Wednesday, May 31, 2006


The Art of Living

Things started out so well. I was born pure, perfect, new. Endless possibility unrolled before me. While so much was unknown, my energy was just short of limitless – childhood’s “winged energy of delight,” in the words of the poet Rilke. But that was so long ago. Now, looking back on a lifetime of choices, mistakes and triumphs, I wonder, “What happened?”

In the last of eight stages of human development outlined by psychologist Erik Erikson, our bodies slow, careers wind down, and parenting duties are essentially complete. We have time to reflect. The “psycho-social crisis” Erikson describes – that is, the developmental task before us – is in achieving ego integrity without falling into despair. Have we achieved wholeness, the integration of inner values with their consistent, outward expression, or have we been fractured by hiding our true beliefs out of fear, self-protection or personal gain?

Modern consumer culture has trained us for dis-integration. Advertisers get rich leveraging our fragmentation: they imply one aspect of our humanity – smelly armpits, asymmetrical breasts, wrinkles, fat – renders the entirety of us unlovable. “Reality TV” rewards the scheming of contestants who view deceit as the necessary means to an end: a modeling contract, a six-figure salary courtesy of Donald Trump, another week on the island. It’s all justified within the benign framework of entertainment – “just doing what it takes to win the game.” And much of corporate life forces us to slap on a grin as we toe the company line, promoting values that are often at odds with those that guide the rest of our lives. Taught that to be “professional” is to keep the personal in check, we sell our values short for the price of a mortgage payment or college tuition. With our identities so divided, how can we live with ourselves?

Or better put, how can we die with ourselves? Because while ego integrity is about coming to terms with life, it’s also about coming to grips with death. If we’ve lived in tune with the self, others and nature, that is, if we’ve connected with something larger than ourselves – a new generation, an understanding of virtues that will outlive us – death becomes meaningless. “Only such integrity can balance the despair of the knowledge that a limited life is coming to a conscious conclusion,” wrote Erikson. “Only such wholeness can transcend the petty disgust of feeling finished and passed by, and the despair of facing the period of relative helplessness which marks the end as it marked the beginning.” But if our deepest relationships have been online instead of in person, if expense-account lunches outnumber family dinners, if the tears we’ve shared have been with CNN’s tragic victims rather than neighbors down the block, death may come with some trepidation: time is running out, and just now we realize we’ve been chasing the wrong carrot.

A Buddhist parable likens the human soul to a mountain spring: it bubbles from the earth pure and clear, but as it trickles down the hillside, it gathers pebbles and dirt. We get muddied by life. But our essence, whether obscured by debris or still sparkling and clean, is still there, only to be filtered. The question, then, becomes: is it already too late?

Paul Schmelzer

Saturday, May 27, 2006


What If They Gave a War...?

by Tony Long

1968. It was the height of the Vietnam War, the year of My Lai and the Tet offensive. Student riots in Paris nearly brought down the French government. Soviet tanks put a premature end to Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring.

In the United States, the streets were teeming with antiwar protesters and civil rights demonstrators. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated within two months of each other. The Democratic convention in Chicago dissolved into chaos. And by the summer, America's cities were in flames.

The world was seething, and for good reason. There was a lot to be angry about. It was a lousy year, 1968.

I was in high school then. I quit the baseball team because, frankly, sports seemed frivolous. In 1968, there were more important things to worry about than perfecting a curveball. All very high-minded and, in retrospect, more than a little pompous. But nearly 40 years down the road I don't regret having done it. My political consciousness was awakened and I was actively engaged in the world around me.

But as bad as things were then, they seem infinitely worse now.

So why aren't the streets clogged with angry Americans demanding to know why their president lied and deceived them so he could attack a country that had absolutely nothing to do with his so-called war on terror? To an extent, we got suckered into Vietnam. We can't make that claim about Iraq. Iraq was the premeditated, willful invasion of a sovereign nation that was threatening nobody. "Saddam Hussein is a prick who treats the Kurds miserably" is no justification. By the principles established by the Nuremberg Tribunal and international law, our president is a war criminal.

Why aren't we marching to demand an end to the illegal surveillance of American citizens by their own government, again under the pretext of waging war on terror? Why do we so blithely surrender our civil liberties -- the very thing that supposedly separates us from other societies -- to the illusion of security? All the high-tech snooping in the world won't stop a determined terrorist from striking. If it could, Israel would be the safest country on earth.

Why aren't irate Americans camping out in the lobby of every newspaper and TV station from coast to coast, demanding that the press reassert the right to perform its single most important function, that of government watchdog? The ghost of Richard Nixon, and a very corporeal Bill Clinton, must be cursing their rotten luck.

Why aren't enraged college students occupying their campus administration buildings, demanding that the United States sign the Kyoto Protocol? Hell, it might already be too late, but is the luxury of driving your mom's SUV really worth the coming dystopian world that you, more than I, will inherit?

Why aren't we storming the battlements of every filthy oil company in America, demanding that their executives be tossed into fetid dungeons for cynically manipulating gas prices while raking in obscene profits?

Why aren't we demanding that religion return to the pulpit, where it belongs, and keep out of the White House and the courts?

In short, where the hell is everybody?

