Archive for September 2nd, 2011

Government Tests Find Roundup Widespread in Water, Air

Government Tests Find Roundup Widespread in Water, Air

EWG: “What did Monsanto officials know, and when did they know it?”



Posted 01 September 2011, by Staff, Environmental Working Group,



Washington, D.C. — Glyphosate, one of the most heavily used weed-killers in the world, has been found in air, rain and rivers in two states examined by government scientists.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, glyphosate, also known by its trade name Roundup, has been “commonly found in rain and rivers in agricultural areas in the Mississippi River watershed.”

EWG President Ken Cook, a St. Louis native, has written Hugh Grant, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Monsanto Company, asking him when the company had reason to believe glyphosate would extensively contaminate water and air and if the company had conducted tests of its own.

“Monsanto notoriously hid PCB contamination in Alabama for decades,” Cook observed.

“We are asking that in this case, the company tell the public what it knew about glyphosate contamination, and when it knew it,” Cook said. “It is inconceivable that a company with Monsanto’s scientific capacity did not predict, and examine, the possibility of air and water contamination by glyphosate.”

“We believe that Monsanto has a special obligation to ensure that glyphosate does not pollute the drinking water of Americans living in farm communities,” added Cook. “We urge you to disclose results of any testing for glyphosate in drinking water that Monsanto has performed or commissioned in areas where your product is heavily used.”

In 2001 and 2002, EWG compiled a series of internal documents showing Monsanto withheld for years its knowledge of widespread PCB contamination of water and soil in Anniston, Alabama.

Then-Washington Post journalist Michael Grunwald chronicled the scandal in his seminal report: Monsanto Hid Decades of Pollution

The text Cook’s letter to Monsanto’s Grant below:

September 1, 2011

Hugh Grant
Chairman, president and chief executive officer
Monsanto Company
800 N. Lindbergh Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63167

Dear Mr. Grant,

We at the Environmental Working Group have read with alarm a Reuters account of a U.S. Geological Survey study that has discovered that your company’s weed killer, glyphosate, widely contaminates surface waters and air in Iowa and Mississippi.

According to the Reuters story, published August 31, Paul Capel, leader of the USGS research team on agricultural chemicals, described the level of glyphosate contamination in the air and water of those states as “significant.” Your chemical contaminated every stream sample taken in Mississippi over a two-year period, the story said.

Roundup is one of the most widely used pesticides in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2007, about 180 million pounds of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was used in agriculture, up from 85 million pounds in 2001. Another 5 million pounds of glyphosate were purchased for use on residential lawns and gardens, and 13 million went for other non-agricultural uses such as roadways, golf courses and public lands.

Recent scientific findings have raised serious concerns about glyphosate’s toxicity. Female workers exposed to Roundup have reported pregnancy problems. These observations in humans accord with two important research studies. In 2005, a team of French scientists from Université de Caen found that very low doses of glyphosate damage human placental cells and that effects were more pronounced with higher concentrations or longer exposure times. In 2009, the same research team, testing concentrations of Roundup much lower than those used in agriculture, found that the pesticide caused “total cell death” in embryonic kidney and placental cells within 24 hours.

Given Monsanto’s expertise in the environmental chemistry of glyphosate, a product your company invented, did the company anticipate such widespread contamination of air and water?

Has Monsanto conducted air and water tests for this weed killer? If so, when did that testing begin, where were samples collected, what were the results, and did Monsanto notify any state or federal agencies about the findings? We urge you to make any such test results public immediately.

The Reuters report notes that testing air and water for glyphosate is difficult and costly. We believe that Monsanto, not U.S. taxpayers, should pay for further, independent testing to determine the extent of contamination where glyphosate is in heavy use. That area would comprise most of the U.S. farm belt.

We believe that Monsanto has a special obligation to ensure that glyphosate does not pollute the drinking water of Americans living in farm communities. We urge you to disclose results of any testing for glyphosate in drinking water that Monsanto has performed or commissioned in areas where your product is heavily used.

Sincerely yours,

Ken Cook
President, Environmental Working Group

What Price Kindness?


What Price Kindness?

Exposing the life and work of a visionary and troubled scientist opens a window onto the evolution of altruism.


Posted 31 August 2011, by Oren Harman, The Scientist,


A strange and solitary American living in a foreign country writes an equation that helps to solve a mystery going back to Charles Darwin. Destitute and reduced to skin and bones, mumbling about Jesus, he commits suicide in a cold London squat. Sounds like a rather fanciful screenplay, but this is no fiction. It is January 1975 and 10 or 11 companions have come to accompany George Price to his final resting place in an unmarked grave in Saint Pancras Cemetery. Among them are six homeless down-and-outs, and two of the century’s greatest evolutionary biologists—John Maynard Smith and Bill Hamilton. Price had come over from America to solve the problem of altruism, and now he was dead. Behind him, he left an amazing story about mankind’s quest to understand where kindness and, ultimately, sacrifice come from. And, of course, there was the equation . . .

My book, The Price of Altruism, which is out in paperback this summer, explores Price’s dramatic quest to solve one of the most intractable and long-standing quandaries in all of biology.

Here is the mystery: if evolution is a game of survival of the fittest, how to explain the persistence of traits which reduce individuals’ success at passing on their genes? Behold the stinging bee, the toilsome ant, the nurturing sterile mole rat. Consider the social amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum, in which altruistic stalk cells give their lives so their brothers can climb them to the tip of the cooperative spire and be carried away to better fortunes by a felicitous wind. Darwin was mesmerized by the apparent paradox of altruism in a nature “red in tooth and claw,” and proclaimed that absent a solution, his entire theory was suspect. Ever since, field biologists, mathematicians, geneticists, game theorists, psychologists, and of course philosophers have been trying to crack the mystery of the origins of kindness.

Price was one of them, and a man who came to the problem late in his career. He had worked as a chemist on the Manhattan Project, as an engineer at Bell Labs, as a systems analyst at IBM, and as a writer living in Greenwich Village. In 1967 he left his job, family, and country behind and moved to England to try to solve the altruism conundrum. Within less than six months, untrained in the field and working entirely alone, he wrote an equation that would come to bear his name. Where science had offered either the narrowness of nepotism (kin selection) or the clannishness of the tribe (group selection) as possible explanations for the evolution of altruism, the “Price equation” would provide a multilevel selection approach that would allow for both, and more. By partitioning selection into its different components—particularly for traits like altruism where interests apparently conflict between different levels of biological organization—the equation would ultimately find a central role in social evolution theory. Altruism could come about in different ways and via different routes.

But of course this was biological “kindness,” measured by the result of an action rather than its intention, so was there any true bearing on humans? It was this question that would ultimately lead Price to the streets of London, where, like a guardian angel, he tended to the homeless. And this question remains a challenge today, as we use neurogenetics, endocrinology, mathematical modeling, and fMRI to try to “find” kindness, empathy, and altruism in humans. The Price of Altruism puts this lofty quest in historical context, going back to Darwin and a cast of colorful characters—the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, the mathematical genius John von Neumann, and many others—who also sought the origins of altruism. Ultimately, Price’s suicide, among the unfortunate homeless of London whom he had striven to save, sheds more light on how difficult it is to find scientific solutions to deep human mysteries. A window onto the majesty of the scientific method alongside its limitations is the legacy that this entirely unique and dramatic life leaves behind.

Oren Harman is Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University, and the author of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the best science book of 2010. Read an excerpt from the book.


(Ed Note: Please visit the original site for more content associated with this article.)

Do Trees Grow on Money?

Do Trees Grow on Money?

A UN-Backed Plan to Address Climate Change by Slowing Deforestation Sounds Like a Good Idea. Unless You Live in the Forest.

Posted 01 September 2011, by Jeff Conant, Earth Island Journal (Earth Island Institute),

In Mayan cosmology, the ceiba tree, with its elephantine, silver-grey trunk that towers above the jungle, is the tree of life, shoring up the corners of the sky and sending its roots deep into the underworld. In the centuries following the conquest of the New World, Mayans by the thousands were forced to work in monterias, or timber camps, and the ancestral role of the ceiba as a bridge between the world above and the world below gave way to the board-feet of timber the trees surrendered when felled. The ensuing rush for sugar, for rubber, for minerals, and for cattle left the jungles of Mesoamerica reduced to a fraction of their original area and devastated the peoples who once thrived there. Today, another vision is shaping the jungles of southern Mexico: The idea that protecting forests is central to the struggle against global warming.

Tropical deforestation and forest degradation contribute between 12 and 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as some 13 million hectares of forest are lost annually. The Lacandon Jungle on the border of Chiapas and Guatemala is a case in point: Only about 10 percent of the jungle remains intact. Saving forested areas like the Lacandon is key to reducing the impacts of runaway climate change.

Under REDD, “forests” may also mean plantations.

Past efforts to reduce deforestation, like setting up protected areas or promoting sustainable land-use practices, have had limited success. That’s because the drivers of deforestation – agriculture, mining, fossil fuel extraction, paper demand – offer rich financial rewards. But what if forests were more valuable left standing than cut down?

A new policy mechanism is being developed to do just that. Dubbed REDD, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, the mechanism (along with a list of spin-offs such as REDD+ and REDD++) is backed by major multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Support for REDD spans the spectrum of green groups, from market-minded conservation NGOs like Environmental Defense and Conservation International to more capital-skeptic outfits like Greenpeace.

