Sunday, March 31, 2013

1030. Living Off-the-Grid Is Possible, But It’s Not Enough to Fix Climate Change

By Frederick Trainer, The Conversation, January 29, 2013
Frederick (Ted) Trainer

My old house has never been connected to the electricity supply. It runs on a couple of photo voltaic (solar) panels and is warmed by firewood. All water used is rainwater.

I have a vegie garden, fruit trees and chickens. My pumps and machinery run on 12 volt solar electricity. I travel 25km to paid work once a week, by bicycle and train, and drive about 10km a week. I never go away on holidays. The average Australian household uses about one kilowatt of electricity; I use eight watts.

So isn’t downshifting to less consuming lifestyles the way to solve the greenhouse problem?

Emphatically, no it isn’t. It’s part of the solution but not the main part. If you want to fix the climate, developing nations' poverty, resource depletion and other environmental problems you will also have to totally scrap economic growth, and therefore capitalism, and largely scrap globalisation, centralisation, the market system, representative democracy, the financial system, big cities, modern agriculture and urbanism.
A little extreme? Here’s the core argument.

Everyone knows the basic facts and figures, but few face up to what they mean. To provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy now requires about eight hectares of productive land. If by 2050, nine billion people were to have risen to the present Australian “living standard”, and the planet’s amount of productive land is still the same as it is today, the amount available per capita will be about .8ha. In other words Australian’s today are using ten times the amount that will be possible for all.

It’s much the same for all other resources. There are already scarcities regarding food in general, fish, water, most industrial minerals and petroleum, with estimates of peak coal occurring within a few decades. Only about one fifth of the world’s people have rich world consumption rates, and six times as many will soon be aspiring to them.

And yet, everyone is manically obsessed with constantly increasing “living standards”, production, consumption and GDP. At the standard 3% per annum growth rate, according to WWF figures we will need more than 20 planet earths to meet 2050 resource demands.

Living off-the-grid is not completely without 
a source of energy … solar panels are an 
integral part of the lifestyle. sridgway/Flickr

The glaringly obvious yet ignored point is that rich world per capita levels of resource consumption and ecological impact are far beyond levels that that are sustainable, or that could be made sustainable by any remotely plausible technical fixes. People, including most of the green ones, do not grasp the magnitude of the overshoot, nor the significance of the change required to solve the big problems.
The problems are being caused primarily by our systems, not our lifestyles although these are far too affluent. It’s not possible to get resource consumption down to one-fifth or one-tenth of present levels, unless we not only shift to a zero growth economic system, but to one with a far lower level of GDP. That means an economy in which there can be no interest paid.

That means we have to scrap the present financial system, and the forces driving innovation, incentive, work and investment, and the quest for greater wealth. It means much more than scrapping capitalism; it means completely abandoning some of the fundamental ideas (like the definition of progress,) and values (such as getting rich) that have driven Western culture for 300 years.

We could do it, easily, if you wanted to. My system, The Simpler Way (detailed in my book), is one whereby we transform our present suburbs and towns into highly self-sufficient and self-governing local and zero-growth economies, in which the quality of life would be higher than it is now in the consumer rat race.

Yes, an important part must be the willing acceptance of frugal, self-sufficient, cooperative ways at the level of the household and community. But it would not be necessary to go as far as I choose to on my bush homestead. We could still have electricity grids, (small) cities, (some) trade and heavy industry, railway networks, a (small) central state (under the control of town assemblies), universities and professional skills, and more socially useful high tech research and development than we have now. You might need to work for money only one day a week.

An ecovillage at Currumbin in Queensland. Flickr

Many people in eco-villages more or less live in the required ways now. Many are attempting to transform their towns and suburbs into being more self-sufficient and self-governing local communities.

But these very encouraging beginnings are not yet focused on the crucial goals. If you really want to help save the planet don’t fret much about downshifting but join your local community garden, with a view to getting people there thinking more about the need to focus on us eventually achieving the big structural and cultural changes.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

1029. Same-Sex Marriage: What We Can Learn from Nature

By David George Haskell, The New York Times, March 27, 2013
David George Haskell

BIOLOGY has returned to the nation’s highest court. It’s not Darwin’s theory of evolution on the docket this time, but the nature of sex. Defenders of Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, base their case on what they call the “objective biological fact” that procreation is an exclusively heterosexual process. Citing the 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone, they argue that marriage should be “founded in nature.”

