Western Lawmakers Must Support Real Progress on Climate Change Policy

I rarely if ever put up guest postings on my blog, but today's an exception. I've been thinking a lot about how horrid the Waxman-Markey bill is, but haven't had much time to write any of these thoughts out. Laura Paskus had, no, made some time, and put all my thoughts and so much more into words.

Disappointment, frustration, cowardice, and less and less hope: this is the tenor of our current Congress.


Developmental Paths?

The Times-Picayune, New Orleans' paper of establishment record, published an editorial today urging LSU to accept the power-sharing deal proposed for the $1.2 billion hospital they are steamrolling ahead in lower-Mid City. At issue is the LSU administration's refusal to share seats on the hospital's governing board with Tulane and other universities. The row is yet another roadblock for the project (thank goodness!), in addition to the glaring absence of a detailed, defensible business plan, lack of hundreds of millions in project funds, and major opposition from a growing coalition of pro-Charity Hospital supporters who have a better plan.

The Times Picayune's role in all of this is formulaic. It's what a major daily newspaper and therefore key part of the urban growth machine is supposed to do. According to sociologists Harvey Molotch and John Logan, big newspapers like the Picayune tend to play a referee function among the elite. This is especially true for major urban redevelopment projects with a complex corporate and political constituency. Newspapers often broker deals, urge compromises, and promote the shared interest of a region's dominant industries, real estate owners, builders, political leaders, universities, sports franchises, corporations, etc. Editorials are the main venue for these interventions, but the steering of reportage to certain topics, conspicuous omissions, and other patterns in news coverage serve this function also.

Why do the dominant newspapers do this?

Largely because newspapers are powerful regional business entities, having a interest in the general growth of an urban region: growth means an increase in population which means an increase in newspaper subscriptions and ad revenue.

Today's editorial demonstrates this from the get-go, even though the paper couches its advice to LSU in humanitarian terms; "[...] there is a crying need for the medical care of a proposed new world-class teaching hospital." Sure there is, and if we prioritized health care above all we'd reopen Charity Hospital, not hold out for the teaching hospital that requires demolishing a whole neighborhood and waiting years until it finally opens, all without a guarantee that the health care it provides will serve working families like the Charity system has for generations upon generations.

The second sentence of the paper's editorial intervention gets to the political-economic focus and tries to shake some sense into LSU so that it doesn't burn its wealthy allies. Railing against LSU's near-sighted and selfish administration, the Picayune recognizes LSU's behavior as counterproductive to the broader interests of the region's economic elites:

"In our region, such a hospital in tandem with the nearby new Veterans administration facility would lay the foundation for a biochemical corridor [sic], the most potent economic engine this metro area has seen in decades."

Forgive the Times-Picayune's editors. It's not a biochemical corridor that the hospital boosters (including LSU, big real estate holders, and various venture capitalists) are proposing. Their obsession with the LSU hospital plan is that it supposedly will anchor a biomedical corridor.

(It won't, but that's another story for another post.)

Perhaps this slip of the pen can be explained by the Picayune's decades long history of coddling that other failed developmental vision for Louisiana - the petrochemical refineries and factories scattered all up and down the Mississippi from Venice across to Port Fourchon, up and through New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

The biochemical corridor that New Orleans' elite leadership has promoted and profited from since the end of World War II has accomplished quite a few things, none of which have improved the commonweal and prepared our communities for a healthier more secure future. The chemical industry offered some jobs and helped churn out exotic chemicals and materials of all kinds, from plastics to medicine and pesticides. But it did little to alleviate the mass unemployment and underemployment of our region. The chemical corridor made our region famous as "cancer alley," because of the toxic effluents and emissions dumped from these facilities into our rivers, lakes, land, and air. Grave environmental injustices resulted from the boom of chemical plants up and down the river. Here's a good book about one town that lived in the shadow of Shell Corp.

As someone who loves to fish I find it quite shameful that this region's leadership promoted the chemical corridor as our economic development path. Have you seen how many "advisories" there are warning us to avoid consuming fresh seafood and river catches because of pollution?

The profits from this region's chemical corridor operations mostly accumulated in the bank accounts of transnational corporations with headquarters outside of our state - the Shells, Exxons, Halliburtons, Conocos.... What a sad, future-less developmental path. We have poisoned our land, water, and air, sent the profits abroad, and maintained the poverty of our friends and neighbors across the state. For what?

Today, when not Freudian-slipping over past visions of wealth and power gone awry, New Orleans' elite consensus makers at the Times Picayune are promoting a new developmental path for the region, one based on biotechnology and medical services that will supposedly take form around the LSU teaching hospital proposed for Mid-City. This developmental vision is highly dubious for many reasons. Furthermore, it's exceedingly clear is that past booms were not what they were made out to be by the TP and company.

