News and Features
We're on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch-Hetchy 200 miles east, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierras, flat-floored and hemmed in by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flow the abundant waters of the Tuolumne River. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.
After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which OKs the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch-Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Representative John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the Feds will waive Hetch-Hetchy's protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly owned water and electric energy will free the city from what another progressive Congressman calls "the thralldom...of a remorseless private monopoly." If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.
By the early 1920s San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne's pent-up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of its own power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E will sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous markup.
The camel's nose is under the tent, and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E's mayors, newspapers, public utility managers, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.
Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmann comes to San Francisco. He's grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public-power town. He's gone to school in Nebraska--thanks to George Norris, a public-power state. He founds the Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E's plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.
Let Brugmann carry our drama forward:
"What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportions. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, City Hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.
"Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-to-2 majority. At the Guardian we tied down every supe to a pledge to put a municipal utility district on the ballot and to support MUD. We finally have a pro-public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course, we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though it's bankrupt. But for the first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro-PG&E platform."
Act III is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it's surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely patted itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company's vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton Administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. Senator Dianne Feinstein was at PG&E's beck and call. The public-power crowd was hemmed in, and "green" outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council were actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.
Now we have California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide may be turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmann and his Bay Guardian to thank for it.
Despite local outrage, Feds approve an expansion of toxic waste storage.
George W. Bush's energy plan fudges the facts, raises false alarms, shamelessly peddles halfhearted green measures--all to provide a cover under which to slide the oil industry's wish list. Jimmy Carter, who knows a real energy crisis, in a Washington Post Op-Ed accused the administration of using "misinformation and scare tactics to justify such environmental atrocities as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." Bush cites California's troubles as a call to action for a plan that does not address them. It revives nuclear power with no ideas on where to safely put the waste, trashes environmental regulations and airily dismisses international concerns about global warming, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointedly noted in a little-reported speech at Tufts University on May 20. "We do not face a choice between economy and ecology," Annan said. "In fact, the opposite is true: Unless we protect resources and the earth's natural capital, we shall not be able to sustain economic growth."
Bush's plan, crafted in secret sessions with input from industry reps and none from consumer advocates, is a mélange of vague ("make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy"), sometimes contradictory suggestions and steps the Bush Administration can take unilaterally (easing regulations for the electric, oil and nuclear industries). It will unleash much squabbling in Congress, as legislators take up other portions of the package. Not only will enviros face off against industros on assorted fronts--the consensus of the moment is that Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness is near-DOA in Congress--but energy-producing states will square off against consuming states.
Industries themselves could be at each other's throats, competing to gain an edge via legislation. Natural gas companies, for instance, have no interest in seeing environmental rules relaxed for coal-burning utilities. Electricity cooperatives will wrangle with electric utilities. Northeast power-generators could tussle with Midwest utilities over emissions. Conservative free-marketeers will decry using the tax code to assist one industry or another. All in all, this is a full-employment project for Washington lobbyists. Expect campaign contributions from energy companies to rise faster than the price of gasoline.
But the many fault lines and divides have yet to be defined, and the possibility of Jim Jeffords's switch (still not officially announced at press time--see the editorial, following) injects a new element of uncertainty into the mix. Democrats are in some disarray; senators and House members have home-state concerns. Think of John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of oil-producing Louisiana, who already have broken with their party to support a tax bill resembling the Bush plan. As the tax-bill fight demonstrates, Republicans need only to peel away a few Bush-friendly Democrats in the Senate to succeed. And in the House, as one senior Democratic staffer notes, "there are a number of Blue Dog Democrats who get their money from the same people who fund Bush and Cheney." But at the same time, there are House Republicans--including several in California--worrying about energy legislation that rewards price-gougers and gives no short-term relief to consumers.
One liberal-leaning Democratic senator surveys the landscape this way: "Senate Democrats should be able to stick together on much of the environmental and policy matters regarding, say, regulations and more resources for conservation and alternatives. It's going to be much harder on the populist front. They're not all going to want to be tough on the industries."
The Democrats' message so far is that Bush and Cheney are just pimping for Big Oil and other energy interests while trampling the environment. Perhaps that will resonate with voters. But it remains to be seen if Democrats can sell a bold alternative approach that promotes conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. At a recent meeting with reporters, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt dismissed the notion of raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and SUVs. Like his Republican foes, he fears proposals that might impinge on the American way of life (read: consuming oil in gluttonous amounts).
