Ecology and the Economy

When I was about seven (1952), my mother, brother, and I travelled by train from Dallas, Texas to Buffalo, New York. We left the blue sky and bright sunshine of Dallas and ran through the night to St. Louis. In the morning I looked down, as we crossed the Mississippi River, and noted the character of this wide and brown river with its dense river traffic and smoke stacks lining the river banks. Then a strange smell began to permeate the atmosphere in the train. It became extremely irritating. It was, I was told, the normal atmosphere of East St. Louis, Illinois.

We were still somewhat elevated as we entered the city. The place itself lay like a gray cemetery below and to the north of us, and there was a brown pall above it. I was glad when we were leaving the city and the smell behind us, as we headed into the Illinois countryside.

I don’t remember much more of the trip, until we reached the Buffalo area. Buffalo itself was as red-brown as East St. Louis was gray. It was like a patina on the brick buildings. The smells were comparatively subdued and very varied. As we headed north through Lackawanna, there was an almost metallic smell in the air; as we reached the Buffalo harbor area, there was the smell of grain, both fresh and roasting.

Eight years later, we were living in the Buffalo area. Elmwood Avenue, Delaware Avenue, Linwood Avenue were relatively wide boulevards overhung with 70-feet-tall Elm trees. They were tunnels of cool green for at least six months of the year. Lake Erie was a recreational focus – fishing, swimming, boating. Everybody in the town was busy and working hard – except, of course, the county road crews.

In 1966 I stayed in the area for six months. I went to work for the South Buffalo Railway, which was a captive service for the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna. One of our jobs was to pull the big slag pots from the back of the converters and dump the slag. The slag pots were inverted bells, hung by trunnions, one per short railcar. We would push them up a long, sloping hill – of slag – to the top, where a very large track-type crane would smack the slag pots with a wrecking ball, until they tipped over. The red-hot slag would tumble down the side of this slag hill into Lake Erie. It was quite a nice show at night.

Five years later, I came back for awhile. The Elms were two-thirds gone due to Dutch Elm disease; the Lombardy Poplars were dying en masse; fishermen were saying that the fish were disappearing from Lake Erie; the city was turning gray; the sky was turning gray-brown; and the county-crew-syndrome was spreading to many other segments of the workforce.

About that time, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was initiated. Studies were begun, and pretty soon we were hearing that: yes, Lake Erie is “dying”; yes, the local air quality is bad for people; yes, Bethlehem Steel is polluting the lake. Not too long after that, they “discovered” a huge toxic dump under a housing development up toward Niagara Falls, called Love Canal.

By the time that I left in 1979, there was hardly an Elm or a Lombardy Poplar to be found; the Sugar Maples were starting to die; Lake Erie was called “dead”; the population was declining; the sky was brown; and the county crews – among others – were being laid off permanently. That was my main environmental-destruction history, and I’m sure that most of you have experienced your own. One of the most amazing features to me was the speed of deterioration. It seemed that, if you blinked, something else was declining, dying, or dead.

There have been improvements in the Western New York area since then. Some fish species have re-established themselves in Lake Erie; the Sugar Maples have survived; the streams in the Northeast U.S.A. are not as choked with crud and algae and dead fish; the remaining population has found more employment; and the sky is not quite as brown as it was in 1979. More broadly, many species of trees are well established as replacements for the American Elms; songbirds and waterfowl are increasing in many areas; and most Rust-belt cities’ atmospheres are not laden with levels of noxious exhaust fumes as high as those of the late 1970s.

Of course, much of the basis for these improvements is the facts that: U.S. Steel in Gary, Bethlehem Steel in Buffalo, and Republic Steel in Cleveland are gone; many industries have moved manufacturing operations to foreign plants; exploitation of natural resources has declined within the contiguous 48 states; and international competition has caused improvement in the fuel-efficiency of cars and trucks. (Are these good developments? Yes and no.)

Other important factors mostly derive from regulation by government agency. Laws and regulations promulgated by the EPA (established in 1970), state environmental/ecological agencies, and some local authorities have protected species and habitat, promoted recycling, and mandated mitigation – both by device and by remediation. (Are these all good developments? Almost without exception.)

Where are we now in this situation? Just looking at the Pacific Northwest, there are tons of PCBs in and out of drums buried in Hamilton Island just below the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. There are many tons of radioactive waste water – and who knows what else – leaking into the water table under the Hanford reservation. The old Portland harbor area is a Superfund site (essentially inactive due to lack of funds). And the list continues ….

Where could we be, given the right spending and legislative priorities? We can:

1) Finish remediation of the 375 Superfund sites that are known to “degrade or threaten either groundwater or human health”;

2) Require increases in fuel efficiency in new vehicles to the best levels currently available (e.g., VW’s TDI diesel for predominantly highway driving and Toyota Prius for city driving);

3) Nationalize (socialize) the railroads and begin to build two-way, high-speed track systems for inter-city public and freight transportation to alleviate car and truck traffic;

4) Increase the promotion of solar, wave, and wind-based power systems via increased tax credits, low-interest loans, and net-metering (at a minimum, the California model);

5) Research nuclear fuel recycling, as done in France, Japan, and elsewhere;

6) Replace all applicable lighting with fluorescent systems or, better yet, LEDs (and establish local recycling sites for these devices);

7) Promote ground-source heat pump systems for new residential or commercial construction.

