Monthly Archives: May 2010

Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

This holiday weekend brought news of the failure of BP’s latest strategy for plugging the oil flow in the Gulf of Mexico – the ominously named “top kill.”  It now seems increasingly likely that oil will continue to foul the waters of the Gulf until ancillary wells are completed several months from now.  The scale of this disaster is hard for the human imagination to fathom.

Unfortunately your administration is deeply implicated in this, the worst environmental cataclysm in the nation and perhaps the planet’s history.  As has become widely know since the explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon rig, the Mineral Management Service completely failed in its mission to regulate the oil industry.  Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar patently abdicated his responsibility to clean up an agency that, according to a 2008 report by the Department of the Interior’s secretary general included brazen corruption (including the collection of $9 billion in oil and gas royalties in 2007) and a “culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” at the agency.

Worst still, your ill-advised decision to open up U.S. coastal waters to drilling came with false promises to Americans that technological advances had made such procedures fool proof.  As we found out only weeks after your announcement, in fact the major oil companies had absolutely no idea of how to deal with deepwater oil leaks.  Moreover, since the leak, your administration has handled BP with kid gloves, refusing to force them to reveal the extent of the spill and allowing them to pump massive quantities of toxic dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico in order to obscure the extent of the pollution.

In response to this ecological disaster, many are calling for a complete ban on offshore drilling, and for catastrophe-prone oil rigs such as the Atlantis (which continues to pump oil up from 7,000 feet below the surface) to be shut down.  This seems like the minimum step warranted by such a tragedy.  After all, offshore drilling only provides about 1% of the oil we use in the U.S. today.

We also need a major blue-ribbon investigation to determine how the calamity in the Gulf occurred.  In addition, the culture of corruption and nepotism that has been revealed at government agencies such as the Mineral Management Service and the Department of the Interior must be investigated with a special commission and culpable parties must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

But, as important as such steps are, they are not nearly enough.  In other parts of the world from which the U.S. gets its oil such as Nigeria and Ecuador, massive environmental pollution is a normal part of the oil business.  Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska may simply mean moving the environmental and human rights violations to another, less zealously regulated part of the planet.

No, none of those moves are commensurate with what is clearly a turning point in history.  What the Gulf Oil Spill shows is that we need a new national energy policy based on a massive transition to truly sustainable technologies and social arrangements.  Your administration has recognized the threat to our nation that dependency on foreign oil represents; solutions you have embraced such as coastal drilling, “clean” coal (another Big Lie), and nuclear technology pander to powerful corporations and, as we now know, imperil American land, oceans, and people.  The U.S. can transform itself with amazing speed, as preparations to defend democracy before World War II showed.  Surely we are facing an even more dire planetary threat today.

There is no lack of proposals for a just transition to a sustainable national energy policy.  One particularly admirable plan comes from the Apollo Alliance.  They call for a New Apollo Program based on five key initiatives:

  1. Rebuild America Clean and Green: We must generate cleaner power and use the power we generate more efficiently – particularly in the residential, commercial, industrial, and technological sectors that make up 70% of current energy use.  The Apollo Project is calling for a range of solutions that include special funds for upgrading energy efficiency in existing buildings; consistent long-term public support for (truly) clean energy projects such as wind and solar power; and “smart” grids to bring clean energy to market; and affordable and convenient mass public transit.
  2. Make It In America: We need the new sustainable technologies to be produced locally; not only will this increase energy efficiency, but it will also help address the massive unemployment crisis that has swept the nation during the economic downturn and that continues to plague poor- and middle-class communities.  Wind turbines, solar panels, next-generation electric cars, efficient transmission lines, and green roofs – these and many other aspects of the new green economy need to be built in the U.S.
  3. Restore the U.S.’s Technological Leadership: Research and development funds in renewable power technologies have been miniscule for the last several decades in comparison to the funds funneled to the fossil fuel industries by U.S. government.  As a result, the U.S. is being supplanted by the E.U. and upcoming nations such as China in development and implementation of the technologies for a new green economy.  The Apollo Project is calling for an aggressive energy innovation agenda to double the annual federal investment in energy research and development, and for the creation of a National Energy Innovation Fund to take the most promising new technologies to commercial scale.
  4. Tap the Productivity of the American People: The dismantling of the industrial economy over the last generation in the U.S. has also seen a massive disinvestment in the American people.  We need to create green paths out of poverty by reinvesting in state and local green-collar worker training initiatives.  High-skill, high-wage jobs must be the wave of the future.  The Apollo Project is calling for worker training initiatives, higher education scholarships, and union apprenticeships, as well as a clean energy service program akin to the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal to allow ordinary citizens to get involved in transforming the nation.
  5. Reinvest in America: The Apollo Project advocates a cap-and-invest mechanism to reduce carbon emissions, trade the allowances, and invest proceeds directly back into energy efficiency, renewable power, transit and transportation, and green workforce initiatives.  The project calls for the establishment of a Clean Energy Investment Corporation to invest these funds, to ensure accountability in the spending of public funds, and to help communities make the transition to a green economy.

Admirable as these Apollo Project initiatives are, they need to be supplemented by moves to ensure climate justice on a global scale.  Technological leadership within the U.S. must, for example, be supplemented by agreements for technology transfer to the developing nations of the world in order to insure that their path to development is, unlike ours, a sustainable one.  In many cases, the greening of the U.S. economy will have a worldwide impact, but such a transformation needs to take place as part of a global movement for climatic, economic, and political justice.

Earth Day was first observed just after forty years ago in reaction to a horrific oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.  The modern environmental movement was born out of revulsion at the environmental devastation caused by the spill and out of anger at the state of political torpor that characterized Washington.  Today, our waters are once again fouled by massive quantities of oil, and our body politic is polluted by corporate corruption.  Today, the countdown towards irreversible, cascading climate change is nearing zero.

The catastrophic Gulf Oil Spill represents a terrible tragedy, but it may also offer the last opportunity your administration has to turn the political tide away from unsustainable corporate-influenced policies and towards a just transition to a green economy.  Weighty words like redemption shouldn’t be used frequently, but this is one instance in which your actions would more than justify righteous biblical language.

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The Oil Curse

We Americans are very attached to our oil.  It’s the ultimate lubricant, greasing our dreams of limitless horizontal velocity in fast cars across wide vistas, and of unlimited vertical ascent through the rarefied cultural strata of philanthropists and socialites. Best of all, oil is both ubiquitous and virtually invisible – most of the time.

I remember watching old reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies as a kid, a show whose situational comedy derived from the immense wealth suddenly conferred on a bunch of Appalachian yokels when someone strikes oil on their land.  The joke of course was that you can take the hick out of the hills but you can’t take the hills out of the hick.  But the Clampetts are noble savages, and their lack of pretension is used to mount a scathing critique of the excesses of Los Angeles’s fleshpots, just as Montaigne had done to the ancien regime using his cannibals.

Yet the show never questioned oil.  It was simply assumed, common sense, that the discovery of oil would lead to instant and enduring wealth for the lucky proprietors of crude-rich land.  We should have known better.  Already back in 1927, Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! had shown how the discovery of black gold could tear apart not just a family, not just a community, but the entire nation, as the flow of easy crude-derived money jammed into the veins of the polity like a huge syringe, spreading decadence, corruption, and violence to all the corners of the land.

In his recent book Crude World, Peter Maass travels the world, visiting oil-blighted countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Ecuador, the violence-ridden Niger Delta, and the corrupt oil oligarchy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Everywhere he goes, Maass finds that oil exemplifies the so-called resource curse: rather than bringing Beverly Hillbilly-style instant, uncouth wealth, it exacerbates existing problems and creates intractable new ones.  Oil has not enriched such places, but has instead brought lower growth, higher corruption, less freedom, and more warfare.  Maass comes across some graffiti in Ecuador’s Amazon region: “Más Petróleo = Más Pobreza” [more oil = more poverty].

