Wednesday, October 19, 2011

No One For President, Or, Election-Proofing Your Life

(Before I start, I'd like to welcome Meg O'Halloran to my blog. Thanks for your readership! Also, a belated welcome to those who joined last year, including Neil and Naomi Montacre. If you live in the Portland metro area, feel free to check out their store some time.)

I've been thinking about my visit to the #Occupy Portland protests, especially in light of the mainstream media's continued lame coverage of the #Occupy movement in general. While the MSM have not been exactly enthusiastic or even diligent in their coverage of the protests, they have been very enthusiastic in providing coverage of the Republican presidential campaign. This is interesting in that it shows the rapidly widening rift between the MSM and the ordinary people of the United States.

One message that came through loud and clear in my interviews with the #Occupy Portland protesters is that increasingly, most Americans do not believe that either main political party serves the interests of the common people. Increasingly, people are coming to believe that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are actually interested in providing solutions or adaptive responses to the problems and predicaments facing ordinary Americans in this time of economic decline and contraction. An increasing number of Americans is waking up to the realization that the entire electoral and political process has been bought by the rich in order to serve the rich at the expense of all the rest of us. And more and more Americans are realizing that the story they are being fed by the mainstream media bears no resemblance to reality – especially the reality lived daily by ordinary people of small means.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is pushing stories about Texas Governor Rick Perry's proposed policies for America while Herman Cain chews up the airwaves with controversial and schizophrenic statements. (If ever there was a man suffering from a massive case of Stockholm syndrome, Herman Cain fits the bill. He's at least as bad as Clarence Thomas.) And AOL News recently ran a piece advising its readers which Republican presidential candidate would be best for their wallets. At least Sarah Palin has experienced a rare moment of decency and has decided not to run for president.

Increasingly, the Republicans remind me of a line from a Warren Zevon song, Werewolves of London: “You better stay away from him. He'll rip your lungs out, Jim...” And the Democrats? They are being paid by the werewolves to do nothing while the rest of us get eaten. In fact, I can see a few well-developed canine teeth in the mouths of many Democrat politicians. As for third parties in the United States, most of them also seem to be insane and more than a little bit feral.

Maybe we ordinary people should send an election year message of our own to whoever might be listening. I propose a campaign consisting of homemade bumper stickers (for those who drive) or bicycle helmet stickers (for those who pedal). Let the stickers read, NO ONE FOR PRESIDENT. I also propose that ordinary working-class people devise means for election-proofing their lives. This means finding strategies that will enable you to live in some measure of dignity without danger to your lungs or any other body parts, no matter which werewolf gets elected in 2012.

P.S. I will have a couple of more technical posts in the next few weeks, including (hopefully) an interview.

Friday, October 7, 2011

#Occupy Portland - A View From The Street

I dropped in on the #Occupy Portland protest yesterday, as one member of a small army of citizen journalists and bloggers covering the event. I'd been hearing about the #Occupy protests in New York and elsewhere over the last several days.

Some thoughts on the protests are in order. At first I wondered a bit about whether the protests were arranged as a media campaign in order to channel the outrage of common people into harmless and ineffectual action, or whether they were an actual, genuine expression of unscripted citizen outrage over the robbery of the poor majority by the rich minority in this country. It seems to me now that the protests are the real deal.

I think especially of the conversations and interviews I had with many ordinary people who took part in yesterday's protest. They ranged widely in age, from high school to retirement. There were also many working people who are now under economic stress. Their comments had common themes, namely that large numbers of people now believe that both political parties have become the servants and property of the rich. Many people now realize that neither political party represents common people. Many people no longer trust the mainstream media in this country to give us an accurate picture of the world. Many young people realize that they are in for a very hard life under our present economic arrangement. There were also many people who had been personally and tangibly victimized by one or more large corporations, including one woman with a sign that proclaimed that she had been “wait-listed for chemotherapy.”

