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Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #940 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, January 03, 2008printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

Stop the Dinosaurs, Let the Sun Shine in
Solar power has come of age and is now competing directly with coal and nuclear for baseload installed capacity -- producing power day and night. The solar revolution is upon us, and not a moment too soon.
Solar Plant Will Provide Day-and-Night Power in California
Here's video coverage (from Australia) of a very important energy development: utilities in California are building a solar energy plant to provide baseload power -- power day and night -- at prices competitive with coal. They will store solar energy as heat.
Catching the Wind in a Bottle
A group of Midwest utilities is building a wind energy plant in Iowa to provide baseload power by storing energy underground in the form of compressed air. A small power plant in Alabama has been doing it since 1991, and a Texas-sized project (3000 megawatts) is now being planned in Texas.
Panels Start Solar Power 'Revolution'
Here's a third important development: On December 18, a California company began "printing" solar photovoltaic cells onto thin aluminum foil, thus driving down the costs of solar-electric panels to be competitive with coal plants.
Extreme Weather in 2007 Caused Economic Losses of $75 Billion
As the dollar cost extreme weather rises, the insurance industry take a huge financial hit -- but in the end, everybody pays.
Greenhouse Gases Make Ocean Acidic, Report Says
Coral reefs and shellfish are in crisis.
The Ten Steps Needed To Shut Down a Democracy
If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. You just have to take 10 fairly simple steps. As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States.


From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #940
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By Peter Montague

In this issue of Rachel's we discuss important new developments in renewable energy with great potential for eliminating the threat of global warming:

** Two kinds of solar energy power plants are being built now to provide baseload power -- meaning power that is available day or night -- at a cost that is competitive with both coal-fired steam-electric plants and nuclear power plants. One is in California, the other in Iowa. This is big.

** The key to providing baseload power is cheap, simple energy storage. The California plant will store solar energy as heat; the Iowa plant will use wind energy to compress air, which will be pumped underground for energy storage. Both kinds of plants have existed for some time -- but now they are being scaled up. The potential is very large. Other firms are commercializing storage of the sun's energy in molten salts.

** In a third development, in mid-December a company in Palo Alto, California began manufacturing solar-electric photovoltaic cells by "printing" then onto aluminum foil, instantly cutting the cost of solar-cells in half. (Photovoltaics convert sunlight directly into electricity.) Their aim is solar panels that cost 99 cents per watt -- a number that has been the holy grail of solar cell manufacturers for 40 years. Unfortunately, their entire first year's production has already been promised to a utility in Germany, where forward-looking industrialists and political leaders have gotten the jump on us by subsidizing solar instead of nuclear and coal. No matter, the Palo Alto firm is building more manufacturing capacity as we speak.

** A new, realistic assessment of wind energy on the U.S. East Coast has shown that offshore wind turbines could power the nine coastal states from Massachusetts to North Carolina. And another study published earlier in 2007 showed that connecting dispersed wind farms into a single grid in the midwestern U.S. can create a reliable source of baseload power even without storage. Furthermore, that study showed that linking wind farms into a grid allowed energy to be sent to distant cities with less than 2% losses along the way.

All of these developments are aimed at commercial power stations, not home users. In Texas, Shell and TXU are planning a 3000 megwatt solar plant with compressed air storage. This is a big power plant with 4 to 5 times the capacity of a typical coal plant.

Solar power has come of age and is now competing directly with coal and nuclear for baseload installed capacity. These new solar plants

1. Are far simpler in design than coal or nuclear plants;

2. Produce far less pollution and toxic waste than coal or nuclear;

3. Have no potential for catastrophic failure of the nuclear kind, and can never become part of a weapons program;

4. Can be built more quickly than either "clean coal" or nuclear plants;

5. Require less water than either coal or nuclear plants, which is important in an era of scarce water; and

6. Are competitively priced.

What is standing in the way of this solar revolution? Only the combined political clout of the coal, oil, mining, railroad and automobile industries -- and their dutiful dinosaur representatives in Congress -- plus assorted university professors and house environmentalists who seem to have lost their way and are supporting one aspect or another of "clean coal."

In sum, as with almost anything worth having these days, it boils down to a citizen fight. We can celebrate and promote these new solar developments. But if that's all we do, we'll lose. We also must redouble our efforts to stop the nuclear "renaissance" and stop the "clean coal" juggernaut -- vigorously oppose all new coal plants (whether pulverized coal or integrated gasification combined cycle [IGCC]), all carbon capture and storage projects, all coal-to-liquids proposals, and the $38.5 billion in subsidies for nuclear power and fossil fuels Congress has approved for 2008.

