Archive for June, 2008

Diane’s Hunger Strike Continues

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Diane Wilson, author of An Unreasonable Woman and Holy Roller, continues her hunger strike of Union-Carbide. She’s written a new post about her experience on her blog.

From Diane’s Blog:

Today there is a security guard downstairs at Tower #3.  Protecting Tower #3, I guess.  I don’t remember him being there when I was there last time so I’m very leery of MR. Security Guard.  But he is harmless and just wears his badge for show and directs me to an open elevator.  I’m starting to get a bit paranoid and I’m not even up on the 6th floor yet.

Paranoia is for a good reason, I suppose. A healthy quality if you’re alone and decided the plan of action is to do a Sit In.  A ’sit in’ is basically just sitting down somewhere (General Consulate’s office, for example) and not getting up until you’re thrown out or until you run out of material on your issue.  My issue is Bhopal and that lowlife, Union Carbide.

So I sit on the floor underneath that lovely brassy General Consulate sign again and make myself comfortable.  My poster board sign announcing the sit in and Day 11 of the hunger fast is up against the wall,   Ive got 40 copies of a Bhopal fact sheet at my fingertips, and my lap top computer on my lap , but alas! fat lot that will do me.  No free internet.  Lots of folks wandering in; coming and going and I realize real fast that I don’t have enough sheets and here I am, sitting on the fast track to the Consule’s office.  Must be lots of folks visiting him.  I’m  wondering how fast the news that I’m sitting outside his door will trickle in.  That’s why I place my cell phone within easy reach: in case that security guard hauls up to the sixth floor and hauls me off.

I’ve brought a bottle of fresh water with me, but not much that’s gonna do me.  All the bathroom doors are locked.  ONLY EMPLOYEES.  I can see I won’t be drinking much water.  An Indian gentleman comes by twice.  He smiles broadly.  Very friendly fella.  He goes to the door of the consulate’s reception room but turns and looks at me again.  Then he reads the sign I have propped up.  He looks at me again and asks if I’m from India.  No. I’m from Texas.  Land of the big long horned cows.  Then he smiles again and says his hometown is Bhopal.  He thinks I look like I’m from India.  Well, thank you very much.  That’s quite a compliment. But nope, I’m from Texas.

Actually there was not a single person that was unfriendly or hostile.  Not one that did not take my flier. Many said it was a shame . A shame.  And they went away shaking their heads.  Finally a tall gray haired man comes out of the Reception Room.  No no, he says.  You mustn’t do this.  No no!  He flutters his hand like I’m to get up and GO!.  No no, he says. This is not possible.  I kinda shrug, Oh, well, bring on the handcuffs.

Two seconds later the gray haired gentleman leaves and returns with a very nicely dressed man. VERY NICE. Black suit, tie, white shirt i can barely see.  Black shiny shoes.  This man is OBVIOUSLY very important.  The gray haired man throws his hand out towards me as if to say, “SEE, look at her!”  The nice suited man says just like the first, Oh no, you can’t stay here and I said, Yes i Know but I’m staying here so he says, Well, come in then.  Come in.

I’m thinking: Really?? I can do the sit in INSIDE? Inside the RECEPTION ROOM.  Really?  Well, this was looking good!  So  I take all my posters and fliers and my non-functioning computer and drag it into the RECEPTION ROOM where the nicely suited man sits me down at a pink and tan couch.  The nicely suited man seems very sad.  Yes, what is it? he says.  What is it you want?

I give him the fliers and start talking about Bhopal and he says they at the consul general’s office have always, have always, he emphasized,  supported the cause.  They had spoke with Bhopal activists several times in the last three years and I say yes, I was here yesterday.

Well, what are the demands? he says and I say, Ashish, the Indian student, brought them by yesterday evening.  Then I proceed to tell him that there is an international hungerstrike going on and he wanted to know what international meant and I said many countries around the world have joined the hungerfast.  I said I had joined the hunger fast.  He says, Are you an Indian?  Or an American citizen.  I said I’m four generations of fishermen from Texas.  He says, An American citizen?  Not from India?

Now this is getting peculiar.  There seems to be a suspicion that I’m from India.

No, thank you I say.  I’m Native American.  Beeen here a mightly long time.

Then  he says again that I must not sit out there under that sign. Not respectful.  Oh, it is so sad. And I say i am so sorry but I am going to sit out there.  And he say, Oh you cannot and I say, Well, bring up the cops.  Bring in the handcuffs. Haul me off. I don’t mind going to jail.

He smiles.  Oh, we don’t do handcuffs he says.  Just move a little. Take it down the hall a little. By the elevator door.

Okay, I say. I could move a bit.

So we shake hands and he smiles– very different from the first time he smiled.  Almost conspiratorial. You know, he says, we support the cause.  We have ALWAYS supported the cause.

Would I write my name down? he asks and I say, Sure, will you write your name down?

