Transport of “Bakken” Crude Oil Threatens Native Way of Life

However the particularly flammable “bakken” crude oil is mined or transported across native lands, in North Dakota or in the Pacific Northwest, it threatens native lands and ways of life.

The Westway terminal expansion proposal to transport bakken crude by ship threatens tribal fishing and hunting in Grays Harbor and on the Chehalis River and its tributaries. It also threatens lands with accidents all along its rail and pipeline transport routes from sacred native lands in North Dakota. Bakken crude was involved in the recent rail fire in Mosier, Oregon, in which water from the Columbia River had to be pumped at the rate of 1500 gallons per minute onto flaming rail cars for ten hours before they were cooled down enough to accept fire suppressant foam without simply evaporating it.

Three years ago the Quinault Indian Nation filed an airtight expert report that should have stopped expansion of the Westway Terminal in its tracks, but the Washington State Ecology Department recently came out with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with some shaky mitigation ideas.  One of them is that the City of Aberdeen might build new roads several years in the future to mitigate the problem with traffic delays of up to 77 minutes caused by oil train passage– during which time the report acknowledges no traffic movement will be possible, since there are no alternative routes.  That is, if an accident like that in Mosier  occurs in this area, there would be nowhere for residents or local traffic to go to evacuate.

The EIS also relies on limited geographical analysis.  The oil tankers loaded in the expanded terminal would be going to sea through Grays Harbor– not incidentally, periodically crossing Quinault tribal fishing lanes as well as salmon runs. But the EIS neglected federal ocean law standards, an oversight against which Earthjustice and the Quinault Nation recently filed suit before the Washington Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear their case. 

In the post below on our responsibility to “remember to remember” in this Thanksgiving month are many examples in which native peoples of Western Washington taught pioneers how to live on this land.  It seems they are doing it again:  working to protect the environment upon which we all rely. The Warm Springs and Yakama and Chehalis have also weighed in against the Westway expansion– their statements are included in the EIS above.  Tragically, the Quinault themselves are facing a direct assault from the climate change that would be exaggerated by the burning of the millions of gallons of bakkan crude transported by rail into the Westway terminal to be shipped overseas.  Their home village, Taholah, needs to be moved inland to avoid being washed away by rising seas due to climate change.

You can write the City of Hoquiam protesting the permitting of the Westway terminal expansion, as well as weighing in on behalf of those fighting the pipeline in North Dakota.  And when you sign this petition be sure to emphasize that simply finding another route for the pipeline is not acceptable.  It should be stopped.

Fighting the Instincts of Self-Destruction

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By Madronna Holden

A good culture fights the instincts of self-destruction.”

—-Chinua Achebe

Lessons from an indigenous society

Among particular US Plains Indians, the traditional position of chief was based strictly on service rather than privilege. If other tribal members were hungry, it was the chief’s duty to feed them before he fed himself or his family. The chief’s teepee served as refuge for those embroiled in conflicts—and should those conflicts come to battle, his body was the first on the battle line.

The service required of the chief was so arduous that this position sometimes went vacant.

There are lessons in the undercutting of privilege in enduring human cultures like those above. I like to imagine the homes of our wealthy filled with those they are obligated to feed—a society in which wealth creates a duty to care for others rather setting privilege in the hands of a few.

And certainly contemporary warfare would take a cut if those who declared it were required to place their own bodies first on the battle lines.

No one had to inform these Plains societies of the ways in which privilege could undermine their society. For those who inappropriately tried to parlay leadership into privilege, they also had a remedy. A chief who misused his authority was liable to wake up alone on the Plains, where he would be chief of nobody after his people had abandoned him.

This is not a bad strategy today in the face of corporate privilege. Small communities all over the US are turning their backs on a Congress that caters to what money can buy to go about the business of caring for their communities—prohibiting pesticide use (as did a town in Maine), regulating or prohibiting the growing of genetically engineered seed to protect local farmers’ crops (in Santa Cruz County, Trinity County, Marin County, Mendocino County, and Humboldt County in California, San Juan County in Washington, Maui County and Hawaii County in Hawaii and Jackson County in Oregon) — or creating standards of carbon emissions to address climate change (in California, Oregon, and Washington—and north of the US in British Columbia).

Corporations well understand what such community moves mean to their privilege. Thus those bent on oil drilling are suing to put down a New Mexico community ordinance prohibiting fracking to protect local ranches – and Monsanto, along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is suing Vermont for its legislation labeling genetically engineered food.

These will not be easily won battles—it is no simple thing to confront privilege in the modern world where money buys so much. But in the end the largest international corporations are no more without their community base than a chief’s teepee alone on the Plains. Social privilege derives from society just as economic wealth is extracted from society– and society can revoke either of these.

We can choose where to spend our dollars—and thus reward corporations whose actions help to create what most of us actually want– a more just and environmentally sustainable world. At the same time we can stop rewarding those on a societal level whose actions create wealth for themselves and a diminished and dangerous world for our children.

Modern corporations know such choices are not small gestures, as indicated by the money they spend on “greenwashing” or “humanewashing” campaigns, which play on citizens’ desires to support ethical and environmentally sustainable businesses.

These corporations might benefit from dropping the semblance and simply acting according to standards their communities can support.

Take the case of Forrest Paint, a family-owned business in Eugene, Oregon. When the Eugene Toxics Right to Know ordinance was passed, it required them to publically list the toxics used and emitted in their business—and to be taxed accordingly.

At first Forrest Paint attacked that ordinance, joining a legal suit along with other businesses to strike it down. But after a year or two of battling on, they got smarter. Forrest Paint installed an innovative state of the art recovery process for its chemicals. It has now become a national leader in non-toxic paint manufacturing.

