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Rachel's #972: Hidden Importance of Commerce Clause

From: Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD) [This story printer-friendly]
August 5, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: Why would the Supreme Court throw out state laws requiring oleomargarine to be colored pink? Why would state legislators pass such seemingly silly laws to begin with?]

By Jane Anne Morris

[This article is adapted from Gaveling Down the Rabble: How "Free Trade" Is Stealing Our Democracy, Apex Press (POCLAD Books), 2008.]

What's pink, French, and unconstitutional?

Hint: The story of this early "frankenfood" provides an advance script for the current global "free trade" frenzy. Over a century ago, its introduction was an occasion for greasing the skids toward establishing a U.S. "free trade" zone, one that is as devastating to local democracy as the WTO and NAFTA are to national sovereignty.

Why would the Supreme Court throw out state laws requiring oleomargarine to be colored pink? Why would state legislators pass such seemingly silly laws to begin with?

Why are provisions that protect citizens against fraud, safeguard their health, and protect local industry unconstitutional in the eyes of the Supreme Court? A recent example applies to corporate agriculture. A South Dakota constitutional amendment -- passed by 59% in 1998 -- prohibited most corporate ownership of land used for agriculture. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively threw it out. Nebraska's even stronger anti-corporate agriculture constitutional amendment, first passed in 1982, was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 by a lower federal court -- citing the South Dakota case.[1] Why do such measures garner the dreaded unconstitutional label?

Probably for the same reason that has stood for over a century: they interfere with the care and feeding of large corporations. They challenge the Supreme Court's policy, evident since at least the 1870s, of nurturing and protecting corporations against the very states that created them. After corporate lawyers do the research and outline possible arguments, the Court has only to cut-and-paste a decision.

The myth that the Supreme Court began its turn toward "business interests" only since the early Nader years (as claimed by Jeffrey Rosen in the recent "Supreme Court, Inc." in the March 16, 2008 New York Times Magazine) ignores the long history that fills the pages of Gaveling Down the Rabble.

Commerce Clause to the Rescue

But even the Supreme Court needs to point to something in the Constitution that justifies its consistent pro-corporate decisions. The handy constitutional clause that has become a favorite is the domestic version of international "trade barrier" language: the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"The Congress shall have power... to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." [Article I, section 8, clause 3]

The late-nineteenth century Pink Oleo saga provides a perfect example for a quickie workshop on how the Supreme Court uses "free trade" to get rid of good state laws.

After the mid-nineteenth century, more than one inventor around the world sought to turn slaughterhouse offal into something that people could be convinced to eat. If it had a long shelf life and was cheap to make, all the better. The successful solution came from Frenchman Hippolyte Mege-Mouries, who obtained a U.S. patent for oleomargarine in 1873. Its commercial potential was quickly appreciated, as Mark Twain captured in a chapter of Life On the Mississippi written in 1883. The gleeful conversation takes place between two businessmen on a riverboat.

"You can't tell it from butter; by George, even an expert can't!... We're going to have that entire trade... You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you can't find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with... we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it... There's more money in oleomargarine than -- why, you can't imagine the business we do." [Emphasis in original.]

Oleomargarine's introduction into a nation long accustomed to the joys of udder butter churned up controversy. The "Oleo Wars" that ensued pitted state legislators against the growing power of meatpacking corporations. Corporate efforts to put oleomargarine in the nation's pantries tell the archetypal story; at issue was whether state and local governments would determine their own laws, or have terms dictated to them by distant corporations.

The original oleomargarine was made not from vegetable oils (as it is today) but from slaughterhouse by products subjected to industrial processes in a factory. Mere inspection of a firkin of manufactured oleomargarine could not determine whether it had been made from inferior, doctored, or even dangerous ingredients. To add insult to possible injury, sometimes this easily adulterated industrial food product was fraudulently sold as real dairy butter. In addition, many feared that competition from oleomargarine would threaten the growing dairy industry. Health, consumer protection, and economic concerns were closely intertwined.

In response to citizen concerns, state legislatures started passing laws against oleomargarine. At the time, protectionist measures of this ilk were nothing out of the ordinary. In 1884, the New York state legislature prohibited the sale or manufacture of oleomargarine. In 1885, Pennsylvania followed suit. These and other overtly protectionist acts reflected the people's will to use their imperfect representative democracies to keep out a product they feared would endanger them.

Manufacturers and purveyors of oleomargarine as a cheap butter substitute (and source of profits) were not pleased at this legislative attention. A variety of laws and a matching variety of corporate challenges evolved into a cat-and-mouse game between legislature and court ostensibly over artificial butter. Pennsylvania's outright ban on oleomargarine was an early target.

On the same day that the 1885 Pennsylvania law was passed, a Harrisburg grocer (Powell) was arrested for selling oleomargarine. Lawyers representing corporations that manufactured and sold oleomargarine argued on his behalf that their product was clean, pure, and yummy, and that the right to make and sell it was covered by the Constitution. On the other side, defenders of the Pennsylvania ban argued that its intent to protect health and prevent fraud made it a legitimate exercise of a state's "police power," the legal term for the power to pass whatever laws are necessary and appropriate to protect its citizens.

State Courts Upheld Rights of Legislatures to Protect People

A Pennsylvania court found the ban to be well within legislative powers. In 1888, the U.S. Supreme Court also upheld it, strongly endorsing a state's police power. The Court affirmed that protecting and preserving public health and morals was one of the main tasks of legislation, and that public policy should be determined not by courts but by legislatures. If some were dissatisfied with the legislative outcome, then appeal should be "to the legislature, or to the ballot- box, not to the judiciary."[2]

But "Big Oleomargarine" tried again a few years later. In 1893, a Pennsylvania resident (Schollenberger) and registered agent for a Rhode Island oleomargarine-manufacturing corporation sold a tub of oleomargarine in Pennsylvania. After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court again upheld the state's ban, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, states were also trying out a more colorful approach.

State legislatures that wanted to keep oleomargarine out of their states -- and there were many of them -- did not give up when their oleo bans were threatened by commerce clause arguments. Instead, they started to see pink as a way to regulate oleomargarine.

In 1890, the Vermont legislature prohibited the manufacture of oleomargarine in that state, and specified that it could be sold in Vermont only if colored pink. In 1891 Minnesota, West Virginia, and New Hampshire passed similar laws. Not long afterwards, an alert Minnesota oleomargarine S.W.A.T. team carried out a pantry raid and confiscated a quantity of not-pink oleomargarine that had been imported from Missouri by Armour Packing Co., a New Jersey corporation. A federal court upheld Minnesota's pink law as an appropriate use of the state's police power. Things were looking good for the "pink is beautiful" movement.

