Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: energy storage

Take it from Steven Chu, the Obama administration's first energy secretary:

Wind and solar power are going to keep increasing. Wind is already the second-cheapest form of new energy, after shale gas, and it will become the cheapest within a decade. Right now utility companies get about 4 percent of their power from renewable sources other than hydro—and that 4 percent is roughly all from wind. You want to see a day when renewables are 50, 60, 70 percent. Utility companies will need batteries to stabilize the flow of renewable energy into the grid, plus a better electrical control system to do the switching. People may have these batteries at their houses instead of generators.

[Locations now off the grid] will have solar and wind power—which, in 10 or 15 years, are going to be as cheap as any other form of energy, or cheaper. Once you have storage systems, you can put a little solar installation on your roof or a plot of land, and now you have your electric supply! It will be like cellphones’ leapfrogging the land-line era. It will transform the prosperity of the world.

Chu isn't predicting which of several battery breakthrough technologies will win out, but he says this is where the action is in getting the planet off carbon polluting fuels.
An installation south of Phoenix, the Solana concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, solves the difficulty of storing renewable energy supplies by using molten salt. Hal Hudson writing in the New Scientist, explains:

Opened in October 2013, it's a zero-carbon power plant that could underpin the energy grid of the future.

I'm standing on a raised platform at its centre, decked out in clunky safety boots and a high-vis jacket. Thick pipes run away beneath me like arteries, pumping oil out to the mirror field. There, it is channelled into thinner piping that runs right through the focal points of the mirror troughs, absorbing the heat of the Arizona sun until the oil reaches nearly 400 °C. It then returns to the plant, where the oil superheats water vapour that spins two 140-megawatt turbines.

Six enormous white tanks surround the platform. Filled with molten salt, they can store enough heat to keep those turbines spinning at full capacity for 6 hours. The oil from the mirror field unloads its heat into the salt when the generators are at capacity. These tanks are what make Solana truly useful, not just producing carbon-free energy for Arizona, but storing it for use whenever the grid operator needs it.

We've got the wits to invent these technologies; do we have the wits and determination to implement them over the opposition of entrenched owners of polluting systems?

Photo by way of

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Voter registration: archaic, gratuitous but perhaps fixable

When people start tearing their hair about the state of U.S. democracy, about voter apathy and low voter turnout, they are not getting to the nub of the problem. Our entire notion that voters must jump through an administrative maze in order to register to vote is archaic nonsense.

This year, Democratic campaigns have some plausible, smart ideas about how to turn out people who might not vote and who need a shove. That's well and good. But some of us who want to heal our broken democracy should be looking as well at longer term fixes. The most important would be doing away with the unnecessary hurdle created by voter registration procedures.

You often hear that the U.S. has very low voter turnout -- about 60 percent in presidential years and 40 some percent in non-presidential elections. but these reports seldom mention that those percentages are based on "eligible," not "registered" voters. Among registered voters, turnout is closer to 90 percent in Presidential elections. When people clear the registration hurdle, they vote a lot more regularly.

Among persons eligible to be voters, about one quarter are not currently registered. In 2008, that meant some 50 million people were out of the process. They were most likely to be young, of color, and poor; that's who moves around a lot and who doesn't take up bureaucratic tasks comfortably. These are also the people who tune in to elections late -- often in the last two weeks which is too late to register. Several states now offer Same Day Registration and they all should; contemporary databases can handle the task.

Registration serves the public purpose of ensuring that the office holders we vote on are the relevant ones for the place where we reside. It would not be a good thing if we were voting for a Congressperson in some other district or for the mayor of the next town. For that reason, registration is tied to our addresses. But come on -- if the post office can (usually) succeed in delivering our mail when we move, voting authorities (at least within the same state) should be able to keep track of where we live. Maybe the all seeing eyes of the NSA could do something useful here?

Though in states where Republicans are currently in control, moves are afoot to reduce access to voting, there are countervailing trends. I was pleased to see this little item about California procedures:

 SACRAMENTO, California – California’s system of online voter registration – launched in English and Spanish in 2012 – has been expanded to allow voters to register online in eight additional languages: Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.

New [California] voters can now register online at this link.

New American Media

Way to go California, though we still don't have same day registration and we should!

The new national health insurance law, Obamacare, may have a positive effect on voting. When it was being fought out in Congress, a friend who made himself a very public expert on the program confided to me that "there is nearly a one-to-one correlation between having health insurance and being a voter." Interesting. Now that more people, especially more poorer people, have insurance will that mean they also become voters? If they survived, they've proved they can navigate bureaucratic systems.

Experts urge that in the process of signing up for health insurance, people can be offered the chance to get inside the voter registration maze. Project Vote explains

Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), voter registration opportunities must be provided to persons applying for public assistance programs. This requirement was included specifically to provide voter registration services to individuals who were less likely to register through other means. ...

The NVRA mandates that covered agencies must:

  • ask the applicant, in writing, whether he or she would like to register to vote or update his or her voter registration address;
  • distribute a voter registration application form, unless an individual declines in writing;
  • inform the applicant, in writing, that no one may interfere with his or her right to register to vote or not, right to privacy while registering, and right to choose a political party; and
  • help the applicant complete the voter registration application form, to the same degree as assistance is provided in completing benefits application forms.

In the initial rush to get Obamacare off the ground, it is not clear that this happened; the focus was just on getting numbers signed up in a cumbersome process. But over time millions of us will cycle through the Obamacare exchanges. Surely voluntary registration assistance, as already required by law, can become a normal part of the experience. Yes, Republicans won't like that -- but their states were also the ones that ceded building the internet health insurance interfaces to the feds. There ought to be a voting rights campaign in this ...

Monday, April 28, 2014

A bummer of a book about a bummer of a war

KABUL, Afghanistan — Three [civilian] Americans were killed at a private hospital in Kabul on Thursday morning when an Afghan police officer turned his gun on them, officials said, in the latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here. ....

