Archive for May, 2008

ExxonMobil, the Supreme Court and what’s really at stake for American justice in an era of disaster

Monday, May 19th, 2008

The following is an essay from Dr. Riki Ott, author of our forthcoming book, Not One Drop: Promises, Betrayal, and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to hear ExxonMobil’s reasons to void the $2.5 billion punitive award in the Exxon Valdez case hit the town of Cordova, Alaska, hard. This small coastal fishing community—my hometown—along with the Alaska Native villages in Prince William Sound have borne the brunt of the largest crude oil spill in America’s waters; a spill that took place more than 18 years ago, but one that continues to hold the region hostage.

The second painful blow was the high court’s decision to not even hear our reasons why the award should be restored to the full $5 billion that a jury of peers decided was necessary to punish the corporate giant back in 1994.

While media pundits, lawyers, and scholars play the Supreme Court’s decisions back and forth like a ping-pong ball, people in Cordova share a completely different perspective of this story. It’s not about whether the Supreme Court should hear the case. To us, it’s about justice and reparation—making us whole, a promise Exxon made to the community five days after the spill. A promise that Exxon broke before the trial even started five years after the spill.

To us, it’s about more than an oil spill, the world’s largest oil corporation, and a small fishing community in Alaska. It’s about America’s failed legal system that inherently cannot dispense justice in the face of corporate globalization.

U.S. corporations have outgrown America’s justice system. The system won’t work for any community in America that is traumatized by disaster that triggers class action lawsuits—hurricanes like Katrina, terrorist acts like 9/11, or oil spills like the Exxon Valdez. Yet sociologists warn such disasters will be a hallmark of the 21st century.

People in Cordova wonder how this happened and why our legal system no longer metes out justice. When did “punitive” stop meaning to punish? If the original punitive award of $5 billion was sufficient to change corporate behavior why was Exxon the last corporation to double hull its oil tankers to reduce risk of future spills rather than the first?

Why shouldn’t Exxon be expected to pay to clean up its mess, pay penalties for breaking laws, compensate victims for losses, and pay punitive damages? This is what responsible corporations do—and it’s certainly what Americans expect.

The spilled oil—somewhere between 11 to 38 million gallons (the figure is elusive because as we learned the hard way, the truth was one of the first casualties of the spill)—created a big mess and broke a lot of federal laws. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Exxon paid $2.5 billion for its cleanup and another $1 billion for penalties. But, it might surprise people who live outside Alaska to learn that taxpayers, not Exxon, paid a majority of that bill. Exxon recouped most of its remaining expense from its insurance companies and from money it paid to settle damages for natural resources—publicly-owned wildlife and lands.

Further, Exxon rewarded its primary cleanup contractor, formerly VECO, with a cost-plus contract that acted like steroids, bulking up this small-time oilfield service contractor into one of the biggest-spending, pro-oil lobbyists in the state—until its fall from grace this year under charges of federal bribery, conspiracy, and more. You may have heard of the ongoing FBI investigation that is sweeping Alaska’s politicians—from state legislators to congressional delegates—into its widening net.

While that’s another story, it serves to illustrate what our justice system deems “good corporate behavior” worthy of consideration to reduce its punitive award.

We ask all of you who share in the cost of this cleanup and the devastation of this spill: How could Exxon fool seemingly everyone into believing that the Sound is now clean, wildlife recovered, and fishing back to “normal”?

How could they fool everyone? Because the reality goes against the “good corporate behavior” meme Exxon has pushed for now nearly two decades in the courts, in the media, and in Congress.

This is our world, our reality: Three of Cordova’s five fish processors (canneries) went bankrupt after the spill. The largest one never recovered, leaving the town with not enough capacity to buy and process large salmon returns like this year. Further, the town lost it’s only locally owned and operated processor cooperative, leaving fishermen with fewer resources to leverage high grounds prices for their catch. The town tumbled from its ranking as one of the top ten seaports in the nation, based on harvest value, to 53rd after the delayed, spill-related pink salmon and herring population collapses in 1992 and 1993.

The salmon recovered; the herring did not. The herring fisheries are closed indefinitely. Fishermen who held $300,000 commercial fishing permits for salmon and/or herring fisheries at the time of the spill now own pieces of paper worth around 10 percent their former value—that is, the fishers who did not go bankrupt, lose their permit in foreclosures, take a loss and sell out, die, or commit suicide. Fishermen who buy into the fisheries now pay less for the privilege and expect less in return, while the spill survivors deal with ever mounting debt on permits that the fisheries no longer supports—and in many cases that exceeds their individual share of the punitive award at the full $5 billion.

This is our world, our “normal.”

I am a Survivor of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I owned and fished a salmon drift permit in Prince William Sound until I sold out after the fish run collapses in the early 1990s. I have a stake in the Exxon Valdez litigation. But so, in a sense, does every American. Here’s why.

No other country in the world has a legal system that is as adversarial, costly, formal and complex as the United States system. At its core the American legal process is an adversarial system that pits disputing parties against each other before an impartial judge. Justice is “a zero-sum game,” meted out through punishment of the guilty to make the injured whole.

If the Exxon Valdez case is a harbinger of litigation to come, it does not bode well for people, civic society, or the environment. In this case, simply put, a giant corporation used its wealth to aggressively drive up legal expenses and to reduce, delay, and eliminate payment of awards to spill victims for more than 18 years—and counting. By so doing, the giant corporation denied justice to thousands of people. In this case, the corporation is Exxon Mobil, but other giant corporations that do battle on class action turf wield similar weapons.

The forces of aggression released and sanctioned by the American judicial system are horrific—no one leaves the field unscathed. Psychiatrist Larry Strasburger noted, “Although it may be that we have exchanged swords and cudgels for subpoenas and depositions, an aura of combat continues to hover about the judicial process, and combat produces casualties.”

Psychologists found that adversarial litigation emotionally “arrests” disaster-scarred survivors, forcing them to keep the disaster trauma alive and present. This blocks the normal progression of recovery phases from a stress response and holds disaster-litigants hostage until case closure.

