This article was originally published on The Daily Hurricane
CBS is now reporting that Tony Hayward, embattled yacht racing CEO of BPplc, will be stepping down in October, moving to take a job at the company’s joint venture in Russia, TNK-BP. I guess they figure he can’t screw that up much, or else the Ruskies will ship him off to Siberia for a little ice dancing and potato peeling. Bloomberg is also reporting that American Bob Dudley will replace Hayward.
Brought in on the heels of Sir John Browne’s disastrous tenure, everyone had high hopes that Hayward would usher in a new era of corporate responsibility and safe operations for BP. Unfortunately, the DNA of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which exploited Iran’s oil resources for 70 years enslaving tens of thousands of Iranians, then compelling the US to use the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister in order to reinstate a corrupt Shah runs deep in BP. Even with the new corporate name, along with the green and yellow daisy logo, they can’t seem to break out of robber-barron mode. Hopefully, Dudley can have some influence, but as long as their Chairman of the Board is an aristocratic Swede who looks at all others as “small people“, I don’t have a lot of hope.
I’ll refrain from calling Hayward a Toffee-Nosed, Yacht-Racing-Snob as others have called him. I’ll just continue to hope that without him, BP will at some point have a chance gain a soul and remember the now 26 Americans who have been killed in two BP accidents, 5 years apart. Safe operations and profit are not mutually exclusive. You just need a management who cares enough to make it so.
Shrimper Diane Wilson might be going to jail for her high-profile protests against BP. Why is she so sure it’s worth it?
by Brooke Jarvis – posted Jul 23, 2010
For decades, Diane Wilson—a fourth-generation shrimper from Seadrift, Texas, a town roughly in the center of Texas’ Gulf coast—has been fighting to clean up the messes of the oil and petrochemical industries. First it was the chemicals pumped into a local bay by a plastics factory, then the Dow Chemical Company’s refusal to compensate the victims of the Bhopal disaster, then the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq in what she believes was a war for oil.Many protests and hunger strikes later, that plastics factory signed a zero discharge agreement. The anti-war group that Wilson helped found, Code Pink, has become a prominent national voice for peace. So it’s no wonder that Wilson is someone who believes in the power of protest—or that, when millions of gallons of oil started gushing into the waters she’d trolled since childhood, her anger turned into action.
That action has made national headlines and gotten Wilson dragged out of more than one Congressional hearing. On August 20, she’ll find out if it will land her in jail for two years. But for Wilson, who’s fond of saying that she’s “nobody particular,” there’s nothing exceptional or complicated about what she’s doing. “There comes a time,” she wrote, “when the home needs protecting and the line needs drawing and anybody that dares cross it acts at their own peril.”
Brooke Jarvis: People around the world have been horrified by this catastrophe. What has it been like for you and your neighbors in Seadrift? Diane Wilson: It was almost like seeing your own death. You cannot imagine it, but it appears to be happening. I think many people thought they really might see the end of the whole Gulf, just filling up like a river of oil, just wiping out everything. People are very, very upset about it. They don’t know what to do, because what is there to do? They can’t leave. Down here you are the 4th, 5th generation fishing or shrimping the same waters. You have a sense of place, and your identity is the place. I’ve been down here through I can’t tell you how many hurricanes, and people don’t leave even when they know a storm’s coming. Brooke: The big news this week is the cap on the BP oil pipe. When the oil spill is finally stopped, are you worried that it will be forgotten—that there will be a feeling that the problem is solved and we can return to business as usual?
Diane: I worry a lot about that. I’ve been involved in environmental struggles on the Gulf Coast for 20 years, and I’ve seen how quickly we can forget. I was involved in the Bhopal struggle, which is basically about the problem of forgetting—after 25 years and 20,000 deaths, it’s not solved but it’s not in the news, either. And in Alaska, it’s been 20 years since the Exxon Valdez, and they only ever recovered 8 percent of the oil.
I know how fickle media is. I’ve been trying to get stories out about oil for 20 years. I’ve talked with agencies, I’ve talked with politicians, and wouldn’t get any response. I started to feel like maybe there was something the matter with me, maybe what I was horrified about wasn’t so awful, so at times I really questioned myself. Then when we had this awful spill, suddenly almost those very same agencies and people were acting like it horrified them and they were immediately going to take action.
I know how the spotlight will change how people react, and I know how easily it goes away. We get bored very easily. I’m afraid that with even the littlest excuse, we will want to move on—people feel relieved to move away from this unpleasantness and from thinking about the big changes we need in this country. A lot of people would rather it just go away.
