SLAPPs Article from NIMBY (1994)

(The following is from my 1994 book, Not In My Back Yard: The Handbook (Silvercat Publications). It’s dated but still accurate. The references are no longer current.)

Watch Out for SLAPPs

SLAPP, a term coined in 1988, refers to a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. A Wall St. Journal article, referencing consumer advocate Ralph Nader, provides a succinct summary of what SLAPPs are all about.

“Corporations and developers have filed hundreds of civil suits against individuals or community groups in the past decade, Mr. Nader said. Usually, the plaintiffs allege libel, defamation, or interference with business in an effort to stop protesters from voicing criticism.
Continue reading “SLAPPs Article from NIMBY (1994)”

SLAPPs In Depth

SLAPPs: Effects, Defenses, Preventions

This paper on SLAPPs is written for non-lawyers by a non-lawyer. It is an attempt to familiarize the interested layperson with the nature of SLAPPs, defenses against them, and ways to prevent them. Special attention is given to provisions that may be effective in state legislation designed to protect the rights of citizens who participate in a public debate.
Continue reading “SLAPPs In Depth”

Corporate Law Secrets Exposed By Anthropologist (1998/2015)

A Short Preface: The View from 2015…

The piece below, once available as a pamphlet, was written in 1998 to try to induce “activists” to pierce the invisible force field that seems to keep them from reading the history of corporate law. Whether or not it succeeds in that sense, it offers a perspective on current democratic efforts that I thought then and still think is essential before any real progress will be made in turning around national and world trends. Continue reading “Corporate Law Secrets Exposed By Anthropologist (1998/2015)”

State “Laboratories of Democracy” Threatened, Overlooked (2007)

by Jane Anne Morris

How to be sure that toy under the holiday tree has no lead paint? With only a month of shopping days remaining, the public depends–more than at any other time–on our federal regulatory agencies’ ability to protect us from health and safety risks from toys, clothing, and other goods.

So when an appointed regulator asks the Congress to prevent her agency from doing its job, we should be concerned. The head of the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, Nancy A. Nord, actually asked Congress “not to approve the bulk of legislation that would increase the agency’s authority, double its budget and sharply increase its dwindling staff.”1 Small wonder the New York Times put that story on its front page October 29.

Other federal agencies that we might expect to be watchdogs — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission — are either hamstrung by resources grossly inadequate to their stated tasks, or worse, staffed by anti-regulatory types, like Nord.

Lost in the irony of Ms. Nord’s embarrassing “No, thanks,” is that federal agencies are but one — albeit an important one — among many ways to address the plethora of challenges we now face.

Remember the Tenth Amendment? “The powers not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Justice Louis Brandeis famously lauded state and local governments as “laboratories of democracy” that might show the way.

Long before federal regulatory agencies even existed, local and state governments were seeing to their general welfare. Many are still trying. Yet they face considerable opposition not only from corporations being regulated, which we would expect, but from a federal tribunal that rarely gets the credit for annulling their efforts, and then “bumping up” such matters to the underachieving federal regulators. (My new book, Gaveling Down the Rabble, Apex Press, discusses this in detail).

Take, for instance, the matter of corporate agriculture. A South Dakota constitutional amendment — passed by 59% in 1998 — prohibited most corporate ownership of real estate used for agriculture in the state. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively threw it out, on grounds that it was essentially a “trade barrier.” Nebraska’s even stronger anti-corporate agriculture constitutional amendment, first passed in 1982, was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 by a lower federal court — citing the South Dakota case.2

The Supreme Court has struck down over 1200 state and local laws.3 Following this lead, lower federal courts struck down countless others. The relentless narrowing of what the Court deems “constitutional” has a chilling effect on lawmakers at all levels, especially state and local, at a time when we need all the help and ideas we can get.

Other examples of thwarted state efforts abound. Take oil spills, for instance. Washington State regulations aimed at insuring proper training, adequate staffing, and other safety measures in the operation of tankers along that state’s coastline were declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2000.4 According to the Court’s interpretation, states cannot impose conditions more stringent than those in a weaker federal law. This is part of the Court’s pre-emption doctrine, which it has often applied so that federal law sets not a minimum standard, but a maximum one. Instead of setting a floor for states, the Court has set a ceiling, disallowing the more protective laws that many localities desire.

In 1997, a Maine property tax law encouraging in-state charities to serve Maine residents was declared unconstitutional as interfering with “free trade” among the states. In 1995, the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act outlining relief from unfair or deceptive marketing practices was deemed unconstitutional as applied to an airline corporation. In 1994, an Oregon state law intended to reduce the state’s burden of handling solid waste from out-of-state was declared unconstitutional as a “trade barrier” by the Supreme Court.

