The terrifying “smart” city of the future

Cities across the country are implementing smart technologies — with grave implications for our personal freedoms

The terrifying "smart" city of the future
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Imagine a world without waste. A place where the train always comes on time, where streets are plowed before snow even stops falling, and watchful surveillance cameras have sent rates of petty crime plunging. Never again will you worry about remembering your keys because your front door has an iris recognition system that won’t allow strangers to enter. To some people, this kind of uber-efficient urban living sounds like a utopian dream. But to a growing number of critics, the promise of the “smart city” is starting to seem like the stuff of nightmare.

Smart cities are loosely defined as urban centers that rely on digital technology to enhance efficiency and reduce resource consumption. This happens by means of ubiquitous wireless broadband, citywide networks of computerized sensors that measure human activities (from traffic to electricity use), and mass data collection that analyzes these patterns. Many American cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, already make use of smart technologies. But far more radical advances are happening overseas. Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, and Songdo, in South Korea, will be the first fully functioning smart cities, in which everything from security to electricity to parking is monitored by sensors and controlled by a central city “brain.”

The surveillance implications of these sorts of mass data-generating civic projects are unnerving, to say the least. Urban designer and author Adam Greenfield wrote on his blog Speedbird that this centralized governing model is “disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.” To further complicate matters, the vast majority of smart-city technology is designed by IT-systems giants like IBM and Siemens. In places like Songdo, which was the brainchild of Cisco Systems, corporate entities become responsible for designing and maintaining the basic functions of urban life.



Smart cities are predicated on the neoliberal idea that the market can fix anything—that companies can manage cities better than governments can. Their advocates claim that they will enhance democratic participation by relying on crowdsourcing and “civic hacking projects” that allow locals to use newly available data to solve municipal problems. But they ignore the fact that private corporations are the ones measuring and controlling these mountains of data, and that they don’t have the same accountability to the public that government does.

In the Nation last year, urban theorist and author Catherine Tumber expressed some of the principle concerns about smart tech, reviewing Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the review). Tumber asserts that “the economics of ‘smart’” are in keeping with “the ramped-up market rationalization carried out by finance monopoly since the Civil War, culminating in a minimally civic world fit only for…the unencumbered self.”

I caught up with Tumber via telephone at her office at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, where she is a visiting scholar, to talk about what the rise of smart cities means for our understanding of urban life.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Allegra Kirkland: How did you first become acquainted with the concept of smart cities?

Catherine Tumber: I had been aware of them kind of through the ether because I pay attention to cities, and I’m very much aware of what’s going on in the digital world in a broad sense. I think it’s quite dangerous actually, in all kinds of ways….

I thought Townsend did a good job laying out what the fault lines are: the big digital systems corporations like Siemens and Cisco and IBM versus what these hacker “democratic heroes” are trying to do. I found that to be useful but I wasn’t persuaded that they aren’t all part of the same sort of dangerous direction of things.

AK: These digital innovations are supposed to be all about access to information and transparency, but it seems like many people don’t even know these initiatives are going on. Like Chicago, Barcelona, and all of these other urban centers are now considered “smart cities” but I feel like most people don’t think of them that way.

CT: I think people are only vaguely aware.

AK: It seems like these major urban initiatives are being conducted largely out of the public eye, without public oversight or involvement. Maybe there are some smaller initiatives being carried out by civic hackers, but the major ones have to be implemented by corporations or the government because regular people don’t have the ability to build that kind of infrastructure.

CT: Right, these are major infrastructure projects.

AK: And there’s no means of opting out. Once a city integrates smart technology, your information gets caught up with all the rest, whether you want it to be or not.

CT: Exactly. And also what’s often not taken into account, and I guess you have to live long enough to really see it—though it’s happening very quickly in our time—is that when you introduce a whole new paradigm of infrastructure, the old infrastructure dies. So it ends up being coercive. At some point, you really have to participate in it or you are not able to execute that function, whether that function be communications or entertainment or transportation or energy.

For example, if you did not really want to be available on a cell phone at any given moment or own one, and wanted to simply rely on a landline, that was fine as long as you were home. But they stripped out all of the phone booths. That was really completed by around five years ago. So it really forces your hand quite a bit.

AK: You seem skeptical of the idea that smart cities are inherently democratizing—that they are sites of greater sociability and inclusion. Does that seem plausible to you? 

CT: I think that digital technology, aside from providing all kinds of information that is trackable, holds up the false promise of greater democratic participation. It holds out a sort of false sense of moral agency, for one thing. The argument as I understand it is that crowdsourcing provides people with a different, less curated sense of democratic participation. It involves reaching out to individuals, so it’s a version of democratic practice. I think the jury is still very much out on whether that is persuasive.

Part of what I think is important and rich about democratic culture as a living tradition is that it brings people of very different backgrounds and types together in surge spaces. And crowdsourcing tends to be consistent marketing in that it excludes whole groups of people, just because of the way it works. It’s not even intentional.

AK: Because of the kind of people who get surveyed, who are aware that these kinds of civic campaigns are going on and would get involved?

CT: Yeah. I find that to be somewhat dubious…for the long-term health of the civic project.

AK: It seems like there’s a fundamental split between people who think there is something organic and inexplicable about the ways human beings come together in cities, and those who believe that all human behavior is quantifiable—that we can rely on data to understand how humans interact. Which side of the line do you fall on?

CT: Digital technology and its use compresses experience. It tends to lead to niche cultures; it tends to lead to a sense of being untethered, as if that’s the golden pathway to real freedom. There are several traditions of political philosophy that hold that its important to be tethered so that you have a sense of the limits of yourself and of what it is that humans can do in the time that they have on this earth. This sense of endless freedom can lead to a very false sense of utopian promise that is simply unrealistic and unwanted. It’s yet another way that we’ve decided to take a pause from history and what history has long told us.

There are some things that you really don’t play with. People have acquired great wisdom over the ages—across the globe, this isn’t just a Eurocentric thing—about what it means to travel and to leave home and to come back. These are all the great stories and myths and fables. Technology kind of flattens all of that.

AK: This is sort of a related question, but what do you think are the primary things smart cities take away from the people who live there? What do we lose in these sorts of manufactured urban environments?

It makes me think of the complaints about the gentrification of places like New York City. Michael Bloomberg created new green spaces in Times Square and along the waterfront, made city services more efficient, rezoned districts, and now we have this sanitized, business-friendly, soulless city. The neighborhoods look the same; there’s no mixing of social classes, no weird dive bars. So you’d think smart cities, with their emphasis on homogeneity and efficiency, would be equally off-putting to people.

CT: I think it’s a matter of the convenience of it and the novelty of it. But smart technology is relatively new and there are so many unexamined consequences, as I think there are with any major technological change like this.

I think that we’re only beginning as a culture to wince a little and take a second look at this. … There really hasn’t been any sort of consensus about what the right manners are in using these technologies. Across the world for time immemorial, every culture had some understanding of manners, and I don’t mean that in the prim Victorian sense. But just some ways in which you convey unspoken, coded assumptions about respect and caring and common courtesy and stuff like that. We haven’t had that conversation here. …The main point is that there are real unintended consequences of this.

AK: The corporations behind smart cities throw around all these statistics about how smart technology reduces crime, reduces waste. So it makes you feel like a Luddite to say that you’re uncomfortable with these technologies because there is all of this evidence that they’re successful. But I feel like there’s a difference between using technology to fix a specific urban problem, like Rio de Janeiro using weather tracking to forecast flash floods, which are a major problem there, and places like Songdo, where you’re really rebuilding the concept of the city from scratch and dictating how people should live. 

