Thursday, May 26, 2016

A day at Bodega Head

I took a mid-week day off from work yesterday, and drove out to Bodega Head to see if I could catch a glimpse of any of those whales that so many others have spotted this month in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. Humpback and blue whales were seen cavorting around in the bay itself, but off Bodega Head gray whales are more usually visible.

I arrived early enough to catch a bit of the low tide: sea anemone and mussels were packed like sardines on rock formations still exposed even a couple hours after the lowest tide of the morning (-0.1 according to NOAA). (Packed like sardines. Hmmm. That would be a truly terrible simile, except that the sea anemone do look a bit like rolled anchovy fillets. Alas, no one says "packed like anchovies.")

Some of the larger anemone were beginning to open again as the surf came in. Click the photo to see its fluorescent tentacles, enlarged -- a little cool, a little creepy...

Alas, the closest I got to seeing a whale was spotting a crab boat you can (barely) make out offshore in this photo:

And there was this turkey vulture (among many other birds):

And the flowers! April showers paid their May dividends this year: poppies, paintbrush, lupine, yarrow, and more:

When I visit the coast north of the San Francisco Bay I most often go to Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, usually to the north end of the preserve, Tomales Point. Bodega Head (in Sonoma County) is at the north end of Bodega Bay, and Tomales Point is at Bodega Bay's south end. So from where I stood yesterday, I could look south and see the tip of Tomales Point and the opening to Tomales Bay on its inner (east) side.  In the photo below, the sharp end of the point is sticking out of the fog  across Bodega Bay.

Even with binoculars, though, I didn't spot any of the elk who live on Tomales Point. I guess it wasn't my day for big mammals ... but a fine day nonetheless.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Seasons blur as El Niño starts in on California
Never mind Election Day 2014, consider Fall in Northern California
Point Reyes National Seashore at the start of the year

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Oakland doesn't need an oil train disaster, thanks but no thanks

Come 27 June 2016, Oakland, California's city council will vote on an ordinance to ban shipment of coal through the city's port.

The text of the ordinance is not yet drafted, and may not ban coal at all: it may instead require mitigations that are unlikely to be achievable, enforceable, and/or effective in protecting the health of people who live near the proposed bulk terminal that developers hope to use to ship coal mined in Utah and slated for dirty combustion in Asia. The ordinance may or may not also address a ban on or mitigations for shipping crude oil, fuel oil, and gasoline.

To call the city's mayor, Libby Schaaf, and the councilmembers' attention to just how crazy-dangerous it would be to permit oil transport through a port surrounded by communities they were elected to protect and serve, No Coal in Oakland activist Michael Kaufman sent to Oakland's elected officials yesterday afternoon a partial list of tanker car spills and pipeline explosions that have occurred over the past three years.

Here's what Michael Kaufman wrote to Oakland's Mayor Schaaf, nine councilmembers, and city staffer Heather Klein:
Dear Ms Klein, Mayor and Council Members

Please consider [this] list of tanker car spills of fossil fuels and other hazardous commodities that have been endangering our citizens in the last three years.

These spills, explosions and pollution of neighborhoods and water ways will continue without end, until our elected leaders ban fossil fuels from being loaded or off loaded in our communities.Below is a very incomplete list of just some of the spills and explosions that have occurred in North America during the last three years. Oil pipeline capacity is maxed out in North American. Consequently oil rail car use has expanded forty fold from 2008.

The prior NTSB chair said that the overwhelming majority of oil train cars are not built to carry the toxic oil now being massively produced.  The rules to control this form of oil transportation must be updated quickly; more quickly than is happening on the federal level.

The current rail cars for fossil fuel, DOT 111 type rail cars, are not crash resistant.  This type of car is being banned and replaced in Canada but not in U.S.  However some of the crashes and spills are also coming from newly designed, CPC-1232 type cars, which are supposed to be more crash resistant.

Normal fire departments don't have the capacity to deal with oil rail car spill, explosions and fires.

