North Dakota's radioactive waste

SUBHEAD: As oil prices collapse, North Dakota considers weakening standards on radioactive drilling waste.

By  Sharon Kelly on 25 February 2015 for DeSmogBlog -

Image above: PA truck dumps what is labeled "Residual Waste" in NY. Tens of thousands of tons of radioactive drilling waste from Pennsylvania fracking sites are brought to into NY landfills, threatening public health and water quality. From (;jsessionid=73E58632AF0F8CF5A338C86053EB9F9E.app207a).

As the collapse of oil prices threatens North Dakota's shale drilling rush, state regulators are considering a move they say could save the oil industry millions of dollars: weakening the state's laws on disposing of radioactive waste.

The move has been the subject of an intensive lobbying effort by drillers, who produce up to 75 tons per day of waste currently considered too hazardous to dispose of in the state.

For every truckload of that waste, drillers could save at least $10,000 in hauling costs, they argue.

State regulators calculate that by raising the radioactive waste threshold ten-fold, the industry would shave off roughly $120 million in costs per year.

But many who live in the area say they fear the long-term consequences of loosened disposal rules combined with the state's poor track record on preventing illegal dumping.

“We don't want to have when this oil and coal is gone, to be nothing left here, a wasteland, and I'm afraid that's what might happen,” farmer Gene Wirtz of Underwood, ND told KNX News, a local TV station. “Any amount of radiation beyond what you're already getting is not a good thing.”

Environmental groups have also objected that the rule change would put private companies' profits before public health.

“The only reason we're doing this today is to cut the oil industry's costs,” Darrell Dorgan, spokesman for the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, which opposes the move, told Reuters.

There is no question that the industry is under severe financial pressure. The same barrel of Bakken crude oil that sold for $136.29 in July 2008 was priced at $34.50 this month, putting drillers, many of whom carry high levels of debt, into a financial bind.

To make debt payments, companies need to drill and frack new wells, since shale wells deliver much of their oil in a fast burst immediately following drilling, oil industry analysts say. With prices well below the breakeven point for many operators in the state's shale field, the industry's desire to cut costs is intense.

State regulators across the U.S. are feeling the pain as well, concerned about lower revenue not only from extraction taxes, but also lost jobs and plunging property values. Although North Dakota officials predict relatively minor harm to the state's general fund, planned infrastructure improvements and road repairs might be put on hold, The New York Times reported in December.

But along with revenue from shale oil and gas, the drilling rush has brought an unprecedented amount of low-level radioactive waste to the US, fueling debates in many states about how to handle the waste in the absence of federal rules.

In North Dakota, the shale rush has already produced tens of thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste laced with radium and uranium, including up to 169 million oil filter socks where radioactivity tends to be more heavily concentrated, per year.

We have many more wells, producing at an accelerating rate, and for each of them there’s a higher volume of waste,” Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, told Bloomberg in 2014. Unless it is well managed, he added, “we are actually building up a legacy of radioactivity in hundreds of points where people have had leaks or spills around the country.”

Under North Dakota law, drillers cannot currently dispose of waste carrying more than 5 picocuries per gram (pci/g) of radioactivity – roughly the amount found in much of the soil in the state. The proposed 50 pci/g cap, while far below the highest in the country, would make North Dakota one of the least strict states in the region.

State regulators say the higher cap would still protect human health and safety, basing their proposed new rules on a report by Argonne National Laboratory that recommended steps, included in the state's proposed rules, to protect against potential harm to workers handling the waste, including a 25,000 ton limit per licensed landfill per year and a requirement that the waste be buried at least 10 feet below ground.

To be sure, it would be far less hazardous for the radioactive waste to wind up in landfills that have better liners and controls for leachate run-off and groundwater monitoring than dumped illegally.

But some living nearby argue that adding any more radioactivity to their communities is too much.

“The Argonne Report is based on 25,000 tons per year of oilfield waste in a single landfill containing the higher levels of radioactive waste. Based on this, the study estimates people living within a 50-mile radius of a new 25,000-ton radioactive dump may be exposed to twice the normal amount of radiation,” wrote Theodora Bird Bear, chair of Dakota Resource Council. “This means our trade-off is more childhood leukemia, illness and death.”

Other advocates are skeptical that the limits in the new rules will be adequately enforced if they are adopted.

“If this administration hasn't been 'able to track low levels of radioactive and toxic waste… why would we trust them with more responsibility' on this issue,” Don Morrison, executive director of the North Dakota Resource Council, told Inside Climate News in December.

Currently, much of the waste is shipped to landfills in states like Idaho, Utah or Montana. But North Dakota regulators have no clear mechanism for tracking the waste, making illegal dumping tempting for some in the industry. In one high-profile case, an abandoned gas station was filled with roughly 200 trashbags stuffed with radioactive waste.

A 2014 Associated Press investigation found that in the span of one year, over 150 people attempted to illegally dump radioactive waste at local landfills – and state regulators never issued fines or sanctions, simply asked for a promise to lawfully dispose of the waste.

Some operators are not disposing of the waste at all. “There are operators out there who are stockpiling the stuff because either they don’t know what to do with the waste or it’s too expensive,” said Erickson, owner of Plains Energy Technical Resources. In response, state regulators issued regulations requiring drillers to store radioactive waste in leak-proof containers to prevent run-off.

Under the state's proposed new rules, 10 landfills in the state would be qualified to accept radioactive oil and gas waste, but many more have applied for approval, state regulators told Inside Climate News. The lack of federal regulations for hazardous waste from oil and gas sites has meant that state can individually set their own standards and enforcement mechanisms, and rules vary widely.

At the federal level, radioactive oil and gas waste is exempt from nearly all the regulatory processes the general public might expect would govern it,” Environmental Health Perspectives reported last year. “State laws are a patchwork.’”

Some states already allow municipal landfills to accept waste with radioactivity as high as North Dakota's proposed limits for industrial waste landfills.

But the sheer quantity of the waste from the shale rush gives the issue new dimensions – both in terms of the potential harm from contaminated water sources and airborne dust and the costs of disposal.

The radioactive material from shale drilling naturally lies buried in the same rock formations that drillers target, and is brought to the surface both in the wastewater from drilling and fracking, and in rock fragments called cuttings. The alpha radioactivity generally associated with drilling waste cannot penetrate skin, and is only harmful if people drink water or breathe air containing the materials.

However, the radioactive materials can accumulate in trucks and pipelines, leaving regulators concerned about possible exposure threats to workers if the waste is carelessly handed.

The oil industry argues that North Dakota's current rules for handling the waste are simply too costly.
“You're talking hundreds of dollars to transport versus tens of thousands” of dollars under North Dakota's proposed looser standards, Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council told Reuters, adding that she had attended several public hearings on the topic. “This just shows how much of a priority we're putting on this and these costs.”

Some in the region find that logic unconvincing.

“When the Bakken oil boom started, the oil industry knew they were going to produce radioactive waste and they knew what they were required to do with it. But, they didn’t put that into their business plans,” wrote Ms. Bird Bear. “The process to increase the allowable level of radioactivity in our state began about two years ago with behind-closed-door meetings with the health department and the oil industry. The result is once again a green light to the oil industry, this time to dump more radioactive waste in our state.”
Public comment on the proposal has been extended until March 2.


NATO & centralization beyond control

SUBHEAD: This bears repeating - NATO exists to manage the risks created by its own existence.

