The Mis-Taking of America

SUBHEAD: They knew how to conquer and exploit, but it is unclear they ever learned how to settle.

By Erik Lindberg on 3 January 2014 for Transition Milwaukee -
(http://transitionmilwaukee.org/profiles/blogs/the-mis-taking-of-america)


Image above: Note artist and his easel in lower left corner. A selfie painting of a "Juniata Evening" by American landscape artist Thomas Moran, 1864. Juniata Valley is in Pennsylvania. This looks more like a scene from the Lewis & Clark expedition up the Missouri River to find the way to the Pacific Ocean.  From (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Moran,_%27The_Juniata,_Evening%27,_1864._Oil_on_canvas,_National_Gallery_of_Art,_Washington.jpg).

America was not infinite; it only seemed that way to early European explorers, conquerors, and settlers for whom the size of the known world had suddenly doubled and the quantity of effectively unclaimed resources increased by far more than that. This sudden immeasurable and unearned abundance, it is clear, authorized a new set of cultural practices that would not have been deemed appropriate by a people confronted by visible boundaries and limits.

But I am less concerned with past crimes than I am with the beliefs and expectations that lead us into the future. The stories we continue to tell ourselves about the discovery of America, its conquest and settling, the Enlightened awakening from an age of unreason are similar to those that helped develop and profoundly shaped a new way of thinking about the world whose main contours are still in place today.

The remaining question is how deep beyond these specific practices and habits of consumption does the false image of the infinite run?

Our way of life is clearly not sustainable; but what if our way of perceiving reality--our fundamental political, economic, even scientific categories—were also inalterably deformed by the false image of an infinite land? Is philosophical Liberalism compatible with a finite planet and a way of life designed to live on it? How fundamental are the changes we must make in order to recast the American way of life to fit on a finite, increasingly crowded, planet?

In his one and only full book, Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson provide clear evidence to the first point, that American cultural practices were shaped by this terrible misconception of limitlessness, even if its most destructive and inescapable consequences might come home to roost only decades, even centuries later. In a brief aside in Notes on Virginia, Jefferson contrasts European and American farming practices. Unlike European agriculture, which he admits is more intensive and careful in its approach, the character of American agriculture is formed by the fact that a parcel stripped of its fertility can be abandoned for another:
“The indifferent state of that [careful agricultural practices] among us does not proceed from want of knowledge merely; it is from our having such quantities of land to waste as we please. In Europe the object is to make the most of their land, labour being abundant; here it is to make the most of our labour, land being abundant.” 
This is an astonishing admission by Jefferson; and it is indicative of a remarkable culturally-, or perhaps geographically-conditioned lack of foresight, the apparent unimportance of the question: how much land we might really “waste as we please?”

The same lack of foresight appears in most discussions over energy and the environment today, even as we can calculate their finite nature with considerable accuracy. Ours is a history of a certain kind of success enabled by a particular kind of miscalculation.

Am I making too much of an off-handed remark, a moment of hyperbole buried in an otherwise dry and rather boring recitation of fact and figures about the commonwealth of Virginia? I don’t think so and for a number of reasons significant to our topic. Jefferson’s statement about the wasting of land and the constant push westward to find new land was not an obscure sentiment, but was the basic policy and practice of Southern planters. George Washington’s description of plantation management was similar:

“a piece of land is cut down,” its forests stripped away, so that it can then be “kept under constant cultivation, first in tobacco and then in Indian corn (two very exhausting plants), until it will yield scarcely anything (quoted in Kennedy 17). 
At that point, it would be abandoned in favor of new land obtained at the ever-receding frontier. As historian Robert Kennedy shows in his book, Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase, the life of colonial planters was far more mobile and unsettled than the image of old southern families would suggest: “the evidence of local records in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi indicates that the average planter family moved at least twice in a generation,” while the wealthiest planters engaged in ramped land speculation across the western frontier.

The result, as Kennedy argues, was;

“a migrant agricultural capitalism with results deadly to humans and to the land itself.”

As the practice of working soil to death and slaves to exhaustion was repeated over and over again, the desolating army of King Cotton moved on a broad front across the South, drawing people away from home and leaving blighted hopes behind.

By 1847, the first cotton lands planted in Georgia were already exhausted; the number of white farmers in Wilkes County fell by half in twenty years” (21, 14, 21-2). This practice was made possible by the low price of abundant land.

As Jefferson remarked;
“we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old one” (12).
This cycle of careless over-use, destruction, and self-displacement was repeated most rapidly by the wealthiest Southern Planters with huge land holdings and thousands of slaves, all of whom were focused on commodity crops such as tobacco and cotton. But these wasteful practices, and an accompanying ideology of short-term profit, can be seen throughout the American experience, from the first fur traders to the fracking industry today.

In a chapter entitled “The Economics of Extinction,” in her beautiful Reflections from Bullough’s Pond, Diana Muir tells of the pre-colonial trade in beaver pelts, a trade driven by European fashion, the debt held by many early European settlers, and by the precarious and constant need to hold a surplus against the vicissitudes of life in a foreign land where, as Muir puts it, the Europeans, like us, believed that “one could never pile up too many goods” (11).

 Between around 1630 and 1675 all the beavers in New England were turned into coats and hats, hunted into extinction.

The loss of beaver however did not spell only the end of a lucrative trade, but the dying of an entire ecosystem that was responsible for the initial abundance experienced by the first settlers, as well as the entire way of life for the Native Americans. The beaver pond, after all, provides habitat for hundreds of species as well as an entire microscopic universe.

 As Muir describes it, the dead leaves that fall into the stagnant waters of a dammed stream creates algae, which in turn produces “food for the tiny creatures that feed the small fish that feed big fish that feed the majestic osprey. . . . Sedge, moss, arrowhead, pickerelweed, water milfoil—every plant between the ferns far up the bank and the duckweed floating on open water is home to some animal or its young, a necessary food for some growing thing” (6).

But the loss of the beaver, nature’s greatest architect and landscaper, has an even greater geographical and hydrological impact upon the land, and in a way that directly affects an agricultural people. A beaver dam is a wonder of water management, moderating “the seasonal extremes of rainfall, trapping the rains of April to release them in slow, even seepage through the hot, dry days of summer and early fall” (6).

When settlers first arrived, Muir notes, New England was home to tens of thousands of beaver ponds. As important as the slow release of water, moreover, was the way millions of gallons were held behind the dams, creating a constant seepage into the ground.

The result: a “reservoir of ground water so abundant that it burst in ever-flowing springs [even] on the beach,” a ground water source necessary to all “the abundance of every kind [that] impressed the first Europeans to reach these shores, abundance of strawberries in the fields and of deer in the woods, abundance of trees, and an astonishing abundance of fresh, clear water” (7).

The beaver gone, the forests felled, the ground turned into fast-eroding fields, this became the hardscrabble New England that we know today. But it scarcely mattered to the European settlers; rivers could be turned into industrial mills and new land could be acquired further west, with little cost to this new economics of extinction that had great and varied abundance to churn through.

Recalling Huber and Mills, the logic of the wealth retrieving machines of these new white Americans advanced much faster than the abundance retreated—over the decades, they closed in on the receding horizon.

If this economics of extinction was made possible by the cheap supply of land and the cheapness with which the lives of its inhabitants were treated, how was it justified? Most individual participants in any destructive form of commerce keep their noses down and, for the most part, are just trying to make a living or compete with their neighbors, or live up to some status-filled ideal; for them, no justification beyond immediate gain is required.

But a “big picture thinker” with epic ambitions like Jefferson, one who was designing a new way of life, would require something more. This is where the notion of the infinite or the limitless scale of the Americas comes in, a notion that appears repeatedly throughout Jefferson’s work and, more significantly, informs the sort of expansionary policy that Jefferson inaugurated and that has become one of the few political solutions that has proved successful decade after decade ever since Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory: when in doubt, expand and grow, a policy that has evolved from Westward expansion and Indian removal, to foreign conquest and economic imperialism.

All of these expansionary solutions have been similarly cloaked with self-congratulatory stories of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, an American Empire of Liberty or Beacon of Hope, a seven-billion member global middle class powered by Windows, and, most improbably, the myth that there are no limits to growth. This has also provides the model for categorical disregard of ecological limits that much of the world has adopted.

It is true that Jefferson is often presented as the patron saint of American homestead agriculture, the spokesman for the virtuous and modest aspiration that American citizens might bind themselves to a piece of land which they would nurture and husband, while engaging in informed participation in the difficult task of self-government. Jefferson clearly favored this agricultural model over the more commercially and financially-minded manufacture or trade promoted by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, with whom Jefferson battled over the identity America might assume. In a famous letter to John Jay, Jefferson writes:
 “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.” 
 In order for the audacious American experiment in self-rule to work, the nation would need to be bound together by people also bound to the earth, or so Jefferson professed. While the image was modest, the ambition was immense and the arc of simple virtue reached towards the infinite: an Empire of Liberty.

This tension between a modest virtue and a grand ambition is illustrated in the same letter to Jay: the stay at home virtues of the yeoman farmer, tied to the land and a local community is also a sort of tool or device to be used in a far more ambitious dream in which “most valuable citizens,” whose way of living Jefferson would never have accepted for himself, appear as pawns in a policy of expansion and growth that did not develop any strategies, in the end, to limit itself.

“We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation. As long therefore as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else. 

