Archive for the ‘Natural Resources’ category

Carl Safina on Deepwater Horizon

July 15, 2010

An informative talk on the scope of this tragedy so far, but most relevant to our purposes here is the following conclusion that Safina makes:

I think we have to understand where this leak really started from. It started from the destruction of the idea that the government is there because it’s our government, meant to protect the larger public interest.


If you look at the page for this talk on the TED website, you can read through lots of comments about the role of de/regulation in creating and prolonging this disaster.

Who Owns Science? Part 2: the Bayh-Dole Act

December 18, 2009

In the United States, the question of who owns science was given a loud and clear answer in 1980 by Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole. Their “Bayh-Dole Act” allowed businesses and non-profit organizations to retain private, patent-style rights to control innovations and discoveries, even discoveries developed using federal funding. This effectively privatized large parts of big medicine and the military industrial complex. It also created a new academic trend: universities across the country created offices of technology transfer, which were responsible for surveying research being done and looking for ways to snatch up innovations and take them to market. This greatly accelerated a trend brewing since World War Two: universities began to rely more and more on private sector profitability for their funding. Ask any graduate student in the sciences who funds his/her education, and you’ll find many with private sector grants. It also encouraged another trend: the question of what topics should be researched became increasingly shaped by what is profitable. Because laboratories and experiments are often so expensive, private sector funders have little incentive to invest unless they think results could be profitable. Hence basic research in science, guided by the latest trends in the field, now takes a back seat to research that is more likely or more certain to generate profits.

Public Water/Private Water: Whither Clean Water?

December 17, 2009

Today’s NYTimes has a rather extensive article regarding concerns that millions of Americans may be drinking tap water contaminated with all sorts of hazardous chemicals – despite the fact that this water passes the requirements of the (seemingly far insufficient) federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The article doesn’t indicate whether private water systems are, on the whole, more hazardous than public systems, but in describing the egregious case of Maywood, CA, it does note how private systems exacerbate the already difficult process of bringing clean water to the people:

Maywood is only one square mile, but has three water systems. All are privately owned, so local officials have no real power except forcing them to follow federal and state regulations. About three-quarters of the nation’s water systems are private entities, beholden only to their shareholders and the law.

Laboratory tests show Maywood’s tap water has contained toxic levels of mercury, lead, manganese and other chemicals that have been associated with liver and kidney damage, neurological diseases or cancer.

But when Maywood’s residents asked for cleaner water, they were told what was flowing from the taps satisfied the Safe Drinking Water Act, and so the managers didn’t have to do more.

So while insufficient environmental regulation endangers the health of those reliant on both private or public water systems, the privatization of three quarters (!) of the nation’s water systems has closed off the principal avenue public recourse: pressuring elected officials. In fact:

When a city council member named Felipe Aguirre lobbied for cleaner water, anonymous leaflets arrived. “Felipe Aguirre has deceived the citizens of Maywood!” one reads. “Felipe Aguirre does not care that Maywood residents will be paying more for water already safe to drink!” another says. “Do you want this liar and corrupt politician to decide the future of Maywood and its residents?”

If water is a “private” resource, then the owners of that resource can openly declare that profit, not safety, is the bottom line – so long as they are working within the constraints of the law.

Cherry’s 10 cents per bottle: update on the Great Lakes water wars

December 15, 2009

As he prepares to run for Governor of Michigan, current Lieutenant Governor John Cherry (Dem) has been campaigning for a 10-cents-per-bottle tax or fee on companies that sell bottled water from Michigan. He estimates it would raise about $118 million a year, enough money to restore the unfunded Michigan Promise scholarship and put $18 million toward programs for protecting wetlands and the Great Lakes. Taxing bottled water companies to fund education and ecology? Sounds good to me.

The biggest and loudest opponent of the idea, so far, is Ice Mountain, a Michigan-based bottled water company owned by the American Water Division of Franco-Swiss giant Nestle. The company is making two moves to protect its privatized grasp on Michigan waters. First, Ice Mountain lawyers and the IBWA (International Bottled Water Association, a trade group) have been arguing that Cherry’s proposed tax is unconstitutional because Michigan’s state constitution prohibits any tax on sales of food products since 1974. Meanwhile, Ice Mountain PR has been hard at work picking at the special wounds of Michigan’s suffering economy with a widely circulated press release claiming that the tax would raise prices for consumers, raise costs for producers, and threaten jobs. In Michigan, heavily deindustrialized, with one of the highest unemployment rates of any U.S. state and a state government struggling financially, Ice Mountain knows that if it cries about increased costs and job loss, people will take notice. Two shrewd moves to protect the privatization of water, indeed.