I'll tell you where they are. They're at home, tuning in to root for the next "American idol." They're plugged into their iPods, utterly self-involved and disconnected from what lies just outside their doors. They're spending 25 hours a week playing video games in virtual worlds instead of fighting to save the only world that really matters. They're surfing porn. They're text messaging and e-mailing and scheming to close that next big deal. They're flogging their useless crap on eBay.

All that technology at their fingertips, and they're completely blind. Two terms for George W. Bush? They're deaf and dumb, too.

Bread and circuses. The government and the corporations are giving us bread and circuses to keep us sufficiently distracted so the powers that be can pursue their agendas. Television (flat screens only, please) serves up Donald Trump and Paris Hilton as role models, and gives us the abomination of Fox News, which is more a wolf in sheep's clothing than any Vulpes vulpes you're likely to encounter.

Hollywood only cares about blockbusters, chick flicks and inane buddy movies. Tiresome reality doesn't make for good escapism and, more importantly, it doesn't fill coffers. And George Clooney can't be expected to produce every movie.

Whither the press? Forget it. Britney Spears gets more ink -- and better play -- than global warming does.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Can You Still Hate Wal-Mart?

It's a shockingly eco-friendly plan from the world's most toxic retailer. Did hell just freeze over?
by Mark Morford

Sometimes you just have to let the possibility breathe.

Sometimes you just have to allow that something grand and good and healthy might actually be born from the bowels of the dank and ravenous megacorporate world, like flowers from a dung heap, like vodka from old potatoes, even if it comes right alongside the nastiest, most abusive federal environmental policy you will see in your lifetime.

Take Wal-Mart, the most famously offensive, town-destroying, junk-purveying, labor-abusing, sweatshop-supporting, American-job-killing, soul-numbing, seizure-inducing, hope-curdling retailer in the known universe (just ask the fine local town of Hercules), moving upward of $300 billion in cheap mass-produced slurm every year via nearly 5,000 landscape-mauling eyesore stores stretching all the way from Texas to China and Argentina and South Korea and Mexico and your backyard, with U.S. stores accounting for fully 8 percent of all retail sales in our entire nation.

There has been, to date, very little good to say about this most voracious and powerful of low-end, trashy retailers, and certainly nothing from anyone even remotely concerned with the health of the planet and of the attuned consumers who inhabit it. Wal-Mart has always been, quite appropriately, the devil.

Until now. As juicy and warmhearted eco-blog Treehugger mentions in its latest Wal-Mart roundup (and as the New York Times later discussed in its huge "Business of Green" section last week), it seems that back in October, Wal-Mart's president, Lee Scott, delivered a "secret" speech to employees about "21st Century Leadership," in which he outlined a whole slew of what can only be called truly remarkable and potentially world-altering agenda items to help ensure the future health of the world's biggest shopping hell.

And what a speech it was. Packed with all sorts of pledges and goals of such a green and sustainable and forward-thinking nature it might as well have been floating on boats of tofu on waves of Sierra Club blown by winds of Utne Reader. It was, in a word, surreal. And if even half of it is true, more than a little revolutionary.

There was talk of stores eventually being supplied with 100-percent renewable energy. Talk of ultimately creating zero waste, of pledging to reduce packaging materials across the board and create more recyclables and replace PVC packaging in all Wal-Mart branded items with more eco-friendly materials. And when you're talking megatons of plastic, that's saying a lot.

It gets better. Wal-Mart has already committed to selling 100-percent sustainable fish in its food markets. They are already experimenting with green roofs, corn-based plastics and green energy (which is now used to power four Canadian stores, for a total of 39,000 megawatts, amounting to what some estimate is the single biggest purchase of renewable energy in Canadian history). Is this remarkable? Groundbreaking? Utterly confounding? Well, yes and no.

Like any giant company suddenly "embracing" the green initiative (hi, GM and Ford), Wal-Mart's rationale for all of this, of course, has absolutely zero to do with any sort of deep concern for the planet (though it does make for good PR), nothing at all about actual humanitarian beliefs or honest emotion or spiritual reverence, and has absolutely everything to do with the corporation's rabid manifesto: cost-cutting and profit.

The reason Scott promised that Wal-Mart will double the fuel efficiency of their huge truck fleet within a decade? Not to save the air, but to save $300 million in fuel costs per year. The reason they aim to increase store efficiency and reduce greenhouse gasses by 20 percent across all stores worldwide? To save money in heating and electrical bills, and also to help lessen the impact of global warming, which is indirectly causing more violent weather, which in turn endangers production and delivery and Wal-Mart's ability to, well, sell more crap. Ah, capitalism.

Seems Wal-Mart has realized one vital maxim that so many fundamentalist right-wing capitalist GOPers have so far failed to grasp: The apocalypse is just really bad for business.

Consider, furthermore, that Wal-Mart is perhaps one of the most conservative and brutishly arrogant, town-crushingly invasive of red-state companies, donating upward of $2 million to the GOP last year alone. This makes it even more remarkable indeed that Scott "gets" the global-warming crisis in a way not even BushCo is willing to admit. Yet.