“The foreigners have been here too long,” said a man outside the hospital who gave his name as Fawad and said a female relative was in the Cure hospital undergoing surgery. “People are tired of them."

New York Times, April 25, 2014

Yet another day in a war gone bad.

I've just wolfed down a gripping book that tells this same story in unrivaled depth. Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan is brilliant reporting, a deep dive into how the United States wore out its welcome in one obscure corner of that distant Central Asian country -- over and over and over again -- through its own fecklessness.

That corner is Helmand Province, a distant slice of the Southern Afghan desert, west of the Pashtun city of Kandahar, north of Pakistan. Only 4 percent of Afghanistan's population live there. It is bisected by the Helmand river, which despite repeated efforts, brings neither hydropower nor agriculture to the region. In the 1940s and '50s, a U.S. engineering company, a forerunner of such giants as Bechtel and Halliburton, won a contract from the Afghan government to turn the land into another agricultural paradise like irrigated Central California. The irrigation ditches they constructed only leached the salts in the soil to the surface; Afghans attracted to the land watched their crops wither and die. The irrigation ditches proved useful in later years only to the warring forces who fought over them: the Afghan communist government of the 1970s, invading Russians, the U.S.-funded Mujahideen who expelled the Russians, various surviving warlords, and eventually the Taliban.

When U.S. Marines arrived during the current war, they cursed those ditches, now mined with deadly IEDs. But they were Marines -- they stormed ahead, occupying the fields, killing their foes, and finally hunkering down to be sniped at and take mortar fire from invisible Taliban foes. They were maimed and many died. Their commanders were proud of them.

The U.S. brought in civilian agricultural experts who came to the same conclusion that every previous specialist had come to: the land would only be profitable to the Afghan farmers if it was seeded in cotton. This went nowhere -- the 1950s, the 1960s or the 2000s -- USAID doesn't help its recipients grow cotton. That crop competes with domestic US cotton which is propped up by Congressionally-favored price supports.

Eventually the Obama administration came into office and tried to figure out what to do about what candidate Obama had made "the good war" in contradistinction to George W. Bush's Iraq morass. The generals said what generals always say: more troops. Obama would outflank them -- they'd get only 40,000 more and those would have to begin to come home after two years. Nobody questioned why 10,000 of this number, a quarter of the total, had to be sent to Helmand where there were hardly any Afghans. Why was that? To satisfy the Marines who wouldn't play with the other services. Hence the "campaign" that briefly captured headlines in the U.S. in 2010 to take the insignificant almost-"town" of Marja. More Marines died in ditches.

Nothing good was coming of any of this and the cost of fighting halfway around the world was mounting up at home. The State Department's Richard Holbrooke was feuding with White House "security" honchos.

The American bureaucracy had become America's worst enemy. The Pentagon was too tribal. ... The generals were too rigid. ... The grunts committed too many unforced errors. Although the vast majority of American soldiers and Marines see served with honor and distinction, a handful of miscreants would soon tar America's "we're here to help" message with a series of egregious acts: murdering civilians, disrespecting the Koran, mistreating Taliban corpses. ... The war cabinet was too often at war with itself. ... Those rivalries were compounded by stubbornness and incompetence at the State Department and USAID...

All told, I spent three years observing Americans attempting to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan. ... the real challenge wasn't head counts, budgets, or public opinion. For all the lofty pronouncements about waging a new kind of war, our nation was unable to adapt. Too few generals recognized that surging forces could be counterproductive, that the presence of more foreign troops in the Pashtun heartland would be a potent recruiting tool for the Taliban. Too few soldiers were ordered to leave their air-conditioned bases -- with the siren call of Baskin-Robbins ice cream in the chow halls and big-screen televisions in the recreation rooms -- and live among the people in fly-infested villages. Too few diplomats invested the effort to understand the languages and cultures of the places in which they were stationed. Too few development experts were interested in anything other than making a buck. Too few officials in Washington were willing to assume the risks necessary to forge a lasting peace. And nobody, it seemed, wanted to work together. The good war had turned bad.

Yes, this book is a downer. But if anyone cares to know just how crazy bad the U.S. experience in Afghanistan has been for Afghans as well as our troops, this book is essential reading. Chandrasekaran has a knack for finding the informant who can give him the unvarnished back story, soldiers, aid workers, and Washington insiders. That's a very special skill and worth experiencing.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Too many people? Too few? How about more imagination?

Painting on the Mexican side of the U.S. border wall.

While looking for something else, I just ran across some musings about a couple of books written by Elizabeth Kolbert last fall in the New Yorker. First up, she summarizes Alan Weisman's Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Weisman argues that the only hope for humanity is to find a way to reduce our numbers and hence our impact on natural systems.

The alternative to an orderly global “countdown” is, he warns, pretty dire. “Whether we accept it or not, this will likely be the century that determines what the optimal human population is for our planet,” he writes. “Either we decide to manage our own numbers, to avoid a collision of every line on civilization’s graph—or nature will do it for us.”

Getting there requires a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) that is less than replacement level. Replacement level is a little over 2. Europe more than achieves this as does China through the one child policy. Japan's TFR at 1.4 has led to population decline. The U.S. sits right about at the replacement threshold. But -- and this is stunning -- in much of Africa the TFR is over 5 and people see nothing but good in this. Nigeria at 5.3 TFR is expected to have more people than the United States in a couple of decades.

Weisman is, understandably, trying to figure out how we could have less people; Kolbert goes on to highlight a book by Steven Philip Kramer, from the National Defense University, The Other Population Crisis: What Governments Can Do About Falling Birth Rates. Modern developed countries have built social systems that won't work if the supply of young people does not keep pace with length of life.

