Category Archives: Health/Medical

Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma

It is an organisation not without its problems. Conceived in the heat of idealism, and promoted as the vanguard of medical rescue and human rights advocacy, Médecins Sans Frontières has had its faults.  Its co-founder Bernard Kouchner went a bit awry when he turned such advocacy into full blown interventionism.  As Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign minister, his conversion to politicised interventionism in places of crisis went full circle.  He notably split from MSF to create Doctors of the World, where he felt imbued by the spirit of droit d’ingerence, subsequently given the gloss of “humanitarian intervention”. With its mischief making properties, such interventions have manifested, usually in the guise of wealthy Western states, from the Balkans to Africa.

MSF, at least in its operating protocols, is meant to be solidly neutral and diligently impartial.  But neutrality tends to be compromised before the spectacle of suffering.  Bearing witness disturbs the mood and narrows objective distance.  On June 17, 2016, by way of example, the organisation stated that it could not “accept funding from the EU or the Member States while at the same time treating the victims of their policies! It’s that simple.”  Central to this, as Katharine Weatherhead explained in an analysis of the organisation’s stance, is the “ethic of refusal” and témoignage, “the idea of being a witness to suffering.”

Australia’s gulag mimicry – a prison first, justice second mentality that governs boat arrivals – has done wonders to challenge any stance of distance humanitarian organisations might purport to have.  To see the suffering such policies cause is to make converts of the stony hearted.  What matters in this instance – the MSF condemnation of Australia’s innately brutal anti-refugee policy on Nauru – is its certitude.

The Australian government has taken the high, icy road and left the UN Refugee Convention in shambolic ruin; it insists, repeatedly, that refugees are to be discriminated against on the basis of how they arrive to the country; it also suggests, with a hypnotically disabling insistence that keeping people in open air prisons indefinitely is far better than letting them drown.  (We, the message goes, stopped the boats and saved lives!)

MSF, which had been working on the island since November 2017 primarily providing free psychological and psychiatric services, was given its marching orders by Nauru’s authorities last week.  Visas for the organisation’s workers were cancelled “to make it clear there was no intention of inviting us back,” explained MSF Australia director Paul McPhun.

A disagreement about what MSF was charged with doing developed.  The original memorandum of understanding with the Nauru government tends to put cold water on the suggestion by Australia’s Home Affairs Minister that MSF had not been involved in supplying medical services to the detainees on the island.  In dull wording, the agreement stated who the intended recipients of the project would be: “People suffering from various mental health issues, from moderate to severe, members of the various communities living in the Republic of Nauru, including Nauruan residents, expatriates, asylum seekers and refugees with no discrimination.”

It was obvious that the revelations would eventually become too much for either the authorities of Australia or Nauru to tolerate.  Having been entrusted with the task of healing the wounds of the mind, MSF’s brief was withdrawn after the organisation’s findings on the state of mental health of those in detention. “Five years of indefinite limbo has led to a radical deterioration of their medical health and wellbeing,” claimed McPhun in stark fashion to reporters in Sydney on Thursday.  “Separating families, holding men, women and children on a remote island indefinitely with no hope of protection except in the case of a medical emergency, is cruel and inhumane.”

Undertaking a journey from war torn environs and famine stricken lands might well inflict its own elements of emotional distortion and disturbance, but Australia’s policy of keeping people isolated, distant and grounded took it further.  It was penal vindictiveness, a form of needless brutal application.

In McPhun’s sharp assessment, “While many asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru experienced trauma in their countries of origin or during their journey, it is the Australian government’s policy of indefinite offshore detention that has destroyed their resilience, shattered all hope, and ultimately impacted their mental health.”

The organisation has made it clear that Canberra’s insistence that “offshore detention” remains somehow humanitarian is barely credible, there being “nothing humanitarian saving people from the sea only to leave them in an open air prison on Nauru.”

Such a cruel joke has turned the members of MSF into a decidedly militant outfit.  “Over the past 11 months on Nauru,” states psychiatrist Beth O’Connor, “I have seen an alarming number of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm among the refugee and asylum seeker men, women and children we treat.”  Particularly shocking were the number of children enduring the effects of traumatic withdrawal syndrome “where their status deteriorated to the extent they were unable to eat, drink, or even to walk to the toilet.”

With such observations, there is little surprise that Nauru’s government, which was evidently seeking to find an ally and an alibi, felt slighted.  The doctors had to go.  “Although MSF claimed to be a partner to Nauru and the Nauruan people instead of working with us,” came the government justification, “they conspired against us.”  The government was no longer inclined “to accept the concocted lies told about us purely to advance political agendas.”

What the government statement also insisted upon was the comparative advantage the hosted refugees and asylum seekers had.  They had their own tissue of mendacity to proffer.  “The facilities, care, welfare and homely environment offered to refugees and asylum seekers are comparable or better than what other refugees and asylum seekers across the globe receive.”  For that to make any sense, a comparative study on suicides, psychological corrosion and trauma would have to be done across the world’s refugee camps.  In those terms, Nauru’s performance, aided and abetted by their Australian sponsors, has been ghoulishly stellar.

Food, Justice, Violence and Capitalism

In 2015, India’s internal intelligence agency wrote a report that depicted various campaigners and groups as working against the national interest. The report singled out environmental activists and NGOs that had been protesting against state-corporate policies. Those largely undemocratic and unconstitutional policies were endangering rivers, forests and local ecologies, destroying and oppressing marginalised communities, entrenching the corporatisation of agriculture and usurping land rights.

These issues are not unique to India. Resistance against similar practices and injustices is happening across the world. And for their efforts, campaigners are being abused, incarcerated and murdered. Whether people are campaigning for the land rights of tribal communities in India or for the rights of peasant farmers in Latin America or are campaigning against the fracking industry in the UK or against pipelines in the US, there is a common thread: non-violent protest to help bring about a more just and environmentally sustainable world.

What is ultimately fueling the push towards the relentless plunder of land, peoples and the environment is a strident globalised capitalism, euphemistically termed ‘globalisation’, which is underpinned by increasing state surveillance, paramilitary-type law enforcement and a US-backed push towards militarism.

The deregulation of international capital movement (financial liberalisation) effectively turned the world into a free-for-all for global capital. The ramping up of this militarism comes at the back end of a deregulating/pro-privatising neoliberal agenda that has sacked public budgets, depressed wages, expanded credit to consumers and to governments (to sustain spending and consumption) and unbridled financial speculation. In effect, spending on war is in part a desperate attempt to boost a stagnant US economy.

We may read the writings of the likes of John Perkins (economic hitmen), Michel Chossudovsky (the globalisation of poverty), Michael Hudson (treasury bond super-imperialism) or Paul Craig Roberts (the US’s descent into militarism and mass surveillance) to understand the machinations of billionaire capitalists and the economic system and massive levels of exploitation and suffering they preside over.

Food activists are very much part of the global push-back and the struggle for peace, equality and justice and in one form or another are campaigning against violence, corruption and cronyism. There is a determination to question and to hold to account those with wealth and power, namely, transnational agribusiness corporations and their cronies who hold political office.

There is sufficient evidence for us to know that these companies lie and cover up truth. And we also know that their bought politicians, academics, journalists and right-wing neoliberal backers and front groups smear critics and attempt to marginalise alternative visions of food and agriculture.

They are first to man the barricades when their interests are threatened. Those interests are tied to corporate power, neoliberal capitalism and the roll out of food for profit. These companies and their cheerleaders would be the last to speak up about the human rights abuses faced by environmentalists in various places across the world. They have little to say about the injustices of a global food regime that creates and perpetuates food surpluses in rich countries and food deficits elsewhere, resulting in a billion people with insufficient food for their daily needs. Instead all they have to offer are clichés about the need for more corporate freedom and deregulation if we are to ‘feed the world’.

