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Our Moral Footprint

Vaclav Havel, New York times
…Maybe we should start considering our sojourn on earth as a loan. There can be no doubt that for the past hundred years at least, Europe and the United States have been running up a debt, and now other parts of the world are following their example. Nature is issuing warnings that we must not only stop the debt from growing but start to pay it back. There is little point in asking whether we have borrowed too much or what would happen if we postponed the repayments. Anyone with a mortgage or a bank loan can easily imagine the answer.

The effects of possible climate changes are hard to estimate. Our planet has never been in a state of balance from which it could deviate through human or other influence and then, in time, return to its original state. The climate is not like a pendulum that will return to its original position after a certain period. It has evolved turbulently over billions of years into a gigantic complex of networks, and of networks within networks, where everything is interlinked in diverse ways.

Its structures will never return to precisely the same state they were in 50 or 5,000 years ago. They will only change into a new state, which, so long as the change is slight, need not mean any threat to life.

Larger changes, however, could have unforeseeable effects within the global ecosystem. In that case, we would have to ask ourselves whether human life would be possible. Because so much uncertainty still reigns, a great deal of humility and circumspection is called for.

We can’t endlessly fool ourselves that nothing is wrong and that we can go on cheerfully pursuing our wasteful lifestyles, ignoring the climate threats and postponing a solution. Maybe there will be no major catastrophe in the coming years or decades. Who knows? But that doesn’t relieve us of responsibility toward future generations.

Vaclav Havel is the former president of the Czech Republic.
(27 September 2007)

The Water Fountain

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
Like everyone in the rich world, I carry bottles of water with me everywhere I go. Were someone from the past to spot me, they’d be stunned by the sight of all the people, clearly headed on long treks into the uninhabited jungle, carrying water lest they die of dehydration. Because, after all, in historical terms, at least in the US, one carries a canteen or other source of water while camping or otherwise engaged in a trek to uncertain, undeveloped lands. In populated areas, folks 30 or 40 years ago, would have told a thirsty person – “wait until we get to the water fountain.”

You remember those water fountains, right? The things that meant you didn’t have to buy soda or haul a bottle around, you just waited until you passed the next one, and drank your fill. You remember playing the game of getting enough water up, or squirting your sister in the nose? I do. They were in public parks and by public restrooms, in town centers and everywhere you went. They obviated the need to purchase anything when you had such a simple, basic human concern as ordinary thirst. You could trust them to be there – if you whined “Daddy, I’m thirsty” – waiting for the next water fountain was reasonable, achievable, because they were always there.

And, of course, it was this very public-ness that was dangerous. Dangerous once because one’s lips might touch metal that had touched the lips of a person of another skin color. Then dangerous because one might get germs from them (never mind that most plastic water bottles involve drinking a big old slug of dioxin, which isn’t exactly good for you). After all, they are PUBLIC, and public is scary, because anyone can use it. Even poor people. Even icky people. Even people we would normally never actually share anything with. Thus, we magnify our fears of other people to avoid having to find public solutions. Or we simply get in the habit of privatizing everything, leaving the public sphere only to those who can’t afford to leave it – and thus allowing us to call this “the tragedy of the commons,” when, in fact, it is the tragedy of privatization and wealth and our rejection of both commons – and common ground with other people.
(28 September 2007)

Global food shock real, says former Nats leader

Courier Mail (Australia)
FORMER deputy prime minister and Nationals leader John Anderson has warned of a potential global food shock with falling production and soaring prices.

Mr Anderson said anyone outraged by the federal government’s support package for drought-hit farmers had never gone hungry.

He said the aid package reflected the fact that farming was essential, unlike any other business, and farmers could not do it on their own.

“This comes at a time of unprecedented concerns globally of very low grain stocks. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we will see a food shock in the next few years,” Mr Anderson told ABC Radio.

“We talk about oil shocks. We have gone on assuming that the supermarket shelves will always be loaded.”

Mr Anderson said in an average year Australian farmers produced enough food and fibre for perhaps 100 million people, with most exported and plenty left for our own supermarkets shelves.

But in a world where a billion people still live on less than a dollar a day and go hungry, there are major humanitarian issues, he said.

“This affects everyone from the farmers right through to those people who are dependent on countries like Australian to feed them,” he said.

“We are going to have to look closely at what the scientists are saying. They will need to be properly resourced. They will need to be drawn upon in terms of painting a road map for the future.

“We may very well be facing changes. But I don’t for a moment believe that the severity of this drought is something we will see year in and year out.”

Mr Anderson said among the tough decisions ahead was whether or not to accept the use of genetically modified crops.

He said there were some very interesting drought-tolerant varieties coming through which would perform much better in a drier, hotter climate.

“That I know is a contentious issue but we won’t be able to simply be indulgent on the basis of full bellies and not worry about impacts globally,” he added.
(26 September 2007)
Contributor Michael Lardelli writes:

The article used comments made by Anderson on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast programme on 26 September:

You can hear the full comments 15 minutes into the “second” hour (i.e. at 7.15AM). At one point he says something like, “Australians pour more oil into their refrigerators than into their cars” but this did not make it into the newspaper article. He also makes comments on European farmer subsidies being due to their experience of hunger in the past and so their concerns about food security.

It would be great if someone could convert the audio file into an mp3 so that e.g. Global Public Media could archive it. Note that Anderson is now retiring from parliament so he can speak his mind now of course.