"We are looking at innovative ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This used to be controversial, but the science is in and it is overwhelming. Climate change doesn't cause hurricanes, but hot ocean water makes them more powerful. Climate change doesn't cause rainfall, but it can increase the frequency and severity of heavy flooding. Climate change doesn't cause droughts, but it makes droughts longer. We believe every company has a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as it can."

That's what he actually said. This might not sound like much, and it's completely obvious to anyone who's been paying any sort of attention for the past, oh, 20 years, but might as well be Greek when spoken by a major Republican corporate exec, and might as well be complete vile hellspawn gibberish to a BushCo politician. It is -- or it has been, for endless years -- a blasphemy of the highest order, given how it was always deemed too expensive, too unfeasible for a company to care about pesky things such as the health of the planet. Not anymore.

All this on top of word that Wal-Mart is readying a huge move into organic foods (as I mentioned in a previous column), which is the mixed blessing to end all mixed blessings, given how it will immediately eliminate antibiotics, chemical fertilizers and hormones in tons of mass-produced foods, but also, given pathetic and diluted USDA regulations, will mean the other two vital parts of the organic movement -- ideas of sustainability and of supporting local producers -- are completely trashed.

So there you go. It's the bizarre and surprising case of the greening of Wal-Mart, and it's far from perfect. But there can be no denying it's a start, and a shockingly significant one. Because here's the kicker: As goes Wal-Mart, so goes an enormous chunk of the retail and manufacturing sectors. Like a whale through a krill swarm, their massive girth paves the way.

I do not shop at Wal-Mart. I may never, ever shop at Wal-Mart, given their notoriously horrible labor practices and their brutal business tactics and their effortless murder of all love and hope and joy from the retail experience. They are the George Bushes of the retail world -- drunk with power, cheaply made and full of crap. Not to mention that vaguely nauseating feeling, when you walk through their (or almost any) big-box store, that your soul is being slowly coated in rat saliva.

No matter. They may not have any more heart, they may be doing it for less than luminous reasons -- but who cares? If evil Wal-Mart can go green, anyone can. Isn't that good news? I mean, sort of?

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Global Warming Turns Pristine Coral into Rubble

Global Warming Turns Pristine Coral into Rubble

Miles of unblemished coral reefs have been turned to slime-covered rubble because of rising sea temperatures caused by global warming.

A study into the extensive bleaching of the Seychelles corals in 1998 has found that these Indian Ocean reefs failed to recover, with many of them crumbling to broken fragments.

Scientists said the findings showed that rising global sea temperatures could have a more devastating impact on the world's tropical corals than previously thought.

"Some of the reefs have collapsed to almost mobile beds of rubble. They are no longer solid structures and some have been overgrown with fleshy green mats of algae," said Nicholas Graham, a coral ecologist at the University of Newcastle.

"They have basically turned into reefs of rubble and algae, with very little fish life. It's a depressing story and it's very sad to see what's happened to these reefs," said Mr Graham, a member of the survey team.

The Seychelles once boasted mile upon mile of luxuriant coral reefs but in 1998 the local sea temperatures rose dramatically because of the general rise in global temperatures combined with the effects of a strong El Nino - an occasional reversal of the warm ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean.

Reefs around the world were badly affected by the temperature rise. The Great Barrier Reef off Australia suffered its worst bout of bleaching in 700 years - only to be surpassed by even worse bleaching in 2002.

Temperatures in the Indian Ocean in 1998 rose to unprecedented and sustained levels, causing the stressed coral to eject the tiny single-celled algae that feed and clean the coral's animal polyps as well as giving the reefs their vibrant colours.

Without its beneficial algae, the bleached coral animals die within several weeks, leaving behind their empty "skeleton" - the chalky reef which is built by generations of corals over many centuries.

Scientists from Britain, the Seychelles and Australia carried out extensive surveys of 21 coral sites in 1994. They did the same in 2005 to assess the extent of the damage caused by the 1998 bleaching event.

"The coral reef system of the inner Seychelles has undergone a widespread phase shift from a coral-dominated state to a rubble and algal-dominated state," the scientists report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Before 1998, about 50 per cent of the area covered by the survey was covered in growing coral. Today, just 7.5 per cent of the same area is living coral and less than 1 per cent is now covered in vital fast-growing species, Mr Graham said.

The variety and number of fish living in the area have also suffered. Out of 134 fish species known to be living in the region, about half have disappeared from the most heavily-affected areas.

A total of four fish species - a type of butterfly fish, two species of wrasse and a damsel fish - have probably gone extinct locally and six other species have reached critically low numbers.

"We have shown that there has been very little recovery in the reef system of the inner Seychelles islands for seven years after the 1998 coral bleaching event," Mr Graham said.

He added: "Reefs can sometimes recover after disturbances, but we have shown that after severe bleaching events, collapse in the physical structure of the reef results in profound impacts on other organisms in the ecosystem and greatly impedes the likelihood of recovery."

Dead and bleached coral is soon attacked by other marine organisms such as sea snails, worms and clams which bore into the calcium carbonate structure of the reef, causing it to weaken and collapse.

Bleached reefs can sometimes recover with the help of floating coral larvae arriving from distant colonies, but the Seychelles are relatively remote, making this scenario less likely.