Republicans think that blaming environmental extremists for the nation's (real or imagined) energy troubles--like California's deregulation mess--is good politics, while the Democrats almost giddily believe environment/energy to be Bush's main vulnerability. Given the muddy legislative swirl Bush's energy plan will stir up, the public will be lucky if the debate stays that starkly defined.
Environmentalist groups should forcibly inject broader public interest considerations into the mix and seek to provoke a real national energy dialogue that goes beyond green-versus-brown accusations and political point-scoring. Any serious, comprehensive energy policy would start by taking the $100 billion the Pentagon wants for a technically dubious National Missile Defense system and investing it in enhancing proven alternative-energy and efficiency technologies. Solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydrogen fuel cells (the idea Al Gore pushed during the late campaign and Bush derided, then stole for his energy plan)--all these renewable technologies are proven and feasible. A multibillion-dollar federal investment in them would assure their cost-effectiveness and wider use.
Bush has declared an energy crisis and opened the door to a national discourse on saving energy. The Democrats should say, "Thanks, George," and take the opportunity to supplant his hot air with action.
Unwilling to pay for a PCB cleanup, it argues that nature can do the job.
Industry has been doing all it can to keep an EPA report from being published.
In early April an alert was sent out by a longtime oceans activist worried that the Bush Administration was about to reverse a program to establish marine protected areas. A number of green groups relayed the warning to their members. Within days Chris Evans, head of the Surfrider Foundation (made up of more than 26,000 environmentally concerned surfers), got a call from a top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration begging him to stop jamming the communications system with protests. "You've made your point. Nothing's been decided yet," the official said.
Bush's hard line on the environment, including decisions on carbon dioxide, oil drilling, arsenic, mining, forests, oceans and energy, as well as budget cuts that target agencies like the EPA and the Interior Department and laws like the Endangered Species Act, is mobilizing the environmental movement in a broader, deeper way than has been seen since the first Earth Day thirty-one years ago. "Bush said he'd be the great uniter, and he's united the opposition nicely in these early days," claims John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "It's better than I've seen it in years."
And while the environmental movement--some thirty large organizations with close to 20 million dues-paying members, along with thousands of regional and local activist groups--is raising much the same alarm it did in 1981, at the beginning of the "trees cause pollution" Reagan era, and 1995, when the 104th Congress tried to gut keystone environmental laws, it's discovering that many more Americans--including suburban "swing voters"--now seem to be listening. Over the past three decades environmentalism has evolved from a social movement to a societal ethic.
EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman tried unsuccessfully to warn Bush that backing off his pledge to reduce global warming CO
Another moderate Republican loser is Fred Krupp, head of Environmental Defense, a group that promotes market-based solutions to environmental problems. By refusing to attack Bush's anti-environment nominees, like former lead lobbyist (now Interior Secretary) Gale Norton, ED hoped to position itself to become the author of a CO
While the Democrats' climate and energy proposals are only "a paler shade of brown," according to Sierra Club climate programs director Dan Becker, the Democrats have begun picking up on the growing public unease over Bush's green-bashing. On March 28 Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Dick Gephardt joined environmentalists for a rally and press conference, and three days later the Democrats dedicated their weekly radio address to going after Bush on arsenic in drinking water and other environmental issues. Among the most outspoken pols targeting Bush is Massachusetts Senator and presidential hopeful John Kerry, who has threatened to filibuster any effort to pass Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling. With a majority of Americans opposed to the drilling and Bush lacking the Senate votes needed for passage, enviros see a chance of turning caribou in the Arctic into an early and major policy defeat.
A greater challenge for the enviros will be sustaining public interest in the trench warfare that will continue on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies now filling up with former oil, mining, auto, timber and biotech lobbyists. One suggestion initiated by European Greens (reflecting the EU's disgust with Bush's sabotage of the Kyoto agreement) is a global boycott of a US oil company. Forced to unify and coordinate strategies, US enviros are also working more closely with labor, civil rights, feminist and public health groups on areas of common interest. (The way Congressional Republicans rammed through a reversal of ergonomic workplace rules, for example, was seen as a potential threat not only to worker safety but also to a host of environmental protection rules.)
This breaking down of issue barriers is also finding resonance among younger people entering the ranks of the movement. "What began in Seattle represents the next generation that cares about labor, safety, trade and very much about the environment and its global connections," says Greenpeace's Passacantando, who invited 225 college students to bird-dog the US delegation at the last climate talks in The Hague. "The game now is, How much can we hold Bush's feet to the fire?" With the President, Vice President and Commerce Secretary all veterans of the oil industry, the Greens ought to find plenty of fuel for their fire this Earth Day.