His name was  MR.Pillai.  The acting consulate general when the real consulate general is out.

How many handbags does it take to buy a solar hot water system?

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

Rob Hopkins, author of our forthcoming book The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience, has a great inquiry into the insanity of American consumption culture. Rob being British, apparently wasn’t fully aware of the heights of lunacy that some parts of our society have reached. It took an American film that celebrates this lunacy to open Rob’s eyes. And yes, of course. It was Sex and the City.

From Rob’s blog:

I had a rare visit to the cinema the other night, not with anything in particular to watch but just to see what we might fancy. The only thing that wasn’t a horror film or a children’s film was ‘Sex and the City’, so we went to watch that. I haven’t watched any of the TV programmes so I was a bit lost, but really, what a load of rubbish. I have never seen more product placement, more vacuous people and more costume changes in a single film in my life. Anyway, that, in essence is my film review, but the one thing that stuck with me about the film was something that came as a deep shock and which I thought was quite extraordinary.

In the film, the main character hires a PA, who is a poor (well compared to the rest of them who seem to be eyewateringly wealthy) but is as obsessed with fashion and labels as everyone else in the film. Anyway, the PA has a handbag, which is some revolting designer handbag, designed by Louis Vitton or some other designer person, of which she is extraordinarily proud.

As the film goes on, it emerges (oh the shame) that she can’t actually afford such a handbag, and that her handbag, because she is poor you see, is actually RENTED. Rented. This is all remedied in the film because the main character takes pity on her and buys her her own handbag, a deeply emotional moment as she now has her own £2,000 handbag. What I was left with though, was this new knowledge that in New York there are companies that rent out expensive designer handbags.

How all pervasive and pernicious is this consumer culture that these ghastly handbags, made in some grisly sweatshop somewhere, designed with any sense of taste locked firmly in a box, have evolved in such a way that one’s sense of self esteem and identity requires a handbag rental service? No sense of living within one’s budget or means, rather you simply MUST HAVE a designer handbag or you are nobody.

I guess this ties back to the discussion we were having the other day about solar panels and food gardens becoming the next ‘must haves’, and whether or not we can harness that same sense of desirability. I was impressed the other day with reading about a crowd in Cornwall called ‘Rocket Gardens’ from whom you buy pre-planted salads in a funky box, they come in the post, you pop them in the garden, and hey presto, instant salad! Anyway, I struggle to draw any intelligent observation from the handbag thing, I think I am just still in shock about the whole handbag rental thing. Did you know such a service exists?

To read Rob’s blog, visit

And now, just to illustrate Rob’s point…some Louis Vuitton hysteria:


Poisonous products banned in most nations are killing Americans

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

Yesterday, Diane Solomon at, a weekly newspaper serving the Silicon Valley area, posted her interview with Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Metro: Most of us assume that if it’s sold in a store, it’s OK. You say otherwise.

Mark Schapiro: Americans operate under the assumption that some governmental authority out there is assessing whether the products we encounter on a daily basis are safe. I’m sorry to report that’s not the case. We’re confronted daily with hundreds of different chemicals that are in everything from cosmetics to electronics to children’s toys to automobiles. Essentially, no one is out there assessing their safety.


Metro: In 1981, you wrote in ‘Circle of Poison’ that U.S. corporations were selling pesticides that were banned here in developing nations. Are we now getting dumped on by E.U. companies?

Mark Schapiro: We wrote Circle of Poison about the moral hypocrisy of determining that chemicals that aren’t good enough for Americans are OK to be dumped on other people. Well, now we’re the ones in that situation.

The E.U. is taking the lead on environmental protections and the U.S., for the first time in its history, is becoming a dumping ground for a lot of products that are banned elsewhere in the world.

When I talk about what’s at stake for American power, we’re also talking about the economic power of the U.S., because as the Europeans move ahead with less toxic alternatives and more sustainable ways of production, U.S. industry is being left behind. You can see this in the dwindling market share of many American industries.


The EU’s regulations have been in effect for a while now—are companies going broke complying with them?

I investigated what happened when the companies began removing these substances, to find out the economic impact. Number one, they all went out and found alternatives. Two, the economic cataclysm that had been predicted both by European industry and American industry never happened. The loss of jobs never happened.

You have European industries now producing products that have undergone a toxic screen and you’ve got American products that haven’t undergone a toxic screen. If you’re given a choice as to which one to buy you can weigh those products against one another and, increasingly, the Europeans are beating us. Many of our industries are now losing ground to European industry.


Metro: What’s been the reaction to ‘Exposed’? Is anything changing?

Mark Schapiro: I’ve been invited to speak to state legislators in California, Washington and Minnesota. I testified in March at Vermont’s Senate Health and Welfare Committee when they were considering their phthalate ban.

