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Campaigning for Change

 

On April 21, 2000 — the day before Earth Day and the birthday of Sierra Club founder John Muir — 32 members of the John Muir Democracy Brigade were arrested at the Rotunda of the US Capitol. Their crime? The Brigade unfurled banners protesting the alliance between members of Congress and the oil, coal, nuclear, and other industries that finance their election campaigns.

The actions seemed to strike a chord with the public. Tourists in the Capitol Rotunda applauded, a number of the arresting police officers openly expressed agreement with the cause, and even some of the judges who sentenced Brigade members were sympathetic. Said one judge, prior to handing down the lightest possible sentence under the law, “Sometimes it becomes the lot of the few, sometimes like yourselves, to stand up for what's right when the masses are silent.”

The April action followed similar acts of civil disobedience earlier this year and late last year, and the Brigade made another Rotunda appearance on July 10.

“We no longer have proper representation,” said 90-year-old Doris Haddock (Granny D), who walked across the continent for campaign finance reform. “Our elected leaders are consumed by the need to raise election funds from special interests, and they no longer are able to represent the needs of the people or of our ravaged Earth.”

A March 2000 public opinion survey by the Mellman Group shows that Granny D is speaking for a great many Americans. The poll found that nine of ten Americans believe the problems of our campaign system have either not im-proved or have gotten worse, with six of ten calling for “major changes.” This sentiment translated into support for Senator John McCain's presidential candidacy. In July of 1999, as he hit the campaign trail, McCain declared, “We [members of Congress] are the defenders of an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.”

Indeed, the money numbers keep escalating. Fundraising for the 2000 elections is already nearly one-third higher than it was at this same time prior to the 1996 elections. So far, federal candidates and parties have raised $1.2 billion, well above the $884.5 million raised over the same time period four years ago.

Most of the individual contributions are coming from a tiny fraction of the population: according to Federal Election Commission records; less than 0.25 percent make a contribution of $200 or more.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that business is outspending labor by a factor of 15 to 1. And, of particular concern to members of the John Muir Brigade, the industries responsible for most of today's pollution — including the oil, gas, nuclear, chemical, and mining industries — are out-giving all environmental groups combined by an even larger factor.

—Randy Kehler

Randy Kehler, a member of the Alliance for Democracy, was arrested in October 1999 as part of the first Democracy Brigade. The Alliance for Democracy can be reached at tel: 781/894-1179, e-mail: peoplesall@aol.com.



Anti-Globalization Forces Rally in France

“Yes, this action was illegal. Yes, this is serious, and that's why I assume full responsibility. The only regret I have now is that I wasn't able to destroy more of it. These actions will stop when this mad logic comes to a halt.”

José Bové, spokesperson and founder of the French Peasant Confederation doesn't eat hormone-enhanced beef, nor was he eating his words when he stood trial on June 30th, in Millau, France, with 10 of his colleagues, accused of dismantling a McDonald's restaurant in the town last year.

This was no local farmers' battle. France's “Seattle-en-Aveyron” saw the world's media jostle to gain a place in the crowded courtroom, as outside 50,000 supporters from France and around the world converged on Millau (population 20,000) for two days of celebration and support. On the streets, radical French farmers rubbed shoulders with intellectual leaders such as Pierre Bourdieu (France's Noam Chomsky) in a series of well-attended forums, or danced the night away at the Friday concert, which attracted 120,000 to the banks of the Tarn River.

Despite echoing support for the cause, mainstream politicians stayed well away.

Earlier in the day, at the trial, the French state was left embarrassingly alone after McDonald's dropped charges “to calm spirits.” The defendants successfully transformed the hearing, putting globalization itself in the dock by calling a glittering array of international witnesses to the stand, ranging from Public Citizen's Lori Wallach to Rafael Alegria, president of Via Campesina. No surprises, then, when the prosecutor was forced to bow to public opinion, deferring judgement until September 13th to avoid creating an instant martyr in José Bové.

Not the best start to the French presidency of the European Union, which runs until the end of this year. With an important “rendezvous” G8 meeting in Bordeaux, the EuroMediterranean summit in Marseille to prepare the free trade zone for this region, and the end-of-presidency summit in Nice in December, the anti-globalization spotlight will remain on France and Europe for some time to come.

As he left the courtroom, Bové exclaimed, “This is a victory beyond our expectations.” It may be just the beginning.

