Friday, May 24, 2019

3253. New Research Suggests that the Big Bang Occurred 12.5 Billion Years Ago

By Corey S. Powell, NBC News, May 18, 2019

A ground-based telescope's view of the Large Magellanic Cloud

Studies of star clusters in a neighboring galaxy (inset) add to the evidence that the universe is younger and faster-expanding than expected.Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach / NASA, ESA, A. Reiss (STScI/JHU)
We've all lost track of time at one point or another, but astronomers really go all in. Recent studies show they may have overestimated the age of the universe by more than a billion years — a surprising realization that is forcing them to rethink key parts of the scientific story of how we got from the Big Bang to today.

The lost time is especially vexing because, in a universe full of mysteries, its age has been viewed as one of the few near-certainties. By 2013, the European Planck space telescope's detailed measurements of cosmic radiation seemed to have yielded the final answer: 13.8 billion years old. All that was left to do was to verify that number using independent observations of bright stars in other galaxies.

Then came an unexpected turn of events.

A few teams, including one led by Nobel laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, set out to make those observations. Instead of confirming Planck's measurements, they started getting a distinctly different result.

"It was getting to the point where we say, 'Wait a second, we're not passing this test — we're failing the test!'" says Riess, co-author of a new paper about the research to be published in Astrophysical Journal.

He estimates that his results, taken at face value, indicate a universe that is only 12.5 billion to 13 billion years old.

At first, the common assumption was that Riess and the other galaxy-watchers had made a mistake. But as their observations continued to come in, the results didn't budge.

Reanalysis of the Planck data didn't show any problems, either.

If all the numbers are correct, then the problem must run deeper. It must lie in our interpretation of those numbers — that is, in our fundamental models of how the universe works. "The discrepancy suggests that there's something in the cosmological model that we're not understanding right," Riess says. What that something could be, nobody knows.

Discovery of the dawn of time

The current discrepancy traces its origin way back to 1929, when astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that galaxies are fleeing from Earth in all directions. More shocking, Hubble found that the farther away the galaxies are, the faster they're moving apart. That pattern means they're all fleeing from each other as well. "The only way all of this can be true is if space is expanding," Riess says.

If the idea of an expanding universe seems bizarre to you, welcome to the club.
"It's still bizarre to me, too," Riess says. "But that's what all of the data show, and that's what our theory predicts." Even Hubble never fully accepted the implications of his own work.
An expanding universe implies that the universe has a definite age, because you can retrace the action back to a time when everything in the cosmos was crammed together in an extremely dense, hot state: what we call the Big Bang.

"This is another hard concept for people to get their heads around," University of Chicago cosmologist Wendy Freedman said, adding that the Big Bang didn't go off like a kind of bomb. "The Big Bang is an explosion of space, not into space," she said.

In other words, galaxies are not flying away from each other through space. Space itself is stretching between them, and it has been ever since the Big Bang. So it's meaningless to ask where the Big Bang occurred. It occurred everywhere. As Freedman puts it, "There is no center or edge to the explosion."

But in the expanding universe, there is a beginning of time — at least, time as we know it. 

By measuring the rate at which galaxies are moving apart, astronomers realized, they could figure out the moment when the cosmos blinked into existence. All they had to do is figure out how to get their galactic measurements exactly right.

Clocking the cosmos

Freedman has been working on that problem for more than three decades, far longer than she ever expected. "This is an incredible challenge," she says. "Imagine making measurements out to hundreds of millions of light years to 1-percent accuracy!"

Hubble himself flubbed the test. His original calculations implied a universe younger than Earth, because he had drastically underestimated the distances to other galaxies.

The difficulty of making direct observations of other galaxies is one of the reasons why scientists created the Planck space telescope. It was designed to detect radiation left over from the Big Bang. The pattern of that radiation indicates the exact physical state of the early universe, if you know how to decode it. In principle, then, the Planck readings should tell us everything we want to know about what the universe is made of, and how old it is.

Planck has been a resounding success, pinning hard numbers onto the soft riddles of the cosmos. It indicated that 26 percent of the universe consists of dark matter, invisible material that helps hold galaxies together. It also confirmed the surprise discovery that the universe is dominated by dark energy, an unknown force that permeates all of empty space. (The detection of dark energy is what earned Riess a shared 2011 Nobel Prize.)

The likely implication of these findings is that the universe will keep expanding forever, faster and faster, into an ever-deeper darkness. It's an uncomfortable thought, one that Riess would rather not dwell on: "The scale of time is so beyond that of humanity, I don't think of it in human terms."
Most satisfying, perhaps, Planck finally completed the job that Hubble began, determining how quickly the universe is expanding and how long it has been around. Or so it seemed.

Something big is missing

Fortunately, Freedman and Riess and their colleagues didn't give up on their alternate approach to determining the age of the universe. They kept improving their observations, and are now getting close to that ambitious target of 1 percent accuracy. Which brings us to the current dispute — what the scientists politely refer to as "the tension."

The latest galaxy studies indicate an expansion rate about 9 percent faster than the answer from Planck. That might not sound like much of a disagreement, but over cosmic history it adds up to that full billion years of lost time.

Given the stakes, everyone involved is checking and rechecking their results for possible sources of error. Increasingly, though, it looks like the problem lies not with the observations but with the theories of cosmology that underpin them. If those theories are wrong or incomplete, the interpretation of the Planck readings will be flawed, too.

"There's currently no consistent story that works for all our cosmological data," says Princeton University astrophysicist Jo Dunkley, who has extensively analyzed the Planck results. "That means there is fascinating work to be done, to see if there is something out there that can explain all of it."
The "tension" reminds scientists of just how much they still don't understand about the underlying laws of nature. Dunkley points to the ghostly particles known as neutrinos, which are extremely abundant throughout space. "We measure neutrinos in the lab and put them in our cosmological model assuming that they are behaving just as we expect them to, but we simply don't know if that's true," she says. "I wouldn't find it surprising if dark matter turned out to be more complicated than we think, too."

Then there's the enigma of dark energy. "We have no good ideas for what it is. Perhaps there are also elements completely missing from the model side, still to be discovered," Freedman says. Theorists have no shortage of ideas: new types of dark energy, new fields, new particles.
Figuring out which explanation is correct — if any — will require another vast improvement in how we measure what the universe is actually doing. Freedman isn't coy about the magnitude of our ignorance: "The question is, what do we have yet to learn? I'd love to come back in a hundred or a thousand years and find out!"

