Monday, August 31, 2009

i'm so glad to be home

when i left for my cuba adventure, on july 5th, i spent a couple of days in seattle waiting for the caravan to commence. i attempted to purchase a wandering wifi system to attach to my beloved mac, so i'd be able to update my blog and my friends from anywhere in the excited states of amnesia. perhaps because i was in seattle, home of the microsoft mega machine, i learned that no such product exists off the shelf for macintosh. there are ways to purchase the capability online, but i didn't have time for that.

so i put my "i hate cell phones" philosophy aside, and bought one of the (hereinafter known as) damned things. (sorry, gorillas in the jungle whose homeland is devastated for some mineral necessary for them.) the damned thing turned out to be rather convenient in a number of situations - travelling on buses, trains, for radio chats with chris and his gorilla radio listener, to let friends know my arrival times, to describe where i landed so they could gather me up after a long journey and take me to their lovely welcoming homes (thank goodness for friends). but now that i'm home in canada, the damned thing won't function. neither will the calling card i purchased in the usa thinking (as it turns out, incorrectly) that it'd be cheaper to call long distance from the card rather than the phone. damned things.

and what's up with the iphone only being available in the usa? and, apparently, japan? and perhaps other nations. but not canada. when i was in san francisco i phoned the apple store, just curious about how much and which plan they work with in canada. for whatever reason apple set up an exclusive contract with at&t so the damned things will only work with that phone company and you can't even buy one unless you have an address in the usa. an address, and a usa credit card. wtf? this is one of those examples of how capitalism just completely doesn't make sense. there are 30 million people in canada, mas o menos. why, i asked the apple representative, why doesn't apple want to expand its market? she didn't know.

here's another crazy thing. last night, at my friend's vancouver home, i learned that if a canadian company is bought up by a usa corporation there are a list of countries that formerly free company can no longer do business with, one of which is cuba. but the legislation goes further, with regard to cuba, than it does with other nations (iran, north korea, etc). not only can the formerly free company never again do business with cuba, neither can it do business with any cuban living anywhere in the world. so if a cuban lives in france, and works for a french company, that formerly free canadian company (now owned by a company in the greatest fascist nation since the history of humankind), cannot do business with the french company.

who, in good conscience, would sell a company knowing those conditions would apply?

a different friend, working for a canadian company, told me they recently turned down business because they didn't like the ethics of the company that wanted the contract. they didn't want to offer services to folks who fly corporate executives around in private jets. too many greenhouse gases. gotta draw the line somewhere.

is it any wonder so many of my yankee friends long to escape? i tell them we're trying our best to hang onto canada ....

my friends went to bed early, it being a sunday night before a work day, and i retreated to my little room with the intention of watching an episode of "monk" on the newly discovered but alas, those particular programmers have decreed that the wonders of hulu will only be available in the usa. i searched around and found someone had discovered a way to set up a fake ip address to fool hulu .... but further investigation determined that hulu had already been configured to block that. nice neighbours, eh?

i think i forgot to mention this little story previously .... one night early on in havana, a friend of mine from last year's caravan (he's formerly a military guy who worked at guantanamo bay and hated it and left and joined the honourable team) and i wandered into old havana. on our way back, wandering along the malecon, many many young people had gathered. there was music and large crowds we had to make our way through. i followed my friend's trail as he gently made his way and, to my delight, not a single body or portion thereof touched mine. not a single one. it was a huge crowd. i realize the cubans are an educated people, with respect for women. i also realize i'm getting old and undesirable, but i've never in my life (even these middle-elder years) walked through a crowd like that without someone "accidentally" brushing up against a part of me. but not the cubans. they're too polite.

maybe that's why the government (and its supporting mafia) of the unintended states of perversion hates cubans. and, it seems, canadians. we're just too polite.

more likely it's because we have socialist tendencies. we're fighting to keep our water resources wild and free rather than let ultra wealthy greedy desert dwelling citizens use it all up watering their lawns and filling their pools. we canadians can travel freely to cuba and we do, all the time, comprising half of their tourist industry. we love cuba, we want them to be able to determine their own future, as we want to determine ours. we try to honour the history of the indigenous peoples who were murdered by colonialist ancestors who wanted to rule the land, and we want to stop the colonialist capitalists from taking over everything that's precious to us.

for this we're punished with corporations who buy ours and then dictate who we can and can't be friends with. we're denied the opportunity to participate in the destruction of african wilderness for iphones. and our dollar, which the cubans value more highly than the greenback, is artifically deflated to further discourage us from visiting our southern neighbours (not to mention their border guards like to feel us up, threaten and intimidate us, just because we helped some usa friends bring goods to cuba).

as if that's not enough reason to just stay home, now there's this:

U.S. unveils new rules on border searches of laptops
Fri Aug 28, 2009 10:03am EDT


(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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Cuba and African History

Click here to view a video about Cuba - an ocean fortress in Matanzas, and its African / Slave History.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

i'm friends with amtrak again. david got married. dignity village is awesome!

(photos: cindy and randy at dignity village, portland; david rovics, his daughter leila, and new wife/partner reiko on their wedding night!)

after a good night's sleep, in a real live bed, in my own room, i'm writing this from a very pleasant (and different) commuter type train that only recently began to travel all the way to vancouver rather than requiring a transfer to an amtrak bus from seattle. we're travelling right alongside the ocean. it's stunningly beautiful. i'm feeling better about amtrak.

although ... it's still rather crowded (isn't it interesting how we love public transit, especially when hardly anybody's riding it), but at least there's good ventilation and i'm not required to share a tiny amount of space with a large man i don't know. it is a bit cold in this dining car (and the three conductors tell me it's colder here than the other cars because "we like it that way," they need it cold so they can stay awake, and i'm welcome to sit in another car if i'd like, though there are repeated announcements about only sitting in your assigned seat and i'm assigned a table seat with three other people and there's no leg room and my computer might get beer spilled on it. at least they're selling a decent local oregon beer, a porter, and i have a yummy vegan wrap thingy i bought at portland's co-op. but still i have to wonder .... when did "the customer's always right" become a part of history rather than a good business model? (now the conductors have all left this coach and are, presumably, falling asleep somewhere ...)

i sure felt different last night, getting off that overnight train in portland ... i don't think i was ever so glad to get anywhere in my entire life. david wasn't far away (i've discovered the ironic convenience of the earth-destroying carcinogenic cell phone) and i was able to load all my gear into a car (rather than attempt to navigate public transit in a new city, which i don't mind if i have some prior knowledge of how it all works) and stop at a food co-op and learn that he was getting married.

married! that very night! i hadn't a thing to wear ....

i've heard about reiko, i knew he'd met her years ago in japan, and that she'd recently moved to portland, but i was rather surprised when he asked if i'd be a witness at his wedding.

turns out it was all very casual. richard, their reverend, stopped over for a lovely japanese (vegan) dinner prior to loading his van with building materials destined for the burning man which is, this year, somewhere near reno nevada. my caravanista friend, gerry the vegan, had told me a bit about burning man. apparently about 50,000 people gather in the desert each summer, build a city, do all manner of things (richard told me if you want to get really drunk and party all weekend you can do that, or if you want to experience meditation in virtually any religious tradition you can do that), dismantle the city at the end of it, and leave the desert as if nobody had ever been there at all. oh, and at some point there's the ritual burning of the man.

i asked why it's not called 'burning person' since women do attend. richard said it all started, i think he said in the 90s, when a newly divorced man burned an effigy of his wife's lawyer. it seemed a bit ironic to be talking about all this on david and reiko's wedding night, but she was busy creating lovely little japanese pancakes and david was playing his guitar or talking to debbie, the other witness, or chasing his lively young daughter leila around (i can't quite remember all the details ... i'd hardly slept the night before and had almost a full beer in me by this point).

after dinner (i brought a frozen vegan pizza some chips and salsa for sharing, it was international cuisine) we all signed the documents and talked about what it is to be a universalist minister and how that's different from the unitarian universalists who are both very progressive about marrying people of varying compositions. richard said he mostly concerns himself with whether the people look as though they really mean it, as though they'll stay together for a while.

i read over the documents, it was all very straight forward, and it seemed obvious and a loving relationship exists between reiko and david (and leila loves her!), and signed.

