Monday, October 29, 2007

Is Burning Man Our Ideal Model for Green Living?

Can 'Burning Man' Become a Model for Green Living?
By Matthew Taylor, PeacePower Magazine

Can 45,000 people journey vast distances to a lifeless Nevada desert and participate in an environmentally sustainable festival devoted to burning stuff? As strange as it sounds, during the last week of August 2007, the annual hedonistic celebration Burning Man attempted to do just that: go 'green.'
What has Burning Man done to merit its theme, The Green Man? Is Burning Man making serious efforts to green itself, or is it all a front, a form of greenwashing? How will the Burning Man experience affect burners, and will they bring it home into their lives? What does the Green Man art theme say about the state of civilization and its trajectory? It was in search of answers to these questions and others unimagined that the author trekked to the playa this year.
A certain segment of the Burning Man community has long made respect for the environment a high priority. For years, event organizers have promoted a "leave no trace" ethic and encouraged all participants to scour campsites down to the tiniest scraps.
The under-appreciated Earth Guardians work year-round to keep the playa clean and tidy, and ensure that "burn scars" don't deface the desert. Burners Without Borders, a group of volunteers vowing to "bring it home," journeyed to the Hurricane Katrina destruction zone in 2005 to provide an estimated one million dollars worth of free home demolitions to help property owners clear away wreckage from the disaster. Last year, the same group salvaged six semi trucks full of reclaimed wood from the festival and donated it to Habitat for Humanity. (This year, a Burning Man spokesperson says it was even more).
But in the past few years, participants have demanded a much higher level of environmental responsibility. Just keeping the desert free from "MOOP" (matter out of place) was not enough.
According to Kachina Katrina Zavalney, volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Green Team, at last year's burn, "I was walking around feeling unhappy -- not like I had a chip on my shoulder, but more like, 'Gosh, people think this place is so progressive, but yet it smells so bad from all the generators, it's so loud, there's not a lot that people can say about the environmental efforts or what's being done out here."
An alliance of like-minded volunteers converged around the Green Theme for 2007. The task was daunting.
"The idea of building a sustainable, temporary city in the middle of nowhere on its face is preposterous. There's no frame against which our work here can be compared except ourselves?because no one else does what we do. Given that, I think what we've been able to accomplish is extraordinary," said Tom Price, environmental manager for the Green Man theme.
Nobel peace laureate Al Gore, whose cable network Current TV was onsite to document the event, expressed optimism about the playa's green prospects.
"I think it's just great that the people of Black Rock City have made the Green Man this year's theme for Burning Man, and I hope that folks will use TV Free Burning Man as a platform to spread that great message even further," said the former vice president.
"Because we build the city from the ground up we're able to look at everything and change whatever we want to on a dime. So, we've looked at transportation, solid waste, materials, energy, art, media, everything, all aspects of the event," Price added.
Analyzing the environmental sustainability of a city of more than 45,000 people is a monumental task. Given space constraints, we'll examine a few elements: electricity, water, fuel, carbon, education, and the future.
Electrifying the Playa
This year, Burning Man LLC ("the LLC") worked with a team of Berkeley engineers from The Shipyard to install a 30-kilowatt solar photovoltaic (PV) array in the shape of the Native, sacred Zia Sun symbol. The array powered the pedestal underneath the iconic man statue and the surrounding Green Pavilion. (Such an array could power approximately 10 to 20 San Francisco homes). Batteries stored extra energy during the day so the man could glow green all night.
The array came in handy when the man burned unexpectedly early during the Tuesday lunar eclipse: the array powered the tools needed to rebuild the man.
In the spirit of Burning Man's "gift economy" -- where playa-goers are encouraged to give without expectation of return -- a wealthy burner named Matt Cheney, who runs a green-technology venture capital firm, fronted the funds necessary to help the LLC gift the array to the city of Gerlach, Nev., to power a school. By November, the LLC plans to donate 120 kilowatts worth of solar arrays to Gerlach and 60 KW to Lovelock.
Cheney only has to front the money for the panels; most of the cost will be refunded by the state of Nevada, which offers sizable incentives for solar PV (nearly double California's). Burners Without Borders signed up to provide the necessary labor to install the array.
Several theme camps also deployed solar PV, such as the Snow Koan Solar Camp which offered refreshing snow cones to burners as well as free electricity.
William Korthof, a solar installer for Snow Koan, recognized that solar PV is out of reach for most theme camps, because few if any companies rent solar arrays. "The panels are expensive and the best way to make them cheaper is to keep them in permanent use," said Korthof.
Of course, while the solar arrays might generate clean power on the playa and relieve noise pollution, they'll never make up for the expenditure of fossil fuels required to transport them to the desert.
Phil "Peef" Sadow, a Berkeley engineer who helped to install the LLC's solar array, observed that the festival has made strides but still has a long way to go.
"Center Camp [which is run by the LLC] uses old, incandescent lights ... and a lot of the lights use 500 watts a pop. It's not very efficient. They are slowly investing in better lighting technologies. It's expensive and it takes time," said Peef.
Aliza Wasserman, founder of Green Guerillas Against Greenwash, was disappointed to observe few electric vehicles on the playa. She places blame back in the real world at the doorstep of a San Ramon, Calif. oil company.
"Chevron bought the patent for a new type of battery for electric cars and shut down the battery company and did not allow the patents to be used by anyone because it was a huge threat to oil profits," said Wasserman.
Indeed, while electricity has been stymied in the auto sector, a new source of transportation power is gathering momentum at home and on the playa: biofuels.
Fueling Ecocide ...
While burner activists may agree that fossil fuel extraction and consumption is destructive and unsustainable, nothing like a broad agreement yet exists in the burner community on what should replace fossil fuels. Some see biofuels as a next step.
About 85 percent of the LLC's generators were powered by biodiesel this year. According to Price, "We took [out] 11,000 gallons [of petroleum] that were coming from human rights hotspots like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and instead we're running it off french fry juice from Reno -- thanks, Reno!"
While most environmentalists have no objection to reclaimed veggie oil, large-scale biofuel cultivation is controversial due to evidence of deforestation, species loss, and human rights violations caused by large biofuel plantations, as well as their reliance on genetic engineering.
Prof. Ignacio Chapela, one of U.C .Berkeley's most outspoken critics of biofuels, objected to the LLC's promotion of the term.
"Even the use of the term biofuels has enormous propaganda value for the movement toward biofuels ... They're playing with fire -- propaganda fire -- which is the worst kind of fire you can have around art," said Chapela.
The Sustainable Living Road Show encampment proudly proclaimed that its busses run on biofuels. Its members disagree with the notion that such language helps the biofuels industry.
"As we're promoting biofuels, we're talking about ethical, sustainable biofuels, because not all biofuels are ethical or sustainable," said Road Show member Jonathan Youtt of San Francisco.
...or Fueling Hope?
Two experimental biofuel technologies were rolled out at Black Rock City: algae bioreactors and gasification. While neither played a role in greening the event, they served as previews of what the future might (or might not) hold.
Situated underneath the Green Pavilion, the Chlorophyll Collective displayed a truck-size "bioreactor" with algae in plastic tubes furiously munching away on carbon dioxide emissions from a generator. A sign characterized the technology as "The Single-Cell Solution for Global Warming: greenhouse-gas eating algae."
According to Bayview resident Meg "Algae Girl" Bracken, director of the Chlorophyll Collective, "Algae can solve many of the problems of our industrial society. They can produce much more food, fertilizer, and/or biofuels per acre than any other crop, and they can be grown on wastewater or salt water, on marginal land, or even on the surface of bodies of water. Algae can clean water and air, and build soil. Many algae are packed full of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients (such as omega-3 fatty acids) and make excellent additions to the diets of people and animals."
Bracken believes that if certain cost and technical barriers can be surmounted, algae has the potential to be a much more efficient source of biofuel than any other. "The amount of oil that we can harvest from algae is already much, much higher than the amount we can harvest from traditional oilseeds," she remarked.
Bracken asserted that algae ethanol would potentially be a non-emitting, "closed loop" system: "The high amounts of CO2 produced in the process of fermenting alcohol or ethanol can be fed directly to algae which then grows profusely and can be harvested to make ethanol." She promoted algae as a potential salve to global greenhouse gas emissions.
But U.C. Berkeley Professor of Geoengineering Tad Patzek characterized the Chlorophyll Collective's ambitions as wholly unrealistic. "Algae indeed are very useful at cleaning up sewage streams and can be converted into fertilizer, but that's on a relatively small scale and has very little to do with saving the planet from global CO2 emissions. In order to absorb the emissions of a coal-fired power plant, you'd have to put a million of these bioreactors side-by-side. It's simply not scalable."