By -Raul Meijer Ilargi on 27 February 2015 for the Automatic Earth - 

Image above: In late February 2015 NATO and Russian military forces were doing maneuvers in Estonia's border, 60 miles from St. Petersburg. From (

In an article about NATO exercises in Estonia, just 300 yards from the Russian border, Daniel McAdams at the Ron Paul Institute makes a point that I want to use to make a much broader point. Not to provide answers, though, just to provide questions. McAdams quotes the Guardian review of a book by George Sakwa:

Russian military plane over international waters 25 miles from the UK coast is “real and present danger” to NATO. Yet… Yet yesterday US combat vehicles conducted a military parade and show of military force in Estonia just 300 yards – yards! – from the Russian border. That is just over 60 miles from downtown St. Petersburg. This is not a provocation, we are to believe. This is not a “real and present danger” to Russia. NATO is exempt from the rules it imposes on its enemies. In the Guardian’s review of a new book by Politics professor George Sakwa, the current fallout from a near quarter century of post-Cold War NATO policies is perfectly captured:

The hawks in the Clinton administration ignored all this, Bush abandoned the anti-ballistic missile treaty and put rockets close to Russia’s borders, and now a decade later, after Russia’s angry reaction to provocations in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine today, we have what Sakwa rightly calls a “fateful geographical paradox: that NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence”.
That line bears repeating: “NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence.”
Yes, that line bears repeating, but it bears much more than that: the line doesn’t go nearly far enough. Because NATO doesn’t only exist, it develops and changes. In fact, to justify its prolonged existence, NATO has turned from a force for peace into a warmonger. That way, the organization argues, consciously or not, it provides itself with a reason to exist. It now doesn’t just exist to manage the risks, it exists to create them. In doing so, NATO itself has become the biggest risk.

Regular readers will be well aware that I, like Ron Paul, have said many times that NATO should be dismantled (and not just NATO). Not only because it’s long outlived its original purpose, based in the Cold War, but because it increasingly attracts as leaders people who use ever more aggressive language for ever more elusive reasons.

The latest in the series are new General Secretary Stoltenberg and General ‘Warhead’ Breedlove, both of whom seem hell bent on outdoing even Ukraine’s leadership pair of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk when it comes to making unsubstantiated claims about Russia, and about the situation in Ukraine – and Eastern Europe – in a broader sense.

My thesis is that all supranational organizations will eventually attract a certain kind of people as their leaders, and that these are inevitably the last kind of people we should want in these positions. But in the absence of effective democratic oversight, they end up there anyway.

Therefore, the only way to counter this mechanism is to dismantle and abandon the organizations, while we still can. Which is not a given, since they function like power pyramids, in which ever more active power flows to an ever smaller top, until they become ‘untouchable’ by the nations that founded them in the first place.

These organizations don’t just fail to meet their originally stated purpose, they become entities dangerous to those they were meant to serve. That’s true for NATO, for the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU. They all end up serving only their most powerful members, at the cost of the smaller and less powerful. Since there is no mechanism to prevent this from happening while they exist, we must dismantle them.

There’s a strong correlation with an example from the economic world, in which corporations were originally incorporated for a specific project (e.g. building a bridge), a specific budget and a specific duration. And look at corporations now: there is no time limit to their existence, they are free to buy political control over our societies across generations, and they have even been granted person’s rights, though persons die and corporations no longer do.

What is true for corporations is just as true for supranational organizations: it’s all about scale. They are all – well, mostly – founded by well-meaning people, but these people ignore – willingly or not – to set time, financial and legal limits to them. And that’s a surefire recipe for disaster. The IMF upon its inception had lofty ideals behind it.

But look at the damage it’s done across the globe. The World Bank was intended to help fight poverty in poor nations, but, like the IMF, has become an instrument for the rich to control these nations and prey on them.

And NATO has been busy ever since the Berlin wall came down, to resurrect the Cold War, without which it knows it must fear for its continued existence. It’s a twin sister of the American military complex, which creates threats out of nowhere and fights wars that all end in disaster, creating chaos along the way that forms the reason, and the cradle, for the next theater of war.

I’ve said before that I’m somewhat hesitant to include the US in the list of supranational organizations that should be dismantled, but if the country, the union, can’t find a way to reform and refind itself, I don’t see much reason for it to live on. The concentrated power bastion in Washington simply does too much harm to too many people, both at home and abroad. Nobody should have that sort of power.

If you have an entity that comprises 300 million people, it’s inevitable that ‘rulers’ over that entity need to be curtailed and limited in their powers from the get-go, or things will go awfully wrong. In the US, arguably, that has long since started to happen. The solution – in theory – is real simple: decentralize power. The solution in practice is much less obvious, since the people in power won’t volunteer to give up what they’ve got. A critical mass has been reached from which it will be very hard to retreat.
‘Once it reaches a certain threshold, the process of institutionalization becomes counterproductive’
Those are the words from a man I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, when pondering these issues, 20th century philosopher/priest Ivan Illich, whose criticism of ‘institutionalization’, mostly published in the 1970′s from Latin America, was largely inspired by, and directed at, the Catholic Church, not coincidentally the world’s – by far – earliest truly multinational corporation.

Illich basically asserted that institutions tend to monopolize parts of societies that they should leave alone, because they belong to the people, and are essential to their well-being. From Wikipedia’s entry on Illich:
[e]lite professional groups . . . have come to exert a ‘radical monopoly’ on such basic human activities as health, agriculture, home-building, and learning, leading to a ‘war on subsistence’ that robs peasant societies of their vital skills and know-how. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but ‘modernized poverty,’ dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts.”
[2] Illich proposed that we should “invert the present deep structure of tools” in order to “give people tools that guarantee their right to work with independent efficiency.”[14]
Schools should not be able to declare themselves the only valuable source of education, nor hospitals that of health care. To Illich, the fact that he did see them do this anyway, meant people were being robbed of their freedom to learn, and to heal.

In the same vein, NATO should not have a monopoly on defending us from ‘evil’ enemies, because it will create that evil just to justify its own apparatus, in the process robbing people of the ability to judge what is evil and what is not.
‘[I]nstitutions create the needs and control their satisfaction, and, by so doing, turn the human being and her or his creativity into objects’
And that of course moves us real close to what I said about supranational organizations and multinationals, and to what Sakwa said: “NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence.”. It shirks close to the Completion Backward Principle, in which first a need and a market is created and only then the product that fills that need.

My perhaps favorite Illich quote, which with a little imagination is one on one applicable to the entire institutionalization issue, is this:
Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.
Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.
I never liked the education system I grew up in, any more than I like supranational institutions (it just took me a while to figure out the connection). High school was fine, because it was a breeze. But university was like running into a wall, multiple times. I just never had the idea that these people had anything I wanted. Just perhaps a degree that would have given me a ‘better’ job.

But to go through 4-5-6 years of something I absolutely didn’t want, or saw the use of, seemed to be far too high a price to pay. This was way after Illich wrote what he did, though I didn’t read it until even much later again, but when I did, I still had a feeling of redemption, of: I’m not the only one who saw what I did.

And of course people will say that I’m an idiot to throw away a university degree when so many others would kill to have one. That all, however, proves Illich’s point, and it leads back to the same issue: universities have a monopoly on learning, which means people learn less and less, they only ‘learn’ to be cogs in a machine. And if you don’t get the degree, than no well-paying job for you. And that’s exactly what Illich says. It makes for societies of unhappy people, who can’t even provide for themselves, as all their ancestors could, because all they’ve learned is to be that cog.