Now some of the states are looking at that evidence and saying, “Hold on—we’ve got to do something about that.” California and Vermont were the first to ban phthalates from children’s toys. They’ll take affect next year. Phthalates have been banned for almost 10 years in the E.U.

States are desperate for some kind of leadership on the environmental challenges that we face, and they’re not finding it in Washington, D.C.

State officials all across the country are flying not to Washington but to Brussels, which is the capital of the E.U., to get ideas on how to handle some of these things.

Metro: What can we do about this?

Mark Schapiro: Number one, you should be aware of this phenomenon and integrate this into your buying decisions. When it comes to electronics, there’s a label on the back of them. If it has a “CE” on it that means it’s been approved by the E.U.’s regulatory process. The sad fact is that if you’re going to buy cosmetics, other than the small brand natural cosmetics, you’re going to be a lot safer buying European ones.

Of course you can make individual decisions, but there’s no substitute for holding politicians’ feet to the fire when it comes to demanding laws that require the removal of these kinds of substances, because in the end that’s what’s going to force industry to make these changes.

For the full article, click here.

Kucinich: We Went to War For the Oil Companies

Thursday, June 26th, 2008 publishing the following coverage of Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s speech to the House of Representatives today.

Washington, DC (June 26, 2008)– US Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, in a speech to the House of Representatives today, tied the secret meetings of the Cheney Energy Task Force to the recent award of non-competitive oil contracts in Iraq and said that both the Bush Administration and the oil company executives who participated in those meetings in 2001 should be held criminally liable for an illegal war and extortion of Iraq’s oil.

“In March of 2001, when the Bush Administration began to have secret meetings with oil company executives from Exxon, Shell and BP, spreading maps of Iraq oil fields before them, the price of oil was $23.96 per barrel. Then there were 63 companies in 30 countries, other than the US, competing for oil contracts with Iraq.

“Today the price of oil is $135.59 per barrel, the US Army is occupying Iraq and the first Iraq oil contracts will go, without competitive bidding to, surprise, (among a very few others) Exxon, Shell and BP.

“Iraq has between 200 – 300 billion barrels of oil with a market value in the tens of trillions of dollars. And our government is trying to force Iraq not only to privatize its oil, but to accept a long-term US military presence to guard the oil and protect the profits of the oil companies while Americans pay between $4 and $5 a gallon for gas, while our troops continue dying.

“We attacked a nation that did not attack us. Over 4000 of our troops are dead. Over 1,000,000 innocent Iraqis have perished. The war will cost US taxpayers between $2 – $3 trillion dollars. Our nation’s soul is stained because we went to war for the oil companies and their profits. There must be accountability not only with this Administration for its secret meetings and its open illegal warfare but also for the oil company executives who were willing participants in a criminal enterprise of illegal war, the deaths of our soldiers and innocent Iraqis and the extortion of the national resources of Iraq.

“We have found the weapon of mass destruction in Iraq. It is oil. As long as the oil companies control our government Americans will continue to pay and pay, with our lives, our fortunes our sacred honor,” he concluded.

The Beginning of The War on Bugs, part 2

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

The following is an excerpt from Will Allen‘s The War on Bugs. This is part 2 of this series. Part 1 is here.

The other and often most important influence on farmers is their banker. Many farmers borrow money to farm, and if they don’t pay out or don’t get as high a yield as the bank expects, it can be difficult getting next year’s operating loan. Some bankers merely prodded the farmers to use chemicals, while others required them to use chemicals to protect their loans. All this pressure has driven up the use of highly toxic pesticides, as table 1 illustrates. [Available in the book.]

By the late 1990s, tests required by the California Environmental Protection Agency finally proved how hazardous pesticides were to farmers and their families. However, in spite of the proven hazards that these tests revealed, the chemical corporations continued to block the cancellation of deadly birthdefect- and cancer-causing chemicals. My organicfarming friends and I were amazed at just how dangerous and deadly the chemicals proved to be,
but we were not surprised that the chemical corporations blocked the cancellation of these dangerous products. After all, we’re talking about billions of dollars a year in profits.

Our neighbors also seemed amazed at the results of the government tests, but for different reasons. Many still couldn’t see how the tests applied to them or their families. They too were not surprised that the chemical corporations defended their products and stonewalled their registration terminations. Many of them argued, “Oh, the state (CALEPA) and federal government (EPA and FDA) make the chemical corporations do tests on rats and dogs and ferrets, not people. What do you expect? They feed these little rats massive doses, of course they are going to get sick or die.” Then they would finish with something like: “You would have to eat a roomful of apples to get the same amount of poison that the rats ate.”

Dumbfounded, I would laugh and remind them that many of these pesticides were not just deadly to rats. They were the same as or similar to chemicals that Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds in Iraq or that
Osama bin Laden threatened us with from Afghanistan, that we had used in the war in Vietnam, and that the Nazis had used in concentration camps. Somehow, they continued to have a comfort level with these terrible poisons, but not with the testing procedures or the test results. They didn’t trust the tests or the government agencies that were requiring and evaluating them. Yes, they admitted that chemicals caused cancer and birth defects and even killed the lab rats, but they never failed to remind me that they were not lab rats or ferrets or dogs.

