Feature Writers Commentary
The Human Face of Climate Change
by Lowell Bliss
I am an evangelical Christian missionary from a conservative church who can trace my awakening to global climate change to the “lifting of a blanket.” I know that phrase is often used metaphorically – political posturing and skepticism have long been used like a blanket to smother any sort of serious response to climate change.
But in my case, I literally lifted the edge of a thick cotton blanket and stared into the eyes of a frightened Pakistani girl. And I became a believer.
Of course, human-caused global climate change was not responsible for the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan that injured this girl. And yet, at that moment, I knew that semantic wrangling about who or what caused the event – or even whether it was an environmental issue or not – was part of the blanket of confusion and denial.
Environment, I told myself, is nothing more or less than that which surrounds the people Jesus loves. For this girl, her environment had just come crashing down on her head.
The men of her family – big, burly Pathans – had hiked out of the mountains to our field hospital carrying a charpai, a rope bed, piled high with blankets. We lifted the covers to reveal a girl, perhaps age 14, sallow-skinned, bony wristed. She lay on one side, her legs curled up. Her mouth gaped. She breathed as if the blankets were water and she was a fish. She had cerebral palsy.
Her father told us a stone had fallen from her home’s walls and struck her during the quake. Since then she had regressed: she no longer ate solid food but was back to drinking from a bottle. She whimpered continuously.
Our doctors examined her and discovered only minor bruises. They asked me, as one of the few Urdu speakers on the team, to translate: “Tell them that the earthquake is not responsible for her cerebral palsy.”
I didn’t need to tell them; they knew that.
“Tell them that there is nothing wrong with their daughter.”
I couldn’t tell them that either. It wasn’t true. What could be more fundamentally wrong than to be trapped in innocent incomprehension, unable to make sense of a formerly safe home, suddenly shaking, crumbling and falling upon you?
Making a Statement with Our Tractors
Madison, Wisconsin is truly an amazing scene of beauty — as well as unprecedented political mobilization. Among the throngs of demonstrators, you'll find Democrats, Republicans, independents, progressives, libertarians, and socialists walking together, discussing real solutions while sowing the seeds of solidarity.
I've traveled from France to Malawi to stand with peasants, farmers, and farm workers, but leading the March 12 tractorcade to Madison was one of the most inspiring things I've ever done. Riding to Madison's Capitol Square required a daylong commitment from the 51 farmers on their tractors of every size, color, and make — along with a few manure spreaders, a fire truck, and a self-propelled combine for effect.
I don't know when I've ever felt as welcome as the moment when our tractors drove through the crowd of 100,000-plus people waving caps and flags, yelling, "Thanks for being here, farmers!" The energy and spirit of camaraderie were overwhelming.
This wasn't just about standing up for collective bargaining rights — it also proved that public and private sector workers will stand together to build a sustainable community. Governor Scott Walker's attack on workers' rights will harm rural schools, communities, and churches. Rural communities, like my town of Kendall, Wisconsin, are the true source of this country's wealth. The fate of these communities is tied intricately to the fate of workers everywhere.
Wisconsin is a dairy state — one in five Wisconsinites is employed by the dairy industry — whether that's on a farm, in a cheese factory, at a farm equipment dealership, or driving a milk truck. Today, 80 percent of our dairy farmers sell their milk through cooperatives, which use collective bargaining to establish milk prices for their members.
As it is, dairy farmers are losing money because their cooperatives aren't standing up to the processors buying their milk, such as Kraft and Schreiber Foods. If public-sector workers lose their collective bargaining rights, then we co-op farmers will lose our rights too. We'll be paid even less for our milk. That's bad for Wisconsin, and it's bad for the poor, the elderly, the sick, women and children, and farmers everywhere.
