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Monday, June 30

What's ahead for Pundita blog

Because I haven't put up a post since even before the following conversation, which was days ago, I'm publishing the conversation by way of updating readers.  For the next post I'll scare up links to reports on some topics that were discussed.    
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MICHAEL WRIGHT:  What's happening?

PUNDITA:  Let me see.  Well, everybody's trying to turn everybody else into each other's plantation.  What did I just say? Is that English? 

MW:  I don't know.  I was asking about what's happening with your writing.  You haven't put up anything at your blog for some time. 

P:  I'm finishing up the essay on swarming.

MW:  Is that a running joke?

P:  No. Long story why it's taking me so long to get it out the door, but soon.

MW:  I can see you've been moving away from defense issues and foreign policy. It's just that I can't see where you're headed.

P:  I'm looking at land grabs right now.   
  
MW:  Old story.

P:  This isn't like the old days.  It's now so bad PepsiCo has made it policy that they won't buy produce raised on land that's been grabbed.
 
MW:  That is interesting. 

P:  They did it under pressure from shareholders, but Pepsi is a huge player in global agribusiness.  Someone has to do something because entire countries have been put up for sale.

That might have been a big factor in the recent coup in Thailand and the previous one.  The military and the king are trying to prevent the country from being sold under from under Thais.  They don't want to see Thailand go the way of Cambodia.  It's now a huge problem in Burma as well.

See this is what happens when you open up your country.  First come the rent-seeking crowd, wrapping itself in the flag of democracy. Then the scavengers yapping about capitalism and foreign direct investment.  Then come the human locusts, who don't even bother wearing a mask. 

Now a lot people are wising up to what's behind the masks.  Turns out the yippity-yap is "land grab" spelled backward. 

MW:  So much for the "Pentagon's New Map."

P:  [laughing]  Good call!  What is it?  The Core countries, the Seam countries, and the Non-integrating Gap countries.  It's all turning into the non-integrating gap.

MW:  You know there's a lot of land grabbing going on here in the United States.  The feds are doing big land grabs.

P:  Land grabs are going on all the over world. No country is safe.  But while I don't like to give Obama credit for anything, my question is whether he's designating huge chunks of the U.S. as federal lands in an attempt to prevent land grabs by foreign business concerns.

That might possibly have been in play with the national park he just carved out of a New Mexico border area.  My question is whether they're running out of land in northern Mexico border factory towns. If so there are big problems with setting up more factories deeper in Mexico. So, go north, across the U.S. border, to set up the factories. 

MW:  Wouldn't it be an advantage to the U.S. to industrialize New Mexico?

P:  Depends on who owns those industries and where they think they can get the water from to run the factories.  There's a serious water problem in that state.  Last year the New Mexican AG called the Texans water rustlers -- 

MW:  [laughing]  Water rustlers?  What is this?  Range wars?
 
P:  Oh, things are getting pretty intense, everywhere the drought is.  Texas sued both Oklahoma and New Mexico over river water rights -- Red River in Oklahoma and Rio Grande in New Mexico.  One of those cases went to the Supreme Court; I can't remember which.  I don't know what's happened since; I still have to follow up.

A lot of the mess is over old water agreements that don't apply to current conditions. Same with California.

MW:  They kicked the can down the road.

P:   A lot of cans were kicked, in several states, we're finding out now.  Before it was a purely local issue.  Bottom line is that the last century was wet, so local governments could get away with putting things off.  Now everybody's scared that drought is the new normal, so now they're scrambling.

MW:  If it's the new normal we're screwed. 

P:  I'm not so sure. Desperation is the mother of invention, and all that.

MW:  There wouldn't be enough time. Not before big changes are forced on the American way of life.

P:  My point was that many of these foreigners scooping up land aren't capitalists; they're not even really investors.  They're locusts on two legs. But they've learned the lingo; understand?  They can yap about FDI and sustainable development until you're cross-eyed. Behind the masks they have no interest in investing.  Just squeeze it for a quick profit until it's dry, then move on to other pickings.

Plus, if you think illegal immigrants are a problem now, wait until that entire southwest border region is turned into one big factory plantation owned by Mexico.

MW:  Globalization. Ain't it grand. 

P:  This isn't globalization --

MW:  It's one of the downsides.

P:  I meant that there's nothing inherently wrong with globalized trade, but what's been termed globalization has devolved into a mask for land grabs. 