—Alun Griffiths

More from Millau can be found at Web: www.indymedia.org


New Tax Breaks

The US House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a bill that accelerates the concentration of wealth and could undermine funding of the nonprofit sector. The bill, “The Death Tax Elimination Act,” would phase out the federal estate tax over 10 years.

The estate tax was established in 1916 to promote equality of economic opportunity and, in the words of Congress, “to break up the swollen fortunes of the rich.”

The tax provides a powerful incentive for wealthy people to make tax-deductible contributions to the nonprofit sector. Between 1993 and 1995, 40 percent of the value of estates over $20 million went to charities; thousands of grant-giving foundations were formed at least in part as a result of the incentives built into this tax.

The estate tax in question affects the estates of only the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. With the current exemption set at $675,000 per person ($1.35 million for married couples), the estates of 98 percent of Americans incur no federal estate tax liability whatsoever. That exemption is scheduled to rise to $1 million per person ($2 million for couples) by 2006.

Proponents of the measure argue that the estate tax hurts family-owned farms and businesses, which currently have an exemption of $1.3 million. Yet, an alternative bill that would have increased the exemption for family farms and businesses was defeated along party lines.

The repeal would lead to an estimated loss of $104 billion in tax revenues between 2001 and 2010, in addition to the potential losses to the nonprofit sector. President Clinton is expected to veto the bill, but proponents vow to continue efforts to eliminate the tax.

—Fran Korten

See the Website of The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, www.cbpp.org.


Steelworkers' Victory

On June 30, 22 months after locking out more than 2,900 steelworkers, Kaiser Aluminum reached an agreement with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to end their dispute.

Kaiser's lockout catalyzed steelworkers' activism on a broad range of issues. They were among the most visible unions at the WTO protests in Seattle and have been speaking out on corporate globalization and international workers' rights. They also formed an unprecedented coalition with environmentalists, The Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, which targeted actions by Maxxam subsidiaries; the Pacific Lumber Company, known for the logging of ancient redwoods, and Kaiser. (See YES! Summer ‘00.)

The agreement, which David Foster, chair of the union's negotiating committee, called “fair and equitable,” was ratified by union members on July 14. Foster said the settlement couldn't have been won without the support of the broader labor movement and environmental activists. “Kaiser's steelworkers ... became a symbol for the fight for workers' rights in a global economy.”

While some details are to be worked out, the agreement protects retirees' health insurance, safeguards against contracting out jobs, may provide back pay for locked-out workers, and reinstates health insurance for workers and their families.

Kaiser's reversal on the labor dispute comes after a year of net losses, an all-time low stock price, an explosion at their Gramercy, Louisiana, plant staffed by replacement workers, and a National Labor Relations Board July 5 ruling that Kaiser's lockout was illegal.

The Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment now is exploring possible next steps, including environmental restoration projects using skilled union labor, corporate boycotts, and trade summits, says co-chair Don Kegley.

—Rod Arakaki

For more information, see www.uswa.org, and www.asje.org

 


Burma Law Overturned

The US Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that discouraged state contracts with companies that do business in Burma.

The June ruling followed complaints by World Trade Organization members and the National Foreign Trade Council, a lobby group representing 550 companies.

While corporate lobbyists and some newspapers portrayed the ruling as a ban on anti-apartheid- style “selective contracting” laws, and a rebuke of a state government's foray into “foreign policy,” these were not the legal questions at issue. The decision was limited to the specific conflict between the language of the Massachusetts law and the language of the federal sanctions law on Burma passed by Congress three months later.

Free Burma activists are modifying their strategies but remain undaunted. In recent months, Best Western, ABN Amro, Baker Hughes, and Toyota have joined the parade of companies leaving Burma.

—Larry Dohrs

Larry Dohrs is with the Free Burma coalition at www.freeburmacoalition.org


Frankenfood & Lawn

In a landmark lawsuit filed against the US Food and Drug Administration, nine eminent scientists, including some of the FDA's own, are taking the agency to court to obtain mandatory safety testing and labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. They have been joined by a host of consumer groups, religious organizations, and concerned scientists. The suit claims that genetically engineered food in the US is on the market illegally and should be recalled for rigorous safety testing.

The plaintiffs claim the FDA's own records reveal that it declared genetically engineered foods to be safe in the face of broad disagreement from its own experts. Agency scientists repeatedly cautioned that GE products entail different risks than do their conventionally pro-duced counterparts. The advice was consistently disregarded by those who crafted the agency's current policy. (See www.biointegrity.org)

In a related case, the European Patents Office has rejected an order of the US Patents Office awarding WR Grace a patent on a fungicide derived from the seeds of the neem tree.