At a high-level event during COP16, the UN climate summit last year in Cancún, Mexico, pilot REDD projects were hailed by heads of state and a gamut of global figures including primatologist Jane Goodall, Walmart CEO Sam Walton, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The World Bank’s Robert Zoellick called REDD “the best chance, perhaps the last chance, to save the world’s forests.” Zoellick admitted that the policy still has some kinks, but closed his remarks to great applause with one of the mantras of the summit: “Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

After the applause died down, Linda Adams, the head of California EPA, took the stage and announced that, as one of his last acts in office, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed a carbon trading agreement, predicated on a REDD scheme, with the state of Chiapas. Adams called the plan “a way for California to help the developing world by investing in forests.”

“Saving our forests is good not only for the atmosphere,” she said. “It’s also good for Indigenous Peoples.” Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines, on hand to promote his state’s comprehensive Climate Change Action Program, nodded in vigorous agreement.

But as official delegates applauded REDD in Cancún’s plenary halls, grassroots activists in the streets were staging protests against the policy. Benign as it may appear, what outsiders see as forest protection many locals see as the potential loss of their homes. REDD is fiercely contested by many human rights advocates and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, who see in it the continuation of colonial resource extraction at best, and at worst perhaps the largest land grab in history.

Tom Goldtooth, Director of the North America-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), has called REDD “a violation of the sacred, and the commodification of life.” Goldtooth warns that the policy won’t actually reduce emissions, that it is already violating communities’ rights, and that it relies too much on the market. IEN, along with the Global Forest Coalition, World Rainforest Movement, Friends of the Earth International, and La Via Campesina, the world’s largest federation of peasant farmers, came away from Cancún charging that the UN, in promoting REDD, had become “the World Trade Organization of the Sky.”

“When a natural function like forest respiration becomes a product with a price, it’s easy to see who’s going to end up with control of the forests.”

The REDD scheme unfolding in Chiapas offers a particularly compelling test for this controversial idea. Home to most of Mexico’s tropical trees, a third of its mammal species, and half of its bird and butterfly species, the Lacandon is also, famously, home to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the insurgent rebel group that rose up in 1994 to demand that Indigenous Peoples be allowed to control their own territories. That struggle, and the Mexican government’s response, has engendered paramilitary massacres, years of counterinsurgency, and tens of thousands of displaced people – and it can be traced, in part, to a decades-old agreement that took as its pretext the protection of the Lacandon. The region’s rich biodiversity, open conflicts over land tenure, and the potential investment from California make Lacandon a fascinating test case – or an instructive cautionary tale – of what REDD may bring.

REDD, in Black and White

REDD works like this: Because trees capture and store CO2, maintaining intact forests is essential to mitigating climate change. REDD proposes that governments, companies, or forest owners in the global South be given financial incentives for keeping their forests standing. REDD was formally taken up by the UN-sponsored climate change talks in Bali in 2007. Since then it has moved rapidly to the forefront of the climate agenda. Norway, its biggest donor, has pledged upwards of $120 million to the UN REDD program, and given $1 billion each to Indonesia and a confederation of Amazonian states to establish the program. In December 2010, REDD was adopted into the UN’s Cancún Agreements, the closest thing to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.

While paying to preserve forests appears to be a long-overdue gesture of goodwill, it brings up an array of thorny questions. For starters, what is meant by “forests”? Because the UN’s definition is unclear, “forests” under REDD may include monoculture tree plantations or even genetically engineered trees. Since timber, paper, and biofuel plantations are more lucrative than natural forests, REDD could fund the destruction of native forests and their replacement with tree plantations.

Beyond the ecological concerns, REDD is proving exceedingly elusive to put into practice. One fundamental question is: Where will the money come from? At present, there is no “compliance market” for REDD – meaning it is not yet part of any mandated legislative effort to reduce emissions. Of numerous government-sponsored REDD projects worldwide, the agreement between California and Chiapas, expected to come on line by 2015, is the most advanced.

The most likely source of funding for REDD is a combination of private investment and multilateral funds, boosted by a huge dose of carbon offsets from industry in wealthy nations. An offset-based REDD will allow those who protect forests to earn carbon credits – financial rewards based on the amount of CO2 a forest can store and a market-derived price per ton of CO2. Governments (or NGOs, or local communities) that protect forests can then trade these credits to industrial polluters for revenue that, in theory, provides incentive not to cut down trees.

But if the money comes from carbon offsets, as the UN and the California protocol propose, this means that even if deforestation is reduced, industrial emissions – the main driver of climate change – will not be.

The offsets component brings REDD strong support from the fossil fuel industry. BP (yes, that BP) recently became the first company to join the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, which will allow the company to offset its emissions. REDD’s market-share potential has also attracted the financial services industry – Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley – the same Wall Street speculators that threw the global banking systems into a tailspin.

The whole idea is based on the notion of “Payment for Environmental Services.” To the market-minded, this is a pioneering method for quantifying the worth of ecosystems, thus incentivizing their preservation. Many in the global South, however, see it as the rationale for a wholesale privatization of territories and natural resources. Gustavo Castro of the Chiapas-based NGO Otros Mundos says, “When a natural function like forest respiration becomes a product with a price, it’s easy to see who’s going to end up with control of the forests.”

That is, the people who have the cash to put up the protection money.

REDD Alert in Chiapas

Amador Hernández is a village of about 1,500 Tzeltal Mayan peasant farmers set deep inside the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the Lacandon Jungle. Three months after the Cancún talks, as darkness fell over the village assembly hall there, a few dozen villagers gathered in the dusty glare of a single solar-powered lightbulb to talk about the climate policies that were lapping at the edges of their territory like the first ripples of an oncoming flood. One villager, Santiago Martinez, explained REDD to the assembly in broad strokes: “REDD is a program the government is promoting to do what they call ‘capturing carbon,’ and conserving the jungle,” he said. “From what we’ve heard, it’s a global program led by rich people, businessmen, Europeans.”

Martinez was opposed to the program; among the reasons was concern that it would require abandoning their lands and traditional farming methods. The worries were fueled by recent government messages warning that a team would come through the village shortly to measure property lines and evict any ‘irregular settlers.”

The villagers clearly perceived this as the legacy of a land tenure arrangement that has been at the heart of conflicts in the Lacandon for decades. In 1971, the Mexican government ceded over a 1.5 million acres to the Lacandon tribe – one of the six Indigenous groups in Chiapas – which at the time consisted of only 66 families. Seven years later, the government created the 800,000-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, overlapping the Lacandon territory. In order to give the first chunk of territory to the Lacandones, and to protect the second as a reserve, 2,000 Tzeltal and Ch’ol families – 26 villages – were moved. Among the displaced were some families who later came to form Amador Hernández.

The resulting tension between the Lacandones and the rest of the region’s Indigenous groups led to the formation of several peasant farmer organizations demanding redress; some of these groups later coalesced into the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The militant response made it impossible for the Mexican government to draw solid boundaries around the land in question. Now, with the promise of financing under REDD, the government is making a renewed attempt to get the boundaries drawn, to expel anyone without land title, and to inventory the Montes Azules Reserve to quantify, and then bring to market, the area’s carbon storage potential.

Earlier this year, the Chiapas government began distributing 2,000 pesos a month (roughly $200) to each Lacandon landholder. The payments were authorized, according to a government statement, “to allow the completion of the forest inventory so that [the Lacandon community] can access federal and international funds, as well as complement these funds with projects such as agricultural conversion outside the Reserve with species such as oil palm and rubber.” In the abstract, the money is incentivizing forest protection. But in the words of the villagers of Amador Hernández, the purpose of the payments is “to guard the border against their neighbors – that is, us.”

The most publicized aspects of REDD in Chiapas are the payments to the Lacandones and a program to train them as “environmental police.” As a Lacandon man named Chankayun said, “Yes, there are other poor Indigenous communities living in our territory, and I hope we can come to a peaceful agreement for them to find another place to live.” Governor Sabines speaks openly about the need to resettle jungle communities, and makes regular visits to the Lacandon to distribute funds and good will. “The jungle can’t wait,” he said in June. “Of 179 ‘irregular’ settlements within the jungle’s protected area, most have been removed and only eleven remain. Of these, some are Zapatistas. We hope they leave voluntarily, but if they want to stay, they stay.”

But what Governor Sabines describes as voluntary resettlement takes on a darker shade from the viewpoint of those with no land rights. At the village assembly in Amador Hernández, villagers stood up one by one to denounce what they perceived as a land grab. A year before, the villagers said, all government medical services, including vaccinations, had been cut off; several elderly people and children died due to lack of medical attention. This neglect, they believed, was due to their refusal to capitulate to the demands of REDD. “They’re attacking our health as a way of getting access to our land,” Martinez said.

The case of Amador Hernández appears extreme, but it’s hardly unique. As preparations for REDD are laid around the world, Indigenous communities in other countries – Ecuador, Peru, Congo – are saying, with increasing urgency, that forest protection without land rights represents a direct threat to their ways of life.

The Price of an Arm and a Leg?

A cornerstone of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a provision called Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. FPIC, as it is known, offers a theoretical bulwark against human rights abuses by declaring that Indigenous Peoples must have a say in projects that affect them. It is central to debates over REDD. Some argue that REDD can work as long as it includes FPIC safeguards. But FPIC is nonbinding, and as the case of Amador Hernández shows, it rarely works.

In Chiapas, where the Zapatista movement rose up in arms precisely because Indigenous voices had been disregarded for five centuries, “informed consent” has never been a consideration. Gustavo Castro says: “There’s a lot of talk in the government’s documents, in the REDD scheme, of the need for consultation. But there haven’t been any consultations, and I don’t believe there will be.”

