Parallel universes

The Sunday Doonesbury strip nailed the problem:

The 400 richest families in America now hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the country combined!

So, in the midst of an economic crisis, how do our leaders (nearly every Republican and most of the Democrats, including the President) make use of this information?

They celebrate two things:

  1. Cut that “waste” in government, especially the bit going to spending on job training, education, food, housing, and healthcare for that no-good 150 million, and
  2. Absolutely, under no circumstances, allow any new taxes, especially on those 400 families, who provide so much for the rest of us.

There is an parallel universe, one with people just like us, an economic downturn, and people out of work. But there are two differences: People there believe that increased spending now is actually vital to get the economy going, put people to work, and in the long run actually reduce the deficit. (This by the way is the view of most economists, liberal or conservative in both of these universes.) So, point #1, austerity now, is considered an extremely dumb and ill-timed idea.

Second, those people think that the short-term deficit and the long-term debts are very real problems that need to be addressed intelligently and comprehensively. That means management of spending, but also fair contributions from all, including what middle class we have left and even those 400 families. They don’t believe that all of the economic sacrifice ought to fall on the bottom 50%. So, point #2, no new taxes ever, is also viewed as a wacky idea.

In that parallel universe, people would like to

  1. Get the economy going.
  2. Develop a thoughtful plan for revenues and spending, one that involves shared commitment from all.

Is that parallel universe possible?

Can a community stop fracking?

Photo courtesy creative commons by Helen Slottje

Mari Margil and Ben Price have a detailed article in Yes! magazine this month about Pittsburgh’s recent ban on natural gas drilling, which uses the “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing technique. Pittsburgh is the first major city in the US to ban corporations from natural gas drilling.

The ordinance has a direct impact on Pittsburgh, but as they point out, its implications go much further:

Provisions in the ordinance eliminate corporate “personhood” rights within the city for corporations seeking to drill, and remove the ability of corporations to wield the Commerce and Contracts Clauses of the U.S. Constitution to override community decision-making.

Community decision making is essential in this arena for two reasons: First, exemptions to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act for the oil and gas industry, expanded even further in 2005, mean that the burden of proof is now on communities to prove that any drilling practice is unsafe. This, it’s essential that communty decision making be supported and seen as the proper venue for judging the value of any drilling. Second, no individual landowner can have much impact on the drilling. The horizontal drilling methods mean that the fracking can proceed, regardless of landowner approval. All the landowner can do is decide to forego any royalties. This effectively grants all power to the corporation doing the drilling.

This issue hits home for me, since Fort Worth has been a major site for fracking (Smith, 2010). Although the oil and gas industry has asserted that fracking does not pollute underground water supplies or air quality, does not cause earthquakes, and is all in all a benign way to produce clean energy, it’s difficult to accept the assertions when they continually seek exemptions to EPA review and refuse to release data on the chemicals and procedures they use.

References

Islamic community center in New York

Based on the evidence, this post seems unnecessary and even risks treating bigotry with more respect than it deserves. But based on rhetoric in the mass media and polling numbers the post seems overdue.

The Cordoba Initiative is building an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, called Cordoba House. The center will include a mosque, an auditorium, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a bookstore. It’s based on the model of Jewish community centers and Y’s in Manhattan; the board will include Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. The center is “dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet” and to serve as a model of moderate Islam.

Located near (but not at) Ground Zero, Cordoba House replaces a building damaged in the September 11 attacks. Announcement of the plans led to a brouhaha, what Anthony DiMaggio calls a “manufactured controversy.” Although there is both support and opposition among every group (9/11 survivors and families, people in Lower Manhattan, Christians, Muslims, etc.), the majority view is opposed. Some people go so far as to argue in effect for an abandonment of the First Amendment, for the government to establish which religions should be allowed to practice where, not to mention an extraordinary abridgment of private property rights.

But as Todd Gitlin writes, it is not the duty of American governments “to construct a mosque-free zone around the World Trade Center site because some Americans oppose putting it there.” To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg gave unambiguous support to the idea that the fact of terrorism should not be allowed to destroy American values or Constitutional rights.

Referring to the firefighters and police officers who entered the trade center on September 11, Bloomberg said, “In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ ‘What beliefs do you hold?’” Further, “We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights—and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

Bloomberg based his actions on general principles of religious freedom and against bigotry. But having lived for many years in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., I can’t help noting that his parents had to hide their identity when they wanted to buy a house in Medford. Joyce Purnick says in her biography:

“My uncle wouldn’t dare sell to a Jew,” says a childhood friend of Mike, Thomas Buckley, about his relative, the realtor who sold the stone-and-clapboard houses in the newly built community that attracted the Bloombergs. “If he did, he would have been out of business. He knew they were buying it. He just didn’t say anything.”

