Your Cellphone Could Be a Major Health Risk

…and the Industry Could Be a Lot More Upfront About It

The science is becoming clearer: Sustained EMF exposure is dangerous.

Photo Credit: Jason Stitt/Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from “Overpowered: What Science Tells Us About the Dangers of Cell Phones and Other Wifi-age Devices” by Martin Blank, PhD. Published by Seven Stories Press, March 2014. ISBN 978-1-60980-509-8. All rights reserved.

This excerpt was originally published by Salon.com.

You may not realize it, but you are participating in an unauthorized experiment—“the largest biological experiment ever,” in the words of Swedish neuro-oncologist Leif Salford. For the first time, many of us are holding high-powered microwave transmitters—in the form of cell phones—directly against our heads on a daily basis.

Cell phones generate electromagnetic fields (EMF), and emit electromagnetic radiation (EMR). They share this feature with all modern electronics that run on alternating current (AC) power (from the power grid and the outlets in your walls) or that utilize wireless communication. Different devices radiate different levels of EMF, with different characteristics.

What health effects do these exposures have?

Therein lies the experiment.

The many potential negative health effects from EMF exposure (including many cancers and Alzheimer’s disease) can take decades to develop. So we won’t know the results of this experiment for many years—possibly decades. But by then, it may be too late for billions of people.

Today, while we wait for the results, a debate rages about the potential dangers of EMF. The science of EMF is not easily taught, and as a result, the debate over the health effects of EMF exposure can get quite complicated. To put it simply, the debate has two sides. On the one hand, there are those who urge the adoption of a precautionary approach to the public risk as we continue to investigate the health effects of EMF exposure. This group includes many scientists, myself included, who see many danger signs that call out strongly for precaution. On the other side are those who feel that we should wait for definitive proof of harm before taking any action. The most vocal of this group include representatives of industries who undoubtedly perceive threats to their profits and would prefer that we continue buying and using more and more connected electronic devices.

This industry effort has been phenomenally successful, with widespread adoption of many EMF-generating technologies throughout the world. But EMF has many other sources as well. Most notably, the entire power grid is an EMF-generation network that reaches almost every individual in America and 75% of the global population. Today, early in the 21st century, we find ourselves fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis.

What we know

The science to date about the bioeffects (biological and health outcomes) resulting from exposure to EM radiation is still in its early stages. We cannot yet predict that a specific type of EMF exposure (such as 20 minutes of cell phone use each day for 10 years) will lead to a specific health outcome (such as cancer). Nor are scientists able to define what constitutes a “safe” level of EMF exposure.

However, while science has not yet answered all of our questions, it has determined one fact very clearly—all electromagnetic radiation impacts living beings. As I will discuss, science demonstrates a wide range of bioeffects linked to EMF exposure. For instance, numerous studies have found that EMF damages and causes mutations in DNA—the genetic material that defines us as individuals and collectively as a species. Mutations in DNA are believed to be the initiating steps in the development of cancers, and it is the association of cancers with exposure to EMF that has led to calls for revising safety standards. This type of DNA damage is seen at levels of EMF exposure equivalent to those resulting from typical cell phone use.

The damage to DNA caused by EMF exposure is believed to be one of the mechanisms by which EMF exposure leads to negative health effects. Multiple separate studies indicate significantly increased risk (up to two and three times normal risk) of developing certain types of brain tumors following EMF exposure from cell phones over a period of many years. One review that averaged the data across 16 studies found that the risk of developing a tumor on the same side of the head as the cell phone is used is elevated 240% for those who regularly use cell phones for 10 years or more. An Israeli study found that people who use cell phones at least 22 hours a month are 50% more likely to develop cancers of the salivary gland (and there has been a four-fold increase in the incidence of these types of tumors in Israel between 1970 and 2006). And individuals who lived within 400 meters of a cell phone transmission tower for 10 years or more were found to have a rate of cancer three times higher than those living at a greater distance. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated EMF—including power frequencies and radio frequencies—as a possible cause of cancer.

While cancer is one of the primary classes of negative health effects studied by researchers, EMF exposure has been shown to increase risk for many other types of negative health outcomes. In fact, levels of EMF thousands of times lower than current safety standards have been shown to significantly increase risk for neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease) and male infertility associated with damaged sperm cells. In one study, those who lived within 50 meters of a high voltage power line were significantly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease when compared to those living 600 meters or more away. The increased risk was 24% after one year, 50% after 5 years, and 100% after 10 years. Other research demonstrates that using a cell phone between two and four hours a day leads to 40% lower sperm counts than found in men who do not use cell phones, and the surviving sperm cells demonstrate lower levels of motility and viability.

EMF exposure (as with many environmental pollutants) not only affects people, but all of nature. In fact, negative effects have been demonstrated across a wide variety of plant and animal life. EMF, even at very low levels, can interrupt the ability of birds and bees to navigate. Numerous studies link this effect with the phenomena of avian tower fatalities (in which birds die from collisions with power line and communications towers). These same navigational effects have been linked to colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is devastating the global population of honey bees (in one study, placement of a single active cell phone in front of a hive led to the rapid and complete demise of the entire colony). And a mystery illness affecting trees around Europe has been linked to WiFi radiation in the environment.

There is a lot of science—highquality, peer-reviewed science—demonstrating these and other very troubling outcomes from exposure to electromagnetic radiation. These effects are seen at levels of EMF that, according to regulatory agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates cell phone EMF emissions in the United States, are completely safe.

An unlikely activist

I have worked at Columbia University since the 1960s, but I was not always focused on electromagnetic fields. My PhDs in physical chemistry from Columbia University and colloid science from the University of Cambridge provided me with a strong, interdisciplinary academic background in biology, chemistry, and physics. Much of my early career was spent investigating the properties of surfaces and very thin films, such as those found in a soap bubble, which then led me to explore the biological membranes that encase living cells.

I studied the biochemistry of infant respiratory distress syndrome (IRDS), which causes the lungs of newborns to collapse (also called hyaline membrane disease). Through this research, I found that the substance on the surface of healthy lungs could form a network that prevented collapse in healthy babies (the absence of which causes the problem for IRDS sufferers).

A food company subsequently hired me to study how the same surface support mechanism could be used to prevent the collapse of the air bubbles added to their ice cream. As ice cream is sold by volume and not by weight, this enabled the company to reduce the actual amount of ice cream sold in each package. (My children gave me a lot of grief about that job, but they enjoyed the ice cream samples I brought home.)

I also performed research exploring how electrical forces interact with the proteins and other components found in nerve and muscle membranes. In 1987, I was studying the effects of electric fields on membranes when I read a paper by Dr. Reba Goodman demonstrating some unusual effects of EMF on living cells. She had found that even relatively weak power fields from common sources (such as those found near power lines and electrical appliances) could alter the ability of living cells to make proteins. I had long understood the importance of electrical forces on the function of cells, but this paper indicated that magnetic forces (which are a key aspect of electromagnetic fields) also had significant impact on living cells.

