Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The (Corporate) Monster Under the Bed


           “Don’t you think you are too down on capitalism,” one of my readers asked me. “It can’t be all bad, can it?” 

     If you look at my villains — a cadre of burghers, merchants, and corrupted ministers who cruelly amass arable lands and every source of wealth they can get their hands on — he seems to have a point. As The Old Deltan Thurgit puts it:

          The Merchant Adventurers, as they call themselves, have always been interested in the way we construct our salt pans to catch the tides and in the way we arrange drainage ditches and moveable dams to evaporate finer crystals. Wasn’t only our salt they coveted – they rent our pans to us and hold back all of the profit. They stole our inventions as well. They used our sluices and canals to drain the reedlands for farming until everything living has perished. There are no reeds, no birds, no otter, no frogs, no turtles, no fish—not until three days march north. First they stole our ancient wisdom, then our salt, and finally, the land itself.”  Infinite Games: The Battle for the Black Fen.

     If you take “free trade” in terms of its original meaning, which was the practice of illegal smuggling by New Forest outlaws in Medieval England, I’m against it. Their purpose was to import and sell goods while avoiding duties and taxation. It’s this kind of freebooting capitalism without regard for the greater good that makes me antsy. I’m in good company, too. The Pilgrim Colony was financed by London businessmen who established a joint stock company to profit from the Northern Virginia cod fishing grounds. The Pilgrims didn’t like the despotic demands of their sponsors, and tried to establish a more democratic contract.
         Adam Smith, inventor of the term “free market,” was concerned that if manufacturers weren’t subject to regulation they would undermine society. He believed that economics were social forces subject to law.  

Then there were our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in particular, who were concerned that if corporations were left to their own devices they might destroy the new democracy.  Here’s Thomas Jefferson on the subject:

 “We must crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

And, later, Lincoln:

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country…corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands…”

     In the early modern economy I invent for The Marshlander and Infinite Games Series my portrayal of the dangers of untrammeled capitalism do not mean that I’m giving up on capitalism altogether. My heroes carry on a complex and thriving system of trade in both coins and kind. Rookery folk cultivate flax to sell in Twist, Dunlin produces oats and barley for the Nidden market, the Tapestry House maintains a lucrative and far flung trade in weavings, and the Fisher folk ship their catch for sale in Brent.  My issue is not with the process of buying and selling but with how it is done in terms of its impact on community.

        It’s just the same today when corporations and the senators and representatives they have bought try to override the good of the nation.  Al Gore, for example, deplores the way American democracy is being gutted:

“Unfortunately, however, the U.S. no longer has a well-functioning self-government. To use a phrase common in the computer software industry, American democracy has been hacked. The United States Congress, the avatar of the democratically elected national legislatures in the modern world, is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances” to the extent that “Some political scientists have asserted that the influence of corporations on modern governance is now almost analogous to the influence of the medieval church during the era of feudalism.” (104, 125)

        Their motivation is the same as it always was: plain old-fashioned greed. The other night I saw Paul Solmon interviewing Dacher Keltner on tv. Keltner described thirty studies on thousands of people, all demonstrating that wealthy people are more likely than folks with more moderate incomes to cheat, to speed dangerously by pedestrians, to lie during negotiations, to attribute success to their own talent, and see generosity as for suckers. When they get together in cadres they can cause irreparable damage.

        These form huge economic forces, monsters whose tentacles of influence are so strong and so widespread that we can’t imagine how smaller folk like us can rise up to combat them. Just keep in mind those intrepid Hobbits, Frodo and Samwise, triumphing over what seemed an overwhelmingly powerful enemy. Invented worlds tell us about things we need to know; they also show us how to persevere. We can certainly take heart, too,  from the excellent and historic company of Adam Smith, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, every one of them convinced that corporations need to be controlled for American democracy to survive.  

If we  believe in democracy of, by and for the people, we need to make ourselves part of it.

