The Food Fight of Our Lives

A photoshopped image of a green and red pear, sliced open to reveal the centre of an orange

Millions Against Monsanto

by Ronnie Cummins

• Finally, public opinion around the biotech industry’s contamination of our food supply and destruction of our environment has reached the tipping point. We’re fighting back.

“If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.” – Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Co., Monsanto subsidiary, Kansas City Star, March 7, 1994

“Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” – Phil Angell, Monsanto communication director, New York Times, October 25, 1998

For nearly two decades, Monsanto and corporate agribusiness have exercised near-dictatorial control over American agriculture, aided and abetted by indentured politicians and regulatory agencies, supermarket chains, and giant food processors.

This November, in a food fight that will largely determine the future of what we eat and what we grow, Monsanto will face its greatest challenge to date: a statewide citizens’ ballot initiative that will give Californians the opportunity to vote for their right to know whether the food they buy has GMOs.

A growing corps of food, health, and environmental activists – supported by the Millions against Monsanto and Occupy Monsanto Movements, and consumers and farmers across the nation – are boldly moving to implement mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods in California through a grassroots-powered citizens ballot initiative process that will bypass the agribusiness-dominated state legislature.

Passage of this initiative on November 6 will radically alter the balance of power in the marketplace, enabling millions of consumers to identify – and boycott – genetically engineered foods for the first time since 1994, when Monsanto’s first unlabeled, genetically-engineered dairy drug, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), was forced on the US market,

This is not the first time Monsanto has been challenged by citizens’ initiatives or state and local legislative efforts. But this time, the momentum is in our favor.

In the past, GMO “right-to-know” activists have been outmaneuvered and outgunned by Monsanto and its minions in every state, except Vermont and Connecticut, where passing a labeling bill is still, at least theoretically, a long-shot. Monsanto recently threatened to sue the state of Vermont if legislators there pass a GMO labeling bill.

Efforts to pass GMO labeling laws at the federal level have gone nowhere, despite the fact that more than one million consumers have emailed “Just Label It” petitions to the FDA, demanding mandatory labeling. The FDA counted only 394 of the signatures claiming that the main petition was submitted as a single document, or docket, and therefore counted as only one signature.

The battle has been raging for decades. But this time, it’s different.

Behind this historic California initiative is a broad, growing and powerful health, environmental, and consumer coalition, which includes the Organic Consumers Association, Organic Consumers Fund, Food Democracy Now!, Mercola.com, Nature’s Path, Lundberg Family Farms, LabelGMOs.org, Eden Foods, Alliance for Natural Health, Dr. Bronner’s, United Farm Workers Union, American Public Health Association, Cornucopia Institute, Institute for Responsible Technology, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, California Certified Organic Farmers, and scores of others.

This time, the industry faces informed – and alarmed – consumers who understand the danger of allowing out-of-control chemical and biotech companies like Monsanto, Dow, or Dupont – the very same corporations that have assaulted us with toxic pesticides and industrial chemicals, Agent Orange, carcinogenic food additives, PCBs, and now global warming – to dictate their food choices.

Why has it taken so long to get this far? How have Monsanto and its cohorts been able to grow and maintain market supremacy while force-feeding unlabeled “Frankenfoods” to the public for decades? By buying off politicians, bullying farmers and scientists, and keeping consumers in the dark.

Monsanto has sued over 150 farmers across the US and Canada (see Percy Schmeiser vs Monsanto, January 2004, Common Ground) and threatened thousands of others, for refusing to pay for “intellectual property theft” after their fields were contaminated by Monsanto’s patented genetically engineered crops.

The company has harassed and used the media to bully scientists who have exposed the public health and environmental hazards of genetically engineered foods and crops in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Europe. The renowned scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai from the UK, was pressured and discredited for reporting on the dangers of genetic engineering until he was eventually fired from his job. The same thing happened to the UK’s Environmental Minister, Michael Meacher.

In a number of other cases, scientists such as Ignacio Chapela, have received death threats. Chapela also said he received death threats to his children from “a high government official” in Mexico after he showed contamination of native corn with Monsanto’s GMOs. Other scientists, most notably Andres Carrasco from Argentina, have been assaulted by thugs. Monsanto has even hired the notorious Blackwater mercenaries to spy on its opponents worldwide.

Why has Monsanto gone to such great lengths to thwart GMO labeling laws and initiatives? Because it understands the threat that truth-in-labeling poses for GMOs – and biotech industry profits. As soon as genetically engineered foods are labeled in the U.S., millions of consumers will read these labels and react. They’ll complain to grocery store managers and companies, they’ll talk to their family and friends. They’ll switch to foods that are organic or at least GMO-free. Once enough consumers complain about GE foods and food ingredients, stores will eventually stop selling them.  Farmers will stop planting them.

In Europe, there are almost no genetically engineered crops, while here nearly 75% of all supermarket foods are GE-tainted.  Why?  Because Europe requires labeling of genetically engineered foods – and the US does not.

This is exactly why activists have launched the California Ballot Initiative. Passing mandatory GMO food labeling in just one large state, California, the eighth largest economy in the world, where there is tremendous opposition to GE foods as well as a multi-billion dollar organic food industry, will ultimately have the same impact as a national labeling law.

Once food manufacturers and supermarkets are forced to come clean and label genetically engineered products, they will likely remove all GE ingredients, to avoid the “skull and crossbones” effect, just like the food industry in the EU has done. In the wake of this development American farmers will convert millions of acres of GE crops to non-GMO or organic varieties.

Monsanto, the Farm Bureau, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association – under the guise of its front group, the so-called Coalition Against the Costly Food Law – are building up a massive war chest up to battle the California Ballot Initiative. They will literally spend millions to spread lies and disinformation that GMO foods and crops are perfectly safe – and that we need more, not less GMO food and biofuel crops in this era of climate change and growing population.

They will lie and say that GMO labels will be costly to the food industry and raise food prices. They will say that it is the job of the FDA to decide whether GMOs are labeled, not the states. Yet we already know that this battle will never be won in Washington DC, where Monsanto and Food Inc. lobbyists have politicians in their back pockets. It will only be won in places like California (or Vermont), vital centers of organic food and farming and anti-GMO sentiment, where 90% of the body politic, according to recent polls, support mandatory labeling.

It’s time to take back control over our food and farming system. It’s time to stand up to Monsanto and the Biotech Bullies.

Ronnie Cummins founded the Organic Consumers Association and wrote Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers. You can help by contacting organicconsumersfund.org

This little piggy will be GMO-free

A friendly pig in a sign that reads GM Free! Thanks to you and me.

by Lucy Sharratt

• After more than10 years, active research into the genetically modified (GM or genetically engineered) pig called “Enviropig” is being abandoned. In late March, the hog industry group Ontario Pork decided to stop funding GM pig research at the University of Guelph and the university is now closing down its active research and ending its breeding program of GM pigs.

Scientists at the university began their research in 1995. In 1999, a team of three researchers in molecular and cellular biology, led by Dr. Cecil Forsberg, named their first GM pig “Wayne.” The university patented the technology in Canada, the US and China.

In a surprising announcement, Dr. Forsberg told the New York Times on April 3, “I had the feeling in seven or eight or nine years that transgenic animals probably would be acceptable. But I was wrong.” He added, “It’s time to stop the program until the rest of the world catches up.” Nonetheless, the GM pig is technologically irrelevant as well as socially unacceptable and is therefore unlikely to ever be commercially attractive. The pig was engineered with genetic material from a mouse and E-coli bacteria to produce less phosphorus in its feces. It could have become the first GM food animal in the world, but it was never needed and it was always controversial. Consumer backlash threatened the domestic and international markets for Canadian pork and with public awareness intensifying in Canada, Ontario Pork decided to remove its support.

