Victories in 2007

It’s easy enough to recount what went wrong in 2007.

But it wasn’t all bad. Not only did grassroots movements and citizen campaigns — and sometimes governments responsive to public demands — defeat and resist countless corporate power grabs, they won some vitally important, affirmative victories.

Like every new year, 2008 offers renewed hope, and the chance for new beginnings. There really were some important gains in 2007 that suggest countervailing forces to concentrated corporate power are on the rise.

The following list of 10 victories from 2007 doesn’t claim to be all-inclusive. And almost all of the victories are partial and inchoate. Whether they blossom into fuller achievements will depend on what happens in 2008 and beyond. Have ideas for victories that should be added to this list? Send me a note ([email protected]) or post a comment on the blog.

1. Cultural Change on Global Warming

There were numerous small steps forward to meet the greatest challenge of our day, including in the biggest carbon polluting country, the United States. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a respectable energy bill; the ultimately adopted energy bill will modestly improve energy efficiency in the United States. Many U.S. states are doing much more, most importantly requiring electric utilities to source an increasing amount of their energy from renewable supplies. The Sierra Club and grassroots groups have combined to defeat dozens of coal-fired power plant proposals. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Bali in December ended with a fizzle, thanks largely to U.S. intransigence, but even at Bali, there was agreement that climate change is a real threat.

This last point is probably the main achievement of 2007. There is now no serious argument about the reality of climate change and the need for action. Going forward, the challenge is to generate the political will for meaningful carbon emission cuts, immediately and for the long-term.

2. Bank of the South

Latin American countries joined together to launch the Bank of the South, an effort to create an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Latin American countries — not just Venezuela — are making contributions to the new institution, which will then make project loans, especially for initiatives to facilitate regional integration.

Says Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Politically, the new bank is another Declaration of Independence for South America, which as a result of epoch-making changes in the last few years is now more independent of the United States than Europe is.”

3. Treatment for People with HIV/AIDS

Somewhere between 2.5 million and 3 million people with HIV/AIDS in developing countries are now receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment. This was only possible because of campaigns by people with HIV/AIDS in developing countries and their allies in rich countries. First, activist campaigns and speeded-up generic competition brought down the price for life-saving drugs from more than $10,000 a year per person to, in some cases, less than $100 per person. Then, campaigners successfully demanded aid money be made available to save lives.

Treatment coverage is only around a quarter to a third of need, and global need will grow dramatically in coming years. More international and developing country funding will be needed, and there will be ongoing disputes over patent and pharmaceutical issues. But significant progress is underway.

4. Thailand and Brazil Face Down Big Pharma

In January, Thailand issued compulsory licenses — an authorization for generic competition for products that remain on patent — for two medicines. This followed a prior compulsory license in December 2006. The resulting lowered prices on the medicines enabled Thailand to expand treatment significantly in its public health system — the cost of a heart disease drug fell by 98 percent, and just the initial price drop on an AIDS drug enabled the country to provide the medicine to an additional 20,000 people.

Brazil followed Thailand’s example in May, issuing its own compulsory license on an important AIDS medicine.

The compulsory licenses led drug companies to lower prices on key AIDS drugs around the world. Abbott Laboratories lowered its middle-income country price on a vital AIDS drug by 55 percent.

More information on Thailand here and here.

More information on Brazil here and here.

5. The Billionaire’s Tax Loophole Comes Under Scrutiny

2007 saw new attention focused on the incomes of super-rich private equity and hedge fund managers in the United States — and the stunning fact that they exploit a tax loophole to lower their tax rates to less than that of their secretaries.

The “carried interest” loophole lets private equity and hedge fund managers characterize a big portion of their management fees — their cut of the very high profits they make for investors — as capital gains income, instead of ordinary income. That means they can pay federal taxes at a 15 percent rate, instead of 35 percent.

The House of Representatives passed legislation to eliminate the loophole, but it failed in the Senate.

The issue won’t be going away, however. Says Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO, “It’s finally dawned on people that the richest Americans aren’t paying any taxes.”

6. The U.S. Minimum Wage Goes Up

It’s still a long way from where it should be, but popular support for raising the minimum wage forced Senate Republicans to accede in May to a minimum wage rate hike.