3252. Short Story: Between Dream and Reality: My First Visit to Cuba

By Kamran Nayeri, May 21, 2019
A festive May Day crowd on the Malecon, in front of Hotel Nacional, Havana, 2004.  
As the Cubana de Aviación's Antonov An-24 44-seat twin turboprop plane took off from the Cancún airport for José Mari International Airport in Havana I was filled with a feeling of joy.  A dream of my political life to visit revolutionary Cuba was about to be fulfilled. 

Suddenly, smoke rose from the floor of the cabin. My heart sank! “Would we make to Havana?” I asked myself instantaneously.  One look around the cabin and I saw flight attendants busy going after their post take-off tasks. A few of other passengers had a look of concern on their faces. But others seemed unconcerned. A man across the isle from me  stretched out across towards me and loudly said: “Sorry but that is how it is!”  I did not understand what exactly he meant until later when someone explained to that the collision of the colder air pumped into the cabin by the air conditioning system with the hot and humid Cancùn air that had filled the cabin when we boarded the plane from a ladder on the tarmac had caused instant condensation that appeared as “smoke” rising from the floor of the cabin.

With my mind at ease once again, I returned back to my dream dreaming about what I am about to witness when we arrive in Havana just as the plane made its across the blue sky over the Yucatan channel where Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea meet.  

I was on my way to the Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists, a five-day event at the University of Havana, in June of 1994. Professor of philosophy Cliff DuRand, a member of Radical Philosophy, organized these annual conferences in collaboration with some Cuban philosophers and socialist scientists.  While such conferences did serve an academic purpose, they also provided a venue to circumvent the inhumane U.S. embargo laws that were meant to suffocate the Cuban people and their revolution while at the same time taking away the right U.S. citizens and resident to travel as they please. Only a very limited number of U.S. citizens and residents could visit Cuba legally for family, business, journalistic, or academic reasons or they would have to ask for a special permit to travel from the Treasury Department. Thus, many thousands of Americans visited Cuba illegally every year.

Not an hour had passed when land appeared in the horizon and the plane circled and landed in the modest José Marti International Airport just south of the city of Havana.  The customs and immigration did not take much time as the airport was not busy.  Knowing full well that some U.S. residents may be traveling despite the embargo laws Cuban immigration officers asked whether they want their visa issued on a separate sheet.

Hotel Colina
More than a dozen conference participants were on the same flight. As Cliff had suggested we had made reservations to stay in the same hotel in Cancún for the night before our departure for Havana.  For decades there was no direct flight to Cuba from the U.S. due to the U.S. embargo. So travelers from the U.S. had to take a plane to Cuba from the neighboring countries with Cancún being the most favored airport as both Cuban or Mexican airlines regular flights to Havana.

As I walked out the Josė Marti airport building, I took in the hot and lightly musky air that was more humid than in Cancún.  Two Cuban guides, Eduardo and Ramon, holding a sign welcomed us one by one and boarded everyone on an air conditioned bus that traveled nine miles through to the north side of Havana to Hotel Colina, a budget hotel frequented by visitors to the University of Havana that was just a couple of blocks away.  The hotel has five floors with guest rooms and and a small restaurant/bar on the left of the small reception lobby.  Located at calle L e/ 27 y Jovellar, in Vedado neighborhood in the norther part of Havana, it is strategically located as the University of Havana is in a walking distance, and there are many cultural locations for a visitor to explore nearby. 
A map of Vedado neighborhood

At the hotel lobby we were assigned to a room, typically two persons to a room (except for those who paid extra for a single occupancy room). I was assigned a room with a young philosophy student named Mike who I came to like a lot as we spent a lot of time discussing not only the Cuban revolution and but also the U.S. politics. 

It was still early afternoon and after lunch we were invited to go for a walk in the historic Habana vieja (Old Havana), a gem of colonial architecture with a number of hotels, restaurants and bars, but also cultural, political, and administrative institutions.  Because it is the hub of Cuban tourism there was also street artists and vendors who tried making a living off the tourists who went by. For me the entire experience was a novel journey as experiencing minutia of daily happenings are to a toddler.

Alas, there were also small boys who followed us around asking for our pens and pencils. I found it extremely distressful despite having prepared for it on an intellectual level. I knew fully well that I was traveling to Cuba in the midst of its great depression caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc which had provided it with two decades of favorable trade and credit relations as a member of the Council of Mutual Economic Cooperation (CMEA).  Later I learned that the real GDP had contracted at an average annual rate of 10 percent from 1990 to 1993 and that June 1994 when we were in Cuba the economy had hit the bottom.
The impact of the economic crisis that was comparable to the Great Depression in the United States except Cuba was also facing an intensification of the U.S. embargo that Washington hoped would hasten the collapse of the Cuban revolution. It was later that I learned about the extent of hunger and malnutrition that set off epidemic of optic and peripheral neuropathy occurred in Cuba during 1992–1993 which affected over 50,000 people.

A conversation at the bar
After dinner I accompanied Mike and another U.S. participants to a bar nearby for a mojito. It must have been about 9 or 10 o’clock at night and there were no table seats. I sat by myself at the bar next to a young Afro-Cuban woman and ordered a mojito. After exchanging pleasantries in my very limited Spanish, the young woman began to speak in English asking me why I was there in Havana. I briefly mentioned the conference but went on to express my admiration for the Cuban revolution in part because I wanted to ask her about  the children I had seen in Habana vieja. 

As if she too was glad to find "an American" to ask her questions about the United States, she quick went from the question about the children to her view about the failure of socialism. Alluding to my reference to Che Guevara’s vision of socialism, she dismissed it as a dream that has failed miserably not just in the Soviet bloc but also in Cuba. She told me that she is at the bar looking for men who want to have a good time. 

In her view, socialism was a lie perpetuated by a regime that had enriched itself at the expense of the Cuban people whose basic material needs are not met. She dismissed my argument about the gains of the Cuban revolution from achieving independence from Washington to provision of education, health care, housing, and culture for ordinary Cubans.  But to her mind, Cuba had exchanged one master for another--United States for the Soviet Union. To her mind the U.S. has proven resilient and successful in providing all that a consumer could demand. While the "communist" model followed by Cuba has proved in crisis as in full display now and where the population's needs for consumer goods are not met and can not be met.  Not being able to voice their grievances, she claimed, dissident like her had no choice but try to escape. 

