Friday, December 18, 2009

Recent correspondence

Just before the holidays I received a letter from Gerard Mestrallet, head of GDF Suez, in response to my request that the company switch from coal to solar at Mount Tom. Here is an excerpt of Mr. Mestrallet's letter:

"Because... equipment to control the emissions of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) only exists today in R&D environments and not of the size of an industrial plant, GDF SUEZ instead participates in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a ten-state market-based effort aimed at reducing CO2. The company purchases allowances to account for any CO2 emitted at Mt. Tom through an auction, proceeds from which are then invested in renewable energy projects, energy efficiency, and other clean technologies."

Yes, cap-and-trade; the darling of the fossil-fuel peddlers and their apologists on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill alike.

As I've mentioned before, relying on cap-and-trade to fix the climate is like relying on subprime lending to fix the meltdown. This video from the Story of Stuff Project and Climate Justice Now! (which I found via the Institute for Policy Studies) explains why cap-and-trade schemes like RGGI do nothing to ameliorate climate change.

In addition to the letter from Gerard Mestrallet, I received an email from Ingrid Nestle, a Green member of the German parliament. I had written to Ms. Nestle about anti-coal activism in Brunsbuettel, where GDF Suez is planning a new coal-burning power station. Although the issue has not been the deciding factor in parliamentary elections, Ingrid Nestle said, the candidates and parties that oppose coal happen to have been successful. And, she explained, the grassroots movement behind the anti-coal candidates is on a winning streak:

In all existing locations that are home to coal power plants in Germany there is heavy resistance towards new coal power plants. The protests are supported by several political parties, citizens initiatives, environmental organizations, churches and trade unions. These protests have in the past resulted in repeated successes; the construction of several power plants fell through. Most recently, the new construction of a hard coal power plant in Lubmin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) was effectively prevented. The Danish energy company, Dong Energy, pulled back all of its development plans after it failed to successfully negotiate licensing procedures, among other factors.
Our counterparts in Germany are winning! This is welcome news, and an inspiring note on which to start 2010. So let's keep the pressure on GDF Suez and its major shareholder, i.e. the French government, to switch Mount Tom from coal to solar.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It could happen here

If you've been watching events in Copenhagen, maybe you're asking yourself "How do we get from protests to power?" It's a particularly poignant question in one-party Massachusetts.

Steven Hill's new book Europe's Promise discusses the way Europe practices democracy, and the twenty-something Green legislator Ingrid Nestle provides one noteworthy example of the difference.

When the people of Brunsbuettel, Germany, learned that energy giant GDF Suez was planning to build a coal-burning power station in their town they made their opposition felt in at least two ways: through demonstrations and through the ballot box. They voted Green in sufficient numbers to send the party's Ingrid Nestle to the Bundestag (Germany's national legislature).

Climate-change activists in Massachusetts can demonstrate, but can they vote for the party that truly represents them? Most of the time the answer is no, because in Massachusetts usually only one party -- the Democratic party -- fields candidates. Germany, in contrast, has learned that democracy is a game for more than one player.

Germany, like most European countries, encourages multi-party democracy by using proportional representation (PR). This ensures that the number of legislative seats a political party gets reflects the proportion of the votes it won in the election. So if a party wins 10% of the votes it gets 10% of the seats. Earlier this year the German Greens won 10% of the votes nationwide and ended up with 68 seats in the 622-member Bundestag.

Is the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature likely to do the Greens (and the voters) the lemming-like favor of switching to PR? Let's not devote too much time and mental energy to pondering that one; not when we have better things to do, like tackling climate change, the recession, and the healthcare crisis.

No, the plurality system -- in all its debate-suffocating, supermajority-perpetuating glory -- is with us for the foreseeable future. The Democratic leadership is not going to change the voting system just because PR is fairer, any more than it's going to enact single-payer healthcare just because it's in the Democratic party platform. By the way, there's a reason they call it a platform: A platform is useful for getting on a train, but when the train leaves the station, bound for Beacon Hill, the platform stays where it is.

Returning to the Greens, could they win seats in the Massachusetts Legislature without PR? Based on the experience of some so-called third parties in other places with the same winner-take-all, single-member-district plurality voting system that we have, I think so.

For example, let's look at Britain's Liberal Democrats. Working within an electoral system like ours, a system biased in favor of the two big-tent parties (Labour and Conservative), the Liberal Democrats have boosted their presence in the UK's House of Commons from a mere six seats in 1951 to today's total of 62. In the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (similar to state legislatures in the US) the Liberal Democrats have become natural coalition partners, sharing government portfolios and helping shape policy.

How did the they do it? Partly by luck, of course, like so much else in politics. But also as a result of planning and foresight: by campaigning around issues their grassroots supporters were passionate about about, from the apparently mundane to the almost esoteric; by building up their base in diverse communities, from blighted inner cities to middle-class suburbs and far-flung Scottish islands; by targeting their resources on winnable seats; by forging electoral non-compete agreements with allied parties; and, above all, by taking the long view.

