A Critique of Capitalism

SUBHEAD: Learning from a small, locally owned bank, serving a main street of small shop owners who served the surrounding farm country.

By Robert Jensen on 5 October 2015 for Resilience -

Image above: State Bank of Lake as seen in august 2013 from GoogleEarth Street View.

[This is an excerpt from the new book Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully, published by Counterpoint/Soft Skull, which tells the story of Robert Jensen’s intellectual and political collaboration with teacher/activist Jim Koplin.]

Jim Koplin, who developed the most comprehensive and consistent radical left/feminist/anti-racist/ecological politics of anyone I have ever known, talked with great affection about his time as a bank teller.

Jim was good with numbers, liked working with ordered systems in which accounts could be summed and settled at the end of the day, and was satisfied only when a job was done right—which made him perfect for a summer job at the State Bank of Lake Park.

In that small, locally owned bank, serving a main street of small shop owners who served the surrounding farm country in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Jim saw the importance of neighborliness and trust in a local economy.

That didn’t mean everyone in town loved each other or that people always treated each other kindly, but the economy of Lake Park generally worked. The banker knew the folks to whom he was lending money, the store owners knew the nearby farmers, and the richest person in town didn’t seem all that different from the poorest, though everyone was aware of who was rich and who wasn’t.

Jim spoke fondly of that job, both of the work he did and the people he worked with. And yet throughout his politically conscious life, Jim did not hesitate to describe capitalism as a depraved and destructive economic system that is incompatible with social justice and ecological sustainability. Jim believed that we have to acknowledge not only the successes but the profound failures of capitalism and leave it behind.

Jim saw no contradiction between his early experience in the Lake Park bank and the conclusion he had reached about the larger economy. Jim understood that complex systems produce complex experiences, and we make sense of a system by looking at patterns over time rather than romanticizing the positive and rationalizing away the negative.

hat strategy of avoiding difficult truths about capitalism has always been popular, especially after the financial collapse of 2008, as people have scrambled to avoid facing the fact that our economic system is not viable. The problem is “crony capitalism,” say the libertarians, whose worship of “free markets” is akin to pre-modern religious faith.

The problem is the expansion of “corporate personhood,” say the liberals, who yearn for a return of the New Deal’s belief in a kinder-and-gentler capitalism. The problem is “too big to fail,” say the technocrats, who always believe there is a policy fix just around the corner.

Crony capitalism, corporate personhood, and too-big-to-fail corporations are, of course, problems in today’s economy. But our focus should be on the deeper, and more disturbing, problems inherent in capitalism, a system that is inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable.

Jim understood that what he experienced in the rural economy of his childhood was real, and that at the same time capitalism is a death trap—the system’s corrosive profit-maximizing and obsession with growth were bound to destroy that rural economy and, quite possibly, any hope for a decent future.

How could Jim square that positive experience in small-town America with that anti-capitalist analysis?

First, the community of Lake Park didn’t work because of capitalism, but in spite of capitalism. The sense of mutual obligation that cemented those bonds didn’t come from capitalism, which is based on exactly the opposite idea, that people have no necessary obligation to each other beyond maximizing their self-interest.

The connections people felt to each other came from other ways of understanding what it means to be human, rooted primarily in the social and religious institutions of the community.

Those connections come from philosophies and theologies that understand human life as achieving its fullest meaning in the common body, and in rural communities that also typically meant understanding the common body as one part of a larger living world, with its own rhythms and cycles.

In other words, capitalism is able to function not because of its value system but because it cannibalizes those other value systems.

Second, with every passing generation those other value systems atrophy or are distorted by capitalism’s elevation of narcissism from a character flaw to a virtue. The neighborliness that routinely leads people to share is replaced with purchasing what one needs from professional service providers.

Paradoxically, as people come to think of themselves as being more independent and not reliant on others, they really are becoming more dependent—on the money necessary to buy help when the practice of sharing withers. There are exceptions, but in my experience I’ve found that the more wealth people accrue, the more narcissistic they become.

In the United States, capitalism’s most dramatic distortion of another system has come in the marginalizing of the central Christian ethic of communal life and solidarity. Because that ethic is so clearly incompatible with the narcissism of capitalism, mainstream theology has either ignored the problem or twisted scripture and tradition into a theological defense of self-aggrandizement in the quest for wealth.

Neither capitalism nor socialism existed when the New Testament was written, of course, and it’s facile to suggest that a complex text is an endorsement of any modern system.

But these scriptures consistently assert the idea that people get closest to the God (however one understands that term) not when they pursue self-interest but by becoming part of a community of equals in which wealth is shared according to need.

To avoid accountability for this cultural decay, older generations tend to blame young people for failing to live up to the elders’ standards, when in facts kids are simply paying attention to the reward system that grownups have created. There is, of course, great variation in how individuals react to those rewards, but the pattern is clear:

 Each generation, we lose more of the values that have kept capitalism from completely destroying decent human communities. Gangsterism—the goal of getting ahead no matter what the cost to others—slowly becomes the norm, which has so far happened most notably at the very bottom and very top of the system.

Street gangs and investment bankers both routinely ignore the consequences of their actions on others, because in both those worlds the pursuit of wealth is the only value.

Third, for the community of Lake Park to work, a lot of other communities had to be destroyed and many more continue to be impoverished. No community exists in a vacuum, in history or in the contemporary world.

The state of Minnesota was made possible by the attack on, and forcible displacement of, Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples to make way for the original white settlers, which is part of the capitalist story of Lake Park, as is the slave system that helped propel the United States into the industrial world.

By the time Jim took that job at the bank, the United States was established as the pre-eminent empire, wielding unprecedented economic power that helped further enrich an already rich country.

Lake Park benefitted, at least in the short term, from those acts of violence and domination, and the fact that those acts are either in the past or out of sight in other parts of the world does not reduce their relevance to our affluence. In evaluating the system, we are obligated to use full-cost accounting.

Fourth, a local economy based on common decency wasn’t going to survive indefinitely in Lake Park, given the logic of capitalism. By the 1970s, farmers started to “get big or get out,” the infamous mantra of Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon.

The nice people of Lake Park were no match for the growth imperative and profit obsession of modern capitalism as it played out on a global scale. Capitalism’s ideologues like to talk about the “creative destruction” in the system, how innovation often wipes out existing businesses but creates something new, which sounds fine as an abstract concept but which in practice destroys real people, communities, and ecosystems.

If we pay attention to capitalism—not just its critics but its more fervent defenders—none of this should be surprising.

As Jim would say so often when analyzing systems, “it’s in the nature of things,” in this case a capitalist economic system that explicitly values profit over people and other living things.

Again, none of this requires us to pretend Lake Park was once paradise on earth or to yearn for some mythical golden age.

Small rural communities based on traditional values have long struggled with plenty of social problems—most notably racism, narrow-minded religiosity, sexism, xenophobia—problems we also see in allegedly more sophisticated cities. Jim saw no reason to romanticize the world in which he was raised and no reason to trash it. Nostalgia was harmless, as long as it didn’t displace honest analysis.

That honest economic analysis leads, inevitably, to a harsh critique of capitalism.


An Unprecedented Future

SUBHEAD: I can see The Age of Consequences from my home. An Unprecedented Future

By Courtney White on 2 October 2015 for the Cqrbon Pilgrim -

Image above: A burnt juniper tree near Santa Fe, New Mexico. From original article.

We live on a former ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico, that is now a subdivision with more than two thousand houses.

Due to its proximity to a center of colonial Spanish, Mexican, and American administrations, as well as the Santa Fe Trail, the land where live has hosted a variety of livestock for nearly 400 years. In the 1950s, the owner of the 13,000-acre ranch invested in new wells, dirt tanks, roads and a ranch house complex, complete with a swimming pool, in an effort to create a prosperous cattle operation on the property.

This effort continued for two decades, right up to the day the ranch was sold to a real estate company, who had a different definition of prosperity in mind.

Of all the artifacts left over from the ranch’s heyday, the one that I’ve watched closely over the years are the old dirt roads.

