Sunday, October 29, 2006

"A good place to toss trash"

Bobbie Ann Mason has an angry, heartbreaking piece in the New York Times today on how her home state of Kentucky fits into the global economy.

Mason's op-ed brought to mind a comment by Wendell Berry earlier this year, as he responded to the proclamation that the University of Kentucky was determined to become a Top 20 national research institution by the year 2020.

I'm paraphrasing now, because I can't find the op-ed online, but Berry was, to say the least, skeptical of the idea that "Top 20" status was desirable or obtainable for UK, given that it is a land-grant institution situated smack dab in the middle of a state that is, in effect, a natural resources colony for the larger economies beyond its borders.

Today, Mason picks up Berry's thought...
In Kentucky we’re used to remote control. Historically, outsiders have dominated the place like a kudzu invasion. Many of the coal mines are owned by huge out-of-state companies. The coal and the profits depart, leaving behind ravaged land and poisoned streams, soil and air. In 2000, 300 million gallons of sludge spilled from a coal slurry pond in Martin County, a greater toxic accident than the Exxon Valdez oil disaster. You might not remember that, because Kentucky seems out of sight, out of mind — a good place to toss trash.
Actually, Mason soft-pedals the extent of the catastrophe, at least in comparison to the Exxon-Valdez disaster. At 300 million gallons, we're talking 30 times the extent of that notorious spill.

And just so you know, that Martin County spill happened in October 2000. In January 2001, as Dubya took office, investigators into the spill were told to "wrap things up"--just as they were getting started.

But of course Massey Energy, the parent company of the negligent mining outfit, had to pay massive fees to clean up the largest ecological disaster east of the Mississippi River. Well, yea, or so you'd think. But, no. An April 2002 fine 0f $110, 000 was later reduced to $5,600.

But wait, there's more to Kentucky than just coal catastrophes!

For example, consider our weapons-of-mass-destruction site, the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, where a stockpile of chemical weapons has been languishing since World War II. At least 55,000 rockets, with 523 tons of chemical weapons, are stored in shabby igloos. How to dispose of toxins like mustard gas and sarin has been a debate for decades. And the stuff is prone to pesky leaks. But at last Kentucky is getting a $2 billion federal plant that will neutralize the weapons by separating the chemicals and washing them in water. It’s a pilot plant, to find out if this process will really work.

Local leaders insist on local hiring so the community can benefit economically. So the government contractor plans to recruit teenagers at high schools, vo-tech schools, even church groups, to train them for careers in working safely with weapons of mass destruction. One procedure will involve cutting the heads off chemical-filled rockets with something like a pipe cutter.

Then there are the leftover contaminants from the cold war. The Paducah uranium-enrichment plant has been cleaning up its old piles of radioactive uranium, tritium, plutonium and what-have-you, and now it has a chance of opening a major recycling plant for nuclear waste from all over the globe. It would treat spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors in order to salvage the residue of radioactive uranium and plutonium for use in power plants.

As part of the Bush initiative to recycle nuclear waste, the contaminated byproducts would come (by flatcar? 18-wheeler? FedEx?) into our state. Importing deadly radioactive stuff would be a boon for the community, creating up to 6,000 jobs, so you can’t argue. Or can you?

That’s not all. Kentucky’s politicians have also proposed building a $451 million lab for the study of pathogens that might be unleashed in a bioterrorism attack (ebola, anthrax). Before the boom in weapons of mass destruction, Kentucky’s economy depended on its land. But with farms disappearing, country life is becoming a memory.

To preserve the idea of Kentucky as a state of farms with a farm state of mind, we’re getting a $24 million agriculture museum. I imagine a pretend working farm with Civil War re-enactors playing old-timey farmers.

In rural Kentucky, where the health of the land once meant plowing manure under the soil each spring, the future is not in cows and corn. We’re now poised to take on the burden of the world’s poisons. Y’all come!

Read the whole op-ed...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Turning one solution into two problems

Michael Pollan, in his discussion of the latest food scare, invokes Wendell Berry's observation that "when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution — the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops — and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot."

Our industrial agriculture system is making people sick at an alarming rate. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that our food supply now sickens 76 million Americans every year, putting more than 300,000 of them in the hospital, and killing 5,000."

