that have been intensified by climate change, crop loss is likely. Over time the Farm Bill has grown to a national farm insurance program with a conglomerate of policy programs to feed the poor the excess produce, to stabilize markets by paying farmers not to farm, soil conservation programs, subsidized commodities to make food cheap… At this point, the nutritional wellbeing and brainpower of school children are tied to the demands of agroindustry interests.

The Farm Bill purchases school lunches, school lunches must meet federal nutritional guidelines before they can be distributed to food insecure young minds. The Farm Bill subsidizes commodities like wheat and potatoes through direct payments, whereas specialty crops known as fresh fruits and vegetables are not. There is more wheat and potatoes than there are fresh fruits and vegetables, part of it has to do with governmental support of such commodities. So instead of meeting the standards by feeding kids the required amount of fresh foods, Congress decided to redefine pizza to be a vegetable. Generations of students will forever be confused. After ketchup was declared a vegetable because its made of tomatoes, tomatoes too became a vegetable, though botanically it is a fruit. By declaring ketchup a vegetable, the potato industry was grandfathered into being a permanently subsidized commodity. Pizza is a proposed vegetable because of its tomato filling, yet pizza is a democratic food. One can opt out of the tomato filling and have all cheese or varied toppings that will further confuse schoolchildren. Pizza as a vegetable will keep the wheat industry also grandfathered in.

In a nation where childhood obesity, heart disease, diabetes has parents outliving their children, what message are we sending when we grandfather in commodity groups that are usually prepared with heavy fats that contribute to such chronic health problems? Is congress really sacrificing the lives of our children and the future economic stability of our nation up for political game of lobbies? I have an idea, lets stick to the original definition of vegetable and subsidize fresh produce by cutting into grandfather subsidy programs. We students deserve better than pizza.

We are students voicing our lamentation for the loss of funding that affords the scaffolding of quality education. Our representatives are not deaf, but have selective hearing. It seems to me that Congress needs some reschooling and a reassessment of values, perhaps this Thanksgiving will give us all a chance to reconsider education and our investment on our nations’ poor children who have the potential to one day grow up and contribute to our wellbeing.

Posted in Research Blog, Uncategorized.

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