But it was not to last. Corporate lawyers challenged the "pink oleo" laws just as they had challenged the oleomargarine bans. Both the Minnesota Pink Law and the Pennsylvania Oleo Ban reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898.

Because only ten years earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld an oleo ban as a legitimate use of a state's police power, defenders of the Pennsylvania law reiterated tried-and-true arguments about protecting and preserving public health. Little did they know that a new argument would be offered and the Supreme Court would go for it. This time, "Big Oleo" trumped arguments about state police power and public health and welfare by playing the commerce card. The oleomargarine corporation lawyers argued that the Pennsylvania oleomargarine ban was what today the WTO tribunals would call an illegal trade barrier. The U.S. Supreme Court was persuaded, and, basing its decision on the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause, the late nineteenth century analog of what today is touted as "free trade," ruled the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional.

Sidebar: Why Don't We Hear More About the Commerce Clause?

At state and local levels, the body politic's democratic impulses have been tightly constrained by commerce clause rivets, so that these days, we rarely hear of the commerce clause or "trade barrier" language. Two reasons explain this low profile.

First, the work has been done, the lessons learned, the precedents established. Between 1910 and 1919, for instance, the Supreme Court struck down 83 state laws under commerce. Since 1990, the number is only 13. Legislators got the message. In time, there were fewer cases heard or appealed, and fewer appeals accepted by the Supreme Court. This is the justices' way of indicating, "Been there, done that;" the domestic "free trade" zone is a fait accompli, rarely discussed, and disputed only around the edges.

Second, the grab bag of pro-corporate doctrines available to the Supreme Court is bulging with possibilities. For example, Massachusetts' selective procurement law, the so-called "Burma Law," was thrown out in lower federal courts partly on commerce arguments, but the Supreme Court chose other grounds to nix the law.

Recent mention of the commerce clause in the mainstream media has involved state laws on medical marijuana and interstate wine sales, and the fact that much federal environmental law is justified by a "nexus" link to interstate commerce. (See Gaveling's Chapter Five.)

1. Morris counts, plus statistics from Bernard Gavit's 1932 book, The Commerce Clause.

2. Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 303 (2000); NFTC v. Natsios, 181 F. 3d 38 (1st Cir., 1999); NFTC v. Baker, 26 F. Supp. 2d 287 (D. Mass., 1998).

The Supreme Court's reasoning had two steps. First, it determined that oleo was included in the "interstate commerce" category. Inclusion in this category had consequences, which were the second step. An item of interstate commerce might be regulated by a state, but could not be prohibited, said the Supreme Court. "Absolute prohibition of an unadulterated, healthy, and pure article" goes beyond the allowable use of the state police power. A state cannot prohibit the import from another state of a "lawful article of commerce," because that amounts to regulating interstate commerce, which is a power of the U.S. Congress.[3]

The decision took a big bite out of a state's police power. The ban that had been okay in 1888 was unconstitutional by 1898. Now, a state would have difficulty banning the import of anything that the Supreme Court could be persuaded was an article of commerce (and by the late twentieth century, this included toxic waste, air pollution, and nuclear waste, among many other things).

Pink wouldn't work either: again the high court sided with the corporations against the states. States' pink oleo laws were unconstitutional because the pinkness requirement was as much a burden on commerce as a ban. The reasoning was that if a state lacked the power to prohibit the import of something (in this case, oleomargarine), then it also lacked the power to require that the imported item be adulterated in such a way that it would be unsalable. As for example, by requiring that oleomargarine be pink... or blue or red or black (other colors mentioned by the Supreme Court)... or impregnated with an "offensive smell."[4]

In ruling against blue or stinky oleomargarine laws, the Supreme Court took another bite out of an already dwindling state police power. Legislatures, responding to a new situation (in this case, the appearance of a new product) acted to protect citizens against inferior products, fraud, and economic disruption. In this, they were supported by farmers and dairy corporations. So far, it sounds democratic enough, a routine use of the police power.

But then lawyers working on behalf of corporations hoping to profit from this new product challenged the states' power to take such action.[5] These challenges, being constitutional in nature, brought the matter before federal courts and ultimately to the Supreme Court. In evaluating the issue and explaining their decision, the justices had exactly the kinds of discussions that must have previously occurred in state legislatures, and prior to that, on street corners and in hayfields scattered throughout the states.

They discussed the invention, composition, and manufacture of oleomargarine; methods of determining its purity; testimony from an analytical chemist; the fact that it was used by armies and navies throughout Europe; and what size and type of container it might be packaged in. The justices then gave their opinion that oleomargarine was obviously safe and widely recognized as a food item, and that butter and oleomargarine were "substantially identical." In short, they had the kind of discussion that we might want a legislature to have. But they are not legislators.

"Free Trade" Constitutionalized in Commerce Clause

Using the commerce clause, the "free trade" mantra of the time, they decided that states could not ban the manufacture, import, and sale of a substance that obviously many states wanted to ban. In other words, Supreme Court justices legislated their own opinions by declaring unconstitutional those laws they disagreed with. The Supreme Court acted as a legislature. If we step back from the Supreme Court's musings on oleomargarine chemistry and pink dye as a burden on commerce, we can see the oleomargarine rulings for what they were: direct assaults on people's power to govern themselves and shape their communities.

The language of commerce (or trade), shrouded in the gravitas of constitutionality, is a ruse to disguise a corporate elite's efforts to escape government actions taken to protect the public welfare. It has long been understood that corporate interests use the judicial lever to undo legislative deeds.

"The old fights of state against nation were largely smoke screens to hide an attempt by some private interest to invoke the aid of the Court in combating public regulation. In large measure, this is the case today." [This was written in 1943.] [6]

The underlying issue is not whether butter is better, or whether pink margarine is repulsive, or even whether food policy (or economic policy) should be a local, state, or national matter. The issue is who should decide public policy: the people acting through a legislature, or a handful of judges.

Courts provided a more favorable forum than did legislatures for a "rematch" between corporations and states. Commerce clause rulings exempted corporations from the concrete exercise of state and local power, while delivering them into the kinder and gentler hands of the federal judiciary. In Gaveling Down the Rabble, I show how Supreme Court Justices since the 1870s used trade barrier language based on the Constitution's commerce clause to promote the corporate agenda by invalidating state and local laws that threatened corporate power.