Mr Graham said that many coral reefs around the around the world had been damaged by rising sea temperatures caused by global warming.

"Unfortunately it may be too late to save many of these reefs but this research shows the importance of countries tackling greenhouse gas emissions and trying to reduce global warming and its effect on some of the world's finest and most diverse wildlife," he said.

Corals grow around the shallow waters of tropical islands and submerged volcanoes and can form extensive lagoons and atolls if the land subsequently subsides.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Net Neutrality

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Threat Seen From Antibacterial Soap Chemicals

The compounds end up in sewage sludge that is spread on farm fields across the country.
by Marla Cone

Tons of chemicals in antibacterial soaps used in the bathrooms and kitchens of virtually every home are being released into the environment, yet no government agency is monitoring or regulating them in water supplies or food.

About 75% of a potent bacteria-killing chemical that people flush down their drains survives treatment at sewage plants, and most of that ends up in sludge spread on farm fields, according to Johns Hopkins University research. Every year, it says, an estimated 200 tons of two compounds — triclocarban and triclosan — are applied to agricultural lands nationwide.

The findings, in a study published last week in Environmental Science & Technology, add to the growing concerns of many scientists that the Environmental Protection Agency needs to address thousands of pharmaceuticals and consumer product chemicals that wind up in the environment when they are flushed into sewers.

From dishwashing soaps to cutting boards, about 1,500 new antibacterial consumer products containing the two chemicals have been introduced into the marketplace since 2000. Some experts worry that widespread use of such products may be helping turn some dangerous germs into "superbugs" resistant to antibiotics.

Triclocarban, an ingredient of antibacterial bar soaps and toothpaste, is "potentially problematic" because it breaks down slowly, which means it is accumulating in soil and perhaps water, said Rolf Halden, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins' Department of Environmental Health Sciences, who led the study.

"What we are finding is this chemical is building up in the environment," Halden said. "This is an example of an emerging contaminant. It has been in the environment for almost five decades, and we manufacture large volumes of it, but we don't know what happens to it."

The scientists calculated that a large, modern East Coast sewage treatment plant spreads sludge containing more than 1 ton of triclocarban onto farm fields every year. The plant was not identified by the researchers, but data in the study indicated that it was in Baltimore.

Southern California's sludge has not been analyzed for antibacterial chemicals. But households in the Los Angeles region are likely to be a major source, because sewage plants in the area produce hundreds of thousands of tons of sludge every year.

Sludge is the solid waste that is left when sewage is processed in treatment plants. Billions of pounds are produced annually in the United States — 47 pounds per person — and two-thirds is hauled to agricultural fields for disposal. Federal regulations limit metals and pathogens in sludge, but not other chemicals.

Triclocarban is used in bar soaps, deodorants, toothpaste, kitchen supplies such as cutting boards and countertops, and baby toys. Triclosan, which is more abundant because it is used in liquid soaps, has been detected in human breast milk and fish in streams in Europe.

Toxicological tests have shown that the chemicals seem safe for human exposure, even in the high doses applied to skin. However, in water, triclosan can react with chlorine and turn into chloroform and dioxins linked to cancer. The chemicals also might kill microbes beneficial to ecosystems or promote new pathogens that resist antibiotics.

Allison E. Aiello, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health who has studied antibacterial soaps, calls the new report an important finding that "suggests these types of chemicals are persistent and prevalent in the environment."

"From these findings, it seems likely that microorganisms in the environment are often exposed to these chemicals at various concentrations," Aiello said. The next step, she said, is to assess whether these microbes show reduced resistance to antibiotics.

Previous research by Halden suggested that triclocarban was among the top 10 contaminants in waterways, while triclosan was among the most prevalent in a national analysis of streams by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Yet no one knows whether the chemicals are contaminating crops or groundwater. Drinking water also is not monitored for them. The EPA is exploring the prevalence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment, but it has nowhere near enough data to consider regulations for sludge.

Rick Stevens, national biosolids coordinator at the EPA's Office of Science and Technology, said the discovery of triclocarban in the plant's sludge was "of interest" to the EPA, but "at this time, the agency cannot determine what significance [the concentrations found] may represent to humans or the environment due to the limitations in the database."

Stevens said there were no national data — not even an accepted, standardized technique for measuring the chemicals. "One facility is not a nationally representative sample," he said.

Triclocarban in the plant's sludge averaged 51 parts per million, considered a high concentration for an environmental contaminant. But Stevens said people regularly rubbed triclocarban into their hands at levels 100 times higher. Also, the chemicals would be degraded and diluted on farm fields, he said.

Hans Sanderson, director of environmental safety at the Soap and Detergent Assn., which represents manufacturers, said the new research was "important and analytically sound" and was helping address what happens to the chemicals in soaps and other household products.

But Sanderson said it was wrong to assume that the presence of them in the sludge meant that they were posing risks. Most sludge is applied to fields and forests that do not produce food crops, he said.

"It is clear that the majority of exposure to triclocarban is direct exposure, when you actually use these materials in hand soap or toothpaste or whatever," Sanderson said. But, he said, laboratory tests have shown that even those exposures have no effects on animals, are not toxic to aquatic life and pose no known threat to people.