When we moved to the subdivision in 2003, the former ranch roads were still in decent shape, especially in the greenbelts where houses were excluded. Mostly two-tracks, the roads were easy to follow.

As my wife and I walked our dogs and chatted side-by-side, we could pick out features of the ranch as we strolled, including dirt tanks for cattle and evidence of tree-cutting from days long gone.

There was a timelessness at play in these parts of the old ranch, a feeling that despite the crop of houses, the land in between hadn’t changed much over the decades – a feeling that history would endure somehow.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

Today, the ranch roads are essentially gone, washed away or eroded into ditches by a series of catastrophic rainstorms over the last five years. In the summer of 2011, five inches of rain fell in a single afternoon – in a land that is lucky to get ten inches all year.

Chased from an outdoor basketball game that afternoon, I watched the deluge from the shelter of the community center. As soon as it ended, I hurried to a nearby greenbelt and our favorite ranch road, fearful that it had been transformed.

It had. As if by magic, two-foot headcuts (dry waterfalls) had appeared in the old road where none had existed before – and by “before” I mean all of the 20th century and probably much longer. There had been big storms in the past, of course, but to our trained eyes destruction on this scale was not visible – until now.

Subsequent deluges, including a monster two summers ago, have unraveled what was left of the old road altogether. We still go for pleasant walks on it with our dogs, but now we walk in single file on a trail that is a challenge to navigate in places. I doubt many people today would recognize it as a former road.

What once endured disappeared in only a handful of years.

It’s the Age of Consequences in our backyards.

I’m certain there are many similar stories from many other backyards around the nation and the world.

Call it what you will – weather weirdness, climate disruption, global warming – what’s happening is something new under the sun. As our ranch road continues to teach us, what we considered ‘normal’ will continue to erode, one storm at a time, until we can’t recognize it any longer.

Change happens, of course, but there’s something about this change that looks and feels very different. There’s a way to describe it – which I’ll explain by way of another backyard story.

Some years ago, Craig Allen, an old friend and colleague, stopped by the office to catch up. He’s a forest ecologist stationed at Bandelier National Monument, in northern New Mexico, and his career is representative of the transition conservation science has undergone, as well as its likely future trajectory.

When I first met Craig, more than twenty years ago, his focus was on ecological change at landscape scales in the Jemez Mountains, in which Bandelier is nestled.

His approach was a systems one; he studied the interlocking variables of ecological function, historical use, and plant and animal community dynamics in order to understand more clearly the condition of the forest. And what he discovered was worrisome.

Specifically, he worried about forest “thickening” due to decades of fire suppression, overgrazing, and other human activities.

In 1998, Craig summarized his concern in an article for the Quivira Coalition titled “Where Have All the Grasslands Gone?” His research revealed that open, grassy areas in the Jemez Mountains were shrinking, due to tree encroachment, at the alarming rate of 1 percent per year. What was missing was fire.

“Most forests, woodlands, and grasslands in northern New Mexico evolved with frequent, low-intensity fires,” he wrote. “The removal of the natural process of fire by human suppression has disrupted these ecosystems in many ways [these areas] need to be restored to more open conditions to protect both ecological values and human communities.”

In the next phase of his career, Craig ‘walked the talk’ of forest restoration by implementing innovative experiments at Bandelier, becoming an enthusiastic advocate of adaptive management in the process.

As a result of this fieldwork, Craig joined a chorus of forest ecologists advocating proactive policies and practices aimed at returning ecosystems to health in the Southwest, principally by restoring natural fire cycles.

Today, Craig is focused on the threat posed to forests by global warming. He thinks the dangers have the potential to be catastrophic not only for trees but also for the animal communities that depend on them, including us.

His goal is resilience – figuring out ways to keep a forest healthy in the face of a changing climate. His research, however, says things don’t look rosy under Business-as-Usual scenarios. “The possibility exists,” he told me that day in my office, “that a 5 degree Celsius warming of the planet could wipe out entire plant communities, including the forests.”

But it was something that Craig said at the end of our meeting that brought home the Age of Consequences for me.

He had been asked to speak to a gathering of federal land managers about the climate crisis. They were looking for options and advice on how to meet that challenge. “What they told me,” Craig said, “was that nothing in their education or experience had prepared them for what was coming down the road in terms of climate.

Their training was for a stable climate, they said, not one that was changing. They literally had no idea what to do. They were facing an unprecedented future for which they were not prepared.”

The words stuck in my mind: an unprecedented future.

For most of his career, Craig focused on a traditional goal of the conservation movement: fighting scarcity.

Unhealthy forests, disappearing meadows, eroding topsoils, too few “cool” natural fires, too many “hot” catastrophic fires, and not enough grass are all indicators of scarcity at work – the scarcity of properly functioning ecosystems. His restoration work aimed at reversing such declines, at replacing scarcity with health and abundance.

Today, however, Craig is working beyond scarcity. He is confronting the specter of loss. Craig and his colleagues predict that the pine forests of New Mexico, as a result of repeated fires, will likely transition to shrublands over the next century.

Hotter and drier conditions under climate change are already feeding record fire seasons across the West and Alaska.

When trees burn up and seedlings can’t get established as a consequence of repeated scorching, forests die. In a recent interview for the New York Times, Craig said “The future in a lot of places is looking shrubbier.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your perspective, I suppose.

f you love forests and the plants and animals they shelter, you probably consider this news to be sad. If you love shrublands, this might be good news. Either way, the transition is underway. In the Age of Consequences, the unprecedented future has arrived.

Image above: Here’s a shrubland biome from a popular video game, Minecraft. (I couldn’t resist). From original article.

Walking the ranch roads where we live over the last few years and thinking about forests and the bigger picture, I’ve come up with five principles (small p) for living in the Age of Consequences that I’d like to share. They’re solely my opinions – use them or not as you like:
  1. Stop living in denial. The previous era is over and gone. We live now in a period of transition between what was and what will be. Exactly what our unprecedented future has in store for us isn’t clear yet, but what is clear is that our actions today will greatly influence tomorrow. We can’t implement those actions, however, if we continue to live in the past – which we’re still doing, big time. Simply acknowledging that we live in new era (whatever you want to call it) is a critical first step to slipping the bonds of denial.

  2. Solutions exist. Because we live in an era of big problems, we tend to spend our time thinking of big solutions. Thinking big, however, can have a paralyzing effect on taking action. Let’s concentrate on the wide variety of low-cost, practical solutions available right now, not in some distant future. There are many innovative practices, for example, that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production, and increase water quality and quantity. Pick one that motivates you and support it in any way that you can.

  3. Explore and share. Despite the daily cascade of dire predictions, sobering studies, and gloomy headlines, it’s still a beautiful, diverse, amazing world. Go see as much as of it as you can, starting in your own backyard. Share what you find with others. In particular, seek out Age of Consequences stories and explain them to the world. Share research, create art, give a lecture, write a book, post a photo, call a friend – whatever you like to do, big or small, to communicate what it means to be alive today.

  4. Focus on the little normals. These are things that have persisted over the millennia: such as the way water moves across the land, or the love a parent feels for a child. We need food to live. We like to work and enjoy relaxing, as we always have. We need a sense of community, we like to belong. We like to live in proximity to other people. We feel a deep affection for animals. We are moved by spiritual concerns. All of these things persist in the Age of Consequences and can form the foundation for our actions.

  5. Don’t despair. I did. I got over it by concentrating on the four principles described above. Despair is an eddy in the river of life – don’t let it catch you. Force yourself back into the flow of the water, move on, go places, hug people, sing a song.
More on Craig Allen:
You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See: http://www.chelseagreen.com/two-percent-solutions-for-the-planet]
My web site: http://www.awestthatworks.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/J-Courtney-White/376099995933244


Maui's future is being created now

SUBHEAD: The many decisions we face mean that Maui’s future will probably be significantly different from today.

