'/> Uncommon Hours: 2011
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Collateral Damage: ‘Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan’

Collateral Damage: ‘Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan’
By Bob Sommer
(also posted at counterpunch.org)

Mural art tends toward bluntness. Its images are large, its imagery thick with meaning. The nature of the medium—walls!—lends itself best to simplicity, directness. The audience for walls is, after all, everyone passing by. Walls with murals ask us to stop and look and think. They tell stories about people we know, about our communities. Mural art is surely the best medium for “Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan,” an exhibit assembled by the American Friends Service Committee and now touring the country. The exhibit brings together more than forty-five mural paintings in what the AFSC catalogue describes as “a traveling memorial to Afghan civilians who have died in the war.”

"Salima," by Nanna Tanier
 America’s longest war has also been its most invisible. After visiting the exhibit in Kansas City, my wife and I pondered a hypothetical question: What if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had only been covered by the news media with Vietnam-era communications technology? In other words, what if there were no social media now, no internet, no 24/7 cable, no embedded cheerleaders in Kevlar vests and oversized helmets clamoring like underage groupies on a rock tour and posing as journalists; what if we only had the evening news, the local paper, and maybe the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, to cover these wars—what would we know about them?

After Walter Cronkite took off his glasses on camera and gave the lie to the notion that America was “winning” in Vietnam, and after Life Magazine published a large black-and-white photo of a terrified naked child running from the nightmare of napalm, America began to get it. That war was no longer about whose military casualty count was worse, but about the millions of innocent civilians suffering and dying as bombs fell and war crashed into their lives. And it was also about the tragic waste of sending young men to die for reasons that defied any moral explanation, and throwing billions of dollars at the effort.

Yet now, despite all the information we have at our fingertips and in our pockets, a medium that traces its beginnings to some ancient and remote caves in France may offer the best way for those of us who will never visit Afghanistan to understand these wars and their consequences.

“Windows and Mirrors” is a tour through the civilian cost of the war in Afghanistan. It is a gallery of windows into an Afghanistan we rarely see, a place whose people we don’t tend to think of with empathy. In turn the exhibit becomes a hall of mirrors reflecting who Americans are in the bitter images of what we are doing there. An untitled panel by Jessica Munguia illustrates the evolution of ever-changing rationales for waging this war in a collage of texts in military-speak, images of weaponry and flowers, and the faces of a woman and child weeping in despair and grief.

The question of our purpose in Afghanistan pervades the exhibit, as does the issue of complicity. The invisibility of this war is the result of a willingness, even an eagerness, on the part of Americans to choose shopping as the prime strategy for fighting the so-called “war on terror”—the bizarre and weirdly ironic notion (brilliantly marketed by the Bush administration) that pretending there were no wars was how we’d win them: Rationing and Victory Gardens turned inside out. And it worked! Such patriotism was easily sold to a nationalistic public that confused the reality of war with video games like “Call of Duty” and patriotism with shedding tears as “God Bless America” rang out in every sports stadium in the country and bone-rattling flyovers filled us with wonder and awe. Meanwhile, actual war continues even now in places we choose not to see, or are prevented from seeing by a corporate media complex that fills the airwaves with pablum.

Michael Schwartz’s painting, “Eternal Scream,” goes straight to the theme of complicity. It depicts a grief-stricken man crying out as he clutches the body of his dead child. The unusual descriptive text that accompanies the painting takes the form of a letter from the artist to the anonymous taxi driver who inspired the work: “Dear Taxi Driver: Thank you for sharing your story. I asked. Nothing I can say to you will bring back your brother's children, your cousins' store, your sister. I can weep with you, get angry, try to organize, but nothing will bring back the people who you loved, killed by bombs, made with dollars that should have gone to teach kids about empathy, compassion, science, history, art, math, and yes, poetry….”

"Learning to Walk Again,"
by John Pitman Weber
Children are the most vulnerable victims of this war and figure in many of the paintings. “Learning to Walk Again,” by John Pitman Weber, depicts the disturbing image of a child wearing a prosthetic leg and pushing a walker past a rack of prosthetic limbs. “Unknown Loss” by Christine Moss positions a madonna and child against the black-and-white backdrop of a refugee camp. Ann Northrup’s “Mountain Kites” portrays children flying kites in an open field. Her accompanying text describes the painting best: “I wanted to show the beautiful Afghanistan that still survives the violent incursions of war, and show ordinary Americans that here is life and value that must be respected and loved. I wanted an image that people could identify with, a child that they could fall in love with and that they would want to cherish and protect.”

"Mountain Kites,"
by Ann Northrup
 Ashley Scribner’s untitled work points out that three children died every day in Afghanistan in 2009 as a result of war-related incidents. A set of textual panels catalogues the weddings bombed during the course of the war and cites reports from international press coverage of innocents killed: In one incident, five women, three children, and an elderly man were killed in their mud hut when a 2,000 pound bomb was dropped on their village. In another, a man who could neither hear nor speak did not know CIA paramilitaries were shouting at him to stop running, so they shot him. In yet another, a man was shot dead by occupation forces as he drove to the hospital to inquire about his ailing sister.  

The texts give substance to the paintings. They remove the temptation to find subjectivity in the stark imagery and unsettling themes that surround viewers. They reinforce the vastness of these tragedies across time—this is our longest war—and place. This exhibit is both visceral and evocative, a submersion in human tragedy and the responsibility Americans share in creating it.

“Windows and Mirrors” closes this week in Kansas City and moves on to Pittsburgh. The full schedule and more information are available at http://windowsandmirrors.org/

Postscript: I contacted Ira Harritt, Program Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in Kansas City, for a comment about the exhibit for this post. I was in a hurry because my wife Heather and I viewed the exhibit on Wednesday and I wanted to submit the essay to Counterpunch in time for a weekend posting, which meant getting it to them by Thursday afternoon. Ira was out of town at the time, but he did get back to me later, offering this comment: “While proponents of the Afghan war ignore its horrors and camouflage it as a humanitarian effort, the Windows and Mirrors exhibit exposes the war’s tragic human costs and offers hope for a different future, which rejects the myth that war can bring peace and well-being for the Afghan people.”

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ron Paul Undiluted

Ron Paul, Undiluted
By Bob Sommer

It would be easy to get the impression that the issue of Ron Paul’s past newsletter articles is little more than a dust-up over old news from another age and time. To hear Paul tell it, as he did in a recent interview with CNN’s Gloria Borger, the incendiary and racist articles that appeared in The Ron Paul Political Report and The Ron Paul Survival Report from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s were not only written by others but he had no knowledge of their content. Notably, he walked out of the CNN interview rather than respond to Borger’s questions about his role in the newsletter’s production.

The sheer quantity of these vile screeds is enough to make any reasonable person who's not infected by the paranoia and racist poison Paul's newsletters serve up question his credibility. The really scary thing is that in the current Republican campaign Paul has taken on the persona of a folk hero to young voters. He’s the “revolutionary” candidate, “challenging the status quo,” as he told CNN. Never has libertarianism looked so benign—such a clear-headed, answer-for-everything, simple solution to the mess Republicans have made with encouragement from their Tea-Party overlords and a dose of help from their co-dependent enablers among the Democrats. If nothing else, the libertarian credo is easily summarized: "You get yours and I'll get mine!"

College students can’t seem to get enough of Paul. Even Jon Stewart regularly touts his grandfatherly persona on The Daily Show, lauding the specious, oh-so-appealing notion that remaining true to your beliefs is somehow admirable no matter how misguided or just plain dangerous they may be.

