Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A half-dozen things to consider three weeks after electocalypse

Here’s a 2600 word post in a six-bullet, tl;dr listicle:
  • We don’t know yet which awful things will happen. Let’s stay focused.
  • An audit of the vote won’t stop Trump.
  • There is no mandate. There was no landslide.
  • Drop “Trumpism”: don’t personalize this government.
  • The term “alt-right” is a surrender to white supremacist propaganda.
  • You have two choices: pitch in to resist the Republican program, or help enact that program.

And here’s an opening epigram from the close of Charles Blow’s 23 Nov Op-Ed in the New York Times, addressed to the president-elect:
For as long as a threat to the state is the head of state, all citizens of good faith and national fidelity … have an absolute obligation to meet you and your agenda with resistance at every turn.
Indeed. Details below the cartogram.

We don’t know yet which awful things will happen. Let’s stay focused.

There are portents aplenty in the president-elect’s (often contradictory, or since contradicted or walked-back) campaign promises, vicious bombast, and contemptible dog-whistling. There’s a lot to read into in his staff and cabinet selections to-date. There’s an appalling body of information being fleshed out about the conflicts of interest with which Donald Trump as a businessman will stain a Donald Trump presidency, and into how those conflicts have already begun flesh out what U.S. kleptocracy will come to look like, in Argentina for example -- with plenty more waiting in the wings.

Still. At this point, a forever-seeming three weeks since Election Day, nobody has a clear vision of how a G.O.P. led by the Trump administration will function.

Nobody knows yet what deals that administration will cut to appease establishment Republicans, who have for decades pursued policies in direct conflict with Trump’s stated ambitions; or whether and how a minority Democratic Senate will obstruct predatory, destructive, and inhumane Republican initiatives; or how well-funded advocacy groups (ACLU, SPLC, Sierra Club, et al.) will be able to tie up the G.O.P.'s signature deliverable -- regress -- in court; or what kinds and quantities of sand rank-and-file federal employees, from the National Park Service to the Postal Service to the Air Force, will throw into which governmental gears; or how powerful state and local governments, which are far more influenced by local mores and pressures than the federal government, will act decisively to curb the dismantling of progress and small-d democracy in the U.S. (starting with California and New York -- regarding climate change, for example).

What’s called for today is circumspection about predicting the future. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to prepare for. That doesn’t mean there aren’t appointments and nominations to oppose, duplicity to expose, and audits to demand. That doesn’t mean there aren’t lines to be drawn to corral the white supremacist deplorables who have been emboldened by the president-elect’s vicious campaign.

And it absolutely does not mean that anybody ought to stand down because the incoming government is in any way “normal” or because of any misguided fantasy that if we bury our heads in the sand “our institutions” can withstand the incoming government’s intended corrosion.

What’s called for right now is focus on the threats posed by the incoming government and what we can do about them. That’s different from predicting which are going to come to pass, and when, and in what form. Donald Trump’s narcissistic, bullying behavior is chiefly characterized by unpredictability used to sow dissention and maintain control. So what’s called for right now is attention, agility, responsiveness, and evaluation of long-term, strategic strengths and options.

Above all: focus. Tweets about a Broadway musical are not among our chief concerns, and paying attention to such twaddle is the antithesis of focus. Baseless twitter-tantrums about fictional voter fraud are not about the election of this month, they’re both a distraction from the evolving bribery-state and part of a long-term, coordinated, Republican Party assault on voting rights, the bedrock of (small-d) democracy.

Just because Donald Trump never met a squirrel he wouldn’t point at to distract from his own reflexive lying, cheating, ignorance, and selfishness, doesn’t obligate anyone to follow his misdirection.

An audit of the vote won’t stop Trump

Audits and recounts won’t stop Trump from assuming the office of President; and neither will the Electoral College or the emoluments clause. It’s not hard to understand the desire to disclaim him, even to sympathize with that desire ... but Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States come 20 January.

The recounts that Jill Stein is initiating will at best and at worst function as a kind of catharsis, and the Clinton campaign’s tepid, strictly-formal involvement now that Stein has gotten the ball rolling doesn’t change anything. The election’s outcome will not change.  While the popular vote matters a lot (see next section), it has nothing to do with who won the presidency earlier this month: no one is going to retroactively abolish the Electoral College.

Let’s be clear: no one in despair over the election of a strongman to the U.S. presidency -- for whom more than sixty million U.S. citizens cast their ballots, plus or minus the few tens or hundreds of thousands that any audit might possibly reallocate -- no one in despair over Trump’s election has any reason to be mollified by better bean counting. The U.S. is in deep, deep trouble following the 2016 election. Full stop. U.S. citizens will be struggling with the fallout of this month’s election for many, many years. Even if ...

Imagine -- for a moment, if you haven’t already -- the inconceivable possibility that some combination of vote audits and recounts and Elector misgivings push enough electoral votes into the Clinton column, and result in her assumption of the presidency in January. What happens then? Riots on the streets and in the statehouses across the South and the Rust Belt? Civil war, waged in Washington? Military uncertainty about which civilian is its commander-in-chief? Worse? It would be a different civil war than the one we face when Trump takes office, sure: but a civil war nonetheless. If, inconceivably, the election results were reversed and Clinton assumed the office of POTUS in January, she would accomplish little to nothing in her presidency beyond fighting opposition to her very occupancy of the office (which might have been the outcome even if she’d won the electoral vote in the first place). And that’s the best-case scenario.

Bottom line: no functioning crystal ball would dare forecast sweetness and light for 2017.

Is there a positive spin on audits and recounts? Sure. A conceivable good that might come of this effort is amped-up examination of what fair, (small-d) democratic elections ought to look like, how that differs from current practice in the U.S., and, consequently, the implementation of federal audit requirements on state boards of election (e.g., all votes must produce a paper record). Will Democrats will have to fight for that? I think so. Republicans are well-practiced and quite successful at winning office by gerrymandering and voter suppression: transparent elections would diminish their power, and they know it.

