OBAMONSANTO AND OTHER INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

7 07 2012

A few months back, President Obama announced a three billion dollar  U.S. initiative “to help Africa feed itself, “which is a noble goal, but the devil was all over his details.  The first detail to note is that three billion dollars is a third of one percent of our country’s military budget.  About one day of our military spending to help the starving Africans.  Whoopee!

There were two major prongs to this plan. Two-thirds of the money,  (That’s about sixteen hours worth of military spending.)will be given to a European chemical company to build a fertilizer factory in Africa, which would use natural gas to create massive quantities of ammonium nitrate, which is a powerful explosive as well as a fertilizer.  (Remember the Oklahoma City Federal Building?  The first attempt on the World Trade Center?).  The second prong will introduce Monsatan’s GMO seeds to African farmers, “to increase their yields.”     This from the guy whose wife scored big publicity points by putting an organic vegetable garden at the White House.

Both these prongs are going to do a lot more harm than good.  The manufacture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is an energy-intensive, CO2-producing process whose result is a bag of white crystals that, not unlike cocaine, provide a short-term boost, but, in the long-term, have a deleterious effect–in the case of ammonium nitrate, the impoverishment of the soil to which it is applied.  The high levels of ammonia in ammonium nitrate burn out soil micro-organisms, leading to depletion of organic matter and a decrease in the soil’s fertility and ability to hold water.  The short-term solution, as with cocaine, is to apply a bigger dose of white crystals.  Sooner or later, the excess nitrogen starts leaching into the water supply, which exacerbates the problem by polluting the water and making people sick.

.  Then, too, the fertilizer must be purchased, a financial demand that can have disastrous consequences for small farmers in the third world.  We’ll look more deeply at that soon.  For now, let’s just point out that placing  increased financial pressure on cash-strapped, subsistence farmers in the name of “improving their lives” is either cynical or naive.  Time and time again, there have been demonstration projects and studies showing that the best way to improve the lives of subsistence farmers and the communities they feed is to help them find ways to increase the “circularity” of their farming, by increasing their use of local, organic inputs such as plant, animal, and human waste, and by returning to non-mechanized farming methods that require more labor and less machinery and fossil fuels.  Neither the fact that we are running out of inexpensive ways to create those white crystals, nor the fact that producing the white crystals is destroying the soil and the atmosphere, seems to enter into the calculations of those who proclaim the superiority of white-crystal style farming–f’rinstance, President Obama, or Presidential wanna-be Romney.

The second prong of the fork with which our corporatocracy wishes to stick the people of Africa is the introduction of GMO seeds.  There’s two really bad things about GMO seeds.  The first is their toll on the humans who use them, and the second is the way their use destroys the land in which they are planted.  We have only to look to India to see what the President and his cronies are promising to deliver to Africa.  What we see in India is over 200,000 small farmers driven to suicide, often by the debts they incurred to buy GMO seeds and the chemical inputs necessary to grow them–not just the aforementioned fertilizer, but herbicides and pesticides that they lack the technology to apply “safely,” even in the manufacturer’s loose terms.   Third-world farmers have traditionally saved their own seed, but it is illegal to save the patented GMO seeds, and frequently impractical as well, for, if the seed is a hybrid, it will either fail to produce fertile seed,  or fail to produce a uniform variety–but you’re not supposed to even try planting them, because they’re patented.  Intellectual property rights must be respected, y’know!   So, when Obama talks about “helping” African farmers with chemical inputs, he’s talking about inducing a rash of debt-driven suicides.  Hey, that’ll clear the playing field and help solve the overpopulation problem, right?!  More on that perverse idea later.  Back to GMO crops.

Herbicide use itself is highly problematic.  Roundup, the go-to herbicide for GMO crops, is very nonspecific in its effects.  It kills soil microflora just as readily as it kills broadleaf weeds and grasses, and thus is highly detrimental to soil.  And, just as with ammonium nitrate, its production is energy-intensive and carbon-expensive.