richard excused himself and headed off to help build a city in the desert, debbie and i chatted about politics and obama and changing the world while david played his guitar and reiko spun leila around and around and around in a chair.

and then i slept.

this morning we went to a place called 'chaos' where they served vegan breakfast and then we drove to dignity village. the whole point of my stop in portland wasn't really to see david and reiko and leila, though that was a lot of fun (especially the informal wedding part). i was actually wanting to check in on the wonderful and inspiring dignity village.

i learned that tim, the guy who'd given me a dignity village tour three years ago, had finally settled with the government over some disability cheques they'd held out on, and bought a house. he was one of the original tenters, who insisted homeless people have a right to create shelter to protect themselves from the elements. finally the city agreed, and voila --- dignity village.

to those who say tent cities result in nothing good .... get your head out of your ass.

the cubans would completely approve of dignity village. it's pretty much how they do things. get people together, get some building materials, put a house together. construct a functional community. participate in it. watch out for others, protect your friends. be careful who you let in. be good neighbours.

there are people in this world who think i'm crazy. what's crazy is that there are homeless people. what's crazy is that homeless people are arrested for falling asleep in public. denied an opportunity to create a habitable living space of their own. what's crazy is that the whole world knows that canada is a northern country, with cold winters, and they let homeless people die. and they do die, on the streets, because they are victims of a cold and uncaring economic system that creates them, throws them away, chews them up, and silences their disappearances.

they are the disappeared.

and fidel is not a dictator.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Waiting on Woodward's

The former Woodward's department store in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside isn't just a realized dream, it's a sleeping revolution. After a period of neglect Woodward's has been reborn as a deluxe apartment complex, yet as Stefania Seccia reports many residents and activists in the Downtown Eastside fear that the mixed-market housing which now comprises Woodward's is merely a further step towards displacing the neighbourhood's poor.

As a department store, it served the city and surrounding suburbs with many goods and services-memories too. Now, it's a feather in the cap of both politicians and developers who turned the site into a one-of-a-kind "intellectual property". It once served as a campground for angry, disillusioned protesters-now just shadows of a memory, as four towering buildings stand and replace them.

During a recent media tour, the City of Vancouver, provincial government, developers and architects couldn't seem to stifle their exuberance over the project that will see residents move in as early as this August. Ex-COPE councillor Jim Green gave a speech, along with a handful of other politicians, thanking everyone involved and placing his rubber stamp of approval over the execution of the project.

"I think this is going to be the catalyst and it's a very positive catalyst because it's inclusive," said Green, once considered the "Mayor of the Downtown Eastside", from the roof of a parking lot overlooking construction on the new Woodward's.

Listening to Green on that cold, grey morning was a motley crew of media as well as B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, the developers and architects of Woodward's and a group of police officers who looked like they may have been training for the SWAT team on the other side of the parkade.

Members of the media donned complimentary red hard hats, each with its own Woodward's sticker, as they ventured on the tour led by Gregory Henriquez, the architect of the site. Strewn through the interconnected buildings were piles of wooden boards, railings and plastic bags. In the midst of all the rubble, Henriquez answered questions while leading the media hive through a labyrinth of buildings until he reached a rooftop Jacuzzi with a view of the city.

"It would be fabulous if other developers built large buildings in the area as long as it included non-market housing as well," he said, speaking expertly into a recorder tucked under his chin.

While Henriquez has the support of many of the city's developers, not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Residents and activists in the Downtown Eastside have expressed concern that the mixed-market housing in Woodward's is a further step towards displacing the neighbourhood's poor.

$1.49 days

Before the old Woodward's shut its doors in 1993, it was renowned for its stunning Christmas window displays, affordable prices and the huge neon "W", floating in the sky, beckoning to its customers like a mother to its child. For 100 years, Woodward's was a mixed-retail centre-many Downtown Eastside residents fondly remember the $1.49 days and grabbing coffee and lunch in the cafeteria.

By the early nineties, however, most Woodward's locations across B.C. and Alberta were either converted to other department stores or, like in the case of the Downtown Eastside, shut down completely. The loss of Woodward's was a blow for the community, which had seen business after business shut down and move further west along Hastings Street or out to the suburbs.

In 1995, the Woodward's building was bought by Fama Holdings, which intended to develop private housing on the heritage site. Plans died, however, when residents protested the project's lack of social housing. In 2001, the provincial NDP government stepped in and bought the site, claiming they would turn it into social housing. But when the newly elected BC Liberals put that plan on ice in 2002, homeless Downtown Eastside residents and social housing activists, frustrated by the building's continued vacancy in the face of a major affordable housing crisis, squatted outside Woodward's for three months until the city forced them out.

The Anti-Poverty Committee (APC) initiated the squat, which the media quickly took notice of, followed by politicians rushing to show their support before the civic election.

APC member David Cunningham says the city, anxious to find a solution to what had soon become an electoral nightmare, scrambled to put about 60 of the 200 protesters into the Lamplighter Dominion Hotel, then 40 of the 60 were moved to Stanley New Fountain. "The others went into the black hole," he says in a phone interview.

The squat became a front-page issue during the civic election and galvanized the neighbourhood and the rest of the city around solving Vancouver's homelessness crisis.

"COPE got elected on the back of the Woodward's squatters because it was the first time homelessness was really addressed after the squatting got so much media attention-attention to the entrenched saggy, shitty tents outside of the old Woodward's where pneumonia quickly spread and the rise of the antagonizing characters in the ghetto," Cunningham says.

But it helped put enough pressure on the province to abandon its plans for private development.

When Green and the COPE council took power in 2002, the City of Vancouver purchased Woodward's from the province and the public was consulted over what to do with the site. After a two-stage competition between three developers, the idea for the new Woodward's-a project with social housing and community space existing amongst private businesses and condos-was born.

But will Woodward's act as the catalyst for developers in the Downtown Eastside as several politicians have promised? These are the same politicians who, according to The Globe and Mail, have little to show for the $1.5 billion already spent in the area since 2000-all in the name of solving homelessness.

Don't fear the reaper?

Henriquez is confident that Woodward's is the answer to temporary stop-gap shelters. With the 2010 Olympics developing blitz slowing down and the recession firmly stalling development throughout the city, Henriquez says any fear of gentrification in the Downtown Eastside is disappearing along with the dwindling number of cranes over Vancouver's skyline.

"There shouldn't be a fear over gentrification," he says. "The only reason the developers could build that kind of density is because the project was subsidized by the government. But, it was still a very difficult project to orchestrate."

A difficult project indeed-Henriquez repeatedly referred to complications surrounding finances and budgeting during the tour around the construction site.

The City of Vancouver purchased the site from the province in 2003 for just $5.5 million. Construction started in 2006, the same year 536 high-end condominiums in Woodward's sold in one day, bringing in more than $200 million in sales. The B.C. government subsidized half of the 200 non-market units and the city compensated the developers-Westbank Projects Corp/Peterson Investment Group-to the tune of millions of dollars in concessions for the heritage building restorations, some of the public amenities such as the daycare and, of course, for non-market housing. The mixed use brought in a nice variety of com-pensation, Henriquez says, and enabled such a prolific project.

However, the provincial and civic subsidies are just spare change compared to the $348.6 million the various levels of government have poured into Downtown Eastside housing since 2000.

But with all the money being spent on just 200 units of social housing and the promise that Woodward's will bring more businesses and developers to the neighbourhood, could taxpayer money have been better spent? In the end, the city and its tax-payers may not get their money's worth, although it may be too early to tell.

Just another brick in the Wall

Though Henriquez paints a rosy picture of what the new Woodward's could bring to the Downtown Eastside, not everyone is buying it. Wendy Pederson of the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) says residents are living on the street outside of hotels where they could once afford to call home.

According to a recent report released by CCAP, hotels in the Downtown Eastside are raising rent to higher rates than people on welfare can afford.

In Still Losing Hotel Rooms, CCAP reports that rents were raised to $425 or more in 694 rooms in 2008. These "soft conversions"-the loss of low-income units due to price hikes-are putting people on the streets. With only 43 per cent of hotels in the Downtown Eastside having shared information with CCAP, Pederson says the situation is only getting worse.