But our citizens will find employment in this line till their numbers, and of course their productions, become too great for the demand both internal & foreign. This is not the case as yet, & probably will not be for a considerable time.” 

Our first clue to this broader motive comes in the very question that Jefferson is addressing: the paternalistic one that asks, how should we put our new citizens to work? What occupation might best serve the political needs of the nation? But beyond the social engineering, as people on the right would refer to this today, the answer exemplifies a common Jeffersonian assumption buried in his similar response to other political questions, many of which employed for political advantage the seemingly unlimited space of the American continent.

That we could waste as much land as we please makes the virtues of being tied to the land and the liberty of the nation optional and, like everything else, disposable. “We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation.”

 Was there really room for an infinite number of farmers? Is Jefferson serious?

 While he may have admitted that it wasn’t really infinite, only infinite for all practical purposes, here and elsewhere he nevertheless proceeds as if it were truly infinite or that any distant limits need not be a concern of his. The only foreseeable limits that Jefferson can even imagine are established not by land constraints, but by limits to the demand of agricultural products.

It is also interesting to consider these words in light of the post-Keynesian economic theory of Krugman and Reich, in which economic problems are generally presumed to be ones of demand rather than supply, and in the light of our multi-billion dollar advertising and marketing industry, whose main function is to address problems of demand by goading us into wanting and needing more. If there is a limit to how many farmers Jefferson thought the United States might support, it is not land. It is instead demand for their products, food, but also fiber and tobacco.

This belief in infinite land pops up repeatedly in Jefferson’s writings and speeches. We have seen the way Jefferson has made some sort of truce with the wasteful techniques of agriculture in Notes on Virginia, assenting to the sacrifice of soil and “lasting bonds,” alike, to some principle of productivity or profit, and a corresponding inability to anticipate how long it might take to waste all our land.

The same sort of indifference to the quickening power of exponential growth appears in his first Inaugural Address, where Jefferson predicts that this “chosen country” would have “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.”

This, we might note, is more than ten times the generations there had been since the birth of Christ. We should also note that in the same address Jefferson spoke favorably on the exponential population expansion that the young nation was experiencing: “you will perceive that the increase in numbers during the last 10 years, proceeding in geometric ratio, promises a duplication in little more than 22 years.”

This growth is viewed with nothing but optimistic pride: “we contemplate this rapid growth and the prospect it holds up to us, not with a view to the injuries it may enable us to do others in some future day, but to the settlement of the extensive country still remaining vacant within our limits to the multiplication of men susceptible of happiness, educated in the love of order, habituated to self-government, and valuing its blessings above all price.”

Jefferson’s comments on agriculture can be slightly, and perhaps purposefully, confusing. The wealthy planters who received the benefit of most of Jefferson’s policies do not share the ethic of the family farm. Likewise, it is disingenuous to suggest that labor was not plentiful in the new world, where millions of slaves toiled and were necessary to this economics of extinction. In the above mentioned Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause, Robert Kennedy argues that in addition to the better-known divide between Jefferson’s agrarianism and Hamilton’s commerce and industry, agriculture had two distinct strains of its own.

One of these, represented by the Yeoman farmer of the sort written about to John Jay, was the kind of farming Jefferson favored, at least in principle and within his soaring approbations. In contrast, was the slave-based, commodity-centered, Southern plantation, a clear precursor to today’s industrial agriculture.

While Jefferson despised the slavery upon which the plantation system was built, and was eventually to mourn the devastation to the land that it wrought, he nevertheless suited his policies around the needs of the wealthy planter and at the expense of the yeoman farmer.

The Louisiana Purchase and the spread of slavery westward was the most significant example of this, but the same sacrifice of his ideal pervaded a much broader series of decisions, all of which are well-documented by Kennedy. An Empire of Liberty founded on the virtues of the cultivators of the earth was the “lost cause” referred to in Kennedy’s title.

The yeoman farmer was less dependent on the money economy and foreign markets. Small family farms were far more self-sufficient and, because they were less capital-intensive, were not as ready or as able to uproot themselves even for the cheap land at the frontier. In Jefferson’s day it was already apparent that the small and diversified farmer, often laboring without slaves, provided what we would today call as more “sustainable” model. They would manure an acre of land rather than abandon it for another.

This model of agriculture and its attendant virtues is significant to our broader understanding of Liberalism and America, and our attempt to find a path towards a sustainable future. As Kennedy would tell it, American history is a struggle between these two competing strains of freedom and democracy, a struggle that tore at Jefferson himself. Kennedy argues that the struggle between the free, independent, and ecologically minded family farm, on the one hand, and the more exploitative and destructive plantation, on the other, often hung in a close balance. It could have gone either way.

He is particularly critical of Jefferson, who for a variety of personal and political reasons, never had quite the courage necessary to defend his ideals. In this way, Kennedy believes Jefferson could have possibly prevented the growth of slavery, the underdevelopment of the South, and even the civil war.

Kennedy’s thesis also suggests that Liberalism contains within it a sustainable strain based on lower levels of consumption and waste, and an economy tied more closely to an ecology. This view would in some sense cast doubt on my thesis that Liberalism is inherently expansionary and inherently anti-ecological.

My primary response is: good! All the better if Liberalism and Enlightenment reason have the seeds of a sustainable rebirth buried within them.

My goal is not to overthrow the principles of the Liberal Enlightenment just for the fun of it, but to articulate ways in which our Liberal Expectations, as they have evolved, might be reformed to fit into a finite planet. The future prospects of my two year old twin sons become all the more better if, indeed, we can retrace our steps and take some other fork in the road.

They will care not a bit whether they inherit an inhabitable planet with an intact society that is Liberal, Post-Liberal, or something with an altogether different label. I am more than happy to welcome those parts of our tradition and our reigning political ideology that accept limits to consumption, that don’t value growth for growth’s sake, or believe that every problem will be solved with more technology and a step further from the soil and the land.

In any event, a number of questions still remain even if we except Kennedy’s thesis: why, most significantly, has our tradition of the yeoman farmer given way time and time again to the powers of expansion and growth?

What forces or internal logic has transformed our family farmers into an industrial agricultural complex, our tradesmen and artisans into assembly line workers, our store-owners into cogs in a big-box machine, our local bankers and accountants into Wall Street masters of the universe, the good earthy folk of the North East and the Mid-West into iPad-punching account executives, marketers, and global salespeople?

We have, I will argue, designed all our life supporting systems—our food, our trade, our manufacturing, our waste disposal, even our political elections—as if the world were limitless, our resources and dumps infinite. Was there ever really anything else? Did ecology ever stand a chance in the face of so profitable an economy of extinction?

It is of course satisfying to think it did, especially if we can find a villain to blame. Kennedy’s description follows the pattern we saw in our discussion of partisan warfare: the forces of destruction are thus isolated into a particular group. In this case, the Southern, slave-owning plantation owners provide a welcome target for educated, progressive, northern middle-class people. They, we can happily say, were the problem.

 Those values, not ours, are unsustainable. But one need not look very far to see that Jefferson’s yeoman farmer may have just been a somewhat slower version of the Southern Planter. While Kennedy emphasizes several times that the Yeoman model was successfully instituted in the North East, and areas north of the Ohio River, the marks they may have left on the terrain have long since been plowed under.

A state like Wisconsin or Illinois was, at one time, the seat of diverse agriculture and then for a time the center of grain production. But wheat will deplete the soil quickly and thus the wheat belt was forced west, leaving Wisconsin to Dairy pastures.

The only thing that has allowed states like Iowa or Kansas to remain in grain production was the introduction of chemical fertilizers, which have temporarily obscured the complete destruction of its soils.

Perhaps, to answer the questions posed above, like absolute power, unlimited space corrupts.

Or perhaps the scales of judgment and reason cannot be balanced except against a background of limits and finitude. The illusion infinite space, like infinite energy or resources, at the very least lets one off a number of ethical hooks and solves all sorts of practical problems: without limits “and” replaces “either/or” and governing becomes the far easier project of adding benefit to benefit. Expansion helps fill the coffers; free land, like today’s tax cuts or stimulus checks, stills unrest. A bigger pie means less struggle over the relative size of one’s piece.

 One must believe that there is infinite land or develop some economic fantasy about a permanently growing dematerialized knowledge economy in order for this sort of “solution” not to look like you are just kicking the can down the road. Which is more or less what Jefferson did with regards to slavery, where we can see a similar sort of tension between short-term gain and the deeper principles necessary to a democratic nation. The immediate economic gain of a slave economy provided exports of sugar, cotton, and tobacco that a young cash-starved and highly indebted nation needed.

For even as Jefferson believed that slavery would destroy the national soul, the lure of fantastic gain from wasted land and lives was too much for his virtue or his reason or some other part of him that was not as strong as we retrospectively might have liked. But as long as there were no visible limits, the day of reckoning could be postponed. This “problem” would have to be solved, but only later.

We may scorn Jefferson’s views on slavery and remain unforgiving towards his obvious historical cultural and racial bias. But do we not tell a similar sort of story about our tremendous waste and destruction of the planet? Yes, someone needs to do something. But not yet, not until we fix the economy or make sure everyone has good internet access, or a job free from manual labor. Part of the work of reworking our political and economic beliefs and expectations involves the tricky task of separating various threads from our history.

In his magnificent portrait of the United States, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry observes that “one of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it.”

