Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Living as if Life matters

Three billion years is a pretty long time to learn things. So why do we humans want to keep “reinventing the wheel” – or, in this case, virtually everything but the wheel?
I'm talking about the fact today's scientists, at long last, are beginning to seriously look at the fact our technology does things using toxic chemicals, high heat and physically destructive, wasteful processes to do the same things that Nature has evolved to do using low-temp methods and simple materials.
Think about it: the living world managed to create DNA, a multi-million-atom molecule, using just CO2, water, nitrogen, sunlight, and a little phosphorus, sulfur and iron. No petri dishes. No microscopes. Nobody carefully toggling the dials to get it just right. No waste that can't be reused safely. Just life gradually building itself over the long course of time.
Biologist Janine Benyus calls the process of turning to Nature for its solutions to problems we face “biomimicry,” and it could conceivably give us ideas for almost everything. According to her recent talks at (a source of all kinds of fascinating science and cultural ideas, if you've never heard of it), researchers have begun to go out to the real world to see how to duplicate spider silk's strength, how leaf structures can be adapted to keep paint clean and store wind or solar energy, how to grow simple but effective lenses the way starfish do, how the construction of termite mounds in the Australian desert could keep humans cool, how to do complex chemistry in water, etc.
Sound strange? It shouldn't, since we're distant cousins to all of these lifeforms. But we've allowed our own hubris to make us forget that, converting an ancient “live and let live” relationship where the living world was kin (with some necessary hunting, like any other carnivore) into seeing Nature as a bunch of disconnected “things” to exploit. We benefit short-term both ways, but the former ensures a long-term existence, while the latter is, as we're now seeing, self-destructive in an accelerating manner.
A strong case in point comes from another TED talk by Marla Spivak on why bees are disappearing. If you haven't heard, the last couple of winters in the US have seen bee colony losses of around 30 percent a year. Spivak and others attribute that in large part to our giant monoculture farms overusing pesticides, which either kill them outright or, in low doses, confuse them so they can't find their way home.
While we don't have such farms in our area, the fact our yards are similar monocultures of grass sprayed liberally with common pesticides has a similar impact. From an ecological point of view, a lawn is essentially well-watered green desert – very little plant variety to attract pollinators, root-length variety to work the soil, or food to attract birds or small animals.
That's why Maureen and I decided a few years ago to let our land revert to meadow in the areas we aren't actually growing food. I'm sure some people driving by see it as chaotic, but it's a riot of fertility, with all kinds of flowers blooming at various times pollinated by dragonflies, butterflies, bees, wasps and other insects. We routinely see small mammals, frogs, snakes, multiple bird species and a turtle or two, and have been visited by turkeys, deer, opossum and even a fox.

To us, that's not disorder – it's a healthy living world, one we know is safe for our young niece and cousins. And if the minimal control we exercise means we lose a few zucchini to squash bugs, some beans to unknown eaters, or a couple tomatoes to hornworms, we'll live with it. They need to eat, too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Talking chicken

Dorrie reads over Lauren's shoulder (from her website)