Ø  Work to repeal Citizen’s United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision which accorded constitutional rights to corporations. Springing from purely grass roots movement, sixteen states have called for an amendment to overturn Citizen’s United. To get the facts in Michigan click Michigan GOP Serfdom Under Citizens United, and Beyond; sign the petition on Tell Congress: Only people are people. | CREDO Action; write/visit the office hours of/ inform or support your local congressperson. (In SE Michigan go to End Citizens United | Peters for Michigan)

Ø  Go to StampStampede to find out how to stamp your money as a personal protest:


Ø  Mail in your proxy ballots. If you hold stock in a company you have a right to vote at its meetings, and if you read their proxy material you will find shareholder resolutions that you can support.

Ø  Consume Wisely.  The ideal American citizen in a corporation plutocracy is a passive, impressionable consumer. Think before you buy from a business that is degrading the environment or undermining the community. For example, boycott clothing made in sweatshops and tell the stores where you are not purchasing it about your action. Go to Responsible Shopper: Guide to Promoting a Responsible Economy with Company Profiles, Green Living Tips, and Campaigns, or to Green America: Boycotts: Economic action to stop corporate irresponsibility

Ø  Al Gore thinks that the best long term ways to keep corporations from polluting the environment are to insist on  Cap and Trade policies, and  support subsidies for the development of renewable energy.

Ø  Please add a comment if you know of other ways to protect constitutional democracy from overreaching corporations.


Al Gore, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, p. 104, 125

Pal Salmon interviewing Dacher Keltner on the PBS Newshour, June 21, 2013.

photo credit:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013



     More than halfway through the second volume of my Infinite Games Series,, the carbon dioxide in the real world hit 400 parts per million. There I was, writing a fantasy novel about human greed despoiling wetlands that had sustained people time out of mind, when the sustainability of our planet went up for grabs.

      Do you remember the monster who crouched under our beds when we were children? We would hide beneath our covers, hoping against hope that he wasn’t real.  Scientists have long agreed that carbon count over 350 ppm is perilous for our climate.  The environmental monster, more frightening than our worst childhood nightmares, has emerged. He is real and, what’s worse, he is us, an embodiment of our monstrous greed for economic growth and consumption.

     As the atmosphere gets warmer and warmer the oceans will heat up, rising higher and higher. More and more powerful storms will fall upon us, with hurricanes inundating our coastland cities and tornados flattening communities all over the country. Perhaps we won't survive as a species.

     The prospect is psychologically devastating. Fortunately, there is help for our feelings of helplessness.  Worrying about the planet one morning, I happened to tune into NPR's On Being, airing a program on "A Shift to Humility: Resilience and Expanding the Edge of Change."  Krista Tippett was interviewing Andrew Zolli, who announced that

"We are not in Kansas.                    
We are not in Oz.
We are in the maelstrom."

     The twentieth century advanced human capacity so far, Zolli said — our life span from 50 to 80, the invention of electricity, the discovery of the atom — that we thought every problem was solvable, and that we were in control. But we are not in control. We are not masters of our destiny. We are undergoing a shift to humility. We thought we could steer around the maelstrom, but we can't. The only thing to do is to invent sails that can get us through it. He calls this "risk adaption."

     We have been talking about sustainability, assuming that human beings could achieve a balance with nature.

      That's over. Nature is out of balance.

        We need to talk about resilience, how to live with the consequences of our action.

    What makes human beings resilient in the face of trauma? Zolli asks us to become “Hardy People,” who

·       Believe that the world is a meaningful place

·       Believe that we have the agency to act in the world

·       Believe that failures will occur but they may be overcome, that change is inevitable, that we will fall short but every attempt is to be valued.

     "The journey toward resilience," Zolli concludes, is the great moral quest of our age." “Every action is still of value.”

      We still have choices, I realized, but where on earth can we find the courage to face so much earthly destruction? “By stating that we cannot change the world,” writes Margaret Wheatley, “I do not intend to bury our motivation in despair. Quite the contrary. My intention is that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn this world around.”  I was also heartened by Carolyn Baker’s writings about developing “Emotional Resilience in Traumatic Times” and Bill McKibben’s book about Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. (see links, below)

           Let’s get to it!
           Make a list of the values we  most cherish.
            How can we enact these principles in environmental actions?