There is no mandate. There was no landslide.

Any statement to the contrary, by @realDonaldTrump or his minions, is bombastic rhetoric, false on its face. The sixty-some million Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton, a clear and significant majority, need to loudly and firmly ridicule that rhetoric. Third-party voters have a heightened responsibility to join in: they may not have voted for the only candidate who had a prayer of defeating Trump, but they didn’t contribute to a fairy tale “mandate” or “landslide” for the incoming president.

Donald Trump lost the popular vote. Donald Trump lost the popular vote even among the fraction of eligible voters who (a) bothered, and (b) weren’t denied their right as citizens to cast a ballot (the latter, most frequently, by ongoing, deliberate, and acknowledged voter suppression tactics employed by the anti-democratic -- small-d -- Republican party). That Donald Trump lost the popular vote is not going to change, no matter how anyone counts, recounts, or audits the ballots.

And his electoral victory? 306 to 232? In fractions, that’s 7/12 to 5/12, an arithmetical approximation in which rounding error overstates Trump’s lead.

Not a landslide. Not a mandate. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Drop “Trumpism”: don’t personalize this government

What if we agreed to stop screaming sound bytes about who is or is not our president in some abstract, preferred moral space, and held the entire Republican Party responsible for the actual incoming government’s program, mendacity, and corruption? How about if we held the Democratic Party as a whole responsible for failure to resist Republican initiatives that threaten safety, health, civil rights, our shared environment, truthful transparency, democracy (small-d), and economic well-being?

It’s tempting to personify enmity because it lessens the need for difficult thinking about a complex political landscape, hard analysis, and risky strategizing. In doing so, however, personification neuters effective opposition. So let’s not take short cuts. They don’t lead anywhere we desperately need to go.

The dismantling of President Obama’s achievements will not be quick or easy. Many of the most corrosive promises of the Trump campaign will require congressional cooperation. The current POTUS (in an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker) has correctly stated: “as a practical matter, what I’ve been saying to people, including my own staff, is that the federal government is an aircraft carrier, it’s not a speedboat.” To effect agendas that Trump, his fellow Republicans, or both have articulated, the elected G.O.P. establishment will have to continue to cooperate with the Trump administration; the Democratic Party would have to abdicate or fail in its responsibility as opposition; a vast network of advocacy organizations would have to abdicate or fail in their responsibility to oppose Republican regress, from the courts to the streets; and countless federal employees would have to go along with the dismantling of the government they are sworn to protect.

It’s not just Trump.

Let’s all step up and shine a bright, unforgiving light on those who collaborate with the incoming administration, and hold them irrevocably accountable for their collaboration.

And let’s oppose -- with vigor and ingenuity commensurate with the truth that our physical, moral, and national lives depend on it -- the attacks the incoming government will wage on the people of the United States, in assaults categorized by novelist Barbara Kingsolver in The Guardian last week:
Losses are coming at us in these areas: freedom of speech and the press; women’s reproductive rights; affordable healthcare; security for immigrants and Muslims; racial and LGBTQ civil rights; environmental protection; scientific research and education; international cooperation on limiting climate change; international cooperation on anything; any restraints on who may possess firearms; restraint on the upper-class wealth accumulation that’s gutting our middle class; limits on corporate influence over our laws.
And -- special shout-out  to my progressive and radical comrades -- not one iota of fighting to retain partial, isolated, and/or incremental gains realized during Obama’s eight years in office and earlier precludes fighting for much, much more. But no magical thinking, please. First things first. You can’t rule the universe when you’re pinned to the ground by monsters holding spears to your windpipe.

The term “alt-right” gives in to white supremacist propaganda

Don’t let fascists set the boundaries of discourse. Why cave in to white supremacists? Call them what they are: white supremacists, fascists, neo-nazis. If you’re not personally certain what the “alt-right” is, who they are, what they want, how they act, watch a three minute video and get started judging for yourself.

Then refuse to call them “alt-right” and refuse to stand by when others do.

If the newspapers you read or your local TV news station calls white supremacists “alt-right,” write letters and make phone calls to object. Not just once but every time, until the supposedly-credible media tells the truth.

Matthew Phelan of Jacobin Magazine, writing earlier this month on the “alt-right” in a history of the “House of Breitbart” concludes that “terrifying as this coalition seems, it bears repeating how niche it really is. [...] The alt-right is quite literally a political sideshow.” Maybe yes, maybe no. In any case, calling scum what it is can only consign it more quickly and more certainly to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

Note that this is a specific instance of every responsible person’s two-part duty to (a) amplify only credibly-researched, honest, thoughtful news and commentary; and to, (b) avoid spreading “fake news,” which too-frequently pollutes, diminishes, and distracts from longstanding, more-or-less responsible sources of information. In an age of distributed, social-media driven dissemination of information, nobody will fix this for us. Do it yourself, or we’ll all sink together in a swamp of distraction, misinformation, and outright deception.

You have two choices: pitch in to resist the Republican program, or help enact that program

There’s room for a wide spectrum of tactics, improvisation, and long-game strategies to resisting the corrupt and corrosive program of a Republican party that has selected Donald Trump as its leader.

Maybe you have an appetite for local, state, or national electoral politics (and yes, to stop the dismantling of our government and society, progressives need to step up and win political offices).

Maybe you can pitch in to organize the people in your own community: your neighbors, your classroom, the PTA at your kids’ school, your book club, your place of worship, or people who shop at your local grocery store.

Maybe you can organize your community to make phone calls, or write letters, or participate in marches, or support advocacy organizations in legal and legislative fights, or offer sanctuary to people under attack by the U.S. government or its emboldened vigilante wingnuts, or physically stand in the way of those attacks, or come out for mass demonstrations, or participate in boycotts, or attend city council meetings to advocate for what you believe is right and just.