The lowest paid workers in the United States (not counting farm workers and others exempted) will earn $7.25 in 2009. Roughly 13 million workers are expected to see their wages rise as a result.

7. McDonald’s Agrees to Pay Tomato Pickers More

McDonald’s in April agreed to pay a penny a pound more for the tomatoes it uses, with the extra money going directly to Florida farmworkers.

McDonald’s agreed to the arrangement in response to a farmworker campaign coordinated by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The coalition had earlier won a similar victory against Taco Bell.

Farmworkers earn about $10,000 a year. If the entire industry went along with the penny-a-pound arrangement, farmworker wages would rise by about 75 percent.

Unfortunately, an intransigent Florida Tomato Growers Exchange is refusing to implement the McDonald’s accord, fatuously claiming that it would violate unnamed federal and state rules. McDonald’s is placing its extra payments in escrow.

Meanwhile, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is now focusing on Burger King, which is largely owned by Goldman Sachs and other private equity operations. They continue to reject the penny-a-pound demand — which would cost Burger King as estimated $250,000 a year.

8. School Fees Phased Out

For decades, the World Bank and other international agencies instructed developing countries to impose educational and health user fees — charges to go to school, or get access to care. The result: poor children (especially girls) were locked out of school, and sick people from poor families were denied healthcare.

Healthcare fees remain widespread, but primary school fees are finally being phased out throughout many of the world’s poorest countries, in part due to 2000 U.S. legislation requiring the United States to oppose World Bank loans that include user fees.

Primary school enrollment increased by 36 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and 22 percent in South and West Asia between 1999 and 2005, according to UNESCO. “Much of this is due to the abolishment of primary school tuition fees in 14 countries,” says Global Action for Children. “This ground-breaking measure has leveled the playing field, allowing many of the world’s poorest children access to the school house door.”

9. White-Collar Drug Pushers Punished

In May, the maker of Oxycontin, a highly addictive painkiller, pled guilty to charges of misbranding its drug. Purdue Pharma will pay more than $600 million in connection with the guilty plea.

Oxycontin offers major benefits to cancer patients and others with chronic pain, but is prone to abuse. It is especially popular in Appalachia, where it is known as hillbilly heroin.

U.S. Attorney John Brownlee says that scores of people have died as a result of Oxycontin abuse. The federal case against Purdue charged its sales reps misled health providers — including non-specialists in pain management — about the addictive properties of Oxycontin.

Purdue, a privately held Connecticut-based company, launched a major effort to avoid prosecution, including employing Rudy Giuliani to meet with prosecutors and argue against filing of charges.

But Brownlee refused to back down, though he did make some concessions. He did agree not to charge company executives with felonies (three pled guilty to misdemeanors), and he agreed to accept a guilty plea from a Purdue subsidiary, leaving the parent free to continue selling the drug to Medicare and other federal programs. The government could have come down harder on “white-collar drug pushers,” says Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen’s health Research Group.

10. The Bush Countdown Begins

Only 385 more days of the Bush regime.

Happy New Year!

The Story of Stuff

Right now, representatives of the governments of the world are meeting in Bali, Indonesia, to negotiate international agreements to forestall climate change.

Necessarily, these negotiations will revolve around technical, arcane matters. What targets should be set for reduced greenhouse gas emissions? Which countries should adhere to which targets? Should there be emissions rights trading, and if so, how should trading systems work? What financing mechanisms will be established to help developing countries transition to cleaner production methods and leapfrog over polluting technologies? Will there be special mechanisms established to protect forests? How should global trading rules be altered? And on and on.

The world desperately needs these negotiations to succeed, for science-based emission targets to be set, and for principles of social justice to shape the allocation of rights, duties and financial obligations needed to avert climate catastrophe. And whatever progress can be achieved in Bali, the better.

But we also need something else, which will almost surely precede global agreements and serious commitments to undertake the massive economic and social reorganization that the threat of global warming — and other pending ecological catastrophes — commands.
That something else is a broad public understanding of how the system all fits together. Not just how important it is to change from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs or the value of recycling — though these things are vital — but how the present system of making, transporting, selling, buying, using and disposing of things is trashing the planet. If we’re going to save ourselves from global warming, we’re going to have to do things differently.

That’s where The Story of Stuff comes in.