CT: Yes, they’re riddled with totalitarian overtones, and that’s built into it, it’s part of the built structure.

AK: So do you think smart city initiatives are not necessarily problematic, and it’s just when they’re applied on the scale of an entire city that it gets out of control?

CT: I’m mainly concerned with this assumption that this is new, this is shiny, this is innovative, to use everyone’s favorite buzzword, and that we should just do it. A lot of people don’t really understand what’s involved. There’s a tendency to have it sort of inflicted on people, and part of that is the way the business model for digital technology, at least at this point in time, works, which is to make everything cheap. It doesn’t cost the public very much to say, oh, okay, because there’s not much of a pricetag on it yet. Part of the reason why it’s so cheap is that so much of the work is based on volunteer labor.

So many of these civic hackers, all these projects and apps they develop, so much of that is based on free labor. People try to frame that as a sort of revival of Tocqueville—voluntary associations and all that stuff. But instead it’s just downright free labor, like unpaid internships or something. That’s why I’m very skeptical of all of this; this is really just another variation on the sort of neoliberal business model that we’ve been using now for the past 35 years and has grown out of control. This is just another iteration of that with nice shiny technology attached to it. Americans are always suckers for technological determinism.

AK: Sure. I feel like privatization initiatives in cities have multiplied in recent years, with cities selling stakes in public housing to private developers—

CT: And all the stuff Rahm Emanuel is doing in Chicago.

AK: Exactly. It seems like smart cities are sort of the ultimate example of the corporate-designed urban environment. Should that inherently be a cause for concern? It goes without saying that corporations don’t always have the best interests of people in mind. And places like Songdo were designed to have minimal regulatory barriers. They prioritize technological innovation and wealth generation, so it seems like they could really deepen existing economic inequality. If you’re not part of those spheres, you don’t really have a place in these cities.

CT: To really take on wealth inequality and the kind of ravaging done by the spoiling land use policies that we’ve had in place since after World War II, we need to have a body of ideas and practices that have a clearly defined sense of what their political vision is: what the good life is and how to get there. What are our fundamental values, our limitations? All of this smart city design is apolitical. That’s the problem. The longer it seeps into our political culture, the more it will drain the public imagination of the next generation, of what a real political movement looks like and why politics are important.

AK: It also seems like the obligation of government to provide essential public services like housing is reduced. It becomes the responsibility of corporations and developers, so there’s less accountability, less control over pricing and over the data the companies acquire.

CT: Then there’s all this debate about regulations—which industries require more or less. These are all very difficult questions of practicality and philosophy. And I fear that our political discourse and understanding of the world is being degraded and coarsened by the uncritical dissemination of a digital substitute for a real politics.

AK: Another thing I wanted to bring up is the surveillance concern. I read a quote from the mayor of Rio, which is a smart city, saying “The operations center allows us to have people looking into every corner of the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” He meant it as a positive, but that’s a sort of terrifying statement. What are your thoughts about the surveillance implications of smart technology?

CT: All these sensors will and are being used to invade our privacy. There are good and bad things about that. You know, here in Boston we had the marathon bombers and they were very quickly apprehended, partly because that area is so rigged up with security cameras. We have to decide whether it’s worth it.

Another thing I’ve been concerned about is thinking about the difference between Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. You know, George Orwell talked about Big Brother and the authoritarian state, the invasion of privacy. Huxley talked more about the internalization of oppression, and I’m in some ways even more concerned about that. It’s a cultural critique of the way we internalize and accept the terms of our lack of freedom. We accept the deprivation that totalitarian movements end up exacting on us. So we end up being our own worst enemies. It’s almost like we don’t even need Big Brother.

AK: Sure. We voluntarily give up so much information about ourselves.

CT: When I see people walking around in public as though they’re wearing a blindfold because they’re so absorbed in another world on their devices, that has the look to me of self-degradation and degradation of the public realm that is more effective than security cameras. Because people won’t resist. They’re not even aware of their surroundings, just as animals moving through the world. So why would they be able to muster whatever it takes to resist the invasion of privacy by the state or by corporations, for that matter? It just all represents such a contraction of democratic culture to me. It worries the heck out of me.

 

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/28/the_terrifying_smart_city_of_the_future_partner/?source=newsletter

 

US economy in deflation and slump

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By Andre Damon
28 February 2015

The US Commerce Department said Friday that Gross Domestic Product, the broadest measure of economic output, grew by only 2.2 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, down from an earlier estimate of 2.6 percent and a sharp fall from earlier quarters.

This followed the announcement by the Labor Department on Thursday that consumer prices fell by 0.7 percent, the largest fall since December 2008. Over the past 12 months, prices have fallen by 0.1 percent, the first annual deflation figure posted since October 2009.

These figures belie official claims that the US is an economically healthy counterbalance to the overall slump and deflation that now encompasses most of the world. In fact, US economic growth, hampered by an enormous impoverishment of the working class in the years following the financial crisis, remains far below previous historical averages.

On Tuesday, Standard and Poor’s said that its Case-Shiller Index showed that home prices grew by 4.6 percent over the past year, the slowest housing price increase since 2011. “The housing recovery is faltering,” David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones, told the Los Angeles Times. “Before the recession, anytime housing starts were at their current level… the economy was in a recession.”

Meanwhile the number of people in the US newly filing for jobless benefits jumped by 31,000 to 313,000 last week, in the largest increase since December 2013, reflecting a series of mass layoffs and business closures announced this month.

On February 4, office supply retailer Staples announced plans to buy its rival Office Depot, which would result in the closure of up to a thousand stores and tens of thousands of layoffs. The next day, electronics retailer RadioShack filed for bankruptcy, saying it plans to close up to 3,500 stores.

Mass layoffs have also been announced at online marketplace eBay, credit card company American Express, the oilfield services companies Schlumberger and Baker Hughes, as well as the retailers J.C. Penney and Macy’s.

These disastrous economic developments come even as the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all-time record of 18,140 on Wednesday, though it retreated slightly later in the week. Worldwide, the FTSE All-World Index is near its highest level in history.

The rise in global stock indices reflects the satisfaction of global financial markets with the pledge by the Syriza-led Greek government to impose austerity measures dictated by the EU, as well as indications by Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen in congressional testimony this week that the US central bank is likely to delay raising the federal funds rate in response to recent negative economic figures.

The US federal funds rate has been at essentially zero since the beginning of 2009. Together with the central bank’s multi-trillion-dollar “quantitative easing” program, this has helped to inflate a massive stock market bubble that has seen the NASDAQ triple in value since 2009.

This enormous growth in asset values has taken place despite the relatively depressed state of the US economy, which grew at an annual rate of 2.4 percent in 2014. During the entire economic “recovery” since 2010, the US economy has grown at an average rate of 2.2 percent. By comparison, the US economy grew at an average rate of 3.2 percent in the 1990s and 4.2 percent in the 1950s.

The ongoing stock market bubble has led to a vast enrichment of the financial elite: the number of billionaires in the US has nearly doubled since 2009. The financial oligarchy, however, has not used its ever-growing wealth for productive investment, as shown by the decline in business spending in the fourth quarter of last year. Instead, it has either hoarded it or used it to buy real estate, art and luxury goods.

