A Futures Market in Constitutional Rights? (1997)

By Jane Anne Morris

It’s the best of times, if you’re a rapacious corporation with money. It’s the worst of times, if you’re a citizen with democratic pretensions, or a living thing. Or a rock. Especially if you contain ore.

Using money to buy power to get their way works great for corporations, what with the trade in human organs, the stench in the “marketplace” of ideas, and the patenting of seed stock used for millenia by indigenous peoples We have reason to be dubious about the glories of buying and selling.

Feeling cash-poor? Already sold your organs? Don’t miss out on the growing market for selling your rights, individually or as a community. And the prospective buyers are……you guessed it, transnational corporations.

In Wisconsin, under the homey phrase “Local Agreement,” there’s a way for corporations to directly buy up constitutional rights of whole cities and counties, once and for all. This is how it works.

A MegaMining Corporation (MMC) proposes a contract to the local government body — city council, county board, Native American tribal council, whatever. Then the corporation runs roughshod over open government laws and democratic rights to due process, and exerts all the pressure that a multibillion-dollar corporation can bring to bear on the handful of local officials.

After months or years of pressure, the local government signs on to the Local Agreement, and the following provisions become law.

$ The local government gives MMC the right to mine (as long as they get their state and federal permits — a breeze, if history is any guide.)

$$ The local government promises to say “it conforms with all local ordinances” when asked by MMC what they think about any mine permit changes or the adequacy of a reclamation plan.

$$$ The local government promises not to renounce or repudiate this agreement.

But only now are we getting to the good part.

$$$$ The local government agrees that this contract replaces and constitutes compliance with all local regulations, laws, permit requirements, licensing conditions, ordinances, etc., — both in terms of substance and of procedure. (READ THAT AGAIN. The local government has just given up all authority to govern or to represent its citizens. Local citizens have just lost their rights to enforce any local ordinances or regulations that were put in place to protect their environment or way of life. This goes for future laws, as well.)

It gets even better.

$$$$$ If the local government is party to any proceeding that questions the validity of this contract, it agrees to allow MMC to represent it. (MMC will not charge for its legal services in this case. What a deal.)

$$$$$$ Finally, there is the assurance that the local government can still sue MMC at any time, so long as that action is consistent with the Agreement. (But the Agreement states that all local laws are being conformed to, and that the local government won’t question the Agreement — what’s left to sue about?)

If you’re not well grounded here it’s easy to get dizzy from the circularity. And now, what the locals get in exchange.

¢¢ The local government gets a load of empty, unenforceable promises from the corporation, and a yearly payment.

In a nutshell, then, in Wisconsin it is legal for a local government to abandon all of its governmental and regulatory functions regarding mining activities, by promising in a contract not to exercise its governance functions.

(It may also be possible for a corporation that has negotiated such a contract to transfer or sell the contract (containing the local governments’ promises) to another corporation. The contract is a form of property, and stranger things have happened in property law. Remember the reference to human organs and seed stock at the beginning of this piece.)

If somehow the local government does end up in court over a dispute about conditions for renegotiating part of this contract, this contract stipulates that whatever else happens, “the court may not directly or indirectly prohibit …mining .” I’m not a lawyer but it seems downright odd to me that a contract between a local government and a corporation could stipulate what action a court may take.

Wisconsin’s Local Agreement law was first passed in 1987, right after Exxon corporation was forced to give up in its first attempt to turn Wisconsin’s North Woods into a mining district. Several local governments have already signed onto Local Agreements with mining corporations, despite the sustained and persistent protestations of area residents. Other government entities are under heavy pressure to do so. (Of course, they have a signing bonus to look forward to.)

Wisconsin’s law specifically permits Local Agreements to be made regarding mining. The fact that it has not yet been thrown out as unconstitutional sets a decade-long precedent. Were the “mining” reference to be deleted from the law (simple enough to do), this law would permit any corporation to buy off any local government in a similar manner.

Think of a JunkMart Corporation, or Toxic Mismanagement Corporation, for instance, buying off the governance functions of any local government in the U.S., and thereby gaining “legal” rights to do whatever the state DNR and the feds would allow (and that includes almost anything.)

All such “Local Agreement” laws, under whatever name, should be located, identified, and repealed. Send out an APB.

 

First published Fall 1997, Earth Island Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4

A Futures Market in Constitutional Rights? (1997)

By Jane Anne Morris

 

It’s the best of times, if you’re a rapacious corporation with money. It’s the worst of times, if you’re a citizen with democratic pretensions, or a living thing. Or a rock. Especially if you contain ore.

Using money to buy power to get their way works great for corporations, what with the trade in human organs, the stench in the “marketplace” of ideas, and the patenting of seed stock used for millenia by indigenous peoples We have reason to be dubious about the glories of buying and selling.

Feeling cash-poor? Already sold your organs? Don’t miss out on the growing market for selling your rights, individually or as a community. And the prospective buyers are……you guessed it, transnational corporations.

In Wisconsin, under the homey phrase “Local Agreement,” there’s a way for corporations to directly buy up constitutional rights of whole cities and counties, once and for all. This is how it works.

A MegaMining Corporation (MMC) proposes a contract to the local government body — city council, county board, Native American tribal council, whatever. Then the corporation runs roughshod over open government laws and democratic rights to due process, and exerts all the pressure that a multibillion-dollar corporation can bring to bear on the handful of local officials.

After months or years of pressure, the local government signs on to the Local Agreement, and the following provisions become law.

$ The local government gives MMC the right to mine (as long as they get their state and federal permits — a breeze, if history is any guide.)

$$ The local government promises to say “it conforms with all local ordinances” when asked by MMC what they think about any mine permit changes or the adequacy of a reclamation plan.

$$$ The local government promises not to renounce or repudiate this agreement.

But only now are we getting to the good part.

$$$$ The local government agrees that this contract replaces and constitutes compliance with all local regulations, laws, permit requirements, licensing conditions, ordinances, etc., — both in terms of substance and of procedure. (READ THAT AGAIN. The local government has just given up all authority to govern or to represent its citizens. Local citizens have just lost their rights to enforce any local ordinances or regulations that were put in place to protect their environment or way of life. This goes for future laws, as well.)

It gets even better.

$$$$$ If the local government is party to any proceeding that questions the validity of this contract, it agrees to allow MMC to represent it. (MMC will not charge for its legal services in this case. What a deal.)

$$$$$$ Finally, there is the assurance that the local government can still sue MMC at any time, so long as that action is consistent with the Agreement. (But the Agreement states that all local laws are being conformed to, and that the local government won’t question the Agreement — what’s left to sue about?)

If you’re not well grounded here it’s easy to get dizzy from the circularity. And now, what the locals get in exchange.

¢¢ The local government gets a load of empty, unenforceable promises from the corporation, and a yearly payment.

In a nutshell, then, in Wisconsin it is legal for a local government to abandon all of its governmental and regulatory functions regarding mining activities, by promising in a contract not to exercise its governance functions.

(It may also be possible for a corporation that has negotiated such a contract to transfer or sell the contract (containing the local governments’ promises) to another corporation. The contract is a form of property, and stranger things have happened in property law. Remember the reference to human organs and seed stock at the beginning of this piece.)

If somehow the local government does end up in court over a dispute about conditions for renegotiating part of this contract, this contract stipulates that whatever else happens, “the court may not directly or indirectly prohibit …mining .” I’m not a lawyer but it seems downright odd to me that a contract between a local government and a corporation could stipulate what action a court may take.

Wisconsin’s Local Agreement law was first passed in 1987, right after Exxon corporation was forced to give up in its first attempt to turn Wisconsin’s North Woods into a mining district. Several local governments have already signed onto Local Agreements with mining corporations, despite the sustained and persistent protestations of area residents. Other government entities are under heavy pressure to do so. (Of course, they have a signing bonus to look forward to.)

Wisconsin’s law specifically permits Local Agreements to be made regarding mining. The fact that it has not yet been thrown out as unconstitutional sets a decade-long precedent. Were the “mining” reference to be deleted from the law (simple enough to do), this law would permit any corporation to buy off any local government in a similar manner.

Think of a JunkMart Corporation, or Toxic Mismanagement Corporation, for instance, buying off the governance functions of any local government in the U.S., and thereby gaining “legal” rights to do whatever the state DNR and the feds would allow (and that includes almost anything.)

All such “Local Agreement” laws, under whatever name, should be located, identified, and repealed. Send out an APB.

 

First published Fall 1997, Earth Island Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4

Regulatory Agencies Have Failed Us–Let’s Fail Them: Out of the Agencies and Into the Legislatures (2010)

By Jane Anne Morris

Too Big to Fail?