The GM pig is an example of how genetic engineering is applied to solve problems that already have one or more solutions. There have always been many solutions to the problem of excessive waste from large hog farms. In addition to structural changes, there is the simple technological fix of a feed supplement that does exactly what the so-called “Enviropig” promised to do. The hog feed supplement (phytase) has increased in effectiveness over the years and is cost-neutral for farmers. Manitoba hog producers are using the supplement and manure management practices to meet new provincial phosphorus pollution regulations.

The University of Guelph never had a public mandate to bring the GM pig to market. Yet even in the face of deep social conflict over GM food animals and dubious commercial prospects, public funds were used to develop the GM pig and support the goal of commercialization. Additionally, public resources at Health Canada were spent reviewing the safety of this GM animal that no one wanted. In fact, the university has yet to officially withdraw its requests for approval from Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

When the university decided to seek commercial interest in the GM pig, it stepped outside the traditional boundaries of university research and became a commercial actor in the biotech industry. The university became engaged in the global social conflict over genetic engineering. It also became party to secret decision-making about GM foods in Canada. By requesting approval from Health Canada, the university became a participant in our secret regulatory system. When the university asked Canadian regulators to assess the safety of the GM pig, it accepted a system that classified its data as “Confidential Business Information” and rather than releasing this information to the public, the university accepted this secrecy as legitimate.

The hard reality now is the 16 GM pigs housed at the university need to be euthanized and incinerated under careful biosafety procedures. This is a necessary step to ensure the end of “Enviropig.” The university will send the genetics for storage and as “sole owner and researcher,” it says it will “continue to have the responsibility to make appropriate decisions regarding future use of the technology.” This means the genes will stay on the shelf at a federal government facility in Saskatoon until the university decides otherwise. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network is asking the university to withdraw its applications for approval from Health Canada and the US FDA in order to finally leave the GM pig at rest.

Despite the demise of “Enviropig,” the first GM food animal could still be introduced because the small US company AquaBounty is seeking approval for its fast-growing GM Atlantic salmon. All polls show consumers do not want GM fish and the aquaculture industry itself says there is no market for it. However, the lack of democracy in genetic engineering means unwanted GM experiments can still be approved.

GM animals are neither commercially viable nor socially acceptable and yet they may still be released into our food system because there is no public participation or debate. There is no gatekeeper between the University of Guelph or AquaBounty and Health Canada. At the moment, there is no public arbitrator to intervene to stop GM food animals. There is only public protest. Find out more at www.cban.ca

Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) www.cban.ca

Smart meter’s top-down agenda

A photograph of a so-called smart meter

by Josh Del Sol

• In the technetronic society, the trend seems to be toward aggregating the individual support of millions of unorganized citizens, who are easily within the reach of magnetic and attractive personalities, and effectively exploiting the latest communication techniques to manipulate emotions and control reason. – Zbigniew Brzezinski, Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era (1970).

When Barack Obama was just a toddler, Zbigniew Brzezinski was envisioning the day of making just such a technetronic “smart” society.

Fast-forward to 2012 and what we’re seeing is a so-called “smart” grid being forced upon an unwilling, but awakening population. This issue is unfolding with great grassroots notoriety here, as part of BC Hydro’s “smart metering” program, and unfurled simultaneously around the world.

If the people of BC and around the world allow the installation of the smart grid, democracy will fall. Tens of thousands of people in BC alone, and millions globally, are waking up to the deceit of this global agenda.

BC Hydro has recently recalled 1,000 smart meters due to their not functioning. Hundreds of thousands of BC citizens have now received Hydro bills anywhere from 30 to 1000 percent higher, following smart meter installation – increases with no real justification. It now appears possible that none of these meters measure accurately. One scenario will be a complete recall of smart meters across the province, if public outcry continues to grow.

According to BC Hydro’s figures, our cost of each smart meter in BC is approximately $555. In Quebec, where citizens now officially have a free opt-out option, the cost is $263.16 – less than half our amount. In Ontario, it is $232.56. In many US states, the cost is less than $200 per meter, including in Idaho, where no meters transmit wirelessly.

BC hydro awarded a multi-million dollar contract for smart meter installation to US multi-national giant Corix. David Emerson joined CAI (private equity) in 2008 as a senior advisor, with Corix in its “portfolio.” This is the same David Emerson who defected in 2006 to Stephen Harper’s government from the Liberals (previously Minister of Foreign Affairs) to become Minister of International Trade. Follow the dots. Would this be a conflict of interest? Emerson was executive chair of BC Transmissions Corp, chair of the BC premier’s advisory council, co-chair of the Alberta premier’s council, co-chair of the prime minister’s advisory committee. In the BC government, Emerson was the Deputy Minister of Finance, Deputy Minister to the Premier, and President of the British Columbia Trade Development Corporation. Emerson privately was CEO of Canfor Corporation, CEO of Vancouver International Airport Authority and Chairman of Canadian Western Bank. He is either extremely talented or well appointed.

In March’s Wired magazine, current CIA director David Patraeus admitted governments plan to spy on citizens through their “smart” appliances and we’ll be forced to re-think “our notions of identity and secrecy… Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters – all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost and high-power computing.”

Via the US Freedom of Information Act, researcher Angel De Fazio obtained documentation showing a $298 million grant for smart meter deployment in Nevada. One funding source was the “US Armed Forces Research and Development Projects.” The US has acknowledged its research programs around microwave radio frequency radiation and its effects on the human body and mind.

In a California lawsuit, Pacific Gas & Electric had to supply information on how frequently each smart meter transmits wirelessly. The average meter pulses 14,000 times per day, each for 4.5 milliseconds – every six seconds. Some meters pulse up to 190,000 times per day, or twice per second. Utility companies are fond of using a cumulative total (i.e.“60 seconds per day”) rather than admitting the constant emissions. These totals do not include the emissions from each wireless “smart” appliance the grid will require of us in the future, creating a veritable soup of electromagnetic radiation that the WHO calls a “class 2B potential carcinogen.”

Health concerns have led the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the Austrian Medical Association to publicly call the immediate ban of the smart metering program.

Most smart meters in BC are not yet actively transmitting; most meters are still being read manually, which means we still have time to recall the entire smart metering program in BC.

BC Hydro has stated, “We will not force you to have a smart meter.” However, it has failed to inform us we have a choice. An estimated 30,000 British Columbians have, on their own accord, notified Hydro of their non-consent (though Hydro’s public figures may still be lower) and installation has been delayed for most. Mail BC Hydro your letter of non-consent. See the templates at CitizensForSafeTechnology.org. If a smart meter has already been forced on you, you can demand to have it replaced.

For more information, see Take Back Your Power, ThePowerFilm.org

Constellation Kardashian

A giant ball on the road, it's surface covered with television screens showing different channels.

Star phenomena? People aren’t looking up at the sky – they’re tracking celebrities

• by Geoff Olson

There’s a great jpeg floating around the Internet that shows the star systems within range of Earth’s radio and television broadcasts. Aldebaran, a red giant, located about 65 light years away, is in the range of President Roosevelt’s first televised speech. Mu Arae, a main sequence G-type star like our Sun, is about 50 light years away and would now be getting The Twilight Zone, Bonanza and Leave it to Beaver.

Beta Aquilae is within broadcast distance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. The fab four are already old news to Zeta Reticuli, which recently got the Apollo moon landing. Chi Draconis would be getting The Dukes of Hazzard. Altair would have Entertainment Tonight, Cops and – unfortunately for any intelligent life – The Arsenio Hall Show. Wolf 359 just picked up Janet Jackson’s 2004 Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction.” Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, would have the full media menu, starting backwards with the sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

If there is any intelligent life around this binary star system, the ETs may soon come to the conclusion that a slinky creature called “Kim Kardashian” rules our planet along with her sisters. Because right now, it sure seems that way.