Other “progressive” state and local laws concerning protection of water resources, milk labeling (rBGH), conservation of fossil fuels, protecting fledgling industries, bans on products made with prison and child labor, protection of native species, place-of-origin product labeling, toxic waste regulations, support for local business, meat handling standards, and on and on, back to at least the Civil War–have been deep-sixed by Supreme Court rulings based on increasingly arcane, if not inane, doctrines.

The beneficiaries of this “narrowing” have been, for the most part, big corporations. The high court’s pro-corporate doctrines have had the effect of laying down a weighty tarp of “unconstitutionality” over outbreaks of democracy, lest they break out and become pandemic.

Of course, I would like to see strong, functional federal regulatory agencies that do more than act as valets to large corporations. But let’s not forget the role that local and state governments can play, have played, and must again play, in promoting the general welfare.


Jane Anne Morris is a corporate anthropologist. Her new book, Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” is Stealing Our Democracy (Apex Press), explores these and related issues.

(Originally written and published locally in 2007, this was reprinted in the Progressive Populist Jan. 1-15, 2008.)


Homo Metallicus: Is Recycling the New Garbage? (2008)

by Jane Anne Morris

Sculptural wall of rusty bent vertical copper strips.The history of Homo metallicus mirrors more than technological prowess: consequences may be closer than they appear. And, they are coming from our blind spot.

Before humans started hammering portable copper mirrors about five thousand years ago, the only mirrors were pools of clear still water, reflecting trees and sky. A thousand years after those first handheld reflectors, people began making them of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Production of copper and its alloys fouled the clear pools, consumed the trees, and sullied the sky. Today, the view from the slag heap takes in not only the mine but the town dump.

Meanwhile, the concept of recycling has acquired an aura more saintly than the practice of recycling warrants. In my own small way, I once contributed to recycling mythology. So here, taking copper as my starting point, I unpack the assumptions that can lead from a justifiable horror at metal mining practices, to an all-too-uncritical embrace of recycling.

Copper Through the Ages

Native Americans in Wisconsin made points and knives of hammered copper.

The Mesopotamians ushered in the Age of Bronze by making of it a statue of a bull. Harder than copper, bronze holds an edge better and is more resistant to corrosion. In the earliest fortified towns it was used for shields and helmets, and battle axes, for attacking both humans and trees. Chisels, awls, pendants, sickles, bracelets, swords, 4000-year old Chinese coins shaped like tools–all of bronze. Bronze tweezers to clean wounds made by bronze dagger blades.

By 3000 years ago copper, bronze, and iron were in widespread use in the middle and near east, for knives, razors, hammers, axes, always axes. The Assyrians wore armor of leather and bronze; the Greeks and Romans used bronze and steel. In the Middle Ages, as advances in weaponry relegated chain mail to the status of underwear, metal-plated armor evolved. Bronze was hammered into huge cathedral doors, and cast into bells that rang out alarms and devotions.

Copper alloyed with zinc produced brass, long used for locks, doorknockers, and chandeliers. Bronze cannons powered by the gunpowder that became widespread in the 16th century launched brass artillery shells. Ships of war were bottomed in copper against corrosion, then clad in iron against artillery attack.

Somebody discovered that if you pour molten lead through a sieve off a tower into a tub of water, the droplets form spheres. Hardened with antimony, these spheres become musket shot. About 1850, copper and brass shot cartridges replaced paper ones.

Coopers shaped copper into barrel hoops. Bronze was used in bearings, gears, ship screws and propellers. Upholsterers tapped brass tacks. and turned sundry alloys into an array of kettles, dishes and trays. Tinkers kept them in repair.

But our copper habit was then in its infancy.

The late nineteenth century development of electricity stimulated demand for copper and other metals as the telegraph, telephone, light bulb, and other appliances went from curiosities to necessities. Fine copper wire was wound around armatures for motors and turbine generators at hydroelectric plants, and soon, steam-fired ones. It twisted around the inside of new gadgets and appliances. Outside of them, copper wire and lead-sheathed cables were strung behind walls, between buildings, along streets, across continents, under oceans.

A fledgling automobile industry blossomed, consuming fifteen to fifty pounds of copper per vehicle, plus a full metal complement of its sister elements.1 The US alone has produced well over 700 million cars and trucks.2 The infamous 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast could have been heard on only a few tens of thousands of radios in the world, perhaps half of them in the US. Each contained its cache of coiled copper.3

Copper usage surged to feed the second world war machine, then surged again afterwards during an unprecedented expansion in production of, well, everything, from people to pollution to power tools.