So, to sum up, when we strip the facade from the President’s feel-good call to help foster agriculture in Africa, we find a plan that is likely to further impoverish the continent’s vast majority of smallholders, drive them from their land, and wreak havoc with the land’s ability to support plant life.  So, who does benefit from this kind of “help”?

One group that is helped by alienating traditional people from their land base is foreign investors, both private and national, who are increasingly looking to Africa as a place to grow food to export, rather than to feed the hungry close at hand.  China and other countries are making deals with debt-pressed, cash-starved governments, deals that involve the displacement of thousands of people from millions of acres in order to grow crops that will not feed Africans.

The other big beneficiary of Obama’s policy is the Monsanto Corporation.  It is relevant to note, at this point, the “revolving door” nature of Monsanto’s relationship with the government. At least 35 individuals, representing both of the US’s major political parties, have been both on Monsanto’s payroll and the government’s, albeit not at the same time, as far as we know.  We’re talking about some big fish here–Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Hillary Clinton both worked for Monsanto when they were private practice lawyers.  Searle Chemical Company-CEO Donald Rumsfeld  (remember him?) was paid a twelve million dollar bonus by Monsanto when it acquired Searle, giving Monsanto the right to produce the carcinogenic artificial sweetener aspartame  (“Nutrasweet”). after Rummy pulled strings to get it approved for human use, but that’s another story.

The Africa deal is not the only example of  Obama’s–and our whole government’s– apparent willingness to go to bat for Monsanto.    Attempts to pass laws allowing labeling of GMO foods, dairy products containing bovine growth hormones, and limiting the spread of GMO seeds have been shot down, and research suggesting that their widespread use might have serious negative effects has been suppressed., both in the current administration and the last several governments, no matter who was supposedly in charge.

Monsanto’s willingness to play with both major US political parties leads to another question.  Should we really blame Barack Obama for all this?  Or is he a genuinely well-intentioned guy, who thought he could make change happen by being elected President, but found, when he arrived, that his real role was to play spokesman for an unelected shadow government?  As Robert Anton Wilson put it, “was the new President shown a video of the Kennedy assassination from an angle he’d never seen it from before, and told ‘you’ve got a nice family.  Play along with us and nobody gets hurt.'”?  Perhaps.  A friend of mine who is an old smoking buddy of Al Gore’s tells me that Al told him in 1992 that Al and Bill knew the office they were running for was more ceremonial than executive, but they hoped to be able to make a slight difference in the direction of things.  We all know how that turned out.   (And remember, Gore had already written and become somewhat famous for  Earth in the Balance, which, along with Albert Bates’ Climate in Crisis was one of the first books to call popular attention to the mess we are tangled in now.)  Perhaps frustration with his figurehead status accounts for Gore’s lackluster run for President in 2000 and his subsequent flowering, at a convenient distance from politics.

So, maybe Barack Obama regrets his decision to become a kinder, gentler  face for the corporatocracy than Dick Cheney and that guy he was with, but we may never know, because, like Clinton and Gore before him, he fears for his safety and his family’s safety far too much to ever spill those beans.

But, whatever the unspeakable truth may be about Barack Obama’s motivations and intentions, the inconvenient truth is that the African policy for which he is at the very least serving as a charming mouthpiece is not a policy that will benefit Africa.  It is just another corporate iron hand in another velvet glove, grabbing for what’s left of the wealth of the continent that gave birth to us all, a corporate iron hand that doesn’t care who or what it crushes as long as it ends up with a fistful of dollars.  And that’s the inconvenient truth about the Obama administration’s “African initiative.”

music:  Terry Allen, “Big Ol’ White Boys





I, ME, ME, MINE

13 03 2011

I don’t know what Jules Dervaes was thinking when he trademarked the phrases “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading.”  I don’t know how he managed to convince somebody at the trademark bureau that he was the originator of these terms and of the techniques they cover.   He did not originate these terms, nor did he originate the practices they describe.  I suppose this is indicative of the vast cultural divide that exists in America:  to those of us who have been urban homesteaders over  the last forty years, the movement is widespread and deep; to somebody who lives inside the beltway (mentally if not geographically) and commutes to the copyright office, we are apparently invisible, and Dervaes was the first person who brought our movement to his attention.