Meanwhile, she said she was selling the only thing she had that was marketable, her body. She was looking for a man to take her out of Cuba, preferably to the United States.

Of course, I was not the right pick for her.  I left the bar in a daze to return to my room. That night I did not sleep well and when I did fall asleep, I had anxiety dreams about Cuba and about socialism. 

A question of philosophy
One our guides and interpreters was a young tall man with a. thin mustache named Alberto (I do not recall his last name).  Alberto was a professor of philosophy and like other highly educated Cubans he was using his language skill as a way to make much needed extra-income in the tourism industry. One day as part of our daily excursions to see various aspects of the progress of the Cuban revolution, we visited the Technological University of Havana José Antonio Echeverría which was established in 1964 as part of the effort to develop and industrialize the Cuban economy.  During the visit, we met with several professors at the university who told us about its history, mission, and curriculum.  Included in the presentation was a reference to a faculty of philosophy at the university. In the discussion that followed, I asked why a technical college has a faculty of philosophy. I preface my question by noting that there in no parallel in the United States. In fact, interest in philosophy among curriculum designers and students alike has been on a decline even in liberal arts colleges. I also noted that this was not always the case as at the turn of the twentieth century a liberal arts major in the U.S. was required two courses in philosophy. Today, philosophy is no longer a requirement except, of course, for philosophy majors. The response was rooted in the 1960s view in Cuba that socialist development required a philosophical vision of humanity and no technological innovation and introduction can not be considered and accomplished properly without a philosophical frame of mind. This response impressed me.  So did the meeting we had with the representatives of the
Cuban Association of Persons with Disabilities (La Asociación Cubana de Limitados Físico - Motores--ACLIFIM) who told us about a new policy to ensure all new constructions are wheelchair accessible. The visit ended with a basketball game between two teams of disabled players.  

I was similarly impressed in our delegation's visit to Hospital Psiquiátrico de La Habana Comandante Doctor Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz Ducunge.  Established outside of Havana in 1857 as Casa General de Dementes de la Isla de Cuba, before the 1959 revolution it was known for its cruel treatment of its patients.  What we saw in 1994 was an entirely different place. The hospital was on a well-landscaped estate with a number of building. We observed patients who were working in the garden or playing games or being groomed.  In my own work experience, I had visited a number of psychiatric hospitals where the patients ward was more like a prison with locked door.  In 2010, 26 patients in the same hospital died of freezing cold. The hospital management was tried, convicted, and sentenced for their negligence.

Bread and ideology
Alberto had become friends with Mike and me and after our visit to the technical college he invited us to his apartment.  On our way, I bought a loaf of bread to munch on as we were almost past the lunch time. When we got to Alberto’s apartment that was on the second floor of the building, I discovered what is very common in Cuba. He and his wife and their son shared the small apartment with his parents.  It is still quite common to find three generations of Cubans to live in a small dwelling.  At the same time, no Cuban is homeless. Home ownership is about 86% and those who rent by law pay no more to for rent than 10% of their wages.

When we sat down I placed the loaf of bread wrapped in paper on the coffee table in the center of the room and offered it to everyone. All said they just had lunch: “Gracias!” We stayed for about 20 minutes exchanging pleasantries and engaging in small talk which Alberto helped to interpret. We were asked and provided with water. But there was nothing else. When we got up to leave I noticed the bread was all gone as each of Alberto’s family took a small piece starting with the little boy.  They were obviously more hungry than I was

On the way back we ran into a friend of Alberto who also spoke English. We talked a little and soon we learned that he like Alberto was a volunteer in Angola to fight the South African Apartheid army.  A discussion erupted between Alberto and his friend about the wisdom of Cuba’s support for the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the insurgent anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) that was supported by the United States and South Africa. The war lasted until 2002 when UNITA forces with the support from the Cuban volunteer armed forces prevailed after Cubans decisively defeated the South African forces in the battle of
Cuito Cuanavale August 1987- March 1988. 

Alberto’s friend argued that the MPLA government has refused to send much needed oil to Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet bloc thus proving it was an unworthy ally for Cuba’s sacrifice. Alberto countered that Cubans in Angola were on an internationalist mission not because they expected material return for their sacrifices and that Cuba's campaign played a significant role in the downfall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. 

The socialist cake
One of the Cuban professors at the conference invited a few of us to his house for his son's birthday party. I bought a bottle of good rum for the party. They had a good size house for a Cuban family. The festivities were centered in what might have been a large dinning room with a large table in the middle. But there was nothing to eat or drink on the table. There was salsa music being played and people congratulated the little boy who was busy playing with friends his age. The rum I brought was very much welcomed by the adults and in no time it was consumed.  When it was time to sing "happy birthday" song for the little boy someone brought in a good size cake which was decorated for his birthday. By tradition or by law the Cuban government provided a birthday cake to everyone on their birthday. Despite shortages, this was still honored at least for children. The cake with a candle on top of it make the little boy very happy.

Workers’ control and management
We also visited
the Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas where the world-famous habanos cigars are produced and is housed in a well-preserved industrial building dating from 1845 in Habana Vieja Havana.  Our guide was a leader of the union at the factory where production is still artisan like with highly skilled workers prepare cigars one by one.  During the tour, in response to a question, the union leader told us that factory managers are assigned by the ministry of industry.  That is also true of all Cuban state enterprises and raises the  question of centralization of power relations in the economic and political spheres. To my mind, it was a problem that three decades after embarking on the task of socialist construction there was little sign of workers’ control in the cigar factory and no sign of their management of it.  This reality did not sit well with Marx's conception of self-organization and self0activity of the working class or with the idea of teaching philosophy to future engineers because the revolution must be guided by its philosophical vision.

Embargo and socialism
My visits to Cuba has always included a health policy focus. Since 1987 when I began teaching health care policy seminars at the State University of New York: Health Science Center at Brooklyn, I had offered a seminar on comparative health care systems.  The seminar began with an examination of the U.S. health care system and its problems and then surveyed the British, German, Canadian, and Cuban health care systems with a focus on their costs, access, quality, and equity issues.  Melanie, a medical student who took the seminar and had been to Cuba, had a slide show of aspects of the Cuban system which she  generously shared with me to show in the seminar.  My 1994 trip was motivated in good measure to gain a first hand look at the Cuban system. In the 1994 trip, I spent a fair amount of time visiting health care facilities and talking to health care professionals and ordinary Cubans about their system. The result was a 1995 paper “The Cuban Health Care System and Factors Currently Undermining It” which was published in the Journal of Community Health.  One episode stands out in my mind, our visit to a polyclinic.  The polyclinic is the hub of the Cuban health care system as it offers expanded primary care focusing on health education, prevention and environmental monitoring.  Patients who need specialized secondary and tertiary care are referred to relevant medical facilities and hospitals.  In our visit, we found the polyclinic clean and well staffed. In our meeting with the staff they had one common complaint: lack of gasoline for their ambulance. The bottom up health care approach enabled the health care system to function but their ability to act on the cases requiring more intensive care was hampered by the crisis and by the tightening of the U.S. embargo. 

