Toxic Oil and Power Politics in the Amazon

Newsweek.com describes how an oil company uses political connections to hide the mess left behind. Very sad but not surprising.

Link: Chevron Lobbyists Fight Ecuador Toxic-Dumping Case | Newsweek International | Newsweek.com.

Few legal battles have been more exotic than the lawsuit tried over the past five years in a steamy jungle courtroom in Ecuador‘s Amazon rain forest. Brought by a group of U.S. trial lawyers on behalf of thousands of indigenous Indian peasants, the suit accuses Chevron of responsibility for the dumping (allegedly conducted by Texaco, which Chevron bought in 2001) of billions of gallons of toxic oil wastes into the region’s rivers and streams. Activists describe the disaster as an Amazon Chernobyl. The plaintiffs—some suffering from cancer and physical deformities—have showed up in court in native garb, with painted faces and half naked. Chevron vigorously contests the charges and has denounced the entire proceeding as a "shakedown."

But this spring, events for Chevron took an ominous turn when a court-appointed expert recommended Chevron be required to pay between $8 billion and $16 billion to clean up the rain forest. Although it was not the final verdict, the figures sent shock waves through Chevron’s corporate boardroom in San Ramon, Calif., and forced the company for the first time to disclose the issue to its shareholders. It has also now spawned an unusually high-powered battle in Washington between an army of Chevron lobbyists and a group of savvy plaintiff lawyers, one of whom has tapped a potent old schoolmate—Barack Obama.

Chevron is pushing the Bush administration to take the extraordinary step of yanking special trade preferences for Ecuador if the country’s leftist government doesn’t quash the case. A spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab confirmed that her office is considering the request. Attorney Steven Donziger, who is coordinating the D.C. opposition to Chevron, says the firm is "trying to get the country to cry uncle." He adds: "It’s the crudest form of power politics."

via The Oil Drum

Mark Pesce describes Hypermimesis

Mark Pesce is an author, teacher, inventor, and well-known media personality in Australia. He is widely respected as a technologist, futurist, philosopher and communicator who can translate abstract concepts into concrete explanations.

Below are excerpts from his talk at the 2008 Personal Democracy Forum, from Edge.org.

Link: Edge 252.

Children are experts in mimesis—learning by imitation. It’s been shown that young chimpanzees regularly outscore human toddlers on cognitive tasks, while the children far surpass the chimps in their ability to "ape" behavior. We are built to observe and reproduce the behaviors of our parents, our mentors and our peers.

Our peers now number three and a half billion.

Whenever any one of us displays a new behavior in a hyperconnected context, that behavior is inherently transparent, visible and observed. If that behavior is successful, it is immediately copied by those who witnessed the behavior, then copied by those who witness that behavior, and those who witnessed that behavior, and so on. Very quickly, that behavior becomes part of the global behavioral kit. As its first-order emergent quality, hyperconnectivity produces hypermimesis, the unprecedented acceleration of the natural processes of observational learning, where each behavioral innovation is distributed globally and instantaneously.

A project of the mob, for the mob, and by the mob, Wikipedia is the mob rule of factual knowledge. Its phenomenal success demonstrates beyond all doubt how the calculus of civilization has shifted away from its Liberal basis. In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it. Wikipedia turns that assertion inside out: the more something is shared the more valuable it becomes. These newly disproportionate returns on the investment in altruism now trump the ‘virtue of selfishness.’

Paradoxically, Wikipedia is not at all democratic, nor is it actually transparent, though it gives the appearance of both. Investigations conducted by The Register in the UK and other media outlets have shown that the "encyclopedia anyone can edit" is, in fact, tightly regulated by a close network of hyperconnected peers, the "Wikipedians."

This premise is borne out by the unpleasant fact that article submissions to Wikipedia are being rejected at an ever-increasing rate. Wikipedia’s growth has slowed, and may someday grind to a halt, not because it has somehow encompassed the totality of human knowledge, but because it is the front line of a new kind of warfare, a battle both semantic and civilizational. In this battle, we can see the tracings of hyperpolitics, the politics of era of hyperconnectivity.