In the immediate post-War years the Liberals had almost vanished. Back then the standing joke was that the parliamentary Liberal party could caucus in a telephone booth. But they clung on, and in 1964, with the charismatic Jo Grimond at the helm, their share of the nationwide vote climbed to 11% and their number of seats in Britain 635-member House of Commons to nine. In 1974 they won 19% of the votes, which (due to the vagaries of the plurality voting, single-member-district system) translated to just 14 seats.

But by 1997 the Liberal Democrats had 46 seats, and after next year's general election they may well hold the balance of power.

Britain's Greens have yet to win a foothold in the House of Commons, but that looks set to change next year. Thanks to PR, the Green party of the UK already has one member of the European Parliament, Caroline Lucas, and she is on track to make history by winning the party's first seat in the House of Commons.

How did the Greens in Britain get to this point? With a few variations, in a similar way to the route the Liberal Democrats took. Click here for one of the party's election videos, by the way.

Closer to home we have the Vermont Progressive Party, which has eight seats in the state legislature. Like the Massachusetts Greens, the Vermont Progressives are fighting for farmers. In 2006, for example, their bill on GMO (genetically modified organisms) which aimed to protect small farmers from the agri-giants, passed both houses before succumbing to the governor's veto.

What kind of voting system does Vermont have? The same as ours: plurality voting in single-member districts. If the Vermont Progressive Party can win seats without PR, so can our state's truly progressive party, the Greens.

Yes, it could happen here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

German Greens Fight GDF Suez

The town of Brunsbuettel in the German state of Schleswig Holstein is already home to a nuclear reactor, so when GDF Suez announced plans to build a coal-burning power station there as well locals took to the streets in protest. Hundreds of people -- and a lot of tractors -- rallied to send GDF Suez a message. As the slogan says: For you, Money. For us, dirt and disease.

At the forefront of the fight against the proposed coal plant were Ingrid Nestle and Konstantin von Notz (pictured right) legislative candidates for the Green Party. Echoing our German allies, I hope Greens in Massachusetts can crank up the noise against GDF Suez's coal-burning facility at Mount Tom.

Because the entity that owns the controlling stake in GDF Suez is none other than the French government, I have asked the French consul in Boston to pass on a message to his bosses in Paris: Stop burning coal at Mount Tom! I put it more politely than that, of course.

If you would like to add your voice, here's the consulate's email address:

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Just a little off the top

After the last posting several Mass Greens readers emailed me to let me know that they were writing Gerard Mestrallet (CEO of GDF Suez, the company that owns the coal-burning power station at Mount Tom, Holyoke) urging him to switch Mount Tom from coal to solar.

If you have written your letter already I extend a big, heartfelt thank you. If my request has slipped down or off your to-do list, here are three more reasons to join the campaign to stop the world's biggest energy giant from burning coal at Mount Tom: Donetta Blankenship and her two kids.

Watching the coal train roll through Amherst on its way to Mount Tom, I have sometimes wondered where the coal comes from. So when I picked up the current edition of Yes! magazine I was happy to learn that there is a way to trace at least some of the coal to its source. I typed in my zipcode and discovered my connection to Rawl, West Virginia, home of Donetta Blankenship and her two children.

Donetta lives with the consequences of Massey Energy's mountain-blasting activities including dust, debris, and a sludge impoundment (a vast pool of toxic waste). Her kids have asthma, and their drinking water contains elevated levels of arsenic, lead, and other toxins. Donetta says,

" [the water] runs out of the pipe like tomato soup; thick with orange sediment."

With mountaintop removal, companies like Massey Energy can mine coal with out coalminers. Instead of paying people a decent wage to go undergound and dig out the coal seam by seam, they just blow the tops of the mountains like the one near Doetta Blankenship's home. First, of course, they cut down and burn all the trees. Then they dump the debris -- rocks and topsoil that used to constitute the mountaintop -- into the streams and river below.

One of the two mountains in the image at the top of this post is Mount Greylock, here in Western Massachusetts. The other is in Rawl, West Virginia. You will notice that the summit of the Rawl mountain has vanished, replaced by a scarred wasteland.

Can you imagine what the Berkshires and the Holyoke Range would look like if we treated them the way our energy-providers treat the mountains of West Virginia? I really don't think we would stand for it, and I think we would fight back. That's what communities like Rawls are doing, demanding an end to mountaintop removal and a switch to clean, renewable energy.

Our electricity comes from places like Rawl, West Virginia, and the ordinary working people of Rawl -- families like Donetta Blankenship's -- are paying the price. One way to show solidarity with their struggle is to demand that GDF Suez switch from coal to solar at Mount Tom.