Sidebar: What the Supreme Court thinks is "unconstitutional" under the commerce clause "trade barrier" doctrine? A sampling includes:

** laws discouraging "chain stores" from wrecking local economies

** laws requiring food labels to include information about ingredients, place of origin or organic standards,

** laws banning import of goods made with child labor, or under other repressive labor conditions,

** laws favoring state residents' subsistence needs (from natural gas to fish) over the desire of corporations seeking to export for profit.

** laws requiring imported toxic waste to be pretreated and inspected,

** laws requiring country-of-origin labels on meat,

** state constitutional provisions limiting corporate agriculture,

** laws limiting export of state water resources,

** laws requiring a corporation to adhere to certain conditions in order to do business in your state.

For discussion of these examples and more, see Gaveling Down the Rabble.

Like the "Oleo Wars," other controversies decided under the commerce clause amounted to corporate challenges of state and local laws, with the role of arbiter falling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Analogous struggles were played out over other staples, and in other industries, with surprisingly few variations to this day.

The transformation of the commerce clause into a wish-fulfillment machine for corporate lawyers was breathtaking. The harm to democracy done by the commerce clause "doctrine" is as damaging to democracy as the "separate but equal" doctrine was to human rights. Both deserve the same fate.

If African-American schoolchildren in unheated schoolrooms could understand "separate but equal" and in the face of horrible violence courageously demand its rejection, then today, those of us striving for justice and sustainability ought to be able to see the Supreme Court's commerce clause doctrine for the anti-democratic pro-corporate scam that it is. I can only hope that we can begin to show the same courage in working to reject it.

Jane Anne Morris is a corporate anthropologist who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.


1. The Court refused to hear an appeal of a federal court's order preventing enforcement of the South Dakota measure, on grounds that included commerce (S.D. Farm Bureau v. Hazeltine (2004)). The Nebraska case was Jones v. Gale, 470 R. 3d 1261 (2006) 8th Cir. Neb.

2. The state court case that found the law constitutional was Powell v. Commonwealth, 114 Penn. St. 265 (1887). The U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the ban was Powell v. Pennsylvania (1888).

3. Schollenberger v. Pennsylvania (1898).

4. Collins v. New Hampshire (1898). The lower federal court case that had previously upheld Minnesota's law was Armour Packing Co. v. Snyder, 84 Fed. 136 (1897).

5. See Martha C. Howard's excellent work, The Margarine Industry in the U.S.: Its Development Under Legislative Control (Columbia Univ. dissertation, 1951).

6. George D. Braden, "Umpire to the Federal system," 10 Univ. of Chicago Law Rev. 27 (1942-3).

7. Fargo v. Stevens (1887); Leloup v. Port of Mobile (1888); Fargo v. Hart (1904); Ludwig v. Western Union Tel. Co. (1910); Atchison, T. & S.F. Ry. v. O'Connor (1912); Looney v. Crane Co. (1917); N. J. Bell Tel. Co. v. State Board (1930). State and local efforts to protect their economies against things like chain stores and "big box" stores continued, but tended to use more indirect means, such as zoning details or parts-per-million regulations. Corporate strategies also evolved, often using the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection and due process clauses, or other corporate constitutional "rights," to force their way into communities.

From: Natural Systems Solutions
August 15, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: It is currently thought to be political suicide to directly tell people the truth that Western civilization is generally at odds with life. The Industrial Growth model in particular is completely at odds with life, and actually helps define the concept of sustainability by providing a perfect example of its complete opposite, or negation.]

By Dave Ewoldt

One of the common critiques of Al Gore's July, 17 speech at a Washington, DC energy conference that I've heard -- from those few environmentalists who actually understand ecology -- is that Gore's proposals, first and foremost, are directed to ensure the status quo survives. Of course, Gore adroitly sidesteps any mention of how that status quo is going to continue to improve their standard of living without their servants to prepare their food and dress them, or without an atmosphere and topsoil that can even grow their food, or even that global warming is but one factor calling into serious question the sanity of Western lifestyles predicated on infinite economic growth and material accumulation that can only artificially confer a status that is superficial at best.

But this critique leads us to a bit of a quandary when looking deeper at what Gore said. It is currently thought to be political suicide to directly tell people the truth that Western civilization is generally at odds with life. The Industrial Growth model in particular is completely at odds with life, and actually helps define the concept of sustainability by providing a perfect example of its complete opposite, or negation.

So, when people who have actually taken the red pill (a small subset of those toying with the idea as possibly being a good thing to do) pick out and focus on statements from Gore's speech such as, "The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk," and, "The future of human civilization is at stake," and use those statements to dismiss his entire message based on their beliefs that these outcomes would be beneficial, they might be shooting themselves in the foot. For if these are the only statements of Gore's that we concentrate on, we lose a perfect opportunity to bring up the viable and realistic alternative of powering down, relocalizing, and reconnecting. When looked at from a broader framework, Gore's speech can actually be a jumping off point for what more and more people are coming to realize needs to happen.

The American way of life and our understanding of Western civilization (which Gore incorrectly equates with human civilization) do need to be consigned to the dustbin of history, I won't argue with that. But I do think using that as a starting point is to risk losing a large segment of the population that we should be compassionately reaching out to with an honest awareness raising campaign of what we're really facing and what we must, and can, do.

There's nothing wrong with rightly pointing out that civilization as we know it is what has to go away; that powering a culture that is inherently destructive to life with renewable energy is neither the brightest nor the most rational thing to do. In fact, considering how far into overshoot we are as a species, powering our current Western lifestyles with renewables won't even buy us all that much time before the Earth's ecosystems tip into collapse.

But I don't intend to go into a complete critique of civilization here. Besides, others such as Derrick Jensen have done a very thorough job of that in works such as "The Culture of Make Believe" and especially "Endgame, Vols. 1 and 2."

What I picked up on, and think we can constructively build on, were statements Gore made, as reported in the New York Times, regarding the "worse confluence of problems facing the country." Think about this for a second. What Gore is doing here is publicly tying energy depletion and high cost, job loss, high taxes on wage earners, and financial meltdown not only together, but with war. Very few political progressives have yet to make this leap.

Some of Gore's other statements, "We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change," are great as well -- as far as they go, anyway. He's still shying away from details. He's not being frank with people about what this really means and what must be done. But he is asking people to examine relationships that are normally glossed over at best.