Brooke: What actions have you taken since the spill began, to keep the spotlight on?
Diane: People have a shield that protects them from bad news. It just kind of slides off, so you have to be very creative to break through. So one of our actions was inspired by women in Nigeria, who protested pollution from oil companies by taking off their clothes. I was amazed how much they accomplished nonviolently by pushing the comfort zone. So we went to BP’s control center in Houston, nude, and demanded “the naked truth” about oil. A lot of people said, “Oh no, you can’t do something like that in Houston. It’s the Bible Belt; the media will not come.” But they did, and the protest got a lot of press. We also had people come dressed as fishermen, as mermaids, as BP workers. A fisherman in Sargent, Texas brought probably 100 pounds of dead fish and a pile of shrimp nets. We poured fake oil over everybody.
Later I decided to go to Washington, D.C., because that’s where the hearings were happening. I got some Karo syrup, the syrup they make pecan pies with in Texas, and security let me in with this half a gallon of goo labeled “oil” on the side. I waited for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, from Alaska, to start talking. She should know the cost of an oil spill, from the Exxon Valdez; she should know the value of fishermen and wilderness. Yet she was the senator who was blocking the vote to lift the liability cap for BP. So I just stood up and started yelling. I said that I was from the Gulf and we are sick and tired of being dumped on. I poured oil all over myself. At one point they were going to charge me for assault for getting syrup on the guard. They said it was the messiest protest they had ever had.
Video of Tony Hayward’s Testimony
Then I heard that [BP CEO] Tony Hayward was going to testify. By this time I had Capitol cops following me everywhere, asking to see what was in my bag. I got to the Capitol at 10 o’clock the night before, and waited all night. They only let five people in—they were very, very nervous about anything happening. They wouldn’t let in any signs or anything that looked like it might be used in a demonstration, but they didn’t find the tube of paint I had in my pocket. When no one was looking I smeared it on my hands and face, and then I started yelling at Tony—I kept calling him Tony—that he ought to go to jail.So I was arrested in one week on two different charges of unlawful conduct and resisting arrest. I’ve had to go to court twice already. At this point I’m probably looking at about 2 years.
Brooke: If you end up going to jail, will it be worth it?
Diane: Oh, yes. I’ve been to jail before. I did an action regarding Bhopal: I scaled a chemical tower and breached security and trespassed—I got 180 days in jail.
With these BP actions I had no idea what I would accomplish, but I felt I had to do something. I felt so much anger and rage about what was going on, especially because they were lying about it. Somehow Tony Hayward represented everything that I felt was being killed out there on the bay. Everybody calls this an accident, but it was inevitable—you take that kind of risk, and it will eventually come down to this.
Brooke: Realistically, what can we change by getting mad?
At some time in our lives, we will come across some information that just hits us, and what we do with that bit of information will determine the rest of our lives.
Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I know that it sometimes takes very drastic and awful situations to change things. These times are critical windows when we can get things done—the only time when agencies and politicians and people are alarmed enough that we can move things.
Take offshore drilling. If all we have is a temporary ban, companies will be just waiting to start again when the six months are up. If that happens, what on Earth will we have learned from this monstrous problem?
We also have to make a decision about the type of energy we are using. It’s not whether we are going to move away from oil, because we eventually will, but whether we’ll do it when we can make a smooth transition or when we’re forced to, which will be chaos. We don’t have the luxury of time.And we have to do something about the power of corporations. They make their money using the resources of the whole planet, but they don’t get punished when they put it at risk. I think that people need to go to jail for this. We have to send a very clear message that you cannot take these kinds of risks without consequences.
We also have to change how we regulate corporations. Right now lots of them only self-report, and agencies don’t have budgets to check their reports or for enforcement.
Brooke: You’ve also been pushing to cap BP’s liability. Why is that so important?
Diane: It’s flat out crazy, when you are making $90 million dollars a day, to say that $75 million is the most you should be made to pay in liability. Lisa Murkowski said we need that low limit because otherwise smaller, mom-and-pop oil companies couldn’t drill in the Gulf. What mom-and-pop oil companies? She should be worried about mom-and-pop shrimpers.
If you are not forced to pay big time for your mistakes then you don’t value them. It gives the idea that you can take all kinds of chances and all kinds of shortcuts. I guarantee you that this planet cannot afford it. This is a finite planet and we are acting like its infinite.