This invocation of nature echoes other voices. Last December, before Pope Benedict XVI resigned, he used his Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia to deplore what he called a “new philosophy of sexuality” that manipulates and denies nature. Roy S. Moore, re-elected last fall as the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, once let rip with less measured language, exclaiming in a child-custody case that homosexuality was “a crime against nature and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Meanwhile, Tennessee legislators have repeatedly sought the prohibition of any sexual education “inconsistent with natural human reproduction.” None of this is, in fact, new: Oscar Wilde’s trials hinged on the courts’ understanding of natural love and unnatural vice.
References to biology coat these arguments with a gloss of scientific rigor. But before we write nature into law, let’s take a stroll outside the Supreme Court’s chambers and check those biological facts. Descending the steps of the court, we enter Washington’s planted landscape, a formal park where nature stands alongside patriotic monuments and federal buildings. There is no shortage of counsel about biology here.
The grandeur of the National Mall is rightly famous. Less well known are the hermaphroditic sex lives of many of its inhabitants. Japanese cherry trees break bud in explosions of pink; male and female coexist at the heart of each flower. The American elms that frame the Mall’s lawns present a more reserved countenance to the world. But their inconspicuous lime-green flowers are biologically bisexual. Ginkgo, another tree common in Washington, follows a Prop 8-approved sexual separation, growing as discrete males and females. But even the ginkgo will sometimes surprise horticulturalists with a stray flower of the other sex.
An inspection of the bark of these trees reveals garden snails grazing on thin, vertical lawns of lichens, yeasts and algae. Like the trees, each sexually mature snail makes both egg and sperm. Mating among these gastropods is charged with romantic tension; two males and two females are caught up in every embrace. Downstream from the Mall, at the outlet of the Potomac, marine snails called slipper shells add yet another twist: they begin life as males, before maturing into females.
The snails on the trees graze on fungi that further enrich the Mall’s sexual diversity. Fungi don’t have “sexes,” as most humans understand the term. Subtle chemical markers on each fungal cell divide the species into “mating types.” In some species, dozens of such types occur. Some of these fungal cells — like the slipper shells — can’t resist the itch to switch types.
Looking up from the fungi, we see a bee with its head buried in a cherry blossom’s mop of reproductive parts, supping on sweet nectar, and a northern cardinal fusses in the foliage, seeking early-hatched caterpillars. If these birds and bees were the first to teach us about sex, we’ve forgotten part of the lesson. Just as some species that are mostly hermaphroditic contain unisexual individuals, some insects and vertebrates cannot be simply called male or female. Human biology joins in this rejection of binary claims of male and female. There is controversy in the scientific literature about how many people are intersex, but some estimates put the figure at up to 2 percent.
Of course, sexuality is more than an arrangement of cells. Bonds form between sexual partners that help define the social structure of each species. What does nature on the Mall teach us about these relationships? Look, for instance, at the mallards paddling in the nearby reflecting pools. If they are like mallards elsewhere, then one in 10 of them engage in homosexual sex.
Stepping from the northern border of the Mall into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, we come face-to-taxidermied-face with our great ape relatives. Before these apes were sequestered in museum cabinets, homosexual bonds were a natural part of their lives. This is especially true for our closest living cousins, the bonobos and chimpanzees.
The facts of biology plainly falsify the oft-repeated notion that homosexuality is unnatural. Every species has evolved its own sexual ecology, and so nature resists generalizations. Does humanity’s natural inheritance include homosexual bonds and behaviors? Certainly. This conclusion is reinforced by the growing evidence that our sexual orientation is influenced by both our genes and the environment that we experience in the womb.
A wide, living rainbow arcs across the natural world. Diversity rules in sexuality, just as it does in the rest of biology. This natural variety does not provide ready-made moral guidance. But to claim that the only natural forms of sex and pair bonding occur between unambiguous males and females is to ignore the facts of human biology. Let those who wish for marriage to be “founded in nature” take note: the view outside the Supreme Court is full of life’s beautiful sexual variegation.
David George Haskell, a professor of biology at Sewanee: The University of the South, is the author of “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.”

Friday, March 29, 2013

1028. Antibiotics, the Meat Industry, and Super Bugs

By David A. Kessler, The New York Times, March 27, 2013
David A. Kessler
San Francisco--Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration systematically monitor the meat and poultry sold in supermarkets around the country for the presence of disease-causing bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. These food products are bellwethers that tell us how bad the crisis of antibiotic resistance is getting. And they’re telling us it’s getting worse.
But this is only part of the story. While the F.D.A. can see what kinds of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are coming out of livestock facilities, the agency doesn’t know enough about the antibiotics that are being fed to these animals. This is a major public health problem, because giving healthy livestock these drugs breeds superbugs that can infect people. We need to know more about the use of antibiotics in the production of our meat and poultry. The results could be a matter of life and death.
In 2011, drugmakers sold nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics for livestock — the largest amount yet recorded and about 80 percent of all reported antibiotic sales that year. The rest was for human health care. We don’t know much more except that, rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another’s waste.
It may sound counterintuitive, but feeding antibiotics to livestock at low levels may do the most harm. When he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his discovery of penicillin, Alexander Fleming warned that “there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.” He probably could not have imagined that, one day, we would be doing this to billions of animals in factorylike facilities.
The F.D.A. started testing retail meat and poultry for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 1996, shortly before my term as commissioner ended. The agency’s most recent report on superbugs in our meat, released in February and covering retail purchases in 2011, was 82 pages long and broke down its results by four different kinds of meat and poultry products and dozens of species and strains of bacteria.
It was not until 2008, however, that Congress required companies to tell the F.D.A. the quantity of antibiotics they sold for use in agriculture. The agency’s latest report, on 2011 sales and also released in February, was just four pages long — including the cover and two pages of boilerplate. There was no information on how these drugs were administered or to which animals and why.
We have more than enough scientific evidence to justify curbing the rampant use of antibiotics for livestock, yet the food and drug industries are not only fighting proposed legislation to reduce these practices, they also oppose collecting the data. Unfortunately, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, as well as the F.D.A., is aiding and abetting them.
The Senate committee recently approved the Animal Drug User Fee Act, a bill that would authorize the F.D.A. to collect fees from veterinary-drug makers to finance the agency’s review of their products. Public health experts had urged the committee to require drug companies to provide more detailed antibiotic sales data to the agency. Yet the F.D.A. stood by silently as the committee declined to act, rejecting a modest proposal from Senators Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, both Democrats, that required the agency to report data it already collects but does not disclose.
In the House, Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Louise M. Slaughter of New York, also Democrats, have introduced a more comprehensive measure. It would not only authorize the F.D.A. to collect more detailed data from drug companies, but would also require food producers to disclose how often they fed antibiotics to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to offset poor conditions.
This information would be particularly valuable to the F.D.A., which asked drugmakers last April to voluntarily stop selling antibiotics for these purposes. The agency has said it would mandate such action if those practices persisted, but it has no data to determine whether the voluntary policy is working. The House bill would remedy this situation, though there are no Republican sponsors.
Combating resistance requires monitoring both the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food, as well as the use of antibiotics on livestock. In human medicine, hospitals increasingly track resistance rates and antibiotic prescription rates to understand how the use of these drugs affects resistance. We need to cover both sides of this equation in agriculture, too.
I appreciate that not every lawmaker is as convinced as I am that feeding low-dose antibiotics to animals is a recipe for disaster. But most, if not all of them, recognize that we are facing an antibiotic resistance crisis, as evidenced by last year’s bipartisan passage of a measure aimed at fighting superbugs by stimulating the development of new antibiotics that treat serious infections. Why are lawmakers so reluctant to find out how 80 percent of our antibiotics are used?
We cannot avoid tough questions because we’re afraid of the answers. Lawmakers must let the public know how the drugs they need to stay well are being used to produce cheaper meat.
David A. Kessler was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