And they attempt to gloss over or just plain ignore the land grabs and the marginalisation of peasant farmers across the world, the agrarian crisis in India or the harm done by agrochemicals because it is all tied to the neoliberal globalisation agenda which fuels corporate profit, lavish salaries or research grants.

It is the type of globalisation that has in the UK led to deindustrialisation, massive inequalities, the erosion of the welfare state and an increasing reliance on food banks. In South America, there has been the colonisation of lands and farmers to feed richer countries’ unsustainable, environment-destroying appetite for meat. In effect what Helena Paul once described in The Ecologist as genocide and ecocide.  From India to Argentina, we have witnessed (are witnessing) the destruction of indigenous practices and cultures under the guise of ‘development’.

And from various bilateral trade agreements and WTO policies to IMF and World Bank directives, we have seen the influence of transnational agricapital shaping and benefiting from ‘ease of doing business’ and ‘structural adjustment’ type strategies.

We also see the globalisation of bad food and illness and the deleterious impacts of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture on health, rivers, soils and oceans. The global food regime thrives on the degradation of health, environment, labour and communities and the narrowing of the range of crops grown resulting in increasingly monolithic, nutrient-deficient diets.

Whether it includes any or all of the above or the hollowing out of regulatory agencies and the range of human rights abuses we saw documented during The Monsanto Tribunal, what we see is the tacit acceptance of neoliberal policies and the perpetuation of structural (economic, social and political) violence by mainstream politicians and agricapital and its cheerleaders.

At the same time, however, what we are also witnessing is a loosely defined food movement becoming increasingly aware of the connection between these issues.

Of course, to insinuate that those campaigning for the labelling of GM food, the right to healthy food or access to farmers markets in the West and peasant movements involved with wider issues pertaining to food sovereignty, corporate imperialism and development in the Global South form part of a unified ‘movement’ in terms of material conditions or ideological outlook would be stretching a point.

After all, if you campaign for, say, healthy organic food in your supermarket, while overlooking the fact that the food in question derives from a cash crop which displaced traditional cropping systems and its introduction effectively destroyed largely food self-sufficient communities and turned them into food importing basket cases three thousand miles away, where is the unity?

However, despite the provisos, among an increasing number of food activists the struggle for healthy food in the West, wider issues related to the impact of geopolitical IMF-World Bank lending strategies and WTO policies and the securing of local community ownership of ‘the commons’ (land, water, seeds, research, technology, etc) are understood as being interconnected.

There is an emerging unity of purpose within the food movement and the embracing of a vision for a better, more just food system that can only deliver genuine solutions by challenging and replacing capitalism and its international relations of production and consumption.

Gross Hospital Negligence Does Not Exempt Celebrities

Solid studies by physicians at leading medical schools have been warning of the huge casualty toll that flows from preventable problems in hospitals. A 2016 peer-reviewed study by physicians at the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine estimated that at least 5,000 people a week in the U.S. lose their lives due to such causes as hospital-induced infection, medical malpractice, inattentiveness, and other deficiencies. Media attention lasted one day.

What will it take to make the powers-that-be outside and inside the government reduce what medical analysts call the third leading cause of death in America? Let that statement sink in—preventable problems in hospitals are the third leading cause of death in America after heart disease and cancer!

Indignation and frustration over the massive avoidance of action to save American lives and reduce even more preventable injuries and sicknesses prompted the issuance of an eye-opening, factual report by the Center for Justice and Democracy (lodged at New York Law School) titled “Top 22 Celebrities Harmed by Medical Malpractice.” Surely in a celebrity culture, this documented report should have made headlines and prompted widespread commentary. Unfortunately, the report received little coverage from major news outlets.

Let’s see if you agree that this compilation, written by Emily Gottlieb and conceived by Joanne Doroshow, the Center’s Director, should have been newsworthy. Surveys cited in the Report show that “Four in 10 adults have experience with medical errors, either personally or in the care of someone close to them.” “Nearly three-quarters [73 percent] of patients say they are concerned about the potential for medical errors.”

Count tennis superstar, Serena Williams, was among them.  She had to save her own life overcoming inattentive medical personnel “that initially dismissed her legitimate concerns about lethal blood clots following the birth of her child.” That story made news. Other celebrities passed away without the public knowing the causes until lawsuits were filed and settlements were rendered. For the most part, the physicians have received reprimands, temporary suspensions, but rarely lost their license to practice.

Joan Rivers, the long-time comedian, entered an endoscopy center in July 2014 for a routine throat procedure in New York. Her vital signs started failing, but her caretakers were “so busy taking cell phone pictures of their famous patient that they missed the moment her vital signs plummeted,” according to her daughter Melissa who filed a successful lawsuit ending in a private settlement.

Celebrity doctors who “cater to ‘the demands of wealthy and/or famous drug-seekers’” are overprescribing pain killers and other drugs. Reckless practices “led to the premature deaths of legendary entertainers like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, to name just three.” More recently, over-prescription of drugs has harmed or killed Michael Jackson, Prince, Anna Nicole Smith, and 3 Doors Down guitarist Matt Roberts, to name a few. These were not one-time prescriptions but rather deadly ministrations over time by physicians who knew the conditions and vulnerabilities of their famous patients.

Other tragedies recounted in the Center’s report, based on lawsuit evidence and/or a medical board sanction, include singer Julie Andrews (destroyed her singing career); Marty Balin, Jefferson Airplane’s co-founder and lead-singer (destroyed his career); comedian Dana Carvey (led to “serious illness”); Maurice Gibb, the Bee Gees’ star (“died in a Florida hospital”); NASCAR champion, Pete Hamilton (survived “horrendous surgical errors causing… multiple complications”); and John Ritter, the Emmy award-winning actor, was “misdiagnosed and improperly treated at a hospital where he died.”

The great sports writer, Dick Schaap died after routine hip replacement surgery, when contemporary tests showed his weakened lungs indicated that the procedure would be too dangerous.

In 1987, the pioneering artist, director, and producer, Andy Warhol, underwent gallbladder surgery and died a day later when medical personnel put too much fluid intravenously into his body.

The Center’s report concludes by noting that “health care in the United States can be incredibly unsafe, and this is true even for well-known actors, singers, musicians, athletes and other personalities …wealth and fame cannot shield someone from being victimized by a preventable medical error.”

Safety and health reforms are long overdue in hospitals and clinics astonishingly. The American Medical Association has not produced any calls to action with effective recommendations. State regulators are heavily compromised by conflicts of interest and low budgets. The federal government is AWOL. A minimum of 5,000 lives lost a week, not counting the casualties in clinics and medical offices is a serious health crisis. This ongoing epidemic should lead to public alarms and reforms long known but kept on the shelf. Contact your members of Congress and demand public hearings. The evidence cannot be ignored any longer.

Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under

There is something peculiar doing the rounds in Australian food circles.  The land down under, considered something of a nirvana of fruit and vegetable production despite horrendous droughts and calamitous cyclones, is facing a new challenge: human agency, namely in the form of despoliation of strawberries.

The results have knocked Australia’s highly concentrated supermarket chains, with both Coles and Aldi withdrawing all their fruit with a nervousness that has not been seen in years.  A spate of incidents involving “contamination”, or pins stuck in the fruit, have manifested across a range of outlets.  Strawberry brands including Donnybrook Berries, Love Berry, Delightful Strawberries, Oasis brands, Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Mal’s Black Label have made it onto the list of needled suppliers.  There have been possible copycat initiates doing the rounds.  “This,” exclaimed Strawberries Australia Inc. Queensland spokesman Ray Daniels, “is food terrorism that is bringing an industry to its knees.”