Instincts of Self-Destruction

All communities need elders, mediators, and grandparents whose wisdom and presence serve as refuge for the vulnerable and guides for the future. Today we also need business leaders like Seventh Generation Chairman and “Chief Inspired Protagonist” Jeffrey Hollender and Fortune 500 CEO Max DePree—and the Forrest family– to keep our economy running.

Yet as the Chehalis Indians observed, power is just as dangerous as it is powerful. Authority can easily get out of hand. Thus enduring societies have mechanisms with which to direct and guide the power they allocate to any individual or group of individuals. Hollender (“Regulate Me, Please”) reminds us a society that operates in economic free fall with its dictum of “internalizing benefits” (keeping profits for oneself) and “externalizing costs” (passing them off to others) supports those who create what few of us want.

This process also unfairly taxes those who would do the right thing, since it costs ethical business more than those who don’t abide by environmental or social justice considerations. In the contemporary world this has left us with climate change, an escalating cancer epidemic caused by environmental contaminants and a society in which one per cent of the population controls 99 per cent of its wealth.

A working democracy needs another tact. Indeed, a surviving society needs a another tact.

The founders of the US knew such regulation was necessary. In order to earn their license to operate, the first US corporations had to prove they provided service to their communities—and they had to continue to do so. Their licenses were only renewed on condition of their continuing good conduct.

“The best societies”, says Nobel Prize winning novelist Chinua Achebe, “fight the instincts of self-destruction”. A key “impulse of self-destruction” is the impulse to dominate others. Achebe illustrates with an historical example from his Igbo (Nigerian) tradition. The Igbo knew themselves well—they knew that each man among them wished to be king. They limited this impulse by structuring their society as a constellation of small face to face communities—villages in which power could be asserted in socially constructive ways and the abuse of power thwarted.

The Igbo were well aware there were other possibilities for structuring society—such as the nations the British deemed more “civilized”. But they kept to their villages because they knew themselves– and thus devised this way to “fight their instincts of self-destruction”.

Cultural Deregulation

When British colonialism supplanted the traditional Igbo social structure, 600 Igbo villages suddenly had kings vying to rule over their fellows. As depicted in Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, individuals with a strong impulse toward leadership—who might have made positive contributions and been honored for them in the cultural context that regulated and directed their power—were left in the lurch.

Their actions not only tore their societies apart, but bled any sense of meaning from their own lives.

Jeffrey Hollender lends contemporary perspective to this dynamic in his essay, “Regulate Me, Please” which lays out the logic of ground rules to guide business activities toward creating what most of us want: clean and just and sustainable communities. The cooperative stance of unions and auto makers in Germany is an example of the positive outcomes of a regulatory environment in which human dignity and economic well-being are linked.

It is the responsibility of a community that assigns power to any individual or group of individuals to offer guidance and direction along with that power—lest what might otherwise serve society tear it apart. Without such regulation, as Hollender asserts, “business is eventually doomed to eat itself”—to erode the social and environmental ground that allows it to flourish.

Without regulation, power easily becomes privilege—setting loose the impulses of self-destruction that today threaten the very survival of life on our precious planet.

Becoming a “good culture”

To be a thriving culture we need to know ourselves well. We need to understand our own impulses—and also how to best use these—to guide them so that they do not become self-destructive.

We need to understand our responsibility—as individuals and members of our communities—to shape and guide the power we license. To Thomas Jefferson’s observation that we cannot find too many ways to divide power, we might add that we cannot find too many ways to educate ourselves about the results of our actions—or too many ways to reward actions that result in the society we want—and inhibit those that do not.

Achebe’s perspective tells us that there are no perfect human beings—anymore than there are perfect human societies.

But as we face the challenge of repairing a world in which every natural system is currently in decline and wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we have both the capability and the imperative of becoming one of those good cultures that “fights the instincts of self-destruction.”

Beauty May Save Us: The Power of Nature’s Beauty

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By Madronna Holden

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, a young Appalachian woman’s longing for something different—something just for herself—pulls her toward disaster in her susceptibility to sexual manipulation.

But on her way to an illicit rendezvous, her course of self-destruction is interrupted by a natural wonder.  She see the woods full of what seems to be a mysterious orange fire that she later learns it is a gathering of monarch butterflies.  This experience tells her that the passion she seeks is not about giving herself away.  It is erotic in an entirely different way:  a way that turns her onto a path of care for herself, her children– and the miracle of nature endangered by climate change.

As this novel indicates, our response to beauty can be centrally implicated in our personal choices.  It is also implicated in our cultural story.

That story prompted pioneers to ravage the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in their attempt to tame the land.  Some felt a fear bordering on panic of the grandeur of the old growth forests –a fear of the beauty that not only set humans in their humble place in the nature of things but was simply too much for them—too overwhelming. The self-styled heroes of Manifest Destiny hardly sought to be overcome by wonder.

We can only imagine how different our history might be had pioneers instead told a story that honored the beauty of the world that bestowed them with life, as did the Seri of the Baja Peninsula. Seri tradition has it that inside each of us is a flower and inside that flower is a word– the seed of language. To lose the beauty of such words is to lose the world they belong to.

Indeed, words of this kind have the power to revitalize our lives.  Poet, initiated Seneca medicine person, and translator of world poetry Jerome Rothenberg tells us that poets today inhabit a “Neolithic subculture” in which nouns become verbs and the leaden surety of ownership, hierarchy and control become vision, vitality—and life.

This reverses the dynamic in advertising that moves in the direction of life to death– as it downplays natural beauty in favor of consumer icons.  The feminine bodies such ads sell us are flawless –in a mortuary version of beauty possible only in the death of the actual body.

The intrusion of death into so-called beauty products is reflected by their ingredients—which include lead and other toxins.

Unfortunately, ads that link eroticism and death reflect a cultural truism.  The majority of women murdered in the US are murdered by lovers or ex-lovers.