By Dick Mayer on 2 October 2015 for the Maui News -

Image above: Dow AgroScience GMO worker on Maui. The future of agriculture? From (http://www.civilbeat.com/2014/11/monsanto-agrigenetics-sue-to-invalidate-maui-county-gmo-farming-ban/).

Maui is at an important crossroad. Major decisions are being made that will affect every resident and shape our beloved island’s communities and environment. These decisions and their timely implementation will allow us to control anticipated events and may prepare us to react effectively to events beyond our control.

Changes and Challenges:
A) Our agricultural future may face the biggest changes. Numerous forces raise a cloud over HC&S’s sugar operations, including increased concern over the health effects of cane smoke; legal challenges to restore water flow to East Maui streams; reduced electricity sales to Maui Electric; and decreased revenues due to low world sugar prices. Economics may be the decider, and that includes A&B’s desire to “bank” its valuable lands and retain water rights.

In addition, the courts will decide whether Monsanto can continue to grow and experiment with GMO crops on Maui due to health concerns that led to an initiative against GMO agricultural practices by Maui County residents.

Concurrently, there is a movement to make Maui agriculturally self-sufficient and organically healthier. Will Maui’s corporate agriculture be replaced by a more diversified, sustainable agriculture?

B) Our Maui County government has operated with a “Strong-Mayor” format for many decades and may be in serious need of a different structure. Most local governments of Maui’s size utilize a “Council + County Manager” structure where a professional County Manager and department heads are selected based on experience and qualifications, rather than on political connections, “name recognition,” or as a reward for loyal followers. In 2016 residents may vote for a Charter change.

C) Due to the uncontrolled growth of luxury homes that drive up home costs and rental fees, local families are becoming frustrated that their children are being forced to leave Maui. Our County government will need to regulate McMansions and provide for additional work-force housing in livable neighborhoods with proper infrastructure.

D) Our hospital’s management will change from public (State control) to a private operation. To balance its budget will Kaiser cut back on services? Dismiss employees? Raise rates?

E) Our Time-Warner cable system, plus much of our internet and telephone service may be taken over by Charter Communications which doesn’t have the highest reputation. Will the Hawaii DCCA actively protect consumers with tough, pro-active negotiation of contracts and subsequent strict enforcement of conditions? How will Maui’s local Akaku station fare?

F) Maui’s electricity future will change if Hawaii’s Public Utility Commission allows Florida-based NextEra to take over the Hawaiian Electric Company monopoly, including its MECO subsidiary. However, Maui County is now investigating alternative energy management opportunities: a Maui-based public utility, or a consumer-owned cooperative like Kauai’s.

G) Electricity production and distribution may adjust to reflect a need to reduce electricity costs, control climate change, and become less dependent on imported fuels. Solar, wind, and geothermal could play a larger role, especially if we decide to be less reliant on a large centralized power plant and more comfortable with distributed production and local battery capability.

H) Will high tourism employment continue if the County persists in allowing hotels to transform into timeshares with a reduced need for hotel and restaurant employees? With many unemployed workers, wages may be reduced for the remaining workers resulting in housing and rental costs becoming even less affordable.

I) Beyond our local control, but nevertheless significant, are several natural environment trends: modified weather patterns that may mean reduced and more variable rainfall, making agriculture less secure; decreased comforting trade winds; and rising sea levels, forcing Maui to restrict public and private shoreline construction.

J) The County administration’s proposal to push for direct international flights from some Asian cities could open Maui to serious pests for which we are unprepared. The administration wants to allow tourists to have passports checked at the departure airport, but is making no provision for needed inspections of potential invasive species, especially from tropical cities.

The many decisions we face mean that Maui’s future will probably be significantly different from today. Our leaders will need to make politically difficult choices that can reduce negative consequences and enhance benefits. Will they (and we) be up to it? The answers will determine Maui’s future.



SUBHEAD: We might we ask ourselves if there anything to the US’s complaint that Russia is not bombing the right ISIS?

By James Kunstler on 5 October 2015 for  Kunstler.com -

Image above: Cartoon by Gary Varvel of Putin and Obama about Syria int the Indianapolis Star. From (http://www.indystar.com/story/opinion/columnists/varvel/2015/10/05/cartoonist-gary-varvel-putin-boots-obamas-syria-strategy/73366578/).

Senior administration officials say the new offensive holds promise and may change the dynamics on the ground.

Whew…. That’s reassuring. Finally, a Middle East policy you can believe in.

It’s apparently based on a joint Kurdish-Arab army that our side (the USA) is pretending to assemble around the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, near the Turkish border. We’re informed also that American military officials have screened the leaders of the Arab groups to ensure that they meet standards set by Congress when it approved $500 million last year for the Defense Department to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels. Thank God we have a functioning HR department over there.

Is it safe to say that the table is now set for World War Three? King Salman of Saudi Arabia is itching to mix it up. Of course, the moment he sends official KSA ground troops in there, he will be eligible to have his oil terminal at Ras Tanura in the Persian Gulf blown up. Imagine what that would do to the S & P index.

The Turks, too, are none too happy with their currency imploding and their economy falling apart, and perhaps view a widened war as politically refreshing.

And let’s not forget Iran — having concluded the long, torturous negotiations to make America feel better about their nuke program, Iran is eager to put an end to this barbaric (Sunni-flavored) ISIS nonsense.

Oh, did I leave out Israel. Probably a good idea since so many people just want to hate on it if the subject even comes up. But suffice it to say they are in the mix, too, with the ability to turn their adversaries into ashtrays, should it come to that.

As the old song goes: someone left the cake out in the rain.

You had to at least admire the forthrightness of Mr. Putin. His economy of motion is breathtaking. He goes to the UN and says: “The situation in Syria is intolerable and we’re going to do something about it,” and a few days later they did. Russia commenced bombing groups that the US had labeled “the moderate opposition” to Bashar al-Assad.

The quandary for the US, of course, as Mr. Putin pointed out at the UN, is that we keep on arming and training “moderate oppositions” to this regime and that regime and abracadabra (to use an old Middle Eastern term-of-art) they break bad on us. 

They use the Humvee’s we give them to control the landscape and they blow stuff up with the ordnance we give them, and cut off the heads of Americans on video in the rudest and cruelest manner imaginable.

So, might we ask ourselves: is there anything to the US’s complaint that Russia is not bombing the right ISIS?

I suspect world opinion is not buying our claim that Bashar al-Assad has to go because he bombed his own citizens and used gas on them. I mean, we say that a lot, but is it actually true? US officials say a lot of things a lot that happen not to be true (e.g. the Federal Reserve’s claim that the US economy is humming.) In fact, we’re in this predicament precisely because we have squandered our credibility.

We go into one country after another and destroy the institutions that held these places together, and leave a train of death and chaos behind. Iraq, Libya, Somalia, now Syria.

Maybe we just ought to step aside for a while and see what happens. The Russians could shoot themselves in the foot over there, of course. They did it before in Afghanistan. But that was back in Soviet times, with its clunky leadership. Mr. Putin proved pretty nimble in Georgia.

Whatever else you can say about that little war, the region has been stable for years now. They’re not cutting off people’s heads on TV there. Similarly, you don’t hear much about Chechnyans perpetrating terrorist acts anymore.

Ukraine, for all its faults and troubles, was a stable country until the US decided to pull off regime change there. The deposed president Yanukovych was pressed into choosing between NATO and the Russian-backed Eurasian Custom’s Union and he chose wrong. The US pulled a few levers and a
bracadabra: civil war.

So, Assad still heads a government in Syria. We don’t like him because he is cozy with Iran, and their proxy war machine, Hezbollah. But will eliminating him make the situation any better?

Saudi Arabia may enter war

By Tyler Durden on 5 Octrober 2015 for Zero Hedge - 

While the US has certainly made some epic strategic blunders in Syria that raise serious questions about just how “intelligent” US intelligence actually is, there’s little doubt that if one were to look behind all of the media parroting, the Pentagon and Langley understand all too well what’s going on in the Middle East.