With the onset of the depression-like conditions in Cuba, in 1992 U.S. Congress tightened the embargo through the passage of the Torricelli Bill (Cuban Democracy Act) which barred U.S. subsidiaries in other countries from trading with Cuba, and prohibits ships that dock in Cub from visiting U.S. ports for six months. In August 1994, the Clinton administration moved to annul the 26-year policy to admit Cubans who leave Cuba illegally, bar Cuban-Americans from sending money to their relative in Cuba, bar most visits to Cuba, and intensify its hostile broadcasting activities. As Representative Torricelli admitted, these measures were intended to cause further hardship in Cuba so as to foster a counter-revolution.

Che Guevara or Deng Xiaoping?
I must admit that my education about the Cuban revolution had not prepared me adequatly for the complex reality that confronted me in June 1994.   This was reflected in my short paper for presentation at the conference
(we were limited to eight pages because papers has to be translated by Cubans into Spanish) that centered on the key ideas in Ernesto Che Guevara’s theory of transition to socialism seen as gradual replacement material incentive with moral incentive as the consciousness of the Cuban working people increasingly become more communist.  A corollary for Guevara which he note in his Socialism and Man in Cuba (1965) but not elaborate was the idea that communism is not about a life of material plenty but one of human development and solidarity.  I note that when I was making the presentation to a small group of Cuban and American participants at the University of Havana, all of us were sweating bullets in a room without air conditioning and our water glasses were an assortments of variously shaped coffee cups, glasses, and even empty jars of condiments. There was not even ice in the pitcher of water.  Thus, my appeal to return to the rectification process based on Che Guevara's they which was launched in 1986 by the leadership of the Communist Party but was quietly dropped at the early signs of the crisis must have been seen as quixotic.

A fellow panel participant which was organized on the question of transition to socialism was David  Schweickart, a professor of philosophy and a promoter of market socialism, which at that time was showcased by Deng Xiaoping’s policies in China with apparent success as judged by economic development measures.  His paper entitled “Socialist Envy” was an argument based on some of Marx’s writings that socialism cannot be built wihtout a high degree of development of forces of production that can support a growing material plenty.  Otherwise, it would be a socialism of envy.
Schweickart's message resonated with the reaction to the depression-like crisis in Cuba at the time, and the idea that socialism of scarcity, as in Cuba, is doomed to failure. The solution, Schweickart argued, was market socialism and material incentive.

Some quarter of century later, it does seem that the leaders of the Cuban Communist Party have been increasingly taking a page from "market socialism" of China and Vietnam (as well as theories and experiments with market socialism in Eastern Europe). The problem, of course, remains that the Soviet bloc collapsed, and not just due to CIA plots as the some pro-Moscow Communist parties alleged, but because of the policies adopted by their respective Communist Parties, and that China and Vietnam while nominally “socialist” because they are run by a ruling elite in their Communist parties who still control sizable parts of the economy, are in every other respect capitalist societies.  Still in practice, Schweickart’s point of view has won a majority in the Cuban Communist party, and to my knowledge no significant political current in Cuba today proposes policies that are based on Guevara’s vision of socialism.

Looking back
Thus, my first visit to Cuba was a dramatic disillusionment.  I could see with my own eyes the progress the revolution had made in terms of providing basic necessities of life such as housing, education, health care, culture and sports to all and when there is scarcity, as there was in case of food during my visit, it is largely equitably shared.  But Cuba was far from socialism understood as society run by and for the working people themselves. The State bureaucracy and the Communist Party dominated all aspects of life, not self-organized and self-mobilized organs of the working people such as the soviets in the 1917 revolutions and the short period immediately after that controlled economic, social, and political affairs. Finally, there was little open and wide ranging discussion about the socialist vision, theory, and strategy.  A critical question was the collapse of the Soviet Union and other “Actually Existing Socialisms” which in the 1960s  Guevara had critiqued but in the early 1990s there was no open discussion of it. The official position was similar to the Communist Party of the United States that the collapse was the work of the CIA!

Still, I fell in love with Cuba because I encountered a population still alive with zest for life and some who were fighting their way forward and some among them who were interested to dig deeper into the problems they faced. The working people of Cuba were not in control but they held and exerted more power than anywhere else I had seen save for the short period after the 1979 revolution in Iran.  There was room for innovation and organization to advance the revolution.

One of my most pleasurable pass times in Havana was to walk with a friend or two the streets at night perhaps in search of some pastry.  What was astonishing to me was that at no time my friends and I felt uncomfortable or unsafe in these often poorly lit streets. 

When I returned home to Brooklyn, I called my friend Teimour for a walk in the Prospect park a few blocks from my apartment in Park Slope. It was about seven O’clock in June  and sun was still out.  I was telling Teimour how I enjoyed walking poorly lit streets of Havana late at night to enjoy the cool sea breeze searching for another cafe where they played live music.  As I was talking I noticed that both he and I continued to look behind us every couple of minutes. We both feared being mugged again! Already, I had been mugged three times in New York. Just as every lock on a door is the affirmation of human alienation, so is the fear or freedom in taking a walk where you live. By that measure,Havana was a light year in advance of New York.

Friday, May 17, 2019

3251. Short Story: Thelma, Louise, and Ginger

By Kamran Nayeri, May 17, 2019
Thelma, Louise, and Ginger with their grown up offspring. Photo: Kamran Nayeri

Wild  turkeys have been a part of my life since about eight years ago when I settled in northern California, outside of Sebastopol, a town of 8,000, in an agricultural-residential location.  The primary reason for choosing the house I live in was that it has a Lake Tahoe style design—essentially a 1,700 square-foot wooden cabin much of it in one large room with large picture windows that give the feeling of being outside while living inside. The large room faces a meadow that sits on a low grade slope leading to a creek that fills with runoff rain water in the rainy season. A narrow forested land sits on both sides of the creek with different species of tree, mostly native. But the tallest tree is a eucalyptus.