By now we have made billions upon billions of radios, televisions, phones, copy machines, blenders, fax machines, bun-warmers, electric toothbrushes, washer-dryer sets, and all manner of electronic gadgets, most in just the last few generations. Add the factories to make all of this stuff, and the electricity to run both factories and appliances. The armature of a single 500 megawatt turbine generator uses about fifteen tons of copper wire.4 Today, over half a million miles of transmission lines crisscross the US alone.

Mining “Externalities”

But all this copper, lead, tin, zinc, and iron was not handed over on a silver platter. After the first nearly pure lumps and nodules were chipped out of rock faces or fished out of streambeds, most of it was acquired only with much greater effort. It had to be mined, from deeper and deeper in the earth, or farther away. It then had to be concentrated and smelted, from poorer and poorer ores. Early copper mining used ores as rich as 20%, 30%, or sometimes even 50% copper. Today, ore as poor as 0.3% is mined.5

The earliest smelting, for copper and lead, used trees to coax from rich ores the treasured metals. Wood that fed the flames that fired the bricks, heated the houses, cooked the food, and baked the bread was used also to feed the smelters. Forests receded from the villages, the riverbanks, the hillsides.

As early as 8000 years ago deforestation-caused soil erosion led to abandonment of villages in the middle east. Four thousand years ago the Indus valley society’s end was hastened by the cutting of the forests required in part by extensive metal smelting.6 As Plato lamented in his Critias that centuries-old deforestation had left parts of Greece looking like “the skeleton of a sick man,” deforestation began in earnest in Rome. The Romans burned millions of tons of charcoal in their smelters, and left 20-30 million tons of slag.7

Settlements grew up around mines, and trees disappeared from wider and wider swathes of the surrounding countryside. In the early Bronze Age of Central Europe, a day’s work of a smelter consumed thirteen tons of rock and twenty-five cubic yards of wood to yield about 600 pounds of raw copper.8 By the thirteenth century, most European settlements around mines were treeless, and parts of north and northwest China were experiencing wood shortages. In 1475 in Rhineland, one district alone required 5000 woodcutters to make 10,000 tons of charcoal per year to fuel the metal works.9

The poor woodchoppers of classic Euromyths, the hollow-eyed figures bent double under their loads in National Geographic postures, all scoured the land for wood to burn in the metal works. Brueghel’s pastoral scenes hint at the extent of the cutting of the forests. By the 15th century in Europe there was so little wood left that ships had to be made of imported wood, or abroad. By the 16th century, most Portuguese ships were built in the colonies.10

The gunpowder that made projectiles possible also opened the way for the use of blasting for deeper tunneling and faster acid mine drainage.11 In the late 17th century, coal was used not only for smelting, but for pumps and engines, too. The coal-diggings filled with acid water that seeped or gushed into aquifers; open-pit mines stained rivers and the watersheds they nourished.12

In the 19th century US, one blast furnace in Pennsylvania used 750 acres of wood per year.13 At the Rio Tinto copper mine in Spain, circa 1900, ore roasting to speed oxidation of sulfides produced “strangling vapors that set men [sic] and animals coughing…killed off every green thing it touched [and] killed every tree within ten or fifteen miles.”14 Then oil and natural gas joined the pantheon of fossil fuels that powered the mining and processing, and it shows. The largest Superfund site in the US is a copper mine near Butte, Montana, formerly operated by Anaconda Corporation.15

On a copper-lined chute, the whole world is sliding into the ecological footprint of a single species.

How Much Did We Get?

By 3000 years ago when many so-called “civilizations” were huddled in fortified villages arming themselves with an array of bronze and iron weapons, humans had mined a mere 10,000 tons of copper.16

From that time until about 1800, for all the ornamented bronze bells, full-length mirrors, dented helmets, and early industrial machinery and engines, we had mined but five million tons of copper.17

And for the next century’s dose of the red metal, for coppering the bottoms of Spanish frigates,18 brass cartridge casings, the machinery of the full force of the Industrial Revolution — we humans mined more than twice what had ever been mined: 12 million tons of copper for the 19th century.19

The next fifty years, encompassing two world wars and the spread of the automobile, the radio, the washing machine, among other cultural signposts, saw us wrest 70 million tons of copper from the earth’s crust.

And since 1950 when Picasso made his bronze She-Goat,20 we have mined at least another 275 millions tons of copper.