  1. 03/27/13 Parkers Prairie, MN; 30,000 gallons of oil spilled
  2. 03/29/13 Arkansas Exxon Pegasus Pipeline burst, 5,000-7,000 barrels of crude spilled
  3. 05/21/13 Jansen Saskatchewan; 24,000 gallons of oil spilled
  4. 06/27/13 Calgary, Alberta; oil train derailed on a bridge over Bow River, emergency crew prevented a spill
  5. 07/06/13 Lac Magantic, Quebec; Explosions from derailed oil cars killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings in town center
  6. 10/19/13 Gainford Alberta; 4 derailed oil tankers. evacuations were required due to explosions and fire
  7. 11/08/13 Aliceville, Pickens County, Alabama; 90-car derailment, 749,000 gallons spilled. Fire burned for 2 days.
  8. 12/30/13 Casselton, ND; 400,000 gallons of crude spilled, explosion caused evacuations of 2,000 people
  9. 01/07/14 Plaster Rock, New Brunswick; explosion and fire caused 150-person evacuation for 3 nights
  10. 01/20/14 Philadelphia PA; 6 train cars carrying Bakken crude derailed over Schuylkill River near university of PA and major hospitals, no spill
  11. 02/13/14 Vandergrift PA; 4 tankers spill nearly 3,000 gallons of oil
  12. 04/30/14 Lynchburg, VA; 17-car derailment, +29,000 gallons of oil spilled into the James River, threatening the Richmond, VA water supply
  13. 1/13/15 In Mississippi pipeline burst and put out smoke seen by satellites
  14. 1/17/15 Yellowstone River, Glendive, Montana Oil Spill, 40,000 gallons of oil
  15. 1/26/15 North Dakota Williston 3 million gallons of brine leaking since 1/6/15.  Leak has reached the Missouri River
  16. 1/27/15 Natural Gas Pipeline explosion in Brooke County, West Virginia from Pennsylvania Fracked Gas moving to Texas
  17. 2/14/15 Timmons, Ontario 100-car Canadian National train carrying crude oil derailed.  30 cars caught fire.  The tankers were the newer, CPC-1232, "safer" kind.  The fires burned for days blocking a main rail line for three days.
  18. 2/16/15 Mt Carbon, West Virginia Bakken Crude 109 car train, 27 tanker cars, the newer CPC 1232 cars, derailed and spilled crude into the Kanawha River.  Vapor pressure in tank cars was 13.9, higher than allowed by N Dakota. laws.   Tanker  cars exploded catching house on fire. 1.5 mile circle of evacuation.  Fire crews let fires burn for days.
  19. 3/4/15 North Dakota Tioga spill 19,000 gallons of brine saltwater chemical petroleum mix
  20. 3/5/15 Galena Illinois near Dubuque Iowa a unit oil train, 103 tanker cars derailed and exploded along the Galena River.  1 mile evacuation
  21. 3/7/15 Gogama, Ontario 94 car oil train had 35 CPC-1232 oil tanker cars derail, with 5 falling into the Makami River, explosion and fire.
  22. 5/6/15 Heimdal, ND another train blew up with 6 tankers carrying 180,000 gallons of Bakken Crude exploding.  Heimdal was evacuated.  Four separate fire department were dispatched and two Hazmat teams.  The EPA is monitoring air quality.  It is the fifth explosion in 2015 to date.  This one was using the updated tanker cars, CPC-1232.
  23. 7/1/16 Maryville Tennessee just south of Knoxville, one CSX car derailed, broke an axle and punctured the tanker and sparked a huge fire, which burned for over a day.  The car was carrying Acrylonitrile, used in making plastics.
  24. When it burns it releases cyanide gas, which can be fatal.  Evacuated a 2 mile radius, and 5,000 people.  Ten cops were hospitalized due to exposure.  55 were hospitalized with 25 admitted to the hospital.
  25. 11/7/15 Alma Wisconsin 25 cars derailed and fell into the river with 20,000 gallons of ethanol spilled into the Mississippi River, highways closed, residents evacuated
  26. 11/8/15 Watertown Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, 110 car oil train, 13 cars derailed, 100s of gallons of crude oil spilled, Homes Evacuated
[I've added links to news sources for the first ten. You get the idea, and readers can search the intertubes no less effectively than I can.]

No Coal in Oakland -- whose state senator, Loni Hancock, found that 92% of her district's constituents oppose the proposed Oakland coal-export terminal -- is asking city residents to stand up and be counted at the 27 June council vote ... and to turn out for the first half-hour of tonight's City Council meeting to speak to the folly of shipping fossil fuels through the city's port.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes
Oil trains, coal trains: extractive economics vs. people and place
Northern California mobilizes for climate action as Paris talks near

Thanks to Sûreté du Québec via Wikimedia Commons for the image of the Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment disaster.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The pursuit of boredom

The other day a friend pointed out an article by Sandi Mann in The Guardian. The title was Why are we so bored? The author got me wondering: should we think about boredom as a bane or a boon -- a feature or a bug -- in the trajectory of our lives?

Here’s the gist of Why are we so bored?, datelined 24 April 2016:
With so much to occupy us these days, boredom should be a relic of a bygone age – an age devoid of the internet, social media, multi-channel TV, 24-hour shopping, multiplex cinemas, game consoles, texting and whatever other myriad possibilities are available these days to entertain us.

Yet despite the plethora of high-intensity entertainment constantly at our disposal, we are still bored. Up to half of us are “often bored” at home or at school, while more than two- thirds of us are chronically bored at work. We are bored by paperwork, by the commute and by dull meetings. TV is boring, as is Facebook and other social media. [...]

There are a number of explanations for our ennui. This, in fact, is part of the problem – we are overstimulated. The more entertained we are the more entertainment we need in order to feel satisfied. The more we fill our world with fast-moving, high-intensity, ever-changing stimulation, the more we get used to that and the less tolerant we become of lower levels.
This spin on collateral damage -- boredom -- caused by our 21st century distractions, including the device + social media distractions with which many now fill every interstice of otherwise-unclaimed attention, is more interesting to me than the usual gnashing-of-teeth over decreasing attention spans. (Though I do think there’s merit in observations about decreasing attention spans. Oh -- look! Squirrels!)