Brooke: What would you say to people who are upset about the spill but don’t know what to do about it?
Diane: We are going to have to learn to not be so well behaved. We are going to have to move from our hearts. I have always believed that at some time in our lives, we will come across some information that just hits us, and what we do with that bit of information will determine the rest of our lives.
There are no excuses. If you look at the social changes that have been made in this country and all around the world, it is the people who seemed least able to make changes who did. We just forget that we have that kind of potential.
Brooke Jarvis interviewed Diane Wilson for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine’s web editor.
This is the book I thought I was buying when I bought the “valentine to Obama” by Jonathan Alter called “The “Promise.” Alter’s book, disappointingly, proved to be little more than a gift-wrapped package of apologies for Obama’s meager accomplishments so far: all done without any serious policy analysis. Incredibly, Alter makes Timothy Geithner into a hero?
Not so here. In this carefully researched nuanced brief, Kuttner is not afraid to call a spade a spade. He puts his analysis where his mouth is, and in doing so, provides some serious behind-the-scenes revelations about the cabal responsible for the financial collapse, albeit from an avowedly progressive perspective. Thank god however, this did not turn out to be just another Obama apologia. As a “born-again ex-Obama supporter,” I share the author’s main concern: That our new President has spent all of his political capital chasing the “phantom of bipartisanism” by “hacking,” “tacking” and “triangulating” his way to the right. In the process, he has had to cozy up to the Wall Street crowd, led by Bill Clinton’s buddy, Robert Rubin, and at the same time, has found it expedient to jettison his base — the progressives (like me) who “went to the well” for him during the election. Kuttner main point is that once we progressives have elected Obama, it is still our duty to help keep him honest? Well, excuse me? I thought that was precisely why we elected him?
Why is it that the Republicans do not have to “keep their elected officials” ideologically honest, when we democrats do? Why do, once we have elected them, they get the religious bug to want to move to the “non-existent center?” All of a sudden, once elected, democrats (but not Republicans) have found the new (non-existent) religion of bipartisanism? The American political system has finally become an ideological zero-sum game with no overlap.
So far, the Obama “rope-dope-for-hope” move to the center has gotten us nothing but an expanded insurance system written in big Pharma’s sweet spot. And even though Obama gave away the store — all of the items important to his base like the single-payer system, and the public option, etc. he netted a total of three Republican votes? Stripped of its progressive features, I feel like Obama used his bipartisanism to pee on our leg and tell us it was raining? Some kind of bipartinsanism that was?
Here, Kuttner has taken us deep into the bowels of the entire system of high-level financial corruption, and has made it about as transparent and as clear as it is ever likely to get in the U.S. Only the two hour pod cast by “This American Life” on the same subject has come close to making it clearer. What is NOT made so clear in this book however, is why Obama had to do it: why he had to ignore his base and move to the right where he got nothing in return? Is he just a “closet” neocon himself? Or, is he just paying back his ‘Big Dog” donors for their campaign contributions? Or, is it as his ex-Minister said: “Obama is just another Chicago politician?” Or does he think he can just continue to finesse us (his base) until 2012 rolls around and then give us a symbolic “song and a tap dance,” show up in a few Black churches, with a new sheaf of “pretty speeches” and we’ll just snap back in line? No chance this time.
Whatever is the correct answer, I agree with this author: that we are now in a multigenerational “Reagan type trickle-down holding pattern;” another Cheney/Bush jobless recovery. I also agree with him that we progressives need to get up off our duffs, stand up on our hind legs and bark back at Osama’s “rope-a-dope-for-hope strategy.” Its time to take to the streets and let the White House know we are not going to be “stiffed” any longer. Here Kuttner has identified the ringleader as Bill Clinton’s financial guru, Robert Rubin. But I believe it is clear that the Rubin crowd, simply are picking the low hanging fruit: There simply were too few disincentives NOT to join the deregulated Wall Street orgy already in progress with Cheney/Bush. Said differently, they simply stole a couple of plays from the Cheney/Bush playbook. And voila, since the financial rescue package, it’s been déjà vu all over again: continuing risky bets with our money, while the wall street pirates run out the “front door” with their pockets filled with mega-buck bonuses. For them, it is much more profitable to use our “TARP money” for risky credit default swaps that generate mega-million bonuses, than to lend to small banks that could then finance jobs for a speedy recovery. What happened to the idea of a common good on Wall Street?