"Unless affordable hotel rooms are kept available to low income people, we can expect homelessness to keep increasing," the report states.

Pederson suggests that the increases in rent can be tied to the new Woodward's and its high-end condos-suggesting that the project sparked a feeding frenzy in the neighbourhood with landlords and developers. However, she also argues that rent hikes are only part of a larger, negative impact Woordward's is having on the Downtown Eastside.

"Poor-bashing will happen," says Pederson after explaining how it's not an ideal social mix. "People don't like to live in such close proximity with the poor, they don't feel comfortable."

Although Pederson was on an advisory committee for Woodward's, she says she was largely ineffective, something she attributes to the high-pressure tactics of the people in charge as well as her own inexperience.

"Either we got nothing or we had to vote for something," she says. "Or everyone else would be pissed off. We were just there to rubber-stamp it."

Pederson sees more developers moving into the area, such as Concord Pacific and its plan to build a 154-unit condominium project at 58 West Hastings that does not include any non-market housing, and is very concerned with the reality of gentrification.

"With an exclusive community centre on top of Woodward's and the jacuzzi, to me, it's social exclusion," she says.

But, her argument doesn't sway the project's architect. Henriquez has stated that there is no other site in North America that serves so many different uses while helping bridge the gap between rich and poor.

Woodward's "goes beyond its parameters"

While Henriquez doesn't think many more developers will enter the Downtown Eastside during harsh economic times and Pederson claims that they're flooding in, a Woodward's developer has a different idea.

The Westbank developers, who won the bid for the new Woodward's in 2004, are also responsible for the design of some of the most exclusive residential buildings in Vancouver, such as the Living Shangri-La and the Shaw Tower, as well as a number of other high-end sites across North America.

Dave Leung, project director of Woodward's, says the site shows other developers that it's not as difficult as everyone perceived.

Leung, who shepherded the project from its design, to its approval stage and will oversee its completion, says there are a multitude of factors considered when a developer moves into a potential location for development: there's the land itself, the land costs, soft costs, construction costs, profitability-it just depends on the market.

"If the developer can be given confidence to develop a community, it can happen," he says. "The confidence is driven by the market, regardless of whether or not it's in the Downtown Eastside."

Leung says that non-market development gets more traffic into the investment, allowing for more housing overall. To him, it just makes sense to build a site and incorporate non-market housing, as it is a means to build bigger and better.

"If you go into the surrounding areas, like Gastown, there's a whole bunch of new stores and businesses," he says. "That's what is needed for the revitalization of the Downtown Eastside-economically, socially and culturally."

As far as rent increases around the new Woodward's, Leung says that rent is rising all over the city and is reflected by the market, which no one controls.

He insists the building will be a catalyst for the neighborhood. "The project goes beyond its parameters," he says.

Sustainability or commercialization?

Some say exclusive, others say exclusion. It all depends on whether your view is from the top or from the street.

The media tour of the new Woodward's included the future site of Simon Fraser University's School for Contemporary Arts; a balcony overlooking the coming retail space; the Atrium in the Hastings Building; a non-market family housing unit in the Abbott Building; a market unit in the Cordova Building; and the 42nd floor's rooftop garden in the W building.

Woodward's is undeniably a dream come true for the politicians who were there when it was first brought to the table. As a concept, the new Woodward's tries to satisfy the palate of many by its design as a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable project. The truth is no one can agree on what sort of developers it will attract and what the bottom line will be for tomorrow's homeless.

"For the Downtown Eastside the model is great," says Leung. "You have to be careful. If there is too much non-market housing you have ghettoization. If you have too much market housing, you risk gentrification. You have to find balance."

Like any other neighbourhood, balance is all the Downtown Eastside can really ask for. Only time will answer the question looming in everyone's minds: Will Woodward's help the situation or add a much unneeded touch of chaos? Everyone remembers the Christmas windows and deals in the old Woodward's. What will this Woodward's be remembered for?

By Stefania Seccia

Reprinted from Megaphone
© Street News Service:

Friday, August 28, 2009

this is how i feel

(photo: from a previous (and decidedly more enjoyable) amtrak train, leaving el paso. that's mexico on the other side of the fence.)

i'm never going to travel again.

last night i got onto this amtrak train and was assigned a seat next to a large man. he seemed nice enough, at least ... he lit up when he heard i was going to be sitting/sleeping next to him, but it's not my custom to cuddle up alongside strangers on overnight trains. i learned he was leaving the train in the morning, somewhere in oregon, so i scouted out a good floor space, passed some time in the observation car and, when the conductor had taken his bag and disappeared for the evening, curled up in my sleeping bag behind the last seats at the back of the car. i've slept like this before, it's not actually a bad way to go.

i made it through the night ... fitfully, but somewhat successfully. i got an hour of sleep in here and there. i moved back to the seat i'd been assigned after the fellow had left. i'm not sure if it was attributable to him or not, but there was a distinctive smell of dirty socks circulating throughout the coach. i sprayed my aromatherapy at it, tried to ignore it, stuck essential oils up my nose and onto a hankie that i held at my nose, but there was no getting away from it. the smell of stinky wet socks permeated the place. i started to get a headache.

perhaps the observation car will be a friendly and relatively odorless place to pass the day, i thought. but after a few minutes listening to the innane conversation next to me, not in any mood to deal with mindless chatter, i attempted to find another seat somewhere in a different car. that was good until salem oregon, in the early afternoon, when i was told i'd have to move along because someone else, a new traveller, had been assigned the seat. i'd told two amtrak conductors, at this point, that the seat they'd assigned me is simply uninhabitable. they look at me as though i'm making it up, like it's somehow my fault. and there has been absolutely no effort to assign me a different seat. i'm left to wander seatless through the cabins.

i praise amtrak regularly, but this time they've pissed me off in many and diverse ways. first, why in heavens name would a woman be seated next to a large man on an overnight trip? there's something so insensitive about that i can't even begin to put it into words. secondly, why hasn't a proper seat been found for me? i've been told i can hang out in the observation car if there are no other seats. but i didn't buy a ticket for the observation car, i paid full fare to sit in a coach seat.

there's one bright light on this train, and that's aaron (or erin) downstairs in the snack bar. i made regular trips there for water for my tea, and he was always able to put a smile on my (and, it seems everyone else's) gob.

but still, i really think this will be my last travel adventure for a long time. i love cuba, i love visiting my friends, seeing new and different places, but i'm just not enamoured with these excited states of amnesia and their groping body guards and their uncaring amtrak officials. besides, it's expensive. and some of them carry guns to town meetings to talk about health care.

next year i guess i'll cheer the pastors for peace and their annual pilgrimage to cuba from the sidelines. no doubt i'll wish i could be there with them. then i'll remember the horrid moments of unnecessary intimidation and groping and discomfort and thank the heavens i live in a relatively decent place. for now.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

now i lay me down to sleep ...

i think the only reason capitalism has survived so long is because the fear of not having a bed to sleep in is so great that people will do things they wouldn't otherwise. they'll work hard for virtually no pay, knowing that their labour enables others to become exceedingly wealthy. they'll do work that is often demeaning, spiritually numbing, earth deadening. they'll spend a huge portion of their meagre earnings on a living space and, most specifically, a bed. that's the only reason they do that shit work. it's not because they feel fullfilled in any way, or obligated, or inspired. it's that they often have no other choice if they want to sleep comfortably at night.

i know this, because these last three nights i've slept in a real bed in my own room for the first time in a very long time.

since leaving canada on july 5th, traversing many of these united states, mexico, and cuba, i've slept primarily on bunk beds (kinda like real beds), couches, air mattresses, the floor, and even a picnic table. my san francisco friend was kind enough, and able, to provide me a bed and i can't tell you the difference that makes, psychologically. the thought of boarding the overnight train cause my heart rate to increase, and tension to build.

it's impossible even to consider the feelings of those who sleep rough, night after night, denied an opportunity to stretch out on a park bench, or to pitch a tent for privacy. they're awoken as soon as the 'authorities' notice the shoulders begin to relax, or the head falling forward.

it's torture, denying people the right to sleep in a bed. have i mentioned that there are no homeless people in cuba? they are a civilized people, who simply won't allow it.

last night i shared dinner with a new caravanista friend who works building tiny computer hardware. he was decidedly more rushed and stressed than when i last saw him, though he is a high energy guy, but he's recently watched his work-mates disappear around him because of company lay-offs. he's got no end of work, he says, and tight deadlines, and still he fears the end might be near if his employers move more labour to india.

this is what the profit motive creates ..... fear, stress, anxiety. they say nothing would be done if not for the capitalist competitive spirit, but how do we know that when we're not offered any alternatives, when we're not even allowed an opportunity to examine how it might be done differently, how cuba has managed to survive and prosper and innovate through 48 years of economic embargo? how do we know capitalism is the only way?

but alas, i must leave my musings and the lovely san francisco and my temporary bed. again i'll take up the hobo lifestyle .... well, that's stretching it ... as i venture on this last leg of the incredible summertime cuba pilgrimage and soon arrive home to sleep in my very own space. for however long that might last.