Like most of my colleagues, I did not think this was possible. By way of background, there are some types of EMF that everyone had long acknowledged are harmful to humans. For example, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation are both recognized carcinogens. But these are ionizing forms of radiation. Dr. Goodman, however, had shown that even non-ionizingradiation, which has much less energy than X-rays, was affecting a very basic property of cells—the ability to stimulate protein synthesis.

Because non-ionizing forms of EMF have so much less energy than ionizing radiation, it had long been believed that non-ionizing electromagnetic fields were harmless to humans and other biological systems. And while it was acknowledged that a high enough exposure to non-ionizing EMF could cause a rise in body temperature—and that this temperature increase could cause cell damage and lead to health problems—it was thought that low levels of non-ionizing EMF that did not cause this rise in temperature were benign.

In over 20 years of experience at some of the world’s top academic institutions, this is what I’d been taught and this is what I’d been teaching. In fact, my department at Columbia University (like every other comparable department at other universities around the world) taught an entire course in human physiology without even mentioning magnetic fields, except when they were used diagnostically to detect the effects of the electric currents in the heart or brain. Sure magnets and magnetic fields can affect pieces of metal and other magnets, but magnetic fields were assumed to be inert, or essentially powerless, when it came to human physiology.

As you can imagine, I found the research in Dr. Goodman’s paper intriguing. When it turned out that she was a colleague of mine at Columbia, with an office just around the block, I decided to follow up with her, face-to-face. It didn’t take me long to realize that her data and arguments were very convincing. So convincing, in fact, that I not only changed my opinion on the potential health effects of magnetism, but I also began a long collaboration with her that has been highly productive and personally rewarding.

During our years of research collaboration, Dr. Goodman and I published many of our results in respected scientific journals. Our research was focused on the cellular level—how EMF permeate the surfaces of cells and affect cells and DNA—and we demonstrated several observable, repeatable health effects from EMF on living cells. As with all findings published in such journals, our data and conclusions were peer reviewed. In other words, our findings were reviewed prior to publication to ensure that our techniques and conclusions, which were based on our measurements, were appropriate. Our results were subsequently confirmed by other scientists, working in other laboratories around the world, independent from our own.

A change in tone

Over the roughly 25 years Dr. Goodman and I have been studying the EMF issue, our work has been referenced by numerous scientists, activists, and experts in support of public health initiatives including the BioInitiative Report, which was cited by the European Parliament when it called for stronger EMF regulations. Of course, our work was criticized in some circles, as well. This was to be expected, and we welcomed it—discussion and criticism is how science advances. But in the late 1990s, the criticism assumed a different character, both angrier and more derisive than past critiques.

On one occasion, I presented our findings at a US Department of Energy annual review of research on EMF. As soon as I finished my talk, a well-known Ivy League professor said (without any substantiation) that the data I presented were “impossible.” He was followed by another respected academic, who stated (again without any substantiation) that I had most likely made some “dreadful error.” Not only were these men wrong, but they delivered their comments with an intense and obvious hostility.

I later discovered that both men were paid consultants of the power industry—one of the largest generators of EMF. To me, this explained the source of their strong and unsubstantiated assertions about our research. I was witnessing firsthand the impact of private, profit-driven industrial efforts to confuse and obfuscate the science of EMF bioeffects.

Not the first time

I knew that this was not the first time industry opposed scientific research that threatened their business models. I’d seen it before many times with tobacco, asbestos, pesticides, hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), and other industries that paid scientists to generate “science” that would support their claims of product safety.

That, of course, is not the course of sound science. Science involves generating and testing hypotheses. One draws conclusions from the available, observable evidence that results from rigorous and reproducible experimentation. Science is not sculpting evidence to support your existing beliefs. That’s propaganda. As Dr. Henry Lai (who, along with Dr. Narendra Singh, performed the groundbreaking research demonstrating DNA damage from EMF exposure) explains, “a lot of the studies that are done right now are done purely as PR tools for the industry.”

An irreversible trend

Of course EMF exposure—including radiation from smart phones, the power lines that you use to recharge them, and the other wide variety of EMF-generating technologies—is not equivalent to cigarette smoking. Exposure to carcinogens and other harmful forces from tobacco results from the purely voluntary, recreational activity of smoking. If tobacco disappeared from the world tomorrow, a lot of people would be very annoyed, tobacco farmers would have to plant other crops, and a few firms might go out of business, but there would be no additional impact.

In stark contrast, modern technology (the source of the humanmade electromagnetic fields discussed here) has fueled a remarkable degree of innovation, productivity, and improvement in the quality of life. If tomorrow the power grid went down, all cell phone networks would cease operation, millions of computers around the world wouldn’t turn on, and the night would be illuminated only by candlelight and the moon—we’d have a lot less EMF exposure, but at the cost of the complete collapse of modern society.

EMF isn’t just a by-product of modern society. EMF, and our ability to harness it for technological purposes, is the cornerstone of modern society. Sanitation, food production and storage, health care—these are just some of the essential social systems that rely on power and wireless communication. We have evolved a society that is fundamentally reliant upon a set of technologies that generate forms and levels of electromagnetic radiation not seen on this planet prior to the 19th century.

As a result of the central role these devices play in modern life, individuals are understandably predisposed to resist information that may challenge the safety of activities that result in EMF exposures. People simply cannot bear the thought of restricting their time with— much less giving up—these beloved gadgets. This gives industry a huge advantage because there is a large segment of the public that would rather not know.

Precaution

My message is not to abandon gadgets—like most people, I too love and utilize EMF-generating gadgets. Instead, I want you to realize that EMF poses a real risk to living creatures and that industrial and product safety standards must and can be reconsidered. The solutions I suggest are not prohibitive. I recommend that as individuals we adopt the notion of “prudent avoidance,” minimizing our personal EMF exposure and maximizing the distance between us and EMF sources when those devices are in use. Just as you use a car with seat belts and air bags to increase the safety of the inherently dangerous activity of driving your car at a relatively high speed, you should consider similar risk-mitigating techniques for your personal EMF exposure.

On a broader social level, adoption of the Precautionary Principle in establishing new, biologically based safety standards for EMF exposure for the general public would be, I believe, the best approach. Just as the United States became the first nation in the world to regulate the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) when science indicated the threat to earth’s ozone layer—long before there was definitive proof of such a link—our governments should respond to the significant public health threat of EMF exposure. If EMF levels were regulated just as automobile carbon emissions are regulated, this would force manufacturers to design, create, and sell devices that generate much lower levels of EMF.

