12 02 2011

Last month, in a post entitled “Dude, where’s my $30K?,” I tried to shed some light on the magnitude of income inequality here in “the land of the free” by pointing out that our country’s per-capita spending on bank bailouts and our military apparatus, plus corporate profits, comes to $30,000 per person.  Yes, that’s $120 thou for a a family of four.  And they say we don’t have money for unemployment benefits, a national health care system, or social security.  Go figure!

That money, all $7.5 trillion of it, is not coming out of our tax dollars, at least not yet.  Mostly, it’s being created out of thin air by “quantitative easing” and/or being borrowed from the Chinese and the Saudis.  It’s not being created by the classic route of taking raw materials, conceiving a use for them, modifying them, and selling a product at a “profit”–profit being both the difference between what workers are paid and the true value of their work, and what we keep for ourselves instead of repairing (if possible) the damage to the environment that our extraction of raw materials has caused.  That paradigm as a road to wealth is obsolete, although it’s obviously what we are going to need to relearn how to do, minus the profit and plus the environmental repair–just to get by, as international trade implodes under the weight of the end of cheap fuel and other raw materials.

I was raised to believe in the virtue of the labor movement.  My early heroes were the IWW martyrs and all those who fought for the poor in the class war that runs through the history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These were epic struggles for justice.  Workers fought for fair treatment by their employers, and, for a time, prevailed.  The result was the blossoming of the American middle class in the thirty years between the end of World War II and the mid-seventies, which we are starting to realize was America’s “golden age.”

But several things were wrong with that superficially happy picture .

The most obvious, and widely commented on, was the spiritual emptiness of our material paradise, noted by commentators as disparate as Jack Kerouac (who, I hope, needs no introduction!) and Sayyid Qutb, one of the leading lights of the Muslim Brotherhood and, along with the CIA, a major inspiration to the founders of Al Qaeda.  But that’s a whole other story.  Back to “work,” as it were.

Another thing that is wrong with the struggle of the American labor movement is that, after the marginalization of the IWW and the Socialist Party, the labor movement never questioned capitalism as an economic arrangement.  That has been the subject of much commentary and analysis, and certainly has a great deal to do with how the ruling class has been able to dump the American working class and its unions into that famous, even cliched, “dustbin of history.”

But there’s something else the labor movement never questioned, something that has rarely even been noted:  the labor movement, even the Socialists and “radical” anarchists of the IWW, never questioned whether the work they were doing was, in the long run, worth doing.  The forests of America were clearcut, Appalachia was despoiled, and General Motors destroyed America’s interurban railroad system so it could sell more cars–and all the unions wanted was a bigger piece of the pie.  Nobody in the labor movement questioned the wisdom of these moves.

That last one, GM’s dismantling of mass transit in America, is especially worth examining, because shifting from mass transit to personal motorized vehicles has had such a massive, destructive, and likely unintended effect on not only America, but the world.

Because individual automobile ownership has become the norm in this country, our population dispersed over a far wider area than would have been the case had we remained dependent on mass transit.  Suburbia became possible.  Urban sprawl sucked up millions of acres of woodland and farmland adjacent to cities, undermining local self-sufficiency.  In the name of boosting automobile and gasoline sales, our country’s intercity highway system was improved.  Thus subsidized, trucking and automobile travel undermined the country’s long-distance railroad system, once the best in the world.  Now, like the much of the rest of the country’s infrastructure, our railroads are struggling not to fall into third world status.  The net result of this is that now, as petroleum production slips into decline, we are tied to the most petroleum-dependent and inefficient methods of transport–road and air, and our automobile-addicted population is too scattered to be served by mass transit, even if we had the money left to build it.

Wait, there’s more!

The psychological effects of America’s transition to individual automobile transportation are likewise manifold.  Travelers no longer need to deal with railway schedules; we can leave whenever we want to, travel by any route we choose, stop where we feel like stopping, and we don’t have to share our space with anybody else and negotiate whatever compromises that might entail.  We do not sit on benches in train stations waiting for connections.  The primacy of individual preference has been enshrined, from our individual psyches to our lifestyle expectations to our national foreign policy.   It’s all me, all all the time, all splendid isolation, from our far-flung suburban homes to our daily commutes…oops, fewer and fewer of us have a job or the resulting daily commute.

And that is where it all starts falling apart.  I have commented before on the fascistic nature of American society–how our government increasingly exists solely to promote corporate interests.  It’s not just about health care or the right of corporations to spread GMOs for fun and profit. Full participation in American society, if you live outside a few urban areas, requires that automobile ownership.  For most people, that means an investment of twenty to forty thousand dollars or more–hundreds of dollars in monthly payments to a private corporation for an object that, ironically, does nothing but lose value from the moment you drive it off the lot.