I wanted to bring Ivan Illich into the discussion about NATO we’ve been having for a long time, with Ron Paul and myself saying it should be banned and its pieces ritually incinerated, because Illich makes the idea far more accessible that this is all part of a much larger pattern. That is to say, we tend towards centralization at all levels, mostly at first – seemingly – innocently, but soon with control moving beyond our perception.

Who controls NATO, or the IMF? I’m sure you understand it’s not you. Still, when an organization exhibits aggressive behavior in your name, or lends out your money in your name, you should at all times feel that you are in control, through those you elect to represent you. Well, do you? Or are you merely thinking: that’s too far away from me?

Organizations, like so many things in life, don’t scale up well, if at all. Beyond a certain critical mass, they become counterproductive, as Illich states. They become predators on their own creators. That goes as much for NATO, IMF and EU as it does for schools and hospitals.
Modern societies appear to create more and more institutions – and great swathes of the way we live our lives become institutionalized. ‘This process undermines people – it diminishes their confidence in themselves, and in their capacity to solve problems… It kills convivial relationships. Finally it colonizes life like a parasite or a cancer that kills creativity’ (Finger and AsĂșn 2001: 10).
Experts and an expert culture always call for more experts. Experts also have a tendency to cartelize themselves by creating ‘institutional barricades’ – for example proclaiming themselves gatekeepers, as well as self-selecting themselves. Finally, experts control knowledge production, as they decide what valid and legitimate knowledge is, and how its acquisition is sanctioned.
Schooling – the production of knowledge, the marketing of knowledge, which is what the school amounts to, draws society into the trap of thinking that knowledge is hygienic, pure, respectable, deodorized, produced by human heads and amassed in stock…..
[B]y making school compulsory, [people] are schooled to believe that the self-taught individual is to be discriminated against; that learning and the growth of cognitive capacity, require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form;… that learning is a thing rather than an activity. A thing that can be amassed and measured, the possession of which is a measure of the productivity of the individual within the society. That is, of his social value.
It’s a trap we’ve set for ourselves, and over which we’ve now long lost control. Technology seems to make the world ‘smaller’, and to increase our control, but in effect it ends up doing the opposite. It makes us dumber, since we are now only cogs in a machine that others control, and over which we have no oversight. If the machine gets orders to go to war, the cogs will have to obey.

That’s our world today, and that’s what the NATO issue teaches us. NATO is our Frankenstein. And if we don’t stop it now, it will end up coming after us.


Klein at UH on HECO

SOURCE: Ed Wagner (
SUBHEAD: Author Naomi Klein delivers inspiring speech at University of Hawaii faulting HECO for blocking solar energy.

By Nathan Eagle on 26 February 2015 for Civil Beat -

Image above: From (

Award-winning journalist Naomi Klein blamed Hawaiian Electric Co. for limiting the progress of solar energy during a motivating speech Thursday evening at the University of Hawaii.

Klein, the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” packed not one but two auditoriums on campus. The overflow crowd watched a live video of her on a giant screen in one room as others watched live in another room.

“The profit motive is getting in the way of the transition that people want here,” Klein said, garnering applause.

She also stressed the need for the state to avoid getting hooked on liquefied natural gas, something HECO and politicians are moving toward despite all the warnings.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen introduced a measure to block LNG, noting the $200 million price tag to switch to a foreign-supplied fuel. Her bill stresses the need to put that money toward renewables, but it never received a hearing in the Legislature before dying this session.

She covered a wide range of topics related to climate change and capitalism during her talk, which wrapped up with a Q&A session. She touted recent successes on the national level, such as President Obama vetoing the Keystone pipeline bill, and the local level, like Maui voters passing a ballot measure to place a moratorium on GMO farming despite seed companies spending millions of dollars to defeat it.

Klein has been serving as the Dai Ho Chun distinguished chair in Arts & Sciences at UH Manoa. Her speech centered on the theme of new book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” another bestseller.

Her speech is expected to be aired multiple times on Olelo Community Media TV stations.

HECO must be non-profit

By Ed Wagner on 27 February 2015 in Island Breath - 

Video above: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate - Naomi Klein's book trailer. From (  Is Earth Fucked? The answer is a resounding YES!

This is what both HECOgate and HARTgate have done to us and will continue to do to us if HECO is not converted to public, non-profit power, and heads rolled at HART and the City Council, and the responsible individuals sent to prison for their crimes against the people and against Mother Earth because of their insatiable lust for and idolatry or worship of money as the sole source of gratification in life.

These people have sold their souls to the devil. The economies of the world and the Earth itself are being destroyed by rampant and uncontrolled capitalism with the goal of money at all costs.

The ratepayers must organize a massive march and rally at the Capitol to stop this madness before it is too late.

Ms. Klein's book should be required reading for the PUC, DCA, Governor, Legislature, Energy Administrator, AG, city and state Ethics Commissioners, Mayor and City Council on all islands and more.

“The profit motive is getting in the way of the transition that people want here,” Klein said, garnering applause.

This is precisely the reason why the HECO monopoly is a very serious threat to state and national security.


The Externality Trap

SUBHEAD: How "progress"  inevitably commits suicide with technology, profits and growth.

By John Michael Greer on 25 February 2015 for Archdruid Report -

Image above: Early environmental impact of industrialization in 19th century England. From (

I've commented more than once in these essays about the cooperative dimension of writing:  the way that even the most solitary of writers inevitably takes part in what Mortimer Adler used to call the Great Conversation, the flow of ideas and insights across the centuries that’s responsible for most of what we call culture.

Sometimes that conversation takes place second- or third-hand—for example, when ideas from two old books collide in an author’s mind and give rise to a third book, which will eventually carry the fusion to someone else further down the stream of time—but sometimes it’s far more direct.

Last week’s post here brought an example of the latter kind. My attempt to cut through the ambiguities surrounding that slippery word “progress” sparked a lively discussion on the comments page of my blog about just exactly what counted as progress, what factors made one change “progressive” while another was denied that label.

In the midst of it all, one of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Jonathan—proposed an unexpected definition:  what makes a change qualify as progress, he suggested, is that it increases the externalization of costs. 

I’ve been thinking about that definition since Jonathan proposed it, and it seems to me that it points up a crucial and mostly unrecognized dimension of the crisis of our time. To make sense of it, though, it’s going to be necessary to delve briefly into economic jargon.

Economists use the term “externalities” to refer to the costs of an economic activity that aren’t paid by either party in an exchange, but are pushed off onto somebody else. You won’t hear a lot of talk about externalities these days; it many circles, it’s considered impolite to mention them, but they’re a pervasive presence in contemporary life, and play a very large role in some of the most intractable problems of our age.

Some of those problems were discussed by Garret Hardin in his famous essay on the tragedy of the commons, and more recently by Elinor Ostrom in her studies of how that tragedy can be avoided; still, I’m not sure how often it’s recognized that the phenomena they discussed applies not just to commons systems, but to societies as a whole—especially to societies like ours.

An example may be useful here. Let’s imagine a blivet factory, which turns out three-prong, two-slot blivets in pallet loads for customers. The blivet-making process, like manufacturing of every other kind, produces waste as well as blivets, and we’ll assume for the sake of the example that blivet waste is moderately toxic and causes health problems in people who ingest it.

The blivet factory produces one barrel of blivet waste for every pallet load of blivets it ships. The cheapest option for dealing with the waste, and thus the option that economists favor, is to dump it into the river that flows past the factory.

