Friday April 18th, 2014, 6:37 am (EDT)


Environment & Science

The Humanization of the Cosmos—To What End?

Society is increasingly humanizing the cosmos. Satellites have for some time been central to the flow of information, to surveillance, and to the conduct of warfare. As these examples suggest, however, the humanization of the cosmos is primarily benefiting the powerful. These include major economic and military institutions. Furthermore, the forthcoming commodification and colonization of the cosmos is again likely to enhance the interests of the powerful, the major aerospace companies in particular. The time has come to consider alternative forms of cosmic humanization. These would enhance the prospects of the socially marginalized. They would also allow humanity to develop a better understanding of the cosmos and our relationship to it… | more |

The Guilt of Capitalism

Though it is neither written nor marketed as such, Who Owns the Sun? by researcher/activists Daniel Berman and John O’Connor, is a devastating indictment of capitalism. As it has developed in the last two centuries, this system is an enormous user of energy, most of it derived from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). An additional—and in some parts of the world increasing—source is nuclear fission. Both of these forms of energy are dangerous and environmentally destructive to life on the planet. Burning fossil fuels generates almost all of the greenhouse gasses that have already begun to change the planet’s climate and, if continued at anywhere near the present rates, will trigger a chain reaction of lethal disasters, not in some vaguely distant future but in the next century or so—historically a relatively short span of time. Nuclear fission leaves a legacy of radioactive waste that cannot now, or perhaps ever, be safely disposed of. Clearly if humanity, not to speak of other forms of life, is to have a future, nothing could be more important than phasing out these sources of energy. So much, I believe, is what can be appropriately called ecological common sense… | more |

Chemical Catastrophe: From Bhopal to BP Texas City

Twenty-five years ago, a runaway chemical reaction in a tank at a Union Carbide (UC) pesticide factory created a poisonous gas which, unimpeded by the factory’s safety devices, spewed out over the sleeping population of the Indian city of Bhopal. Amnesty International estimated that seven thousand to ten thousand died in the catastrophe’s first three days, and that, by 2004, another fifteen thousand died. Prior to Bhopal, concern over toxic chemicals was confined to long-term or chronic effects on human health and the environment. Bhopal, however, showed that the manufacture, storage, and use of toxic chemicals also posed a major, acute risk to the safety of those working in and living around petrochemical plants and complexes… | more |

Our Last Chance to Save Humanity?

James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 320 pages, $25.00, hardcover.… | more |

James Hansen, one of the world’s most distinguished climate scientists, has written an important book about the threat posed by climate change. The title, Storms of My Grandchildren, refers to the prediction of more powerful and more damaging storms in a warmer, future earth. Subtitled The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, the book is written for a lay public and is certain to be controversial… | more |

El Salvador: Mining the Resistance

“Ultimately,” said Miguel Rivera, a soft-spoken man in his late twenties, “we are a family that has dedicated ourselves to helping the people with their needs and defending their rights. But in the process of denouncing the consequences of mining especially, I think there are people that will be your enemies.”…The Canadian-owned Pacific Rim Mining Company has attempted to exploit a gold mine at El Dorado for the better part of a decade, and has been repeatedly thwarted in its efforts….Now, apparently, the company’s local allies have taken a more violent approach to removing that opposition.… | more |

What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism

For those concerned with the fate of the earth, the time has come to face facts: not simply the dire reality of climate change but also the pressing need for social-system change. The failure to arrive at a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 was not simply an abdication of world leadership, as is often suggested, but had deeper roots in the inability of the capitalist system to address the accelerating threat to life on the planet. Knowledge of the nature and limits of capitalism, and the means of transcending it, has therefore become a matter of survival. In the words of Fidel Castro in December 2009: “Until very recently, the discussion [on the future of world society] revolved around the kind of society we would have. Today, the discussion centers on whether human society will survive.”… | more |

Why Programs Fail

Several generations of development programs have left the gap between rich and poor countries wider than ever. Decades of aid and foreign investment have extracted many times more wealth than they bring in. Seventeen years after the Earth Summit at Rio, carbon dioxide continues to increase. The non-proliferation treaty has left us with more nukes, more countries possessing nukes, more sophisticated nuclear weapons, more willingness to use them. The fanfare of the Green Revolution has died down, and farmers are still being displaced to cities that can’t accommodate them. The first homes of the Green Revolution are now importers of food. Agricultural yields have increased, but so has hunger. Millennial development goals will not be reached.…It is not that no programs work. There have been dramatic successes such as the eradication of smallpox, the near eradication of polio, the containment of plague.…There is a pattern of a sort: narrowly focused technical solutions reshuffle crises.… | more |

Gouldiana Rising

Warren D. Allmon, Patricia H. Kelley, and Robert M. Ross, eds., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 400 pages, $34.95, hardcover.