"People are ready to believe anything. Their deep wishful thinking has been confronted by reality in the case of corn and palm oil biofuels. People automatically reach for the next imaginary solution, and since algae hasn't been thoroughly tested yet, it's the next candidate," added Patzek.
Can Garbage Save the World?
Gasification was the next entrant into Black Rock City's green science fair. Jim Mason, owner of Berkeley's The Shipyard art studio, showcased an art vehicle known as The Mechabolic, a "trash-to-fuel land speed racer slug." The stupendous creaky machine was overflowing with gadgetry, a green-tech geek's wet dream.
Powering Mechabolic is a technology that's as old as human societies: gasification. Gasification is a process by which organic material is smoldered in a low-oxygen, high-temperature environment. In the case of Mechabolic, the resultant hydrogen is used to directly power an unmodified internal combustion engine. What's left at the end is a clump of carbon that can be plowed into the ground as a potent fertilizer. Tom Price says that pre-Columbian Indians used to cut down organic matter in the Amazon basin, gasify it into ash, and fertilize the soil.
Thus, with gasification, a vehicle can run on almost any organic material, such as walnut shells or coffee grounds. Price sees gasification as the world's best hope to stop global warming and envisions a future when humans strip-mine landfills for fuel. Mason has made all of his gasification tinkering available to the world for free -- open source -- which befuddles the investment community.
According to Price, "In May, we took [San Francisco mayoral candidate Chicken John Rinaldi's gasified truck] to the Clean Tech conference in San José - hundreds and hundreds of V.C.s and C.T.O.s and all their multi-million dollar projects. And we pull up out front and Chicken stands in the back in a jumpsuit that says 'Café Racer Crew' on it and he's like, 'We're making open source, carbon-negative renewable energy running on garbage in your parking lot, and we did it with junk we found in our shop in two days. What have you guys got?' And they went crazy, and they kept asking him, 'What's your business model, what's your business model?' He said, 'It's not a business model it's art.' And they're like, 'What's the point of the art?' And he said, 'What's the point of politics? Politics is to divide people. What's the point of art? Art is to bring people together. You and I, we've been brought together by this art. Congratulations, I win, thank you, next customer.'"
On the playa, Mechabolic offered burners the unique opportunity to shove waste into a tank and watch, see, and learn how this both powered the machine and produced a potent fertilizer.
Mason reflected on his experience with Mechabolic: "I demonstrated how to make a carbon-negative flamethrower by combining a trash-to-fuel gasification system with charcoal-based agriculture. Yes, it is odd, but there is a way to 'burn things' that is better for the total carbon cycle than to do nothing. Whether this is meaningful or not has nothing to do the absolute carbon count of the project on the playa, of course."
Patzek is as skeptical about the future of gasification as he is about algae. "If we are running a car on a little bit of biomass to do the absolute minimum amount of driving, I'm all for it. Otherwise, it's another symptom of not understanding the scale involved." Patzek believes that the U.S. and world must radically reduce energy consumption and move toward zero-waste communities that live in harmony with nature's cycles. He says the truly green way for burners to get to the playa is not gasified cars, but cycling.
Chicken John, on the other hand, thinks gasification is the medicine for the Earth's woes. Virgin founder and billionaire Richard Branson has offered a $25 million reward to anyone who can devise a scheme to remove a billion tons of CO2 annually from the atmosphere. Chicken says Branson owes Mechabolic creator Jim Mason a call. "Where's Mason's $25 million, bitch?" Chicken cackled.
Whether algae or gasification plays any substantial future role in saving the planet - or greening Black Rock City - remains to be seen.
Drowning in a Sea of Plastic
On the parched playa, water is perhaps the scarcest and most crucial resource. Every year, several hundred burners collapse from dehydration and end up in medics' tents on IV drips. "Drink before you're thirsty" is the official survival guide's most prominent guideline for intrepid burners.
Every year, burners haul hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles to the playa -- everyone is responsible for his or her own hydration. However, is this particular manifestation of "radical self-reliance" (a stated core tenet of the event) compatible with Burning Man's efforts to go green?
Not according to the Green Pavilion's own commentary on the threat of plastic waste. An installation entitled "How does our use of plastic water bottles contribute to the decline of the albatross?" proclaimed the threat to avian life posed by the ubiquitous bottles that all too often blow or wash into oceans from urban areas. Plastic debris has created a floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean that's twice the size of Texas.
In a recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, Jared Blumenfeld of the City's Department of the Environment and Susan Leal of the Public Utilities Commission articulated numerous critiques of water bottles: they can leach toxins into the water, are transported from all over the world (using enormous amounts of fossil fuels), and often contain water that's of lower quality than municipal water sources. Plastic recycling is inefficient and polluting at best, and one billion bottles end up in California landfill every year. Ironically, plastic bottles leak toxins into the groundwater, harming the public water supply.
Can anything be done to green Burning Man's water consumption?
Burner Matthew "Hitch" McDermid of San Francisco believes so. He proposes that large theme camps could band together to purchase 500 or 1000-gallon containers and truck in fresh water from springs and aquifers in Lake Tahoe area or similar sources. Alternatively, he thinks that the LLC could build the cost into ticket prices and fully centralize water distribution. After all, the LLC already takes collective responsibility for ice sales, coffee sales, and excrement disposal on the playa via the Johnny-on-the-Spot latrines.
"Campers would only need one reusable water bottle...instead of disposing of upwards of 20 or 30 water bottles at the end of the burn," said Hitch.
Price thinks Hitch's proposal would take Burning Man too far away from the ethos of self-reliance. "We could electrify the entire city, provide water, hand out blinky lights at the gate, we could do everything for people - have stacks of costumes and so forth. What does someone learn by doing that? Do you want to give them fish or teach them to fish?" Price asked rhetorically.
Hitch believes Burning Man needs to evolve from its current emphasis on individual self-reliance to an increased ethos of community self-reliance. "If there were a cultural shift in that direction, we could decrease our ecological footprint every year when we throw the event and increase awareness for people to live in a greener way throughout the year."
"What I'd like to see is a re-emergence of community: community that would create efficiencies in transportation, in food distribution, in the consumption of water, and other things that are going to reduce the impact on the environment, and would support the individual on a number of levels they need from an emotional, cultural, and spiritual standpoint," added Hitch.
Price didn't see it that way, at least as far as water bottles are concerned. He talked up Burning Man's efforts to persuade area supermarkets to stock large-size water bottles as opposed to the smaller single-serve sizes, and notes that burners who want to could bring their own large, refillable water drums as Price himself has done. "It's not our job to be nannies or babysitters... I don't accept the premise that people can't be responsible for themselves," said Price.
Offsetting Apocalypse?
Global warming is front and center of any environmental discussion these days. So what is an effective way for burners to tackle their contribution to global warming? The Cooling Man project is an independent effort initiated by environmental scientists and economists David Shearer and Jeff Cole of San Francisco to persuade burners to purchase "carbon offsets" to cancel out their playa-related greenhouse gas emissions. As many frequent flyers know, carbon offsets are offered by various companies as a way to make up for the global warming-related impact of personal transportation and other activities.
For instance, Native Energy offers to offset the two tons of carbon that a traveler emits by flying round-trip from New York to Reno (the closest major airport to Black Rock City) for $36. The purchaser has the option to channel the funds into projects such as a wind turbine farm on Sioux land in South Dakota, or a rural Pennsylvania family farm methane-capture system that will generate electricity from manure.
"The opportunity is to be strategic and fact-based in how you use the offsets. ... If every burner invested in .7 tons of carbon offsets, we'd be the first carbon-neutral city on the planet. If every burner invested in one ton, we'd be carbon negative," Shearer claimed. Cooling Man reports that it helped to offset 780 out of the 33,250 estimated tons of greenhouse gas emissions generated by Burning Man 2007.
But even if Cooling Man could build the offset fee into ticket prices next year as Shearer hopes, are carbon offsets a legitimate way to stop global warming? According to Guardian UK columnist George Monbiot (author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning), no way.
Take, for instance, airplane travel: every year, over 6,000 burners fly across the country and the world to attend the event, billowing out tons of greenhouse gases. Monbiot reports that airplane travel is the single most offensive and unredeemable sector of the economy.