Notice what happens as a result of this choice. The blivet manufacturer has maximized his own benefit from the manufacturing process, by avoiding the expense of finding some other way to deal with all those barrels of blivet waste. His customers also benefit, because blivets cost less than they would if the cost of waste disposal was factored into the price.
On the other hand, the costs of dealing with the blivet waste don’t vanish like so much twinkle dust; they are imposed on the people downstream who get their drinking water from the river, or from aquifers that receive water from the river, and who suffer from health problems because there’s blivet waste in their water.
The blivet manufacturer is externalizing the cost of waste disposal; his increased profits are being paid for at a remove by the increased health care costs of everyone downstream.
That’s how externalities work. Back in the days when people actually talked about the downsides of economic growth, there was a lot of discussion of how to handle externalities, and not just on the leftward end of the spectrum.  
 I recall a thoughtful book titled TANSTAAFL—that’s an acronym, for those who don’t know their Heinlein, for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”—which argued, on solid libertarian-conservative grounds, that the environment could best be preserved by making sure that everyone paid full sticker price for the externalities they generated.
Today’s crop of pseudoconservatives, of course, turned their back on all this a long time ago, and insist at the top of their lungs on their allegedly God-given right to externalize as many costs as they possibly can.  This is all the more ironic in that most pseudoconservatives claim to worship a God who said some very specific things about “what ye do to the least of these,” but that’s a subject for a different post.
Economic life in the industrial world these days can be described, without too much inaccuracy, as an arrangement set up to allow a privileged minority to externalize nearly all their costs onto the rest of society while pocketing as much as possible the benefits themselves.
That’s come in for a certain amount of discussion in recent years, but I’m not sure how many of the people who’ve participated in those discussions have given any thought to the role that technological progress plays in facilitating the internalization of benefits and the externalization of costs that drive today’s increasingly inegalitarian societies. Here again, an example will be helpful.
Before the invention of blivet-making machinery, let’s say, blivets were made by old-fashioned blivet makers, who hammered them out on iron blivet anvils in shops that were to be found in every town and village. Like other handicrafts, blivet-making was a living rather than a ticket to wealth; blivet makers invested their own time and muscular effort in their craft, and turned out enough in the way of blivets to meet the demand. Notice also the effect on the production of blivet waste.
Since blivets were being made one at a time rather than in pallet loads, the total amount of waste was smaller; the conditions of handicraft production also meant that blivet makers and their families were more likely to be exposed to the blivet waste than anyone else, and so had an incentive to invest the extra effort and expense to dispose of it properly.
Since blivet makers were ordinary craftspeople rather than millionaires, furthermore, they weren’t as likely to be able to buy exemption from local health laws.
The invention of the mechanical blivet press changed that picture completely.  Since one blivet press could do as much work as fifty blivet makers, the income that would have gone to those fifty blivet makers and their families went instead to one factory owner and his stockholders, with as small a share as possible set aside for the wage laborers who operate the blivet press.
The factory owner and stockholders had no incentive to pay for the proper disposal of the blivet waste, either—quite the contrary, since having to meet the disposal costs cut into their profit, buying off local governments was much cheaper, and if the harmful effects of blivet waste were known, you can bet that the owner and shareholders all lived well upstream from the factory.  
Notice also that a blivet manufacturer who paid a living wage to his workers and covered the costs of proper waste disposal would have to charge a higher price for blivets than one who did neither, and thus would be driven out of business by his more ruthless competitor.
Externalities aren’t simply made possible by technological progress, in other words; they’re the inevitable result of technological progress in a market economy, because externalizing the costs of production is in most cases the most effective way to outcompete rival firms, and the firm that succeeds in externalizing the largest share of its costs is the most likely to prosper and survive.
Each further step in the progress of blivet manufacturing, in turn, tightened the same screw another turn.
Today, to finish up the metaphor, the entire global supply of blivets is made in a dozen factories in  distant Slobbovia, where sweatshop labor under ghastly working conditions and the utter absence of environmental regulations make the business of blivet fabrication more profitable than anywhere else. 

re as shoddily made as possible; the entire blivet supply chain from the open-pit mines worked by slave labor that provide the raw materials to the big box stores with part-time, poorly paid staff selling blivetronic technology to the masses is a human and environmental disaster.  Every possible cost has been externalized, so that the two multinational corporations that dominate the global blivet industry can maintain their profit margins and pay absurdly high salaries to their CEOs.
That in itself is bad enough, but let’s broaden the focus to include the whole systems in which blivet fabrication takes place: the economy as a whole, society as a whole, and the biosphere as a whole.
The impact of technology on blivet fabrication in a market economy has predictable and well understood consequences for each of these whole systems, which can be summed up precisely in the language we’ve already used.
In order to maximize its own profitability and return on shareholder investment, the blivet industry externalizes costs in every available direction.
Since nobody else wants to bear those costs, either, most of them end up being passed onto the whole systems just named, because the economy, society, and the biosphere have no voice in today’s economic decisions.
Like the costs of dealing with blivet waste, though, the other externalized costs of blivet manufacture don’t go away just because they’re externalized. As externalities increase, they tend to degrade the whole systems onto which they’re dumped—the economy, society, and the biosphere.
This is where the trap closes tight, because blivet manufacturing exists within those whole systems, and can’t be carried out unless all three systems are sufficiently intact to function in their usual way.
As those systems degrade, their ability to function degrades also, and eventually one or more of them breaks down—the economy plunges into a depression, the society disintegrates into anarchy or totalitarianism, the biosphere shifts abruptly into a new mode that lacks adequate rainfall for crops—and the manufacture of blivets stops because the whole system that once supported it has stopped doing so.
Notice how this works out from the perspective of someone who’s benefiting from the externalization of costs by the blivet industry—the executives and stockholders in a blivet corporation, let’s say.
As far as they’re concerned, until very late in the process, everything is fine and dandy: each new round of technological improvements in blivet fabrication increases their profits, and if each such step in the onward march of progress also means that working class jobs are eliminated or offshored, democratic institutions implode, toxic waste builds up in the food chain, or what have you, hey, that’s not their problem—and after all, that’s just the normal creative destruction of capitalism, right?

That sort of insouciance is easy for at least three reasons. 
First, the impacts of externalities on whole systems can pop up a very long way from the blivet factories.

Second, in a market economy, everyone else is externalizing their costs as enthusiastically as the blivet industry, and so it’s easy for blivet manufacturers (and everyone else) to insist that whatever’s going wrong is not their fault.

Third, and most crucially, whole systems as stable and enduring as economies, societies, and biospheres can absorb a lot of damage before they tip over into instability.
 The process of externalization of costs can thus run for a very long time, and become entrenched as a basic economic habit, long before it becomes clear to anyone that continuing along the same route is a recipe for disaster.

Even when externalized costs have begun to take a visible toll on the economy, society, and the biosphere, furthermore, any attempt to reverse course faces nearly insurmountable obstacles.

