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Monday, March 22, 2010

Oregon town uses Geothermal Energy to stay warm

By Jeff Barnard
Mar 20, 2010

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – When snow falls on this downtown of brick buildings and glass storefronts in southern Oregon, it piles up everywhere but the sidewalks. It's the first sign that this timber and ranching town is like few others.

A combination of hot rocks and water like those that created Yellowstone's geysers have been tapped by the city to keep the sidewalks toasty since the early 1990s. They also heat downtown buildings, kettles at a brewhouse, and greenhouses and keep the lights on at a college campus.

Geothermal wells in this town of 20,000 mark one of the nation's most ambitious uses of a green energy resource with a tiny carbon footprint, and could serve as a model for a still-fledgling industry that is gaining steam with $338 million in stimulus funds and more than 100 projects nationwide.

"We didn't know it was green. It just made sense," said City Manager Jeff Ball.

Geothermal energy is unknown in much of the country but accounts for 0.5 percent of the nation's energy production.

It can be seen on a snowy day in a handful of Western towns like Klamath Falls. That's because hot rock is closer to the surface here, and comes with the water needed to bring the energy to the surface. Northern California is home to the world's largest geothermal power complex. The Geysers, 75 miles north of San Francisco, produces enough electricity for 750,000 homes.

With more than 600 geothermal wells heating houses, schools and a hospital as well as turning the turbine on a small power plant, Klamath Falls shows what everyday life could be if stimulus grants and venture capitalists turn geothermal energy from a Western curiosity to a game-changing energy resource.

Until now, geothermal energy has been limited by having to find the three essentials ingredients occurring together in one place naturally: hot rock relatively close to the surface, water, and cracks in the rock that serve as a reservoir.

Those limitations go away if engineers can tame a technology known as EGS, for Enhanced Geothermal Systems.

A 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report estimates that EGS, with support, could be producing 100 gigawatts of electricity — equivalent to 1,000 coal-fired or nuclear power plants — by 2050, and has the potential to generate a large fraction of the nation's energy needs for centuries to come.

"If we are going to try to achieve a transformational change in this country, geothermal should be part of that recipe," said Jefferson Tester, chairman of the committee that produced the report and professor of sustainable energy at Cornell University. "It's not treated that way. It's typically forgotten."

One form of EGS involves drilling thousands of feet down to reach hot rock, pumping water down to fracture the rock to create reservoirs, then sending down water that will come back up another well as hot water or steam that can spin a turbine to generate electricity.

The system can be dropped in practically anywhere that hot rocks are close enough to the surface to make drilling economical.

The major problem with EGS is the potential to create earthquakes.

Pumping water into the ground to open numerous tiny fractures in the rock for a reservoir makes the earth move — what scientists call induced seismicity. Earthquakes stopped an EGS project in the middle of Basel, Switzerland, last year, and an international protocol has been developed for monitoring and mitigating earthquake problems.

As long as the wells are not close to major earthquake faults, "it is not damaging, but very upsetting to the community that lives literally on top of it," said Ernie Majer, a seismologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and lead author on the protocol.

Federal funding for geothermal started during the 1970s Arab oil embargo, waned when oil prices subsided, and essentially stopped when Texas oilman George W. Bush entered the White House, Majer said.

With interest growing in energy with a tiny carbon footprint, the Obama administration revived support for geothermal energy. Besides handing out more than $40 million a year from the Department of Energy, it is funding 123 demonstration projects in 38 states with stimulus funds. Projects include home heat pumps, power plants, drilling, rock fracturing, exploration and underground mapping.

"The goal of the department is to try to validate that a source of energy could be produced at an adequate price," said Jacques Beaudry-Losique, deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy. He expects results in two to three years.

The centerpiece is $25 million to AltaRock Energy, Inc., of Seattle and Sausalito, Calif., to demonstrate EGS can produce electricity economically and without producing earthquakes just outside the Newberry Craters National Monument in central Oregon. Investors, Google among them, put in $60 million.

Earthquake concerns were mounting around AltaRock's EGS work at The Geysers when they shut it down over drilling problems, before getting to the point of trying to fracture rocks, AltaRock CEO Don O'Shei said. They are developing a system to monitor quakes at Newberry.