Further, litigation generates new trauma, so-called “Litigation Response Syndrome,” with symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and General Anxiety Disorder. For disaster-litigants, this amounts to a double helping of stress. It scars even “successful” litigants—those who eventually prevail.

Sociologists Drs. Steve Picou and Duane Gill have studied the evolution of disaster trauma in Cordova since the spill. They report a third of the fisher-claimants in Cordova suffer from clinical depression, nearly 40 percent from PTSD, and 60 percent hold off-season jobs to make ends meet. This is now—18-plus years after the spill. Further, they found the stress level attributable to litigation in fisher and Alaska Native claimants is nearly as high as the initial level from the spill.

If American class action lawyers were medical doctors, they would be disbarred for violating the Hippocratic oath: “Do no more harm.”

The American justice system is predicated on several underlying assumptions, most of which are not valid in adversarial litigation, as we in Cordova discovered.

Equal treatment under the law? Not possible when those with money use it to influence the laws and public perception, or manipulate courts of law to make punishment moot.

Impartial judges? Not possible when judges are human and often former corporate lawyers.

Decisions based on whole truth and facts? Not even close: Jurors receive only selective information from judges or court masters as gatekeepers, and facts are grossly distorted through corporate-sponsored “science.”

Further, when cases extend into decades, unanticipated long-term injury to people and ecosystems often becomes evident along with science linking harm to the original disaster, as was the case with the Exxon Valdez spill. The mechanism to understand the delayed fish collapses in Prince William Sound was not proven until six years after the collapse—well after the trial was over. Fishers and Alaska Natives were never compensated for this unanticipated, long-term harm.

Another gross oversight of the American judicial system is that it fails to respond to a very basic human dimension of litigation: process. It turns out the process of dispute resolution is a key determinant in “making people whole.”

Studies show that the thing parties want most is a process that allows them to participate, seeks to merit their trust, and treats them with dignity and respect. It should not surprise any person that victims who are humans, too, care a great deal about how they are treated beyond the amount of money they may pay or receive and that accountability is important. Yet in class action litigation, individual litigants often feel violated by the very process they are given to make them whole.

Just as the aftermath of war is not simply peace, so too, the aftermath of a disaster, especially one with toxic exposures, is not simply money. But money is all that the adversarial system can deliver to some—at the expense of justice for all who were injured.

As we learned in Cordova, it is flat impossible to expect the American punitive justice system to “make anyone whole.” Perhaps it is time for Americans to question whether the adversarial litigation system is really the best way to ascertain truth, insure fairness, and dispense justice.

If the goal of our justice system is to make people whole, then the process should focus on restoring harmony to injured parties and communities with retribution for harm agreed upon through a non-adversarial mediated process. In other words, we need a restorative justice system rather than a punitive one.

And, we in Cordova offer some suggestions for rebuilding our American justice system.

First, post-disaster disputes could be minimized during preliminary planning and scoping of projects by negotiated, legally-binding agreements—now that we are better informed of the ecological and human costs of disaster.

Second, financial incentives and rules could be created to encourage dispute resolution through non-adversarial negotiated settlements. Such techniques have proven successful even for disasters involving toxic exposure.

Third, incentives could be created to shorten litigation timelines by eliminating mechanisms that reward profits through stalling.

Fourth, if punitive damages are to be effectively applied, then they must be linked with corporate profits rather than compensatory damages and they should be shared not only among victims, but also among the injured communities to rebuild areas devastated by disaster.

In Cordova, we hope that it is just a matter of time before these suggestions or other similar ones are demanded by professionals, activists, and victims fed up with the American “injustice system.”

We know that change will have to come from each of us, as there is little hope that the Supreme Court, or any other branch of the current judicial system, will take it upon itself to keep from doing more harm to those it was designed to protect.

Riki Ott, PhD, is a community activist, a former fisherm’am, and has a degree in marine toxicology with a specialty in oil pollution. She is also the author of Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

Locavore: The origin of the word (of the year)

Monday, May 19th, 2008

The Oxford University Press named “locavore”— coined by Chelsea Green author Jessica Prentice (Full Moon Feast) —as its “Word of the Year” for 2007.

Jessica wrote up the following essay on the word’s origin for the Oxford University Press blog, and sent us a copy as well. You can read the blog post here, or just check out the OUP blog, which we think is very cool.

There’s only one word for it: giddy. That’s how I’ve been feeling since reading the first email informing me that “locavore” was voted 2007’s “Word of the Year” by Oxford University Press. It’s the same feeling you have when you’re twelve years old and the guy you have a crush on gives you a valentine, and doesn’t give one to anyone else. You blush, you jump up and down in your seat, and you send excited text messages to the people you know will understand.

And how exciting to be asked to blog about it and be able to tell the story from my point of view! From the very beginning, the word “locavore” had legs. It’s actually been a fascinating phenomenon to watch: to see something that never existed before take on meaning and gather momentum. It’s also a phenomenon that would have been impossible before the internet. So, how did the word “locavore” come about?

I was one of the many thousands of people nationwide who had become attracted to local foods. At the farmers market, I discovered a relationship to my food that I had been longing for and missing for my entire urbanized existence… Here I bought vegetables and fruit that had been harvested that morning from a field just an hour or two away from where I lived. I got to know the farmers who had grown the food, and got to put my dollar directly into their hands. I bought cheeses made from the milk of cows that I could watch grazing from my car window if I wanted to. I bought eggs from chickens that pecked around for worms amidst grasses the way they’d been doing for thousands of years before factory farming. I bought meat from cattle that had never even seen a feedlot. I bought loaves of bread (sometimes still warm!) from a baker who had loaded the oven that morning.