Sorry. Back to boredom.

Here’s what technology observer Jerry Mander wrote about the experience of watching TV, foreshadowing a 21st Century link between distraction and boredom in his 1978 classic, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:
You are looking at a face speaking. Just as you are becoming accustomed to it, there’s a cut to another face. (technical event) Then there might be an edit back to the first face. (technical event) Then the camera might slowly draw back to take in some aspect of a wider scene. (technical event) Then the action suddenly shifts outdoors to the street. (technical event) Intercut with these scenes might be some other parallel line of the story. It may be a series of images of someone in a car racing to meet people on that street we have just visited. (technical event) The music rises. (technical event) And so on.

Each technical event -- each alteration of what would be natural imagery -- is intended to keep your attention from waning as it might otherwise. The effect is to lure your attention forward like a mechanical rabbit teasing a greyhound. Every time you are about to relax your attention, another technical event keeps you attached.

The luring forward never ceases for very long. If it did, you might become aware of the vacuousness of the content that can get through the inherent limitations of the medium [i.e., television]. Then you would be aware of the boredom. [...]
Mander drew the same line in 1978 that Sandy Mann did the other day: overstimulation is somehow linked to boredom.

But here’s another take on the question that I’d like to juxtapose with Mann’s and Mander’s, quoting UC Berkeley Professor of Philosophy Alva Noë from his latest book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.
Any adequate account of what art is and of its place in our lives must address the striking fact that art has the power to bore us. [...] And art’s potential to be dull does not contradict the fact that art also moves and thrills and transforms and excites us. Indeed, it is the opposite side of the very same coin. Just as there is no encounter with love without the live risk of heartbreak, so there can be no confrontation with art that does not open up the possibility of getting lulled unconscious and bored to death. Art is valuable only in direct proportion to the degree to which it can, or might, bore us. [...]

Works of art are strange tools, after all. That is, they are tools we can’t use, they are useless. They are texts with no practical content, or pictures that don’t show us anything in particular. And so they require us to stop doing. To stop acting and to stop demanding application or even pertinence. [...] The pictures in the clothing catalog show you something you can buy; the architect’s model lays out something you can build. But the choreography on the stage? The painting on the wall? [...] They stop you dead in your tracks. That is, if you let them. If you suspend. If you interrupt. If you enter that special space and that altered state that art provides or allows. Art situations have this in common with religious spaces like churches. They are places where so much can happen but only because nothing really happens. They are spaces for self-transformation.
So is boredom a condition to be avoided at all costs? Or might it be a state we ought to cultivate??

Maybe the best answer is ‘neither.’

It’s no mystery that distraction degrades focus, and completion of directed tasks (which we sometimes think of as “productivity” -- getting stuff we want to do done). Multitasking as a valuable mode of behavior or a ‘skill’ is a myth. But continuous distraction also degrades creativity, synthesis and sharpening of new ideas, and ‘serendipitous’ discovery … because each of these tends to require the kind of mental elbow-room that Alva Noë described in Strange Tools: “They are places where so much can happen but only because nothing really happens.” Noë describes boredom as a state between distraction and engagement with transformation.

Boredom isn’t the goal. It’s a way station.

I happen to know Alva Noë: we’re both students of Tai Chi Ch’uan, and study that slow-moving, deeply attentive practice with the same teacher, in Berkeley, California. Some find a martial art built of slow, steadily-paced movements, repeated over and over and over again through many years of study and practice … well … some find it boring. Others find the state of deep attention to space, precision, movement, breath, and awareness … wait for it … a space for self-transformation.

When I go to a Tai Chi class, or practice my form on the back porch, or head over to the nearby schoolyard of an early morning to run through my sword form before too many neighbors are out and about -- I leave my electronica behind.

There’s something to be said for letting distraction go. It doesn’t have to be boring … at least, not in a bad way, and not for long.

This post first appeared on

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Should technology shape art?
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy
You can't click your way to social change
Getting a grip on attention span

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

GMO labeling and a dearth of principled discourse

Does a two-week interregnum between the Wisconsin and New York primaries leave a window to post about something other than elections? I'd like to try. Personally, I find the cacophony around the presidential primaries dispiriting, but there's a thing or two to say now about the feeble level of discourse over another very hotly contested question, one for which a lot of the action is also coming out of the state of Vermont.

GMO labeling, coming to a supermarket near you

Yep. I'm talking about labeling food that contains GMO ingredients.

You may already know that beginning on 1 July Vermont's Act 120 will require that GMO ingredients be called out on labels of food sold in that state (the nitty-gritty is delineated in the Vermont Attorney General's Consumer Protection Rule 121). The imminent deadline made March a pretty lively month in this particular corner of the struggle between What People Want and What Megacorporations Wish People Wanted.