No one wants to return to the dark ages, but there are smarter and safer ways to approach our relationship—as individuals and across society—with the technology that exposes us to electromagnetic radiation.

Dr. Martin Blank is an expert on the health-related effects of electromagnetic fields and has been studying the subject for more than thirty years. He earned his first PhD from Columbia University in physical chemistry and his second from the University of Cambridge in colloid science. From 1968 to 2011, he taught as an associate professor at Columbia University, where he now acts as a special lecturer. Dr. Blank has served as an invited expert regarding EMF safety for Canadian Parliament, for the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy (HNRE) in Vermont, and for Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court.

 

http://www.alternet.org/books/your-cellphone-could-be-major-health-risk-and-industry-could-be-lot-more-upfront-about-it?akid=11734.265072.RMLVql&rd=1&src=newsletter983753&t=7&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

America’s hungry 21st Century

21 April 2014

Feeding America, the US national network of food banks, released its annual report on local food insecurity Thursday, showing that one in six Americans, including one in five children, did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012.

The report found that there are dozens of counties where more than a third of children do not get enough to eat. The incidence of hunger has grown dramatically. The percentage of households that are “food insecure” rose from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 16.0 percent in 2012.

Food insecurity is more widespread in the United States than in any other major developed country. According to separate data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the rate of food insecurity in the US is nearly twice that of the European Union.

The growth of food insecurity has paralleled the growth of extreme poverty. The number of American households that live on less than $2 a day per person more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million. There are now nearly 3 million children who live in households that earn less than $2 per day.  Fresh milk and dairy products are a luxury, as are fruit and vegetables. With an average food stamp allotment of $1.40 per person, per meal, it is not possible to buy the types of food required to maintain “an active, healthy lifestyle.”

Widespread hunger exists alongside the most shameless displays of wealth. Just last week, Copper Beech Farm, a palatial 50-acre estate just outside New York City, sold for $120 million, setting a new record for the most expensive home sale in history. The ultra-luxury car market is also booming. Luxury carmaker Bentley, which recently introduced a revamped quarter-million-dollar, twelve-cylinder coupe, said sales were up by 17 percent last year.

Christie’s, the art auction house, sold $7.1 billion worth of art last year, a 16 percent increase from the year before and the highest on record. This included the $142 million sale of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” the most expensive art sale on record, to casino mogul Stephen A. Wynn.

According to Feeding America, food-insecure people reported needing an average of $2.26 per person, per day to have enough food. On that basis, ensuring that all 16 million hungry children in the US had enough to eat would cost just $13 billion a year. There are 80 billionaires in the United States whose wealth, as individuals, exceeds this amount.

In an earlier period of American history, these levels of poverty and hunger amidst opulence were seen as a national disgrace. Michael Harrington’s 1962 exposure of poverty in Appalachia and elsewhere, The Other America, moved sections of the political establishment of the day to support such reforms as Medicare, Medicaid and Food Stamps. There is no significant tendency in the political or media establishment today that identifies itself as “liberal” and supports genuine social reform.

The prevalence of hunger is “higher than at any time since the Great Depression,” Feeding America told the WSWS in an interview earlier this week. Yet the spread of hunger is barely noted by politicians of either party or by the media.

The responsibility for this social disaster lies with the capitalist system and its political defenders. Administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have starved antipoverty programs of funds for decades. The Obama administration and Congress have overseen two successive food stamp cuts over the past six months: first in November, when benefits were slashed across the board by $36 per month for a family of four, and again in January of this year, when benefits were cut by an average of $90 per month for nearly a million households.

In between these two cuts, the White House and Congress allowed federal extended jobless benefits to lapse for some three million people, together with their two million dependent children. These cruel and inhuman actions come from an administration that has transferred trillions of dollars to Wall Street while refusing to prosecute the financial criminals responsible for the 2008 crash.

Obama’s signature social initiative, Obamacare, is already being exposed as a scheme to reduce the quantity and quality of health care available to ordinary working people while increasing their out-of-pocket costs. Government spending on health care will be slashed, Medicare gutted, and corporate outlays reduced, boosting the profits of the insurance monopolies, hospital chains and pharmaceutical companies.

Then there is the corporate-controlled media, which treats the roaring stock market and lavish displays of wealth by the rich with either open or thinly veiled enthusiasm, while barely acknowledging the existence of poverty. Major networks spend just 0.2 percent of their airtime covering issues relating to poverty, according to data from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

As for the auxiliary organizations of the corporations and the government, the trade unions, they too have facilitated the attack on working people. As the ruling class has carried out an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, the unions have focused their efforts on suppressing working-class opposition and preventing a political break with the Democratic Party.

What is emerging is the true, brutal face of capitalism, a system that piles up vast wealth at one pole of society and ever-greater poverty and wretchedness at the other.

This is true not only in the United States, but internationally. To satisfy the dictates of the banks, brutal austerity measures are being imposed around the world. The 85 richest individuals in the world now possess more wealth than the bottom half of the global population—some 3.5 billion people.

The means exist to provide all people with the necessities for a comfortable and fulfilling life—healthy food, decent housing, health care, education, access to culture and recreation. But the capitalist system, and the ruling class that sits atop it, make any rational control of production and distribution impossible. This system must be done away with and replaced with socialism—the rational planning of society under the democratic control of the working class to meet social needs, not the drive of a financial aristocracy for personal wealth and corporate profit.

Andre Damon

Sunlight in cities is an endangered species

Welcome to the permanent dusk:

As cities grow taller, light has become a precious commodity. Is it time for it to be regulated like one?

Welcome to the permanent dusk: Sunlight in cities is an endangered species

What would you pay for more natural light in your apartment? $10,000 per sunlit window, in TriBeCa? A 15 percent surcharge for an apartment that faced south, in London? An annual levy of 60 pounds for 20 windows, as the English monarchy demanded during a 150-year period beginning in 1696, under the so-called Window Tax?

Would you support a municipal effort to install a giant mirror to reflect winter sunshine into the town square? The Norwegian mountain town of Rjukan spent $800,000 to do just that. In Islamic Cairo, researchers have developed a sheet of corrugated plastic that can double the amount of light that trickles into the narrow alleyways.

The importance of light to great architecture is no secret. But in cities, where natural light is instrumental to urban design and property values, sunlight is a fickle friend. It can account for the prices of apartments, the popularity of parks, and even influence commercial rents on big avenues. Its holistic properties are obvious, but its economic benefits no less important, including the effect of solar radiation on heating costs and the burgeoning potential for urban solar panel use. But sunlight can be taken away in an instant, from a backyard, a kitchen window or a treasured park, with neither notice nor consequence.