The solution, to Pollan, to me, to any lucid human being, is simple: decentralize the food system. But it gets complicated because of government bureaucracies and industrial producers protecting their massive investments:

These days, when people make the case for buying local food, they often talk about things like keeping farmers in our communities and eating fresh food in season, at the peak of its flavor. We like what’s going on at the farmers’ market — how country meets city, how children learn that a carrot is not a glossy orange bullet that comes in a bag but is actually a root; how we get to taste unfamiliar flavors and even, in some sense, reconnect through these foods and their growers to the natural world. Stack all this up against the convenience and price of supermarket food, though, and it can sound a little. . .sentimental.

But there’s nothing sentimental about local food — indeed, the reasons to support local food economies could not be any more hardheaded or pragmatic. Our highly centralized food economy is a dangerously precarious system, vulnerable to accidental — and deliberate — contamination. This is something the government understands better than most of us eaters. When Tommy Thompson retired from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2004, he said something chilling at his farewell news conference: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” The reason it is so easy to do was laid out in a 2003 G.A.O. report to Congress on bioterrorism. “The high concentration of our livestock industry and the centralized nature of our food-processing industry” make them “vulnerable to terrorist attack.” Today 80 percent of America’s beef is slaughtered by four companies, 75 percent of the precut salads are processed by two and 30 percent of the milk by just one company. Keeping local food economies healthy — and at the moment they are thriving — is a matter not of sentiment but of critical importance to the national security and the public health, as well as to reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy.

Yet perhaps the gravest threat now to local food economies — to the farmer selling me my spinach, to the rancher who sells me my grass-fed beef — is, of all things, the government’s own well-intentioned efforts to clean up the industrial food supply. Already, hundreds of regional meat-processing plants — the ones that local meat producers depend on — are closing because they can’t afford to comply with the regulatory requirements the U.S.D.A. rightly imposes on giant slaughterhouses that process 400 head of cattle an hour. The industry insists that all regulations be “scale neutral,” so if the U.S.D.A. demands that huge plants have, say, a bathroom, a shower and an office for the exclusive use of its inspectors, then a small processing plant that slaughters local farmers’ livestock will have to install these facilities, too. This is one of the principal reasons that meat at the farmers’ market is more expensive than meat at the supermarket: farmers are seldom allowed to process their own meat, and small processing plants have become very expensive to operate, when the U.S.D.A. is willing to let them operate at all. From the U.S.D.A.’s perspective, it is much more efficient to put their inspectors in a plant where they can inspect 400 cows an hour rather than in a local plant where they can inspect maybe one.

The future looks fairly scary to me, as someone who believes in the idea of local food economies. Every scare drives consumers deeper into the very system that is making them less safe. (That paradoxical scenario has a familiar ring to it....)
It’s easy to imagine the F.D.A. announcing a new rule banning animals from farms that produce plant crops. In light of the threat from E. coli, such a rule would make a certain kind of sense. But it is an industrial, not an ecological, sense. For the practice of keeping animals on farms used to be, as Wendell Berry pointed out, a solution; only when cows moved onto feedlots did it become a problem. Local farmers and local food economies represent much the same sort of pre-problem solution — elegant, low-tech and redundant. But the logic of industry, apparently ineluctable, has other ideas, ideas that not only leave our centralized food system undisturbed but also imperil its most promising, and safer, alternatives.

Read the whole article...

Here's a group review of books on the food system by Tom Philpott at Grist...

Monday, October 16, 2006

South turns against the war

A new poll from the Institute for Southern Studies indicates a major swing in attitudes towards the Iraq invasion among residents of the South, a bastion of pro-war sentiment for the first three years of Bush's war.

(For reasons why the South became so pro-war, the very same Institute offers Missiles and Magnolias.)

Some excerpts from the current poll:
The results signal a shift in Southern attitudes towards Iraq. As recently as July 2005, a Pew Center poll found 53% of Southerners believed using military force against Iraq was "the right decision," the highest level of support in the country. Most polls since 2002 have shown support for the Iraq war in Southern states rating higher than, or even with, national attitudes.

"The depth and strength of anti-war sentiment in the South is eye-opening, given the region’s high level of military pride and early embrace of U.S. policy in Iraq," says Chris Kromm, director of the non-partisan Institute based in Durham, NC. "The current Washington leadership has counted on Southern states as a bastion of support on Iraq, but clearly that support is deteriorating."