The forested area and the meadow provide good habitat for a range of wildlife.  The combination of the forested land and the meadow is ideal for bobcats. Although shy, I have seen them a few time—always solitary. Once I was able to photograph one who was preoccupied with hunting but turned around and looked into the camera.

The house sits  on two acres of land with mature tall pine and redwood trees on the northeastern and northern sides. Ever since I arrived I worked on a multi-year plan to turn the land more into a wildlife habitat and began to provide seed feeders for birds and a nectar feeder for humming birds. Building a 10,000-gallon pond with a waterfall which I populated with water plants and rescued fish invited wildlife from frogs to dragonflies as well as fish eating birds like herons and egrets and insect eating birds and in early spring mallard ducks.  A few times, the little daughter of my neighbor brought me turtles she found in the dry creek or on the road.  As soon as she let them loose by the pond they jumped in making me believe that they were happy finding a nice home. Later, I learned that they really will never stay.  A biologist friend also advised me that turtles that seem to be "lost" are probably nesting nearby where they are found. The best thing to do is to leave them alone and if they are in harms way helped them by putting them somewhere safe nearby.

I also spread seeds on the ground near the patio facing the meadow and the forested land. All kinds of birds come to eat seeds, from northern flickers to mourning doves, to  quails, and sparrows.  There is a feeder on the window glass filled with millet and sunflower seeds that brings finches and other small birds.

Over the past few years the news has spread in the birds community in the neighborhood that La casa de los gatos (this the name of the place I live in) is nice place to hang out and provides a fine menu on a daily basis.

While the invitation has been to all wildlife in the area, wild turkeys have come the dominant bird that visits here.  Not only there is ample acreage to roam around to eat nuts, seeds, grasses, and insect they like, there is also a buffet of seeds spread on a regular basis in a safe and relaxed place.  An additional benefit for those who decide to stay around is the ample roosting places atop the 60-foot high pine trees. In fact, when I had a professional company  to prune the pine trees they left on my request a few branches in each pine tree that were cleared of leaves and smaller branches to provide ample room for turkey to land on, something like a runway for wild turkeys that fly similar to airplane. Before dark, they gather near the pine trees and one by one run a few feet to take off and land on a lower branch of the tree and them make their way higher by flying up short distances.

The mating season
Wild turkeys are most active during their mating season, approximately from sometimes in February to sometimes in early June.  However, the season depends on the climate and the length of the day. The warmer the weather and the longer the day there would be more sex hormones in the turkey and there is more opportunity for the birds to mate (unlike humans wild turkeys do not date or mate at night).

Most of the year, wild turkeys live in sex-segregated flocks.  This happens as young male turkeys leave the flock of their mother and make their own flock.  Their mother and female siblings remain to make an all female flock.

During the mating season, the neighborhood male and female flocks converge. Dominant male turkeys gobble and strut while the females and some of the males who are not in the game of finding a mate spend their time eating.  From all appearances, the strutting male turkeys seem to be wasting their time. Females almost always ignore them.  But every once in a while some of the strutting males get lucky and a female who is receptive chooses one of them and crouches before him.  The lucky male then mounts her and for about 10 minutes it appears that he is using his feet to massage her back while keeping his balance. The female is largely covered by the larger male, only her head and neck showing from under his body.  At the magic moment copulation occurs which lasts less than a minute (that is why male turkeys are sometimes called "one minute wonder!"). As soon as that is over, the male leaves the female and gets back to strutting and the female gets back on her legs, flops her wings to get her plumage back in order, and begin to eat more seeds. The couple never talk to each other again! Meanwhile, the rest of the flock or any other bystanders (like myself) continue doing what they were doing (When asked one turkey replied: "What is the big deal?").

The prospective mother turkey breaks away from her flock and begins searching for a good nest site which would be out of view of predators but gives her a vantage point to look out for them. When it is the time, if the chosen nesting ground is not a depression in the ground, she shallowly scratches it to become a depression. In a two week period she lays 10-12 large eggs. Continuous incubation begins when the last egg is laid.  The mother turkey will only leave for a short period to feed and may remain on the nest for several consecutive days at a time.

Eggs will be incubated for 26-28 days. The mother turkey sits quietly and moves about every hour to turn and reposition the eggs. Hatching begins with pipping - the poult rotating within the shell, chipping a complete break around the large end of the egg. The mother turkey make soft clucks in response to begin to imprint the poults. Imprinting is a special form of learning which facilitates the rapid social development of the poults into adults. Damp poults free themselves but dry quickly so they can follow their mother away from the nest within 12-24 hours after hatching.


In their first day in the landscape, poults learn to respond to the mother turkey’s putt or alarm call before leaving the nest area and will respond by freezing or running to hide beneath the mother if she sounds the alarm call.  Poults learn within hours to mimic their mother’s behavior and peck at food items.  By the second day, they perform most of what an adult turkey does in their feeding, movement and grooming behavior.  In one week, they dust like their mother and in two weeks they can fly short distances.  By the third week, they can fly up the trees to roost.  If a poult reaches six weeks of age there is a good likelihood that it will reach adulthood. By the fourteenth week, male and female poults can be distinguished. By the fall, the pecking order among the siblings is established and by winter they all have reached their full size, and ready to enter the social organization of the surrounding population. That is also when male offsrpings leave their mother's flock to form their own leaving behind an all female flock.

It is still May and I see single, secretive female turkeys that step out of the meadow and march to the feeding area by the patio and begin to eat.  I suspect these solitary females are expecting mothers looking for a nesting site or are nesting.  Sometimes, I recognize the bird and always I look forward to seeing them with their new born poults.  

Last July, I got to know Thelma, an older and bigger female, who looked strong and walked with grace and confidence. One day, Thelma returned with only one poult who she kept very close to her.

Soon after another mother turkey attracted my attention largely because she just showed up with her four poults. I named her Louise.   She too was a dedicated mother.  But she still lost a poult.  

Once Thelma and Louise met during feeding here, they began to hang out together.  Soon their poults also began to forage together as if they were brothers and sisters! 

Thelma and Louise had their routine. One was to meditate sitting at the corner of the landscape cleaning and fixing their feathers.  Their poults did the same. Photo: Kamran Nayeri

A couple of weeks later, I noticed a smaller, younger mother with four poults. I named her Ginger.  She was far less concerned about her offspring and they tended to stray in different directions before regrouping around their mother.