In many industries, workers don't have collective bargaining rights, so they can't demand fair wages. However, since 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act has guaranteed almost all Americans a minimum wage, time-and-a-half for overtime in certain jobs, along with child labor restrictions that help give kids a fair shot at getting a decent education. Corporations, and now governments, are chipping away at these rights and protections. Can this really be happening in the United States? Without fair wages and safe working conditions, what have we accomplished as a nation in the past 200 years?
Classified ads in a recent issue of Agri-View, a Wisconsin farm journal, listed 21 farms for sale, with dairy herds ranging from 20 to 180 cows or goats. It's nothing new: nationwide, the consolidation of dairy farms is dramatic. More than half of them disappeared between 1992, when we had 131,509, and 2010, when only 53,127 were left.
When those 21 farms are sold, at least 21 families will move somewhere else, leaving fewer farmers supporting local businesses and the tax base that funds community schools and infrastructure. As the tax base shrinks, school districts eliminate programs and local businesses close, leaving even fewer places for people to work and to buy goods. Is this really good for America or its bottom line?
State governments need to realize that they're not just hurting civil servants when they eliminate bargaining rights, but everyone: family farmers, fishermen, and farmworkers — the people who provide our food — as well as the communities in which these people live and pay taxes. It's time for all of us to stand together, raise our voices, and demand our rights. The strength of our families, our communities, and our nation depends on it.
Joel Greeno is a dairy farmer in Kendall, Wisconsin, president of American Raw Milk Producers Association, and at-large board representative for the National Family Farm Coalition.
The Game is Changing in Iran
By Laicie Olson
Last year, a powerful computer virus called "Stuxnet" targeted Iran's nuclear program. By the time it was discovered, the virus had succeeded in setting back the country's nuclear progress. Now, Iran claims to have identified a new threat. The virus, which Iran is calling "Stars," may or may not be authentic. But no matter the outcome, Iran's announcement could be good for the United States.
Regardless of its origin, Stuxnet succeeded in providing Washington with what it needs most in Iran: time. The program further delayed what was already a troubled nuclear program, clearing the way for what will no doubt be a long diplomatic process. Paired with the increasing impact of sanctions and turmoil within Iran's inner circle and the greater Middle East, the effect of another setback could be devastating.
Early assessments indicate that the Stars virus isn't as powerful as Stuxnet, and some have speculated that it may not exist at all. In this case, Iran's announcement could be an attempt to explain repeated delays in the opening of its Bushehr nuclear power plant, delays having nothing to do with Stuxnet or similar sabotage. It could also be a ploy to distract attention from Iran's inner turmoil and the rapid change sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, neither of which bodes well for the regime.
Iranian leaders have called the Arab Spring an "Islamic awakening," but the protest movements have been largely secular, calling for democracy and human rights — two issues on which Iran does not have a stellar reputation. Beyond that, the protests have taken a turn for the worse, as far as Iran is concerned, threatening to unseat one of its greatest allies in the region, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran's connection with Syria is crucial to its relationship with Hezbollah and, moreover, its ability to project power in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Washington's perceived power has grown. News of Osama bin Laden's death gleaned a less-than-enthusiastic response from Iran's parliamentarians and media, with some lawmakers and journalists even refusing to accept the veracity of the reports. Though bin Laden was no friend of Iran, the U.S. victory clearly struck a nerve.
Inside Iran, the situation is tense. Food prices have risen almost 25 percent over the past year, twice the overall inflation rate, and in a rare statement of concern, Iran's oil minister recently noted that the country's ability to export oil will be at risk without new investment. Despite the regime's claims to the contrary, sanctions seem to be taking a toll.
Perhaps as a result of increased anxiety, a confrontation recently erupted between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, resulting in the president briefly refusing to carry out his official duties. The confrontation came after Khamenei rejected Ahmadinejad's dismissal of Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi in an unusual show of disagreement between the two leaders.
Ultimately, Iran looks to be losing ground, and its announcement of the Stars virus is one more problem on a growing list. Either Iran has shown its susceptibility to another damaging virus with the potential to set back its nuclear program yet again, or its announcement is an attempt to draw attention away from those issues it sees as far more damaging.