But the tax is also being criticized by more publicly-minded critics. Some are concerned that it will prevent Michigan citizens from having access to clean water, especially where tap water is considered unsafe and residents rely on bottle water. Others are concerned that taxing water will add fuel to the fire of privatization, making it seem natural and normal that water is a commodity to be sold, rather than a common resource for public use and enjoyment.

Lt. Governor Cherry has responded to these charges in remarkably anti-enclosure terms (see this story on MLive):

Cherry said he knows putting a fee, or tax, on bottled water may be seen by some as turning water into a commodity. But he argues that businesses that draw and bottle groundwater from Michigan have already done that.
“This is a resource owned by all of us in Michigan,” he said. “And so in that context, if someone takes something that’s owned by everybody and sells it at a profit, it just seems to me to be logical that they have some obligation to reimburse those who own it.”
He said the Legislature has decided to let bottlers extract Michigan’s water without paying a fee, which encourages the use and sale of the state’s water.
“If you want to discourage it, you claim what’s rightfully yours — and that’s a portion of the money,” he said.
Cherry said he supports closing a loophole in the Great Lakes compact which allows shipment of Great Lakes water outside the basin as long as it’s in containers of less than 5.7 gallons.

Cherry’s argument that water is a public resource is refreshing and remarkable in these times when water is increasingly scarce, increasingly polluted, and increasingly captured and commodified by large corporations like Ice Mountain/Nestle. But Cherry’s campaign also needs to be kept in context: it is just another move in a long-standing battle for the water of the Great Lakes.

Peter Annin wrote his award-winning 2006 book The Great Lakes Water Wars (see his website here) to show how and why the region has become the target of such vicious water wars in the last several decades: the lakes hold 18% of the world’s surface fresh water (not including underground aquifers). Amidst a global water crisis, it is no wonder that corporations are working to snatch up this water, while locals fight to protect it. Questions of ownership and jurisdiction are difficult in the great lakes basin, however, which spans 7 U.S. states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) and sits astride the U.S.-Canadian border. Thus, on top of questions about whether water can and/or should be publicly or privately owned, there are questions here about which states, provinces and nations have claim to the waters as public property.

For more on water privatization and protection in the Great Lakes region, visit Save Michigan Water.

A new thread: health care reform

December 8, 2009

So far, most of our activity here at Enclosure has been devoted to thinking about ‘privatization,’ i.e. the removal of goods, money, people, services, ideas, etc. from public or common spaces, and their installation behind barriers to access, barriers which shore up our capitalist system of private property: hence the term ‘enclosure.’

But this year’s long and frustrating debate in the United States over health care reform provides an opportunity to look at the issue of privatization from another angle. In this debate, we are not witnessing practices of enclosure or privatization; health care is already privatized and heavily deregulated in this country. The real fight for reformers on America’s liberal left has been the ‘public option,’ the attempt to wrest away health care provision from private hands and put it back in public hands. In other words, health care reformers are looking for the opposite of privatization, call it what you will (public-ization, common-ization, dis-enclosure, de-privatization, and so on…). As critics of the logic and practice of privatization, both authors of this blog are, not surprisingly, strong supporters of the public option.

The fact that so many American citizens and politicians are opposed to a public option furnishes another important topic for discussion. Privatization is not only upheld by organizational and institutional powers (copyright law, property law, lawsuits, police protection, etc.); privatization is also normalized, set up as a cultural value, fought for as a cherished belief (especially on the political center and right). The social, political and economic forms that keep privatization in place are supported by a widespread set of beliefs and values. This is to say that we not only have a system of privatization in this country, we also have a culture of privatization (for more on this, see our earlier post about Kristin Ross and cultural theory). In this year’s health care debates, this culture has proven as big an obstacle to reform as has the weight of inherited structural or systemic forms. The right has flooded the public sphere and the mediascape with messages linking a government-run health care plan with Stalinists and Nazis, as if the right to hold a Medicare card would transport one immediately into Animal Farm or 1984. Meanwhile, they miss the point that our current privatized health care system is more like Lord of the Flies. While we’re no policy experts here at Enclosure, we can say that the same capitalist forces working to slap DRM on our mp3s and privatize local utility systems (e.g. water supply and sewage treatment) have their dirty hands all over our health care system.