Those who profit from the existing order of things can be counted on to fight tooth and nail for the right to keep externalizing their costs: after all, they have to pay the full price for any reduction in their ability to externalize costs, while the benefits created by not imposing those costs on whole systems are shared among all participants in the economy, society, and the biosphere respectively.
Nor is it necessarily easy to trace back the causes of any given whole-system disruption to specific externalities benefiting specific people or industries.
It’s rather like loading hanging weights onto a chain; sooner or later, as the amount of weight hung on the chain goes up, the chain is going to break, but the link that breaks may be far from the last weight that pushed things over the edge, and every other weight on  the chain made its own contribution to the end result.
A society that’s approaching collapse because too many externalized costs have been loaded onto on the whole systems that support it thus shows certain highly distinctive symptoms.
Things are going wrong with the economy, society, and the biosphere, but nobody seems to be able to figure out why; the measurements economists use to determine prosperity show contradictory results, with those that measure the profitability of individual corporations and industries giving much better readings those that measure the performance of whole systems; the rich are convinced that everything is fine, while outside the narrowing circles of wealth and privilege, people talk in low voices about the rising spiral of problems that beset them from every side.
If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you probably need to get out more.
At this point it may be helpful to sum up the argument I’ve developed here:
a) Every increase in technological complexity tends also to increase the opportunities for externalizing the costs of economic activity;
b) Market forces make the externalization of costs mandatory rather than optional, since economic actors that fail to externalize costs will tend to be outcompeted by those that do;
c) In a market economy, as all economic actors attempt to externalize as many costs as possible, externalized costs will tend to be passed on preferentially and progressively to whole systems such as the economy, society, and the biosphere, which provide necessary support for economic activity but have no voice in economic decisions;
d) Given unlimited increases in technological complexity, there is no necessary limit to the loading of externalized costs onto whole systems short of systemic collapse;
e) Unlimited increases in technological complexity in a market economy thus necessarily lead to the progressive degradation of the whole systems that support economic activity;
f) Technological progress in a market economy  is therefore self-terminating, and ends in collapse.
Now of course there are plenty of arguments that could be deployed against this modest proposal. For example, it could be argued that progress doesn’t have to generate a rising tide of externalities. 
The difficulty with this argument is that externalization of costs isn’t an accidental side effect of technology but an essential aspect—it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Every technology is a means of externalizing some cost that would otherwise be borne by a human body.
Even something as simple as a hammer takes the wear and tear that would otherwise affect the heel of your hand, let’s say, and transfers it to something else: directly, to the hammer; indirectly, to the biosphere, by way of the trees that had to be cut down to make the charcoal to smelt the iron, the plants that were shoveled aside to get the ore, and so on.
For reasons that are ultimately thermodynamic in nature, the more complex a technology becomes, the more costs it generates.
In order to outcompete a simpler technology, each more complex technology has to externalize a significant proportion of its additional costs, in order to compete against the simpler technology.
In the case of such contemporary hypercomplex technosystems as the internet, the process of externalizing costs has gone so far, through so many tangled interrelationships, that it’s remarkably difficult to figure out exactly who’s paying for how much of the gargantuan inputs needed to keep the thing running. This lack of transparency feeds the illusion that large systems are cheaper than small ones, by making externalities of scale look like economies of scale.
It might be argued instead that a sufficiently stringent regulatory environment, forcing economic actors to absorb all the costs of their activities instead of externalizing them onto others, would be able to stop the degradation of whole systems while still allowing technological progress to continue. The difficulty here is that increased externalization of costs is what makes progress profitable.
As just noted, all other things being equal, a complex technology will on average be more expensive in real terms than a simpler technology, for the simple fact that each additional increment of complexity has to be paid for by an investment of energy and other forms of real capital.
Strip complex technologies of the subsidies that transfer some of their costs to the government, the perverse regulations that transfer some of their costs to the rest of the economy, the bad habits of environmental abuse and neglect that transfer some of their costs to the biosphere, and so on, and pretty soon you’re looking at hard economic limits to technological complexity, as people forced to pay the full sticker price for complex technologies maximize their benefits by choosing simpler, more affordable options instead.
A regulatory environment sufficiently strict to keep technology from accelerating to collapse would thus bring technological progress to a halt by making it unprofitable.
Notice, however, the flipside of the same argument: a society that chose to stop progressing technologically could maintain itself indefinitely, so long as its technologies weren’t dependent on nonrenewable resources or the like.
The costs imposed by a stable technology on the economy, society, and the biosphere would be more or less stable, rather than increasing over time, and it would therefore be much easier to figure out how to balance out the negative effects of those externalities and maintain the whole system in a steady state. 
Societies that treated technological progress as an option rather than a requirement, and recognized the downsides to increasing complexity, could also choose to reduce complexity in one area in order to increase it in another, and so on—or they could just raise a monument to the age of progress, and go do something else instead.
The logic suggested here requires a comprehensive rethinking of most of the contemporary world’s notions about technology, progress, and the good society. We’ll begin that discussion in future posts—after, that is, we discuss a second dimension of progress that came out of last week’s discussion.

There will be a reckoning

SUBHEAD: Lester Brown delivers stark warning over dust bowl conditions spreading over Africa and Asia.

By John Queally on 25 February 2015 for Common Dreams -

Image above: A satellite captured a 2001 dust storm swirling over China. The storm eventually crossed the Pacific and reached the United States. Photo by NASA. From original article.

On the verge of retirement, noted environmentalist and celebrated systems analyst Lester Brown has a dire warning for the world he has spent more than half a century advising on issues of food and energy policy: there is no end in sight for the interrelated scourge of climate change, global poverty and hunger.

In fact, according to Brown, in several vulnerable areas around the world, the situation may be about to go from very bad to much worse.

"We are pushing against the limits of land that can be plowed and the land available for grazing and there are two areas of the world in which we are in serious trouble now," said Brown, who founded both the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, in an interview with the Guardian's environment correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg.

“One is the Sahel region of Africa, from Senegal to Somalia," explained Brown. "There is a huge dust bowl forming now that is actually stretching right across the continent and that dust bowl is removing a lot of top soil, so eventually they will be in serious trouble."

At some point soon, he added, "there will be a reckoning" in those regions.

According to this NPR report from November, based on the work of the Earth Policy Institute, the dust bowl conditions forming in northern Africa and across central Asia are already having dire consequences:
In China, dust storms have become almost an annual occurrence since 1990, compared to every 31 years on average historically. In northern China and Mongolia, two large deserts — the Badain Jaran and the Tengger — are expanding and merging, often swirling together in massive sand storms when strong winds blow through each spring. The Gobi desert is also growing, inching ever-closer to Beijing as the grasslands at its edges deteriorate.
Meanwhile, in the Sahel region of Africa, millions of acres are turning to desert each year in countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Dust from Chad's Bodele Depression been traveling the globe for many centuries — in fact, scientists think it helped make the Amazon fertile. But the amount of dust blowing out of West Africa has increased in the last 40 years. Dust clouds from the Sahara can affect air quality as far away as Houston, and may even harm Caribbean coral reefs.
According to Brown, as the situation worsens in these areas, the impacts will likely be much worse than they were in the United States during the 1930s. "Our dust bowl was serious," Brown explained to Goldenberg, "but it was confined and within a matter of years we had it under control ... these two areas don’t have that capacity."

The warning over soil erosion and the unsustainable farming practices that currently dominate large swaths of the planet have been on the mind of ecologists and agricultural experts for decades. As the threat of global warming has entered the public debate, the stakes have only intensified.

Brown was among the first and most thorough minds to set attention on the threat of planetary climate change, devoting an entire series of books—collectively titled Plan B—which assess and put forth solutions to the approaching crisis. The most recent edition is Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

However, in a statement last month, Brown announced that he would officially retire later this year and wind down the Earth Policy Institute following the publication of his next book, The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy.

"After careful consideration of my life at 80 years," announced  Brown in the statment, "and with profound appreciation to my staff, collaborators and supporters, I have decided to step down as president of the Earth Policy Institute and end its work as of July 1, 2015."

Brown continued, "I believe the Earth Policy Institute has accomplished what we set out to do when we began in 2001, and now it is time for me to make a shift and no longer carry the responsibility of managing an organization. I plan to continue to research and write on issues that I believe I can add to in some meaningful way."