Unlike automobiles, there isn't even a glimmer of a green techno-fix: as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, "There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades." The only apparent option would be to switch from jets to Zeppelins (hot air balloon ships).
Thus, according to Monbiot, to achieve the necessary 90% emission cut to stop runaway global warming we must both build wind turbines and stop flying. To do only one and not the other is to consign future generations (and perhaps ourselves) to a future that will make Katrina look like a minor weather event.
"Ultimately what it's going to take is not waiting for the will of the people, but legislating what the people will and must do," said Colette "Happy" Divine on the question of airplane travel. "Slavery is a perfect example: was everybody on board with getting rid of slavery? Absolutely not!"
Monbiot argues that the danger of carbon offsets is that they could serve as a modern "indulgence," invoking the 15th-century church scams wherein priests sold a clean conscience to sinning parishioners for a few ducats.
Revealingly, playa life imitated metaphor at the Green Man Pavilion's F.I.R.E. (Future Impact Reduction and Education) nexus. Established by students, alumni, and faculty of Dominican University's Green M.B.A. program, the learning center prominently featured an "Eco-confessional booth" which implored burners to "confess your eco-signs and be forgiven."
The author of this story stepped behind the curtain and begged faux-Father John Stayton of Dominican to forgive sins such as flying halfway around the globe for a brother's wedding in South Africa, and collecting unlimited numbers of toys. The Father's prescriptions generally focused on taking positive steps in other areas of life, but balked at challenging the idea of runaway consumption.
"It's a playful way of helping people to recognize that a lot of us who've had our awareness raised then carry around a sense of guilt of our own impacts. We want people to become aware of their ecological impacts and process those feelings - but do it in a lighthearted way," said Stayton.
Monbiot's calculations postulate that if we are to achieve the necessary 90 percent cut, every person on the planet must be allocated a greenhouse gas emissions budget of 1.33 tons annually. According to Cooling Man's estimates, the average burner emits .64 tons of greenhouse gas emissions traveling to and from and participating in the event. Thus, Burning Man participants blow nearly six months' worth of emissions in one week. (As a frame of reference, one cross-country round trip flight more than exceeds the entire budget.)
"Any scheme that persuades us we can carry on polluting delays the point at which we grasp the nettle of climate change and accept that our lives have to change," says Monbiot - a commentary as applicable to Black Rock City as any city.
Green Living 101?
Much could be said about how the LLC and many theme camps made valiant efforts to bring other environmentally conscious practices to the playa: solar cooking, solar hot water, wind turbines, greywater systems, composting, recycling, and a community bicycle program. However, these initiatives appeared to be confined to certain corners of Black Rock City; for most burners, it was (wasteful) playa-life-as-usual. Many burners said that the green theme made little to no impact on their experience.
In truth, Burning Man is not and (for the foreseeable future) cannot be green: percent of the event's reported ecological footprint is due to the enormous fossil fuel expenditure required to transport 45,000 people to a far-flung region that is not convenient to public transportation.
Even the man himself -- though he glowed green at night -- was less than environmentally friendly. Tom Price states that despite vigorous efforts, the LLC was unable to obtain an effective green neon glow material that did not contain mercury, a toxin with a reputation for inducing brain damage. (Price says that the amount was small enough not to pose a hazard.) Ironically, blue would have been a greener choice.
Most burners I spoke with -- including Burning Man founder Larry Harvey -- argued that the real value in the green effort was not in how it altered life on the playa, but how it might educate and influence people to change their lives and take action back home. Harvey conceived the theme as an exploration of "humanity's relationship to nature." One burner I met at Camp Hook-up's green building workshop said his boss had paid for his Burning Man ticket in order for him to learn how to make a resort chain in Arizona more environmentally sustainable. Solar PV engineer Peef reported several inquiries on how to install solar panels back home.
The Green Pavilion was closed for more than half the festival due to the premature immolation and Burning Man's prioritization of rebuilding the man. When the pavilion was accessible, kiosks and art displays offered a variety of educational resources: from descriptions of environmental crises, such as the unsustainable harvesting of hardwoods, to proposed solutions such as kite-powered cargo ships.
"This has been an opportunity to have a public conversation. More people are talking about this issue than I've ever heard before, and that might even offset [Burning Man's] impact," said LLC spokesperson Andie Grace. "I don't think we're in such dire circumstances that art has become irrelevant."
Mechabolic creator Jim Mason reflected on the Green Theme, "I find trying to run a green experiment in the midst of the most highly consumptive collection of creators to be a rich contradiction. Green gestures are so often tinged with ludditism, human loathing, and general defeatism. It is usually a narrative of 'do less, be less.' What happens if the people who are about 'do more, be more,' with a major theme of burning things, want to also be green? That's a mess. It's much more truthful to our situation. Thus why the theme was so rich."
Life After Burning Man
Other long-time burners say they've had it up to here with Burning Man. Kachina Katrina commented after the burn, "I saw a lot of participants not contributing to the whole green movement. I don't think that there was a lot of care and consideration given by the organization."
Kachina Katrina believed the LLC could have done a lot more, despite inherent limitations. "We all know it's not an event that can be 100 percent greened, but judging by the participants' take on it, it's got a long way to go."
Price was taken aback by Kachina Katrina's criticisms. "There were four full-time employees -- 15 percent of the total Burning Man staff -- working on [greening the burn]. Of course there's more that can be done, but I think we did substantive, far-reaching work."
For Kachina Katrina and other disaffected burners, it's off to ... well ... greener pastures. "Some friends and fellow colleagues in the greening Burning Man movement are starting a new festival called Water Woman -- where they'll take all of these ideas and values we proposed to green Burning Man and incorporate them into a festival-like atmosphere. This isn't the only festival that is going to be more ecological -- others such as Future Now, Entheon Villagers, and Symbiosis are creating eco-gatherings."
Kachina Katrina is pleased to have experienced some new eco-practices this year on the playa - she's planning to bring her updated greywater know-how to the kitchen at Symbiosis.
Water Woman founder and creator Ray Cirino, a twelve-time burner, talks about how different his baby will be from life on the playa. "Instead of building a city and tearing it down or destroying it, we're going to keep the city. Burning Man says leave no trace -- every single drop of 'trace' we're going to be recycling or composting."
Cirino says the festival will be goddess-focused, "very yin oriented as opposed to the yang energy of Burning Man. And the primary goal is for people to be self-reliant with sustainable practices, particularly permaculture. Permaculture is our base, our core. Water Woman will set up Burning Man in a beautiful way - ours will be in spring, for growth, before the fall and the burning. We'll be building a food forest as well." Cirino reports that he's been flooded with volunteers and he hopes to hold the festival in Northern California as soon as late spring 2008, after Memorial Day.
Cirino says the Water Woman city will include a cultural and learning center, and be built on a depressed property that needs help. Cirino is especially looking for indigenous land and to resuscitate a watershed.
"People's ticket money will be an investment in their education, and also, they'll be able to come back during the course of the year to learn as much as they can," said Cirino. The festival will encourage children and family participation, will be promoted as totally substance-free, and all music will be unplugged. He hopes that after a five-year cycle, Water Woman will move to resuscitate other ecologically distressed properties.
Kachina Katrina, who recently moved into an eco-focused co-operative community in Oakland, concludes, "I think Burning Man is such a huge distraction to people in their lives, it's an enormously wasteful party. I'm so thrilled to be back to my life - no more Burning Man. It's time to think about what's really going on on this planet. Bring it back home, to your home."
At its core, Burning Man remains an event conducted largely without reference to the sustainable capacities of Mother Earth. Of course, the same could be said of Western Civilization.
Will Burning Man be remembered as one of the U.S. Empire's more profligate vomitoria, or as a transformative, radical community experience where the roots of an ecologically vibrant world improbably grew amidst the wreckage of modernity? If we are blessed, it will be both.
A more in-depth version of this story as well as an exploration of Burning Man's most prominent art installation of 2007, Crude Awakening, appears on his website:
Matthew A. Taylor is a UC Berkeley peace and conflict studies student who has installed solar photovoltaic panels on his roof and indefinitely renounced jet aviation.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

