Thursday, February 28, 2013

Social Cohesion and Climate Crises

Two articles accessed through discuss the importance of social cohesion for dealing with climate change and the aftermath of extreme weather events. Studies of disasters show that living in a walkable neighbourhood where you have frequent contact with people on the streets and local businesses promotes the kind of social network that will support you through a crisis. 

By Sarah Goodyear

When dealing with severe weather events, the type that climate change is making more common, improved infrastructure is important. But the social ties of a neighborhood – the kind of relationships that are nurtured by trips to the corner coffee shop and chats on the sidewalk – might prove equally important when it comes to saving lives.
In a New Yorker article this week (behind a paywall), sociologist Eric Klinenberg looks at the impact that solid, place-based social networks can have on protecting lives in a natural disaster. He takes as his example the Chicago heat wave of July 1995, which killed 739 people. As you might expect, the mortality rates were highest in poor neighborhoods. African-American communities were particularly badly affected.
But in two adjacent neighborhoods that were demographically nearly identical – mostly black, with high concentrations of poverty and elderly residents -- Klinenberg reports the death rates were vastly different. Englewood recorded a fatality rate of 33 per 100,000 residents. Right next door, Auburn Gresham’s rate was 3 per 100,000, better than many rich neighborhoods on the city’s mostly white North Side. From the New Yorker piece:
The key difference between neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and others that are demographically similar turned out to be the sidewalks, stores, restaurants, and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors. The people of Englewood were vulnerable not just because they were black and poor but also because their community had been abandoned. Between 1960 and 1990, Englewood lost fifty per cent of its residents and most of its commercial outlets, as well as its social cohesion….Auburn Gresham, by contrast, experienced no population loss in that period. In 1995, residents walked to diners and grocery stores. They knew their neighbors. They participated in block clubs and church groups….
[D]uring the severe heat waves that are likely to hit Chicago and other cities in the near future, living in a neighborhood like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in each room.
After Superstorm Sandy, neighborhood networks like the ones that Klinenberg references in his piece were activated quickly around the five boroughs. Community-based groups such asRed Hook Initiative in Brooklyn (where I volunteered after the storm), which already had deep roots in the area, were able to call on existing relationships and get help where it was needed, even as government and national relief organizations were falling short.
What’s more, in places where different social groups had robust internal connections but didn’t really interact with each other, storm survival and recovery provided a framework for building new alliances. They haven’t always been seamless or comfortable, but they have been happening.
It happened in Red Hook, where residents of the public housing projects found themselves working alongside business owners from the gentrified streets nearby. It happened in the often fractious Rockaways, where surfers and firefighters and everyone else has pitched in to clean the streets and rip moldy sheetrock from homes, despite past resentments and divisions. For the most part, strength has built on strength.
"I don’t think in any way did it change the tight-knit community, other than to make us tighter," says one Rockaways surfer and homeowner in a video about the storm’s aftermathproduced by Surfer magazine. "Because I don’t know anyone who didn’t help out."
As cities prepare for climate change in earnest, they’re going to need to harden infrastructure, change building patterns, and overhaul government emergency procedures. But they’re also going to have to put a greater value on the human connections that can be found in walkable neighborhoods where people know each other and support local businesses. It’s not just about quality of life. It’s about survival.

by Eric Kleinberg, The New Yorker

DEPT. OF URBAN PLANNING about “climate-proofing.” For the past decade and a half, governments around the world have been investing in elaborate plans to “climate-proof” their cities—protecting people, businesses, and critical infrastructure against weather-related calamities. Much of this work involves upgrading what engineers call “lifeline systems”: the network infrastructure for power, transit, and communications, which are crucial in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Some of the solutions are capital-intensive and high-tech; some are low- or no-tech approaches, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them. Even if we managed to stop increasing global carbon emissions tomorrow, we would probably experience several centuries of additional warming, rising sea levels, and more frequent dangerous weather events. If our cities are to survive, we have no choice but to adapt. Writer speaks with Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University. Genuine adaptation, Jacob believes, means preparing for the inevitable deluge. “The ocean is going to reclaim what we took from it,” he said. He thinks that New York can learn from Rotterdam, which has a long history of flooding. After enduring a devastating storm surge in 1953, Rotterdam began building a series of dams, barriers, and seawalls. It’s now experimenting with an architecture of accommodation: it has a floating pavilion in the city center, made of three silver half spheres with an exhibition space that’s equivalent to four tennis courts, and buildings whose façades, garages, and ground-level spaces are engineered to be waterproof. It also has a resilient power grid, designed to withstand strong winds and heavy rain, with power lines which are primarily underground and encased in water-resistant pipes. The island nation of Singapore offers other lessons. Singapore began adapting to dangerous weather thirty years ago, after a series of heavy rains during monsoon season caused repeated flooding in the low-lying city center. Mentions Singapore’s Marina Barrage and Reservoir, which opened in 2008. Still, a strategy of resilience will involve more than changes to our physical infrastructure. Increasingly, governments and disaster planners are recognizing the importance of social infrastructure: the people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support. “There’s a lot of social-science research showing how much better people do in disasters, how much longer they live, when they have good social networks and connections,” says Nicole Lurie, a former professor of health policy who has been President Obama’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response since 2009. Discusses, at length, the case of a deadly 1995 heat wave in Chicago, during which people living in neighborhoods with stronger social networks fared better than people who lived in comparable, but less socially cohesive, neighborhoods. Since 1995, officials in Chicago have begun to take these factors into account. City agencies have maintained a database that lists the names, addresses, and phone numbers of old, chronically ill, and otherwise vulnerable people, and city workers call or visit to make sure they’re safe. 