Nevertheless, the Times-Picayune will press on for the Mid-City hospital because it most effectively triangulates the interests of this city's most powerful industries and some of its greedier institutions. It's classic growth machine politics that will enormously benefit the top 5% with mostly public dollars and do virtually nothing, or worse, for the bottom 40% in New Orleans who have lost health care and perhaps soon a whole neighborhood to this top down scheme.

This has been the Times-Picayune's role since the paper was founded. Indeed, the first developmental vision the paper promoted on behalf of the regional economic elite was the slave and plantation system, a vision the Times Picayune's founders pushed through imperial expansion into Tejas, Mexico.

(This too is another story that'll have to wait for future blog postings.)


Reopen Charity Hospital!

New story on Indymedia about real estate speculation in and around lower Mid-City.

It would seem that the Times Picayune was out to defend a $30 million dollar New York-based investor as a "low-income" housing saint when in fact his interest in the area is much more aligned with the GNOBEDD scheme and LSU's "Taj-Ma-hosptial," and the huge rents it'll all bring if successful.

It really is all about making a new hospital work for the wealthy, not the poor.

A key paragraph of this story is buried in the second half. David Crais, a New Orleans/Chicago venture capitalist sent an email to some of the GNOBEDD's movers and shakers back in April explaining among other things that:
“...lastly, I am also working with a New York based investor who now owns almost 200 parcels of land in the mid-city Biomedical Corridor and in Downtown New Orleans. He is with an investment group who began purchasing property in early 2006, right after the storm, and continues to buy to the present. We spent several hours together last Monday night, to almost midnight, going over the exciting plans for the area. He and his group is very interested in the ideas for granular businesses in the region and also plans for symbiotic (like a Medical Mart) and support business opportunities in medical, tech, healthcare, and trade. At least two reps from their group will be returning to New Orleans in the next two weeks. I'll be with them while they're in NOLA and we'll be discussing more specific opportunities.”
This would seem to flatly contradict Kate Moran's story on Pincus Friedman that ran in the Times Picayune, shortly after she received this very same email.

It'll be interesting to see what comes of this revelation.

The bigger picture is that:
"Major investors have created enormous economic and political pressures on LSU to build its $1.2 billion hospital in lower Mid-City. Casual observers might think that the pro-Charity vs. LSU teaching hospital conflict is an argument over two competing plans to bring health care back online in New Orleans. It is not. The difference between the two camps is in fact much more fundamental with the pro-Charity coalition valuing health as a human right versus LSU and its supporters valuing health care as a business anchor around which an industry can grow, land values can inflate, and hospitals can make money."
Health care as a commodity, or health care as a right?

LSU's $1.2 billion dollar hospital, or reopen Charity?

You decide N.O.


Kenta Canal

I used to go hiking to get my head straight. The whole point was to leave “civilization,” whatever that means in a geographic sense, and find something new out the countryside, where wonders dark and hopeful abound, and where my human form is nothing more or less meaningful than another animal, a beast of flesh and blood and bones. It must have been my naivete then, please excuse me. To my eyes the world seems increasingly and near finally drained of its wonder, its magic, it's wilderness. To me the iron cage, the great disenchantment seems like an accomplished fact.

Where are those wild places still beguiling? I'm not talking about lands “untouched” by humans or stayed “pure,” nothing is, and thank goodness. But where are those sacred groves and mountaintops more or less unmolested by those “civil” humans with their steel motored gasoline machines, their poisonous effluents and greedy hands?

And where are the wild humans? Have they all been killed and tamed? The fire inside me feels weak. Were the Indian wars so final? Were the bureaucrats and city slickers so effective as to eradicate the country-wild spirit and wisdom in all those Appalachian and Acadian clans, those Delta families and Rocky Mountain ranchers? Did the consumer culture suffocate savage beauty so easily? Is modern life really so overwhelming? Is there no one left in North American to inspire us and lead us back to our indigenous souls, the inner places we must find quickly to save ourselves and a world that is fast unravelling before the onslaught of ourselves denied?

I walked into the Barataria Preserve on Sunday. A good friend had told me that I “had to see it.” She was right. We took paths along an elevated wooden gangway that runs along the natural levees of several Bayous - old tongues of the Mississippi built up several feet higher in elevation from the surrounding swamplands. Several feet makes all the difference down here in south Louisiana's landscape of subtle, gradual powers. Bayou Coquelle, named for the shell middens that ice it, evidence of the Native Americans who lived here in a purged era, and Bayou Famille, named for the Isleno families that once lived right along it's high grounds, both run through the wetlands and are themselves filled with giant catfish, alligators, and snapping turtles. Birds haunt the cypress and tupelos. Snakes curl around the frond stems of palmettos.