I told them about one test in which dogs inhaled only 268 and 283 parts per million of methyl bromide to determine a concentration that could be used in a twenty-eight-day test and a one-year test on dogs as required by California’s 1984 Birth Defect Prevention Act.

The dogs were supposed to be exposed for four days, but the study had to be terminated after two days due to the observation of the following: severe neurotoxicity (delirium, thrashing and vocalization, tremors, traumatizing behavior [defined as slamming the head and body into cage walls]), depression, ataxia (irregular gait), rales (abnormal sounds when breathing), and a cachectic appearance (general wasting and malnutrition, associated with chronic disease).

In spite of such damning evidence about their pesticide tools and the growing consumer alarm about the increased use of the most toxic poisons, my friends and relatives continued to argue that most pesticides were still registered, and that neither the FDA nor the EPA seemed anxious to prohibit their use. Therefore, they had concluded they must be safe enough to use. I argued that the FDA and the EPA determined that their most important constituencies and concerns were big chemical and corporate farming interests, not the taxpaying consumer or the health of the farmers. Consequently, neither agency felt obliged to eliminate chemicals that the powerful corporations developed
and protected, even though both agencies and the chemical corporations knew that pesticides were dangerous and often deadly—not just to rats, but to people as well.

I began to ask elderly folks when and why farmers had started using these poisons. No one had a very complete picture of the origin and history of chemicals on U.S. farms. All of them assured me that, even though they didn’t know the whole story, they believed that the use of chemicals had started long before they began to farm. Many felt that the wealthy farmers had always used pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

I finally realized that the deep-seated acceptance of chemicals was both economic and historic, because the grandparents and great-grandparents of the large-scale farmers had become dependent and comfortable with toxic chemicals a long time ago. Several of us wanted to know how this could have happened. A few farmers I knew felt that they had learned a great deal about the history of farming by reading historical pieces in farm magazines and advised that I read their back issues. So I began to read the early journals and almanacs. It was fascinating. My friends and I had all read Jack Pickett’s editorials in California Farmer for years and knew full well what kind of advice and analysis he was giving, especially about pesticides and chemical fertilizers. He was a chemical industry cheerleader.

Soon I started reading all the old farm magazines I could get from relatives and neighbors. As I read older magazines, I found that Pickett’s father, who was the California Farmer editor before Jack, also promoted the use of chemicals and defended the farmers’ need to use them. I scoured the old journals and found original copies in the University of California, University of Vermont, and Dartmouth College libraries. These magazines told most of the story about how pesticides and fertilizers were first sold, and how they continue to be sold today.

I found that, over the last 160 years, many editors had used their editorial pulpit in the journals to play a major role in promoting and justifying chemicals. The rural magazines told much of the story of how and why farming had changed so dramatically, and how prosperous farmers got comfortable with using highly toxic medicines and other poisons. When there was no competition from radio, TV, or other electronic media, the farm magazines significantly influenced farmers’ opinions and decision making. In fact, California Farmer was at one time so important a voice in California that it was often used as text material in rural schools.

Many academic and popular studies have concenrated their search for the beginnings of chemical farming on the period after the Second World War, apparently under the assumption that most of agriculture was chemical-free before that time. A few authors have extended the picture to the time of the First World War, and even fewer (especially James Wharton, Margaret Rossiter, and Richard Wines) have understood that the chemical agriculture story has much deeper roots.

I dug further into the magazines and several books, including those mentioned above, and found that the American portion of this story began more than two hundred years ago, with the colonial farmers and the farm crises of the 1700s and early 1800s. Shortly after the beginning of the 1800s, the large-scale farmers in America began to be propagandized by scientists and the mining and manufacturing companies, who proclaimed how newly discovered chemicals would solve both their financial and their farming problems.

The first farmers targeted with propaganda about chemicals farmed large tracts of land, with some cultivating thousands of acres of tobacco, corn, hemp, cotton, and other crops for export. The farming practices on their huge estates and plantations had literally destroyed the fertility on most of the choice
farmland on the eastern seaboard even before 1800. The New York State Agricultural Society magazine, The Cultivator, conducted the earliest propaganda campaign promoting chemicals, beginning in the 1840s. To conduct the campaign they trumpeted the discoveries of chemical scientists and used testimonials from aristocratic farmers. In spite of their aggressive promotion, most small- and medium-scale farmers opposed the use of harsh chemicals and poisonous metals. Then, in the 1850s, industry developed or discovered several chemical products that they peddled to farmers. Yet farmer resistance to chemicals persisted for most of the nineteenth century. This farmer opposition prompted the chemical corporations to advertise and propagandize more often, more creatively, more fearfully, and more authoritatively.