This is a short list. It is merely one possible (beginning) set of projects. We have much more that we can and must do. Exciting, isn’t it – and eminently doable.

One overlying question requires discussion: Is it necessary to virtually eliminate manufacturing and resource extraction to regain ecological balance? My answer is “definitely not”. Much of the current adversarial relations between environmentalists (in the organized, committed sense of the word) and industry (read primarily “corporations”) is due to the dynamics of negotiation-of-position in a market context. Simply put, the average environmentalists’ position (not the preservationists’ wishlist) is the reasonable position. Having said that, there are sustainable levels and methods of logging, mining, grazing, road-building, irrigation, dam-building, wind-farm development, etc. to be encouraged and protected. Ecological concern must include the ability of people to build a reasonably secure and comfortable life – albeit in the context of decreasing the stress on the rest of the ecosystem. We human beings are part of the environment, too.



John Birch Society anyone? Connections between JBS and the Koch brothers?

Thanks to Carol Davidek-Waller for this information.

Here is a list of Koch Industries products you might like to avoid.
Koch Industries Gasoline:
Union 76

Koch Industries¡©/Georgia-P¡©acific Products:
Angel Soft toilet paper
Brawny paper towels
Dixie plates, bowls, napkins and cups
Mardi Gras napkins and towels
Quilted Northern toilet paper
Soft ‘n Gentle toilet paper
Sparkle napkins
Vanity fair napkins
Zee napkins



Watch the Republicans Govern in Wisconsin

The long term political story in Wisconsin is not that of a right-wing state. Wisconsin is not Arizona or Utah or Idaho. The State has a large scandinavian immigrant tradition that has liberal traditions, a tradition that understands the benefits of a state that values domestic services over the extension of military force beyond its borders. The large metropolitan areas have been dependably democratic. The State has produced and elected both Joe McCarthyand Russ Feingold, so the story is mixed. The 2010 State elections produced a Republican governor and republican majorities in both legislative bodies and the result is what we are seeing.

Wisconsin feels like ground zero in the class wars, the assault on democracy that was the predictable result of the Citizens United decision by a partisan, activist Supreme Court. This Supreme Court is the triumph, the legacy of a generation of largely republican presidents. Progressives face a perfect storm today. We have a federal judiciary that is a minefield of partisan operatives who are appointed for life. We face a patchwork of black-box vote counting systems around the country that are demonstrably insecure and subject to hacking. We operate in the shadow of a corporate media and mainstream news system that is at best, largely useless as a check on political power, and at worst, is a mouthpiece and propaganda system for monied interests.

Wisconsin, David Koch is on the line. Do you really want to take that call?



Come Together, Right Now

Tomorrow is a big day. It’s going to be cold in the Northwest, but there are a lot of calls for turnout and solidarity with the unions of Wisconsin and elsewhere that are under attack. If you have feet, down, below your knees, you should plant them in solidarity tomorrow.

Marylea and I are over to Shelton mid morning to shoot some video footage for a biomass documentary that we are working on. The solidarity event in Olympia is noon at the Tivoli Fountain. Bundle up.

Come together, right now. See you in the streets.



I-1053 is apparently unconstitutional

Constitutions exist to protect the People from unjust laws and initiatives.

The Washington State Constitution specifies that a bill becomes law if a majority of legislators support it. Hence I-1053 (the voter initiative requiring 2/3 majorities of legislators to approve tax increases) would appear to be unconstitutional, as would many or all of Tim Eyman’s similar initiatives.

According to SECTION 22 PASSAGE OF BILLS of the Washington State Constitution, “No bill shall become a law unless on its final passage the vote be taken by yeas and nays, the names of the members voting for and against the same be entered on the journal of each house, and a majority of the members elected to each house be recorded thereon as voting in its favor.” (emphasis added)

In other words, the minority don’t get to decide the law in Washington State.

But I-1053 requires that “legislative actions raising taxes must be approved by two-thirds legislative majorities or receive voter approval.”

What’s particular obnoxious about I-1053 is that it seems to make it difficult or impossible to eliminate the many tax giveaways that burden Washington’s tax code. Many of these tax exemptions are special-case sweet deals for politically connected fat cats.

Many of the largest donors to the pro-I-1053 campaign were out-of-state corporations. According to this Ballotpedia article, BP Corporation donated $50,000 towards the effort. Tesoro Companies (a Texas-based refiner and marketer of petroleum products) donated $40,000. JPMorgan Chase (TX) donated $30,000. Green Diamond Resource donated $20,000.

No doubt they got a hefty return on their investment, since I-1053 would make it almost impossible to increase the state’s Hazardous Substances Tax — which is meant to help protect our waterways from dangerous runoff from petroleum products.