America was of course discovered, and its inhabitants misnamed, in the course of a ill-navigated search for a short route to India; despite this fundamental and originary disorientation--or perhaps because of it--the continent was, Berry points out, thereafter “laid open in an orgy of goldseeking” whose object of desire was “always somewhere further on.”

This combination of misplaced intentions and spatial bewilderment marked the beginning of a restless settling and unsettling characteristic of our culture, to treaties brokered only long enough to be betrayed, to trails of broken bodies and broken spirits and the demeaning of life and work upon which the unstoppable push westward was beaten and eventually paved.

 From the first days plunder to the present, Berry argues, we the inhabitants of the Americas have continued to “displace ourselves. . . with the same mixture of fantasy and avarice” (3) that Columbus and Cortez first combined with such explosive results.

Jefferson is of special interest to this story precisely because he is not entirely given over to this fantasy and avarice, but is concerned about the virtues necessary for peaceful democratic self-rule. Jefferson was no conquistador.

Peace and independence ranked far higher in his scheme than sudden riches. And yet he cannot resist what Berry refers to as this tendency to displace ourselves and what I would refer to as the mist-taking of America, both of which cannot be fully dissociated from the disorientating experience of an incomprehensibly large space at the edge of which Christopher Columbus ran aground.

Contrary to popular legend, Columbus did not believe the Earth was flat. That myth was brokered by Washington Irving in an attempt to make pre-modern Europeans appear irremediably stupid and ourselves, in contrast, impeachably advanced. But Columbus did believe the Earth to be significantly smaller than it is and, because of a simple, almost comic, transcription error, insisted that the 19,000 mile westward trip from Europe to Asia was more like 2,000.

Had he not run aground when he did, on an unmapped land, Columbus and his men would have soon starved to death as they drifted off into obscurity. Until his death, nevertheless, Columbus maintained that with his landing in the “East Indies” he had indeed found passage to the edge of Asia. But given the overriding purposes of the day, it scarcely mattered which hemisphere Columbus had stumbled upon, and his staggering geographical disorientation did nothing to diminish his jubilation, nor inhibit the ensuing orgy of plunder or the grandeur of the fantasy and avarice with which he carried it out.

 His initial impression of the first Native Americans he encountered was how their open friendliness and thus how easy they would be to slay or enslave, both of which he promptly set out to prove. In his first report to his sponsors in the Spanish Court, Columbus likewise promised them “as much gold as they need. . . and as many slaves as they ask.”

The mortality rate in the Islands Columbus visited approached 90% in many cases. Although we don’t like to think about it too much, we, middle-class Americans, are the beneficiaries of this mistaking of America, and it is only by turning away from the details of his three eventual rampages through the Caribbean and the coast of Central America that Columbus remains a celebrated hero in the United States.

In this way did Columbus begin a process which I would call the mis-taking of America: where cognitive, accounting, or navigational errors actually leads to a great and successful plundering.

Where “Indians” are either removed or made invisible according to a philosophy based on a distinction between civilization and savagery; where civilization attempts to wash itself clean in a state of nature, which it then proceeds to clear, mine, and develop into oblivion.

Where the political and spiritual renewal that an empty frontier promises is used to justify the emptying of that frontier of its native inhabitants so that it might be reworked according to European ideals of property, cultivation, and advancement, often by slaves kidnapped from Africa—with the whole charade of avarice held together with high-sounding philosophical and scientific fantasy.

Thus do cognitive and error and moral blindness feed off of each other and thus do they create a disorientation and moral unmooring--one which can be seen most vividly today in our relationship to energy and the environment.

I am not of course the first to depict the particular moral and political development of the United States in terms of the vast space of the Americas. This honor likely goes to historian Frederick Jackson Turner and his late nineteenth century “Frontier Thesis,” according to which our national development was best explained by our history of westward expansion.

Turner’s overriding purpose was to explain the uniqueness of the “American character,” especially in comparison to the European one, which was at the time mired in conflict. My question, of course, is quite different in that it asks “how is it that we, the most enlightened and technologically advance people, are unable to see where our current trajectory will take us?”

But the role of a vast and bountiful space takes center-stage in both approaches. While for most nations, according to Turner, “development has occurred in a limited area,” America has developed through its continued expansion into an open frontier: “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explains American development” (1).

More specifically, as the frontier line advanced, Jackson proposes, settlers were continually confronted with primitive, even savage conditions, and the newly cast civilization was repeatedly forced its forge itself anew out of the wilderness: “this perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character” (2).

Turner, of course, remains oblivious to the peoples and the cultures who did in fact inhabit a frontier that was neither free nor open. His is a history most clearly written from the standpoint of the conqueror. Armed with Enlightenment principles such as the “state of nature” in which human civilization would be laid bare and cleansed of its sediment so that it might enjoy perennial rebirth, Turner provides one more example of the mis-taking of America. The American character, according to Turner, is marked by:

a coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom--these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them.

Not adequately described, here, is a blinding arrogance that is shared by Turner, an inability to understand who, at this meeting point between “savagery and civilization,” the real savages were. The terrible “expedients” that these restless heroes were so quick to find need to be named, the “great ends” need to be defined.

For these were a people who had tools and weapons of great power, and beguiling trinkets; they carried devastating disease, were unmoored by exuberance and opportunism, and were animated by new beliefs that released them from any sense of bounded limits. They were smart, no doubt, and quick. But they were not wise.

They knew how to conquer and exploit, but it is unclear they ever learned how to settle.

.

Hawaii utilities fighting customers

SOURCE: Ron Castle (roncastle@sunshineworks.com)
SUBHEAD: “You watch, all these installers are going to go to batteries. HECO has let the genie out of the bottle. 

By Mark Chediak, Christopher Martin on  26 December 2013 for Bloomberg -
(http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-26/utilities-feeling-rooftop-solar-heat-start-fighting-back.html)


Image above: On a cloudy day in Ewa, Hawaii a house sits fitted with solar voltaic panels. From video in original article.

If you wonder why America’s utilities are rattled by the explosive growth in rooftop solar -- and are pushing back -- William Walker has a story for you.

A flip-flop wearing Walker stands in his driveway pointing to a ubiquitous neighborhood feature – solar panels on the roofs of five of six houses nearby. He lives in Ewa Beach, a development on the sultry leeward coast of the Hawaiian island of Oahu built on land cleared of sugar cane fields.

Shade is scarce and residents here call their homes “hot boxes,” requiring almost round-the-clock air conditioning. Hawaii, which imports pricey oil to power its electricity grid, has the highest utility rates in the nation -- at 37 cents a kilowatt-hour, they’re more than double California and triple the national average.

With bills for 1,600 square foot houses like these running as high as $400 a month, solar is seen as less a green statement than an economic no-brainer given state and federal tax credits for as much as 65 percent of installation costs. Almost every day since Walker and his wife Mi Chong moved in last April, solar installers came rapping on the door, hawking a rooftop system.

They finally bought one: an 18-panel, $35,000 installation producing 5.9 kilowatts of power financed for $305 a month. It would be connected to the grid under a system known as net metering that essentially lets residents deduct the value of their solar-produced electricity from their power bill and even be paid for electricity in excess of that.

Paying for Itself
Walker estimates his bill would have dropped most months to an $18 service charge -- offsetting that $305 loan payment. Anticipating his power bills would continue to rise, he figured the system could pay for itself in as little as five years; his electricity after that would be free.

That is until his utility, a subsidiary of Honolulu-based Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., told the Walkers they couldn’t connect their system to the grid. They aren’t alone. Solar installers here estimate that hundreds if not thousands of the state’s residents are being put in solar limbo by a virtual moratorium on new connections in many parts of the company’s service area.

America's Power Machine
The reason, according to the Hawaiian Electric Co.: so many Hawaiians are stampeding to solar that circuits may become oversaturated, causing voltage spikes, damaging appliances, electronics and even the utility’s equipment. The company needs more time to study the matter.

The Walkers, who say they got no advance notice of the shutdown, are now paying both their power bill and their monthly rooftop loan. HECO, as the utility is known, recently told them they will eventually be allowed to join the grid without having to pay for expensive equipment upgrades. It still can’t say when.

Profit Motivation
“Everyone is on board with getting solar and HECO has now put up a wall,” Walker said. “The only thing we can see is profit motivation.”

Spurred by a drop in panel prices, robust government subsidies and a technology that no longer appears experimental to mainstream America, rooftop photovoltaic solar is bursting out everywhere. About 200,000 U.S. homes and businesses added rooftop solar in the past two years alone – about 3 gigawatts of power and enough to replace four or five conventionally-sized coal plants.

The U.S. set a single-quarter record with 31,000 residential rooftop installations in the three months through Sept. 30. Solar represented 72 percent of all power added in the U.S. in October.

Connection Slowdown
Utilities, seeing a threat to about $360 billion a year in power sales and a challenge to the hegemony of the conventional grid, are feeling the heat and fighting back. HECO, despite criticism from Hawaii’s solar industry, denies the moratorium is anything more than an honest effort to address the technical challenges of integrating the solar flooding onto its grid.

The slowdown comes in a state where 9 percent of the utility’s residential customers on Oahu are already generating most of their power from the sun and where connections have doubled yearly since 2008.

In California, where solar already powers the equivalent of 626,000 homes, utilities continue to aggressively push for grid fees that would add about $120 a year to rooftop users’ bills and, solar advocates say, slow down solar adoptions.

