The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Green Gone Wrong - A Book That Gets It Right!

“This is a long process,” says Lely Khairnur, director of a social justice and sustainability organization in Indonesia, “It’s not fighting against one company, we are fighting a system.” This quote succinctly represents the essence of Heather Rogers’ Green Gone Wrong. Her book is a percussive blow to the “green capitalism” ideologues and consumer-oriented conceptions of environmental sustainability. The criticisms, and possible alternatives, she raises in her work are purposefully astonishing and suggestive of the radically broad structural changes that must be forced upon the ruling class if we wish to maintain Earth as a habitable and sustainable home for our species. Her scathing critique of the consumer-based approach to sustainability and the market-based approach to regulating the environment are presented within a framework which attempts to articulate the need for a systemic overhaul, not piecemeal reforms or slightly more expansive regulatory powers. She claims that our “toxic emissions” as individuals are not ours alone, but instead they are “linked to a larger socioeconomic system that actually depends on pollution to maintain its well-being.” She is correct in this assertion, and her criticism of the new ideological currents within the environmental movement are much needed breath of fresh air in a highly irrational and anti-human system.

Her first target is the highly marketed “organic” and “fair trade” labels that have recently flooded grocery stores and large chains all over the United States. Many within the progressive movement look to these as an alternative to the highly-processed, chemically tainted, and mono-cropped agricultural practices of big businesses. She dismantles the notion that these labels are really helping regular people (say peasants in Paraguay or truly organic farmers in the U.S.) and are more about projecting an image which helps sell commodities and promote the idea these problems can be fixed simply through market mechanisms. It is, in other words, an attempt by the dominant ideological elites to legitimize capitalism in a world where the population is becoming more and more critical of its environmental track record. To be certain, such desires on behalf of consumers who truly wish to help by buying organic and fair trade products is a progressive step within the framework we are operating in. And, while it is true that not all organic and fair trade sellers bend the rules and corrupt the process, it is apparent the entire certification system and regulation system are systemically flawed.


In the US, for example, monopolization and regulations that actually support large agribusiness has forced many small farmers out of business and made many others rely on outside income (wives working full time jobs as wage workers) to simply support the farm. The average small farm in the US, according to a USDA economic research study, earns 85-95% of its income from "off-farm sources." On top of that, most organic farms are simply "visually inspected," meaning that if an inspector comes out at all, they do not have to run any chemical tests or fertilizer tests.


Similarly, international organic standards are meant to mean a host of things, including crop rotation to protect the soil and non-chemical use, etc. However, with crops like sugar cane most small farmers in, say, Paraguay, cannot afford to take the chance (or hire the labor) to rotate crops every year and perennial crops like sugarcane remain in the same spot for years and years. And manure used to fertilize the ground, for instance, often comes from "non-organic" sources where they pump the animals with hormones and even lace the food with arsenic to increase growth. This manure is used in certified "organic" crops that we consumers eat. All the while, large agribusiness, who is quickly taking over the "organic" niche in the US market, is benefiting from the increased sale prices they can charge and cutting costs. In other words, consumers and small farmers are getting screwed.


Thus, organic certification in third world countries mean almost nothing. Since poor farmers cannot afford certification (it costs a lot, and the time involved in documenting their credentials takes away from valuable labor time, which they are very, very limited in) they are often bunched together under one large manufacturer. There certification, then, is often under the name of a large corporation, meaning they can only sell their organic crops through this producer, because it maintains the right to the seal. They can sell their crops for conventional prices but they get massively screwed if they choose to do so. Furthermore, any attempt at independent selling and they are cut off from their organic certification. Fair trade does essentially the same thing, and they are relegated to selling to a big producer. Basically, these labels are serving to confine small farmers and forcing them to subjugate themselves to large agribusiness, who control the market. And, since they are "group certified," there is no independent regulation. Regulators are hired by the large company who are certified, and they only have to "randomly select" farmers once in awhile to be checked. In many parts of Latin America, where the infrastructure for regulation barely exists, organic and fair trade mean almost nothing.