Billowing smokestackRegulatory agencies are not, and never were, the Great Protectors of the public interest that hazy origin myths suggest.1 Understanding regulatory failure entails accepting this inconvenient truth and then moving on.
Continue reading “Regulatory Agencies Have Failed Us–Let’s Fail Them: Out of the Agencies and Into the Legislatures (2010)”

Wisconsin’s Painfully Moderate Labor Uprising (2011)

By Jane Anne Morris

 

What one can say with confidence is that…AFL-CIO business unionism does not meet the needs of working people at the end of the twentieth century. A qualitatively different unionism is needed. — Staughton Lynd, 19961

Madison, Wisconsin, September 2011. The world-famous Wisconsin Spring, sparked by a Republican attack on collective bargaining rights, took place two blocks from my apartment. Demonstrators were as taken aback as were Republicans at the unprecedented outpouring. For weeks it teetered on the edge of no one knew what, then collapsed into a “painfully moderate” denouement.2 But despite the fact that we were still “yelling at buildings” most of the time, for weeks it had an edgy do-it-yourself quality all too often missing at demos. For quite a while, no one was in charge, or, rather, everyone was in charge—an echo of the “We are all leaders” refrain of 1930s solidarity unionism and the Wobblies.3

Perhaps the biggest lesson is how quickly the movement—what I call the Outpouring—was de-fanged. If such a spontaneous, unpredictable, roiling foment as we had here in Wisconsin does not lead to big changes for working people, and beyond—what would it take?

Repercussions and adjustments continue. The ball of yarn has not yet completely unraveled, but the paths not taken loom large. Labor will do better “next time” if it is as prepared as the Republicans were (bold program and strategy in hand) for this time.

Read all about it—the spring of our discontent

It was only after February’s crowds carrying “FitzWalkerStan” signs4 around the frigid Madison Capitol Square gave way to “Walkerville,” a sweltering tent city named after the governor, that the first two headstones of the Republicans’ Wisconsin agenda were erected. In June 2011, both the anti-collective bargaining bill and the budget bill (chock full of wish-list fantasies5 saved up by two generations of Republicans) became law.6

About a week after an alleged altercation in the judicial chambers between two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, Governor Scott Walker signed the budget bill into law. It is a measure of how enraged and divided the state is that he didn’t do it in Madison because he would have had to face thousands of protesters. Instead, he planned to exclude the public by having a “private” bill signing at a sheet metal factory two hours’ drive from the state capital. That venue had to be changed when news media learned that the owner was a convicted tax cheat, so Walker signed the bill at another metal works, with hundreds of protesters outside.7 Walker’s continued “private” bill signing is an apt metaphor for the current state of politics in this state.

The anti-collective bargaining bill that was originally part of the “budget repair bill” became law in the wake of a flurry of court cases and an election widely regarded as stolen. Passed by means of an illegal stealth maneuver in March, voided by a lower court on open meetings law grounds in May8, it was reinstated in June by the state’s highest court. Between the illegal passing of it and the court action, Wisconsin had an April election to choose a Supreme Court justice that everyone assumed would be the deciding vote on the collective bargaining (open meetings) case, and thus the fate of collective bargaining in Wisconsin.

Because the Supreme Court race was regarded as a proxy for the statewide Walker/collective bargaining/budget struggle, signs supporting challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg were ubiquitous at Capitol demonstrations. In a race reminiscent of the 2000 Bush-Gore fiasco, Walker partisan David Prosser (a former Republican leader in the state legislature) was reelected—sort of—to the Supreme Court.

Two days after the April 5 election in which Kloppenburg had evidently defeated the incumbent Prosser by a tiny margin, news broke that Republicans had “found” 14,000 more votes. Only after a 5-week statewide recount process did Democrat/Progressive Kloppenburg concede defeat, unable to prove that the margin of victory—7000 votes (of 1.5 million cast) “lost” for two days on a former employee of the governor’s personal computer—were fraudulent. It seems no one witnessed what happened to the numerous open and unsecured bags of ballots observed during the closely watched recount. The court retained its 4–3 split in favor of Republicans/conservatives.

Meanwhile, the “Fabulous 14” Democratic senators who famously snuck away to Illinois to forestall a quorum went back to their offices. Attempts by three unions and the former (Democratic) state attorney general, Peg Lautenschlager, to get a restraining order to stop the governor from instituting airport-like security at the State Capitol—like much else in this state—was long mired in a legal morass.

In summer 2011, Wisconsin held nine recall elections (of six Republicans who supported and three Democrats who opposed the Walker/Tea Party/anti-worker agenda). Almost everybody sued everybody else for fraudulent petitions, procedures, and the like. To delay the recall vote, Republicans lined up “fake” Democrats to run in primaries. They all lost, but Republicans gained another month to run attack ads. Democrats, who had to win 3 of 6 recalls of Republican senators in order to gain the majority in the state senate, won only 2. Though all three Democratic senators the Republicans tried to recall survived, Republicans thus retained control of both houses and, so far, the governorship. State law permits recall elections only for those who have been in office for a year, so Governor Scott Walker’s recall comeuppance could not begin until January 2012.

Before getting to what might have, and still could, happen, a glimpse of how unsettled and unsettling the Outpouring was.

Solidarity is busting out all over

The first thing to say is that people carrying signs were in the Capitol and on the square all day long, every day, for a month. Supporters streamed in from around the state and the country. Unions making appearances included nurses’ unions, numerous public employee, law enforcement, and teachers’ unions, Correction Officers, CWA, Teamsters, ATU, Sheet Metal Workers, Painters & Allied Trades, Steamfitters, Boilermakers, State Engineers, Bricklayers, Carpenters, IBEW, Steelworkers, AFSCME, Pipefitters, SEIU, Stage Hands, and a group of seven smartly dressed airline pilots looking ready for takeoff. The union and labor core was joined by a (proportionately tiny) auxiliary of Wobblies (IWW), environmental, LGBT, peace, and social justice groups.

Signs proclaimed, “Solidarity from Michigan/LA/Penn.,” “Pittsburgh Supports Wisconsin” and “Minnesota Labor Supports Wisconsin.” A retired “Steelworker’s Daughter for Collective Bargaining” played “Solidarity Forever” on a recorder. The turbulent sea of signs included “Hosni Walker,” “Egypt supports Wisconsin Workers,” “Honduras Stands with Wisconsin,” “Realtors for Collective Bargaining,” and “Non-Union Household for Unions.”

Governor Walker had claimed that eliminating most public workers’ collective bargaining rights would give state and local governments the “tools” to balance their budgets and cut costs. A local talk show host9 took to calling him “Governor Tool,” a moniker that caught on. For months, the host devoted his call-in show to advancing the cause of the demonstrators, interviewing labor leaders, reporting on-site events, and educating and encouraging all Wisconsinites to support the cause.

Toddlers wearing “Union Thug” shirts perched on their parents’ shoulders. The parade of signs on the Capitol Square continued. “I am a Union Worker: I am Not the Problem,” “Wisconsin Open to Business, Closed to Labor,” “United We Stand, Divided We Beg,” “I [Heart] Wisconsin Workers,” and “Unions—the Inventors of the Weekend.” National labor leaders and politicians streamed in to speak at rallies and hang out; nearly everyone who’d ever run for any office in Madison joined the marches and addressed the crowds.

A herd of people dressed in deer costumes grazed through the crowd, their message not so obvious. Until you got close enough to read their slogan: “It’s not about the dough.” (Get it?) Public workers had repeatedly offered to take compensation cuts of various kinds to help ease the state budget “woes.” Details of wages and benefits were on the table; their collective bargaining rights were not.

Special of the day

People from Antarctica, all 50 states, and many dozens of countries including Haiti called in donations to Ian’s Pizza near the Capitol and asked them to send protesters food. For weeks, Ian’s delivered towers of pizza boxes to patient, polite, grateful demonstrators at “stations” around the square.

By the second week, there was a regular free mealtime buffet in a wing of the Capitol Rotunda. One day, the noon offerings included both spaghetti and mac-and-cheese entrees, a variety of fruits and salads, and the option to just make yourself a PBJ sandwich—all thanks to the generosity of local small businesses, donations from around the world, and the hard work of hundreds of volunteers. Everybody waited calmly in line, dutifully sorted refuse from recyclables, and generally kept the place as neat as a Lutheran church lunch.

Returning home after a midday Capitol rally (the other daily rally was at 5 p.m.), I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio citing eyewitnesses describing the Capitol as trashed with kotex, beer cans, and bongs. He and some of our local AM rightwing radio personalities regularly described demonstrators as dirty, smelly, drunken, lazy, union thugs.

Inside the Capitol, the “thugs” used miles of blue painter tape to tack thousands of signs to nearly every square inch of wall and column. The Blue Tape Directive was one of numerous suggestions posted by demonstrators to keep the situation peaceful, neat, and safe. Between the events unfolding around us, and the efforts put into perusing the fine print of Republican proposals, the Capitol turned into a massive, spontaneous, uncensored teach-in. Outside on the sidewalks around the square, freshly chalked slogans and information appeared each morning. This continued long after the peak of the crowds. On March 25, the walks were covered with body outlines and a list of names and ages of all who died in the Triangle Shirt Factory fire exactly a century earlier.