Vancouver and the 2010 Olympics

Monday, August 24, 2009

on the road again .....

i'm on an amtrak train, just left bakersfield on my way to san francisco. this really is the best way to commute through this great san joaquin valley, the bread basket of california. very comfortable trains, with electrical outlets near all the seats. relax, and watch the world roll by.

i remember reading about bakersfield in steinbeck's grapes of wrath .... i've been carrying a novel of his (he's one of my faves) but this technology stuff seems to occupy most of my time and i haven't even started it. bad former english student ...

i spent the weekend with friends in pasadena. charity was a wonderful co-host on my winds of change radio programme for about a year, and i'm so glad we've maintained contact. she's such a delight, an inspiration. she teaches creative writing, is raising a very interesting and creative child, and is married to an astronomer. last year i camped with them on catalina island on my way back from cuba, this year i just missed their wilderness adventurings in yosemite. it's not likely i'll do the cuba thing next year again, for various reasons, but we've made a pact to meet for a camping trip either in the grand canyon or yosemite sometime in the future ... or maybe they'll adventure to canada.

they loved canada. charity has lived a lot of different places, but she always tells me how much she loved canada. her husband said he couldn't believe the community centres, where people from all different socio-economic standings can go and get healthy and meet each other and have family fun together. i didn't realize, those just don't exist in quite the same way in the united states. here it's about joining a gym, or a club, so that automatically eliminates a portion of the population from participating. maybe if usa citizens were to work out together they'd feel more inclined to provide health care for each other.

over the weekend i swam in the cal-tech pool, learned a couple of new card games, and was invited to watch leo perform in the local kid's theatrical production of snow white. apparently the guy who wrote the script works for disney. it's a somewhat humerous interpretation of that older than disney story, of course it has the happier than happy never happens in real life ending, but it was fun to watch the kids singing and dancing and performing. the play runs saturdays until november, at some little theatre in glendale.

we also went to see 'julie and julia.' it inspired me to find more time for my book idea which won't, i can assure you, have anything to do with de-boning ducks. vegan alert: it's another incredible meryl streep performance, julia was an intriguing and enjoyable character, but be prepared to cover your eyes during some of the cooking scenes. i liked julia a lot more than i liked julie, forgiving julia for perhaps some ignorance about animal welfare issues but wondering why julie would persist in this age of information and knowledge. maybe that's why julia didn't ever contact julie .... maybe, at the end of her life, julia realized there's a better way. maybe she felt some remorse at promoting the deaths of all those creatures and couldn't bring herself to congratulate a woman for bringing it all back to life so a new generation can send her already famous cookbook into the nytimes best seller category and then ship another generation of innocent creatures to the slaughter.


sometime tonight i'll be attempting to find my way through san francisco to my friend's house. he's on holidays, but he mailed me his keys before i left canada (bless his heart). if this gets posted, it means i found the place.

addendum .... thanks to the very friendly and helpful bus driver, the nice guy on the bart who offered to help with my bags, and all the people in between who pointed me in the right direction. it's no wonder people leave their hearts in this place!

Friday, August 21, 2009

i love amtrak .... except ....

the last time i travelled first class on a train (aside, maybe, from when i was a kid which i don't remember), was in europe. i was forced, when purchasing my euro-rail pass, to go first class because i was over 25. everyone knows that you've got enough money to travel first class when you're over 25, right? i tried it for a while, but ended up riding in the regular class trains, around europe, the young travelling companions i met along the way.

it feels wierd now, as it did in europe, to be one of the chosen few --- sleeping on a bed rather than curled up on the floor or, if you're lucky, stretched out on an empty seat beside your own. it feels weird walking through all the coaches to the dining car, and then back to my little cubbie with my own personal electrical outlet and a door to shut.

these little sleeping rooms add significantly to the travel budget .... but i learned, last year, that this train goes from austin to san antonio in the evening, then sits at the station overnight, and then there's another entire overnight as we traverse the great desert to los angeles. it was worth cashing in my visa points for this little bit of privacy, an opportunity to get some much needed grant writing completed, and especially of course the chance to sleep both nights in a horizonal position.

when i called amtrak to reserve, they told me meals would be included. i said not to worry, i'm vegan, there's probably nothing there i'd call food anyways. the friendly woman amtrak employee (as so many of them seem to be) told me, over the phone, that it'd be no problem making vegan food and asked me specifically what i'd like for each meal - vegan veal, vegan chicken, vegan beef. i didn't try to tell her that vegans don't focus their food descriptions around a fake dead animal, just a stir fry or rice and beans would suffice .... i just made my choices from what she offered up. and, in austin, i shopped at the wheatsville co-op the afternoon prior to departing ... just in case.

th first morning i skipped the call for breakfast and ate granola and soymilk in my little abode, but i decided to give lunch a try. none of these amtrak employees had any idea about the food conversation i'd had while booking my ticket, and the only vegan option was an amy's veggie burger, so i opted for that (without the unknown sourced bread). i was told the cook wanted to speak to me about dinner options, and i'll be paged around 2 pm for that. very thoughtful of them.

but wait .... on my way out of the dining car i stopped to ask for hot water in my mug, for tea. and i noticed big garbage bins filling up with the plastic 'amtrak' stamped plates. you're not really throwing those out, i said, can't they be reused or recycled? oh they can be recycled, i was told, but not if they've had food on them.

and again i was prompted to wonder .... just how close to the brink of global catastrophe do we have to get, i wonder, before we stop killing for oil, then using untold amounts of energy and resources to turn oil into little plastic plates and cups that are used once prior to being piled up on an otherwise functional piece of earth somewhere?

i love travelling, but i do despair that i create more trash than i do when i'm at home. and that's not actually difficult - i don't create any trash at home. none. i shop very carefully so i don't buy stuff with excessive packaging and, where i live, everything can be recycled. if i do happen to collect it, i can take styrofoam, plastic, waxed potato chip bags, everything, to the recycle depot .... everything except the occasional q-tips and old socks worn thread bare or other strange little bits that i'm not sure what to do with. but when i travel i live a bit differently -- i buy those little tetra packs of soy milk, or little plastic containers with tabouli salad .... and i'm sorry, but i don't carry them around until i find a recycling facility. i've got enough to contend with between my portable technology office, the yoga mat, sleeping bag ... not to mention the feed bag. so i'm making my confession to the gods and goddesses of trash --- i'm sorry!

but i do draw the line at eating off plastic plates, printed especially for amtrak, that are immediately thrown onto someone's landfill. we all have our limits.