Anyway, since getting his trademark, Dervaes has been acting like a bully, sending threatening letters to long-established urban homesteading groups and authors, getting Facebook pages banned, and generally making it harder for urban homesteaders to network with each other.  Will somebody please put a pie in this guy’s face?

The urban homesteaders who have been blocked on Facebook have started a “Take Back Urban Homesteading” Facebook group, as well as a petition to revoke Dervaes’ trademark.

A bizarre twist is that Dervaes shut down these Facebook sites alleging violation of “copyright,” but there is an important legal difference between “trademark” and “copyright.”  None of these sites used any of Dervaes’ copyrighted writings, but Facebook shut them down anyway, and says it won’t allow “urban homesteading” pages unless Dervaes withdraws his complaint, which he shows no sign of doing.  This is a disturbing precedent for Facebook–does it mean that Monsanto can use its trademark to get Facebook to bump pages like Millions Against Monsanto by OrganicConsumers.org, Say NO to MONSANTO, and Exposing Monsanto,  just to name a few?

Fortunately, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has joined the fray on the side of freeing “Urban Homesteading,” putting their considerable legal resources to work and adding the Dervaes Institute to their “Hall of Shame.”  (EFF, by the way, was started by Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow….makes me glad “the music never stopped”! )

Dervaes did not originate the term “urban homesteading.”  Recently I was looking at a 1980 copy of the Whole Earth Catalog, which has a couple of pages devoted to “urban homesteading.”  At Dervaes’ website, a “history” page indicates that in 1980 Jules D.was  practicing rural homesteading in Florida, and did not move to Los Angeles and begin homesteading in an urban area until 1985.  So no, he didn’t coin the term.  And no, I’m not giving you a link to his website.  He can toot his own horn.  I ain’t gonna help him.

And yes, “urban homestead/ing” is in widespread use. At the “Urban Homestead” website, the opening statement reads, ” Since 1992, we have helped supply home orchardists with some of the best apple trees ever grown.”   An internet search yields 258,000 mentions of “urban homesteading,” and the the Dervaes are not at the head of the list.  Jealous, Jules?  Ruby Blume, of the Oakland Institute of Urban Homesteading, told me in a telephone interview that she had never heard of the Dervaes family before she got a letter from them recently, informing her of their 2010 copyright.  Blume’s Institute of Urban Homesteading has been up and running since 2008.  She wrote them back, requesting more information and informing them that she intends to contest their trademark.  She has yet to receive a reply.

Trademarking “urban homestead” is akin to trademarking “alternative energy” or, for that matter, “home bible study.”  For Dervaes to attempt to prevent anyone else from using the term is, simply put, nuts.  Bill Mollison couldn’t copyright “permaculture” because it had already be become common enough to be in the dictionary before he applied for the copyright, and he is quite clearly both the inventor of the term and the codifier of the practices involved.  The Green Party has been unable to trademark “Green Party” because there is just one other group in the country that calls itself “The Green Party.”  There are dozens of authors and local groups who use the phrase “urban homesteading” to describe their work, or in the titles of their books.  How could Dervaes get away with such arrogant nonsense?

Even Eric Pelton, the lawyer who helped Dervaes obtain the trademark admitted, in an unrelated interview, that

“Weak trademarks are descriptive or generic words. Generic words like ‘laptop’ for computers or ‘quick subs’ for a sandwich shop are very very weak trademarks and are only entitled to minimal, at best, protection.”

Or “weak, generic terms”  like “urban homestead,” for that matter?  Just because a lawyer will take your money, doesn’t mean he thinks you’re right.  In that light, it’s probably significant that Jules Dervaes, and not Eric Pelton, is the originator of the effort to shut down “rival” urban homesteading sites.