Fossil fuels made sense in the 19th and early 20th centuries but this is the 21st -- and these dinosaurs are killing us, destroying the planet, and standing in the way of America's industrial rebirth. Their day is over. Every dollar spent on these dinosaur technologies is a dollar that cannot be spent on revitalizing America's global industrial leadership through renewable energy.

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From: Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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By Matt Peacock

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While Australia gears up for new coal-fired power stations, the U.S. has taken a dramatic turn -- setting its sights on the sun. Two of America's biggest power companies have unveiled plans for a multi- billion dollar expansion of solar power supply. And the man behind it all is an Australian scientist who tried and failed to be heard here.

Transcript of the video:

KERRY O'BRIEN: And tonight we bring you a story that promises to strengthen the claims by supporters of solar power -- that with proper backing, it can become a viable alternative to coal-fired power; with news from the United States that two of America's biggest power utilities have unveiled plans for a multi-billion dollar expansion of solar power supply.

The company at the heart of their strategy is the one started by Australian solar expert David Mills -- the former Sydney University professor -- who left this country for California earlier this year to pursue the further development of his ground-breaking work.

What makes the announcement more significant is that the utilities are confidently predicting that their solar power will soon be providing base-load electricity -- that is, day and night -- at prices competitive with coal.

Those associated with the project believe it could signal a paradigm shift in electricity generation.

Matt Peacock reports.

MATT PEACOCK: The power of the sun. After decades as a fringe player in the energy industry, solar power is finally taking off in the world's largest economy.

VINOH KHOSLA, KHOSLA VENTURES: It's very, very exciting. There's a real sense of exuberance in belief in this new technology.

DAVID MILLS, CHAIRMAN, AUSRA INC: My hope is, my dream if you will, is that this will become a mechanism not only for the majority of the electricity generation in the United States but the majority globally.

MATT PEACOCK: As world leaders gathered in New York last week to focus on climate change, across town at the Clinton Global Initiative, giant US power companies were pledging billions of dollars of investment into solar power.

AL GORE, FORMER US VICE-PRESIDENT: We face a genuine planetary emergency, we cannot just talk about it, we have to act on it, and we have to solve it urgently.

MATT PEACOCK: For David Mills, it's vindication of a lifetime's research. Only nine months ago the former Sydney University professor was packing his bags for California's Silicon Valley, where the venture capitalist who made his fortune in IT, Vinoh Khosla, was prepared to back him.

VINOH KHOSLA: We were very excited about what they were doing and surprised at the lack of support they were getting in Australia.

MATT PEACOCK: DAVID MILLS: This is the culmination of a life's work, I've been at this for 30 years, so you can imagine how I feel. It's almost a sense of great relief that finally this problem is being noticed and action is taking place.

MATT PEACOCK: The solar technology developed by Mills already exists here in Australia -- small pilot plants attached to the Liddell coal- fired power station in the NSW Hunter Valley. Its emphasis is on simplicity. Near flat mirrors on giant hoops track the sun.

PLANT OFFICER: Sunlight, on a clear day like this, strikes those mirrors and is gathered up onto the tower, and there's an absorber underneath that tower.

MATT PEACOCK: Out comes steam, ready to drive a conventional power turbine. This is on a small scale. Mills's and Khosla's new US company, Ausra, are now planning plants far bigger.

DAVID MILLS: Our first plant size, which is still small for us, but we have to start somewhere, is about a square mile in US terms, or more than two square kilometres in the terms used in Australia, and that would generate 175 megawatts. But really we want to aim for gigawatts style plants, and they're much bigger than that.

DR MARK DIESENDORF, ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES, NSW: It's important to get a large scale for the development to bring down costs, and the United States offers a magnificent opportunity for large-scale solar development.

MATT PEACOCK: Solar power is not new in the United States. This giant photovoltaic plant in the Mojave Desert was built during the oil shock of the 1980s. And more recent concern over global warming has led to other investment into solar thermal plants like this one in Nevada. The low cost of Ausra's new design, though, is now attracting the big money.