As a result of seven generations of such campaigns, most American farmers have come to be dependent on chemical pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and genetically manipulated products. Recently, many farmers have begun to compare their chemical and corporate dependency to drug or alcohol addiction.

This story illustrates that, well before the start of the twentieth century, advertising space in rural magazines became an essential platform for chemical corporations. By 1900, the ads were producing more revenue for these farm periodicals than their subscriptions ever could. By that point, the concerns of the reader had become secondary to the concerns of the advertisers. Because of this, the views of the chemical advertisers, not the needs of the farmers, have dominated farm magazines for more than a century, and continue to do so today.

By the 1890s the magazine Agricultural Advertising was entirely devoted to the search for farm-journal advertisers. Even by this early date the farm journals knew who paid the bills, and it wasn’t their readers. But the publishers still had to keep their subscriptions
up because the more subscribers a journal had, the more the advertisers would be willing to pay to place their ads. Many journals began to offer free subscriptions around this time, and most have continued to do so to this day. So, for more than one hundred years, even if farmers didn’t pay for the magazines, they usually received them free of charge. The publishers wanted to be sure that farmers got the messages of their advertisers and to make sure that the subscription base was high enough to attract the most expensive ads.

While other factors certainly influenced farmers’ decisions to use chemicals besides advertising, a major thesis of this book is that advertising and propaganda campaigns have historically played, and continue to play, a very important role in guiding a farmer’s choice of which products to buy.

In the late 1800s Cyrus H. K. Curtiss, the nineteenthcentury advertising genius, emphasized the importance of advertising. Curtiss, the owner of the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies Home Journal, and the Country Gentleman (one of the most influential national farm magazines), once told a gathering of potential advertisers: “The editor of the Ladies Home Journal thinks that we publish it for the benefit of American women. That is an illusion, but a very proper one for him to have. The real reason, the publisher’s reason, is to give you who manufacture
things that American women want and buy a chance to tell about your products.”

When asked for the secret of his success, Curtiss always had a one-word explanation: “Advertising!” Curtiss didn’t publish the Country Gentlemen for farmers any more than he published the Ladies Home Journal for women; they were both sales platforms for the product manufacturers.

The story I present in this book is concentrated on farming, but there are occasional glimpses of similar advertising campaigns, including those conducted on military customers, urban landscapers, homeowners, and national and state governments. Uncovering how chemical companies regularly communicated to farmers, homeowners, and businesses reveals patterns and formulas that they have employed to convince people to use deadly and dangerous poisons. It is hoped that this little book, which started in questionings and remembrances with farmer friends, will provide a graphic and interesting outline of the rise of chemical agriculture in the United States.

My goal is to provoke readers with some oftenoverlooked historical perspectives about food and farming, and to suggest what they can do to ensure that food is produced safely on land that is properly cared for, so that our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy its bounty and continue to make it productive.

Video: The Odor-Less Humanure Process

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Joseph Jenkins is the author of The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure. He’s been composting human manure for over 26 years, and in this video series, he shows you how. There are many benefits to composting your waste, as Joe points out in his book: free compost for the garden, no septic tank or leech field, no sewage, ecologically friendly, and a great conversation starter.

The following videos will walk you through the process of odor-less humanure composting.

Here are some videos of Joe in action:

The Humanure Hacienda, An Overview:

The Active Side:

Adding Humanure to the Compost Pile (low sound, adjust your volume):

Digging out the Compost Pile:

Adding the Compost to your Garden:

Stephen and Rebekah Hren also have some good humanure projects in The Carbon-Free Home.

Podcast: If you want to save them, eat them.

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Slow food advocate and provocateur, Gary Paul Nabhan, sat down with The Restaurant Guys on WCTC. They talk about saving the world’s threatened species by renewing the local food traditions that used them in recipes. By increasing consumption and awareness of these species, Gary argues, we will do a better job of protecting them. Gary is the editor of Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods.

The interview is available here on ChelseaGreenRadio.

Many Benefits to Home Vegetables; Rebellion is Not One

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Food-Not-Lawns advocate Stan Cox, in an article on AlterNet, made the argument that while there are many benefits to converting your lawn to food-producing garden, rebellion against large agribusiness is not one of them. He asserts that the size of the dent that would be made in the profits of agribusiness—even if every American converted his and her lawn to garden—would not amount to squat.

The food that we would be able to grow in our yards—vegetables and some fruits—account for only a small percentage of the American diet. All our wheat and dairy goodies would still need to come from large scale operations—the bread and butter of large agribusiness. (Yeah. I had to.)

Yes, we could supplement our own garden produce with local wheat and dairy products, but the industrial food complex (restaurants, hotels, schools, etc.) would still rely on established and cheap supply chains. So, Cox argues, “sticking-it-to-the-man” isn’t really a benefit of home food production. Despite that, however, Cox points out the many advantages.