"If EGS becomes economical, it will really be a game-changer," O'Shei said. "Even though it is relatively high risk in terms of the money to develop that kind of technology under the ground ($6 million to $20 million for a well that could prove worthless), it is very important."

People in Klamath Falls don't have to be convinced.

IFA Nurseries, Inc., wouldn't have come to Klamath Falls if there wasn't geothermal energy. The geothermal heat cut greenhouse heating costs by a third compared to natural gas, said Jacqueline Friedman, nursery manager for IFA Nurseries.

The city is stepping beyond heat to electricity, building a geothermal generator like the one at Oregon Institute of Technology with the help of an $816,000 stimulus grant.

Stepping gingerly from the icy street to the dry sidewalk on his way to a bakery for a cinnamon roll, Klamath County Museum Manager said visitors are often curious about the geothermal energy in town, which also heats the museum.

"I've always said the city should adopt a slogan, `City of Warm Sidewalks,'" he joked. "But I've been told we'll get every hobo in America who will be drifting into town."


Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Sham Recovery

by Robert Reich
Former Secretary of Labor
Professor at Berkeley
Huffington Post
March 12, 2010

Are we finally in a recovery? Who's "we," kemosabe? Big global companies, Wall Street, and high-income Americans who hold their savings in financial instruments are clearly doing better. As to the rest of us -- small businesses along Main Streets, and middle and lower-income Americans -- forget it.

Business cheerleaders naturally want to emphasize the positive. They assume the economy runs on optimism and that if average consumers think the economy is getting better, they'll empty their wallets more readily and -- presto! -- the economy will get better. The cheerleaders fail to understand that regardless of how people feel, they won't spend if they don't have the money.

The US economy grew at a 5.9 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2009. That sounds good until you realize GDP figures are badly distorted by structural changes in the economy. For example, part of the increase is due to rising health care costs. When WellPoint ratchets up premiums, that enlarges the GDP. But you'd have to be out of your mind to consider this evidence of a recovery.

Part of the perceived growth in GDP is due to rising government expenditures. But this is smoke and mirrors. The stimulus is reaching its peak and will be smaller in months to come. And a bigger federal debt eventually has to be repaid.

So when you hear some economists say the current recovery is following the traditional path, don't believe a word. The path itself is being used to construct the GDP data.

Look more closely and the only ones doing better are the people and private-sector institutions at the top. Many of America's biggest companies are sitting on huge amounts of cash right now, but that says nothing about the health of the U.S. economy. Companies in the Standard&Poor 500 stock index had sales of $2.18 trillion in the fourth quarter, up from $2.02 trillion last year, and their earnings tripled. Why? Mainly because they're global, and selling into fast-growing markets in places like India, China, and Brazil.

America's biggest companies are also showing fat profits and productivity gains because they continue to slash payrolls and cut expenditures. Alcoa, for example, had $1.5 billion in cash at the end of last year, double what it had on hand at the end of 2008. Sounds terrific until you realize how it did it. By cutting 28,000 jobs -- 32 percent of workforce -- and slashed capital expenditures 43 percent.

Firms in S&P 500 are now holding a whopping $932 billion in cash and short-term investments. And they can borrow money cheaply. Corporate bond sales are brisk. So far in 2010, big U.S. corporations have issued $195.2 billion of debt, excluding government-guaranteed bonds. Does this spell a recovery? It all depends on what the big companies are doing with all this cash. In fact, they're doing two things that don't help at all.

First, they're buying other companies. (Walgreen last month spent $618 million for New York drugstore chain Duane Reade; Bank of New York Mellon, $2.3 billion for PNC Financial Services; Monster, $225 million for; Diamond Foods, $615 million for Kettle Foods.) This buying doesn't create new jobs. One of the first things companies do when they buy other companies is fire lots of people who are considered "redundant." That's where the so-called merger efficiencies and synergies come from, after all.

The second thing big companies are doing with all their cash is buying back their own stock, in order to boost their share prices. There were 62 such share buy-backs in February, valued at $40.1 billion. We're witnessing the biggest share buyback spree since Sept 2008. The major beneficiaries are current shareholders, including top executives, whose pay is linked to share prices. The buy-backs do absolutely nothing for most Americans.

