Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Green Friday

Some BIA readers will no doubt plunge into the mayhem that is Black Friday. I will be laughing at you from the comfort of my home or a nearby park.
As much as I rail against consumerism, giving gifts is important. It’s part of our culture and it’s part of just about every culture. These days, it does also seem to contribute the accumulation of a whole lot of stuff that people don’t really want, or at least don't want for long. There’s also that whole awkward situation, wherein some relation or friend who doesn’t really know you gives you something for which you have no use, no room, and no interest. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for anything someone sees fit to give me as a gift, and make a genuine effort to put it to good use.
Fortunately, there are some good ways for gift-givers to reduce their impact, which don’t involve stealing Christmas, declaring it a humbug, or being a complete ass to friends and family. Be the solution:
An event is a great way to do this. Tickets to a game or a performance are good options. Keep in mind that most restaurants also have gift certificates, as do hip local inns that serve good spƤtzle or have a superb collection of whiskies. Once the event is done with, there’s nothing to throw away. (Caveat, caveat, caveat.)
A carefully selected bottle of wine or small batch bourbon (or other spirit of choice) is another good option. This will be consumed, its container recycled.
Some gifts have already enjoyed a long and useful life. Antiques and other vintage goods (denim, vinyl, musical instruments, books, &c) don’t require the expenditure of new raw materials or energy to produce and they’re more likely to find another home than a trash can in the future. Similarly, works of art are gifts of enduring value with comparatively small environmental impacts.
Buy locally produced products. These gifts haven’t traveled as far, which means less energy has been used in their transport. Buying local can also avoid some of the public health and environemntal problems associated with production in countries with poor health and safety, environmental, and labor laws.
If you’re even a little unsure, give a gift receipt with your gift. And, equally important, don’t be offended if your gift is exchanged for something else.
There is of course the more esoteric stuff. For instance, know the person you’re giving the gift to, and give something that will be meaningful, rather than simply trying to rack-up dollars spent. Don’t get bogged-down in giving so much stuff. That’s not at all the point, and recipients (especially children) will learn to appreciate their gifts more if they’re not overwhelmed by volume.
Finally, keep in mind that while exchanging gifts is what we do, the important parts of the exchange are the people, not the things.

Image source: Paper Crave

Friday, November 14, 2008

Wake up

This past weekend, my wife and I joined some friends for a pseudo-annual trip to Shenandoah National Park. This was our son’s first such excursion, though in general he is no stranger to public parks, national or otherwise.
We generally make the trip this time of year, a couple of weeks after the leaves have done their thing. We find that the Sleepwalking Masses are no less ephemeral than the pumpkin-colored xanthophylls that paint the trees for a week or two. I like it that way.
Alas, this year they seem to have hung-on longer than the leaves. Who are they? They leave cigarette butts or spent Evian bottles here and there. They everywhere talk loudly on cell phones and complain how bad the reception is in the park. They drive, no matter how short the distance, including the 0.3 mile stroll from the lodge rooms to the dining room. They make snide remarks about Virginia wines and local accents. They encourage their lethargic children look up for a moment from their horde of electronics only to throw Skittles to the whitetails. They spend more time in the gift shops than on the trails, and when they do hike, they complain about how far the falls are from the parking lot. These are the people Ed Abbey loved to hate in Desert Solitaire. The chestnut blight and the gyspie moth are less of a scourge on the park than are the Sleepwalking Masses.
Understand, I have no ire for ignorance. We are a culture blinded by consumption and suburbia. It is a sad state, but an honest one; it is a state not to be insulted, but corrected with an open mind and an appreciation for great and enduring things. I don’t begrudge a new visitor trying to make sense of the savage order of nature, anymore than I would think ill of my infant son for trying again and again to crawl and feed himself, or a student for picking up a new book.
Indeed, I was quietly gleeful to see the curtain of ignorance pushed aside: My godson momentarily befriended another boy about his age, as kindergarteners will do. The other lad hastily disentangled himself from an iPod, and they both stood grinning with bated breath at the cartoonish celerity of a chipmunk darting in and out of a woodpile. The two positively cackled when the cheeky little beast acknowledged them and instantly rendered itself invisible. Children always understand chipmunk humor better than adults do.
I don’t aim to discourage anyone from visiting a park. Rather, I want to encourage those who make the trip to actually experience the place. This means watching and listening. It means extending courtesy to the other visitors to the park, including those who have yet to arrive. It means respecting the land and the living things whose lives are woven into it for more than the length of a weekend trip. It means submitting to power of western mountains devouring the Sun or to the subtle alchemy of green shield lichens slowly, slowy, slowly consuming a boulder.
Wake up, sleepwalkers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Finish Line Seems So Far Away

