Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Someone gets rich from your polluted drinking water

 Gen. George Washington had his headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y. Ever since, this town on the Hudson, an hour north of New York City, played a role in American history quite disproportionate to its small size. But in recent years, it has fallen on hard times. Its industry has disappeared. Its population is impoverished and crime-ridden. And now, on top of everything, its water supply contains carcinogenic chemicals. PFOS is an ingredient in fire fighting foam used extensively for training purposes at a nearby military base.

Newspaper reports usually focus on a single event. The drinking water woes in Newburgh, NY are reported without mentioning last year's drinking water disaster in Flint Michigan. In each case the story seeks out the guilty parties for this particular problem. In each case it is not too difficult to find the city or state officials or the bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency whose negligence seriously endangered the health of the inhabitants in different cities and towns.

    But then you see a small notice that harmful chemicals are found in the water supply in other small towns in New York State where plastic plants are being blamed for polluting water supplies. That raises an interesting question: is the pollution of drinking water a widespread problem in our country? 

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency "threats to drinking water are increasing." The experience of people in Newburgh, NY or Flint, MI are not isolated events. Similar experiences with drinking water pollution are common all over the country.

    Are there common causes of drinking water pollution in these different locations? We can answer "Yes and No" to to that question. In Newburgh NY it was the National Guard training ground for firefighters that used excessive fire fighting foam and thereby polluted the town's water supply. In Flint Michigan corrosive water flowing through old lead pipes raised the lead levels in the drinking water. In a small town in Pennsylvania, Dimock, drinking water wells exploded because the water was polluted with methane from nearby fracking operations. In other places agricultural fertilizers are the pollutants. Elsewhere chemicals from plastic factories show up in drinking water. From place to place, the sources of pollutants differ. Each case appears to be different; each needs to be considered on its own.

    But all these different failures of drinking water systems have a common element: money. If fracking is done properly with all the requisite safety measures in place, drinking water should not be affected. But again and again the drillers, in order to save money, skip a step and therefore chemicals and flammable gas escapes into water supplies, wells and even into basements. Sooner or later drinking water is polluted and wells and even houses explode. Associations of large farmers put serious pressure on the government not to enforce regulations that would make farming more costly. Authorities supposed to oversee the maintenance of drinking water wink at violations. Congressional representatives in order to please local industries submit legislation in Congress that exempts local polluters from government surveillance. The money of the industries speaks louder than the citizens’ votes.

    Conflict over the preservation of clean drinking water pits government agencies and environmental preservation groups against the lobbies of agriculture and industry. Run-off from large farms is blamed for a good deal of drinking water pollution, as are the effects of industry and drilling for oil. In the struggle over clean drinking water for all Americans the well being of all citizens is threatened by private financial interests. 

    Many Americans believe that our economic system, largely run by for-profit businesses serving the private interest of those businesses, is the best there is. But when we consider the widespread pollution of drinking water with chemicals as well as harmful organisms, we can see that the private pursuit of profit may be good for farmers and owners of industries but is harmful for ordinary citizens. The pursuit of private profit is often harmful for the majority of Americans.

    Reporting on individual instances of drinking water pollution as isolated events deliberately conceals the fact that each case of pollution is due to the pursuit of private profit. In order to enrich a small number of owners, the rest of us drink water laced with lead and other harmful chemicals that threaten to shorten our lifespan. If we consider the pollution of the air we breathe, and the degradation of the food we eat, also for the sake of private profit, we can see that this economy--often touted as so beneficial to everyone--demands a very high price from us – years of our lives.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Standing Fast at Standing Rock

On January of this year Ammon Bundy and a small gang of like minded people occupied The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. They demanded, among other  things, that the Federal Government cede control of public lands to local authorities. About 40 days later they were arrested. The Feds charged them with criminal conspiracy.  A week or two ago a jury found them innocent.

By coincidence, Law Enforcement officials in riot gear chose the same day that the men in Oregon were acquitted, to fire bean bag rounds and mace at protesters in Morton County, ND. The protesters, mostly Native Americans, are protesting the construction of a pipeline which, they say, threatens their water supply on the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and interferes with sacred burial grounds.  150 protesters were arrested.

Observers in North Dakota noted that the  seriously armed occupiers in Oregon were left unmolested by authorities and were arrested only upon leaving Malheur to attend a meeting. The mostly Native American protesters, unarmed and non-violent, in North Dakota bore the brunt of violent attacks by police and massive arrests. The difference in treatment of armed white Oregonians and unarmed, non-violent Native Americans in North Dakota has attracted a good deal of comment.

But the Oregon and North Dakota protests differ in other ways that are important to notice. The occupiers of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were, to be frank, a small group of crackpots trying to protest Federal control of public lands. Except for one person in this group, no one was a rancher, or lived off the land. They were city folk in cowboy boots and Stetsons demanding local control of Federal lands.

The issue in North Dakota is very different. It concerns the construction of an oil pipeline to move oil produced by fracking to a terminal in Illinois. As planned the pipeline will will cross 209 rivers, creeks and tributaries. It will destroy more than one Native American burial ground.

