Thursday, March 24, 2016

$1 Trillion - It's Your Money

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The Ploughshares Fund tracks nuclear weapons production and spending in an effort to reduce and eliminate the ultimate weapons of mass destruction that like the sword of Damocles hangs above our collective heads. They currently estimate there are 15,375 with the vast majority in the hands of the U.S. (6,970) and Russia (7,300) and the remaining ones held by France (300), China (260), UK (215), Pakistan (130), India (120), Israel (80), N. Korea (<15).

Emeritus Professor of history, Dr. Lawrence Wittner, recently noted in an article on the History News Network, that 

        "Isn’t it rather odd that America’s largest single public expenditure scheduled for the coming decades has received no attention in the 2015-2016 presidential debates?"

The recent budget proposal from our Nobel peace Laureate President calls for $1 Trillion investment in nuclear weapons over the next thirty years. This expense likely means that other programs that support the well-being of the planet and the people we share it with will need to be reduced. Wittner goes on to gather what little clips of response to Obama's plan from the current field of presidential candidates he ca find. Some of whom might be a little to eager to use them - only China and India have declared a "no first use" policy.

In an earlier article this year on the Huffington Post, Wittner explains a bit how an early aim of President Obama to reduce nuclear weapons reduction has shifted 180 degrees. 

Just yesterday, Prof. of International Law at the University Alabama, Dan Joyner discussed the hollowness of arguments to maintain such high numbers of weapons. On the Arms Control Wonk blog, Joyner discusses the legal gaps in law that some argue allow the first use of nuclear weapons under limited circumstance. The hollowness of those arguments along with the costs of developing and maintaining them make even holding them challengeable. In another recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, they call for a renewed stigmatization of nuclear weapons to be used against  the nuclear club of nations.

And last week Greg Foster, a professor at the National Defense University, West Point graduate and decorated veteran of the Vietnam wrote a truly powerful critique of not only our nuclear weapons black hole but how civilian control of the military has become a fantasy and a crisis. 

   " The military remains the permanent keeper and executor of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal: an estimated 4,700 nuclear warheads on some 800 delivery systems, as well as another 2,340 “retired” but still intact and presumably usable warheads. A three-decade, trillion-dollar upgrade of this already monstrous arsenal is now underway. The Economist has called this Washington’s “unkicked addiction.” It should be clear, but apparently isn’t, that these are weapons of disuse. Other than for destroying the planet if used, their only value is as a measure of muscularity against mirror-image peers. They deter nothing at other levels of muscle-flexing but do feed an insatiable thirst for emulation among jealous non-possessors of such weaponry."

Foster goes on with a much larger critique including a long list of examples of what he calls the military's many failures of social responsibility.  And it didn't even include the report in the Washington Post last week regarding the investigation of drug use by U.S. troops assigned to safeguard those weapons or by the decision of a president like Trump who show little hesitation to use nuclear weapons.

Joining Foster this week was another military man, retired Lieutenant Colonel  and professor of history, William Astore, whose piece explores what he calls, "A Force Unto Itself."

     "In the decades since the draft ended in 1973, a strange new military has emerged in the United States. Think of it, if you will, as a post-democratic force that prides itself on its warrior ethos rather than the old-fashioned citizen-soldier ideal.   As such, it’s a military increasingly divorced from the people, with a way of life ever more foreign to most Americans (adulatory as they may feel toward its troops).  Abroad, it’s now regularly put to purposes foreign to any traditional idea of national defense.  In Washington, it has become a force unto itself, following its own priorities, pursuing its own agendas, increasingly unaccountable to either the president or Congress."

And of course, few are brave enough, with those above being the exception to the rule, to call this craziness out. There is enough pessimism in all this to send us all back to the sofa to watch NCAA basketball, crime based shows, or whatever we need to escape from the reality that these authors paint from experience, research and reflection. Our silence, to quote the title of MLK, Jr.'s most forceful critique of war, is betrayal.

Speaking of YOUR MONEY, it may seem a stretch, but entrepreneur Judy Wicks in a recent article Building a Local Peace Economy, articulates another approach to reclaim power we each could choose. It represents both an immediately available option, but a long slow change. The nuclear freeze movement brought people to the streets around the globe that helped shine a light on nuclear weapons to begin at least a scaling back. But with 15,000 loaded and ready to be used at the drop of a hat during these increasingly desperate and fearful times, we nudge closer to an event from which we may not escape. At a minimum we should vote this fall with this awareness at hand and judge our candidates for federal office by their positions on whether spending billions on weapons will make us and other residents of this planet any safer.

Now back to your regular program.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

New Whine in Old Bottles

Waste:  “To use, consume, spend, or expend thoughtlessly or carelessly…An unusable or unwanted substance or material.” (American Heritage Dictionary).