On Earth, we have full-spectrum saturation by the Kardashians. It seems you cannot surf the web or turn on the tube without encountering something about the talent-free socialite and her equally unremarkable siblings. I’ve set my homepage to Yahoo.com because that’s where my email account resides, and bodacious Kim is always there in some lifestyle update. I channel-surf and there she is with a sister, on their own reality TV show. I go to the supermarket and there she is again at the checkout stand magazine rack. I go to the local recreation centre for a workout and citrus-tanned Kim is there too, on the cover of one of the magazines left for gym patrons. And now here she is in Common Ground magazine – and I’m responsible. The horror.

The daughter of celebrity lawyer Robert Kardashian, big-breasted Kim first hit public consciousness in 2007 through a sex video co-starring her friend-with-benefits, the rapper Ray J. She leveraged this Internet notoriety into tabloid sovereignty, dragging her sisters behind her like Louis Vuitton bags to the top of the Twitterverse. The pneumatic 31-year-old is like a William Gibson science fiction short story gone viral, although she undoubtedly prefers the Wikipedia entry, “American socialite, television personality, model, actress and businesswoman.”

Kim’s career-lite arc was foreshadowed in the rise of Paris Hilton, who also leapt from sex video amateur to international celebrity without ever bumping into a script, teleprompter or catwalk along the way. Wikipedia informs me it was Paris herself who introduced Kim to the global socialite scene. If the Hilton daughter was H1N1, a pandemic that was more likely to make people giggle than sniffle, then the daughter of O.J. Simpson’s defence lawyer is weaponized Ebola: a level 4 biohazard that has zombified great swaths of media, both online and off.

The 24/7 “Kimformation” feeds on itself, in a perpetual motion machine of glossy pics, jpegs and witless gossip. No one, online or off, can seem to get a fix on how real or fake Kim is, beyond her admission of Botox use. Bloggers parse recent and past photos to determine how much reconstruction has been done. The question of fake/real can get a bit Byzantine. How much is a genetic factor and how much is Max Factor? Or even the surgeon’s scalpel? At some point, the gossip about Kim’s face and body shades into straight-on epistemology.

In June 2010, The Guardian noted Kim’s ability to attract payments of up to US$10,000 from sponsors for each tweet that she broadcasts. What I want to know is this: if Kim tweets and no one reads it, has she still communicated nothing of substance?

There is no need for me to describe further this woman’s victories across media platforms, including the current reality television show, Kourtney & Kim Take New York. Until science succeeds in squeezing the “God Particle” from a complete vacuum, the Kardashians are the best example of creating headlines out of absolutely nothing. Kim herself could be any old celeb and some other vapid beauty will take her place in time. But for now she reigns supreme on the Earth’s electromagnetic spectrum.

That ringlet-haired interpreter of pop culture, “Weird Al” Yankovic, has given us a new word with the “Kardash:” a period of 72 days, the length of time Kim was married to some Transformer-sized athlete whose name I can’t be bothered to Google (she reportedly got a $2 million-dollar ring out of this quickie arrangement, which she intends to keep). It occurred to me that Kardashian could serve as a perfectly good adjective, as well. I define it this way:

Kardashian | Kardashiy’n | adjective
1 Cosmetically beautified, but without the substance to back up the mass attention. 2. A state of slickly produced artifice, masquerading as the real thing.

There are many other aspects of our hi-tech, high-bandwidth culture that can be described with this adjective. Even popular music is going increasingly Kardashian, with off-key singers cutting their android albums with the aid of the pitch-correcting software program, AutoTune. Here are some other signs of our sim-culture in full swing.

Kardashian politics

Four years ago, weary US voters chose Barack Obama as President, in a benchmark moment for American race relations. Yet the campaign itself was a victory of warm and fuzzy over hard and specific, with voters sold on the abstract nouns of “hope” and “change.” Tellingly, the trade magazine Advertising Age named Obama’s campaign as marketer of the year for 2008, beating out runners-up Apple and Zappos.com

The Financial Times reported on the public relations industry’s enthusiasm for “brand Obama.” Among those cheering were PR execs that pioneered the packaging of candidates as consumer brands 30 years ago, when they helped California governor Ronald Reagan win the White House. “Take it from the professionals, Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream,” wrote author Chris Hedges in an essay at Truthdig.com “President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertiser wants because of how they can make you feel.”

Upon election, America’s most Kardashian politician immediately parachuted Wall Street insiders into his administration. The University of Chicago’s former lecturer on constitutional law not only failed to reverse many of the policies of the Bush administration, he also deepened and widened them, from wireless wiretapping to extraordinary renditions to bank bailouts to extending the Bush era tax cuts, to the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows any acting president to imprison any American citizen indefinitely without due process.

Closer to home, Republican-style dirty tricks seem to have accompanied the last federal election. Ottawa’s pale cipher with the helmet hair and cold, grey eyes is not visually appealing – but he is Kardashian, and the “robocall” scandal only raises further questions about deceit within the Tory social circle.

Kardashian defence policy

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was nothing if not Kardashian, with a phony WMD threat cooked up by a circle of White House neocons around Dick Cheney. The story was built on the testimony of a single alcoholic Iraqi source known by the code name “Curveball.” The neocons reanimated this pig of a tale, while the CIA and State Department reluctantly applied the lipstick. Media shills like Judith Miller of the New York Times did their part by attaching wings to the beast and training it to fly – not very well, but enough to convince the American public that it was some rough beast soaring towards Brooklyn.

The other bookend to this saga also seems Kardashian: the story of Osama bin Laden’s murder in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by Navy Seal Team Six, the disposal of his unphotographed corpse at sea and the rumoured death of some of the team in a subsequent helicopter crash. News consumers were expected to take the storyline on faith, in spite of its ongoing tweaking by official sources.

Kardashian finance and economics

Kardashian finance kicked into high gear with Wall Street’s post-2000 explosion in securitized mortgages, sliced and diced and sold to unsuspecting buyers in ticking time-bomb packages, after being signed off by complicit rating agencies. As the crash of 2008 and the current crisis in the eurozone have demonstrated, there is no moral hazard for robber barons who are rewarded with bailouts for crashing the system – just as there is no disincentive for captured politicians to tell the people the truth about a reckoning to come. Political leaders kick the can down the road so the inevitable consequences of bad behaviour – ecological, economic and social – are left to the next administration or generation (or, at least, the next Kardash, in 72 days).

When I say Kardashian, I’m talking about the triumph of surface over substance, of artifice over reality, of public relations over common sense, across many spheres of endeavour. It goes without saying the outlines have been around for decades. Back in the fifties, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the social construction of reality and the American penchant for turning performance into a social mask. In the nineties, Neal Gabler argued in his book, Life: The Movie, that American consumers have incorporated the values of film and television into their daily lives, becoming performers in their own private worlds.

No matter which way we try to get an academic fix on late capitalism’s production of junk-diet infotainment, there is no longer any line separating news and advertising, justice and entertainment, war and public relations, politics and pretty much everything else. And that’s been the case for some time. Just after the Gulf War victory in 1990, I was relaxing in a Seattle hotel room, watching TV. Henry Kissinger was doing the weather on Good Morning America – something he had always wanted to do, he told the hosts. I switched over to another channel and there was General Schwarzkopf marching in a victory parade with Mickey Mouse. The general and Mickey were singing together.