Similar skirmishes have broken out in as many as a dozen of the 43 states that have adopted net-metering policies as part of their push to promote renewable energy. In Colorado, Xcel Energy Inc. has proposed cutting the payments it makes for excess power generated by customers by about half, because it says higher payouts result in an unfair subsidy to solar users.

Arizona Protesters
It faces a fight from solar advocates who are circulating a petition that has attracted 30,000 signers.

In Arizona, 1,000 protesters last month swarmed the state capital while local and national solar advocates lobbied against an effort by utility Arizona Public Service to impose a $50 monthly fee on new solar adopters. Solar advocates said the charge would have crippled the state’s 10,000-worker solar industry and thwarted the desire of residents to have a choice in the power consumption.

State regulators, after two days of often contentious debate, voted to allow the state’s largest utility to charge customers about $4.90 a month for solar connections after Dec. 31 -- less than 10 percent of what it was asking for.

Falling Short
Don Brandt, chief executive officer of APS and its parent company Pinnacle West Capital Corp., panned the deal, saying that while it nods to the impact that net metering is having on utility operations and revenues, it “falls well short of protecting the interests of the 1 million residential customers who do not have solar panels.”

Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity Corp., said it was “crazy for a utility to charge for services they didn’t deliver.

‘‘Why not tax energy efficient homes, or small homes that consume less than average?’’ said Rive, whose company is the nation’s second-largest rooftop solar installer. ‘‘APS just doesn’t want to lose control.”

The battle is far from over.

On the island of Oahu, HECO is “working really hard” to find a solution to oversaturated circuits caused by the rapid solar rollout, CEO Richard Rosenblum said. The utility’s engineering studies on solar are expected to be done by March, he said.

“We see ourselves as a trailblazer,” said Rosenblum. And one of the problems of being a trailblazer is sometimes the trail is not clear.’’

Republican Representative
Rosenblum pointed to planned HECO grid investments in smart meters and other communications devices he said that will help it speed up and smooth out the embrace of solar going forward.

Representative Cynthia Thielen, a Republican state legislator who has publicly pushed for the utility to liberalize its solar policies, is more than skeptical.

“This is a company with a drenched-in-oil mentality,” said Thielen, who has served in the legislature since 1990. “They’ve fought from day one on renewables. I look at the company as ultimately becoming obsolete unless it changes its practices.”

What’s mind-boggling to many of the stewards of America’s 3,200 utilities is how fast solar has mutated from a fringe power source to a technology being peddled today at outlets like IKEA Group and Home Depot Inc.

Sure, environmental groups like the Sierra Club are aboard. But solar is also being embraced by middle-class home owners like the Walkers, Republican legislators like Thielen and corporations like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which expects 1,000 of its approximately 4,500 stores to be solar powered by 2020.

Green Tea
A pro-solar group in Georgia consisting of Sierra Club members and Tea Party founders calls itself the Green Tea Coalition.

The fuss might seem overheated based on current numbers -- solar power provides less than 1 percent of the nation’s energy needs. Yet it’s the rapid escalation of solar and the exponential long-term projections for its rollout that caused Fitch Ratings Ltd. in July of this year to warn that the solar juggernaut is “casting a shadow on U.S. utility rate design.”

Moreover, solar’s potential is coming as escalating fossil fuel prices make it competitive -- even without subsidies -- with conventional electricity.

That’s already occurred “at a domestic level in many countries” with some U.S. states like Hawaii and California already at or near parity and others to follow soon, according to an Aug. 8 research report by Citigroup Inc. Parity will only escalate as fossil fuels get more expensive and solar gets cheaper.

Steals Demand
“This dynamic is not being fully appreciated in the power sector,” according to the report, written by a group of analysts including Shahriar Pourreza and Ryan Levine. “Not only does solar steal share of new electricity demand, it parasitically steals demand from previously installed generation, and does at the most valuable ‘peak’ part of the demand curve.”

As for solar’s ultimate potential, California alone could produce 76,000 megawatts of solar power -- more than the state’s total installed capacity in 2012 -- if it deployed all the rooftop solar it has room for, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

All of which makes the fights being played out in Hawaii and Arizona pivotal -- they are certain to set the stage and tone for future battles in other states. And given what’s happened, those future fights may be messy.

Arizona Money
Money poured in to Arizona in the weeks leading up to the November vote by state regulators on the proposed monthly solar charge. APS and its backers spent $3.7 million on an ad campaign while solar advocates mustered $350,000. Lobbyists, hired-gun activists and pollsters all waded into the fray, with ads that took on the appearance of a negative electoral campaign.

A utility-supporting group ran a 30-second television ad comparing California solar companies helping to fund the pro-solar campaign to Solyndra LLC, the Obama-backed solar-panel maker that went bust after defaulting on a $535 million federal stimulus loan guarantee.

Meanwhile, solar supporters used Barry Goldwater Jr., son of deceased Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, in a radio spot that featured the sound of a trumpeting elephant, the symbol of the Republican party, and called on listeners to prevent APS from “trying to kill energy choice.”

When you speak with Jeff Guldner, APS’s senior vice president of customers and regulation, he echoes a familiar and reasonable argument as to why solar users connected to the grid should help pay to maintain it.

Maintenance Bill
A system of generous net metering rules may have made sense at the outset of the solar revolution to get the party started. Now, however, it’s clear that it will have enormous disruptive impacts on APS and other utilities that bear the burden of keeping the grid operating.

“Somebody has to pay for maintenance and upkeep,” Guldner said, and solar users in the current rate structure aren’t doing so.

One problem with those economic arguments is that the politics aren’t yet lining up to support that. People may be fond of Apple Inc., Google Inc. or Walt Disney Inc. but the public doesn’t often love its power supplier -- no power or gas utility appeared on Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most admired companies in 2013.

Republican and libertarian support for solar is informed by a “don’t tread on me” response to the utility monopoly system, making foes of those that might have been friends. It’s a wing of the pro-solar coalition that no one -- and certainly not the anti-solar crowd -- anticipated.

Unexpected Crowd
Bill Hansen is part of that unexpected pro-solar crowd.

On the warm, blue-sky day when Arizona began two days of hearing on APS’s $50 monthly solar charge, Hansen, a retired 83-year-old former Iowa lawmaker and lifelong Republican, rose at 6 a.m. and made the 35-mile drive from his Sun City home to Phoenix to give the utility and the Arizona Corporation Commission hell.

Hansen, president of the Sun City West Property Owners & Residents Association, represents the retirement community’s 24,000-plus residents, 10 percent of whom have investments in solar-energy companies.

Pro-Solar
He had plenty of company. On the day of the vote, the pro-solar demonstrators vastly outnumbered those who had come to plead the utility’s cause. They were also in a far better mood - - outside, a brass band tooted out standards, a DJ played loud rock music and organizers doled out t-shirts, water bottles and pizza to people holding signs that said “People Power Over Monopoly Power: No to Solar Tax!” and “Solar Works For Arizona.”

Inside, it was clear that APS and its supporters were out of luck. The idea for the $4.90 fee came from the solar side -- and very likely swung the vote.

The charge won’t be enough to cover the utility’s grid costs until their next rate case in 2015, APS’s Guldner said, and will probably require the company to ask for much bigger fees down the road.

“In 2016, that rate increase could be a big one” and the utility will probably win the argument, Guldner said.

Bob Stump, chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, said he voted in favor the $4.90 charge because he feared the higher fee sought by APS would have slowed solar development in the state, jeopardizing the ability to produce 15 percent of its power from renewables as required by law.

Fair Outcome
“It’s a fair outcome,” said Stump.

Utilities may be missing out on some big solar positives, said Jigar Shah, head of a consulting company and author of “Creating Climate Wealth.” Solar generation peaks at the hottest time of the day, the time most people switch on their air conditioners, thus taking the strain off conventional power plants when they most need the relief.

Aggregated solar power will also let utilities put off building costly plants and transmission lines, saving investors and ratepayers money, said Shah, the former CEO of SunEdison LLC.

Shah’s advice: get with the program, otherwise utilities are simply inviting people to leave the grid.

“The utilities are playing this wrong, saying you’re with us or against us,” he said. “It’s not the solar industry that’s the problem -- it’s their refusal to recognize the benefits of new technologies.”

Policy decisions are already affecting solar installations. HECO’s moratorium in Hawaii is putting a damper on what had been a booming home-grown solar industry there.

Slowing Down
The fourth quarter is typically the busiest time of the year for solar installers as homeowners rush to take advantage of federal and state tax incentives. Installers can rack up as much as two thirds of their annual sales in the last three months of the year. Instead, solar companies in Hawaii say their revenue has been reduced by half or more compared with the same time last year. Inventory is piling up.

The new restrictions “are slowing things down with no easy solution,” said Leslie Cole-Brooks, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. “It’s not good news for the solar industry or for customers who want to invest in solar.”

Order Drop
One of the island’s biggest solar wholesale businesses is run out of a group of drab cinder-block warehouses at the terminus of a narrow, dead end-road near the edge of downtown Honolulu’s Chinatown. Rolf Christ, a German native and the company’s owner and president, has been working in the Hawaii solar industry since 1980.

The past three and a half years have been crazy, he said. Solar sales on Oahu were so robust that Christ has more than quadrupled his warehouse space for R&R Solar Supply to 25,000 square feet from 6,000 square feet. Now, a lot of that space is stuffed with solar modules stacked two-stories high on shipping pallets.