Usually Americans don’t think much about such issues.  But oil has become all too visible of late.  The massive leak following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon has revealed all the shadowy, corrupt webs of power that sustain oil extraction within the U.S.  It is very timely, then, that a scathing critique of Chevron, the world’s 4th largest oil company, should have been published today, right in time for the annual shareholder meeting.  The report, The True Cost of Chevron, details the environmental, political, and social costs of oil production around the world.

For we should remember that, as horrifying as the Deepwater Horizon spill may be (hopefully we’ll find out the true extent of the problem one day), in many places around the world exposure to the toxic products of the petroleum industry is a normal part of life.  The images of peasants from the Niger Delta walking nonchalantly past gas flares, which burn day and night, constantly emitting toxic fumes into the air, underline the banality of this evil.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster offers us an opportunity to rally opposition within the U.S. to the “oil curse,” and to push for a just transition to a truly sustainable economy.  A good way to start would be by putting the CEOs of corporations that pollute the environment with massive oil spills or gas flares in prison.

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The difference a month makes

It’s been one month since BP’s Deepwater Horizon sank.  The levels of human incompetence and political corruption that have been revealed are breathtaking. Most prominently, the role of the federal Minerals’ Management Service as pimp for the oil industry has been stripped bare for all to see.

Of course the full impact of this disaster is unclear, largely because BP will not allow scientists to calculate how much oil is being released each day and because the government will not force them to reveal this information.  This is another aspect of this tragedy that has illuminated the dark, dark corners of our polity: the U.S. government is utterly dependent on a corporation it is supposed to be regulating to fix this life and land threatening disaster.

With our consequent lack of knowledge about actually how much the ocean is being polluted in mind, it’s worth looking at the live video feed of the oil gushing out of the damaging equipment 5,000 feet below the surface of the sea.  It’s quite literally an infernal image.  Check it out here.

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Apartheid in Arizona

The legislature in Arizona recently passed House Bill 2281. This document bans ethnic studies courses which promote race consciousness from public schools.  This law of course comes on the heels of the draconian new immigration law SB 1070.  It’s worth thinking about the relation between these two laws.

Education bill 2281 specifically prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that: a) promote the overthrow of the United States government; b) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; c) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; d) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The ideology here of course is complete objectivity in the classroom.  Supporters of this legislator are marching in lockstep with Daniel Horowitz, whose campaigns with Students for Academic Freedom have long blasted any form of politicization.  As my colleague Malini Johar Schueller and I have argued in Dangerous Professors, this spurious notion of objectivity obscures the inherent politicization of dominant established curricula and attempts to roll back the (relatively slight) gains made by post-1960s social movements.

In fact, the explicit target of the legislation is the Mexican American Studies Department of the Tucson Unified School District.  According to the department’s website, the education curriculum is designed to a) advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the pursuit of social justice; b) advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the Mexican American/Chicano cultural and historical experience.

House Bill 2281 is a transparent attempt to clamp down on forces of ideological opposition within Arizona, a necessary counterpart to SB 1070.  Their symbiotic nature is made particularly evident when the bills are compared to similar bans enacted elsewhere.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, for example, the ruling regime sought to silence critics of the status quo by banning them.  Coupled with lynching, torture, and summary execution, the practice of banning was a key instrument of apartheid-era policy.

The banning of organizations or individuals was originally authorized in South Africa by the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, and subsequently by the Internal Security Act of 1982.  The definition of communism in these laws was extremely broad, including any activity allegedly promoting civil disturbances or disorder, promoting industrial, social, political, or economic change in the country, and encouraging hostility between whites and nonwhites so as to promote change or revolution.  The main organizations banned under these laws were the Communist Party of South Africa, the African National Congress, and the Pan-African Congress.