Time Period Amount of Copper Mined
6000 to 3000 years ago 10,000 tons
3000 years ago to 1800 5 million tons
1800-1900 12 million tons
1900-1950 70 million tons
Since 1950 275+ million tons
Cumulative total 360+ million tons

Put the numbers from that chart onto a graph, and you will see a slope like the one where your floor meets your wall.

Where is this 360 Million Tons of Copper Now?

Copper production since the dawn of the twentieth century comprises at least 98% of all the copper ever produced. Where is it?

Only a tiny fraction of mined copper is dissipated (in exploding ordnance, or copper in chemical form used in fungicides, herbicides, dyes, etc.) As for the rest, unlike the forests of trees, the veins of coal, the barrels of oil used to fuel the smelters and the mining machinery and pumps.

Thousand-year-old hammered copper points stolen a century ago from sacred Indian burial grounds still sit behind glass cases in the Wisconsin State Historical Museum. Picasso’s bronze She-Goat still thrills sightseers at the Museum of Modern Art, while most of the cars, radios, and televisions you have owned, not to mention blow dryers and that blender you burned out making pesto, sit in landfills somewhere.

There is still an enormous reservoir of already-refined metal lying around waiting to be reused. From the time of melting battle-axes into coins and back again, it has been understood that metals, valued always for their strength, their corrosion-resistance, their malleability — could be re-shaped and re-formed into whatever suited the needs of the moment, or the era.

You can bet that native americans didn’t throw out their copper knives after one use. Artisans who cast bells through the ages knew to scour the villages for broken bronze vessels, cracked mirrors, discarded brass door-knockers and the like to melt down to cast a new village bell. The Vikings hammered stolen crucifixes into brooches.21 Eighteenth century churchwardens were accused of stealing the lead from church roofs to sell to plumbers.22

What about all of the metals accumulating above ground? Compared to mining and processing the primary ore, copper recovery from scrap involves fewer technological steps and less capital investment. Energy costs are 5% to 33% of the energy costs of using primary ores, depending on the type of scrap input and the end-use desired.23 The technological challenges and environmental costs of mining are bypassed completely.

The Sting

This is where a conventional analysis would veer off into a swoon for recycling, as I did in the original “Homo Metallicus,” written in 1995 to support a mining moratorium.24 I imagined hundreds of millions of tons of copper, one transistor radio’s worth at a time, wedged under blotchy mattresses in landfills. A giant green banner announced, “RECYCLING, YAY!!”

My mind furnished the diorama, too: a Native American sharpening an ever-smaller copper knife; an armorer fussing to keep his knight’s metal jacket in repair as long as possible;25 townspeople bringing baskets of cracked latches and broken doorknockers to re-cast for a new village bell. And, yes, a sweaty biblical smith beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.26

While arguing against metal mining, and laboring under the hallucinatory wholesomeness of that vision, I pulled a Bait-and-Switch. On myself. In the darkness of the Switch, a blind spot of major proportions lurks, and I stood in the middle of it.

That diorama was the Bait. It faded like a time-dissolve in a documentary, and at the moment of blackout, I made the Switch. Ta-Daa!! emerged the concept of RECYCLING, swaddled in impressive statistics and good vibes.

That Switch in the Dark allowed me to more or less equate a tinker fixing a teakettle with a metal processing plant digesting a truckload of smashed appliances. I told myself that a long but unbroken cultural thread linked the tinker’s taps to the roar of the recycling plant’s huge furnaces, flotation tanks, and electrolytic baths.

So there I was standing in my blind spot when a municipal recycling truck rumbled by, bearing a load of freshly sorted metal scrap.27 Down the road a piece, it joined another truck bringing concentrated ore from a mine. This is the part of the story that I did not want to think about: both trucks headed for the same facility, one that turned out raw copper in the form of ingots, wires, and sheets. A few steps later, factories pressed and laced the shiny copper into products painstakingly designed for short life, non-reusability of parts, and difficulty of repair. Into products calculated to, for fifteen minutes or so, meet a stylistic milepost created and manipulated by the corporation selling the product.

Once purchased, the product (except for the energy it uses) becomes a “liability” for the economy, because being in current use blocks the next sale. After you toss it — landfill or recycle bin, it makes little difference — purchase of a replacement helps to “grow” the economy once again. The point of our system is not need and use, but sale and profit. The goal is to move through the cycle — and resources — as quickly as possible, honoring the principles of planned obsolescence, conspicuous consumption, and perpetual economic “growth.” Recycling is part of this cycle.

Where I had equated the smith and the recycling plant, I should have equated the mine with the recycling center or landfill. A landfill or a recycling center is just another source of copper, another kind of mine. Metal smelting and refining, whether it be by flotation, chemical solvents, heating, or electrochemical methods, is nasty business.28 Separating the copper from a plastic-encased circuit board is no environmental picnic. Except for minor differences in processing at the plant, the source of the copper — landfill, recycle bin, mine — is irrelevant.