Barbara Kingsolver, renowned author of The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, wrote this call-to-action against the profound threats the new administration poses to
A question for the new millennium: When there is no paper, is there still a
paper trail? Answer: Not unless you vacuum the Internet and print
Four days after the press reported that
he was about to cut climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions from
power plants, George W. Bush caved in to the Neanderthal wing of the
fossil fuel lobby--the coal industry and ExxonMobil--and reversed
himself. In reneging on his campaign pledge, Bush thumbed his nose at
Holland, Germany and Britain, which are planning to cut carbon
emissions by 50 to 80 percent over the next fifty years, as well as
EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who had voiced support for
By calling the science "still
incomplete," Bush also lent new credibility to the tiny handful of
industry-sponsored "greenhouse skeptics" who have been thoroughly
discredited by the mainstream community of climate
researchers--including the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC), the National Academy of Sciences and other blue-ribbon
scientific groups that deem global warming to be real, immediate and
For most of the 1990s, Western Fuels, a $400
million coal industry propaganda outlet, funded the most visible of
the greenhouse skeptics. Now ExxonMobil--the only major oil company
to deny the reality of climate change--has joined the coal industry
to finance the skeptics, confuse the public and undermine the work of
2,000 scientists from 100 countries on the IPCC.
widely quoted skeptic, S. Fred Singer, denied receiving oil industry
money in a February letter to the Washington Post. But in 1998
ExxonMobil gave $10,000 to Singer's institute, the Science and
Environmental Policy Project, and $65,000 to the Atlas Economic
Research Foundation, which shared building space with SEPP. Says
Atlas's website, "For those who believe public policy should be based
on sound science, Dr. Singer offers a wealth of information,
credibility and encouragement."
Singer's denial of oil
funding is only the most recent of his many fabrications. In 1997 he
declared that Dr. Bert Bolin, then chairman of the IPCC, had changed
his position on climate change and denied a connection between global
warming and extreme weather, accusations that Bolin called
"inaccurate and misleading." While he touts himself as an
accomplished scientist, Singer has been unable to publish in the
peer-reviewed literature for at least fifteen years, other than one
technical comment, according to Congressional
ExxonMobil states candidly that it "provides
support to selected organizations that assess public policy
alternatives on issues with direct bearing on the company's business
operations and interests." Many of the ExxonMobil grants are
relatively small. But given the company's size and reputation, they
are useful in leveraging other grants. For example, the company
supports the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global
Change, staffed by Sherwood Idso, a longtime coal-sponsored global
warming skeptic, and two relatives, Keith and Craig Idso. In 1998
ExxonMobil gave $15,000 to the Cato Institute's Environment and
Natural Resources program, which boasts coal-sponsored skeptic
Patrick Michaels as its senior fellow. Michaels's "statements on
[climate models] are a catalog of misrepresentation and
misinterpretation," says Dr. Tom Wigley, a leading climate modeler at
the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And ExxonMobil
bankrolls the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, which
published The Heated Debate, a book by greenhouse skeptic Dr.
ExxonMobil has isolated itself from the
community of major oil companies in the area of climate. British
Petroleum is now the world's largest producer of solar energy
systems, Shell created a $500 million renewable energy company and
Texaco has invested substantial resources in hydrogen-powered fuel
Around the world, glaciers are melting, oceans are
heating up and infectious diseases are migrating. The buildup of our
coal and oil emissions has triggered a wave of violent and chaotic
weather. All this has resulted from one degree of warming. During
this century, the temperature will rise by up to 10 degrees,
according to the IPCC. It's time for journalists to stop quoting
Singer and the other global warming skeptics. They might as well go
straight to the ExxonMobil public information office for
I have eaten more than my share of Whoppers in my forty-one years. As a teenager I liked them so much I'd worry about whether I could afford another one while still eating the first. As I got older, my concerns centered less on the cost to my wallet than to my waistline. Today, thanks to two new books, I have a new fear: the prospect of everlasting damnation.