(None of this, by the way, is stopping supply-side fanatics from arguing government needs to cut taxes on big corporations in order to spur the recovery. Their argument is absurd on its face. Big companies don't know what to do with all their cash they have as it is. They aren't investing it in new plant and equipment and new jobs. So why should the government cut their taxes and enlarge their cash hoards even more?)

The picture on Main Street is quite the opposite. Small businesses aren't selling much because they have to rely on American -- rather than foreign -- consumers, and Americans still aren't buying much.

Small businesses are also finding it difficult to get credit. In the credit survey conducted in February by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, only 34 percent of small businesses reported normal and adequate access to credit. Not incidentally, the NFIB's "Small Business Optimism Index" fell 1.3 points last month, just about where it's been since April.

That's a problem for most Americans. Small businesses are where the jobs are. In fact, small businesses are responsible for almost all job growth in a typical recovery. So if small businesses are hurting, we're not going to see much job growth any time soon.

The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that American consumers are shedding their debts like mad. Total US household debt, including mortgages and credit card balances, fell 1.7 percent last year - the first drop since the government began recording consumer debt in 1945. Much of the debt-shedding has been through default -- consumers simply not repaying and walking away from homes and big-ticket purchases.

This is hardly good news. But here's the Wall Street Journal's take on it: "the defaults are leaving many people with more cash to spend and save, jump-starting the financial rehabilitiation" of the economy.

Baloney. As of end of 2009, debt averaged $43, 874 per American, or about 122 percent of annual disposable income. Most economic analysts think a sustainable debt load is around 100 percent of disposable income -- assuming a normal level of employment and normal access to credit. But unemployment is still sky-high and it's becoming harder for most people to get new mortgages and credit cards. And with housing prices still in the doldrums, they can't refinance their homes or take out new loans on them. The days of homes as ATMs are over.

Some cheerleaders say rising stock prices make consumers feel wealthier and therefore readier to spend. But to the extent most Americans have any assets at all their net worth is mostly in their homes, and those homes are still worth less than they were in 2007. The "wealth effect" is relevant mainly to the richest 10 percent of Americans, most of whose net worth is in stocks and bonds. The top 10 percent accounted for about half of total national income in 2007. But they were only about 40 percent of total spending, and a sustainable recovery can't be based on the top ten percent.

Add to all this the joblessness or fear of it that continues to haunt a large portion of the American population. Add in the trauma of what most of us have been through over the past year and a half. Consider also the extra need to save as tens of millions of boomers see retirement on the horizon. Bottom line: Thrifty consumers are doing the right and sensible thing by holding back from the malls.

They saved a little over 4 percent of their disposable income in fourth quarter of 2009. In the months or years ahead they may save more.

Right and sensible for each household but a disaster for the economy as a whole.

American consumers accounted for 70 percent of the total demand for goods and services in the American economy before the Great Recession, and a sizable chunk of world demand.

So what happens when the stimulus is over and the Fed begins to tighten again? Where will demand come from to get Main Street back, create jobs, raise middle class wages? Not from big businesses. Certainly not from Wall Street. Not from exports. Not from government.

So, where? That question is the big unknown hanging over the U.S. economy. Until there's an answer, an economic "recovery" for anyone other than big corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy is a mirage.

Cross-posted from


Saturday, March 13, 2010

We're All in This Together

by Tony Schwartz
President of The Energy Project
Huffington Post
March 12, 2010

Is it just me, or are you feeling more anxious and unnerved than usual?

I can't remember living through a period of such uncertainty in my lifetime. I'm not talking so much about the uncertainties in my own life -- there are always plenty of those -- but about everything that's going on in the world around us.

I've been around a long time now, so I've lived through the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, assassinations, gas shortages, riots, multiple recessions, George W. Bush, 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This moment in history feels different.

Obviously, the economy has a lot to do with it. Unemployment is nearly 10 percent. Even people who have jobs are worried about what the future looks like. So are people like me, who run small businesses. I don't know anyone who hasn't felt the effects of the recession we're struggling through. I don't know anyone who feels any sense of confidence about when it's going to turn around.