It's all masks now.  Everything good, every idea that resonates with a great many people, has been co-opted.  Phony democracy revolutions.  Phony ngos -- gongos.  Phony capitalism.  Phony sustainable development. Phony human rights movements.

They've even co-opted nonviolent protests.  The Tea Party movement was co-opted.  Even that silly Occupy movement was quickly co-opted.  And if co-option don't work, there's coercion, and if that don't work, out come the brass knuckles. 

MW:  Halloween all year round. Trick or treat.  The worst part of this would be that the genuine people get lumped in with the phonies.

P:  Sure, sure!  They're killing capitalism, they're killing the genuine ngos.  But what can you do?  At some point you just write them all off.  That's dangerous, it's counterproductive.
   
MW:  I notice you're interested in the weather again.  You were on a weather kick a few years ago, then you seemed to lose interest. 

P:  It was more a convergence kick.  All over the world, for a period of about a year, countries were getting walloped by unusual or unprecedented natural events -- unprecedented since record-keeping had started, at any rate.  It was all different kinds of events. They were happening in perceived sequential fashion, but the events weren't necessarily linked. So I called them convergences when I wrote about them on the blog.

Yet there was a link.  Many of the events created disasters for human populations because of long-standing problems that local and national governments had put off dealing with. It was if the universe was sending a message during that year to all governments:  Wake up, fools. 
  
Right now I'm interested in how people are responding to the weather and the water crises.  Simple solutions were ignored for decades, so now there are gigantic problems.
 
MW:  California's water crisis is a dress rehearsal for what's on the way, if climate change predictions aren't a false alarm.  It always comes down to the basics. Land. Water. Weather.

P:  That too, but I think [Thailand's King] Bhumibol identified the key basic. It comes down to sufficiency. His doctrine has been called "self sufficiency" and that's a part of it. Yet from what I've read here and there about the doctrine, I think the meaning he imputed to the term in the Thai language is much more basic.  It's doing just what's sufficient. Consolidating your gains before you rush ahead into bigger projects.

MW:  It's been called Buddhist economics.

P: That's a misnomer, isn't it?  It goes far beyond economics and it's not an exclusively Buddhist view. It's really a way of thinking grounded in common sense, in making sure you don't get so off balance in your rush to get more that you can't right yourself. 

It's not such a big problem during the salad days to be off balance.  But when events, the weather or anything else, start throwing curve balls, then the margin for error goes to zero if you're way off balance.  It looks as if that's where we are now.  Zero margin for error.  Anyhow, many people around the world are looking at it that way, not only about the USA but also about their own governments.

MW:  Don't bite off more than you can chew.

P:  Right. There's old sayings in every language to convey the same basic wisdom.  But I think it's big news when a king tries to make common sense into a national policy. And now he's right on time.  There's a lot of fear driving land grabs since the financial crash.  People don't trust currencies, they're looking for tangibles, things they hope will appreciate in value. So, buy land dirt cheap in some foreign country, put up tourist resorts on it, then wait for the geologists to show up and find gas or rare earths on your land
.
Since the gold smash last year, many of them don't even trust gold, unless it's gold coins, which weren't affected by the crash in price.

Do you know what villagization is?

MW: Something to do with the Malayan Emergency, right?

P: [laughing]  Now there's a flash from the past!  Come to think of it, it is rooted in POPCOIN [population-centric counterinsurgency tactics]. What did they call it in Vietnam?  Strategic hamlets?
 
Anyway, in its current incarnation the term means the opposite of what it sounds like.  It's not about securing villages, it's about moving people out of their villages to make way for foreign agribusiness.

When last I checked the Saudis are the worst culprits but Indian agribusiness is also a player. And probably more players are piling on from whatever nation has big food security issues.  Everywhere they can set up a plantation in a foreign country they'll looking to bribe government officials to displace the natives so they farm the land.  

African countries are the biggest target right now because several of the governments there are easily bought, and the villagers are completely powerless.

MW:  This isn't actually a land grab, is it, if villagizers are just using the land?

P:  I haven't looked into it that deeply. I'd say probably the governments are keeping hold of the land in most cases.  Anyhow, the agribusiness crowd that's part of this is rationalizing villagization. They claim that they can farm the land better than the villagers. That's true in many cases, but often the villagers are relocated to land that can't be farmed.

MW:  I can understand the Saudis. They wanted Western-style societies in the desert.  Why are the Indians doing this?  There's plenty of good farmland in India, isn't there?  Plenty of rivers? 