Maybe the thing you’re best at -- or willing to get better at -- is talking with people who don’t agree with you about something important … face-to-face, not through the flattening, distorting lens of social media. Maybe you won’t convince anyone the first time you talk with them. So what? There aren’t any switches to instantly flip. By engaging with people who think differently from you, you’ll be laying a foundation for future understanding, empathy, and compromise among the vastly diverse people and interests that are all part of the cities, states, and regions in which each and every one of us shares a national fate.

All of that, all of the above, is necessary.

You need not (and you cannot) do it all.

Neither can you avoid doing some of it. Not if you want to stand tall, and look your kids (or your sibling’s kids, or your neighbors and their kids) in the eye and know you helped to save not just your own world, but theirs.

Barbara Kingsolver has some sound advice here -- again, from that piece in last week’s Guardian, Trump changed everything. Now everything counts:
We refuse to disappear. We keep our commitments to fairness in front of the legislators who oppose us, lock arms with the ones who are with us, and in the words of Congressman John Lewis, prepare to get ourselves in some good trouble. Every soul willing to do that is part of our team, starting with the massive crowd that shows up in DC in January to show the new president what we stand for, and what we won’t.

There’s safety in numbers, but only if we count ourselves out loud.

Be counted. Out loud.

Thanks to Professor Mark Newman of U. Michigan for the cartogram of 2016 presidential election votes by county (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0); see Prof. Newman’s post for details about how the cartogram was constructed, and additional maps.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Protest is dead. Resist, or be eaten.
Oakland coal ban: real politics amid the Drumpfoolery
Sticking your neck out
Paying what things cost

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Protest is dead. Resist, or be eaten.

The United States of America has demonstrated that Americans choose to live in an ungoverned country. I don’t mean a lawless country. I mean a country in which self-interest trumps [sic] the common good. Ungoverned, according to Merriam-Webster: “not capable of being governed, guided, or restrained.” Id über alles.

This choice is painted vividly on this morning’s electoral maps, on the front page of every newspaper and every news website. Considering the thin margin of 2016’s popular vote for president of the United States, no matter which candidate comes out a hair’s breadth ahead when the last ballot is counted, this choice is also evident among eligible voters at large, beneath the geographic, population, and demographic distortions of the Electoral College. In my view, the popular vote includes those who were eligible but didn’t vote: it would be foolish to pretend that standing aside has any meaningful effect other than to enable the decisions of that fraction of us who cast ballots.

One of many things yesterday’s national election implies is that protest is dead.

Protest is a tactic that presupposes the prospect of a critically-fragmented nation is unthinkable. If an incoherent society is unacceptable, the threat of social disintegration into ungovernability can force a political elite to dial back on issues that polarize and mobilize a significant population, even if that population is a numerical minority.

That’s what has made protest an effective tactic—not always, but sometimes—over the past century and change, from India to the United States to South Africa to Argentina.

But this tactic has only worked where and when and because the prospect of an ungovernable society was unthinkable.

Among Americans—in the aggregate, on 8 November 2016—that wasn’t the case.

It certainly hasn’t been the case for those Americans who, over the past quarter century, have continued to elect obstructionist legislators into office. It isn’t the case for anyone who cast a vote to send the president-elect—a loathsome, ignorant, narcissistic bully—to the White House come January 2017.

And it’s not the case for anyone who failed to act positively to prevent yesterday’s disaster at the polls. Individuals who didn’t bother? They could have voted, or voted differently, to put better candidates at the head of the Democratic and Republican tickets; and, having failed in that endeavor, to send that loathsome, ignorant, narcissistic bully selected by the G.O.P. down to reeling defeat.

Too late, folks.

Our physical world continues to spin. The planet’s polar ice continues to melt. Earth’s sixth extinction, the one properly called “Anthropocene,” proceeds unabated. Our military industrial complex continues along its poisonous, rent-seeking arc, just as President Eisenhower warned on his way out the White House door nearly fifty-six years ago.

Yet, come January 2017, there will be no national government in the United States of America against which effective protest can be mounted.

Either the government of those who refuse to be governed will be deposed, in a future election or otherwise; or the ideals of democracy, equality, and stewardship—to which the United States has long purported to aspire—will have failed.

Translation: while protest is dead, resistance and opposition are very much alive.

Robert Reich wrote last night, before the election was called but once it had become pretty clear where the finish was heading:
It was always going to be a contest between authoritarian populism and progressive populism, eventually. For now, authoritarian populism has won. But if we are united and smart, progressive populism will triumph.
In other words: all hands on deck.

We have failed to elect a national government that might have been influenced—albeit in limited areas, to an insufficient degree—while we continued to organize the conduct of social, political, economic, and environmental business in the United States differently.

So now? If we fail to neutralize the government we just elected, and fail to decisively trash it at the next electoral opportunity?

Then it’ll be time to kiss your kids’ futures goodbye.

Me, I don’t have kids. But I weep for yours.

This blog is cross-posted on Medium.com

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Paris, the Pleistocene, and finding the grit to grapple with climate change
Sticking your neck out
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes
The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism
Paying what things cost

Monday, November 7, 2016

From the Sierras to the sea: Escape from Election 2016

I turned in my ballot a few weeks in advance of tomorrow (Election Day) three or four days before kicking off a vacation from work by attending the Bioneers 2016 conference (see What I learned at the 2016 Bioneers Convention, posted on 25 October). Voting didn't untether me from the "news" cycle, a hoped-for effect that I didn't actually believe would happen. The Bioneers, a few days in Yosemite National Park later that week, and an afternoon out on Tomales Point (in Point Reyes National Seashore) this past Friday were much more effective distractions.

I thought I'd share some photos and videos as a contribution to those who aspire to pull their attention out of the gutter of last-minute campaigning and early-voting hyperanalysis.

