SYRIA–6,000 DEATHS AND (NOT) COUNTING

11 02 2012

Bertolt Brecht reputedly asked,”If the government doesn’t trust the people, why doesn’t it dissolve them and elect a new people?” While Robert Anton Wilson may have been the only person who knows where and under what circumstances Brecht coined this cynical bon mot, and Brecht certainly saw plenty of efforts by Nazi and Communist governments alike to put it into practice, word that a government is undertaking this program never loses its appall, and the latest place where this practice appalls me is Syria, where the government has so far killed around 6,000 people in an attempt to “continue the beatings until morale improves,” and the UN has said things are so chaotic that it is not going to even attempt to keep track of the number of dead.

Syria, like the rest of the Middle East, is no stranger to such campaigns.  When the Ottomans wanted to kill mass numbers of Armenians without having to work too hard, they just sent them out into the Syrian desert to starve.  The population of Syria’s neighbor, Palestine, has been the subject of slow-motion strangulation by the Israelis for over sixty years, and plenty of Middle Easterners would be only too happy to see that karma rebound onto the Israelis.   In classical times, the Romans crucified Maccabean rebels by the thousands, ultimately killing somewhere between a quarter-million and a million Jewish Palestinians–and now the survivors’ descendants, osmosed into Muslims through the years, are now under the heel of their brethren who remained Jewish.  But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

More recently, in Syria’s neighbor Iraq,  ten years of American sanctions in the 90’s resulted in the deaths of over half a million Iraqis, mostly children, termed “an acceptable cost” by Democrat Secretary of State Madeline Albright, whose own children were not among the victims.  Our government’s 2003 invasion is responsible for the deaths of a million and a quarter more Iraqi civilians.   So, from a certain perspective, a mere six thousand casualties is chump change.   Meanwhile, the U.S. won’t fund abortions because so many people in our Congress and our country profess a “respect for life.”  Do I detect a disconnect here?  “Protect the unborn, but once you’re out of your momma, tough nuggies”?  But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today, either.

Perhaps a more apt comparison, at least for the time being, can be found in the situation in Libya last Spring, when rebels there, with the eventual help of NATO, threw out Col. Qadhafi, at the cost of  5-10,000 lives.  By that standard, the six thousand known deaths in Syria could almost be called par for the course, but there are important internal and external differences between the two situations. There are four times more Syrians than Libyans, in a country only 1/9 the size of Libya.  The populated part of Libya is the long, narrow coastal strip, which made it easier for the initial protesters to have some territorial integrity and create an alternative government in the far east of the country right from the beginning.  The Libyan rebels were able, in effect, to barricade one end of the hall and fight with their backs to the wall of the Egyptian border.  In little, triangular Syria, the population is in the situation of a hapless amateur trapped in the wrestling ring with Hulk Hogan, who keeps attacking again and again, from any and all angles, at any time. It’s enough to get a person nervous, ya know?

Another big difference is the two countries’ standing in the international community.  Qadhafi had gone his own way, using Libya’s oil wealth to maintain its political independence.  For this reason, and because he did in fact spend a fair amount of money on social programs that actually did improve the lives of most Libyans, as long as they were willing to kowtow to him, Qadhafi had a certain cachet in international radical political circles, especially when he proposed to start asking for gold, rather than dollars, as payment for his country’s oil.  But that made him a major pariah in the West.  Threatening to deny the dollar was a far more unforgivable sin than the Lockerbie bombing or murdering his own people, and with no major power to watch his back, his fall was inevitable.

Syria, on the other hand, enjoys a fairly close relationship with several world powers.  Its relationship with Russia dates back to Soviet days, when the current dictator’s father cultivated close ties.  Many Syrians go to Russia for advanced studies, but most importantly, the Syrian army uses Russian-made weapons, purchased with their oil cash, and Russia has continued to supply Syria with killing devices even as the rest of the civilized world has attempted an arms embargo on Syria.   (Just for the record, Syria’s oil production is declining sharply.) Russia’s only military base outside the borders of the former Soviet Union is on the Syrian coast.  The Russians do not want to see this relationship upset, if at all possible, especially since they gave their Chechen population similar treatment.  If they have to do something similar to some other would-be breakaway republic, they don’t want to help set the precedent of international intervention.

China, too, is more inclined to support Syria, where it has major oil interests.  Like Russia, China also has a strong interest in discouraging internal revolts in China, where the Uyghurs and Tibetans have suffered fates similar to what Russia visited on the Chechens.  Like Russia, China does not want to give the U.N. any precedent for poking around in what it regards as its internal business, nossir.

Iran is yet a third country that is watching Assad’s back.  Iran and Syria have a longstanding close relationship, going back to Biblical days, really, but most lately renewed over the Iran-Iraq war, and Syria’s provision of a refuge for Hezbollah, which both countries employ as a proxy to keep pressure on Israel.  While the Russians provide diplomatic support, the Iranians have “boots on the ground,” providing support, training, and reputedly troops to help the Assad government kill dissenters, or anybody who lives in the same neighborhood as somebody who might be a dissenter.

Add to this the fact that Russia is the source of much of Western Europe’s fuel supply, and that China is a source of just about everything for everybody, and that makes the Europeans (and Americans) shy about jumping into a situation that might turn out to involve tightening a noose around their own necks.  Now, throw in the many similar pogroms the U.S. has countenanced–the slaughter of half a million alleged “communists” in Indonesia in the mid-sixties and the elimination of around a hundred thousand citizens of East Timor who happened to object to the seizure of their country by Indonesia are just two further examples of U.S. government-approved mass murder, in addition to the ones I mentioned above, that deny our leaders any ability to claim the moral high ground on this issue.  There are many, many more.  There is blood on Uncle Sam’s hands, and it ain’t “the blood of the lamb.”

OK, just one more example of mass deaths caused by U.S. government policy–it is now estimated that about thirty thousand Mexicans have been killed in just the last four years due to the “war on drugs” (or, in this case, the war over drug profits)–that’s a kill rate similar to what we are seeing in Syria, albeit in a country with five times Syria’s population.  The war over drug profits would be over tomorrow if marijuana were legalized and thus inexpensive enough to out-compete crack and meth.  Coca?  Talk to the Bolivians–they’ve got a plan.  But, I digress.

What the Syrian situation adds up to is a dangerous pile of kindling with the potential to spark something like World War III if it is dealt with crudely.  It looks to me like the U.S. couldn’t go in there with guns blazing to protect the civilian population without our blazing guns setting fires that cause far more damage than the intervention might prevent.  Mere hand wringing is not an acceptable alternative, either.  What would a Green foreign policy on this issue look like?

I need to preface what I am about to say by remarking that it is a  very easy for me, sitting here in the safety of America, to proclaim, and not necessarily so easy for a citizen of Homs or Damascus.

First and foremost, I believe, a Green foreign policy would support the essential nonviolence of the Syrian movement.  Bashir Assad’s brutal response to his people’s peaceful protests will, ultimately, undermine him,  but only if the protestors can maintain the moral high ground.  This is where the rubber meets the road for nonviolent resistance, the place where the bombs and artillery shells start to fall–and yet fail to instill fear in the people at whom they are aimed.  Non-violent resistance is not easy, and it is carried out with no guarantee of the personal safety, much less the success, of those who undertake it.   But if we are going to create an alternative to mass murder as a government policy, we have got to start by rejecting mass murder as a way to change governments.  That is the great challenge, and the great hope, of the situation in Syria.  A non-violent revolution there will take the wind out of the sails of Russian, Chinese, Iranian, American, Israeli and Palestinian peddlers of repression alike, and mark a new, peaceful direction for unraveling the tangled knot of Mideast tension.  Violent intervention, at best, will fuel more old scores than it settles, and at worst create a regional or even global conflagration that we can ill afford at this time of planetary environmental peril.  If the essence of the Syrian uprising can remain nonviolent, and replace Assad with a truly populist movement, it would mark a major turning point in world politics.  We need a major turning point much more than we need more violence.  It’s time for a change.

music:  Judy Collins, “Carry It On”





THE LONG, HOT NUCLEAR SUMMER

9 07 2011

In the short space of the last three months, we have had three major nuclear crises.  The one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami smashed the Fukushima  power station in Japan, flooding on the Missouri River is threatening two nuclear power plants near Omaha, Nebraska, and a runaway forest fire nearly burned Los Alamos National Laboratory.

So far, Fukushima has been the most disastrous, at least in nuclear terms.  Government and electric company officials at first denied that there had been any meltdown or serious release of radioactivity, but have since admitted that both occurred.   Were they misinformed or lying?  Probably lying, figuring it was best to prevent panic.   After all, once people are dying of radiation poisoning, they are generally too sick to put up much of a fuss when they learn the truth.

