From Conservative to UKIP, from Lib Dem to Labour.

 

English council election results as of 430 GMT, May 23
English council election results as of 430 GMT, May 23

So there is a massive election going on throughout Europe for the European Parliament, with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom voting Thursday, and the bulk of the continent following on Saturday. The election dynamic is an interesting one – historically the Parliament has been without much authority and thus most elections have had very low turnout. Two dynamics are at play that makes this one a bit different. The first is that since the Treaty of Lisbon, EU bodies have been gaining more authority. Thus these elections are gaining some importance, at least in terms of party prestige.

The second is that in the past few years there has been a sharp increase in eurosceptic parties – a generic term for any party that opposes their country’s inclusion in the European Union. These parties are on balance, though not exclusively, conservative to far-right.

Projections indicate a rise for a coalition headed by the UK Independence Party (‘UKIP’, which is said as a word) and increasing seats for parties to the right of UKIP, like the National Front in France. The influence of these parties is also creeping into other groups. The UK Conservatives are being hounded towards a referendum on Britain in the EU, and the Greens support a referendum out of the necessity of getting it over with and focusing on other policy issues.

What I’ve posted up are the current local election results for councils in England, which were held the same day. EU results will not be posted until Sunday (after all the other countries have voted), so this is the data we have to look at now. It is interesting because British political news has been dominated by three questions:

1) Is UKIP racist? The answer to this, at least from my perspective, is “at the very least, unintentionally.”
2) How big will UKIP’s win be, and will they win the European Parliament elections in the UK?
3) Where is UKIP getting all this support from?

The second question is outstanding, though polling indicates it’s likely. The third we can start looking at thanks to this local election data.

I’m going to make a theory based on the simplest look at this current data, which has been developing since returns started coming in. An issue with this is that positive results are necessarily good results. One can still underperform. However, it seems UKIP is getting their increased support from Conservatives that are either upset with the current Cameron administration, angry at the European Union, or both. It seems to me that the switch between the Liberal Democrats and Labour may also be a simple swing – people that aren’t Conservatives (which to some is a lifestyle, or a cultural taboo) but are tired of the coalition government are switching to Labour. The big loser is the UK government, the big winner are parties in the opposition. It’s something that looks familiar to any American who’s seen enough midterm elections, though this has the dynamic of a new political force entering and taking support, rather than it falling back to the traditional opposition.

The EU vote will be interesting for me, since the Greens enjoyed a late poll surge and may hit 10%. Local elections are a bit more difficult (the EU is very environmentally-focused, so a Green vote makes sense), but I hope they pick up a bit of support. As an outsider it’s difficult to grasp all the subtleties – much of the UK election has been about immigration, and I’m not part of the American contingent that thinks immigration is bad or dangerous.

At some level elections are always interesting. No matter what political body they are for, they can tell people, locals or foreigners, something about the country in question. Here we see two shifts, one against the incumbent regime, and another against the larger union that the United Kingdom is a key part of. Combined they benefit two different forces, namely the establishment opposition and the anti-EU front.

A ton of shark fins: overfishing and sustainability

One of the images captured this week in Hong Kong by the conservationist Gary Stokes.

My home of the San Francisco Bay Area was home to a huge bust of illegal shark fins– possessing and selling them is now banned as of last July. At over a ton, it’s the largest seizure by two orders of magnitude.

Shark fin soup is a famous Asian delicacy, and commands high prices. The law, however, makes this just a misdemeanor. Even with a record fine, it will be dwarfed by the value of the fins and how easily they can be sold given the right connections.

Of all the aspects of environmental protection, ocean management is among the most depressing. Here’s a fantastic animated video made by a European group that shows how much current fishing exceeds scientifically-determined limits for sustainability. European nations still overfish, while poorer nations have less regulation and more dependence on fish for day-to-day survival.

This is a dilemma that I have noticed, though I don’t know if it has a formal name. West Virginia is another example; like coastal towns they are built around a practice that is not healthy for the global environment. Mountaintop removal and coal mining sustain parts of the state, but coal is a huge cause of air pollution and contributes to climate change. Thus any attempt to advocate an environmentally sound approach is a “job killer.”