Yosemite Valley

Bridal Veil falls was flowing as we entered the valley, a bit wispy but that's it's nature, if long-ago memory serves. We stopped on the side of the road between the falls and El Capitan, and watched through curtains of golden-leaved oak trees, filled with sunlight.

The footbridge below Vernal Falls is only about a mile each way from the Park Service's nearest shuttle stop, though I have to admit that it felt like more after being bunched up in the car for four hours (the New Priest Grade on Hwy 120 above Moccasin had been an extra-special steering wheel gripper). Here are the falls:

And here we are at the footbridge, courtesy of a fellow hiker:

I hadn't been to Yosemite for about as long as it takes Saturn to circumnavigate the sun, and Matthew hadn't ever been. And it turns out that in all the times I visited the Valley as a kid and a much younger adult I'd never set foot in the Ahwahnee Hotel -- which everyone pretends to call the "Majestic Yosemite Hotel" nowadays, at least until a current (and maddening) trademark dispute is settled. Matthew and I had decided a few weeks beforehand to check it out by having dinner there, and had reserved a table. The (yuuuuuge) dining room was fully booked.

Yep. It was as good as it looks... That'd be seared scallops with a scallion pancake; onion soup; artichoke and spinach ravioli; and grilled swordfish.

The next morning we got on the waiting list for the bus to Glacier Point, but just missed getting seats. Instead of driving up ourselves, we decided to spend the day in the valley. Here's Yosemite Falls on Thursday morning; and a young buck foraging among the trees by the river, met on our way back to the road.

Check out the contrast between the flow of the falls on Thursday and Friday morning in these videos:

Pretty dramatic difference, eh? Thursday night it rained hard and steadily, then the rain continued intermittently into Friday. Hence the torrent pouring down the cliff on Friday morning. By the time we left the park in mid-afternoon, the Tioga Pass and the road to Glacier Point had been closed due to snowfall.

Of course, no catalog of a trip to Yosemite Valley would be complete without a dramatic photo of Half Dome, this one on a bright, clear afternoon following our hike up to view Vernal Falls.

And here's a farewell look back to the valley from Highway 120, through fog and rain:

I can't really explain what possessed me to wait nearly three decades to return to Yosemite Valley, but I'm glad I didn't wait any longer.

Point Reyes National Seashore

The week following our return to the Bay Area for the staycation half of my away-from-work program, I was assaulted by way too many furiously angry memes posted to way too much social media, and read many too many news and pseudo-news articles. My bad. I couldn't help it. And, no, I'm not the type that enjoys gawking at trainwrecks. The last days (apocalyptic connotation intended) ticked and tocked away in advance of tomorrow's election, and like pretty much everybody I know, it was driving me nuts.

I decided to head for the coast to clear my head, despite high surf warnings published in the SF Chronicle. I drove out the Tomales Point Road and hiked down a short trail to McClure's Beach for lunch, and to be mesmerized by the pounding breakers. The most aggressive waves were washing up just short of the steep cliffs: the ranger's warning at the visitor center -- not to turn one's back on the water -- turned out to be sound advice.

The trail to the beach was lovely as ever ...

Up the hill from McClure's Beach, a herd of tule elk were congregating high on a ridge, where I've often seen them grazing before, protected on the Tomales Bay side of the point from the ocean-side wind.

But my favorite and least-expected wildlife sighting came during the drive back to Point Reyes Station, as I salivated for an Americano from Toby's in which I expected I'd be able to stand up a spoon. Later that night, friends on Facebook responded to the photo below with stories about coyotes they'd seen lately in urban and semi-urban environments from Orange County to San Francisco to Vancouver ... but in decades of visits to Point Reyes (where I've seen elk, deer, a bobcat, weasels, bazillions of vultures and ravens, countless small birds, harbor seals, elephant seals, whales, and shoals of beached jellyfish) I've never before spotted a coyote.

This trip I saw two specimens of Canis latrans -- one away up on a hill as I rounded a curve in the road (no chance to snap a photo), and the one in the photo above. The coyote in the snapshot crossed the road about fifty yard ahead of my car, then ducked under a barbed-wire fence before pausing to vogue for a bit while I wrestled my iPhone out of my jeans. None of the shots through the open car window came out very sharp, but this one -- particularly if you click for the enlarged view -- has the virtue of looking a bit like Elmer Bischoff painted it.

The Americano in Point Reyes Station was perfect, as always. It kept me alert, if perhaps a bit less than serenely patient, during the interminable stop-and-go past San Quentin, approaching the Richmond - San Rafael Bridge.


It's Monday.

And here we are, on the cusp of Election 2016. Perhaps you'll browse this travelogue today. Perhaps by the time you get to it the election results will have been called and ... well, and then the real work can carry on, inside government and out, assuming the U.S. sidesteps full-on apocalypse. For now.

Keep breathing, okay?

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for photos of Vernal Falls from the footbridge, dinner at the Ahawahnee Hotel, and Yosemite Falls on Thursday morning.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
What I learned at the 2016 Bioneers Convention
A day at Bodega Head
Never mind Election Day 2014, consider Fall in Northern California
Point Reyes National Seashore at the start of the year
Amateur food porn from Austria and Italy

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What I learned at the 2016 Bioneers Convention

I went to my first Bioneers conference after watching from afar and reading about the organization's work for quite a few years. This past weekend marked the Bioneers' 27th annual event, organized by founders Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simon. I attended on Saturday, the second of the three-day conference.

