Psychedelics, Alone, Will Not Save Us From Dystopia

As noted in an earlier dispatch from this Dig, psychedelic pharmaceutical executives are exploring the idea of giving active-duty soldiers psychedelics, and are quick to assure the public that this is unlikely to turn military grunts into peacenik hippies. This is a departure from many historical assumptions about psychedelic use — and even some recent academic literature.

Psychedelic drugs have long been revered for their ability to pull back the curtain on reality and inspire grand visions for the future. And over the last decade, a number of academic papers have been released with results implying that psychedelics may aid in the creation of a healthier, more equitable world. These papers have suggested that psychedelics may lead to users being more politically liberal, inspire greater nature-relatedness and galvanize peace between warring nations, like Israel and Palestine.

Instagram post by Rick Doblin, the executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

But while these results may be true for some, there are an abundance of counterexamples that suggest psychedelic use, alone, will not bring about a healthier world.

Author Eric Lonergan has suggested that psychedelics are “politically pluripotent,” writing that “they can strengthen all sorts of political movements depending on the political orientation of the individual and the environment — the political set [state of mind] and setting [where and with whom psychedelics are used].”

This framing allows for positive experiences such as those listed above, in which psychedelics inspired more progressive politics, deeper eco-consciousness and anti-war sentiments. But it also creates space for the many counterexamples of psychedelic use which have not concluded in these results.

The following reading list provides a primer for dispelling the myth that psychedelics will usher in a progressive utopia without accompanying political activity aimed at systemic socioeconomic change.

Psychedelics: Politically Pluripotent by Eric Lonergan

Lonergan defines the idea of psychedelic “political pluripotency” and explores whether psychedelic drugs are politically left, right or neutral.

Right-Wing Psychedelia: Case Studies in Cultural Plasticity and Political Pluripotency by Brian Pace and Neşe Devenot

Pace and Devenot examine case studies of psychedelic users with unexpected political ideologies, such as anti-LGBTQ culture war profiteers, eco-fascists, neonazis, right-wing billionaires and more. Leading up to this paper, Pace published a number of investigations into right-wing figures who discuss their psychedelic use publicly, including Jake “the Q Shaman” Angeli; Frederick Brennan, the founder of 8chan (a forum where three mass shooters have unveiled their manifestos) and William Watson, a prominent face from the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

Strange Drugs Make For Strange Bedfellows: Ernst Junger, Albert Hofmann and the Politics of Psychedelics by Alan Piper

Piper makes the case that psychedelic use is not relegated to the left-wing, providing examples of historical psychedelic use by Nazis and present-day embracing of psychedelics by the Radical Right, who promote conservative revolutionary thought within the New Age milieu.

The False Promise of Psychedelic Utopia by Shayla Love

Love examines the nuance of psychedelic utopian narratives and interviews contemporary writers on the subject, concluding that “some advocates claim that widespread psychedelic use will change the world for the better. But it’s not so simple.”

Acid liberalism: Silicon Valley’s enlightened technocrats, and the legalization of psychedelics by Maxim Tvorun-Dunn

Building on Pace and Devenot’s Right-Wing Psychedelia paper, Tvorun-Dunn explores how Silicon Valley elite have integrated psychedelic mystical experiences into belief systems and philosophies that are explicitly anti-democratic, individualist and essentialist.

From Mining to Mushrooms and The Misadventures of Toxic Bob by Russell Hausfeld

From Mining to Mushrooms” investigates the infiltration of the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry by companies, investors, and executives from extractive industries. And “The Misadventure of Toxic Bob” spotlights the life of one psychonaut who went on to wreak outsized environmental destruction across the planet.

A Response to “Early Reflections on Interviews with Palestinians and Israelis Drinking Ayahuasca Together” by Sawsan Nur Eddin

A critical response to research using the psychedelic brew, ayahuasca, as a peacemaking tool between Israelis and Palestinians.

Dear Psychedelic Researchers by the Plus Three Podcast team

An open letter to researchers in the psychedelic field, asserting that “psychedelic medicalization will not revolutionize mental healthcare without systemic socioeconomic change.”

Magical (Psychedelic) Thinking in the Era of Climate Change and COVID-19 by Rachel Peterson

Peterson interrogates the assumption in psychedelic discourse that individual experiences of oneness will necessarily transform society for the better.

Psychedelics for Climate Action? By Erica Avey

Avey asserts that even if psychedelics play an integral role in the history and future of human imagination, consciousness and health, use en masse will not solve the climate disaster or save humanity.

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Paying for an Overheating Earth

Whose Planet Are We On?

On October 29th, 75-year-old Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo Bay’s oldest detainee, was finally released by U.S. authorities and flown home to his family in Karachi, Pakistan. He had been incarcerated for nearly two decades without either charges or a trial. His plane touched down in a land still reeling from this year’s cataclysmic monsoon floods that, in July, had covered an unparalleled one-third of that country. Even his own family’s neighborhood, the well-heeled Defense Housing Authority complex, had been thoroughly inundated with, as a reporter wrote at the time, “water gushing into houses.”

Having endured 19 years of suffering inflicted by the brute force of imperialism during America’s “Global War on Terror,” Paracha, along with all of Pakistan, will now suffer through the climatic devastation wrought by the invisible hand of economic imperialism. Indeed, even as his family members were embracing him for the first time since that fateful day in 2003 when he was seized in an FBI sting operation in Thailand, governments and corporations throughout the Global North were sharpening their knives, preparing to reassert their dominance as they do at every year’s U.N. climate conference — this one being COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

But delegates from climate-vulnerable, cash-poor countries like Pakistan and Egypt, along with members of climate-justice movements from across the planet, were also there. Tired of being pushed around, they had other plans.

A Breakthrough and an All-Too-Predictable Flop

At previous COPs, negotiations inside the hall were focused primarily on what’s come to be known as “climate mitigation” — that is, trying to keep future greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — along with adaptation to climate disruptions, past, present, and future. For the first time in official negotiations, COP27 would also feature the demands of low-income, vulnerable countries eager to be compensated for the devastating impacts they, like flooded Pakistan, have already suffered or will suffer thanks to climate change. After all, the global overheating of the present moment was caused by greenhouse gases emitted during the past two centuries, chiefly by the large industrial societies of the global North. In the shorthand of those negotiations, such polluter-pays compensation is known as “loss and damage.”

At previous climate summits, the “haves” resisted the very idea of the have-nots demanding loss-and-damage compensation for two chief reasons: first, they preferred not to admit, even implicitly, that they had created the crisis now broiling and drowning communities across the Global South, and, second, they had no interest in shelling out the humongous sums that would then be required.

This year, however, the shocking death and destruction inflicted by the inundation of Pakistan and more recently of Nigeria stoked an already surging movement to put loss and damage on COP’s agenda for the first time. And thanks to unrelenting pressure from that climate-justice groundswell, COP27 did end with the United States, the European Union, and the rest of the rich world approving an agreement to “establish a fund for responding to loss and damage.” Echoing the thoughts of many, climate justice leader Jean Su tweeted that the deal was “a testament to the incredible mobilization of vulnerable countries and civil society. Much work still to be done, but a dam has broken.”

If the world does commit sufficient (or even insufficient) funds to pay out on loss and damage (and that’s a truly big if ), vulnerable countries may finally have the means to begin recovering from the latest climate disasters.

The euphoria that followed over the creation of a loss-and-damage fund was well justified. But, as Su noted, the struggle is far from over. In a correction to its story reporting on that agreement, the Washington Post made clear that, although the batter had now been mixed, the cake was anything but in the oven. The paper informed readers, “An earlier version of this article incorrectly said wealthy nations agreed to pay billions of dollars into a loss and damage fund. While they agreed to create a fund, its size and financing mechanism have yet to be worked out.” Those two remaining how-much and how-to-do-it questions are anything but trivial. In the loss-and-damage debate, in fact, they’re the main issues countries have been arguing over for many years without resolution of any sort.

If the world does commit sufficient (or even insufficient) funds to pay out on loss and damage (and that’s a truly big if ), vulnerable countries may finally have the means to begin recovering from the latest climate disasters. Tragically enough, however, there’s little question that, as ever greater amounts of carbon and methane continue to head for our atmosphere, whatever the affected populations may need now, it’s likely just a hint of the sort of compensation they’ll need in a future guaranteed to be full of ever-increasing numbers of disasters like the Pakistan floods.

And the reason for that isn’t complicated: COP27 negotiators failed to match their loss-and-damage breakthrough with any significant progress on reining in greenhouse gas emissions. Efforts to come to an agreement on phasing out the chief sources of those emissions — oil, gas, and coal — flopped, as they have at all previous COPs. The only thing the negotiators could manage was to repeat last year’s slippery pledge to pursue a “phase-down [not ‘-out’] of unabated [not ‘all’] coal [nor ‘coal, gas, and oil’] power.”

On the one hand, civil-society movements prevailed in the debate over loss and damage. On the other, energy imperialism remained all too alive and well in Egypt, as corporate interests and the governments that serve them extended their 27-year winning streak of blocking efforts to drive emissions down at the urgently required rate. Yeb Saño, who led Greenpeace’s COP27 delegation, told, “It is scarcely credible that they have forgotten all about fossil fuels. Everywhere you look in Sharm el Sheikh you can see and hear the influence of the fossil fuel industry. They have shown up in record numbers to try and decouple climate action from a fossil fuel phaseout.”

How to Pay?

The World Bank estimates that the floods in Pakistan caused more than $30 billion in damage, while rehabilitation and reconstruction will cost another $16 billion. And that, says the bank, doesn’t even include funds that will be needed “to support Pakistan’s adaptation to climate change and overall resilience of the country to future climate shocks.” The floods seriously harmed an estimated 33 million people, displaced 8 million from their homes, and left more than 1,700 dead. According to the World Bank’s report, “Loss of household incomes, assets, rising food prices, and disease outbreaks are impacting the most vulnerable groups. Women have suffered notable losses of their livelihoods, particularly those associated with agriculture and livestock.” The disaster starkly illustrated the indisputable moral and humanitarian grounds for compelling the governments of rich countries to pay for the devastation their decades of fossil-fuel burning have caused.

For Pakistan in particular, America’s lavishly funded war-making and national-security industries are joined at the hip with the global climate emergency. While those forces are directly responsible for depriving Paracha and countless others of their freedom or lives, the greenhouse-gas emissions they generate have also contributed to the kind of devastation that he came home to when finally released. Furthermore, these industries have wasted trillions of dollars that could have been spent on preventing, adapting to, and compensating for ecological breakdown.

So far this fall, Washington has pledged $97 million (with an “m”) in flood-relief aid to Pakistan. Sounds like a lot of money, but it amounts to just one five-hundredth of the World Bank’s loss-and-damage estimate. In bleak contrast, from 2002 to 2010 alone, at the height of that Global War on Terror, the U.S. government provided Pakistan with $13 billion (with a “b”) in military aid.

To dodge blame and minimize their costs, the rich countries have been proposing a range of alternatives to simply paying loss-and-damage money to low-income ones as they should. Instead, they’d far prefer to have disaster-plagued governments finance their own climate-change recovery and adaptation by borrowing from banks in the North. In effect, rather than obtain relief-and-recovery funds directly from the North, countries like Pakistan would be obligated to make interest payments to banks in the North.

So far this fall, Washington has pledged $97 million (with an “m”) in flood-relief aid to Pakistan. Sounds like a lot of money, but it amounts to just one five-hundredth of the World Bank’s loss-and-damage estimate.

Fed up with having unbearable debt burdens thrust upon them time and time again, countries in the South are saying no thanks to the proposition that they go even deeper into debt. In response, the North has been tossing out other ideas. For instance, encouraging development banks like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund to release disaster-hit countries from their obligations to pay some portion of the money they already owe as interest on past debts and use it instead to support their own recovery and rebuilding. But countries in the South are saying, in effect, “Hey, for decades, you’ve used your power to saddle us with punishing, unjust debt. By all means, please do cancel that debt, but you’ve still got to pay us for the climate loss and damage you’ve caused.”

The rich countries have even floated the idea of taking a portion of the money they’ve previously earmarked for development aid and depositing it in a global fund that would pay damages to vulnerable countries suffering future climatic disasters. Note the key to all such “solutions”: no extra expense for the wealthy countries. What a sweet deal! It’s as if, domestically, the U.S. government started issuing smaller Social Security checks and used the money it “saved” that way to pay Medicare benefits.

The new COP27 loss-and-damage fund is supposed to prohibit such shell games, while also pulling climate finance out of the realms of imperialism, debt servitude, and what Oxfam calls the “disaster begging bowl.” What’s needed, says Oxfam, an organization focused on alleviating global poverty, is “a fair and automatic mechanism for financial support — rooted in the principle that those who have contributed most to the climate crisis pay for the damage it causes in countries least responsible and hardest hit.”

How Much and Where to Get It?

When confronted with numbers ending in “-illion,” as Americans were during the debates over the congressional spending bills of 2021 and 2022, it’s easy enough for your eyes to glaze over and miss the orders-of-magnitude differences among such figures. In an American world where the Pentagon budget alone is headed for $1 trillion sometime in this decade, it’s easy enough to forget, for example, that a million of those dollars is just one-millionth of a trillion of them. In response, in discussing the staggering sums needed to deal with our already desperately overheating planet and the amounts available to pay for loss and damage, we’ll now put everything in terms of billions of U.S. dollars.

High-emitting countries like ours have run up quite a climate tab. A June 2022 report from the V-20 group, which represents 55 of the world’s lowest-income, most climate-vulnerable economies, estimates that, from 2000 to 2019, their membership lost $525 billion thanks to climate disruption. That’s a huge blow to a staggeringly large set of countries whose gross domestic products add up to just $2,400 billion. But in the Global North, such sums and even far larger ones, while more than pocket change, are still easily affordable, as that Pentagon budget suggests.

By Oxfam’s reckoning, hundreds of billions of dollars could be raised for paying loss-and-damage by taxing fossil-fuel extraction, international cargo shipping, frequent flying, and other significantly carbon-producing activities. Progressive wealth taxes could net even more: $3,600 billion annually, according to the Climate Action Network (CAN), which also estimates that ending government subsidies to corporations (one-third of which go to fossil-fuel companies) could net $1,800 billion annually. Furthermore, cuts in military spending could free up a whopping $2,000 billion per year globally. The latter could be an especially juicy target. For instance, by CAN’s estimate, the United States’s fair share of payments owed to the Global South for climate mitigation and adaptation, plus loss-and-damage reparations, would come to roughly $1,600 billion over the next decade. And those 10 payments of $160 billion each could be covered if the Pentagon just ditched production of its most disastrously expensive jet fighter, the $1,700 billion F-35, and diverted the money toward climate assistance.

It’s always the government’s job to spend big when America faces a dire emergency, wherever the money comes from. In 2020-2021, Congress passed more than $3,000 billion in Covid relief — enough to pay our international climate tab, as estimated by CAN, for 19 years.