From the article:

Don’t get me wrong: Growing food just outside your front or back door is an extraordinarily good idea, and if it’s done without soil erosion or toxic chemicals, I can think of no downside. Edible landscaping can look good, and it saves money on groceries; it’s a direct provocation to the toxic lawn culture; gardening is quieter and less polluting than running a power mower or other contraption; the harvest provides a substitute for industrially grown produce raised and picked by underpaid, oversprayed workers; and tending a garden takes a lot of time, time that might otherwise be spent in a supermarket or shopping mall.

So it was in 2005 that our family volunteered our front lawn to be converted into the first in a now-expanding chain of “Edible Estates,” the brainchild of Los Angeles architect/artist Fritz Haeg. We already had a backyard garden, but growing food in the front yard (which, as Haeg himself points out, is a reincarnation of a very old idea) has been a wholly different, equally positive experience.

Our perennials and annuals are thriving, we’ve gotten a lot of publicity, and I’ve been talking about the project for almost three years. Yet neither of our gardens, front or back, can stand up to the looming agricultural crisis. Good food’s most well-read advocate, Michael Pollan, has written that growing a garden is worth doing even though it can make only a tiny contribution to curbing carbon-dioxide emissions. He might have added that growing food is worth it even if it does very little to revive the nation’s food system.

Heather Flores, author of Food Not Lawns, would also add: community-building. Read the full article here.

The Beginning of The War on Bugs

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

The following is an excerpt from Will Allen‘s The War on Bugs.

My interest in how farmers became comfortable with using dangerous chemicals began more than thirty years ago, as many of us converted our farms from chemical to organic production. Along with several close friends, I had come to the realization that we did not need to use so many dangerous poisons on our farms since we were getting good yields and high quality without them. This realization was an epiphany for those of us brought up believing that the chemicals were Necessary, Critical, Essential, Modern, Progressive, Profitable, Economical, Miraculous, even Heroic—all in capital letters.

At farm field days, meetings, potlucks, and Farm Aid concerts, we began recounting how each of us had become convinced that farm chemicals were indispensable. All of us recalled how farmers, extension agents, schoolteachers, feed store salesmen, and billboard ads claimed that the chemicals were miraculously effective and safe.

As farm kids, we knew that the chemicals were effective. We knew that arsenic, nicotine, and lead killed pests and that the chemical fertilizers produced good yields, even though most of our folks were small farmers who rarely used them. All of us knew, however, that the claims about safety were B.S., because we would get our butts whipped if we went near the chemical storehouse. At my grandma’s farm in Hemet, California, she and my aunt repeatedly told us to keep away from the shed with the chemicals. At home, my mom would always warn us: “Remember Bobby Arbuckle? He played with arsenic, and he’s dead.” Then she would follow with, “And don’t forget that boy Danny what’s-his-name, who lived down the road—he got into that Black Leaf 40 tobacco poison and it burned him like a fire.”

One time, a friend and I were smoking one of our first homemade cigarettes made from straw and a little bit of tobacco from a cigarette butt we found. We were smoking and coughing behind his father’s fertilizer shed and the manager of the ranch caught us. He was hopping mad. He chased us away with a stick, yelling after us that if we got one spark on the fertilizer it could blow up the whole place. Threats and warnings such as these definitely had their impact. They convinced all of us that, while farm chemicals produced bumper crops, they were dangerous.

In contrast to our fears, and all the threats and warnings, we all had a story or two to tell about hearing local large-scale farmers who laughed off anyone’s concerns about health and safety as being ridiculous. Instead, these farmers, and the chemical salesmen they hung out with, emphasized that pesticides and fertilizers were not only safe to use, but also necessary to make a profit, to conduct the Second World War, and to feed all the hungry people in the world. “If you read the label and follow the instructions, you can’t get hurt,” they would say.

I remembered how my teachers used to praise the war chemicals, the scientific revolution, and the heroic effect of DDT against typhus and malaria during the war. In class we watched documentary newsreels praising the chemicals. Friends found old articles where similar praise appeared in newspapers and magazines. Others recalled hearing reports on the radio or seeing movie newsreels and shorts at Saturday afternoon matinees that also praised the virtues of the war chemicals.

Several of us recalled when the feedstore salesmen began selling DDT near the close of World War II. Our salesman and family friend, Arnold, came to the house and delivered a practiced speech about the safety and effectiveness of this scientific wonder. He told us that DDT was a war hero, deadly to insects, typhus, and malaria, but harmless to people. He opened a bottle of the stuff, and in a few minutes, flies on the table and floor began writhing around in their death throes. Within the hour, all the flies and mosquitoes in the house died. He claimed that just opening the bottle usually “knocked ’em dead.” We all snickered because his pitch was so canned. But we didn’t laugh at how effective DDT was. Its killing power amazed us, and my folks bought some that day.