So ... what are "bioneers"? From the organization's website:
Bioneers are social and scientific innovators from all walks of life and disciplines who have peered deep into the heart of living systems to understand how nature operates, and to mimic "nature's operating instructions" to serve human ends without harming the web of life. Nature's principles—kinship, cooperation, diversity, symbiosis and cycles of continuous creation absent of waste—can also serve as metaphoric guideposts for organizing an equitable, compassionate and democratic society. 
Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997) and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, was the speaker I most looked forward to seeing in-person as the convention approached (I read her book earlier this year, better late than never). Crystalizing the ethos and tone of the event on Saturday morning, she pumped up the audience in San Rafael's Veterans' Memorial Auditorium by urging:
Don't ever ask small questions. It's not time -- yet -- to adapt to climate change.
Then, after pointing out that 33% of the world's population are "smallholder" farming families, and that 70% of all food eaten is produced by smallholders on farms of five or fewer acres, Benyus posited a key observation made by Bioneers who are looking to examples embodied in evolved systems for practical, achievable solutions to seemingly-intractable problems:
There's too much carbon in the air, but not enough in the soil.
This is not a newsflash. But it points in some important directions. How so?

Well, later in the day, Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed spoke, at a panel called Carbon, Climate, Food and Fiber, about five pools of carbon on our planet, through which the element can and does transition through its many mutable forms: atmosphere, biosphere, fossil, ocean, and soil. Burgess told panel attendees that a net 136 gigatons of carbon has been lost from soils since the Rotherham plow was invented in 1750 (tillage of soil contributes significantly to the one-third of human greenhouse gas emissions produced by agriculture); but at the same time pointed out that rates of carbon drawdown from the atmosphere that is possible on grassland and farmland "already under human management" could ameliorate the climate-changing levels of carbon that human activity has shifted into the atmospheric pool within five years.

Achieving that drawdown would require that all grassland and farmland "under human management" be transitioned to permaculture practices, which is hard for this very junior bioneer to imagine ... but doing the arithmetic to describe the possibility as one that we as a species could choose to realize pivots attention away from paralyzed, doom-and-gloom visions of Earth's future -- and shines a bright light on our responsibility as a species to choose well and consequentially at a crucial moment in our biosphere's history.

Bren Smith, the founder of GreenWave spoke during the morning plenary session on Saturday, as well as on a panel that afternoon titled Reshaping Our Relationship to the Ocean. Smith speaks in a genially-calculated voice that puts his working class, Newfoundland fisherman origins front and center: "I'm not an environmentalist," he said to an auditorium full of environmentalists. "Give me a gun and I'll shoot moose from my kitchen ... I grew up on seal hunts." But the fact that he's doing heroic environmentalist work became clear when he described his "vertical farms," suspended from buoys off the Atlantic coast of North America. GreenWave's farms produce kelp and other seaweeds ("It's embarrassing to grow vegetables...," Smith moaned with a wink) as well as bivalves including mussels, clams, and oysters with no inputs (fresh water, fertilizer, etc.).

GreenWave summarizes its accomplishments and mission on the organization's website:
After 15 years of experimentation, we have developed a new method of ocean farming designed to restore ocean ecosystems, mitigate climate change, and create blue-green jobs for fishermen — while providing healthy, local food for communities.
Describing kelp as "the soy of the sea, except it's not evil," Smith spoke of shifting a major fraction of food production from soil-depleting land-farming to sustainable, job-producing ocean-farming that would put bivalves and sea-vegetables "at the center of the plate" and push wild fish to the edge. Would that be a problem for a world population increasingly ravenous for sushi and grilled salmon? "Wild harvesting is not a strategy for the future," Smith asserted during the afternoon Reshaping... panel. To the point of dietary trends, Smith put his challenge simply:
If chefs can't make what we grow delicious, they should quit their jobs ... it's what they're here on earth to do.
As a former professional cook myself, I can get behind that sentiment.

Bill McKibben -- acknowledging himself to be exhausted and depleted by weeks on the road battling to defeat the narcissistic bully and all-around horrorshow currently running as G.O.P. candidate for the presidency -- rallied the conference's attendees by recalling our attention to the successful battle to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline:
"when we started, nobody really thought we would win ... victory is that now everything gets fought ... fossil fuel resistance is everywhere."
Not least, of course, in North Dakota at the Standing Rock protests against construction of the "Dakota Access Pipeline" (DAPL) ongoing today, which weighed heavily on this weekend's conference crowd. Once again, the Bioneers' signature insistence: that we can win this.

I was encouraged in that vein to find (in the conference's Exhibit Hall ) a display put together by fifth graders from the Helios School in Sunnyvale that collected artifacts of environmental campaigns that the students studied in the course of considering work they would need to do as they grow into adult responsibility (that is, responsibility for the screw-ups we adults are bequeathing them). Raphael, one of the fifth graders, was happy to learn that I had participated in the No Coal in Oakland campaign, which was one of the subjects of his class's research. He knew about Mayor Libby Schaaf's role in opposing transport of coal through Oakland, and in the course of our conversation we realized that both of us participated in the rally earlier this year that preceded the Oakland City Council's vote to ban coal transport through the city and port. What the world needs now is more ten year old environmentalists like Raphael and his classmates!

My nomination for Saturday's best soundbyte came from Ariel Greenwood, a self-described "feral agrarian," who participated with Rebecca Burgess and two others on the Carbon, Climate, Food and Fiber panel:
We're all active agents in our environment.
That's the core of what Bioneers are about. Active agency, the heart of what it's going to take for humanity to dig its way out of the mess we've made of our biosphere.

Images (from the top of this post) include: Janine Benyus speaking at the Saturday morning plenary session of the Bioneers 2016 conference; Rebecca Burgess and Ariel Greenwood, with John Roulac and Guido Frosini, on the Carbon, Climate, Food and Fiber panel on Saturday afternoon; and a portion of the Helios School exhibit of artifacts from recent environmental movements and campaigns. This blog was originally posted on Medium.

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Should we care how crops are grown *before* food insecurity spreads?
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Friday, October 7, 2016

Michael Pollan, food futures, and a dearth of Michael Moore moments

I was surprised and gratified to see Michael Pollan’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times: Big Food Strikes Back: Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take On Corporate Agriculture?