In the background looms the entire issue of our national energy policy. Oil companies continue to drill wells and build pipelines as if they had not heard of the environmental crisis. Government co-operates instead of redoubling its efforts to reduce the use of petroleum. The protesters at Standing Rock are not merely standing up for Native American rights to their land and their water supply. They are standing up for all of us and for future generations, my children and yours, and the children they will bring into the world. Will future generations be heirs to a livable environment or will they be tormented by wild storms, excessive heat and drought, by farmland turned into deserts? 

The answer to that question depends directly on what this generation does about global warming. If the energy companies have their way, the outlook for the future is gloomy. If the Standing Rock protesters get their way, we may have a chance to survive.
But as the attack by Law Enforcement and the arrest of protesters suggests, the government is solidly on the side of the energy companies. With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress the outlook is gloomy indeed.

There is, then, another pressing issue at play: saving our democracy from utter corruption by the monied interests, large corporations, financial firms and the politicians who call their corruption “realism.” In the face of urgent need to have the government adopt stringent policies to reduce fossil fuel use, the energy companies can bribe the government to foster expanded oil exploration. Our government is no longer for sale; it has already been sold.
As we have seen in the electoral campaign: politicians have little to say, but money talks very loudly. It talks so loudly that we cannot hear the message from Standing Rock: energy use must be dialed down TODAY. Extraction of petroleum must be reduced. No more pipelines, no more fracking, if we want future generations to have an inhabitable environment.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

 How We Can Get Along Together

In her latest book, Arlie Hochschild, author of a number of interesting and exceptional works in sociology, looks into the question of why voters who understand very clearly that the ruling groups in this country do not care for them or their discomfort, nevertheless return the advocates of ruling groups to Congress year after year. Observers say: here are people who are not voting their best interest but are in fact voting to support their enemies. Often explanations of such behaviors imply major criticism of these voters. They are said to be uneducated and not thinking clearly and rationally. They are said to be uninformed. Implicit in those criticisms often is the accusation of being unintelligent. They are duped by the ruling groups in this country and made to believe that their enemies are their friends. We – the intelligent liberals – see-through propaganda but they cannot.

Hochschild is not convinced of this analysis simply because she has spent a long time in Louisiana talking to people who are supporting conservative candidates. She's impressed how aware these conservative voters are of the injuries done to them by the large chemical and oil companies that dominate the state and the state's government. Hearing the complex analyses these voters give of their own condition, no one would accuse them of being either unintelligent or ill-informed. They are not people who are easily duped.

But they still support conservative candidates who love big business more than their small time voters. How can we understand that?

Some of the people Hochschild interviewed are perfectly well aware of the tensions between their appreciation of their own condition and how the people with money and power look down on them and do to them whatever they can while they continue their political support for these very people. But they don't know where to take this. They are looked down upon, ignored, maltreated by their state government and by the large companies that are dominant in that government. But they have no hope that the liberals and the people on the left will look down on them any less, or will put great effort into saving them and making their lives better. In the last eight years they have seen no evidence of that.

So they find themselves really angry for being maltreated, for being underpaid, for making the same wages they have made for a long time. What they have left to hold on to is their established religion and the way of life that goes with that, which has no truck with gay marriage, or gender change. It has no truck with pity for girls getting pregnant at 14 and having abortions. What keeps them going in a world which they experience as hostile are their traditional values and beliefs, and that means support for the people they have always given their political loyalty to.

Here is Hochschild's conclusion from all these observations: don't look for rational arguments from poor voters. Don't in fact look for rational arguments from any voters. In the end, we are all inclined in different ways because we have different emotional attachments and pre-judgments. Whatever arguments we give are anchored in these original emotional attachments.

Other recent work in psychology suggests that people who have been powerless and suddenly experience an increase in power tend to be harsher on other people. If they newly acquire power they use it often destructively because before they did not have any. One might adapt those ideas to an explanation of why the victims of conservatives nevertheless support them at the polls. Given power, by being able to vote, conservatives will support the candidates who share their conservative values and punish the liberals who advocate abortion on demand, gay marriage and other novel social values.

The precise explanation remains to be given. What matters is the insight that people vote as they do because of their anger, their fear, their sense of loss, their lack of hope and many other emotional conditions.

There have been many calls in this campaign for national unity, for Americans to "come together" and to once again work together. What we learn here is that Americans will not come together as long as they identify themselves as the intelligent rational beings and their opponents as the emotional, uneducated ones. All of us are moved by deep-seated feelings and we will not come together unless we take the feelings of others seriously. We need to have and show respect for the feelings of others. We need to honor them, even in cases where they seem really repugnant.

Should women honor the feelings of rapists, of men who dishonor them by objectifying their bodies? Surely not. Should they say these men are ignorant swine who should not be allowed to live? Surely not. What sort of respect, if any, does a rapist deserve? Not an easy question to answer.

Obviously calling for "respect" for other people's feelings is easy. Practicing it is often extremely difficult and none of us should be criticized for saying that they cannot respect the feelings of this are that person. But the effort to respect the feelings of others rather than condemning them by some aggressive epithet – as we hear daily in this electoral campaign from all parties – is essential if this country is to heal.