The truth, in this case, is that three of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima  did melt down, probably even before the tsunami hit them, and it will take years, not to mention technology yet to be invented, to clean up the mess.

The truth is, that in the first week of the accident, “two or three times more radiation” was released than earlier accounts had admitted to in the entire three months since the accident–do the math, that’s 25 times more radiation per week than the original official estimates.  Doesn’t that make you feel confident about your government and utility company?  Sure, you can be confident that they will lie through their teeth in the event of a nuclear accident.  Now they’re admitting that this accident has probably released as much radiation into the environment as Chernobyl did–so far.  But there’s a lot more nuclear material at Fukushima than there was at Chernobyl, and things ain’t under control yet.

Beyond that dismal news, Scientific American reported that

a trial run of the new filtration system (designed to remove radiation from the plant so workers could clean it up) was halted on June 18 in less than five hours when it captured as much radioactive cesium 137 in that span as was expected to be filtered in a month.

Do the math again–that’s 120 times more radiation that officials initially admitted was spewing from the plant.

Can you say, “Oops,” boys and girls?  How about “glow in the dark”?

OK, maybe they weren’t lying after all.  Maybe the Japanese government and Tokyo Power Company officials were just criminally ignorant.  Does that make you feel better?  I thought not.

Chernobyl occurred in the middle of a continent, which became widely contaminated.   The good news is, land stays put.   Fukushima is spilling radiation into the Pacific Ocean, which circulates at a fairly brisk pace, spreading radiation everywhere the current flows.  With radiation, the solution to pollution is not dilution.  It only takes one radioactive molecule in the wrong place at the wrong time to  create mutation or cancer.  The reactors also released radioactivity into the atmosphere, where it was soon detected on the Pacific Coast of the U.S.  Is it only coincidence that the US Center for Disease Control reported a 35% increase in infant mortality in Washington, Oregon, and California in the months since the Fukushima accident?  There’s no way to “prove” this spike in dead babies is connected to Fukushima.  None at all, nosir.  Not traceable atall.

So, in spite of the best technology available, Fukushima continues to spill radiation into the Pacific Ocean and the island of Honshu.  Some of it is short-lived, some quite long-lived, but it’s all quite invisible.  More about that later.

Meanwhile, back in Omaha, Nebraska, record flooding of the Missouri River is threatening two nuclear power stations and a nuclear waste dump site in Missouri..  The flooding is likely to continue through the Summer, and, while Summer is traditionally a drier season on the Great Plains, we have entered a time when the weather patterns have become increasingly unpredictable.  Maybe the nuclear power plants will ride out the flood–this time.  And the next time?  Will we lose the lower Missouri and Mississippi valleys to nuclear pollution?

This time, so far,  the nearly flooded nuke plants in Nebraska are a sideshow–the important part this year is that farmers along the Missouri River are not going to be able to plant crops in what just happens to be America’s agricultural heartland.  The world is hungry, and getting hungrier.  The food that will not be grown this year will be expensively, and sorely, missed.

And then there’s the fire this time–out in New Mexico, a fire has burned nearly 200 square miles of what used to be pine forest around the town and nuclear weapons lab of Los Alamos.  Apparently, the fire did not cause any radiation releases or actually burn any of the buildings at the weapons lab.  Unlike the Missouri River’s flooding, it’s unlikely that there will be another fire of this magnitude this close to Los Alamos.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that there won’t be a fire because it’s quite likely that there won’t be another forest to burn in this location.  Between pine bark blister beetles and a long-term drought, the prospects for re-establishing the burned-out forests of the Southwestern US are, sadly, dim.  With fewer trees to hold and circulate water, the region will become even drier, making it even harder to keep large population centers supplied with water and electricity.  Goodbye, Phoenix, goodbye, Tucson– Sahara, here we come!

I’ve been referring to Chernobyl a lot…so, how’s things at Chernobyl?   Here’s  a quote from one recent news account:

The reactor is encased in a deteriorating shell and internationally funded work to replace it is far behind schedule.

And that gets us to “the deep green perspective” on all these disorderly nuclear power plants and laboratories:  We are currently at, or perhaps just past, our peak ability to finance, deploy, control, and safeguard this technology.  We face a future of diminished resources and increasing challenges.  The events of the last three months are unlikely to be unique.  There will undoubtedly be more natural disasters, more frequently, and we will not always be even as lucky as we have been so far, if you want to call our current situation lucky.

Hey, you got a roof over your head, three square meals a day, a hot shower, internet, cable?  Globally speaking, historically speaking, you are incredibly wealthy–and lucky!  But, I digress.

There are 435 nuclear power plants on the planet; their average age is 27 years.

90 percent of the 104 nuclear power plants in the US are already more than 20 years old and half have been operating for more than 30 years. …Taking into account that the average life span of a nuclear power station is estimated by both the IEA (International Energy Agency) and the plant operators to be 40 to 50 years, this means that …90 percent of U.S. reactors are in the last half of their operating life.

Europe’s only a little behind–or is it ahead? of us, with about 75% of their nuclear power plants in the last half of their life.  How likely is it that, in twenty or thirty years, we will still possess the industrial infrastructure necessary to maintain, let alone replace, these multi-billion dollar, high-tech, deteriorating power plants?

And it’s not just the plants, it’s what remains of the fuel that powers them.   Since no safe, long-term storage plan for spent fuel has ever been devised, most nuclear power plants retain this “spent” fuel, which, while it is no longer radioactive enough to power a reactor, remains lethal for hundreds, or in some cases, thousands, of years.  For much of that time, it needs to be cooled.  If a spent nuclear fuel storage pond is cut off from electricity, and the water that removes excess heat from the fuel rods can’t be circulated and cooled, the water will quickly pass the boiling point, and vaporize–spreading radiation.  Or maybe the nuke plant’s water supply dries up or becomes too warm to be useful.  Without a protective pool of cold water, the fuel rods will heat up and burn, spreading more radiation.  By building nuclear power plants, the human race has made a bet that we will be able to maintain a stable, high-level technological civilization for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.  At this point, unfortunately, the odds do not look good on us winning that bet.

Can you say, “hubris,” boys and girls?

There is the further complication that, since they need a steady supply of cold water to cool down not just the spent fuel but also the nuclear reaction (“A Hell of a way to boil water,” Albert Einstein commented),  a great many nuclear power plants have been built next to the ocean–which is rising.  Even if a given power plant is actually on a high enough bluff that it is not inundated, the worldwide commercial web on which such large industrial projects depend will be grinding to a halt over the next century as all the world’s port cities are inexorably inundated and petroleum-based fuels for ships and airplanes alike become first exorbitantly expensive and then simply unavailable.  The poisoning of the planet has, alas, only just begun.

As a footnote to that, some testimony on how shortsighted Homo sapiens really is, the Chinese are building their much vaunted, “safer, cleaner, simpler” fourth-generation nuclear reactor–on the seacoast.  Well, what were they gonna do?  All their rivers are drying up!

So, here we are, enthusiastically poisoning the planet with the invisible scourge of radiation–and let’s not forget that, in the technologically limited future we likely face, radiation detection devices are unlikely to be widely available. Such a thoughtful gift for our children, not to mention all sentient life on the planet–and yet, somehow, not an issue for most of those who want to ban abortion because of “the sanctity of life.”  What self-righteous frauds they are!

Cheerful little earful, eh?  Not only are we facing self-inflicted global warming, resource depletion, climate disruption, and sea level rise, we’re also arranging a widely, and undetectably, irradiated future.

“The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!”

Indeed.

music:  Timbuk3, “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”  .





THE NEW BARBARIANS

16 04 2011

We passed the equinox on the last full moon, replete with a once-every-twenty-years “super moon.” and my wife and I observed the occasion with our neighbor Ed Haggard and his posse of drummers, singers, and dancers, who are known around Nashville as “The Love Drums.”

The gathering was very sweet, if a little bizarre–it was held at a private hunting reserve about an hour and a half west of Nashville, in a well-appointed lodge decorated with stuffed animals, isolated in the middle of 2,000 hilly, wooded acres, very private and quite lovely.  I suspected, and our hostess confirmed, that this was unlike any other gathering the lodge had  ever  witnessed.  It felt like a tribe of barbarians partying in a Roman villa.

But there was nothing debauchy, raunchy, or even uncouth going on, just several dozen people celebrating life, the end of a long, cold winter, and the beginning of a wide-open spring, as we enter a time when it is increasingly obvious that unintended environmental effects are snowballing and there is no telling what once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe will surprise us next.  In that situation, the best way to be prepared is to stay loose, and dancing and other forms of celebration are an important part of staying loose.