The poll also looked at the public’s willingness to accept the future human and material costs of the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. When asked to provide "an acceptable number of U.S. military deaths" in Iraq, 63% of respondents in Southern states and 68% in other regions said "zero."
When asked later in the survey how much more money the US should "spend in order to complete the mission in Iraq," 50% of Southerners and 47% of respondents elsewhere said no additional dollars should be spent.

"The evidence suggests a public consensus is developing, in the South and beyond: 'no more money and no more lives for Iraq,'" said Elena Everett, a Program Associate at the Institute. "With the mid-term elections approaching, the question is, how will Washington respond?"
Read the whole press release...

Paraguay, why?

A recent story in Prensa Latina states that a certain George Bush has purchased a 100,000-acre ranch in Paraguay.
An Argentine official regarded the intention of the George W. Bush family to settle on the Acuifero Guarani (Paraguay) as surprising, besides being a bad signal for the governments of the region.

Luis D Elia, undersecretary for the Social Habitat in the Argentine Federal Planning Ministry, issued a memo partially reproduced by digital, in which he spoke of the purchase by Bush of a 98,842-acre farm in northern Paraguay, between Brazil and Bolivia.

The news circulated Thursday in non-official sources in Asuncion, Paraguay.

D Elia considered this Bush step counterproductive for the regional power expressed by Presidents Nestor Kirchner, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

He said that "it is a bad signal that the Bush family is doing business with natural resources linked to the future of MERCOSUR."

The official pointed out that this situation could cause a hypothetical conflict of all the armies in the region, and called attention to the Bush family habit of associating business and politics.

Paraguay, WTF? I've seen some half-serious speculation that perhaps Dubya intends to flee in the case of a Democrat sweep in November. I prefer to go with the intrepid and always fascinating Jeff Wells of Rigorous Intuition, who thinks Prensa is mistaken, and that George H.W. Bush is the purchaser, not his son.

With that, I will just send you, dear reader, off to the Rigorous Intuition site. Tie a rope around your waist and follow the links to the other postings by Wells (this one and this one) on the subject of Paraguayan land purchases, drug trafficking, the Rev. Moon, and the world's largest resource of potable water.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


My hometown paper made me proud today when it published the first installment of John Cheves' four-part profile of Mitch McConnell, the man whose motto is "money is speech," and whose Ahab-esque opposition to campaign finance reform has been his signature issue (if you can call that an issue...) As "Price tag politics" demostrates at length, McConnell's pet issue is simply "money and the power it buys."

The ever-so-creepy McConnell stands to become the Senate Majority Leader (if the Republicans hold the majority) come November.

Even before the initial installment was published today, the senior senator from Kentucky was going apeshit about the profile because the Herald-Leader accepted funding for the piece from the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Deer Creek Foundation, an organization dedicated to such outrageous concepts as "the preservation and advancement of majority rule in our society, including the protection of basic rights as provided by the Constitution and Bill of Rights and education that relates to this concept." The new owner of the Herald-Leader is returning the funding but is standing firmly by the story. (Check the very thorough "complete coverage" section.)

Cheves' characterization of McConnell as a shakedown artist extraordinaire is based not on any partisan sniping, but on the grumblings of corporate donors on whom Mitch leaned too heavily.

Not every donor wants to pay forever. In 1999, a group of prominent corporate leaders -- including some of McConnell's donors -- led a rebellion against his fund-raising style. To his great anger, they endorsed reform.

One of them was Edward Kangas, who was worldwide chairman and chief executive of accounting giant Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu from 1989 to 2000.

Kangas was no purist. In 1995, he and other Deloitte executives put together about $20,000 for McConnell. Kangas said Deloitte wanted "visibility" as it lobbied for the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, making it harder for investors to recover fraud losses. The GOP Congress passed the act over President Clinton's veto.

Consumer advocates howled, but McConnell backed the act. Arthur Anderson & Co. -- the accounting firm later disgraced by its role in the Enron Corp. fraud -- encased a copy of the bill in plastic to keep as a trophy. It also gave McConnell $3,000 about the time of the Senate vote.

Sending money to politicians on occasion is standard business, Kangas said. But it began to feel as if whenever Congress met, lawmakers called to mention upcoming votes that could help or harm Deloitte, he said. And a donation request would follow.