The anti-coal movement in America has been wildly successful, especially compared to approaches like cap-and-trade that can’t muster political support:

By the time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared the cap-and-trade bill dead in July 2010, the Beyond Coal campaign had helped prevent construction of 132 coal plants and was on the verge of defeating dozens more. It had imposed, noted Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, “a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.”

Stopping new coal plants may be “the most significant achievement of American environmentalists since the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act”

Overfishing, in comparison, has serious obstacles to overcome in all regions- and like opposing coal emission the most difficult step will be in the developing world. Besides redeveloping those places that depend on an unsustainable industry, improving the health of Earth’s oceans requires coastal countries to have food security. As with many big-picture problems, its solution is in fact a bunch of smaller, diverse solutions combined together.

Record cold reported, global warming still not debunked

Warning on Hwy 141 in Georgia.
Credit: John Amis/AP

Al Jazeera America has a nice compact feature about how the record low temperatures and unusual storm activity are evidence that climate change is real and an increasing threat. Peter Moscowitz also makes a distinction that is overlooked (or willfully ignored) by mainstream media outlets translating scientific information-

But those who think cold weather disproves climate change may be ignoring a solid and ever-increasing body of evidence.

Cold weather is just that — weather, which is defined by NASA as “conditions of the atmosphere…over a short period of time.”

According to most climate scientists, no weather condition can be linked to climate change.

Just as the cold snap can’t necessarily be linked to climate by itself, neither can the unprecedented heat wave currently hitting Australia. (It’s so hot, meteorologists have been forced to add new colors to their heat maps.)

But unlike individual events, weather patterns can be linked to climate change. And scientists point out that patterns suggest it’s getting hotter and weather is becoming more dangerous.

Individuals and groups bent on denying scientific consensus use a key dodge in cases like this- where bizarre weather strikes the Pacific Northwest, the Eastern seaboard , and now (again) the South. It is to conflate two related but different terms- global warming and climate change. Skeptical Science has a nice piece explaining the two, and debunking the myth that the former was phased out by political consultants like Frank Lutz.

Global warming is the increase in temperature associated with increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, and climate change are the visible effects of that change. Groups like Fox News and conservative column writers tend to say that record cold weather disproves global warming- when in fact it validates the concept of climate change. Also (probably) willfully ignored is the difference between short-term and long-term. A three-day storm in a region of one country does not reverse decades of planet-wide temperature increase. Perhaps it is a bit of American chauvinism that weather in the United States can prove or disprove global climate theories.

Also, to prove that the latest rabble about global warming being a hoax is regurgitated, here’s a Daily Show segment from almost exactly four years ago. Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean we’re headed for Hoth. Just like when it gets dark at night, eventually the sun will come up.

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-february-10-2010/unusually-large-snowstorm

Can’t drink the water, can’t breathe the air

Credit Reuters/Stringer
Rush hour in Daqing, China, October 21st.
Credit Reuters/Stringer

An unusually toxic smog descended on cities in the far northeast of China, near the border with Russia. Harbin, a city of about 11 million people, was virtually shut down, as were smaller cities in the region like Daqing and Shenyang.

Such destructive air pollution events are common in industrial China, and there are no wide-scale efforts to combat them. In late 1952, a killer smog in London caused thousands of deaths and led to radical environmental legislation.

Smog in Harbin, China. October 21st
Smog in Harbin, China. October 21st

It seems sensible that if China is to become the cultural and economic center of the world, it must address these environmental concerns. At some point, economic growth is hindered by the damage done to the land and the people who live on it. Also grand landmarks like the San Sophia church pictured will always have fewer tourists if the backdrop is so grim.

Fighting back in the war against indigenous people in the Amazon

(credit Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon of NASA Earth Observatory)
(credit Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon of NASA Earth Observatory)

The history of America is one of false promises and broken treaties to indigenous peoples. Settlers would invade a treaty territory and exploit the surrounding resources. Indigenous culture would be eradicated as their ancestral lands were destroyed or transformed.

Some pre-or early agricultural tribes live deep in the Amazon basin. Some of these communities are considered uncontacted, or lost tribes– meaning that they have very little or no contact with wider society. However, the Amazon is rich in resources that get large companies involved. There have fierce clashes between indigenous groups and illegal gold miners, which has led to intervention by Brazilian law enforcement. With the small and partially-uncontacted Awá, the threat of loggers is serious. Of their main section of land, over 30% of the tree cover has been removed. An 8-year-old Awá girl was burned alive by loggers last year, part of a wider system of massacres and intimidation moves by logging interests. Survival International, a group dedicated to helping tribal groups survive serious threats to their way of life, states that 450 indigenous people were murdered from 2003 to 2010.