The game of food contamination, infection or, as Daniels deems it, food terrorism, is the sort of thing that multiplies in fear and emotion.  It targets the industry itself (the strawberry market is already frail before the effects of pest and blight), and ensures maximum publicity for the perpetrator.  Then there is the constant fear of a potential victim, the all stifling terror of legal action that might find a target in the form of a provider.  Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has already boosted such feelings, ordering the Food Standards Australia New Zealand to investigate the matter.  “This is a vicious crime, it’s designed to injure and possible worse, members of the population at large.”

Out of 800,000 punnets of strawberries, notes Daniels, seven needles were found.  “You’ve got more chance of winning lotto than being affected.”  Take your chance, and, as with all food production, hope for the best as you would hope for the arrival of a green goddess.

Others such as Anthony Kachenko of Hort Innovation Australia have also moved into a mode of reassurance, a salutary reminder that Australia remains in the stratosphere of food excellence despite such adventurous despoilers.  Sabotage it might be, but it was surely isolated, a nonsense that could be dealt with surgical accuracy. “Australia prides itself on safe, healthy, nutritious produce and we have the utmost confidence in the produce that we grow both for the domestic and the export markets.”

Such attitudes mask the fundamental bet that has characterised human existence since these unfortunate bipeds decided to experiment with the cooked and uncooked.  History shows that wells have been poisoned and fields salted.  The divorce from hunter gatherer to industrialist consumer oblivious to the origins of food made that matter even more poignant, and, in some cases, tragic.  The consumer is at the mercy of the production line, and everything else that finds its way into it.

The food science fraternity are being drawn out to explain the meddling, pitching for greater funding, and another spike in industry funds.  “The things we’re usually concerned about,” suggests Kim Phan-Thien of the University of Sydney, “are the accidental contaminants; spray drift or microbial contamination [which is] a natural risk in the production system.”  What was needed, claimed the good food science pundit, was an examination, not merely of “unintentional adulteration and contaminants but the intentional adulteration for economic gain or a malicious reason for a form of terrorism.”

Take a punt (or in this case, a punnet), and hope that source, process and final destination are somehow safe.  The cautionary note here is to simply cut the suspect fruit to ensure no errant needles or pins have found their way into them.  (This presumes the needle suspect was probably hygienic.)

But the strawberry nightmare highlights the insecurity within the food industry, the permanent vulnerability that afflicts a multi-process set of transactions, recipients and consumers.  Purchasing anything off the stands, and in any aisle of a supermarket is never a guarantee of safety, a leap of faith based upon a coma inflicted by industrial complacence.  We are left at the mercy of speculative fancy: the item we take home is what it supposedly is, irrespective of labelling, accurate or otherwise.

The scare, as it is now being termed, has had the sort of impact any fearful threat to health and safety does: an increased focus on security, a boost in food surveillance and the gurus versed in the business of providing machinery.  Strawberry Growers Association of Western Australia President Neil Handasyde revealed that growers were being pressed for increased scanning in the form of metal detectors.  “As an industry we are sure that [the needles] are not coming from the farm, but we’re about trying to get confidence into customers that when they buy a punnet of strawberries, that there isn’t going to be anything other than strawberries in there and they’re safe to eat.”

Possibly guilty parties have been distancing themselves with feverish necessity.  This, as much as anything else, reeks of the legal advice necessary to avoid paying for any injury that might result.  Mal’s Black Label strawberries, one of the growing number of needle recipients, has taken the line that the farm is above suspicion, with the suspects to be found elsewhere.  Strawberry grower Tony Holl suggested that some figure was floating around, needle and all, intent on fulfilling the wishes of “a real vendetta”.

A reward of $100,000 has been offered by the Queensland government for capturing the villain in question, if, indeed, there is a conscious, all-rounded creature doing the rounds.  He, she, or it, has now assumed various titles from the Queensland authorities.  The “strawberry spiker” or “strawberry saboteur” seem less like life-threatening agents than lifestyle names intent on an encyclopaedic entry.  But biosecurity, and matters of food health, are matters that throb and pulsate in Australia.  Authorities are promising to find the culprit.  The culprit may have other designs.

The Aftershocks Of The Economic Collapse Are Still Being Felt

Photo by Oli Scarff for Getty Images

There has been a spate of articles recently on the ten year anniversary of the financial collapse. We wrote about this anniversary two weeks ago, describing the cause of the collapse and the reasons why we are still at risk for another one. Now, we look at how the aftermath of the collapse is shaping current politics, people’s views on the economic system and the conflict that lies ahead to create an economy for the 21st Century.

Economic Violence Is Being Waged Worldwide (Source Twitter)

The Aftershocks Of The Collapse Are Still Being Felt

Jerome Roos of ROAR Magazine writes that the response to the 2008 crash – bailing out the banks but not the people – led to unrest across the globe, beginning with the Arab Spring, and a growing anti-capitalist sentiment. He goes on to say:

It has recently begun to consolidate itself in the form of vibrant grassroots movements, progressive political formations and explicitly socialist candidacies that collectively seek to challenge the untrammeled power and privileges of the ‘1 percent’ from below.

The stagnant economy, austerity measures and resulting increased debt have opened a space for people to search for and try out alternative economic structures that are more democratic. They have also created conditions for a rise of nationalism on the right. Roos concludes that the “real confrontation is yet to come.”

In the United States, the economic conditions have revived populist movements on both the right and the left. Gareth Porter explains the Democratic and Republican parties are aware of the great dissatisfaction with their failed policies and know they need to try to appease the public by trying new policies, but they don’t know how.

He points to recent joint papers put out by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic Party think tank, and the American Enterprise Institute, a Republican Party think tank. One from May is called, “Drivers of Authoritarian Populism in the United States,” and the other from July is called, “Partnership in Peril: The Populist Assault on the TransAtlantic Community.” In the papers, rather than present alternative solutions, they attack Jill Stein of the Green Party and Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist.

There is a battle inside the Democratic Party between progressives, some who call themselves socialists, and the dominant business-friendly corporatists. As Miles Kampf-Lessin writes:

An August poll shows that, for the first time since Gallup started asking the question 10 years ago, Democrats now view socialism more favorably than capitalism.

But the Democratic Party has been deaf to the interests of its constituents for decades. At meetings organized by centrist Democratic Party groups this summer, lacking populist solutions, the best they could come up with was “the center is sexier than you think.” And while a few “progressives” in the Democratic Party won their primaries, they are not receiving support from the party. Instead, the party leaders are throwing their weight behind security state Democrats, who could make up half of newly-elected Democrats this November.

In the Republican Party, Donald Trump’s faux populism has shown itself to be a sham. The Republican Party is unable to handle Trump, who defeated a series of elitist candidates starting with the next heir of the royal Bush family, Jeb. A record number of Republicans have given up and decided not to run for re-election. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan saw the writing on the wall and said he wanted to spend time with his family.

The 2018 election will bring change as Republican control of both Chambers of Congress is at risk, especially the House, but this is unlikely to resolve the crises the country is facing. Democrats are more focused on going after Trump. We can expect a flood of subpoenas investigating all aspects of his administration and business, rather than solutions to the economic and social crises.

From Catholic News USA

What The People Are Demanding

There is a growing anti-capitalist revolt, especially against the form it has taken in the United States; i.e., neoliberalism that privatizes everything for the profit of a few while cutting essential services for the many.  Anti-capitalism is so widespread that even corporate media outlets like Politico are taking notice, as they did in an article describing what socialism would look like in the United States. And President Obama this week discovered “a great new idea,” Medicare for all.