Read more:

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Italy's Election: Networked Politics

The recent Italian elections have seen the rise of the "five star" movement founded and led by Mr Beppe Grillo (shown in the picture above). The movement is a "non party" completely structured around Internet networking. We may call it "networked politics" and it is surely a revolutionary innovation. But will it make a difference?

I've done some more investigation of Beppe Grillo's Movimento 5 Stelle. It has a very Green agenda, but it's more like the Pirate Party with a greener slant.

The Federation of Greens is the official Green Party of Italy, but only garners 2% of the vote. They have worked in coalition with Socialist and Communist parties and tend be socialist Greens. Beppe Grillo's M5S has a Green agenda, but rejects (even ridicules) socialist politics, which is probably why M5S got 25% of the vote. M5S pulled votes from both the Right and the Left. The Federation of Greens supports Grillo's M5S movement:

"In September 2010 the Greens launched an Ecologist Constituent Assembly. In Bonelli's view the new political force would have taken inspiration both from the French Verts and the German Grünen and would have be open to the contribution of movements and associations, notably including Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement."[Wikipedia]

Franco 'Biffo' Berardi also supports the M5S movment: 

"This movement of society that you propose, would it have any programme?
"The programme was set forth by Beppe Grillo, a programme which, despite what the professional liars of La Repubblica say, is very reasonable:

A citizen wage Reduction of the working week to 30 hours.The restitution to schools of the 8 billion dollars that the Berlusconi government stole from the education system. Good working conditions for all precarious workers in education, health and transport. Nationalisation of banks that have favoured speculation at the cost of the community. Immediate abolition of the fiscal pact."

The Italian national elections of this week have seen a clear winner: the "five star movement," founded by Mr. Beppe Grillo, former actor now turned politician. The movement didn't gain a majority, but it managed a stunning feat by gathering almost one quarter of the valid votes in its first appearance in a nation-wide election, nearly matching the results of the main traditional parties in Italy. More than that, Grillo and his colleagues were able to make the other parties look old, useless, and worn out in their desperate attempts of gathering votes by making promises that they knew they could never maintain.

This success is all the more surprising if we consider that the national political program of the movement is contained in just fifteen pages of generic proposals. The movement is a "non party" without a hierarchy and where elected members are seen just as spokespersons for the others. Most of the movement's candidates had little or no previous political experience and none of them is a known figure in politics or culture. The movement didn't do traditional media advertising and Mr. Grillo never even appeared on a TV debate. So, most voters seem to have chosen the movement as a reaction against the old parties, perceived as staffed with thieves, sex maniacs, and all sort of criminals. At least, this is the general interpretation of the results of the recent Italian elections. But, probably, the explanation goes somewhat deeper.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Crisis of Civilization: the Neo-Liberal Crisis

This film, "The Crisis of Civilization", narrated by Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, is a very sophisticated and carefully argued explanation of the current crisis of energy, climate, food production, financial instability, war and terrorism. Before you dismiss it as just another conspiracy film, or just another home-made doc on peak oil and climate change, watch it through, it's only 77 minutes. It's not a conspiracy film because it presents a much more sophisticated and nuanced explanation using a theory akin to Wallerstein's World Systems Theory. And it's much more than a doc on 'peak everything' because it explains in great detail how Neo-Liberal economic policy is a key driver behind all these crisis.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Full Employment Through Cooperatives