The New Republic began challenging Paul’s articles back in the 1980s and in turn became a target of the newsletter. The current issue of TNR catalogues some of the most egregious excerpts and provides PDF links for all of them, as well as attributions for many. Reading through these articles it’s impossible to avoid concluding that Paul is either a liar regarding his culpability for this body of work or that he’s so ignorant of what his own newsletters were publishing that he shouldn't be running for dogcatcher. Either way, the idea that anyone believes he belongs in the White House should be enough to frighten the rest of us out of sleeping through the night until the election is over.

Here are a few nuggets from TNR of how Ron Paul really sees the world:

  • An October 1990 edition of the Political Report ridicules black activists, led by Al Sharpton, for demonstrating at the Statue of Liberty in favor of renaming New York City after Martin Luther King. The newsletter suggests that “Welfaria,” “Zooville,” “Rapetown,” “Dirtburg,”and “Lazyopolis ” would be better alternatives—and says, “Next time, hold that demonstration at a food stamp bureau or a crack house.”
  • The July 1992 Ron Paul Political Report declares, “Jury verdicts, basketball games, and even music are enough to set off black rage, it seems,”
  • The September 1994 issue of the Ron Paul Survival Report states that “those who don’t commit sodomy, who don’t get blood a transfusion, and who don’t swap needles, are virtually assured of not getting AIDS unless they are deliberately infected by a malicious gay.”
  • The January 1995 issue of the Survival Report—released just three months before the Oklahoma City bombing—cites an anti-government militia’s advice to other militias, including, “Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
  • The October 1992 issue of the Political Report paraphrases an “ex-cop” who offers this strategy for protecting against “urban youth”: “If you have to use a gun on a youth, you should leave the scene immediately, disposing of the wiped off gun as soon as possible. Such a gun cannot, of course, be registered to you, but one bought privately (through the classifieds, for example).”
Here's the full article: http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/98883/ron-paul-incendiary-newsletters-exclusive

Caveat Iowa voters!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Michael Brune: The Keystone XL Pipeline Scam

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune

The Keystone XL Pipeline Scam
By Michael Brune

With all the political posturing in Congress over the Keystone XL tar-sands oil pipeline, it’s easy to lose sight of the real issue: This pipeline is dangerous, unnecessary, and would cost the American people far more than we can afford. What we're watching unfold in Washington, DC, is more than just a high-stakes political power play -- it's a scam undertaken by Big Oil’s congressional puppets on the orders of oil companies that have billions of dollars at stake.

The politicians pushing the pipeline are (how can I put this politely?) lying to the American people and pandering for dirty oil money. What do we really stand to gain if this thing is rammed down our throats? Higher gas prices, more air pollution, the threat of poisoned water, and enough carbon pollution to make stopping climate disruption next to impossible -- but few of the jobs and none of the huge profits that Big Oil would reap.

Exaggerated job numbers play well to public concern about unemployment and the economy, but they are a hollow promise. The numbers from TransCanada -- the company behind the pipeline -- have already been discredited as fuzzy math for using tricks like double counting and incidental employment for dancers, choreographers, and speech therapists. Here's some non-fuzzy math: The pipeline would raise gas prices across the Midwest -- hurting both consumers and businesses. Ironically, the pipeline could actually destroy more jobs than it generates.

Meanwhile, our nation’s largest aquifer, which supplies one-third of U.S. irrigated farmland and the drinking water for millions, would be put at imminent risk. Although that risk most directly affects the farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods hang in the balance, every American would feel the effect of an oil-spill catastrophe in the nation’s agricultural heartland.

TransCanada has a dismal record of cutting corners, ignoring the law, and spilling oil. The company's Keystone 1 pipeline spilled more than 12 times in its first year of operation, including a 21,000-gallon spill in North Dakota in May 2011 that shot a 60-foot geyser of oil into the air. Last year, the U.S. EPA determined that sections of the Keystone 1 pipeline were constructed using inferior steel and defective welds.

That means we have an irresponsible company asking for permission to build a kind of pipeline that is already far riskier than normal. Unrefined tar sands crude is both thicker and more toxic than conventional crude oil. Sand in the mixture scours the inside of a pipe, and highly reactive chemicals in the crude corrode the steel. Making things even worse, the heavy, gooey tar sands has to be pumped at far higher temperatures and pressures than conventional oil.

The riskiness of piping this toxic crude all the way across America is bad enough, but on top of that, this pipeline would actually make the U.S. less secure. Retired Brigadier General Steven Anderson said it plainly:

The Keystone XL pipeline will not reduce America’s dependence on Middle East oil, or do anything to get us off oil completely, which is key to America’s national security future. Much of the oil produced by Keystone won’t go right to American gas-tanks - it is to be exported, meaning we will need to import oil the same as before.

But pipeline advocates aren't really concerned about what's best for the U.S. At least one oil company backing the pipeline, Valero, has made it clear that its main goal is to reach growing foreign diesel fuel markets. Port Arthur, TX, where the Keystone XL would end, is a Foreign Trade Zone. That means oil companies would avoid paying U.S. taxes on oil that is imported from Canada, refined in Texas, and then exported to China, Latin America, or Europe. The American people get to assume all of the risk, but would see none of the benefits, not even the tax revenues.

This pipeline is a bad deal that would generate billions in profits for oil companies while leaving Americans to pay the price in higher fuel costs, energy insecurity, and polluted air and water. At a time when we need to be doing everything we can to get off oil and reduce global-warming pollution, the Keystone XL would take us in exactly the wrong direction. Tar sands oil is a gigantic climate disaster waiting to happen.

President Obama did the right and responsible thing by deciding to reevaluate this project. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is dangerous, unnecessary, and would cost the American people far more than we can afford. We cannot -- we must not -- let Big Oil and its minions in Congress force it upon us against our will.

Michael Brune is the Sierra Club's executive director.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Feds Link Water Contamination to Fracking for the First Time

By Abrahm Lustgarten and Nicholas Kusnetz
ProPublica, Dec. 8, 2011

In a first, federal environment officials today scientifically linked underground water pollution with hydraulic fracturing, concluding that contaminants found in central Wyoming were likely caused by the gas drilling process.

The findings by the Environmental Protection Agency come partway through a separate national study by the agency to determine whether fracking presents a risk to water resources.

In the 121-page draft report released today, EPA officials said that the contamination near the town of Pavillion, Wyo., had most likely seeped up from gas wells and contained at least 10 compounds known to be used in frack fluids.

“The presence of synthetic compounds such as glycol ethers … and the assortment of other organic components is explained as the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field,” the draft report states. “Alternative explanations were carefully considered.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chris Martenson: “Our job is not to grow as fast as possible…”

The exponential growth of civilization is unsustainable, according to Chris Martenson, author of The Crash Course. In this recent lecture at the Gold and Silver Meeting in Madrid, Martenson synthesizes the relationship of the three E’s – economy, energy, and environment – in a single model, demonstrating how quickly resources are exhausted at the end of an exponential curve. “We live in a world surrounded by exponential curves,” he points out.

Grab a notebook and set aside an hour to view this provocative and thoughtful lecture.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fair and balanced, but not so much news

Fox News viewers tend to be more ignorant about current events not only than people who get their news elsewhere, but those who don’t watch the news at all, according to a new poll.

Researchers at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll queried a cross-section of New Jersey residents about current events and where they got their information. Among the results, they found that Fox News leads “people to be even less informed than those who say they don’t watch any news at all.”

Many Fox viewers did not know, for example, that Egyptians had overthrown their government in the historic and widely-covered Arab Spring earlier this year. Nor did they know that Syrians have not yet succeeded in doing so in the current uprising. Surprisingly, they also were not able to identify who was leading in the current field of Republican candidates for President.