BIA was created to explore the intersection of the many issues facing all of society in the one and only home we have - Earth. All of these issues, at some level, require people of different cultures, sex, religion, race, and orientation to come together and find a consensus of how to move forward.

How can we expect, then, to become a sustainable society, end poverty, create an economy that aims to raise the standard of living, and establish a peace-filled Earth on all continents if we cannot come together as a people and provide equal freedoms and rights to all.

While this blog is not necessarily focused on discussing social issues, I believe it clear that the only way true and comprehensive solutions to the big issues facing us will occur is when we stand up and say ENOUGH to hatred and discrimination of our neighbors, countryman and women, and fellow members of Earth.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

a modest proposal

General Motors announced last week that they will run out of cash (liquidity) by the middle of 2009 unless the economy and sales recover or the government steps in and gives them money.

Here is an industry that has been in trouble repeatedly for the past 30 years. The American automotive industry has required numerous bailouts, loan guarantees, and other financial assistance to stay afloat since 1970. In return they have reduced their American workforces (even in good times) with automation, outsourcing, and shifts in the location of production; and they have produced huge hulking gas guzzling monstrosities that American consumers were already turning their backs on before we moved into genuine recession.

General Motors themselves have been in serious financial trouble since at least 2005, when the company announced massive layoffs of 30,000 North American employees reducing their workforce to 143,000 salaried and hourly workers by the middle of 2005.

The argument against letting the automotive industry fail (as they most certainly deserve to) has always been that it would be a death blow to the American communities where they operate and to the families of the thousands of workers employed by the automotive industry.

The size of the bailout that GM is seeking has not yet been mentioned, however, one can guess from the fact that GM burned "through $6.9 billion in the September quarter" (CNN today) that any bail out request is likely to be in the range of ten billion or more.

As stated above, in 2005 GM had 143,000 salaried and hourly workers in North America (this includes Canada and Mexico as well as the United States). In April 2008 GM laid off 3,500 workers from their 80,000 North American hourly workforce, bringing their hourly workforce down to 76,500 workers. Then in June 2008 GM pared their hourly workforce even more through buyouts of some 19,000 hourly union workers, bringing the hourly workforce down to 57,500. GM salaried workforce has also been cut back to 32,000 in 2008. So an estimate of the GM North American work force (including Canada and Mexico) is 89,500. Let's say for the sake of argument that at least 80,000 of those workers are in the U.S. Let us also say for the sake of argument that GM would only ask for $10 billion for a bailout.

Well I have a suggestion -- that will probably not be seriously considered by anyone in a position of decision-making authority. What if instead of giving that money to General Motors, we let General Motors go bankrupt and out of business and we give the money directly to each and every individual who worked for General Motors in the United States.