The financial prognosticator I've followed most closely for the past several years is Harry Dent Jr. I met him in October, 2007 when we were both giving keynotes at the same conference, and we ended up having dinner. I was already worrying about the economy, which was flying at the time.

Dent told me it was all going to collapse in the next year. His reasoning made sense to me. I went home and sold all my stocks.

Everything he said came true. Now he says that we're about to enter a second and much more severe downturn -- a true depression -- that will begin by this fall. The Dow, he says, will collapse.

Housing prices will continue to drop, and it will be ugly for a long time. Several of the smartest people I know agree with him.

I dearly hope he's wrong. I fear he's not.

It saddens me that we seem to have learned so little from the financial meltdown. It astonishes me that CEOs and senior executives of large companies don't see that paying themselves millions of dollars while laying off thousands of employees isn't just wrong, it's also tone-deaf.

But herein lies the opportunity. Change doesn't occur in the absence of pain. It's in times of uncertainty and despair that real transformation tends to occur.

I'm looking for the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company who steps up and says, "I'm going to take a bonus-free salary this year of $200,000 or $300,000 or even $500,000, and use the extra $5 million or $10 million I'd otherwise be paid to save 100 to 200 jobs in this company."

I'm hoping for a dawning awareness that we can't survive in a world any longer where the primary preoccupation of the best people in business -- and especially in banks -- is how to enrich themselves.

As the brilliant Michael Lewis has written: "It's more than a little nuts for a man who has a billion dollars to devote his life to making another billion, but that's what some of our most exalted citizens do, over and over again."

The time has come for the next evolutionary leap. It depends on the recognition -- beginning with a courageous few at the top of the food chain -- that we're all in this together.


Monday, March 08, 2010

World's Largest Dead Zone Suffocating Sea

James Owen in Stockholm
Published March 5, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis. For more clean water news, photos, and information, visit National Geographic's Freshwater Web site.

"Eagle!" The shout goes up as a great shadow sweeps over our boat. The white-tailed eagle makes its descent to one of the 24,000 islands that make up Sweden's pine-covered, rocky Stockholm Archipelago.

The tourists on board for this nature tour in August 2009 mostly miss the phsoto opp. But local wildlife expert Peter Westman, of the conservation group WWF Sweden, assures the group that there will be others.

Numbers of this once-threatened predator have soared from 1,000 to more than 23,000 in the Baltic Sea (map) since pollutants including DDT, an eggshell-thinning pesticide, and PCBs, chemical compounds used in electrical equipment, were banned in the 1970s, Westman said.

But there is a new danger to the eagle and many other marine species: An explosion of microscopic algae called phytoplankton has inundated the Baltic's sensitive waters, sucking up oxygen and choking aquatic life.

Though a natural phenomenon at a smaller scale, these blooms have recently mushroomed at an alarming rate, fed by nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers and sewage. When it rains, farm fertilizers are washed into the sea. Sewage-treatment facilities also discharge waste into the Baltic ecosystem.

As a result, the Baltic is now home to seven of the of the world's ten largest marine "dead zones"—areas where the sea's oxygen has been used up by seabed bacteria that decompose the raining mass of dead algae.
"We’ve had enormous algal blooms here the last few years which have affected the whole ecosystem," Westman said.

Overfishing Adding to Algal Blooms

Overfishing of Baltic cod has greatly intensified the problem, Westman said. Cod eat sprats, a small, herring-like species that eat microscopic marine creatures called zooplankton that in turn eat the algae.

So, fewer cod and an explosion of zooplankton-eating sprats means more algae and less oxygen.

This vicious cycle gets worse as the spreading dead zones engulf the cod’s deep-water breeding grounds, he added.

The algal blooms, which can be toxic to animals and human swimmers, leave behind an ugly layer of green scum that fouls tourist beaches and starves seaweeds of light.

"Other species have taken the place [of seaweed], which don’t provide as good habitats for fish," especially juveniles, Westman said. "In the past couple of years common fishes like pike and perch have had virtually no reproduction in the inner part of the archipelago."

This vicious circle gets worse as the spreading dead zones engulf the cod’s breeding grounds.