The poll was controlled for partisanship, so the results don’t suggest that merely being a Republican makes you less informed.

“Rather,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and an analyst for the PublicMind Poll, “the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don’t watch any news at all.”

Hmm, could it be that Fox News isn’t really a news network at all? Well, that’s hardly news.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving from Team Francis!

Team Francis dedicated the runLawrence 2011 Thanksgiving Day 5K to the memory of our beloved son and brother, Francis D. Sommer. From left: Alex, Raina, Bob, Heather, Erin, and Aaron in Lawrence, Kan., Nov. 24, 2011.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Remembering homeless vets on Veterans Day

Fund helps homeless veterans, remembers their sacrifice
By Bob Sommer

(Published in The Kansas City Star, Nov. 9, 2011)

My son Francis was one of the lucky ones. He knew it, too. Many of the soldiers he served with in Iraq and Afghanistan had no one to write to them or send packages. In these wars, a “Dear John” letter may come as an email or simply a drained bank account, while soldiers are posted to some of the worst places on Earth.

My wife and I saw this for ourselves — soldiers at Francis’s homecomings who had no one to greet them, nowhere to go, and then later, nowhere to go when they left the service. A report issued jointly by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veterans account for 13 percent of America’s homeless population — nearly 145,000 men and women.

The unsettling numbers don’t stop there. The Department of Defense estimates that some 400,000 veterans have sustained traumatic brain injuries. Further, according to the VA, 20 percent of the suicides in the U.S. are veterans.

After he left the service, Francis struggled with health issues, cognitive problems and PTSD. He told us once that he’d be dead in six months if he didn’t live with us at home. Tragically, we did lose him about six months later in a car accident, one of the leading causes of death among returning vets.

He was being treated at the Kansas City VA, where he also served as a volunteer. He helped distribute clothing to homeless vets and served them his own recipe for chili. He’d become an exceptional chef and was near completion of the Johnson County Community College Culinary Arts program.

When he passed away, my wife and I contacted the VA to set up a fund for homeless veterans in his name. We thought a few hundred dollars might land there in lieu of money spent on flowers. Melissa Jacobson, Chief of Voluntary Services, told me that funds were needed for basic items like driver’s license fees or safety shoes for a new job.

But something unexpected happened. Melissa called several weeks after Francis’s funeral to tell me that thousands had poured in — from friends, family, soldiers, even strangers. She became choked up on the phone. So did I, but that happens often to me these days.

About 100 homeless veterans had recently been placed in housing through a program funded by the VA and HUD. But Melissa said these vets still needed food and the means to prepare it. Her idea: cooking kits, with utensils, pots, pans, and food, to help jumpstart them in their new homes. She thought this would be a good way to honor Francis. I couldn’t have agreed more.

These vets struggle with poor health, mental illness, addiction, unemployment, and more. Through this program, they have a chance for a fresh start, and their progress is monitored through the Kansas City VA.

My wife and I received dozens of very moving letters from veterans who benefited from these gifts. Their expressions of gratitude are overwhelming, but I can’t imagine they’re more grateful than we are, as we see Francis remembered so well.

To share in the gift of aiding homeless veterans in Kansas City, please send your donation to Kansas City VA Voluntary Services 135, 4801 Linwood Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64128. Make checks payable to the KCVA.

If you wish, please mention the Francis D. Sommer Memorial Fund on the memo line.

For more information, including photos and excerpts from letters written by veterans, go to http://uncommon-hours.blogspot.com/p/fds-memorial-fund.html.

State Dept. to reevaluate Keystone XL tarsands pipeline

Washington, D.C. - The State Department announced today that it is reevaluating the environmental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project. The reevaluation will include consideration of rerouting the pipeline to avoid sensitive ecological areas in Nebraska. An alternative route would require a new environmental impact statement and would delay a final decision on the tar sands pipeline for as long as 18 months.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Michael Brune: 'The Keystone XL Pipeline is about whether right and wrong still matter'

'Let's Build the Future We Want to See'
By Michael Brune

One bus is coming from Maine. Another from Asheville, North Carolina -- one of several from that state. From points up and down the eastern seaboard, busloads of Sierra Club members and volunteers will travel to the White House this weekend. We won't be mingling in the Rose Garden. Instead, we'll stand, shoulder to shoulder, with thousands of Americans from across the environmental movement in a circle that stretches clear around the president's house to send this message:

Stop the Keystone XL pipeline and the dirty tar-sands oil it would carry from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

A year ago, few people had heard of the Keystone XL or even knew what tar-sands oil was. Today, thanks to lots of hard work and grassroots actions, the decision of whether to permit this pipeline -- a decision that Obama has acknowledged is his alone to make -- is a flashpoint issue not just for environmentalists but for anyone who believes our leaders should still be capable of making critical decisions based, not on some political calculus, but on right versus wrong.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Obama Administration: No Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

Sierra Club Praises Decision to Protect National Park, Southwest Drinking Water

Washington, DC -- The Obama Administration today took a critical step in finalizing protections to keep more than a million acres of public land around Grand Canyon National Park free from mineral exploration and new mining. The decision comes as the lands around the Grand Canyon are threatened by thousands of new uranium mining claims.

"The Sierra Club applauds the decision to protect these precious public lands. The Grand Canyon is a crown jewel of our national park system, and an important piece of American history, culture and economy," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. "These public lands are no place for destructive energy and mineral development."

Monday, October 24, 2011

A victory for our wilderness: Federal court reinstates Roadless Rule

Landmark Ruling on Wild National Forest Protections

DENVER – The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a long-awaited, landmark decision today, securing critical legal protections for nearly 50 million acres of pristine National Forest lands. These forests offer outstanding opportunities for hunting, fishing, and hiking, produce clean water for thousands of communities nationwide, and provide irreplaceable habitat for imperiled wildlife species including grizzly bears, lynx, and Pacific salmon. The appellate court reversed a lower court decision and affirmed the validity of the Roadless Rule – a 2001 federal rule that protects wild national forests and grasslands from new road building, logging, and development.

The appellate court ruled against the State of Wyoming and industry intervenors and in favor of conservation groups, the Forest Service, and the States of California, Oregon, and Washington. This decision formally ends an injunction against the Rule’s enforcement imposed by a Wyoming federal district court in 2008.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Koch Industries and Cancer: 'Koch Brothers Exposed'

"Koch is using natural streams to transport waste, and this is not allowed by the Clean Water Act. And they can do it because the EPA lets them do it."
--Cheryl Slavant, Ouachita Riverkeeper,
President of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network

"Koch Industries not only manipulates the political process, but more importantly...they manipulate the public into believing that the EPA is killing jobs."
--Dr. Melissa Jarrell,
Environmental Criminologist,
Texas A&M University

Take action: http://kochbrothersexposed.com/
Discuss: http://facebook.com/kochbrothers

Europe’s Top Doctors On Climate Change: ‘Prevention Is The Best Solution’

By Brad Johnson

“Climate change poses an immediate, growing and grave threat to the health and security of people in both developed and developing countries around the globe,” Europe’s top medical leaders concluded at an international conference on the risks of global warming. At London’s Health and Security Perspectives on Climate Change conference, participants discussed how the destabilization of the global climate system is already hurting people’s health and security, with much greater threats to come:

Climate change leads to more frequent and extreme weather events and to conditions that favor the spread of infectious diseases. Rising sea levels, floods and droughts cause loss of habitat, water and food shortages, and threats to livelihood. These trigger conflict within and between countries. Humanitarian crises will further burden military resources through the need for rescue missions and aid. Mass migration will also increase, triggered by both environmental stress and conflict, thus leading to serious further security issues. It will often not be possible to adapt meaningfully to these changes, and the economic cost will be enormous. As in medicine, prevention is the best solution.