P:  Only a third of Indian farmland is irrigated.  The rest depends on the monsoon.  Weak monsoon, big trouble. 

MW:  Why don't they irrigate more?

P:  You'd have to ask an Indian. While you're at it, ask a Californian why they've been pumping so much groundwater to irrigate crops in the Central Valley the land has been sinking. It's been sinking by a foot a year, it turns out.  New study published recently.  I mean, they knew the valley was sinking but not at the rate. 

MW:  When will they hit ocean floor?

P:  I don't know, but this groundwater pumping didn't start with the current drought. Looks like the Central Valley has never been able to sustain that much agriculture without the pumping. Recently I wrote about the subsidence issue for big cities, but they're pumping the groundwater for drinking water.  The Central Valley has been doing it for farming.

I read that one side of a key canal in the valley has been collapsing because of the subsidence; the engineers are limited in making repairs because the land keeps sinking so fast.
    
MW:  They'll have to move a lot of agriculture out of California.

P: That's been happening. Some of it has been moved to Texas and other U.S. states, but look at what happened.  Now Texas has a big water problem. So, increasingly the food growing for Americans is being offshored. That is running the USA smack dab into the kind of situations it encounters with dependence on imported energy.  Right away, you're involved with the natives and their problems.  Pretty soon you're up to your neck in war.

MW:  Food isn't oil.  Imported produce has to be inspected for safety. There aren't enough inspectors as it is now.   
      
P:  I didn't think of that, but that too.  And speaking of cities in the desert, have you seen what's been happening in Las Vegas?  Those people don't know what they'll do if the drought continues.

MW:  What's the meta-message?

P:   Meta-message?  Globalized trade has always had benefits, and it's had big benefits in this era.  It's not a panacea, however, and it generates it's own problems.  Instead of facing the problems, policymakers chant that the solution is more globalized trade, more global rules and regulations.

Against this are King Bhumibol's simple observations about sufficiency. When he first talked about it, this was decades ago, a lot of people scratched their heads.  A U.S. Ambassador in Thailand wrote back to State about it at that time; said it was vague, that it didn't make much sense, or words to that effect. Today I think many people who know about the doctrine are seeing the sense.

Meanwhile, many people are asking how to save the globe.  Not to put words in Bhumibol's mouth, but he'd probably say to stop thinking globally and instead think and act locally.  Although he might also say not to go overboard in that direction, either.  Some of these anti-globalists want every country to go back to prehistory. That's not the way.  Balanced approach is what you want to shoot for. 
  
Yet it's just common sense that if everyone focuses more on doing just what's sufficient to save their own neighborhood, their own region, their own country, this will add up to better solutions for everyone, the world over. 

MW:  That would be a big reversal of the argument that to save the world you have to think and act globally.

P:  What do you do when you realize you're arguing with the wall?  A crumbling wall, for that matter?

MW:  You think the new era is here?

P:  Yes, it's just not on television yet.

MW:  Between now and the time it gets on the nightly news there's going to be a lot mess.  Governments are very resistant to change. 

P:  The land grabs, the endless small wars, the insistence on a draconian global regulatory regime -- all that mess and more is on the way. It's always a big mess at the end of the era.  But I've left off squabbling with a wall.

I see the challenge as learning about action paths being developed in the new era. These paths are being worked out all over the world as well as here. Yet while many people can see the old era is ending, but not all of them can see how to build paths in the new era. Yet it's like anything else. Once we learn an action path, a path we can reasonably implement, we stop wasting our breath with arguments that go nowhere and start doing this differently.

MW:  Are you going to be talking about these new paths on your blog?

P:  Uh, there must be many websites doing that; it's just that I haven't made the time to go looking for them. I plan to do that later in the year. 

But the Wealth Account I proposed is one idea for an action path, although no one has implemented it yet, to my knowledge.  You need to get the thinking behind it to appreciate the idea.  Also my reference in the "Devil and Departmentalization" series to Paul Glover's recommendations. A number of those paths have been implemented.  And years ago on the blog I talked about localism, which is itself a path for the new era.
 
I have some old essays to finish up, and right now I want to talk more about the water crisis.  After that, I think I'll transit to writing about the way things are shaking out in the new era.
 
MW:  Then if I asked what you thought about [Obama] sending advisors to Iraq?
   
P:  Did you read my essay about the new kind of silvopasturing?  Stack the forage instead of spreading it out, and pack the stacks with a weed-like plant that's protein rich.  The farmers using this approach get double the milk output from the cows on half the land, against the old way. Brilliant. Can you imagine how much water that approach could save California dairy farms?