Ginger ran into Thelma and Louise on one of the days that they all visited here.  They ate seeds together but Thelma and Louise went in one direction and Ginger another.  After a couple of days of meeting each other during feeding occasions, I saw Thelma, Louise, and Ginger foraging together and their poults following them.  Soon, it was Thelma that led the flock and all poults acted as if Thelma was their mother. A new wild turkey flock was formed by three mothers and their offspring. Thelma seemed to command the attention of all in the flock, and without any pecking! 

Ginger when she had four poults.  Photo: Kamran Nayeri

Mother turkeys are brave and dedicated. Wild turkeys fly up tall trees to roost at night for good reason.  A few summer ago, I saw what happened to a large female turkey who became paralyzed due to some disease. She had crouched in the east garden under the Japanese maple tree in the evening unable to move let alone to fly up the trees.  I knew I would find her dead the next morning. Next morning, I found her dead a few steps away from where she had crouched.  A big part of her meaty breast section was missing. I buried her remains under the butterfly bush near where I found her corpse. Mother turkeys who are nesting can be attacked by bobcats, raccoons, or coyotes.  Their eggs can be eaten by crows or raccoons. Poults are easy pick for hawks and owls.

It must be that in the face of all these dangers and because of their social nature, Thelma, Louise, and Ginger pulled their forces together to fend for themselves and their offspring collectively. They opted for communal motherhood. Strength is in unity is not just a union slogan. Communal living is not just a hippie dream. They are necessary for survival of all social animals.

The communal flock prospered as the result.  The poults grew up to become young turkeys. I was able to observe their development until mid-fall when the flock decided to move up the hill where it is warmer.

I will never see Thelma, Louise, or Ginger again. But these turkey mothers taught me a lesson for life.

3250. The Yellow Vests of France: Six Months of Struggle

By Richard Greeman, May 17, 2019

I am writing you from Montpellier, France, where I am a participant-observer in the Yellow Vest movement, which is still going strong after six months, despite a dearth of information in the international media.

But why should you take the time to learn more about the Yellow Vests?  The answer is that France has for more than two centuries been the classic model for social innovation, and this unique, original social movement has enormous international significance. The Yellow Vests have already succeeded in shattering the capitalist myth of “representative democracy” in the age of neo-liberalism. Their uprising has unmasked the lies and violence of republican government, as well as the duplicity of representative institutions like political parties, bureaucratic unions and the mainstream media.

Moreover, the Yellow Vests represent the first time in history that a spontaneous, self-organized social movement has ever held out for half a year in spite of repression while retaining its autonomy, resisting cooptation, bureaucratization and sectarian splits. All the while, standing up to full-scale government repression and targeted propaganda, it poses a real, human alternative to the dehumanization of society under the rule of the capitalist “market.”

Six months ago on Nov. 17, 2018, Yellow Vests burst literally “out of nowhere,” with autonomous local units springing up all over France like mushrooms, demonstrating on traffic circles (roundabouts) and toll-gates, marching every Saturday in cities, including Paris. But unlike all previous revolts, it was not Paris-centered. The humid November soil from which these mushrooms sprouted was the near-universal frustration of French people at the abject failure of the CGT and other unions to effectively oppose Macron’s steam-roller imposition last Spring of his historic Thatcherite “reforms”: an inflexible neo-liberal program of cutting benefits, workplace rights, and privatizing or cutting public services, while eliminating the so-called Wealth Tax designed to benefit the poor.

The immediate cause of this spontaneous mass rising was to protest an unfair tax on fuel  (fiscal justice) but the Yellow Vests’ demands quickly expanded to include restoration of public services (transport, hospitals, schools); higher wages, retirement benefits, healthcare for the poor, peasant agriculture, media free of billionaire and government control, and, most remarkably, participatory democracy. Despite their disruptive tactics, the Yellow Vests were from the beginning wildly popular with average French people (73% approval), and they are still more popular than the Macron government after six months of exhausting, dangerous occupations of public space, violent weekly protests and slanderous propaganda against them.

Tired of being lied to, cheated, manipulated and despised, the Yellow Vests instinctively from the beginning rejected being instrumentalized by the corrupt  “representative” institutions of capitalist democracy – including political parties, union bureaucracies and the media (monopolized by billionaires and subsidized by the government). Jealous of their autonomy, a concept which radical intellectuals have been exploring for years, the Yellow Vest eschewed “leaders” and spokespeople even among their own ranks, and are even now very gradually learning to federate themselves and negotiate convergence with other social movements.

From the very beginning, the Yellow Vests’ basically non-violent unauthorized gatherings were met by massive police repression – teargas, flashballs, beatings,

10, 000 arrests, immediate drum-head trials, stiff sentences for minor infractions. The Macron government just passed a new “anti-vandalism” law making it virtually impossible to demonstrate legally. Macron’s orthodox neo-liberal French Republic has arguably become as repressive of domestic opposition as the right-wing “populist” regimes in Poland, Hungary, Turkey.

Macron’s violent repression of political opposition is responsible for at least two deaths, 23 demonstrators blinded in one eye, thousands seriously wounded. It has been condemned by the U.N. and European Union. But Macron has never acknowledged these injuries, which are rarely shown in the media. The TV news concentrates on sensational images of the violence (to property) of the Black Block vandals at the fringes of Yellow Vest demonstrations, never on the human victims of systematic government violence. A popular slogan proclaimed in Magic Marker on a demonstrator’s Yellow Vest reads: “Wake up! Turn off your TV! Join us!”

Since the Yellow Vests have no recognized spokespersons, government propaganda, abetted by the media, has had a free hand to dehumanize them to justify treating them inhumanly. Macron, from the height of his monarchical presidency, at first pretended to ignore their uprising, then attempted to buy them off with crumbs (a very few crumbs which were rejected) and then denounced them as “a hate-filled mob.” (N.B. In real life the Yellow Vests are largely low-income middle-aged folks with families from the provinces whose trade-mark is friendliness and improvised barbeques.) Yet for Macron and the media they constitute a hard-core conspiracy of “40,000 militants of the extreme right and the extreme left” often characterized as “anti-Semites,” who threaten the Republic.

