minnesota

Naomi Klein and Rethinking PolyMet

By JT Haines, September 24, 2014

“We need an entirely new economic model, and a new way of sharing this planet.” — Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate

There are lots of ways that conversations about copper-sulfide mining in Minnesota conclude, some of them less than pretty. But what about where they start?

If we start with the proposition — and I believe we should — that we all share a stake in the health of the air and the water, as well as the soil and trees and habitats, then isn’t it the case that profits taken, and damage caused, by corporations exploiting these resources is at our collective expense? In other words, isn’t that resource-based corporate welfare? (One might argue the entire economy relies on it.)

If so, shouldn’t it follow that subsidizing public institutions (transit, schools, health, etc) by taxing investors who enjoy these profits is not “giving money away to the undeserving poor,” but reimbursing us for our losses?

Mine Sites, courtesy MN DNR

Mine Sites, courtesy MN DNR

More to the point, when it comes to the public resources at issue in the current copper-sulfide mining proposals in Minnesota (PolyMet, TwinMetals), what if we owned 100% of profits, minus a reasonable fee for the work that produced it, rather than multinational corporations owning the profits and paying taxes on a portion of it? (Incidentally, Tony Hayward, of BP Deepwater Horizon infamy, is deeply invested in PolyMet. MinnPost) Would we not then be better able to invest those revenues back into Minnesota, including a sizable fund for any cleanup-related costs and an international fee for carbon-based pollution produced?

If such a narrative were part of our discussion, then perhaps it would be more possible to have a rational conversation about the wisdom of accepting risks to our waters of generations of pollution. Perhaps it would then also be possible to speak both about jobs and environment.

I haven’t heard it. And without such a narrative, the deal has seemed cooked in the company’s favor from the outset.

Naomi Klein in her new book, This Changes Everything, is right — now is the time to “think big, go deep, and move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health.” The PolyMet debate is an opportunity for us do our part by completely reconsidering how we think about public minerals and resources in Minnesota. According to a recent Star Tribune poll, support for the PolyMet proposal is declining. Perhaps we already are.

What’s In a Name, University of Minnesota

By JT Haines, April 17, 2014

Hail to Minnesota (photo credit JT Haines, of brother Tom)

Hail to Minnesota (brother Tom Haines and band at first Gopher TCF Bank home game)

Last weekend, I cheered the Minnesota Gopher men’s hockey team in their dramatic efforts at the NCAA Frozen Four. Everyone in my family has a degree from the U, mine from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and I get goosebumps every time the band plays the alma mater.

I proudly wear the M.

Today the University and Humphrey School are hosting a “Distinguished Carlson Lecture,” featuring Condoleeza Rice. In support of the event, which has drawn significant opposition from those who feel that accountability, context, and authentic exchange are lacking in the presentation, University President Kaler has stated that “we can’t have true academic freedom at the University of Minnesota by denying a stage to those we disagree with or disapprove of.” The Humphrey School’s Dean Schwartz added that Rice is but one of “about 20 speakers of differing perspectives that the Humphrey School will have hosted over the course of the year.” Supporters point out that the Carlson Family Foundation is paying Rice’s $150,000 fee.

Unfortunately, Condi Rice is, among other things, an intellectual author of torture, and the aspects of her legacy I find most relevant (and troubling) are, at best not part of the University’s presentation and at worst whitewashed by it.

In an open letter opposing the framing of the event, over 200 University of Minnesota professors say this:

“In that very spirit of free expression, however, and in our commitment to the principles of truth and the common good that are inscribed above the entrance to Northrop Auditorium where Dr. Rice will speak, we object to the circumstances of this particular visit. While Dr. Rice is an accomplished African-American woman, the advancement of civil rights – the theme of this year’s lecture series – is not central to her legacy. Indeed, as a leading national security official during the entirety of the Bush administration, she bears responsibility for substantial violations of civil liberties and civil rights that were carried out in the name of prosecuting the War on Terror. Dr. Rice is welcome to speak on the University of Minnesota campus, but let’s not ignore her record.” 

I agree with them. (If you do as well, please sign their letter here.) I wish that my school was, if not putting forward a narrative I could get behind, at least facilitating a framework of expression worthy of our name. Howard Zinn famously said you can’t be neutral on a moving train. I hope that we all have Howard in mind today because the Carlsons aren’t the only ones paying for this event. I’m paying with the M on my chest. And so are you.

Update: Good related piece in Salon on Condi at Rutgers. Well said.>

The Minnesotan’s Guide to PolyMet’s Top 10 Favorite Talking Points

By JT Haines, March 4, 2014
Republished in MinnPost, March 10

Public debate on the nonferrous mining issue in Minnesota is heated, and will continue to be. Speaking generally, proponents of the current Glencore/PolyMet proposal assert that the value of jobs and tax revenue from the project would be greater than costs. Opponents of the proposal believe that various impacts on Minnesota would outweigh predicted benefits. This is a massively important issue which goes to the very future of our state and economy. In other words, big stuff.