Beyond Recycling

What is relevant is that when the biblical smith beheld a compromised spear, he wondered whether to make another spear, or a pruning hook. Or maybe a scythe. Or, whether to set the metal aside for later use. But, he did not wonder whether to chuck the spear into the goat pasture. For the smith, “use” included what we would call “reuse.”

Yet, he was not recycling. The concept of recycling does not make sense unless you are already in the habit of discarding usable material. Recycling is parasitic on garbage, in both a material and a sociolinguistic sense. Garbage is defined not by physical characteristics, but by social ones. A refilled glass milk bottle is not garbage. The same bottle thrown “away” after a single usage is.

Recycling–a term that did not take on its current meaning until the 1970s29 — is akin to a retronym. Retronyms like land line and acoustic guitar are applied retrospectively and retroactively after some new development (here, cell phones and electric guitars) makes their invention necessary for clarity’s sake. So, when we realized that a garbage can or the town dump could essentially be reopened as a mine, we christened it “recycling.” Recycling signifies not a new attitude toward resources, but the large-scale discovery of new metal “deposits.” Recycling (as opposed to reuse) does not emerge as a concept until the idea of Garbage is so well established that most people cannot imagine life without it. (See also, “Car.”)

From the smith to the modern recycler, we can tally the societal “innovations” that distinguish them. Producing for profit instead of need is one. Producing to meet false or created needs is another. Massaging the economy to insure that the apparent and immediate cost of repair far exceeds that of buying a new item is also critical. Most of the externalities churned out as a result of the smith’s craft were underfoot, not foisted upon the disempowered a county or a continent away. Tax policies, lax enforcement of environmental regulations, and artificially cheap fuel, electricity, and transportation, all pile on to subsidize mining, recycling, and for-profit manufacturing. Today, society’s incentives work against making long lasting, needed products for use and reuse, and in favor of what Paul Palmer of the Zero Waste Institute calls the Garbage Paradigm.

Recycling leaves the garbage problem untouched in the same way that energy efficiency leaves our energy policies and practices unaddressed. When I screw in an efficient light bulb, I am glad to be using less electricity to illuminate my writing desk, but I don’t fool myself that I’m saving the planet. I know that my act frees up more kilowatt-hours to be sold at rock-bottom rates to corporations that manufacture throw-away frou-frou or fashion statement cars. Similarly, when we dutifully recycle metal (and I do so, when possible), we help manufacturers save energy and increase their profit margins.

However, we do nothing to alter the monstrous system that lavishes incentives on production of waste. Adding a nasty re-refining process (and calling it recycling) to a nasty mining process does not get us out of our tragic loop: wreaking havoc so that we can “grow” the economy at a dizzying and unsustainable level. This is the lesson I take from Paul Palmer’s heartening work. In his own words,

“The basic problem that has always plagued recycling is that it accepts garbage creation as fundamental. Zero waste strategies reject garbage creation as a failure, actually an abomination that threatens the planet…”30

Rejecting the Abomination of Garbage

Put yourself into a trance. Erase the idea of Garbage, and substitute Zero Waste. Now, think about radios.

I am something of a radio junkie, and I blush to think of how many copper-laden radios I have consigned to landfills. But I would still be using my first AM-FM radio if I had been able to get it fixed. I’ve never bought one as part of an interior decorating scheme, nor abandoned one for any reason but nonfunctionality.

Usually, what goes wrong amounts to a frayed or loose wire somehow involved with the volume control, tuning knob, or speakers. I’ve opened up most of my broken radios in repair efforts that almost always turned into autopsies. Sometimes, rescue attempts became demolition as my efforts to merely open the box disabled critical components. On other occasions, soldering gun in hand, I just couldn’t get at the spot where I knew the problem lay.

I’d gladly pay an extra few bucks for screws (instead of plastic rivets) as fasteners, more secure wiring connections, and accessible repair areas. These and other sensible design features that promote long life and easy repair present no great technological challenges. The obstacles — and there are many — reside instead in an economic system, complete with ideological props, that depends on the Garbage Paradigm.

The consequence of pretending that “recycling” is a departure from the Garbage Paradigm is that nothing will change. But if we step out of our blind spot, we face a glorious prospect: re-imagining the world without “garbage” that all humans lived in until just a geological blink ago. Dismantling the corporate garbage system will not occur unless we also free ourselves from false needs it fails to satisfy, and attend to deeper needs that it warps.