"It was a shakedown," Kangas recalled, declining to say whether he specifically referred to McConnell.

"It's often a regulated industry, like the banks, the financial services companies, the pharmaceuticals," he said. "An executive gets a call from a politician -- or someone close to the politician, who everyone knows speaks for him -- who says, 'Hey, it would be really appreciated if you could show us some support right now.'"

So Kangas joined other corporate leaders at the Committee for Economic Development -- a Washington-based business group -- in endorsing the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill.

McConnell was outraged. He mailed angry protest letters to CED members and their companies to warn that their reform advocacy would crimp the income of the Republican Party.

"I would think that public withdrawal from this organization would be a reasonable response," he wrote. At the bottom, he scrawled personal messages naming individuals and concluding: "I hope (name) will resign from CED. Mitch."

"Mitch was not completely happy," Kangas said, chuckling.

"It was thuggish," said Charles E.M. Kolb, the CED's president.

Kolb, a White House adviser to the first President Bush and an appointee under President Reagan, previously had donated to McConnell, but he resented McConnell's tone. His group stood firm.

"His letters sounded like a heavy-handed threat -- 'Continue to do business with these guys, and you won't do business with us' -- but it backfired," Kolb said. "It became a strong piece of evidence as to what's wrong with the system. It was Exhibit A."

Read the whole article....

McConnell by the numbers.

And don't miss this article from American Scientist, "The Dirt on Coal." McConnell is a big recipient of donations from the mining industry... and the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration reports to McConnell's wife, anti-labor Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Not that that's any big deal....

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Look at the bright side

As Keith Olberman explains in "Why does habeas corpus hate America," people are exagerrating about the systematic removal of their Constitutional rights. Come on, a mere 90 percent of the Bill of Rights has been gutted by the Bush Administration, at least so far....

Countdown has learned that habeas corpus actually predates the "Constitution," meaning it's not just pre-September 11th thinking, it's also pre-July 4th thinking.

In those days, no one imagined that enemy combatants might one day attack Americans on native soil.

In fact, Countdown has obtained a partially redacted copy of a colonial "declaration" indicating that back then, "depriving us of Trial by Jury" was actually considered sufficient cause to start a War of Independence, based on the then-fashionable idea that "liberty" was an unalienable right.

Today, thanks to modern, post-9/11 thinking, those rights are now fully alienable.

The reality is, without habeas corpus, a lot of other rights lose their meaning.

But if you look at the actual Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to that pesky Constitution — you'll see just how many remain.

Well, ok, Number One's gone.

If you're detained without trial, you lose your freedom of religion, speech, the press and assembly. And you can't petition the government for anything.

Number Two? While you're in prison, your right to keep and bear arms just may be infringed upon.

Even if you're in the NRA.


No forced sleepovers by soldiers at your house. OK. Three is unchanged.


You're definitely not secure against searches and seizures, with or without probable cause - and this isn't even limited to the guards.

Five… Grand juries and due process are obviously out.

Six. So are trials, let alone the right to counsel. Speedy trials? You want it when?

Seven. Hmmmm. I thought we covered "trials" and "juries" earlier.

Eight — So bail's kind of a moot point…

Nine: "Other" rights retained by the people. Well, if you can name them during your water-boarding, we'll consider them.

And Ten — powers not delegated to the United States federal government seem to have ended up there, anyway.

So as you can see, even without habeas corpus, at least one tenth of the Bill of Rights, I guess that's the Bill of "Right" now… remains virtually intact.

And we can rest easy knowing we will never, ever have to quarter soldiers in our homes… as long as the Third Amendment still stands strong.

The President can take care of that with a Signing Statement.

Watch the video.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Read it and weep

The details of Jose Padilla's incarceration have come out. His lawyers have filed a Motion to Dismiss the Indictment against him on the grounds that the Government has engaged in outrageous conduct. Read about what was done to Padilla for 3 1/2 years, via Glenn Greenwald's blog, and realize that the disgusting behavior (on the part of the authorities) detailed therein is now perfectly legal.

Unless there's a significant challenge from the courts to the Military Commissions Act (the legislative branch has shown its colors already), anyone--citizen or not--can be swept up and shut away without charge--forever--and nobody can do anything about it.

