National Day, Hong Kong edition

HongKongWe read, write and talk about how much giant corporations are willing to pay to support the fiction that climate change isn’t happening, so let’s not talk about it (because shut up!). Similarly, how long will the People’s Liberation Army put up with protests of this size? Tear gas and crowds that big are beginning to put them on front pages. Then what? Crackdown? Is that the game plan?

While many Hong Kong residents support the calls for greater democracy — dubbed the “umbrella revolution” by some, although the crowds’ demands fall far short of revolution — the unrest worries others.

“I strongly disagree with the protesters,” said an older woman who gave only her surname, Chan. “Those of us who came to the city 60 or 70 years ago had nothing and we worked and suffered so much to make Hong Kong the rich city it is today. And now the protesters have made our society unstable. For me, being able to eat and sleep is already a luxury. I don’t need democracy. What does it mean?”

Many younger Hong Kong residents raised in an era of plenty and with no experience of past political turmoil in mainland China have higher expectations. Under an agreement set in 1984, before most of them were born, Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong residents civil liberties unseen on the mainland after it took control of the city of 7.1 million in 1997.

The protesters are dismayed by China’s decision last month that candidates in the city’s first-ever election for its top leader must be hand-picked by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing tycoons. That move is viewed by many residents as reneging on promises to allow greater democracy in the semi-autonomous territory, since Beijing had promised that the chief executive would eventually be chosen through “universal suffrage.”

A promise since the time of the ‘handover’ was popular elections by 2017, and now that looks a little… different. Civil disobedience is unpredictable and that’s the last thing the Communist Communist Party wants. If anything is allowed to get out of hand in HK, look for similar kinds of demonstrations in the other megalopolises of the mainland. But a heavy-anded crackdown also seems unlikely. Watch the bond and stock markets teeter for a few days – they hate disorder, people, rights, democracy. It’s not what they’re about. Who has the upper hand, moving forward? How much can be paid to deny this is happening? Also, pay attention to which Westerners criticize the protesters and why.

Images: Christian Science Monitor, Wally Santana

Anniversary of Emancipation

On this day in 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Labor historian Erik Loomis at LGM details the reasons why it was considered a cowardly half-measure by some at the time, and also why it was political genius as well as morally correct:

On the other hand, African-Americans, north and south, knew what the war was about. While many in the North were trying to say it wasn’t about slavery per se, like southern whites, African-Americans never had any question of the stakes. Frederick Douglass and other northern black leaders urged Lincoln to immediately emancipate the slaves and organize black regiments for the Army. Perhaps more importantly, slaves themselves took advantage of nearby U.S. troops, fleeing to the military. Generals such as Benjamin Butler quickly recognized the potential of taking away the South’s labor force and turning that into a Union labor force. But Lincoln, nervous about the effects of making this an official policy on his plans to lure the South back into the Union, originally rejected the idea.

By mid 1862, Lincoln began to change his mind about the expediency of freeing slaves. The situation in the border states was more secure, with the ardent secessionists now significantly outnumbered by unionists. Congress pushed him on this, passing in March 1862 a law barring the military from returning escaped slaves to their owners. Still, Lincoln decided to avoid Congress and issue the proclamation as Commander in Chief, thus avoiding a tense debate and possible rejection. Lincoln wanted a major victory by Union forces before he issued it so it didn’t look desperate. Unfortunately, he had George McClellan as his commanding general, which meant that no major victories was likely. With the partial victory at Antietam a few days earlier as good as Lincoln was going to get, he decided this was the time.

There is a reason we revere certain people in our history, and not because of any one single thing they might have done. Any country is blessed to have individuals who can navigate conflicts with no obvious right answer or guaranteed outcome. Courage, sure. But also willingness to change one’s mind, an ability to see through perilous issues and steer clear of needlessly dramatic acts in favor of compromise, even and especially when it comes at a cost to your reputation and credibility. Lucky to have someone who could walk this minefield at that hour, even though we’re now mostly unable to appreciate the doubt and misgivings it took Lincoln to think he could preserve a union that was worth preserve. Without an elevated idea of his country and its countrymen, only lesser outcomes would have been imaginable.

Image: “Emancipation,” Thomas Nast lithograph, circa 1865, via Library of Congress.

Taken to dumping

This is amazing. Amazingly simple.

Duke Energy has been dumping toxic liquid into a public waterway in North Carolina for sometime, attention to which has prompted state officials to cite Duke for violations. But then, a funny thing happens to the story:

Internal emails released Thursday by environmental lawyers confirm what activists have long charged: the North Carolina authorities tasked with regulating Duke Energy — the company responsible for the Dan River coal ash disaster — have been colluding with the corporation behind closed doors to undermine concerned environmental groups.

“These documents reveal a very cozy relationship between the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke and a deferential approach from DENR to Duke,” said Nick Torrey, Associate Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in an interview with Common Dreams.