Signatories include the editors-in-chief of the British Medical Journal and Lancet, the chairman of the British Medical Association, the president of the Norwegian Medical Association, and the executive director of Greenpeace International.

In their statement, they call on the European Union to unilaterally adopt the climate target of a 30 percent reduction from 1990 levels in greenhouse pollution by 2020, and the rapid phasing out of coal plants.

This article was created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rick Perry’s Energy Plan: 'Wheeze, baby, wheeze!'

Plan Would Poison Water and Air; Ratchet Up Rates of Asthma, Heart Disease, Birth Defects

Pittsburgh – Today, Texas Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry unveiled his energy plan for America. The plan, if implemented, will poison our air and water with toxic pollutants like soot, smog, arsenic, cadmium, dioxin, lead, and formaldehyde. It would also undercut safeguards from mercury, which is a neurotoxin and is known to harm developing fetuses.

“Rick Perry’s energy plan reads like a roadmap for making America’s kids sick,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. "Under this plan, we can expect to see much higher rates of asthma among children, and risk to pregnant women from mercury exposure. Republicans like Perry are putting polluters’ profits first and our kids’ health last. The Republican mantra should be 'wheeze, baby, wheeze.'"

Perry’s plan calls for scaling back basic EPA safeguards that protect our clean air and water. It would simultaneously expand development of dirty energy like coal, oil, and natural gas amounting to a one-two punch to Americans’ health.

“American families have enough to worry about,” Brune said. “They don’t need to spend more time taking their kids to the doctor or more money on hospital bills. The only people who stand to profit from this plan are overpaid oil, coal and natural gas CEOs.”
“Dismantling the EPA and assuming that states are properly watching over natural gas drilling is dangerous and puts the health of our families and communities at risk.”

Perry’s plan would also undercut the expansion of jobs in industries like solar—the fastest-growing industry in the energy sector.

“There’s a solution to the current epidemic of pollution-related illness that will also create good, lasting local jobs, and secure America’s energy independence,” said Brune. “It’s clean energy. America’s clean energy industry is strong and thriving, even in this down economy. Rick Perry’s plan would stifle that growth and return our country to a dirty, antiquated energy system. Under his plan, we’ll see asthma rates among American kids soar, while countries like China surpass us in reaping the benefits from clean energy like solar and wind."

In fact, America is predicted to become the world’s leader in solar energy by 2014, and in 2010, the U.S. was a net exporter of solar by $2 billion. Solar energy creates seven times more jobs than coal, nuclear and natural gas.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pollutors Win: House blocks toxic mercury protections for industrial boilers

Washington, D.C. – The U.S. House of Representatives tonight passed legislation that would block critical protections against toxic mercury and other dangerous chemicals and metals emitted by industrial boilers, which are among the nation’s biggest and dirtiest sources of mercury pollution. Boilers exist in and around hospitals, schools and communities across the country, exposing Americans to toxic mercury pollution, a known brain poison that threatens the development of young children. The bill is the latest in a series of dangerous attacks waged by House Leadership on public health protections and the Clean Air Act.

National Peace Action director to speak in Kansas City

Kevin Martin
Kansas City, Mo. ― Kevin Martin, the Executive Director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund, will appear at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City on Oct. 16, at 1:00 p.m.

His address is entitled “Endless War, Endless Costs, Endless Nuclear Weapons: The Crying Need to Change America’s Flawed Military and Economic Priorities.”

Martin has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio, Fox News, MSNBC, BBC-TV and radio, and many other local, national and international radio and television outlets.

Peace Action is the nation's largest grassroots peace network, with chapters and affiliates across the country, including PeaceWorks, its Kansas City-based chapter.

According to Henry Stoever, Chair of the PeaceWorks Board of Directors, “We are bringing Kevin Martin to Kansas City to call attention to what our city has done—sold up to $815 million in municipal bonds to private investors to finance the new nuclear weapons plant.”

“Kansas City,” Stoever said, “is the only city in the world so involved in creating and financing a nuclear bomb production plant.”

Members of PeaceWorks and Kansas City Peace Planters, a coalition of regional groups, are petitioning to place two initiatives on the April ballot. One measure calls for development of a plan to create alternative jobs for the plant’s workers, while the other seeks an end to Kansas City’s role in financing the production of parts for nuclear weapons. For more information on these petitions, go to  http://www.peaceworkskc.org/.

Peace Action was founded in 1957 through the merger of The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Michael Brune: "...the hypocrisy of the Koch brothers pales in comparison to the State Department's role in the Keystone XL debacle"

What's that Smell? Keystone XL
By Michael Brune

Michael Brune,
Executive Director of the Sierra Club
Three months ago, I wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times that listed the "Koch brothers-backed" Keystone XL pipeline for dirty tar-sands oil as one of the most important environmental issues confronting President Obama. That prompted a stern missive from the Legal Department at Koch Industries, which even got the Times to run a correction saying that Koch Industries "says it has no involvement in the project."

Only problem: It now turns out that three years ago a Canadian subsidiary of Koch Industries said exactly the opposite: That it had "a direct and substantial interest" in seeing the Keystone XL pipeline approved. Whoops.

But, really, I feel like I've been vindicated for observing that "the sun rises in the east." Let’s get real here. No reasonable person could have doubted that the Koch brothers, who are in the tar-sands business up to their Windsor-knotted neckties, could possibly not have been in favor of the Keystone XL. (Note to the good folks at Koch Industries Legal Dept: This is called poetic license. I humbly confess that I have no idea how Charles and David knot their ties, so please don’t come seize my house.)

Unfortunately, the hypocrisy of the Koch brothers pales in comparison to the State Department's role in the Keystone XL debacle. Last summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that her department would leave "no stone unturned" as it prepared its environmental impact report. But when the report appeared, there were unturned stones everywhere:

  • No study of the consequences of a raw tar-sands oil spills or the difficulties of cleaning up the inevitable spills was done.
  • No analysis of the clean-energy alternatives to the pipeline or of how extracting Canadian tar sands oil would affect their development.
  • No serious assessment of alternatives to a route that crosses the Ogallala Aquifer (which underlies more than a quarter of our country's irrigated land).
  • No study of how more pollution would affect Gulf refinery towns like Port Arthur, TX, which is already one of our country's most polluted communities.
  • No analysis of the impact on wildlife, such as the lesser sandhill cranes that use Nebraska's central Platte River valley as a stopover on their migration north.
  • An incomplete and faulty analysis of how extracting and burning tar-sands oil will affect climate disruption.
There's more, but you get the gist. How could the Department of State have gotten it so wrong? Keystone XL, after all, is a 1,700-mile pipeline that will do nothing for Americans except seize their land through eminent domain, expose them to catastrophic oil spills and toxic pollution, and make domestic gas more expensive -- all so a foreign oil company, TransCanada, can ship its tar-sands oil overseas from our ports. It's such a bad idea that, in Texas, the Sierra Club and the Tea Party actually allied to oppose it (I think the sun actually did rise in the west on that day).

Sorry to say, the answer is that this was government at its most tawdry. The Department of State allowed a former Clinton campaign staff member, working as a TransCanada lobbyist, inappropriate access to high level officials within the Department and hired a biased pro-oil contracting firm to do the actual evaluation and run public hearings.

The more Americans learn about Keystone XL and the big-money campaign behind it, the worse the whole thing smells. Whether or not to permit this travesty is still one of the most important decisions facing President Obama. It's time for him to clear the air, kill this Koch brothers-backed pipeline, and let the State Department get back to issuing passports and visas.