Discussing the practical aspects of community participation, Castro is dour: “When we talk about consultations, we have to take into account who does it, and what we mean by ‘prior’ and ‘informed.’ What they say to the communities is, ‘We’re protecting the planet, we’re fighting climate change, and we’ll pay you to help.’ So then the consultation consists of one question: ‘Are you with us?’ And the answer you can expect from rural communities is, ‘Of course we are.’”

What outsiders see as forest protection many locals see as loss of their homes.

There’s little doubt that pouring money into rural communities involves serious challenges. As Miguel Angel García, whose NGO Maderas del Pueblo supports ecological projects in the Lacandon, says, “This whole thing is bringing on a terrible cultural transformation. Putting forests, a common good, into the market has the effect of tearing the social fabric and generating economic interests that go directly against the interests and values of the Indigenous peoples. And it’s causing death; not only physical death, but the death of a culture, and of a cosmovision. It’s an ethnocide.”

To be clear: Groups that oppose REDD are not against receiving funds from wealthy nations to maintain forests. The social movements that oppose REDD generally favor the creation of a fund to pay for the resources that industrialized nations have consumed. This is the idea of “climate debt.” Led by Bolivia, a coalition of more than 50 governments has submitted a proposal to the UN demanding that the costs of adapting to the climate crisis be borne by the countries that created the crisis, as a kind of reparations. It’s not that they don’t want payment; it’s that they don’t want payment based on pollution permits and market speculation.

Pablo Solon, until recently Bolivia’s Ambassador to the UN, offers a haunting analogy: “Through REDD they want to put a price on nature. Our point of view is that you can’t do that, and I’ll explain why: In Bolivia, if you lose an arm or a leg, you receive compensation of around $1,000. But can you imagine a situation where you create a market for arms and legs for $1,000 each? Sure, we need the money to pay for the operation. But the intention is not to commodify your arm.”

Solon’s analogy points to the core tension in the REDD scheme: We should protect forests because, like our own limbs, they have intrinsic value.

To think that global policy will ever be guided by the principle of forests’ inherent worth and Indigenous Peoples’ rights is perhaps naïve. But no less naïve, and certainly no less dangerous, is faith that the market, and the industrial society that drives it, can solve the global catastrophe it precipitated.

As global climate negotiations continue to generate friction without momentum, the world’s forests continue to burn in great blazes and to fall before an onslaught of mining, agribusiness, and timber plantations. REDD’s proponents envision a way to buy our way out of the cycle of destruction. And those who have inhabited and protected the world’s forests for millennia – and whose cultures have been devastated by the race to exploit resources – continue to press for a better deal.

Leap of Faith

One reason why REDD appears compelling is that, given the rapacious demand for resources, it is difficult to imagine a counterforce strong enough to halt forest destruction. Another is the deadlock in the UN negotiations. Nations’ resistance to binding emissions reductions makes REDD one of the only games around.

But even such a bastion of market fundamentalism as The Economist magazine suggests that “REDD may not be possible at all,” due to factors including corruption and the fact that most of those who live in and care for forests do not have legal title to their lands.

Still, if there is an opportunity for business, business will be done. New private carbon-marketing firms are springing up daily to prepare for the windfall from REDD. One such firm is Boston-based Ecologic Development Fund. Ecologic’s director, Sean Paul, has years of experience promoting Payment for Environmental Services projects. Paul appears genuinely devoted to preserving forests; REDD is one way to do this, and Ecologic supports it, including a REDD initiative in the Lacandon. Yet Paul himself is ambivalent: “Part of the challenge of REDD,” Paul says, “is that a lot of people see a gravy train, a gold rush. I see a lot of investors excited at the prospect of carbon trading. But all that excitement is around the trading – it has so little to do with the people, and the forest.”

Pavan Sukhdev, former head of the UN Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative, estimates the value of global ecosystem goods at $4.5 trillion per year. “The rewards are very clear,” Sukhdev says.

The problem is how to generate these rewards, literally out of thin air. The offsets-based REDD scheme that is in the pipeline requires a stable and reliable carbon market. And so far there isn’t one.

The US Government Accountability Office reports that carbon offsets are impossible to verify, warning that “it is not possible to ensure that every credit represents a real, measurable, and long-term reduction in emissions.” The US Congress failed to pass a national carbon-trading initiative last July, and the European Carbon Market – the largest in the world – is proving fatally flawed, with uncontrollable price volatility and regulations that seem to incentivize more climate pollution, not less. After European emissions rose to unprecedented levels in 2010, Friends of the Earth-Europe called the system “an abject failure.”

But in business, failure can be generative: Billions have been made through ventures that failed, such as subprime mortgages and derivatives. For the believers, faith in the market remains strong. At a Carbon Expo in Barcelona this summer, representatives of Point Carbon, a global firm that provides technical support for business, wore buttons that read, “I can’t help it – I still believe in markets.” —JC

Jeff Conant is author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and is Communications Director at Global Justice Ecology Project.

University students in Tofino for ‘Clayoqout Biosphere Immersion’

University students in Tofino for ‘Clayoqout Biosphere Immersion’


Posted 01 September 2011, by Yasmin Aboelsaud (Special to the Westerly News), (Postmedia Network Inc.),


Professors and students from the University of the Fraser Valley are spending eight days in Clayoqout Sound as part of an intensive ecosystem course hosted at the Tofino Botanical Gardens field station in Tofino.

The course is called the Clayoqout Biosphere Immersion, and it was first taught four years ago.

“I love this area so much and I really wanted to introduce students to something that I think is amazing and needs to continue to be protected. There’s no better way to do that than education,” said Dr. Allan Arndt, biology professor.

Arndt said that when students think of visiting pristine environments, they think of exotic overseas destinations.

“They have no ideas what amazing ecological setting they have in their own backyard.”

The course exposes the senior university students to a maritime ecosystem, First Nations culture, and teaches them about some of the socioeconomic and environmental issues in the area.

“It really enriches our educational spectrum,” said Arndt, adding that some of the students had never visited the West Coast before the trip.

“I think the nice thing about Tofino is it offers an opportunity to cover not only intertidal, but forest ecosystem, the bogs, and we can teach more than intertidal zone. It really exposes them to the whole spectrum of field work in biology,” said professor Pat Harrison.

As part of each course visit, the students study and identify species at specific locations.

Arndt said over time, the data can show how things are changing. They plan to share the results with the local community.

The course also includes a field-sampling examination of the diverse inhabitants in mud flats.

On one of their course days, Dr. Jonathan Hughes, biogeography professor, led the students on a morning exploration in the Ducking Flats on Meares Island.

“It’s a great opportunity to bring students out to those sites and show them some of that intertidal stratigraphy and show how marshes develop over time, but also how they could be archives of past events like earthquakes, and resulting tsunamis,” said Hughes, who worked in the intertidal wetland and salt mud flats in the Esowista Penninsula for his PhD research.

During their time at Ducking Flats, the students learn about the different species in each level of marsh, low marsh, middle marsh and high marsh.

They dig through the ground, count the species and understand the diversity along the elevation gradient.

Students also study the stratigraphy beneath the marsh’s surface and identify the sand layers resulting from tsunamis.

Arndt said the students are engaging in typical field techniques that are used in research publications, and getting training for further research in these areas.

The course, which is part of the summer semester, is still fairly new and not part of the professors teaching loads.

Each professor volunteers to take the time and bring the students to Clayoqout Sound, but all believe the course is valuable for the educational value it provides.

Harrison calls it a baseline for future courses and studies in the area.

They are grateful for the Tofino Botanical Gardens, which provides them the facilities to use during the course.

“This is mostly about education for the students and to help spread the message that Clayoqout Sound is a pretty special place,” said Ardnt. “In the future hopefully we’ll be able to expand [the course] and use these developing databases to develop ongoing research projects.”

To date, the course ran in 2008 and 2009, then again this year.

Arndt said the plan is to return in two years.

“If we could get the students, I would probably run this until I retire,” he said.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

Earth Minute 8/30/11: Climate Change, the Tar Sands and Hurricane Irene


Earth Minute 8/30/11: Climate Change, the Tar Sands and Hurricane Irene


Posted 01 September 2011, by Staff, Climate Connections (Global Climate Ecology Project),


KPFK 90.7 FM Radio

Global Justice Ecology Project teams up with the Sojourner Truth show on KPFK Los Angeles every Tuesday for an Earth Minute written and recorded by GJEP Executive Director Anne Petermann.

To listen to this week’s Earth Minute, click here and scroll to minute 38:41

Earth Minute 8/30/11

As I sat home yesterday listening to the remnants of Hurricane Irene whipping the trees outside, I thought about the intensifying effect the warming globe is having on the world’s weather; and about the corporations that ignore or deny it, continuing business as usual to the detriment of us all.

The tar sands gigaproject in Northern Alberta is one glaring example. The Indigenous Environmental Network has campaigned to stop the tar sands project for years.  Tar sands oil production poisons Indigenous communities, levels boreal forests, and releases three times the greenhouse gases of conventional oil. But rather than banning this devastating project, a new pipeline is planned, to carry this toxic oil through the US to the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Irene caused billions in damages. Burning tar sands oil will further worsen climate change, causing more extreme weather in the future.

The Indigenous Environmental Network will be holding an Indigenous Day of Action against the tar sands this Friday at the gates of the White House.  To learn more, go to:

For the Earth Minute and the Sojourner Truth show, this is Anne Petermann from Global Justice Ecology Project.

