Tuesday, March 30, 2010

33. The Crisis of the U.S. Empire: Fascist Groups Find a Foothold

Obama's health care reform agenda is fulfilled. However, the torturous path its traveled, the way it was shaped behind the back of ordinary Americans, what its has achieved, how it was used to undermine the right of working women to legal and safe abortion on demand, and how it will still leave millions without insurance (including the undocumented workers), among others show the weakness of the U.S. capitalist class. Before his death, senator Kennedy went on record to confess that one of his failure as a senator was not to support Nixon's health care reform proposal. The present bill is somewhat weaker than Nixon's proposal and similar to the reform in Massachusetts under Republican governor Mitt Romney. The fact that not a single Republicans voted for the reform indicates how far to the right they have traveled compared to Richard Nixon. Democrats could have opted for a public option, much discussed by their liberal wing, but at the end they voted for a “centrist” bill that included some Republican ideas. That shows how far the Democratic Party has moved to the right as well.

My intention here is not to discuss specifics of the health care law just passed. The law itself and the surrounding it are entirely within the policy framework I laid out analyzing the 1993-94 health care reform proposals (to read that article click here). Here, I like to draw your attention to an important aspect of the health care debate; that is the use of fascist groups by a section of the Republican Party establishment to advance their policy goals. Gerry Foley, an editor for Socialist Action, should get the credit for drawing attention to this phenomenon (to read Foley’s article click here). Fascist groups were mobilized to disrupt town hall meetings to discuss health care reform in August; union members that supported reform were target. In September, a demonstration of some 80,000 was organized against health care reform that called for extra-parliamentary action against the supporters of the reform. Finally, with the passage of the reform bill, many Democratic legislators or their family were target of hate mail, death threats and direct attacks.

The right-wing of the Republican Party has been instrumental in organizing the Tea Party movement; while there are some favorite Republican issue (anti-tax, for example) that unites these people, they are essentially an anti-working class, anti-immigrant movement of mostly white racist group that subscribe to a conspiracy theory that foreigners have taken over the federal government with the election of a Back president.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report entitled “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism,” “nativist extremist” groups that confront and harass suspected immigrants have increased nearly 80 percent since President Obama took office, and antigovernment “patriot” groups more than tripled over that period.

I tend to agree with Charles Blow, a New York Times Op-Ed page columnist, that these fascist groups and their merger with the Republican Party is a rearguard action. But I do not agree with the sense he conveys that they should be left to their own devises and the law enforcement. Today, for example, there was a report of arrest of one such fascist group in Michigan that calls itself the Hutaree (see a report here).

Mark Potok, who leads a program that tracks right-wing groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it first took note of the Hutaree last year amid a surge in new “Patriot” movement groups, race-based hate groups, extremist anti-immigrant groups, Christian militants and other variations. “We’re seeing all kinds of radical right-wing groups grow very rapidly, especially in the militia world,” he said.

The New York Times article sited above note that “the indictment said the Hutaree, in anticipation of a war against its enemies, had been engaging in ‘military-style training,’ from weapons proficiency drills to ‘close quarter battle drills’ and the use of ‘ambush kill zones.’ The small group had acquired guns, ammunition, medical supplies, uniforms, communications equipment and ‘explosives and other components for destructive devices,’ it said.
“After attacking the police, the members planned to retreat to several planned ‘rally points’ and wait for the authorities to come after them. They were preparing fighting positions as well as ‘trip-wired and command-detonated’ bombs, it said.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin appeared with John McCain in Arizona to aid in his re-election campaign for the senate saying those who support McCain are the same Tea Party people. The fusion of fascist currents and the Republican Party has been in the making since at least the last presidential election.

The ultra-right has been organizing on a grassroots level for over three decades now. The danger exists that the same organizing effort creates a larger fascist movement that increasingly move to the center stage. It is high time that working people and its allies respond in kind by organizing themselves in class independent unions and other grassroots progressive movements, including the environment and ecology movements, and to respond by mass action. As I will discuss in the next post, the enemies of deep going social change and deep going environmental and ecological policies are the same: the capitalist class and their two party system that has been moving to the right for the past three decades.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

32. Artificial Nature: The Case of Exotic Pet Industry

Our relation to the rest of nature certainly suffers from Homo sapiens' egoism and quest for profit. Let's consider some examples of how the "exotic pet" industry functions.