Kramer argues that countries like Singapore and Italy, where the fertility rate has dropped below replacement levels, are in deep trouble. As their populations age and ultimately shrink, low-fertility countries will have fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees. This will strain their social-welfare systems. To compound the problem, young people, Kramer says, tend “to be in the vanguard of technological innovation,” so aging countries may suffer from a sort of app gap.

There's lots more and it is more subtle than I've indicated -- read all of Kolbert's article here.

But first, ponder this for a moment: don't these two parallel laments suggest their own solution, at least in part? We have too many people for health of the planet but some people in less well off places keep making too many more people, presumably because more children help make life better for families that are poor. Meanwhile the rich places don't have enough young people to sustain our social arrangements.

Come on, think a minute. We live in a time when capital is global, when communication is global, when information goes everywhere -- maybe it is time for people also to be able to go everywhere? Maybe Europe and Japan need some of those Nigerians? The U.S. actually sustains its population growth in precisely this manner -- it is not the long time residents who are keeping us at about 2 TFR; it is the new immigrants.

Yes -- this solution presents all sorts of challenges of clashing lifestyles, histories and cultures. It is not how humans have typically behaved; we seem programmed to fight, not to share. But we already more and more know we're on the planet together. To go back to how Weisman speaks about this: maybe this is the century in which humanity will solve some of our problems by distributing the species more evenly across the globe? We may have to.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: the creatures we trod upon

I find it fascinating to attend to what I walk over everyday.

How can a sidewalk bear seem so cuddly?

I wouldn't want to step on this fellow.

Nor encounter this one.

This pachyderm seems intent on wherever he's going.

The donkey assumes a striking pose. At least I think this is a donkey--correct me if I am wrong.

How could I not be charmed by this wacky face?

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Could there be life after capitalism?

I can't think of a harder project than the one Cynthia Kaufman has set herself in this book; the title names her aspiration: Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope.

Well, guess what? This book isn't going to get us past capitalism, but it sure leads the reader through many of the issues along the way in an accessible manner. Kaufman, who teaches philosophy at a California community college, demonstrates that it is possible to write about capitalism for ordinary people without giving the impression that to do so we have to learn a bunch of jargon and probably also stop loving our iPhones.

Here's how she defines her subject:

Capitalism is a problem because it allows those with resources to use them without regard for the needs of others. That disregard leads to the destruction of communities, to millions of people around the world not having access to the basic things they need to live healthy lives, and to environmental degradation. Capitalism is one of the most important forces responsible for the fact the people do not have time to do what they love. Along with racism and sexism, capitalism is a powerful force for generating and maintaining devastating forms of inequality. It is largely to blame for the slow response to the global catastrophe being caused by climate change.

Since capitalism is the ocean in which we swim, it can be hard to see. But we can work on seeing more easily.

With capitalism. "the enemy" exists throughout the social fabric and challenging it will for some involve a struggle to redefine our sense of meaning and purpose in life as well as a struggle with the ruling class. As we work to get rid of capitalism we will need to work in ways that are more like the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, where we push from the inside to transform complex network that we ourselves are a part of and that constitutes our very being, rather than as a war where an opponent is defeated. ... We need to develop ways of conceptualizing capitalism that render it solid enough for patterns to be revealed and yet open enough to show the places where it is vulnerable.

Repeatedly Kaufman engages with the history of attempts to throw off capitalism. Marx defined the enemy; 19th and early 20th century European struggles led most anti-capitalists to think the answer was Revolution (capital R!), a quick overthrow of all the oppressive structures of private ownership and the state that the owners used to defend their power. Actual experience with Revolutions has not been happy. Small, disciplined party organizations that are good for carrying out a coup have usually proved unable to transition to any form of broad consensual politics, especially as capitalists routinely fight back. Those socialist regimes that seek to replace private ownership and markets with universal central planning for the greater good create a centralized power that precludes democratic participation.

But bad experiences with replacements for capitalism can't let those of us who hope for something better off the hook. Kaufman has many thought provoking observations to share:

If capitalism is a structure like a building, it can be brought down. If it is deeply woven into the social fabric, then overthrow isn't the right way to destroy it. We need instead to untie the knots that bind us to it. We need to reweave the social fabric in ways that don't rely on it, and that are resistant to it. ...

... Getting rid of capitalism requires a social revolution as much as, or even more than, a political revolution. ... All of our gains are fraught and partial, and we can never be sure of the ways that our activities will add up to meaningful change. ... Working for revolutionary reforms to capitalism, we do need to be mindful of the ways in that movements often lose momentum as people's lives are improved. ...

... For socialism to be the basis for a liberated society and not just a part of one, we would need to develop economic models that allocate resources efficiently and in ways that serve the common good and that do not lead to the development of an unaccountable state. ... There also needs to be some way to assure the viability of democratic processes even when the socialist society is under attack from pro-capitalist forces. ...

... Fear that our efforts are insignificant because our projects don't attempt to overthrow the system overshadows much anti-capitalist work today. But our projects are doing more than merely blunting the pain caused by an unchangeable system. If we understand the means through which capitalism replicates itself we will be in a better position to be strategic in deciding where to place our anti-capitalist energy. By reframing how we think about the nature of capitalism, I hope this book will open doors to more productive ways of challenging it.

General recognition of rising economic inequality leading to worldwide plutocracy seems to be growing by leaps and bounds; Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century rides atop the Amazon best seller list. Meanwhile, capitalism is visibly blocking any useful response to the existential threat of global warming. Kaufman offers insights both hopeful and helpful as we struggle with the challenges of the times.