You may have already seen, for example, that corporate-backed federal legislation to neuter Vermont's labeling requirements moved to the U.S. Senate's front burner last month. Here's how, way over here on the Left Coast, San Francisco's newspaper reported how that has turned out thus far (GMO food labeling bill does not pass in SenateSF Chronicle, 16 Mar 2016):
Following an emotional debate, the Senate blocked a bill that would prevent states from requiring labeling of genetically modified food Wednesday.

The Biotechnology Labeling Solutions Act (S2609), authored by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., which would create a national voluntary labeling standard for genetically engineered foods, did not pass. Roberts had hoped to pass the bill before Vermont’s mandatory labeling law goes into effect July 1.

Despite getting support from Democrats such as Agriculture Committee members Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitcamp of North Dakota, he didn’t get the 60 votes he needed. California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein voted against the bill.
The game's not over, of course: another bill may yet make it through.

But with July approaching and clear evidence that nearly 90% of people in the United States want to see GMO food labeled, a number of key corporate giants appear to be throwing in the towel. General Mills, for example, a conglomerate with $17.9bn in 2014 revenue, announced two days after that Senate vote to label its products (see General Mills to add GMO labeling on its products, SF Chronicle, 18 Mar 2016):
In a striking reversal for big food manufacturers, which have spent millions fighting state efforts to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, General Mills announced Friday that it would voluntarily add that information to its labels.

General Mills’ move is a reaction to a law due to go into effect July 1 in Vermont that will require mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified organisms. On Wednesday, the Senate blocked efforts by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to preempt Vermont’s law by making that labeling voluntary nationwide.
Mars, ConAgra, Campbell Soup Co., and Kellogg are also printing new labels to be used nationwide.

Health effects caused by GMO food: the narrow view

General Mills may be throwing in the towel, but the discourse on genetically engineered crops and animals in mainstream media (MSM) is, generally speaking, narrowly and poorly focused. The sound-byte battle is consistently and most visibly framed around questions of food safety: will humans be adversely affected by consuming food with genetically modified ingredients?

Some examples of this framing:
[Kansas Senator Pat Roberts] emphasized that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration have all deemed genetically engineered foods safe. “It’s not about safety. It’s not about health. It’s not about nutrition. It’s all about marketing,” he said. (GMO food labeling bill does not pass in SenateSF Chronicle, 16 Mar 2016)
[Executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. retail at General Mills Jeff] Harmening also noted that “every major health and safety agency in the world agree(s) that GMOs are not a health or safety concern” — though he acknowledged that some consumers want to know about their presence in food. (General Mills to add GMO labeling on its productsSF Chronicle, 18 Mar 2016)
On the other side of the debate are those who argue that labels would inherently suggest something is wrong with foods containing GMOs, even though major scientific bodies — from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the World Health Organization to the American Medical Association — insist genetically modified foods are safe to eat. (Bill Blocking GMO Labels Stalls In Senate, But Battle Is Far From Over, NPR, 16 Mar 2016)
The Food and Drug Administration says they are safe, and there is little scientific concern about the safety of those GMOs on the market. But advocates for labeling say not enough is known about their risks. (Senate blocks bill to make GMO labeling voluntary, Fox News, 17 March 2016)
Others sometimes emphasize transparency (something that General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening gave a nod to in the second excerpt above). One transparency advocate is NYU Professor Arthur Caplan, who wrote, in an NBC News post of 15 September 2015, GMO Foods Should be Labeled, But Not for Safety: Bioethicist:
The case for labeling is tied up with arguments about safety. Safety concerns would trigger Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements. But, ironically, that is entirely the wrong issue when it comes to labels. The reason GMO food should be voluntarily labeled by the food industry is that it is clear some consumers want to know what they are eating and they have a right to know what is in their food.
A more honest discourse

I'm all for transparency. But:

We'd be having a more honest discourse, less susceptible to flak sprayed into the debate from all quarters, if journalists ferreted out and responsibly reported on the most serious and consequential questions around GMO agriculture and bioengineered animals.

What questions are those? For example, quoting myself from a post of 9 September 2015:
  • How does GMO agriculture encourage or discourage monocropping, and what impact does that have on land productivity, herbicide use, and soil sustainability?
  • How do GMO crops influence use and costs of farming inputs (seeds, fertilizer, energy, machinery, water) and what short- and long-term effects does this have on sustainability of soil, farms, and family farming?
  • How does GMO farming affect biodiversity and the relationships of plant, insect, and animal species that influence or are influenced by the production of food for human consumption?
  • How do the economics and legal constraints of using patented seeds affect farming, farmers, and farm communities? 
Or, more circumspectly if you prefer, quoting from the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists:
While the risks of genetic engineering are often exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may spread undesirable traits to weeds and non-GE crops, produce new allergens and toxins, or harm animals that consume them.

At least one major environmental impact of genetic engineering has already reached critical proportions: overuse of herbicide-tolerant GE crops has spurred an increase in herbicide use and an epidemic of herbicide-resistant "superweeds," which will lead to even more herbicide use.