Monday, August 17, 2009

i found them ... the street folk of austin ....

the salvation army, caritas, and arch (austin resource centre for the homeless) are all located within few blocks radius and this morning there was a lineup today at arch (with an x-ray machine to navigate prior to entry) and at caritas (for food). a friendly guy told me arch is where folks go if they're on some form of social assistance, for access to programs (job training, counselling, that sort of thing).

in addition to monthly assistance, folks here get about $200 in food stamps. but those don't go far, my friend said, if you don't have a home, nowhere to store food, have to eat as you go at about $10 a day. apartments start about $450/500 around here - much much less than where i'm from, but expensive nonetheless if you don't have an income or you're working a minimum wage job. the folks at the coffee shop i'm in suggest minimum wage is around 7.35 or 7.50 an hour ... i guess this place pays better than that since they don't know exactly what it is.

i asked about sleeping in the park -- my street friend said no, you'd likely get moved along. besides, there are fire ants. and those people i saw hassling a guy on congress st. this morning (what's the matter with you ... got a sleep condition? on some kinda drugs?) for trying to sleep on a city bench (sleep condition? if you mean 'being tired because i'm homeless with no bed ...'), the city rangers i think they're called, apparently they have as much authority as the city police. it seems poverty is illegal here, too.

so that explains it ... the homeless folks here (and there are plenty, my friend said, though i still don't think there are as many as where i live) are moved along to their little area of town located, ironically, just off 6th street (music and party central on the weekends and, it seems, the original main street). it's the old out of sight out of mind syndrome that the capitalists love. nothing wrong with our economic system, they say. my friend has slept in the abandoned lot nearby, without hassle, but wasn't sure what might happen if he were to put up a tent. there are no signs of a tent city here yet, but poverty isn't getting any easier with the economic times and no health care etc.

i asked about shopping carts ... i haven't seen anybody pushing a shopping cart. the binners, he said, carry plastic bags full of their goods. i've only seen one binner, but i haven't spent a lot of time in back alleys.

i stood around chatting with my friend, observing things, for about 20 minutes. nobody freaked out. nobody seemed even remotely high on any substances. the people were fairly well dressed, mostly middle aged, mostly men.

the bus is $.75 one way, $1.50 for a full day pass. Though, if you want to travel very far away from the downtown, on the express buses, the price goes up by another dollar or two. And you get a pass that's good for a day. There doesn't seem to be any simple transfer system, just one way rides or a day pass.

it does get cold in austin in winter. not as cold as parts of canada, perhaps, but they do actually receive arctic air sometimes. and this heat .... even people with access to air conditioning complain about it. continually and incessantly, in fact. it's tiring, they say, and it just keeps getting hotter and drier.

something's gotta be done about it.

Kickstart Your Health With a Vegan Diet

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"If you set aside an addicting food, such as cheese, for three weeks, you crave it much less than if you had just had it yesterday," says Dr. Barnard. "By adjusting our overall diet we can become more resistant to cravings and less likely to binge."

During these three weeks you will have an all-access pass to:

- Daily e-tips from PCRM that will put you on the path to weight loss, better health and greater well-being
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Find out how easy it is to improve your diet in 21 days.

Simply complete the form on this page to receive e-mail messages so you can follow along.

The preprogram countdown is about to begin - it's a perfect time to join in!

And here is the rest of it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Meat of the Problem Is Meat

By Ezra Klein
The Washington Post, July 29, 2009

The debate over climate change has reached a rarefied level of policy abstraction in recent months. Carbon tax or cap-and-trade? Upstream or downstream? Should we auction permits? Head-scratching is, at this point, permitted. But at base, these policies aim to do a simple thing, in a simple way: persuade us to undertake fewer activities that are bad for the atmosphere by making those activities more expensive. Driving an SUV would become pricier. So would heating a giant house with coal and buying electricity from an inefficient power plant. But there's one activity that's not on the list and should be: eating a hamburger.

If it's any consolation, I didn't like writing that sentence any more than you liked reading it. But the evidence is strong. It's not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it's that it is a huge contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global transportation sector.

According to a 2006 United Nations report, livestock accounts for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Some of meat's contribution to climate change is intuitive. It's more energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become adults that we then slaughter to feed to people. Some of the contribution is gross. "Manure lagoons," for instance, is the oddly evocative name for the acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. And some of it would make Bart Simpson chuckle. Cow gas -- interestingly, it's mainly burps, not farts -- is a real player.

But the result isn't funny at all: Two researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius (PDF). A study out of Carnegie Mellon Universityfound that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response was quick and vicious. "How convenient for him," was the inexplicable reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. "He's a vegetarian."

The visceral reaction against anyone questioning our God-given right to bathe in bacon has been enough to scare many in the environmental movement away from this issue. The National Resources Defense Council has a long page of suggestions for how you, too, can "fight global warming." As you'd expect, "Drive Less" is in bold letters. There's also an endorsement for "high-mileage cars such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids." They advise that you weatherize your home, upgrade to more efficient appliances and even buy carbon offsets. The word "meat" is nowhere to be found.

That's not an oversight. Telling people to give up burgers doesn't poll well. Ben Adler, an urban policy writer, explored that in a December 2008 article for the American Prospect. He called environmental groups and asked them for their policy on meat consumption. "The Sierra Club isn't opposed to eating meat," was the clipped reply from a Sierra Club spokesman. "So that's sort of the long and short of it." And without pressure to address the costs of meat, politicians predictably are whiffing on the issue. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, for instance, does nothing to address the emissions from livestock.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Weird Day Off In Austin Texas

My Austin friend works in the financial sector. I've known her for 20 years. She's an accountant (with much concern for what's going on in the capitalist world) and she says she's heard Austin is currently the wealthiest city in the nation.

Yesterday and last night I checked out in Austin and I can report that, at least on the surface, there are zero signs of an economic crisis.

I spent the day checking out a part of the downtown, rode the little Armadillo bus (formerly free, now 50 cents), then walked a small part of the many miles of trails alongside the river (for some reason they call it a lake), to Barton Springs pool where I fed almonds and peanuts to a very friendly squirrel (s/he buried most of them) and dropped small pieces of my organic mango into the river and watched the fishies gobble them up. I didn't want to swim downstream from the paid swimming area where the kids were peeing, i mean swimming, so I opted for the goofy little train ride (in preparation for the big train ride next week), chatted with the folks trying to raise awareness about water conservation and the need to save the springs (a third of austin's energy is from coal, there's a much stronger conservation ethic in san antonio than here, and my new young friend is determined, he said, to get arrested at an anti-nuclear rally sometime this summer in Texas). I began my walk back to town to meet my friend (who told me she has opted to pay for alternative energy through her utlilty bill ... that doesn't mean her energy isn't from nuclear sources, but she is at least choosing to support alternatives) after her work day ended. Along the way I met some brave/crazy young guys jumping off various bridges (the signs clearly said not to), and found a quiet and private little place of my own where I waded into the river for a swim. The air was about 102 degrees, and I thought (as I often do in these sorts of situations) about how the indigenous peoples must have loved and appreciated this place with all its greenery and the might Colorado River.

I bought my friend dinner (a small thank you for putting up with me these two weeks while I put the Street Newz together) at a little Thai restaurant, and we went to stand on the bridge with all the other tourists, and staycationers, to watch the bats. Austin is famous for its bats. It's estimated that a million and a half of them live under the Congress St. bridge and, at dusk, they begin their quest for food - apparently 10,000 - 30,000 pounds of insects every night. We got there early, and watched the bridge fill up with people, and the little park at the side of the river, and the river itself with boats of various sizes. I heard many different languages, one young fella said he'd been there last night and a single bat flies out, then millions of them. And that's just what happens .... one bat, presumably to check it out, and then the others begin their mass exit. First from under the southern part of the bridge, swarms of them, flying in formation, forming clouds above the river. Then from the middle section of the bridge, and finally the northern part. We wondered what would happen if the first bat decided it wasn't time to go ... maybe s/he'd set the alarm wrong and it was too early .... did the first bat ever tell the others NO, don't go yet!? And how do they return? Do they swarm back the same way, or return slowly? We did hear that the young stay home, under the bridge, and the mothers return to them. It's an incredible thing, Austin's bats. My friend said she'd heard they migrated from Mexico and found the bridge a pleasant place to congregate and decided to stay.

After the bats we wandered along south Congress st., where there are some of the funkiest stores I've ever witnessed (I'm not much of a shopper, but these were windows and late night stores worth perusing). I asked my friend "where are all the panhandlers?" I'd spent the morning in the downtown, the afternoon along the river park, and the evening on a street with many Friday night partiers and shoppers. Perfect places to see some of the street community, I thought, but I hadn't seen a single panhandler, nor a single shopping cart street person. My friend said there are some panhandlers where she lives, in the suburbs, but I didn't recall seeing any there either. She was talking about the folks who stand at the intersections with signs asking for money or jobs. And that's it, I said? I asked my friend to drive me through the "inner city" on the way home. She had told me about the food banks downtown, but I wondered where those folks spend the rest of their time and I wanted to see the lower income neighbourhoods.