Says Greenwald:
The case of Jose Padilla is one of the most despicable and outright un-American travesties the U.S. Government has perpetrated for a long time. It is impossible to defend that behavior, let alone engage in it, and claim with any legitimacy that one believes in the principles that have defined and guided this country since its founding. But there has been no retreat from this behavior. Quite the contrary. The atrocity known as the Military Commissions Act of 2006 is a huge leap forward to elevating the Padilla treatment from the lawless shadows into full-fledged, officially sanctioned and legally authorized policy of the U.S. Government. The case of Jose Padilla is no longer a sick aberration, but is instead a symbol of the kind of Government we have chosen to have.

Christians acting like ... Christians

That ought not to be a "Man Bites Dog" headline, but it's rarer than it should be.

Forgiving enemies? Objecting to aggressive war? Protecting God's Creation? What a radical religion Christianity could be.

In the past I've written of Wendell Berry's typically withering take on Christianity's eager complicity in the world's greatest evils. "Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven, [modern Christianity] has been made the tool of much earthly villainy." Berry argues that the religion is being misrepresented and misappropriated:

The religion of the Bible, on the contrary, is a religion of the state and the status quo only in brief moments. In practice, it is a religion for the correction equally of people and of kings. And Christ's life, from the manger to the cross, was an affront to the established powers of his time, just as it is to the established powers of our time. Much is made in churches of the "good news" of the Gospels. Less is said of the Gospels' bad news, which is that Jesus would have been horrified by just about every "Christian" government the world has ever seen. He would be horrified by our government and its works, and it would be horrified by him. Surely no sane and thoughtful person can imagine any government of our time sitting comfortably at the feet of Jesus while he is saying, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you."

A couple of recent events might indicate that at least some Christians (Evangelicals, even) are fighting to reclaim their religion from the sex-obsessed, xenophobic, racist types who've given it such a bad name.

In February U.S. Members of the World Council of Churches issued a strong statement on the Iraq invasion, declaring it to have been "launched in deception and violating global norms of justice and human rights." According to the AP, the statement also "warned the United States was pushing the world toward environmental catastrophe with a 'culture of consumption' and its refusal to back international accords seeking to battle global warming."

Bill McKibben wonders if recent developments might indicate that Evangelicals might take the lead in a drive to save the planet, citing the February issuing of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, "a document that may turn out to be as important in the fight against global warming as any stack of studies and computer models." The Initiative, McKibben argues, "made clear, among other things, that even in the evangelical community, 'right wing' and 'Christian' are not synonyms, and in so doing it may have opened the door to a deeper and more interesting politics than we've experienced in the last decade of fierce ideological divide."

We can only hope.

And Sally Kohn, of California's Center for Community Change, wrote a wonderful piece titled "What the Amish Are Teaching America.", which I've quoted from below:

The evening of the shooting, Amish neighbors from the Nickel Mines community gathered to process their grief with each other and mental health counselors. As of that evening, three little girls were dead. Eight were hospitalized in critical condition. (One more girl has died since.) According to reports by counselors who attended the grief session, the Amish family members grappled with a number of questions: Do we send our kids to school tomorrow? What if they want to sleep in our beds tonight, is that okay? But one question they asked might surprise us outsiders. What, they wondered, can we do to help the family of the shooter? Plans were already underway for a horse-and-buggy caravan to visit Charles Carl Roberts’ family with offers of food and condolences. The Amish, it seems, don’t automatically translate their grieving into revenge. Rather, they believe in redemption.

Meanwhile, the United States culture from which the Amish are isolated is moving in the other direction — increasingly exacting revenge for crimes and punishing violence with more violence. In 26 states and at the federal level, there are “three strikes” laws in place. Conviction for three felonies in a row now warrants a life sentence, even for the most minor crimes. For instance, Leandro Andrade is serving a life sentence, his final crime involving the theft of nine children’s videos — including “Cinderella” and “Free Willy” — from a Kmart. Similarly, in many states and at the federal level, possession of even small amounts of drugs trigger mandatory minimum sentences of extreme duration. In New York, Elaine Bartlett was just released from prison, serving a 20-year sentence for possessing only four ounces of cocaine. This is in addition to the 60 people who were executed in the United States in 2005, among the more than a thousand killed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. And the President of the United States is still actively seeking authority to torture and abuse alleged terrorists, whom he consistently dehumanizes as rats to be “smoked from their holes”, even without evidence of their guilt.