How likely are other harmful GE impacts to occur? This is a difficult question to answer. Each crop-gene combination poses its own set of risks. While risk assessments are conducted as part of GE product approval, the data are generally supplied by the company seeking approval, and GE companies use their patent rights to exercise tight control over research on their products.
Speaking truth to mainstream media: a steep uphill climb

Contrary to general appearances, it's not impossible to report responsibly in the MSM. Bio-engineered fish are target of lawsuit is another article published at the tail end of last month in the SF Chronicle. The subject is the AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon. Excerpting:
Government regulators and the manufacturer insist the product is safe. But the notion of genetically altered seafood has created a furor among environmentalists, who have dubbed the species "Frankenfish" and say it could spread mutant genes and circulate diseases in wild salmon if an accident or sabotage ever set it loose.

"Our main concern is that the FDA approval was done without any consideration for what these Frankenfish might do if they escape into the wild in places where wild salmon live," said John McManus, the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which joined the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Center for Food Safety and eight other environmental organizations in the suit.

"What has ended up happening in every place where there are farmed salmon is the nets rip and the fish escape," McManus said.
John McManus is on point when he describes a main concern about genetically modified salmon. And he was permitted in this article to express it. Alas, in the mainstream U.S. press, the systemic picture is more often obscured in favor of focus on sound-bytes to do with direct, individual health effects of human consumption of GMO food.

Why does this happen?

Lots of reasons, I suppose. But in this post, rather than follow-the-money (that is, the argument that capitalists or corporations own both the government and the press), I'd like to suggest that principal reasons include the fact that direct, individual health effects make for more easily digestible news about complex subjects. Here are three qualities that make this so:
  1. Individual health effects fit our familiar (U.S.) legal framework, and thus become the focal point of efforts to regulate the Monsantos and Du Ponts of the world. As Dr. Caplan, quoted above, put it, "Safety concerns would trigger Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements." Individual health effects give individuals and classes of individuals standing to bring lawsuits aimed at constraining (through regulation) or punishing (through economic penalties) those who cause those effects by harming the environment. From Cornell University's Legal Information Institute: "Standing, or locus standi, is capacity of a party to bring suit in court. State laws define standing. At the heart of these statutes is the requirement that plaintiffs have sustained or will sustain direct injury or harm and that this harm is redressable." American newspaper reporters and readers understand how this works.
  2. Individual health effects are a simpler concept to grasp and more concrete than systemic harms. From Wikipedia on literacy in the U.S.The 15% figure for full literacy, equivalent to a university undergraduate level, is consistent with the notion that the "average" American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.
  3. Individual health effects directly threaten individuals, which means it's easier to induce people to consider their own personal stake in an issue than it would be if the threat were more abstract, indirect, long-term, or diffuse. Having a personal stake in a story or issue is key to generating interest in it. The MSM, in order to sustain itself, favors publication of stories in which it can generate interest (duh...).
It's worth noting that these qualities apply to other environmental issues, not just questions of genetic engineering.

Opposition to the transport of coal and tar sands oil, for example, are easier to sell (and thus more commonly 'marketed' and argued in regulatory hearings, courtrooms, and environmental activists' appeals to the grassroots) as community health and economic issues (coal dust causes respiratory disease, volatile oil trains threaten cities with massive explosions) than as activity that causes long term harm to our planet's biosphere (leaving fossil fuel "assets" in the ground rather than burning them is necessary to mitigate the massive and lethal effects of human-induced climate change). This is not to say that environmental activists don't see the bigger picture. Of course we do. But effective arguments skew toward harm to individuals and local communities, so those are the arguments most frequently and prominently promoted, especially to regulatory officials and non-activists.

In California, where I live, advocacy for the health of salmon fisheries and delta smelt quickly devolves in the mainstream press into arguments about harm to people who make their livings in fishing vs. farming sectors of the human economy.

And so on.

Does it have to be this way?

So news in mainstream media is reported in simple terms, framed by near-term and close-to-home and legally-effective stakes.

But a path out of this (literal!) dead end is emerging. Right here in the U.S. of A., even, though the path seems to be better paved in the Global South thus far.

Here, from the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Orion Magazine, in If Nature Had Rights by South African attorney Cormac Cullinan (co-author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice):
On September 19, 2006, the Tamaqua Borough of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, passed a sewage sludge ordinance that recognizes natural communities and ecosystems within the borough as legal persons for the purposes of enforcing civil rights. It also strips corporations that engage in the land application of sludge of their rights to be treated as "persons" and consequently of their civil rights. One of its effects is that the borough or any of its residents may file a lawsuit on behalf of an ecosystem to recover compensatory and punitive damages for any harm done by the land application of sewage sludge. Damages recovered in this way must be paid to the borough and used to restore those ecosystems and natural communities.