The entire human social sphere faces the increasing pressures of hyperconnectivity, which arrive hand-in-hand with an increasing empowerment (‘hyperempowerment’) by means of hypermimesis. All of our mass social institutions, developed at the start of the Liberal era, are backed up against the same buzz saw.

Politics, as the most encompassing of our mass institutions, now balances on a knife edge between a past which no longer works and a future of chaos.

For the first time, we have a political campaign embracing hyperconnectivity. As is always the case with political campaigns, it is a means to an end. The Obama campaign has built a nationwide social network (using lovely, old-fashioned, human techniques), then activated it to compete in the primaries, dominate in the caucuses, and secure the Democratic nomination. That network is being activated again to win the general election.

The power redistributions of the 21st century have dealt representative democracies out. Representative democracies are a poor fit to the challenges ahead, and ‘rebooting’ them is not enough. The future looks nothing like democracy, because democracy, which sought to empower the individual, is being obsolesced by a social order which hyperempowers him.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously pronounced that we should "Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world." Mead spoke truthfully, and prophetically. We are all committed, we are all passionate. We merely lacked the lever to effectively translate the force of our commitment and passion into power. That lever has arrived, in my hand and yours.

Huge Uranium Deposit in Chatham, VA, Creates Controversy

I grew up in Martinsville, 30 miles west of Chatham. In that area, the local economy has been devastated by the loss of factory jobs to Asia. Energy independence in the U.S. is a top priority. Uranium mining is very "dirty", especially to the ground water.

This could be a heated battle involving some powerful players bringing national attention to a small town in rural Virginia. For example, in a July 26, 2008 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Max Schulz (senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute) concluded with the following:

If the U.S. is to expand nuclear power’s role in a time of energy insecurity and climate change worries, we will have to confront the hysterical antinuclear pronouncements that have been the currency of environmentalists for nearly 30 years. The Old Dominion could be a good place for a new start.

Below are some excepts from an article in the Washington Post by Anita Kumar.

Link: Uranium Lode in Va. Is Feared, Coveted – washingtonpost.com.

CHATHAM, Va. — Underneath a plot of farmland used to raise cattle, hay and timber in south central Virginia lies what is thought to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States.

Now, three decades after the deposit was found, landowner Walter Coles has set his sights on mining the 200-acre site despite concerns of environmental groups and residents about unearthed radioactive material that could contaminate the area’s land, air and source of drinking water.

As the United States searches for alternative energy sources, Virginia has a geological discovery in its back yard that could drastically change the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. The estimated 110 million pounds of uranium in Pittsylvania County, worth almost $10 billion, could supply all of the country’s nuclear power plants for about two years.

There’s a hurdle to clear before an ounce of the element can be mined: It’s illegal to dig for the stuff in Virginia. But the General Assembly is considering changing that.

Coles, 69, who recently retired from the federal government and moved from the Washington area back to the family farm, said mining companies have been offering to buy his land. Instead of taking the money, he decided to stay. He said he wanted to make sure that the mining was done safely and that it would benefit the community through jobs, taxes and economic development.

"There’s too much uranium here. Somebody’s going to mine it," Coles said. "I felt like while I was alive, it was my duty to make sure it was done right."

This month, Coles’s company, Virginia Uranium, will try to persuade the General Assembly to take the first step — approving a $1 million study that will explore whether uranium can be safely mined in Virginia. If the study shows that it can be done, the company will ask the legislature to lift a state ban on uranium mining.

The issue is dividing lawmakers, who will begin their 60-day session Jan. 9, but company officials have reasons to be optimistic.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) supports a study, and a state energy report released this fall recommends one. Coles’s brother-in-law, Whitt Clement, who served as a legislator and as state transportation secretary, is heading what is expected to be a strong lobbying effort. Henry Hurt, an investor and a childhood friend of Coles’s, has a son Robert, a Pittsylvania delegate who won a state Senate seat in November.