Why surprised? Because so much of what passes for political reporting in this election season is undermined by boorishness, hypocrisy, dog-whistling, race-baiting, and misogyny; whereas Pollan’s essay is carefully developed, illuminating, and actually useful to those who seek to responsibly understand and influence humankind’s shared-fate future.

Pollan is playing the long game. Yesterday’s essay follows-up on an open letter of similar length and depth published eight years ago, a month before the election that sent Barack Obama to the White House. The NYT titled the open letter Farmer-in-Chief, and addressed it to the President-Elect. Yesterday’s essay is a disappointed but clear-eyed assessment of how and why President Obama failed to take Pollan’s 2008 advice nearly far enough. It wasn’t because the President-Elect didn’t get it.
A few days after the letter was published, Obama the candidate gave an interview to Joe Klein for Time magazine in which he concisely summarized my 8,000-word article:

“I was just reading an article in The New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the meantime, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our health care costs because they’re contributing to Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity.”
(It warms my heart that the POTUS-to-be prefigured the title of my 2015 novel in his 2008 interview. Emphasis added. It’s the little things.)

I was interviewed a few days ago by Joanna Manqueros on her “Music of the World” program on KPFA, a public radio station broadcasting from studios in Berkeley, not far from where I work. Joanna read a passage from Consequence, and we discussed how the passage she read from addresses the complexity of communicating the essentials of agricultural politics and policy — complexity that led Michael Pollan to write 8,000 words in 2008 on the topic, and nearly 6,000 more yesterday in follow-up and reassessment.

Here’s a transcription of that part of my interview with Joanna (starting just shy of 16 minutes into her show if you want to listen):
Joanna: Let me read a little bit of what the character sees, and why he starts to get pulled in this direction of doing this radical action. It says:
Christopher watched out the window as they accelerated onto Highway 101 and sped south, following a steady march of telephone wires strung atop pocked wooden poles. He tried to visualize the surrounding acres as wetland, teeming with wildlife in the centuries before the state was logged, drained, burned, and given over to cattle and monocropping. At least the farms were smaller here, he thought. And a lot more of them grew organic than in the Central Valley. It was a start.
What’s going on there?

Steve: Well, Chris is — letting go of exactly what’s happening in the plot there — Chris is driving through … I guess it would be Sonoma County at that point … and looking at the small farms there. And what he’s observing, if you’d read a little bit further, is that really there’s nothing obvious about these small farms, that they tend more toward organic, and that they tend less toward monocrop — although I suppose you can see that it’s not the same plant for acres and acres and acres on end, as you would see, say, if you drove through, Nebraska, where corn or soy are pretty much your only choices.

But one of the things he’s reflecting on is how difficult it is to convey in a dramatic way, in a way that penetrates the teleconsciousness of the nation, that penetrates the chatter of the news cycle, to talk about the kind of long term and deep problems that evolve in environments that are monocropped, or where pesticide is leached out of soil into aquifer or into water that feeds cities. You don’t see that right away. There’s not a Michael Moore moment that you can film, or dramatize in a demonstration, in some kind of guerilla theater.

And so he’s reflecting — Christopher is more than anything else a propagandist. He’s been asked to write a manifesto to justify this vaguely-defined — to him — action that Chagall is going to take. And he’s thinking about how hard it is to vividly explain to people what’s wrong with monocropping, what’s wrong with putting genetically engineered creatures into an evolved biosphere that has taken, literally, hundreds of millions of years to come to its equilibrium.
There might be science, politics, and policy that can still avert the most horrific effects of the accelerated poisoning that humans have inflicted on our biosphere over the last couple of centuries. Pollan lays out some key, deeply intertwined threads of the answers we need to be looking for in his paired essays’ 14,000 words. Consequence depicts characters engaged across a spectrum of diverse approaches to correcting our species’ broken trajectory, tactics that range from reasoned dissent to all-out disruption or even destruction.

From where I sit, humankind would do well to wrap our collective minds around the objectives laid out by Pollan, and the paths he suggests toward turning ourselves in constructive directions; and likewise would benefit from explorations of actively-engaged characters, hearts, and moral frameworks that could move us to grapple with the enormity of threats to our common future. I hope that readers find in Consequence an example of such an exploration — one among many.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Should we care how crops are grown *before* food insecurity spreads?
Facts vs understanding in GMO propaganda wars
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Broken food chains

Thanks to Lotus Head from Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa for his image Cornfield in South Africa — sxc.hu, CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia). This post was originally published on Medium, under the title Michael Pollan, Michael Moore Moments, and Humankind’s Future.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Counterclockwise around the Olympic Peninsula

In the vicinity of Puget Sound, road trips start with a drive to the ferry dock. Mine began a week ago, on Friday, a few miles from the Edmonds-Kingston ferry. From Edmonds we proceeded across Puget Sound, then to Port Gamble, across the Hood Canal Bridge, to Hwy 101 and west then south (and up!) to our first destination: Hurricane Ridge, overlooking the receding glaciers of the Olympic Range.

I'll describe the route and include photos of some of the spots we visited, then I'll include a few wildlife shots and a sampling of the mushrooms and other fungus that blooms across the well-watered Olympic Peninsula, especially in its rainforests.

We stayed in Port Angeles on Friday night, in a modest hotel with a million dollar view of the port and the ferries coming from and going to Victoria, BC, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

After dinner, we watched the sun set over the port.

The next morning we headed west toward Cape Flattery, first stopping for a short hike into Olympic National Park to visit Marymere Falls.