That is, the significance of the Russia-Iran “nexus” in Syria isn’t lost on anyone in the US military and you can bet there have been quite a few high level discussions over the past 72 hours about the best way to counter Moscow and Tehran’s powerplay before it spills over into Iraq and ends up degrading Washington’s influence in Baghdad.

As we put it on Friday, “if Russia ends up bolstering Iran's position in Syria (by expanding Hezbollah's influence and capabilities) and if the Russian air force effectively takes control of Iraq thus allowing Iran to exert a greater influence over the government in Baghdad, the fragile balance of power that has existed in the region will be turned on its head and in the event this plays out, one should not expect Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem, and London to simply go gentle into that good night.”

Sure enough, some experts now predict Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will move to counter Russia militarily if Moscow continues to rack up gains for Assad. Here’s The Guardian with more:
Regional powers have quietly, but effectively, channelled funds, weapons and other support to rebel groups making the biggest inroads against the forces from Damascus. In doing so, they are investing heavily in a conflict which they see as part of a wider regional struggle for influence with bitter rival Iran.

In a week when Russia made dozens of bombing raids, those countries have made it clear that they remain at least as committed to removing Assad as Moscow is to preserving him.

“There is no future for Assad in Syria,” Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir warned, a few hours before the first Russian bombing sorties began. If that was not blunt enough, he spelled out that if the president did not step down as part of a political transition, his country would embrace a military option, “which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power”. With at least 39 civilians reported dead in the first bombing raids, the prospect of an escalation between backers of Assad and his opponents is likely to spell more misery for ordinary Syrians.

“The Russian intervention is a massive setback for those states backing the opposition, particularly within the region – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – and is likely to elicit a strong response in terms of a counter-escalation,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

As the Syrian civil war has unfolded, Saudi Arabia has been clear about its position, say analysts. “Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, the view in Riyadh has been that Bashar al-Assad must go. There is no indication what-soever that Riyadh will change this position,” said Mohammed Alyahya, associate fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

“What is clear to Riyadh and its regional allies is that the recent Russian and Iranian escalation will only create a more unstable region and spill more blood,” he said.

Riyadh has focused support on rebels in the south, say analysts, while allies Turkey and Qatar have reportedly backed northern rebels, including conservative Islamist militias such as Ahrar al Sham.

That group, in alliance with the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, recently reached a local ceasefire deal with Assad in the north. Its success in taking on government forces is thought to have been one trigger for the Russian bombing campaign and put them among the jets’ first targets.

“Most probably, the coming efforts will focus on boosting the effectiveness of major coalitions, co-ordination and co-operation between the most influential and effective groups in Syria,” said regional analyst Ali Bakeer.
Of course that isn’t going to work.

Say what you will about how successful guerilla/urban warfare can be when it comes to bogging down a conventional army (examples of this include Vietnam, the Soviet-Afghan war, and Somalia during the Black Hawk down debacle), but the disorganization of the Syrian resistance combined with the fact that Iran has its own well-armed militias on the ground that, in combination with Hezbollah, are providing the ground support for Russian airstrikes, means the situation is all but hopeless for the various Riyadh- and Doha-backed groups operating in Syria.

The only way to turn the tide here would be to intervene directly.

But just as Iran is unwilling to risk direct intervention on behalf of the Houthis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will likely be unwilling to risk direct intervention on behalf of their proxy armies in Syria. The problem for Riyadh and Doha: Syria is a lot more strategically important than Yemen. Here’s The Guardian again:
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already embroiled in an expensive and bloody war in Yemen that may limit both their military and financial resources. They have also so far deferred to western bans on transferring hi-tech weapons – including missiles that could take down aircraft – over fears that they might change hands in the chaos of the war and be used against their makers.

“The uncertain question today is the degree of power combined with efficiency that regional powers will be willing to bring to the table,” said Barnes-Dacey. “Do the Saudis now try to take matters decisively into their hands, including by providing rebels with sophisticated weaponry long denied them?

“The new [Saudi] king [Salman] has shown a willingness to be much more assertive and take measures into the kingdom’s own hands. If the Saudis see the situation slipping out of their hands, and there is a real sense that the Iranians are consolidating their position in Syria, you could see much stronger response.”
And speaking of a “strong response,” Russia continued to hit anti-regime targets for a fourth consecutive day on Sunday, making good on the Defense Ministry’s promise to step up strikes. Here’s Reuters:
Air strikes by suspected Russian jets hit targets around the town of Talbiseh in western Syria on Sunday, residents and a group which monitors the civil war in Syria said, a day after Russia promised to step up its air campaign.

Ambulances rushed wounded people to hospital in Talbiseh, north of the city of Homs, and one resident said at least five bodies had been recovered from the western part of the town.

"So far there are seven or six raids in the town," said Abdul Ghafar al Dweik, a former government employee and volunteer rescue worker.

He said he believed the raid was carried out by Russian jets. "They come suddenly... With the Syrian planes, we would get a warning but now all of a sudden we see it over our heads," he said.
We have said time and again that there’s no question Russian airstrikes will contribute to human suffering in Syria. After all, when you drop bombs on populated areas you’re bound to kill civilians (including women and children) no matter what Moscow says. However, the highlighted passages above shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you want your airstrikes to be effective, you’re not going to warn anyone about them beforehand unless of course you're dropping a nuke in which case you can tell civilians to leave ahead of time because you're reasonably sure the destruction will be so vast as to make the element of surprise a non-factor.

As for the effectiveness of the strikes, The Kremlin is out again claiming that ISIS is on its heels. Via Bloomberg and the Russian Defense Ministry (translated):
  • Russian warplanes have made 20 sorties, attacked 10 ISIS targets in Syria in past 24h, Russian Defense Ministry says on website.
  • Air force has attacked militant training camps in Raqqa, Idlib provinces; destroyed explosives workshop
  • Warplanes destroyed at least 4 ammunition depots, several command posts
  • Russian forces have broken “the management and logistics of the terrorist organization” and caused “significant damage to the infrastructure used for preparation of terrorist attacks”
And here's David Cameron repeating the Assad "butcher" accustations (again, via Bloomberg):
Russia is “backing the butcher Assad, which is a terrible mistake for them and for the world,” Cameron told BBC Television’s “Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday. “It’s going to make the region more unstable, which will lead to further radicalization and increased terrorism.”

Cameron continued: “I would say to them change direction, join us in attacking ISIL but recognize that if we want to have a secure region we need an alternative to Assad,” using an alternative designation for Islamic State. Assad “can’t unite the Syrian people.”
Yes, Assad "can't unite the Syrian people", because clearly that's what this is all about, which explains why the West has been doing anything and everything to promote disunity among Syrians for the better part of a decade, and on that note, we close with the following excerpt from a leaked diplomatic cable penned by then-Deputy Head of Mission in Syria William Roebuck in 2006 which shows just how concerned the West is with Syrian "unity":
-- PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE:  There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis.  Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue. 

US Syrian propaganda advise

SUBHEAD: State Department prep sheet for mass media outlets on handling stories on Syria.

By Gary Leupp on 2 October 2015 for CounterPunch.org

Image above: CNN's Christine Amanpour spews the John Kerry State Department's line on Syrian atrocities. From (http://www.indystar.com/story/opinion/columnists/varvel/2015/10/05/cartoonist-gary-varvel-putin-boots-obamas-syria-strategy/73366578/).

State Department talking points on Syria for cable news anchors:

KEEP mentioning the barrel bombs. Do not mention how their use was pioneered by the Israeli Air Force in 1948, and how they were used by the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in Operation Inferno in 1968. Keep repeating, “barrel bombs, barrel bombs” and stating with a straight face that the Syrian regime is using them “against its own people.” Against its own people. Against its own people. Against its own people.

KEEP mentioning “200,000.” (The UN estimates that 220,000 have been killed in the conflict since 2011.) Declare like you really believe it that this is the number of civilians the Syrian government of Bashar Assad has killed during the war. (Do not be concerned about any need to back the figure up. No one is ever going to call you on it publicly.)