I was completely hooked, and for years I went out of my way to do my food shopping at the farmers market. My understanding of the ecological and social issues was a process that happened simultaneously. The more I learned about our globalized food system, the more lacking in common sense it seemed. Not only are most people missing out on the age-old pleasures of eating real, fresh foods grown and prepared in the context of community, but as a species we are burning fossil fuels at rapidly increasing rates, and releasing ever more carbon gases into the atmosphere. Factory farms exploit workers and the earth, abuse animals, and contribute to a society in which factory-processed foods have become staples—creating a population that is simultaneously overfed and undernourished. The more I learned, the more committed I became to the idea that strong local food systems are essential for environmental sustainability, food security, social equity, and the economic vitality of thriving communities.

While working as the Director of Education at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, I met Sage Van Wing. Sage was another of the many people who had gotten turned on to local foods, and our acquaintance was built on our shared passion for local and sustainable food systems. In April of 2005, having left the farmers market to focus on writing my book (Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection), I was on a writing residency in West Marin, and would occasionally walk into the nearby town of Point Reyes to pick up food, do a bit of research, or just take a break. Sage worked at the town’s beloved local bookstore, and I would sometimes browse their titles and chat with her.

It was during one of these chats that Sage told me she had an idea she wanted to run by me… She had just finished reading Gary Paul Nabhan’s book Coming Home to Eat, about his experiment with spending a year eating only foods grown or harvested within a 250-mile radius of where he lives near Phoenix, Arizona. Deeply inspired, Sage thought: wouldn’t it be cool to challenge people in the Bay Area to eat locally for even just a month? It would be an experiment to see what we could and couldn’t find within a certain radius of our homes. The idea struck me immediately as one whose time had come. It was too exciting to pass up and I told her I was in. She wrote a press release and solicited a couple of other friends to get involved. I already had an active website for my work around food, and asked my web designer to create a webpage for our challenge. Sage was calling it “Foodshed for Thought”.

One of the other women on board was local chef Dede Sampson, who had done some work connected to the San Francisco Chronicle food section. Our press release made its way to the desk of one of the food section’s lead writers, Olivia Wu. The Chronicle was doing a whole series of articles focusing on various environmental issues, and our challenge made a perfect focal point for a food section article. Olivia decided to use me as her example of the challenge in action, and brought a photographer along to follow me shopping at the farmers market and then cooking a meal for the three of us in my home kitchen, based entirely on ingredients grown within a hundred-mile radius. Luckily, she liked the meal!

As she was working on the article, however, Olivia felt strongly that our group needed a moniker. Most projects like this come out of a group of people already associated with some entity, such as a business or a non-profit organization—but we were just a group of women who had gotten excited by an idea and were willing to put some time and energy into creating the challenge. As her deadline approached, Olivia gave me a call and insisted that we come up with a name for ourselves. She was apprehensive about using the phrase “Foodshed for Thought”; she wanted something a bit catchier, and something that referenced us and not just the challenge. “Okay,” I told her, “when do you need it by?”

“Five p.m. today,” was her answer!

That gave us only a few hours to come up with something. I called Sage, but couldn’t reach her, so I left her a message saying that I was working on it. I didn’t know where to start, so I wrote down:

* “Local Eaters”

Then, beneath it:

* “Some Women Who Eat Locally”

Clearly, this wasn’t going to be easy…

I have always loved words. The Greek, the Latin, the Germanic, and the Anglo-Saxon influences on modern-day English are both romantic and fascinating to me. So an obvious step was to browse etymology websites in search of roots and affixes drawn from either Latin or Greek that might convey the idea of “local eaters” with a bit of elegance or style. The Greek word for “to eat” is phagein—the root of the word “esophagus”—which I didn’t think would make a very pretty word! The Latin root of local is locus, and the Latin root most associated with eating is vorare, both of which seemed to fit aesthetically as well as semantically. It wasn’t long before I found myself debating the pros and cons of “locavore” and “localvore”—and intuitively preferred the former.

These were my reasons:

1. Flow: the word flows better without the “lv” in the middle. It’s easier to say.

2. Nuance: in my opinion, “localvore” says too much. There is little mystery to it, nothing to discover. It says that this is all about eating locally, end of story. But the word “local” is rooted in locus, meaning “place”, which has a deeper resonance… This movement is about eating not only from your place, but with a sense of place—something we don’t have an English word for. There is a French word, terroir, which implies the sense of place that you get from eating a particular food or drinking a particular wine. Unfortunately, it looks a lot like “terror”, something Americans are touchy about at the moment. I do know one wonderful local farm here in the Bay Area that has made an English play on the French word by using the term “tairwa”, but it hasn’t really caught on.

3. Credibility: “locavore” could almost be a “real” word, combining roots derived from two Latin words: locus, “place”, with vorare, “to swallow”. I like the literal meaning of “locavore”, then: “one who swallows (or devours!) the place”!

4. Levity: because of the Spanish word “loca” embedded in “locavore”, there is a little tongue-in-cheek, playful quality to it. I enjoy both the potential for teasing embedded in “locavore” and the potential for serious discussion—which is crazier, people who try to eat locally, or our current destructive globalized food system?

5. Operatic potential: read the word as if it were Italian, and it rhymes with “that’s amore”!

My father has since pointed out one other advantage locavore has over localvore: the latter could be misread as “lo-cal vore”! It would be really terrible to be misconstrued as promoting a weight-loss diet—especially for someone who loves rich food as much as I do. Plus, it cuts a bit too close to home… With the loss of small-scale integrated farms, it is indeed challenging in many parts of the country to find enough locally grown calories to feed the local population throughout the year.

That evening I was able to reach Sage by phone and run the word by her, and she approved. I left messages with the other women in our group and then sent the word on to Olivia Wu, with the qualification “the best that we can come up with…” She emailed me right back with just two words: “love it!”

Within a week her article was published, and within a few days of that you could google “locavore” and find over a dozen entries. The movement was already alive and kicking, and happy to have a word it could work with. Eat-local challenges began springing up around the country. Once Barbara Kingsolver used it in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle it was just a done deal.