Virginia banned uranium mining in 1982, but Coles’s company recently got a state permit to drill 40 holes to examine the material.

A growing coalition of environmental groups and concerned residents, some of the same residents who helped institute the ban 30 years ago, have started spreading the word about their opposition and are planning to travel to Richmond to fight Coles. 

Uranium has never been mined in Virginia or on the East Coast, confined instead in the United States to drier, less populated areas such as Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Uranium mining is more common in Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Support for a Study

Two uranium deposits, which begin at the ground’s surface and run about 800 feet deep, were found in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a town of 1,300 residents where old Victorian houses line the streets. Tobacco was once a booming business on nearby farms but has given way to soybeans, hay and cattle.

Virginia Uranium wants to mine and mill uranium that would eventually be sold to companies for use at nuclear power plants.

The company was formed about a year ago by the Coles and Bowen families, which own adjoining property. Norman Reynolds, a former Marline president, was hired as chief executive.

Safety Concerns

Environmental groups, including the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, say uranium should not be mined in Virginia’s highly populated areas and relatively rainy climate. They say they are worried that radioactive materials could contaminate natural resources, cause cancer or other illnesses and have long-term effects on plants and animals. The Coles Hill area supplies drinking water locally and to parts of Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

No matter how the uranium might be mined, it would need to be processed at a local milling facility. The result, a sandy substance called "yellow cake" uranium, would be packed into 55-gallon drums for shipping. Company officials say the processed uranium is not hazardous. It doesn’t become dangerous until it undergoes a later process that would be done elsewhere.

Coles, whose family has lived in a historic brick house on the property for two centuries, said he and his family have never had health problems, although tests show the area has higher than normal levels of radioactivity.

He said he plans to continue living at Coles Hill regardless of whether the uranium is mined.

The U.S. Economy

Astute observer Barry Ritholtz rants about our country’s economy. Do we laugh or cry?

Link: The Big Picture | Idiots Fiddle While Rome Burns.

The collection of ne’er do wells, clueless dolts, political hacks, and oh, let’s just be blunt and call them what they are — total Idiots — expands into an ever larger circle.

While the Republic burns due to the unsavory combination of incompetence, ideological rigidity, and crony capitalism, the fools and assclowns seem ever more determined to avoid any personal responsibility for the damages they have wrought. Instead, they flail about blindly, blaming everything and everyone — except their own horrific negligence.

This is financial incompetence writ on a scale far grander than anything seen for centuries.

As a nation, our institutions have failed us: Under Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve slept through the most reckless and irresponsible expansion of bank lending in history for reasons of ideological purity. His opposition to the Fed’s regulatory role reached the point of malfeasance long ago.  History is unlikely to be kind to the Maestro.

There is a choice to be made: Either we regulate the Banks, or leave it to the vagaries of the free markets to punish those who trade with, or place their assets in the wrong institutions. But for God’s sake, do not give us the worst of both worlds — do not allow banks the freedom to make horrific but preventable mistakes (i.e., only lending money to those who can pay it back), but then expect the taxpayers to foot the trillion dollar bill.

That’s not capitalism, its not socialism, its not regulation, and its sure as hell isn’t what free markets are. Our language is insufficient to describe this hodge-podge system, other than to call it a random patchwork of quasi-capitalism, quadrennial-socialism, and politics as usual. Ideological idiocy is the only phrase I can muster that has any resonance with the daily insanity.

We have entered into a fit of Orwellian madness: The American Capitalists, long the globe’s leading advocates for free markets, have become near Socialists. Halfway around the world, the Chinese Communists have picked up the baton, and are moving rapidly towards a form of Capitalism. Ironically, it is the once largest communist nations — the Chinese and the Russians — who holds much of Fannie and Freddie’s paper.

Massively over-leveraged companies? Blame short sellers.

Wildly under-capitalized financial firms? Blame rumors.

Heinously poor corporate management? Blame a Senator.