The high protein forage also makes less cow poop because the cows don't have to eat so much to be well fed.  So that's less methane or whatever gas going into the air, for those worried about cow poop contributing to global warming.  And the cows love the stacking idea. They get it right away:  eat down, not across. Now what were you asking me about? 
    
MW:  The new era must really be here, if I can't get a rise out of you about Iraq.

P:  Michael, a vast nation, a military hyperpower, that can't even feed itself from within its own borders is in serious trouble. So in my view stacked silvopasturing is a defense issue.

I'm not asking anymore for Washington to change. I've taken the view that the Congress and White House are working from a playbook they can't change.  I think it's the same with the political parties.  I'm now looking at a different playbook.  We're all Americans, so we'll all meet on the road again someday. But for me there's no going back, not since I've glimpsed the new era.  You asked where I'm headed. I guess it's there. 
   
MW:  More sufficiency and less bull shit.

P:  [laughing]  Yeah, something like that.

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Thursday, June 12

On the perils of getting obsessive about a particular solution, plus a brief return to Appalachian mountaintop removal

In my June 3 post on strip mining for coal in Appalachia by removing mountaintops, I neglected to add a link to a news report that underscored one of the factors I cited as stymieing attempts to stop mountaintop removal. I've now decided to republish the entire news report (below) because I've noted that its implications are much broader than the mountaintop issue. 

In one situation after another over the decades, environmental protection organizations have tended to get boxed into a specific approach to fighting an environmental issue.  That's understandable when it comes to deciding where to put donation money to fight on a specific issue, and of course every approach is limited by the scientific studies of a particular era.

But as soon as a political agenda (and tax money) gets mixed up with a particular proposed solution, and this happens a lot, people get wedded to specific data sets, to the extent that they ignore other ones.  Nowhere is this problem more evident than in government-backed attempts to deal with global warming. State governments and the federal government got fixated on transportation and energy issues.  So we got ethanol, solar panels, carbon taxes and draconian legislation to limit car emissions.

Meanwhile, desertification fell through the cracks.  Also, flood management, subsidence management, drought management, water conservation -- through the cracks.  So now we're staring down the barrel of disaster in this country because of all those greatly neglected issues.  On the water conservation issue alone, on May 23, 24/7 Wall Street reported that seven (7) U.S. states were running out of water, and that at the current rate of water usage California was on track to run out of water within two (2) years.

I think I'm going to expand in later posts on the theme of obsessive behavior as it applies to government-backed solutions that depend on scientific data, but to return to the mountaintop removal issue here's the place in the June 3 post where I neglected to add a link. I wrote:
The Sierra Club in particular along with other big political actors on environmental issues had long ago taken up the cause against mountaintop removal. But they'd focused on one issue, which is the toxic effect on water sources from mountaintop removal.  This allowed opponents in the coal industry to round up their own scientific experts to contest the environmentalist-funded studies on the water contamination issue.

And so the two sides have gone round and round for decades, as the humanitarian crisis in Appalachia has gotten worse and worse, and the many other negative impacts of mountaintop removal have received little scientific study.
 Here is the news report I meant to link to in that passage, and which discusses the Sierra Club's latest setback in the fight to stop mountaintop removal:

Court lets DEP use lower standard on pollution reviews 
By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer
West Virginia Gazette
May 30, 2014

The state Supreme Court on Friday upheld a decision that allowed the Department of Environmental Protection to avoid tougher permit reviews and tighter water pollution limits for mountaintop removal mining operations.

Justices concluded that Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky was right to throw out a previous decision by the state Environmental Quality Board in a case brought by the Sierra Club over an Arch Coal permit for a mountaintop removal operation in Monongalia County.

In an 11-page decision, the justices said they were “not persuaded” that there is “adequate agreement in the scientific community” to trigger the DEP to conduct a more detailed analysis of potential water quality problems involving sulfate, conductivity or total dissolved solid pollution related to the proposed mining.

Justices also criticized what they called the “arbitrary nature” of the board’s order, saying board members “offered no discussion” about the relationship between that kind of analysis and potential compliance with the state’s water quality standards.

The court ruled through an unsigned decision that was agreed to by Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis and Justices Menis E. Ketchum and Allen H. Loughry II. Justices Brent Benjamin and Margaret Workman dissented.