“Our Cause Is One”

Shortly after Saifullah Paracha’s return to Karachi in October, another family, in Sharm el Sheikh 2,340 miles away, had embarked on what reporter Jeff Shenker called “a desperate and possibly reckless mission” to save the life of one of their own: the British-Egyptian human-rights activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, possibly Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner.

Abd el-Fattah, who has spent most of the last decade behind bars for speaking out against Egypt’s oppressive regime, had been on a partial hunger strike since April. After visiting him on November 18th, his family reported that he had broken his hunger strike “out of a desire to stay alive, but he would resume it if no progress was made regarding his freedom.” His sister Sanaa Seif told reporters inside the COP27 conference hall, “He’s not in prison for the Facebook post they charged him with. He’s in prison because he’s someone who makes people believe the world can be a better place. He’s someone trying to make the world a better place… There are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. There are more around the world. Climate activists get arrested, kidnapped in Latin America. We face the same kind of oppression, and our cause is one.”

What is Guantánamo Bay but a place where the American empire has practiced its human-breaking tactics for 20 years without accountability offshore of any system of justice? What is the U.N. climate summit but a meeting place where the world’s elite have protected their power for 27 years and counting?

“He’s not in prison for the Facebook post they charged him with. He’s in prison because he’s someone who makes people believe the world can be a better place.”

Living as a “forever prisoner” (as the Guardian dubbed Saifullah Paracha in 2018) was, he once said, “like being alive in your own grave.” Forever wars, forever prisoners, forever climate chaos, forever theft. That’s the world we live in, where governments like those of the United States and Egypt throw innocent Muslims like Saifullah Paracha and pro-democracy dissidents like Alaa Abd el-Fattah into prison for standing in the way of their forever-repressive interests.

Reporting on the struggle to free Abd el-Fattah, Shenker noted, “The phrase ‘We Have Not Yet Been Defeated’ became the unofficial slogan of COP27, a reference to the title of a book by Abd el-Fattah published in 2021, ‘You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.’” Could the perseverance and courage of people like Paracha, Abd el-Fattah, and the activists for climate justice and human rights — both those who attended the conference at Sharm el Sheik and countless others around the world — make it possible someday to drop the “Yet” and say simply, “We Have Not Been Defeated”?

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The Culture Workers Go On Strike

Earlier this month, I spent a morning with Rachel Urkowitz on the picket lines in front of Parsons School of Design and the New School, which is part of the latter. Rachel is my closest friend, an artist who has taught at Parsons for nearly 20 years, instructing a generation of students about color, light, and the history of visual culture. At all the schools under the New School umbrella, 87 percent of instructional staff are adjuncts like Rachel. Yet although they make up the vast majority of professors, the pay gap between them and, say, administrators is enormous: The adjuncts’ salaries comprise only 8.5 percent of the overall budget, with some instructors saying that they make only $4,000 per class. It is impossible to live on such low salaries, especially in places with high housing costs such as New York City.

The mood on the lines was aggrieved but also joyous with burgeoning solidarity. One adjunct tap danced; another blew a shofar; a third had a union sign pinned to their baby’s pram. “Where’s Our Social Justice,” a sign read, perhaps referring to a director of brand strategy for the college who told a student reporter that “social justice plays a role in the New School’s branding”—or more elliptically to the fact that the college was founded over 100 years ago by progressive intellectuals. Tenured professors came to show support, while truck and ambulette drivers honked in appreciation as they passed. It was, for a moment, a version of New York City where those who show students how to write and those who drive groceries cross-country see common cause, their struggles creating mutual recognition, a kind of democratic kismet.

This season culture workers are organizing against their own exploitation. Professors of art, workers at museums, and assistants at a publishing house have all gone on strike or staged public protests during contract negotiations. Call this a black-turtleneck-worker uprising rather than a white-collar one. “Wages are stagnant and we earn far lower salaries than our peers elsewhere,” the union representing employees at the Brooklyn Museum recently tweeted. They’ve been busy protesting outside their work site. During one action, workers held up signs decrying the vacuity of the VIP opening for the museum’s haute couture fashion exhibit: One read, “You can’t eat prestige.” (The union is calling for a 7 percent salary increase this year and raises of 4 percent per year for each of the two years following.) Unions are currently on strike at the publisher HarperCollins and at the University of California system, where 48,000 academic workers are sitting out their underpaid teaching gigs.

The culture strikes also point not just to new waves in labor rights but equity successes within arts institutions.

Throughout the museum sector, there is also a surge of collective actions. In Beacon, New York, and other sites around the country, the staff at the Dia Art Foundation have voted to form a union. Ohio museum workers, known as Columbus Museum of Art Workers United, recently voted nearly unanimously in favor of unionizing with Afscme Ohio Council 8. At the Field Museum in Chicago, workers urged their CEO to recognize their union, and in Philadelphia, after a 19-day strike, museum workers were recently able to get their employer to agree to wage increases totaling 14 percent across the life of the contract until July 2025. It’s such a phenomenon that cultural strikes have even led to that ultimate proof-of-trend, their own podcastArt and Labor.

These uprisings reveal just how much brain work has become gig work. According to the advocacy group the New Faculty Majority, 75.5 percent of college faculty work outside tenure-track positions. While that leaves their careers far more tenuous than in previous generations, it does carry one positive side effect: Working for multiple institutions to survive means workers cross-pollinate more than they used to. Interacting with other cultural and academic institutions means that they share their new intelligence about employment and contracts with their brethren and unionization thus catches on more rapidly.

This group is part of what I have called Middle Precariat, or the precarious middle class. It’s a group I got to know well while working on my last book, Squeezed, where I focused on adjuncts who lived on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program support and schoolteachers whose salaries were so low in expensive cities that they had to moonlight as Uber drivers, literalizing “the Uberification” of education. I argued that we need to see these workers in a continuum with other contingent workers.

Part of why this reckoning is happening now is that inflation has made their already challenging livelihoods even more impossible to subsist on. The Great Resignation and the unionization in other sectors have also helped spur on these actions. They were inspired by new organizing and unionization drives, like those at Starbucks or REI, companies that had a progressive lacquer that didn’t always match their work conditions (much like the New School). Several of these striking culture workers also pointed to how they were now too a part of a gig-based economy, much like Amazon workers, subsisting in underpaid but also fractured workplaces. Lee-Sean Huang, a part-time assistant professor at Parsons, who is now also representing the part-time faculty at the New School, said that before the strike, he was so caught up in teaching and various other work that it was hard to see the bigger picture of the institution. Another Parsons adjunct, Molly Ragan, had, before the strike, felt isolated while teaching and that her work as contingent faculty took place in “silos that were built by design, to keep us from sharing our frustrations but also our joys.”

Ragan, 28, teaches two classes a semester, earning roughly $10,000. The inadequacy of this pay is why she also works full time for the United Auto Workers, the union that now houses the professors’ union, as well as those of the Brooklyn Museum workers and the striking editorial assistants in midtown. Ragan for one feels newly connected not only to her colleagues but to what she describes as “the beautiful world of organizing.” In the past, some of these culture workers weren’t particularly aware of how unions functioned. This isn’t entirely surprising, as individualism was often baked into museums and academia, fields where participants were encouraged to venerate singular creation. But some of these auteurist fixations are also dissipating.

The culture strikes also point not just to new waves in labor rights but equity successes within arts institutions. Having achieved some level of diversity means that there are now art workers who are not heirs and there are a growing number of them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 33,600 such jobs in 2021 and these jobs are estimated to grow at 12 percent between 2021 and 2031, a faster pace than jobs overall.

The culture worker strikes also betoken something of a return to an earlier time of unionism.

In addition, some of these workers are now attending workshops about equity yet still can’t pay for their rent, and the hypocrisy is hard to miss, as Laura Raicovich, former director of the Queens Museum and author of the book Culture Strike, explains to me. The lip service toward social justice inevitably provokes a question: If these academic and cultural institutions can’t pay their workers fairly, how can they claim to be inclusive in their marketing literature? The gap in pay between CEOs and regular workers has grown dramatically: That is true in the academy and museums as well. But this rise in income inequality has been accompanied by recognitions—rhetorically, personally, and politically—of the problems of inequity.

Ragan believes that this awareness has only intensified over the last few years. “There’s a whole new class of precarious workers out there who’ve been radicalized throughout the pandemic,” Ragan said. “We’re using those containers—structures that already exist, like the UAW, to help us finally build strong unions.”

The culture worker strikes also betoken something of a return to an earlier time of unionism. While some conservative politicians bemoan such a revisitation of 1970s America—as Aaron Timms put it, “nostophobia”—the cultural and academic workers would seem to benefit from disruptions of business, including the formation of new unions and strikes by existing ones.

By the end of last week, bargaining was stalling and the adjuncts I spoke with didn’t have high hopes for a satisfying resolution. On Monday, the New School union put out a press release vowing to continue the strike for a second week through the Thanksgiving holiday. “The New School’s reputation rests on its progressive history and professed values,” the union said in the release. “Its treatment of the faculty fails to meet those values.”

“The final deal will be some kind of compromise,” Huang mused to me, suggesting that any agreement will be one that both sides will not be fully at peace with. But for him and others, there was a realization that striking itself was not separate from teaching but rather “a continuation of being an educator, only this time the lesson is about organized labor.”

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Make the Blues America’s National Anthem

Recently my wife Janet and I splurged on tickets to a spellbinding concert by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The music was memorable, as was an offhand comment by orchestra leader and trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis. Introducing a blues number, Marsalis suggested that the blues should be America’s national anthem.

The audience laughed. But I took this as a serious and brilliant suggestion. It’s worth some discussion.

The blues is a uniquely American (at first solely African American) musical form. Unlike minstrel tunes and cakewalks, it wasn’t easily hijacked by the dominant culture to parody and demean African Americans; nor was it, like ragtime, adapted by Blacks from popular Euro-American dance forms like the march or the two-step. Instead, it erupted directly as a raw response to degrading conditions forced upon resilient, creative people by the deeply racist society that had kidnapped and enslaved their ancestors. In both form and expression, the blues was startlingly original. And, in its first iterations, there was almost nothing commercial about it.

The blues began to emerge in the South, probably around the time of the Civil War. However, an exact year or place is impossible to pin down. It began as rural, improvised vocal music that invited simple instrumental accompaniment. It quickly caught hold and flourished, persisting alongside spirituals and, later, ragtime. In 1909, W.C. Handy copyrighted what is often cited as the first blues composition, “The Memphis Blues,” but it was not written strictly in the form of a blues, and was preceded by Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Blues,” composed in 1902. During the 1920s, blues singer-composers like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey were so popular that the New York-based commercial tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley churned out dozens of songs with the word “blues” in their titles — songs that, in form and spirit, had little to do with real blues.

The musical form of the blues is simplicity itself: three chords spread over 12 bars in 4/4 time, with lots of repetitions (there are also 8- and 16-bar blues forms, and extra chords can be judiciously added to provide more musical variety). In its essence, the blues is so uncomplicated that any teenage kid with a guitar can get in on the action, as three British lads named Clapton, Page and Richards did in the early 1960s, going on to make fortunes that eluded the Black American blues artists they were imitating.

Why would the blues make a great national anthem? 

First, almost anything would be better than our current anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is hard to sing and has lyrics that only a historian can relate to. Hardly anyone really likes it, though most Americans, when asked, say they’d prefer to stick with it rather than change to a different song. 

Many of the oft-suggested alternatives are characterized by corny triumphalism or smarmy patriotism (“America the Beautiful,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” or “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”). The best of the front-runners is undoubtedly Woody Guthrie’s folksy “This Land Is Your Land.”

The blues, however, has a lot going for it as a long shot candidate. Blues may be America’s greatest cultural gift to the world; if not, it’s certainly on the shortlist. It was the key contributor to the origins of jazz, rock and roll, funk, soul, R&B and hip hop, and it deeply influenced country and western, and bluegrass music. Without blues, it’s fair to say, there might be little recognizably American music. Blues embodies human resilience in the face of adversity and suffering. It’s therefore the perfect musical tonic for a nation founded on slavery and genocide (Native Americans have the incentive to play the blues with genuine feeling; check out Cecil Gray’s “Native Blues”), and a country of extreme economic inequality whose fossil-fueled luck is starting to run out.

Indeed, Americans will have plenty of reasons to sing the blues as this century wears on — as their nation’s oil and gas production inevitably declines; as climate change worsens droughts, wildfires and megastorms; as decades of unsustainable economic growth turn to decades of contraction; as mountains of government, corporate and consumer debt come due; and as festering resentments (urban/rural, racial and regional) further erode an already fraying set of norms that enable political and legal systems to function. The key to national survival will be a collective willingness to share the pain (instead of blaming scapegoats), celebrate our common humanity and build a new culture that’s both ecological and humane. I can think of no music more fitting as a soundtrack for that enterprise than the blues. 

One argument against the blues as America’s national anthem is simply that blues is more of a musical genre than a specific composition. Should a particular blues song be proposed to Congress? 

If so, then first consideration should go to the works of Bessie Smith, who wrote and performed many of the most popular blues ballads of the last century. (My personal pick would be her “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues.”) Then there’s B.B. King’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” and Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail.” For boomers and rockers, a top choice might be Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”

The possibilities are nearly endless. But why should we be required to choose? Maybe each official occasion could open with a different blues song. Of course, the chances of Marsalis’s suggestion being taken up by officials in Washington are virtually nil. But I still dream of a World Series game kicking off with a rousing, full-throated chorus of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” In that fantasy future, America might actually redeem itself.

The post Make the Blues America’s National Anthem appeared first on Truthdig.

Are Police Helicopters Worth the Cost?

Beni Benitez was 13, and lying in bed trying to fall asleep, when a bright flash made him open his eyes. His siblings were asleep on the bottom bunk. But a glaring light shone into the room, and the windows started shaking. His anxiety spiked as he heard the vibrating chop of a police helicopter.

Growing up just south of Downtown Los Angeles, Benitez was used to hearing police overhead. But that night, the aircraft’s spotlight was fixed on his apartment building. Minutes later, patrol cars pulled up, sirens blaring. Officers told Benitez’s family to wait outside while they searched for a suspect.

“They went in, and they trashed our place,” Benitez said. He felt a lot of emotions: anger, fear, humiliation. The experience led him to think that police officers misuse the power of the badge to inflict pain, physical and mental.

“I would say that it’s shaped a lot of the things that I now do,” said Benitez, a 22-year-old activist who dreams of becoming a counselor for young people in his neighborhood. He now sees the police helicopters as not just intimidating, but as wasteful government spending.

“Why is it that we’re still funding these systems that keep oppressing us, and hurting us and harming us, when the solution is investing in us?” he said.

Benitez is among a growing number of activists, academics and political figures questioning the usefulness of police helicopter programs. Amid a broader debate over law enforcement budgets, reform advocates are asking whether helicopters bring value to public safety worth the costs incurred and harms inflicted.