The Ecology of Marxian Political Economy

The Ecology of Marxian Political Economy

Posted 01 September 2011, by John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review,

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It is no secret today that we are facing a planetary environmental emergency, endangering most species on the planet, including our own, and that this impending catastrophe has its roots in the capitalist economic system. Nevertheless, the extreme dangers that capitalism inherently poses to the environment are often inadequately understood, giving rise to the belief that it is possible to create a new “natural capitalism” or “climate capitalism” in which the system is turned from being the enemy of the environment into its savior.1 The chief problem with all such views is that they underestimate the cumulative threat to humanity and the earth arising from the existing relations of production. Indeed, the full enormity of the planetary ecological crisis, I shall contend, can only be understood from a standpoint informed by the Marxian critique of capitalism.

A common weakness of radical environmental critiques of capitalism is that they rely on abstract notions of the system based on nineteenth-century conditions. As a result many of the historically specific underpinnings of environmental crises related to twentieth- (and twenty-first) century conditions have been insufficiently analyzed. Marx’s own indispensable ecological critique was limited by the historical period in which he wrote, namely, the competitive stage of capitalism, and thus he was unable to capture certain crucial characteristics of environmental destruction which were to emerge with monopoly capitalism. In the following analysis, therefore, I will discuss not only the ecological critique provided by Marx (and Engels), but also that of later Marxian and radical political economists, including such figures as Thorstein Veblen, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and Allan Schnaiberg.

Marx and the Capitalist Raubbau

It is seldom recognized that Marx’s very first political economic essay—“Debates on the Law on Theft of Wood,” written in 1842 during his editorship of Rheinische Zeitung—was focused on ecological issues. A majority of those in jail in Prussia at that time were peasants arrested for picking up dead wood in the forests. In carrying out this act the peasants were merely exercising what had been a customary right, but was disallowed with the spread of private property. Observing the debates on this issue in the Rhineland Diet (the provincial assembly of the Rhineland), Marx commented that the dispute centered on how best to protect the property rights of landowners, while the customary rights of the population in relation to the land were simply ignored. Impoverished peasants were viewed as the “enemy of wood” because the exercise of their traditional rights to gather wood primarily as fuel for cooking and warming their homes transgressed the ownership rights of private property holders.2

It was not long after this that Marx began his systematic research into political economy. It therefore should not surprise us that as early as his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 he was already focusing on the issue of primitive accumulation, i.e., the dispossession of the peasantry, who were being removed from the land in the course of capitalist development. It was this separation of workers from the earth as means of production that he was later to refer to in Capital as the “historical precondition of the capitalist mode of production” and its “permanent foundation,” the basis for the emergence of the modern proletariat.3 Capitalism began as a system of encroachment on nature and public wealth.

Here it is important to recognize that at the very root of Marx’s critique of political economy was the distinction between use value and exchange value. Every commodity, he explained in the opening pages of Capital, had both a use value and an exchange value, with the latter increasingly dominating the former. Use value was associated with the requirements of production in general and with the basic human relation to nature, i.e., fundamental human needs. Exchange value, in contrast, was oriented to the pursuit of profit. This established a contradiction between capitalist production and production in general (that is, the natural conditions of production).

This contradiction was most evident in Marx’s time in terms of what came to be known as the Lauderdale Paradox, named after James Maitland, the eighth Earl of Lauderdale (1759–1839). Lauderdale was one of the early classical political economists, author of An Inquiry into the Nature of Public Wealth and into the Means and Causes of its Increase (1804). Public wealth, he explained, consisted of use values, which, like water and air, oftentimes existed in abundance, while private riches were based on exchange values, which demanded scarcity. Under such conditions—he charged against the system—the expansion of private riches went hand in hand with the destruction of public wealth. For instance, if water supplies that had previously been freely available were monopolized and a fee placed on wells, then the measured riches of the nation would be increased at the expense of public wealth.

“The common sense of mankind,” Lauderdale declared, “would revolt” at any proposal to increase private riches “by creating a scarcity of any commodity generally useful and necessary to man.” But the bourgeois society in which he lived, he recognized, was already doing that. Thus Dutch colonists had in particularly fertile periods burned “spiceries” or paid natives to “collect the young blossoms or green leaves of the nutmeg trees” to kill them off; while planters in Virginia by legal enactment burned a certain share of their crops to maintain the price. “So truly is this principle understood by those whose interest leads them to take advantage of it,” he wrote, “that nothing but the impossibility of general combination protects the public wealth against the rapacity of private avarice.”4

Marx saw the Lauderdale Paradox, arising out of “the inverse ratio of the two kinds of value” (use value and exchange value), as one of the chief contradictions of bourgeois production. The entire pattern of capitalist development was characterized by the wasting away and destruction of the natural wealth of society.5 “For all its stinginess,” he wrote, “capitalist production is thoroughly wasteful with human material, just as its way of distributing its products through trade, and its manner of competition, make it very wasteful of material resources, so that it loses for society [public wealth] what it gains for the individual capitalist [private riches].”6

The domination of exchange value over use value in capitalist development and the ecological impact of this can also be seen in Marx’s general formula of capital, M-C-M′. Capitalism is commonly described as a system conforming to simple commodity production, C-M-C, in which money is simply an intermediary in a process of production and exchange, beginning and ending with particular use values embodied in concrete commodities. In sharp contrast, Marx explained that capitalist production and exchange takes the form of M-C-M′, in which money capital is advanced for labor and materials with which to produce a commodity, which can then be sold for more money, i.e., M′, or M + Δm (surplus value), at the end of the process. The crucial difference here is that the process never really ends, since money or abstract value is the object. The M′ is reinvested in the following period, resulting in M′-C-M′′, which leads to M′′-C-M′′′ in the period after that, and so on.

In order to maintain a given share of wealth under this system, the capitalist must continually seek to expand it. The law of value therefore constantly whispers to each individual capitalist and to the capitalist class as a whole, “Go on! Go on!” This, however, requires the incessant revolutionization of production to displace labor power and promote profits in the service of ever-greater accumulation. Moreover, as production grows “the consuming circle within circulation” must grow correspondingly. Intrinsic to the capital relation, Marx insisted, was the refusal to accept any absolute boundaries to its advance, which were treated as mere barriers to be surmounted. These propositions, intrinsic to Marx’s political economy, constituted the foundations for what Schnaiberg was later to call the “treadmill of production” model.7

Marx’s most pointed ecological contribution, however, lay in his theory of metabolic rift. Building on the work of the great German chemist Justus von Liebig, Marx argued that in shipping food and fiber hundreds and thousands of miles to the new urban centers of industrial production, where population was increasingly concentrated, capital ended up robbing the soil of its nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which instead of being returned to the earth created pollution in the cities. Liebig called this “Raubbau” or the robbery system. As Ernest Mandel put it in his Marxist Economic Theory:

Serious scientists, notably the German Liebig, had drawn attention to a really disturbing phenomenon, the increased exhaustion of the soil, the Raubbau, resulting from greedy capitalist methods of exploitation aimed at getting the highest profit in the shortest time. Whereas agricultural societies like China, Japan, ancient Egypt, etc., had known a rational way of carrying on agriculture which conserved and even increased the fertility of the soil over several thousand years, the capitalist Raubbau had been able, in certain parts of the world, to exhaust the fertile layer of soil…in half a century.8

For Marx this capitalist Raubbau took the form of “an irreparable rift” within capitalist society in the metabolism between humanity and the earth—“a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”—requiring its “systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production.” In the industrialization of agriculture, he suggested, the true nature of “capitalist production” was revealed, which “only develops…by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”

In order to understand the significance of this ecological critique for Marx’s overall critique of capitalism, it is necessary to recognize that the labor and production process was itself designated, in his analysis, as the metabolic relation between human beings and nature. Marx’s primary definition of socialism/communism was therefore that of a society in which “the associated producers govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way…accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy.” Along with this, he developed the most radical conception of sustainability possible, insisting that no one, not even all the countries and peoples of the world taken together, owned the earth; that it was simply held in trust and needed to be maintained in perpetuity in line with the principle of boni patres familias (good heads of the household). His overall ecological critique thus required that instead of the open rifts developed under capitalism, there needed to be closed metabolic cycles between humanity and nature. This allowed him to incorporate thermodynamic conceptions into his understanding of economy and society.9

The totality of Marx’s ecological insights went, of course, beyond the foregoing points. Space, however, does not allow full treatment of them here. Still, it is worth noting that his analysis together with that of Engels also touched on such critical issues as the “squandering” of fossil fuels and other natural resources; desertification; deforestation; and regional climate change—already understood by scientists in Marx’s day as resulting in part from the human degradation of the local environment.10

Monopoly Capital and the Environment

Elements of Marx’s general ecological critique resonated with developments in material science, providing inspiration directly and indirectly for a number of important materialist scientists and philosophers of science in the decades that followed. Things were quite different, however, within Marxian political economy, where Marx’s critique of the capitalist Raubbau was rarely acknowledged (or drawn upon) between the close of the nineteenth century and the close of the twentieth century.11

The main discoveries of Marxian and radical political economy in the ecological realm in the twentieth century can be seen as arising out of responses to the changed conditions associated with the monopoly stage of capital, and the altered environmental regime that it brought into being. The earliest theorists of monopoly capitalism were Rudolf Hilferding in Germany and Thorstein Veblen in the United States. Hilferding, although building his analysis directly on Marx’s political economy, had surprisingly little to say about environmental conditions. In contrast, Veblen—a socialist economist influenced by Marx but not himself a Marxist—saw the transition from free competition to the age of the monopolistic corporation as having immense implications for the environment, resource use, and economic waste.