This becomes an opening to talk to people about the fact that our way of life is based on an exploitive power-over structure that confers status and success on accumulation. It is a way of being that is in direct conflict with the principles natural systems use to nurture and sustain healthy, vibrant, and resilient ecosystems. This means it is in direct conflict with who we really are as a species and as individuals. Since it's elementary school math to figure out that on a finite planet, being a "winner" means less for everybody else -- plus the hard upper boundary on material accumulation -- in order to continue this economic game without inequity growing to the point that armed revolution is the only possible outcome requires selling a story of growth in the abstract concept of financial capital in which the commodification of everything, both real and imagined, is necessary.

What is needed, as Herman Daly pointed out decades ago, at the very least is to set limits to inequality in wealth and income. Orthodox growth economists insist that growth is a perfect substitute for income equality, for as long as there's growth, there's hope. Thus, the solution for the poor is to let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future! This system is, of course, a symptom of a deeper malaise, but let's take it one step at a time.

We can help people make the next logical step -- that a system based entirely on economic growth is not only killing the planet, but is anathema to progress and prosperity when looked at from a perspective that includes the whole.

Because the fact of the matter is that Gore is correct. We could get 100% of the energy we actually need from renewables, not in 10 years, but today. As I keep pointing out, all it basically requires is to quit manufacturing the 99% of the stuff we don't need or want, build the rest of it to last and be repairable, decentralize the energy grid, and quit looking at efficiency from the narrow perspective of what is necessary to increase profit. This is the perspective we must get people to apply, not the assumption everyone immediately jumps to that alternative energy sources must be ramped up to replace what we're using fossil fuels for today.

And then we can go the next step. Start redesigning and rebuilding our communities to be livable instead of auto-centric, start getting population under control (in part by getting rid of excess), etc. These are but two aspects of a much broader process to create a truly sustainable future based on relocalizing our communities and economies, and reconnecting our lives to what truly feeds our body, mind, and spirit in the natural world -- which necessarily includes each other.

If we can help people connect the dots, and realize that a systemic alternative is available that stands a better than even chance of improving quality of life -- that could actually stave off the widely predicted social collapse and chaos the status quo is leading us to -- people will come to their own conclusion that civilization as we know it is a bad idea.

Dave Ewoldt is a practitioner and researcher in the field of ecopsychology, and co-founder and Executive Director of Natural Systems Solutions, a non-profit that uses natural systems principles as the foundation for sustainable lifestyles, organizations, and communities. He is currently working on a book titled, "Connecting the Dots: Reversing Our Handbasket to Hell."

From: Sustainable Development Commission, U.K. ............[This story printer-friendly]
April 24, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: A failed growth economy and a steady-state economy are not the same thing; they are the very different alternatives we face, Herman Daly explains.]

By Herman E. Daly

The Earth as a whole is approximately a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow; and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible). None of this means that the earth is static -- a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the economy, relative to the total system, the ecosphere. This huge shift from an "empty" to a "full" world is truly "something new under the sun" as historian J. R. McNeil calls it in his book of that title. The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth. That behavior mode is a steady state -- a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth.

Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff (or at least different stuff). The remaining natural world no longer is able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized economy -- much less a growing one. Economists have focused too much on the economy's circulatory system and have neglected to study its digestive tract.

Throughput growth means pushing more of the same food through an ever larger digestive tract; development means eating better food and digesting it more thoroughly. Clearly the economy must conform to the rules of a steady state -- seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth. GDP increase conflates these two very different things.

We have lived for 200 years in a growth economy. That makes it hard to imagine what a steady-state economy (SSE) would be like, even though for most of our history mankind has lived in an economy in which annual growth was negligible. Some think a SSE would mean freezing in the dark under communist tyranny. Some say that huge improvements in technology (energy efficiency, recycling) are so easy that it will make the adjustment fun.

Regardless of whether it will be hard or easy we have to attempt a SSE because we cannot continue growing, and in fact so-called "economic" growth already has become uneconomic. The growth economy is failing. In other words, the quantitative expansion of the economic subsystem increases environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, making us poorer not richer, at least in high-consumption countries. And even new technology sometimes makes it worse. For example, tetraethyl lead provided the benefit of reducing engine knock, but at the cost of spreading a toxic heavy metal into the biosphere; chlorofluorocarbons gave us the benefit of a nontoxic propellant and refrigerant, but at the cost of creating a hole in the ozone layer that protects us from too much ultraviolet radiation. It is hard to know for sure that growth now increases costs faster than benefits since we do not bother to separate costs from benefits in our national accounts. Instead we lump them together as "activity" in the calculation of GDP.

Ecological economists have offered empirical evidence that growth is already uneconomic in high consumption countries (see Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, Genuine Progress Indicator, Ecological Footprint, and Happy Planet Index). Since neoclassical economists are unable to demonstrate that growth, either in throughput or GDP, is currently making us better off rather than worse off, it is blind arrogance on their part to continue preaching aggregate growth as the solution to our problems. Yes, most of our problems (poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation) would be easier to solve if we were richer -- that is not the issue. The issue is: Does growth in GDP any longer really make us richer? Or is it now making us poorer?

For poor countries GDP growth still increases welfare, at least if reasonably distributed. The question is, What is the best thing for rich countries to do to help the poor countries? The World Bank's answer is that the rich should continue to grow as rapidly as possible to provide markets for the poor and to accumulate capital to invest in poor countries. The steady state answer is that the rich should reduce their throughput growth to free up resources and ecological space for use by the poor, while focusing their domestic efforts on development, technical and social improvements, that can be freely shared with poor countries.

The classical steady state takes the biophysical dimensions -- population and capital stock (all durable producer and consumer goods) -- as given and adapts technology and tastes to these objective conditions.

The neoclassical "steady state" (proportional growth of capital stock and population) takes tastes and technology as given and adapts by growth in biophysical dimensions, since it considers wants as unlimited, and technology as powerful enough to make the world effectively infinite.

At a more profound level the classical view is that man is a creature who must ultimately adapt to the limits of the Creation of which he is a part (finitude, entropy, ecological interdependence). The neoclassical view is that man, the creator, will surpass all limits and remake Creation to suit his subjective individualistic preferences, which are considered the root of all value. In the end economics is religion.

Accepting the necessity of a SSE, along with John Stuart Mill and the other classical economists, let us imagine what it might look like. First a caution -- a steady-state economy is not a failed growth economy. An airplane is designed for forward motion. If it tries to hover it crashes. It is not fruitful to conceive of a helicopter as an airplane that fails to move forward. It is a different thing designed to hover. Likewise a steady-state economy is not designed to grow.