Eroticism is connected with violence in another way observed by Maria Mies in her essay, “White Man’s Dilemma”. She observes how those responsible for destruction of the environment and its indigenous lives tour “exotic” places and partake in “sex tourism” in the attempt to regain the mystery and excitement of what they have destroyed—to recover the vitality of their own lives.

Just as love is at odds with control, beauty is at odds with ownership– whether that beauty be in other humans or the natural world.

Expanses of monochrome lawns exhibit an aesthetic akin to the airbrushed complexion of women in ads—and with as much hazard to the vitality of each.  Such lawns showcase the control of nature reliant on the death of unwanted  insects and “weeds” —and of lives shortened by exposure to pesticides.

Expanses of unremitting sameness are not an element of natural beauty.  Indeed, as educator Jean Kilbourne points out, they are not an aspect of life.

By contrast, our affinity with the natural world—our perception of loveliness based on diversity and vitality—results from the hundred thousand years in which we became human in concert with the natural world.

In that history, our sensual alertness developed as a survivor’s trait.

To deaden this sensual alertness takes considerable denial—and can result in considerable destruction. Nazi doctors interviewed by Robert Lifton cut off their own sensual awareness to facilitate their terrible acts– since if they had been fully present to those acts, they knew they would have been incapable of going through with them.

I heard a member of the Allied Liberation Forces in World War II make a similar point.  For him, the horror of the camps was encompassed in their smell:  the smell of dead and decaying human bodies.  He washed his clothes for a month after returning home in the attempt to get the stench of death out of them.  Yet when he asked inhabitants of a village near the camps how they stood the smell, they replied, “We smelled nothing”.

Today we numb ourselves to the ugliness of bulldozer- scraped land, ignoring its ruin for the sake of “development”.  But we do so at our peril. The same peril that follows our ignoring climate change in spite of the droughts and storms currently escalating in our weather patterns.

Indeed, it is only at our peril that we ignore the results of any of our actions.

Natural beauty may save us from such peril by calling us back to the world– re-awakening us to our sensual presence in the world– and our conscience in the process.

According to Navajo tradition, the harmony of the natural world expresses a model of harmony  in human life.  To “walk in beauty” is to be blessed with goodness.

Artist Lily Yeh would agree.  Her work  illustrates the potential for healing that exists in beauty.

In 1986 Yeh began an eighteen year campaign to bring beauty to impoverished neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.  She involved  local children in painting murals and constructing mosaics, creating oases of beauty in abandoned lots.  Eventually community adults joined her, including former drug lords who gave up their addictions to do so–and together they reclaimed large swathes of formerly devastated neighborhoods.

Yeh sees her creation of jewel-like mosaics as a powerful symbol, since we are all broken in some place–and mosaics use this brokenness as material with which to create beauty.

Yeh didn’t stop with the Village of the Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia.  She next set out to bring beauty to the survivors of a massacre in Rwanda living beside the unburied bones of 10,000 victims of genocide. These survivors wanted most of all to give their dead a reverential burial– but did not have the resources or the heart to do it.

Yeh worked with them to construct an expansive mosaic monument to protect the bones of the dead. The ceremonial burial that followed caused many to collapse in reliving their grief years after the massacre.

But after this burial, the community continued working with Yeh with new energy, turning children’s drawings into community murals that expressed their dreams for the future.

The revitalized local spirit drew help from outside even as it sparked energy within.  By the time Yeh left Rwanda, the survivors’ village  had  recovered weaving, planting and harvesting traditions; they had goats and cows and a clean reliable water supply from harvested rainwater, and they had built  solar arrays to power the sewing machines in a business operated by orphans of genocide.

“We celebrate life in beauty”,  to use Yeh’s guiding words.

But we can only do so if we have the courage, as Yeh did, to face the consequences of our human actions.  In going to Rwanda, Yeh was terrified–yet beauty led her on, since she believes that in the heart of the worst tragedy is a point of light waiting to be brought out.  It is our task to find and ignite the beauty waiting there.

Such beauty may yet heal us:  yet show us the way to repair our world.

Thus we must guard this beauty in one another along with our own creative impulses and the natural beauty that reminds us of our place and responsibilities in life.

Such beauty cannot be controlled or purchased–nor can we guarantee its permanence.

We can only nurture it– and make ourselves available to wonder.


This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.

The Trouble with Progress

By Madronna Holden

In his classic work, The Death of Ramón González, Angus Wright analyzes how contemporary corporate agriculture undermines human health, local economies, and the environment. He points out that even short term productivity of modern “super” crops relies on extensive pesticide, fertilizer and water inputs that are unsustainable in most global climates.  According to the World Health Organization, the pesticides used in this type of farming are responsible for 20,000 reported fatal poisonings a year –and many times that which are not reported. They are also a prominent  cause of the current cancer epidemic.

But even as Wright details the ruthlessness with which agri-business maintains its profits in the face of unfortunate technological strategies, he observes that there are alternative technologies that do not poison our air, food, and water, erode soil, or undermine ecological and economic systems.  Agri-business might just as well profit from these.

So why make bad choices—and pursue them with vehemence?  The crux of the issue, Wright proposes, is the worldview that holds progress in such esteem.  “Progress”, the GE saying famously had it, “Is our most important product”.  But the same worldview that elevates progress in this way never critically examines it. It loosely equates “progress”  with “advancement”, continuing the legacy of Francis Bacon, who asserted that humanity’s purpose is to control nature through science—and anything that humans invent to do this is good.

But when we equate progress with anything humans come up with, we wind up with methods of food production that have so many disastrous results.

Indeed, there is considerable tragedy to unexamined notions of advancement. Throughout history, conquerors asserted they were bringing progress to “backward” societies as they took over their lands.