Click here for a video that shows the impact we are having on the people and landscape of Rawl, West Virginia. But before you click, please set aside 15 minutes to write GDF Suez. Here's the address again:

Monsieur Gerard Mestrallet
GDF Suez
22 rue du docteur Lancereaux
Paris 75392

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, Monsieur Mestrallet

December has arrived so I am gearing up for Christmas.

I'm what Richard Dawkins would call a cultural Christian, as opposed to a Christian of the religious variety, which means (among other things) that I celebrate Christmas. I do so with such gusto that I start listening to Christmas carols several weeks before Thanksgiving, even though the other members of the household consider this borderline felonious.

I mention this because I'm about to ask you for a Christmas present. Do not be alarmed. All it will cost is fifteen minutes of your time, the price of one sheet of paper, an envelope, and an air-mail stamp. I am asking you to write a letter to Gerard Mestrallet, CEO of GDF Suez, the company that owns the coal-burning Mount Tom power station, asking him to convert Mount Tom from coal to solar.

Last March about 40 climate activists gathered at Mount Tom and made the same request, but so far we haven't heard back. Now that the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research has published a report predicting that by the end of this century ocean levels will have risen enough to threaten some of the world's biggest cities, the time seems right for us to send a reminder.

Regular readers of Mass Greens may recall that GDF Suez is one of the biggest energy companies on the planet. In fact, according to the corporate website, GDF Suez is the "No. 1 independent power producer in the world." Another claim the company's website makes is this:
By helping to prevent climate warming, preserving fossil fuels and natural resources, and promoting environmentally friendly energy, GDF Suez is working to control the impact of its own activities and those of its customers on the environment.
Here's one more quote, this time on the subject of solar power:
[GDF Suez will] take all measures to increase the share of this
clean, renewable energy in its energy mix, by being active across the value chain: from research to the construction and set up of facilities.
Hmm. Last March we gather at Mount Tom to demand that GDF Suez stop burning coal, and suddenly (eight months later) the company starts touting its commitment to climate-change solutions. Coincidence? Well, yes!

But while we can't claim credit for changing the hearts and minds of the energy giant's leaders, we can seize the opportunity to hold them to their "we're-ever-so-green" propaganda. Earlier today I wrote a short letter to Gerard Mestrallet asking him to transform Mount Tom from a coal-burning plant to a solar facility. I cited the claims on his company's website and compared them with his company's actions here in Western Massachusetts where it pumps over a million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. I told that him that the company's work on photovoltaics in Belgium is something to be proud of, but that exacerbating global warming via Mount Tom is not.

I am under no illusions that he will take my advice. But nor do I imagine that the people who run energy companies will get serious about climate-change solutions without us (the active citizens) pushing them.

If we had a Green governor in Massachusetts, or a Green speaker of the house, it wouldn't be left to active citizens alone to do the pushing. Monsieur Mestrallet and his colleagues would be receiving correspondence on State House letterhead and getting the message that if GDF Suez wants to do business in Massachusetts it had better switch from coal to renewables a.s.a.p.

But we don't have any Greens in the State House (yet) so the job falls to Greens -- and small-G greens -- outside the State House to send the message. Lyndon B. Johnson once said that being president involves telling people to do what they should be doing without the president having to tell them to do it. I think the same applies to active citizenship.

So let's tell Gerard Mestrallet to do what he should be doing. By way of an early Christmas present to yours truly, please send your letters to:

Monsieur Gerard Mestrallet
GDF Suez
22 rue du docteur Lancereaux
Paris 75392

Friday, November 20, 2009

Time to Start Running

Who should be running for the Legislature next year? Click here for my suggestion:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lima Uniform

"Stop your vessel. You are running into danger."

That's what the signal flags Lima and Uniform mean.

And those signal flags should be flying from the flagpole at the Massachusetts State House, where the ruling Democrats are gearing up to auction off over 28,000,000 (yes, twenty-eight million) tons of CO2 pollution permits next month.

The energy companies that buy the permits through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) acquire the legal right to dump 28,000,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere during the year 2010.

Auctioning pollution permits through cap-and-trade schemes is a Wall Street approach to the climate crisis, akin to trying to dig our way out of the recession using mortgage-backed securities. It just won't work.

For example, are those energy companies doing what NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called for, i.e. phasing out coal? No, at least not so far as I could tell last time I drove past the coal-burning plant at Mount Tom.

And last time I checked what scientists are saying about sea levels rising because of climate change, the news was not good. The current rate of increase is 0.75 mm per year according to the BBC's report based on the latest edition of the journal Science. Burning more coal is one sure way to keep pumping up those sea levels.

The Beacon Hill Democrats need to understand that we can get serious about tackling climate change or we can carry on burning coal, but we can't do both. Encouraging speculation in CO2 pollution through the RGGI scheme reveals not only a lack of seriousness, but an irresponsible roll-the-dice approach to the most serious crisis our species has confronted. Fortunately, the voters are paying attention to the Lima Uniform signal flags even if their state reps and senators are not.