A real general celebrating a made-for-TV war with a fake rat. A former Nixon advisor and accused war criminal pretending he was a weatherman. It was a Kardashian moment, back when Kim herself was still playing with Barbie.

Fictitious wars, fake leaders, phony celebrities, simulated worlds online and off. So what else is new? Fakery and deception has been going gangbusters on this planet ever since the first orchids evolved organs that resembled the female versions of certain insects, thereby tricking males into pollination duties. Human beings didn’t invent deception, though language allowed us to lie about where the good berries were. The true evolutionary novelty humans brought to the game was gossip: the idle parsing of the behaviour of others. In fact, some anthropologists theorize that gossip was the prime mover in the evolution of language. A hominid’s survival hinged on the ability to assess and properly predict the behaviour of its own kind – and sometimes getting a leg up on a competitor with a tall tale. So today’s trash-talking checkout rags and celebrity television may not be so much a cultural maladaptation as a Darwinian overshoot. After all, it’s only a few million years from the savanna to the supermarket, a mere eyeblink in geological time.

Today, the rise of digital media has taken gossip to previously unimaginable heights, as traditional media retreats from old-school who-what-when-where-why journalism. As newsrooms’ budgets are slashed and advertising revenue dries up for media outlets, the cultivation of gossip becomes more seductive. The glossy celebrity magazines “Pimple” and “Pus” – sorry, I mean People and Us – outsell all other Time Warner publications put together, while the celeb-stalking TMZ has sprung from an obscure online tabloid to a massively popular cable show.

I don’t want to give the impression I’m somehow above celebrity culture myself. If you stick me in a plane with a drink in one hand and copy of Pimple or Pus in the other, I’m a happy camper. Some disreputable part of my brain hungers for this gossipy mind-candy, which is why I usually try to avoid it. It’s like info-crack for me, as it is for millions of others. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the End Times are upon us simply because millions of shoppers are tossing remedial reading into their grocery carts, or turning to Perez Hilton for celebrity updates. That fate may have to wait until an entire generation has visions of The Matrix dancing in their heads, mediated either through Google goggles or megastar-endorsed implants.

In any case, there are already harbingers of generational revolt to celeb-heavy digital overkill. According to a recent essay in the New York Times by Pico Iyer, marketers are trying to pre-empt what they see as the next big thing among the young: retreat from their gadgets into prolonged periods of electronic silence.

Not everything around us is Kardashian, thank God or Gaia. We are still capable of having unmediated experiences with nature and other human beings. In fact, these experiences become all the more precious as the world and people around us are increasingly digitized, mashed-up, hacked and sold back to us the real thing. At this stage, you cannot spurn the electronic gadgets that rule your schedule; but you are still capable of using them critically and unplugging once in a while to reconnect with the average-looking, non-famous human beings nearby.

Meanwhile, back in outer space… Alpha Centauri appears to the naked eye as the brightest star in the southern constellation Centaurus. It is actually a double star, like the twin suns that hung in the skies of Tatooine in Star Wars. If there are any radio-friendly intelligent beings near these interstellar tango partners, they should be getting the first electromagnetic ripples about Kim and her sisters anytime now. We probably shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for a response. Scientists have been puzzled by the century-long absence of discernible radio signals from other civilizations in the Milky Way. Perhaps this static doesn’t argue so much against extraterrestrial intelligence as for it. Considering what Earth has beamed out already over the past 60 years, the ETs may have chosen to kill the cable, or at least point their dishes away from Earth – sparing them from thinking our planet is ruled by megastar Kim and her orbiting siblings.

www.olscribbler.wordpress.com

image by perubluesky.ca

Pregnant Women Beware

“Don’t worry, be happy” slogan could harm your baby

DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

The people’s briefing note on prescription drugs

Portrait of columnist Alan Cassels• It’s springtime in Canada and with nature in full bloom, it’s timely to reflect on reproduction in all its forms.

If you’re in the drug manufacturing business, your organization exists to produce profits. While we might criticize pharmaceutical companies for putting profits before public health, my sense is you can’t fault a company for seeking profits any more than you can fault a cat for chasing mice; it’s what they do.

But if you place the business of selling drugs beside the business of human reproduction – i.e. having babies – you witness some strange things. You discover, for example, that some drug companies and the spokespeople they fund don’t seem all that worried about women taking drugs while pregnant.

Midwives, obstetricians and doctors are typically very cautious when it comes to counselling their pregnant patients around prescription drugs. Yet they can’t avoid the savvy drug manufacturers that clearly don’t want to cut themselves off from the lucrative market represented by millions of pregnant or lactating women. Manufacturers serve shareholders; in fact, that’s the only constituency they must report to so they can’t ignore any segment of the market. However, exploiting the pregnancy market has many potential challenges.

For starters, it’s not as easy as it looks to convince pregnant women to take drugs; you have to overcome one of the strongest forces on the planet – a woman’s intuition, which seems finely tuned towards precaution and safety. Things that don’t ‘feel right’ – such as the suggestion to ingest powerful chemicals when you’ve got a baby inside you –are hard to suppress. Regardless of the assurances of some experts, many medical treatments, including prescription drugs, vitamins and alternative therapies, have never been properly tested in pregnant women. When faced with this dilemma, I think women trust their intuition, often guided by outside sources of information that seems credible.

Drug companies and their paid surrogates have to work awfully hard to seem credible to women. What makes it difficult is the lingering taint of past drug disasters – the ones that were catastrophic for many women and their babies. Drugs such as thalidomide or DES (diethylstilbestrol) were given to pregnant women with disastrous consequences and so downplaying those examples by claiming that we do things differently today seems a key strategy. Many suggest the world is much safer now and that modern drug regulatory systems are ensuring those disasters could never happen again.

I interrupt this column to bring you a public service message: “Anyone want to buy a bridge?” Now, where was I?

The most infamous example is the thalidomide disaster of the sixties, which stemmed from a drug given to pregnant women to treat morning sickness. Thalidomide resulted in thousands of children being born with deformed limbs and digits. One would expect that images of “flipper babies” would be seared into our public consciousness, putting a halt to treating pregnant women with pharmaceuticals. Yet that disaster, however stark in its imagery, had a sister: DES was a synthetic estrogen prescribed to millions of pregnant women for nearly 30 years, causing cancers of the vagina and cervix in the daughters of women who took DES during pregnancy (among other things).

If you are pregnant and concerned about prescription drugs, where can you find good information? According to a recent article in Glow, a slick Canadian fashion magazine, the major source of information for Canadian mothers-to-be is the Motherisk program in Toronto – www.motherisk.org – which was created to “give women and health professionals accurate and reliable information.”

According to the Motherisk website, the group actively “reviews data from around the world and conducts studies to determine the risks of drugs during pregnancy.” They conclude “it is now clear that there are many drugs that are safe for use in pregnancy.” I seriously wondered about that – my intuition was telling me something different – so I decided to look closely at what Motherisk said about one major drug class used in pregnancy: antidepressants.

Their information says that some research “described a poor neonatal adaptation syndrome in newborns whose mothers had been taking tricyclic, SSRI or SNRI antidepressants near term,” adding that “the most common adverse effects associated with this syndrome are transient, mostly self-limiting, jitteriness; grasping muscle weakness; and respiratory difficulties that sometimes require use of a ventilator.” The suggestion is that these difficulties pale in comparison to the risk of the mother and fetus if the mother’s depression isn’t treated.

