Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mother Courage to Mother Earth:"Global Warming is not a problem..."

Global warming is not a problem.

So says Mother Courage to Mother Earth and all her "worthy" citizens.

Neither are rockslides, hurricanes, earthquakes, sea-level changes, tsunamis, brush fires, epidemic diseases, shortages of clean water, fuel, or food.  Ditto for radiation and toxic waste.

None of these "environmental" problems are anything to worry about. Not if you are worthy. If you are part of the chosen, elect few. The blessed but anything but meek.  The elite.

Global warming is not a problem.

Not if you have Airforce One at your disposal, like George Bush.  Not if you have so many homes in secure and beautiful parts of the world that you can't even remember how many you can take refuge in, like John McCain.  Not if you are wealthy enough to be able to "go with the flow" and move on to "higher ground" and "greener pastures" when one area "goes bad" or "gets used up".  Ask any swarm of locusts (or the invading aliens in "Independence Day").   As Ronald Reagan famously said when asked if the destruction of our environment was anything to worry about, "h-we-y-ll,  the scientists tell me, man will adapt...".

Yeah Ron.  "THE MAN" will adapt. If you've got money and connections there's plenty of pleasant resorts to go to when disaster strikes. It's the rest of us John Does and Jane Does out here who have nowhere to run.  But I guess we can't expect the filthy rich to understand our plight, can we?

When I am following the words of Jesus Christ, our Savior, I can not really blame the greedy, callous "ruling crass" for being callously indifferent to the plight of others.  Christ even asked God to "forgive them... for they know not what they do."  So I am hardly in a position to judge.

On a good day.

When I am feeling generous.

Today I'm feeling pissed.

Another tragedy has struck America in the form of Hurricane Ike.  With global warming we can expect ever more of these disasters.  People have sustained enormous material and financial and emotional losses, some are injured and  dead, vast numbers are without electricity.  What does our commander in chief do?  He uses the opportunity to suspend EPA rules that we put in place to prohibit the import of dirty gasoline from foreign countries.  He doesn't ask other parts of the state to deliver fuel to the hardest hit areas.  He doesn't  tap into our strategic reserves, pledging to get us through the crisis and then restock them when the Texas refineries are operating again.

He certainly doesn't prepare to send in solar gen-sets (like the solar cubes now being sent to Iraq)  that can get lights and power up and running within a few hours and depend on no shipping of filthy and dangerous fuels.   Instead he pledges to send in a whole bunch of gasoline and diesel powered generators and uses the crisis to set a precedent for dismantling the few protections we have against being flooded not by storm waters but  by health hazardous cheap gasoline.

See Bush talk about his plan here: 

Why?  Could this be how he plans to bring about a sudden "reduction" in the price of gasoline at the pump to make it look as though his administration can solve the domestic problems facing the nation?
At the very least,  if it can't bring the price down, his policy destructive act looks like a desperate bid to keep the price from going up again while our refineries are putting themselves back together, so that people don't suddenly realize that the current Republican-party policy of keeping us addicted to oil lurks behind both the causes of these alarmingly frequent extreme whether events AND the terrible symptoms caused when the storms knock out our refineries. We should have weaned ourselves off of dependence on oil refineries long long ago.  Certainly after Katrina we should have started building a diverse portfolio of renewables so aggressively that the return of electricity to the Texas coast would have merely awaited the passing of the clouds (hell, with T. Boone Pickens plan, we wouldn't even wait for the sun to come out again -- the strong winds after the hurricane would bring us a good dose of windpower!)

No, Bush's response to the crisis is opportunistic.

Another surge in oil prices caused by the greenhouse effect  and our dependency on vulnerable oil infrastructure might just tip voters toward candidates who truly intend to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

So what does our commander in chief do?  He gives the green light for more dependency on foreign oil -- and this time he allows in the filthy kind that makes the air of places like Cairo, Egypt unbreathable and causes over 10,000 deaths every year there from respiratory illness while causing an average IQ drop of 4 points because of lead (yes, Cairo still uses leaded gasoline! And so might you again with the EPA rules broken!)

And all in the name of "helping the victims".  Yeah, right.  Sounds suspiciously like the argument some Egyptian government authorities are using to drive the poor out of the valuable real estate in "rockslide prone" Muqattam hills (see last post), sounds like the argument some American government authorities used after Hurricane Katrina to get poor people (mostly of color) out of prime waterfront realestate in New Orleans where they intend to build floating casinos and hotels.

We've seen this kind of behavior often enough.  Bertolt Brecht created a famous character in one of his plays who epitomizes such opportunistic behavior:  Mother Courage.

Mother Courage, if you remember the play, is an opportunist who, during the long periods of perpetual war, shuttles back and forth from one side of the front to the other, selling things to the soldiers and victims on both sides of the conflict.  She makes herself out to be a philathropist.  She constantly laments the loss of life, the suffering and the horrible costs of war to everybody who will listen, but deep inside is glad every time there is a tragedy, for that is when she makes her big business profits.

And so it is with an American business community and its government stooges who have figured out ways to benefit from every crisis.

Ask yourself why some of the wealthiest companies and politicians continue to deny the dangers of climate change, or of nuclear power and proliferation.

I tender to you that it is because for such wealthy, powerful opportunists there is very little danger.

For the filthy rich and the greedy rich Golbal Warming is not a problem and human suffering often proves to be a great business opportunity (er... not all rich people are like this, I hasten to point out;  I don't want to  alienate all of my wealthy philanthropist friends and neighbors and benefactors and patrons; you know who you are!) 

The attitude of those whom we can call "filthy" rich and "greedy" rich  is like that of George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (or "How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Bomb":) "I'm not saying we won't get our hair mussed up, [but what are we going to lose], 10-20 million [people] tops, depending on the breaks."

  That quote sums up the feeling quite well -- for those who have comfortable ranches on Texas high ground, or  have more houses than they can remember, disasters are merely a bad hair day.  And when they start combing it out, they find incredible opportunities -- a chance to instantly reverse important and hard won government regulations (the Hurricane Ike prompted dismantling of the EPA restrictions on dirty fuels) , a chance to rally the nation into an unnecessary war (the strange linking of Sept. 11th tragedies to control over Iraqi oil and a chance to test new weapons there), the chance to get the poor out of prime real estate (Hurrican Katrina's displacement of people of color and the proposed displacement of the Cairo poor after the rockslide).

I don't know about you, but when I went to see the Biosphere II experiment built by oil tycoon Ed Bass in the Arizona desert (created as an experiment to see if we could survive on the harsh surface of Mars),  and we passed all the posh golf-courses and lush gated communities springing up in the desert along the way, I got a strange feeling:

I began to think that for those with lots of money and power there could never be any  environmental problem worth worrying about.   The earth be damned, I thought, if you can get a rich Arizona presidential candidate into the White House and you can afford to build a bunch of 100 million dollar Biosphere II modules with all the luxuries and comforts you need, sealed off from the threat of Hurricanes, fires, and floods and safe from radioactive fallout, why worry about the rest of the people and creatures out here in Biosphere I?   In fact, if you take your James Bond movies seriously, the real rich supervillains always wanted to destroy the world so they could save it, and start a new Eden.  But of course, you'd have to be some kind of Bible literalist to think that scheme would work.  Scientists know that for a host of reasons (having to do with ecosystem interdynamics and the extinction rates caused by the "island effect" -- see MacArthur and Wilson's classic studies)  Biosphere II experiments will always ultimately fail.  Only religious fanatics who don't understand or believe in evolution would take the risk of letting our planet's ecology get out of control.

And there's no chance of them getting control of the White House, now is there?

So what's to worry about? No problem.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Modular Housing and Disaster Preparedness: Lessons from Muqattam Hills

No doubt you have read about the recent tragedy at the base of the Muqattam hills.  As more bodies are pulled from the rubble the death toll mounts (it is now  over 50 and climbing).  Insensitive Cairo officials have suggested to the suffering residents in the shanty town  that in a way this tragedy is their own fault -- their fault for living in a disaster prone area.  This is  the typical "blame the victim" mantra of those whom Noam Chomsky calls "the ruling crass".   As if the poor ever had any choice but to live in the most marginal and dangerous areas! Any land that is safe and convenient  is already occupied by the wealthy.  The Egyptian media reports that authorities have been telling slum dwellers to "move to new houses elsewhere"  for a long time now, while residents counter that  the alternative "affordable housing projects"  are either too far away from job opportunities (in which case the marginal benefits of moving are exceeded by the marginal costs of transportation in both time and money terms), or they don't really exist, or they require bribes to obtain. 