We Must Face That Americans Have Become 'Good Germans'

I have maintained since the outstart of the NeverEndingWar that some day Americans would - and must - face the very question Frank Rich examines in his essay this week. Read and be prepared for what follows
By Frank Rich, The New York Times

"Bush lies" doesn't cut it anymore. It's time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.
Ten days ago The Times unearthed yet another round of secret Department of Justice memos countenancing torture. President Bush gave his standard response: "This government does not torture people." Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of "torture" is. The whole point of these memos is to repeatedly recalibrate the definition so Mr. Bush can keep pleading innocent.
By any legal standards except those rubber-stamped by Alberto Gonzales, we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. As Andrew Sullivan, once a Bush cheerleader, observed last weekend in The Sunday Times of London, America's "enhanced interrogation" techniques have a grotesque provenance: "Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the 'third degree.' It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation."
Still, the drill remains the same. The administration gives its alibi (Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples). A few members of Congress squawk. The debate is labeled "politics." We turn the page.
There has been scarcely more response to the similarly recurrent story of apparent war crimes committed by our contractors in Iraq. Call me cynical, but when Laura Bush spoke up last week about the human rights atrocities in Burma, it seemed less an act of selfless humanitarianism than another administration maneuver to change the subject from its own abuses.
As Mrs. Bush spoke, two women, both Armenian Christians, were gunned down in Baghdad by contractors underwritten by American taxpayers. On this matter, the White House has been silent. That incident followed the Sept. 16 massacre in Baghdad's Nisour Square, where 17 Iraqis were killed by security forces from Blackwater USA, which had already been implicated in nearly 200 other shooting incidents since 2005. There has been no accountability. The State Department, Blackwater's sugar daddy for most of its billion dollars in contracts, won't even share its investigative findings with the United States military and the Iraqi government, both of which have deemed the killings criminal.
The gunmen who mowed down the two Christian women worked for a Dubai-based company managed by Australians, registered in Singapore and enlisted as a subcontractor by an American contractor headquartered in North Carolina. This is a plot out of "Syriana" by way of "Chinatown." There will be no trial. We will never find out what happened. A new bill passed by the House to regulate contractor behavior will have little effect, even if it becomes law in its current form.
We can continue to blame the Bush administration for the horrors of Iraq -- and should. Paul Bremer, our post-invasion viceroy and the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts, issued the order that allows contractors to elude Iraqi law, a folly second only to his disbanding of the Iraqi Army. But we must also examine our own responsibility for the hideous acts committed in our name in a war where we have now fought longer than we did in the one that put Verschärfte Vernehmung on the map.
I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press -- the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration's case -- failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.
As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin.
In April 2004, Stars and Stripes first reported that our troops were using makeshift vehicle armor fashioned out of sandbags, yet when a soldier complained to Donald Rumsfeld at a town meeting in Kuwait eight months later, he was successfully pilloried by the right. Proper armor procurement lagged for months more to come. Not until early this year, four years after the war's first casualties, did a Washington Post investigation finally focus the country's attention on the shoddy treatment of veterans, many of them victims of inadequate armor, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals.
We first learned of the use of contractors as mercenaries when four Blackwater employees were strung up in Falluja in March 2004, just weeks before the first torture photos emerged from Abu Ghraib. We asked few questions. When reports surfaced early this summer that our contractors in Iraq (180,000, of whom some 48,000 are believed to be security personnel) now outnumber our postsurge troop strength, we yawned. Contractor casualties and contractor-inflicted casualties are kept off the books.
It was always the White House's plan to coax us into a blissful ignorance about the war. Part of this was achieved with the usual Bush-Cheney secretiveness, from the torture memos to the prohibition of photos of military coffins. But the administration also invited our passive complicity by requiring no shared sacrifice. A country that knows there's no such thing as a free lunch was all too easily persuaded there could be a free war.
Instead of taxing us for Iraq, the White House bought us off with tax cuts. Instead of mobilizing the needed troops, it kept a draft off the table by quietly purchasing its auxiliary army of contractors to finesse the overstretched military's holes. With the war's entire weight falling on a small voluntary force, amounting to less than 1 percent of the population, the rest of us were free to look the other way at whatever went down in Iraq.
We ignored the contractor scandal to our own peril. Ever since Falluja this auxiliary army has been a leading indicator of every element of the war's failure: not only our inadequate troop strength but also our alienation of Iraqi hearts and minds and our rampant outsourcing to contractors rife with Bush-Cheney cronies and campaign contributors. Contractors remain a bellwether of the war's progress today. When Blackwater was briefly suspended after the Nisour Square catastrophe, American diplomats were flatly forbidden from leaving the fortified Green Zone. So much for the surge's great "success" in bringing security to Baghdad.
Last week Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war combat veteran who directs Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, sketched for me the apocalypse to come. Should Baghdad implode, our contractors, not having to answer to the military chain of command, can simply "drop their guns and go home." Vulnerable American troops could be deserted by those "who deliver their bullets and beans."
This potential scenario is just one example of why it's in our national self-interest to attend to Iraq policy the White House counts on us to ignore. Our national character is on the line too. The extralegal contractors are both a slap at the sovereignty of the self-governing Iraq we supposedly support and an insult to those in uniform receiving as little as one-sixth the pay. Yet it took mass death in Nisour Square to fix even our fleeting attention on this long-metastasizing cancer in our battle plan.
Similarly, it took until December 2005, two and a half years after "Mission Accomplished," for Mr. Bush to feel sufficient public pressure to acknowledge the large number of Iraqi casualties in the war. Even now, despite his repeated declaration that "America will not abandon the Iraqi people," he has yet to address or intervene decisively in the tragedy of four million-plus Iraqi refugees, a disproportionate number of them children. He feels no pressure from the American public to do so, but hey, he pays lip service to Darfur.
Our moral trajectory over the Bush years could not be better dramatized than it was by a reunion of an elite group of two dozen World War II veterans in Washington this month. They were participants in a top-secret operation to interrogate some 4,000 Nazi prisoners of war. Until now, they have kept silent, but America's recent record prompted them to talk to The Washington Post.
"We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture," said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he "never laid hands on anyone" in his many interrogations, adding, "I'm proud to say I never compromised my humanity."
Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those "good Germans" who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It's up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war's last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country's good name.
© 2007 The New York Times
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Friday, October 19, 2007

The Dark Stain of Blackwater
Editor's Note: This is an edited transcript of the prepared testimony of Jeremy Scahill before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, September 21, 2007.