Friday cat blogging

Morty is pleased that his smaller human has brought such lovely new toys into his life. He finds them much more ecstasy-inducing than catnip.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Inequality and voting

A friend with whom I've worked to increase voter participation in communities of color asked for comments on this insightful article about "inequality and the electoral system." The whole is very much worth reading, but I want to pull out a couple of points. Daniel Laurison writes:

One reason people may not vote is that they feel disconnected from the political process. People are more likely to participate in politics if they believe it is something that they are legitimately entitled to do – in other words, if they think of it as something for ‘people like me’.  People can be connected to electoral politics by being asked directly to participate, or by knowing someone who is involved.

I couldn't agree with this more. This goes to the essence of what community organizers who dip a toe into the electoral arena are struggling for: they seek to help people create a sense that voting is something "we do" in our community and to build the habit of participation. A participating community is harder for politicians to brush off.

Particular campaigns are something else again. They are not about a community's empowerment. They are about winning for a particular candidate or issue in a particular immediate, time-limited context. Sometimes that goal may be assisted by using resources -- time and money -- to engage low income communities and communities of color; more often campaigns think the effort will not be worth it. And campaigns sometimes make false assumptions about what sort of community engagement is possible or desirable because of the racial, cultural baggage they bring to their project.

Laurison points out that people who work on campaigns frequently come from privileged backgrounds -- and consequently assume politics is about the interplay of people like themselves. That certainly has sometimes been my experience. On the first campaign I was hired on over 40 years ago, I found myself working with a fancy New York lawyer and the adult children of prominent East Coast academics. I come from a comfortable background myself, but these people, nice as they were, made me feel like an alien being.

Moreover, he notes that people who work on campaigns learn from more experienced operatives that there are things you just don't do if you want to prove your chops -- and one of those is to think you can find the voters you need to win among people who are not habitual members of the electorate. That route looks too hard; the outreach costs too much; and besides, very likely you don't have the right people and tactics to do it. So campaigns don't try.

These reasons campaigns don't even try to widen the electorate are sometimes rational, though always short sighted.

But contempory political polarization is undermining that conventional wisdom. From a purely utilitarian point of view, it begins to look as if a Democratic Party that wants to win beyond Presidential surge years is going to have to learn to turn out less likely voters: young people and communities of color. It is now generally agreed that Democrats got hammered in Congressional races in 2010 not because people had decided they hated President Obama, "his" health insurance reform, or completely blamed him for a terrible economy -- no, the base Democratic constituencies just aren't used to voting in midterm elections.

This year, in some places, establishment Democrats are putting money and brains into how to turn out unlikely voters because they understand their survival depends on it. This particularly applies in tight statewide Senate races whose results may decide which party controls that legislative body. And, at least by past standards, they are working at the project. For example:

Part of that effort is focused on boosting black turnout from traditional midterm levels to something closer to presidential levels in Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as one of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities in Georgia, and potentially Michigan and North Carolina — both of which saw plenty of attention in 2008 and 2012.

Rothenblog, Roll Call

Political guru Stu Rothenberg goes on to insist, accurately, that campaigns can't expect to create huge swings in voting behavior through this sort of effort. Gains on the order of 2 percent are a lot. But putting resources in people and money into these efforts can win these close contests. (If they do, look out for a new conventional wisdom; campaigns are faddish.)

And it is worth understanding that such gains can become cumulative over time, not that any particular campaign much cares about that during any particular election cycle. In established African-American communities this has taken place to a significant extent. In 2012, commentators marveled that Black voting rates as a percentage of their community's overall numbers were even higher than those of whites. Was this just because President Obama was on the ballot? Well, perhaps, in part. But in the 2013 Virginia Governor's race, African Americans again turned out at the same level as whites for an under-inspiring white corporate Democrat (who won). Black voters in places where the habit of voting has become established are participating at levels like those of whites.

Part of what is going on here is that age is an under-appreciated variable in creating patterns of participation. Across all communities -- white and of color, rich and poor -- older people vote more habitually. Putting aside other barriers to voting, such as citizenship status, past felony convictions and Republican voter suppression efforts, eligible voters in communities of color are simply on average younger than the great mass of whites.

Throughout the country, younger age groups are more brown than older age groups. Will more of these people vote as they age? Very possibly. That is the historical pattern. This makes efforts like Battleground Texas particularly important. Veterans of the Obama campaigns are trying to bring grassroots organizing techniques to building Latino and African American participation in that difficult state. They seem to have some funding for the project. This may not look like much right away, but putting resources into it should bring higher participation down the line.

All this activity is good, at least for Democrats, but I'm describing "outside" forces bringing money and expertise into non-participating communities -- can this really be good for the communities? I like to hope it can. These sorts of efforts only work because some members of the under-participation population decide it is time for a change. Scratch any successful voter registration, voter education, or "get out the vote" campaign and there will be some devoted local leaders who are central to the effort. Political parties and other organizations can provide funding and even some workers -- but vibrant campaign organizing isn't going to happen without local buy-in. I've seen more than a few dead campaign offices; lots of phones and paper, no people. I've also enjoyed turn out campaigns that hummed with local energy.

This goes back to Laurison's first point: people vote because they think voting is for "people like me." They won't vote if they experience "the system" as completely rigged against them. If politicians want their votes -- and right now the Democratic Party needs their votes desperately at all levels -- they need to feel over time, incompletely, but genuinely, that voting is worth it.

Does our system make voting worth it? For all our stifling inequality, I still say "yes." But do people who are only now coming into the process agree? That's the question for our democracy.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel

Christopher Hayes has tried to quantify how much wealth the owners of known carbon-based fuels -- oil companies, the government of Saudi Arabia, tar sands magnates in Alberta, etc. -- would have to forgo to prevent civilization-destroying global warming.

... in order to preserve a roughly habitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world’s most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away from $20 trillion of wealth. Since all of these numbers are fairly complex estimates, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we’ve overestimated the total amount of carbon and attendant cost by a factor of 2. Let’s say that it’s just $10 trillion.

The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865 — and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought.