On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that global sales of “ultra-premium” vehicles, costing $100,000 or more, surged by 154 percent, compared with a 36 percent increase in global vehicle sales overall. The report noted, “Rolls-Royce registrations have risen almost five-fold. Almost 10,000 new Bentleys cruised onto the streets last year, a 122 percent increase over 2009, while Lamborghini rode a 50 percent increase to pass the 2,000 vehicle mark.”

Meanwhile, the number of people in poverty in the US remains at record levels. In January, the Southern Education Foundation reported that, for the first time in at least half a century, low-income children make up the majority of students enrolled in American public schools.

To the extent that jobs are being created in the US, they are largely part-time, contingent and low-wage, replacing higher-wage jobs eliminated during the 2008 crash. A report published last year by the National Employment Law Project found that while American companies have added 1.85 million low-wage jobs since 2009, they have eliminated 1.83 million medium-wage and high-wage jobs.

Earlier this month, Jim Clifton, head of the Gallup polling agency, denounced claims that the US unemployment rate has returned to “normal” levels. “There’s no other way to say this,” he wrote. “The official unemployment rate, which cruelly overlooks the suffering of the long-term and often permanently unemployed as well as the depressingly underemployed, amounts to a Big Lie.”

“Gallup defines a good job as 30+ hours per week for an organization that provides a regular paycheck. Right now, the US is delivering at a staggeringly low rate of 44%, which is the number of full-time jobs as a percent of the adult population, 18 years and older.”

Clifton added, “I hear all the time that ‘unemployment is greatly reduced, but the people aren’t feeling it.’ When the media, talking heads, the White House and Wall Street start reporting the truth—the percent of Americans in good jobs; jobs that are full time and real—then we will quit wondering why Americans aren’t ‘feeling’ something that doesn’t remotely reflect the reality in their lives.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/28/econ-f28.html

Child poverty at devastating levels in US cities and states

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By Patrick Martin 

26 February 2015

Reports issued over the past week suggest that child poverty in America is more widespread than at any time in the last 50 years. For all the claims of economic “recovery” in the United States, the reality for the new generation of the working class is one of ever-deeper social deprivation.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes the annual Kids Count report on child poverty, which was the source of state-by-state reports issued last week. These reports use the new Supplemental Poverty Measure, developed by the Census Bureau, which includes the impact of government benefit programs like food stamps and unemployment compensation, as well as state social programs, and accounts for variations in the cost of living as well.

The result is a picture of the United States with a markedly different regional distribution of child poverty than usually presented. The state with the highest child poverty rate is California, the most populous, at a staggering 27 percent, followed by neighboring Arizona and Nevada, each at 22 percent.

The child poverty rate of California is much higher than figures previously reported, because the cost of living in the state is higher. Moreover, many of the poorest immigrant families are not enrolled in federal social programs because they are undocumented or face language barriers. The same conditions apply in Arizona and Nevada.

The other major centers of child poverty in the United States are the long-impoverished states of the rural Deep South, and the more recently devastated states of the industrial Midwest, where conditions of life for the working class have deteriorated the most rapidly over the past ten years.

It is a remarkable fact, documented in a separate report issued February 23 by the Catholic charity Bread for the World, that African-American child poverty rates are actually worse in the Midwest states of Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana than in the traditionally poorest parts of the Deep South, including Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

Several of the Midwest states have replaced Mississippi at the bottom of one or another social index. Iowa has the worst poverty rate for African-American children. Indiana has the highest rate of teens attempting or seriously considering suicide.

The most remarkable transformation is in Michigan, once the center of American industry with the highest working-class standard of living of any state. Michigan is the only major US state whose overall poverty rate is actually worse now than in 1960.

This half-century of decline is a devastating indictment of the failure of the American trade unions, which have collaborated in the systematic impoverishment of the working class in what was once their undisputed stronghold.

The United Auto Workers, in particular, did nothing as dozens of plants were shut down and cities like Detroit, Pontiac, Flint and Saginaw were laid waste by the auto bosses. Meanwhile, the UAW became a billion-dollar business, its executives controlling tens of billions in pension and benefit funds, while the rank-and-file workers lost their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods.

In Detroit, once the industrial capital of the world’s richest country, the child poverty rate was 59 percent in 2012, up from 44.3 percent in 2006.

The social catastrophe facing the population in Detroit also exposes the role of the Democratic Party and the organizations around it that have for decades promoted identity politics—according to which race, and not class, is the fundamental social category in America. The city, like many throughout the region, has been run by a layer of black politicians who have overseen the shocking decay in the social position of African-American workers and youth. (See, “Half a million children in poverty in Michigan”.)

Cleveland, also devastated by steel and auto plant closings, was the only other major US city with a child poverty rate of over 50 percent.

The Detroit figure undoubtedly understates the social catastrophe in the Motor City, since it comes from a study concluded before the state-imposed emergency manager put the city into bankruptcy in the summer of 2013, leading to drastic cuts in wages, benefits and pensions for city workers and retirees.

Wayne County, which includes Detroit, had the highest child poverty rate of any of Michigan’s 82 counties. Southeast Michigan, which includes the entire Detroit metropolitan area, endured an overall rise in child poverty rates from 18.9 percent in 2006 to 27 percent in 2012.

The state-by-state reports issued by Kids Count were accompanied by a press release by the Casey Foundation noting that the child poverty rate in the United States would nearly double, from 18 percent to 33 percent, without social programs like food stamps, school meals, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

This was issued as a warning of the effect of widely expected budget cuts in these critical programs. It coincided with the first hearing before the House Agriculture Committee on plans to attack the federal food stamp program by imposing work requirements and other restrictions to limit eligibility.

The food stamp program has already suffered through two rounds of budget cuts agreed on in bipartisan deals between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans, which cut $1 billion and $5 billion respectively from the program. Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, they will press for even more sweeping cuts in a program that helps feed 47 million low-income people, many of them children.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/26/cpov-f26.html

The 21st century belongs to China

Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America’s economic dominance

Beijing is building a trans-Siberian railway system that rivals the Marshall Plan in its ambition and global reach

The 21st century belongs to China: Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America's economic dominance
Performers show the dragon dance during a night parade to celebrate Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. (Credit: AP/Vincent Yu)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

BEIJING — Seen from the Chinese capital as the Year of the Sheep starts, the malaise affecting the West seems like a mirage in a galaxy far, far away. On the other hand, the China that surrounds you looks all too solid and nothing like the embattled nation you hear about in the Western media, with its falling industrial figures, its real estate bubble, and its looming environmental disasters. Prophecies of doom notwithstanding, as the dogs of austerity and war bark madly in the distance, the Chinese caravan passes by in what President Xi Jinping calls “new normal” mode.

“Slower” economic activity still means a staggeringly impressive annual growth rate of 7% in what is now the globe’s leading economy. Internally, an immensely complex economic restructuring is underway as consumption overtakes investment as the main driver of economic development. At 46.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the service economy has pulled ahead of manufacturing, which stands at 44%.

Geopolitically, Russia, India, and China have just sent a powerful message westward: they are busy fine-tuning a complex trilateral strategy for setting up a network of economic corridors the Chinese call “new silk roads” across Eurasia. Beijing is also organizing a maritime version of the same, modeled on the feats of Admiral Zheng He who, in the Ming dynasty, sailed the “western seas” seven times, commanding fleets of more than 200 vessels.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are at work planning a new high-speed rail remix of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad. And Beijing is committed to translating its growing strategic partnership with Russia into crucial financial and economic help, if a sanctions-besieged Moscow, facing a disastrous oil price war, asks for it.