What the Legislature has failed to catch up with is the shift in public opinion that Christine MacDonald describes in the current edition of E Magazine (Why the End May be Coming for Coal), writing that "a sea change has taken place in the last few years, as the media has focused more attention on the debate and the public has become better acquainted with coal's dark side."

Instead of using discredited Wall Street methods that help enrich the coal-burning energy giants, the Legislature and the Executive should be rewarding and encouraging the people who are doing the most to tackle climate change here in Massachusetts: our small, locally-owned green businesses and our organic farmers.

If clean-energy activists are right about the sea change, the Democrats on Beacon Hill had better start paddling hard to catch the tide. On the other hand, perhaps a few of them should jump overboard and make room for some Green legislators.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Green Wedge

Regular readers are used to me going on about how we need a Green presence in the Legislature, a kind of Green wedge. Well, I am increasingly confident that over the next few election cycles the Greens are going to pull it off.

Curious about how the GRP will do it? Come along to the party's statewide convention on Saturday, November 21, 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. at Tilton Hall, Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester.

You don't have to be a registered Green to attend (but you do in order to vote during the afternoon business session) and you can sign up to attend the convention right here. If you're thinking about joining the party, the convention is a wonderful opportunity to meet like-minded, action-oriented people and to dip your toe in the water of Green politics.

By the way, Scott Laugenour, the Massachusetts Greens' membership director, made some important corrections to my Join the Party posting. He pointed out that would-be Green candidates (like me) do not, in fact, win the magic G after their names on the ballot by choosing the Green Party USA designation. So there goes my reason for opting for Green Party USA over the GRP! Thanks to Scott I went to Amherst town hall yesterday and registered as a GRP voter.

For the full story please check out Scott's post.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pre-Convention Thoughts

In the run-up to the GRP convention on November 21, I have been thinking about how our 2010 candidates should strike the right balance in talking about climate change. We want our campaign to be prescriptive as well as descriptive, by which I mean we want to offer real solutions in addition to explaining the nature of the emergency. We don't want to scare people. Or do we?

Greens in other places are wrangling with this issue and coming up with innovative approaches. For example, check out this video from the Australian Greens, called Climate Code Green. If you're so inclined, please let me know what you think.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Join the Party

I am delighted to hear that Greens are already coming forward to run in the 2010 legislative elections, so here's a tip for anyone thinking of joining the candidates club.

Running for office as a Green requires registering as a Green voter. If you're already a registered Green, no problem. But if you're registered as a Democrat or Unenrolled, now is the time to switch.

Switching to Green is a two-step process. Stage one is easy. All you have to do is go to your city or town hall and let the election officials know that you want to change your party affiliation. Stage two is a little more complicated because it involves a choice; you have to let the election officials know which of the two Green designations you're opting for.

Yes, there are two Green designations in Massachusetts: the Green-Rainbow Party (GRP) and the Green Party USA. When I defected from the Democratic party I opted for the latter, mainly because if you run for office under the Green Party USA designation you get the letter G after your name. In contrast, the GRP designation enjoys (if that's the right word) the letter J.

One of these days I plan to run for office again, and I would like to make things as easy as possible for the voters. I'll be reaching out beyond the core of registered Greens to people who have traditionally voted Democratic, voters who are used to seeing the letter D after their chosen candidate's name because (at the risk of laboring an obvious point) D is the first letter of the word Democratic. It would be a reasonable assumption on their part that the Green candidate's name will be accompanied by the first letter of the word Green, i.e. G.

Persuading large numbers of traditionally Democratic voters to vote Green will present challenges aplenty before the voters enter the polling booth, so I don't want anything -- and I mean anything -- putting them off at the very last moment. For those wavering voters who won't decide how they will vote until they are actually holding the pen over the ballot I would like to remove as many deterrents to voting Green as possible, including the cognitive dissonance that could set in at the sight of the word Green followed by the letter J.

For me, then, there are advantages to registering as a G. On the other hand, registering as a J makes you part of the GRP, a political party with almost 7,000 registered voters (compared with the Green Party USA's tally of roughly 1,000 Massachusetts voters) an infrastructure and a respectable electoral track record. For example, in 2006 the GRP's nominee for Secretary of the Commonwealth, Dr. Jill Stein, won more than 350,000 votes and the GRP nominee for Treasurer, James O'Keefe, did nearly as well with about 320,000.

Winning over a quarter-million votes in Massachusetts was a significant achievement and I think it's safe to say that in 2010 the GRP will do even better if it contests any of the statewide offices. So for Massachusetts voters on the lookout for an organized, on-the-ground Green presence the GRP is the only game in town. Another reason for registering J as opposed to G is the ability to participate fully in the GRP. For historic reasons, full voting membership in the GRP is not open to people who, like me, are registered G.