Today the notion that industrial technologies are progressive as a matter of course licenses one-size-fits-all development that too often subjects third world peoples to debt, cultural disintegration, and ecological ruin. The assumption that industrial nations are more advanced than others inhibits both our partnerships with non-industrialized peoples and our acceptance of alternative technologies tested for centuries on local landscapes.

The destructive consequences of this logic haunts our own society us as well.  According to social historian Ulrech Beck, technology becomes our fate when we accept it without evaluation. That is, when undefined “progress” is considered good per se, we don’t get to choose it, we just have to figure out how to deal with its results.

This lack of critical perspective on progress and the technologies under its umbrella twists perceptions of reality—as in Monsanto’s response to the decimation of its BT corn from pests gaining resistance to its  engineered corn within three generations.  Responding to reports from scientists in Iowa that BT corn fell over in the fields from root damage, Monsanto denied it happened. There is a parallel dynamic with Monsanto’s assertion that its gmo seeds are “high yield”, in spite of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, “Failure to Yield”, which shows just how far such crops fall short of the mark.

Biotech ads asserting that we can’t feed the world without their technologies only work in the context of a worldview which assumes new technologies yield positive results without seriously evaluating them.  Farmers are not the only ones to whom such bogus progress is sold.  Consumer gadgetry hawked on the basis of its being new technology adds to the burgeoning consumerism that is ravaging our planet.

And tragically, a worldview that sets up unexamined “progress” as its shining light also gives its manufacturers dispensation from moral responsibilities. This is an essential historical lesson derived from Wright’s analysis of industrialized agriculture.  If our worldview did not sanction progress in the way that it does, agribusiness would not have this ground with which to license their attacks on presumably “backward” forces that challenge their profits.

The logic involved in fighting such challenges is exhibited in Monsanto’s decades-long battle against the labeling of genetically engineered foods.  Labeling gmo foods, the head of a Monsanto subsidiary stated in 1994, is tantamount to putting  a skull and crossbones on them. (Kansas City Star, March 7).

Such an argument only carries weight if one assumes that manufacturers have the right to impose a new technology on consumers in spite of their resistance—that is, if biotech “advances” override democratic choice.

Monsanto’s fight against the public right to know parallels numerous other violations of justice, public health and the environment in the name of progress.  Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner document such egregious industry practices in their rigorously peer-reviewed Deceit and Denial, using industry’s own internal documents.

For instance, they detail how the lead industry used notions of progress to create an Orwellian double think, in which the very thing that is supposed to make our children’s lives better—progress—winds up destroying their intelligence as well as their health.  Thus there were those ads claiming that lead solder used to seal baby formula cans was a modern technology supporting babies’ health.  Even though industry knew better from its own research, the assertion of progress–and protection of profit–  trumped their ethical choices.

Indeed, when a worldview with an unexamined idea of progress operates in an economic system that rewards profit however it is gained, there results moral as well as environmental disasters. There is, for instance, the case of plastics manufacturers in the 1950s.   At the same time that they boasted that their plastics were the wave of the future, industry leaders had in hand x-rays of the dissolving bones of the workers who manufactured them. Their response was to hide this data not only from the public in general but from the effected workers.

Historically, coal mining, asbestos, steel smelting, lead, vinyl chloride and pesticides industries, among others, have likewise hidden data documenting the disastrous effects of their products on workers, local communities and the environment—sometimes for decades. When such information finally did become public and irrefutable, these industries told the public such negative effects were the necessary price of progress.

I would assert, however, that no society can call itself advanced if its “progress” undercuts justice, community power, quality of life and self-determination for some in order to create profit for others.  Nor can any technology that undercuts the sources of all life by destroying natural systems rightly be termed advanced.

The European Union has a better handle on technological advancement. It puts  health before profit through the precautionary principle which mandates that manufacturers certify a new chemical harmless before it is released into the public domain.  If we were to institute this principle in the US, industry might attend to more land-friendly food production,  just as historically they might have paid attention to a non-toxic gasoline additive discovered—and ignored– as ethyl lead became the additive they pursued.

Indeed, if we had more of an eye to the social and environmental effects of our choices, we might not now be getting around in gas-fueled vehicles with all the attendant problems of climate change. There have been alternatives to this single-car system from the start– alternatives attacked by General Motors, who was only belatedly fined for undermining the street car systems in major cities.

Progress becomes our most destructive product when we don’t critically examine it—but it might be our most beneficial product if we hold it to standards of social and economic justice and sustainability.  The GE commercial was right.  “Progress is our most important product”. This is the very reason it must not be our most unexamined product as well.

Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.

 

Why Genetically Engineered Foods Won’t Feed the World

By Madronna Holden

updated 3.2.13

Biotech advertising, such as Monsanto’s, tells us that genetically engineered foods are the way to feed our burgeoning human population. But we don’t have a problem with food production; in fact, we are vastly over-producing food– especially corn– which is why subsidies are necessary to keep large farms in business in the US. The underlying problem of feeding the world is not production, but access, as the documentary The Future of Food points out.

Both the The Future of Food and Bread for the World analyze the ways in which development has pushed subsistence farmers from their land, increasing world hunger.

Moreover, gmo foods require substantial amounts of chemical and water inputs, which not only empty the pockets of poor farmers, but deplete soil in all areas, but especially in marginal areas where local food production and protecting local water sources is most crucial.

As the Future of Food also points about, actual third-party research on gmo foods contradicts biotech’s claim. In gmo soy, for instance, root systems are reduced by twenty-five per cent compared to previously used  non-gmo soy, radically curtailing production. Moreover, many farmers report that gmo soy is inferior to regular soy with respect to its nitrogen-fixing characteristics. The Union of Concerned Scientists’  report, Failure to Yield gives an overview of the data on gmo food production, which has a very poor record indeed.