Now that it looks like we won't be blowing ourselves up (this week, anyway), let's talk chicken.
Or, rather let's let Lauren Scheuer do it.
The Upton resident is bringing “A Flock of their Own," her tales of fowl hijinks and learning experiences to Jacobs Edwards Library next Thursday.
They live in the moment, chickens do. They know how to handle day today challenges,” she said. “Chicken personalities are extreme versions of people I know.”
Although her favorite is Lucy, a hen who got sick and became partly paralyzed after six months, but lived to squawk about it, Scheuer sees unique character in all of her hens (and the one rooster she had for a year). There are dozens of chicken types bred for particular traits – for example, barred rocks are known to be sociable and good egg-layers, while buff orpingtons generally like to be handled. But not all fit the mold.
Take Lil White, her orpington – “She's sociopathic and wants me dead,” Scheuer said. The chicken routinely pecks at her legs when she comes in to feed them and “has no friends, but she doesn't need them. … She's a jerk, but I adore her.”
Lucy, by contrast, brought both Scheuer and her dog into the flock. Because the hen is paralyzed from an illness that's normally fatal, Scheuer “built her a special-needs coop.” When Lucy went “broody” (that is, wanted to sit on a clutch of eggs), she got the hen a few fertile ones. One hatched, and “she needed me with her while she taught her baby how to be a chicken. It was beautiful, and I got to see it all because of Lucy.”
Scheuer is not alone in being a suburbanite who has or wants chickens. Like her, many owning fairly small plots (hers is an acre) and with no interest in commercial chicken farming get a few birds as pets or as a daily supply of protein widely described as having a color and taste better than store-bought eggs. They also tend not to have the chemicals found in eggs from the giant commercial chicken factories, where chickens routinely spend their lives in tiny wire crates on shelves and live on a diet of “food” that's often not really food, hormones and antibiotics to promote quantity of production rather than quality. In some cases, they're technically labeled as “free range” because they have a doorway to the outside even though they don't use it.
Small backyard flocks, by contrast, usually do really go outdoors, giving the birds a chance to eat what they evolved to eat: worms, insects, seeds and other things that pass their nutrients into the eggs (and, for those so inclined, meat). Although our region tends to have too many hazards of both the human (fast cars) and wild (fishers, coyotes, hawks) kind for it to be safe for small flocks to be truly free-roaming, they don't require a huge amount of fenced space to be safe and still have enough room to minimize the conflicts and the smell that are inherent to overcrowded conditions.
Not that it's possible to avoid ALL hen conflicts. Like any group animal, they have their social order and sometimes disgruntled hens hope to change it,especially if one dies or a new one joins. We did, after all, take the term “pecking order” from them.

Chickens run around at a Brookfield farm (my photo)

They're living dinosaurs, and they're prey, so they behave differently from house pets,” Scheuer noted.
That shows up in their “language,” in which chickens – like other birds – have specific calls for various events. Over time, it's possible to distinguish their alarm calls that indicate an aerial threat from a ground-based one and one of those calls from the routine egg-laying squawks. Up close, people can also see they quietly talk to each other while pecking for bugs, although only chickens know what they're saying.
Like most non-human species, they're far more intelligent than we give them credit for. Although it doesn't hurt them to take their eggs -- they lay one almost every day in the warmer seasons, and a few times a weeks in winter, for several years – that doesn't mean chickens were put here to please or feed us. They evolved independently of humans, but our paths crossed at some point around 8,000 years ago in southeast Asia. Nobody's quite sure what happened, but someone realized the wild red jungle fowl living near them had a trait that's odd in the avian world: the hens didn't need roosters to lay eggs (although without one, the eggs aren't fertile) and began keeping the hens for that purpose. The genetics “suggest multiple origins of domestication,” with the earliest known archeological evidence dating from China around 5400 BCE, according to a short but well-referenced column at
I wanted some lawn ornaments, really,” Scheuer said of why she got the first of her hens about five and a half years ago by mail order. She initially tried raising them “in the living room, and realized their cuteness and tininess didn't last long.”
I love the idea of people in suburbs and cities having chickens, but just like dog owners, there will be some people who don't do right by their chickens,” she said. Among other things, she believes there need to be “fair limits” on doing so, including limiting them to hens only (roosters cause most of the noise that riles neighbors) and ensuring the birds have enough space.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When is a declaration of war not one?

Apparently, when the target is Syria...

"... this resolution shall not constitute an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war except to the extent that it authorizes military action under the conditions, for the specific purposes, and for the limited period of time set forth in this resolution."