A huge, sturdy coffee table  the size of a small stage dominated the “dance floor,” and the first dancers on it were perhaps a half-dozen 7-8 year old children, gradually joined by adults.  This all-ages, inclusive vibe (there was plenty of silver hair present, too, and all ages in between) is one of the things I enjoy most about Ed’s “Whizbangs,” as he calls them, and one of the reasons I feel much happier dancing at a “Whizbang” than at a bar–and, believe me, I’ve done my share of dancing in establishments that sell alcohol.  (One of my favorite singer-songwriters, James McMurtry, says of himself, “I’m not a musician, I’m a beer salesman.”)

Ed and the central core of the Love Drummers were at one end of the room, but many “audience” members also drummed, adding their own flourishes to the music.  That’s one of the things I appreciate most about the Love Drums–the all-too-common separation into “audience” and “musicians” is blurred, if not erased.  This is not “entertainment,” in which a passive audience hopes to be impressed by the performers’ charisma.  This is a participatory  event, a–dare I say it?–communion.   Of course, rock n’ roll has long delighted in the energy that cuts loose when an audience gets up and dances.  That’s some of the magic of the Grateful Dead, just to name one band strongly affected by their audience.  In the Dead’s case, the scene outside the venue frequently turned into a heavily countercultural “temporary autonomous zone,”  and was as much a part of the show as the music.  At the Love Drums’ equinox gathering, I felt that same sense of community.

Here’s a story for you.  In the late summer of 1970, I went to a Grateful Dead show in San Francisco, and was dismayed to find most of the audience sitting on their asses, expecting to watch the Dead play.  I got yelled at by people behind me when I stood up to dance.  They were mad because they couldn’t see the band.  (There’s a word for people who like to look but not participate.  Not my kink, thanks.)

The Dead settled into “Lovelight,” and who popped out on stage to duet with Pigpen, but–Janis Joplin.  And what did she and Mr. McKernan do?  They chewed the audience up and down for not dancing, but to no avail.  I finally migrated to the back of the room where a few people were moving to the music and enjoyed the last half of the show, anyway.  Just a couple of weeks later, Janis was dead from a heroin overdose, a broken heart, and too much, too soon.

That was forty-one years ago.  Janis, Pigpen, and Jerry are all gone, but the Love Drums remain, and ya gotta work with whatcha got.  So there we were, one big happy family, dancing the night away.

Next day, when I opened myself up to news from the big bad world outside, I found out that Aashid Himons, best known as the focus of a band called “Afrikan Dreamland” here in Nashville back in the eighties, had died on that full moon day.  He had been ill for years and hadn’t played in public in a very long time, but in many ways he was the spiritual father of Ed and the Love Drums, and a great practitioner of informal, participatory music.

“African Dreamland” consisted of Aashid playing guitar or keyboard and singing, backed up only by a couple of drummers, for most of the history of the band.  This made for very simple but deeply moving music, music that benefited from, but did not depend on, the modern miracle of amplification.  Another dimension of their music was its subject matter. Aashid liked to say that he played “message music” rather than “mating and dating” music–not that a fair amount of mating and dating didn’t go on to the infectious grooves he laid down, but his music helped propagate his vision of a just and peaceful future, not just the continuation of the species.

Music: Afrikan Dreamland, “Apartheid”  (excerpt)

And that’s where we get to yet another core difference between music like The Love Drums, Aashid, and the Grateful Dead, and the music you are likely to hear in a bar on a Saturday night.  Most popular music is unreflectively about “mating and dating,” but some musicians are aware of the close link between music and magic, that songs are not just poems set to music, they are also incantations, spells that help create a certain state of mind, for better or for worse.  To me, it was not coincidental that Janis Joplin, for example, who sang so many songs about heartbreak, died young, or why somebody was killed at Altamont while Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil.”  What you pay attention to, you get more of, as a teacher of mine used to like to say.

These qualities, conscious intention in  the music and conscious fusion between the musicians and the crowd, are, to me, defining qualities of the music of “the new paradigm.”  And, as I said, those of us who play and appreciate this new paradigm music are, in a sense, barbarians to America’s Roman Empire.

The Empire depends on people who are willing to be cogs in a vast machine.  We are not.

The Empire depends on people who will not challenge its authority and priorities.  We do.

The Empire depends on people being good consumers.  We realize that “consumption” is a fatal disease, and do not look for happiness through the accumulation of material goods.  Whoever dies with the most toys is not the winner.

The Empire depends on people accepting shallow, dysfunctional relationships and mediating their emotional pain with pharmaceuticals.  We insist on listening, expressing, and feeling deeply, and on giving people the room they need to go through their changes, even if it means they get a little weird for a while.

Differences such as these are very threatening to an empire whose established religion is, as I have said many times before, radical fundamentalist materialism.  The Empire fights back  by finding material ways to push  against the influx of barbarian sensibilities.  One way they do this is through building codes, such as the complaints that have just trashed Sizwe Herring’s Earth Matters community garden.  (More on that next month!) Another way the Empire fights back is through the war on some drugs.

Let’s face it.  The real reason our government is so unswervingly, unscientifically opposed to the legalization of marijuana, mushrooms, mescaline, ecstasy,and LSD is because these are the portals through which barbarians enter and undermine the Empire.  These substances unleash the unfettered inner barbarian in those who take them, and that is more terrifying  to the empire than bomb-toting Middle Easterners..

For instance, in the 80’s and 90’s, our government spent 10 years infiltrating a circle of chemists who were making LSD and ultimately sent them all to jail.  The government has not exhibited this kind of diligence against the alleged threat from Al-Qaeda.  If that had been the case, those airplanes would never have hit the twin towers. Similarly, the DEA massively infiltrated those “temporary autonomous  zones” at Grateful Dead concerts, sold people blotter paper with no LSD on it, and then arrested them for intending to buy an illegal substance.

The DEA’s entrapment of young, open-minded, overly trusting American youth sent tens of thousands to jail, where some of them remain to this day.  Even the ones who are no longer incarcerated remain scarred and scared, “rendered infamous,” often unable to vote or find employment because of their “criminal record,” their life paths thrown into disarray by the time and money sucked from them by the legal system.

Since “the war on some drugs” was declared, America’s prison population has quintupled, with nearly half a million prisoners incarcerated for drug related “crimes.”  We’re talking about 2.3 million people behind bars, with an additional five million on probation.  The US now has a higher percentage of its  population jailed than any other country in the world, although I suppose you could argue that some highly repressive societies, like China, North Korea, Burma, and Singapore have effectively incarcerated their entire populations.

I would like to submit that the many voices who urge an end to America’s Inquisition against the inquisitive because it has ruined so many people’s lives don’t understand the Empire’s logic.  The Empire wants to ruin the lives of the inquisitive, because it’s easier and cheaper to simply exclude people than it is to actively imprison them.  Just as China periodically “lets a thousand flowers bloom” in order to identify and silence dissident voices, so the Empire has a vested interest in using the “war on drugs” to identify and neutralize those who oppose its policies.  Even if someone who appreciates the virtues of marijuana manages to avoid legal strictures, he or she is effectively barred from running for public office because of the danger should an opponent uncover the candidate’s “dirty little secret.”

The Empire’s offensive against our barbarian invasion will, I believe, ultimately be in vain.  As radical fundamentalist materialists, the Empire’s minions don’t understand that the material substances they have outlawed are, in a way, merely catalysts, catalysts that have set a process in motion that cannot be stopped by even the most draconian enforcement of the drug laws.  (By the way, I have never seen or smelled any marijuana at a Love Drums Whizbang.)  Once it has been opened, a human mind is almost impossible to close, because the memory, the feeling, of openness persists, and never stops protesting any attempt to shut it down or close it off.  The “barbarian” mindset, I believe, is of a higher order of being than the anthill, cog-in-a-machine state of mind demanded by the Empire, whether in English or Chinese.  “Barbarianism”will out.

Now, many people will say, “This all sounds very noble, but you doped-out hippiedippies aren’t the real barbarians, you’re just play-acting, spoiled, naive, children of the Empire.  The real barbarians are in the slums of Mexico City, Rio, Lagos, Cairo, Kolkata, Beijing, and Capetown, and if they have half a chance they will eat your vegetarian lunch and then barbecue you for the meat course.  Face it, without that ‘Empire’ you love to hate, you’d be toast.”

I think that’s off-base in several directions.  The first thing we have to understand is the interplay and differences between “third world” and “fourth world.”  Fourth world people are tribal, and live in balance with nature.  There aren’t a lot of them left, but, in the best-case scenario, that’s what we barbarians will recreate here in the heart of the Empire.

Most traditional fourth-world people have been sucked out of the fourth world into the third world, which is the vast belt of urban and rural poverty that characterizes human life on those parts of Earth’s landmass that lie, roughly, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn—that part of the world where you don’t need a well-insulated house to survive the winter, and are thus free to live in greater poverty than you can get away with in colder climates.