What is odd is that the Motherisk program fails to mention other major dangers found by independent research groups that have done fairly exhaustive research on the issue. The Therapeutics Initiative at UBC – which takes no drug company money – reports an extensive analysis of six studies of antidepressants in pregnancy and found “SSRI use was associated with more spontaneous abortions.” (See their newsletter at http://www.ti.ubc.ca/letter76)

Lejla Halilovic is a women’s health activist in Toronto and she has a number of problems with Motherisk’s information. Her biggest concern, besides feeling the information they provide women is outdated, is that Motherisk fails to point out specific drug safety advisories issued by regulators. She says “it’s outrageous that one of Canada’s biggest resources for pregnant women lacks Health Canada warnings,” such as the one warning of (Paxil) paroxetine’s risk posted in December 2005.

The UBC folks conclude that, based on a meta-analysis of 14 observational studies, paroxetine may cause as many as one in 200 women to have a baby with heart problems. Does Motherisk mention “cardiac malformations?” It’s not there. Well, what about other SSRIs, like Prozac (fluoxetine) or Zoloft (sertraline)? Do they have the same kind of risk? UBC research found an eight-year follow-up study of all births in Denmark, where women had filled at least two prescriptions for SSRIs while pregnant. Those women had a one in 246 chance of having a child with a heart defect.

Motherisk also fails to mention SSRIs can cause persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN), in about one per 1,000 live births and can be potentially fatal.

So let me recap: a major agency in Canada that alleges to inform women of the safety of drugs in pregnancy doesn’t mention major Health Canada safety warnings and fails to note that miscarriages, cardiac effects and other rare, but potentially fatal, dangers are associated with taking antidepressants while pregnant. I’m scratching my head; why would they leave such important stuff out?

Please don’t say they are pharma flacks.

Lejla Halilovic reminds me that Motherisk is staffed by very good and committed people but, alas, with any drug source you need to know who is paying the bills. A quick tour of the Motherisk site explains the website service is sponsored by a drug company (Duchesnay), a drug store (Shopper’s Drug Mart) and a foundation (Sick Kids Foundation), which itself takes money from most major drug companies.

Of all the information on the Motherisk website, the disclaimer is probably the most honest. It notes, “We do not guarantee or warrant the quality, accuracy, completeness, timeliness, appropriateness or suitability of the information provided,” adding, “you assume full responsibility for the use of the information.”

Amen to that.

Pregnant and told to take pharmaceuticals? Perhaps you can start by avoiding sources that are obviously drug-tainted. Remind yourself that thalidomide and DES were huge disasters, partly due to the biased information given to women.

Again and again, we need to be reminded that information, which is clearly being funded by an industry that lives to chase down and capture new customers, as the cat chases mice, cannot be acting in the best interests of patients.

This is especially worth remembering next time someone is trying to override your intuition with a “don’t worry, be happy” message around drugs in pregnancy.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and the author of the just-launched Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease. Read more of what he’s writing about at www.alancassels.com

Who’s eating who in organic food?

A chart showing the ownership of companies in the organics industry

by Phil Howard, Michigan State University

 

• I started studying consolidation in food industries when I was a graduate student at the University of Missouri. When I moved to California where this trend was rapidly occurring – despite the fact that many of the pioneering companies set out to be alternatives to the mainstream food system – people asked me to look into organic brands. In 2003, I put together a chart to visualize buyouts made by the largest food processors, many of which are hidden. Due to widespread interest, I’ve updated it every few years. Interestingly, some companies cited on this chart have told me that they loved it. They showed it to big retailers like Walmart, Costco and Target to convince them that organic was becoming mainstream. – Phil Howard

The organic industry has seen significant consolidation since the late 1990s. Many pioneering organic firms have been acquired by some of the largest food and beverage corporations in the world, such as Nestlé, Kraft and General Mills. But not all organic brands have fallen victim to this trend; at least 18 nationally distributed organic brands have resisted consolidation by remaining independent. The question is how have they managed to remain independent?

It is not for lack of offers. Arran Stephens, CEO of Nature’s Path, notes that, during the peak period of acquisitions, he received two bids on the same day and he continues to receive large, unsolicited offers on a frequent basis. Many other independent firms report similar patterns, with offers that are much higher than typical for the food industry. Refusing such offers means not only giving up millions of dollars, but also facing the near certainty of increasing competition from some of the world’s largest food companies.

These corporations can better afford to influence consumer demand for their products with expensive advertising. They can also subsidize price cutting on organic foods with sales from other products, in order to drive their competitors out of business. Remaining independent is therefore not what an economist would call a rational decision, but what these firms have in common is a strong commitment to values beyond just profit. In many cases, this is due to the principles and ideals of the founder, while in other firms, organizational structures are in place that discourage transfer of ownership.

Four of the remaining independent companies, for example, are organized as cooperatives: Equal Exchange and Alvarado Street Bakery are employee cooperatives, Organic Valley is a producer cooperative and Frontier Natural Products is a wholesaler cooperative. Equal Exchange goes a step further by trading directly with democratically organized, small farmer cooperatives – primarily in other countries, but also in the US –and should the company ever be sold, net proceeds are required to be given to another fair trade organization, not the worker-owners themselves.

The founders of organic food companies have learned firsthand or from others’ experiences the negative consequences acquisitions have on their more idealistic goals. Stephens, who once sold a natural food company called Lifestream – and later bought it back from Kraft – has said he has seen the “soul gutted out” of acquired companies, in most cases within three years. Mo Siegel, formerly of Celestial Seasonings and Greg Steltenpohl, formerly of Odwalla, both have regrets about losing financial control of their companies and the resulting emphasis on profit. Steltenpohl has said, “[Corporations] have an agenda to consolidate and concentrate power and wealth. That’s what their function is… The system itself forces certain outcomes and I really underestimated that.” This recognition is in stark contrast to the optimistic language founders often use when announcing buyouts, with many using some variation of the phrase “We’re not selling out, they’re buying in.”

Competing against an increasing number of such profit focused firms may lead independents to converge toward the rest of the industry in some areas, even as they remain more idealistic in others. Some independent firms sell to Wal-Mart, while others export their products all over the world, which may strike some organic farmers and consumers as contrary to the ideals of sustainability. Another example is introducing products that conflict with the organic movement’s original emphasis on less packaging and processing of foods. Amy’s Kitchen, for example, has introduced frozen, microwaveable oatmeal and while a certified organic Twinkie has yet to arrive, Nature’s Path has introduced organic toaster pastries.

Refusing to converge toward the mainstream is risky when, as Cascadian Farm founder Gene Kahn, who sold his firm to General Mills, explains, “The intense amount of consolidation… has sorted out of a lot of the smaller players. This has occurred on a variety of fronts, including farming, manufacturing, distribution and retail.”

Such changes in the organic distribution and retail sectors create some of the most significant challenges to independence. The entrance of mainstream supermarkets into organic food retailing, for example, has brought with it the practice of charging fees to manufacturers in exchange for shelf space. Dean Foods was able to subsidize such slotting fees for Silk soymilk to place it in the conventional dairy case, which contributed to its dominance in the supermarket channel. Smaller companies often cannot afford the tens of thousands of dollars per product for each retail chain that is required to implement this strategy.

While the more targeted natural/organic retail sector does not typically charge these fees, it is even more consolidated than conventional retailing, with Whole Foods dominating this category. Distribution of processed organic foods also occurs primarily through just two firms, United Natural Foods Inc. and KeHe. The smallest processors can bypass these giants if they sell directly to a nearby food cooperative, which totals approximately five percent of all organic food sales in North America. The shipping costs of expanding direct sales beyond local stores may be prohibitive, however. For larger, independent processors, unless they have already established strong brand identities and relationships with national distributors – or large retailers with their own distribution systems – getting products onto store shelves is quite difficult. As a result, some of the founders of these firms have stated that, if they were starting out today, they wouldn’t be able to make it.

