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March Against Monsanto 2015 – Richmond

Some media reports have forecasted hundreds of thousands will March against Monsanto corporation on May 23rd in over 400 cities around the world.  We went into Richmond to join the fun.

While this is a charming picture of a poster, it also has Oakers Sabrina, Sunya and Edmund int he background as well as Aster Acorn

A charming picture of a poster, it also has Oakers Sabrina, Sunya & Edmund in the background as well as Aster Acorn

The march began with background information about how it got started 3 years ago. The inspiration was the US congress passing the despicable Monsanto Protection Act, which was basically written by Monsanto to make things better for them. The most horrific parts of the 2013 Monsanto Protection Act are that even if it is found that GMOs have adverse health effects on consumers, companies using them 1) can not be sued, 2) can not be stopped from harvesting them and 3) cannot be blocked from planting more and selling more of them. Little could be more revealing of how sold out our elected leaders are.

MAM marchers in Richmond today

MAM marchers in Richmond today

The perhaps 100 marchers went through the fashionable Carytown portion of Richmond with a substantial police escort.  The response from the many people who saw us was pretty warm, especially the staff at the many restaurants on that trendy street. As for the tactics of the MAM i have strong split feelings (the technically correct definition of ambivalent).  I love the decentralized approach to the organization of these events.  People come, bring signs, and a megaphone.

There is a fairly informal rotation of speakers at most of these, anyone who is inspired can grab a megaphone and address the crowd.  While I did not speak this year, i did in 2013 in Washington DC.

Marchers with signs just before we head out (i am on the far right of this photo).

Marchers with signs just before we head out (i am on the far right of this photo).

This type of decentralize approach is important, because it is at its base populist.  Also it proves that the internet can be a highly effective organizing tool (not requiring strong–read authoritarian–leaders) with global reach and the capacity to facilitate multi-city/multi-country mass actions.

MAM 2015 official poster

March Wide propaganda image – this is one of the benefits of being in the franchise.

The problem with this lovely grass rootsie approach is that these decentralized groups do a third rate job with media.  There was some media at the Richmond event, and there might even be a bit of press coverage.  But overall, this movement is pretending that it is possible reach millions without a media budget, without media handlers and without carefully crafted messages sending. While i appreciated the considerable decentralized effort, i remember working with the experienced media folks at Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Greenpeace US.  They speak at a high level about when a story has to be out by, what images make sense to broadcast, what are the talking points, what is the group demanding. With hundreds of protests around the world, there are but dozens of articles up (mostly in small papers or on local tv stations).  I can’t help but think if one of the better big green groups were to take on this cause, we would have much larger media echo.

Let's get right to that

Let’s get right to that

Rerouting Mind and Nimble Emotions

I spend more time driving these days than i would like to.  While one of the major advantages of living in income sharing communities like Twin Oaks and Acorn is that you need not drive to work  or to where you reside, i appear to have designed my life to miss out on this benefit.

No one is to blame for this other than me.  I love to travel. I often take on tasks that are at great distances away and i am interested in projects which are not happening in central Virginia, where i nominally live.  While i would certainly prefer to travel in the high functioning rail systems like Germany or the Netherlands have, in absence of these i am not willing to give up my mobility to be orthodox.

Some of the worlds better trains, in one of the best served countries in the world, Germany

Some of the worlds better trains, in one of the best served countries, Germany

Because i am driving more, i observe the behavior of GPS systems more, especially when i make mistakes.  When i miss a turn, the GPS starts rerouting the trip, and while it is figuring this out it leaves the old estimated time of arrival up until it has a new one.  i watch to see how much time i have lost because i missed my turn and surprisingly often it is just a couple of minutes different in arrival time estimates.  It turns out quite often mistakes are cheap.

reroute

So i am attempting to train my brain to do what the GPS does, and effortlessly forgive the mistake, figure out the new path and not stress over it. Instead just pay attention to the new directions and you will get there at basically the original time.

gps_hazards

The less error friendly version

Imagine a world where we have learned this type of emotionally nimble behavior which is effortlessly displayed by the GPS.  What if we let go of this (often optional) guilt and shame?  What if (after having learned what might be useful from our mistakes) we moved on without harping on errors or beating ourselves up wishing we had done something different?