Each day a new crop of handbills, makeshift cardboard educational exhibits, and walking placards about Republican budget details appeared. Each revelation provoked more disgust, and inspired even more people to scour the proposal. I have no doubt that this bill was more closely read by more people than any budget proposal in state history. Anyone who spent even a coffee break in the Rotunda learned that much more than public employees’ collective bargaining rights was at stake.

The Capitol became its own social system, with everything from education to sanitation handled deftly. During the day, sleeping bags and rolled-up mats were tucked away behind marble columns or in alcoves. Blankets spread on the Capitol marble delineated impromptu day care centers. Outside, marching bands with drums and accordions; inside, folk ensembles with fiddles, recorders, and guitars.

Twice daily during the peak of the Outpouring, at the end of each hour-long rally, a marching formation of plaid-skirted bagpipers led hundreds of fully geared-up firefighters, followed by a diversity of law enforcement officers, into the Rotunda. They circled the ground floor, went up the stairs, then around the first, second and third floor balconies. Pressed close up along the procession, and filling every available square foot of the Capitol, were 10,000 cheering labor supporters, from across the state and far beyond, waving hands and cowbells; drumming and shouting; high-fiving and hugging the public employees as they passed by; and most poignant of all, shouting a slogan I had never heard at a demo: “Thank-You, Thank-You, Thank-You…”

Office hours in the snow and pizzas through the bathroom windows

The governor’s threat to tap the National Guard to fill absent shifts inspired a woman to carry this sign: “Do you want the National Guard changing your catheter?” 10,776 individual emails in support of demonstrators were blue-taped to walls along a Rotunda stairway. One weekend, lab-coated doctors, prescription pads in hand, held office hours in a tent under a large sign, “Need a Note?”

When the Capitol was locked down, Democratic Assembly members hauled furniture out of first floor windows and sat outside in 20-degree weather so they could meet with constituents prevented from entering the Capitol. While the Fab 14 Senators were hiding out, hundreds of tiny sticky-notes of thanks stuck like so many butterflies to their locked office doors. The morning after a heavy late-winter snow, dozens of snowmen holding Solidarity signs appeared all over the Capitol grounds.

While the demonstrators were giving a clinic on civility and gumption, the Republicans were making no effort to even go through the motions of seeming equitable or fair-minded. Nor did they seem to understand the part about there being three branches of government.10 Their deft blend of arrogance and sleaze kept demonstrators fired up, and provided ample fodder for slogans.

For those of us who couldn’t recognize them all by sight, mug shots of all Republican legislators were blue-taped onto the walls. After an especially sneaky, underhanded, and illegal maneuver, a dozen Republicans had to exit via goat path between law officers holding back 10,000 demonstrators in the Rotunda screaming “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at tremendous volume. That was the last time during the Outpouring that Republicans dared show their faces openly at the Capitol.

Turns out they were getting in and out of the Capitol through secret tunnels, with inconspicuous entrances in other government buildings. Soon, those entrances were lined with protesters holding “Rat Hole to Walker Palace” signs. While Republicans were thus sneaking in to avoid meeting the public, members of the public (and some pizzas) were getting into the locked-down Capitol through unsecured bathroom windows on the second floor (later bolted shut).

The Republican coup de grace took place in a nearly empty and locked-down Capitol on March 9. In early evening, rumors began flying that the collective bargaining bill had gone down. All over town, people dropped what they were doing and streamed to the Capitol. Officers guarding the doors were somehow “unable” to hold back the throngs, and once again up to 10,000 demonstrators occupied the Rotunda. People took pictures of each other in goofy postures around the abandoned wanding stations. For a few hours, the Rotunda smelled like peanut butter again. Outside, vehicles circled the Capitol Square all evening, honking a spontaneous call-and-response to the rhythm: this-is-what-de-mo-cra-cy-looks-like.

Inside, the mood was simultaneously euphoric and angry. Euphoric, because after a week of being locked out of their own Capitol building, demonstrators were back. As the news reported the next day, “People took their house back last night.” Angry, because in an unprecedented (and to any fair-minded person, illegal) maneuver, the anti-collective bargaining bill passed the Senate—the precise circumstance the Fab 14 had fled the state to prevent. In retrospect, it was on this day that demonstrators’ bluff was called, and they backed down.

A near-general strike collapses in mainstream swoon

Three general strike “moments” were allowed to slip away.

General Strike One. There was no general strike the first week as news spread of the plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees. Most people there did not know what a general strike is (something vaguely Italian?).

Still, in the first week of the Outpouring (February 14–21), we had a spontaneous near-general strike. Crowds increased from a few hundred, to 30,000, to 70,000 the first week, and by the second weekend were over 100,000. Absenteeism among Madison area public schools, among both teachers and students, led officials to cancel classes for four days. At one point, at least 24 school districts were closed, and some put the number as high as 45.11 Many state and local employees spent their breaks at the Capitol, with full knowledge of (and often in the company of) their supervisors.

The Fab 14 disappeared around February 17. As long as they were holed up in Illinois, the huge crowds at the Capitol retained some hope that despite solid Republican control of the governorship and both statehouses, legislative maneuvering could stop the bill. (Translation: Game Not Over yet, and so a general strike would be premature.)

General Strike Two. There was no general strike when the anti-collective bargaining bill passed the Senate in a sneaky maneuver March 9,12 even though people temporarily reoccupied the Capitol in a spontaneous act of protest that evening.

Though there was sentiment for a general strike among some rank and file, and limited official endorsement of the idea, there was never a unified call from elected representatives or unions for a general strike.13 Some elected officials spoke openly against the idea, while some unions liked it but accepted that (given current labor law) calling a general strike was outside of their (NLRB regulatory agency approved) powers. Still others suggested limited and unofficial boycotts of this or that bank or business that supported the Republican agenda.

Faced with a near fait accompli on the anti-collective bargaining bill, people returned with renewed vigor to the idea that the bad Republicans would be recalled and the Senate become Democratic, and/or that the judicial process would overturn the collective bargaining law because of open meetings and other procedural violations. Regarding that latter hope…the nonpartisan Wisconsin Supreme Court election was then only weeks away, and people turned to the candidacy of (Progressive Democrat) Kloppenburg, challenging the conservative Republican incumbent Justice David Prosser. Huge efforts throughout the state in the court race provided yet another electoral avenue to suck the demonstrators’ energy.

When the Fab 14 returned and spoke at a massive rally on Saturday March 12, they urged on the efforts to recall Republicans and (more delicately because it is officially a nonpartisan race) support Kloppenburg for Supreme Court. That weekend saw the last big demonstrations. After that, energy was completely and efficiently sucked into the court election, recalls of Republicans, and legal maneuvering. Despite the eleven-day tent city in June (which ended when the budget passed the state Senate), there were no more demonstrations even approaching the size of those the first month.

General Strike Three. There was no general strike on Thursday April 7, when Wisconsinites woke up to hear that “lost” votes now found gave Prosser a victory over Kloppenburg in the previous Tuesday’s Supreme Court election. It began to seem very likely that Republican shenanigans—that is to say, election fraud—had delivered the Supreme Court seat to the incumbent conservative. The reverse was especially bitter because Supreme Court terms in Wisconsin are 10 years.

I expected another spontaneous surge to the Capitol like there was March 9, but almost nobody came. At noon I saw around 50 people, many of us wondering where everybody else was. Instead, people put their faith in the efficacy of a long, agonizing recount, the results of which (Prosser by a hair, can’t prove fraud) were recounted above.

And You’re Out. Thus the three times when outrage might have shaped itself into a coherent general strike—the original anti-collective bargaining proposal, the procedurally marred affirmative Senate vote, and the seemingly stolen election—saw the outrage turned into detailed legal hair-splitting, judicial maneuvering, and electoral hopes centered on moderate Democrats. The air just went out of everything as the recall effort commenced. One sign said it all: “See You At the Polls.”14 (It was all I could do not to ask him, “And how is that working for you?”)

What would the general strike have been about? Apparently undoing the anti-collective bargaining and budget bills, which amounts to returning to the status quo ante of our former (Democratic) governor’s administration. Previous Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle, who disappointed even mainstream Democrats, is an excellent specimen of a DINO (Democrat in name only).

Even with such a vague goal in mind, such a general strike would likely have been unsuccessful or counterproductive because the necessary groundwork (clear goals, strategy, and support infrastructure, among others) had not been prepared. Long accustomed to the regulatory minutiae of NLRB procedures and rules, snugly if not ecstatically ensconced under the wing of the Democratic Party, and largely ignorant of the more vibrant brand of unionism that preceded the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the Outpouring melted into the routines of GOTV15 phone banks, media buys, and other mainstream political routines.