Ann Heil, a senior engineer at the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, said many environmental precautions were required on lands where sludge was applied. The material is plowed into soil within 24 hours and no runoff is allowed.

Heil said it probably was better that treatment plants removed the antibacterial chemicals from wastewater and concentrated them in the sludge, because otherwise the chemicals would be discharged into streams where they could harm wildlife.

Farm disposal of sludge is controversial in California. On June 6, residents of Kern County, which takes in one-third of the state's sludge, will vote on whether to ban its use on farms. If the measure passes, as expected, Southern California will have to ship more sludge to Arizona at an extra cost of millions of dollars a year in Los Angeles alone.

About 37% of the 160,000 tons produced last year by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County was applied on land. The county's sludge is subjected to an extra process called thermal treatment, which Heil said probably removed more antibacterial chemicals than the East Coast plant studied in the report.

But, Halden said, even newer tests, yet to be published, showed that the heat treatment was "not very effective" in eliminating antibacterial chemicals. So this "Type A" sludge, the type used on food crops, still could contain high amounts.

In October, an advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration reported that there was no evidence that the household products protected people any better than regular soap. The panel urged the agency to study their risks and benefits. The American Medical Assn. has opposed routine use of antibacterial soaps since 2002.

"The bottom line," Halden said, "is [that] we are mass-producing chemicals in the environment that are not helpful and potentially are harmful."

But Sanderson of the Soap and Detergent Assn. said it would be foolish to eliminate products that could stem the spread of diseases when there was no evidence they posed a threat.


'Robin Hood' Gang Rob Gourmet Stores in Bid to Feed Hamburg's Poor

by Tony Paterson

They dress up in pink catsuits, have names like "Spider Mum" and feel a social obligation to plunder the most expensive restaurants and gourmet delicatessens in town as part of a campaign to help the poor. Last week the well-heeled citizens of Hamburg's Altona district got a taste of their antics when 30 of them marched into the city's luxury "Fresh Paradise Goedeken" supermarket and walked out five minutes later with €15,000 (£10,000) worth of stolen goods.

The gang's booty included magnums of Champagne at €99 a bottle, filets of Japanese Kobe beef at €108 a kilogram, legs of venison, a salmon and several boxes of Valrhona chocolate.

Before leaving, gang members thrust a bouquet of flowers into the hands of a shop assistant. Attached was a handwritten note which proclaimed: "Survival in the city of millionaires would be impossible without us!" It was signed by "Spider Mum", "Santa Guevara" and "Multiflex".

Another note later released by the gang insisted that the haul had been distributed to Hamburg's needy, to the "social workers, cleaning ladies and minimum-wage earners". It added: "The places of wealth in this town are as numerous as the opportunities to take it."

"It was a well-planned robbery," Carsten Sievers, the store's manager, said on Friday last week. "Somebody had obviously been in the shop before the main contingent arrived and had already filled up several shopping trolleys."

Fourteen squad cars and a police helicopter scoured the Altona district for more than an hour after the robbery, but failed to find the perpetrators.

"The gang covered its tracks completely. They act like professionals," Bodo Franz, the head of a Hamburg police unit investigating the robbery, said.

As they left the scene of the robbery, the gang, clad in masks, catsuits, dark glasses and rubber masks, posed for a group photo outside the supermarket and brandished their booty in front of the camera.

The incident was the latest attack perpetrated by this Robin Hood-style gang of so-called "Spontis", whose activities have alarmed and baffledthe Hamburg police and the city's well-to-do. Yet the gang, which refers to itself as "Hamburg for Free", does not strike often. Its last attack took place almost exactly a year ago, when 40 masked men and women stormed the Süllberg restaurant in the city's wealthy Blankenese district overlooking the river Elbe.

Diners were appalled as the gang snatched titbits from the plates in front of them and started stuffing the stolen food into their mouths. Other gang members brandished a huge knife and fork made out of silver foil and cardboard above the diners' heads. A placard declaring "The fat years are over" was strung between pillars in the restaurant.

Mr Franz, who has been trying to track down the "Hamburg for Free" gang since the incident a year ago, said that investigators had merely established that the group was probably made up of a mixture of students and anarchists.

"We don't know much about them. They are very political yet one of their main motives is fun," he said. "The problem is that they strike so rarely and so professionally that they are a major job to catch."


China's "Cancer Villages" Pay Heavy Price for Economic Progress

Sitting on his bed in his spartan house in one of China's so-called cancer villages, a 77-year-old retired cadre sheds tears as he speaks of the pollution he believes is killing him.

"I just hope I can die sooner. I gave my life to the Communist Party yet I have nothing now, I have nothing to leave to my own children," the man said, tears rolling down his cheeks.

The man, who requested anonymity out of fear of government reprisals, was diagnosed with lung cancer several years ago, which he believes was caused by years of breathing in the local chemical-filled air and drinking contaminated water.

The man lives in Liukuaizhuang village which, along with neighboring Xiditou village in Tianjin municipality 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of Beijing, rose from poor areas into economic "successes" after scores of chemical factories moved in two decades ago.

But the industry that brought the villages wealth and employment also ended up destroying the environment and is widely believed to have ultimately cost the health and lives of many residents.

