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Occupy Everywhere

Posted on November 27th, 2011 in Climage Change,Culture,Economy,Education,Politics by Robert Miller

OWS Transition?

For an update on the status of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and perhaps learn something about where it is going, you can visit last Friday’s  Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, where excerpts from a panel discussion can be viewed. The panel discussion was sponsored by The Nation and held in the New School University in New York City, with the title “”Occupy Everywhere: On the New Politics and Possibilities of the Movement Against Corporate Power.” The participants include film maker Michael Moore, author Rinki Sen, Patrick Bruner (“veteran” OWS organizer), economic journalist William Greider and author Naomi Klein, with moderator Richard Kim. The video consists of excerpts from the discussion of what the movement has accomplished, where it is headed, what it needs to do for future growth and what needs it must fulfill if the bright promise they have aroused, that of changing the world, can gain any more traction. To begin with of course, the latter issue is not trivial and no one comes close to seriously expressing the magnitude of the problem. But so far, the incremental  steps that have been taken, such as the “99 percent” deeply resonate with all ages, and have created thirst for action that is more than just “occupy.”   Historians often express the view that the historical record of public arousal and activism against social injustice are not directly related to hard times per se, but emerge when the narrative that kept people down runs out of explanatory power. When hard times first come, people think they have to double down and work harder to get by (or maybe in the case of many Americans, they align themselves more clearly with God and religion–it’s their fault for not being a better provider–their faith hasn’t been strong enough to be rewarded by God) and finally, when multiple iterations of this strategy have failed, groups are formed that begin to articulate a better vision of tomorrow and coalesce into a more nationally identifiable  movement. That is what the OWS movement has brought to our door–they articulate the long-standing grievances we have with how our civil society has been structured and run in the last several decades.  And, they emphasize that the richest country in the world can afford to do better, can afford to do the things that they are talking about. The most boring among us have become the most rich and powerful and they have their boot on our neck. They want to establish an aristocracy so they can pass on their wealth to their offspring (no more inheritance taxes for one thing). The OWS movement is addressing issues that, economically, began in the 1970s, if not earlier. Let’s face it, at the moment, OWS is the only game in town;  after a little more than two months, the movement seems safely launched: it will surely oscillate a bit with the seasons, but one expects to see a process of growth and continued renewal and the “99 percent” is already a permanent member of our national lexicon. It’s a beautiful cutoff. The movement has already had detectable success in the November elections, particularly in Ohio. Patrick Bruner emphasized that by following Google Trends, the words used by the OWS movement have been sharply on the rise.

A documentary worth seeing: The Last Mountain

Posted on November 25th, 2011 in ecology,Energy,Government,Health,Technology by Robert Miller

Mountaintop removal eliminates the mountain and fills the valley below

I have been waiting for the documentary “The Last Mountain” to be released to my  Netflix streaming queue for sometime and then it suddenly showed up, so I watched it a few nights ago. Directed by Bill Haney, it tells the gripping story of the fight to keep Coal River Mountain West Virginia from being destroyed by the Massey Energy  Company.  The residents of Coal River Valley have been threatened for years by mountain top removal in a region of the state that has breath-taking, tree-covered hills and valleys; this region however has been progressively destroyed by coal mining through the technique of  mountaintop removal, based on massive, mechanized  machinery and explosives. Although Robert Kennedy played a major role as an activist and adviser in the documentary, and clearly adds a sense of national urgency to the issues addressed, the story is also about how local residents of Coal River Valley got together and formed an activist resistance to the Massey Coal Company’s plan to remove Coal River Mountain, a mountain that serves as a watershed for residents of the valleys below.  Many other mountains in the region have already been destroyed by coal mining, such that Coal River Mountain was and is the “last mountain standing”  of significance for the region. The removal of this mountain will destroy the water system of people living downstream and increase the severity of flooding, two well-known, obligatory features of mountaintop removal.  Many residents believe that Massey Coal wants to depopulate the Coal River Valley and eliminate downstream community occupancy, to give them more space for strip-mining. It is a very ugly process.

While the Obama administration has been more sensitive to the destruction of the water supply by mountaintop coal mining and violations of environmental laws, the original permits to remove Coal River Mountain were given during the Bush administration and Massey Coal has proceeded to execute its march towards mountain destruction. However, in a somewhat duplicitous manner, the Obama administration continues to issue permits for more mountaintop removal in the region. An interesting feature of this controversy was revealed in the documentary based on studies  that raise the feasibility of putting windmill generators across the top of Coal River Mountain. Those who have studied this suggest that wind power generation would produce more jobs and give the neighboring communities more long-term income through power generation and improvements in the tax base, when compared to the resources generated by the Massey mountaintop removal project,  which  of course will end at some time in the future. The demonstrations, sit-ins and tree sitting by environmentalists and residents are greeted with hostility by the miners who still have jobs working for Massey Coal. Oddly enough, I didn’t see many of the mountain top removal defenders (50 percent of our electricity comes from coal) argue that the future of the industry depends on the development of new clean coal technologies, none of which were on display or even discussed. Many coal-based power plants claim that they are ready for “carbon-capture” technology when it becomes available. But that possibility is very remote because once in service, the public will not tolerate retrofitting for carbon-capture, even if the technique becomes feasible, as it would add enormous costs to existing energy production. If carbon-capture or some similar clean coal technology ever comes along, it is likely to increase the cost of coal-based power plants to a prohibitively high level. Coal is currently the worst source of air pollution and the long list of its pollution offenses  goes beyond carbon dioxide and includes such things as mercury contamination, which accounts for warnings we get about eating fish too often because of their high mercury content. Mercury is toxic to the brain and impacts on brain development. It might be that Republicans have been eating too much fish.