Where can we find allies?

     It has not been enough to cap and trade carbon emissions on a national level, nor has lobbying  congress or marching against the pipeline in Washington done much good.  Think global, but act local: amazing things have worked at the grassroots level.  When plans were afoot to install the Keystone XL Pipeline right on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, a committee of grandmothers constituted themselves the Apple Pie Brigade to visit the Nebraska legislature week after week after week, bearing pies for their representatives and telling them about their fears for their water supply. Local organizations sponsored potlucks, tractor pulls, flashlight rallies, and wildflower drops in Capitol offices. Don’t laugh: the pipeline was moved.*

      We can do this!  We have the brains and the imagination to cook up local actions. Some of us write good letters, others are skilled organizers; some manage fund raising deftly, others can talk over the phone convincingly, while our tireless young can go door to door for hours.

     “On to the Great Mere,” said Joshua. “The stilt walkers are bound to be out there somewhere. You must find them, Clare, and call them to battle. Our boats are fit, and spring is upon us.”

     Clare reviewed her provisions. She had two days worth of fresh food, but her Marshland Company must fish, fowl, or forage, keeping their jerky and hard bread back for emergencies. The terror that had kept her awake all night fell away before these practical considerations.

    “To victory over our enemies and succor to our friends” pledged Hutchin, whose Delta Company must travel far into the perilous southern lands to alert their allies.

     “To friends we leave behind who will dwell in our hearts forever,”added  Clare, “for our fens and our fastness, for our reeds and our sedges,  we pledge ourselves to this battle.”



*from Mary Pipher’s “Lighting a Spark on the High Plains,” at The Keystone Pipeline Fight Is Not Over -

photo credit, Monster Under the Bed 



Thursday, April 25, 2013



           I have always been a nature lover. When I was twelve years old I spent a lot of time sitting by a small pond in the Connecticut woods, reveling in shiny green frogs lolling near the surface and in the amazingly varied feathers of the towee.  

             It was enormously soothing to my soul just to sit there, watching sunlight dappling the still surface where emerald dragonflies hovered and water skaters zipped back and forth..  Sixty-four years later, I feel just the same, watching salmon spawn among the sunlit pebbles of my Northern Michigan river, content in my very bones when the wood turtle slides down the bank and paddles away through all that dappled sepia.


                                       The Betsie River          avp

 used to take solace in the thought that when I die the earth will live on, but not any more.  As the weather changes drastically, as more and more powerful storms assail us and temperatures reach 100 degrees even in northern Michigan, I am terrified that we have polluted our atmosphere beyond earth’s tipping point.  Al Gore tells how he was crossing a busy boulevard after a baseball game, holding his little boy’s hand, when he felt it slip from his grasp.  The child was terribly injured, but survived. Today Gore feels that it is the earth that is slipping through our fingers. Profoundly fearful about climate degredation, he advises us to live with our fear and then use it as a source of energy for action on behalf of our planet.

 Even though we have brought this on ourselves, we feel so terribly puny. How can we stand up for the fantastically complex, interwoven web of natural being that is our only home? 

For years I have addressed threats to our planet as an environmental novelist.  telling the story of self-sustaining wetland communities fighting greedy merchants determined to drain their marshes for agricultural development:

“Modreck sniffed. There was a fishy smell, though not a pleasant one.  Their way led over slate grey flats stretched to the western horizon. The dried-out mud wasn’t entirely level; there were splotches here and there, some dark and some lighter, shimmering in the morning sun. The company halted abruptly as Berwyn fell to his knees, rocking back and forth, keening in his own language.

‘Oh bright ones, leaping ones, speckled ones

 golden-eyed ones, brown-striped ones

 wise-eyed ones, hump-shelled ones, flat-shelled ones

All dead,  all gone!’

                  ‘It’s the frogs he’s mourning,” translated Eryx, ‘and the turtles         and the fishes and the eels and the great red salamanders. The engineers have drained this part of the Reedlands down to nothing.’