Either way, Iran seems to be in a more vulnerable position than the last time it sat down at the negotiating table. If the United States and its allies can seize on this growing opportunity, it might eventually spell success.
Laicie Olson is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. www.armscontrolcenter.org
Revenge is Obsolete
by Winslow Myers
Our euphoric national mood in the wake of the assassination of Osama bin Laden may make for a reluctance to look once again, or perhaps for the first time, at his demands. There has been almost nothing in the mainstream press that examines his motivations for terrorism.
We prefer a bogeyman of pure evil, because this does not require the kind of introspection suggested by the Society of Friends: what is it in my own inner condition, or that of my country, that might play a part in leading to a phenomenon like Osama?
In an extensive 2002 letter to the American people printed in the British publication the Observer, Osama laid out his specific justifications for horrific violence against innocents.
He began by citing passages from the Koran that give permission to Islamists to fight “disbelievers.” Immediately this sets up a pathological context, because it contains what philosophers call a performative contradiction: he proclaims Islam as a universal religion, but his vision is radically exclusivist. His illusion is that a universal God is on the side of pure Islam against impure or non-Islamists.
But similar rationalizations for counter-violence undergird U.S. actions, often based in a Christianity, which, like Osama’s warped version of Islam, all too casually discards Jesus’ radical non-violence.
Jesus, whom Islam accepts as an authentic prophet, took great pains to avoid “us and them” thinking in his parables and teachings. He said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and that you cannot separate the wheat from the tares (weeds). In other words, be very cautious about making fallible human judgments about who around you is good and who is evil. Instead of blaming others, look at yourself first.
Osama goes on in his letter to say that he and his colleagues are fighting the U.S. because the U.S. is attacking them, specifically by supporting Israel against Palestine. He is explicit in his hatred of Jews: to him the creation of Israel is a crime, and he implies no willingness to accept a more inclusive, multi-cultural vision of the region’s future.
And he calls for revenge. The world has partaken liberally of this great universal response to conflict and violence. Our decision to assassinate him was not an act of restorative justice. Letting him live would not have brought back to life those who perished on 9/11. It was an act of retributive, consciously decided, cold-minded revenge. In the intent eyes of our heads of government as they followed the actions of the Navy Seals, eyes that included a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it was possible to see the blindness of an eye for an eye that makes the whole world blind.
What a pity that we must look beyond the mainstream for models of authentic maturity—to those who lost relatives on 9/11 and yet refuse to continue the cycle and want instead to expend their energy building something new. To the Palestinian doctor Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, who lost three daughters to an Israeli shell, and has dedicated his life not to revenge but to reconciliation.
Our planetary misery and fear will never be decreased by revenge. Revenge is built into the very deterrence which rationalizes the possession of massive nuclear arsenals. On that level of potential destruction we experience the mother of all performative contradictions: a revenge-cycle that could kill us all, as it very nearly did in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and could again if, say, India and Pakistan were to fall into the omnicidal trap of a full nuclear exchange, lunging the world into nuclear winter.
Not all of Osama’s justifications for violence were based in irrational fantasies of the revenge of “us” upon “them.” He raised more valid issues, like our military bases girding the world, or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq as the result of our sanctions, or our double standards about whom we allow to have nuclear weapons and whom we do not—issues that have also been raised by patriotic and loyal Americans in and out of government.
Yes, we may have gained a superficial kind of closure by killing Osama. But we lost an opportunity to put him on trial, which could have been the beginning of a deeper dialogue about the futility of revenge on all sides, and a much greater step toward reducing terrorism than assassinations—let alone trillion-dollar wars of revenge.
Winslow Myers, the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Board of Beyond War (www.beyondwar.org), a non-profit educational foundation whose mission is to explore, model and promote the means for humanity to prevent and end war.