The poor have always been discriminated against in this way.  For them a filthy and dangerous environment -- whether it is an environment prone to so-called "natural disasters" (flooding, hurricanes, droughts, sandstorms, malaria outbreaks, brushfires) or "man-made disasters" (toxic waste spills, air pollution, water contamination, radiation hazards etc) or is an environment that is just plain ugly and unhealthy -- is the sin qua non trade off for access to opportunity.  If the environment were clean and beautiful and safe the real estate developers would have snatched it up long ago and turned it into a for-profit enterprise that the poor, by definition, could not participate in.  There is no good housing market for the poor to invest in.

And when it has been decided that marginal or unwanted land can be made safe and can be cleaned up, it suddenly becomes very much wanted and hence officials are always on the lookout for ways to move the poor out.

This is what is really happening in Muqattam, and why the press is distorting the causes and the solutions to the tragedy in Cairo.

The officials are telling the press, and the press is telling the world, that, as reported in The Dallas News (a Texas newsservice that someone with  George Bush's elitist philosophy would enjoy reading):

"Slums such as Manshiyet Nasr at the base of the brittle Muqattam cliffs are filled with migrants looking for work in Cairo, which suffers from a severe housing shortage. Buildings on top of the cliffs and below are crudely constructed and lack basic services.
"Their wastewater is eating away at the mountain," said Hani Rifaat, a local journalist who has covered the issue."

The problem with such news articles  is that while they describe the general problem they belie the possibility of real solutions and serve the interests of the elite. The reports make it sound as if "the migrants" (the great unwashed masses?)  were to blame, giving them the air of being some kind of "invading plague of waste water spewing locusts".

  Some eyewitness reports suggest that the tragedy was caused by government officials themselves, either quarrying for rock or preparing for roads or developments:
"One resident who spoke to the BBC said the local authority had been breaking rocks on the cliffs, which she suspected caused the landslide.

"The people from the authorities for the last nine months were keeping us in our homes and breaking stones every day..  We saw a boulder coming down on us, on our houses, on the children, our belongings, and our neighbours and they pulled them out dead. Just as you see, no-one has done anything to help since yesterday."
Another angry resident said that those responsible for causing the landslide should be held to account:
"These people should have been moved from their houses, and we blame the government for this, and we will not relinquish our rights, and the blood of Egyptians is not cheap.""
The officials should have warned the residents below, and should have moved them during the period of dangerous work acitivity, and should have compensated them for their trouble.  That would have been good.  But the media is also taking this in the wrong direction. The idea of temporarily "moving people from their houses" while dangerous work is being done overhead and the notion that at-risk residents may want to benefit from such safety measures should not be misinterpreted necessarily as a desire by the poor to be moved out of their neighborhoods and relocated.

The poor took the risk of living in the dangerous marginal areas because of the severe trade offs they must make between personal risk and the need for access to opportunities, jobs and services.  They were forced to make that deadly decision because the State has failed to provide safe affordable housing and services on-site or better opportunities elsewhere, because the State has failed to create a viable and efficient transportation system that would make relocation desirable, and because the State and private enterprise have failed to reinvest their wealth in the Egyptian economy.  If relocation led to a better benefit/cost ratio for those most at risk, most would have relocated themselves.  Still, authorities have the audacity to make it appear that the Cairo poor are victims of their own bad decision making:
" We are following the case step by step and providing the care and comfort for the residents," Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said in a statement. "We would like to remind people the danger of building informal housing in dangerous areas.""
Earth to the Prime Minister:  The poor don't need to be reminded of the danger.  They are the one's who do the suffering and dying, and who are forced to take risks you and the other elite wouldn't have the courage to take in order to gamble on a better future for their children.  It is easy from a base of privilege to criticize people whose option constraints force them to make unwise decisions.

Another news report  suggests that the collapse was ironically due to efforts to stabilize the cliffs, but makes it appear as though "the community" below had been holding up this work, and thus are somehow responsible for their own suffering:
Resident Mohammed Hussein said contractors have been working on shoring up the cliffs as they became increasingly unstable, but they could not complete their work until the government resettled the community below.
"The contractor who is stabilizing the mountain asked the government to resettle everyone at least 32 miles from the mountain because he didn't want the rocks he was removing to fall on the people," Hussein told AP Television News. "The rocks are soaked with water and so are more brittle and prone to falling."
Strangely the odd figure cited -- "32 miles" -- for protecting people from falling rocks (do rocks fall that far?) is chillingly similar to the distance of the desert settlement area of Qattamiya, the  proposed eviction and resettlement site where the government would like to send the Zabaleen so that they can gentrify Muqattam.  According to scholars studying the issue, the relocation program provided by the government is merely a subterfuge to destroy the Zabaleen way of life:

"Community leaders emphasized 4 main failings of the proposed relocation programme—no warning, no consultation, no compensation and no provision for resettlement. These all contribute to the lack of any attempt to develop solutions, which would minimize the impact of the evictions and the disruption caused to those who have to move. The government's short-term proposals for the relocation of the Zabaleen recycling activities will, nevertheless, lead to long-term eviction of garbage collectors as they are forced, under economic hardship, to move from their homes in Muqattam, in which they have lived for decades and in which they have often invested a considerable proportion of their income over the years. Where provision is made for resettlement, this is almost always at a distant site (eastern settlement of Qattamiya in New Cairo City) where the people are expected to build, once again, their homes but on land currently with little or no provision for infrastructure and services. Those evicted would rarely receive any financial support for rebuilding. The land site on which they are to be relocated is also very often of poor quality. Needless to say, all of this will be done in the name of the government's concern for the welfare of the ‘less favoured’ families, with legislation to protect ‘the environment’ as a justification.

"Such long-term ‘imposed’ evictions within the Zabaleen settlement reflect the differences in political power within the society, where economic interests resort to the law or to municipal authorities who have the power to evict people supposedly ‘in the public good’. In this case, local governments will play a major role in initiating the evictions, where future supply of land for housing in Muqattam area is constrained and the cost of the cheapest house in the new location artificially raised by inappropriate or inefficient bureaucratic controls. It is this combination of people with very limited incomes, and high housing and land prices which ensure that the cheapest legal accommodation is beyond their reach, thus forcing them to enter the illegal housing and land markets. The Zabaleen have a very weak legal position from which to fight eviction or at least to negotiate concessions for time and support for moving and acquiring alternative accommodation and for compensation. Many low-income people within the Zabaleen settlement, facing the threat of eviction, point out how it is their cheap labour that underpins the city's economy, yet the city has no legal accommodation which they can afford. This fact is evident in the words of a female respondent, ‘…we contribute to the city's economy and support through our labour the very people who want us to move…why then are we pursued so persistently?’ Or the words of a woman questioning the endless evictions which dispossessed the poor ‘….we do not claim much. We are not demanding free accommodation. We do not pretend that we are living like other Cairene middle-class. We wish to live in cheap housing. Why is it not allowed?’...

"Despite safety concerns about construction procedures within the Muqattam area since the 1993 rock collapse, another undeclared justification for evictions is ‘redevelopment’. This implies the use of the cleared land more intensively, so allowing developers to make very large profits redeveloping such sites, especially if they can avoid the cost of re-housing those evicted. Since the Zabaleen settlements lower the value of the surrounding land and its housing, and in a bid to ‘beautify’ Cairo and to maintain or enhance land values, developers may make large profits by doing nothing more than clearing the site and holding the empty land for property speculation. If Zabaleen settlements are judged to be illegal, even if they have been there for many decades, this is a convenient excuse to bulldoze them without compensation.
Nevertheless, the unwillingness or inability of government authorities to help increase the supply and reduce the cost of housing, and of land for housing, and to ensure the provision of infrastructure and services, have left such poor groups with no option but to accept housing that is inadequate, overcrowded, insecure and poorly located. The failure of the administration leaves the urban poor with no choice but to come up with its own solutions. Such poor communities have no access to public low-cost housing finance institutions, eventually having no alternative other than to rely on illegally occupying land or on acquiring illegal subdivisions as the only way of obtaining land on which they can develop their informal dwellings. This is also attributed to the fact that government ‘low-cost’ housing projects within the new Eastern desert Communities have delivered too little, since they often ended up in the hands of middle-class groups. Selected sites for relocation, such as Cairo's new Eastern desert settlement of Qattamiya, were too far from city centre and housing too costly for low-income households. The government did not consider the provision of services such as transport and water. Ironically, the government machinery set up to respond to the housing problems of the poor has in fact been used against them. This is so despite an earlier 1980s official policy, which sought to regularize (legalize) and upgrade Zabaleen areas."(Fahmy and Sutton 2005, p. 831)
Waste Water to Blame?