More than 2,000 people were banned in South Africa from 1950 to 1990.  Once a person was labeled a threat to security and public order, s/he essentially became a public nonentity.  S/he would be confined to her or his home, would not be allowed to meet with more than one person at a time (other than family members), to hold any offices in any organization, to speak publicly or to write for any publication.  Banned persons were also barred from entering particular areas, buildings, and institutions, including law courts, schools, and newspaper offices.

The banning of ethnic studies departments in Arizona is an integral part of the reactionary program being advanced by the Right in the state.  As the South African parallel suggests, the silencing of dissenting voices is just as essential to authoritarian hegemony as more obviously repressive forms of state power such as ethnic profiling in policing.

This assault on civil liberties and educational democracy needs to be taken just as seriously – and challenged just as ardently – as the state’s oppressive immigration legislation has been.

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My Recession

New York State Governor David Patterson is trying to impose furloughs on 100,000 state workers.  I’m one of them.  The fiscal crisis of the state is getting very personal!

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn has just ruled that Patterson and the Albany lawmakers who went along with his plan to punish what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the left hand of the state” – municipal employees like teachers who maintain the social democratic wing of the state – cannot carry their plan forward until he rules on union lawsuits that challenge this move.

According to Kahn, unions have successfully demonstrated that a permanent 20 percent loss in wages or salaries would constitute irreparable harm.  This is an incredibly important decision since it prevents New York from establishing a precedent similar to the horrendous one in California.

But the news isn’t all bread and roses.  Thousands of employees of the Metropolitan Transit Authority are still going to lose their jobs, for example.  This isn’t just pain for MTA employees,  It will also mean that more of the booths at subway stations become vacant, making the subway system more dangerous and dysfunctional.  But then the rich in NYC probably don’t use the subway anyway.

In other local news, according to an article in the New York Times, someone paid nearly $29 million dollars for a painting of the U.S. flag by Jasper Johns.  Wonder why this individual didn’t manifest her or his patriotism by using that money to support the working people who keep this country going?  Wonder why the governor won’t raise taxes on people who have $29 million dollars at their disposal for a painting.

My union, the Professional Staff Congress, was one of four public-employee unions that brought the suit to stop Patterson and the legislature from putting us on furlough.  What a great victory for solidarity and collective resistance!

Here’s a copy of the judge’s restraining order.

And here’s to stopping the ravenous zombies who are destroying the country and the planet from eating all our brains!

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The Right to the City

The luxury condo boom is over! Over 4,000 of these condos sit vacant in 9 predominantly low-income NYC communities. Meanwhile, average families in these communities are struggling to hold on to their homes. And homelessness is skyrocketing.

Housing is a human right. At least it used to be, back when NYC was a bastion of social democracy. Today, luxury condo apartments sit vacant while people get turfed out onto the street by unscrupulous investment bankers and other gentrifiers who destroy poor neighborhoods. From 2002 to 2005, NYC lost more than 205,000 units affordable to the typical household. Now, the city is filled with vacant luxury condos that are not available or affordable to those most in need of housing. We need the city to repossess these condos and make them available to the people who need them most – the people who have lived in these neighborhoods for generations!

Today I attended a “Harlem-El Barrio Condo Tour” organized by the Right to the City coalition. The idea of a right to the city comes from the great radical urbanist Henri Lefebvre. In works such as The Urban Revolution, Lefebvre argued that the primary locus of capital accumulation – and, consequently, of social conflict – was shifting from the industrial workplace to the urban tissue itself. Given this development, he argued that future social struggles would hinge on assertions of human rights to dwelling and a decent livelihood in urban spaces. My CUNY colleagues David Harvey, Neil Smith, Ida Susser, and Sharon Zukin (among others) have done a good deal to flesh out Lefebvre’s theoretical ideas.

I’m sure that Lefebvre would be delighted to know that his radical intellectual work is being carried forward in NYC today. But he’d be equally pleased by the work of organic intellectuals like those who led the march today. The organizations that compose the Right to the City coalition canvassed their neighborhoods to learn how many luxury condos sit vacant. They discovered that at least 138 condo buildings exist in the five boroughs. Their developers owe the city a total of $3.8 million in back taxes for unpaid property, water , and sewer taxes.