That text is from Section 7 of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's draft resolution authorizing attacking Syria (full text below, obtained here). How, exactly, is bombarding a country with hundreds of missiles NOT a "declaration of war" as stated in Section 7? To anybody sane, it is; only in the minds of corrupt politicians is it otherwise.
We tell them we don't want war in Syria by a 9:1 margin (and it's still at least 2:1 even if they prove the Assad government used chemicals, which they haven't yet), but they devised the following resolution to go to war anyway. That raises the obvious question -- for whom do they want a war in Syria? Who benefits?
Certainly NOT the American people, although a few giant corporations stand to make millions in the short-term (which is their vision's only horizon). We've already seen "defense" stock prices rising as they orgasm over the possibility of our government needing to order new missiles, etc., to replace the ones this escapade uses.
I don't think this will benefit the Syrian people; it just adds another source of explosives and flying debris for them to hide from. In fact, it will probably push some who can't stand Assad to fight for Syria out of patriotism, on the grounds they're all being attacked by outsiders. Although many are fleeing the country in fear of the air strikes (and some government/military forces are dispersing to Lebanon to avoid them), there are also reports alleging some refugees are returning to join a potential fight against us. This should surprise no one -- If the US were attacked by an outside power, many of us would put aside our differences and unite in opposition.
Some argue it's being done for Israel, but I'm not sure they'd get much benefit either. Especially after their missile test in the Med yesterday, even if Israel technically stays out of it, they'll very likely be on the receiving end of something simply as a target of convenience. The other nations in the ME have long seen Israel as our proxy, so whatever WE do, they'll be seen as complicit.
One power who DOES seem to benefit is Saudi Arabia, the nation that's the source of many problems in that region because of its long-term export of authoritarian Wahhabi fundamentalist ideology, which tends to see both Shia and mainstream Sunni states as "infidels." Yet we think of them as "our friend" because of our oil addiction....

To authorize the limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria.
Whereas Syria is in material breach of the laws of war by having employed chemical weapons against its civilian population;
Whereas the abuses of the regime of Bashar al-Assad have included the brutal repression and war upon its own civilian population, resulting in more than 100,000 people killed in the past two years, and more than 2 million internally displaced people and Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, creating an unprecedented regional crisis and instability;
Whereas the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons programs in the region and has demonstrated its capability and willingness to repeatedly use weapons of mass destruction against its own people, including the August 21, 2013 attack in the suburbs of Damascus in which the Assad regime murdered over 1,000 innocent people, including hundreds of children;
Whereas there is clear and compelling evidence of the direct involvement of Assad regime forces and senior officials in the planning, execution, and after-action attempts to cover-up the August 21 attack, and hide or destroy evidence of such attack;
Whereas the Arab League has declared with regards to the August 21 incident to hold the “Syrian regime responsible for this heinous crime”;
Whereas the United Nations Security Council, in Resolution 1540 (2004) affirmed that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons constitutes a threat to international peace and security;
Whereas in the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, Congress found that Syria’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction threatens the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States;
Whereas the actions and conduct of the Assad regime are in direct contravention of Syria's legal obligations under the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Geneva Protocol to the Hague Convention on the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, and also violates standards set forth in the Chemical Weapons Convention;
Whereas Syria's use of weapons of mass destruction and its conduct and actions constitute a grave threat to regional stability, world peace, and the national security interests of the United States and its allies and partners;
Whereas the objectives of the United States use of military force in connection with this authorization are to respond to the use, and deter and degrade the potential future use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government;

Whereas the conflict in Syria will only be resolved through a negotiated political settlement, and Congress calls on all parties to the conflict in Syria to participate urgently and constructively in the Geneva process; and
Whereas the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States:

Now, therefore, be it,
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

This joint resolution may be cited as the “Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against the Government of Syria to Respond to Use of Chemical Weapons”.

(a) AUTHORIZATION-The President is authorized, subject to subsection (b), to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner against legitimate military targets in Syria, only to: (1) respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government in the conflict in Syria; (2) deter Syria’s use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interests of the United States and to protect our allies and partners against the use of such weapons; and (3) degrade Syria’s capacity to use such weapons in the future.