Los Angeles’ police and sheriff’s departments have amassed among the largest helicopter units of any local law enforcement agencies in the world, costing city and county residents tens of millions of dollars each year for patrols that disproportionately hover over low income communities of color, according to government records.

The helicopters have hovered for decades with little evidence of their necessity. The departments’ claims about the effectiveness of aerial patrols rely mainly on studies they conducted more than 50 years ago. Those early studies are not only outdated, they were dubious from the start, and more recent and comprehensive tests suggest no correlation between the use of aerial patrols and declines in crime rates, and that such patrols cost more than they’re worth in terms of benefits, according to a review of the research and interviews with experts.

A university research team is looking at whether the flights may be disrupting sleep and causing health problems, with disproportionate harms in low income Black and brown neighborhoods. And advocates like Benitez are calling to shift funds out of helicopter units and into improving access to education, housing and other necessities.

“That constant presence up in the sky is harmful, and that’s by design,” said Matyos Kidane, an activist with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a volunteer group working to end police surveillance. “These helicopters cost millions of dollars and are burning fuel surveilling poor neighborhoods,” he said. “That’s resources that the poor community down there needs, and it’s being burned right above them.”

Most Americans know police helicopters from live news broadcasts of high speed car chases and portrayals in films, songs and TV shows. If you live in a place like Los Angeles, you’ve also seen and heard them overhead. 

Helicopter patrols are “presented as exciting and powerful,” said Caren Kaplan, a University of California, Davis, professor who studies how law enforcement uses military aerial technologies. “That’s how it gets normalized, because it’s so ubiquitous in popular culture.”

Nationwide, choppers have become a widely accepted policing tool since Southern California law enforcement agencies first tested them for patrols five decades ago.

At the time, government and private interests aligned to sell helicopters to police. But the studies that convinced hundreds of U.S. cities and counties to invest in helicopter patrols—and which the LAPD cites as evidence of ongoing effectiveness—relied on dubious methodologies, making their findings questionable.

Helicopters seemed promising when a Hughes Aircraft Company salesman pitched Los Angeles’ police and sheriffs on a “flying police car” in the mid-1960s. Urban unrest, especially the Watts revolt in 1965, convinced both agencies to test frequent aerial patrols as a way to control racial justice protests by surveilling neighborhoods and coordinating officers on the ground.

“Watts is this major point where the use of air patrol, and helicopters in particular, becomes really important for the police,” said Max Felker-Kantor, an historian and author of the book Policing Los Angeles. As law enforcement leadership became increasingly concerned with riots, they adopted a mindset of “We need to have all these new techniques, we need new gear,” Felker-Kantor said.

Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis with complex geography, has had a police force relatively small for its population when compared to cities like New York. In the 1960s the police and sheriffs were intent on repurposing technology built in Southern California for war and space exploration, with the hope of professionalizing their operations and expanding their reach.

Los Angeles law enforcement agencies’ desire to test helicopters coincided with President Lyndon B. Johnson declaring a “war on crime” and setting aside money for local law enforcement agencies. 

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, then run by Sheriff Peter Pitchess, rented three Hughes helicopters and obtained the biggest law enforcement grant ever awarded by the federal government to test patrols in 1966. The authors of the report on the pilot program, Project Sky Knight, claimed chopper surveillance could prevent crime and “multiply force” by making law enforcement visible and audible across wide swaths of the landscape.

The LAPD conducted a similar federally funded test of helicopter patrols soon after, supported by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which also touted the benefits of aerial policing, including for reducing property crimes and increasing arrests.

Once effectiveness was “proven” by both agencies, Aviation Unit Chief Hugh MacDonald, who helped spearhead Sky Knight, retired from the sheriff’s department and joined Hughes Aircraft in using the reports to market helicopters to other law enforcement agencies, hundreds of which adopted the aircraft.

Neighborhood associations have protested against law enforcement helicopters since the flights began in the 1960s.

The federal government continues to fund local law enforcement helicopter units. The Justice Department has given more than $2 million to such units since 2008. The Defense Department has also donated more than 300 “demilitarized” helicopters, originally valued at $94 million overall, to sheriff’s, state police and highway patrol departments in 30 states since the 1990s. Florida, Alabama, California, Tennessee and Texas sheriffs have received most of those helicopters.

Los Angeles’ police and sheriff’s departments now maintain at least 17 helicopters each and keep those choppers in the air for regular day and night patrols.

To this day, the LAPD’s Air Support Division defines its “functional objectives” based on the early study, according to its policy manual. The department also promotes the NASA study on its website

But even if the findings were not outdated, they were likely inaccurate to begin with, experts said.

The federal government itself has acknowledged that “historically, the debate regarding the benefits and costs of airborne policing has been void of rigorous evaluation and empirical data,” according to the National Institute of Justice’s most recent review of law enforcement helicopter operations in 2012.

Nicholas Shapiro, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor who is currently studying the health and climate impacts of law enforcement helicopters in Southern California, said, “There’s just huge logical leaps” in the early studies.

Shapiro’s research team identified fundamental problems with the crime predictions and comparisons underpinning the LAPD helicopter study, such as conflating increased arrests with prevented crime and comparing real crime rates to modeled predictions. The study’s authors also excluded data from 1965, when the Watts riots occurred, because they acknowledged this data would skew their results.

“What they think that they’re seeing in terms of efficacy is relying upon not just methodological problems, but the inferential limitations of their evidence are really dramatic,” Shapiro said.

Elliot Framan, a researcher who worked on the 1970 study of the LAPD’s helicopter program, said an updated review would be warranted. “Clearly, police procedures and equipment, much less the situation on the ground, have changed enormously,” he said. “A new study might be more effective and worthwhile.”

Paul Whitehead, a sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, agrees that the early studies were flawed. Whitehead was invited by the city of London, Ontario, Canada, to conduct a more recent study of helicopter patrol effectiveness in 2000. 

The early studies had “very poor research designs,” Whitehead said, which “lead to serious questions about the validity of their findings.” Many were “done with the purpose of finding the evidence that helicopters improved policing. And everything was aimed at reaching that conclusion even before the first piece of data was collected,” he said. 

As such, Whitehead sought to address those deficiencies in his own study, which remains the most comprehensive of its kind. 

Whitehead found that helicopters did not reduce crime rates and, because they were so expensive to buy and operate, any cost savings that came from using them for patrols did not come close to equaling their expense. 

“Do helicopter patrols reduce crime? The answer is no,” Whitehead said. 

Since then, a more limited test in 2019 by four police districts in Sweden similarly found that helicopter patrols had no significant effect in deterring crime.

Chopper One TV Series (1974)

As Los Angeles’ helicopter patrols persist, some residents are raising concerns that the flights may be disproportionately targeting Black and Latino neighborhoods, harming the mental and physical health of their residents. 

Over the years, the LAPD has internally tracked limited data on its helicopter flights, and used that data, along with predictive policing algorithms, to plan hundreds of flights each month. The department flew more than 6,000 of these data-driven missions in 2021, which is a 30% increase since 2019. But many of the metrics the department documents replicate problems from its early study and appear to generate patrols mostly targeting low income communities of color.

This use of data “provides a sort of technological veneer to reaffirm the kinds of policing practices they’ve already been historically engaged in,” said Andrea Miller, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies the relationship between technology and security. Miller said that when police departments like the LAPD use past crime data to predict future crimes and decide where to concentrate their patrols, it creates a cycle wherein the most policed communities continue to be overpoliced.

Areas in South Los Angeles, including the 77th Street, Southwest and Newton police divisions that cover neighborhoods including Hyde Park, Crenshaw and Historic South Central, are among those most frequently patrolled by police helicopters and for the longest time, according to LAPD records. Residents have noticed the persistence of these patrols. 

Neighborhood associations have protested against law enforcement helicopters since the flights began in the 1960s, mainly because of air and noise pollution. At the time, Silver Lake residents thwarted the LAPD’s effort to build a heliport in Elysian Park. But by the 1980s, the police department built the world’s largest law enforcement helipad in downtown, allowing for today’s around-the-clock flights.

“I feel like I’ve never lived in a place where helicopters weren’t disturbing the peace,” said Tauheedah Shakur, 26. She grew up in South Los Angeles but recently moved to the Westlake neighborhood near MacArthur Park because of rising housing costs. Shakur said that helicopter noise and lights often wake her in the night, heightening her anxiety, which can cause panic attacks. She worries that police officers observing from the sky could someday mistake her for a threat. 

“I’m just afraid that one day they’ll get trigger happy from the helicopter and shoot me in my community. These are constant things I worry about,” Shakur said. “Helicopters really enforce that feeling of no safety, even in my own house.”

Concerns like those are exactly what a team of researchers at UCLA are setting out to study. 

Environmental scientist Nicholas Shapiro is examining whether Southern California’s law enforcement helicopters are disrupting sleep and negatively affecting mental and physical health, educational attainment and workplace performance. 

Gina Poe, a UCLA neuroscientist specializing in sleep studies, and Kate McInerny, a UCLA student, are working with Shapiro to measure how loud the helicopters sound at different distances and altitudes. They will pair that sonic map with flight records to figure out how much the noise disturbs sleep in various neighborhoods. 

The researchers are also studying whether there are racialized disparities in where agencies are concentrating patrols. Their preliminary analysis suggests patrols tend to fly more frequently over Black communities, for longer durations and at lower altitudes, which could have greater health effects.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration typically regulates how low aircraft can fly, law enforcement helicopters are exempt from those restrictions and often hover below the altitudes permitted for other flights. 

Flying low has caused at least one situation when helicopter noise prevented officers on the ground from hearing each other, with deadly consequences. In July 2021, LAPD officers in two separate cars responded to a call about a man with a knife. As the helicopter chopped overhead, the officers who arrived later couldn’t hear confirmation that the man was no longer armed and fatally shot him. The California Department of Justice is investigating the shooting.

The LAPD did not respond to Capital & Main’s questions and said it was “unable to accommodate [our] request” for a ride-along on a helicopter flight.

This drawing of an aircraft hovering over residential areas topped a 1969 flyer distributed by activists in protest of proposals to build a helicopter landing site near Los Angeles’ Elysian Park.

For more than 50 years, Southern California city and county governments have routinely shelled out tens of millions of dollars annually for law enforcement helicopter operations. Kenneth Mejia, an accountant recently elected to oversee Los Angeles’ finances as city controller, wants to reexamine aerial policing and see if any of those funds could go toward other government services.

“Everyone wants to know, why do we have so many helicopters?” Mejia said. “Is that money being used efficiently? Effectively? Is crime going down? Are the helicopters actually doing something? If so, show us the numbers.”

The police budget in Los Angeles is currently around $3.2 billion, almost half of the city’s discretionary funding and 30% of the entire budget. Mejia said that as controller he will audit the LAPD’s performance, with a focus on helicopter operations, because they are an expensive part of everyday life for Angelenos.

Costs include the initial purchase of helicopters and specialized software and equipment like cameras and searchlights. Then there are ongoing expenses like maintenance, insurance and fuel, as well as the costs of training and employing flight personnel and outfitting them in safety gear.

The LAPD’s helicopter unit cost at least $215 million over the last decade.

High costs have led some agencies to scale back their helicopter operations in recent years. For example, the police department in Kansas City, Missouri, was an early adopter that rapidly expanded its unit in the 1970s. But by 1995, the department reduced its aerial personnel from 30 to eight. And in 2001, it shrunk its fleet from seven to three helicopters.

In Los Angeles, neither the police nor the sheriff’s department releases its total helicopter budget, and public city and county databases do not clearly identify expenses associated with aerial operations. But Capital & Main identified at least a portion of those costs by compiling city spending records.

The LAPD Air Support Division spent at least $27 million in 2021, including roughly $7 million for new helicopters and equipment, $5.2 million for maintenance, $3.6 million for parts, $1.5 million for labor, $1.3 million for fuel and at least $8.5 million in payroll, according to city records. 

Since 2009, the LAPD has spent at least $43 million on helicopters, equipment and training. Some specialized equipment has also been donated by the Air Support Angels Foundation valued at $138,300 in 2022 and a total of almost $50,000 in the three years prior. 

The city of Los Angeles also spent about $77 million on maintenance, $50 million on parts, $27 million on labor and $19 million on fuel for the LAPD’s helicopters between 2010 and 2021, according to city records. This means that the LAPD’s helicopter unit cost at least $215 million over the last decade.

Mejia, the city’s controller-elect, said that a proper audit of the helicopter unit would look at how funds are being spent and determine if any of that money could be better allocated to other services, departments, resources or assets, such as housing assistance, animal services or youth development.

The Los Angeles City Council created a Youth Development Department in 2021 and funded it with $1.4 million. This year the council increased the budget to $2.5 million. That is roughly equal to the cost of fuel and infrared cameras for helicopter policing last year.

Capital & Main requested budget and operations records from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Bureau but the department did not provide them. In 2020, the Sheriff’s Department said that helicopter maintenance alone costs at least $23 million per year. The Sheriff’s Department’s total budget this year was $3.6 billion, but because its Aero Bureau is paid for through a “specialized and unallocated” account, it’s unclear how much of that is spent on helicopters.

The Aero Bureau has been accused of misspending in the past. In the 2010s, retired Sergeant Richard Gurr alleged that a $29 million Board of Supervisors-approved contract to update 12 helicopters included millions in overcharges and unnecessary equipment. Los Angeles County’s auditor-controller investigated these and other alleged improprieties in 2012 and found that most were unsubstantiated, although there were “weaknesses” in the bureau’s purchasing practices, such as a lack of competitive bidding for repair services.

Last year, the county audited the Sheriff’s Department again and found that it failed to get permission before building a helicopter landing pad on private property near Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s home. Villanueva lost his reelection campaign and will be replaced by Robert Luna, a former Long Beach police chief.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department declined to respond to Capital & Main’s questions and requests for public records.

The post Are Police Helicopters Worth the Cost? appeared first on Truthdig.

Red Flags

The video for Ravina’s “Red Flags” debuts here on Truthdig Monday December 5th.