Locals say over 200 residents in the two villages have been diagnosed with diseases including bone, lung, liver and breast cancers, while a handful of children are suffering from leukemia.

A report on the People's Daily website, quoting Tianjin health authorities, said the rates of cancer in Liukuaizhuang and Xiditou were 1,313 and 2,032 per 100,000 people, way above the national average of 70 per 100,000 people.

According to the report, high levels of bacteria, fluoride and cancer-causing hydroxybenzene that exceeded government limits have been found in Liukuaizhuang's water.

Even after the government ordered scores of polluting factories to close and declared the local water safe enough to drink, smaller factories continue to operate secretly as local officials turn a blind eye, villagers say.

Residents say they are simply helpless to fight the factories or seek compensation as they have no legal recourse.

Xu Kezhu, from the China Politics and Law University's Environmental Pollution Victim Support Center, said the group had been trying to help residents sue factories but none of the cases had been accepted by the courts.

Despite receiving national media attention, the lack of evidence remains a problem as local government officials pressure doctors into staying silent over the link between pollution and the high cancer rate, villagers say.

Factory owners and wealthier residents have mostly moved out of the area, yet for those who are too poor to move, every day is just another depressing reminder that pain and death are never far away.

Liang Shuli, a Xiditou resident whose five-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia, said villagers had no choice but to suffer.

"There is no way out for us, we are still drinking that water," Liang said. "Where do we get the money to buy mineral water?"

Another resident from Xiditou, Li Baoqi, whose wife had recently been diagnosed with liver cancer, agreed.

"If you get the disease, you are just waiting to die," he said.

Another villager who only wanted to be identified by his surname of Lui was one of the luckier ones as he could afford to move his family to escape the chronic pollution and only comes home occasionally.

"This is the river where we used to swim as boys," sighed Lui, looking behind his backyard to the waterway that is now clogged up with industrial waste.

"Our village used to be known as the home to fish and rice -- now look at it."

Reports of "cancer villages" have become increasingly frequent across China, a brutal legacy of the environmental and health woes that have accompanied the nation's past 25 years of economic growth.

Xu said her center alone was dealing with 70 such cases, although she was unable to provide statistics on how many villages across China had been similarly affected.

In Liukuaizhuang, with unemployment high amid economy stagnation following the closures of the chemical factories, locals are left to lament on the false dawn that China's industrial reforms brought them.

"Before, you were poor but you had health. And health surely is the most precious thing," Lui said.

Friday, May 05, 2006


The Innocence Project: Guilty until Proven Innocent

Capital punishment in the US is under the microscope and lawyers using the latest forensic science techniques have found justice wanting.
by Andrew Gumbel

Cameron Todd Willingham is the first and only man executed in the United States for suspected arson after his three children, all under the age of three, burned to death at their home in Corsicana, about an hour's drive south-east of Dallas, Texas, in December 1991.

Willingham testified at his trial that he narrowly escaped the fire himself, that he tried and failed to rescue his children, that he then made repeated attempts to call for help and re-enter the building, at one point smashing a window with a pool cue in the hope of reaching the children's bedrooms.

Not everyone, though, believed him. One of his neighbours, who knew he was a drifter, knew he had trouble holding down a job and knew about his fondness for going out to drink beer and play darts, thought he hadn't done nearly enough to save his family.

When the fire marshals examined the aftermath of the fire, they too found some anomalies and began to wonder if Willingham hadn't set it deliberately. Particularly damning at his trial was the testimony of the deputy state fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez, who examined the burn patterns on the wood floor and the melted aluminium threshold piece, as well as the way certain pieces of glass has cracked into crazy patterns in the heat, and told the jury there was no way this was the result of an accident. Someone, presumably Willingham, had sprinkled fuel and set light to the building.

"The fire tells a story," Mr Vasquez said on the stand at Willingham's trial. "I am just the interpreter. I am looking at the fire, and I am interpreting the fire. That is what I know. That is what I do best. And the fire does not lie. It tells the truth."

Willingham was duly convicted of murder and, after 12 years on death row, was executed by lethal injection in February 2004.

Now, though, compelling evidence has emerged that Mr Vasquez did not in fact know what he was talking about. None of his testimony has passed muster with a panel of acknowledged arson experts, which has gone over it in detail. And without his testimony, the case against Willingham is left essentially baseless. Unlike most capital convictions, where a defendant's protestations of innocence raise the question of who else might have committed the crime, this case may well have constituted no criminal behaviour whatsoever, just one more ghastly element in an unspeakable family tragedy. That is certainly what Willingham asserted as he went to his death. "The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not committed," he said. "I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."

Thanks to the work of the New York-based Innocence Project - a team of defence lawyers who put dubious capital convictions under the microscope of modern technology - his protest is looking increasingly believable.

The group commissioned a real expert's report using advances in the understanding of arson evidence which will make uncomfortable reading for the prosecution in the Willingham case. Their findings will this week be handed to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which is constitutionally bound to launch its own investigation and report back to Governor Rick Perry, the man who gave the green light to Willingham's execution.