To China’s south, Afghanistan, despite the 13-year American war still being fought there, is fast moving into its economic orbit, while a planned China-Myanmar oil pipeline is seen as a game-changing reconfiguration of the flow of Eurasian energy across what I’ve long called Pipelineistan.

And this is just part of the frenetic action shaping what the Beijing leadership defines as the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a vision of creating a potentially mind-boggling infrastructure, much of it from scratch, that will connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Such a development will include projects that range from upgrading the ancient silk road via Central Asia to developing a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor; a China-Pakistan corridor through Kashmir; and a new maritime silk road that will extend from southern China all the way, in reverse Marco Polo fashion, to Venice.

Don’t think of this as the twenty-first-century Chinese equivalent of America’s post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe, but as something far more ambitious and potentially with a far vaster reach.

China as a Mega-City

If you are following this frenzy of economic planning from Beijing, you end up with a perspective not available in Europe or the U.S. Here, red-and-gold billboards promote President Xi Jinping’s much ballyhooed new tagline for the country and the century, “the Chinese Dream” (which brings to mind “the American Dream” of another era). No subway station is without them. They are a reminder of why 40,000 miles of brand new high-speed rail is considered so essential to the country’s future. After all, no less than 300 million Chinese have, in the last three decades, made a paradigm-breaking migration from the countryside to exploding urban areas in search of that dream.

Another 350 million are expected to be on the way, according to a McKinsey Global Institute study. From 1980 to 2010, China’s urban population grew by 400 million, leaving the country with at least 700 million urban dwellers. This figure is expected to hit one billion by 2030, which means tremendous stress on cities, infrastructure, resources, and the economy as a whole, as well as near-apocalyptic air pollution levels in some major cities.

Already 160 Chinese cities boast populations of more than one million. (Europe has only 35.) No less than 250 Chinese cities have tripled their GDP per capita since 1990, while disposable income per capita is up by 300%.

These days, China should be thought of not in terms of individual cities but urban clusters — groupings of cities with more than 60 million people. The Beijing-Tianjin area, for example, is actually a cluster of 28 cities. Shenzhen, the ultimate migrant megacity in the southern province of Guangdong, is now a key hub in a cluster as well. China, in fact, has more than 20 such clusters, each the size of a European country. Pretty soon, the main clusters will account for 80% of China’s GDP and 60% of its population. So the country’s high-speed rail frenzy and its head-spinning infrastructure projects – part of a $1.1 trillion investment in 300 public works — are all about managing those clusters.

Not surprisingly, this process is intimately linked to what in the West is considered a notorious “housing bubble,” which in 1998 couldn’t have even existed. Until then all housing was still owned by the state. Once liberalized, that housing market sent a surging Chinese middle class into paroxysms of investment. Yet with rare exceptions, middle-class Chinese can still afford their mortgages because both rural and urban incomes have also surged.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is, in fact, paying careful attention to this process, allowing farmers to lease or mortgage their land, among other things, and so finance their urban migration and new housing. Since we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people, however, there are bound to be distortions in the housing market, even the creation of whole disastrous ghost towns with associated eerie, empty malls.

The Chinese infrastructure frenzy is being financed by a pool of investments from central and local government sources, state-owned enterprises, and the private sector. The construction business, one of the country’s biggest employers, involves more than 100 million people, directly or indirectly. Real estate accounts for as much as 22% of total national investment in fixed assets and all of this is tied to the sale of consumer appliances, furnishings, and an annual turnover of 25% of China’s steel production, 70% of its cement, 70% of its plate glass, and 25% of its plastics.

So no wonder, on my recent stay in Beijing, businessmen kept assuring me that the ever-impending “popping” of the “housing bubble” is, in fact, a myth in a country where, for the average citizen, the ultimate investment is property. In addition, the vast urbanization drive ensures, as Premier Li Keqiang stressed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, a “long-term demand for housing.”

Markets, Markets, Markets

China is also modifying its manufacturing base, which increased by a multiple of 18 in the last three decades. The country still produces 80% of the world’s air conditioners, 90% of its personal computers, 75% of its solar panels, 70% of its cell phones, and 63% of its shoes. Manufacturing accounts for 44% of Chinese GDP, directly employing more than 130 million people. In addition, the country already accounts for 12.8% of global research and development, well ahead of England and most of Western Europe.

Yet the emphasis is now switching to a fast-growing domestic market, which will mean yet more major infrastructural investment, the need for an influx of further engineering talent, and a fast-developing supplier base. Globally, as China starts to face new challenges — rising labor costs, an increasingly complicated global supply chain, and market volatility — it is also making an aggressive push to move low-tech assembly to high-tech manufacturing. Already, the majority of Chinese exports are smartphones, engine systems, and cars (with planes on their way). In the process, a geographic shift in manufacturing is underway from the southern seaboard to Central and Western China. The city of Chengdu in the southwestern province of Sichuan, for instance, is now becoming a high-tech urban cluster as it expands around firms like Intel and HP.

So China is boldly attempting to upgrade in manufacturing terms, both internally and globally at the same time. In the past, Chinese companies have excelled in delivering the basics of life at cheap prices and acceptable quality levels. Now, many companies are fast upgrading their technology and moving up into second- and first-tier cities, while foreign firms, trying to lessen costs, are moving down to second- and third-tier cities. Meanwhile, globally, Chinese CEOs want their companies to become true multinationals in the next decade. The country already has 73 companies in the Fortune Global 500, leaving it in the number two spot behind the U.S.

In terms of Chinese advantages, keep in mind that the future of the global economy clearly lies in Asia with its record rise in middle-class incomes. In 2009, the Asia-Pacific region had just 18% of the world’s middle class; by 2030, according to the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that figure will rise to an astounding 66%. North America and Europe had 54% of the global middle class in 2009; in 2030, it will only be 21%.

Follow the money, and the value you get for that money, too. For instance, no less than 200,000 Chinese workers were involved in the production of the first iPhone, overseen by 8,700 Chinese industrial engineers. They were recruited in only two weeks. In the U.S., that process might have taken more than nine months. The Chinese manufacturing ecosystem is indeed fast, flexible, and smart — and it’s backed by an ever more impressive education system. Since 1998, the percentage of GDP dedicated to education has almost tripled; the number of colleges has doubled; and in only a decade, China has built the largest higher education system in the world.

Strengths and Weaknesses

China holds more than $15 trillion in bank deposits, which are growing by a whopping $2 trillion a year. Foreign exchange reserves are nearing $4 trillion. A definitive study of how this torrent of funds circulates within China among projects, companies, financial institutions, and the state still does not exist. No one really knows, for instance, how many loans the Agricultural Bank of China actually makes. High finance, state capitalism, and one-party rule all mix and meld in the realm of Chinese financial services where realpolitik meets real big money.

The big four state-owned banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China — have all evolved from government organizations into semi-corporate state-owned entities. They benefit handsomely both from legacy assets and government connections, or guanxi, and operate with a mix of commercial and government objectives in mind. They are the drivers to watch when it comes to the formidable process of reshaping the Chinese economic model.

As for China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, it’s not yet a big deal. In a list of 17 countries, it lies well below those of Japan and the U.S., according to Standard Chartered Bank, and unlike in the West, consumer credit is only a small fraction of total debt. True, the West exhibits a particular fascination with China’s shadow banking industry: wealth management products, underground finance, off-the-balance-sheet lending. But such operations only add up to around 28% of GDP, whereas, according to the International Monetary Fund, it’s a much higher percentage in the U.S.