Of course, there has been a movement for National Improved Medicare for All for decades, and it is now gaining momentum. A new poll found even a majority of Republicans support Medicare for all, as do 85% of Democrats. Out of all of the ‘wealthy’ nations, the United States is ranked at the bottom, only above Greece, when it comes to the percentage of the population that has healthcare coverage. The third poorest country in our hemisphere, Bolivia, announced this week it will provide healthcare for all.

While polls indicate increased support for socialism, in the United States there is a lack of clarity on what that means exactly. Rather than a state socialism, most people are advocating for policy changes that socialize the basic necessities of the people. National Improved Medicare for All is one example.  There is also increased pressure for community-controlled or municipal Internet, taking this critical public service out of the hands of the much-hated for-profit providers.

Other demands include a living wage, free college education and affordable housing. There is also increased advocacy for a universal basic income and for public banks. All of these socialized programs can and do exist in capitalist countries.

From Prout.org

Creating Economic Democracy For The 21st Century

The new economy is still taking shape and will likely result from a process of trying new practices out and gradually replacing current economic institutions with the new ones that gain support. The new institutions will need to be radically different than the current ones, meaning they are rooted in different values, if they are to change the current system.

In Policy Options, Tracy Smith Carrier urges using a human rights framework for the new economy. The human rights principles are universality, equity, transparency, accountability and participation. Rather than charity, which doesn’t solve the problems that brought people into a situation of need, her research team advocates for putting in place a poverty-reduction strategy that targets “the building blocks of society that reproduce poverty.”

This past week, we interviewed economist Emily Kawano of the US Solidarity Economy Network for our podcast, Clearing the FOG. The episode is called “So You Want To End Capitalism, Here’s How.” Like the human rights framework, the solidarity economy is built on a set of principles: democracy, cooperation, equity, anti-oppression, sustainability and pluralism. Kawano describes the formation of the solidarity economy using the analogy of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly – the various pieces of the economy are forming and finding each other and may eventually coalesce into a new system composed of old and new elements.

This week on Clearing the FOG, we will publish an interview with Nathan Schneider, author of Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that is Shaping the New Economy. Schneider acknowledges that his generation is the first one that will fare worse than its predecessors. Out of necessity, people are creating more democratic economic structures. The Internet is a helpful tool in the process, particularly in creating ‘platform cooperatives.’

The economy needs to move from concentrated wealth to shared economic prosperity. In addition to requiring specific changes in policy that lead to greater socialization of the economy, systemic changes will be needed to establish a cooperative and egalitarian economy. Without far-reaching changes to the structure of the state, they are highly unlikely to succeed.

There will be another economic crisis in the near future which will present opportunities for rapid transformational change, if the movement is organized to demand it. JP Morgan issued a report on the tenth anniversary of the collapse warning of another collapse and mass social unrest like the US has not seen in 50 years. It is up to us now to prepare for that moment by developing our vision for the future and working out the types of institutions that will bring it about. The other option, if we are not prepared, could bring fascism and greater repression.

As Jerome Roos concludes, “…the political fallout of the global financial crisis is only just getting started. The real confrontation, it seems, is yet to come.”

We’ve Come A Long Way: President Obama says Medicare for all is a “good new idea”

On September 7, 2018, speaking at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, President Obama said that Democrats are running on “good new ideas like Medicare for All…”

This indicates a significant shift in support of National Improved Medicare for All (NIMA). President Obama is campaigning for Democrats in the mid-terms and his public support for NIMA right at the start shows how far we have come and that we have a real opportunity to win in the next few years.

Eight years ago when President Obama was pushing through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) he asked in his State of the Union whether anyone had “a better idea.” The next day I attempted to deliver a letter to the president describing a “better idea” – National Improved Medicare for All. They refused to accept the letter so when he came to Baltimore, Carol Paris, MD and I stood outside the meeting holding a sign saying “A Better Idea: Medicare for All” and attempted to deliver the letter to Obama again. We were arrested. See the letter and the video of our attempts to deliver it below.

We have come a long way, and we appreciate Obama’s support. His support for National Improved Medicare for All is a turning point moment — it is no longer about defending the ACA, it is about putting in place the real solution to the US health crisis.

It is also significant that Democrats, including President Obama, are not campaigning on fixing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was their message over the past two years. When Democrats said, “Fix the ACA,” the grassroots response was, “We want Medicare for All.” We are being heard.

Polls are also reflecting majority support for Medicare for All, with 85% of Democrats in support and a majority of Republicans, 52%, in support. Opponents of Medicare for All are the minority. This popular support gives candidates more comfort in publicly advocating for Medicare for All and indicates that we are making progress.

We need to continue to educate the public about National Improved Medicare for All and keep mobilizing in support of NIMA. To win, we need to change the political environment so that NIMA is the only viable solution. We are on our way to victory.

Here is a recap of how I was received in 2009-10 as an advocate for NIMA. I am glad to see the progress that single payer supporters have made over the past eight years, and I am confident that if we keep building the movement of movements for single payer health care, we will prevail.

During Obama’s terms as President, advocates for NIMA were not welcome. In fact, we were largely excluded from the process and arrested for trying to be included. My first arrest was at the Senate Finance Committee hearing on health care when they refused to allow a proponent of single payer health care to testify.

In his 2010 State of the Union Speech, President Obama said that if anyone had a better idea for health reform, they should let him know.

If anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I’m eager to see it.

I was watching the State of the Union address and I immediately wrote the open letter below and went to the White House the next day to deliver it to him along with more information about national improved Medicare for all.

The White House security sent me away, but the next day, by luck, President Obama was coming to Baltimore Maryland, my city, to meet with Republican members of Congress. Dr. Carol Paris and I decided to try to get the message to him there.

We were arrested and questioned by the Secret Service.

We didn’t give up, and today the movement for National Improved Medicare for All. Let’s take a moment to celebrate this shift, and then get back to work of winning National Improved Medicare for All.

Here is the letter I tried to deliver to the President in January, 2010.

Dear President Obama,

I was overjoyed to hear you say in your State of the Union address last night:

“But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.”

My colleagues, fellow health advocates and I have been trying to meet with you for over a year now because we have an approach which will meet all of your goals and more.

I am a pediatrician who, like many of my primary care colleagues, left practice because it is nearly impossible to deliver high quality health care in this environment. I have been volunteering for Physicians for a National Health Program ever since. For over a year now, I have been working with the Leadership Conference for Guaranteed Health Care/National Single Payer Alliance. This alliance represents over 20 million people nationwide from doctors to nurses to labor, faith and community groups who advocate on behalf of the majority of Americans, including doctors, who favor a national Medicare for All health system.

I felt very optimistic when Congress took up health care reform last January because I remember when you spoke to the Illinois AFL-CIO in June, 2003 and said:

“I happen to be a proponent of a single payer universal health care program.” (applause) “I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its Gross National Product on health care cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. And that’s what Jim is talking about when he says everybody in, nobody out. A single payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see.”

But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, and we have to take back the House.”

And that is why I was so surprised when the voices of those who support a national single payer plan/Medicare for All were excluded in place of the voices of the very health insurance and pharmaceutical industries which profit off the current health care situation.

There was an opportunity this past year to create universal and financially-sustainable health care reform rather than expensive health insurance reform.

