Saturday, May 31, 2008

On tilting at Windmills:

Every once in a while, sitting in traffic or looking out the window of a tall building, I have a moment where I involuntarily step back and look at the world and see it literally swarming with cars. It’s at these moments that I become pessimistic and I say to myself and whoever will listen, “we’re doomed.” And though I think we probably are, I believe we owe it to the Earth that has sustained us to at least try to change.

I know how hard it is. I try—I recycle my toothbrushes (Preserve brand) and use paper produce bags (or none) for just a couple of examples--but because of my situation I find I have to drive my car. It takes several buses to get to my son’s daycare and I have nowhere to store a bike.

But we need to try harder. We need to start making wholesale changes. We need to use tax breaks and subsidies and market forces to push people and corporations to change.

Cars are a major problem-- for me and for everyone. We’ve got the technology to make cars more efficient, but more efficient hybrid cars remain more expensive and hard to get. The government should be putting its research dollars and brains into this rather than into landing on Mars. Large scale production of biofuels is wreaking havoc on our food system. Maybe they’re not the answer (or maybe we need to change the focus of the food system—corn sweetners and soy are ruining our health anyway). I think we need to look not just at how to continue driving as we always have, but at ways to restructure our communities to make long distance travel an occasional indulgence, rather than a daily necessity.

Eating locally would also cut down on emissions generated by the transport of food. This would probably mean curtailing sprawl (maybe even taking back already developed land) to make room for farms. Finally, a justifiable use of eminent domain.

The silver lining in the ridiculously high gas prices we’ve been experiencing (we’re finally beginning to catch up to the rest of the world—it’s been $6+ in Turkey for years) is that people are starting to reduce their use. They’re buying smaller cars and taking the bus more. The gas tax holiday that’s been proposed will only help undo the positive work high prices have done and won’t help consumers much anyway. Let’s make sure policies make sense and don’t just pander to desperate consumers who often can’t see beyond their next paycheck. Government is supposed to help us take the long view not let us avoid facing reality.

The considerable power of the sun, water and wind remain largely untapped. Massachusetts has been tied up in the controversy over putting a windmill farm off Cape Cod for years. I don’t really understand the controversy. There are several large turbines in the marshes outside Atlantic City, where I grew up, and the birds don’t seem to mind at all. People like them too. Don Quixote was right: they are a bit like giants—though these are beneficent ones. Once again, I think the government needs to take a stand against wealthy interests on the Cape who don’t want their view “spoiled.”

Maybe we are tilting at windmills but, paradoxically, policies that let us build a few more windmills might give us a fighting chance.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On trees: not for human consumption

I was driving down American Legion Highway in Boston a few months ago when I was suddenly assaulted by the sun where it hadn’t shone before. I knew immediately something was different and it wasn’t long before I realized that some of the venerable old trees that made that highway a parkway were gone. The road had been under construction for some time (one of those blue pet projects signs boasted “renovations” were being done and credited the Mayor and other officials), but I had not known taking trees was in the plan. I considered calling the city to complain but decided that in this era of greening they couldn’t be planning to take them all. It just wouldn’t make sense.

Day after day more of the 30 or 40 year-old trees disappeared. It was too late to call the city. There was no going back.

That’s the thing about trees. What’s taken half a century to grow can be cut down in half an hour.

They came through after the last frost and popped in a bunch of spindly new saplings (planted them too close together, I’m pretty sure). I’m glad that tree-lined is still a goal, but little tiny trees are in all ways inferior to mature trees. They provide no shade, less in the way of cooling effects due to water content, less carbon abatement, less beauty. And with global overheating, it’s harder to get a young tree to survive its youth. I almost lost the Heritage River birch I planted in our yard last year; it was quite a bit more established than the new highway trees and I had just one to worry about. The city is notorious for planting truckloads of trees and then neglecting them in their hour of drought. Then they come through with another truck and pull out the casualties.

In our consumer culture, new is always ideal. If we aren’t buying new cars, new furniture, new clothes, our economy will suffer (and we might fall out of fashion—God forbid). Economists and our own elected officials are unabashed about encouraging us to buy more junk we’ll soon throw away (See the Story of Stuff in last December’s post). They’ve even arranged this year for us to get checks meant expressly to be wasted on purchases that will stimulate the economy before ending up in a landfill.

But when it comes to trees, old—or at least middle aged-- is the epitome of fashion.

If we’re not too busy renovating, redesigning and renewing, accumulating stuff to replace too soon, we might leave a few trees, and we might realize that the very best has grown up around us all on its own. We need only enjoy the shade.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Israel, one state of denial:

This week, Bush is in Israel to celebrate Israel’s 60 years of existence and, without irony, America’s 60 years (minus 11 minutes) as its unwavering champion.

How is it consistent with our—or at least Bush’s-- value of promoting liberty throughout the world to support unconditionally the state of Israel, despite human rights abuses as egregious as bulldozing houses, checkpoints and walls to restrict and contain innocent people, the taking and retaking of land, government without representation, 40 years of occupation? I am not immune to the horror that was The Holocaust but isn’t the Palestinians’ Naqba (catastrophe) a similar atrocity?—albeit grinding, relentless and innocuous rather than brief, diabolical and mind-blowing in scale. A religious minority is systematically forced from its land, deprived of basic rights, targeted for all kinds of brutal, invasive and humiliating treatment and killed indiscriminately while the aggressors justify their actions with self-serving illogic.

I don’t see how Bush or anyone else can justify continuing blind support of the Israeli state at all, but this is especially difficult while that very support makes enemies of a great many people in the world-- and rightly so. Some may call Muslims who are desperate and angry about the treatment of the Palestinians fundamentalist crazies. They may decry some Palestinians’ efforts to change the intractable situation in which they find themselves as terrorism. I ask you, is there any other alternative for an oppressed people without a state and an army? What could they do to protect and defend themselves that would be considered legal by the state of Israel and by the world? Further, if our own revolution had not succeeded, wouldn’t the rebels we now call patriots have been labeled terrorists by history?

Once again an American President is claiming he will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of his term. If it is ever to be resolved, Americans must take off the blinders we wear where Israel is concerned. It is not anti-Semitic to call Israel on its transgressions. In fact, enabling Israel to continue to pursue its policy of oppression is as detrimental to its democracy as our new policy of preemptive war is to ours.

Those who claim to be working to prevent another holocaust are fond of quoting George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I would ask them to step back, look at the plight of the Palestinians, and read those very words again.