Think about how much money is tied up in automobiles.  Five relatively new vehicles are easily worth a hundred thousand dollars.  How many cars do you encounter on a typical drive around town?  Five hundred?  ten million dollars.  Five thousand?  A hundred million dollars worth of automobiles, all stuck in rush hour traffic.

But, as I said, fewer and fewer of us are stuck in rush hour traffic, because fewer and fewer of us have jobs, nor are we going to have “jobs,” at ;east not in the traditional meaning of that term.  As I pointed out last month, it would take 630 businesses with 35,000 employees each just to absorb people who are currently “unemployed,” let alone create cubicles for all those who are, as they say, “just entering the labor market.”  There are no buyers in the labor market, not in America.

But that’s not the same as there being nothing to do.  On the contrary, there is everything to do.  Somewhere along the line in its drive to monetize everything, the official economy of America has largely ceased to do the things that really matter to people.  There is food to grow for people who want something besides sugar, starch, fat, and salt.  There are young people, old people, and sick or handicapped people who need care that is truly caring rather than being motivated by the promise of a paycheck.  Increasingly, there will be a need to manufacture and use basic tools, a need and the skills to sift through America’s trash middens and waste stream to find what can be reused or repurposed.

Our profit-crazed, out-of-touch formal economy now places a higher value on putting people out of their homes than it does on keeping them in those homes.  There are currently eighteen million unoccupied houses in this country, many of them foreclosures, and about 700,000 homeless people.  Do the math.  Many of the unoccupied houses have been stripped of wiring and copper pipes and anything else that could be recycled.  Many homes, unoccupied or occupied, are poorly insulated and inefficiently heated,  These are all jobs screaming out for someone to do them, but there is no money to be had, because housing the poor is of no value to the rich.

Soon enough, it won’t matter.  Our system has stoutly resisted reform, which means that the only alternative left is collapse, and a rebuild from the ground up.  The web of car payments, college loans, and credit card debts that keeps so many ensnared in a world a few removes from reality, running on a paycheck treadmill, will melt away like a bad dream, and we will find ourselves in a different world altogether.  All together, indeed.  That will be the only way to succeed at surviving.  And there will be plenty of work for everyone.

music: Burning Times, “The Only Green World”


12 09 2010

As you drive into Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, you are greeted by a sign that welcomes you to “The Phosphate Capital of the World.”

Mt. Pleasant is no longer a mining town, but many of the effects remain, and they are not exactly tourist-friendly.  The city tried to become tourist-friendly by replacing the failing hardware, clothing, and appliance stores on the town square with more touristy venues–antique stores, an “old-time” soda fountain, a “phosphate museum,” and the like–but, even before the current bust, that proved a failure as well, and these days the police station is the busiest business left on the square–and how long will a town of just over 4,000 be able to afford that?

But the police department is not the kind of “tourist-unfriendly” I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the city’s chemical hangover from its “golden age” as a phosphate center.

For decades, hundreds, if not thousands, of acres around Mt. Pleasant sat unused and unusable after they had been mined for phosphate in the first half of the 20th century.  The process left behind a jumble of steep, roughly 30′ high, roughly parallel ridges, and it was not until the real estate bubble started inflating in the 80’s (sending land prices in the area zooming from a few hundred to several thousand dollars an acre) that anybody thought it was worth flattening the “mine tailings” as they were known, so they could be turned into suburban homes and strip malls.  Whoopie!

I became educated about the dirty details of phosphate mining when I was  taking care of an orchard in the area,and discovered an enormous, tree-covered, long abandoned earthwork on the steep hill above the orchard–a level area like a road cut into the hill,  with a huge earthen hump on its downhill side.  A neighbor told me this was the site of an early 20th or late 19th century phosphate extraction.   First, workers with axes and two-man saws cut all the trees down and arranged them in a long windrow.  Then  other workers used picks and shovels to dig out the phosphate ore and pile it on top of the windrow. The next step was to burn the windrow.  Heating the soil  by lighting a fire underneath it drove impurities out of the phosphate and into the atmosphere, along with a whole lot of carbon, which nobody was concerned about a hundred years ago.  The laborers who carried out this ecocide were paid sixty-five cents a day.   Sixty-five cents a day in 1900 is the equivalent of $17.10 today.  How’s that for a day’s wages?

Now, about that chemical hangover…first of all,  phosphate is radioactive.  Tobacco gets a good dose of phosphate fertilizer, and the translocation of radioactivity into its leaves may be one of the main reasons why inhaling tobacco smoke causes cancer.  Even  raw ore, the organic fertilizer known as “rock phosphate,” contains potentially dangerous levels of polonium, radon, radium, and radioactive lead.  In addition, the ore contains significant amounts of beryllium, manganese, arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and vanadium.  These are the “impurities”  that became airborne when the phosphate windrows were burned.  The air quality around Mount Pleasant in the heyday of primitive phosphate mining must have been anything but pleasant.

