Archive for December, 2008

King Corn

By Gordon Solberg

Laura and I just watched a documentary, “King Corn,” which I highly recommend. To make this movie, two young men moved to Iowa temporarily, grew an acre of corn (or more accurately, had an acre of corn grown for them), and attempted to follow their crop as it made its way through the industrial agriculture pipeline, interviewing dozens of farmers, researchers, and other experts along the way. Their experiences reveal a lot about the way Empire America works.

The present situation with corn can be traced back to Earl Butz, who was Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture. Previous agricultural policy paid farmers not to grow crops, in order to keep commodity prices higher than they would have been otherwise. Under Butz and subsequent administrations, farmers were subsidized to grow corn, soybeans, and other crops. This kept commodity prices low, and maximized food production. (Plentiful, cheap food was designed to keep the rabble happy and complacent, by the way.) What resulted was a “race to the bottom” – farms got bigger, since only the largest operators could make a profit. And the quality of the corn itself decreased, since it was bred for one thing only – maximum yield per acre.

Traditionally, 40 bushels of corn per acre was considered a good harvest. These days, using genetically engineered corn and heavy use of synthetic fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, yields can be as high as 200 bushels per acre. But modern corn has a much lower protein content than earlier varieties, now consisting of mostly starch. In fact, modern corn is nothing more than an industrial raw material, to be converted, in huge factories, into animal feed and the now-ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup. (The movie was made just before the ethanol boom, which now absorbs much of the corn crop.)

Agricultural policy has caused the demise of the family farm. Only the largest farms can afford the monster tractors and harvesters required to prepare the soil, plant the seed, apply the necessary chemicals, and harvest the crop. Every step in the process is mechanized, and the tractors are far larger than anything we will ever see in this part of New Mexico. As one Iowa farmer said, “We prefer large fields so we don’t have to turn around as often.” Our relatively small, irrigated New Mexico fields don’t lend themselves to agriculture on the Iowa scale.

Of course, industrial agriculture in late-empire America is predicated on unlimited, cheap energy. Oil prices are down once again — revealing the speculative nature of the oil pricing system — but shortages will inevitably occur, and will get worse over time. You can bank on this. Whoops, there will be no more banks, sorry.

The unprecedented corn crops of recent years (there are literal mountains of corn piled next to the overwhelmed storage silos which are filled to capacity) has resulted in the ethanol scam. Briefly: ethanol requires more energy to produce than you get at the end of the process, duh! But all this corn has to be used for something.

One of these “somethings” is high fructose corn syrup, which is added to just about everything these days, and is a prime culprit behind our obesity epidemic. In the words of one expert interviewed in the film, not only does high fructose corn syrup have no food value, it disorders the metabolism. What a wonderfully American food it is!

Another “something” is the modern “grain fed beef” paradigm in which the cattle are fed a diet consisting of mostly corn. Corn is so cheap, feedlots use it to the exclusion of almost all other feeds. Unfortunately, cattle evolved to eat mostly grass, and a high corn diet gives them stomach ulcers. In typically American fashion, researchers are busily at work solving the symptom – finding medications to keep the ulcers under control long enough for the “animal unit” to reach optimal slaughtering weight. The meat from such animals has such a high fat content, it bears little relationship to what traditionally used to be called “beef.” What we now have is “fat disguised as a beef-like substance.”

The movie didn’t mention the fact that, thanks to industrial agriculture, our remaining topsoil is quickly flowing down the Mississippi River, and that all those excess agricultural chemicals in the runoff water are contributing a massive “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Talk about way beyond fucked up. Everybody the two young men interviewed said the same thing: “I don’t necessarily agree with the way modern agriculture is practiced, but I’ve got to make a living in the world as it is.” And so we stumble, step by step, into oblivion.

Empire America deserves to crash, and crash hard. The coming “Greatest Depression” will be beyond anything we have every dreamed of. Are you ready, dear reader? Are you making any preparations whatsoever? I didn’t think so! Why is this, exactly? Keep your internet channel tuned right here for further developments. Perhaps we will get to the bottom of all this before too much longer.

(Gordon Solberg’s blog is still very active. Check it out: http://newearthtimes.blogspot.com .)

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Change We Can Choose

By Steve Klinger

MoveOn is asking its five million members to vote on the top three goals the organization should demand of the incoming Obama administration. I checked the ballot and got ready to vote, only to realize there was no way I could select only three of the 10 choices:

1)    Universal health care
2)    Build a green economy/stop climate change
3)    Improve public schools
4)    Hold the Bush administration accountable
5)    Increase access to higher education
6)    Economic recovery and job creation
7)    End the war in Iraq
8)    Reform campaigns and elections
9)    Gay rights/LGBT equality
10)     Restore civil liberties

The 10 were the finalists, winnowed down from 77,255 big goals nominated by MoveOn members. Trouble is, most are interrelated, and many defy prioritization.

Clearly the current economic crisis has to trump some of the more ideological goals, so I’d say 2) and 6) need to be at the very top. But 3) is part and parcel of fixing the economy, as the exploding costs and dire consequences of not having insurance or needing unaffordable health care contribute mightily to the overall infirmity of the economy, as Obama himself noted the other day. A massive public works problem, involving not only infrastructure but creation of a green-collar workforce is essential in rebuilding the economy while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and providing an opportunity to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a major component of global warming/climate change.