So I’m still giddy. It doesn’t bother me at all that some locavores call themselves localvores—what higher honor for someone encouraging people to eat with a sense of their place than to have local and regional variations on your word?! And just to put icing on the cake, someone has turned my picture into a lolcat-style “lolcavore”. I have to admit I’d never even heard of lolcats before, but now I am just so proud… so very very proud.

And just for the record… I am hardly a purist or a perfectionist. (I was also proud when the New York Times called me a “pragmatic” voice in the movement.) Personally, I don’t use the word as a whip to make myself or anyone else feel guilty for drinking coffee, cooking with coconut milk, or indulging in a piece of chocolate. There are things it makes sense to import because we can’t grow them here, and they’re either good for us or really delicious or both. But it doesn’t make sense to watch local apple orchards go out of business while our stores are filled with imported mealy apples. And if you spend a few weeks each year without the pleasures of imported delicacies, you really do learn a whole lot about your foodshed, about your place, about what you’re swallowing on a daily basis.

Thanksgiving is upon us—what better opportunity to “swallow the place” instead of just swallowing a factory-farmed turkey? Why not gather with loved ones and give thanks for the gifts of your little location on our planet? Once upon a time, all human beings were locavores, and everything we ate was a gift of the Earth. To have something to devour is a blessing—let’s not forget it.

Globalization Meets Global Warming

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

The following is an article from Les Leopold. Les is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi.

As global warming negotiations move from Bali towards a worldwide treaty, it is important to address how global warming and global trade work hand-in-hand.

Globalization is to global warming what warm water in the Gulf of Mexico waters was to Hurricane Katrina. And, unless we wisely limit rapidly accelerating global trade, we will see equally disastrous and deadly results—worsening global warming and a continued chemical poisoning of our world.

For nearly a generation, the mainstream pro-globalization forces have ignored climate change. Instead we’ve been bombarded with the virtues of liberalized trade: It drives down prices, increases efficiency, lifts nations out of poverty, and contributes to overall global prosperity. Those who questioned NAFTA, CAFTA, GATT, and the like are derided as “protectionists,” who force artificially high prices on the rest of us while making our economy less competitive. Manufacturing unions attempting to stop the destruction of millions of middle-income, U.S.-based factory jobs are vilified as elitists who are more concerned about the privileged few than about the poor who gain new jobs in developing nations.

The subtext of the messaging is clear: globalization is our fate, and there are no effective controls. Only a foolish Luddite would stand in its way, we are told.

Missing from this narrative, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, has pointed out, is that globalization is a policy, not an act of God. He is right. Human policy-making shapes expanding world trade. And the policy of trade liberalization, among other things, is warming the planet.

Global free trade proponents skillfully argue for comparative advantage, opening up markets, and economies of scale. They point to the communications marvels that have flattened and shrunken the world, putting us all in contact and in competition with each other for the best ideas and products. Global warming, however, puts a kink in this new global utopia because it demands that we also include the costs of “externalities”—the carbon dioxide emitted from shipping and flying goods all over the globe—goods that could easily be produced much closer to the point of consumption. It may be marvelous to text message your colleague in Bangalore, but from a CO2 perspective, it’s folly to fly fresh raspberries from Chile to California. And under current trade policies, we will import the next wave of high-efficiency light bulbs to save energy while wasting some of the gain on the carbon used to transport them here from around the globe.

But the elephant in the room is hyper-development. Expanded trade indeed has contributed to the enormous economic growth rates in China (and India). As a result, China’s appetite for fuel and power has grown exponentially: As The New York Times reported (June 11, 2006), every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant comes online in China large enough to serve a major U.S. city. Pollyannaish analysts argue this too will pass when global carbon cap and trading schemas are put in place, and a price, in effect, is placed on carbon emissions. This, we are told, will lead to a burst of new technologies and efficiencies that dramatically reduce global warming gases. Perhaps. But it seems this should have been thought through as part of trade liberalization, rather than left to the indefinite future. As a result, we are trapped in a race against the accelerating forces of rapid, carbon-fueled development unleashed by our very own trade policies.

And, it’s apparent who the winners are in this race as onto our store shelves and into our homes come toxic toys, toxic pharmaceuticals, toxic toothpaste, and toxic dog food—very predictable products of accelerated global trade. It is ironic to hear pundits and politicians rage against the poor regulatory and inspection protocols in “Communist” China—the virtual hub of global capitalist production. In fact, first world multinationals, the loudest cheerleaders for unfettered free trade, are commissioning these products and shipping them here. And as many early 20th century muckrakers would have warned, these corporations require stringent regulation. They need to be “guided” away from the age-old temptation to cut corners, or turn a blind eye when sub-contractors use forced labor or contaminated substances. Common sense would have called for those regulations to be in place before giving the green light to the transfer of production to wherever labor was least expensive and safeguards most porous.

Already, the European Union is working to get these toxic substances out of consumer products, but the United States stands increasingly alone against such standards. And, we wonder why our kids are getting sick from playthings. [Ed. Note: See Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power, by Mark Schapiro]

Unfettered global trade will make efforts to reverse global warming and deliver safe products to our country all the more difficult. We must start with a renunciation of our fatalism and put a halt to the name calling. In fact, we should thank the labor and environmental critics of accelerated trade for alerting us to these dangers.

Next we should insist that every trade agreement should include global warming impact studies that assess the carbon footprints of accelerated trade.

And, as many have argued, rigorous safety inspections on food, pharmaceuticals, and other consumer items must be put in place before products cross our borders.

And yes, we also will need carefully constructed border adjustment taxes so that new green, carbon-reducing industries can be nourished at home. Those high efficiency light bulbs, wind generators and solar panels should not be imported from factories tied to inefficient energy sources sent from afar on ships and planes burning fossil fuels. The next wave of green products should instead be manufactured closer to where they will be used, creating homegrown, green jobs while helping to reduce global warming.

Or we can continue waiting for the invisible hand to determine our fate—a fate that will ensure global warming to go unchecked and unabated, and more children sucking toxic toys.