As you well know, the United States spends the most per capita on health care in the world yet leaves millions of people out and receives poor return on those health care dollars in terms of health outcomes and efficiency. This poor value for our health care dollar is due to the waste of having so many insurance companies. At least a third of our health care dollars go towards activities that have nothing to do with health care such as marketing, administration and high executive salaries and bonuses. This represents over $400 billion per year which could be used to pay for health care for all of those Americans who are suffering and dying from preventable causes.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. You said that you wanted to “keep what works” and that would be Medicare. Medicare is an American legacy of which we can feel proud. It has guaranteed health security to all who have it. Medicare has lifted senior citizens out of poverty. Health disparities, which are rising in this nation, begin to disappear as soon as patients reach 65 years of age. And patients and doctors prefer Medicare to private insurance. Why, our Medicare has even been used as a model by other nations which have developed and implemented universal health systems.

Mr. President, we wanted to meet with you because we have the solution to health care reform. The United States has enough money already and we have the resources, including esteemed experts in public health, health policy and health financing. Our very own Dr. William Hsiao at Harvard has designed health systems in five other countries.

I am asking you to meet with me because the solution is simple. Remove all of the industries who profit off of the American health care catastrophe from the table. Replace them with those who are knowledgeable in designing health systems and who are without ties to the for-profit medical industries. And then allow them to design an improved Medicare for All national health system. We can implement it within a year of designing such a system.

What are the benefits of doing this?

• It will save tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of American lives each year, not to mention the prevention of unnecessary suffering.

• It will relieve families of medical debt, which is the number one cause of bankruptcy and foreclosure despite the fact that most of those who experienced bankruptcy had health insurance.

• It will relieve businesses of the growing burden of skyrocketing health insurance premiums so that they can invest in innovation, hiring, increased wages and other benefits and so they can compete in the global market. For example, it is estimated to provide a major stimulus for the U.S. economy by creating 2.6 million new jobs, and infusing $317 billion in new business and public revenues, with another $100 billion in wages.

• It will control health care costs in a rational way through global budgeting and negotiation for fair prices for pharmaceuticals and services.

• It will allow patients the freedom to choose wherever they want to go for health care and will allow patients and their caregivers to determine which care is best without denials by insurance administrators.

• It will restore the physician-patient relationship and bring satisfaction back to the practice of medicine so that more doctors will stay in or return to practice.

• It will allow our people in our nation to be healthy and productive and able to support themselves and their families.

• It will create a legacy for your administration that may someday elevate you to the same hero status as Tommy Douglas has in Canada.

Mr. President, there are more benefits, but I believe you get the point. I look forward to meeting with you and am so pleased that you are open to our ideas. The Medicare for All campaign is growing rapidly and is ready to support you as we move forward on health care reform that will provide America with one of the best health systems in the world. And that is something of which all Americans can be proud.

With great anticipation and deep respect,

Margaret Flowers, M.D.
Maryland chapter, Physicians for a National Health Program
moc.liamgnull@phnpdm

Alcohol: Why do we drink?

I had known John for 40 years on and off; just over a year ago he died. He was 62 and homeless, an alcoholic who over the course of four years or so had drunk himself to death. He died alone in a tiny basement room of a dreary hostel in London, where the local authority had placed him. A cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants took him through the gates of death. It was a tragic, ugly end to a life that had once held such promise.

Along with millions of others around the world, John drank to escape the pain of his life; the emotional agony of living was unbearable and, desperate for relief, he turned to alcohol. Habit quickly became addiction, and addicts, as those who have known one will testify, are desperately difficult to help. Behavior changes, moral boundaries dissolve, self-respect and honesty are eroded, relationships destroyed.

Startling statistics

Like recreational drugs, alcohol fuels a range of social ills, including crime, depression, anxiety and suicide. It can cause long-term health conditions, many of which are fatal, and in 2016 (latest figures) “led to 2·8 million deaths and was the leading risk factor for premature death and disability among people aged 15–49 years,” according to a new report published in the Lancet magazine. This is consistent with figures collated by the World Health Organization (WHO), which show that in 2012 alcohol was responsible “for 5.9% [around 3 million] of all deaths and 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury.” This is far more than the percentage of deaths from HIV/Aids (2.8%), tuberculosis (1.7%) or violence (0.9%).

In addition to the individual drinker, alcohol consumption leads to a range of harmful consequences for “the drinker’s immediate environment and society as a whole.” The drinker’s family, partner or friends are often the first to be affected. Relationships sometimes break down, and abuse, leading in some cases to domestic violence, which is often inflicted by an alcoholic partner, can erupt.

Violent crimes of all kinds are closely linked to alcohol consumption. In America half of all homicides and 40% of all other violent crimes (including rape, assault, child and spousal abuse), are committed when the offender, victim, or both have been drinking. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency reports that, “according to the Department of Justice, 37% of almost 2 million convicted offenders currently in jail, state that they were drinking at the time of their arrest.”

These are startling statistics, and are more or less representative of levels of alcohol-related crime throughout industrialized countries. In Britain, where overall consumption has fallen by around 18% in the last 14 years, the Office of National Statistics relates that in 2013/14 “70% of violent incidents which took place in a public space were alcohol-related” and that, “70% of violent incidents occurring at the weekend, and 70% of violent incidents occurring in the evening or night, were alcohol-related.” A 2012 government paper stated that, “alcohol is one of the three biggest lifestyle risk factors for disease and death in the United Kingdom after smoking and obesity. It has become acceptable to use alcohol for stress relief, putting many people at real risk of chronic diseases. Society is paying the costs – alcohol-related harm is now estimated to cost society £21 billion annually.”

The richer a society is the more people drink, the greater the quantity consumed and the smaller the “number of abstainers.” And whilst, as the UK shows, there are exceptions, the worldwide tendency is towards increased levels of consumption, with China and India, where the economy has been growing in recent years, energetically joining the party. A trend that WHO believes to be “linked to active marketing by the alcohol industry and increased income in these countries.”

Why drink?

 There are, of course, varying levels of alcohol consumption and many types of drinker, but why do people drink at all and why do governments allow alcohol to be commercially sold and energetically promoted?

Like many problems of contemporary life the reasons are complex, interconnected and woven into the worldwide mode of living, the values it promotes and the conditioned social behavior produced. Individual success, competition and conformity to a certain lifestyle are some of the prominent ideological characteristics of the time; all are divisive in varying degrees and contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety. Like John, large numbers of people cannot cope with the stress and drink to escape, they find life overwhelming, and suffocating under the weight of expectation and self-doubt, loneliness and despair, use alcohol to soften the agony. Widely available and inexpensive, it offers immediate relief, but whilst a drink or two may initially quieten the nervous system the effects soon wear off, appetite grows, dependency develops, and, alcohol being both addictive and a depressant, adds to the suffering and quickly becomes part of the problem.

Young people (under 25), who in many parts of the developed world drink less than their predecessors, may drink out of curiosity, because it’s available and (in supermarkets) comparatively cheap, and to belong to the group, to conform to the image of what it means to be a strong young man, or an open, exciting woman. A few drinks may loosen inhibitions, facilitating a fun night out. In some countries, France Italy, Spain; e.g., alcohol is part of the culture, usually taken with food; in others, like India, it is a new phenomenon, and, consistent with a range of unhealthy western imports, is regarded as an unwelcome development by many Indians. With national economic growth (such as has occurred in India) as well as personal success, typically come increased levels of alcohol consumption as well as other types of indulgence.

Happiness, not Pleasure

Like all types of consumerism, at the heart of alcohol use sits desire, the desire to escape unhappiness and to be happy, and the desire for comfort, for freedom from distress. This desire is promoted by a distorted understanding of life that identifies the self with the body and the constructs of thought, and proclaims the principle purpose of life to be maximizing pleasure and avoiding (psychological) pain. This notion is rooted in a materialistic approach to life that focuses on the form, the body, instead of investigating into the nature of one’s being. Within such a reductive paradigm, happiness has been replaced by pleasure, love exchanged for desire, and freedom for choice. The result is fragmentation and conflict, individually and collectively.