Other paths not taken on revolutionary road

Strong sentiment, and clever signs opposing the Republicans, their proposals, the Koch brothers, big corporations, Wall Street, and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council)16 were inspiring and educational, but hardly constituted a plan beyond demanding that the scoundrels reverse their most recent actions. In contrast, late nineteenth century Populists gave the reigning powers quite a scare before they were coopted into the Progressive Movement and the Democratic Party.17 Such cautionary tales, along with familiarity with 1930s unionism, highlight the necessity to avoid counterfactual wishful thinking about the Democratic Party.

Instead, we could take a tip from labor history outside the NLRA bubble, and begin to devise strategies that address fundamental problems and play out in arenas far deeper than electoral politics. When “next time” arrives, labor could be ready to pursue, among others, some of the many paths not taken in Wisconsin. The list is long.

The Outpouring was not full of people with clipboards on a massive union organizing campaign: neither the standard (NLRB era) current model, nor along the lines of the solidarity unionism of the 1930s (such as the IUAW, Independent Union of All Workers),18 or other alternative unions. Such alternative models are more democratic and egalitarian, and explore the advantages of, for example, working without contracts, eschewing national affiliation, and not having dues checkoff.

This was not the time to talk about what an effective labor movement, like the one Peter Kellman outlines in Building Unions, would look like today.19 Nor was there interest in rewriting the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that “domesticated” the labor movement, repealing the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which made unions “infinitely more controllable,”20 or upending the numerous NLRB and Supreme Court decisions over the decades that further shackle union power.

There was no move to harness the tremendous energy of the Outpouring to reverse existing “free trade” agreements (such as NAFTA and GATT/WTO), and end efforts to finalize pending ones. What currently passes for “radical” in most labor venues is suggesting pursuit of ineffectual labor side agreements to current trade policy.

There were no big third party organizing efforts going on. Not for a labor party (not beholden to corporations or Democrats) to unequivocally represent workers’ interests; not for a revitalized Green Party that is more than a pimple on the Democrats’ hide.

To the contrary, the “Fab 14” Democratic senators, all of whom hightailed it for Illinois to prevent a quorum, were enshrined as heroes. Though there are seeds of radical democratic reform in a couple of them, they have for the most part gone along with the corporate agenda that has increasingly dominated both major parties in Wisconsin.

In the 2011 recall elections, Democrats ignored the collective bargaining issue. Instead of building on the Outpouring of middle class union members, Democrats chose to downplay it. “None of the nine Democratic recall candidates mention the issue of collective bargaining on their websites,” noted one reporter.21 He later added, “with all the momentum from the union issue, Democrats running in recall elections have decided that just about everything else is more important than collective bargaining.”22 Calls for “reigniting the labor movement, not simply protecting what remains of it”23 were few and far between.

Betrayal of labor by Democrats has a long history (one still being written today); faux labor parties or programs intended to shepherd labor into the Democratic party for critical elections are nothing new. Eric Leif Davin argues that the 1930s was the last serious effort to keep labor from falling into the hands of the always disappointing Dems.24 With Wisconsin-like scenarios playing out across the nation, the time may be ripe to revisit that possibility.

One day longer, one day stronger?

Today, union workers—and others—all over the state are being laid off, taking unpaid furloughs, enduring pay and benefit cuts, and suffering in deteriorating work conditions. Unions are also feeling the pain from the Walker legislature’s elimination of automatic payroll deduction for union dues, and mandated yearly certification votes that require not a majority of those voting, but a majority of members, to recertify a union. Some unions are laying off their own workers, making new arrangements for dues collection, and in many cases deciding to not pursue annual recertification.25

At the Labor Day celebration at the Madison Labor Temple, speakers complained about corporations, and urged renewed efforts to recall the governor and elect Democrats next time. I asked around if there was any plan beyond denouncing corporate-conservative-right wingers and electing Democrats, and got mostly blank stares.

Students of labor history in the US will note that NLRA recognition and union certification are mixed blessings. Some of the 1930s solidarity unions opposed the automatic dues checkoff because they found it tended to make membership more passive and encourage the union boss versus rank-and-file division.26 Further, non-certified organizations of workers are not bound by the same onerous conditions and prohibitions that limit government-certified unions.

Heightened awareness and changed conditions evident in the Outpouring present opportunities. People are having to think hard about their unions, the implications of certification, and dues collection, as well as the broad range of new Republican laws that are affecting public services and quality of life on all sides. They are having conversations they would never have had even a year ago.

Wisconsin unions had the organizing ability and energy to form less domesticated unions and channel the Outpouring into a real revolution. However, they lacked the historical knowledge or imagination to use it for something larger than voting for mediocre Democrats and paying lawyers to nitpick procedures.

But there will be a “next time.” Nurses and teachers screamed side by side with firefighters, cops and steelworkers. Family Farm Defenders staged a magnificent tractor parade. Maybe some of the Great Washed took a leaflet from some of the Wobblies or socialists who frequented the fringes of the demo. Changed circumstances are leading union members to think outside of their conventional union boxes, and perhaps revisit the solidarity unionism of the past.

Will Wisconsin’s unions be consumed by a campaign to recall Governor Walker and re-elect Obama? Or will they be ready to explore less regulated, non-hierarchical, more community-based unions that foster solidarity among all workers—the “qualitatively different unionism” that Staughton Lynd championed in 1996?

We are all leaders, as was evident during the Outpouring, before we forgot and returned to scripted electoral and legal reactions. We could all be leaders again. We will have to be, if we are to avoid continuing as foot soldiers in the war against ourselves.

Notes

Ward Morehouse (1929-2012): A Remembrance

When I first met Ward Morehouse in May 1995 at a weekend “Rethinking the Corporation” retreat in Wisconsin’s “driftless” region—he considered Wisconsin his “old stompin’ ground”–he asked to see my just-published first book. Returning the book the next morning, he made a few trenchant remarks that left no doubt that he had read the whole thing.

Of course, I was flattered that an eminence grise would be interested in my work. Even more than that, I was not a little amazed that he had managed to do this despite actively taking part in the intense socializing that accompanied that hopeful gathering.

I didn’t agree with every call Ward made. But when I approached him with an issue, I knew that he would offer more than the impatient, strained, short silence that often passes for listening. He was pleased, not threatened, by new information and ideas. He never responded by intimating that of course he already knew that. You were in for a thoughtful intellectual exchange, leavened with wry humor and sprigs of insight. I never heard him make a self-serving comment.

Ward’s causes and projects were things he really believed in, not vehicles to carry him to celebrity activist status. Where others rushed to the limelight and basked therein, Ward hung back and let others take credit. Where others sought cheerleaders and acolytes, Ward sought colleagues. He nurtured people, and created opportunities for them to grow, explore, and develop. He was self-effacing, not self-promoting; a strategizer, not a schemer.

He let others, not always deserving, hitch a ride on his well-earned reputation for integrity and courage. If Ward had a fault, it was that he was sometimes unaware that others were using him, not only to promote themselves, but to do so in directions that would not meet Ward’s high ethical standards.

And by the way, anybody who knew Ward also knows that no one would have gotten away with calling him an eminence grise within his earshot. So Ward, if you are listening now—and you probably are—I’m taking advantage of your physical absence to call you the eminence grise that you will always be. You are well remembered, sorely missed, and fondly recalled.

Now, organize those angels.

 

Jane Anne Morris, September, 2012

Eat, Sleep, Click: The Bicycle-Powered Internet (2012)

by Jane Anne Morris

 

Huge powerline tower seen from center bottom for geometric effect.Save a tree, bank online. Subscribe Online, reduce your carbon footprint. Listen to music online, watch movies online, read books online. No mess, no fuss. Google Inc. has photovoltaic (PV) solar panels on its headquarters. With all that footprint-lightening, you may soon be down to no ecological footprint at all, right?

Since everyone wants the Internet to have a gentle footprint and not be “evil,” we should power it with green electricity. Start with a bicycle generator and a server. Here are some back-of-the-envelope figures.

All the stuff on the Internet, or in the “cloud,” is kept aloft by computers called servers (plus routers and so on). An average server draws 400 watts/hour, half of that for cooling (fairly typical), and 3500 kilowatt-hours (kwh) per year, 1 because it never shuts down.

A healthy biker can produce a constant 100 watts/hour on a bicycle generator, a generous estimate. Four generator bikes at 100 watts/hour apiece would power a server. Alas, that single server can’t accomplish much by itself. Various techies have estimated that a single online search activates between 1000 and 20,000 servers, often located all over the world.

Numerous servers are housed together in places called server farms or data centers. To power a modest-sized data center (50,000 servers) by bicycle power would require almost a million pedalers and an area equivalent to 347 football fields.2 Data centers can be as small as closets at the back of a business, or as large as several football fields and use as much electricity as small cities. They run 24/7/365, and tend to have multiply redundant backup systems, so no one has to wait ten seconds to learn from a web site if it’s raining outside.

