Truthout Stories Sun, 23 Nov 2014 13:36:49 -0500 en-gb Seven Ways the Military Wastes Our Money

Here are seven absurd ways the military wastes our money--and none of them have anything to do with national defense.

1. A whole battalion of generals? The titles “general” or “admiral” sound like they belong to pretty exclusive posts, fit only for the best of the best. This flashy title makes it pretty easy to say, "so what if a few of our military geniuses get the royal treatment--particularly if they are the sole commanders of the most powerful military in human history." The reality, however, is that there are nearly1,000 generals and admirals in the U.S. armed forces, and each has an entourage that would make a Hollywood star jealous.

According to 2010 Pentagon reports, there are963 generals and admirals in the U.S. armed forces. This number has ballooned by about 100 officers since 9/11 when fighting terror--and polishing the boots of senior military personnel --became Washington’s number-one priority. (In roughly that same time frame, starting in 1998, the Pentagon’s budget also ballooned by more than 50 percent.)

Jack Jacobs, a retired U.S. army colonel and now a military analyst for MSNBC, says the military needs only a third of that number. Many of these generals are “spending time writing plans and defending plans with Congress, and trying to get the money,” he explained. In other words, a large number of these generals are essentially lobbyists for the Pentagon, but they still receive large personal staffs and private jet rides for official paper-pushing military matters.

Dina Rasor, founder of Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, explains that this “brass creep” is “fueled by the desire to increase bureaucratic clout or prestige of a particular service, function or region, rather than reflecting the scope and duties of the job itself.”

It’s sort of like how Starbucks titles each of its baristas a “partner” but continues to pay them just over minimum wage (and a caramel macchiato per shift).

As Rasor writes, “the three- and four-star ranks have increased twice as fast as one- and two-star general and flag officers, three times as fast as the increase in all officers and almost ten times as fast as the increase in enlisted personnel. If you imagine it visually, the shape of U.S. military personnel has shifted from looking like a pyramid to beginning to look more like a skyscraper.”

But the skyscraper model doesn’t mean that the armed forces are democratizing. In fact, just the opposite; they’re gaming the system to allow more and more officers to deploy the full power of the U.S. military to aid their personal lives--whether their actual work justifies it or not.

2. The generals’ flotillas. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates appointed Arnold Punaro, a retired major general in the Marines, to head an independent review of the Pentagon’s budget. Here’s the caution he came up with: “We don’t want the Department of Defense to become a benefits agency that occasionally kills a terrorist.”

So, just how good are these benefits? For the top brass, not bad at all. According to a Washington Post investigation, each top commander has his own C-40 jet, complete with beds on board. Many have chefs who deserve their own four-star restaurants. The generals’ personal staff include drivers, security guards, secretaries, and people to shine their shoes and iron their uniforms. When traveling, they can be accompanied by police motorcades that stretch for blocks. When entertaining, string quartets are available at a snap of the fingers.

A New York Times analysis showed that simply the staff provided to top generals and admirals can top $1 million--per general. That’s not even including their own salaries--which are relatively modest due to congressional legislation--and the free housing, which has been described as “palatial.” On Capitol Hill, these cadres of assistants are called the generals’ “flotillas.”

In the case of former Army General David Petraeus, he didn’t want to give up the perks of being a four-star general in the Army, even after he left the armed forces to be director of the CIA. He apparently trained his assistants to pass him water bottles at timed intervals on his now-infamous 6-minute mile runs. He also liked “fresh, sliced pineapple” before going to bed.

3. Scandals. Despite the seemingly limitless perks of being a general, there is a limit to the military’s (taxpayer-funded) generosity. That's led some senior officers to engage in a little creative accounting. In 2012, summer the (formerly) four-star general William “Kip” Ward was caught using military money to pay for a Bermuda vacation and using military cars and drivers to take his wife on shopping and spa excursions. He traveled with up to 13 staff members, even on non-work trips, billing the State Department for their hotel and travel costs, as well as his family’s stays at luxury hotels.

In November 2012, in the midst of the Petraeus scandal, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta demoted Ward to a three-star lieutenant general and ordered him to pay back $82,000 of the taxpayers’ misused money. The debt shouldn’t be hard to repay; Ward will receive an annual retirement salary of $208,802.

Panetta may have been tough--sort of--on now three-star general Ward, but he’s displayed a complete refusal to reevaluate the bloated ranks of the military generals. Unlike his predecessor, Robert Gates, who has come out publicly against the increasing number of top-ranking officers and tried to reduce their ranks, Panetta has so far refused to review their numbers and has yet to fire a single general or admiral for misconduct. He did, however, order an “ethics training” after the Petraeus scandal.

4. Warped sense of reality. After the Petraeus scandal, the million-dollar question was: Did the general who essentially built the world’s most invasive surveillance apparatus really think he could get away with carrying on a secret affair without anyone knowing? Former Secretary of State Gates has floated at least one theory at a press conference in Chicago: “There is something about a sense of entitlement and having great power that skews people’s judgement.”

A handful of retired diplomats and service members have come out in support of Gates’ thesis. Robert J. Callahan, a retired diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, wrote an op-ed in theChicago Tribune explaining how the generals’ perks allow them to exist on a plane removed from ordinary people:

Those with a star are military nobility, no doubt, and those with four are royalty. Flying in luxurious private jets, surrounded by a phalanx of fawning aides who do everything from preparing their meals to pressing their uniform trousers, they are among America's most pampered professionals. Their orders are executed without challenge, their word is fiat. They live in a reality different from the rest of us.

Frank Wuco, a retired U.S. Naval intelligence chief, agrees.

With the senior guys and the flag officers, this is like the new royalty,” he said on his weekly radio show. “We treat them like kings and princes. These general officers in the military, at a certain point, become untouchable... In many cases, they get their own airplanes, their own helicopters. When they walk into a room, everybody comes to attention. In the case of some of them, people are very afraid to speak up or to disagree. Being separated from real life all the time in that way probably leaves them vulnerable (to lapses in moral judgement).

Sounds like a phenomenon that’s happening with another pampered sector of society (hint: Wall Street). Given the epic 2008 financial collapse, do we really want to set our security forces on a similar path of power, deception and deep, crisis-creating delusion?

5. Military golf. Of course, generals and admirals aren’t the only ones who get to enjoy some of perks of being in the U.S. armed forces. Although lower ranking service members don’t get private jets and personal chefs, U.S. taxpayers still spend billions of dollars a year to pay for luxuries that are out of reach for the ordinary American.

The Pentagon, for example, runs a staggering 234 golf courses around the world, at a cost that is undisclosed.

According to one retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, who also just happens to be the senior writer atTravel Golf, the very best military golf course in the U.S. is the Air Force Academy's Eisenhower Blue Course in Colorado Springs, CO.

He writes, “This stunning 7,000-plus yard layout shares the same foothills terrain as does the legendary Broadmoor, just 20 minutes to the south in Colorado Springs. Ponderosa pines, pinon and juniper line the fairways with rolling mounds, ponds and almost tame deer and wild turkey.” (The Department of Defense did come under fire a number of decades ago when it was discovered that the toilet seats at this course cost $400 a pop.)

