Archive for December, 2007|Monthly archive page

Food Shortages, Ethanol and Mike Gravel

In civil, Consumerism, Direct action, Election 2008, Environment, Food Justice, International politics, Misc., Progressive Politics, US Politics on December 19, 2007 at 4:52 pm

A disturbing article in the International Herlad Tribune appeared a couple days ago, and has gotten little, if any traction in the domestic press. According to the UN, on top of everything else going to shit on this planet, our food supplies are running dangerously low.

In an “unforeseen and unprecedented” shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned Monday.

The changes created “a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food,” particularly in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

There – of course – some seriously alarming numbers backing these claims:

The agency’s food price index rose by more than 40 percent this year, compared with 9 percent the year before – a rate that was already unacceptable, he said. New figures show that the total cost of foodstuffs imported by the neediest countries rose 25 percent, to $107 million, in the last year.

At the same time, reserves of cereals are severely depleted, FAO records show. World wheat stores declined 11 percent this year, to the lowest level since 1980. That corresponds to 12 weeks of the world’s total consumption – much less than the average of 18 weeks consumption in storage during the period 2000-2005. There are only 8 weeks of corn left, down from 11 weeks in the earlier period.

Prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs, Diouf said Monday. Wheat prices have risen by $130 per ton, or 52 percent, since a year ago. U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time Monday, the agricultural equivalent of $100 a barrel oil


high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in the past year, putting enormous stress on poor nations that need to import food as well as the humanitarian agencies that provide it.

There are several reasons for all this:

On the supply side, these include the early effects of global warming, which has decreased crop yields in some crucial places, and a shift away from farming for human consumption toward crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing with the world population, and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat-eaters grows.

Ironically, our own prosperity is driving our demise. Worse yet, our attempts at combating global warming may be deepening the problem.

In the lead story in last week’s Economist, The End of Cheap Food, the British authority pointed their fingers squarely at America:

But the rise in prices is also the self-inflicted result of America’s reckless ethanol subsidies. This year biofuels will take a third of America’s (record) maize harvest. That affects food markets directly: fill up an SUV‘s fuel tank with ethanol and you have used enough maize to feed a person for a year. And it affects them indirectly, as farmers switch to maize from other crops. The 30m tonnes of extra maize going to ethanol this year amounts to half the fall in the world’s overall grain stocks.

There is no doubt that many of the politicians – and subsequently businesses – pushing for ethanol have overlooked this fact in a nakedly political attempt to curry favor in Iowa while looking serious on climate change and American jobs. Sugar cane-based Ethanol produced in Brazil is cheaper and more efficient than our domestic flavor, especially considering the fact that the amount of energy needed to turn corn into fuel is so high that it offsets any environmental gain; but that won’t win you a caucus in Des Moines. It looks as though these concerns are actually being considered as there is an Energy Bill close to ratification that will expand funding and production quotas for non-corn Ethanol.

All this being said, we are still looking at a fundamental challenge to our way of life, something far more serious than terrorism or Iran getting the bomb. Who cares if we defeat the Jihadists if a loaf of bread ends up costing $500 and you can’t afford to feed your family? Emerging countries have been yearning for the protein-filled, doggy bag taking, dangerously obese lifestyle we’ve pioneered in America; and if the devastating droughts we’ve seen in Australia and our own South-East continue, it’ll be impossible to grow enough for everybody.

There will obviously be plenty of initiatives put forth by Governments, NGO’s, think tanks and the myriad brain trusts we have set up to find answers to problems like this. Nothing will be done, though, unless we as a people can control ourselves. People will always be hungry, but they don’t need to be fat. I’ll start with my own country. It is difficult to consume less in a culture and economy that is solely devoted to that very action, but if this crises deepens (which it likely will) eventually we’ll have to realize that resources are finite and the more we take, the less we leave for the rest of world. Steaks are dope, but not necessary every night of the week and gigantic meals are meant for celebrations, not necessarily lunch.

I’m not advocating a hunger strike or anything, and far be it from me to point fingers, but it seems ridiculous to expect progress without sacrifice. If we are concerned about these problems, we must not only be the first to act, but also be capable of accepting the consequences.  It is well and good to want to feed others, but to be willing to give part of your meal, that’s something else entirely.  The same goes for global warming.  It is fairly easy to rationalize that hybrid SUV, but why not demand better public transit and save $34,000?  Want to get rid of illegal immigration?, then go ahead and work in a strawberry field for $5 and hour and demand higher pay.  Do you support better health-care and education for all?, then pay more taxes.  These are somewhat extreme, but we must realize that we are not powerless to effect change.  The success we seek is only sustainable if we’re all willing to work for it.

Mike Gravel’s candidacy might not be remembered too far past January 3rd, but he had moment of brilliance during a recent debate on NPR. When asked to describe an issue he does not know the answer to, the former Senator from Alaska responded immediately:

“I wish I knew how to convince the American people that they are the answer to these problems, not the politicians. I wish I knew how to make that argument.”

Amen, sir.