Phosphate refining methods became more..uh…”refined” as time went by, but that didn’t ease the environmental impact.  All the toxic byproducts had to go somewhere.  Somebody had the bright idea of injecting them so deep in the earth they would never come back up to the surface, but, as fracting is dramatically showing us, that doesn’t work, even in the short run, and the Zeneca Corporation had to cease and desist, pay a 3.5 million-dollar fine, and do extensive cleanup work in Mt. Pleasant due to the mess they made there.

By the way…what percent of Zeneca’s annual income is $3.5M?  As near as I can tell, the company is earning about $3.5B a year, so $3.5 million, while it sounds impressive to you and me, is a mere one-tenth of one percent of the company’s income, the equivalent of $35 to somebody who makes $35,000 a year.  Cheaper than a parking ticket.

In the 1970’s, I worked in commercial, chemically-sprayed orchards.  One of the things I learned as part of my pesticide safety education was, “if you can smell it, it’s having an effect on you.”  In the 80’s, almost every time I traveled through Mt. Pleasant, the sickly-sweet smell of newly-manufactured phosphate insecticides hung in the air.  I was grateful to just be passing through.  Some people had to live there.

The smell of organophosphate insecticides no longer wafts on the Mt. Pleasant breeze. The phosphate deposits around the town are mined out and it’s cheaper to  refine where you mine, and these days that’s the Mideast and China, where the environmental cost of doing business won’t carve that precious tenth of one percent out of anybody’s bottom line.  The good news from this is that Maury County is no longer in the top ten percent of cancer counties in Tennessee, but it’s still in the top twenty-five percent.  The binge is over, but the hangover lingers on.

Several companies contribute to maintaining Mt. Pleasant’s toxic legacy.  One is Cytec, which has taken over a chemical plant formerly run by the Avecia Corporation.  This plant, according to “Scorecard–the pollution information site,” emits levels of   developmental and reproductive toxicants and carcinogens that earn it a rating as one of America’s most polluting factories.  On its website, under the heading “Our First Priority,” the company states

Operating safely to protect our employees from workplace injuries and illnesses, to safeguard the communities adjacent to our facilities, and to preserve the natural environment for all of us and future generations is a fundamental priority at the core of everything that we do at Cytec. We have been – and continue to be – at the forefront of our industry as a leader in setting the pace in procedures, programs, and most importantly, performance relating to safety, health, and the environment.

Good luck, guys!

Two other Mt. Pleasant polluters are Tennessee Aluminum Processors and  Smelter Services Corporation, neither of which rank high as carcinogen sources, but which do rank nationally as  polluters in the “non-cancer causing” pollution category.  Their main business is recycling aluminum, which apparently involves ammonia releases.  Lovely contribution to the pleasantness of Mt. Pleasant, eh?  “Hey, if we’re going to recycle, the dirty work has to happen somewhere, and it might as well be someplace that’s already spoiled.”

Can you say, “source reduction,” boys and girls?

As we leave the ironically named Mt. Pleasant and head north, we soon come to Columbia, where Spontex upholds Maury County’s reputation by being one of the worst polluters in the entire nation, and Occidental Chemical Company is the “good guy,” scoring high on overall releases but low in carcinogens.  Count your blessings, Columbians!

Closer to Nashville, we pass through another region where the ground is high in phosphates, but not quite high enough to merit mining.  This is the area around Spring Hill, Tennessee, which has some of the richest soil in the state that is not adjacent to the Mississippi River.  So, what did we humans do with this valuable food source?   We put a car factory on it, which caused the rapid  replacement of agriculture with myriad suburbs and strip malls, all of which are now grinding to a halt because, surprise, an ailing General Motors  can no longer make money operating the factory, and they’re closing the plant.  It only operated for twenty years, but destroyed an agricultural bastion that had been productive for a  hundred and fifty years and could have kept on being productive for centuries, if left undisturbed.  At  least all the now-unemployed folk in this former farming hot  spot are well situated to grow great gardens, unless they happen to be someplace where the ground was scraped down to the subsoil to make it easier to build McMansions.

This has just been a taste of the many stories of short-term gain and long-term pain here in Tennessee.  There are plenty of others:  the iron mines of Lewis County, the copper desert in the southeast corner of the state, toxic waste disposal in Dixon, the destruction of the state’s hardwood forests, mall sprawl around all our cities, the reintroduction of deer at the expense of agriculture, and mountaintop removal, just to name a few.  I don’t think it’s appropriate to say, “I hope you enjoyed your tour of Mt. Pleasant,” but I do hope you found it informative.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Tender Mercies

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