China’s problems may turn out to come from non-economic areas where the Beijing leadership has proven far more prone to false moves. It is, for instance, on the offensive on three fronts, each of which may prove to have its own form of blowback: tightening ideological control over the country under the rubric of sidelining “Western values”; tightening control overonline information and social media networks, including reinforcing “the Great Firewall of China” to police the Internet; and tightening further its control over restive ethnic minorities, especially over the Uighurs in the key western province of Xinjiang.

On two of these fronts — the “Western values” controversy and Internet control — the leadership in Beijing might reap far more benefits, especially among the vast numbers of younger, well educated, globally connected citizens, by promoting debate, but that’s not how the hyper-centralized Chinese Communist Party machinery works.

When it comes to those minorities in Xinjiang, the essential problem may not be with the new guiding principles of President Xi’s ethnic policy. According to Beijing-based analyst Gabriele Battaglia, Xi wants to manage ethnic conflict there by applying the “three Js”: jiaowang, jiaoliu, jiaorong (“inter-ethnic contact,” “exchange,” and “mixage”). Yet what adds up to a push from Beijing for Han/Uighur assimilation may mean little in practice when day-to-day policy in Xinjiang is conducted by unprepared Han cadres who tend to view most Uighurs as “terrorists.”

If Beijing botches the handling of its Far West, Xinjiang won’t, as expected, become the peaceful, stable, new hub of a crucial part of the silk-road strategy. Yet it is already considered an essential communication link in Xi’s vision of Eurasian integration, as well as a crucial conduit for the massive flow of energy supplies from Central Asia and Russia. The Central Asia-China pipeline, for instance, which brings natural gas from the Turkmen-Uzbek border through Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, is already adding a fourth line to Xinjiang. And one of the two newly agreed upon Russia-China pipelines will also arrive in Xinjiang.

The Book of Xi

The extent and complexity of China’s myriad transformations barely filter into the American media. Stories in the U.S. tend to emphasize the country’s “shrinking” economy and nervousness about its future global role, the way it has “duped” the U.S. about its designs, and its nature as a military “threat” to Washington and the world.

The U.S. media has a China fever, which results in typically feverish reports that don’t take the pulse of the country or its leader. In the process, so much is missed. One prescription might be for them to read The Governance of China, a compilation of President Xi’s major speeches, talks, interviews, and correspondence. It’s already a three-million-copy bestseller in its Mandarin edition and offers a remarkably digestible vision of what Xi’s highly proclaimed “China Dream” will mean in the new Chinese century.

Xi Dada (“Xi Big Bang” as he’s nicknamed here) is no post-Mao deity. He’s more like a pop phenomenon and that’s hardly surprising. In this “to get rich is glorious” remix, you couldn’t launch the superhuman task of reshaping the Chinese model by being a cold-as-a-cucumber bureaucrat. Xi has instead struck a collective nerve by stressing that the country’s governance must be based on competence, not insider trading and Party corruption, and he’s cleverly packaged the transformation he has in mind as an American-style “dream.”

Behind the pop star clearly lies a man of substance that the Western media should come to grips with. You don’t, after all, manage such an economic success story by accident. It may be particularly important to take his measure since he’s taken the measure of Washington and the West and decided that China’s fate and fortune lie elsewhere.

As a result, last November he made official an earthshaking geopolitical shift. From now on, Beijing would stop treating the U.S. or the European Union as its main strategic priority and refocus instead on China’s Asian neighbors and fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, with a special focus on Russia), also known here as the “major developing powers” (kuoda fazhanzhong de guojia). And just for the record, China does not consider itself a “developing country” anymore.

No wonder there’s been such a blitz of Chinese mega-deals and mega-dealings across Pipelineistan recently. Under Xi, Beijing is fast closing the gap on Washington in terms of intellectual and economic firepower and yet its global investment offensive has barely begun, new silk roads included.

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo sees the newly emerging world order as a solar system with two suns, the United States and China. The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy affirms that “the United States has been and will remain a Pacific power” and states that “while there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation” with Beijing. The “major developing powers,” intrigued as they are by China’s extraordinary infrastructural push, both internally and across those New Silk Roads, wonder whether a solar system with two suns might not be a non-starter. The question then is: Which “sun” will shine on Planet Earth?  Might this, in fact, be the century of the dragon?

Curing the fear of death

How “tripping out” could change everything

A chemical called “psilocybin” shows remarkable therapeutic promise. Only problem? It comes from magic mushrooms

 

 Curing the fear of death: How "tripping out" could change everything

(Credit: stilikone, Objowl via Shutterstock/Salon)

The second time I ate psychedelic mushrooms I was at a log cabin on a lake in northern Maine, and afterwards I sat in a grove of spruce trees for three and a half hours, saying over and over, “There’s so much to see!”

The mushrooms converted my worldview from an uninspired blur to childlike wonderment at everything I glimpsed. And now, according to recent news, certain cancer patients are having the same experience. The active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, psilocybin, is being administered on a trial basis to certain participating cancer patients to help them cope with their terminal diagnosis and enjoy the final months of their lives. The provisional results show remarkable success, with implications that may be much, much bigger.

As Michael Pollan notes in a recent New Yorker piece, this research is still in its early stages. Psychedelic mushrooms are presently classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning, from the perspective of our federal government, they have no medical use and are prohibited. But the scientific community is taking some steps that – over time, and after much deliberation – could eventually change that.

Here’s how it works: In a controlled setting, cancer patients receive psilocybin plus coaching to help them make the most of the experience. Then they trip, an experience that puts ordinary life, including their cancer, in a new perspective. And that changed outlook stays with them over time. This last part might seem surprising, but at my desk I keep a picture of the spot where I had my own transcendental experience several years ago; it reminds me that my daily tribulations are not all there is to existence, nor are they what actually matter.

The preliminary research findings are convincing. You could even call them awe-inspiring. In one experiment, an astounding two-thirds of participants said the trip was “among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.” Pollan describes one cancer patient in detail, a man whose psilocybin session was followed by months that were “the happiest in his life” — even though they were also his last. Said the man’s wife: “[After his trip] it was about being with people, enjoying his sandwich and the walk on the promenade. It was as if we lived a lifetime in a year.”



Which made me do a fist pump for science: Great work, folks. Keep this up! Researchers point out that these studies are small and there’s plenty they don’t know. They also stress the difference between taking psilocybin in a clinical setting — one that’s structured and facilitated by experts — and taking the drug recreationally. (By a lake in Maine, say.) Pollan suggests that the only commonality between the two is the molecules being ingested. My (admittedly anecdotal) experience suggests matters aren’t quite that clear-cut. But even that distinction misses a larger point, which is the potential for this research to help a great many people, with cancer or without, to access a deeper sense of joy in their lives. The awe I felt by that lake in Maine — and the satisfaction and peacefulness that Pollan’s cancer patient felt while eating his sandwich and walking on the promenade — is typically absent from regular life. But that doesn’t mean it has to be.

The growing popularity of mindfulness and meditation suggests that many of us would like to inject a bit more wonder into our lives. As well we should. Not to be a damp towel or anything, but we’re all going to die. “We’re all terminal,” as one researcher said to Pollan. While it’s possible that you’ll live to be 100, and hit every item on your bucket list, life is and always will be uncertain. On any given day, disaster could strike. You could go out for some vigorous exercise and suffer a fatal heart attack, like my dad did. There’s just no way to know.

In the meantime, most of us are caught in the drudgery of to-do lists and unread emails. Responsibility makes us focus on the practical side of things — the rent isn’t going to pay itself, after all — while the force of routine makes it seem like there isn’t anything dazzling to experience anyhow. Even if we’d like to call carpe diem our motto, what we actually do is more along the lines of the quotidian: Work, commute, eat, and nod off to sleep.