It is not just organic and fair trade products that are so distorted within the capitalist framework. Greener technology in, say, architecture are simply non-existent or barely existent in the U.S. for working class consumers because of the insanely high price, despite having the appropriate technology. Public transportation was decimated by the large oil and auto companies and, unsurprisingly, the state literally sanctioned this destruction by giving them little more than a slap on the wrist, a $5,000 fine, for literally dismantling public rail in most U.S. cities. Even greener and environmentally friendly cars are withheld because corporations function around the profit motive and gas-guzzlers are far more profitable than compact and eco-friendly automobiles. Carbon offsetting is more about the “bottom line” than actually offsetting carbon emissions. Even poor peasants in India are forced to chop down and sell wood to biomass energy plants to simply make enough cash to survive. Solar energy is haphazardly installed without the adequate support or voltage to make it functional due to price constraints. The horror tales concerning market solutions to our planet’s environmental problems are innumerable.

The moral of the story, then, is that capitalism as a socioeconomic system cannot, and will not, provide an Earth on which sustainability is a likely outcome or, even, a possibility. The market fundamentally distorts potential for environmentally sustainable technology to become the norm. Likewise, the inherent tendency towards expansion and production are also significant limitations to what the market can to do negate environmental damage. Roger’s provides an absolutely essential critique of the purported market “solutions” that many within and outside of the mainstream environmental movement are currently advocating. She provides 12 pages at the end of her book titled “Notes on the Possible,” in which she advocates cultivating biodiversity by looking backwards to the farming techniques of the past, developing an agroecology with the ability to feed the six billion people on the planet, accommodate small farmers, enforce stricter regulations, and subsidize technology that fosters environmental sustainability. Her call for huge government intervention to save our Earth from destruction is a welcome one, and money could easily be redirected from imperialistic wars and the wealthiest sectors of society to fund alternative technology and its implementation on a mass-scale. This is something that requires economic and political power that only the national and international agencies can harness. It cannot be done piecemeal by individual consumers, one at a time, or forward-looking businesses.

Rogers’ argues that a “more comprehensive regulation of industry and a major rethinking of our political and economic structures” are the key to a new ecology. She is correct. Her contribution to this dialogue is essential, and will help combat the market proponents who so eagerly defend the status quo or small reforms. However, we must also take her argument a bit further. She gives us an idea of how government policies and farming practices can be changed to support our environment, but she does not provide us with the vehicle through which we make those changes. They will not come through our leader’s benevolence, as gifts handed down to us. Indeed, as Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without demand, it never has, and it never will.” Time still remains to save our planet and ourselves, but this cannot be done without marshalling our forces and constructing edifices that facilitate the growth of social movements. Broad-reaching, radical social movements are what can provide Douglass’s demand and force qualitative changes in our infrastructure, workplaces, economy, and environment. I highly recommend that this book be read alongside John Bellamy Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature and Chris William’s Ecology and Socialism.

It is apparent that throughout the world there is a serious augmentation of environmentally-aware people and ideas. The multi-faceted and piecemeal solutions put forth by market ideologues focus primarily upon individual lifestyle choices, but it is evident that the scale of the crisis we face requires a far more radical approach. Heather Rogers does well to further the discourse that needs to occur, but we need to push her, and others, to adopt an even broader and more radical approach to ecology. In other words, we need a socialist ecology, one that emphasis production for human and environmental need and not profit. We need an ecology, as George Orwell so brilliantly surmised, that goes beyond the “change of spirit” and instead focuses on the “change in structure.” Capitalism as an economic system needs to be replaced by a system where the vast majority democratically decide how to produce, distribute, and use Earth’s resources in a sustainable and liberating manner. Rogers' Green Gone Wrong is a powerful addition to this vision. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Care About Democracy? Defend Julian Assange!

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and a man who a year ago was relatively unknown, is now the victim of a vicious, international attack. This attack is simultaneously occurring on the political, legal, and economic fronts. Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, claims that Assange ought to be "hunted down" and Tim Flanagan, a former aide to the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, claimed that he ought to be assassinated, perhaps by "a drone or something." Republican Mike Huckabee, often regarded as one of the main 2012 presidential candidates, recently stated that the leaker of U.S. classified documents, Bradley Manning, ought to be executed for treason. There is no telling what he would do, if it were up to him, to Julian Assange, the main transparency and democracy protagonist in this case.