But, as so often happens, I am digressing.  Fourth world people don’t have much money, but don’t feel poor.  Third world people don’t have much money and do feel poor.  Many of these third-world people retain the social and survival skills of their fourth-world heritage.  Give them half a chance and they’ll go back to fourth-world life.  They all know they were happier that way. It’s just that the Empire, the first world, pushed them out of their sustainable lives by expropriating their tribal lands and forcing them into a money economy.  I believe that, if they were ever given the choice, the people of the third world would rather grow, hunt, or herd their own lunch than eat yours or mine.

What the Empire fears when it looks at the third world is not the people, but its own greed and suppressed guilty conscience.  When we who are undermining the Empire complete our mission, the Empire will release its hoarded and ill-gotten wealth and the people of the third world will be able to transition, in place, not backwards but forwards into a new, even more fully conscious, fourth world.

I wish I could say I think the process will be all rosy and peaceful, but there are so many people, and so many resources that have become so depleted, that I think widespread strife and loss of life will be part of the great readjustment.  I’m not happy about that.  Every human being is precious, unique, and capable of deep insight, and it is a tragedy when a life is extinguished, with or without those amazing capabilities being realized.

Does it seem as if we have wandered a long way from The Love Drums and the equinox, from Aashid and Earth Matters?  From a “Deep Green Perspective,” we haven’t moved an inch.  We’re just gazing in (hopefully!) wonder at the macrocosm that contains those microcosms.  You can’t look at it this way all the time, but it’s important to see it this way some of the time.

music:  Ed Haggard and the Love Drums–“Haitian Bolero”





IT’S THE OIL, STUPID!

16 04 2011

Once upon a time, I thought Moammar Qadhafi was cool, a twentieth century Barbary pirate who gleefully steered an independent course, used his country’s oil money to benefit the Libyan people, and thumbed his nose at Moscow and Washington alike.  I soured on him a long time ago, though, as it became apparent that he was pocketing most of the oil money himself, and his regime was blowing up airliners and assassinating exiled Libyan dissidents.  His visit to Rome in February was little short of bizarre, as he suggested that Europeans should convert en masse to Islam, abolish all political parties, and that the etymology of the word “democracy” had to do with people sitting on chairs, not to mention quotes like these:

I am not a dictator to close facebook… But I will be arresting anyone who enters it!

Demonstrate all you want, but do not go to the streets and squares!!

So, I was thrilled when a revolt broke out in Libya that seemed to have the strength to kick his crazy ass out of the country.  I mean, the guy reminds me of Michael Jackson–way cool in the eighties, nuts in the twenty-first century.  But Qadhafi, while he may be as crazy as Michael Jackson, is a lot less musically talented and a lot more dangerous.  It became obvious that he was going to use every means at his disposal to destroy the rebellion, and he definitely had the resources to do it:  modern weaponry, 6.5 billion dollars worth of gold to buy supplies, and a porous southern border with sub-Saharan Africa, a region where money talks and anything goes.  It looked like ol’ Qadhafi Duck was gonna crush the rebellion and give any rebels who survived reason to envy the dead.  But then, but then–instead of hanging these rebels out to dry, as the West has almost invariably done, NATO came to their aid.  Wow!   The empire was doing the right thing for a change!

So why, I wondered, were Cindy Sheehan and the Green Party and a lot of my usual cohorts going ape about this?  Did they actually support Qadhafi?  Did they know something I didn’t?

It didn’t take long for the truth to come out.  First came the disclosure that there had been a quid pro quo to gain Arab support for the intervention:   the U.S. agreed not to squawk about suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain in exchange for co-operation.  It was fine with the Saudis–Qadhafi Duck has long been a loose cannon in the Middle East, and they would be happy to see him replaced with someone more tractable.  Second, I found out that Qadhafi had recently decided to start selling Libya’s oil to India and China, rather than the West.  As Saddam Hussein found out when he tried to ask for Euros instead of dollars for his oil, defections will not be tolerated.

Think of all the oppressive situations the Empire has ignored.  Repression in Iran, Syria, Turkish actions against the Kurds, the civil wars in Sudan and the Congo, the genocide in Rwanda, brutal regimes in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians, the concentration camps known as North Korea and Burma, China’s crushing of Tibet and Tiananmen Square, “dirty wars” in Chile and Argentina–the list goes on and on.  The US has tsk-tsked, turned a blind eye to, or actively assisted in the crushing of one popular revolt after another–but Libya–Libya we can, and will, do something about–and why?  It’s small enough to beat and rich enough to be worth taking.  This is not about freedom and democracy, it’s about greed and hypocrisy, about getting our people in there and taking over from the amateurs who started the revolt. I would like to see those amateurs succeed, but it’s not about freedom any more, it’s about their blood for our oil–again.

My bad, Ms. Sheehan.  You called it right.

The Clash:  “Rock the Casbah





WORM WAR ONE

12 02 2011

A very unusual and deeply significant event happened last Fall, but largely escaped notice in the media. The significance of this story is that we have crossed a threshold, entered a new territory, and there is no telling what will happen next. Sometimes that’s a good thing. In the long run, this particular event may be beneficial, but I have a feeling it is going to raise a lot of hell along the way.

I’m not even talking about climate change here. The event was the infection of the control system for Iran’s nuclear program with a computer worm called “Stuxnet.”

Stuxnet is a very carefully designed worm. It won’t use your computer to send spam. It won’t eat your hard drive. But, if your computer is one that controls certain kinds of industrial equipment, especially nuclear centrifuges, Stuxnet will cause the centrifuges to malfunction, while it shields the malfunction from monitoring equipment. Nuclear centrifuges have to spin at a certain speed in order to properly separate out the uranium isotopes. If the speed varies, they don’t do the job right, and the end product will not function properly in a nuclear reactor–or an atomic bomb.

That is not the kind of worm that is designed by bored teenage hackers in LA.  It is a highly sophisticated computer program that could only have been designed by a very big business or a government. “Dissection” of the worm uncovered several clues that seem to point to Israeli involvement.

I’m not big on either nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons.  To me, they are both clear examples of technologies that a truly wise and intelligent species would have theorized about but not actually created, due to the inherent dangers.  But we are not a truly wise and intelligent species, and we have gone ahead and created hundreds of nuclear reactors and, according to once source, 23,000 nuclear weapons.  (Twenty-three again!  Who’s writing this script?)

Iran claims its nuclear program is intended for peaceful uses only.  But most of its neighbors have nuclear arsenals–the Russians on the north, the Pakistanis to the east, the Israelis to the west, (although we’re supposed to act as if they don’t!), and the US on its south, in the Persian Gulf.  When you’re surrounded by mean monkeys with big sticks, it’s a natural monkey reaction to grab the biggest stick you can and look as threatening as you can.  If the US really wants Iran not to reach for a big stick, we should stop harassing them.  That, however, is unlikely to happen.

There has been a great deal of speculation that, via its proxy, Israel, the US would act to take out Iran’s nuclear program with an air strike, similar to the Israeli attacks on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and a mysterious target in Syria last fall.

Iran, however, is a much more problematic target for this kind of violence.  It’s further away from Israel than Syria or Iraq and has  more sophisticated air defense systems, leading to a greater possibility of failure.  With its superior resources and the experience of Israel’s attacks on its neighbors, Iran has doubtless “hardened” its nuclear facilities, making them less vulnerable to bombing.  Because the facilities are up and running, attacking them would also be more likely to involve considerable loss of life and widespread nuclear contamination, not to mention condemnation.  And then there’s blowback; Israel has repeatedly beat the crap out of Syria, so that its response to the Israeli attack was largely bluff and bluster; but Iran has much more capacity and willingness to retaliate.  An Israeli air strike on Iran could well have the same effect as throwing a lit match into a very large pool of gasoline.

So, attacking Iran’s nuclear program with a computer worm is, in many ways, a far more sensible choice than sending in the bombers.  And, from a realpolitik viewpoint, the accompanying assassinations of several top Iranian nuclear scientists is more compassionate, or maybe just less uncompassionate, than dropping a bunker-buster on the site and spreading radioactive debris all over the surrounding countryside.

I can understand Israel’s skittishness.  There is a genocidal holocaust in their past, and they want to do all they can to make sure there isn’t another, nuclear, holocaust in their future.  If they’re serious about that, maybe they should just give up on Palestine and move to Nevada or Utah.  But that’s another story.

My guess is that we have not heard the last of this exchange.  You can be sure Iran is looking for a way to retaliate, some back-door, plausible-deniability m.o. that will cripple US and/or Israeli infrastructure without being blatant.  China is apparently actively researching ways to cripple American computer networks.  Perhaps Iran can serve China in the same way that Israel serves America?