As American cities grow taller and denser — and most everyone agrees that they must — natural light becomes a more precious commodity. Does that mean it should be regulated like one? Or would preserving current sun patterns — so-called “solar rights” — grind real estate development to a halt? Put simply: Should Americans, in their homes and in their cities, have a right to light?

Planners, lawyers and homeowners have been arguing about this for two millennia. The Greeks incorporated the sun in their city planning; the Roman emperor Justinian ensured that no neighbor could block light “previously enjoyed for heat, light or sundial operation.” In desert climes, the same consideration was incorporated into city planning with even greater verve, for opposite results. In the Mozabite enclave of Ghardaia, Algeria, streets wind and curve so that the Saharan sun cannot penetrate.



In England, as the first throes of the Industrial Revolution wrought their transformations, Parliament attempted to legislate this concept with more objectivity. The so-called “Ancient Lights” law, passed in 1832, prevents new constructions from blocking light that has continuously reached the interior of a building for 20 years. The amount of light protected is determined by “the grumble line,” the point at which one might begin to complain about the lack of light.

It’s a law that British homeowners can still invoke today, though with only partial success. On the BBC reality show “The Planners,” an 87-year-old homeowner failed to prevent the construction of a neighbor’s light-hogging extension… and the law is even less likely to order the demolition of a larger, more expensive construction.

In Japan, where tall buildings are more common, a similar law, called “nissho-ken,” is more frequently cited. As skyscrapers proliferated in Japanese cities alongside small homes during the 1960s, sunshine suits exploded, from six in 1968 to 83 in 1972. More than 300 cities adopted “sunshine hour codes,” specifying penalties that developers must pay for casting shadows. Tokyo adopted a stricter zoning code for residential areas. In 1976, the Tokyo District Court delivered $7,000 in sunshine damages to residents at the foot of a new office tower. “Sunshine is essential to a comfortable life,” the court opined, “and therefore a citizen’s right to enjoy sunshine at his home should be duly protected by law.” Such rewards are not common, though in theory a developer can be forced to pay as much as $10,000 to each shaded homeowner.

But in America, the concept of property has never been so expansive. In the second half of the 19th century, the subject was a hot legal issue, but never overcame opposition from pro-growth circles. As the New York Times wrote in 1878, “Courts have rendered decisions that the law of ancient lights is inappropriate and inapplicable in America… Our sparsely settled country, they say, has not required such a law; encouragement of building is more needed than restrictions upon it.” That same logic still fuels opposition to zoning measures today.

Quality-of-life concerns struck back. In a series of tenement laws, New York City required habitable domiciles to include features like external windows in every room. It was the seven-acre shadow of the Equitable Building, completed in 1915, that inspired the nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution. New York’s setback laws required buildings to taper as they rose, and shaped the city’s skyline and its streets for the next half-century. Many cities followed suit.

But there are few direct protections on the books, and the issue has again come to the forefront as a rash of super-tall buildings rise in Midtown Manhattan, casting half-mile-long shadows on Central Park. A quarter-century ago, activists led by Jackie Kennedy Onassis and the Municipal Arts Society successfully obtained architectural concessions from developer Mort Zuckerman when his plans threatened to devour sunlit stretches of Central Park. Today the issue has spawned scattered complaints but no results.

If New York had a law like San Francisco’s, that would be different. Voters in the famously sun-starved city passed a ballot ordinance in 1984 that prohibited new buildings from casting significant shadows on public parks. It has since required hundreds of real estate projects to be altered, and is regularly targeted by developers for repeal.

It’s a microcosm of a much larger debate about the wisdom of zoning, and the balance between regulation and development. High-rent cities like New York and San Francisco desperately need new units of housing. Which quality-of-life requirements represent basic human rights, and which are not-in-my-backyard claims to stymie new construction in a crowded city? Some proponents of maximizing the potential for new housing in American cities have proposed repealing some of the Progressive-era stipulations for proper apartments.

The rise of solar power further complicated the debate, even as it neatly quantifies the pecuniary value of sunlight. Even decades ago, American legal ambivalence to the sunbeams was called “the single most important legal issue concerning solar energy.” These days, many U.S. states and a handful of U.S. cities have introduced “solar permits,” through which an owner can ensure that his or her solar access cannot be disrupted. In Portland, Ore., existing vegetation (i.e., a tree that grows taller) is exempted. In Ashland, solar collectors are protected from encroaching vegetation but not from new construction. Boulder, Colo., has some of the most extensive solar rights in the U.S.

Sometimes this leads to odd conflicts. In Sunnyvale, Calif., one neighbor sued another over a crop of redwood trees that were casting shadows on his solar panels. Under the state’s 1978 solar rights law, he won — the neighbors had to trim their trees to let more sun through to his panels.

Developers contend that such regulations can amount to extortion: solar panels could be used to extract limitless concessions from nearby properties. Then again, without the assurance of continuing sunlight, what homeowner could invest in solar power?

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/20/welcome_to_the_permanent_dusk_sunlight_in_cities_is_an_endangered_species/?source=newsletter

Artists brains are ‘structurally different’ claims new study

 

Limited study found more grey and white matter in artists’ brains connected to visual imagination and fine motor control

It’s a truism to say that artists see the world differently from the rest of us, but new research suggests that their brains are structurally different as well.

The small study, published in journal NeuroImage, looked at the brain scans of 21 art students and 23 non-artists using a scanning method known as voxel-based morphometry.

Comparisons between the two groups showed that the artist has more neural matter in the parts of their brain relating to visual imagery and fine motor control.

Although this is certainly a physical difference it does not mean that artists’ talents are innate. The balance between the influence of nature and nurture is never easy to divine, and the authors say that training and upbringing also plays a large role in ability.

The brain scans were accompanied by various drawing tasks, with the researchers finding that those who performed best at these tests routinely had more grey and white matter in the motor areas of the brain.

“The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory,” lead author Rebecca Chamberlain from KU Leuven University, Belgium told the BBC.

The artists also showed significantly more grey matter in the part of the brain called the parietal lobe, a region involved with a range of activities that include the capacity to imagine, deconstruct and combine visual imagery.

Scientists also suggest that the study would help put to rest the idea that artists predominantly use the right side of their brain, as the study showed that increased grey and white matter was found equally distributed.

Despite this, previous research has suggested that there are some hard-wired structural differences between individuals’ brains, with some of the divides falling across gender lines.

A ‘pioneering study’ published in December last year found that male brains had more neural connections running front to back while female brains had more connections between the right and left hemisphere. Scientist suggested that this could explain why men are ‘better at reading maps’ and women are ‘better at remembering a conversation.

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/artists-brains-are-structurally-different-claims-new-study-9267513.html

A new wave of environmental protest rocks China

by James Smart on April 18, 2014

Post image for A new wave of environmental protest rocks China

As recent protests against the construction of a PX refinery in Maoming attest, environmental issues are of greater concern than ever for the Chinese.