Noting that the neem tree has been used by Indian people for a variety of purposes for thousands of years, environmental activist Vandana Shiva's Research Foundation took W R Grace to court five years ago to stop the patent. Shiva said the neem patent was a clear attempt at piracy of Indian indigenous knowledge.

Meanwhile, Reuters news service reports that a delegation of Russian agricultural lawmakers visiting the US said their country would not purchase GE crops from the US. Valery Kechkin, one of three visiting Federation Council members, said on July 21, “We are not poor enough to go that far.”

In Brazil, a federal court has ruled in favor of maintaining a ban on the growing and importing of genetically engineered crops into the country.

In Britain, environment minister Michael Meacher has admitted that pollen from GE field crops could contaminate normal crops, regardless of how far away they might be. It would be “false to pretend” there was “any distance which is going to prevent some contamination,” he said.

The American Society of Landscape Architects has joined environmentalists in calling upon the US Department of Agriculture to suspend all field tests on genetically engineered grasses. Scotts Company, the world's largest lawn and turf producer, is experimenting with grasses genetically altered to withstand heavy applications of the strongest weed killers. Scott is also working on “low mow,” a grass variety designed to grow more slowly and thus require less mowing. Researchers are even contemplating creating grasses that glow when a person steps on them.

Material for this article came from the Progressive Review, http://prorev.com, and from the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, www.thecampaign.org, tel: 425-771-4049


Local Currency Loan

The world's largest local currency loan to date has been made by the Ithaca HOUR system in upstate New York. Alternatives Federal Credit Union/CUSO received 3,000 Ithaca HOURS, worth $30,000, which it plans to spend for plumbing, carpentry, electrical work, and other services for building the credit union's new headquarters. The interest-free loan will be repaid over 10 years.

Ithaca HOURS are local paper money that began circulating in Ithaca in 1991. One HOUR equals an hour of basic labor or $10.00. Thousands of area residents and more than 465 businesses accept HOURS. HOUR grants totalling $9,580 have been made to 54 community groups. The Cayuga Medical Center, the Ithaca Health Fund, and the Public Library all now accept HOURS, as does the Chamber of Commerce.

—Paul Glover

Paul Glover is the founder of Ithaca HOURS 607/272-3738, Web: www.ithacahours.org


Inequities and the Global Environment

Inequalities of wealth, power, opportunities, and survival prospects among the world's peoples are confounding efforts to reverse environmental degradation, reports a new study by The Worldwatch Institute.

Vital Signs 2000: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future says the world economy pumped out nearly $41 trillion in goods and services in 1999. However, 45 percent of the income went to 12 percent of the world's people. “This wealthy minority is largely responsible for the excessive consumption that drives environmental decline,” says coauthor Molly O. Sheehan.

Third World debt hit a new high of $2.5 trillion in 1999, with some of the world's poorest nations devoting 30 percent of their budgets to debt servicing. Developing countries are especially vulnerable to environmental change, such as the devastating floods and landslides in Venezuela in late 1999. Worsened by deforestation, this disaster killed more than 30,000 people.

But even the richest nations cannot insulate themselves from emerging global threats. The resurgence in tuberculosis (TB) may kill an additional 70 million people by 2020. A catastrophic decline in amphibians is wiping out a rich source for new medicines. The warming atmosphere has spurred more severe weather events, including the December 1999 storms that caused nearly $10 billion in damage in Central and Western Europe.

Some of the other challenges highlighted in Vital Signs 2000:

• More than 1,000 new chemicals are introduced to the global market each year without testing for human and animal endocrine systems effects.

• Worldwide, people are over-pumping groundwater by at least 160 billion cubic meters a year, roughly the amount of water needed to produce a tenth of global grain supplies.

• The AIDS epidemic is particularly devastating Sub-Saharan Africa, where it now causes one out of five deaths each year. Average life expectancy there is expected to plummet in this decade from a high of 59 years in the early 1990s to 45 years. AIDS is also the single largest contributor to a worldwide resurgence in TB.

• Worldwide, climate-altering carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning fell 0.2 percent in 1999, marking a second consecutive year of decline. However, far greater reductions are necessary to achieve the 70 percent cut that many scientists believe is needed to avert dangerous climate change.

There are several encouraging trends in renewable energy and efficiency technologies.