Mama told me ain’t nothing free here,
and if they tell you it is,
they’re gonna take something near,
instill you with fear,
spread false news to ya ears,
I can’t stand all the ignorance, by now it’s just clear,
that this country & people that run it just fear
Those with a voice & those that they think are “lost souls” with no home
stolen land, grown to own,
now there’s drones, surveilling these streets
and these hoods like it’s their own.
I’ll compare,
the way mistreatment affect mines versus yours
You step in a reality with so much more
like fortune and wealth
like safety and health
built off the backs of my fam
and here we go stressin’ about glam?
like Met Galas and censoring those with a voice.
Free speech for those below and those with authority stay quiet
Protests outside of museums- stay quiet
Protests outside on the streets- stay quiet
Fight for our lives on our knees- stay quiet
Speak up against what we see- stay quiet
Stay quiet! stay quiet! stay quiet! -they say.
afraid of the masses
so they choose just to stare.
Now we’re forced to conform,
with agendas and norms
Out of the box means out of your minds!
When we speak up and fight;
we’re displaced by the night
and when morning arises
we fear losing our rights
Our sight of the prize

A birthright to breathe
The fact that we’re a target
like we’re just too bold for them
The real is we know of them,
the ones that were holdin em’
in chokeholds, no indictments
and this fight isn’t over yet
goes til the morning then,
morphs and evolves and then
lives by our breath,
and survived by our children.
When we raise em, we train them to know of these rules
Only thing that we need,
is to rip off this tape & bleed solidarity
Are you hearing me?
Fight for our lives on our knees- stay quiet
Speak up against what we see- stay quiet
Stay quiet! stay quiet! stay quiet!–they say
but we know that we have every right to stay.
May our nights be less weary, our daydreams less scary
our children in safety,
our elders in care.
Don’t just stare.
know that we believe in a cause that is greater
It ain’t about later,
Because they may silence us with their laws,
take us away like outlaws
But we always got God,
and we always got us
So let all of these red flags burn into dust

*   *   *

My Megaphone Blasting Truth and PowerWhy I Wrote This Spoken Word Piece for Julian Assange

Julian Assange’s story is one of debate, controversy, scandal and the basis of critical dialogue across the world. As a writer, poet and author, I can relate to being silenced, monitored and surveilled for speaking my truth as a first-generation daughter of South Asian immigrants. I’ve seen too many injustices to count. I’ve seen countless people and groups silenced for speaking their truth.

At times, I’ve grown weary of how others use their rights of free speech to condone racist slurs, discriminatory language, derogatory remarks and just offensive language. All things considered, I’ve often pondered, at what point do we come to an understanding or a middle ground around the topic of free speech? Is there even a middle ground to this constitutional right?

I believe that we have an obligation to uphold the truth, no matter how brutal and ugly it is. Media, whether written, digital or print, is often the passport we have as everyday folks to tap into the happenings of the world. When we tap in, we become informed and have the right to take action after knowing the facts, truth and opinions.

Poetry, for me, is an outlet to bring power to truth and be unfiltered in my speech. I know what it is like to be censored both in writing and speech. My first major grand-scale public speech about the real issues that Black and brown students face was edited by people who ran organizations meant to serve the wellbeing of our children. My words around the murders of Black and brown students were removed “in the best interests of others.” I’ve had folks criticize the poems I’ve written about abortion, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights and women’s issues.

I wrote “Red Flags” in response to free speech, and more-so, free expression. I wrote it because no matter your stance on Julian Assange, you too may know what it feels like to live in oppression for unveiling the truth behind the attacks of the oppressors. We are silenced and targeted due to our heritage, the color of our skin, our gender and our intersectional identities every day. Assange’s case struck me as another story where
“they” choose to silence “us.” Even when given the right to protest, we are silenced and locked up for speaking against what we see as injustice.

My goal with this spoken word piece is to bring awareness to how free speech, though known to be “free,” is often censored, leaving the voices of those we need to hear, muted. We live in a country where hierarchies in race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and identity exists.

My hope is that this piece is a reclamation of our truths and a megaphone blasting them loudly, with a braveness and the intention of raising awareness to what real truth is. I leave you with this question: Who are we without our ability to speak out on the injustices of the world? I hope that in “Red Flags” we find pieces of each other, ready to be stitched back together after being ripped apart, with the goal of uniting us in truth and power.

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Alaska Salmon Face a Tide of New Mines

This story was originally published by Undark and is republished here through the Climate Desk partnership.

Wild Alaska salmon are a gold standard for American seafood. The long journey from the river to the ocean and back builds the muscle mass that gives the fish their distinct texture and flavor, and the clean rivers of the north produce seafood with very low levels of mercury and other contaminants. Indigenous communities have been harvesting salmon in Northwestern North America for more than 10,000 years and some still depend on subsistence fishing for survival. In southeastern Alaska, salmon fishing and processing adds an annual total of about $70 million to the local economy.

But 21st-century salmon face many stressors, including habit loss, climate change, and overfishing. As a result, salmon populations are declining across the United States. The fish still thrive in some parts of Alaska, but local residents and scientists are increasingly concerned about an additional stressor: the mining industry. Active mines, proposed mines, and dozens of exploratory projects span the transboundary region of southeastern Alaska and British Columbia, which includes three major salmon-bearing rivers. One of these proposed mines, the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell project in Canada, will extract ore from what is reportedly the largest undeveloped gold-copper deposit in the world.

For decades, scientists have been trying to understand the impact of mining on salmonids, a family that includes salmon, trout, and other closely related fish. In July, the journal Science Advances published a review study evaluating more than 100 research papers and documents, concluding that the earlier research has underestimated the impacts of mining operations on Pacific salmonids. Mining activities are of special concern today, the authors wrote, because demand for metals is rising as manufacturers seek raw materials for low-carbon technologies like electric car batteries.

Even under normal circumstances, mining can release contaminants like heavy metals into nearby watersheds, threatening the health of salmon. And mine tailings — the slurry of silt, fine sand, clay, and water that’s left behind after ore is extracted — need to be carefully stored beyond the life of the mine. Without proper environmental mitigation, scientists say, current and proposed mining activities could have devastating effects on Alaska salmon and their watersheds.

In interviews with Undark, several mining representatives underscored the industry’s efforts to keep watersheds free of contaminants. But many scientists and locals remain skeptical, and they worry about losing the region’s salmon. The nonprofit Salmon Beyond Borders was created to protect transboundary rivers and ways of life. “Wild salmon are at the center of my life,” said Heather Hardcastle, a campaign adviser for the organization, “as they are at the center of most people’s lives in this region.”

Northwestern North America represents a convergence of natural resources, wrote the July paper’s 20-plus authors, most of whom are affiliated with the region’s universities, First Nations, or environmental nonprofits. Northwestern North America holds substantial reserves of coal and metals. It is also home to “some of the most productive and least disturbed salmonid habitat remaining on Earth,” the authors wrote. These fish are unique for their large home ranges and for their tendency to use all of the accessible parts of the watershed. For these and other reasons, it can be difficult to assess and mitigate the risks of mining.

The review was comprehensive, analyzing not only peer-reviewed studies, but also government databases and reports, and industry disclosure documents and technical materials. The results were sobering: Mining operations often fail to meet their own water quality goals, the review found. Further, few studies have compared the predicted impacts of mining with the industry’s actual impacts. Cumulative effects of multiple mines and other stressors are often underestimated. Mitigation strategies aren’t always based on proven technology, and they rarely consider the effects of climate change in years to come.

Lead researcher Chris Sergeant said the July paper is the first of its kind to comprehensively review and summarize the impact of mining on salmon and provide guidance on how to improve the science that supports mining policy. The scale of the review allowed researchers to see a big picture, which can be difficult to visualize based on individual datasets, especially when the data comes from the mining companies themselves.

“It’s nearly impossible with the data we’re given by mining operations these days to do a kind of pre-project assessment of risk,” Sergeant said. “The data quality is so non-transparent and not done systematically.” Sergeant also said he wasn’t surprised by his paper’s findings, given that there are so many individual examples of how mining operations can affect watersheds. Having those examples all together in one place, though, makes the extent of the problem clearer.

Jonathan Moore, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who worked on the July review, noted that salmon also help support the overall health of local watersheds. More than 100 species are believed to have some kind of relationship with salmon, whether direct or indirect. Trout eat salmon eggs and young salmon, for example, and bears eat the spawning adults. When salmon die, their bodies contribute nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to the watershed and the forests that grow nearby.

Environmental activists and scientists are wary of new mining projects, in part, because mining disasters are still happening

The ecological impact of these nutrients is sometimes visible to the human eye. A 2021 study found that the “greenness” of vegetation along the lower Adams River in British Columbia increased in the summers following a productive sockeye salmon run. Another study found that the presence of dead salmon in spawning grounds influenced the growth rate of Sitka spruce trees not just close to the riverbank but also farther into the forest, where researchers said “bear trails and assumed urine deposition were prevalent.”

Environmental activists and scientists are wary of new mining projects, in part, because mining disasters are still happening, even though modern infrastructure is supposed to be robust enough to prevent them. During a 2014 dam failure at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia, for example, 32 million cubic yards of wastewater and mine tailings spilled into a nearby lake. From there, the mine waste traveled down a creek and into a second lake, which supports one of the region’s most important salmon habitats.

The mining company, Imperial Metals, maintains that the tailings from the Mount Polley spill did not cause largescale environmental damage. The tailings contained very little pyrite, a mineral that can generate sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water, wrote C.D. Anglin, who worked as the company’s chief scientific officer in the aftermath of the Mount Polley accident, in an email to Undark. Sulfuric acid is one of the most environmentally concerning consequences of mining. When the compound enters a watershed, it doesn’t just threaten the health and survival of fish and other animals, it can also dissolve other heavy metals like lead and mercury from rock it contacts. But, Anglin wrote, “the Mount Polley tailings are considered chemically benign.”

Still, a 2022 study found that the dam failure did have environmental consequences. The study, which was not included in the July review, was led by Gregory Pyle, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Pyle and his colleagues took water, sediment, and invertebrate samples from sites impacted by the spill and from a nearby waterbody, Bootjack Lake, that was not impacted by the spill. In the areas most affected by the spill, Pyle’s team found elevated copper levels in the sediment, as well as high concentrations of copper in the bodies of invertebrates living in those areas. Notably, the researchers also found elevated copper levels in Bootjack Lake, which suggests that the environmental impact of the Mount Polley mine predates the spill itself.

Anglin said the study’s results are misleading. “While the copper levels are slightly higher than in some of the organisms in unimpacted areas,” she wrote, “they are not at a level of environmental concern.”

Pyle disagrees. In an interview with Undark, he pointed to a follow-up study in which his team exposed freshwater scuds (a shrimplike mollusk) to contaminated and uncontaminated water and sediment collected four years after the Mount Polley spill. “When they were in contact with the sediments for as little as 14 days,” he said, “it impaired their growth and survival.” The results of Pyle’s study have implications for salmon since scuds and other invertebrates are an important food source for these fish.

Copper can also build up in the bodies of salmon, as well as their prey, impacting their growth and survival. Studies have found that even sub-lethal copper levels can harm salmon’s olfactory system, which may make it harder for them to avoid predators and orient themselves in their habitat. “Copper has these really insidious effects in terms of salmon’s ability to navigate,” said Moore. “Salmon might not be able to find their way home, for example, in a system that has excess copper.”

Even when contaminants are taken out of the equation, scientists say, the sheer volume of material entering the watershed during a spill like the one at Mount Polley can have physical consequences. “These big disasters like Mount Polley, they transform these systems,” said Moore. For example, the slurry of fine sediment and waste material can cover the gravel where salmon would otherwise lay their eggs, making it useless as spawning habitat.

The lingering effects of past mining have activists and scientists concerned about new projects like the proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mine, which is expected to begin construction in the summer of 2026. Hardcastle said Salmon Beyond Borders wants the region to take a precautionary approach to new mining projects.

“What’s the point otherwise of trying to decarbonize and get to a clean energy future,” she asks, “if all we’re doing is swapping the big oil and the fossil fuel industry for big mining?”

The future effects of climate change could threaten infrastructure at KSM and other mines.

Christopher Mebane assistant director for hydrologic studies at the U.S. Geological Survey, studies metals, toxicity, and mining and jokingly describes himself as “a dirty water biologist.” He called the July study, in which he was not involved, “a fair assessment” of the problems that mining activities can create for salmonids. “I can’t find a single misstatement or error,” he said. “But you know, if this were written by a group of mining engineers, it would have a very different tone and probably conclusions.”

Indeed, mining industry representatives say the mistakes of the past won’t be repeated. “Mines with tailing storage facilities are required by law to implement new design and operational criteria using best available technology,” said Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia, a trade group. And Brent Murphy, senior vice president of environmental affairs at Seabridge Gold, the company that will operate the proposed KSM mine, said the KSM tailings management facility won’t drain into Alaska waters. Although the mine itself will be located in a watershed that drains into a transboundary river, Murphy said the tailings facility will drain only into Canadian waters and does not require water treatment.

Murphy added that the tailings facility will be in a confining valley, closed off by two large dams. “We’re containing all of the potential acid-generating material, which is only 10% of the total volume of the tailings produced, within a lined facility,” he said. That part of the facility will be surrounded by more than 1.8 miles of compacted sandy material. The design, Murphy said, was implemented to address the concerns of local First Nations.

To satisfy agency and community concerns over the long term, mining operations may also propose water treatment plans that span centuries. Seabridge Gold said water treatment will continue for 200 years after the KSM mine closes, though Murphy told Undark that the water at the site is already naturally contaminated with copper, iron, and selenium and won’t be further contaminated by mine operations.

Christopher Sergeant, who led the July review, said he’s skeptical. “I don’t know of any successful examples of anyone treating water for 200 years,” he said. “And my understanding of corporate structure is that there’s not really a motivation once the project is not creating profit anymore. That’s a big concern of mine: Who is going to be on the hook for making sure that that water is treated in what’s basically perpetuity?”

Goehring said the cost of ongoing water treatment is paid for upfront. British Columbia already holds 2.3 billion Canadian dollars ($1.7 billion ) from the mining industry for the express purpose of containing mine waste, he said. This ensures that after the KSM mine closes, he added, “water treatment, if required, will continue to take place.”

Even so, the future effects of climate change could threaten infrastructure at KSM and other mines. “A lot of the calculations that are made for engineering are based on what the current environment looks like,” said Sergeant, adding that there’s really no way to predict how different the environment will be 10 or 20 years into the life of a mine. Destructive weather events are becoming more common, he noted, and they “aren’t necessarily considered in engineering designs.”

For now, environmental groups like Salmon Beyond Borders aim to convince agencies and policymakers to put a pause on new and expanding mines in shared watersheds until Canadian law can be revised to include provisions for downstream stakeholders. More significantly, Salmon Beyond Borders said it also wants a permanent ban on tailings dams near transboundary rivers. But because mining is so lucrative, permanent bans may not be practical or possible.

Moore said the July paper showcases the key challenges to protecting salmon populations in a region touched by the mining industry. He hopes the research points toward “a productive path forward,” he added, in which the mining industry can coexist with thriving salmon systems and the communities that depend on them.

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Has the Democratic Party Given Up on Florida?

Days before the midterm elections, voter polls from Miami, Florida were already telling a cautionary tale—what was once a Democratic stronghold for decades was quickly turning red. By the end of election night, the state’s Democratic party suffered serious losses: they failed to unseat conservative presidential hopeful Gov. Ron DeSantis, flipped at least five Democrat counties red, lost four congressional seats, and left Republicans with a supermajority of 85 seats in the House and 28 in the Senate. While the rest of the country celebrated progressive victories and a thwarted red wave, Floridians mourned a red tsunami. 