Following Mill we might define a SSE as an economy with constant population and constant stock of capital, maintained by a low rate of throughput that is within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. This means low birth equal to low death rates, and low production equal to low depreciation rates. Low throughput means high life expectancy for people and high durability for goods.

Alternatively, and more operationally, we might define the SSE in terms of a constant flow of throughput at a sustainable (low) level, with population and capital stock free to adjust to whatever size can be maintained by the constant throughput beginning with depletion and ending with pollution.

How could we limit throughput, and thus indirectly limit stocks of capital and people in a SSE? Since depletion is spatially more concentrated than pollution the main controls should be at the depletion or input end. Raising resource prices at the depletion end will indirectly limit pollution, and force greater efficiency at all upstream stages of production. A cap-auction-trade system for depletion of basic resources, especially fossil fuels, could accomplish a lot, as could ecological tax reform, about which more later.

If we must stop aggregate growth because it is uneconomic, then how do we deal with poverty in the SSE? The simple answer is by redistribution -- by limits to the range of permissible inequality, by a minimum income and a maximum income. What is the proper range of inequality -- one that rewards real differences and contributions rather than just multiplying privilege? Plato thought it was a factor of four.

Universities, civil services and the military seem to manage with a factor of ten to twenty. In the US corporate sector it is over 500. As a first step could we not try to lower the overall range to a factor of, say, one hundred? Remember, we are no longer trying to provide massive incentives to stimulate (uneconomic) growth! Also, since we are not trying to stimulate aggregate growth, we no longer need to spend billions on advertising. Instead of treating advertising as a tax-deductible cost of production we should tax it heavily as a public nuisance. If economists really believe that the consumer is sovereign then she should be obeyed rather than manipulated, cajoled, badgered, and lied to.

Free trade would not be feasible for a SSE, since its producers would necessarily count many costs to the environment and the future that foreign firms located in growth economies are allowed to ignore.

The foreign firms would win in competition, not because they were more efficient, but simply because they did not pay the cost of sustainability.

Regulated international trade under rules that compensated for these differences (compensating tariffs) could exist, as could "free trade" among nations that were equally committed to sustainability in their domestic cost accounting. One might expect the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the World Bank [WB], and the WTO [World Trade Organization] to be working toward such regulations. Instead they vigorously push both free trade and free capital mobility (i.e., deregulation of international commerce). Protecting an efficient national policy of cost internalization is very different from protecting an inefficient firm.

The case for guaranteed mutual benefit in international trade, and hence the reason for leaving it "free," is based on Ricardo's comparative advantage argument. A country is supposed to produce the goods that it produces more cheaply relative to other goods, than is the case in other countries. By specializing according to their comparative advantage both trading partners gain, regardless of absolute costs (one country could produce all goods more cheaply, but it would still benefit by specializing in what it produced relatively more cheaply and trading for other goods).

This is logical, but like all logical arguments comparative advantage is based on premises. The key premise is that while capital (and other factors) moves freely between industries within a nation, it does not move between nations. If capital could move abroad it would have no reason to be content with a mere comparative advantage at home, but would seek absolute advantage -- the absolutely lowest cost of production anywhere in the world. Why not? With free trade the product could be sold anywhere in the world, including the nation the capital just left.

While there are certainly global gains from trade under absolute advantage there is no guarantee of mutual benefit. Some countries could lose.

Now comes the problem. The IMF preaches free trade based on comparative advantage, and has done so for a long time. More recently the IMF has started preaching the gospel of globalization, which, in addition to free trade, means free capital mobility internationally -- exactly what comparative advantage forbids! When confronted with this contradiction the IMF waves its hands, suggests that you might be a xenophobe, and changes the subject.

The IMF-WB-WTO contradict themselves in service to the interests of transnational corporations. International capital mobility, coupled with free trade, allows corporations to escape from national regulation in the public interest, playing one nation off against another. Since there is no global government they are in effect uncontrolled. The nearest thing we have to a global government (IMF- WB-WTO) has shown no interest in regulating transnational capital for the common good. Their goal is to help these corporations grow, because growth is presumed good for all -- end of story. If the IMF wanted to limit international capital mobility to keep the world safe for comparative advantage, there are several things they could do. They could promote minimum residence times for foreign investment to limit capital flight and speculation; they could propose a small tax on all foreign exchange transactions (Tobin tax); and most of all they could revive Keynes' proposal for an international multilateral clearing union that would directly penalize persistent imbalances in current account (both deficit and surplus), and thereby indirectly promote balance in the compensating capital account, reducing international capital movements.

One problem for the SSE already raised by the demographic transition to a non growing population is that it necessarily results in an increase in the average age of the population -- more retirees relative to workers. Adjustment requires either higher taxes, older retirement age, or reduced retirement pensions. The system is hardly in "crisis," but these adjustments are surely needed to achieve sustainability. For many countries net immigration has become a larger source of population growth than natural increase. Immigration may temporarily ease the age structure problem, but the steady-state population requires that births plus in-migrants equal deaths plus out-migrants. It is hard to say which is more politically incorrect, birth limits or immigration limits? Many prefer denial of arithmetic to facing either one.

The SSE will also require a "demographic transition" in populations of products towards longer-lived, more durable goods, maintained by lower rates of throughput. A population of 1000 cars that last 10 years requires new production of 100 cars per year. If more durable cars are made to last 20 years then we need new production of only 50 cars per year. To see the latter as in improvement requires a change in perspective from emphasizing production as benefit to emphasizing production as a cost of maintenance. Consider that if we can maintain 1000 cars and the transportation services thereof by replacing only 50 cars per year rather than 100 we are surely better off -- the same capital stock yielding the same service with half the throughput. Yet the idea that production is a maintenance cost to be minimized is strange to most economists. One adaptation in this direction is the service contract that leases the service of equipment (ranging from carpets to copying machines), which the lessor/owner maintains, reclaims, and recycles at the end of its useful life.

Although the main thrust of reforms for the SSE is to bring newly scarce and truly rival natural capital and services under the market discipline, we should not overlook the opposite problem, namely, freeing truly non rival goods from their artificial enclosure by the market.

There are some goods that are by nature non rival, and should be freed from illegitimate enclosure by the price system. I refer especially to knowledge.

Knowledge, unlike throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied.

Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero and its allocative price should be zero. International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large interest-bearing loans. Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create unrepayable debts, and it increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Existing knowledge is the most important input to the production of new knowledge, and keeping it artificially scarce and expensive is perverse. Patent monopolies (aka "intellectual property rights") should be given for fewer "inventions," and for fewer years.

What would happen to the interest rate in a SSE? Would it not fall to zero without growth? Not likely, because capital would still be scarce, there would still be a positive time preference, and the value of total production may still increase without growth in physical throughput -- as a result of qualitative development. Investment in qualitative improvement may yield a value increase out of which interest could be paid.

However, the productivity of capital would surely be less without throughput growth, so one would expect low interest rates in a SSE, though not a zero rate.

Would it be possible to have qualitative improvement (e.g. increasing efficiency) forever, resulting in GDP growth forever? GDP would become ever less material-intensive. Environmentalists would be happy because throughput is not growing; economists would be happy because GDP is growing. I think this should be pushed as far as it will go, but how far that is likely to be? Consider that sectors of the economy generally thought to be more qualitative, such as information technology, turn out on closer inspection to have a substantial physical base, including a number of toxic metals.

Also, if expansion is to be mainly for the sake of the poor it must be comprised of goods the poor need -- clothing, shelter, and food on the plate, not ten thousand recipes on the Internet. In addition, as a larger proportion of GDP becomes less material-intensive, the terms of trade between more and less material-intensive goods will move against the less material-intensive, limiting incentive to produce them. Even providers of information services spend most of their income on cars, houses, and trips, rather than the immaterial product of other symbol manipulators.

Can a SSE maintain full employment? A tough question, but in fairness one must also ask if full employment is achievable in a growth economy driven by free trade, off-shoring practices, easy immigration of cheap labor, and widespread automation? In a SSE maintenance and repair become more important. Being more labor intensive than new production and relatively protected from off-shoring, these services may provide more employment. Yet a more radical rethinking of how people earn income may be required. If automation and off-shoring of jobs increase profits but not wages, then the principle of distributing income through jobs becomes less tenable. A practical solution (in addition to slowing automation and off-shoring) may be to have wider participation in the ownership of businesses, so that individuals earn income through their share of the business instead of through fulltime employment. Also the gains from technical progress should be taken in the form of more leisure rather than more production -- a long expected but under-realized possibility.

What sort of tax system would best fit a SSE? Ecological tax reform, already mentioned, suggests shifting the tax base away from value added (income earned by labor and capital), and on to "that to which value is added," namely the throughput flow, preferably at the depletion end (at the mine-mouth or well-head, the point of "severance" from the ground). Many states have severance taxes. Taxing the origin and narrowest point in the throughput flow, induces more efficient resource use in production as well as consumption, and facilitates monitoring and collection. Taxing what we want less of (depletion and pollution), and ceasing to tax what we want more of (income, value added) would seem reasonable -- as the bumper sticker puts it, "tax bads, not goods". The shift could be revenue neutral and gradual. Begin for example by forgoing $x revenue from the worst income tax we have.

Simultaneously collect $x from the best resource severance tax we could devise. Next period get rid of the second worst income tax, and substitute the second best resource tax, etc. Such a policy would raise resource prices and induce efficiency in resource use. The regressivity of such a consumption tax could be offset by spending the proceeds progressively, by the limited range of inequality already mentioned, and by the fact that the mafia and other former income tax cheaters would have to pay it. Cap-auction-trade systems will also increase government revenue, and auction revenue can be distributed progressively.

Could a SSE support the enormous superstructure of finance built around future growth expectations? Probably not, since interest rates and growth rates would be low. Investment would be mainly for replacement and qualitative improvement. There would likely be a healthy shrinkage of the enormous pyramid of debt that is precariously balanced atop the real economy, threatening to crash. Additionally the SSE could benefit from a move away from our fractional reserve banking system toward 100% reserve requirements.

One hundred percent reserves would put our money supply back under the control of the government rather than the private banking sector. Money would be a true public utility, rather than the by-product of commercial lending and borrowing in pursuit of growth. Under the existing fractional reserve system the money supply expands during a boom, and contracts during a slump, reinforcing the cyclical tendency of the economy. The profit (seigniorage) from creating (at negligible cost) and being the first to spend new money and receive its full exchange value, would accrue to the public rather than the private sector. The reserve requirement, something the Central Bank manipulates anyway, could be raised from current very low levels gradually to 100%. Commercial banks would make their income by financial intermediation (lending savers' money for them) as well as by service charges on checking accounts, rather than by lending at interest money they create out of nothing.

Lending only money that has actually been saved by someone reestablishes the classical balance between abstinence and investment.

This extra discipline in lending and borrowing likely would prevent such debacles as the current "sub-prime mortgage" crisis. 100% reserves would both stabilize the economy and slow down the Ponzi-like credit leveraging.

A SSE should not have a system of national income accounts, GDP, in which nothing is ever subtracted. Ideally we should have two accounts, one that measures the benefits of physical growth in scale, and one that measures the costs of that growth. Our policy should be to stop growing where marginal costs equal marginal benefits. Or if we want to maintain the single national income concept we should adopt Nobel laureate economist J. R. Hicks' concept of income, namely, the maximum amount that a community can consume in a year, and still be able to produce and consume the same amount next year. In other words, income is the maximum that can be consumed while keeping productive capacity (capital) intact. Any consumption of capital, manmade or natural, must be subtracted in the calculation of income. Also we must stop the asymmetry of adding to GDP the production of anti-bads without first having subtracted the generation of the bads that made the anti-bads necessary. Note that Hicks' conception of income is sustainable by definition. National accounts in a sustainable economy should try to approximate Hicksian income and abandon GDP. Correcting GDP to measure income is less ambitious than converting it into a measure of welfare, discussed earlier.

The logic of the SSE is reinforced by the recent finding of economists and psychologists that the correlation between absolute income and happiness extends only up to some threshold of "sufficiency," and beyond that point only relative income influences self-evaluated happiness. This result seems to hold both for cross-section data (comparing rich to poor countries at a given date), and for time series (comparing a single country before and after significant growth in income). Growth cannot increase everyone's relative income. The welfare gain of people whose relative income increases as a result of further growth would be offset by the loss of others whose relative income falls.

And if everyone's income increases proportionally, no one's relative income would rise and no one would feel happier. Growth becomes like an arms race in which the two sides cancel each other's gains. A happy corollary is that for societies that have reached sufficiency, moving to a SSE may cost little in terms of forgone happiness. The "political impossibility" of a SSE may be less impossible than it previously appeared.