At issue in the case was the DEP’s approval of a water pollution permit for Arch Coal subsidiary Patriot Mining Co.’s new Hill West Mine along Scotts Run near Cassville.

Sierra Club lawyers argued the DEP wrongly did not perform a “reasonable potential analysis” of the mine’s possible sulfate, total dissolved solids (or TDS), and conductivity pollution. They argued that such studies would have forced the DEP to include additional water pollution limits in the permit.

The environmental board had ruled in 2012 that a growing body of science demonstrated that discharges from surface coal mines in Appalachian are strongly correlated with and cause increased levels of conductivity, sulfate and TDS in water bodies downstream from mines.

“The science also demonstrates that these discharges cause harm to aquatic life and significant adverse impacts to aquatic ecosystems in these streams,” the board said.

Board members said that DEP “overlooked or discounted information that, had it been considered, would have compelled” the agency to include additional pollution limits to prevent violations of the state’s water quality standards. Board members ruled that evidence of water quality damage from existing mining in the state’s coalfields was “un-refuted” by witnesses from the DEP or the mining company.

But in his decision last year, Stucky ruled that the board was wrong not to defer to the DEP’s conclusions about the science, the mine’s potential impacts, and whether the permit should be issued. “After a thorough review of the record, it is evident that the EQB accorded no deference to WVDEP’s interpretation of water-quality standards,” the judge wrote.

The Supreme Court steered clear of that issue, saying that justices disagreed that the case “involves a question of deference to the WVDEP’s authority.” The court said there was “no evidence” that at the time the permit was approved the DEP had developed relevant formal policies to which the EQB could have deferred.

“Rather, this issue appears to be a question of whether the EQB had a sufficient basis for remanding the permit to the WVDEP with the requirement that the WVDEP conduct reasonable potential analyses and set effluent limitations for sulfate, conductivity, and TDS to meet state narrative water quality standards,” the court said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.
[END REPORT]

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Breakthrough: "For First Time, Appeals Court Rules Warrant Is Required For Cell Phone Location Tracking"

The Snowden Effect continues to unfold.  So, to that editorialist at Christian Science Monitor who despaired that after a year of revelations about suspicionless surveillance very little had changed -- take heart.  Remember that it's a slow and painstaking process for civil rights attorneys and judges to sort through the huge number of legal implications revealed by the NSA files.
    
Much of the mess was created by legislators and courts failing to grapple with the modern era of communications -- and also civil rights attorneys who were still back in the 1970s in their thinking.  Attorneys for NSA knew this, so they were able to 'get over,' as we say in the USA.  Now a great many legal minds are catching up.

From an American Civil Liberties Union press release dated June 11, 2014:
MIAMI – For the first time, a federal appeals court has ruled that law enforcement must obtain a warrant to get people’s phone location histories from their cell service companies.

“The court’s opinion is a resounding defense of the Fourth Amendment’s continuing vitality in the digital age,” said American Civil Liberties Union Staff Attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, who argued the case before the 11th Circuit Appeals Court as a friend-of-the-court in April.

“This opinion puts police on notice that when they want to enlist people’s cell phones as tracking devices, they must get a warrant from a judge based on probable cause. The court soundly repudiates the government’s argument that by merely using a cell phone, people somehow surrender their privacy rights.”

In the case, the government obtained four people's cell phone location records from their wireless carrier over a 67-day period for a robbery investigation. To get the information, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami got what is known as a “D-order” from a federal magistrate judge, named for the applicable section of the federal Stored Communications Act.

However, the standard for getting a D-order is that it be “relevant and material” to an investigation, which is lower than the probable cause standard required by the Fourth Amendment. Although getting D-orders for location information has been a common law enforcement practice, the appeals court rejected it.

“There is a reasonable privacy interest in being near the home of a lover, or a dispensary of medication, or a place of worship, or a house of ill repute,” the three-judge panel wrote in a unanimous opinion.

“In short, we hold that cell site location information is within the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The obtaining of that data without a warrant is a Fourth Amendment violation.”
[...]
The ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, Center for Democracy & Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief in the case, U.S. v. Davis. A similar case, U.S. v. Graham, is currently awaiting decision in the Fourth Circuit, and the groups have filed an amicus brief in that case as well.
See the rest of the report for details on U.S. v. Davis and the ramifications of the court's decision.