This is usually when we’d start writing the eulogy to the Awá- they’re outmatched with money and power. But pleas from the tribe and groups, joining with a Survival International campaign, have led to the Brazil government not only listening, but coming to the area with an impressive show of force. Sawmills are being destroyed, and future movements may eradicate illegal logging both within Awá territory and immediately around it.

Any student of American history knows what happened to the indigenous populations, who once lived on wide swaths of land before being escorted off by soldiers with bayonets. These same issues repeat for different countries at different times. Here is a chance to make the story end a little bit better.

Changing the world with pocket change

Ever since I saw his talk at TED 2009, I’ve come to like the perspective of marketing executive Rory Sutherland. His major thesis is that value is more subjective than we tend to think, and thus we can increase value and happiness through ways that don’t cost all that much money or labor. In this talk he applies the thesis to the environmental movement- with enough understanding of what humans value and what makes them happy, you can keep a high level of happiness with fewer material goods. Fewer trees cut down, less plastic in the ocean, a more sustainable energy system.

A later talk, called “sweat the small stuff” talks about how effect and cost are too often assumed to be correlated. The idea that big change could be ingenious and cheap is not in the contemporary vocabulary. In fact, he ends with this graph and asks the audience to name the grey quadrant.

Trim-Tab2

This is not to state that massive social problems do not at some level require a large amount of money and labor. But the point is that if the big parts of a process are a train- the capital, the manpower, and overall goal; then the small stuff are the rails- language, cultural understanding, small-level behavior. If you’re part of the WHO, and you’re trying to eradicate a disease in Pakistan, it’s not just the vaccines and workers. How do you get the population to vaccinate their children? How do you make it universal? How do you avoid clashes with local authorities? This isn’t just a question of money, it’s about understanding other people and encouraging cooperation.

Government programs need comprehensible forms and processes, corporate products need packaging and instructions. If you give machinery to a developing country, it’s not just teaching locals to use it, but also how they will continue to use it and not sell it for scrap. What divides a billion dollars of foreign aid money from being useless (except for a few lucky government officials) or incredibly powerful are small details.

What’s the cost of expanding landfill and increasing cleanup efforts? In contrast, think of how much money was spent changing “garbage” on kiosks in restaurants and airports to “landfill.” Changing human decisions in the small scale may seem trivial at first glance, but in the aggregate it’s key to improving the Earth.

What constitutes progress: consumerism and sustainability

On Monday, I published something about the economic collapse of a industrialized nation, as expertly chronicled in the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demrick. A huge, widespread shift backwards in economic development has happened in many places over human civilization, but the North Korean example is both recent and unusual. War is the most common destroyer of people and their economic capital, but the 1990s showed that international politics could be just as brutal.

I was mulling the term “de-evolution” to refer to what happened in North Korea, but I then thought of my own biases. To some degree, coming from an advanced post-industrial nation, I’m a chauvinist for a certain, consumer-oriented type of economic development. The number of TVs per 1,000 people, the electricity usage of a city, how much they export and how much personal debt they take on. Though I don’t subscribe to the “whoever has the most stuff wins”model of progress, it made me broaden my thinking. Clearly the North Korean example was an unwanted and ultimately deadly series of events. The society had grown to rely on thing like artificial fertilizer, large amounts of electrical power, and a complex and demanding transit infrastructure. When the lights went out, so went industry and agriculture. Disaster.

But, what if a society moved in such a manner, but didn’t require complex industrial products? A society that plans for a regression into a less consumerist, industrialized mindset. I wouldn’t call that a de-evolution- it’s an evolution on a different path.

A few years ago I took a series of long-distance train trips across the United States. During my trip on the Coast Starlight, running from Seattle to Los Angeles, I read the famous novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. Published in 1975, it stands alongside The Dispossessed as an important utopian novel of the late Vietnam period. Both work along similar lines- an absence of consumerism, collective ownership, changes to the social and family structure. However, Ecotopia takes place in my backyard, not another solar system.