Yes -- that's what it required of this nation to free the slaves who before 1865 filled an economic role very similar to that played by fossil fuels today.

The connection between slavery and fossil fuels ... is more than metaphorical. Before the widespread use of fossil fuels, slaves were one of the main sources of energy (if not the main source) for societies stretching back millennia. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, nearly all energy to power societies flowed from the natural ecological cascade of sun and food: the farmhands in the fields, the animals under saddle, the burning of wood or grinding of a mill. A life of ceaseless exertion.

Before fossil fuels, the only way out of this drudgery was by getting other human beings to do the bulk of the work that the solar regime required of its participants. This could be done by using accrued money to pay for labor, but more often than not—particularly in societies like the Roman Empire that achieved density and scale—it was achieved through slavery. Slavery opened up for the slave owners vast new vistas of possibility. The grueling mundane exertions demanded of everyone under a solar regime could be cast off, pushed down on the shoulders of the slave.

So, as an industrial civilization -- a capitalist civilization if that is not a contradiction itself -- we substituted carbon-based fuels for human beings working in bondage.

Hayes looks for hope in the truth that extracting all of this oil and coal that will kill our civilization (and a lot of us) is incredibly expensive -- consequently popular agitation that leads to divestment, delay, and making extraction more expensive has a chance of keeping much of it in the ground.

I suspect he's onto something, given a response in the New York Times from Republican/libertarian Josh Barro. Barro thinks we'll have to buy off the current owners of unextracted fossil fuel. This is rather like the sort of gradual emancipation schemes that attracted even such moderate anti-slavery leaders as Lincoln before the slave owners decided to fight instead of switch. Interestingly, Barro thinks our economic system could absorb the costs of paying off the fossil fuel magnates, even if our political system might not accommodate this.

... reducing carbon emissions doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between buyouts and expropriation of existing resources. Sometimes, one will be more politically feasible than the other, and an effective policy approach can use a blend of the two. In particular, we can take advantage of the fact that a required reduction in fossil fuel production would be partly offset by a rise in prices for those fossil fuels that do get extracted. ... Proposals that give the value of the right to emit carbon to the existing carbon emitter may be a necessary and effective strategy to buy political support for carbon limits. These approaches look like a giveaway, but it’s worth making the giveaway if that’s what brings the benefits of stable temperatures.

I don't have Barro's level of comfort with rewarding the polluters; it is not as if they've been suffering without profits all these years. But "new occasions teach new duties" in the words of James Russell Lowell's anti-slavery poem. Global warming demands global changes we can barely envision, but move into a new paradigm we must.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Happy Earth Day

I almost forgot. Graphic is cribbed from a reflection by Joe Romm at Think Progress who urges us to focus:

The problem with Earth Day is it asks us to save too much ground. We need to focus. The two parts of the planet worth fighting to preserve are the soils and the glaciers.

Numerous studies show that nearly a third of the world’s land faces drying from rising greenhouse gases — including two of the world’s greatest agricultural centers, the U.S. Great Plains and a big chunk of southeastern China. On our current emissions path, most of the Southwest ultimately experience twice as much loss of soil moisture as was seen during the Dust Bowl (see “Dust-Bowlification“).

Also, locked away in the frozen soil of the tundra or permafrost is more carbon than the atmosphere contains today .... On our current path, most of the top 10 feet of the permafrost will be lost this century — so much for being “perma” — and that amplifying carbon-cycle feedback will “Will Likely Add Up To 1.5°F To Total Global Warming By 2100,” all but ensuring that today’s worst-case scenarios for global warming become the best-case scenarios. We must save the tundra.

... As for glaciers, when they disappear, sea levels rise, perhaps in excess of an inch a year by century’s end (see also here). If we warm even 3°C from pre-industrial levels, we will return the planet to a time when sea levels were ultimately 100 feet higher ... . The first five feet of sea level rise, which seems increasingly likely to over the next hundred years on our current emissions path, would displace more than 100 million people.

Go read it all.

Forward steps a red-crested DickHead

Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, earned himself a Mr. DickHead award on "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Is the ability to buy contraceptives, that are now widely available — my Lord, all you have to do is walk into a 7-11 or any shop on any street in America and have access to them — is that right to access those and have them paid for, is that such a towering good that it would suffocate the rights of conscience?”

via Raw Story

Perhaps the good prelate has no acquaintance with any form of birth control except condoms? Not that what he doesn't know inhibits him from trying to prevent women from controlling our bodies ...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Of endangered cows and beer

Having survived the Easter Triduum and Easter Sunday in the style of the Episcopal Church, with a dose of Nancy Pelosi for good measure, it was time to kick back with a beer and read inconsequential internet gibberish.
Pretty good brew, actually.

So what did I read? This from Raw Story:

New regulations about to be implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) threaten to dramatically increase the price of beer across the United States.

Currently, most U.S. brewers sell a by-product of the brewing process known as “spent grain” to local dairy farms. In addition to being high in protein and fiber — which is beneficial for the cows — disposing of spent grain in this manner is considered environmentally friendly.

But, charged with making the U.S. food chain more secure by the 2011 Food Modernization and Safety Act, the FDA has proposed a rule that would classify companies that distribute spent grain to farms as “animal feed manufacturers,” which would force breweries to dry and package the material before sending it to dairy farms.

Apparently this would cost enough so that beer prices would rise noticeably and cattle would suffer.

Jerome Rosa of the Jerosa Dairy said that the spent grain “is a premium product. I pay virtually nothing. But it’s like putting honey on your cereal. It makes the cows want to eat more and we notice it in their production.”

The FDA does not point to any actual harm from feedings of "spent grain." Apparently the bureaucracy is acting on a hypothetical.