Too Late to Save the Baltic Sea?

Back in Stockholm, it's World Water Week, the annual global meeting on water issues organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute. On a conference room wall is a satellite image of the Baltic Sea, its deep blue edges giving way to a swirling, milky center that shows the algal blooms.

World Water Week attendees are pushing a new action plan called the Baltic Sea Strategy. The European Union-led initiative will attempt to coordinate the efforts of the eight EU members within the nine Baltic states—not including Russia—to revitalize their shared sea.

While the speakers all agree "it’s time for action," they don’t sound optimistic.

"It might well be too late," said Søren Nors Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen.

The planet’s youngest sea at less than 10,000 years old, the Baltic is unique in that it formed after the last ice age. It's also one of the world’s largest bodies of brackish water.

"Experience tells us such a system is almost impossible to predict," Nielsen said.

The Baltic Sea's unusual mix of fresh water and marine species means it's also especially vulnerable to environmental changes. "Evolution didn’t have time to develop an ecosystem able to tolerate flux," Nielsen explained.  (Related: "Viking Shipwrecks Face Ruin as Odd 'Worms' Invade.")

"Sea of Laws"

Water-law attorney Megan Walline of the Stockholm International Water Institute, who spoke at the Baltic Sea presentation, said there's already "a sea of laws" for dealing with human activities that threaten the Baltic.
Too numerous to list, they include existing EU directives that cover nutrient pollution and illegal fishing. The laws are there, they just need to be implemented, she said.

For his part, WWF’s Westman hopes the new EU strategy will at least turn the Baltic into "a kind of test area for enforcing and implementing the directives." For instance, the plan calls for phasing out phosphates in laundry and kitchen detergents, and putting in place more sustainable fishing regulations.

Even so, "There are no quick fixes, unfortunately," Westman concludes, reaching for his binoculars.
Seems it’s back to the eagles for now.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Winter in America: Democracy Gone Rogue

by: Henry A. Giroux,
t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed
March 4, 2010

The absolute ... spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.
- Hannah Arendt [1] 

Democracy in the United States is experiencing both a crisis of meaning and a legitimation crisis. As the promise of an aspiring democracy is sacrificed more and more to corporate and military interests, democratic spheres have largely been commercialized and democratic practices have been reduced to market relations, stripped of their worth and subject to the narrow logics of commodification and profit making. Empowerment has little to do with providing people with the knowledge, skills, and power to shape the forces and institutions that bear down on their lives and is now largely defined as under the rubric of being a savvy consumer. When not equated with the free market capitalism, democracy is reduced to the empty rituals of elections largely shaped by corporate money and indifferent to relations of power that make a mockery out of equality, democratic participation and collective deliberation.

The undoing of democracy as a substantive ideal is most visible in the illegal legalities perpetuated by the Bush-Cheney regime and reproduced under the presidency of Barack Obama that extend from the use of military commissions, the policy of indefinite detention, suppressing evidence of torture, maintaining secret and illegal prisons in Afghanistan to the refusal to prosecute former high-level government officials who sanctioned acts of torture and other violations of human rights. As part of the crisis of legitimation, democracy's undoing can be seen in the anti-democratic nature of governance that has increasingly shaped domestic and foreign policy in the United States, policies that have been well documented by a number of writers extending from Noam Chomsky to Chris Hedges. What is often missed is how such anti-democratic forces work at home in ways that are less visible and when they are visible seem to become easily normalized, removed from any criticism as they settle into that ideological fog called common sense.

If the first rule of politics is to make power invisible, the second rule is to devalue critical thought by relieving people of the necessity to think critically and hold power accountable. And always in the name of common sense. Under the rubric of common sense, democracy is now used to invoke rationalizations for invading other countries, bailing out the rich and sanctioning the emergence of a national security state that increasingly criminalizes the social relations and behaviors that characterize those most excluded from what might be called the consumer- and celebrity-laden dreamworlds of a market-driven society. As democracy is removed from relations of equality, justice and freedom, it undergoes a legitimation crisis as it is transformed from a mode of politics that subverts authoritarian tendencies to one that reproduces them. Used to gift wrap the interests and values of an authoritarian culture, the rhetoric of democracy is now invoked to legitimate its opposite, a discourse of security and a culture of fear enlisted by pundits and other anti-public intellectuals as all-embracing registers for mobilizing a rampant nationalism, hatred of immigrants and a bunker politics organized around an "us" versus "them" mentality. When tied to the discourse of democracy, such practices seem beyond criticism, part of a center-right mentality that views such policies as natural and God-given - beyond ethical and political reproach.