Indeed, just this month (February 2013), a news item in the Farmer’s Weekly indicated that US farmers may well stop purchasing genetically engineered seeds because of the poor performance of gmo crops globally.

Recently there are reports that bt corn engineered to carry the bt toxin to prevent insect damage is only successful in the short term–since after three generations insects have become immune to bt, according to Iowa researchers. This has other repercussions, since bt has been used selectively and successfully on non-gmo crops before its wholesale use in Monsanto’s product. Hastened resistance will take this product (a bacterial infection previously certified for use on organics) out of this crop-growing arsenal.

The primary place of the profit motive in gmo production is indicated by Monsanto’s relentless suit against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser for growing gmo crops that he never purchased– but which migrated into his fields though wind pollination.  The real issue for Monsanto was apparently the fact that Schmeiser was saving his own non gmo seed and distributing it to his neighbors, thus cutting into Monsanto’s market.  If this was only in a small way, it was not a precedent Monsanto wanted to go unchallenged.

In parallel fashion, Monsanto went after poor East Indian women who were grinding local oil seed and selling it on street corners to support their families.  It got the World Trade Organization to pressure the Indian government to shut down these small vendors  as competition with the gmo soy oil that Monsanto was selling to the Indian market.

After years of legal battles, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs, Schmeiser himself finally won the right to demand that Monsanto clean his field of the unwanted crops rather than paying for the presence of gmo varieties in that field.

But the fight was devastating to the farmer.  At one point Monsanto’s suit compelled  Schmeiser to destroy one thousand pounds of soy seed that he had developed over several decades.

The inability to control migration of gmo  materials is centrally  implicated in this story. Such gene migration is poorly understood and only poorly controlled. In this context, Monsanto’s “terminator gene”, engineered to make its seed sterile (so as to assure it needs to be re-purchased by farmers each succeeding season)  is certainly worrisome.

British farmers, for instance, traditionally left hedgerows of rapeseed (which crosses with soy) and other wild crops to feed birds and insects that helped pollinate their fields– and provide some diversity in their own crops though wild seeds.  The fact that gmo-seed might contaminate such hedgerows was a serious enough fear to cause British farmers to burn test plots of gmo seeds when they were first planted locally.  Later a farmer’s movement in India did the same.

The Indian farmers had more than one reason for doing so. Vandana Shiva indicates that Monsanto’s hawking of gmos to Indian farmers is linked with the recent tragic suicide rate among these farmers, who purchase seed they can scarcely afford and then go bankrupt when it fails to yield, even with environmentally as well as economically expensive inputs of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

In fact, even consumers who have no health or environmental concerns about genetically engineered foods may well wish to avoid them on grounds of boycotting Monsanto’s corporate tactics.  Monsanto was voted the worst corporation of the year in 2010 and 2012 in the public vote held by Corporate Accountability International–which placed Monsanto in its “hall of shame”  . Monsanto was cited  “for mass producing cancer causing chemicals”.  Not only does it produce bovine growth hormone tied to reproductive system cancers (see below), it has corporate links with the companies that produce the pesticides its gmo crops–such as “RoundUp Ready” products are engineered to take more of.

Importantly, Corporate Accountability also cited Monsanto’s practice of “aggressively running small farms out of business, and recklessly promoting seeds that exacerbate food scarcity globally”. Click here to take action against Monsanto’s attempts to gain immunity from federal laws protecting human health and the environment.

As for the science of gmos themselves, they  may look flashy, but they indicate the dangers of doing something (splicing genes) without really understanding the consequences of this process.  According to a former student of mine, working for a biotech firm turned him into a supporter of organics, given the sloppy methods he saw in the labs where he worked.  Gene splicing was done haphazardly using “junk dna”  in the hope that it might yield something of use–and the debris from experiments were thrown out in such a way that local wildlife ingested it.

The European Union has steadfastly refused to allow gmo foods to be sold there— turning away the importation of all US products containing gmos. Unfortunately, the US recently filed a protest of this policy with the World Trade Organization to force the EU to accept all US imports. The WTO ruled in the US favor, since economics, not health, is its principle concern.

In the wake of this decision, EU nations have launched extensive campaigns to label gmo  foods to give their consumers a chance to avoid them. Monsanto lobbyists have forestalled such labeling in the US, since their public opinion polls  shows that labeling would cut into their profits. Not incidentally, many of the same polls show that the US public is overwhelming in favor of labeling such products.


Health questions about GMOS

Though there is no definitive research at to whether an upsurge in adult-onset food allergies is linked to the concurrent rise of GMOs,  ingesting grains in which foreign genes have been inserted has triggered digestive upsets in certain individuals. And those allergic to Brazil nuts or peanuts may be allergic to GMO foods in which genes from these nuts have been inserted.

There is also enough data linking cancer and hormone disruption to genetically engineered bovine growth hormone to cause the EU, Japan, Australia and Canada to ban its use because of potential human harm.  In Oregon, a campaign led by a Portland doctor against this hormone motivated farmers to reject it.

Tips for avoiding GMOs

Produce 

Once upon a time (in the early 1990s) produce growers agreed to add an “8” before a four digit produce code to indicate that produce had been genetically engineered.  (Example 94011 for organic bananas would become 84011 for genetically engineered bananas).  However, industry did not follow through on this and today the only way to largely guarantee that you are not consuming genetically engineered food is to buy organic.  Instead Monsanto has been involved in a pitched legal battle to avoid labeling their gmo products– to the extent that they have threatened to sue Vermont if their legislature passes a gmo labeling law.

Organic produce is “largely” free of genetically engineered components, but not totally so because of some gene drift– especially with corn– in adjacent fields.