On a finite planet with an increasing population, wasting something will eventually mean that down the road, something will be unavailable to others.  Sustainability on a crowded planet calls for reducing waste towards zero.  We often think of waste in terms of what we send to a landfill. Is everything that we put on the curb truly, in light of the definition above, “unusable or unwanted”? It would seem when we make that decision to put it on the curb we know we don’t want it or plan to reuse it, but might others who follow after we have scoured our landscapes want that which we now judge unusable or unwanted?

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Let me pick one example where many of us are guilty: wine. No, not the remnants of the fluid in the bottom of the bottle. The bottle itself. Michigan residents consume an average of 7.6 liters of vino per year, roughly 35 bottles each. Together we empty an estimated 250 million bottles a year. Since there is no formal deposit program for wine bottles, unlike carbonated beverages, most of these end up in a landfill. Recycling green glass, the predominant color of wine bottles was a challenge until recently. Now both Lansing and East Lansing accept all colors of bottles in their curbside recycling programs.

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Now, wine bottles even when empty are not light. A medium weight empty wine bottle weighs in at 1.4 pounds, but some, especially those holding carbonated wine, are much heavier. It takes an enormous amount of energy to make a glass bottle as temperatures between 2600-2800 degrees Fahrenheit are required. An EPA Life Cycle Assessment found that the production of a ton of virgin glass produces  0.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2E) gases. There are some savings in using recycled glass, but the typical amount currently quoted in wine bottles is only 5% and rarely ever exceeds 30% recycled content.

Research has shown that 50% of the CO2 emissions of a bottle of wine are tied directly to the bottle’s manufacture.  A ton of glass wine bottles would add up to roughly 1,400 bottles. Multiplying out the number of bottles we consume here in Michigan, we are now talking 107,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MTCO2E). Some wineries more focused on sustainability, like Fetzer Vineyards, made a major transition to lighter bottles nearly a decade ago, lowering their carbon emissions by 14 %.  Switching to lighter glass not only reduces the carbon footprint, it reduces both shipping and purchasing costs by as much as 38%, according to a report in Wine Business Monthly.

Recycling glass bottles can cut CO2 emissions by up to 20 % over virgin bottle production. In California, our largest wine-producing state,  85 % of bottles with deposits (beer, soda) are recycled but only 19% of non-deposit bottles. Nationally, at most only 18% of wine and liquor bottles are recycled. The bigger environmental savings, however, would come from reusing the bottles. A wine bottle reuse firm was launched in California in 2010 but ended up folding a year later due to a combination of equipment failures evidently triggered by the extremely varied type of wine bottles.  The company had determined they could reduce the carbon footprint by 95 %. That figure was in line with an earlier study that reported a 93 % reduction in energy In reusing, washing and sterilizing glass bottles.  Unfortunately, the equipment as designed for washing and sanitizing couldn’t handle the estimated 500 different bottle styles.

Michigan wineries produce 2.3 million gallons of wine a year, roughly ten million bottles. Of course, as stated above we consume way more wine than that.  Seems like we should be able to find a way to retrieve some of those and get them to our local wineries for reuse. If we could refill half of the wine bottles produced in Michigan we could save about 2,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. In the process we could create local jobs in collecting, cleaning, and delivery. Wineries could market themselves as ‘greener’ by reducing their CO2 impacts in half! And we winos could feel a little better about the juice we enjoy.

Look for future ventures into other waste reduction arenas - food and energy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Nuclear Option

The moose in the room that most everyone is blind to it seems, is our utter acceptance of a bloated and constantly expanding military budget. Even our Nobel Peace laureate President is not beyond offering up yet another increase in the current budget for our supposed 'defense'.

The Project on Government Oversight called the new budget a Mardi Gras for Defense Contractors . As President Eisenhower warned as he left office, the military-industrial complex has its tentacles wrapped tightly around the American psyche. They have managed to employ a system so that each state has some defense industry ties that every Senator feels the need to support when threats of possible cuts are raised. Bring home the bacon time and the new budget has plenty of fat.

Perhaps nowhere is that needless fat more unhealthy than our nuclear weapons program.

 A 2011 study estimates that the nine nuclear nations (U.S., Russia, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, China, Israel, and North Korea) collectively spend more than $100 million a year on nuclear weapons, with the U.S. alone counting for more than half of that.

Over a decade that's $1 Trillion not spent on development, clean energy, health care, or education. It is hard to imagine effectively addressing the twin threats of climate change or income inequality when such huge drains on our wealth are funneled towards such wasteful production. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons notes the many disparities that this wasteful nuclear weapons spending creates.

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Yet not one presidential candidate from the major political parties has even hinted at plugging this leak, for fear that somehow they might be considered 'weak on defense'. One might try to abstract from the Progressive Caucus' 2017 People's Budget proposal that Bernie Sanders supports some reduction (he is a member of the caucus). But he has not addressed defense spending nor nuclear weapons directly in debates or forums or on his campaign's website.