As the country undermines its own democratic values, violence and anti-democratic practices become institutionalized throughout American culture, their aftershocks barely noticed, testifying to how normalized they have become. For instance, one major report indicated recently that more "than 60 percent of children were exposed to violence within the past year ... [with] nearly half of adolescents surveyed ... assaulted at least once in the previous year [and] one-quarter had witnessed an act of violence."[2] In one week, the media reported on a 12-year-old student who was arrested for doodling on her desk at school. Her teacher thought it was a criminal act and called the New York City police who promptly handcuffed her and took her to the local police station.[3] In Montgomery, Maryland, a 13-year-old student at Roberto Clement Middle Schools was taken out of class by security officers after she refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.[4]  The mainstream media provide glimpses of such assaults, but rarely are they analyzed within a broader political and social context that highlights the political and economic conditions that make them possible. For instance, such assaults say nothing about the increasing militarization of public schools, the right-wing attempts to defund them so they can be privatized, the rampant inequality that approximates a form of class warfare, or the racism often at the heart of such practices.[5] 

Such actions are now normalized within the discourse of a bunker politics fueled by both the increasing militarization of all levels of society and legitimated further through a harsh and cruel notion of economic Darwinism. There are no shades of gray in this militarized discourse, no room for uncertainty, thoughtfulness or dialogue, since this view of engagement is modeled on notions of war, battle, winning at all costs and eliminating the enemy. Complex understanding is banished under the call for thoughtless, one-size-fits-all zero-tolerance policies in schools, intelligence is now quantified using formulas that may be useful for measuring the heights of trees but little else, and teachers are deskilled through the widespread adoption of both a governing-through-crime pedagogy and an equally debilitating pedagogy of high-stakes testing. Resentment builds as social services either collapse or are stretched to the limit at a time when over 17 million people are unemployed and over "91.6 million people - more than 30 percent of the entire population - fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty line."[6]  Emerging out of this void and shaping a more militaristic anti-politics are the anti-public intellectuals and their corporate sponsors, eager to fill the air with populist anger by supporting right-wing groups, Sarah Palin types, Glenn Beck clones and self-styled patriots that bear an eerie resemblance to the beliefs and violent politics of the late Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995.[7]

This emerging conglomerate and diverse group of anti-public intellectuals, political pundits, populist agitators expresses a deep-seated hatred for government (often labeled as either socialist or fascist), progressive politics, and the notion that everyone should have access to a quality education, decent health care, employment and other public services. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that Sarah Palin in addressing the recent National Tea Party Convention stated "I will live, I will die for the people of America, whatever I can do to help." Surely, these words leave little ambiguity for members of the John Birch Society, right-wing militia groups, Oath Keepers white supremacists, and other armed anti-government groups that appear to be growing in numbers and influence under the Obama presidency. But while these lines received much attention from the dominant media, the more telling comment took place when Palin offered the Tea Party audience lines she lifted from one of the more fascistic films released by Hollywood in the last decade, "Fight Club." 

Inhabiting the character of a self-styled, pathologically violent maverick, Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), whose misogyny is matched by his willingness to engage in acts of militia-inspired terrorism, Palin unabashedly mimics one of Tyler's now famous wisecracks in attacking Obama's clever rhetoric with the line, "How's that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?"[8]  Going rogue in this context suggests more than a compensatory quip for any kind of sustained analysis; instead it offers a seductive populist reference to lawless violence.

This somewhat confused but reckless appropriation of the discourse of glamorized violence suggests the not-so-subtle ways in which violence has become the framing mechanism for engaging in almost any mode of politics. Under such circumstances, politics shares an ignoble connection to a kind of soft terrorism, a kind of symbolic violence blatantly tied to the pathologies of corporate corruption, state-sanctioned brutality and authoritarian modes of engagement.