Michael Brune is the Sierra Club's executive director.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sierra Club releases clean water voting record

View the Report Card: http://www.sierraclub.org/coal/reportcard/

U.S. House Anti-Clean Water Vote Expected This Week

Washington, D.C. – Today the Sierra Club released a clean water voting record for the U.S. House of Representatives, in time for an expected floor vote this week on a bill that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from protecting communities from toxic coal ash. Coal ash is a dangerous solid waste by-product of burning coal, containing mercury, arsenic, hexavalent chromium and lead. There are more than 130 cases of coal ash contaminating communities across the country.

The interactive, online report card issues letter grades for U.S. Representatives’ voting records on clean water issues.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

U.S. House continues assault on clean air

Latest Vote Blocks Toxic Mercury Protections

Washington, D.C. – The U.S. House of Representatives today passed legislation that would block critical protections against toxic mercury emitted by cement plants. The chamber is expected to vote on a similar bill to block toxic mercury protections for industrial boilers next week. Cement plants and industrial boilers are among the nation’s biggest and dirtiest sources of mercury pollution.

In response, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune issued the following statement:

“Members of the U.S. House Leadership have outdone themselves again, with their continued, all-out assault on commonsense public health protections.

“By passing H.R. 2681, the U.S. House has voted to allow cement plants, some of the nation’s biggest, dirtiest sources of mercury pollution, to continue spewing toxic mercury – a known brain poison that threatens the development of young children – into our air and water without limits.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Students Take Action to Move Campuses Beyond Coal

Over 100 Actions Planned Demanding Schools Switch to 100% Clean Energy

Washington, DC – This week students at Virginia Tech, Purdue University, Bates College in Maine and the University of Illinois kicked off a nationwide month of creative actions focused on moving America’s campus’ beyond coal. The coordinated effort called 100% Clean: 100 Actions for Clean Energy aims to unite local efforts into a nationwide movement to retire university coal plants, cut university ties with the coal industry and move the nation’s institutions of higher education to clean energy solutions.

“We have students on our campus who are getting sick from breathing coal dust coming from the campus coal plant across the street from their dorm. This is unacceptable. We want Virginia Tech and universities nation-wide to be leading the way towards an innovative, healthy and clean energy future, not stuck in the past relying on dirty coal,” said Kara Dodson, a senior at Virginia Tech and Coordinator of the Campuses Beyond Coal campaign on campus.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sierra Club Books to release updated edition of Nukespeak

Critically acclaimed Nukespeak updated to include events through the still unfolding Fukushima disaster

The 30th anniversary edition of Nukespeak examines critical events of the last three decades and the language used to shape and distort public discourse on nuclear issues.

On October 4, 2011, Sierra Club Books will publish the 30th anniversary edition of Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima exclusively in e-book format. First published in 1982 in the wake of the first great nuclear plant accident at Three Mile Island, the original edition, written by Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell, and Rory O’Connor, examined the turbulent history of the nuclear industry, documenting the extraordinary public relations campaign that developers undertook to sell nuclear technology.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

SAT reading scores hit an all-time low

A few months ago I posted an article entitled “The Decline of Reading and Who Benefits from It.” This week the College Board released more hard evidence of that decline.

SAT reading scores among college-bound seniors have now hit an all-time low:

Still, in the warped alternate universe of the Republican/Tea Party, the best thing to do in times like this is to cut education programs, even ones with names like "Striving Readers" and "Reading is Fundamental" and "Improving Literacy Through School Libraries." But then, an educated public would not be healthy for a corporate state in which people are "consumers" and corporations are "people."

Friday, September 2, 2011

Bush 2.0? Obama Delays Smog Protections until at least 2013

Polluters win, kids with asthma lose

Washington, D.C. – Today, President Obama announced that he has requested that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) withdraw the draft Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards that would have protected Americans from air pollution.

In response, Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, issued the following statement:

"The Sierra Club condemns the Obama administration's decision to delay critical, long-overdue protections from smog, an acidic air pollutant that when inhaled is like getting a sunburn on your lungs. By putting the interest of coal and oil polluters first, the White House seems to be saying that 'clean air will have to wait.'

"A healthy economy requires clean air and healthy people, and these protections from smog would have improved our communities and saved billions of dollars in health costs. Half of U.S. families live in places where it is literally unsafe to breathe the air, and kicking the inhaler down the road will do nothing to protect our children.

"We thank the scientists and public health professionals at the EPA for their commitment to science, and we look forward to the day when strong clean air protections will prevent thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of asthma attacks. The Sierra Club and the millions of Americans who have suffered through orange and red-alert air quality days this record-breaking summer will continue to push the Obama Administration to improve this protection in order to save lives and clean up our air."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Al Gore: The Dirtiest Fuel on the Planet

The leaders of the top environmental groups in the country, the Republican Governor of Nebraska, and millions of people around the country—including hundreds of people who have bravely participated in civil disobedience at the White House—all agree on one thing: President Obama should block a planned pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.

The tar sands are the dirtiest source of fuel on the planet. As I wrote in Our Choice two years ago, gasoline made from the tar sands gives a Toyota Prius the same impact on climate as a Hummer using gasoline made from oil. This pipeline would be an enormous mistake. The answer to our climate, energy and economic challenges does not lie in burning more dirty fossil fuels —instead, we must continue to press for much more rapid development of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies and cuts in the pollution that causes global warming.

Cross posted from Al Gore's Journal.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

State Dept. Endorses Dirty Tar Sands Monstrosity

Washington, D.C. – Today the Obama Administration released its final Environmental Impact Statement on foreign oil corporation TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline to transport high corrosive and toxic tar sands oil through America’s heartland.

In response, Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director, issued the following statement:

“The U.S. State Department’s final report on the Keystone XL today is an insult to anyone who expects government to work for the interests of the American people.

“Americans don't want a 2,000 mile-long toxic crude oil pipeline running through our heartland for the benefit of a foreign oil corporation and they don’t want another oil spill. TransCanada's proposed tar sands pipeline would threaten our most productive farmlands and the drinking water of millions of Americans. It would expose more Americans to cancer-causing carcinogens, and open the gates on the biggest source of carbon pollution in the northern hemisphere.
“The mathematics are simple but the stakes are incredibly high—the United States has nothing to gain from Keystone XL, and everything to lose.

“American innovation and technology are poised to deliver clean and safe energy solutions to power our economy, but we need corporate polluters like TransCanada to get out of our way. The Sierra Club and our 1.4 million members and supporters are looking to President Obama for bold action and we urge him to reject this abomination.”

The State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS):

  • Fails to examine threats to the Ogallala Aquifer – a drinking water source for millions of Americans – and the Sandhills of South Dakota, despite numerous requests from U.S. Senators;
  • Ignores the effects of toxic pollution from corrosive tar sands refineries – cancer, asthma and heavy metal poisoning – on the millions of residents in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas and other cities;
  • Disregards the fact that there are no existing federal safeguards in place for the safe transport of tar sands crude oil, known as bitumen, one of the dirtiest and most dangerous forms of oil on Earth.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Groups Ask Kansas Supreme Court to Overturn Sunflower Coal Plant Permit

Topeka, Kan. - Earthjustice, representing the Sierra Club, filed a brief in the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn the air pollution permit granted to Sunflower Electric to build a new coal-fired power plant near Holcomb, KS.

The coal plant has been the subject of a multi-year controversy after being denied a permit in the fall of 2007. On December 16, 2010, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) issued a new permit to Sunflower.