Christ typically orders modules before the fourth quarter. HECO’s moratorium has “pretty much brought the whole industry to a screeching halt,” he said.

“It was the worst time of year to do it,” he said of the policy change. “It was the worst way to do it.”

King Kalakaua
HECO has been around a long time and some, like Thielen, think that may be its problem. It traces its roots to 1881 when Hawaii’s King Kalakaua met Thomas Edison and five years later decided to light his palace with electricity. Its subsidiaries serve 95 percent of the state’s residents, bringing power to Oahu, the Big Island, Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

The issue, according to HECO, is that for about 20 percent of Oahu’s grid there is so much solar connected you can’t add more without further study because of the potential for reliability and safety issues. Solar advocates have said the figure is arbitrary.

Arbitrary or not, it means new solar customers must await engineering studies to determine if they can connect without causing surges that may damage appliances, electronics or utility equipment. Some might have to pay for utility equipment upgrades that could cost thousands of dollars before getting approval to connect.

“This is about safety,” said Scott Seu, HECO vice president for energy resources and operations. “We are so far ahead of the rest of the nation as far as the amount of distributed rooftop solar in our neighborhoods that we are now at points where there are potential safety and operating liability issues.”

Fast Track
The issue of solar saturation is complicated and controversial and both sides in Hawaii have their points, said Michael Coddington, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. HECO’s policies on solar connections are “similar to many other states” and could be considered “progressive” relative to the policies of many utilities, he said.

“The utility is following the rules per se,” said Coddington, who co-wrote an NREL study on the matter. On the other hand, if you are a solar photovoltaic developer or customer, “you want the ’fast track’ approach, as detailed impact studies are often costly and time-consuming and could require costly mitigation strategies. I understand the frustration.”

Customers like the Walkers are more than a little frustrated. They see the company as dragging its feet in an effort to stave off a threat to its very business model. And even when they finally get to connect, they wonder if the hassle has been worth it.
 

Driving Us Off
“I feel like they are driving us off the grid,” Mi Chong said.

Phil Undercuffler hopes HECO will drive lots of people off the grid. Then he will sell them batteries.

Battery storage is the holy grail of the off-the-grid crowd. They let users store up excess energy for rainy or cloudy days when solar isn’t working. In theory, you don’t need a power company if you have solar tied to battery storage, especially here. Oahu gets an average of 271 sunny or partly sunny days a year.

Last month, Undercuffler spoke to a standing-room-only audience of more than 100 solar installers in a Honolulu Marriott who came to hear his pitch for battery storage units sold by Outback Power Inc.

The vast majority of HECO solar customers don’t have battery storage; it’s considered too expensive. With the possibility that the moratorium in some sections of Hawaii could go on for two more years, homeowners could make batteries work financially and cut the cord from the utility altogether, said Undercuffler, Outback’s director of product management and strategy.

“You watch, all these installers are going to go to batteries,” said Jeff Davis, a partner in an Oahu company called Kamiyama Solar Electric who is known as the Solar Guy on a local talk radio program. “The utility has opened up the genie bottle.”

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: KIUC Election Fraud 12/31/13

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The End of Pretend

SUBHEAD: In the meantime, we amuse ourselves with talk about “the shale oil revolution” and “the manufacturing renaissance.”

By James Kunstler on 30 December 2013 for Kunstler.com -
(http://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/the-end-of-pretend/)


Image above: A form of self-delusion -  steroids. From (http://www.sportsnetworker.com/2010/06/21/steroids-and-football/).

If being wealthy was the same as pretending to be wealthy then people who care about reality would have a little less to complain about. But pretending is a poor way for a society to negotiate its way through history. It makes for accumulating distortions which eventually undermine the society’s ability to function, especially when the pretending is about money, which is society’s operating system.
 
The distortion that even simple people care about is that the gap between the rich and the poor is as plain, vast, and grotesque as at any time in our history — except perhaps during slavery times in Dixieland, when many of the poor did not even own their existence. We’ve had plenty of reminders of that in pop culture the last couple of years, including Quentin Tarantino’s fiercely stupid movie Django Unchained and the more recent melodrama 12 Years a Slave

But you have to wonder what young adults weighed down by unpayable college debt think when they go to see them, because without a rebellion that millennial generation will not own their own lives either. They must know it, but they must not know what to do about it.

The pretense and distortions start at the top of American life with a President who broadcasts the message that some kind of “recovery” has occurred in the economic affairs of the country. Either he just wants the public feel better, or he is misled by the people and agencies in his own government, or perhaps he just lies to keep the lid on. 

To truly recover from the dislocations of 2008, we would have to make a consensual decision to start behaving differently in the process of adapting to the new circumstances that the arc of history is presenting to us. We’d have to decide to leave behind the economy of financialization, suburban sprawl, car dependency, Wal-Mart consumerism, and prepare for a different way of inhabiting North America.

The dislocations of 2008 when the banking system nearly imploded were Nature’s way of telling us that dishonesty has consequences. The immediate dishonesty of that day was the racket in securitizing worthless mortgages ­— promises to pay large sums of money over long periods of time. The promises were false and the collateral was janky.  It got so bad and ran so far and deep that it essentially destroyed the mechanism of credit creation as it had been known until then, and it has not been repaired.

Since then, we have pretended to repair the operations of credit by falsely substituting bank bailouts and Federal Reserve “quantitative easing” (QE) or digital money-printing for plain dealing in borrowed money between honest brokers at the local level. 

The unfortunate consequence is that in the process we have distorted — and possibly destroyed — the value of our money and the various things denominated in it, especially securities, bonds, stocks and other money-like paper.

The crash of the mortgage racket occurred not just because of swindling and fraud among bankers; in fact, that was only a nasty symptom of something larger: peak oil. I know that many people have come to disbelieve in the idea of peak oil, but that is only another mode of playing pretend. 

Peak oil, which essentially arrived in 2006, undermined the basic conditions of credit creation in an advanced techno-industrial society dependent on increasing supplies of fossil fuels. Most people, including practically all credentialed economists, fail to understand this. There is a fundamental relationship between ever-increasing energy supplies > economic growth > and credit-based money (or “money,” if you will). 

When the energy inputs flatten out or decrease, growth stops, wealth is no longer generated, old loans can’t be repaid, and new loans can’t be generated honestly, i.e. with the expectation of repayment. That has been our predicament since 2008 and nothing has changed. 

We are pretending to compensate by issuing new unpayable debt to pay the interest on our old accumulated debt. This pretense can only go on so long before our economic relations reflect the basic dishonesty of it. Reality is a harsh mistress.

In the meantime, we amuse ourselves with fairy tales about “the shale oil revolution” and “the manufacturing renaissance.” 2014 could be the year that the forces of Nature compel our attention and give us a reason to stop all this pretending. I’ll address this question in next week’s (1/6/14) annual yearly forecast.

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Cheerios to go GMO free!

SUBHEAD: General Food makes major step in making a GMO-free food available to massive consumer base.

By Staff on 4 January 2014 for the Associated Press -
(http://nypost.com/2014/01/04/cheerios-goes-gmo-free)


Image above: An anti-GMO health avocacy that worked. Getting  From (http://thenutrifarm.com/no-gmos-cheerios-video/).

General Mills says some Cheerios made without genetically modified ingredients will start appearing on shelves soon.

The Minneapolis-based company said Thursday that it has been manufacturing its original-flavor Cheerios without GMOs for the past several weeks in response to consumer demand. It did not specify exactly when those boxes would be on sale.

Original Cheerios will now be labeled as “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients,” although that it is not an official certification. The labels will also note that trace amounts of GMO ingredients could be present due to the manufacturing process, said Mike Siemienas, a company spokesman.

The change does not apply to any other Cheerios flavors, such as Apple Cinnamon Cheerios or Multi Grain Cheerios.

“We were able to do this with original Cheerios because the main ingredients are oats,” said Siemienas, noting that there are no genetically modified oats. The company is primarily switching the cornstarch and sugar to make the original Cheerios free of GMOs, he said.

The change comes after the group Green America started a campaign called GMO Inside asking General Mills to make Cheerios GMO-free. The group noted in a statement that its campaign prompted fans to flood the Cheerios page on Facebook with comments on the topic.

Todd Larsen, Green America’s corporate responsibility director, said in a statement that the move is “an important victory in getting GMOs out of our food supply and an important first step for General Mills.”

As for other varieties of Cheerios, Siemienas said they are harder to make GMO-free because they are made with ingredients such as corn.

There has been little scientific evidence showing that foods grown from engineered ingredients are less safe than their conventional counterparts. But consumers have expressed concerns about the long-term impact they could have.


Video above: An anti-GMO pressing General Mills to make Cheerios GMO free.  From (http://youtu.be/KbiDgOkhoyY).

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Grass - Soil - Hope

SUBHEAD: What to do in the face of climate change and resource depletion? Build topsoil. Fix creeks. Eat organic.

By Courtney White on 1 January 2014 for The Carbon Pilgim -
(http://carbonpilgrim.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/grass-soil-hope/)

www.islandbreath.org/2014Year/01/140103carbonmapbig.jpg
Image above: Detail of large regional sustainable map. Click to embiggen. From original article.


