Sacred Water, Profane Markets

On May 19th, a forum explored the issues raised by Mason Gaffney in a special issue of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (Nov. 2016). Held at Manhattan’s Open Center, the event was sponsored by the Journal, the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and the International Union. Three featured speakers and three respondents shared a wealth of provocative information on the challenges and opportunities in water policy today. Continue reading

Flooding in Houston: No Real Surprise

by Lindy Davies

The term "500-year flooding event" may be more dramatic than it sounds. It simply means that a given area has a one in 500 chance of experiencing that serious an event in a given year. The Washington Post (8/29/17) reported that there have been 25 such events in the United States since 2010.

The term “500-year flooding event” may be more dramatic than it sounds. It simply means that a given area has a one in 500 chance of experiencing that serious an event in a given year. The Washington Post (8/29/17) reported that there have been 25 such events in the United States since 2010.

Officials kept telling interviewers that nothing on this level had ever happened, that the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey was a millennial event. This seems to have been both true and not true — and really, more the latter. Turns out that this is the third 500-year flooding event Houston has seen in the last three years. Something is definitely going on here. It seems likely that climate change is a factor; many commentators noted that the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are alarmingly warm this year. That allowed the storm to quickly build in intensity as it swept toward the Texas coast — and, it allowed it to pick up that much more water when it veered back over the Gulf, and then dump it on Houston.

There is another factor: Houston’s motto is “the city with no limits.” This is seen metaphorically, of course, in the spirit of can-do American enterprise. Yet there’s some irony in the fact that it seems to have been taken literally, too: Houston seems to think it has endless land on which to build (and takes pride on having very few land-use regulations). Population has grown rapidly, and Houston has recklessly sprawled out, paving over absorbent grassland. Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic: “Houston poses both a typical and an unusual situation for stormwater management. The city is enormous, stretching out over 600 square miles. It’s an epitome of the urban sprawl characterized by American exurbanism, where available land made development easy at the edges.”

Sprawl development is often seen as a natural process, just the way things are done these days. For example, back in 2005 the Lincoln Institute issued a report on “American Spatial Development and the New Megalopolis” that implied, with apparent approval, that sprawled-out exurban regions are the new normal, delivering a high quality of life and a good deal of convenience. The report made no mention of the environmental consequences of this mode of development. (It also claimed, dubiously, that urban centers had reached the limits of their infrastructures and would be hard-pressed to accept many more people.) As an example of the exurban model, Houston has been thriving. It is arguably the most diverse city in the US, and unemployment is quite low. Aside from flooding, Houston is nowhere nearly as bad off as many US cities. If you aren’t worried about egregious waste of land and resources, and miles and miles of impermeable pavement shunting water off onto lower-lying (and lower-income) neighborhoods, then Houston is doing pretty well.

highwayHouston has three beltways. The first, I-610, now called the “Inner Loop”, became part of the Interstate Highway system in 1956, encircling the city of Houston proper, as beltways tend to do. A second 88-mile loop, Texas Route 8, or the Sam Houston Parkway, was begun in the late 70s and completed in the early 90s. Now, a third beltway is under construction: Texas Route 99, or the Grand Parkway, will be the longest beltway in the US, encircling an area the size of Rhode Island. Each new loop has, of course, raised land values further out from the city, and led to new waves of sprawl development. These new developments are not always middle-class enclaves, however. Josh Vincent, Director of the Center for the Study of Economics, notes

Keep in mind that Houston with ring roads like the 610 can get people in and out (in good weather) quickly from areas that have little apparent land value. That’s where a lot of low income and subsidized housing is built — I’d say most of it. They have little land value because they are intentionally placed in floodplains. The Feds still provide funding to rebuild after floods because that’s where the city wants low income housing. Climate change may well be playing a role, of course, but the city fathers are clear that they do not care to pay for massive infrastructure to handle flooding. If you look at the views of the flooded city, you’ll note that the bayous and streams are where they built most of the road infrastructure.