If waste water weakening the rocks was a major contributor to the recent deadly landslide, as officials say (and is very likely), we would have to acknowledge  that it is the wastewater disposal systems of the buildings on the top of the cliffs that were the cause of the problem, and  not the infrastructure (or lack of infrastructure) of the poorest shanty dwellings underneath the cliffs (water flows down, not up!). The problem is that real estate is usually priced so that the wealthier residents live on top of the hills and in the stable areas, and the poorer residents usually live in the most unstable zones "downstream".   So there is a class dimension to this tragedy that is not being addressed, and a question about why one group of people is allowed to engage in activities that can bring disaster to another more vulnerable group.  Egypt is a police state, filled with beurocrats, tax collectors and inspectors (there is a classic film called "Muffatish Al' Am"  -- The General Inspector -- that pokes fun at this aspect of Egyptian society) and the area of the collapse is less that a quarter mile SSE from the GTZ (German Technical Development) headquarters and a quarter mile NNE from an internationally funded football field where the residents of Manshiyet Nasser play a yearly soccer match with the Donor and Development community, and where prizes are given out for great planning initiatives.  My wife and I know this from personal experience, attending these events.  The GTZ has been responsible for putting in the water and sewer pipes in the area and conducting research and surveys.  How could such a thing be allowed to happen in their backyard?

 (The red icon shows the area of the rock slide at  30° 2'43.27"N,   31°17'13.73"Eas identified by Dave Petley, the Wilson Professor at Durham University in England on his Landslide Blog).

One of the reasons a tragedy like this could happen so close to a center of active development research and project management, I feel, is simply a callous disregard for the poor.  While there are many committed people in development work, institutions are part of a machinery that rewards people who serve the agendas of the political elite, and the elite cultivate a tacit disdain for the poor that makes their jobs easier.  As Noam Chomsky famously wrote in The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many:

"It's not so much that racism [or classism] is in our genes. What is in our genes is the need for protecting our self-image.  It's probably in our nature to find a way to recast anything that we do in some way that makes it possible for us to live with it.
It's the same in the broader social sphere, where there are insitutions functioning, and systems of oppression and domination.  The people who are in control, who are harming others -- those people will constuct justifications for themselves. They may do it in sophisicated ways or unsophisticated ways, but they're going to do it. That much is human nature...
Take sophisticated ones.  One of the intellectual gurus of the modern period... was Reinhold Niebuhr. He was called the 'theologian of the establishment'.  He was revered by the Kennedy liberal types...
... something made him appealing - his concept of the 'paradox of grace.'  What it comes down to is this: No matter how much you try to do good, you're always going to do harm...
That's very appealing advice for people who are planning to enter a life of crime - to say 'No matter how much I try to do good, I'm always going to harm people. I can't get out of it,." It's a wonderful idea for a Mafia don.  He can go ahead and do whatever he feels like. If he harms people, 'Oh my God, the paradox of grace.'
That may well explain why Niebuhur was so appealing to American intellectuals in the post-World War II period. They were preparing to enter a life of major crime. They were going to be either managers or the apologists for a period of global conquest.
Running the world is obviously going to entail enormous crimes. So they think, "Isn't it nice to have this doctrine behind us? Of course we're superbenevolent and humane, but the paradox of grace..."(p. 74)

I believe that in addition to a belief in the paradox of Grace there  is also a simple disconnect between those who have the power to "help" the poor and their supposed beneficiaries -- those who have never truly lived with the poor and who have never been poor can rarely develop a deep understanding of the needs and priorities of the poor.

  Another problem  is the nature of development projects:  GTZ and US AID officials we know have  admitted that most development projects are "main-street projects" or "roadside anthropology projects" that are conducted in visible areas and designed for maximum public exposure to make agencies look good when officials come on a tour in their armored air conditioned vehicles.  A few streets back in the same area deplorable conditions are allowed to persist.

One can be sympathetic to the ideas that funding gets spread too thin and that no agency can fix the whole problem, but when there is a known threat to life and limb and solving those problems in creative ways does not become a priority, one must ask whether other less overt agendas aren't really directing activities.

The gentrification of Muqattam

It may be true that  the houses on top of this particular cliff were also low income houses and that badly constructed waste water pipes and shoddy workmanship from people trying to self-provision led to the weakening of that particular hill.  But why weren't those houses targeted for development aid? The number of sensitive and dangerous areas is limited and the government and development agencies have had 14 years since the earthquake to tackle the problem of rockslide dangers to cliffside dwellings.   A reluctance to put safety nets in place or stop waste water discharge seems to be related to a reluctance to  build permanent infrastructure and give informal community residents a chance at legal tenure.  The battle for squatter property rights  seems to often lie behind the way that development occurs (or is neglected).

Another issue impeding creative solutions to the problem is the inability of most governements, development agencies, developers and contractors to think outside the box and explore ideas for modular housing construction and service provision that would create safer conditions.  Developers in Egypt (as in the U.S.) seem very tied to the concept of centralized water and energy provision and waste disposal.  It is what I call a "pipes and cables" approach to development.  The problem with pipes and cables that must originate at some remote central location and terminate in another location, is that they are prone to leakage, breakage or failure. And when they inevitably leak, break, clog, burn out or short circuit, pipes and cables take a long time to be repaired and affect many other people along their path.

One solution for people in dangerous and marginal areas (which is being discovered by housing relief workers in post hurricane New Orleans) is to "plan for disasters" and use modular technologies and systems and components that allow maximum disaster preparedness and flexibility.  In such a scenario pipe and cable lengths are kept as short as possible and housing units are not dependant on any systems that could fail.  A failure of one housing module generally has little effect on another.   If development agencies looked at helping the poor through a disaster preparedness lens, the nature of their sites and services approach would radically change.

Instead, the way Egypt is allowing development to occur is through a model that preserves centralized power structures.  To see this in extremis, one merely has to keep climbing the Muqattam hills, to the plateau on top, where real estate development for the wealthier residents of Cairo is booming. Up there, at the edge of sheer desert, Cairo is going to great expense to pipe in water and electricity and gas, and pipe out sewage.  In a city that is already experiencing water shortages and electricity cuts and sewage overflows, development at the top of Muqattam hills is going on as if there were no resource issues to worry about.

 (in this Google earth image, highlighted in green, you can see the neatly laid out rows of upper middle class housing real estate developments on the plateau just above the informal area where the collapse occurred)

Most of the buildings at the very top of Muqattam hills, as every visitor  who asks a taxi driver to "take me to Muqattam"  knows, are recent "middle class" real estate developments built by unscrupulous companies who take advantage of Egypt's lax building codes.   Though modern in appearance, these buildings and sites also allow wastewater and pollution to become a "downstream" problem" allowing occupancy long before connection to city services is finished, using faulty equipment and materials neglecting repair, and taking short cuts (This has always been at the heart of the environmental justice issue -- when you are poor pollution is always somebody else's profit, when you are wealthier, waste is someone else's problem to deal with).