They bowed their heads in horrified respect.

from The Battle for the Black Fen, vol III of The Infinite Games Series

When I came across this profound Pledge of Allegiance to the Earth, I knew I had to do more.

© Janina Lamb • • all rights reserved• used with permission

We need to speak out on behalf of Mother Earth, walking our talk in these perilous times.  We can each act individually, signing petitions and writing government officials and/or undertake group actions, like joining organizations already involved in an issue and getting your friends and neighbors to rally around you. Since fracking is an issue in Michigan, I decided to look into it. I came up with a list of pros and cons and of possible actions:


Fracking is hydraulic fracturing by pumping water, sand and chemicals into layers of shale so that oil or gas can be extracted.  Horizontal fracturing ruptures shale deep underground, in contrast to vertical fracking, where the wells are shallower. 

There are less federal than state regulations about fracking, so that most decisions are made at the state level.  The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality finds the practice safe. They say that there is enough regulation in place to prevent harm to people or to the environment

Research teams from The University of Michigan are studying the impact of hydraulic fracturing, especially horizontal fracturing, in Michigan. Their results will be available in 2014.

In Pennsylvania, people living near a well are suing a gas drilling company for contaminating  their water.  Independent tests have found copper, nickel, zinc and titanium. They are suffering from nausea, breathing issues, bone pain and other health difficulties,

Because of this situation in Pennsylvania, New York State has banned horizontal hydrofracking until at least 2015, so that they can research the environmental impact more extensively.

David Suzuki narrated a chilling documentary on the Canadian Broadcast System’s “Nature” program about the devastation a Colorado town near Denver where fields close to many homes were developed for fracking.  Children suffered nose-bleeds and breathing difficulties, the water became undrinkable, people had to move out, and housing values plummeted.

Multiple earthquakes in Ohio have been attributed to fracking .  (Faults created by fracking have also caused earthquakes in the Netherlands)

Also, the fracking process releases methane into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, home in Michigan, there is an extensive band of oil and gas fields stretching right across the state, just below the tip of the mitten, and cutting down through Benzie and Manistee counties to the Lake Michigan shore.  Recently, a natural gas well near Traverse City leaked into well water, and a homeowner near Kalkaska discovered that the value of her house had plummeted because of nearby gas drilling. This has led the Department of Environmental Quality to shift from its earlier declaration about gas drilling safety and call for “a public dialogue over whether we need to look at or change any of the fracking regulations.” Governor Snyder is also waiting completion of this study to determine the environmental impact of the fracking process.

Once we have informed ourselves, what are the positions each of us might choose from?

Possible Positions

1.      Support fracking.  We have the word of the gas and oil companies that the process is safe, so we should not impede the development of a fuel source that is so much cleaner and cheaper than coal and that can help us toward energy independence.

2.      Study it further and make the industry more transparent. Since gas is a cleaner-burning energy than coal, it is worth developing, but it needs to be safe.   This is the Sierra Club’s position. Its Beyond Natural Gas group is working for better standards within the natural gas industry.  They want to close legal loopholes permitting companies to “ignore basic environmental and health protections.”  They organize submissions of public comments to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air safeguard for natural gas fracking, and lobby state officials to enforce regulations about disclosing what chemicals are being used.

 Michigan’s Clean Water Action group is taking a similar position.

           If you choose this position, you might want to look at  twp new Congressional bills (Reps Jaret Polis (-Colo) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa) to repeal exemptions for oil and gas companies under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.  H.R. 1154 (BREATHE) is “Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effect.   H.R. 1175 (FRESHER) is “FocusedReduction of Effluence and Stormwater Runoff Through Hydraulic Environmental Regulation.”

If you take this position you might want to join www.Let’ here, for example, is what Baldimore accomplished: @Food & Water Watch Maryland is celebrating a victory today! After a unanimous vote in the Baltimore City Council, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed the fracking wastewater ban bill into law, making it illegal to treat or dispose of toxic and radioactive fracking wastewater in Baltimore. Click LIKE to say thanks to Councilman Jim Kraft, Blue Water Baltimore, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, Maryland Environmental Health Network and Clean Water Action!