It doesn’t have to be high-tech.  It’s long been known that a few tons of gravel, launched into the same low-earth orbit as communications and spy satellites, would rapidly take out every one of those vital links in our communication network.  Bye-bye internet, bye-bye cell phones, bye-bye credit card transactions, bye-bye military communications. Sure, putting gravel in outer space is “rocket science,”  as well as a bad pun, but it’s pretty simple rocket science.  The North Koreans could probably pull that one off.

The worm war is on.  Its campaigns are  well disguised and waged in secret, and there’s no telling when, or what, the next attack will be.  Make hard copies of your favorite data and keep plenty of cash on hand.  Things could get primitive in the blink of an eye–or the launch of a rock.  Taking down communications satellites with rocks–back to the stone age, eh?

music:  Medeski, Martin, and Wood, “Bloody Oil”





“TRANSITION NASHVILLE”–ORGANIZING FROM THE GROUND UP

11 12 2010

 

As Margaret Mead famously said,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

The potluck didn’t happen due to the weather…a bit ironic to have a “transition” potluck cancelled because of extreme weather, eh?

This coming Monday, December 13, there will be a gathering of thoughtful, committed citizens, and you, dear reader, are invited.  The event will be a potluck dinner, so bring a dish or drink that is, or could be, grown or raised here in middle Tennessee.  Please note:  while I am a vegetarian, this is not necessarily a “vegetarian” event.  Cheese, eggs, turkey, beef, venison–if it’s your thing and it’s at least theoretically local, bring it.  Sorry, no pineapples, avocados, or tuna casseroles!  Catfish?  Of course!  Me, I’m bringing a bean dish.  I’ve seen truckloads of Tennessee-grown beans, and I ain’t just talking soy.

The dinner will take place from 6:30 pm until 9:00 pm at West Nashville United Methodist Church (4710 Charlotte Avenue), at the corner of 48th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue.  Parking is across the street in front of Richland Library. Enter the Fellowship Hall next to McDonalds.  (McDonald’s! Oh, the irony!)

For more details, check out Transition Nashville’s meetup.com site, or the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council’s meetup.com site.

Nashville is a big city, and I think that ultimately it will take a great many neighborhood transition councils to really change the way we do things around here, but I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for a mass movement.  I’m just gonna do my best to get something started, and trust that we will inspire people who are more talented at community organizing and politicking than I am–and, believe me, that’s not a high bar to set–to take this idea and run with it.

As far as I can tell, one of my gifts, such as it is, seems to be an ability to grasp and communicate the big picture–so what follows is the big picture, past and future, of the transition movement.  To the extent that I can translate that into specific examples, I’ll give you those as well.

It was twenty years ago today, you could say, that Tennessee’s two prize Alberts, Bates and Gore, first struck up the band on the subject of human-caused climate change and imminent resource depletion. Bates’ book, Climate in Crisis, published in 1990 with a forward by Gore, attracted notice mostly in the counterculture, although Gore did give a copy of it to every member of Congress.  (It would be interesting to know how many actually read it!)  Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, which came out a couple of years later, became the first book by a US Senator since John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage to make the New York York Times Bestseller list.

Unfortunately, Gore’s early effort, like his follow-up, An Inconvenient Truth, failed to inspire a working majority of either the politicians or the people of America to get up and dance to his tune. The reasons for that are legion, but the bottom line is this: due to our collective failure to sufficiently change our ways, we are beginning to feel the effects of climate change, not to mention resource depletion, AKA “Peak Oil,”and for the rest of our lives, we will have to deal with an increasingly erratic but overall warmer climate, while at the same time  the financial and material options available to us to cope with this change will  narrow and diminish. Climate scientists have published reams of statistics and “big picture” predictions. What I am going to explore here is what that may mean for our daily lives.

Let’s start in the garden. It’s a good place to start, because we’re probably all going to be spending a lot more time there in the future.  Our winters are overall going to be milder, but with the ice off the Arctic Ocean, there will be an increased possibility of heavy snow and extreme cold waves. At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive that a warmer Arctic will make our winters colder, but here’s the reason:  open water evaporates more readily than ice, and so, if the Arctic Ocean isn’t frozen, it will generate stronger storms that will push further south and east.  We’re seeing that now in the cold weather that is striking here, as well as northern Europe.  Last summer, we were all hot and dry.  Russia’s wheat crop burned in the fields, remember?  First time ever.

Here in Tennessee, we are on the boundary between the “polar continental” climate region, where weather is driven by  that Arctic pattern I was just talking about,  and the Gulf region, where the weather is sub-tropical, generated by evaporation from the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Pacific,and the South Atlantic Oceans.  As the planet heats up, they, too, are evaporating more, and all the water that goes up, comes down, in the form of tropical storms and hurricanes. Being on this boundary makes our weather in Tennessee especially difficult to predict, according to a NOAA meteorologist I once met.

This much is for certain: we can expect our summers to be hotter, with more erratic rainfall, and our winters, too, will be milder, but with more erratic cold snaps, like the one we’re currently riding out.  Hotter summers may shut down some traditional summer garden crops like tomatoes and peppers, which won’t set fruit if it’s too hot. We may find ourselves planting these as spring and fall crops. More tropical species like okra, black eyed peas, and sweet potatoes should continue to thrive. Did you know that sweet potato leaves can be cooked and eaten?  Overall warmer winters will make it easier to keep cool weather crops like spinach, kale, collards, and the many delicious types of oriental greens through the winter, especially with the aid of simple cold frames and hoop houses.

Our fruit tree menu may have to change somewhat. We are already near the southern boundary for successful apple growing, but pears, especially the oriental types, should continue to do well in Tennessee. Peaches, which bloom early, are likely to be even more chancy as our later winter/early spring weather becomes more erratic. Late freezes could be a problem for all perennial fruit crops. On the plus side, rabbiteye blueberries, which are native to north Florida, should continue to thrive, and if winter temperatures start to consistently stay above the 10 degree Fahrenheit mark, we will be able to add local  figs, oriental persimmons, jujubes, and pomegranates to our diet.  Yum!

More erratic weather patterns will not just be a hardship for local gardeners, however. As we saw in Russia and Pakistan last summer, entire countries may see their agriculture burned out or washed away. Here in America, we have not yet begun to feel the strain of food shortage, but I think that home gardeners would be wise to expand their production from “just” vegetables to staple crops—lots of winter squash, white and sweet potatoes, beans, and even grains. Field corn is fairly easy to grow, harvest, and grind. Diversifying your gardening efforts is probably the best way to insure that, whatever the weather, your garden will provide you with something to eat.

OK, that’s kind of “the good news.”  Let’s factor in a couple of other likelihoods:  a much-diminished economy, and increasing scarcity of oil-related products, which includes everything from gasoline to electronic devices to plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Our economy in this country is largely funded by money we borrow from China and the oil Sheikdoms of the Middle East.  They loan us money so we can keep buying oil and manufactured goods from them, but they are growing increasingly uncomfortable with this arrangement, and we may wake up one morning to find they have decided to quit financing the American way of life and world domination.  As I commented last month, even mainstream, middle-of-the road politicians like our Governor, Phil Bredesen, recognize this, although Bredesen and his interviewer didn’t explore its full significance.  Here’s my short take on it:

It all revolves around one simple statistic. We Americans, about 5% of the world’s population, consume about 25% of the world’s resources. That’s five times our fair share, and we are buying it on credit.  When we can no longer get that credit, the result will be an “adjustment”–a more equitable distribution of resources.  To be blunt,we will probably be (barely!) able to afford only our 5% fair share of the world’s resources.That’s an 80% reduction in the average American standard of living. If those to whom we owe money push hard to collect on our debts to them and take possession of chunks of our infrastructure, real estate, and remaining resources in lieu of cash payment, we will have even less.  For the wealthy few, it will not be so onerous, but for most of us it will be pretty severe, albeit hard to imagine from this side of the “adjustment.”

“The American Way of Life” will be over.  It has been sacrosanct, declared non-negotiable by every President since Ronald Reagan booted Jimmy Carter out for the cardinal sin of proposing to negotiate it.  (“The moral equivalent of war,” as Mr. Carter said.)  Oops….We have all but lost the war to maintain American hegemony.  It’s too late for negotiation, and it turns out the only alternative is unconditional surrender.

“Welcome to the third world, America!”

Ah, hubris…..must be time for a music break.

music:  Steve Earle, “Ashes to Ashes”

Okay, enough with the current situation already.  Looking in my crystal ball, what kind of future do I see?