I am guessing all kinds of good would come from it.

StrangeFolx: Infinite Pizza

Brittany ran to me as i was walking through the Ash Street gardens of the Baltimore Free Farm. She was clearly excited to see me.

“I am so glad there is an old person here now!” was the first thing she said to me

I cracked up laughing.  She explained that the party was full of 20 somethings and she thought my experience would be a grounding effect.  Most people don’t find me grounding, but i was still totally flattered.

Brittany dances with chicken at StrangeFolx 2015

Brittany dances with chicken at StrangeFolx 2015

Many folks say they are busy, but you make time for what is important to you.  I really wanted to go to StrangeFolx, the Baltimore Free Farms anniversary celebration.  I wanted to go because i had missed the protests that BFF had played an amazing supportive role in.  I wanted to go because i am regularly impressed with daring, tenacity and street smarts of these punks.  I wanted to go, because i wanted a big, political party that someone else had organized.

StrangeFolx Invitational Poster

StrangeFolx Invitational Poster

On the way to the event i stopped at a roadside stand and got a flat of strawberries.  I was handing them out to the perhaps 100 people who were already at this event by 1 PM.  I walked by Billy who was pumping out pizzas.

Over 100 oizzas came out of this oven that day

Over 100 pizzas came out of this oven that day

As i approached the oven, there was a metal stake sticking up in the middle of the steps which dozens of people would soon be walking.  “Fix that!” i barked at Billy pointing to the offending stake, in the way busy organizers sometimes dispense with pleasantries.  A nearby anarchist reminded me, “You could fix it.”  Billy soon put a purple cup over the stake and pronounced it fixed.  Safety isn’t first with this crowd, otherwise they would not be rioting with the police.

Billy suggested that i change my thinking about pizza.  Moving away from the idea that it would be a point in time in which one might have pizza, to more of a continuum or infinite span of pizza.  And he made quite good on his promise to deliver unending pizza.  Recently toughened up by the tremendous cooking effort done to support protesters of police violence in Baltimore, the Free Farm kids prepped for this 8 hour long anniversary party of a few hundred people.  GPaul asked for a vegan pizza, and in moments it was there.  The advantage of these real pizza ovens is they can cook a full pizza in just a couple of minutes.

A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward riot police after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray,  in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward riot police after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday’s riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

When Billy finally took a break he greeted me warmly and gave me an illegal piece of riot swag.  I was touched and i looked at him curiously.  “We could not have done it without your cooks. It was amazing to have all this help and we desperately needed it.”  When Baltimore exploded, Billy called me.  He asked me to put out the call to Action: Baltimore needs cooks.  So i blogged about it, copied it to few facebook pages and crossed my fingers.   I got great reaction, with cooks responding to the blog post wanting to help.  Many had minor logistical problems (like little money and no car).  I cobbled together ride shares and other minor logistics, but folk were resourceful and wanted to get to Baltimore.  In the end about a dozen cooks ended up volunteering at BFF.  And i felt some pride around networking effectively.

But as though my ego were on some type of zen roller coaster, shortly after this i got schooled by Brittany on how unworkable my clever plans were to try to build coalitions with people of color (POC) activists.  She was clear and firm in telling me that the internship scheme i was proposing would not fly culturally.

Instead Brittany and Billy agreed that the best thing for white allies to do these days is be consistent in providing the type of food services for protesters that BFF and Food Not Bombs have been providing.  And be patient.

Finland Cancels Its Last Reactor

I read about reactors everyday.  It is a trillion dollar industry worldwide, with over 30 countries with operating reactors.  The stories are often contradictory and there is incredible national and international politics at play. (For example, Russian incursions into the Ukraine have damaged its nuclear export business because it depends on component vendors from countries which now have trade embargoes up against it).

importantly, this does not include over 40 reactors

Importantly, this does not include over 40 reactors “temporarily” closed in Japan after Fukushima.