VINOH KHOSLA: What's very exciting is major utilities in the US are now starting to believe our story after doing their own independent due diligence. They actually believe this is competitive power generation. More importantly it's reliable power generation. We can ship them power when the sun isn't shining, which is what most utilities need.

MATT PEACOCK: The coal and nuclear industries have long asserted that base load power can't be supplied by renewable energy, a mantra repeated by our politicians.

MALCOLM TURNBULL, MINISTER, ENVIRONMENT & WATER RESOURCES : You cannot run a modern economy on wind farms and solar powers. It's a pity that you can't, but you can't.

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Solar is a nice, easy soft answer. There's this vague idea in the community that solar doesn't cost anything and it can solve the problem. It can't. It can't replace base load power generation by power stations.

MATT PEACOCK: But base load power supply is just what Ausra is now being contracted to supply for the insatiable US market. It says that within two years it'll be able to economically store its hot water for more than 16 hours.

DAVID MILLS: The interesting thing is that there's a correlation between human activity [and energy use]. We get up in the morning everyday, we start using energy, we go to sleep at night. And the presence of the sun, that's natural. And that correlation means that we can get away with a lot less storage than we might have thought.

DR MARK DIESENDORF: Well, there's been a lot of nonsense talked about, in Australia and elsewhere, about renewable energy allegedly not being able to provide base load power. Not being able to substitute for coal. That's never been true. It's even untrue with regard to wind power and now with solar thermal power, it's certainly untrue.

MATT PEACOCK: the huge US investment into solar will soon make talk of clean coal and nuclear as a solution to climate change redundant, according to Mark Diesendorf at the University of New South Wales.

DR MARK DIESENDORF: Basically, the solar thermal technology will be on the ground, certainly in the United States and many other countries long before so-called clean coal and nuclear power.

VINOH KHOSLA: We think we can move much faster than nuclear and on an unsubsidised basis, we will be cheaper than nuclear power, and we should be cheaper than IGCC coal based power generation.

DAVID MILLS: In five years time, we'll have very large plants and I would say gigawatt style plants already commissioned, able to run 24 hours a day and completely replace the function of nuclear and coal plants.

MATT PEACOCK: And as international alarm mounts at the ever more obvious signs of global climate change, Mills isn't the only one who thinks the switch from fossil fuels is overdue.

DAVID MILLS: I was talking to a banker the other day and after a series of negotiations he looked at me straight and said, "I wonder if we're too late". The time has gone for easy action, that we waited too long, we've wasted 15 years but now we've got to really, really act quickly.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Matt Peacock with that report.

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From: BusinessWeek
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The future is taking shape under the windswept corn and soybean fields outside Dallas Center, Iowa. At the Iowa Stored Energy Park, a coalition of local utilities is grappling with one of the thorniest challenges in the field of renewable power: how to store the excess energy windmills create when demand is low so it can be used later, when the need is greater.

The group is building a system that will steer surplus electricity generated by a nearby wind farm to a big air compressor. Connected to a deep well, the compressor pumps air into layers of sandstone. Some 3,000 feet down and sealed from above by dense shale, the porous sandstone acts like a giant balloon. Later, when demand for power rises, this flow is reversed. As the chamber empties, a whoosh of air flows back up the pipe into a natural-gas-fired turbine, boosting its efficiency by upwards of 60%.

This trick does more than capture wind that might otherwise be wasted. It also lets the utility sell the stored energy when demand is peaking and prices are highest, says Kent Holst, the park's development director. Backed by funding from the Energy Dept., more than 100 municipal utilities in Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas are ponying up a total of $200 million to build the 268-megawatt system. Begun in 2003, the project is on track to go online in 2011.

Although Iowa's compressed air energy storage (CAES) project will be the first of its type to bank green energy, it may soon have company. In West Texas, TXU CORP. (TXU) is working with Shell Wind-Energy to build a massive installation of windmills with 3,000 megawatts of capacity. The companies hope to connect the wind farm to a CAES system that will pump air into underground salt domes. Other potential CAES sites are being explored in New Mexico and the Gulf Coast. Nationally, the Electric Power Research Institute estimates that more than 85% of the U.S. has subterranean features that could support the technique.

For now, CAES is the lowest-cost way to store very large volumes of power, according to the Energy Dept.'s Sandia National Labs. While American Electric Power Co. (AEP) and Siemens Wind Power (SI) are testing truck-sized batteries with capacities of amegawatt or more, big batteries rely on costly, exotic chemicals. CAES, in contrast, combines less pricey industrial machinery with the earth's free storage capacity. And while battery life is measured in hours, the geology below the Iowa project can store about 20 weeks' worth of air supply.