It began as an environmental protest of about a thousand people a few weeks ago on Sunday, March 30 in Maoming, southern China. By day five it had grown to over twenty times its initial size, with about a dozen deaths, scores of arrests and images of dozens of unarmed protesters scattered across the streets, lying in pools of their own blood. The government blamed protesters for the tipping over of police vehicles and attacking official buildings, while the protesters in turn accuse the police of attacking unarmed, peaceful citizens.

In an authoritarian state like China, where people are unable to let off steam on election day, protests are common — albeit risky and usually illegal. But what was behind this particular environmental protest, and how did it get so out of hand? We start by looking at the production of a chemical that is common, but seemingly misunderstood: paraxylene.

Paraxylene, or PX for short, is made in large quantities for the production of plastic bottles and polyester. China is the world’s largest user of PX, and has to import about half of what it consumes. The government recently decided that a 500 million dollar factory would help make up the shortfall, and went into partnership with Sinopec, Asia’s biggest refiner, to open a factory near Maoming.

Paraxylene is dangerous to produce. It affects the nervous system if ingested through the skin or breathed in. Organs can be affected upon bodily exposure. It affects body development and reproduction — at least in mice. Pregnant women are told not go near it. It damages hearing, and can cause chemical pneumonia. And it is highly flammable, even explosive at warm temperatures. Local people became concerned that a dangerous behemoth on their doorstep could damage the environment and affect their health.

Still, the production of most chemicals carries an element of danger, and one might have thought that, if properly regulated, such a large factory would have enormous economic benefits for the community. Indeed, the local authorities believed just that, but when they sent ten thousand brochures to the public informing them of the economic benefits the factory would bring, it backfired — culminating in a popular protest shortly afterwards. Why the public didn’t trust the state to provide a safe, regulated factory is not difficult to see in the context of rapid capitalist development, widespread environmental irresponsibility and an authoritarian state apparatus.

Ahkok Wong is an activist and school lecturer from down the road in Hong Kong, potentially enjoying his last two days of freedom.

“Environmental problems are one of the main outcomes of a one party-ruled, corrupted, non-humane government,” he starts. “The citizens started discovering what harm the PX plant can bring, so there are [a lot] of protests, and then the police arrest and kill protesters, forcing people to sign agreements that they support PX plants,” he continues. “They control the media and the internet so the news cannot get across the country.”

Protesters like Ahkok are sentenced by a judiciary with links to the government, which in turn has links to big business — for example, the Maoming PX joint venture between Sinopec and the state. Ahkok is going to court in a few days, for his participation in a 300,000 person-strong anti-Chinese government protest in Hong Kong. Is he expecting a fair trial? “I’m expecting nothing, to be honest.”

The other context in which to see this disagreement is with regards to the catastrophic levels of pollution and environmental damage all over China, particularly in the north. For example, at any given moment the air in most Chinese cities is somewhere along a spectrum between mildly harmful and extremely unsafe. Furthermore, China produces nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as the second biggest emitter, the USA. On top of this, one quarter of China already is, or is rapidly becoming, desertified. This leads to silted rivers, floods, drought, dust storms and erosion. In addition, a wealthier population with a penchant for ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup is leading to diminishing biodiversity, within its borders and beyond.

Most of China’s groundwater is so polluted that it can’t be used for drinking even if treated. Underground water supplies are also extremely polluted. Wildlife soon perishes upon contact with the water from many rivers. Last year thousands of dead pigs clogged up a river running through Shanghai which was contaminated by benzene through a factory spillage. Twenty people were hospitalized. Factories pollute rivers with impunity — and this has in many cases lead to cancer villages — areas so polluted as to now be uninhabitable. Animals in these villages die, the rivers change color, touching the water makes the skin itch, and as the name suggests, there are high levels of cancer.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the state of the environment is up to fourth — and rising — on the list of Chinese public concerns, according to a Pew Survey carried out earlier this year, behind inflation, corruption and inequality. With growing environmental concerns comes a growing grassroots movement. No surprise, then, that environmental issues were at the heart of half of all the protests in 2013 that had over 10,000 participants. Meanwhile, the government is taking notice, and has taken steps to be seen to be paying attention.

“We shall resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty,” Li Keqiang, China’s Prime Minister told parliament, live on state television, last month. This was followed by an increased budget to help prevent deforestation, a sizable clean water fund, and some modest pollution-culling targets. Fifteen thousand companies now have to declare all of their pollution levels to the environment ministry, which will make the information public.

This seems quite impressive, particularly as China didn’t even have an environmental ministry until 2008. Rules are all very well of course — the problem is implementation. Factory owners discharge waste at night, sabotage monitoring equipment, and easily skip around or bribe underfunded law enforcement agencies. They can quietly mix leftover chemicals with water and dump it into the nearest river. Still, the new laws show that the government is paying attention, so perhaps that ought to placate a restless public. Some give the government credit — others think it is mostly for show.

To understand where the government might really stand on this issue, we need to think in terms of how China values itself when comparing itself with the rest of the world. Economic indicators such as GDP seem to have a higher priority than harder-to-measure indicators of quality of living, especially when national pride vis-à-vis America comes into play. A paraxylene plant boosts business, jobs and output. As long as the state can be seen to be taking action with pollution, while doing relatively little, the government can help to maintain its position so long as the media remains compliant. And here seems to lie the Chinese contrast — what seems to be the case is sometimes quite the opposite.

Take the PX plant protests. At one point, authorities told the local newspaper that the building of the plant was being suspended. But it seems they told Sinopec no such thing, and work on the plant continued uninterrupted. While the authorities are now finally acknowledging the existence of cancer villages, they go into opaque partnerships with polluting industries. They allow protests in theory, but put so many restrictions into the ‘small print’ as to make them almost impossible in practice.

“If there are more than three people gathering in public and the police assume you are a threat to society, you can be arrested,” says Ahkok.

The government tell their own citizens they are listening to their environmental concerns. Meanwhile they block searches for “Maoming” or “PX” on search engines and on the popular social media site Weibo. People are told to trust the authorities. Meanwhile, on the very first day of the protests, seventy Maoming city officals were investigated for graft. A supposedly communist government represses the poor and benefits the wealthy. China starts to resemble a chemical spillage, public health deteriorates and those who speak out get arrested.

On a somewhat more optimistic note, however one may feel about the obvious human rights challenges that come with China’s one-child policy, there is no doubt it helped curb the country’s dangerously oversized population. With the help of a burgeoning economy and a strong inclination towards school success, an educated cadre is growing within the population; one that is more and more aware of the world, of their government, and of the quality of their lives. China’s hyperactive microblogger community are a byproduct of this, and are helping to heighten awareness for a lot of people.