As violence and politics merge, the militarization, disciplining and oppressive regulation of American society continue, often legitimated by a popular culture in which the spectacles of celebrity idiocy and violence become the only stimuli left to shock people out of their boredom or offer them an outlet for their anger. But they continue in ways that seem incidental rather than connected, diffused of its real meaning and abstracted from the politics that informs it - hence, it slips into a kind of invisibility, wrapped in the logic of common sense. Under its common-sense rubric, homelessness and poverty are now criminalized, schools are dominated by zero-tolerance policies that turn public schools into a low-intensity war zone, school lockdowns are the new fire drills, the welfare state morphs into the warfare state, and university research is increasingly funded by the military and designed for military and surveillance purposes. 

In one of the more frightening examples of the militarization of American society, David Price has brilliantly documented how government intelligence agencies are now placing "unidentified students with undisclosed links to intelligence agencies into university classrooms ... and has gone further ... than any previous intelligence initiative since World War Two. Yet, the program spreads with little public notice, media coverage or coordinated multicampus resistance."[9] 

Is it any wonder that when intellectuals in the social sciences and medical fields assist in the illegal torture of "enemy combatants" or embed themselves in military-sponsored counter-insurgency campaigns, such practices rarely get the critical attention they deserve. All too often, the blathering disciples of common sense tell us that politics is rooted in natural laws, unhampered by critical thought. Such appeals to common sense suggest that thinking is at odds with politics, and its hidden order of politics is hateful of those public spaces where speaking and acting human beings actually engage in critical dialogue, exercise discriminating judgments, and address important social problems. 

Common sense is in effect an anti-politics because it removes questions of agency, governance and critical thought from politics itself. As part of the logic of common sense, scapegoating rhetoric replaces the civic imagination, and a brutalizing, calculating culture of fear, demonization and criminalization replaces judgment, emptying politics of all substantive meaning. In this discourse, there are no social problems, only individual failings. Poverty, inadequate health care, soaring public debt, the bailout of corrupt financial institutions, the prison binge, the destruction of public and higher education cannot be addressed by the logic of common sense, because such issues point to broad, complex considerations that demand a certain amount of understanding, literacy and a sense of political and moral responsibility - all enemies of the anti-public intellectuals who wrap themselves in the populist appeal to a know-nothing common sense. 

Common sense makes human beings superfluous, depoliticizes politics and transforms human beings into the living dead, unable to recognize "that politics requires judgment, artful diplomacy, and judicious discrimination."[10] Common sense occupies the antithesis of Hannah Arendt's insistence that debate constitutes the very essence of political life."[11] This is the central message of Fox News, Glenn Beck and other right fundamentalists who live in circles of certainty and reject any real attempt at debate, persuasion and deliberation as the essence of politics. Their populist appeal to common sense to justify their various views of the world rejects enlarged ways of thinking, thoughtfulness and the exercise of critical judgment. Such a discourse creates a zombie politics in which deliberation is blocked and the ethos of democracy is stripped of any meaning.

A zombie politics enmeshed in the production of organized violence, surveillance, market-driven corruption and control, buttressed by an appeal to common sense, blocks the path to open inquiry. War not only becomes normalized under such circumstances, it becomes a defining force in shaping all aspects of society, including its use of science and technology. Put differently, as warlike values become more prevalent in American society, science and technology are increasingly being harnessed in the interest of militarized and commercialized values and applications. For example, the defense industries are developing drone aircraft that can be used to deliver high-tech violence not only abroad but also at home. Unmanned drones fitted with surveillance cameras will soon be used to monitor demonstrations. 

As the technology becomes more advanced, the drones will be mounted with taser guns, rubber bullets and other non-lethal weaponry in order to contain allegedly unruly individuals and crowds.[12] High-tech weapons have already been used on American protests and as the state relies more and more on military values, money and influence to shape its most basic institutions, the use of organized violence against civilians will become more commonplace. For instance, at the 2009 G20 summit of world leaders, democracy took a hit as the Pittsburgh police used sonic canons against protesters.[13] These high-tech weapons were used previously by the US military against Somali pirates and Iraqi insurgents and create sounds loud enough to damage eardrums and potentially produce fatal aneurysms. In public schools, surveillance has become so widespread that one school in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, issued over 1,800 laptops to high school students and then used the Webcams fitted on the computers to spy on students. The mainstream media hardly blinked and the public yawned.