The emphasis on pleasure maintains the desire for stimulation and consumption of all kinds. Pleasurable experiences flowing through the senses may well provide distraction and a momentary sense of happiness, or fleeting relief from unhappiness; however, far from filling the inner void, it reinforces it, leaving the person wanting more. Pleasure is external, hollow and transient; what we might call ‘true’ happiness is permanent, it is part of who and what we are. As the great Indian sage Raman Maharshi said, “Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.”

The pattern of desire, indulgence and discontent, followed by desire and further indulgence is perpetuated by the apparatus of the Neo-liberal economic system, which is dependent on such habitually destructive behavior. And, because Corporate State Governments are so heavily focused on the economy and the requirements of business, government policy is designed in line with the demands of the market, and not the needs of the people. Responsible governments would reject the poisonous values of the Neo-liberal project, and work ceaselessly to inculcate values of goodness thereby changing the atmosphere in which people live. Sadly the world is saddled with inadequate politicians without vision, who, far from facilitating the badly needed changes, consistently add to the chaos.

Alcohol consumption is one damaging effect among many that flow from this dominant socio-economic system. Consistent with other polluting patterns of behaviour, it will continue until a kinder, more just paradigm is inculcated, values change and a shift in attitudes takes place. To some degree this reorientation is underway, people everywhere recognize the destructive nature of the current order and long for a different, simpler way of living. When the constant movement outward into the sensory world begins to be arrested and the mind is allowed to be quiet, desire for external stimulation and the focus on pleasure will begin to fall away, allowing happiness to naturally and spontaneously flower.

Medicare for All: Let 50 Flowers Bloom.

It has long been clear that health care in America is a disaster, an overpriced and underperforming bureaucratic behemoth.  It has also been clear that the answer is Medicare for All, aka Single Payer Health Care, a tried and proven solution to the problems of health care in modern, developed societies.  It is also true that a majority of Americans favor such a system.

But alas, we have no such system here in the US.  How to get it is one of the pressing political and humanitarian questions of the day.  The Purple World: Healing the Harm in American Health Care, a new book by Dr. Joseph Jarvis, suggests some interesting answers.

Much of this book deals with Dr. Jarvis’s years as one of the two leading public health officials in Nevada.  This part is engaging, enlightening and a bit scary at one or two points as Jarvis relates his struggles to ensure proper public health standards.  For example, a convention center restaurant wanted to cover up a case of food poisoning that disabled hundreds of conventioneers.  Or proper protections were not being enforced in Nevada’s brothels, leaving both employees and customers at risk.  At one point the brothel employers let Jarvis know that they were well aware of where he and his family lived!  It read like a scene out of The Godfather.  The brave Dr. Jarvis was not stopped.   Many of these tales are very revealing about the practice of medicine and public health and they make for spell-binding reading.

But the main interest of this book is a discussion of how to get Single Payer, and the book opens some interesting new angles on this effort.

Single Payer is Attractive to Conservatives as well as Progressives

For starters, too many seem to think that Single Payer only has appeal for liberals, progressives and Leftists.  Dr. Jarvis is living testimony that such is not the case.  He is a political conservative and a devout Mormon; and in this book, we find him pressing the case for Single Payer with great passion.  And he has done so tirelessly for decades in op-eds, lectures, interviews and even twice running for the Utah legislature.

The lesson is that the movement for Single Payer must be broadened to appeal to those who share Dr. Jarvis’s conservatism.  Single Payer must not be perceived as a wholly owned progressive enterprise.  That means uncoupling the crusade for Single Payer from other programs that Left leaning activists advocate.  There is no reason that Trump populists cannot embrace Single Payer every bit as much as Bernie Sanders populists.

And for this Dr. Jarvis sees hope in the 2016 election. He feels that the 2106 election created:

what felt like the most significant change in governance during my lifetime…..The American electorate became less reliably red or blue (in other words, it became more purple), and therefore much more unpredictable, more irascible and more demanding of its government.  (Emphasis, JW.)

From this comes the book’s title The Purple World. In both Democratic and Republican primaries, voters showed their independence and admirable irascibility by turning from the Elite Party leaders to the upstart populists, Trump and Sanders.

With voters more willing to think for themselves rather than act according to Party establishment diktat, the question must be asked how Single Payer can be made attractive to conservatives.  As I noted above, one way is to decouple it from other progressive issues.  It must not be seen as simply another plank of a Left-wing platform.  Opposition to coal mining or to gun rights, as examples, should not be made a prerequisite for Single Payer advocacy or a condition for working hand in hand with progressives in the Single Payer movement.  And meetings of Single Payer activists, should not drift into such areas which are guaranteed to make conservatives feel unwelcome.

In other words the crusade for Medicare for All must be made into a solid single-issue effort that spans parties and ideologies.  In this regard Single Payer activism has much to learn from the struggles for legalized abortion or gay rights or equality for women which grew to span Parties and ideologies.  And it might take a cue from Ralph Nader’s book Unstoppable which advocates just such Right-Left alliances.

A Single State Approach to Single Payer.  The Tenth Amendment Option

The central approach Jarvis advocates to appeal to conservatives is proceeding state by state.  This involves an appeal to the conservative distrust of the federal government and to the conservative commitment to the Tenth Amendment, which states:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

With this appeal in mind Jarvis suggests that in the new populist post-2016 environment we turn to winning Single Payer one state at a time.  In sum, a Purple World, Tenth Amendment approach to Single Payer.

But why not simply go the federal route?  The answer is that our Congress is in thrall to the Insurance Company Giants who are in control of most health care in the US and therefore make a bundle from it.  The Insurance Behemoths have been especially powerful in Washington, virtually writing the ObamaCare legislation which codifies and extends the control of the Insurers over the health care system.  There is no doubt that the Insurers also have great influence over State politicians.  But, in general, the more local the government, the greater control the people have over it.  And most importantly States have the ability to enact laws by referendum, so Jarvis’s irascible voters can bypass the politicians entirely.  Still even in the arena of the referendum, there will be a battle between truth and money – and it will not be an easy battle for the truth.

One problem with the Purple World, Tenth Amendment state by state approach is that it too requires an act of Congress.  Congress needs to provide enabling legislation to exempt states from various federal rules and regulations that preclude a Single Payer system.

It is here that the Tenth Amendment approach becomes valuable for it would have appeal to many principled conservatives in Congress.  They might then join an increasing number of liberal Congresspersons to enact such a bill.  And such a measure could enjoy the support of both conservative and progressive/liberal populists at the grassroots level.  With such a law in effect each state could attempt to win single-payer. This would be the Purple World in action.

Such enabling legislation or something very close to it was proposed in the past by former Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington.  And McDermott’s successor, Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal has submitted such legislation again.  Perhaps even more interesting, as Jarvis informs us, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah stated in a TV debate in his election bid in 2011 that each state should be allowed to fashion its own policy for health-system reform, even if it meant the state would create a single payer system.  That statement came in answer to a question posed by Dr. Jarvis who lives in Utah.

The existence of such a bill in Congress would also open the door for votes coming from both Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans able to side with it in a way that is compatible with their Tenth Amendment outlook.  And this would also satisfy another prescription of Jarvis: voters must ruthlessly hold politicians to their promises.  The very existence of such a bill in Congress provides a way to put each member of Congress on record as a co-sponsor – or not.  The irascible populist voter can demand that both conservatives and progressives back such a bill -or give their vote to an opponent of either party who will back such a bill – both by co-sponsorship and by vote.  All of a sudden Democrats must compete with conservative Republicans for the populist voter demanding Single Payer.  There would no longer be a single Party monopoly on Single Payer.