(b) REQUIREMENT FOR DETERMINATION THAT USE OF MILITARY FORCE IS NECESSARY- Before exercising the authority granted in subsection (a), the President shall make available to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate his determination that—
(1) the United States has used all appropriate diplomatic and other peaceful means to prevent the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction by Syria;
(2) the Syrian government has conducted one or more significant chemical weapons attacks;
(3) the use of military force is necessary to respond to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government;
(4) it is in the core national security interest of the United States to use such military force;
(5) the United States has a military plan to achieve the specific goals of responding to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government in the conflict in Syria, to deter Syria’s use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interests of the United States and to protect our allies and partners against the use of such weapons, and to degrade Syria’s capacity to use such weapons in the future; and
(6) the use of military force is consistent with and furthers the goals of the United States strategy toward Syria, including achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict.

(1) SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, 50 U.S.C. § 1541, et seq., the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution, within the limits of the authorization established under this Section.
(2) APPLICABILITY OF OTHER REQUIREMENTS- Nothing in this resolution supersedes any requirement of the War Powers Resolution.

The authority granted in section 2 does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations.

The authorization in section 2(a) shall terminate 60 days after the date of the enactment of this joint resolution, except that the President may extend, for a single period of 30 days, such authorization if –
(1) the President determines and certifies to Congress, not later than 5 days before the date of termination of the initial authorization, that the extension is necessary to fulfill the purposes of this resolution as defined by Section 2(a) due to extraordinary circumstances and for ongoing and impending military operations against Syria under section 2(a); and
(2) Congress does not enact into law, before the extension of authorization, a joint resolution disapproving the extension of the authorization for the additional 30 day period; provided that any such joint resolution shall be considered under the expedited procedures otherwise provided for concurrent resolutions of disapproval contained in section 7 of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1546).

Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this resolution, the President shall consult with Congress and submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives an integrated United States Government strategy for achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria, including a comprehensive review of current and planned U.S. diplomatic, political, economic, and military policy towards Syria, including: (1) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States; (2) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian political opposition, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition; (3) efforts to isolate extremist and terrorist groups in Syria to prevent their influence on the future transitional and permanent Syrian governments; (4) coordination with allies and partners; and (5) efforts to limit support from the Government of Iran and others for the Syrian regime.

(a) Notification and Provision of Information. Upon his determination to use the authority set forth in section 2 of this Act, the President shall notify Congress, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of the use of such authority and shall keep Congress fully and currently informed of the use of such authority.
(b) Reports. No fewer than 10 days after the initiation of military operations under the authority provided by Section 2, and every 20 days thereafter until the completion of military operations, the President shall submit to the Congress, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a report on the status of such operations, including progress achieved toward the objectives specified in Section 2(a), the financial costs of operations to date, and an assessment of the impact of the operations on the Syrian regime's chemical weapons capabilities and intentions.

The authority set forth in Section 2 of this resolution shall not constitute an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war except to the extent that it authorizes military action under the conditions, for the specific purposes, and for the limited period of time set forth in this resolution.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Down the road, a furor's brewing