Robert Kennedy is articulate in pointing out that the impact of Massey Coal has been to increase the poverty of the region, first by destroying the unions in the 1980s (companies close mines, send unionized workers home and then reopened the mines with non-union miners, complete with reduced salary and benefits) and second, by reducing the labor force through automation and modernization of equipment and techniques: strip mining is replacing deep hole mining, with a reduction in the labor force needed.  But if the true cost of coal mining was reflected in the price of coal, including the serious health care costs and safety issues, the cost of this form of energy would be prohibitively expensive. We are not just trapped by the history of the region as a long-standing coal-mining center, but also by the powerful lobbying interests of coal mining and transportation (trains) that thrive on their operations in West Virginia and other coal-intensive states.  One can add that Wall Street has billions invested in these companies because they are profitable and seem to be free from serious regulatory control. Add to that formula the corrupt organization of the state’s environmental protection agency, which allows coal companies to violate water and air quality standards without fines, and you have an updated version of “Love Canal.”

The environmental damage does not stop with a disappearing mountain top. The heavy coal mining leads to toxic waste sites in the mountain regions above the valleys, created from the water used to wash the coal before it is shipped and these sites leak and pollute the water supply downstream, carrying highly toxic material.  Several websites have been put up to monitor the mining operation, but the state and Federal Government seem to collude as obstacles for better environmental regulation. The trouble is that while wind energy might be successful for the future of local inhabitants, how will the energy needs of others be met who receive the coal over long distance railroad shipments? You have to decommission these coal plants one at a time, when you have a suitable alternative and until that can be achieved, the forces promoting mountaintop removal will keep going with few obstacles in sight that can stop them. If you had only two solutions to our energy needs, nuclear power and coal mining, the preferred choice would be obvious.  The solution at hand is to build a new, modern transcontinental power grid that collects electricity from all forms of power generated in different ways and distribute that power efficiently to homes and businesses. This is an infrastructure issue. Yes, it would be better to replace coal-fired power plants with natural gas in the short-run, and it seems obvious that the wind turbine option for the people of Coal River Valley makes far more economic and environmental sense, but how to resolve the challenges of implementing this new technology in place of coal is something we can only achieve through the force of a national government, not a state government, which, in the case of West Virginia seems hopelessly corrupt and entirely devoted to the private, rather than the public interest.


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The Occupy Wall Street Movement impacted on the Ohio election

Posted on November 21st, 2011 in Culture,Economy by Robert Miller

Writer Andy Kroll has a piece in TomDispatch “How the 99% Won in the Fight for Worker Rights,” explaining how the OWS movement that began in New York on September 17, 2011 and spread to hundreds of different sites, impacted the election of 2011 that he was following in Ohio. I believed intuitively that OWS had a big impact on the November elections, but most visibly and pointedly in Ohio and Andy Kroll offers evidence for this turnaround. His piece is worth a read because he has tabulated the incidence of words like “debt reduction” and “unemployment” to show the impact of the OWS movement in transitioning news emphasis: here are a couple of quotes from his article:

What a game-changing few months it’s been. Occupy Wall Street has inspired 750 events around the world, and hundreds of (semi-)permanent encampments around the United States. In so doing, the protests have wrestled the national discussion on the economy away from austerity and toward gaping income inequality (the 99% versus 1% theme), outsized executive compensation, and the plain buying and selling of American politicians by lobbyists and campaign donors.

More from his piece:

Mentions of the phrase “income inequality” in print publications, web stories, and broadcast transcripts spiked from 91 times a week in early September to nearly 500 in late October, according to the website Politico — an increase of nearly 450%. In the second week of October, according to ThinkProgress, the words most uttered on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News were “jobs” (2,738), “Wall Street” (2,387), and “Occupy” (1,278). (References to “debt” tumbled to 398.)

I subscribe to Andy Kroll’s theory–that the surprising election that took place earlier this month was energized and perhaps even converted from austerity and fear to a public mood more oriented towards social justice. If the OWS movement can find a way to energize the country, the election of 2012 could be a game-changer for a more sensible turn away from economic injustice to recognizing that the traditional social policies we installed for the last depression, must be maintained and our economic system must turn away from the neoliberal constraints that have hollowed out our culture and narrowed our economic opportunities. It is not right that the very people who brought on this financial collapse still receive huge bonuses and display no shame.


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