U.S. Energy Policy: Stay Addicted

Thomas L. Friedman describes missed opportunities for leadership on energy policy.

Link: Op-Ed Columnist – 9/11 and 4/11 – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com.

President Bush is well on his way to being remembered as the leader who wasted not one but two crises: 9/11 and 4/11. The average price of gasoline in the U.S. last week, according to the Energy Information Administration, was $4.11.

After 9/11, Mr. Bush had the chance to summon the country to a great nation-building project focused on breaking our addiction to oil. Instead, he told us to go shopping. After gasoline prices hit $4.11 last week, he had the chance to summon the country to a great nation-building project focused on clean energy. Instead, he told us to go drilling.

Neither shopping nor drilling is the solution to our problems.

What doesn’t the Bush crowd get? It’s this: We don’t have a “gasoline price problem.” We have an addiction problem. We are addicted to dirty fossil fuels, and this addiction is driving a whole set of toxic trends that are harming our nation and world in many different ways. It is intensifying global warming, creating runaway global demand for oil and gas, weakening our currency by shifting huge amounts of dollars abroad to pay for oil imports, widening “energy poverty” across Africa, destroying plants and animals at record rates and fostering ever-stronger petro-dictatorships in Iran, Russia and Venezuela.

When a person is addicted to crack cocaine, his problem is not that the price of crack is going up. His problem is what that crack addiction is doing to his whole body. The cure is not cheaper crack, which would only perpetuate the addiction and all the problems it is creating. The cure is to break the addiction.

Ditto for us. Our cure is not cheaper gasoline, but a clean energy system. And the key to building that is to keep the price of gasoline and coal — our crack — higher, not lower, so consumers are moved to break their addiction to these dirty fuels and inventors are moved to create clean alternatives.

This moment — $4.11 — represents Bush’s last chance for a legacy. It amazes me how inadequate his response has been. By hectoring the nation to simply drill for more oil, he has profoundly underestimated the challenges we face, misread the scale of the solutions required, underappreciated the American people’s willingness to sacrifice if presented with a real plan, and ignored the greatness that would accrue to our country if we led the world in clean power.

Is BPA Toxic?

Marc Gunther at GreenBiz.com describes the battle over removing BPA from plastics. It is widespread — about 9 of 10 Americans have the chemical in their urine.

Link: How Wal-Mart Became the New FDA – Column | GreenBiz.com.

Wal-Mart …, along with CVS and Toys ‘R Us, says it will stop selling baby bottles containing a controversial chemical called bisphenol-A. The California state Senate has voted to prohibit the use of BPA in children’s products. Nalgene, which makes water jugs, is phasing out BPA, too. And powerful Congressmen want BPA removed from cans of infant formula.

The question is, why? The FDA says bisphenol-A is perfectly safe. So do Japanese and European regulators, who tend to be more cautious. Even the government of Canada, which plans to ban the chemical from baby bottles, recently assured its citizens that this was done “as a precautionary measure.”

BPA, you should know, is everywhere. The chemical is used to make polycarbonate, a rigid, clear plastic used in bottles, bike helmets, CDs, DVDs and automobile headlights. It’s also used to make epoxy resins, which are used as coatings in food and drink cans as well as dental sealants. You’re probably carrying around some BPA right now: About 93% of Americans tested by the Centers for Disease Control had the chemical in their urine. About 6 billion pounds of chemical were made last year.

The trouble is, numerous studies of laboratory animals have linked small doses of BPA to breast cancers, prostate cancer, brain abnormalities and reproductive health problems. Other scientists argue that the chemical, which has been widely used since the 1950s, is perfectly safe. The fact is, there’s a good deal of scientific uncertainty about bisphenol-A. That’s not surprising, because we rely on animal studies to predict the effects of chemicals on humans, and extrapolating from mice to you and me isn’t easy.