Speaking with Goldenberg, Danielle Nierenberg, who joined Worldwatch in 2001 and went on to co-found her own institute, Food Tank, said the world owes much to Brown for his decades of work and unique vision.

"He’s the godfather of merging environmental and food issues," said Nierenberg. "If you are talking about food and the environment, everybody looks to Lester Brown."

As the world continues to grapple with the catastrophes spurred by our own human development, Brown wrote this in the introduction to Plan B 4.0: "The question we face is not what we need to do, because that seems rather clear to those who are analyzing the global situation.

The challenge is how to do it in the time available. Unfortunately, we don't know how much times remains. Nature is the timekeeper but we cannot see the clock."

He continued, "The thinking that got us into this mess it not likely to get us out. We need a new mindset."

The last question society should ask, he concluded, is whether or not what needs to be done is considered possible.


Another Omidyar Screwup

SUBHEAD: Ken Silverstein resigns from First Look Media, slams company's 'Incompetence'.

By Jackson Conner on 24 February 2015 for Huffington Post -

Image above: Pierre Omidyar lands with heavy boots on all he touches. From ($50-million.html).

First Look Media is going through yet another messy break up with one of its journalists.

Investigative reporter Ken Silverstein announced over this weekend that he was leaving the company after only 14 months on the job. In a series of private Facebook posts published by Jim Romenesko, Silverstein blasted First Look's managerial "incompetence," calling the company a “pathetic joke” for squandering millions of dollars on long-time Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi's never-launched satirical site, Racket.

"I am one of a many employees who was hired under what were essentially false pretenses," Silverstein wrote.

"We were told we would be given all the financial and other support we needed to do independent, important journalism, but instead found ourselves blocked at every step of the way by management’s incompetence and bad faith ..."

Funded by billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omiydar, First Look was supposed to be home to a number of high-profile, stand-alone publications helmed by some of journalism's biggest names. But the only publication First Look has succeeded in launching is The Intercept, which focuses on national security and features the work of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill.

Silverstein originally worked for Racket when he joined First Look, but when the project was shuttered, he transferred to The Intercept, where he lasted two months.

"You know what’s cool about being a former employee of First Look/The Intercept?" Silverstein wrote on Facebook. "That Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Betsy Reed and Pierre Omidyar all believe in Free Speech and the First Amendment so they won’t mind my writing about my time working for and with them."

"Tentative title: “Welcome to the Slaughterhouse,” he continued.

Silverstein aimed much of his ire directly at Omiydar, whom he claimed cares little for the personal well-being of the Racket staff despite promising to treat his employees with "dignity."

"[W]hen the company pulled the plug some months back, it fired the remaining staff and told them to clear out of the office immediately, that very day, to take their things and get out and FL would generously give them one month severance," wrote Silverstein. "I am pretty sure the Koch Brothers treat fired workers with greater respect." (Silverstein later clarified that the company had given employees three months of severance pay.)

In a statement to The Huffington Post, The Intercept said Silverstein clashed with various members of the staff before his departure.

"Ken Silverstein joined the staff of The Intercept this past December, roughly two months ago," the statement read. "Last week, in the wake of repeated conflicts with Intercept editors, researchers and fact checkers, he resigned. We wish him the best of luck in the future."

Silverstein and Taibbi are among several several First Look employees who have critiqued their former employer on their way out the door.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper -- who along with Silverstein conducted a two-part interview with "Serial" prosecutor Kevin Urick -- resigned from First Look in January and began working at Jezebel.

Vargas-Cooper criticized the company on her blog for failing to print an email correspondence between Urick and "Serial" host Sarah Koenig.

Though Silverstein appears to have deleted his Twitter account, Taibbi tweeted his former colleague words of encouragement early Monday morning:

 ·  Feb 22
Good luck to Ken Silverstein, a terrific reporter who (to an absurd degree) had the worst experience of all of us at FLM and deserves better.

Silverstein declined to comment further on his departure.

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Hawaii Dairy Farm Factsheet 10/11/14
HDF's sole owner is Pierre Omidyar, through his venture capital company Ulu'pono Initiative.

Ea O Ka Aina: The Hail Mary Pass 8/27/14
Last two "moneymakers" are the work of Omidyar, who has his telescopic sights set on Kauai.

Ea O Ka Aina: Omidyar - NSA - Snowden 12/17/13
Pierre Omidyar's PayPal corporation said to be implicated in withheld NSA documents.

Ea O Ka Aina: Preserving what's left 11/15/12
A plan by Ohana Real Estate Investors whose principal investor is billioniare Pierre Omidyar.

Ea O Ka Aina: Beach Blockage Push Back 6/8/12
Montage Resorts, an ultra luxury hotel developer whose properties are owned by Omidyar.

Ea O Ka Aina: Hawaii's Farm Future 9/27/10
Speakers such as Kyle Datta, a founding partner with Pierre Omidyar's Ulu'pono Initiative.


US pushing GMOs on Africa

SUBHEAD: U.S. is "assisting" African nations to produce biosafety laws that promote its GMO Big Ag interests.

By Andrea Germanos on 23 February 2015 for Common Dreams -

Image above: A woman processing millet in Senegal.  Photo: Kevin Sharp/flickr/cc). From original article.

The U.S. government and multinational corporations have capitalized on African nations' voids in regulatory frameworks to push genetically modified (GM) crops, standing to gain lucrative corporate profits while decimating food sovereignty, a new report states.

Released Monday from the African Centre for Biosafety and commissioned by environmental network Friends of the Earth International, Who benefits from GM crops? The expansion of agribusiness interests in Africa through biosafety policy (pdf) looks at how U.S. interests have used the mantra of addressing food security to push these crops despite local opposition.

"The U.S., the world's top producer of GM crops, is seeking new markets for American GM crops in Africa," stated report author Haidee Swanby. "The U.S. administration's strategy consists of assisting African nations to produce biosafety laws that promote agribusiness interests instead of protecting Africans from the potential threats of GM crops."

That opening exists, Friends of the Earth explains, because most African nations don't have biosafety laws on the safe handling of GM crops (or GMOs), and such laws can be crafted to either promote the crops or to promote a rigorous safety assessment of them.

But "the U.S.A. stance is that GM crops offer important technological advances in agriculture that can significantly increase crop production and that they pose no risks." So when representatives of U.S. interests offer assistance, it is to "craft [regulatory systems that] are most likely to have an absolute minimum of regulation, creating attractive environments for agribusiness investors."

Another part of the "strategy has been to pursue the development of strong intellectual property rights regimes, in order to give investors confidence with respect to returns on their investments," the report states.

One example noted in the report is an initiative called the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project (WEMA), which is implemented in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.
Monsanto has partnered with the initiative, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation have pledged $47 million for it.

It is is ostensibly aimed at boosting food security with drought- and insect-resistant maize, but the report says Monsanto is using the project to do field trials and ultimately gain approval of a new maize, rather than taking the standard commercial route for approval, thereby paving the way for new markets for the crops. The report also points to questions about the efficacy of the drought-resistance trait.

Among the problems civil society groups see with the WEMA plan are that it ignores existing (non-GMO) drought tolerant crops, gives control of food systems to the private sector, and diverts funding and support away from in-place, farmer-led resilient agricultural systems.

The report concludes that those African nations who might be tempted by GMO promises should look at what happened in South Africa, where, after 16 years of such crops being cultivated, GMOs have failed to meet the promises of improved food security.

"The South African experience confirms that GM crops can only bring financial benefits for a small number of well-resourced farmers. The vast majority of African farmers are small farmers who cannot afford to adopt expensive crops which need polluting inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and chemicals to perform effectively," Swanby stated.