That world need not be a bleak land of denial. Where is the thrill in throwing out a year-old cell phone? It may be that the most rewarding life possible, as Stephanie Mills explores in Epicurean Simplicity, is one that would please Earth as well as its “highest” primates. Reflecting on her basic requirements, Mills muses, “Meeting these needs as sparingly as possible makes abundant the kinds of riches that can’t be owned.”31 And, I would insist on including the dancing that Emma Goldman would not do without.32


First published in Synthesis/Regeneration 46: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, Summer 2008.

Jane Anne Morris is a corporate anthropologist living in Madison, Wisconsin. Her most recent book is Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” is Stealing Our Democracy (Apex Press).


Why a Green Future is “Unconstitutional” and What to Do About It (2008)

By Jane Anne Morris

A top view of a drawer of various wrenches and pliers; entrancing and calming. Tools.Working in tandem with a cooperative Supreme Court, corporate lawyers have insinuated themselves into the US Constitution like retroviruses, rewriting Constitutional code so that instead of protecting human persons from an oppressive government, the Constitution has been twisted to shield corporate persons (corporations) from control by the governments that create them.1
Continue reading “Why a Green Future is “Unconstitutional” and What to Do About It (2008)”

The Energy Nightmare of Web Server Farms (2008)

by Jane Anne Morris

A huge rusty tank, seen from the lower end, looms in an industrial setting of pipes and a smokestack. The end of the tank looks like a face with huge eyes and a black stud-lipped mouth. Definitely scary and looming.One distracted click during my Internet research for this article gave me instant access to 936 photos of Brad Pitt. According to people who know, that click activated some 7000 computers in the search, and perhaps twice as many more trying to induce me to buy something or type in my personal data.1 And because I recycle, adjust my thermostat to save energy, and scrawl grocery lists on the backs of envelopes, I had to wonder what ecological footprint my peek at Brad had left behind. After considerable clicking and flipping (I still do hardcopy), I stared into the Internet and saw the car of the twenty-first century.

Let me back up and ask a question: Where do you think all your stored emails are? They’re not in the hands of tiny file clerks inside your computer — exactly. Nor in the library computer, where you can access them. Where are all those Bible-length attachments that nobody read but you’re saving anyway? The hot web sites and blogs? Where do we imagine all this stuff is?

It’s in the Cloud — the everything-seemingly-everywhere there-ness of the Internet. The Internet Cloud is generated and maintained by facilities called data centers or web server farms. These rustic-sounding server farms (think of a geek with a hayfork?), like Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are tucked — if something that covers dozens or even hundreds of acres can be said to be “tucked” — here and there across the country, downplayed if not concealed in generic buildings.

At server farms, zillions of complexly linked computers constantly juggle electrons storing messages, texts, songs, web sites, advertisements, film clips, birthday cards and other cultural effluvia. The mission of each server is to prevent captive electrons from doing what all free electrons want to do: dissolve back into the electromagnetic ether to hook up randomly. All that data coded into electronic pluses and minuses enables you, at any moment, to get the latest information about a massacre in Colómbia, a cancer cluster in New Jersey, or the current address of your high school sweetheart. Considerable server effort is devoted to articulating Brad’s dimples. 

The mission of each server is to prevent captive electrons from dissolving back into the electromagnetic ether to hook up randomly.

Server farms are double-dippers. There, colonies of warehouses packed with rows of racked, stacked computers draw electricity like black holes suck light. That’s the first scoop. Because the heat generated by this conglomeration of circuitry, unless dispersed, will damage the equipment, server farms are air conditioned to a brisk temperature. That’s the second scoop. A typical server farm uses at least half of its electricity for cooling.2 Imagine a refrigerator wrapped around an electric stove, and you have the essence of a server farm: a pig-in-a-blanket that consumes electricity in almost unimaginable quantities. 

Given access to the right cable or wireless network, you tap into the resulting buzzing Cloud by means of a desktop computer or even a handheld. Gadgets so teensy, you could hide one in a coffee mug. Server farms so huge that one warehouse might be the size of several football fields.3 And so needy that their electricity demand is measured in double- or triple-digit megawatts. A single megawatt (MW) can support about a thousand homes, on average.4

Server farm operators order up their electricity before they finalize their construction plans. In Sacramento, over 50 MW of capacity was requested. A server farm in New Jersey asked for 100 MW. In San Jose, 180 MW.5 An Austin Energy utility spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that 200 MW (8.5% of its customer load) went to server farms.6 A “farm” near Seattle asked for 445 MW. A California utility was asked for 340 MW now, to be expanded by a thousand megawatts in the near future.7 At least three utilities have reportedly received requests for over 1000 MW of capacity, as reported by Susan Mandel back in 2001.8