The Innocence Project's report will be hard to argue with. It was compiled by four of the country's leading arson experts who have testified on behalf of defence and prosecution in previous cases. Their conclusion: Willingham's conviction was based on bad science, and none of the evidence should have ever led investigators to believe the fire was set deliberately. "While we have no doubt that ... witnesses believed what they were saying, each and every one of the indicators relied upon have since been scientifically proven to be invalid," the report says.

And so the stage is set for the next big showdown over the death penalty in the US. Already, the pace of executions in most states has slowed because of doubts in recent years about the safety of capital convictions. The release of death row inmates shown by DNA evidence and other methods to have been innocent of the crimes of which they were accused is steadily increasing.

And a host of other doubts are being introduced. California's execution machine is at a standstill because of evidence that the lethal drugs administered during executions merely mask the pain felt by the dying prisoner instead of eliminating it. Reports emerged from Ohio on Tuesday of convicted murderer Joseph Lewis Clark taking 90 minutes to die after the team trying to deliver a lethal injection had problems finding a suitable vein.

The Project's lawyers have been instrumental in forcing courts to take new DNA-testing technology into account when reviewing convictions. Since 1992, when the Innocence Project first began, 175 prisoners have been exonerated, including 14 who spent time on death row.

It was the Project's lawyers who first questioned the arson evidence. They assembled the panel of experts and commissioned the report. More strikingly, they were also responsible for lobbying the Texas authorities and bringing about the existence of the Forensic Science Commission in the first place.

As the Innocence Project itself put it in a statement, the release of its report "marks the first time in the nation that scientific evidence showing an innocent person was executed has been submitted to a government entity that is legally obligated to investigate cases, reach conclusions and direct system-wide reviews to determine the extent of the problem". In other words, it could conceivably be the beginning of the end of the death penalty in Texas.

It also spells political trouble for Governor Perry as he faces an election race this November. Many of the arson panel's conclusions had been reached even before Willingham's execution, by a Cambridge-educated arson expert called Gerald Hurst, who passed on his findings to the Governor's office. As he told an investigative team from the Chicago Tribune at the time: "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire." It does not appear, however, that Dr Hurst's findings were taken seriously by either the Governor's office or the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Barry Scheck, one of the two principles of the Innocence Project, who remains perhaps most famous for his role in defending O J Simpson, said he had established through open records requests that the Hurst report had indeed been properly filed before the execution.

"Neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it or calling any attention to it within the government," he said. "The only reasonable conclusion is that the Governor's office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence and went through with the execution."

The prosecution, meanwhile, presented last-minute, second-hand evidence that Willingham had confessed to his estranged wife, something she later said was untrue.

Perhaps most poignant for Willingham's surviving relatives is that, at the time of execution, a similar case was going through the Texas legal system, that of Ernest Willis, who had been sentenced to death for his alleged role in setting a fatal fire in west Texas in 1987. Dr Hurst examined his case, too, found the forensic evidence similarly flawed and said he saw no evidence of arson. Willis was able to have his case reopened and dismissed. He walked out of death row a free man seven months after Willingham's execution.

All this adds up to a potentially explosive cocktail of political and social issues. Texans may be more attached than most Americans to the death penalty, but even they tend to draw the line at putting innocent people to death. One candidate in the governor's race, the humourist and former singer Kinky Friedman, does not appear to have been harmed by his record of campaigning on behalf of death row prisoners. One of Friedman's campaign lines is: "Texas: 50th in education, first in executions... how's that working for you?"

If the political tide is turning slowly, the sense of discomfort in the professional world of forensics and legal analysis is starting to be overwhelming. Copycat Innocence Projects have been set up. The original one, meanwhile, has been at the forefront of denouncing errors and unprofessional behaviour at forensic crime labs around the country, most notably in Virginia, Texas and Ohio.

The group has also made disturbing findings about the functioning of the criminal justice system more generally. The Innocence Project has found that the single biggest cause of wrongful convictions is mistaken eyewitness identification testimony. In more than a third of cases, forensic science has also been misapplied in some way, with experts presenting "fraudulent, exaggerated, or otherwise tainted evidence to the judge or jury".

Six years ago, the state of Illinois issued a blanket commutation of all its death sentences after it was established that 13 people on death row were in fact innocent of the crimes of which they were committed. (In that case, it was journalism students at Northwestern University who did the legwork.) Much more recently, New York state chose not to reinstate its death penalty law.

The backlash against capital punishment may be coming too late for Willingham, but his case remains a potent weapon in the hands of the Innocence Project and other campaigners. If Texas, of all states, is forced to acknowledge it killed an innocent man, then the death penalty may be on its way to extinction.

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Feeding Crime

If governments really want to improve law and order, they should ban adverts for junk food

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 2nd May 2006

Does television cause crime? The idea that people copy the violence they watch is debated endlessly by criminologists. But this column concerns an odder and perhaps more interesting notion: if crime leaps out of the box, it is not the programmes that are responsible as much as the material in between. It proposes that violence emerges from those blissful images of family life, purged of all darkness, that we see in the advertisements.

Let me begin, in constructing this strange argument, with a paper published in the latest edition of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. It provides empirical support for the contention that children who watch more television eat more of the foods it advertises. “Each hour increase in television viewing”, it found, “was associated with an additional 167 kilocalories per day”(1). Most of these extra calories were contained in junk foods: fizzy drinks, crisps, biscuits, sweets, burgers and chicken nuggets. Watching television, the paper reported, “is also inversely associated with intake of fruit and vegetables”.