In his final, 1923 work, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times, Veblen stressed that “the American plan” of resource exploitation was one of accumulation by encroachment on both the environment and on the indigenous population. In line with the Lauderdale Paradox, it took the form of “a settled practice of converting all public wealth to private gain on a plan of legalized seizure.” The “custom,” he wrote, was “to turn every public need to account as a means of private gain, and to capitalise it as such.”

In the stage of free competition, Veblen argued, “staple resources” had been overexploited “by speeding up the output and underbidding on the price,” leading to “a rapid exhaustion, with waste, of the natural supply.” This set the stage for monopoly capital (absentee ownership) with its more collusive methods of turning public wealth to private gain, by means of the careful regulation of scarcity and monopolistic pricing. This evolution was especially evident in the timber, coal, and oil industries, each of which initially involved prodigious waste, and led to eventual monopoly control by a relatively few absentee owners. As a result of these developments, Veblen noted, the “enterprise of lumbermen during the period since the middle of the nineteenth century has destroyed appreciably more timber than it has utilised.”12

Veblen’s more important ecological insights, however, had to do with the transformation of use value and consumption under the new regime of big business. A characteristic of monopoly capitalism was the virtual elimination of price competition by corporations, which was accompanied by the restriction of output. This allowed for monopolistic (or oligopolistic) pricing, which produced large gains for the giant enterprises. With price warfare effectively banned, “competitive strategy” was primarily “confined to two main lines of endeavour:—to reduce the production-cost of a restricted output; and to increase their sales without lowering prices.” Veblen pointed out that the very effectiveness of monopoly capital in containing production costs—by holding down wages and thereby, in Marxian terms, increasing the rate of surplus value—meant that at any given price the margin available for increases in sales costs (without cutting into profit margins) expanded. Thus a larger and larger share of the total cost of goods was associated with promotion of sales as opposed to the production of the commodity.13 The implications of this for the use value structure of the economy were profound. “One result,” he stated, has been a very substantial and progressive increase of sales-cost; very appreciably larger than an inspection of the books would show. The producers have been giving continually more attention to the saleability of their product, so that much of what appears on the books as production-cost should properly be charged to the production of saleable appearances. The distinction between workmanship and salesmanship has progressively been blurred in this way, until it will doubtless hold true now that the shop-cost of many articles produced for the market is mainly chargeable to the production of saleable appearances.14

He saw this as applying especially to the “vogue of ‘package goods’”:

The designing and promulgation of saleable containers,—that is, to say such containers as will sell the contents on the merits of the visual effect of the container,—has become a large and, it is said, a lucrative branch of the business of publicity. It employs a formidable number of artists and “copy writers” as well as of itinerant spokesmen, demonstrators, interpreters; and more than one psychologist of eminence has been retained by the publicity agencies for consultation and critical advice on the competitive saleability of rival containers and the labels and doctrinal memoranda which embellish them. The cost of all this is very appreciable….It is presumably safe to say that the containers account for one-half the shop cost of what are properly called “package goods,” and for something approaching one-half the price paid by the consumer. In certain lines, doubtless, as, e.g., in cosmetics and household remedies, this proportion is exceeded by a very substantial margin.15

The upshot of the infiltration of “salesmanship” into production was the proliferation of economic waste—defined by Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class as “expenditure” that “does not serve human life or human well-being on the whole.” Indeed, much of the initial demand for purchased goods under monopoly capitalism was due to “invidious pecuniary comparison,” i.e., status distinctions arising from having something beyond the reach of others, as well as the various forms of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste” associated with this. The more one could display the ostentatiousness of one’s life the higher one’s social prestige. Corporate advertising encouraged such invidious comparisons first among the rich and then within the middle and working classes, often by instilling in people a fear of loss of social status.16

It is crucial to understand that the problem, raised by Veblen, of the transformation of consumption and the distortion of use values under capitalism played no significant role in the earlier work of Marx or his immediate followers (or indeed in that of other nineteenth-century critics of the system). To be sure, Engels wrote that under capitalism “the useful effect” of a commodity “retreats far into the background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be made on selling.”17 Implicit in this view was the notion that use values could be subordinated to exchange values and the structure of consumption to the forces of production. Yet, nowhere in Capital did Marx provide any analysis of the “interaction of production and consumption resulting from technical change” and the accompanying transformation of the use-value structure of the economy. The reason was that, in nineteenth-century competitive capitalism, workers’ consumption goods (as distinct from capitalist luxury goods) were not yet subjected to the gargantuan “sales effort,” which was to arise fully only with monopoly capitalism.18 While waste was commonplace in competitive capitalism—arising from the irrationality and duplication inherent to competition itself—such waste did not have the same “functional” role for accumulation that it was later to acquire under monopoly capitalism, where the chief problem was no longer efficiency of production, on the supply-side, but the generation of markets, on the demand-side. For this reason, advertising and marketing in general, along with such factors as product differentiation, played only a miniscule role in the nineteenth century. Analysis of these developments thus had to await their appearance in the early twentieth century. This analysis was accomplished first by Veblen, and then—in a synthesis of Marx and Veblen—in Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital in 1966.

For Baran and Sweezy the principal problem under monopoly capitalism was the absorption of the enormous economic surplus resulting from the constantly expanding productivity of the system. This economic surplus could be absorbed in three ways: capitalist consumption, investment, or waste.19 Capitalist consumption was limited by the drive to accumulate on the part of the capitalist class, while investment itself was constrained by market saturation (due principally to the repression of wage-based consumption and conditions of industrial maturity). Hence, capitalism in its monopoly stage was threatened by a problem of markets and a declining rate of utilization of both productive capacity and employable labor.20 Under such circumstances, the deepening reliance on economic waste served to keep markets going, becoming a necessary part of the monopoly-capitalist economy.

Baran and Sweezy argued that economic waste took various forms, notably military spending and the sales effort, the latter including: “advertising, variation of the products’ appearance and packaging, ‘planned obsolescence,’ model changes, credit schemes, and the like.” The sales effort preceded capitalism’s monopoly stage, but it was only under monopoly capitalism that it assumed “gigantic dimensions.”

The most obvious form of the sales effort was of course advertising, which grew by leaps and bounds in the twentieth century. Perhaps the “dominant function” of advertising for the system, Baran and Sweezy observed, was “that of waging, on behalf of the producers and sellers of consumer goods, a relentless war against saving and in favor of consumption.”21 Yet, advertising, they recognized, was only the tip of the iceberg where modern marketing was concerned, which today also includes targeting, motivation research, product management, sales promotion, and direct marketing.22 According to Blackfriars Communications, the United States in 2005 spent over $1 trillion, or around 9 percent of GDP, on various forms of marketing.23

However, the main structural impact of the sales effort on the system for Baran and Sweezy, following Veblen, was to be found in “the emergence of a condition in which the sales and production efforts interpenetrate to such an extent as to be virtually indistinguishable.” This marked “a profound change in what constitutes socially necessary costs of production as well as in the nature of the social product itself.” Under these circumstances, constant model changes, product obsolescence, wasteful packaging, etc., all served to reorder the relations of consumption—altering the use value structure of capitalism and enlarging the waste incorporated within production. They estimated that automobile model changes alone were costing the country some 2.5 percent of its GDP. In comparison to this the expenditures of the automobile manufacturers on advertising were miniscule. “In the case of the automobile industry,” they wrote, “and doubtless there are many others that are similar in this respect, by far the greater part of the sales effort is carried out not by obviously unproductive workers such as salesmen and advertising copy writers but by seemingly productive workers: tool and die makers, draftsmen, mechanics, assembly line workers.” They concluded, “What is certain is the negative statement which, notwithstanding its negativity, constitutes one of the most important insights to be gained from political economy: an output the volume and composition of which are determined by the profit maximization policies of oligopolistic corporations neither corresponds to human needs nor costs the minimum possible amount of human toil and human suffering.”24

Adopting a related perspective, Michael Kidron conservatively estimated in his Capitalism and Theory that in 1970, 61 percent of U.S. production could be classified as economic waste—i.e., resources diverted to the military, advertising, finance and insurance, waste in business, conspicuous luxury consumption, etc.25 Increasingly, what was being produced under monopoly capitalism were formal or specifically capitalist use values, the primary “usefulness” of which lay in the exchange value they generated for corporations.26

Rational standards of human welfare and resource use, Baran and Sweezy claimed, required an entirely different approach to production. As early as 1957, in The Political Economy of Growth, Baran suggested that the optimum economic surplus in a planned economy would be less than that of maximum-potential economic surplus—requiring a slower rate of economic growth—due, among other reasons, to the need to curtail certain “noxious types of production (coal mining, for example).”27 Likewise Sweezy argued in the 1970s that the need for every worker to have a car to go to work was not a product of human nature but artificially generated as a result of the whole “automobile-industrial complex” of so-called “modernized” capitalist society. The system of privatized (but publicly subsidized) transportation “externalized” costs such as air pollution, urban decay, and traffic fatalities onto the rest of society, while generating huge profits for corporations. In contrast, a more rational society would produce social use values: “functional, aesthetically attractive and durable,” meeting genuine human needs, utilizing “methods of production compatible with humanized labor processes.”28