Then, leaving Hwy 101 at Sappho we turned north toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and west once we reached the shores of the Strait, into the Makah Reservation, Neah Bay, and out to the northwesternmost point in the continental U.S. Here's the Cape Flattery Lighthouse, on Tatoosh Island just off the cape:

The photo of cormorants settled around the mouths of sea caves, among the wildlife photos below, was taken just a few yards back from the observation deck overlooking the lighthouse. After a picnic back at Neah Bay we headed back to 101 and the hotel we'd reserved on the outskirts of Forks.

Though we stayed there on Saturday night, I have no photos of Forks, the town where Stephanie Meyers set her Twilight novels. Disclaimer: I saw one of the movies, couldn't say which; wasn't interested enough to read the books.

I wasn't charmed by Forks. The hotel we'd booked was functional. Everything on offer at the restaurant recommended by the fellow who checked us in was fried in the same vat of oil. The waffle-fried potatoes tasted like fish, know what I mean? But the signature quality of the meal? Every single one of the waitstaff, all of them young women, looked like they'd dressed to catch a vampire's roving eye, or that of a casting agent: tight skirts; pale, flat makeup; a deadpan affect that shouted, c'mon, bite me in the neck already! It seemed every commercial establishment had a poster from one or another of the Twilight movies prominently displayed. The supermarket's deli showcased wraps named for a vampire or a warewolf. It was sad, really.

We couldn't get out of Forks fast enough. On Sunday morning we headed for the Hoh Rainforest, which was gorgeous in a spooky kind of way, sans the undead.

Least-expected wildlife spotted in the Hoh: an owl sleeping on a high, sunny bough. Check out the photo below.

Ruby Beach was lovely, but it felt a little crowded compared to the sparsely peopled beaches I'm used to visiting on the Northern California coast. I waited for my moment, and snagged a shot of the beach from which only a single fellow-visitor needed to be cropped out:

From Ruby Beach we headed inland to skirt the Quinault Reservation, then west again to Moclips, where we stayed Sunday night. On the drive to Moclips we passed field after field of clearcut slash. Not so pretty.

On Monday, looping back to Seattle, we headed down to Grays Harbor, then turned east through Aberdeen, then north along the inside of the Hood Canal -- and soon arrived back at the ferry terminal in Kingston.

The Wildlife

A caterpillar; cormorants at Cape Flattery; an owl (barred? northern spotted?) napping high up in a tree in the Hoh Rainforest; a doe and fawn, also in the Hoh; and -- look carefully, I wasn't fast enough to zoom out my lens -- a bald eagle overhead, at the edge of the Hood Canal:

One, two, many fungi

As you can see looking up past that majestic eagle, as well as in other locations on the west side of the Olympic Range, the sky was surprisingly blue for this part of the world (the Hoh Rainforest gets twelve to fourteen feet of rain per year, according to the National Park Service). And so, blue sky or gray: fungus, and plenty of it. Here's some of what we saw:

All in all a gorgeous trip around a corner of the Left Coast I'd never visited before...

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Should we care how crops are grown *before* food insecurity spreads?

Vandana Shiva, trained as a physicist and known worldwide as an analyst, activist, and advocate for biodiversity, organic farming, and fair trade, added an anthology earlier this year to her long list of published titles: Seed Sovereignty, Food Security: Women in the Vanguard of the Fight Against GMOs and Corporate Agriculture.  The gist of Shiva’s anthology: thirty authors from around the globe describe their respective parts in and perspectives on a worldwide movement in which millions of smallholder farmers are fighting to regain or retain the right to practice seed-saving, as they and their ancestors have done for thousands of years -- since humans began to cultivate food.

The anthology’s authors describe how the ancient practice of saving seed from one harvest to plant in the next -- a core practice of farming’s evolutionary and adaptive craft --  is threatened in Europe, India, Latin America, Australia, the United States, and Africa. The threat is driven by giant agribusiness conglomerates like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, and Syngenta that influence national governments to outlaw these traditional and resilient practices. As Tiphaine Burban of France explains in the European case (mirrored similarly elsewhere around the globe and in Shiva’s anthology):
In order to protect varietal innovations and to recognize breeders’ work, a system of intellectual protection was created by the Interational Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plans (UPOV), founded in 1961, called the Plant Variety Rights (PVR). [...]

In the early 1960s, while the PVR was being created, farmers could still preserve their right to sow seeds stemming from their own crops, or farm-saved seeds. A few years later, however, in 1970, a new UPOV convention considered the use of farm seeds as forgery. In theory, it became illegal to save and resow your own seeds. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and farm-saved seeds remained “farmer privilege.” In 1991, the third UPOV convention tried to forbid this [...] Since 1994, according to European legislation, farm-saved seeds are authorized for twenty-one varieties [...] upon payment of a tax. For remaining species, every farmer who planted seeds stemming from past crops could be accused of forgery [...] -- a progressive privation of farmers’ rights.
Why did and does this happen? The short answer is profit, by way of insidious influence over supposedly-sovereign governments. But a key, distressing consequence of corporate appropriation and centralization of control over seeds -- and control over farmers, land, and culture that follows -- is the devastation of humankind’s heritage of food crop diversity, cultivated and nurtured over countless generations and on every continent. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher and Sue Edwards, of Ethiopia, explain:
A report prepared for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) states that although about seven thousand species of plants have been used as human food in the past, urbanization and marketing have drastically reduced this number—only 150 crops are now commercially important, and rice, wheat, and maize alone now account for 60 percent of the world’s food supply. The genetic diversity within each crop has also been eroding fast; for example, only nine varieties account for 50 percent of the wheat produced in the United States, and the number of varieties of rice in Sri Lanka has dropped from two thousand to less than a hundred.
Sandra Baquedano Jer and Sara Larraín, of Chile, go further, outlining issues beyond the frame “food security” commonly laid out by government regulators and the corporations with which they are allied:
Food sovereignty in Latin America and the world does not just express a demand associated with nutrition and food production, as might be suggested by the concept of food security coined by national governments and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Rather, it embodies a serious cultural, social, and political dispute for access to the earth, water, seeds, and land and, in turn, to the forests, mountains, and water basins, which allow for the reproduction of life and the sustenance of all living beings, including humans. For this reason, food sovereignty and the movement for the protection of seeds as common goods, and as world heritage, includes the right of peoples to self-determination—to decide how to distribute and manage, from this day on, the water and the land that is sown and harvested and provides food—in other words, how to organize and maintain the food chain, which allows the subsistence of human beings, just as that of other species, but also the maintenance of knowledge, community, identity, and culture.
Many of the volume’s essays describe and promote a paradigm shift in people’s relation to power that has been sprouting across the tilled world in opposition to agribusiness-fueled depredation, be it political or corporate power. Frances Moore Lappé (author of the 1971 classic, Diet for a Small Planet) and her daughter Anne Lappé, in the volume’s leading essay, quote Brazilian economist João Pedro Stédile, a leader of that country’s Landless Workers’ Movement:
The first step is losing naive consciousness, no longer accepting what you see as something that cannot be changed. The second is reaching the awareness that you won’t get anywhere unless you work together. This shift in consciousness, once you get it, is like riding a bike, no one can take it away from you. So you forget how to say “Yes, sir” and learn to say “I think that …” This is when the citizen is born.

