Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was founder of the Green Belt Movement, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the subject of this terrific documentary I watched last night, Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai:

Her simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy in Kenya.

Their workshop topic of the ‘Wrong Bus Syndrome’ remains particularly applicable throughout the world.


The origins of social protest

On this Labor Day, an ode to utilizing art to raise social consciousness. It is odd, though perhaps fitting, that Hugo’s Les Miserables is best known today as a musical. Upton Sinclair included it in his 1915 Anthology of Social Protest. From its debut, the book that is still one of the half-dozen greatest novels in the world struck a tone of moral redemption and social revolution that resonated with the common populace, with a literary style that appealed to intellectuals. It is a rare instance of the joined interests of working people with the aristocracy – one we would do well to remember and hopefully one of the reasons, beyond the singing, that it lives on today. Here’s Hugo’s author preface:

SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Broken Cameras, 5

I’m largely ambivalent about the Academy Awards, but I do like when a powerful documentary has an opportunity for wider exposure because of its nomination. 5 Broken Cameras is one of those films where you ask how did they make that? – and not in the goofy CGI way. I hope it wins.

Two things we like

In an effort to properly scathe those most in need of it, Stephen King has written and published a sort of open-letter pro-gun control essay:

King, who owns three handguns, aimed the expletive-peppered polemic at fellow gun-owners, calling on them to support a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons in the wake of the December shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school which left 20 children and six adults dead.

“Autos and semi-autos are weapons of mass destruction. When lunatics want to make war on the unarmed and unprepared, these are the weapons they use,” King wrote.

He said blanket opposition to gun control was less about defending the second amendment of the US constitution than “a stubborn desire to hold onto what they have, and to hell with the collateral damage”. He added: “If that’s the case, let me suggest that ‘fuck you, Jack, I’m okay’ is not a tenable position, morally speaking.”

No, it is not. A 25-page ebook. Hmmm.

And then, if that’s got you feeling good, LGM linked to these awesome, and rare, color photos from turn-of-the-20th century Paris.


Update: here’s a better link to the Paris color photos, with place IDs. Thanks Dave!

No Metaphor here, Move along!

Unique bird and reptile species of the Galapagos Islands vs. 180 million rats:

A helicopter is to begin dropping nearly 22 tons of specially designed poison bait on an island Thursday, launching the second phase of a campaign to clear out by 2020 non-native rodents from the archipelago that helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The invasive Norway and black rats, introduced by whalers and buccaneers beginning in the 17th century, feed on the eggs and hatchlings of the islands’ native species, which include giant tortoises, lava lizards, snakes, hawks and iguanas. Rats also have depleted plants on which native species feed.

The rats have critically endangered bird species on the 19-island cluster 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from Ecuador’s coast.

Reflections on the Passing of a Car

Value – noun, verb, -ued, -u·ing.

A colleague used this term in a written draft recently and it immediately triggered in me the impulse for the equivalent of an electronic scratch-through; so much do I detest the term as generally construed but especially in the context of quantifying the benefits of something that should be considered in terms of quality.

So, given such a distaste and allergy, the sensible thing is to turn sharply back into the term, which I did on my walk this morning.

One of the qualities still heartily propping up Our Way® is the skewed preference we preserve for the wrong things – wrong in the context of resource depletion and ghg generation, the burning of coal and general wasting of essentials that is the chief characteristic of 1st world progress. We’re not that far away from being able to shift our priorities – the rank of what we value. But we’re also not close to actually doing it, either. We basically market ourselves vis-à-vis that transition as far into the future as possible, so much so as to make the possibility appear remote and implausible, and largely making this so, as well.

Why this disconnect between capability and action? Value (n.,v.) seems to be the culprit.

An example close to home, pun intended: We could value the ability to commute to work on foot more than the ability to drive that Porsche or BMW we cannot afford anyway. Now this one statement is chock-full of some of the neat contradictions that define us. But we do reserve a high degree of importance for the kind of car we can drive, not in any way comparable to that which we attach to walking – which we associate with drudgery as well as a kind of personal failure on the part of the walker. It takes excessive time and energy. But the car, its excessive costs and energy externalities, delivers a kind of status walking cannot touch. The qualitative difference at the center of our ability to value one over the other, despite the terrible quantities of money and energy demanded to hold this equation in place – not to mention the quantities of time and health extracted from us in the exchange – make the arrangement appear permanent and intractable. That’s not even considering the marketing to which we voluntarily submit ourselves and our consciences. Until we realize how we are not the ultimate beneficiaries of this arrangement and attach status value with being able to go car-less, indeed we are trapped within this tight little circle.