Real assistance from foreign donors, the report states, would come by "craft[ing] policies for the wellbeing of Africans rather than the wellbeing of foreign corporations and their shareholders."

As Swanby and Mariann Bassey Orovwuje from Friends of the Earth Nigeria write in an op-ed published Monday, "African farmers have a lot to lose from the introduction of GMOs; the rich diversity of African agriculture, its robust resilience and the social cohesion engendered through cultures of sharing and collective effort could be replaced by a handful of monotonous commodity crops owned by foreign masters."

Despite the corporate mantra of GMOs being able to feed a growing population, Swanby and Bassey Orovwuje stress: "African social movements have pointed out that skewed power relations are the bedrock of hunger in Africa."

The solution lies instead, Friends of the Earth says, with agroecology—which food justice organization Food First describes as "both a science and movement" that "works to decentralize power and promote equity and ecological resilience in our food systems." GM crops, in contrast, are part of the problem.

Friends of the Earth is among those heading to the first International Forum on Agroecology beginning Tuesday in Mali.

It is a forum that Ibrahim Coulibaly, a leader of the National Coordination of Peasants Organizations (CNOP) in Mali, said "will bring practical responses, that will lead to concrete solutions on how agroecology can save the planet from hunger and climate change."


Leaf Cutters

SUBHEAD: The problem is the solution. Damaged soils is a problem. Natures solution is to send leaf cutter ants.

By Christopher Nesbitt on 22 February 2015 for the Great Transition -

Image above: Leaf cutter ants marching to nest carrying sections of leaves. From (

We are up river in Belize at the Maya Mountain Research Farm these next two weeks, teaching our tenth annual Permaculture Design Course here. This year we have 16 local Mayan farmers, healers, businessmen and women, trainers in development work, and students from the US, UK, Russia and Greece. Our own essay this week, about a different topic, is being guest-published at Club Orlov on Monday, so we thought we would publish here a short piece by our host, Christopher Nesbitt.

This is a small nest of a leaf cutter ant queen, establishing a colony. We tend to see them in tired land, rebuilding soils, assaulting the biological obscenity of monoculture, especially citrus, and aerating soils, hauling carbon down to the subsoil, allowing oxygen and water to infiltrate soils.

They will do some damage to native species, like cacao, but mostly concentrate on introduced species. Chemicals are not a constant necessity. I have been farming in a tropical setting since 1988, and I have NEVER used any biocides.

I am farming about 15 acres of a 70 acre piece of land. Most of the land I am working right now is old cattle pasture or abandoned citrus. You would not be able to tell looking at it. I live in a pretty lush forest of trees, with hundreds of species. Most of what I am doing is creating a stacked polyculture with a large diversity of species, ranging from banana, papaya and pineapple, to timber, to fuel wood, to tree legumes, to food, to medicinals and market crops that fit into the matrix of the farm, things like cacao, coffee and vanilla.

We do have some gardens, and we are expanding on the periphery of the land to create coconut dominated polycultures and feed banks for pigs, but the majority of the farm resembles the primary rainforest in structure, with less diversity, and with all the species being selected by us. We get both termites and leaf cutter ants. While they can both be a nuisance, if we step back a bit, we can see some of the services and products they provide.

Think of the presence of leaf cutter ants as being an indicator of an ecosystem out of balance, of being a cure for damaged soils. The lack of leaf cutter ants may mean a healthy ecosystem, or massive use of chemicals, including aldrin. I think of leaf cutter ants as being nature's way of rehabilitating damaged soils.

You really only see leaf cutters in the wake of a biological catastrophe, hurricanes, fire damaged land, or places like played-out milpa, after the window of 3-6 years of annuals productivity has dwindled out, and the return on energy invested is not worth the effort, and the land in question is being fallowed, or in the wake of the life of a citrus grove, abandoned banana plantations or damaged cattle pasture.

Most biological "catastrophes" are man made, with monocultures being the biggest biological catastrophe, sustained through work and inputs. These systems are only sustainable in simplistic economic models of capital invested in input and labor versus kilograms per hectar x dollar per kilogram.

Often, in terms of calorie based accounting, they are net losses of energy. Without cheap petroleum to subsidize their profitless existence, they would not exist.

I have lots of leaf cutter ants here in Belize, and while they can be a nuisance, they seldom damage a tree beyond the capacity of recovery. The biggest problem is that, if one is looking to produce marketable quantities of a single species, you have painted a sign on your ass that tells nature "bite me." Nature obliges.

While working industriously to undo the biological abomination of a monoculture the ants are the rescue squad, aerating the soil, allowing water to percolate in, and hauling carbon, all things that help damaged soil to recover.

Monocultures lead to leaf cutter ants. Leaf cutters have adapted to citrus in particular, with a preference for Washington navels and Valencia oranges. They are less excited by grapefruit or limes. What we call Jamaica lime here in Belize is practically immune to leaf cutter ants (and tolerates poor soil).

One way to avoid leaf cutters is to have a diversified farm in the first place, but any young polyculture in the lowland humid tropics is going to be prone to leaf cutter ants. When the land is more mature, it will be less susceptible, but not immune.

We see a lot of leaf cutter nests. I periodically dig up the mounds, looking for their fungus gardens, the subterranean chambers where they use the leaves for a substrate for their fermentations. When the young flightless queens are in the embryonic stage, they are like milk shakes for chickens. Even whacking on the surface of the nest will excite the colony.

Ants, being social insects, react to any perceived threat to the queen by swarming. Any disturbance on ground level will result in massive retaliation by the soldier ants, which are like micro pit bulls.

My chickens have visually imprinted on soldier ants and queen ants as being food. Soldier ants come out, looking to attack the source of the disturbance, and chickens happily eat them, racing about to snatch them up, converting a problem into eggs, meat and manure. I invest a bit of energy in harassing the colony, and the result is a smorgasborg of insect protein for my chickens. I have eliminated a few nests with this technique.

You can also make barriers of lemon grass, or vetiver, which leaf cutter ants do not like, lay cannavalia ensoformis leafs in their trails, which has antifungal properties and eventually, accidentally, will be taken into their nest, working better than a Stuxnet virus. If I put the soil from one nest across the trail of another nest they will not cross the trail (for a while). All of these are more about management than destruction.

The important thing is to see the inherent limitations of sustainably managing your farm. Certain crops are leaf cutter ants' favorite foods. If you want to grow citrus, you need to walk your land regularly, looking for new nests. How much land can a farmer adequately monitor? When you find a new nest, you must dig it up and find the queen, and kill her. I find a certain spiteful glee of throwing the helpless queen out into a flock of chickens, and watching them fight over her.

If the colony is young enough that it has no capacity to requeen itself, you have killed the colony. If not, you will need to dig it several times to kill the colony. Sometimes, its just going to be there. In Costa Rica and Panama, I hear they use pig manure to discourage the leaf cutter ants, pouring in a foul slurry into their home.

The key is to have a diversified system whereby you can use that energy in a useful way. Without poultry, we would have little use for either leaf cutter ants or for termites. With them, they both become assets.

Industrial mentality: the solution is the problem. Have leaf cutter ants. Apply biocide. Poison soil, water, self. Support nasty earth destroying chemical company.

Permaculture mentality: The problem is the solution. Damaged soils is a problem. Natures solution is to send leaf cutter ants. Leaf cutter ants are a problem. My solution is to use them to solve another problem, what to feed our chickens. 


How goes the War?

SUBHEAD: Oh, you didn’t notice that World War Three is underway, actually has been for more than year?