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).

Marijuana, Cocaine, Psychiatric Drugs, and Hypocrisy

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

The following is an article by Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D. Bruce is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy.

While Americans are inundated with coverage of the Democrats’ quibbling over Barack Obama’s use of marijuana and cocaine as a teenager, a truly important drug story continues to be neglected: The hypocrisy of Big Pharma, psychiatry officialdom, and justice institutions regarding mood-altering (psychotropic) drugs—specifically the denial of the similarity between illegal and psychiatric drugs.

Author and science writer Michael Pollan observed the following about Americans’ illegal-psychiatric drug hypocrisy: “Historians of the future will wonder how a people possessed of such a deep faith in the power of drugs also found themselves fighting a war against certain other drugs with not-dissimilar powers. . . . We hate drugs. We love drugs. Or could it be that we hate the fact that we love drugs?”

When we recognize that psychotropic prescription drugs are chemically similar to illegal psychotropic drugs, and that all of these substances are used for similar purposes, we see two injustices. First, we see the classification of millions of Americans as criminals for using certain drugs, while millions of others, using essentially similar drugs for similar purposes, are seen as patients. Second, we see a denial of those societal realities that compel increasing numbers of Americans to use psychotropic drugs.

In the history of psychiatry, there has been a revolving door in which a “medication” becomes an “illegal drug” —and visa versa. Sigmund Freud used cocaine as medication to treat his own and others’ depression and despair. In the 1930s amphetamines were prescribed to treat depression; later amphetamines were prescribed for weight loss; while today amphetamines such as Adderall and Dexedrine are prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Alcohol was a recommended treatment for anxiety as late as the 1940s; and in the 1950s and early 1960s, psychiatrist Oscar Janiger treated the neuroses of Hollywood stars and other celebrities with LSD. Ecstasy was used in marital counseling during the 1980s, and today researchers are studying it as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is politically—and economically—incorrect for the corporate press, dependent on Big Pharma advertising revenue, to compare psychiatric drugs with illegal drugs. However, the psychiatry drug textbook A Primer of Drug Action notes that individuals who have used cocaine have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective effects of cocaine and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) when both are administered intravenously. The amphetamines Dexedrine and Adderall, besides being prescribed for ADHD, are used by many college kids, truck drivers, and others to pull all-nighters.

Both cocaine and amphetamines enhance the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. The antidepressant Effexor enhances norepinephrine and serotonin, and the antidepressant Wellbutrin enhances dopamine; and it is not uncommon to be prescribed Effexor and Wellbutrin at the same time. Effexor in combination with Wellbutrin enhances the same neurotransmitters as cocaine (you won’t likely feel the same, mainly due to the quicker impact and shorter half-life of cocaine). And selective serotonin reuptake inhibitiors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, and Luvox enhance the neurotransmitter serotonin. Ecstasy also enhances serotonin, although by a different mechanism (you won’t likely feel the same using SSRIs as you would using Ecstasy in part because Ecstasy has a quicker, shorter-lasting pop).

The Speed Culture, coauthored by psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon in 1975, astutely predicted: “Drug companies probably will continue to produce increasingly sophisticated and disguised amphetamines, and these ‘new’ drugs undoubtedly will be greeted with initial enthusiasm by the medical establishment until it is recognized that any drug with amphetamine-like CNS [central nervous system] stimulating properties almost invariably is just as toxic, potentially addictive, and therapeutically limited as Benzedrine or Dexedrine.”

While many people use mood-altering drugs recreationally, many others believe that they need their psychotropic drugs—prescribed and illegal—to function. Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, investigating the meatpacking industry, discovered this: “The unrelenting pressure of trying to keep up with the line has encouraged widespread methamphetamine use among meatpackers. Workers taking ‘crank’ feel charged and self-confident, ready for anything.”

In 2004 Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams announced that he had found marijuana to be “ten times more helpful than Paxil” for his anxiety and depression. What made Williams’s declaration difficult to ignore was that he had been a celebrity spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, manufacturer of Paxil.

Neuroscientist Pankaj Sah notes, “It’s worth considering that people who constantly use cannabis may be doing it for other reasons than just to ‘get high’—perhaps they are experiencing some emotional problems which taking cannabis alleviates. Much the same way as some people drink alcohol to relieve anxiety.”

Marijuana and other illegal psychotropic drugs can, according to Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, “represent a form of self-medication against physical and emotional pain among people who do not have access to psychotherapy or Prozac.” The Drug Policy Alliance (an outgrowth of Nadelmann’s Lindesmith Center, a drug policy institute created with the support of George Soros) “advocates for drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights.”

The illegal-psychiatric drug hypocrisy in the U.S. is an ugly triumph. It is a triumph of marketing over science. It is a triumph for pharmaceutical corporations and America’s ever-growing prison-industrial complex. It is a triumph for those comfortably atop society who would rather Americans view their malaise as exclusively a medical rather than a social problem. And ultimately, it is a triumph of injustice and greed over human rights and a sane society.

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).

The 100K “Green” house project

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

I tip my hat to a team of builders in north Philadelphia who are attempting to design and build a modern “green” home in North Philadelphia with a budget of $100,000. They are documenting the process on a project blog at and a flickr gallery. It’s a great project and one we should all keep an eye on.

I have to ask though…Why not just build a carbon-free passive solar rammed earth and strawbale home? Strawbales in my neck of the woods can be had for under $3.50 apiece, and rammed-earth is free. At the end of construction you will likely find that you’re mortgage-free, and under budget enough to build the best hot tub ever!

Why is Gardening so Much Work?

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

The following article is adapted from Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. Toby is revising this popular title with a new edition available early next year.

Ecology, Mr. Webster tells us, is “concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments.” I call these gardens ecological because they connect one organism—people—to their environment, they link the many pieces of a garden together, and because they can play a role in pre-serving healthy ecosystems.

