Sunday, September 13, 2009

Testing the Waters

Here's why we need strong, independent newspapers, capable of sustained investigative reporting.  Sunday's NYT has a major (as in 3 full pages) article about the deteriorating state of our rivers and streams, after almost a decade of lax enforcement of the Clean Water Act. 

The Times obtained hundreds of thousands of water pollution records through Freedom of Information Act requests to every state and the E.P.A., and compiled a national database of water pollution violations that is more comprehensive than those maintained by states or the E.P.A. (For an interactive version, which can show violations in any community, visit

In addition, The Times interviewed more than 250 state and federal regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and scientists.

That research shows that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.

Those exposures include carcinogens in the tap water of major American cities and unsafe chemicals in drinking-water wells. Wells, which are not typically regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, are more likely to contain contaminants than municipal water systems.

The scary hook--illustrated by a front-page picture of a kid whose teeth have been corroded by water full of heavy-metals from mine slurry--is West Virginia, where EPA regulators have been regularly intimidated and even fired, in the name of a more "cooperative" relationship between industry and government.  But the whole report, including the searchable database, is a great public service, allowing us to see local trends and larger patterns.  Alongside the data, it includes state-by-state responses from the EPA to the Times requests, variously reasonable and defensive in the spotlight.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Global Food Chain

The Nation has a new issue on the politics of food, including this challenging review by Brent Cunningham of two books about food aid and famine in Africa. Cunningham argues that the "good food revolutionaries" (Pollan, Schlosser, Alice Waters, etc.) need to think hard about what it will take to confront Big Ag, whose fortunes are built on arguments about the need to feed the world. Even apart from what cheap calories have done to the American diet, the books document the way food aid subverts agricultural markets in Africa, and so undermines the continent's ability to feed itself.  During the Ethiopian famine of 2003, millions of tons of locally grown grain--unsellable during previous years bumper harvests--rotted in warehouses even as millions of tons of American surplus was flown in.  Why? Because, by law, US food aid cannot be in the form of cash, only commodities.

This requirement, Cunningham argues, speaks volumes about the entrenched power of Big Ag, and the challenge that the local food movement faces.  Another eye-opening moment: why it's so hard to undo government subsidies:

The legislation behind farm subsidies had been structured to make it unusually hard to undo. Unlike many laws, which automatically expire on a predetermined date, the laws underlying subsidies weren't programmed to end. Instead, if Congress didn't craft and enact a new farm bill every five years or so, the law reverted back to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agriculture Act of 1949, which contained even sweeter payments to some farmers.
The point is that global agricultural markets go back to the 1950's, and have structured farm policy in the US for half a century.  Developing more sustainable growing, buying and eating habits will be the work of decades, even if we take seriously Michael Pollan's recent argument that taking on Big Ag is a public health issue: so much of rising health care costs are attributable to chronic conditions (like diabetes) rooted in obesity.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is Consumerism Dead?

McClatchy News Service (via HuffPost) offers this overview of the fallout from the  Great Recession: credit to be tight for years, maybe decades, to come, signalling the end of consumer-led economic growth.  Even forecasters for the US Chamber of Commerce are expecting growth rates in the neighborhood of 2%, much lower than the "average" rate of 3 -3.5%.  The reason? The effective shutdown of the securitization market, those exotic packages that bundled sub-prime loans into attractive, ostensibly "risk-free" investments, thereby freeing up all sorts of credit. 

"I think this financial panic and Great Recession is an inflection point for the financial system and the economy," said Mark Zandi, the chief economist for forecaster Moody's "It means much less risk-taking, at least for a number of years to come — a decade or two. That will be evident in less credit and more costly credit. If you are a household or a business, it will cost you more, and it will be more difficult to get that credit."
A lot depends, however, on whether this tightening of credit--and the prospect of continuing high unemployment--gets coded as deprivation and a threat to the standard of living, or as a potentially welcome opportunity to strengthen the common wealth and to work with the tools of conviviality.  In other words, we'll have to see whether social-networking technologies can support genuine community, or whether they're offshoots of market research and the virtual mall.