So while these corporations benefit, vulnerable people will lose out. The Basic Health program for poor people faces the chopping block. Hospice care for the elderly, funding for police, and education for our children will suffer.

The American education system is falling further behind other nations. But the high tech companies on which much of Washington’s prosperity depends don’t need to worry too much. Many of their employees are foreigners, with H-1B visas. I’ve worked at, and applied to, some of the largest high tech companies. In my estimation, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the engineers are foreigners, mostly Indians and Chinese. In some work groups, there are no Americans. Of course, many of these employees earn in the high six figures and so benefit from low taxation. (On the other hand, only the top 1% or 2% of Washingtonians benefit from the defeat of I-1098.)

The state constitution says: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” Hence Our Legislature has a Constitutional Duty to Reform our Tax Code.

It made some sense for voters to oppose tax increases. But it made no sense at all for them to favor extension of unfair tax exemptions that benefit mostly the wealthy and the powerful. And it made little sense for them to oppose I-1098, which would have rebalanced the tax system so that the super-rich pay their fair share.

Washington State has one of the most regressive tax systems in the nation, yet the voters continue to vote against their own interest. It’s no surprise, given the dominance of media organizations such as Fox News, conservative talk shows on AM radio, and The Seattle Times, which strongly opposed I-1098 and supported I-1053.

This Sightline Daily article BP & Eyman’s I-1053: Unconstitutional has an excellent analysis of I-1053.

Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court is wary about ruling on such measures, because they concern the operating procedures of the legislature. The Supreme Court tries to keeps its nose out of the legislative branch’s affairs, as state constitutional law scholar Hugh Spitzer explained to Crosscut. The justices have twice dismissed on technical grounds challenges to minority rule initiatives. Most recently, they regarded a case brought by the Senate Majority Leader as a procedural dispute with the state Lieutenant Governor (the senate’s presiding officer, who chose to enforce I-960). Whether the Lieutenant Governor will continue to disregard the constitution, and whether the Supreme Court will allow him to do so, is anyone’s guess.

On the merits, the central legal issue is straightforward: Even in conservative Alaska, the state supreme court rejected a minority-rule ballot measure as unconstitutional, because it tried to change the constitution without going through the required steps.

In fact, Washington is the only state in the nation where minority rule has been imposed through a regular law. (In 16 states, citizens have voted to amend their constitutions to enact minority rule on votes that increase (certain) taxes. These constitutional amendments were undemocratic and ill-conceived, but at least they were legally enacted.)

Repeat a lie often enough and people start to believe it.

That’s the conservative approach to government. They keep repeating that Social Security contributes to the deficit, that taxes are too high (when, in fact, they’re lower than they’ve been in decades), that taxes and regulations are the problem, and that private companies do everything better. But this isn’t at all the case. Without government bailouts, we’d be in a serious depression. Government-run health care in many countries is both higher quality and much cheaper than America’s insurance-based health industry. Without government research we’d have many fewer technologies. Reckless deregulation was a major cause of the subprime crash. Without government regulations, many of us would be dead or ill. Without the police and FBI, we’d be in sorrier shape. Without government, we’d in fact be hunter-gatherers. Government is like a computer’s operating system: a response to libertarians and Bring on the Reagan Counter-revolution explain these points in more detail.

The article Will the Courts Overturn I-1053 explains how to overturn I-1053:

What could force the court to issue a judgment on I-1053′s constitutionality? First, the legislature would have to pass a tax increase or something that had the same effect by less than two-thirds. That is, the legislature would have to ignore I-1053′s minority-rule provisions.

Then, some outside party would have to bring suit against the tax as void because its passage violated I-1053. At that point, the courts would have little choice but to adjudicate the constitutionality of 1053.

Unfortunately, no such case will emerge unless leadership of both houses in Olympia ignore 1053. But Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, who has presided in the state senate since 1996, has consistently enforced minority rule, under each variation that voters have approved.

Mr. Spitzer says that if and when the members of the court finally have the question squarely before them, they will almost certainly rule I-1053 unconstitutional.

I call on our legislators (Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, in particular) to stand up for the State Constitution and vote to eliminate unfair and unsustainable tax exemptions.

No doubt the legislators fear voter backlash and wish to respect the will of the people. But I-1053 is clearly unconstitutional, and the elimination of unfair tax giveaways would, I believe, be consistent with the will of the vast majority of Washington voters.



Welcome, Washington Liberals!

To turn back the tide of conservative marketing, the Left needs to build an effective, community-edited media presence. The aim of the website and blog

Washington Liberals (

is to be an open, community-edited messaging center for WA State progressives and liberals to exchange information and plans and gripes and hopes and schemes. It has articles, links, comments, videos, RSS feeds and a calendar.

There are multiple editors already, and our aim is to maintain a light touch, editing away only spam, hate speech, and right wing b.s. Expect some excitement and fights!

If you’re interested in being an editor, please let me know.

Let’s do our part to take back America from the forces on the right who want to turn America into a banana republic.