DO NOT mention that around half of the war dead (estimates range from 84,000 to 133,000) are Syrian government forces waging war against an overwhelmingly Islamist opposition, and an additional 73,000 to 114,000 are anti-government combatants.

DO NOT discuss these figures because they would call into question the claim that the Syrian government is targeting and killing tens of thousands of civilians willy-nilly. (If feeling any qualms of conscience, recall Karl Rove’s immortal dictum that “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”)

KEEP mentioning the “Arab Spring” and how in 2011 Syrians peacefully mobilized to challenge the regime were violently repressed. But don’t dwell on the Arab Spring too much. Realize that the State Department was actually shocked by it, particularly by its repercussions in Egypt, where democratization brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power before the U.S.-backed military drowned its opponents in blood.

DO NOT mention how in Bahrain, peaceful demonstrations by the majority Shiites against the repressive Sunni monarchy were crushed by a Saudi-led invasion force tacitly supported by the U.S. And NEVER mention that the bulk of the peaceful protesters in the Syrian Arab Spring want nothing to do with the U.S.-supported armed opposition but are instead receptive to calls from Damascus, Moscow and Tehran for dialogue towards a power-sharing arrangement.

DO NOT explain that the pro-democracy student activists and their allies fear most is the radical Islamists who have burgeoned in large part due to foreign intervention since 2011.

KEEP mentioning the “Free Syrian Army” and the “moderate opposition” to give the impression that they actually exist in the real world.

DO NOT point out that the FSA organization is actually a joke; that its leaders live in Turkey; that its remaining units are headed by CIA officers; that U.S. efforts to train over 5000 FSA troops have been an utter failure; that the tiny group of 54 recently sent to the front were immediately captured by the al-Nusra Front and another 70 dispatched from Turkey immediately turned over their arms to that al-Qaeda-linked group; that their chief of staff has resigned protesting U.S. incompetence; that Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the top American commander in the Middle East, told Congress last month that only “four or five” Syrians had been trained by the U.S. to fight ISIL; and that the U.S.-trained forces have been accused of multiple human rights abuses.

DO NOT mention these things. They are so totally embarrassing that the State Department officials responsible just want to curl up into a ball and roll into a corner. Your mission is to put a bright face on this and continue to pretend there’s something in Syria, supported by the U.S., that falls between the terrorists and the Assad regime.

KEEP expressing consternation if not outrage that Russia is “interfering” in Syria. Scrunch up your face and act like you think it’s puzzling.

DO NOT mention that Syria is much closer to Russia than  to the U.S. and that Russia faces a much greater threat of Islamist terror than the U.S. (in places like Chechnya and Dagestan that your viewers can’t locate on a map).

DOWNPLAY the fact that Russia has had a military relationship with Syria since the 1950s no more nor less legitimate that the U.S. military relationship with Saudi Arabia. (And avoid any objective comparisons of the human rights records of Saudi Arabia and Syria since the former’s is manifestly so much worse than the latter’s!)

DO NOT imply any moral equivalence between Russia’s desire to prevent U.S.-backed regime change in Syria and the U.S.’s desire to inflict another Iraq or Libya-type regime change on that tragically war-torn country.

KEEP treating the Assad regime as an obvious pariah, whose leader has “lost legitimacy.” Say that with an air of authority, like you really believe that U.S. presidents—like Chinese emperors of the past or medieval popes— enjoy so much “legitimacy” that they can confer this on, or remove it from, anybody else.

STUDY CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s facial expressions and body language when he announces—so matter-of-factly, as a self-evident fact, as a done deal—that (come on, everybody!) “Assad hast lost legitimacy.”

(Chris is your model. He’s the State Department’s pleasantly vapid headed scion-of-privilege poster boy, whose occasional dark flashes of indignation—especially those directed towards anyone questioning the official talking points on Russia—embody the attitude Foggy Bottom seeks to encourage in the corporate press.)

DO NOT remind viewers that the Syrian government is internationally recognized, holds a UN seat, retains cordial relations with most nations and is engaged in a life-and-death struggle against people who enslave, crucify, behead, bury alive and burn alive people and want to replace Syria’s modern secular government with a medieval religious one intolerant of any diversity.

KEEP insisting that the Assad regime somehow is responsible for, and even in league with, the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and ISIL. Since this makes no logical sense, just have faith in the ignorance of the viewership and its disinclination to distinguish one Arab from another and to assume that they’re all linked in ways that aren’t worth even trying to sort out. Imply that by staying in power (and not complying with Obama’s demand that he step down) Assad has actually invited the presence of radical Islamists to his country, or provoked their emergence.

DO NOT  mention that al-Qaeda offshoots have proliferated globally since the U.S. invaded and wrecked Iraq in 2003, in a war based entirely on lies, and that there was no al-Nusra Front or ISIL until the U.S. set out to effect regime change throughout the Middle East. Do NOT let on that State Department PR strategy is precisely to obfuscate the real causal relationship, and to impute to the beleaguered Assad phenomena actually generated by U.S. aggression in the region.

KEEP treating Russian President Vladimir Putin as America’s Enemy Number One, an ally of a Syrian government that U.S. has said must go, deploying force in Syria to bolster Assad rather than (as Moscow claims) to target ISIL.

DO NOT lend any credence to the Russian assertion that the Syrian Army is the force best placed to defeat ISIL. Do NOT point out the incongruity of the U.S. invading and attacking countries from Pakistan to Libya since 2001 while expressing alarm that Moscow is (after much hesitation) taking action against Islamist terrorists at Damascus’s invitation.

DO NOT harp on the past, revisit history, or attempt to place the contemporary situation in Syria in perspective. Do NOT complicate the storyline by mentioning Damascus’s cooperation in the “War on Terror” and the U.S. use of Syrian torture chambers in its “special renditions” program after 2001. Do NOT mention Syria’s large Christian minority or its historical support for Assad’s Baath party, which was co-founded by a Syrian Christian.

KEEP everything simple, following the examples set by MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Scarborough and CNN’s Cuomo, and inculcate in the mind of the viewer that Assad is the main problem and most horrible actor in the Syrian situation. Tell them that Putin, while striving to revive the tsarist empire, is backing Assad as a loyal ally and using his military to prolong his rule that Washington condemns rather than (as he states) taking action against ISIL.

If you do all this, you will demonstrate your loyalty to the State Department, the bipartisan foreign policy consensus, the military-industrial complex, the One Percent, your advertisers, your producers and editors, and the unsung heroes behind the scenes who arrange your teleprompter scripts.

You too could be an Andrea Mitchell, or Christiane Amanpour, posturing as an “expert” while trotting out our talking points. And even after they’re exposed as bullshit, you won’t have to say you’re sorry. People will soon forget anyway.

Those unconscionable barrel bombs! 200,000 civilians killed by the illegitimate regime! U.S. support for the moderate opposition! Russia up to no good, supporting Assad and not really targeting ISI!. Russian moves “worrisome” (whereas U.S. moves are not.)

• Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu


America loses Mideast wars

SUBHEAD: The largest US foreign policy blunder since Vietnam is complete: Iran readies massive Syrian ground invasion.

By Tyler Durden on 4 October 2015 for Zero Hedge -

Image above: Cartoon "Bombs are Us" by Bob Englehardt of US bombing of Syria published in the Hartford Courant. From (http://articles.courant.com/2014-08-25/news/hc-bombing-syria-isis-20140825_1_bombs-and-rockets-wild-blue-yonder-planes).

On Thursday, in “Mid-East Coup: As Russia Pounds Militant Targets, Iran Readies Ground Invasions While Saudis Panic”, we attempted to cut through all of the Western and Russian media propaganda on the way to describing what Moscow’s involvement in Syria actually portends for the global balance of power. Here are a few excerpts that summarize what’s taking shape in the Middle East:
Putin looks to have viewed this as the ultimate geopolitical win-win. That is, Russia gets to i) expand its influence in the Middle East in defiance of Washington and its allies, a move that also helps to protect Russian energy interests and preserves the Mediterranean port at Tartus, and ii) support its allies in Tehran and Damascus thus preserving the counterbalance to the US-Saudi-Qatar alliance. 