The great British economist the late Joan Robinson once observed that the only thing worse than being exploited by capitalism is not being exploited by capitalism. This truth is felt acutely by anyone who is unemployed and looking for work. As the pain of the economic crisis continues and millions struggle to find employment there is an obvious imperative to create jobs—any jobs. But we shouldn’t stop there. In Back to Full EmploymentRobert Pollin makes the essential point that “a workable definition of full employment should refer to an abundance of decent jobs.” Poor jobs that keep workers minimally employed but leave them in precarious circumstances and unable to participate fully in civic and political life are better than no jobs at all. But in terms of public policy we can and should aim higher—especially as decent jobs not only benefit the workers that hold them but also the communities in which they live. Absent a stable economic base, community itself is compromised.
Three elements of the instability challenge lend critical perspective to the issue. The first can be seen in the long-term results of the decline of manufacturing industry in the rust belt. We have in fact been quite literally “throwing away” entire cities—cities like Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis. Since 1950, Cleveland and St. Louis have each lost half a million people, drops of more than 50 and 60 percent respectively; in Detroit, the fall in numbers has topped a million, more than 60 percent. The uncontrolled corporate decision-making that results in the elimination of jobs in one community—leaving behind empty houses, half-empty schools, roads, hospitals, public buildings, and so forth—implicitly requires that they be rebuilt in a different location. Quite apart from the human costs involved, the process is extremely costly in terms of capital and also of carbon content—and at a time when EPA studies show that greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity in the United States are still moving in the wrong direction (having jumped by over 3 percent between 2009 and 2010 alone).
A second aspect relates to democracy. Substantial local economic stability is clearly necessary if democratic decision-making is a priority. A local population tossed hither and yon by uncontrolled economic forces is unable to exercise any serious interest in the long-term health of the community. To the extent local budgets are put under severe stress by instability, local community decision-making (as political scientist Paul E. Peterson has shown) is so financially constrained as to make a mockery of democratic process. This becomes still more problematic if we recognize—as theorists from Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill to Benjamin Barber, Jane Mansbridge, and Stephen Elkin have argued—that an authentic experience of local democratic practice is also absolutely essential for there to be genuine national democratic practice.
Thirdly, and straightforwardly, it will be impossible to do serious local “sustainability planning”—mass transit, high-density housing, and so forth—that reduces a community’s carbon footprint if such planning is disrupted and destabilized by economic turmoil.
So yes, we need jobs. And yes, we need good jobs. But we also need an approach to good jobs that will allow us to grapple with the challenges indicated above while at the same time begin tackling the grotesque maldistribution of wealth in this country—a distribution that has reached literally medieval proportions. The top 400 individuals now control as much wealth as the bottom 180 million Americans taken together.
How to go about all this? As we—hopefully—begin to adopt smarter public policies aimed at reaching full employment, we should maximize the impact of these policies by choosing strategies likely to economically stabilize our cities and regions. A decent job should be understood as one which not only pays well, but which is anchored in a community, and which in turn anchors a worker and participant in the civic life of that community. If the culprit behind economic destabilization, and its catastrophic effects in terms of employment, is capital mobility, the solution will require increasing the proportion of capital held by actors with a long-term commitment to a given locality or region.
The problem, however, is that major footloose corporations are not only able but willing to jump from one city to another as they chase “incentives”—and mayors and governors waste taxpayer dollars in endless bidding wars. This raises the question of alternative ownership forms (something Pollin also began to take up ina 2012 article in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society). By rooting ownership broadly in the community, jobs stay put. And jobs that stay put create more jobs, through the multiplier effect of money circulating within a community as well as by expanding the tax base of cash-strapped local governments.
Worker and community ownership—whether through employee stock ownership plans or more egalitarian or community strategies—are forms of ownership relevant to thinking about jobs, job creation, and local economic stability. Crucially, community or cooperative ownership of jobs appears all but certain to yield more stable long-term employment than traditional corporate strategies, and is thus more valuable as part of a package of policies aimed at full employment. Companies owned by people who live in the community rarely if ever get up and move.
Traditional employers also have an incentive to keep labor costs low and will use workers only for as long as they are needed on a particular job. A number of community enterprises now aim to maximize employment over the long term. Instead of treating employees as disposable, such employers seek ways to find new work for their workforce or share existing work. (The BBC recently provided a striking example of this in their coverage of the resilience of the Basque country’s Mondragón cooperatives. In the regions where Mondragón has a significant presence, the unemployment rate is around half that of the rest of Spain.)
Worker ownership works in the US, as well. It’s not often realized that there are over 10 million Americans who work at jobs they also own—more than are members of unions in the private sector. In Cleveland an innovative complex of worker owned cooperatives, linked through a revolving fund and a non-profit corporation—and in part supported by procurement from non-profit hospitals and universities—has become a model for several other community efforts. A large part of this recent boom in worker ownership is due to federal policy; specifically, legislation that created substantial tax advantages for business owners who sell their ownership stake to their workers.
Another example of how smart policy has been used to cost-effectively support a worker-ownership job retention strategy can be found in the Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC). The OEOC has used a relatively modest amount of state and federal funding (less than $1 million annually) to facilitate worker takeovers of firms whose owners are retiring or that are threatened with closure. Such firms, owned by workers, are city (and tax base) stabilizers: they do not get up and move. The OEOC has created enormous economic returns—retaining jobs at a cost of less than $800 per job and helping stabilize thousands of jobs in Ohio cities. This is in sharp contrast to traditional economic subsidies aimed at job retention, which cost far more, deliver less, and often lead to a destructive—and destabilizing—subsidy arms-race between different cities and states.
How might we begin, on a national level, to build a strategy to mobilize worker and community ownership as a means of reaching full employment? One policy intervention that could go a long way intersects with another of Robert Pollin’s concerns in Back to Full EmploymentHe notes that while successive rounds of economic stimulus have kept interest rates low, they have not always succeeded in making credit available to small businesses. Small worker owned businesses could benefit from policies that specifically expanded their access to credit. (In addition to the general reticence around lending Pollin highlights, these kinds of projects, especially cooperatives, have to deal with lending institutions that are often unfamiliar with or even hostile to democratized enterprises.)
Legislation has also been proposed that would start to modestly address this problem: Chaka Fattah’s National Cooperative Act or Bernie Sanders’ United States Employee Ownership Bank Act. But there are also existing programs that could be expanded: the Small Business Administration, for example, is running a very interesting initiative, the Intermediary Lending Pilot Program, which leverages existing local and regional community-oriented nonprofits to decentralize the loan-making process. One of the intermediaries here is theCooperative Fund of New England, which is using the funds made available to the program to fund cooperatives; we can imagine, with adequate support, similar local cooperative funding initiatives across the country.
In short, if we’re serious about full employment, and about creating and preserving decent jobs, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to traditional conceptions of the kinds of companies that create jobs. Indeed, by leveraging worker and community ownership strategically, we’re not just embracing a potentially transformative strategy to democratize wealth in the long term, we’re picking potentially one of the most effective strategies available to support a long-term process of job creation that could lead us back both to full employment and community stability. At the same time, we can also help develop concrete ways to begin the long, hard task of democratizing the ownership of wealth in the United States.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Coming Off the Dark Mountain