Right-wing fantasies aside, Interpol, the international police agency, has just sent out an provisional arrest warrant for Assange who is currently in Britain. The charges rest tentatively on the grounds that, essentially, Assange did not use a condom during sexual intercourse with two women in Sweden. Obviously, international searches for such heinous criminals are warranted!

Perhaps we ought to be a little more than skeptical about the timing of such legal charges, especially considering they had previously been dropped, only to be picked back up again once Assange released more documents about U.S. foreign and diplomatic policy. There are, however, for more serious legal challenges ahead for Assange. Attorney General Eric Holder has recently claimed that U.S. officials are looking into prosecuting Assange under the Espionage act. These threats, if followed through on, could prove far more serious for Assange.

Furthermore, the government has, essentially, forced servers to simply drop WikiLeaks from their realms. Amazon.com and EveryDNS has removed WikiLeaks, caving to government pressure. As I am writing this I have tried to access WikiLeaks online, to no avail. As one commentator stated, “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books." Maybe they are right.

So, what exactly does the organization claim to do? Well, according their website:
WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box). One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth. 

Why is all this being done? After all, so many within the government, and the pundits outside of it, claim that what WikiLeaks is doing is relatively unimportant. They argue it has no real effect, that the information presented was already known and nothing substantial has come from these reports. Aside from the right-wing rhetoric of treason and espionage, the main discourse has revolved around the idea that the work Assange, and those working with him, are carrying out is, simply, not that significant. This was the official government line after the first major leak of Iraq war documents, and has been echoed ever since then. Glenn Greenwald, legal writer for Salon.com, briefly summarized why this is an outright lie:
If there's Nothing New in these documents, can Jonathan Capehart (or any other "journalist" claiming this) please point to whereThe Washington Post previously reported on these facts, all revealed by the WikiLeaks disclosures:  
(1) the U.S. military formally adopted a policy of turning a blind eyeto systematic, pervasive torture and other abuses by Iraqi forces;
(2) the State Department threatened Germany not to criminally investigate the CIA's kidnapping of one of its citizens who turned out to be completely innocent;
(3) the State Department under Bush and Obama applied continuous pressure on the Spanish Government to suppress investigations of the CIA's torture of its citizens and the 2003 killing of a Spanish photojournalist when the U.S. military fired on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad (see The Philadelphia Inquirer's Will Bunch today about this: "The day Barack Obama Lied to me"); 
(4) the British Government privately promised to shield Bush officials from embarrassment as part of its Iraq War "investigation"; 
(5) there were at least 15,000 people killed in Iraq that were previously uncounted;
(6) "American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world" about the Iraq war as it was prosecuted, a conclusion the Post's own former Baghdad Bureau Chief wrote was proven by the WikiLeaks documents;
(7) the U.S.'s own Ambassador concluded that the July, 2009 removal of the Honduran President was illegal -- a coup -- but the State Department did not want to conclude that and thus ignored it until it was too late to matter;
(8) U.S. and British officials colluded to allow the U.S. to keep cluster bombs on British soil even though Britain had signed the treaty banning such weapons, and,
(9) Hillary Clinton's State Department ordered diplomats to collect passwords, emails, and biometric data on U.N. and other foreign officials, almost certainly in violation of the Vienna Treaty of 1961. 
That's just a sampling.

Obviously, the WikiLeaks has done nothing argument simply does not hold up to the evidence. Similarly, we can reject, out of hand, the right-wing notions of treason and espionage articulated by the most hyper-reactionary elements in our society. It should be noted that I include the Obama administration among that group, especially in relation to this particular issue. This vitriolic and super-patriotic rhetoric, as Noam Chomsky recently stated, displays little more than a "profound hatred for democracy" on behalf of our political leaders.

Arguments from more rational observers and left critics of WikiLeaks, however, are slightly more interesting to inspect. Arguments of this type against the organization revolve, fundamentally, around three primary ideas. First, WikiLeaks has made grave mistakes, threatens personal privacy, and has fallen to libel. Second, WikiLeaks endangers transparency activism by "taking it too far" and exciting a government backlash. Third, the actions taken by the organization have not fundamentally changed the way U.S. foreign policy functions.