Yet it is easy to comprehend: were we availed of it, walking has just as much status potential, with the ability to do it everyday far superior to being trapped in a personal automobile.

Even supposing a person could conquer the desire to drive a Porsche or BMW and replace it with a preference for walking to the same destination, what would a person have to do in order to close the distance. The first order would be actually closing the distance, creating a real choice between the two modes of transportation. Granted, this is not the option for most people, and makes the question moot. But how to move the window? You would have to put value on living with proximity to work, food, school and play, with the ultimate prize being the ability to walk. In-town neighborhoods would be the most desirable (and most highly-valued, touché!); once they are fully occupied, demand drives development at the edges of walkable distances; to remain carless at these edges, public transportation infrastructure crops up to facilitate access to proximity – convenience, but not prioritized for personal automobiles. With this, a cascade of other values fall into place. You suddenly began to value other things that end with you/yours and quality re-enters the picture whereas before only quantity was considered: how many miles to work? How long will it take with traffic? How fast can we eat? How long can he wait at school for me to pick him up? How much does gas cost now? How much for new tires? Repairs?  A tune-up? There is no end to these questions. Their answers may change subtly but their nature does not. They worry and weigh upon us, but these questions are essential trivial – which itself worries and weighs on us, re-enforcing the circle.

We need the slippery slope of weightier issues and topics. Compare to: what is the walk doing to my weight? Am I feeling better with a little more exercise? What should we eat tonight? Is that new book store open? What should I read? What should I write? What new music would I like? Should we get the band back together? Could I learn Italian listening to a podcast five minutes a day? What is Coriander for? These questions are also endless, in a good way as you can see.

Which set of questions do you prefer?

Costs, Benefits and Analysis

This post on the Vélib program in Paris brings up a couple of interesting points. First:

While far behind cities like Amsterdam (who isn’t?), Paris is trying to hold its own in the green sweepstakes. To date, one of its most important projects has been a short-term bicycle rental system. Vélib, which started in 2007, is today fully integrated into the fabric of the city, counting millions of passenger trips each year. In proposing my Autolib article, I explained that the city was seeking to build on that “‘hugely successful’’ model.
My characterization of the bike program as ‘‘hugely successful’’ led to a lively debate among my editors, a number of whom argued that Vélib was not in fact successful because it had failed to reduce traffic and so many of the bicycles are damaged, vandalized or stolen that the program was probably running at a loss.


Programs like Autolib and Vélib have little impact on local air pollution and noise, and whatever effect they do have could probably be achieved at lower cost, he said.
All the same, they can be effective ‘‘in setting a first step towards a transition in transport, energy and the environment — a transition that probably is needed in the next decades,’’ Mr. van Wee said.

Touché. That’s the whole point – there are limits to looking merely at the costs and benefits and calling it analysis. We could be doing all kinds of things by implementing these programs, of which making bikes available for rent is just one. By the same, very same, token, it is possible to look at the cost of say, a bike program, and compare it to the costs of a personal automobile program. We have an abiding belief that the costs of roads, bridges, cars themselves (payments and maintenance), insurance, not to mention the gasoline and not to even hint at the wars that are necessary from time to time to maintain access to that gasoline, are relatively acceptable or low-cost in some aspect, or somehow a natural part of the world. But the costs of driving are none of these things. They are excessive. And would be unthinkable if considered in their totality.
Only then, when we have an idea of such a sum, such costs, should we compare that number and the bits of flesh that will eternally decorate it to the cost of a bike program, or a wind farm, or outfitting every man, woman, child, dog, cat and long-eared galoot with a personal solar chapeau and matching lawn darts set. Then we might know which might be worth it, and which might be just another receptor for our rage.

Speaking of which, see also this.