The truth of what Muqattam was being turned into became clear to me when I jumped in a taxi in the elite expatriot garden enclave of Maadi after brunching with some Germans and Americans on their tranquil rooftop and asked the driver to take me to Muqattam so I could continue my Solar CITIES work.  The driver assumed that because I am a foreigner, I wanted to go to the "rich" part of Muqqatam.  I was so busy reading in the taxi I didn't notice until we made the turn-off that we were not on the road to visit my Zabaleen friends at the base of the cliffs, but heading up to the  top of the cliffs.  I said to the driver, "I'm sorry, we seem to be on the wrong road.  I want to go to Muqattam."  He said, "yes, yes, I'm taking you to Muqattam".
I said, "I don't recognize this route."  He said, "Trust me, I'm a taxi driver, I know the way."
He delivered me to an area with new apartment complexes with grass and tree filled gardens, and gardeners redundantly and irresponsibly spraying garden hoses to flood the developers attempts to make the desert bloom.  Needless to say that wastewater was also seeping into the fragile cliffs.
The taxi driver said "this is Muqattam".  I said, "this is not my Muqattam.  I mean Muqattam where the Zabaleen Trash Recyclers live".  He said, incredulously, "why would you want to go down there? That is a horrible place with bad people."  I said, "Excuse me, that is where my friends live, that is where I work, and that is where the really good people are recycling 80% of Cairo's waste so that the city is livable for the rest of you."  He scowled and said he would have to charge me more to bring me to that part of Muqattam. He said, "I brought you to the Muqattam that any person like you should want to go to. I don't go to that other Muqattam".  I said, "then I'll pay you nothing and get out and walk".

After much arguing I prevailed upon him, but he only took me to the entrance to the slum, refusing to go in any deeper into the narrow roads of the garbage community.   The experience, however, gave me a first hand look at the prejudice against the urban poor and the garbage recycling community, and a glimpse at how the people who are "the king of the hill" live.  But to read the news reports you would think that it is always the poor, the victims of the rockslide and their immediate neighbors, whose icky wastewater caused the deadly problem.

 (Image: No wonder Google Earth was banned by the ruling elite of Bahrain and other Arab Gulf states -- the cameras in the sky don't lie.  Here you can see (highlighted in  green to bring out the lawns)  the wealthier real estate developments on the plateau at the top of Muqattam cliffs, constrasted by the arid desert soil surrounding them and the shanty town below the plateau on the left, where water is often unavailable for days.  The waste water from these upscale hilltops developments is also weakening the cliffs and causing them to collapse on the heads of the poor down below.  Of course, wealthier upstream folks have always flushed their waste problems downstream, claiming "its not our problem.")

Who you calling a Migrant in search of work? We've lived here for half a century working as builders and recyclers!

It is a matter of how the issue is framed.  Framing drives policy.  The base of the brittle Muqattam cliffs are indeed filled with former migrants, as the Dallas News report said -- but they are migrants who have been in Cairo for as long as 50 years, forced to move to the city because the progessive failure of land reform policies (most of the good land has now ended up in the hands of a few wealthy families engaged in lucrative agro-export businesses -- see Mitchell 2002).  If the residents of the informal communities of Manshiyat Nasser are "migrants in search of work", then so are most of the rich white people who live in Southern California and work in the movie industry.  The residents of Manshiyat Nasser  have been fighting for land tenure rights and for infrastructure investments and environmental services for a long time, some for more than half a century.  But these citizens of the city have been denied basic services, like reliable safe wastewater service, because real estate developers with influence in the government and ties to international development agencies see the Muqqattam area and Manhiyet Nasser's "informal areas" as some of the most valuable real estate in the Cairo area, and they want "the poor" to move out. Casting them as "migrants" makes it sound as though the people of  Muqqattam were a "shiftless" lot whom "the authorities" (those authorized to bully and intimidate) can feel free to move about like so many pieces on a chessboard.   According to Habitat International (Fahmy and Sutton 2005 "Cairo's Zabaleen Garbage Recyclers: Multi-Nationals' Takeover and State Relocation Plans") the Manshiyet Nasser/Muqqatam lowland area is now being seen as some of the most valuable real estate in Egypt with direct access to the airport and to downtown Cairo -- the perfect bedroom community location for the well-to-do involved in international business.

(Photo shows the easy access (highways highlighted in red) to both downtown and the airport from the Muqattam (blue pin) and Darb Al Ahmar (green pin) neighborhoods.  The "hidden agenda" of the development agencies and government is to gentrify these areas and move the poor out.)

What have  the development agencies been doing all these years?

Egypt is the second largest recepient of U.S. AID funds (after Israel) and one of the largest benefactors of German, Italian and Japanese development funding.  The rockslide problem has been a much discussed issue for decades -- during the Cairo Earthquake of 1992 nearly 80 of the extended family members of my Zabaleen friends were killed when the part of Muqqattam cliffs over their dwellings collapsed.  Scores of people were killed in the rockslide of 2002.  But no development agency ever came in to implement the simple measures of wiring the rocks, installing rock fall netting or putting up simple support structures in the most vulnerable areas, even though this is standard practice in rockslide areas (just drive along any cliffside highway and see).

Nor did any agency go to the developments on top of the vulnerable cliffs, whether owned by real estate firms or poor families (depending on location)  and either demand the owners stop discharging wastewater into the cliffs or assist in guttering or piping the water to appropriate wastewater treatment plants -- the very same plants built by the development agencies funding the Egyptian government.

Oversight or Business as Usual?

Is this an oversight, caused by insitutional blind-spots, or is this business as usual -- the same technique used by the city of Los Angeles to keep real estate prices in South Central Los Angeles depressed until all the land can be snatched up by private developers?  In L.A. developers and corrupt city officials  dream of building a convenient businessman's bedroom corridor between LAX airport and downtown L.A.,  In the case of South Central the plot (as revealed to me by a Dunbar Development Corporation Lawyer, but popularized for anybody with ears to hear in the film "Boyz in the Hood") is to manipulate zoning laws to keep liquor stores and gunshops on every other corner,  to cut the funding for the inner-city schools, and to tacitly allow drugs in to the community, so that poor black and hispanic families are plauged by gang-violence and can't organize themselves and accumulate the necessary capital to invest in property.  The situation  forces those with higher educations and opportunities out and thus keeps minority capacity building from occuring.

In Cairo the plot is to claim that a combination of accumulated garbage and infrastructural threats to health and safety make the area "unlivable" so that the authorities can move the Zabaleen out.  The Cairo plan is to then remake the whole neighborhood next to the Autostrad, in much the same way that, 10 minutes walk away on the other road to the Airport (Salah Salem) the Aga Khan foundation has turned Cairo's largest former hazardous garbage dump into the posh and beautiful Al-Azhar park with its expensive lakeside restaurants and fountains.

A better solution from a social welfare and productivity standpoint would be to invest in infrastructure and equipment so that the Zabaleen themselves could turn the area into the model industrial ecology enterprise zone they dream of.  But as more and more governments and private firms begin to see the value of mining garbage, you will see more and more efforts to cut the Zabaleen out of this business (which is what Habitat International proves is behind the multinational takeover of Cairo's waste disposal business).

An internationally recognized disaster like the latest rockslide is exactly what the ruling crass need to shore up their arguments to push through their agenda to displace the Zabaleen.   You can be sure, however, that if and when Muqattam hills is gentrified, all the simple and relatively inexpensive  safety procedures, like curtailing wastewater flow from the hilltop developments into the rocks and putting in rockfall nets, will be speedily observed.  They will also doubtless build a good access road at the base of the cliffs, precisely to avoid the problem of getting emergency vehicles in that is now hampering relief efforts.

An Alternative Vision:  Solar CITIES ideas for Modular Housing and Disaster Preparedness.

(The photographs show our work installing modular solar hot water systems on the monastery beneath the cliffs, a preliminary step in our quest to bring modular industrial ecology solutions to the community.)

Solar CITIES has been working under the Muqattam cliffs for the past two years  to conduct solar energy system training workshops and installations.  Future plans include green collar training for using city garbage to generate biogas (the families directly under the cliffs get no sun, but raise pigs in the shade of the cliffs)  and to tap into the strong desert winds that blow on top of the cliffs to generate electricity.

One of the ways to prevent disasters caused by poorly designed and implemented  energy, water and waste services (with inadequate and faulty "pipes and cables" service causing deprivation, flooding, disease, rockslides and fires)  is to bring the "modular housing" concept to Cairo.