Organizers say they were unsurprised by the results because of a lack of presence and support from the state Democratic party. Without institutional backing, organizers say they were left to turn out voters on their own and could not compete with the GOP’s impact.

“This is what divestment looks like,” said Ana Sofía Peláez, founder of the Miami Freedom Project, a grassroots organization striving to shift Miami’s political culture. “This is what it looks like when you don’t invest in engaging with a community that is a persuasion vote, which is how they should be treated.”

The GOP spent over $133 million in Florida during the 2021-2022 election cycle, while the Florida Democratic Party only spent about $20 million. The difference in spending can be seen directly in the voter turnout: even counties with more registered Democrats saw upwards of 12 percent more Republican voter turnout, as was the case for Miami-Dade county’s gubernatorial race. 

“I think the lack of engagement and the lack of willingness to completely invest in the space and stay in the space means we haven’t been able to resolve some of these deep conflicts and divisions,” Peláez said. “We haven’t had that support yet. But, I do think it’s something that we need to build towards, and we have to remain committed to.”

Many Republicans in Florida ran on a strictly anti-Communist platform, even though Florida’s gubernatorial and senate Democratic candidates are centrist at best.

While on a national level, the Latinx vote remained predominantly Democratic during the 2022 midterm elections, with 64 percent voting for a Democratic House candidate, Florida was the only state where the majority of Latinx voters (54 percent) supported Republican House candidates. Peláez points to the overwhelming amount of money GOP candidates spent on the Spanish-language media market as a cause. Gov. DeSantis spent over $5 million, while his opponent, Charlie Crist, spent $2 million. In recent years, the GOP has dominated the Spanish-language media market. During the  2020 election, Donald Trump outspent President Joe Biden by $4 million in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale Spanish market alone. According to Paláez and Amore Rodriguez, director of community partnerships for Cubanos Palante, a progressive Cuban-American grassroots organization, the ads purchased by GOP candidates are wrought with misinformation and scare tactics profiting off of the Latinx community’s trauma.

“After 2020, we saw how effective the messaging of Democrats being socialists and communists worked, so to see that being used even locally so intensely, I was not surprised to see how many Latinos are switching to the Republican Party,” said Rodriguez. “We were bracing ourselves for that type of loss, but I don’t think I expected for some of the really blue districts to go red. We fought like hell to get as many Democrat voters and non-party voters out to vote Democrat, but I really didn’t expect for it to be as red as it went.”

Many Republicans in Florida ran on a strictly anti-Communist platform that painted their opponent as a Communist, even though Florida’s gubernatorial and senate Democratic candidates are centrist at best. According to Rodriguez, this lazy yet successful tactic exploits Latinx voters’ trauma and creates an easy measure of success for the candidate. If by the end of their term, the country has still “avoided” communism, then the candidate is seen as successful and likely to win the electorate’s vote again.

“I’ve never seen so many Latinos voters so proudly support the Republican Party and stand on a party of ideals that, to me, are very manipulated,” said Rodriguez. “It’s not affordable housing. It’s not reducing inflation. It’s not bettering our public schools. It’s not women’s rights. It’s just whether the U.S. became a communist dictatorship or not. And to me, it is so brilliant because it’s so easy to run on. And they have been running with it. And it’s been so hard to be a person on the other side, trying to bring people back to reality and refocus our community on the issues that are impacting us right now and not this illusion of fear that Republicans are gaining.”

Rodriguez, who worked on multiple grassroots campaigns in support of local candidates, said organizers were not supported by the national and state Democratic party. 

“This is where my frustration sits,” said Rodriguez. “I hope that this loss is the type of wake-up call that we need as a community to realize that we are being completely dismissed. It’s been amazing to watch the rest of the nation stand up and push for Democratic leaders to be elected. But it’s been so disheartening to see how much Florida has been ignored.”

Even candidates who faced targeted hate ads and death threats, like Janelle Perez, a Democrat candidate for State Senate District 38, received minimal institutional support.

“She was still out there every single day knocking on doors, and it was a close enough race where we could have made a dent,” said Rodriguez. “But I think the results show what we saw, which was absolutely zero support from Manny Diaz as the head of the Florida Democratic Party.”

Rodriguez said she never saw Diaz supporting their debates, phone banking efforts, or even other candidates. Organizers are now calling on the Florida Democratic Party Chair, Manny Diaz, to resign. 

“We needed all hands on deck for that and I think we tried our best against a very challenging and very well-financed other side,” explained Dwight Bullard, the senior political advisor for Florida Rising

Rodriguez said she wants the Democratic Party to restrategize how they organize.

Bullard said the Democratic party prioritized “protecting” other gubernatorial races in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, where a red governor’s mansion would have directly flipped an entire state’s policies. From a national standpoint, Florida ended up being left out of that equation. Buoyed by Gov. DeSantis’ racially motivated redistricting and his decision to arrest formerly incarcerated people for voter fraud, Florida was all but guaranteed to go red. 

“Anytime you’re spending millions of dollars on attack ads and disinformation into communities that is, in our opinion, voter suppression,” said Bullard. “In the state of Florida, to allow for these kinds of continuous disinformation is a reflection on the failure of the DeSantis administration to uphold voting rights.”

However, Democrats in Florida had one historic victory: Maxwell Frost, an Afro-Cuban, 25-year-old, was elected to serve Florida’s 10th Congressional District. Frost won the Orlando-based seat by running on a workers’ rights and pro-abortion platform. Organizers say a campaign focused on concrete policies drives voters to the polls.

“Maxwell Frost is probably an anomaly; it wasn’t the Democratic party’s doing—he’s an organizer.” said Rodriguez. “His heart has always been in this. Thankfully, we have people like him that said, I’m going to make it happen. We need a strategy that finds the Maxwell Frosts of our communities and elevates them, puts them on a platform, and really starts to get people excited about the Democratic ballot. I think we have a huge opportunity to make that happen.”

Rodriguez said she wants the Democratic Party to restrategize how they organize, and that she is excited about the renewed momentum she’s felt in the community since the loss. Peláez said she would like to see a renewed commitment to issue-driven and policy-driven campaigns, which have proven successful.

“We need to be a community that actually makes our community feel supported, and as of right now, we’re not doing that because we are catching up,” Rodriguez said. “We need to stand on what we are: we are the party that’s for human rights, we are the party that’s for affordable access to health care and affordable housing. We are the party that’s pro-women’s rights and pro-LGBTQIA+ rights and for gun safety. We need to be very clear of who we are and not just keep reacting to what we’re not from the Republicans.”

 “Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.” Include a link to Prism’s homepage (

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Has the military been secretly conducting its own MDMA studies?

In previously unreported statements made at the 2017 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), discussed rumors of secret Pentagon studies with MDMA, as well as the reasons for hesitancy on the part of some government agencies to fund MAPS’ research.

“We’ve recently found out that there is a secret Army military study into MDMA for PTSD and what we have found out is they are trying to keep it secret from the soldiers,” Doblin said.

He continued, “What they were saying is that if the soldiers who are suffering — many of them from trauma — knew that the Army was actually funding research, the Army is fearful that soldiers would take it into their own hands to self-medicate with MDMA…We found out about this in a sort of slip from some Army researchers contacting us for information. Then, when we asked further questions, they wouldn’t tell us anymore.”

Doblin also discussed why the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) had refused to fund MAPS Phase 3 MDMA research. NIMH, he explained, is interested in mechanism of action (MOA) research, whereas MAPS was focused on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards of safety and efficacy — not MOA.

MOA research is specifically concerned with how a drug or other substance produces an effect in the body. This kind of research can help determine demographics that may respond better or worse to a drug, determine treatment plans involving multiple drugs that may interact with one another and enable more precise dosing of a drug.

The FDA puts less import on MOA than it does on general safety and efficacy.

In MDMA trials, for example, the FDA is less concerned with exactly how MDMA produces therapeutic effects through biochemical reactions. The trials are more concerned with whether specific doses of MDMA safely and reliably produce therapeutic outcomes, regardless of what bodily reactions may lead to those outcomes.

Not focusing on MOA, Doblin said, made MAPS ineligible for NIMH funding.

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On The Run

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I’m on the run for all the things that I’ve said
Nowhere to run and no turning back now

Don’t Speak
Lock your doors
And be discreet

Some ppl keep they eyes closed
Terrified of what they’d see
Others keep they eyes open
I swear that they still b sleep
Paralyzed in the Noize
And Paranoid in the street

They can and will hurt you
For what you know
And if you share it with the world
What would they trust you fo’?

If you reading this now

It means that i’m long gone
In Sudan, Moldova Or even hong kong
They quiet down the words on the internet page
That same shit could happen from singin the wrong song
Information a pandemic
I live in a calm storm
Oh i’m telling the right story
They droppin the wrong bomb
On g-d

I’m on the run for all the things that I’ve said
Nowhere to run and no turning back now
Nowhere to run and nowhere to
Nowhere to run and nowhere to
Nowhere to run and nowhere to
Turn now

Don’t speak
Loc your doors n b discreet
No talkin on the phone
Got you ridin wit a piece

A piece a mind to show the world these pages that i’ve seen

And when it hit the web
Watch it spread like a disease
Heard it about it over seas
They callin it wiki leak
Break the shackles on my feet

Kidnap or kill plot
Assassinate and steal
Pay the cost
For the data loss
Scrap n peel
If it’s a hack
What’s a rappin deal

They put a target on my back
I keep on singing my blues
But what i write about in songs
They neva play up on the news

I’m on the run once again for the things that i’ve said
And i’m Just tryna make sense of it all in my head

I’m on the run for all the things that I’ve said
Nowhere to run and no turning back now
Nowhere to run and nowhere to
Nowhere to run and nowhere to (turn)
Nowhere to run and nowhere to
Turn now

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Julian Assange 4 justice

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Assange didn’t have to told no truths to expose those lies

He jus had access to enough facts
to be considered a spy

We tried to play it safe, and go straight
Because death was on the right wing…

We tried, our best, but only could guess
Gat going, left’s the right thing…

When going Left could be right?
If ya’ll was good then why hide?
& if you really stood for truth & justice
then why commit war crimes?

Our grassroots are past due
Got us thinking that cash rules
Want us happy buying lies, then,
threaten our lives when we tell the truth.

When we believe that speech is free
we think out loud and they can see
the way we think. And if you think that being white can save ya skin,
I beg of you to think again

Just look at Julian.
They’re really tryin to do him in
Conspiring to do him in.
They hired men to do him in
Like they’re scared he gon do it again

Is it preventative…or punishment?
& why are they witch hunting him?
Even now,
after he
has already
done the thing

The governments are hypocrites.
The citizens are misrepresented.
When the poor children learn of this
You shadow banning the journalists.
Then threaten all of the truth seekers
& murder most of the truth speakers

And that’s why in my community
We commit buffoonery
Cheap jewelry
Expensive clothes
and hi end sneakers

But the type of ppl we’ve become
are getting tired of playing dumb.
Though we ain’t rushing into war,
we stay prepared, in case it comes

And if Lindsey Graham could give a damn
& the Freedom Bill protects the press,
In retrospect, be retroactive.
Or else it’s just an empty gesture.

Just a waste
of tax I pay,
which practically helps no one.
If you you really to make a statement

Free Julian Assange

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Bill Gates Is Not an Expert on Hunger in Africa

The tire fire that Elon Musk seems to be making out of his new toyTwitter, is leading some to call for an overdue, society-wide jettisoning of the whole “if he’s a billionaire, that means he’s a genius” myth.Here’s a hope that that critical lens will extend not just to Elon “don’t make me mad or I won’t fly you to Mars” Musk but also to, can we say, Bill Gates, who, while he doesn’t talk about other planets, has some pretty grandiose ideas about this one.

Fifty organizations, organized by Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa and Community Alliance for Global Justice, have issued an open letter to Gates, in response to two high-profile media stories: an AP piece headlined “Bill Gates: Technological Innovation Would Help Solve Hunger” (9/13/22) and a Q&A in the New York Times by David Wallace-Wells (9/13/22) that opened with the question of the very definition of progress: “Are things getting better? Fast enough? For whom?” and asserting that “those questions are, in a somewhat singular way, tied symbolically to Bill Gates.”

In their letter, these global groups—focused on food sovereignty and justice—take non-symbolic issue with Gates’ premises, and those of the outlets megaphoning him and his deep, world-saving thoughts.

First and last, Gates acknowledges that the world makes enough food to feed everyone, but then goes on to suggest responses to hunger based on low productivity, rather than equitable access.

He stresses fertilizer, which the groups note, makes farmers and importing nations dependent on volatile international markets and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, while multiple groups in Africa are already developing biofertilizers with neither of those issues.

Gates tells Times readers, “The Green Revolution was one of the greatest things that ever happened. Then we lost track.” These on the ground groups beg to differ: Those changes did increase some crop yields in some places, but numbers of hungry people didn’t markedly go down, or access to food markedly increase, while a number of new problems were introduced.

AP wants us to know about the “breakthrough” Gates calls “magic seeds”

AP says the quiet part loud with a lead that tells us: Gates believes that the global hunger crisis is so immense that food aid cannot fully address the  problem. What’s also needed, Gates argues, are the kinds of innovations in farming technology that he has long funded.

Presumably “Squillionnaire Says What He Does Is Good, By Gosh” was deemed too overt.

But AP wants us to know about the “breakthrough” Gates calls “magic seeds”—i.e., those bioengineered to resist climate change. Climate-resistant seeds, the letter writers note, are already being developed by African farmers and traded in informal seed markets. Gates even points a finger at over-investments in maize and rice, as opposed to locally adapted cereals like sorghum. Except his foundation has itself reportedly focused on maize and rice and restricted crop innovation.

Finally, the groups address Gates’ obnoxious dismissal of critics of his approach as “singing Kumbaya”: “If there’s some non-innovation solution, you know, like singing Kumbaya, I’ll put money behind it. But if you don’t have those seeds, the numbers just don’t work,” our putative boy-hero says. Adding preemptively, “If somebody says we’re ignoring some solution, I don’t think they’re looking at what we’re doing.”

The open letter notes respectfully that there are “many tangible ongoing proposals and projects that work to boost productivity and food security.” That it is Gates’ “preferred high-tech solutions, including genetic engineering, new breeding technologies, and now digital agriculture, that have in fact consistently failed to reduce hunger or increase food access as promised,” and in some cases actually contribute to the biophysical processes driving the problem. That Africa, despite having the lowest costs of labor and land, is a net exporter is not, as Gates says, a “tragedy,” but a predictable and predicted result of the fact that costs of land and labor are socially and politically produced: “Africa is in fact highly productive; it’s just that the profits are realized elsewhere.”