I am very pleased to announce that my book Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey through Carbon Country will be published by Chelsea Green Press in early June. I am equally pleased to announce that Michael Pollan has generously written a Foreword for my book. Here’s a quote: “Hope in a book about the environmental challenges we face in the 21st century is an audacious thing to promise, so I’m pleased to report that Courtney White delivers on it.”

It’s not in my nature to be self-promotional, but I want to get the word out. I’ll being doing more over the next four months, so you’ve been warned! In the meantime, I’ll try to explain what the book is about, though if you have been reading this column for a while then you probably have a good idea.

Grass, Soil, Hope tackles an increasingly anguished question: what can we do about the seemingly intractable challenges confronting us today, including climate change, global hunger, water scarcity, environmental stress, and economic instability?

The quick answers are: Build topsoil. Fix creeks. Eat organic.

Crazy? I thought so until I read a statement from Dr. Rattan Lal, an esteemed soil scientist, who said a mere 2% increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100% of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere. Wow! But what did he mean? How could it be accomplished? What would it cost? Was it even possible?

Yes, it is possible, as I discovered. Essential, in fact.

Right now, the only possibility of large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities. They include: enriching soil carbon, no-till farming, climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands, increasing biodiversity, and producing local food.

As I know from personal experience, these strategies have been demonstrated individually to be both practical and profitable.

In Grass, Soil, Hope, I bundle them into an economic and ecological whole with the aim of reducing atmospheric CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things. Soil is a huge natural sink for carbon dioxide. If we can draw increasing amounts carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil as life-giving and food- producing humus (the rich soil of a garden), then we can significantly address all the multiple challenges in my anguished question.

The key is carbon. That’s because it is everywhere – it’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. Without it we die; with the just right amounts we thrive; with too much we suffer. For eons, carbon has been a source of life and joy to the planet. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up, including plants, animals and people.

In the last century or so, however, the carbon cycle has broken down at critical points, most importantly among our soils which have had their fertility eroded, depleted, and baked out of them by poor stewardship. Worse, carbon has become a source of woe to the planet and its inhabitants as excess amounts of it accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans. It’s all carbon. Climate change is carbon, hunger is carbon, money is carbon, politics is carbon, land is carbon, we are carbon. Which brings me to the hope:

We don’t have to invent anything. Over the past thirty years, all manner of new ideas and methods that put carbon back into the soil and reduce carbon footprints have been field-tested and proven to be practical and profitable. We already know how to graze livestock sustainably, grow organic food, create a local food system, fix creeks, produce local renewable energy, improve water cycles, grow grass on bare soil, coexist with wildlife, and generally build resilience on the land and in our lives.

It’s mostly low-tech. It’s sunlight, green plants, animals, rocks, mud, shovels, hiking shoes, windmills, trees, compost, and creeks. Some of the work requires specialized knowledge, such as herding livestock or designing an erosion-control structure in a creek, and some of it has high-tech components, such as solar panels or wind turbines, but most of Soil, Grass, Hope can be easily navigated by anyone.

One morning, I sat down at my dining room table and drew a map of every joyous, sustainable, resilient, regenerative, land-healing, carbon-building, climate-mitigating activity I could pull from my decades-long experience in conservation and sustainable agriculture, putting them into a single landscape. I intentionally left out boundaries, including property lines, political divisions, and geographical separations. There was no distinction on my map between public and private land, or between wild country and non-wild. It was all one map, all carbon – all one vision in which wolves, cattle, bats, organic farmers, biologists, artists, foxes, fish, cities, and ranchers all worked together.

You’re on the map. Everyone is, whether you live in a city, go to school, graze cattle, enjoy wildlife, grow vegetables, hike, fish, count grasses, draw, make music, fix creeks, or eat food – you’re on the map. You live in Grass, Soil, Hope. We all do. It’s not a mythical land, it exists – I’ve been there. I can be your guide.

I came up with the idea of the map and a carbon ranch during the summer of 2009, inspired by a WorldWatch publication by Sarah Scherr and Sajal Sthapit titled Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use. In an essay published in 2011, I spelled out six strategies to increase or maintain soil health and thus the carbon content of grass or shrub-dominated ecosystems of the American West. My subsequent travel and research for the book largely bore out my hunches. The six strategies were:

(1) Planned grazing systems. The carbon content of soil can be increased by three principal methods: the establishment of green plants on previously bare ground; deepening the roots of existing healthy plants; and the general improvement of nutrient, mineral, and water cycles in a given area. Planned grazing is key to all three. By controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of animal impact on the land, the carbon rancher can improve plant density, diversity, and vigor. Specific actions include: the soil cap-breaking action of herbivore hooves, which promotes seed-to-soil contact and water infiltration; the ‘herd’ effect of concentrated animals, which can provide a positive form of perturbation to a landscape by turning plant litter back into the soil (an intensive version of this effect is sometimes called a ‘poop-and-stomp’); the stimulative effect of grazing on plants, followed by a long interval of rest (often a year), which causes roots to expand while removing old, oxidized forage; targeted grazing of noxious or invasive plants which promotes native species diversity and vigor; and the targeted application of animal waste, which provides important nutrients to plants and soil microbes.

(2) Active restoration of riparian, riverine, and wetland areas. Many arroyos, creeks, rivers, and wetlands exist in a degraded condition, the result of historical overuse by humans, livestock and industry. The consequence has been widespread soil erosion, loss of riparian vegetation, disruption of hydrological cycles, decline of water storage capacity in stream banks, loss of wetlands and many other examples of land ‘sickness.’ The restoration of these areas to health, especially efforts that contribute to soil retention and formation, such as the reestablishment of humus-rich wetlands, will result in additional storage of atmospheric CO2 in soils. The ‘toolbox’ for the restoration of these areas is now well-developed, practical and could be implemented at scale if desired. There are many co-benefits of restoring riparian areas and wetlands to health, including improved habitat for wildlife, increased forage for herbivores, improved water quality and quantity for downstream users, and a reduction in erosion and sediment transport.

(3) Removal of woody vegetation. Many meadows, valleys, and rangelands have witnessed a dramatic invasion of woody species, such as pinon and juniper trees, over the past century, mostly as a consequence of the suppression of natural fire and overgrazing by livestock (which removes the grass needed to carry a fire). The elimination of over-abundant trees by agencies and landowners, via prescribed fire or other means, has been the focus of much restoration activity in the Southwest recently. The general goal of this work is to encourage grass species to grow in place of trees, thus improving the carbon-storing capacity of the soil. Not only can soils store more CO2 than trees, they also have the advantage of relative permanence. Trees can burn up, be cut down, die of disease or old age, all of which can ultimately release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.

(4) The conservation of open space. The loss of forest, range, or agricultural land to subdivision or other types of development can dramatically reduce or eliminate the land’s ability to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere via green plants. Fortunately, there are multiple strategies that conserve open space today, including public parks, private purchase, conservation easements, tax incentives, zoning, and economic diversification that helps to keep a farm or ranch in operation. Perhaps most importantly, the protection of the planet’s forests and peatlands from destruction is crucial to an overall climate change mitigation effort. Not only are forests and peatlands important sinks for CO2, their destruction releases large amounts of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

(5) The implementation of no-till farming practices. Plowing exposes stored soil carbon to the elements, including the erosive power of wind and rain, which can quickly cause it dissipate back into the atmosphere as CO2. No-till farming practices, especially organic ones (no pesticides or herbicides), not only protect soil carbon and reduce erosion, they often improve soil structure by promoting the creation of humus. Additionally, farming practices that leave plants in the ground year-round both protect stored soil carbon and promote increased storage via photosynthesis. An important co-benefit of organic no-till practices is the production of healthy food.

(6) Building long-term resilience. Managing land for long-term carbon sequestration in vegetation and soils requires building resilience, which refers to the capacity of land, or people, to ‘bend’ with significant or unexpected changes without ‘breaking.’ The idea includes the economic resilience of the landowners, managers, and community members. For example, cooperation among disparate individuals or groups, such as biologists, conservationists, ranchers, and policy-makers, with the goal of improving land health, can help to build ecological and economic resilience within a watershed. This can have two important effects: direct storage of CO2 in the soil, as humus is created, and the strengthening of relationships required for the maintenance of healthy soil over time.

THe book is here: (http://media.chelseagreen.com/grass-soil-hope/ ).

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Three Mile Island coverup

SUBHEAD: Like the Japanese and Tepco downplay of Fukushima, the American NRC and TMI operator covered up lethal dangers.

By Sue Sturgis on 1 April 2009 for Facing South -
(http://www.southernstudies.org/2009/04/post-4.html)


Image above: President Jimmy Carter, a former US Navy nuclear engineer, in the control room of Three Mile Island after the meltdown. Notice booties. A coverup from the top-down. From (http://www.npr.org/blogs/sundaysoapbox/2009/03/remembering_three_mile_island.html).

It was April Fool's Day, 1979 -- 30 years ago this week -- when Randall Thompson first set foot inside the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pa. Just four days earlier, in the early morning hours of March 28, a relatively minor problem in the plant's Unit 2 reactor sparked a series of mishaps that led to the meltdown of almost half the uranium fuel and uncontrolled releases of radiation into the air and surrounding Susquehanna River.

It was the single worst disaster ever to befall the U.S. nuclear power industry, and Thompson was hired as a health physics technician to go inside the plant and find out how dangerous the situation was. He spent 28 days monitoring radiation releases.