No Jews lived in the immediate neighborhood, very few anywhere in Medford. But everyone assumed that would change, including the Bloombergs, who resolved not to let residual anti-Semitism block their path. “They weren’t very happy,” Mrs. Bloomberg said of some neighbors. “Our lawyer, George McLaughlin, who was Irish, bought the house and sold it to us.

Bloomberg managed to survive Medford and later endowed his hometown synagogue, Temple Shalom. It was renamed for his parents as the William and Charlotte Bloomberg Jewish Community Center of Medford.

After 9/11, many people asked Muslims to condemn the trade center attacks, fanaticism, terrorism, and Osama Bib Laden. They also demanded that Muslims reach out to mainstream America. That’s exactly what the Cordoba Initiative is doing. But even if they weren’t doing that, our Constitution as well as basic human decency call on us to respect the rights of all, even those we misunderstand.

References

Barbaro, Michael, (2010, August 12). Mayor’s stance on Muslim center has deep roots. The New York Times.

Clawson, Julie (2010, June 8). Forgiveness, Fear, and the Mosque at Ground Zero. Sojourners.

DiMaggio, Anthony (2010, August 12). The Muslim community center at Ground Zero: A manufactured controversy. counterpunch.

Gitlin, Todd (2010, August 13). American values and the Ground Zero mosque. The New Republic.

Purnick, Joyce (2009). Mike Bloomberg: Money, politics, power. PublicAffairs, Perseus Books Group.

Salisbury, Stephan (2010, August 10). Mosque mania. Mother Jones.

Youth planners in Richmond, CA

I was fortunate to have a visit with youth planners at the Kennedy High School in Richmond, CA on Wednesday this week. These were students studying their own community and developing plans to improve it. They’ll be presenting these plans to the Mayor next month.

What I saw is part of Y-PLAN (Youth — Plan, Learn, Act, Now), a city planning program run by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools. Deborah McKoy is the creator of Y-PLAN and the center’s founder and executive director.

Sarah Van Wart from the UC Berkeley I School was my guide. She and two undergrads, Arturo and Sarir had been leading the high school students in a community planning exercise. They first examined their current situation, using dialogue, photos, and data. They then considered alternatives and how those might apply to a planned urban development project.

The development will include schools, housing, a park, and community center, but the questions for city planners, include “How should these be designed?” “How can they be connected?” “How can they be made safe, useful, and aesthetically pleasing?”

On the day I visited, the youth had already developed general ideas on what they’d like to see in the development. Now they were to make these ideas more concrete through 3-D modeling. Using clay, toothpicks, construction paper, dried algae, stickers, variously colored small rocks, and other objects, they constructed scale models of the 30 square block development. One resource they had was contact sheets of photos of other urban environments. They could select from those to include as examples to emulate or to avoid.

I was impressed with the dedication and skill of the leaders of the project, including also the teacher, Mr. G. But the most striking thing was how engaged the young people were. I heard some healthy arguing about design, but I didn’t see the disaffection that is so common some high schools today.

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to follow the process from beginning to end. But from the rich, albeit limited, glimpse I had, the project is an excellent way to engage young people in their own communities, to use multimedia for learning and action in the world, and to learn how to work together on meaningful tasks. It’s a good example of community inquiry.

Sara Bernard has a more detailed article on the project on Edutopia, which includes an audio slide show:

Audio slide show: Putting Schools on the Map Slide Show
Putting Schools on the Map

References

Bernard, Sara (2008, October). Mapping their futures: Kids foster school-community connections.

Bierbaum, Ariel H., & McKoy, Deborah L. (2008, Spring). Y-PLAN: A tool for engaging youth and schools in planning for the future of their communities. IMPACT: A Multidisciplinary Journal Addressing the Issues of Urban Youth, 2(1).

McKoy, Deborah, & Vincent, J. 2007. Engaging schools in urban revitalization: The Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now). Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26, 389-403.

Overconsumption is the problem, not population

When we watch farmlands or forests being paved over for new housing, or see images of starving children, it’s hard not to think that there may be just too many people, that we have “exponential” population growth. This leads soon to the idea that we need to “do something” about population.

That view has a long history, including Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and Thomas Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. There may well be negative effects and ultimate limits, but most of the blame assigned to population today would be better assigned to overconsumption.

How we understand the causes of present problems such as climate change, depletion of natural resources, hunger, and war is important, because different causes call for different remedies. An article by Fred Pearce in New Scientist, via Population: Overconsumption is the real problem – opinion – 27 September 2009, summarizes well the major issues here.