1027. A Critique of the Ecosocialist Manifesto of the Parti de Gauche

Daniel Tanuro

By Daniel Tanuro, International Viewpoint, March 24, 2013 
The Ecosocialist Manifesto of the Left Party (PG) is an important document. For the first time in France, a political force with parliamentary representation adopts the concept of ecosocialism to try and combine social and ecological demands, in a perspective of a break with capitalism. The condemnation of productivism is unambiguous. The fact that the document rejects as socially unjust and environmentally criminal the social democratic strategy of relaunching the system (Thesis 6: "We therefore expect neither the resumption of growth nor the beneficial effects of austerity: we believe in neither the one or the other") demonstrates an awareness of the seriousness of the situation and the urgency of the measures that must be taken to confront it. That is to say that the manifesto contributes to a fundamental political debate: what alternative to co-management of capitalism by the Greens and social-liberalism? What programme, what vision of society, what strategy for an anti-productivist socialism?
This debate has only just begun. The Left, in order to deepen it, would benefit from further immersing itself in environmental problems, the scale of which it scarcely grasps. In this respect, the progress made by the Left Party since its founders left the Socialist Party is remarkable. However, in my opinion the point has not yet been reached where the activists could take cognizance of the immensity of the challenges. The road that remains to be travelled can be measured, among other things, by the fact that the PG Ecosocialist Manifesto considers technology as socially neutral (Thesis 13: "The problem is not the technique itself but rather the lack of choice and of citizens’ control"... as if the hypothesis of “socialist nuclear power” was possible!) and says nothing about biofuels, shale gas or carbon capture and sequestration. But our main criticism is that the PG does not come out for the abandonment of fossil fuels and does not confront frankly some major constraints of the transition towards a system entirely based on renewable energies. In fact, despite all the excellent things that it contains, the manifesto of the PG does not seem to grasp the formidable scale of the energy/climate challenge that must be taken up in the next forty years and which is in my opinion the main reason why ecosocialism is a burning necessity.
The basic elements of the problem
We cannot repeat often enough the basic elements of the problem: beyond an increase in temperature of 1.5 ° C compared to the pre-industrial era, the warming of the lower atmosphere will more than likely lead to irreversible ecological and social catastrophes. The disaster-making machine is already en route – we can see it in the multiplication of extreme weather events. But the worst – in particular a rise of from one to three metres in the level of the oceans, involving the displacement in the relatively short term of hundreds of millions of people - can still be avoided. However, to have a chance of the increase in temperature remaining below 2.4 ° C, the conditions that need to be met are draconian: it means that the developed countries almost entirely abandon fossil fuels by 2050 and that global greenhouse gas emissions decrease by 50 to 85 per cent by that date, to be reduced to zero before 2100 (by that point, in fact, they should even begin to be negative, which means that the ecosystem of the Earth should absorb more carbon dioxide than it emits). Renewable energies can take over from there. Their technical potential is more than sufficient. But the transition is extremely complicated because it is a question, in a very short period of time, of replacing the existing energy system by another, completely different and much more expensive.
Change the energy system
The elements that have to be taken into consideration are the following:
If we refuse nuclear technology – we have to refuse it, for many reasons that I will not go into here =and if we respect the principle of the common but differentiated responsibilities of countries = this must be respected, for obvious reasons of North/South justice = then it follows that the success of the transition to renewable energy makes it necessary to reduce final energy demand by around half in the European Union and by three quarters in the United States;
A reduction of this magnitude is not possible through energy-saving measures alone. A reduction in material production and transport is also indispensable. It is therefore not enough to balance the removal of productions that are useless or harmful, on the one hand, and the increase in ecological products, on the other hand: the balance of the whole must be negative;
The objectives in terms of emissions mean that approximately 80 per cent of the known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas must remain in the ground. But these reserves are the property of capitalist companies, or state capitalist companies; they appear as assets on their balance sheets. Their non-exploitation would amount to a destruction of capital. This would be unacceptable to shareholders, it goes without saying;
 With few exceptions, renewable energies are more expensive than fossil fuels and will remain so, roughly speaking, for the next two decades. In practice, the main effect of the increase in the price of oil is to make profitable the exploitation of tar sands, shale gas, heavy oils and deep offshore wells, all profitable businesses from the capitalist point of view but highly destructive from the environmental point of view, and whose energy efficiency (the ratio between the input and the output of energy) is often very low.
Overall, the transition to renewable energy has not begun. The United Nations make the following observation: "The change in energy technology has slowed down considerably on the level of the global energy mix since the 1970s, and there is no evidence in support of the popular idea that this change in energy technology is accelerating. (…) Despite impressive growth rates of the dissemination of renewable energy technologies since 2000, it is clear that the current trajectory does not come anywhere near a realistic path towards a total decarbonization of the global energy system by 2050" (UN, World Economic and Social Outlook 2011, pp 49-50).
One of the reasons for this situation - which contrasts with the image portrayed by the media - is that the fully rational use of renewable energy requires the construction of an alternative energy system, completely new, decentralized, efficient and equipped with storage facilities. In the framework of the present centralized and wasteful system, 1GW of wind power requires the backup of 0.9 GW of fossil energy: renewables only add to traditional energies. To avoid this combination means building an "intelligent" network in ten years. An undertaking that would be "gigantic, necessitating technological progress, international cooperation and unprecedented transfers" (ibid., p. 52).
The obstacle of Capital
The economic, and therefore political and social implications of changing the energy system are well summarized by the same United Nations report: "Overall, the cost of replacing the existing fossil and nuclear infrastructure is at least 15 to 20,000 billion dollars [between a quarter and a third of global GDP – DT]. China alone increased its production of coal-fired electrical power by more than 300 GW between 2000 and 2008, an investment of more than $300 billion, which will begin to be profitable from 2030-2040 and will operate perhaps until 2050-2060. In fact, most of the energy infrastructures have been deployed recently in emerging economies and are completely new, with lifetimes of at least 40 to 60 years. Clearly, it is unlikely that the world (sic) will decide overnight to wipe out 15 to 20,000 billion dollars of infrastructures and replace them with a renewable energy system which is more expensive"(UN, World Economic and Social Outlook 2011, p. 53).