Common sense may be good or bad in terms of its value, but in all cases it is unreflective sense and as such shortcuts the types of critical inquiry fundamental to an engaged public and an aspiring society. Surely, common sense is of little help in explaining the existence of brain research that is now being used to understand and influence how people respond to diverse sales and political pitches. Nor does it explain why there is not a huge public outcry over the emergence of a field such as neuromarketing, designed by politicians and corporations, who are "using MRIs, EEGs, and other brain-scan and medical technology to craft irresistible media messages designed to shift buying habits, political beliefs and voting patterns."[14]  Nor does it explain the politics or the lack of public resistance to food industries using the new media to market junk food to children. Zombie politics loves to depoliticize any vestige of individual agency and will. How else to explain a story by New York Times writer Nicholas D. Kristof, who incredulously legitimates the notion that political judgments are primarily the result of how our brains are hard-wired. This is the ultimate expression of anti-politics, in which matters of agency are now removed from any sense of responsibility, relegated to the brave new world of genetic determinism.

Under such circumstances, memory is lost, history is erased, knowledge becomes militarized and education becomes more of a tool of domination rather than empowerment. One result is not merely a collective ignorance over the meaning, nature and possibilities of politics, but a disdain for democracy itself that provides the condition for a lethal combination of political apathy and cynicism on the one hand and a populist anger and an ethical hardening of the culture on the other. Symbolic and real violence are now the defining features of American society. Instead of appealing to the principles of social justice, moral responsibility and civic courage, the anti-public intellectuals and the market-driven institutions that support them laud common sense. What they don't mention is that underlying such appeals is a hatred not merely for government, but for democracy itself. The rage will continue and the flirtations with violence will mount. Going rogue is now a metaphor for the death of democratic values and support for modes of symbolic and potentially real violence in which all vestiges of thought, self-reflection and dialogue are destroyed. Hopefully, the voices of reason and justice will recognize how serious this threat to democracy really is and when they do, they will surely understand what Gil Scott-Heron meant when he talked about winter in America.

[1]  Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution" (New York: Viking, 1963), p. 79.
[2] Editorial, "Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth," The Child Indicator, 10: 1 (Winter 2010), p. 1.
[3]  Jenna Johnson, "Pledge of Allegiance dispute results in Md. teacher having to apologize," The Washington Post, (February 24, 2010), p. B01.
[4]  Liliana Segura, "Arrested for Doodling on a Desk? "Zero Tolerance" at Schools Is Going Way Too Far," AlterNet, (February 27, 2010).
[5]  I have taken this issue up in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, "Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?" (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
[6]  Bob Herbert, "They Still Don't Get It," New York Times (January 23, 2010), p. A21.
[7]  Frank Rich, "The Axis of the Obsessed and the Deranged," The New York Times, (February, 28, 2010), p. WK10.
[8]  Cited in Kathleen Hennessy, "Sarah Palin to Tea Party Convention: 'This is about the people.'" Los Angeles Times (February 7, 2010).
[9]  David Price, "How the CIA is Welcoming Itself Back Onto American University Campuses," CounterPunch 17:2 (January 16-21, 2010), p. 1.
[10]  Richard J. Bernstein, "The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11," (Polity Press, 2005) pp. 1-124.
[11] Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York, Penguin Books, 1977), p. 72.
[12]  Paul Joseph Watson, "Surveillance Drones to Zap Protesters Into Submission," Prison Planet (February 12, 2010). For an excellent source on how the robotic revolution is being used to transform the nature of war, see P.W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotic Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin Press, 2009).
[13] News Blog, "G20 Protesters Blasted by Sonic Cannon," The Guardian (September 25, 2009).
[14] (See, for example, Rinaldo Brutoco and Madeleine Austin, "'Spellcasters': The Hunt for the 'Buy Button' in Your Brain", TruthOut, (January 10, 2010).

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