On Tuesday, the Palmer Town Council voted to approve a “host community agreement” with Mohegan Sun for a potential casino off the Mass Pike there. It's a big deal – a $15.2 million initial payment plus about $13.2 million a year plus upgrades to town infrastructure the report claims will benefit residents to varying degrees plus a small percentage of the “gross gaming revenue.”
Sounds great, right? Wish it were here?
Nope. To me, having a casino in any town of Palmer's or Southbridge's size means essentially surrendering the community to all of the downsides of a one-company town with few of the benefits. Unlike major cities, where there's enough other economic activity to keep things moving, small towns can't support an entity that's so disproportionately big.
In theory, it provides jobs and tax money, but the reality is that happens at the expense of strangling the other businesses in town. That's twofold: because the casino is not locally-owned, almost all of its profits go elsewhere, and it has no reason to promote other businesses in town. It's essentially a self-contained $1 billion mini-city, with multiple retail stores, restaurants, a hotel, theater and even a water park as part of the plans. 
The whole point of a casino is to trap you inside until you run out of money, and this one will have its own Pike exit to eliminate even the need to drive by those local businesses en route. You don't visit what you never see.
Palmer's agreement refers to something called a “Players' Club Card Program” by which casino patrons get “redemption opportunities” at local non-casino businesses – whatever that means. Can they redeem the mortgage payments and kids' college funds they just squandered? I doubt it. If more than a handful of people actually use it and local businesses get anything from it, I'd be very surprised. It smells of pure propaganda, with the casino knowing it'll pay out next to nothing, but then be able to blame the players.
At their best, the historic mill towns were the polar opposite. Although one company often dominated and some were abusive, the owners typically actually lived in town, frequented the other businesses, participated in town affairs, and otherwise had a vested interest in ensuring the community thrived. As in Southbridge, they're often buried in the towns they had a hand in building, even though they also got far richer than the average person.
Those towns, in fact, typically “went south” when the company was sold to some outsider, usually a faceless, soulless corporation. In Southbridge, such a sale eventually led to American Optical (AO, or the "hey-ho" to locals) being sold off piecemeal, some parts moving out of state, some simply disintegrating, but all leaving a giant gap that still hasn't been filled in the town's psyche.
With casinos, the soulless corporation starts the process, and things go downhill from there. Sure, there will probably be an initial rush of cash and some noticeable town projects getting done that have been needed for years. $15 million is a huge chunk of most town's budgets -- In Palmer, it's HALF of what the town spends in a year, and nearly equals its annual tax collection.
I can hear some people cheering, since that would theoretically all but eliminate everyone else's taxes or the town's need for state aid. Maybe, but at what cost? History is laden with examples of huge financial windfalls corrupting communities and/or resulting in the “benefactor” eventually taking off the smiling face and effectively taking over the town for its own benefit. Giant sums of money are extremely hazardous to healthy democracies and tend to undermine the more general sense of community, especially when they're in the hands of one person or company, and doubly so when that firm's profits go elsewhere.
People in Southbridge still cast a wary eye on Casella because of the fiscal impact from the annual landfill royalties (among other things), and that sum is FAR less than Mohegan Sun's would be. While I imagine few Palmerites will even see this column, I hope they consider these points and reject the host agreement – and the casino itself – when their chance to vote comes.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Petition: Oppose war in Syria

Hi, all,
This morning I drafted and started circulating an open letter to our congressfolks and the president to express our concern regarding the mess in Syria. Please take it, make copies and get signatures (obviously, change it to your reps and senators if you're not local). Preventing this has a VERY short window of opportunity, since Congress is supposed to take it up when they return to session 9/9, and the administration is already pushing hard to convince them. 
It's often a very subtle approach, too: Many of today's newspapers probably ran an AP story in which the first paragraph states "... new physical evidence shows the Syrian government used sarin gas in a deadly August attack." The problem is that's NOT TRUE. The evidence shows sarin WAS apparently used, but the U.N. team doing the research was not tasked with identifying the perpetrator
Conflicting reports online accuse BOTH sides of using it and have widely variable numbers of casualties (from 335 to 1429). Among the points of view are these: the rebels have a vested interest in making it look like Assad did it; a rogue government colonel and/or Assad's brother ordered it; the government has been using it in small doses repeatedly (but this one was mixed badly); the rebels have used it before; and the rebels got it from the Saudis but most didn't know it was sarin. I'm sure there are others out there, and I certainly don't know the truth, but this list is enough to show we lack the facts to make a decent decision.
Uninformed decisions of this magnitude VERY often result in disaster. We've been playing Russian roulette in the Middle East for a long time now, and if we keep playing it, we WILL eventually land on the loaded chamber.