Our patterns of punishment and revenge are fundamentally at odds with the deeper values of common humanity that the tragic experience of the Amish are helping to reveal. Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done in life. Someone who cheats is not only a cheater. Someone who steals something is not only a thief. And someone who commits a murder is not only a murderer. The same is true of Charles Carl Roberts. We don’t yet know the details of the episode in his past for which, in his suicide note, he said he was seeking revenge. It may be a sad and sympathetic tale. It may not. Either way, there’s no excusing his actions. Whatever happened to Roberts in the past, taking the lives of others is never justified. But nothing Roberts has done changes the fact that he was a human being, like all of us. We all make mistakes. Roberts’ were considerably and egregiously larger than most. But the Amish in Nickel Mines seem to have been able to see past Roberts’ actions and recognize his humanity, sympathize with his family for their loss, and move forward with compassion not vengeful hate.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Killer answer

Flipping through Vanity Fair, which arrived today, dwelling on their big Awards Show tie-in Country & Western [!?] Music Portfolio, which offered many WTF moments.

I imagine these things are put together on a tight schedule and maybe some who should be included can't get it together for a photo shoot while travelling to 300-plus cities a year. But off the top of the head, no Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Big & Rich, George Strait or Toby Keith? No Dixie Chicks? In their place Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Dan ZANES???!!!

Much strain noted in the editorial categories created to explain to city folk why they should care about this or that hillbilly (obscuring the fact that VF's readership is much more likely to be WalMart than Upper West Side). I can imagine interminable editorial meetings hammering out the many shades of nonconfomity conveyed by the Bohemians, the Rebels, the Outlaws, the Adventurers, the Renegades....

And a huge omission was partially rectified by running the Proust Questionnaire past Jerry Lee Lewis, whose many pedestrian answers were offset by some truly memorable ones, including perhaps the best Proust Questionnaire answer ever:
What is your most marked characteristic?
My left hand is dynamite!

The most important invention of the 20th century?

Fritz und Albert
[Haber's] story has been all but written out of the 20th century. But it embodies the paradoxes of science, the double edge to our manipulations of nature, the good and evil that can flow not only from the same man but from the same knowledge.
Since the spring I have been continually re-reading parts of Michael Pollan's wonderful The Omnivore's Dilemma. I keep returning to one three-page section that makes some incredible connections about how we got to be where we are today. It also clarifies some fairly basic science for the likes of liberal arts majors such as I.

I was prepared to key in the entire section Pollan wrote on Fritz Haber, but an editor at Smithsonian excerpted it, with some small changes in an article titled "What's Eating America?"

Haber was a German Jew whose contributions to the German war efforts in WW I were not enough to save him from being hounded out of his country by the Nazis (who exterminated many members of his family in the camps using his invention, Zyklon B). His first wife was so sickened by his work with poison gases that she killed herself with his army pistol.

These anecdotes, as ugly and horrifyingly ironic as they are, are really just a sick, but not completely tangential, aside to Haber's story. I have never heard it claimed, but to my eyes it seems Haber's major scientific invention ranks right up there with splitting the atom. For it was he who figured out how to fix nitrogen synthetically.

One result of Haber's work was the existence today of billions of people. Were it not for his invention, two out of five of us would simply not exist!

And of course the synthetic fixing of nitrogen continues to have monstrously large (and overwhelmingly negative) consequences for agriculture and the planet itself, which Pollan explains below:
The great turning point in the modern history of corn, which in turn marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food, can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over from making explosives to making chemical fertilizer. After World War II, the government had found itself with a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in the making of explosives. Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Serious thought was given to spraying America's forests with the surplus chemical, to help the timber industry. But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea: spread the ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on the poison gases developed for war) is the product of the government's effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, "We're still eating the leftovers of World War II."
F1 hybrid corn is the greediest of plants, consuming more fertilizer than any other crop. Though F1 hybrids were introduced in the 1930s, it wasn't until they made the acquaintance of chemical fertilizers in the 1950s that corn yields exploded. The discovery of synthetic nitrogen changed everything—not just for the corn plant and the farm, not just for the food system, but also for the way life on earth is conducted.