We went to see a number of these buildings during our “condo tour.” We trooped past Windows on 123, a building on West 123rd street that is currently 100% vacant according to Right to the City’s research. The average cost of an apartment in this building is $831,500. This in an area – Harlem where average income is below $30,000/year.

Here are some of the many, many empty buildings we marched past. The anger among people in the crowd as they saw these vacant buildings was palpable. I spoke with one woman who lived in a building which was demolished to make way for the tower development at the right. Aside from the obscenity of demolishing public housing in order to build unaffordable luxury condos, the marketing of such buildings is immensely offensive. The development pictured at right, for instance, advertises that part of the building will be devoted to the Museum of African Art. So, African Americans are displaced for an African Art museum that will no doubt have such steep admission fees that only visiting European tourists and Upper East-siders will be able to gain entrance.

Right to the City has just released a report that discusses this problem of empty luxury condos in far more detail than I have here. It’s also worth checking out their website for more info about the organization and its goals. Important demands they list include the following:

  • Conversion of empty luxury condos into housing for low-income tenants.
  • Affordability should be defined based on median income of census tract or zip code where the building is located
  • NYC agency or non-profit developer should manage/own the housing rather than private developers
  • There should be an oversight committee including low-income people to ensure that programs are administered fairly and transparently.

For more photos of the march (including lots of vacant buildings in Harlem & El Barrio), check out the gallery I’ve put up on my photos site. It’s very exciting that a movement grounded in such militant research techniques has developed in to oppose practices of dispossession that have dominated NYC for far too many years.

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The Death of Journalism?

I just read a very upsetting post on the website of Triple Canopy, a very interesting online mixed-media journal.  On the site I found a link to a talk given by Roger Hodge, a friend from my college days who had a mercurial rise at the tender age of 37 to the editorship of Harper’s Magazine.  I was very happy for him, particularly since I remember a conversation when he was thinking of moving out to Arizona to edit some sports magazine.  Of course, I was also pretty envious.

Roger ascended into what passes for the stratosphere in media circles four years ago.  Watching his presentation at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, I learned that he’s recently been given the sack.  I’m terribly sad for him, although I imagine he’ll land on his feet given his eminence as an ex-editor of Harper’s.

In addition, however, Roger’s talk suggested that we should all we worried about the state of journalism.  According to Roger, his recent fate is indicative of and of a piece with the broader decline in journalism.  As he puts it, journalists made the terrible mistake of training their readers to expect writing for free, and now their occupation is disappearing since there are no viable sources of funding.  Roger reels off some hair-raising statistics, including the fact that circulation is down 20% over the last two years at all the magazines that allow auditing, and that’s on top of a 10% decline the previous year.  This terrible collapse began in earnest, Roger argues, in 2006.

It’s not clear what the solution is.  Even someone in such a powerful position as Roger, editor at one of the two or three most significant venues for serious long-form journalism in the U.S., seems to have no answer.  In fact, not only does he have no answer, but he seems incredibly, painfully pessimistic about the future.  Efforts by newspapers and magazines to set up paywalls are doomed, he argues, since people are now habituated to reading journalism for free.  The only way journalists can survive today is by writing books, one of the only forms of writing which people are still willing to buy.

Given this situation, it seems to me that institutions like universities are going to be one of the only sources where support for journalism is going to be found – at least in the U.S.  The goal in the long term should I think be to push for state subvention along the lines of most major European nations, even if this seems like a pipe dream in this haven of neoliberalism.  Without such a step, the danger is that journalists are going to become like poets in the U.S. today, whose vocation is no longer viable economically and who are totally dependent on teaching in academia in order to survive.

Anyway, here’s Roger’s talk:

For a far less pessimistic take, check out this interview with the editor of The Guardian, a paper which is held in a trust and is therefore subsidized.

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