Monday, January 28, 2013

Child Slavery in the Chocolate Industry
Justice Is What Love Looks Like In Public
Published in the Sun January 27, 2013

Julie Clawson and her daughter Emma enjoy a fair trade s'more

“I don’t doubt that nearly all of us morally oppose forcing children into slavery…  No parent would request the kidnapping, beating, and starving of other children so that they could serve chocolate cupcakes at their child’s birthday party, but nonetheless, this is essentially what happens.”


The startling quote above is from Austin author Julie Clawson, in her book Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices.  She is referring to child laborers on Ivory Coast and Ghana cocoa farms who are trafficked and forced into slavery to satisfy the enormous appetite for chocolate in America and Europe.  Some of these children are kidnapped; others are sold outright by desperately poor parents in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali.  The children are not allowed to attend school and often do dangerous work with machetes or apply pesticides without protective equipment.  UNICEF estimates that in Ivory Coast alone nearly 200,000 children are laboring illegally on cocoa farms.


Julie’s book doesn’t stop at slavery in the chocolate industry.  She also peels back the sleek marketing campaigns camouflaging some of our other voracious habits.  She discusses unfair wages for coffee farmers, seizure of oil-rich lands from indigenous people by energy companies, and America’s growing propensity to make everything out of plastic and then throw it all away after a momentary use.


Ever since I heard Julie speak last year I have wanted to meet with her, and finally the chance arrived.  Her two young children were back in school and Julie’s own studies at Austin Episcopal Seminary had not yet resumed.  In the driveway Julie’s car was plastered with bumper stickers advising that “Peace begins when the hungry are fed” and “Justice is what love looks like in public.”  Julie, who is 6’1” plus high heels, has a tiny stud in the left side of her nose.  On the dining table were two dozen Harry Potter wands in various stages of construction for an upcoming birthday party.  Over tea, I asked what lit her fire for social justice.  Why does an ordinary suburban housewife, even one with magic wands, think she has the power to fight global injustice?


Julie has no illusions.  She knows that poverty and injustice will not end just because she buys fair trade chocolate and coffee.  She explains that the end of poverty and injustice is not her responsibility, but she feels obligated to join in the struggle.  “I have to at least start somewhere.”  Living ethically is reward enough.


Julie’s mission is to explain to comfortable American consumers that our buying habits affect farmers and children on the other side of the world long after the heady rush from the chocolate bar or double latte has worn off.  It’s like voting with your wallet.  Do you want to vote for African workers to be paid enough to feed their children and send them to school?  Or does the cheapest product get your vote even if it means impoverished farmers and trafficked children?


Julie loaded her book with well-researched stories and, what seemed to her at least, common sense suggestions.  She was surprised by some of the reactions the book provoked.  A few readers were really peeved that this nasty information about child trafficking had diminished their rightful enjoyment of chocolate.  Another shock came when Julie was an invited guest on a Christian radio talk show and was admonished by the host that her concern about the living conditions of the child laborers sounded “too socialist.”  Taken aback by such an attitude, she responded that she was just trying to live out Jesus’ commands.


In 2001, US Representative Eliot Engel and US Senator Tom Harkin introduced a bill that would have created a “slave-free” certification process for chocolate products.  The industry was vehemently opposed, because to have a few chocolate products certified slave-free would expose the others as not slave-free.  To make a long story short, we ended up with a voluntary, non-binding agreement (the Harkin-Engel Protocol) that the chocolate industry would cut back on the “worst forms of child labor.”  So it’s not surprising that twelve years later very little has changed under the voluntary program, except that child trafficking is more secretive because it is now illegal in every country in which it occurs.


Since we don’t yet have a slave-free certification process for chocolate, Julie recommends buying chocolate that is at least certified fair trade.  A trip to HEB reassured me that there are several fair trade chocolate bars easily available:  Dove, Green and Black, and Newman’s Own.  There are also numerous sites on the internet to order fair trade chocolate.


Does a “Fair Trade” label absolutely guarantee that no children were exploited to make your chocolate bar?  Unfortunately, the system isn’t perfect yet.  As long as poverty and greed exist there will be people who cheat.  In 2010 a BBC crew went undercover in Ghana and found some children working illegally even on farms that were supposedly certified fair trade.  The journalist offered one skeptical little worker a Kit Kat bar and, as the boy took a tentative bite, a big smile spread across his face.  After years of harvesting cocoa beans, it was his first taste of chocolate.



Sunday, January 13, 2013

Wind Energy at TECO-Westinghouse
Published in the Sun January 13, 2013

Turbine blade at TECO-Westinghouse
 Driving past the TECO-Westinghouse plant on Interstate 35, I always look for the two longhorns in the pasture in front of the rusty brown building, a small oasis of rural tranquility alongside the main artery of Central Texas.  Two weeks ago, instead of driving past, I was privileged to visit the plant to meet with Richard Fesmire, Director of Operations at the only TECO-Westinghouse facility in the United States, right here in Williamson County.  We met to talk about wind energy.

In 2006, TECO-Westinghouse teamed up with DeWind, a successful German company, to bring wind turbine production to the US.  Since that partnership was formed, TECO-Westinghouse has built and installed 110 of the enormous turbines, whose blades sweep a circle in the sky bigger than a football field.  Most of these turbines have gone to the Novus Wind Project in the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle area.  A few have been sold to projects in Chile and Canada, and one turbine was installed in Sweetwater, Texas for a wind technology training program at Texas State Technical College.  (Think green jobs of the future.)