So forget Osama’s photo ops, we must continue to keep our eyes on the donut and not on the hole: What we see today, most flagrantly exposed in the Gulf oil spill, is just more of the same greedy, mean-spirited, shortsighted and short-term bottom line-at-all-cost piracy that we saw during the Cheney/Bush years. Only this time it’s signed in blood in Osama’s name, underwritten by his tendency to turn his head the other way and give us a new limp-wristed “pep talk.” If this is hope that we can believe in, that audacious hope that he spoke of during the run up to the election, then we are as likely as not to see another serious crash in the economy before Obama’s term ends. And Barrack Obama knows it.
It’s the Corruption Stupid!
There is no way to fix what ails America from Osama’s limp-wristed “audacious hope rope-a-dope” position: that is, with media spin, pretty speeches, demagoging the other side, and photo opts. What ails America is systemic corruption, as far as the eye can see. I know it; Obama knows it, and the American people know it.
The reason Wall Street is back up and “humming” while main street is still in the “intensive care” ward, and the “real” unemployment rate still hovers around 20 percent with no relief in sight, is the same reason we cannot fix the “credit default swaps;” it is the same reason the U.S Supreme Court expanded corporate contributions to a First Amendment right at a time that credit default swaps and illicit corporate money are the two key issues causing all of the nation’s financial woes. It is the same reason that we have the Gulf oil spill: lax regulations bought and paid for by “Corporate USA Unlimited.”
The systemic dysfunction in American politics is this: no matter how deep our problems get, the ruling cliques just keep using their illicit contributions to redefine their own crimes as “legal” and then, like a Mack truck, they just keep on running over the American people. In short, corporate corruption has eaten away the “protective coating” around America’s democracy, and as a result, it is not only Obama’s presidency that is in peril, our very system of democracy is seriously in peril as well. We are lethally exposed to a systemic evil that continues to metastasize.
Kuttner ends his very pessimistic analysis on an optimistic note. But his heart is not in it. He knows that while we thought we had elected a thoroughbred — an intelligent leader with a backbone and a couple of cahones – what we got instead is just another Chicago politician. With the gulf oil crisis exposing his weaknesses and political nakedness even further, Obama has no choice but to bounce off the ropes trying to fight back as best he can. However, I believe it is too late. This President, for all the hope we had vested in him, is proving that he has been tarred with the same “corruption brush” that the Cheney/Bush crowd left us.
Kuttner has shown me enough. If Ben Bernanke begins two days of testimony before Congress Wednesday. WSJ’s David Wessel says if lawmakers can abandon their partisan politics, there’s one big question they need to ask the Fed chairman. I am recalling my 2008 vote for Obama and am opening up a new “Rev Jeremiah Wright Institute for Political Reform” (across the street from Oprah’s Harpo Enterprises). Nevertheless, this is a great book, for Kuttner shows here that while the American people may be down and out and almost powerless to change the system, we are not at all fools. Five stars.
Herbert Calhoun is a Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at Seattle. A graduate of the National War College and a Phd from the University of Southern California.
Peter Barnes, author of Climate Solutions, A Citizen’s Guide posted this article to Grist earlier this month. Unfortunately the climate bill was just pronounced dead by Senator Harry Reid. Will John Kerry resuscitate it in the weeks to come? Or will we have to wait for the next Republican president to muster enough votes , as Andy Revkin postulates? I’m not joking, that’s really what he said! Only time will tell…Which is cool because that’s the only thing we don’t have!
The Senate is tied in knots on climate legislation. In President Obama’s view, putting an economy-wide price on carbon is the most effective way to stimulate clean energy investment and jobs. Most Democrats — though not enough — agree. Roughly half a dozen Republicans, given some political cover, might go along, but the party’s leadership opposes a “national energy tax.” Sixty filibuster-proof votes are therefore not in sight. And after November, when Democrats are expected to lose seats, the prospects look even grimmer. What is to be done?
The conventional wisdom is to court Senatorial votes by giving handouts and exemptions to polluting industries.This has been the strategy pursued by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), and “pragmatic” greens until now.It hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to.The complexities are too great, and throwing people’s money at giant energy companies isn’t a popular idea these days.
There is, however, another way forward.It starts with the cap-and-cash-back approach, a.k.a. cap-and-dividend, embodied in the bipartisan CLEAR Act co-sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).Their 39-page bill caps and prices all carbon emissions, but instead of rewarding polluters — most of whom will pass their cost of polluting to their customers — it protects the people who will ultimately pay the bills — namely, us.