Audio of the interview now archived at Eat the Suburbs. -AF

The Internet: Our Last Hope for a Free Press

Mark Klempner, Common Dreams
I consider the Internet to be one of the world’s great wonders. And also America’s last hope for a free press.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were many people with a lot of things to say, but they generally had no platform. That’s why we needed figures like Bob Dylan to be “the voice of a generation.”

The present generation has YouTube, whose motto-irresistible to young people-is “Broadcast Yourself.” So now, for example, a pert 18-year-old known as “AngryLittleGirl” can challenge her peers regarding their lack of critical thinking, especially when it comes to religion, by uploading a video op-ed. As of this moment, her piece has been viewed by more than two million people.

YouTube is but one manifestation of a rapidly expanding “social media” that performs the vital function of promoting honest discussion and analysis at a time when spin, trivia, and advertising dominate the mass market profit-driven mainstream media –or MSM as it is often called on the net. Social media also encompasses web-based interactive communication tools such as blogs, message boards, forums, pod casts, online communities, and wikis.

I have seen bloggers expose mistakes and biases in the MSM within hours or even minutes of an article’s release. For instance, when New York Times science writer William Broad ran a piece deflating Al Gore’s claims about global warming, numerous bloggers pounced on it for being sloppy and skewed. Among them were Robert Dietz and Julie Millican at Media Matters, who documented how Broad had misrepresented the backgrounds of most of the supposedly “rank-and-file” experts quoted.

I don’t know what possessed Broad to so bend his reporting that he would lose credibility across a wide swath of readers (something he has in common with journalist Judith Miller, with whom he co-authored a book), but I do know that the MSM has become consolidated to the point that just a few transnational conglomerates and capital management companies control network TV, commercial radio, and most of our newspapers.

As for the repercussions of this ominous development, John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, states them quite clearly: “Gone is the notion that a newspaper should lead, that it has an obligation to the community, that it is beholden to the public.” The current owners, he explains, care only about money, and “are sometimes genuinely perplexed to find people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder.”

Bloggers are in an entirely different position: They tend to be mavericks who work for free, and operate far from the sources of power. Feeling no need to ingratiate themselves with the movers and shakers of industry and government, they simply tell it like it is from where they sit as concerned, informed citizens with diverse areas of expertise. Though they don’t often have professional training as journalists, many of them exceed professional journalistic standards, because they answer to their consciences alone rather than to corporate honchos and fund managers. We need to hear from such people, and the fact that there are more blogs out there worth reading than anyone has time to read is a hopeful sign.

Of course, the blogosphere is also filled with nonsense, and worse –as might be expected in any open space that lacks gatekeepers. The all-too-human reality of the web is that the majority of its traffic is directed to sex sites. What’s more, hate groups of all kinds find it a perfect forum to purvey their sick ideas. Even the benign Wikipedia can be used to disseminate false information with an effortlessness that has earned it the gratitude of propagandists everywhere.

How remarkable, then, that out of the cyberslime the lotus of a truly free press has been able to grow. Citizens seeking to avail themselves of the valuable commentary to be found on the web, as well as the fact checking services of legions of bloggers, can learn to easily bypass the detritus and go directly to those sites that offer valuable content.

Where, though, does one turn for in-depth investigative reporting? Though projects such as The Real News Network are attempting to create an alternative, the MSM is still pretty much the only show in town. Bloggers are generally not trained or equipped to do such reporting, and anyway, it´s a full time job that usually requires travel and a support staff, as well as knowledge and contacts developed over many years.

Newspapers carry out at least 80% of primary reporting. And yet the newspapers have repeatedly failed us, sometimes with tragic consequences, such as during the buildup to war in Iraq. In his documentary Buying the War, Bill Moyers (an exception to the rule that there are no outstanding journalists working in television) exposes how reporters at newspapers such as the Washington Post consistently deferred to the wishes of the Bush administration or were tricked, pressured or seduced into doing so. And behind Bush are the huge corporations that helped to put him into power, including those that own the MSM. What’s a citizen to do?

Again I say: go to the Internet. Though it’s worthwhile to read the print publications that pursue quality reporting-and some of the smaller ones really need our support-subscribing is not essential: nearly all of the important articles from these publications may be found on the web, and bloggers often link to them. And besides, there is also some fine web-based reporting, such as (to pick an example that is apropos to this discussion) the Salon piece that dissected and disposed of the myth, perpetuated by the MSM in tandem with then press secretary Ari Fleischer, that the exiting Clinton staff had removed the W’s from their keyboards, and in other ways vandalized government property.

As our titanic democracy is sinking and the band of trivia and denial plays on, each Internet connection can function as an intellectual life preserver. The net has also proved invaluable as a way for concerned citizens to offer support to each other, and to act together for political and social change.

From Salon in 1995, to Common Dreams in 1997, AlterNet in 1998, truthout in 2001, The Raw Story in 2004, and The Huffington Post in 2005, the news coverage on the Internet has matured to the point where we don’t really need to deal directly with the MSM anymore. As my wife says, “No MSG in my takeout; no MSM in my living room.” One household at a time, we’ll escape the grasp of the Rupert Murdochs of this world, at least when they meddle with our freedom of the press.

Mark Klempner is a historian and social commentator. His book The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage was published last year by the Pilgrim Press. He would like to thank Paul Glover and Richard Silverstein for commenting on an early version of this piece.
(28 September 2007)