Stephen Jay Gould, best known to the general public for his nearly three decades of regular essays published in the popular magazine Natural History, was prolific and, although he always emphasized that he was a tradesman, specializing in paleontology and evolutionary theory, he was nonetheless a polymath, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of art, literature, philosophy, history, and a variety of sciences, both social and natural. The vast body of work he has bequeathed to the literate public — the Republic of Letters, as he affectionately called us — is filled with gems of insight, fascinating observations, and no shortage of controversy. No one who has read Gould with care can avoid noticing his abiding love for learning and teaching, his unbridled enthusiasm for grappling with nature’s mysteries, and his fascination with humanity in all of its many forms. In many ways, Gould’s writing was deeply personal, demonstrating one man’s struggle to understand the natural world and our place in it. However, in other ways, Gould, the man, remained elusive and inaccessible to those who only knew him through his writing.… | more |

Globalization of Agribusiness and Developing World Food Systems

The issue of the global concentration of agribusiness is crucial to the future of the food systems of developing (and poor, non-developing) countries. These countries have been a target of corporate investments from the outset of the industrial food system. This process has been uneven — at different times corporate investment has focused on one or another part of the food system. Today, this uneven and often uncoordinated foray of metropolitan corporate capital is still subjugating the agriculture and domestic food markets of many developing countries, particularly smaller, peripheral ones undergoing rapid urbanization, to the needs of global agribusiness. For some of the larger developing countries, however, national capitalists are the principal force behind the emerging urban food system. In addition, the state has been playing a key role in the consolidation of the urban food system in certain emerging economies.… | more |

An Overview of the Food and Agriculture Crisis

“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?,” asks the title of an article by Lester Brown in Scientific American (May 2009). Just a few years ago, such a question would have seemed almost laughable. Few will be surprised by it today.… | more |

In 2008 people woke up to a tsunami of hunger sweeping the world. Although the prospect of rising hunger has loomed on the horizon for years, the present crisis seemed to come out of the blue without warning. Food riots spread through many countries in the global South as people tried to obtain a portion of what appeared to be a rapidly shrinking supply of food, and many governments were destabilized.… | more |

Food Wars

In 2006–08, food shortages became a global reality, with the prices of commodities spiraling beyond the reach of vast numbers of people. International agencies were caught flatfooted, with the World Food Program warning that its rapidly diminishing food stocks might not be able to deal with the emergency.… | more |

The World Food Crisis in Historical Perspective

The “world food crisis” of 2007–08 was the tip of an iceberg. Hunger and food crises are endemic to the modern world, and the eruption of a rapid increase in food prices provided a fresh window on this cultural fact. Much like Susan George’s well-known observation that famines represent the final stage in an extended process of deepening vulnerability and fracturing of social reproduction mechanisms, this food “crisis” represents the magnification of a long-term crisis of social reproduction stemming from colonialism, and was triggered by neoliberal capitalist development.… | more |

Sub-Saharan Africa’s Vanishing Peasantries and the Specter of a Global Food Crisis

Likened to a sudden tsunami, reports of declining staple food availability and the possibility of a world food crisis first appeared in the international press in late 2007.1 Sub-Saharan Africa, with its deepening need for disaster food relief in arid and war-torn areas, was most vulnerable. The economic viability of western donors’ food aid to the continent was increasingly being stretched. As food riots flared in various Asian and Latin American cities, urban food riots also began surfacing in Africa, alongside the perennial threat of rural famine.… | more |

Origins of the Food Crisis in India and Developing Countries

India has had a growing problem with food output and availability for the mass of the population since the inception of neoliberal economic reforms in 1991. A deep agricultural depression and rising unemployment rates resulting from “reform” policies have made the problem especially acute over the past decade. There has been a sharp decline in per capita grain output as well as grain consumption in the economy as a whole. Income has been shifting away from the majority towards the wealthy minority and a substantial segment of the population is being forced to eat less food and wear older clothing than before. This is exacerbated by the current global depression, which is further constraining mass consumption because of rising unemployment.… | more |