With that for a backdrop, it’s not surprising that many of us experience angst about our life’s purpose, not to mention a deep-seated dread over the unavoidable fact of our mortality. It can be a wrenching experience, one that sometimes results in panic attacks or depression. We seek out remedies to ease the discomfort: Some people meditate, others drink. If you seek formal treatment, though, you’ll find that the medical establishment doesn’t necessarily consider existential dread to be a disorder. That’s because it’s normal for us to question our existence and fear our demise. In the case of debilitating angst, though, a doctor is likely to recommend the regimen for generalized anxiety — some combo of therapy and meds.

Both of these can be essential in certain cases, of course; meds tend to facilitate acceptance of the way things are, while therapy can help us, over a long stretch of time, change the things that we can to some degree control. But psychedelics are different from either of these. They seem to open a door to a different way of experiencing life. Pollan quotes one source, a longtime advocate for the therapeutic use of psilocybin, who identifies the drug’s potential for “the betterment of well people.” Psychedelics may help ordinary people, who are wrestling with ordinary angst about death and the meaning of life, to really key into, and treasure, the various experiences of their finite existence.

In other words, psychedelics could possibly help us to be more like kids.

Small children often view the world around them with mystic wonder — pushing aside blades of grass to inspect a tiny bug that’s hidden underneath, or perhaps looking wide-eyed at a bright yellow flower poking through a crack in the sidewalk. (Nothing but a common dandelion, says the adult.) Maybe the best description of psilocybin’s effect is a reversion to that childlike awe at the complexity of the world around us, to the point that we can actually relish our lives.

What’s just as remarkable is that we’re not talking about a drug that needs to be administered on a daily or weekly or even monthly basis in order to be effective. These studies gave psilocybin to cancer patients a single time. Then, for months afterward, or longer, the patients reaped enormous benefit.

(The fact that psychedelics only need to be administered once could actually make it less likely that the research will receive ample funding, because pharmaceutical companies don’t see dollar signs in a drug that’s dispensed so sparingly. But that’s another matter )

Of course, some skepticism may be warranted. Recreational use of psychedelics has been associated with psychotic episodes. That’s a good reason for caution. And a potential criticism here is that psilocybin is doing nothing more than playing a hoax on the brain — a hoax that conjures up a mystical experience and converts us into spellbound kids. You might reasonably ask, “do I even want to wander around awe-struck at a dandelion the same way a 3-year-old might?”

So caution is reasonably advised. But what the research demonstrates is nonetheless remarkable: the way the experience seems to shake something loose in participants’ consciousness, something that lets them see beyond the dull gray of routine, or the grimness of cancer, to the joy in being with loved ones, the sensory pleasure of a good meal, or the astounding pink visuals of the sunset.

 

Ten Years After Hunter S. Thompson’s Death, the Debate Over Suicide Rages On

ten-years-after-hunter-s-thompsons-death-the-debate-over-suicide-rages-on-220-1424463839-crop_lede

February 20, 2015

Today, February 20, marks the tenth anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson killing himself with a .45-caliber handgun in his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. Since his suicide, the right-to-die movement has gained a stronger foothold in American consciousness—even if the country is just as divided as ever on whether doctors should be assisting patients in ending their own lives.

“Poling has always shown a majority of people believing that someone has a moral right to commit suicide under some circumstances, but that majority has been increasing over time,” says Matthew Wynia, Director of Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Wynia believes a chief factor in that change has been “more and more people say they’ve given a good deal of thought on this issue. And the more people tend to give thought to this issue, the more likely they are to say they are in favor of people having a moral right to commit suicide, under certain circumstances.”

The sticking point is what constitutes a justifiable reason to kill yourself or have a doctor do so for you. In Thompson’s case, he was suffering from intense physical discomfortdue to a back injury, broken leg, hip replacement surgery, and a lung infection. But his widow, Anita, says that while the injuries were significant, they did not justify his suicide.

“His pain was unbearable at times, but was by no means terminal,” Anita tells me via email. “That is the rub. If it were a terminal illness, the horrible aftermath would have been different for me and his loved ones. None of us minded caring for him.”

A mix of popular culture and legislative initiatives have shifted the terrain since then. When Thompson made his big exit in 2005, Jack Kevorkian was still incarcerated for helping his patients shuffle off their mortal coil. He was released in 2007, and shortly before his death a few years later, HBO chronicled his struggles to change public opinion of physician-assisted suicide in the film You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino.

Last year, suicide seemed to cross a threshold of legitimacy in America. When terminally ill 29-year-old Brittany Maynard appeared on the cover of People magazine next to the headline, “My Decision to Die,” the issue was thrust into the faces of every supermarket shopper in the US. Earlier in the year, the season finale of Girls closed with one of the main characters agreeing to help her geriatric employer end her life, only to have the woman back out after swallowing a fistfull of pills, shouting, “I don’t want to die!”

After the self-inflicted death of Robin Williams last summer, those with strong moral opposition to suicide used the tragedy as an illustration of how much taking your life hurts those around you. “I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves,” Henry Rollins wrote in an editorial for LA Weekly. “I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be—choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life… I no longer take this person seriously. Their life wasn’t cut short—it was purposely abandoned.”

A decade earlier, Rollins’s comments might have gone unnoticed. As might have Fox News’ Shepard Smith when he referred to Williams as “such a coward” for abandoning his children. Of course, both received a good lashing in the court of public opinion for being so dismissive toward someone suffering from depression. “To the core of my being, I regret it,” Smith apologized in a statement. Rollins followed suit, saying, “I should have known better, but I obviously did not.”

A 2013 Pew Research Poll found that 38 percent of Americans believed that a person has a moral right to commit suicide if “living has become a burden.” But if the person is described as “suffering great pain and have no hope of improvement,” the number increased to 62 percent, a seven-point jump from the way Americans felt about the issue in 1990.

“Psychic suffering is as important as physical suffering when determining if a person should have help to die.”

Still, only 47 percent of Americans in a Pew poll last October said that a doctor should be allowed to facilitate a suicide, barely different from numbers at the time of Thompson’s death. Wynia believes an enduring factor here this is the public’s fear that assisted suicide will be applied as a cost-cutting measure to an already overburdened healthcare system.

“There is worry that insurance companies will cover medication to end your life, but they won’t cover treatments that allow you to extend your life,” he says. “And then the family is stuck with either ponying up the money to extend that person’s life, or they could commit suicide. That puts a lot of pressure on both the family and the individual. Also, there is the issue of the doctor being seen as a double agent who isn’t solely looking out for their best interest.”

As with abortion before Roe v. Wade, when determined citizens are denied medical assistance and left to their own devices, the results can sometimes be disastrous. “There are people who try and fail at suicide, and sometimes they end up in much worse positions than they started,” Wynia adds. “I’ve cared for someone who tried to commit suicide by drinking Drano; that’s a good way to burn out your entire esophagus, and if you survive it, you’re in very bad shape afterward.”

A 2014 Gallup poll showed considerably more support for doctors’ involvement in ending a patient’s life. When asked if physicians should be allowed to “legally end a patient’s life by some painless means,” 69 percent of Americans said they were in favor of such a procedure. But when the question is whether physicians should be able to “assist the patient to commit suicide,” support dropped to 58 percent. This has lead many advocacy groups to adopt the term “aid in dying” as opposed to “assisted suicide.”