To: U.S. Reps Richard Neal and James McGovern, U.S. Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and President Barack Obama
From: American citizens and residents of Central Massachusetts
September 2, 2013

We, the undersigned, strongly oppose US military action in the Syrian civil war.
Although nobody denies the awfulness of chemical weapons use, allegations suggest BOTH sides have been using it over the last year or so, and the recent UN investigation there was NOT charged with identifying the perpetrator. As a war crime, it is best decided by the International Criminal Court.
Beyond that, US involvement in the war carries serious risks of widening Syria's civil conflict into a full-scale regional war and/or even, potentially, a world war, with very little likely positive effect. The fact that it is already spilling into Lebanon and has sparked skirmishes with Turkey and Israel is bad enough, but we are concerned that direct American intervention – even of the “limited” type you propose – may prove to be the “last straw” for various outside powers, including Russia. Moscow has already made it clear they back the Syrian government, so our involvement greatly increases the danger of accidental direct conflict between two nuclear-armed nations. Such an event, even if of low probability, has such a high chance of global catastrophe it must be avoided.
Furthermore, both Iran and Israel have been posturing aggressively and could easily be drawn into this fight. Several nations (including Saudi Arabia) are already supporting one side or the other, and with evidence showing the better-armed rebels are al-Qaeda affiliates, we'd be stepping into a nest of vipers, inviting attacks from multiple directions.
Although we definitely should pay attention to it, this is not our war. We, the American people, are tired of overseas conflicts and need the resources they waste to rebuild our roads and schools, address environmental issues, revamp our economy and handle other problems here at home.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Syrian tripwire has been sprung