Today, his story about what he witnessed at Three Mile Island is being brought to the public in detail for the first time -- and his version of what happened during that time, supported by a growing body of other scientific evidence, contradicts the official U.S. government story that the Three Mile Island accident posed no threat to the public.

"What happened at TMI was a whole lot worse than what has been reported," Randall Thompson told Facing South. "Hundreds of times worse."

Thompson and his wife, Joy, a nuclear health physicist who also worked at TMI in the disaster's aftermath, claim that what they witnessed there was a public health tragedy. The Thompsons also warn that the government's failure to acknowledge the full scope of the disaster is leading officials to underestimate the risks posed by a new generation of nuclear power plants.

While new reactor construction ground to a halt after the 1979 incident, state leaders and energy executives today are pushing for a nuclear energy revival that's centered in the South, where 12 of the 17 facilities seeking new reactors are located.

Fundamental to the industry's case for expansion is the claim that history proves nuclear power is clean and safe -- a claim on which the Thompsons and others, bolstered by startling new evidence, are casting doubt.

An unlikely critic

Randall Thompson could never be accused of being a knee-jerk anti-nuclear alarmist. A veteran of the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program, he is a self-described "nuclear geek" who after finishing military service jumped at the chance to work for commercial nuclear power companies.

He worked for a time at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant south of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania's York County, but quit the industry six months before the TMI disaster over concerns that nuclear companies were cutting corners for higher profits, with potentially dangerous results. Instead, he began publishing a skateboarding magazine with his wife Joy.

But the moment the Thompsons heard about the TMI incident, they wanted to get inside the plant and see what was happening first-hand. That didn't prove difficult: Plant operator Metropolitan Edison's in-house health physics staff fled after the incident began, so responsibility for monitoring radioactive emissions went to a private contractor called Rad Services.

The company immediately hired Randall Thompson to serve as the health physics technician in charge of monitoring radioactive emissions, while Joy Thompson got a job monitoring radiation doses to TMI workers.

"I had other health physicists from around the country calling me saying, 'Don't let it melt without me!" Randall Thompson recalls. "It was exciting. Our attitude was, 'Sure I may get some cancer, but I can find out some cool stuff.'"

What the Thompsons say they found out during their time inside TMI suggests radiation releases from the plant were hundreds if not thousands of times higher than the government and industry have acknowledged -- high enough to cause the acute health effects documented in people living near the plant but that have been dismissed by the industry and the government as impossible given official radiation dose estimates.

The Thompsons tried to draw attention to their findings and provide health information for people living near the plant, but what they say happened next reads like a John Grisham thriller.

They tell of how a stranger approached Randall Thompson in a grocery store parking lot in late April 1979 and warned him his life was at risk, leading the family to flee Pennsylvania. How they ended up in New Mexico working on a book about their experiences with the help of Joy's brother Charles Busey, another nuclear Navy vet and a former worker at the Hatch nuclear power plant in Georgia. How one evening while driving home from the store Busey and Randall Thompson were run off the road, injuring Thompson and killing Busey. How a copy of the book manuscript they were working on was missing from the car's trunk after the accident. These allegations were detailed in several newspaper accounts back in 1981.

Eventually, after a decade of having their lives ruled by TMI, the Thompsons decided to move on. Randall Thompson went to college to study computer science. Joy Thompson returned to publishing and writing.

Today they live quietly in the mountains of North Carolina where, inspired by time spent seeking refuge with a traveling circus, they have forged a new career for themselves as clowns -- or what they like to call "professional fools." As Joy Thompson wrote in the fall 2001 issue of Parabola, a journal of myth, the role of the fool is to help people "perceive the foolishness in even ... the most powerful institutions," noting the medieval court jester's role of telling the King what others dare not.

That conviction has led the Thompsons to tell their story today.

"They haven't told the truth yet about what happened at Three Mile Island," says Randall Thompson. "A lot of people have died because of this accident. A lot."
Anomalies abound

That a lot of people died because of what happened at Three Mile Island, as the Thompsons claim, is definitely not part of the official story. In fact, the commercial nuclear power industry and the government insist that despite the meltdown of almost half of the uranium fuel at TMI, there were only minimal releases of radiation to the environment that harmed no one.

For example, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying group for the U.S. nuclear industry, declares on its website that there have been "no public health or safety consequences from the TMI-2 accident." The government's position is the same, reflected in a fact sheet distributed today by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency charged with overseeing the U.S. nuclear power industry: TMI, it says, "led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community." [The watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert offers their take on the NRC factsheet here.]

Those upbeat claims are based on the findings of the Kemeny Commission, a panel assembled by President Jimmy Carter in April 1979 to investigate the TMI disaster. Using release figures presented by Metropolitan Edison and the NRC, the commission calculated that in the month following the disaster there were releases of up to 13 million curies of so-called "noble gases" -- considered relatively harmless -- but only 13 to 17 curies of iodine-131, a radioactive form of the element that at even moderate exposures causes thyroid cancer. (A curie is a measure of radioactivity, with 1 curie equal to the activity of one gram of radium. For help understanding these and other terms, see the glossary at the end of this piece.)

But the official story that there were no health impacts from the disaster doesn't jibe with the experiences of people living near TMI. On the contrary, their stories suggest that area residents actually suffered exposure to levels of radiation high enough to cause acute effects -- far more than the industry and the government has acknowledged.

Some of their disturbing experiences were collected in the book Three Mile Island: The People's Testament, which is based on interviews with 250 area residents done between 1979 and 1988 by Katagiri Mitsuru and Aileen M. Smith.

It includes the story of Jean Trimmer, a farmer who lived in Lisburn, Pa. about 10 miles west of TMI. On the evening of March 30, 1979, Trimmer stepped outside on her front porch to fetch her cat when she was hit with a blast of heat and rain. Soon after, her skin became red and itchy as if badly sunburned, a condition known as erythema. About three weeks later, her hair turned white and began falling out. Not long after, she reported, her left kidney "just dried up and disappeared" -- an occurrence so strange that her case was presented to a symposium of doctors at the nearby Hershey Medical Center. All of those symptoms are consistent with high-dose radiation exposure.

There was also Bill Peters, an auto-body shop owner and a former justice of the peace who lived just a few miles west of the plant in Etters, Pa. The day after the disaster, he and his son -- who like most area residents were unaware of what was unfolding nearby -- were working in their garage with the doors open when they developed what they first thought was a bad sunburn. They also experienced burning in their throats and tasted what seemed to be metal in the air. That same metallic taste was reported by many local residents and is another symptom of radiation exposure, commonly reported in cancer patients receiving radiation therapy.

Peters soon developed diarrhea and nausea, blisters on his lips and inside his nose, and a burning feeling in his chest. Not long after, he had surgery for a damaged heart valve. When his family evacuated the area a few days later, they left their four-year-old German shepherd in their garage with 200 pounds of dog chow, 50 gallons of water and a mattress. When they returned a week later, they found the dog dead on the mattress, his eyes burnt completely white. His food was untouched, and he had vomited water all over the garage. They also found four of their five cats dead -- their eyes also burnt white -- and one alive but blinded. Peters later found scores of wild bird carcasses scattered over their property.

Similar stories surfaced in The People of Three Mile Island, a book by documentary photographer Robert Del Tredici. He found local farmers whose cattle and goats died, suffered miscarriages and gave birth to deformed young after the incident; whose chickens developed respiratory problems and died; and whose fruit trees abruptly lost all their leaves. Local residents also collected evidence of deformed plants, some of which were examined by James Gunckel, a botanist and radiation expert with Brookhaven National Laboratory and Rutgers University.

"There were a number of anomalies entirely comparable to those induced by ionizing radiation -- stem fasciations, growth stimulation, induction of extra vegetative buds and stem tumors," he swore in a 1984 affidavit.

Scientists say these kinds of anomalies simply aren't explained by official radiation release estimates.

Evidence of harm

The evidence that people, animals and plants near TMI were exposed to high levels of radiation in the 1979 disaster is not merely anecdotal. While government studies of the disaster as well as a number of independent researchers assert the incident caused no harm, other surveys and studies have also documented health effects that point to a high likelihood of significant radiation exposures.

In 1984, for example, psychologist Marjorie Aamodt and her engineer husband, Norman -- owners of an organic dairy beef farm east of Three Mile Island who got involved in a lawsuit seeking to stop TMI from restarting its Unit 1 reactor -- surveyed residents in three hilltop neighborhoods near the plant. Dozens of neighbors reported a metallic taste, nausea, vomiting and hair loss as well as illnesses including cancers, skin and reproductive problems, and collapsed organs -- all associated with radiation exposure. Among the 450 people surveyed, there were 19 cancer deaths reported between 1980 and 1984 -- more than seven times what would be expected statistically.

That survey came to the attention of the industry-financed TMI Public Health Fund, created in 1981 as part of a settlement for economic losses from the disaster. The fund's scientific advisors verified the Aamodts' calculations and launched a more comprehensive study of TMI-related cancer deaths led by a team of scientists from Columbia University.

The researchers found an association between estimated radiation doses received by area residents and instances of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, lung cancer, leukemia and all cancers combined. Crucially, however, the researchers decided there wasn't "convincing evidence" that TMI radiation releases were linked to the increase in cancers in the area because of the "low estimates of radiation exposure." The paper did not consider what conclusions could be drawn if those "low estimates" turned out to be wrong.