One of the most important nuclear countries in the world is tiny Finland. In 2003, Finland became the first country in Europe in 15 years to order a new reactor.  They ordered a French reactor, the first European Pressurized Reactor (or EPR) from Areva.  This was supposed to be a model for new nuclear construction worldwide and because they were taking a chance with an untried technology, they negotiated a fixed price for the reactor and pre-sold the electricity based on this fix price.

It was supposed to cost 3 billion Euros.  It was supposed to be completed in 2009.  Originally, nuclear giant Siemens joined Areva in the contract to build this reactor, but the project went so badly in 2009 they dropped out.  Now it is at least 9 years late in completion and it will be over 8.5 billion Euros, almost 300% over budget.  Even with this project getting further delayed, ambitious nuclear Finland decided in 2010 to start the process for  the construction of a 6th and 7th reactors. The Finnish government had given the nuclear utility TVP until end of June to finalize its building permit request.

This week TVO, the Finnish nuclear utility with the option to build these new reactors, scrapped their plans.  This little reported story is actually very bad news for the global nuclear industry.  Finland is a rich, technologically advanced country and it leaving the fold of countries which might build new reactors is another nail in the coffin of this dangerous industry.

The official reason for scrapping these proposed new reactors is that they have no confidence in the completion of the EPR which is under construction.  Let’s hope the Brits who are thinking about building two of this design reactors are paying attention.

And if the facts don’t hit hard enough, perhaps this powerful subtitled Japanese video will.

The best job i never had

My first job out of college was with Standard Oil of Ohio (aka Sohio), which was basically a subdivision of the multinational then called British Petroleum.  It was interesting work.  I got to crash the world’s fastest super computer at one point. I visited briefly the single building city which operated the Prudhoe Bay and housed 2000 staff (in many ways like the communes, with free libraries and cafeterias and shared vehicle fleets. But in other ways completely not – being fiercely hierarchical, institutionally sexist and industrial eco-terrorists).

2000 people live, work and play in this building.

2000 people live, work and play in this building.

My boss was a rising star.  He deftly took on any corporate functions which needed attention. He started a general service manager with a dozen employees and became the director of engineering with almost 100 staff.  And as he rose in the company hierarchy i got to meet Sohio’s corporate overlords,  the top guys (and there were basically only men managing the oil company) from BP.

One day I met one of these top guys.  He was a vice president.  He was charming, he was looking for new recruits for the office in London that does support for the companies top management.  We had a chat about his work and he explained it to me this way:

Our job is to come up with a good idea every day.  We do analysis, look at trends, review critiques by others and commission our own.  We have incredible computer resources, experts on call and real budgets.  And some fraction of these good ideas need to be good enough so that the company actually decides to manifest them.

This was my dream job at the time.  Working with smart people, having a mandate to think big and outside the box and do it everyday sounded like heaven.  Especially if there are resources to be able to push good ideas forward.  This seemed like a powerful position to be in.

Armed with good ideas, we thought we could do anything.

Armed with good ideas, we thought we could do anything.

Looking back i was fantastically naive about the possible influence i might have in this circumstance.  And even if i had gotten the job, it would have been tremendous pressure to keep up with the expectations of the senior managers, who i am sure are largely prima donnas.  But the larger problem is that when your driving motivation is greed, your great ideas are steering you the wrong way.

Barefoot, One Eye and Too Dim

NYC has changed me.

Two years ago, if i had walked out of the Richmond train station and seen three “traveler kids”, i would have headed the other way.  But having spent time doing support work for travelers in Tompkins Square Park has shifted my perception of this fringe group that i had not been connected to before.