But calling for the truth has its own risks. Xu Zhiyong, an anti-government activist, is halfway though a four-year prison sentence for calling on government officials to disclose their assets. “Those of you watching this trial from behind the scenes, or those awaiting for orders and reports back, this is also your responsibility. Don’t take pains to preserve the old system simply because you have vested interests in it,” he said as he was being sentenced. “No one is safe under an unjust system. When you see politics as endless shadows and reflections of daggers and swords, as blood falling like rain with its smell in the wind, you have too much fear in your hearts.”

Back to Ahkok Wong: “China does not have law and system,” he says. “They bribe, they arrest people who investigate truth, but there are no standards to follow. Only those who have absolute power and capital can change the situation, but then they benefit from all of this development and capital growth.”

“China is not meant to last,” concludes Ahkok. “It wouldn’t make any sense if this country could last.”

James Smart is from the South of England and is currently working as a university teacher and teacher trainer in Istanbul, Turkey.

More lies from Obama on Obamacare

http://cdn.breitbart.com/mediaserver/Breitbart/Big-Government/2012/Obamacare/obama-health-insurance.jpg

19 April 2014

At a press conference on Thursday, President Barack Obama extolled the virtues of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As a sign of the health care law’s great “success,” he pointed to the government’s estimate that 8 million people had signed up through HealthCare.gov and the other insurance exchanges set up under the bill by the March 31 deadline.

“All told,” he stated, “independent experts now estimate that millions of Americans who were uninsured have gained coverage this year—with millions more to come next year and the year after.” The rosy picture of Obamacare painted by the president is an insult to the intelligence of the American people and ignores the most basic facts about the present state of the health care overhaul.

First of all, those signing up have not done so voluntarily. The key component of the ACA, the “individual mandate,” requires that those without insurance from their employer or a government program such as Medicare or Medicaid obtain insurance or pay a tax penalty. Essentially, the uninsured are being blackmailed into purchasing coverage from private insurance companies.

Secondly, the claim that being insured through plans purchased on the exchanges constitutes anything approaching quality, affordable coverage for the vast majority of people is a fraud. Those shopping for policies have discovered that most of the least expensive “bronze” plans carry deductibles in excess of $5,000 for an individual and other high out-of-pocket costs, which must be paid before coverage even kicks in.

While acknowledging that “premiums will keep rising, as they have for decades,” Obama said they were projected to be “15 percent lower than originally predicted,” and that this would somehow miraculously translate into “more money that families can spend at businesses, more money that businesses can spend hiring new workers.”

As Obama is well aware, US businesses are currently sitting on a cash hoard estimated at $1.5 trillion, even as they shed jobs and boost productivity, while corporate profits and CEO pay soar. Obamacare will not reverse this trend, nor is it intended to.

On the contrary, it has been designed to enable the insurance monopolies, pharmaceutical firms and health care giants to slash costs and make even more money.

The biggest lie from Obama is that the program is a genuine reform on a par with Medicare, and that it will improve health care for millions of Americans. From the start, the health care overhaul has been aimed at establishing an even more heavily class-based system of health care delivery than that which already exists, in which spending is slashed for the government and employers and medical care is rationed for workers and their families.

A front-page article in Friday’s New York Times, “Cost of Treatment May Influence Doctors,” points to how this brutal reality is playing out under Obamacare. The article begins: “Saying they can no longer ignore the rising prices of health care, some of the most influential medical groups in the nation are recommending that doctors weigh the costs, not just the effectiveness of treatments, as they make decisions about patient care.

“The shift … suggests that doctors are starting to redefine their roles, from being concerned exclusively about individual patients to exerting influence on how health care dollars are spent.”

The article details how medical groups—including the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association and others—are developing guidelines that could influence doctors to rate the value of drugs and treatments based on costs. The Times explains that traditionally these guidelines have “heavily influenced the practice of medicine” and “are also used by insurance companies to help determine reimbursement policies.”

The implications are far-reaching and ominous. Such guidelines could serve as the basis for a doctor choosing one drug over another, or deciding that a particular treatment is too expensive and withholding it. Cardiology societies, for example, are considering rating the value of treatments on the “cost per quality-adjusted life-year, or QALY,” a method currently in use in Britain and by some health economists. QALY is based on the number and quality of the years of life that would be added by a proposed medical intervention.

The Times notes as an aside, “In the extreme, some critics have said that making treatment decisions based on cost is a form of rationing.” But this is precisely the point. And it is clear that the elderly would be the main target of such rationing. Why spend money on a drug or treatment that would prolong life for only a few weeks, months or even years when an elderly person is chronically ill, approaching the end of life, and no longer producing profits for a capitalist?

As the WSWS noted previously, such arguments have a distinctly fascistic odor: “What are the ‘potential social benefits’ of the mentally impaired, or the physically disabled? Wouldn’t society be better served if their lives were cut short as well?”

It is no exaggeration to say that rationing of health care based on cost will result not only in the withholding of treatments and medications to the detriment of the health of millions of people, but also in needless deaths. Of course, the wealthy will have access to the best medical care that money can buy, as these rationing rules do not apply to them.

According to the Times, the soaring cost of drugs and treatments is behind the drive toward rationing. The society of oncologists, for example, is “alarmed by the escalating prices of cancer medicines” and is developing a method of evaluating drugs based on cost and value. The article also notes the $84,000 per course cost of Sovaldi, a new drug for hepatitis C from Gilead Sciences. It is never mentioned that such obscene prices are overwhelmingly the result of price gouging by pharmaceutical companies profiting off of the desperation of people battling life-threatening diseases.

The article notes that the cardiology societies, in a paper outlining new policies rating the cost and value of treatments, argue that doctors have to consider the financial burdens faced by patients: “Protecting patients from financial ruin is fundamental to the precept of ‘do not harm.’” This is remarkable! According to this reasoning, doctors will be doing patients a favor by withholding potentially life-saving treatments.

If patients need protection from anything, it is the for-profit health care system, in which the value of a procedure or medicine is judged not by its value for the patient, but by its impact on the bottom line of the giant health care chains, pharmaceutical corporations and insurance companies.

It is clear that rationing in health care, including moves by influential medical groups to establish new guidelines rating medical treatments according to cost, has accelerated under Obamacare. This highlights the reactionary character of Obama’s signature domestic policy. It is not a reform, but a counterrevolution in health care aimed not only at slashing and rationing health care for ordinary Americans, but at reducing life expectancy for the working class.

A true reform of America’s health care system would look nothing like the Affordable Care Act. The defense of health care as a social right requires that the entire health care industry be placed on socialist foundations, under public ownership and the democratic control of the working class.