The week of August 23-29, the Christian Science Monitor ran an article by Gregory M. Lamb titled "Factory-built may be Greener: Modular Approach Uses Efficient New Techniques"

The article describes buildings like Kieran Timberlake's modular "Cellophane House" at MoMA, a five story dwelling with an aluminum frame that features translucent walls made from PET -- "essentially the same material used in soda bottles.  Because the frame is bolted together, not welded or glued, it can be disassembled and the materials reused when the house is no longer wanted. The plastic permits light, but not heat, to penetrate the interior. A passive ventilation system between inner and outer walls vents heat in summer and traps it as insulation in winter.
Photovoltaic cells embedded in the plastic generate electricity."  The irony here is that the Zabaleen spend much of their time collecting and recycling PET and aluminum so most of  the raw materials for such a project are already on site.  One thing that is lacking is the factory to build such a modular house.  The other thing that is lacking is the political will to apply such concepts to low cost housing for the poor.
The article goes on to make arguments in favor of modular factory-built housing that anybody working with the poor in developing countries can immediately find utility in:
"Other modular designers are building in additional sustainable features. HOM, a line of vacation homes designed by KAA Design Group in Los Angeles and launched in June, offers low-energy lighting and floors made from cork, a rapidly renewable natural wood. The HOMs range in size from 1,000 square feet to 3,600 square feet and are pulled on their own wheels to the home site in almost-finished condition.

"Envision Prefab, an­­other new startup based in Boca Raton, Fla., uses recycled 40-foot-long steel shipping containers as the building blocks for its modular homes. Smaller, simple versions can be used as temporary, low-cost, or worker housing. They feature waste composting, energy monitors for electrical systems, gray-water recycling, efficient LED lights, and flooring made from renewable bamboo. Insulation between the inner steel wall and a visually pleasing outer wall is made from recycled blue jeans."

Certainly people inside houses built from recycled 40 foot steel shipping containers would have been better able to survive the impact of a rock slide, just as they would be better able to survive hurricanes and earthquakes.  Housing built on-site of brick and mortar immediately collapse under such stresses, but factory built housing can easily be made to withstand many disaster conditions. The Zabaleen Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), meanwhile,  is one of the premier sites for gathering and recycling cloth and clothing, and has  a surplus of blue jean material.  Still no designers have come to Cairo to show them how to make insulation our pleasing outer walls from blue jeans -- instead families have to save up for years to be able to put a finishing on their ugly brick and concrete structures and for that reason so much of the informal community is so aesthetically unappealing.  And then there is the issue of code compliance -- shanty towns have none, so there is no quality control. But, the article tells us,
"Modular homes must undergo more stringent quality inspections than most site-built homes... The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is in the process of completing a review of green building standards especially for modular homes...Those standards will help buyers recognize when modular homes have met certain environmental criteria. [One company] already goes far beyond what local building codes call for by designing in many environmentally friendly features..."

All of this would be great news for the urban poor if some influential enough agency was forward thinking enough to implement these ideas.  As the article points out,"“The way that we’ve been building is so antiquated and so broken in many ways.” Building each home on site, [says Michelle Kaufmann, founder and chairman of Michelle Kaufmann Designs in Oakland, Calif.], is “like asking for your car to be built in your driveway for you. It just doesn’t make any sense…. The technology is there, we just haven’t embraced it.”

Solar CITIES would like to see development agencies embrace this technology and start providing attractive, energy efficient, safe factory-built housing for the poor.  We would also like to see investors and entrepreneurs help build factories for making safe efficient housing modules in the working class neighborhoods of Manshiyet Nasser, where workers routinely build their own houses, understand the problems and threats and know exactly what kind of housing solutions vulnerable populations need.  Such workers would doubtless help their factories produce modules that reduce the need for gas and electricity and make the use of these amenities safer, would produce modules that reduce the need for potable water and reduce the output of wastewater, and modules that would produce energy and food.  Such modular housing initiatives would turn shanty towns into hope-giving enterprise zones almost overnight.

Applied to both the wealthier areas and the poor areas,  with the right designs they would not only be affordable and attractive and efficient, but could be integrated into a computer-designed, factory tested industrial ecology system that would eliminate  problems like the discharge of waste and wastewater that cause so many "downstream" problems, problems like the tragedy of the recent rockslide that killed the already downtrodden people at the bottom of the Muqattam hills.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Idiocracy and the Sneeches and the Bimini Baths

The Los Angeles Eco-Village, where I performed all of my first experiments in disaster preparedness and off-the-grid living at the turn of the millennium (2000), occupies a beautiful building at 249 Bimini Place near downtown Los Angeles that was once the hotel for the famed "Bimini Baths".

The Bimini Baths, built at the turn of the last millennium (1902), where Edgar Rice Burroughs, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin and other pioneers of Hollywood frolicked in the curative thermal spring waters that freely bubbled up from down below (and of course still exist under most of La-la land), were right across the street, on a site that is today just an asphalt parking lot.

The story of how Los Angeles turned its back on abundant, free, geothermal energy that used to provide for its "public baths" (although access was usually just for the elite and for Hollywood Celebrities) is tangled up in the same convoluted mentality of power and prejudice that is driving the upcoming election for America's coveted Presidency and subtends most geopolitics:

It's the Energy, stupid.

And as any reader of the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen knows, Energy is the Economy, stupid.

And Politics is how people go about directing energy flows and amassing wealth and privilege, and transforming themselves into "the elite".


Stupid me -- for thinking this fall's election for the person who will put his or her finger on the button, the button that can release enough energy to destroy the world as we know it, or can set the policies controlling which energy source runs our factories, cities and transportation -- and even our farms (weren't they supposed to run on sunshine?) -- was really about other issues: right to carry a gun in my handbag or shoulder a rifle (these primitive firearms are so passe - what about my right to bear "the Silent Guardian", the Raytheon ray-gun now being deployed by the military?)... my right to interfere with what happens to the fetus in some other woman's body (without thinking about my right to interfere with the practices of companies spewing chemicals into our environment that hurt fetuses?) ... my right to vote on whether same-sex couples can sign pieces of paper saying they can file joint tax returns... my right to allow or disallow simultaneous discussion of mystical and scientific concepts in a "class-room" dedicated to creating class divisions (between people as well as between subjects).

Stupid me for thinking the election was about whether or not a VP candidate being described as "a babe" or whether a guy with a "funny sounding name" was better qualified to lead the free world based on those as defining characters.

Stupid me would think those were the crucial issues in the election. Smart me knows they aren't. Smart me knows it is mostly about energy, stupid.

We are at a pivotal point in our planet's history, with fresh water supplies and food supplies strained to the gills, and an ever growing population of humans with large ecological footprints displacing and driving to extinction our fellow life-forms, and it is the way we use energy, and what form it comes in, that determines who gets rich and who stays poor, who wins and who loses and what the future habitability of this planet will be for us and whichever animals and plants survive the way we transform our ecosystem.

So the election for the highest position in the "most powerful" country in the world is all about energy.

We know that.

But we are going to be wooed into voting as if we didn't. We are going to be wooed into voting as if the election was about race, gender, rights and class.

And that is where the story of the Bimini Baths comes in and provides an illustration.

The Bimini Baths were "powered" by the geothermal resources of the city of Los Angeles. As in all Earthquake prone regions, "there is gold in them there hills" -- or rather, magma under them there hills, that creates steam that can be used to create electric power and hot water that can be used directly. Under Hollywood there is enough hot water and steam to provide much of the city with both heat and electricity without the need to burn one gallon of gas or fuel oil or tap into the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant (what a nuke is doing in an earthquake prone region is beyond me!)

At the time when Charlie Chaplin was making Modern Times and City Lights, this inexhaustible clean energy source could have been keeping the city lights going, but the modern times of the time saw the area around the Bimini Baths turned into a massive field of oil-derricks. "The Gold Rush" of early Hollywood was all about Oil. The kind that made the Beverly Hillbillys rich.

But the geothermal power was there too, and the fact wasn't lost on the elite. They built opulent baths, like the Bimini Baths, and invited the Hollywood aristocracy to come and party in the naturally heated waters.

To attract and serve people flocking to the coastal paradise, city planners built light-rail lines covering all of Los Angeles -- the famous "Red Line" public transit service -- three of whose routes terminated at the Bimini Baths themselves.

We've all heard about (or indirectly learned about, from watching Disney's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") how the oil and auto industries killed the red line electric rail-car system. Few have heard about how Hollywood's geothermal energy solution was also quietly dismantled and thrown away.

The Bimini Baths, and others like them, that could have served as a thriving public reminder that just under every Angelino's feet lies an energy source that is nearly free (but for infrastructure costs) and certainly carbon free, were razed to the ground, the pipes that carried the hot water and steam capped, and the entire area paved over to make a parking lot without so much as a plaque or a sign to remind people of the resource below.