3.      Oppose Fracking and Work for alternate sources of energy.  The process of fracking is environmentally degrading and hazardous for human health, and less environmentally friendly than solar and wind sources of energy. Work with proponents of solar and wind energy to develop these cleaner resources.

Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking  websites

Listed are websites which have information on fracking. Use the search term “fracking” to locate the information on the particular website..


1. US Environmental Protection Agency

EPA is working with states and other key stakeholders to help ensure that natural gas extraction does not come at the expense of public health and the environment. The Agency's focus and obligations under the law are to provide oversight, guidance and, where appropriate, rulemaking that achieve the best possible protections for the air, water and land where Americans live, work and play. The Agency is investing in improving our scientific understanding of hydraulic fracturing, providing regulatory clarity with respect to existing laws, and using existing authorities where appropriate to enhance health and environmental safeguards.

Conducting a study on hydraulic fracturing and its potential impact on drinking water resources.


2. MI Dept of Environmental Quality


3. Sierra Club

The Sierra Club's Beyond Natural Gas works to promote strong standards within the natural gas industry. Natural gas companies should be subject to additional scrutiny and strong national and state safeguards in order to protect our air, water, and communities. If we can’t protect our health and treasured landscapes from the damages caused by the natural gas industry and fracking, then we should not drill for natural gas.


4. ExxonMobil Corp 


5. FracFocus 

Chemical Disclosure Registry

… the national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry. … managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, two organizations whose missions both revolve around conservation and environmental protection.
          The site was created to provide the public access to reported chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing within their area. To help users put this information into perspective, the site also provides objective information on hydraulic fracturing, the chemicals used, the purposes they serve and the means by which groundwater is protected.
          The primary purpose of this site is to provide factual information concerning hydraulic fracturing and groundwater protection.  It is not intended to argue either for or against the use of hydraulic fracturing as a technology.  It is also not intended to provide a scientific analysis of risk associated with hydraulic fracturing. While FracFocus is not intended to replace or supplant any state governmental information systems it is being used by a number of states as a means of official state chemical disclosure.  Currently, ten states: Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, North Dakota, Montana, Mississippi, Utah, Ohio and Pennsylvania use Fracfocus in this manner.  Finally, this site does not deal with issues unrelated to chemical use in hydraulic fracturing such as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM).  This topic is beyond the current scope of this site.


6. Ground Water Protection Council

… (GWPC) is a nonprofit 501(c)6 organization whose members consist of state ground water regulatory agencies which come together within the GWPC organization to mutually work toward the protection of the nation’s ground water supplies. The purpose of the GWPC is to promote and ensure the use of best management practices and fair but effective laws regarding comprehensive ground water protection.

Our mission is to promote the protection and conservation of ground water resources for all beneficial uses, recognizing ground water as a critical component of the ecosystem. We provide an important forum for stakeholder communication and research in order to improve governments’ role in the protection and conservation of groundwater.



7. Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission   IOGCC advocates for environmentally-sound ways to increase the supply of American Energy. We accomplish this by providing governors of member states with a clear and unified voice to Congress, while also serving as the authority on issues surrounding these vital resources.

The Commission also assists states in balancing a multitude of interests through sound regulatory practices. Our unique structure offers a highly effective forum for states, industry, Congress and the environmental community to share information and viewpoints to advance our nation's energy future. We stand dedicated to securing resources needed to ensure our nation's energy, economic and national security.

8. National Wildlife Federation

The National Wildlife Federation is working to:

  • Require fracking companies to disclose the chemicals they are releasing into the environment.
  • Make sure fracking companies are held accountable to America's keystone conservation laws like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Protect key habitats and public lands from fracking.