Indeed, the low-lying roadways are where a lot of the water has collected, which makes Mayor Sylvester Turner’s decision not to call for an evacuation seem sensible under the circumstances.

Two major reservoirs, called Addicks and Barker, were created in the late 1940s to help control flooding in Houston. They have been in the news lately because they are past full. To guard against this, some water had been allowed to spill out, in a triage maneuver that endangered fewer neighborhoods than it protected. Ultimately, though, both reservoirs began to overflow on their own. While it’s true that Harvey brought a staggering, unprecedented amount of rain to the region, it’s also worth noting that these two dams were initially placed well outside Houston’s built-up region. Today, they are inside the new beltway, surrounded by development.

Cars, after all, are how people get around in Texas. Houston does have some public transportation; in fact its systems have recently been upgraded. Two new light rail lines have been built, at the cost of $1.4 billion. City bus routes have been reorganized, switching from a wheel-spoke pattern to a grid, to improve frequency and decrease travel times without increasing cost. Though these improvements have been moderately successful, ridership on the new train lines has been lower than expected. It’s generally known that people don’t use public transportation in Houston unless they have no other way to get places. On an average weekday about 300,000 rides are taken on Houston’s buses and trains. In New York, whose city-limits population is about 3½ times that of Houston, weekday bus-and-train ridership is about 7.6 million.

I haven’t been to Houston, so I know nothing of its folkways and nuances. I don’t doubt that there are nice things about the place; one of them seems to be the great courage and fortitude with which Houstonians have pitched in to help their neighbors during the Harvey crisis. One architectural feature of downtown Houston, though, strikes me as, well, kinda creepy. There is a six-mile network of pedestrian tunnels beneath the center-city area. They are built out with shops and restaurants, and are accessible from the basements of prominent office buildings and hotels. They are not a municipal project; as an ad-hoc, private assemblage, they seem not to be very well coordinated or mapped. Perhaps knowledgeable folk can write and tell us why they exist. I could be wrong, but I suspect that they serve as a refuge from the street-level welter of cars, huge belching pickup trucks, parking lots, gas stations, multi-lane streets, service roads and U-turn lanes full of cars, cars, cars.


Center-city Houston. Minute Maid Stadium is where the Astros play these days. The building just to the right of the search bar is an 8-story parking garage. Another one would free up seven of those surface lots!

Metropolitan Houston — the area within I-610, the innermost of the three beltways — may have too many automobiles. But it cannot be said to have too many buildings, or to be unable to absorb more residential construction. There is abundant vacant land, lots of small, obsolete buildings and MANY surface parking lots (which, of course, absorb no floodwater). Some blame this on Houston’s lack of zoning, but that can only be a small part of the story, because Houston’s sprawl is mirrored in many cities that impose stringent regulations. It’s more accurate to say that the “city with no limits” merely epitomizes the exurban model of growth, which seemed so satisfactory for a while — but now shows itself to be not just unsustainable but dangerously unlivable. It might not be an exaggeration to say that in this day and age, the anti-sprawl efficiencies of land value taxation are not just a tool for urban revitalization, but a key to urban survival.

As of the end of August, 2017, it has been reported that at least 1,200 people have died in catastrophic flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

A Life in the UN: an Interview with Teckla C. Negga Melchior

Teckla is an Essayist, Journalist, and a life-long advocate for the ethical and just treatment of the earth and all its inhabitance. “The plight of any one group does not supersede another’s. I believe when one is diminished we are all diminished.”

GJ: You have a long history of connection/involvement with United Nations work. Could you tell us about that?