The first charge is profoundly absurd. While it is true that within the four year existence of the organization they have made mistakes, it is also clear to anyone who cares at all for exposing human rights violations, war crimes, and the imperialist nature of U.S. foreign policy, the vast majority of the work WikiLeaks has done has provided the raw material we need to construct and supplement our arguments challenging U.S. hegemony around the world. While minor mistakes may have been made here or there in the organization's existence, such a prodigious amount of work has been done that is good in terms of exposing U.S. government policies and crimes, that it far outweighs any relatively small mistakes that some "transparency activists" have harped on.

Second, the idea that WikiLeaks endangers transparency activism by "taking it to far," a position articulated by Steven Aftergood on the DemocracyNow debate with Glenn Greenwald, is fundamentally incorrect and, worse, highly enervating for our movement. In fact, the same arguments were used by conservatives and moderates in every movement for social change and every struggle in our history. Whether it was civil rights, in which conservative leaders preached patience and legal means to achieve their ends, fearing a "white backlash," or Women's rights issues where activists were told to just wait for fear of "male backlash." Following this course of action, workers could have simply waited for bosses to increase their wages or decrease the work day. I have the strange feeling that, had our ancestors followed Aftergood's advice, we would still be working 12 hours a day for non-living wages. 

The driving notion behind this critique is that activists and citizens are not the drivers of change, but the people at the top who currently hold political and economic power. Aftergood, someone who does do decent work within the confines of the system, has allowed himself to be consumed by the system. Simply trying to change the system from inside will corrupt you. Instead of relying on concrete activism and illegal, subversive activities to supplement the legal work going on, we ought to simply confine ourselves to the dominant institutions in society, the same institutions which perpetuate the oppression we are fighting against. This sort of logic is, at best, extremely naive and, at worst, purposefully misleading and debilitating.

Lastly, the idea that WikiLeaks, in and of itself, has not single-handily changed U.S. foreign policy or stopped the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is an absurdly high standard to hold any organization, especially a media organization, to. Greenwald himself responded well to this critique, explaining that the critics of WikiLeaks, who advocate actions within the system, have obviously not stopped the wars, not won prosecution of officials for war crimes, not won the transparency we need to understand and analyze our government's actions, things required for a democratic society to function. Furthermore, it is not the responsibility, nor the intended aim, of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks stated goal is to bring disclosed information to the public, to promote the transparency needed for a democratic society to function properly. We cannot, therefore, blame WikiLeaks for not building the organizational infrastructure needed to sustain a large-scale anti-war movement. We cannot blame WikiLeaks for the failures of our anti-war movement. WikiLeaks has provided the raw materials for us to use in order to build our case, to supplement our movement, but it is NOT the movement itself. It is our duty, our job, our responsibility, to take action against unjust, illegal, immoral, and imperialistic policies perpetuated by our own government.

To paraphrase Julian Assange, transparency tends to produce just government. To the extent that this is true, WikiLeaks is doing their job. It should be our job to defend them, and defend Assange, against these attacks. For those you who cherish democracy, who think that we ought to be able to criticize our government, and have the information to do so, you should sign the petition below. We ought to do whatever we can to defend organizations and people fighting for us.
We here undersigned express our support for the work and integrity of Julian Assange. We express concern that the charges against the WikiLeaks founder appear too convenient both in terms of timing and the novelty of their nature.
We call for this modern media innovator, and fighter for human rights extraordinaire, to be afforded the same rights to defend himself before Swedish justice that all others similarly charged might expect, and that his liberty not be compromised as a courtesy to those governments whose truths he has revealed have embarrassed.

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This blog is a personal blog written and edited by me. For questions about this blog, please contact Derek Ide (ruminyauee@hotmail.com). Anything on this blog may be used, circulated, disseminated, by readers in any setting except where profit it to be made from it. Feel free to use the work presented here in educational settings, activist work, etc. All I ask is that the blog be cited. I write for my own purposes. This writings presented here will be influenced by my background, occupation, and political affiliation or other experiences.

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Derek Ide 2011

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