Other Foods

Buy organic:

Organic foods labeled “USDA organic” are not currently allowed to contain GMO products despite Monsanto’s intensive political pressure to change this. There is one unfortunate exception (and there may be more as gmo contamination grows): so much yellow corn used for ethanol production is gmo that it has contaminated yellow corn seed and organic yellow corn can no longer be guaranteed to be gmo free. This is a special tragedy to farmers in Central America who have developed traditionally diverse corn stocks– and now see them contaminated by gmos.

Buy Oregon milk and milk products:

In a move that should be more widely publicized, Oregon dairy farmers made a joint pact to avoid the use of the genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone.

Avoid processed food:

Ninety per cent of all processed food in the US contains GMOs.

Be especially careful of soy products:

The vast majority of non-organic soy is now genetically engineered. This is a special problem with infant formula containing soy.

A number of food producers and distributors have signed on to non-gmo pledges:

Here is a pdf to download listing such producers and distributors.

Scientific analysis of gmo problems

The Union of Concerned Scientist’s report, “Failure to Yield” is here (thanks to Lance Search de Lopez for reminding me of this link).

There is a list of papers authored by scientists on the problems with gmo release into the environment here. Some of these include cancer and allergy risk of ingestion, negative influences on seed stocks and farmer choices (including yield), contamination of non-target crops, harm to natural biodiversity, corporate as opposed to science-driven choices (and thus questionable research on gmo safety), and ignorance about the mechanisms by which gmo gene splicing works.

There are also well-considered guidelines for gmo research and release into the environment drawn up in line with the Swiss constitution supporting the “dignity of creation”. Needless to say, these are not currently being followed by the biotech industry.

Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.

Guidelines for Sustainable Technology

 This graphic (too appropriate to pass up) is from http://connexionsandcontradictions.blogspot.com/ (check it out)

Technology: Neither Savior nor Villain but Choice

By Madronna Holden

Since Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, declared that humans should do things because they can do them, our technology has taken on a double life as hero and villain. On the one hand technology is the hero in the story of progress, in which it assumes the power to shelter us, feed us, and extend our lifespan.  In this heroic guise, technology conquers nature and harnesses it to human ends.

However,  to conquer nature we must not only conquer our natural selves but override the natural order.  Technology conceived under this worldview has led to climate instability, the destruction of vast quantities of ocean life, toxic releases into our environment and accompanying cancer epidemics, persistent loss of soil fertility in industrial farming, and loss of the biodiversity that underlies the resilience of natural systems.

In the face of such crises, some resort to denial—denying that human actions contribute to climate change, for instance. Media financed by corporations dependent on current technologies have a hand in this:  whereas a recent review of peer-reviewed papers in science journals found 97 per cent of them took climate change as a given and focused on tactics to deal with it, over forty per cent of media stories in the same period focused on climate change “skepticism”–giving the impression of doubt in the scientific community that does not exist.

Such publicity also supports the idea that we can fix our problems with more of the same:  fantastic technologies to set mirrors in space to control the sunlight falling to earth, for instance.  It presents technology as eventually winning out if we just keep at it.  By this reasoning, it is okay to amass nuclear waste on faith that some generation in the future will figure out what to do with it.

In the context of overwhelming environmental crises, by contrast, many see technology as a villain.  They would return to a time “before technology”.

But technology itself is nothing more or less than a tool.  In fact, we became human through the technology of culture: by passing down our knowledge and experience between generations.  There is no human society without technology to return to.

And importantly, conceived as either hero or villain, technology is both larger than life—and impervious to choice.

Sustainable Technology Guidelines

In his historical analysis of modern technology, Ulrich Beck  argues that when we create technology without designing standards for it. the very technology that was meant to free us becomes a kind of fate– spiraling out of control. 

We must remedy this by choosing the kinds of  technology we will accept in order to fulfill the UN’s classic definition of sustainability: that the current generation of humans meet its needs without compromising the ability of succeeding generations to meet theirs.  As Amy Kocourek indicates in her comment here, this brings up the important issue of our definition of need.  Sustainable technology can never meet the needs of ourselves and of future generations if it seen as simply a new way to maintain the consumerist society we currently have.

Here are my suggestions for the criteria on which we might base that choice.

  • Sustainable technology must put us in touch with the results of our actions

Using a tool in the dark is dangerous for both ourselves and our world. Too often, technology (the food processing industry, modern sewage systems) disguises our relationship to the natural lives upon which we rely– and the results of our actions on these.

The contrast between the technology that distances us from the results of our actions and technology which brings us closer to them is illustrated by the difference between the “readiness to harm”  flowing from the invisibility of nuclear hazards outlined by  Arjun Makhijani,  and Siletz Takelma elder Grandma Aggie’s technology of story, which brings us face to face with the effects of our actions on other species and other nations.  In the one case, dangerous technologies spring up in the breach between our action and our perception: in the other, technology fosters the careful observation and compassionate care that led to sustainable indigenous practices persisting for thousands of years.

Though it is unlikely that each of us would be able to become experts in the range of technologies used by our current society, this rule implies public transparency of an industry’s processes.  There is a reason why Polyface Farm, with its emphasis on sustainability with its careful modeling on natural system, places transparency as its first principle, and by contrast, the commercial US meat-packing industry fought not merely  to keep visitors out of its premises, but to keep pictures of its processes private.

Knowing what goes on in the technology that produces our food or energy tends to lead to more responsible– and healthful– choices. This rule is related to the public’s right to know, following current  right to know initiatives like that in Eugene, Oregon, which requires business reporting of toxic releases.  Over time, such data allows for the analysis of environmental effects of particular chemicals.  It also motivates businesses to become leaders in developing and using processes that they are proud to showcase:  as in the case of Forrest Paint in Eugene, which has become a national leader in recapture of chemicals in paint manufacturing and re-constitution and re-use of leftover paint products.

(Thanks to my student Neyssa Hays whose comment below reminded me to draw out this guideline in further detail).