If you live in a city or a large town, you probably pass by one or more data centers each day. But they don’t advertise themselves with signs saying, “Corporate Data Center Containing Highly Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information,” so you might not notice. And you won’t see 347 football fields of bike generators surrounding them because they’re powered by the coal and nuclear power plants that supply most electricity in the U.S.

What finally matters is not this or that server or data center, but the overall Internet electricity use. How much bicycle-power would it take to run the Internet? Later we can figure out how to landscape the facility, and decide where to put the snack bars and port-a-potties.

The EPA’s conservative and dated number for 2006 Internet electricity use within the U.S. alone is 60 billion kwh. Getting that much electricity from the setup described above would require 600 million bike generators. Assuming 6-hour pedaling shifts, that would take 2.4 billion pedalers. Think of the stimulus to the global economy: pedaling jobs for the entire populations of the U.S. (305 million), Canada (33 million), Mexico (110 million), South America (382 million), India (1.5 billion), and Japan (127 million).

Five years later, that number has doubled (at least). It is widely claimed that in 2010 the Internet used 3% of U.S. electricity (3884 billion kwh), which is 117 billion kwh. So, we’re now talking about 1.2 billion bike generators and 4.8 billion pedalers.

***

MEGAWHAT? A solar panel rated at one kilowatt of capacity will produce one kilowatt-hour of energy if the sun shines on it steadily for an hour. Terms like megawatt, kilowatt, and watt express power or capacity, while megawatt-hour, kilowatt-hour, and watt-hour measure energy. A kilowatt is a thousand watts; a megawatt is a million watts or a thousand kilowatts.

***

In 2007, an independent outsider who is not on the dole of the IT industry calculated that U.S. Internet energy use was around 350 billion kwh annually, approximately six times the EPA’s 2006 estimate,3 and three times the conservative 2010 estimate used above. I will use the lower numbers, but actual Internet electricity use may be much higher.

What about worldwide Internet electricity use? Available 2010 estimates—200 billion kwh4 — are probably conservative, as they were calculated by an analyst who works for the likes of the EPA, the New York Times, and various IT industry corporations. Extrapolation from the number of servers worldwide results in about the same number: the reported 60 million servers would use 210 billion kwh annually. What’s that in bicycles?

Using the same assumptions as before, that worldwide Internet could be powered by a mere two billion bike generators, with 8 billion people pedaling. (Current world (over)population is 7 billion.) If you placed that many bicycles end-to-end, they would reach far enough for three round trips to the moon, and then a trip back up. (Maybe we should terraform the moon and put the generator system up there?)

Who would want to design a bicycle-generator system to power the Internet? Someone who wanted to imagine a human-scale equivalent for how much energy the Internet already sucks up. What about other “renewable” energy sources?

SOLAR AND WIND-POWERED INTERNET

At the biggest, most successful photovoltaic projects in the world, the rule of thumb is that ten acres of panels produces a megawatt of capacity (as would 10,000 bicycle generators). A square mile (640 acres) could provide 64 MW. Each megawatt might yield 1.5 million kwh/year, so the annual kwh from a square mile of good solar would be 96 million.

Generating an annual 117 billion kwh (2010 U.S. Internet use) with solar would require at least 1220 square miles of PV panels, and 78,000 MW.5 For 200 billion kwh number for world Internet use, it would take 2081 square miles (that’s Delaware) and 133,200 MW.

What about a wind-powered Internet? Experience in the wind turbine industry (and again in the choicest spots), has shown that it’s good to get 20 MW of capacity per square mile. Three million kwh a year from each megawatt of capacity is also optimistic.

Using wind turbines to get that 117 billion kwh for 2010 U.S. Internet electricity use would require 1950 square miles.6 The 200 billion kwh for 2010 world Internet use would require 3300 square miles. Most wind power sites are less productive than the sites from which these numbers were derived.

It’s not appropriate to compare solar and wind directly to conventional power plants. Except for maintenance and accidents, coal and nuke plants operate 24/7, though demand drops at night. In contrast, solar is always down at night, and wind is variable, exactly what data centers can’t be.

With solar, more than half the electricity would have to be stored for use when little or no power is generated. The huge batteries necessary for storing this much power look like a cross between upturned railroad freight cars and electric substations. They require space, maintenance, and cooling. Every time energy is converted from one form to another (like rotating energy to electrical energy to heat energy, or electricity into batteries and then out again) energy is lost. That slippage increases the initial kwh necessary, but I have not factored that in.

Also omitted in calculations here are the power lines, substations, maintenance roads, other support facilities, and ladders and buckets of ammonia water to clean PV panels. Not to mention the fact that most areas don’t get nearly as much sun as the prize spots already selected for large solar arrays. I’m also not considering the resources needed to manufacture, transport, and maintain the PV panels. Similar considerations apply to wind power.

Solar and wind have different advantages. Fewer acres of solar than wind are required for each MW of capacity (10 versus 32), but for each MW capacity of wind, you get more kwh/year (3 million as compared to 1.5 million). That is because you are never, ever, going to average more than 12 hours daily of solar. However, you might average more than that for wind, depending on location and circumstances.

At the scale necessary to power data centers, solar, wind, and even bicycle power involve considerable habitat loss. Bicycle space to power the 2010 U.S. Internet would be about 4304 square miles (about the size of the Everglades). For the 2010 world Internet, about the combined area of Delaware and Connecticut. When chunks of ecosystem are shoveled into industrialism’s mill, Gaia is diminished. Acres sacrificed to solar arrays, wind farms, power line rights of way, or thousands of bicycle generator pads destroy habitat no less than those given over to GMO crops, cooling ponds, interstate highways, and parking lots.

I’ll leave it to curious readers to do their own math on powering the Internet with switchgrass, corn cobs, or cow patties.

ENERGY-INTENSIVE, THY NAME IS INTERNET

How can the Internet use so much electricity? Suppose you have an awesome video of your cat at a laptop using her little cat feet to scroll through online celebrity cats in fetching poses. (Click for full screen.) It’s stored in your email account, and you have a copy on your laptop and/or handheld. Your email is backed up by the company that offers it, and you have backup service for your laptop, so that’s more Internet storage space on servers somewhere; then the back-up companies back up their back-ups. You send the cat video to fifty people. Some store it in their emails; some download it and have it backed up on their own online backup systems; some send it out to a few other people; and some do all three. How many places can we find the cat? It’s a hall of mirrors, a grain of wheat doubling on each square of a chessboard. All of it eats kilowatt-hours. How much fracking is that cat porn worth to you?

All online content is not born equal. It takes very little electricity to support text, even italics. Graphics such as photos and drawings are much more energy-intensive. Music exceeds even graphics, and video (bouncing bunnies, or time-lapse wrinkle cream results) is the greediest of all.

***

FILE SIZE MATTERS. A text-only file of the Bible is approximately 1.5 MB. With pictures, depending on how elaborate, it is closer to 100 MB. A 2-hour video about the greatest story ever told would use up more like 1-1.5 GB.Comparing music and video, a 4-minute video would use about 24 MB, while 4 minutes of music would use only about 4 MB.

***

Online action is hosted and processed in massive data centers that use up to 100 or even 200 MW of demand; data center operators are not often eager to release this information. Chicago’s Lakeside Technology Center (a data center) reportedly draws 100 MW, a higher electric demand than any other Commonwealth Edison customer except O’Hare airport. A quick check reveals what a “renewable” electricity supply would look like for a facility like this. With bike generators: over a million generators, over four million pedalers, and almost half a million acres, which is 757 square miles (almost three times the size of Chicago). Probably not available anywhere near the Loop. Using solar panels: 2917 acres (2210 football fields), not counting battery space, which is also probably not in the Chicago zoning plan. Using wind in the “windy city”: 9347 acres (or 7081 football fields), again not counting battery space.

As Alex Roslin of the Montreal Gazette put it, if the Internet were a country, it would be the fifth biggest power consumer, ahead of India & Germany.7

WHO IS PAYING FOR THIS?

Tax breaks and other subsidies are common for data centers. Even modest-sized ones often reap government subsidies for drawing huge amounts of electricity and providing fewer jobs per buck, or per kwh, than almost any other kind of facility.

For instance, in 2007 a Google Inc. data center got tax breaks on utility bills, plus a property tax exemption. Iowa’s own web site describes the tax exemption as including “cooling systems, cooling towers, and other temperature control infrastructure….also exempt from property tax are all power infrastructure for transformation, distribution, or management of electricity used for the maintenance and operation of the web search portal, including but not limited to exterior dedicated business owned substations, back-up power generation systems, battery systems, and related infrastructure; and racking systems, cabling, and trays, which are necessary for the maintenance and operation of the web search portal.”

Iowa even calculated its expected tax losses: $3.6 million in 2009, $12.7 million in 2010, $22 million in 2011, and $32.7 million in 2012. The corporation got a similar deal in North Carolina, where estimates of tax losses to the state were approximately $97 million over 30 years.