All life depends on nitrogen; it is the building block from which nature assembles amino acids, proteins and nucleic acid; the genetic information that orders and perpetuates life is written in nitrogen ink. But the supply of usable nitrogen on earth is limited. Although earth's atmosphere is about 80 percent nitrogen, all those atoms are tightly paired, nonreactive and therefore useless; the 19th-century chemist Justus von Liebig spoke of atmospheric nitrogen's "indifference to all other substances." To be of any value to plants and animals, these self-involved nitrogen atoms must be split and then joined to atoms of hydrogen.

Chemists call this process of taking atoms from the atmosphere and combining them into molecules useful to living things "fixing" that element. Until a German Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to turn this trick in 1909, all the usable nitrogen on earth had at one time been fixed by soil bacteria living on the roots of leguminous plants (such as peas or alfalfa or locust trees) or, less commonly, by the shock of electrical lightning, which can break nitrogen bonds in the air, releasing a light rain of fertility.

In his book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production, Vaclav Smil pointed out that "there is no way to grow crops and human bodies without nitrogen." Before Haber's invention, the sheer amount of life earth could support—the size of crops and therefore the number of human bodies—was limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria and lightning could fix. By 1900, European scientists had recognized that unless a way was found to augment this naturally occurring nitrogen, the growth of the human population would soon grind to a very painful halt. The same recognition by Chinese scientists a few decades later is probably what compelled China's opening to the West: after Nixon's 1972 trip, the first major order the Chinese government placed was for 13 massive fertilizer factories. Without them, China would have starved.

This is why it may not be hyperbole to claim, as Smil does, that the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen (Bosch gets the credit for commercializing Haber's idea) is the most important invention of the 20th century. He estimates that two of every five humans on earth today would not be alive if not for Fritz Haber's invention. We can easily imagine a world without computers or electricity, Smil points out, but without synthetic fertilizer billions of people would never have been born. Though, as these numbers suggest, humans may have struck a Faustian bargain with nature when Fritz Haber gave us the power to fix nitrogen.

Fritz Haber? No, I'd never heard of him either, even though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 for "improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind." But the reason for his obscurity has less to do with the importance of his work than an ugly twist of his biography, which recalls the dubious links between modern warfare and industrial agriculture: during World War I, Haber threw himself into the German war effort, and his chemistry kept alive Germany's hopes for victory, by allowing it to make bombs from synthetic nitrate. Later, Haber put his genius for chemistry to work developing poison gases—ammonia, then chlorine. (He subsequently developed Zyklon B, the gas used in Hitler's concentration camps.) His wife, a chemist sickened by her husband's contribution to the war effort, used his army pistol to kill herself; Haber died, broken and in flight from Nazi Germany, in a Basel hotel room in 1934.

His story has been all but written out of the 20th century. But it embodies the paradoxes of science, the double edge to our manipulations of nature, the good and evil that can flow not only from the same man but from the same knowledge. Even Haber's agricultural benefaction has proved to be a decidedly mixed blessing.

When humankind acquired the power to fix nitrogen, the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel. That's because the Haber-Bosch process works by combining nitrogen and hydrogen gases under immense heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst. The heat and pressure are supplied by prodigious amounts of electricity, and the hydrogen is supplied by oil, coal or, most commonly today, natural gas. True, these fossil fuels were created by the sun, billions of years ago, but they are not renewable in the same way that the fertility created by a legume nourished by sunlight is. (That nitrogen is fixed by a bacterium living on the roots of the legume, which trades a tiny drip of sugar for the nitrogen the plant needs.)

Liberated from the old biological constraints, the farm could now be managed on industrial principles, as a factory transforming inputs of raw material—chemical fertilizer—into outputs of corn. And corn adapted brilliantly to the new industrial regime, consuming prodigious quantities of fossil fuel energy and turning out ever more prodigious quantities of food energy. Growing corn, which from a biological perspective had always been a process of capturing sunlight to turn it into food, has in no small measure become a process of converting fossil fuels into food. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen made today is applied to corn.

From the standpoint of industrial efficiency, it's too bad we can't simply drink petroleum directly, because there's a lot less energy in a bushel of corn (measured in calories) than there is in the half-gallon of oil required to produce it. Ecologically, this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food—but "ecologically" is no longer the operative standard. In the factory, time is money, and yield is everything.