My advice in a nutshell: If you're completely and utterly hung up on the silliness of the J issue or simply cannot bring yourself to join a party with the word "rainbow" in its name, register G. Otherwise, tell your voting officials that you would like to affiliate with the GRP. Either way, now is the time to turn Green. If you look in the mirror and see a Green join the party.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Flagging Popularity

With just 10% of the seats in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the Republicans don't usually rock the boat. In fact, aside from the yawning deficit, mounting unemployment, and soaring healthcare costs, the Massachusetts ship of state is on even keel, so up on deck it's smiles all around. Speaker DeLeo looks satisfied with his tame opposition, and Minority Leader Brad Jones's Ten Percenters show no signs of unseemly ambition (e.g. the desire to win more seats).

But in a startling turn of events on Beacon Hill last week the Republicans filed a bill (news enough, you might say) requiring public-school students to learn "the proper etiquette, correct use, and display of the [U.S.] flag." Not necessarily a bad idea but probably redundant: By the time they reach high school I think most students have worked out that in politics the correct use of the flag is to drape yourself in it.

So that was the big Republican legislative achievement last week. You will recall that last week culminated in the International Day of Climate Action, and thousands of Bay Staters marked the event by demanding political action to bring atmospheric CO2 down to the reasonably safe level of 350 parts per million. What kind of bills would a real opposition party have filed last week?

Here's one suggestion: a bill adopting California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) immediately. The LCFS limits CO2 emissions from energy plants to 500 grams per kilowatt hour, deterring the power companies from burning fossil fuels and enouraging them to switch to genuine renewables. The European Union adopted California's LCFS in 2008 but here in Massachusetts the Democrats are still only thinking about following suit with the process not scheduled to even get under way until early 2010.

A responsible opposition -- a real opposition -- would push the Democratic-controlled Legislature to adopt the Low Carbon Fuel Standard today, with an emergency preamble so that it could take effect immediately. Instead, we get a bill about flag education.

It doesn't have to be this way, but for so long as the only other political party in the Legislature is the Republican party, Massachusetts politics will continue to suffer from an opposition-shaped gap. We can fill that gap with Green legislators, and to get Green legislators we need brave Green candidates who will run grassroots, shoestring campaigns against well-known incumbents with bulging warchests. Any volunteers?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Greens: Fighting for Farmers

If Michael Moore's latest film has got you worried that Congress is giving all our money to the meltdown-makers on Wall Street you can breathe a sigh of relief. It isn't all going to Wall Street; much of it is going to the fossil-fuel industry.

The Environmental Law Institute's recent study (Estimating U.S. Government Subsidies to Energy Sources: 2002-08) describes how our senators and representatives coddled the major greenhouse-gas emitters even while the enormity of global warming was growing clearer by the day. The study demonstrates that between 2002 and 2008 the fossil-fuel industry raked in subsidies totaling $72 billion. In other words, even after scientists established the reality of climate change beyond reasonable doubt Congress kept on transferring enormous sums of public money to private entities that willfully damage the public interest.

Seventy-two billion dollars: That's a lot of money. What if we made a similar investment in genuine renewables (not fake solutions like biomass and cap-and-trade carbon gambling programs)? With an investment on that scale we could transform our lives for the better and pull the CO2 in the atmosphere back down toward 350 ppm.

This is do-able. One recent report in Scientific American claims that we can switch from fossil-fuels to 100% renewable energy in ten years, making a clean break with goal, oil, and gas. At the same time we could be investing in organic farming, which is a reliable and productive method of capturing carbon according to another study, this one from the Worldwatch Institute.

Sequestering carbon through organic farming is good news for all of us, and Green politicians need to get out front, leading the demand for greater investment for our region's organic farmers. There are hundreds of organic farmers working the land in our part of the world (e.g. the members of NOFA), fighting climate change and feeding us at the same time. They should be able to count on Greens as active, vocal allies.

Spending $72 billion on coal and oil is the height of fossil-foolery. Let's put that folly behind us, and start investing in the land and the families who farm it responsibly.

Greenwash Gremlin's October Surprise

Two surprises have come my way so far this month. First there was the news from the activists at Stop Chewing Carbon that the proposed biomass-burning facility in Greenfield would produce more CO2 per megawatt hour than the coal-burning Mount Tom plant in Holyoke but would still qualify for taxpayer assistance. Then came the news from Associated Press that Saudi Arabia is looking for public assistance too, just in case the world becomes less dependent on oil.

While stories about energy corporations getting tax breaks and other incentives under the guise of "green energy" may raise my ire they fail to raise either of my eyebrows nowadays. The AP story about Saudi Arabia joining the dole queue, on the other hand, sent both eyebrows upward and nearly triggered a coffee-out-the-nose event. As a forty-something I clearly remember the effects of the 1973 oil embargo and, seven years later, the Saudi government's expulsion of Her Majesty's ambassador to Riyadh in protest at a British TV drama called Death of a Princess, so I have no illusions about the regime. But not even in my most cynical of moods had I ever imagined the oil-rich theocratic oligarchy asking for a hand-out.