But this story isn’t fundamentally about science. It’s about the politics of BPA. More broadly, it’s about how we, as a society, make decisions about health and safety, at a time when we no longer trust the government or industry to protect us. Because we’ve lost faith in those big institutions, battles over a slew of products and processes—genetically modified foods, the irradiation of meat, or phthalates in cosmetics or children’s toys—are being fought in the court of public opinion, for better or worse.

In the case of BPA, the market for hard-plastic baby and sport bottles collapsed suddenly this spring because of a hard-hitting campaign against the chemical by activist groups, concerned scientists, politicians, and trial lawyers. They spread fears about BPA that eventually convinced nervous retailers to turn away from children’s products containing the chemical. As an expert in crisis PR noted, wryly, “Wal-Mart is the new FDA.”

For companies that make chemicals or use them in consumer products, this is a real worry. It’s a whole lot easier to frighten people than it is to reassure them, especially when talking about kids. “The science can’t compete with the emotion,” says Steve Hentges, a chemist and a lobbyist with the American Chemistry Council, an industry group that lately has been on the losing end of the BPA battles.

If the most determined opponents of BPA get their way and drive the chemical out of the food supply, consumers will pay the costs. Some BPA-free plastic bottles sell for $10 each, more than twice the price of bottles with BPA. Baby bottles made of glass can break, potentially causing injury. Replacing BPA in the lining of aluminum cans would mean retooling all that packaging, and it’s not clear that there are safe alternatives.

Those costs are worth paying to protect our health, environmentalist say. They argue that if government regulators can’t or won’t do the job of regulating potentially toxic chemicals, then it makes perfect sense for advocacy groups, politicians, an aggressive media and even Wal-Mart to step in.

“The federal regulatory system for chemicals is broken,” declares Richard Liroff, the executive director of the Investor Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit that works with companies on issues of toxics. “We have largely incapacitated the government to make the kinds of decisions that we ought to be able to look to government to make. So there’s a lot to be said for having big companies slice through the knot and say we have to make decisions for our good, for our customers’ good and for the good of society.”

If nothing else, the BPA battles underscores how rapidly markets can by reshaped by activist campaigns and consumer sentiments, both magnified by the Internet. A handful of companies emerged as winners this spring: Whole Foods Market, which pulled BPA baby bottles and cups off its shelves several years ago; Eastman Chemical, which introduced a plastic alternative called Triton last year; and Born Free, a private company started in 2006 specifically to provide BPA-free baby bottles. Others, including SABIC Innovative Plastics, which was formerly the plastics division of GE and is now the U.S.’s biggest manufacturer of BPA, presumably saw sales decline. (SABIC declined to comment on the financial impact.) Baby-bottle makers including Avent America, Evenflo and Gerber Products are now being sued because they sold products made with BPA.

This spring’s BPA battles were fought like a political campaign, complete with catchy soundbites, press releases, personal attacks, and warring websites. One prominent and controversial crusader is Dr. Frederick vom Saal, who has been researching BPA for more than a decade. Vom Saal has testified before state legislatures and appeared on such TV programs as PBS’s Frontline and ABC’s 20/20 to denounce BPA in terms that gloss over scientific uncertainty. Referring to the fact that BPA is a mild estrogen, he says things like “the idea that you’re using sex hormones to make plastic is just totally insane.”

True Hero: Irena Sendler

During WWII, Irena got permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto, as a sanitary inspector. Irena smuggled infants out in the bottom of her tool box she carried, and she carried in the back of her truck a Burlap sack (for larger kids). She also had a dog in the back, which she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in, and out of the ghetto. The soldiers of course wanted nothing to do with the dog, and the barking covered the kids/infants noises.

During her time and course of doing this, she managed to smuggle out and save 2500 kids/infants. She was caught, and the Nazi’s broke both her legs, and arms, and beat her severely.

Irena kept a record of the names of all the kids she smuggled out, and kept them in a glass jar, buried under a tree in her back yard. After the war, she tried to locate any parents that may have survived it, and reunited the family. Most of course had been gassed. Those kids she helped got placed into foster family homes, or adopted.

via Scott Williams