Most MSM talking heads meanwhile continue to complain that the #Occupy protests lack a coherent message or coherent demands. From yesterday's experience I think I can help out. The message is very simple. Most of us ordinary people of small means would like the holders of concentrated wealth in this country to stop treating us as resources to be exploited. We are not here to make you rich. You need to wake up and realize that. Stop making it hard for us to live without you. Release your chokehold on American economic and political life so that we all can begin to learn to live graciously in a world with fewer resources. That means things like dropping your opposition to public mass transit and single payer health care, among the many elements of the commons that must be built up if most of us are to survive the next few decades. That means stopping your relentless attacks on what's left of the commons, including things like public parks, libraries and other elements of common, public American life. End your stupid wars – foreign resource wars and domestic wars against poor people and people who don't look like you. Stop trying to monopolize everything and become decent people. As things stand now, you are on your way to hell. Have I made things plain enough for you?

Common people in America are waking up to the illegitimacy of our present political processes and are moving outside of the channels so carefully laid down for them. Therefore, the #Occupy protests are not about telling people to get out and vote. (KPOJ, “Portland's only progressive talk station” doesn't seem to get that. Last night I heard some idiot named Norman Goldman telling people that he suddenly is starting to like Pat Buchanan.) The danger to the present holders of power is that if they don't start listening to what common people are saying, common people may bypass them altogether, along with their media mouthpieces.

Anyway, here's a link to some video and still pictures I shot yesterday while at the protest. Or you can just click on the box below to view the video directly. I also recorded several audio clips. Not all of them are included in the Youtube video I posted, so I will post all the audio clips and provide a link to them at a later date.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Death Of The Central Valley

I will begin this post by amending my policy for comments on this blog. In the sidebar on the right, I originally wrote, “A Word On Comments: Comments are always welcome. I am flattered by those who read, and gratified by those who comment (even though we may disagree). I only ask that comments be 'family-friendly' – clean language, if you get my drift.”

That part of my comment policy still stands. However, I am now adding a new condition, namely, that anyone who wants to post a comment on this blog must do so via a valid OpenID. I will no longer be accepting anonymous comments. Why the change? Because of anonymous comments supportive of certain economic interests which were submitted for my posts, “The Chicken That Laid Leaden Eggs, And Other Horror Stories,” and “The 'Congress Created Dust Bowl'.”

But here's a paradox: today I am violating my own comment policy – just a little bit, and only this once. This past April, an anonymous commenter submitted two very hostile comments on the “Congress Created Dust Bowl” post. (I am just now getting around to addressing this person's comments. In April I was up to my neck in teaching and my office job.) Despite the hostility, I found the comments highly entertaining. (In another setting, they would have been downright funny, although the commenter was not trying to be humorous.) In many ways these comments are typical of the mindset of the “conservative,” jingoistic, materialist, supremacist, anti-intellectual element in modern-day America, even to the emotive name-calling, bad grammar and misspelling of simple words. The commenter also accuses me of allowing only comments with which I agree. Today, I have proven him wrong. If you want to read what he wrote, check out “The 'Congress Created Dust Bowl'” post. (And yes, Mr. Anonymous, whoever you are, I no longer live in California.)

Now I'd like to give a response to this person's comments, a response which will shed a rather different light on the challenges facing Central Valley agriculture. Hopefully this response will also shed further light on the fallacy of promoting unrestrained resource use of any kind in pursuit of economic growth. The truth is that in so many ways, our society has hit the wall.

My anonymous reader starts by saying, “The Central Valley produces 8% of the Nations (sic) ag on 1% of the total ag land in the country. Reservoirs made it possible to farm and feed you, yes feed you...When the state regulates your water use, and doesnt (sic) let you WATER YOUR CROPS its called, its a top down regulation. THUS CONGRESS CREATED...” He drives home his point by concluding, “IF THE STATE REGULATES YOUR WATER AND DOESNT (sic) LET YOU USE (sic) TO THE POINT THAT YOUR CROPS DIE AND YOU CANT (sic) FEED YOUR FAMILY! ITS CONGRESS CREATED!!!” (Emphasis in original.)

To provide some background to this man's rant, over the last few years the United States Federal government and certain California state agencies have imposed water use restrictions on Central Valley farmers in order to protect Central Valley groundwater supplies and to prevent ecological damage resulting from the over-exploitation of the Sacramento River. In response to these restrictions, a number of wealthy agribusinesses mounted a protest campaign whose most visible manifestation was the installation along Interstate 5 of hundreds of yellow signs with red letters reading “Congress Created Dust Bowl,” “Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl,” and the names, Boxer, Costa and Pelosi (politicians who were being targeted by farmers for removal from office for helping to “create” the supposed “dust bowl”).