According to Thomas Linzey, the lawyer from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund who assisted Tamaqua Borough, this ordinance marks the first time in the history of municipalities in the United States that something like this has happened. Coming after more than 150 years of judicially sanctioned expansion of the legal powers of corporations in the U.S., this ordinance is more than extraordinary — it is revolutionary. In a world where the corporation is king and all forms of life other than humans are objects in the eyes of the law, this is a small community’s Boston tea party.
And more recently, from Jason Mark in Spring 2012's Earth Island Journal:
[...] even among card-carrying environmentalists the idea of putting humanity on an equal footing with the rest of nature remains a minority conviction. The twenty-first-century environmental movement is focused almost exclusively on “sustainability” – which essentially is the idea that we have to keep Gaia just healthy enough to maintain human civilization. Mostly, we are “saving” the planet for ourselves.

Placed in this context, the new activism demanding legal rights for nature marks an important development for the global environmental movement.

Several factors have spurred the reinvigoration of the idea that we are not the center of the universe. Climate change is an obvious one. As some see it, a new ideology is needed to counter what appears to civilization’s drive to swallow the planet whole. In the US, the push for rights of nature is part of the broader attempt to push back the power of corporations. It’s a way of arguing that the environment should come before corporate earnings.
These developments beg the question: what will it take to advance the idea that humans must acknowledge the gravity and responsibility implicit in long-term, complex, systemic effects of human activity -- by appropriately acknowledging and valuing the standing of every thing and being affected by that activity?

And: how do we embed that responsibility in our legal system, our journalism, and in many more hearts and minds?

I'm not asking these questions rhetorically. I don't know the answers.

I do, however, believe that we ought to be thinking, talking, and writing about these big-picture questions.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia Commons for the image from a Roman floor mosaic, circa 200-250 C.E.: Aion, the god of eternity, is standing inside a celestial sphere decorated with zodiac signs, in between a green tree and a bare tree (summer and winter, respectively). Sitting in front of him is the mother-earth goddess, Tellus (the Roman counterpart of Gaia) with her four children, who possibly represent the four seasons. Also, thanks to NASA via Wikimedia Commons for the image of our planet, Earth.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

1999’s ‘Battle in Seattle’ set in lyrical prose, overconstructed allegory

What if a lyrically talented author gave readers a visceral view into how love and empathy drives activists to take great, disruptive risks?

Both my thumbs are up.

Okay. So now this: what if that author painted those activists into a vast and dramatic social landscape, but drew them in such broad and unapproachable strokes that only a very few readers could identify with their stories ... let alone find models, examples, or lessons applicable to readers' real worlds?


Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is set on the afternoon of Nov 30, 1999, as confrontation peaked at the Seattle WTO protests. It’s a gorgeous, stream-of-consciousness tapestry depicting "the whole ugly beautiful thing" of an intricately interwoven globe, countless strands embodied by tens of thousands of demonstrators converging on one world-shaking afternoon at the tail end of the twentieth century.

The novel's protagonist is Victor, a detached, apolitical, biracial nineteen year old with a shadily-scored stash of weed for sale. Victor has wandered the globe witnessing a web of human hurt since ditching his Seattle home and his enraged adoptive father three years before. As Yapa's tale opens Victor has returned, and sets out to look for customers among the protesters filling Seattle's downtown. Alas, none are interested in pot or even sympathetic to pot dealers. His failure to drum up business leads Victor to King (an erstwhile Earth Liberation Front arsonist who helped destroy a ski resort in Vail the year before) and John Henry (her lover, a cerebral activist with a Christlike commitment to nonviolence). Though a reader would be hard-pressed to explain why, Victor changes course dramatically, abandoning his retail ambitions and throwing down with the WTO protesters, setting the stage for confrontation with three of the book’s other principals: two beat cops and Seattle’s melancholic, befuddled, yet stubbornly authoritarian police chief.

Yapa’s novel paints the suffering caused by globalized capitalism’s exploitation across a vast canvas of humanity, and brings vividly to life how witness of "what pain their life caused in the world" crystallizes into empathic activist resolve:
No way to undo the world where they lived in a shack made of loose boards, a family of six in a shack the size of a car on blocks, and in her life anytime she wanted she could sleep in an apartment where she turned hot water on and off and stepped from the shower and toweled dry thinking about what to eat for breakfast.

How easy to slip into that life where she had a closet for her clothes and a closet for food and how easy to believe this was somehow normal. That’s what got King. Because where was the logic in the thing?
The author lays out his scenes impressionistically; while he succeeds in gestalt, his prose frequently trips over itself, muddying the narrative. The novel’s plot is intricate and sometimes exhilarating, but it is subverted by improbably-coincidental overconstruction, and by voyeuristic immersion in out-of-control police violence. I found it hard to grit my teeth through Yapa's prolonged, cinematically sensual portrayal of police brutality that rivaled the ugliest scenes in A Clockwork Orange.

Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a seventy year old Sri Lankan Deputy Minister is the novel’s seventh principal. He has flown into Seattle to collect a signature from then-POTUS Bill Clinton that will enable his country to join the WTO. With a diplomat’s calm, and an intricately informed history entwined with neighbors and university colleagues who morphed into the Buddhist mobs that burned, raped, maimed, and murdered their Tamil neighbors as Sri Lanka’s civil war ignited in the 1980s, Charles gives a judicious perspective on the protesters:
Charles Wickramsinghe was surprised to feel a widening respect. A respect with more than a pinch of regret. Because how wrong had he been? To think they knew nothing. To dismiss them. All these thoughtful young people striding toward the gates of capitalism -- they had taken Gandhi’s hunger strike and arrived at this.
And yet.

In the end I couldn't identify with characters whose experience of and relationship with the world they inhabit is presented in fleeting, fragmented glimpses. I found Victor, King, John Henry, Bishop, Park, Ju, and Charles more credible as allegory than as individuals. It was hard to swallow that their collective history encompassed the Oklahoma City bombing, impoverished young women begging for change in India and Peru, the Rodney King riots, the ELF arson in Vail, farmworkers striking in Watsonville, Shanghai's behind-the-flash backstreets, Seattle's gay pride parade, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, 'zine culture, the writings of Che Guevara and Mumia Abu-Jamal, storefront preaching, Fort Benning's School of the Americas ... pretty much the whole globalized ball of wax. Not that it couldn't be so. But the fictional-fact that these seven characters touched all that history makes for a fistful of narrative conveniences too many.

Does Sunil Yapa see and render the true, zero-degrees-of-separation relationships between everything and everyone in this interconnected century? He does. A reader stands in awe of his synthetic vision. But even as I tumbled voraciously through his pages I was disappointed to find no credible character with whom to identify, and -- especially for readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of both political economy and mass protest -- little to establish a grounded footing in the world that the novel portrays.

On the other hand: just because it can't stand alone as a key to understanding the roiling conflicts of our current century does not diminish the insight and value of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. I’m glad to have read it, and look forward to the author's future work.

An earlier version of this post was published in the Spring 2016 issue of UltraViolet, the newsletter of LAGAI - Queer Insurrection.

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Activist fiction: it's about engagement, not about The Issue
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Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Everything relates to everything else

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Grappling with climate change in U.S. cities: a pre-apocalyptic comic book, Warning from my Future Self

Jean Tepperman and Alfred Twu's pre-apocalyptic comic book, Warning from my Future Self, casts ten year old Gabe Sanchez of East Oakland in a dream-visit to the future. From fifty years forward, Gabe and his grandfather look back on the life Gabe has yet to live. Gabe's dream is a wake-up call to a future whose outlines are clearly discernible here in 2016's real world, and it points readers at questions that matter most: What is to be done about the rough ride humans are in for, in light of climate change-induced threats exacerbated by brutal gulfs in wealth and power between communities and nations? Should we focus on mitigating the damaging effects of human activity on our common biosphere? Or should we prepare to deal with damage and change we can no longer avert?

We're all (too?) familiar with dystopian stories set in a near or distant future, in which our planet has weathered one catastrophe or several, and society has devolved to some form of survivalist, tribal, or feudal savagery. Stories like these can be compelling for a number of reasons. For some, they comfort by comparison: our lives aren't so bad as those in the novel, movie, or TV show. For others they may serve as a cathartic release, dampening fears by rendering them as imaginary, letting us duck real-world responsibility for genuinely terrifying circumstances.

Dystopian stories can also evoke a future we find so unwelcome that, confronted with that future's possibility, we're motivated to engage in the work of making sure something different happens. Perhaps that's the ideal case.

Tepperman and Twu aim even higher.

Warning from my Future Self, published late last month, depicts a crisis set in 2046 that's hard to feel good about: "a superstorm that made that Hurricane Sandy in 2012 look like a little shower." The superstorm wreaks its damage thirty years from the present time, and twenty years before Gabe's dream-future. It disrupts transportation and commerce for years. By 2046, California's farmers have already been plowed under by drought, heat-accelerated disease, and weather patterns that interfered with crop lifecycles. Banks were implicated in foreseeing the vulnerability of economically disadvantaged communities situated in coastal flatlands, withdrawing investment in favor of shoring up gated communities on higher, safer, whiter ground. Pollution has been exacerbated by hot weather, so more kids have had a harder time breathing. Every year there was less to buy in Bay Area markets.

None of these scenarios are hard to imagine thirty years out. All of them are extrapolations from what we're experiencing in the U.S. today, from drought wrecking forests to rising seas overcoming coastal communities to superstorms to corrupt politics that sacrifice vulnerable communities -- and it's far worse in the Global South, from India to Syria to South Africa. "Even in your day pollution was worse here than in other neighborhoods," Gabe at 60 tells his 10-year-old self. "Back then half the kids around here had asthma. Now they mostly all do."