9. Clean Water Action/Michigan

… a one million member organization of diverse people and groups joined together to protect our environment, health, economic well-being and community quality of life. Our goals include clean, safe and affordable water; prevention of health threatening pollution; creation of environmentally safe jobs and businesses; and empowerment of people to make democracy work. Clean Water Action organizes strong grassroots groups and coalitions and campaigns to elect environmental candidates and solve environmental and community problems.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tips for Tightening your Writing


     No matter how highly you think of your own writing, don’t kid yourself, you need an editor. Every book I’ve written — three with university presses and two self-published — has benefited from extensive editing.  Writers have blind spots that keep us from seeing what is right in front of our noses. We need another pair of eyes, preferably not a friend’s or a relative’s; they should belong to a professional copy editor.

      It didn’t matter that I spent twenty-three years as an English professor putting my students through rewrite after rewrite. When it came to checking my own prose, I rarely caught my errors.  My traditional publishers provided editors for my academic books, but when I self-published my novels, I had to pay for them myself.                                      

 Here are some examples of their comments, with my befores and afters.

You use too many prepositions in a single action.  For example, down into, up over, around beside. You need to avoid prepositions altogether if action is already implicit: Jump up, jump down, sat up.”

 Before: A large white face peered in at him.

After: A large white face peered at him.

 Before: They stomped over to the edge of the forest.

After: They stomped to the forest edge.

 Before: She climbed back up into the wagon

After: She climbed into the wagon

“You need to avoid overlong sentences and passive writing.  Work towards direct writing instead, using simple, declarative sentences: noun, verb, object. “

Before: Hutchin, who had been out catching desert animals, which he told the company were a kind of small rabbit to spare their sensibilities about eating rodents, took his vengeance by serving Roger a plate entirely made up of bones, and Roger glowered all through the evening because he wanted to thrash Hutchin for it, but knew perfectly well that beating his slave would stretch the Company's toleration of his behavior.

After: Hutchin escaped briefly to hunt desert rodents. He took his vengeance by serving Roger a thin piece that was mostly bones. Roger wanted to thrash him, but restrained himself because it would stretch their toleration of his behavior too far.

“Don’t use a conjunction to link related sentence elements; use a semi-colon.”   

Before: Roger was frightened until he realized what he was hearing was the sound of a sizeable waterfall and he knew exactly where they were— by the falls of the Nern, a tributary of the lower Danner that had its wellspring in the last of the uplands to the south and west of Twist.

After: Roger was frightened until he recognized the sound of a big waterfall. He knew where they were; it was the falls of the Nern, a tributary of the lower Danner.

“Replace description of what is going on with dialogue. Skip ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ when it is already clear who is speaking.

Before: Carl reassured him that it wasn=t over a mile now and they=d been heating warm stew for breakfast: they’d had rabbits last night, they had, and gravy=d be thick and crusty for their breakfast. (notice the problem that my past perfect tense introduces here; see below!)

After: “Under a mile, now; we’re having last night’s stew for breakfast. Rabbit, it was, with thick gravy.”

 Before: Preoccupied, he was startled when Carl asked him to look behind: did he hear some animal coming along from back there, or was it Carl's imagination?

After: “Look behind us,” said Carl. “Is there an animal following us, or is it just my imagination?”

“Past Tense is less passive than Continuous Past Tense. Change phrases like ‘she was running’ to ‘she ran.’”

Before: Now Father was leading those bands whose exploits everyone was marveling at.

 After: Now Father led those bands whose exploits everyone admired.

Before: Hutchin was rummaging among the bundles.

 After: Hutchin rummaged among the bundles.

Use past tense but not Past Perfect:  ‘I had gone,’ ‘he had thought,’ are more wordy than ‘I went,’ ‘ he thought,’ especially when used frequently.”

Before: Flora had not been asleep but had been feigning it as he banged about in his chests to find something warm to wear under his rain gear.

After: He rummaged in his chests to find something warm to wear under his rain gear. Flora feigned sleep as he banged about the room.

Before: Rory thought their new recruit had looked shifty.

After: Rory thought their new recruit looked shifty

“Edit down: cut every unnecessary word.  Out of doors = outdoors; out of the window = out the window.”

Before: Roger and Carl could only see only four or five feet in front of them. 

After: Roger and Carl could see only four or five feet ahead.



               HAPPY WRITING!