The Music Wars: The RIAA Trial and Our First Casualty

In Consumerism, Laws & Regulation, Misc., Music, Technology on December 6, 2007 at 2:25 pm

Jaimee Thomas is the first person to refuse to a settlement in an RIAA lawsuit, the first defendant in a file-sharing trial, and the first to be found guilty of copyright infringement by a jury of her peers . For this distinction, the single mother of two will be forced to pay her accusers the amount of $220,000. At $9,250 each, here are the 24 songs she infringed upon (from Wired.com):

  • Guns N Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”; “November Rain”
  • Vanessa Williams “Save the Best for Last”
  • Janet Jackson “Let’s What Awhile”
  • Gloria Estefan “Here We Are”; “Coming Out of the Heart”; “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”
  • Goo Goo Dolls “Iris”
  • Journey “Faithfully”; “Don’t Stop Believing”
  • Sara McLachlan “Possession”; “Building a Mystery”
  • Aerosmith “Cryin'”
  • Linkin Park “One Step Closer”
  • Def Leppard “Pour Some Sugar on Me”
  • Reba McEntire “One Honest Heart”
  • Bryan Adams “Somebody”
  • No Doubt “Bathwater”; “Hella Good”; “Different People”
  • Sheryl Crow “Run Baby Run”
  • Richard Marx “Now and Forever”
  • Destiny’s Child “Bills, Bills, Bills”
  • Green Day “Basket Case”

How much would you be willing to sacrifice for the Goo Goo Dolls? Considering that the plaintiffs had claimed she had distributed in the neighborhood of 1,702 songs through her Kazaa account, one wonders how they came to this eclectic mix of guilty pleasures (no pun intended). Also, the jury could have awarded anywhere between $750 and $150,000 in damages per song, making the amount of $9,250 seem just as arbitrary. Either way, it’s a substantial sum of money on top of already pricey legal fees, something Ms. Thompson will face on her own (from the West Central Tribune of Duluth):

“It’s been very stressful,” she [Jaime Thompson] said. “I have multi-billion dollar corporations with their own economies of scale suing me so it’s been very stressful.’’

She said the lawsuit has also affected her children. “I no longer have any disposable income whatsoever,” she said. “My disposable income used to go for CDs, but obviously not anymore. I’ve had to make some changes regarding extras for my children. All the disposable income went toward this case. I didn’t do this and I refuse to be bullied.”

Her appeal on the grounds that this constitutes excessive punnishment was recently rejected by the Department of Justice, setting a disturbing precedent for the future. The DoJ’s reasoning, surprising similar to the RIAA’s, is that infringement by an individual creates exponential damage to the copyright holder by fact of this dangerous interweb. Acting Assistant AG Jefferey Bucholtz breaks it down for us (from CNET):

Although defendant claims that plaintiffs’ damages are 70 cents per infringing copy, it is unknown how many other users–“potentially millions”–committed subsequent acts of infringement with the illegal copies of works that the defendant infringed. Accordingly, it is impossible to calculate the damages caused by a single infringement, particularly for infringement that occurs over the Internet. Furthermore, plaintiffs contend that their witnesses “testified to the substantial harm caused by the massive distribution of their copyrighted sound recordings over the Internet, including lost revenues, layoffs, and a diminished capability to identify and promote new talent…”

Since it’s “impossible to calculate the damages”, is $9,250 per song really enough? Why not $11,782.63 each? How about $25,902.17? If you’re going to make this woman responsible for the entire downfall of the music industry, if you’re going to make her take out 3 more mortgages her house and jeopardize her family anyway, why not just take her first born or a pound of flesh?

So this is the new business model? The RIAA and the Majors are betting that they can make up they’re lost revenue through suing the pants off people. It doesn’t matter if the product sucks, if we don’t listen to it or if we don’t want it, they’ll be sure to make us pay for it somehow. Who needs marketing when you have threats? High priced lawyers are a better investment than musicians, right? Wired’s interview with Universal Music CEO Doug Morris highlights the struggles going on between the ears of a lot of these old school executives, none of whom really get whats going on while still trying to reconcile the fact their audience is somehow indifferent to paying for something they hold dear. They’re digging their own graves without even knowing it. Yes, music is worth something, but people need to be convinced and lobbied more than the government, lawsuits sure as hell won’t be doing the business any favors. Radiohead’s run online will be over in a couple days, with an actual CD to follow. Initial numbers are not too encouraging, maybe 38% of people who downloaded actually paid anything and hundreds of thousands of copies were pirated off peer-to-peer eventhough it was offered free directly from the artist. However little they might have gotten, though, it’s a blessing that neither the Majors nor their RIAA lapdogs can touch a dime.

Clean Living (and driving)

In Environment, Technology on December 4, 2007 at 5:03 pm

You’ve heard of hybrid cars, electric cars, and maybe even hydrogen cars. But have you heard about the air car? It was listed as one of Time magazines best inventions of 2007 (best invention being the iphone), and it could very well be coming to the states soon. Here’s what Time had to say:

Electric cars are so 2006. French R&D firm MDI signed a deal this year with India’s largest automaker, Tata Motors, to start manufacturing compressed-air-technology vehicles. These ultra-eco-friendly cars run on air, and the only thing they emit is colder, cleaner air. Another convenient feature: a built-in air compressor can be plugged in to refill the tanks within minutes.
Available: 2009