Too Dim, Barefoot, and One Eye - or folks who could be them

Too Dim, Barefoot, and One Eye – or folks who could be them

I walked out of the train from Baltimore and saw these three, i had a bit of time to wait and decided that this could be fun.  I got a cheap pizza and approached my new friends.  They were welcoming.  I sat with them where they had found an open wall socket to charge their phones with.

They introduced themselves to me as: Barefoot – who claimed she did not own a pair of shoes.  One Eye – who had a fine line tattoo pattern on the check of side of his face where he had lost an eye to a fight or an accident.  Tex – who said he was from Texas. After i had been there for half an hour and they decided that i was at least interesting and perhaps okay, Tex told me “You should call me ‘Too Dim‘.  My friends call me Too Dim, not Tex.”

The conversation rambled.  They offered me beer and cigarettes.  They played an animated guitar and sang in a raspy voices.  They were generous, friendly and welcoming.  All the traveler kids i have run across have been.

The part about

The part about “angry” is a myth, in my experiences.

They train hopped from Jacksonville FL to Washington DC and discovered what many of us had experienced there.  Washington is tough for outsiders with no friends in the town.  They tried to talk to people, but no one had time for them.  They played guitar and sang, but no one was generous.  They tried lots of different types of places and nothing improved things.  So they left.

traveler and train

Move swiftly between trains before they leave to avoid the yard security. A good train hopper can sense  when a car will start moving, and how long before they have to jump.

They were hoping Richmond is better.  I don’t know, but something makes me think it will be.

At one point Barefoot complimented my shirt.  I asked her if she would wear it.  She said she certainly would, then i offered to give it to her, but she would not take it as a straight gift, she wanted to trade – which is how i got the stylish skull tank top i am donning in the picture below.

it is a bit tight

It is a bit tight.

After an hour or so of hanging out, i decided i need to be moving on.  They were lovely folks, dressed in tattered clothes.  I am thankful my previous prejudices are subsiding and i can connect with a greater array of people.

When i left, with no request on their part, i left a few bucks behind.  One Eye called out after me, “You have restored my faith in humanity”.  And strangely, i felt the same way.

Our Own Private Language

As I watched Tom Farrell, CEO and Chair of Dominion Resources at the May 6th  shareholders meeting I had one recurrent thought:

I was supposed to be him.

Tom Ferral

Farrell – my alter ego:  “Let me explain to you how this really works”

We have the same class background, the same white privilege, attended similar fancy schools.  We are both propagandists, we are both storytellers.  I was being groomed to be a captain of industry who would stand in front of a room containing many angry shareholders and I would be cordial and friendly and respectful and ultimately dismissive of any of their substantive concerns.  Just as he was with me.

And as I explored this fantasy world in which I was running a nuclear utility, GPaul pointed out in that world I would need to like ties, and have a monogamous wife who also liked ties.  And I would have a lot of money and influence.  I would give evasive sound bite answers to the media and smile slyly when they tried to nail me down with a follow up, simply pointing to the another reporter and saying, “Next question please.”

And I would not trade places.

I was talking with Emilia and she was laughing at the idea of me being monogamous and wearing ties.  She repeated her appreciation that I did not make that choice and ended up “on our side.”  I said I got lucky and fell in love with a witch. She is dismissive of my explanation, saying instead that we make our own luck.

this label is held very differently

This label is held very differently

Tom Farrell recognized me in the brunch before the shareholders meeting.  He asked why I was not at last years shareholders meeting.  I did not have the heart to tell him I missed the last three.

Security was tighter than it had ever been.  Cell phones were not allowed into the meeting.  There were multiple checks before you could get into the meeting space.  They made it seem like it was a big deal for them to permit you to come to this meeting which they are legally required to have and the fact that we technically owned the company somehow seemed lost.

Though I did get this convenient cell phone extra battery.

Dominion swag for shareholders

Dominion swag for shareholders

I watch Tom Farrell do his thing.  He presented a carefully selected subset of the available data, focusing on the areas where his company had done well.  I’ve been to enough of these presentations to know that there are always some metrics left out.  And it is important to admit that by many classical measures Dominion is a quite well run company.  Which means that workers and customers are getting taken advantage of to make sure that shareholders do well.