The outrageousness of the Saudi request has me at a loss for words, other than to ask myself whether, with billionaires posing as victims and tree-burners dressed up as tree-huggers, Halloween came early this year. But I do have a public-policy suggestion for countering greenwashing here in Massachusetts.

What is the appropriate response when companies tout themselves as green in order to qualify for public funding? Part of me wants to march into court armed with Chapter 26, Section 91, of the Massachusetts General Laws and force them to stop, one by one. After all, what is the point of having a law against false advertising if we don't use it?

The other part of me (the saner part, I think) wants to file legislation that would set sensible conditions for providing electricity in Massachusetts and our neighboring states. My proposed interstate compact would create an incentive for power companies to switch to genuinely renewable energy. How? By prohibiting the fossil-based alternatives.

If a corporation wants to sell power to the people of New England it would have to prove that the power came from a non-fossil source. In other words, the only way an energy provider could do business in New England would be for it to get out of fossil fuels completely and into renewables a.s.a.p. The compact would involve the six New England state governments acting together -- with each state punching above its weight -- to take on the power moguls.

I think it's worth a try. What do you think?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Choices, More Voices

Voter choice in Massachusetts? Any color, so long as it's blue.

"Any color, so long as it's black," Henry Ford reputedly said about the Model T.

And here in Massachusetts you can vote for whichever party you want, so long as it's the Democratic party.

If you would like more choices, this blog's for you because it discusses a measure that would make it easier for people from other political parties -- yes, there really are other political parties in Massachusetts -- to run for office. The measure is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and if the hardworking activists at Voter Choice succeed, you will see a question about IRV on the 2010 ballot.

IRV (a form of ranked-choice voting) lets voters rank candidates in order of preference, allowing you to vote for the party you like most without accidentally helping the party you like least. Let's say you're one of those people who wants to vote Green but worries about wasting your vote and letting in the Republicans. IRV resolves your quandry.

In a three-way race between a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green you could rank the Green first and, by ranking the Democrat second, know that your vote will not give aid and comfort to the Republican. Imagine that: an election where the choice was not simply between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Why do we need IRV in Massachusetts? To bring us a step closer to multi-party democracy and all its attendent benefits, such as decision-makers having to meaningfully engage with a wider range of public policy proposals (e.g. single-payer healthcare). Why am I saying that Massachusetts does not qualify as a multi-party democracy? Because year after year, the vast majority of elections go uncontested giving the Democrats a free ride and, as a result, all the statewide offices (state and federal) and 90% of the seats in the Legislature belong to the Democrats.

Although nearly all the elected officials in Massachusetts are Democrats, it's not as though most of the voters are. In fact, half the voters in Massachusetts are registered independents. There are plenty of Republican and Green voters around too.

So why the no-choice elections and one-party state? Part of the answer is the plurality voting system, which rewards the already-dominant party and punishes challengers, especially challengers from so-called third parties. Plurality voting works well when there are just two parties, but if three or more parties field candidates the system operates like a roulette wheel, a roulette wheel tilted in favor of the major party.

For example, let's think the almost unthinkable and imagine an election where three parties run for every seat in the 160-member Massachusetts House of Representatives. In each and every district the voters would have a choice of Democrat, Republican, or Green. Obviously, in these unprecedented circumstances the poll workers would need to carry smelling salts to revive the stunned voters (and one another).

And if the election itself wasn't peculiar enough, the outcome could be positvely staggering; because even if the Republicans won 44% of the votes statewide and the Greens won 10%, the Democrats -- with just 46% of the votes -- could still win every seat in the House. So long as the Democrats, with the aura of incumbency, eked out a bare plurality in each and every district they would sweep the board, even though most people had voted for a different party.

In other words, the Greens could win 10% of the votes and 0% of the seats. This is the perversity of plurality voting in single-member districts, and it helps explain the reluctance of many potential Green candidates to step up to the plate.

A better way to elect legislatures, in my opinion, is through proprtional representation* but right now nobody is trying to put proportional representation on the ballot in Massachusetts. What we do have a chance to put on the ballot is IRV and if the question makes it to the ballot and most voters say Yes, the new law will go into operation for the 2012 elections. And then who knows what might happen. We could be awash with candidates, swimming in an ocean of democracy.

But first things first. To get the question on the ballot, the organizers need to gather 90,000 signatures over the next few weeks with a maximum of 16,000 signatures coming from any one county. No easy task. So if you'd like to get involved, please visit the Voter Choice website.

* If you'd like to discuss proportional representation, come see me after class.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mass Budget

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo has unveiled the Democrats' proposed budget. The abridged version? Cuts to local aid and ongoing subsidies for the health-insurance industry. The party that brought you the corporate bail-outs at the federal level has its own state-level remedies here in Massachusetts.