My name is Jeremy Scahill. I am an investigative reporter for The Nation magazine and the author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. I have spent the better part of the past several years researching the phenomenon of privatized warfare and the increasing involvement of the private sector in the support and waging of US wars. During the course of my investigations, I have interviewed scores of sources, filed many Freedom of Information Act requests, obtained government contracts and private company documents of firms operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. When asked, I have attempted to share the results of my investigations, including documents obtained through FOIA and other processes, with members of Congress and other journalists.
I would like to thank this committee for the opportunity to be here today and for taking on this very serious issue. Over the past six days, we have all been following very closely the developments out of Baghdad in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of as many as 20 Iraqis by operatives working for the private military company Blackwater USA. The Iraqi government is alleging that among the dead are a small child and her parents and the prime minister has labeled Blackwater's conduct as "criminal" and spoke of "the killing of our citizens in cold blood." While details remain murky and subject to conflicting versions of what exactly happened, this situation cuts much deeper than this horrifying incident. The stakes are very high for the Bush administration because the company involved, Blackwater USA, is not just any company. It is the premiere firm protecting senior State Department officials in Iraq, including Ambassador Ryan Crocker. This company has been active in Iraq since the early days of the occupation when it was awarded an initial $27 million no-bid contract to guard Ambassador Paul Bremer. During its time in Iraq, Blackwater has regularly engaged in firefights and other deadly incidents. About 30 of its operatives have been killed in Iraq and these deaths are not included in the official American death toll.
While the company's operatives are indeed soldiers of fortune, their salaries are paid through hundreds of millions of dollars in US taxpayer funds allocated to Blackwater. What they do in Iraq is done in the name of the American people and yet there has been no effective oversight of Blackwater's activities and actions. And there has been absolutely no prosecution of its forces for any crimes committed against Iraqis. If indeed Iraqi civilians were killed by Blackwater USA last Sunday, as appears to be the case, culpability for these actions does not only lie with the individuals who committed the killings or with Blackwater as a company, but also with the entity that hired them and allowed them to operate heavily-armed inside Iraq--in this case, the US State Department.
While the headlines of the past week have been focused on the fatal shootings last Sunday, this was by no means an isolated incident. Nor is this is simply about a rogue company or rogue operators. This is about a system of unaccountable and out of control private forces that have turned Iraq into a wild west from the very beginning of the occupation, often with the stamp of legitimacy of the US government.
What happened Sunday is part of a deadly pattern, not just of Blackwater USA's conduct, but of the army of mercenaries that have descended on Iraq over the past four years. They have acted like cowboys, running Iraqis off the road, firing indiscriminately at vehicles and, in some cases, private forces have appeared on tape seemingly using Iraqis for target practice. They have shown little regard for Iraqi lives and have fueled the violence in that country, not just against the people of Iraq but also against the official soldiers of the United States military in the form of blowback and revenge attacks stemming from contractor misconduct. These private forces have operated in a climate where impunity and immunity have gone hand in hand.
Active duty soldiers who commit crimes or acts of misconduct are prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the court martial system. There have been scores of prosecutions of soldiers-- some 64 courts martial on murder-related charges in Iraq alone. That has not been the case with these private forces. Despite many reports--some from US military commanders--of private contractors firing indiscriminately at Iraqis and vehicles and killing civilians, not a single armed contractor has been charged with any crime. They have not been prosecuted under US civilian law; US military law and the Bush administration banned the Iraqi government from prosecuting them in Iraqi courts beginning with the passage of Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17 in 2004. The message this sends to the Iraqi people is that these hired guns are above any law.
US contractors in Iraq reportedly have their own motto: "What happens here today, stays here today." That should be chilling to everyone who believes in transparency and accountability of US operations and taxpayer funded activities-- not to mention the human rights of the Iraqis who have fallen victim to these incidents and have been robbed of any semblance of justice.
The Iraqi government says it has evidence of seven deadly incidents involving Blackwater. It is essential that the Congress request information on these incidents from the Iraqi authorities. What we do know is that in just the past nine months, Blackwater forces have been involved with several fatal actions. Last Christmas Eve, as Katy mentioned, an off-duty Blackwater contractor allegedly killed a bodyguard for the Iraqi Vice President. Blackwater whisked that individual out of the country. Iraqi officials labeled the killing a "murder" and have questioned privately as to why there has apparently been no consequences for that individual. Blackwater says it fired the individual and is cooperating with the US Justice Department. To my knowledge no charges have yet been brought in that case.
This past May, Blackwater operatives engaged in a gun battle in Baghdad, lasting an hour, that drew in both US military and Iraqi forces, in which at least four Iraqis are said to have died. The very next day in almost the same neighborhood, the company's operatives reportedly shot and killed an Iraqi driver near the Interior Ministry. In the ensuing chaos, the Blackwater guards reportedly refused to give their names or details of the incident to Iraqi officials, sparking a tense standoff between American and Iraqi forces, both of which were armed with assault rifles.
The actions of this one company, perhaps more than any other private actor in the occupation, have consistently resulted in escalated tension and more death and destruction in Iraq--from the siege of Fallujah, sparked by the ambush of its men there in March of 2004, to Blackwater forces shooting at Iraqis in Najaf with one Blackwater operative filmed on tape saying it was like a "turkey shoot" to the deadly events of the past week.
Colonel Thomas Hammes, the US military official once overseeing the creation of a new Iraqi military, has described driving around Iraq with Iraqis and encountering Blackwater operatives. "[They] were running me off the road. We were threatened and intimidated," Hammes said. But, he added, "they were doing their job, exactly what they were paid to do in the way they were paid to do it, and they were making enemies on every single pass out of town." Hammes concluded the contractors were " hurting our counterinsurgency effort."
Brigadier General Karl Horst, deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division said of private security contractors, "These guys run loose in this country and do stupid stuff. There's no authority over them, so you can't come down on them hard when they escalate force.... They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath. It happens all over the place." Horst tracked contractor conduct for a two month period in Baghdad and documented at least a dozen shootings of Iraqi civilians by contractors, resulting in six Iraqi deaths and the wounding of three others. That is just one General in one area of Iraq in just 60 days.
The conduct of these private forces sends a clear message to the Iraqi people: American lives are worth infinitely more than theirs, even if their only crime is driving their vehicle in the wrong place at the wrong time. One could say that Blackwater has been very successful at fulfilling its mission--to keep alive senior US officials. But at what price?
It is long past due for the actions of Blackwater USA and the other private military firms operating in Iraq--actions carried out in the names of the American people and with US tax dollars--to be carefully and thoroughly investigated by the US Congress. For the Iraqi people, this is a matter of life, and far too often, death. In the bigger picture, this body should seriously question whether the linking of corporate profits to war making is in the best interests of this nation and the world. I would humbly submit that the chairs of relevant committees in both the House and Senate use their power of subpoena to compel the heads of the major war contracting companies operating on the US payroll in Iraq to appear publicly before the American people and answer for the actions of their forces. I am prepared to answer any questions.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Do You Live in One of the World's 15 Greenest Cities?