About 3% of US electricity comes from wind power.  Texas has more installed wind capacity than any other state, and more than twice as much as Iowa, which is number 2.  On November 10, 2012 at 10:21 AM, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas set a new record for wind energy production.  At that moment 8521 megawatts of wind energy generation provided the state-wide grid with 26% of its total electricity.  From 2006 to 2010, wind energy generation in Texas quadrupled to 26 million megawatt hours, partially stimulated by the federal wind energy production tax credit, which essentially subsidizes wind energy producers 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced.  (The retail price for electricity in our area is 10 to 11 cents per kilowatt-hour.) 

The production tax credit was created in 1992 and has expired several times, but was always renewed.  It was raised to its current level in 2005, creating a boom in private wind energy investment to the tune of about $15 billion per year.  A law passed by the Texas legislature in 2005 began construction of 2300 miles of high voltage transmission lines to bring even more wind energy electricity from West Texas and the Panhandle, where the wind blows, to Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, where people use it.

Mr. Fesmire shows me the hubs and rotor shafts for the D9.2 DeWind turbine, which is rated to produce 2 megawatts of power under optimal conditions.  His eyes light up when he tells me about the peak of TECO-Westinghouse’s turbine production last year.  After spending millions of dollars to develop the assembly process, his workers had the capacity to put an 80 ton turbine on a truck every 8 hours, each turbine requiring about 1000 man-hours of work.  “That was a lot of fun,” he admits.  So why is he speaking in past tense?  Why was nobody working on the assembly line on the day of my visit?

On December 31 the production tax credit was set to expire.  As the “fiscal cliff” approached, investors were afraid that this time the credit might not be renewed, so they waited.  Orders for wind turbines slowed to a trickle.  Mr. Fesmire had predicted that without the tax credit TECO-Westinghouse could build as few as ten turbines in 2013.  He hasn’t had to lay anybody off, because they are still building lots of motors for the oil and gas industries, but he had hoped to hire 35 more people to build turbines and wasn’t able to.

Fortunately, the fiscal cliff bill passed by Congress on New Year’s Day extends the wind energy production tax credit for another year, allowing Mr. Fesmire to feel optimistic, although he would like to see a longer range plan.  On-again, off-again policies are terrible for business.

Some people argue that wind energy should be able to stand on its own two feet without government support.  Sounds good, but the tax credits for oil and gas have been in place since 1916 and are permanently built into the tax code, so those industries are not plagued by uncertainty.  Also, the price we pay for electricity from a coal or natural gas plant does not include the long-term costs to society of carbon dioxide emissions and other air pollution, making those fuels look cheaper than they really are.  Burning coal for electricity is sort of like eating fast food:  it’s easy and cheap if you don’t count the cost of the heart attack down the road.

Richard Fesmire with rotor shafts for D9.2 turbine

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Chevy Volt
Published in the Sun January 2, 2013

 “If you have a bathtub full of water, and you start emptying it one teaspoon at a time, eventually you are going to get it empty.”  Biology professor Mary Griffith used that metaphor to teach her community college students that petroleum is a finite resource.  No matter how much remains underground right now; someday the oil will be gone.  Petroleum is so important to the chemical and plastics industries, it doesn’t make sense to burn it up motoring around town.


Mary believes that her faith requires her to be a good steward of the environment, so when electric vehicles became available she wanted one.  But Mary has family in Colorado and takes frequent road trips.  At this point in time, long road trips are not practical in a pure electric car, so she decided on a Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid.  The Volt has a lithium ion battery, and Mary can drive about 44 miles around town on a dollar’s worth of electricity.  But if she wants to go to Dallas or Colorado, off she goes.  When the electricity runs low a gasoline engine kicks on automatically and takes over without her having to do a thing except drive.


Mary insists I take her Volt for a test drive.  I settle into the leather seat and hit the power button.  Some other-worldly music plays like a spaceship booting up.  The dashboard displays the range remaining for both battery alone and gasoline.  Over the lifetime of the car Mary is getting 73.4 miles per gallon.  She apologizes for the 73 mpg number; it would be higher if she hadn’t gone to Colorado so many times.  In less than a year she has put 17,000 miles on the car.  The only maintenance has been to rotate the tires.  Sometime in the next 2 years she will need to get the oil changed.  I back out of the driveway with the guidance of the rear view camera.  We head out to Hwy 195 and Mary urges me to floor it.  She has had it up to 85 mph and knows it could go faster.  She claims the Volt is the most powerful car she has ever had, but I just take her word for it.  Electric cars do have amazing acceleration – sort of like turning on a circular saw.  We discuss the purchase price of a Volt.  She points out that a wide array of luxury cars (and trucks) cost far more.  Mary’s preferred luxury is the reduction of her personal greenhouse gas emissions.


When Mary first got her Volt, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Sun extolling the virtues of her new car.  She wanted to share her enthusiasm.  In response she received an anonymous letter in the mail.  Someone banged out an angry diatribe on a small piece of paper, photocopied it, and sent her the photocopy as if he (or she) was some sort of secret agent.  The writer accused her of using batteries that would someday end up in a landfill, and berated her for not paying her fair share of the road tax.  (In reality batteries that are no longer adequate for an automobile still have 70% of their capacity remaining, and can be used to store energy for household solar arrays.  When completely depleted, they can be recycled.)  Until receiving the letter, Mary had no idea that electric vehicles had political opponents.  I asked if she is afraid this column will provoke another letter.  She hesitates, but finally decides she doesn’t care.  She enjoys driving a low emission vehicle and likes saving money on gasoline.  Mary believes electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are the wave of the future, and she is proud to be an early adopter of an innovative technology.