Ten billion dollars divides up among 80,000 workers to $125,000 a piece. Suppose we say that the federal government will replace every single General Motors employees income for two years up to $60,000 a year -- folks that make more than $60,000 will just have to suffice with that. All employees would receive two full years of income, even if they found work again before the two years was up. Moreover, let us also require the recipients to pay income taxes, but not social security taxes (which are only assessed on "earned" income any way). They would not be eligible for unemployment insurance, but the federal government would also pick up the tab for paying General Motors portion of their workers health insurance, while the former workers would pay the same premiums they did under GM. Release from social security payments would give GM employees slightly more money in their pockets for two full years, during which they could go back to school, enter apprenticeships or any other form of education or training they wished to pursue. They could relocate, and take the two years of money with them. They could start their own small businesses.

This will probably be labeled as naive, but it seems to me that this would do much more to put our economy on sound ground than to give more to a company that hasn't seemed to figure out how to do it right for decades.

Armchair Politicing

With high hopes and the opportunity for breakthroughs on issues ranging from health care to foreign policy to the economy, every pundit, blogger, and concerned citizen seems to be offering what they would do if in President-Elect Obama's position come January 20th.

With that, I offer my own proposal - his second policy goal should deal with energy.

I think it is widely and justifiably expected that his first act will be to come up with a series of economic proposals, many of which he outlined in his first press conference Friday. Looking past his proposals of extending unemployment benefits, infrastructure projects, and the like, I believe Obama should then turn his focus to energy.

The reasons are three-fold:

(1) Currently, there is vast public support for a new national energy plan. The latest post-election poll pegs US support at 78%. With such support, passing a comprehensive energy plan would continue the excitement among voters and calls for bipartisanship that have been made both inside and outside of Washington.

(2) Within a similar context to the first reason, a comprehensive energy plan is a much easier "win" politically than other Obama-proposed reforms like health care. A consensus can be forged in Congress as long as the proposal includes offshore drilling for oil, a policy that directs oil companies to use the land they already have and don't use, as well as more directed research and development of alternative energy. Building off of that consensus can be other policies such as a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard, increasing the Renewable Fuel Standard, or the focusing of infrastructure projects on upgrading our electric grid for alternative uses.

(3) Such policies can be framed within an economic context. The fabled green economy can be realized if the US gets truly serious about alternative energy and vehicles, as well as sustainability. A huge push for energy legislation directly after implementing specific economic policies, would show the world the US is serious and provide a good framework for future work towards a new, sustainable economy.

With that in mind, many pieces of legislation have been offered in the past few months that could be the source of discussion, two of which follow:

(1) 21st Century Energy Technology Deployment Act - Introduced in both the House and Senate, CETDA would focus on upgrading our electric grid and move to further deploy many of the alternative energy technologies the US has to the market. It sets targets for the efficiency of different alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar and it charters a 21st Century Energy Deployment Corporation that would act as the vehicle for implementing future technological breakthroughs.

(2) Green Energy Production Act - Introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, GEPA would create a specific green energy corporation within the Department of Energy, that would consist of both public and private members, to focus federal research and development efforts on green technologies. The corporation would direct grants to higher education organizations for R&D as well as towards projects aimed at commercializing products.

In both cases, the idea is clear. The US needs a focused effort to mobilize the, what seems like, haphazard group of federal and state R&D labs and universities working on energy efficient technologies. Such a one-two punch of economic-energy policies would move the US in a prosperous (in my opinion) direction.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Bitter Sweet Night?

The fight against discrimination in America took a giant leap forward last night, but also a number of steps backwards. On the day the United States overwhelmingly voted in the first African American to the White House, thus taking a giant leap forward in their battle for equality and justice, they also voted to discriminate against the gay community.

In Arizona, California, and Florida voters stated their preference to not allow gay couples to marry. In Arkansas they expressed their preference to not allow gay couples to adopt.

It seems that while after decades of discriminating against African Americans, many Americans are continuing or transferring those feelings towards another cultural group.

So, while yesterday was a proud moment in the United States history it was also bitter sweet. It shows how much more work needs to be done to end unnecessary hatred, inequality, and injustice in our communities.

Image Source: Athens, Ohio Post

How do you feel?

Image source: National Museum of American History