We always had some cows, a few goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, lots of pigs—and, as a result, too many flies. My least favorite chore as a kid was swatting flies in the house and around the outside of the doorways. Right after we got DDT, my fly-swatting chores all but
vanished. My mom began to spray the flies and all us kids with the hand-pump sprayer filled with DDT. “Arnold said it won’t hurt you,” she would say as she used her “Flit Gun” to zap the flies, and us. For a while after that, I swatted only the flies that survived to enter the house. I loved not having to kill as many flies. But I hated to spray or to be sprayed with the stuff; it stunk, and it left a sticky-sweet film on my skin.

At the time, in spite of its significant drawbacks, DDT seemed better than fly swatting to this twelve-year-old farm kid. However, despite all the advertisements, promotions, hopes, and promises my furlough from fly swatting was short-lived. Within a few years the flies no longer rolled over in their death throes when we sprayed DDT. So we increased the dosage. Still, after a bit, the stronger dosage of DDT also failed to kill them. Suddenly I seemed to be swatting more flies than ever. Arnold said we should mix other chemicals with the DDT to make it stronger. First we mixed it with chlordane, then lindane; later we used lindane alone.

Several other “miraculous” chemicals followed as chlordane and lindane, like DDT, rapidly proved completely useless for killing flies. After spraying a chemical for only a couple of years, each one seemed to lose its killing power, and the flies returned with a vengeance. Many people had stopped using the fly sprays Flit or Bif some years earlier because they too had become useless. In spite of these setbacks, a belief in the necessity and ease of using the chemicals had seeped into our minds, and gradually it came to dominate nearly everyone’s pest-management decisions. We were becoming hooked on pesticides, just like the large-scale farmers.

In the mid-1950s I joined the Marine Corps, and my brother and sisters took over my fly-swatting and pesticide-spraying duties. In the Marines I was an electrical technician and an atomic, biological, and chemical warfare paramedic. After the service I went to the University of California and the University of Illinois and was fortunate to do research in the tropical forests of Peru and to live with forest farmers.

The ability of these farmers to produce surpluses without chemicals in an environment ravaged by pests started me thinking that maybe the miracle chemicals that the salesmen pushed were not so necessary after all. I had never seen so many animal and insect pests and yet they were getting bumper yields. Thereafter, everything that I saw or learned about farming was filtered through that experience. I left the university in 1970 and worked on more than a dozen farms as a laborer, fence builder, planter, picker, mechanic, tractor driver, cultivator, manager, plumber, carpenter, cowboy, and researcher. As I worked on all these farms, I began to realize that American farming practices had become much more poisonous and dangerous than when I was a kid.

In the early 1980s, I enrolled in a pesticide- and fertilizer-applicator’s course at the local college to learn more about spray rates for foliar fertilizers. I also hoped that I might understand why most of my neighbors and all my bosses continued to feel so comfortable with farm chemicals, while I had become fearful. The course provided a wealth of practical information about spray rates and nutrient requirements that helped me feed my plants better and certified me as a licensed pesticide applicator.

The course also left me more alarmed than ever about the dangers of farm and home pesticides. I was shocked to find that most of the chemicals in common use on farms were modified versions of the nerve poisons and antipersonnel weapons that I learned about when studying chemical warfare in the Marine Corps.

After the course, I had several contentious discussions with neighbors, friends, relatives, and employers who were addicted to chemicals. Literally everyone I talked with argued that farm chemicals were not dangerous if properly used. No matter what I said or how much evidence I produced to the contrary, deep down, most of these people believed that the fear of farm chemicals was blown out of proportion. More importantly, folks honestly felt that without chemical fertilizers their crops wouldn’t grow, and without toxic pesticides the insects and weeds would destroy their plants. Nearly all maintained that if they didn’t have the chemicals, the little profit they now enjoyed would be wiped out.

Often, when I tried to discuss the dangers of chemicals with friends and neighbors, many appeared to feel they were being accused of poisoning their families and their land with the “tools” they thought they needed so badly. Instead of seeing chemicals as synthetically produced poisons, these people viewed them as “their tools,” and so mentally they minimized the threat that they posed. Most farmers too felt an ownership of the chemical “tools” as much as they felt for other pieces of farm equipment. They ignored the risks of using chemicals because they believed they needed them to make a profit, just as they needed tractors or rototillers or combines, which were also very dangerous if used incorrectly. In the minds of these yield- and price-dependent farmers, chemicals had become a necessary means of survival.

Part of the problem is that the toxicological analysis of farm chemicals is not required to be on the labels or in the advertisements for the products. Consequently, most farmers actually know very little about the dangers of the chemicals they use. Many find it hard to believe that the most heavily used poisons can cause a wide variety of cancers or birth defects or are incredibly damaging nerve poisons.