If it was consulted and adequately informed of the issues, “the world” would undoubtedly decide to replace the fossil system with a renewable system. But the capitalist states will not take this decision, even though they are informed of the issues. Generally speaking, they are absolutely incapable of finding in forty years a humanly acceptable solution to the tangle of problems outlined above. The law of profit prevents it. No carbon tax, no emission rights market will bring a solution. To have a chance of being effective, the level of taxes or rights should increase to 600 or 700 dollars per ton of CO2 in areas such as transport, which is obviously inconceivable. All the key sectors of the economy (automotive, aerospace, shipbuilding, chemical and petrochemical, power generation, steel, cement, food, etc.) would be heavily penalized. To believe that the bosses of the enterprises concerned will accept that we impinge on their profit margins, to believe that the rival states representing these bosses will agree to simultaneously impinge on the profit margins of all bosses in all countries, is to believe in Santa Claus. The failure for 20 years (twenty years!) of the international summits on the climate provides ample proof of it. And this will not change in the context of the competition wars that have been raging since 2008!
A triple catastrophe
No doubt is possible: in the framework of the system, we are heading quickly towards a triple disaster - ecological, social and technological. This last aspect emerges clearly from the scenarios developed by the International Energy Agency and adopted, with variations, by the OECD, the World Bank, the UNEP and other international institutions. In order to try and reconcile capitalist growth with climate targets, without changing the energy system, all of these organizations in fact put forward the same combinations of proposals (the same “energy mix”): triple the number of nuclear power stations; increase the use of coal, tar sands and shale gas; considerably increase the production of biofuels; in general increase the use of biomass, especially by having recourse to genetically modified plants - in particular trees... It should be noted that these scenarios, if they were implemented, would at best make it possible to limit the concentration in CO2 equivalent to 550 parts per million (ppm), which corresponds to a temperature increase of between 2.8 and 3.2 ° C... Unacceptable!
In all these cases, carbon capture and sequestration is presented as the Columbus’s egg which will make it possible to continue the combustion of fossil fuels without the quantities of carbon dioxide produced being sent into the atmosphere. In reality, there is good reason to fear that the massive deployment over the long term of this technology is a new solution of the sorcerer’s apprentice kind, a way of sweeping rubbish under the carpet. Generally speaking, ecosocialists should oppose it... except possibly in the clearly limited context of conversion plans for workers in certain polluting enterprises that are destined to close. We should note that it is precisely this technology that is involved in the ULCOS project in Florange. This case illustrates the difficulty of the concrete articulation of social and environmental questions in the ultra-defensive context of today...
Growth, non-growth, de-growth
From the ecological point of view, the main weakness of the manifesto of the PG is, in our view, that it does not tackle head-on this formidable question of the energy transition and of capitalist policy on the issue. It is not enough to challenge "the relaunching of GDP growth" (Thesis 6), or to juxtapose "the necessary reduction of certain kinds of material consumption and the need to relaunch certain activities" (Thesis 10): it must go further and admit that, at least in developed capitalist countries, a net decrease in material production and transport is essential to make the transition successfully and avoid an irreversible transformation of the environment, with catastrophic social consequences.
What “green rule”?
It is true that the manifesto links the "relaunch of certain activities” with”taking systematic account of the carbon footprint that is generated”. Incorporating a central theme of the presidential campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the document proposes introducing the “green rule” as “central indicator for directing the economy”. The explanation is as follows (Thesis 10): "In addition to the damage already done, and which we have to to make up for as regards greenhouse gas emissions and loss of biodiversity, we adopt as a means of evaluation of public policies, the fixing at a later date every year the day of ‘global overtaking’. This is the date when we have calculated on a global level the volume of renewable resources equal to what the planet is capable of regenerating and when we have produced waste that it is capable of digesting. Our goal is to push this date back to December 31, i.e. to neutralize our carbon footprint. This implies the drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the cessation of nuclear power, which produces waste that nobody knows how to deal with”.
The drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the cessation of nuclear power were not mentioned in the first version of this text, submitted last December to the Conference on Ecosocialism. The inclusion of these amendments is very positive, but nevertheless unsatisfactory. Firstly, because the text does not go beyond the objective, not budgeted for and rather vague, of "reducing our dependence on exhaustible resources" (Thesis 9). Secondly, because "the global ecological footprint" is a questionable indicator, with no real practical significance:
Questionable, because by amalgamating the calculations of renewable and non-renewable resources in relation to the population, the footprint gives a biased image of being unsustainable. It dilutes the major responsibility of fossil fuels (about 80 per cent of the footprint results from the combustion of these fuels) and thus diverts attention from the coal, oil and gas lobbies. On the other hand, it draws attention to the question of population, which is the hobby horse of the neo-Malthusians;
With no real practical significance, because the sustainability of the ecological footprint “on a world scale”’ only commits the government of a particular country if it is translated into national objectives that are specific, measurable, and verifiable in terms of the historical responsibility of the country considered in the context of the “global ecological crisis”. However, this translation into national objectives is not so simple to achieve.
To deal with the emergency by adopting a "green rule" is certainly an idea to be retained, but the chosen indicator must be relevant, clear, measurable and verifiable. The ecological footprint strikes the imagination ("we would need three planets!") but also creates a lot of confusion. It would be better to adopt a law stipulating that, while abandoning nuclear power, and without resorting to “carbon credits”, France will decrease every year its fossil emissions of CO2 in a proportion such that the country reaches a minimum of 80 to 95 per cent by 2050, passing through an intermediate stage of 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 (compared to 1990)... and aiming at more than 100 per cent (i.e. negative emissions) between 2050 and 2100.
Internationalism: try a little harder!
The adoption of such a law is one of the means par excellence by which France - or any other developed capitalist country - can "fulfill its responsibility to humanity by effacing the ecological debt”. But it is not the only way. In this regard, many important and accurate things are said in Thesis 17 about the international dimension of ecosocialism (“conduct an internationalist and universalist combat"). However, the text fails to deal with the main problem: how to reconcile climate stabilization with the right to development of the peoples of the South? The challenge, let us repeat, is quite simply gigantic. On the one hand, three billion human beings are suffering because their basic needs are not satisfied, or insufficiently so: it is necessary to produce more. On the other, the climate constraints that must be respected between now and 2050 prohibit massively relaunching material production on a global level, and even dictate that it should be reduced in developed countries.