Other thinkers in the same period developed related notions. John Kenneth Galbraith advanced his famous thesis of the “dependence effect” applicable to oligopolistic capitalism in The Affluent Society in 1958. He argued that the very process of “production of goods creates the wants that the goods are presumed to satisfy”—a thesis designed to overthrow the neoclassical theory of consumer sovereignty. Joan Robinson in her Richard T. Ely Lecture to the American Economic Association in 1971 (with Galbraith as the chair) raised the issue of the “Second Crisis of Economic Theory.” Mistakenly assuming that Keynes had provided the solution to “the first crisis,” i.e., the level or quantity of production, Robinson went on to contend that now was the time to turn to the “second crisis,” i.e., the quality or content of production. Military production, pollution, inequality, and poverty were all being generated, she argued, not in spite of—but because of—the strategies adopted to expand capitalist growth. In the same year Barry Commoner in his The Closing Circle highlighted the ecological dangers associated, in particular, with the petrochemical industry, which he argued was deeply embedded in an increasingly toxic mode of production driven by profit.29

Elements of this general ecological critique of monopoly capitalism were drawn together in Allan Schnaiberg’s 1980 treatise, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity, one of the founding works of environmental sociology. Already in the 1970s, environmentalists had begun to speak of environmental impact as a result of three factors: population, affluence (or consumption), and technology—with the last two factors, consumption and technology, standing for the role of the economy.30 The structure of Schnaiberg’s book was clearly derived from this, with chapters two through five focusing, successively, on population, technology, consumption, and production. Schnaiberg’s brilliance was to draw on Marxian and radical political economy to show that the first three of these were conditioned by the fourth, making what he called “the treadmill of production” the fundamental environmental problem. He wrote of the “monopoly capital treadmill,” and insisted: “Both the volume and source of…treadmill production is high-energy monopoly-capital industry.”

For Schnaiberg, the monopoly stage of capitalism was geared to labor-saving, energy-intensive production. By constantly displacing labor and producing ever-greater economic surplus, which overflowed corporate coffers, the system generated a growing problem of effective demand—which it then attempted to solve by introducing various extraordinary means of expanding consumption. Contemporary consumption, he argued in Galbraithian terms, did not reveal consumer preferences so much as the profitability requirements of corporations—with consumer choices circumscribed by modern marketing and the technology of the treadmill. Schnaiberg’s realistic conclusion was that attempts to address the ecological problem by focusing on population, consumption, or technology would inevitably fail—since the real problem was the treadmill of production itself.31

The treadmill of production (or of accumulation), as we have seen, can be explained in Marx’s terms, using the general formula for capital—or M-C-M′, which in the next period of production, becomes M′-C-M′′, and in the period after that M′′-C-M′′′, ad infinitum. For Marx, capital was a system of self-expanding value. It had, as Sweezy was to say, “no braking mechanism other than periodic economic breakdowns.”32 This is the basis of the standard ecological critique directed at capitalism, which emphasizes the scale effect of capitalist growth in relation to the earth’s limited carrying capacity. Hence, it is rightly assumed that to solve the ecological problem it is necessary to intervene in order to slow down, stop, reverse, and eventually dismantle the treadmill, particularly at the center of the system. Nevertheless, the standard treadmill perspective, if taken by itself, tends to reduce the ecological problem to a quantitative one, deemphasizing the more qualitative aspects of the dialectic, represented today by the promotion of specifically capitalist use values and thus economic waste.

Here it is useful to stress that the C in the M-C-M′ relation, standing for the concrete use value aspect of the commodity, has now become transformed under monopoly control into a specifically capitalist use value, which we can designate as CK—to stand for the almost complete subordination of use value to exchange value in the development of the commodity. The problem of M-C-M′ then becomes one of M-CK-M′, in which the qualitative as well as quantitative problems of accumulation/ecological destruction assert themselves through the creation of formal use values. In today’s packaged goods, the package, designed to sell the commodity and incorporated into its production costs, is now the larger part of the commodity. Thus Campbell soup marketers commonly refer to the soup as the mere substrate of the product. Or to take a more economically significant example, since the 1930s the production cost of the motor vehicle has only been a small part of the final sales price, most of which is related to marketing and distribution. As Stephen Fox stated in his Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising, today’s cars are “two-ton packaged goods, varying little beneath the skins of their increasingly outlandish styling.” The average automobile sold in the United States today has lower fuel efficiency than the Model T Ford.33 All of this suggests that use value, C, associated with the conditions of production in general, has increasingly given way under monopoly capitalism, to specifically capitalist use value, CK—incorporating all sorts of socially unproductive features, with the object of generating higher sales, and hence realizing profit, M′.

It is this relentless reduction of consumption to the needs of capital accumulation by means of the alienation of use value (e.g., making plastic wrapping part of the production price of a loaf of bread) that lies behind the worst aspects of what is mistakenly thought of as “consumerism”: the seemingly endless demand for superfluous, even toxic, products associated with today’s throwaway society.34 How else do we explain that, worldwide, upwards of 500 billion and perhaps as many as a trillion plastic shopping bags (given away for free) are consumed every year; that some 300 billion pounds of packaging are disposed of every year in the United States; and that 80 percent of all U.S. goods are used once and then thrown away? Much of this is toxic waste; Americans discard seven billion tons of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic—the most hazardous plastic product—annually. In 2008 the Center for Health, Environment and Justice issued a report indicating that an ordinary new shower curtain, which uses PVC plastic, released 108 separate volatile compounds in the home environment over twenty-eight days of ordinary usage, creating a level of these compounds that was sixteen times beyond what was recommended by the U.S. Green Building Council.35

Quite apart from its toxic nature, the economic and ecological waste embedded in the production and consumption process is enormous. “To say that ‘capitalism has been simultaneously the most efficient and the most wasteful productive system in history,’” Douglas Dowd wrote in The Waste of Nations, “is to point to the contrast between the great efficiency with which a particular factory produces and packages a product, such as toothpaste, and the contrived and massive inefficiency of an economic system that has people pay for toothpaste a price over 90 percent of which is owed to the marketing, not the production, of the dentifrice.”36

William Morris, who saw the very beginnings of monopoly capitalism, referred to “the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes—and sells.”37 Today we have to recognize that many of these superfluous goods carry enormous costs to the environment and human health. Indeed, many of our most common use values, as Commoner explained, are the products of modern chemistry—introducing synthetic chemicals that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic into production, consumption, and the environment. These goods are cheap to produce (being energy- and chemical-intensive, not labor-intensive), they sell, and they generate high profit margins for corporations. The fact that many of them are virtually indestructible (non-biodegradable) and if incinerated—to prevent them from overwhelming landfills—give off dioxin and other deadly toxins, is viewed by the economic system as simply beside the point.38

In the face of such contradictions, radical economist Juliet Schor has written of the “materiality paradox,” which suggests that people in our society are not too materialistic, but rather are not materialistic enough. We no longer retain, reuse, and repair products, because we have been taught to expect them to break down or fall apart due to product obsolescence, and then quickly to discard them. Indeed, as a society, we have become entrapped in a still deeper pattern of psychological obsolescence, promoted by modern marketing, encouraging us to throw away what we have only just bought—as soon as it is no longer “new.”39

The Meaning of Revolution

The ecological critique generated by twentieth-century monopoly capital theory—the bare outlines of which I have sought to present here—only adds additional force to Marx’s classical ecological critique of capitalism. Every day we are destroying more and more public wealth—air, water, land, ecosystems, species—in the pursuit of private riches, which turns consumption into a mere adjunct to accumulation, thereby taking on more distorted and destructive forms.

The metabolic rift in the relation of humanity to the earth that Marx described in the nineteenth century has now evolved into multiple ecological rifts transgressing the boundaries between humanity and the planet. It is not just the scale of production but even more the structure of production that is at fault in today’s version of the capitalist Raubbau. “Such is the dialectic of historical process,” Baran wrote, “that within the framework of monopoly capitalism the most abominable, the most destructive features of the capitalist order become the very foundations of its continuing existence—just as slavery was the conditio sine qua non of its emergence.”40

It is the historic need to combat the absolute destructiveness of the system of capital at this stage—replacing it, as Marx envisioned, with a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability—which, I am convinced, constitutes the essential meaning of revolution in our time.