Is this another instance of absurd threat inflation, like the hypothetical voter fraud at the polls that Republicans claim justifies reducing voter access? It might be. Can we trade "spent grain" restrictions for overkill in identification requirements? Just call it a wash? Something has to give ... this is wrong ...

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter: life rises again

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
Hymnal 1982; No. 204

This Jesus-risen-from-the-dead stuff that is the center of Christian experience is testimony to life triumphing. This is all about living, not about what we have done wrong. It is not about institutions and churches, those these provide a language and culture. It is not about how moderns can make peace with the stories in our ancient sacred books, though those tales can still provide vital fodder for mind, heart and imagination. It's not about worrying about eternal damnation in an afterlife; there's quite enough damnation all around us right now, thank you very much. It's not about rules and purity taboos.

It affirms God is Living. It is about delight in Living -- God's living and our living. I don't know what that means, but I live into its meaning.
The popular Irish Catholic historian Thomas Cahill took a long view of religion in a recent interview with Bill Moyers:

In writing these books, six of them so far, I've come to the conclusion that there are really only two movements in the world. One is kindness, and the other is cruelty.

I don't think there's anything else, really. You can explain virtually everything by those two movements. The cruelty in religion is so often a form of, "Under no circumstances may you do this, because if you do, we will exclude you." ...

… And I think that all partisanship and sectionalism within Christianity is stupid. I don't think there really is anything to fight about. ...I'm a believing Christian who finds himself equally at home and equally impatient and equally ill-at-ease in virtually any church. ...

"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." That's Christianity. The rest of it, isn't worth a hill of beans.

I can live with that.

Friday, April 18, 2014

In which Rep. Nancy Pelosi defends the indefensible

Congresswoman Pelosi yesterday joined a very mixed lot of her constituents, organized by the San Francisco Organizing Project, for an interfaith, Holy Thursday observance at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in the Mission.

Immigrants told their stories of lives disrupted and families torn apart by the Obama administration's deportation policies. The administration imprisons over 300,000 people a year for immigration irregularities and has deported some 2 million persons since taking office.

This youngster shared her story with Spanish-language TV.

Fr. Richard Smith put the case for our neighbors starkly: it is time that our government stop doing irreparable harm to innocent individuals who only want to work and improved their lives.

The Democratic Minority Leader argued that Republican Speaker John Boehner has President Obama over a barrel, threatening to sue if the administration doesn't keep the deportation prisons humming. That may play well in Washington, but giving in to such bullying is pretty meaningless among people who are losing parents and siblings to the deportation grinder.

Alongside Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus, Congresswoman Pelosi participated in the the ancient Christian ritual of washing feet of our brothers and sisters as part of this special season. She graciously suggested she hopes to be able to come back next year. Here in San Francisco, there's a growing movement demanding action on immigration reform, not just sympathetic words.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The crazy continues

Last February, after years of litigation, the U.S government was ordered by a federal judge to remove all references to Malaysian architecture professor Rahinah Ibrahim from its mushrooming "terrorist" databases. He concluded that secret testimony showed that back in 2005 an FBI agent had "checked the wrong box" on a form.

But, as reported by Robert Egelko in the San Francisco Chronicle, our secret spook masters won't let go. On Monday, they denied her a visa to visit the U.S. for "terrorist activities."

The case of a former Stanford graduate student barred from returning to the United States since 2005 has taken another twist with a U.S. consulate's decision this week to deny her a visa because of "terrorist activities" - after the government told a federal judge that she posed no threat to national security.

... [U.S. District Judge William Alsup] ordered the government to purge all references of the listing from its records and to allow Ibrahim to reapply for a visa. But he said he could not order officials to issue the travel documents, because that decision was up to the government.

On Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers submitted declarations from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies attesting that they had deleted Ibrahim's watch-list placement from their files.

However, they also submitted a State Department declaration disclosing that she had been denied a visa Monday in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur under a law that bars those involved in "terrorist activities" from traveling to the United States.

The tenacity of this woman who has fought their Kafkaesque system for nearly a decade must scare the spooks badly.

The judge's decision can be read here. Too bad it apparently has no force.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: Boycott and divestment?

A couple of weeks ago, the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town. South Africa, Desmond Tutu, wrote in the Guardian in full support of boycotts of the monster companies that are belching the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere:

Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so. It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the garden of Eden "to till it and keep it". To keep it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.

The taste of "success" in our world gone mad is measured in dollars and francs and rupees and yen. Our desire to consume any and everything of perceivable value – to extract every precious stone, every ounce of metal, every drop of oil, every tuna in the ocean, every rhinoceros in the bush – knows no bounds. We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth. ...

It is clear that those countries and companies primarily responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money. They need a whole lot of gentle persuasion from the likes of us. ...

Tutu proposes boycotts and divestment from the fossil fuel giants.

I'm of many minds about boycotts. In the 1970s I worked as an organizer on the United Farm Workers Union boycotts of table grapes and some wines. These efforts were considered effective; they also took years of extremely dedicated work by ever growing armies of volunteers and consumers. And it is not even clear that the economic effect on the growers was what gave the workers a chance at a union. We succeeded in "giving a bad name" to a whole class of fruit; perhaps the growers, rightly, feared the long term effect of people learning to pass up grapes; certainly millions of folks stopped buying grapes for many years.

Tutu credits boycotts of South Africa with helping to bring down apartheid. Contemporary pro-Palestinian activists urge us to boycott, divest and sanction Israel over its dispossession of the native people of that land. In both those instances, the effect is probably not so much economic as on reputation. A growing boycott lets an offending state know it has crossed boundaries of what the world community thinks of as decent behavior. Such boycotts routinely evoke defiant objections from their targets, but they also seem to sting in some way that goes beyond their material effects.