And the number of golf courses is often undercounted, with controversial courses in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Mosul, Iraq, often left off the lists, which makes assessing the total costs difficult.

Yet some courses rack up staggering expenses as they become far more than mere stretches of grass.

According to journalist Nick Turse, “The U.S. Army paid $71,614 [in 2004] to the Arizona Golf Resort -- located in sunny Riyadh, Saudi Arabia... The resort actually boasts an entire entertainment complex, complete with a water-slide-enhanced megapool, gym, bowling alley, horse stables, roller hockey rink, arcade, amphitheater, restaurant, and even a cappuccino bar -- not to mention the golf course and a driving range.”

DoD's Sungnam golf course in the Republic of Korea, meanwhile, is reportedly valued at $26 million.

For non-golfers, the military also maintains a ski lodge and resort in the Bavarian Alps, which opened in 2004 and cost $80 million.

6.The Army goes rolling along!” Vacation resorts aren’t the only explicitly non-defense-related expenditures of the Department of Defense. According to a Washington Post investigation, the DoD also spends $500 million annually on marching bands.

The Navy, the Army, the Air Force and the Marine Corps all maintain their own military bands, which also produce their own magazines and CDs.

The bands are [pun intended] “an instrument of military PR,” according to Al McCree, a retired Air Force service member who owns Altissimo Recordings, a Nashville record label featuring music of the service bands.

The CDs are--by law--distributed for free, but that doesn’t mean the private sector can’t profit off these marching bands. According to the Washington Post article, “The service CDs have also created a private, profitable industry made up of companies that obtain the band recordings under the Freedom of Information Act. They then re-press and package them for public sale.”

As if subsidizing the industry of multibillion-dollar arms dealers weren’t enough, the record industry is apparently also leeching off the taxpayer-funded military spending.

7. The Pentagon-to-Lockheed pipeline. While the exorbitant costs of private planes and hundreds of golf courses may seem bad enough, the most costly problem with the entitlement-culture of the military happens aftergenerals retire. Since they’re so used to the luxurious lifestyle, the vast majority of pension-reaping high-ranking officers head into the private defense industry.

According to William Hartung, a defense analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington DC, about 70 percent of recently retired three- and four-star generals went straight to work for industry giants like Lockheed Martin.

“If you don’t go into industry at this point you are the exception,” Hartung said.

This type of government-to-industry pipeline, which he said was comparable to the odious Wall Street-to-Washington revolving door, drives up the prices of weapons and prevents effective oversight of weapon manufacturing companies--all of which ends up costing taxpayers more and more each year.

“I think the overspending on the generals and all their perks is bad enough, but the revolving door and the ability of these people to cut industry a break in exchange for high salaries costs more in the long run,” said Hartung. “This can affect the price of weapons and the whole structure of how we oversee companies. It’s harder to calculate, but certainly in the billions, compared to millions spent on staff per general.”

News Sun, 23 Nov 2014 12:10:44 -0500
Truthout Interviews Dahr Jamail on Electromagnetic Radiation War Games in Washington State

If you value media that isn’t controlled by advertisers or billionaire sponsors, show your support today! Donate to Truthout now to keep independent media strong.

An EA-18G Growler refuels from a KC-130 Hercules.An EA-18G Growler refuels from a KC-130 Hercules. (Photo: Staff Sft. Amanda Dick / US Navy)

Also see: Dahr Jamail | Navy Plans Electromagnetic War Games Over National Park and Forest in Washington State

Ted Asregadoo speaks to Truthout staff reporter Dahr Jamail about the Navy's plan to conduct war games involving electromagnetic radiation in a protected park and forest in Washington State.

In Washington State, the US Navy plans to conduct war game exercises over the Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park that involve the use of electromagnetic radiation. These training exercises, if allowed to proceed, will involve flights of the Navy's EA 18G Growler jet outfitted with new communication jamming equipment that uses electromagnetic radiation to disable an enemy's communication networks. These games would last almost a year, and Growler jets would be flying over the area up to sixteen hours a day. The level of noise pollution will be high, but more importantly, so will the health and environmental effects on the landscape and the creatures that inhabit the space. Truthout staff reporter Dahr Jamail wrote a thorough piece on Truthout about the lack of public notification of these war games, the health effects of prolonged or intense electromagnetic radiation on human and animal life and the efforts of residents to stop these games from happening. In this Truthout Interviews, Jamail explains the current state of this battle between the residents who will be affected by the training exercises and the Navy's insistence that health and environmental consequences would be minimal. 

News Sun, 23 Nov 2014 11:41:47 -0500
Eight Main Street Job Creators Who Are Rebooting the Economy, Starting With Those Who Need It Most

Working together(Image: Working together via Shutterstock)From the Deep South to the West Coast, these entrepreneurs are making sure jobs and dollars grow - and stay - in places hardest hit by hurricanes, poverty, and gentrification.

Our culture is obsessed with them. Often young, with a pioneering spirit, entrepreneurs embody a certain kind of American dream; come up with brilliant ideas for products or services that meet (or even better, create) a market need and a viable business plan, find investors, and make lots of money. OK, it’s slightly more complicated than that—but let’s go with it.

While everyone's heard of Steve Jobs and the like, less known innovators and entrepreneurs are creating an economy where everyone has opportunities, no matter their background. They invest in businesses that provide well-paying jobs to English-language learners in Oakland, California; they create networks of investors to revolutionize the food system in Alabama; and they mentor small-business owners to help local enterprises thrive in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE), a nonprofit that supports visionary local economy projects, chose 17 of these leaders for its third cohort of BALLE Fellows. For 18 months, Fellows will share strategies that have worked in their regions—like lowering interest rates on loans for small businesses that provide jobs to the formerly incarcerated; and developing “investor clubs” that make it easy to invest in communities. The goal is to strengthen local economies in every corner of the United States.

Meet 8 of them here.

José Corona - Oakland, California

José likes to say that his dad, who emigrated with José and the rest of his family from Mexico, was a social entrepreneur before it was trendy. José saw his dad grow a successful agricultural business in Watsonville, California, treat his employees well, pay them fairly, and provide benefits. His dad even helped a few of his workers start their own farms.

José now works with entrepreneurs developing businesses that do things like make natural nut butters, roast coffee, and sell local meat, as the CEO and president of Inner City Advisors (ICA). He feels like his work is exactly what he needs to be doing, practicing the values his dad instilled in him: integrity, trust, relationships, and “hustling in the right way.”

Although the Bay Area's tech boom has caused an explosion of employment, José says it's still difficult for many people to find employment—like people who have been incarcerated, are learning English, or have lower education levels.

ICA isn’t a training program for job seekers. Instead, it mentors startups and small businesses to help them recruit and train workers.

José works with Premier Organics, a company that makes natural peanut butters and other products. Premier Organics hired Mauricio, originally from South America, as one of their first employees on the production line. Mauricio was responsible for manually putting labels on jars. With advising from ICA, Premier Organics offered Mauricio long-term job training, which allowed him to advance from line operator to team leader—and then to manager. He is now the operations manager for the whole company.