At the end of AP‘s piece, the outlet does the thing elite media do where they fake rhetorical balance in order to tell you what to think:

Through his giving, investments and public speaking, Gates has held the spotlight in recent years, especially on the topics of vaccines and climate change. But he has also been the subject of conspiracy theories that play off his role as a developer of new technologies and his place among the highest echelons of the wealthy and powerful.

The word “but” makes it sound like a fight: between holding a spotlight (because you’re wealthy and powerful) or else being subject to presumably inherently ignorant critical conjecture (because you’re wealthy and powerful). Not to mention this anonymously directed “spotlight”—that media have nothing to do with, or no power to control.

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Towards a Populist Climate Action

In September 2022, an international group of climate scientists published a study showing that the world was close to, or in some cases had even surpassed, key tipping points in the climate crisis that would trigger irreversible changes in the world’s ecosystems. These include the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets, tropical coral reef die-off, the abrupt thawing of Northern permafrost, the loss of Barents Sea ice, the melting of mountain glaciers, the dieback of the Amazon rainforest, and changes to the West African monsoon that will impact the Sahel region of Africa.

These points launch the world into the unknown and unknowable, as they engage feedback loops the consequences of which we cannot accurately predict. And yet those predictions concern the mass suffering and death of tens of millions, and maybe more. We are at a tipping point. And President Biden has yet to declare the climate emergency he publicly pondered in July 2022. He likely (and legitimately) fears a political backlash; populism is seen now as a barrier to climate reforms.

What’s wrong? Threats to our species as a whole, and to our survival, are amorphous things. They are too large, and too slow, for us—for the slowly evolving human brain—to see properly. But threats framed as originating from other persons, from the people around us are not. Our species is quite accustomed to dealing with such threats—this is the history of war. And in the case of things like pandemics, where amorphous threats like contagions were framed as threats by the government to deprive us of liberty, they have triggered terrifying populist responses.

The climate crisis certainly is a form of oppression, exacted upon a vast majority of middle and low-income folks by a wealthy few in a fossil fuel industry that knew and hid the facts of what it was doing, and the relatively few politicians and world leaders that authorized and enabled their acts. And while we are accustomed to scientists and those same politicians framing news regarding the crisis, or very young persons like Greta Thunberg with their angry but relatively muted responses centered on the rights of future generations, we can imagine other framings.

The world has faced unprecedented threats and the situations that followed them with unprecedented systems of justice.

What if the news that climate crisis-driven heat waves are killing people were not framed as a study or science at all, but the still true vision of a handful of wealthy elites and the few thousand political cronies that protect their profits by committing the indiscriminate killing of children, of grandmothers, and of pregnant women. Why not see it this way, in the terms our brains might react to? Why not frame it in terms of class, which triggers action on the right and left, often beyond the margins? Yes, climate change is an ethereal thing we cannot touch, like the bullets of Putin’s army, but that’s merely a choice of how we perceive it. Who pays the price of the crisis and who benefits from it, and the science that shows such a flow of responsibility, is a fact.

It could be that we do not frame it in this way because that framing does not present any particular solution, any better solution, than more amorphous frames. We still need to go to courts and other bodies to determine liability. We still need governments, and their processes to regulate emissions or build systems of sequestration. We still need massive regulatory networks to implement climate mitigation plans.

All of this is true, but it is also true that—like the trials at Nuremberg—the world has faced unprecedented threats and the situations that followed them with unprecedented systems of justice. Perhaps climate change is such an unprecedented threat, justifying solutions—like the demanding particularly culpable corporations follow the lead of companies like Patagonia—and begin to transform their structure accordingly to start to repair the damage they have caused.

That sort of demand, regardless of governments, would be particularly appropriate were the repairs treated as reparations and the beneficiaries future generations—the most likely class of persons to be harmed. Future generations could be best compensated through effective family planning incentives, entitlements, and reparations awarded to their parents through novel devices like private baby bonds that encourage sustainably sized families likely to maximize the resilience of their children. If we believe that government derives from the people, these solutions—ones that involve the creation of those people—precede and exceed the ability of governments, and the companies they protect, to refuse.

Moreover, how we frame the crisis can trigger the governmental processes described above by motivating officials to act, much the way the framing of the pandemic created massive political backlashes. There are many other examples of amorphous threats transformed into tangible ones. Certainly, the harms caused by the crisis, and the irreversible harms the tipping points promise, are cause for a populist backlash, if we just find a way to see it as the oppression of many by a few that it is.

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Africa’s Next Great War

It’s happening again. A Rwandan-backed rebel force threatens the Congolese provincial capital of Goma while foreign intervention is cobbled together to bail out the struggling Congolese army. Unlike the last two or three times this happened, the conflict faces the prospect of horrific escalation into interstate war. Rwandan and Kenyan troops are racing headfirst into a confrontation. As Kenya airlifts troops into the east under the flag of the East Africa Community (EAC), the Rwandan soldiers embedded within the M23 rebellion show no signs of backing down. These two African states, each claiming to have the most professional force in the region, will soon trade blows.

Nearly thirty years of complex, multilayered, and tragic war in the Great Lakes have led to this latest escalation. The eastern DRC never recovered from the deadly inferno that was “Africa’s great war,” a bitter conflict that drew in nine countries and killed as many as five million. While peace was declared in 2003, the embers of war continued to burn in the eastern DRC, where the war had injected violence into local politics. Local violence continues to blend with national- and regional-level politics. Rwanda, which has complex and often competitive relationships with Uganda and Burundi, has a history of repeatedly creating and supporting rebellions in Congo. While this current M23 rebellion has many Congolese members with genuine grievances, the force is historically constructed and supported by the Rwandan state. While it is unclear what exactly motivated this offensive, some point to Rwandan concerns over the growing influence of rival Uganda in the DRC. The relationship between Uganda and Rwanda is not straightforward, and there are reports that Ugandan elements have supported M23. The regional tensions at play here are unclear, as the Ugandan and Congolese states are not unitary actors. According to leaked UN reports, Rwanda is directly assisting this latest iteration of M23 with infantry, artillery, and logistics. It has easily beat back the Congolese regulars and their militia allies and downed UN and Congolese military aircraft.

In response to the escalation, the regional EAC has announced the deployment of a military force at the invitation of the DRC, its newest member. Kenya seems to have been the power player behind this intervention and has begun deploying its forces into the fight. The international community has slowly lost interest in the region, writing off the turbulence in the Great Lakes as an endemic low-intensity conflict, ignoring the possibility of an explosion. Some in Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, dream of an East African unified market where a pacified region ensures that Kenyan goods are supplied to Congolese consumers. Rwanda believes that it can only be secure if it has influence in Eastern Congo, where various rebel forces opposing the Rwandan regime have sheltered. When that influence wanes, Rwanda backs a rebellion to ensure that its influence continues.

Whether you believe that Rwandan meddling and Kenyan-backed EAC intervention are valid responses to the insecurity on their western flanks, the current escalatory track is dangerous. No one is backing down until blood is spilled. Both sides seem to underestimate the other’s will and ability.

This conflict is not doomed to descend into a larger interstate war, but the region as a whole will have to grapple with the consequences if it does.

The new kid on the block, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, demands a military solution and proclaims negotiations a failure. He is inviting foreign armies across the region into the country to bring him the peace he needs to salvage his falling popularity. All the while, the badly needed security sector reform remains stalled by the great Congolese patronage machine. Under the EAC regional force’s flag, Ugandan and Burundian forces are now in the DRC to pursue their own enemies on Congolese soil, raising the possibility of inciting countermobilization. The eastern Congolese conflict ecosystem often reacts to foreign bodies with a violent immune response that would further inflame the conflict.

The limited attention span that the international community reserves for Africa is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. Former US National Security Council Africa lead Cameron Hudson pronounced on Twitter and to The Telegraph that the war in Tigray was “the new great war for Africa.” Unfortunately, the ashes of the last great war are being stoked yet again. Few players in the international game seem to realize the stakes.

The US did send its top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to talk to both the Congolese and Rwandans. Blinken’s public statements were ripe with both-sidesisms and seemed to accept Rwandan behavior as a response to Congolese support to the genocidal Rwandan FDLR rebel group—a problematic assumption. The Congolese political elite, when being generous, complain that the US position is muddled and confused. This reasonable view is much less popular than theories that accuse the Americans of actively backing Rwandan president Kagame’s plots. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories are grounded in real historical US blindness to—and occasional support for—destructive Rwandan interventionism in the late 1990s.

The apathetic international response to the crisis stands in marked contrast to the global response to the previous M23 rebellion nearly ten years ago, when the US publicly pressured Rwanda to withdraw support for the group. In 2013, a combination of the Southern African Development Community’s intervention under the UN flag, the rise of a capable Congolese army colonel, and US pressure led to successful negotiations with Rwanda and the defeat of M23. This time, attempts by the EAC to bring a diplomatic solution have failed thus far, and it seems that military pressure is the only effective tool the community can bring to bear.

This conflict is not doomed to descend into a larger interstate war, but the region as a whole will have to grapple with the consequences if it does. The international community must bring more diplomatic levers to bear, and the EAC must question the sweeping mandate of their current intervention. Regardless, the war is on an escalatory path, and the Congolese of North Kivu will suffer first as foreign forces battle over their home yet again.

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Unequal Justice

If you’re feeling a bit of deja vu all over again (apologies to Yogi Berra) after Attorney General Merrick Garland’s appointment of a new special counsel to investigate Donald Trump, join the club. 

In 2017, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed as a Justice Department special counsel to investigate Trump in connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 election. After two years of dogged probing accompanied by breathless media hype, Mueller produced a 448-page report that essentially cleared Trump of conspiring with the Russians, but laid the groundwork for prosecuting him on multiple charges of obstruction of justice. The report, however, was subsequently dismissed by then-Attorney General Bill Barr, and Mueller stumbled badly in his testimony before the House in July 2019. Mueller has since receded into private life and relative obscurity.  

This isn’t to say that the new special counsel—longtime prosecutor Jack Smith—will meet the same fate. Unlike the seventy-eight-year-old Mueller, who came out of retirement to accept his position, Smith, fifty-two, is at the peak of his legal career. His resume includes stints with both the District Attorney in New York County and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In 2010, he was put in charge of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity section, a post he held for five years. Since 2018, he has worked with the International Criminal Court at The Hague, investigating war crimes. In short, Smith is eminently qualified. But can he deliver? 

On the plus side, Smith will be unconstrained by Justice Department policy prohibiting the prosecution of sitting presidents. As a former chief executive, Trump is fair legal game.  

Smiths’ appointment order authorizes him to investigate both the January 6 insurrection and the plot to interfere with the lawful transfer of power as well as the removal of government documents to Mar-a-Lago. The order equips Smith with subpoena power to fulfill his mission, and clarifies that he will not take over the prosecution of any individuals who physically stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The Justice Department will continue to furnish line deputies to handle those cases, allowing Smith to focus on Trump and the ex-President’s top advisors and co-conspirators. 

In his November 18 press conference announcing Smith’s appointment, Garland pledged to provide the new special counsel with the resources needed to conduct his work “quickly and completely.” This means that Smith will have his own budget and office space, and that, in contrast to Mueller, he won’t have to build his prosecutorial team from scratch. Justice Department lawyers have been leading federal grand-jury probes of Trump’s role in the insurrection and the Mar-a-Lago documents case for many months, and Smith will be able to bring them on board. Putting the existing Trump investigations under the centralized supervision of a single special counsel should also yield greater efficiency, enabling Smith to hit the ground running.

The buck will stop with Garland, just as it did with Barr and Mueller. 

In making his decision, Garland hewed closely to the text of the Justice Department’s regulations, which direct the Attorney General to name a special counsel in situations that present either a conflict of interest for the department or “other extraordinary circumstances” that require such a move “in the public interest.” Smith’s appointment was in the public interest, Garland said, because of “the former President’s announcement that he is a candidate for President in the next election, and the sitting President’s stated intention to be a candidate as well.” 

As many commentators have noted, Garland hopes that putting day-to-day operations in the hands of a special counsel will help insulate the department from charges of bias and politicization. Unfortunately, this is where Garland’s reasoning badly goes astray. Political independence and neutrality are lofty ideals for the Justice Department, but Trump and the MAGA movement will never accept Smith’s appointment. 

Within hours of the appointment, House Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia took to Twitter to demand Garland’s impeachment. Trump was even more unhinged. In a diatribe broadcast from Mar-a-Lago on November 18, he branded Smith “a super radical left special counsel,” and termed his appointment “appalling” and “a horrendous abuse of power.” Reprising the tenor of his incendiary speech before the January 6 riot at the Capitol, he urged his supporters to resist the special counsel, telling them, “You people have to fight. You have to fight. You have to be strong.” 

Garland has also been criticized by some prominent liberal and progressive observers who think Smith’s appointment will do nothing to insulate the Justice Department from partisan attacks and will, at best, lead to delays in returning an indictment against Trump. The Nation’s Elie Mystal put it this way during an appearance November 18 on MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber: “There is not a single argument that I have heard in defense of Merrick Garland’s self-serving, pearl-clutching conference that he gave this morning that points–that answers the critical question, if he was going to do this, if he believes this is in the public interest, then why didn’t he believe that was in the public interest 18 months ago when he easily could have done the exact same thing?

“If Merrick Garland thinks that kicking this to Jack Smith from The Hague is going to take down the partisan pressure on him and make the right wing feel like this is a fair process, he’s an idiot.”

While I am not prepared to go as far as Mystal (Garland may be spineless but he’s no dummy), it should be emphasized that the final decision on whether to prosecute Trump will rest with the Attorney General. Smith may call for an indictment, but the buck will stop with Garland, just as it did with Bill Barr and Robert Mueller. 

This time, things may be different. Hope, as they say, springs eternal. 

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Blood on the Tracks

A House Republican from Pennsylvania said Sunday that Congress will intervene to stop a nationwide strike if rail companies and unions don’t reach a contract agreement soon, a step that would likely force workers to accept a deal without any paid sick days.

Acknowledging that rail workers “have a very reasonable ask” for better benefits and wages as they continue to labor under a punishing scheduling system, Rep. Brian Kevin Fitzpatrick said in a Fox News appearance Sunday that “Congress will not let this strike happen, that’s for sure.”

“It would be devastating for our economy” Fitzpatrick added. “We’ll get to a resolution one way or another.”

Powerful industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Association of American Railroads have been pressuring Congress to step in after members of the largest rail union in the United States voted to reject a White House-brokered contractdeal that rebuffed workers’ push for at least 15 days of paid sick leave. The deal, touted by the Biden White House as a victory for workers and profitable rail companies, does not include a single paid sick day.

Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, Congress has the authority to intervene in rail labor disputes—power it has used in the past. In September, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blocked Republican legislation that would have forced rail workers to accept the inadequate contract recommendations of an emergency board convened by President Joe Biden.

The prospect of congressional intervention ahead of a potential strike on December 9 has angered rail workers who say it would let giant companies off the hook, allowing them to continue abusing their employees while raking in record profits. Rail workers are often forced to be on call 24/7—with minimal rest between long shifts—and are penalized for taking days off for doctor’s appointments or health emergencies.