I see that we are going to have to learn to get along better with each other, because we are likely to be living in larger groups and tighter quarters.  With less income and higher costs to heat and light houses, people will increasingly move in with friends and family because their only other option is homelessness. As Robert Frost wrote,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

We will have to re-learn co-operation, and not just to grow our gardens and feed our faces.  We will need to co-operate to create or obtain the goods we need for our every-day lives, because we won’t be able to buy Chinese goods from big-box stores any more.  We will need to co-operate to educate our children and each other–because a whole lot of us are going to have to learn a broad spectrum of new/old skills, the house-holding and homesteading skills we lost when our cultural norm became going out and working for money and buying things instead of staying home and making do.  And we will need to co-operate to take care of the ill and elderly, because hospitals  and “assisted living,” along with most other medical care, will be out of reach of all but the very wealthy.

The good news is, more of us will be born at home, and more of us will die at home, and more of us will attain the maturity that comes from familiarity with birth and death.  The bad news is, more of us will die earlier, from conditions that, currently, are rarely fatal.

We’re not going to have–and indeed, are already in the process of losing–universal access to private cars and the fuel, whether gasoline or electricity, to run them.  Cities and states will increasingly lose the ability to maintain public transportation, highways, sewers, water and gas lines, and police forces.   Warm weather and drought may curtail power plant operations–both nuclear and conventional electric generating stations require plenty of cool water to operate, and if they can’t get it,  your electric stove, your air conditioner, your lights, and your computer will become increasingly unreliable. My lights, computer, and electric stove and water heater won’t work either.  This troubles my sleep.

As I write these words, our government is watering down the value of our currency.  They call it “quantitative easing.”  This is just one of the things that is alienating the countries we borrow money from. If the U.S.’s credit rating and currency value drop much further, other countries will be able to outbid us for oil.   If our economy loses access to the level of oil we are dependent on, America will come undone so fast it will take your breath away.   Walking and bicycling will be increasingly important modes of transportation, but, to paraphrase Gary Snyder,  the most appropriate thing for most of us will be staying home as much as possible, making do with what’s at hand and enjoying the company of our house-mates and neighbors.

Have some more blueberries!

Boy, that neighbor kid sure can play the guitar!  He’s right proud of that guitar of his–weeded the woodworker’s garden all summer to pay it off.

First step in staying warm next winter–sharpen up the ax and the crosscut saw.

I’m gonna take this bundle of rags to the paper maker.  Sure am glad we’ve got a neighborhood mule to tote ’em for us.

Internet? Telephones?  The U.S. mail?  I remember when we used to  have those!  Man, we was living high on the hog in those days!

A pound of sugar?  Wow, how’d you come up with that?

I hope I haven’t scared you half to death with this little rant, but it should be nothing new to my regular listeners and readers.  “Transition” people are, understandably, a bit skittish about disclosing what it is we are transitioning into.  It was Chellis Glendinning who wrote about needing a twelve-step program to break peoples’ addiction to consumer culture.  One of the basic maxims of the twelve-step approach is “one day at a time,” and in this essay I have perhaps violated that precept.

Some may question what this kind of “doomerism”  has to do with politics in general or the Green Party in specific.  Here’s my response:

The Republicans and Democrats are completely unwilling to face these issues.  Somebody’s got to point out that not just the Emperor, but the Empire, has no clothes, and that dirty but necessary job has fallen by default to the Green Party.  Although we are still pretty much locked out of national or even state politics, we are slowly increasing our influence at the local level, which is where a great deal of what actually needs to happen to facilitate transition gets decided.

But you don’t have to sign up for the Green Party to join the Transition movement, which, among other things, involves a transition out of politics as we have always known it–along with the rest of the familiar, if deeply alienated, reality that we have become, however comfortably or uncomfortably, accustomed to.

One day at a time.  Today, all you “thoughtful, committed citizens” who can make it are invited to a potluck dinner.  That potluck dinner is Monday, December 13, at West Nashville United Methodist Church (4710 Charlotte Avenue), at the corner of 48th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue.  Parking is across the street in front of Richland Library. Enter the Fellowship Hall next to McDonalds.   (Mc Donald’s–remember them?  They used to be everywhere.)

For more details, check out Transition Nashville’s meetup.com site, or the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council’s meetup.com site.

If you can’t make our potluck, maybe you can get together with your friends and neighbors and start your own ball rolling.  That would be great.  It’s gonna take a lot of balls to pull off a smooth transition.  (Ladies, please don’t let my little joke put you off!)  There’s a lot of insight, skill, and vision in this city, and sharing them only increases their power.  It’s been twenty years since Al and Albert first raised a warning..  It’s time to let it grow.

music: The Beatles, “Sgt.Pepper>A Little Help From My Friends”





INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE

14 11 2010

Our “Truth in Strange Places” Award this month goes to Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen.  Long-time listeners and readers will recall that I have referred to our governor as a vampire, because he has profited so handsomely from the suffering of others.  The American health care system seems designed to make poor people out of sick people, which smells like bloodsucking to me.

So, I was startled when I found myself reading an interview with Governor Bredesen about his new book on health care, and nodding along in agreement, as he said

There are problems in the way we use insurance, but the insurance companies themselves aren’t the core problem. If we want to blame somebody, let’s look at other medical providers, like the pharmaceutical industry. In the book I use the example of [drug maker] Merck, where profits last year were equal to the earnings of all the companies in the Fortune 500 health insurance and managed-care category combined.

Well, okay, I actually rolled my eyes at the first part of that and started nodding when he outed Merck’s excessive profits.  Bredesen made his money in the insurance biz, so he’s not going to accept the blame, and I suppose in a way he’s right.  While for-profit insurance companies are primarily concerned with making a profit for stockholders and only secondarily with providing adequate benefits to policyholders, it’s immaterial to them whether medical costs are inflated or not, as long as their income is sufficient to cover those costs.  As for-profit companies, they will do whatever they have to do to stay in the black, including denying life-saving procedures.  (As more than one wag has pointed out, “America already has ‘death panels’–they’re called ‘insurance companies’.”)

So, while he’s telling the truth about Merck here, it’s also a form of passing the buck.  Sure, Merck’s (very) gross profit contributes to the excessive cost of medical care, but so did the estimated $100 million dollar fortune Bredesen amassed while running HealthAmerica.  Remember, that hundred mil is just a part of the difference between what average Joes like you and me paid in for our insurance coverage and what Bredesen’s company paid out.  You can also think of that fortune as blood sucked from the bodies of the poor and sick by a vampire….yeah, I know, Halloween is over, but ’tis still the season….

Just for the record, Merck’s estimated profit for 2010 is in the range of $26 billion dollars, so I suppose the Guv thinks his personal hundred mil is chump change…”Hey, I’m not the bloodthirstiest vampire in the crypt!”

Tell it to the people who lost their Tenncare coverage, Phil.  See if they think you’re poor like them.  See if they think you’re not just as much a part of the problem as Merck.

More on Tenncare later.   What Phil had to say about Obama’s “health care reform” was a lot more on track:

….we put a structure in place in the 1930s—an insurance-based, employer-based system—and it’s outgrown its usefulness. It’s obsolete. We’re sitting here in America with frequently inferior care which is more expensive than anywhere else in the world. You’re not going to fix that by simply adding more people to the rolls or singling out particular enemies.

….The core problem is this: if you leave health care as an open-ended entitlement, where the people providing services get to define how much service is provided and how much to charge for it, you will never contain costs. The history of the last fifty years of health care is uniform in that regard. So let’s try to find a different way of doing it, one that disengages from the insurance model. That model is inefficient and it creates all sorts of bad incentives, ones where the incentive of any doctor or provider is to do more and charge more.

What Phil recommends is the “Mayo Clinic model,” which divorces physicians’ income from the number of patients they see and the number of tests and procedures they order, thus freeing doctors to spend more time with each patient.  One study found that this simple step cuts health care costs by over 50% for some groups of patients.

And, by the way, here’s what an official Mayo Clinic spokesperson had to say about the health care plan that Obama and the Democrats passed:

“The proposed legislation misses the opportunity to help create higher-quality, more affordable health care for patients. In fact, it will do the opposite,”

Back to Phil…here’s what he said about those notorious TennCare cuts:

The TennCare experience was very painful. It was somewhat politically painful for me—I had people sitting in my office twenty-four/seven for six months. But it was extraordinarily painful for the people who lost their health insurance because of it. What we were forced to do in the end was make reductions with a broadax rather than a scalpel. And it was very painful for the people who got lost in the cracks in that. The sense in the book that the system we have is not serving the needs of some of the people who most need it comes very strongly from that experience.

The other thing that comes from my experience with TennCare is that if we indeed consider some level of health care a basic right, let’s divorce it from being charity handed out by politicians and organize ourselves deliberately and fairly and without anybody having to grovel to get it. I’d love to go back to more of what Harry Truman’s vision was, which is that there is some underlying level where everyone’s treated the same. We’ve really gotten close to that with Medicare, and there’s no reason we can’t do it with the rest of the system.