ICA also launched the Fund Good Jobs initiative that invests in small businesses that provide living-wage jobs with benefits and opportunities for advancement. In 2013, ICA companies created almost 3,000 jobs—and the average wage for ICA company jobs is $14.50 per hour (twice the federal minimum wage).

Jessica Norwood - Mobile, Alabama

After years of working on political action committees and electoral campaigns in Washington, DC, and New York City, Jessica moved home to the Gulf Coast of Alabama for some much needed rest in the summer of 2005.

Two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit. The destruction caused by the storm was amplified by the already overstretched infrastructure and poverty of the region.

Jessica witnessed families and neighbors who had barely survived on minimum wage before the storm struggle to pay for the gas they needed to evacuate—and then for food and lodging once they left.

When people in the Gulf Coast started returning to their homes, Jessica saw families returning to public housing only to find the buildings padlocked, leaving many without other housing options. In low-income neighborhoods throughout Alabama, schools that had closed during the storm never reopened.

In the midst of these challenges, Jessica saw many reasons to hope. Online networks of people popped up to help separated loved ones find each other Neighbors shared tools like shovels and saws to assist in cleaning up damaged houses.

Through all of this, she said she learned that “we are innovators, we are producers and we are each other's best assets.”

Jessica began connecting young people who were excited about rebuilding the South, and in 2007 founded the Emerging Changemakers Network.

After the first three years, Network members included town mayors, state representatives, and business owners, many of whom had less time to volunteer but were still looking for ways to improve their communities. They had other resources to offer, like disposable income to invest.

The Network decided to focus its investments on Alabama's food economy. Before anyone put up money, Jessica said the Network first sought to understand the food economy as a whole, talking to everyone from grocery store owners to farmers to the bankers that lend to them.

Emerging Changemakers launched “SOUL’utions,” a network of investment clubs that pooled money from people in the same town or city to invest in solutions in their area. One group provided a loan for a group of small farmers to purchase a tractor.

Jessica says that while they don’t invest huge amounts of money, it’s enough to catalyze other funders, like the Department of Agriculture or the Ford Foundation.

Alfa Demmellash - Jersey City, New Jersey

During college at Harvard University in the early 2000s, Alfa was inspired by Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank, which pioneered a microlending model that helped alleviate poverty for women in Bangladesh.

The summer after she graduated, she spent time in the neighborhoods on MLK Drive in Jersey City, just a short drive away from the burgeoning downtown area. While volunteering at soup kitchens and other social service agencies in majority low-income and African-American neighborhoods, she wondered if this microlending practice could be applied there.

Alfa remembers people in those neighborhoods telling her that she and friend Alex Forrester were “do-gooder” college kids, and that they wouldn’t stick around. She said they felt an immediate responsibility to stay, listen, and learn.

Alfa and Alex met Harvey George, who ran Friends of Lifers Youth Corp, Inc., a youth program helping people who were formerly incarcerated find housing and jobs. Alfa was immediately inspired by the way he, who had spent 17 years in prison, mentored and counseled the people who passed through his soup kitchen. They were often distressed and hopeless. He helped them create their own opportunities.

The pair started raising money from family and friends to make small loans to people in Jersey City who were eager to start or grow their own businesses, from florist shops to accounting firms. They soon realized, though, that it was not access to loans that the entrepreneurs lacked, but the skills to manage a small business—and the social connections to grow it.

So they decided to shift their focus from offering loans to providing business education. They started Rising Tide Capital, Inc., and opened the Community Business Academy. Academy courses included customer service and marketing, and the program offered mentorship from established business-owners and a support network of fellow entrepreneurs. The initial class included founders of businesses that included a greeting card company, catering service, and cleaning company. Harvey George was one of the first students.

Since then, the program has graduated more than 1,000 entrepreneurs and runs courses in three cities in New Jersey, with two courses in Spanish.

Carlos Velasco - Phoenix, Arizona

Carlos grew up in Guayaquil, Ecuador. During those years, much of the country was experiencing 70 percent unemployment. But, he said, neighbors looked out for each other and there was a real sense of community.

When he needed something to eat, his grandmother would send him to the tiendita, the corner store. The owner would give him what he could, no questions asked.

“We didn’t have money,” he said. “But we didn’t have the issues we have [here in the United States]: disconnection, crime, diabetes, a sense of people not knowing who they are.”

He moved to the United States when he was twelve. At school, he felt the social pressure to do well and achieve something great. He says now, in many neighborhoods in Arizona, he doesn’t see that motivation in many young people.

In the area near Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, for example, there are Jack in the Boxes, several Circle K’s—convenience stores that are pretty different from the tiendita Carlos visited growing up—and other chain restaurants and retailers. Entry-level and management jobs at large chains are the only employment options many young people feel they have.

In addition, Carlos says the chain stores crowd out locally owned businesses, particularly Spanish-preferred businesses or those owned by people who have immigrated to the United States.

In response to these challenges, Carlos and his colleagues at Fuerza Local, a community organization that supports locally-owned, Spanish-preferred businesses in Phoenix, developed a Spanish-language business accelerator program. The program offers 12 classes on topics like customer service and marketing, encourages participation in an online, group savings tool, and, upon graduation of the program, provides a line of credit at MariSol Credit Union.

The accelerator program has supported restaurants, a cake-selling business, mechanic shop, and a coffee shop, among many others. The second cohort of business-owners graduated in July.

Aaron Tanaka - Boston, Massachusetts

Aaron has been organizing and learning from the residents of low-income areas like Roxbury and Dorchester in Boston for almost 10 years. In 2005, he helped start the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA), a community organization of unemployed and underemployed workers. They began work on the “Ban the Box Campaign,” advocating for legislation that bars employers from asking applicants if they have a criminal record.

The campaign won a key victory in 2010 when the Massachusetts state legislature passed a criminal record reform bill including a Ban the Box provision. Aaron learned two important things from the campaign: that organizing work must be led by those most impacted, in this case people with criminal records; and that even if this campaign and others like it solved discrimination in hiring processes, there still would not be enough jobs.

There is such a need to organize around issues that are directly and immediately impacting people’s lives, like minimum wage and paid sick leave campaigns, Aaron said. So it doesn’t feel like there is time to take on the underlying causes of economic inequality and injustice.

Aaron began to find ways to support civic leaders and organizers in long-term visioning about what an economy that benefits all kinds of people could look like. He co-founded the Center for Economic Democracy.

Last year, the BWA campaigned for the allocation of $1 million of the city of Boston’s budget for a youth-led, participatory budgeting process. Aaron and the Center for Economic Democracy supported the process, in which dozens of youth participated and decided to fund the renovation of a park and playground in the Franklin neighborhood, provide laptops to three public high schools, and create “Designated Free Wall Space” for graffiti and other visual artists to showcase their work, among other projects.

Aaron says this process was just one way to open the conversation about democratizing the economy and alternative approaches to public finance.