What is the way out? No one can decently claim to have the definitive answer. It is, however, insufficient to write that you are “contributing to the discussions aimed at combining development policies and social progress and the preservation of the environment "and that you support the approach of the "Yasuni ITT initiative”. The PG recognizes «the responsibility of what are called the countries of the North, and of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, towards the peoples of the South». It should draw some programmatic conclusions from that: in addition to the unilateral adoption by France of a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, other measures would be, for example, to cancel the debt, not to import biofuels, to recognize the right to food sovereignty, to denounce REDD +, to make free transfers of green technologies and to pay – in the form of aid, not loans! – for adaptation to climate change. These few measures seem to me to be essential elements of a consistent ecosocialist internationalism.
Transitional strategy
The scientific reports on “global change” bear witness: the energy/climate challenge is the major environmental and social problem major which mankind must face up to. It is starting from this central question that the ecosocialists must jointly develop a programme, a strategy, tactics and forms of struggle. This is not about taking ideological postures, outbidding the PG by purism or being more radical than it by virtue of sacred dogmas. It is about taking the measure of the extreme gravity of the objective situation and soberly drawing the political conclusions that flow from it. These conclusions can only be radically anti-capitalist and internationalist. It is the very foundations of the mode of production which are in question. The manifesto of the PG also says so, and it is in this framework that the debate can take place.
How should we act? The strategic difficulty resides in the yawning abyss between the urgent need for an (eco)socialist alternative and the current level of consciousness of the populations, in particular the exploited and oppressed. It is to bridge this gap, to build a bridge across this abyss, that it is important to respond to both social demands and environmental emergencies through a programme of demands that makes it possible to begin to break from the existing order. It seems obvious that this programme must set the perspective of the formation of a government capable of implementing it - at the national, European and global levels. But the formation of a government should not justify lowering the level of the programme to the point where it would no longer make such a break possible. It is doubtful whether there is agreement on this point when we remember that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a few days before the Conference on Ecosocialism, declared that he was a candidate for the post of Prime Minister of a government of the Left with the Socialist Party and the Greens...
Expropriation of energy and finance
In its first version, the Manifesto of the PG demanded the nationalization of energy, but not of finance. This deficiency has been corrected. It is to be welcomed because the expropriation of the lobbies of these two closely interlinked sectors is really a condition sine qua non for the break. It provides a framework within which can be articulated a series of ecosocialist demands, large and small, ranging from the creation of public municipal boards for the insulation and renovation of housing to free transport, including along the way encouraging proximity organic farming , the prohibition of planned obsolescence, free services (water, electricity, mobility, heating) up to a level corresponding to basic needs (with rapidly progressive pricing beyond that level), the retraining of employees of polluting enterprises, with maintenance of their seniority and benefits, the generalized reduction of working time to 30 hours a week without loss of pay, etc. Outside of this framework, the programme loses its coherence and breaks down into a series of scattered measures, some of which are digestible by the system, others not.
A government that would commit itself to implementing a programme for a break with the system worthy of the name would be immediately confronted with the response of the international bourgeoisie, especially through the European Union. It would have to protect its policies from it. Not in the name of the nation, but in the name of another Europe that has to be built, a Europe of which its policies would give a foretaste to other peoples. Although the manifesto has been improved on this point (Thesis 16: "Although the European level may be relevant for major environmental and social policies, their implementation would only be possible by the building of another Europe, under the democratic control of the peoples"), there should be an even more offensive approach, pointing to the need for a constituent assembly of the peoples of Europe. Because it is only on the level of the subcontinent that an ecosocialist programme worthy of the name can be deployed. Through the establishment of European public services of energy, water, transportation, housing. Through a reorientation of research and industry towards the needs of these services. Through joint management of natural resources.
Self-management or statism?
The manifesto of the PG is right to conclude (Thesis 18) that "given the magnitude of its objective, challenging the capitalist production model cannot result from a simple electoral alternation and from decisions from above". Indeed, such a challenge is only possible through an in-depth social mobilization. A mobilization of everyone, regardless of their philosophical and religious beliefs. This point probably merits discussion. For us, there is for example no reason that participation in the ecosocialist combat should be subject to the acceptance of secularism as understood by the PG. This condition goes against the necessary and urgent unity against imminent catastrophes. The management of the Earth’s ecosystem "in a responsible fashion" is compatible with the humanist foundations of all religions, of all cosmologies. Provided that they are fighting for demands which emancipate men and women in practice - on Earth, not in heaven - it matters little whether those involved believe in God or not.
The key point is that this mobilization should be coupled with democratic self-organization. Imposing workers’ control in the workplaces, electing strike committees, occupying workplaces when there is a strike, forming residents’ committees that determine themselves the criteria and the priorities of municipalities, encouraging mass struggles against crazy technological projects (such as Notre Dame des Landes), encouraging everywhere direct links between producers and consumers to escape from the mediation of capital and of the market, supporting the autonomous struggles of women and of all the oppressed: this is the road we should take.
The manifesto of the PG takes important steps in this direction, referring to “the ongoing intervention of workers in the management of enterprises” and to “conferences of popular participation to redefine the criteria for social and environmental utility and the articulation between the different levels” of “ecological planning” (Thesis 13). But these proposals would benefit from being made more precise because, generally speaking, the perspective of the manifesto is more statist and centralist than it is decentralized and based on self-management. It ignores the class nature of the state, adorns the Republic with virtues that it does not possess and presents, so to speak, a “top-down” conception of socialist emancipation (Thesis 4: “the emancipation of the human person requires the sharing of wealth, the democratization of power and global education”).
The road ahead is long and difficult, full of pitfalls. It is the road of an anti-capitalist alternative. “For a long time the world has had the dream of something that it only needed to become conscious of to actually possess”, said Marx. This thing today is ecosocialism, the dream of a humanity which will collectively maintain the garden of the Earth with joy, prudence and responsibility. There is neither shortcut nor supreme saviour. The consciousness of the concrete possibility of this thing can only be forged in action based on solidarity, in the struggle without borders against this absurd system, which bears within it the ecological and social catastrophe as the storm-cloud bears the thunderstorm.
Daniel Tanuro is the author of L’impossible capitalisme vert (“the impossible green capitalism”). In this article, he presents an analysis of the Ecosocialist Manifesto of the French Left Party. Highlighting the real advances contained in this document, but also its limitations, he contributes to the crucial debate on the necessary ecosocialist strategy
[1] Paris, La Découverte, 2010