I grew up in the United Nations. I am one of a minuscule minority. Continue reading

Society Cannot Live by Robbery

by Harry Gunnison Brown

No society has completely eliminated exploitation or parasitism even in its cruder and most generally recognized forms. Highway robbery certainly is not unknown even in the modern “civilized” world. Burglary continues to be practiced. So does the picking of pockets. But at least, all these are generally and violently reprobated. Continue reading

Organic Societies

by Rich Nymoen

The 20th Century can be characterized as “The Age of Bureaucracy”—an era of increasing emphasis on size, hierarchy, regulations, incentives, and eligibility protocols. During the 20th Century we saw the rise of corporations in the business sector, the increasing scope of agencies in the government sector, and the grant-driven dynamic of the non-profit sector. And we’re still living with that legacy today. Continue reading

Factory Farms and Flawed Economics

by Alanna Hartzok

During my 2014 campaign for US Congress I became aware of “person/planet hot spots” where local people where fighting back against corporations engaged in fracking and industrial agriculture. Corporate power tromping on human and environmental rights, a dynamic well known to third world countries and Indian reservations, was becoming a reality in Pennsylvania.

In northern Bedford County, animals died and people sickened when a natural gas compression station leaked gas and pollutants into air and water. Neither the national Environmental Protection Agency nor Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection came to aid or defend community members despite numerous cries for help.

When the people of Grant Township, Indiana County, heard about a natural gas company’s plans to store toxic, chemical-laden fracking waste water in a deep well in their small rural community they took action. Such wells are known to have a high likelihood of cracking and seepage with consequent ground water contamination — which could make Grant Township virtually uninhabitable. Grassroots leaders rallied the community and township supervisors to push back the corporate plan. So far they have succeeded and in the process have become the first governing body in the US to enact a community ordinance vesting an inherent right to protection directly in Nature herself, similar to Ecuador’s Rights of Mother Earth Constitution.

There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still  surrounds us. — Edward O. Wilson

There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still
surrounds us. — Edward O. Wilson

A third situation was that of Ayr Township in Fulton County, where a determined group of residents were fighting back an industrial agriculture corporation’s plans to develop a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) housing 8,000 breeding sows each year. Manure from this facility could seriously contaminate streams and ground water. A drastic reduction of air quality was another threat. As with the other two crisis points, local citizens had to raise their own legal funds and rely on their own internal resources.

Alarmed by these battles happening in my region of Pennsylvania, I put together a team to organize a public forum. We decided to focus specifically on the threats posed by the growing number of chicken and swine CAFOs in Franklin and Fulton counties. Under the auspices of the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College we hosted the Factory Farm Forum on January 30, 2016, with twelve speakers and around 140 community members in attendance.

This article describes what we learned about the dangers and threats of industrial agriculture and how both individual actions and taxation policy reform can help us change course and establish sustainable, “triple bottom line” food systems that serve people and planet — not just a few corporations.

cafoMaria Payen, of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, told us that soon after a massive CAFO moved beside her family’s home, her young son began to get severe rashes all over his body. The odors from the CAFO were so bad that sometimes they could not engage in outdoor activities. The family had to move elsewhere. They have not been able to sell their former residence. Maria now helps communities fight the devastating health, environmental, and economic impacts of industrial agriculture.

Brent Kim, the Program Officer at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, presented evidence of significant increases in human infections from swine waste. Antibiotics given to animals in CAFOs are creating antibiotic resistant bacteria, “superbugs” that adapt and grow when antibiotics try to kill them. Gases and airborne particulates also caused increased respiratory problems.

CAFOs are most often vertically integrated. While the farmer provides labor, owns the animal facilities (usually owing a large amount of debt) and is exposed to wastes, carcasses, and other health hazards, just a handful of companies own the animals, controls feed inputs, and owns the feed mills and processing plants. Though farmers are often not told what is in the feed, they are responsible for a number of potential liabilities.

Four companies (Cargill, JBS, National Beef, Tyson) control 83% of beef production; four control 63% of hog production (Cargill, JBS, Smithfield, Tyson); and four control 53% of broiler chicken production (Tyson, Purdue, JBS, Smithfield Foods). Thus, just six companies control well over half of the main sources of meat in the American diet.