In January 2013, the SELC announced plans to sue Duke Energy on behalf of environmental organizations over dangerous coal ash ponds near Asheville, North Carolina. This was soon followed by similar action regarding the Riverbend coal ash dump north of Mount Holly. “For a long time, they’ve known their coal ash ponds are leaking and polluting groundwater,” said Torrey.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, citizens can sue a polluter to enforce environmental law. Yet, before they do so, they must give 60 days’ notice to the polluter to ostensibly give that polluter the opportunity clean up its act, explained Torrey. However, a state agency can file its own lawsuit, and if it does so on the exact same claims raised in the 60 day notice letter, then those groups cannot file own suit in federal court.

“Each time we sent 60 day notice letters, on approximately the 59th day, the DENR would file its own enforcement action,” said Torrey, explaining this effectively blocked the environmental suits.

So, if you are Duke Energy (or any number of other highly-profitable corporate entities) you can do as you wish with the land, sea and air, and when anyone notices you then can arrange with friendly state agencies, optimally peopled with your own people, to be hit with trivial fines and non-binding directives to “study” the potential effects of your pollution, ‘penalties’ that will effectively pre-empt other, perhaps more significant, law suits from environmental groups. Now that is authentic frontier gibberish corruption.

Solar Power Projects vs. Casinos

As public investments go, there’s one and then there’s the other. Let’s compare this:

Minnesota soon could see at least a sevenfold expansion of solar power.

In an unprecedented ruling, a judge reviewing whether Xcel Energy should invest in new natural gas generators vs. large solar power arrays concluded Tuesday that solar is a better deal.

If the finding by Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman is upheld by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Edina-based Geronimo Energy plans to build about 20 large solar power arrays on sites across Xcel’s service area at a cost of $250 million.

“It says solar is coming in a big way to the country and to Minnesota,” Geronimo Vice President Betsy Engelking said of the ruling.

Geronimo’s Aurora Solar Project would receive no state or utility subsidies, but would qualify for a federal investment tax credit. Engleking said it is the first time in the United States that solar energy without a state subsidy has beaten natural gas in an official, head-to-head price comparison.

“The cost of solar has come down much faster than anyone had anticipated,” she said in an interview. “This is one of the reasons solar is going to explode.”

to this:

Revel has been, to put it lightly, a disaster. Originally imagined as more of a resort than a casino, Revel cost $2.4 billion to open. Even before Revel opened it was considered a high risk investment in a city already on the decline due to gambling competition from Delaware and Pennsylvania. Progressives opposed state investments in the project which came during the same time Governor Christie was cutting education and healthcare services for women. Christie invested $261 million of New Jersey tax money via credits as Morgan Stanley backed out of Revel fearing it was a loser.

Not soon after Revel opened it became clear the resort idea was as dumb as many thought it was and “Revel Atlantic City” went into bankruptcy. The bankruptcy put the State of New Jersey on the hook as Revel announced that the casino’s value had dropped from $2.4 billion to $450 million. Ouch.

So these arguments about public infrastructure and investment as economic development are all just gas baggery if actually beneficial projects aren’t part of the calculus. And even that argument aside, solar’s ascendancy seems clear. But we shouldn’t leave it to the side at all – that’s the point. Hydrocarbon energy production will begin to loses its privileged place regarding public support (and hopefully casinos as well) and the howling will be intense. But make no mistake about how we’ve been explicitly supporting senseless gambling/retail fiascos for so long. A turn toward making sense might someday actually feel like it does.

Some sun, some dough

Mrs. Green snapped this on a drive through the southern part of the state yesterday. This is what may happen when people figure out they can profit from captured non-fossil energy.


The origins of social protest

On this Labor Day, an ode to utilizing art to raise social consciousness. It is odd, though perhaps fitting, that Hugo’s Les Miserables is best known today as a musical. Upton Sinclair included it in his 1915 Anthology of Social Protest. From its debut, the book that is still one of the half-dozen greatest novels in the world struck a tone of moral redemption and social revolution that resonated with the common populace, with a literary style that appealed to intellectuals. It is a rare instance of the joined interests of working people with the aristocracy – one we would do well to remember and hopefully one of the reasons, beyond the singing, that it lives on today. Here’s Hugo’s author preface:

SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Femen against the isms

inna shevchenko - femen recruit women in france, reuters - 13700806

Have you heard of Femen? It’s an international women’s movement, working mostly in France and the Ukraine but many other places as well, and their tactics are serious and shirtless. The courage it takes to confront the establishment(s) in this way, especially in the Arab world, is empowering just to consider. The images are supposedly NSFW but this says more about our workplaces than it does about their movement.

It was the movement’s fifth birthday earlier this week, on April 10. Happy, happy.

Image: Reuters photo of Femen leader Inna Shevchenko, Paris, 2012