Lack of enforcement of environmental and occupational safety laws across the board is an often-overlooked form of subsidy available to large corporations, including data centers. This includes the cradle-to-grave production, processing, transport, and use of nuclear and fossil fuels, as well as the toxic waste and byproducts of same. Companies burn through energy and resources far more cheaply than would be possible if laws “on the books” were enforced.

Finally, there are those bargain-basement electricity bills. Data center electricity rates are as low as 3-4¢/kwh, while residential customers pay much higher rates: easily 15, 20, 25¢/kwh, and even steeper when charges for distribution and other fees are included.8

The public is massively subsidizing data centers, the Internet, and the profits of IT corporations. Yet, many corporations with huge data centers are not eager to advertise their locations, and use third parties to negotiate their deals. Some go to great lengths to hide their electricity use. In 2007, for example, at Google Inc.’s urging, Oklahoma rewrote its open records law to allow data center owners to conceal from the public the amount of electricity used.

IF INEFFICIENCY IS NOT THE PROBLEM, EFFICIENCY IS NOT THE SOLUTION

When I raise the issue of the massive electricity use of all things Internet, everyone tells me how efficient IT is becoming.

The idea that efficiency reduces consumption is at best debatable, and at worst a public relations scam. As Don Fitz wrote in “Why Energy Efficiency Isn’t Reducing Consumption” (Synthesis/Regeneration, 2009), over a century and a half of research on the relationship between efficiency and consumption of a resource has marshaled considerable evidence that the opposite is true. Since Stanley Jevons documented that coal consumption increased ten-fold after smelters tripled their efficiency (The Coal Question, 1865), the phenomenon has been called the Jevons Paradox. Historically, in capitalist systems, increased efficiency has led to more consumption, not less.

Being efficient is good, but it does not mean sustainable, it does not mean green, and it does not portend reduced consumption. Data center efficiency is improving, and Google Inc.’s are reputed to be among the best. But when Gaia is diminished by the ripping out of coal, and the dumping of sludge, her suffering is in no way reduced if the resulting electricity is used “efficiently.” Earth’s problem is not the inefficiency of resource use, but the quantity. Ask Gaia.

FOOD, INTERNET, SPAM

Why do we figure out the ecological implications of eating a hamburger but not clicking a search? When it comes to food, the green or even greenish band of the political spectrum is all over it. Local food. Organic food. Slow food. Urban agriculture. Permaculture. Rooftop gardens. Alice Waters, Will Allen, Michael Pollan. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Fast food nation. Eat low on the food chain.

But when it comes to the Internet, people spout shallow unexamined cliches as they tap at sleek, shiny gadgets. The PV panels at Google Inc.’s headquarters and other cheap stunts deflect attention from the enormity of Internet energy use. Engineering Professor Mohamed Cheriet, at Montreal’s Ecole de Technologie Superieure, who works on “green” IT innovation, gushes, “We’ve found the key to the problem: Follow the wind, follow the sun.”9 The Internet is the fast food triple bacon cheeseburger of communications, yet people are convinced it’s green.

Are the brains who figured out it takes 150 or 630 or 1300 gallons of water to produce a hamburger just out to lunch when it comes to the Internet? Why is the Internet—a global system if there ever was one—immune from the same analysis? Spending two hours on the porch showing your neighbor your family photo album is not especially energy-intensive. Doing so online, and sending it around to everyone on your email list, carries vastly higher ecological costs.

What’s the actual content that billions of publicly subsidized kwh go to support? Nicholas Carr (The Big Switch, 2008) estimated in 1996 that 94% of all emails are spam, and that there may be 85 billion spams a day. This year, John Markoff in the New York Times claimed that about 90% of all email is still spam, and that one single spam campaign generated three emails for each person on the planet, some 21 billion messages. Ken Auletta (Googled, 2009) suggested that as many as a quarter of all searches are for porn. According to Alex Roslin at the Montreal Gazette, 250 billion emails are sent daily.10 The study Markoff referenced suggested that over 12 million messages were needed to sell $100 of Viagra.11 Dennis Walsh from green@work, among others, states that over 200 million Internet searches happen daily in the U.S. alone; 100 million photos are uploaded daily. Google Inc. has reported that it carries out about a billion searches per day, according to James Glanz in the New York Times.12

One person estimated that fantasy football aficionados spent 2.4 billion hours online per season.13 Online games, role-playing, social networking, gambling, and an almost unbelievable amount of advertising is up there in the “cloud” at tremendous energy cost. Much of it is not the relatively energy-cheap text, but the photos, music, video, bouncing cartoons, and interactive click-fests that are hundreds or thousands of times more energy-intensive. Subsidizing the entire current Internet system because an activist can upload photos of stripmining and clearcutting is like subsidizing an industrial-sized WalMart because six feet of shelf space holds organic spinach.

The Internet is not, and will not be, powered by so-called renewable energy, magical energy that is somehow without consequences. Sleek, glowing screens may hide the truth from people who don’t want to hear about it, but the consequences remain. The real costs of Internet electricity use are being cast over state boundaries and national borders, across class, ethnic, and species lines, and onto future generations.

In hindsight, most wish that we had used a little more foresight about the automobile. And, we are a species with a decidedly mixed record on learning from history. Today is a good time to look up from our screens and take advantage of the fact that we are still in the Model T era of the Internet.

If we keep pretending that the Internet is innocuous, neutral, democratic, clean, and green, we can look forward to more iPipelines, iFracking, iMountaintop Removal, iCoal Plants, iNukes, iStripmining, iSpecies Extinction, iHabitat Loss, iClimate Change, iTar Sands, iSludge, iOil spills, iFloods, and continued iResource Wars.

Or, we can begin to give it the attention we give a burger.

This was first published by Earth First! Journal, May 31, 2012 and Jan. 8, 2013.

Corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris (democracythemepark.org), whose most recent book is Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” is Stealing Our Democracy (Apex/Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), first wrote about Internet energy use in “The Energy Nightmare of Web Server Farms: Feet in the Cloud, Head in the Sand,” Synthesis/Regeneration 45: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, Winter 2008 (www.greens.org/s-r/45/45-03.html).

———————————

NOTES

Wikipedia (Link, Link): A Cautionary Tale (2012)

by Jane Anne Morris

 

If you are an environmentalist, one sure way to become enraged is to read the World Book Encyclopedia‘s entries on Mining, or Nuclear Energy. They are so whimsical and unrelated to reality that you might wonder why so many consider World Book to be a reliable authority on anything. (Well, maybe aardvarks, but then I don’t know anything about aardvarks.)

This sort of justifiable frustration contributed to the welcome reception given in recent years to the likes of Wikipedia, a “people’s” compendium not burdened (supposedly) by the invisible establishment censors that evidently supervise the World Book universe. But Wikipedia, useful as it may be in some cases, does not eliminate the necessity of determining the biases of the source.

I’m not ready to review Wikipedia as a whole, but recently had a worrisome experience that started when I saw a Wikipedia entry on something I knew a lot about.

An entry on something I studied for nearly a decade, and made the subject of my 700+ page anthropology dissertation. The entry was patchy, so I clicked history. The article I linked to was utterly unfamiliar, as if I’d gotten off a bus in the wrong city, then tried to get my bearings.

My confusion and disbelief mounted and started elbowing each other. I didn’t expect to hear about the brothel scandal on their fiftieth anniversary, but I did expect to hear about the general manager’s resignation, the subsequent reorganization, and the decade-long fight with locals over stripmining that set it all up.

I didn’t expect them to quote the brochures that described their proposed fuel source as having an energy content comparable to dirt, but I did expect to hear about the $583 million bond referendum they lost by a 60-40 margin to an opposition that was outspent nine-to-one.

In the linked article, the history of the quasi-public utility I knew so well unfolded smoothly without bumping into any historical marker familiar to me from my own experience. It was like a history of the U.S. armed forces that told only of soldiers handing out candy bars, and air-lifting peasant children for cleft-palate surgery.

When I got to the end of the article and saw the author’s name, all became clear. Here’s the scoop.

The whole article was written by the utility’s long-time public relations officer.

A decade-long controversy involving stripmining, dozens of regulatory agencies and permits, numerous court cases, a failed bond referendum, a series of management scandals, and a very public re-organization—were not just skipped over lightly but ignored, obliterated in this paean to the agency’s selfless dedication to the public good, boat ramps, home weatherization, and parks.

From its origin in 1935 as a “river authority,” authorized to build a dam and sell a little hydroelectric power, it has grown to become an immensely powerful agency that controls both the water and electricity resources of a wide swathe of Texas. As a quasi-public utility created by the state legislature, it is exceedingly resistant to public input despite its diverse appointed governing board.

As references, the article cites only sources subsidized by the agency itself. Is this circular or what?