Here’s Dervaes’ defense of his trademark move:

“as the popularity of Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading increased and began to label everything from television productions to big agriculture products, we couldn’t shake the warning bells in our minds. You tell us… who would you rather own the trademarks? Us or a big business corporation?”

But Dervaes has not gone after big corporations.   He has gone after other urban homesteaders who have written books or established educational organizations, a  farmers’ market,  Facebook groups of urban homesteaders,  a library, and a community radio station.  No big guys, just little guys.  In the press release I just quoted, Dervaes ironically refers to Wikipedia to define what he is doing, rather than to anything he wrote himself.  The Wiki article has numerous links to urban homesteading sites, but only mentions Dervaes in relation to his effort to trademark the term.

Can you say “credibility gap,” boys and girls?

Some of what this story is about is that urban homesteading, as most of us who engage in or encourage the practice are aware,  is not just a set of material techniques.  The urban homesteading movement–and the rural homesteading movement,  too, for that matter–is  about creating a community, and about creating community consciousness.  The Dervaes family, in contrast, has never had much to say about creating community.

Nobody else who uses the term ” urban homesteading” has attempted to trademark it because it makes no sense to most of us to get territorial over language. Creative Commons is more our style than copyright and trademark.

At a deeper level, too, Dervaes’ ego trip demonstrates that technique is not enough.  To create a new paradigm, we need to purify our own consciousness first, or we will just end up creating the same mess we were attempting to escape.

This story also fits into a still wider question, the question of “intellectual property rights.”  I don’t have time to go deeply into this issue right now, but here’s a quickie about it:

There’s a place for intellectual property rights.  If you actually create a technology or a piece of music or a book or a photograph, you should be able to control its use.  Part of that control should certainly involve getting paid for your  effort and inspiration if somebody else is using it to make money for themselves.  It’s OK to prevent others from stealing the results of your own efforts.

Our trademark and copyright laws, however, have been taken to such an extreme that they threaten to cut us off from our cultural heritage. For instance, if you want to perform or record a Beatles song, you have to make arrangements with the estate of Michael Jackson, who bought the Beatles’ song rights in 1985.  Even if you have no plans to make money from use of a Beatles song, you must pay to perform or record it.  Never mind that Paul and John’s heirs will do fine for the rest of their lives and then some without another penny of royalties, and that most of the money actually goes to a bunch of lawyers.  You got to pay,

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, won my cheers when, in an interview on NPR, he said that he would love to buy the rights to the Beatles’ songs and release them into the public domain so that everybody could play them.  Then the economy fell apart, and it never happened, but it was one of those great radio moments.

Another example–some friends of mine are trying to put on a grassroots music festival,  which they are calling “The Black Swan Alternative Arts and Music Festival.”  It’s really more of a big open party than a commercial event, BUT they are getting hassled by ASCAP to pay royalties up front, even though most, if not all, the music that will be played will be originals, if not downright improvised on the spot, and most of the bands are playing for free.    My friends are just a couple of poor hippies trying to throw a party, and they’re getting jacked around, held to standards that are pretty irrelevant to what they’re trying to do by an outfit that, like that hapless dude in the copyright bureau, hasn’t got a clue about what’s going on out here on the other side of the cultural divide.

My standard answer to bureaucratic hassles like the Dervaes’ stink bombs and ASCAP’s legal threats is that the system that upholds such bizarre legalities is already coming apart at the seams, or, as with the mega-earthquake in Japan the other day, the fault lines, and all we have to do is be patient.

But even a creature in its death throes can do some damage.  Sometimes we can’t ignore crassness and stupidity, because they thrust themselves in our faces, our websites,  our wallets, or sometimes even our pants.  (Can you say “‘right to life'”, boys and girls?)

At such times, we have to depend on whatever level of inner peace and stability we have built into ourselves, trust that we will respond as appropriately as we can, pay close attention, and learn from what happens so that we, unlike so many in our crazed society, don’t end up doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result.

In urban homesteading, just likethe rest of life, the most important thing to cultivate is our own sanity.

music:  The Beatles, “I, Me, Me, Mine”








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