Eric Schlosser's Fast-Food Nation is a frightening and disturbing update of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Spend a few hours with Schlosser and you'll become more intimately acquainted with your ground beef than you ever wanted to be. Consider the people who get the meat into your waiting fingers. The injury rate among meatpackers is the highest of any US occupation. Every year about one-third of all slaughterhouse workers--roughly 43,000 men and women--suffer an injury or an illness that requires first aid on the job. Given the inevitable exchange of blood and other bodily fluids in which these injuries result, their oppression is your health hazard. The same goes for the burger-flippers behind the grill. Fast-food employees are the largest group of low-paid workers in the United States today, earning on average $5.74 an hour. One-quarter of the workers in the restaurant industry are estimated to earn the minimum wage--a higher proportion than in any other US industry. (No wonder the National Restaurant Association is perhaps this nation's most vociferous opponent of living-wage laws.) Again, worker oppression results in consumer health peril. Reading Schlosser, we hear stories of teenage workers serving meat after dropping it on the floor, picking their noses into the food, smoking on the job and watching cockroaches and rats feed and defecate on unprepared foods.
A single hamburger often contains beef from dozens up to hundreds of cattle from as many as six countries. If just one morsel becomes infected with the E. coli microbe, the burger can kill you. For the luckier ones, it can result in kidney failure, anemia, internal bleeding, seizure, stroke and coma. As company lawyers pay victims in exchange for their silence, in the past eight years some half-million Americans, mostly kids, have become seriously ill from E. coli infections. Every week, a few of them die.
I've not even said a word about the economic and environmental destruction the industry routinely wreaks on the farmland it controls, the neighborhood mom and pop operations it destroys, and the evil mind-games it plays with our children. (The McDonald's corporation, the world's largest owner of retail property, is also its leading spender on advertising and marketing, much of it directed at small children.) And forget mad cow.
Still hungry? Peter Singer's new collection, Writings on an Ethical Life, asks you to think again. Singer, whose musings on "speciesism" single-handedly jump-started the animal rights movement a quarter-century ago, wants to know what right you have to be eating what was once a conscious being in the first place. "All consumers of animal products are responsible for the existence of cruel practices involved in producing them. Our moral responsibility should compel us to avoid hamburgers because every time we eat one we are contributing to a cycle of suffering not only of animals, but also of humans, for the grain used to feed the animals we consume is more than enough to end hunger in many less industrialized and affluent countries." (If you want stomach-turning evidence of rampant anti-animal sadism in the beef industry, check out Schlosser's account of a visit to a slaughterhouse "somewhere in the high plains.")
All right, let's say you do decide to transform your life, swearing off not only animals and fish but also dairy. You are now a vegan, and you decide to celebrate by taking your family out to a fancy new neighborhood health-food restaurant serving only the most high-minded meals of vegetables, fruit, nuts and berries. Not so fast, says Singer. The $200 or so you are about to spend on a meal you don't really need would help transform a sickly 2-year-old into a healthy 6-year-old somewhere in the Third World--offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. If instead of going out to dinner, you dial either (800) 367-5437 for UNICEF or (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam and give them your credit card number and 200 bucks, that child will live instead of die. If you go out to dinner instead--well, sorry, but the kid is dead.
OK, now let's say you donated the money--I hope you did--and decide to go out to dinner anyway. Is that enough? Not really, I'm afraid. There are millions more starving kids out there, and I'm guessing you've got more than $200 you don't really need. I know your friends and relatives don't seem to be giving away their extra money, but most people didn't resist the Nazis or Stalinists when they had the chance, either. Does that make it right?
Here's the problem. I can't answer any of these arguments, but I can ignore them. At least I intend to (except for the $200 one--I did stop in the middle of writing this article to fork over $200 to Oxfam). The trouble seems to be that I'm a massive hypocrite. I make sacrifices for my principles but not, apparently, ones involving hamburgers and steaks. I like them too much, torture or no torture, starving kids or no starving kids, E. coli risk or no E. coli risk.
Being an American, you are probably no better. We are the wealthiest people in all human history, and yet our government does not even come close to meeting the extremely modest United Nations-recommended target of a set-aside of 0.7 percent of GDP to overseas aid agencies. Our piddling 0.1 percent is less than one-third of Japan's contribution and a tenth of Denmark's. Don't tell me that these organizations are inefficient at feeding people. Everybody is inefficient at everything. They are good enough. Singer, a vegan who gives away 20 percent of his salary as a tenured faculty member at Princeton, insists that there is "something incoherent about living a life where the conclusions you came to in ethics did not make any difference to your life." He's right. We're living a morally incoherent life, you and I. And as Schlosser demonstrates ad nauseam, it's even pretty stupid from the standpoint of our own self-interest. So how do we justify it?
I wish I knew.