The CLEAR Act requires all first sellers of carbon — fuel companies like Exxon-Mobil and Peabody Coal — to buy permits from the federal government.These permits are auctioned, not given away free (after all, polluters should pay), and three-quarters of the proceeds are returned as equal payments to all legal U.S. residents.This is accomplished electronically every month, like Social Security.U.S. manufacturers and workers are protected by carbon fees at the border.
This straightforward system has numerous virtues.First, it’s simple, market-based, and explainable.Second, it would spur conservation, efficiency, and innovation throughout the economy, while keeping government out of the dicey and costly business of picking winners.Third, it’s transparent — it’s easy to see how the money flows.
Perhaps cap-and-cash-back’s greatest virtue is the pocketbook protection it affords middle class families throughout the long transition to clean energy.As carbon prices climb, so automatically will the cash families get back.Those with big houses, cars, and travel budgets will pay more in higher prices than they’ll get back (as they should), but roughly 70 percent will get back more than they pay.In other words, rather than imposing a national tax, cap-and-cash-back puts money in most Americans’ pockets.
Despite its self-evident appeal, political insiders have dismissed the CLEAR Act because it doesn’t buy off special interests, presumably a sine qua non in Washington these days.Another criticism is that it shifts money from people in the Midwest, where utilities rely mostly on coal, to people in other states whose electricity is less carbon-intensive.The magnitude of this shift is actually quite small, and it can be entirely eliminated — as Cantwell has suggested — by giving all states as much money back as they pay in.
The interesting political question is what to do with the 25 percent of auction revenue that isn’t returned to the people.The sums involved aren’t chicken feed: they’d amount to hundreds of billions of dollars over 40 years.The present version of the bill puts that money in a trust fund dedicated to an assortment of climate-friendly purposes.But other uses of this revenue might give the bill more traction while preserving its core virtue — installing a rising price on carbon in a simple, transparent and popular, hence durable, way.
What if, for example, that 25 percent was allocated to two grand public purposes: grants to states for job creation and federal deficit reduction?The proportions could change over time, with more job creation in the early years and more deficit reduction down the road.Such a clean-energy-plus-jobs-plus-deficit-reduction package might entice fence-sitters on both sides of the aisle.And because it’s short and simple, it could be offered as an amendment to another bill that comes to the floor this year.
Pulling this off would require, of course, presidential leadership; Obama would have to push the plan to senators and explain it forcefully to the American people.The latter task, fortunately, plays to his strength.And even in today’s acrimonious political climate, it would be hard for voters — and, one presumes, their senators — to resist a bipartisan policy that creates jobs, reduces our financial and ecological debts, and pays hard cash to everyone.
Our five delicious cheese books are 25% off until the end of July.
One of these is American Farmstead Cheese, The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses, by Paul Kindstedt. Paul works with the Vermont Cheese Council, as well as the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, which is housed at UVM. His book is for serious curd nerds, and this excerpt is a great example. In it he gives a crash course in the basics of milk chemistry that you’ll need to know if you want to make good cheese and be able to troubleshoot day in and day out.
“There will be many other books on this disaster but Bob Cavnar brings a unique perspective from inside the industry,’’ Publisher Margo Baldwin said. “He is the only knowledgeable oil man who can write the book that will dissect and explain what happened and what BP has done to keep the full story from public view. He has been in constant demand from the media for expertise on the accident from outlets such as MSNBC and TODAY.”
Disaster on the Horizon is a behind-the-scenes investigative look at the worst oil well accident in US history, which has led to the current environmental and economic catastrophe in the Gulf. Cavnar uses his 30 years in the business to take readers inside the disaster, exposing the decisions leading up to the blowout and the immediate aftermath. It will include personal accounts of the survivors, assembled from testimony during various investigations, as well as personal interviews with survivors, witnesses, and family. It will also provide a layman’s look at the industry, its technology, people, and risks.
It will deconstruct events and decisions made by BP, Transocean, and the US Government before and after the disaster, and the effects of those decisions, both good and bad.
Cavnar explains what happened in the Gulf, explores how we arrived at deep water drilling in the first place and then charts course for how to avoid these disasters in the future.
On a recent trip down to Durham, North Carolina, I was lucky enough to stay with Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of The Carbon-Free Home. Their beautiful two-story house produces enough energy to fill all of their energy needs and is outfitted with all kinds of ingenious projects straight from their book. In front, a garden grows everything from artichokes to pomegranates, while chickens roam around in the backyard. They were gracious enough to talk to me about how we can become a more sustainable society.