We cruised through the Latino community, and near where the African Americans gather. She showed me where she lived while she was going to College, but said she wouldn't live there again. My friend works for a property management company, and hears about significant numbers of murders in the apartment buildings in the area. Not as safe as when she was a student. No doubt the violence is drug related, I suggested. We saw a lot of police driving through these neighbourhoods, and speculated about how they're involved in the drug trade and perhaps inciting violence. In the local paper there's a story about a police officer who killed a man sleeping in his car recently - the story is that the man was startled awake and reached for his gun, and the cop shot him. It's under investigation. (The right to bear arms ... definitely something that distinguises us Canadians from our sometimes whacky neighbours). We saw several cops harassing one large young Latino man driving a nice car at a gas station. My friend told me she'd heard that local police, across the nation, have been advised that they might have to leave their families and relocate at a moment's notice, for a significant amount of time. We speculated that this is one way police can get away with doing things they wouldn't otherwise get away with - while they live in communities where they're known there are some checks and balances, even here in the land of individualism. Humans are social creatures, there's no getting away from that. And apparently the federal police are trying to get more power in local communities across the USA.

We drove through the downtown. By this point I was considering that either it's true that there's no economic crisis in Austin, or else they've rounded up all the panhandlers/homeless and put them in jail, removing them from the streets. I still hadn't seen any sign of a street community. My friend drove by the Starvation Army - a very large building - and commented that there were no people hanging out outside the building, as there usually are (though she expressly said she never sees folks sitting on sidewalks with caps outstretched - maybe that form of panhandling is "illegal"?). And there, outside Caritas (where my friend has volunteered and says the street folk are not especially bedraggled or wasted on drugs), were six police officers interrogating three African American men sitting on a bench. They had the building open (apparently it's not usually open at night) and were going in and out, talking to the men on the bench. Traffic was slowed, but we couldn't hear what they were saying. I had my camera, but am not keen on interfering in US police actions. We know there are a lot of private jails in Texas, detention centres etc .... perhaps it's true that they're just sweeping the streets and rounding them up and taking them away.

We turned the corner onto 6th street. Austin's Bourbon St. Holy Moly. Plenty of music, loud, lots of intoxicated College/University students wandering from bar to bar ... the street was ALIVE! No sign of a recession, and you'd never guess there's a global environmental crisis ... cars everywhere (we couldn't get into the Mexi-Arte opening earlier in the evening because of a lack of parking) and air conditioning ... and still no sign of panhandlers, or anywhere binners pushing shopping carts. There is no street newspaper here ... there's only one in Texas, according to the NASNA website, and it's in Dallas. There were two buskers last night, one street artist, and one guy selling buttons to the bat tourists.

We pondered where all these people are getting their money. Austin's a capital city, so there's employment for civil servants. The University hires a bunch more. There are a couple of big banks who hire lots of people. There's some IT industry. But ultimately, my friend suggests, it's the music scene that really brings the money in. The restaurants are full, the retail stores (some with US built goods, more with China built stuff, even the new retro clothes are Made in China) seem to be thriving. So there are jobs in the service and retail sectors. Maybe, we pondered, the whole "Keep Austin Weird" motto, which is about supporting the local economy, is keeping the money flowing around town rather than out of town and into the pockets of the big unlocal corporations. We drove a few more blocks to the neighbourhood where the older thirty-something evening crowd gathers - again lots of loud music and many peoples.

My friend, who predicted Barack Obama would make it big many years ago, and warned people about last year's economic crash long before it happened, now fears that the US dollar will tank somewhere around October. It's hard to imagine, considering what we saw in Austin, that there's any such thing as a recession. As with any city in the capitalist world, there is a "lower class" somewhere. Capitalism insists on a percentage of unemployment (around 8-10%) in order to function properly. I tried to explain to my friend that there's no way a person could walk down any busy street in Victoria without seeing several panhandlers. But they don't exist in Austin -- what's going on?!!??

Maybe they all died from the heat.

For more information:

Austin Food Bank

Photos from my day off in Austin

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Robert Jensen at MonkeyWrench Books in Austin

Last night I attended a discussion, at a funky cool bookstore called MonkeyWrench Books, with U of Texas professor Robert Jensen-author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice. The event was advertised as follows:

After a lifetime of identifying as an atheist, Robert Jensen joined a Christian church. Many of Jensen's radical activist colleagues wondered if he had lost his mind. The jury is still out on that, but in his new book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, Jensen makes a case for a theology that can be consistent with radical politics. Leaving behind supernatural claims, Jensen uses the text and traditions of Christianity to argue for a theology and politics that takes seriously the radical action needed to deal with the multiple crises we face today.

My Austin based friend is a Christian with a strong social conscience, so off we went ....

Robert spoke to a very full room (standing room only) of mostly youngish folk, and spent a fair amount of time defending his decision to return to the religious teachings he had moved away from in his younger years. During the Q & A one woman suggested it's not fair to assume the room is full of atheists, and shared her own philosophy of "live and let live." But during his talk (which was recorded by, and will presumably be rebroadcast on KOOP radio Austin), Robert assumed the majority had only a cursory understanding of the scriptures, and spoke in terms we could all understand.

I'm not much interested in formal religion, I think it's too old and outdated and patriarchal, there are a ton of more modern readings we can draw upon for inspiration, so I listened with half an ear and quietly flipped through the 'zines on the rack next to me. I found an article denouncing the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Volume 20, Issue 5 of the Student Insurgent (which I can't find online and for some reason I'd written down a different website). I also found an ad for a Permaculture Credit Union, and other interesting and progressive stuff and ideas. And I heard some interesting things come out of Robert Jensen's mouth.

What impressed me the most was his suggestion that we can use the ancient teachings to learn important life lessons .... like humility. Hubris, Robert suggests, is out of control. The bible actually teaches that capitalism is not the path .... since it encourages all the worst human characteristics, like greed and hubris. If we look at the Garden of Eden story, we find it's not about a god who wants to keep us stupid by insisting we don't eat from the tree of good and evil, but it's about realizing that humans cannot control everything in the universe and we just need to accept that. I wondered what Robert considers a viable alternative to capitalism. Socialism, theoretically, is about the sharing and caring Robert suggested we read about in Acts and implement in our lives, but it's still a hierarchical structure that has, historically, been usurped and abused by power and control freaks.

I wanted to comment, to share my whacky philosophy that women are so much more reasonable in the control-the-universe sense, because there's so much about our lives that we cannot control. Not the stuff imposed on us by patriarchy, but the stuff we're born with. At a certain point in our lives we start to bleed. Every month. Whether we like it or not. And at another point in our lives we stop bleeding. We metamorphosize. Whether we like it or not. We women realize, innately, that we are not in control.

Now that's not to say that all women are wonderful, kind, gentle creatures .... we can all think of women who are not that. I believe that if women were had been more involved, historically, in designing societies, governments, laws, the world would look a bit different, it'd be a lot friendlier place for all - men and women alike. But we live in a patriarchy - a world built by and for men. Wealthy men. The bible has been used for two thousand years to endorse that foundational structure. It's an ancient book that's been edited, and interpreted, and a lot of peoples' stories were left out of it. So when people talk about christianity, even in a progressive sense, I wonder how it's even possible.

I, who was never indoctrinated into any church, still get an image or a feeling of a dominant male when they talk about their god. I wanted to ask Robert what his idea of god is, what does god look like. Who, really, was Jesus? Why are we expected to believe his mother was a virgin? Isn't it more likely she was a young unmarried pregnant woman, and this was a story made up to protect her family? Who was Joseph? Who were Jesus' grandparents, his great grandparents? But there were lots of young folks with lots of good questions, so I guess I'll have to read his book to maybe find out specifically how he reconciles his idea of activism within a traditionally patriarchal religious tradition.

Another thing Robert left us with was the idea that the Golden Rule - Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You - is universal, found in all the big religions. That's good news - except when we consider that there are a lot of people in the world who hate themselves and want to hurt themselves. I think that explains people like George Bush and Karl Rove and Dick Cheney etc. They are sadists, living their version of the golden rule. They, and those like them, should never have power over anyone else. It's the power-over part of christianity that unnerves me. The patriarchal, hierarchical world-view. I just think there's got to be a better way .... but I accept that ultimately, aside from living as gently as I possibly can on our lovely earth, I have very little control about what the future might bring.