The rest of the goals are essential, each in their own way, in preserving democracy as we know it, but will not likely be afforded the priority they would deserve in better economic times. Of course, the war in Iraq has drained up to $1 trillion that could otherwise have gone toward education, jobs and health care. It has caused the death of untold thousands of Iraqis and well over 4,000 coalition troops. It has also galvanized public opinion against this country in much of the world and been the best recruiting tool fundamental Islamic terrorists could have asked for. But the whole catastrophic and repugnant process finally seems to be on a self-limiting course. Rushing American withdrawals beyond the time frame negotiated with the Iraqis may not be well advised, but more pressing needs in Afghanistan will probably provide the impetus to maintain or even exceed the planned pace of redeployment.  As a moral imperative, it now seems more important to acknowledge regret and culpability than to withdraw overnight regardless of the consequences.

I view the other moral and ideological goals similarly. Obama’s justice department must act decisively to restore civil liberties; it need to reinstate habeas corpus, end torture, close Guantanamo, reject warrantless wiretapping and forfeit the numerous executive powers usurped by Bush and his criminal co-conspirators. The Bush administration absolutely needs to be held accountable for its deconstruction of constitutional protections or there will no precedent to deter future offenders. To the extent this can be done simultaneously with rescuing the economy and the imperiled planet, I support prioritizing 4) and 10).

Campaign and election reform are other vital longterm goals that should not be downplayed. The corruption in Washington and the attitude that government is an obstacle to be exploited by unrestrained free enterprise is exactly what brought us to the current economic situation. Without public financing of political campaigns, government will continue to be vulnerable to the twin cancers of lobbying and self-serving , greed-driven deregulation, so 8) must not be neglected or the system can never climb out of its morally compromised morass.

A future in the hands of well educated young Americans is obviously more important than ever for the survival of a society that will continued to be challenged on numerous critical fronts. Where can you place 5) and 3) on the priority continuum, according them the importance they deserve, yet in conjunction with the other essential goals?

Gay rights and LGBT equality are issues that aptly measure the evolution of a society and must be viewed along with the rights of women and of other minorities; an evolved democracy necessarily must be consistent about the rights of all or be built on a framework of hypocrisy.

But where to start when needs of food, shelter and health care are so urgent for so many, and growing by the day?

I don’t know about advancing all 10 goals with equal urgency, but I know there is no way to stop at a top three. Kudos to MoveOn for setting the dialogue. This group, along with numerous smaller but equally passionate organizations, should be credited for bringing us to a place where we can even set such goals instead of despairing how we could get through the years of utter darkness that increasingly enveloped this nation and much of the world under Bush’s leadership.

I vote for recognition, recovery and retribution, in that order. Until we understand where we went wrong we are condemned to repeat our mistakes.

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‘Tis the Season for Peace (Lite)

By Steve Klinger

There was an ad for La Posta Restaurant in the Sun-News the other day with a picture of a hippie Santa Claus wearing a T-shirt with a peace symbol and a bandanna that said Flower Power. This along with all the greetings and church service ads that crop up during the holiday season, bedecked with white doves and sprigs of holly, adorning the peace word, reminded me what a peace-loving nation we are, at least in the pro-American parts of America.

Oh, yes, Americans love peace at Christmas time, where it seems to inspire our annual rediscovery of good will, as in drive like a maniac now that gas is cheap again, but throw a few coins in the Salvation Army kettle. So you see Santa can be for peace, as long as it’s not a philosophy-thing, but a cartoon-hippie-bearded-biker kind of peace.

And the churches can ring the Christmas bells for peace, as in a mutually agreeable truce  (presumably with the abstract concept of anti-peace) for a couple of weeks, so we can demonstrate our highly evolved sublime compassion and gift-giving generosity as a nation by stampeding to the stores on Black Friday and thereafter, which may include stepping on an inconveniently placed human being such as a Wal-Mart employee or a pregnant woman who gets in the way of the crowd heading for the door-buster specials. I mean, we been here all night and there’s only four of those plasma TVs, so get out of our way!

Peace-lite is a permissible holiday diversion, even part of the whole Christmas ritual, and it’s therefore okay if the word and the symbol are trotted out, as long as they are not connected with anything serious like conscientious objection, pacifism (the practice of peace, if I’m not mistaken) or expressions of skepticism on the merits of war and violence.

Therefore, allusions to the ill-begotten war in Iraq, or the need for nuclear disarmament are not welcome. Nor are the words of Gandhi, King, or, umm, for that matter, Jesus.

Protest in the name of peace at a major-party political convention and the cops will beat the crap out of you (guaranteed since 1968). Speak of the unconscionable immorality of war and the institutions of power get very insecure. Out come the censors, the lawyers and the officers with the tasers, or worse.

That peace talk is seditious. It’s the language of socialism. We ought to kill you, but just to show you the freedom we died for, we’ll let you speak your mind – over there in the free speech zone. Yeah, that fenced in-yard across the street.

But a peace-loving hippie Santa? No problem. It’s the spirit of the season.

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