Free Trade in Agriculture: A Bad Idea Whose Time Is Done

The push for “free trade” in agriculture first took hold in the 1980s. It was part of a package of policies and investments that moved food and agriculture systems away from government control (too often centralized and unresponsive) toward private ownership. Ironically, private ownership has led to an even more centralized and tightly controlled food system. Local communities have been left more disempowered than they were before, and, increasingly, developing country national governments have found themselves disempowered, too. This essay considers what advocates of free trade promised developing countries, what actually happened, and what some alternatives might look like.… | more |

Reducing Energy Inputs in the Agricultural Production System

Oil, natural gas, coal, and other mined fuels provide the United States with nearly all of its energy needs at a cost $700 billion per year.1 Since more than 90 percent of its oil deposits have been depleted, the United States now imports over 70 percent of its oil at an annual cost of $400 billion.2 United States agriculture is driven almost entirely by these non-renewable energy sources. Each person in the country on a per capita consumption basis requires approximately 2,000 liters per year in oil equivalents to supply his/her total food, which accounts for about 19 percent of the total national energy use. Farming — that portion of the agricultural/food system in which food is produced — requires about 7 percent and food processing and packaging consume an additional 7 percent, while transportation and preparation use 5 percent of total energy in the United States.… | more |

Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty

Global forces are challenging the ability of developing countries to feed themselves. A number of countries have organized their economies around a competitive export-oriented agricultural sector, based mainly on monocultures. It may be argued that agricultural exports of crops such as soybeans from Brazil make significant contributions to the national economies by bringing in hard currency that can be used to purchase other goods from abroad. However, this type of industrial agriculture also brings a variety of economic, environmental, and social problems, including negative impacts on public health, ecosystem integrity, food quality, and in many cases disruption of traditional rural livelihoods, while accelerating indebtedness among thousands of farmers.… | more |

Fixing our Global Food System: Food Sovereignty and Redistributive Land Reform

The recent world food price crisis highlights what many have thought for a long time: the world’s food and agriculture system is broken. Few winners remain in the aftermath of the severe crisis, in which prices for basic food commodities (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans) increased dramatically in 2007 and 2008, only to fall rapidly in the second half of 2008. Although down from their high points, commodity prices are still about double those of the early 2000s. Consumer prices in all countries have remained high, while farmers failed to benefit much from the price hikes, due to high prices for agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, and they are now hurt by falling crop prices.1 The real people in the system, whether family farmers or peasants, or the rest of us who just consume food, can’t ever win, it seems. It is always the middlemen — an ever smaller array of global corporations — that “make the killing” in terms of windfall profits.… | more |

The Venezuelan Effort to Build a New Food and Agriculture System

In April 2008, as people around the world took to the streets to protest the global food crisis and the lack of political will to address it, a crowd of a different nature gathered in Venezuela. Afro-Venezuelan cacao farmers and artisanal fishermen of the coastal community of Chuao came together to witness their president pledge that the food crisis would not hinder Venezuela’s advancements in food and agriculture. “There is a food crisis in the world, but Venezuela is not going to fall into that crisis,” said Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías. “You can be sure of that. Actually, we are going to help other nations who are facing this crisis.”1 He then went on to describe Venezuela’s most recent developments in food and agriculture, as well as the work that still lay ahead. This was one of several weekly addresses that Chávez had dedicated to food and agriculture as the world food crisis unfolded.… | more |

From Food Crisis to Food Sovereignty: The Challenge of Social Movements

The current global food crisis — decades in the making — is a crushing indictment against capitalist agriculture and the corporate monopolies that dominate the world’s food systems. The role of the industrial agrifood complex in creating the crisis (through the monopolization of input industries, industrial farming, processing, and retailing) and the self-serving neoliberal solutions proposed by the world’s multilateral institutions and leading industrial countries are being met with skepticism, disillusion, and indifference by a general public more concerned with the global economic downturn than with the food crisis. Neoliberal retrenchment has met growing resistance by those most affected by the crisis — the world’s smallholder farmers.… | more |