According to a New York Time article by Henry Fountain, there are an estimated 700,000 saltwater home aquariums in the United States. But with the development of technology, the aquariums are now often small-scale reef ecosystems, with living coral and “live” rock brimming with anemones, shrimp, sea urchins, crabs and snails.

"The result has been a growing market for these and other reef invertebrates, many of which are supplied by about 165 licensed collectors in Florida."

Scientists disagree over the impact of "harvesting" coral reef species for salt water ecosystem aquarium trade. Aside from the long-recognized ecological impact of the trade in live coral itself, some researchers believe that "the demand for invertebrates — creatures that often serve the same cleaning and pest-control roles in a tank that they do in nature — is such that the fishery may be unsustainable.

“'We may be increasing the catch up to a point where you push something over the edge,' said Andrew Rhyne, a marine biologist with Roger Williams University and the New England Aquarium who has studied the Florida invertebrate fishery. 'The question is, where is that edge?'

"If a species is overharvested to the point where its numbers decline dramatically, Dr. Rhyne and others say, there can be a cascading effect in the ecosystem. Without invertebrate grazers and herbivores, for example, a reef may be overrun with algae."

Other scientists, like Jessica McCawley, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, disagrees that the fishery is threatened. She agrees with the traders that collect these species who claim that "scientists don’t have the experience they do in seeing these invertebrates go through regular cycles of bust and boom."

"While acknowledging that some collectors are aware of the dangers of overfishing, Dr. Rhyne said there had been little scientific study of the blue-legged crabs and the hundreds of other species that are collected, including the 15 that make up about 90 percent of the catch. For example, with certain snails it is not known how long it takes for them to start to reproduce. If it is more than a year, then harvesting many of them from the same location year after year could be disastrous. There are many species that are probably not a concern, Dr. Rhyne said, but he added, “I don’t think anyone can use the word ‘sustainable’ when they don’t know enough about the animals.”

The desire to collect and keep wildlife privately or for public view is ancient. However, with the advent of commercialism and expansion of world trade combined with the rise in standard of living and personal purchasing power it has become a serious threat to the wellbeing of species and ecosystems.

During the past two decades reef tanks have surged in popularity in the United States. "These aquariums include home or office tanks of a few gallons to several hundred gallons or more, and attractions like the 20,000-gallon coral reef tank at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, N.Y., considered one of the finest anywhere."

Over the same period, the types of invertebrates changed. "In 1994, only 6 species among the top 15 were collected and sold for their ecological roles as cleaners, grazers, water filters and the like. The others were harvested for their ornamental value — because they look pretty in an aquarium — or as curios to be sold in shell shops and other stores. The most popular “working” invertebrates were turbonella snails, with about 175,000 collected.

"Thirteen years later, 9 species among the top 15 collected were sold to fill ecological niches in aquariums, including nearly 700,000 turbonella snails and 2.4 million blue-legged crabs.

“'Now, there are whole suites of taxa that people don’t really care what they look like,' Dr. Rhyne said. 'They only care that they perform these services that are exactly the same as they are performing in the wild.'”

For example, Dr. Rhyne said, peppermint shrimp, of the genus Lysmata, are not as showy as some other shrimp species, but since they control a pest anemone in tanks, their harvested numbers have increased twentyfold in Florida since 1994. “There’s just a huge demand,” he said.

"The attraction to the hobbyist or professional is that using these creatures both replicates the natural ecosystem and reduces the need for less-natural forms of tank maintenance. At Atlantis Marine World, Joseph Yaiullo, curator and co-founder, scuba-dives in the reef tank regularly to scrape algae off the glass or trim the many multicolored corals, some of which he has been growing for two decades. Yet he also has sea urchins — scavengers that do some of the cleaning.

“If I can put some critters in there that make my life easier, I’ll do it,” said Mr. Yaiullo, whose tank has inspired many a home hobbyist. “I’d rather have urchins scraping away than me doing it.”