{A shorter version of this is in the SEN 8/30/13}
As most sane people expected, but only the lunatics wanted, Syria is rapidly turning into a clusterfuck of immense proportions.
Of course, I'm referring to US airstrikes on Syrian military and government facilities, the latest round of gluttonous insanity that has been all too prevalent in our foreign policy circles for years now.
Before I go on, I should add a disclaimer: I'm writing this Tuesday afternoon, after Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement we'd conduct a few days of strikes starting Thursday. It's possible we actually did nothing – something I hope is true. It's also possible that multiple nations are now ablaze, although that's not too likely in such a short time frame. The fact you're reading this obviously indicates the worst potential hasn't been realized (yet, and hopefully never).
That said, I think it's safe to say Washington's reaction, or lack thereof, has introduced a new element of randomness into an already chaotic mess. Kerry was claiming readiness to attack even before there was clarity on what kind of agent was used (some sources claim a nerve gas, some claim an industrial toxin) or on the perpetrator's identity (some ID the Assad regime, claiming desperation in the face of rebel advances near Damascus; others point at the rebels, arguing they saw a chance to bring in the US).
Neither side is one I particularly want to ally with.
Although use of chemical weapons is horrifying, the only way to actually stop the killing there that stands a chance of working requires the US, Russia, China and Iran to all be involved. Anything less might tamp down the violence for a while, but will guarantee the killing resurfaces in potentially even more nasty ways. That's because solitary intervention, especially by the West, won't actually solve the problems that sparked and continue to fuel it.
Those problems are many and of long duration. The longest fuse goes all the way back to the Sunni-Shia split that began developing around 1400 years ago. That's the surface rationale behind the way various Middle Eastern nations have taken sides: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the rebels (mostly Sunnis, with radical Wahhabi-fueled al-Qaeda elements being the best armed) vs the Alawi Assad regime backed by Hezbollah and Iran (mostly Shia, although some Sunnis and Christians support Assad).
To me, this is mostly an excuse being used by leaders on both sides to provoke co-religionists into fighting for causes that won't actually benefit them. Those leaders are using the religious differences as a tool to promote their own political influence in the region, the latest clash in a centuries-long rotation of power among the Iranian Plateau, the Arab lowlands, and the Anatolian highlands.
Layered atop that, and in practice a bigger factor, is the fact this region has long been a focal point of arrogant colonialist game-playing. Even as World War I was raging, the British and French devised a secret plan, called the Sykes-Picot Treaty, to partition the Middle East for their own benefit. It “gave” Iraq, Jordan and Palestine to Britain, and Syria and Lebanon to France, well before they had any sign of success vs the Ottoman forces that ruled the region. The 1916 plan totally ignored the wishes and cultural realities of the people who lived there, and the winners later granted newly-concocted puppet kingdoms to certain leaders even if they had no connection to the area they were to rule (for example, Faisal in Iraq).
Adding to that was the fact Britain had also been under pressure from Zionist Jewish and Christian leaders for a couple of decades to support creation of a Zionist state in Palestine. London did so in the Balfour Declaration and helped hundreds of thousands of European Jews get to Palestine, especially as the horrors of the Holocaust came to light.
Unfortunately, that aid conflicted with promises London had made to Arab allies and the facts on the ground there, and Arabs have never forgotten. At the time, Palestine, today's Israel, was a sparsely populated corner of the Ottoman province of Syria. It was almost entirely Muslim with very few Jews, although Jewish communities were scattered all over the empire, particularly in the cities. The evidence shows they were well-integrated into the Muslim majority and usually practiced their own culture with little trouble until after Israeli independence in 1948.
The post-WW2 years brought a new form of external influence – the Cold War. In 1971, Moscow established a fairly small naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus; the Russians are still there despite the Soviet collapse in 1991*. They've reportedly been renovating it to support larger warships in recent years, and Russian technicians have gone to Syria to operate new air-defense batteries, but how many are there is unknown.
A widespread lack of information is one of the biggest risks US air attacks have. We don't know what treaties Syria has with Moscow, or what Russia is likely to do if its facility or people are hit. Putin has warned the US to stay out of Syria repeatedly, as has Iran, which recently stated a US attack would cause the whole region to become a “ball of fire.”
The confusion of alliances there is unpleasantly reminiscent of those in the Balkans in 1914.
On Tuesday, the Guardian's Julian Borger reported that Washington wouldn't wait for the results of the UN investigation already in Syria, only for a vote in the UK Parliament slated for Thursday.
The same story states, “As presidential systems, the US and French governments do not have the same obligation to go to their legislatures to seek approval to act ….” He's dead wrong about that. Our Constitution specifically gives only Congress the power to declare war. Since the attack in Syria wasn't against us and the UN has not authorized intervention, the president has no authority to act absent such a vote.
Even if “successful” (whatever that means here), such an attack puts us right in the crosshairs of an ancient trait of Arab culture: the Bedouin sense of honor. Under that code, attacks do not go unpunished – a tendency that has often led to very long blood rivalries between tribes. It's true that Israel is widely believed to have bombed a few Syrian convoys and, several years ago, Syria's nearly-complete nuclear reactor, but there's a difference from what Obama's planning. Syria did not react then because Israel did it literally in darkness and never admitted it (which would have triggered the honor issue), but US warships blatantly launching missiles at Syria do not have that culturally-sanctioned “deniability.”
Ironically, Obama's doing it to “save face” as well, since he made the “red line” ultimatum months ago. Under the circumstances, his “honor” means far less than the big-picture consequences, and is definitely not a good reason for war.
As usual, caught in the middle are millions of civilians who'd much rather just live their lives without fear of being blown up, shot or poisoned. For them, this is truly a no-win situation,and most of the statements of concern about their well-being, from all sides, are little more than propaganda.
That's always the case in wars; they're invariably driven by somebody's overweening ego and thirst for power, with “humanitarian concerns” being just a pretext. Unfortunately, such BS will continue until normal people force the warmongers to fight to the death among themselves in steel-cage matches – then we kill the winner when he steps out. War over, no civilian deaths, no massive destruction to rebuild, no innocent people huddling in terror as the next bomb screams down.

* Given the potential explosiveness of this situation, I think it's worth noting that an errant US missile hitting the Tartus base and nearby rail center was the final straw leading to nuclear war in Pat Frank's classic novel Alas, Babylon. Although that book is quaintly out-of-date in many respects (it was written in 1959, well before nuclear winter theory), it still serves as a good warning: we'd count ourselves extremely lucky if a nuclear WW3 manifests that gently....

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Forward to the land

{Running in the SEN 8/23/13}

The variety of stuff from our field that was ripe at the same time one day last week. (Also got a few turnips and a peach later.)