Consumers who want food companies that embody more of the original organic ideals would do well to seek out products from independent organic firms. Although we may not agree with all of their practices, they tend to emphasize more non-economic values, such as a commitment to sustainability and are more responsive to consumer demands than the massive food corporations of the world. Given the very uneven playing field they are competing in, independent organic processors are unlikely to survive without such support.

Philip H. Howard, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University. www.msu.edu/~howardp/

The Power of Poetry

In a leaf-strewn forest a girl in a black overcoat leans against a tree and writes in her journal

How a few choice words can change worlds within and without

• by Geoff Olson

 

• The world appears to be on a knife-edge again, with leaders from Tel Aviv to Tehran playing out idiotic games of brinkmanship better suited to pre-war Europe than the whistle-blowing world of WikiLeaks and Anonymous. To write about poetry in this context may seem faintly ridiculous. And with the planet threatening to blossom into a final exchange of nuclear weapons – or at least a global explosion of resistance to the banksters and robber barons – poetry seems like a pretty insipid thing. What are Wordsworth’s daffodils or Rumi’s singing reed next to a ballistic missile with multiple warheads, or even a riot cop’s truncheon? Not much, it seems.

But can poetry actually change the world for the better, in its own fugitive, hard-to-quantify way?

Unlike journalism, old poems have a way of staying fresh. W.B. Yeats’ short poem The Second Coming seems just as appropriate now as when it was written in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War. With its mysterious imagery of “some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem,” this old standby of English lit classes conjures up a terrible future brewing in the birthplace of Christ. It also offers the most concise description of collective cynicism ever penned, perfect for the age of Fox News and neutered progressivism: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Yeats managed a living from herding words, but he was a rare bird. According to one estimate, a Canadian author who manages to sell over 700 volumes of verse can be considered a successful poet. Clearly, rhyme doesn’t pay. T.S. Eliot kept his day job at the bank, Wallace Stevens sold insurance and Ogden Nash once observed, “Poets aren’t very useful. / Because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.”

Today, we tend to think of poets as quaint figures, wandering lonely as a cloud from their day jobs to the open mike. We normally don’t think of their efforts as world changing or life altering, although we give grudging respect to a few dead, white versifiers (mostly Shakespeare and a few romantic poets). Yet poetry has its place in the world, even if it’s shoehorned into tweets.

Personally, I can’t exactly say poetry changed my life, but there was a time when it definitely helped me cope. A little over a decade ago, I fell into a deep depression that lasted about a year. There were days were I would sit for hours on the couch, doing nothing but staring at the floor. During this purgatorial period, the opening passage from Dante’s Inferno became a touchstone for me.

“Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straight forward pathway had been lost.”

I would often listen to an album by singer Marianne Faithfull that opened with this recitation of Dante and ended with lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hearing her nicotine-ravaged voice recite this college curriculum verse, I found a strange sense of solace, knowing my suffering was not unique. Although I had little interest in the company of others at the time, and even less in my own, I felt less alone listening to this recitation of mythically charged words.

Like many others, I had admired a few well-known poems from my college days, in the same way you admire delicate museum pieces protected behind glass. But these words were like a salve I could apply to a wound. I believe I escaped from clinical depression partly with the help of poetry, which came without a doctor’s prescription or negative side effects.

British novelist Jeanette Winterson tells of a similar effect from a single line of poetry she read when she was 16-years-old. She was in a library looking for a book for her adoptive mother, who was a fan of murder mysteries. She selected T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. “So I opened it and discovered it was written in verse,” she told Eleanor Wachtel on the CBC Radio series, Writers & Company. “ The first thing I read was a line in it where Eliot says ‘This is one moment, but know that another will pierce you with a sudden painful joy.’ And it made me cry because I was having a terrible time. I had fallen in love with a girl… It was like a message in a bottle… I didn’t know who this T. S. Eliot person was… It seemed a powerful message to me and something I could hold on to.” This was Winterson’s beginning as a writer.

In the beginning was the word, according to the Bible. To the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, the “Logos” – a word connoting language, speech or reason – was the divine animating principle that pervaded the Universe. The Roman poet Lucretius had a different idea. In his long poem, On the Nature of Things, he rejected the idea of a universe controlled by gods and proposed instead that matter is made up of tiny particles in constant motion, colliding and combining to weave the world around us. Amazingly, atomic theory originated from the most unlikely source: a ream of verse by an ancient poet.

Lucretius was widely read after his rediscovery during the Renaissance and his ideas contributed to the Enlightenment’s clockwork model of the universe – an idea of great power until its deconstruction at the hands of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg in the 20th century. And once again, the poets preceded the scientists. The romantic poets of the 19th century didn’t just reject determinism; they also refuted the utilitarian viewpoint of human beings as replaceable factory widgets. In the late 1800s, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake were among the first to write against social injustice, with the latter poetically slamming child labour and the “satanic mills” of the industrial revolution.

“Poetry is tremendously influential,” notes respected British moral philosopher Mary Midgley in an interview in The Guardian. “…Some scientist dismissed Shelley as a beautiful but ineffectual angel standing in the void in vain or something, but, in fact, that revolutionary stuff was enormously influential. His conception of society and how it required equality and how bad it was, and his kind of atheism were very impressive stuff.”

“Writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Shelley insisted. To put it another way, scribblers are sensitive seismographic instruments. They anticipate seismic social trends long before the journalists, politicians and policy makers. And for their part, political leaders have often appealed to poetry to give mythic power to their initiatives. The opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence were written in iambic pentameter:

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

That all men are created equal,
That they are endowed by their Creator
with certain inalienable rights;
that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.

Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s enormously influential and stirring “I Have a Dream” speech succeeded because its poetic structure was of a piece with King’s delivery. The Baptist minister’s electrifying call for equality, which drew its prophetic power from the language of the Gospels, became engrained into the consciousness of the civil rights movement and mainstream society.

After the First World War, the poems of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon not only voiced a generational horror of the insanity of war, but they also found their way into classroom curricula in the English-speaking world. Percolating in the minds of young students, they undoubtedly had an influence on the pacifist movement and even the sixties revolution. W.B. Yeats’ 1919 poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, records the last thoughts of a man whose sense of duty lies outside the officially drawn lines of battle:

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor…

The airman’s people will remain poor no matter what the war’s outcome, Yeats implies, with the victors always being the rich. In a similar vein, Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner has stuck in my mind ever since I first encountered it in high school. This five-line 1945 poem concerns the death of a gunner in a World War II American bomber aircraft:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

This is hard stuff, without a trace of sentimentality. So it’s no surprise the relationship of poets to powerbrokers has often been ambivalent. In February 2003, then First Lady Laura Bush cancelled her symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” after she discovered that some of the poets on her guest list refused to attend a protest against the impending war on Iraq.

In November of last year, Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, was present at Occupy Berkeley when Alameda County deputy sheriffs “in Darth Vader riot gear” pushed his wife to the ground and clubbed Hass. “One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest,” Hass recalled in an essay for the New York Times. The incident led to at least one memorable protest sign – “Beat Poets, not beat poets.”

In other parts of the world, poets have long had the ear of the people and the nervous attention of leaders. The Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was a diplomat and a senator. In Cuba, you will find few statues of Fidel Castro, but you’ll find plenty dedicated to José Martí, the 19th century Havana-born poet whose writings and political struggle were enormously influential in the Cuban struggle for independence.

“In France, Paul Éluard, René Char and Robert Desnos wrote dissenting poetry while fighting for the Résistance,” notes poet Rachel Galvin. “In Italy, Quasimodo and Cesare Pavese were repressed for denouncing the regime under which they lived, as were Russian and Polish poets such as Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz.”