In June, a locomotive engineer died of a heart attack after he put off a doctor’s visit when his employer BNSF—a rail giant owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway—called him into work.

Progressive lawmakers place blame for the looming strike with large railroad companies.

“When railroads refuse to give us sick time, what they are saying is their profits are worth more than their workers and the national economy,” Ross Grooters, co-chair of Railroad Workers United, tweeted over the weekend. “Hold the railroads accountable. Tell your elected leaders to give railroad workers the sick time they need or let them strike.”

Progressive lawmakers have also placed blame for the looming strike with large railroad companies, which have been gorging on their own stock, reporting huge profits, and enriching shareholders and executives while refusing to budge on workers’ longstanding demands for basic quality-of-life benefits.

“The corporate greed never ends,” Sanders wrote Sunday. “Last year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $20 billion in profits after cutting their workforce by 30% over the last six years. Meanwhile, rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days. Congress must stand with rail workers.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said last week that he is “hoping the railroads will get reasonable.”

“This is the 21st Century and to have skilled workers being denied sick leave, even unpaid sick leave, is unconscionable,” DeFazio told Bloomberg Government. “Freight rail companies are watching their record profits, ‘Oh my God, if we give people paid sick leave our stock might drop by a dollar.’ Give me a break.”

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Herschel Walker, South Park, and the Prius

On the campaign trail earlier this month, U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker from Georgia delivered a strange defense of vehicles that spew gobs of pollution, celebrating their inefficiency. Walker, a Republican who’s facing a runoff race against Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, told supporters at a rally in Peachtree, Georgia, that America isn’t “ready for the green agenda.”

“What we need to do is keep having those gas-guzzling cars,” Walker said. “We got the good emissions under those cars.” 

It was a moment when Walker’s absurd remarks actually squared with the party’s line (unlike, say, his comments about America’s “good air” deciding to float over to China). Republicans have said similar things over the years, displaying a worldview that fossil fuels have inherent virtue, once described as “carbonism.” It’s the belief system that drove former President Donald Trump to bar California from setting stricter emissions standards in 2019, and what led Republican congressmen to defend fossil fuels at the international climate negotiations in Egypt earlier this month.

This pro-pollution point of view can be partly explained by the GOP’s close connection to the oil industry, which funnels millions into Republican campaigns every election year. Walker’s celebration of gas guzzlers can also be understood as a reaction to the notion, quiet but widespread among many environmentally conscious people, that cleaner cars are morally superior.

In 2000, the United States was introduced to the Toyota Prius, marketed as a holier-than-thou, eco-friendly choice. The hybrid car set off a backlash so intense, you can still hear its echoes today. Prius owners were parodied in the cartoon South Park. On the road, hybrid drivers were sometimes blasted by clouds of thick black smoke, targeted by truck owners who had removed their emissions controls. A popular bumper sticker of the mid-2010s simply read “Prius Repellent.” Even Toyota embraced the image with ironic ads.

The most eco-friendly move: not buying a car at all.

Today, gasoline-free vehicles are finally starting to go mainstream. When the all-electric version of the Ford F-150 pickup truck—America’s longtime bestselling vehicle, and a favorite among Republicans— was released this spring, its waitlist was three years long. Sales of electric vehicles were up nearly 70 percent in the first nine months of this year compared to the same period last year. And 36 percent of Americans reported that they were considering buying an electric vehicle for their next car, according to polling by Consumer Reports this summer, largely because of high gas prices and cost savings over the long term. For many, the environmental benefits may be just a bonus — or not even be a consideration.

“I don’t have the disposable income to throw $50,000 or $60,000 at a car just to help the environment,” Russell Grooms, a librarian in Virginia who bought a battery-powered Nissan Leaf, recently told the New York Times. “It really came down to numbers.”

In a Prius commercial from 2008, a hitman drags a body out of his car in the middle of the night and dumps it in the river. “Well, at least he drives a Prius,” the ad says.

It was one of many advertisements that poked fun at the car’s environmental bona fides. The joke relies on understanding that driving a Prius is a form of moral “capital” that can be used to “offset life’s other sins,” wrote Sarah McFarland Taylor, a religion scholar, in the book Ecopiety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue. 

Buying a Prius isn’t really that pious an act. After all, the vehicle takes a lot of fossil fuels to manufacture and runs mostly on gasoline. The most eco-friendly move: not buying a car at all. But that didn’t stop the hybrid from taking off as a righteous choice. Within two years of its release in America, the Prius had gathered a long list of celebrity owners, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Larry David. In 2002, the Washington Post called the Prius “Hollywood’s latest politically correct status symbol.” 

For conservative commentators, that symbol made for a ripe target. “The bottom line here is that people that are buying Priuses are doing it for glamor reasons,” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show in 2005. “They wanted to appear virtuous. But they’re accomplishing nothing . . . These liberals think they’re ahead of the game on these things, and they’re just suckers.”

It wasn’t just Limbaugh. In 2006, South Park devoted an entire episode, called “Smug Alert,” to making fun of holier-than-thou Prius owners. It opens with Kyle’s dad, Gerald, showing off his new hybrid car, the “Toyonda Pious.” 

“I just couldn’t sit back and be a part of destroying the Earth anymore,” Gerald tells his neighbor with a condescending smile.

“Well, there goes the high and mighty Gerald Broflovski,” one onlooker comments. “Yeah, ever since he got that new hybrid he thinks he’s better than everyone else,” another says. Not long after the episode aired, a market research firm found that 57 percent of Prius owners said the main reason they bought one was that “it makes a statement about me,” versus 36 percent who said they bought it for the good gas mileage.

The car remained popular—hitting the mark of 1 million vehicles sold by 2011—and so did parodying it. In 2012, the satirical news site The Onion made a commercial about a new, even greener Prius that “reduces its driver’s carbon footprint to zero by impaling them through the lungs with spikes as soon as they get in the car.” 

The air of moral superiority around the Prius led to real-life consequences. Certain pickup truck owners took joy in rebelling against it, rolling up in front of hybrids and engulfing the vehicles in plumes of tailpipe smoke. This testosterone-fueled practice of “rolling coal”—modifying diesel engines to spew clouds of sooty exhaust—became a health menace in the mid-2010s. Directed at electric car owners, pedestrians, bikers, or anyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity, rolling coal became for these aficionados a defiant symbol of American freedom — signaling “don’t tell me what to do.”

Car companies don’t seem to be chasing efficiency — instead, they’re making big trucks and SUVs.

When states moved to ban rolling coal, some drivers pushed back, the New York Times reported in 2016. “Why don’t you go live in Sweden and get the heck out of our country,” one diesel truck owner wrote to an Illinois state representative who proposed a $5,000 fine for removing emissions equipment. “I will continue to roll coal anytime I feel like and fog your stupid eco-cars.”

One of the pitfalls of framing environmental concerns in moral terms is that it can provoke a counterreaction, especially when tied to individual behavior. One study found that listening to eco-friendly tips actually makes people less likely to do anything about climate change. Think about eating meat, often discussed as a moral issue among people concerned about animal rights or climate change. Fast-food chains like Taco Bell and Burger King have expanded their vegetarian menu items; meanwhile, Arby’s has leaned into the opposing “pro-meat” demographic. In 2018, Arby’s ran an ad with the tagline “Friends don’t let friends eat tofu.” The following year, the chain trolled vegans by introducing the “marrot,” a carrot made out of meat.

As America has grown more and more polarized, seemingly innocuous things have become associated with the other party, from pizza chains to sports leagues. One in five voters say that politics has hurt their friendships; there’s a growing aversion to dating people from the opposite party. With hybrids and electric vehicles owned most often by Democrats, Republicans like Walker might try to distance themselves from their perceived enemies by signaling their affection for fuel-hungry vehicles.

To be sure, the environment is still a major reason to buy a greener car for many Americans, especially among those on the political left. Almost three-quarters of those who would consider buying an electric vehicle said that helping the environment was a key consideration, according to polling from Pew Research. And in a survey released this month, 10 percent of Americans said it was “morally wrong” to drive a car that gets bad gas mileage. But even as they’re rolling out new electric models, car companies don’t seem to be chasing efficiency — instead, they’re making big trucks and SUVs. And they’re gaining popularity across party lines.

Aside from some lingering resentment against eco-friendly cars and what Walker called the “green agenda,” the United States seems to be moving beyond the hangups that surrounded the Prius. Over the last decade, the success of Tesla—which marketed its vehicles as cool and desirable, not a virtuous choice—paved the way for other carmakers to follow in hot pursuit. 

“The [Tesla] Model S completely delivered on its promise to change how the world thought about electric cars,” Jake Fisher, the senior director of Consumer Reports’ auto center, said earlier this year. “EVs were no longer the vegetables you should eat—they became the dessert you desired.”

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Inequality: America’s Silent Killer

The following is adapted from Inequality Kills Us All: Covid-19’s Health Lessons for the World by Stephen Bezruchka, M.D., M.P.H., published this week by Routledge.

In 1992, a publication appeared in the British Medical Journal written by Richard Wilkinson, featuring a simple graph of life expectancy in 1981 among nine rich nations, along with the percentage of income received by the poorest 70% of families for each country. It showed how greater inequality in a country was associated with lower life expectancy, with only a weak link between national incomes and mortality rates. Richer countries were not necessarily healthier than less rich ones, at least among developed nations. Increases in income inequality over time were linked to higher death rates. But were the results valid?

Depending on a single study as definitive evidence is a shaky way to stake a claim. Knowledge progresses by conjectures, critical commentary, discussions, and either general acceptance or rejection. Yet five previous studies, beginning in 1979, demonstrate similar findings. In 1996, two studies from University of California and Harvard reported the same finding within the United States: more unequal states had higher mortality. Later research showed the same result for large U.S. cities.

That same year, a landmark book, Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality, by Wilkinson appeared expounding these concepts. My own heavily annotated copy reflects the importance of this book as a huge step toward recognizing the effect of the social environment on health, while more recently, COVID-19 has highlighted the critical role social policies play in human survival. Similar studies link U.S. state and county death rates associated with COVID-19 with income inequality. The first paper found that more unequal states had higher COVID-19 death rates. In June 2021, a study showing U.S. counties with higher income inequality had higher rates of COVID cases and deaths. While the British media, with a July 2021 article in The Economist, pinpointed these studies, the U.S. media has mostly been silent. One subsequent study of 84 countries found more COVID-19 deaths associated with increasing economic inequality. Even a small rise in inequality gives rise to a substantial increase in COVID-19 deaths. Income inequality has soared with the pandemic providing other incriminating evidence that it kills. Still, correlation doesn’t imply causation. How do we know that something causes something else?

The U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report, Smoking and Health, outlined the criteria for inferring that something, in this case, cigarettes, caused something, in this case, worse health. The criteria were straightforward. First, there had to be many studies demonstrating the relationship, by different investigators, on different populations, over different time periods. Then the chicken and egg problem had to be addressed: did people start smoking and then their health worsened, or was it the other way around—their health got worse so they started smoking? Third, were there other better explanations for the association? Finally, was there some type of biological plausibility, namely, a mechanism through which smoking produced worse health?

By 1964, we had conclusive evidence that all these conditions were met for tobacco as damaging to health. Today, using the same criteria, we can state that inequality in a population causes worse health.

While the rest of us work for wages or salaries, the rich get most of their income from what economists call rents or unearned income.

Demonstrating the association between more economic inequality and worse health depends on multiple factors. One needs a threshold of income inequality—it must be greater than a certain magnitude before the relationship is observed. For relatively equal nations, the health effects aren’t apparent. There may be a lag between increases in income inequality and associated health outcomes. For small geographic groups, a small neighborhood, for example, people tend to live among others like themselves, so it would be unlikely that inequality and health would be associated there. Nevertheless, science shows that inequality is bad for health.

Richard Wilkinson had nudged the inequality-health field into academic prominence after his 1992 paper. Working with Kate Pickett, in 2009 they wrote, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger—a popular book linking a variety of health and social problems to income inequality among 23 rich nations, in which they lay out the evidence that inequality kills. They found that the United States had the most income inequality and the worst outcomes for the index. This seminal book has been translated into many languages and has sold close to a million copies.

In their book Social Inequality, Professors Ichiro Kawachi and S.V. Subramanian of Harvard University address the income inequality health question by presenting three key arguments. First there are “diminishing returns” to health with increasing income. Inequality’s second impact is through its psychosocial effects, showing that inequality causes stress and frustration leading to worse health. Third, there is a contextual effect of inequality. The rich increasingly control the political process and enjoy policies that benefit them, at the expense of everyone else. Let’s explore.

Diminishing Returns

Richer people have better health, as measured by mortality rates, than poorer people. However, adding an additional ten thousand dollars, say, to the income of a very rich person does little or nothing to improve their health, while adding that amount to a poor person’s income has substantial health benefits. Such a relationship is observed in nearly all societies.

Psychosocial Effects

Their second link is the psychosocial stress produced by inequality. People may have enough resources to provide for basic needs, which typically include food, water, shelter, and security, but may not have enough to support the more lavish lifestyle that they see others enjoying. With a large income and wealth gap, they recognize what they don’t have and compete for higher status. Such an unequal society engenders stress and frustration. We recognize the need to “be nice” to our superiors if we are to keep our job or look good in society.

Status anxiety, the inevitable outcome of income inequality, is found at all levels of income. The very rich often don’t want to talk about their wealth. In her book Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence Rachel Sherman finds that many of the rich don’t admit to being more than middle-class, despite having several homes and other trappings of wealth. Though objectively very wealthy, they think of those who have even more than they do as “affluent.”

Providing healthcare to all is necessary, but it is only the first step.

There is less status anxiety where there are smaller income gaps. One study asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement, “Some people look down on me because of my job situation or income.” Those in more unequal societies were found to have greater status anxiety at any income level than people in places with less inequality.

Inequality also leads to self-medicating with drugs. Three quarters of the world’s opioid consumption takes place in the United States, where we have the highest rates of use. Opioid overdose death rates here have risen markedly since 1994, in contrast to those in other rich countries. Might the high use of opioids here reflect the increasing inequality and status anxiety? Studies show common forms of drug use, including opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, and ecstasy, are higher in more unequal countries and more drug deaths occur in more unequal U.S. states.

The Contextual Effect of Inequality: The Rich Control Politics

With a large income gap, the well-off pull away from the rest of society. Call it the secession of the rich. Consider the lifestyles of those on top of the unequal wealth distribution, the so-called one percent. They are actually the 0.1 or 0.01%. They live in gated communities, send their children to private schools, and have staff to clean their homes, do the gardening, and prepare meals. They enjoy private security services and receive concierge medical care from doctors and other service personnel who are at their beck and call. Since they pay for these benefits with their high incomes, they don’t see a need to support others who have considerably less. They often say, “We worked hard so that we can pay for these benefits ourselves why should we help others who didn’t?” They essentially secede from the rest of society.