Jay Bad Heart Bull - Minneapolis, Minnesota

Before moving to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Jay thought that most people in the Twin Cities would have plenty of employment opportunities at one of the many Fortune 500 and biomedical companies in the area. He had completed high school and tribal college on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota and the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, and witnessed widespread unemployment in rural regions.

When he arrived in Minneapolis, though, he soon realized that the Native community in Minneapolis was not benefiting from the city's wealth and opportunities. Further, he saw that the money coming into the community, through grants or social services, quickly left.

When Jay became the president and CEO of the Native American Community Development Initiative (NACDI), he set out to change that. In 2008, he and the team at NACDI recruited the Woodlands National Bank, a Native-American owned bank based in Hinckley, Minnesota, to open in South Minneapolis. He says this move was a message to the community that people could keep their dollars circulating locally.

NACDI then bought an office building in South Minneapolis by raising grant money and financing the remainder through the Woodlands Bank. Owning property in the neighborhood where they work opened many more opportunities. NACDI began leasing space in the ground floor of their building to a Native American man to run a coffee shop, which provides jobs for youth from the South Minneapolis neighborhood.

NACDI also opened an art gallery, All My Relations, featuring Native American art. Now, NACDI and other community organizations in South Minneapolis use the art gallery space to host events, like fundraisers and candidate forums during local elections.

Euneika Rogers-Sipp - Stone Mountain, Georgia

Just before starting high school, Euneika and her family moved from a rural community in North Carolina to the suburbs outside Atlanta. From there, she left for college in London in the mid-1980s. Euneika says her experience leaving the rural South—and then, the South altogether—is typical of the exodus that has been happening in largely African-American, poor, and rural communities for decades.

The difference is that Euneika returned. She felt pulled by a love of family, tradition, and place, but also an urgency about the environmental degradation she saw when she visited. She started Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families to help restore the social and economic fabric of the South's rural areas.

Her first project was in Gees Bend, Wilcox County, one of the poorest counties in Alabama. For years, the women of Gees Bend have been making vibrant and colorful quilts. Euneika saw this as one example of the gap between rich cultural heritage and the lack of economic opportunity in the rural South. So, she helped turn the quiltmaking into a cottage industry, and supported the town in building up a cultural tourism economy.

She has since been working with other towns across the Southeast to encourage cultural tourism there, collaborating with other local craft makers, and people who want to open restaurants, open their homes for homestays, or lead tours. In addition to bringing much needed economic opportunity to the region, she hopes cultural tourism will restore a connection to place—for the people who grew up there, and for others who want to experience and understand the history of the South.

Andrea Chen - New Orleans, Louisiana

Andrea started her career as a high school English teacher in New Orleans. She soon realized that many of her 11th- and 12th-grade students were reading on a fourth-grade level. While developing teaching strategies to bring them up to level, Andrea also dug deeper to figure out why.

There are a lot of factors, like an underfunded education system, that play into it. But, she said, a lot of the problem came down to poverty.

She and some friends started Propeller, a business incubator and co-working space designed to bring together social entrepreneurs and policymakers inspired to tackle problems like blighted land, failing schools, and food shortages.

Propeller runs a 10-month fellows program that supports entrepreneurs starting businesses with a social goal, like providing healthy food to schools or offering doula and childbirth education services to low-income women in New Orleans.

To find out more—and meet BALLE's other fellows—visit

News Sun, 23 Nov 2014 11:24:35 -0500
Is the Grass-Fed Really Greener? Beef Production in the Americas

In the Americas, three nations prevail as leading consumers and producers of beef: the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. From burgers to filet mignon, beef is often considered a staple food, even a delicacy. Its consumption is deeply ingrained in some cultures, but only a few understand the impact of industrial demand of cattle products. Most people are not aware that beef production is directly responsible for producing vast levels of greenhouse gases and expanding deforestation, especially in the Amazon forest region. In fact, in the past 25 years forests with an area the size of India have been cleared in Central and South America.[1] Although demand for beef has stagnated in the U.S. and certain Latin American countries, worldwide consumption continues to expand, and producers in the Western hemisphere are eager to supply. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that beef production and consumption will double by 2050, a situation that can ultimately be costly to the environment.[2] The article does not attempt to promote the eradication of beef from the personal diet, but to present an argument for the preservation of the environment, which includes a decrease in current levels of consumption, as well as innovative farming practices.

In terms of production, the U.S. takes the lead with an average of 11 million tons produced per year, followed by Brazil with 9.7 million tons and Argentina with 2.6 million tons.[3] In the U.S., people consume an average of three hamburgers a week, resulting in 156 burgers a year per person.[4] Argentina has historically been a prime consumer, and in the 1960s citizens consumed about 222 pounds per person every year. Beef plays a central role in the culture and identity of Argentina, so much so that in the 1990s former President Carlos Menem once joked, “Don’t come to my country if [you’re] vegetarian.”[5] Today, their consumption is slightly lower at about 129 pounds per person, but it is still well above the global average of 58.4 pounds per person a year.[6] Even though certain countries have reduced their consumption, overall worldwide trends indicate that beef-lovers are on the rise, especially in developing countries.

Patterns of beef consumption in developed countries are adapting to new trends, medical discoveries, and high prices. Inflation has caused an increase in beef prices, driving consumers to seek other sources of food. In addition, many farmers have decided to opt out of the business of cow grazing to enter the high-demand market of soy and corn production because these crops are inexpensive to grow and sell at high prices. The decrease in consumption can also be attributed to medical studies, which reveal that beef elevates levels of cholesterol and must be consumed in moderation. Lastly, compared to other types of meat, beef production has the most costly effect to the environment.


According to the Worldwatch Institute, “Over the last 30 years, the number of farm animals – and that includes both four-footed livestock like cattle and pigs and goats and sheep, as well as poultry – has increased about 23 percent since 1980.”[7] The increase of meat demand cannot be attributed to developed countries, but to developing ones. Economic growth in developing countries has spurred a broader middle class. People tend to spend their additional earnings on more expensive items, such as meat products. However, if demand keeps rising, suppliers will opt for cattle-raising methods that are more resource-efficient but worse off for people’s health and environmental welfare.

The cattle-raising quandary

Average shoppers purchase food at supermarkets without taking a look at labels. Consumers tend to buy beef products based on price and type of cut. Rarely do people inquire as to what occurred before the product arrived at the store. In order to be more conscious omnivores, consumers must be aware of what they eat because the process of food production inevitably has a nefarious effect on personal health and the environment.