By the time the Columbia research was published in the early 1990s, a class-action lawsuit was underway involving about 2,000 plaintiffs claiming that the radiation emissions were much larger than admitted by the government and industry. (The federal courts eventually rejected that suit, though hundreds of out-of-court settlements totaling millions of dollars have been reached with victims, including the parents of children born with birth defects.)

Consulting for the plaintiffs' attorneys, the Aamodts contacted Dr. Steven Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health in Chapel Hill to provide support for the plaintiffs. Dr. Wing was reluctant to get involved because -- as he wrote in a 2003 paper about his experience -- "allegations of high radiation doses at TMI were considered by mainstream radiation scientists to be a product of radiation phobia or efforts to extort money from a blameless industry." But impressed with the Aamodts' compelling if imperfect evidence, Wing agreed to look at whether there were connections between radiation exposure from TMI and cancer rates.

Wing reanalyzed the Columbia scientists' data, looking at cancer rates before the TMI disaster to control for other possible risk factors in the 10-mile area. His peer-reviewed results, published in 1997, found positive relationships between accident dose estimates and rates of leukemia, lung cancer and all cancers.

Where the Columbia study found a 30 percent average increase in lung cancer risk among one group of residents, for example, Wing found an 85 percent increase. And while the Columbia researchers found little or no increase in adult leukemias and a statistically unreliable increase in childhood cases, Wing found that people downwind during the most intense releases were eight to 10 times more likely on average than their neighbors to develop leukemia.

Dr. Wing reflected on his findings at a symposium in Harrisburg marking the 30-year anniversary of the Three Mile Island disaster last week.

"I believe this is very good evidence that releases were thousands of times greater than the story we've been told," he said. "As we think about the current plans to open more nuclear reactors, when we hear -- which we hear often -- that no one was harmed at Three Mile Island, we really should question that."

Documenting discrepancies

Randall and Joy Thompson couldn't agree more. If anything, they think Dr. Wing's findings understate the impact of Three Mile Island because they're based on low-ball estimates of radiation releases.

"Given what he was allowed to know or could figure out, he did a slam-bang job of it," Joy Thompson says.

In 1995, the Thompsons -- with the help of another health physics expert who was also hired to monitor radiation after the TMI disaster, David Bear (formerly Bloombaum) - prepared a report analyzing the Kemeny Commission findings. Their research, which hasn't been covered by any major media, documents a series of inconsistencies and omissions in the government's account.

For example, the official story is that the TMI incident released only 13 to 17 curies of dangerous iodine into the outside environment, a tiny fraction of the 13 million curies of less dangerous radioactive gases officials say were released, primarily xenon. Such a number would seem small compared with, for example, the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, which released anywhere from 13 million to 40 million curies of iodine and is linked to 50,000 cases of thyroid cancer, according to World Health Organization estimates.

But the Thompsons and Bear point out that the commission's own Technical Assessment Task Force, in a separate volume, had concluded that iodine accounted for 8 to 12 percent of the total radioactive gases leaked from Three Mile Island. Conservatively assuming the 13 million curie figure was the total amount of radioactive gases released rather than just the xenon portion, and then using the Task Force's own 8 to 12 percent estimate of the proportion that was iodine, they point out that "the actual figure for Iodine release would be over 1 million curies" -- a much more substantial public health threat.

In another instance, the Kemeny Commission claimed that there were 7.5 million curies of iodine present in TMI's primary loop, the contained system that delivers cooling water to the reactor. But a laboratory analysis done on March 30 found a higher concentration of iodine in the reactor water, which would put the total amount of iodine present -- and which could potentially leak into the environment -- at 7.65 million curies.

"Thus, while the apparent difference between 7.5 and 7.65 seems inconsiderable at first glance," the Thompson/Bear report states, "this convenient rounding off served to 'lose' a hundred and fifty thousand curies of radioactive Iodine."

They also offer evidence of atmospheric releases of dangerously long-lived radioactive particles such as cesium and strontium -- releases denied by the Kemeny Commission but indicated in the Thompsons' own post-disaster monitoring and detailed in the report -- and show that there were pathways for the radiation to escape into the environment. They demonstrate that the plant's radiation filtration system was totally inadequate to handle the large amounts of radiation released from the melted fuel and suggest that the commission may have arbitrarily set release estimates at levels low enough to make the filtration appear adequate.

Shockingly, they also report that when readings from the dosimeters used to monitor radiation doses to workers and the public were logged, doses of beta radiation -- one of three basic types along with alpha and gamma -- were simply not recorded, which Joy Thompson knew since she did the recording. But Thompson's monitoring equipment also indicated that beta radiation represented about 90 percent of the radiation to which TMI's neighbors were exposed in April 1979, which means an enormous part of the disaster's public health risk may have been wiped from the record.

Finally, in a separate analysis the Thompsons point to discrepancies in government and industry accounts of the disaster that suggest the TMI Unit 2 suffered a scram failure -- that is, a breakdown of the emergency shutoff system. That would mean the nuclear reaction spiraled out of control and therefore posed a much greater danger than the official story allows.

The Thompsons aren't the only ones who have produced evidence that the radiation releases from TMI were much higher than the official estimates. Arnie Gundersen -- a nuclear engineer and former nuclear industry executive turned whistle-blower -- has done his own analysis, which he shared for the first time at a symposium in Harrisburg last week.

"I think the numbers on the NRC's website are off by a factor of 100 to 1,000," he said.

Exactly how much radiation was released is impossible to say, since onsite monitors immediately went off the scale after the explosion. But Gundersen points to an inside report by an NRC manager who himself estimated the release of about 36 million curies -- almost three times as much as the NRC's official estimate. Gundersen also notes that industry itself has acknowledged there was a total of 10 billion curies of radiation inside the reactor containment. Using the common estimate that a tenth of it escaped, that means as much as a billion curies could have been released to the environment.

Gundersen also offered compelling evidence based on pressure monitoring data from the plant that shortly before 2 p.m. on March 28, 1979 there was a hydrogen explosion inside the TMI containment building that could have released significant amounts of radiation to the environment. The NRC and industry to this day deny there was an explosion, instead referring to what happened as a "hydrogen burn."

But Gundersen noted that affidavits from four reactor operators confirm that the plant manager was aware of a dramatic pressure spike after which the internal pressure dropped to outside pressure; he also noted that the control room shook and doors were blown off hinges. In addition, Gundersen reported that while Metropolitan Edison would have known about the pressure spike immediately from monitoring equipment, it didn't notify the NRC about what had happened until two days later.

Gundersen maintains under the NRC's own rules an evacuation should have been ordered on the disaster's first day, when calculated radiation exposures in the town of Goldsboro, Pa. were as high as 10 rems an hour compared to an average cumulative annual background dose of about 0.125 rems. No evacuation order was ever issued, though Gov. Dick Thornburgh did issue an evacuation advisory on March 30 for pregnant women and preschool children within 5 miles of the plant. The government also did not distribute potassium iodide to the public, which would have protected people from the health-damaging effects of radioactive iodine.

Lessons for the future?

When asked by Facing South to respond to these allegations, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not address them directly, instead stating that it continues to stand by the Kemeny Commission report. The NRC further insists that the radiation releases from Three Mile Island had only "negligible effects" on the physical health of humans and the environment, citing other reports from federal agencies [For a PDF of the NRC's response to Facing South, see here.]

But Gundersen and the Thompsons argue such claims don't address new findings at odds with the government's account.

"I believe [the] data shows releases from TMI were significantly greater than reported by the federal government," Gundersen says.

They also say their findings that releases were potentially much larger have important ramifications for current plans to expand the nuclear power industry.

With more than $18 billion in federal subsidies at stake, 17 companies are seeking federal licenses to build a total of 26 nuclear reactors across the country, the first applications since the 1979 disaster. The Atlanta-based Southern Co. plans to begin site work this summer for two new reactors at the Vogtle site in Georgia, where state lawmakers recently approved legislation forcing ratepayers to foot the bill for those facilities up front. Florida and South Carolina residents have also begun paying new utility charges to finance planned reactors, USA Today reports. Plans are in the works as well for new reactors in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Harold Denton, a retired NRC official who worked in Three Mile Island during the crisis, recently told Greenwire that changes made after the 1979 disaster "significantly reduced the overall risks of a future serious accident." But the Thompsons and Gundersen point out that the standards the NRC is applying to the new generation of nuclear plants are influenced by assumptions about what happened at Three Mile Island. They say the NRC's low estimates of radiation exposure have resulted in inadequate requirements for safety and containment protocols as well as the size of the evacuation zones around nuclear plants.

Other nuclear watchdogs have also raised concerns that the NRC's standards for protection against severe accidents like TMI remain inadequate. In a December 2007 report titled "Nuclear Power in a Warming World," the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that the worst accident the current generation of reactors was designed to withstand involves only partial melting of the reactor core but no breach of containment.

And the NRC requires operators of plants found to be vulnerable to severe accidents to fix the problem "only if a cost-benefit analysis shows that the financial benefit of a safety backfit - determined by assigning a dollar value to the number of projected cancer deaths that would result from a severe accident - outweighs the cost of fixing the problem," the report states.

Given their personal experiences, the Thompsons warn that we may be fooling ourselves into believing nuclear power is safer than evidence and history suggest.

"Once you realize how deep and broad the realignment of facts about TMI has been, it becomes really pretty amazing," Randall Thompson says. "I guess that's what it takes to protect this industry."

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