Google Corporation alone reputedly already uses over 20 server farms, housing some half a million servers.9 It is supposedly already the largest electricity user in one state.10 The 2006 electricity demand of major search engine facilities (just a small portion of the Cloud) uses an estimated 5000 megawatts.11 Converted to residences, that’s about five million homes’ worth of electric capacity.12 Converted to electricity generation, that’s ten 500 MW coal plants. (Want one in your back yard? Wanna work in the mine?) A modest server farm that draws only 20 to 30 megawatts uses enough electricity to power 20 to 30 thousand homes.

The search for cheap land prices and low electricity rates has led server farm operators to site them in rural areas, towns and smallish cities, or near large hydroelectric plants that provide cheap kilowatts. Backup (and unregulated) diesel generators stand ready to power up during blackouts so customers don’t get irritated at having to wait 10 seconds for a download.
Server farms get cut-rate electricity: per-kilowatt-hour rates cited in recent articles range from 1.8 to 3.4¢.13 You did read that right. If I divide my monthly electric bill by the number of kwh I use, it always comes to over 20¢ per kwh. But I don’t pay industrial rates, which average out nationally just over 5¢ per kwh, and I don’t get other special deals often offered to large users.14

A server farm might sport a nice corporate goose pond with a fountain. Or, it might squat in generic buildings in an old industrial district. The advantages of being inconspicuous have not been lost on server farm entrepreneurs: one company brags that its “low profile, non-descript building does not attract attention.”15 But as Barry Commoner reminded us, there’s no such thing as a free lunch: everything has to go somewhere.

The ecological footprint of a server farm isn’t any prettier than that of a power plant, a toxic waste dump, a gigantic feedlot, or a freeway. The Cloud is floating on a cradle-to-grave network of wrecked aquifers, oily cormorants, radioactive tumbleweed, and melting icecaps. According to one analyst, ordering a book online burns a half-pound of coal.16 The Internet seems clean because its ecological footprint is elsewhere. 

The Internet seems clean because its ecological footprint is elsewhere.

The Internet Cloud’s supporting infrastructure is well nigh invisible to most of its users. Its costs — to earth, air, water, health, species diversity and future generations, among others — are externalized onto people “over there”: those who host the strip mines and nuclear power plants, whose soccer fields are brownfields if not Superfund sites, and whose children go to schools nestled next to high-voltage power lines. Many of them live in low-income communities, or low-income countries. This is what the so-called “Environmental Justice” movement was about: privileged people stow the unpleasant, unhealthful, and ecologically devastating consequences of their comfortable lifestyles on the usual suspects, the lower classes, wherever they may be.

Meanwhile, on the bright side of the tracks, we are in the process of uploading our whole society onto the Internet. With our encouragement, those geeks with hayforks at the server farms are working overtime pitching ragged clumps of cultural data into this great content provider in the sky. In electronic form it stores fluff from all of our cultural pockets: baby pictures, thoughts about the election, yard sale items, songs of rage and joy, video games, pornographic videos, environmental impact statements, recipes, home movies, bank records, herbal remedies, and come-ons to purchase any tchotchka ever imagined. Often, once is not enough: online backup services are proliferating. If there’s an ecological footprint — and of course, there is — it is not going to Pop Up on our computer screens. 

With almost uncanny prescience, the story of the automobile offers a preview of where we are heading with the Internet Cloud. The Model T was introduced a century ago. It was a wonder, it was affordable, it got 25 miles per gallon of gas, it opened up hitherto unknown possibilities to the masses.17 It would change the world, democratize transportation, and grant even those of moderate income unlimited horizons to explore. The cost? Apparently, just some cranking and a little fuel. If you had argued then that within a few generations the nation’s populace would rarely venture more than a quarter mile from their cars’ coveted parking spots, that world politics would be dominated by struggles to control petroleum deposits, and that chunks of the planet’s icecaps would be plopping into the oceans like so many frogs off their lily pads, people would have questioned your sanity.

James Howard Kunstler wrote a witty, melancholy, sadly fond memoir of the automobile’s stealth takeover of US culture (with infrastructure to match) that dropped us off in The Geography of Nowhere. Today, people say, “I’d like to stop using my car,” then add that unfortunately they can’t get to work, play, school, sports, yoga class, or the grocery store without it. And why is that? Because we’ve built our whole culture around it.