The population “bomb” is fast being defused. Women across the poor world are having dramatically fewer babies than their mothers did – mostly out of choice, not compulsion. Half a century ago, the worldwide average for the number of children a woman had was between five and six. Now she has 2.6. In the face of such a fall it is hard to see what more “doing something” about global population might achieve.

Half the world now has a fertility rate below the replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. This includes most of Europe, east Asia, North America and the Caribbean. There are holdouts in a few Muslim countries – but not Iran, where fertility is 1.7 – and many parts of Africa

Thus, even if we have too many people, the rate of growth is decreasing, and all the indicators point to further reductions accompanying development. So, if the problem is not exponential population growth, what is it? Pearce goes on to point out that

the world’s richest half billion people – that’s about 7 per cent of the global population – are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.

Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.

Pearce talks mostly about climate change, but his argument holds for other aspects of environmental stress, including the basic issue of hunger. Overconsumption in the rich countries occurs through waste, a diet heavily based on meat, and simply too much eating. A study directed by Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, indicates that up to fifty per cent of all food ready for harvest in the US never gets eaten. That amount alone is enough to address worldwide hunger needs.

There’s no doubt that we’d do better to balance our population with the available resources, but before we criticize the mote in the eye of starving villagers in Africa, we might well consider the beam in our own.

References

What do Boston & Cambridge have to say to Champaign Unit 4?

violin_may06Ann Abbott inspired me to say more about the connections between the Boston desegregation experience in my last post and that of Champaign Unit 4.

I’d have to say that Boston is a good example of how not to do it. As I said in that post, Judge Garrity made the correct, and only legally justifiable decision, but rulings alone cannot accomplish much if there is widespread resistance, especially from political and religious leaders, school officials, and media. The racism thwarted integration of the schools, and in the process did major damage to the school system and to Boston as a civilized city.

In contrast, just across the Charles River, Cambridge managed relatively successful desegregation during the same period. Cambridge adopted a “freedom of choice” or “controlled open enrollment” desegregation plan in 1981. Parents would specify a list of  the schools they wanted their children to attend. Their preferences were followed as long as explicit desegregation controls could be maintained. There were no guarantees of attending any particular school.

Graham_parksBecause the program was coupled with interesting magnet programs at every school, there were many viable options for families. As parents we almost welcomed the fact that we didn’t have to make the final choice between the Maynard School’s dual language (two-way Spanish-English bilingual) program, Tobin’s School of the Future, with innovative uses new technologies, the Graham & Parks Alternative Public School, with its open education plan (see mural above), or the closer by Peabody, Fitzgerald, or Lincoln schools, each with things to recommend it. It helped that Cambridge did not have the urban sprawl of midwestern cities, which meant that unlike Champaign, Cambridge offered several schools within walking distance.

Although not without its problems, this plan was effective in substantially desegregating Cambridge schools, and maintained public support and involvement with the public schools. It’s not surprising then that Robert Peterkin, Superintendent, was called in as a consultant on the similar plan in Champaign. The story in Champaign is still unfolding (as it is in Cambridge and Boston as well). But if I had to draw lessons today from these three experiences, I’d say that it’s essential for Champaign residents today to avoid the disastrous path of resistance that Boston experienced

champaignThe Champaign school district has been struggling to address concerns such as too many black students in special education and discipline referrals; too few in gifted and honors classes; and black students being bused out of their neighborhoods. Responses such as denying the problems or siting new schools outside of black communities (though still technically north side) remind me of Boston’s response. Everyone would benefit if the school system and residents were to embrace not only the technical details of the Cambridge (or similar) plan, but also the spirit that saw how desegregation could enrich the learning for all.

References

“Free parking isn’t free”

As someone who tries to walk modest distances in town, I’ve been impressed again and again with how unfriendly our cites are for walkers. There are dangerous intersections, or worse, busy roads with no designated crossing. There are missing sidewalks and senseless barriers. Making things worse is the fact that everything is so far apart. One of the culprits here is our irrational obsession with free parking, which like any addiction creates its own need.

Seth Zeren has an excellent essay on Worldchanging about why “free parking” actually costs us all a lot.  He points out that what seemed once to be reasonable zoning requirements for parking actually costs us all a lot in terms of polution, traffic, health, aesthetics, and even direct cash.

Why do Americans drive everywhere? Because everything’s far apart. Why’s it far apart? Often because there’s so much parking in between! In the end, creating bright green cities will require undoing the damage created by mandating free parking.

Free Parking Isn’t Free, August 4, 2009