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The power of nightmares

John Vidal, The Guardian
Mitch Epstein has spent five years travelling around the US as an “energy tourist”, photographing every kind of power station. In Britain, this might be regarded as somewhat cranky though pretty harmless, but in the mass paranoia of the post-9/11 Bush era, Epstein’s journey became the act of an enemy of the state.

He was regularly stopped, searched, followed, run out of town, shouted at and interrogated by state police and the FBI. Simple pictures of electrical power production in the everyday landscape of middle America became an exploration of political and corporate power, a portrait of the American landscape and people defined by an energy-dependent consumer lifestyle. Epstein photographed coal mines, solar arrays, oilfields, half-empty dams, smokestacks, fuel cells, nuclear plants and pipelines, but also many of the things the most energy-profligate nation on earth does with all that power – such as build Las Vegas and golf courses in the desert, send tanks to Iraq, blow the tops off mountains to find coal, make nuclear bombs and electric chairs…
(3 Oct 2009)

That’s Not the News: Clinton’s “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”

Susan Older, The Huffington Post
I’ve been putting off starting my Real World Media blog, but I came across a news peg that left me anything but speechless.

I watched Meet the Press recently, as I do every Sunday. David Gregory led with a terrific segment from an interview he conducted Friday with former President Bill Clinton. The piece covered a broad range of topics, and Clinton was, as usual, on point. He answered Gregory’s thought-provoking questions with characteristic eloquence, commenting on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear plant outing, Obama’s performance in his nine-month “honeymoon” period, health care, the economy, the Clinton Global Initiative and even a one-liner on whether he still has political ambitions.

So when I hit on CNN that afternoon and saw the lead story: “Bill Clinton: ‘Vast right-wing conspiracy’ as ‘virulent’ as ever,” I thought to myself: OMG. I mean, really? If you haven’t seen the interview, go to MSNBC’s site and watch it for yourself.

Choosing that minute and relatively insignificant question and answer as the lead story is shoddy, lazy, and dirty journalism at best. And it was CNN. It wasn’t even Fox News….
(30 Sept 2009)

Greenwald Film on Afghanistan Destroys the Logic of the War, Leading the New York Times to Whine

Jeremy Scahill, Rebel Reports via alternet
Perhaps more than any other major corporate news outlet, The New York Times played a central role in promoting the Bush administration’s fraudulent case for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The “reporting” of Judith Miller and Michael Gordon basically served as a front-page fiction laundering factory for Dick Cheney’s fantasy of a “mushroom cloud” threat from Saddam Hussein looming on the immediate horizon, topped off with a celebratory slice of yellowcake. More recently, the paper’s propagandists, William Broad and David Sanger, have aimed their sights on reporting dubious claims about Iran’s nuclear program.

Readers of the Times, therefore, should take with a huge grain of weaponized salt the paper’s “review” of Robert Greenwald’s new documentary, Rethink Afghanistan. With no sense of the painful irony of writing such jibberish in the Times, reviewer Andy Webster declares that the film could “use balance, something in short supply here:”

Anyone who has actually seen the film knows that a string of former top intelligence officials, perhaps most significant among them the former head of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center, Robert Grenier, are heard meticulously deconstructing the dominant justifications for the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. What does Grenier know? Oh, he was just the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he was one of the Agency’s top officials planning the U.S. invasion. Grenier, along with former CIA operative Robert Baer and other former intelligence officials, rebut in detail the claim that the war in Afghanistan is about fighting al Qaeda or making America safer, which Baer says bluntly in the film is “just complete bullshit.” The film also features Graham Fuller, the former CIA station chief in Kabul…
(5 Oct 2009)

Book Review: ‘Mannahatta’ by Eric Sanderson

Rob Hopkins, Transition Culture
This is a truly remarkable book. The films of Woody Allen were sometimes referred to as being as much love poems to New York as they were love stories themselves. ‘Mannahatta’ and the project from which the book emerges, is a work which expresses such a deep love of place that I often found it quite deeply moving. It is an utterly extraordinary and beguiling work which, by looking both backwards and forwards, allows us to understand New York in a place that was previously impossible.

Its premise is simple. When Henry Hudson and a small crew of sailors rowed up the great estuary and passed a long, wild and wooded island, known to the local indigenous population as ‘Mannahatta’, what did he see? What, when he moored his boat and explored, would he have seen and heard? Who and what was there before him? Hudson wasn’t looking for such a place, he was actually trying to get to China, but on that day the process began that led to New York city being one of the great metropoli of the world. For the last 10 years, Sanderson’s ‘Mannahatta Project’ has embarked on an extraordinary piece of detective work, delving into the ecological history of the island, using state of the art computing and old maps to enable them to answer these questions.