There are two predominant techniques employed to raise cows. One method, called grazing, allows cattle to wander throughout enclosed grasslands. Grazing is considered more humane; cows are free to roam the land before heading to the slaughterhouse. Grazing methods imply that cows eat mostly grass and are not given antibiotics, hormones, or supplements. Of course, there are variations to these methods, such as feeding cows with grains and vitamins during the final stages of their lives to accelerate growth. Raising livestock naturally is an extremely slow process and utilizes large amounts of water and land in order to achieve an optimal beef weight. It takes much longer to raise a cow naturally, and consequently more resources are used for its growth. In the past 40 years, vast areas of forests have been destroyed to give way to agriculture and cattle ranching.[8] In addition, cows produce large amounts of natural waste that contains methane, a greenhouse gas that is harmful to the environment. Methane accounts to 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, and livestock waste is three times more potent than human waste.[9] At least through grazing, cows sequester carbon emissions on the pasture and this results in better air and water quality than feedlots.[10]

Grazing techniques are most regularly used in Brazil and Argentina, although different demands are pushing for new developments.[11] Often seen in the United States, feedlot mechanisms are gaining traction all over the world. Grazing requires vast tracts of land that are utilized solely for the cows’ livelihood, but yield little production as they take years to mature. As a result, farmers are encouraged to use the land to plant corn or soy, products that have a higher demand. Instead of grazing, they turn to feedlots, which confine the cows in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Cows in feedlots are fed on a corn and soy diet, amongst other grains, even though these are not part of a natural diet for cattle. In many feedlots, cows are administered hormones and antibiotics to speed growth. The total lifespan of the cow is shorter, which means less use of water, food, and land. However, cows produce methane and large concentrations of these gases harm the environment. In addition, a shorter lifespan means more beef is produced, since this allows more cows to move through the feedlots.[12]

Studies show that red meat is linked to heart disease and cancer. In a study, heavy consumers of red meat were associated with low physical activity, smoking, and higher body mass.[13] Corn is not the natural food of cows, and therefore grain-fed beef contains about 22-39 percent more cholesterol. Grass-fed beef is healthier because it has higher levels of linoleic acid and omega-3. [14] There is no perfect way to raise cattle, but given the choice, grass-fed is healthier and friendlier to the environment.

Albeit not the greenest activity, eating beef is deeply embedded in the culture of countries in the Americas, especially in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and the United States. As a result, it is foolish to assume that everyone can completely cut off his or her beef consumption. In addition, its production plays a significant role in the economy. However, more sustainable practices should be encouraged. Individuals can reduce their carbon footprint by lowering their consumption or choosing either organic or 100% grass-fed beef. In addition, innovative practices from the farmers’ side can increase the fertility of the land and reduce gas emissions. One noteworthy example is Estancia Grass-fed Beef that works with the traditional Argentine model of cattle grazing. It involves a rotating system of 5-7 years of cattle ranching followed by 1-2 year crop cycle.[15] Their model maintains the fertility of the soil and avoids monoculture, a dangerous method that deprives the soil of its nutrients. Those willing to supply their products, while still being mindful of the environment, should follow sustainable practices, such as Estancia’s. In addition, it is everyone’s job as conscious consumers to be aware of the products they eat. By simply cutting a few portions of meat a week, each individual can play a significant role in the preservation of the environment.


















News Sun, 23 Nov 2014 11:05:55 -0500
Efforts to Curb Destructive Palm Oil Plantations Brings Together Strange Bedfellows

Will corporations and activists join forces to end deforestation in Indonesia?

September brought good news for the world’s forests with the unveiling of the New York Declaration on Forests at the UN Climate Summit. The Declaration, which pledges to end global deforestation by 2030, was signed by 130 governments, including the US, Germany, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps most significantly, it was also backed by commitments from 40 major food corporations to eliminate palm oil grown on deforested land from their supply chains.

That’s a big deal, given that palm oil has been the single largest driver of tropical deforestation in recent years. When the medical establishment deemed trans-fats heart-unhealthy in the mid-1990s, demand for the supposedly more benign palm oil soared, increasing nearly six-fold since the year 2000. Palm oil is now used in nearly half of all foods on supermarket shelves, added to everything from breakfast cereals to margarine to potato chips. It is also an ingredient in shampoo, soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste, and laundry detergents, and is used as a feedstock for biofuels.

Palm oil is cheap. It is the highest yielding oil crop in the world, and the most abundant. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that every hour, an area of rainforest the size of 300 football fields is cleared to make way for new palm oil production — mainly in Indonesia, the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

At this breakneck and still accelerating pace, 98 percent of the Indonesian rainforest will be gone by 2022, and along with it one of the greatest remaining biodiversity treasure troves on Earth. The palm oil boom has been a disaster for the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, the clouded leopard, the pigmy elephant, and countless lesser known endangered species whose homelands are rapidly being converted to large-scale plantations.

It has also been catastrophic for the climate. Indonesia is currently the third largest carbon polluting country in the world, trailing only China and the US. Over 85 percent of the nation’s emissions come from forest destruction, which releases carbon stored in trees and ancient peatland swamps into the atmosphere. Once cleared, the peatlands dry out and are often set on fire, smoldering for months or even years, and transforming the greatest carbon sinks on the planet into leading carbon dioxide emitters. These fires were also responsible for the dangerous haze that caused work in Singapore and southern Malaysia to grind to a halt for weeks during June and July of 2013.

The group Forest Trends estimates that 80 percent of forest destruction in Indonesia between 2000 and 2012 was illegal, occurring outside the bounds of the concessions that the government has set aside for commercial development. Palm plantations were responsible for three-quarters of this illegal deforestation.

In 2007, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launched a campaign to persuade Cargill — the largest exporter of palm oil into the US, and one of a handful of traders that dominate the industry — to stop buying oil grown on newly cut forests and peatlands. When Cargill refused to budge, RAN changed its strategy and began targeting the company’s clients, the so-called “snack food 20,” which includes corporations like Hershey’s, General Mills, and Kraft.

This new tactic paid off. Some of the high profile brands began demanding that their suppliers get serious about deforestation. And in September, Cargill announced a sweeping no-deforestation policy and endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, joining other major palm oil traders including the Singapore-based Wilmar and the Indonesian company Golden Agri-Resources. The two leading pulp and paper companies in Indonesia, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited and Asian Pulp and Paper, have followed suit with their own commitments.

Over half of the “Snack Food 20” have also joined the no-deforestation pledge, including Mars, Nestle, Kellogg’s and Unilever. These companies have also agreed to drop suppliers who produce palm oil on stolen and misappropriated lands, or that use forced or child labor.

“The last few months have seen a welcome race to the top,” Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, said in a press release. “Consumers have sent companies a clear signal that they do not want their purchasing habits to drive deforestation and companies are responding.”

But there are still some notable holdouts. The food and beverage giant PepsiCo has not yet committed to protecting worker and community land rights. Kraft, Heinz, Nissin Foods, and Campbell’s Soup have offered no credible public commitment to change their palm oil procurement practices.  Malaysia-based commodity trader Kuala Lampur Kepong and Singapore-based Musim Mas have likewise refused to make commitments concerning palm oil practices.

Gemma Tillack, agribusiness campaign director at RAN, called on investors in these laggard companies to “put pressure on them to address these gaps.” In an interview, Tillack added that, even amongst the cooperating companies, “most still lack comprehensive, time-bound implementation plans.” They also have yet to develop credible grievance mechanisms to allow NGOs, labor groups, and indigenous communities in Indonesia to raise complaints when they observe instances of noncompliance.