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Wednesday, June 11

Distrust and the Darth Vader Syndrome

In my estimation a great challenge in this era is the widespread supplanting of in-person communications with ones made on the internet.  How we perceive a person is a gestalt of many things about the person -- perceptions that engage all our senses; it's also our perceptions based on a continuum of in-person interactions with the individual.  Only a tiny fraction of the gestalt is available to us through internet communication -- even with the use of Skype -- and the continuum of in-person relationships is often entirely absent in internet communications.
  
It's our experience with both the continuum and the gestalt that becomes a large storehouse of wisdom as we mature.  An older person can often 'read' a situation involving others, even strangers, by falling back on his accumulated wisdom from countless in-person interactions.  In this way petty misunderstandings are resolved before they snowball into serious ones, errors are spotted before they're replicated in transmission, and tragedies are averted. 

But the ability to read others is a learned skill that requires practice to maintain and increase. As with all skills, use it or lose it.  So while the era of distance communications has given humanity great power in many respects, our increasing reliance on the internet for communications is threatening to turn humans into psychological versions of Darth Vader, who when shorn of his powerful mechanical shell is a cripple.

Yet cyber prophets -- those who are nvolved in the digital revolution or in studying it and see in it humanity's salvation -- are not focused on the danger of increased reliance on distance communications.  They are focused on the benefits of the hyperconnectivity that the internet makes possible between millions of humans.  Cyber prophets see in this hyperconnectivity not only the emergence of a totally new, digitally networked social order but also envision it as spawning what's been termed emergent democracy and adhocracy.

These two closely related concepts refer to a nonrepresentative democratic government that does not depend on hierarchies of responsibility and authority and bureaucratic administration or on a political or legislative process.

So this type of government leapfrogs even direct democracy because it obviates the need for voting.  Instead, emergence democracy arises from the convergence of large numbers of internet-connected minds on the discrete problems that traditional government routinely deals with, and in ad-hoc cooperative effort dispatches the problems as they arise.

See the writings of VRML developer Mark Pesce and Peer-to-Peer (P2P) advocate Michel Bauwens, both of whom I've mentioned in an earlier post, for an introduction to ideas about nonrepresentational democracy that have gained coin during the past decade.

(I've found the link to remarks made by Pesce that I quoted in the earlier post, and which had been deleted from Pesce's Wikipedia article.  He made the remarks in a May 2011 lecture that was posted to YouTube.  Here's the YouTube link. See also his December 2010 op-ed The state, the press and a hyperdemocracy.  See Bauwens's P2P Foundation website for writings by other authors on the P2P theme and other experiments in nonrepresentational democracy.)
   
But again, all these ideas revolve around the internet and depend largely for their execution on internet exchanges.  These exchanges can't be considered relationships and so they can be broken as readily as they're formed.  I don't know whether this situation has a direct bearing on the trust deficit in the United States, which I assume is mirrored in many other countries today, but it can't be a help in overcoming the great distrust that characterizes social interactions in present day America.  A November 30, 2013, report from the Associated Press, wryly titled Believe it: Trust is on the way out, analyzed startling poll results on the trust issue and took a stab at understanding why trust has plummeted in the USA:
You can take our word for it. Americans don't trust each other anymore.

We're not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy — trust in the other fellow — has been quietly draining away.

These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.

Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say "you can't be too careful" in dealing with people. An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards or people they meet when traveling.

"I'm leery of everybody," said Bart Murawski, 27, of Albany. "Caution is always a factor."

Does it matter that Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists.

What's known as "social trust" brings good things:  a society where it's easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth.

Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts and building gated communities.
[...]
There's no single explanation for Americans' loss of trust.

The best-known analysis comes from Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam's nearly two decades of studying the United States' declining 'social capital,' including trust.

Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings make people less trustful than the "long civic generation" that came of age during the Depression and World War II.

University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner, who studies politics and trust, puts the blame elsewhere: economic inequality.

Trust has declined as the gap between the nation's rich and poor gapes ever wider, Uslaner says, and more and more Americans feel shut out. They've lost their sense of a shared fate.
[...]
 See the rest of the report for some specifics taken from the poll.

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Tuesday, June 3

When Mexican drug cartels destroy forests in Central America, it's contributing to global warming and forcing locals off their land; when U.S. coal mining companies do the same in Appalachia, it's cost effective

Mountaintop removal for strip-mining seams of coal has precipitated a full-scale humanitarian crisis in Appalachia. But one of the downsides of the technology is that it razes or otherwise destroys vast tracts of forest, both on the mountains and in the surrounds.