• 1999 saw wind power, the world's fastest-growing energy source, surge by 39 percent, production of solar cells expand by 30 percent, and sales of energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps grow by 11 percent.

• While much of the world's agricultural economy has stagnated, sales of organic products are growing by over 20 percent a year. European farmers have doubled the area cultivated with organic methods to 4 million hectares in only three years. In Italy and Austria, the share of agricultural land certified organic topped 10 percent in 1999. Meanwhile, farmers around the world are scaling back plantings of genetically modified seeds.

• In the last decade, eight Western European countries pioneered “tax shifts,” raising taxes on environmentally harmful activities and using the revenue to cut conventional taxes.

“We have begun to address global challenges,” said Worldwatch senior researcher Michael Renner, coauthor of the report. “But all too often we are only slowing destructive trends, rather than reversing them. If we are going to build a more environmentally stable, healthy, and equitable society, we need to massively scale up our efforts.”

Worldwatch Institute is a Washington, DC-based research organization,
202/452-1992, Web: www.worldwatch.org.


Eritrea Averts Famine

Eritrea gets half the rainfall of Ethiopia and has suffered severe drought conditions throughout the coast and eastern lowlands. But there is no famine, and international agencies report no hunger-related deaths, according to the Agence France Presse.

Eritrea has run “an aggressive, almost military procedure” to feed its people, says banker and economic consultant John Weakliam. As storm clouds gathered over the Eritrean countryside this summer, hundreds of tractors from the agriculture ministry went out to farmlands, plowing every centimeter of high-yield land, reports the Agence. Eritrea's youth then moved into the countryside to weed and terrace the hillsides, construct roads, and plant trees. After the rains end in October, the entire country will be mobilized to bring in the harvest, the Agence says. Schools will close for the month for students to join in, along with all nonessential army personnel.

The Eritrean government has, since independence, emphasized food self-sufficiency, encouraged small-scale farming, and instituted sweeping land reform that for the first time guaranteed women equal access to land.

Despite huge areas affected by drought and an enormous military buildup due to the war with neighboring Ethiopia, the 1999 harvest was still a respectable 70 percent of the 500,000 tons needed to feed the small nation of 3.5 million people, according to the Agence.


Corporate “Persons”?

In 1886, the US Supreme Court declared corporations to be persons under the 14th Amendment. More than 100 years later, Point Arena, California, has challenged the finding.

“The City of Point Arena agrees with Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in his 1938 opinion in which he states, ‘I do not believe the word person in the 14th Amendment includes corporations',” reads the city council's April 25 resolution.

The 14th Amendment extended personhood to newly freed male slaves and used the word “person” in a way that encouraged women to think they might also be granted personhood. But in 1874, the Supreme Court ruled that this was not the case; 12 years later the same court ruled that a corporation was a person.

Point Arena's resolution is part of a growing effort to end the practice of granting corporations the rights of “persons.”

—Jan Edwards

Jan Edwards was among the advocates of the Point Arena resolution. The declaration on ending corporate personhood is at www.iiipublishing.com/alliance.htm


The End of Oil

Delegates at the 16th World Petroleum Congress faced protests by local, national, and international activists during their June gathering in Calgary, Alberta.

Among those in Calgary were Tibetans and their supporters calling for a halt to China's construction of a gas pipeline originating in Tibet's Tsaidam Basin. Protestors say the project will escalate China's occupation of Tibet and further devastate its fragile ecology.

Meanwhile, the debate about ‘green' alternatives to fossil energy continues. New Scientist reports that hydroelectric dams can release more greenhouse gases than coal-fired power stations. The journal cited a report by the World Commission on Dams, which was commissioned by the World Conservation Unit and the World Bank – the world's leading funder of large dams.

Decaying vegetation and organic matter trapped in stagnant water produces large amounts of methane — a gas 20 times as potent as CO2. According to the WCD summary, the methane is primarily from vegetation that washes downstream into the reservoir throughout the life of the dam rather than from vegetation submerged when the dam is built.

—Kari McGinnis


Seattle's Green Buildings

The city of Seattle has adopted a sustainable building program that requires city buildings to earn at least a “silver” environmental rating as measured by the US Green Building Council. Buildings are responsible for 35 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, 30 percent of raw materials consumption, and 25 percent of timber harvest. Seattle's policy requires planners to take into account the full life-cycle costs of buildings, to set high standards for indoor air quality, and to use renewable or recycled building materials.

—Richard Conlin

Richard Conlin is on the Seattle City Council and the Positive Futures Network board.

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