What’s the simplest home project people can do to start towards having a carbon-free home?
Two biggies are phantom loads and hanging up clothes to dry instead of using an electric dryer. Phantom loads are things like TVs and computers and also battery chargers that often are on standby and therefore partially on at all times. Using a power strip or motion-activated outlet to turn these things on or off when not in use can often reduce their power consumption by three-quarters. By one estimate, if people in the US were more conscientious about not having phantom loads, that would save enough electricy to power the continent of Australia. Folks often say that solar power is expensive and only for the wealthy, but much of our book is focused on things that both renters and homeowners can do that gives them access to renewable energy and also saves them money. Probably our favorite is hanging up clothes to dry on a solar clothes dryer instead of using a fossil-fuel powered dryer. For a typical household, installing one of these solar devices is roughly equivalent to installing $8-10,000 of solar electric panels.
Tinmouth, Vt.—During my recent travels in the Northeast, I stopped at Solarfest, a festival where environmentally oriented people could attend seminars on sustainable farming and alternative energy, hear some famous speakers, buy hippie clothes and confrontational bumper stickers, and eat bean burgers.
I was here to meet Philip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at Green Mountain College who was giving a talk based on the subject of his new book, Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader (Chelsea Green Publishing). The book, which recently got a glowing review in the Los Angeles Times, documents Mr. Ackerman-Leist’s views on the homesteading movement, along with stories about his own sometimes-difficult journey back to the land. (He and his wife lived in an old Vermont cabin without electricity or running water for seven years before he built a small, off-grid house on their acreage.)
I haven’t read the whole book, but I have read chunks of it, and they are outstanding—well-written and contemplative, with dashes of humor. In telling his story, Mr. Ackerman-Leist, who has a background both in sustainable farming and in philosophy, not only gives people a guide to homesteading but also grapples with some very big questions: What are the promises and perils of seeking a sustainable life? What is the true meaning of efficiency? What is the role of higher education in teaching sustainability and practical skills?
This is not a self-righteous book, and there seem to be no easy answers.
The following is one of the passages that Mr. Ackerman-Leist read at Solarfest—a passage that represents some of the qualities described above. It describes the day he and his wife, Erin, arrived at Green Mountain College. There, the young professor encountered an unlikely teacher, dressed in a campus-security uniform, to guide him on his quest to get back to the land. Enjoy …
Every homesteader needs a Virgil—a rooted local who can help one navigate the probability of purgatory, avoid a self-inflicted inferno (woodstove-related or not), and find the simple pleasures of the local paradise. These Virgils, guides into the geography and chronology of a place, can be found everywhere—in cities, suburbs, and small country towns, although they may be more anonymous and harder to find in well-populated areas. However, the best Virgils have a hard time remaining anonymous in smaller communities—places like Poultney, Vermont.
Carl was the first person we had met when we pulled up to the college’s main entrance, towing a U-Haul trailer behind our pickup in May 1996. With his cigarette, slight speech impediment, and bearish belly, it was easy to wonder if we hadn’t run into a backwoods vestige of old New England, poorly disguised in an ill-fitting uniform of a college security officer—the result of questionable casting on the part of a director who had no choice but to work with the locals provided him. But anyone who thought Carl fit into any ready-made role suggesting ignorance or backwoods obliviousness was quickly disabused of that notion.
He would amble into most any social situation and usually interject just the right verbal wedge to work his way into the grain of the conversation. Sometimes he made sure folks felt the force of the wedge, but more often than not they barely noticed how he inserted himself into the dialogue. His wit and charm would soon hang in the air as thick as his ever-present trail of cigarette smoke. The occasional Korean student at the college would be particularly rattled on first encountering him, as he would shift abruptly from an American welcome to a casual greeting in Korean.
An astute observer of human character, Carl had a full repertoire of approaches—and reproaches—that he could use to deal with a spectrum of personalities and situations. Within just a few minutes of meeting him upon our initial arrival at the college, he had us divulging our hopes of homesteading, as well as of establishing a college farm on the campus.
“What do you know about this area?” The question was delivered with what I soon learned was his trademark skeptical glance, replete with a downward tilt of his head and a tightened brow.
“Not much,” I replied.
“Would you go to Wall Street and start investing with pesos?”
I must have responded with a blank look: It was my first encounter with Carl’s pedagogy, full of aphorisms and momentarily perplexing parables.