Monday, March 30, 2009

GDF Suez: Responsible Corporate Citizen

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 1--PARIS: GDF Suez, owner of the coal-burning Mount Tom power station in Holyoke, Massachusetts, today announced a radical plan to tackle global warming. The company has adopted a new policy requiring that all GDF Suez smoke stacks will be green -- literally.

"Nobody can accuse us of standing still in the face of the climate crisis," declared Gerard Mestrallet, CEO of the European power giant. "If anybody doubts our commitment to green energy, they can check out Mount Tom. From now on, every molecule of the one million tons of CO2 that Mount Tom emits annually will pass through an undeniably green chimney."

Political leaders were swift to welcome to the announcement.

"I'm proud that Massachusetts is in the forefront of the green energy revolution," said local Senator Stan Rosenberg. "This is yet more evidence of our leadership role."

The senator unveiled plans to pick up the GDF Suez idea and run with it by expanding the green-painting program across the commonwealth. "In the next legislative session I will be filing a bill that would mandate green paint on all coal-burning power stations in Massachusetts," said Senator Rosenberg, "by 2050."

Governor Deval Patrick also chimed in with praise for the GDF Suez action. "Yes it's your broken climate, and it's your broken energy policy, " said the Governor, "but there's no getting around the fact that Mount Tom is now a very pretty shade of green. It was all my idea, by the way."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Brown: The New Green

If you read the March edition of the magazine Ode you will find a brief interview with Nick Rosen, who complains that manufacturers, marketers, and advertisers have hijacked the word green. "They have made 'green' into a fashion item. Now everything is green."

As for a remedy to the corporate co-option of green, what does Rosen suggest, with his tongue (I assume) in his cheek? Simple. Adopt a new color, brown, which the advertising industry would never want to hijack because of its earthy connotations.

Rosen has a point. In the language of trademark law, the green brand has become both diluted and tarnished. It is no longer a helpful indicator of a product's or service's origins, ethos, or bona fides. To misquote Richard Nixon, we are all greens now. Even BP is green (do you like their new logo?) notwithstanding being up to its corporate neck in the Alberta oil sands, an extraction project that some real Greens have dubbed the biggest environmental crime in history.

Surrendering the word green to BP and its ilk and starting over with brown would be one way to deal with the problem, I suppose, but it is far from the only way. An alternative to such abject pusillanimity is for Greens to vigorously police the word green the way a business would protect its trademark, sending cease-and-desist letters to companies that claim to be green but really aren't. This idea has the one, but important, disadvantage of being utterly impractical for reasons that are too numerous to go into.

Another alternative to surrender is to fight back, not with legally baseless threats of trademark-infringement litigation, but through what Anne Elizabeth Moore calls mocketing.

I recommend the book Unmarketable, by the way. In the interests of full disclosure I must reveal that (a) I have no connection to Anne Elizabeth Moore or to the New Press, other than having read and enjoyed Unmarketable, and (b) I receive absolutely no commissions, fees, kickbacks, or even free merchandise for plugging the book.

So, on the subject of Green resistance through the medium of mocketing, I leave you with this thought. April 1st, also known as Fossil Fools Day, is just around the corner. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Big-Box Swindle

Before I write anything else, let me plug a book well worth reading: Stacy Mitchell's Big-Box Swindle. The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses, available at independent local bookstores such as Odyssey Books, South Hadley, and Food for Thought Books, Amherst.

In my last post I railed against our government subsidizing road-building, because the subsidies constitute a huge donation of our money to the fossil-fuel and auto industries and to the other corporations that benefit from sprawl. Big Box Swindle takes a hard look at the many ways policy-makers have served as the little helpers for the mega-retailers, diverting public resources to the private sector, in particular those parts of the private sector that do the most to impoverish our sense of community and humanity.

On the subject of Big Box Swindle, and picking up where my last post left off, let's remember that when politicians talk about "investing in roads and bridges" they are talking about laying down more bitumen, or asphalt. Bitumen is a form of petroleum composed of ancient algae and other living things. Millions of years ago, while alive, these plants and creatures absorbed sunlight. Unleashing the energy from that ancient sunlight releases CO2 that has been stored underground since the days long before our early shrew-like ancestors were dodging the dinosaurs.

Refining, or cracking, the bitumen requires heat from other fossil fuels and releases more ancient CO2 into the twenty-first century atmosphere, thereby exacerbating global warming. If mining and refining bitumen is damaging the climate, why do it? Because bitumen is so profitable. In addition to blacktop, the fossil-fuel industry can use bitumen to produce gasoline and a culture based on car-worship needs both; gas to put in the cars, and asphalt to drive them on.