Green's The Thing! Since, like, forever, although in politics, it slides around on the radar until it becomes an environmental "crisis" in order to command center stage attention. I recall the first Earth Day, and frankly, along with my peers, naively thought the "earth movement" would be so strong - after all, it was the "boomers" driving the engine - it would have solved all the problems of the day, inside of a decade, maybe two, at the most. Along with my counter-cultural friends of the era, were committed to creating alternatives to the status quo of the Nixon, post-Vietnam era. We had recession, alienation, and reactionary forces to contend with, The one brief bright light, the Carter years - he championed solar technologies, among others, but the Reagan crowd reversed all of that - even audaciously removing solar panels from the White House. Peak oil, global climate change, now almost buzz words, were more than bubbling concerns then. The environmental movement has grown exponentially since the 70's, and as the various constituencies recognize we are indeed all living on the same planet - even, One Human Family, as Key Westers trumpet, we may see the potential reach performance levels all can support.
The current and critical awareness has led communities to ramp up their rhetoric , with the heat, no pun intended, increasing to demand action plans, being pro-active: Preventive programs, sustainability initiatives, and creative enterprises, alike. Key West is beginning to advance in the same civic vein, through fits and starts, the usual bureaucratic resistance or business as usual, yet voter's voice in the recent municipal elections found the venerable utility board having the first contested races in living memory - and not for the paltry perks it may offer, which are hard to fathom, anyway - with every candidate heralding a green banner, to varying degrees. The candidate with the best bonafides, former city and county planner Ty Symroski bested a long sitting city commissioner by hundreds of votes, and who ended up endorsing him in a pending run-off, necessitated by the electoral rule of needing over 50% to win outright.
In an environment so fragile, as are the Florida Keys, "Green" initiatives cannot be window dressing or feel-good measures for the sake of marketing "Paradise" to tourists, but are imperative for economic, cultural and social survival, yes, but to have the Keys be a model for other communities is not just a basket of fanciful notions. Here is a list compiled to illustrate what other leading cities are doing, from around the planet. Key West, take a look. - MS

This article is reprinted by permission from Grist. For more environmental news and humor sign up for Grist's free email service.

These metropolises aren't literally the greenest places on earth -- they're not necessarily dense with foliage, for one, and some still have a long way to go down the path to sustainability. But all of the cities on this list deserve recognition for making impressive strides toward eco-friendliness, helping their many millions of residents live better, greener lives.
1. Rekyjavik, Iceland
Remember the grade-school memory device "Greenland is icy and Iceland is green"? It's truer than ever thanks to progress made by Iceland and its capital city in recent years. Reykjavik has been putting hydrogen buses on its streets, and, like the rest of the country, its heat and electricity come entirely from renewable geothermal and hydropower sources and it's determined to become fossil-fuel-free by 2050. The mayor has pledged to make Reykjavik the cleanest city in Europe. Take that, Greenland.
2. Portland, Oregon, U.S.
The City of Roses' approach to urban planning and outdoor spaces has often earned it a spot on lists of the greenest places to live. Portland is the first U.S. city to enact a comprehensive plan to reduce CO2 emissions and has aggressively pushed green building initiatives. It also runs a comprehensive system of light rail, buses, and bike lanes to help keep cars off the roads, and it boasts 92,000 acres of green space and more than 74 miles of hiking, running, and biking trails.
3. Curitiba, Brazil
With citizens riding a bus system hailed as one of the world's best and with municipal parks benefiting from the work of a flock of 30 lawn-trimming sheep, this midsized Brazilian city has become a model for other metropolises. About three-quarters of its residents rely on public transport, and the city boasts over 580 square feet of green space per inhabitant. As a result, according to one survey, 99 percent of Curitibans are happy with their hometown.
4. Malmö, Sweden
Known for its extensive parks and green space, Sweden's third-largest city is a model of sustainable urban development. With the goal of making Malmö an "ekostaden" (eco-city), several neighborhoods have already been transformed using innovative design and are planning to become more socially, environmentally, and economically responsive. Two words, Malmö: organic meatballs.
5. Vancouver, Canada
Its dramatic perch between mountains and sea makes Vancouver a natural draw for nature lovers, and its green accomplishments are nothing to scoff at either. Drawing 90 percent of its power from renewable sources, British Columbia's biggest city has been a leader in hydroelectric power and is now charting a course to use wind, solar, wave, and tidal energy to significantly reduce fossil-fuel use. The metro area boasts 200 parks and over 18 miles of waterfront, and has developed a way-forward-thinking 100-year plan for sustainability. Assuming civilization will last another 100 years? Priceless.
6. Copenhagen, Denmark
With a big offshore wind farm just beyond its coastline and more people on bikes than you can shake a stick at, Copenhagen is a green dream. The city christened a new metro system in 2000 to make public transit more efficient. And it recently won the European Environmental Management Award for cleaning up public waterways and implementing holistic long-term environmental planning. Plus, the pastries? Divine.
7. London, England
When Mayor Ken Livingstone unveiled London's Climate Change Action Plan in February, it was just the latest step in his mission to make his city the world's greenest. Under the plan, London will switch 25 percent of its power to locally generated, more-efficient sources, cut CO2 emissions by 60 percent within the next 20 years, and offer incentives to residents who improve the energy efficiency of their homes. The city has also set stiff taxes on personal transportation to limit congestion in the central city, hitting SUVs heavily and letting electric vehicles and hybrids off scot-free.
8. San Francisco, California, U.S. Nearly half of all 'Friscans take public transit, walk, or bike each day, and over 17 percent of the city is devoted to parks and green space. San Francisco has also been a leader in green building, with more than 70 projects registered under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification system. In 2001, San Francisco voters approved a $100 million bond initiative to finance solar panels, energy efficiency, and wind turbines for public facilities. The city has also banned non-recyclable plastic bags and plastic kids' toys laced with questionable chemicals. Next thing you know, they'll all be wearing flowers in their hair.
9. Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador
After it suffered severe damage from natural disasters in the late 1990s, the Bahía de Caráquez government and nongovernmental organizations working in the area forged a plan to rebuild the city to be more sustainable. Declared an "Ecological City" in 1999, it has since developed programs to protect biodiversity, revegetate denuded areas, and control erosion. The city, which is marketing itself as a destination for eco-tourists, has also begun composting organic waste from public markets and households and supporting organic agriculture and aquaculture.
10. Sydney, Australia
The Land Down Under was the first country to put the squeeze on inefficient, old-school light bulbs, but Sydney-dwellers took things a step further in March, hosting a city-wide one-hour blackout to raise awareness about global warming. Add to that their quest for carbon neutrality, innovative food-waste disposal program, and new Green Square, and you've got a metropolis well on its way to becoming the Emerald City of the Southern Hemisphere.
11. Barcelona, Spain
Hailed for its pedestrian-friendliness (37 percent of all trips are taken on foot!), promotion of solar energy, and innovative parking strategies, Barcelona is creating a new vision for the future in Europe. City leaders' urban-regeneration plan also includes poverty reduction and investment in neglected areas, demonstrating a holistic view of sustainability.
12. Bogotá, Colombia
In a city known for crime and slums, one mayor led a crusade against cars that has helped to make Bogotá one of the most accessible and sustainable cities in the Western Hemisphere. Enrique Peñalosa, mayor from 1998 to 2001, used his time in office to create a highly efficient bus transit system, reconstruct sidewalks so pedestrians could get around safely, build more than 180 miles of bike trails, and revitalize 1,200 city green spaces. He restricted car use on city streets during rush hour, cutting peak-hour traffic 40 percent, and raised the gas tax. The city also started an annual "car-free day," and aims to eliminate personal car use during rush hour completely by 2015. Unthinkable!
13. Bangkok, Thailand
Once known for smokestacks, smog, and that unshakeable '80s song, Bangkok has big plans for a brighter future. City Governor Apirak Kosayodhin recently announced a five-year green strategy, which includes efforts to recycle citizens' used cooking oil to make biodiesel, reduce global-warming emissions from vehicles, and make city buildings more efficient. Bangkok has also made notable progress in tackling air pollution over the past decade. Though the city's pollution levels are still higher than some of its big-city Asian counterparts, its progress thus far is impressive.
14. Kampala, Uganda
This capital city is overcoming the challenges faced by many urban areas in developing countries. Originally built on seven hills, Kampala takes pride in its lush surroundings, but it is also plagued by big-city ills of poverty and pollution. Faced with the "problem" of residents farming within city limits, the city passed a set of bylaws supporting urban agriculture that revolutionized not only the local food system, but also the national one, inspiring the Ugandan government to adopt an urban-ag policy of its own. With plans to remove commuter taxis from the streets, establish a traffic-congestion fee, and introduce a comprehensive bus service, Kampala is on its way to becoming a cleaner, safer, more sustainable place to live.
15. Austin, Texas
Austin is poised to become the No. 1 solar manufacturing center in the U.S., and its hometown utility, Austin Energy, has given the notion of pulling power from the sun a Texas-sized embrace. The city is on its way to meeting 20 percent of its electricity needs through the use of renewables and efficiency by 2020. Austin also devotes 15 percent of its land to parks and other open spaces, boasts 32 miles of bike trails, and has an ambitious smart-growth initiative, making it a happy green nook in what's widely perceived as a not-so-green state. To put it mildly.
Chicago, IL, U.S.
Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) is striving to make his hometown "the greenest city in America." There's lots of literal greenery: under his leadership, Chicago has planted 500,000 new trees, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the revitalization of parks and neighborhoods, and added more than 2 million square feet of rooftop gardens, more than all other U.S. cities combined. And there's plenty of metaphorical greening too: the Windy City has built some of the most eco-friendly municipal buildings in the country, been a pioneer in municipal renewable-energy standards, provided incentives for homeowners to be more energy efficient, and helped low-income families get solar power.
Freiburg, Germany
Home to the famously car-free Vauban neighborhood and a number of eco-transit innovations, Freiburg is a tourist destination with a green soul. The city has also long embraced solar power.
Seattle, WA, U.S.
Mayor Greg Nickels (D) has committed his city to meeting the emission-reduction goals of the Kyoto climate treaty, and inspired more than 590 other U.S. mayors to do the same. True to its name, the Emerald City is also planting trees, building green, and benefiting from biodiesel and hybrid buses.
Quebec City, Canada
Dubbed the most sustainable city in Canada by the Corporate Knights Forum, Quebec wins big points for clean water, good waste management, and bike paths aplenty. C'est magnifique!