  1. Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1999); L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Climate Capitalism (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).
  2. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 1, 224–63; Franz Mehring, Karl Marx (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979), 41–42.
  3. Karl Marx, Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1974), 309–22; Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 754.
  4. James Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale, An Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth and into the Means and Causes of its Increase (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co., 1819), 37–59; Lauderdale’s Notes on Adam Smith, ed. Chuhei Sugiyama (New York: Routledge, 1996), 140–41.
  5. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 35–36.
  6. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 180.
  7. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in One Volume (New York: International Publishers, 1968), 90; Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), 408; Allan Schnaiberg, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 220–34.
  8. Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968), vol. 1, 295.
  9. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 283, 290, 348, 636–39, 860; Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 911, 949, 959. On Marx and thermodynamics see Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, “Metabolism, Energy, and Entropy in Marx’s Critique of Political Economy,” Theory and Society, 35, no. 1 (February 2006), 109–56.
  10. On Marx’s specific ecological insights in these areas see John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 165–66, 169. Engels and Marx addressed the issue of local climate change primarily in relation to changes in temperature and precipitation resulting from deforestation. See Engels’ notes on Carl Fraas in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, MEGA IV, 31 (Amsterdam: Akadamie Verlag, 1999), 512–15; Paul Hampton, “Classical Marxism and Climate Impacts,” Workers’ Liberty, August 5, 2010,; Clarence J. Glacken, “Changing Ideas of the Habitable World,” in Carl O. Sauer, Marston Bates, and William L. Thomas, Jr., eds., Man’s Role in the Changing Face of the Earth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 77–81.
  11. On the relation of Marx’s ecology to later scientific developments see John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 153–60. The Liebig-Marx argument on ecological metabolism was influential in Marxian political economic discussions through the end of the nineteenth century—for example, in the work of August Bebel and Karl Kautsky—but it was lost sight of during most of the twentieth century (an exception being K. William Kapp in The Social Costs of Private Enterprise [Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University Press, 1950], 35–36).
  12. Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1964), 127, 168, 171–72, 190.
  13. Ibid, 285–88, 299–300.
  14. Ibid, 300.
  15. Ibid, 300–301.
  16. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: New American Library, 1953), 78–80; Veblen, Absentee Ownership, 309.
  17. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25, 463.
  18. Paul M. Sweezy, “Cars and Cities,” Monthly Review, 24, no. 11 (April 1973), 1–3; Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), 131–32.
  19. Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, 79.
  20. On “The Decreasing Rate of Utilization Under Capitalism” see István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 547–79.
  21. Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, 114–15, 128. Baran and Sweezy’s concept of economic waste (based on Marx’s analysis of unproductive labor) was complex, taking into account both: (1) waste as perceived from the standpoint of capital in general (but not recognized as such by the individual capitalist), and (2) waste from the standpoint of a rational society, representing the viewpoint of society as a whole (equivalent to Veblen’s definition). For a detailed discussion see John Bellamy Foster, The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), 97–101.
  22. For a thorough analysis of modern marketing see Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).
  23. Metrics 2.0 Business and Market Intelligence, “U.S. Marketing Spending Exceeded $1 Trillion in 2005,” June 26, 2006,; Dawson, The Consumer Trap, 1. The estimate by Blackfriars Communications is clearly a vast underestimate since they are not incorporating the full effects of product management, i.e., the penetration of the sales effort into the production process.
  24. Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, 131, 137–39. It might be argued that Baran and Sweezy’s argument (like Veblen’s) was directed at the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of a rational socialist society, in line with what they called “the confrontation of reality with reason” (Monopoly Capital, 134) and was not, therefore, an ecological argument per se. Yet, it is precisely this “confrontation of reality with reason” that today unites the arguments for ecology and socialism. See, for example, Paul M. Sweezy, “Capitalism and the Environment,” Monthly Review 41, no. 2 (June 1989), 1–10.
  25. Michael Kidron, Capitalism and Theory (London: Pluto Press, 1974), 35–60.
  26. Henryk Szlajfer, “Waste, Marxian Theory, and Monopoly Capital,” in John Bellamy Foster and Henryk Szlajfer, ed., The Faltering Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), 302­­­–04, 310–13; John Bellamy Foster, The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), 39–42.
  27. Paul A. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957), 42.
  28. Paul M. Sweezy, “Comment,” in Assar Lindbeck, The Political Economy of the New Left (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 144–46.
  29. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (New York: New American Library, 1984), 121–23; Joan Robinson, Contributions to Modern Economics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), 1–13; Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
  30. This was the famous “IPAT formula”: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. On the history of the IPAT formula see Marian R. Chertow, “The IPAT Equation and Its Variants: Changing Views of Technology and Environmental Impact,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 4, no. 4 (October 2000), 13–29.
  31. Schnaiberg, The Environment, 245–47; John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 193–206. Schnaiberg’s analysis, while drawing heavily on Marxian political economy, never directly addressed the fundamental problem of the interpenetration of the sales effort and production raised by Veblen and Baran and Sweezy. In subsequent work, his model was de-historicized and reduced to a more reified, mechanical form, with the connection to the Marxian theory of monopoly capital, and even the critique of capitalism itself, systematically de-emphasized. Hence, in his last published book—Kenneth A. Gould, David N. Pellow, and Allan Schnaiberg, The Treadmill of Production (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008)—capitalism makes only a cameo appearance. Nevertheless, Schnaiberg never repudiated his earliest views and continued to treat The Environment as his classic, fundamental contribution.
  32. Paul M. Sweezy, “Socialism and Ecology,” Monthly Review 41, no. 4 (September 1989), 7.
  33. Dawson, The Consumer Trap, 88–92; Douglas Dowd, The Waste of Nations (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989), 65–66; Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators (New York: William Morrow, 1984), 173; “Car Mileage: 1908 Ford Model T-25 MPG 2008 EPA Average All Cars—21 MPG,”; Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Table, 4-23, “Average Fuel Efficiency of U.S. Light Duty Vehicles,” Baran and Sweezy referred in Monopoly Capital, 136–37, to the decline in gas mileage of U.S. automobiles from 1939–1961.
  34. The evolution of bread manufacture under monopoly capitalism, including the changing of wrappings for bread, was used by Baran to explain how the sales effort, waste, and unproductive expenditures are built into the production process of monopoly capital. See Baran, The Political Economy of Growth, xx.
  35. Susan Freinkel, Plastics: A Toxic Love Story (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), 145–46; Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff (New York: Free Press, 2010), 68–71; Heather Rogers, “Garbage Capitalism’s Green Commerce,” in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds., The Socialist Register, 2007 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), 231.
  36. Douglas Dowd, The Waste of Nations (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989), 65.
  37. William Morris, News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs (London: Penguin, 1962), 121–22.
  38. Commoner, The Closing Circle, 138–41; see also John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994), 112–18.
  39. Juliet Schor, Plenitude (New York: Penguin, 2010), 27, 40–41. See also Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London; Verso, 1980), 185.
  40. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth, xv.

CropWorld Global 2011: Changing our global approach to farming


CropWorld Global 2011: Changing our global approach to farming


Posted 01 September 2011, by Alistair Driver, Farmers Guardian (UBM Information Ltd.),


SOCIETY has gone ‘properly wrong’ in the way it produces and consumes food, according to Hans Herren.

Dr Herren, a renowned scientist and international development expert, is on a mission to promote what he insists is a better alternative to the current global ‘industrial’ food production system, which he describes as ‘bankrupt’.

He is a leading advocate of agroecology, a holistic farming model based on organic principles, where food is produced by small family farms using green methods which nourish soils for future generations.

“We have tried to have more efficient farming, with fewer people, more machines and a greater dependency on pesticides, fertilisers, GM crops and energy, using 10 kilocalories to produce one kilocalorie. But that is only possible if there is cheap oil,” said Dr Herren.

“The system basically is bankrupt, which is why we need to change it to a more modern, advanced system, which will create energy, rather than consume it, and is not dependent on fossil energy, but more on people and better science.”

Dr Herren, originally from Switzerland, co-chaired the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology, (IAASTD), a three-year project involving more than 400 experts from across the world.

Its 2008 report called for a radical overhaul of the way the world produces food to ‘better serve the poor and hungry’. It demanded a shift away from the ‘focus on production alone’ and a greater emphasis on methods which conserve natural resources, backed up by trade and subsidy reforms and investment in science, education and training.

Report findings

Dr Herren described it as ‘the mother of all reports on agriculture on a global and human scale’, but admitted being disappointed about how little its findings had been implemented globally.

Dr Herren, who spent 27 years in Africa researching pest management and sustainable production, continues to promote agroecology through the US-based Millennium Institute, of which he has been president since 2005.

He said the key to future food security was not to use more inputs to produce more food per hectare, but to rely on techniques backed by ‘solid science and agronomy – such as crop rotation with legumes and green manure, a cover crop grown to add nutrients to the soil – ‘to enable the land to regenerate’.

But he also claimed it had been shown in experiments and in the field these farming methods can ‘double, treble or even quadruple’ yields in Africa.

He added: “Agroecology will produce food which is affordable because more people will be working, so they can actually afford it.

“We need to support small-scale and family farms, where more people get employed. We have 1.5 billion people who have no job. We really have to see all this in an inter-linked system.”

He refuted the suggestion that, while agroecology may have merits in developing countries, where prevailing yields were relatively low and labour was abundant, it was unrealistic and idealistic to imagine it taking over in developed nations.

Instead, he insisted productivity levels could be maintained in developed countries if agroecology displaced intensive farming.

“It has been shown in the US that organic agriculture actually produces equally good yields as traditional agriculture,” he said. “But when there is drought or a flood, organic produces more as it is more resilient. There is no question we can deliver.”

The catch is that increased crop rotation would require a change in the way food is consumed. “You can’t disassociate consumption from production. In a rotation where you have more legumes someone has to eat those beans.”

He added people in urban-centric nations such as the UK and US would return to the land if agriculture became a ‘better and more rewarding job’ through greater investment, better prices for food and a reappraisal of farmers’ importance. “We need to look up to the farmer and down to the professor,” he said.

Lacking support

Dr Herren blamed the lack of wider support for this model of food security partly on what he claimed was a misconception of what it represented.

“We need to dispel this idea that agroecology is a back-breaking, low-yielding process and that we want to go back to grandfather’s agriculture. Actually, agroecology has a lot of science in it and a lot of knowledge,” he said.

Dr Herren was dismissive of the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’, the alternative view of food security with food production at its heart, championed by the UK Government-commissioned Foresight report. He described it as ‘an excuse to sneak in GMOs and to continue with business as usual’.

“People think food security is only about producing more food, but we need to make sure we can nourish the world in the long-term and not for companies to profit in the short-term,” he said.

“We have shown if we start to invest in green agriculture – agroecology – we can produce better food, use less land, use less water, employ more people and have less deforestation. I think we are making some headway. It is very slow, but I won’t give up that easily. We are going somewhere.”