“'The thing that’s always bothered me is the disposable nature of these animals,' said Eric Borneman, a longtime aquarist who has written two books on coral husbandry and is studying for his doctorate in reef ecology at the University of Houston. With invertebrates, he said, 'there’s a huge amount of mortality in shipping,' and in tanks kept by people just starting out in the hobby. “How do you stop this mortality and this constant influx of animals from the wild to supply this trade?”

The phenomena is not limited to warm coral reef species and aquarium. It is estimated that 38 million animals are taken from nature each year for an illegal business worth $2 billion dollars in Brazil alone (see a 6 minute video presentation by Juliana Machado Ferreira: The fight to end rare-animal trafficking in Brazil). A parallel business in flora not only destroys certain species of trees but also undermine the habitat or the food source for many animals. Wild bees are in a decline because of expansion of farmlands that destroys land that grows wild flowers that provide the food for the bees. Darrell and Lorna Smith, two biologists who live in Costa Rica, wrote recently how Scarlet Macaws and Great Green Macaws that live in a narrow range near the Nicaraguan border are endangered because of loss of habitat and poaching for pets. In particular, the one wild almond tree, Dipteryx Panamensis, that provide food and nesting for the birds is cut down for its hardwood that is in high demand.

The discussion in the media and among the "stakeholders" assumes that traders and hobbyists should have a right to do what they do. The debate is on whether and how much regulation should there be in trade of these species so that ecosystems are not harmed. This framework assumes that nature and its species are for humans use; the debate is how to exercise this right.

However, this very assumption is what Deep Ecologists, Animal Liberationists, like Peter Singer, and some ecosocialists, like me, question. Singer aptly calls those who hold such an assumption speciesist. We will return to this notion later.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

31. UN Meeting Refuses to Protect Sharks



In another blow to the endangered marine species, the UN meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora rejected proposals by United States and Palau (a very small Micronesian island nation) that would have required countries to strictly regulate — but not ban — trade in several species of scalloped hammerhead, oceanic whitetip and spiny dogfish sharks. A proposal by the European Union to protect porbeagle sharks squeaked by with a vote of 86 to 42, with 8 abstentions — a winning margin of a single vote. It is expected that this decision will be reversed in a second vote later this week (for more detailed reporting see the New York Times article here).

China, the main consumer of the cartilaginous fish, for sharkfin soup, and Japan lead the opposition to any regulation of the trade in marine species. Large factory ships catch sharks cut their fins and throw the rest back in the ocean, resulting in cruel and painful death.

The elephants faired better as on Monday, delegates voted to uphold a 21-year ban on international trade in ivory, rejecting efforts by Tanzania and Zambia to sell part of their stocks. Last week, the conference opposed an outright ban on international trade in blue fin tuna and to protect the polar bear. A proposal to extend trade controls to red and pink corals was also voted down.

“We will continue to pursue our efforts to protect sharks from eradication by the decadent and cruel process of shark-finning,” Stuart Beck, Palau’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement. “I am sure that, properly prepared, bald eagle is delicious. But, as civilized people, we simply do not eat it.”

It is clear that more powerful counties such as China and Japan can successfully block regulation of trade in marine species that are culturally in high demand and are lucrative business for them (e.g., a bluefin tuna is sold for around $10,000). Tanzania and Zambia that were proposing a one-time sale of their storage of ivory could not get enough votes. The same UN group has a 21 year ban on trade in ivory although there is poaching to meet the black market demand, mostly from Asia.

The proposal by Tanzania said: “Rural people do not tolerate the presence of elephants unless the costs of living with elephants can be offset by economic benefits derived from elephants.” (for more detailed reporting see here)

The Zambian proposal argued that “The primary risk to the long-term survival of the elephant in Zambia is not international trade but increasing conflicts with legitimate human interests such as agriculture as shown by the rising number of human-elephant conflicts.”

“But conservationists in the United States, Europe and other parts of Africa had argued that Tanzania and Zambia had not adequately combated poaching of elephants and the illegal ivory market, where the price of ivory has risen more than sevenfold since 2004 to as much as $1,500 now, according to The Associated Press.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

30. UN Meeting Fails to Protect Bluefin Tuna and Polar Bears


According to a New York Times (March 18) article, delegates at a United Nations conference on endangered species in Doha, Qatar, soundly defeated American-supported proposals on Thursday to ban international trade in bluefin tuna and to protect polar bears.

"Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks of bluefin, a fish prized especially by Japanese sushi lovers for its fatty belly flesh, have been severely depleted by years of heavy commercial fishing, while polar bears are considered threatened by hunting and the loss of sea ice because of global warming. The United States tried unsuccessfully to persuade delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, to provide strong international protection for the two species.

"'It wasn’t a very good day for conservation,' said Juan Carlos Vásquez, a spokesman for the United Nations organization. 'It shows the governments are not ready to adopt trade bans as a way to protect species.'”

Delegates voted down the proposal to protect bluefin by 68 to 20, with 30 abstentions. The polar bear measure failed by 62 to 48, with 11 abstentions.

The reasons for the failure of Doha conference are similar to causes for the failure of Copenhagen Climate Change conference. In both cases, environmental and ecological crises are treated as market failure in need of market regulations. This framework leaves ample room for national rivalries with various ruling classes and elites trying to protect their own systems of production and consumption. Nature is treated as production and consumption resource.

"The rejection of the bluefin proposal was a clear victory for the Japanese government, which had vowed to go all out to stop the measure or else exempt itself from complying with it. Japan, which consumes nearly 80 percent of the bluefin catch..."

"Canada, Greenland and several indigenous communities, which led the effort to defeat the proposal to protect the polar bear, contended that the bear population was healthy and that it could sustain limited hunting and trade in pelts and body parts.

"While there is near-universal agreement that the bluefin stocks are in danger, Japan’s argument resonated with other fishing nations, which were uneasy about what would have been the first intrusion of the endangered species convention into a major commercial fishery."

Thursday’s vote was the second time Japan had defeated a proposal to protect bluefin. A similar proposal by Sweden failed at the 1992 Cites meeting in Kyoto, Japan.

Attention at the Doha conference will now turn to proposals to protect sharks and elephants.

"The United States, the Micronesian state of Palau and the European Union are among nations proposing that several species of sharks be listed under Appendix 2 of the convention, which would require that governments monitor trade in the species but would not entail an outright ban. But with Japan leading the opposition to any United Nations involvement in the regulation of marine species, and China, the largest consumer of shark fins, strongly opposed, the prospects of a deal appear remote.

"The elephant talks will center on a proposal by Tanzania and Zambia to resume trade in elephant ivory, but Kenya and some other African nations argue that trade will bring only more poaching."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

29. The Origin of Domestication of Dogs

Analyzing a large collection of wolf and dog genomes from around the world, a UCLA research team led by Bridgett M. von Holdt and Robert K. Wayne has found that the Middle East was probably the origin of domestication of some wolves and breeding of dogs. Until recently, some scientists believed that wolves were first domesticated in East Asia.

"This finding puts the first known domestication — that of dogs — in the same place as the domestication of plants and other animals, and strengthens the link between the first animal to enter human society and the subsequent invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago," reports Nicholas Wades in March 17 issue of the New York Times.

"A Middle Eastern origin for the dog also fits in better with the archaeological evidence, and has enabled geneticists to reconstruct the entire history of the dog, from the first association between wolves and hunter gatherers some 20,000 years ago to the creation by Victorian dog fanciers of many of today’s breeds."

"Humans lived as roaming hunters and gatherers for most of their existence. Dr. Wayne believes that wolves began following hunter-gatherer bands to feed on the wounded prey, carcasses or other refuse. At some stage a group of wolves, who happened to be smaller and less threatening than most, developed a dependency on human groups, and may in return have provided a warning system.

"Several thousand years later, in the first settled communities that began to appear in the Middle East 15,000 years ago, people began intervening in the breeding patterns of their camp followers, turning them into the first proto-dogs. One of the features they selected was small size, continuing the downsizing of the wolf body plan. 'I think a long history such as that would explain how a large carnivore, which can eat you, eventually became stably incorporated in human society,' Dr. Wayne said.

His team scanned for genes that show signatures of selection. One such favored dog gene has a human counterpart that has been implicated in Williams syndrome, where it causes exceptional gregariousness. Another two selected genes are involved in memory. "Dogs, unlike wolves, are adept at taking cues from human body language, and the two genes could have something to do with this faculty," Dr. Wayne said.