Meanwhile, Iran gets to enjoy the support of the Russian military juggernaut on the way to protecting the delicate regional nexus that is the source of Tehran’s Mid-East influence. It is absolutely critical for Iran to keep Assad in power, as the loss of Syria to the West would effectively cut the supply line between Iran and Hezbollah.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of what appears to be going on here. This is nothing short of a Middle Eastern coup, as Iran looks to displace Saudi Arabia as the regional power broker and as Russia looks to supplant the US as the superpower puppet master. 
In short, the Pentagon’s contention that Russia and Iran have formed a Mid-East “nexus” isn’t akin to the Bush administration’s hollow, largely bogus attempt to demonize America’s foreign policy critics in the eyes of the public by identifying an “axis of evil.” Rather, the Pentagon’s assessment was an attempt to come to grips with a very real effort on the part of Moscow and Tehran to tip the scales in the Mid-East away from Riyadh and Washington.

Solidifying the Assad regime in Syria serves to shore up Hezbollah and presents Tehran with an opportunity to assert itself in the name of combatting terror. The latter point there is critical.

The West has long contended that Iran is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror, and the Pentagon has variously accused the Quds Force of orchestrating attacks on US soldiers in Iraq after cooperation between Washington and Tehran broke down in the wake of Bush’s “axis of evil” comment.
Indeed, Iran was accused of masterminding a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador at a Washington DC restaurant in 2011.

Now, the tables have turned. It is the US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar who stand accused of sponsoring Sunni extremists and it is Iran, and specifically the Revolutionary Guard, that gets to play hero.
Of course this would be largely impossible without Moscow’s stamp of superpower approval. The optics around the P5+1 nuclear deal were making it difficult for Tehran to be too public in its efforts to bolster Assad.

That doesn’t mean Tehran’s support for the regime in Syria hasn’t been well documented for years, it simply means that Iran needed to observe some semblance of caution, lest its role in Syria should end up torpedoing the nuclear negotiations.

Now that Moscow is officially involved, that caution is no longer obligatory and Iran is now moving to support Russian airstrikes with an outright ground incursion (just as we’ve been saying for weeks). Here’s WSJ:

Iran is expanding its already sizable role in Syria’s multisided war in the wake of Russia’s airstrikes, despite the risk of antagonizing the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies who want to push aside President Bashar al-Assad.

Politicians in the region close to Tehran as well as analysts who have been closely following its role in Syria say a decision has been made, in close coordination with the Russians and the Assad regime, to increase the number of fighters on the ground through Iran’s network of local and foreign proxies.

The support also could involve more Iranian commanders, military advisers and expert fighters usually assigned to these units, these people said.

Wiam Wahhab, a former Lebanese minister allied to Iran and Mr. Assad, stressed that Iran wouldn’t be dispatching troops in the conventional sense. Instead, they were likely to be officers and advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, he said.

“I know there is a major battle upon us and everything needed for this battle will be made available,” said Mr. Wahhab, who has some members from his own political party fighting in Syria alongside the regime. “There is a plan to carry out offensive operations in more than one spot.”

Experts believe Iran has some 7,000 IRGC members and Iranian paramilitary volunteers operating in Syria already.

Separate from the regular army, the IRGC was founded in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution as an ideological “people’s army” reporting directly to the supreme leader, Iran’s top decision maker.

The more than 100,000-strong force controls a vast military, economic and security power structure in Iran and is in charge of proxies across the region. Its paramilitary organization, the Basij, was the lead force in the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 2009.

Since late 2012 Iran has played a lead role in organizing, training and funding local pro-regime militias in Syria, many of them members of Mr. Assad’s Alawite minority, a branch of Shiite Islam. Experts believe they number between 150,000 and 190,000—possibly more than what remains of Syria’s conventional army.

What’s more, some experts estimate 20,000 Shiite foreign fighters are on the ground, backed by both Shiite Iran and its main proxy in the region, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.

About 5,000 of them are new arrivals from Iraq in July and August alone, said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland. He said this figure was compiled through his own contacts with some of these fighters, flight data between Baghdad and Damascus as well as social media postings. “It looks like it was timed out to coincide with the Russian move,” Mr. Smyth said.
Yes, it certainly does "look like" that, and it wasn't hard to see this coming. Here's another excerpt from our recent analysis:

Back in June, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimaini, visited a town north of Latakia on the frontlines of Syria’s protracted civil war. Following that visit, he promised that Tehran and Damascus were set to unveil a new strategy that would “surprise the world.” 

Just a little over a month later, Soleimani - in violation of a UN travel ban - visited Russia and held meetings with The Kremlin.
Make no mistake, this is shaping up to be the most spectacular US foreign policy debacle since Vietnam - and we don't think that's an exaggeration.

The US, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, attempted to train and support Sunni extremists to overthrow the Assad regime. Some of those Sunni extremists ended up going crazy and declaring a Medeival caliphate putting the Pentagon and Langley in the hilarious position of being forced to classify al-Qaeda as "moderate."

The situation spun out of control leading to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and when Washington finally decided to try and find real "moderates" to help contain the Frankenstein monster the CIA had created in ISIS (there were of course numerous other CIA efforts to arm and train anti-Assad fighters, see below for the fate of the most "successful" of those groups), the effort ended up being a complete embarrassment that culminated with the admission that only "four or five" remained and just days after that admission, those "four or five" were car jacked by al-Qaeda in what was perhaps the most under-reported piece of foreign policy comedy in history.

Meanwhile, Iran sensed an epic opportunity to capitalize on Washington's incompetence. Tehran then sent its most powerful general to Russia where a pitch was made to upend the Mid-East balance of power.

The Kremlin loved the idea because after all, Moscow is stinging from Western economic sanctions and Vladimir Putin is keen on showing the West that, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia isn't set to back down.

Thanks to the fact that the US chose extremists as its weapon of choice in Syria, Russia gets to frame its involvement as a "war on terror" and thanks to Russia's involvement, Iran gets to safely broadcast its military support for Assad just weeks after the nuclear deal was struck.

Now, Russian airstrikes have debilitated the only group of CIA-backed fighters that had actually proven to be somewhat effective and Iran and Hezbollah are preparing a massive ground invasion under cover of Russian air support.

Worse still, the entire on-the-ground effort is being coordinated by the Iranian general who is public enemy number one in Western intelligence circles and he's effectively operating at the behest of Putin, the man that Western media paints as the most dangerous person on the planet.

As incompetent as the US has proven to be throughout the entire debacle, it's still difficult to imagine that Washington, Riyadh, London, Doha, and Jerusalem are going to take this laying down and on that note, we close with our assessment from Thursday:

If Russia ends up bolstering Iran's position in Syria (by expanding Hezbollah's influence and capabilities) and if the Russian air force effectively takes control of Iraq thus allowing Iran to exert a greater influence over the government in Baghdad, the fragile balance of power that has existed in the region will be turned on its head and in the event this plays out, one should not expect Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem, and London to simply go gentle into that good night.


Majority of EU says "No" to GMOs

SUBHEAD: 15 out of 28 EU states declare territorial exclusionary requests to agrochem companies.

By Nadia Prupis on 2 October 2015 for Common Dreams -

Image above: A protest against GMOs takes place outside of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Photo by Greenpeace Germany.  From (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/08/25/answering-resistance-all-sides-germany-moves-ban-gmo-crops).

On the eve of the European Union's deadline for member states and territories to declare their stance on allowing or banning genetically modified (GM or GMO) crops, more than half of EU countries are asking to opt out—a total of 15 out of 28 members, according to the latest count by the European Commission.

The governments, including those of Germany and Scotland, are utilizing new EU rules which allow member states to send territorial exclusion requests to agrochemical manufacturers like Dow, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer—even if their crops snag wider EU approval.

As of October 2, the list of members opting out also includes Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Belgium's Wallonia region, and Wales and Northern Ireland in the UK.