Rev. Alice M. Meloy, now over 80 years old, led a movement in the 1990s against CAFOs in Franklin County’s Fannett Township, where her roots go back 250 years. She described the experiences of members of her community in a letter to Pennsylvania officials:

Manure was sprayed on frozen fields and ran over roads and into streams; the pollution of wells and streams (we have no public water supply) was so serious that citizens had to drink bottled water. The massive water consumption of factory farms made local family farmers have to dig deeper wells. Odors filled our homes, shops and lungs, so intense that our eyes stung and some had trouble breathing. Our ability to enjoy the outdoors was compromised and our property and quality of life was seriously devalued.

Rev. Meloy also expressed concern about growing antibiotic resistance in human pathogens due to high antibiotic use in factory farming — and increased risks of cancer and other health problems due to hormones and drugs used to produce rapid growth of factory farm animals.

Although Rev. Meloy managed to decrease the number of CAFOs
permitted in her township, factory farms have been steadily increasing throughout Pennsylvania’s rural counties. She concluded

Family farms have been fundamental to the fabric of our rural communities, towns and country. They nurture a strong sense of values, concern for the land, curiosity, flexibility, creative thinking and problem solving skills, not to mention common sense.These are traits we can ill afford to lose and that are fundamental to our democracy.

The importance of small farming in Pennsylvania’s history

Small family farms and decentralized government were very important to Pennsylvania from the beginning of European settlement. Today, Pennsylvania has more incorporated municipalities than any other state in the US. The state’s founder, William Penn (1644-1718), was well-known for his pacifism and his commitment to freedom of religion. However, few realize the importance he placed on small farms as a key to liberty. Voltaire (1694-1778) praised Pennsylvania as the only government in the world at the time that was responsible to the people and respectful of minority rights.

Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) from south central Pennsylvania, who was Speaker of the House for many years, was a radical abolitionist and a major proponent of land reform (“40 acres and a mule”) during Reconstruction. “No people will ever be republican in spirit and practice where a few own immense manors and the masses are landless,” said Stevens. “Small independent landholders are the support and guardians of republican liberty.”

Looking back thousands of years, societies that had fair land tenure and justice in land access, such as the Vedic culture in the Indus River Valley, were balanced and harmonic; when control of land concentrated into the hands of a few there emerged conditions of wealth inequality, poverty, conflict and war.

In his book Poison Spring, Evaggelos Vallianotos says

In the natural world, a toxin may last for a long time, slowly moving into the land, spreading its deleterious effects and death to microorganisms vital for carrying nutrients taken up by crops. In the political world, corruption moves slowly and cuts deep into our democracy, giving tremendous advantage to the lobbyists and their paymasters with an undemocratic vision of America.

cutefarmerWhat practical steps can we take, now, to move “back to the future” of sustainable agriculture? There are several things many of us can do immediately. We can (1) buy from community supported agriculture (CSAs) and direct farmer-to-consumer local markets; (2) eat less meat, of higher quality, by purchasing locally pastured poultry and humanely raised animals; (3) turn backyards into organic mini-farms; (4) monitor and learn how to check water quality and other environmental indicators and (5) report violations to local
community courts.

Thomas Jefferson recognized that the common law jury system is the most basic and powerful element of democracy. For decades federal court decisions have chipped away at the right to take polluters directly to court; instead, we have to wait on bureaucratic agencies to do their jobs. Reinstating and reinforcing this right could play an important role in moving towards sustainable agriculture and a fair economy. A complementary approach is to implement home rule for our townships and municipalities in order to strengthen local control.

My Forum presentation, titled “Harnessing Tax & Other Policy Incentives to Encourage Sustainable Agriculture,” states that several of the problems of factory farming have their origin in gross wealth and power inequality stemming from unjust and misaligned systems of land tenure, taxation and banking policy. I consider this situation to be a national emergency, undermining democratic rule.

The Union of Concerned Scientists Food and Environment Program tells us that

The US government spends billions of dollars each year to subsidize crops used to produce processed foods and sugary drinks — the same foods the USDA’s nutritional guidelines tell us to eat less of. This policy failure is contributing to a massive and costly public health crisis, as rates of chronic, diet-related diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease have shot up — even, increasingly, among children. And the same policies that encourage unhealthy food production also support an outdated, unsustainable system of industrial agriculture, which has damaging impacts on soil, air, water, human health, and rural economies.