One simple sentence from an article in, the site for Construction Industry News, explains why the price of bitumen is volatile and why it accounts for about a quarter of new road costs:
As oil prices have gone up refineries have found it more economical to crack bitumen for further oil, meaning there is less of the material available.
So whether it's turning the bitumen into gas or into asphalt, the industry makes a profit. For so long as we keep buying its products, it simply can't lose. The only people who lose out are those of us who need a liveable climate for ourselves and our children. While that would seem to include the people who run the fossil-fuel industry and their enablers in the world of policy-making, there's no getting around those short-term profits.

By the way, the nearest source of bitumen is the Alberta oil sands, where the fossil-fuel industry is committing what some environmentalists have called the biggest environmental crime in history. I don't have the stomach to dwell on the enormity of the crime, so please click the link in the preceding sentence if you're curious as to where the blacktop on your street comes from.

To summarize, investing in new roads and bridges means extracting more bitumen, enriching the fossil-fuel industry, perpetuating a car-centric culture, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, cooking the climate, and leaving our kids a planet unfit for human habitation. Which is one way to spend our money, I guess. But I believe there's a better way, one that allows us to look our kids in the eye.

Instead of subsidizing the corporations that got us into this mess, we can invest in cooperative independent businesses and local organic farms. We can oppose the land-use laws that encourage sprawl and, instead, enact better bylaws. We can stop building new roads and start reviving the old natural trade arteries, our waterways. We can stop buying power from the polluters and start generating our own power locally through wind, solar, and micro-hydro. We can relocalize and turn our communities into resilient, self-reliant transition towns, ready for a post-carbon era.

That's better than another WalMart, right?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stimulating Global Warming

With the economy and climate in crisis, how could burning more coal and building more nuclear weapons possibly help? That's a good question to ask Congress.

Physicians for Social Responsibility(PSR) points out that the Senate version of the so-called stimulus package includes $50 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power and coal liquification. That's in addition to $2 billion for "near-zero emissions" coal-fired power plants and $1 billion for the Department of Energy's oxymoronic "Clean Coal Power Initiative." The Senate also wants to give $1 billion to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

PSR is asking citizens to call 202-225-3121 and tell their Representatives in Congress to get these gifts to the nuclear and coal giants out of the package.

Other big beneficiaries of the public-spending splurge are the auto-and-road lobby and the big-box stores that depend on auto-centric policies. As Greens, we know that our country's car culture is unsustainable.
In the words of James Howard Kunsler, discussing what he calls "the fiasco of suburbia", we have made urban sprawl the basis of our economy.

So how could spending billions on roads possibly steer us toward re-localization? That's a good question to ask our state legislators.

Today's Boston Globe looks at the scramble for federal cash going on at the state level. There are about 4,500 "infrastructure projects" -- primarily roads -- on our elected officials' collective wish list.
Great news for the oil companies and Wal Mart, but not so great for our friends and neighbors trying to run farms and small businesses. What we should be doing is re-localizing our economy by investing in local agriculture -- the center of a sustainable infrastructure -- not bailing out the big-box retailers.

Call the State House (617-722-2000) today and tell your state representative and senator to use public money to tackle the climate crisis instead of making it worse by building more roads.

Monday, February 9, 2009

N.I. Greens Call on Minister to Quit

Northern Ireland's environment minister is trying to stop the UK government from running advertisements that urge people to reduce CO2. The mister, Sammy Wilson, said that he does not believe that human-made GHG emissions are the main source of climate change.

The Green Party's Brian Wilson (who shares the minister's last name but not his views) has called on the him to step down. Brian Wilson, who represents the Green Party in Northern Ireland's legislative assembly, called the comments "grossly irresponsible" and is sponsoring a motion for the mister's removal.
“While the minister is entitled to his own views, he is not entitled to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence that man made climate change exists," said Brian Wilson in a press release.
The Greens won their first seat in the assembly in 2007.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Australian Greens Connect the Dots

Wildfires tearing across Australia have claimed more than 1oo lives. Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens, told the BBC: "It's a sobering reminder of the need for this nation and the whole world to act and put at a priority our need to tackle climate change."

Senator Brown said he joined 21 million other Australians "in putting an arm around those people who have survived this fire".

The fires come as South Australia experiences its worst heatwave since 1908 with temperatures in excess of 100F. Extreme weather conditions are one of the manifestations of the global climate crisis, as Australia's climate change minister explained recently.

"All of this is consistent with climate change, and with what scientists told us would happen," said Senator Penny Wong. Eleven of the hottest years in recorded history have been in the last twelve, Senator Wong told reporters.


This is the blog for Greens in Massachusetts. If you're registered G for Green Party, J for Green Rainbow, U for Unenrolled -- or even if you're a Green trapped inside the body of a Democrat -- this is your forum.

There is an opposition-shaped gap in Massachusetts politics, and it's a gap that Greens need to fill. With 100% of the statewide offices and 90% of the Legislature in Democratic control, democracy is in trouble in Massachusetts. For those of us who have a vision of a more democratic, pluralistic, sustainable society, this entrenched one-partyism is a problem. Mass Greens is part of the solution.

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