“Contemporary Middle Eastern poets such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nizar Qabbani, Adonis, Ghazi al-Gosaibi and Mahmoud Darwish have embraced the idea of committed literature, or a literature engagée, as Sartre termed it.”

And, of course, poetry has long accompanied music. John Lennon’s piece of chanting doggerel, Give Peace a Chance, has been a protest standard for years and his Imagine is still rotated on AM radio like it’s just another boy-meets-girl bauble, when it’s actually a radical hymn to a world freed of possessions, borders and religious dogma. Throughout the sixties to the present, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and a host of other poetic singersongwriters also expanded the protestor’s time-specific complaints into calls for universal justice.

Even the Irish nationalist Yeats has become a resource for singer/songwriters a half-century after his death – not what you’d expect of a man who was tone-deaf. Both Sinéad O’Connor and U2 have cribbed lines from Yeats in their compositions, although when Van Morrison converted Crazy Jane on God in its entirety into song, the W. B. Yeats estate refused permission, resulting in the destruction of the first pressings of Morrison’s 1985 album, A Sense of Wonder. (Yeats’ family believed the master’s compositions should only be set to classical music.)

For some reason, The Waterboys had more success with Yeats than the “Belfast Cowboy” did. Waterboys singer/songwriter Mike Scott has referenced Yeats throughout his song catalogue and in November of 2011 he went the whole hog with a superb reworking of the poet’s verse in An Appointment With Mr. Yeats. “September 1913 was written about 100 years ago about the money-grabbing clergy of the day and the bourgeoisie who were very unsympathetic to the plight of the Dublin workers,” said Scott in an online interview, discussing his remaking of one particular poem. “If Yeats were around today, I think he would have found much fuel for a similar emotive fire.”

The closest spiritual comparison to Yeats on bookstore shelves today is a hot-selling 13th- century Persian mystic, born in the eastern part of the Ancient Persian Empire, in what is now Afghanistan. To say Jelaluddin Rumi was prolific is putting it mildly. One of his works consists of 24,000 verses, making him an inexhaustible resource for his chief translator, the American poet Coleman Barks.

Rumi drew little distinction between love for another, love for the world and love for the universal force behind the realm of appearances. The Sufi poet’s words offer a counterweight to the popular image of the fanatical Islamicist, and his expansive idea of the divine offers a challenge to a western culture addicted to dualisms: good/evil, freedom/slavery, God/Satan, inner/outer and democracy/any place without a McDonalds. Rumi writes of a creator who traffics in paradox and the inversion of values that happens when people are convinced of their own righteousness:

God has allowed some magical reversal to occur,
so that you see the scorpion pit
as an object of desire,
and all the beautiful expanse around it,
as dangerous and swarming with snakes.

This is how strange your fear of death

and emptiness is, and how perverse
the attachment to what you want.

Although it’s unlikely any Persian poets will end up on the reading list of West Point cadets, a 2002 Time magazine article pegged Rumi as the greatest selling poet in the US at the time (a quick check on Amazon shows a sales rank of 2,457 for The Essential Rumi, compared to 57,424 for The Poetry of Robert Frost). And as I noted above, Yeats is having a second life in a rock n’ roll format. Rap artists like the Afro-Peruvian Immortal Technique are widening their genre to fuse class analysis with scathing word play. There’s even a poetic angle to the Occupy movement with its ‘mike check’ routine, which pushes speakers toward the rhythm and cadence of verse.

As long as there are human beings communicating their truths of soul, self and social justice, poetry will continue to work its subterranean way through human hearts. Let’s hope that sonnets prevail over insanity.

www.olscribbler.wordpress.com

photo © Vyacheslav Bukhal

Gateway Pipeline pros and cons

A pipeline stretches into the far distance

An interview with retired economist Reimar Kroecher

by Joseph Roberts

• At press time on February 24, the Calgary Herald published an article by Rebecca Penty entitled “Transport Canada approves Enbridge’s supertanker routes.” Penty notes: “The federal department determined three shipping routes proposed by Enbridge are ‘appropriate’ and contain no obstructions for the 250 oil tankers the company expects would frequent the terminal each year, to take away some 30 million tonnes of crude annually. A quarter of those tankers would weigh 320,000 tonnes, three times larger than any vessels to have visited Kitimat Harbour since the 1950s.”

Joseph Roberts: Both Enbridge and the federal government are strong proponents of this pipeline, claiming that it is essential for Canada’s economic future. How many jobs will this pipeline create?

Reimar Kroecher: This pipeline will create new jobs and it will destroy old jobs. According to estimates, it will create approximately 3,000 temporary jobs during the construction phase and 100 permanent jobs after construction is completed. However, the increased oil exports will appreciate the Canadian dollar and there will be job losses in both the manufacturing and retail sectors. A good example of this is the Canadian film industry, which is already on the decline because of our strong petro dollar. A five-cent premium on the Canadian dollar would finish off our film industry.

JR: When exports of hydrocarbons appreciate a country’s currency, isn’t that referred to as the Dutch disease?

RK: That is correct. When the Dutch increased their export of hydrocarbons, the guilder appreciated, leading to substantial job losses in Dutch manufacturing. In addition, the Dutch travelled to neighbouring Germany and did their shopping there. Norway’s experience was similar. The Norwegians travelled to Sweden and Denmark.

JR: With a three or four-cent premium on the Canadian dollar, Canadians will head south to do their shopping – with job losses in Canadian retailing.

RK: Ironically, there will be job gains in all the US border states. In a 2009 study, Michel Beine, Charles S. Bos and Serge Coulombe of Luxembourg, Amsterdam and Ottawa universities, respectively, estimated that 42% of the 340,000 Canadian manufacturing jobs lost during the last decade were due to our rising petro currency. To my knowledge, there are no studies about job losses in the Canadian retail industry. These studies are badly needed, but they would have to be peer reviewed. And we would have to know who paid for these studies because, unfortunately, in today’s world the results of studies often depend on who paid for them.

JR: Do we know by how much the loonie would rise if the Northern Gateway pipeline were built?

RK: That is a very complex question. We need studies on that as well. We also must bear in mind that Kinder Morgan has applied for permission to more than double the capacity of its Alberta Tar Sands pipeline to Burnaby, BC. Most of this oil is supposed to be exported in large Suez type tankers. The Second Narrows channel would have to be dredged to accommodate these huge tankers. This pipeline would deliver almost as much oil to the west coast as the Northern Gateway pipeline is proposed to deliver to Kitimat. In addition, the Keystone pipeline to the US will likely be back on the table after the US election. Most analysts agree that we already have a petro currency, which rises and falls with the price of oil and the volume of oil exported. If these pipelines are built, we will definitely have a petro currency par excellence, and the rise in the loonie will be substantial.

JR: Does eastern Canada still import most of its oil from the Middle East and Venezuela?

RK: Yes, although it gets some from its own wells and some from the pipeline from Alberta to Sarnia. Twenty-years-ago, Canada imported about as much oil as it exported, but with the rise of the Tar Sands, exports have taken off and we now export about two barrels for every one barrel imported. This surge in exports is largely responsible for the rise in the Canadian dollar.

JR: It would seem to make sense to increase the capacity of the pipeline to Sarnia and to free eastern Canada from its dependence on imported oil. This would probably create more jobs, especially if the oil were refined in Canada. So why is this not on the table?

RK: I fully agree, especially since this would provide Eastern Canada with energy security. I suspect it is not on the table because the oil companies can make more money faster by exporting unprocessed bitumen to Asia.

JR: Do you agree with the environmental groups who have labelled the Northern Gateway pipeline an environmental disaster of epic proportions waiting to happen?