Boycott and divestment from climate polluters is a tough project, one that starts with defining the appropriate targets. After all, we mostly all like living in a civilization that runs on abundant electricity and easy transport. But which companies are profiting without trying to adapt so as not to sink their own boat? The Institute for Southern Studies produced some lists. I'll just reproduce some of the publicly owned offenders in the United States:
  • Chevron, San Ramon, Calif. (investor-owned)
  • ExxonMobil, Irving, Texas.
  • ConocoPhillips, Houston, Texas.
  • American Electric Power, Columbus, Ohio
  • Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C.
  • Berkshire Hathaway, Omaha, Neb.
  • Ameren Corp., St. Louis, MO
and then
  • there's the real monster among dirty energy energy purveyors: the U.S. Government.
We may not be able to divest from the Feds (or even want to) but we sure can see one entity that citizens ought to be targeting here.

More from Tutu:

Tutu says an apartheid-style boycott would be a way to curb polluters' stranglehold over energy policy. "We cannot necessarily bankrupt the fossil fuel industry," he wrote. "But we can take steps to reduce its political clout, and hold those who rake in the profits accountable for cleaning up the mess."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sign of the times in the city: media overlap

With the influx of affluent, over-busy new tech worker residents in San Francisco's Mission district, enterprising immigrant entrepreneurs see a business opportunity. How to spread the word?

With human power, naturally, when that is what is available: door to door leafletting and car flyering.

But customers can sign up for service online, also naturally when the internet is home.

The photo of a crumpled flyer is a by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Some things are not ours

Reproduction of the Barcelona Haggadah, 14th century C.E., on display at the Museum of Jewish History in Girona, Spain
Tonight I'll have the privilege of attending a Passover Seder. My longstanding women's group consists mostly of Jews partnered with non-Jews, so we gentiles have become accustomed to retelling the Jewish people's story of liberation from bondage in Egypt with our friends. I've learned some Hebrew blessings and I love the food -- though nothing will convince me that Manischewitz is drinkable wine.

My pleasure in the Seder is enhanced by knowing that this celebration is not mine. I don't have to claim it as my own; I can simply delight in being invited into someone else's ritual.

A wise UCC minister/scholar has written a blog post that explains to Christians that although Jesus is recorded as participating in some kind of ritual meal before his seizure and execution, this cannot have been a Seder.
... we [Christians] really do not know for sure what the “original context” of Jesus’ ‘last supper’ was.  We think we do: since Sunday School we’ve been taught it was a Passover meal, or Seder; but scholars continue to debate the precise character of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples that night. One thing we know for sure, however, is that, although it may have been a Passover meal of some sort, it was not a Seder in the modern sense. We know this because the introduction into Jewish ritual life of the Seder we know today came after the time of Jesus.

Modern day Jewish celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions that arose shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), through Late Antiquity and into Middle Ages. It is a developing tradition, too, with additions being made to the haggadah even to this day. Ironically, some scholars believe that the modern Seder developed in part at least as a reaction and resistance to the growing influence of the Christian church and its sacred meal. ...
She goes on to warn Christians off the temptation to hold their own imitation Seder observances. Churches sometimes think they are being broad-minded or innovative through such exercises. But this beautiful ritual is not ours.
Contempt takes many forms: I think the celebration of a Seder by Christians for Christians for our own Christian agenda is one of them. ...
I could not agree more. But I am thrilled to enjoy my Jewish sisters' Passover meal.
From the Museum of Jewish History, Girona, Spain

Sunday, April 13, 2014

'Tis the season when Christians hate on Jews

Well, I sure hope not. But historically, a great many European pogroms (Jew-killing sprees) started during the Christian Holy Week. We modern Christians have a lot to repent for.

Billboard in downtown Barcelona depicting the parade with palms by Jesus and his followers
Holy Week starts today with Palm Sunday. This commemorates what is most likely an historical event: Jesus leading his ragtag rural followers on a march into the big city. Think of it as a small, strange demonstration. Adherents of the movement preceded their improbable prophet waving palm branches, proclaiming him as the bearer of a message of repentance and salvation from Israel's God -- maybe he was even the hoped-for Messiah of Israel. Jesus then caused a disturbance in the Temple, the holy focus of Jewish observance and identity. Later that week, the city and Temple authorities (one and the same: these folks hadn't invented church-state separation) seized the insurgent preacher, tried him, and, because they were subjects/collaborators of the Empire, handed him over to the Romans for the ordinary Roman punishment for being uppity: crucifixion. For Christians, the real excitement over these events comes afterward: somehow this Jesus turned out not to be dead; we celebrate that unlooked-for result of the unexceptional foregoing events as Easter.

Later followers of Jesus wrote the only known descriptions of what happened that week. Naturally they had some bones to pick with the authorities who killed the man they had since concluded was somehow God. They also had their own situations to consider. The extant writings -- the four gospels named for reputed authors: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John -- all date from after the Jewish Jerusalem authorities and their Temple had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. By that time, it certainly was politic to blame "the Jews" -- those deposed civic and religious authorities -- for what happened to their leader while, comparatively letting the actual killers -- the Roman authorities -- off the hook.

And so, on this Palm Sunday, Christians who read from the Common Lectionary (Catholics and most Protestants) will hear that the Roman governor Pilate asked a crowd of Jerusalem Jews what to do with Jesus and they screamed for his blood:
Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"
Insofar as there is any historical record about this guy Pilate, the scene seems utterly improbable; he was known as a casually brutal enforcer of Rome's occupation, not prone to consider local opinion.