Of course, it’s not always easy to talk about big stuff. So, in the meantime, I find we’re often sorting through talking points, stuff that merely nips at the true weight of the moment, and much of it straight out of the proverbial brochure. So, I give you this Minnesotan’s Guide to PolyMet’s Top 10 Favorite Talking Points:

  1. “Calling it sulfide mining is misleading. It is copper-nickel mining that we are proposing.” First, a glossary of sorts for the uninitiated: It’s “copper-nickel” or “precious metal mining” if you want to emphasize the shiny stuff that would be sold into international markets. It’s “sulfide mining” if you want to emphasize the vast majority of material (sulfide ore) that would actually be mined, and left behind, in order to get the shiny stuff out of Minnesota. And it’s “nonferrous” mining if you want to avoid the whole conversation altogether. The term “nonferrous” mining does also helpfully highlight that this type of mining is different — and potentially far more dangerous — than the “ferrous” (iron ore) mining that has been taking place in Minnesota for over 100 years.
  2. “If it isn’t grown it’s mined”; There is copper in your car/phone/wind turbine. Tom Rukavina stood in front of the DNR public hearing in Saint Paul last month with a brown paper bag and suggested that those opposed to PolyMet should turn over their keys and phones. [MPR] Easy political points of this sort may be available for Tom. But his suggestion that those who use metals (i.e., live in society) are disqualified from asserting political viewpoints as to how we should manage such public resources is flawed. If you use a stove you can oppose fracking. If you take baths, you can oppose the drying up of one of Hibbing’s three city wells by Hibbing Taconite. [Strib] Minnesotans understand that there are metals in consumer goods. But they also wonder, if that’s what this is about, then how much metal do we need?
  3. It’s 2014, technology is improved. There is a problem with this argument, and that is this: it’s true. In fact, at this juncture in history it’s almost a truism. Which makes the talking point all the more problematic, for it has also been true every single other time a mining company has put it forward from the beginning of time and assuredly into the future. There is a powerful incentive to believe that this time it will be okay. But there’s much hubris there too. Fool me twice?
  4. It is hypocrisy to oppose this project in Minnesota, because Third World. Evidently Glencore — international marauder Glencore [BBC] — now cares about Guatemalans, Namibians, and Indonesians. As a Producer on the documentary film Gold Fever, I have spent significant time in a Guatemalan community that contains a Canadian nonferrous mine. From my interactions there, I believe that, yes, our governments and companies should be accountable for the harms they are perpetrating in Guatemala and elsewhere. And, I believe that my friends in Guatemala would be saddened to learn that such unaccountability is being used to divide working-class brothers and sisters in Minnesota as well. Without appropriate nuance and context on this talking point — which in no way currently exists in our Minnesota conversation — we should be embarrassed to carry it forward on behalf of a borderless extractor. Or, better yet, let’s take up the issue of exploitation and oppression in the Global South in earnest.
  5. “Trust the agencies”; “You’re not an environmental engineer”; “Let the process work.” First, mining companies love to lean on the process with one hand while calling for respect of it with the other. They practically invented the strategy. (If you doubt it, ask the DNR or Governor if they’ve received any pressure on this issue during the process, or, observe the company’s many advertisements currently festooning the state high school hockey tournament.) But in any event, I really hope it is obvious that farmers, librarians, native leaders, union reps, poets, and your grandma have a lot to say about this project on subjects that include but are very much not limited to science, whatever the current status of the SDEIS. The “trust the process” argument is strategic, meant to avail itself of the human tendency to succumb to inertia. So, if you oppose the project, don’t believe the hype. (Minor digression: industry reps made a similar argument before the Minnesota Executive Council when mineral leases were up for approval, which was essentially this: “Don’t worry about this now, worry about it later at permitting.” And if and when we reach the permitting stage, look for the following favorite talking point to gain in prevalence…)
  6. “This has been in process for nearly 10 years; Enough is enough!” The review process for a proposal like this one is lengthy. And many are therefore, quite understandably, impatient. What does not follow though is that a company (or agency) at some point reaches a magic amount of time and money spent, at which point it becomes necessary to move it forward…because of time and money. Perhaps PolyMet’s significant time spent more appropriately reflects the volatility of the proposal and is therefore just as good a reason to scrap the whole thing. (Many issues remain regarding the current proposal, including concerning water modeling. [Ely Timberjay]) Or, perhaps the amount of time spent is simply irrelevant. I’d be satisfied with that, and most reasonable proponents do seem to publicly agree. But, privately, the talking point persists.
  7. “Minnesota has the toughest regulations” (and therefore we should mine here). This is a variant of a few of the above. I haven’t really heard of anyone putting together some sort of research to actually back up the statement, but then again, who cares. If our regulations are tough, then good. Let us develop our tradition of protecting clean air and water in the face of pressure to sell. PolyMet’s goal isn’t to mine somewhere with tough regs; its goal is to mine (and undermine regs as it sees fit).
  8. People oppose this project because…Canoes (and that’s not legitimate). Of course it’s not illegitimate to advocate in favor of natural spaces, although I understand why it’s easy to suggest that canoes are less important than people’s livelihoods. The canoe talking point, like many of the others, taps into a real tension involving legitimate and historical regional issues that have yet to be satisfactorily addressed. As such, it is effective if one’s goal is mainly to dampen a conversation, but otherwise it is mostly divisive. For many, “canoes” are not just about recreation; they represent greater connection to place. They help remind us of the beauty of our state, and I think help produce a better chance that we will manage our resources well. (I hesitate to throw around a word like “spiritual,” but yeah, man, it’s spiritual.) And it’s not just about lakes — wetlands, watersheds, habitats, and the survival of species are also on the minds of the people to whom the “canoe” tag has been derisively attached.
  9. Project opponents are ‘environmentalists,’ ‘antis’, ‘anti-mining’, ‘cidiots,’ and ‘metrocrats’. You know you’re in a healthy conversation when these start coming out. First of all, it’s pretty unfair to call people who disagree with you “environmentalists” – we all live here. We all have a legitimate stake. And as Bob Tammen has reasonably pointed out, attacks like these are regularly levied at the very “cidiots” who have been voting pro-worker for years. In any event, I’m not against this project because I’m anti-mining or because I currently live in the city. (For what it’s worth, I grew up down the street from Minntac in Mt Iron. My memories of the Range are fond ones of swimming in the pit and being awestruck at Ironworld.) I’m against this project because I’m anti-Glencore/Polymet. And because I love Minnesota.
  10. If not this, then what? Are you going to care about the Range once this project goes away? So, fair point. We can’t request solidarity in the face of Glencore/PolyMet, and then abandon one another when it comes to finding better alternatives for much needed jobs. I am willing to own that. And, it’s a good segue.