So he’s coming mighty close to endorsing the “Medicare for all” paradigm in the book he wrote, even saying:

To pay for it, let’s give people vouchers that can only be spent on health care. That’s essentially what Social Security is, just reworked for medical care. Of course, it’s different in the sense that if someone isn’t a part of the Social Security system, you’re willing to not write them a check—whereas if they’re not part of the medical system you’re not willing to let them die in the street. But if you disburse a limited amount of money and say it can only be spent on health care, then you’re limiting the maximum amount of money that comes into the market, which creates some competition and value. Then, third, you create quality auditing systems to monitor what is being provided. What the book is about is how to do all this in a fair and responsible way.

I have to confess here that I haven’t yet read Phil’s book, entitled Fresh Medicine, so I’m not in a position to comment on what he considers “a fair and responsible way,” but what I perceive here is that, from his strongly capitalist, free market perspective, he’s trying to design universal access to health care without mandating that everybody has to buy private insurance, which, he seems to agree, is not the most cost-effective way to make Americans both healthier and less financially vulnerable in the event of a catastrophic health problem.  And sure, I’m in love with the idea of a national health service that  incorporates holistic practices, but if somebody’s got a way to improve the skewed system we’re currently stuck with that will actually get through our legislative process, there are compromises I could live with.

I’ve saved the best for last:

I don’t want to be a Cassandra, but we’re in a difficult financial situation in this country, and we’re going to have to deal with entitlements very soon. So let’s start addressing the issue now, particularly as related to health care, and not wait until China stops buying our bonds. Let’s start getting things set up so that when the whole issue comes to a head, we’ll be ready.

Got that?

Let’s not wait until China stops buying our bonds.

That thrilled me to the core.  It let me know that I am not just a lunatic fringe, nutjob doomer for thinking the US is approaching the end of our financial choke-chain leash, and the Chinese could just decide to snap it tight around our throats any time.  Our own governor, a conservative guy whom I have excoriated on numerous occasions,  sees it that way.  You can hardly get a more independent confirmation than that.  And,  with Obama and the US bankers making threatening noises about Chinese currency manipulation, it is clear that we are on the brink of a financial war, a war the US is almost certain to lose.  When that poop comes through the air intake, affordable health care is going to be among the least of our worries.

So, Phil–you may be a vampire, but you’re a lot more clear-headed than I had suspected.  Thanks for your, yes, Cassandran pronouncements–hey, I believe you.  But then, I’m a Cassandra too.

music:  Material:  “Words of Advice for Young People”





A LITTLE GOOD NEWS (JUST A LITTLE!) ABOUT THE BAD NEWS…

10 04 2010

And, while we’re on the subject of apologies….

Like many people, I spread the IPCC’s claim that the Himalayan ice sheet, which is the third largest on the planet, and the source for every major river in Southeast Asia, was likely to melt by 2035.  Well, the good news is, they now admit they were wrong about that–it will actually happen in 2036.

Just kidding!

Seriously, though, the official estimate for the demise of that ice pack is now three hundred years, which, geologically speaking, is hardly any different from twenty-five years, and in any case, the IPCC’s estimates have consistently turned out to be optimistic, compared to what is actually happening.  For instance, fossil fuel use, and consequent carbon release, has risen much faster than even their worst-case scenario predictions.

A slower dwindling of the Himalayan ice pack means that the billions of people who depend on the rivers of Southeast Asia for their water–from the Indus in Pakistan to the Yellow River of China–will be gradually parched rather than suddenly hung out to dry.  If the affected countries plan carefully, this could allow time for voluntary population reduction, social programs to obviate the perceived need for large families, transition to less water-intensive agriculture, reforestation, and other water conservation and ecosystem stabilization practices.

None of that will be easy, and even a coercive state like China has not been able to actually reduce its population, in spite of a fairly strict one-child-per-family law.  The alternative, whether reached in twenty five years or three centuries, is horrific–billions of people displaced by famine, failing surface and ground water supplies, and rising seas.  There will be population reduction and eventual return to some kind of equilibrium, but it will not be pretty.

In fact, it’s not pretty already.

In India, the “Green Revolution” replaced lower-yielding, open-pollinated dryland crops with hybrid crops that, given irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer, produced higher yields.  While costs of these fossil-fuel based inputs were originally low, they have since risen faster than the price of the crops that demand their application.  In addition, since they are  planting hybrid seeds, farmers can no longer save seed from one year to the next, and are confronted with rising seed prices.  This has had several serious, unintended consequences.  Indian farmers, caught in a noose of rising debt, are committing suicide in record numbers, and record numbers of families are being forced off land they have inhabited for centuries, seeking the dubious shelter of India’s already swollen and out-of-control cities.  Meanwhile, the increased demand for irrigation water is drawing down India’s water table, causing wells and springs to go dry, sending more people out of the countryside and into the cities.  Last but hardly least, the dryland crop seedlines–and the knowledge of how to grow and use them–are in danger of being lost in the rush to grow green revolution rice.

The monsoon, which provides another big chunk of India’s water supply, failed last year.  This is not unheard of, and not necessarily connected to climate change, but it should serve to remind us that we have set things in motion that we can neither predict nor control, despite our conceit about our own cleverness as a species.  Can you say hubris, boys and girls?

And, speaking of hubris, let’s look at China, where the rush to industrialize has resulted in incredible, pervasive levels of pollution.  Even boiled water is not safe to drink in many locations, because it is apt to contain chemicals that cannot be removed by boiling.  Worse yet, China’s much-vaunted railway line into Tibet is likely to help China exploit Tibet’s vast, untapped mineral resources–which, given China’s abysmal environmental track record,  will result in toxic mine waste polluting the water supply of most of southeast Asia–while it lasts.

I wish I had something vast and uplifting to offer you at this point, but I don’t.  The reality of our situation is grim and sobering, especially for poor people in the second and third world, who are going to be bearing the brunt of the problems we in the first world have created with our exorbitant, exploitive lifestyle.  We have the luxury of time and energy to form garden co-ops and relearn low-tech grain farming and animal husbandry, blacksmithing and woodworking, and to adapt high-tech electronics to consciously conceived and executed sustainable lifestyles. Most of us have plenty of clean water available. We are not Indian or Chinese peasants or urban slum dwellers, facing poisoned water or none at all, lack of land and other resources from which to feed ourselves, or even a secure home.  It’s a blessing that we have blessings to count, and probably the best way to insure our own continued good fortune is to seek ways to share those blessings with whoever we can reach out to.   That’s not much, but it’s what there is.

(on the subject of corrections, I have been crediting “The Road to Hell” to Leonard Cohen, because somebody gave it to me on a CD that was otherewise all LC songs, and they sound somewhat alike…finally figured it out!)

music:  Chris Rea, “The Road to Hell”





BROKENHAGEN

9 01 2010

It looks like the climate conference in Copenhagen produced good news and bad news.

The bad news was that, as the final weeks, months, or years (nobody knows!) tick down before we have passed over enough “tipping points” to fall into climate chaos, the governments of the world were unable to agree about how to stop, slow, end, or reverse the process.  It’s not that we don’t know what  to do, it’s that there is no way to make those who are doing most of  the damage–the government/industrial complexes of the US, China, India, Canada, and Russia–there is no way to make them–or is it us?– stop. Everybody agreed to keep talking,  but the climate time bomb is still ticking, and we have no idea when it’s going to go off or how much damage it will do.

The good news is that the governments and big businesses of the world were unable to come to the agreement that some had hoped to ratify–an agreement that was more of a mutual suicide pact than something that would actually have curbed, or even helped the world adjust to, global climate change.

It kind of reminds me of the old anti-gun law bumper sticker that read “Ill give up my guns when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.”

But this isn’t about just about guns, it’s about the whole growth-oriented worldwide consumer economy.  The upper classes and their hypnotized minions in the bourgeoisie and what’s left of the working class (Wow, I sound like an old-time commie, don’t I!?), all those under the spell of eternal growth, either don’t care how many people have to die for them to keep enjoying their high standard of living, or at best think there is some technological breakthrough just over the horizon that will make it work.  I have a feeling they are very, very mistaken.

As I understand it, here’s how the breakdown happened:

The Chinese see themselves, probably correctly, as the next great superpower, and are unwilling to let anything stand in their way.  China’s  leaders  also know that they need to keep their economy moving, or they will have hundreds of millions of very unhappy people chewing on their asses.  Are they aware of the fact that their growth plan will melt the Himalayan ice cap and leave them (and India) without an adequate water supply?  Probably.  Are they planning to  negotiate for, or maybe just seize,  far eastern Russia’s copious water resources?  Probably.  Do they figure that India and the rest of south Asia, who are dependent on the glacier-fed Mekong, Irawaddy, Bhramaputra, Ganges, and Indus Rivers, but do not have easy access to Siberia, will thus be made more dependent on China and thus increase China’s world hegemony?   Probably.