The lesson to be learned here is that resisting enclosure and privatization from happening in the first place is just as important and just as difficult as it is to dismantle an already existing system and culture of privatization. Hence we always have to think about privatization ‘before the fact’ and ‘after the fact.’ We have to prevent privatization from taking hold, prevent it from expanding, and to prevent it from becoming totalized.

sludge update: from the bay area to the globe

December 5, 2009

The New York Times recently ran this story about a fight over privatizing sewage treatment in Novato, California. In September, local government decided to turn over sewage treatments to Veolia, one of the world’s largest water companies, based in Paris. Problem is,  both the city of Novato and Veolia have, in separate cases, been investigated for illegally dumping sewage into San Fransisco Bay. Veolia found itself snared in a couple of lawsuits, while the EPA raided the Novato water works searching for bureaucratic evidence (paperwork) of dumping. A local NIMBY insurgency has risen up, much like in our previous posts about Synagro and Cochabamba. Veolia also shows up (along with Bechtel and “disconcerting echos of Cochabamba”) in this post from Irish Eco Site The Local Planet, which asks “is there hidden profit in your water?”

So here is yet another story about a global water processing giant, committed on paper to sustainability, but closely watched by citizens and regulators. Regulators are concerned about the practice of illegal dumping, and citizens add concerns about California’s failing state budget, higher utility costs, and loss of local control and local jobs.

All of this is just another round of the same water wars. In this latest round, giant global corporations like Veolia, Suez, Bechtel and Synagro compete to scoop up as many fresh water and waste water processing and distribution gigs as they can, as more and more of the globe’s water is privatized. Privatization, in this case, is deeply connected with globalization. When French companies like Suez and Veolia are snatching up water contracts in California and Bolivia, we should be asking why, just like citizens in Novato are.

Fighting Privatization in Bolivia

July 23, 2009

Latin American politicians like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have recently made a name for themselves resisting a popular idea: that developing the “developing world” means accepting a role for privatization – usually a role for powerful corporations from the developed world. Many international development programs (from the World Bank, IMF and WTO), make privatization of utilities, infrastructure and other essential services a prerequisite for debt relief. Globally, this provokes domestic crises when the poor rise up against unaffordable rates for things like water and power.

Bolivia has been especially active in this struggle of the poor against the rich.

In 2000, the so-called “Cochabamba Water Wars” flared up when a consortium of corporations (called Aguas del Tunari) tried to privatize the city of Cochabamba’s municipal water supply, and were met with mass protest. The World Bank threatened to cancel its $25 million loan unless the utility was privatized, the contract went through, water prices soared, and the public rose up in protest. In a country where minimum wage was less than US$70 per month, many dwellers were hit with monthly water bills of $20 or more. A four-month brawl between protesters and police ensued, with protest spreading from Cochabamba to other cities La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí. The government declared a state of siege, and eventually canceled the contract, provoking extensive legal action from Aguas del Tunari and the World Bank.

In 2005, the capital La Paz was gripped by more water wars. The capital’s water supply was slated to be privatized under a group called Aguas del Illumani (owned by France’s Suez Lyonnaise company). This time, faced with a general strike and a blockade of roads that isolated the city, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa canceled the contract. As British MP Alan Simpson put it,

Since privatisation in 1997, the company has pushed up water prices by 35% in regions where 60% of the population lives in poverty. Despite this, the World Bank gave the company a launch hand-out of $68 million and declared that it highlighted “the vital role of the private sector in providing the future infrastructure services in Bolivia”.

In 2006, Bolivia opened another round of resistance by nationalizing its oil and gas industry in order to keep multinational hands off of it (as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Brazil and Venezuela have also recently done – see New York Times story here). Neighbors Peru and Equador are taking a similar strategy.

What interests me in this recent history is that Bolivians are not only fighting for control of particular resources or infrastructures. While they take to the streets to protest private water or gas companies and their rising rates, they also protest something bigger – the growing global, hegemonic trend of American-style privatization of everything. They protest the power of multinational corporations and their buddy-buddy connections with organs of international governance like the World Bank. Finally, they protest the idea that “development” works best when overseen by powerful, private, for-profit multinational corporations. They show that what often counts as “development” is simply capitalist-imperialist exploitation that would make Lenin say “I told you so.”