Yet in Gabe Sanchez's future, preparation has equipped communities with resilience to face the crises. By the time he visits his future, the Sanchez family has torn down their house, downsizing into a garage in order to farm more of the parcel of East Oakland they bought at a discount from retreating banks. Gabe uses his mechanical know-how to repair cars when his job as a trucker goes kaput, then when cars begin to disappear he becomes an all-purpose fix-it guy. Local barter replaces a national economy. Life is harder than it used to be, but Gabe-of-the-future is better-equipped to roll with the punches because his grandma taught him to garden when he was young and he picked up mechanical skills, while his future wife studied nursing and can offer care and comfort that a decaying world needs.

Then there's the kicker:

Gabe-at-10 will return from his dreamed future to 2016, equipped with a vivid understanding of how hard life will get if people in the here-and-now don't compel government to put a brake on reckless fossil fuel consumption and quickly ramp up transition to clean energy. And a bracingly clear view of how much harder it will be for himself and his family if people don't "organize our community so we can take care of ourselves."

Warning from my Future Self is a call to action: mitigate what we still can; prepare for what's inevitable. That's what makes it a pre-apocalyptic comic book.

In a Huffington Post piece of last October, Pre-Apocalyptic Fiction: Staving Off Catastrophe, I characterized this underreported genre as:
...stories that aren't so speculative as their darker, world-gone-kaput cousins. Pre-apocalyptic stories take place in the world that exists, not a world that might come to pass. We recognize the world of these stories as our own. Apocalypse -- an existential threat to all humankind, or to all life on Earth -- is not a foregone conclusion, though threat looms large. In a narrator's or protagonist's view, the end might be nigh.

Most importantly, the pre-apocalyptic category is a form of moral fiction. The heroes in these tales are women and men who are doing what they can to turn the apocalyptic tide.
Warning from my Future Self presents a history that might come to pass, but does so in the service of painting our world-on-a-cusp in an honest but hopeful light. The resilience it describes is the best we can credibly aim for, and the story focuses its readers on the work we have before us to make that best-possible outcome real.

Check it out at the Sunflower Alliance, where where Warning from my Future Self (PDF) has been made available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 4.0 license. Printed copies are expected to be available this Spring: write to for information.

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Berkeley has its art museum back again: BAMPFA opens

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) has opened in its new building, throwing a staged set of parties for donors, members, and the community at large. I visited for the first time on Saturday. Regular hours commence on Wednesday Feb 3rd -- regular hours are Wed-Sun 11am to 9 pm.

The expansive main gallery and the two film theaters promise a wealth of future visits that might even make up for the disappointment at losing the brutalist and endlessly compelling Mario Ciampi sprawl of BAMPFA's first home, of some 35 years.

Some bonus news: Babette, the café that was itself a destination at the old museum, has made the trek downtown with BAMPFA. It opens for business on Wednesday. At right, a view from the café balcony down into the museum's main gallery space.

Here's an excerpt of what SF Chronicle architecture critic has to say last week about the building in New home elevates BAMPFA status:
The shell of metallic scales is supple and soft, if not as crisply tailored as when first conceived. In morning sun the creased folds glisten; after dark, the trees along Oxford Street cast delicate shadows on the long panels. Rather than the dour tone of the copper-clad De Young Museum in San Francisco (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the streamlined tub has a cordial air.

As for the cantilever above Center Street, the red glow from the interior walls that was played up in renderings is barely discernible. Still, the outward gesture serves as a symbolic marquee above the lone public entry, while the corridor within the tail offers views into the galleries and gathering spaces below.

What you see is an interlocked, easily navigated realm far different from the choreographed ascension that offered one path through the 1970 museum. The corridor has two large entrances into the main gallery, where printing presses once churned beneath a saw-toothed roof that allows light in from the north. But first there’s a casual space dubbed the forum that cascades down, long wood stairs doubling as benches designed with an eye to events but also as a path leading to subterranean galleries.

At the end of the corridor, you face the belly of the beast — the rounded underside of the 232-seat main theater, the silvery metal skin continued inside as smooth gray stucco panels. The void between old and new serves as the theater atrium and is accented by a tall pointed glass wall facing the campus; there’s also glass that allows you to look down at the film archive’s library.

These visual connections are voyeuristic in the best sense. They’re also a nod to the communal air of the original museum, the way that the interior let you be part of something larger, an ever-changing show.
Here are three stunning pieces from the museum's inaugural show, "Architecture of Life," curated by museum director Larry Rinder:

Portrait of My Father, Stephan Kaltenbach

4 Brushstrokes over Figure, Hyun-Sook Song

Solitary, semi-social mapping of ESO-510 613 connected with intergalactic dusty by one Nephila clavipes -- one week -- and three Cyrtophora citricola -- three weeks, Tomás Saraceno

The image of one of four collaborations between Tomás Saraceno and some spiders doesn't come close to doing his haunting installation justice. Any one of the three pieces pictured is worth a visit to downtown Berkeley.

BAMPFA is one short block from the Downtown Berkeley BART station. Don't just come for the museum: take a walk on the campus, have dinner, taken in a play or a musical performance, and don't forget to circumnavigate the building in the evening to admire the shadow play on BAMPFA's metallic skin.

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