Ecological gardens also blend many garden styles together, which gives the gardener enough leeway to emphasize the qualities—food, flowers, herbs, crafts, and so on—he or she likes most.

One object of an ecological garden is to restore the natural cycles that have been broken by conventional landscape design and agriculture. Have you ever wondered why a forest or meadow looks perfect and stays nearly disease free with no care at all, while a garden demands arduous hours of labor? In a garden, weeds still pop up like, well, weeds, and every plant seems to be covered in its own set of weird spots and chomping bugs. This happens because most gardens ignore nature’s rules.

Look how gardens differ from natural landscapes. Not only does nature never do just one thing, nature abhors bare soil, large blocks of a single plant type, and vegetation that’s all the same height and root depth. Nature doesn’t till, either—about the only time soil is disturbed in the wild is when a tree topples and its upturned roots churn the earth. Yet our gardens are virtual showcases of all these unnatural methods. Not to mention our broad scale pesticide use and chemical fertilizers.

Each of these unnatural garden techniques was developed for a specific purpose. Tilling, for example, destroys weeds and pumps air to microbes that, metabolically supercharged, release a flood of nutrients for fast crop growth. These are great short-term boons to plant-growers. But we now know that in the long term, tilling depletes fertility (those revved-up microbes will burn up all the nutrients, then die), causes more disease, and ruins the soil structure with compaction to hardpan and massive erosion as the result.

The bare soil in a typical garden, whether in a freshly tilled plot or between neatly spaced plants, is a perfect habitat for weed seeds. Weeds are simply pioneer plants, molded by millions of years of evolution to quickly cover disturbed, open ground. They’ll do that relentlessly in the bare ground of a garden. Naked earth also washes away with rain, which means we’ll have to do more tilling to fluff the scoured, pounded earth that’s left, and add more fertilizer to replace lost nutrients.

Solid blocks of the same plant variety, though easy to seed and harvest, act as an “all you can eat” sign to insect pests and diseases. Harmful bugs will stuff themselves on this unbroken field of abundant food as they make unimpeded hops from plant to plant, and breed to plague proportions.

Each of the conventional techniques cited above arose to solve a specific problem, but like any single-minded approach, they often don’t combine well with other one-purpose methods, and they miss the big picture. The big picture here, in the typical garden, is not a happy one. Lots of tedious work, no habitat for native or rare species, struggling plants on intensive care, reliance on resource-gobbling poisonous chemicals, and in general, a decline in the garden’s health, yield, and beauty unless we constantly and laboriously intervene. Yet we’ve come to accept all this as part of gardening.

There is another way to garden. Conventional landscapes have torn the web of nature. Important threads are missing. We can restore many of these broken links, and work with nature to lessen our own load, not to mention the cost to the environment. For example, why till and add trainloads of fertilizer, when worms and other soil life, combined with fertility-building plants, will tailor the finest soil possible, with very little work? That’s how nature does it. Then all we need to do is make up for the small amount of nutrients lost to harvest. (Plants are mostly water, plus some carbon from the air. The tiny amounts of minerals they take from the soil can easily be replaced if we use the proper techniques.)

“Let nature do it” also applies to dealing with pests. In a balanced landscape, diseases and insect problems rarely get out of control. That’s because in the diverse, many-specied garden that this book tells how to create, each insect, fungus, bacterium, or potentially invasive plant is surrounded by a natural web of checks and balances. If one species becomes too abundant, its sheer availability makes it a tasty, irresistible food source for something else, which will knock it back to manageable levels. That’s how nature works, and it’s a useful trick for the ecological gardener.

To create a well-balanced garden, we must know something about how nature behaves. Toward that end, this book offers a chapter on ecology for gardeners; many examples of nature’s principles at work are woven throughout the other chapters. When we use nature’s methods—whether for growing vegetables, flowers, or wildlife plants—the garden becomes less work, less prone to problems, and vastly more like the dynamic, vibrant landscapes found in nature. These backyard ecosystems are deeply welcoming both for the wild world and for people, offering food and other products for self-reliance, as well as beauty and inspiration.


Some of what you have read so far may sound familiar. The past twenty years have seen the arrival of native plant gardens and landscapes that mimic natural groupings of vegetation, a style usually called natural gardening. Many of these gardens attempt to re-create native plant communities by assembling plants into backyard prairies, woodlands, wetlands, and other wild habitats. So gardening with nature may not be a new idea to some readers.

Ecological gardens also use principles derived from observing and living in wild land, but toward a different end. Natural gardens consist almost exclusively of native plants, and are intended to create and restore habitat for oft-endangered flora and wildlife. They are often described, as Ken Druse puts it in The Natural Habitat Garden, as “essential to the planet’s future.” I support using native plants in the landscape. But natural gardens, offering little for people, will never have more than a tiny effect on environmental damage. Here’s why.

In the United States, all the developed, inhabited land—cities, suburbs, and rural towns, including roads, buildings, yards, and so on—covers only about 6 percent of the nation’s area. You could fill every yard and city park with native plants and not even begin to stanch the loss of native species and habitat.

However, even if developed land in cities and suburbs were packed with natives-only gardens, it would never be wild. Divided into tiny fragments by streets, plastered over with houses and highways, all the streams culverted and run under-ground, filled with predatory cats and dogs, this is land that has been taken over by humans and our allies, removed from larger ecosystems, and it’s going to stay that way. I don’t deny that if we planted suburbia with natives we might rescue some tiny number of species. But many native species, particularly animals, are incompatible with land occupied by modern people, and require large tracts of unspoiled terrain to survive. Planting suburban yards with natives won’t save them.