Carl courteously filled in the blank for me since it was apparently a sample question on my first test—something he would soon refuse to do. “Well, if you don’t know much about the people or the place, then how are you going to figure out what to grow in the garden, much less survive on your new homestead? You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” His eyes sparkled, and he let out a reassuring laugh. But then he looked at me, ready for something resembling an intelligent response on my part.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to start asking questions.” I’m sure my tone exuded more naive optimism than confidence.
“Yeah, but you’ll save yourself a helluva lot of time and maybe even money by asking the right questions to the right people. In my experience, you academic types spend too much time standing in front of the mirror and asking questions of the only person you see.”
He looked at me with constricted eyebrows. “There aren’t many people around anymore who’ve got the answers to the questions you don’t even know you have yet.” His face softened a bit. “I guess I better help you find them before they all die off. Otherwise you might not survive very long in these parts.”
He looked straight at me and took a long draw on his cigarette. “I don’t know if you’re worth keeping around,” and then he smiled and pointed to Erin with the dying red tip of the cigarette. “But I like her already.” Erin blushed, but not before grinning.
When the 20 agents arrived bearing a search warrant at her Ventura County farmhouse door at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday a couple weeks back, Sharon Palmer didn’t know what to say. This was the third time she was being raided in 18 months, and she had thought she was on her way to resolving the problem over labeling of her goat cheese that prompted the other two raids. (In addition to producing goat’s milk, she raises cattle, pigs, and chickens, and makes the meat available via a CSA.)
But her 12-year-old daughter, Jasmine, wasn’t the least bit tongue-tied. “She started back-talking to them,” recalls Palmer. “She said, ‘If you take my computer again, I can’t do my homework.’ This would be the third computer we will have lost. I still haven’t gotten the computers back that they took in the previous two raids.”
As part of a five-hour-plus search of her barn and home, the agents — from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, Los Angeles County Sheriff, Ventura County Sheriff, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture — took the replacement computer, along with milk she feeds her chickens and pigs.
While no one will say officially what the purpose of this latest raid was, aside from being part of an investigation in progress, what is very clear is that government raids of producers, distributors, and even consumers of nutritionally dense foods appear to be happening ever more frequently. Sometimes they are meant to counter raw dairy production, other times to challenge private food organizations over whether they should be licensed as food retailers.
The same day Sharon Palmer’s farm was raided, there was a raid on Rawesome Foods, a Venice, Calif., private food club run by nutritionist and raw-food advocate Aajonus Vonderplanitz. For a membership fee of $25, consumers can purchase unpasteurized dairy products, eggs that are not only organic but unwashed, and a wide assortment of fermented vegetables and other products.
The main difference in the two raids seems to be that Palmer’s raiding party was actually much smaller, about half the size of the Venice contingent: Vonderplanitz was also visited by the FBI and the FDA.
In the Rawesome raid, agents made off with several thousand dollars worth of raw honey and raw dairy products. They also shut Rawesome for failure to have a public health permit, though the size and scope of the raid suggests the government officials might have more in mind. Regardless, within hours the outlet reopened in defiance of the shutdown order.
Earlier in June, agents of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, escorted by police and also bearing search warrants, raided and shut down Traditional Foods Warehouse, a popular food club in Minneapolis specializing in locally-produced foods. They also raided two farms suspected of illegally selling raw milk. And in a national first among such raids, agents searched a private home and made off with computers; the family’s offense appears to have been that it allowed one of the raw dairy farmers to park in its driveway to distribute raw milk to area residents who had ordered it.The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has declined comment on such raids, saying they are part of an ongoing investigation into raw milk distribution in the state in lieu of eight illnesses in May linked to raw milk.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection has launched three raids over the last three months on the dairy farm and farm store of Vernon Hershberger, near Madison. The day after DATCP agents placed seals on his fridges storing raw dairy products in July, Hershberger cut the seals, and announced he was going to challenge the agency’s contention he needs a dairy and retail license to sell his products. Obtaining such licenses would be problematic, though, since Wisconsin prohibits sale of raw milk, except “incidental” sales, and defining “incidental” has been a bone of contention for many years. In any event, Hershberger contends he sells only to consumers who contract privately for his food.
What’s behind all these raids? They seem to stem from increasing concern at both the state and federal level about the spread of private food groups that have sprung up around the country in recent years — food clubs and buying groups to provide specialized local products that are generally unavailable in groceries, like grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, fermented foods, and, in some cases, raw dairy products. Because they are private and limited to consumers who sign up for membership, these groups generally avoid obtaining retail and public health licenses required of retailers that sell to the general public.