SOCIALIST VOICE-Marxist Perspectives for the 21st Century

April 30, 2009
Web edition:

By Ian Angus [Ian Angus was a featured guest at the World at a Crossroads: Fighting for Socialism in the 21st Century conference , in Sydney Australia, April 10-12, 2009. The event, which drew 440 participants from more than 15 countries, was organized by Democratic Socialist Perspective, Resistance and Green Left Weekly. The following is Ian's talk to the plenary session on "Confronting the climate change crisis: an ecosocialist perspective." He has lightly edited the text for publication.]

The world is getting hotter, and the main cause is greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity. Enormous damage has already been done, and we will have to live with the consequences of past emissions for decades, perhaps even centuries. Unless we rapidly and drastically cut emissions, the existing damage will turn to catastrophe.

Anyone who denies that is either lying or somehow unaware of the huge mass of compelling scientific evidence.

Many publications regularly publish articles summarizing the scientific evidence and outlining the devastation that we face if action isn't taken quickly. I highly recommend Green Left Weekly as a continuing source. I'm not going to repeat what you've undoubtedly read there.

But I do want to draw your attention to an important recent development. Last month, more than 2500 climate scientists met in Copenhagen to discuss the state of scientific knowledge on this subject. And the one message that came through loud and clear was this: it's much worse than we thought.

What were called "worst case scenarios" two years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change actually understated the problem. The final statement issued by the Copenhagen conference declared: "The worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized Ö"

Nicholas Stern, author of the landmark 2006 study, The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change now says, "We underestimated the risks Ö we underestimated the damage associated with the temperature increases Ö and we underestimated the probability of temperature increases."

Seventeen years of failure - with one exception

Later this year, the world's governments will meet, again in Copenhagen, to try to reach a new post-Kyoto climate treaty. Will they meet the challenge of climate change that is much worse than expected?

The politicians' record does not inspire hope.

Seventeen years ago, in June 1992, 172 governments, including 108 heads of state, met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

That meeting produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the first international agreement that aimed "to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a low enough level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." In particular, the industrialized countries promised to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels.

Like the Kyoto Accord that followed it, that agreement was a failure. The world's top politicians demonstrated their gross hypocrisy and their indifference to the future of humanity and nature by giving fine speeches and making promises - and then continuing with business as usual.

But there was one exception. In Rio one head of state spoke out strongly, and called for immediate emergency action - and then returned home to support the implementation of practical policies for sustainable, low-emission development.

That head of state was Fidel Castro.

Fidel began his brief remarks to the plenary session of the 1992 Earth Summit with a blunt description of the crisis: "An important biological species is in danger of disappearing due to the fast and progressive destruction of its natural living conditions: mankind. We have become aware of this problem when it is almost too late to stop it."

He placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the imperialist countries, and he finished with a warning that emergency action was needed: "Tomorrow it will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago."

After the 1992 Earth Summit, only the Cubans acted on their promises and commitments.

In 1992 Cuba amended its constitution to recognize the importance of "sustainable economic and social development to make human life more rational and to ensure the survival, well-being and security of present and future generations." The amended constitution obligates the provincial and municipal assemblies of People's Power to implement and enforce environmental protections. And it says that "it is the duty of citizens to contribute to the protection of the waters, atmosphere, the conservation of the soil, flora, fauna and nature's entire rich potential."

The Cubans have adopted low-fertilizer agriculture, and encouraged urban farming to reduce the distances food has to travel. They have replaced all of their incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents, and distributed energy efficient rice cookers. They have stepped up reforestation, nearly doubling the island's forested area, to 25% in 2006.

As a result of these and many other projects, in 2006 the World Wildlife Federation concluded that Cuba is the only country in the world that meets the criteria for sustainable development.

By contrast, the countries responsible for the great majority of greenhouse gas emissions followed one of two paths. Some gave lip service to cleaning up their acts, but in practice did little or nothing. Others denied that action was needed and so did little or nothing.

As a result we are now very close to the tomorrow that Fidel spoke of, the tomorrow when it is too late.

Why Cuba?

The World Wildlife Federation deserves credit for its honesty in reporting Cuba's achievements. But the WWF failed to address the next logical question. Why was Cuba the exception? Why could a tiny island republic in the Caribbean do what no other country could do?

And the next question after that is, why have the richest countries in the world not cut their emissions, not developed sustainable economies? Why, despite their enormous physical and scientific resources, has their performance actually gotten worse?

The first question, why Cuba could do it, was answered not long ago by Armando Choy, a leader of the Cuban revolution who has recently headed the drive to clean up Havana Bay. His explanation was very clear and compelling:

"This is possible because our system is socialist in character and commitment, and because the revolution's top leadership acts in the interests of the majority of humanity inhabiting planet earth - not on behalf of narrow individual interests, or even simply Cuba's national interests."

General Choy's comments reminded me of a passage in Capital, a paragraph that all by itself refutes the claim that is sometimes made, that Marxism has nothing in common with ecology. Karl Marx wrote:

"Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations."

I've never known any socialist organization to make this point explicitly, but Marx's words imply that one of the key objectives of socialism must be to build a society in which human beings work consciously to be Good Ancestors.

And that is what the Cubans are doing in practice.

The idea that we must act in the present to build a better world for the future, has been a theme of the Cuban revolutionary movement since Fidel's great 1953 speech, History Will Absolve Me. That commitment to future generations is central to what has justly been called the greening of the Cuban revolution.

The Cubans are committed, not just in words but in practice, to being Good Ancestors, not only to future Cubans, but to future generations around the globe.

Why not capitalism?

But what about the other side of the question? Why do we not see a similar commitment in the ruling classes of Australia, or Canada, or the United States?

If you ask any of them individually, our rulers would undoubtedly say that they want their children and grandchildren to live in a stable and sustainable world. So why do their actions contradict their words? Why do they seem determined, in practice, to leave their children and grandchildren a world of poisoned air and water, a world of floods and droughts and escalating climate disasters? Why have they repeatedly sabotaged international efforts to adopt even half-hearted measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

When they do consider or implement responses to the climate crisis, why do they always support solutions that do not work, that cannot possibly work?

Karl Marx had a wonderful phrase for the bosses and their agents - the big shareholders and executives and top managers and the politicians they own - a phrase that explains why they invariably act against the present and future interests of humanity. These people, he said, are "personifications of capital." Regardless of how they behave at home, or with their children, their social role is that of capital in human form.

They don't act to stop climate change because the changes needed by the people of this world are directly contrary to the needs of capital.

Capital has no conscience. Capital can't be anyone's ancestor because capital has no children. Capital has only one imperative: it has to grow.

The only reason for using money to buy stock, launch a corporation, build a factory or drill an oil well is to get more money back than you invested. That doesn't always happen, of course - some investments fail to produce profits, and, as we are seeing today, periodically the entire system goes into freefall, wiping out jobs and livelihoods and destroying capital. But that doesn't contradict the fact that the potential for profit, to make capital grow, is a defining feature of capitalism. Without it, the system would rapidly collapse.

As Joel Kovel says, "Capitalism can no more survive limits on growth than a person can live without breathing."

A system of growth and waste

Under capitalism, the only measure of success is how much is sold every day, every week, every year. It doesn't matter that the sales include vast quantities of products that are directly harmful to both humans and nature, or that many commodities cannot be produced without spreading disease, destroying the forests that produce the oxygen we breathe, demolishing ecosystems, and treating our water, air and soil as sewers for the disposal of industrial waste.

It all contributes to profits, and thus to the growth of capital - and that's what counts.

In Capital, Marx wrote that from a capitalist's perspective, raw materials such as metals, minerals, coal, stone, etc. are "furnished by Nature gratis." The wealth of nature doesn't have to be paid for or replaced when it is used - it is there for the taking. If the capitalists had to pay the real cost of that replacing or restoring that wealth, their profits would fall drastically.

That's true not only of raw materials, but also of what are sometimes called "environmental services" - the water and air that have been absorbing capitalism's waste products for centuries. They have been treated as free sewers and free garbage dumps, "furnished by Nature gratis."