Read the brief here: http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/Sunflowerbrief.pdf

“When the federal Clean Air Act is violated, as is the case with the Sunflower permit, citizens can go to court to make things right,” said Stephanie Cole, representing the Kansas Sierra Club. “The Sunflower permit process was so completely hijacked by coal plant supporters that a citizen lawsuit became necessary.”

This proposed plant, that will largely serve Colorado, will emit massive amounts of air pollutants, including mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter on downwind Kansans. The plant will also rely on water from the declining Ogallala Aquifer.

The final permit was rammed through largely due to political pressure by the legislature and governor’s office even after KDHE received an unprecedented amount of public comments - nearly 6,000 public comments, many opposed to the project.

Todd True of Earthjustice said, “Kansans deserve clean energy and clean air. Despite numerous attempts by coal-boosters to push through this project, we believe the permit will not withstand the scrutiny of judicial review.”

The lawsuit claims that KDHE:

· Issued a permit that falls short of the minimum requirements of the Clean Air Act and will not adequately protect human health and the environment.
· Engaged in an improper procedure in the granting of the permit.
· Denied the public a fair opportunity to participate in the process by rushing through review of comments to allow the project to be permitted prior to new greenhouse gas regulations taking effect.
· Issued a permit without enforceable limits on nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide pollution.
· Did not require “best available control technology” be used, as required by law.
· Allowed weak pollution limits even on hazardous toxic air pollutants - the most harmful to human health - in order to save costs.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bloomberg Philanthropies commits $50 million to Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign to move America toward cleaner energy

Grant a 'game changer' that will effectively retire one-third of the nation's aging coal fleet by 2020

Alexandria, VA. Today the Sierra Club announced a partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies that will effectively retire one-third of the nation's aging coal fleet by 2020, replacing it with clean energy. The partnership includes a $50 million commitment over four years to the Beyond Coal Campaign that will fuel the Sierra Club's effort to clean the air, end the coal era, and accelerate the transition to cleaner, cost-effective energy sources.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The EPA should revoke Sunflower's permit for Holcomb II

The EPA should revoke Sunflower's permit for Holcomb II
Bob Sommer

By now it should be clear to anyone who has followed the five-year saga of Sunflower Electric’s efforts to build a second coal-fired utility plant in Holcomb, Kan., that the public has been misled and misinformed by supporters of this project.

From the outset, Sunflower campaigned for this coal plant—originally three coal plants—on the grounds that Kansas needed the energy and it would bring new jobs. In reality, most, if not all, of the energy would be sold to companies outside of Kansas, leaving the pollution here while the electricity went elsewhere. The promise of new jobs amounted to relatively few permanent jobs that could easily be provided by building renewable energy facilities.

Proponents of Holcomb II usually neglect to mention that Sunflower’s primary financial backer, Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, has investments in coal mines that produce some 20 million tons per year. Additionally, Tri-State is a member of the Western Fuels Association, which operates a fleet of 1,600 rail cars, delivering coal throughout the Midwest, including to Sunflower’s existing plant in Holcomb. Coincidentally, Sunflower’s outgoing CEO, Earl Watkins, is also on WFA’s Board of Directors.

What incentive could anyone have to disrupt the chain of profit—or to slow its growth? Better yet, Tri-State gets a downwind state to host the new coal plant, even as the co-op touts its investments in wind energy in Colorado.

As a friend of mine succinctly put it, “Kansas will be Colorado’s coal bitch.”

Sunday, May 29, 2011

'Your Memorial Day weekend'

'Your Memorial Day weekend'
by Bob Sommer

A few minutes of TV news tells you all you need to know for “your Memorial Day weekend”—travel tips, barbeque tips, weather forecasts. Then follows the sign-off with a maudlin voiceover accompanied by low-angle shots of headstones. “Taps” plays in the background as the visual fades to a fluttering flag, which instantly gives way to a brassy commercial for beer or trucks or toothpaste.

Memorial Day became a fixture to round out a three-day weekend when the National Holiday Act became law in 1971. Previously it was commemorated on May 30th. Some feared that just what happened would happen, as the day got smothered in ketchup and sunscreen.

The 2002 VFW Memorial Day address noted, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

Efforts in both the House and Senate to restore Memorial Day to a fixed date have failed. It’s not difficult to understand why. Just imagine the lost revenues. There’s too much money to be made. Summertime unofficially kicks off this weekend. Swimsuit sales would plummet if Memorial Day went back to May 30th. If that sounds cynical, recall that candy companies successfully lobbied to move daylight savings so Halloween candy sales would get a boost.

“A foolish consistency,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” How we regard Memorial Day is nothing if not foolishly consistent. Over 6,000 American service members have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade while America shopped and amused itself into a stupor. War is lttle more than a distant cloud on the horizon for most, though it’s always there. A generation of children has reached middle-school age with no living memory of America not being at war.

But they’re also growing up with a sense that war doesn’t matter because it affects so few of them. Just one-half of one percent of Americans carry the burden of these wars. We obsess over politicians’ sex lives, the president’s birth certificate, the newest phone gadgets, and the imminent Rapture, but how many can cite the number of American casualties from Iraq and Afganistan, or even find those countries on a map?

And our military casualties are just part of the story of these wars. Conservative estimates put civilian casualties in Iraq at nearly 1 million, while in Afghanistan over 48,000 lives have been lost, including NATO and Afghan soldiers, civilians, journalists, aid-workers, and contractors, as well as the more than 1,500 American service members who’ve died there.

Meditating too much on Memorial Day may be hazardous to war. We might begin to wonder why the men and women we’re honoring from these recent wars had to die, whether the wars in which they fought were just and the sacrifices they were asked to make justified. We might ponder war’s meaning and its consequences. Better to unfurl the beach umbrella and stoke up the coals. Wipe away a tear as the fluttering TV flag fades to commercial. It’s a three-day weekend.

Bob Sommer blogs at Uncommon Hours.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Court TV

My Day Not in Court
Bob Sommer

A clean, well-lighted place. You’d have to say that about the jury waiting room at the Federal Courthouse. Lots of daylight from the broad windows. Free coffee in the kitchen. Seating for a large group neatly arranged in rows. Over in the corner a cluster of reading chairs and lamps. I decided to claim a chair before the place filled up. I’d heard that waiting was often the biggest part of jury duty. I’d brought a book. I was ready.

Unlike many, I looked forward to jury duty. Well, maybe that’s not fair. Others do too, I’m sure. Maybe days like the one ahead just wring the enthusiasm out of you. This was my first time. Close to a hundred people were to report, and I was the first one there. Our pool would last for a month. Every Friday we’d call a phone number and find out if we had to report on the following Monday. This was our first day.

A couple of techs were working on the projection system, which I assumed would show an orientation video. At the moment a morning talk show filled the huge screen in front of the room. Loudly too, but the techs were checking things out, plugging in plugs, doing whatever they did. The TV talkers jabbered on.

People drifted into the waiting room. The woman in charge told us nothing would happen for a while, so I settled into a chair and opened my book. The techs were gone, but the TV stayed on. Loud, chattering, insipid.

Later we watched a video. Several sitting and retired U.S. Supreme Court justices described the importance of our role in the judicial system. A brief orientation followed. We got a brochure. I was ready. Call me up to court. I will be impartial, engaged; I will serve Justice.

But Justice didn’t need me yet, and now the big screen flipped back to network TV. “The Price is Right” was on. People wore costumes and screamed hysterically when they were chosen; they cried when they won furniture, computers, a car. The volume was loud and reading difficult. A few other jurors had brought books or newspapers too. Some visited and got acquainted. Still others watched TV—perhaps regretting they didn’t have books.