The excuse used, of course, had nothing to do with energy. It was about race politics.

In the late 1940's black civil rights activists finally began to win some rights. Prior to that, "colored people" were forbidden to use the baths. By 1950, over a decade before the time of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, blacks successfully picketed in front of the Baths for their right of entrance, and could no longer be denied access to this popular location, which was supposed to have been a "public bath" anyway. The right for anybody, regardless of race, creed or religion, to share hot water, was as inanlienable as the right of anybody, regardless of race, creed or religion, to share the same cold water fountain.

The owners and operators, however, claimed that if colored people started bathing with white folk the baths would lose their clients and would no longer turn a proft. So they shut down the whole operation.
Notice nobody shut down drinking fountains or public lavatories for that reason.

Since the operating costs of a public bath system that has free hot water are nil, and the infrastructure had long been in place, claiming that lost revenue from "white flight" would detroy business was not a good economic argument -- any reasonable Willingness to Pay or Contingent Valuation study could have shown that the blue-collar workers of color of Los Angeles, at a time of the booming aerospace industry, could have made up for any loss of bigot revenue by sheer numbers.

But people rarely listen to well thought out economic arguments. If we used the economy, stupid, to make our decisions, stupid, we wouldn't make so many stupid decisions, stupid. Instead we let special interests dictate policy using pseudo, voodoo economics . And when the government isn't run by people who understand real economics, and no longer protects the public from the excesses of the market, the potential for keeping a healthy environment and healthy economy erodes. One wonders what an Obama government, run by a man who apparently really does understand economics, would have done in the case of the Bimini baths.

Such a government could have jumped in, declared the Baths a landmark, taken eminent domain, preserved them and opened them up to even a non-paying public through subsidy transfer. Today those baths could be helping keep the homeless and the poor and the unemployed clean and healthy and able to look and feel their best for the difficult job market.

But none of this happened.

Instead, the baths were buried, and almost nobody knows they even existed. Certainly you hear nothing during this period of energy crisis and climate change about tapping L.A.'s geothermal reserves, even for providing hot water for the buildings in the neighborhood or for showers in shelters for the poor, whose running costs are so high in an era of energy price hikes.

The geothermal resources of Northern California, shown in this photo, have been providing power for decades, but Hollywood, which has greater cultural influence in the world, has ignored its heritage. Of course Los Angeles is the same city that tore down its fantastic electric light rail system and turned down Disney's offer to build a Monorail to solve its transportation problems, pandering to big oil and big auto instead!

La-la land politics: What happens when the Robber Barons control the American Dream

Ignoring the contribution of urban geothermal power isn't surprising in an America with an oil-lobby leadership. Los Angeles, for all its sunshine, isn't considered the solar capital of American either, even though it is one of the cities with the most sunshine - one has to go up to the cloudy, rainy but intellectually progressive Bay Area to find a robust solar culture. For that matter, you have to go up to Northern California to find utility connected geothermal power (mostly around Geyser, California, where "'ole faithful" puts on a regular show for the public every day proving the promise of geo-thermal resources and where a bus tour leaves several times daily to visit the clean steam power plant.) And one of the few wealthy enterprises in America investing in geothermal power around the U.S. happens to be Google, a Sausalito company. If there was a lesson for American Politics in the spatial geography of development it would be that where intellectuals gather, good things happen. Where Gold diggers gather, you get business as usual.

Down in Hollywood alot of creativity and talent goes into the movie industry to tell fictional stories, but the stories that are told by the built environment, stories that can be seen by the naked eye outside of the cinema on the world stage, show that with all its influence and wealth and propaganda power, the Los Angeles power elite has done and is doing nothing about promoting its own geothermal reserves, apart from scaring people with films like "Volcano" with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche. That film may have informed the public about L.A.'s vast underground renewable energy potential but suggested it would be more likely to destroy the city than help it!

We are in the same situation with Solar Energy: With the exception of San Diego, where councilmembers Donna Frye and Michael Zucchet have done a great job of pushing a renewable energy agenda, Los Angeles and Southern California are still more or less only "flirting" with renewable energy instead of being married to it and leading the nation. There are a few celebrities, like Edward Begley Jr. and Leonard DiCaprio, who are fighting the uphill battle of promoting efficient clean technology, but the vast majority are more interested in promoting themselves through last centuries sport cars and conspicuous consumption. If you want to find a majority of celebrity champions of clean energy solutions you have to visit smart folks like Robin and Marsha Williams in their home in San Francisco or their Ranch up in Sonoma. L.A.'s good thinkers are overwhelmed by the vapid rich. I've been to record company executives and film producers' mansions in Beverly Hills and Beach Houses in Malibu where the owners told me gleefully about their regular weekends in Las Vegas where they drop "fortunes" having fun, and have been to parties they have thrown at home that cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single evening. But when I proposed they put solar energy on their roof they told me with a strait face, "Solar? Too expensive."

So there is clearly no leadership there.

Among the rich it takes a certain level of culture to understand the wisdom of long-term investments and the importance of full-cost-accounting in economics. That level of culture requires a certain level of education. Just being rich doesn't make you smart. And an Idiocracy cannot make wise decisions.

Among the poor and the middle class, on the other hand, even a high level of education will do little to help implement the kind of changes we need to stop degrading our environment and altering our climate. We need leadership from the centers of political power to help us tap into and make use of clean, inflation-resistent forms of heat, electric and motive power.

Even the Los Angeles Eco-Village at Bimini Place, which has quite an assemblage of well-educated, well intentioned residents fighting for change, little can be done to make the necessary investments in the current political climate. The building that now houses the Eco-Village apartments was once actually covered with solar thermal panels providing hot water for its 40 some apartments (installed during the Jimmy Carter administration era of tax credits before it became a designated member of the Global Eco-Village Network). But the building owners had them removed decades ago and installed a filthy oil burner that residents have been using ever since. The claim was that "solar didn't work" -- the truth is that they were part of an industry scam to destroy confidence in solar energy. The panels were installed facing East by irresponsible contractors and were built with inferior materials so that somewhere in the system a leak inevitably occured. Rather than simply fixing the leak and reorienting the panels to face south, the entire system was trashed. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water!

The expensive infrastructure -- the hot water storage tanks in the basement and the pipes to the roof, are actually all still there and are in good shape. But for almost 20 years the residents have not found a way (or the collective will) to fix the solar hot water system; when their oil boiler failed in 2003 they simply replaced it with another, because there were no incentives to go solar and a new oil burner was "cheaper."

The problem is that in Los Angeles only home-owners qualify for solar rebates; renters get no no tax credits, rebates or incentives, and only if building owners decide to make such an investment will a apartment complex switch to renewable energy. But since tenants pay the gas, oil and electric bills, there is no incentive for a building owner to do this.

In the case of the Eco-Village it would take complex collective action to decide to invest in re-deploying the solar hot water system, and there isn't enough political consensus; the residents are mostly low-income, not all moved in to the place because of a commitment to energy issues and most of the daily struggles still revolve around perceived issues of race and gender equity and individual tenants rights and freedoms. They are committed to consensus building, but think it will take years before they can convince everybody. Such is the problem of underfunded community organizations without institutional support trying to make expensive decisions. It is easier to spend time discussing social relations than implementing engineering solutions.

It is common in America to keep everybody thinking about race and gender and individual rights issues so that when it comes to investments that require broad based consensus that transcends identity politics no collective action can be taken.

You don't hear an awful lot about energy politics being behind all of this; to a certain extent things like the closure and erasure of the Bimini Baths and the dismantling and non-replacement of solar hot water systems at Bimini Place really are about people's feelings about the way they and society have constructed their identity and what being a member of a given class says about rights to access and exercise individual utilities and freedoms. But that is because the deck is stacked against those who want to organize for meaningful change.

As Noam Chomsky points out in "The Prosperous few and the restless many", "Society is very much structured to try to drive you toward the individualist alternative." We are caught in what game theorists call "the prisoner's dilemma", Chomsky tells us, wherein "It's only if we all do something a different way that we'll all benefit a lot more. The costs to you - an individual - to work to create the possibilities to do things together can be severe. It's only if lots of people begin to do it and do it seriously, that you get real benefits."(p. 83).