Also, the real damage to the environment is done not by the cities and suburbs themselves, but by meeting their needs. We, who live in the developed 6 percent of the land, have an insatiable appetite, and use between 40 and 70 percent of America’s land area (estimates vary widely) to support us. Monocultured farms and industrial forests, livestock grazing, reservoirs, strip and open pit mines, military reservations, and all the other accoutrements of modern civilization consume a huge amount of space, almost none of it native or healthy habitat. Each non-homegrown meal, each trip to the lumberyard, pharmacy, clothing store, or other shop, commissions the conversion of once-native habitat into industrial desert. Every one thousand square feet of house means that about one acre of clearcut forest has the homeowner’s name on it. Certainly, natives should be included wherever they can do the job, but native plant gardens won’t reduce our depredations of wild land very much unless we also lessen our resource use. A native plant garden, while much easier on the environment than a lawn, still means that the owner is causing immense habitat loss elsewhere, out of sight.

Every bit of food, every scrap of lumber, each medicinal herb or other human product that comes from an urban yard means that one less chunk of land outside the cities needs to be denuded of natives and developed for human use. Factory farms and industrial forests—pesticide-laced, monocropped, sterilized of everything but a single species—are far more biologically impoverished than any suburban backyard. But farms and tree plantations are the lands that could truly become wilderness again. Cities and suburbs are already out of the natural loop, so we should strive to make them as useful to people as possible, not simply office parks and bedrooms. Urban land can be incredibly productive. In Switzerland, for example, 70 percent of all lumber comes from community woodlots. Our cities could provide for most human needs, and let cropland and tree farms return to nature.

I’m not talking about converting every backyard to row crops. By gardening ecologically, designing multifunctional landscapes that provide food and other goods for ourselves while creating habitat for other species, we can make our cities truly bloom. But a yard full only of native plants, lacking any for human use, simply means that somewhere else, out of sight, there is a non-native–containing farm and a factory forest, with the environmental destruction they bring, providing for that native-loving suburbanite’s needs. In contrast, a yard planted with carefully chosen exotics (and sure, natives too) will reduce the ecological damage done by the human occupants far more than a native-plant garden. Taking care of ourselves in our own yards means that factory farms and forests can shrink. Somewhere a farmer won’t have to plow quite so close to a creek, saving riparian species that would never live in a suburban lot.

Necessity is the Mother of … Conservation

Friday, May 16th, 2008

The New York Times recently posted story about the power-crisis facing the city of Juneau, Alaska. On April 16th, an avalanche cut them off from a local hydroelectric dam that supplied 80 percent of the city’s electricity. Back-up power, from diesel generators, is tiding them over until power can be restored in late June.

Using these diesel generators would have been all well and good in the days of cheap fuel, but as we all know, diesel fuel these days costs well up over $4/gallon in the contiguous 48, and is likely much pricier up in Alaska. Electricity bills for residents and businesses in the city have skyrocketed—literally overnight—by 400 percent.

Just as Americans on the mainland are avoiding high transportation fuel costs by bicycling to work, buying smaller cars, and carpooling, the Alaskans are avoiding high electricity fuel costs in other ways: reading in the evenings, walking to work, going to bed earlier, and turning off the walls of TVs at the local electronics store. Using these measures, Juneau has managed to cut its collective energy bill by a staggering 30 percent in just a few weeks.

Juneau’s conservationist actions, even though triggered by financial necessity, should serve as an inspiration to the rest of us. Do we need 33 degree water at all times? How hot does our dishwasher really need to be? How many beeping/blinking/buzzing gadgets can we stand to carry? Can we forego some of this luxury in exchange for lower energy bills and greater peace of mind? It sounds like a good deal to me. So let’s get to it!

Read the Times’ full story here.

It’s Time to Hold Democratic House Leaders in Contempt

Friday, May 16th, 2008

The following is an article written by Naomi Wolf. Naomi is the author of The New York Times bestseller, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot and is the co-founder of the American Freedom Campaign.

Enough is enough.

Like many of us, after having watched helplessly as the Bush administration trampled the Constitution and made a mockery of checks and balances over the course of five bitter years, I was hopeful when the American people elected a Democratic Congress in November of 2006. Finally, I imagined, we would have a whiff of legality and the hint of a restoration of the rule of law in the land. Perhaps we would even have congressional committees to oversee the administration’s subversions of the rule of law and investigate the wide range of abuses that it had perpetrated since 2001.

There has been a bit of movement — which is why the thousands of Americans I have met who are appalled at these abuses but feel powerless to raise their voices effectively should take heart, but not stop their fight. To some extent, these raised voices have yielded some action: Congress has in fact held numerous hearings on issues — ranging from torture to warrantless wiretapping — that had been taboo to contend with when the administration was heedlessly, and unopposed, using a hyped narrative of `the global war on terror’ to subdue American liberties. Most prominently, we got some of the bad guys out of town. Citizen-driven congressional investigations into the politicization of the Department of Justice, for example, spurred the resignations of many key Bush administration officials, including the mild-mannered gatekeeper of the first bolgia of Hell, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

And yet, where it counts most, Democratic leaders in Congress have completely abdicated their constitutional oversight role. What they are doing now reprises the worst failures of other self-paralyzed Parliaments in societies that were facing crackdowns on civil liberties and the rule of law, and their voluntary self-emasculation may go down in history as one of those turning points at which leaders cave shamefully to transformative pressure that leaves a country far less than its founded ideal. Through their actions, they are potentially causing irreparable harm to the institution of Congress itself.

At issue is the failure of White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to comply with congressional subpoenas to testify about the 2006 firings of a handful of U.S. Attorneys. We now have an America in which Congress says, “We subpoena you.” And potential criminals say, “Yeah? F— off.”

As most people know, the Bush administration asserted executive privilege on behalf of Bolten and Miers and refused to allow them to comply with the subpoenas to testify before the House Judiciary Committee last July. It is widely understood that executive privilege only protects certain conversations and correspondences with the president and is not intended to be a blanket privilege — protecting possible wrongdoers against having to appear before Congress AT ALL.

By going far beyond specific exchanges between the president and other officials, the White House essentially asserted that Congress has no power over the executive branch and could not question executive branch officials about their activities. This is an affront to our Constitution. In the shootout of this executive power grab, it effectively leaves one branch of government fatally wounded on Main Street.