Traceability will play a key role in implementing no-deforestation policies in Indonesia. Fortunately, Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online forest monitoring and support system, has used satellite imagery to create a multilayered, interactive map of Indonesia’s forest lands — a valuable tool for increasing transparency throughout the supply chain. Using this map, GFW is currently advising Unilever about which of its mills are more likely to be engaged in illegal activities like burning and deforestation; information that Unilever will then use to conduct investigations on the ground.

“We supply the data which companies use to better manage their supply chains, and NGOs use to look for violations and issues to focus on,” said Elizabeth Baer, GFW’s global commodities manager. “We think it’s amazing that advocacy has worked and driven these companies to make such ambitious commitments — the pace of change is unlike anything that I’ve seen before in my career. But it’s incredibly challenging for these companies to make good on their pledges within the time frame they’ve promised. So there is a lot of effort, a lot of resources and brainpower being poured in to help them do so.”

In addition to tracking developments on the ground, GFW is negotiating with both food corporations and NGOs to hammer out basic ground rules and definitions for the no-deforestation pledge — like what constitutes a “forest,” and how conflicts between all of the various stakeholders are to be adjudicated and resolved.

Some environmental groups remain wary of corporate motives, and plan to carefully monitor the developments on the ground in Indonesia to make sure that the public commitments don’t end up as exercises in “greenwashing and delay,” as one recent RAN blog put it.

The jury is still out on whether the New York Declaration on Forests will halt the bulldozers that are clearing Indonesia’s magnificent rainforest. Nevertheless, Tillack is guardedly hopeful: “In the last 12 months we’ve seen an unprecedented shift toward adopting responsible palm oil production standards. But the devil is in the details, and now it is time to put these commitments into action. We’ll be working hard to hold companies to account to insure that they are implementing their pledges.”

News Sun, 23 Nov 2014 10:55:58 -0500
How Did We Get Here? Reflections on the 2014 Midterms

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Democrats are paying heavily for their political failures - and for ditching the working stiff.

Dick Tuck, the legendary political prankster and wit, once ran for local office in San Francisco and lost. His concession speech, in its entirety: “The people have spoken — the bastards.”

Now, you know me — I wouldn’t say anything like that about the recent elections. It’s vulgar and I’m couth.

However, if the shoe fits…

Perhaps it’s safer to quote the Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, who said: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

The 2014 midterms were a Mencken moment.

It was a disaster for the Democratic Party, of course. They lost every election that was possible to lose and a few that weren’t. But it was an even greater disaster for the American people.

Statue of Free Enterprise, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil BendibStatue of Free Enterprise, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Faced with an onrushing manmade climate crisis, U.S. voters have now elected a congressional majority that denies global warming. (Did I mention that it’s also a majority financed by oil, gas, and coal money?)

Burdened with a reverse Robin Hood tax structure that robs the poor to give to the rich, voters elected the people who are most adamant that the rich, the richer, and (most of all) the richest be taxed lightly (if at all) lest they cease creating jobs.

Whether they create jobs or not.

Angered by the political gridlock in Washington, Americans not only reelected the leaders of the Republican obstructionist caucus, they substantially increased its numbers.

Frustrated by President Barack Obama’s inability to clear up the mess in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and all that), they backed the party that made the mess in the first place and has yet to so much as apologize for it.

The result is that We the People find ourselves at the mercy of cynical manipulators joined at the hip with true-believing ignoramuses.

How did we get here?

I blame the Democrats for having lost their identity as a progressive party of the working stiff. The Democratic Party is instead…nothing at all. It’s a collection of political strands that pull in one direction and push in the other.

Moreover, it’s leaderless. Obama has his virtues — he’s bright and reasonable — but he’s an awful politician. He makes Jimmy Carter look like Lyndon Johnson.

Nothing makes this clearer than his treatment of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Essentially, he made a speech and let his crack federal bureaucracy handle the details.

To make a long story short, it didn’t work. The rollout was horrendously inept, and Obama did next to nothing to sell the plan to a confused public until it was too late.

Into the resulting vacuum the Republicans injected a never-ending barrage of vitriol. Without being very specific, they characterized the plan as an unparalleled disaster. And they did it on a daily basis. For two years or more, Republicans could hardly broach any subject — the war, the economy, the weather — without including a rant on the evils of making health care more widely available.

Regrettably, this demonization of health care carried the day, even though the plan overcame its early problems to become a success. Its flaws were exaggerated. Its virtues became secrets.

That’s a failure of political leadership, which Democrats paid for heavily.

There’s talk now in Washington of a new spirit of cooperation between the two major parties. This talk is generally between people who start drinking before noon.

For the past six years Republicans in Congress have done everything in their power to delegitimize President Obama. They’ve questioned his citizenship, his patriotism, his intelligence, and his religion. They did that while narrowly controlling one house of Congress.

To think that giving them full control of both chambers will make them kinder, gentler, and more amenable to compromise requires a leap of faith available only to saints and fools.

May God help the United States the next time we have to raise the debt limit.

Opinion Sun, 23 Nov 2014 09:48:08 -0500
Women Rising 26: A Ride on the People's Climate Train

In September of 2014, Women Rising radio rode the People's Climate train coast to coast, with over 200 activists heading to New York City to join the largest climate change march in history.


  • Valerie Love, Center for Biological Diversity, No Tar Sands Campaigner
  • Penny Opal Plant, Indigenous climate activist
  • Lauren Wood, Utah's Peaceful Uprising co-founder
  • Teresa Jimenez, Urban Tithe organizer
  • Shannon Biggs, Global Exchange Community Rights program director
  • Rosalind Harris, Global Climate Justice Alliance
  • Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director
  • Sister Santussika, Tony Sirna, Camille Herrera, Carrie, Riders on the People's Climate Train
  • People's Climate Train Singers
Opinion Sat, 22 Nov 2014 13:43:15 -0500
Arts Students Are Motivated More by Love of Subject Than Money or Future Careers

Science and engineering subjects are often presented as better career choices for students than the arts or humanities. Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, recently said that STEM subjects – sciences, technology, engineering and maths – unlock doors to all sorts of careers and that pupils who study maths to A Level earn 10% more over their lifetime.

Previous research has shown that there are actually lots of factors including ability, personality, motivation as well as family and educational background which impact on what undergraduate degree people take and their ongoing career success. And our new research has shown that the importance of the different types of motivation varies depending on the subject a student chooses.

Importance of motivation

When we are excited about something, whether it is a hobby or an interesting work-related task, we tend to perform better and apply a variety of creative approaches. If we are focused on a particular goal, we might be more organised and use a more structured approach in delivering the expected result.

This focus on an external goal, such as financial success, is known as "extrinsic" motivation, while enjoyment is known as "intrinsic" motivation. Both are very important for career success but in different ways. Extrinsic motivation leads to better performance, while intrinsic motivation to a deeper, more thorough way of learning.

Our new research shows that students studying for different degrees differ in their level of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. We asked a sample of 896 prospective students who attended open days and 989 current students at two large UK universities in the Russell Group the reasons for their degree choice. They were asked to rate how true statements such as: "I have chosen this degree because I was always interested in this subject" or: "I have chosen this degree because it provides good career options" were for them.