Dr. Jarvis fleshes out this proposal by sketching the outlines of such a Single-Payer bill for his state of Utah.  It merits examination, for as usual there are demons lurking in the details and these demons must be routed.

Let 50 Flowers Bloom

There is now a debate among Single-Payer advocates about which path to take, the national path or the state path.  Some suggest that only the federal path is possible and that state-based approaches would distract attention and divert energy from the national project.  But it is equally true that the two approaches can be complementary, stirring up general interest at all levels.  Two wise and very knowledgeable members of Physicians for a National Health Program suggested to this reviewer that both approaches be pursued since it is impossible to tell where a breakthrough will occur.

The single-state approach would follow in the footsteps of the proven, successful single-province approach in Canada.  There single-payer was first instituted in the Province of Saskatchewan in a mighty and bruising struggle.  But it then spread like wildfire to all the provinces.  Perhaps California or Washington – or Utah – could be the Saskatchewan of the US.  Let 50 flowers bloom!

Public Space and the Bicycle: Copenhagenizing Cities

Indian cities are in crisis. Spend any length of time in a large city there and you will notice the overcrowding, the power and water shortages and, during monsoon, the streets that transform into stinking, litter-strewn rivers. At times, these cities can be almost unbearable to live in. Little wonder then that the concept of ‘smart cities’ is taking hold among policy makers, however flawed the notion might seem to be.

And, not least, of course, there is the horrendous traffic chaos and congestion, the choking pollution and the increasing number of massive concrete flyovers: monstrosities that have taken their place among numerous other planning disasters that blight so many Indian cities.

A couple of years back, Delhi introduced an ‘odd-even’ traffic policy whereby vehicles with certain registration numbers were allowed on the road only on designated days to try to cut down on traffic congestion and pollution. But this failed to solve the underlying problem that stems from a model of ‘development’ that associates a (wholly unnecessary) push for urbanisation and car ownership with progress.

Despite the problems, the greater the urban sprawl and the more road building that takes place, the happier are the real estate, construction and car manufacturing sectors. That’s not idle speculation: the documentary How Big Oil Conquered the World describes how the car and oil industry criminally conspired to undermine public transport systems in US cities to get the population and urban planners hooked on the car.

As long as urban planners prioritise the car and wrong-headed notions of ‘development’ governed by powerful players continue, Indian cities will not only sprawl ever outwards and be defined by traffic congestion and air and noise pollution, but residents will experience an ever-worsening decline in their quality of life and increasing dependency on motorized transport.

Indian planners might wish to take note of a recent New York Times article which highlighted that Los Angeles has decided against adding lanes to a freeway. Although Andre Gorz noted this back in 1973, policy makers are waking up to the fact that building extra lanes merely means more cars, more pollution and journey times increasing. As soon as you build a highway or add lanes to a freeway, cars show up to fill the available capacity (known as induced traffic demand).

This induced demand imposes costs on us all in terms of degraded public space and serious health risks (recent research shows that a congestion charge in Stockholm reduced pollution and sharply cut asthma attacks in children).

Just as some countries are now realising the folly of widening and building ever more roads and jamming cities with cars, Indian planners carry on regardless by blighting the urban landscape with ever more huge concrete flyovers and expressways snaking across cities and dividing and destroying communities.

Smart thinking

A day before Delhi implemented the second phase of its ‘odd-even’ vehicle policy, the city announced it wanted to support the construction of more roads to solve congestion by enhancing road capacity via new roads, road widening, elevated corridors, flyovers and underpasses.

One would have thought that smart cities call for smart thinking. Not so in Delhi.

If there is one city that seems to be on the right track, it is Copenhagen. The city believes that cycling should be the foundation for sustainable transport strategies and is key to making cities clean, green and liveable. Copenhagen’s urban transport solution gives space to cars but more importantly to bicycles, pedestrians and public transport.

Back in the early 1970s, Copenhagen was just as traffic-clogged as anywhere. Now it has around 400 km of cycle paths. The city’s 2017 Annual Bicycle Report confirms that cycling is the preferred mode of transport for the city’s inhabitants. Each day, some 62% of Copenhageners use their bikes to go to work or school/college.

Copenhagen has in recent years been voted the ‘best city for cyclists’ and the ‘world’s most liveable city’. Throughout the world, there is now a desire to improve public health and combat climate change. As a result, Copenhagen’s renowned cycle-friendly policies are serving as a template for some of the world’s most congested cities.

Aside from health and environmental considerations, an effective urban transport policy should be democratic. Unlike cars, even the poorest segments of society can gain access to a bicycle. The bicycle is indeed democratic, not just for those who cycle but also for the rest of the population who are too often impacted by planning blight, pollution and the colonisation of urban space as a result of planning that privileges car users ahead of everyone else.

However, the bicycle is only truly democratic when spatial segregation is limited and bike lanes and appropriate cycle-friendly infrastructure exist to properly connect all areas. Inspired by Copenhagen, Mexico City’s bicycle strategy is attempting to address this issue through a comprehensive cycle path network, which aims to create mobility through areas that have been closed off due to previous planning strategies.

The arrogance of space

For cities to fully embrace the bicycle, city planners must stop thinking like motorists or capitulating to powerful lobby groups and plan for the needs of cyclists. In Denmark, for example, the Copenhagen-Albertslund route is the first of a planned network that will comprise 26 Cycle Super Highways, covering a total of 300 km. The network is predicted to reduce public expenditure by €40.3 million annually thanks to improved health.

Consider that in Europe 50% of most city land is dedicated to streets and roads, parking, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs. And yet the average European car is parked for 92% of the time. Of the other 8% of time, 1.5% is spent looking for a parking space, 1% in congestion and just 5% is spent driving. There are 30,000 deaths per year on European roads and four times as many disabling injuries. Consider too that an average European car has five seats but carries 1.5 persons per journey.

In Copenhagen, city planners tend to give an adequate proportion of road space to cyclists: proper cycle lanes with curbs that separate cycling space from car space; cycle lanes that are usually also sufficiently wide. After all, why should cars hog so much road space when the majority of road users are cyclists?

In the article ‘The Arrogance of Space’, it says:

We have a tendency to give cities human character traits when we describe them. It’s a friendly city. A dynamic city. A boring city. Perhaps then a city can be arrogant. Arrogant, for example, with its distribution of space.

For too long the arrogance of car-obsessed urban planners has degraded our health and our quality of life. But when you have good-quality public transport and the opportunity to cycle thanks to appropriate infrastructure, there is no need to hand over excess space to cars and produce endless concrete sprawl for car parks.

Walk (or cycle) around Copenhagen and you will immediately appreciate there is much less traffic noise and pollution compared with other cities. It is indeed a spatially friendly and a compact city – and a less “arrogant city”. It is also less hectic and more tranquil than many other cities and – taking things even further – arguably more community-oriented.

The slow life

Of course, community-oriented living isn’t just due to transport strategies, although Andre Gorz said that to love your place or space, it must first of all be made liveable, not trafficable. He went on to state that the neighbourhood or community should be shaped by and for all human activities, “where people can work, live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage together as the place of their life in common.”

In Copenhagen, the municipality encourages outdoor living by offering open-access communal table tennis tables, basketball facilities, well thought out kids’ parks, landscaped parkland and lakes. Even during cold weather, Copenhageners congregate on the streets and in the parks to socialise and embrace the concept of ‘hygge’, probably best defined as: a conscious appreciation, a certain slowness, and the ability to recognise and enjoy the present. Get to know the city and you will soon realise that hygge isn’t just a cliché.

The key word in that definition is ‘slowness’ because from there we arrive at the concept of ‘slow living’.