A statement on the Compassion and Choices website states: “It is wrong to equate ‘suicide,’ which about 30,000 Americans, suffering from mental illness, tragically resort to each year, with the death-with-dignity option utilized by only 160 terminally ill, but mentally competent, patients in Oregon and Washington last year.”

According to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act—which permitted Brittany Maynard to be prescribed a lethal dose of drugs from her physician—a patient must be over 18 years old, of sound mind, and diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than six months to live in order to be given life-ending care. Currently, four other states have bills similar to Oregon’s, while 39 states have laws banning physician-assisted suicide. Earlier this month, legislators in Colorado attempted to pass their own version of an assisted suicide bill, but it failed in committee.

In 1995, Australia’s Northern Territory briefly legalized euthanasia through the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. Dr. Philip Nitschke was the first doctor to administer a voluntary lethal injection to a patient, followed by three more before the law was overturned by the Australian Parliament in 1997. Nitschke retired from medicine that year and began working to educate the public on how to administer their own life-ending procedure without medical supervision or assistance. Last summer, the Australian Medical Board suspended his medical registration, a decision which he is appealing.

Nitschke says two states in Australia currently offer life in prison as a penalty for anyone assisting in another’s suicide, and that he’s been contacted by the British police, who say he may be in violation of the United Kingdom’s assisted suicide laws for hosting workshops educating Brits on how to kill themselves. Unlike more moderate groups like Compassion and Choices, Nitschke’s Exit International doesn’t shy away from words like “suicide,” and feels that the right to die should be expanded dramatically.

A proponent of both left-wing social justice and right-wing rhetoric about personal freedoms, Thompson had very strong feelings about the role of government in our daily lives, particularly when it came to what we were allowed to do with our own bodies.

Laws in most countries that allow physician-assisted suicide under specific circumstances do not consider psychological ailments like depression a justifiable reason for ending your life. Nitschke sees a circular hypocrisy in this, arguing that everyone should be granted the right to end their own life regardless of health, and that those suffering a mental illness are still able to give informed consent.

“Psychic suffering is as important as physical suffering when determining if a person should have help to die,” Nitschke tells me. “The prevailing medical board [in Australia] views almost any psychiatric illness as a reason why one cannot give consent—but the catch-22 is that anyone contemplating suicide, for whatever reason, must be suffering psychiatric illness.”

These days, Nitschke is avoiding criminal prosecution by merely providing information on effective suicide techniques. So long as he doesn’t physically administer a death agent to anyone—the crime that resulted in Kevorkian being hit with a second-degree murder conviction and eight years in prison—he’ll most likely steer clear of jail time.

Philip Nitschke’s euthanasia machine. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“I think our society is very confused about liberty,” Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, wrote in 2012. “I don’t think it makes sense to force women to carry children they don’t want, and I don’t think it makes sense to prevent people who wish to die from doing so. Just as my marrying my husband doesn’t damage the marriages of straight people, so people who end their lives with assistance do not threaten the lives or decisions of other people.”

While support for laws banning physician-assisted suicide typically come from conservative religious groups and those mistrustful of government-run healthcare, the idea that the government has a role in deciding your end of life care is rooted in a left-leaning philosophy.

“The theory used to be that the state has an interest in the health and wellbeing of its citizens,” acccording to Wynia, “and therefore you as a citizen do not have a right to kill yourself, because you are, in essence, a property of the state.”

This conflicted greatly with the philosophy of Hunter S. Thompson. A proponent of both left-wing social justice and right-wing rhetoric about personal freedoms, Thompson had very strong feelings about the role of government in our daily lives, particularly when it came to what we were allowed to do with our own bodies.

“He once said to me, ‘I’d feel real trapped in this life, Ralph, if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any moment,'” remembered friend and longtime collaborator Ralph Steadman in a recent interview with Esquire.

Sitting in a New York hotel room while writing the introduction to The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of his essays and journalism published in 1979, Thompson described feeling an existential angst when reflecting on the body of work. “I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone… and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into The Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out into the air and across Fifth Avenue… The only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live—(13 years longer, in fact).”

Thompson’s widow, Anita, was on the phone with her husband when he took his life. To this day, she feels that the situation was far from hopeless, that his injuries weren’t beyond repair, and that he still had plenty of years left in him.

“He was about to have back surgery again, which meant that the problem would soon be fixed and he could commence his recovery,” she tells me. “My belief is that supporting somebody’s ‘freedom’ to commit suicide because he or she is in some pain or depressed is much different than a chronic or terminal illness. Although I’ve healed from the tragedy, the fact that his personal decision was actually hurried by a series of events and people that later admitted they supported his decision, still haunts me today.”

In September 2005, Rolling Stone published what has come to be known as Hunter Thompson’s suicide note. Despite being written four days beforehand, the brief message does contain the weighty despair of a man unable to inspire in himself the will to go on:

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax—This won’t hurt.

Seeing as he lived his life as an undefinable political anomaly—he was an icon of the the hedonism of the 60s and 70s, and also a card-carrying member of the NRA—it’s only fitting that Thompson’s exit from this earth was through the most divisive and controversial doorway possible.

“The fundamental beliefs that underlie our nation are sometimes in conflict with each other—and these issues get at some of the basic tensions in what we value as Americans,” says Wynia. “We value our individual liberties, we value our right to make decisions for ourselves, but we also are a religious community, and we are mistrustful of authority. When you talk about giving the power to doctors or anyone else to help you commit suicide, it makes a lot of people nervous. Even though we also have a libertarian streak that believes, ‘I should be allowed to do this, and I should be allowed to ask my doctor to help me.’ I think this is bound to be a contentious issue for some time to come.”

If you are feeling hopeless of suicidal, there are people you can talk to. Please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Follow Josiah M. Hesse on Twitter.

 

http://www.vice.com/read/ten-years-after-hunter-s-thompsons-death-the-debate-over-suicide-rages-on-220?utm_source=vicefbus

Rebuilding Kobani: call for help from a city in ruins

By Yvo Fitzherbert On February 18, 2015

Post image for Rebuilding Kobani: call for help from a city in ruinsThe liberation of Kobani was a bittersweet victory that left the town devastated. Reconstruction has begun and the need for solidarity and aid is urgent.

Photo by Bulent Kilic.

“When Kobani was liberated, it was a beautiful feeling. A feeling of freedom,” my friend Mustafa explained to me. Mustafa is a local journalist, and after being detained for two weeks by the Turkish authorities when he fled Kobani in early October, he decided to return to his hometown to work and to help facilitate journalists inside the city. For four months, Kobani had been under a brutal siege. ISIS jihadists attacked the city from the east, west and south, surrounding it from all sides. To the north lay Turkey, forever against the autonomy the Kurds of Syria had created for themselves and therefore no friend of the Kurdish resistance in Kobani.

But after four months, on January 27, Kobani was finally liberated. The Kurdish forces, led by the PKK-affiliated YPG and their female unit YPJ, but also supported by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan, had fiercely defended the advances of the Islamic State and forced them out of the city. Aerial bombardments by the US-led coalition targeting ISIS positions in and around the city contributed to weakening the jihadist forces, but as the battle of Kobani has shown, these only play a secondary role when it comes to defeating ISIS.

“It was like being reborn again,” Idriss Nassan, the deputy foreign minister of Kobani said. Idriss had moved to the Turkish border town of Suruç when the situation became critical in Kobani in early October and had worked as foreign minister from there. Two days before the victory of Kobani, he decided to move back to his hometown and described the joy at being able to live in his city again after spending four months in Turkey.