In using resources from natural systems, we must follow nature’s debit system.

Human technology is capable of increasing the long term abundance and fertility of natural systems by returning to them more than it takes, as illustrated by the indigenous botanical practices in the Pacific Northwest—or the restoration and recovery of lands in Bangladesh and Mexico though indigenous agricultural methods.

In contrast, industrial agriculture is highly unsustainable in its failure to pay its natural debts.  Soil scientist Fred Magdoff details the negative feedback loop in which such agriculture compensates for the declining soil fertility it creates though injections of energy (chemical pesticides and fertilizers) from without.

There are many ways to be clever about this:  as in the recent idea for chemical-free pest management in rice fields that both raises soil fertility and cuts waste.

  • Sustainable technology must honor the limits of natural systems

Growth is an aspect of the natural world that expresses its fecundity.   But natural communities grow through transformation, exchange and creation of diversity—not by the accumulation of material goods in a way that toxifies, removes, or ties up the stuff of life away from its natural community.

We must grow within the context of natural systems: following the model of “natural capitalism”, for instance, we would conserve material resources and grow human ones such as knowledge and craft. The former are limited; the latter are not.

In honoring natural limits, sustainable technology must use renewable energy sources (this addition courtesy of Amanda Wilson) and/or put back what it draws from natural systems (courtesy of Brandt Hines).

  • Sustainable technology must be recognizable to natural systems and other natural lives

This is the primal wisdom of societies who saw all natural lives as their kin:  for hundreds of millions of years, ecological systems have developed in balance and concert so that all lives recognize each other in their physical make up, fitting together as the family of life.

Our technology must adapt itself to our natural family rather than expecting the chemistry and order of the natural world to adapt to us. . In referring to the living roofs, for instance, William McDonough says: “Imagine that you have a building that looks up into the sky, and the birds flying overhead can look down from the sky and say. ―Oh, it‘s our people – they‘re back! ‘ “

  • Sustainable technology must  follow the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that we must not release new technologies into the environment until they are proven safe. This reverses the usual practice in the contemporary US, in which chemicals, for instance, must be proven dangerous before we stop their release.

The precautionary principle is a way of extending our care into the future, as “fore-caring”. This principle honors human ingenuity with the faith that we can observe our world with care and act with finesse.

This is a principle of justice as well as ecology, which inhibits the creation of profit for some by transferring harm to others.

  • Any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life

This simply follows the model of natural systems in which waste produced by some always equals food for others.  This means that any heavy metals, etc., used by a particular technology must not be waste:  they must be safely re-captured and reused.

Whereas sustainable technology cannot turn food or energy into waste, it can do the opposite:  catalyze the turning of waste into food.  Bringing the leaves from my neighbors’ trees that our city would otherwise haul away onto my yard as food for the soil is an example.  The city of Olympia, Washington does this on a larger scale, hauling away all forms of kitchen and yard waste to a business contracted to turn it into compost.

  • Sustainable technology must foster biodiversity and thus natural resilience

Resilience is intimately linked to biodiversity through a simple bottom line: the more choices one has, the more options with which to survive stress.

In honoring diversity, technology should be specific to place, responding to the irreplaceable specificity of the land—and the lives of all species that have thrived on it.


What would you add to this list? Which particular technologies ought to be included or excluded on these grounds?

Jon Unger has suggested two additions that are linked to the social context of sustainable technology that have caused me to add two more ideas for consideration here:

  • Sustainable technology should be democratic in its  development, implementation and accessibility

If society does not choose its technologies, as stated at the beginning of this essay,  it becomes governed by them.  Technology that is readily understandable and user friendly  is key to being able to choose it– or reject it– according to its effects.   This is an issue central to the democratic nature of sustainable technology.

In the words of OSU student John Aldridge, “It is important that highly-industrialized nations recognize their moral obligation to pay their environmental dues” by making sure that the technological “help” they provide other nations passes the  “litnus  test”  of being environmentally sound, as well as being freely accepted by and  “consistent with the worldview of the receiver.

“Furthermore”,  Aldridge continues, “developers and distributors of technology should not market their tools as exclusive goods. If a nation is in need of a good, it should be available.”  This means, for instance, that patent laws should not stand in the way of health or environmental sustainability.  If developers and distributors do not wish to follow the model of Gaviotas and make their developments patent-free, they can at least avoid the actions of the pharmaceuticals who sued South Africa for patent infringement when it developed an inexpensive antibiotic to prevent infant deaths.

Further,  technological development must not infringe on other populations by using their DNA for genome research or their traditions for profit without their knowledge or economic compensation. In terms of patents in general, Vandana Shiva’s standards in the  “no patents on life” campaign is a good way to avoid patent abuses such as that in which a US firm patented the basmati rice that was developed in India– making it “illegal” for its own originators to use it without paying this firm.

  • Sustainable technology should be cost effective

Mr. Unger sees this as part of sustainable technology’s appeal to the “mass consumer”.  I see it as something more.  It is important that technology be available to the larger portion of humans rather than only to the upper or elite class. As the community of Gaviotas indicates in its refusal to patent any of its inventions, sustainable technology should be grounded in its values and effectiveness–in its use for all– rather than profit for a few.

To make technology cost effective, the US must cut its “perverse subsidies” that result, for example, in fresh local food raised organically and purchased locally being more costly than highly processed and packaged food transported over thousands of miles.

Without “perverse subsidies”, sustainable food production would be less costly (and thus more readily available to all), since it has lower costs of transportation, packaging, advertising, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, than does highly processed food. There is a parallel case to be made in the example of energy:  if we cut massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and price technology at its true environmental and health costs, other energy producing  technologies would be cost effective in comparison– including the most important energy producing tact of all– conservation. And since nuclear plants are so expensive to insure, they would never be built without their government subsidies.