Our system of taxation encourages land speculation and hoarding. An analysis published by CNBC in 2012 indicated that 100 private landowners in the US control more than 30 million acres, or 2% of America’s land mass. According to The Land Report magazine, media billionaire John Malone owns an estimated 2.2 million acres, an area about three times the size of Rhode Island. Ted Turner, another media billionaire, also owns around two million acres of land, half in New Mexico, with holdings in ten other states.

When so few enclose so much of the commons, and so much valuable land is held out of productive use, the cost of agricultural land prohibits land access for young people who would like to have small farms. The more debt burden incurred to purchase land, the harder it is to make a living on a small farm. Nor do small family farms receive the agricultural subsidies given to large scale corporate agriculture. Agribusinesses often engage in “tax loss farming” whereby profits in some forms of production, which may be oil or other resource extraction, are written off against loses in agriculture resulting in zero taxes paid.

A vital precedent in California

As Theodore Roszak wrote in his book Person/Planet, “Land reform is the undiscovered revolution in American politics.” Combining this perspective with Thomas Paine’s policy prescription that “Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds,” we now have the template an effective tax reform that can enable affordable land access for small farm sustainable agriculture. We even have an historical example with the Wright Act and how it created a “natural land reform” in California.

After one California rancher who owned one million acres of land won full rights to the water of the Kern River (1886), citizens protested, organized, and then passed the Wright Act, legislation permitting local irrigation districts to build dams and canals and other infrastructure to be funded by bonds paid off by land rent.

In ten years, the Central Valley was transformed into over 7,000 independent farms. The Wright Act was amended to mandate the total exemption of improvements from the tax base. Irrigation Districts included (and taxed) land that was used not only for farming but also for residence and commerce within townships. Steadily the Irrigation Districts evolved to provide reclamation, recreation, and electric power. The formerly semi-arid plains of the San Joaquin Valley became one of the most productive agricultural areas on the planet.

The People have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.    —Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, Section 27

The People have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the
preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
—Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, Section 27

Under the Wright Act, first lien on the land was held by the irrigation districts; the banks held second place. After three efforts to have the Supreme Court annul the Wright Act, the Bank of America finally succeeded. Now taxpayers throughout the United States fund irrigation systems which mainly benefit large agribusinesses. Thus the need for a two-pronged approach for macroeconomic restructuring that ideally would combine BOTH the removal of taxes from labor and production while collecting the full land rent AND the establishment of public banks and monetary systems that issue money directly not as now, which is primarily by mortgage debt.

Those who care about the health, happiness and well-being of all and who understand our connectedness to plants, soil organisms, insects, and animals — indeed all of life — must grasp the importance of putting in place tax policy that creates healthy incentives for these sustainable outcomes. Our current tax and financial systems do the opposite. A public finance policy approach that removes the tax burden from labor and productive capital and collects the “ground rent” based on land value would do much to help us build a “triple-win world” of human rights, environmental protection and thriving economies that work for everyone.

Alodia Emerges from Media Blackout

by Lindy Davies

In 2000, the government of the West African nation of Alodia was overthrown in a military coup led by General Samuel Akuopha. This event raised little comment in the international press. African coups tend to come and go; indeed, Alodia’s neighbor, Cote d’Ivoire, was going through one of its own at roughly the same time. Whatever the local reasons for such events, from a distance, they tend to seem banal — some variation of the “generic” African coup described in Chinua Achebe’s novel A Man of the People. Continue reading

Resource Rights and the Challenge of Governance in Nigeria

by Gordon Abiama

We watch, with bewilderment, the gulf between rich and poor grow. The world’s privileged few, lusting to amass wealth at the expense of the well-being of the vast majority, have effectively consigned the greater part of the world population to an endless life of hardship in the midst of abundance. Continue reading