Unfortunately this park can leave visitors an impression that the swamps and wetlands are healthy and that the wild has a place in south Louisiana, especially for those tourists who don't know much about the natural and recent history of these ecosystems. Like all of the Gulf Coast's wetlands, this place is dying, quickly. Not only are its wild animals and the few remaining wild-hearted people being trapped and tamed, the whole mass of sedimented land is sinking and drifting into salty waves.

Inside the Barataria Preserve visitor's center a ranger lounging behind a desk pulls out maps for us, tells us eagerly about his night hikes and bird walks. It's nice to see him so excited over the spendor and intrigue of birds, rodents, lizards, and spiders. We ask to see the short film they screen. He nods toward a small theater's doors, “It's twenty-five minutes, I'll start it up for you.”

The film is terribly outdated. Probably some oil company funded product, it's soundtrack is heavy on cajun music and popular artists like Linda Ronstadt who sing of “Blue Bayou.” Images of Cajun culture flash by - food, music, and labor, a master boat builder, hunters and trappers, fishermen, children swimming in an edenic pond with a grand gnarled cypress as their swing and diving board. Probably assembled in the 1980s, judging by the dress and manners of people dancing during Mardi Gras and chatting at a crawfish boil, the film is short on any meaningful history. It feels like a welcome mat for tourists, and yet several times the narrator mentions troubles ahead.

The film ends with the voice of an old woman dubbed over frosty dream-like scenes of a man pushing his little pirogue down a tiny canal lined with reeds and grass. He's going to check his muskrat traps. She says something like, “it's getting harder and harder to live like we used to. Times are changing. Can't make a living anymore off the land or sea. Used to be able to go out and hunt or fish, catch some crabs, we never really wanted for anything. That's changed.” Without skipping a beat the disembodied voice says, “...but new opportunities have come for us....” Images of oil rigs in the Gulf and river boats pushing barges of coal and lumber, trans-ocean tankers, and drilling platforms in the swamps flash across the screen. Wages, dollars, and all the accoutrements of modern, civilized life are implied. Acadiana tamed, the wild women and men of Louisiana's wetlands drafted into the grand movement of industrial progress: energy, plastics, sulfur, timber, shrimp, exports, resources....

Bayou Coquelle drains into an artificial waterway, the Kenta Canal which was dredged out in the 1800s to provide drainage and transportation for a major sugar growing plantation. The indigenous tribespeople had paved the natural levee paths like Coquelle with crushed shell, whereas the Islenos and Cajuns of these parts also mostly respected the given topography, its rhyme and reason decided over several millennia of river floods and hurricanes. Capitalist “progress” had other designs, however. Kenta Canal was the earliest type of major diversionary infrastructure built by “civilization” in this part of southern Louisiana. It connected the African slave-employing factories in the fields with the major urban market and port city of New Orleans. When prices dropped on sugar and other plantation crops, and when demand for cypress timber was high enough, the owners of this particular plantation drove sinkers into the Kenta Canal to deepen the channel and float out of cypress to mills closer to New Orleans. Few of the cypress in Barataria preserve look older than fifty years. There is one grandmother tree, perhaps hundreds of years old along the trail. A sign sings its praise and explains that it is unknown why crews didn't cut this giant back on the day when they trudged through the swamp and felled every other beautiful life-giving creator.

When you walk through a forested Louisiana swamp it's impossible not to notice the absolutely key role cypress play in holding the whole ecosystem together. Their trunks anchor mud and silt. They send out dozens and dozens of “knees” through their eager roots, each of which stills the water, provides shelter, and grips the ooze beneath, building layers, capturing nutrients, purifying and sharing all this under immense canopies of oxygenated shade. Here and there along the trails in Barataria are dead cypress, their barren trunks quickly decaying under the heat, rain and strong winds. The youth of the trees in Barataria and most of America's wetlands makes them more vulnerable to hurricanes winds, storm surges, and the invasion of brackish waters.

At the end of the “Marsh Overlook Trail,” about where Bayou Coquelle runs into the Kenta Canal, a wooden foot bridge rises high over the latter. Atop it one can see everything for miles around. Looking northward up the Canal, disturbingly aligned with the artificial waterway, looms One Shell Square, the tallest building in Louisiana, a gleaming white office tower that used to house major Shell Oil Company operations but now, owned by a life insurance company, is mostly leased office space occupied by the shipping companies, law firms, merchant banks, and smaller oil and gas concerns that make up white collar New Orleans. Up and down Kenta Canal are connections to smaller exploratory canals, dug out in the 20th century by oil corporations in search of the next little profit. Kenta Canal's opposite end connects to the equally artificial Bayou Segnette Waterway which feeds into the Intracoastal Waterway, the absurdly long aqueous highway that has seen billions of tons of petroleum and other bulk goods floated across it, from Brownsville, Texas, to Carrabelle, Florida, since its completion shortly after World War II.

Kenta Canal, with its history and its vantage point is as good a place as any to try to get a fix on the land and water of dying Louisiana. Thanks to AJ for the photos.