Glencore/PolyMet’s goal isn’t a safe and clean environment. It isn’t to power wind turbines. It’s not to help Guatemalans. And its goal isn’t a sustainable future for the good communities of the Iron Range. It is to make massive amounts of short-term money — money for giant corporate stockholders who don’t live in Virginia, Hibbing, or Hoyt Lakes. The project itself would be, in a regrettably limited sense, about jobs, but I think we would do well to cease with the suggestion that for the transnational corporation it’s about anything more than profit.

Meanwhile, the planet is warming, resources are under increasing duress, and species including our own are threatened. I truly believe that is the type of moment we’re in. (In other words, Glencore/PolyMet, your timing stinks.) So let’s have an authentic conversation about whether we actually need more copper than has already been mined, or whether using recycled or smaller amounts of copper and other materials is in order. Let’s discuss whether we need to own fewer cars and cell phones in Minnesota, or whether we really do need mining here in order to more safely power the future. And if we determine that we must mine, let’s do so as Minnesotans and decide for ourselves the when, where, how, and by whom.

While challenging perhaps beyond any of our experience, I believe these to be the conversations which stand the best chance of bringing Minnesotans back together. Not talking points from the corporate brochure.

Is Chomsky Right or Not?

A Chomsky quote caught my eye this morning, prompting a couple of quick thoughts. The quote:

Noam Chomsky

“Let’s go to the environmental crisis. There’s nobody around to bail you out. The externalities in this case are the fate of the species. If that’s disregarded in the operations of the market system, there’s nobody around who is going to bail you out from that. So this is a lethal externality. And the fact that it’s proceeding with no significant action being taken to do anything about it does suggest that Ernst Mayr actually had a point. It seems that there is something about us, our intelligence, which entails that we’re capable of acting in ways that are rational within a narrow framework but are irrational in terms of other long-term goals, like do we care what kind of a world our grandchildren will live in.” — Noam Chomsky (via today’s “Noam Chomsky Quotes” on facebook, date and original source not provided).

The thoughts:

  • First, does anyone credibly dispute anything in this statement? One thing I find interesting about Chomsky is a generalized resistance among many to his assertions, regularly paired with a non-refutation of same. Seriously, is he right or not? If not, I’d be interested to hear about it.
  • If he’s right, or if it’s even only possible that he’s right, is our response sufficient? Shouldn’t these concepts part of actual public debates now?

As you might’ve guessed, I agree with Chomsky, and see his assertions as immediately and specifically relevant, not distant or academic. Putting a finer point on it, these concepts — the lethal failure of the “market” to capture externalities, and our own failure as humans to fully grasp the future — should be a real part of public debate now, including around, for one ideal example, Polymet’s pending copper-sulfide mining proposal in Minnesota.

If you agree, a reminder that the public comment period for the Polymet proposal is currently open, and waiting for your thoughts: http://dnr.state.mn.us/input/environmentalreview/polymet/index.html