Kate Randall

The face of food stamp cuts: Part one

“The system is set up for those in poverty to stay in poverty”

Jennifer – Portland, Oregon

By C.W. Rogers
18 April 2014

On February 7, president Obama signed legislation cutting $8.7 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, over the next ten years. This latest comes on top of an across-the-board 5 percent reduction of benefits to all food stamp recipients last November.

Jennifer Noonan (24) with her children Wenona and Taima at her home in the Portland area. Jennifer saw a $49 drop in her monthly SNAP benefits after the November 2013 cuts.

In 2012, there were 49 million people in the US who were “food insecure” at some point throughout the year, according to the US Department of Agriculture, meaning that nearly 50 million individuals (including 16 million children in nearly 18 million households) “did not have access at least part of the year, to enough food for an active, healthy life.” That is, one out of five children in the United States are living in households that cannot afford enough food and do not get enough to eat.

Food insecure households in the United States, according to Joel Berg of the NY Coalition Against Hunger, are families that are forced into a position of having to ration food, or “choosing between food and rent, choosing between food and health care—parents going without meals so that they can feed their children, or children having to sometimes go through the dumpsters in the back of their school to get a meal.”

“Food insecurity is basically hunger in the American context, it’s not necessarily people starving in the streets like North Korea or Somalia,” Berg stated in a recent interview with NPR. “We’re the only major industrialized Western society on the planet that has this high a level of hunger and this high a level of poverty. And this is a country that has so many billionaires, merely only having a billion dollars doesn’t get you on the Forbes 400 list any more…so it’s incredible that even though we don’t have Somalia-type starvation, that we do have mass deprivation—and the only reason we don’t have mass third-world style starvation is because of the very nutrition assistance programs [that are being cut].” Berg continued, “The SNAP program is what keeps us [the United States] from having mass famine and starvation.”

Last November’s SNAP cuts meant that every single one of the nearly 50 million people that depend on these benefits to feed themselves and their families were hit with reductions, the average amounting to around $30 per month, with many families facing even higher cuts. The latest round of cuts from February’s legislation as part of the Farm Bill will add another $8.7 billion in slashed spending to these, which will have devastating consequences for millions of Americans, hitting particularly hard the country’s most vulnerable people: children, the elderly and disabled.

The WSWS spoke to Portland, Oregon resident Jennifer Noonan and her two young children Taima and Wenona. Jennifer, who is now 24 years old, grew up in poverty and was placed in foster care along with her sister as a child after her mother, a schizophrenic, and her father, a drug addict, were no longer able to properly care for them. She spent her teen years running away from group homes and bouncing back and forth between foster families in the Northwest and then had her first child at the age of 18. Before being placed in foster care, and even after, she has many memories of going hungry in her childhood. Before the cuts in SNAP funding at the end of 2013 she was receiving $524 per month and she is now getting $475.

                 

Apparently you can’t be empathetic, or help the homeless, without a GoPro

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless

people to capture “extreme living”

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless people to capture "extreme living"

GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”

The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:

“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”

The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.

The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.

In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”

Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.



Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.

It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.

As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/17/today_in_bad_ideas_strapping_video_cameras_to_homeless_people_to_capture_extreme_living/?source=newsletter

Depriving homeless people of their last shelter in life is Silicon Valley at its worst.


The 1% Wants to Ban Sleeping in Cars

Because It Hurts Their ‘Quality of Life’

Photo Credit: meunierd/Shutterstock.com

Across the United States, many local governments are responding to skyrocketing levels of inequality and the now decades-long crisis of homelessness among the very poor … by passing laws making it a crime to sleep in a parked car.

This happened most recently in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley, where new billionaires are seemingly minted every month – and where 92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind. Dozens of cities have passed similar anti-homeless laws. The largest of them is Los Angeles, the longtime unofficial “homeless capital of America”, where lawyers are currently defending a similar vehicle-sleeping law before a skeptical federal appellate court. Laws against sleeping on sidewalks or in cars are called “quality of life” laws. But they certainly don’t protect the quality of life of the poor.

To be sure, people living in cars cannot be the best neighbors. Some people are able to acquire old and ugly – but still functioning – recreational vehicles with bathrooms; others do the best they can. These same cities have resisted efforts to provide more public toilet facilities, often on the grounds that this will make their city a “magnet” for homeless people from other cities. As a result, anti-homeless ordinances often spread to adjacent cities, leaving entire regions without public facilities of any kind.

Their hope, of course, is that homeless people will go elsewhere, despite the fact that the great majority of homeless people are trying to survive in the same communities in which they were last housed – and where they still maintain connections. Americans sleeping in their own cars literally have nowhere to go.

Indeed, nearly all homelessness in the US begins with a loss of income and an eviction for nonpayment of rent – a rent set entirely by market forces. The waiting lists are years long for the tiny fraction of housing with government subsidies. And rents have risen dramatically in the past two years, in part because long-time tenants must now compete with the millions of former homeowners who lost their homes in the Great Recession.

The paths from eviction to homelessness follow familiar patterns. For the completely destitute without family or friends able to help, that path leads more or less directly to the streets. For those slightly better off, unemployment and the exhaustion of meager savings – along with the good graces of family and friends – eventually leaves people with only two alternatives: a shelter cot or their old automobile.

However, in places like Los Angeles, the shelters are pretty much always full. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of unsheltered homeless people increased by 67%. In Palo Alto last year, there were 12 shelter beds for 157 homeless individuals. Homeless people in these cities do have choices: they can choose to sleep in a doorway, on a sidewalk, in a park, under a bridge or overpass, or – if they are relatively lucky – in a car. But these cities have ordinances that make all of those choices a criminal offense. The car is the best of bad options, now common enough that local bureaucrats have devised a new, if oxymoronic, term – the “vehicularly housed”.

People sleeping in cars try to find legal, nighttime parking places, where they will be less apparent and arouse the least hostility. But cities like Palo Alto and Los Angeles often forbid parking between 2am and 5am in commercial areas, where police write expensive tickets and arrest and impound the vehicles of repeat offenders. That leaves residential areas, where overnight street parking cannot, as a practical matter, be prohibited.

One finds the “vehicularly housed” in virtually every neighborhood, including my own. But the animus that drives anti-homeless laws seems to be greatest in the wealthiest cities, like Palo Alto, which has probably spawned more per-capita fortunes than any city on Earth, and in the more recently gentrified areas like Los Angeles’ Venice. These places are ruled by majorities of “liberals” who decry, with increasing fervor, the rapid rise in economic inequality. Nationally, 90% of Democrats (and 45% of Republicans) believe the government should act to reduce the rich-poor gap.

It is easy to be opposed to inequality in the abstract. So why are Los Angeles and Palo Alto spending virtually none of their budgets on efforts to provide housing for the very poor and homeless? When the most obvious evidence of inequality parks on their street, it appears, even liberals would rather just call the police. The word from the car: if you’re not going to do anything to help, please don’t make things worse.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/1-wants-ban-sleeping-cars-because-it-hurts-their-quality-life?akid=11722.265072.4yEWu6&rd=1&src=newsletter982385&t=3&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway.