Small wonder that, subjected to increasing violence and continuous slander, the numbers of Yellow Vests willing to go out into the streets to protest every week has diminished over 27 weeks.  But they are still out there and their favorite chant goes: “Here we are!  Here we are! What if Macron doesn’t like it? Here we are!” (On est là! Même si Macron ne veut pas, On est là!) 

Fortunately, in the past few weeks the League for the Rights of Man and other such humanitarian groups have at last turned out to protest police brutality while committees of artists and academics have signed petitions in support of the Yellow Vests’ struggle for democratic rights, condemning the government and media. At the same time, Yellow Vests are more and more converging with Ecologists (“End of the Month/End of the World/Same Enemy/Same Struggle” ) and feminists (women play a big role in the movement). 

Also with workers, many of them active as opponents of the bureaucracy in their unions. Red CGT stickers on Yellow Vests are now frequent sights at demos. Philippe Martinez, the General Secretary of the CGT, who has heretofore been sarcastic and negative about the Yellow Vests, has now been forced to admit that the cause of their rise was the failure of the unions, “a reflection of all the union deserts.” He was referring to “small and medium size businesses, retired people, poverty people, jobless people and lots of women” (the demographic of the Yellow Vests) that the unions have ignored.

The Yellow Vests are still here, in the fray, holding the breach open. The crisis in France is far from over. If and when the other oppressed and angry groups in France – the organized workers, ecologists, North African immigrants, students struggling against Macron’s educational “reforms”  – also turn off their TV’s and go down into the streets, things could change radically. The Yellow Vests’ avowed goal is to bring France to a grinding halt and impose change from below.

What if they succeed? We know what the “success” of structured parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain led to. Maybe a horizontal federation of autonomous base-groups attempting to re-invent democracy could do better.

P.S. Latest news: the CGT just held its convention and voted unanimously for “convergence” with the Yellow Vests, something our group in Montpellier has been working towards for months. Tomorrow, for the first time, we are meeting with the other Yellow Vest groups in our region. “On ne lâche rien!” (Nothing escapes us/ we don’t give in).

3249. Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

 By Louis Proyect, CounterPunch, May 17, 2019

 L. TrotskyN. Bukharin
Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.
– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)
For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that while correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

It seems that this kind of ecomodernism is contagious. To some extent, it is simply an adaptation to the capitalist system. Despite the ultraleft, Promethean language about harnessing technology to save the planet, it is essentially a defense of the status quo. Mesmerized by how the Communist Manifesto describes capitalism as revolutionizing the means of production, it fails to understand what Marx meant by revolutionizing. He was not embracing hydroelectric dams, et al but simply pointing out that capitalism had made it possible for creating the material basis for a classless society. However, his vision of a future communist society differed radically from that of the ecomodernists who saw communism as the preservation of the existing productive forces excluding private ownership. Key to communism for Marx would be the “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

In other words, Marx was less interested in chemical engineering than he was in social engineering. In the 19thcentury, England and other capitalist countries were undergoing an environmental crisis as serious as those we face today over climate change. Soil infertility had become so advanced that there were worries that mass starvation might ensue. The purpose of combining town and country was simply to provide the fertilizer that could enrich the soil, much of it coming from human beings. In Marx’s day, the Thames was a running sewer, a cause of diseases like cholera as well as a waste of a natural resource. Of course, technology came to the rescue in the form of nitrogen fertilizer but that came with unintended consequences such as the creation of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of an explosion of algae produced by the seepage of fertilizers into the Mississippi River from Midwest farms.

John Bellamy Foster has used the term “metabolic rift” to describe the contradictions that preoccupied Karl Marx after he became familiar with the research of German soil chemistry expert Justin von Liebeg. There is little evidence that Leon Trotsky thought much about such problems given his fixation on developing the USSR’s industrial capacity but there are strong suggestions that Nikolai Bukharin was far more open to looking at society-nature relationships that have become pronounced in the past fifty years or so as the capitalist produces one ecological crisis after another.
In 1921, he wrote “Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology”  in order to help develop a social science that could contend with that of the bourgeoisie. The work is startling for its grasp of the kind of environmental threats the UN warned about in a highly publicized report released to the public on May 6th. Bukharin wrote:

The world being in constant motion, we must consider phenomena in their mutual relations, and not as isolated cases. All portions of the universe are actually related to each other and exert an influence on each other. The slightest motion, the slightest alteration in one place, simultaneously changes everything else. The change may be great or small – that is another matter – at any rate, there is a change. For example: let us say the Volga forests have been cut down by men. The result is that less water is retained by the soil, with a resulting partial change in climate; the Volga “runs dry,” navigation on its waters becomes more difficult, making necessary the use, and therefore the production, of dredging machinery; more persons are employed in the manufacture of such machinery; on the other hand, the animals formerly living in the forests disappear; new animals, formerly not dwelling in these regions, put in their appearance; the former animals have either died out or migrated to forest areas, etc.; and we may go even further: with a change in climate, it is clear that the condition of the entire planet has been changed, and therefore an alteration in the Volga climate to a certain extent changes the universal climate. Further, if the map of the world is changed to the slightest extent, this involves also a change – we must even suppose – in the relations between the earth and the moon or sun, etc., etc.
In the 1920s, as Joseph Stalin embarked on a rapid industrialization program that led ultimately to the ruination of Soviet agriculture, Chernobyl, the death of the Aral Sea from cotton production, and—ultimately—the collapse of the economic system itself, a group of engineers and economists grew increasingly alarmed by the dictator’s destructive approach both to natural resources and the working people who were expected to transform it according to his mad-dash plans for rapid industrialization.

There was an alternative approach represented by Peter Palchinsky, a civil engineer who joined the Communist Party shortly after the 1917 revolution. Palchinsky was enthusiastic about planning. He believed that the Soviet Union opened up possibilities for the planning of industry that were impossible under Tsarism. He thought that engineers could play a major role in the growth of socialism.

Palchinsky argued against the type of gigantic enterprises that were beginning to capture Stalin’s rather limited imagination. He noted that middle-sized and small enterprises often have advantages over large ones. For one thing, workers at smaller factories are usually able to grasp the final goals more easily. He believed that the single most important factor in engineering decisions was human beings themselves. Successful industrialization and high productivity were not possible without highly trained workers and adequate provision for their social and economic needs.

Dam project, one of the most fabled 5-year plan projects. Palchinsky made the following critiques. The project didn’t take into account the huge distances between the dam and the targeted sites. As a consequence, there would be huge transmission costs and declines in efficiency.