Writing in 1973, activist and writer Ivan Illich stated:

The use of the bicycle… allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance… In contrast, the accelerating individual capsule [the car] enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed.

Modern culture is an advocate of speed, epitomised by car worship. Cars, speed and high-energy living have become essential facts of life. In the process, our communities have become disjointed and dispersed. We have sacrificed ‘slow living’ – in terms of intimacy, friendship and neighbourliness – for a more impersonal way of accelerated living.

Where would be the need for the car when work, school or healthcare facilities are close by? Less need for ugly flyovers or six lane highways that rip up communities in their path. Getting from A to B would not require a race against the clock on the highway that cuts through a series of localities that are never to be visited, never to be regarded as anything but an inconvenience to be passed through.

Instead, how about an enjoyable walk or cycle ride through an urban environment defined by community and intimacy? An environment free from traffic pollution or noise and where ‘neighbourhood’ has not been deadened and stripped of its neighbourliness, local stores and facilities.

Clearly, many of the problems associated with modern cities are not just due to cars or transport systems. Urban planning and the colonisation of space mirrors capitalism and the needs of powerful corporations.

By focusing on capitalism and how culture reflects the division of labour, Andre Gorz said:

It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.

Although it would be naïve and misguided to think that the bicycle (and cultural change) could transform the social relations of capitalism, it is at least emblematic of a different form of urban planning and smart thinking.

Chemically Induced Frankenstein-Humans

One of the biggest open questions of the 21st century is whether 144,000 different chemicals swirling throughout the world are properly tested and analyzed for toxicity. By almost all accounts, the scale of toxic risk is unknown. This may be the biggest tragedy of all time, a black eye of enormous proportions.

Correspondingly and very likely, not yet 100% proven but probably 99%, as a result of ubiquitous chemical presence, one hundred fifty million (150,000,000) Americans have chronic disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia, cancer, stroke, asthma, cystic fibrosis, obesity, and osteoporosis.1  Why?

According to Dr. Paul Winchester, who discovered the link between chemicals, like pesticides atrazine and glyphosate aka Roundup and epigenetic human alteration, the findings are:

The most important next discovery in all of medicine.2

Dr. Winchester was one of the researchers/authors of “Atrazine Induced Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Disease, Lean Phenotype and Sperm Epimutation Pathology Biomarkers,” PLOS, published September 20, 2017.

The grisly underlying message of that study is as clear as a bell: Chemicals found far and wide throughout America alter human hormones as well as human DNA, which passes along generation-to-generation known as transgenerational inheritance.

Frankly, nothing more should need to be said to spur outrage and pissed-off people all across the land because, if that seminal study is correct in its analysis that chemicals mess up/distort/disrupt human hormones and alter human DNA in a destructive manner, then the streets of America should be filled with people wielding pots and pans, probably pitchforks, and ready for the fight of a lifetime because, by any account, there has been massive failure of ethical standards and regulations of chemicals for decades and decades. Who’s to blame?

The primary targets are (1) the EPA and (2) FDA and (3) pesticide/chemical manufacturers, like Monsanto, and ultimately the U.S. Congress.

The chemicals in the aforementioned study include the herbicide atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the country and commonly detected in drinking water. The study demonstrated that atrazine is an endocrine disruptor that negatively alters human hormonal systems, as chronic diseases overwhelm American society.

The European Union (EU) banned atrazine in 2003 because of persistent groundwater contamination. However, as for the EPA in America, it’s okay, no problem. But, doubtlessly one of those jurisdictions is dead wrong because it’s a black and white matter. Either toxic chemicals horribly messes up DNA and cause chronic diseases or not, no middle ground. As for America, chronic disease is at epidemic levels at 60% of the population. Where, why, and how if not from environmental sources?

Yet, the most disturbing issue is the epigenetic impact, meaning that environmental factors impact the health of people and also their descendants. It stays with and passes along the human genome generation-by-generation-by-generation.

According to Dr. Winchester:

This is a really important concept that is difficult to teach the public, and when I say the public, I include my clinical colleagues.3

Still, atrazine is not the only human hormone-altering chemical in the environment. Dr. Winchester tested nearly 20 different chemicals and all demonstrated epigenetic effects, for example, all of the chemicals reduced fertility, even in the 3rd generation.

Still, why do 150,000,000 Americans have chronic diseases?

Researchers believe that every adult disease extant is linked to epigenetic origins. If confirmed over time with additional research, the study is a blockbuster that goes to the heart of public health and attendant government regulations.

According to Dr. Winchester:

This is a huge thing that is going to change how we understand the origin of disease. But a big part of that is that it will change our interpretation of what chemicals are safe. In medicine I can’t give a drug to somebody unless it has gone through a huge amount of testing. But all these chemicals haven’t gone through anything like that. We’ve been experimented on for the last 70 years, and there’s not one study on multigenerational effects.4

The U.S. Congress passed a new chemical safety law for the first time in 40 years with the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act in 2016, but the provisions for regulation are totally overwhelmed by the tasks at hand.  For starters, more than 60,000 chemicals came to the market without safety testing, and the burden of proof for regulators previously was so burdensome that the EPA wasn’t able to ban asbestos when necessary.

As for the effectiveness of the new law, consider this statement in the following article, “It Could Take Centuries for EPA to Test all the Unregulated Chemicals Under a New Landmark Bill,” PBS SoCal, June 22, 2016:

The new law requires EPA to test tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals currently on the market, and the roughly 2,000 new chemicals introduced each year, but quite slowly. The EPA will review a minimum of 20 chemicals at a time, and each has a seven-year deadline. Industry may then have five years to comply after the new rule is made. At that pace it could take centuries for the agency to finish its review.

If that’s the best Congress can do to protect its citizens from toxic chemicals, they should be run out of town tarred and feathered on a rail. One more reason to abandon America’s socio-economic-politico scenario; maybe socialism would work better at protecting citizens.

Meantime, children are caught up smack dab in the middle of this 70-year experiment of untested and poorly/ill-tested chemicals.

Roundup (glyphosate) for breakfast? Yes, independent lab tests by Eurofins Analytical Laboratories found hefty doses of the weed-killer Roundup in oat cereals, oatmeal, granola, and snack bars:

EWG tested more than a dozen brands of oat-based foods to give Americans information about dietary exposures that government regulators are keeping secret. In April, internal emails obtained by the nonprofit US Right to Know revealed that the Food and Drug Administration has been testing food for glyphosate for two years and has found ‘a fair amount,’ but the FDA has not released the findings.5

California state scientists and the World Health Organization have linked glyphosate to cancer. Yet, the chemical is pervasively found in products. Yes, on regular ole grocery store shelves.

EWG found the chemical in several cereals such as Back to Nature Classic Granola, Quaker Simply Granola Oats, Honey, Raisins & Almonds, Great Value Original Instant Oatmeal, Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Barbara’s Multigrain Spoonfuls Original, Quaker Old Fashioned Oats, etc.

Ironically, they all sound so very very healthy.

Postscript:

Earth, and all life on it, are being saturated with man-made chemicals…For the first time in the Earth’s history a single species – ourselves – is poisoning the entire planet… It is arguably the most under-rated, under-investigated and poorly understood of all the existential threats that humans face in the twenty-first century.6

  1. Rand Corporation Review 2017.
  2. EcoWatch, August 16, 2018.
  3. EcoWatch.
  4. EcoWatch.
  5. Alexis Temkin, Ph.D. Toxicologist, “Breakfast With a Dose of Roundup?” Environmental Working Group (EWG), August 15, 2018.
  6. Julian Cribb, Surviving the 21st Century, Springer Publishing/Switzerland, p. 106.