One problem with factories, as opposed to biological systems, is that they tend to pollute. Hungry for fossil fuel as hybrid corn is, farmers still feed it far more than it can possibly eat, wasting most of the fertilizer they buy. And what happens to that synthetic nitrogen the plants don't take up? Some of it evaporates into the air, where it acidifies the rain and contributes to global warming. Some seeps down to the water table, whence it may come out of the tap. The nitrates in water bind to hemoglobin, compromising the blood's ability to carry oxygen to the brain. (I guess I was wrong to suggest we don't sip fossil fuels directly; sometimes we do.)

It has been less than a century since Fritz Haber's invention, yet already it has changed earth's ecology. More than half of the world's supply of usable nitrogen is now man-made. (Unless you grew up on organic food, most of the kilo or so of nitrogen in your body was fixed by the Haber-Bosch process.) "We have perturbed the global nitrogen cycle," Smil wrote, "more than any other, even carbon." The effects may be harder to predict than the effects of the global warming caused by our disturbance of the carbon cycle, but they are no less momentous.

The flood of synthetic nitrogen has fertilized not just the farm fields but the forests and oceans, too, to the benefit of some species (corn and algae being two of the biggest beneficiaries) and to the detriment of countless others. The ultimate fate of the nitrates spread in Iowa or Indiana is to flow down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, where their deadly fertility poisons the marine ecosystem. The nitrogen tide stimulates the wild growth of algae, and the algae smother the fish, creating a "hypoxic," or dead, zone as big as New Jersey—and still growing. By fertilizing the world, we alter the planet's composition of species and shrink its biodiversity.

And yet, as organic farmers (who don't use synthetic fertilizer) prove every day, the sun still shines, plants and their bacterial associates still fix nitrogen, and farm animals still produce vast quantities of nitrogen in their "waste," so-called. It may take more work, but it's entirely possible to nourish the soil, and ourselves, without dumping so much nitrogen into the environment. The key to reducing our dependence on synthetic nitrogen is to build a more diversified agriculture—rotating crops and using animals to recycle nutrients on farms—and give up our vast, nitrogen-guzzling monocultures of corn. Especially as the price of fossil fuels climbs, even the world's most industrialized farmers will need to take a second look at how nature, and those who imitate her, go about creating fertility without diminishing our world.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Another scandal, another coverup, another snarling attack on leakers

Glenn Greenwald is masterful here on Hastert's disgraceful "investigation"--not into the Republican cover-up of its knowledge of Mark Foley's issues, but into who spilled the beans about the cover-up.

Which, as Greenwald points out, has been the M.O. from Day One of our One-Party-Rule Era.
Whenever someone exposes wrongdoing on the part of Beltway Republicans, their reaction has been to attack and threaten those who expose the wrongdoing. When Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill published a book with Ron Suskind which revealed that the administration was planning to attack Iraq long before 9/11, they began immediately threatening O'Neill with a criminal investigation over documents they claimed he improperly took. When The New York Times exposed the President's illegal eavesdropping, they threatened a criminal investigation of the reporters and editors who published the story. And now Hastert is attempting to depict as the real criminals those who exposed the conduct of the House GOP leaders in the Foley scandal.
.... It is critical to keep in mind what this scandal is about and what it is not about. It is true that there are legal and criminal aspect to this scandal, but legal issues here are secondary at most. This is not a case involving complex federal criminal statutes or debates over whether enough evidence can be compiled demonstrating that GOP House leaders broke the law. Instead, the issue is one of political corruption and lack of character -- the fact that the GOP House leadership is so devoted to preservation of its own power that they are willing to do anything, no matter how corrupt or repugnant, to cling to that power.

The behavior of the GOP House leadership here is reprehensible and intolerable even if they are able to avoid criminal prosecution for it. That point, after all, was supposedly the centerpiece of Republican rule in Washington, according to the President:
Let me say a few words about important values we must demonstrate while all of us serve in government. First, we must always maintain the highest ethical standards. We must always ask ourself (sic) not only what is legal, but what is right. There is no goal of government worth accomplishing if it cannot be accomplished with integrity.
Even worse than Hastert's deliberate exclusion of the real issue here from the scope of the investigation he requested is the real purpose of his letter -- which is to trigger a criminal investigation and prosecution by the Bush-controlled Justice Department of those in the media and elsewhere who revealed to the American public that the GOP House leadership was protecting a predator in their midst.