The coal companies always promise to put it all back together again after they've finished digging out the coal seams, but it doesn't work out that way. This on account of it's not possible to make a mountaintop look like it did before it's blown up and just as impossible to order up a mature forest from a tree nursery.

As to how many mountaintops we're talking about --oh, somewhere between 500-600 or so; I don't have the exact count as it stands today.  It's a lot of mountaintops. And a lot of destroyed forest.
  
If you're new to the topic of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, a good orientation is John Batchelor's interview last year with Jeff Biggers. Here's the link to the podcast of the interview.  Jeff discussed his book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, which recounts how Jeff's historically important 200-year old community in Southern Illinois was destroyed to make way for big coal's foray into mountaintop removal.
 
It's not only that one community; entire regions in Appalachia have been turned into ghost towns by the practice of blowing up mountaintops for coal strip mining. But Jeff's story puts a human face on the horrors that mountaintop removal have visited on the peoples of the Appalachian Mountains.

Oddly enough the issue of deforestation in the region has never gotten much attention from the Climate Change crowd.  Yet earlier this year, climate scientists and environmentalists the world over nearly had an aneurysm when the journal Science published data showing that various Mexican drug cartels, on the lam from the Mexican government's War on Drugs (aided by the U.S. government) had transferred their operations to Central American forests. This included using the slash and burn method of forest clearing to build roads and airport runways for transporting illicit drugs, and terrorizing or murdering the locals who protested the deforestation.

The result?  Poof!  Vast tracks of irreplaceable forest up in smoke.

But from all the uproar about the news one would think that some climate scientist would have said, 'Say, haven't they been doing the same thing in Appalachia, only with legal mumbo jumbo instead of AK-47s?'

Why yes, as a matter of fact they have, and with the full complicity of the U.S. government. And they've been doing it, on and off, for about 40 years.  Now, however, the long-term negative effects of mountaintop removal, which include the effects of highly toxic particles on human health, are becoming strikingly evident.  So now scientists are scrambling.  From the May 14 issue of the West Virginia Gazette -- the state of West Virginia being on the front lines of America's Coal War:
Study outlines overlooked impacts of mountaintop removal
By Ken Ward Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mountaintop removal is having frequently overlooked impacts on forests, biodiversity, climate and public health, and an updated federal review is needed to more fully examine those issues, according to a new study by government and university scientists.

The study warns that mountaintop removal is not only causing significant changes in the Appalachian topography, but also could be worsening the impacts of global warming.

Authors of the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, say that legal and regulatory focus on water quality impacts has led to less research on how mountaintop removal affects forests, soils, biodiversity and the mountains themselves.

"Evaluation of terrestrial impacts is needed to complement the growing literature on aquatic impacts in order for an environmental assessment of the practice to be comprehensive," states the paper, written by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, Rider University and West Virginia University.

The new study emerges this month, just as preliminary results are being released from a $15 million industry-funded research project started in part to examine mining company complaints about the EPA's crackdown on mountaintop removal permits and previous studies that outlined environmental and public health damage from the practice.

The EPA has sought to toughen permit reviews under the Clean Water Act to force the industry to reduce water-quality impacts, especially from the common practice of burying streams beneath huge rock and earth "valley fills."

The new government-funded study, though, outlines new concerns. For example, it says mining has created 640 distinct areas of mountaintop removal and 285 distinct valley-fill areas where mountains have been lowered by an average of more than 110 feet and valleys raised by an average of nearly 175 feet. In those areas, slope steepness has been reduced by about 10 percent, the study said.

"Topographic changes and land-cover changes associated with mountaintop mining have the potential to produce changes in climate at local to regional scales," the study states. "Modeling is needed to determine if the now extensive development of mountaintop mining is leading to such changes."

The study also notes that mountaintop removal often converts mature forests, which store carbon dioxide, to reclaimed sites that do not sequester as much of the climate-warming gas. In addition, the mining process itself and the burning of coal are sources of global warming pollution, the study says. It recommends studying these changes through a carbon-accounting process from pre-mining to between 50 and 75 years after mining is complete.

Also, the study says that mountaintop removal is causing damaging fragmentation of forests, changing the region's distribution of forest communities, raptors and songbirds, and "appears to have a negative impact on human health."

The study says a new Environmental Impact Statement -- meant to update one finalized in 2005 -- would help scientists and government agencies more fully understand all of these issues. The EPA has not announced plans for any such project.
[...]
The negative impacts of mountaintop removal are already so well known in general that it's reasonable to ask why this kind of strip mining continues.  Firstly, it's just amazing what can be done with something called "regulatory capture" and phalanxes of attorneys, especially when the target population is poor and unable to take on the combination of big government, big coal companies, and high-priced legal teams.
 