But then a strange thing happened.  As the hour and a half long presentation about how safe and profitable the company continued, i noticed something that very few other people in the room noticed.  There was not a single mention of the North Anna 3 reactor project.  As part of my complex question to Farrel at the end I inquired about this:

“You just spoke for an hour and a half about Dominion and you did not once mention the North Anna 3 project, which is without doubt the most expensive and likely riskiest project our company might embark on in the next few years.  Why is that?”

Farrell of course had his pat answer.  “I did not mention North Anna 3 because we have not yet made a decision about this project.  We are still awaiting the EPAs carbon ruling before we decide if we are going to go forward with it.”

Not on our fault lineAnd for almost everyone in the meeting, this likely seemed a completely reasonable answer.  But in our private unspoken conversation, it had a completely different meaning.  This is my 7th shareholders meeting.  North Anna 3 has been mentioned in every proceeding meeting, not just in passing, but in some depth.  This at least $10 billion and more likely $20 billion project is not getting mentioned, because Dominion is walking away from it.

At every previous meeting I had attended, Dominion had also not made a decision about going forward with this project.  But this not “making a decision about it” is not free.  To not make a decision about this reactor has already cost Dominion over half a billion dollars, which is more than most power generating stations cost in their entirety.  And normally investors would like to see some return for that amount of money.  Dominion, however, has decided to call these wasted funds “research” and pass them on to the rate payers.  Sadly the bought off Virginia legislature quickly agreed to this theft.  This research will never have any value to the customers who are paying for it.  But it is just too close to the time when they we will be forced to pay for it to announce that they were not planning on building the reactor at all.

Our private conversation has other parts as well.  I said, “Four years ago you said Japan would start building reactors again domestically, yet today we see all 50 reactors in the country are either melted down, marked for decommissioning or not in service.  Are you still confident Japan will build more reactors?”

Farrell replied, “Japan has paid a high price for these reactors being closed.  And yes i am confident in the next year, some of these closed reactors will come back online.”

Japan is not forgetting Fukushima

Japan is not forgetting Fukushima

Again, if you were not paying close attention, you would have just believed the story tellers version of reality.  But if you look closer, you will see he is not answering my question at all.  I was asking about new construction, which is decades off in Japan, if it ever happens at all.  Fukushima was and is a huge crisis.  While the US has mostly blissfully moved on, Japan is looking at record numbers of childhood thyroid cancers and 100K people who can’t return home.  Farrell was wrong 4 years ago when he promised new domestic construction of reactors, and he knows it.  But instead of admitting that, he answers a different question.  Just like slick politicians do

Farrell and i have sparred like this for years.  This is our own private language.  I generally don’t cut in and ask follow up questions.  But i am not quite comfortable just letting him get away.  I ask the one question there is not a good answer for.

“While there are many uncertainties around building a new reactor, we do know one thing for sure.  Credit agencies have promised that if utilities begin new nuclear construction their companies rating will be down graded.  And for all the new reactor projects in the US we have seen this happen.  How is Dominion going to avoid this fate, if it does decide to build North Anna 3?”

Farre;; talks about all companies being different.  About how SCANA which started construction in 2013 and is already behind schedule and over a billion dollars over budget.  They got down graded because they are so small and the two reactors are such a large part of the portfolio.   Farrell speaks non-specifically of how Southern Company (which also got down graded after they started their reactor construction in 2013 and is the same size as Dominion)  got down graded for other reasons.

But Farrell knows, we both know, that nuclear construction companies have an absolutely terrible time controlling costs.  He even hints at this when he is complaining about a recent off shore wind project Dominion was considering.  “They could not cap the costs,” he said. “We can’t pursue projects which have uncapped costs.”

In our own private language Farrell is finally telling me what i want to hear.  North Anna 3 is dead and we just are not talking about it anymore.

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