Different degrees, different reasons

We found differences in the reasons that students of certain subjects had for choosing their degrees, as the graph below shows. For example, current and prospective engineering students rated career options as a very important reason for their choice of degree, while interest in the subject was a low one. Yet arts and humanities students showed the opposite: prospective students reported enjoyment factor as important in their degree choice, while career was not as important on the agenda.

Both types of motivation are important to success on the career path, both in a person's degree and their future job. So it is necessary to have a goal to be successful in your career. It is also important to provide students with an opportunity to follow their intrinsic motivation to enjoy their studies because they will perform better at what they enjoy.

Restructure arts degrees

Careers are often judged by financial success – and not without a reason. And graduates from arts and humanities degrees seem to make less money than their STEM peers. For example, a 2011 report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, puts most arts and humanities subjects at the bottom of the pay scale.

But perhaps the reason for that is not that those careers are a bad choice. If arts and humanities degrees attract people who are not career-driven, could that explain why they do not do as well financially in their career in the future? In order to make more money, you need to strive for that – it doesn't just come by itself.

If it is the case that arts and humanities students do not do as well financially because of low career aspirations, should we discourage them from choosing arts and humanities? Probably not – these degrees are where they might do the best – because they enjoy it. Instead, universities should provide them with more career focus in their undergraduate courses that can make those students more structured in achieving their career goals.

But we need to exercise caution in doing this. Previous research has shown that, in certain cases, external rewards such as being praised for being on top of your class actually undermine intrinsic motivation. This might lead to a "surface" type of learning where students are focusing on reproducing material accurately for a test without necessarily understanding it. If people start the degree because it is enjoyable and then are made to focus too much on external achievements, it might paradoxically make them enjoy the process of study less.

And if people are not that keen on what they are doing and just do it for the pay, they may be less likely to do a good job – or they might drop out if better-paid work opportunities arise. So the key is to let people choose what they enjoy – and then help them to make it into a career.

News Sat, 22 Nov 2014 13:07:38 -0500
The Poor Suffer From Hunger - Not the Munchies

Thanksgiving is an occasion when we gather with our families for festive meals. It's also a time when many of us donate to help the less fortunate celebrate with their families.

This holiday binds us all together: At least once a year, you should be able to sit around a table with your loved ones, enjoying turkey and mashed potatoes. If a bit of charity is needed to extend this joy to everyone, then many of us are glad to pitch in.

But how about the other 364 days of the year? What do the hungry do then?

Well, they better not be doing drugs, according to conservative governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

This notion falls in line with the image of the so-called "welfare queen," a cruel stereotype of public assistance recipients based on just one woman — a criminal named Linda Taylor, whose illegal activities went far beyond simply welfare fraud. In fact, she was suspected of murder.

The typical face of public assistance probably looks a lot more like you — or me.

Back in 2006, I got a glowing review at work, followed by a raise. I bought a condo. But all too suddenly, my job situation changed for the worse, and I found myself unemployed.

I tightened my belt, of course — but I had a mortgage to pay. Unemployment insurance was a savior as I looked for a job and attempted to sell my home in a tough market. After a few months, I got back on my feet.

Years later, I tried to make a go of it as a freelance journalist. Financially, it didn't work out, even though I was working hard and getting published. I wanted to earn enough to live on — badly.

So I regrouped and applied to graduate school. But it took about a year between deciding to go to school and enrolling in a PhD program. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the latest official name for food stamps — briefly helped me out through a rough patch in between. The meager $70 per month I received was a godsend.

During either period, had I wanted to use illegal drugs, I couldn't have afforded them. My money went to food, rent, and utilities, and almost nothing more. Even movies and haircuts were too luxurious for my budget.

That's exactly what the state of Florida found out during its brief stint drug-testing welfare recipients. Only 2.6 percent tested positive — far less than the 8 percent of Floridians overall who use illegal drugs. The testing program cost more money than it saved, and then it was struck down by the courts to boot.

In Utah, a similar program identified only a dozen users among welfare recipients.

These failed gotcha games haven't stopped other states from trying the same gimmick — including Georgia, Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, and now Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker has proposed testing applicants for both unemployment benefits and food stamps.

I wish Walker would realize that very few people facing economic hardship have the luxury to dabble in drugs. If you're poor enough to qualify for food stamps, you're really poor. Even with food stamps, you're still having trouble making ends meet.

Also, nobody would ever be able to fill out the reams of paperwork required to get food stamps while high. It's a bureaucratic nightmare to qualify for any form of assistance. Sobriety is required — and maybe a caffeinated beverage.

Drug testing the poor wastes taxpayer money and only serves to stigmatize economic hardship. Mending the safety net makes more sense.

And we need a living wage so that fewer people who do work — including over half of all able-bodied adults who rely on food stamps — will require public assistance just to get by.

That might not fly with the new Republican majority in Congress. But it'll do a lot more good than donating a turkey once a year.

Opinion Sat, 22 Nov 2014 12:52:28 -0500
Want to See How Governments Are Making Real Progress? Look to the Cities Tackling Our Biggest Problems

A bike sharing rack on Dearborn street in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Esther Dyson)A bike sharing rack on Dearborn street in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Esther Dyson)

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If you've been looking to the federal government for action on big challenges such as poverty, climate change, and immigration, this has been a devastating decade. Big money's dominance of elections, obstructionism by the Tea Party, and climate denial have brought action in Washington to a near standstill. But while the media focuses on the gridlock, a more hopeful story is unfolding. Cities are taking action.

Climate change is a case in point. Cities are already experiencing the damage caused by an increasingly chaotic climate. Many are located along coastlines, where rising sea levels coupled with giant storms bring flooding and coastal erosion. Some low-lying areas are being abandoned.

Others cities face protracted water shortages due to diminishing rainfall and shrinking snowpack. And cities are subject to the urban heat island effect that can raise temperatures to lethal levels.
Cities can't afford to wait for the ideological wars to play out.

On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast, flooding lower Manhattan, filling subway tunnels, twisting up the boardwalk along the beaches in the Rockaways, and turning Long Island and New Jersey communities into disaster zones.

Just two weeks later, Munich Re, a major insurance company, reported that weather-related disasters in North America had increased five-fold over the previous three decades, causing $1.06 trillion worth of damage. And the disasters are just starting, the report said.

While Congress debates whether climate change is a vast left-wing conspiracy, Houston is spending $200 million to restore wetland ecosystems in anticipation of increased flooding. The 4,000-acre Bayou Greenways project will absorb and cleanse floodwater while creating space for trails and outdoor recreation.

"Houston's best defense against extreme climate events and natural disasters is grounded in its local efforts to leverage ... its bayous, marshes and wetlands," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said in a press release.

In Philadelphia, if you look up while waiting for a bus, you might find you are standing under a living roof. Philadelphia is dealing with excessive storm water runoff by encouraging rain gardens, green roofs—large and small—and absorbent streets that allow water to soak through into the soil.