I read it during a journey through the lands that formed the nation of Ecotopia. For  a couple days the train rolled through the thick forests, mountain passes, and undulating farmland that carpeted a whole valley. Callenbach was speaking of a society that moved beyond petroleum and artificial products, but didn’t miss them.

When I was 18 I created an independent study that allowed me to examine urban decay and how different parts of the 20th century attempted to revitalize cities. After reading about the iron-fisted destruction of the Bronx by Robert Moses, one tends to gain sympathy for new ideas of sustainability and community. New schools of urban planning emphasize mixed development, environmentally-friendly building, and walkability. The Bay Area sometimes follows these lines, though one look at the traffic-choked highways shows there is much work to be done.

However, much of this thinking is a side-step. Cars aren’t eliminated- they’re made more efficient and perhaps made less necessary through public transit. Cities are still big concrete jungles- just with newer housing and perhaps a couple new parks. It’s not eliminating consumerism, but rather changing to more responsible brands.

Whether this type of society will stave off the huge problems posed by climate change is an open question. Large cities in industrial or post-industrial nations still use huge quantities of water and non-renewable resources. It’s not just the cars, but the pesticides, plastics, and consumer electronics.

Ecotopia has the advantage of being a utopia in the confines of a work of fiction, but it is a portrait of a society that made serious decisions over many years. Large cities like San Francisco are partially abandoned in favor of smaller, more self-sustaining suburbs. Major thoroughfares are turned into gardens and walkways. Policy changes don’t implement authoritarian population control, but do address whether a high birth rate is a major priority. Overall, many of the developments since white migration became substantial in the mid-19th century are slowed or stopped altogether. At the end of the day, there is a smaller electrical grid, a less robust transit system, and very little production of objects which cannot be replenished. In some ways, it’s like 1995 in North Korea, except as a desired outcome rather than a crisis. I, the consumer growth chauvinist, can see a society that moves forward despite moving back in my usual perspective.

Much like Unitarian Universalists have moved to the interdependent web over a linear chain of being, what progress and what regression are should be reconsidered. Society has overall goals that are not always quantitative- happiness, community, tranquility. There is no number of cars per city or megawatts of power consumed that is required to achieve these goals. What is needed is a system that works on the whole, and can work well into the future.

How you achieve that is the great debate.

Idle no more

Two years ago, I took course titled “First Peoples of North America.” It was taught Tuesday nights, from six to ten PM- and since it was the winter we often arrived in darkness. The classroom seemed to be an oasis in a large, mostly empty campus.

The teacher was Mark, soft-spoken white guy who grew up in the same sleepy California suburb that I did. However, a unusual conflict during his stint at Humboldt State led to an interest in indigenous people and their rights. In the late 70s, Northern California natives were pitted against federal authorities over fishing rights in the Klamath River- a conflict sometimes referred to as the “Salmon War.”

From this article:

“Federal agents began to assert control over the Indian gillnetting fishery on the Klamath River. About 20 agents armed with billy clubs grabbed five Yurok Indians and confiscated their salmon catch. The Department of the Interior set up a Court of Indian Offenses to prosecute the cases, however, the judge dismissed the charges and ordered the fish returned to the Indians. The Yurok informed the Department of the Interior that they planned to continue fishing in spite of the fishing ban.

In the conflicts which followed, Indian boats were rammed by federal officials and Indians arrested and jailed by heavily armed agents. In one instance, a federal agent held an Indian’s head under water until he was out of air, let him breathe, and then pushed him back under water. In another instance, an Indian woman was sexually fondled while in handcuffs.”

The conflict took thirty years to finally resolve (improve the salmon run by removing dams on the river), and as the above quote shows, the federal agents used an amount of force that I would call inappropriate.

Mark returned to the Bay and met a large contingent of Lakota that had settled in San Jose- including several leaders in the American Indian Movement (AIM). His story is full of interesting events- helping build and maintain a native-run college called D-Q University, being inducted as an honorary Lakota and communing in a sweat lodge, running across the state to raise money for D-Q and stumbling into a farm worker’s camp run by César Chávez. His history was colorful and his storytelling ability unmatched.

A point he made early on, and reiterated throughout the course, was that this course was not simply a history course. Indigenous inhabitants of North America did not disappear and leave their artifacts behind. They are still here, their story is not finished. It continues.

Thus, a new era is born.

 

They are still here.
They are still here.

Continue reading “Idle no more”