But the Gospel accounts have an effect when read by contemporary Christians that demands a more nuanced understanding. There is nobody in these accounts, aside from Pilate, who is not Jewish. Jesus was Jewish; his followers were Jewish; the priests and civic authorities were Jewish. This the story of a conflict within a community of people who thought of themselves as the same kind, if certainly not of the same class. There are no innocent Christians in this story. Christians were a later development. Some Jews sent Jesus to his death on a Roman cross -- and other Jews followed and exalted the itinerant rebel preacher. The extreme hostility to the Jewish authorities we meet in the Gospels reflects both contemporary (the priests were tools of the Roman oppressors) and subsequent (they rejected the Jesus movement) antagonisms.
Since Christians got to be not just the majority, but also the state power in many subsequent times and places, we have done an awful lot of killing Jews because "they killed Christ." That language contains another fallacy -- insofar as some Jews contributed to killing Jesus, they decidedly did not "kill Christ" because the name is a title for "Messiah" -- what those contemporaries were certain that Jesus was not. They incited the Romans to kill a crazy preacher who endangered their status.

James Carroll's Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History is a meandering but readable history of how Jew-hatred among Christians set the stage for the Nazi Holocaust. The essence of Carroll's history is also available in a 95 minute documentary of the same name that was nominated for an Oscar in 2007. I watched it streamed from Netflix this week and would commend it to my sister and brother Christians as a part of our preparation for Holy Week.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

San Francisco becomes a conflicted bedroom community; now what?


leads to this:

Considering that where I live in the San Francisco Mission district is ground zero for this conflict, I have written very little about the sense we have these days of being engulfed by a tidal wave of folks with a lot more money than the current population. Their arrival is radically changing the neighborhood. I have written about several eviction protests, but I haven't felt ready to summarize what I think about the implications of these developments.

This week the estimable community organization Causa Justa/Just Cause published Development without Displacement. This study provides some data:
Latinos are being displaced at a significant rate from the Mission district while white residents and homeowners have increased. Between 1990 and 2011, the number of Latino households in the Mission decreased by 1,400, while the number of White households increased by 2,900. White homeownership more than doubled during this time.

Gentrification is changing the population of Oakland and San Francisco as a whole. Between 1990 and 2011, Oakland’s African American population decreased from 43 percent to 26 percent of the population, the largest drop by far of any population group. During the same period of time, San Francisco’s Black population was cut in half from about 10 percent to only 5 percent of the population.
That is, Black and brown people are being pushed out of what was once their 'hood by affluent, mostly white, mostly very young newcomers, many of them beneficiaries of the current tech boom. Tech workers are currently 6 percent of employed San Franciscans, but their impact is larger. At the essential San Francisco site, 48 Hills, Sara Shortt, director of the Housing Rights Committee explains what is happening very cogently:
... tech companies [aren’t] taking responsibility for the impacts the influx of well-paid employees is having on the city. ...

Encouraging their recruits to live in the city and commute on private shuttle buses has created an incentive for the real estate industry to take advantage of those higher incomes, Shortt said, and low-income residents just can’t compete.

“The city has let it rise to a dire situation,” Shortt said, and has been “bending over backward for tech.”
That last is a reference to the enormous "Google buses" that use the city streets and bus zones, essentially for free. As reported in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Budget and Legislative Analyst Office reports
... there are 131 regional shuttles with 8,030 boardings (to San Francisco and back) per a day. Of the shuttles making 273 trips to and from San Francisco daily, the lion's share (57) are owned by Google. Its workers represent just over half of daily boardings.

The invading buses are also enormous. Taller than a Muni bus, the BLA reports that the Google buses weigh 31 tons when fully loaded, nearly twice the weight of a big rig truck. That's also a far cry from the seven-ton intra-city shuttles used by the likes of the Academy of Art University and Kaiser Permanente. That size comes with a cost.

"The Department of Public Works staff concur that heavier vehicles contribute to faster roadway deterioration," the BLA wrote. The damage a shuttle makes on the pavement with a single trip accounts for $1.08 out of the $1 million it will ultimately cost the city to reconstruct a mile of pavement. A typical personal car will cause $0.00023 of damage to pavement over its entire lifetime. So one shuttle trip is "equivalent to 4,700 passenger vehicles driving over the same lane."
The city fathers have just got around to asking for $1 for each use of a city bus stop by these behemoths -- somehow I doubt that is going to cover the cost of repaving streets.

In addition to working politically to get the city to attend to the interests of its long time residents, I find myself focused on what we can do to encourage the people who are moving in to preserve the city they find so attractive. It's not as if the city has not accommodated influxes that changed our culture before. In the over 40 years I've been here, I've seen the city assimilate migrants from the Chinese mainland, hippies, queers, Central Americans, and the ascendancy of a progressive labor movement that was before its time in incorporating all these different groups. The intersections were not always comfortable; far from it. I remember when Mission Latinos picketed a new lesbian bar right out of business -- today they'd probably be protesting together.

The city can (perhaps) reduce real estate speculation and slow the current dislocation. But we have only begun to consider what being a bedroom community for people who spend their working lives somewhere else means to our politics. This will probably take a while to work out; a great many of the new tech workers are under thirty, hence not particularly likely voters. Few of them have children, so they are not likely to get involved with the city schools, a frequent entry point for citizen activism. Mainly using the Google buses to get to work and Uber and its competitors to get around the city, I don't imagine they'll be into transit activism, except perhaps to defend their private buses. The tech workers are more white and much better paid than many long term residents. They are probably socially liberal or libertarian -- that seems the norm for their generation. But can they imagine that a community needs considerable collective provision of services to be a good place. Have they ever even used a public library?

There's some political science literature on the political behavior of people who live in bedroom communities. Years back, when I was trying to gin up electoral activity in southern California suburbs, I remember reading that people who worked in jurisdictions where they didn't live tended to be more aware of issues in the place where they worked than in where they slept. I know when I've been trying to get out the vote in far exurban bedroom communities (such as Tracy, CA), the reality that adults spend long hours commuting in traffic as well as working greatly reduced their inclination to get involved. But I haven't found much written about the situation in which we are now living, where the city is the bedroom and the periphery is the workplace. I guess we are going to find out.