Somewhere on top in this hierarchical society there is leadership that has the luxury to take a bird's eye view, and it is a true leader who knows when to say "okay y'all, quit your petty in-fighting -- we have a larger destiny to pursue, a greater fight to fight, and we need to do it together." But that leadership is lacking in America.

The city or the government should have stepped in when the Bimini Baths were being closed and said, "hey, the importance of inflation-resistent, safe, clean energy sources for steam and hot water, and the importance of public baths for public health and for increasing worker productivity, is every bit as important as safe, clean streets, public libraries and public shools, and we cannot let race politics and bigotry interfere with their preservation and provision."

The city and the government should have stepped in when criminally negligent companies improperly installed badly built solar hot water systems and said "combatting the energy crisis and pollution through the use of solar energy is too important to let misconceptions and a lack of consumer confidence interfere with. We have studied the issue, we know better, and we know that we must make it easy for all people, renters and owners, to get high quality, certified systems with warranties and maintenance guarantees."

When such interventions by our elected officials do NOT occur, we know that they are not concerned with protecting us, but are pandering to lobbyists interested in making money off of us.

Since the time when de Toqueville warned against the "tyranny of the masses" and Jefferson was arguing for a democracy led by elected representatives of the people who used their fiat to study the issues hard and make good decisions for the masses (who didn't have the time to become experts) we have assumed that the people we vote into office are qualified to make decisions because they have educated themselves and trained themselves to be above the fray.

We expect an educated official to say, "the most important thing right now is to get us off of our dependence on oil (not just "foreign oil" -- any educated person can tell you that in a global economy it doesn't matter where the oil is drilled. The notion of a nation-state is pretty much passe in the world of business) and other centralized power sources.

As Chomsky famously points out, "If you want to create a humane world, you change the circumstances."

But only the people whom political economist Samir Amin calls "the ruling class" or "the ruling crass" (because he feels the term "elite" confers too much dignity upon them) can change the circumstances. And Chomsky notes, again, "Until you get to the source of power, which ultimately is investment decisions, other changes are cosmetic and can only take place in a limited way. If they go too far, the investors will just make other choices, and there's nothing much you can do about it." (p. 19).

And here is where the current election for the "White" House gets even more interesting (and disturbing). The Republican Party calls Barack Obama "elitist". But Obama doesn't come from the ruling class. He was never connected with the source of power or with investment decisions. The son of a white Kansas welfare Mom and a black Kenyan foreign student of modest origins, Obama has no family ties to the elite. His wife, Michelle, has lived the struggles of the American-American diaspora. Both have pursued the much touted American dream and climbed the social ladder the hard way. They are hardly elite, and thus can't be said to be elitist by any stretch of the imagination. The policies they propose serve the non-elite.

The elite are, and always have been, the historically rich. Not the flash-in-the-pan rich like Michael Jordan or Tupac Shakur or working class heroes turned celebrities like the Beatles. Their money is more of a temporary transfer of funds that will eventually wind up right back in the hands of the truly rich families once again. The elite are the beneficiaries of the old set of policies that preserved "sharp differences in power which in fact are ultimately rooted in the economic system", says Chomsky, " You can talk about the masters if you like, It's Adam Smith's word and he's now in fashion. The elite are the masters, and they follow what he called their 'vile maxim' --namely, 'all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else'." (p. 70)

McCain is married to the heiress to a large Budweiser distributorship fortune. He thus became a member of "the ruling crass". He is of the elite. But somehow he can use the mere word "elitist" to suggest that Obama's prodigious academic and intellectual achievements make him a bad choice to govern the masses.

Overqualified to Govern?

We've all heard about Ph.D.'s driving taxi cabs when teaching jobs are scarce. But now we have a couple of vacancies in the White House, the global center of governance, and we are considering a choice between candidates with heads full of education and heads that are... vacant.

What does this say about our educational system?

It is baffling to think that having struggled hard to get a good education and perform well in the difficult game of academia (set up by the elite with tremendous hurdles and roadblocks to confuse, frustrate and discourage the masses), Obama is now being put down for his achievements!

It reminds me of the Dr. Seuss book "The Sneeches" wherein you have two classes of people -- those with stars on their bellies and those without. Those with stars, of course, are the elite. When a man comes to the land of Sneeches with a machine to put stars on the bellies of the starless, the elite simply go to the same man and hire him to use another machine to remove their stars. From then on NOT having a star on your belly becomes the symbol of the elite.

So now Obama, a man from historically disenfranchised origins, comes to the threshold of the White House, displaying the star on his belly that getting a law degree from Harvard confers, and we are suddenly told this is no longer the qualification for governing. Now we are told the nation needs "war heros" (whose "decision-making" skills are really decision taking skills -- soldiers are taught to take orders unthinkingly from a military-industrial machine whose agenda is set by the power elite -- did McCain ever think to ask WHY he was shooting SouthEast Asian peasants?) and beauty-queen hockey moms.

If the Republican ticket wins again, I wonder what signal this will send to the rest of the world.

Would we be admitting that getting a good education and struggling to succeed is not worth the effort? Will people suddenly decide that our system of rewards is bankrupt and false, that our academic institutions and the degrees they confer in subjects such as jurisprudence, governance, political economy etc. are worthless for those trying to put what they learned into practice?

Chomsky warns us, "There's virtually no functioning left intelligentsia (intellectuals viewed as a distinct group or class). Nobody's talking much about what should be done, or is even available to give talks. The class warfare of he last decades has been fairly successful in weakening popular organizations. People are isolated.(p.17) "

Meanwhile the business community is consolidated:

"Herman Daly and Robert Goodland, two World Bank economists... point out that received economic theory -- the standard theory on which decisions are supposed to be based -- pictures a free market sea with tiny little islands of individual firms. These islands, of course, aren't internally free -- they're centrally managed. But that's okay because these are just tiny little islands on the sea. We're supposed to believe that these firms aren't much different from a mom-and-pop store down the street. Daly and Goodland point out that by now the islands are approaching the scale of the sea. A large percentage of cross-border transactions are within a single firm, hardly "trade" in any meaningful sense. What you have is centrally managed transactions, with a very visible hand -- major corporate structures - directing it... the sea itself bears only a partial resemblance to free trade... we often don't rely on the market where powerful interests would be damaged. Our actual economic policy is a mixture of protectionist, interventionist, free market and liberal measures. And its directed primarily to the needs of those who implement social policy, who are mostly the wealthy and the powerful."
"It's been understood that a system of private enterprise can only survive if there is extensive government intervention. It's needed to regulate disorderly markets and protect private capital from the destructive effects of the market system, and to organize a public subsidy for targeting advanced sectors of industry..." (p. 11)

And this is precisely what makes highly educated human beings who come from the ranks of the non-elite so dangerous to the historically wealthy. During the Clinton administration The Wall Street Journal cautioned against "what might happen if the administration gets any funny ideas about taking some of their rhetoric seriously -- like spending money for social programs." Or curtailing the ability of industry and developers to profit at the expense of our health and environment. Or making investments in renewable energy and environmental technology.

The death-knell for the Clinton-Gore governance effort came about, as far as I'm concerned, when Clinto said these words in his last state of the Union address:

"I am grateful for the opportunities the vice president and I have had to work hard to protect the environment and finally to put to rest the notion that you can't expand the economy while protecting the environment. As our economy has grown, we have rid more than 500 neighborhoods of toxic waste and ensured cleaner air and water for millions of families. In the past three months alone, we have acted to preserve more than 40 million acres of roadless lands in our national forests and created three new national monuments.

But as our communities grow, our commitment to conservation must grow as well. Tonight, I propose creating a permanent conservation fund to restore wildlife, protect coastlines and save natural treasures from California redwoods to the Everglades. This Lands Legacy endowment represents by far the most enduring investment in land preservation ever proposed.

Last year, the vice president launched a new effort to help make communities more livable -- so children will grow up next to parks, not parking lots, and parents can be home with their children instead of stuck in traffic. Tonight, we propose new funding for advanced transit systems -- for saving precious open spaces and for helping major cities around the Great Lakes protect their waterways and enhance their quality of life.

The greatest environmental challenge of the new century is global warming. Scientists tell us that the 1990s were the hottest decade of the entire millennium. If we fail to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, deadly heat waves and droughts will become more frequent, coastal areas will be flooded, economies disrupted. Many people in the United States and around the world still believe we can't cut greenhouse gas pollution without slowing economic growth. In the Industrial Age that may have been true. In the digital economy, it isn't.