What have we learned from our urgent debates on climate change, peak oil, fracking, war and financial collapse? Have we learned something other than paranoia and fear of system collapse? If that’s all we’ve learned, then we’ve lost the opportunity to awaken from our technocidal nightmare, to learn something profoundly meaningful and constructive. These crises provide us with the opportunity to learn the most valuable lesson of all, which is that we’re all deeply connected to each other and the earth. This is the hard lesson we’ve been avoiding in the over-developed West for over 500 years, and we’re paying the price for it now—and so is everyone else on the planet—in the form of energy depletion, economic collapse, civil war and a badly disrupted climate. 

But we still have a chance to learn the one lesson that needs to come out of all this in order to turn our culture around and survive the crisis—we have to learn that we are deeply connected to each other and to the earth, that every action we take affects many other people and species near and far, now and long into the future. If our response is only to run away to an isolated village and attempt some DIY survivalist homesteading, then we haven’t learned that we’re all deeply connected. If our answer is to stockpile weapons for fear of attack by hostile ‘others’, then we’ve learned that we’re deeply connected, but only in the darkest and most paranoid sense. 

Indeed, all we’ve been able to articulate about this connectedness thus far is that our energy, food and livelihoods are ‘over-connected’ and over-managed by a global corporate elite, and thus susceptible to collapse. That over-connectedness by corporate elites only chains us to their system, while it severs our consciousness and connection with the earth and each other. We are at war with each other and the earth while we rail at our corporate overlords. That is the dark side of connectedness, but it is a dark connectedness that divides us against each other, unable to feel empathy for others, atomized, isolated and afraid. 

But there is a light side to this same dark awareness of our ‘over-connectedness’—we can begin to work through these same tightly connected networks to steer this culture in a new direction of other-centredness, of taking actions that benefit everyone, all species and ecosystems, not just ourselves and our immediate needs. We can take care of each other and all species with fairness and compassion. We need to learn this while we still have time. We need to use issues like climate change, fracking, peak oil, civil war and economic collapse to connect with all species of others empathically, to turn this culture around, to talk, sing and shout to the world that we are all deeply connected.

In the following short interview with Bill Moyers, Vandana Shiva talks about our connectedness with the each other and the earth.