Artist Dorka Keehn on heritage, decor, environment

Artist Dorka Keehn on heritage, decor, environment

Dorka Keehn stands in a doorway in her house where many pieces of furniture are that she designed in San Francisco Calif., on July 21, 2011. Image: Audrey Whitmeyer-Weathers / The Chronicle


Posted 01 September 2011, by Sam Whiting, The San Francisco Chronicle (Hearst Communications),


Dorka Keehn’s one-story home is a mail-order box hiding behind a Victorian front on Bush Street. The interior isn’t mail order, and it isn’t Victorian. Keehn, 47, who describes herself as a conceptual artist and social entrepreneur, designed the furniture herself, and the decor is midcentury and beyond.

She has a logo – Keehn on Art – a new book, and a job on the San Francisco Arts Commission.

On getting the call: I was appointed to the Arts Commission by Gavin (Mayor Newsom) in January. I was one of his last appointments. I had served on the women’s commission for 12 years and was not planning to go on another commission. Gavin called me from his cell phone and said, “We need you.” Then the phone disconnected before I could answer. I called back, but he didn’t pick up … so I left a message and said, “OK.”

On answering the call: I had actually been an artist working on a commission by the Arts Commission, so I had fairly strong opinions on how we could improve relations with artists.

On being commissioned: I was asked by Brian Goggin to work with him on a sculpture in North Beach. We worked together to develop “Language of the Birds.” It is a flock of flying books taking off from the plaza on the corner of Columbus and Broadway. It was finished in the fall of 2008, and in 2009 it was selected as one of the best public artworks in the United States by Americans for the Arts.

On being commissioner: I sit on two committees. One is the Visual Arts Committee. We decide what public art will be built in the city of San Francisco and where it will be. The other committee is the Civic Design Review Committee. Any public structure that is built, from a bathroom in a park to the new Central Subway stations, we have oversight on.

On background: I’ve always been interested in the individual’s ability to effect change. I was raised by a father who was a product of the American dream and taught me that if I worked hard, I could achieve whatever I wanted to.

On upbringing: My father, Grant Keehn, was the 13th partner at Goldman Sachs, in the 1920s. I grew up in Manhattan. My parents got divorced when I was 12, and my father became my primary caretaker.

On coming to San Francisco: I moved to San Francisco and started working for the National Organization for Women. I’ve been active ever since in politics.

On finding a cause: How are we going to ensure a sustainable future for all of us? I started thinking maybe we can learn something from the women in the environmental movement.

On putting it in print: I decided to do a book that focused on women who were addressing the big problems in the environmental movement. “Eco Amazons: Twenty Women Who Are Transforming the World” (PowerHouse Books, $35). We have a website called

On neighborhood: This is called Lower Pac Heights, which I always laugh about because when I moved here 15 years ago it was “the hood.” Now it’s been gentrified.

On home design: This house you could buy from Sears Roebuck. This was a house in a box.

On home decor: I had a bunch of antiques from my family. I really wanted a house that felt like me, so I went into this crazy mode of designing furniture, with Daren Joy of Lifefactory. I sold all of my antiques and pulled a lot of ideas from the 1950s and ’60s. I had a formal Victorian dining room, and now I have a Saarinen dining room table and chairs.

– Sam Whiting,

This article appeared on page V – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Brazilian Women Rise Above the Waters


Brazilian Women Rise Above the Waters


Posted 01 September 2011, by Fabiana Frayssinet, InterPress Service (IPS),


SÃO GONÇALO, Brazil, Sept 1, 2011 (IPS) – Almost a year and a half after floods wreaked havoc in a large part of the state of Rio de Janeiro, a group of women are struggling to rebuild their lives. They lost everything except their will to pick themselves up again and make the best of the aid they receive, to become self-sufficient again.

When Elisete dos Santos came home from work on the night of Apr. 5, 2010, the water was already up to her calves.

The storm had started in the morning and by four a.m. the following day the water had covered half of her house in Conjunto da Marinha, a “favela” or shantytown in the southwestern Brazilian city of São Gonçalo, some 40 kilometres across the bay from Rio de Janeiro.

“My main concern was how to get my kids out safely. My daughter almost drowned when we were getting out of there,” a teary-eyed dos Santos told IPS.

Thirty-nine-year-old dos Santos is a single mother with a 16-year-old teenage son and a 10-year-old daughter, and everything she owned had been obtained through hard work and enormous sacrifices. The minimum wage of 200 dollars a month she makes working as a saleswoman is not enough to live on so she supplements her income working from home making craft jewellery.

After she dropped her family off at a temporary shelter in a nearby church, she went back to her house to try to rescue some of their belongings – to find that the water had risen up to neck level.

She was able to salvage the national identity cards of all the members of the family, but many other seemingly insignificant objects that were just as much a part of their identity – family photos, cherished items and small mementos gathered over a lifetime – were irretrievably lost under the water and mud that covered her home. Also ruined were the tools and materials she used to make the earrings, bracelets and necklaces she sold.

“I was devastated. You work so hard and make great sacrifices, every step forward takes such a huge effort, only to lose it all in a day,” she told IPS, now settled in her new home.

“But material things can be recovered with time and life goes on. That’s what’s important. You can’t give up,” she said as she remembered how some of her neighbours were not as strong as she was and “gave in to depression.”

She was not a homeowner so the government did not consider her eligible for rental assistance as a flood victim. Still, she managed to rent another makeshift dwelling, though she struggles every month to come up with the payments.

She had better luck on the job front, however, as the Brazilian chapter of the international humanitarian organisation CARE has donated two machine tools for her work: a welding machine and a grinder, both essential for her craft making.

“I sell costume jewellery to stores and sometimes in street markets and the money I make helps me pay the rent. I also use that money to buy food for my kids: rice, beans, milk, that sort of thing,” she said.

In this city alone, CARE helps 114 women who work on their own as craft makers, seamstresses, manicurists and cooks and who lost everything to the floods.

Their greatest loss was “their production capacity, the equipment and raw materials necessary for their work and to support their families,” Leila Menezes, head of Care Brazil’s Climate Change and Disaster Response Programme, told IPS.

These women received work instruments, including sewing machines, washing machines, street vendor carts, computers and freezers, and have participated in business improvement courses.

CARE chose São Gonçalo under their aid programme for women victims of natural disasters, because it is the second poorest city in Brazil and has one of the highest rates of violence.

In 2010, flooding from swollen rivers and landslides affected some 10,000 families in this city of almost one million people. A total of 473 people died in the state of Rio de Janeiro and the material losses were incalculable, as a result of the worst flooding the state had seen in 46 years.

Oceanographer David Zee attributed the unusually high rainfall to climate change, which he said was compounded by local causes, such as slope soil erosion due to deforestation, irregular riverside settlements and uncontrolled urban sprawl.

In São Gonçalo these causes were further aggravated by its lowland location and a historical lack of public spending on low-income housing, stormwater drainage systems and garbage collection services.

While the municipal, regional and federal governments are now trying to make up for lost time, Rosemere Souto, another flood victim who lives in the Salgueiro favela, is taking matters into her own hands to help her community.

“I try to explain to them (the neighbours) that if you dump your garbage into the river, it’s going to make the river overflow. But a lot of people just don’t understand,” Souto, who received an industrial sewing machine from CARE, told IPS.

As a member of the women’s group Las Mujeres de Salgueiro, she is determined to achieve two goals: boost her income and raise environmental awareness.

With her new sewing machine she plans to make accessories with tilapia fish skin. Tilapia is a fresh and salt water fish that is very common in the area, so the raw material for her crafts is obtained at low cost from local small-scale fishers. The skin used to be discarded and dumped into the river, where it took five years to decompose. This way, Souto not only helps herself and her family, she protects the environment.

“The floods really did me in. I was broke,” Souto says. But according to this 48-year-old mother and grandmother married to a shipyard worker, “the best thing to do in those cases is work even harder and help others with words, raising awareness about our planet.”

Menezes said that when an environmental disasters strikes, poor women are the most vulnerable group.

Which is why in its efforts to combat poverty and rebuild the local economy, CARE focuses particularly on women, because they are usually “mothers, who contribute significantly to supporting their families with their small-scale ventures,” she added.

Menezes, a psychologist who specialises in socio-environmental conflict resolution, stressed that when these women “have access to the resources they need, their families are more likely to get back on their feet.”

Supporting the economic recovery and resilience of the victims of natural disasters is the kind of response that makes it possible “to transform their living conditions, because it promotes local economies and social development and contributes to fighting poverty,” she added.

As of 2007, Brazil’s Department of Women’s Policies (SPM) has prioritised “sustainable development with a gender and environmental justice approach” as one of its key policy issues, and seeks to mainstream this concept throughout the initiatives implemented by the various ministries.

SPM head Iriny Lopes told IPS that women are most vulnerable to environmental disasters, among other reasons, “because of their role as caregivers of children, the elderly and the sick.

“Any change that affects water sources or access to water, for example, will have a direct impact on the lives of women, as they will have to work double hard to ensure their family’s care,” she said in an email response.

She also underlined other factors that contribute to their vulnerability: women have to juggle their domestic responsibilities with their remunerated jobs where, moreover, they are usually paid less than men and have worse working conditions.

Souto knows these difficulties only too well, and now that she has become an environmental activist she is eager to teach other women “to fish and not just receive the fish.”

“Because the food we receive in aid soon runs out. But with a work tool you can have everything,” she said smiling as she proudly showed off her brand-new industrial sewing machine, which she will “use to stitch the fish skin.” (END)

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(Ed Note: Please visit the original site for photographs associated with this article.)