Herman Daly, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland College Park, MD 20742 USA

From: Science News .......................................[This story printer-friendly]
August 8, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: A new study reveals that women who use a lot of perfume during pregnancy have high amounts of the synthetic musk HHCB in their milk. Levels of the musk AHTN are elevated in the milk of women who use perfumed laundry detergent.]

By Rachel Ehrenberg

Mothers pass many things on to their babies -- including chemicals from soaps and personal care products. A new study of Swedish moms finds that those who used scented laundry detergent or lots of perfume had elevated amounts of synthetic musks in their breast milk. How these synthetic musks act in the body still isn't clear, says study coauthor Anders Glynn of the Swedish National Food Administration and Uppsala University in Sweden. Scientists have found other fat-loving compounds in breast milk, including PCBs and certain pesticides with clearly detrimental health effects. While finding chemicals in breast milk raises concern about childhood exposure, most experts agree that the benefits of nursing still far outweigh the risks.

The new study, published online in Environmental Science & Technology, looked for trends in the amounts of seven synthetic musks in new moms' breast milk over a seven-year period. These artificial compounds give scent to many products and also act as longevity enhancers, or "carriers," for other smells. Manufacturers favor synthetics over natural musks, which are expensive and often come from endangered animals.

Previous research has documented synthetic musks in breast milk in women from the United States, Denmark and Germany, but this new work is the first to correlate quantities of musks with the women's product use. The team found that women who used a lot of perfume during pregnancy had high amounts of the musk HHCB in their milk. Levels of the musk AHTN were elevated in the milk of women who used perfumed laundry detergent.

The researchers also assessed infant exposure to three of the musks. Calculations suggest that Swedish breastfed infants are exposed to quantities similar to those reported in U.S. infants. These levels are well below the suggested tolerable amounts, which range from 7 to 500 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, depending on the musk. But Glynn and his colleagues note that the tolerable amounts were set for adults, so the comparison is questionable. Infants probably inhale and absorb these synthetic compounds through their skin, as well as getting the musks in milk, so total exposure to infants remains unknown, Glynn says.

Citations & References:

Sanna Lignell, Per Ola Darnerud, Marie Aune, Sven Cnattingius, Jana Hajslova, Lucie Setkova and Anders Glynn. 2008. Temporal Trends of Synthetic Musk Compounds in Mother's Milk and Associations with Personal Use of Perfumed Products. Environmental Science & Technology. Online ahead of print. DOI: 10.1021/es800626n

Reiner, J. L.; Wong, C. M.; Arcaro, K. F.; Kannan, K. 2007. Synthetic musk fragrances in human milk from the United States. Environmental Science & Technology. 41, 3815-3820. DOI: 10.1021/es063088a

Copyright Society for Science & the Public 2000

From: National Geographic ................................[This story printer-friendly]
August 14, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: Dead zones are now "the key stressor on marine ecosystems" and "rank with overfishing, habitat loss, and harmful algal blooms as global environmental problems."]

By Anne Minard for National Geographic News

"Dead zones" are on the rise, says a new study that identified stark growth in the number of coastal areas where the water has too little oxygen to sustain marine life.

There are now more than 400 known dead zones in coastal waters worldwide, compared to 305 in the 1990s, according to study author Robert Diaz of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Those numbers are up from 162 in the 1980s, 87 in the 1970s, and 49 in the 1960s, Diaz said. In the 1910s, four dead zones had been identified.

Diaz and co-author Rutger Rosenberg, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, said in a press release that dead zones are now "the key stressor on marine ecosystems" and "rank with overfishing, habitat loss, and harmful algal blooms as global environmental problems."

Their study appears in the August 15 issue of the journal Science.

Dead Zones

Dead zones occur when excess nutrients -- usually nitrogen and phosphorus -- from agriculture or the burning of fossil fuels seep into the water system and fertilize blooms of algae along the coast.

As the microscopic plants die and sink to the ocean floor, they feed bacteria, which consume dissolved oxygen from surrounding waters. This limits oxygen availability for bottom-dwelling organisms and the fish that eat them.

(Related story: "Ocean Dead Zones Growing; May Be Linked to Warming" [May 1, 2008])

Many marine ecosystems experience low oxygen levels between spring and fall, Diaz said. But the lack of oxygen becomes persistent if nutrient levels stay high.

Earth's largest dead zone, in the Baltic Sea, experiences oxygen deprivation year-round, the press release said.

The second largest dead zone surrounds the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite decades of efforts to clean up U.S. rivers and lakes, high nitrogen levels are currently combining with strong water flow to make that dead zone larger than it has ever been.

Government-supported scientists not involved with Diaz's review are forecasting an expansion of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone to a record 8,800 square miles (23,000 square kilometers), an area larger than New Jersey.

(Related story: "Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone" Is Size of New Jersey" [May 25, 2005])

Nancy Rabalais, executive director and professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said the paper "shows that there is a lot of lost production of [seafloor] animals -- those living in the sediments -- that could be food" for fishery stocks.

Diaz and Rosenberg note in the press release that dead zones tend to be overlooked until they start to affect organisms that people eat.

Another researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, fish pathologist Wolfgang Vogelbein, said high rates of disease [missing word?] Bay stripers are due to the stress they encounter trying to escape the Chesapeake Bay's summertime dead zone.

Mixed Efforts

Some local and regional governments have stepped in with conservation and cleanup efforts to combat dead zones.

Maryland, for instance, gives $18 million a year in grants to farmers who plant additional crops after their harvest to absorb leftover fertilizer before it ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.

Rabalais, who was not involved in the Diaz review, said she has seen little sustained effort to combat nutrient runoff in the Mississippi River.

"In the recent years of increased acreage of corn and biofuels, the amount of fertilizer used and the amount of nitrogen per volume of Mississippi River water has increased dramatically," Rabalais said.

"What we have is this pulse of nutrients that are coming down our rivers every year," Diaz added. "Somehow we have to find a way to stop that.

"The loss of fertilizer is an economic drain on the industry. It is not something the farming community wants to happen, and controlling it is the key to controlling the spread of dead zones."

Copyright 1996-2008 National Geographic Society.

From: University of California at Berkeley ...............[This story printer-friendly]
August 12, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: "There's no question that we are in a mass extinction spasm right now," said David Wake, professor of integrative biology at University of California at Berkeley.]

By Rachel Tompa

Devastating declines of amphibian species around the world are a sign of a biodiversity disaster larger than just frogs, salamanders and their ilk, according to researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.