Most rich people argue for less government intervention, less regulation, lower taxes, and letting the so-called free market dictate how society fares. While the rest of us work for wages or salaries, the rich get most of their income from what economists call rents or unearned income, for example, through investments in property or stocks—thus from means other than showing up at work.

We are heading in the direction of even more concentrated political power, while the rest of us are facing an epidemic of disempowerment. Government funding for education decreases, the quality of public schools declines, and college students have to assume massive debt for an undergraduate degree. Public transportation and other social services are weakened. The deterioration in highway, bridge, and transportation systems, especially compared to other rich nations, shows the decline of infrastructure here. Stories of U.S. bridges and apartment buildings collapsing due to delayed maintenance or not heeding or delaying acting upon structural engineering reports are another example of the contextual effect of inequality. Access to healthcare is considered a privilege, not a fundamental human right as it is in many other nations. As the poor become disempowered and the wealthy gain power, societal relationships overall become less healthy.

Providing healthcare to all is necessary, but it is only the first step. We will only achieve a truly healthy society by redistributing a little from the rich to the poor. In an era of staggering inequality, we can easily afford it.

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The Goldin Girls

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Dir. by Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras, one of the world’s foremost documentarians, is back with another hard-hitting nonfiction film. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Poitras—winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her reportage on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and an Academy Award for her 2014 film about the same, Citizenfour—chronicles the movement to hold the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma accountable for their role in sparking and sustaining a national opioid epidemic.

Bloodshed, winner of this year’s Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival, focuses on the efforts of Nan Goldin, the noted photographer who co-founded the activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or P.A.I.N. Poitras and three co-editors intricately intertwine the story of Goldin’s anti-OxyContin crusade with the details of her often-difficult private life. These two storylines—the societal and personal, the collective and the individual—develop into a complex and propulsive dialectical dynamic, aided by Poitras’ most ambitious directing work to date and an evocative soundtrack by the Soundwalk Collective.

As Poitras details, the opioid crisis has killed half a million Americans. Goldin blames the Sackler family company, Purdue, which not only manufactured Oxy, the extraordinarily potent and virulently addictive painkiller at the center of this crisis, but aggressively marketed it with deceptive advertising campaigns and lucrative schemes to entice doctors into prescribing it as widely as possible. The Sacklers sought to burnish their family name by becoming modern-day Medicis, lavishly showering support on museums and universities across the U.S. and Europe. Among the institutions that benefited from the Sacklers’ endowments were the Smithsonian, Guggenheim, Louvre, British Museum, Harvard and beyond. In one of the film’s rare oversights, Bloodshed doesn’t pause to consider the tax benefits of such philanthropic largesse.

For Goldin and her fellow P.A.I.N. members, this charity is blood money that turned bribery into, literally, high art. The film opens with the activists staging direct action inside the Sackler Wing of Manhattan’s world-famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, home of the ancient Roman Egyptian Temple of Dendur. It is a powerful scene: The Goldin-led protest catches museumgoers and guards off guard as P.A.I.N. members toss empty prescription bottles into the Temple of Dendur’s pool and chant anti-Oxy and Sackler slogans. When startled security attempts to remove the disrupters, they launch a “die-in,” suggesting the thousands who have been killed by Oxy and opioid addiction.

Archival footage shows how P.A.I.N.’s strategy was inspired by tactics pioneered during the 1980s by ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to galvanize action by raising public awareness about HIV and government inaction when the Reagan regime wouldn’t even utter the word “AIDS.” Later in Bloodshed P.A.I.N.’s militants rain faux prescription slips down on museumgoers from the Guggenheim’s internal stairway. To drive home their conviction that Sackler donations are a form of blood money, P.A.I.N.’s campaigners also produce bogus dollar bills smeared with bloody red coloring and the words “IN PHARMA WE TRUST” over “OXY,” printed where the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” appears over “ONE” on a real greenback. And to the left of the slogan on the “counterfeit” currency is what appears to be an encircled image of the Guggenheim Museum, instead of a pyramid. These mock dollars were reportedly tossed on the steps of a Westchester County courthouse during the Purdue’s bankruptcy hearing in 2019.

Whether at P.A.I.N.’s New York-based organizing meetings or the group’s confrontational events around the U.S. and Europe, Nan Goldin plays a central role. (She also shares producer credits for Bloodshed). Her participation and leadership position in the anti-Sackler demonstrations was especially vexing to the art world, because as an internationally renowned visual artist, Goldin’s work, such as the slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was sometimes exhibited and collected at the same museums and galleries she was protesting, including the Met.

Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin.

Goldin became aware of OxyContin and the painkiller’s dangers in 2014, when it was prescribed to her for tendonitis in the left wrist and she quickly became addicted. Suffering was nothing new for the 69-year-old Goldin, who, as Bloodshed painstakingly chronicles, grew up in a troubled household in suburban Boston. Although only mentioned in passing, Goldin’s mother was repeatedly sexually molested by a relative when she was young. The film spends more time elaborating upon the saga of Nan’s older sister Barbara, who was in and out of institutions before committing suicide in an especially gruesome manner. Poitras makes extensive use of what appears to be home-movie footage, as well as of the pictures Goldin, a prolific photographer, shot over the decades.

Goldin was impacted by the sixties/seventies’ counterculture, and through her freewheeling photography, documented the demi-monde and burgeoning LGBTQ scene largely in New York. Bloodshed brings alive this Bohemian slice of life that Goldin not only artfully captured with her lens, but was herself a part of. Much of her work has a sexual edge, ranging from gay partnering to images of Golden having sexual intercourse with her then boyfriend. In contemporary footage presumably shot by Poitras and intercut with the archival material, Goldin admits publicly for the first time to having been a sex worker.

Against all odds, Goldin and her army of activists win many, if not all, of their demands.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is not one film, but two, artfully melded. It becomes clear that Golden’s often painful personal life, especially the suicide of her beloved older sister, informs her struggle against the Sacklers, who have so immensely enriched themselves by profiteering from manufacturing and marketing a dangerous drug. OxyContin offered immiserated individuals the illusion of surcease from their pain, which would appeal to suffering people like Goldin. Instead, the opioid crisis proved an illusion that caused far more agony than the advertised relief.

Against all odds, Goldin and her army of activists win many, if not all, of their demands. The Sacklers are sacked by the Met, the Louvre, the Serpentine Gallery and others; each refuses their money and deletes the family name from its halls. During bankruptcy proceedings, meanwhile, members of the Sackler family are legally required to listen and watch (albeit virtually) to the outrage expressed by many of their victims, including Goldin, who could properly be called a “survivor.”

Poitras’ first full-length documentary since her 2016 biopic Risk, about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, Bloodshed is far more creative aesthetically than her previous work, including 2014’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour. The film does, however, share a common theme with her previous works—that of individuals standing up to and confronting powerful forces. Whether it’s a sophisticated surveillance state, the military-industrial complex, or billion-dollar pharmaceutical firms, Poitras shows us that the high and mighty can be held accountable—and even defeated. In doing so, Poitras—like Nan Goldin—proves that political power can grow out of the barrel of a camera.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is being theatrically released November 23 in New York at the IFC Center, Film at Lincoln Center, and BAM; and on December 2 in Los Angeles at AMC Sunset 5 and in San Francisco at AMC Kabuki 8; and on December 9 in additional markets.

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Top Dominican Sugar Producer Accused of Using Forced Labor

The United States will block shipments of raw sugar from a top Dominican producer with close ties to two wealthy Florida businessmen after finding indications of forced labor at its sprawling Caribbean plantation. Sugar from the Central Romana Corp.’s cane fields feeds into the supply chains of major U.S. brands, including Domino and the Hershey Co. The ban on all imports from Central Romana went into effect today.

“Manufacturers like Central Romana, who fail to abide by our laws, will face consequences as we root out these inhumane practices from U.S. supply chains,” AnnMarie R. Highsmith, executive assistant commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Trade, said in a press release.

The company is owned in part by the Florida-based Fanjul Corp., a global sugar and real estate conglomerate. 

The federal investigation found five indications of labor abuse among cane cutters employed and housed by Central Romana: abuse of vulnerability, isolation, withholding of wages, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime. Central Romana’s plantation shipped more than 295 million pounds of raw sugar from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. last year.  

This action follows a two-year investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and Mother Jones that sparked criticism of the Dominican sugar industry from Democratic lawmakers in Washington.  

The Reveal/Mother Jones investigation, released in September 2021, found grim conditions for the cane cutters and their families, who live in ramshackle company housing, often with no electricity or running water. In more than 50 interviews, workers spoke of inadequate protective gear, poor medical care, low pay, chronic debt and intimidation by the company’s armed security force. 

Thousands of men who harvest sugarcane for Central Romana are Haitian citizens or of Haitian descent and many do not have legal status in the Dominican Republic. Unable to collect long-overdue pensions, some workers said they were forced to cut cane into their 80s. 

In calling for action from the Biden administration, lawmakers cited Reveal and Mother Jones and subsequent reporting in The Washington Post and Jacobin.  

An anonymous petition filed with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in October 2021 contained similar findings and alleged that Central Romana cane cutters work without written contracts, enduring abusive conditions, debt bondage and restriction of movement—all indicators of forced labor as established by the International Labor Organization. 

A Central Romana spokesperson released two statements. The English version said the company is “very disappointed” with the decision to block its exports to the U.S.

“We disagree vehemently with the decision as we do not believe it reflects the facts about our company and the treatment of our employees,” the statement said.

The company said it’s committed to providing safe employment, and it recognizes the need to “continuously evolve our work environment and the living conditions of our employees.”

The company also said it intends to “work collaboratively with (Customs and Border Protection) to resolve this matter.”

The Dominican sugar industry has faced allegations of labor exploitation for decades.

But in the statement released in Spanish, Central Romana struck a more defiant tone, leaving out any mention of working with the U.S. government.

The Spanish statement says “we hold our heads high,” because the company says that for more than a century, it has acted correctly.

Central Romana is part of a sugar empire built by Alfonso “Alfy” and Jose “Pepe” Fanjul beginning in the 1960s. The Florida businessmen and brothers led a group of investors in the purchase of Central Romana and its luxury Casa de Campo resort in 1984 and have further expanded through a web of private holding companies, partnerships and affiliates. 

A Central Romana spokesperson said last year that the company does not publicly disclose the identities of its board of directors and corporate officers. However, Alfonso Fanjul is listed as Central Romana’s president in press releases and recent corporate filings in the Dominican Republic.  

The Fanjuls also co-founded the ASR Group, which controls the world’s largest network of sugar refineries. ASR’s holdings include the iconic Domino plant in Baltimore, which handled more than half of Central Romana’s shipments to the U.S. last year, according to commercial trade data.  

Central Romana has previously denied allegations of forced labor. The company has said it has invested millions of dollars to improve living conditions for cane cutters and their families, while paying salaries twice the country’s minimum wage and working closely with a labor union. 

The Fanjul Corp., where Alfonso is chairman and Jose is president, did not respond to questions about the announcement. The company has praised Central Romana as a “highly respected corporate citizen in the Dominican Republic” that “takes pride in its reputation for civic activities and ethical business practices.” 

The Dominican sugar industry has faced allegations of labor exploitation for decades. Complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor led the agency to begin sending monitoring teams to the Dominican Republic in 2013 under the terms of an international trade agreement. 

In annual reviews released to the public, the Labor Department reported “positive steps” in curbing child and forced labor in the Dominican sugar sector, though it said progress was “uneven.” Behind the scenes, U.S. officials were concerned about the slow pace of reforms at Central Romana and its suppliers, according to a trove of heavily redacted field reports and other documents obtained after Reveal sued the Labor Department.

One undated report described cane cutters and their families living in tiny rooms in old barracks with open water on the ground and no bathroom. Another document, a 2018 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, referred to evidence of abusive working and living conditions and other problems at Central Romana but noted “further study” was needed to determine if the situation would require U.S. Customs and Border Protection to block exports to the United States. 

Human rights and labor groups and clergy have advocated for better conditions for the Haitian cane cutters for decades. 

“It has been a very long road, strewn with countless hardships and challenges,” said Father Christopher Hartley, a Spanish priest whose efforts to expose abuses in the Dominican sugar industry triggered the Labor Department’s monitoring. “Today, the hour of justice has finally arrived in the sugarcane fields of the Dominican Republic.”

The loss of access to the U.S. market, even temporarily, could cost Central Romana tens of millions of dollars annually.

In January, 15 Democratic lawmakers referenced the Reveal/Mother Jones investigation in calling on three federal agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to address “slave-like” conditions in the Dominican sugar industry. Their letter urged the agencies to review the alleged violations and consider the Biden administration’s policy options – including banning any goods produced by forced labor, under the Tariff Act. 

In the face of such pressure from Washington, the Dominican government announced a raise to the agricultural workers’ minimum wage and promised to register undocumented cane workers and pay out pensions. 

Democratic U.S. Reps. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the Trade Subcommittee chair, praised the decision from the Biden administration in a joint statement.

“As families around the country prepare their Thanksgiving sweets, they’d be horrified to know the atrocities that workers endure in cultivating one of their key ingredients,” they said. “Central Romana Corp. and the Dominican sugar industry have operated with impunity for far too long.”

This is the first time in recent years that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used the Tariff Act’s provisions to target sugar imports. But similar concerns over forced labor have led to bans on products such as seafood and palm oil from companies in Taiwan and Malaysia, respectively, and cotton and human hair pieces believed to have been made by persecuted Uyghur Muslims in Chinese labor camps.  

Analysts said the loss of Dominican sugar could trigger disruptions in the U.S. market, especially in the Northeast, where ASR operates two large refineries. 

Although Central Romana accounts for roughly 7% of total U.S. raw sugar imports, the supply cutoff could cause “uncertainty” in an already-tight market, said Vincent O’Rourke, analyst for the Czarnikow Group, a London-based trade financing firm.   

ASR supplies sugar to a wide range of food and beverage producers, confectioners and grocery stores and has partnerships with Hershey, whose chocolate factory is 90 miles from ASR’s Domino refinery in Baltimore.

Hershey spokesperson Jeff Beckman has declined previous requests to share a detailed breakdown of sugar purchases, but the company claimed that 100% of its sugar came from responsible and sustainable sources in 2020.

The loss of access to the U.S. market, even temporarily, could cost Central Romana tens of millions of dollars annually. The Dominican Republic is the second-largest exporter of raw sugar to the U.S. under a complex federal system that protects domestic producers by restricting imports. The U.S. is a prized market because of congressionally backed sugar price supports that pay well above the world market rate. Central Romana typically has accounted for nearly two-thirds of the Dominican quota and enjoys low tariffs on its exports to the U.S.

This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Learn more at and subscribe to their weekly newsletter at

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