New technologies make it possible to cut harmful emissions and provide even more growth. For example, just last week, automakers unveiled cars that get 70 to 80 miles a gallon -- the fruits of a unique research partnership between government and industry. Before you know it, efficient production of biofuels will give us the equivalent of hundreds of miles from a gallon of gas.

To speed innovations in environmental technologies, I propose giving major tax incentives to businesses for the production of clean energy -- and to families for buying energy-saving homes and appliances and the next generation of super-efficient cars when they hit the showroom floor. I also call on the auto industry to use available technologies to make all new cars more fuel-efficient right away. And on Congress to make more of our clean-energy technologies available to the developing world -- creating cleaner growth abroad and new jobs at home.

In the new century, innovations in science and technology will be the key not only to the health of the environment but to miraculous improvements in the quality of our lives and advances in the economy."

At this point the old guard oil men had to hijack the elections. The world was about to pass them by.

Clinton and Gore made reasoned arguments based on intelligent study of issues, and suggested a new direction for industry. Unfortunately this direction, based on the standard economic efficiency argument, undermines the profit potential of the old guard. And the old guard have always had the military on their side.

As Chomsky pointed out, the Pentagon has always been the "method by which the government could coordinate the private economy, provide welfare to major corporations, subsidize them, arrange the flow of taxpayer money to research and development, provide a state-guarenteed market for excess production, target advanced industries for development, etc. Just about every successful and fluorishing aspect of the US economy has relied on this kind of government involvement." (p. 11)

The problem is that the "advances in the economy" that thinking people without ties to the old guard always seem to promote are precisely the things that will rob the current powerholders of the subsidies they depend on to maintain their profits. So the old guard has to do everything it can to preserve their grossly subsidized "way of life" so that what they have to sell will always seem cheaper and more attractive.

Take for example, the claim that solar and wind are "uneconomic" because they require subsidy to be cost competitive. Nobody points out that coal, oil and nuclear power are only as cheap as they are not only because they don't internalize the cost of their "negative externalities" but because they have always recieved the Pentagon-based government subsidies. Without subsidy, oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy would not be competitive in an economic sense.

George W. Bush's 2005 energy bill alone guaranteed the following subsidies to the non-renewable energy sector:
$6 Billion Subsidy to Oil and Gas
$9 Billion Subsidy to Coal
$12 Billion Subsidy to Nuclear Power

Only a fraction of those amounts went to "renewable energy" ($2.7 billion) and the lions share of that budget went to large scale centralized hydroelectric power and corn fed ethanol, leaving nothing for solar and wind and waste biomass.

The Obama-Biden ticket would challenge those subsidies and shift them. So of course the VP pick for the Republicans is not only careful crafted to have appeal to poorly educated women, but is a panderer to the oil and gas lobbies who get the government to give her state its hand-outs.

McCain has been a major supporter of Nuclear Industry Subsidies, pandering to lobbyists who fear that the nuclear industry would not be able to compete without them -- this is a point Amory Lovins, former energy advisor to Carter, has made time and time again. The Economist observed in 2001 that “Nuclear power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter”. Lovins points out that it was once thought that though nuclear power plants were expensive to build they would be cheap to run, but "Since then, it’s become several-fold costlier to build, and in a few years, as old fuel contracts expire, it is expected to become several-fold costlier to run. Its total cost now markedly exceeds that of other common power plants (coal, gas, big wind farms), let alone the even cheaper competitors [such as wind, solar, biomass, micro-hydro, cogen, microturbine and cogen]".

Lovins has shown that "small is profitable" and that distributed resources are much more economically efficient and profitiable than centralized resources. But renewables have never gotten the same amount of subsidy as Gas, Oil, Coal and Nuclear, or anything near it, as these graphs from Friends of the Earth Show (keep in mind that 'renewables' includes hydroelectric and farm subsidies for ethanol'):

Smart people in office can read graphs and do the math and understand economics well enough to question all these troubling inconsistencies. But McCain has admitted economics is not his strong point!

It is as though we are doomed to being ruled by an "Idiocracy", and perhaps that is the point -- the status quo apparently doesn't need thinking men and women to operate it. It needs only soldiers who follow the orders of the corporate robber barons and their trophy wife heiresses and compliant beauty queen VPs who do what their men tell them!

With such people in power, cities like Los Angeles, despite abundant clean, inflation resistent geothermal and solar energy supplies, will continue to drill for offshore oil and build nuclear power plants in earthquake zones. And the movies made in such tinsel towns will convince the rest of the world to do the same.

And that is the world our children will inherit, a world they will recognize from their books and films - a world of Sneetches ruled by an Idiocracy -- a world where only the rich can afford to take a nice long hot bath... an America that looks more and more like the slums of Cairo. Egypt every day.


For those who want to know more about government subsidies for energy, it is worth copying Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, director of Green Options, to make the arguments because he says it better than I can:

"Hopefully, many of you taken a look at the great conversation going on between my old friend Bobby (we've known each other since the 9th grade), sustainablog's favorite celebrity activist Tod Brilliant, and myself about Sir Nicholas Stern's report on the economic impact of climate change. You'll figure out quickly that Bobby's a climate change skeptic... he's also been completely courteous (appreciate it, man). The debate between us has been really interesting, and I thought I'd use tonight's post to address one of the issues I feel the most comfortable with: climate science... HA! Just kidding... I pointed him to Real Climate for that. I feel much more comfortable with some of the economic issues Bobby raises, and did a little digging around today on US government subsidies to various energy recovery or generation technologies.

I took particular notice of Bobby's statements that "I also honestly believe that pseudoscience is being employed to ... market technologies that have proven themselves utter failures," and

I mentioned failing technologies above. Solar water heating has been around for over a century and photovoltaics for 3 or 4 decades, but they still cost at least ten times more than carbon based energy sources. Electric cars are nothing new and are still not competitive. The hydrogen economy is plagued with high energy production issues and is an infrastructure nightmare. Is increased subsidization of these questionable technologies via changes in the tax code really the answer? No matter how you slice it they still hit the pocketbook harder than carbon based or nuclear energies. You would think that if they want to offer the same old solutions, they could at least find a cheaper way to produce their products.
With all due respect, I think this is a common perception among our conservative-leaning friends who distrust the environmental movement: a product didn't make it on the market, so it must be deficient. As regular readers will know beyond a shadow of a doubt, I don't agree with the "failed technologies" characterization, and I think what we see happening in the market isn't "the invisible hand" pointing us to the best technology, but rather the workings of something conservatives otherwise criticize: subsidies.

I know better than go into an argument with Bobby without my facts in order, so I did some hunting and found my way back to EarthTrack, a site that deals with these very issues. Author Doug Koplow does a very thorough analysis of the 2003/2004 energy bill that shows that most subsidies for energy go to already mature industries: oil & gas, coal and nuclear power. Doug's writing for a policy audience, so I also looked around and found this summary of the energy bill from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. In short: "Big energy companies are flush with so much cash, they don't know what to do with it. That didn't stop Congress from showering the electricity, coal, nuclear, natural gas and oil industries with $8.5 billion in tax breaks and billions more in loan guarantees and other subsidies." As for renewables,

The final legislation dropped a provision that would have required utilities "to generate at least 10 percent of their electricity through renewable fuels by 2020." The proposal, championed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) was "was a low-cost, market-driven approach to cutting demand for fossil fuels and easing air pollution." On this issue, we are officially less progressive than China.

These examples come from only one (major) bill, but I they serve to illustrate my main point: there is no "free market" in terms of our energy supply. Of course fossil fuels and nuclear power have fared better on the market, because massive subsidies bring down the costs. On the other hand, despite these inequities, renewables have grown by double digits in recent years, despite the relatively paltry subsidies they receive. I read just the opposite here: renewable are viable technologies that can compete, but they're currently playing on a very uneven field.

The point here isn't to cry "unfair"; rather its to question the purpose of subsidies for energy technology. At their best, they're investments in promising technologies that haven't reached a point of development to compete with established industries. At their worst, they suppress these newer technologies. It isn't the technology that's failed -- it's a corrupted political process that keep funding industries that don't require it to compete. Until there's some remedy to this situation, we simply can't talk about failed technologies..."