By James Kunstler on 23 February 2015 at -

Image above: Detail of cartoon from 5/9/14 showing weapons used in World Wars. From (

Oh, you didn’t notice that World War Three is underway, actually has been for more than year? Well, that’s because most of it has been taking place in the banking sector, which for most people is just an alternative universe of math. The catch, which many people either miss or don’t care about, is that the math doesn’t add up.

For instance, the runaway choo-choo train of linked European sovereign bond obligations with its overloaded caboose of interest rate swaps and other janky derivatives of mass destruction. That train left the station in Athens a few weeks ago bound for Frankfurt. 

Ever since, the German government and its cohorts in the EU, the ECB, and the IMF have been issuing reassurances that the choo-choo train will not blow up when it reaches its destination.

Few people grok that Greece is an entity with an economy not much bigger than North Carolina’s, yet it is burdened with roughly $350 billion of old debt that will never be paid back. 

The only thing at issue is how it will not be paid back, that is, what mode of pretense will be employed to disguise the inability to pay back this debt. The mode du jour has been the crude one of lending Greece more money to pay back the interest on the old debt. A seven-year-old ought to be able to understand where that leads.

It’s kind of up to the Greeks this week to possibly opt out of that farcical deal. They have at least two other present options: return to being a sunwashed semi-medieval backwater of olive farmers, shepherds, and inn-keepers, or perhaps lease out some cozy corner of their vast Mediterranean coastline to the Russian navy for enough annual walking-around money to keep the lights on for the aforementioned farmers, shepherds, and inn-keepers. 

Of course, that would drive the US and its NATO quislings batshit crazy.

We’ve already got our knickers in a twist over Ukraine, a so-called nation whose highest and best purpose over the millennia has been as a sort of lethal doormat in front of Russia, leaving adventurers like Napoleon and Hitler bleeding in the snow as they crawled back to their nations of origin. 

In short, Ukraine has worked so well for Russia that we must be insane to imagine that it would give up that traditional relationship. 

Yet the US and NATO persist in their foolishness and attempt to back up their Kievan intrigues with financial “sanctions” against Russia.

Russia is doing what it has always done in the face of adversity, which is to suck it up. And, anyway, these western financial monkeyshines don’t hold a candle to ordeals like the siege of Stalingrad. What’s more, the Russians, despite their peculiar alphabet and thuggish demeanor, are at least as clever with computers as our code jockeys. 

We (in the USA) think just because we’ve made it possible for everyman to drool over Kim Kardashian’s booty on an iPhone screen that we have some kind of immunity against cyber counter-attack from way out east.

It seems to me that Russia (with China and others) is very busy constructing an alternate financial network that will allow for international money transfers and other necessities for conducting normal trade operations, outside of systems like the SWIFT code, which the US has been using as a knout against our imagined enemies. The upshot will leave America high and dry in a lot of what remains of international trade, especially in oil.

Meanwhile we continue to tell ourselves the false and idiotic story of “energy independence,” based on the shale oil Ponzi scheme that blew up last fall — the consequences of which won’t really be felt for about another eight months, when all those wells drilled and fracked in 2013-14, start to fall off their production cliff, and the replacement wells will not have been drilled. 

We’re still importing almost 8 million barrels of oil a day, contrary to all the fairy tales we tell ourselves. What happens when the sellers decide they won’t take US dollars for it? Hmmmm….

See also:
Ea  O Ka Aina: Welcome to World War III By James Kunstler 2/16/15

The Master Comes Home

SUBHEAD: What we expect of the System makes an interruption of the grid a form of powerlessness.

By Brian Miller on 22 February 2015 for Winged Elm Farm -

Image above: "Night Cabin" by Andrey Golubev. From (

The initial thrill that comes with an ice storm and a loss of power faded a bit the morning the temperature bottomed out at 3 degrees.

Delores the sow had dragged the heater out of her water trough for the fifth time, the pond ice for the cattle and horse had to be broken every few hours, and a young ewe and her newborn had to be rescued after lambing in a far corner of the wind-blown sheep pasture and relocated to the shelter of a barn stall.

Still, the domestic pleasure of coming into a cozy house heated by a woodstove to sip a hot cup of tea is not to be dismissed.

Traditionally we built our houses to meet the demands of our climates, a grass hut if you lived on a tropical isle or a house with connected barn if you lived in New England. Older houses in Louisiana, when I was growing up, were typically built a couple of feet off the ground. It was a good model for a warm climate.

The open space underneath kept the house cooler in the warmer months (most of the year), and the elevation protected against the occasional flooding.

Freezes, like the big one in 1940 my dad recalled, were rare. And given that most plumbing was limited to the kitchen, freeze damage to the house was minimal.

Infrastructure was on my mind this past week here in East Tennessee. After a week of temperatures barely budging above freezing, we had an ice storm.

The storm caused our farm to lose power. Then the temperatures plummeted to low single digits. Thankfully, we had a generator to run the refrigerator, well pump and a few essential electrical circuits. A Jotul woodstove helped keep the house a comfortable 60 degrees.

Another generator at the barn kept a variety of water tanks heated for the sheep, chickens, goose, cattle and horse.

Today, our houses are designed to accommodate the additional “essentials” that just a generation ago were not needed nor even available. The electricity to keep the modern house functioning is a relatively new concept in human culture. The boundary line of what is essential has shifted. Shelter, heat, food and water now share demand with internet, smartphone, cable TV and microwave.

Older forms of infrastructure had built-in resilience: barns carefully constructed to hold heat, with hay mows above to ease the feeding of livestock in poor weather; deep in-ground cisterns to provide fresh water for the farm; houses designed to facilitate warmth in the winter or coolness in the summer—smart, low-tech designs that we have pushed aside with the assumption that the power grid will now take care of us.

Over the years Cindy and I have discussed converting our farm to an off-the-grid power system. Each time, though, we found the costs to be prohibitive. But this week, after a few days without power, as we scrambled to keep up with our needs, it occurred to me: off-the-grid is easy; it is our modern needs that are complicated, the prohibitive factor, the stumbling block, the real expense.

Those old houses in south Louisiana worked year in, year out because they had very little modern infrastructure to protect. Working under the house insulating each individual pipe before the ice storm, I was overwhelmed by how much plumbing is needed in our small house just to furnish us water on demand.

Hot and cold pipes to the kitchen and the two bathrooms, the hot water heater and the washer/dryer—a complexity of plumbing requiring protection from the elements, so that it might protect us from the elements.

Driving into town late in the week, I saw dozens of downed trees, limbs still balancing on utility lines, brush pushed to the edges of the road. As I looked at the miles of power lines and telephone lines, our true vulnerability was evident. It was not the loss of electrical power that we feared but the loss of a certain status that comes with our modern life, a status of predictability.

Off-the-grid literature is typically geared towards finding ways around the commercial power source, yet retaining the modern conveniences. As we watered and fed our sheep, as lambs were born this week without regard to the temperature or the state of our utilities, I thought about the Amish.

While many of us were without power, were they concerned with an inability to update their Facebook pages, charge their cell phones, keep their freezers going, stay warm with their electric furnaces? Did they feel powerless? Somehow I doubt it.

The complexity of this modern life, the infrastructure that maintains it, is hardwired for disruption.

Our system and our expectations for what it must provide are such that losing power is a form of powerlessness. That in itself seems a form of slavery.

Which is why there is, for me, always that bit of anarchic joy in an emergency, an unshackling from the system. Though that uncertain joy is accompanied by relief when the master comes home and power is restored.