1026. Cuban Reforms and Afro-Cuban Reality

Roberto Zurbano

By Roberto Zurbano, The New York Times, March 23, 2013
CHANGE is the latest news to come out of Cuba, though for Afro-Cubans like myself, this is more dream than reality. Over the last decade, scores of ridiculous prohibitions for Cubans living on the island have been eliminated, among them sleeping at a hotel, buying a cellphone, selling a house or car and traveling abroad. These gestures have been celebrated as signs of openness and reform, though they are really nothing more than efforts to make life more normal. And the reality is that in Cuba, your experience of these changes depends on your skin color.
The private sector in Cuba now enjoys a certain degree of economic liberation, but blacks are not well positioned to take advantage of it. We inherited more than three centuries of slavery during the Spanish colonial era. Racial exclusion continued after Cuba became independent in 1902, and a half century of revolution since 1959 has been unable to overcome it.
In the early 1990s, after the cold war ended, Fidel Castro embarked on economic reforms that his brother and successor, Raúl, continues to pursue. Cuba had lost its greatest benefactor, the Soviet Union, and plunged into a deep recession that came to be known as the “Special Period.” There were frequent blackouts. Public transportation hardly functioned. Food was scarce. To stem unrest, the government ordered the economy split into two sectors: one for private businesses and foreign-oriented enterprises, which were essentially permitted to trade in United States dollars, and the other, the continuation of the old socialist order, built on government jobs that pay an average of $20 a month.
It’s true that Cubans still have a strong safety net: most do not pay rent, and education and health care are free. But the economic divergence created two contrasting realities that persist today. The first is that of white Cubans, who have leveraged their resources to enter the new market-driven economy and reap the benefits of a supposedly more open socialism. The other reality is that of the black plurality, which witnessed the demise of the socialist utopia from the island’s least comfortable quarters.
Most remittances from abroad — mainly the Miami area, the nerve center of the mostly white exile community — go to white Cubans. They tend to live in more upscale houses, which can easily be converted into restaurants or bed-and-breakfasts — the most common kind of private business in Cuba. Black Cubans have less property and money, and also have to contend with pervasive racism. Not long ago it was common for hotel managers, for example, to hire only white staff members, so as not to offend the supposed sensibilities of their European clientele.
That type of blatant racism has become less socially acceptable, but blacks are still woefully underrepresented in tourism — probably the economy’s most lucrative sector — and are far less likely than whites to own their own businesses. Raúl Castro has recognized the persistence of racism and has been successful in some areas (there are more black teachers and representatives in the National Assembly), but much remains to be done to address the structural inequality and racial prejudice that continue to exclude Afro-Cubans from the benefits of liberalization.
Racism in Cuba has been concealed and reinforced in part because it isn’t talked about. The government hasn’t allowed racial prejudice to be debated or confronted politically or culturally, often pretending instead as though it didn’t exist. Before 1990, black Cubans suffered a paralysis of economic mobility while, paradoxically, the government decreed the end of racism in speeches and publications. To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act. This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.
If the 1960s, the first decade after the revolution, signified opportunity for all, the decades that followed demonstrated that not everyone was able to have access to and benefit from those opportunities. It’s true that the 1980s produced a generation of black professionals, like doctors and teachers, but these gains were diminished in the 1990s as blacks were excluded from lucrative sectors like hospitality. Now in the 21st century, it has become all too apparent that the black population is underrepresented at universities and in spheres of economic and political power, and overrepresented in the underground economy, in the criminal sphere and in marginal neighborhoods.
Raúl Castro has announced that he will step down from the presidency in 2018. It is my hope that by then, the antiracist movement in Cuba will have grown, both legally and logistically, so that it might bring about solutions that have for so long been promised, and awaited, by black Cubans.
An important first step would be to finally get an accurate official count of Afro-Cubans. The black population in Cuba is far larger than the spurious numbers of the most recent censuses. The number of blacks on the street undermines, in the most obvious way, the numerical fraud that puts us at less than one-fifth of the population. Many people forget that in Cuba, a drop of white blood can — if only on paper — make a mestizo, or white person, out of someone who in social reality falls into neither of those categories. Here, the nuances governing skin color are a tragicomedy that hides longstanding racial conflicts.
The end of the Castros’ rule will mean an end to an era in Cuban politics. It is unrealistic to hope for a black president, given the insufficient racial consciousness on the island. But by the time Raúl Castro leaves office, Cuba will be a very different place. We can only hope that women, blacks and young people will be able to help guide the nation toward greater equality of opportunity and the achievement of full citizenship for Cubans of all colors.
Roberto Zurbano is the editor and publisher of the Casa de las Américas publishing house. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

1025. The 2013 International Permaculture Congress

Dear Permaculturists of the world!