Our pool was divided into two groups for different trials starting that day. One group was soon chosen to go upstairs, while mine had to wait. “The Young and the Restless” came on now. Some in the forgot-their-books group seemed familiar with the TV story. I just knew I was getting older and restless as morning became noon. Surely we’d get called after lunch.

But alas, all that awaited us back in the waiting room was “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Actors paused heavily between lines and exchanged foreboding glances. Melodrama and bad acting filled the room. I was two-thirds through my book. Still no sign of action.

The soap opera gave way to a talk show. A group of women discussed whether they preferred spontaneous or planned sex. Planned sex won out because that way the women could make sure their men showered. Also, the Superbowl had just been played that weekend. The show’s special guests were the child actors who played little Darth Vaders in everyone’s favorite TV commercial.

The forgot-their-books folks had by now broken off into small groups to enjoy the program. They found the little Darth Vaders as adorable as the talk show hosts did.

Other jurors-in-waiting poured over sections of newspapers they probably never read, while one or two had brought office paperwork. Cell phones, mercifully, were not permitted here, though this was for security reasons and not to improve the ambience.

By the time “Let’s Make a Deal” came on I was worried I’d finish my book before the day was out. I recalled this show from when I had measles as a kid. Imagine that—still on TV! I wondered whatever happened to Monty Hall.

“Ellen” filled the big screen late in the afternoon. The woman-in-charge’s phone now rang a couple of times, and it appeared that something was happening. She was up and down at her desk. I moved up closer so I could hear over Ellen.

A judge soon entered the room in robes. She stepped in front of the screen filled by Ellen’s very large face and began talking, but Ellen’s chatter swallowed up whatever she was saying. Abruptly the sound went off but not the visual, and now the judge, who seemed a little dazed, realized that a TV show was on the screen behind her, indeed, that she was blocking the view. She stepped aside so everyone could still watch TV as she spoke.

The defendants had pled out, she said. That was thanks to us, she added, because we were here, ready to serve the court. She looked spent. It had been a long day upstairs. The case was a big one—drug dealers, multiple charges and defendants. Sounded exciting. The judge gave us the credit for not having to go to trial. The jury was working even when it wasn’t working—just watching TV.

I’d finished my book just before the judge arrived—Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I recommend it, though you might want to find a quieter place to read. It was hard to concentrate as I waited to serve Justice.

Bob Sommer blogs at Uncommon Hours.

Monday, May 16, 2011

'A funeral pyre for American thought': The Decline of Reading and Who Benefits from It

The stacks at Prospero's Books
Photo by Bob Sommer

‘A funeral pyre for American thought’:
The Decline of Reading and Who Benefits from It
by Bob Sommer

Victory Gin

“Read! Reading is the most important thing you can do.

This was former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser responding to the question of what advice he would offer aspiring poets.

He sat onstage in a wingback chair following a reading at the University of Kansas, looking somewhat as if he was about to introduce Masterpiece Theater. He’s a congenial man with thick hands and, I discovered later, a surprisingly firm grip. His demeanor is easy and calm, like his poems, but also like his poems, there was a sharpness and clarity in his comments, and in this one, you could even say, a subtle barb. He conducts many writing workshops, so doubtless he had good reason for thinking aspiring poets needed to be told to read, which, apparently, some do.

Consider another instance.

A provocative column in The Huffington Post last summer by literary critic Anis Shivani, entitled “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” inspired over 1,700 comments.(1) Carrion eaters swarmed. Fresh carcasses littered the digital Serengeti plains. Shivani’s prey included such major literary figures as John Ashbery, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan. His critical judgments don’t much concern us here, but the comments posted by people who admit to having little or no acquaintance with these writers do.

Here’s an unvarnished, unedited sampling:

I've only heard of two, though I never read them.
So happy to say I haven't read anything from these writers, not even heard of them, ever. Which makes me wonder, how come they are they overrated?
Haven't read any of these writers but love the 'hit-job' style of the article.
Can`t judge, I have not read most of them, Jhumpa I don`t read, she is good but always so sad and depressing , I don`t need that. We don`t need a fiction to be sad and depressed …
Never heard of any of them.
Never heard of any of these writers except Amy Tan (who I've not read), but then, I don't travel in those circles.
I don't read much, I admit. But I have read Jhumpa Lahiri's books―all of them and must ask who is Shivani to pass judgment on her ?
Never heard of any of them or any of their books.
The only one I've heard of is Amy Tan.
Funny, I've never heard of any of these people, and I read novels every day.
I have never read any of these writers, well, one, Amy Tan many years ago and was not terribly impressed—now, thanks to your entertaining article I have no intention or desire to read any of them.
When I was in college, not having done the reading was generally a good reason to keep your mouth shut in class. You’d also slouch low to avoid the professor’s gaze. But here, well … whatever. Several commentors simply announce, without gloss, that they’ve never heard of these writers, as if this free-standing fact had significance: Never heard of them so they can’t matter. A couple liked Shivani’s snarky style, his “hit job,” as one put it. What’s more entertaining than malice? Well, public executions maybe. None of these people, nor many others besides, wonder or care if the body of work by these writers deserves more scrutiny than Shivani’s dismissive blurbs. Similar remarks fill the numbing forty-odd pages that follow the article. Some commentors are happy to accept Shivani’s judgment rather than read the books themselves. Shivani may be right or he may not. They’ll never know.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Mother's Day Poem

On Mother’s Day
Bob Sommer

For Heather
May 8, 2011

               Motherhood is optimism in the extreme,
                      hope that won’t be extinguished,
                      stubborn faith,
                      unlimited compassion.
                And love,
                                   always love.

                Motherhood is memory fulfilled,
                      like the migrations of birds and whales,
                      who find their way
                      over continents and through oceans,
                Not knowing why―
                                   or asking
                      ―but only that this is their path, their way.

                And that arrival completes the memory
                       in flutterings and chirpings,
                       in submarine pleasures of return,
                       in ancient knowledge that needs neither
                                     history nor language.

                 Memory lives in motherhood,
                       unfading, unstained,
                       like the clarity of cloudless full-moon nights,
                       resonant with quiet life,
                       with meaning in the immanent stillness.

                  Motherhood is always with you―
                        and with it: constant and reliable memory,
                        unbound to the physics of time,
                        its truth in stories,
                        in images no photo ever captures,
                        in a shiver, a motion, a sound,
                        in a garden plaque or the visit of a hummingbird.

                    Memories are life,
                         we still live them and live into them.
                          They complete us,
                                          and motherhood completes you.

                        (c) Copyright Bob Sommer 2011. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Francis David Sommer
May 12, 1983 - February 11, 2011

“Attitude toward Death”
From The Teaching of Tecumseh

Live your life that the fear of death
can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about his religion.
Respect others in their views
and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life,
beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long
and of service to your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day
when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or sign of salute when meeting
or passing a friend, or even a stranger, if in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people, but grovel to none.
When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light,
for your life, for your strength.
Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason to give thanks,
the fault lies in yourself.
Touch not the poisonous firewater that makes wise ones turn to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.
When your time comes to die, be not like those
whose hearts are filled with fear of death,
so that when their time comes they weep and pray
for a little more time to live their lives over again
in a different way.
Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.

Kansas City VA Voluntary Services 135
4801 Linwood Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64128
Checks payable to the KCVA.
Reference the Francis D. Sommer Memorial Fund on the memo line.


  Fisher House Foundation
111 Rockville Pike, Ste. 420
Rockville, MD 20850
Checks payable to Fisher House Foundation.
Reference the Francis D. Sommer Memorial Fund on the memo line.

Obituary, photos, tributes

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hightower: 'Obama, Inc.'

With Daley and Immelt on board, our president is waltzing with the devil.