In late 2008 and early 2009, the representatives of state agriculture agencies in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois met via phone conferences with representatives of the FDA to map a plan for targeting raw-milk buying clubs in the Midwest. The meetings came to light after Max Kane, the owner of a Wisconsin buying club who was subpoenaed by Wisconsin authorities for the names of his customers and suppliers, obtained email accounts of the sessions via a Freedom of Information request to Wisconsin’s Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection department. (Kane has since been prosecuted by Wisconsin authorities for contempt of court for failing to give up the names; his case is under appeal after he was found guilty last December.)
Now, the Midwest program seems to have gone national, and the recent spate of raids suggests a quickening pace and broadened scope. While most raids before the Midwest government meetings had been related to raw-milk distribution, some, like a December 2008 armed raid of Manna Storehouse, an Ohio food club near Cleveland, have been about licensing issues. In that raid, armed law enforcement officers held a mother and eight young children being home-schooled at gunpoint for several hours while they searched the home and food storage areas. A legal challenge to the raid by the family is still tied up in court.
The current uptick has Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund concerned, not only about the spreading of the raids, but about the seemingly easy willingness of judges to hand out search warrants. While the U.S. Constitution’s fourth amendment suggests judges should exercise tight controls over search warrants (“no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…”), Kennedy observes, “I haven’t seen an agency turned down yet” over the last four years in requests for search warrants connected with raw milk and other food production and distribution.
Given that the targets of search warrants don’t get a say in court as to whether they should be issued, legal experts and those who have been raided say the most that food producers can do is take steps to prepare themselves to weather the raids as best they can.
Here are five suggestions they offer:
Be wary of strangers who want to join your private buying group or herdshare: Before they seek out a search warrant, regulators invariably nose around and infiltrate private buying groups or raw milk herdshares to gain information on “probable cause.” They’ll often make up sad stories as to why they should be allowed to join. Gary Cox of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund recalls how an undercover agent from the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets infiltrated Meadowsweet Dairy LLC, a private organization of 120 Ithaca consumers who bought shares to gain access to raw dairy products, in 2007: “He was insistent. ‘I live so far away, and I only come here so very infrequently, so can’t I at least have some (milk) today, PLEEEEEEEASE, because otherwise I won’t be able to get any for a long time.’ Barb Smith felt sorry for him and relented. We know what the consequence was of her kindness.” The consequence was an open-ended search warrant that agents used several times in late 2007 and early 2008 to confiscate product, leading up to a legal challenge to the LLC that is currently under appeal following rulings in New York state courts against Meadowsweet.
Have a video camera at the ready: Since search warrants are usually specific as to what can be searched and/or seized, a video recording of events inhibits abuses by regulators and other law enforcement personnel. Regulators and law enforcement officials definitely don’t appreciate being videotaped, and sometimes will simply disconnect videos or order targeted individuals to put the videos away. According to Aajonus Vonderpanitz, in the June raid of his Rawesome Foods outlet, “They unplugged our surveillance camera to hide their actions. They threateningly refused video capture of their raid when members commenced filming.”
Have a plan of action: Much like planning how your family might escape a fire, decide in advance who will handle the video camera, who will collect business cards or take down the names of all agents, and who will interact with the regulators. The regulators and police count on the element of surprise to sow confusion, and keep the targets from responding intelligently.
Read the search warrant fine print: Sometimes there are limitations on the search warrants that targets can exploit. Vernon Hershberger, the Wisconsin dairy farmer, was able to slow the regulators down because he knew the search warrant in his case likely wouldn’t allow forcible entry, so when agents returned a second time, after he cut the seals on his fridges, he locked his farm store doors and they were forced to leave. They eventually returned with an amended warrant that specifically allowed them to take his computer.
Keep computer backups: In nearly all such raids, the authorities confiscate computers so they can document transactions and customer interactions. If you don’t have a backup of what’s on your disk, you can literally be put out of business. Moreover, it’s advisable to monitor what information you keep on the computer in the farmhouse or in your food club. There’s something to be said for backing up every few days onto another computer kept off-site.
David Gumpert is the author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights (Chelsea Green, 2009). He is also a journalist who specializes in covering the intersection of health and business. His popular blog has chronicled the increasingly unsettling battles over raw milk. He has authored or coauthored seven books on various aspects of entrepreneurship and business and previously been a reporter and editor with the Wall Street Journal, Inc. magazine, and the Harvard Business Review.