If we want to face the dire threats of climate change [note the report from NOAA yesterday that the past three months were the warmest winter we have recorded since keeping records] and increasing income inequality we may wish to pause and reflect on the costs of militarization and our foreign policy orientation. At a minimum we should accelerate the nuclear disarmament that  was begun at the end of the Cold War but has stalled. A February 2016 report from the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDR) "A Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons: A Guide to the Issues" has tried to rekindle that effort. Also last week saw the first meeting of a new UN working group on nuclear disarmament called the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG).

Of course there is literally no media coverage of either of these global efforts in the nation that launched and leads the nuclear nations. When we begin to look at the costs of maintaining these maddening weapon programs and the corollary lost opportunities those ongoing expenditures create, maybe then we might find the resources to tackle climate change and income inequality. Those interested in that effort might consider attending the world congress this fall in Berlin organized by the International Peace Bureau and the Global Campaign on Military Spending.

Neither was their coverage of  the recent British citizen march against nuclear weapons where tens of thousands hot the streets calling for an end to the madness.

Early estimates had Saturday's crowd in the "many tens of thousands." (Photo: @GreenpeaceUK/Twitter)

At least we should have all candidates for federal office address these issues so we can determine who might steer us towards a more peaceful future. To do less is a crime against future generations.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Days of Decision

                To believe in the possibility of change is something very precise. It means that we believe in the reality of choice. That there are choices. That we have the power to choose in hope of altering society for the greater good. Do we believe that our governments must inevitably tax the poor through stealth taxes such as state controlled gambling? Or do we believe there is a choice? Do we believe that unserviceable Third World debt could be written off, if we choose to do so? The convictions that citizens have such  power lies at the heart of the idea of civilization as a shared project. And the more people are confident that there are real choices, the more they want to vote – a minimal act – and of greater importance, the more they want to become involved in their society. (John Ralston Saul, The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World, 2009, pp.4-5)

We Michiganders and citizens of 34 other states have a choice to make in the next weeks, those of us who choose to weigh in on who might lead the federal government for the next four to eight years.  If we are controlled by fears we will be drawn to what we perceive as the safest choice. There are certainly reasons for fear. But just as we keep kicking the response to ever more likely climate destabilization down the road with anemic  actions, failure to change the direction of our political system is more probably leading right to the edge of an abyss we cannot fully fathom from here – a bigger fear, especially for those that live after we older ones expire.

So much prognostication about who would beat whom in a November runoff is full of uncertainty – the who’s and the whom’s for starters. The complexities of our interdependent systems are so vast and emergent properties unknowable that, despite our penchant for data based solutions, the forces that are beyond measurement still have much to say about where we go together as a human family on a finite planet.

Who decides to come to the polls that day, or stay home? What shifts might occur in races for local, state and national offices? What events might occur to shift our attention to issues not even on our radar at the moment? What funds of money will be unleashed to sell one candidate or to demolish another? Nate Silver and the other prognosticators of the day, despite their ability to crunch numbers can't answer those questions with anything like certainty. So we will decide based upon a combination of our faith in what we do know and on the hunches that fester inside each of us.

The reality as John Ralston Saul noted is choice matters and we each have it. What do we believe in? What are we willing to work for to make our collective future and that which we hand-off to our granddaughters and grandsons? Are we looking at short-term safety or longer term survival? Those are questions we might contemplate as we make our way to the polls in the coming week. As Phil Ochs once sang, these are the Days of Decision (click to listen).

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Oh, the shadows of doubt are in many a mind
Lookin' for an answer they're never gonna find
But they'd better decide 'cause they're runnin' out of time
For these are the days of decision

Oh, the games of stalling you cannot afford
Dark is the danger that's knocking on the door
And the far reaching rockets say you can't wait anymore
For these are the days of decision

In the face of the people who know they're gonna win
There's a strength that's greater than the power of the wind
And you can't stand around when the ice is growing thin
For these are the days of decision

I've seen your heads hinding 'neath the blankets of fear
When the paths they are plain and the choices are clear
But with each passing day, boys, the cost is more dear
For these are the days of decision

There's many a cross that burns in the night
And the fingers of the fire are pointing as they bite
Oh, you can't let the smoke keep on blinding all your sight
For these are the days of decision

Now the mobs of anger are roamin' the street
From the rooftops they are aimin' at the police on the beat
And in city after city you know they will repeat
For these are the days of decision

There's been warnin's of fire, warnin's of flood
Now there's the warnin' of the bullet and the blood
From the three bodies buried in the Mississippi mud
Sayin' these are the days of decision

There's a change in the wind and a split in the road
You can do what's right or you can do what you are told
And the prize of the victory will belong to the bold
Yes, these are the days of decision