One current of the anthology’s essays describe how GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- further extend a shift toward corporate control of once-independent farmers and once-diverse varieties of food crops. This shift began with seed hybridization, a farming technique in which farmers plant and harvest the vigorous offspring of crossbred lines of a food crop. Importantly, crops grown from the harvested seeds of hybrids decline precipitously in vigor and productivity. This requires farmers who have been beguiled, convinced, or coerced to plant hybrid seed to purchase new breeding stock (seeds) in subsequent years, instead of saving, trading, and/or crossbreeding a portion of harvested crops for future seasons’ planting. Having lost control of a heretofore renewable means of production, these farmers become indentured to suppliers of agribusiness seed, purveyors of inputs required to maximize hybrid yields (generally owned by complementary branches of an agribusiness conglomerate), and banks that extend credit against future harvests.

GMOs add intellectual property law to the lock corporations have on the means of food production. Vandana Shiva explains:
The door to patents on seed and patents on life was opened by genetic engineering -- by adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, corporations claimed that they had “invented” and created the seed, that the plant and all future seeds have now become their property.
But this power to monopolize has no scientific basis. It’s a power grab. Shiva again, in the introduction to Seed Sovereignty, Food Security:
Living organisms, including seed, are self-organized complex systems. As Mae-Wan Ho points out in her contribution in this volume, they adapt and evolve, and are “fluid” at the level of the genome. [...]

The claim to invention is a myth because genetic engineering does not create a plant or an organism; it is merely a tool to transfer genes across species. Living organisms are self-organizing, self-replicating systems. They make themselves. [...] Just as a mover of furniture is not the make or owner of the house to which the furniture is moved, the GMO industry is merely the mover of genes from one organism to another, not the creator or inventor of the organism, including seeds and plants.

Through the false claim of “invention” and creation, the GMO industry is appropriating millions of years of nature’s evolution, and thousands of years of farmers’ breeding.
Shiva’s anthology assembles accounts of struggle to preserve biodiversity that has, over millenia, enabled humankind to produce food in an innumerable variety of climates, soil conditions, terrains, and elevations. Biodiversity could again enable our species to better adapt to the many and diverse changes in local climate and farming conditions already occurring as the Anthropocene era unfolds, to the degree preservation succeeds against long odds and rigged political and economic conditions. Depiction of the range and seriousness of threats to our hard-won food heritage is ameliorated by the creative and resolute commitment of communities on five continents to the struggle to preserve it. Here again are Sandra Baquedano Jer and Sara Larraín, at the conclusion of their contribution to the anthology:
As an alternative to economic globalization and business integration, social movements and public interest citizen networks have proposed a Hemispheric People’s Integration, based on grassroots cooperation and people’s alternatives, and on seven principles: (1) the promotion and defense of expanded social, environmental, economic, cultural, and political rights, and of collective human rights; (2) the protection and sustainable use of nature and ecosystems as common property for the reproduction of life (water, seeds, energy, land, and biodiversity), and the conservation of immaterial goods of the cultural and historical inheritance of communities and peoples; (3) the integrated management of natural resources and territories by human society, but under the recognition and respect of the complexity of living systems and the interdependence of species; (4) the sovereignty of communities and peoples over territory and common heritage, that is, the right to decide freely and independently how to live, and to the organization, production, and use of natural heritage without the availability of, or access to, said heritage being affected for current or future generations; (5) the reciprocal and complementary nature of relationships and exchange of knowledge, goods, products, and services as an alternative to unequal competition, the ownership of resources, and the accumulation of capital; (6) the independence and self-determination of peoples, freely and from the perspective of their own land and culture, to decide on political orientations, rules, and regulations, and institutions for their coexistence and economy; as well as women’s sovereignty over their own lives and bodies, and the right to live free of violence, oppression, or coercion; (7) living democracy and active participation as an alternative to democracy being restricted to electoral participation, economic administration, and the imposition of “state” priorities over and above people’s rights.
An ambitious program, echoed in the programs envisioned by of other contributors to Vandana Shiva’s anthology, whose lives and goals are rooted in a breathtaking diversity of cultures, climates, and nations. It’s worth noting that the visions articulated in Seed Sovereignty, Food Security are no more or less ambitious than Pope Francis’s program laid out in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si': On Care for our Common Home, published in May 2015 … and present an equivalent moral imperative to humankind, human society, and human culture.

Clearly, there’s work to be done.

Vandana Shiva is pictured at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California, on 27 April 2016, delivering a talk about the global food system. Shiva signed copies of her anthology, Seed Sovereignty, Food Security, after the talk.

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Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
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