The New Economic Events Giving Lie to the Fiction That

We Are All Selfish, Rational Materialists

Photo Credit: AllanGregg; Screenshot / YouTube.com

Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” brings welcome new attention to the commons just as it begins to explode in countless new directions. His book focuses on one of the most significant vectors of commons-based innovation — the Internet and digital technologies — and documents how the incremental costs of nearly everything is rapidly diminishing, often to zero. Rifkin explored the sweeping implications of this trend in an excerpt from his book and points to the “eclipse of capitalism” in the decades ahead.

But it’s worth noting that the commons is not just an Internet phenomenon or a matter of economics. The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway. People’s attitudes about corporate property rights and neoliberal capitalism are changing as cooperative endeavors — on digital networks and elsewhere — become more feasible and attractive. This can be seen in the proliferation of hackerspaces and Fablabs, in the growth of alternative currencies, in many land trusts and cooperatives and in seed-sharing collectives and countless natural resource commons.

Beneath the radar screen of mainstream politics, which remains largely clueless about such cultural trends on the edge, a new breed of commoners is building the vision of a very different kind of society, project by project. This new universe of social activity is being built on the foundation of a very different ethics and social logic than that of homo economicus — the economist’s fiction that we are all selfish, utility-maximizing, rational materialists.

Durable projects based on social cooperation are producing enormous amounts of wealth; it’s just that this wealth is not generally not monetized or traded. It’s socially or ecologically embedded wealth that is managed by self-styled commoners themselves. Typically, such commoners act more as stewards of their common wealth than as owners who treat it as private capital. Commoners realize that a life defined by impersonal transactions is not as rich or satisfying as one defined by abiding relationships. The larger trends toward zero-marginal-cost production make it perfectly logical for people to seek out commons-based alternatives.

You can find these alternatives popping up all over: in the 10,000-plus open access scientific journals whose research is freely shareable to anyone and in community gardens that produce both fresh vegetables and neighborliness. In hundreds of “timebanks” that let people meet basic needs through time-barters, and in highly productive, ecologically minded commons-based agriculture.

Economists tend to ignore such wealth because it generally doesn’t involve market activity. No cash is exchanged, no legal contracts signed and no measureable Gross Domestic Product is generated. But the wealth of the commons is not accumulated like capital; its vitality comes from being circulated. As I describe in my new book, “Think Like a Commoner,” the story of our time is the rise of the commons as a new way to emancipate oneself from predatory markets and to collaborate with peers to protect and expand one’s shared wealth. This is a story that is being played out in countless digital arenas, as Rifkin documents, but also in such diverse contexts as cities, farming, museums, theaters and indigenous communities.

One reason that so many commons arise and flourish is because they help their participants meet important basic needs in fair, responsive and socially satisfying ways. That’s quite attractive to those who are otherwise held captive by conventional, predatory markets. Big agriculture is more concerned with efficiency and profit than ecological stewardship. Large transnationals are more interested in rip-and-run resource extraction (mining, fracking, timber) than in the protection of sacred lands and time-honored ways of life. “Copyright industries” like Hollywood and record labels want to treat all of culture as tightly controlled “product,” not as something that is freely shared and built upon.

Nowadays the commons has a special appeal for people of the global South who are often victimized by the “enclosures” inflicted by neoliberal investment and trade policies. Enclosures are the act of privatizing and commodifying previously shared resources. For example, millions of acres of land in Africa, Asia and Latin America are currently being seized by investors in a massive international land grab. Hedge funds and even the government of South Korea, Saudi Arabia and China are enacting an eerie replay of the English enclosure movement. Commoners who have worked the land for generations as a customary right are being forced to migrate to cities in search of work, where they often end up as paupers and sweatshop employees: a modern-day replay of Charles Dickens’ novels.

By the lights of modern economic theory, it’s all for the best because it promotes “development” (i.e., consumerism and other market dependencies). But many commoners are now fighting the dispossession and dependencies that enclosures entail by struggling to retain some measure of dignity and self-determination through their commons. The International Land Alliance estimates that 2 billion people around the world depend upon subsistence commons of forests, fisheries, arable land, water and wild game to meet their everyday needs.

Strangely, the leading introductory economics textbooks in the U.S. virtually ignore the commons except for the obligatory warning about the “tragedy of the commons.” They prefer not to recognize that the commons represents an entirely viable but different paradigm of “development” – one that can transcend the unsustainable consumerism, cultural disintegration and economic growth of our time. As the late Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom showed, commons are an entirely sustainable, ecologically friendly model of resource management, contrary to the “tragedy” parable.

Commoners are not all alike. They have many profound differences in their governance systems, management practices and cultural values. And commons are not without their conflicts, struggles and failures. That said, most commoners tend to share fundamental commitments to participation, openness, inclusiveness, social equity, ecological respect and human rights.

The politics of the commons movement can be confounding to conventional observers because political goals are not the paramount priority; protection of the commons is. Commoners tend to be more focused on “prepolitical” social activity and relationships, which is why commons are embraced by such a wide variety of people. As German commons advocate Silke Helfrich notes in The Wealth of the Commons, “Commons draw from the best of all political ideologies.” Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the Market.

It is important to realize that the commons is not a discussion about objects, but a discussion about who we are and how we treat each other. What decisions are being made about our resources? Does economic activity satisfy basic human needs and honor human rights and dignity? These kind of discussions are not often heard in in conventional business and policy circles, alas.

To conventional minds, the idea of the commons as a paradigm of social governance appears either utopian or communistic, or at the very least, impractical. But a diverse, eclectic universe of commons around the world demonstrates otherwise. It is the neoliberal project of ever-expanding consumption on a global scale that is the utopian, totalistic dream. It manifestly cannot fulfill its mythological vision of human progress through ubiquitous market activity and greater heaps of private consumption, if only because it demands more from Nature than it can possibly deliver – while inflicting too much social inequity and disruption as well.

Fortunately, the Internet and indigenous peoples, the re-localization movement and hackers, community foresters and fishing cooperatives and many, many others, are showing that the commons can be an effective vehicle for social and political emancipation. Jeremy Rifkin’s astute analysis of this powerful trend will help open up a much-needed discussion in the stodgy precincts of conventional economics.

David A. Bollier is an author, activist, blogger and independent scholar with a primary focus on “the commons” as a new paradigm for economics, politics, and culture. He is the founding editor of Onthecommons.org (2002-2010), co-founder and principal of the international consulting project Commons Strategy Group, and co-director of the Commons Law Project. Bollier is the author of numerous books, including “Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons.”

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