Here we have a very typical fight between a group of people who want to pursue economic growth at all costs, regardless of the collateral damage, and a group of people who acknowledge the very real limits to economic growth caused by limits on resources and the magnitude of the damage resulting from over-exploitation of those resources. Those who worship growth above all else demonize those who acknowledge limits and warn against trying to breach those limits. Those who see limits to growth in the Central Valley are branded as “Socialists!!!” and “LA liberals!!!” as my anonymous commenter called me.

But what if the pro-growth agribusinessmen got their way? I'd like to suggest that they would soon hit the wall anyway. In the Central Valley, that would mean the demise of large-scale agriculture, sooner rather than later – even if farmers were allowed to take as much water as they possibly could from available supplies. For intensive irrigated agriculture on a large scale carries the seeds of its own destruction.

The problem is the salting up of irrigated soils. This is a contributing factor to desertification – the result of farming too intensively, extracting resources too rapidly from the soils in a region, especially an arid or semiarid region, so that the land is not allowed time for natural processes to recharge and replenish it. (Desertification resulting from improper agriculture has caused a few ancient civilizations to fail, by the way.)

I will try to summarize the process by which soils become salted. Salts of various kinds are present in all soils, as well as in most naturally occurring bodies of water. However, salt accumulation in soils is usually the result of human activity. When water from lakes or rivers is used to irrigate lands used for agriculture, the salt in the irrigation water mingles with the salt in the naturally occurring groundwater. This is not a problem if the land has good drainage and if the amount of irrigation is relatively small. However, if the amount of irrigation is large or the land has poor drainage, there are a number of negative effects:

  • Plants used as crops take up the irrigation water through transpiration, leaving dissolved salts behind in the soil.

  • As large volumes of crops are grown in the same plot of irrigated land, the concentration of salt remaining in the soil increases.

  • As land with poor drainage is intensively irrigated, a second mechanism increases the concentration of salts in the soil, namely, evaporation of water from flooded ground, leaving dissolved salts behind. This causes the naturally occurring groundwater to become increasingly saline as well.

The result of these effects is the buildup of soil salt concentrations to a level that prevents plants from growing. Then the field becomes unusable for agriculture. In extreme cases, the field can become barren.

This process is happening to the California Central Valley. It is happening because of the expansion of intensive irrigated agriculture. Many recent studies have been published which document this process. A study published by the University of California, Davis, in 2009 predicts that “...if salinity increases at the current rate until 2030, the direct annual costs will range from $1 billion to $1.5 billion...The production of goods and services in California could be reduced from $5 billion to $8.7 billion a year...the increase in salinity by 2030 could cost the Central Valley economy 27,000 to 53,000 jobs...” In short, Central Valley intensive irrigated agriculture, done intensively in order to maximize profit growth, is on the verge of serious trouble – even if Central Valley farmers get all the water they can get their hands on. The more water they get, the sooner they will all be in intractable trouble.

The problem of soil salinization and desertification is by no means limited to the California Central Valley. It is a worldwide symptom of modern industrial agriculture. In many places, man-made climate change will only make the problem worse. Smart people should begin thinking of alternative ways of getting their food.


  1. Excessive Irrigation Promotes Desertification,” Willem Van Cotthem, 23 June 2008.

  2. The Economic Impacts of Central Valley Salinity,” University of California Davis, 16 March 2009.

  3. More With Less: Agricultural Conservation and Efficiency in California,” Pacific Institute, 2008.

  4. Dryland Agriculture, Irrigation, And Salinity,” University of Florida.

  5. Sustainability of Irrigated Agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, California,” University of California, Davis; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Hydrogeologic, Inc, 25 October 2005.

  6. Irrigation Salinity – Causes and Impacts,” Cynthia Podmore, Advisory Officer, Natural Resource Advisory Services, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, 2009.

  7. Salinity In The Landscape,” Geotimes, Pichu Rengasamy, March 2008.