Despite being unpredictable, wind is the nation's fastest-growing form of renewable energy. In the past five years output from wind farms has grown tenfold, to more than 12,000 megawatts, or about 1% of total U.S. supply. Its fans predict that someday wind could supply 10% or more of the nation's electricity. That's already the case in Spain and Denmark.

Perhaps subterranean storage techniques will help wind power reach its potential. "Near term, it has the best chance of being adapted by the utilities," says Sandia stored-energy expert Garth Corey.

Copyright 2007, by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.

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From: The Guardian (Manchester, U.K.)
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By John Vidal, environment editor The Guardian

The holy grail of renewable energy came a step closer yesterday [actually, December 18, 2007] as thousands of mass-produced wafer-thin solar cells printed on aluminium film rolled off a production line in California, heralding what British scientists called "a revolution" in generating electricity.

The solar panels produced by a Silicon Valley start-up company, Nanosolar, are radically different from the kind that European consumers are increasingly buying to generate power from their own roofs. Printed like a newspaper directly on to aluminium foil, they are flexible, light and, if you believe the company, expected to make it as cheap to produce electricity from sunlight as from coal.

Yesterday Nanosolar said its order books were full until mid-2009 and that a second factory would soon open in Germany where demand for solar power has rocketed. Britain was unlikely to benefit from the technology for some years because other countries paid better money for renewable electricity, it added.

"Our first solar panels will be used in a solar power station in Germany," said Erik Oldekop, Nanosolar's manager in Switzerland. "We aim to produce the panels for 99 cents a watt, which is comparable to the price of electricity generated from coal. We cannot disclose our exact figures yet as we are a private company but we can bring it down to that level. That is the vision we are aiming at."

He added that the first panels the company was producing were aimed for large-scale power plants rather than for homeowners, and that the cost benefits would be in the speed that the technology could be deployed. "We are aiming to make solar power stations up to 10MW in size. They can be up and running in six to nine months compared to 10 years or more for coal-powered stations and 15 years for nuclear plants. Solar can be deployed very quickly," said Oldekop.

Nanosolar is one of several companies in Japan, Europe, China and the US racing to develop different versions of "thin film" solar technology. It is owned by internet entrepreneur Martin Roscheisen who sold his company to Yahoo for $450m and, with the help of the founders of Google, the US government and other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, has invested nearly $300m in commercialising the technology.

At the moment solar electricity costs nearly three times as much as conventional electricity to generate, but Nanosolar's developments are thought to have halved the price of producing conventional solar cells at a stroke.

"This is the world's lowest-cost solar panel, which we believe will make us the first solar manufacturer capable of profitably selling solar panels at as little as 99 cents a watt," said Roscheisen yesterday.

However, the company, which claims to lead the "third wave" of solar electricity, is notoriously secretive and has not answered questions about its panels' efficiency or their durability. It is quite open about wanting to restrict access to the technology to give it a market advantage.

Jeremy Leggett, chief executive of Britain's leading solar energy company, Solar Century, said that it would be "breathtaking" if the technology proved as efficient as projected by the company. "This is a revolution. But people are going to be amazed at other developments taking place in solar technologies. We will be thrilled if this technology is as efficient as the company says. It will not change the direction of solar power in itself. Spectacular improvements are also being made in other parts of the industry," he said.

Figures released yesterday by the Earth Policy Institute in Washington showed that solar electricity generation was now the fastest-growing electricity source, doubling its output every two years. It is now attracting government and venture capital money on an unprecedented scale.

The technology is particularly exciting because it can be used nearly everywhere. "You are talking about printing rolls of the stuff, printing it on garages, anywhere you want it. It really is a big deal in terms of altering the way we think about solar," said Dan Kamman, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.

"The next industrial revolution will be based on these clean green technologies," said Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. "If the UK wants to be part of it, as Gordon Brown says it does, then it needs to rethink its strategies. Ministers have so far shown a distinct lack of vision."