Will things work out according to their plans?   Don’t bet on it.  According to one witness, it was the Chinese who insisted that the commitment to an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050, as well as any other concrete targets,  be dropped.  China will not be immune to the disastrous consequences of this power play.

The US government and its major industrial corporations (who are not nearly as separate as they want us to believe) are still trying to be number one.  The US came to the conference with a “commitment” to goals that would protect its own financial interests but not the little people of the world, which seems to be the typical strategy of the Obama administration.  Hillary Clinton’s offer to create a fund to help countries deal with climate change was so hedged with conditions that it amounted to blackmail.  Fortunately, the US position in the world is slipping so fast that few countries are likely to take the bait.  Meanwhile, however, the back room, lowest-common denominator “accord” that Obama negotiated with the Chinese did more to trash the UN, the possibility of controlling carbon emissions,  and America’s standing in the world than all the fussing the Bush Junta and their bulldog John Bolton  ever dreamed of.

So where does that leave us?  On our own.  The big boys are too involved with preserving their own asses and assets to think about or care for us.   .  It’s time to learn to power down, to transition into the post-affluence, post-petroleum, climate-altered twenty-first century,   We need to learn to live  locally, to be both self reliant and interdependent.  We need to learn how to keep working with old friends and how to make new ones.  There’s already a group gathering here in Nashville to do this–in fact, there probably need to be several–it’s a big city.

I can tell you about two upcoming events that will address this need for local organization.  The first is this coming Tuesday, January 12th, at the Celebrity Scientology Center, 1130 8th Avenue South, at 7:30 PM.  Albert Bates, who attended the Copenhagen meeting, will be talking about where we go from here.  Albert combines brilliant, innovative insight with a great sense of humor, and I think this meeting will be very inspirational and should not be missed.  This event is free.

But, if that’s a little short-notice for you, save Saturday, January 30th, when local activist Susan Shann, who is working to birth the “Transition Nashville” movement, will talk at the Cumberland-Green River Basin Bioregional Council’s winter meeting.   She’s not as funny as Albert, but she sings better.  Susan will presenting between 1:30 and 3PM at Brookemeade Congregational Church, at 700 Bresslyn Road, and there will be other events and workshops as well.  Check out the whole schedule at http://www.meetup.com/Cumberland-Green-River-Bioregional-Council/ .  This event is also free.

Hope to see you there!

music:  The Grateful Dead, “Throwing Stones





SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK

11 12 2009

I am amazed and dismayed at how difficult it can be to get some people to cut loose of a bad idea.  Sometimes it’s local–like the May family’s recent hiring of a notorious  zoning attorney to work on getting their “Maytown Center” fantasyland approved.  Sometimes it’s national–like all the people who project their liberal expectations on Barack Obama and keep urging him to stand up and roar, when the reality is that he’s just a pussycat in Wall Street’s lap, and no more likely to pounce on Wall Street, the insurance/pharmaceutical establishment, the military establishment, or America’s carbon- and credit happy way of life than your cat is likely to pounce on you and eat you for breakfast.

And that brings us to the climate talks in Copenhagen.  Prospects do not look good for a serious, binding treaty, and why?  Two main reasons: the first is that big corporations are addicted to short-term profits and have the political clout to make sure that nothing interferes with their money fix.  The second is that we, the people of the United States, or “estamos jodidos“, as they say in Mexico, are  addicted to our petroleum-inflated, corporate-backed standard of living, and will happily vote out of office or ignore any politician who attempts to interfere with our comfort fix.  Ask Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader, or Cynthia McKinney.

Thus, we have the irony that many of those who excoriated the Bush junta for dissing “the reality-based community” are now themselves out of touch with hard, physical reality.  The hard, physical reality is that the climate is changing much faster than the IPCC predicted it would.  The hard, physical reality is that the planet’s carbon dioxide level passed the threshold of safety at 350 parts per million, and agreements that “hold” us to 450 ppm will not prevent massive, catastrophic changes to the only planet we have to live on.  Nature bats last, she doesn’t negotiate, and she doesn’t care how much some pundits fume about East Anglian emails.

But the wealthy elite who dominate our political system don’t seem to get this.  They think that the “political reality” that serious climate change legislation won’t fly trumps the “physical reality” of impending disaster, so if we can’t shut down every coal plant in the US and China in the next three years, if we don’t stop deforesting the tropics for grazing land and Canada for tar sand, if we don’t stop acidifying the oceans before we kill off the phytoplankton that provide 70% of our oxygen, it’s OK.

It’s not OK.  Maybe the plutocrats who run the big businesses of the world think their wealth will permanently insulate them from the consequences of their inaction.  In the long run, they are very, very wrong.

But in the short run, which unfortunately is all that counts for most people, it has been true.  Those who are suffering the most from climate change, or who are about to suffer the most from climate change, live in the third world, while it is we in the first world, with our material addictions, who have triggered  the catastrophe.  Geography insulates us from them.  Hurricane Katrina was an early warning, a reminder that calamity can strike America, too, and we should not let the fact that the Atlantic has been relatively quiet since then lull us into a false sense of security.

If, as seems likely, there is neither an agreement nor even an agreement to come to agreement as a result of Copenhagen, there is one deus ex machina that might derail catastrophic climate change, and that is economic collapse, which has already idled thousands of oceangoing cargo vessels worldwide, and at least slowed down that once fast-growing source of carbon emissions, which along with international airlines, was exempted from control under the so-called Kyoto accords.

Economic collapse has all but shut down urban sprawl in the US.  Home construction was the last big domestic industry possible in this country, since you can’t readily build homes in China and ship them here, and even building materials imported from China turn out to be suspect, as the recent flap over weird sheetrock demonstrates.

And, if the Chinese and Indians try to keep their economies (and carbon emissions) strong by developing their domestic economies, they will first find themselves up against the hard reality of spiraling oil prices and diminishing oil supplies, and then they will have to deal with their countries becoming uninhabitable as the Himalayan glaciers melt off over the next thirty years, drying up the sources of all of both countries’ major rivers.  Ooops….where’s a sixth of the world’s population gonna go when they get thirsty?   And, considering how much the US owes China, are we gonna be able to tell them no, they can’t come here?  Yes, the stage is set for chaos, boys and girls….

And the US government is gridlocked.  The “solutions” they pass in Congress are pitiful.  It’s not about what the Repugs won’t let the Dims do.  That’s a puppet show, and the puppet master has a Repug puppet on his right hand and a Dim puppet on his left, and we’re supposed to believe they’re really different.  The gridlock is that the wealthy, who are creating and benefitting from the mess the planet is in, won’t let the government do anything that is against their interest.  Forget “We, the people.”  It’s “We, the rich people, ” and they are determined to keep their priviliges no matter what.

“Green corporations” are a crock.   Walmarts with “green roofs” and massive energy conservaton systems and recycling, even if they’re full of “green products” are still part of the problem, not part of the solution, because they are still designed to pump money out of communities and into the hands of shareholders. It’s not just about changing content, it’s about changing form.  Once upon a time, the dinosaurs were so big and ferocious that  us mammals could barely hang on. Then the planet went through some sudden changes, and the dinosaurs’ size and inflexibility worked against their ability to adapt.   We’re approaching a similar point, but the dinosaurs of this age are the legal fictions of giant corporations and national governments.

What this means for you and me is that it’s time to take things into our own hands.  No, I don’t mean let’s go burn down Brentwood,  Temporarily thrilling as that might be, it would create a lot more problems than it would solve.  I mean let’s get together with our friends and neighbors and figure out what we can do together to get ready for the  excrement that’s already hit the fan.  Let’s turn our lawns into gardens and build henhouses and keep milk cows, let’s learn to make, make do, and do without.

This is going to seem terribly futile from a certain perspective.  BIg changes are afoot, and I’m telling you to grow beans?  And to that, I can only reply with trite maxims like “Start where you are,”  or “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”  Trite, but true.

I know it’s short notice, but I’ll be getting together with some old and new friends Monday night here in Nashville, 7:30 to 9,  to continue the discussion of what we can actually do…..go to earthrevolution.org and send a “contact” email to rsvp, and you’ll get directions.  Thinking globally, acting locally, y’know?

Ah, this just in–according to our Copenhagen correspondent Albert Bates, US EPA administrator Carol Jackson has announced that, no matter what Congress does or doesn’t do, the EPA will regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and that US emissions will be going down.  A bold move, or at least a bold gesture.  Call me cynical, but I have to wonder how long it will take the Congressional coal&oil caucus to muzzle her efforts, and maybe even give her the Van Jones treatment.  Stay tuned….

music:  Jefferson Airplane, “Crown of Creation”








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