Our culture talks a lot about “independence,” “individualism,” “boot-strapping,” and “freedom,” but has an awful lot of features that impede all of those things, most of them tied to money, debt and consumption.
At the same time, it tends to dismiss or ignore people who decide not to play by “the rules” and actually seek some form of self-sufficiency. The exception is if someone can commercialize it. Take agriculture as an example: state law creates protections for commercial farming but doesn't (as far as I can tell) clearly do so for the common-sense right of people to raise food for themselves.
If that's not the true basis of independence, I don't know what would be. With energy, ecological and economic issues being what they are today, we need more people doing that, pretty much anywhere possible, from porch boxes to rooftops to single-acre plots to more traditional farms.
As anybody reading my column knows, I'm not exactly a conservative. But in this regard, I'm glad to see I am, since true conservatism and true conservation overlap heavily when we ignore the capitalist knuckleheads trying to dominate our culture.
When I did a Google search to find some good historical info on the fact our nation's founders were generally proud to be farmers, one of the first sites that turned up started with this observation: “Our founders were farmers: they provided for themselves through hard, honest physical labor. The dissolution of our society began when our ties to the land were ruptured.”
That comes from the Intellectual Conservative website, a column by J. Harris titled “Agriculture and Freedom: An Inseparable Bond.” While I disagree with some of his (or her?) details, this statement is certainly true: “The notion that frail individuals need Big Brother in order to survive would never have crossed a true farmer’s mind, and would surely have turned his strong stomach.  (I speak not of agri-business, by the way—not here or anywhere else; most of what passes for farming today is just another species of statist boondoggle.)”
Absolutely – giant factory farming exists only because of laws and huge subsidies crafted to favor politicians' friends at the expense of actual farmers. The evidence shows something like 80 percent of such subsidies go to a tiny handful of already-rich “farmers,” while more than 60 percent of family farms get nothing, being too small and/or not well-connected-enough to even be seen by Washington.
Actually, though, that's not a bad thing; we all know people who support themselves and help their community thrive “under the radar” in plain sight. But it takes the symbiosis of community and individual – just as collectivism taken to extremes can destroy personal initiative, individualism taken to extremes can undermine community well-being, and thus ultimately destroy the individual. It goes both ways: The community needs to foster self-sufficiency and make it legally easy, favoring local producers over long-distance ones, and otherwise planting seeds for a 21st century agricultural renaissance in preference to 20th century development. The individuals need to prioritize feeding their community at the expense of growing for export or for sale as a commodity to big business.
Such an arrangement probably isn't as profitable in the short term, but it's far more likely to last, especially if we as a community come up with ways to share some of the start-up costs (for example, by creating a tool- and skill-sharing library and encouraging young people to learn agricultural skills).
That's one reason I'm starting this blog to share ideas and start a conversation about these things that a one-way column really can't do too well. Going forward, this column will be mirrored there, with a bunch of other things (not all of them farm related), even though I won't be a staff writer anymore. It'll mean a chance to do something that's been growing in me for a long time: a need to focus more energy on self-sufficiency and deeper community involvement the “observer” status of a reporter doesn't really allow.
Going into something like this, I know Maureen and I are lucky in some key ways – several people we know are willing to share their experience (thanks Dick, Cal and others), she has an agroecology degree and we own our home outright, with no other significant debt. We've been expanding our garden for a couple of years, but have a lot more space to play with and aim to gradually transition toward a mostly-perennial system.
Even though it's definitely a step into the uncertain in some respects – who knows what the weather will do and we're not independently wealthy – it's long overdue. We also feel it's likely to be necessary as the economic, climatic and political games play out over the next several years. Our world is changing in ways for which our present culture does not give us the tools to adapt, since it continues to create dependence on far-flung, faceless entities and slogans rather than interdependence with people we actually know, the land we live on, and the other species sharing it with us.
The former leads to slavery. The latter, to genuine independence. I don't claim to know the route's potholes and curves any more certainly than you do, but I hope you'll join me on the journey.