I won’t tell the story here. (You can read my dissertation, or articles by Bill Bishop (Bastrop County Times) and Davis McAuley (Bastrop Advertiser), who investigated and catalogued years of shenanigans by the utility). But consider: how many other agencies, companies, outfits, individuals, or others with very specific agendas have used this and other online platforms to essentially write their own imaginary histories by submitting public relations puff pieces to an uncritical public?

The Wikipedia link goes to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online, which you might think would hesitate to publish puff pieces in a reference book.

My dissertation on them is called Board and Staff: An Ethnography of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) of Texas (1987). It has been used in several graduate classes at the University of Texas. For library availability, see WorldCat.

Green Eats Green. Nettled? (2011)

by Jane Anne Morris

 

JAM’s Top Five Greens

The top 3-4 inches of fresh spring stinging nettles.It’s grid crash, or spring in the upper midwest. That winter diet of muskrat and tree bark goulash has not provided the vitamins and minerals you need to avoid slipping into a 33-degree lake. You can’t live on birdsong alone.

Greens, too often called weeds, start appearing in the spring, when you need them the most. Here are my Top Five.

1. NETTLES. Go for the nettles.

Off the charts in vitamins and minerals, and my personal favorite for taste. Yes, they will sting your skin, so wear gloves or plastic bags while picking the tender 2″ tops. The stingy stuff is formic acid (ants use it, too). Don’t worry, cooking banishes it (as does saliva). Nettles pack more protein than most plants, and are full of potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

Nettles are a rich addition to any soup, stew, pot of beans, or broth. Stir-fried/braised with garlic and chopped walnuts, and served with turmericked basmati rice, they’re hard to beat. You can eat them raw if you can get them to saliva without stinging your lips on the way in. (Work it out yourself.)

Nettles also make a nice tea (infusion) that you can drink, or rinse your hair with; they’re great companion plants in gardens, and good additions to compost piles.

2. PURSLANE

Archaeological evidence suggests purslane was a food staple as early as 17,000 years ago. Higher in omega-3 fatty acids than some fish, purslane is also a super source of Vitamin A, among many other vitamins and minerals.

Purslane is a succulent, with fleshy leaves and stems, and like nettle, can be eaten raw or cooked. I like it with sunflower seeds in a pot of black-eyed peas.

It loves disturbed areas, and since humans are so good at disturbing areas, it’s common almost everyplace Homo sapiens is found. Supposedly, purslane is one of the eight most commonly dispersed plants on earth. I’ve seen it looking really happy growing in gravel.

It’s every bit as impressive as nettle, but without the sting. It’s number two here because I just can’t get enough of them nettles.

3. LAMBSQUARTERS.

These were my favorite before I discovered nettles. Cooked, the leaves suggest extra-rich and earthy spinach. They rival nettles and purslane for their huge lode of nourishment, especially calcium, protein, and vitamins A and C.

Lambsquarters are good in salad if you don’t mind the “furry” coating on the leaves, which disappears if you cook them in any way: stir-fry, soup, whatever.

They like “waste” and disturbed land, and don’t seem to require the rich soil that nettles prefer. Like quinoa, they’re in the Amaranth Family, and Chenopodium genus. In fact, if you plant a quinoa seed, the resulting plant is virtually indistinguishable from lambsquarters.

4. WATERCRESS.

Unbelievably high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other good stuff, reputed to do everything from cure cancer to grow hair and fade age spots, can be eaten raw or cooked, tastes good in everything from soup to salad; is this getting repetitive?

Often found in small streams trickling from springs, watercress is sometimes available even in the depths of winter if creeks are not frozen over. In case you didn’t pick up on it, watercress grows literally in the water, so bring double-plastic bags or something suitable to carry it in.

If cows have peed anywhere uphill of your watercressed creek, your cress may be bearing strains of E. coli you don’t even want to think about, but don’t panic. I’m sure you have developed a foolproof method for removing E. coli from corporate broccoli; just carefully apply this technique to your watercress and you will be fine. Eating it cooked (instead of raw in salads) will further reduce your chances of encountering an “Evil coli” (what did you think the “E” stood for?)

5. DANDELION.

Also off the charts in all kinds of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B-complex, C, and D, and calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper, choline, boron, and silicon. The leaves contain more beta-carotene than carrots.

Eat the leaves in salad, if you like a touch of bitterness; otherwise, use them as cooking greens. The bright flowers are excellent as a tempura vegetable.

The stemmed flowers can be fashioned into a grand necklace or thornless crown for celebrating spring days.

Ifs, Ands, and Buts…….

NOTHING IN THE PLANT BLURB ABOVE IS INTENDED TO CONSTITUTE MEDICAL, HEALTH, OR DIETARY ADVICE OF ANY KIND, or suggestions for diagnosis or treatment of any ailment. Do not so much as nibble a leaf without consulting your physician about possible drug interactions.

IDENTIFICATION. This is a life-and-death matter. Use a good plant identification book or books, and never miss a chance to talk to local foragers. If you are one of those people who think that everything with a darling little purple flower is the same species, NEVER forage for food unchaperoned.

PICKING AND CHEWING. Obviously you can get information from any herbal or foraging book on what part to use, what time of day to pick it, how to process it, and recipe ideas, if you need them.

CONTAMINATION. Try to use some common sense about where you forage. Railroad tracks, road rights-of-way, construction zones, and conventional farmers’ fields are among the most toxic places on our fair planet, due to both accidental spills and intentional spreading and spraying. Plants tend to lap up the crap with the rest. Remember, tumbleweed on the Hanford nuclear complex sucks up radioactive material, then dries up and tumbles eastwards with the prevailing winds, carrying the radionuclides along with it.

UNDOCUMENTED PLANTS. The likelihood is that none of my top five greens are native to north america—they’re all probably eurasian immigrants. Food for thought, if you are a native plant fanatic (and I am).

The Pink Oleo Saga: Why So Many Good State Laws Are “Unconstitutional” (and What We Should Do About It) (2008)

By Jane Anne Morris

What’s pink, French, and unconstitutional?

Hint: The story of this early “frankenfood” provides an advance script for the current global “free trade” frenzy. Over a century ago, its introduction was an occasion for greasing the skids toward establishing a U.S. “free trade” zone, one that is as devastating to local democracy as the WTO and NAFTA are to national sovereignty.

Why would the Supreme Court throw out state laws requiring oleomargarine to be colored pink? Why would state legislators pass such seemingly silly laws to begin with?

Why are provisions that protect citizens against fraud, safeguard their health, and protect local industry unconstitutional in the eyes of the Supreme Court? A recent example applies to corporate agriculture. A South Dakota constitutional amendment — passed by 59% in 1998 — prohibited most corporate ownership of land used for agriculture. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively threw it out. 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.1 Why do such measures garner the dreaded unconstitutional label?
Probably for the same reason that has stood for over a century: they interfere with the care and feeding of large corporations. They challenge the Supreme Court’s policy, evident since at least the 1870s, of nurturing and protecting corporations against the very states that created them. After corporate lawyers do the research and outline possible arguments, the Court has only to cut-and-paste a decision.

The myth that the Supreme Court began its turn toward “business interests” only since the early Nader years (as claimed by Jeffrey Rosen in “Supreme Court, Inc.” in the March 16, 2008 New York Times Magazine) ignores the long history that fills the pages of Gaveling Down the Rabble.

Commerce Clause to the Rescue

Even the Supreme Court needs to point to something in the Constitution that justifies its consistent pro-corporate decisions. The handy constitutional clause that has become a favorite is the domestic version of international “trade barrier” language: the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Congress shall have power… to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes. [Article I, section 8, clause 3]

The late-nineteenth century Pink Oleo saga provides a perfect example for a quickie workshop on how the Supreme Court uses “free trade” to get rid of good state laws.

After the mid-nineteenth century, more than one inventor around the world sought to turn slaughterhouse offal into something that people could be convinced to eat. If it had a long shelf life and was cheap to make, all the better. The successful solution came from Frenchman Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who obtained a U.S. patent for oleomargarine in 1873. Its commercial potential was quickly appreciated, as Mark Twain captured in a chapter of Life On the Mississippi written in 1883. The gleeful conversation takes place between two businessmen on a riverboat.

You can’t tell it from butter; by George, even an expert can’t!… We’re going to have that entire trade… You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you can’t find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with… we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it… There’s more money in oleomargarine than–why, you can’t imagine the business we do. [emphasis in original]

Oleomargarine’s introduction into a nation long accustomed to the joys of udder butter churned up controversy. The “Oleo Wars” that ensued pitted state legislators against the growing power of meatpacking corporations. Corporate efforts to put oleomargarine in the nation’s pantries tell the archetypal story; at issue was whether state and local governments would determine their own laws, or have terms dictated to them by distant corporations.