But there are additional factors in play; one is tragically ironic: The Sierra Club in particular along with other big political actors on environmental issues had long ago taken up the cause against mountaintop removal. But they'd focused on one issue, which is the toxic effect on water sources from mountaintop removal.  This allowed opponents in the coal industry to round up their own scientific experts to contest the environmentalist-funded studies on the water contamination issue.

And so the two sides have gone round and round for decades, as the humanitarian crisis in Appalachia has gotten worse and worse, and the many other negative impacts of mountaintop removal have received little scientific study.

Another factor is that mountaintop removal is just one part of the very complicated story of coal mining in the USA. The larger story includes the employment that coal mining has traditionally provided for residents of Appalachia, and the struggles of coal companies to profit in the face of always escalating labor union demands and environmental regulations connected with coal mining and coal burning.
 
The bottom line for mountaintop removal: Despite the fact that this kind of strip mining makes up only a small fraction of American coal mining, it is a cost-effective way to mine because it's not labor intensive. And, another irony: the strip mining is nowhere near as dangerous for miners as deep earth mining -- at least, not in the short run.

But now that global warming scientists are recalculating their math based on the latest satellite data, maybe Appalachia's environmental problems, at least, will finally garner more attention.  That would be cold comfort for the victims of mountaintop removal, but it's better than nothing.  Yet their plight, and the entire mountaintop removal issue, risks being overrun by the Environmental Protection Agency's scorched earth approach, if you'll pardon the expression, to limiting CO2 emissions in the USA. From a USA TODAY report datelined June 2:
Taking a historic step to fight climate change, the Obama administration proposed a plan Monday that aims to slash carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants 30% by 2030 and could accelerate the nation's shift away from coal.

The Environmental Protection Agency plan, which is President Obama's largest climate effort so far, could help the United States prod other countries like China to pledge similar emissions cuts as part of a new international treaty that's slate for negotiation next year in Paris.

The controversial 645-page plan, expected to trigger legal challenges, sets different reduction targets for each state and gives them flexibility in how to achieve them. Yet it aims for a 30% national reduction of heat-trapping CO² emissions, from 2005 levels, by 2030 -- an amount that the EPA says is equal to annual emissions from powering more than half of U.S. homes. 
[...]
Just on the rumor of the plan, tremendous resistance to it was mustered by the coal industry, and now that the plan has been published a new phase of the Coal War is underway; this, despite the fact that Obama has said he'll veto any legislative effort to block or water down the EPA plan.
  
Irony piled on irony: West Virginia legislators have leaped to defend the coal industry against the EPA plan because of the large number of jobs that coal mining sustains in the state.  See this report from a lobbying organization for details.

So while the CO2 emissions issue does have some connection to the mountaintop removal one, controversy about the EPA's plan threatens to obscure it. 

Meanwhile, over in Central America: from Matt McGrath's January 30, 2014 report for BBC about the Science journal study:
[...]Drugs have been smuggled through Central America for decades, with marijuana and cocaine from countries like Colombia heading for lucrative markets in major US cities. But according to the researchers [who contributed to the Science study], the importance of the area as a route for trafficking has increased significantly over the past seven years after a crackdown on the narcotics trade in Mexico. This prompted drug traders to move their operations into more remote areas in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

The move has seen a rapid increase in the amount of land cleared from forest. In Honduras, the level of large-scale deforestation per year more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, at the same time as cocaine movements in the country also showed a significant rise.

"A baseline deforestation rate in this region was 20 sq km per year," said lead author Dr Kendra McSweeney from Ohio State University. "Under the narco effect, we see over 60 sq km per year. In some parts of Guatemala, the rates are even higher. We're talking up to 10% deforestation rates, which is just staggering."
[...]
And there's a snowballing aspect to narco deforestation, as you'll see if you read the entire report. Others -- ranchers, farmers -- who'd wanted to cut down vast swaths of forest but were prevented from doing so by laws have encouraged the Mexican drug cartels to do their work for them.  The result, as Kendra McSweeney notes, is staggering.

But it's the old story of dealing with your own neck of the woods. There is next to nothing that citizens of the USA can do to halt narco deforestation in Central America. There is plenty they can do to stop mining deforestation in Appalachia.

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