Sidebar: Power from light

Photovoltaic (PV) devices convert light into electrical energy. PV cells are made of semiconductor materials such as silicon. When light shines on a PV cell, the energy is transferred to electrons in the atoms of the PV cell. These electrons become part of the electrical flow, or current, in an electrical circuit. First wave photovoltaic cell used thick silicon-wafer cells but were cumbersome and costly. The second generation of photovoltaic materials were developed about 10 years ago and use very thin silicon layers. These brought the price down dramatically but still need expensive vacuum processes in their construction. The third wave of PV, now being developed by firms such as Nanosolar, can print directly on to other materials and does not use silicon.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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From: Greenwire
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Extreme weather conditions that caused natural disasters led to $75 billion in economic losses, up from $50 billion the year before, according to Munich Re, the world's second-largest reinsurer.

Losses to the insurance industry doubled to $30 billion during the year, as the number of individual disasters rose to 950, the highest figure since 1974, when Munich Re began its survey.

"The trend in respect of weather extremes shows that climate change is already taking effect and that more such extremes are to be expected in the future," said Torsten Jeworrek, a member of the reinsurer's board.

The greatest losses to the insurance industry happened in Europe, which was hit by an unusually large number of extreme weather conditions throughout the year. Losses in the United States were lower than many expected, with wildfires in October causing insured losses of $1.9 billion and August's Hurricane Dean costing $1 billion.

Munich Re said that while it was ready to deal with the higher number of natural catastrophes, it would come at "a cost to society as a whole" as insurance companies were forced to raise their premiums and the costs of repairing infrastructure made their way onto tax bills (Vidya Ram, Forbes, Dec. 27).

2007 marked by extreme, record-breaking weather

Looking back on the weather around the world in 2007, scientists are noting increased hot temperatures and other weird weather events that point to man-made climate change.

While individual weather extremes cannot be attributed to global warming, "it's the run of them and the different locations" that have the mark of climate change, said top European climate expert Phil Jones, director of the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia in England.

The year was such an extreme weather year that the World Meteorological Organization put out a news release chronicling all the records and unusual developments in August.

Scientists say that as climate change continues, the world will experience more extreme weather, bursts of torrential rain and prolonged drought. "We're having an increasing trend of odd years," said Michael MacCracken, a former top federal climate scientist, now chief scientist at the Climate Institute of Washington. "Pretty soon odd years are going to be the norm" (Seth Borenstein, AP/San Francisco Chronicle online, Dec. 29). -- SG

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From: Boston Globe
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By Associated Press

ORONO, Maine -- Greenhouse gases are endangering the world's coral reefs and could also pose threats to lobsters, sea urchins, clams, and scallops far away in the Gulf of Maine, according to a team of global researchers.

The buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion could make the oceans too acidic for coral to survive in less than 50 years, the researchers reported Friday in the journal Science.

The researchers say that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are higher than at any point in the past 740,000 years and rising fast as fossil fuel-dependent countries pump out more greenhouse gases.

"This crisis is on our doorstep, not decades away," said Ove Hoegh- Guldberg, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia and the report's lead author.

While the report focuses on coral reefs, a University of Maine professor who was part of the team of researchers warned that the same human-driven changes could wreak havoc on marine life in the waters off New England.

"We're not talking about something confined to coral reefs. We're talking about something that is global," said Robert Steneck, UMaine professor of oceanography, marine biology, and marine policy, and a specialist on lobster biology.

It's a double whammy for both coral reefs and other sea creatures, especially hard-shelled marine life, including lobster, Steneck said.

Carbonic acid could affect lobsters' shell thickness and strength and warming waters make them more susceptible to disease, he said.

Richard Wahle, who studies lobsters at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor, said many researchers believe lobster will migrate toward colder water as ocean temperatures rise.

But ocean acidity and its effects on lobsters and other hard-shelled organisms are important issues that will have to be closely watched, as well, he said.

"Bob's work really shows there are aspects of global climate change other than the rise in temperature" that must be considered, Wahle said of Steneck.

Copyright Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #940, Jan. 03, 2008
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By Naomi Wolf

[Naomi Wolf's new book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot was published by Chelsea Green in September.]

Last autumn, there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a sense, they did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been closed down: the coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and TV stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some limits on travel, and took certain activists into custody.

They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy -- but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.

As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.

Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree - domestically -- as many other nations. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system of government -- the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors -- we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because we don't learn much about European history, the setting up of a department of "homeland" security -- remember who else was keen on the word "homeland" -- didn't raise the alarm bells it might have.

It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable -- as the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that we are further along than we realise.

Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to read it. We were told we were now on a "war footing"; we were in a "global war" against a "global caliphate" intending to "wipe out civilisation". There have been other times of crisis in which the US accepted limits on civil liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared martial law, and the second world war, when thousands of Japanese-American citizens were interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda notes, is unprecedented: all our other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back toward freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without national boundaries in space -- the globe itself is the battlefield. "This time," Fein says, "there will be no defined end."

Creating a terrifying threat -- hydra-like, secretive, evil -- is an old trick. It can, like Hitler's invocation of a communist threat to the nation's security, be based on actual events (one Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal because he noted, among other things, that the alleged communist arson, the Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist evocation of the "global conspiracy of world Jewry", on myth.

It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the threat is different in a country such as Spain -- which has also suffered violent terrorist attacks -- than it is in America. Spanish citizens know that they face a grave security threat; what we as American citizens believe is that we are potentially threatened with the end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, this makes us more willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.

2. Create a gulag

Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantanamo Bay to be situated in legal "outer space") -- where torture takes place.

At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people" or "criminals". Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders -- opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists -- are arrested and sent there as well.

This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is standard practice for closing down an open society or crushing a pro-democracy uprising.

With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantanamo in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no information about the secret CIA "black site" prisons throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.

Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can't investigate adequately.

But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary brown people with whom they don't generally identify. It was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti- Nazi pastor Martin Niemoller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: "First they came for the Jews." Most Americans don't understand yet that the destruction of the rule of law at Guantanamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.

By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny prisoners due process tends to come early on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, which also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often in isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences, and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts became a parallel system that put pressure on the regular courts to abandon the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.

3. Develop a thug caste

When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.

The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America's security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas of work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been issued for security work by mercenaries at home and abroad. In Iraq, some of these contract operatives have been accused of involvement in torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and firing on Iraqi civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate contractors in Iraq by the one-time US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, these contractors are immune from prosecution

Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security hired and deployed hundreds of armed private security guards in New Orleans. The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed one unnamed guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians in the city. It was a natural disaster that underlay that episode -- but the administration's endless war on terror means ongoing scope for what are in effect privately contracted armies to take on crisis and emergency management at home in US cities.

Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000. If you are reading history, you can imagine that there can be a need for "public order" on the next election day. Say there are protests, or a threat, on the day of an election; history would not rule out the presence of a private security firm at a polling station "to restore public order".

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in communist China -- in every closed society -- secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they themselves were being watched.

In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens' phones, read their emails and follow international financial transactions, it became clear to ordinary Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.

In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being about "national security"; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.

5. Harass citizens' groups

The fifth thing you do is related to step four -- you infiltrate and harass citizens' groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena, whose minister preached that Jesus was in favour of peace, found itself being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to vote, which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left alone.

Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union reports that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American citizens in its category of 1,500 "suspicious incidents". The equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency of the Department of Defense has been gathering information about domestic organisations engaged in peaceful political activities: Cifa is supposed to track "potential terrorist threats" as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A little-noticed new law has redefined activism such as animal rights protests as "terrorism". So the definition of "terrorist" slowly expands to include the opposition.

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe pro- democracy activists in China, such as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a closing or closed society there is a "list" of dissidents and opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you are on the list, and it is hard to get off the list.

In 2004, America's Transportation Security Administration confirmed that it had a list of passengers who were targeted for security searches or worse if they tried to fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged women peace activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member of Venezuela's government -- after Venezuela's president had criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens.

Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton University; he is one of the foremost constitutional scholars in the nation and author of the classic Constitutional Democracy. Murphy is also a decorated former marine, and he is not even especially politically liberal. But on March 1 this year, he was denied a boarding pass at Newark, "because I was on the Terrorist Watch list".

"Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that," asked the airline employee.

"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."

"That'll do it," the man said.

Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the constitution? Potential terrorist. History shows that the categories of "enemy of the people" tend to expand ever deeper into civil life.

James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo who was accused of mishandling classified documents. He was harassed by the US military before the charges against him were dropped. Yee has been detained and released several times. He is still of interest.

Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer in Oregon, was mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist. His house was secretly broken into and his computer seized. Though he is innocent of the accusation against him, he is still on the list.

It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on the list, you can't get off.

7. Target key individuals

Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss if they don't toe the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile's Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.

Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish academics and students with professional loss if they do not "coordinate", in Goebbels' term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also a group that fascists typically "coordinate" early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.

Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on regents at state universities to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them.

Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that "waterboarding is torture" was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her job.

Most recently, the administration purged eight US attorneys for what looks like insufficient political loyalty. When Goebbels purged the civil service in April 1933, attorneys were "coordinated" too, a step that eased the way of the increasingly brutal laws to follow.

8. Control the press

Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s -- all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies that they are seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies that have been closed already.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists are at an all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a blogger in San Francisco, has been put in jail for a year for refusing to turn over video of an anti-war demonstration; Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint against reporter Greg Palast, claiming he threatened "critical infrastructure" when he and a TV producer were filming victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had written a bestseller critical of the Bush administration.

Other reporters and writers have been punished in other ways. Joseph C Wilson accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of leading the country to war on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger. His wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA spy -- a form of retaliation that ended her career.

Prosecution and job loss are nothing, though, compared with how the US is treating journalists seeking to cover the conflict in Iraq in an unbiased way. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC's Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.

Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified documents to back up his claim that terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake charge, too, was based on forged papers.

You won't have a shutdown of news in modern America -- it is not possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting the news well. What you already have is a White House directing a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist system, it's not the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can't tell real news from fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.

9. Dissent equals treason

Cast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage'. Every closing society does this, just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalise certain kinds of speech and expand the definition of "spy" and "traitor". When Bill Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories, Bush called the Times' leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason" drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.

Conason is right to note how serious a threat that attack represented. It is also important to recall that the 1938 Moscow show trial accused the editor of Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed. And it is important to remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage Act was last widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids, leftist activists were arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups, kept in jail for up to five months, and "beaten, starved, suffocated, tortured and threatened with death", according to the historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in America for a decade.

In Stalin's Soviet Union, dissidents were "enemies of the people". National Socialists called those who supported Weimar democracy "November traitors".

And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not realise that since September of last year -- when Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 -- the president has the power to call any US citizen an "enemy combatant". He has the power to define what "enemy combatant" means. The president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in the executive branch the right to define "enemy combatant" any way he or she wants and then seize Americans accordingly.

Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation, as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin's gulag had an isolation cell, like Guantanamo's, in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the newest, most brutal facility at Guantanamo, is all isolation cells.)

We US citizens will get a trial eventually -- for now. But legal rights activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that the Bush administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens fair trials. "Enemy combatant" is a status offence -- it is not even something you have to have done. "We have absolutely moved over into a preventive detention model -- you look like you could do something bad, you might do something bad, so we're going to hold you," says a spokeswoman of the CCR.

Most Americans surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is hard to believe, even though it is true. In every closing society, at a certain point there are some high-profile arrests -- usually of opposition leaders, clergy and journalists. Then everything goes quiet. After those arrests, there are still newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and the facades of a civil society. There just isn't real dissent. There just isn't freedom. If you look at history, just before those arrests is where we are now.

10. Suspend the rule of law

The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency -- which the president now has enhanced powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state's governor and its citizens.

Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole's baby, the New York Times editorialised about this shift: "A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night... Beyond actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any 'other condition'."

Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act - which was meant to restrain the federal government from using the military for domestic law enforcement. The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a president to declare federal martial law. It also violates the very reason the founders set up our system of government as they did: having seen citizens bullied by a monarch's soldiers, the founders were terrified of exactly this kind of concentration of militias' power over American people in the hands of an oppressive executive or faction.

Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.

Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy could be closed down by a process of erosion.

It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere -- while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life... How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."

As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a context in which we are "at war" in a "long war" -- a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the president -- without US citizens realising it yet -- the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.

That means a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions -- and this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure. To prevent such an outcome, we have to think about the "what ifs".

What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack -- say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani -- because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.

What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.

Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us -- staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who faced death threats for representing the detainees yet persisted all the way to the Supreme Court; activists at the American Civil Liberties Union; and prominent conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive new laws, under the banner of a new group called the American Freedom Agenda. This small, disparate collection of people needs everybody's help, including that of Europeans and others internationally who are willing to put pressure on the administration because they can see what a US unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.

We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we keep going down this road, the "end of America" could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before -- and this is the way it is now.

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands... is the definition of tyranny," wrote James Madison. We still have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.

Guardian Unlimited Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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