Farmers I spoke with wondered why they should bother to know all the chemistry or toxicology of each product. Several explained that they were more concerned with the killing power of the pesticide than its chemistry or toxicity. They were farmers, not chemists, they said. Many felt that understanding the chemical part was the job of the pest-control advisor and the university extension specialist at the agricultural experiment stations. They argued that if the government regulators and their banker allowed the use of these chemicals, then they must be safe. Many times local chemical salesmen or bankers badgered my neighbors and friends about the necessity of using chemicals when I was present. I would laugh at them and argue that their poisons were unnecessary and dangerous. They in turn argued that my fears were exaggerated and proceeded to “guarantee” the safety of the chemicals.

Clearly, the job of the chemical sales staff is to convince farmers that they can’t get along without their products, so no one can fault them for being aggressive—they’re salespeople, after all. Many chemical salespeople get paid a commission on the basis of quantity of material sold. As a result, for them, selling chemicals and convincing farmers to buy more, whether the farmer needs them or not, has become a survival thing. For many, their survival and salary depend on the volume of pesticides they sell.

This is part 1 of 2. Check back soon for the conclusion. Also, check out ChelseaGreenTV for a presentation from Will Allen.

Video: ‘Green’ Nanotech: An Overview

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Pesticides, plastics, and the genetic-modification of plants are our only hope. Each of them, single-handedly, will save the day! Or, so it was once heralded. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that these new technologies do more harm than good—to the environment, to our food, to us. The new mysterious stranger on the block is nanotechnology…or, “Clean, green, and never seen, nanotechnology!” (The part about single-handedly saving the day is understood.)

Nanotechnology is used in everything from USB flash memory to shampoo to plush toys. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies claims that over 609 nanotech consumer products exist today, with new ones hitting the market at a pace of 3-4 per week. (They have a great nanotech product directory here.)

If you’re unsure what nanotechnology actually is (like I was), there’s no way to get a good sense of whether or not it is dangerous. As with any new technology, the products that use it find their way into our homes long before the technology’s safety information. As Mark Schapiro pointed out in this interview, we are the guinea pigs. A new technology’s safety information doesn’t come to us, it comes from us.

Here’s a video overview of nanotechnology from KQED, a public television station in northern California. The video does a good job covering nanotechnology in understandable terms, while address both the potential (improved solar panels), and the risks (nanotech cellular attacks).

Carole Bass has written an article for AlterNet about the potential risks of nanotechnology and the early findings with regard to threats to the health of our world.

From the article:

Environmentalists, scientists, and policymakers increasingly worry that nanotech development is outrunning our understanding of how to use it safely. Consider these examples from last month alone:

  • An animal study from the United Kingdom found that certain carbon nanotubes can cause the same kind of lung damage as asbestos. Carbon nanotubes are among the most widely used nanomaterials.
  • A coalition of consumer groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban the sale of products that contain germ-killing nanosilver particles, from stuffed animals to clothing, arguing that the silver could harm human health, poison aquatic life, and contribute to the rise of antibiotic resistance.
  • Researchers in Singapore reported that nanosilver caused severe developmental problems in zebrafish embryos — bolstering worries about what happens when those antimicrobial products, like soap and clothing, leak silver into the waste stream.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense, in an internal memo, acknowledged that nanomaterials may “present… risks that are different than those for comparable material at a larger scale.” That’s an overarching risk with nanomaterials: Their tiny size and high surface area make them more chemically reactive and cause them to behave in unpredictable ways. So a substance that’s safe at a normal size can become toxic at the nanoscale.

The US’s attitude when it comes to nanotechnology “shoot first, ask questions later.” We proceed full-throttle with this, and other fully untested technologies, until we begin to see harmful effects coming back to haunt us. This attitude cannot carry into this new world of replicating pollution. When it comes to the genetic modification of plants and nanotech-manipulation of cells, the consequences of a mishap could be catastrophic (See Ice-Nine) and potentially unstoppable due the fact that this new form of pollution cannot be cleaned up and can reproduce itself.

Europe’s approach to these new technologies is to use caution. It seems they’ve learned their lesson in the past.

The European Union, by contrast, is taking a precautionary approach. While U.S. regulators generally presume products to be safe until proven harmful, the EU’s new REACH legislation demands that manufacturers demonstrate the safety of their chemicals. Just last week, the EU released a document concluding that nanorisks “can be dealt with under the current legislative framework,” with some modifications. For example, the document says that under REACH, when companies introduce nanoforms of existing substances, they must provide additional material about “the specific properties, hazards, and risks” of the nanomaterials.

Mark Schapiro writes about the benefits of the European precautionary approach to regulation in his book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.

So what do you think? Are we giving nanotechnology a properly thorough examination? Should there be more regulation? Does it scare you?

['Bookmark' this story with Digg if you found it helpful.]

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