“The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard” is an engaging new short film that explains the “materials economy” in 20 fun-filled minutes.

Yes, fun-filled.

Produced by Free Range Studios, which developed “The Meatrix” — an animated short about factory farming that ranks among the cleverest uses of Internet technologies to deliver a politically progressive message — The Story of Stuff features the wonderful Annie Leonard, amusing graphics, lots of humor, and a complicated analysis presented in an easy-to-understand conversational tone.

You can watch the whole thing here. You’ll have to watch the film to enjoy the humor — there’s no easy way to convey the playful cartooning with serious purpose. But I guarantee chuckles even for the most austere.

The core themes of the Story of Stuff are:

1. The world is running up against resource limits.

“We’re running out of resources. We are using too much stuff. Now I know this can be hard to hear, but it’s the truth and we’ve got to deal with it. In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base have been consumed. Gone. We are cutting and mining and hauling and trashing the place so fast that we’re undermining the planet’s very ability for people to live here.”

2. Corporate globalization is premised on externalizing costs — making someone other than the companies that make things pay for the environmental and human costs of production.

“I was thinking about this the other day. I was walking to work and I wanted to listen to the news so I popped into this Radio Shack to buy a radio. I found this cute little green radio for 4 dollars and 99 cents. I was standing there in line to buy this radio and I was wondering how $4.99 could possibly capture the costs of making this radio and getting it to my hands. The metal was probably mined in South Africa, the petroleum was probably drilled in Iraq, the plastics were probably produced in China, and maybe the whole thing was assembled by some 15 year old in a maquiladora in Mexico. $4.99 wouldn’t even pay the rent for the shelf space it occupied until I came along, let alone part of the staff guy’s salary that helped me pick it out, or the multiple ocean cruises and truck rides pieces of this radio went on. That’s how I realized, I didn’t pay for the radio.”

Who did? The people who lost their natural resource base, factory workers, those who are made sick from factory pollution, and retail workers without health insurance.

3. The corporate economy rests on the artificial creation of need — “the golden arrow of consumption.”

“Have you ever wondered why women’s shoe heels go from fat one year to skinny the next to fat to skinny? It is not because there is some debate about which heel structure is the most healthy for women’s feet. It’s because wearing fat heels in a skinny heel year shows everyone that you haven’t contributed to that arrow recently so you’re not as valuable as that skinny heeled person next to you or, more likely, in some ad. It’s to keep buying new shoes.”

4. Things can be different. And they must be made to be different.

“What we really need to chuck is this old-school throw-away mindset. There’s a new school of thinking on this stuff and it’s based on sustainability and equity: Green Chemistry, Zero Waste, Closed Loop Production, Renewable Energy, Local Living Economies. Some people say it’s unrealistic, idealistic, that it can’t happen. But I say the ones who are unrealistic are those that want to continue on the old path. That’s dreaming. Remember that old way didn’t just happen by itself. It’s not like gravity that we just gotta live with. People created it. And we’re people too. So let’s create something new.”

If you worry these claims are too broad, go to the website. It has supporting evidence and links to a vast array of additional resources and materials.

Is The Story of Stuff just preaching to the converted? No. (Though note, as a friend says, that there’s a reason and rationale for the clergy to preach to the congregation every week — it reinforces, deepens and sustains commitment and understanding.)

The Story of Stuff is something you can show to anyone (or ask anyone to view online). It’s persuasive but not a sermon. It’s sophisticated but not esoteric. Its tone is light but its content is serious. It’s narrated by the irrepressible Annie Leonard with passion but no pretense.

Annie, who is a former colleague and good friend, casually mentions at the start of The Story of Stuff that she spent 10 years traveling the world to explore how stuff is made and discarded. This doesn’t begin to explain her first-hand experience. There aren’t many people who race from international airports to visit trash dumps. Annie does. In travels to three dozen countries, she has visited garbage dumps, infiltrated toxic factories, worked with ragpickers and received death threats for her investigative work. Her understanding of the externalized violence of the corporate consumer economy comes from direct observation and experience.

The Story of Stuff is a short film about the big picture. Give it a look, and encourage others to check it out.

If negotiations like those in Bali are ultimately going to succeed, we need lots more people to internalize the message of The Story of Stuff, and mobilize, as Annie says, to create something new.