By invoking those rights, Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said, the majority of EU governments are "rejecting the Commission's drive for GM crop approvals."

"The only way to restore trust in the EU system now is for the Commission to hit the pause button on GM crop approvals and to urgently reform safety testing and the approval system," Achterberg said.

In European Parliament, Green food safety spokesperson Bart Staes said, "The resolve of these EU member states to ban GMO cultivation on their territory is laudable. It confirms what we already know: that a clear majority in Europe is opposed to genetically-modified crops. It is clearly regrettable that the Commission and some member states want to push ahead with GMO cultivation in spite of the myriad of problems this poses, also cross border."

Currently, only one GMO crop is cleared for cultivation in Europe—Monsanto's MON810 maize—but seven more varieties are under consideration by the Commission. The EU rules allow member states to ban all eight.

The opt-outs only cover the cultivation of GMO crops, rather than importing of GMO products. The EU has approved 70 GMO products, including human food, animal feed, and cut flowers.

Negotiations for a strategy that would allow member states to ban GMO imports in their border-free territories are still under way. If such a plan is approved by the European Parliament's environmental committee at its meeting next month, it could bring even more substantial changes.

The widespread opposition to GMOs has blocked the Commission from authorizing new strands of crops for years, even as a smaller number of countries, such as Spain and England, push for their approval. The opt-outs emerged as a compromise to that division after years of negotiations between member states.

Unsurprisingly, agrochemical companies opposed the deal and expressed their disappointment with the swift and far-reaching opt-outs. Biotechnology lobbyist group Europabio said the rules send a "negative signal for all innovative industries considering investing in Europe."

As Common Dreams has previously reported, the new laws have gotten a mixed reception from food safety advocates who say the EU may in fact be empowering agribusiness companies while failing to protect organic farmers:

Among the law's weaknesses, environmental groups say biotech companies are given the power to negotiate with individual countries who seek a ban in a particular territory or geographic area.

[....] If a government does not first seek permission from the GMO manufacturer, it must enact a national ban on one of the following grounds: environmental policy objectives, town and country planning, land use, socio-economic impacts, avoidance of GMO crop presence in other products, agricultural policy objectives, or public policy. Notably, a country is not permitted to ban GMOs on the grounds of environmental concerns—an exclusion that Greenpeace warns could have "serious consequences."

Nonetheless, green groups called on EU members to take the options available to them and ban GMO crops.

Now, Staes said, it is "imperative that the Commission and the minority of pro-GMO governments both respect and actively support all those EU governments that have opted to ban GMO cultivation. There are serious concerns that the legal framework for these opt-outs, under the EU rules finalised earlier this year, is not watertight. This could leave governments subject to challenges by biotech corporations. Those member states opting-out of GMO authorisations must therefore have the full support of the Commission and other EU governments.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission, in July 2014 said that member states should not be forced to accept GMO crops if the majority of governments disapprove of them.

As of their October 3 deadline, it seems that is officially the case.


Battery storage improvements

SUBHEAD: Recent research is improving electric battery storage performance and efficency.

By Jan TenBruggencate on 27 September 2015 for Raising Islands -

Image above: A cheap, common materials that “deliver the first high-performance, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive and low-cost chemicals for flow batteries. From (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150924151401.htm).

If the future of energy is the ability to cheaply and safely store intermittent renewables, then there’s lots of good news on the battery front.

Renewable plus storage means decarbonizing the grid. Public policy argues that’s something we should do effectively and as quickly as possible.

One of the problems is that batteries haven’t been up to the task. Some are too expensive, some are too toxic, some are too fragile, some lose too much energy charging and discharging, some die too soon and need to be replaced.

The list goes on.

But there’s amazing work being done globally on battery technology. We have reviewed some of that in an earlier series that starts here (http://raisingislands.blogspot.com/2013/08/hawaii-energy-storage-many-storage.html).

But since that 2013 series, there’s lots of new stuff. We’ll review a couple of innovations here, starting with flow batteries.

Video above: Flow battery explanation. From (https://youtu.be/4ob3_8QjmR0).

Researchers at Harvard have been looking for non-toxic alternatives to flow batteries using bromide electrolytes. Flow batteries have energy-rich electrolytes in external tanks, and the electrolytes are pumped through the battery, meaning battery capacity can be increased simply by increasing electrolyte storage.

“Harvard chemistry professor Roy Gordon said they found a formulation using cheap, common materials that “deliver the first high-performance, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive and low-cost chemicals for flow batteries. They reported their research in the Sept. 25 issue of Science (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/349/6255/1529).

Project chief investigator Michael Aziz said it would be a great way to store solar power: “"This is chemistry I'd be happy to put in my basement. See (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150924151401.htm).

The non-toxicity and cheap, abundant materials placed in water solution mean that it's safe -- it can't catch on fire -- and that's huge when you're storing large amounts of electrical energy anywhere near people."

Scientists at Ohio State have combined a solar cell and a battery in what they’re calling an aqueous solar flow battery. It’s still a ways from commercial production, but its inventors believe it has a lot of potential.

"This solar flow battery design can potentially be applied for grid-scale solar energy conversion and storage, as well as producing 'electrolyte fuels' that might be used to power future electric vehicles," said lead author Mingzhe Yu. They reported their findings in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jacs.5b03626).

Stanford researchers have written about their new aluminum battery, which they say is fast-charging, inexpensive and lasts a long time. They believe it can replace alkaline and lithium-ion batteries. How fast a charge? Think about charging a cell phone in a minute, and a battery that can handle daily charging for decades.

The battery has an aluminum anode and graphite cathode in a liquid salt electrolyte. It still needs some work, but shows great potential, its inventors say.

And it’s not just for small electronics. “The grid needs a battery with a long cycle life that can rapidly store and release energy. See (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150406121031.htm). Our latest unpublished data suggest that an aluminum battery can be recharged tens of thousands of times,” said Stanford chemistry professor Hongjie Dai.

But this isn’t to say that all the research is on new battery technologies. There’s also still a lot of work underway on improving existing batteries. As an example, South Korean researchers are reporting on a new lithium-ion design that improves its performance while reducing the problem of overheating. See (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150406121031.htm).

And MIT researchers say they’ve developed a way to cut in half the cost of building lithium-ion batteries. That, and they work better, too. See (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378775315010575).

Furthermore, there’s research underway in figuring out how to improve the amount of energy lost in charging and discharging a battery. Generally, you can lose 20 percent or more of the energy it takes to charge a battery when to draw that energy back out.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University say they’ve adapted solar cells to dramatically increase that efficiency. They wired four perovskite solar cells in series and were able to charge a lithium-ion battery with 7.8 percent loss—the best performance seen to date, they say.

The Science Daily report on the work is here but it’s a little technical. See (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150827111639.htm) and (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150801082647.htm).

Perovskite solar cells are comparatively new on the solar scene. They can be manufactured inexpensively, and reportedly can convert into electricity a larger proportion of the sun’s light than other solar panels.

A lot of folks have wondered whether supercapacitors can be adapted to provide long-term energy storage. Supercapacitors are units that can store a lot of power, but they discharge almost instantaneously. Great for a sudden need for power—like when a motor starts up—but less useful as a continuing source of energy.

But there are a lot of applications for bursts of energy that are inefficiently met with standard batteries. Researchers at Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Drexel University looked at new ways to use water materials—specifically old tires—in the manufacture of supercapacitors. See (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cssc.201500866/abstract;jsessionid=3161B665900A259D95A41E521A372F4F.f02t02).

The point here has not been to cover the universe of battery innovation, but to show that there’s a lot going on. Some of this stuff may not pan out, but a lot of it will, and it will change the energy landscape.

Some of these technologies may end up in our phones, in our cars, in our houses, out on our utility grids--and maybe even in places where we've never imagined a role for energy storage.


This Changes Everything movie

SUBHEAD: People are ready for a deeper, much more systemic critique and much more grassroots, radical solutions.