During the last International Permaculture Convergence (IPC), IPC10, celebrated in Jordan in September 2011, Cuba was chosen as the host for the next IPC, IPC11, and we will be doing it this NOVEMBER 2013!!
As well as our friendly company you will enjoy a range activities to get involved in here including:
  • a Permaculture Design Course facilitated by internationally renowned teachers: Ron Berezan (CA), Brock Dolman (USA), Paulo Mellet (UK), Eric Toensmeier (USA) and Cuba’s own Roberto Perez Rivero.
  • a 3 day Conference with the theme "Island Permaculture, Urban Permaculture, and Permaculture and Climate Change"
  • a 5 day Convergence and
  • visits to permaculture and sustainability sites in Havana and two Provinces of Cuba to see examples of Permaculture CUBA STYLE!
Dates are listed on the panel to the right.
From all of us permies here in Cuba we would like to say THANK YOU for this wonderful opportunity to show off our work and hard earned experiences and to continue our learning and exchanging with international participants and collaborators… so

WELCOME to the Caribbean, WELCOME to Latin America and


The Cuba Organising Team 
From the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity
 maria criolla
Permaculture in Cuba
Permaculture arrived to Cuba in late 1993, through The Southern Cross Brigade an Australian and New Zealand solidarity group, some of them Permaculturists. In late 1995 the movement was welcomed by Antonio Núñez Jiménez to continue operations as part of his  Foundation for Nature and Humanity, a Cuban NGO. At that point in time with the country facing a serious economic crisis, the key goal was to increase food production as much and as quickly as possible, and this was done by growing food directly under the feet of people, on local family and community grounds of Havana. Several projects were developed with the support of the Australian Green Team and the Australian Conservation Foundation.
We are proud to say that the work of this small and devoted team of Cubans, Aussies, New Zealanders and others, along with a few other similar efforts in the country at the time, most certainly contributed to the degree of local food security the communities, towns and cities of our island enjoy to this day.
In coming to Cuba we can share elements of this process with you, our experiences, struggles, achievements, learning, and we can review and consider some of the risk factors we have been experiencing and learning from over these last few years related to climate change. We will do all of this with guests in our traditional Cuban way of openness, talking, listening, lectures, workshops, roundtables, honesty, eating, drinking… and, why not, a little more talking!

Friday, March 22, 2013

1024. Earliest Snapshot of the Universe Produced by Planck

By University of Oxford, March 21, 2013
The 'oldest light' in the Universe, the new map of the CMB produced by Planck. Credit: ESA/The Planck Collaboration.

Europe's Planck satellite, a flagship mission for the UK Space Agency, has compiled the most detailed map ever of this leftover radiation – called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). The map gives a picture of how the Universe looked just 380,000 years after the Big Bang and the pattern of temperature fluctuations that were the 'seeds' that started the formation of the galaxies and stars we see today.
The international team behind the mission, including scientists from Oxford University, report results showing that, at 13.82 billion years old, the Universe is slightly older than was thought, that give a more accurate recipe for its composition and the relative amounts of dark matter and dark energy, and that bolster evidence for a mysterious phenomenon called 'inflation'.
'One of the biggest challenges we faced was looking back through the light from all the galaxies and stars born in the last 13 billion years to glimpse the cosmic microwave background, this imprint of the very early Universe,' said Dr Joanna Dunkley of Oxford University's Department of Physics, who led Oxford's Planck research team with Dr Erminia Calabrese and Dr Charmaine Armitage-Caplan.
'Part of the Oxford team's job was to use data from other experiments, such as the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, to 'clean up' the Planck signal and help us see through all the very bright objects, including our own Milky Way, that lie between us and this echo of the ancient Universe,' Dr Dunkley adds.
The properties of the hot and cold regions of the map provide information about the composition and evolution of the Universe. Normal matter that makes up stars and galaxies contributes just 4.9% of the mass/energy density of the Universe. Dark matter, which has so far only been detected indirectly by its gravitational influence, makes up 26.8%, nearly a fifth more than the previous estimate. Conversely, dark energy, a mysterious force thought to be responsible for accelerating the expansion of the Universe, accounts for slightly less than previously thought, at around 69%.
The Planck data also set a new value for the rate at which the Universe is expanding today, known as the Hubble constant. At 67.3 km/s/Mpc, this is lower than the value measured from relatively nearby galaxies. This somewhat slower expansion implies that the Universe is also a little older than previously thought, at 13.82 billion years.
The analysis also gives strong support for theories of 'inflation', a very brief but crucial early phase during the first tiny fraction of a second of the Universe's existence. As well as explaining many properties of the Universe as a whole, this initial expansion caused the ripples in the CMB that we see today.
Although this primordial epoch can't be observed directly, the theory predicts a set of very subtle imprints on the CMB map. Previous experiments have not been able to confidently detect these subtle imprints, but the high resolution of Planck's map confirms that the tiny variations in the density of the early Universe match those predicted by inflation.
Dr Dunkley said: 'The sizes of these tiny ripples hold the key to what happened in that first trillionth of a trillionth of a second. Planck has given us striking new evidence that indicates they were created during this incredibly fast expansion, just after the Big Bang. Our results are likely to inspire much more research into this very unusual and mysterious period when space was expanding faster than light.'
But because the precision of Planck's map is so high, it also reveals some peculiar unexplained features. Amongst the most surprising findings are that the fluctuations in the CMB over large scales do not match those predicted by the standard model.
Dr Chris Castelli, Acting Director of Science, Technology and Exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: 'We're immensely proud to be playing a key role in this amazing discovery. With its ability to make such detailed and accurate observations, Planck is helping us to place the vital pieces of a jigsaw that could give us a full picture of the evolution of our Universe, rewriting the textbooks along the way.'