The original oleomargarine was made not from vegetable oils (as it is today) but from slaughterhouse byproducts subjected to industrial processes in a factory. Mere inspection of a firkin of manufactured oleomargarine could not determine whether it had been made from inferior, doctored, or even dangerous ingredients. To add insult to possible injury, sometimes this easily adulterated industrial food product was fraudulently sold as real dairy butter. In addition, many feared that competition from oleomargarine would threaten the growing dairy industry. Health, consumer protection, and economic concerns were closely intertwined.

In response to citizen concerns, state legislatures started passing laws against oleomargarine. At the time, protectionist measures of this ilk were nothing out of the ordinary. In 1884, the New York state legislature prohibited the sale or manufacture of oleomargarine. In 1885, Pennsylvania followed suit. These and other overtly protectionist acts reflected the people’s will to use their imperfect representative democracies to keep out a product they feared would endanger them.

Manufacturers and purveyors of oleomargarine as a cheap butter substitute (and source of profits) were not pleased at this legislative attention. A variety of laws and a matching variety of corporate challenges evolved into a cat-and-mouse game between legislature and court ostensibly over artificial butter. Pennsylvania’s outright ban on oleomargarine was an early target.

On the same day that the 1885 Pennsylvania law was passed, a Harrisburg grocer (Powell) was arrested for selling oleomargarine. Lawyers representing corporations that manufactured and sold oleomargarine argued on his behalf that their product was clean, pure, and yummy, and that the right to make and sell it was covered by the Constitution. On the other side, defenders of the Pennsylvania ban argued that its intent to protect health and prevent fraud made it a legitimate exercise of a state’s “police power,” the legal term for the power to pass whatever laws are necessary and appropriate to protect its citizens.

State Courts Upheld Rights of Legislatures to Protect People

A Pennsylvania court found the ban to be well within legislative powers. In 1888, the U.S. Supreme Court also upheld it, strongly endorsing a state’s police power. The Court affirmed that protecting and preserving public health and morals was one of the main tasks of legislation, and that public policy should be determined not by courts but by legislatures. If some were dissatisfied with the legislative outcome, then appeal should be “to the legislature, or to the ballot-box, not to the judiciary.”2

But “Big Oleomargarine” tried again a few years later. In 1893, a Pennsylvania resident (Schollenberger) and registered agent for a Rhode Island oleomargarine-manufacturing corporation sold a tub of oleomargarine in Pennsylvania. After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court again upheld the state’s ban, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But meanwhile, states were also trying out a more colorful approach.

State legislatures that wanted to keep oleomargarine out of their states — and there were many of them — did not give up when their oleo bans were threatened by commerce clause arguments. Instead, they started to see pink as a way to regulate oleomargarine.

In 1890, the Vermont legislature prohibited the manufacture of oleomargarine in that state, and specified that it could be sold in Vermont only if colored pink. In 1891 Minnesota, West Virginia, and New Hampshire passed similar laws. Not long afterwards, an alert Minnesota oleomargarine S.W.A.T. team carried out a pantry raid and confiscated a quantity of not-pink oleomargarine that had been imported from Missouri by Armour Packing Co., a New Jersey corporation. A federal court upheld Minnesota’s pink law as an appropriate use of the state’s police power. Things were looking good for the “pink is beautiful” movement.

But it was not to last. Corporate lawyers challenged the “pink oleo” laws just as they had challenged the oleomargarine bans. Both the Minnesota Pink Law and the Pennsylvania Oleo Ban reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898.

Because only ten years earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld an oleo ban as a legitimate use of a state’s police power, defenders of the Pennsylvania law reiterated tried-and-true arguments about protecting and preserving public health. Little did they know that a new argument would be offered and the Supreme Court would go for it. This time, “Big Oleo” trumped arguments about state police power and public health and welfare by playing the commerce card. The oleomargarine corporation lawyers argued that the Pennsylvania oleomargarine ban was what today the WTO tribunals would call an illegal trade barrier. The U.S. Supreme Court was persuaded, and, basing its decision on the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, the late nineteenth century analog of what today is touted as “free trade,” ruled the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court’s reasoning had two steps. First, it determined that oleo was included in the “interstate commerce” category. Inclusion in this category had consequences, which were the second step. An item of interstate commerce might be regulated by a state, but could not be prohibited, said the Supreme Court. “Absolute prohibition of an unadulterated, healthy, and pure article” goes beyond the allowable use of the state police power. A state cannot prohibit the import from another state of a “lawful article of commerce,” because that amounts to regulating interstate commerce, which is a power of the U.S. Congress.3

The decision took a big bite out of a state’s police power. The ban that had been okay in 1888 was unconstitutional by 1898. Now, a state would have difficulty banning the import of anything that the Supreme Court could be persuaded was an article of commerce (and by the late twentieth century, this included toxic waste, air pollution, and nuclear waste, among many other things.)

Pink wouldn’t work either: again the high court sided with the corporations against the states. States’ pink oleo laws were unconstitutional because the pinkness requirement was as much a burden on commerce as a ban. The reasoning was that if a state lacked the power to prohibit the import of something (in this case, oleomargarine), then it also lacked the power to require that the imported item be adulterated in such a way that it would be unsalable. As for example, by requiring that oleomargarine be pink… or blue or red or black (other colors mentioned by the Supreme Court)… or impregnated with an “offensive smell.”4

In ruling against blue or stinky oleomargarine laws, the Supreme Court took another bite out of an already dwindling state police power. Legislatures, responding to a new situation (in this case, the appearance of a new product) acted to protect citizens against inferior products, fraud, and economic disruption. In this, they were supported by farmers and dairy corporations. So far, it sounds democratic enough, a routine use of the police power.

But then lawyers working on behalf of corporations hoping to profit from this new product challenged the states’ power to take such action.5 These challenges, being constitutional in nature, brought the matter before federal courts and ultimately to the Supreme Court. In evaluating the issue and explaining their decision, the justices had exactly the kinds of discussions that must have previously occurred in state legislatures, and prior to that, on street corners and in hayfields scattered throughout the states.

They discussed the invention, composition, and manufacture of oleomargarine; methods of determining its purity; testimony from an analytical chemist; the fact that it was used by armies and navies throughout Europe; and what size and type of container it might be packaged in. The justices then gave their opinion that oleomargarine was obviously safe and widely recognized as a food item, and that butter and oleomargarine were “substantially identical.” In short, they had the kind of discussion that we might want a legislature to have. But they are not legislators.

“Free Trade” Constitutionalized in Commerce Clause

Using the commerce clause, the “free trade” mantra of the time, they decided that states could not ban the manufacture, import, and sale of a substance that obviously many states wanted to ban. In other words, Supreme Court justices legislated their own opinions by declaring unconstitutional laws that they disagreed with. The Supreme Court acted as a legislature. If we step back from the Supreme Court’s musings on oleomargarine chemistry and pink dye as a burden on commerce, we can see the oleomargarine rulings for what they were: direct assaults on people’s power to govern themselves and shape their communities.

The language of commerce (or trade), shrouded in the gravitas of constitutionality, is a ruse to disguise a corporate elite’s efforts to escape government actions taken to protect the public welfare. It has long been understood that corporate interests use the judicial lever to undo legislative deeds. According to a legal historian, writing in 1943:

The old fights of state against nation were largely smoke screens to hide an attempt by some private interest to invoke the aid of the Court in combating public regulation. In large measure, this is the case today.6

The underlying issue is not whether butter is better, or whether pink margarine is repulsive, or even whether food policy (or economic policy) should be a local, state, or national matter. The issue is who should decide public policy: the people acting through a legislature, or a handful of judges.

Courts provided a more favorable forum than did legislatures for a “rematch” between corporations and states. Commerce clause rulings exempted corporations from the concrete exercise of state and local power, while delivering them into the kinder and gentler hands of the federal judiciary. In Gaveling Down the Rabble, I show how Supreme Court Justices since the 1870s used trade barrier language based on the Constitution’s commerce clause to promote the corporate agenda by invalidating state and local laws that threatened corporate power.

Like the “Oleo Wars,” other controversies decided under the commerce clause amounted to corporate challenges of state and local laws, with the role of arbiter falling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Analogous struggles were played out over other staples, and in other industries, with surprisingly few variations to this day.7

The transformation of the commerce clause into a wish-fulfillment machine for corporate lawyers was breathtaking. The harm to democracy done by the commerce clause “doctrine” is as damaging to democracy as the “separate but equal” doctrine was to human rights. Both deserve the same fate.

If African-American schoolchildren in unheated schoolrooms could understand “separate but equal” and in the face of horrible violence courageously demand its rejection, then today, those of us striving for justice and sustainability ought to be able to see the Supreme Court’s commerce clause doctrine for the anti-democratic pro-corporate scam that it is. I can only hope that we can begin to show the same courage in working to reject it.

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This article was adapted from Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” Is Stealing Our Democracy. You can also read it here. Jane Anne Morris generally cooks with olive oil.

First published in Spring 2008 By What Authority.

Notes