As Laura Zeljeznjak notes in her comment below, another aspect of this cost-effectiveness is that sustainable technology should be cost-effective for the natural world.  It should be made or drawn from sustainable materials rather than those and use up rare and irreplaceable resources, as well as ravaging other natural lives and their habitats.

Altogether, the “pricing” of sustainable technology must follow an emphatically different model from technology based on  “profit” for its developers (or in the case of patents on particular natural products, its self–proclaimed “discoverers”).  As discussed in the “The Trouble with Progress”, technology driven by the profit motive has succeeded only in ravaging the planet and undermining our relationships with other lives, human and more than human–and thus is the opposite of sustainable options.


We belong to this world, whose history has gifted us with our intelligence and our capacity for care. We must accept this tremendous gift and bear it with the honor it deserves for the sake of  all the lives who share our world.


It Can be Done

Polyface Farm, for instance, has developed an agricultural model that fulfills all of these criteria.

Gaviotas in Colombia has developed an entire community grounded in such principles, still going strong after over 40 years.

And then there are the sustained yield forest practices of the Menominee Tribe.

Any examples you want to add here?

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Standing in Front of Speeding Cars and Other Modern Pastimes

By Madronna Holden

Andrew Light, director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University, observes that just as we look both ways before crossing the street, we should exercise precaution in releasing new technologies.  Failing to do so is like assuming that if we don’t look as we cross a busy highway, no cars will be coming. In the European Union, the precautionary principle remedies this irrationality with its REACH program, which mandates that new chemicals be proved safe before their release.

The current US policy, by contrast, allows the release of over 2000 untested new chemicals annually—some of them taken directly into our bloodstreams through the use of untested Nano-carriers, as in sunscreens and cosmetics.   In this scenario, our own bodies become the experimental subjects with which to test these chemicals, creating what social historian Ulrech Bech terms the risk society”

Bech notes that untested technologies hurtle us into a fatalistic world in which society is at the mercy of technological effects rather than controlling them or nature.  In  a recent interview, Bech asserted that our survival dictates we reverse this “organized irresponsibility” through a global program of justice– giving those affected by new technologies a say in their release.

It is, after all, a basic premise of democracy that we get to approve or disapprove social choices that affect our lives.  Essential to such voting is knowledge. This is why the labeling of genetically engineered foods is so important—and the concerted campaign of the US biotech industry to stop such labeling is clearly undemocratic.  In a democracy, you don’t get to hide what you are doing just because your market research says you might lose profits if you reveal it.

Likewise, corporations fighting the passage of the US Disclose Act (which would require disclosure of funding sources of campaign ads) are clearly acting in bad faith. So are those who oppose the Safe Chemicals Act currently before Congress. Putting profit before ethics sets the stage for amplifying the “risk society” Bech outlines.

We need both the precautionary principle—and a change in worldview– to create a secure society instead. We are several centuries behind modern knowledge when we adhere to the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature—asserting with Francis Bacon that all scientific technology is automatically good in its control of nature.

Take the case of the scientific management of ocean fisheries– in particular, of the cod fishery in Newfoundland studied by Dean Bavington. Bavington makes the case that the fishery collapsed as a direct outcome of management stemming from a dualistic worldview.  Such management quantified fish as “biomass” and ocean habitat according to its “carrying capacity” in an attempt to yield a rationally managed, predictable and sustainable cod fishery. But this representational approach to the fish missed a good deal, discounting the “anecdotal” observations of onshore fishermen that the cod were actually disappearing.

It turns out the onshore fishermen were right.  In attempting to smooth out the variation of the cod runs by location and year, management by numbers missed the destructive effects of their own technology, which took fish during spawning, allowing for huge by-catches as it scooped up whole schools of offshore fish, and changed the genetic populations of cod to smaller fish at older ages, even as it caught “mother fish” principally responsible for breeding.

Notably, the traditional fishermen—both in Newfoundland and in Britain—lobbied against the use of new technologies such as bottom-trawling nets on the basis of their destructive potential.  In effect, they asserted the precautionary principle.  But their voices were not heeded.  Pointedly, what Bavington refers to as an ethic of “honor” between the fish and fishermen caused them to observe essential factors that “value-free” management overlooked.

In fact, that management wasn’t value free: it was based on an ethic of dominating the natural world —and the assumption that living creatures could be adequately represented and dealt with as numbers. Today the once abundant cod fishery is in limbo, the result of a moratorium on cod fishing imposed by the Canadian government in the hopes that the fish will come back. But that moratorium has been in effect twenty years, waiting for the cod to come back.

Bavington cites a recent Dalhousie University report indicating that by the year 2050, ocean fisheries worldwide will go the way that the cod fishery if we don’t change our approach quickly. He concludes that wild fisheries are incapable of being “scientifically” managed—and the attempt to do so in a way that objectifies fish as catch numbers is leading to the precipitous decline of ocean fisheries everywhere.

One response has been to create fish farms that are more susceptible to human management:  but these have problems of their own, including the fact that farming carnivorous fish means drawing more protein stores out of the ocean to feed them than they actually yield.

Bavington proposes a return to “honorable” relationships between wild fish and fishermen to save the fisheries:  a return to the worldview, that is, of traditional Newfoundland fishermen, who once worked with the diversity and agency of the fish, rather than reducing them to numerical masses.

Science historianBruno Latour seconds this view:  he asserts that if we do not heal the dualism that sets ourselves apart from the natural world as its supposed “managers”, we are headed for sure disaster. We need a stance of both caution and care to replace the worldview of domination.

The need for such caution—or “fore-caring” (caring for the future) as the precautionary principle has also been called– is precisely why it is so important that we pass the Safe Chemicals Act instituting the precautionary principle in the US.

Even if we choose to stand in front of speeding trains, we have no right to push other lives in front of them.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.