The new center and food shortages

While the liberation of Kobani came as a long-awaited relief and was proudly celebrated by the citizens of Kobani, it was a bittersweet victory. More than 80 percent of the city has been destroyed entirely, reduced to little but a heap of rubble. Throughout the battle, YPG based its operations from the west where there was little fighting, except for ISIS’s mortar shells and the real danger of sniper fire.

As a result, the urban center has shifted west — the only part of the city where life still exists. Guerrillas, taking a break from the front-line in the villages surrounding Kobani, stroll through the streets calmly with Kalashnikovs in hand, soaking up freedom. Men and women linger at street corners, chatting about the latest YPG victory in the villages.

A school now functions, with eager children hoping to forget the pains of the conflict. In itself, the school amounts to little more than a concrete foundation of a house on the western outskirts of the city. However, when you descend into the basement — chosen for its obvious protection from ISIS shells — there is a bustling environment of alternative education.

Throughout the four-month siege, there has been a constant shortage of food. With the border controlled by the Turkish military, which decides to let in supplies at its own discretion, people have had to rely on smuggling routes. But the cornerstone of the city’s food production remains the bakery. “The bread has fed the resistance.” one citizen explained to me.

The bakery, run by a family that bravely continued its work throughout the siege, has provided bread for free for all the fighters and the citizens that stayed behind in Kobani. Due to its indispensability, it had been a target of ISIS, and as a result they hid the bakery’s location to any journalists until now. “I decided to remain in the city baking bread because I realized it was essential for the survival of the resistance,” a member of the family of bakers told me.

The larger bakery, which provided the whole city with bread before the siege, was targeted by ISIS mortars in the early days of the fighting and as a result it was already closed down five months ago. Now it has been reopened, and besides its logistical importance, this is above all a symbolic victory. Ibrahim, the bakery manager, described how it had taken them ten days to rebuild because of the damage inflicted by ISIS’s mortar shells.

Now it was finally functioning, and bread was once again being baked for the community. Ibrahim told me in an interview that “in order to feed the community, you must fight for it.” Although of little strategic significance, for Ibrahim and many other citizens of Kobani, the reopening of the bakery was a long-awaited victory for which they had fought long and hard.

Children in Kobani. Photo by author.

Aside from the daily supply of bread, the depot is where all citizens go to collect whatever supplies they need as the shops stopped functioning many months ago. I visited it one day to collect food for the house I was staying at. Behind the counter, they have piles of canned food, a selection of fresh vegetables, oil and household supplies. “It’s just like a normal shop but without money,” Mustafa joked. And it was exactly that: Kobani, the moneyless economy.

Meanwhile, families are slowly returning to Kobani after many months of anxiously awaiting the outcome of the battle in Turkey. For four months they watched the bombs rain down on their beloved city, and now they are finally back. I watched as families returned home, shouting “Long live the resistance ofKobani!” as they walked through the YPG border gate into their destroyed city.

One old woman told me upon arriving into Kobani that “the destruction of the city is incomparable to the lives we have lost.” For her, the destruction lay not in the piles of rubble confronting her arrival, but in the memories of the many members of her family who were martyred in the resistance to free the city.

Another father, who had stayed fighting throughout the battle while his family escaped to Turkey, was emotionally reunited with his family after four painful months apart. He told me that “if we didn’t have the love for our children and for our family, we couldn’t have won this battle.”

Dangers remain in a free Kobani

While people start to enjoy the slow normalization of their lives in the city,Kobani still feels very much like a ghost city, completely destroyed by the war.Unexploded bombs are scattered everywhere, often going unnoticed. Some are buried into the road, while others lie unobtrusively beneath the rubble. Children play alongside these bombs, not giving them a moment’s thought. Every now and then, a loud explosion pierces through the city, and civilians exchange fearful looks, hoping that nobody was harmed. Half a dozen people have died as a result of such accidents in the last week alone.

The government of Kobani has said that “until all bombs and explosives are removed from Kobani, the city and villages will not be safe,” and have issued a call-out for international support in clearing the city. With the town mostly destroyed and unexploded bombs dispersed all over the only inhabitable part of the city, it appears that it will take a long time for normal life to resume.

However, Kobani’s call for international assistance is likely to go unnoticed unless strong pressure is exerted to open a humanitarian corridor. Kobani — and the other Rojavan cantons of Afrin and Cezire — have consistently faced an unjust embargo from the international community over the last two years. Due to this embargo, Turkey only allows basic food supplies to cross the border, giving no permission for construction vehicles or building materials to enter Kobani.

As the HDP parliamentarian Ibrahim Ayhan says, “Until the border is fully free no help will be properly delivered.” Idriss Nassan believes the international community has a duty, stating that “if the international community wantsKobani to be rebuilt and victory to be continued, they have to open this[humanitarian] corridor.”

The reason emphasis has now been placed on the opening of a humanitarian corridor comes from a fear that, without such a corridor, Kobani will forever resemble a destroyed city. Refugees, anxious to return to the homeland they were forced to flee under the savage advances of ISIS, will not be able to return for months. The city will remain in its crumbled, depleted state, forever traumatized and scarred by the siege. Kurdish government officials recognize this, and it is for this reason that they have issued an urgent appeal for a humanitarian corridor to be opened.

From self-dependence to dependency — and back?

But is Kobani really free? While ISIS has been driven out of the town, the jihadist forces still sit uneasily on its borders. Furthermore, the city lies in ruins. The total destruction that one sees across the city is everywhere south-east of the border gate. This was ISIS’s base throughout the conflict, and as a result, a target of the US-led coalition’s bombs. Instead of targeting the supply routes that ISIS used continuously throughout the siege, they choose to target ISIS purely within the city’s confines, condemning Kobani to dust and rubble. So why did the coalition decide to bomb the city rather than the supply routes of ISIS?

Mustafa believes this decision on the part of the US military was “a form of punishment for our system.” Rojava, with its grassroots-democratic model, had painstakingly resisted international capitalist interests through its system ofdemocratic confederalism. This system, which focuses on autonomous self-dependence, has never fit easily with Western interests. As a result, many here believe the policy to bomb Kobani into oblivion has firmly forced its administration from one of self-dependence to dependency.

While the international community supported the Kurdish forces in their battle against ISIS, as of yet there has been no support to help the Kurds rebuild their city. Given the sheer extent of the destruction, it is also clear that the Kurds cannot rebuild the city alone. Since the international community bombed Kobani to the ground, it also has a duty to help it rebuild. When Rojava and its grassroots model of democratic autonomy were created, an actual city existed. The embargo that made life difficult for the Rojava administration could be negotiated around. But now that Kobani lies in total ruins, the people of Kobanineed help.

If no such help is delivered, the city will forever resemble a ghost city, trapped between freedom and imprisonment. Aid is therefore essential, which requires a concerted international effort to force Turkey to open a humanitarian corridor. Enwer Muslim, the Prime Minister of the Kobani canton, has said that “the resistance of Kobani was a victory for humanity and will stand as an example in history. In the face of ISIS’s barbarism, Kobani stood up for humanity. Now is the time for humanity and the international community to stand up for Kobani.”

With this plea for support, careful attention must be paid to ensure the rebuilding of the town will be done in the same spirit of self-dependence that was used to liberate the city.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He writes for a number of different publications, with a particular focus on Kurdish politics. Follow him on Twitter at @yvofitz.

Freedom Square in the eastern part of the city. Photo by author.