Also, the project didn’t take into account the damage resulting floods would cause to surrounding farms situated in lowlands. Some 10,000 villagers had to flee their homes. As the project fell behind schedule and overran costs, the workers’ needs were more and more neglected. The workers suffered under freezing conditions, living in cramped tents and barracks without adequate sanitary facilities. TB, typhus, and smallpox spread throughout the worker’s quarters.

Palchinsky argued forcefully against projects such as these and offered a more rational, humane and less ideologically driven approach. In other words, he stressed sound engineering and planning methods. He helped to organize a study group dedicated to his principles. Palchinsky and other engineers who opposed Stalin’s bureaucratic system allied themselves to some extent with Bukharin and Rykov who had often defended engineers and their approach to industrial planning.

Stalin cracked down on the Bukharin opposition around the same time as he attacked dissident engineers and had Palchinsky imprisoned and finally executed. His criticisms of Stalin anticipated many of the failures of Soviet industrialization. The Chernobyl disaster in particular could be attributable to the same type of bureaucratic myopia that afflicted the Dnieper dam project.

In researching this article, I discovered that Leon Trotsky took the side of Stalin against Palchinsky and his comrades. Once Stalin had decided that the NEP had outlived its usefulness and that rapid industrialization was necessary, Trotsky gave him critical support. Some of his supporters even grumbled that Stalin had stolen his thunder.

In 1928, Trotsky wrote “The Third International After Lenin”as the first in a series of polemics against Stalinism, much of which stands up well today. However, in a chapter dealing with the social basis of the emergence of a bureaucratic caste, he cast aspersions on non-proletarian layers:

The grain strike of the kulaks, who drew behind them the middle peasants; the collusion of the Shakhty specialists with capitalists; the protection or semi-protection of the kulak strike by an influential section of the State and party apparatus; the fact that communists were able to shut their eyes to the counter-revolutionary secret maneuvers of technicians and functionaries; the vile license of scoundrels in Smolensks and elsewhere, under the cover of “iron discipline” – all these are already incontrovertible facts of the utmost importance.
Those “Shakhty specialists” are none other than Palchinsky and his comrades who were the very first people to suffer through a show trial in the USSR, 10 years before Bukharin and most of the top Bolsheviks would be accused of supporting the Nazis in the infamous Moscow Trials. It is disconcerting to see Trotsky giving backhanded support to the Shakty trial. The group was charged with a multitude of crimes, including planning the explosions in the mines near Shakhty, a town in the North Caucasus. It was exactly this kind of outrageous false charge that would permeate the Moscow Trials.

In 1925, Leon Trotsky was stripped of his duties as People’s Commissar of War and given a minor post as head of the electro-technical board, and chairman of the scientific-technical board of industry. In this capacity, he did his best to carry out his responsibilities despite the demotion, especially since, as he reported in “My Life”, he was “was specially interested in the institutes of technical science” and in his “spare time studied textbooks on chemistry and hydro-dynamics.” His job involved keeping an eye on the construction of the Dnieper dam as he reported in “My Life”: “I became deeply interested in the Dnieper enterprise, both from an economic and a technical point of view. I organized a body of American experts, later augmented by German experts, to safeguard the power station from defective estimates, and tried to relate my new work not only to current economic requirements but also to the fundamental problems of socialism.”

Missing from the chapter on this phase of his life is any mention of the horrors that befell working people forced to work under intolerable conditions. In fact, he only saw its upside as reflected in a speech he gave to a Communist youth group in 1926: “In the south the Dnieper runs its course through the wealthiest industrial lands; and it is wasting the prodigious weight of its pressure, playing over age-old rapids and waiting until we harness its stream, curb it with dams, and compel it to give lights to cities, to drive factories, and to enrich ploughland. We shall compel it!”

It is doubtful that either Leon Trotsky or Peter Palchinsky gave much thought to the ecological consequences of massive hydroelectric dams that were being built both in the USSR and in the United States as part of the New Deal. Recently, I had an encounter with a Syracuse University professor named Matthew Huber who shares the ecomodernist outlook of Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski. In an article for the DSA’s Socialist Forum magazine titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific”, Huber endorsed nuclear power and factory farming. All this was part of endorsing a Green New Deal that he hoped would live up to FDR’s original. In an article on the Verso blog titled “Building a Green New Deal: Drawing Lessons from the Original New Deal”, he shares Trotsky’s enthusiasm for massive dams.

They built dams to deliver cheap electricity to entire regions. Amazingly, they even hired Woody Guthrie to sing songs about Columbia River doing work for the people (“‘Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea, But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”) Can we imagine Bob Dylan singing such a song about the carbon fee and dividend?
Evidently, Huber was not perturbed by this verse from the Woody Guthrie song:

Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
So roll on, Columbia, roll on
One might hope that Huber would find time to read Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West that is a cautionary tale about mega-dams of the kind that the New Deal fostered. After referring to Woody Guthrie’s song that he found much more impressive than the dam itself, he debunked the New Deal mystique that so many DSA’ers swallow hook, line and sinker:

Dust-bowlers and tenement dwellers were, it must said, only a small fraction of the intended beneficiaries of the remade Columbia River, not important enough in themselves to justify the effort and expense, particularly in light of the parallel development going on to the east of the Rockies, which aimed at keeping many of them at home. No, the principal goal in the Northwest was something else, something not so very different from what it was in the southern latitudes, in California, Arizona, and Texas: to repeat from the Bureau’s own mouth, total use for greater wealth. According to that agency, “we have not yet produced enough . . . to sustain a desirable and reasonable standard of living, even if goods were equitably distributed; and . . . there is no limit to the human appetite for the products of industry.”
More than sixty dams have been built along the Columbia River, including the Grand Coulee Dam that was built during the New Deal and that created a reservoir named after FDR. If it was a boon for big business, as indicated by Worster, it was a calamity for American Indians. It brought an end to the salmon that they had counted on for food and for ceremonies for over a thousand years. 

Probably the best thing happening today is the restoration of traditional river flows and the replacement of mega-dams with those more environmentally sustainable ones with a smaller footprint. As part of the socialist future we hope to see before capitalism destroys the planet, there will be alterations to the way we live that do not fit into ecomodernist schemas but in the long run it will be best for us and for nature even if some attack them as “reactionary” or “neo-Malthusian”. One can’t blame Leon Trotsky too much for having an overabundance of confidence in technology but there is no excuse for DSA’ers or Jacobin authors.