RK: I certainly agree – not only an environmental disaster, but also an economic disaster. The BC portion of the pipeline runs through earthquake country. It crosses hundreds of streams including the Fraser and the Stikine, two of the world’s great salmon rivers. Even without earthquakes, between 1999 and 2008 Enbridge had 610 leaks, spilling 21 million litres of oil. Some of these spills were quite large, like the recent three-million-litre spill into the Kalama River in the US. In Kitimat, the bitumen would be loaded on to tankers much larger than the Exxon Valdez. These vessels then move along narrow channels known for strong winds, strong tides and dense fog, with many sharp turns, for a distance of 140 kilometres to open water. This would be two-way traffic: tankers going in with natural gas condensate and tankers going out with tar sand oil. In addition, there will be all the marine traffic going to and from the smelter in Kitimat.

Once in the Queen Charlotte basin, these tankers have to cope with severe winter storms. According to the Royal Society of Canada, “Winter wind speeds average 35 kilometre per hour with gusts up to 200 kilometres. Monster waves of more than 25 meters may occur during severe winter storms.” In l949, Canada’s largest historic earthquake occurred here (8.1 on the Richter scale) According to Natural Resources Canada, “On Queen Charlotte Island, the shaking was so severe that cows were knocked off their feet and a geologist working there could not stand up. In nearby Terrace, cars were bounced around and walking on the street was described like being on a heaving deck of a ship at sea. Further south, the Juan de Fuca and North American Plates are currently locked. There is good evidence that some time in the future these plates will snap loose generating a huge subsuction quake similar to the 1964 Alaska Quake. During that quake, the docks in Valdez harbour collapsed.” Port Alberni was hit by a tidal wave, depositing ships in the downtown core.

JR: Sounds like we have learned nothing from Japan’s Fukushima experience, where Japanese industry and government were assuring the public that nuclear plants would be safe and secure in severe earthquake zones.

RK: That seems to be true. I would like to make a final point. What is good for the ecology is also good for the economy. What is bad for the ecology is also bad for the economy. We do not have to choose between something that is good for the economy and bad for the ecology. To argue that these pipelines are good for the economy and bad for the ecology is missing the point. Even if, by the grace of God, there were no spills, burning these hydrocarbons accelerates global warming. Ocean levels rise and millions of acres of fertile, productive land are lost. The cost of rebuilding entire cities, port facilities, highways and railways, etc. will be astronomical. It is much less expensive to prevent global warming than to deal with its consequences.

As Susan Riley, columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, so poignantly put it: “Pipeline opponents will win only if Canadians, en masse, rally to defend their beautiful, blessed country rather than stepping politely aside while it is plundered again for short-term gain.”

Canadians are waking up; an unprecedented 4,500 of them have signed up as official interveners at the NEB hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline. It is a classic David vs. Goliath battle – citizens against big oil; citizens against their own government.

Reimar Kroecher taught Economics at Langara College for over 30 years. For more information, visit the website: www.dogwoodinitiative.org

When greed meets green

a spiral lightbulb looks like it's growing out of the grass

by Ken Peters

• Just so we are clear, I love the planet and believe we are fast destroying it. I believe that debating global warming is a brilliant piece of sleight-of-hand by business. We used to just call it pollution and it was clearly bad; now they’ve got us debating global warming while we continue to rape the land and foul the oceans worse than ever. But when the government decides to tell you what you can and can’t do, based on what is best for you, we have entered into what the British call the “nanny state.” Those in favour of this approach to governing will cite tobacco regulations as an example of this being a reasonable approach (though smokers might disagree).

Who do you trust?

If we were able to actually trust the government, this might be a valid argument. But the fact is that, like science, the government has been co-opted by business. And the military serves government/business by fulfilling the function of resource extraction from other countries. Not much different now than it was during the Roman Empire (our philosophical forefathers). If you disagree with this belief, you may as well stop reading now; if you have a healthy disdain for those in power, please continue. There was a time when the medical profession encouraged smoking as a safe and healthy pastime and the government of America ensured soldiers at war were provided with tobacco, both for the benefits it offered – dealing with insane levels of stress – and for the handy pocket reminder of what they were fighting for: home and freedom.

Now, we have medical and government officials telling us EMFs from cell phone towers, wireless networks, etc, are safe enough to expose our children to them. The level of concern from those supposedly protecting our health is so low I see cell phone towers put on top of apartment buildings designed for seniors and the disabled, just to pick up a few extra bucks. And with no concern for how this might affect those weakened individuals who would be most susceptible to problems caused by EMF (electro-magnetic field) exposure. Wireless networks are in schools and parents can’t do anything about the fact that undeveloped brains are constantly exposed to electro-magnetic fields.

“Green” for whom?

Now the business/government model has a new paradigm to use to manipulate us (the “market”). They have the “green” movement, which was easily co-opted since it is a meme that engenders extreme emotions. Since most of us want to save the planet, obviously anything green must be good and if it is good and we are too stupid to do what’s “right,” right away, sometimes the government just has to step in and make us do what they know is best. They know it is best because a lobbyist told them so and provided them with the “evidence” they need for the press releases.

Green bulbs and smart meters, oh my

Case in point: “green” light bulbs and “smart-meters” for recording electrical usage. The “green” bulbs save energy. That is their claim to fame and their one advantage. Yet for those of us in the temperate to cold zones, the energy saved from the light bulb will have to be replaced with an identical thermal unit of energy acquired from conventional heating sources. So the green light bulb is really only of value, from an energy perspective, in warm and hot areas, and in the summer for the rest of us. The problem with these bulbs according to critics is threefold. They put out high levels of ultraviolet radiation, enough to damage the skin if you sit too close to them, unless they are “shielded,” which appears as a cover over the familiar spiral shape. These bulbs also emit huge amounts of EMFs, which tend to have the strongest negative effect on people who are already ill, those with compromised immune systems and those with electro-magnetic sensitivities. The effects of high EMFs are also very damaging to those with neurological diseases such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, severe autism and those with mercury toxicity. These people are the canaries in the coal mine. They are our early warning system and they are treated like hypochondriacs.

Is mercury now green?

If these green bulbs break, they release a toxic amount of mercury and one must follow hazardous material clean-up protocols. Mercury is not very green, is it? Yet someone decided for you that saving energy outweighs dumping more mercury into the environment because ultimately they are headed for the landfill. They decided this and then they mandated it so that incandescent bulbs have been outlawed at the higher wattage levels. Eventually, they will all be outlawed, varying somewhat based on where you live. This is an example of General Electric lobbyists starting this ball rolling in the US, with Canada following suit like a good lapdog, a position we seem to be happy with.

“Smart” for whom?

The so-called “smart-meters” are a great cost saver for the electric company, in part because they can lay off many workers who used to do the job of collecting data from each home. Many people are worried about yet another electro-magnetic field running through their homes 24/7 and I’ve seen video footage of one in California where all the plant material around it had died. Do you have a choice in this matter? No. They will be installed in every home unless you want to pay thousands of dollars to have yours relocated.

Freedom of choice

Where does personal choice come in and to what point are you comfortable with the government telling you what is good for you and that you have no options? After all, historically, the government’s track record is not that good. Our government is still paying reparations and making apologies to races they abused in the past. In hindsight, governments are not ever very trustworthy, as the best interests they have at heart are not those of its commoners. Now that the green movement has been co-opted by industry, it is used as a mandate to push forward profit-making agendas without anyone actually looking at the full picture or at the possible downsides to these new technologies. I suggest we continue to question authority and demand from our politicians the right to personal choice.

Ken Peters has been a nutritional consultant for more than 20 years. He is the author of Health Secrets for the 21st Century (available at amazon.com) and a natural health products formulator with nutristart.com