Saturday, March 16, 2013

1023. Obama Proposes New Renewables Research

By Carey L. Biron, IPS, March 15, 2013 

WASHINGTON- President Barack Obama on Friday unveiled a broad new proposal to step up U.S. research into renewable energy technologies, particularly in transportation, which is responsible for around 70 percent of the United States’ oil use.
The initiative, which the president is calling the Energy Security Trust, would receive around two billion dollars over the next decade, funded through proceeds from oil-and-gas drilling in U.S. coastal waters.
The United States is playing catch-up to countries like Japan, Germany and Korea on fuel cells, batteries and fuel economy more generally.

“The only way to really break this cycle of spiking gas prices for good is to shift our cars and trucks entirely off oil,” President Obama said Friday, speaking at a national laboratory.
He said the idea for the Energy Security Trust is based on a proposal put forward by “a non-partisan coalition that includes retired generals, admirals and leading CEOs … [to] take some of our oil and gas revenues from public lands and put it towards research that will benefit the public.”

The proposal also includes a series of new national goals, outlined in a White House brief released Friday. These include a doubling of renewable electricity generation by 2020, a halving of oil imports by the end of the decade, a halving of energy waste by 2030, and a series of new incentives aimed at ramping up energy efficiency.
It also includes focus on strengthened use of natural gas, additional oil-and-gas drilling on public lands, and increased support for U.S. nuclear exports.

Yet the proposal appears to be a significantly scaled-down version of President Obama’s earlier vision for renewables-related research and phase-in. When the president came into office in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, he was able to allot some 90 billion dollars to renewables research as part of a major stimulus bill.
That money is now largely gone, however, even as political rancour has increased on the issue. While some of the stimulus funding went into a few projects that resulted in high-profile failures – boondoggles that now constitute key talking points for conservative critics – Washington is currently enmeshed in a severe debate over austerity and government spending.

“It’s good to see the president focusing on the importance of developing advanced energy, but two billion dollars is chump change compared to the estimated 110 billion dollars in subsidies that will go to the fossil fuel industry over the next decade,” Jamie Henn, communications director with, an advocacy organisation, told IPS.
“The real way to accelerate our transition to renewable energy would be to put a price on carbon and direct funding into a new, advanced energy economy.”

‘Misguided incentive’
Others are warning that, no matter the amount of money involved, linking funding for renewable energy with petroleum drilling is wrongheaded.
“This approach doesn’t create any additional cost for using fossil fuels, thus creating no incentive for firms to divert resources into safer, cleaner and more renewable sources of energy,” Tyson Slocum, director of the Energy Program at Public Citizen, a Washington watchdog group, said Friday in a statement.

“Additionally, linking modest investments in energy alternatives to oil and gas production creates a misguided incentive for more oil and gas drilling – a bad idea made worse without reform regulations and liability caps on offshore drilling.”

Indeed, one of the most significant flashpoints over the Energy Security Trust will be whether this money comes alongside the leasing of new offshore drilling opportunities, as is being pushed by many Republicans and some Democrats in the U.S. Congress.
In fact, an initiative very similar to the Energy Security Trust was included in a widely discussed national energy plan put together recently by Lisa Murkowski, a Senate Republican. Yet her plan specifically requires an increase in drilling to pay for new research, something the president has been ambivalent about.

However, the White House appears to be open to related negotiations. “This is something that we’ll have to talk about with Congress,” Josh Earnest, a deputy press secretary, told journalists Friday, “and if there are different ideas that people want to offer up, we’ll certainly have a conversation with them about that,” that would strike many as a step backwards.

“What we need to be doing is investing in using less oil – getting more oil won’t solve the problem of high gas prices, pollution and other impacts from drilling,” David Friedman, deputy director of clean vehicles at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group, told IPS.

“For us, more drilling would probably be a nonstarter. What we really should be doing is getting rid of subsidies to the oil and gas industry, and using those to help get consumers new options to save on fuel.”

Offering slightly more conservative figures than’s Henn, Friedman says the oil industry is currently getting anywhere from four to 10 billion dollars a year in subsidies. Yet even at the low end, that would add up to some 40 billion dollars over the course of a decade – massively larger than President Obama’s new research budget proposal.
He continues: “Instead, that money will just go to pad the profits of some of the most profitable corporations in the world.”

Waning leader
Yet Friedman cautions against writing off the Energy Security Trust proposal for its relatively small budget.

The current U.S. federal budget for research and development in transportation is only around eight billion dollars a year, he notes, so a boost of an additional quarter would be “not a game changer but a move in the right direction – but only if this is actually new money.” In today’s highly partisan atmosphere of austerity here in Washington, that last point is not yet clear.

The White House says the Energy Security Trust would “help solidify America’s position as a world leader in advanced transportation technology.” But Friedman says the country’s position on renewables research generally has been rapidly waning.

“Clean energy research and development has been underfunded in the U.S. for decades – currently, the United States is playing catch-up to countries like Japan, Germany and Korea on fuel cells, batteries and fuel economy more generally,” he says.

“But we’ve got amazing engineers in this country, and with the new standards in place, I think we’ll catch up and even move to the lead. Of course, that’s if the oil industry doesn’t try to block progress and undermine these policies.”