In an article published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers argue that substantial die-offs of amphibians and other plant and animal species add up to a new mass extinction facing the planet.

"There's no question that we are in a mass extinction spasm right now," said David Wake, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. "Amphibians have been around for about 250 million years. They made it through when the dinosaurs didn't. The fact that they're cutting out now should be a lesson for us."

The study, co-authored by Wake and Vance Vredenburg, research associate at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley and assistant professor of biology at San Francisco State University, will appear in a special supplement to the journal featuring papers based on presentations from the December 2007 Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences, "In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction."

New species arise and old species die off all the time, but sometimes the extinction numbers far outweigh the emergence of new species. Extreme cases of this are called mass extinction events, and there have been only five in our planet's history, until now.

The sixth mass extinction event, which Wake and others argue is happening currently, is different from the past events. "My feeling is that behind all this lies the heavy hand of Homo sapiens," Wake said.

There is no consensus among the scientific community about when the current mass extinction started, Wake said. It may have been 10,000 years ago, when humans first came from Asia to the Americas and hunted many of the large mammals to extinction. It may have started after the Industrial Revolution, when the human population exploded. Or, we might be seeing the start of it right now, Wake said.

But no matter what the start date, empirical data clearly show that extinction rates have dramatically increased over the last few decades, Wake said.

The global amphibian extinction is a particularly bleak example of this drastic decline. In 2004, researchers found that nearly one-third of amphibian species are threatened, and many of the non-threatened species are on the wane.

Our own backyard provides a striking example, Wake said. He and his colleagues study amphibians in the Sierra Nevada, and the picture is grim there, as well.

"We have these great national parks here that are about as close as you can get to absolute preserves, and there have been really startling drops in amphibian populations there, too," Wake said.

Of the seven amphibian species that inhabit the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, five are threatened. Wake and his colleagues observed that, for two of these species, the Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frog and the Southern Yellow-legged Frog, populations over the last few years declined by 95 to 98 percent, even in highly protected areas such as Yosemite National Park. This means that each local frog population has dwindled to 2 to 5 percent of its former size. Originally, frogs living atop the highest, most remote peaks seemed to thrive, but recently, they also succumbed.

There are several frog killers in the Sierra Nevada, Wake said. The first hint of frog decline in this area came in the 1990s, and researchers originally thought that rainbow trout introduced to this area were the culprits -- they like to snack on tadpoles and frog eggs. The UC Berkeley team did experiments in which it physically removed trout from some areas, and the result was that frog populations started to recover.

"But then they disappeared again, and this time there were carcasses," Wake said.

The culprit is a nasty pathogenic fungus that causes the disease chytridiomycosis. Researchers discovered the fungus in Sierra Nevada frogs in 2001. Scientists have documented over the last five years mass die-offs and population collapses due to the fungus in the mountain range.

But the fungus is not unique to California. It has been wiping out amphibians around the world, including in the tropics, where amphibian biodiversity is particularly high.

"It's been called the most devastating wildlife disease ever recorded," Wake said.

Global warming and habitat constriction are two other major killers of frogs around the world, Wake said. And the Sierra Nevada amphibians are also susceptible to poisonous winds carrying pesticides from Central Valley croplands. "The frogs have really been hit by a one-two punch," Wake said, "although it's more like a one-two-three-four punch."

The frogs are not the only victims in this mass extinction, Wake emphasized. Scientists studying other organisms have seen similarly dramatic effects.

"Our work needs to be seen in the context of all this other work, and the news is very, very grim," Wake said.

The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health helped support this study.

Audio files and slides of presentations from the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on biodiversity and extinction are available online.

Copyright UC Regents

From: Science News ........................................[This story printer-friendly]
August 13, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: Power plant emissions that cause acid rain, water pollution and destruction of the ozone layer may actually be made worse by capturing the CO2 and pumping it deep underground, a new study finds.]

By Patrick Barry

As pollution bad guys go, carbon dioxide may be the media darling, but trying to capture it and lock it away could allow other repeat offenders to go free.

Power plant emissions that cause acid rain, water pollution and destruction of the ozone layer may actually be made worse by capturing the CO2 and pumping it deep underground, a new study [1.5 Mbyte PDF] reported online and in an upcoming International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control suggests.

This increase of other emissions is largely because collecting and burying CO2 -- a process called carbon sequestration -- requires additional energy, new equipment and new chemical reactions at the plants. And using current technology, meeting all of these requirements releases extra pollutants.

"Other studies mostly just look at one aspect, the carbon capture," says study coauthor Joris Koornneef, an environmental scientist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. "This is a first step in trying to quantify the [environmental] trade-offs."

Captured CO2 must be compressed to about 100 times atmospheric pressure (which takes energy), transported to a suitable underground reservoir (which takes energy) and pumped into the ground (which takes energy). A coal-fired power plant that sequesters its CO2 must burn about 30 percent more coal than conventional plants to cover these energy needs. And that extra coal must first be mined (which has environmental effects) and transported to the plant (which takes fuel) -- the list goes on and on.

Even with this extra burden, a CO2-burying plant emits between 71 and 78 percent less CO2 than a normal coal-fired plant for each unit of usable electricity produced, Koornneef and his colleagues report. But when the researchers factored in all the "cradle to grave" pollution of a CO2-burying plant, emissions of acid rain-causing gases like nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides were up to 40 percent greater than the total cradle-to-grave emissions of a modern plant that doesn't capture its CO2.

If the mining, transportation and other supporting technologies become greener in the future, the pollution penalty for carbon sequestration would be reduced, the researchers note.

"The decision to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions is going to be intertwined with decisions about how to deal with these other emissions," comments Jim Dooley, an expert in carbon sequestration at the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Md., and one of the lead authors for a major 2005 report on carbon sequestration by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That IPCC study concluded that nearly all properly buried CO2 would probably remain underground for centuries.

"People are turning their attention to this, which is great," Dooley adds, referring to the environmental costs of sequestration.

At the time that IPCC scientists were writing the 2005 report, "everyone was thinking what are the environmental benefits of [carbon capture], not so much the environmental costs," comments Ken Caldeira, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., and another lead author of the IPCC report. "The costs people talked about were mostly economic costs."

Citation: Koornneef, J., et al. In press. Life cycle assessment of a pulverized coal power plant with post-combustion capture, transport and storage of CO2. International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijggc.2008.06.008

Rachel's Democracy & Health News highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all.

The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few.

In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How DO the few control the many, and what might be done about it?"

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