"Dog domestication and human settlement occurred at the same time, some 15,000 years ago, raising the possibility that dogs may have had a complex impact on the structure of human society. Dogs could have been the sentries that let hunter gatherers settle without fear of surprise attack. They may also have been the first major item of inherited wealth, preceding cattle, and so could have laid the foundations for the gradations of wealth and social hierarchy that differentiated settled groups from the egalitarianism of their hunter-gatherer predecessors. Notions of inheritance and ownership, Dr. Driscoll said, may have been prompted by the first dogs to permeate human society, laying an unexpected track from wolf to wealth."

Friday, March 5, 2010

28. Warmer Weather Leads to Lower Crop Yield in the Tropic and Subtropic Areas


ScienceDaily (Feb. 12, 2010) — Yields from some of the most important crops begin to decline sharply when average temperatures exceed about 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 Fahrenheit. Projections are that by the end of this century much of the tropics and subtropics will regularly see growing season temperatures above that level, hotter than the hottest summers now on record.

An international panel of scientists writing in the Feb. 12 edition of the journal Science is urging world leaders to dramatically alter their notions about sustainable agriculture to prevent a major starvation catastrophe by the end of this century among the more than 3 billion people who live relatively close to the equator.

Specifically they urge world leaders to "get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology," particularly crops genetically modified to produce greater yields in harsher conditions, and to base the regulations of such crops on the best available science.

"You're looking at a 20 percent to 30 percent decline in production yields in the next 50 years for major crops between the latitudes of southern California or southern Europe to South Africa," said David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor.

He is a coauthor of a Perspectives article in Science that urges food production experts, scientists and world leaders to begin thinking in dramatically different ways to meet food needs in a significantly warmer world. Lead author is Nina Federoff, science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I grow increasingly concerned that we have not yet understood what it will take to feed a growing population on a warming planet," said Federoff, who also is a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University.
The challenge is becoming more difficult, the scientists said, because the world's population is likely to have increased more than 30 percent, to 9 billion people, by 2050.

Even without climate change, feeding all of these people will require doubling the grain production in the tropics, Battisti said, but a warmer climate will reduce yields because the temperature will be too high to achieve the most efficient photosynthesis. That factor, combined with less rainfall in major food-producing regions and increasing pressure from pests and pathogens, is likely to cut major food crop yields a minimum of 20 percent to 30 percent.

The authors advocate developing systems that have the potential to decrease the land, energy and fresh water needed for agriculture and at the same time reducing the pollution associated with agricultural chemicals and animal waste.
Battisti noted that the so-called green revolution in agriculture produced a 2 percent increase in yields per year for 20 years, primarily through development of new grain varieties and use of fertilizer and irrigation. But there is little, if any, new land available for farming, and such yield increases cannot be sustained without further innovation. In addition, there already are 1 billion people, mostly in the tropics, who do not have enough food for a healthy life.

"We're really asking for yield gains comparable to those at the peak of the green revolution, but sustained for an unprecedented length of time, 40 years, and at a time when climate change is acting against us," he said.
A major obstacle is that many of the institutions involved do not work together closely enough to succeed and, despite years of safe production and consumption, there is continued resistance to crops such as corn and soybeans that have been genetically modified to be insect resistant and tolerant of herbicides.

"There has to be a lot of creative thinking, a greater blending of biotechnology and agriculture and better coordination between private and public research efforts throughout the world for us to keep pace with the increasing demand for food," Battisti said. "We need to be thinking about the long-term demands for food and the environmental and social ramifications of how we will produce it."

The Science article represents the views of the authors and stems from a workshop they presented for the State Department last September in Washington, D.C.

Other authors are Roger Beachy of the U.S. Agriculture Department; Peter Cooper of the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics; David Fischhoff of Monsanto Co.; Carl Hodges of The Seawater Foundation; Vic Knauf of Arcadia Biosciences; David Lobell of Stanford University; Barbara Mazur of the DuPont Experimental Station; David Molden of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute; Matthew Reynolds of the Mexico City-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center; Pamela Ronald of the University of California, Davis, and the Joint Bioenergy Institute; Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute; Pedro Sanchez of Columbia University; Avigad Vonshak of Ben-Gurion University in Israel; and Jian-Kang Zhu of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and the University of California, Riverside.