The car didn’t just penetrate our culture, it reconfigured its DNA. Like a retrovirus at its most efficient, it rewired our culture to serve its ends. Now, we’re up to our chins in smog and pavement and can’t quite figure out what to do next. Among other effects of our car addiction is cross-training in the art of externalization.

On the street, countless people sit in their idling cars, windows closed, with the heater or AC on, while passing pedestrians choke on fumes. That’s as good a model of externalization as any I know. Inside vehicular capsules, we can ignore not only our own immediate exhaust but also all the mining, smelting, refining, casting, and manufacturing, that make possible our automobile adventures.

Imagine if when you drove your car, you experienced the total consequences of your driving. The pollution from your tailpipe would be connected by a hose directly to your lungs. The waste from the manufacture of your car would be stirred into your coffee. The oil waste — all those -enes, -anes, -ones and -ines from the drilling, production, and refining of your gasoline — would be intravenously injected into your body. You would drink water contaminated with all of the wastes poured into waters around the country and the world so that you could fill up with gas. If we did this every time we started ‘er up and drove two blocks to the convenience store, we would certainly get around differently and drastically reduce driving time.

The consequences of dependence on the Internet Cloud are geographically, temporally, and socially displaced from users. The disconnect is almost absolute, leaving us leaning toward glowing, translucent screens emitting wind-chime notices that we need to save a document or check our mail. The terroir of a click is so faint at the screen end, and so diffuse at the footprint end, that we feel free to pretend that it is nonexistent. 

Like a single car’s exhaust that seems too insubstantial to matter, a single click’s contribution to any planetary ills seems to evaporate before it can be pinned down. Yet the impact remains.
I can hear the epithets. Luddite. Anti-Technology. Afraid of Change. Anti-Progress. Did I miss any? Oh, yeah, Stuck in the Past. I hear how much “we” need the Cloud and our computers. Activists offer horrifying online descriptions of clearcutting, five-legged androgynous frogs, and radioactive tumbleweeds pinned by prevailing westerlies against barbed-wire fences. We email each other about how bad the big corporations are: the stripminers of coal, the refiners of oil, the producers of chemicals, the manufacturers of land mines. The Internet Cloud, the argument goes, makes us more effective activists and provides unprecedented access to a wide range of information. Is this like saying we have to destroy a village in order to save it?

The automobile is the alpha and the omega of our daily fare. We will be locked in its embrace for some time to come if we do not first succumb to its strangulation. Shall we now do the same with the Internet Cloud?

Those 936 photos really are at the crux of the issue. Could I survive on fewer photos, say, half of them? Maybe if the consequences of my clicking for Pitt pics were dumped onto my kitchen table, I would settle for a tabloid stuffed under the mattress. Should the Pitt stuff be available on the same terms as the telephone numbers of my representatives, or my neighbor’s homemade mittens web site? That is to say, cheap or free to the users, thanks to government subsidies and the sloughing off of externalities onto the usual suspects: the distant, the poor, and the future.

I would like to help decide what my government subsidizes. Which raises the Censorship Bogeyman. With a past as a teacher, activist, and writer, I can hardly imagine any task force that I would want to determine the limits of my exploration. But some collection of task forces already does that. Why don’t we have a real public debate about it?

Like most technological innovations whose promoters promise social benefits along with profits, the Cloud has nearly everyone gushing about its democratizing effects and promises of greater freedom for all. Isn’t it about time for a Virtual Reality Check, as Stephanie Mills famously asked in her 1986 book, What Ever Happened to Ecology? Last century our society adopted the automobile as its soul mate and re-ordered everything from our eating habits and courtship customs to the landscape itself. Dare we apply to computers and the Cloud today the same critiques that we applied to the car culture only in retrospect? Why should computer use be off-limits?

When I hear a mouse click I hear a coal train, see a “reclaimed” wasteland, smell an oily rotting otter corpse, and think of what it’s costing us, and future generations for those 936 photographs. While screwing in that ultra-efficient light bulb, we might think twice about doing all of our shopping, courtship, research, communication, and “organizing” online.


Disclosure: Corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris typed this (original) article on a new laptop, purchased because it has become nearly impossible to get a publisher to accept a manuscript in “hardcopy.” In the 1980s, she fought against lignite strip mining and power plants in Texas, wrote a dissertation on the quasi-public utility company involved, and served on the Austin, Texas, Resource Management Commission.

She is the author of Not In My Back Yard: The Handbook (Silvercat Publications, 1994). Her forthcoming book, Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” Is Stealing Our Democracy, will be published by Apex Press. She bikes year-round in Madison, Wisconsin and her last electricity bill was for 78 kwh.

First published in Synthesis/Regeneration 45, Winter 2008.