Daniel Berrigan and Prayer for the Morning Headlines

New Berrigan book to be celebrated at Coopers Union
• Monday, October 8, 2007
Father Berrigan was one of the primary inspirations and reasons I decided to be a war resister, and has been a significant influence in my life. Further, his residence - and living "underground" - on Block Island where I lived and had a business from 1987 to 2004, served to provide me a deeper appreciation of his life and work. I've met and talked with him when he has come to Block Island, and as Kurt Vonnegut has said, "he is Jesus as a poet", a most gentle and powerful presence, a guiding light and fearless fighter for justice. - MS
A celebration heralding the publication of “Prayer for the Morning Headlines: On the Sanctity of Life and Death,” a new collection of poetry by priest, anti-war activist, and Nobel Peace Prize-nominee Daniel Berrigan, with photographs by Adrianna Amari, is scheduled for Monday, October 15, at 6:30 p.m. in The Great Hall at Cooper Union, 7 East 7th Street at Third Avenue, Manhattan, N.Y. The event is free and open to the public. Berrigan and his late brother, Philip, both Catholic priests, were part of the “Catonsville 9,” a group that protested the Vietnam War by breaking into military recruitment offices and destroying draft documents. Their civil disobedience led to jail time; the FBI arrested Daniel Berrigan at a home off Spring Street on Block Island. The new book, with an introduction by historian Howard Zinn and endorsements from the late Kurt Vonnegut, Ramsey Clark, Martin Sheen, James Carroll and others, was published by Loyola College in Baltimore.The October 15 event will be hosted by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, and will feature Berrigan, with a special guest appearance by Ramsey Clark — U. S. Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson — and performances by the Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus, young people from The Builders of the New World Program of The Actors Theatre Workshop, and Thurman E. Scott, the program’s teacher and founder.

Copies of the book will be on sale, courtesy of Bluestockings, photographs from the book will be on exhibit, and representatives from peace and social justice organizations will display information.As Zinn states in his introduction, “… it was in Baltimore that Adrianna Amari took her extraordinary photographs of sculptures scattered through the city. It is all there, as in Berrigan’s poems — life and death, the prayer that comes with commitment, the hope that comes with resistance, the visions of a world where peace and justice prevail.”

Before he died a few months ago, Vonnegut wrote, “For me, Father Berrigan is Jesus as a poet. If this be heresy, make the most of it.” “Dan Berrigan is a national treasure, and he has added another powerful, poignant book to his towering life’s work. ‘Prayer for the Morning Headlines’ is full with the horror and hope that confront us now,” says Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Secret History of the War on Cancer

Like so many other "Wars", the industrial-complex that has risen from the crisis in health care relating to cancer research is conflicted with competing interests, and questions remain as to who is benefiting, and what is the true cost to patient, and community. I highly recommend you read this important and landmark examination of a subject that touches millions of people every year.

From the National Book Award finalist, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, a searing, haunting and deeply personal account of the War on Cancer.
The War on Cancer set out to find, treat, and cure a disease. Left untouched were many of the things known to cause cancer, including tobacco, the workplace, radiation, or the global environment. Proof of how the world in which we live and work affects whether we get cancer was either overlooked or suppressed.
This has been no accident.
The War on Cancer was run by leaders of industries that made cancer-causing products, and sometimes also profited from drugs and technologies for finding and treating the disease. Filled with compelling personalities and never-before-revealed information, The Secret History of the War on Cancer shows how we began fighting the wrong war, with the wrong weapons, against the wrong enemies--a legacy that persists to this day.
This is the gripping story of a major public health effort diverted and distorted for private gain.
A portion of the profits from this book will go tosupport research on cancer prevention.

About the Author: Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. She was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in 1994 and also served as Scholar in Residence at the National Academy of Science. She lives in Pittsburgh.

Monday, October 01, 2007

NY Film Festival - Venturesome Tickets

The New York Film Festival occupies a unique status in the world of cinema, both artistically, aesthetically, and in the gritty business of film - the distribution, the criticism, the audience. The NY Times' major film critic examines this year's lineup and in the process the greater issues this revered festival raises, as only NY can do. As a former New Yorker, and where my older son still lives, I cannot deny I (still) love New York, everything about it. As any NY'er will proudly tell you, it IS the best city in the world. Cinema reigns here in it's own quirky NY fashion- whether at Lincoln Center or as viewed through the chaotic Tribeca's ascendancy as a showcase in it's own right. While Lincoln Center expands, there's also no denying some venerated NY theaters have been shuttered, where foreign films were celebrated. The film fests fill that void, yet questions about the very future of cinema remain, a long held debate within the industry - ever since silent film went all talky! - MS