Guess what? In America, Congress is not supposed to be tied up and left for dead as potential criminals walk away with impunity. Within weeks, the few brave members of the House Judiciary Committee who were apparently still sentient and still aware of their role as Americans appropriately passed a criminal contempt resolution against both Bolten and Miers.

It was then in the hands of Democratic leaders in the House to bring the resolution to the floor for a vote.

Since then, the citizens of this High Noon scenario have been hiding under the bar stools as the black hats swagger through the nation’s abandoned thoroughfare, and chaparral rolls through the streets. Democratic leaders are hiding from the call of destiny and offering nothing but delays and excuses to avoid producing any semblance of cojones.

In July, they said there would be a vote in September. In September, they said there would be a vote in October. In October, they said a vote would be “more likely” in November. In December, it appeared as if there would be a vote in December – which was then changed to January. If this was my twelve-year-old justifying an unfinished school project, she would be grounded. If it is your congressional representatives justifying an advanced case of cowardice, they should be fired.

Then, less than two weeks ago, on January 14, the Washington Post reported, under a headline, “House Democrats Target Bolten, Miers,” that the House would likely take up the resolutions in the next “couple of weeks.” With this information coming from “Democratic leadership aides,” it appeared as if — Hallelujah! — the long wait for some semblance of justice and a faint breeze of courage might be over.

But two days ago, Politico reported that the votes on criminal contempt citations had been — Say it ain’t so! — “postponed” by House Democrats. Now they were not expected “for weeks.” Moreover, after “Democratic leadership aides” asserted in October that Congress “would be able to round up the 218 votes needed to push through the resolution from Democrats alone,” a Democratic “insider” was now saying, “When we have the votes, we’ll go ahead with this. Right now, the votes are just not there.”

So let me get this straight. The Democrats in Congress cannot even get their own members together to defend the Constitution against a supremely unpopular executive who has essentially spit in their faces, eaten their lunch and the nation’s, and publicly called them out as powerless. Not to mention the fact that they are setting a precedent for the future that any executive can emasculate any Congress and defy any subpoena after having committed possibly any crime. Still they are trembling under the barstools — summoning up, perhaps, the courage to crawl out fully prone and toss their untouched guns humbly at the feet of the posse.

Remember this: each and every member of Congress took an oath — and the oath was not to some abstract government, it was an oath TO YOU — to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Unlike many good people across the political spectrum who are appalled at this dismantling of the three-part system the founders put in place and the besmirching of the rule of law, Congressional Republicans have clearly decided to place their allegiance to the president and their party over their allegiance to the Constitution. This is bad enough; this is, in fact, treason. But the Democrats do not even have that party allegiance as an excuse for their treachery. They would be standing up for their party, the institution of Congress, and the Constitution by passing the contempt resolutions. What more will it take to get them to act?

Those who think — as Pelosi apparently does — that they may rock the boat through a contempt citation in a way that endangers a possible Democratic victory in September are badly misreading the public mood — as well as severely misreading the historical record. If you don’t punish those who break the law at this stage of a crackdown on liberty — through contempt citations, through the use of Congress’s jail cell for those who are found guilty of contempt, and/or through the investigations of a truly independent prosecutor — you are not going to have a transparent, accountable election in November. You will have set a benchmark for impunity and you will get greater and greater crimes committed in the certainty of impunity.

If you doubt the dangers of this, think of the Gulf of Hormuz threat a few weeks ago — oops, hoax. Because the press is actually asking questions, the Pentagon’s narrative of a vicious Iranian provocation was sidelined. But it is purely naive to believe that a White House that would ignore subpoenas and impose yet another false threat scenario on the American people will conduct a transparent election in the fall, especially if it can get away with murder — the murder of the rule of law — today.

Tell your representative to move forward with contempt. And if your representatives fail to act, the punishment should not just be removal from office in the next election; they should also be subject to investigations themselves — for abetting crimes against the Constitution.

Contempt is at issue, indeed.

Maine town says no to GMOs

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Hats off to the folks of little Montville, Maine, a town of about 1,000 people where there is no post office, no store, and no school. But those facts don’t mean they are lacking in spirit or smarts.

Two weeks ago at their annual town meeting, residents passed an ordinance banning genetically-engineered crops.

According to an article in the Portland Press Herald, supporters say Montville is the first American community outside California to do this.

The article adds:

The Maine Legislature also weighed in on the issue last week. After more than a year of debate — lawmakers approved a compromise that, among other things, offers some legal protection to organic growers who unintentionally are exposed to genetically engineered seeds.
But it’s hard to find middle ground in the Montville ban, and that’s causing controversy. A Maine group that represents large biotechnology companies says the ban could chill research and development efforts and hurt the state’s economy. Meanwhile, the Maine Department of Agriculture is asking the attorney general for an opinion on whether Montville’s ordinance is legal, or violates the state’s right-to-farm rules.

Let’s hope this is a seed that is replanted across the country.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for food irradiation!

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Well, no we really don’t scream for that. But, apparently the USDA and their pals at the American Chemistry Society think we do.

According to the folks at Natural News, who have a great article on the topic, USDA researchers conducted a study to see what worked best to kill bacteria on leafy greens like spinach. Here’s a snippet from the Natural News feature:

To conduct the study, they bathed spinach a solution contaminated with bacteria. Then, they tried to remove the bacteria using three methods: Washing, chemical spraying and irradiation. Not surprisingly, only the irradiation killed nearly 100 percent of the bacterial colonies. That’s because radiation sterilizes both the bacteria and the vegetable leaves, effectively killing the plant and destroying much of its nutritional value while it kills the bacteria.

The USDA claims this is a huge success. By using radiation on all fresh produce, they claim, the number of food-borne illness outbreaks that happen each year could be substantially reduced. It all makes sense until you realize that by destroying the nutritional value of all fresh produce sold in the United States, an irradiation policy would greatly increase the number of people killed by infections and chronic diseases that are prevented by the natural medicines found in fresh produce!

Click here for the full story.

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