There is no longer any serious debate about what a TV diet does to your body. A government survey published last month shows that the proportion of children in English secondary schools who are clinically obese has almost doubled in ten years. Today, 27% of girls and 24% of boys between 11 and 15 years old suffer from this condition, which means they are far more likely to contract diabetes and to die before the age of 50(2). But the more interesting question is what this diet might do to your mind. There are now scores of studies suggesting that it hurts the brain as much as it hurts the heart and the pancreas. Among the many proposed associations is a link between bad food and violent or anti-social behaviour.

The most spectacular results were those reported in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine in 1997(3). The researchers had conducted a double-blind, controlled experiment in a jail for chronic offenders aged between 13 and 17. Many of the boys there were deficient in certain nutrients. They consumed, on average, only 63% of the iron, 42% of the magnesium, 39% of the zinc, 39% of the vitamin B12 and 34% of the folate in the US government’s recommended daily allowance. The researchers treated half the inmates with capsules containing the missing nutrients, and half with placebos. They also counselled all the prisoners in the trial about improving their diets. The number of violent incidents caused by inmates in the control group (those taking the placebos) fell by 56%, and in the experimental group by 80%. But among the inmates in the placebo group who refused to improve their diets, there was no reduction. The researchers also wired their subjects up to an electroencephalogram (which records brainwave patterns), and found a major decrease in abnormalities after 13 weeks on supplements(4).

A similar paper, published in 2002 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that among young adult prisoners given supplements of the vitamins, minerals and fatty acids in which they were deficient, disciplinary offences fell by 26% in the experimental group, and not at all in the control group(5). Researchers in Finland found that all 68 of the violent offenders they tested during another study suffered from reactive hypoglycaemia: an abnormal tolerance of glucose caused by an excessive consumption of sugar, carbohydrates and stimulants such as caffeine(6). In March this year the lead author of the 2002 report, Bernard Gesch, told the Ecologist magazine that “having a bad diet is now a better predictor of future violence than past violent behaviour. ... Likewise, a diagnosis of psychopathy, generally perceived as being a better predictor than a criminal past, is still miles behind what you can predict just from looking at what a person eats.”(7)

Why should a link between diet and behaviour be surprising? Quite aside from the physiological effects of eating too much sugar (apparent to anyone who has attended a children’s party), the brain, whose function depends on precise biochemical processes, can’t work properly with insufficient raw materials. The most important of these appear to be unsaturated fatty acids (especially the omega 3 types), zinc, magnesium, iron, folate and the B vitamins(8), which happen to be those in which the prisoners in the 1997 study were most deficient. A report published at the end of last year by the pressure group Sustain explained what appear to be clear links between deteriorating diets and the growth of depression, behavioural problems, Alzheimer’s and other forms of mental illness. Sixty per cent of the dry weight of the brain is fat, which is “unique in the body for being predominantly composed of highly unsaturated fatty acids”(9). Zinc and magnesium affect both its metabolism of lipids and its production of neurotransmitters – the chemicals which permit the nerve cells to communicate with each other.

The more junk you eat, the less room you have for foods which contain the chemicals the brain needs. This is not to suggest that the food advertisers are solely responsible for the decline in the nutrients we consume. As Graham Harvey’s new book We Want Real Food shows, industrial farming, dependent on artificial fertilisers, has greatly reduced the mineral content of vegetables, while the quality of meat and milk has also declined(10). Nor do these findings suggest that a poor diet is the sole cause of crime and anti-social behaviour. But the studies I have read suggest that any government which claims to take crime seriously should start hitting the advertisers.

Instead, our government sits back while the television regulator, Ofcom, canoodles with the food industry. While drawing up its plans to control junk food adverts, Ofcom held 29 meetings with food producers and advertisers and just four meetings with health and consumer groups(11). The results can be seen in the consultation document it has published(12). It proposes to do nothing about adverts among programmes made for children over 9 and nothing about the adverts the younger children watch most often. Which? reports that the most popular ITV programmes among 2-9 year olds are Dancing on Ice, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, but Ofcom plans to regulate only the programmes made specifically for the under-9s. It claims that tougher rules would cost the industry too much(13). To sustain the share values of the commercial broadcasters, Ofcom is prepared to sacrifice the physical and psychological well-being of our children.

At the European level, the collusion is even more obvious. Last week, Viviane Reding, the European media commissioner, spoke to a group of broadcasters about her plans to allow product placement in European TV programmes (this means that the advertisers would be allowed to promote their wares during, rather just between, the programmes). She complained that her proposal had been attacked by the European parliament. “You have to fight if you want to keep it,” she told the TV executives. “I would like to make it very clear that I need your support in this”(14).

I spent much of last week trying to discover whether the Home Office is taking the research into the links between diet and crime seriously. In the past, it has insisted that further studies are needed, while failing to fund them(15). First my request was met with incredulity, then I was stonewalled. Tough on crime. To hell with the causes of crime.

Monday, May 01, 2006


Your tax dollars at war...

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