That's what the pioneering environmental economist William Kapp meant nearly sixty years ago, when he wrote, "Capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs."

Kapp wrote that capitalism's claims of efficiency and productivity are: "nothing more than an institutionalized cover under which it is possible for private enterprise to shift part of the costs to the shoulders of others and to practice a form of large-scale spoliation which transcends everything the early socialists had in mind when they spoke of the exploitation of man by man."

In short, pollution is not an accident, and it is not a "market failure." It is the way the system works.

How large is the problem? In 1998 the World Resources Institute conducted a major international study of the resource inputs used by corporations in major industrial countries - water, raw materials, fuel, and so on. Then they determined what happened to those inputs. They found that "One half to three quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year."

Similar numbers are reported by others. As you know, about a billion people live in hunger. And yet, as the head of the United Nations Environmental Program said recently, "Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain."

"Inefficiency" in this case means that it is no profit to be made by preventing food waste - so waste continues. In addition to exacerbating world hunger, capitalism's gross inefficiency poisons the land and water with food that is harvested but not used.

Capitalism's destructive DNA

Capitalism combines an irresistible drive to grow, with an irresistible drive to create waste and pollution. If nothing stops it, capitalism will expand both those processes infinitely.

But the earth is not infinite. The atmosphere and oceans and the forests are very large, but ultimately they are finite, limited resources - and capitalism is now pressing against those limits. The 2006 WWF Living Planet Report concludes, "The Earth's regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand - people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources."

My only disagreement with that statement is that it places the blame on "people" as an abstract category. In fact the devastation is caused by the global capitalist system, and by the tiny class of exploiters that profits from capitalism's continued growth. The great majority of people are victims, not perpetrators.

In particular, capitalist pollution has passed the physical limit of the ability of nature to absorb carbon dioxide and other gases while keeping the earth's temperature steady. As a result, the world is warmer today than it has been for 100,000 years, and the temperature continues to rise.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions are not unusual or exceptional. Pouring crap into the environment is a fundamental feature of capitalism, and it isn't going to stop so long as capitalism survives. That's why "solutions" like carbon trading have failed so badly and will continue to fail: waste and pollution and ecological destruction are built into the system's DNA.

No matter how carefully the scheme is developed, no matter how many loopholes are identified and plugged, and no matter how sincere the implementers and administrators may be, capitalism's fundamental nature will always prevail.

We've seen that happen with Kyoto's Clean Development Mechanism, under which polluters in rich countries can avoid cutting their own emissions if they invest in equivalent emission-reducing projects in the Third World. A Stanford University study shows that two-thirds or more of the CDM emission reduction credits have not produced any reductions in pollution.

The entire system is based on what one observer says are "enough lies to make a sub-prime mortgage pusher blush."

CDM continues not because it is reducing emissions, but because there are profits to be made buying and selling credits. CDM is an attempt to trick the market into doing good in spite of itself, but capitalism's drive for profits wins every time.

[End of Part One. Continued in the next Socialist Voice email]

Editors: Roger Annis, John Riddell
Associate Editors: Ian Angus, Mike Krebs
Production Coordinator: Ian Angus

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Iraq War resister Kimberly Rivera wins in Federal Court

First female Iraq War resister to seek refuge in Canada gets another temporary stay

TORONTO—On Tuesday, the Federal Court of Canada granted Kimberly Rivera a new Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA). The judicial review hearing took place on July 8 before Federal Court Judge The Honourable James Russell.

Justice Russell found that the PRRA Officer did not deal properly with the risk that Kim Rivera would face differential prosecution on the basis of her opposition to the Iraq War.

There was evidence before the Officer indicating that individuals who are on record as critics of the Iraq War are targeted for prosecution and more severe punishment as opposed to being granted an administrative discharge from the military.

As a result of the ruling, Rivera is entitled to a new decision in her PRRA, a process that may take up to four months.

Rivera, her lawyer Alyssa Manning, and a representative of the War Resisters Support Campaign will be available tomorrow morning to discuss the implications of this ruling.

EVENT: Media availability re: the decision in Kimberly Rivera’s judicial review

DATE: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

TIME: 10:00 a.m. EDT

LOCATION: Steelworkers’ Hall, 25 Cecil Street, Main Floor, Members’ Lounge, Toronto, ON
(south of College Street, west of Beverley Street)

Rivera was granted an eleventh-hour stay of removal in March following public outcry over the threat of her deportation. In January, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney used the occasion of her original PRRA decision to claim that Iraq War resisters are "bogus refugee claimants". His comments brought rebuke from Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Council for Refugees for prejudicing the chance of a fair hearing for Rivera and other war resisters.

The War Resisters Support Campaign is renewing its call on the minority Harper government to implement a motion that was passed twice by the House of Commons (on June 3, 2008 and again on March 30, 2009) and stop the impending deportation of Iraq War resisters, including Rodney Watson from Vancouver. Two Iraq War resisters have already been deported by the Harper government and sentenced to jail terms in the U.S. for opposing the war.

Rodney Watson, a war resister in Vancouver, is currently threatened with deportation.

“Today’s court decision reflects the strong consensus in this country supporting people of conscience like Kim Rivera,” said Michelle Robidoux, spokesperson for the War Resisters Support Campaign. “MPs have voted twice, directing this minority government to stop the deportations. No matter the personal opinions of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, Canadians expect them to respect the will of Parliament and implement the motion.”

Kimberly Rivera, who served in Iraq in 2006, is the first female Iraq War resister to seek refuge in Canada. Rivera, along with her partner Mario, son Christian (7 years old) and daughter Rebecca (4 years old), fled to Canada in January 2007 when she refused redeployment. In late November 2008 Rivera gave birth to her Canadian daughter Katie (9 months old).

“I’m so happy. Like the other war resisters, I just want to stay in Canada,” said Kimberly Rivera. “Our families shouldn’t be broken up, with a mother or father thrown in jail because they stood up for what’s right.”

A public opinion poll conducted by Angus Reid Strategies in June 2008 found widespread approval (64%) for the House of Commons’ vote in support of war resisters.


For further information, please contact:
Michelle Robidoux, Spokesperson, War Resisters Support Campaign, 416-856-5008; or
Ken Marciniec, Communications Volunteer, War Resister Support Campaign, 416-803-6066,

Excerpts from Justice James Russell’s reasons
Court Number: IMM-215-09

[98] In the present application, the Minister says that the act of persecution itself was never clearly identified by the Applicants as a new risk and, if it was, the Decision addresses the whole court martial system and not just due process punishment. I agree with the Respondent that the distinction between prosecution per se and punishment for desertion is not as clearly delineated in the submissions as it might be. This gave me some initial concern that the Officer had not addressed the targeting issue because the written submissions appear to emphasize process and punishment. However it would appear that the Officer’s own identification of the stated risks shows that he was fully aware that the Principal Applicant feared not only the trial process and punishment but also the act of being charged with desertion and subjection to court martial proceedings.

[99] In the end, there is no meaningful examination in the Decision of selected and targeted prosecution based upon political opinion of those deserters who have spoken out against the war in Iraq. The Principal Applicant provided ample evidence of the targeting of similarly situated individuals, but this evidence is never addressed from this perspective. In addition there was also evidence before the Officer of prosecutors seeking harsher treatment, and judges imposing harsher sentences, for deserters who have spoken out against the war. This again raises the issue of the exercise of prosecutorial and judicial discretion in a way that discriminates against those soldiers who have expressed public opposition to the war in Iraq. In turn, this calls into question the procedural and state protection safeguards available to targeted individuals who are prosecuted (instead of receiving an administrative discharge) and who are punished harshly for their political opinions, and whether this amounts to section 96 persecution or section 97 harm. In her written submission, the Principal Applicant raised the issue not only of disproportionate punishment, but of the improper exercise of prosecutorial discretion based upon and individual deserter’s profile as an opponent of the U.S. war effort. In my view, the availability of the conscientious objector process, even if it were available to the Principal Applicant, which does not appear likely or the evidence, is irrelevant to the issue.

[102] In my view, the Officer’s failure to fully address the targeting issue, and the evidence that supports the Applicant’s position, renders the Decision unreasonable and it must be returned for reconsideration.