We think today of New York as representing the archetypal diverse city, composed of different cultures, neighbourhoods and so on, but when Hudson first waded ashore, the island was home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, with 55 different ecosystem types, and thousands of species. It was inhabited also by the Lenape, the native people, who cleared areas of the forest for food production, who hunted and fished and whose name for it was ‘Island of Many Hills’. The authors take the reader through the historical references that exist, the reports from early visitors about what they saw, and how the development of the island began, initially as a Dutch settlement (“New Amsterdam”) and subsequently New York. Sanderson and his team tried to overlay the historical unfolding of the city with information from old maps, but struggled, until they found a map from the 1770s by British Army engineers, prepared to help them defend the area during the Revolution.

The map proved an invaluable discovery, an incredibly high quality map which showed, in great precision, the island’s original hills, streams, shoreline and wetlands. Sanderson found that the map overlaid perfectly with present-day maps using GIS, allowing the building up of layers of information, such as soil types, where the rivers ran and springs emerged, and the rich and diverse mosaic of ecosystems that Hudson first observed. These are illustrated throughout the book with Markley Boyer’s amazing computer generated images of Mannahatta then and New York now, powerful reminders of the power of human beings to completely alter ecosystems. They are stunning images.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book for permaculturists is the chapter called ‘Muir Webs: connecting the parts’, which opens with the following quote from John Muir’s notebooks in 1896;

“when we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe”.

Muir was a naturalist (as opposed to a naturist, which is something completely different) who was a prominent conservationist and ecological thinker, held in the same regard as the great North American ecological thinkers like Thoreau and Leopold. Sanderson and his team began to look at how the huge list of species they had identified as being part of the Mannahattan ecology connected together, starting to build webs of relationships. Inspired by Muir, they called these Muir Webs, and they developed a computer programme to allow them to see these relationships. The resultant images are striking, offering a visual representation of resilience (a highly evolved version of the ‘Web of Resilience’ exercise described in ‘The Transition Handbook’). As a study of ecological resilience I have read very few other books that even come close to this one.

It is in the final section of the book that the authors take what has already been a breathtaking piece of work and step it up a gear, looking forward 400 years, to muse upon how the city might have developed if the insights and observations from the Mannahatta Project had been incorporated into the thinking behind the development of the city, alongside sustainability. Clearly the few hundred Lenape who inhabited the island at the time of Hudson’s arrival was a somewhat easier task than the millions who live there today, but, Sanderson argues, the revival of local food production would help hugely, and he remaps the city with some areas replaced by small intensive farms. This part is, in some ways, the most absorbing part of the book, although it is frustratingly brief, offering a tantalising taste of how this work can help to map the future as much as the past.

The current issue of National Geographic magazine has a big article on Sanderson’s work, and I’ll post his TED talk when it goes up on the TED site, but if his work interests you, you will find this one of the most fascinating and absorbing books you ever get your hands on. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
(6 Oct 2009)

How to Save the News

William F. Baker, The Nation
There’s no doubt that news in America is in trouble. Of the 60,000 print journalists employed throughout the nation in 2001, at least 10,000 have lost their jobs, and last year alone newspaper circulation dropped by a precipitous 7 percent. Internet, network and cable news employ a dwindling population of reporters, not nearly enough to cover a country of 300 million people, much less keep up with events around the world. It is no longer safe to assume, as the authors of the Constitution did, that free-flowing news and information will always be available to America’s voters.

It’s time for the public discussion to focus less on what has caused this swiftly escalating crisis–the mass migration of readers to the Internet and the effects of the economic meltdown feature in most explanations–and start talking seriously about solutions. Saving journalism might seem like an entirely new problem, but it’s really just another version of one that Americans have solved many times before: how do we keep a vital public institution safe from the ups and downs of the economy? Private philanthropy and government support are the two best answers we have to this question.

One of the best-known examples of philanthropy’s response to the news crisis is ProPublica (, which was founded in 2007 by editor in chief Paul Steiger with retired banking tycoons Herbert and Marion Sandler. The group, which relies mainly on grants from the Sandlers to stay in operation, maintains a staff of thirty-five reporters and editors, who specialize in hard-hitting investigative journalism with a long memory, the kind that cash-strapped commercial media have always been wary of supporting. With stories on Hurricane Katrina and Guantánamo already published in places like the New York Times, the Washington Post and The Nation [see A.C. Thompson, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” January 5], the group exemplifies how valuable the nonprofit news sector can be…
(23 Sept 2009)