Given the threat posed by runaway climate change, one would expect ambitious national and international action to reduce greenhouse pollution. But cities are out in front, taking action to reduce their own climate impacts with or without federal support. From New York to Seattle, cities are adopting efficient building standards, taxing carbon, switching to energy-efficient street lighting, promoting local food, and financing building-scale conversion to solar energy.

Cities are responsible for a new surge in bicycling, not just on the crunchy West Coast, but in old industrial cities. In September, Bicycling Magazine named New York the number-one U.S. city for bicycling, noting its hundreds of miles of bike lanes, ambitious bike-share program, and long-term commitment to cycling. "One million more people will come to New York City by 2030, and there's simply going to be no more room for cars," Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, told Bicycling.

Chicago, named number two, is set to meet its goal of creating 100 miles of protected bike lanes by 2015, and it will soon have the nation's largest bike-share program.

These developments are in part thanks to enlightened city officials, including those looking for low-cost ways to attract young, entrepreneurial residents.

But cities are getting more bike-friendly in large part because of persistent pressure by activists. For more than 20 years, Critical Mass bike rides have taken over streets in more than 300 cities around the world, with large groups riding together and claiming the right to a safe ride.

A citizens' group in Minneapolis made the point about bike safety by building pop-up bicycle-only lanes, using DIY plywood planters to separate the bike riders from automobile traffic. Bicycle advocates in Atlanta, Denver, Oakland, Calif., Fargo, N.D., and Lawrence, Kans., followed suit.

These urban climate solutions are not only homegrown. Increasingly, cities are sharing their best climate innovations. In September, the mayors of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Houston announced the Mayors National Climate Change Action Agenda. The initiative will be built on other urban collaborations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.

Responsive to the poor and excluded

Cities are leading in other realms, too, where the federal government has failed to act.

Immigration reform is stalled at the national level. But Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Haven, Conn., and New York City are issuing identification cards to undocumented residents, allowing them to open bank accounts, sign leases, and access city services.

On issues of poverty and inequality, cities have a mixed track record. Some neglect poor and minority neighborhoods or steer polluting projects and noisy highways to those areas. Others promote policies that displace the most vulnerable residents, making desirable land available to the wealthy and well-connected. Some cities have even criminalized homelessness.

But in many cities, strong people's movements are electing leaders with a greater connection to the poor and middle class.

New York City, one of the most unequal cities in the country, is a case in point. The top 1 percent of New Yorkers took in 32.3 percent of the city's total personal income in 2009, according to the city's comptroller. The bottom 50 percent shared just 9.9 percent.

But organizations like the Working Families Party have spent years building a grassroots power base, and their work paid off when they helped elect Mayor Bill de Blasio in November 2013. Today, de Blasio is working to boost the minimum wage and is requiring developers to offer affordable housing. And thousands of new prekindergarten slots opened up this fall, with the goal of universal access to free pre-K.

Richmond, Calif., and Newark, N.J., also have progressive mayors elected in cities with strong popular movements. Both were hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and the predatory lending that especially targets poor people and people of color. And both cities are now exploring using eminent domain to reduce home mortgages to current market value and restructure loans so that current homeowners can retain ownership.

Seattle is leading the nation by raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour, following a successful grassroots initiative in the nearby city of Sea-Tac, and an insurgent city council race that focused on a higher minimum wage. Popular movements across the country are pressing for better pay and human rights for the working poor.

Why cities?

What is it about cities that enables them to move forward while the nation as a whole is stalled?

Benjamin Barber, political scientist and author of If Mayors Ruled the World, thinks a lot about what makes urban leaders effective problem solvers.

City leaders can't afford to be ideologues, Barber said in an interview with YES! Magazine. "Their job is to pick up the garbage, to keep the hospitals open, to assure fire and safety services and that police and teachers do their jobs."

This pragmatism requires civility. "Mayors simply can't afford to trade in bigotry," he said. "A businessman like [former New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg has to deal with the unions, and a progressive like de Blasio has to deal with business and developers."

Perhaps this focus on getting work done explains why nearly two-thirds of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center have a favorable view of their local government, at a time when just 28 percent approve of the federal government.

Along with pragmatism, cities have the advantage of multiculturalism and the innovative spark that goes with it, Barber says. "Cities are points of intersection, communication, sharing, and travel," he said. "And cities have always—to paraphrase Whitman—contained multitudes."

Nations, on the other hand, are a more recent idea, more oriented around independence than interdependence, and more competitive. "The last 400 years of nation-states ruling the world has gone very badly, with war, genocide, rivalry, and very little social justice as a consequence," Barber said.

Cities are solving problems while nation-states are failing, Barber said. So it's time to put cities in charge. Of the whole world.

Barber laid out a plan for a global parliament of mayors in his recent book, and now he's working with city officials on bringing the idea to reality.

Should cities rule the world?

Mention global governance, and some people imagine black helicopters. But Barber insists he is not proposing a top-down system. Instead he sees mayors and other city leaders reaching consensus on solutions and then bringing the policy ideas home. The result, he said, would be a sort of horizontal, pragmatic, noncoercive form of global governance.

Cities could agree on a universal minimum wage, for example. Such a move would remove incentives for companies to relocate to low-wage regions. Metropolitan regions are where most economic activity is happening, Barber said. So if enough cities agreed on a minimum wage, companies would just have to pay it, thus helping to alleviate poverty and inequality.

A first step in making this vision a reality is to incorporate the suburbs and central cities into metropolitan regions. Such a move would make sense for cities whether or not they rule the world. If Detroit, for example, were redefined to include the well-off suburbs, instead of being bankrupt, it would be the fourth most prosperous metropolitan region of the United States, Barber said.

From that foundation, cities could lead even in arenas like immigration that are not normally part of urban decision-making. If more cities begin issuing their own immigration documents, "you're going to have a fast track to citizenship inside cities, since 85 or 90 percent of undocumented workers are in cities," Barber said.

A global parliament of cities "is a means to regulate the global economy, address climate change, deal with immigration and global trade," he said.

It's a bold idea that is capturing the imagination of an international group of urban leaders. On Sept. 19, mayors, city planners, and others met in Amsterdam. If all goes as hoped, Barber said, 600 mayors could join him in London in September 2015 to launch a pilot parliament.

Not everyone thinks cities are up to the challenge. Following the Amsterdam meeting, Reinier de Graaf, a Dutch architect and city planner, wrote in European Magazine, "The current vitality of cities is largely based on the luxury that more heavy duty political responsibilities are kept at bay."

But British journalist Misha Glenny found the proposal intriguing. In a column for the BBC he wrote: "This group of can-do politicians may end up rewriting constitutions across the globe ... by doing what they always have—getting on with the job."

The idea is worth exploring when so much else isn't working, Barber said.

"In a time of pessimism about democracy, pessimism about government, a sense of too many problems, I believe the cities movement is a powerful note of hope and optimism," he told YES!

"Moving the focus from states to cities is a new brief for democracy," he said. "It's a new brief for hope. And a new sense that maybe we can, after all, control some of the forces that seem to be pushing us toward an unsustainable, unjust world, so we can move instead in the direction of the more sustainable and more just world."

Opinion Sat, 22 Nov 2014 10:57:25 -0500