By Jim Hightower
(Posted Feb. 7, 2011, at otherwords.org)

When you dance with the devil, never fool yourself into thinking that you're leading.

That would be my 50-cents-worth of advice to President Barack Obama as he remakes his presidency into a Clintonesque corporate enterprise. Following last fall's congressional elections, he immediately began blowing kisses to CEOs and big business lobbyists, and he's now filled his White House dance card with them.

Sierra Club Moves to Intervene in Justice Department Case Against BP

Group Seeks $21 Billion in Civil Penalties,
Restoration of Gulf Coast Communities, Water, Wildlife

NEW ORLEANS- Today, the Sierra Club filed a motion to intervene in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil suit against BP, arising from last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest offshore drilling disaster in American history. The Justice Department suit, filed on December 15, 2010, seeks to recoup costs and damages under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, well in excess of $75 million, and to impose additional fines under the Clean Water Act that could reach $21 billion. The motion was filed in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sierra Club Launches Effort to Expose the Koch Brothers

Billionaire Family Blocks Protection of Air, Water

PALM SPRINGS – In anticipation of a “secret” meeting to be hosted in Palm Springs this weekend by two infamously anti-environmental billionaire brothers, the Sierra Club will launch a social media campaign with its 1.4 million members and supporters to expose the Koch brothers’ planned assault on public health.

Charles and David Koch are billionaire oil tycoons who were featured in a recent New Yorker piece and are funding an enormous effort to roll back clean water and air protections. The brothers are expected to meet with wealthy friends and corporate CEOs in the Southern California desert this weekend to plan their agenda for the coming year – at the top of that list will be new efforts to gut environmental safeguards and clean air and water protections.

The Sierra Club is reaching out to its 1.4 million members and supporters using social media tools including Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about how the Koch brothers' agenda could increase cases of asthma, hinder children’s brain development with toxic mercury and threaten lives nationwide.

“Koch Industries is one of the biggest polluters in America, so it’s not surprising that they’ve spent millions blocking measures to protect our air and water,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “The Kochs have also served as one of the biggest obstacles to our transition to a clean energy economy. You can thank the Koch brothers for standing in the way of new jobs in the wind, solar and efficiency industries. They have a lot of money, and they’re not afraid to spend it to influence politicians, fight public health safeguards and spread misinformation about pollution and climate disruption.”

The Koch brothers own a firm with revenues estimated at $100 billion and they are out to expand their profits at the cost of Americans’ health. A University of Massachusetts study identified Koch Industries as one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. From 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outspent even ExxonMobil in funding efforts against clean energy legislation.

“We can’t allow corporate polluters and oil tycoons to buy our government,” Brune said. “Americans need to know what the Koch brothers are up to, and we need to let our lawmakers know that we won’t allow these two billionaires to undermine environmental and public health safeguards for profit.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sunflower Coal-Fired Power Plant Expansion Faces Legal Challenge

Lawsuit cites failure to meet Clean Air Act standards,
improper permitting process

Topeka, Kan—Today, Earthjustice, representing the Sierra Club of Kansas, filed an appeal to a permit the Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued to Sunflower Electric in December 2010. The permit is for the controversial 895 megawatt coal-fired power plant near Holcomb.

Read the petition filed today, here:

“As the mother of two sons with asthma, I am aware of the correlation between respiratory health and air quality. Nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates and other hazardous pollutants threaten the health of those with respiratory illness, children and the elderly in particular,” said concerned Kansan, Jennifer Byer. “When the debate centers on the quality of the air our children breathe, how clean is clean enough?”

The proposed coal plant was the most intensely contested coal plant in Kansas history, as well as one of the most debated permits KDHE has ever considered. The permit was rushed through and undermined by outside influences, which was well-documented by Kansas media.

“Kansans who expected to receive a fair and objective review of this permit will take the issue to court,” said Stephanie Cole of the Kansas Sierra Club.

The appeal challenges deficiencies in the permit that could expose Kansans to unnecessary levels of harmful air pollutants including mercury, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter. For instance, the permit fails to set appropriate limits on Hazardous Air Pollutants, such as mercury, which are the most harmful to human health – even in small amounts.

“KDHE let Sunflower take shortcuts and ignore available pollution control technology; as a result, this is one of the dirtiest plants that has been permitted in recent years. Public health and pollution controls cannot be brushed aside under federal law, the Clean Air Act is quite clear on this,” said Amanda Goodin, an attorney with Earthjustice.

“When it comes to millions of tons of pollution for a coal plant that is not needed for Kansas, there is no place for mistakes or misconduct,” said Cole. “The weak emissions standards in the permit mean that Kansans will be exposed to unnecessarily high levels of pollutants that we know cause serious health problems.”

Coal Plant is for Colorado,
Other States Planning to Shut Down Coal Plants

The majority of the power from the Holcomb II expansion would serve Colorado, a state that committed last month to retiring 902 megawatts of existing coal capacity. It is highly unlikely a new coal plant would ever get built in Colorado, and by agreeing to do Colorado’s dirty work, Kansas will be using billions of gallons of our water annually to operate the coal plant - despite having fought Colorado for water for over two decades.

While Kansas rushed to permit a new coal plant for Colorado before the year’s end, the rest of the country spent 2010 planning to retire existing coal plants.

· For the second straight year, not a single new coal plant broke ground for construction in 2010.

· A total of 48 existing coal plants were announced for retirement in 2010, which is likely the most coal plant retirements announced in a single year. They will be replaced with cleaner burning fuels, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.

· Colorado, where most of the electricity from the Holcomb II coal plant will go, established a plan to shut down 902 megawatts of existing coal capacity.

· Announced coal plant retirements in 2010 in Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Oregon will result in the retirement of nearly 10% of the entire Western coal fleet.

· The Energy Information Agency now projects that no new coal plants will be built in 2011 without significant incentives.

· The University of North Carolina, University of Illinois, Western Kentucky University, Cornell and University of Louisville all made coal-free commitments. Kansans Agree: Coal Plant Not Needed, Lawsuit is Necessary to Protect Public Health

“Jobs for a few years, pollution forever. As someone who lives near the site of the new coal plant, I am not willing to sacrifice my family’s health and welfare so a Colorado company can build a coal plant in Kansas they are not willing to build in their own backyard,” said Barb Percival, who lives only a few miles from the Holcomb coal plant site.

“Sunflower is so far in debt, I question who is going to pay for this project. If Tri-State wants the electricity, let them build the coal plant in Colorado,” said Lee Messenger of Garden City.

"Claims by project supporters that this will be the ’cleanest coal plant in the nation’ are simply not true. According to 2010 EPA data, there are many other coal plants in the country that have lower sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions than the proposed Holcomb plant. Similarly, particulate matter and mercury emissions from this plant will exceed what many other coal plants are emitting. Under the KDHE permit, the Holcomb unit will not be using state of the art processes that are already in place at dozens of existing coal plants," said Scott Allegrucci of GPACE.

“I worked hard to participate in the process, and I expected KDHE would consider my input. I was disappointed with the outcome. While organizing citizens to attend hearings, I saw firsthand strong opposition to this coal plant,” said Stephen Collins, a University of Missouri- Kansas City student.

Chuck Gillam, chairman of the Advocacy Committee of the theological based Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition, said “The state has sold out the health of Kansans, and those who were interested in protecting public health, like Secretary Bremby, have been quietly eliminated.”

“Former Secretary Bremby’s decision to reject this permit set Kansas apart as a national leader in addressing climate change, said Margaret Tran, a recent Kansas University graduate. “I cannot see how my generation and generations to follow will be encouraged to stay and work in Kansas with a coal plant that does not create long-term jobs but instead, creates unhealthy pollution.”