By Jon Queealy on 1 October 2025 for Common Dreams -

Image above: Detail of poster for documentary "This Changes Everything". From original article.

If he wanted, filmmaker Avi Lewis thinks he could probably scare you into total paralysis.

"I can make the case to you that we're fucked," he says over the phone from New York as he spoke with Common Dreams about his new film, the perils of climate change, the inequities fostered by modern capitalism, and the prospects of humanity's current efforts to make a course correction away from planetary destruction.

"I could say that we should just turn on the TV, take our drug of choice, and just tune it out. I could make that case for you and it would be completely convincing."

But, he then adds, "What on earth is the point of that?"

With his new documentary film—This Changes Everything—making its U.S. debut this Friday night at the International Film Center in New York City, Lewis says the goal was not to "shock people into action."

Rather, the film was conceived with the idea that if the story of the climate crisis was told with the proper balance of fact-based concern and a very specific view of hope, it could inspire transcendence of the helplessness that prevents many from taking action.

"It's the balance of cold-eyed realism which shows us that we're on a truly catastrophic path and that we're hurtling in the wrong direction as a global society and the importance of choosing to be hopeful, because people don't act out of despair," Lewis says.

Put another way: "Despair breeds paralysis. And hope can lead to action."

Considering the current political moment—just one year after over 400,000 people gathered in New York City for the historic People's Climate March and just two months before the much-anticipated COP21 UN climate talks begin in Paris—Lewis says the world remains in a crucial period where understanding of the crisis, and the energetic desire to do something about it, must be matched with a new vision for what the world can be.

 "If you're going to embrace hope," he argues, "it has to be credible hope. It has to be hope that's actually based on something and it has to be hope that is mitigated by an acknowledgement of how bad things are. And that is the very fine balance that I tried to strike in the film."

Citing evidence for this theory of inspiration matched with policy, Lewis cites two individuals who have generated perhaps the most palpable levels of excitement in the U.S. recently: Pope Francis, who just concluded a two-week visit to the Americas, and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose presidential campaign calling for "political revolution" has ignited grassroots passion not seen in decades.

Both the Pope and Sanders, says Lewis, "are talking about inequality and climate change and making the links between the two—and bing!—they're resonating crazy across society." Because those issues are the tandem themes of the film, Lewis says it's thrilling for them to be getting a larger audience.

"But it's also unsurprising," he says, "because the fact is, people know. Ask anyone on Earth if you can have infinite growth on a finite planet and everyone is going to say, 'Of course not.' It's common sense. And yet, our entire global economic system is premised on that crazy idea."

What the film does show, he argues, is that people all over the world "are ready for a deeper, much more systemic critique and much more grassroots, radical solutions."

It would be too easy to assume that the new 90-minute documentary is simply a film based on the book of the same name authored by Lewis' wife, Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein—but that's not entirely accurate.

Conceived and executed as a parallel project nearly from the get-go, Lewis' film—which made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month—is just the latest installment of a synchronized and orchestrated endeavor which, though it is narrated by Klein and drew enormous inspiration from her best-selling book, also includes a website and a sophisticated outreach effort (run by a dedicated team of colleagues) which serve to promote and expand the work that has now occupied the last five years of their lives.

As Lewis explains, "I didn't have the book to look at, but I was making a movie about a book that hadn't been written yet."

Shot over four years on five continents and in nine countries, the film takes a global look at the intertwined crises of corporate greed, neoliberal capitalism, and climate change—but does so by sitting down with and listening to some of the very people who are standing their ground against those forces.

Following the New York premiere at the IFC on October 2—which will include a Q&A with both Lewis and Klein—the film will open on the West Coast in Los Angeles on October 16, before a nationwide release—including select theaters, community screenings, and on iTunes—on October 20.

Captured at least in part by the trailer that follows, the film explores the key themes of the book, but does so with a particular emphasis on meeting those individuals and communities from around the world who are confronting—not abstract disparities and economic theories—but actual injustices that have intruded on their lives in the form of polluted water and air, stolen land and traditions, and the systematic erosion of democracy which has been wrested from them by powerful fossil fuel companies and elite interests.

Video above: Trailer for "This Changes Everything". From (https://youtu.be/p1HEgCZBg_Q).

The bigger story, however, is about more than destruction. It is about resistance, renewal, and the opportunity that lies just below the surface of what is commonly understood about global warming and its most negative impacts.

As Klein, who acts as narrator in the film, asks provocatively, "What if global warming isn't only a crisis? What if it's the best chance we're ever going to get to build a better world?"

One of the key examples of this—and one of the most important episodes in the film, says Lewis—is the energy transformation that has taken place in Germany over recent years.

"This is not some tiny outlier," he explains. "Germany is the most powerful industrial economy in Europe and one of the top economies in the world.

And in the last fifteen years they've shifted their electricity system to 30 percent renewable; they've created 400,000 news jobs and—more importantly perhaps—900 energy cooperatives where they de-privatized electricity utilities across the country through referendum and a citizens' movement.

And now renewable energy is run, in many cases, locally by communities who receive the economic benefit from selling that electricity to the grid and use the revenue to pay for local services."

And this transition didn't happen, Lewis goes on, "because politicians just decided it would be a good idea. It was the anti-nuclear movement in Germany that pushed for many years on this.

And once they turned the tide on nukes, they set their sights on renewables, and now that they've got the energy transition going on in a very satisfying way—imperfect, but in a very exciting way—they're moving to shut down coal, which is the final missing piece in Germany."

Lewis explains it as a shift in which people pushing from below in strategic ways can absolutely impact the outcome of policies. "Look," he argues, "the one thing that politicians are really good at is figuring out what's popular and trying to be popular.

So I think our job is to propose policies and build political power behind them until we can get the politicians to come to us. And I think that's what we're seeing in the climate justice movement globally."

But don't get him wrong. "I'm not saying we're winning," he quickly adds. "We're not winning. But there's been an incredible string of victories that really need celebrating and I think point the way forward strategically."

That idea, which Lewis expanded on throughout his conversation with Common Dreams, cannot be overstated.

The film doesn't candy-coat realities, he says, but the realities are not one-sided. "We don't pretend that the tar sands aren't a vast crime in progress against the earth," Lewis explains.

"But on the other hand, there are people up there—like Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation—who are fighting the titanic struggle to fund a lawsuit against the Canadian government that makes the case that the cumulative impact of tar sands development is violating their constitutional guarantee to a traditional life.

And there have been a string of incredible Supreme Court decisions in Canada that have advanced aboriginal land rights enormously—like nowhere else in the post-colonial world—that give that lawsuit a real chance, a real hope, of being a game-changer."

Lewis confesses that though inspirational quotes have never been his thing, he did, in fact, print out one short line written by the poet, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry which he hung up over his desk and returned to often as he and his wife labored over their joint project during these last years. It reads: "Be joyful... though you have considered all the facts."

If there's a single underlying notion that might serve as the "spirit of the film," Lewis hopes it's that one.

And then what about the sorrow or helplessness produced by the devastating warnings issued by the world's scientific community? Such despair, says Lewis, is simply "an indulgence we don't have time for" any longer.

"The earth is screaming at us to get off this path," he explains. "And when you make connections across various issues—and fundamentally get at the economic logic that's driving our multiple, overlapping crises—you actually see the way towards multiple, overlapping solutions. And I think that's the place where people are getting really excited."

And finally, Lewis concludes, "I believe that the momentum behind Bernie and the euphoria around Pope Francis and the extraordinary generosity of spirit that we've seen recently among populations around the world towards refugees, speaks to the better side of ourselves.

And the ugly side is always there, of course. It's still there—and it still hold the reins of power—but I think these are moments that remind of us who we can be. That's why in the film, you know, Naomi says, 'It's not about polar bears. It's about us.'"

"It's about whether we are going to give in to this message that we are selfish, greedy, self-interested people. Or whether we're people who know how to take care of each other, and of the land—and whether that's the side of ourselves that we can live in, together."

So think about that. Even as you know the facts.