A taste of sleaze, a blast of sex, some manufactured dissent and art, glorious art — the 45th New York Film Festival offers something tasty for every discriminating cinematic palate. Proudly, at times lazily, this is a festival that always demands discrimination from its audience, a sense of adventure, even as it also relies on no small amount of brand loyalty. You can call the festival elitist — really, go ahead, it’s a badge of honor — as well as maddening, inspiring, out of touch and in the know, but this year you certainly can’t call it dull.
This year the programmers have rounded up fewer of the usual suspects and taken actual chances, particularly with Abel Ferrara (“Go Go Tales”), Catherine Breillat (“The Last Mistress”) and Brian De Palma (“Redacted”). The down-and-dirty Mr. Ferrara, one of the few real New Yorkers in the lineup, is guaranteed to outrage as much as entertain with his sentimental strip-club story, as is Ms. Breillat, a committed French philosopher of the boudoir. Both their films feature the Italian actress Asia Argento, a skinny vamp who has unexpectedly ripened into a terrific actress. A little messy and unpredictable, Ms. Argento has range and heat, which makes her a fitting emblem for the festival at its most vigorous.
As it has in the past, the festival has drawn heavily from this year’s excellent Cannes Film Festival to help build a strong program. More than half the New York selections will open theatrically in the coming year (some will also play as videos on demand), including Ms. Breillat’s “Last Mistress,” Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park,” Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There,” Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon” and Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (Lee Chang-dong’s heartbreaker “Secret Sunshine” does not yet have distribution, so catch it if you can.) These titles challenge, engage, thrill and sometimes appall. They are alive to the world, not just cinema’s own dusty glory.
That history has at times seemed to weigh too heavily on the New York Film Festival, which got off to a heady start in the enchanted art-house year of 1963 with films by Yasujiro Ozu, Chris Marker and Jean-Pierre Melville. In the years that followed, the festival tapped more baby auteurs and grand masters (Rivette, Imamura, Fassbinder), bringing the best in world cinema to an appreciative, movie-hungry city. That was then, this is now. This country’s appetite for foreign-language cinema has so perilously diminished, even in New York, that these days some of the festival’s more obscure names — Jia Zhang-ke, Alexander Sokurov, Bela Tarr — would probably elicit more huhs than huzzahs. But to some of us, these are rock stars.
After foolishly passing on his first two features, the festival has made room this year for another (rising) star, the Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. His “Silent Light,” a luminous drama set in a rural religious community, is precisely the kind of uncompromised work of art that needs a festival push and that this festival, in turn, needs to burnish its high-art reputation. Even so, there’s no question that a strain of pragmatism runs through most film programming, which probably explains why one of the festival’s 28 feature slots has been reserved for those crowd-pleasing headliners, the Coen brothers, on board with their relievedly straight adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men.” The festival may be elitist, but it also understands the value of marquee names.
And indeed the festival opens tonight with Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited,” which will be released commercially tomorrow in New York, including at a theater a few blocks from Lincoln Center, its home. No matter: 4,000 festivalgoers have sold out the festival theaters where the film is playing this evening — and at upward of $40 a pop. The festival’s imprimatur affirms Mr. Anderson’s status as a director of note, and his film brings it red-carpet opportunities, as does the centerpiece (“No Country for Old Men”) and another selection showing this first week, Julian Schnabel’s “Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which weds avant-garde gestures to glossy-magazine aesthetics. It may not be art, but it’s pretty and it’s in French, and it brings a tear to the eye.
More venturesome choices from the first week include Mr. Sokurov’s startling and dreamy “Alexandra,” in which the octogenarian opera star Galina Vishnevskaya plays — eccentrically, mesmerizingly — a Russian babushka who pays a bizarre visit to her grandson at the Chechen front. And while it drove me bonkers at Cannes, Mr. Tarr’s film “The Man From London” (an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel) is definitely worth a look — a patient look — for the way Mr. Tarr carves up space with light and camera movement, and for the unsettling sight (and sounds) of the British actress Tilda Swinton as a Hungarian-dubbed hausfrau. Mr. Sokurov and Mr. Tarr are among the most fascinating filmmakers working today, and these films are, as of press time, without American distribution.
I wish I liked Eric Rohmer’s “Romance of Astrée and Céladon” or even found it interesting as a later-life artifact. (Mr. Rohmer turned 87 this year.) Based on Honoré d’Urfé’s 17th-century novel, the film follows two dippy fifth-century lovers through the agonies of love and betrayal, as well as one too many awkwardly composed shots. The film, which plays this weekend, has its fans, but despite some pertly attractive female nudity, I found it moribund and badly performed to the point of distraction. There’s something noble, if that’s the word, about the festival’s loyalty to auteurs like Mr. Rohmer, and perhaps the selection committee actually loves the film and didn’t just succumb to sentimentality.
Even so, though not an admirer, I do understand why the Rohmer is in the festival. The same cannot be said for “The Orphanage,” a slick Spanish horror film directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. The cinematography looks moody and pristine, the actors hit their marks, the story amuses without being especially surprising or scary or innovative. I have similar reservations about Ira Sachs’s cynical excursion into 1940s unhappiness with “Married Life,” which features top-notch performances from Patricia Clarkson, Chris Cooper, Rachel McAdams and especially Pierce Brosnan. Few actors play cads as persuasively as Mr. Brosnan — more, more! — and it’s always nice to see Ms. McAdams, even if she doesn’t do much but flaunt her dimples. (Both films play this weekend and have distribution.)
In recent years the festival, perhaps in response to the far larger Tribeca Film Festival, has expanded its offerings. Alongside “Views From the Avant-Garde,” the festival’s annual, ambitious showcase of experimental cinema and video, it is presenting a tribute to the Hong Kong-based Cathay Studios, featuring classic titles from the 1950s and 1960s. There’s also a handful of music documentaries (Bob Dylan, Tom Petty); a fund-raising shebang sponsored by New Line Cinema; and several retrospective screenings, including John M. Stahl’s feverish “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), a film noir in lurid Technicolor, and John Ford’s “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939). Also screening is the so-called definitive edition (HA!) of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), which remains a masterpiece, even with fiddles and tweaks.
This is an important year for the New York Film Festival, partly because it will not be showing films in its usual big house, Alice Tully Hall, which is closed (well, all but gutted) during Lincoln Center’s massive renovation. Much of its screenings will take place at the Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center a few long blocks south of Lincoln Center. Home to Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rose Hall is on the center’s fifth floor, which means that this year you can pick up an organic apple at the Whole Foods on your way to the movies. None of this appears to have affected sales, and as of yesterday afternoon more than half the screenings were sold out.
Even more important is what the renovations mean for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the festival’s parent organization. When the renovations are finished — optimistically in 2009 — the Film Society will have a new public home on the south side of 65th Street called the Elinor Bunin-Munroe Film Center. This large new space will include an education center, gallery, cafe, indoor amphitheater and two theaters (90 and 150 seats) to complement the recently refurbished 268-seat Walter Reade Theater across the street and up one flight of stairs. For the Film Society, which has had to make do with a theater hidden from pedestrian view, tucked in the equivalent of Lincoln Center’s backyard, this is exciting news.
The question is how the Film Society will rise to the occasion of these new digs: notably, will it expand beyond its cozy core constituency? For those of us who have despaired at the Walter Reade’s inability to fill its seats consistently, and for those of us who have also long thought of the New York Film Festival as an uptown event, these are no small matters. The Film Society does get out of the neighborhood, most recently with outdoor screenings in Stuyvesant Town, but its distance from many of the city’s most vibrant communities can make it seem as remote as the far side of the Moon. The Film Society has often seemed as if it expected the city to come to it, never the reverse.
Its willingness to go beyond its comfort and perhaps even its geographic zone feels especially urgent now because it won’t be long before the old art-house faithful start slipping away like Antonioni and Bergman. Cinemania is alive and well on the Internet, notably in blogs, where young movie nuts rant and rave and help cultivate one another’s cinematic interests. This is heartening, but film — especially the kind that distinguishes this year’s edition of the New York Film Festival — needs more than passion. It needs an audience, a paying public. If we don’t cultivate a new generation of movie lovers who get excited at the very idea of a Hou Hsiao-hsien film, we may as well hold a memorial service for foreign-language-film theatrical distribution right now.
You bring the flowers; I’ll bring the Scotch.